Saturday, September 24th, 2011 05:24 pm
Title: A Wing and a Prayer - Chapter 9 (Read or Download at AO3)
Pairing: Skyfire/Silverbolt

Summary: The problem with falling in love with an Aerialbot is that his brothers are pretty much part of the package. And the problem with falling in love with someone who has unfinished business from his past is that sometimes the unfinished business is Starscream...

Notes: Wow. That's certainly got to be some kind of record for gaps in updating. The abridged version of why: about this time last year I had glandular fever (mono) and was very ill for about six weeks. I was lucky enough not to get the fatigue afterwards, but it was such a big break in my life that it threw everything off, including the next chapter of this. Since then I've been up and down with writer's block, real life stuff, and the growing feeling that I'd waited too long and there wasn't any point in updating now. Fortunately, I got past that, helped by a lot of you lovely people who are still reviewing and waiting hopefully for more. This is a long chapter and that's after I split it in two! The next one is mostly written and should be up in a week or so. I've managed to get into the habit of writing daily for the last month, so I am hoping to get chapters up much much quicker - if I can hit one every two weeks, I will. I'm also working on 'Fire and Ice'. Thanks again for all your reviews!

By the way, if you would like to read "A Wing and a Prayer" on an e-reader, you can download all of it so far from the Archive of Our Own in whatever format you prefer. I've tested the Kindle version and it looks pretty good!

A Wing and a Prayer
Chapter 9

Cybertron. The word itself tugged strange, nostalgic strings in Silverbolt's processor, and yet as he watched the planet come closer through Skyfire's viewports, he could not have felt more like he was approaching unknown territory. He had lived there once, he knew, in a past life so remote it was barely his own. The process of resparking was strange and barely understood even before the war destroyed so much knowledge. Silverbolt had come to view the occasional flashes of sense-memory as borrowed from another person - one he might not recognise if they somehow met.

It was his home, beyond any doubt - a world built for and by his race, a world tolerant of his size and unique abilities - and yet it was a home Silverbolt had never truly known. Cybertron represented many things: a hope, an ambition, and an uncertainty he could not shake. The 'bots who'd come to Earth in the Ark looked forward to each chance to revisit their lost world. Silverbolt found it a strange and lonely place.

He wasn't the only one with mixed feelings. His brothers took turns peering out of viewports. Slingshot and Skydive were trying to out-boast each other regarding their flying ambitions down among the spires, but their voices carried an unusual hint of restraint - almost reverence. Fireflight was glued to one port and had been ever since Skyfire had told them they were within viewing range. Silverbolt didn't know what he was thinking about, because for once he wasn't talking.

Skyfire was another matter. Leaning against the bulkhead, Silverbolt was not so much brushing his field as enveloped by it. Skyfire always kept himself thoroughly shielded when he was flying people anywhere, trying to maintain privacy as much as possible, but these days his field was never entirely closed to Silverbolt, and as they approached Cybertron, the tug and flow of conflicting emotion was ever more apparent.

He could have opened a comm to Skyfire to talk privately, but he wasn't sure what he would say. There was something wordless about this approach, watching Cybertron loom ever larger in front of them. To Silverbolt it was a home he'd never known; to Skyfire, one that had changed beyond all recognition.

Silverbolt ran a hand absently down the bulkhead, as he might touch Skyfire's arm in root mode, and felt the now-familiar sensation of Skyfire's field reacting to his, twining together momentarily in little eddies of pleasure and recognition.

It was different from the link he shared with his brothers - different from any sort of field contact he'd shared before, even with Hot Spot, whose field was always open and easy to read. There was something not only comforting but thrilling in the touch of Skyfire's thoughts on his, something that made his spark ache and his sensors dim as he lost himself to it. And there was a fierce joy in feeling the echoes from Skyfire of similar emotions, of knowing that Skyfire trusted him enough to open up like this...


Air Raid's voice jolted him out of his reverie; Silverbolt tore his optics from Cybertron, which he had barely been registering for the last few minutes, to find Air Raid studying him intently. He realised that it was the second time Air Raid had said his name.

"What is it?"

"Just wondering when we're gonna land. You okay there?"

"Of course." Silverbolt stood up straight, moving away from the bulkhead briskly. "What's our ETA, Skyfire?"

Skyfire's voice came through the radio in the cockpit, "Twenty minutes. I'm just about to radio for landing clearance, so brace yourselves - if the Decepticons are in the mood to make things difficult for us, the signal will be enough for them to pin down our location."

Silverbolt nodded before he remembered that Skyfire couldn't see - and then remembered again that he could, sort of, by tracing the echo of it in Silverbolt's field. The others had quietened down to listen

"We'll be ready. Have you seen any sign of activity?"

"Not yet. If Jazz's information is sound, they're preferring to concentrate their efforts on whatever it is they're doing in Kaon. They don't see Iacon as much of a threat."

And they were right, of course, Silverbolt thought privately even as Skydive made some cutting remark that set the others off into a round of scorn aimed at the Decepticons. Iacon wasn't a threat, hadn't been since before the launch of the Ark. The Autobots could ship their whole army back there and it would be nothing to the Decepticon forces swelling daily on the far side of the planet. No, Optimus Prime was right - the Autobots' whole hope lay in their foothold on Earth. It wasn't yet time to reclaim their world.

Still, the Decepticons might be less blasé about these visits from the Autobots if they realised just how much energon was being shipped up, and what it was being used for. Silverbolt was aware that most of Jazz's time was currently taken up with keeping that information firmly out of their hands - and picking up as much as he could on Cybertron.

"I've spoken to Ultra Magnus," Skyfire said, breaking into the chatter and putting an end to Silverbolt's thoughts. "He thinks we'll have a clear run. I'm beginning our descent now."

Silverbolt didn't move to steady himself; he had complete faith in Skyfire's flying skills. He wasn't disappointed. It was hardly even noticeable that they were going down. As his brothers crowded to the windows to look out for Decepticons, he wandered up to the cockpit and leaned on one of the seats there, watching as Cybertron seemed to rise up around them on all sides. His fear of heights didn't even twitch.

A private comm channel pinged.

:We'll be passing over the Academy in a few minutes,: Skyfire said. :It's a big complex, almost a city in its own right. Look out for the tower above the landing strip. It was the tallest in Iacon or any of the surrounding sectors for vorns. Perceptor and I used to go up there to stargaze.:

Peering downwards, Silverbolt could indeed make out the tower and buildings around it, which must be big even by Cybertronian standards. They were dark now, as lifeless as the majority of the world, but he tried to imagine them lit up and full of people, tried to imagine Skyfire living there - working there - being a part of the teeming society that had once existed in this place. How many times had he taken off from that landing strip to visit other worlds?

:Where did you live?:

:There were residential blocks. I had rooms in one of those, though... some other people chose to live outside the complex.:

It wasn't hard for Silverbolt to fill in the omission in that sentence, the unspoken name that Skyfire was so very careful to step around - and which rang out all the louder for it. It was almost impossible to picture Starscream as a scientist, living a life without conflict; Silverbolt struggled to place him in the dimly-conjured vision of the Academy that Skyfire had painted for him.

Struggled, and ultimately put the thought aside, refusing to dwell on it. He didn't want Skyfire to feel the swirl of emotion that struck him whenever he thought about Starscream's role in Skyfire's past. It had been creeping up on him more and more lately - questions he wanted to ask, and didn't want to ask at the same time - a fierce and terrible anger when he thought of how Starscream must have hurt Skyfire - and yet an insidious relief, as well, that the Seeker had done it so thoroughly, and put himself so firmly out of reach.

:Did you meet Perceptor at the Academy?: Silverbolt asked, trying to steer both of them away from dangerous waters.

:Yes, almost as soon as I arrived. He's my oldest friend, really - I never kept in touch with the people I knew before that.:

:What did you do before?:

There was an unexpected silence, and Silverbolt felt Skyfire's field draw in all of a sudden, like he was pushing back some thought or emotion.

:I was sparked to be a pilot,: he said at last. :To transport people to other worlds and bring them back. I... wanted more control over my destiny than that.:

He broke off the private contact abruptly, making Silverbolt worry for a second that he was upset - but it was only to activate the cockpit radio.

"We're coming in to land," Skyfire said to all of them - and out of the window, the great mass of rectangular forms was resolving itself into tall tower blocks and long avenues. "Welcome to Iacon."

* * *

Cybertron! Air Raid got a thrill of excitement every time he heard the name. He'd had glimpses of empty cities on the handful of occasions they'd been here, and there'd been that memorable occasion when they'd experienced the bustle of a living Cybertron first hand, but this was the first extended visit to their erstwhile homeworld for any of them. It was a creepy, dark sort of place, to be honest, but Air Raid found himself drawn to it like a moth to headlights. He was itching to explore the huge, sprawling complexes he'd seen as they'd come in to land - and try flying through some of those great canyons of metal out beyond Iacon's centre...

He had a pretty good idea what Silverbolt would think of that idea, which was why he wasn't going to mention it. He knew Skydive would be up for slipping off to fly. Pit, all of the others would be, probably, it was just the logistics of all four of them sneaking off that was hard to manage.

Though maybe not as hard as he'd thought. Silverbolt was... easily distracted at the moment, at least so long as the distraction was large, white, and Skyfire-shaped. Air Raid had his own ideas about that, but he was keeping his vocaliser muted. He wasn't sure if his brothers had caught on. He wasn't actually sure if Silverbolt had caught on, although surely he couldn't be that oblivious, right? I mean, he was supposed to be the smart one... right? But whilst some of the Aerialbots had made brief and curious forays into the wide world of physical intimacy (Air Raid had Sunstreaker to thank for his, and felt he was currently the expert of the group), Silverbolt had, to all appearances, simply been too busy to even think about it.

Well, with any luck he'd start doing some thinking soon. They were on Cybertron for a reason - energon didn't deliver itself - but they were staying longer than they needed to. The official reason had a lot of stuff in it about "acclimatisation" and "team integration" and such, but the unofficial reason was that someone had apparently pointed out that the Aerialbots were well overdue for a vacation. Air Raid had his suspicions about who that someone had been, and it began with a 'Sky' and ended with a 'fire'. Not that it would be a real holiday as such - they were expected to join the Iacon duty roster - but it was a change of scene, and things were much quieter on Cybertron than on Earth at present.

So here they were. Skyfire had come into land in a huge bay, sealed off by immense doors, and easily capable of holding Omega Supreme five times over. They'd been met by Ultra Magnus himself and an older mech introduced as Kup, who looked them all over, declared them "another pack of young tearaways and Primus help us", and warned them under no circumstances to listen to anything someone called Hot Rod might tell them. Air Raid made a mental note to keep an optic out for the mech (and find out what it was he wasn't supposed to be listening to). Then they were being led out of the bay and into a series of identical corridors.

"This way," Kup said briskly, as Ultra Magnus exchanged a few words with Silverbolt, nodded to the rest of them, and turned down a side passage. "The big rec room's up here. That's where the energon dispensors are, though they're on strict rationing-- but you know that," he interrupted himself, with a shake of the head. "Sorry, I forget you're not comin' outta stasis like some of them. They don't know which way's up for a few orns after, and we've had a problem or two with 'bots tryin' to sneak more than their share..."

"What, really?" broke in Fireflight, shocked, even as Slingshot snarled, "Thieving glitches!" and Skydive, quick on the defensive, cut in icily, "I hope you don't think for a second that we'd even consider--"

"Whoa, whoa, easy!" Kup held up his hands in protest. "Now wait a klik--"

"They've never known anything but rationing, Kup," Skyfire said - quietly, but with his usual knack of cutting through the din to be heard. "And on the Ark it's been a court martialling offence to exceed energon rations from the moment it left Cybertron." And then, to the rest of them, "But the people coming out of stasis up here would have been put to sleep before the energon situation got really bad - that was the point, you see, to conserve what was left by putting people into storage. So they're waking up now and, to them, their rations must seem incredibly small. I know it took me a while to adjust when I first came out of stasis and arrived on the Ark."

Air Raid supposed that made sense, although it was hard to overcome the sheer outrage that had flashed through him at the idea of breaking a rule so fundamental to their daily lives. But Kup was nodding, even as he gave Skyfire a curious look.

"You didn't set out on the Ark then? I thought I didn't recognise you - got a good processor for faces, I have. You were one of them ones Prime brought in a few years back?"

"I-- no, sometime before that. I was in stasis on Earth. It's a long story."

"Hey," Air Raid broke in, because he didn't need field contact to tell just how much Skyfire didn't want to explain his past right now, "you said the big rec room, right? Is there a small one too?"

"There's a bunch'a small ones," Kup started, but was again brought to a halt by the chorus of surprised questions. "Whoa, one at a time!"

"We've been living in the wreckage of the Ark for years," Silverbolt said. He'd been rather quiet after they'd left the landing hall, and Air Raid had the impression he hadn't quite been paying attention - but he seemed to have tuned in now. "It will be a nice change to have more than one common area."

"There, now, and I was gonna apologise for the facilities." Kup shook his head. "Guess I oughta have thought how it would look to you. We've got plenty of space, at least, even if it's mostly empty at the moment. The rec room's just up ahead - should be some 'bots around at this time of shift."

He went on to start explaining something about the energon dispensers, but Air Raid wasn't listening. They'd stepped out of the corridor into what Kup had called the 'rec room' - talk about an understatement!

It was an enormous hub with a number of passageways leading into it from all directions. Above them was a clear dome; Cybertron's stars could be seen far above. Directly beneath the dome were more chairs and tables than the inhabitants of the Ark could have used three times over. Around the central area ran a raised walkway that was interspersed with what Air Raid guessed tentatively were shop booths - empty and unattended - and vidscreens with console inputs. It seemed bogglingly large compared with the common spaces on the Ark.

"Yeah, used to be a public spaceport," Kup was saying in response to a question from Skydive. "We've taken it over, tried to make it a bit more homey, but I gotta say, it's a big old empty sort of place and I for one will be glad to get out. How's construction going?"

"The foundations are down," Silverbolt said. Air Raid grimaced, thinking about the metal girders he'd been roped into hauling around the site for Hoist and Grapple. "There were some problems with the water table, but I think that's going to turn out to be an advantage. So far it's been easy to keep it all hidden from Decepticon patrols - Hound's been helping keep holograms going full-time - but as soon as we start putting the walls up, it's going to turn into much more of a target."

"Still, once the outer emplacements are assembled, the site as a whole will be much easier to defend," Skyfire said. "Best estimate for completion of the walls and guardposts is eighteen months - sorry, forty orns or so - and that's if we manage to remain undetected..."

Air Raid caught Skydive's optic. They drifted away from the conversation, which was by now so familiar they could practically recite it by heart. The construction team had been working on the foundations for six months, and the Aerialbots had been out at the site flying patrols (when they weren't being pressganged into helping with the construction) most of that time, living in cramped hangars with corrugated iron roofs when they were off-duty. Air Raid almost wished sometimes that the Decepticons would find the site - at least it would make their lives more interesting.

Still, they didn't have to go back yet.

"It's pretty big," Skydive said. "Not many people here though."

"Didn't Silverbolt say they'd only woken up a couple of dozen? I guess most of them are on shift."

The were three or four 'bots around; two were sitting drinking energon together, one was reading a datapad, and a fourth seemed to be in recharge, sprawled comfortably over two chairs. One of the energon drinkers, a pink femme, glanced over and caught Air Raid's optic. She seemed startled, her gaze flicking quickly over him and Skydive, then going to the others back with Kup. She turned to say something to her companion, who cast them a look that could only be described as suspicious.

Air Raid pointedly turned his back and leaned on the rail he'd been looking over. If they were going to be like that, he wasn't going to give them the satisfaction of curiosity.

Kup was shepherding the others towards a corridor on the far side. Air Raid was tempted to stay where he was, just to see if they noticed, but Skydive had already started after them so he tagged along as well.

He caught himself missing the familiar rise and fall of conversation from the Ark rec room, small as it was. About this time would be when the minibots settled into their usual corner, and Air Raid had sort of sometimes found himself joining in with their conversations lately. Cliffjumper could be an aft and Brawn needed his processor checked and Huffer had spent the last six months complaining constantly about his bearings under the strain of constant construction work... but actually, when you got right down to it, they were okay people. A lot of Autobots were, Air Raid had been finding recently. Somehow the Aerialbots had stopped being outsiders; he didn't know exactly how or when, but the resentment he had felt towards the other Autobots had become a thing of the past.

As he trailed after the rest of the group, Air Raid thought that maybe they had Skyfire to thank for that too.

* * *

The rooms Kup showed them to had once been accommodation for travellers staying at the spaceport. By the standards of their time they were neither spacious nor luxurious, but to the Aerialbots they seemed both. Skyfire hung back in the corridor as they opened each door in turn and exclaimed over the fact that there was one room for each of them, and that the big windows, though made hazy by protective forcefields in case of Decepticon attack, gave them a view of more stars and sky than any of them had back on the Ark, or in the rudimentary barracks on the site of what would be Autobot City.

Skyfire had never been here even in passing, for which he was glad. Just flying over the Academy had been unsettling enough; he would have struggled to retain his equanimity if the base had been a place he knew. As it was, the obviously too-empty halls and the abandoned service stations weighed him down with a melancholy that seemed spark-deep. There was nothing left of the world he had been created upon, the world he had lived on and worked for, the world he had, he supposed, loved in an absent, taking-for-granted sort of way as he'd flown off to investigate as many others as he could find. For the other Autobots it had been a slow death, one they had grown accustomed to piece by piece - for him it had been a brutal awakening into an unthinkable reality.

"Skyfire?" Silverbolt appeared in the doorway, laughing, and held out his hand. "You should come and see this."

Skyfire took it, and the warm rush of Silverbolt's field hit his even as Silverbolt's fingers curled around his own. Silverbolt drew him into the room but didn't immediately step back, so that Skyfire had to brush past him, mingling fields for a moment almost head to toe. Silverbolt had known he was brooding. If he stopped to think about it, Skyfire was a little scared of Silverbolt's growing ability to read him like a datapad - but he tried not to stop to think about it too often. Or about the way his systems were racing from such a brief contact that he was afraid ther other Aerialbots would hear them.

The other Aerialbots were too preoccupied for anything of the sort. When Silverbolt had dragged him over to the small bathroom, Skyfire saw the issue at once. These rooms had their own wash cubicles built in, only large enough for one mech (and not one of Skyfire's build - even Silverbolt would struggle to fit). But the Aerialbots were used to bathing together and helping each other scrub hard-to-reach patches of wing. Currently, Fireflight and Air Raid were wedged into the small space - possibly permanently - and all four of them were arguing about whose fault it was. Skyfire had to stifle a smile.

Silverbolt let go of Skyfire's hand, reached out to deftly grab Air Raid by the left arm, and with a quick twist and pull sent his brother sprawling out of the cubicle and onto the tiled floor.

"Ow! Hey!"

"I think we've established that these aren't for sharing," Silverbolt said, barely contained amusement in his voice as Air Raid glowered at him. "I'm sure we'll manage."

"But how am I going to get between my wings?" demanded Fireflight, who was still in the cubicle. He cast a forlorn look over his shoulder. "I can't reach back there in root mode and if I transform I won't have arms."

Skyfire edged past Silverbolt and the others, reached into the cubicle, and pressed a switch on the large, flat-to-the-wall blank panel that he guessed Fireflight hadn't even glanced at. The panel slid back with a beep, and the standard array of cleaning equipment unfolded itself. Fireflight jumped backwards with a startled "Eep!", tripped on the edge of the cubicle, and fell headlong on top of Air Raid.

"OW! Okay, that's it, quit it!"

"There should be some pre-programmed settings," Skyfire explained, watching as Air Raid and Fireflight tussled half-heartedly and then sat up. "Most of them are for ground vehicles, but you can programme them for custom jobs. I'll show you how, if I haven't forgotten after all this time with the Ark's excuse for washracks..."

"Do they all have these?" Silverbolt backed out of the bathroom and disappeared into the corridor. Skydive jumped into the wash cubicle to have a look at the cleaning tools.

Skyfire started to go through the functions, but quickly realised that none of them were paying attention - they were in exploration mode, too busy looking and touching and talking to learn by lecture. He backed out of the bathroom, smiling, and went to find Silverbolt.

Silverbolt was in his own room, bent over examining the energon dispenser on the storage unit. He glanced up as Skyfire came in, with a rueful smile that made Skyfire's spark pulse unexpectedly hard.

"I can't figure out what all of this is for," he said, straightening up and gesturing at the bulk of the machine. "The nozzles are obvious enough, but the rest of it..."

"Is it working?" Skyfire asked thoughtlessly, before his processor caught up with his vocaliser. "Oh, of course not, too difficult to enforce rationing."

"I don't think it's worked for a long time anyway. There's dust in all the cracks."

Skyfire crossed the room to look at the dispenser. Silverbolt moved to let him see, but stayed standing close enough that their fields mingled as Skyfire arrived at his side. It was as easy and familiar as that smile, and Skyfire felt the same ripple of electricity under his plating. For a moment he forgot what he'd come over here to do, pausing instead to look down at Silverbolt, captivated by the intent way he was studying the dispenser. He was leaning against the storage unit quite casually, at ease in these unfamiliar surroundings, and it occurred to Skyfire all at once how much Silverbolt had changed in the time they'd known each other. He was more sure of himself, more quietly confident, more comfortable in his own body.

Silverbolt glanced up questioningly and Skyfire tried to remember what he'd been going to say. Oh, the dispenser. Right. He tore his optics from Silverbolt and leaned down to have a look at the workings.

"It's a combination model," he said after a moment. "It can provide liquid and solid energon, and even put together some basic recipes, if I'm right..."

"Recipes?" Silverbolt sounded incredulous. "For what, high grade?"

"No, no, they wouldn't pump high grade into a cheap hotel room like this. Recipes for basic energon."

Skyfire caught Silverbolt's bewildered expression, and had one of those moments when the great gulf of lost vorns seemed to yawn beneath him. Sometimes recently he forgot just how young Silverbolt was - too young to have ever known the world Skyfire had inhabited for most of his life. It crashed in on him now, along with a yearning grief that he couldn't take Silverbolt back there and show him how Cybertron should be. He shook it away, aware of Silverbolt watching him and of how easily he seemed to read Skyfire's field these days.

"We didn't always just refuel ourselves like machines, you know," he said. He found the catches on the cover of the dispenser, stiff with age, and worked them loose. The insides were, indeed, packed with dust. Even before the shutdown, this sort of device had become a luxury. "What we drink in the Ark - it's the most basic, pared-down form of energon there is. Just energy, packed as densely as possible so we don't waste a joule of it. It's horrible tasteless stuff, actually - I still don't think I'm used to it."

"Is it supposed to taste of something?"

"Yes! Of course it is. You don't think the humans have a monopoly on the idea of cuisine, do you? Energon is supposed to come in hundreds of forms - liquid and solid, pumped in direct if you were in the middle of a big city like this, packed up and stored if you lived further out... You could eat it like that, of course, but there are so many ways to process it further - I used to have a unit like this, bigger, and it wasn't plumbed into a direct line, but you'd just put in the right amounts of various kinds of energon and it would produce a proper meal..."

As he talked, Skyfire was taking the unit apart - almost unconsciously - and Silverbolt was watching him work. Skyfire was surprised to catch a surge of emotion from Silverbolt's field that almost exactly mirrored his own feelings just a few moments ago: grief and loss, a deep-rooted sadness.

"I didn't know that," Silverbolt said quietly. "I had no idea. I... almost wish you hadn't told me."

Skyfire's hands were deep in the guts of the machine, but he disentangled one and reached out. He'd intended to put his hand on Silverbolt's shoulder, but Silverbolt intercepted it mid-gesture and took it in both of his. When he twined their fingers together, Skyfire had to repress a shiver.

"Do you think it will ever really go back to how it was?" Silverbolt asked, staring down at their hands, an unusual bleakness leeching out of his field into Skyfire's.

"Not exactly how it was," Skyfire said. He freed his other hand from the machine and laid it on top of Silverbolt's. "We'll have to make something new, I think. But this world - our world - has existed for millions of years. Our history, our culture goes back further than the entire evolution of life on Earth. This exile of ours is only a tiny footnote in the grand scheme of things - don't let yourself think it's all there is left."

"All the talk of building Autobot City and slowly re-energising the planet... it seems so much more impossible when we're here, and there's a whole world dead around us."

"It isn't dead. Just sleeping."

Silverbolt looked up at him, and Skyfire could feel the sadness ebbing out of his field as a smile touched his face. In the odd, looping feedback of field contact, he knew that Silverbolt knew that Skyfire had trouble believing it himself sometimes - but that somewhere deep in his spark he did. And he believed it more when he was with Silverbolt - the same way it was easier to believe that he could find his place with the Autobots, and that he might one day stop grieving for what he had lost.

He brought his hand up to touch Silverbolt's face, wanting somehow to convey just how much that meant and searching fruitlessly for the words... but speech wasn't necessary, not with fields entwined, not when he'd let Silverbolt in so far that he couldn't quite tell where each of them began and ended. Silverbolt's optics were bright with his own surge of emotion, lapping into Skyfire's field like two rivers mingling, and the smile was slowly slipping to be replaced by something inviting and eager. Skyfire's spark skipped and surged in response.

There was a crash, and a babble of shouting from the next room over. They broke apart automatically, already halfway to the door by the time Fireflight, dripping wet, appeared in the corridor outside.

"Um. I think Skydive broke it? Or maybe it's gone crazy? Only, it's got Air Raid by the intakes and Slingshot's upside down and there's water going everywhere and--"

He liked Silverbolt's brothers - more than liked them, cared for them with an unexpected and deep affection - but just for a moment, Skyfire wished the lot of them were safely locked up in a box somewhere. Preferably out of shouting distance.

Then he sighed, and laughed at Fireflight's woebegone expression, and followed Silverbolt back into the shower cubicle to spend an hour disentangling two thoroughly affronted Aerialbots and disarming the cubicle's auto-cleaner before it accidentally won the war for the Decepticons.

* * *

By the time Ultra Magnus commed Silverbolt for a briefing, the Aerialbots had been over half the facility and come back around to the rec room, chattering and laughing in a way that lifted Silverbolt's spark. He'd been so overwhelmed by the sepulchral atmosphere of Cybertron that he'd started to wonder if it had been a good idea to come here at all. But his brothers, less sensitive - though not insensitive - to the empty world around them were showing all the signs of enjoying the break from surroundings that had become tedious and confining.

No, he didn't regret taking Optimus Prime up on the suggestion when it was made - not on his brothers' account, at least. But he wondered now if he shouldn't have asked for Skyfire to come with them. It had seemed perfectly natural at the time, and Skyfire had agreed readily enough, but Silverbolt could see the effect the place was having on him. To him, and his brothers, Cybertron might be unsettling and a little sad, but to Skyfire it was like an open wound.

In the rec room they encountered a fast-talking mech by the name of Blurr, who immediately and unselfconsciously befriended them and offered a tour of Iacon whenever they were on downtime. Silverbolt relaxed a bit more: he'd been worried about the attitudes of the 'bots up here, whom Prowl had warned were often still stasis-shocked and slow to adjust, but Blurr was friendly and open, if occasionally incoherent.

So when his comm beeped, Silverbolt felt comfortable telling Ultra Magnus he'd meet him in his office, and then instructing his brothers to stay where they were.

"No tours just yet," he warned - and was amused by the similarity of the crestfallen expressions on both Fireflight's and Blurr's faces. "We need recharge. If I'm not back in an hour or so, just head to our accommodation. Skyfire..." He hesitated, not really wanting to wrench Skyfire away from the conversation that had been bringing undisguised amusement into his face for the last half hour - but from what Ultra Magnus had said earlier, he might need Skyfire's advice. "Would you mind coming with me?"

"Of course not." Skyfire finished the last of his energon and got to his feet.

"Then the rest of you stay out of trouble," said Silverbolt. He mentally included Blurr in that statement.

Ultra Magnus's office was marked on the map of the base that Silverbolt had pre-loaded on his datapad. They still managed to take a wrong turn somewhere. Fortunately, it was quickly corrected, and when they arrived, Silverbolt's apology was met by a dismissive hand wave from Ultra Magnus.

"To be quite honest I consider myself lucky when my summons are answered within half a shift most days," he said. "You're refreshingly prompt. Have a seat."

When they were both settled, Ultra Magnus brought up a holographic display of Cybertron. With a few jabs of his fingertip into the floating sphere, he highlighted Iacon in red, then Kaon, the current Decepticon stronghold, in purple.

"As I said earlier, it's not an attack, or even a scouting mission," he said. "We're trying not to stir up too much trouble just now - as I'm sure you know."

Silverbolt nodded.

"One of my better scouts has come back with some energy readings that look like they're worth checking out." Ultra Magnus's blunt finger jabbed into the hologram again, this time marking a spot some distance from both Iacon and Kaon. "Our best guess is that it might be a forgotten stockpile of energon..."

"Is that Vos?" asked Skyfire, staring intently at the globe.

"Yes. Do you know it?"

"Not well. Might I see the energy readings?"

Ultra Magnus picked up a datapad and passed it over. Skyfire studied the screen for some minutes, while Ultra Magnus, Silverbolt noted, studied him. Perhaps he was not quite sure what to make of Skyfire, bigger even than he was and yet so softly spoken - or had he heard something of Skyfire's past, and was he wondering about that? Silverbolt suppressed a rush of fierce protectiveness that would have had him glaring at Ultra Magnus. This was no time to get distracted.

"I'm not sure about a stockpile," Skyfire said at length. "The wavelengths aren't quite right - and there's something about the spectrometry that bothers me. But there's definitely power there, and it's not residual, either."

"Could it be something the Decepticons are working on?" asked Silverbolt.

"Blurr said there were no signs of recent activity - or even older activity, to be frank." Ultra Magnus dismissed the globe of Cybertron and pulled up a handful of pictures that showed darkened buildings and ruined infrastructure. "The whole place seemed completely abandoned, but he was getting the readings, so he made a note and reported it after he'd finished his run. We're rather short on scientists so you'll have to forgive our lack of finesse."

"Oh, I don't think there's much more anyone could surmise on this evidence," Skyfire said - rather graciously, Silverbolt thought, since he and the other scientists were generally able to divine myriads of information from the most basic readings. "There's certainly something there producing or consuming energy in a tangible form. It could be liquid energon. I'd guess not, but I'd say it was worth looking into."

"I'm glad you agree." Ultra Magnus's tone was somewhat wry, but there was nothing antagonistic about the comment. "What I need you to do, Silverbolt, is take your team out there and look into it. If it is energon, bring back as much as you can. I'm afraid that if we make a move on it we'll give away the position to the Decepticons, so I want this to be a single in and out job."

Silverbolt frowned thoughtfully. "Do you have maps of the immediate area?"

A few quick keystrokes and Ultra Magnus had them up on the projector. Silverbolt shuffled forward and - glancing first at Ultra Magnus for permission - explored the hologram by zooming in and out and spinning it with his fingers.

"I'm not sure my whole team would be an asset here," he said slowly. "All five of us - six, with Skyfire - are likely to attract attention."

"It's a risk we take with every foray out of Iacon," Ultra Magnus pointed out. "How many would you consider a reasonable number?"

Silverbolt debated within himself. He'd known the answer as soon as he'd taken a good look at the projections, but he found that for almost the first time since Optimus had made him Air Commander, he was questioning his own motives.

"I think just myself and Skyfire," he said finally. He glanced over at Skyfire as he spoke, looking for some sort of reassurance, and got it when Skyfire nodded as if he'd already come to that conclusion himself. More confidently, Silverbolt went on, "If we do find energon we'll need to be able to bring it back, which makes Skyfire the best choice for transport, as well as--" He glanced over again. "How well do you know Vos?"

"I've been there a few times," Skyfire said. There was something about his voice that raised warning flags in Silverbolt's processor - but this was a briefing, not a private conversation, so he didn't interrupt, and Skyfire went on, "I've got a fair memory of the central district and I know the flight path from here."

"Right." Silverbolt returned his attention to Ultra Magnus. "Between the two of us we should be able to handle any Decepticon interference, and we can both fly faster than any of my gestalt so we have a better chance of getting away. If worst came to worst, Skyfire could carry me and head spaceward, but the more of us there are the less feasible that is."

"Hmm." Ultra Magnus had pulled up the maps again. "I see your point. I usually send Blurr out without escort for the same reason - he stands a better chance of getting away from any attack than staying to fight. And I certainly don't intend to have you try and hold territory, so large numbers are unnecessary. Will you be ready to move out at the third point of the second shift?"

Silverbolt scrambled to work that out - Cybertronian time was almost always marked relative to the shift sequence, but on board the Ark they'd gotten into the habit of using the humans' twenty-four hour clock.

His comm blipped. :About six hours from now,: Skyfire sent, then closed the connection.

"That will be fine," Silverbolt told Ultra Magnus, flashing a grateful look at Skyfire. "Can I get a download of the maps?"

Ultra Magnus pulled a couple of datapads off his desk and held them out to Silverbolt. "I appreciate your help in this," he said. "Let's hope it's worth our time."

* * *

Nearly seven hours later, they were coming in from the north towards Vos, and Silverbolt was reassured that he'd made the right decision. He'd been afraid that his own desire to be alone with Skyfire, coupled with a reluctance to deprive his wingmates of their vacation time, had been exerting unfair influence on his choice. But the place was a maze and he had immediate visions of losing Fireflight somewhere down there - or of Air Raid or Slingshot deciding that one of those deadly, crumbling canyons was just the spot for a race. It was quiet enough and he was confident that the two of them could handle anything that came up.

Which wasn't to say that he wasn't quietly enjoying flying like this with Skyfire on his wing. Silverbolt had always been a bit twitchy about having anyone too close in his slipsteam when he was in the air, even - or especially - his brothers, who moved too fast and too erratically and who, despite their gestalt bond, he was constantly terrified were going to clip him and send him spiralling into a dive. Skyfire was naturally steadier, and although he could move fast and pull of startling manoeuvres when pushed, for the most part he represented a solid, dependable presence in the air.

The planet was silent beneath them. Silverbolt was careful not to look down into any of the yawning chasms that plunged hundreds of metres below the surface, concentrating instead on scanning for nearby Decepticons. Everything was quiet as they reached the outskirts of the city.

Not that Silverbolt would have recognised them as such. All of Cybertron was one great mass of buildings: the subdivisions might be called cities but they were really just nigh-indistinguishable sections of the world-city that filled the whole planet. His only guide was when Skyfire commed him.

:We're crossing Vos's borders now.:

:Which way was it aligned?:

:Decepticon, and willingly so, as far as I understand it. It doesn't surprise me - Vos was always a mercenary sort of place. They taught the law of opportunism from the moment a 'bot was sparked.:

He didn't sound bitter, but he didn't have to - their fields were brushing and Silverbolt knew him too well.

:Did you... were you sparked there?:

:Me?: Skyfire sounded surprised. :No, not me.: He hesitated, and Silverbolt, guessing the reason, didn't entirely expect him to continue. He was surprised and gratified when Skyfire finally said, :Starscream was, though. I always thought it explained a lot about him. But... not all of it.:

Silverbolt didn't push, knowing that Skyfire would keep talking if he wanted to - and he evidently didn't, so they settled back into silence.

Silverbolt had spent long enough studying the plans before recharging that he was able to recognise the outskirts of the area they were heading for. He signalled Skyfire and they descended together, easily slipping in and out of each other's airspace.

Sky-high towers rose up around them as they circled a large, flat plaza that was itself raised high above what you might call Cybertron's surface. Most were heavily damaged, but the plaza itself was surprisingly intact. Whatever part Vos had played in the war, it had not been a pacifist one. The towers were not residential, but they'd served a number of roles, according to the notes in Silverbolt's briefing - administrative at one time, then a command centre for the leading powers of Vos, and finally a war base, though it was unclear if they had ever been armed.

Silverbolt was a little nervous that the plaza would collapse beneath them - he imagined its supporting pillars crumbled away beneath the surface - but Skyfire drew ahead as they came in for a final approach and landed easily enough. He transformed as Silverbolt came to a stop next to him.

"That one ahead?" he asked, when Silverbolt had also returned to root mode.

Silverbolt eyed the building and nodded. The energy source Blurr had picked up was somewhere below them, many storeys down in the three-dimensional labyrinth that was Cybertron. They wouldn't be able to fly once they got into the tangle of metal that had once been wide streets and impressive facades: too much damage, Ultra Magnus had said. The only way to reach their goal was to climb down through the most intact of the nearby buildings and find a way through whatever was left of the infrastructure.

"Did you pick anything up on your long-range scanners?" Silverbolt asked, beginning to walk towards their target building.

"No. I don't think we were detected." Skyfire frowned as he caught up to Silverbolt, glancing around with a hint of uneasiness. "Though there was something... like seeing movement out of the corner of my optics, only on the scanners. When I tried to focus in on it, I couldn't find it again. It could have been a glitch..."

"We'd better proceed as if it wasn't." Silverbolt slipped his gun out of subspace, though he held it loosely for now. "Keep scanning."


The doors of the tower block loomed ahead of them, long since deprived of power and jammed open. Silverbolt marvelled at their size. They were easily big enough to accommodate Skyfire, and even Omega Supreme would only have had to stoop a little. The inside of the building was dark compared to the starlit plaza.

Skyfire brought a powerful lantern out of his subspace and, keeping a step behind Silverbolt so as not to blind him, turned it on. Silverbolt swept his gaze over the ruins of the foyer within, over broken chairs and smashed screens, and carefully proceeded forward.

"I suppose the Autobots did this, then," he said, disquieted by the notion. Somehow he imagined the Autobots' part in the war as purely defensive - but of course they must have led attacks on Decepticon-allied cities.

"No, this was Decepticon work," Skyfire replied. When Silverbolt threw a questioning glance over his shoulder, Skyfire went on, "I've made some study of the weapons in use at the time. This damage is all done by cluster-shock bombs and grenades. The Autobots didn't start using those until after Vos fell. The records are sketchy on what actually happened - but I would guess that perhaps the city's leadership might have tried to play their own game against the Decepticons."

"So they were destroyed." Silverbolt pushed aside a pile of debris and opened a door that he hoped would lead to the stairs. He wasn't disappointed. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. But this damage... it seems so..."

"Deliberate? Excessive? I was thinking the same thing." Skyfire had closed the gap behind them so that his light was always illuminating the next section of the stairway, and Silverbolt could feel the brush of his field, conveying his distaste - and a thin thread of disquiet, like there was something else bothering him. "They came here with the intention that it would never be rebuilt, I think. I'm amazed these stairs are still in one piece."

"Hold that thought." Silverbolt threw out a hand to stop Skyfire, then edged forward to examine the next turn. "This doesn't look good."

The stairs were smashed ahead of them, a deep chasm that went down storey after storey. Peering into it made Silverbolt feel dizzy. He drew back hurriedly.

"When did we last pass an exit?"

"Two flights up."

"We'd better see what's on the other side of that, then."

The answer was a long, dark corridor with no immediate side turnings. Silverbolt edged through the doorway to try to get a sense of what lay further ahead, while Skyfire paused to look at the door itself.

"Wait a klik," he said, and Silverbolt halted at once. "Do these mean anything to you?"

Silverbolt retraced his steps to where Skyfire was studying a complicated pattern of glyphs on the door lintel. It wasn't simple Cybertronian - the characters were bigger and seemed more symbolic.

"Should they?"

"That one in the middle - " Skyfire brushed it with his finger, a circle intersected by two lines at odd angles. "In my time it was the warning sign for extreme magnetic fields. The others I don't recognise, but I'm guessing they are supposed to mark out similar hazards. Was there anything in that briefing?"

Silverbolt shook his head, but strangely, something was stirring in the very back of his processor. It was like the ingrained knowledge he'd had since he was sparked - information that had come encoded into his personality when he'd awakened.

"Those two at the start mean 'interdiction zone'," he said, and was startled by his own voice. "An area that must not be entered by anyone without a full set of clearances - and sometimes that meant no-one at all. The penalty was shoot-on-sight." He shook his head, unsettled. "I'm not sure how I know that."

"At a guess? You would have needed to, once, if you were flying through war zones." Skyfire briefly laid a hand on his shoulder. "Vector Sigma does not retain detailed personal memories, as I understand it, but anything you considered vital to your survival, on a spark level, may well have survived."

They moved on in silence, side by side by unspoken agreement. The corridor was wide and relatively clear of debris, and the only door they passed was an elevator access now choked with rubble. There had been only one way into this place, whatever it was. Skyfire had a handheld scanner out, tuned specifically to the readings Blurr had picked up, and was checking it periodically.

"We may have been lucky," he said. "We're definitely heading for the source, although it's still some levels down."

"If it's in this section, then it's part of whatever those warnings were about." Silverbolt cast a glance over his shoulder, made more nervous than he cared to admit by the shadows that followed their pool of light. "I'm finding it less and less likely that we're going to find stockpiled energon."

"Should we turn back?"

Silverbolt paused and looked at Skyfire for a long few seconds, thinking about that undercurrent in his field. "What do you think?"

"I'm... not sure." Skyfire also cast a glance over his shoulder. "Honestly, this place unnerves me. I'd guess it was either a weapons lab or a manufacturing facility of some kind - nothing good. But if there's power here, it may be something we can use."

"Okay. In that case, let's press on until we can figure out what's generating those readings. I'd like to be sure we can get out if we need to, though."

"By my calculations we're coming up on what they used to call the Rust Pit - it's a big shaft that goes right down towards the core of the planet. If this place has any access to that, I can get us out in a pinch."

Silverbolt nodded and began to move on down the corridor again. It was almost five minutes later that they saw a junction up ahead. There was a recess in the wall opposite their approach, and Silverbolt didn't need to ask Skyfire's opinion on its purpose. He knew a guard station when he saw one.

"No signs," Skyfire muttered as they stopped and looked both ways at the junction. "If you were supposed to be here, you were supposed to know where to go, presumably."

"They both look the same to me."

"The right hand one has a downward access of some sort a few hundred metres further on." Skyfire tilted his head the way he did when using one of his more specialised sensor arrays. Silverbolt suppressed a smile; he probably had no idea of how endearing it was. "Shall we try it?"

"Lead the way."

The 'downward access' was another elevator shaft, this one echoingly empty, but there was a stairwell slightly further on. They made their way down, Skyfire checking his scanner constantly and Silverbolt keeping a close optic both on the stairs below them and how far they'd come. He noticed that they didn't pass any other exits from the stairwell.

"We're getting close," Skyfire said, just as Silverbolt finally spotted a door up ahead.

He expected another corridor when they shouldered open the long-jammed double doors. Instead, a wide open space stretched ahead of them, multiple storeys tall and several times wider than the plaza above had been. Silverbolt stopped short in sheer surprise - and a second later was glad of it. He threw himself back into the doorway, stopping Skyfire coming out with the lantern, and signalled to him to douse the light.

The darkness before them was not absolute. Somewhere around what Silverbolt guessed might be the centre of the immense space was a light. It moved back and forth, clearly carried by a mech, and its small circle of illumination gave the impression of a massive column that rose from floor to ceiling.

Skyfire opened a very tight band channel. :They can't have heard us open the door or they'd have doused the light.:

:How many, do you think?:

:I don't dare scan and I can't see from here. There's only one light source.:

:There can't be any perimeter guards or we'd have been spotted already.: Silverbolt edged back into the room and turned his optics up to their highest gain. All he saw was a blur of movement that he thought was just one figure. :There's no point in working our way around the edge, if the room's circular we'll never get any closer. We can either stay here and ambush them when they come back, or try and get over there without being heard.:

:There's no guarantee they came in this way.: Skyfire had moved into the doorway behind Silverbolt; his presence was reassuring as Silverbolt's processor raced. :And neither of us is particularly inconspicuous.:

The light had stopped moving around, as if it had been placed on a flat surface. Faint sounds came from the centre of the room: metal on metal and an under-the-breath mutter that could have been a swear word.

:We'll have to take the risk,: Silverbolt decided. :Whatever's giving off that power signature, I don't want it in Decepticon hands.:

:As to that, I have a partial answer,: Skyfire said. :This is a power station and it's what's giving off the readings. What I don't understand is where it's getting fuel from. It can't have been running since the planet went into stasis; someone must have reactivated it recently.:

:Someone like whoever is over there?:

:At a guess.: Skyfire hesitated. Then he went on, :Silverbolt, there are a limited number of Decepticons with the skill to meddle with something like this.:


:Shockwave. Soundwave. And Starscream.:

Silverbolt grimaced, glad the darkness hid his expression. :Which would you say is the most likely to be over there right now?:

Another pause.

:Starscream,: Skyfire said finally. :Shockwave would be unlikely to act alone and Soundwave would have his cassettes helping - there'd be more noise.:

:Great.: Silverbolt made up his mind. :We'd better try and find out what he's up to. You go around to the left and I'll come straight up behind him. If we can pin him down we can probably get him to tell us what he's trying to do, if for no other reason than to show off.:

:That is entirely true.:

Silverbolt began to make his way forward without pausing to look too deeply into Skyfire's field. He didn't really want to know how Skyfire felt about launching this sneak attack. Behind him, he barely heard Skyfire move off to the left as commanded. That was reassuring. And hopefully Starscream was too preoccupied to hear the occasional small sound of rubble shifting under Silverbolt's feet...

It almost worked. Silverbolt was close enough to be sure there was only one person there, and close enough to think about a rush to grab him - when all at once, there was a click, and light flared from the column in front of him, so bright that he staggered back, arm flung up to shield his optics.

He recovered in a second, but the movement and any small noise he might have made were enough to give him away. Starscream - yes, Skyfire had been right, and somehow Silverbolt couldn't help thinking that of course it was Starscream, who else was going to be poking around in the dark in an abandoned power station where he had no right to be? - whipped around to face him, genuine shock on his face, replaced a moment later by hatred. His null rays were up and levelled at Silverbolt even as Silverbolt raised his own weapon purposefully.

"What are you doing sneaking around here?" demanded Starscream, with such genuine outrage in his voice that Silverbolt was almost amused.

"I was about to ask you the same question." He refused to let himself glance sideways. He couldn't see Skyfire in his peripheral vision, which might mean he'd had a chance to get to cover as the lights went up. "Nice place you have here."

Now that he'd adjusted to the light, he realised it wasn't that bright after all - just the effect of sudden illumination on optics turned to high gain. It was in the form of strips of lights running up the central pillar, pulsing slowly in time to some hidden beat. All around the base of the pillar were consoles built into a ring; it had been on one of these that Starscream had been working. Trailing wires and a crate of spare parts gave testament that he had either been here some time, or made a previous visit.

"Where are the rest of them?" Starscream demanded, glancing quickly to the left and right, but not taking his glare off Silverbolt long enough to give an advantage.

This time Silverbolt did let his optics move, as if involuntarily - to the other side of the console unit. At the same time, he started to say, "You'll see them when you see them--"

Starscream whipped around, shooting blindly across the console at the empty darkness. Silverbolt got off a shot of his own, aimed squarely between Starscream's wings in the hopes of disabling him - but Starscream was quick on his feet and had twisted aside even as he turned.

It didn't save him from Skyfire's two precise shots that left his null rays sparking and dragged a howl of pain and outrage from his vocaliser.

Starscream kept moving, throwing himself bodily across the console as Silverbolt dived forward to grab him. Skyfire moved swiftly around the console so that he was still flanking Starscream, and then there was a pause as the three of them stared at each other - or rather, as Silverbolt kept a close eye on Starscream while Starscream turned a look of absolute disgust on Skyfire.

"You as well? Don't you think it's beneath you, crawling around in the ruins on your leash?"

"It doesn't seem to be beneath you," Skyfire commented. "Not that I would use that as any particular benchmark."

"At least I'm here on my own initiative," Starscream snapped. He turned a malicious look on Silverbolt. "Do you get a kick out of demeaning him with escort duty? Why," and there was a deadly, mocking sweetness in his voice now, "I hardly see you two in the sky apart these days."

Silverbolt wanted to snap back, It's called friendship, ever heard of it? but muted his vocaliser at the last second. Starscream was notorious for getting a rise out of people. Silverbolt refused to give him the satisfaction.

"What iniative would that be, exactly?" Skyfire asked, ignoring the jab with apparent ease. "You can't be expecting to get power out of this heap of scrap."

Starscream whipped around to face him, absolutely seething at the patronising note that had been in his words - and then stopped, suddenly shrewd.

"You don't know what it is," he said, mockery and triumph mingled in the words. "And I'm not going to tell you."

"I'm sure I can figure it out."

"I don't think so. You weren't there."

It was the first shot that hit home, as far as Silverbolt could tell - and he only could tell because he knew Skyfire well enough to catch the brief tightening of his fingers on his gun. His expression gave nothing away - but with a sinking sensation in his spark, Silverbolt realised that Starscream wasn't going by Skyfire's expression either. He knew Skyfire - maybe he knew him as well as Silverbolt did.

Maybe he knew him better.

"That's enough," Silverbolt said, sharper than he'd meant to, and Starscream's optics snapped to him, bright and cruel. "You have two choices: you can tell us what you know about this thing here, or we can take you back as a prisoner and you can tell us in Iacon."

"Or I can tell you nothing and you'll do... what?" Starscream laughed openly at them. "Torture me? I know you don't have it in you, Skyfire. This one..." He gave Silverbolt a long, assessing look that made Silverbolt want to hit him. "... Maybe with a few vorns of proper education, but I'd say he doesn't have the spark for it either."

"Hmm. You have a point," Silverbolt said casually. He deliberately eased off his stance - though he didn't lower his gun - and looked over at Skyfire. He was pleased that Skyfire kept his optics on Starscream. "It can't be that complicated if a Seeker can make it work, so it'll save time if we just send him back to Iacon for bargaining with and you get on with--"

"What would you know?" screeched Starscream. He was as enraged as Silverbolt had hoped, all his attention seized by the insult. "You're no scientist! You're not even a vorn old! You wouldn't know a radron catalyst if it hit you in the faceplates, let alone what it takes to repair one! How dare you--"

"A radron-- Starscream, that's ridiculous." Despite the apparently casual dismissal, Silverbolt recognised the frown on Skyfire's face as the result of some quick, hard thinking. "You couldn't run one of those in the middle of Cybertron, even if they weren't theoretical at best--"

"Theoretical when you were at the Academy!" snarled Starscream. If he realised he'd been goaded into giving more away, he didn't show it - and he seemed to fall far more easily into the argument with Skyfire than made Silverbolt entirely comfortable. "You're hopelessly out of date. They built the first prototypes before the war broke out."

"If they built them here, I can't imagine they saw much success."

"Ah, you'd think so, wouldn't you?" Strangely, Starscream's fury seemed to have ebbed, or at least been pushed aside, as he was drawn into what almost passed for a conversation. "The prototypes worked but by the time we'd proved it--"


"I told you I could make it work."

"So you worked in this place?"

"No! The prototypes were out past the old red giant in the secondary system - that one we orbited for a few hundred vorns. Just as we proved the concept, they cut off our fuel allowance and we couldn't get back out there to do any more work."

"The Academy?"

"Ha!" Starscream laughed darkly. "Oh, the Academy was long past the point of no return by then. I moved on. And when my employers at the time cut my allowance, I moved on again."

He stared musingly at the console, reaching out to touch it; Silverbolt tensed, but Starscream didn't appear to be about to press any buttons. He just ran a fingertip down the metal as though assessing it.

"It wasn't until after I'd joined the Decepticons that I started hearing rumours someone had made it work here. And then Megatron--" More than the habitual sneer there - something like real disgust. "--had the place bombed into oblivion."

"Why would Megatron destroy a power source?" Silverbolt wondered aloud.

"Because he's an idiot, that's why," snapped Starscream.

"Or he knew something you didn't," said Silverbolt - and realised too late that he'd broken the spell. Starscream would not respond to him as to Skyfire, falling back into old habits of conversation. The glare now coming his way told him that clearly enough.

"Are you doing to shoot me?" Starscream demanded, almost petulantly. "Because if you're not--"

He moved as he spoke, ducking around the console to get out of Skyfire's line of fire even as he grabbed some sort of switch and yanked it hard. All at once the lights went out of the power core. Silverbolt saw the flash of a shot from Skyfire's direction, but it clearly hit nothing, just as his own belated volley of laser fire went arcing into the darkness.

He'd been caught by surprise - and cursed himself for it - but he was too well-trained not to react. Silverbolt jumped backwards and to one side, knowing that his shots had given away his location. A second later he heard the distinctive sound of Starscream's null rays - at least one had not been fully disabled by Skyfire's earlier shots, then - and felt a splash of reflected heat from the spot he'd been standing on.

Thinking quickly, Silverbolt kept moving, following the console around until he was pretty sure the power core was between him and Starscream. He didn't know where Skyfire was. They might run right into each other, or he might have held his ground...

His foot caught on a chunk of rubble. He didn't trip - managed to grab the console at the last second - but it made an unmistakeable noise, and Starscream reacted immediately. Null ray fire hummed through the air around Silverbolt, who ducked down as best he could behind the console - only to hear a disconcerting, loud electronic whine above his head. The core flights flickered on again for a second, strobing the surrounding area with bursts of disconcerting brilliance, too bright and too brief to see anything.

"Starscream, stop shooting!" Skyfire yelled, and Silverbolt's spark went cold at both the panic in his voice, and the fact that the null rays immediately turned his way. "You've hit the core--"

The whine built up louder and Silverbolt saw lightning-like tendrils of violet energy crackle up its length. A flash of light gave him a glimpse of Starscream, and he fired off a couple of shots, but all he got for his efforts was another dose of the null rays. This time at least one hit home; Silverbolt felt the circuits in his right wing go abruptly numb. The noise of the core was deafening now.

Skyfire all but crashed into him, only a split-second recognition of his field preventing Silverbolt from opening fire. He grabbed Silverbolt bodily and shouted in his audio receptor, "Run!"

They got about five steps before the core overloaded. It flared painfully bright behind them, casting crazy shadows on the distant walls, and then there was an explosion of energy that shoved them both forward like a huge hand against their backs. The walls shook and pieces of rubble crashed down from the ceiling, but there was no fire. The light dimmed and vanished, the whining screech was gone, and all at once there was only darkness and silence marred by the sound of pieces of metal falling, glass or plexiglass shards settling, and a series of creaks and groans from the building surrounding them.

Silverbolt had just cautiously raised his head - and just cautiously dared to think that it hadn't been so bad after all - when the floor collapsed beneath them.

- end chapter 9 -

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