Sunday, September 2nd, 2012 06:28 pm
Title: A Wing and a Prayer - Chapter 11 (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: Hi guys. I decided a while back that I wasn't going to post any more of this until I'd finished the whole thing. I've written about five more chapters, but I've run into a problem (albeit an awesome one for me) - I've started working really hard on my own original fiction in the last few months, and I'm making a serious push towards getting it published next year. So I'm honestly not sure if I will end up finishing "A Wing and a Prayer", much as I love it - I'm out of the fandom enough now that it's really hard to get back into the mindset, especially when I want to be writing about my own world. Therefore I'm going to clean up and post everything I've written so far, so at least you've got as much of the story as exists. It might be that going through and cleaning up is enough to spur me into just a little more enthusiasm so that I finish it off, but I'm making no promises and assuming at this point that I probably won't.

If you like my writing and like what I've done with these characters, you might be interested in my original fiction too. Partly because it's a high-tech fantasy series that features a lot of the kind of adventure/investigation/character-interaction plots I usully write, and partly because I seem to have sort of accidentally ended up with a pair of secondary characters who bear a suspicious similarity to my human versions of Skyfire and Silverbolt... :) If you're interested you can follow me on Twitter as @brightwanderer, or on Dreamwidth, also as [personal profile] brightwanderer. I'm also planning some slashy original short stories (in the style of Shousetsu Bang Bang) if that's your cup of tea. ;)



A Wing and a Prayer
Chapter 11


It was an odd conference - or debrief, Silverbolt wasn't sure which - with half the participants present only on the large panel screen Ultra Magnus had set up at one end of the table. It was odd in more than that; no-one was entirely certain what they were here to talk about. The meeting had come about through a general feeling, shared by all of them, that there was something on Cybertron that needed their attention.

The only problem was that none of them really knew what.

It was somewhat intimidating to face Optimus Prime, Jazz, and Prowl lined up alongside each other in neat squares on the screen, but then there was Perceptor alongside them, by Skyfire's request, and Ironhide, on Optimus's suggestion, both of whom served to alleviate the sense of scrutiny from the Autobots' leaders. And in the room on Cybertron itself, in addition to Ultra Magnus, Silverbolt, and Skyfire, there was Kup, who had been brought in for much the same reason as Ironhide - "because I'm old enough to tell them a thing or two, that's why," in his own words.

Skyfire had been speaking for some time. He was relating in detail their discovery of the old control room beneath Vos. Silverbolt had reassured him beforehand that he needn't spend any time explaining or justifying their presence there; the report had been submitted and everyone who needed to know already did. Skyfire had taken him at his word; everything he said was focused tightly on the control room and their actions therein.

He could hardly avoid mentioning Starscream, much as he would have liked to. And much as Silverbolt would have been happy to leave that part out, there was no denying that it had to be accounted for. Information and theories based on Starscream's opinions were inherently suspect; it was necessary to distinguish between what Skyfire himself had observed and what he had heard or deduced from his one-time partner.

The 'bots present were tactful, Silverbolt was relieved to note - and he saw a depth of sympathy on Perceptor's face that reminded him of Skyfire's casual acknowledgement of how long they had known each other.

"Remind me," Optimus was saying, "what were the arguments? I have a vague recollection, but over time the discussion became less... relevant, I suppose, to our daily survival."

Silverbolt hurriedly reviewed the conversation up until that point. They had begun talking about theories of Cybertronian origin...

"Organic evolution, mechanical evolution, and creation theory in two forms," Skyfire replied succinctly. "The first theory was that we had started our existence as organic life, and our distant ancestors had found a way to create mechanical bodies. It was deemed scientifically possible, but we have never been able to prove that a spark could be created from an organic life form. It also calls into question Vector Sigma's function and ability to create new life - but I digress. The second theory was that Cybertronian life had 'evolved', as it were, from mechanical parts, possibly discarded by some other race, or even naturally occurring--"

"Largely discredited," Perceptor put in. "And damnably with a series of papers shortly after you left Cybertron."

"Ah, I didn't know that. Not that it was very credible to begin with." Skyfire shared a glance with Perceptor that Silverbolt had come to recognise as 'scientist in-joke'. "The third theory posited that we were created intentionally by some other being - and that was where it split along two lines. One argument holds that we are the creations of some unknown organic race - the other that we were created directly by Primus."

"Wasn't there trouble over that?" Kup frowned, glanced at Ironhide and Skyfire for confrimation. "Buncha religious types, called themselves the InterSect..."

"Yeah, they were the sorta template for the Decepticons," Ironhide said. "Big on conquering the rest o' the universe in Primus's name."

"It was before my time," Skyfire admitted. "But I know enough about them through the knock-on effect they had on research into the creationist theories. For a long time it was deemed unscientific to even contemplate the idea of an independent creator, Primus or otherwise. When..." he hesitated, then visibly forced himself to continue. Silverbolt couldn't reach out and touch him, but he kept his optics on Skyfire's face, lending what support he could. "When Starscream and I first saw some of the ancient architecture vorns ago, he was convinced that it was created by another race. And I was inclined - am still inclined - to agree with him, not least because he hated the idea so very much. If he was willing to entertain it anyway, he must have had good reason - and he has always had a talent for picking out the shape of a theory around scanty evidence."

"That is certainly true," murmured Perceptor, and Silverbolt realised with a jolt that he must have known Starscream back then as well - maybe he'd even worked with him.

"Which is where this control room comes in?" Jazz leaned forward on his display, obviously looking at something out of shot - maybe a datapad or another screen. "You said Starscream thought it was set up to pump data out on command."

"Yes." Skyfire looked down at the table top. "I didn't have time to verify that claim, but..."

"But it's kinda unsettlin', you might say." Jazz hummed to himself thoughtfully. "Assumin' he was tellin' the truth - and that's one Pit of a thing to assume - it sounds like whoever left it there was plannin' on come back."

"If so, they are long overdue," Optimus put in. "And if an organic race - is it not possible that whoever they were, these hypothetical creators of ours, they might have become extinct themselves?"

"It's entirely possible, maybe even likely," Perceptor said, cutting off something Skyfire had begun to say. He shot an apologetic glance at his friend, and Skyfire shook his head, gesturing for him to go on. "Our lifespan, as mechanical beings, is far in excess of any organic species we have discovered. Not to mention that before the war, we were only beginning to find evidence of organic intelligence in our sector of the galaxy - there were people who believed it a physical impossibility. But there was also a theory, based on data in the oldest records, that organic evolution goes in cycles - and that in all the depth of the galaxy, there were likely to be countless pools of life moving at a different pace. Those who were willing to consider the idea of organic creators - or an organic origin for our species - speculated that they had deliberately left behind one such populous cluster, and sought out a sector of the galaxy where no organic life had yet evolved to sufficient levels to provide a rivalry for resources."

"But there is some evidence that these unknown predecessors planned ahead on a scale we would find familiar," Skyfire went on. "Vector Sigma, Cybertron itself, these control rooms - they were designed to be self-sustaining and self-repairing in ways we have never completely examined. The control room I saw with my own optics was fully functional and actively monitoring the planet. I would not have called it a piece of engineering that had accidentally outlasted its time, but one which was specifically designed to endure for that long."

There was a brief silence as they contemplated that statement. Perceptor was looking down at something, frowning, and Silverbolt had the impression he was typing quickly.

"So," Optimus said at length, "we must acknowledge the possibility of a race - an unknown race of unknown power - which may consider it has some claim on Cybertron, and may in the future attempt to exert that claim. But it has not done so yet - even when the planet was shut down and defenceless. That strikes me as strange."

"Don't forget that we are now a long way from the path Cybertron travelled before the war," Prowl said. He had been mostly silent, listening to the scientists without comment. "For a long time our planet was on a set course through a score of solar systems in one small sub-sector of the galactic arm. That changed during the war, as we attempted to find better sources of energy - and, of course, since Megatron's stunt some years ago, Cybertron is now in the neighbourhood of Earth's solar system and wandering further towards the galactic hub with every moment. They may simply have been unable to find us."

There was another pause.

"Is this a credible threat?" Ultra Magnus asked at last. "With all we have to deal with - the Decepticons, Earth, re-energising the planet - do we have the resources to take this into account?"

"We have gone hundreds of thousands of vorns without sight or sound of any precursors," Prowl said - though not quite as an agreement. It was more a statement of fact, thrown out there to be considered from either side. "The laws of probability suggest that we are no more likely to encounter them now we know of the possibility than we were before."

"Yeah, sure, I hear there's some guy called Murphy might liketa have a word with you 'bout that," Jazz muttered. Silverbolt understood the reference and hid a smile. Prowl ignored the comment with the ease of long practice.

"It seems to me," Optimus said slowly, "that we would be foolish to ignore the possibility completely. Skyfire, Perceptor - do you know of any other locations such as this control room, which we might be able to study?"

"Not for certain," Skyfire replied after looking at Perceptor for confirmation. "I can recall the route of the original expedition I was on - where Starscream said he returned later - but it was near Praxus, which I understand was devastated during the war."

"Indeed. I would not expect the landscape to resemble your original maps any longer."

"Then no. There are presumably more of them - but where, I couldn't say. We might be able to speculate on a pattern of locations, but it would be guesswork at best..."

"There is one other thing," said Silverbolt. He had been turning the idea over in his processor for a while now, listening to what the others said. As their attention turned on him, he went on, "We're treating this as a threat. Starscream certainly saw it as one. But maybe that means we should consider the opposite? If there was a race that created us - and if they are as advanced, or more, than we are - might they ally with us to win the war and re-energise the planet?"

They were all staring at him, rather startled - and Optimus Prime finally chuckled, shaking his head.

"That is what vorns of war does to us," he said. "We treat all possibilities as dangerous. You are right, Silverbolt - though I must say I would not choose to count on it."

The discussion after that lost some of its tension, steering away from threat assessment and into the realms of speculation. Silverbolt said little, letting his thoughts drift. He understood the need for this meeting, but he was beginning to tire of it. Especially since he and Skyfire were technically supposed to be on downtime right now - they’d had to pull a couple of extra hours on duty to match up with the Ark shift patterns. If there was some great, unknown threat out there, they couldn’t do much more than be aware of the possibility for now.

Skyfire caught his optics across the table, the smile tugging at his mouth attesting that he was as ready to get away from the briefing table as Silverbolt was. The way his gaze lingered for a moment on Silverbolt’s mouth set Silverbolt’s spark pulsing pleasantly. He suspected they both had quite similar ideas about how to spend the next few hours of their downtime. He glanced down at his datapad to hide a smile, and settled back to wait patiently for the meeting to be over.

Maybe, if they were lucky, they would even get a day or two of quiet before the next crisis.

*

To Silverbolt's surprise, they got more than a day or two. His usual definition of 'quiet' on Earth was going three straight shifts without trouble, but two weeks after their misadventure below Vos, he was beginning to understand that Optimus really had meant this to be a vacation for them.

Of course, there had been the expedition back to the site of the reactor, with the intention of destroying anything that was left. They'd found the place a smoking wreck. The plaza Silverbolt remembered landing on was in pieces, the buildings beaten down to ruin; their sensors reported such high levels of various kinds of radiation that they'd veered off and kept their distance. The Decepticons had been swifter, and even Ultra Magnus, who tended towards a quite justified paranoia, believed that they hadn't stopped to pick up samples on the way.

"It seems strange to think of Megatron agreeing with us on this one," Silverbolt had said to Skyfire, after their return, and after they'd slipped away from the others for a while.

"Don't give him too much credit." Skyfire had led him to a part of the base he'd recently discovered, a great theatre hall decorated with murals of Cybertronian art. Silverbolt couldn't stop looking at them, enthralled by the level of detail and the tiny narratives captured by the figures in the packed crowd scenes. "He sees Vector Sigma as a source for new soldiers, a resource to be taken full advantage of. The Decepticons are collecting enough energy now for it to be a ludicrous exchange, giving up living sparks for power. He might have acted differently had he found it in full working order just before the launch of the Ark..."

Silverbolt had shuddered to hard that Skyfire had come up behind him and put his arms around him, apology plain in his field. He didn't say anything about Starscream, leaving Silverbolt to put his own observations together: that after the initial, instinctive shock had passed, Starscream would almost certainly have decided that those other souls were of no use to him and fired up the plant. Skyfire had been surprised that Starscream agreed so readily to destroy the lower levels. Silverbolt had thought at the time it was just because of the Seeker's contrary nature, but he was beginning to realise that in Skyfire's mind, the threat of this technology getting into Decepticon hands began and ended with Starscream.

But that had been that. The power plant was gone. The Decepticons had made no follow-up attack on Iacon. And quiet - something that might almost be mistaken for peace - had descended.

It wasn't like the lulls they'd experienced on Earth, fraught with tension and anticipation of the next strike. The sensor networks on Cybertron were extensive enough to give advance warning of any attack on Iacon, and there were no frail humans here who needed defending in any other strikes. Periodically, Ultra Magnus would call meetings to go over any data on the Decepticons' activity around the other side of the planet, and Silverbolt reported in to Optimus Prime via vidlink on a regular schedule, but other than that, it was a waiting game.

They flew one or two exploration runs. Nothing untoward happened, except for Fireflight getting lost, which had already become a regular enough occurrence up here that even the Iacon 'bots took it as the natural state of affairs. (At one point he'd been found wandering forlornly through the sub-basement, convinced he'd travelled so far he was almost at Kaon. Silverbolt had loaded all the maps he could find onto Fireflight's datapads and Skyfire had taught him some of the basic division marks. Two days later he commed them pathetically from two cities away and had to be retrieved from a burnt-out administrative tower surrounded by deep canyons. Somehow he’d walked there while looking for the tertiary rec room in the Iacon base. No-one had yet figured out how.)

It was the same kind of mission today - just go and check out some readings Blurr had brought back, see what was up - except Silverbolt had made a decision, and left Skyfire behind.

(Skyfire didn't mind. He'd found some ungodly behemoth mechanism that he claimed could be plugged into the Ark's energon supply to improve its quality, and his quarters were now covered in dusty metal parts. Silverbolt had left him in the middle of a pitched battle with three circuit boards and a rat's nest of wires. Skyfire had not been winning.)

It wasn't exactly that Silverbolt felt guilty. Except, okay, he did feel guilty and he was irrationally angry at himself for it. It wasn’t unusual for him to spend time with Skyfire alone, and he'd made sure he wasn't neglecting his brothers, and there was no reason he had to come out and tell them about the new side to their relationship when it was something private between the two of them...

That was the heart of it, of course. He wanted to keep this for himself for as long as possible, treasure it and delight in it and have it for his own. He didn't want his brothers asking their endless questions, or teasing him, or hassling Skyfire. He didn't want to undo all the progress they'd made in accepting Skyfire into their group. But mostly, he just didn't want to share right now.

It was making him feel like a terrible person.

So it was just the the five of them heading out today. Fireflight had already almost been left behind when he'd paused to circle over an interesting bit of architecture, and Skydive and Air Raid had only reluctantly obeyed an order not to race down the long canyon that was going in almost the same direction they were, but the overall mood was cheerful.

And it wasn't an overly taxing mission. They were heading into what had once been the city-state of Praxus, not far from Iacon and far enough from Decepticon territory to be considered safe. They were to fly over a certain sector of the city and compare it to aerial images taken before the Ark had departed to see what had changed in the millions of years that had passed. Anywhere else in the universe, it would have been a ridiculous proposition - the site of the Ark's landing on Earth, for example, was unrecognisable after all that time - but Cybertron changed very slowly, protected from any organic forces of weathering or decay, affected only by its inhabitants' actions.

They'd been flying in companionable silence, but when Silverbolt notified them that they'd passed the borders of Praxus, Air Raid kept the group channel open.

:Hey, Silverbolt, I heard that they've started putting the walls up on AC,: he said, using the abbreviation out of habit, even when there was little chance of being overheard. :Is that true?:

:Where'd you hear that?:

:Blurr told me.:

:He ought to mute his vocaliser.: Silverbolt considered this. :If that's physically possible. But yes, they're working on the perimeter walls now. By the time we get back, Hound's holograms won't be able to hide it any more.:

:You think we ought to head back sooner?: Air Raid asked, and Silverbolt was surprised by the note of something like homesickness in his voice.

:We're only here another three weeks,: he said. :Are you guys tired of Cybertron?:

There was a vague murmur of not-quite-dissent. Silverbolt got the sense that they were still curious, intrigued by the strange planet that was their inherited ambition, but that the cold and dark of the place were getting to them. He didn't find it especially comforting himself - but he'd been so busy with Skyfire, he'd hardly had time to think about it.

A different flavour of guilt skewered him. Maybe he hadn't been as careful not to neglect his gestalt brothers as he'd hoped.

:I'll bring it up next time I speak to Prime,: he promised them, and was rewarded with renewed cheeriness.

:That's weird.: Fireflight broke off and began to circle downward. :This whole bit is way flatter than--:

:Fireflight! Remember how we're going to notice any differences and then come back through and look at them after the first sweep?:

:Oh, right.: Fireflight reluctantly rejoined them.

They completed the first sweep without further mishap. In addition to Fireflight's "flatter bit", Air Raid spotted a canyon where none had been in the pictures, and Slingshot insisted they needed to look closer at something that was "too tidy".

Fireflight's find was, in Skydive's opinion, clusterbomb damage from a long time ago, and Silverbolt agreed that it was that or a meteor strike - nothing to concern them. Air Raid's canyon turned out to have been in the pictures after all, it had just been obscured by some sort of dust cloud at the time they were taken.

They all thought Slingshot had just made something up to join in, until they were circling an unremarkable warehouse building that was, indeed, just too tidy.

The main doors were clear. The roof and walls were whole. The windows were neatly shuttered. There was an unobtrusive empty space just in front of it that would do nicely as a landing strip. It looked, in short, like it was still in use.

:See?: said Slingshot, feathers ruffled by the teasing he'd had from the others.

:Yes, I see.: Silverbolt dipped down to take a closer look. :You're right, Slingshot. Good call. Come on, let's check it out.:

He banked towards the landing strip, feeling more than seeing the others fall into a rough line behind him. It occurred to him that grounding the whole team might be a mistake. They could find themselves pinned, the same way the Seekers had caught them that time in the canyons on Earth. On the other hand, if he left one or even two of his brothers in the air, they would present a more vulnerable target to any Decepticons who chanced by this sector. Silverbolt weighed the options and decided that the chances of an ambush were low; he would prefer to keep the team together.

He sent a brief comm back to Iacon, reporting their co-ordinates and situation, and received an acknowledgement just as he touched down. He transformed and got out of the way for his brothers' landings.

"Doesn't look like much," said Air Raid doubtfully.

"It looks like enough," Silverbolt replied. "Anyone getting any indication it's occupied?"

A series of negatives, agreeing with his own assessment.

"Then we'll try the front door first. No point in making it more complicated than it needs to be."

The front door was locked, but only with a basic code. The electronic lockpick Ultra Magnus had given them opened it in seconds. Silverbolt spotted the delighted expression on Air Raid's face, and made a mental note to make sure the gadget remained on Cybertron when they returned to Earth.

And inside the warehouse was... nothing, if you didn't count the small but significant pile of energon cubes.

The Aerialbots halted as a group just inside the doorway.

"Okay," said Air Raid after a moment, "that's too easy."

"Definitely." Silverbolt threw out an arm to prevent anyone moving forward, and was rather gratified that none of them tried. "Skydive, get the scanner out."

They all had the ability to run scans of various kinds, but the handheld device Skydive pulled out of subspace was specialised for counter-espionage. Skyfire had been teaching Silverbolt to use it just before they left Earth, but Skydive had happened into one of their lessons and been so utterly fascinated that Silverbolt had let him take over. Since they’d arrived on Cybertron he’d become proficient enough that Silverbolt felt confident relying on his readings - and quietly pleased when both Skyfire and Ultra Magnus commented favourably on the accuracy of his work.

"No tripwires or light traps," Skydive said after a moment, studying the screen intently. "No pressure plates, no explosives, and the energon looks normal enough. There's something strange about the corner it's in, though. There might be a very low-powered force field protecting it, but I'd have to get closer to be sure."

Silverbolt hesitated. "It could be a trap."

"It doesn't look like it from here."

"So, what, we're just gonna leave it there and walk away?" Slingshot demanded, folding his arms bad-temperedly.

"No, we're going to carefully investigate and then take it back if we can," Silverbolt replied. "Air Raid, Fireflight, I want you to go back outside and check the perimeter of the building. See if there is anything obviously wired up on the outside, then see if there's anything non-obviously wired up."

After they'd gone, he gave Skydive permission to move closer to the pile of energon, then pulled Slingshot aside.

"Assuming it's a trap," Silverbolt said, "what do you think it does?"

Slingshot stared at him. "Why are you asking me?"

"Because you think that way," Silverbolt replied candidly. "I've seen you set up trick shots. You're always thinking about what happens after the first hit. Plus, that prank with the pressure plate in the shower racks--"

"Hey, that was Air Raid's idea--"

"And you made it work. So far, I'm thinking an explosion, an alarm that brings a patrol down on us, or the warehouse seals itself and traps us. What else?"

Slingshot was silent for a few seconds. He really was good at this sort of logic, and not always in a negative way - though Silverbolt was aware that a certain vindictive streak played its part.

"Poison the energon," Slingshot said. "Hope we take it back and feed to everyone else without checking. Or it's a dummy, there's a sensor back outside, we already tripped it, and they're on their way right now. Or maybe it's not aimed at us. Maybe it's some sorta loyalty test Decepticons use, set someone to guarding it completely by themselves and see if they run off with any of it..."

Silverbolt controlled his surprise. That last was more insightful even than he'd hoped.

"There's definitely something here," Skydive broke in. "The scanner's not giving me much, but you can see it with your optics if you know where to look."

Silverbolt moved to his side. This close, he could see the sheen on the liquid energon and feel the faint emanations from the concentrated energy.

"Where's the-- wait, I see it." Silverbolt leaned forward, assessing the faint, wavery effect in the air. "Any idea what that is?"

"It's an em-pulse inverter," said Skydive. "I think."

"You think?"

"It's designed to blend in with the ambient electromagnetism in the area," Skydive went on as if he hadn't heard. "Usually used as a trip wire. Interrupting the field will cause it to collapse, triggering whatever circuit it's hooked up to. It's more likely to be an alarm than a trap - the idea is that you don't know you've set it off, so anyone responding to the alarm can catch you unaware. It's pretty well known among intelligence operators," he added, with a tinge of self-importance.

"Any way of disabling it?" asked Silverbolt, holding back a smile.

"Easiest way is to overload it with an electrical surge. I read something about using nearby electrical wires to create a short-circuit, but I'm not sure…"

Silverbolt did smile then, raised his hand, and snapped his fingers once. A spark leapt from thumb to fingertip; he was rather pleased with that trick. Skydive looked for a moment like he was going to be annoyed, but then grinned sheepishly instead.

"Or you could do it that way…"

Fireflight and Air Raid had come back into the warehouse, reporting no sign of anything untoward outside. Silverbolt quickly relayed the relevant information.

"Stand back, though, would you?" he said finally. "Just in case."

He was getting good at creating a charge in his root form - and at ignoring the sting as it danced across his fingers. One quick jolt aimed at the cubes...

The rest happened so fast he had no time to react. The electromagnetic field over the cubes lit up a blinding white as his lightning intersected it - and seemed to explode. Great crackling bolts of electricity sprang out in all directions, seeking the swiftest way to ground and seeming to lash out like whips or living creatures. The ceiling above the stockpile was torn apart. The walls crumbled and buckled. And Silverbolt was flung so hard across the warehouse that his processor glitched offline.

He rebooted seconds later to find his team clustered around him in panic.

"Silverbolt?"

"Call the base! Tell them we need--"

"Cancel that!" Silverbolt managed to keep the pain out of his voice, struggled to sound authoritative. "No comms. Everyone shut up, I'm okay. Give me a second."

The pain was considerable. He could feel where he'd hit the wall along his back and wings, but far worse was the internal damage - melting and short circuits caused by voltages far in excess of the ones he was used to handling. He fumbled in his subspace for a pain reliever and cursed quietly when he realised he'd used up his supplies under Vos and hadn't yet replaced them. Fireflight, misinterpreting his reaction, moved to help him sit up. Silverbolt leaned gratefully against his shoulder.

"Slingshot, Air Raid, get into the sky now. Watch for incoming Decepticons. Skydive, what happened?"

"I don't know!" Skydive sounded shaken, not to mention guilty, as his brothers dived for the door. "There weren't any explosives, I don't know how it could have done that--"

"It's okay." Silverbolt grabbed his hand and squeezed. "It was obviously more than it looked. I just need to know if we can expect anything else."

"No comm transmissions, short range or long range radio, or satellite tracers," Skydive said, tapping quickly on the scanner. "The field's gone completely, and so is whatever was generating it. An auto-destruct, maybe? But I thought the whole point was for us to set it off without knowing--"

:There's nothing out here, Silverbolt,: said Air Raid. :Slingshot's gone up high and I'm circling over the warehouse. It doesn't look so tidy any more, that's for sure.:

"Right." Silverbolt took his first look at the warehouse: the whole far end had collapsed. "Were any of the rest of you hurt?"

"Something hit my wing," Fireflight said. "But the lightning didn't come over here."

"I'm okay," Skydive added, although he was so focused on the scanner that Silverbolt thought he'd have replied the same way if he'd been missing a limb.

:We're good,: said Air Raid. :Still nothing up here.:

Silverbolt tentatively allowed himself to relax. It didn't seem they were in immediate danger. Unfortunately, taking his mind off that put it right back onto the pain. He couldn't help a faint groan as he leaned his head against Fireflight's and offlined his optics.

"Did any of the energon survive?"

"There's some trickling out of that pile of rubble…"

"Wonderful." Silverbolt contemplated transforming, and shuddered. He decided he'd rather get it over with sooner than sit around thinking about it. "Come on, then. Let's get out of here. I'm in no mood to see what else the Decepticons have left in Praxus."

*

Skyfire had to restrain himself from asking yet again if Silverbolt was really sure he was all right. The stiff, careful way he crossed Skyfire’s quarters and tentatively sat on the berth betrayed the discomfort he was still in. There was only so much the med ‘bots could do for his scorched wiring - much of the damage was to the fine capillary circuits, which would self-repair more efficiently than anyone could achieve manually. He had plenty of painkillers to tide him over, but Skyfire knew nothing could completely eliminate the all-over twinges that would be plaguing him.

Instead, he said, “Shall I get us some energon?”

Silverbolt shot him a look of exasperated amusement, and Skyfire knew his attempt to cover his concern had been in vain.

“I’m fine for now,” he said, shifting on the berth as he tried to find the position that was the least uncomfortable. He gave up after a couple of attempts. “Unless you have high grade lying around somewhere. That might help.”

“Sadly, I don’t.” Skyfire picked his way across the room in turn. The floor was still covered in pieces of machinery and wires, but he was in no mood to work on them. “How’s your back?”

“It’s the only thing that isn’t hurting,” Silverbolt replied. “I just wish we’d managed to retrieve some of that energon. And I hope this hasn’t knocked Skydive’s confidence - from what Blurr said, it didn’t sound like he could have detected it.”

“No, it was a subtle bit of sabotage,” Skyfire agreed. He sat on the edge of the berth, wanting to move closer but unsure whether Silverbolt would welcome any sort of touch right now. “The stored electrical charge must have been spread out over every circuit in the building so it wouldn’t show up - and the only thing that would trigger it was doing exactly what you did, overloading the generator. Someone was counting on whoever found that energon to know how to detect and disable an em-pulse inverter.”

Silverbolt reached out and tugged him properly onto the berth, which Skyfire took as an invitation. He carefully put an arm around Silverbolt, letting him settle in as comfortably as he could, and tried not to jostle him too much.

He didn’t say that he was bothered by the coincidence of that particular trigger. Overloading an em-pulse inverter with an electrical discharge was standard covert ops practice, but normally the discharge would come from a weapon or other external device. In that case, the mech who set it off would have been unlikely to take as much damage as Silverbolt - the electrical burst from the disintegrating field had ridden back up the path blazed by his lightning, earthing itself vengefully in every circuit it could reach. It seemed almost specifically tailored to Silverbolt, alone out of any Autobot who might have stumbled across it. Skyfire knew it was too vague a worry to bring up in a debrief - there were so many ways it might have been anyone but Silverbolt who found that energon store - but he couldn’t completely dismiss the anxiety.

Not when he knew one Decepticon who would absolutely and without hesitation go to the effort to set something like that up - and who now had more than one reason to consider Silverbolt a personal enemy.

He pushed the thought train aside, not wanting Silverbolt to catch the worry in his field. It was possible he was just paranoid. Possible, but… Skyfire shook his head sharply, getting a curious look from Silverbolt.

“Everything okay?”

“Yes.”

Skyfire settled down more comfortably on the berth, easing Silverbolt towards him until they were lying in each other’s arms. He could feel the jolts and twinges of pain in Silverbolt’s field, but they were ameliorated by the soft wash of pleasure and contentment at being close to Skyfire. That gave Skyfire his own thrill of delight, pushing aside any other concerns, and making it seem imperative that he lean in and kiss Silverbolt. And kissing Silverbolt, as he’d been discovering lately, was addictive - so it was easy to let go of his worries for the time being.

*

There he is!”

Silverbolt didn’t have time to turn towards Fireflight’s voice before at least three of his brothers crashed into him from behind and latched on like sentient grappling hooks. He lost his balance and went down in a heap of laughing Aerialbots. Fortunately, Skyfire was still holding both their energon cubes and had managed to step smartly out of the way of the incoming dogpile, so the only damage was to Silverbolt’s dignity.

“We’ve been looking all over for you,” Fireflight was babbling happily, seemingly in no hurry to get up. “I thought maybe you’d got lost and we were going to go down into the basement except Air Raid said we should come and see if you were in Skyfire’s room and then we were coming through here and saw you by the energon—”

“Why didn’t you comm me?” Silverbolt wriggled free of the pile and sat up, trying not to notice the looks they were getting from some of the other occupants of the main rec room. It was uncomfortably like a flashback to how things had been on the Ark at the beginning. Then he saw how hard Skyfire was trying not to laugh, and his embarrassment faded as quickly as it had come. “Ow, Air Raid, that’s my radar array…”

“We did comm you,” said Skydive, as Air Raid shuffled aside with an unapologetic grin. “You didn’t answer.”

Silverbolt hurriedly checked his comm logs. Sure enough, he had a couple of notification blips from right around the time he and Skyfire had been - oh, right. He’d meant to return the comms but then he’d ended up rather distracted and… he hoped his field wasn’t giving too much away as he got to his feet and grabbed the first brother within easy reach - Fireflight - and pulled him up too.

“Oh,” he said. “Sorry, guys, I didn’t mean to ignore you.”

“Sure,” said Air Raid, and there was something about the way his grin widened - and was that the slightest flick of his optics towards Skyfire? - that made Silverbolt look at him with sudden apprehension. “Guess you had better things to do, huh?”

The tone was teasing - there was no resentment in it - but as the others picked themselves up, bickering cheerfully over bent flaps and scuffed finishes, Silverbolt suffered a resurgence of guilt. He should have told them by now, he knew. The longer he and Skyfire kept it quiet, the more it loomed like some sort of dark secret between him and his brothers.

“It’s not like we haven’t spent plenty of time together up here,” he found himself saying defensively. “We don’t always have to—”

His comm went off again, this time on an official channel. Silverbolt waved off Fireflight’s reply (which had an injured tone to it, dammit, why had he let himself get defensive?) and acknowledged Ultra Magnus’s code.

:We have a small Decepticon force moving in on Altihex, targeting the refinery we've been working on there,: said Ultra Magnus without preamble. :How quickly can you get your team in the air?:

“Are you all fuelled?” Silverbolt asked aloud, and in some back corner of his processor, he was so proud of the way they all stopped chattering and answered in the affirmative, recognising the shift in his tone.

:Ten minutes,: he told Ultra Magnus, then mentally kicked himself. :I mean, a breem or so.:

:Good. Head out.:

“Head for the hangar, guys.” Silverbolt turned towards Skyfire to reclaim his cube of energon. He’d have to drink it as he walked. “Was it Altihex you went to last week?”

"The refinery? Yes - I take it the Decepticons are expressing an interest?"

"Enthusiastically."

It was less than ten minutes before they were flying out of Iacon in close formation, Skyfire above and a few lengths behind. Silverbolt had been out this way a few times on patrol, but he checked with Skyfire before choosing their approach vector. According to Ultra Magnus's sensor network, the Decepticon party had settled into a standard bombing pattern targeting the refinery, which was buried deep enough below the surface that there was no chance of it taking damage before the Aerialbots arrived. It was something of a fruitless effort on the part of the Decepticons - they couldn't expect to avoid detection for long enough to do any real damage. Ultra Magnus was concerned that it might be a distraction, and was doubling surveillance throughout Autobot-controlled territory.

It was only as the Aerialbots roared in from the southeast that Silverbolt was able to see who exactly they were facing. An unpleasant jolt of recognition went through him: he'd know Starscream, Thundercracker and Skywarp anywhere. And he wouldn't have expected them to be here, if Ultra Magnus was right about it being a distraction. He quickly commed the new information back to base, then ordered his brothers to sweep around from two sides and begin the attack.

:Skyfire, stay high,: he added. :I don't like the look of this.:

:Understood.:

It was no contest, with six of them bearing down on the three Seekers. Thundercracker and Skywarp broke off first, each peeling off in a different direction, diving down into canyons to the east and west. Silverbolt wasn't about to fall for that - he ordered his brothers to hold back rather than chase the Decepticons down the narrow spaces. Starscream was still circling over the refinery. He didn't return fire when Silverbolt began shooting at him. Another alarm went off in Silverbolt's processor. Something very strange was going on here…

He should have veered off, he realised later, refused to close with Starscream - but it was too instinctive to keep on coming, his shots hitting home more readily with every metre he gained on the Seeker. He was expecting it when Starscream suddenly rolled and shot towards him, skimming overhead and out of reach of Silverbolt's weapons. He wasn't expecting Starscream to repeat the trick he'd used before: the sound of a transformation was the only warning Silverbolt had before a grappling, wrenching weight crashed into his fuselage.

Silverbolt yawed wildly from side to side, thrown off balance by the extra weight. He tried to turn the motion into a calculated manoeuvre, a roll that would dislodge Starscream, but then null rays were pounding into his systems from point blank range and it was all he could do to stay in the air. He was aware that his brothers had turned to come to his aid - only to be set upon by Thundercracker and Skywarp, who had doubled back using the canyons for cover. Starscream paused in shooting him to grab a piece of his plating and yank painfully. Silverbolt managed not to cry out. All at once, staying in the air didn't seem like such a good idea after all.

He dived low, levelled off, and as he came over a wide, flat building with minimal damage, he transformed. He'd hoped Starscream would be thrown off by the shift, but the Seeker was still clinging to his back as they crashed into the roof. Silverbolt rolled and thrashed, trying to dislodge him, but Starscream seemed to know every handhold and junction in Silverbolt's plating - of course he does, I carried him on my back! - and hung on like grim death. He was at least unable to get his null rays into position like this, but Silverbolt couldn't get him off, and Starscream seemed to be intent on tearing Silverbolt to pieces with his bare hands.

There was laser fire overhead. Thundercracker and Skywarp had come into position above them, keeping the Aerialbots at bay. Starscream grabbed Silverbolt's helm and yanked his head back, other hand going for the fuel lines at the front of his throat. Silverbolt managed to grab his wrist and use the leverage to pull Starscream half off his back, pinning him against the roof with one shoulder. Remembering the last time they'd fought like this, he tried to channel his lightning - only to find it unresponsive. He couldn't get a charge out of his battery. One of Starscream's earlier null ray shots had neatly disabled it. He tried to get his gun out of subspace, but Starscream had taken advantage of his hesitation to push up from the roof and break the hold Silverbolt had on his wrist. His hand lashed out and clawed at Silverbolt's optics, fine cutting blade attachments springing out of his fingers to slice into the glass and delicate circuitry beneath. Pain exploded through Silverbolt's processor like he'd never known before, and for the first time panic took hold of him. He fended off a second swipe from Starscream, sparks and dark lines marring his vision, managed to bend one leg and kick viciously backwards, connecting with something - but Starscream still had that grip on his helm, was still half behind his shoulder, blocked from easy reach by Silverbolt's own wings…

He would have recognised the roar of Skyfire's engines anywhere. Even as Starscream lunged for his face again, a flash of relief went through him. Seconds later, the Seeker's weight was gone as Skyfire tore him bodily off Silverbolt and flung him halfway across the roof.

Silverbolt rolled over and managed to raise himself onto his hands and knees. Skyfire's arms were around him immediately, helping him to his feet and holding him up when he sagged. Starscream was staggering to his feet some distance away, null rays up and optics burning murderously bright - but overhead, Silverbolt's brothers had driven Thundercracker and Skywarp off and now Air Raid was diving vengefully towards Starscream.

Starscream snarled, hatred written all over his dark face - then he jumped backwards away from Air Raid's incoming fire, twisted, and transformed as he went over the edge of the roof. He blazed skyward, chased by Air Raid, Skydive, and Slingshot, and shot off in the same direction as his wingmates.

Silverbolt was reeling. His optics were damaged and agonising, his systems were clamouring failure warnings for the circuits left inoperable by the null rays, and his wings and back were torn and dented from Starscream's clawing hands. Skyfire held him tightly with one arm, gun in his other hand and field sharp with both worry and wariness as he scanned the sky.

:Are there… any others?: Silverbolt managed to get out on the comms. His channel was crackly and weak, another victim of the null rays. :Incoming? Ground force?:

:Not that I can see,: said Skyfire.

:Just those three, and they're already running, and oh Silverbolt are you all right?: Fireflight had stayed circling while the others pursued the Seekers. :What the frag was he doing, that was crazy, why would they do that…?:

:Air Raid, Skydive, Slingshot,: Silverbolt went on, blocking out Fireflight's frantic questions for the moment. :try and bring them down, but don't pursue past the Altihex/Polyhex border, got that? If they get away, make sure they don't come back.:

He sensed resistance in their acknowledgements, but he knew they would obey him. That assurance allowed him to sag against Skyfire. He offlined his optics completely, which dulled the pain somewhat but left him horribly vulnerable. It was only Skyfire's arm around him, and Fireflight's watchful circling overhead, that made him willing to take the risk.

"What the frag was he doing?" he whispered, repeating Fireflight's question more to himself than to Skyfire. The surge of reaction in Skyfire's field was an answer of sorts, though - and Silverbolt felt a sick understanding creep into his pain and confusion.

- end chapter 11 -