Sunday, September 30th, 2012 09:11 pm
Title: A Wing and a Prayer - Chapter 15 (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...


A Wing and a Prayer
Chapter 15


There was something very poignant about returning to Autobot City as the sun set. Maybe it reminded Silverbolt of the way he'd felt coming back from Cybertron all those months ago, or maybe it was just that the orange and red of the fading light caught the colours in the golden metal of the city so that it seemed to contain a reflection of the sunset in its gleaming walls. He was always glad when his return from a patrol or a mission coincided with the end of the Earth's day. Seeing the city come into view ahead of him, glowing golden and welcoming, filled his spark with joy.

He especially treasured the rare occasions when he was alone, as he was today. It gave him time to think.

He and his brothers were returning to Cybertron at the start of the next shift. Optimus had decided that it was time to approach Vector Sigma and request the spark that would dwell in Autobot City's central complex. The Aerialbots and the Protectobots were to accompany him. Optimus hoped that their own experience of retrieval from Vector Sigma's data banks would enable them to provide some comfort to a spark that would initially find itself confined to a travelling case, and might panic.

Omega Supreme would be flying them to Cybertron. There were too many of them for Skyfire to carry - and besides, Skyfire had his own mission to embark on.

Silverbolt's thoughts lingered on Skyfire. Mostly they were happy thoughts - memories of interfacing and of quiet moments of shared companionship, of Skyfire surrounded by Silverbolt's brothers and laughing - but beneath them he was conscious of a shadow of uneasiness. He knew that his brushes with Starscream had affected Skyfire deeply, and that Skyfire blamed himself for putting Silverbolt in danger - but Skyfire wouldn't talk about it. He wouldn't even let Silverbolt read it in his field and respond without words. There was a part of him that he held back completely from Silverbolt - from everyone - and Silverbolt wasn't sure if it had always been like that, or if he had only begun to lock himself away since they had become lovers. The idea hurt - that their relationship might be the very thing that was causing him to shut himself off. Silverbolt certainly didn't remember feeling that sinking sensation of shutters coming down back when their friendship had been just beginning. But maybe he simply hadn't been able to see as deeply into Skyfire's spark then.

He wished they could spark share. He wanted to understand what was making Skyfire withdraw even as they should be growing closer. But on that, Skyfire was adamant, and Silverbolt had never yet found the right moment to ask him why. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he had never yet found the courage.

As he moved into his approach vector - they had a real runway now, and it was a huge relief on his landing gear - Silverbolt knew that he had every reason to be happier than he had ever been. His brothers were happy - were respected and relied upon by the other Autobots - his friends were all around him - he spent every night in the arms of the person he loved. There should be no shadow on his joy.

And yet, somewhere deep in his spark, he was afraid.

*

As Earth fell away behind him, Skyfire could just detect Omega Supreme's signature heading in the other direction, powering towards the edge of the solar system and then onto Cybertron. He felt a yearning sense of loneliness, knowing that Silverbolt was aboard and would be far away for some time to come - but at the same time, there was an insidious relief at the silence and space around him. The void was very black, and the stars very bright. As he flew towards Mars, Skyfire tried to relax into the starlight and unfathomable cold. They were old friends, and he'd thought they would help soothe his troubled thoughts - but alone in the dark, his processor only seemed to dwell even more on his anxieties.

He concentrated on his mission parameters instead. He and Cosmos were to search the solar system for evidence of Decepticon activity. Prowl had come to the conclusion that the Decepticons' second space bridge must be off-planet. Skyfire would have preferred to fly out from Earth to explore the gas giants and their moons - partly out of scientific interest, and partly because it was a much longer mission - but Cosmos didn't have the shielding to enter Venus's atmosphere or spend much time as close into the sun as Mercury, so the inner planets had fallen to Skyfire.

He began with Mars. The dusty planet and its dwarf moons seemed as barren as ever. He orbited in shifting patterns for long enough to be sure there was no activity on the surface, and relatively sure that there was none below. Mars had been an unlikely prospect anyway. He, Cosmos and Omega Supreme had always monitored the solar system on their flights, and Skyfire was almost certain the Decepticons could not have activated a space bridge on Mars without alerting them. Ever since Silverbolt's capture, which had demonstrated so clearly that the Decepticons had another way on and off the planet, Skyfire had been working with Perceptor to scan the night sky for the tiniest telltale of energy. They had spotted nothing. If it was there, it was well hidden.

Skyfire thought that Saturn or Jupiter were likely candidates. They had moons which orbited close enough in for installations on their tidally-locked faces to be constantly shielded by their mother planet. Another reason he would have preferred to take the outer planets - he didn't expect to find anything closer to the sun, and it was disheartening to be flying a mission with no expectation of results. Venus's stormy atmosphere would provide a certain amount of cover, but the planet was too close to Earth for it to be feasible that the Decepticons could have escaped detection that long. Even the human astronomers would have noticed the change in spectrometry if there had been a space bridge operating beneath its eternal cloud cover. And Mercury was a poor prospect for the same reason that Cosmos was unable to survey it - the shielding required to survive its blistering heat was hardly standard issue.

Skyfire used Mars's gravity to give him a boost back in towards the sun. Even at his top speed, it would take hours to reach Venus, and almost a day to catch up with Mercury. He was used to such long stretches of solitude - or he had been, once. Now he found it hard to settle his thoughts. He wanted to sink into the theorising and data analysis he had always found so much more intuitive when he was alone in the black, but he couldn't seem to do it.

By the time he'd scanned Venus, established that it was empty of Decepticons, and begun heading for Mercury, Skyfire was in a thoroughly bad mood. He'd thought this voyage would be a chance to get away from the distractions of his busy life and a much-needed opportunity to reflect. Instead, he seemed to have brought the distractions along in his processor, and his reflections were fragmented as though disturbed by ripples from below the surface.

At least Mercury was interesting in its own right. The small, fast-moving planet had a dense core of iron and rotated so slowly that it barely completed three 'days' within two of its years. The temperature fluctuations between the dark and light sides were dramatic. Skyfire had hoped to study it one day, as its impact craters bore a certain similarity to those of Earth's moon, and might lead to some interesting conclusions about the formation of the solar system. He wondered if it would be inappropriate to linger once he'd checked the planet for Decepticon activity. It wasn't as though he was needed in Autobot City just now, except as another pair of hands - and Silverbolt wouldn't be back for a couple of days - and maybe if he could settle into a real investigation for a while, he might shake the sense of imbalance that was haunting him…

Skyfire came in on the night side of the planet, using it as a shield against the intense solar heat . He deployed his full range of sensors, but if he was honest, he paid more attention to the scientific readouts than to the indicators that would give away Decepticon activity. Was that water ice at the pole? Amazing - even on this hot little world, there were places that remained cool enough for the ice never to melt. He caught traces of atmosphere, but Mercury was too small to retain it for long. The solar wind was blowing the thin gas layer away even as it formed. It was utterly inhospitable to organic life, and nearly so for his own kind.

More on a whim than anything, Skyfire stayed low over the dark surface, heading for the terminator - the threshold between the light and dark sides of the planet - where a burning dawn was barely moving across the scarred landscape. The sun seemed to come up ahead of him as he raced against the rotation of the planet, springing away from the horizon to hang incredibly large and hot in the black, airless sky. He could feel the raw heat hitting his shields like a gale. It was glorious.

And all at once, his sensors were screaming alarms. The detectors he'd activated were reading Cybertronian technology and massive energy outputs from just over the horizon. They had been shielded both by the planet itself and by the sun's brilliance. Skyfire dropped even lower, skimming just above the tallest crater walls as he slowed down to take better stock of the situation. It was lucky he'd come in low - he would have been a sitting target if he'd been in a high orbit. As it was, he would be hard to spot against the radiant heat of Mercury's surface.

Lucky! He shouldn't have left it to luck. He'd been so sure there would be nothing on Mercury, he hadn't approached with due caution. He could have been shot down before he'd even known the Decepticons were there.

Well, he knew they were there now. He could turn and head back to the night side of the planet, hoping he could get away without being detected, but it would mean leaving without any more information. Prowl needed more than that if he was to make use of it in the Autobots' strategy. Skyfire triangulated the readings he was getting and estimated that the source was on the equator. He immediately calculated an escape vector; he would need to get in close to gather as much information as possible, and then he would need to get out of there fast. Satisfied that he could pull it off, he increased his speed again and watched the horizon.

The first sign he had was the glitter and flash of reflective surfaces spread out over Mercury's pitted terrain. At their centre was an installation the size of a small city, and over it sparkled a forcefield stronger than anything Skyfire had ever seen. It was operating on so many wavelengths he could barely count them, not only preventing physical access but filtering out the heat and radiation from the sun that would have made it impossible for anyone without Skyfire's shields to survive. At its heart was the distinctive energy signature of a space bridge - one that was open and, to all appearances, permanently so. The amount of energy required for the undertaking was staggering. But as he drew closer, Skyfire realised that energy was cheap, here. Someone on the Decepticons' side had reached the same conclusion about solar power as had been behind Skyfire's focusing crystals for Autobot City. They had even taken it in a similar direction, using faceted crystalline structures to focus and amplify the energy. Where Skyfire had aimed for the most compact design that would produce reasonable output, the Decepticons had created sprawling networks of crystal surfaces, spreading out from the central hub like the petals of a flower. Had it been Starscream? He and Skyfire had often come to the same answers via different questions - but Skyfire thought there was an efficiency to the design that was unlike Starscream's methods.

Speaking of answers, he had enough for Prowl now. This permanently open space bridge was the leak they had been unable to plug. Megatron could move his troops back and forth without the telltale bursts of radiation from the initial opening of the bridge, and then Astrotrain and the other space-capable flyers could transport them to Earth, slipping in from the direction of the sun, where the Autobots had never thought to look. And this huge power station, soaking up the sun for months of Earth time, explained how the Decepticons had made such inroads into re-energising Cybertron. There was no way the Autobots could compete with such a resource; Skyfire realised with a sinking feeling that if the Decepticons were permitted to continue, they would be able to revive enough of their troops to take the planet completely.

They would have to be stopped… yet he felt an unexpected ambivalence towards the idea of shutting down this magnificent creation. Unlike so many of the Decepticons' attempts to gather energy over the millennia, it was doing no harm - simply sucking up the sunlight that would otherwise have fallen wastefully on Mercury's surface. Such a source of power had been what they had been searching for before the war. Then, as now, Cybertron had been on a wandering path through the galaxy, far from any usable stars - and space bridge technology had been in its infancy. There had been no feasible way to set something like this up or to bring the power it generated to Cybertron. Now, a way had been found - and though it had been found by the Autobots' sworn enemies, could Skyfire in good conscience be part of destroying it?

The decision was not his to make, he realised, with a mixture of resentment and relief. That was what it meant to be a soldier in Optimus Prime's army - he had a duty to bring information back to the officers, and it would be upon them to choose their next course of action.

It was time to leave. He pulled up sharply, looping away from Mercury's low gravity and arrowing straight towards the sun. The same radiant output that had shielded this installation for so long would help hide his signature--

-- just as it had hidden the signatures of Astrotrain and Octane as they dived out of the sun. Skyfire rolled and fled back towards the surface of the planet, dodging their laser fire. He put on as much speed as he dared so close in, heading for the night side. If he could gain even a small lead on them, he would be able to gain some height and increase his chances of breaking away into open space.

Crossfire from his right almost brought him down. Blast Off had joined the fray, flying at Skyfire's level while the two Triplechangers kept him pinned down. But they were the only ones who could fly in this lack of atmosphere, the only ones whose shields could survive the sun's heat - if Skyfire could evade them, get out of their reach, no other Decepticons would be able to--

A crushing blow to his fuselage sent him spinning of control. That hadn't been laser fire! Desperately trying to right himself, he caught a glimpse of Menasor looming above him, and remembered too late that the Stunticons had individual forcefields that could, perhaps, with enough spare power, be reprogrammed to protect them from the solar radiation…

He had no hope of staying aloft - it was just a choice between crashing in alt-mode or transforming as he came down and hoping for a better landing. And then even that choice was taken from him as a barrage of laser fire clipped his wings, disabled his right thruster, and sent him spiralling into unconsciousness even as Mercury's boiling surface rose up to meet him.

*

"Okay, yeah, creepy doesn't even cover it." Hot Spot shot a nervous look behind them as if he expected the walls to be closing in. "How much further is it?"

"Not sure." Silverbolt was maintaining a calm exterior, but he was finding it incredibly difficult to follow Optimus Prime and Wheeljack into the depths of Cybertron. It was all too much like the nightmarish journey beneath Vos - especially given their destination. "I think we're going to a different control chamber from the one we were sparked in."

He checked behind them to make sure none of his team had wandered off or been left behind. They were huddled right on his heels and even Fireflight seemed disinclined to explore their surroundings. Hot Spot's team were up ahead, just behind Wheeljack. They were similarly silent and kept casting uneasy glances at the walls and ceiling. This was almost their first visit to Cybertron since their creation, and Silverbolt guessed that the contrast with Earth was jarring them even more than it had the Aerialbots.

"Someone really oughta clean the place up." Hot Spot's way of reassuring his team was to keep up a stream of light-hearted comments. It was working on Silverbolt to a certain extent, although he was walking close enough to pick up the stress in his friend's field. "Put in some better lights, maybe a poster or two, y'know, safety in the workplace type stuff, in the event of a fire run screaming in the opposite direction--"

"Man, we'd be screwed if there was a fire in here," Streetwise muttered. "There're no side passages, we'd be cut off--"

"Whoa, leave the imaginary firefighting to me, okay?" Hot Spot cut easily through the hint of panic in his gestalt brother's voice. "There's nothing to burn, anyway."

"At least we can't get lost if there are no turnings," Silverbolt added. He glanced over his shoulder again, managing a smile for his brothers. "That is not a challenge, Fireflight."

He won an indignant noise from Fireflight and muted laughter from the others, but they quickly subsided back into uneasy silence. Silverbolt almost wished Slingshot or Blades would start something just to give them all something else to think about.

"Is it all like this?" asked First Aid.

"Yeah, mostly," replied Air Raid before Silverbolt could speak. "Iacon's better, you didn't see much of it but it's all lit up properly and it's much more lived in."

Though it was becoming less so. The Decepticon force on Cybertron was growing by the month and Silverbolt knew that total evacuation of Iacon to Autobot City was no longer a contingency plan, but a strong probability for the future.

"There's tunnels under Iacon too," Fireflight piped up. "They're easy to get lost in."

"Jeez, why don't we just let the Decepticons have the place?" Blades had clearly meant the comment to go unheard, but the echoes in the corridor carried it further than he might have liked.

There was a pause before Hot Spot jumped in to scold him - a pause in which Silverbolt thought they were all, secretly, thinking that he had a point.

Up ahead, Optimus Prime came to a halt, conferred briefly with Wheeljack, and then turned back to wait for them.

"The chamber is through this door," he said. His optics travelled over the ten younger Autobots thronging the corridor. Silverbolt didn't think he'd heard what Blades said, but he could read their discomfort clearly enough. "We shall be as quick as possible, and return to Earth as soon as we can."

"We're ready," said Silverbolt.

Beyond the door lay a larger space than he had expected. The ceiling was high enough to disappear into darkness, while the walls curved around in a wide circular sweep. The room was lit by a familiar golden glow. Silverbolt shivered, reminded not only of his reawakening, but of what they had found below Vos. He forced himself to follow Optimus over to the central pedestal without hesitating. His brothers trailed after him, murmuring to each other as they took in enormous, glowing golden globe that was one of Vector Sigma's terminals.

Wheeljack had begun tapping out commands on the console embedded in the pedestal, but Optimus Prime stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

"Can you hear me, old friend?" he asked of the air.

There came a musical whispering from the globe. It didn't sound like speech to Silverbolt, but Optimus nodded as though he understood.

"I don't suppose you remember Alpha Trion," he said to the Aerialbots. "He was instrumental in your creation, but by the time you awakened, he had merged with Vector Sigma. It was the only way to regain control after Megatron took the key. His consciousness still dwells within the computer, but he is much altered. Still, he will help us."

"We need an old spark," Optimus went on, now speaking to the golden sphere. "One with much experience and wisdom, patience and subtlety. He will be much as the old city wardens who merged with the control systems of their territory, except that his body will form part of the very city he will watch over. It will be a long time yet before we can construct a body shell capable of independent movement, so he must be one who will not find it confining to remain anchored to Autobot City for years to come. I know it is hard to make such specific choices regarding a spark, but I trust in your wisdom."

Vector Sigma flared bright and began to emit a low, throbbing hum. It was soothing and exhilarating at the same time. Wheeljack set the shell that would house the new spark down on the pedestal and quickly connected it to a slim conduit that Silverbolt recognised as a smaller version of the ones he had seen below Vos. The shell was little more than a box, studded with diagnostic readouts and power ports, basic optical and audio sensors, and a vocaliser. The new spark would be able to see, hear, and speak, but could not move or transform. Usually a spark from Vector Sigma would be transferred straight into a fully functional body, where it would quickly learn how to move and act. Finding itself so contained might cause it to panic.

With a final, brilliant pulse of light, Vector Sigma fell silent. Wheeljack checked the diagnostics and his head fins flashed cheerfully.

"He's in there! Can you hear me, little guy?"

"He's not going to be little for long," Hot Spot muttered.

"I hear you." The voice was startlingly deep. "I… have limited functionality."

"That's temporary. We'll get you down to Earth and settled before you know it."

"Earth? I cannot… where are my peripherals?"

Lights began to flash on the shell in Wheeljack's hands. The new spark must be reaching out, trying to find the systems it knew it should have under its control. The deep voice had sounded implacable, but the rapidity of the flashing lights spoke of desperation. Silverbolt had been prepared to comfort a new, young spark, but this one had sounded so much older than him - he wasn't sure if it would even listen if he tried to reassure it.

Something in the back of his processor - no, someone - nudged him gently but insistently, and Silverbolt realised suddenly that it hadn't been him and his team - or Hot Spot's - that Optimus had really wanted here. He quickly assessed the size of the room - it would just be high enough, if they were careful - then turned to his brothers.

"Transform and combine, guys."

It was always strange when they joined. The five of them could feel each other, closer than they could ever be in separate forms, but their individuality blurred as their gestalt gave rise to a new personality. Superion was always in the back of their minds, quiescent and patient, but when they joined, he came into focus and they hovered in almost-awareness behind him.

Superion knew why he had been summoned. He noted Defensor's components coming together as their leader followed Silverbolt's example. He knelt carefully by the small figure of the scientist, and plucked the tiny carrying case from his hands. He could feel the alarm, confusion, and fear in the field of the spark within. There was also the faintest sense of recognition. Superion nodded thoughtfully. It was as he'd guessed; this spark was kin to himself and Defensor. They were the slow, thoughtful minds that had held command of cities and factories, seldom moving, always patient. He and Defensor had taken on new roles in this life, slumbering until needed by the young sparks who formed their bodies, but this one would fulfil a function very similar to that of his past.

There was much they needed to talk about.

*

"Ah, good, you're awake."

Skyfire wasn't sure he was awake. His optics were giving him blurry feedback and his processor was moving in long, slow loops reminiscent of dreaming. He recognised the voice, but couldn't immediately place it - it wasn't Starscream, at least.

Why had he thought it might be? Skyfire struggled to orient himself, searching for memory. Slowly, the pieces came together - Mercury, the Decepticon base, the attack… He rebooted his optics and while he waited for them to come online, paid attention to his other sensors. He tried his comms, but they were dead.

The person who had spoken was nearby, working on a console from the sound of it. Skyfire was lying on a sloping surface of some kind. He tried to move his arm, but it didn't respond. He got the same results with the other three limbs. His diagnostics told him that the primary optic fibres had been neatly cut. That meant someone who was familiar with his systems - which again, pointed to Starscream. Skyfire's optical systems had finished their recalibration. He carefully brought his vision back online.

The room he was in was large and clearly served as a lab of some sort, though one with specialisations outside Skyfire's area. He could see banks of machinery and a number of high energy catalysts, along with the door and part of a dome ceiling. He tried to turn his head, but couldn't move. For a horrible moment he thought the fibres had been cut there too, but he quickly realised that it had simply been secured in place by a number of clamps. He had been thoroughly immobilised.

"I say 'good'," the speaker went on, and now Skyfire could place the voice - the dispassionate intonation could only be Shockwave, "though from your perspective I suppose it is less so. But it will make things easier for me."

"How so?" Skyfire was surprised that his vocaliser had not also been disabled - but then, Shockwave liked to talk almost as much as Starscream. The difference was that Shockwave was almost impossible to goad. "I would have thought you would prefer me unconscious."

Even as he spoke, he was trying out combinations of parameters that might permit him to bypass the cut fibres in at least one arm. If he could get his weapon out of subspace, he might be able to disable Shockwave and perform some emergency repairs to the rest of his systems. He knew Shockwave was aware of his skills in that area; he was genuinely wondering why he had been permitted to come out of stasis.

"It will make the transfer cleaner and prevent excessive data loss. You won't maintain consciousness for long enough to present me with any problems."

Shockwave appeared from Skyfire's right and moved in uncomfortably close to examine his head. He reached up and pulled something loose with a snap, letting it hang down discarded. Skyfire recognised it as a direct neural probe. A bolt of queasiness shot through him. How many more of those were in his processor right now? He couldn't tell. His sensor network was reporting nothing, and he couldn't access their data shunts through software intervention.

"Transfer?"

"Of your memory banks. I have no doubt that you know enough of your leaders' plans to supply me with intelligence that Megatron will very much appreciate."

"You can't… that's impossible!" Skyfire shifted his attention from trying to reactivate his arm to desperately seeking out the access points of the neural probes. If he could identify and isolate them… but they must have been wired into his processor seamlessly. His systems were unable to see them. "All you'll do if you try is wipe my processor--"

He stopped because finishing the sentence was too horrible. Memory dumps as a form of interrogation had been investigated throughout the war by both sides, though the Autobots had tried it only once, in desperate circumstances, and never again after the results… which were devastating. A Cybertronian processor was intentionally designed to be impossible to hack into. There were firewalls hard-coded into the components and fail-safes within fail-safes. It was not possible to take possession of another's memories through brute force. No matter how sophisticated the attack, the only result would be the utter annihilation of the personality of the victim, leaving their spark as unanchored in self as if it had been returned to Vector Sigma. If Shockwave was serious, Skyfire was about to die - even if his spark was retrieved later by the Autobots, there would be nothing of him left.

How much time did he have? His chronometer told him he'd been here hours - no, a full Earth day and night! - before he'd come back to consciousness. Shockwave had had ample time to set this up. He could throw the switch at any second. But he had to know it was fruitless - that he would gain nothing from it. Was it a bluff? Did he hope to use the threat for more traditional interrogation?

"You'll wipe my processor," Skyfire said. He didn't try to sound calm. If Shockwave wanted to frighten him, he'd succeeded, and Skyfire knew his only chance lay in letting him know it. "What do you want to know? I'll… I'll tell you."

There were some pieces of information he could safely give that would be immediately verifiable and make it seem as though he was co-operating. They would cause minor inconvenience to the Autobots, but would not be disastrous. If he could just buy time - just find a way to get some control of his own body back…

"That won't be necessary." Shockwave seemed to be satisfied with the positioning of the probes. He moved over to another console, this time within Skyfire's field of vision. "It will be far quicker and easier to download everything and sift through it at my leisure."

"You can't. Brute force attacks on a central processing unit have never been successful."

"Who said anything about brute force?" Shockwave sounded smug now. Sure of himself. Skyfire began to panic. He could see enough of the screen to recognise the final sequence of a verification algorithm. "You're right, of course, that we've never cracked an Autobot processor in the course of the war. But you are something of a special case. I don't believe you've upgraded your control chips since you left Cybertron on that ill-fated voyage of yours, hmm?"

No. No, no… Skyfire started slamming up every firewall he could think of, knowing it was useless. The probes were already within his outer defences, and the control chips - he couldn't isolate them with software, he'd need to get at them physically - as Shockwave already had…

"As it happens, some of the older chip configurations contain what one might term a back door… it's a flaw that has long been eliminated from most of your fellows, and even where it may still exist, the records of who, exactly, is susceptible have long been lost. Except that a colleague of mine seems to have a fascinatingly detailed knowledge of your systems, and considerably less ability to encrypt his files than I have to penetrate them…"

So it had, in a way, been Starscream who had been responsible for the deadly accuracy of Shockwave's work on his systems. It gave Skyfire an obscure, painful comfort to know that the knowledge had not been given willingly.

But comfort wasn't enough to save him. Shockwave was studying his console intently and Skyfire could see the diagnostics giving their final summary. It was going to happen, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He needed more time - he needed just one working arm, or one way into the data shunts in his processor - Shockwave was seconds away from entering the command that would activate the transfer - Primus, would he feel it? Or would he just - shut off?

In the midst of terror like he had never known, he thought of Silverbolt. Imagined how he would react when he was told-- and that was almost worse than the horror of his own impending death--

"There," said Shockwave, beginning to tap out a sequence of symbols. "This will only take a klik--"

The next few seconds happened so fast that Skyfire was barely able to untangle the sequence of events through his panic. Shockwave was in the middle of typing the command that would activate the shunts, but at the same time, the far door shot open. Starscream stormed through, seething with a mix of fury and spite, already speaking as the door opened - "So I hear you have a guest, Shockwave, and one who I specifically ordered to be handed over to me immediately if captured--"

He skidded to a halt as he took in the lab. Skyfire saw his optics go to the neural probes, the apparatus around him, and to Shockwave's console, understanding everything in a split second. Skyfire had no time even to open his mouth and call out - beg, he wasn't above begging now - as Shockwave reached for the activation key.

Starscream's first shot took Shockwave in the centre of his back. He staggered forward, hand still dangerously close to the console. Two more shots sent him tumbling to the ground, a garbled protest coming from a vocaliser numbed by the null rays. He must have hit something on the way down, because the console was reeling off code that tumbled down the screen, and the banks of machinery around Skyfire were lighting up one after another. Starscream whirled, scanning the room with the pinpoint precision of a hawk. He found what he was looking for and fired both null rays continuously for three seconds. Suddenly the lab was full of the whine of overloading machinery. The console screen was flashing errors. Skyfire had barely a nanoklik to realise that the overload would dump into him via the neural probes - a nanoklik to see Starscream make the same connection - a nanoklik to register Starscream lunging for the probe connections, seizing them two-handed and pulling - before the power surge hit and he was shoved unceremoniously into blackness.

*

It wasn't until they were well on their way back to Earth that Silverbolt got up the nerve to ask the question that had been in his processor since Optimus had requested the new spark from Vector Sigma.

His memory of what Superion had done was hazy - he was aware that much of it had been field-sharing, not speech - but by the time they had separated into their component selves again, the new spark had been calm and communicative, albeit somewhat terse. His name was Metroplex, he told them, and he was ready to return with them to Earth now.

All the way back through Cybertron's passages, through the brief stop in Iacon so Optimus could update Ultra Magnus, and even as they embarked into Omega Supreme's cargo hold, Silverbolt was thinking about what Optimus had said earlier. An old spark, one with much experience and wisdom… I know it is hard to make such specific choices…

His brothers were in the middle of an argument with Streetwise and Groove about some incomprehensible aspect of human pop culture. Hot Spot started to come over to talk to him, but Silverbolt waved him off. He approached Optimus hesitantly; their leader was staring out of one of Omega Supreme's viewports and Silverbolt wasn't sure if he would welcome interruption. But Optimus turned to him enquiringly, warmth in his optics. Silverbolt came to stand beside him, keeping his voice low.

"May I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"What did… what did you ask Vector Sigma for - when you created us?"

He had been wondering, ever since that moment when Metroplex had been sparked. Had Optimus asked for the best aerial fighters? The best team? For loyalty to the Autobot cause and a unwavering determination to defeat the Decepticons? Had Silverbolt and his brothers been even remotely what he was expecting?

Optimus seemed to know exactly what he was thinking. He put out a hand to rest on Silverbolt's shoulder, his characteristic gesture of reassurance, and Silverbolt felt the strong, deep pulse of his field as he spoke.

"I asked that you should think for yourselves," he said, "and that you should grow in knowledge and wisdom, valuing life and freedom wherever you should find it. And above all, that you should be worthy of Alpha Trion, who sacrificed himself that the Autobots might have access to Vector Sigma and the ability to call forth the sparks that slumber within its memory banks. I have had the greatest faith in the choices of Vector Sigma since then - since it gave me exactly what I was looking for."

Silverbolt couldn't speak. They stood in silence, looking out of the viewport, as chaotic emotions shook his spark to the core, Optimus's hand on his shoulder transmitting the pride, trust, and - there was no hiding it - love he felt for the Aerialbots. Silverbolt understood all at once that no matter what he'd thought in the beginning, no matter how frustrated he'd been with his brothers or how he'd despaired of his own leadership abilities, there had never been a moment when Optimus had doubted them.

He wanted to say something, but his vocaliser wouldn't obey him. Optimus didn't seem to take it amiss. No doubt he could read enough of Silverbolt's field to know what he would have said, anyway.

Silverbolt's comm blipped, a long-range channel with a familiar code. Why was Skyfire contacting him? Silverbolt opened the channel at once, but instead of Skyfire's voice, he was assaulted by a crackling squawk as if Skyfire had tried to transmit a databurst via audio by mistake. Wincing, he made to cut the contact - but the noise was gone almost as soon as it had started, and the channel closed of its own accord.

Frowning, Silverbolt tried to re-establish the link, calling Skyfire's code. There was no response.

"What is it?" Optimus had felt his sudden shift in mood.

"I'm not sure… I think--"

Omega Supreme's booming voice filled the cabin, drowning him out.

"Distress signal: detected." The sound of the rocket's engines changed, putting on speed. "Source: Skyfire."

"Where is he?" Silverbolt broke away from Optimus, hurrying to the control panels at the front of the cabin. Omega Supreme had already called up a map of Earth's solar system. Silverbolt bit his lip worriedly as he saw how far out they still were. "What's happened?"

"Unknown. Signal is automatic, no verbal contact. Approximate location: 60 million kilometers from Earth."

"In which direction?"

"Between the Sun and Earth."

"An automatic signal?" Wheeljack had appeared at Silverbolt's side. He was still carrying Metroplex's travelling case; occasionally he gave it an absent-minded pat. "That's not good. That's his last resort if he ever ends up drifting without power. It's not shielded at all - the Decepticons can pick it up too."

Silverbolt went cold. "How fast can you--"

"Omega, put me through to Cosmos." Optimus gently pushed Silverbolt aside and seated himself at the control panel. A few brisk movements of his hands brought up 3D tactical displays and opened a comm channel to Autobot City. "Prowl? Have Blaster activate the long range scanners in the comm tower."

Cosmos's accented voice came through the speakers before Prowl could reply.

"Optimus, I'm picking up a distress signal from Skyfire--"

"I know. How fast can you reach him?"

"I'm way out past Jupiter and on the wrong side of the solar system. Hours, maybe closer to a day."

"We'll get there first, then. Hold your position and scan for any sign of Decepticons responding to the signal."

"Yes, sir!"

"Blaster is on his way to the tower," Prowl said from the screen. He had obviously heard Cosmos's report. "We're looking for Skyfire?"

"And for anyone else who may be looking for him." Optimus tapped his fingers on the console thoughtfully. "If he has run into trouble in the inner solar system…"

"… then we have almost certainly answered the question as to the location of the Decepticons' base," Prowl finished, completing Optimus's thought in the slightly unsettling way the two of them had. "I will let Red Alert know to expect retaliation from that direction. We will attempt to narrow down the source of the signal and transmit it to you as soon as we can."

"Good. Omega, can you attempt to make contact with Skyfire?"

"Already attempted. No response."

Silverbolt had been trying his own comms over and over again. He'd hoped it was only their limited range that was preventing him making a connection, but if Omega Supreme couldn't reach Skyfire either… Fireflight and Skydive had come up behind him. Their fields overlapped with his in shared worry.

"Then take us in at full power." Optimus glanced over his shoulder - all the 'bots on board had clustered around them by now. "Everybody find somewhere to strap yourselves down. This is likely to be a rough ride."

*

The blackness that greeted him when he regained consciousness was at least familiar. Skyfire slowly took in the whirling stars and the cold of space pressing against his shields. Then he snapped to full alertness as memory swept back in. He was in his alt-mode, but his engines weren't firing. He was drifting. His scanners told him he was a long way from Mercury - well past Venus, in fact - and that his trajectory would take him to Earth - eventually. There was no sign of Starscream. His emergency beacon had been activated. And his comms were pinging with urgent regularity from several codes he recognised: Omega Supreme, Autobot City, Cosmos, Silverbolt…

He opened Silverbolt's channel.

:Skyfire?: Silverbolt sounded faint with distance; his comms weren't designed to work across space. Skyfire thought his signal was being boosted by Omega Supreme, which meant that the Aerialbots were still aboard. :Can you hear me? Are you okay?:

:I… I think so.: Skyfire tried to start his engines. He found his systems sluggish. The power surge had done enough damage to make him wince at his diagnostics. The cut fibre optics had been reconnected but it felt like a hasty patch job. At least he could control his thrusters; he powered up and began to move at a more reasonable rate through the vacuum. :I'm damaged - I found the Decepticons on Mercury--:

:We guessed. Can you give us your position? Omega has been homing in on your beacon - we're just passing Mars - we can pick you up as soon as--:

:No! Don't come near me!:

:What? Skyfire--:

Skyfire was scanning his data logs even as he gingerly fired his thrusters up higher. As he'd feared, he had no record of what had occurred after the power surge from Shockwave's machine had knocked him out. There weren't even any system logs of his transformation or the activation of his beacon. Which meant that not only had Starscream achieved both manually, but that he'd wiped the logs afterwards.

And that meant Skyfire had no idea what else Starscream might have done while he was unconscious.

:I'm heading for the moon,: he told Silverbolt, adjusting his course as he spoke. His processor ached terribly. He didn't know if it was from the power surge, from Shockwave's abominable neural probes, or from sheer worry. :I may have been compromised. My systems have been tampered with. I'm proceeding under full quarantine procedures until I'm sure I don't pose any threat to you.:

By you he'd thought he'd meant the Autobots, but as the word came out he knew in his spark he meant Silverbolt alone. Why had Starscream let him go? Not just let him go, but actively helped him escape? Some last vestige of their friendship, shocked into action by his realisation of what Shockwave meant to do? Perhaps. He thought Starscream was still just about capable of such sentiment. But would it have been enough to stop him taking advantage of Skyfire's powerlessness to sabotage the Autobots, or to lay yet another trap for Silverbolt? Skyfire couldn't take the chance.

There was a pause. When Silverbolt spoke again, Skyfire could hear the cold fury in his voice.

:What did they do to you?:

:Shockwave tried to extract my memory banks.: Saying it aloud brought a wave of remembered terror and helplessness. :Starscream stopped him.:

:Starscream?: Silverbolt's confusion was an echo of Skyfire's own. :How did you escape?:

:I didn't. That's the problem. Please, change course and head for Earth. Once I've done preliminary scans, I'll need Ratchet's help…:

:I've already told Optimus.: Silverbolt was in professional mode now, cool and efficient. He understood the danger, and if he was upset or worried by Skyfire's decision, he wasn't showing it. Skyfire loved him more than he could put words around just at that moment. :We'll land at Autobot City within two hours and Omega Supreme will pick up Ratchet. What's your ETA?:

:Six hours. Maybe seven. I'm not sure I dare go above half power.:

:Omega will wait at the lunar pole for your signal. Optimus says that Ratchet has acknowledged the quarantine and will proceed accordingly. He's going to signal you as soon as he's on board Omega.: A pause, and then emotion slipped back into Silverbolt's voice. :I'll be waiting when you get back to Autobot City.:

:I know.:

Skyfire tried to let himself take reassurance from the thought - tried to ease his fear and worry with the memory of Silverbolt in his arms - but all he could think of was that blank space in his processor. And of Shockwave waiting by that console, about to throw the switch - if Starscream hadn't come in, hadn't reacted for once as if he possessed a conscience…

:Stay on the line?: he said. :I don't want to be alone right now.:

:I'm here.: Silverbolt couldn't reach out to him, but Skyfire almost felt the ghostly touch of his field anyway, conveyed by the depth of feeling in his voice. :I'm not going anywhere.:

- end chapter 15 -

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