"I'm picking up the energy source," Astrotrain said through his bridge console. "It's less than 50 klicks away. Keep your optics active."
"Like I can see anything in this crud?" Octane grumbled.
"Oh, quit your whining!" Blitzwing said as he filed the serrated cutting edges on his sword. It had taken more of a beating chopping up pyropod tentacles than it was really made for.
"Easy for you to say, you're can actually fight them!" said Octane. "'Train can at least shoot them, you can hack them up and shoot them, but they're immune to my weapon! What am I going to do, wave at them?"
"Oh, for the love of Primus!" Blitzwing sheathed his sword and made his way to one of the cargo containers lashed down in Astrotrain's hold. After unlatching the top, he fumbled around inside. "Here, catch!"
Octane just barely caught the pistol that tumbled end over end in his direction. He looked it over. "Standard photon pistol, Autobot make. I suppose it will do. Something you found in the shuttle?"
"Yep," answered Blitzwing.
"Just don't take any practice shots in here," rumbled Astrotrain from the speakers.
"What's that?" Octane pointed out Astrotrain's forward viewport at a dark shape dimly silhouetted against the glow of the nebula.
"Our target," answered Astrotrain.
Blitzwing elbowed Octane out of the way. "It's a ship of some kind."
Details resolved themselves as Astrotrain closed in on the target. A congeries of highly reflective globes clinging together like so many giant soap bubbles drifted in space. Here and there, black splotches marred the mirrored surface.
"It has not responded to my approach--it may be a derelict," Astrotrain commented. A light glowed on one of his instrument panels, indicating that he'd energized and armed his ionic blasters.
"The energy source is somewhere aboard," Octane said, looking at Astrotrain's displays.
"So we'll go aboard," Blitzwing replied.
"Those black areas appear to be holes in the hull," Astrotrain announced. "It is indeed a derelict. I'll moor to the hole nearest the energy source and you two go investigate. Octane, top me off before you go."
Octane hesitated at that. "Why am I translating that into 'Give me as much fuel as you can so I don't lose it if you get snuffed in there'? Is there something you're not telling us, 'Train?"
"That's exactly what I'm saying, and it's an alien derelict of unknown technology--if you think it's going to be safe, I want to know who pulled your main processor!" snarled Astrotrain.
Blitzwing cocked his head slightly. "He's right, there's something you're not telling us. Spill it, 'Train!"
The space shuttle sighed. "Two things, and both are... vague. One, that ship still has a hull--pyropods eat metal hulls for materials, so that's odd; two..." Astrotrain trailed off.
"What's number two, 'Train?" Blitzwing pressed him.
"Pyropods don't come solo."
There was a long silence. "Come inside with us," Blitzwing said. "It's a long walk home if a pyropod eats you while we're poking around in the bilge of this thing."
Another long silence followed. "Very well. I'll accompany you. Everyone out!"
# # #
The inside of the ship proved to be as barren as the outside, if a bit more complex and confusing. Though none of them could detect the energy fields of a gravity generator, nonetheless there was weak gravity pulling them against the interior walls of the mirrored spheres, particularly in the direction that appeared to be a floor of sorts. (It was leveled off, rather being hemispherical). Said interior walls were just as reflective as the outside.
Where sphere joined sphere, there was simply a round opening without any noticeable joint or weld between the two. There were shelves and niches in the walls, a leveled floor--though at different levels between different spheres, and the occasional unidentifiable structure protruding from the walls or the floor.
Astrotrain cursed in his deep, very resonant voice a few minutes after entering the first sphere. "Smelt and dross! My sensors don't work in here!"
"Glitching from the radiation?" Octane asked. Blitzwing looked around warily.
"No--they're still online, they just lost the energy source, like it'd been shutdown or something. Funny, I was getting it fine from outside," Astrotrain said.
"Maybe you can't pick it up in here?" Octane said. "I always seem to have that problem with my radio."
"Let me step outside and check," Astrotrain said as he flew out the hole again. He came back a few minutes later. "Yes... the hull walls cut off my sensors. Did you hear me tell you that while I was out there?"
"Tell us what?" Blitzwing said.
"Apparently, nothing. Hull walls cut off radio, too." Astrotrain aimed his ionic blaster at the wall and fired.
Light splashed off the mirrored surfaced and bounced around the room; Blitzwing leaned out of the way and Octane dove through one of the adjacent archways.
"...and are immune to particle weapons," Astrotrain concluded. He strode back to the gaping hole in the hull and peered intently at it. "Octane, come take a look a this--Octane?" He looked around; Octane wasn't in the sphere with them.
"He went thataway," Blitzwing said, jerking a thumb toward the archway.
"--come look at this," Octane's voice suddenly cut in as he stepped in front of the archway. "I think I've found it!"
"It what?" Blitzwing said in a surly tone.
"The energy source!" Octane beckoned them on, and disappeared into the next sphere again.
Astrotrain and Blitzwing looked at each other then strode forward as one. At the archway, Blitzwing had to duck back or get his head shoved through sideways by Astrotrain's right wing. "Scrap! Some midgets declare you a god once, and you gotta lead the parade ever since..." Blitzwing muttered.
The two of them stopped just inside the entrance and stared. Large, gently glowing white capsules lined the walls of the chamber. In the center of the spherical chamber, a vaguely cylindrical device projected from the floor. A fluted cylinder of the same shining metal topped by an elliptical, dead black ovoid, enclosed in spirals of refractory crystal radiated the strange energy signature that had drawn them all the way from Cybertron. Other, more mundane energy fields twisted around the glowing capsules lining the chamber.
Blitzwing eyed the black ovoid suspiciously. "How come we could detect that from outside, when the walls block all our sensors?"
Astrotrain strode over to examine it. "I think it's radiating through the hull somehow. It must be this derelict's power source--perhaps this is the drive room."
"So these are part of the drive?" Octane asked as he poked at one of the glowing capsules. "I can feel a pretty good magnetic field around this--yiiiii!"
Octane's hand was grabbed by the magnetic field and slammed hard against the capsule, cracking it--there was a flash of electricity and Octane staggered back, only to lurch into four more glowing capsules and smash them. When the explosion of sparks subsided, Octane was flat on his back, twitching convulsively. Black scorch marks marred his white hands.
Blitzwing drew his weapon and looked around wildly; Astrotrain simply turned his head from side to side, scanning the immediate neighborhood before stepping over to Octane.
"Are you still functional?" Astrotrain asked.
"G-gggg-ahhh! Y-yes," Octane replied; the twitching subsided. "Just a bit of a power surge. Those things got a hell of a charge in them!"
Astrotrain stepped over Octane and studied the broken capsules closely. The broken shells were a dull, lightless white; inside coiled layer upon layer of circuitry, twisted like some organically-grown thing. Astrotrain lifted off the floor on his boot-thrusters and very gingerly touched one of the broken shells. Nothing happened; he picked up a broken shard and examined it.
"Metallo-ceramic." He settled back to the floor and studied the intact ones. "With that strong a magnetic field... it would pack quite a wallop if some fool managed to short it through himself."
Octane raised himself on his elbows and scowled. "Let me guess--superconducting storage loop?"
"Looks like," answered Astrotrain. "Keeps the circuitry inside warm and happy."
"Circuitry of what?" Blitzwing growled. Octane finally got to his feet, staggering a bit.
Astrotrain shrugged, great wings sliding up and back down. "That is another mystery. Octane, sit down until you get your gyros back online. We do not need a repeat performance!" He turned toward Blitzwing. "Cover my back, I'm going to check this sphere from outside."
Octane plopped back down on the floor as Astrotrain and Blitzwing strode back out of the mysterious device-filled chamber. "Ow. How come I never find the mysterious alien devices that grant godlike powers--just the ones that fry my circuits?" he muttered to himself as he waited for his damage control routines to bring everything back online.
Blitzwing stuck his head back inside and said, "Look at it this way, Octane--you could find the ones that grant you godlike powers, then have them drive you insane with said powers, and melt your processors from the massive overload."
"Have you been taking optimism lessons from Dead End?"
"I was this cynical a million years before he was ever dreamed of. Remember one of the fundamental laws of the universe: There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. Godlike powers included."
# # #
Outside, Astrotrain shifted to shuttle mode and flew to the adjacent sphere; Blitzwing tagged along in MiG form.
"Yes, the energy source transmits through the hull. Perhaps it is the drive of the derelict, or a transmitter of some kind," said Astrotrain after analyzing his sensors.
"So we how do we take it home to Megatron? Do we need that whole pod, or can we just pry loose the black egg thing?" Blitzwing asked.
"That... may be difficult." Astrotrain sounded unusually hesitant. "I wanted Octane to take a look at the hull cross-sections, just for an independent evaluation..."
"But?" Blitzwing sounded impatient.
"But what?" Astrotrain sounded slightly aggrieved.
"I'm hearing a 'but' in your voice, 'Train. What is it?" Blitzwing said
"I believe the hull is plated and/or laced with degenerate matter--thus the density, persistent gravity fields, reflectivity, and imperviousness to energy attacks. It will be equally resistant to physical attacks. I could be wrong, though. It could be made of hadron-based atoms, instead."
"Degenerate matter? That's the stuff from neutron stars, right? You can't even get at the stuff, let alone make something with it!" Blitzwing said.
Astrotrain radioed back, "We cannot. Someone else evidently can, and yet another party could damage the stuff. They used some kind of weapon that prematurely aged the metal, causing it to become brittle from proton decay and fall apart."
"Uh-huh. I'll take your word for it."
"If this is degenerate matter--" Astrotrain shifted to robot mode and fingered the hull, "It's too massive to take even a single pod. We'll have to remove the--" Astrotrain suddenly swung to his left and shifted to shuttle mode. "Blitzwing! I'm picking up fusion drives! Another pyropod!"
Blitzwing shifted to MiG mode and turned up his passive sensors to maximum gain. The crackle and hum of the energized nebula, and the roar of the blue star drowned out anything his short-ranged sensors could have detected.
"There." Astrotrain yawed a few degrees to port.
Over a hundred fusion jets spread in a ring, tied together by darkness. Each jet was over twice as powerful as one of the now-destroyed shuttle's rockets. In the heart of that darkness hid an immense bulk, within which another fusion fire burned. The ring of fusion fire yawned wider and wider as the thing jetted straight towards them.
"This is a big one," said Astrotrain.
"Thanks for telling me that, 'Train."
"Back to the derelict! Its hull should be impervious to this thing--it'll have to fish us out with its tentacles," said Astrotrain.
Both of them swung about and rocketed for the nearest hole in the bubble-mass of the derelict.
"Blitzwing! I'm sensing some kind of magnetic field build--URKK!"
The massive electro-magnetic pulse surged through the two Decepticons, overloading every circuit in their bodies. Only their heavily-shielded inner cores--containing memory banks, main processors, critical damage control systems, and their lasercores survived undamaged. Every circuit breaker tripped, hurling them both into stasis lock. Two silent, motionless forms hurtled in ballistic silence toward the dead derelict.
# # #
Octane had just regained his feet when the hull of the derelict shuddered, ringing like an enormous gong.
"What the slag?" Octane took a tight grip on his photon pistol and looked around. "That didn't sound good."
Twisting slightly to keep his broad wings from banging on the inter-pod archways, Octane worked his way back to the entrance hole. He peered out the gash in the hull, seeing only the haze of the nebula and the glare of stars embedded in it.
"Um, guys?" he radioed. Then his traffic radar picked up two hurtling forms just before they slammed into the side of the hull bubble and rebounded.
"Blitzwing! Astrotrain!" Octane switched to jet tanker mode and flew out, hooking each of the motionless bodies with a cable. Looking back over his wing, he saw It.
An immense ring of fusion jets surrounding a huge central body seemed to reach for the derelict, engulfing it in its tentacles. The giant pyropod was about the size of the alien derelict, but seemed much larger with its jets spread wide.
Even as he watched, and started towing the deactivated forms of Astrotrain and Blitzwing toward the nearest gap in the hull, the dark central mass of the pyropod seemed to open out; the blue-white glare of fusion fire shone between the great flaps as they opened like flower petals. Octane had a very bad feeling that he didn't want to wait around until the thing had fully opened.
Octane firewalled his throttle, burning energon like it was his own funeral pyre. He rolled and transformed as he plunged through the gaping slash in the nearest pod, leaving his wingtip lights on the edges of the hull, flipping around to decelerate--
The pyropod's magnetic pulse hit just as he dove into the gap, frying the circuitry in his boot jets, though the rest of his body was shielded by the alien hull. The aerospike rockets sputtered and died just as Octane rotated around to decelerate.
"Oh, slaaaaag!" Octane slammed into the opposite bulkhead at full speed--then the inactive bodies of Astrotrain and Blitzwing smashed into him--
# # #
At the fringes of the Orion Nebula, an old shuttle piloted by an even older Autobot lifted from the asteroid mining community on Foraker III.
Kup looked back at the supply depot briefly. "That place was even duller than a-- come to think of it, even I can't think of anything dull enough to compare it to!" He looked at the navigation display. "Well, Kup, where to now? No place civilized or even decently barbaric within a dozen light years of the nebula..."
"What's this?" Kup checked his console--his communications computer informed him that it had detected two automatic emergency beacons. "What and where--oh-ho! This is interesting--one Autobot beacon, and one Decepticon beacon. In a proto-star system--no, wait, updated information--a newly-formed B star system."
Kup pondered the astronomical data and the beacons. "That system is too hostile for anything to survive there--must be a trick of some kind. Or the distress beacons are the only thing left of the poor bastards that wound up in that system. Still, it wouldn't hurt to head over that way and see what's what, as long as I stay well outside the system."
Even as he got a fix on the beacons and set up his course in the navigation computer, the Autobot distress beacon ceased broadcasting. Only the one lone Decepticon signal continued broadcasting--then it, too, suddenly cut off.
# # #
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