Some hours later, Octane had enough of the kinks beaten out of him that he could at least walk. He still wasn't sure if he could transform, and the derelict's chambers were a bit small for testing. The bulbous tentacle came back three times while Astrotrain and Blitzwing worked him over. Each time they carefully stayed out of its way while it grabbed another ovoid. Octane had taken to calling them eggs.
"What's the plan, 'Train?" Blitzwing asked.
"You two gather up the remaining eggs and lash them together. We're bringing them with. Then we do some recon," Astrotrain ordered, stepping over broken shells to the other archway.
There was a giant black armored tentacle blocking the first gap in the hull they came to. The three of them hurriedly backtracked and tried an alternate archway, finding a bubble with a gap in the overhead about two chambers down. It was big enough for all three of them to look out.
"Primus!" Blitzwing stared at the hundred gigantic tentacles coiled around and through the mass of derelict. The great pyropod had wound itself around the ship like a lover, massive tentacles writhing and coiling about struts and bubbles. "What the slag is it doing here?"
"Tending its eggs," Astrotrain said. "This derelict is some kind of hatching ground."
"And you brought the eggs with," said Blitzwing. "That's just great."
An hissing sound crackled in their audials. "Something's broadcasting!" Octane said.
"The eggs!" Blitzwing exclaimed.
"Blitzwing! Put them inside the hull, where they are shielded!" snapped Astrotrain.
"'Train, how are we getting out of here with that thing babysitting us?" asked Octane
Astrotrain did not answer.
"'Train, I'd like to know that, too," said Blitzwing.
"The only way we're going to get out of here is if we use our processors for something besides catching cosmic rays," said Astrotrain.
"We're all dead mechs," said Octane.
"Can you outrun it, 'Train?" asked Blitzwing.
"Maybe. I'd need a full tank of fuel, though," he said, looking at Octane. "And a head start."
"Sure, I'll just jump in front of Big Mamma there and transform. She won't pay a bit of attention, right?" Octane said sarcastically.
"Not if she's distracted," said Blitzwing softly. "I'll get her attention, you launch and refuel 'Train, then the two of you pull max Gs out of here."
"But what about you--Oh no, you're not!" said Octane. "You are not staying behind!"
"I'm the expendable one, Octane," answered Blitzwing. "You don't need me to get home. Better one of us stays behind than we all die." He drifted just outside and slowly, painfully transformed into his MiG form. "Damn, you weren't kidding about this being a jury-rig! As soon as you're ready, 'Train, let me know."
"Blitzwing! No! There's got to be some other way," Octane said.
"Octane, you're a Decepticon!" Blitzwing growled. "Don't get all Autobot-sentimental on me!" He turned his nose to face the immense central body of the giant pyropod. "Just... remember me. That'll be enough."
"No." Astrotrain held up one hand. "That won't work. As soon as you get its attention, it will EMP-blast us all. However--"
"Well, scrap! I didn't think of that!" Blitzwing said grumpily.
"--however, you've just shown that we can transform without attracting its attention. Blitzwing, transform and get back down here--I need you to get the eggs. Octane, cable to me after I transform, come out, and transform," ordered Astrotrain. He stepped out into space and began to transform.
Blitzwing obeyed, again transforming slowly and ducked back into the alien hull. "Be careful when you transform," he warned. "It's not properly controlled, you've got to pay attention to what you're doing. Slagging jury-rig."
"I--see," Astrotrain gasped queerly as he transformed even more slowly than Blitzwing. At last he returned to shuttle form. "I'm not sure I could do that again--and I can't access train mode right now. Octane! Your cable?"
Octane fastened one of his towing cables to the shuttle. "Here goes something, I hope!" He began to transform as slowly as the others, then stopped halfway to plane mode.
"We don't have all day, Octane!" Astrotrain snapped.
"I'm stuck. Something is still out of alignment," Octane said, his voice shaky.
"Oh, for the love of--let me see!" said Blitzwing. He flew out of the alien hull in robot mode, leaving the eggs behind.
"Check my tail assembly," Octane said.
"Yeah, I see it. Your elevators are still a bit askew." Blitzwing drew back his fist and hammered on the offending part; Octane screeched and it popped into place. Octane completed his transformation into a jet tanker.
"Octane, check your fuel pumps and start transferring fuel. Blitzwing, you had the right idea--we need to distract that thing--but the wrong implementation. We're going to distract it with the one thing it's not going to throw EMP at--and then we're going to run like all the demons of Cybertron are after us. Got the plan?"
"Yeah, except for 'the one thing'," answered Blitzwing.
"It's the eggs, isn't it?" said Octane. "Fuel pumps check out; mating with your starboard port now." The jet tanker extended a long refueling probe that docked with a fuel port on Astrotrain's starboard side, aft.
"Of course--those superconducting storage loops can't take any kind of electro-magnetic pulse, they'd go up like bombs. If they are part of the pyropod's reproductive cycle, its instincts should prevent it from attacking them, and perhaps spur it to rescue them," Astrotrain said.
"Lot of ifs," observed Blitzwing.
"If it doesn't work, you can make your heroic last stand and we'll pray the EMP blast is directional," replied Astrotrain. "Blitzwing, get out one of your missiles and disarm the warhead. We'll use the rocket engine to launch our little egg crate."
"Hey! Good one. Workin' on it, 'Train." Blitzwing extracted two concussion missiles from his launcher and started tinkering with them.
Octane sighed. "'Train, I'm fueling you all the way up. Something tells me you're going to need all the delta-v you can get."
"Affirmative. Blitzwing, when you're done lashing the missiles to our egg crate, and Octane is done fueling me, help him transform back and get inside. Be ready to launch the package from my aft bay door," instructed Astrotrain.
"I just know this isn't going to go according to plan," Blitzwing said.
"You're under the delusion this is actually a plan?" asked Octane. "This is pure desperation hoping for luck--which is about normal for me," he said, laughing. "I'm done, 'Train."
"Affirmative. Transform and load up! And luck will be with us, Octane. There is no other possibility!" The sky god of Titan laughed.
It was a desperate plan that depended on luck--and things failed to go according to plan.
"Look out! There's tip-jets vectoring in on our position!"
"Blitzwing! I'm stuck! My tail is jammed again!"
"Octane! Hang on!" yelled Astrotrain.
"Slagging wreck!" Blitzwing tried to kick Octane's aft into line while hanging onto the bay door with one hand.
Octane got whipped to the end of the cable tethering him to Astrotrain, stuck in mid-transform, as Astrotrain ignited his engines and started moving. Blitzwing grabbed the egg crate just as it nearly tumbled out into space; a loop of cable caught him around one leg and yanked him out the bay door.
"Launch the fragging package!" Astrotrain yelled as he accelerated.
"Yiiii!" Octane flailed as hot rocket exhaust blew past his face.
Blitzwing flung the egg crate in the opposite direction and triggered the first missile attached to it--the raft of eggs veered off into space trailing flame.
"OW! Damn it, 'Train!" Blitzwing cursed as the cable dragged him through Astrotrain's exhaust.
"I'm still stuck!" Octane screamed as the cable pulled taut, dragging him along behind Astrotrain.
"Hang on, ya panicky flying wreck!" Blitzwing bent down and grabbed the cable in both hands and pulled towards him in each direction, putting some slack in the cable. He carefully extracted his leg, then pulled himself down the cable hand-over-hand.
The great pyropod's tentacles all writhed and heaved, extracting themselves swiftly from the alien derelict. Two rocket-tipped tentacles zoomed up toward Astrotrain, pulled by their fusion rockets. Each one was easily three times the big purple and gray Decepticon's diameter.
Octane made the mistake of looking 'down' and saw the tip-jets zooming towards him as he flailed at the end of the cable. "'Train! We're gonna diiiiiiie!"
"Quit flailing about!" Blitzwing snapped as he clung to the cable just above where it was attached to Octane. "I can't reach your tail when you do that!"
Octane held still, though his half-transformed body was shaking. Blitzwing climbed down Octane to his tail assembly and kicked it solidly while holding onto Octane with both hands.
"OWWWWW! Do you have to kick so slagging hard--oh, that's got it!" Octane folded himself back into robot mode--incidentally dislodging Blitzwing.
Blitzwing gave an inarticulate shout and grabbed Octane's left ankle. A massive fusion rocket swung by, the heat exhaust from it searing Blitzwing's feet. Blitzwing roared in pain and clambered up Octane's body again, then charged hand-over-hand up the cable.
"Good," said Astrotrain. "It missed. And it hasn't EMP-blasted us yet. Blitzwing, reel Octane in. His jets are non-functional."
Blitzwing dragged himself in the aft bay door, then turned and braced himself securely. "What, are his arms broken? Otherwise he can reel himself in."
"Well, the right one mostly is," said Octane over the radio.
"I got to hear the full story of how you got beat to scrap like that," Blitzwing said as he started hauling Octane in.
Tentacles also closed in on the flying egg mass--then the timer on the second missile engine embedded in the mass went off, and it ignited, sending the raft of eggs off in a crazy spiral.
By the time everyone got aboard Astrotrain and he closed the aft bay door, they were well away from the derelict and the giant pyropod and accelerating fast. The great pyropod itself had unwound from the derelict and was jetting slowly in the direction of the raft of eggs.
# # #
Far out beyond the edge of the system, Kup's shuttle started beeping at him again.
"Now what--that Decepticon distress signal is back!" He pondered his navigational display for a few minutes. "What is going on down there? It's headed out of the system now..."
Kup ran a few projections on the navigation computer. "Hmm, if it keeps going in a straight line, I should eventually intercept it... here."
He sighed as he punched the required commands into the ship's computer. "Curiosity is going to kill me yet."
# # #
The great pyropod finally recovered the erratic raft of 'eggs', and tucked them away in an internal chamber reserved for them. Octane had been close--the white, circuit-filled ovoids were part of the pyropod's reproductive system, though more analogous to spermatophores than eggs. Once that vital matter had been taken care of, the ancient pyropod surveyed nearby space.
The prey was escaping.
The great pyropod shifted its tentacles back and locked them into long-distance travel mode; each tentacle became a rigid pylon connecting the rockets to the central body. All the tip-rockets ignited, accelerating the pyropod in pursuit of the fleeing Decepticons. The maw opened; titanic magnetic field generators reconfigured themselves, and an intangible magnetic ramscoop reached out for hundreds of kilometers, sucking down the hot, ionized hydrogen of the nebula to fuel the ever-accelerating pyropod. As long as the nebular gas fields held out, the pyropod had no limits to its range and only the speed of light limit to its velocity.
The prey would not escape.
# # #
Octane all but trembled with relief, safely back inside Astrotrain's hull, outbound away--far away!--from that ancient derelict and its monstrous inhabitant. "Where to now, 'Train? Besides 'away from there'."
"That's a bit of a puzzle I'm working on," Astrotrain said through his console speakers.
"Uh?" grunted Blitzwing as he checked his sword for nicks.
"My long-range sensors were all fried, so I'm navigating by Mark I optics and dead reckoning. If I can't see it, I don't know what's ahead of us or behind us. And our fuel situation is still a bit dicey. Octane lost a lot of fuel from his injuries," Astrotrain said. "However, I'm working something out."
"Uh-huh. How dicey?" asked Blitzwing.
"We don't have enough fuel to make Earth or Cybertron. We'll have to stop somewhere and re-fuel," replied Astrotrain.
"I can handle 'stop somewhere and refuel'," said Octane. "There are worse alternatives."
"Yeah, like 'drain your fellow passengers of fuel', or even 'throw your fellow passengers overboard'," said Blitzwing, grinning nastily.
"If I dumped both of you leadbrains overboard, I still wouldn't have enough fuel to make Cybertron," Astrotrain said testily. "Not if I use the warp drive."
"'Train, I don't think Megatron's going to like waiting until we get there at sublight speeds," Octane said.
"That's why we're going to refuel somewhere. I'm just trying to figure out where. You said your fuel processor is down, any chance of field-repairing it?" Astrotrain asked.
Octane shook his head. "Not without replacement parts; too many major pieces smashed. Unless your idea of 'field repairs' includes a machine shop or a Constructicon."
Astrotrain rumbled through his console. "Then we'll have to find some place more civilized than a comet or ice asteroid."
"Hey, you could try wiring that alien power plant Blitzwing grabbed into your warp drive!" Octane said.
There was a long silence.
"I suppose that is a slightly better alternative than draining both your fuel tanks and throwing you overboard," Astrotrain said.
Blitzwing laughed. "Something tells me Astrotrain doesn't want to stick weird alien power sources into his guts! Can't imagine why not!"
"Because my name's not Megatron," Astrotrain said sardonically.
Blitzwing laughed heartily. "I'd try it, but I don't have a warp drive."
"I've got a better idea. My sensors aren't fried; why don't I ride outside and feed you data, 'Train?" Octane said.
"Best idea you've had since you wired us back together with space squid eggs. Do it!" Astrotrain said, undogging his forward hatch.
Octane climbed up and sat in the hatch, looking out at the nebula--and running his radar and passive sensors.
"Ugh! It's still a bunch of electronic soup out here--wait, there's something up ahead! I'm getting a strong signature on my radar!" said Octane.
"Give me bearings, damn it!" Astrotrain said.
"Transmitting navigation data." After a few minutes, Octane said, "I'm getting something on visual, and there's something awfully damn familiar about that radar profile. Can you see it?"
"I see it--it's an Autobot shuttle!" Astrotrain said as he homed in on the other spacecraft. "Blitzwing, get your aft out there! We've got a ride to catch!"
# # #
Kup also cursed the electronic soup of the nebula, which had suddenly gotten much worse. He could barely pick out the Decepticon distress signal; there was one big mess of a solar storm going on in that direction.
It faded out for several minutes; Kup thought it was gone, then it suddenly reappeared, much stronger, and much, much closer. The solar magnetic storm, or whatever was causing all the static, worsened.
Something hit the upper hull. Kup drew his pistol and moved quickly to the far aft of the shuttle and very quietly undogged the stern hatch between the engines.
"Bet he's expecting a reception committee from the main airlock," Kup said to himself. "Not an ambush from behind. One wounded Decepticon, by surprise--piece of cake!" Kup climbed out the stern hatch and pulled himself carefully over the engine cowling to the upper hull--
And found himself looking down the guns of not one, but three large, powerful-looking Decepticons. In the middle, broad-winged, purple and gray, stood Astrotrain. To the right, the burly purple and white form of Blitzwing, and to the left, the large white, black and purple winged--and rather battered--triple-changer known as Octane.
"Kup," the gray-green Autobot thought to himself, "you are in serious trouble."
"Consider this a hijacking," said Astrotrain in his deep, resonant voice.
"Consider this an Autobot funeral," Blitzwing said, aiming his blaster at Kup's mid-section as he energized his sword.
"Surrender, Autobot--we just want the ship," said Octane.
"Octane!" Blitzwing glared at the tanker triple-changer. "What'd you say that for?"
"Well, we do!" Octane looked indignant.
"I'll talk to you later, Octane!" Blitzwing growled. "Well, what's it gonna be, Autobot?"
"With these odds, I don't see where I have a whole lot of choice," Kup said, handing his pistol to Octane.
"No, you don't," said Astrotrain. "Inside!"
"And don't try anything funny," Octane added.
"Please do try something," said Blitzwing. "I think it would be funny to see how many engine parts I can carve out per blow."
"I may be old, but I'm not stupid," Kup replied as he climbed back in the hatch. He briefly toyed with the idea of slamming the hatch in their faces, but dismissed it as a really dumb idea.
Astrotrain strode confidently ahead; Blitzwing and Octane grabbed Kup and half-dragged him to the bridge with them. Blitzwing checked various compartments as they passed.
"No one else on this barge," he reported to Astrotrain.
"I could have told you that!" Kup said.
"Would we have believed you?" answered Astrotrain. He seated himself in one of the bridge chairs and started pulling up ship status and navigation and other data.
Octane grabbed another console and checked the ship's sensors. Blitzwing contented himself with shoving Kup into another chair and watching their prisoner. He thumbed the power switch on his sword on and off from time to time.
"What in the Pit?" Astrotrain turned to glare at the Autobot. "I'm locked out of the engine controls!"
Kup folded his arms. "Well, yes, I don't want just any random stranger flying off with my ship, do I?"
Astrotrain smiled unpleasantly. "The code? We'll just hack it ourselves if you don't give it to me."
"Seems to me you're in a bit of a bind," Kup said. "You're stranded, aren't you?"
The three Decepticons glared at him in silence. Blitzwing slowly slid his sword out.
"Me, I'm one old worn-out Autobot and you're three of the meanest, toughest Cons to ever follow Megatron. Don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what you're going to do me." Kup looked straight at Astrotrain. "So why in the Pit should I help you slaggers?"
Astrotrain stood up and looked down at Kup, immense strength implied in every line and panel. "Octane, starting hacking the passcode. Blitzwing, start hacking pieces off the old-timer here until he gives us the passcode."
"Hey, that's the best order you've given me all day!" Blitzwing said with a nasty grin.
"'TRAIN!" The sound of panic edged Octane's shout. "We don't have that long! It's found us!"
He flicked a control at his console; the main viewscreen changed to show the view aft. Amidst the shimmering nebula, a tornado-like storm of highly-energized, magnetically-tortured gas swirled. At the heart of the storm, the brilliant white of fusion jets flickered.
"I'm counting over a hundred jets--and 'Train? It's using a magnetic ram!" Octane trembled on the edge of stark raving panic. "It's already moving faster than this shuttle can! We can't possibly outrun it!"
"A magnetic ram? That thing is a Bussard ramjet??" Astrotrain's resonant voice quavered very slightly. "Blitzwing! Belay that last order!"
"Aw, I never get to have any fun. What the slag is a Bussard ramjet?" asked Blitzwing. The evident fear in his two companions unnerved him.
"Fusion rocket fueled by interstellar hydrogen scooped up by a magnetic ram," Kup said absently. What in space had Astrotrain of all Cons running scared? "What is it?" he asked.
"A pyropod," Astrotrain rumbled. "Get us out of here and you live, Autobot!"
"The kraken of space? Whoa, haven't heard of one of those in... a very long time," said Kup, getting up and peering over Octane's wings at the sensor console.
"This one is big enough to eat a Zhdant battlecruiser for a snack... and she knows Octane broke up her eggs for spare parts," Astrotrain rumbled.
"He did what?" Kup dove for the engine controls, typed in the passcode and hit the throttle. "Got to get this tub up to speed or she won't warp."
"I don't get to kill the Bot?" Blitzwing sounded slightly disappointed.
"No. If the Autobot gets us out of here, he lives; if he betrays us, the pyropod kills us all," Astrotrain's voice had lost that slight quaver, and now betrayed a grim amusement.
"You can't win, Blitzwing," Octane said. "Either way, you're disappointed. Uh, Autobot...."
"Kup. They call me Kup."
"Kup, can you hurry it up? I don't know the range on Big Mamma's EMP blast, but she's closer than I like," said Octane, his voice betraying his nervousness. He hunched over the sensor console, like he was afraid it would jump off and run away if he didn't watch it closely.
"EMP? That's a new one on me--but so's the ramjet," Kup said. "Might explain why no one has ever lived to tell about the really big pyropods." Reality warped outside the ship as Kup engaged the warp drive--an instant before the first EMP blast thundered through the space where the shuttle had been.
"Something tells me there's a story behind this," Kup added. "And it's a long haul to Monacus...."
"Is there ever!" Octane leaned back in the console chair. "Let me tell you about three Decepticon heroes and the nesting ground of the legendary pyropods...."
# # #
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