This is actually a re-working of the original "Flying Into the Snare", since the Tournament it was part of was canceled. Much of the chapter will remain intact, but Station S-6-S is no longer a part of the story, and I'm going back to the plot I had in mind the first time I drew Astyanax in my sketchbook.
The sensation of the walls closing in.
Let others call it what they wished; he knew only a breathless panic clawing at his heart and gizzard in the small, dark space. The long, thin contours of his assault rifle dug into his side despite the flexible armor. He would have to ask the Forges to do something about that when he returned home. If he returned home. Hecubasson Astyanax shut his eyes. He could only see the door anyway, and perhaps a bit of wall if he turned his helmet to the side. It was small, too small! Beneath the deep blue cloak that had hung so proudly at the outset of the voyage, - sadly wrinkled and half hanging into a maintenance drawer now - beneath the spine guard and the pale robes, every tawny feather stood up in consternation, and the twin Khartesesun snakes bonded to his spinal column shivered. They felt his fear, though the simple beings could not think for themselves.
Like all males of his species, Astyanax stood a good 8 feet tall, making his hiding place more cramped than it needed to be. His large black eyes, designed to catch even the faintest glimmers of light, darted back and forth as he took stock of his position. The symbiotic snakes wriggled slightly in discomfort, getting a little too close to his spine. All Malfeants wore long strip of lightweight metal over their spinal columns to keep anything untoward from happening to the large veins on the back of their necks, but that didn't keep a shudder from running over Astyanax. He sent a very stern mental command to the segmented creatures, and they hurriedly shimmied back into place. If he managed to get out of the compartment, he would need them to be in the right place. Khartesesun snakes fed off the excess carbon dioxide in the host's blood. In return, they folded out into a pair of wings, powerful, but not well armored. Some Malfeants had as many as six! Astyanax, however, was a Sergeant Assassin, and known for stealth. Anything more than two would have been trouble.
Speaking of trouble…
Astyanax swiveled his head to the left, tilting his facial disk downwards to listen, the cream colored down one of the only visible parts of his head behind the nose and mouthguard. Sound bounced through the once-shining surfaces of the ship, echoing back to him. There was a predator close by. Six yards away, in the servant's corridors, he heard a heartbeat, slow and deliberate. It was a Verdolstrix: the towering, cannibalistic cousins of the Malfeant race, and the reason he was inches away from developing claustrophobia. The Verdolstrix shifted position ever so slightly, and the feathered tufts on either side of its head twitched. It drew a wicked, spiked club from a holster on its hip, painted green to stand out against the matte red of the Verdolstrix's body armor. It could hear as well as a Malfeant: it knew Astyanax was there somewhere. The cruel, hooked beak still dripped with the blood and offal of the first mate, yet it hungered.
A third heartbeat joined the Malfeant and the Verdolstrix: one of the last two hoplites aboard. No no no! Astyanax hissed, What are you doing? He knew she couldn't hear him. By the sound of her heartbeat, she was trying to sneak up on the hunter. The hoplite's pulse raced, then ceased, and the hidden sniper did not need to hear the snap of hollow bones and the wet tearing of flesh to know what had happened. He had no idea where the other four snipers of his command were: if they were still alive, they were outside the range of his hearing. The rest of the crew and the passengers were already dead. For a moment, Astyanax allowed his fury to overcome his terror as he thought of them.
Young Malfeants, eager for a secret scouting mission to a planet known to be heavily protected. They'd been carrying an Ambassador Priestess with them in case they were discovered, and Epherma in turn had brought little Gaius with her. She was so innocent, sweet Epherma, full of the joy only a first-time hatcher knows and so terribly eager to see a real, live human for the first time. And Gaius, poor chick. He had only been a few weeks old when the ship was attacked. Astyanax bowed his head and could not stop the mournful trill that left his small mouth. The Ambassador Priestess and her hatchling had been among the first to die. The sniper shut his eyes tightly and tried to forget the screams. At least it had been quick. The Verdolstrices had taken their time with the captain. That wasn't something he was going to be able to forget soon. Out in the hallways of the ship, slick with Malfeant blood, the Verdolstrix's heart quickened again. The hunt was back on.
Once more, horror struck him like a bird within his chest, beating against his ribs in a futile bid for escape. There was barely enough room for him alone in the maintenance drone's closet. With all his weapons, his movement was severely restricted. If the Verdolstrices found him here, there would be no chance to defend himself. He would be devoured, likely while still alive, and the hunters would move on to their next target. In the brief, illogical flashes of his terror-stricken mind, Astyanax found himself wondering whether Verdolstrices were hatched evil, or if they were simply raised that way. If he ever escaped the slaughter pen he had found himself in, Astyanax resolved to steal a Verdolstrix egg and find out. It couldn't be any more dangerous or ill advised than infiltrating Earth, right?
A faint orange light pulsed at his wrist and he craned his neck to look down. The interlocking folds of the white gauntlet twinkled dully in the light of the message screen. Didn't I...delete that? he mused silently, tracing metallic talons over the ominous warning. In the swooping, circular characters that formed the primary language spoken on Antigone 14. "To Hecubasson Astyanax; Sergeant Assassin of her excellency Hera-dame Hippolyta; care of Brood-Father Pauldron; the Singing Bridge; the attic." It was such a strangely specific address that it had greatly bothered Father Pauldron when it was first received. Astyanax tried to block out the sound of approaching footsteps and cast his mind back to the day he had received the unusual summons.
48 Earth-hours earlier…
The pristine white of the chamber was harsh against the sensitive black eyes of the Malfeants. With every member of the Inner Echelon garbed in robes and armor of similar hue, offset only by the occasional streak of red or pale blue, it was very difficult to see the faces of the council. This was, of course, intentional. The ruling Hera-dame, Hippolyta, delighted in confounding her advisors and held to an old fashioned belief that faces could lie but the ears could not be deceived. With a rustle of cloth and wings - for the Hera-dame often kept her eight wings extended for days on end, exhausting her Khartesesun snakes for the sake of looking imposing - Hippolyta addressed the varying Malfeants of the council. "Ladies and gentlemen, the time has come!" Like a great, pale moon, her wide facial disk turned to and fro, proudly surveying her subjects.
In the center of the circular room, far below the perches of the Inner Echelon and their attendants, rings of soft pink light began to form, projecting upward into a holographic map of the universe. The grand old woman stood, her chiton brushing the floor of her perch and with a jingle of bracelets, motioned to the floating map.
"There have been no invasions for over fifty years. I believe that we now stand upon the brink of the greatest opportunity of the century: the infiltration of Earth and the appropriation of its resources!" The reactions were varied and instantaneous.
"Mighty Hera-dame be honored, but is not the invasion of the human planet foredoomed to failure?" The rings of darker feathers on the male Malfeant's facial disk rippled in discomfort under his barbute helm-traditional amongst Malfeant men and crested in blue to symbolize his political role.
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained, Minister Plu'um," the man's larger, more aggressive mate proclaimed. That the females were two to three feet taller than the males always managed to startle alien visitors, who occasionally mistook the women for the men, despite their lighter feathers and long dresses. Minister Plu'um's mate, Plu'umae, was a veteran of the Verdolstrix Wars, known for her contempt for peacemakers and weaker species.
She swiveled her head towards the royal perch. "Mighty Hera-dame be honored, why stop at resources? Surely nothing will do but full domination! Earth is a rich world: it would be the honor of the beings upon it to serve the armies of the Hera-dame. Would it not grant us a tactical advantage over the accursed Verdolstrices?"
From his station behind Advisor Hecuba, Astyanax shuddered. In his varying travels on missions of assassination, he had had the fortune to run across a human or two. They were woefully naive about the galaxy around them. Perhaps that was why Malfeants like Plu'umae advocated their subjugation. He did not agree with it, but he was here as a bodyguard: it was not his place to speak. Seeming to sense his quiet anger, Advisor Hecuba stood, and her dark eyes glared out of the pale facial disk as she looked down her sharp nose at the perch two levels below her.
"You are overfond of war, Iodottir Plu'umae," the old female scolded, and her sleek feathers quivered with outrage under her beaded headdress. "You have not yet learned the value of watching and waiting. Sit down! Let the Hera-dame finish!"
As Hecuba took her own seat, she felt her bodyguard relax slightly and chuckled. "My poor, sensitive son. However shall I make a warrior of you?" The words stung, though Astyanax reflected that at least she had not withdrawn her claim of motherhood. She would have been within her rights to, given that he had turned out so differently than expected. Sometimes, Astyanax was astonished that Hecuba acknowledged him at all.
The Hera-dame clicked sharply as others supported Plu'um and pleaded the impossibility of the idea while the rest either wholeheartedly supported it or sided with Plu'umae and demanded the total devastation of the Earth. The voices, ranging from low hoots to high, quavering resonations, grew louder and louder as talk of investigation moved to incursion; incursion to occupation, occupation to war.
"Enough!" the quavery old voice echoed through the blinding white room with a soft hoot. "I will hear no more talk of war! We require resources, not slaves, nor death. What manner of Malfeant is coward enough to make war on humans? You know as well as I do what Earthlings are: delicate, short-lived little creatures. They are ignorant and naive, and violent when frightened. Yet to kill a human is no different than ripping the wings from a butterfly. It is a needless waste of a beautiful creature!"
The Inner Echelon became uncomfortably silent. To openly belittle her council was quite a breach of accepted etiquette, though her word was law, and to sentimentally defend a weaker species because they were "beautiful" was not in the nature of a Malfeant.
Astyanax knew that there could well be assassination attempts over this if it was decided that the Hera-dame was becoming unfit to rule. Should it come to that, he was bound by his oath of loyalty to defend her, even at the cost of his own life. However, here and now in the chamber, no one questioned her.
"My Praetorian!" Hippolyta pointed imperiously at a slender figure in the perch to her left. His dark, rounded helmet and black robes made him easier to see as he bowed humbly.
"My Hera-dame," the coal feathered Malfeant answered smoothly.
With a slightly spiteful smile showing around the edges of her golden mouth guard, the Hera-dame squinted down at the soldier. "What does Menelaus Rain-eyes have to say of the infiltration of Earth? Why so apprehensive?"
She had never forgiven him for earning his own name, independent of hers. To her thinking, Menelaus ought to have been honored to carry his matronymic his whole life. Astyanax hoped that when the time came, and he earned a name of his own, Hecuba would not be as severe. Menelaus Rain-Eyes turned to face the monarch.
"My lady Hera-dame, your servant's spies have reported that the absence of invasions over the last five decades is not indicative of a lack of preparation. If you will allow your servant to speak, I would estimate that Earth has already been infiltrated, and the new dominant species seems very unwilling to share humanity with the rest of the universe."
The Hera-dame frowned, and her wings snapped threateningly. "Explain, Praetorian Rain-Eyes," she demanded.
Menelaus opened the network of vines and petals that made up the satellite channels and the map was transformed into the likeness of a stern face, wholly alien. As it spoke, the rumbling bass shook the perches of the Inner Echelon.
"My name is Optimus Prime, and I send this message." That alone was enough to cause mild panic. "Though we did not choose to be of Earth, it would seem that we are here to stay. If you approach this planet with hostile intent, know this: we will defend ourselves. We will defend humanity. We will defend...our home." Curses resounded in the round chamber.
"Cybertronians take first pick of everything!" Minister Plu'um complained, "Our Dreadnaughts would never have a chance. We'll be shot out of the sky on sight! "
It was decided that a scouting mission was appropriate, given the circumstances, and a small crew was chosen, consisting of Menelaus Rain-eyes as captain, four conscripted hoplites, five assassins and an Ambassador Priestess in case they were discovered. Cybertronians supposedly respected priests and ambassadors, or so the theory went, and thus an Ambassador Priestess might serve to turn away the wrath of a territorial Transformer.
"Hecubasson Astyanax," Hippolyta declared, "shall lead the assassins. He is, after all, foremost among our ranks and highly regarded by our princess. Surely of all Malfeants, he can infiltrate this planet! Perhaps he will even earn his name on the journey!" The words were encouraging, high praise, but the young soldier knew better. Ears did not deceive, and he heard a hope that he would not return. He was not considered worthy.
When he was dismissed, he found himself on the gleaming silver balcony of the Daughters of Parliament Temple, as Ambassador Epherma paced excitedly back and forth. Her heart-shaped facial disk gleamed pale grey in the midst of her silver feathers as she carelessly tossed several sea green gowns into a travel case. To her, each had a meaning. To Astyanax, they all looked like the same chiton.
"Oh it's all so thrilling, Hecubasson!" she practically squealed, "I'm to go to Earth? To see real humans? Ah I am blessed indeed, twice blessed this day!" She motioned with her delicate claw to the great Nests of the Temple. "I have been chosen by an egg from the Augur crèche," she explained as she slipped her silver helmet down over her round head. "Gaius has hatched for me. For me, Hecubasson! I have never raised a hatchling before."
Astyanax lifted her cases and smiled at the Ambassador Priestess. "I am certain that you shall be an exemplary mother, my lady. Will Gaius require any extra care while we are aboard the Rising's End?" Epherma beamed and shook her head, the swoops of metal clinking against her traditional neck-armor.
"No, thank you, Sergeant Assassin. He will be fine with me. Oh how very exciting it all is! My hatchling and I on his very first adventure!" With that, the priestess left to attend to the aforementioned bundle of tiny limbs and downy fuzz, leaving Astyanax to load her things into the small clipper outfitted for the scouting mission. He bade a respectful farewell to Advisor Hecuba, then turned to board.
"Wait! Sergeant Assassin!" The musical voice forbade him take one more step without greeting the woman who spoke. Astyanax turned and held out both hands for the snow-white Malfeant that approached him.
"My dearest Astyanax, you did not plan to depart without bidding me farewell?" She wore no armor, only an iridescent chiton and a wreath of blossoms on her head.
"I could never do that, Princess," he answered softly. Though he spoke formally, there was an old familiarity in his eyes as Artemis beamed up at her favorite warrior.
"Dear Assassin, I have had a gorget made for you, to shield you." He stood still and allowed her to fasten the scalloped steel around his neck, hiding the vulnerable veins from sight. From the ship, Menelaus watched coldly, displeased with the intimate gesture, yet unwilling to intervene in a matter that would surely vex the Hera-dame. Artemis adjusted the winged barbute and tiptoed to press a chaste kiss to its wearer.
"There, something to remember me by while you journey to Earth." The small female twisted her claws together nervously for a moment, then said boldly, "Hecubasson, if you love me, grant me a boon." Astyanax knew the Rising's End was about to depart, but he knelt before the Hera-dame's granddaughter.
"Anything, Princess. You know that I love you." Too quick to catch, she stooped to whisper in his ear.
"Bring me back a human child!"
Then she was gone, leaving no explanation as she vanished into the crowd that had come to see them off.
"What was that about?" a tubby man in the garb of one who looked after eggs asked, helping him to his clawed feet.
"I do not know, Father Pauldron. Have you come to see me off?" the assassin asked. The shorter Malfeant shook his striped head.
"No, my son, this old heart could not bear it. My symbiotes have a bad feeling about this voyage. No, I came to bring you this: it was on your old bed, up in the attic."
The slender arrow was wrapped in a form of lettering called RedCode, signifying an urgent missive. The tip was touched to the bold screen in his communications gauntlet and the code slid from the arrow to the device, rearranging itself into elegant scrawl. "To the Sergeant Assassin of her excellency Hera-dame Hippolyta's forces.
Beware of those you smile with their mouth and not their eyes: you have fewer friends than you believe. Someone aboard the Rising's End wishes you dead so that they may more easily bring about the downfall of the Hera-dame. Trust no one and contact no one: only the Titans can save her." Then, in small, hurried scrawl at the bottom of the message, "Glaw-llygaid yn ceisio disodli y frenhines. Mae eich bywyd mewn perygl."
Pauldron's facial disk was pale beneath the sooty feathers. "Delete that, my son!" he gasped. "Don't let anyone see it, or we may share the blame for treason!" Flabby hands clutched at Astyanax's ceremonial robes. "Promise me you will delete it!" Behind them, the hoplites shouted that they were casting off.
"I...I have to go, Father Pauldron. I shall see you soon!" Astyanax shook the older Malfeant off and darted up the gangplank before it closed. It was only a message. Probably a prank. Absently, the Sergeant Assassin ran his assassins through an equipment drill, then made his way to his quarters, stopping only to pat little Gaius on the head and congratulate the Ambassador Priestess on a fine hatchling.
The downy chick had happily reached up and clung to his neck, burbling in his little baby way. It was sad, in a way: hatchlings learned to speak only a few weeks after leaving their eggs, but the sounds they made in-between were so charming that Astyanax almost wished that they would take longer to learn words. Gaius was clearly marked to become a Priest Ambassador like his hatcher, though Astyanax knew by experience that the mark a hatchling bore and the nest it came from sometimes had little to do with the path it chose. He smiled and handed the chick back to his hatcher. Perhaps Gaius would become an explorer, judging by the way his wide black eyes focused on every star he saw.
A chilly foreboding was beginning to form in his gizzard, though he tried to play it off as a reaction to his Brood-Father's fear. There was nothing to be afraid of. It was a simple scouting mission, that was all. So long as they kept to the outskirts of Verdolstrix territory and remained on the outer edge of Zull's force fields, they would be fine. The only real fear was of the Autobots, right?
What could possibly go wrong?
48 Earth-hours later...
Everyone was dead.
Every crewmate, hoplite, and assassin. Astyanax could not hear anything but the heartbeats of the Verdolstrix raiders, converging on his hiding place. They would not all have come if he were not the last living Malfeant aboard. Unless... The sniper looked down at the display on his gauntlet once more. Someone wanted him dead? Or perhaps they simply wanted the Hera-dame's guards dead? Either way, would this supposed enemy's hatred be great enough to allow for a temporary alliance between a Malfeant and a Verdolstrix? He remembered that one of the escape pods had jettisoned just before the attack, but the Rising's End was an older cruiser, and sometimes malfunctions happened. He hadn't thought anything of it at the time, but now it chilled his gizzard.
The implications were all too clear: someone had known that the attack was coming, and had abandoned them to the slaughter.
Someone had wanted to make sure that Astyanax and his crew never reached Earth.
And someone else had known, and had tried to warn him. Astyanax cursed himself for not taking the note more seriously. With an effort, he reached up to find a lever on the right wall. It was an opening to a maintenance hatch for the drones: barely big enough to squeeze into. Panic began to set in again at the idea of crawling into the tunnel, the possibility of getting stuck weighed on his mind. But he had no choice. The Sergeant Assassin hoisted himself up, and one of the shelves broke with a resounding snap. He froze. There was no way that the Verdolstrices had not heard that.
The top half of the maintenance door was stripped away with a splintering crack and a pair of harsh yellow eyes glared down at him. The bloody beak opened in a lipless grin as the Verdolstrix raised his club and with a thrill of horror and disgust, Astyanax realized it was made from a Malfeant spine. He reared back as far as he could go and drew a heavy metal handgun - of human make, not Malfeant make - and raised it. Before the Verdolstrix could tear down any more of the door, Astyanax fired. With a sharp popping noise, the bullets left the gun and passed into the cranium of the creature in front of him, through the left eye. The Verdolstrix screeched and fell backwards with a heavy thud. Answering calls echoed up and down the hallway, and Astyanax knew he had to escape now.
Breathing heavily, he ran a hand over the gorget from Artemis.
"Forgive me, beloved," he gasped, "I may be a little...delayed." He holstered the gun and threw his trident and assault rifle up into the maintenance tunnel before crawling in behind them. He had a pretty good idea of the layout of the ship: he had about a 60% chance of getting to the escape pods before the Verdolstrices caught up to him. Maybe he wouldn't have the element of stealth in a ship where everyone could hear everyone else, but he clung to the hope of outrunning them.
He kicked the panel that shut the trap door behind him, cutting him off from the line of sight of any enemies and leaving him in total darkness.