Fighting Chance
by Tripleguess
June 2003

PART ONE

"This was a dumb idea." Amy slapped her dirty palms together and looked at the sky. A generous puff of dust drifted down from her hands, but they didn't look any cleaner. Sweat trickled down her face. She smeared it away, leaving muddy streaks on her cheek. The western sky was glowing with sunset colors, but storm clouds were blowing in from the north. While she watched, the first feathery cirrus drifted across the sun, flaming red and pink.

Shelley stopped picking and looked up at Amy in surprise. Dust speckled her glasses and her glossy dark hair. "I think digging a foxhole is neat."

"No, I mean coming here right before dark when it's going to rain."

"Oh. That." Shelley leaned the pick against the side of the dirt pit, then took her glasses off and cleaned them with the inside of her shirt cuff. She replaced them and looked heavenward. The mountains to the northwest were already obscured by gray veils of rain. If she held still and watched closely, she could see that the storm was moving towards them. "Do you think we can beat it home?"

Amy sat on the edge of the foxhole and slithered down into the shallow pit feet first. She landed next to Shelley and grabbed the shovel. "Let me move the loose dirt out. We'll put the plywood on top so the walls won't collapse in the rain. Then we'll go home."

"Sounds good." Shelley crawled out of the foxhole on her hands and knees so Amy would have room to shovel. She looked herself over and giggled.

"What?"

"We look like a couple of orphans." Shelley held her arms away from her sides for inspection. Dirt stains from the rich red earth ran across her jeans and shirt like strokes from a rampant sponge painting.

Amy dumped the last shovelful of dirt on Shelley's hiking boots. "Speak for yourself, white man."

They worked together, puffing and straining, to drag a sheet of thick plywood over the hole they'd been digging for the last week or so.

"I'm glad your dad doesn't mind us digging holes in your old garden," Amy commented as she inspected her palms for splinters.

"Nah. It's fenced, so the cows won't fall in. He comes and looks every now and then to make sure we won't get hurt, either. That's why he wanted us to wear heavy shoes." Shelley sat down and started unlacing her boots, left foot first. "He said if we whacked our own toes with the pick, we wouldn't be as likely to break anything."

"My dad just said to make sure I brought the pick back. Didn't even ask what I wanted it for." Amy watched as Shelley shook out her left boot, pulled it back on, and started on the right one. "I don't think he cares."

Shelley looked up, but Amy had turned away, watching the last of the sunset. She turned her right boot upside down to thump out the dirt and pebbles.

Amy watched the sky, lonely under the sun.

When she had both boots back on, she stood up and touched Amy's shoulder.

"Let's go," she said gently.

Amy sighed. "Yeah, let's. Where's the pick? I gotta take it home."

"It's, uh..."

"Aw, no." Amy smacked her forehead. "We left it in the foxhole, didn't we?"

Slapper peered down over the ravine edge, eyeing the road three stories below while rainwater dripped from his chin. Then he looked southeast, eventually spotting a distant building just barely visible through the rain. "I dunno, Sky-Byte. That old ruin seems an awful long way off from here."

Sky-Byte turned from his own survey of the road to glare at Slapper through the rain, his expression a mixture of irritation and strained patience. It was difficult enough to get the others to pay attention to the task at hand, and now the rain had cut visibility to a few miles of road either way. Why did Slapper have to fuss about minor difficulties instead of just watching the road more closely?

"I've told you. This ravine is the only place we can be sure of finding him, because it's the only way through the ridge for many miles around. And the old building was the only suitable place to hide our device. It's not my fault that there's a little distance between them."

"But what if he catches us before we get there?"

"Don't be such a fainthearted chicken, Slapper. Besides, I've seen how fast you can run."

"And I've seen how hard Scourge can hit," Slapper grumbled, unsatisfied. "I can't believe I let you talk me into this."

"Ha. I can." Gas-Skunk smirked.

"Shut up. You fell for it too."

"Just goes to show you're both stupid," a third voice put in.

They turned on Dark Scream. "So what's that make you, smarty pants?"

Dark Scream rubbed the back of his head, recalling the many blows Sky-Byte had privileged it with. "Interested in self-preservation," he told them sourly.

"Quiet, all of you!" Sky-Byte ordered. "He should be here any minute. He might hear you!"

The prospect was enough to quiet the arguing down to disgruntled mumbles. Sky-Byte peeked out from his hiding place. "I see a pair of headlights. It might be him!"

"And it might be just another semi," Slapper piped up. "I've counted five already. Ten points for me!"

Dark Scream thumbed his nose at Slapper. "So? I saw a Winnebago with Virginia license plates and three military Humvees. That's worth twelve points. Is it him?"

"No, no, it's just a worthless Volkswagen Bug." Sky-Byte sank down, disappointed.

"A Volkswagen? Ha! Slug bug!" Gas Skunk punched Dark Scream on the shoulder, not so lightly.

"Hey! I saw it first!" Dark Scream hit him back.

"What about those new Beetles?" Slapper wanted to know. "Do they count?"

Gas Skunk and Dark Scream stopped fighting to mull that over while Sky-Byte clutched his head and wished for sidekicks who wouldn't get distracted from a critically important mission by silly counting games.

"Yeah," Gas Skunk finally suggested.

"They count," Dark Scream agreed.

"Then slug bug!" Slapper grinned and pounded both of them. "Cause here comes one now!"

"One punch per Volkswagen," Gas Skunk protested, rubbing his arm.

Sky-Byte buried his face in his arms, then slammed a fist down on the rock next to him. "Silence! How many times must I warn you? If we fail to surprise our quarry, my plan will be ruined! We'll have to retreat in disgrace, and then I'll have to explain all this to Megatron somehow --"

"Pinning the blame on us, more than likely," Dark Scream muttered.

Sky-Byte paid him no mind. "Then Scourge will know we're up to something, and he'll keep an eye on us, even more than he does already, making it doubly hard to attempt this again --"

"Woohoo! Tanker truck, fifteen points! I'm ahead!" Slapper whooped, then choked as Sky-Byte's hand closed around his throat.

"I begin to think you're worse than useless," the shark warrior hissed, "when you can be distracted from our mission by nothing more than Volkswagen scrap and insignificant black tanker trucks!" He glared at the vehicle being discussed as if it were the cause of all his problems.

His grip loosened abruptly. The frog predacon had a split second to be relieved before he crashed to the ground in a heap.

"You idiot!" Sky-Byte snapped. "That's Scourge! All of you, get down and stay quiet!"

Despite the warning, Slapper piped up again. "Is Scourge worth more points or less than a regular tanker truck?"

"More," Dark Scream answered, eyes widening as he noted anew the Decepticon's impressive size.

"Oh, yeah," Gas Skunk agreed.

"Goodie. Twenty points for me. Craters, Sky-Byte, I forgot how mean Scourge looks in the dark."

Gas-Skunk snorted. "He's no apple pie in daylight."

Sky-Byte looked beseechingly up at the sky. "By the second moon of Cybertron, why must I always work with incompetents!"

Kneeling, he set his shoulder against a large rock and shoved. The other Predacons watched with grudging admiration as the shark Predacon muscled the boulder to the lip of the ravine, then sent it over the edge with a mighty heave.

Scourge spotted the falling object and braked, fighting to keep from jackknifing on the rain-slicked asphalt as the rock slammed into the road a few scant yards from his front bumper. Sky-Byte grumbled. It would have been nice if the rock had actually hit Scourge, but at least he had stopped. The shark warrior stepped to the edge of the ravine.

"Sky-Byte, terrorize!"

"Dark Scream, terrorize!"

As planned, Dark Scream and Sky-Byte swooped down from behind, opening fire on Scourge's unprotected backside as he transformed while Slapper and Gas-Skunk watched apprehensively from above.

"Why can't we just take him down now?" Gas-Skunk complained. "It's four to one."

"Not the best of odds when dealing with Scourge," Slapper retorted. "But since you asked so nicely..." He waved a hand at the road. "For one thing, the two of us can't fly and it's a long drop. And Mega-Octane and the other Decepticons won't be far behind him. There wouldn't be time to finish him off before they get here." Slapper nodded at the black Transformer. "If it wasn't for his temper, he'd head for the group and we wouldn't have a chance at him. As it is, he's bound to follow us." He dropped to a crouch to improve his balance and took a few shots at Scourge.

"Watch it. You almost hit Sky-Byte."

"Oops." Slapper spread his hands and shrugged, his smile malicious. "Dear me."

Scourge was fighting back now; Sky-Byte and Dark Scream were hard pressed to avoid his weapon blasts.

"Come on, let's go already." Slapper hopped up and started running.

Gas-Skunk hesitated. "Aren't we supposed to wait for them?"

"Not me!" Slapper called back over his shoulder. "I believe in head starts!"

Sky-Byte flew over Gas-Skunk's head, followed by Dark Scream. "Get moving!" Dark Scream exclaimed. "It won't take him long to get over the rock!"

Gas-Skunk glanced back. Sure enough, Scourge was busy blasting their boulder roadblock into powder. As Gas-Skunk watched, the black Decepticon transformed, tires screaming before he'd even hit the road. In no time at all he had cleared the ravine and turned off road to come after them. He looked furious.

Gas-Skunk took off after the other Predacons, as fast as his leaps could carry him.

They hadn't gone far when rain began to fall in light spatters.

Shelley raised a hand to shield her eyes. "Amy, I don't think we're going to make it home before it really starts pouring. Let's stop at the old warehouse."

Amy stopped walking and let the pick slide to the ground. It was heavy and her shoulders were getting tired. "Isn't that trespassing?"

Shelley squatted on her heels. The rain was so fine that it was collecting in Amy's blonde hair like a dewy net of gem dust. Her own hair must look the same, Shelley thought. "It's abandoned, Amy-oh. Nobody cares."

"Yeah, but..."

Shelley took a pebble from the ground and skipped it across the asphalt. She said nothing, waiting for Amy to finish. She already knew what the problem was. Fearless in the face of demerits and principals, Amy harbored one powerful phobia.

Amy shifted uneasily. "It's dark in there."

Shelley admired the agate-like mineral patterns on another pebble and decided to put it in her pocket instead of throwing it. "You watch too many scary movies," she told Amy, not unkindly. "What was it last night, JAWS?"

"Dracula," Amy admitted.

"Oh." Shelley grinned. "Bad timing. Why that one? You've seen it before."

Amy shrugged. "I ran out of choices. Dad won't pay for satellite and the only channel I get decent reception on is home improvement."

The rain intensified. The gem dust in Amy's hair began to melt together and drip on her shoulders.

"You should do like me and stick with Peter Pan." Shelley wiped her hands on her knees and stood up.

"It'll be all right, Amy," she said reassuringly. "I'll be there."

Amy looked at the clouds, dark and heavy with unshed water. "I guess," she answered reluctantly. She rubbed her shoulder and swung the pick over it. "I just wish we had a flashlight."

Shelley pulled her glasses off over her head, winced when the eyewear cord tangled in her hair, and wiped the raindrops off with her sleeve. She replaced the glasses carefully and patted her jeans pocket. "I've got my keychain light. The battery needs to be changed but it should be good for a couple hours. Why don't you hang on to it? Let me carry the pick for a while."

Amy took the small light gratefully and handed the heavy digging tool to Shelley. "Thanks."

The warehouse was a large steel building with flaking yellow paint, alone on a concrete lot. It had been used for lumber storage until the lumber business sustaining the small town around it had shut down. Its economic lifeline cut, the town had soon crumbled and blown away, leaving only a few ranches in the area. Now the structure held nothing but cobwebs and ancient wooden pallets. There were two offices in the building, each with doors to outside, but they were locked.

"They're full of spiders, anyways," said Shelley.

"Spiders I can handle. I haven't seen Arachnophobia yet."

The three huge roll doors were all down and out of the question, but in the rear of the building there was a smaller double sliding door.

"It's chained shut, but the chain is rusty. Somebody popped a link years ago. It's not hard to get in," Shelley explained as they made their way towards the back door. The asphalt was full of weed-choked cracks and pits. Dead leaves and grit crunched under their feet, and disturbed insects skittered away into the deepening twilight.

"Sounds like you've been here before." Amy twirled the keychain light on her finger, keeping close to Shelley. The warehouse didn't much look like a vampire castle, but without Shelley, to whom darkness was merely the absence of visible light, she never would have come near it after nightfall. She started a little when a distant flash of lightning illuminated the alley.

"We used to live on the field where the old garden is," Shelley reminded her. "Right before we moved next to your house. Now Dad just runs his cows there, but I've been everywhere within walking distance of that old place."

There was another flicker of lightning, and Amy got a good look at the building.

"Hey. The side door is open."

Shelley slowed down. Amy was still looking at the door and bumped into her. The two halves of the big sliding door were ajar. The chain hung loosely from the right-hand section of the door.

"Not by much." Shelley didn't seem worried. She handed the pick to Amy and squeezed between the sections. She pushed them a little farther apart with some effort and led the way inside with quiet steps. "Come on."

They paused inside to let their eyes adjust. There were several opaque plastic skylights in the ceiling, but with the sun down they showed only as dim rectangles, high above them. Amy flicked the keychain light on and shone it slowly round. There was room to park several semis, but with the exception of the dusty wooden pallets the huge building looked empty.

Shelley shielded her eyes and looked away. "Your eyes won't get used to the dark if you leave that on," she cautioned when Amy didn't turn it off after a few minutes.

"And I'll run the batteries down," Amy conceded. As much as the dark bothered her, it would be worse to have nothing to combat it with. Better save the batteries for moments of near panic. She finished sweeping the building and shut off the light, then flicked it on again just as Shelley turned back and dropped her hands from her face.

"Amyyyy."

"Sorry. Thought I saw something." She played the light back over the area left of the side door and saw an answering gleam of metal. "What is that?"

"I can't see," Shelley answered sourly, hands back over her face. "Give me a minute."

When Shelley's vision had recovered, Amy took a few steps towards the corner, gesturing with the light. "Look."

"Hold the light still. Wow. That wasn't here before."

It was a machine, big as a Volkswagen and ominous in appearance.

The girls looked at each other questioningly. "It's new," Amy pointed out. "There isn't a speck of dust on it."

"No spiderwebs, either."

They walked round it in a circle, being careful not to touch. The wires and dials were free of rust and exhibited an oily gleam. There were metallic and transparent cores wrapped with coils of wire, a trio of massive batteries, a control panel with buttons and levers the size of pancakes and baseball bats, and a cylindrical telescope-like piece that ran through the center of the machine and pointed out into the middle of the warehouse.

They had no idea what it was.

Shelley regarded it with suspicion. The dark didn't bother her at all, but weird metal things sitting where they weren't supposed to certainly did. "Maybe we should get out of here."

They peeked out the door, but rain was coming down in chilly sheets and overflowing the street gutters. Amy shivered. Just now, even the gloomy old warehouse was more appealing than outside. "Looks like we got here just in time. I'd rather not walk through that," she admitted.

Shelley sat down on a pallet near the sliding door. "Okay. Let's just stay close to the door and leave as soon as the rain lets up."

"That could take a couple hours." Amy sat next to Shelley and laid the pick down. "But I guess it's better than getting soaked."

Huddled together for warmth, they split a squashed and linty granola bar from the depths of Shelley's left jeans pocket and listened to the sound of water drumming on the metal roof.

With the part of his mind that wasn't busy with running and screaming, Slapper reflected that a raging mad Scourge charging through a dark stormy night was just about the scariest thing he could imagine being chased by at the moment. He had switched into his toad beast mode for speed but it wasn't helping much. In fact only Sky-Byte's unpanicked presence of mind (and the threat of his tsunami blaster) had kept Slapper and the other Predacons from scattering to the four winds. Slapper could hear the shark's curt orders over the more alarmed voices of Gas-Skunk and Dark Scream as he kept them all stampeding towards the building.

"Just a little further and then he's ours. Keep at it!"

Gas-Skunk dodged around a telephone pole and heard Scourge flatten it a few seconds later. "Hurry up, he's coming!"

Slapper gave Gas-Skunk a glancing shove as the other veered into his path. "Get out of my way!"

"Move it, you lackeys!" Sky-Byte's voice was tense and impatient, but controlled. "Go, go! Dark Scream -- don't forget!"

"Of course not!" Dark Scream did some quick mental groping, trying to recall just what it was he wasn't supposed to forget. It was tough to remember things while running at breakneck speed with a huge Decepticon breathing down his neck. "I pull the lever," he recited, pleased with himself for functioning so well under pressure. "Got it, Sky-Byte!"

Dark Scream had maintained the lead until now. He risked a glance over his shoulder and promptly wished he hadn't. "He's catching uuuuuup!"

"Keep going," Sky-Byte urged. "We're almost there!"

Dark Scream reached the warehouse first. He ripped the sliding doors apart and dove inside, trading his flying squirrel mode for robot mode in midair. He made a beeline for the machine, splintering pallets under his feet and rehearsing all the way. "Up is off, down is on --"

"Not yet, you moron!" Sky-Byte shot through the open door, Gas-Skunk and Slapper on his heels. "You'll immobilize us. Wait for Scourge! You two, spread out! Sky-Byte, terrorize!"

While Dark Scream crouched over the machine and tried to decipher its controls in the near-darkness, the other three transformed into robot mode and formed a loose triangle, keeping well out of the machine's line-of-sight.

Scourge burst through the open door, striking sparks off the sides as metal raked metal. Suddenly the building seemed much smaller.

His armor was smoking from a few laser hits and his optics blazed with warrior rage. His roar made dust and pallets dance on the concrete floor. "I'll teach you cowardly backstrikers to insult a Decepticon!"

Slapper gulped. "You're sure this'll work, Sky-Byte?"

"Of course it'll work. Now, Dark Scream, now! Slapper, what makes you even ask?"

"Well, uh, it's just that your plans have this habit of backfiring."

"Shut up and concentrate. Dark Scream, what's taking so long?"

"Sky-Byte! Which lever?" Dark Scream yelled frantically.

"Left, left, left!"

Dark Scream slapped at the control panel. Nothing happened.

Sky-Byte noted the direction of his slap. "Your other left, you dyslexic peabrain!"

The machine whirred to life, and a ray of green energy surged across the warehouse, filled the building with a cold fierce light and slammed Scourge against the wall. Sky-Byte laughed triumphantly.

"Perfect! The electromagnetic dysfunction ray will keep him immobilized for as long as it takes to deactivate him -- permanently! Megatron will be sorry to hear of your demise during an Autobot ambush, Scourge, but don't worry. He'll surely appoint me the task of exacting revenge for you. Predacons, attack!"

"Right laser!"

"Left laser!"

"Shark missile!"

Scourge struggled visibly, but in vain. The green ray kept him from really moving while the Predacons pounded him with one barrage after another. He was helpless.

The girls crouched behind the only cover available, a wooden pallet thrown against the wall by a kick from Dark Scream. He hadn't even looked their way during his charge to the machine.

"They look like something out of Marvel Comics," Amy remarked, her voice remarkably calm. At least the place wasn't dark anymore.

"Never mind their design aesthetics," Shelley hissed. "What say we get out of here about now? We're a little too close to the action!"

"You think?" Amy retorted. Then, "They might see us if we move."

"They won't. We're too small. Our dirty clothes don't show in the dark." She indicated the turkey shoot going on before them, as if either of them could look elsewhere. "And they're too busy beating the big black guy up."

Amy watched Dark Scream abandon his post at the machine to launch a vicious laser attack at Scourge. She winced sympathetically. "This is awful."

"Yeah," Shelley agreed. "Maybe we should've walked through the rain after all."

"No, I mean that!" Amy gestured, her sense of fairness surging to life and pushing fear aside. "Four against one and a paralyzing gadget to boot. That's not a fair fight."

Shelley shrugged helplessly, the movement making green shadows and highlights dance across her face and torso. "His problem. I'm just happy none of them stepped on us. Besides, what can we do?"

Amy's eyes fell on the machine. She hefted her pick and crouched for a moment, studying her route. Shelley was right -- all eyes and weapons were on Scourge. "We can give him a fighting chance."

Shelley tracked the direction of Amy's gaze. Her eyes filled with disbelieving comprehension.

"Uh, Amy?" Shelley kept the tone of her voice even and reasonable. Amy could be stubborn once she'd decided on doing something, whether it was squeezing through strands of electric livestock fencing in order to take a shortcut home, or catching alligator lizards with her bare hands. "Really, I don't think that's such a good idea --"

Amy took off in a stealthy run. Too late, Shelley snatched at her shirt, coming up with a handful of air instead.

"Amy!" she hissed, not daring to raise her voice above a frantic whisper.

Amy reached the machine before Shelley unfroze. She raised the pick high and swung it down into the control panel with all her might, hoping it would hit something vital.

It must have. The sharp point sank in deep and true. The panel erupted in a fountain of sparks, driving Amy away and down to the floor. The metal head of the pick glowed red, and the green electromagnetic pulse ray flickered and died. Darkness descended, broken only by the glowing eyes of the five metallic beings.

Scourge slid to the floor, catching himself in time to drop to one knee instead of sprawling in a heap. The pounding had weakened him. But his rage was already giving him strength.

Slapper was the first Predacon to react. "I just knew it..."

Annoyed, Sky-Byte gave him a blow that sent him spinning into Scourge's reach. Scourge caught him by one arm and hurled him the length of the building. Slapper went flying over the machine and smashed through the roll door behind it, ripping it off its hinges and framing the dark sky outside. Once he'd collected his senses, he decided that he had some pressing things to attend to elsewhere and took off through the rain for parts unknown.

Scourge turned on Sky-Byte next, clenching his fists. A little unnerved by the abrupt failure of his device, Sky-Byte backed away, throwing up a hasty verbal defense with a voice full of contrite shock as he went.

"Oh -- oh dear -- you're Scourge? This is all a misunderstanding! You see, you look so much like Optimus Prime, and it was so dark, that I --"

Scourge nailed him with a punch to the jaw. Sky-Byte threw up an arm in time to protect his head, but the force of the blow sent him skidding backwards into Gas-Skunk.

"Say, Sky-Byte, I don't think he believed you," Dark Scream called.

Sky-Byte disentangled himself from the skunk Predacon. "That's obvious, Dark Scream," he answered stiffly.

Shelley made her way to the machine without being spotted. Amy was making a wobbly attempt to push herself off the floor. Shelley fell to her knees and helped her into a sitting position.

"Amy?" she whispered. "You okay?"

Amy rubbed her eyes and stifled a groan. "Yeah. Just a little woozy. It'll take a couple minutes for my night vision to come back."

Shelley peeked around the machine. Scourge had grabbed Sky-Byte by the leg and was using him to hack petroglyphs into the concrete. Dark Scream and Gas-Skunk were tripping over each other trying to stay out of the way.

"We need to get out of here while he's still wiping up. Can you stand? More to the point, can you run?"

"The pick..."

It was still embedded in the control panel. Shelley touched the handle gingerly, then gave it a solid yank. It didn't budge, not even when she braced her feet and used both hands.

"It's stuck tight. We'll have to leave it."

With Shelley's help, Amy stumbled to her feet. They slipped out through the ragged opening that had so recently been a doorway. Scourge was still occupied in banging Predacon heads together and the Predacons weren't thinking about anything but getting away from Scourge.

Braving the rain, the girls picked their way across the mangled roll door, Shelley guiding Amy's steps around the sharp-edged fragments.

"Is the frog guy around?" Amy wanted to know.

Slapper was nowhere in sight, but several deep scrapes ploughed through the concrete suggested that he hadn't stopped after hitting the door.

"No," Shelley answered. "If he has any sense, he's long gone."

"If we have any sense, we'll copy him. Let's go!"

Scourge would have made a capital batsman. Sky-byte came close to shorting out before he was able to land a kick on Scourge's faceplate and wrench free. He tumbled to the floor on his back, caught himself on one elbow and put a hand to the glowing sphere in his chest.

"Tsunami blaster!"

"Sword of fury!" Scourge blocked most of the salvo with his blade, but the force of it shoved him backwards and the overflow sparked along his hands and wrists. He recovered and charged after Sky-Byte again.

Enough was enough.

"Split up and run!" Sky-Byte transformed into beast mode and dodged under a lethal sweep of Scourge's weapon. "He can't follow all of us!"

He dove into the concrete and fled. Following suit, Dark Scream leaped up and smashed through a plastic skylight and a generous amount of the surrounding roof, then clawed for altitude.

"Catch you later, Gas-Skunk!"

"Where am I supposed to go?" Gas-Skunk demanded. Scourge's battle cry and subsequent charge helped him make up his mind. He streaked out the open sliding door. Scourge's sword sliced across the opening half a second later, missing the Predacon but adding an impressive horizontal gap to the walls on either side.

Scourge watched him make for the trees, optics sparking with contempt, and decided it was not worth his while to pursue cowardly lackeys. His unacknowledged second reason was that the beating and subsequent fight had taken more out of him than he liked to admit, even to himself.

He'd even the score with Sky-Byte later, oh yes. One on one, without any interference from the shark's little ray gizmo. Which he'd better flatten, come to think of it.

He turned back inside and strode towards the torn roll door and the machine silhouetted in front of it, giving the device only a cursory glance.

He was raising his sword when something caught his eye. A subtly different reflection of the red light from his sword, perhaps.

He knelt for a closer look.

It was a roughly thumb-length implement, mostly wood and simple steel, buried in the side of the machine. It was too small for him to handle comfortably but he managed to pinch it between two fingers. The partial welding that had kept Shelley from pulling it free gave way instantly when he tugged.

He recalled the shower of sparks. The machine hadn't malfunctioned.

It had been attacked.