Darkstar sulked until she heard Discard leave, then finally uncurled. Clunker had arrived in the meantime, and was sitting on his bunk, taking apart his gun. Well, at least she knew he wouldn't want to use the computer. Darkstar went to the desk, then slid the disc into the drive. The screen typed: Play media?
She didn't need to plug in to play a disc. Well, that was unexpected. Yes, she typed.
There must have been a speaker somewhere. The opening music of 'Numb' started up. Twenty seconds in, Clunker, who until now had just been looking curious, groaned. "Ugh, lyrics? Turn that dirge off before you summon something."
She typed, Stop playing, and it did. "It's not a … what do you mean 'summon something'?"
"Look, if you play an opera, you're going to attract opera fans," said Clunker. "You play a dirge, you're going to attract ghosts. Stands to reason."
"It does not. And it's not a dirge anyway. It's an alien song about a person who was being controlled by someone who was trying to make him act like someone he wasn't and he's saying he's not going to let that keep happening," said Darkstar, trying to explain in terms a Decepticon could understand. Personally, the song always made her think of her mother. However, amongst other things, 'mother' wasn't in the vocabulary.
"Feh. It'll attract Stopgap's ghost, then," Clunker grumbled. "Plug in or play it in yourself, then. Risk yourself if you have to, but I don't want to be a part of it."
She blinked. "I can play it in myself?"
"Just stick it in your drive and play it through your internal radio. Idiot."
Darkstar ejected the disc from the computer and sat down on her bunk with it. Right. She was a robot, she had a disc drive on her someplace. She had never noticed one, so it was probably hidden under a panel someplace. Euphony's had been visible, just under his chest. Turning away from Clunker out of modesty, Darkstar checked underneath her lower chest panels. There were vents and things that looked like USB ports, but no disc drives. On a whim, she opened her canopy.
Luckily, her disc drive was down in her nosecone. She didn't have to ask Clunker where it would be and look stupid again. It was a bit unnerving, but she inserted the disc.
Right. Now she had to figure out how to play it. Maybe it was like the maps – now that it was in her head, she could call it up like a memory. She knew 'Numb' was on the disc. Darkstar thought of the song, playing it in her mind …
… And it worked.
"Argh!" Clunker threw his pliers at her, which bounced off her wing. "You're broadcasting!"
"Sorry!" Darkstar closed off the other connections. Of course, her radio would work then, when she didn't want it to.
Music played in her mind. It wasn't as worrying as when people called her on her internal radio, because she was the one in control of it. It was like having a song in her head, only so clearly that it might have been playing on an ordinary radio. She wasn't sure how to change tracks, but found that if she just relaxed and let it play, it would switch by itself.
Darkstar listened to her twenty-nine songs, recognising only half of them, but loving them all because they were human voices speaking of human experiences in her native language. She listened to the full playlist twice, then moved on to the nature sounds.
Euphony had made excellent choices. Whalesong, the murmur of a crowd, the sound of waves … Darkstar knew she should stop before she got too sentimental, but she couldn't. The sounds were her only link with home.
The track changed, and while Euphony must have considered it a soothing sound, Darkstar didn't – a cow mooed in her head. Clunker yelled at her again as Darkstar cracked up, and she decided that if she ever found a way, she would thank Euphony for making her laugh.
When Darkstar noticed the sound, her first thought that it was Discard making it. He was at the table, working on some largish device she couldn't recognise. After a moment, she traced its true source – Smashup, sitting on his bunk, vacantly drawing his fingers across a small sheet of rusted metal. There was a gleam of white along one edge, and with a sick feeling, she realised it was the piece of Stopgap's armour he had taken.
Discard suddenly banged a wrench on the table. "Smashup! Take it outside." The tank-person growled, but left.
"That was the piece he took from Stopgap," said Darkstar. "I mean, I know the noise was annoying, but I think he just misses him."
Discard gave her a long, disbelieving look. "You never got it. Smashup's a rodophiliac."
"Rust-fetishist. I don't think Stopgap was really an autocorroder – not compulsively – but he did it for Smashup. I have no idea what he saw in him."
"Neither do I. He never told me." Memory waved a flag. Autocorroder. 'Crody? Suddenly one of Steelcast's slang terms made sense. "Stopgap said he was always covered in rust because Smashup liked it," Darkstar said. "I thought it was a bit weird, but …"
"Uh-huh. It didn't affect their battle performance and they kept it private for the most part, so I figured they could have their kinks." Discard sighed and poked the wrench at the innards of the device. "And now Stopgap's gone."
Darkstar nodded. "And Smashup misses him."
Her team leader snorted. "Misses his rust-patches, anyway. Stopgap kept him under control."
"He what? I thought that Smashup was …"
Discard shook his head. "Oh, no. Stopgap was firmly in charge of their weird little partnership. If Smashup didn't do what Stopgap said, Stopgap could just go have his rust-patches treated, and Smashup wasn't sure what Stopgap would do if he tried to force the issue. Someone obsessed enough about you to contract a disfiguring disease for you … well, he must be pretty crazy."
"But Stopgap seemed so nice."
"You can afford to be nice to people when you've got a twenty-tonne tank at your beck and call who can beat the gears out of anyone who isn't nice back," said Discard. "Anyway, now Smashup will be looking for a new playmate. If he finds one before we get a replacement, things'll probably go back to the way they were. If we get a replacement first, Smashup might leave to find someone else who'll be rusty for him. If we're lucky."
"If we're not?"
"If we're not, then he's going to start looking at us, and he's not scared of us." Discard leaned back and tapped his wrench against the back of Darkstar's arm. "You're the one he's most likely to go after."
Darkstar glared. "He thinks I'd be easy?"
"You're rust-coloured in places."
"That's just paint! My hygiene is fine, thank you very much."
"Yeah, but the idea's there." Discard sat back. "If he gets pushy with you, kill him."
She blinked. "What?"
"You heard me."
Right. One more reason to abandon the now-familiar Porphuras and get to Jekka.
Darkstar told Discard she was going into the city for a while. Discard told Darkstar that he didn't care.
She went back up to Euphony's music store. Something had occurred to her from when she first spoke to him.
The door opened when she tapped the control, and Darkstar was extremely surprised to find Euphony sitting on the floor, talking to Scowl. He was holding the little box that Discard had been fixing. Euphony touched a key …
… Darkstar had never liked bagpipe music. The noises that came from the box sounded like the highest notes of a bagpipe, if the bagpipe was a woman being murdered. Euphony played for a few minutes – just doing scales, as near as Darkstar could tell – then handed it back to Scowl with a look of satisfaction. "There. It's tuned."
"When I finish my composition, you'll get the first copy," Scowl promised.
Euphony laughed. "For just a tuning? Put me in your debt! No, here …"
The sound collector got to his feet, opened a drawer on the wall, and pulled out two discs. Scowl took them. "What's this?"
"Thundercrush stopped by a few days ago to drop off his latest work."
Scowl vanished the discs. "Two copies?"
"One's for Slog. Deliver it and we're even. Thundercrush is still trying to convert him to opera, and you'll probably see him before I do."
"Maybe, maybe not."
Scowl left, with barely an 'oh, it's you' glance at Darkstar. Euphony smiled at her. "Ah, the only other person on this planet who appreciates xeno music. The disc was to your liking?"
"Yes, very much so," said Darkstar. "I want to thank you again. I was so surprised to find someone else who's interested in Earth."
"Oh, I'm not interested in the place specifically," said Euphony. "I merely like voices and how they're used."
It was a bit of a blow to be told that the sum of one's entire planetary music culture was just a point of interest to somebody. But, it reminded her that she had business. "You said you have contacts on Earth. Can you get a message there?"
"I could, but remember my neutrality," said Euphony. "I will not work for either Autobots or Decepticons."
"No, it's a personal message to a couple of humans," Darkstar explained.
The sound collector shook his head. "Humans sometimes work for Autobots. And sometimes for Decepticons. If I render aid to either faction, the other will take that as permission to kill me."
"This has nothing to do with the war! It's just to two people I know and they have nothing to do with Transformers at all. Listen –" She said, in English: "'Caitlin is alive and well. She can't come home now, maybe never, but she'll try. She loves you and misses you and is sorry she was such a jerk before she left … She's all right. Don't worry. Please.'"
Euphony frowned. "It's not in any code I recognise, but I don't know them all."
"It's not a code. It's just a letter."
"And I have only a Decepticon's word on that." He held up his hand before she could protest. "Darkstar, no. Earth's currently a contested territory. While that makes it easy for me to get samples, it means I can do little else without fear of retribution."
Samples, again. Anything from music recordings to human beings. Without even a glance back, Darkstar ran out the door, heading back to the subway.
Darkstar had promised herself that she would only ask Mindwipe for help if it was a life-or-death situation and there were no other options.
She had been kidnapped. If she had been killed by an ordinary murderer, at least her body would be found and her parents would know what happened to her. This way, she just vanished and they would be left wondering forever. They might be blaming themselves, the way she blamed herself. They might be blaming her, thinking she had run away on purpose.
It was life-or-death, she decided – the guilt and worry were killing her. Darkstar went to find Mindwipe.
She found his place again easily enough. She couldn't find a doorbell, but the door opened when she approached. Darkstar thought that she should have been worried by that, but wasn't. She knew Mindwipe had some way of keeping track of her. Besides, he still reminded her of Dracula, and the automatically-opening door was a staple of horror movies.
Or maybe Mindwipe just left his door unlocked out of habit. Whichever.
As it was when she left, only one path was lit. At least Mindwipe didn't seem to mind her coming back … unless she was being led into a trap. She followed the lights anyway.
He wasn't in his lab this time. The lights led her to a large, dark room with a floor done in blue and purple mosaic tiles. Mindwipe sat on a low couch in the centre of the room, seemingly meditating. His visor was dark, but lit up red when she stepped into the room. "Keatrai. Why do you return to me?"
"I … I need your help."
"You have survived for four months as you count time in the Decepticon army without my assistance, and now you want help?"
"You did help me once," Darkstar reminded him. "Back when they first signed me up for the army. You got me my identification."
Mindwipe got to his feet. "Well, otherwise things would have ended right there, and I had invested too much time in you for that. What do you want of me?"
"I want to get a message to Earth, but Euphony – he's a sound collector – won't send it for me in case it's a Decepticon trick," Darkstar explained. "And then I thought that if he wouldn't do it, and that you must have contacts …" She ran across the room to him. "Can you get a message to Earth?" she asked, clinging to his shoulders. "You've got contacts – you must, someone brought me to you …"
Mindwipe delicately removed her hands from him. "My contacts do not work that way. I may only file requests and receive."
"Request that someone delivers my message, then!"
He did it almost casually. The heel of his hand connected with her chin in something between a slap and a punch. "You may not order me. Remember that."
The blow hadn't hurt much, but it shocked her. Mindwipe had never raised a hand to her before. Though she had never really talked back to him before … "Please," she whispered. "Please help me."
He let her cringe for another ten seconds before he nodded. "I will. Lead the way to this sound collector of yours."
Darkstar walked ahead of him, out up to the street. "You aren't going to hurt him, are you?"
"Oh, no." Out of the tunnels, Mindwipe walked beside her. "I will merely ask him to help you."
"He said that the Autobots would kill him if he helped a Decepticon."
Mindwipe smiled. "Ah, but you are not truly a Decepticon, are you? And I know that your message is entirely innocent, so Euphony will not actually be engaged in any wrongdoing, even by his own rules."
The sound collector was toying with one of the instruments on the wall when they came in. Mindwipe fixed him with a steady gaze. "Euphony."
He turned, seemed to freeze for an instant, then relaxed. "Can I help you?"
"Yes," said Mindwipe. "Darkstar wishes to send a message to a pair of humans on Earth. You will send it."
"Oh, of course."
"Prepare to record. Darkstar, tell him your message."
Darkstar repeated her message, though this time included her parents' names and address. When she finished, Euphony nodded. "That's all?"
"And you will make certain that the Earth-contact who receives the message to deliver is Soundwave," said Mindwipe.
"Sure," said Euphony. Darkstar couldn't figure out why Euphony was suddenly being so agreeable when she remembered what Flywheels had said months ago. He wasn't just joking when he had said Mindwipe could hypnotise people.
"Get it to your first contact immediately, then erase your memory of this transaction."
"Why Soundwave?" asked Darkstar as they walked back to Mindwipe's apartment.
"Because I am certain that he will deliver the message to your parents," he said. "Without the request, Euphony is equally likely to pass the message on to an Autobot for delivery. But if the Autobots on Earth trace the message back and learn it was originally posted by a Decepticon, they will not deliver it."
"You hypnotised him."
She glanced at him sideways. "Did you ever hypnotise me?"
Mindwipe snorted. "You were under thrall most of the time you were with me at the beginning. It kept you quiet."
So that was why she hadn't panicked. That was good, she supposed, but it worried her that she never noticed that it happened. Mindwipe's victims thought their ideas were still their own. Even Euphony had seemed to act naturally, though Mindwipe made him do something he said he would never do.
After a few blocks, something occurred to her. "Mindwipe?"
"I've been trying to learn how to fly. I know this body can fly and it has all the programming for it," said Darkstar. "But I can't do it, no matter how hard I try."
"Then you are probably trying too hard," said Mindwipe. "Keatrai, you are a Decepticon. Flight should be natural for you, but your mind keeps getting in the way."
"But I'm not a Decepticon."
"That's your whole problem right there."
A few days later, they got a new teammate. Discard jerked a thumb over his shoulder at what had been Stopgap's bunk. "Your berth is over there. You might want to give it a scrubbing before you use it. The one before you had rust problems."
The newcomer nodded, "Yes, sir," and Darkstar felt an irrational surge of joy. They had another female on the team. Again, she didn't look female at all – she sort of reminded Darkstar of Discard in grungy orange because she had a patchy look to her – but the voice was enough. It was terribly rasping, but in a feminine pitch.
"I can show, um, him around, if you want," said Darkstar.
"Roadkill," said the newcomer.
Discard waved them away without looking up. "Fine. Go."
Darkstar led Roadkill out. "I'm Darkstar. There isn't really that much to see, I guess, but I know that I could have really used a tour when I first showed up."
Roadkill looked amused. "Trying to get your hooks in me before your boss does?"
"What? No." Darkstar thought that over. "A little," she admitted. "Discard doesn't need to put an effort into it because he's useful. I have to work to make friends and it never turns out right."
Despite her unpleasant name, Darkstar found Roadkill fairly easy to talk to. Though that might not have been anything more than that she had more confidence than she used to, or that Roadkill seemed female and Darkstar hadn't immediately said anything stupid to her like she did with Steelcast.
The tour went well for the first fifteen minutes. Then Darkstar said, "This is the secondary common room," waved Roadkill on ahead of her, and was about to go through the door when someone grabbed her by her wings and yanked her back into the hallway.
She pulled away and turned – too quickly because she banged a wing on the wall. Darkstar frowned. "Hi, Smashup."
"You used to talk to Stopgap," rumbled the tank-person. "You know I'm looking for a new partner."
"I'm not interested."
"Stopgap liked you," Smashup continued as if she hadn't spoken. "Said you were open-minded. So I'll make the same deal with you as he made with me – you rust up, you get me."
"I wouldn't know what to do with you," Darkstar huffed primly.
Smashup laughed. "You think I never noticed how you fight? You follow me. You use me like a shield, a firedraw, and as a way to soften up the enemy. I could do that full-time."
"I've been doing perfectly well on my own."
"Because you've been hiding behind me and because you have no pride," Smashup said. "Hook up with me. Next time someone gets on your case about not being able to fly, you could tell him, 'I may not be able to fly, but at least I still have my head.'"
If he wasn't serious, she would have laughed. "I don't need your help."
"See how far not having my help gets you in the next battle," he snapped.
"I will, then." She turned to leave, but he caught her hand. "Let go."
"Instead of rust-coloured paint, it could be real rust," he said. "It would be like art."
There was the clonk of a gun barrel tapping metal plate. "Things that are 'like art' tend to get demolished by people who make things that are art," said Roadkill from behind Smashup. "And I don't want that kind of attention anywhere near me."
"Hnh." But he let Darkstar go, pushed past Roadkill, and disappeared down the hall.
Roadkill vanished her gun. "I noticed I had lost my tour guide. Who was that?"
"Smashup. One of the team, unfortunately," said Darkstar. "His … partner, I guess, died a few days ago, and he's looking for a new one."
"What, no period of mourning?"
"I think he did it already, and I'm not sure how close they really were." Darkstar shook her head. "He's pushy. Discard's worried about what he might do. Now I am, too. Thanks for the save – I don't know what he'd have done if you hadn't stopped him." If Smashup had been human, Darkstar could guess what he would have tried if they were alone. Since he was a robot pervert instead of the ordinary kind, maybe he would have poured corrosives on her and stroked the resulting rust patches. Darkstar shuddered.
"I was the handler for the Stunticons for a while," said Roadkill. "One tank isn't real scary after that."
Darkstar recognised the words as assurance even though she had no idea what a 'Stunticon' was. "Maybe not for you. Smashup was telling the truth – I rely on him in fights. Without him, I'm dead, and he knows it." She sighed. "I've been meaning to go to Jekka for a while now anyway, but I just never had the chance to go. Now I've got another reason to get out of here."
Roadkill nodded. "What's in Jekka?"
"It's the closest spaceport to Porphuras."
"You're not trying to get off-planet just because of Smashup, are you?"
"No, other reasons. I want to go to Earth," said Darkstar, and waited for Roadkill to give her a funny look.
Roadkill gave her a funny look. "Why? It's weird there. The xenos are walking bags of chemicals and they get stuck in your wheels." She thought about that. "Well, my wheels, anyway. But I bet one would gum you up pretty good if it was caught in your gears."
Darkstar knew she sounded too eager, but couldn't control it. "You were there? How did you get there?"
"Space-bridge up in Polyhex, but they don't let you use it without a really good reason. It's all the elite up there because it's the front line. You and me, we don't make the cut."
"Then I still need to get to Jekka," she said, but filed away the information in case she needed it. Darkstar frowned. "Do I have to put in a request for a transfer, or do I have to just hope they send me there?"
Roadkill chuckled. "You just sneak out when nobody's looking and tell the base where you end up to put you to work. I mean, that's pretty much what I did. They got tired of me on Earth, so they sent me back up to Cybertron. But I've never liked Polyhex, so I just made my way south."
When Darkstar didn't say anything for a minute, Roadkill shook her head. "I can just tell Discard you left if you don't want to deal with him."
"I guess it was obvious what I was thinking," Darkstar admitted. "But I need to go back and pick up my stuff. And I should tell him myself anyway."
Discard was disappointed when Darkstar told him she was leaving, but he didn't try to stop her. He seemed convinced that she was leaving because of Smashup. That was part of it, certainly, and better Discard think that. Trying to explain that she ultimately wanted to get to Earth would have required more explanation.
She was cannon-fodder. She would go be cannon-fodder in Jekka, then. It wasn't as if anyone really cared.
One person might. Darkstar went back to tell Mindwipe.
He didn't seem interested. He didn't even look up from the computer he was working on in his lab. "Go, then. I gave you your freedom months ago. Use it."
"I thought I should get your permission first."
"You have no need of it. I do not own you."
"I'm going to Jekka."
Mindwipe sighed. "I will have one of my associates look you up when you arrive, then."
It was strange, but it made her feel better. Darkstar had spent her teenage years rolling her eyes at parents who wanted to know where she was going and what she was doing, and now she found she wanted that. Having Mindwipe nearby was … comforting, in a way. She hated him for what he did to her, but he was still the most protection she had on this planet. Mindwipe kept tabs on her. If she got in really serious trouble, there was the chance that he would bail her out.
But he couldn't do it from across the state.
Darkstar had decided as soon as Mindwipe had first let her go that she wasn't just going to accept her fate. Porphuras was familiar to her now, but it had nothing for her.
The subway barely took her to the city limits before it had to stop due to tunnel damage. Darkstar went back to the surface, found the road headed west, and started the long walk to Jekka.
Acknowledgements: Haze, Gash, and Fleetwind belong to Sailor Loon. Roadkill belongs to Monoko Destabilized. 'Numb' was already credited to Linkin Park. 'Hamlet' is by Shakespeare. 'The Raven' is by Edgar Allen Poe. However, I have no idea who started the 'Man From Nantucket' limerick.