"Train, I'm getting something on the passives," Octane said as he studied the console in front of him. "Bearing 57 starboard by 22 down, range unknown. Don't have signal strength yet," he added.
"Acknowledged," Astrotrain said in his strong, resonant voice. "Keep tracking it." At Astrotrain's command, the rebuilt Autobot shuttle they were flying swung about onto the new heading.
"The question is," Blitzwing said, "does it need shooting or collecting?"
Octane's wings twitched. "Hopefully it's our target, and something we can just scrape off a rock, box up, and go home with."
"Nah, that would be boring!" Blitzwing responded, taking out his gun and working on it. "I've been going stir-crazy sitting in the back of this bus for weeks. I desperately need to shoot someone--or gut 'em."
"Either one suits me," said Astrotrain. "As long as we get Megatron this energy source, whatever it is."
"Yeah, going home empty-handed wouldn't amuse Megatron much, and he's been a bit less tolerant of failure lately," Blitzwing responded.
"Assuming we don't just fly by it in this electronic soup," Octane said, waving his hand at the glowing nebula outside. "This gas cloud is so thick, and that blue sun is ionizing so much of it, it's like flying in a blizzard, as far as the sensors are concerned."
"Any more planets?" Astrotrain asked.
Octane shook his head. "So far, nothing beyond that coalescing gas giant, and that's too close in for us to survive. I'm getting what may be Oort Cloud rubble out here, but hard to tell--the radar is so glitchy. Too much radiation."
Blitzwing put his gun away, moved up front and sat down at an unused bridge station. One of the viewscreens showed the primary star of the system--a massive type-B sun, hot and blue and deadly with its enormous energy output across the spectrum. Even at this extreme range, out among the cold rubble of comets, the x-ray and gamma radiation from the star would quickly kill most unprotected organics and seriously derange many mechanoids.
The builders of the triple-changers had armored and shielded them to survive on a nuclear battlefield; that was one of the reasons Megatron had sent them on this mission. They could work outside the ship in this system and not die--as long as they didn't push their luck.
Down in close to the star, where a super-Jovian planet was still coalescing out of the interstellar dust that had spawned its sun, the sheer intensity of even the visible light emitted by the blue star would melt all three of them into vapor within seconds, if they were so foolish as to venture there. And that was ignoring the massive stellar storms, spawned by the tortured magnetic field of the rapidly spinning giant, that were sleeting streams of ionized particles in weapons-grade doses through the inner system.
"Impressive," Blitzwing commented. "Next time I get too cocky about my own awesomeness, 'Train, just show me a picture of that thing."
Octane laughed; Astrotrain just smirked.
"You know what's funny?" Octane said. "That star is younger than we are. It's not more than a few thousand years old, and likely to burn out, super-nova and turn into a black hole long before any of us dies, unless we get unlucky in battle."
"Live fast, die young, leave a spectacular cosmic anomaly for a corpse," Astrotrain said.
"That's just weird, having stars around that are younger than me," Blitzwing responded.
"Too much interference--automatic course tracking is glitching on and off," said Astrotrain. "I'm taking manual control."
"That's odd," said Octane.
"What?" asked Astrotrain as he concentrated on holding the course to the energy signature.
"I'm getting some kind of energy discharge aft of us, coupled with ghost images on the radar, about a thousand klicks back. Heavy on the gammas and neutrons, intermittent bursts--"
Blitzwing looked sharply over at Octane. "That sounds like--"
"It's a fusion pulse drive!" Octane exclaimed.
Astrotrain heaved on the shuttle's control yoke, pitching the ship up on end and opened the throttle.
"'Train! What are you--" Octane yelled.
"Getting whoever has a fusion drive back there off my aft!" Astrotrain growled. "I want to see who our shadow is."
The shuttle heaved up and over in a vast loop; the electronic fog of the nebula continued to defy Astrotrain's efforts as he hunted for their pursuers.
"'Train! Whatever is closing fast!" Octane said, voice taunt. "Multiple bursters--I'm getting a large radar ghost--"
Blitzwing strapped in and braced himself, double-checking the position, condition and security of his weapons. Astrotrain slapped the attitude thrusters, pointing the shuttle straight at the unknown pursuer.
"I still can't see anything--" Octane said, a touch of fear in his voice.
"Octane, get your head out of the damn console and look out the slagging window! You've still got optics!" Astrotrain snarled as he stared grimly out the windshield.
Blitzwing looked at the same view--multiple jets of white-hot fusion flame wove back and forth, dimly illuminating like bolts of interstellar lightning the huge, darkly metallic shape between them, and the massive cables--no, metallic tentacles!--tying the array of fusion jets together. "What in the Pit is that thing?"
"A legend," Astrotrain said. "Damn those fool Autobots for not arming this ship! BRACE YOURSELVES!"
The tangle of fusion jets suddenly spread wide, an all-encompassing net that reached up to swallow the shuttle whole. The shuttle shuddered as Astrotrain slammed the throttle to full emergency speed and tugged at the yoke, rolling the ship into a complicated sideways slew that sent it hurtling between two of the great tentacles.
One of the tentacles immediately responded, curling in a great loop as the tip-jet zipped it around the shuttle in a spiral. The shuttle abruptly decelerated as it tried to pull the mass of the tentacle along with it--then the tentacle tightened and the hull groaned under the pressure. More tentacles zipped over and wound around the ship, cutting its acceleration further until the shuttle was only gently dragging the monster through space. The shuttle groaned with each impact; hull plates tore and buckled; air whistled as it leaked into space.
"No good!" said Astrotrain, switching to radio communication. "Abandon the shuttle, and follow me! Our only chance is to cripple the tentacles before it cuts our ship and us up into spare parts."
Blitzwing and Octane both popped free of their seat harnesses; Blitzwing took one look at the buckling hull just behind the bridge and drew his energy scimitar. One, two, three, four furious blows, and he'd hacked a new portal through the bridge overhead.
"So what in the Pit is that legendary thing, 'Train?" asked Blitzwing as he maneuvered through the impromptu hatch and out on the hull.
"A pyropod." Astrotrain followed Blitzwing out.
"The kraken of space? But that's just... a myth," Octane said, pulling himself free of the hole in the hull. "A spacer's tall tale."
"Your tall tale is eating our ship," Blitzwing pointed out as he shifted to MiG-shape (like Octane's, his jets had been refitted with an aerospike alternate mode for space work) and swooped along the nearest tentacle to the fusion jet at its tip. Avoiding the deadly rocket, which blasted as hot as Megatron's cannon, Blitzwing shifted to robot mode and swung his electronics-disrupting scimitar at the attachment point of the rocket.
The hard-driven sword slashed through titanium armor, fuel pipes, and control wires; the second swing severed power conduits and the rest of the armor, sending the tip-jet spinning off into space, dead.
The pyropod's tentacle convulsed; the shuttle's hull ruptured like a smashed melon. Other tentacle tips flew over and reversed themselves, the fusion jets turning into cutting torches, slicing into the crushed hull. Deep inside the wrecked shuttle, an automatic distress beacon flared on in programmed response to the massive damage.
"Oh, scrap!" Astrotrain aimed his disrupter rifle at another tip jet and fired; the jet suddenly stuttered and skittered off at an angle, dragging the tentacle with it. As quickly as he could, he targeted another tip-jet and shot it, with similar results.
Octane threw himself at one of the cutting tips and grabbed it just behind the jet. He shot it at close range with his flame thrower; not much happened as the flames splashed on and off the titanium shell. "Scrap! What do I do now?"
The jet surged in his grasp as it dragged itself and Octane toward another tip-jet, which turned its fusion flame to greet them. "Oh slag I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die!" Octane screamed as he desperately hugged the tip-jet he was holding and tried to swing it around between him and the oncoming fusion blast. As he did so, the changed vector forced the tip-jet and the tentacle it was attached to surge upward, carrying Octane above the line of the oncoming fusion jet--and causing it to cleanly sever the tentacle tip Octane was holding.
Blitzwing flew in MiG-shape to another tentacle and methodically hacked the tip off. Tentacles unwound from the ship as the tips maneuvered to attack the triple-changers, or as the pyropod tried to retract its wounded members from the battle.
Five tip-jets and tentacles dove toward Astrotrain. He smirked. "I was wondering when you'd do that, beastie!" He dove off the hull into space, changing into shuttle mode; the tentacles changed course, straining to envelop and crush him. As the first tentacles closed around him, he shifted modes again, to locomotive form. The massive steel train crashed through the thin titanium armor of the tentacles like a bull through a fisherman's net. The tentacles reversed, tips bared for fusion cutting--Astrotrain switched back to robot mode and neatly shot them all.
"Octane, quit screwing around," Blitzwing snarled as Octane flailed in space. In MiG-shape he chased the tentacle that pursued Octane--it was the last functional jet. Octane switched to jet tanker mode and flew away from it, but not fast enough--
Blitzwing switched to robot mode and shot the tentacle with his ionic rifle, disrupting its controls. The tentacle tip spasmed; Blitzwing unsheathed his scimitar and swung, meeting the tentacle head on as it flailed blindly. Tentacle and tip-jet parted company, the latter spinning away into deep space.
Astrotrain switched back to shuttle mode, dodging helplessly flailing tentacles as he returned to the crushed hull of the former Autobot shuttle. He pressed his nose against it and pushed it clear of the frantically thrashing pyropod on its ballistic course.
"And that was a small pyropod," Astrotrain said. "You should see full-grown ones."
Octane and Blitzwing caught up in their plane modes. Octane looked at the mess Astrotrain was pushing clear and said, "Scrap! We are so deep in the Smelting Pools, we can't even see the slag layer from here."
"No," Astrotrain said. "I'm still in control of the situation. Octane, scavenge all the fuel you can out of this wreck and load me up, then yourself, then Blitzwing. Blitzwing, get all our equipment out of there and load it into me, then park your aft inside. I don't want you wasting fuel." As the other two triple-changers moved to fulfill their assigned tasks, Astrotrain added, "Let's hope that energy source is just something we can scrape off a rock and take home."
"We're still going after that?" Octane said.
Blitzwing just laughed.
Astrotrain said, "Are you going to tell Megatron we lost the shuttle and came back empty-handed?"
Astrotrain was correct; the pyropod they'd fought was a small one, a mere space squid. It thrashed and flailed, bleating tiny radionic cries of pain and distress. Countless thousands of kilometers away, its cries were heard.
The ancient pyropod's passive sensors heard the tiny squeals of stubbed-off controls trying vainly to re-establish connections with their jets. Its own jets flared as it homed in on the radio noise. Each jet on this pyropod was easily twice the size of an Autobot shuttle's main engines, and hot enough to whiff a Transformer into vapor. This pyropod, the ancient one, was a true kraken of space.
The central maw opened, revealing the furnace within; a single stunning pulse of electro-magnetic energy stunned the flailing juvenile. The great pyropod's tentacles coiled around the lesser pyropod, auxiliary tendrils holding it in place while outer jets twisted to balance the thrust of the jets turned inward and used as cutting torches.
The great kraken focused the flame of several jets and sliced the stunned juvenile into chunks, chunks that were fed into the yawning maw of the central body--though auxiliary tendrils carefully plucked the juvenile's memory array from the central body and integrated it with the kraken's own memory array. The fusion furnace quickly vaporized the alloys and compounds that made up the body of the juvenile pyropod; the great kraken's internal magnetic fields sorted the vaporized, ionized elements into separate ionic streams that were rejoined with their electrons, precipitated out, and stored for future use.
When it was done feeding, the great kraken re-aligned its jets and magnetic fields; now, an immense magnetic ramscoop sucked up the hydrogen gas of the nebula and fueled the ancient pyropod as it homed in on the next feast.
Two signals attracted its attention: the nearer, an automated distress signal, and the further, the energy signature of an active rocket engine.