The Solarflare Chronicles: The Novel
Author's Note: I admit, I am a perfectionist; when the time came to start thinking about this year's National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo/NaNo) novel, I was considering two: the sequel to my previous NaNo novel, Vahazayi, or a redo of The Solarflare Chronicles. The choice, when it came down to it, was an easy one. I had been flitting ideas around in my head as to how to improve the Chronicles (hereafter referred to as SCR, for The Solarflare Chronicles: Revised) for a while, and NaNo seemed the perfect venue for my overactive imagination.
As I said, I'm a bit of a perfectionist. The first Chronicles was a mess, and it's only up here to show that over time, you CAN improve. (Well, that, and when I first wrote it, I was newly back into the fandom. Your perceptions tend to fade with time.) Anyway, SCR was supposed to be better than SC, and it was ... for a while. However, I'd written it fast, trying to get out all the basics: Alina's background, her involvement with the Autobots, her friendship with Mirage, her death/rebirth, etc. There was a lot of stuff I left out -- a lot.
Thus, we come to SC:N. It's not a total reimagining; a few things might contradict material found in later stories, such as More Raptor Than Robot, but that's to be expected. I've tried to stay in line with what I've already established, but for the sake of the story, some things have been embellished, cut or revamped.
Is this the end? Probably not. I might try and fix things later on, but to do a complete rewrite? I can't rule that out, because I've rewritten Vahazayi about ten times over the past ten years, and they're not done yet!
March 1, 1986
I can see it in my mind,
I can see it in their eyes.
It's close enough to touch it now,
but far away enough to die.
Saliva, "Click, Click Boom"
It was raining, and that only made things all the better. Alina hunched her shoulders, trying to keep the slanting downfall from running down her collar and into the tips of her shoes. She should have known that it would be useless. The world was funny like that – why, just this afternoon, she had been called into her boss's office at the public relations firm of Harper-Bell and presented with the first promotion in the five years that she had been Mr. Harper's executive assistant (read: secretary). Things flowed smoothly through the rest of the day, but it just wasn't to end that way.
So, here she stood, in nothing but her paper-thin overcoat (already beginning to smell), at a pay phone in the driving rain. Whatever god was watching over her allowed her to have the flat near the booth, but that god was also, apparently, a prankster. Alina twisted her face, trying in vain to tuck her hair back under the hood; it wouldn't do. Lock after lock of black strands were pushed across her calm blue eyes, over the bridge of her nose and into her mouth.
Fumbling in one soggy pocket, she drew forth the correct amount of change, lifted the germ-infested receiver and put them in. To her chagrin and humiliation, each coin landed with a solid thunk in the return slot. Great, she thought, gritting her teeth and retrieving the coins to try again. Rain thudded dully against her back and on the top of her head, trying to drive into her ear and straight through to her stressed-out brain.
At long last, the coins took and she immediately dialed her parents – for that same god who had fortuitously allowed her to stop here also made sure that there was no phone book available. Either that, or someone had taken it upon himself to lift it for their own use. It probably wouldn't have done me any good, Alina muttered as her numbing fingers punched the buttons.
The phone made all the appropriate noises in response to her pushing, but at that final moment before it turned over to start ringing, the skies opened up and a massive bolt of lightning shot across the heavens. With a horrible shriek – both from phone and woman – the line went irrefutably dead.
Alina dropped the receiver as if it carried a charge and huddled against the booth, rain streaming down her face. Not a few feet away, her silver Cavalier sat smugly, taunting her with that flat.
"Now what do I do?" she moaned, gathering up the soggy remnants of her bargain basement overcoat to the bottom of her chin in a vain effort to keep warm. Water conveniently pressed into her mouth and she coughed, spitting on the sidewalk. Tears, which would normally have been visible in the dry hours, mixed with the rain, and Alina would never have known that she was crying had she not felt so miserable.
Dejectedly, she looked at the Cavalier, then once up the road and back again. Not a soul in sight. Shit. Hopping off the curb, she reached the driver's side door and was about to open it when she heard the sounds of another vehicle approaching from behind. With her father's warnings of taking aid from strangers on a dark and stormy night ringing in the back of her mind, she looked up, peering through the torrential storm. Headlights, bright and beacon-like, pierced her eyes as the car drew closer, driving slowly, wipers going double-time.
The jeep, top covered and looking a queer shade of green in the darkening evening, put its blinker on and pulled to the side, parking neatly behind the Cavalier. Stunned, Alina pulled back from the car door, tilting her head to get a better look. Two people moved within; the jeep's driver's-side door popped open, followed quickly by a blue golf umbrella.
"Trouble, miss?" a gruff voice called out against the downpour.
Alina blinked. Could it be?
The hidden man ran up to her and extended the umbrella, giving her the first true look at her savior.
"Mr. Witwicky!" she exclaimed, almost dropping her hold of her collar.
The balding, stocky man looked right back at her, eyes widening as he tried to place her. Confusion flickered briefly, only to be swiftly replaced by recognition. "Little Lina Michaels! My word, it's been a long time. What are you doing here? Last I heard from your parents, you were in California on an internship."
Alina laughed, the first wave of relief that she'd felt in a long time. "We've been out of touch, then, Mr. Witwicky. I was interning with a PR firm, and when I graduated, I got hired for Harper-Bell back here in Portland. I've been here for five years and you haven't noticed!"
Sparkplug Witwicky chuckled in amused embarrassment, rubbing the back of his head with his free hand. "Well, we haven't been around town for about as long, Alina." He paused, taking in her soggy features as if for the first time. "Dammit. Girl, we've got to get you dry. What happened to your car?"
Alina sighed, shoulders dropping, and with it, her hood. Shiny black hair, plastered into a wet mass, rolled around her neck. "Flat."
Sparkplug peered around her, making a quick assessment. "I see," he grunted. "Well, we can get that fixed up nice and quick. Why don't you hop in and we'll get some help?"
What a welcome respite it was to hear those words! Alina smiled gratefully and took Sparkplug's proffered arm back to the Jeep. The door to the passenger's side popped open eagerly, and who should appear but little Spike! But the face she'd remembered from all those years babysitting had matured into a young man – albeit still trying to shake off some roundness of adolescence.
"Alina! Get in!" he cried out in welcome, chivvying over so that she could grab a seat.
Sparkplug ushered her in, then made his way to the driver's side, curtly folding up the golf umbrella and tucking it into the back.
Air, deliciously warm and invigorating, blew on her face. With a sigh, Alina reached forward to angle it more towards her hair; as her fingertips were but millimeters away, the vent turned obligingly. Startled, she pulled back, her coat making wet, slopping sounds against the leather seat. Next to her, Spike slid a glance towards his father. Sparkplug shrugged.
Eyes wide, Alina looked from vent to Witwicky.
"Terribly sorry," a voice from the ether apologized. The vent tipped forward, blowing air across her lap. "But I'd rather not you catch cold. You seem to have been out there a long time." Another vent began throwing a stream of warm air over her saturated shoes. "You'll find a towel in the glove compartment." – which obligingly popped open.
Realization stabbed painfully into her numb brain. Now that her hair had been pushed back from her face, Alina could see that the dashboard was anything but ordinary. What could only be described as futuristic paneling spread out from door to door. Dials and gauges that did not come standard on her Cavalier blinked and flashed in time with the wipers.
With a sheepish smile, Spike reached across her, took the towel and pressed it into her hands. "Yeah, Hound's an Autobot."
With surprise and shock fading, Alina grasped the towel and began to wipe her face. The air that Hound was blowing was already drying out her hair, turning it into a bushy mane. "You know," she began slowly, awareness that she was sitting in a living being never more prominent in her mind, "in the two years that you've been here, I've yet to see any of you on the streets."
Hound chuckled, a very pleasant, if slightly-metallic, sound. Some lights on his panel blinked accordingly. "You say you work at Harper-Bell?" He paused, waiting for her nod. "A little out of our usual patrol range. We just don't go that way."
Sparkplug and Spike smiled encouragingly. "Say, Hound," the elder Witwicky proposed, "would you mind giving Hoist a call? We need to get Ms. Michaels' car a new tire."
"Already placed, received and acknowledged," the chipper reply asserted. "He'll be here in a few clicks. So just sit tight and dry off. Ratchet would have my drive shaft if I brought you back to base a shivering wreck." The wryness of Hound's tone brought a smile to Alina's face.
In the time that it took for this mysterious Hoist to arrive, she and the Witwickys filled each other in on the gaps in their lives. Alina sat patiently, listening to Spike's account of how the Autobots had rescued them from the Decepticons and the burning oil rig. As more adventures spun from the youth's mouth, she couldn't help but feel a little inferior in comparison. Surely, she had a great job and that promotion this afternoon was nothing to sneeze at – but, it wasn't often one got to be friends with an alien race.
Hound chimed in now and then, gently correcting or teasing Spike. Alina found herself warming up to the persona behind the automotive exterior in more ways than one. The tales finally wound up to the present when a cheerful, if oddly-accented voice came over Hound's internal speakers. Alina turned around and saw another pair of headlights winking in the dwindling rain; as she did so, the one wet point on her bottom squelched against the seats.
Embarrassment swept hot along her cheeks, and she reached for the damp rag she'd tucked back into Hound's glove compartment. The Autobot merely chuckled as Spike and Sparkplug climbed out to help Hoist with her car.
"Ah, never mind with that," the Jeep laughed. "I doubt rot will be setting in any time soon."
Still clutching the rag, Alina frowned. "It can't be pleasant," she argued, shifting over and wiping the seat. Hound remained noncommittal, but she got a feeling of amusement coming from the panel. It occurred to her, as she was drying up the last bit of water, that she was almost feeling up the innards of another person – metallic, but a person. Hastily, she dabbed at her rear, stuffed the rag into her pocket and slid back into her seat as the door opened and Spike and Sparkplug piled on in. Ahead, the tow-truck that was Hoist had finished winching up the Cavalier.
"Ready to go when you are," Hoist proclaimed cheerily.
Automatically, Alina reached for the seatbelt and stopped. Next to her, Spike and Sparkplug were pulling theirs on with nary a thought. Well, she mused, they're friends, so I suppose pulling on your friend's intestines are okay.
"Buckle-up, Lina," Sparkplug called out, grinning. Shoulders sloped with chagrin, she did as she was told. Hound's engine revved, and he pulled off the curb, following the lurid red break lights of her Cavalier.
The rain had all but dwindled to a few sprinkles as Hound drove up the winding rocky path to the Autobot's entombed spaceship in Mt. St. Hillary. The drive to the Ark had mellowed Alina's initial trepidation towards the Autobot, and she leaned her elbow on the door, looking out into the night illuminated by the Jeep's headlights. Sharp-angled rocks, odd cacti and various nocturnal fauna met her curious gaze. That is, until they finally reached the Ark.
Eyes wide, Alina looked up – and up – at the massive craft, the only indicator of its immense size being four giant boosters and a bit of hull sticking out of the side of the mountain. Golden light shone in the darkness from the wide-mouthed bay that Hoist was currently towing her car into.
Hound pulled in as far as past the lip of the bay before coming to a halt and politely popping open his doors. Not knowing what to expect, Alina climbed out, followed by Spike; Sparkplug grabbed the golf umbrella before the doors clicked shut and the forest green Jeep began a most amazing change. As Alina watched with a pounding heart and gaped mouth, the Jeep that was Hound began to shift – parts pulled away from each other, metal scraped on metal and bent in on itself until there was no Jeep parked on the burnt orange bay floor … but a tall, blocky robot. Hound groaned and stretched, rotating his arms so that droplets of water splashed on either side of the bay. He turned, and Alina could see his face: grey, framed by a dark green helm with two bright, blue glass eyes winking merrily. The biggest smile stretched across what must have been malleable metal, showing off the barest hint of what could be termed teeth.
"Nice to see you on a more normal level, Alina," the green Autobot said, stooping down on one knee and holding out a large black finger.
Well, she'd been around stranger things all day, so shaking hands with a robot wasn't that difficult. With a smile of her own, she reached out and took the proffered finger, noting that Hound wasn't as large as he first appeared. His finger, to be true, was about as long as her arm, or possibly her leg, but that was about as big as he got. Fourteen or fifteen feet at the most, she decided, using her own height as a reference point.
"The same," she replied. The sounds of Hoist's engine had dwindled down to silence, and she peered around the Autobot to look.
Hound took note. "Well, let me just dry off, and I'll show you where the repairs happen."
Sparkplug came around to her left and laid a hand on her shoulder. "In the meantime, why don't I get you some coffee?"
"Tea," she replied automatically. "If you have some."
The older Witwicky pursed his lips, balding brow furrowing as he tried to recall if they had anything of the sort. "Well, I think we might. Carly likes to drink chamomile now and then."
The name was unfamiliar. "Carly?"
Behind his father, Spike's face turned a curious shade of pink. Hound, ever perceptive, began laughing as he wiped his blocky arms with a very large towel. Sparkplug gave a short chuckle at his son's expense as well before answering. "Carly's Spike's girlfriend."
"She is not!" the youth protested, his ears turning red.
"Oh, I think she is, son," his father retorted merrily, grinning and dropping that obvious uncomfortable subject to draw his arm around Alina's shoulders. "C'mon. Let's raid the kitchen."
"Hey! Hound! What the slag is going on here? I just saw Hoist towing some car into the repair bay. What'd you do – go out and make another friend with the locals?"
Sparkplug's arm tightened around her shoulders and half-turned her in order to see a large yellow form stumping towards them. "Sunstreaker," he whispered in her ear. "All bark, usually, but he can sure as hell bite – hard."
Hound folded his arms, the rag dangling from his fingertips casually. "You could say that," he replied nonchalantly. "Just helping a friend of Spike and Sparkplug's."
Sunstreaker stopped right in front of Hound, towering over the rougher, stockier Jeep. The yellow mech's face could very well have been termed classical, Alina thought, had it not been for the sneer that was stretched across it. "Right. You seem to like collecting humans like Spike here collects those little cardboard things with other humans' images on it. Just one more, eh, Hound?" And he jabbed the Jeep in the side with his hard, rounded elbow joint. Hound grunted, but bulldog-like, stood his ground without much movement.
Sunstreaker, seeing that there was no game to be had here, snorted and turned on his heel, stalking back to the rear of the bay.
"Well," the Jeep announced, seeming to stuff the rag directly into his right side, "shall we go on?"
Alina, a little more perturbed than scared, tipped her head in the direction that Sunstreaker had taken. "I take it he doesn't like us?"
Hound gave a short, rueful laugh. "Oh, I think he likes Spike and Sparkplug well enough, Chip, too – it's just that too many makes him a little uneasy." He paused, grinning. "Just don't tell him I said that, or he'll have my head as a target on the range. Well, this way."
Sparkplug dropped his hand from Alina's shoulder and turned to his son. "Why don't you run to the kitchens, Spike, and see if there's any tea? We'll be in Repairs."
Eagerly, the younger Witwicky bobbed his head and jogged off down a hall in the right wall of the bay. Alina watched him go, falling into step beside Sparkplug as they walked with Hound. "You know, Mr. Witwicky, you really didn't have to go through all this trouble …"
Sparkplug merely smiled. "What're old family friends for, Alina? You changed more of Spike's diapers than I did – I figure it's a fair trade."
She grinned at the old memories of chasing little Spike around the living room as he waved his diaper about, completely nude. Such recollections would certainly "scar" the young man for life – especially in the presence of his newfound friends. "I guess so …"
The main bay branched off into several halls and an elevator. Hound evenly paced them down the center hall and down a short slope, which quickly opened up into a wide theatre. Burnt orange seemed to be the theme of this ship, she decided, glancing about at the walls, floor and ceiling. The only other color was the blue of the screens, and the odd lines that stretched across them. A rather squat Autobot with a nozzle for a hand had her Cavalier up on a platform and was tinkering with something in the undercarriage. A brand new tire was sitting squarely in place of the flat. Other than themselves, there was no one else around.
"How's it coming, Hoist?" Hound called out affably. The one-handed Autobot ducked from underneath the platform and dusted off his one appendage.
"Tire's changed, but I found a few things worth tinkering with – if you don't mind," he added, inclining his head towards Alina.
Startled, it took her a moment for speech to kick in. Well, if she was getting a tune-up for free, why the hell not? "Of course," she said at last with a little head-bob of her own. "I really appreciate what you're doing for me. It's really nice of you."
Hoist chuckled. "Well, I figure a few good deeds will help the population see us as more than rampant war machines. This should take about an hour of your time; I'll call you when it's ready." With a little wave of his fingers, he ducked back under the platform and got to work.
"Here's your tea, Alina," Spike called out, walking with short, quick steps towards them, a steaming mug in hand. Smiling, she took it and breathed deep of the mist that was rising from the mug: chamomile. Not her favorite by any means, but it was palatable – and hot.
"I also brought you a brush."
Shocked, Alina almost dropped her tea. Sparkplug turned to glare at his only child. "Spike …" The younger Witwicky's face dropped, along with the brush which he began to stuff back into his pocket.
Glancing around for a place to put her mug, Alina let it sit by her foot as she plucked the brush from Spike's fingertips. "No, no, it's all right, Mr. Witwicky." No wonder that big yellow bucket looked at me so rudely, she thought, trying to get the brush through that first snarled lock of hair without yelping. I must look like a bird's nest.
Sparkplug's face softened a little, and some light returned to Spike's. "All right," he relented. "And, Alina?"
She looked up from a particularly nasty knot at the tips. Sparkplug winked at her. "Call me 'Sparkplug', okay? 'Mister' makes me feel too old."
"Old habits die hard?" she offered up with a grin.
"Sometimes they do," he agreed. "Look, we can sit over here. The Autobots humanized a lot of the Ark as a courtesy to us. I like to sit here and watch Ratchet and Wheeljack work, and up in Medical, too. Sometimes they let me help. I figure it's the least I can do."
There was a small table for two in a safe corner of the work area, far away from the massive equipment, but angled so that anyone could see all of the large repair bay. Spike took the opportunity to wander away, down another hall, his adolescent mind having had enough of grown-up conversation for one day.
Sparkplug talked quietly of various things that went on at the Ark, and as he did, Alina kept her counsel, alternating sipping at her tea and brushing her hair. At one point, sometime around eight o'clock, a low purr of an engine echoed around the main bay, pushing forward to announce the arrival of another Autobot.
"That'd be Mirage," Hound informed them, probably more for Alina's benefit than anyone else's. She half-suspected that Sparkplug, having been around the Autobots for so long, knew their sounds by heart.
To her surprise, it wasn't a car, per se, that approached – rather, it was a sleek white-blue Indy F-1 racer, much like the ones her father would occasionally watch when he was bored and there was nothing else on. Setting her empty mug on the table, Alina leaned forward and watched with growing interest as the race car twisted, turned and expanded into a lithe mech with a blue helm that framed his light blue face much like a pharaoh's headdress. He walked over to a cabinet set into the opposite wall, leaving little puddles in his wake; popping a door, he pulled a large white towel out and started fastidiously wiping himself off.
"How's the weather?" Hound asked casually, leaning up against the platform as Hoist finished his machinations.
"Wet," the other mech grunted, turning the towel around and using the drier side on his head. "Real nasty down in sector twelve; not a Decepticon in sight. Personally, I think they're planning something."
Mirage turned the towel around, as if inspecting it. He tossed it on the countertop and reached for another, wiping around his legs. "Haven't heard a whisper in a week. I call that suspicious."
Hound laughed. "Maybe they just don't want to get waterlogged."
The Ligier tipped his head, giving the Jeep a sardonic arch of his brow ridge. "They live in an underwater base, Hound. I call that waterlogged." Three more towels landed on the counter before the white-blue mech considered himself presentable. "What's this – some new project, Hoist?"
"Naw, just doing a friend of Sparkplug's a favor. Fixing a tire and a few other things."
Alina was so caught up in their conversation that she failed to realize that the one called Mirage was suddenly looking directly at her. His face was set in an expression that almost matched the one Sunstreaker had been wearing, except that it looked less … feral – and more bored.
"Mirage," Sparkplug called out, "this is Alina. She used to baby-sit Spike for us when she was younger."
Unlike Hound, who had come down to her level, Mirage merely put his legs apart and bent at the waist joint with a slight whine of hydraulics to look her over. An expression of unease crossed his face, as if he were unaccustomed to the sound. "Well, nice to meet you." He stood up and turned away. "Where's Ratchet? I need a quick check."
"It's just a little squeak, Mirage," Hoist offered amiably. "It'll go away. Just stand by a heater or something."
Apparently, this one was not meant for humor, Alina decided as Mirage frowned. Without another word, the white and blue mech moved away, out of the bay – vanishing. Completely gone.
"I must look like a fool, gaping all the time," she noted wryly, trying to force her jaw back into position, looking towards Sparkplug.
"Actually, you're taking it better than most," he admitted, folding his hands over the tabletop. "We've had some people here – like Spike's friends or a few odd individuals – and they positively pee on themselves when one of the Autobots who doesn't look 'normal' turns the corner. One actually did when – would you believe it – Mirage popped out of nowhere. Nothing intentional, but that guy just wanders up and appears whenever he feels like it."
"And that's what makes me the best," a cultured voice noted from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Alina jumped in her seat, but Sparkplug merely looked annoyed, even though Mirage's remark sounded a bit … humorous. "Like that," the elder Witwicky gestured pointedly.
"Hate to break up the party, but your car's ready, Alina."
She looked up to see Hoist lowering the Cavalier to the floor and giving the front bumper a wipe with a rag. "Actually, I replaced all the tires with a type of rubber that shouldn't go flat so easily." Though Hoist possessed no discernable mouth, Alina got the impression from his flashing blue optics that he was smiling.
Getting up, she walked over to the car and looked at Hound and Hoist. "I can't thank you guys enough. Really."
"Not a problem," Hoist affirmed, reaching down to shake hand to pinky. "Stop by when you can."
"Exactly," Hound agreed.
"Alina, why don't you give me your number. We should have dinner together, your family and us, sometime. Catch up."
Brightening, she looked around for something to write with, having nothing in her slightly odorous pockets that wasn't useless. Sparkplug pulled pen and paper from his work shirt pocket and passed it over, and she hastily scribbled not only her number, but her address as well. Sparkplug tucked it away safely and caught Hound's attention. "Could you show Alina down? I don't want her getting hurt in the dark."
The green mech nodded. "I was going to offer, actually." He backed up and in a few short motions, reverted back to the Jeep that Alina had first mistaken him for. It was an amazing process, she thought as she climbed into the Cavalier and started the car. A purr unlike anything she'd ever heard from the silver vehicle's engine was startling until she remembered Hoist's improvements. Perhaps this day isn't shot after all …
Hound pulled out in front of her and she followed, carefully navigating through the enormous orange hall and out into the dark and cool Oregon night.