Geez, I'm doing a lot of writing lately…
So, this is Swoop's "little" story...although due to the overall scenario of the story that grew in my brain for him, it developed a bit beyond being just about Swoop, as the other little Dinobot stories have been/will be. It's also not so "little" anymore. Swoop is still the main focus of the story, although I got to use some other characters, namely Hound and Trailbreaker, in major-ish roles that I've always wanted to use, too. Bonus!
But anyway, three Dinobots down, two to go… I actually have Snarl's little story close to done, too, and that one is (comparatively) little, so it will probably be posted before this one gets finished posting.
Ironically, however, this initial set-up chapter here contains no Swoop at all. HAH! Still, enjoy!
"Just the bare bones of a name, all rock and ice and storm and abyss. It makes no attempt to sound human. It is atoms and stars. It has the nakedness of the world before the first man - or of the cindered planet after the last."
~Fosco Maraini, contemplating K2's name
If he hadn't known better, Optimus Prime would have guessed that a human child had created the hologram of the mountain that was spinning slowly and serenely in front of him. It was a nearly-perfect pyramid, the kind of mountain that children drew all the time but that he'd thought didn't exist in the real world. He'd been wrong; the mountain of which the hologram was a representation loomed directly behind him, and it was indeed almost perfectly pyramidal. It stood silently, ancient glaciers and thick oceans of snow blanketing its steep, forbidding flanks. The summit was, at the moment, concealed by thick masses of angry, grey-white clouds that he knew were dumping meters of snow on the mountain's higher elevations. Hurricane-force winds were buffeting the mountain, to boot. Optimus shuddered inwardly at the thought.
He raised his gaze from the hologram of the mountain and slowly fixed it in turn on the small group of Autobots gathered around it.
"I need options, people," he announced quietly, his voice sounding absurdly calm to his own audios. It was the fruit of long experience, he supposed; leaders weren't allowed the luxury of showing apprehension, much less panic, in crisis situations. But panic was very present at the back of his mind, try as he might to ignore it. Turning his back to the cold, intimidating mountain hadn't eased his mind in the least.
After their leader's announcement, everyone's gaze slowly shifted toward and then came to rest upon a single Autobot in the small gathering, who in turn resisted the urge to squirm under the scrutiny.
"I'm really not sure there are options, Prime," Hound answered calmly enough after a moment's thought, his tone belying his unease at being the sudden center of attention, not to mention his unease about the subject and the situation at hand. "Besides the obvious one."
"Which is?" Prime asked, curious. He didn't see anything obvious about the situation, after all.
"Climb it," Hound answered with a shrug that was far too casual and cavalier for the situation at hand, and he of all people knew it. "Climb it, find them, and bring them down."
"Climb it?" Slag echoed, incredulous; he knew that Hound's suggestion was far too cavalier as well. "In February?! In this weather?! You crazy!" he spat scathingly.
"Do you have a better option, Slag?" Hound shot back, scowling at the Dinobot. "Your brother is one of the ones up there, you know."
"I know that," Slag growled fiercely, and then he subsided into brooding silence.
"I dunno, Hound," Trailbreaker put in doubtfully then. He was craning his head back to gaze toward the concealed summit that loomed 3,700 meters above their heads, frowning up at it. "Climbing in these conditions could take weeks, even for us."
"They don't have weeks," Ratchet suddenly announced, pausing his work on a Seeker-damaged Air Raid, who was for once quietly submitting to Ratchet's ministrations and listening to the conversation at hand. "Or at least Tracks doesn't." Ratchet shifted uncomfortably when all eyes suddenly riveted themselves on him after his announcement. "The telemetry I received from his diagnostics before his signal cut out was...not good," he elaborated.
At that, Optimus leveled his gaze at his chief medic. "What are we looking at, Ratchet?" he asked. "How much time does Tracks have?"
Ratchet shook his head, returning his attention to Air Raid but talking while he worked.
"It's hard to say for certain," he reported quietly, though loudly enough to be heard over the constant wind that pounded the base camp, which was a mere fraction of the wind strength which was no doubt pounding his comrades up near the summit of the mountain. "Telemetry indicated damage to some of his vital systems and that his self-repair systems were not functioning, so stasis won't be an option for him. And I'm not sure what effect the environmental conditions will have. The extreme temperatures up there and the lack of oxygen will be debilitating even for him, and depending on the extent and nature of the damage, those stresses could also shorten the time he has left."
Optimus and the others absorbed that quietly, no one making an attempt to interrupt or comment, so Ratchet continued, "On the other hand, if Swoop is functioning…Well, he's at least designed for dealing with extreme altitude for somewhat extended periods of time, and if he can find Tracks, then maybe he can do something for him. That would buy Tracks some time, but…" He allowed his voice to trail off, stalling for time, but Optimus was giving him that impatiently expectant look. Ratchet sighed as he worked on carefully sealing leaks in the gash running the length of Air Raid's back and reluctantly summarized, "All in all, I'd say two days. Maybe three, but I highly doubt it."
Hound groaned quietly at that, in lieu of launching into a string of loud, virulent curses. Optimus returned his gaze to the scout.
"Hound?" he asked.
Hound sighed and answered, "I really hate saying that something's impossible, Prime, but…that's pretty impossible." He jerked his chin toward the hologram. "This is K2 we're talking about here. Second highest mountain in the world and arguably the hardest of them all to climb. 8,600-and-some meters tall. Near-vertical slopes. Temperatures at the summit on a nice day in winter could be 40 below, and on a not-nice day, as it is now…? You don't want to know. It's never been successfully climbed in the winter. Which is why Slag over there is calling me crazy, and quite honestly he's right to do so. The thing's a monster, whatever way you look at it, and the situation up there just…isn't good."
The scout paused and made a circuit around the hologram of the mountain. With a thought, he added a blinking red dot to the display.
"According to the bit of telemetry that Ratchet received, this is – or was – Tracks's position," Hound continued, indicating the dot near the summit. "He's near the bottom of The Bottleneck. It's an open stretch of deep snow and thick ice that's about 400 meters from the summit and that's canted at about 85 degrees. It's treacherous even in optimal climbing conditions, which is not what we have. Many, many people have died on it. The area is highly prone to avalanche, and I fear Tracks's impact has already or will set some off. Not too far above him, there're seracs that—"
"Seracs?" Ratchet questioned, looking up from Air Raid's back.
"Building-sized blocks of ice," Hound explained. "Normally, they're more stable in the winter, so normally there'd be less danger of them sliding now than there is during the regular climbing season, but…"
Ratchet held up a hand, not wanting to know more. "I get the picture," he said, going back to his repair work.
Nodding, Hound continued, "On the other hand, we have no idea where Swoop is. We've received no telemetry from him, and his locator beacon hasn't been activated, at least not so far as we've been able to detect. He hasn't made radio contact since he reported that he was following Tracks down, and Blaster's been unable to raise him. This could mean that his systems are damaged, that he's in an area where there's really heavy interference for some reason, or that…"
"He's dead," Slag said flatly, his hands balling into fists all unconsciously as he glared ferociously at the mountain.
"Let's not go assuming anything, Slag," Optimus Prime calmly cautioned. "We know that Swoop was attempting to follow Tracks down to render aid, and he's a capable flier, so it's entirely possible that he's perfectly fine and ended up near Tracks's crash site."
"There are no guarantees of that, though," Hound glumly pointed out. "Given that storm," he added, jerking his chin at the clouds concealing K2's summit, "wind speeds up there are probably approaching 120kph at the moment, so he could have been blown quite far off-course. And even if he's perfectly unharmed, he won't be able to fly down in that, not even by himself, much less toting Tracks along."
"And we can't send fliers up there, either," Optimus Prime agreed with an unhappy nod, glancing at Air Raid, who looked similarly unhappy and helpless. "Not until that storm clears."
"Which the weather report is saying isn't likely to happen any time soon," Trailbreaker put in and his voice, particularly for him, was morose. "Not before Tracks's deadline has passed, at any rate."
Hound nodded, his morose expression matching Trailbreaker's tone. "So," he said, "the way I see it, there are only two options: Either climb – and we'll need to start as soon as we possibly can – or sit here and wait to see if the storm clears or if either of them can make it down by themselves."
"I will not sit here and wait," Slag immediately and belligerently informed them all. In fact, he made a determined move toward the mountain, as if he intended to get started on a climb right then and there, with no provisions. He was stopped only by a gesture and a warning glare from Optimus Prime.
Optimus Prime fixed a level gaze on Hound after forestalling Slag, then asked, "What's the risk?"
"The risk?" Hound asked blankly, taken aback.
"If I were to send you, Slag, Trailbreaker, and Ratchet up—"
"Me?!" Ratchet interrupted, alarmed. His body jerked involuntarily such that Air Raid, despite his unusually high pain threshold, felt compelled to squeak with discomfort. Ratchet either ignored the Aerialbot or didn't hear him, busily protesting, "I've never climbed a mountain, Prime. And from what Hound just said, that's not the one to start with."
"You're needed up there, Ratchet," Prime answered levelly, holding Ratchet's gaze. "Even if Swoop is undamaged, manages to finds Tracks, and can help him, he's not fully certified as a medic yet. You of all people know that. Even if he was fully certified, he would likely need help, given what you said about Tracks's condition. You're the only medic here unless there's someone hiding in camp that I don't know about. And I'm sure these three," he added, gesturing at Hound, Slag, and Trailbreaker, "will take very good care of you."
Ratchet could argue with none of it, but that didn't mean that he liked it. Snow was not his favorite thing in the world. Cold wasn't his favorite thing, either. And then there was that nagging touch of acrophobia that he had; just the trail to the base camp had had some scary bits that had rattled him more than he cared to admit. He sighed mournfully, stared in rising horror at the mountain that he was apparently going to climb whether he liked it or not, but he kept his mouth shut and returned his attention to Air Raid. In short order, Optimus returned his attention to Hound, continuing his question.
"If I were to send you, Slag, Trailbreaker, and Ratchet up that mountain, what's the chance that I'll end up with six dead Autobots instead of just two?"
Hound thought about the question for a moment, knowing that Optimus wasn't asking it lightly. He knew the Autobot leader's first and strongest impulse was to mount a rescue of the two stranded Autobots, danger be damned. But on the other hand, the possible risk to a rescue party was very real. Optimus needed to know how real the risk was before he made a decision as to which course of action to follow.
"It's hard to say, Prime," Hound eventually hedged. "One in four humans who tries to climb K2 dies, but we're a bit hardier than humans."
"But?" Optimus prompted when Hound's voice stopped there.
But Hound wasn't yet finished with the positive points and continued, "The three of us," he said, indicating himself, Trailbreaker, and Slag, "have climbed together often. We climbed Everest two years ago, and we'll make a good, experienced team. Further on the plus side, Tracks's last known location is practically right on one of the most-traveled climbing routes on the mountain. There are fixed ladders and ropes up there from previous expeditions. Not that we'll be able to use them, but it will make planning an attack easier if I can see what's been done before. And yes, we can make Ratchet as safe as he can possibly be, under the circumstances…"
"Those circumstances being?" Optimus Prime asked when Hound's voice trailed off.
"That's…the tricky part," he said. "There are always unseen, unpredictable variables when you're climbing a mountain like this one. It'd help if we could take a look up there," he added, jerking his chin toward the summit, "and see what we might be facing and whether or not the impacts up there set off anything…unfortunate. But unless that storm breaks, we're flying blind, and we're bound to run into some likely nasty surprises up there that I can't possibly foresee right now."
"Bottom line," Optimus Prime requested tersely, folding his arms over his chest and nodding his understanding of all that Hound had said so far.
"Bottom line," Hound answered, "is…well, that it's crazy to try this, but…I think our chances of success are pretty good, considering. Plus," he added, somehow managing to make his voice sound both light and grim at the same time, "even if you say no, Slag's going anyway. Aren't you, buddy?"
"Damn straight," Slag snarled determinedly, glowering at everyone but especially at the small, humorless smile that Hound was leveling at him. "Tired of talking," he added peevishly. He folded his arms defiantly over his chest, unconsciously mirroring Optimus Prime's stance, and leveled a killing glare at the Autobot leader. "You will not stop me."
Optimus Prime, completely unintimidated, glared right back at the notoriously hot-headed Dinobot. Sharp words to spit at Slag entered his mind, but Hound's quiet voice forestalled him.
"We really don't have time to argue about this, Prime," Hound said quietly to Optimus, to distract him if nothing else. "And Slag can't do it alone. He'll try, and you won't be able to stop him, but he can't do it alone."
Optimus Prime suppressed a sigh. The situation was untenable on all sides. The Decepticons had retreated but could return at any time, particularly if they discovered that a highly risky search-and-rescue mission was underway. Swoop and Tracks were trapped on the second-highest mountain in the world, and Tracks, at least, was critically injured. Their only hope for survival at the moment was the four Autobots in front of him, and one of them had never climbed a mountain before. Ratchet had complained bitterly about snow and cold just traveling to the Concordia base camp at 16,000 feet, and now he would be accompanying an expedition that would climb another 12,000 feet or so. But there was no other choice.
Prime almost wished that he could go with the rescue party, as usual feeling an overwhelming sense of personal responsibility toward those who'd trusted him enough to place themselves under his command. But he, like Ratchet, had no climbing experience and so would only be a burden, not an asset, to the expedition. Ratchet would be a burden as well, slowing the others down, but he had a valid reason to go; Tracks's life, at least, would likely depend on Ratchet's presence on the search and rescue team. Optimus Prime knew that he would be of much more use here at the base camp, if the Decepticons decided to return. So, much as he didn't like it, that was where he would be staying.
Prime leveled one last look, half approving and half apologetic, at Hound before announcing his decision.
"You have a go, Hound. Roll out whenever you're ready," he ordered.
Hound nodded silently, grimly accepting the task of leading a time-critical but very perilous mission. Slag made a noise of satisfaction. Trailbreaker sighed wearily. And Ratchet…Ratchet buried his face in his hands, even stained as they were with Air Raid's fluids.
"Primus, why me?" he moaned to no one in particular, other than possibly Primus.
Trailbreaker, closest to the medic, snorted and answered, "Because the more you complain, the more crap Primus dumps on you. And boy, do you do a lotta complaining, Ratchet my friend…"
Ratchet glared at him, and in response Trailbreaker laughed. It wasn't his normal highly-amused belly laugh, but it at least had some humor in it. Ratchet didn't seem to appreciate it, though, so Trailbreaker suddenly thought it prudent to make his escape, heading off to join Hound and Slag to devise their attack plan. He was already formulating a list of supplies they'd need; for the trio's semi-frequent large-scale mountaineering expeditions, Trailbreaker was always the one in charge of provisioning the team, so it was a habit into which he easily fell. He usually had a lot more time to collect equipment and supplies, though. He was hoping that he and Silverbolt could go off, round up the necessary supplies, even if they had to fly back to the States, and then return before night fell so that they could at least leave when it wasn't pitch-black night…
Thus preoccupied, Trailbreaker left Ratchet to finish up Air Raid's repairs and to contemplate his fate.
Meaningless Afternotes: I need to confess what is probably obvious: that I have never climbed a mountain in my life, much less one taller than 8,000 meters. But, I did do quite a bit of research about how such climbing is generally done (by humans, obviously) as well as about K2 itself. In fact, something of an obsession with this particular mountain and its climbing history and such was born whilst researching this story, which is not an uncommon occurrence for me. I read journals written by people who climbed the thing, particularly those who tried to climb it (but were unsuccessful) in the winter of 2003. I looked at lots of pictures, studied topo maps, watched videos made by people who climbed/summitted K2, and checked out weather/environmental information. I even read a book about the first American expedition to reach the summit, in 1978.
So, what I write about the mountain itself in this story is all accurate. Though not as tall as Everest (albeit by less than 1,000 feet), K2 is far more technically difficult to climb due to, among other things, its treacherous, near-vertical slopes, its notoriously horrid weather, and the extremely high danger of avalanche during the normal climbing season, that being the height of summer. To date, only about 250 people have ever been documented as having reached the summit of K2, as opposed to about 2,400 who have summitted Everest. Part of the reason is K2's more remote and, currently, politically-unstable location, sitting on the border of Pakistan and China, but the main reason is that it's frickin' hard.
K2 is also one of the three deadliest of mountains in the world; Everest is not. 1 in 4 people who try to climb K2 dies in the attempt, often while descending after reaching the summit. Of those 250 people who have reached the summit, about 50 of them died on the way back down, most notably in the disaster of August 2008 that claimed eleven lives when an avalanche destroyed fixed rope lines, leaving an expedition stranded in the "death zone," an altitude where there is not enough oxygen to sustain human life. By comparison, 1 in 10 dies while climbing Everest. So, summiting K2 is widely considered the ultimate achievement for a mountaineer, far more impressive on one's "resume" than having summitted Everest. Which is one reason why I chose it as the site of this story. Plus…Well, dangit, it's a prettier mountain than Everest, in my opinion; I like its near-perfect pyramidal shape.
If you, like me, like visual references, here's an awesome pic of the mountain, taken from the very base camp that I've used as a setting for this chapter. Copypasta, remove spaces:
image60. webshots. com/ 160/ 7/28 /98 /451472898dIcMVX_fs .jpg