Future Tense - Chapter Eight
Disclaimer: As ever, author neither claims nor intentionally implies ownership of the 'Transformers' brand, or any canon character or concept herein, who are copyright 1984-present Hasbro/etc and used with much love and respect to their creators.
Core harmonic: stable.
Magnetic bottle: stable.
Power intermix good, no major spikes recorded this time index.
Checking circuit patency… All green.
Cognitive pathways rebooting…
Reboot successful. Logic/emotional intermix normal. Caution: parameters do not correlate with last known functional. Checking…
As he returned slowly – reluctantly – to the land of the awake and functioning, the first thought that came to Skywarp's meandering consciousness was relief at the discovery that he was in fact still alive. Not that it was much of a relief-
Audio receptors: offline. Rerouting power.
Optic receptors: offline. Rerouting power.
-because not much seemed-
Vocaliser: offline. Rerouting power… reboot required.
Gyroscopes: offline. Reboot and recalibration required.
-to actually be functional.
Motor complex: offline. Rerouting power. Reboot to be attempted at next time index point.
Positional fix: unable to fulfil command. Antennae non-functional.
Whether some idiot junior tech had installed things wrong or he was just having trouble adapting to the new programming, he had no idea, and-
Vocaliser – parameters incorrect. Attempting recalibration… failed. Recalibrate now.
-it wasn't as if he could friggin' ask anyone either. Frag's sake!
Optic receptors – parameters incorrect. Attempting reboot… 76% successful. Recalibrate at earliest convenience.
Audio receptors – parameters incorrect. Attempting reboot… 44% successful. Urgent recalibration required.
For several long moments, Skywarp just stared at the ceiling – at least, he figured the big expanse of white nothing was the ceiling, but with all his gyroscopes offline and pointing in funny (nauseating) directions it could have been anything.
Frag it, why did everything have to be blurry? He could feel the irises in his optics flexing randomly in a useless attempt to focus – the sensation wasn't painful, as such, but it was certainly uncomfortable, especially given that each iris seemed to be working independently of the other. He tried to will them to stop, without a lot of success.
After a moment, two fuzzy blue blobs with false-colour haloes and little lights in them appeared in his field of view, one from each side.
"…hi!" Distorted, friable words came at him as though echoing down a very long pipe and bouncing off the damping gel packed into his audio receptors. Sounded like that weedy little anaesthetist. What did he have to be so friggin' cheerful about? "…ll ok?"
Skywarp opened his mouth to argue that no he was not 'all ok', he felt half smelted and could they please pump him full of something to make it feel better, but all that came out was a long, awkward groan, like a squeal of feedback transmitted and distorted over thousands of miles. His vocaliser reported back that it was attempting to operate under a faulty dataset and was unable to process vocal commands correctly. Great. I can't even disagree with them.
Luckily, they weren't so stupid as they looked, and rapidly twigged that he wasn't just moaning for effect. "…s like there's some… ancies in there," the second blue blob commented, disappearing momentarily out of the field of fuzzy white nothings. "…let me… a quick scan…"
Hands carefully felt their way across Skywarp's new chassis and tweaked open a small compartment just off his midline, close to his collar. A sharp pain and shock of cold accompanied the insertion of a small scanning probe into the new socket.
Skywarp grunted in discomfort through his fans – huh, so at least he could manage that much – and tried to sit up and push the small mech away, but a cacophony of faults accompanied the movement. His offline gyroscopes all span giddily on their spindles – he groaned and tried to follow the direction most of them instructed, and the… floor? …loomed up in his vision.
"-…whoa, care-…" What felt like a dozen small hands (but he couldn't work out quite how many) smeared over his new armour, fizzing a strange, staticky almost-pain through his torso, and hauled him back onto the berth. "…don't want-… a nosedive…"
Skywarp thrashed his arms, increasingly alarmed. What were they going to do now? Had to escape, somehow, before they broke his brain any more. Get off. Leave me alone! He felt his hands connect with at least one of the little bots hanging on to him, and the subsequent clatter and muted curse proved that at least his arm was no less strong than it used to be.
The flicker of satisfaction at successfully defending himself against the assailant he could barely see quickly faded when another handful of blue shapes – much bigger blue shapes, probably nurses – hastily converged on him. Hands – larger hands, stronger hands – navigated skilfully around his flailing limbs and pinned him down. No amount of struggle persuaded them to let him go.
"…right, let'-… what's wrong-… sharp cold, allri-...?"
Touch me again and I'll fragging kill you, Skywarp wanted to snap, but the pathetic distorted little groan that escaped his lips had zero effect on the little mech that carefully plugged back in to the primary diagnostic port on his upper chest. An exogenous consciousness interlinked with his own – his firewalls struggled briefly to keep the unfamiliar programming from accessing his diagnostics before buckling under a skilled onslaught. It felt almost like having actual fingers thumbing through the different levels of his coding, as though flicking through a physical directory.
Easy there, Skywarp, a non-corporeal voice soothed, dumping straight into his cognitive centre and bypassing his audio processors altogether. It was like listening to one of his own thoughts, as though it had developed a life of its own. We just need to reinstall some of your new protocols, because your system's not processing them properly. Things will get more comfortable once we've got your system to accept the new parameters, all right?
Before Skywarp could work out how to respond to the thought, one of his cooling fans hitched, spluttered, and failed. A temperature alert strummed painfully across the front left side of his chassis.
Panic rose like a set of clutching fingers around his spark, and he felt the sudden need to violently purge his tanks. Broken, broken broken-… what have they done to me?
"…easy, easy-… Vigil…? …patch over…?" Hands steadied his shoulders, pinning him more firmly against the berth. "…rejecting. We need-… replace… now."
Rejecting? What was rejecting? He forced out a questioning moan, and clawed at the hands holding him still. Let me up. Primus, let me up - escape! His pumps clutched and spasmed in his chassis.
"…easy, we'-… fixed up… reinstall-… revise param-… nice nap, ok?"
A sharp pinch in one of his primary fuel lines made him jump and attempt to startle away, but a spot of intense cold spread up the right side of his neck and he felt the fight bleed away from his limbs. Motors slowed, cables slackened, autonomous mobility became impossible. He moaned feebly and flopped his hands, before even that ability fled away from his grasping processors.
…maybe it would be nice to just go dormant again, his deeper programming suggested, as the sedative carefully wrapped a nice cosy blanket of sleep back around his brain, and for once his higher functions agreed. He felt his bulk settle deeper into the soft memory foam surface of the berth, and drifted away into recharge.
All right, subconscious. Remind me. Why, precisely, did I want to do this?
For several interminably long astro-seconds, Starscream simply stood and stared tiredly down on the dulling black and purple remains Winnower had carefully laid out on the coroner's table. After all that imaginative bribery he'd needed to use to persuade Resector to sign them over in the first place, now he'd got Skywarp's unneeded old parts, he didn't really want them, he'd found.
The fact that this was just a shell, like the moulted-off carapace of some ungodly huge insect, and the hospital had reassured him that the spark that had previously inhabited it was safely and (semi-)stably installed in a brand new frame, didn't make it any easier to tolerate. It still left him with a sort of twitchy anxiety deep in his chassis, an unpleasant disharmony, like he'd had a bad unit of energon.
With a spark no longer resident to control the nanite-based micro-repair system, the nanometre-thick exterior protective seal had begun to break down, leaving the exterior dull, almost dusty-looking. Even that hideous lurid purple Skywarp had been so proud of had started to look strangely muted. More like great big areas of organic bruise. The flat, grey optics looked dead and sunken, now the cortex had been excised from behind them, leaving the face with an uncomfortable resemblance to a skull.
To Starscream, it reminded him of what he used to see in the early stages of the war – machines flogged to breaking point for their fuel, and dumped in the streets to grey out. Dusty, dirty, dying machines.
He placed his palms down on the table and rested his weight against them, tiredly. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me a third time…
No. There was going to be no "third time". That would be unacceptable. Inexcusable. If he had to fully dismantle this cold, greying shell, and go over each tiny component with a microscope, to get to the bottom of it, then that was just what he was going to have to do.
Blue fingers interlaced and flexed, like those of a famous pianist warming up for a recital, then selected a microscalpel out of the tray of tools, and began to cut through the flexible membrane holding the dark plating together.
Not getting attached again, he reminded himself, easing a scuffed, scratched plate away from its housing in the dark back. Not like last time. Not going through all that slag, all over again. Not enduring the wrench of thinking Skywarp is finally back, to find it's just some… some new mockery of it all.
Treating the remains as though they were just another long-dead Seeker from before the war was helping, a smidgen. Helped him maintain just enough distance to keep his emotions level. Primus only knew how many other such pathetic, broken bodies he and Winnower had autopsied, since New Vos had asked for help in giving names to the shells they were encountering as they cleared away all the twisted wreckage the war had left behind.
The un-enamelled underside of the palm-sized piece of old plating was a spiderweb of old welds, the hallmark of close to a lifetime spent at war. Painful though it was to look at, recalling what had probably caused the damage, it did inspire some confidence that maybe this was – at last, oh Primus please – the genuine article.
By the time a sleek blue figure rapped his knuckles on the door to announce his arrival, and made his careful way down the staircase to the laboratory floor, there wasn't a whole lot left of the body on the table. A residual structural skeleton, half a wing, a fuel tank, and endless yards of cable and pipe, all unwound and spilling over the sides of the table and across the floor in a morbid parody of organic intestines. All the removed components had been carefully sorted into size and type, and placed into a series of baskets labelled up in Starscream's small, precise handwriting.
Thundercracker halted at the head of the table, trying not to look too hard at the faceless, hollow helm, and arched a brow. "Uh, far be it for me to challenge you, but… I hope this isn't how you're interpreting the 'keep safe' part of Warp's request. He might be a bit unhappy that you dissected him."
Starscream made a dismissive noise and wiped joint lubricant off his hands with a dirty rag. "He doesn't need it any more, and I'm not keeping it in a cupboard so be can be sentimental about it." He picked another small piece of plating out of the basket labelled 'awaiting testing' and frowned at it before slotting it into a desktop ultrasound bath. "Had you heard he's managed to landed himself in intensive care, post-op?"
"What - like you did, the first two times?" Thundercracker gave him a patient smile. "Yes, I heard. The pair of you need to learn a little more trust for your fellow mechs, and set your firewalls a little less high."
Starscream curled his lip and declined to comment.
"So, uhm… what have you found so far?" It was difficult not to look too hard at the dark, gaping hole in the chassis, where ordinarily there would have been the subtle glow of a stable spark.
"Nothing," Starscream replied, sounding oddly pleased by the revelation. "Absolutely nothing."
"…isn't that a bad thing?"
"Not when you're looking for biological materials and not finding them."
Thundercracker remained quiet, for several seconds. "…would you like to remind me exactly what you mean by biological materials?"
Now was Starscream's turn to remain silent, in that carefully nonchalant way that Thundercracker had long ago come to recognise as meaning 'whoops, just said that tiny bit too much.'
Thundercracker folded his arms, and lifted his chin, irritably. "Let me guess. This would be something else you've conveniently Not Told Me about the last time you did this."
"I didn't intentionally keep anything from you." Starscream flipped a dismissive hand. "It just wasn't important."
"Not important by whose standards?" The urge to go and bang his head against the wall was rising by the astro-second. "Did you not think that finding biological materials on the facsimilies might mean there was something in the district we should be aware of, and taking steps to eradicate?"
"Oh, please." Starscream cast his gaze skywards, exaggeratedly. "I didn't just ignore the signs. I went out to look for answers myself, and sent out probes to investigate, and found nothing. It wasn't important." He offered a witheringly sarcastic look. "Primus forbid that I take up our beloved Detective Superintendent's valuable time with my irrelevant commentary. I'm just the grunt, after all."
Thundercracker's expression deepened into a genuine glare, optics narrowing to hot little chips of crimson. "If you're still sore that I've finally got off my aft and made my way to a higher rank than you, all these vorns later, then please, let's get over that now, shall we?" he snapped, gesturing angrily. "There was nothing at all to stop you running for the same post. I'd have probably pulled my application if I knew you wanted it."
"I wasn't interested in it. I have better things to do than spend my precious time babying worried Autobots."
Thundercracker vented hot air in an angry sigh. "Fine, so this is all about you being petty, and keeping things secret from me. As though it was some kind of-… of point-scoring. Primus. Is this just your way of clawing back a little control? We're supposed to be wingmates, remember? You know you're still trineleader-"
"Oh, like that counts for much, any more."
"-and I have always respected and acted on your opinion. So don't you give me that!"
"Everything you're stamping on my tailfins about was in my report," Starscream snapped, wings hiked, waving a threatening finger. "Don't get on my case because you only ever bothered to read the abbreviated version."
"You never told me you'd ever finished the full report."
"I put it on the department server. It's been sat there for anyone to see."
Thundercracker hastily checked the files, and sure enough, there was the report. "Why in Primus name would I check for a report half a vorn after you finished doing the autopsy?" he spluttered. "What was it, sneak it on there without telling me, hoping I would never see it?"
"I failed to see the need to bother you with it, given that I'd notified you of all the important data." Starscream plucked the clean chunk of plate out of the ultrasound bath and set it down into the dessicator. "These bits of biological fluff you're now obsessing over were completely inconsequential."
Thundercracker dropped his voice to a growl. "If you're going to dismiss my concerns like that, at least have the decency to look at me."
To his surprise, Starscream did actually look up. It was a very dirty, resentful look that got shot his way, but at least the scarlet mech wasn't glaring resolutely down at his work and ignoring him, in the hope the 'annoyance' would just give up and go away.
"If you can't possibly accept that Skywarp was right about his 'gremlins', then that's your prerogative," Thundercracker growled, softly. "But I will not have you putting everyone else at risk because you're too embarrassed to admit that you're fallible as a consequence." He straightened, subtly, and squared his wings. "Your report – your full report, totally unabridged – will be on my desk in two orns. Understood?"
Starscream drew himself up to his full height and snapped off a sarcastic salute. "Of course, sir. Your wish is my command, oh mighty leader."
"How about you take that tone of voice and go stick it up your exhaust, Screamer. You don't have to take it out on me because you can't admit to being scared. And Primus forbid anyone make the mistake of thinking you're pleased to have Skywarp back, or anything." He threw his hands up, in semi-despair. "I'm going to see if they'll let us go visit him, yet," he snapped, pivoting on his heel.
"You do know he's in intensive care?"
"Then it'll be a short visit, won't it? And where better to get him to have a complete nervous breakdown, eh? Between us, we'll have managed to complete the set. And within ten orns of his return, congratulations!" He lowered his voice and muttered, just loudly enough to be heard; "Anyone would think he missed squaring off against Megatron."
Predictably, after a moment or two, just as he'd got a foot through the door, a reluctant voice spoke up from behind. "Uhm, TC…? Hold up." The soft purr of the ultrasound went abruptly silent, and the thoks of hollow heels approached hastily across the floor. "I, uh… might as well tag along. Make sure the installation went all right, and such."
Thundercracker held the door for him. "I'm just as scared as you," he reminded, quietly. "Let's not take it out on each other just yet?"
This world, Skywarp found, as he tiptoed his reluctant way back online some orns later, was not that much more pleasant than the world he'd crash-landed in the last time he'd woken up. The room he found himself in was decorated in a soothing but very sterile shade of pale greeny blue, with one distinct change to last time; it was all in lovely crisp focus, and the light panel in the wall opposite lacked those hideous, jaggy false-colour haloes. The quiet was genuine, too – not just quiet because his audios were playing tricks on him.
…aaaand ohhh frag it everything ached. Actually, no, all right, it wasn't really an ache, as such, because it was more discomfort he was feeling than pain, specifically. Maybe… stiff fitted better. Yeah, that worked. Everything was stiff – and Primus, it had to be serious when he didn't feel the slightest bit like turning it into innuendo.
"...uuugh..." The groan spilled its own way out of his vocaliser with no real conscious control. "…fffraggit." Well, at least he had his voice back.
The noise alerted his… guest? Guard? Whatever he was… to the fact he was stirring. The little blue mech sitting at the end of the berth – Vigil, Skywarp vaguely recalled – hooked his feet down off the frame and put his journal to one side, and snagged a tall, slender silver flask up off the cabinet next to his chair. "Hi," he greeted, smiling inanely. "Feeling all right?"
"Ha ha." Skywarp rubbed his temples and tried to bleed off some of the painful coolant pressure in his cortical housing, then eyed the flask and felt his pumps cramp in sympathy. "Pitsake, did you have to leave my tanks empty?"
"Well, you've been on the generator for a while," Vigil explained. "We didn't want you purging your tanks while you were still operating under cognitive conflicts, you'd have probably ended up sucking fuel into your temperature regulator."
"…you trust me to drink now?" Primus, his arm felt so heavy – so much for 'lighter and go further'. It took a good few moments intense concentration just to lift his hand off the berth. "Ungh." He glared at his (new, stupid, skinny, useless, silver) arm. If Resector had told him they'd used a significant proportion of lead in these new alloys, it would have taken no evidence to convince Skywarp that he was being wholly, utterly no-smeltery honest. "Why is this so fragging difficult?"
Vigil carefully took his hand and guided his patient's fingers around the flask, ensuring he had a good grip before letting go. "Well, you mass a lot less, but everything in your construction is completely new, and inflexible. Everything will still be quite hard to move." The mech offered a shy smile. "Once you're fuelled up and getting more comfortable, I can call the physiotherapists along to help you start to loosen up."
"Couldn't you just, y'know, have loosened things up a little while you were doing it?" Every single actuator, all the way down to the smallest one in his littlest finger, was stiff and tight. Elastomeric connectors felt almost solid. Even now he'd warmed up a fraction, servo-fluid felt thick and sludgy, and joint lubricant felt more like glue. At least the energon was good – thin, volatile, and deliciously crisp and cool. It was tempting to down the entire flask in one go.
"Better that you adapt for yourself," Vigil demurred. "If we loosen the connectors, we'll have to go back in and tighten them up once you've adapted, and that might leave them overstretched. Don't want you to pop a connection at a bad time, heh."
"Yeah, kinda not seeing the funny side, here." Skywarp took refuge in his flask. He felt like he'd been to see Hook for a minor repair, caught the construction mech on a bad day, and had the surly 'Con tighten every single actuator in his body as punishment for daring to disturb his peace, like he did to Thrust once. (And at least seeing Thrust walking stiff-legged had contained some vague humour value. This had no prospect for giggling at whatsoever.)
"Well the physiotherapists will be along to see you soon," Vigil soothed. "They'll get you feeling like yourself again in no time. I'm sure you'll be fine to go home in another dozen orns or so."
"A dozen?" Skywarp promptly choked on his energon.
"So. How is he doing?"
Vigil glanced back at Thundercracker, following a pace or so behind him (and the sour-faced, arms-folded Starscream, just far enough behind his wingmate to make it clear he was not particularly impressed with the situation) and nodded, thoughtfully. For the last few orns, Skywarp hadn't been in any fit state to entertain visitors – either dormant, struggling to integrate new code, or growling exhaustedly at the physiotherapists, in equal measures – but now his wingmates had finally been given the green light to go and visit. The last time his wingmates had actually seen him, the teleport was still in intensive care, dormant and looking unnaturally peaceful while his systems battled against the unfamiliar new set of protocols.
"Seems to be doing well, now," the anaesthetist confirmed. "We had to keep a very close watch on him for the first three or four orns, he kept rejecting the initial patches and trying to roll back to earlier datapoints his system recognised as functional – like Starscream did, remember? Too great a sense of self-preservation, we figured, heh." He smiled, wryly, and rubbed his shoulder. "He's still got a good arm. Been raising Pit for the physiotherapists, too."
Starscream snorted a little noise of sarcastic amusement through his vents. Thundercracker had again resorted to half-bullying him into coming along, but both inwardly recognised it was mostly for the benefit of his eavesdropping lab-technicians, who were getting altogether too complacent for their commander's liking. "Well, that certainly sounds like our Skywarp," he accepted, dryly. "Never one to just take friendly advice without turning it into a fight."
-Like you're one to talk.- Thundercracker pinged, giving him a friendly elbow.
Vigil heh'ed and planted a palm down on the little recognition plate beside the door, which chirped and flashed a green light; the privacy lock disengaged, and the door slid quietly open.
The small group passed through the wide door into the high-dependency cubicle, to find an exhausted, damson-eyed silver flier sitting on its berth, propped on a foam wedge and surrounded by temperature regulators, glaring horribly at them.
"You are a pair of glitching afts," it grumbled, in a wavery, poorly-tuned version of Skywarp's voice, waving a stiff arm in a threatening point at the two Seekers. "Why didn't you warn me about this bit, huh? It'll be easy, no problem – unless you, you know, actually mind being yanked around by a bunch of overenthusiastic fraggers pretending to try and help you. I feel like one of those frickin'... modelling balloons." The arms folded, stiffly. "I hate the pair of you now, I hope you realise."
"Come on, Warp, don't be like that…" Thundercracker soothed, gently, with a little roll of the optics. "You've been refit before, you know it takes at least an orn or two to acclimatise. And it's nice to see you at last. You're looking good."
"You mean I look like every other skinny little twig-legged silver protoform," Skywarp corrected, sourly, but his grumble couldn't quite hide the genuine distress underlying his words. "When am I going to get repainted to go with this stupid refit?"
"But you look so clean, and so shiny! I almost didn't recognise you!" Starscream quipped.
"Exactly! And I don't want to be some clean, shiny little nonentity, I want to be me."
Thundercracker smiled. "Silver doesn't look so bad on you, Warp," he reassured. "Better than that optic-blinding purple."
Skywarp's brow furrowed into a deeper glare. "But I don't. Want. To be silver. Silver's such a... dorky colour." He gestured at Starscream, for emphasis. "I might have been hideous colours but at least I was uniquely hideous."
Starscream curled his lip, but (miraculously) held his tongue.
"Right, so. Aside from looking like a silver dork, how are you feeling?" Thundercracker coaxed.
"Like I've been rollin' round in concrete," Skywarp groused, sullenly, waving stiff arms for emphasis. "I'm stiff and achey all over, the physios have been jumping on me all orn, and it sucks."
"You just need to work the components a little," Thundercracker reassured. "They'll ease up and get more flexible with a little time."
"Small chance of that then, if you're gonna be sending me home soon."
His wingmates swapped looks, but Skywarp wasn't paying attention.
"I'll have just got comfortable in this useless stick-legged thing when Screamer's got it sorted, and you'll have to dump me back in the broken one so I can go home without breaking time again, the way my luck's going." The teleport gave them a semi-pleading glance. "And I'm not spending the whole time in this old dump, either. When can I leave, huh? You're gonna let me come stay with you guys for a while, right?"
"...we are, but not just yet." Starscream nodded. "You need to stay here a little longer while you get used to your new code."
Skywarp levelled a glare at him. "But you said-"
"I know what we said. Just hear me out, for once." Starscream's voice was actually somewhat gentle; Skywarp wasn't sure if he found it more reassuring, or worrying. "It was a full refit. They've primed your systems, but you're the one who's going to have to adapt your coding to the new parameters. This isn't new information, Warp, I know they've already told you that you need to stay in hospital for a few more orns more while the physiotherapists help get you acclimatised to your new frame."
Skywarp looked openly disgusted by the idea. "Yeah well I need some fresh air. It can't be that hard to get used to." After a second or two of struggle, he managed to swing his thrusters over the side of the berth. "Like frag I'm gonna stay in this dump any longer than I have to. Going sky crazy, here. You're gonna come for a walk with me, right?" He shoved himself to his feet and stomped to the door… or at least, attempted to. He completely underestimated his new lighter build and overcompensated for mass that wasn't there any more.
The look of horrified shock on his face as he inadvertently hurled himself square into Thundercracker was so comically genuine that both his wingmates spontaneously erupted into peals of apologetic laughter.
"You-… afts!" Skywarp spluttered, in his shock unable to come up with a better insult. "Freaking pair of sump-sucking afts! What have you done to me?" He clutched at Thundercracker, feet skidding and skating across the floor in his frantic efforts to regain his balance, on legs that were too stiff to respond to his increasingly frantic commands. The pitch of his voice rose dramatically in alarm. "Put me back to normal rightnow!"
"Steady, Warp, steady!" Thundercracker managed, at last getting his humour under control. "Why do you think we said you had to see the physios? You're a lot lighter than you used to be, you'll need to re-learn how to move properly. Now stand still and I'll help you get your balance, all right?"
"Pair of useless slaggers." Skywarp groused a little more sullen invective, his glare deepening as his words had the opposite effect to what was desired, but managed to (just about) do as he was told. "I bet you did this on purpose, to make me look stupid."
"Pah. As if you need any help with that..." Starscream sniped, taking Skywarp's free arm and helping get him back onto his berth.
They chattered quietly for a while longer, until Skywarp's 'favourite' burly green physiotherapist arrived "for another orn of torture", at which point Starscream promptly took the excuse to vanish.
When Thundercracker finally tracked his friend down, the scarlet jet was standing in the observations gallery above Skywarp's room, arms folded across his chest, supposedly to "keep watch" – although his optics were a low, tired maroon, barely lit, so whether he could actually make anything out through the static was anyone's guess.
"Shouldn't you go and get some rest?" Thundercracker scolded, gently, watching the slow back-and-forth sway in his friend's tired, curved back. "You've been up the last three orns. He doesn't need round-the-clock care from us as well."
"Pssh. He's tried to sneak off twice, the silly aft," the pale jet disagreed, his unnaturally quiet voice crawling with tired distortions. "He's going to bash himself to pieces if he carries on this way."
"So… it was less 'sneak' and more 'assault the wall'?" Thundercracker guessed, trying not to smile too broadly. Nice to know that whatever else was going on, some things never changed.
Starscream nodded, apparently resisting the urge to roll his optics.
"Look, you go home and get some rest before you fall down. I'll keep an optic on him. I've got plenty of paperwork to do, I can get on with it up here."
Starscream debated it internally for only a fraction of an astrosecond before acquiescing. "All right. Just… TC?" He hesitated in the doorway. "If any alarms start going off? Let the nurses deal with it, all right?"
Thundercracker quirked a curious brow, as if to say you think they might?
"I'm pretty sure they will. They have been the last orn or so, and fairly regularly, I don't know why things will change just because I've gone. He's got a lot of fine calibrations to do." Starscream nodded, although it looked like he was nodding mostly to himself. "They've primed his homeostatic regulators as well as we can but it's going to have to be him that fine-tunes it. He's under-compensated for the smaller body and overheated twice already, and that's with the physios trying to help him, the big baby."
"Emphasis on 'trying'?"
"Of course." Starscream shook his head, despairingly, and put up his hands. Distorted, friable mutterings followed him up the stairwell until he was out of earshot. "Never seen a mech so bad at taking friendly advice…"
Thundercracker smiled and shook his head. You're hardly one to talk, Starscream, he thought to himself, moving to the window to glance down into the cubicle. It wasn't entirely unreminiscent of watching a sparkling learn to interpret its gyroscopes and remain upright, he mused, watching his wingmate swearing and threatening his unsteady, stiff-legged way across the room, followed patiently by a much larger pinstriped green physiotherapist.
He caught Skywarp's hostile glare, and wiggled his fingers in a little wave, hoping to be reassuring; Skywarp wiggled his middle finger in reply, and stuck out his tongue, but the overt hostility disappeared from his gaze. In spite of all his complaining, Thundercracker was inclined to think that he probably was enjoying the attention.
Crunch time arrived all too fast.
Thundercracker stood in the corridor for a good breem or two, just out of sight of Skywarp's door, rehearsing his reluctant words in his head. How did a mech explain something like this, anyway? That yes, you have lost near on three thousand solar orbits of your life, and you're never going to get back, no matter how much you whine about it? It could wait, surely, until they got him home and comfortable? Starscream had already voiced the opinion that they should tell him gradually, in little Skywarp-size pieces, fending off any active questioning with white lies to the effect that they were 'still working on it', and finally reveal the truth when there was no other option.
But then, that wouldn't help the whole trust issues they already had, would it? Painfully obvious that the teleport was still distrustful of them, if he found out they'd been keeping other things – and pretty damn important things – from him…?
No. It had to be now. Thundercracker pinched the prow of his nose, trying to stave off a pressure-headache; his friend wasn't going to take the news well, and his own coolant lines had already over-pressurised in stressed anticipation.
If the dull scuffmarks on the floor were anything to go by, Skywarp had been pacing back and forth up the length of his room for a good number of cycles already, when Thundercracker finally summoned the courage to go and talk to him. The newly-black teleport looked up, hopefully, at the sound of the door; if experience counted for anything, Thundercracker figured he'd probably been told not to sit down unless he wanted to smear his new basecoat before it bonded properly to his plating, and was now fidgeting. So the dark jet might spend most of his life as a walking dustbucket, the prospect of being repainted and starting to look like himself again had inspired a little Starscream-esque vanity in him. I'll keep myself looking neat until you've got a nice shiny topcoat on, then I can go back to accumulating my own personal dustcloud.
"TC!" he greeted, with a cheerful grin, arms spread for emphasis. He had a curiously matt look to him, all black and brushed chrome, almost as though he was sporting some new radar-invisible look. "Look! I'll soon be me again."
"Uhm… hi, Skywarp. That's great." Thundercracker let the door drift closed behind him, with an awkward smile. "Glad you're feeling better... Uh. Listen, I came to talk to you about something-"
"You're gonna let me leave?" The dark Seeker almost jumped on him, bodily.
"…uh, no. Not yet." Thundercracker fended him off for just long enough to avoid getting dark streaks on his pale chassis. "That's for the physiotherapists to decide. I just... look, I need to talk to you for a bit, all right?" He gestured at the berth. "Park your aft for a minute, eh?"
Skywarp eyed the mattress, warily. "But I'll smudge-"
"Please, Warp... just-"
"All right all right." Skywarp sat with a small flump, making the temperature monitors bounce. "What's so important you need to talk to me about it right now, before I come home?"
"Well..." Thundercracker settled a little further along the berth, just out of reach of the dusty-looking fingers. "I've been talking to Screamer. He's, uh… been trying to work out how you ended up here."
"He's worked it out?" Skywarp's wings perked and he sat up a lot straighter. "Excellent! I knew he would!"
"Well, he's getting there. Got a better idea, at least-"
"So you can send me home now? Is that why they've not finished my repaint yet?"
The awful hope that had suddenly kindled in his friend's face made it so much harder to get the words out. "Uh-… Well, uh… actually, no."
"But soon, right?" Skywarp shuffled closer on his aft, eager. "In a few orns, or something. Right?"
"Uh-... no. Not soon." Thundercracker steeled his resolve and managed to force the words out. "Not ever."
"…what?" For a moment or two, Skywarp just stared, as though frozen in place, looking for a sign his friend was being stupid. When the sign failed to materialise, he visibly deflated; his wings sagged dramatically, his face fell, and for several miraculous seconds, he was totally, utterly silent. "You're joking," he managed, at last, flatly. "I've gotta say, your sense of humour really sucks."
Thundercracker vented over-warmed air in a sigh, and tried to work out how to word it in a Skywarp-friendly way. "Starscream says you didn't move through time, you just... well... stopped moving forwards with everyone else. You've kinda been in stasis for the vorns you were missing."
"TC-... how could I have been in stasis mid-teleport? I was just me, up there. I teleported, I rematerialised, bam, job done. I stayed conscious, for frag's sake."
"…from your point of view, sure. That-… that cold sensation you mentioned?"
Skywarp nodded, curtly, just the once.
"Screamer says he thinks that was actually several thousand orbits worth of dormancy."
"But my clock would have been running-!" It sounded like Skywarp wasn't sure if he should be angry or despairing; he managed to keep his tones quite even, but his words wobbled, unhappily.
"Not if you were in stasis when you weren't fully materialised. Your chronometer ended up in that… quantum limbo, for want of a better description… just like the rest of you, it couldn't run. Which means…" Thundercracker drew a long stabilising pulse of cold air through his core, and braced himself for the storm. "We can't send you back. You're here in this time, with us, and you have to stay here, moving forwards at the same speed we all do, forever. We can't send you back. It's physically, temporally, scientifically impossible."
"You sneaky, lying blot of purge, how fragging dare you!"
Thundercracker threw up his hands to fend off the black dervish that attacked his throat, all claws and noisy fury; had Skywarp not been trapped in that reasonably inflexible new frame, he'd have probably succeeded in tearing through at least a dozen connectors already.
"You stole almost forty vorns of my life, you bastard!" Skywarp's words were already spiralling upwards in pitch, growing discordant and almost ultrasonic in rage. "Forty vorns! And you don't even care!"
Thundercracker put the berth between the, not that it made much difference. "Of course I-"
"Leave me alone!" For once in his life, the ability to find an appropriate insult had failed him; instead, Skywarp pelted the other Seeker with whatever loose objects he could lay his hands on – data-readers, monitoring tools, temperature regulators.
"Leavemealone!" The words came out uncomfortably close in timbre to a shriek of pain, and a heavy toolbox chased the blue mech out of the door.
The sizzling static Thundercracker could hear in the background broke his nerve. He staggered unsteadily away down the corridor, unwilling to listen as his wingmate tore up the room, or the wrenching, despairing sobs that accompanied the chaos.