CHAPTER ONE

"Cactus!"

"Jon …"

There was a faint but undeniably weary hiss of steam.

"Ooh! Another cactus. Aaaaannnnddd a BIG cactus!"

There was another hiss of steam, this time a decidedly irritated one.

"Oh, for cryin' out lou –"

"Cactus and a BIRD!"

The Spine sighed inwardly. The journey home from Wyoming was, he could tell, going to be a tough one. Especially since this stretch of the Mojave Desert was full of cacti. And the odd bird or three. He looked at The Jon, peering with wonder out of the window of their old touring bus and greeting each cactus they passed like a long-lost friend … and had been doing so for the past two hours. The Spine had to smile inwardly, even as his younger brother was driving him and the rest of the band into dark thoughts of rapid robot disassembly with a pickaxe. The Spine secretly envied Jon his sense of wonder. It was their youngest robot who kept him sane sometimes, when The Spine's circuits decided to throw the odd spark of horror into his dreams at night. The Jon had a way of driving the hooglies away with a gentle laugh and a knowing brotherly hug.

"Cactus! Cactus … cactus, cactus … bird! JACKALOPE!" This was followed by a cackling giggle and a decisive hat-wobble.

But right now, The Spine thought, the pickaxe solution looked mighty appealing.

"The Jon – don't make me come back there!" Steve grumbled, curled up in the front passenger seat, head now scrunched under an old purple pillow he'd sneaked from Michael who was taking his turn at the wheel.

"Huh?" The Jon stopped his observations for a second. But only a second. "Hey Sam! CACTUS!"

Sam didn't hear a word. He was sound asleep in his seat. The Spine was pretty sure Sam could sleep through an earthquake.

"Jackalopes, huh, b-b-buddy?"

The Spine twisted around in his seat at the words. Behind him the oldest robot member of their band was stretched out on the back seat, arms crossed and hat tipped forward over his optics. A glimmer of blue and green shone dimly from beneath the brim.

"Cactapusses, Rabbit!" The Jon squirmed from his seat and flung himself down to sit on the bus floor beside Rabbit. "And a jackalope! It wasn't yodelling though." The Jon's blue-on-blue photo-receptors carried just a hint of puzzlement. "It looked kinda dead."

"Cacti." The Spine muttered.

"Say whaaat?"

"Cacti. Plural of cactus. No such word as cactapusses," The Spine reiterated patiently.

"Ahhh," replied The Jon, The Spine knowing full well that his little brother would take not one whit of notice. They were cactapusses, and always would be cactapusses. He sighed and turned to Rabbit.

"And you. You're supposed to be powered down, Rabbit. You need to get some rest." He raised a stern eyebrow, something he had worked hard to perfect in his 116 years of existence.

Rabbit caught the brim of his hat and pushed it back to reveal the wry, ever-so-slightly-manic grin that he used to disarm people who were trying to get him to do something he didn't want to do. Rabbit had stubbornness down to a fine art. Well, at least he thought he did.

"N-n-n-n-ahh … I'm just fine, The Spine." His smile became a tad more manic. "Hey – that rhymed! Waddya know!" He wriggled his fingers to make his point. The grin widened.

The Spine was having none of it. He leaned over the back of his seat and perused the clockwork 'bot. For all of Rabbit's insistence that he was 'just fine,' The Spine knew better. He noted the barely perceptible tics and tremors … ghost glitches that wouldn't go away. An elbow twitch here, a foot flick there … remnants of a major episode that had left Rabbit helpless, panic-stricken and deeply distressed. It had been almost two days, and the copper automaton was still exhibiting relics of the incident.

The Jon's blue gaze caught his optics, and The Spine knew that Jon was as deeply concerned as he was. And was that guilt he saw on The Jon's golden features? He put his hand on the younger 'bot's shoulder and squeezed.

"Not your fault, Jon. Rabbit just did what all of us would have done. It's called looking after your own."

The Jon's optics blinked and became moist with oil. "Butterflies," he whispered.

Rabbit's manic grin softened.

"Oh, n-n-n-now, you guys, I'll be ba-ba-ba-ba-" … twitchtic … "BACK to normal as soon as we get-t-t-get home and Michael can, uh, p-p-p-patch up m'insides." All of this verbal tic-ing was accompanied by tremors and vibrating glitches than ran through Rabbit's aged copper plating like ripples on a pond. Of course, all of them knew glitching was part of what made Rabbit who he was … but this was different. His usual malfunctions were physical – his determination to avoid upgrades at any cost meant worn limbs that didn't quite behave as they should and an endless variety of clicks, creaks, boiler-rumbles and vocal stumbles, amid grinding gears from his over-one-century-old internal functions. They all knew that and dealt with it, as well as coping with one of the dangdest, stubbornest 'bots in creation.

But this … this was something that didn't happen often, and it was entirely a result of trauma. Even now, as he lay at rest, a time when Rabbit was usually free of the worst of his mechanical disfunctions, The Spine saw the tautness in his brother's construction, tension that wasn't allowing his battered frame to at least recover a little from the events of two days ago.

The Spine snorted to himself, allowing the teensiest escape of steam. Humans who didn't know the automatons thought Rabbit was just a badly-repaired robot. If he'd been human, they just might have recognised Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when they saw it. During their time in Vietnam, Rabbit, more than any of them, had seen … stuff. And he had paid for it.

He rarely 'slept' – the nightmares that he shared with his brothers through the Walter Manor WiFi were just too traumatic for them all, so Rabbit simply avoided giving nightmares a chance to take hold. He was easily startled. 'Jumpy' was the word Michael used, and Rabbit's hyperactive behaviour meant it didn't give him too much time to think. To ponder. To remember.

Rabbit's life, for all of its apparent chaotic fun, was rigidly controlled. He had to control his body and its quirky failings. He had to control his emotions, those chemically-produced reactions that Pappy had gifted to them all. Rabbit tried very hard to be unfailingly cheerful and upbeat. A tenuous thread of normality that Rabbit tended and nurtured with a desperation that The Spine knew would fail his brother sooner or later, when Rabbit's doggedly rigid control dissolved into true chaos.

That had happened two days ago.

The Spine thought back to the incident and had to agree with The Jon.

It really was all because of the butterflies ...

TBC