Alexis crouched down at the side of the house, retrieving the key from its hiding place under the ugly garden gnome – a present from her, aged five, to her dad. She turned the key, nudging the door open with her shoulder. 'It sticks,' she explained.
They stepped into the kitchen, and Alexis' breath caught in her throat.
'You, Alexis Garner,' said Dad, waving a screwdriver in the air to emphasise his words, '…are a lazy little so-and-so.' He was sitting at the table with an old radio, the wiring disgorged onto the wood. 'You can fix this yourself.'
'You're faster at it than me,' said Alexis, standing on tip-toe and peering into the open cupboards. 'Shall I do us scrambled eggs tonight?'
'Don't have any eggs, pet.'
She sighed, turning to face him. 'Daaaaad.'
'I'll do a shop tomorrow.' Dad poked his tongue out between his teeth as he picked at a circuit board.
'You're living on those pies, aren't you? The disgusting ones.'
'They do a chicken one now. Chicken's healthy, isn't it?'
'I'm doing an online order, tonight. You're getting some proper food in.'
'Alright, pet. Alright.'
Alexis blinked as the most recent memory of her time in this place enveloped her. She breathed in the smell of home – the smell of wood polish, books. A warm, dusty smell. How can it smell so real?
She turned, looking at the group of humans blocking the doorway. They were about to enter a world she never envisaged them seeing – a cosy, safe world that belonged to her dad. Suddenly she felt incredibly vulnerable. She looked around.
The kitchen had old wooden-framed windows facing out to the front. The table sat down one end. Behind it was a notice-board holding receipts, postcards, leaflets, the menu for the Chinese takeaway in the next village. A basket for the clean laundry was in the corner. The kitchen worktop was clean. Magnets from various holiday destinations adorned the refridgerator. On the draining board was a mug, upside down, and a spoon. Her dad's coffee mug. As if he had just left for a quick errand, and would be back any minute.
'Sorry…' she realized she had stood silently for about a minute, leaving the others hovering uncertainly behind her. 'Come in.'
They moved inside, looking around them with naked curiosity. Alexis realized that even Arcee, the smallest, was still far too big to fit inside a human residence in normal circumstances. The only one to have experienced anything like this was Frenzy, who padded over to the cupboards, opening them and staring at the contents. There's even things in the cupboards, she thought to herself in disbelief. She recognized the packaging on the cans. Everything is here… everything… the smell, the furniture…
Arcee moved slowly round the table, gripping the back of a chair. 'So, go on Alexis. How is this not real?' Starscream leaned against the worktop, watching her closely. Skywarp noisily fell into a chair without invitation, still groaning to himself about his predicament. Like Starscream, he clearly wasn't enjoying the experience of saliva glands. Alexis watched as he grabbed a handful of his T shirt, stuffing it into his mouth in an attempt to dry it out.
She turned, pointing out of the window. 'That building there, is where Starscream landed the night he arrived here,' she said gesturing to the barn-like building. They all craned to see, Starscream included.
'He was there in jet mode for a few days. When the minicons came, and gave him energon, he transformed. When he did, he grew too big for the barn, and tore the roof off.'
Thundercracker chuckled. 'Nicely done, Screamer.'
'Then he smashed the door down to get out. The barn was pretty much reduced to matchsticks. Shortly after that, the Decepticons invaded. At the end of the Occupation, when Dad finally came home, he had the barn demolished. It had been in ruins for three years and he said there was no point trying to restore it.'
Alexis paced round the kitchen, frowning. 'The thing is… I still expect to see the barn there every time I visit. Each time I pull up onto the drive, it's still a shock to see it gone.'
'So… you expected it to be there, so it's there,' said Thundercracker slowly. 'This is making my processor hurt…'
'Some sort of powerful simulation, then,' said Arcee. 'But I can feel everything. I can feel my heart beating...' she shut her eyes briefly, '…and I'm breathing. How are we, as transformers, supposed to know what that feels like?'
Skywarp groaned again. 'I could murder a few cubes of energon. If this isn't real, can't we just… will ourselves back to our shapes? Can I imagine a load of cubes onto the table, right here?'
They all stared as he shut his eyes tight, screwing up his face and his fists, concentrating with all his might.
After a few moments he opened his eyes. Nothing had happened.
'Well,' said Starscream sardonically. 'I think we can safely conclude from that little experiment that it's all a little more complicated than that.'
'Urgh, don't mock, brother. I neeeed energon…' Skywarp leaned forward, his head in his hands.
'I feel a little light-headed too, to tell the truth,' said Arcee.
Suddenly a loud crunching sound drew all eyes to the corner of the kitchen. Frenzy froze guiltily, his cheeks full, an open packet of crisps in his hand. He swallowed.
'What? I'm hungry.'
'Is that a good idea?' said Arcee anxiously. 'We don't know enough about this world yet. What if it's dangerous to ingest…'
But Frenzy had already turned away, pulling other items out of the cupboards. Skywarp, his curiosity roused, stood up and ambled over, pushing Frenzy aside. 'Back off, short stuff. What's that you got there?'
'Short stuff? Take a look at yourself, buddy! You and me are almost the same size!'
'Same size?' Skywarp raised his eyebrows, straightening up, emphasizing the three or four inches difference in their height, his imposing muscular bulk highlighting Frenzy's skinny frame. He snatched a box from the human casseticon, waving it at Alexis. She was staring out of the window anxiously. 'What's this, Alexis?'
She took a while to respond. 'Hm? Oh… pop tarts.'
'Pop tarts…' echoed Skywarp. He pulled a silver foil-packed slice from the box, biting into it. 'Yeuch…'
'You pull the foil off, numb-nuts!' Frenzy snatched it back, assuming a pompous air. 'I know how to eat food, I've got experience…'
He unwrapped the pop tart. Skywarp snatched it back, glaring. 'Numb-nuts… You'll pay for that remark, buddy, when we get back into our own shapes.'
He bit down deeply. A few moments of rapt silence passed as he chewed.
Then Skywarp's eyes bulged out of his head. 'Primus.'
'What?' Thundercracker frowned at his brother, a note of worry in his voice. 'Skywarp, what is it?' Frenzy was grinning knowingly.
'This…' Skywarp shook the remaining pop tart, staring down at it. '… is the most amazing thing… I have ever TASTED!'
He tore eagerly into the box, fishing the other tarts out, stuffing the remaining one into his mouth.
'Hey! Share!' Frenzy tried to grab one for himself, but Skywarp held them high out of reach. 'Skywarp doesn't share…'
Arcee was on her feet. 'This is Alexis' home, your morons, show some respect!'
'These are so fragging delicious! Are there any more? Can we get these on Cybertron?'
'Gimme one, greedy guts!'
That last shout was Starscream. He glared at them all, before striding out of the kitchen. Alexis had disappeared.
He found her in what he presumed was the living room. There was a worn, red carpet, and brown sofas. Shelves full of books all along one wall. An aged TV set. Magazines and more books on a low table. Pictures adorning the remaining three walls. Alexis was wandering through it distractedly.
'Come on Alexis. Not now. Don't lose it now. It's not really real, it's not real, it's NOT REAL.'
He stood still, watching her in silence as she muttered to herself furiously, grappling with a torrent of inner emotions.
She turned, spotting his reflection in the TV. 'It was a mistake to come here, Starscream. It makes me want to go home. It makes me want my dad. Just what is this place?' Her voice cracked.
'It wasn't a mistake at all,' he said, moving towards her. 'Remember what I told you, on the ship? Nurse your anger. This place makes you sad, makes you yearn for what's important to you? Good. You are at your best when the things you love are under threat, Alexis. You are ready to fight. Now, head up.'
She swallowed hard, blinking back tears.
'I said, head UP.'
She looked up at him.
Arcee came into the room. Glaring at Starscream, she took Alexis' arm. 'Hey, small one. You alright?'
Alexis managed a watery smile. Arcee gave her a warm smile back.
'I need you back in there, the men are eating through your food like space rust. We could use some of your human expertise. How about you make something up for us to try? I'm sure Starscream is intrigued to try some Earth cuisine. Aren't you?'
'Who, me?' Starscream snorted. 'Don't be ridiculous. I can't think of anything worse, polluting myself with the organic slop that humans need, to…'
Arcee kicked him hard on the shin and he blinked, before glancing at Alexis' woeful face.
'I mean… sure. Of course. I'd be fascinated. An excellent idea.'
Arcee ushered the girl out of the room, pausing to let her go ahead into the kitchen.
Starscream watched her go, directing a murderous look at Arcee.
'Hope I didn't hurt you,' she said coolly.
'As if you could,' he snarled back.
He waited until he was on his own to rub the spot where she had kicked him.
'I can't believe they are still eating.'
Forty-five minutes later, and Alexis lowered another steaming pot of casserole onto the table. This was the third batch she had made. Outside night had fallen, inky blackness pressing against the windows. Skywarp pulled the pot towards him eagerly, ladling some into his bowl. The recipe was one from her student days – a search of the cupboards had revealed meat, beans, pasta, tinned tomatoes, and chilli powder.
Thundercracker, Skywarp and Frenzy sat at the table, eating whatever she put in front of them with limitless enthusiasm. Arcee had eaten a small bowlful, and accepted a glass of water. Milk, orange juice, various cordials, cans of beer and fizzy drinks were lined up across the table, ready to be sampled, along with cookies, bread and butter, crisps, a microwaved pizza, a lemon drizzle cake, towering sandwiches…
'I hope they don't throw up,' Alexis said, glancing at Arcee, who shook her head in amused disgust.
Starscream was leaning against the wall, deep in thought. He had also consumed an impressive amount of food, though unlike the others, he gave no clue as to whether he had enjoyed it. He had simply sat and consumed fiercely, remarking that this was what passed for energy in this universe, and as such, as always, he wanted as much as possible. He roused as Alexis squeezed past him, crouching down and opening a cupboard. 'What are you looking for?'
'Just checking something…. Aha!'
She straightened up, clutching a bottle of single malt whiskey and a bottle of wine. 'And I thought I also saw…'
She bent down once more, pulling out a battered cardboard packet, shaking her head and laughing. 'Oh, Dad, you are in so much trouble when I get home. He told me he'd given up!'
Cooking for the others had indeed appeared to have cheered her up. Starscream tilted his head enquiringly. 'Cigarettes,' she explained, opening the box to show the white sticks nestled inside. 'I haven't smoked since I was a teenager. But, these are strange circumstances, what the hell…'
He watched as she opened a drawer, retrieving a lighter and striking a flame, applying it to the end of the cigarette. She inhaled deeply, breathing out the smoke in a long, slow breath. 'Mm. So bad, but so good.'
'Why have I never seen you do this before?'
'Hm? Oh, they're, like, really bad for you.' She took another drag.
His brows shot up. 'Well, in that case…'
She looked up, laughing disbelievingly. 'You want one?'
'Well, I appear to be stuck in this puny meatsack for now. When in Rome, as the humans say…'
He took one from the pack, putting it between his lips and leaning forward to light it off hers. The easy intimacy of the movement made her laugh. 'Trust you to seek out the worst things to do in a human body, Starscream.'
He inhaled, frowning as he breathed out smoke. 'Hm. Not bad. Certainly better than that…' he gestured to his brothers still happily gorging themselves at the table.
Alexis set out two glasses on the worktop. 'I put you down as a whisky man,' she said, pouring him a measure into one of the glasses. 'Try that.'
He picked up the whisky, tossing it back in one go. 'Mmm… now that is more like it. Pour me another.'
'This is so weird,' she said, shaking her head and laughing quietly, pouring him another whisky and herself a large glass of wine. 'This has got to be some sort of weird dream.'
She looked up at his angular, sharp features, the familiar, calculating eyes. 'You… look really good as a human, Starscream. I mean, really good. There, I said it.'
She took a sip of the wine, closing her eyes briefly at the blissful taste, the realness of it. He smiled, a satisfied, arrogant smile, his ego palpable as it swelled. 'Quite right too.'
She rolled her eyes. 'That was supposed to be the part where you pay me a compliment.'
'You're the only human I have ever met that I don't want to kill. How's that?'
She hit him on the upper arm, and he laughed uproariously. He stopped abruptly though, as the phone in the corner of the kitchen trilled out, the sound unbelievably harsh in the large space.
All eyes flew to the phone. Skywarp and Thundercracker froze, cheeks full, looking to Starscream. His eyes narrowed, and he looked down at Alexis. She gave a scared shrug. 'What… I don't … who could be calling us?'
She stubbed out the cigarette and crossed the kitchen, Starscream close behind her, picking the phone up off its cradle, her heart thumping once more. 'Hello?'
She tried again. 'Hello?'
A voice, a rasping, whispery voice spoke. 'Starscream?'
Alexis' eyes widened. Starscream took the phone from her without a word, raising it to his ear. Standing on tiptoe, Alexis leaned her head in as close as possible, the better to hear the conversation.
'Who is this?' asked Starscream softly. His tone was dangerous, daring the caller to reveal themselves.
'Starscream. It's really you. My old friend.'
'Who. Is. This?'
The voice was whispered, hurried. 'I can't… not here. He may be listening. It's too dangerous where you are. Listen to me, carefully. Come back into the city tomorrow evening. The Excelsior. I promise to tell you more then.'
'And why should I do as a stranger asks me?'
'Your natural curiosity will compel you to come, Starscream. Tomorrow evening. The Gold Lounge, at The Excelsior.'
There was a click as the caller hung up. Starscream lowered the receiver, his eyes darting back and forth, processing the strange conversation. Alexis drew closer to him, shivering. 'Did you recognize their voice?'
Starscream frowned. 'I… No.'
She searched his face. 'You're sure?'
He ignored the question. 'Alexis, what is The Excelsior?'
'It's a hotel,' she answered immediately. 'One of the high-end ones, been running for over a century.'
'A building where people go to stay when they are travelling.'
Skywarp and Thundercracker had stood up, moving to join Starscream. 'What now?'
'We go, tomorrow, to this hotel,' said Starscream to his wingbrothers. 'Arcee can wait nearby with Alexis in case of danger.' He put a hand over his eyes and sighed in exasperation as their angry protests filled the kitchen. 'Alright… Alright! We go together.'
It was midnight, and Alexis had dragged blankets and pillows down into the living room. A fire had been lit in the grate, bathing the room in warmth, the logs crackling as they slipped down in the flames. It had been silently agreed that they should stick together in the house. Alexis had explained the concept of sleep, but so far the only one to accomplish it was Skywarp, who had sprawled in an armchair in a food coma, one hand on his stomach, the other still clutching a beer can. Arcee was investigating the books and the pictures on the walls. Frenzy had tried turning on the TV, but all he got was static – it seemed this highly detailed universe didn't stretch to television programmes. Starscream sat on the main couch, one hand resting on the arm, drumming his fingers thoughtfully. The other hand cradled a fresh tumbler of whisky, the bottle set by his feet. Thundercracker stood by the window, keeping watch. Alexis sat next to Starscream, her feet tucked under her, stifling yawns beneath a blanket.
Alexis looked up sleepily. Arcee was pointing to a framed picture of a young man and woman, laughing at the camera, a baby jiggling in the man's lap.'
'Mum, dad and me,' she said, wriggling further into the blanket.
'You have never mentioned your mother.'
'Mum died a long time back.'
'Oh. I am sorry,' Arcee said seriously.
'Feel sorry for my dad, not me. I was two. It was cancer. I did try for a while to find him a girlfriend, but he says he's too wrinkly for all that now. I don't remember her but Dad adored her, still does.'
Arcee went back to examining the pictures. Alexis leaned back on the couch, closing her eyes.
Thundercracker moved away from the window, observing his brother and leader staring into the fire, long fingers still drumming a pattern on the leather. He rotated his shoulder blades, frowning.
'Primus, I miss my wings so much. Making a plan, brother?'
'Of sorts.' Starscream took a pull of whisky. 'Do you recall the basics of Stasis Quantum Interaction?'
Thundercracker grimaced. 'I'm not too hot on complicated sciencey stuff. Why?'
Alexis' head bowed forward, and she slipped sideways on the couch slightly, having fallen fast asleep. Starscream glanced at her, before carefully putting one arm across her shoulders. She stirred but didn't wake, nestling into the crook of his arm.
'Because I think we may be in the midst of such a thing.'
Thundercracker's grey eyes widened. 'With this level of detail? Normal stasis interaction plains are blank, empty.'
'Yes. It's just a theory. But we may as well use this time to start coming up with them.'
'That's bad news brother, because, as I'm sure you remember, you can't emerge from stasis that deep without outside assistance,' hissed Thundercracker. 'Are you saying we're fragged? I mean, the Insecticons aren't here, maybe they can get us out?'
'Sarcasm doesn't become you, Thundercracker,' said Starscream. Thundercracker sighed, dropping into an adjacent chair, his hands in his hair.
'There is always a way out,' said Starscream, leaning back lazily, Alexis huddled to him, eyes glinting in the firelight.
'What about this mystery friend?'
'Everyone is an enemy until proved otherwise,' said Starscream. 'We trust no one until we have cause to. We will go to this place tomorrow to meet him. But we will be prepared for any danger.'
He turned his head away, checking on Alexis once more, pulling the blanket up where it had slipped down one shoulder. 'Stay on watch for three more hours, Thundercracker, then get your stupid lug of a brother to replace you.'