Ch 1: Prologue to Adventure, Part 4
As it turned out, being a famous athlete in a city state that allowed Decepticons to freely roam its streets was a less than ideal situation. Barry had spent the last several groons trying to evade the progressively demanding “offers” of recruitment, to the point he’d begun fearing for his family’s life. So, seven orns before, he’d helped his parents and little brother disguise themselves and hide away in one of the smaller towns on the edge of Axiom, and then Barry took off.
“...It wasn’t that hard to get the timing right to slip off of the road whenever a group of Cons were heading my way, and even the couple of times someone spotted and chased me, well,” Barry blushed. “Fastest runner of the century. No one was going to catch up to me once I got started.”
“I’ll bet!” Hank said in admiration. “So, you just came straight up the highway from Axiom? On foot?”
“Well, I had my rocket-skates for the roadway, but once I found Rhea we ditched the populated areas for cross-country hiking. Not my preferred sport, by the way.”
“What did I warn you about the complaining?” The athlete grinned weakly at his travelling companion’s glare.
“I’m going to go ahead and let you guys in on an important fact.” Barry said in a stage whisper to the older boys. “Do not get into an argument with this girl - if she can’t win with reason, she resorts to winning with her fists.” Spencer started chuckling, while Hank felt his estimation of the lady rise a few degrees. Rhea, meanwhile, merely rolled her eyes and started pulling a package out from her messenger bag.
“Hope you guys don’t mind eating sealed jerky - I don’t have much else, and Barry’s food supplies were lost to a bear.”
Both Hank and Spencer blinked, turning to give questioning stares to the sheepish teen. “Long story,” he muttered.
“Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing right now? Swapping stories?”
“Ringer’s got a point. So spill, dude!”
Sighing and shaking his head ruefully, Barry started explaining how an unsealed container of sausage, coupled with a catch bag inexpertly secured in a tree for the night cycle, had led to him waking up in the early morning to a Prism-hide bear licking its snout and standing over his bedroll. When the teen mentioned that he had never run faster in his life, Hank snickered and suggested the next time he raced, Barry ought to arrange to have another bear brought in to sit by the starting line. That got all of them laughing, and prompted Spencer to bring up a time one of his cousins had left their caravan in the dead of night to go skinny dipping with a boy from the local town. Come sunrise, she still hadn’t returned, and some family members eventually found both of them stuck in the tree that a pack of hunting cyber wolves had forced the young couple into climbing.
“It took us over two joors to get them down, and the whole time each was stuck covering themselves with each other’s clothes!” The laughter rang out as the four of them attempted to get down the food Rhea had shared without choking. To the west, the sun had already vanished behind the mountains, though the sky remained glowing with a mixture of warm colors. Hank went ahead and suggest that they try to find a safe spot to sleep for the night cycle.
“Preferably without any nearby bears, right, Barry?”
“Oh, stuff it Veer.” The retort was delivered with a grin, and got another chuckle out of Spencer. While the boys gathered up their bags, Rhea went up the hill a short ways, stopping when she reached an almost spherical clump of bushes. She pulled a wide blade from a hidden sheath in her boot, and started cutting a section of the outer foliage away. Hank was the first to reach her, knapsacks in tow, and watched in amazement as the girl carved out first a doorway, then an interior room around the central trunk of the main plant. The result was a sleeping shelter completely hidden within the bushes, especially once she arranged some of the excess branches into a shield for the door.
“Wow,” Hank grinned at her, getting a small smile in return. As the other two joined them, the youths piled into the shelter, Rhea closing it up behind them. There wasn’t much head space, but the four were easily able to curl up within the snug room, and shortly afterward dropped off the sleep.
Hank was the first to wake up the next morning, with a mouse sniffing at his ear. From the young man’s shrieks, the others had assumed they were under attack by something far more deadly, and as a consequence came to their feet brandishing various weapons. By the time Hank was able to calm himself down and explain, the mouse had scampered away, their shelter was pretty much demolished, and various belongings had been scattered around the hillside.
Rhea was not amused. Spencer and Barry both cracked up. Hank merely set about gathering everything together again, and spent much of the rest of the morning muttering about evil rodents.
Midday found the four of them hiking through a narrow valley between some of the lower mountains, each of the youths keeping their eyes open for any danger. Spencer was in the lead, having the best map of the area and the most experience in wild environments. Barry was close behind him, occasionally launching into a fast ramble when the teen spotted something interesting. At times, his words blurred together, leaving Spencer at a bit of a loss as to how to respond; Barry seemed to be used to that, though, and was able to slow himself down a bit again.
A little ways back from the pair, Hank was enjoying the mixture of human voices and natural sounds as he walked. Every now and then, he tried to pause to take in a bit more of the scenery, only for Rhea to prod him in the back. Bringing up the rear and constantly turning her gaze back to the ground they’d already traversed, the young woman internally wished that their little group could pick up the pace a bit. It wasn’t that she didn’t mind the pleasant setting - in fact, it was a wonderful change from the poorer district of Hivus she had grown up in. But if there was one lesson Rhea had learned over the vorns, it was that peace rarely lasted.
The sudden explosion that rang out from the next valley over seemed to agree with her.
Exchanging startled and worried glances, the four group members drew closer together, making their cautious way towards the mouth of the valley, weapons gradually shifting from holsters to tightly held grips. When they had almost reached the opening that led into a wide basin between mountains, Rhea shifted her position to be in front, near silent as she moved to a sheltered ledge that would allow her a bird’s eye view of what would lie ahead of them. Hank found himself shifting anxiously from one foot to another, highly tempted to slip up beside her. He was just about to do so, but was halted mid-step as a very angry sounding voice made it’s way over to them.
“...don’t know what I did to deserve putting up with you young idiots! If you think yer gonna have such an easy time of it when I get you incompetent morons to Ark Valley, you’ve got another thing comin’! In fact, I think I’ll go out of my way t’ let old Ironhide know just what bumblers he’s gonna have ta deal with in his weapons courses. And that’s if the Autobot High Command agrees to even let you imbeciles into their base!”
Rhea and the boys listened with baffled expressions as the cranky tirade continued on for another few breems. Not until the shouter had worn himself out did a couple of other voices make themselves heard.
“But, Kup, all we were doing was-”
“We just wanted to see how-”
“-didn’t realize the trigger was so sensitive-”
“-but the blast! That was fraggin’ huge! How do you-”
“Alright, that’s ENOUGH!” The first voice bellowed, immediately silencing the others. Hank found himself chuckling, finding the conversation reminiscent of times that the elders in his hometown would chew out misbehaving kids. Granted, he himself was often one of the troublemakers who received a “talkin’-to”, but it just heightened the appreciation of when such an event occurred to someone else.
A few kliks later, Rhea’s death glare quieted him, and Hank realized he’d just made a potentially terrible mistake in not remaining silent.
Suddenly, a lean figure wearing rugged Wilds Dweller clothing and at least a dozen weapons was standing above the boys in the valley’s opening. Glaring eyes framed by a mass of wrinkled, weathered skin bored into the youths, causing Hank, Spencer and Barry to all shuffle back a little. Still on her perch above them, Rhea slowly lifted her rifle, only to freeze when dual whines from energon blasters being warmed up reached her ears.
“One warning, missy.” The old man snarled without even looking at her. “You shoot at me, those boys behind me shoot at you, and I doubt yer as good at dodging as I am. Now, just what do you younglings think you all are doing out here, hm?”
Somehow, Hank managed to find his voice before the others. “Uh, well, we were on our way to Iacon, but after listening to you I think we ought to be headed towards some place called Ark Valley, right?”
The glare faded somewhat, shifting from dangerous rage to a look of exasperated annoyance. “Is that so.” Some of the obvious tension went out from the man’s stance as well, while he eyed the four of them with a studious gaze. “Roamer. Greenback caravan, if I’m not mistaken. You of age to have left yer clan without there bein’ a big blow-up over it?”
Spencer blinked, startled by the sudden inquiry. “Um, yes. I’m nineteen vorns old. My grand-uncle agreed I could leave.”
“Hmph. And you, Forestlander? Practically still a kid, you are.”
“I turned eighteen two groons ago!” Barry protested. “It’s my brother Wally who’s still a kid.”
“Yeah-huh. What about you, with the eye-searing orange?” The man snorted and shook his head. “Gotta be from Biniari or Hillitrex, those are the only places that think clothes colored like that are still allowed in public.”
“Hey!” Hank glowered at him. “These were a present from my mom, you jerk.”
“Yer age, punk?”
“Mm.” Finally, he turned to arch an eyebrow up at Rhea, who still hadn’t moved from her position. “And yourself, little missy? Hivusian, aren’t you?”
Her response was a glare, and a muttered twenty one.
“Alrighty then. Since you all appear to meet the age requirement fer signin’ up with the Autobots, I’ll let ya tag along with me and the Dim Cousins here.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, reminding Hank of the presence of two more young people. “But, if I’m to find out at any point during the trip that any of you are Decepticon spies or sympathizers...” The old guy trailed off, his scorching glare more than enough of a warning.
Without another word, he turned and stepped back out of sight. After a few moments of hesitation, the boys trailed after him, Hank pausing until Rhea came back down from the ledge. On the other side of the valley’s opening, a pair of very muscular young men stood with powered down blasters, identical grins upon their faces. The dark haired one, a good deal shorter than the other, came forward first to introduce himself.
“The name’s Hepley, Trenton Hepley. This here’s my cousin, Warren Palomine, and the Grouch Supreme over there is Kyle Kup. Who’re you guys?” While the four gave their names, Barry was the only one to catch the old man muttering something about a grouchy ratchet - or was that hatchet? Shaking his head, the teen returned to the new conversation in time to hear Trenton say he was glad Rhea had stopped taking aim when she did, because it would have been a real shame to shoot such a pretty lady.
The girl eyed him for all of three kliks before yelling out to Kup. “Am I allowed to hit this one?”
“Missy, you can hit ‘em both fer all I care!”
“What did I do?” Warren yelped in surprise, while his cousin had to start backpedaling away from Rhea’s menacing expression.
“Whoa, easy lady, all I did was pay you a compli-YOW!” The sweeping high kick never actually connected with Trenton’s face, but he over-compensated in trying to dodge away from Rhea, and ended up tumbling down the shallow hill to the basin’s bottom.
“Consider that your only warning!” She called down, turning to march back to the others. Hank, while annoyed by Trenton’s initial comment, was grinning widely as Rhea stomped her way over to stand beside him.
“And now’s when it starts getting interesting.” He laughed.
“So, what was that explosion we heard earlier?” Spencer asked after they had gotten moving again. Kup was in the lead now, guiding the half a dozen youngsters as they moved through one valley after another, following some path only he seemed to know. Barry and Rhea both managed to stay right behind him, while the other boys hung back a little bit to talk.
“Heh. Funny story, actually,” Trenton began, before Warren cut him off.
“We wanted to see if Kup’s old rifle actually still worked, so my dunderheaded cousin here filched it for a breem in order to take a shot.”
Hank snorted. “I’m sorry, one rifle managed to make a blast that big?”
“It did!” Exclaimed Trenton, wide-eyed. “I have no idea how, but that thing packs a bigger kick than a grade three plasma cannon! It turned the tree I was aiming at into charcoal, and the shockwave knocked down everything else nearby-”
“Which I why I don’t usually fire the fraggin’ thing unless I’m shooting at a Decepticon’s vehicle!” The old man roared back at them. All four boys jumped in surprise, while Rhea looked back with a smirk and Barry just shook his head in awe.
Eyebrows going up, Hank exchanged glances with the youths around him, all silently agreeing not to bring the subject up again.
For the rest of the orn, the young people of the group tentatively exchanged stories and got to know each other, even going so far as to hypothesize what sorts of exploits they’d do as Autobots (admittedly, this last bit was mostly Hank and Trenton). For the most part, Kup ignored their conversing, though he did occasionally call out to contradict something he’d heard and thought was exceptionally idiotic.
Even with this habit, it wasn’t until the morning after their first night camping together that it became apparent just how evil the old man was...
A horrendous, terrible clanging noise jerked Hank into consciousness, along with all five of his companions. The lot of them struggled to their feet, Rhea and the cousins brandishing weaponry in different directions, until the source of the horrible cacophony was noticed.
Kup finished banging the pair of collapsible cooking pans together, watching them all with a smug grin.
“Oh, don’t you lot look at me like that,” He chuckled in the face of their combined glares. “Just be happy I didn’t have any buckets of ice water on hand - now that is a refreshing way to wake up in the morning!” The youths didn’t deign to respond, merely setting about gathering up their scattered bedding materials.
“Look on the bright sight, dude-” Spencer muttered to Hank. “At least it wasn’t another rodent.”
“Oh, shut up.”