Clench sat on the floor in the old closet that his Autobot captors laughingly called a cell, trying and mostly failing to rein in his outrage at being held in such squalor. The small room had no furniture worthy of the name, and the walls were caked with rust and seeping condensation. Techno-organic vermin from the planet's depths scurried through, seemingly unafraid of the much larger Transformer whose privacy they were violating. For a mechanism of his station, it was almost too much to bear.
Clench hadn't been restrained, aside from the lock on the cell door. He found that more than a little bit insulting, as though the Autobots didn't consider him a threat once his weapons had been taken away. He wanted nothing more than to burst free of his captivity and show them the error of their ways, but the futility of his situation didn't escape him. He was restrained somewhere in the bowels of Cybertron, and even if he managed to kill each and every one of his Autobot captors he wouldn't be able to find his way back to Iacon. And even if he could, Clench had no illusions about what he would be returning to. Skyjack – the traitor who had handed him over to the Autobots to start with – had a week-long head start to spread whatever vicious lies he was using to cover up his own role in Clench's disappearance. Iacon was no longer friendly territory for him.
And whatever mess the traitor had created would only pile on top of the one Clench had created for himself. He'd murdered Overlord's head of security in plain view of a dozen troopers. He'd unsuccessfully tried to intimidate a doctor into letting him tear Rage's barely-functional body out of a stasis pod to kill him. He'd bullied an air traffic controller into helping him track Skyjack down and gone off with the intent to kill him.
No, there was no going home for Clench. Whatever horrible lies Skyjack might have crafted, Clench himself had provided the foundation for him to build on. His position as Liege Centuro would be forfeit, his career in ruins and his very life at risk if he dared to show his face in Overlord's court again, and deep down he knew that he deserved it. In a moment of blind rage he'd thrown away everything he'd fought his whole life to earn.
If there was one bright spot to the whole ordeal, it was that he was still alive to worry about it. The Autobots who were holding him weren't the barbaric monsters he'd expected. Their leader – the good-humoured beastformer who called himself Grotusque – even seemed civilized, in spite of the offensive creature he transformed into. The others whom he crossed paths with frequently enough to get to know – the soft-spoken, nervous guard Chainclaw, the upbeat and caring repair tech Hoist and even the diminutive Eject, whose cryptic and barely-comprehensible phrases couldn't quite hide the fact that his job was to spy on Clench twenty-four hours a day – all seemed decent enough as well. It was a far cry from the slavering, violent primitives that Clench had expected. In fact, under different circumstances – had they been Imperials rather than enemies – he suspected that he would have genuinely liked them.
The squeak of rusty hinges alerted him that someone was coming, and he looked up just in time to see a familiar orange and black robot walk in with a datapad in his hands.
"Gunrunner," Clench said by way of greeting. "Come for our daily battle of wits?"
The Autobot didn't crack a smile. He never did. "Come to see if you've realized how silly it is to keep your mouth shut when your people have given up on you."
"Don't be ridiculous," he said. "I'm the Liege Centuro. It doesn't matter what happened before you captured me. I know too much. They'll never stop looking for me."
"You're not, it does, you don't and they have," Gunrunner said. Sitting down in the chair across from Clench's, he leaned forward and stared at the Imperial for a few seconds before adding, "Of course, you don't believe me."
"Of course not."
They'd had this conversation, or variations on it, five times now. Sometimes Gunrunner would ask more pointed follow-up questions anyway, but usually he contented himself with reminding Clench that he was still out there, watching and waiting for the Imperial to crack.
Indeed, Clench had come to grudgingly admit that most of his captors were decent people, but not Gunrunner. The Autobot was wily in a way that the others weren't, and angry – angry in a way that reminded Clench of his loose-cannon subordinate Rage. It was a bad combination, and one that didn't bode well in a jailer. Clench prided himself on being able to read people, and the story that Gunrunner's optics told him wasn't a happy one. The Autobot was dangerous, and Clench suspected that only Grotusque's good graces were protecting him from a far more thorough and violent interrogation.
But even still, he had to admit...the Autobot had a decent point. Because if Clench's people were looking for him...then where were they?
"Okay," Clench said. The word surprised him, and even the normally guarded Gunrunner seemed a little bit confused. This wasn't the path that their conversations usually went down.
"Okay?" Gunrunner repeated with a bit of curiosity in his voice.
"Okay," Clench repeated. "Let's say you're right – my people have given up on me. They don't even care that I might be revealing every secret I've learned since I came to Overlord's court. You're right. If that happened, I probably wouldn't be very happy with them. I might even betray them. But I don't believe it."
"So I noticed."
"So you noticed," Clench told him. "But you didn't notice that I'm never going to change my mind. Never. I don't believe that it could happen. I'll never believe that it could happen. So unless you have some sort of proof..." He shrugged. "You're just wasting your time."
Then something unsettling happened. Gunrunner actually smiled. Clench couldn't quite stop himself from shivering.
"And if I had proof?"
"You don't," Clench insisted adamantly.
"And if I did?"
"If you did," Clench admitted, "then I just might talk to you."
Gunrunner got up from his chair and headed for the door. The hinges squeaked again as he opened it, and somehow the sound was even more grating than it had been before.
"I'll be seeing you, Clench," was all Gunrunner said as he left.
Grotusque looked up, a surprised look on his face as Gunrunner barged into his cramped, filthy excuse for an office.
"Come on, Gunny, I just got you to stop trying to get yourself killed. Do I need to give you a door-knocking lesson too?"
Sitting on a makeshift bench on one side of the room, Hun-grrr snorted with laughter.
"Funny," Gunrunner told him dryly. "Look, sorry about that. But I think I've made a breakthrough with the prisoner."
"Nhh...he told you something?" Hun-grrr demanded.
"No," Gunrunner shook his head. "But I know how to make him talk." He held up a hand to forestall Hun-grrr's next question. "And no, it doesn't involve letting Cutthroat carve little pieces off of him until he spills his guts."
"What do you have in mind?"
"Drrr...I thought he could start at the feet and work his way up to the more vital—"
"Not you," Grotusque told Hun-grrr with no small amount of exasperation.
"I'm just saying it's an option. Grrr..."
Gunrunner made a face. "He refuses to believe that his people have given up on him," he told the others. "All we need to do is make him believe."
"I suppose I could ask Circuit to start working on that," Grotusque said. "He's no Hubcap, but he's still pretty good at the whole 'fraud' thing." He frowned. "I'll probably have to get Blot to threaten to break his arms before he'll actually agree to do it, though."
"No," Gunrunner told him. "We need actual proof. We only get one shot at this. If we give him something fake and screw it up, he's not going to listen to anything else we have to say. I've been reading Punch's reports and I know that there's been no search effort since we made off with him, but that's not going to be enough to convince him. Neither is something that we trump up in an afternoon. We need something real."
"This is starting to sound dangerous," Grotusque told him warily. "What do you have in mind?"
"We need to get his Imperial personnel file."
Grotusque rocked back in his chair, stunned by the idea. "That's...just the tiniest bit risky, isn't it?"
Gunrunner didn't deny it. "It's a calculated risk," he emphasized. "Punch is good enough to pull it off. He might need help, though. Who do we have in the field?"
"Right now? Not too many people. Sprocket took a small hunting party out this morning...Ricochet, Tailspin and a few of the new arrivals from Deftwing's group, I think. Everyone else is still at base."
Gunrunner winced. "Not my first choice, but they'll have to do." He paused. "That is, if you're willing to let me go through with this."
Grotusque pondered for a moment, considering the different angles. Or at least, he tried to. But there really weren't any angles to consider. Clench was a high-value asset, but only if he was willing to talk. If he did, there was no limit to the amount of damage they could do to the Imperial invaders. If he didn't...well, if he didn't he was just another refugee, drinking their Energon and not contributing a single thing in return.
"If we do this," he said at last, "people are probably going to die. Good people."
"I know," Gunrunner admitted. "I know. But it's not the first time I'll be sending people to die."
"You're not going to be the one doing it, Gunny."
"It should be me, Grotusque," Gunrunner insisted. "My idea, my responsibility."
Grotusque shook his head. "I'm in command. It's all my responsibility." He made a sour face. "Besides, I can't let you talk to them."
"Because you wouldn't be able to look them in the eyes and tell them everything's going to be okay," Grotusque said sadly, "when you know that it's a lie."
Ricochet swept the barrel of his blaze cannon along the length of the dimly-lit Iacon street for what felt like the hundredth time, scowling.
"Look, Sprocket, I still say this is a stupid idea. We're sitting ducks out here."
"We'll get under cover as soon as our contact arrives," Sprocket assured him. "Grotusque's message said he should be here any minute."
"Riiight," Ricochet said contemptuously. "Grotusque. What the hell does he know, anyway? I mean, he turns into some sort of stupid gargoyle thing. Bloody moron, if you ask me."
"I didn't," Sprocket growled, "so keep it to yourself. He's good people."
"Says the mech who blew up Protihex."
"You know, Ricochet, I've had just about enough-"
"This is who they send to back me up?" an incredulous voice asked from behind them. "I should have asked for the Throttlebots..."
"You slag-sucking little-" Ricochet spun around and aimed his blaze cannon at the newcomer's head. "Sneak up on us, will you?"
The far more calm Sprocket shoved the barrel of his teammate's weapon down toward the ground. "Zip it, dummy! That's his passphrase." To the newcomer, he said, "You're Punch?"
"I am. Sprocket?"
"That's what they call me." Sprocket shoved the now-slightly-calmer Ricochet into an alleyway, then offered Punch his hand. "I hear you need some help?"
Punch shook his head and Sprocket's hand at the same time, as they ducked into the alley behind Ricochet. "Not really 'help' per se," he told the other Autobot. "More a distraction. I need to do some sneaking, and it'll go a lot better if a few big, expensive things started on fire at about the same time."
Sprocket gave Ricochet a sidelong glance. Ricochet grinned back at him. "That we can do."
"Good," Punch said, all business. "It's not just the two of you, is it?"
"Not exactly." Sprocket held up his left hand and raised two fingers. A few seconds later, three smallish Autobots and a Micromaster joined them in the alley. "Let me introduce the team. You've already met Ricochet, our loudmouth assault specialist. The little guy is Tailspin, our scout. High Beam's our tracker, Double Clutch is a great decoy and Meanstreak, uh..."
"I shoot people," the simpleminded Autobot chimed in helpfully.
"Right," Sprocket said. "So...what do you need us to burn?"
Rage scowled. Although he'd been out of stasis for a week now, he was still working through Glit's rehabilitation programs and hadn't returned to full duty. But he hated to be out of the loop, so he'd been doing his best to stay as up to date as possible on the latest news. He'd been working through Glit's latest regime of exercises in his quarters and reading up on the latest reports on the Starscream investigation when Skyjack paid him a visit.
"What do you mean, they're not looking for him?"
"I would have thought it was pretty easy to wrap your head around," the Cyberjet told him. "Someone somewhere, higher up the pay scale than either of us, decided that Clench wasn't worth going after. Now, usually there would be a few suspects to mull over. But considering how the Liege Centuro is missing in action after murdering our head of security..."
"There's only one person who could have made that decision," Rage filled in the blanks for him. "So you're saying that Overlord of all people decided that hunting down his second in command – the second in command that he thinks has turned to the Autobots' side – isn't a priority. That's idiotic, Skyjack. And Overlord is no idiot."
"I just say what I hear," Skyjack shrugged. "I don't pretend to understand it."
"Oh, cut the slag," Rage told him. "I'm not an idiot either. I know you've got your own ideas about what's going on."
"Maybe, but I wouldn't want to guess without at least some evidence to—"
Skyjack's transparent excuse was cut short when a high-pitched klaxon rang out from the base's loudspeakers. An announcement followed shortly on it's heels. "Attention, attention. This is Watch Commander Wingstun speaking. The base is under attack. All hands report to your action stations. This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill. All hands report to action stations."
Rage didn't need to be invited twice. He was on his feet before the officer had finished his fourth sentence and had his fusion rifle in his hands before he'd finished speaking.
"Where do you think you're going?" Skyjack asked him. "You're not cleared for duty yet."
"Do I look like I give a damn?" Rage asked bluntly. "There's killing to be done and I'm not going to hide in here while someone else deals with it. You're welcome to report me to the cat doctor later."
He shoved past Skyjack and through the doorway before the other Imperial even managed to get another word in. With a resigned shrug, Skyjack powered up his missile launcher and followed.
"Hoo-rah!" Ricochet crowed as another shell from his blaze cannon exploded, causing the already-lit guard hut to burn even more quickly. "Burn, baby, burn!"
"Three more shots," High Beam told him dispassionately. "Then move onto the next one."
Ricochet scoffed. "Yeah, right. Whatever you say, killjoy."
Double Clutch shot past the outbuilding's doors in vehicle mode, screaming banal slogans and petty insults.
"Come and get me, Impies! Catch me if you can! Down with the Maximo! Rah Optimus Prime!"
The green and grey troops who'd been working inside the building looked at each other in disbelief. Three of them took off after the small Autobot car, while the other two stayed where they were, gawking at the Autobot's seeming stupidity.
The ground around the Imperial compound had been cleared as much as they could, with most of the unused buildings either removed entirely or in the process of being taken down. Attacking the troopers while he was as exposed as he was seemed tantamount to suicide, and they all knew it.
But Double Clutch lived for risks like that.
"The things I do for a little fun..." Double Clutch muttered to himself. Then, louder, "That the best you clowns got? Hah!"
As the three guards took off after Double Clutch, Sprocket stepped out from the pile of debris that he'd been hiding behind and calmly walked up to the building that his teammate had just buzzed. The two remaining troopers, busy watching to see if their comrades were going to catch the speedy Autobot they were after, didn't notice his approach. With a grim expression of his face, Sprocket gunned the first one down with three shots to the back of the head. The second trooper, startled, spun around to face him...and got a photon blast to the the optics for his trouble.
Sprocket stepped over the corpse of the first guard and kicked the other one out of the way, then kicked open the door to the outbuilding they'd been working in. It was only a maintenance shed, nothing vital and not something the enemy would particularly miss...but it was theirs, so he tossed a live grenade through the door anyway.
The young Autobot strode away purposefully, not even flinching as the building behind him erupted into flames.
Meanstreak grinned wildly, spraying gunfire into the first occupied building he came across.
"Uh, I don't think this is what Punch wanted us to do," Tailspin reminded him.
"Yeah, whatever," Meanstreak said scornfully. "Hang Punch. He wanted us to get their attention, right?"
"I'm pretty sure he also wanted us to, you know, not die." Tailspin flinched as he saw three different doors swing open. "Blasting their living quarters...probably not the greatest idea ever."
"So, what, we should've torched some Energon stockpile instead? See, there's one big problem with that plan." Meanstreak cut down the first Imperial to poke his head out of the building. "It doesn't end with me murdering anyone wearing a spiky badge!"
By now there were a dozen different people shooting back at him, from doors and windows all over the building.
"You're an idiot, Meanstreak." Tailspin ducked behind a light standard, happy that his small size hadn't attracted the Imperials' notice yet. It wouldn't last, though. He couldn't run away without the Imperials seeing him, and if he stayed here eventually they'd find him. Like it or not, he was going to have to fight. "If we stay out in the open like this, they'll kill us both."
"You got a better idea, runt?" Meanstreak demanded angrily. "Because if you do—agh!"
Tailspin watched as his partner was hit, his left arm blown apart by an explosive shell. Meanstreak dropped the gun from his other hand and clutched at the wound, screaming like a banshee.
"Yeah, you idiot," Tailspin told him. "I do."
The Micromaster stepped out from cover and fired all six of his tiny magnetic missiles at once. Each one streaked toward a different target – the ground, an outbuilding, or the residential block's facade. Unlike Meanstreak, he wasn't trying to hit anyone. He was trying to kick up enough dust and debris to obscure the Imperials' view, and at that he did a good job.
From his perch atop one of the base's outer buildings, Punch looked at the chaos that his fellow Autobots has sown and frowned. It was strange...strange that the Imperials had grown so complacent so quickly, strange that they hadn't expected an attack on their base...strange, in fact, that they weren't vigorously hunting the remaining Autobots and Decepticons like animals.
Complacency, he thought wryly. The spy's best friend.
Moving slowly and calmly, he entered the base through an abandoned security checkpoint. He headed toward the main building – the building that had been Autobase a little over a month ago. He walked with such an air of confident, casual authority that not only did the few Imperial troopers he passed not challenge him, they actively avoided meeting his gaze.
Slipping through a secondary entrance, he walked down the familiar Autobase corridors and tried not to gawk at all the changes that had been made. Like most Autobot facilities the walls had been trimmed in shades of copper, but they looked nothing like that now. They'd been repainted in green and grey. All the mismatched, hastily-scavenged computer terminals had been pulled out and replaced with new, Imperial-standard equipment. Even the lighting fixtures had been changed.
Got to give it to them, Punch admitted. They know how to get things done.
But as he walked through the halls, he heard something that put him on edge. Soldiers passed him in either direction, their footsteps fading from his audio sensors after a time. But one set didn't fade – a soft, measured gait that was matching his own pace perfectly. A normal Transformer wouldn't have noticed at all, but Punch was far from normal. He was a spy, trained in how to follow someone without being noticed – and how to notice when someone with the same training was following him.
An untrained mech might have panicked, whirling his head around to see who was behind him. But Punch remained calm, not betraying the fact that he'd caught on. Instead, he kept a close eye on the computer terminals that he passed, trying to catch sight of the reflection of the Imperial behind him. He figured he would need to walk for a minute or two before he could pick one face out of the crowd.
He was wrong.
He saw a flash of black and red, a delta-shaped silhouette with flames painted along the edges. He recognized him immediately as the Decepticon who'd delivered Clench into the Autobots' waiting hands. And he knew without a doubt that if he was going to accomplish his mission, he needed to kill that Decepticon before he could raise the alarm.
Rage fired his fusion rifle into the dust cloud, shouting abuse at the soldiers who had so utterly failed to defeat two mere Autobots before he'd arrived and taken command of the fiasco outside the damaged barracks.
"Move, you Scraplets! This is war, not a training drill!"
Drench looked over at him, a weary expression on his face. "Is the abuse really necessary, sir? I'm sure they're doing the best they can. The environm-"
"Your idiot mentor Jetstorm did the best he could," Rage snapped back cruelly. "How did that turn out? I seem to remember something about Fearswoop relieving him of command after their fleet got ruined."
"How dare you speak ill of Jetstorm?" Drench snapped. "He was a great mech! Twice the Decepticon you were, and—"
He stopped talking when Rage's fist slammed into his jaw, hitting hard enough to knock the coordinator flat on his back.
"Double Punch," Rage said to one of the other Decepticons in his group, "if he mouths off again, cut his arms off."
The tall, scorpion-clawed Imperial clicked his digits together in anticipation. "With pleasure, sir."
"Wind Sheer and Wingstun, get in the air and try to get a better fix on their position," Rage ordered. As the two jets took off, he continued. "Double Punch, stay here with the troopers and keep up the suppression fire. Catgut and Firebeast, come with me. We'll move in and try to flush them out."
Drench started to speak up, but thought better of it when he remembered Rage's earlier threat. Seeing that, Rage couldn't help but chuckle. "Don't worry," he told the coordinator. "I haven't forgotten about you. You're coming with me."
"I...am?" Drench asked, confused.
"Of course you are," Rage said reasonably. Then his tone turned cruel again. "I need someone disposable to draw the Autobots' fire while we ambush them."
Ricochet watched as yet another guard tower burst into flames, grinning from ear to ear. "That's how it's done! Yeah!"
"Calm down," High Beam told him. "This isn't a game. We have time for one more, and then we need to—ukk!"
The small Autobot twisted, just narrowly avoiding the throwing dagger that he'd seen in his peripheral vision just in time.
"OK, scratch that," High Beam amended. "It's time to go now."
"Actually, it was time to go before I showed up." High Beam turned to face the new voice – the source, presumably, of the knife that had almost impaled him. He saw a tall, athletic-looking figure with accents of orange and blue to highlight the usual Imperial grey and green. "Now it's too late."
"You think you can take us, ugly?" Ricochet taunted, raising his blaze cannon. "That's pretty cocky. I think I'll have to make you burn for that!"
"You seem to be under the impression that I came alone." Banzai-Tron snapped his fingers. "I didn't."
Three more Decepticons stepped out from cover, weapons in hand.
"Axer, Gutcruncher, Take-Off – kill them!"
"With pleasure," Take-Off grinned as he moved in.
Ricochet scoffed, opening fire on the oncoming Imperials. "Four on two? Hah! I'll take you all on!"
High Beam just groaned.
Double Clutch whirled around, swinging around the broad thoroughfare he was driving down and turning around to make another run at the Imperials who were tailing him.
"That's right, dummies! You want some Double Clutch? I'll give you more than you can handle!"
Revving his engine, he shot back toward his pursuers, then through them, then past them before they could react. His tires spun against the pavement, propelling him forward...until they didn't anymore. He started to fishtail, unable to control himself as he turned sideways and slammed to a stop against a building at the entrance to a dark alleyway.
"Heh, heh. You got 'em good, Oil Slick," Double Clutch heard. Fuzzily, he realized that the three guards must have been approaching. He forced himself to transform and got up on his knees.
"Looks like there's a little fight left in the boy yet," another voice taunted. "But not much."
Double Clutch looked up at them, but his vision was shot through with static and all he could make out was three vague robotic outlines.
"Maybe we should play with him a bit before we finish him off," the third said hopefully.
"Sounds like fun to me, Dirt Rocket."
"You're not here to have fun."
Double Clutch didn't need to see to know who the voice came from. Every Autobot knew that voice. His spirits were instantly buoyed, and he knew that he was saved.
"Optimus..." he whispered, too softly for anyone but him to hear.
But the voice continued.
"You three were assigned to guard duty," it said, more cruel than Optimus had ever been. "You abandoned your post."
"Well, see, Nemesis..." one of the voices began.
Double Clutch felt his Energon turn to ice in his fuel lines. Nemesis? He'd heard rumours, of course, of the Optimus-shaped abomination that the Imperials had sent to 'negotiate' with Prowl. But he hadn't believed them. Who would? The idea of an evil Optimus running around was just too much for someone like him to handle.
"No excuses!" Nemesis snapped. "The rest of your team is dead, the supply dump you were guarding is on fire and for what? One worthless Autobot decoy? You're a disgrace!"
Whatever protest the Imperial might have had, it died on his lips with the sound of a laser blast. Two more blasts followed in quick succession, then three thumps as the Imperial corpses hit the ground.
Double Clutch shook his head, trying to clear his vision. He could just about see the monster that had claimed his attackers' lives, a black stain on a backdrop of fuzzy grey. He groped about until his hand found his rifle, then began to lift it. Then there was a flash, and a burning pain in his chest as Double Clutch found himself lying flat on his back.
"Consider this a favour," the familiar but oh-so-wrong voice told him. "You deserved better than to die at the hands of those scum."
Double Clutch's visual processor took that moment to clear. On balance, he would have preferred that it hadn't. Standing over him with a wrathful expression on his face was a black and grey mockery of the Autobot leader that he had come to revere. Optimus's monstrous doppelganger pointed his laser rifle down squarely at his face.
"I remember you, Double Clutch. You were a good soldier." Nemesis's tone had become almost nostalgic. "Optimus respected you. A good Autobot, he would have said. And he would have let you go." Then his voice turned hard again. "But that would be a sign of weakness. Sentiment. Softness. And that wouldn't do."
Double Clutch tried to find something to say, anything that would turn the monster's attention away from him. He was still thinking when Nemesis fired, ending the Autobot's life with a single laser blast.
Sprocket shot in the direction of the gunfire, flying as fast as his hoverjet mode would take him. But by the time he arrived it was too late. Three Imperials lay dead with Double Clutch among them. He'd been killed by a single shot to the face, and since he didn't see any more Imperials lurking nearby Sprocket could only assume that the smaller Autobot had been taken out by a lucky shot even as he'd finished off his opponents.
"You did good, little guy," he whispered. "You did good. I just hope that whatever you died for, it's worth it."
With a sad expression on his face, Sprocket transformed and left, heading toward his team's prearranged post-attack rally point.
Hidden in the shadows at the end of the alley, Nemesis watched the second Autobot as he inspected the body of the first and said a few words of respect. He tracked the Autobot with his laser rifle, knowing that he had him dead to rights. A single head shot was all it would take, and from this distance there was no way Nemesis could have missed.
He caressed the trigger lovingly, slowly squeezing it as he perfected his aim...and then he lowered the rifle, still unfired, and let the Autobot go unmolested.
There is no glory in this, he thought bitterly. No righteousness. I'm as much of a disgrace as the ones that I killed.
Meanstreak hobbled down the street, trying to ignore his damaged arm. The burning pain just below his shoulder was bad enough, but the complete and utter lack of feeling in his missing arm and hand was much, much worse. It made him feel weak and helpless – two feelings that he hated more than anything else in the world. He concentrated on his other hand and the submachine gun that it held – thankfully his head had been clear enough that he'd picked it up before he'd started running.
Meanstreak had lost sight of Tailspin a few minutes ago. He'd taken off in the direction that they'd come from, or at least he thought he had. But Tailspin had gone elsewhere. Meanstreak wasn't sure, but he thought that the Micromaster might have gone off in the direction of the Imperial base.
And good luck to him if he did, Meanstreak thought, but I'm not going after him.
Meanstreak had always considered himself brave, but his courage had been blown away even more thoroughly than his arm had. All he wanted to do now was to get away, but he couldn't even transform properly with his arm missing. The best he could do was run, moving as best he could and trying not to succumb to the pain. His attention was focused solely and completely on his next step, filtering out almost everything around him.
Filtering out his surroundings.
Filtering out the green and brown camouflaged jet that flew overhead, pinging him with a sensor beam.
Filtering out the jet-black car that shot past him on the roadway before transforming into robot mode.
Filtering out the heavy, deadly-looking rifle that that robot aimed in his direction.
Rage allowed himself a moment to silently gloat over the fallen Autobot's smoking corpse, then turned to glower at Drench.
"That is how you deal with your enemies," he told the other Decepticon. "Remember that."
"I will," Drench muttered under his breath. "Oh, I will."
"What was that?"
"Nothing," Drench said smoothly. "I was just wondering what your next orders were."
Rage smacked him upside the head. "You're a coordinator, aren't you? So coordinate. Find out if Catgut and Firebeast have found the smaller Autobot yet. Then get in touch with the rest of our officers in the field and get a status update." The stormtrooper shook his head in disgust. "Useless bureaucrat."
Drench waited until he was out of earshot, then muttered again, "Coordinate? I'll coordinate a bullet through your brain module one day, you arrogant hunk of slag..."
Tailspin drove like a mech possessed. Tearing through the streets as fast as his downsized car mode would carry him, he weaved through a crowd of Imperials who for the most part didn't even realize he was there. His stealth was wasted, though, because the pair of pint-sized Imperial beasts that were charging after him were making no effort at all to go unnoticed.
The feline and the rhinoceros were, thankfully, several hundred metres behind him. But Tailspin couldn't lose them. He was too small to muscle his way through the crowd like they did, and every second that he spent dodging around someone's ankles was a second that they gained on him.
They were near the old Autobase building now, in territory that Tailspin was intimately familiar with. He knew the streets and the alleys, and that gave him at least a little bit of an advantage. He'd spent a lot of time exploring these streets with Free Wheeler during their occasional visits to Iacon, whenever they got a chance to slip away from Roadhandler and his keen-eyed supervision. The streets looked different now, but the difference was only skin deep. The roads and buildings were still the same, and he knew them well.
The thought of his two now-dead patrolmates threatened to overwhelm him with grief, but Tailspin couldn't let it. His own life was at stake, after all, and as much as he missed his old friends he had no interest in joining them inside the Matrix any time soon.
Catching sight of a particular, all too familiar building, Tailspin transformed to robot mode with a smile on his face. He'd seen this building many, many times before, both from the outside and the inside – the inside of the ventilation systems, that is. The building had been a computer annex, used by nerds like Chromedome and Mainframe when they were in Iacon and needed to crunch numbers. The supercomputers it had housed were so powerful and threw off so much heat that the building had started on fire more than once, until they had finally tied it directly into Autobase's far more powerful cooling system. Tailspin knew about it because he'd used it many times, slipping through the cooling ducts to freedom and slipping back in again through an entrance that Roadhandler had known nothing about. The computers were gone now, of course, blown up when the Autobots had abandoned the base. But the ducts would still be there. And he knew the ins and outs of Autobase's cooling ducts better than anyone who hadn't worked in the base's maintenance department. If there was any place he could lose the two Imperials, it was in there. And as a bonus, those ducts would lead him into them main base complex and hopefully give him a chance to do some spying.
Tearing open the first grate he saw, the Micromaster dove inside and started to run.
Punch continued to surreptitiously watch the Imperial who was following him, catching a glimpse of him in every console he passed. The enemy didn't seem to be too eager to call in backup, at least, which was a good thing. But he knew that he'd still need to take him down before his real work could start.
Moving without any added urgency, Punch cut through the crowd and turned down an all-but-abandoned side corridor. He ducked into a doorframe and pressed himself flat, hiding from view as the Decepticon followed him. When the black and red spy came around the corner, his pace picked up when he didn't see Punch. He ran right past the door where Punch had hidden himself...and right into the fist that the Autobot threw into his midsection.
"Sorry," was all Punch said. "I hate to do this to someone else in my line of work. But I can't let you report me."
He took aim with his twin mortar, but hesitated when a shadow fell over him. He spun around to face the new arrival, but didn't have time to line up a shot before the bright yellow Imperial slammed the butt-end of a gatling gun into his chin. As his world faded to black, Punch spend his last moment of consciousness wondering how in the world he could have gotten snuck up on by that.
Skyjack hauled himself back up and quipped at the now-unconscious Autobot. "Well, I for one don't share that professional courtesy."
The Imperial dusted himself off, then turned to face his rescuer. "Thanks for the help, Fearswoop."
"You should have called security," the other flier said without so much as a "you're welcome", "not me."
"I didn't need security. Just a friend with a cloaking device. They would have just made a hash of things. Especially since Stalker hasn't been replaced yet." Skyjack shrugged. "But by all means, call them now. I don't really feel like dragging him to a cell all by myself."
High Beam ducked, but the tip of one of his antennae was still clipped off by Banzai-Tron's bayonet.
Just be glad you're so short, he thought to himself, or it would have been something a lot more vital.
Taking advantage of his small height, he scooted under the Imperial's arms and drove his elbow into the martial artist's knee. Hearing a satisfying crunch, he dashed through the enemy's legs and looked over his shoulder just in time to see him hit the ground, howling in pain.
"One down," he muttered. "Three to go."
"Make that two," Ricochet told him. He shot Take-Off in the chest with his blaze cannon and the Decepticon crumpled, wreathed in flames. "Just as soon as I finish this one off."
"There's no time for that!" High Beam snapped. "We need to get out of here before their backup shows up!"
"No but." High Beam ducked under a kick from Axer, then shot him in the ankes. Dropping to the ground, he transformed to vehicle mode. "Transform and follow me! We need to burn rubber!"
"Spoilsport." Ricochet hit Gutcruncher with enough explosive shells to slow him down as well, then transformed and followed the smaller Autobot away.
Rage stormed though the base's main doors like a thunderhead. Troopers pressed themselves flat against the walls as he passed, desperate not to attract the furious officer's attention. So frightful was he that only one person even dared to meet his gaze.
"So...things didn't go too well?" Skyjack asked, as calm as ever.
"Six guard towers, a supply dump and a barracks destroyed," Rage spat. "Nearly twenty of our own killed, and at least as many injured. And what did we do in return? Kill two of their useless grunts while Xal only knows how many others escaped without a scratch." He slammed his fist into one of the wall-mounted computer interfaces, smashing it. "This is unacceptable."
"Would it make things better to know that their operation was all for nought?"
"Explain yourself," Rage seethed.
"They tried to insert a spy into the base," Skyjack told him. "By chance, I recognized him. Fearswoop and I took him down. Deluge and the medical staff are going over him now, trying to see if they can pull anything useful off of his memory chips."
"Good work," Rage admitted. "But work that should never have been needed to start with. Where was Overlord during the attack?"
"I...don't know," Skyjack admitted. If Rage had been paying attention he would have realized just how uncomfortable that line of questioning made Skyjack – and if something made even Skyjack uncomfortable, you probably didn't want to be talking about it in public. But if he noticed, it didn't dissuade him.
"No one knows!" Rage barked. "No one knows where he was for the battle, just like no one knows why we've even allowed this ragged band of Autobot scum to live long enough to challenge us in the first place." His optics narrowed. "Just like no one knows why were even here to start with."
"That sort of talk is dangerous," Skyjack warned him. At the same time, though, he realized just where his friend's path – which he had taken for random, infuriated meandering – had taken them: Overlord's throne room. "You wouldn't."
"Watch me." Rage hefted his fusion rifle, took aim and fired. The door that he'd shot was magnetically sealed, of course. All highly secure areas were. But not even that was enough to protect from a blast of superheated, nuclear-fused helium. He kicked the remains of the door apart and strode in, bellowing, "Overlord! I want an explanation, damn it, and you're going to give me one!"
Skyjack hung back for a second, but his curiosity got the better of his survival instincts and he felt compelled to follow.
Sprocket shook his head. "They're not coming."
"You don't know that," High Beam told him. "Meanstreak and Tailspin could have been delayed by any number of things."
"Yeah," Ricochet scoffed. "Any number of different calibre bullets to the brain."
"Shut up," Sprocket told him. "They might still be alive, or they might have died like Double Clutch. We don't know, and we can't worry about it. We still have a job to do."
"Like hell," Ricochet told him. "This job already killed half the team. You want to get the rest of us slagged too?"
"We can't leave Punch," High Beam reminded him.
"Why the hell not?" Ricochet demanded. "He ain't one of us. I'm not risking my neck again for an outsider."
"Then the others died for nothing," High Beam told him cuttingly. "You might be enough of a coward to walk away, but I'm going to make sure that my friends didn't spend their lives in vain."
"Coward?" Ricochet's optic band narrowed. "Say that again, I dare you."
"Ricochet?" Sprocket said frostily, "Shut up. Seriously."
"Why should I?" Ricochet drew his blaze cannon and aimed it at High Beam. "This little runt makes me run away from a fight, then he has the gall to call me a coward? I'll show him who's the coward! I'll—"
"You'll put the gun down," Sprocket told him. "I'll kill you myself before I let you threaten another Autobot. We have a mission to finish and I'm not going to let you jeopardize it."
"So, what, you'll murder me like you murdered all those people in Protihex? At least you're true to form."
"Off-side, Ricochet." Sprocket slipped his photon blaster out of it's holster. "I'm serious. Point the gun at the ground now. Then transform and get the hell out of my sight. If you don't want to finish the job, High Beam and I will do it on our own."
"You don't need to tell me twice." Ricochet lowered his weapon and turned away from High Beam.
For a minute Sprocket thought everything was going to be alright. But then Ricochet moved, spinning toward Sprocket and snapping his gun up to firing position. He was an expert gunman and one of the fastest shots in the Autobot army, but Sprocket was no slouch himself – and he didn't have to move before he could aim at Ricochet. He brought his gun up, pointed it at the other Autobot's centre of mass and fired.
The shot missed Ricochet's body entirely and hit his gun instead. Bu it set off at least one of the blaze shells in the weapon's magazine and the gun exploded, taking Ricochet's right arm and half of his chest with it.
The usually unflappable High Beam had a shocked expression on his face. "Is he alive?"
Sprocket looked at Ricochet's fire-blackened, unmoving body. He considered checking the other Autobot for vital signs and repairing him...or plugging a few photon blasts into his head to make sure he didn't get back up again. Then he made a disgusted noise and said, "You know what? I don't care. Leave him and get behind cover. The Imperials won't have missed the blast."
He headed into a ruined storefront that had a good line of sight on Ricochet's body.
"He didn't want to help us, but it doesn't look like he'll be able to say no after all. Because now he's bait."
"You have no right—" Needler's protest was cut short as Rage stomped on him, crushing the tiny clockwork receptionist to the ground.
"I hope you haven't killed him." Overlord looked toward the robots standing in his ruined doorway, a placid expression on his face. "Do you realize how hard it is to find a good administrative aide? Someone who won't plot behind your back or leak reports to the Autobots?"
"No, Overlord," Rage said sarcastically. "I don't. You can tell me all about it, right after you tell me why you're not making even the slightest attempt to secure our conquest of this planet."
"That's a dangerous accusation to make," Overlord responded calmly. "I assume you have proof?"
"Do I look like a lawyer?" Rage gestured wildly with his rifle. "Or a magistrate? A Quintesson, maybe? I don't care about proof. I want to know why you're throwing our lives away, Overlord!"
"Do you, now?" Overlord's expression was coy. "No, I really don't think you do."
"Don't play games with me," Rage warned. He was aiming his fusion rifle squarely at Overlord's chest, now. "I'll kill you!"
"No," Overlord told him confidently. "You won't. You can't." He smiled, an unsettling expression that sent a shiver up Skyjack's linkages. "Try."
Rage snapped. Hate and fury boiled off of him in palpable waves. His hand twitched.
His trigger finger didn't move.
"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded.
"You wanted the truth," Overlord reminded him. "This is the truth. We're slaves, Rage, you and I both. From the day you were spawned, you were conditioned to be incapable of killing the Liege Maximo or his chosen." He chuckled. "In fact, a youth like you might not have even needed to be conditioned. You were probably born this way, inheriting it from your fusion-parent. No matter how much you might want to, you're physically incapable of taking action against me...just like I'm physically incapable of taking action against him. No matter how much you or I might want to."
He smiled again, sadly this time. "Slaves, the both of us. But not for long."
Fearswoop dropped to his knee beside the fallen black, white and gold Autobot, then shook his head.
"Dead," he told his troops. "Recently, too."
Slicer looked around, his optics searching the shadows. "Do you think one of ours did this, sir?"
"If one of ours did this," Fearswoop told him as he stood up, "they would have called it in."
"Friendly fire?" Terradive queried.
"That 'er they fragged 'im," Hooligan interjected. "What difference does it make?"
"Because Autobots are soft." Take-Off had an angry expression on his face, which went well with the scorch marks that covered his entire body. Fearswoop wouldn't even have allowed him off the base, but he'd seen the anger burning in the other soldier's eyes and understood what it meant. It had become personal for him now. "They don't leave their own behind if they don't have to."
"So?" Hooligan asked dimly. "What's that mean?"
"It means this is a trap!" Fearswoop snapped. "Get to cover before—"
Whatever he was about to say was cut short when the gunshots started.
"What do you mean?" Rage asked. He was still holding his rifle up, as if his body refused to believe what his mind had already been forced to accept.
"You wanted to know what we're doing here," Overlord told him. "I'm telling you. We're not here to eliminate our ancestors, or to conquer them, or to assimilate them. We're here to make them very, very angry."
"But why?" Skyjack spoke for the first time, then immediately hated himself for it. Overlord hadn't even looked in his direction yet, and a small part of him had still forlornly held out hope that he'd gone unnoticed.
But Overlord surprised him by answering calmly, almost pleasantly. "Because like Rage, I am sick and tired of watching the lives of my comrades thrown away. The Liege Maximo doesn't care for us at all, Skyjack. The only thing he cares about is the Alignment."
"Alignment?" Skyjack asked. "I thought that was a myth."
Overlord shook his head. "It's all too real."
Rage looked confused. "What is an 'Alignment'?"
"The Hub isn't just a planet," Skyjack explained. "It's a gigantic device, meant to harness the power of entire suns. The myth is that on some day in the distant future, when the stars and the planets align just right, their power will flow through the Hub into the Liege Maximo. He'll be able to abandon his physical body and ascend to the realm of the old gods. That's the myth, anyway."
"If only," Overlord snorted. "It's all too true. Each world we Cyberform is another cog in a great machine meant to bring about the Alignment. And once it's complete...well, he won't have much use for us anymore, will he? So it doesn't matter to one bit to him that actually activating the machine will kill every single Cybertronian living on the Hub or any of the colonies. Millions of Transformer lives, snuffed out in an instant to fuel his ridiculous act of hubris."
"How do you know all of this?" Rage demanded.
Overlord sighed. "I didn't want to be the Dread Lord of an empire," he told them. "When I was very young, perhaps, but I'd long since been humbled and shown that it wasn't for me. I was an explorer when I met him, Rage. A scientist. My crew and I stumbled upon the Liege Maximo, dormant on the meaningless chunk of rock that we now call the Hub. Our approach must have woke him. At first he treated us like friends, helping us in our search for resources for Warlord Trannis." He made a sour face. "At first. Of course, in exchange for his help he asked that we give him a share of all the Energon and precious metals we harvested. It seemed a reasonable enough request. After all, we wouldn't have found that Energon at all if it wasn't for him."
"What happened?" Skyjack asked in spite of himself.
"Over time, we began to realize he wasn't the friend he appeared to be. We never questioned why a single robot would need so much Energon or raw materials...until one day we did, and we wondered why we'd never wondered. So we returned to his planet to find that he'd transformed it, created a Cyberformed world of his very own with a veritable army of slave troopers to serve him. He'd been clouding our minds somehow, but once we were aware of it it lost its effect. We realized that whatever he was up to, he was no friend of the Decepticons. And we tried to stop him.
Overlord snorted as if in disbelief that he'd ever been so arrogant.
"Afterwards, we found out that he had a sick sense of humour. Instead of killing us, he decided it would be more fun to force us to serve him. He rebuilt us into his generals and showed us the true extent of his plans. Some of my crew, like Jhiaxus or Scrash, bought in immediately and served him loyally. Others, like Deathsaurus and myself, hated him but were too afraid to fight back. Metrotitan was the only one among us who was brave enough to refuse outright. Brave, but not very healthy. Sometimes I wish I'd been able to make the same decision he had."
Overlord paused for a moment, as if he was gathering his thoughts.
"But I was young and foolish. I honestly thought that I could bring the Empire down from the inside, that I could stop the Liege Maximo's plan once and for all. But I've never had a chance...until now."
"How does aimlessly ransacking Cybertron hurt the Liege Maximo?" Rage demanded.
"Because you and I might not be able to stop him, might not even be able to hurt him," Overlord said sadly, "but they can. Jhiaxus provoked some halfhearted resistance, to be sure, but what we've done..." He smiled. "What we've done, gentlemechs, is much more. They'll never stop coming for us now. Not until either the Liege Maximo is dead, or they are."
"So your plan to keep the Liege Maximo from killing us all is to get the Autobots and Decepticons to kill us all?" Rage asked. "Excuse me if I don't think that sounds particularly inspired."
"Desperate times," Overlord told him. "The Alignment is close at hand. A few years now, a decade at most. There is no time left for subtlety." He shrugged. "Besides...fate has delivered a much better option into my hands after all. My very own Optimus Prime, twisted into a hateful shell of his former self and forced to slaughter those that he once thought of as friends."
"Nemesis?" Skyjack asked. "Seriously?"
"Seriously," Overlord told him. "Whatever I've done to him, he's still Optimus Prime on the inside. And he's seen the worst the Empire has to offer, living as one of us. If I push him far enough he'll snap. And he'll be a more dangerous enemy than all the Autobots and Decepticons put together."
"This is insane," Rage spat. "Absolute madness."
Overlord, surprisingly, didn't deny it. "It is. It's also absolutely necessary. I can't save all of our people, Rage. No one can. But I'm trying to save as many of them as I can. The question is...are you with me?"
High Beam had the Imperials' leader lined up dead to rights, but as soon as Sprocket started firing the bright yellow enemy just disappeared.
Cloaking? He wondered. Or a teleporter?
There was no time to find an answer, though. So instead of trying to snipe the enemy formation in the head, so to speak, he switched his battle rifle to full auto and sprayed half a dozen enemy footsoldiers with bullets.
"Keep firing," he told Sprocket over their comlink. "We've got them on their heels."
"We've got them on their heels, sure," Sprocket responded. "Let's keep it that way. If they get to cover, we'll never pick them off."
A second later, a grenade rolled into the midst of an Imperial fireteam and blew up, spraying them with shrapnel.
"Damn it," Sprocket said wearily. "This would be so much easier if Ricochet hadn't gone crazy on us."
"Don't beat yourself up," High Beam told him. "He was always crazy. All it took was a little push to send him over the edge."
"Damned inconvenient timing, if you ask me."
Rage didn't answer, not right away. He had questions of his own.
"Why Clench? Why did you choose him above me? And why aren't you looking for him now?"
"I would like to think we've gone past petty personal slights," Overlord said.
"This is far from petty. I want to understand your decision. I need to understand."
"Clench was a pawn," Overlord said dismissively. "Someone I could count on to do what I told him without question. Someone who didn't think his orders through before he carried them out. I ordered him to capture a space station, and he did it. I ordered him to turn Cameron into a bloodbath, and he did it. No analysis, no intelligence. None of the problems that I would have had if I'd promoted you. He was nothing more than a disposable puppet, and one that won't be missed now that he's gone."
"But you must be worried that he'll betray you to the Autobots," Rage insisted.
"Betray what? He knew nothing. He didn't even suspect anything. There wasn't a single curious or free-thinking line of code in his entire program. Nothing he can tell them will be of any use. The Autobots are welcome to him."
Rage snorted. He always enjoyed hearing Clench run down, even more so when he wasn't the one doing it. But here and now, it just seemed a tad too convenient. Just like it was convenient that Overlord had decided to reveal his innermost thoughts to Rage instead of, say, squashing the upstart commander like a helpless insect.
"And you're telling me all of this why?"
"Because the easy part of the plan is over," Overlord told him. "Now everything becomes much more dangerous. We need to start pushing, forcing the Autobots to act. We need to make them think that they've driven us off the planet. And for that, I don't need a Liege Centuro who knows how to fill out paperwork. I need one who knows how to fight. In case it's not obvious enough, I need a Liege Centuro like you. And that, Rage, is why I don't care that Clench is gone. His days were numbered anyway. They always were, from the moment that I put him in your way. So I ask again, Liege Centuro...are you with me?"
Rage certainly hadn't expected that, and he had to take a moment to consider it. But in the end only one answer was possible. "I am."
"Excellent. Then we can—"
Overlord stopped short as another robot walked into the room.
"My apologies," Deluge said, holding up his hands to forestall complaint. "I would have knocked, but the door..."
"I understand," Overlord said with amusement. "Please, state your business."
"Glit and I have finished checking over the prisoner," Deluge said. "The one that Skyjack here called 'Punch'. What we found...well, I thought that you would want to hear about it immediately."
"Did you get something useful off of his memory core?" Skyjack asked.
"No," Deluge said, "although not for lack of trying. No, we found something much, much more interesting. It seems that our Autobot has two memory cores. They're mutually encrypted, so that memories from one can't cross over to the other without following the right access protocols."
"What does that mean?" Rage asked.
"As best as I can tell," Deluge said, "It means that there are two people living inside that body. Not just one. The Autobot primary personality, and another."
"A fabricated cover ID?" Skyjack asked.
"No," Deluge shook his head. "It's far too complex for that. If you wanted to do something like this, you would have to harvest the memory core from a second, living Transformer."
"Fascinating," Overlord interjected. "Say that I wanted to meet this second personality. Could it be done?"
"I think so," Deluge said. "With a few hours to work, I think my team and I would be able to figure out the switch-over code."
"Do it. And then—"
As if in unison, all four Decepticons looked up to the ceiling, searching for the source of the sound. All four of them quickly settled their optics on the ventilation shaft.
"It would seem," Overlord said, "that we have company."
"Damn it!" Rage shouted. "Catgut and Firebeast assured me that there was no way that the Micromaster could have gotten into the base. Obviously I shouldn't have trusted them quite so much."
"Obviously," Overlord said dryly.
Without waiting for permission, Rage activated his comlink and started barking orders to security.
Tailspin couldn't believe what he was hearing. He'd lost the two Imperials who'd been chasing him a long time ago, but since he was safely hidden inside enemy territory he figured it was a good time to do a bit of espionage. It was a good thing he had, too. The drama that the Imperials had carried out before his optics was almost too good to be true, the sort of thing that careers were built on. If he hadn't recorded it, he didn't think anyone would have believed him when he told them. But he had, so they wouldn't have a choice.
When they started to talk about Punch, though, he stopped thinking about success and glory. The only thing he could think about was that a fellow Autobot was in danger and he had to save him.
The Micromaster got up, moving too quickly in his eagerness to get to the cells and find Punch. He slammed his head into the ceiling, then fell roughly on his chest.
He hoped against hope that his clumsiness had gone undetected, but no such luck. All four of the Decepticons were staring straight up at the vent he was peering through. The Micromaster got up again and moved in the direction of the cells. But he didn't get far before he stopped.
I can't, he thought sadly. I can't. They know that I'm here, now. And they'll expect me to try and rescue him. I'll never be able to get out if I don't go now.
If it had just been his life, Tailspin might have risked it anyway. He was just one minor Autobot, after all, and Punch was a master spy. He'd make that trade any day of the week. Anyone would.
But it wasn't just his life. What he knew – what he'd just seen – needed to make it back to Grotusque. If he died with the information trapped in his head, the whole mission would have been for nothing.
"I'm sorry, Punch," he whispered. "I'm so sorry."
The sound of gunfire was so loud Sprocket almost didn't hear the ping that came from his comlink. In fact, he wasn't entirely sure he hadn't imagined it.
"You hearing what I'm hearing?" High Beam asked.
"If you're hearing the evacuation signal, then yes," Sprocket told him.
"Then Punch made it out." High Beam said, relieved.
"No," Sprocket said. "Not Punch. This is Tailspin's frequency."
"Slippery little guy," High Beam said appreciatively. "I don't know how he managed to get in and out..."
"You can ask him when you meet him and the rendezvous," Sprocket told him. "And give him my regards."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"It means I'm not coming," Sprocket told him. "We've got two jobs here, High Beam. We need to get the intel out, and we need to make sure security is too busy to follow. We've got security nice and busy here, and they need to stay here until Tailspin is out of harm's way."
"You're faster," High Beam objected. "You can fly. You can get him out more quickly."
"No!" Sprocket snapped. "That's why I have to stay. I might die if I stay here. If you stay here you will die."
"That's an order, High Beam. Get moving."
High Beam sighed, defeated. "Yes, sir. And if I might say so...it's been an honour serving with you."
"You too, High Beam. You too."
High Beam transformed and drove away, knowing full well that he'd never see Sprocket alive again.
Tailspin shot out of the vent and right into more metal scorpions than he'd ever wanted to see in his entire life. The larger of the two swiped at him with his claws, but Tailspin was able to duck. Transforming to car mode, he shot past the smaller one before he could react...or so he thought. A few seconds later he felt the sharp pinchers digging into his roof.
Tailspin slalomed across the street, trying to shake the small bug off. He only succeeded in slicing up his own roof even more.
"No escape for you, spy! Razor-Sharp will see to that!"
"Don't count on it!"
A gunshot rang out, then another. Then a third. Then the small Decepticon's shattered body dropped away and Tailspin was free.
"Get in!" High Beam shouted as he transformed to car mode. "I'm getting you out of here."
"Where are the others?" Tailspin asked. He transformed and climbed inside High Beam, unsteady on his feet from the wounds he'd taken.
"It's just the two of us," High Beam told him as he roared away. "Just you and me. Whatever you found, I hope it was worth it."
"So do I," Tailspin said weakly. "So do I."
For the second time in ten minutes, Fearswoop stood over a freshly-killed Autobot. There was no mystery in how this one had died, though. He'd blasted him apart personally after sneaking up behind the black, orange and white figure with his cloak activated. He was surprised to find that there was only one of them. The others – if there had been others – were gone. Fearswoop assumed that this one had stayed behind to distract his troops while the others escaped.
A noble gesture, he decided, but not an intelligent one.
Grotusque stood in the Autobase medical office, watching through a glass partition as Hoist and Wheeljack tended to the injured Tailspin. The Autobot had been put into stasis almost as soon as he'd returned, but not before insisting that he needed to share vital information with the base's commanders. Grotusque had seen the recordings with his own eyes – several times, in fact – but what what he'd learned still hadn't quite sunk in. It quite literally changed everything, but he wasn't sure what he could do about it.
Well, other than having Gunrunner show it to Clench.
He watched Wheeljack and Hoist work for another minute, well aware that he was only there because he wanted to delay the hard decisions that the new information would bring him – and also because he wanted to force himself to acknowledge the terrible price that they had paid for that selfsame information.
Sprocket, Ricochet, Meanstreak and Double Clutch, all dead. Punch in Imperial hands, undergoing who knows what atrocities. And the worst part? If I had the choice, I'd do it all over again.
"It was ugly," he whispered to himself, "but it was worth it."
"I certainly hope so."
Grotusque tried not to jump, but he couldn't deny that the new arrival had startled him. He turned around, looked High Beam in the eyes and told him, "It is."
"You knew, didn't you?" High Beam asked. "When you sent us out, you knew that we wouldn't be coming home."
"No," Grotusque told him. "I didn't know. But I suspected. I knew we would lose some of you..." He sighed. "I had no idea it was going to be this bad."
"Next time, you will," High Beam told him sadly. He joined Grotusque at the window and watched the medics work.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" the shorter Autobot asked.
"Optimus, Xaaron, Magnus, Prowl, Maximus..." High Beam continued to look straight ahead as he talked. "It never seemed to get to them. How did they cope?"
Sadly, but with conviction, Grotusque answered him.
"...I don't care that Clench is gone. His days were numbered anyway. They always were, from the moment that I put him in your way. So I ask again, Liege Centuro...are you with me?"
"So..." Gunrunner turned the recording off and looked Clench square in the optics. "Do you believe me now?"
For the longest time, Clench didn't say a word. Then, without warning, he roared. He slammed his fist down on the table, snapping it in two with a single blow. Then he reared up, grabbed one half of the table and threw it into the door. Both door and table exploded into splinters of metal.
The two guards posted outside the room charged in with guns drawn, but Gunrunner waved them back. He was confident that he could handle the situation...and if he couldn't, he was going to need a lot more than just Chainclaw and Speedstream for backup.
"I take that as a yes?" Gunrunner got up from his chair as if nothing had happened and resumed his eye contact. "Your people have forsaken you, Clench. Your leader and your former minions are laughing at you. Their very presence on this planet is a betrayal of everything you've fought for your entire life. They're your enemies as much as they are mine."
"Yes," Clench said softly, dangerously. "I see that now."
"So," Gunrunner asked, "the question is, what will you do about it? Are you going to help us?"
"No," Clench said. "I'm going to kill them. Skyjack, Rage, Overlord – every one of them. Personally. And you, Gunrunner, are going to be allowed to help me."
Gunrunner digested that, then shrugged. "We can work with that. Welcome to the team."
"They know," Skyjack said softly. "The spy must have returned to his lair by now and spilled everything that Overlord told us to his masters."
"Probably," Rage agreed. The two of them were walking down the hallway, heading toward the cells.
"I have to say," Skyjack told him, "that you seem remarkably calm for someone who's world is about to fall apart around him. If they know, Overlord's entire plan is worthless."
"Maybe," Rage shrugged. "Maybe not. I have a plan of my own."
Rage led him into the cells, past dozens of low-ranking Autobots and civilians who were awaiting transport to the orbiting prison ship where their brethren were being held. Past Starscream, who was being kept in a special sound-proof cell between interrogations because the guards had grown sick of him constantly berating them. They walked deep into the highest-security wing, until they stopped in front of a cell with two occupants...two occupants in one body.
"Punch," Rage said, twisting the name into a cruel taunt. "I'm so glad you stopped by to visit."
"I won't tell you anything," the Autobot said defiantly. "And you won't get anything by trawling my memories. You might as well kill me now and save yourself some time."
"Funny that you should say that," Rage told him. "I'm certainly not going to waste time interrogating you, obviously. And we did trawl you while you were out and didn't come up with anything useful...almost."
"Oh, do tell," Punch said mockingly. "What could you possibly have learned? My brain is so highly encrypted even I can't access some of my memory banks."
"Oh, don't be so sure. If I called in a trained, experienced mind-reader, I'm sure I could tell you a lot about those hidden memories," Rage said, "but there is one thing I can tell you." He smiled, although his faceplate hid the expression. "You have a Decepticon in your head."
"What? How could you—"
"Oh, don't be ridiculous," Rage mocked him. "As if the separate brain components weren't enough of a giveaway, you have an entirely different robot mode engineered into you. We ran it through the ID databases we've captured since we've been on Cybertron. 'Counterpunch', isn't it? Not a very inventive name. It's almost as if you wanted to be discovered."
"Go to hell!"
"Eventually, I might. But you know what I consider even worse than hell? Being trapped inside your own body while another mind takes control. Something that you've inflicted on Counterpunch Xal only knows how many times." Rage's voice grew hard. "Something that I'll be more than happy to inflict on you."
"You can't," Punch told him. "You don't know—"
"The activation code? But I do." Before Punch could say anything else, he snapped, "Activate protocol bravo-3."
Punch dropped to the floor, screaming.
Counterpunch's head felt like it was on fire. He struggled to remember where he was, who he was...anything. He drew a blank at first, but slowly it came back to him. The last thing he remembered clearly was his meeting with Mindwipe, and the Headmaster's terrible revelation that he'd been sharing his body with some sort of Autobot spy. After that he'd had only a scant few moments of lucidity, but he'd always been wrestled down when his Autobot half had realized that Counterpunch had been momentarily in control.
Not this time, though. This time, for the first time since he'd been released from the Autobot prison at the 'end' of the war Counterpunch's head felt completely clear. He struggled to remember why, but it was too foggy.
Then, almost as if a switch had been flipped to illuminate that dark corner of his mind, Counterpunch knew. He knew where he was, who he was with and why.
He knew everything.
As the pain slowly faded, Counterpunch drew himself up off the floor. He looked out at Rage and Skyjack – names that he knew, even though it wasn't him who'd learned them. Enemies who'd captured him, but also friends who'd freed him from the most heinous prison imaginable: a prison in his own mind.
"Thank you," he told them genuinely. "Thank you."
"You'll need to thank my science officer Deluge," Rage informed him. "But if you're feeling grateful there are a few questions I'd like to ask. Starting with the location of the Autobots' base."
Counterpunch narrowed his optics. "I'll tell you anything you want," he said at last. "On one condition. When you go to kill them, I'm going with you. And when we find the one called Wheeljack, you leave him for me."
"Awake for less than a breem and already obsessed with revenge?" Rage stifled a laugh. "Counterpunch, you and I are going to get along wonderfully."