500 Miles Southwest of Hawaii: October 17, 1995
Swimming through the crushing ocean depths, Bumblebee tried to fight the confusing sensation of being beside himself. It was simply unavoidable, though, when his Pretender shell was swimming along less than twenty yards away. Normally he would be safely ensconced inside the shell himself at this depth, but today he had a passenger.
"You know what? This is messed up!" Hubcap's voice seemed to issue from the inside of Bumblebee's own head, which of course it did – he was inside of Bumblebee's shell. "The view is intense. It's a shame the light doesn't carry very far."
"You shouldn't be able to see anything," Bumblebee said, a bit confused. "Wait a sec...did you hack the encryption on my shell's telemetry?"
"Maybe," Hubcap admitted coyly. "I mean, I've got to do something while you keep me cooped up in here. But anyway, I'm just saying...this isn't bad. I bet we could make a quick buck selling rides."
"My shell isn't an underwater taxi!"
"Of course not," Hubcap agreed all too swiftly. "Not yet it isn't. But a few video screens, maybe some human-sized seats..."
"Concentrate on the mission, please."
"Why? I can't actually do anything until we get there and you let me out."
Bumblebee sighed. "Why couldn't we have recruited Blaster for Earthforce instead?"
"I hacked his inbox and deleted the invite before he read it," Hubcap told him cheerfully. "Earth is way too profitable a market to give up the chance to come here."
"And how's that working out for you so far?"
Hubcap winced. "Admittedly, not great."
"You two gonna gab all day? We got work to do!" Jazz's shell swam into view alongside Bumblebee's, although it was piloted by its owner instead of being used as a cargo ferry. The other Autobot's tone was snappier than usual, though Bumblebee could hardly blame him. He'd been confined to the base for a month and a half, including a stretch of time where he'd been deactivated by a group of escaping Imperial prisoners. He hadn't had anything productive to do in ages and he was eager to get to work.
"We do indeed," Bumblebee agreed. "Do you have eyes on the Steelhaven?"
"I think so. It's about six hundred meters down, due west." The other Pretender gestured in that direction, then swam off. "Follow me!"
Bumblebee dove after him, making sure that his shell and its communications officer cargo followed. The sunken Autobot vessel was just coming into view ahead of them when Hubcap's voice crackled in his head again.
"Hey boss, I've got a signal coming in from base."
"Put it through," Bumblebee told him.
"Just a sec. It's pretty badly distorted. We are nearly three miles underwater, after all." The other Autobot shut up for a second, then piped up, "Okay, putting it through."
"-repeat, this is Autobase to Bumblebee. Are you reading me?"
"I'm here. Overdrive, is that you?"
"Of course it's me. Do you really think Camshaft, Jackpot or that idiot Tracks could figure out how to get a signal through to you?"
"Do you have something important to say, or did you just call to badmouth your peers?" Bumblebee deliberately chose that last word as a not-so-subtle reminder that Overdrive was in no position to pass judgment on his teammates, none of whom he outranked.
Not at all chastened, the Omnibot responded, "Hardly peers. But anyway, yes, I'm calling for a reason. You remember those trackers that Ratchet says he put in the prisoners before he let them loose to try and kill us all?"
"I could hardly forget," Bumblebee said, trying not to get impatient.
"Right. Well anyway...two of them just popped up on our scanners."
"Only two. No idea where the third one is."
"Somewhere in Northern Montana," Overdrive said. "Flathead National Forest. I can be there in—"
"That won't be necessary," Bumblebee cut him off. The Steelhaven was close, now, with a sizeable gash in the hull clearly visible. "First Aid is conducting his little experiment not far from there, isn't he?"
"Yes," Overdrive admitted. "But surely you don't want to interrupt them. Not when you have someone as good as me on call."
"If I send you, you'd need to take Tracks as backup."
"Oh. Well, in that case I'll put in a call to First Aid and Silverbolt. I'm sure they can handle it."
"That's the spirit," Bumblebee told him faux-motivationally. "Thanks for letting me know. Bumblebee out."
"Uh...you were a little curt with him there, Bee," Hubcap said, feigning reluctance. "You know, if the whole 'leader' thing has you stressed, I've got some circuit-relaxers back at base that I can sell you."
"I'll make sure to have Streetwise search your quarters for them when we get back," Bumblebee said dryly.
"Oh, don't worry. He won't find them."
Bumblebee silently prayed to Primus for strength, then immediately felt silly for asking for help from a dead god whose giant face he'd once fought a battle to defend. Then he felt even sillier as he admitted to himself that he was the last person who should be grumbling about the foibles of Earthforce's new team members.
Well...except for Downshift. I'd like to think I have a legitimate gripe there.
"We'll talk about all the reasons why admitting that you're a drug trafficker to your commanding officer is a bad idea later," the small Autobot said. "Keep your eyes peeled. We need to find a spot where the breach is wide enough to swim through, but not deep enough to have destroyed the deck on the other side. From there, if we can find an internal pressure bulkhead we'll be able to pass through the airlock into the unflooded sections of the ship."
"That sorta assumes that some parts of the ship are unflooded," Jazz reminded him. "Could be swimsuit weather all over, if you get my drift. And we don't got Seaspray around to explore it for us."
"No, but we've got the next-best thing," Bumblebee told him.
"Aquaman?" Hubcap piped up.
"No," Bumblebee sighed. "Me. I'm not as speedy as him, but I can slip through tight spaces better than an occupied Pretender shell can. Not that it matters – if the central core is flooded, the drives we're looking for will be ruined and there won't be much point exploring the wreck."
"You know, I seem to remember a Bee who was brimming over with cheerful, exuberant optimism," Jazz opined. "Where'd he go?"
"Probably the same place as the happy go lucky, carefree Jazz he used to hang around with," Bumblebee said wistfully. "But here's a bit of that old optimism for you: I think I see our entry point. Follow me!"
The Montana Badlands
"No, no, no! Stand down, Superion!" First Aid waved his hands, trying to get the combiner's attention. But it was no use. The massive Autobot combiner stepped over the body of his fallen Decepticon counterpart, advancing on the capsized bus full of human civilians. The gestalt seemed completely incapable of telling friend from foe as he balled one hand into a massive fist, raised it up and brought it crashing down on the vehicle, crushing the rear quarter and anyone unlucky enough to be inside.
Thankfully for all involved, neither the bus nor its occupants were real. Nor, for that matter, was the Decepticon.
With an annoyed expression on his face, First Aid stabbed his thumb down on the "abort" button on the shuttle's main control console. Through the windscreen, he saw the bus, its screaming occupants and the broken remnants of Menasor all disappeared as the vessel's holoemitters powered down. Moments later, a small electric shock ran through the transformation cogs of all five of the gestalt's members, forcing them to break apart and return to robot mode.
Leaving the cockpit, First Aid walked down the exit ramp and gave the five Autobots who'd taken part in his latest experiment an icy glare. "What in the world was that about?" he demanded. "That was the worst one yet!"
Silverbolt, Air Raid, Fireflight, Streetwise and Blades picked themselves up off the ground, their expressions ranging from disbelief to annoyance to fury.
"Don't look at me, doc," Fireflight shrugged. "I was just along for the ride. And trust me, it wasn't a fun one!"
"That was...intense," Streetwise told him. "As soon as we combined, everything became a target. If you hadn't ended the simulation, I'm pretty sure we would have come after the shuttle next."
"I hate to say it," Silverbolt added, "but I don't think these experiments were a good idea. Superion's psyche was fractured enough replacing just one member. We managed to get a quasi-functional combination with Blades, but it was unstable and dangerous. Adding in the other Protectobots only seems to make it worse. And two of you? Well..."
"I saw that," First Aid admitted. "But I just..." He threw his hands up in the air. "I don't know what I'm doing wrong! The combination circuits for our two teams were slightly different, but the technology was fundamentally the same and adapting it was no problem at all. Anatomically speaking, we're all one big team now. And the gestalt-consciousness software was the same from the get-go. There's no medical reason to explain why all of the combinations we've tried have been so unstable!"
"I'm afraid we'll have to figure that out later, doc." Skydive walked down the ramp to join the others. "I just got a call from base. Apparently two of the trackers that Ratchet put on the Imperial prisoners have suddenly popped up on our scanners in a cave system not far from here."
"What, just like that?" Blades shook his head. "After, what, three weeks? That's mighty convenient."
"The odds of it being a trap are off the scale," Skydive agreed with a shrug. "But Bumblebee wants us to check it out anyway."
"Well, it can't possibly be any less productive than what we're doing now," Air Raid said bluntly before adding, "No offense, doc."
With a sigh, First Aid admitted, "No, you're right. We're not accomplishing anything out here. We might as well pack up shop for now. Besides, at this point a Decepticon trap is probably less dangerous than what we've been doing on our own."
Bumblebee was practically counting down the seconds as the airlock cycled, pumping the water from the chamber and replacing it with air until the pressure matched the corridors on the other side. As soon as the exit door slid open, the Pretender sent his shell marching out into the hall. Then it split open and ejected its annoying cargo unceremoniously onto the deck plates.
"Ow!" Hubcap cried as he landed hard on his shoulder. "You're going to mess up my new paint job. Don't you know how much this cost me?"
"Considering First Aid did it on my orders, I think I can safely say 'nothing'."
"Well...yeah, I suppose that's true." Hubcap clambered to his feet and admired his shiny new paint job. "Still...it does look good. Try not to damage it, okay?"
"Whatever you say, Tracks," Bumblebee told him dryly.
As part of the preparation for their mission, Bumblebee had gotten the Protectobot doctor to go over himself, Hubcap and Jazz, replacing all of their seals and testing their internal components to ensure they were water-tight. The others couldn't endure the crushing pressures of the deep ocean the way Bumblebee was designed to (hence why they'd needed to make the trip to the Steelhaven in Pretender shells), but at least they would be able to endure an accidental dunking without electrical shorts. First Aid had finished the job off with a fresh coat of water-proof paint. Bumblebee had taken the opportunity to change things up a little himself, which had inspired his less-than-scrupulous teammate to do the same.
"Gotta ask, though...why red?" Bumblebee asked. "Doesn't it make you feel a little Cliffjumpery?"
"Cliffjumper could never pull this off," Hubcap said, brushing imaginary dirt off of his bright chromed finish. "Besides, you're one to talk. Or are you hoping we'll all start calling you 'Goldbug' again?"
"Bumblebee is just fine," the small Autobot said, his tone a bit defensive. "But I always thought I looked better in gold. And I kinda missed the faceplate too. It's distinguished, you know?"
"Then why'd you ever get rid of it?"
"Wasn't his call," Jazz interjected. "Just the first time of many that good ol' doc Ratchet decided he knew what was best for us and did somethin' without asking."
"More or less," Bumblebee shrugged. "But what about you? I thought you'd jump at the chance to freshen up your look."
"My look's always fresh," Jazz said with feigned annoyance. "B'sides, I've barely had these colours for a year now." He brushed his fingers over the music-note livery on one of his door-wings. "The paint was barely dry when we had to rush off to save Prime from all of Megs' Decepticons on Earth, remember? I loved the old one, but it was just too 80s, you know?"
"So five years from now are you going to be moaning about how this one is 'too 90s'?" Hubcap asked him. "Because I know some graphic designers who'll be happy to help you put together a livery that will stand the test of time. For a nominal fee and a tidy commission for myself, of course."
"I'll pick my own colours, thanks," Jazz brushed him off. "Then he looked over at Bumblebee and asked, "So where to, boss?"
"Good question!" The shiny gold Minibot looked up at the bulkhead marker on the airlock they'd just entered. "According to this, we're on deck three, section fourteen. The lights are on, so at least some of the ship's power systems survived the crush. Medbay isn't too far away from here. Before we start ripping hard drives out, I suggest we head down there and see if we can access the databases directly."
"Sounds good to me!" Hubcap chimed in. "But then, I'm always up for whatever plan takes less work."
Jazz sighed. "Tell me again what we need Fake Cliffjumper for?"
"Since he was stationed aboard, he knows the ship and its systems better than anyone else," Bumblebee said with a shrug. "I figured there was a chance he might be helpful. You know, assuming he doesn't wander off when we're not looking and start stripping the ship's wiring to sell for salvage or something."
"That's not actually a bad idea, now that you—"
"Shut up, Hubcap!" both of the other two Autobots snapped in unison.
Imperial Base, Northern Montana
The boxy Autobot shuttle hovered in place over a flat section of land not far from the tracer signals they'd detected. Silverbolt slowly dialed down the power to the repulsor engines, gently lowering the craft until it settled on the ground without so much as a bump.
"Skydive, do you have a read on those tracer signals?"
The smaller Aerialbot's voice was subdued, as it had been since the Steelhaven crash. Silverbolt understood exactly how he was feeling, because his own first command hadn't exactly been a glowing success. He only vaguely remembered the Aerialbots' first battle at the Hoover Dam due to the extensive reprogramming that the whole team had undergone afterwards, but the lack of control that he'd felt as a part of Superion then had been nearly as bad as what they were experiencing now as they searched for a replacement for Slingshot. Only then, he'd had no idea what was going on. Helplessly watching the starship you commanded fall out of orbit into the ocean, he imagined, felt about the same.
"One of them is stationary," Skydive continued. "In a room not far from the cave mouth. The other is moving about slowly, farther back."
Streetwise, who was sitting in the small three-person cockpit with them, spoke up. "Can you transfer the sensor readings to me? I've run a sonar imaging scan of the cave system. If you send me their locations, I should be able to plot out the most direct route to them."
"Are there any other life signs?" Silverbolt asked.
"There aren't any life signs at all," Skydive replied. "The caves are laced with enough metallic ores to scramble the trace energy readings that a Transformer's life functions put out."
"Not a bad hiding place at all," Streetwise said with something that seemed like grudging respect.
"Not good enough," Silverbolt told him. "Streetwise, finish with your mapping. Then tell Fireflight and Groove that they're up. I want the three of you to scout out the entrance. If it looks clear, the rest of us will follow you in."
Streetwise nodded curtly. "On it. If you don't hear from us in five minutes, it's a trap."
"If it's a trap," Silverbolt retorted, "it's one they're going to seriously regret springing."
Hubcap was knee-deep in briny water and elbow-deep in the guts of the medbay's computer interface, frowning with an intensity he usually reserved for security officers asking uncomfortable questions about the provenance of his merchandise.
"I hate to say it," he told Bumblebee, "but I don't think we're going to get anything from here. All of the hardware seems to be intact, if a bit wet, but we're not getting a connection. The data lines must have been cut somewhere between here and the main core."
"I was afraid of that." The small, gold Autobot frowned. "The main memory core is six decks up from here, isn't it?"
"'Up' is a relative term," Hubcap reminded him, then gestured towards the surface they were standing on – which was, under normal circumstances, the room's wall. The Steelhaven's cylindrical shape allowed it to rotate to generate gravity, the outside edge of the ship's hull normally serving as "down" and the inner core as "up", with the ship's decks arranged concentrically like the growth rings inside a tree. All of which worked fine in space, while the ship was rotating. But at the bottom of an ocean on a high-gravity world like Earth, it created some unique challenges. And while the ship did have auxiliary gravity plating installed for situations where rotation wasn't possible, that required a great deal of power. More power, unfortunately, than the emergency batteries were able to provide.
"But, yes," the Minibot continued. "The main computer room is inwards from here. Six decks up and about a quarter of the way around the circumference." He winced. "A quarter of the way around up, of course."
"Of course it is," Jazz told him. "We wouldn't want this to be easy now, would we?"
"Well, we'd better start moving," Bumblebee said. The lights flickered momentarily as he started for the exit, but he paid it no mind. After all, they were in a shot-up starship at the bottom of the ocean. Electrical shorts were to be expected. "The longer we wait, the longer it'll take to get out of here."
"That almost sounds motivational, boss," Hubcap told him. "If we get done quick enough, do you think—"
"No, we ain't sticking around so that you can go through the secret cargo bay full of contraband that I'm not supposed to know about," Jazz told him with a glare.
"How did you—"
"Everyone knew about it, Hubcap," Bumblebee told him gently. "Well, everyone except for Ultra Magnus, probably."
"Then why wasn't I—"
"Arrested?" Bumblebee shrugged. "Streetwise got half-squashed by a HISS tank and our other security officer was actively scheming to kill us. And we've kinda had more important things to worry about since then. And besides," if he'd still had an exposed mouth, the team leader would have grinned, "we all helped ourselves to your stock of energon treats from time to time."
"You what?" Hubcap was comically furious. "How dare you steal my stolen merch...wait, my perfectly legitimate and above-board personal property?"
"Never change," Bumblebee told him with a laugh as he opened the door and dropped out into the hallway. The hall ran along the ship's axis, thankfully, so at least there would be minimal climbing involved until they hit the cross-corridors.
"You hear that?" Jazz asked.
"You mean the sound of steam coming out of Hubcap's ears?" Bumblebee asked playfully.
"No, seriously," Jazz said. The special ops soldier frowned as he lowered himself to the "floor" (which was, generally, a side wall). "It just started a few seconds ago. A soft, low-pitched thrum."
"Oh, that?" Hubcap grinned and leaned against the floor/wall. "That's the generators spinning up. And when you're not in space, that's usually followed..."
Bumblebee let out an undignified squeal as the world spun around him, as the floor was suddenly no longer the floor and he felt himself tumbling towards the wall. He landed in a heap beside a smug-looking, safely-reclined Hubcap.
"By the gravity plates powering up?" Bumblebee groaned.
"Yep." Hubcap grinned.
"Well, I'm glad you find it funny," Jazz snapped. "But where I'm sitting – no jokes, mister – it ain't funny. If the generators are running then someone turned 'em on. And since we didn't..."
"Then we've got company," Bumblebee finished for him. "And we need to find out who." The small Autobot climbed back to his feet and gave Jazz a firm look. "Can you handle it?"
Jazz almost looked insulted. "Hey, it's me, Bee."
Earthforce's reluctant leader sighed. "You know what I mean. We both know you can handle it, but can you handle it?"
"I ain't gonna try to take Galvatron myself, if that's what you mean," Jazz scowled. "I might hate the piece of trash, but I ain't stupid."
"That's what I needed to hear," Bumblebee smiled. "He's probably not even here, but if you see him, keep your distance. I would say to try and vent him out an airlock, but we both know that'll just make him angrier. Head to the engine room and check it out. You see anyone – anyone who isn't Galvatron – you take them out if you can. When you get there, you find whatever they fixed and you shoot it until it's not fixed anymore. This ship isn't going anywhere until we're 100% sure that we will be the ones flying it."
"I suppose that means you and me just head home, job well done?" Hubcap asked, still lazing on the floor.
Though he was good-natured to a fault, Bumblebee had to struggle mightily to resist the urge to deliver a swift kick to the other Autobot's rump. "We came here to get the medical databases. That doesn't change just because we think there's a few Decepticons about. Now are you going to get up, or am I going to have to stuff you back into my Pretender shell until we get where we're going?" His expression turned firm. "And before you mouth off, ask yourself how many holovids you're going to sell keeping Ratchet company in the brig."
That got Hubcap on his feet. "Yes sir, Mister Bumblebee sir. Just lead the way."
"Remind me again why I signed up for this abuse..." Bumblebee muttered under his breath as they started to walk down the hall.
After a few flybys from Fireflight to ensure that they weren't going to immediately be shot at, Streetwise and Groove made their way down. The duo took turns moving, each one shuffling quickly between rocky outcroppings while the other covered him. Eventually, they met up at the cave mouth.
"Nothing threatening so far," Streetwise reported back over the comm. "We passed several camera arrays on our way by, but none of them were drawing power. No defenses that I could see. Fireflight, you joining us?"
"Me? I...oh, right, of course." Moments later, the Aerialbot swooped down towards them, transforming to robot mode at the last possible second he'd be able to make a safe landing. He hit the ground fairly hard, though, and nearly ran into the mountainside. "Here I am. What's the plan?"
They'd discussed the plan five minutes ago on the shuttle, of course, but Streetwise was polite enough not to mention that. "Groove will lead the way," he said. "You and I will provide cover. We'll scope out the cave, locate the tracer beacons and then call the others in when we know the coast is clear."
"Gotcha." Fireflight nodded and hefted his photon displacer, a gesture that almost made him look like a real soldier if you didn't know that he'd done the same the first three times he'd had the plan explained to him.
Streetwise decided at that point to basically ignore the Aerialbot. "Groove, if you would..."
"Lead the way into a dank, dark cave that may or may not be crawling with enemies waiting to kill us?" Groove scoffed. "Maybe I've just been stuck at the base for too long, but that actually sounds like fun."
The Protectobot scout ducked into the cave mouth with zero hesitation. Streetwise followed a bit more cautiously, not sure his optics were up to the task of navigating the complete darkness. Fireflight's certainly weren't – he tripped and fell almost immediately after walking in.
"I think we can risk a little light," Groove told them. Moments later, his headlamps switched on. They didn't banish the darkness, but they did push it back far enough that the trio of Autobots could see the immediate area around them. When Streetwise followed suit, the cave became almost navigable, and Fireflight's landing lights made it so all three of them could move around safely.
"This way," Groove told them. "The closer of the two tracer signals is coming from down this tunnel."
As they walked, Streetwise noted that the "tunnel" really wasn't one at all. It had probably started life as one, but the walls had been widened and polished so thoroughly that they looked more like a purpose-built hallway. The cavern that it opened up into had a similar look.
"Looks like a medical facility of some sort," Groove narrated as they walked in. "They stripped a lot of equipment out, of course, but I still see gurneys, equipment lockers...obviously they left in a bit of a hurry. But I don't see anyone here."
"Me either," Fireflight piped up. "And you're right about them being in a hurry. Looks like they didn't even sweep up!"
Streetwise looked where the Aerialbot was pointing and smiled grimly. A seasoned investigator like him knew remains when he saw them. "I'm seeing armour and internal components," he said into their open comlink. "Including what looks like parts of a transformation cog, the half-melted remains of a brain module, and...ah, yes. A transponder. Judging by the armour, this was Overcharge."
"Wasn't he their leader?" Fireflight asked.
"He was," Silverbolt cut in on the channel. "But considering they work for Galvatron now, I think we can safely assume he objected to the new arrangement."
"Indeed." Streetwise got up and walked away from the Decepticon's remains. "Either way, it looks like they left in a hurry. We'll go check out that other transponder. In the meantime, the rest of you might want to get in here and start looking for clues about where they've gone." He glanced upwards. "Their power infrastructure is still in place, so if you bring one of the portable generators with you we should be able to get some of their systems back online. Like, say, lights."
"On it," Silverbolt told him. "You three find that other signal and let us know what's going on."
It took about ten minutes for the scouts to methodically work their way through the cave system, until they reached the giant chamber at the rear. This cavern featured natural light, surprisingly – a large opening several hundred feet up that would have been easily large enough to be passed through by the shuttle that Streetwise could see had been parked there until very recently. Of course, that wasn't the focus of the Protectobot's attention right now.
"Transponder number two is acquired," he spoke into the comlink. "It's Treads."
He and Groove stepped out into the cavern side by side, their photon pistols raised. Fireflight followed a moment later and only belatedly brought up his own sidearm.
"Show me your hands and point that turret in a safe direction," Streetwise ordered firmly. "We're taking you back into custody."
Treads turned around slowly to face them, making sure to keep his chest pointed off to an angle as he raised his arms. "Sure, why not? It's not like I've got anything better to do."
"You're coming with us," Streetwise reiterated, "and you're going to tell us where your friends went."
"I don't have any friends," Treads said with hollow resignation. "If you mean the idiots I work with, they've gone off to all sorts of places. I'll be happy to tell you all about it on your shuttle."
"You seem surprisingly eager to betray your faction," Streetwise said suspiciously. "And surprisingly eager to get out of here."
"Is it a betrayal when they betray you first? The ignoramuses left me here. Maybe on purpose, or maybe they just forgot I exist. I spend months undercover on this rock and weeks in a cell, and this is the thanks I get? The only one I the unit I had any respect for was Overcharge and those damn Cobalt Sentries murdered him because he got in the way of their mad scheme. A scheme that goes against our orders from the Hub and involves gift-wrapping this whole planet for your psychotic friend Galvatron, I must stress. Do I want to betray them? Hell yes I do." The Imperial calmed down a hair. "But I say again, not here."
"Why not?" Streetwise asked.
"Because they knew you were coming," Treads said bluntly. "They detected the transponder signal on Overcharge's body and knew you'd be able to follow it here. That's why they packed and left in such a hurry, and took their sensor-blind hardware with them. This place is a mousetrap, and I want to be as far away from here as possible before Galvatron arrives to check the bait."
Jazz made it up four decks before he found trouble.
"I tell you, Hitbox, this place is like a museum piece," one voice was saying.
"That right, Trenchplate?" His compatriot sounded bored, at best.
The first speaker – Trenchplate – clearly didn't pick up on his teammate's feelings because he continued on uninterrupted. "The tech here...it's somehow less advanced than the ships our first expeditions left Cybertron on! These idiots were so busy trying to kill each other that they went backwards technologically!"
"That sure is something." Hitbox clearly could not have been less interested.
The duo walked past the alcove that Jazz had flattened himself into, and the Autobot had to repress a sneer. One of the second-generation Decepticons appeared to be a red Hoist. The other, a black Ironhide. Jazz didn't know why they'd decided to make themselves over to look like so many of the Transformers who'd been on Earth during their war's early years here, but it annoyed him more than a little to see them prancing around wearing the faces of friends past and present. Without thinking, the Autobot tensed and his finger slipped into the trigger guard of his photon pistol.
And that is why they look that way, Jazz thought to himself. He froze for a beat, then forced his body to relax as he listened. The duo's conversation faded down the hallway. Jazz slowly felt himself calming down, and his finger slowly moved off the trigger.
He cursed himself silently. A few months ago he wouldn't have even considered blowing his cover like that, but recent events had him so far on edge that he was having trouble maintaining control. As much as Jazz hated to admit it, Bumblebee had been right to call him out on that, and to assume command of their unit. Things were getting better now that he'd admitted that he had a problem, or at least he hoped they were, but there were still far too many moments like just now where he'd had to stop and walk himself back from the edge.
Lucky I got good friends to look out for me.
Once he was sure that the coast was clear, Jazz quickly scurried from his hiding spot and ducked silently into the ship's engine room, a cavernous chamber in the center of the ship that housed Steelhaven's six fusion reactors. The engines were only running at minimum capacity, the glows of their donut-shaped tokamaks only faintly visible though the dark-tinted silos that contained them. At full burn, they'd be bright enough to light up the entire room like the mid-day sun and spat out enough superheated plasma to accelerate the ship through space with such force that it would have seemed impossible to Earth's physicists.
Fusion generators were, on strictly technological terms, not that difficult to disable. Unfortunately most of the simplest ways to do the disabling were rather explosive, and Jazz didn't have a burning desire to obliterate himself and his friends in a nuclear fireball.
Bathed in the engines' dim glow, completely unaware to Jazz's presence, was a mostly-black Imperial wearing a duplicate of Perceptor's body. Recognition triggered in Jazz's mind, something from the report Streetwise had filed after the incident in Portland.
The Decepticon was interfacing with the engine room's biggest computer bank, one that was spotted with dried oil and energon, with laser burns on the wall behind it. Jazz momentarily puzzled over those details before realizing he was standing on the spot where his friends Grapple, Chromedome and Hound had been murdered barely a month ago.
His finger slipped into the trigger guard again. But before he could give in to his darker instincts and execute the Imperial butcher where he sat, he forced himself to take a step forward and announce himself.
"Stop what you're doing." His voice came out as a low growl that even Jazz himself found disturbing. "Uncouple the light cannon from your shoulder and set it on the ground. Do not turn around."
"Don't shoot!" The Imperial practically jumped through the roof at the sound of Jazz's voice. But he did as he was told, quickly backing off from the console and divesting himself of his shoulder-mounted weapon.
Jazz quickly kicked the long, cylindrical weapon out of reach before demanding further, "Who are you and what are you doing on our ship?"
"I'm...I'm Magnificus. Please don't hurt me!" The Imperial cringed away as best he could while still remaining in his seat. "I'm...I was just deactivating the ship's security lockouts. They're...well, I'm sure by your standards they're state of the art, but for an expert like me they're hope-hopelessly outdated."
"That so?" Jazz frowned. "But lemme guess – you're the only one here that can do it?"
Magnificus was so terrified that he ignored Jazz's instructions and half-turned to face him.
"If I answer that you'll kill me!"
"If I was gonna kill you, I'da done it without sayin' boo." Jazz relaxed slightly but didn't lower his gun. "But I'm gonna go ahead and take that as a 'yes'."
Magnificus nodded mutely.
"Good." Jazz's scowl turned into a smile for a moment. Then he tensed again, and shot Magnificus four times in the chest.
The Imperial looked down at his chest dumbly, his mind half-numbed by the pain. "You...you said you wouldn't hurt me..."
"No," Jazz corrected him. "I said I wouldn't kill you. And I didn't. But I ain't gonna let you walk, neither. I know exactly who you are, Magnificus, and I'm gonna make sure you answer for what you done to the humans. Now be a good boy and go into stasis lock or I'll shoot you a couple more times to make sure."
Hubcap popped the console open, pulled out a handful of wires and twisted the right pair together. Half a second later, the emergency bulkhead's lock popped open. Bumblebee's Pretender shell stepped forward and muscled it open, and both Hubcap and Bumblebee's inner robot quickly scampered inside. The shell released the door and it slammed shut with a clang.
It was the fifth such door that they'd encountered during their trek up to the Steelhaven's main computer room. The ship was in lockdown mode, something that would only happen if it had detected the Decepticon invaders. And considering the diminished state of the ship's systems, pretty much the only way that would have happened is if the invaders had tried to hack into the ship's control systems.
"What," Hubcap griped, "no praise for my quick work?"
"I find it deeply disturbing how easily you can circumvent ship's security," Bumblebee said dryly. "Does that count?"
Bumblebee repressed a groan. "What's more disturbing is the fact that the Decepticons seem to be trying to access the ship's computers too. I was hoping they'd just come here looking for salvage, but if they're reactivating systems that means they're trying to get the ship flying again."
"Can they?" Hubcap asked. He seemed genuinely incredulous.
Before Bumblebee could answer, the hmmmm of the ship's temperature-regulation systems kicked in.
"I'm going to guess so," Bumblebee said dryly.
"Yeah, probably." Hubcap's voice had dropped to a whisper as they'd walked. "We're almost there," he said by way of explanation as they approached a T-junction. He stepped out into it first...then immediately stepped back, yelping. Laser blasts followed right after him, but they hadn't been meant for Hubcap. They'd been meant for the bright red Skids lookalike who dashed past half a second later.
"Dammit Marlboor, what's gotten into you?" Red Skids fired blindly over his shoulder, missing whatever he'd been aiming at and hitting the wall just above Bumblebee's head instead. A moment later he was tackled to the ground by a white, red and black liveried Wheeljack lookalike.
"Marlboor?" Hubcap said. "Isn't that..."
"The one that Tracks fought a few weeks ago? Yes." Bumblebee was mildly impressed that Hubcap had paid enough attention to the debrief to remember that. "But that's not important now."
The Earthforce leader stepped away from the wall. His Pretender shell stepped forward, splitting in half as it approached before sealing shut again with its owner inside. Then the newly-armoured Bumblebee smiled. "What's important is that they're in our way. Wait here."
The high-pitched scream of Bumblebee's sonic cannon – audible only to those, like Hubcap, with enhanced audio receptors – raced down the hallway in front of the Autobot commander as he approached the scrapping Decepticons. The pressure of the sound waves was enough to drive them apart, stunned.
Bumblebee quickly took advantage. The red one had fallen closer to him, so he quickly scooped the Decepticon up in his Pretender shell's big hands and slammed him head-first into the nearest bulkhead.
He turned to the second Decepticon, then, looking to take him out too. But Marlboor had already recovered from the sonic attack. Instead of raising his weapons, though, he held up his hands.
"Don't shoot!" the Decepticon told them. "I'm here to help!"
Both Bumblebee and Hubcap fixed disbelieving expressions on him.
"No, really. I'm here to help."
Imperial Base, Northern Montana
Skydive watched with mute horror as the massive grey and purple figure walked into sight between the shuttle they were sitting in and the cave mouth. Air Raid, who was sitting beside him, was half way out of his seat before Skydive even realized what was going on.
"Come on," Air Raid said urgently. "We've got to—"
"If we go out there he'll kill us," Skydive told him. He recognized the blunt shock in his voice and forced himself to inject a sense of calm that he wasn't really feeling. "We need a plan. And we need backup."
"I'll tell you where you can shove your plan," Air Raid snapped. "You might be afraid—"
"Steeljaw," Skydive fired back. "Chase. Brawn. Override. I watched Megatron pull them apart as if they were made from cardboard, and Galvatron is at least as powerful as the new Megatron is." He placed his hand on his wingman's shoulder and forcibly shoved him back into his chair. "You're damned right I'm afraid, and I don't want to add 'Air Raid' to the list of meaningless deaths I've been unable to do anything about. So sit down and give me room to think. No, scratch that. Make yourself useful and try to raise Streetwise and Silverbolt on the comm."
Air Raid seemed taken aback by the fire in Skydive's voice. "I...uh, yeah. Silverbolt, Streetwise, do you guys read me? We've got company."
Company, Silverbolt thought darkly. That's one way to put it.
Streetwise, Fireflight and Groove had just returned with their Imperial prisoner when the call had come through. Silverbolt, First Aid and Blades had met them in the Imperials' medical room, which they'd been scavenging for useful parts. First Aid had just finished telling them how much good stock he'd found when the world had fallen in around them.
"So there's six of us," Blades said. "Trapped in a cave with Galvatron at our backs. Normally I'd be all for an against-the-odds fight. But this time? No. No, I don't like this one bit."
"The big room we were just in," Fireflight said, "it had a big hole in the roof. Why don't we, like, fly out of it?"
"Aside from the fact that half of us can't fly? Because the opening was more than a hundred metres straight up, and the cave was no more than fifty wide," Streetwise told him. "The only one of you who could make that trip is Blades, and there's no way he'd be able to airlift all of us in time."
"It won't work quite like that, but I think Fireflight's on the right track," Skydive piped up. "If you retreat to the Imperials' makeshift hangar, Air Raid and I can meet you there with the shuttle."
"Good idea," Silverbolt agreed. "But do you think you'll be able to evacuate us in time?"
"No chance," Skydive told him grimly. "I can't risk moving the shuttle until Galvatron is deep enough into the cave system that we can be sure he won't notice. Otherwise, he'll just turn around and blow us out of the sky. But that means he'll almost certainly get there in time to intercept the shuttle before we can get out of the cave ourselves."
"How does that help us, then?" Streewise asked.
"I know a way to keep him from reaching the cavern," Skydive told them. "But I can't explain it now."
"Why not?" Groove inquired.
"Because it's a terrible idea and if I tell you what it is, you'd all balk at it. And rightly so, but I don't have time to convince you." Skydive sighed. "Unless, you know, any of you have ideas that aren't crazy? Because that would definitely be better."
Silverbolt quickly looked around, but all the other Autobots either shrugged or stared at their feet. "Doesn't sound like it."
"Too bad. I was really hoping you would." Skydive sighed again. "Well then. Nothing to do but roll with it. Do you guys trust me?"
Treads, the Decepticon prisoner (Recruit? Refugee?) that Streetwise had brought back, piped up for the first time. "The alternative appears to be dying, so I'd really recommend choosing trust."
Silverbolt sighed. "We'll see you there, Skydive. Autobots, move out!"
"No, really. I'm here to help."
"I'm pretty sure I don't believe you." Bumblebee looked at the Decepticon with open suspicion. "Something about you says you're not to be trusted. Maybe it's that ugly blue badge on your chest. Or maybe it's the fact that you fought one of my people a few weeks ago and you had a totally different personality. Or maybe it's the fact that we just caught you trying to shoot one of your crewmates in the back!"
"Oh, all of those
things are true," the Decepticon happily admitted. Then he
smiled. "Look, first thing's first. I should probably
introduce myself. Your friend probably said I was named Marlboor?"
"Since you're asking, I assume that you're not?" Bumblebee responded.
"That's the name on the ship's manifest," the Decepticon shrugged. "Of course, it also says 'foot soldier' on that manifest. Not 'Imperial Intelligence plant'. Funny how that works." He smiled again. "My actual real name is Exhaust, and you two are the only ones on this whole planet that know it." He paused for a second, then continued. "Do you mind if I get up?"
It took Bumblebee a moment to decide. Exhaust – who was well-trained in how to spot these things – immediately picked up on the cues and realized that the Autobot wasn't used to making this kind of decision. But eventually the Pretender shell-clad Autobot held out a hand and helped him to his feet.
"You can thank me by explaining why in the world you'd be interested in helping Autobots."
"A fair question," Exhaust told him. "You mind if I smoke?"
Bumblebee had a look of mild exasperation on his face, but he didn't say anything. Exhaust chose to take that as permission, so he fished a cygar out of his thigh compartment and lit it up. "Ah, much better. You're right, of course," he said as he puffed on it. "You and I, we're not exactly on the same team. Do I actually want to help you? No, not really. But I had one job on this mission. The same one that any Intelligence operative has, on any mission that carries a detachment of Cobalt Sentries. I'm here to keep them from running rampant, and I'd say they're pretty damned rampant right now."
"Great," the tiny red chromed one (Hubcap? The colours were different but the body frame matched the dossier) chimed in. "Politics."
"Exactly!" Exhaust punched his right hand into his left palm for emphasis. "Politics. See, the Cobalt Sentries aren't soldiers. They're political police. So they don't answer to Overlord. Their job, in theory, is to make sure that the army doesn't get any ideas above it's station. So they get sent along whenever a mission, like this one, is embedded long term on an alien planet without direct supervision. In theory, great. Who wants a unit commander going rogue and trying to set himself up as king of some random dirtball? Only the problem is, their big boss man isn't happy being the Liege's eyes and ears. He wants to be the one giving the orders, not the one making sure the orders are followed. And that means becoming the Liege's #2. And that means going through Overlord."
"So you're telling me," Bumblebee's voice took on a tone far icier than his friendly face would have seemed capable of producing only a moment ago, "that this whole mess – this whole bloody, murderous fiasco – is all so that one bigwig can embarrass another in front of the Empire's real boss?"
"Basically." Exhaust shrugged. "See, there was really only one reason for us to come here. Drop in, rebuild Galvatron, space bridge him to Cybertron to cause trouble. Straightforward. Simple. We failed, sure, but that happens. After that? We should have been wheels-up the next day."
"You mean you don't want to conquer the Earth?" Bumblebee asked, somewhat incredulous-sounding.
"Can't blame you for asking that," Exhaust shrugged. "But as far as I know? No, not really. Why Cyber-form a world with technologically-advanced indigenous life if you don't have to? They can fight back and they've probably burned off half this world's natural resources already anyway. We can't be everywhere at once, so we're better off spending that time and energy on an undeveloped world with unspoiled resources and no one to shoot us. No, all of this," Exhaust gestured to encompass the ship around them, but he knew the Autobots would realize he was referring to the current conflict, "all of this is because Blue Bacchus wants to prove that his people will do a better job of dealing with your kind than Overlord has."
"And you can't let that happen," Bumblebee replied dryly.
"Exactly!" Exhaust's tone grew excited in spite of his best efforts (and the effects of the circuit-dampeners his cygar was delivering). "I don't like you guys, but I can't let 'em beat you."
Hubcap piped in again. "I'm not sure I see the connection between that, and trying to execute random teammates in the hallway."
"Yeah, about that..." Exhaust tried his best not to sound embarrassed. He really did. He was pretty sure that didn't work. "See, one of the Sentries – Garboil, the bird one – is in charge here. It's a golden opportunity to take him out. Only, you can't just do that. That scream of his? He opens his mouth, you're done for. And not even big, dumb Marlboor would be able to blunder up to him with weapons drawn without catching his eye. But a few unexplained deaths, a few horrible 'accidents' that look like Autobot booby traps..."
"And he starts trusting you to watch his back," Bumblebee nodded. "You realize that's an awful idea, right? Even if he did, as soon as you dropped him the rest of the crew would turn on you."
"I know," Exhaust agreed. "That's why none of them can leave this ship alive. Something that seems a whole lot more possible now that there are actual Autobot saboteurs around."
"So let me get this straight," Bumblebee told him. "You want us to drop what we're doing and start hunting who-knows-how-many Decepticons through this wreck of a starship, purely so you can maybe get a shot at your boss?" He sighed. "No! We're here to recover the ship's medical databases, not to be your roving hit squad. Even if we were equipped—"
Whatever else he was going to say was cut off by the voice of one of his subordinates. From the tone, Exhaust knew it had to be the Special Operations specialist Jazz.
"Uh, boss? Good news and bad news."
"Can this wait?" Bumblebee's sigh this time was so deep that Exhaust was surprised he didn't expel his inner robot from his mouth.
"Not really. I found the engine room. The generators are in full spin and I can't stop 'em without blowing 'em up 'cause the 'Cons have given themselves control over the propulsion systems. That's the bad. The good? I've grabbed their hacker-slash-engineer-slash-xenogenteticist. That Magnificus fool that Streetwise told us about. I figger we can roll him up in a carpet, cart him back to base and make him tell us how to stop that nasty bug he made. Only problem is finding a way to get him outta here."
"And you just announced all of that to an Imperial Intelligence officer," Bumblebee said in an unbelievably weary tone. "But I think he's on our side. Mostly."
"I'm hardly going to try and stop you," Exhaust said. "Out of my way is out of my way, and stopping the bioweapon is all good in my books. As long as you help me out too, of course. If not...we've all got a problem, yeah?" He stubbed out his cygar and tossed the butt on the floor.
"Maybe not." Hubcap piped in again. "We all need to stop and think about what we want here. See what kind of deal we can make." Bumblebee gave him a sidelong glare, but Hubcap wasn't phased by it. "Trust me, boss. This is my area of expertise. Now you, Bee? You want to get the hard drives from the medical server and get out as soon as we can. Jazz, you want some way to get Magnificus back to base. Me? I don't want to get shot at. And you, Exhaust? You said it yourself. None of your comrades can leave here alive, right?"
"Right." Exhaust frowned, unsure of where this was going.
"Well, me, I think you're concentrating too much on the whole 'alive' part." Hubcap grinned. "What you should be thinking about? 'Leave'. Tell me, how did you get here? I'm assuming you didn't all just swim in like we did."
"No, we had a submersible," Exhaust told him. A sensation of understanding had started to dawn in his guts.
"And this submersible," Hubcap continued, "you're using its comm center to keep in contact with your comrades on the surface?" Before he got an answer, he waved his hand to dismiss the question. "Of course you are. If Steelhaven's comms were up, I'd know. That's my other specialty. So here's what we need to do. Instead of running around like maniacs and killing everyone, we grab the hard drives, grab Magnificus, grab the sub and get out of here. Bee and Jazz get what they want – info to fight the bioweapon. You get what you want – Garboil taken out of the equation. I get what I want – no scratches on my new paint job. You come with us and we hunt down Howlback and Galvatron together. Anyone see a problem with any of that?"
Exhaust wracked his brain trying to find one, but he had to admit that he couldn't see any. So he shrugged. "I'm okay with it. Autobots?"
"Without Magnificus, they can't unlock any of the ship's other systems?" Bumblebee asked Exhaust.
"Nope. Not without rebuilding the computer architecture from scratch, anyway. And that'd take months." Exhaust smiled. "Building another sub would probably take them just as long."
"I like it, boss," Jazz chimed in.
"I don't," Bumblebee conceded, "but I think I can live with it. Hubcap, go pull those drives."
As the red Autobot started to leave, Bumblebee added, "Oh, and one more thing." He smiled. "Good work."
Imperial Base, Northern Montana
"You literally cannot be serious," Blades was glowering so intensely that Skydive thought he might draw his sidearm.
"I can't say I'm very happy with this idea either," First Aid said. "It's an untried combination—"
"It'll work," Skydive assured them.
"You have no idea—" First Aid insisted.
"It'll work," Silverbolt cut in, "because we don't have a choice. And if you don't like it...well, I don't either. But that's what we get for not having any better ideas. And we're out of time. Skydive, get the shuttle ready. Air Raid and Fireflight, watch our prisoner. And Protectobots," he said wryly, "Combine."
Defensor had been a selfless, heroic figure who had been ever willing to risk his life to protect the innocent. Superion had been a single-minded, relentless person, always laser-focused on the job at hand. The gestalt standing at the mouth of the cave, however, was neither of them. But while no one knew exactly what each component would bring to the combined consciousness, switching out the charismatic, energetic Hot Spot for the resolute, determined Silverbolt seemed, on the surface, to be an acceptable trade-off. And the combined consciousness, so far, seemed to be stable.
"Autobots!" Galvatron's voice echoed down the cavernous tunnel. The monstrous Decepticon was still far away, but the bright red glow of his optic scanners was already visible. So was the orange flare of his massively-powerful forearm mounted cannon as it spat a blast of electric death. "Your end is here!"
"No." The combiner stood his ground. It seemed like he was unaware of the threat...until the blast hit an invisible wall a dozen feet away from his chest. Defensor's force shield had been even more formidable than the one that the combiner was projecting now, but gathering four fifths of his components together was enough to produce something serviceable.
"Do you think a mere energy shield will protect you from the wrath of Galvatron?" the mad Decepticon demanded. He was running, now, as if intent on ripping the combiner apart by hand.
"No," the combiner said again. Then he stepped carefully to the side. "This will."
On cue, Skydive fired the shuttle's engines at full blast. Normally that would have sent the ship rocketing forward, but he'd bypassed the ship's safety lockouts so that he could keep the docking clamps locked onto the ground as the engines burned. White-hot flame shot out towards the combiner...and was funneled into the conical force field that he was now projecting. A stream of deadly, intensely-concentrated plasma blasted Galvatron square in the face moments before the pressure wave caused the entire tunnel to collapse on itself. The structure would have continued to fall in, possibly even crushing the shuttle and its occupants, if the combiner's force field hadn't shored up the landing cave's structural integrity.
"Oh boy," Skydive said over the comm, relief obvious in his voice. "That worked better than I thought. But we'd better get out of here before Galvatron digs himself out."
"Yes." The combiner didn't move for a moment, before falling apart into his five component Autobots.
"That was...different," Silverbolt said as he collected his wits.
"Yeah," First Aid agreed. "Different. But it worked."
It only took a few blasts of his cannon and a small amount of digging for Galvatron to clear his way out of the cave-in. But that few minutes of work was enough for the Autobots to escape, and he knew it. That's why he spat out a curse and fired an impotent blast clear out of the cave's overhead opening in rage, before even stopping to look around.
Before he could take out his wrath on anything more tangible, though, he heard his communicator ping. With a scowl, he realized it was an Imperial emergency signal – his supposed allies had, apparently, gotten themselves into deeper trouble than they could handle by themselves.
He considered leaving them to their own devices, but no. There would probably be someone to kill there, and he needed a chance to work out his even-higher-than-normal levels of rage.
Alright, 'friends', he thought. I'll bail you out. This time.
The trip through the Steelhaven corridors were fairly uneventful, which was a good thing. With Jazz occupied carrying the unconscious Magnificus, Hubcap burdened by an armful of hard drives and Bumblebee keeping a close watch on their new friend, they would have been in a sorry state if it had come to a fight.
Unfortunately, their luck had only lasted as far as the airlock for the Decepticons’ submersible.
Peeking around the corner, Bumblebee caught sight of an enemy standing guard. It was one he recognized, too – his own little white-painted doppelganger.
"You can take him, boss!" Hubcap whispered encouragingly. "And I'm definitely not fielding bets to the contrary if the others decide to make a wager!"
Bumblebee sighed. "Of course I can take him. That's not the point. We want to get out of here quietly." He glanced at Exhaust. "Can you get rid of him?"
"You mean play the fool one last time?" Exhaust's posture changed as his confidence dissolved into Marlboor's buffoonish slouch. "Well, uh, I'll give it a try, boss."
Walking around the corner, he waved at the other Decepticon friendly-like and said, "Buggy!"
Bug Bite frowned. "We weren't expecting anyone. What are you doing here?" He brightened suddenly. "Is there a fight? Please tell Bug Bite that there's a fight. We so much want to punch someone."
"What am I..." 'Marlboor' trailed off for a second, looking for all the world like he was wracking his inadequate memory for something that was dangerously close to slipping away. But then he grasped it. "Right! No fight, sorry. I'm here to reliever you."
"To 'reliever' us?" Bug Bite was genuinely as confused as Exhaust was pretending to be. "We don't understand. Have you been watching baseball again? That game confuses us."
"No, it gives me a headache with all the numbers and counting. Balls, strikes, outs...who can keep track?" Exhaust shrugged. "It's just...who was it again? Oh, right! Maggy wanted you for something. He was waiting in the...room. With the thingies."
"The room with the..." Bug Bite was clearly starting to get angry, now.
"You know, the thingies! Those big box thingies. At the front where we found all those contraband energon goodies we refused to share with Hitbox."
Hubcap's teeth ground so loudly that Bumblebee was afraid it would alert the Decepticon guard to their presence.
"The cargo bay?"
"Right! Maggy wanted your help with something. Said I was too...something for the job? Important? Was that it?"
"Stupid?" Bub Bite prompted.
"That's the one!" The insult seemingly sailed right over Marlboor's head. "Anyway, he wanted you to help so he sent me to watch the boaty thing we came here in."
Bug Bite seemed to deflate slightly, losing tension now that he realized that this painful interaction was over. "Thank you. We'll go help out Magnificus right away. Anything would be better than standing around watching the boaty thing." Then he retreated in the opposite direction from Bumblebee and Hubcap, clearly oozing relief.
"Never let it be said," Exhaust told them, "that I'm not good at my job. Out-idioting the village idiot takes talent." Then he gestured towards the airlock. "Now, I believe we've still got one more Cobalt Sentry to round up. Shall we?"
A rough slap across the face woke him from the peace of stasis lock, his body still aching from wounds that had only just finished being patched up. After a moment, his optics were able to focus again and he saw the Autobot doctor First Aid glowering down at him.
"I thought—" He wheezed as his vocal synthesizers took a moment to find their equilibrium again. "I thought you were supposed to be the nice one. The others told me that the doctor was nice. That he fixed them and let them go."
"I am the nice one," First Aid told him. "But that was the other doctor. He's in the cell four doors down, and no, we're not going to let him 'fix' you too. I'm the doctor who's spent the last month trying to cure the horror you and yours set loose on the world."
"Oh, so this is the start of your tiresome 'good cop, bad cop' routine?"
"No, this is your very last chance to do something decent with your life." First Aid's expression, somehow, turned even darker. "We know who you are and we know what you did, Magnificus. You created a weapon for your masters that's killed thousands of innocent humans, and that will kill countless more if it's not stopped. Millions, maybe billions."
Magnificus panicked. "I didn't want to!" he all but sobbed. "We kill organics sometimes. I won't deny it. It's necessary. But this was horrid. Unnecessarily cruel. There was absolutely no reason to make something like that. Even when they forced me to work on it, when they said it would be my life if I didn't, I tried to make it quick. Painless. But that wasn't good enough. They wanted it to be awful. Showy. Horrifying. I—"
This time, when First Aid struck him he used his closed fist. "No! You do not get to make excuses for this kind of butchery."
"They would have killed me!"
"Then you should have died!" First Aid moved forward again, but one of the Autobot guards in the cell with them (the silver one, not the orange and black one) put a restraining hand on his shoulder. That was enough to temper the doctor's physical aggression, but not the verbal.
"You need to understand something, Magnificus. I abhor violence. Not just as a doctor. As a person. Even simply repairing soldiers so that they can go out on the battlefield and try to kill their foes another day makes me feel like a hypocrite, sometimes. I'm not telling you that to establish the moral high ground over you, because anyone who hasn't committed genocide already has that. I'm telling you so that you know just how serious it is when I tell you that you are the only person I've met in my admittedly short life that I sincerely wish to kill. And the only reason I repaired you instead of splitting your skull open with an axe is the thought that maybe, just maybe, you might value your own life enough to tell us how to undo what you've done."
"I—I can't!" Magnificus shook his head. "No one can! It was designed..." He hung his head. "I'm very good at what I do, doctor. What I built can't be cured."
First Aid turned his back and walked out of the cell. He didn't respond until he'd reached the threshold. "I strongly suggest you spend some time rethinking that," he told the Decepticon scientist. "There's no rush. You've got the rest of your life to figure it out. Of course, if you don't help us, that might not be very long. If I am the nice one, and I want you dead, just imagine what everyone else on this planet wants to do with you."
As the cell door clanged shut, Magnificus could imagine that all too clearly.