Hub Orbit, Metrotitan
Deathsaurus stared out the massive picture window that dominated the rear window of his office, but he was all but blind to the glorious view that it offered. The massive battle station that he now commanded was parked in geosynchronous orbit over the Hub, and the system's suns were now setting on his region of the interconnected network of cyberformed dwarf worlds. If he cared to look for it he'd see Hub Prime only a few hundred kilometres away, painted in the most beautiful shades of gold. Right now, though, all he could think about was how disgusted he was with the reflected face staring back at him.
Although he'd answered to many titles during his long life, Deathsaurus was proud of his current role as the Empire's head of homeland security. Through his vigilance and that of his people, the ever-expanding Hub was kept safe from aliens, traitors and any others who might wish to harm her. Or so went the theory, anyway. In practice, Deathsaurus was betraying every oath he'd ever made, concealing a dire threat looming over the Empire's throne world. And he was doing it on the word of a mech that he had once considered not just a friend but family...a mech that he felt like he barely knew anymore. The supreme commander of all Imperial military might, Overlord.
Overlord had been gone for months now, all but abandoning his post and commandeering several sectors' worth of military hardware when he set off on his crusade against the Cybertronians' throwback ancestors. He'd launched the campaign without consulting any of his primary officers, left the chain of command utterly decapitated and his subordinates at a loss for what to do.
As the senior-most of the Hub's remaining officers (in age, if not formal rank) most of the others had deferred to Deathsaurus, making him Liege of the Hub in all but name. It was not a position he'd coveted. Overlord had been a talented politician, before madness had taken him. He'd reveled in the subtle, invisible sword-crossing that came hand in hand with being the head of the Empire's military, and he'd deftly parried away more than one attempt by the heads of the Empire's other branches – mainly Blue Bacchus's internal security division, the Cobalt Sentries, and Black Shadow's espionage division, the Obsidian Guard – to rearrange the Empire's hierarchy and put themselves on top. Deathsaurus, however, hated politics. Hated it with a fiery passion. That was why he'd been happy to serve for so long as the Hub's defender rather than seek out the greater independence that came with being the military governor of a sector. So he supposed it was only natural that the fates had conspired to lay upon him the burdens not of a mere Liege Centuro, but those of the Liege Uberlegus himself.
If he was being fair to himself, Deathsaurus would have admitted that he wasn't doing a terrible job, all things considered. The Hub was safe. His new subordinates were happy. And most importantly, the Liege Maximo hadn't yet summoned him to explain what was going on and where his second in command had gotten to. But the sector governors had more or less ignored his authority, forcing him to come to a power-sharing accord with his newfound rivals Blue Bacchus and Black Shadow so that he could leverage their positions to earn the compliance of Overlord's more fractious underlings.
At the moment, it was the latter of those two who was the cause for Deathsaurus's dismay. He had called moments ago from a shuttle on approach to Metrotitan, all but demanding an immediate meeting. Deathsaurus could have turned him away, of course – Metrotitan was military territory, all but inviolable save by direct order of the Maximo. But that would have been a show of weakness, a sign that Deathsaurus – and through him, the entire military – had something to fear from the Empire's intelligence-gathering apparatus.
And the fact that he actually did have something to fear meant that he had all the more reason to take the meeting.
Three quick knocks on the door sounded then, a sign that his visitor had arrived. The quick, successive raps were shorthand used by his aide Lyzack, a quick way to communicate "I'm coming in without waiting for a reply and I have important company, so don't embarrass yourself by yelling at me."
Not that he would ever do that. Lyzack was all but the perfect partner for him, a crafty political animal who deftly navigated the unfamiliar waters that had threatened to bring Deathsaurus crashing down. She was also a people person, in a way that he definitely wasn't. Requests that would have sounded unreasonable coming from him were met with easy agreement when she made them in his stead. And as a bonus, giving her the job had really annoyed her self-important, arrogant whelp of a brother.
Lyzack entered the room, practically dwarfed by the robot who followed her. Black Shadow was a Crossformer, a normal-sized robot wearing a hulking set of protective armour that was a fully-functional Transformer in and of itself. The outer shell presented a threatening face to the world, if the distinctive black, red and gold paint that marked him as part of the Obsidian Guard wasn't enough. In it he stood nearly as tall as Deathsaurus himself, a bulky, powerful looking robot bristling with weapons. His nondescript inner robot, meanwhile, allowed him to pass unseen among the throngs of the Empire's underclass. Or so the story went, anyway. No one actually knew what he looked like outside of the shell. Nor, to be honest, did Deathsaurus want to.
He went straight to business, as was his wont. "Black Shadow. What brings you here?"
"Direct and right to the point," Black Shadow responded. "You would make a terrible spy."
"And someone who can't answer a direct question would make a terrible soldier," Deathsaurus retorted gamely.
"Perhaps," Black Shadow acknowledged. "But what does that say about you, the one who won't answer any questions about where Overlord has gone or what he is doing?"
"It says that I'm not interested in playing these kinds of games," Deathsaurus responded. "Or in having the same conversation for the tenth time. And since you're not one to waste your time either, I'm assuming you have a better reason than that for coming here."
"Maybe," Black Shadow told him. "Maybe. I wanted to follow up on something that one of my agents had uncovered. There are rumours – no, less than that. Call them whispers. Yes. There are whispers that Colossus has returned."
"What?" Deathsaurus did his best to maintain his composure, but he knew he hadn't been successful. Not enough to fool an old hand like Black Shadow.
"Yes, colour me surprised as well," the spymaster agreed. "He's not exactly known for his stealth, so I was very skeptical when I heard that he was apparently skulking about the outer system, commandeering listening posts and patrol ships on Overlord's authority and swearing everyone he crossed paths with to secrecy in the process."
"That does sound...unlikely," Deathsaurus agreed carefully.
"It does," Black Shadow nodded. "Of course, it will have to be investigated regardless. It's not at the top of my to-do list, though, for obvious reasons. Internal security isn't my purview, after all, and this sort of rank disloyalty would fall under the Cobalt Sentries' jurisdiction."
Deathsaurus nodded. He could see where this was going, and he didn't like it. The Cobalt Sentries and their master Blue Bacchus had been consolidating far too much power in their hands as of late. Overlord had been worried about them even before he left, and the situation had only escalated since then. If they were able to find proof that a senior member of Overlord's staff was acting improperly, it would be more than Blue Bacchus needed to make a case in front of the Liege Maximo that he was the only one who could be trusted with the Hub's defence. At the very least it would spell the end of the unsteady-but-functional co-command that the three of them had established, casting the Empire into the sort of chaos that would either end in a civil war or a ruthless purge at the Liege Maximo's orders. At worst, it would lead to Blue Bacchus being anointed as a new Liege Uberlegus, putting the Empire's fate in the hands of a self-aggrandizing careerist.
Black Shadow had done the same calculus and come to the same conclusions, Deathsaurus realized. But he wasn't willing to stick out his own neck. No, that wasn't his way. Instead, he'd delivered everything Deathsaurus needed to place his own head on the chopping block instead. Something that the Crossformer's next words all but confirmed. "I'll have to pass this along to Blue Bacchus, of course," he said with a shrug, as if the head of the Obsidian Guard was helpless about such things. "But I won't be able to meet with him until late tomorrow. If the problem were to have taken care of itself by then..."
He placed a data card on Deathsaurus's desk that, naturally, would turn out to contain everything his own people had been able to learn about the situation.
"Of course," Deathsaurus told him dryly. "Well, if my own sources discover anything in the meantime, I'll be sure to let you know."
"I'm sure you will." Black Shadow edged back towards the door. "In that case, I'll take my leave."
After Black Shadow was securely back on the shuttle and Deathsaurus's office had been swept for listening devices, the Empire's stopgap military commander sunk into his chair and slumped over his desk.
"It's a trap, obviously," a feminine voice told him.
"Obviously," Deathsaurus agreed. "If we fail, anything we do will be seen as evidence of a cover-up, burying us just as much as if we just ignored it. And no matter whether we or Blue Bacchus come out on top, the winning party owes it all to Black Shadow. All this with absolutely zero risk on his own part." He sighed. "But that doesn't matter, Lyzack. If Colossus is here, it means that Overlord is about to begin his endgame. This could be our only chance to find out what he's planning, and stop him before he does lasting harm to the Empire."
"Are you sure you want to do that?" Lyzack asked. "Stop him, I mean."
"Yes." Once again, Deathsaurus knew as soon as he'd spoken that no one would believe what he was saying. He sighed. "No. Of course not. Overlord was the best friend I ever had. I've trusted him with my life more than once. And I would have thought that he trusted me the same, until he disappeared with a quarter of our fleet to curb-stomp an insignificant backwater. I know him well enough to know that if he didn't tell me what he was up to, it was because he knew I wouldn't approve. That I'd try to stop him."
"Well, far be it from us to disappoint Overlord," Lyzack said, her tone carefully modulated to show neither agreement nor dissent. "But how do you want to proceed?"
"As much as I'd like to attend to things personally, we can't act overtly without drawing the sort of attention that Black Shadow and I both want very much to avoid," Deathsaurus told her. "That means we need to send in a small force, the kind that's got the skills and experience to operate independently and make decisions in the field." He gave his assistant an apologetic look. "You know who I mean."
"Yeah." Lyzack sighed. "I'll call my brother right away."
Captured Imperial Carrier Armada
Thundercracker practically had storm clouds hanging over his head as he stalked down the Armada's corridor.
Although he was one of the longest-tenured Decepticons, the jet had never really bought into the ideological side of the movement. His friends had joined up, and he'd followed them without giving it much thought. After all, the Autobot government had been terrible. Anyone who wanted to stand up to them had to be the good guys, right? Sure, Megatron was a bit of a psycho, and some of the stuff they got up to was a bit rough, but the other side was way worse. And if he'd had the occasional doubt, it had always been silenced by the simple fact that the Decepticons were his people now. He belonged with them, and that was that.
Except that wasn't that. Not anymore. Not for a long time, honestly. Things had changed after they'd woken up on Earth. The Decepticons had turned on each other.
Oh sure, Starscream had always been an overly ambitious piece of trash. Everyone knew he thought he'd be a better leader than Megatron, but nobody had actually thought he'd ever have the guts to try anything. But as they'd scrambled to survive on a new world, he'd managed to push Megatron just that little bit too far. And when Megatron snapped and gunned him down, the bonds of trust that had held their little band together swiftly fell apart. After that, everyone had simply taken turns trying to parlay their skills into personal power instead of using them for the good of the group.
Later, after they'd made contact with Cybertron again and reconnected with the Decepticons that remained on their homeworld, Thundercracker had dared to hope that things would get better. But no. If anything, the ones who'd remained behind were worse, not only backstabbers but decadent ones at that. The only bright side to it all was finding that a few of his fellow Seeker jets had survived. But even that was bittersweet, because Thrust, Dirge and Ramjet were practically strangers to him. Four million years of war would change anyone, he supposed, but Thundercracker had quickly found that he wasn't particularly fond of who they'd become. And after Ramjet and Dirge had been killed by the Swarm, he'd come to the guilty realization that he wasn't going to miss them.
Thrust's betrayal, however, still hurt.
He should have seen it coming, honestly. The divisions amongst the reunited Decepticon forces had been obvious. Megatron hadn't even pretended to value the lives of those who had loyally served masters other than him. He had marginalized all of Bludgeon's loyal officers so that he could put Soundwave and Starscream back into positions of authority. Then he'd promoted the otherwise-useless Motormaster solely because the thug owed Megatron for his very existence, and put the fanatical Spinister in command of an elite commando unit. The resentment from those who'd been stripped of their rank or passed over was palpable, and it had only been a matter of time before it boiled over. But even though it had been obvious in retrospect, Thundercracker had been caught completely by surprise.
"I blame the Autobots," he muttered gruffly.
Although those words were said in jest, Thundercracker knew that they really weren't far from the truth. Ever since the alliance had been struck, he'd been struggling with a great deal of confusion. Actually spending time with the Autobots up close had revealed some uncomfortable truths. Although some of them were jerks, to be sure, most of them were pretty decent people. He even liked some of them. And that just wasn't supposed to happen. They'd been the enemy for so long that he wasn't supposed to be able to forgive, forget and befriend them. But he had. And he'd been happy to do it.
And then Thrust and his allies had tried to hijack the ship. He understood their grievances, sympathized with them even. He'd liked some of them too. But instead of trusting Thundercracker, instead of recruiting him to their cause, they'd poisoned him. They'd gone out of their way to take him off the board because they thought that he might have chosen the Autobots over them, if given the chance.
And that's what really stung. Because, though Thundercracker was loathe to admit it, they were right. If they had told them what they were planning, he would have smiled and nodded along, acted like he was on their side...and then he would have found Spinister and relayed every word of it to his commander. And where did that leave him, exactly? What kind of a Decepticon was he, if he was willing to betray his friends to save his enemies' lives?
He'd been walking as he stewed, not really paying attention to where he was going. But in spite of that, he wasn't surprised at all to find that his footsteps had taken him to the ship's brig. What did surprise him, however, was that he wasn't alone. A familiar figure stood by the locked door, a pensive (well, for him anyway) expression on his face.
"Hey Skywarp. What's up?" The other seeker's presence automatically brightened Thundercracker's disposition. No matter how the world might go to hell or how much everything else might change around him, Skywarp had always been there. He might not be the brightest of Decepticons, but he was a loyal friend and a reliable, predictable presence. With a grin, Thundercracker added, "Always good to see a familiar face."
Skywarp had never understood why that was funny. And rather surprisingly, he didn't seem to be in the mood for jokes today. "Yeah, whatever." He jerked his thumb towards the locked brig door. "They've got him in there, don't they?"
"Yeah." Thundercracker leaned back against the doorframe. "You're pissed too, huh?"
"Damned right I am!" Skywarp spoke softly, but his voice practically quivered with anger. Thundercracker couldn't remember ever seeing his happy go lucky friend in a mood like this before. "Us seekers, we used to be the best squadron on Cybertron. Hell, we were more than that! We all got rebuilt into the same bodies to show everyone how 'together' we all were. And he goes and chooses a couple'a bugs over us? I should have plugged him the second he started spouting that "Oh, I'm from Polyhex" garbage in the bar!"
"You know..." Thundercracker sighed. "Honestly, I'm right there with you. I get why he did it, but that doesn't change what he did."
"Yeah." Skywarp slouched, as if giving voice to his thoughts had deflated him slightly. "I just...you know, I wish they'd let me have five minutes alone with him."
"I know that feeling," Thundercracker said. "But you know, you could have..."
"I coulda what?"
"No," Thundercracker shook his head. "Forget I said anything. Bad idea."
"Bad idea? Never met one I didn't like!" Skywarp grinned. "You were going to tell me to do my thing, weren't you?"
"No," Thundercracker said firmly. "I absolutely was not."
Skywarp laughed. "Well, you know me. I've never listened worth a damn."
"Oh hell." Thundercracker banged on the door. "Skywarp, get back out here right this second!"
When the other seeker didn't respond, Thundercracker punched the nearby intercom and shouted, "I need security down at the brig immediately!"
"This is Phaser. What's going on? Is there a breakout?"
"Worse," Thundercracker told him. "A break-in."
After the month that he'd had, Spinister had come to one singular, inescapable conclusion: he hated being in command.
Leading the Mayhem Attack Squad, or Thunderwing's personal guard? Those were things he could do. Small-scale units and tactical operations came easily to him. Keeping his men in top fighting trim, engaging the enemy when they had to and coming out alive on the other side were all things that he'd been doing for most of his life. But long-term strategy? Making decisions that meant life or death for the hundreds of Decepticons and Autobots under his command, and maybe even the thousands trapped under the Imperial boot back home? That was something he'd been utterly unprepared for.
The mutineers might have been totally off-side in both their reasoning and their actions. But when you got down to the core of the issue, Spinister knew that they were right. He was unfit for command. The fact that they'd been able to organize and orchestrate a nearly-successful mutiny under his nose and suborn nearly half of the Decepticons under his command spoke to that, even if he'd forgotten about all the other reasons that he'd piled up in the weeks since they'd taken this enemy starship and made it their home in exile.
He'd already been secretly wishing that the Autobots would raise a fuss, would demand that he hand the reigns over to the newly-woken Grimlock and go back to the kind of work that he did best. But they hadn't. And now, for better or worse, they couldn't. Not without tacitly admitting that the mutineers locked up in the brig had been right all along. Which meant that for better or worse – and Spinister definitely thought it was for worse – he was stuck right where he didn't want to be.
"Shanix for your thoughts, boss."
Spinister glanced up, silently disgusted that he'd allowed himself to get so lost in thought that Needlenose of all people had been able to walk into his office and right up to his desk without him noticing.
"My thoughts," Spinister said, with no real conviction, "are my own. One of the privileges of command, I'm afraid. One of the privileges, and one of the burdens."
"So we're back to this again, huh?" Unbidden, Needlenose sat down in the office's sole guest chair. There had been another before, but only the one was left now. Spinister had broken the other one across Triggerhappy's face. "Look, boss, for the six hundred and forty eighth time, what happened wasn't your fault. It was on Divebomb and his buddies. No one else."
"If only." Spinister's gaze remained fixed on the far wall. "'Fault' isn't the issue. Responsibility is. Everything that happens on this ship is my responsibility. Thirteen Decepticons and six Autobots are dead. I let it happen. Would Megatron have failed to see such a betrayal coming? Would Thunderwing?"
"You ain't them," Needlenose said in exasperation.
"Exactly my point!" Spinister shot out of his chair and went to go stand by the office's viewport, brooding with his back to his friend. Needlenose, of course, totally ignored the tacit dismissal that implied and came to stand beside him.
"You ain't them," the younger Decepticon repeated. "But you're also thinking with your heart, not your head. I've never seen you like this. What Kickback said really got to you. I get that. But comparing yourself to Megatron and Thunderwing and deciding that you're not good enough because you don't measure up to them? Boss, you keep talking like that and I'm going to have to slap some sense into you."
"I know," Spinister told him. He felt his defenses coming down, just a little bit, in spite of himself. "I'm being hard on myself. Unreasonably so. Maybe that just comes with being in command. Or maybe it just comes with being in command when everything goes to hell and you have no idea what you're supposed to do next."
The Targetmaster's shoulders slumped. "Our homeworld is under enemy occupation. I've got nearly sixty of our own locked up in the brig. Eighty Imperials penned up in a cargo bay. And one Imperial commander who's acting like our coming here was always that plan and we're going to save the universe for him. He's offering to put the resources of an entire Imperial staging base at our disposal and get our casualties patched up. Oh, and I shot forty of those out into space in stasis coffins before we set out. Forty Decepticons and Autobots committed to the void who may have been saved by the Imperials' advanced medicine."
Spinister threw his hands up in exasperation, and entirely uncharacteristic flourish. "Even when I follow the protocol book to the letter, it blows up in my face. On top of that, our elite commando squad is at half-strength because two of my handpicked recruits led the Xal-damned mutiny! How can I trust my judgment after that? I have countless ideas but no idea if any of them will work. And no idea how any of the troops will react to them."
To his credit, Needlenose seemed only mildly taken aback by the emotional outburst from his usually-stoic mentor. But his tone was carefully measured when he spoke next.
"Well, at the risk of being flippant...maybe go ask?" Needlenose shrugged. "After all that's happened, it wouldn't hurt for the crew to see that their captain cares what they've got to say. Hell, talk to the prisoners. Even the Autobots might have something useful to say! What could it hurt? You might even find the solution to your Mayhem problem along the way."
Spinister nearly told Needlenose the truth, then – that the prospect of interacting with so many other Transformers was nearly as terrifying, to him, as making decisions that could cost them their lives. There was a reason why he'd cultivated such a distant, unwelcoming persona over the years, and it wasn't because it made it easier to keep his subordinates in line. No, it was because he found that sort of unregimented, unstructured social interaction completely terrifying. Better that people simply choose not to deal with him unless they absolutely had to.
But no. He was still the commander of this crew, as much as he rued it. There was only so far that he could go in unburdening himself to a subordinate. Not even when that subordinate was indisputably his best friend...another thing that he was simply not equipped to adequately communicate. He'd thawed a little bit over the last several years, he knew, a change that was almost entirely due to Needlenose's influence. But he still wasn't a people person, and he doubted he ever would be. Relying on others to the extent that his young protege was suggesting, considering their opinions and worrying about their feelings...he just didn't know if he was equipped to do that.
"Then it's time you learned, captain. Their lives might depend on it."
"What was that, boss?" Needlenose asked. "You're muttering."
Spinister didn't realize he'd spoken aloud, and just like that his defenses snapped back into place. "It doesn't matter," he said. "What matters is you're right. I shouldn't make a decision like this on my own, captain or not." He looked away from the viewport and speared Needlenose with his trademark interrogating glare. "So what do you think?"
"Me?" Needlenose seemed genuinely surprised that Spinister was considering his opinion. Probably because Spinister had so rarely made it clear just how much he valued his younger counterpart. "I think you should ask the sort of folks who are more qualified to answer. But since that ain't going to cut it...
"Look boss, you know that I didn't think it was a good idea to come here. I'll follow you anywhere, any time. In my books, you've earned that after all the times you've pulled my aft out of the fire. But if it was up to me we'd be on Cybertron, fighting the good fight. Or whatever's left of it." Needlenose sighed. "But we're not. We're here now, and we need to see it through. Otherwise all that we've been through, and all the folk that've died, would be for nothing. Can this Colossus mook help? I've got no idea. But he could have called down the whole system on us and he didn't, and that counts for something. And as for the rest?"
He sighed again. "Look, I lost a couple friends in the fighting yesterday. No one close, but you know...still friends. I should be jumping up and down trying to volunteer for the firing squad for when you line them up against the wall. But honestly? The Autobots killed how many of my friends over the years? And they're bunking in rooms right down the hall from me. I think I've just got to the point where hating everyone I'm supposed to hate just takes too much energy. For whatever that's worth."
It's worth more than you know, Needlenose. More than you'll ever know.
Outwardly, Spinister just nodded and said, "You've given me a lot to think about."
"I guess that's my cue to clear out?"
"Can I sit?"
Whirl glanced up from the mug of high-grade energon that he'd been trying to lose himself in and locked eye on Springer. His expressionless face nevertheless managed to shoot disdain in the other Autobot's direction.
"It's a free ship," he said eventually, doing his best not to slur. "But there's a good chance you'll find my seat empty if you do."
"Dammit Whirl, I..." Springer sighed, set his jaw and started over. "No. I'm not here to yell at you. And if you don't want to share a table with me, I can't blame you. I came to apologize."
"Impactor Junior, apologize? Yeah right." Whirl glanced down at his drink. "Get on with it. You have until my glass is empty before I walk away."
"I'm serious. I never should have dragged you out here." Springer crossed his arms. "You're not the Whirl I used to know, and you're not suited for this kind of work anymore. I should have listened—"
"Yes, you damned well should have!" Whirl's retort came out louder than he expected, drawing concerned looks from a nearby table of Autobots. Clampdown in particular looked like he was going to say something, but a frigid glare from Whirl's single eye disabused him of that notion.
Now it was Whirl's turn to sigh. "Dammit Springer, sit down before you attract even more attention to us." While the triplechanger moved to do as he was asked, Whirl continued. "If this had been the brainchild of someone like Prowl or Perceptor, I could almost understand it. But you? You were supposed to care about me. I'd built a good life for myself. I was happy. And you tore all that down so you could put me to work doing something I just can't do anymore!"
"Don't sell yourself short," Springer said in a tone that suggested that he was trying to be reassuring. "You're a little rusty, sure, but underneath that you're still every bit the warrior you were before Xaaron took you away from us."
"You don't get it," Whirl snarled. "You still think that Xaaron 'took me away from you'? That he scrubbed me from the team because I was 'too violent'? As if that was something he'd ever been concerned about."
"I don't understand," Springer said. "What happened? Why did he pull you? What did you do that was bad enough that he would break up the best team the Autobots have ever had?"
"I put a loaded concussion pistol to my head and pulled the trigger."
Whirl's admission hung in the air for what felt like weeks. At least five different emotions flashed across Springer's face as he tried to process the revelation. Eventually, Whirl took pity on him.
"I'd like to say that it was just a momentary flash of madness, Springer. That I lost control and gave in to some dark, unfamiliar impulse. But that would be a lie. The truth is, I couldn't take it. The violence, the death, the constant state of terror and violent rage. It was too much for me. And after we lost Prime and Magnus..."
The Autobot's head slumped to the table and he buried his head in his claws. "That was the last straw. But it had been coming for a long time. Since before you and I met, even. I asked – no, I begged – Xaaron to reassign me, so many times. But the yellow bastard didn't care. He saw his Wreckers as a tool, nothing more. A weapon. As long as we were kept sharp, he didn't care what happened to us in the long run. There were always more tools in the shed, willing and eager to be used."
Springer made a sound that might have been a disgruntled laugh. "That, I suspect, is where I entered the picture."
"You could say that." Whirl didn't look up, but he continued. "I tried and I tried, but every mission, every failure, every bloody success...every one of them crushed me down just a little bit more. But when we lost Prime and Magnus, everything seemed hopeless. And there you were, picking up from where Impactor left off and charismatically leading the charge like some knight in green armour, making me feel like...like the problem was me. Like I was what was broken, and not the whole sick world that we were living in.
"I didn't know what else to do. I thought about turning the gun on Xaaron, but the truth is, he was just doing what he thought he had to do. So instead I thought I'd teach him a lesson by walking right up to him and blowing my brain module out."
Whirl laughed bitterly. "The gun didn't fire, because of course it didn't. Later I found out that the firing pin had been bent when I used the gun to pistol-whip some random Decepticon guard on my last mission. Horri-Bull, maybe? Whatever. Xaaron tried to talk me down, and the look on his face when I pulled the trigger...
"I don't know if the light went on for him then, or if it took a while after that. I'm not sure about much of what happened after, honestly. They tell me that I just started to laugh. And then I couldn't stop. Not for hours. days, maybe. And even after I stopped I wouldn't – couldn't – talk for weeks. I was just catatonic. But Xaaron, he...he kept visiting, kept making sure that I got the best treatment and therapy. He blamed himself for what happened – and maybe rightly so!
"But eventually I woke up, and he kept taking care of me. Even found me a nice, low-stress job where I could still contribute without worrying about going nuts again. So don't be too hard on his memory, Springer. He wasn't punishing me. He was saving me."
Springer's jaw hung slack for a moment. "I..."
"Didn't know?" Whirl finished for him.
"Xaaron never said anything, there was nothing in your file..."
"He wanted to protect me," Whirl said with a gangly shrug. "He knew that the rest of you would think less of me if you knew."
Springer wanted to object, to protest that they wouldn't have, that they couldn't have. But that would have been a lie. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah. Back then, we probably would have. I'd like to think I'm a better person now. A better friend. After all I've been through...I can't say that I understand, but I'll at least try."
"It's a little late for that," Whirl told him. "I'm still out here in the middle of it all. I'm a stronger mech than I was then, thanks to all I learned when I was piecing myself back together. Maybe I'll be okay this time. But maybe...maybe not."
Springer tried to ignore the icy feeling in his chest. "Whirl, I...I'm sorry. But why didn't you tell me, when I came trying to recruit you? We were friends. I would have—"
"We were never friends," Whirl retorted, as if that was the last straw that snapped whatever facade of calm he'd been able to maintain. "You didn't even know me. The Whirl you thought you knew was a mask. A coping mechanism. The real Whirl is a headcase who was only able to even think about having this conversation because he's gotten six liters of high-grade unfiltered in him to slaughter his inhibitions. And the moment I sober up I'll be horrified that I said anything."
Whirl seemed to pause for a second to force himself to calm down. His voice did at least sound a bit less intense when he continued, but the fire was still in his eye. "Dammit Springer, if you were ever my 'friend' you wouldn't have needed to hear this story. You would have left me alone because I asked you to. That's what friends do for each other. They don't need to hear a sob story before they think "hey, maybe I shouldn't torpedo my pal's entire life to make my own a bit easier". But you didn't, because you're not my friend and you never actually cared about me one little bit. Just like Xaaron, the only thing you cared about was using me as a weapon. And just like him, you didn't start to think about how your actions were affecting me until you got a good look at me coming apart at the seams."
Springer tried to interject, but Whirl just kept going.
"No, I'm not done yet. I don't think you're a bad person, Springer. I don't think you're evil. I just think you're so fixated on what you think is right that you're completely blind to everyone who you run over along the way. The fact is, Prowl – Prowl of all people! – could see that this was a bad idea, but not you. Not glorious Springer, leader of the heroic Wreckers, the elite commando squad that no one in their right mind could ever turn down. You say you've changed since the old days? I agree. You're not the Springer I used to know. You've been through a lot. But it hasn't changed you for the better. You want to know why you were so blind to all of this, Springer? It's because you're dead inside." Whirl's scorn cut like a knife. "The part of you that mattered died when Megatron and Galvatron murdered your command out from under you. And ever since, you've been trying to fix that. Only instead of trying to patch the holes in your soul like a normal person would, you keep throwing yourself headlong at death and desperately hoping that this time, finally, it comes out on top. That your body finally catches up with what happened to your insides a decade ago. But guess what? That's not what any of us signed up for. Not me, not Broadside, not the new guys. Not even Carnivac, psycho that he is."
Springer was taken aback. It took him a few moments to formulate a response. "Whirl, I...no. No. You're wrong about me."
"Maybe," Whirl said. "But I don't think so. You can't kid a kidder, and you can't fool someone who's been where you're at. I see the same look in your eyes that I used to see in mine every day. I suggest you learn from my example and do something about it before you wind up in the hallway with a gun pressed to your temple." He slammed back the rest of his drink. "Conversation over."
The whole conversation had left Springer grasping for words, but he was still trying to salvage something from it. "Whirl, I don't know what to say other than that I'm sorry."
"Apology not accepted," Whirl said as he got up from the table. Seeing Springer's expression turn despondent, he said, "Oh, I'm sorry. Is that not the catharsis you were looking for? Did you expect that a simple 'sorry' would make up for ruining my life and bringing me back to the lifestyle that left me on the wrong side of the line that separates sanity from madness? Well too damned bad for you. I don't forgive you and I'm not your friend."
But as the unwilling Wrecker walked away from the table, he added, "But when you're ready to admit that you have a problem, I'm willing to listen. You might be a jerk, but not even a jerk should have to go through this alone. But until then, Springer...don't waste your breath on me."
Outer System, The Hub
Leozack hated taking orders. He used to think that it didn't matter who was giving them. That it was a matter of principle. That he hated taking orders because he knew he should be the one giving them. But that had been before he'd had to learn what it felt like to take orders from his sister. Coming from her, there was something extra galling about it. About the fact that he'd risked his neck to rise up the ranks, only to be passed by a jobsworth like her who'd politicked her way to the top without seeing live fire.
On the other hand, he knew that she dreaded their conversations just as much. Because if she was calling him, it was because Deathsaurus had a special task that only his top unit could handle. And that would only serve to remind her that rank or not, position or not, he was the indispensable one.
Leozack and his squad were aboard their shuttle fifteen minutes after the siblings had finished their call, blasting away from Metrotitan as fast as their engines would carry them.
Leozack looked over his troops, a less than satisfied expression on his face. He knew that he was good enough to move up the ladder – hell, he should have been doing Deathsaurus's job! – but this collection of misfits continued to hold him back. He gave each of them an evaluating glance in turn.
There was Gaihawk, the perfectionist who was anything but perfect. As he usually did before any mission, he was field-stripping his finger-mounted "ice needle" projectors, double- and triple-checking that they were in working order. If only he was better at actually using them.
Killbison, the indiscriminate brute, sat next to him. He was alternating between shadowboxing, throwing knives into the floor and occasionally cracking his knuckle gears in a nervous tic. As one might expect, he was useless for stealth missions.
At the rear right corner of the shuttle sat Jalguar. He wasn't doing anything at all, because Leozack hadn't told him to. Blind obedience was a fine trait in in a raw recruit or some kind of pet, but an "elite" commando? Those should have some semblance of initiative!
Across from him was Drillhorn. Ah, Drillhorn. Tough, competent, experienced and tactical...and a loudmouthed stubborn fool who never shut up about how he disagreed with Leozack's decisions.
Next to him, Hellbat. A disloyal, opinionated careerist whose every action was viewed through the lens of "How will this help me take Leozack's job?" His ambition blinded him to anything that didn't directly feed into it, and he was utterly at a loss over why he'd been denied, again and again, the position of second-in-command of their squadron. Why indeed? Who would promote someone that they knew would be gunning for their back? Not Leozack, surely.
No, his choice of second was the last remaining member of the team, his trusted right hand, Deathcobra. The grizzled old soldier was the only one in the team that Leozack either trusted or liked. With a stern demeanor and an insistence on strict discipline, he did his best to whip his team into shape just like he would have a bottom-rung until of green and grey footsoldiers (whose colours he still wore, many years after earning a rank that would allow him something more personalized).
It wasn't quite the command that Leozack had dreamed of. Not by a long shot. But for now, at least, it would do.
"We're approaching the first habitat," he told them. "And there are far too many of them, with not enough time to search them all. And there's only seven of us. So we're going to have to split up. All of you need to be on your guard. For all you know, you could be disembarking into a station full of traitors. Keep your drone animals on high alert and keep in touch with the rest of us. And keep in mind, the information – and the person – we're looking for is of the highest importance to the Empire. If one of us finds what Deathsaurus needs, it will bring glory onto the entire team."
And more importantly, onto me! Maybe, just maybe, enough to escape this sham of a unit and move up to a real command.
"Gaihawk and Drillhorn, you're up," Leozack told him with feigned affection. "Make us proud."
"Dammit Skywarp, get out of there right now!"
"Why don't you come in and make me?" Skywarp asked rhetorically. "Oh, but good luck getting in, Thundercracker. I fused the locks."
"Can you seriously not go five minutes without shooting something?"
"No." Skywarp shot the intercom. "See?"
Laughing at his own joke, the seeker wandered down the long row of cells until he found the one with a word that sort of looked like "Thrust" crudely scrawled on the door.
"The Dinobots have terrible handwriting," he sighed. "Even by my standards!"
Using the set of keys he'd taken from the security desk (which was another thing he'd shot open) he opened the cell and swung the door wide open.
Seated on the cell's crude bench, Thrust squinted at him, his optic sensors struggling to adjust to the sudden influx of light into his cell. "Skywarp? Is that you?"
"Yeah. How are you doing, Thrust old buddy?" Skywarp's voice was completely mirthless again. "Can I get you a drink?"
"Oh, sweet Primus. Skywarp, I am so sorry. What I did to you and Thundercracker...I didn't have a choice. You know that, right?"
"Right." Skywarp raised his right arm, aiming one of his machine guns at the other jet's head. "Just like I don't have a choice about this."
"Wait!" Thrust threw up his hands, practically begging. "We're friends! You can't do this!"
"Pretty sure we stopped being friends the second you handed poisoned Energon to me and TC. Nice try though."
"Put the gun down, Skywarp."
The purple and black seeker practically jumped as Thundercracker's voice boomed from only a few paces behind him. He didn't take his aim off of Thrust, though.
"How the devil did you get in here so fast?"
"Sixshot's nanosword can cut through walls really quick. Just be glad I talked him out of using it on you too." Thundercracker put a hand on Skywarp's left shoulder. "You don't want to do this."
"No? 'Cause I feel like I really, really do."
"You'll get over it." Thundercracker glared past Skywarp at Thrust and said, "He's scum, but we both know it wasn't his idea. He's too much of a cowardly piece of garbage to ever willingly try something like that."
"See, Thundercracker gets it! It wasn't my idea! I was...wait, what? I'm the bravest—"
"Shut the hell up," Thundercracker told him. "The only time you're better than worthless is when someone's got a fusion cannon pointed at your back. So what did he have on you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Kickback. What did he blackmail you with?"
Thrust opened his mouth to protest, but he sagged in defeat before a word could get out. "Does it matter? You know me, Thundercracker. I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of. We all have, I know, but I made the mistake of doing some of them while the Insecticons were hanging around. He knew things...and he had proof. If he'd talked, I would have wound up in here anyway – at best! I didn't have a choice! You can see that!"
"What I see is a useless poser with no spine." Thundercracker stepped away from Skywarp, now, and delivered a firm punch to the wall. "No choice? Dammit, there's always a choice! You could have stood up to him. You could have dealt with him the way a traitor deserves to be dealt with, the way Skywarp is trying to deal with you now. But you didn't. You turned on us instead, like the mincing pile of trash that you are."
He turned back to Skywarp and said, "Let's go. He's not worth the bullets." Thundercracker started to walk away. "And besides...he'll suffer a lot more if he has to live with what he's done."
Skywarp glanced over at his friend, then back at the mech he'd come to kill. And then slowly, with a furious expression on his face, he slammed the cell door shut.
Spinister glowered down at the pair of seekers sitting on the other side of his desk (in mismatched guest chairs, one of which had been salvaged no more than five minutes ago from a nearby conference room). His expression was unreadable, he thought, but that was only due to long years of training. Inside, he was deeply, deeply disappointed.
Thundercracker withstood his baleful glare, his own expression impassive. Skywarp wilted under it, though, and had to be silenced several times by his blue partner when he tried to speak up.
Once he thought he'd let them stew long enough, though, the Decepticons' field leader spoke to them in a tone that was as cold as any Shockwave could have mustered.
"Convince me," he said, "that Skywarp shouldn't be in a cell right beside Thrust's."
"Aw, come on, boss!" Skywarp practically erupted now that he had permission to speak. "I wasn't really going to do him in! It was just, you know, a prank!"
"You compromised ship's security," Spinister responded, his tone growing ever more frigid with every passing word, "You pointed a loaded weapon at a prisoner. A fellow Decepticon, in spite of his crimes. You ignored orders from ship's security and your friend here to stand down. And you mean to tell me that this was a 'prank'?"
He leaned forward, resting his clenched fists on his desk so that he could glare right into the eyes of his subordinate. "Am I meant to find this funny, Skywarp?"
"I...no, boss, it's not..." Skywarp was at a loss trying to explain himself. Thankfully, he didn't have to.
"Sir, Skywarp didn't mean anything by it," Thundercracker told him. "He's steamed. We all are. After what happened, tensions are running high. I think there's a lot of us who'd like to take a shot at one of the traitors, if we could. Most of us can't, and the feeling passes. For Warp..." He shrugged. "Impulsiveness and teleportation are a bad combination. Look, I'm not going to defend what he did, but he reined himself in before he did anything too stupid, and he's not going to do it again." He glared at his partner. "Are you?"
"'Course not!" Skywarp told him. "It was just a...dumb impulse. You know."
"So that's that?" Spinister asked them. "No one got hurt, so no harm, no foul? Everything is forgiven?"
Even Skywarp wasn't blind to the deep skepticism in the other Decepticon's voice. But that didn't stop him from quietly murmuring a hopeful, "...yes?"
"I see." Spinister was frankly exhausted from trying to present this terrible, commanding facade for the last day straight. He allowed the Seekers to have a bit of personal space, sinking down into his chair. "An interesting sentiment, considering how unforgiving you were to your former friend Thrust."
"Thrust and his pals killed people," Thundercracker interjected. "Warp didn't."
"Not for lack of trying. Not for lack of intent," Spinister reminded him. "The only difference is that he didn't succeed."
"That's a pretty big difference in my book," Thundercracker declared.
"Mine as well. Which is why we're having this conversation here and not with a forcefield between us. But I expect better, Thundercracker. Of both of you." Seeing the Seeker's confused expression, he clarified. "We both know that Skywarp didn't come up with this on his own. You planted the seed, didn't you?"
Thundercracker reluctantly nodded. "But I didn't mean—"
"Perhaps, but you of all people should have known better. And then you stopped security from arresting him because you were worried that your friend might get hurt – not about the harm that he might be causing."
"With all due respect," Thundercracker told Spinister with more conviction than anything else he'd said so far, "I lost way too many friends yesterday. Some died, and others betrayed me. I wasn't about to take the risk that I'd lose another. There's been too much of that already."
Spinister told him, "we can all agree." The Decepticon
commander sighed. "You two are free to go, with one condition.
Thundercracker, since you went to such lengths to make sure Skywarp
didn't get hurt, I'm making him your responsibility. Keep him
out of trouble. Because if anything like this happens again, you'll
both face the consequences. Am I understood?"
Thundercracker just nodded.
Skywarp asked for clarification. "So if I do something dumb, TC is going to be punished for it? That's not fair!"
"No," Spinister agreed harshly. "It's not fair. It's not meant to be fair. Your actions have consequences, Skywarp. Behaving like an idiot hurts everyone around you. You need to learn that, and I'm making sure you don't ignore it. If you don't want to see Thundercracker in trouble, the best thing you can do is grow up. Because now you're responsible for him too."
Spinister made a dismissive gesture with one hand and tried not to collapse from exhaustion.
"Now both of you get out before I change my mind."
Broadside sighed. "Look, Springer, I'm really not the best guy to talk to about this."
The two Triplechangers were sitting in the small wardroom that the Wreckers had co-opted as a private clubhouse. They were the only two there right now. Carnivac was out hunting, hopefully the ship's overly large population of turbo-rats rather than their Decepticon neighbours. Hot Rod spend most of his time with fellow carbots Sideswipe and Sunstreaker (who, Springer reflected, he really should have on the short list for potential future Wreckers), and Splashdown always seemed to feel a bit uncomfortable spending time with the team while they were off-duty. Broadside didn't really blame him for that. The old guard was something of a morose bunch, in no small part thanks to their green and yellow standard-bearer.
"You are literally the only guy," Springer insisted. "You know me. You know Whirl. I don't think there's anyone else in the galaxy that meets both of those criteria as well as you do. There's certainly no one else on the ship who does."
"And yet," Broadside shook his head, "I'm still not going to have this conversation with you."
"Come on, Broadside," Springer cajoled. "I'm asking as a friend."
"Well, that's your problem right there," Broadside told him. "We haven't been friends for years now. Why do you think I ditched you and started running around the galaxy with the Dinobots?"
Springer was taken aback. "I...I didn't..."
"No. You didn't." Broadside sighed. "Aaaand now we're having this conversation. Great. Way to stick to your guns there, Broadside."
The bulky triplechanger shook his head again. "Springer, you've been a single-minded, humourless, exhausting slave-driver for years now. And I get it, really, I do. I was a wreck after the Time Wars, too. Topspin, Twin Twist, Roadbuster, Sandstorm, Rack'n'Ruin...they were our brothers. Losing them all at once...like that..." He sighed again. "And I can't imagine what it was like for you, being in charge of it all. But it changed you, Springer. And not for the better."
"I've been hearing that a lot, lately," an unhappy Springer said.
"At least you're hearing it, now," Broadside retorted. "That's progress. I took a vacation because you were impossible to live with. When Prowl told me you'd agreed to rebuild the Wreckers, I'd hoped that you'd started to pull out of the black cloud you'd been living it since then. But no, you're just as miserable and insufferable as ever. And before you get angry, remember that you were the one who wanted to talk about this. I was trying to be nice."
Springer got up from his chair, walking over to the room's small porthole.
Broadside felt yet another sigh coming on. "Springer, just because you turn your back to me doesn't mean I don't know you've got your broody face on."
That, at least, elicited a small chuckle from the Wrecker leader.
"Look, all the cards on the table?" Broadside got up as well, heading over to the bar to fix a drink for both of them. "We tried to help you. You pushed us away. Then we tried to trick you into getting help. Why do you think Smokescreen wound up taking my spot when I left with Grimlock?"
"I always figured," Springer said distantly, "that Inferno just missed his friend."
"That was a good cover," Broadside admitted. He dropped a trio of chilled energon cubes into both of the glasses he'd pulled out, then poured a thick black petroleum distillate over them. The cubes started to crackle and thin streams of pink oozed out into the black. "But no. We asked him to help because we thought he might be able to use his psychological training to help you without you even realizing it."
"Hm. 'Diversionary tactician', wasn't it? Tricking the subject into thinking you're doing one thing while you do another?"
"It was worth a shot," Broadside said. He carried the drinks over to the window and handed one to Springer. "Of course, none of us thought that he'd get blown to bits by Imperials a couple months later. And then Prowl strongarmed you back into 'the life', and that didn't exactly help things."
"And no one said anything because I wouldn't listen anyway." Springer took a sip of his drink. His expression turned sour. Whether it was from the drink or the unpleasant truths that he was having to swallow, Broadside had no idea.
"Now you're getting it!" the heavyset Wrecker told his boss. "The question is, what are you going to do about it? I don't think any of us expect the roguish, wise-cracking Springer to miraculously come back again. But it'd be nice if you'd stop beating yourself up constantly. What happened six years ago was tragic. It was a horrible thing to live through. But it wasn't your fault. There's only two people to blame: Galvatron and Megatron. And not even the same Galvatron and Megatron that are around these days." This time, Broadside couldn't keep the sigh in. "Goddamn do I hate time travel. And clones."
"I know that," Springer said, taking another sip. "I do." He hesitated. "I just don't believe it."
"Well, that's between you and your conscience," Broadside told him. "I can't help you settle it. And the same goes for this spat between you and Whirl. From where I'm standing, you were both being dumb. You, for insisting he come when he didn't want to. Him, for expecting you to go off to battle with a weakened roster without knowing why. Either one of you could have decided to make both of your lives easier and you both decided not to. But that's in the past, now. Neither of you can change it. But you can both do better in the future, if you want to."
Broadside downed his drink. "Well, that was awful. And there's not enough energon in this place to get me to extend this conversation for one more second, so that's the last I'm going to say about that."
"That's alright. You've said more than enough. But you're wrong about one thing." Springer finished his drink as well, then clapped the other Wrecker on the shoulder. "You're a better friend than a guy like me deserves."
Gaihawk and Drillhorn flanked the fueling station commander, arms crossed. Their drone animals were deployed as well, with Drillhorn's rhino drone pacing aggressively in front of the captive officer while Gaihawk's hawk drone perched on his desk and peered at him attentively.
"Explain it to us again," Drillhorn said.
"Carefully," Gaihawk added. "Slowly. Precisely."
"Explain what?" the station commander asked dumbly.
"Explain how you allowed a random bureaucrat to show up here and commandeer all of your resources!" Drillhorn snapped.
"It's not like that at all!" the officer told them. "Colossus showed up with alpha-level clearances and personalized orders from a flag officer."
"So you just...let him wander off with a transport full of fuel and your entire security detachment?" Drillhorn pressed.
"You keep asking the same question in different ways," the commander said. "Like you're trying to trick me into giving the wrong answer and incriminating myself. Stop. It's insulting. Colossus had special orders, signed by Overlord, saying that I needed to do exactly what he said no matter how irregular it was. So I did. Then you idiots show up waving some search warrants, telling me that Colossus is a traitor even though he was executing Overlord's personal, notarized orders. You can see how that looks, can't you?"
"Are you calling us traitors?" Drillhorn was starting to lose his temper, and his drone partner was picking up on it, digging its hooves aggressively across the floor.
Gaihawk frowned. This was going nowhere. They couldn't exactly up and tell every officer they met that Overlord was a traitor, even though it was starting to look like that might actually be true. No one would believe them anyway, and on the off-chance they did, it would only cause a panic. Thankfully, they could approach the problem more directly.
"Now, now," Gaihawk said, nominally addressing both his partner and their prisoner. "I think this conversation is getting a bit heated. Why don't we cool things down?"
"Yes, that's a great idea," the commander agreed. "Cool things do—agggh!"
Gaihawk cut the prisoner off with a casual flick of his wrist...which also activated the ice needles built into his left hand, spraying miniature "daggers" of supercooled plasma across his breast plate. Then he grabbed the uncooperative officer and slammed him up against the wall.
"I want you to remember that we wanted to do this the civilized way. You chose this. Now, you have two choices. You can give us every scrap of information you have on Colossus, his ship, the soldiers he took, what resources you gave him and where he went. Or we can let Horndrone and Hawkdrone tear you to pieces while I steal the information I want from your computer. My friend Drillhorn is really hoping you choose the second option. Me? I want to do this as quickly and easily as possible. It's totally up to you, though."
"I'll..." the commander croaked, "I'll tell you everything I know..."
Gaihawk dropped him to the ground. "I never had any doubt."
"Of all people, why ask me?" A wary Squeezeplay looked across the workbench, meeting Spinister's gaze levelly. The Headmaster had been taken by surprise by his commander's question, and after what had happened the day before he was afraid that this was some sort of verbal trap.
He thought he was doing a good job of covering up his nerves. But he clearly wasn't doing good enough. Spinister replied to him in what was probably meant to be a calming tone, though since it was coming from Spinister, all he really managed was "less menacing than usual".
"This isn't an interrogation," Spinister assured him. "Triggerhappy and Fangry both admitted that they dragged you along at gunpoint. If I doubted your loyalties we'd be having this conversation in a holding cell, not the armory."
Squeezeplay glanced back down at the bench he was using, where he'd been carefully sharpening the spikes on his mace. "I suppose that makes sense," Squeezeplay admitted, though a part of him was still cagey. "But you asking me for advice? That still doesn't. I'm just a grunt. Who cares what I think?"
"Me. Obviously." Spinister responded. "I have my reasons. I promise you'll understand why by the time we're done talking."
"Okaaay," Squeezeplay shrugged. "Look, I don't know all the guys that turned on us. Some of them were friends, but most of them are closer to strangers. Now, me, I'd love to pound the lot of them to within an inch of their lives. But like I said, I'm just a grunt.
"I've got a good head on my shoulders, sure, but his name is Lokos." Squeezeplay tapped the side of his head to draw attention to the fact that he was a Headmaster. "I know that he thinks we're too smart for that. And he's not wrong. Because like I said...I only know a few of them. Fangry, Triggerhappy, Skullcruncher, Weirdwolf, pretty well. Roughstuff and Astrotrain, a little bit. The rest, not much at all. But the ones I know..."
"Yes?" Spinister prompted him after an uncomfortable silence.
"Sorry. Not sure how to say it." Squeezeplay frowned. This sort of thing wasn't his strong suit. Why couldn't Spinister have pointed him at a platoon of enemies that needed shredding instead? "I guess...they're all different, you know? And they'd have all turned for different reasons. Some are just looking for a fight, some are just dumb, some are just following their friends into trouble..." He sighed. "And some of them probably really did want to put your head on a pike and hand the rest of us over to Team Green."
The Headmaster shook his head. "I'm not explaining it well."
"On the contrary," Spinister disagreed. "I understand perfectly. You're saying that the question I asked was too simple. That 'What should we do with the traitors?' isn't one question. It's sixty. Each of them are guilty to their own degree. And you're not wrong about anything but your own intelligence." The Targetmaster's masked face momentarily flashed something like amusement. "The Mayhem Attack Squad doesn't recruit morons."
"I...what?" Squeezeplay realized that his jaw was hanging open, and forced himself to assume a more dignified expression. "This is a job interview?"
"Among other things," Spinister told him. "Imagine I did judge them separately, and found some of them blameless. Would you fight alongside them? Trust your life to them?"
"Wouldn't have much of a choice, would I?" Squeezeplay shrugged. "Doesn't mean I'd be all that happy about it, but I've survived this long with people like Airwave or Greasepit – or Starscream – on the same side as me. I'd survive them too."
"And if they turned on us again?"
"Then I'd stop letting Lokos rein in my baser instincts."
"Hmm." Spinister seemed to be satisfied by what he'd heard. The Decepticons' field leader sat silently for a few moments, long enough to make Squeezeplay feel antsy. "Report to the former pilots' lounge on deck thirty-three in six hours," he said. "Ruckus will be holding a training session for the new recruits. Assuming, that is, you want the job."
Squeezeplay knew that this was a decision he should probably take his time to reflect on, but by the time his brain had figured that out his mouth was already saying, "I'll be there, sir."
"Good," Spinister told him as he headed for the exit. "And Squeezeplay? Welcome to the team."
It wasn't until after the commander had left that Squeezeplay realized that he hadn't asked who the other new recruits were.
Well, I guess I'll find out in six hours. He winced. Hopefully it's not Airwave and Greasepit. That'd be awkward.
With his repairs finally finished, Grimlock was once again enjoying the freedom of walking about in his natural body. His embarrassing Pretender shell was stuffed in a closet in the Dinobots' wing of the ship, where he would happily to leave it for a very long time. Although he appreciated the extra size and armour the shell provided, he simply wouldn't be caught dead in the thing if there was any other choice. Being rid of it, in his estimation, was always a cause for celebration. So Grimlock had started the day off in a good mood, by his standards.
That mood had lasted maybe three hours. By the time that Springer approached him near the entrance to the ship's holographic training facility, the Dinobot leader's mood could best be described as "foul".
"Did me leave recharge chamber today with big 'free advice for insecure attack helicopters' sign on me back?" he asked the Wrecker irritably.
"What?" Springer at least had the decency to pretend to be surprised.
"This morning in mess," Grimlock told him, "Whirl come to me. Ask me how me work with Prowl for so long when we not get along. Me tell him, he go away. That fine. Then Spinister ask me to come to office. Him want to ask me for advice on Imperial moron Colossus. Me help. Then him ask about traitors. None of me business, but me help. Then him ask about why me no recruit new Dinobot to replace Slag. None of him business, but me still help. Now you." Grimlock scowled. "If me see Skyhopper after this, maybe me just eat him."
Even Grimlock wasn't quite sure if he was joking or not.
"Well, I didn't come here to bug you," Springer told him. "I'm just looking for a workout, same as you. But maybe I should just come back later."
Grimlock was still suspicious, but the Wrecker leader was one of the few other Autobots (his Dinobots aside) that he actually liked. And more importantly, one of the few that could keep up with him in a fight. "No. You stay. We train together. That is, if you think you can handle Dinobot difficulty settings."
"I suppose I could step down to them for a day," Springer returned the taunt, but Grimlock could tell that his heart wasn't really in it. Not like it would have been in the past. "What's the scenario?"
"Fifth Battle of Altihex," Grimlock told him. "Where Megatron killed Sentinel Prime. In real life, Optimus come up from northeast. Him too late to save Prime. Us do better."
"Sounds like fun." Springer drew his sword and smiled gamely. "Let's go!"
"Yes, lets." Grimlock punched one more command into the control console, then said, "Computer, begin program."
The doors to the holodeck slid open, admitting them into a world full of explosive destruction and death. As they walked in, Grimlock noticed, Springer actually looked happy.
Jalguar and Killbison had spent the last half-hour inspecting the listening post, but neither of them were really sure what they were supposed to do. That's because they'd come here to interrogate the crew, only to find that there was no crew to interrogate. The post had been shut down, its crew had left, and the slice of sky that it was supposed to be watching had been left completely unguarded.
At first, Jalguar had thought to turn the scanners back on. The only reason to turn them off in the first place, he figured, was because the former crew (or the rogue officer who'd commandeered them) wanted to make sure that no one could see what was going on in their sector. But it turned out that they'd actually taken some key scanner parts with them, turning the listening post into nothing more than an empty can floating in space. Beyond that, Jalguar was at a loss.
Killbison was standing at the back of the control room, totally ignoring the work that Jalguar was doing and fiddling with his knives instead. "Where are they? I want to punch someone! Or at least stab them!"
Jalguar shrugged. "No one here. Not for a while."
"Then why are we still here?" Killbison asked. "We should go somewhere where there's people to punch."
Jalguar shrugged again. "I guess you're right. Leozack gave us a list. Let's get back to the shuttle and hit the next one."
Never did the players in an illicit card game move so quickly as when an officer walked in on them. And when that officer happened to the captain, well...Airwave was actually surprised that no one tried to jump out the porthole into deep space. That wasn't to say they didn't react, though. Wreckerhook jumped so high in the air that he practically hit the ceiling, Jipe immediately jumped up and tried to make excuses, and Browning transformed to gun mode in the hopes that he would be small enough to go unnoticed as he fell under the table.
Only Krunk seemed to be unbothered, probably because after living through his Transformer partner blow up all around him, there wasn't much left in life for him to be afraid of. Snapdragon had been the only thing the Nebulan had ever been afraid of, anyway. And while the Horrorcon was still technically alive as long as Krunk was, the Nebulan certainly wasn't in any hurry to get a new body built for him.
Spinister seemed, if anything, mildly amused by the reaction of his lower decks crew. "As you were," he told them. "I have more important things to worry about than gambling." The amused look got a hair sharper. "Especially since I've known about this game for three weeks."
"Awww...who ratted on us?" Jipe asked.
"As if you need to ask," Wreckerhook told him. "Obviously it was Air Hunter."
Spinister acknowledged that with a nod. "He's made no secret that he wants to head of security. And I like to keep tabs on what's going on aboard my ship. Your game might be technically illegal, but it's entirely harmless. Helpful, even, since it keeps you all out of trouble."
"So," Airwave tried to steer the conversation to something uncontroversial. "Should I deal you in? Buy-in is five shanix per hand."
"No, that would be unseemly." Spinister let that hang in the air for a moment before taking an empty chair at the table. "Taking all my subordinates' money, that is. I only need a few moments of your time."
"You want to talk about yesterday," Browning piped up from under the table, his voice muffled. Belatedly, he returned to robot mode and crawled out, a sheepish expression on his face.
The captain nodded.
"Well, we'd rather not!" Wreckerhook interjected. "We're Decepticons. These things happen. You won, the ringleaders are dead. We move on and forget about it."
Airwave chuckled. "If anyone would know about forgetting..."
Wreckerhook was a new addition to the Decepticon forces. Or at least, that was the going theory. He'd wandered into Polyhex several months ago, pleading memory loss and claiming that he'd been a technical officer for Lord Straxus almost a thousand vorns ago. Given the poor life expectancy of most of Straxus's minions, there was no one left alive to verify his claims. Most everyone assumed he was an Imperial spy, but he was also the closest thing the ship had to a medic, so everyone had let him be. Privately, Spinister had been surprised that he wasn't involved in stoking the mutiny.
"Yeah...I'm not so big on the whole 'forgive and forget'," Jipe grumbled. "We tried that back in Malignus, during the war. It worked so well that we wound up having to level our own city when the local Autobots rose up again. Me, I'll be first to volunteer when you're looking for the firing squad."
Browning clearly didn't like the sound of that. "That's a bit extreme for me. Surely there's got to be a middle ground between forgiveness and execution? Some other form of punishment we could mete out?"
"Is there, though?" Krunk wasn't wearing his Headmaster armour, which left him decidedly undersized even compared to the Micromaster whose quarters they'd all invaded. But he made sure that his voice was heard all the same. "We're not back at Darkmount with all the comforts of home. We're on a captured enemy ship, as deep as we could possibly be in enemy territory. We don't exactly have the time to make people serve penal sentences, or make them work off their crimes with hard labour."
"Especially when some of the bad guys say they want to join us and they're pushing us to move now," Airwave added. Then, seeing Spinister's expression darken, he added, "Sorry, boss. Wrong subject."
"No," Spinister shook his head. "You're right. They are, more or less, one and the same. What we do with the mutineers will depend on what we do with our professed Imperial 'allies', and vice versa."
The captain seemed to mull things over for a moment. Then he got up out of his chair and headed for the door. "I won't take any more of your time," he told the small collection of Decepticons. "Enjoy your game."
After the door had swished shut behind him, Airwave looked at his fellow gamers with a confused look. "Wait, I thought he wanted to say something to us?"
Until today, Springer had never seen Sentinel Prime in action. But Grimlock's holo-recreation was so realistic that from now on, it might feel like he had.
Hundreds of yards away, atop a ancient half-collapsed building that had taken on the appearance of a small hillock, the ancient Autobot leader stood in all his glory. His blaze orange armour would make him stand out from any crowd. But surrounded by the dozen or so drab-painted bodyguards that still stood at his side, Sentinel was somewhere between resplendent and ridiculous. But once he swung into action, any thought of ridicule disappeared from Springer's mind. Any time a Decepticon (or group thereof) slipped through his guards, Sentinel was there to confront them. His double barreled plasma rifle blew holes clean through anyone he could get a clear shot at, his forearm-mounted machine gun turrets provided precision fire for any enemies who were too close to his guards, and his flame-yellow energo-sword sliced effortlessly through any who got into hand-to-hand range. He looked for all the world to be a warrior at the height of his power, unbeatable by any who would choose to face him.
It was hard to believe that he was going to be dead two minutes from now.
Springer and Grimlock fought side by side, their own blades flashing as they hacked their way into the Decepticon line. For added challenge, they'd agreed to leave all their other weapons at the door, relying on nothing but their skills with a blade to complete their mission. At the time it had sounded like an interesting challenge. But after hacking into the enemy hordes for almost fifteen minutes with little to show for it, "impossible" was sounding like a better word. The Wreckers often said that impossible was their stock in trade. But if Springer was being honest with himself, it didn't seem like he was doing a particularly good job of being a Wrecker right about now.
"We're not going to make it," he told Grimlock curtly.
"Not with attitude like that, we not!" Grimlock drove his energo-sword through a gaudy yellow and purple-coloured Seeker and tore it out with authority.
"I'm serious," Springer told him. "Look over there. Two o'clock low. There's Megatron and his personal retinue." He frowned. "Soundwave, Ravage, Shockwave...I think the blue, black and white one is Overlord."
"It is," Grimlock told him. "Once we find his name in archives, me scour holo-files for early war programs that include him. Want to see face of enemy. Even though him probably not at Hub now."
"Not a bad idea," Springer admitted. He sliced open a Decepticon of his own, then asked with forced casualness that anyone would have been able to see through. "So...why haven't you? Gotten a replacement for Slag, I mean, like Spinister was asking about."
"Me knew it!" Grimlock roared. "What wrong with you people? Me Dinobot! Us terrible source of advice." He scowled. "You right. Us not get to Sentinel in time. Not this way."
Grimlock stepped back from the group he was fighting and transformed to beast mode. Springer thought he might be about to try and chew his way through the crowds, but no. The Dinobot leader jumped. Half a second later the jet boosters in his legs kicked in, carrying him over the crowds.
"Well gee, if you'd told me you were going to cheat I could have done that ten minutes ago." With a quick pump of his own powerful legs, Springer jumped in an equally-impressive arc. "See? No jets."
He actually landed before Grimlock did, arriving sword-first and bisecting a Decepticon encroaching on Prime's position from the rear.
"Me think you enjoying this," Grimlock remarked as he landed a few seconds later, snapping his tyrannosaur jaws menacingly as he lunged at another group of enemies.
"Maybe I am," Springer said. "So what?"
Much to his own surprise, the Wrecker leader found that he was enjoying himself. In fact, he was enjoying himself more than he had in years. Decades, even. Slicing through this crowd of enemies had brought back feelings that he hadn't had since before he'd even joined the Wreckers, back when all he'd had to worry about was himself, his sword and his mission. Back when other people were making the big decisions. He hadn't realized how...joyless he'd become since Xaaron had drafted him for Operation Volcano. Since a dying Impactor had bequeathed him his responsibilities as leader of the unit. In fact, the last time he'd actually had fun like this was when Xaaron arranged the de facto Wrecker job interview that had consisted of himself, Sandstorm and Broadside getting the jump on Impactor in an alley and kicking the tar out of him.
"So? Good," Grimlock grunted as he dug his teeth into a particularly slow enemy. "Megatron coming from northeast. Him almost here. Optimus coming from south. Him arrive in five minutes with reinforcements. You think we can hold hill until them arrive?"
"Can we hold?" Springer actually smiled.
When was the last time I've done that and meant it?
"Oh hell yeah."
Standing over the prone, roughed-up Hellbat, Deathcobra crossed his arms and frowned. "This is your idea of a quiet investigation?"
"Everything – ouch – everything was going just fine until his comm buzzed," Hellbat said, picking himself up off the walkway where he'd been dumped. "Then he threw me out. Literally."
"Strange. Mine also clammed up really suddenly after getting a message." Deathcobra helped his teammate up off the ground. "Something tells me that neither one of them are the ringleader behind our missing troop transport."
The duo had arrived less than an hour ago on an asteroid mining base that also did double duty as a staging ground for ground forces training exercises. A squad that had been working out here in preparation for a drill deeper in-system had suddenly reported that they would need to reschedule because, apparently, their ship had been commandeered under orders from Overlord. With Overlord long gone, naturally that had raised some red flags. The reactions from the station's crew, on the other hand, had raised a giant, flaming battle standard.
"Any idea who?" Hellbat asked.
"No," Deathcobra said with some annoyance. "And we don't have time to ask. We came here to confirm that this is where the shuttle came from, and we've done that. The specifics of their treason will have to wait for later." He smiled grimly. "I'm sure the Cobalt Sentries will have a good time extracting that out of them."
The squadron XO headed back towards the hangar bay. "Come on. We have other leads to follow up on too."
The security office had suffered some not-inconsiderable damage during the mutiny thanks to a major electrical attack. But thanks to some quick work by the Autobot Ironworks, it was starting to look like a functional workspace again. The Micromaster was technically the communications officer on their little junket, but right now an extra hand in maintenance and repair was a great deal more important. Cosmos was more than capable of filling in for him if needed. But they weren't exactly in a position where communicating with anyone nearby would fall under the "desirable" column anyway. And the Autobot certainly hadn't minded the change of venue. If anything, he seemed more chipper than Spinister had ever seen him.
"Come to check on the progress, skipper?" he called, half of his body still buried inside a communications console.
"No. You're doing fine," Spinister assured him. "I've come to check on the prisoners." He glanced over at the third robot who occupied the room with them. "Anything interesting, Spyglass?"
The blue and silver Decepticon looked up from the monitor hub he was manning, which – thanks to Ironworks – now had about 90% of its screens working again. "That would depend on your definition of interesting," he hedged. "But I would say no. Skystalker is continuously pacing in some sort of ever-faster manic fit. Skullcruncher keeps trying to chew on the bars. Not so much to escape, I think, as just out of boredom. Fangry wouldn't stop howling until I threatened to activate his cell's shock field. Thrust, I think, is having some sort of mental breakdown. He hasn't moved a millimeter since his friends left a few hours ago. Squawktalk keeps trying to communicate with his neighbouring cells using Morse code, but they're all ignoring him and seemingly getting quite annoyed." After a momentary pause, the smallish Decepticon nervously asked, "Sir...what are you going to do with them?"
"I don't know," Spinister admitted honestly.
The observer looked a bit surprised at that. Spinister suspected that it wasn't his uncertainty that surprised him so much as his admission of it. Along with his fellow Reflectorbots (with whom he was splitting shifts on monitor duty now that the brig was so full), he'd served under Megatron during the early days of the war. They'd set off on the Nemesis with him and been stranded on Earth. Unlike the other Decepticons who'd been aboard the ship, the trio shared an alternate mode – a feature that had rendered them uniquely vulnerable to the poisoned fuel that the Decepticons had been given by the Autobot's human ally Sparkplug Witwicky. They'd been left offline and irreparable until very recently, when captured Imperial technology had finally allowed for their systems to be flushed and repaired.
To say that they were still adjusting to the new order of things would be something of an understatement.
"Neither do they," Spyglass told him carefully, "which I would imagine might be the cause of the...anxious outbursts I'm seeing."
"Undoubtedly," Spinister agreed.
"It may not be a bad idea for you to talk to them," Spyglass said. "Set their minds at ease."
"Even if what I have to say isn't reassuring in the least?"
"I can only speak for myself," Spyglass responded, "but I would much rather know for sure that I'm going to die than to not know, and be dreading it. At least then they could make their peace."
A distinctive clunking came from where Ironworks was working. Spinister restrained a sigh as he addressed him. "I take it you have an opinion as well, Autobot?"
"Well," the Micromaster said, popping his head out from the console," being an Autobot, I can't honestly say it's any of my business. It's a 'family' matter for you Decepticons. But since you're asking..." He left that hanging, but when Spinister didn't speak up to object, he continued. "Honestly, I can't see how you can decide what to do with them until you decide what to do about the Imperials locked up in the other wing. Spacing them is an option no matter what, I guess, but anything short of that...it's kind of hard to commit to until we know what we're doing. And honestly, sir...if we're going into battle, and you're not throwing them out the airlock first, then I don't know that we've got the right to keep them locked up while we put their lives in danger."
saying," Spinister mused, "that if they still deserve their
lives, then they have the right to fight for their lives?"
Ironworks nodded. "I suppose I am."
"That's true enough to be troubling." Spinister was unable to restrain the sigh, this time. These talks were supposed to help him come to a reasonable decision, but so far they've only seemed to lay even more pressure on his shoulders with each contradictory opinion he collected. Even the ones that sounded right to him didn't agree with one another, and every opinion seemed to look at the problem from a different perspective.
"Spyglass," he said eventually, "unlock the cell block. I'd like to speak to the prisoners."
"Which one?" the Reflectorbot asked. He gestured right, toward the cells that held the mutineers, then left, towards the ones filled with Imperials.
Once again, Spinister found himself totally unsure about which path to take next. So he did something that didn't come naturally at all – without thinking, he pointed towards one door completely at random and said, "That one."
Although Springer and Grimlock were doing a good job of warding off the lesser Decepticons, Megatron and his retinue were creeping closer and closer to their position. And in spite of their best efforts, the Decepticon leader and his retainers showed no signs of slowing down.
"Us need to deal with them," Grimlock growled in between bites of Decepticon footsoldier. "Personally."
"Agreed." Springer cleared his blade out of his latest foe as well. The remainder of the Decepticon troopers were pulling back, unwilling to throw themselves into the buzzsaw that had already shredded so many of their brethren. Springer didn't blame them.
"Them finally grow brain," Grimlock remarked.
"That, or they don't think their boss will need our help," Springer responded pessimistically. Taking advantage of the reprieve, he leaned on his sword and asked, "So...why not?"
"You're going to an awful lot of effort to not tell me why you don't want to replace Slag."
"Nnnn..." Grimlock gritted his teeth. "You not let this go, are you? Fine. Me actually was looking for new recruit. Even had candidate in mind. Repugnus."
"So why don't you ask him?" Springer queried. "He'd be a perfect fit, and you're not the type to second-guess himself."
"Because him perfect fit," Grimlock rumbled.
"I don't get it."
"Him breathe fire, like Slag. Him like to fight, like Slag. Him ornery, like Slag. Him bad at taking orders, like Slag. Him perfect replacement for Slag." Grimlock sighed. "Me not want perfect replacement for Slag. Me not want to replace Slag at all. Me want to fill hole on Dinobot roster, but..."
"But you liked Slag," Springer nodded in agreement. "He was a part of your team, but he was also a friend. You can't replace that, and if someone tried to you'd hate them for it."
"You understand!" Grimlock actually smiled, so widely that his saurian face suddenly seemed to be all teeth. "Spinister just look at me like me gone nuts. Me no replace him for same reason you no replace Roadbuster, Sandstorm, Topspin, Twin Twist, Inferno or Skids."
"Because you can't."
"Right. Maybe me find new Dinobot, but him never be a replacement. New recruit have to earn it on own merits, because Slag not replaceable. Him family. Same reason why you not let Whirl get away so easily." Grimlock shrugged. "If me and Swoop only Dinobots left, me do exact same thing. Of course, Whirl not so happy when me tell him that."
"You understand!" Springer unconsciously aped Grimlock's earlier explanation. "Why does it seem like no one else does?"
"Because them not like us," Grimlock explained. "We all lose friends in stupid war. But you and me, we in charge of friends when them die. That big difference."
Spinger was about to respond when he realized that the horde of Decepticons was closing in on them again. "How about we teach them what it's like to lose some friends?"
"Me Grimlock like the way you think!"
Liondrone paced a wide circle around Leozack as the squadron commander walked through the crowd. No one moved to attack him – no one was that suicidal – but the crew of the construction platform were doing everything they could to make it very clear that he wasn't welcome. Unfortunately for them, Leozack didn't care one bit how they felt.
"Explain it to me again," he prompted the commander of the construction regiment. "And this time, do it like you're talking to someone who isn't a part of your criminal conspiracy."
"I assure you, there is no conspiracy." The chief engineer was starting to get angry with him, Leozack could tell. His crew of Imperial Engineering Corps soldiers, all wearing their department's orange and black livery, were picking up on his mood and reflecting it back at them. "We go where we're sent and do what we're told. Someone dispatches us out here to build a new solar lens? If he's got the right credentials, we come and we do it. Even if the specs don't quite make sense to us. And if someone comes out here with orders from Overlord himself saying 'good job, now get out'? We get out." He gestured around him to the hangar full of half-packed shuttles. "And as you can see, we're doing just that. Or trying to, at least."
"And what did Colossus say the platform was for?"
"He didn't say and I know better than to ask," the engineer said haughtily.
"But you have can guess." Leozack prompted Liondrone with an almost imperceptible twitch of his head, and the small, AI-driven weapon wandered a bit closer to the engineer, teeth bared.
It was the wrong move.
"I may have guesses, but none that I'll share with you," the engineer responded. "Frankly, your credentials don't overrule the ones that were on my work orders, and your attitude doesn't exactly scream 'Loyal Subject of the Maximo'. For all I know, you are the traitor here, not Colossus. I've said all I'm going to say, and now I've got an evacuation to coordinate. Stay or go, I don't care, but don't get in our way."
The engineer left a sulky-looking Leozack in his wake as he wandered off to find some of his foremen. But it was all for show. Leozack had gotten what he needed.
When the door opened to admit Spinister, Thrust felt his fuel pump sink through the floor.
"So this is it, then." He made no effort to resist, his eyes not rising from the deck plates. "Make it quick."
"I'm not going to kill you," Spinister told him. The Targetmaster's voice, surprisingly, seemed a few degrees warmer than usual. "Not yet, anyway. Truthfully, I haven't decided what to do with you. I need to know why you did it first."
"Oh." Thrust felt almost...disappointed. "So it's an interrogation, then? Can we spare the VVH? I'll tell you anything you want to know."
"You can start by telling me what you wouldn't tell your fellow seekers. What did Kickback know that he could blackmail you into betraying the Decepticon cause?"
Thrust hadn't thought it was possible to feel worse that he already did. He was wrong.
"Anything but that."
"Thrust, this might be the last conversation you ever have. I'm offering you a chance to unburden yourself. If it helps, I won't repeat a word of this." Spinister's gaze drilled into him like lasers, and the warmth evaporated from his voice. "And after what you've already done, it's impossible for me to think any less of you than I already do. Not after you tried to murder two Decepticons who called you 'friend' just to keep your secret. Two Decepticons who you owed your life to."
"Don't be so sure," Thrust told him. His pride was dead set on clamming up, but the rest of him didn't seem to get the memo. He found the words spilling out as if of their own volition.
"I was an informant," he said. "I...informed."
"You'd hardly be the first."
"No, I mean I informed on everyone. To everyone. In Straxus's day, more people than I care to count were condemned to the Smelting Pools on my testimony. On Earth, I reported on Megatron to Shockwave, on Shockwave to Megatron, on both of them to Soundwave, and eventually on Ratbat to Scorponok." Thrust's head sunk down even farther and he covered it with his hands, as if to cover his shame. "And this year, I started informing on Alliance activities to the Imperials. Or so I thought."
"Explain." Spinister's voice had become as cold as the depths of space now.
"The Imperial sleeper agent who recruited me – the person I thought was a sleeper agent, anyway – knew about all of my past history. He threatened to go public unless I gave him the data he wanted." Thrust sighed. "So I gave him the data. What else could I do? I realized afterwards that he wasn't an Imperial at all. He was a cutout for Kickback, who'd heard about my habits years ago after getting close with one of Straxus's information officers. But all he had were whispers. He needed proof so that he could yoke me, and I gave it to him in spades. He pretended like we were 'friends' and that he'd protect me as long as I had his back, but we both knew he was just waiting for an opportune time to burn me."
"And you didn't kill him because...?"
"For the same reason that I let Straxus's inquisitors bully me into talking. The same reason why I couldn't stop, and why every subsequent leader knew that I would squeal the moment they leaned on me. I'm a coward, Spinister. A dirty, worthless coward who's betrayed every single person who ever trusted him."
"I see." Spinister took two steps forward, grabbed Thrust by the jaw and forced his eyes up. "And I suppose you think you'd be getting your just reward? That execution is what someone like you deserves?"
"If not for everything else, then surely for the mutiny," Thrust told him.
"And now we come to it." Spinister stepped back again and crossed his arms. "Thrust, you and I both know that Kickback's blackmail was just an excuse. You joined the mutiny because you knew you would wind up exactly where you are, facing exactly the punishment that you are. Because you think you deserve to die, but don't have the conviction to end your own life."
Thrust burned with a desire to refute those words, to shout defiance and denial. But as much as he wanted to lie to the Targetmaster, he no longer had the energy to lie to himself.
"After what I've done? Can you honestly say I don't deserve it?"
"I can say this." Spinister walked out of the cell, shutting the door behind him. "Get over yourself."
Springer watched the holographic Decepticons retreat, a smug expression spreading across his face. Grimlock, nearby, roared with triumph. The holographic Sentinel Prime, none the worse for wear, had gone off to confer with his officers after the Decepticon retreat had taken full effect.
"Well...that's the day saved, then."
Grimlock was quiet for a moment before transforming back to robot mode. "You know...this make me think," he said. "Sentinel Prime. Him good leader, for his day. But then Megatron come. Different day. No good leader no more. History remember him bad, me think. Remember failures at the end, not thousands of years of success." The Dinobot leader chuckled. "Of course, in real world him dead. No chance to make up for mistakes. You? Me? We alive. We make mistakes. Me, try to do better. Me realize that Optimus..."
Grimlock shook his head. It obviously pained him to talk about his failings, even with a fellow failure like Springer. "Me no like Optimus. Me never have, probably never will. But Optimus, him right leader for his times. Him. Not me. Me had to learn that hard way."
"I wondered," Springer said as lightly as he could, "why you didn't speak up when Prime left and put Magnus in charge. Or when Magnus left and put Prowl in charge."
"Or why we on this ship, taking orders from ridiculous pink Decepticon helicopter?" Grimlock shrugged. "It take me three tries, and lots of Autobots hurt in process, but me learn. Me not boss material." Springer started to object, but Grimlock held up his hand. "No. Me not. Soldier? Yes. Commander on battlefield? Absolutely. Autobot leader? No. Me no have foresight for that. Or patience. Me sharp end of spear, not hand guiding it."
Grimlock jerked his thumb back at the departing Sentinel Prime. "Him no learn him limits. It cost him him life. It cost all Autobots dearly. Me no want to be another Sentinel Prime. So me step aside, make room for others who do job better." His optic band narrowed. "You no tell Prowl me said that."
"Wouldn't dream of
that," Springer told him, grinning. But he quickly grew more
somber. "But where does that leave me?"
"How me supposed to know? Me not live in your head." Grimlock sighed. "Sorry. That no help. You not me, Springer. You not Sentinel. You good leader. One of our best. But you not like what it doing to you. So you have to ask self, how me be best Springer me can be, but still look at self in mirror next morning?"
"That is the question, yeah," a pensive Springer agreed. "You got any ideas?"
Grimlock looked like he was about to shake his head 'no', but then he stopped short for a few seconds. Eventually he said, "You know...me think me do. You come with me to Dinobot lounge. Have drink from special Dinobot store of energon. We talk."
"You had me at 'special energon'," Springer said, his grin slowly coming back.
Deathsaurus felt like the answer was staring him in the face, if only he could see it. Over the last few hours Leozack's squad had visited nearly twenty different outposts and habitats. And while the Hub's military commander could see a pattern emerging, for the life of him he couldn't decypher what it was. The cleared space lanes, the evacuations, the observer satellites retasked, the engineering crews put to work on seemingly unrelated projects... He felt like there was one piece missing, just one, and that if he could but grasp it everything else would fall neatly into place.
Leozack was certain that Overlord was planning to invade the Hub with his own loyalists and overthrow the Maximo, but that made no sense on several levels. Firstly because Overlord had been here, several months ago, surrounded by his loyalists. A coup, if such there was, could have been done quietly then. Why leave only to come back and strike in force? Not only was it not Overlord's style, it simply didn't make any sense. Starting a civil war would have a far smaller chance of success than a palace coup.
But second and most important...Deathsaurus knew what only a handful of people in the Empire were privy to: that none of the Empire's soldiers were physically or psychologically capable of striking out at their master. Everyone from Overlord on down was programmed to lock up if they ever attempted it. Some of those who'd learned of the failsafe thought it to be merely a rumour, something meant to dissuade betrayal. They didn't think that such a thing was even possible. But Deathsaurus knew all too well that it was, because he'd seen it in action during the very first day of the Empire.
Even if Overlord's army had killed every single one of the other Cybertronians in the Hub, they would still be the Liege Maximo's slaves. Nothing they could do would change that.
Deathsaurus knew that Overlord would act if he could. Out of all of them, the first generation, his hatred for their master had always burned the brightest. The Maximo knew that, and Deathsaurus had always suspected that he'd chosen Overlord as he second entirely out of spite. What worse way to torture a person than to force them to wake up every day knowing that the one being they hated more than any other in the universe was responsible for making their greatest dreams come true...almost immediately after they'd come to terms with why those dreams had been so wrong to begin with?
Deathsaurus himself wasn't so sure about things. At first, he'd been quite unhappy to be pressed into the service of their self-styled god. But he'd been just as unhappy on Cybertron, if not more so. And the Liege Maximo, for all his many flaws, had provided his troops with a much more satisfying life than Straxus or any of the world's other petty warlords had ever had done. They'd left Cybertron to get away from the trivial, self-destructive squabbles that had robbed the Decepticon faction of their sense of unity after the death of Trannis and the end of the Decepticons' golden age. The Liege Maximo had given them a sense of purpose again, as self-serving as it had been for him to do so. And Deathsaurus had slowly grown to realize just how deep a debt he owed for that. Sure, he'd have been happier if the Decepticons were conquering the galaxy for themselves instead of doing it for a half-mile tall lunatic. But on the whole, his life with the Empire was a good one.
And besides, once the Maximo's long-prophesied "Alignment" came to pass he would cease to be a problem for anyone else on the mortal realm. One way or another. With the culmination of the massive engineering scheme so close, Deathsaurus was content to wait it out. But Overlord apparently was not.
In fact, Deathsaurus quickly realized, the nearness of the Alignment might be exactly why Overlord had started taking such grand risks. Whether the Liege Maximo's plan actually led him to ascend to the Astral Plane as a god or merely killed him, he would be gone and Overlord would never be able to get his long dreamed-of revenge. And although he'd thought his friend to be long-past such pettiness himself, perhaps Deathsaurus had simply given the other Decepticon too much credit.
What a disappointment that would be.
"As fascinating as it is to watch you brood," Lyzack cut in, "I'm afraid we're running short of time."
"That we are," Deathsaurus agreed. "That we are. Thoughts?"
"None that could possibly equal the foreboding ones you just broke out of." Realizing that her boss was in no mood for levity, Lyzack put on her serious face. "My brother has his conclusions, of course. But I suspect he started with the conclusions and worked backwards to find the proof, so that makes them suspect at best."
"Agreed," Deathsaurus replied with a soft rumble.
"So we should start from the basics," Lyzack said. "Five questions. Who? What? Where? When? Why? How many of those do we have answers to?"
"All the troop movements and switched-off observation posts tell us 'where' pretty easily," Deathsaurus said. "Or at least give us a good direction to start looking in. And the 'who' is obviously Colossus."
"So that leaves what, when and why," Lyzack prompted. "I think we can assume that 'when' is soon, or he wouldn't be acting so boldly."
"And even if it's not," Deathsaurus agreed, "we only have a few hours left before Blue Bacchus gets involved. So we'll assume that 'when' is right now. And the why..." He sighed. "The why is almost certainly Overlord's deep personal hatred of the Liege Maximo."
Lyzack was taken aback by that little reveal. "I didn't realize."
"How could you have?" Deathsaurus asked. "You're young and, honestly, you don't know him. I've been his friend since we left Cybertron and probably know him better than anyone else." He scoffed. "Obviously not well enough, though. I should have been able to see this coming and nip it in the bud."
Steering the conversation away from her boss's self-flagellation and back to the task at hand, Lyzack opined, "That only leaves what. Unfortunately, Leozack's information doesn't tell us much of anything that would be useful on that front."
"No, perhaps not," Deathsaurus agreed. "But he doesn't have to. He's stirred up enough trouble out there to make them think we know what's going on. So if we want a reaction, all we need to do is show up and kick the hornet's nest."
Lyzack smiled, understanding exactly what her boss was thinking. "I'll call Ops. It'll take ten minutes or so to get Metrotitan transformed to mobile battlestation mode."
"Good," Deathsaurus told her. "I want us moving in fifteen."
It had taken him the better part of the day, but Spinister had tracked down and spoken to every single Decepticon under his command. Be they members of his Mayhem Attack Squad, potential recruits for same or the other remaining loyalists, and even the full number of traitors currently under lock and key in the brig. Hell, he'd even managed to track down Sixshot, which was no mean feat most days. They'd given him a world's worth of things to think about, but there was still one perspective that Spinister felt was lacking.
"I don't understand why you're asking me for advice," Carnivac growled as he padded along the engine nacelle catwalk in his beast mode. "I'm not one of your troops, and we're hardly friends. In fact, I killed you once."
Spinister hated to be reminded of that. But his predecessor as Mayhem Attack Squad leader knew that, most likely, and was prodding him for an emotional reaction.
If that's what he wants, he's going to be sorely disappointed.
"You wear the badge," Spinister told him bluntly.
"I work for the Autobots," Carnivac reminded him. "Hell, I'm a Wrecker now!"
"That is a distinction without a difference. We're on the same side. And directly or not, you and every other Transformer on this ship are 'my troops'." He crossed his arms. "The only difference is that you realized how pointless our previous war was several years before the rest of us."
"Do you really believe that?" Carnivac laughed. "Or are you just trying to butter me up with what you think I want to hear? Because from what I remember, you were pretty damn dedicated to our 'pointless' previous war when you were leading the Mayhems and hunting me and my friends down on Earth."
"That was before," Spinister told him. "Before Thunderwing. Before the Matrix. Before Unicron and Jhiaxus and Overlord made it abundantly clear that the universe was bigger than our petty blood feud, and that it wasn't going to sit around waiting for us to settle it. If the Autobots and Decepticons allow our differences to divide us, no one will survive the threats we now face."
"Well, if you understand all of that, why are you wasting my time?" Carnivac stopped dead for a moment, then leaped forward and landed jaws-first on a turborat that had stuck its head out from a power conduit. He crushed the creature's neck with a single bite before reverting to robot mode. "Disgusting creatures. The ship was just crawling with them when we took it. Though I've made a good dent in the population now."
"I'm 'wasting' your time, Carnivac, because there's a difference between understanding a concept and applying it." He turned to the other Decepticon and looked him in the eyes for the first time. "I agree that we have to stand as one against external threats. But are the traitors a part of that 'we' anymore? Or are they the threat? A drag on our collective resources like the vermin you so casually snuff out?"
Carnivac sighed. "At the risk of being absolutely no help at all, Spinister...right now, they could be either. And the biggest factor in what they become – and what others with the same opinions as them become in the future – is you. How you decide to deal with them is going to set a major precedent. I can't tell you what the best choice is, but I can tell you this."
Carnivac returned to beast mode. "In spite of all that's passed between the two of us, I can't think of a single Decepticon that I'd trust more to make the decision. Unlike most of the rest of them – the rest of us – you at least seem to learn from your mistakes."
The Wrecker darted off at a four-legged sprint before Spinister had time to process what he'd said.
The Decepticon leader only had enough time to sigh, though, before his comm started buzzing.
"Sorry boss," Needlenose's voice cut in. "I know you're busy, but there's something you need to hear. Can you come up to the bridge?"
"Actually, Needlenose, I think I've finished what I was doing." Spinister set his shoulders and walked towards the nearest lift. "I'll be there in five."
Springer had sort of expected one of Grimlock's Dinobots to stay behind to sell him on their boss's ideas. He hadn't, however, expected to be Snarl.
"I thought you were supposed to be the surly one," Springer said half-seriously.
"I am." Snarl looked like he would have rather been anywhere but there, but he persisted. "Slag might have given me some competition for the title, but he's dead. Probably why the two of us got along so well."
"Yeah, I could see that," Springer said. He was really doing his best not to engage, because he really needed time to think things over.
Snarl, however, was either blind to that or just didn't care. "Slag was probably the best friend I ever had. But you think I ever told him that?" He shrugged. "Too late now."
The Dinobot gestured to the porthole at the side of the room, a view that showed the distant, but still too close for comfort, Hub system. "With what we're about to jump into, pretty soon it might be too late for all of us. Now, what the boss was trying to sell you on...I don't care about any of that. Maybe it's a good idea. Maybe not. But you've obviously got stuff that needs settling. So get off your butt and go settle it before we all maybe get ourselves killed."
Snarl walked out of the door without waiting for a response. Springer wasn't sure he'd have been able to give one if the Dinobot had stayed.
"I don't understand," Drillhorn grumbled to Leozack, "why you have us spending time on this. Deathsaurus is on his way. Our job is done."
"Your job isn't done until I say it is!" Leozack barked back, a bit more aggressive than he'd have liked to come across.
You won't get them to listen by sounding like you're losing control, he admonished himself. Calm, cold, dangerous. That's how you need to be.
Deathcobra, as always, was there to cover for him. "Anything extra we can dig up before the commander gets here," he told Drillhorn, "will be very useful. Keep at it."
Then, addressing his squad leader quietly, Deathcobra added, "I have to admit, I don't understand it either."
"Deathsaurus doesn't believe our conclusion—"
"Your conclusion," Deathcobra reminded him.
"Fine. He doesn't believe my conclusion that we're about to be invaded. We know that this abandoned sensor array wasn't as badly damaged as the others that Colossus has evacuated. The crew wasn't as thorough in disabling it. If we can get it back online, we'll be able to see everything in the area that the traitor is trying to hide. We'll be able to prove what's there once and for all. That's why I called all of you in."
"Ah. So if there is an invasion, our squad takes the credit for discovering it."
"Exactly." Leozack shrugged. "And if there's not, we're still going above and beyond our duties in service of the Empire. Either way, we'll improve the unit's reputation." he raised his voice. "That is, if you fools ever get it working!"
"Actually, boss," Hellbat responded smugly, "it came online as you were ranting. There's not much to see there, though. Just a single ship. One of our own."
"Show me," Leozack demanded irritably.
Jalguar, manning the main console, brought the results of the scan up on-screen.
"A single heavy carrier. She's running silent, with all her external running lights disabled as well. The outer hull shows some signs of recent battle damage, hastily repaired. But I can still make out her hull markings. She's the Armada."
"Look her up on the registry," Leozack prompted, growing even more impatient due to the fact he had to ask for that.
"Hmmm..." Jalguar frowned. "She's a part of the 14th Sector Group."
"The 14th?" Deathcobra frowned. "Isn't that the one nearest Cybertron? The one fighting the throwbacks?"
"Yes," Hellbat interjected. "But more importantly, it's the one commanded by Clench." When his squadmates responded to his revelation with blank stares, he sighed and reminded them, "Colossus's brother." More blank stares. "There were a ton of rumours swirling at the time about how he only got the job due to his connections. Am I the only one who pays attention to those things?"
"Yes," Leozack told him. "But that's useful information. With Colossus and the ship both here, it's obvious that Clench got his promotion by promising to support Overlord's coup when the time came. They're the vanguard of an invasion force. Jalguar, transfer recordings of all of this to a datacard. Hellbat, prep the shuttle. We're going to rendezvous with Metrotitan. I want to show this to Deathsaurus in person."
So that I can see the look on my ignorant sister's face when she realizes that I, not she, was right all along.
"What am I looking at?" Spinister glanced down at the strange, coded message on the Armada's communications console.
"That's what I wondered at first too," Needlenose admitted. "So I had Cosmos take a look, but he wasn't sure what to make of it either. So he called Ironworks up, and..." He gestured to the Micromaster.
"It's a one-time pad." Ironworks said, carefully working the console that was at least three sizes too big for him. "I ran it against the bank of codes that Colossus gave us when he surrendered, and got a match. Let me run the filter."
After a few seconds' work, the screen full of gibberish translated into recognizable Cybertronian text.
THEY KNOW YOU'RE HERE. WHATEVER YOU'RE GOING TO DO, DO IT SOON.
"That's ominous," Spinister opined.
"Very," Ironworks agreed. "Considering it came across using one of our guest's codes, I'm hoping it was meant for him, not us." After a moment's hesitation, he added, "Have you talked to him yet?"
"No," Spinister admitted. "But he's my next stop. When did the signal first come in?"
"It seems to be broadcasting on a low-level, sweeping beacon," Ironworks told him. "The transmission has swept across the Armada twice now. The first time was about nine hours ago. But it wasn't strong enough or coherent enough to trigger the ship's recognition protocols, and there was no one manning the comms station to pick it out manually. The second time was about an hour and a half ago. Groundshaker happened to be walking by as it happened and brought it to Needlenose's attention."
"Nine hours," Spinister rumbled. "And we don't know how long the beacon was running before the first time it swept us. The warning is probably half a day stale. Maybe more." He tore a printout of the terse message from the communications station's output slot as he headed for the lift. He called behind himself, "Both of you, come with me. It's time we got some answers out of this 'Colossus'."
Carnivac loped into the Wreckers' private wardroom. His purple, lupine form moved almost silently even though he was actually doing his best not to sneak in. He found Broadside, Whirl, Hot Rod and Splashdown already in the room, waiting with varying degrees of impatience.
"So...none of you know what this is about either?"
"Not a clue," Hot Rod told him. The others made it clear with nods or other gestures that the youngster spoke for all of them. "But the boss sounded pretty wound-up."
"More so than usual," Splashdown agreed.
"Well, he was beating himself up earlier," Broadside interjected. "More than usual, I mean." He glanced at Whirl. "I'm told that you had something to do with that."
The gangly cyclops of an Autobot shrugged shamelessly. "I told him the truth. It's not my fault that he couldn't handle it."
Springer, naturally, chose exactly that moment to join them. The green, grey and yellow Autobot was carrying an arm-length grey spear in one hand. Carnivac had never seen it before, but he had a good idea where it came from. "I handled it just fine, thank you."
The room suddenly got so quiet you could hear a pin drop.
Springer walked up to the head of the room's big table, but didn't sit down. He gestured with the spear he was carrying, pointing at each of his fellow Wreckers in turn.
"I was wrong," he told them without preface. "Prowl, Magnus and even Optimus himself all asked me to rebuild the Wreckers. I knew that it would end badly. That I wasn't cut out for this life anymore. That the Wreckers were a ghost of times gone by. Best left to memory. But I let them convince me, because I wanted to believe that...I don't know. That I could make amends for my failures in the past by making this crew into better Wreckers than the original ever were. Maybe that I could prove to myself that it wasn't my fault by bringing my team back alive this time." He glanced at the empty chair in between Splashdown and Broadside, the chair that should have belonged to Skids. "I was wrong."
"Whoa, whoa, boss," Hot Rod interjected. "Don't beat yourself up! It wasn't your fault." The young Autobot's face momentarily twisted with pain as he added, "If anyone is to blame for Skids dying, it's me."
"No," Springer told him. "Your plan was the only plan we had, and the Seacons were able to beat Tidal Wave at least partly because of the crippling damage you two did to him. It was a dangerous plan, but Skids knew the risks. No, his death is my fault. He wasn't Wrecker material and I knew it. But he was my friend, and I couldn't bear to cut him loose. So I put him in harm's way, and what happened...happened.
"I'll regret putting him in that position until the day I die, but we saved a lot of innocent lives that day. And I know Skids would have gladly traded his life for theirs without hesitation if he'd been given the choice.
"And that's why I was wrong. Because when our leaders asked for my help, I didn't think about the good this team could do. I didn't think about the people we could help. All I thought about was myself, and the effect it would have on me." He looked Whirl squarely in the optic.
"How dare you?" the cyclopean Autobot snapped. "After what I told you—"
you told me changes nothing!"
Springer brought the tip of the spear down on the table hard enough
to embed it in the durasteel. It continued standing on its own once
he released it. "I'm sorry for what you went through after
Volcano, Whirl, but get the hell over it. While you were
convalescing in a nice hospital, Broadside, Carnivac and I were
watching the only friends we had in the whole world getting torn
apart. We fought as hard as we could and we were helpless to do
anything about it. Do you think we're any less broken on the inside
than you? Hell no! But at least
we didn't have to be forced
to get off our skidplates and get back to protecting innocents. And
what about these two?"
Springer gestured towards the only Pretender shell in the room. "Do you think you're the only one who took a step down in rank to be here? Splashdown here was in command of Cybertron's entire naval defense force! But when he heard that the Wreckers were looking, he came to me and begged to be a part of the team. He willingly went from commanding hundreds of Autobots across dozens of locations to being just one part of a team, because he knew in his core that he could do more good here than he could pushing paper. And Splashdown isn't even really here right now. He's still locked inside one of Trypticon's repair bays getting his guts put back inside him after what happened to him yesterday, and still he finds a way to answer the call.
"And then there's Hot Rod." Springer nodded towards the team's youngest member. "He's barely an infant by our people's standards. He's known nothing but war and destruction his whole life. After Klo he could have wandered off to seek out peace like so many others, a peace that he's never known and that he rightfully deserves. But no. He devoted himself to protecting others because he knows, unlike some people in this room, what this —" Springer thumped his fist against the Autobrand on his chest, "— stands for. He's one of the bravest Autobots I know, and no matter how bad things get for the Wreckers I know he'll always have my back. I wasn't sure about it when Optimus suggested him, but I completely understand it now. He belongs at this table."
"That...that means a lot coming from you, boss," Hot Rod said. "Thanks."
"Oh, get off it!" Whirl shouted. "Is this supposed to impress me? Big, authoritative Springer, shouting praise at everyone else to beat down the one who's out of line?" He grabbed a paperweight in one claw and tossed it at the spear embedded in the head of the table. "He did it better, Springer. He did it a whole hell of a lot better."
"That's off-side, Whirl," Broadside spoke up. "Springer's not perfect. And Primus knows he's not easy to live with sometimes. But he's every bit the leader that Impactor was."
"Impactor wouldn't have—"
"Yes he would!" Springer slapped the flat of his hand against the dead leader's harpoon. "Impactor would have dragged you back without asking and he wouldn't have even felt bad about it! Me? I feel awful. And if you'd told me the real reason why you didn't want to come when I first came to you, as a friend, to ask, I probably would have dropped it then and there." He set his jaw. "And I would have been wrong about that too."
"What?" Whirl seemed to be on the verge of apoplexy. "How could you say that?"
"How many people did we save on Pequod, Whirl?" Springer asked. "How many lives? And how many more would have died if I'd had someone less-experienced in your place? Someone like Skyhammer or Crossblades or Powerglide or Rotorstorm? Someone who wouldn't have been able to take command of the situation when I went down and Splashdown was busy searching for the Seacons?"
"I don't know—" Whirl tried to answer, but Springer cut him off.
"It doesn't matter!" Springer told him. "As a person? I hate myself for having brought you back into this life. I may never forgive myself. But as an Autobot? All our lives were forfeit the moment we put on the badge. No matter the cost. All of our lives. Your sanity. My soul. At the end of the day, it's a small price to pay for the lives we save in the process. The Whirl I used to know believed that. If the Whirl I'm looking at now doesn't? He knows where the door is."
Lyzack looked at her brother with patent disbelief. "The presence of one of our own ships absolutely does not prove we're under attack. You're being ridiculous."
"And you're being stubborn!" Leozack retorted. "Just because I'm the one bringing you the information. Look me in the eyes and tell me that you wouldn't at least consider it if it was...oh, Hailstorm or Sunspot or Payload reporting it instead."
"If it was any of them," Lyzack retorted, "they'd have more than just a grainy photo and a hunch!"
"It's not a 'hunch', you pompous little—"
"Enough!" Deathsaurus cut them off. "You two are supposed to be my most valuable lieutenants," he reminded them. "Lyzack, my faithful right hand, and Leozack, my relentless hunter in the dark. I say 'supposed to' because right now both of you are proving to be not even a fraction as reliable as I believed you to be. You both know what this is about. It's not an exaggeration to say that the fate of the Empire literally hangs on our next actions. We could wind up in a civil war, or worse. The lives of millions of Cybertronians could be at risk...but all either of you care about is scoring points on each other in your never-ending, pathetic little sibling rivalry. I'm ashamed of both of you."
Leozack looked like he was seething with barely constrained rage. Lyzack at least had the decency to pretend she was contrite. Deathsaurus didn't particularly care how either of them felt at the moment.
"I can say with absolute certainty," he said, his eyes on Leozack, "that Overlord is not about to lead an invasion. I've known him for countless millennia. That's not his style. However," he glared at Lyzack, "that does not mean that the presence of one of his ships in the system is at all innocent."
The Decepticon leader got up from his desk and went to stand at his window. The view had changed quite a bit since he'd stood there last. What once was a placid view of the Hub from Metrotitan's usual parking spot on one of the array's outer spokes, now showed only the blackness of space, broken up occasionally by the light of distant stars or the flares of a ship's drive core. The drastic change in perspective, he realized, was only a reflection of how drastically his own life had changed over the last twenty-four hours...or the last six months, for that matter.
"Alter our course," he told the squabbling siblings. "I want to intercept that carrier. If Colossus is aboard he can answer to me...personally."
Spinister wasn't one to mince words or waste time. Ironworks had to give him that. The tiny Autobot wasn't sure he liked working for him, but he had to admit that the Decepticon's directness had earned his grudging respect. And in a situation like this, directness was exactly what they needed.
The three of them had
walked into the cell that Colossus had been detained in. It was
larger and less stark than the ones he'd given to the traitors, or to
the numerous other Imperials who'd been captured during the fighting
around Cameron a month ago. That only made sense, since Colossus had
given himself and his men over to the Armada's crew willingly.
But it was also probably an attempt to make the big Decepticon fell
well-disposed to his captors. It wasn't very subtle, but then again
neither was any of this.
Needlenose walked forward and handed the printout that they'd made of the incoming message to the Imperial. Colossus read it quickly. In spite of not having any real facial features, he somehow still managed to look spooked.
"This is bad," he told Spinister. "Not unexpected, but bad. How long ago did you receive it?"
"We estimate it's been broadcasting for twelve hours," Spinister told him. "We only just decrypted it using one of the many one-time pads that were confiscated when you came aboard."
"That's exceptionally bad," Colossus amended flatly. "They'll be on us soon. Maybe within the hour. You need to make a decision right now. Do you trust me and go forward with the attack? Or do you decide that I'm your enemy, and call it off?"
"That was never in question," Spinister told him. "The attack goes forward. The Hub will fall and your Liege Maximo will burn in a sea of nuclear fire."
Although Colossus seemed more than a little horrified by the other Decepticon's heresy, he nodded. "Good. I have an entire network of Overlord loyalists in-system who can make your job a lot easier. But I'm not going to be here to help."
Needlenose stepped forward, arms crossed. "And just where do you think you're going?"
"The message didn't say who was coming," Colossus told them. "But there's only three possibilities. If Intelligence was coming for us, no one would know. If the Cobalt Sentries were coming for us, there wouldn't be anyone left intact to warn us. That means it's the military. And if they are coming, that means acting Liege Deathsaurus will be in command." Colossus narrowed his optics. "And while helping you out has been a bonus, the real reason why Overlord sent me back to the Hub was to make sure that Deathsaurus left here. Unless we can get him and his Metrotitan out of the picture, you'll never even get close to the Hub. So I'm going to convince him that he needs to go back with me to Cybertron, now. To confront Overlord."
"And how are you gonna do that?" Needlenose demanded.
"And what's a 'Metrotitan'?" Ironworks didn't even realize he'd spoken for a few moments' time.
"Metrotitan is..." Colossus gave the impression of a frown. "A city-ship, I suppose. But it's also a Transformer, a living Cybertronian whose mind was excised so that its body could be grown into a massive battle platform." He gave a small shrug. "And as for how I'm going to get it – and Deathsaurus – out of here? I'm going to tell them the truth. Or enough of it, at least. The commander's own reactions will take it from there."
Before any of the interrogation party could speak up, the room's intercom squawked. "Boss, this is Seawing. We've got a situation."
Spinister seemed to consider walking out for a moment, before dismissing the idea. "Speak."
"A ship is approaching. A big one. Warworld-sized, or thereabouts."
The commander skewered Colossus with an accusing look. "Your 'Metrotitan'?"
"Most likely," the Imperial agreed. "If your plan is to succeed, you need to trust me now. We'll need to head up to your bridge immediately to head this off."
If Spinister even had to think about it, it didn't show. He immediately nodded. "Very well."
Ironworks was surprised by how agreeable the Decepticon was, but he supposed he shouldn't have been. The gears had been turning in the captain's head since they'd left the bridge. Ironworks suspected that his commander had decided what to do about all of this before the conversation had even begun.
"And one more thing," Colossus told them. "I'll have to leave with Deathsaurus, and I'll need to leave someone in command of my troops when I'm gone. Our intel suggests that you may have captured one called Calcar?"
"And what if we did?" Needlenose demanded.
"Bring him with us, please," Colossus insisted. "I'll have specific orders for him, from Overlord himself. After he sees them, he'll do anything you tell him to."
"That's awfully convenient," Needlenose remarked.
"I came prepared," Colossus retorted. "Now are we going to go, or are we going to keep burning valuable time?"
Sitting behind his desk with his fingers steepled, Black Shadow watched the stream that his heavily-cloaked minion Sonar was transmitting. The tiny Decepticon had followed invisibly along in Metrotitan's drive wake, reporting all he saw back to his master.
On one side of the split screen, Deathsaurus leaned forward in his chair. "Explain yourself," he commanded without preamble.
If Black Shadow hadn't known better, he would have believed that Colossus was genuinely happy to see the military commander. While the mask-faced Decepticon wasn't capable of smiling, if he'd had a mouth it would have been split open in a wide grin.
"You're exactly who I was hoping to see!" Colossus got up from his own chair, a bundle of nervous energy. "I need you to come with me right now! Overlord is...he's planning to do something horrible, sir, and I couldn't talk him out of it. I couldn't do anything to stop it. By you, you of all people...maybe you could."
Whatever Deathsaurus had been expecting, clearly it wasn't that. "What in the world are you talking about?"
"Overlord's conquered Cybertron," Colossus responded.
"I know that," Deathsaurus told him. "Against orders and all logic. If that's all you—"
"He took the Autarch prototype," Colossus cut him off. "And he's put the captured throwbacks to work finishing the subspace lensing systems. You know what that means. You know how he feels about the Liege Maximo, and you know that he'll be able to find at least one throwback willing to pull the trigger."
Deathsaurus was aghast. "That would destroy both Cybertron and the Hub. He couldn't possibly—"
"Then why take the ship?" Colossus asked. "It only has one possible use. If he finishes it – if he fires it – we're all dead. Our entire species will be practically extinct. The colonies would survive, short term, but without any organization, any leadership..."
"Our position in the galaxy would become extremely perilous. Between the Urtuskians, the Quintessons, the Vrobians...even Nebulos would become a threat." Deathsaurus scowled. "This is madness and he must be stopped."
"I cannot disagree," Colossus acknowledged. "But nor can I stop him. But you, perhaps..."
"The days of Overlord listening to my advice are, sadly, long past," Deathsaurus said with a shake of his head.
"I wasn't necessarily implying that you would be able to convince him," Colossus clarified. "But that you could stop him, nonetheless. By force, if it came to that. I suspect that your actions are not as...inhibited as mine are. And you do have Metrotitan."
"Yes, of course." Deathsaurus sighed. "It was always going to end like this, wasn't it?"
"Overlord never got over being made to serve the Liege Maximo," Colossus said by way of reply. "He never grew to appreciate what being a lord of the empire could do for him, the way yourself or my sire did."
"I suppose it's too much to hope that he start now." Deathsaurus scowled. "Very well. I'll speak with the Maximo, then head to Cybertron to stop him."
"You may not have the luxury of time," Colossus warned. "The weapon was nearly completed when I left. I should come aboard and take you to Overlord immediately. My crew can relay any message you'd care to leave."
Black Shadow leaned back in his chair, feeling a growing sense of professional admiration as he watched Colossus at work. He obviously had very good reason to want Deathsaurus out of the picture, and he was doing a fantastic job of talking the military commander into abandoning his post in much the same way that Overlord had. And in Black Shadow's professional opinion, it looked like he was succeeding.
Of course he is, Black Shadow thought proudly. That's what the point of this whole charade had been since word one. From long before he'd passed word to Deathsaurus about Colossus's return, his field agents had worked extremely hard putting together the pieces of the puzzle. He'd known what Overlord was up to, more or less, for weeks now. He'd known about the invasion of Cybertron, the Autarch and the mysterious starship hanging out on the fringes of the system, just like he knew exactly who that ship's "crew" really was.
And just like he knew what Colossus's true mission was.
Muting the audio feed, Black Shadow reflected on just how aghast he'd been when he'd realized that Colossus had arrived in-system to supervise the final construction on a massive subspace beacon. When activated, not only would the beacon tell everyone within ten thousand light years that there was something of value at the Hub's closely-guarded location, but it would serve as a perfect aiming aid for the ruinous hyperspace cannon that Overlord's stolen flagship was equipped with. Once it was active, Overlord merely needed to aim his ship in the right direction. He'd be able to destroy the Hub (and most of the surrounding solar system) all-but-instantaneously.
But that wasn't Colossus's real mission. No, the actual reason why the high-and-mighty Overlord had risked his top aide on a journey like this was much simpler – to tell Deathsaurus whatever was necessary to ensure his old friend was far away from the Hub when it was destroyed.
Overlord had always planned to use the throwbacks as an indirect weapon against the Maximo, as a patsy to pull the trigger on his world-destroying weapon. Because of the mental blocks that would stop him from attacking — even from so great a distance — his lord and master, he needed the willing cooperation of someone not so afflicted. The appearance of a ship full of them in Hub orbit had never been a part of the plan, Black Shadow surmised, but Colossus was nothing if not adaptable. The odds of them actually being able to kill the Maximo were close to nil, but if it could work, well...it would certainly be a better way of achieving the goal than what amounted to species-level mass suicide.
As the Empire's top spy it really behooved Black Shadow to put a stop to all of their plots...but he wouldn't. No, Black Shadow knew an opportunity when he saw one, and he knew when the universe was maneuvering itself to his benefit. Literally everything had fallen into place for him. He had every confidence in Deathsaurus's ability to stop Overlord, and nearly as much confidence that they'd manage to take each other off of the board permanently in the process. And while the throwbacks' odds of success were minimal, they would rise quite a bit once the officer in charge of Homeland Security was no longer around to secure the homeland. Especially with the Obsidian Guard secretly greasing the gears for them and fending off any inquiries from the Cobalt Sentries. Hence the warning he'd beamed to their ship, using codes gathered from interrogating a captured member of Overlord's inner circle.
Because once Overlord and Deathsaurus were dead, once the throwbacks had done what no one else could do and slain the Liege Maximo, there would be an unheard of vacuum at the top of the Empire. They would need a new leader, one who was committed to using the Empire's resources to create a military and political force, not squandering it on giant wagon wheels in the middle nowhere and colonies on useless worlds that were only chosen due to some ridiculous, esoteric stellar chart. And if Black Shadow could actually engineer the downfall of everyone ahead of him in the line of succession, well...if he could actually do that, then the last step would be child's play. Not even Blue Bacchus would dare to stand against him then.
By the time that Metrotitan roared into hyperspace with a shuttle from the Armada still settling into its hangar, Black Shadow was already busily fantasizing about the first orders he would give after he assumed command of his empire.
It was time.
Spinister stood at the entrance to the hangar bay, his fingers hovering over the "open" button as he tried to prepare himself for what he was about to see. For what needed to happen.
Fifty-nine people. Fifty-nine Decepticons. Fifty-nine once loyal soldiers who'd been led astray by a pack of selfish, insidious traitors.
Well, fifty-eight once-loyal soldiers plus Fangry, but Spinister didn't like to split hairs.
Fifty-nine targets that could draw Imperial fire, if you were willing to be ruthless about it. Which, as a rule, he was. And fifty-nine troops that he couldn't afford to lose. Their expedition had set out from Cybertron with over three hundred and fifty Autobots and Decepticons. But they'd lost fifty-two battling in the Cameron system, and thirty-one more during the Insecticons' diabolical rebellion. With nearly forty others in various states of disrepair and no time to fix most of them, the fifty-nine traitors that he'd lined up against the wall represented more than one quarter of the crew they had left. He couldn't afford to lose any of them.
They'd been marched out for execution anyway.
Spinister collected his nerves, straightened his back and pressed the button.
Each of the fifty-nine traitors were secured in place, their arms bound behind their backs by mode-lock cuffs that were magnetically sealed and chained to the wall behind them. Across the hangar, five ranks of eleven Decepticons each stood at something approximating attention, staring at the assembled prisoners. Trypticon stood at one end of the formation, his posture slightly slouched by necessity even in the massive docking bay.
A massive lupine form patrolled the space between the loyal troops and the renegades. In his bestial configuration, Sixshot was somehow even more intimidating than he managed to be as a robot. His eyes saw everyone and everything, and none thought that he would hesitate to sink his fangs into any prisoners who tried to escape...or into any soldiers who tried to take matters into their own hands.
And if they weren't intimidating enough, the four hulking figures in grey, gold and red who guarded the hangar's only exit certainly were. The scowls in their faces seemingly carved in stone, the Dinobots provided not only an additional layer of security, but some transparency as well. So shortly after the Decepticon-led mutiny, the Autobots had been more than a little suspicious of the prospect of a massive Decepticons-only rally. They had demanded the ceremony be open to all, while traditionalists among the Decepticons had insisted that it was an internal matter and none of their business. But in the Autobots' opinion, the fact that nearly a dozen of their own had died in the fiasco had unfortunately made it their business. Spinister understood that and agreed with it. But at the same time, he knew that most of them didn't agree with Decepticon disciplinary customs. And the last thing he needed was for the room to be filled with dozens of outsiders willing to throw a fit because they don't like what was going on. So they compromised, inviting the four Dinobots to observe secure in the knowledge that they wouldn't be disturbed by the rough justice that was about to be meted out.
Spinister strode to the center of the hangar, but he wasn't alone. Standing behind him and to his left was the Seacon Tentakil, a charming but cruel killer whose presence made what was going to happen next perfectly clear.
"I won't waste your time with formalities or small talk," the Decepticon commander said bluntly. "All fifty-nine of you are guilty of mutiny and treason. The only possible punishment for those crimes is death."
This brought out the expected objections.
"I didn't do anything!" Brimstone crowed.
"But...but I joined you!" Triggerhappy mewled.
"I was in space, how could I have had anything to do with it?" Astrotrain interjected angrily.
Others spoke up as well. Spinister heard what they had to say, but didn't let it effect him. "The entire ship is filled with cameras," he told them bluntly. "Just because we don't monitor them constantly doesn't mean we can't consult them when we know something's gone wrong. Which is how we know that you, Brimstone, shot Sonic, Razorwing and Deep Dive in the back while guarding the armory. It's how we know that Triggerhappy participated in recruiting five of Scorponok's former soldiers into the conspiracy, along with the tremendously unsuccessful attempt to press-ganging Squeezeplay. It's how we know Astrotrain deliberately altered his flight profile so that the Imperials' sensors would detect us, that Wakefire and Stripmine sabotaged the security office, that Underhook manually cleared an Imperial shuttle for docking or that Fangry tried to eat Compression and Armorhide."
He shook his head, once, curtly. "I am very disappointed in all of you."
"Oh, just get on with it!" Beastbox yelled. "We're big meanies and you're going to shoot us. We get it. We don't need the preaching!"
"Don't be so obtuse, old friend," Squawktalk interjected. "Were he to execute us, he would have assembled a firing squad and been done with it. Clearly all of these theatrics indicate that he's going to offer us a deal." The avian, whose body was contorted uncomfortably by the mode-lock cuffs he wore, gave Spinister a coy look. "So what is it, then? Our lives in exchange for our loyalty?"
"No. You'll all die." Spinister's blunt declaration brought a chill to the room.
"Then why go to all this trouble?" Squawktalk demanded. "Time is expensive. Bullets are cheap."
"Your crime carries a death sentence," Spinister reiterated. "I can't change that, even if I wanted to. But as the officer in charge, I do have some latitude on the method of execution. I could end you all here and now...or I could give you a death that means something. A last chance to die bringing honour to the badges you wear, instead of shame."
"A suicide mission?" Thrust's voice quavered as he asked the question.
"Quite likely, yes."
"And if survive we do?" Weirdwolf demanded. "Our lives will that buy?"
"That's not for me to say," Spinister answered with brutal honesty. "If you acquit yourselves well, I would consider the debt settled. But I don't have the final say, and I cannot speak for Megatron. You know as well as I that your past allegiances were enough for him to consider you all possible traitors. Now that you have proven it..." He shook his head. "It would be better if you did not come back."
"This is garbage!" Fangry barked. "You're saying we've got a choice between you killing us, dying to help you, or surviving only for Megs to finish the job! I don't want any of that!" He started to pull on his chains, trying to rip them free of the wall – and disconnect the cuffs from their power source in the process. Of course, he had zero success. "I say we go for option #4 and eat you alive!"
"You are, of course, welcome to try," Spinister shrugged. "But I wouldn't recommend it. I'm offering you a chance—"
"A chance to throw our lives away for the Autobot filth who've somehow wormed their way into Megatron's head?" Roadgrabber challenged him. "Like hell. I'd rather die for nothing than live for that. And you know what? I wouldn't be dying for nothing! I'm a Decepticon, dammit! Conquering the galaxy is our divine right. We should be joining the Empire, not fighting it. At least they remember what our badge means."
"What does our badge mean, Roadgrabber?" Spinister speared the captive with a glare. "Conquest? When it serves the greater good of Cybertron, yes. Obviously our needs come before the welfare of the lesser races of the galaxy. But we shouldn't be steamrolling them just because we can. And we certainly shouldn't be doing it in the name of some self-declared "god". That's exactly what the Decepticons were formed to put an end to."
Roadgrabber snorted in contempt. "Yeah, right."
"I'm serious," Spinister said emphatically. "You weren't there, of course. In the first days of the war, I mean. Neither was I. All we've ever known is the war. It's easy to forget that the Great War was only ever supposed to be a means to an end. It's easy to forget why it started in the first place. Our ancestors weren't trying to enrich themselves or to gather power at the expense of their fellows – they were trying to bring down the ones who were already doing that. They took up arms because that was the only way they could break free from the yoke that the elites in Iacon had placed on them."
"You're living in a dream world!" Roadgrabber spat. "That might be what the propaganda tracts and recruitment papers said, but it was never about anything but Megatron and his lust for power! Well the Liege Maximo has the power now, and we should fall in line!"
"An interesting perspective," Spinister acknowledged, "but a flawed one. The Maximo might have power, but the foundations of that power are just as tainted as the old senate's. The first Decepticons threw their lot in with Megatron because they were tired of being treated like disposable cogs in a giant industrial machine. The Liege Maximo and his army of brainwashed slaves are anathema to the Decepticon cause. The fact that they parade around wearing this badge – our badge – is the greatest insult imaginable. Make no mistake, Roadgrabber – the Maximo and his empire are the natural enemy of all true Decepticons."
"Talking to you is a waste of breath," Roadgrabber said, shaking his head dismissively. "You're a fanatic. Leaders like you are going to get us all killed!"
"Perhaps. But at least we'll die standing up for what we believe in. Which is exactly what you're going to do. Only you'll be doing it sooner." Spinister nodded fractionally. "He's made his choice."
On cue, Tentakil sprung forward from his place at Spinister's side. Converting to beast mode, he launched into the air and wrapped his eight appendages around the bound Roadgrabber. The octopus monster tightened his embrace, his tentacles drawing close around his victim's torso and head. Muffled screams were audible for a few moments, but they cut out as the young Decepticon's voicebox was crushed.
Several long, uncomfortable minutes passed with no words spoken. No sounds were uttered other than the occasional creak or crack as Roadgrabber's body was compressed into a twisted, crushed mess. Spinister hated what was happening, but he refused to take his eyes off of the grisly scene. The other Decepticons did the same, he noticed, as if drawn in by a trance. Even Fangry had stopped struggling and cursing.
This needed to happen, the Targetmaster told himself. One of them needed to die so that the others would see how serious their situation was.
In a moment of black humour, though, he had to admit he was surprised that it hadn't been Fangry getting crushed to death.
Once Tentakil had disentangled himself from Roadgrabber's ruined corpse, he stepped back and transformed to robot mode. Although the Seacon was dripping with energon, oil and hydraulic fluid, he didn't seem to either notice or care.
Spinister let the horrible scene sink in for a moment more, then raised his voice and spoke up. "I know there are those among you who are thinking this is tyrannical or unfair. You're not wrong. What we just watched was terrible. But what these fifty-nine – fifty-eight, now – have done is equally terrible. They turned on their fellow Decepticons. And though most of you probably don't care much about this, they betrayed our Autobot allies as well. Good, loyal soldiers died because of them – our comrades and friends. Most Decepticon commanders – including the ones that their now-dead ringleaders were trying to get them to join – would have simply shot them and gone about their day. I'm at least giving them a chance, which is more than they had an hour ago."
He looked back at the fifty-eight remaining prisoners, and said, "As I was trying to say before I was so rudely interrupted, Megatron will have you killed if you survive the battle. So for your own sakes, I strongly suggest you do not. Am I making myself clear?"
"You are implying we should fake our deaths?" Squawktalk asked.
"Perish the thought," Spinister told him dryly. "But if you choose to take advantage of the chaos after your objectives have been completed, I will be in no position to stop you. Regardless, tomorrow the rest of us launch our attack on the Hub. At the risk of being trite, you can join us or die. What do you choose?"
"It's no choice at all!" Underhook crowed. "Die today or die tomorrow?"
"A choice it is," Weirdwolf contradicted him. "For certain die today, or tomorrow die maybe. Maybe, better than certain is."
"Yeah," a sullen-looking Thrust said. The seeker's eyes were downcast, as they had been for the whole proceedings thus far. "Living always beats dying."
Murmurs of agreement spread throughout the crowd of prisoners.
"Good," Spinister acknowledged. "I'm glad we could come to an agreement. You'll all be released from custody, but you'll be restricted to quarters until it's time for the mission briefings." To remind them what awaited them if they decided to misbehave, he added, "If any you change your mind before then, just let Tentakil know. I'm sure he'll be happy to...tend to you."
Turning his backs on the prisoners, he came to attention and faced the ranks of armed soldiers who had been standing behind him. With a single curt nod, he told them, "Decepticons, disperse!"
None of the soldiers lingered in the hangar for a single second longer than it took for them to reach the nearest exit.
Epilogue: Once a Wrecker...
"I still think that Doubleheader is the best choice," Carnivac said. "And no, not just because I want more Pretenders on the team, thank you very much, Hot Rod."
"It was a joke," the youngest Wrecker responded. "I didn't think that needed explaining."
"It doesn't," Splashdown said. "He's just giving you a hard time. Besides, if it was as simple as all that, I'd agree with him too."
"Still on about the Clones, are you?" Broadside kicked in. "I just don't see it. Neither one of them seem to stand out on their merits."
"Not as individuals, no," Splashdown said. "But as a team? They work together better than most of us do now. They'd be able to step in right from the get-go and contribute."
"You could say the same about the Lambo brothers," Hot Rod reminded him. "And they work better alone than the clones do, too."
"That's true," Broadside admitted. "And it would be nice to have some straight-up muscle on the team. I still think Pipes fills that role better, though."
From his perch across the room, Springer sighed. "You know, I asked you guys to help me choose our replacements because I thought you'd make it easier for me to make a decision, not harder."
"Sorry, boss," Hot Rod told him. "But we're an opinionated bunch. But what do you think? It's your call in the end, right?"
"I'd considered all the candidates you've brought up," Springer admitted. "Repugnus and Groundshaker as well, though I'm pretty sure neither of them would be a good fit. We're moving tomorrow and we need people who can adapt to the job right away." He sighed. "And since we're now canvassing for two replacements instead of one, I think you and Splashdown have it right. A pair that are used to working together are probably the best bet right now."
"Then scratch the pairs off the list," Whirl's voice interrupted from the room's doorway. He didn't sound at all happy to be standing there. "Because you only need one."
"Didn't expect to see you back here," Springer told him, keeping his tone as flat as possible.
"And I'd rather not be here," Whirl responded bluntly. "But I am. That doesn't mean that I agree with what you did or how you went about it. Or your general 'our lives don't matter as long as we take the baddies out along the way' attitude, for that matter. But since you've already dragged me out on this fools' crusade, I might as well see it through. We're probably all going to die anyway, so what does it matter if I lose my mind along the way?"
The gangly Autobot shrugged. "But for the record, if we survive this? If we manage to take back Cybertron? You'd better believe you can start looking for my replacement then."
"If we survive that long," Springer snorted, "they can look for mine too."
"As if." Whirl made a disbelieving sound. "Springer, the perfect little soldier, walking away from all this? I'll believe it when I see it."
"You almost saw it today," Springer retorted. "I hate this damned job, just like you do. And I'd rather be anywhere but here." He sighed. "But just like you, I'm too damned good at it to walk away when there are lives on the line. But a couple hours ago, when Grimlock told me I should walk away from it all and throw in with the Dinobots instead...damned if I didn't almost say yes."
Hot Rod and Broadside both looked totally shocked at the admission. Carnivac's expression was unreadable, as always. Splashdown, having made a similar decision himself not long ago, was more understanding.
And Whirl? Whirl just scoffed. "You'd have looked ridiculous in grey and red."
Epilogue: New Blood
Squeezeplay arrived at the Mayhem Attack Squad briefing five minutes early, but he was pretty sure that he was going to be the last one there. Truth be told, he'd only decided a few minutes ago whether or not he was going to show up at all. In spite of what Spinister had said, Squeezeplay didn't really see himself as Mayhem material. They were a team, the best of the best, and he was definitely not a team player. He worked and fought alone, usually, unless the higher-ups needed someone to hold Fangry's leash. The Headmaster was confident that he could take any of them in a one-on-one fight. But working as a part of tight-knit unit? He'd been feeling a rising dread about that ever since his conversation with the captain.
But Spinister had confidence in him, Primus only new why. And after watching the other Decepticon deftly talk five dozen traitors back into line with only one casualty, Squeezeplay had to admit that he had confidence in the boss, too. More confidence than he'd had in anyone since Scorponok.
"So basically," Squeezeplay muttered to himself, "if he thinks I can do it then I'll be damned if I'm going to prove him wrong."
With that, he pushed the door open and walked in before he could get the chance to change his mind yet again.
On the left side of the room sat the team's veterans: Ruckus, Needlenose and Windsweeper. At a separate table on the right were what Squeezeplay assumed were the three other new recruits. The faces he saw were, to say the least, not ones he'd expected.
A month ago he would have called Submarauder a top prospect, but the Pretender had been badly damaged in the fighting on Pequod. His Pretender shell had been half-melted, and since they lacked proper a medical staff (and since they were on an Imperial ship, also any facilities for treating the shell's organic parts) to tend to it, it had been left to wander the ship like some sort of fishy golem, slowly trying to rehabilitate itself the old-fashioned way. It certainly hadn't looked anywhere near battle-ready when Squeezeplay had last saw it, and the fact that Submarauder wasn't wearing it now didn't suggest that that had changed. The injury hadn't done much for the shell's owner's demeanor either, leaving him with an even more hair-trigger temper than usual.
Though maybe it's just being cooped up on this ship for so long...
The other two...well, word travels fast in a crew this size. Within a couple hours, the whole ship had heard about what Thundercracker and Skywarp had gotten up to the previous morning. They were certainly good enough to make the cut, with history as Megatron's handpicked personal squad. But seeing them here after they'd been caught breaking into the brig certainly came as a bit of a surprise.
Skywarp clearly noticed the attention. "Don't worry, we don't get it either," he said with a chuckle.
"I'm fairly sure this is some sort of elaborate punishment," Thundercracker added as Squeezeplay took a seat with them.
"Punishment or not," Ruckus barked from across the room, "you're here now and I'm going to whip the lot of you into shape."
The Triggercon managed to look even more rickety than usual today. He clearly hadn't bothered to repair any of the five gunshot wounds that he'd accumulated fighting the renegades, but he was clearly enjoying himself as he said, "You're probably expecting Spinister. He's not coming! Too busy being the undisputed leader of all free Decepticons and Autobots to slum with us commando types! Bah! Though since he's off coming up with a plan to save the whole damned universe, I guess we can't be too mad. But that means you lot are stuck with me! And I'll make real mechs out of the lot of you!"
Behind him, Needlenose burst out laughing. Ruckus turned to glare at him, but couldn't keep a straight face. Windsweeper shook his head and told the newcomers, "Get out while you can!"
Squeezeplay felt a grin spreading across his face.
This team, I think I could get used to.