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Part Twenty-Two: Two Heads...

Rage stood over the table, staring down at the collection of bottles, vials, jars and boxes that had just been delivered to his room. It was his private stash, shuttled down from the Intimidator along with the rest of his belongings when Overlord had officially transferred him to a permanent planet-bound position. He hadn't been appointed as Liege Centuro yet, not officially. Overlord wanted to make a big deal of the ascension ceremony, and apparently he needed more than the two days that had elapsed to arrange for it all. Rage was decidedly not looking forward to that. He'd taken the job to get it done, not to preen in front of his lessers. But the supreme commander thought it necessary to rally the troops and give a boost to their morale, after the losses they sustained claiming Cybertron and the chaos that had followed with their previous Liege Centuro's disappearance.

Although Clench had left a lot to be desired as a commander, he'd had the troops' loyalty. He'd handpicked his own cronies and friends to fill out half of the senior positions, and the rank and file had fallen in line after he'd given them a few easy victories to salve the sting left over from the defeat at Earth. His loss had hit them hard, in spite of what he'd done on his way out the door. And with Overlord planning his departure in the next few days (for reasons he declined to clarify but that Rage suspected had everything to do with the top-secret message he'd received from Colossus two days ago) the supreme commander wanted to make sure that the soldiers he left behind had complete faith in their new leader. After all, they would be staying on Cybertron, under his command, for the foreseeable future. Or at least that was what Overlord wanted everyone to think.

In truth, the Empire's supreme commander had betrayed them all.

To say that Overlord's plan left a bad taste in Rage's mouth would be an understatement. The supreme commander had revealed that his entire war had been a wild gambit to get this world's evolutionary throwbacks to slay the Liege Maximo. Only that, Overlord thought, could free all of the generations of Decepticons that their master had turned into his brainwashed servants.

Rage knew now just how much of a slave he was, that they all were. Overlord had shown him that much, at least. And he owed it to himself and to all those who had stood beside him on the field of battle to do something about it. But to throw away so many good Decepticon lives in the pursuit of such a goal? Surely there had to be a better way than that? But if there was, Overlord was blind to it. He was only interested in enacting his own revenge on the powerful entity who'd stolen his life, his freedom of choice, away from him. Rage couldn't blame him for that...but he couldn't let him get away with it, either.

Just the thought of what he'd gotten himself into was enough to give Rage a chill, and he looked down to find that his hands were shaking. Without thinking, those same hands drifted down to the crate on his table. The crate that held samples of every drug, intoxicant and Cybertronian mood-altering substance that he'd run across in his long life.

Just something to take the edge off... a voice in the back of his head whispered.

His right hand caressed a vial of Syk lovingly. His fingers wrapped around it and he felt a rush of anticipation as he remembered the way it burned his fuel lines when he injected it. His optics narrowed as he remembered the sharp, laser-like focus that he felt as it exerted its influence on his neural net...and then with an infuriated roar, he clenched his hand and crushed the vial to dust.

The Cybertronian commander watched with cold satisfaction as the shards of glass fell back in the crate, as the thick, toxic-green liquid dripped from his fingers and pooled on the box's cold metal bottom.

"No," he whispered. "Not anymore."

He'd said those words before, so many times. And he'd meant them every time, or at least he thought he had. But every time before, he'd failed. He'd fallen off the wagon and started drugging himself again within a few weeks' time. He'd been a weak person, and he knew it. His emotions, his cravings, his lust for violence...he'd let them rule his life. He'd given himself over to them, wallowed in them and taken comfort in them. He'd taken shelter in them, used them as a safe haven from the hollow, empty life that he'd led for so long. And it had been so, so easy to let it happen when he'd been convinced he had nothing else worth living for.

Only that isn't true anymore, is it?

Overlord couldn't have known. Oh, he'd probably been aware of the addictions and the problems that stemmed from them. But if he'd known about the soul-crushing emptiness that had been Rage's companion for as long as he could remember, he'd never have taken the younger Decepticon into his confidence. Because by telling Rage the truth about their situation he was confirming every single one of the stormtrooper's worst fears. His life really had been meaningless, and his every action really had been meaningless. If he'd been a normal person, an emotionally-healthy person, it probably would have been enough to make him crumble. But all it had done to Rage was make him angrier. Because his life was going to have meaning, dammit, even if he had to tear that meaning from his superiors' cold, dead hands.

But before he could do that, he needed to get his own life in order.

"Not anymore." This time when he said it, he meant it. And when he grabbed the crate and tossed it down his garbage disposal chute, his hands weren't shaking anymore.

Skyjack nodded to the pair of green and grey soldiers standing at the rickety guardhouse's door before passing between them. Once inside, he quickly took in the scene. A scared prisoner, caught red-handed, sat on a plain metal bench. An eager-looking corporal stood over him, clearly enjoying this fleeting chance to lord over a superior officer.

The mostly-maroon prisoner looked up and his optics widened with recognition. "Skyjack! It's great to see a familiar face. I told them, this is all a misunderstanding!"

Ignoring the prisoner entirely, Cybertron's chief of security turned his attention to the NCO. "Report, soldier."

"My unit was patrolling sector fourteen. We stumbled on the suspect near one of the underground tunnel entrances. He attempted to flee when we informed him that it was a restricted area, so we took him into custody." The soldier gestured towards a nearby table. "He was carrying a variety of weapons, several dozen encrypted data cards and a crude hand-drawn map of the tunnels. The map included several of the dead-drop locations that you'd mentioned in your latest status bulletin."

Skyjack didn't comment on the trooper's obvious attempts to ingratiate himself to his new boss. Instead, he walked over to the table and examined the largest of the weapons there. It was a high-energy water cannon, type of weapon that was designed to use heat and electricity to turn its liquid into a plasma that would burn, corrode and oxidize a victim at the same time. It was an extremely powerful, brutal weapon, and Skyjack was left wondering exactly what this prisoner thought he was going to do with it.

"You had no qualms about arresting a superior officer?"

"Qualms? No sir." The soldier shuffled uncomfortably, probably trying to think of a way to avoid admitting how much he'd liked it. "Well, you's awkward, yes. But rules are rules. Where would we be if people like me looked the other way all the time? It would be anarchy! People could do whatever they want without answering to anyone."

"Yes, that would be a shame. Did you tell anyone else about this?"

"No sir! I followed your new protocols to the letter. As soon as I determined he was a high-value prisoner, I sent my report directly to your office. No intermediaries."

"Good. That makes this easier." Skyjack picked up the cannon, shouldered it and shot the soldier in the head without a moment's hesitation.

"What the hell—" the prisoner exclaimed.

"Shut up."

The guardhouse's doors swung open as the two troops stationed outside burst in with guns drawn. They clearly expected to find the prisoner on the loose, though, and were shocked to find their leader dead at Skyjack's hands instead. They weren't shocked for long, though. Two more shots and their bodies were crumpled on the ground as well.

"Dammit, Skyjack, talk to me!"

The newly-minted security director took his time, slowly lowering the weapon back to the table and turning to face his prisoner. He made eye contact, cocked his head to one side curiously...and delivered a full-strength slap to the bound prisoner's face.

"What in Xal's sixteen hells do you think you're doing, Drench?"

"Puh..." The coordinator shook his head. "It w-was all a misunderstanding! Like I tried to tell them, I was just exploring, and—"

"Thank you, but if I wanted to waste my afternoon listening to transparent lies I would have sat in on another of Starscream's interrogations. At least his are creative." Skyjack glared down at the other Decepticon. "Try again. And if you don't want to be the next one getting shot, you might try starting with 'I was betraying us to the Autobots because...'"

"I'm not betraying anyone," Drench insisted. "My Liege Centuro asked for my aid. I provide it gladly."

"You and I both know that you wouldn't 'gladly' do anything Rage asked of you. Try again."

"My true Liege Centuro."

"Ah." If Skyjack had had a face, he would have betrayed his satisfaction with a smile. But he didn't, and thus remained inscrutable. "So you're in touch with Clench, then. I suppose that means he really has defected to the Autobots, rather than just being their prisoner."

Funny how things work out... Skyjack mused. Clench's supposed 'defection' had been a skillfully-executed sham that Skyjack himself had set up, at Rage's behest, to get the inept former commander out of the way. Recent developments already had him doubting the wisdom of it all, though. And now to hear that he's actually gone over to the other side...

But that was a problem for another day. "And here you are, providing aid and comfort. All that and you don't respect our Supreme Commander's right to choose his aides as he sees fit. Treason three times over. Good show!"

"You and I both know that Clench is gone because you framed him," Drench retorted. "Overlord makes wonderful decisions when his officers aren't actively filling his head with lies."

"Clench gunned down our previous head of security with a double-barreled laser cannon in front of a dozen witnesses," Skyjack said wearily. "I won't deny that I gave him some encouragement, but nothing I said or did made him pull that trigger. That was one hundred percent his choice." He gestured towards the three dead guards. "You, on the other hand, were much easier to set up."

"What are you talking about?"

"I count three of our own soldiers shot dead with your weapon. Forensics will, I'm sure, quite readily prove that you were in the room. That's an automatic death sentence...assuming the head of security doesn't lose the report in a drawer somewhere."

"I'm pretty sure you've already caught me red-handed couriering secret documents to a known deserter," Drench retorted suspiciously. "Framing me for more crimes seems a bit excessive."

"It would be," Skyjack strode over to the fallen corporal and plucked a keycard from the pouch at his hip, "if I had any intention of stopping you from doing any of that. But I don't."

He tapped the keycard against Drench's binders, freeing the other Decepticon's hands.

"You're free to go. Deliver your information. If you see Clench in person, do not mention this conversation. He'd probably kill you if he knew that you were more useful to me now than you are to him. And when you're done, come see me. We have a lot of work to do, you and I."

"I...wait, what? If you think I'm betraying Clench to you—"

"Don't be absurd," Skyjack waved away his objection. "Clench and his Autobot allies are a vital part of this operation. In fact, you should probably tell them that we know where their base is and that a death squad is going to be coming for them in the next few days. Rage plans to make the obliteration of Autobase his first official act after he's sworn in as Liege Centuro."

Drench's expression turned to complete confusion. "I have absolutely no idea what's going on," he muttered. Then, more loudly, he demanded, "Just whose side are you on, Skyjack?"

The security chief couldn't quite hold back a laugh. "Hell if I know." Skyjack leaned back against the evidence-filled table, perched on the edge and looked up at the ceiling pensively. Then he did something that he hadn't expected, something that he hadn't done in a very long time. He told the truth.

"Do you know how someone like me winds up in a position like this, Drench?" Without waiting for an answer, he said, "You betray people. A lot. You stab them in the back, make them look bad in front of their superiors and generally do whatever you can to step on them as you climb the ladder. But as I've climbed that ladder, I've come to realize two things.

"First of all...people like me? This is as far as we go. We're valued as blunt instruments, but we don't get to move past that. We don't get to command armies, become Liege Centuro or take a seat at the Hub. No, we get put in place to clean up other people's messes. And once those messes are gone, so are we. And if we're good enough at it, eventually the messes we fix get so big, so sensitive that we need to be cleaned up too. So all that fighting and clawing and jockeying for position? This is all I'll ever have to show for it. I've peaked, and now I'm living on borrowed time.

"The second thing? It's that the people I've climbed over have been, almost without exception, absolutely terrible excuses for Decepticons. And the higher I've climbed and the more important the people I've cast down, the worse they've gotten. I used to figure that if I climbed high enough eventually I'd find good people, and that I could work with them to fix things. But you know what? The Empire is rotten right to the core. Overlord and the rest of the inner circle, and even the Maximo himself...they're the problem. They're the ones who need to be cut out. Not a few sniveling bureaucrats who've been promoted to their level of incompetence by friends with connections. I didn't like Clench, and I don't like you. But the two of you are symptoms of the bigger problem. And dammit, so am I!

"The entire system needs to burn, Drench. And if that means working with a violent, unstable loose cannon like Rage, then so be it. And if an overblown functionary like Clench or a petty bully like you can help, then I'm certainly not going to turn you away. And nor, for that matter, will I let you say no."

"And you say what I did was treason?" Drench shook his head. "You're insane, Skyjack. Do you honestly think you have a chance to pull something like this off?"

"A month ago, I would have said no," Skyjack admitted. "That's why I spent all of my time worrying about own career advancement. If the world is going straight to hell, I figured I might as well make sure I have a comfortable seat for the ride. But now? I've seen what it's like behind the curtain, Drench. And it's even worse than I thought. Hell, even Overlord of all people thinks we need to tear things down and start all over again. So yes, I do think we can pull it off. I don't even think it's in question anymore. What is in question is the shape things take when they get rebuilt. That's what concerns me the most, Drench, and that's what you, our former Liege Centuro and his Autobot friends are going to help me with."

"I still don't understand what you want from me."

"That's okay. Baby steps. First, deliver your data and my warning to Clench. Then come back to Iacon. We'll talk more after you've returned."

Drench made an angry growl. "I should kill you for dragging me into this. And for blackmailing me."

"Yes," Skyjack admitted. "You probably should. You won't, though. But not because you're a coward, like Rage would say if he were here. You and I both know that no coward would have tried to do what you got caught doing. No, you won't kill me because you know I'm right."

Skyjack got up off the table and walked out the door. "Better get going," he called back to Drench. "You've got a lot of work to do."

36 hours later

"Do you trust him?"

It was a strange question. In these times, who could truly afford to trust anyone? Take Grotusque, for example. As acting leader of the Autobots in the now hundreds-strong survivor encampment in the abyss of tunnels under Iacon, he found himself in charge of a group that was still being bolstered every other day by new arrivals. But in spite of that, the number of people that he felt he could actually rely on seemed to be shrinking by the day. He knew that some of the new Autobots (and even Decepticons) would prove to be trustworthy, but so far he didn't know them well enough yet to say which.

But the person that he was talking to right now? He was about as far from trustworthy as one could be.

Clench leaned back in his chair, his usual scowl firmly in place. "Trust him? Absolutely not," he shook his head. "Drench is a careerist and a bully. He's only ever out for himself. But trust his information? Probably. He's nowhere near as smart or as creative as he thinks he is. There's no way he'd be able to fabricate this much, and he's not bright enough to think to hide a few big pieces of false information in amongst a pile of smaller truths."

"Well, then." Grotusque looked again at the virtual reams of intelligence that had spilled forward from Drench's encrypted datacards once Clench had provided the access codes. "We've got a lot of work to do. And we'd better do it quick, because they're coming for us."

He glanced quickly over his shoulder. "Gunrunner, spread the word. It's time to start packing."

As Counterpunch walked into what had once been Optimus Prime's office, the Decepticon tried to fight off the sense of familiarity that surrounded everything he saw in the former Autobase. But it was no use. Ever since the Imperial hackers had removed the firewalls that kept him from accessing Punch's memories the way his Autobot counterpart could access his, everything he looked at felt familiar. He remembered walking down these corridors with Prowl and Wheeljack, ready to undergo the procedure that made him what he was today. He'd become the perfect spy, able to go undercover as a Decepticon with a perfect cover story – the actual memories and identity of a Decepticon who'd died in an Autobot prison camp towards the end of the war. He remembered the training that had preceded it, and the revelation that he'd been designed, built and given life for one specific purpose...

But none of that had happened to him.

It was funny, Counterpunch reflected. From the moment that Mindwipe had told him about the Autobot that shared his body (an act that had cost the eccentric but brave Decepticon his very life), Counterpunch had felt nothing but a deep, abiding hatred for the interloper. Over the months that he'd spent struggling to regain control of their shared body, he'd thought of little else. He'd even given frequent thought to pointing a gun at his head and pulling the trigger, to put an end the Autobot's life and the hollow mockery that his own had become.

But after the firewalls came down, Counterpunch found that he felt nothing but pity. Punch wasn't some seasoned veteran spy taking on a cover identity. He was actually little more than a scared, scarred child. He'd only been built a few months after the war ended, after Prowl and his technicians realized that it would be impossible to inflict their master plan on any of their existing spies without driving them mad. The shared body had been designed and built from the ground up to accommodate two brain modules, and the architecture of Punch's entire neural network was likewise customized to allow the two brains to function in parallel.

Of course, they were Autobots. So they'd given him a "choice". But how much of a choice is it really, when Optimus Prime himself is looking at a three week old Autobot and telling him that the sacrifice they were asking of him was the very thing he'd been given life for? How could the whelp say no? To Counterpunch's jaded eye, it was base manipulation at its finest.

And so Counterpunch's hatred of Punch had faded like dust in the wind. But that didn't mean there still wasn't plenty of hate to go around. Hate for Optimus Prime, for Wheeljack and for every other Autobot who had helped to bring this atrocity into being. Prowl had been the ringleader, and he'd managed to escape this mortal coil without feeling Counterpunch's righteous fury. The others wouldn't be so lucky. They would die at Counterpunch's hands, no matter how long it took or what he had to do to get to them. No one and nothing would stand in his way...not even the person who'd given him the gift of this new perspective on life.

The same person whose office he'd just barged into, uninvited.

The gathering of Imperial middle managers looked up in shock at the mere "throwback" who dared invade their master's lair during a meeting, but Counterpunch paid them less than zero attention. He'd been introduced to a few of them and had several more pointed out to him over the last few days, but right now they were completely irrelevant to the matter at hand.

"Rage, I don't take kindly to betrayal."

The target of Counterpunch's anger was either oblivious or indifferent to the reactions to his juniors, who seemed none too bothered by this challenge to his authority. Rage rose slowly from behind his desk. Slowly and carefully, he set down the datapad he'd been consulting. "That's interesting. Since I haven't offered you any, feel free to tell the room exactly why you felt the need to announce that."

Counterpunch noted a slight, almost imperceptible quaver in the senior Decepticon's voice as he spoke. He filed that information for future use, along with the ever so slight unsteadiness of the hands as Rage had lowered the tablet.

Perhaps Dear Leader isn't quite as recovered from his injuries as he would like everyone to think...

"You promised me vengeance on the Autobots if I gave you the location of their base. You have that location." Counterpunch glowered, a bit more theatrically than he probably should have. "And now I hear you're organizing a strike team to take them out. Excluding me."

"Imperial troop movements are none of your–" one of the bland faced managers tried to interject, but he found himself cut off.

"Shut up, Wingstun," Rage told him harshly. "If I wanted uninformed opinions about things that concerned no one but me, I would have waited until Drench was available to comment."

"I'm not going to take this abuse," Wingstun retorted. "You're my Liege Centuro, not my owner. Hell, you're not even my Liege Centuro yet."

"This will just take a minute, Counterpunch." Rage's expression actually seemed to be apologetic as he shifted his focus back to his underlings. "I was trying to be decent about this, because Overlord tells me that 'people skills' are an important part of the job. But if you're going to be rude? I can do rude. You're right about one thing, Wingstun. You're not going to take this abuse, because starting right now none of you are going to be in any position to have a conversation with the Liege Centuro."

He slammed a hand down on his desk palm-first, filling the room with an incredible din. Several of the irrelevant bureaucrats jumped out of their chairs in shock.

"You're all fired," Rage told him. "I've reviewed all of your records. None of you are even remotely qualified for the commands you've been given. You were all promoted for no reason other than a familiarity with Clench. Some of his patronage appointments acquitted themselves well in spite of how they got their jobs. You seven are not among them. You accepted promotions that you knew you didn't deserve and did your new jobs at far below acceptable levels."

"How dare you?" Wingstun demanded. "You have no right–"

"I have every right!" Rage barked. "Ridiculous ceremony or not, I'm your commander and you had damned well better start acting like it." He glanced at the other managers. "You six are all being transferred up to Autarch, to positions more suited to your abilities. I trust your performance will improve, unless you want the same negative attention from Overlord that you've earned from me. You, on the other hand," he glared directly at Wingstun, "deserve more of an object lesson. I'm reducing you three grades in rank for your insubordination. And I hope you didn't enjoy air traffic control duty, because I'm adding a note to your file to have you assigned to the most tedious, demeaning job available to your new rank."

Wingstun was practically vibrating with fury. He tried to speak but Rage cut him off yet again.

"Not one more word," the Imperial leader snapped. "Get the hell out of my office. If you even think something insubordinate on the way out, you can continue the debate with my acid blaster."

Shellshocked, the septet of Imperials filed out of the room with their heads hanging low. Once they were gone, Rage returned to his seat (to Counterpunch's eyes, he practically fell into it) and returned his attention to the Double Spy.

"Now, where were we?"

The best thing about having two heads, Sinnertwin thought for not the first time, was that he could talk and work at the same time. That was probably, he mused, why he'd taken so quickly to having the Autobot Chainclaw as his patrol partner.

As the closest thing that the camp had to a professional security officer, Sinnertwin had found himself in charge of keeping the base perimeter secure from both enemies and the assortment of unpleasant beasts that liked to crawl out of the shadows down in the tunnels. It was a job that had grown exponentially tougher as the camp had expanded. It had also kept him away from his fellow Terrorcons, who were, to put it nicely, less than suited for this sort of work. And although Sinnertwin enjoyed indulging in mindless violence with the team when it was called for, the same definitely could not be said for the rest of the group and his specialty. Hun-grrr obviously had no interest in anything that resembled work, Rippersnapper and Cutthroat were action junkies who were incapable of hunting for their enemies, and Blot was...well, Blot was Blot. Although to the dimwitted ogre's credit, he did at least try from time to time.

But for the most part, Sinnertwin was a Decepticon in charge of security patrols that were entirely staffed by Autobots. There was Windmill, whose advanced tracking sensors had proven to be quite useful in the underground, and Electro, a cocky punk whose only real redeeming quality was that he'd been a Decepticon for a few weeks when he'd been brought online. Then there were Deluge, Drench and Jetstorm, who Sinnertwin hadn't even been aware existed until he was put in charge of them. They were mostly notable for sharing names with a gaggle of Clench's former underlings, and like the Imperials, they had no real personalities to speak of. Sinnertwin still struggled to tell that trio apart.

The only one of the bunch who could keep up with Sinnertwin was Chainclaw. The Autobot Pretender drove himself just as hard as the Terrorcon did, and he was becoming quite good at tracking things through the underlevels. As they'd gotten to know each other, Sinnertwin had come to suspect that the Autobot only pushed himself so hard because keeping busy was the only way to keep his various neuroses in check. But considering how happy Sinnertwin was to have a partner who would squash turborats and other creepy-crawlies for him without making fun, he figured he wasn't in a position to psychoanalyze others.

But the best thing about their pairing, by far, was that Chainclaw was now proficient enough to keep a solid wall of banter coming from his inner robot while his Pretender shell sniffed out threats.

"I just hate having to run away again, that's all," the Autobot was saying.

"You and me both," Sinnertwin's left head replied, as his right busied itself digging at a pile of foreign metal debris. "Which is why I'm not going anywhere. And neither are the other Terrorcons."

"You talked to Hun-grrr before we headed out?"

"Yeah. The boss says that no matter what anyone else decides, we're hanging back to make life hell for any Imperials who poke their noses in." Both of Sinnertwin's heads adopted a fierce look. "I've spent weeks making these tunnels safe. If anyone thinks they're going to take them away from me, I've got two sets of teeth and three flamethrowers that say different."

"Well, I've got two angry bears and a solid sonic energy blaster who'd like to get a word in too," Chainclaw told him. Then, with the nervous energy of someone who'd realized he may have overstepped, he added, "That is, if you'll have me."

"There isn't a mech in the world that I'd rather have guarding my back," Sinnertwin told him. And much to his surprise, the Terrorcon found that he meant it.

Crosshairs looked despondently at the cases of ammunition that Doublecross and Ironfist were haphazardly loading into cargo pods.

"Be careful! I only just got them organized by calibre and weapon effect last week!"

"Well gee," Ironfist told him, "maybe if you'd pack up your own stuff you'd be able to keep things in the order you'd like!"

Crosshairs got up from his workbench, wincing noticeably. He'd been gravely wounded during the Imperials' initial attack on Iacon almost two months ago, and he was still more than a little worse for wear. Although Hoist had done his best to effect repairs, they simply didn't have the equipment or supplies on hand to do do a proper job. And even if they'd had, Hoist was a primary care specialist, not a surgeon. So Crosshairs had muddled along with a pain in his gut, a heavy limp and a whole lot less physical strength than he was used to. Thankfully his hands were still as steady as they ever were and his Targetmaster partner Pinpointer was always willing to help out, so he'd been able to keep up with his job as the Autobots' armory expert.

But heavy lifting? Definitely not what the doctor ordered.

"That's a great idea," he told Ironfist tartly. "I can do that. Then, when my insides rip open and I drop dead, Grotusque can make you weapons supervisor. Of course, then you'll be stuck at a workbench for the rest of the war instead of out in the field blowing things up..."

Ironfist made an unhappy noise. Doublecross set down the crate he'd been carrying and rested one of his dragon-head hands on the other Autobot's shoulders. "He's right, you know. And you shouldn't pick on him. He nearly died, he's nowhere near healed, and he's still up and doing the best job he can."

Ironfist glared at the Monsterbot. "On the way over here you called him a 'useless cripple'."

Doublecross looked genuinely surprised when he said, "That doesn't sound like something I'd say. And besides, we both know that this isn't what's getting on your nerves."

Ironfist set his own crate down on the floor, then sat down on it and sighed. "I just don't like this. Any of it. We're running away again!"

"I know how you feel," Crosshairs interjected. "First we couldn't hold Iacon, now we can't even defend a literal hole in the wall in the tunnels? But we're not actually running, Ironfist. We're moving equipment and noncombat personnel off-site – including this 'useless cripple' and his armory – so that we don't get underfoot. The Throttlebots are already setting up a new HQ for us, and Primus knows there's more than a few more old resistance bases hidden under Iacon for us to go through.

"But you soldier-types will be knee-deep in Imperials by the time we start unpacking Full-Barrel and Overflow's transport, because Grotusque says you're staying and setting a trap for our green friends." He shrugged. "And by the time you guys are done with them, this place won't be any good as a base anyway. Too many bullet holes."

"Really?" That news seemed to perk Ironfist up. "Well, in that case, I'd better get finished here so that I can find out where the boss wants me!"

"Really," Crosshairs assured him. He settled back down at his workbench, wincing again. "When you find the enemy, shoot a couple for me, okay?"

"No pressure, right?" Ironfist said with a grin. "I guess I'd better try to go one hit, one kill..."

"You'd better!" Crosshairs ribbed him. "Your missiles don't grow on trees, you know!"

"Well, I say good luck to you!" Doublecross chirped. "Me? I'm getting out of here as quickly as mechanically possible." He glanced sidelong at Crosshairs. "Er...that is, as quickly as you can keep up with."

"Well gee, thanks," Crosshairs said with a wry grin. "I think."

While the rank and file were busy getting ready for the move, the refugees' leadership group had gathered together to pore over the piles of information that they'd been given by Clench's informant. Although the imminent attack on their base was obviously the most urgent data point, there was so much more to go over that it was almost overwhelming. Grotusque quickly looked around the table and tried not to look underwhelmed by the motley crew he'd assembled.

There was Gunrunner, of course. In spite of their rocky start, the former Pretender had managed to become a solid, reliable second in command. It still felt like he was constantly struggling against his own self-destructive urges, but at least he'd stopped actively searching for blazes of glory to go out in.

Hun-grrr looked bored, but Hun-grrr always looked bored when he wasn't busy sinking his teeth into the enemy. He was the senior Decepticon in the camp, but Grotusque surmised that he'd risen as high as he had entirely because he was totally disinterested in the trappings of command. All he really wanted was to be pointed in the direction of the enemy and let off-leash, a desire he'd be able to sate one way or another very, very soon.

After Grotusque had been realized that everyone in the camp was looking to him as their leader, he'd slotted Fizzle into his own former job as chief strategist. It was something of a hollow promotion, though, because Fizzle was also practically their only real strategist. And Grotusque had warned him not to get too comfortable in the job, because he was the fourth chief strategist in the last four months. Grotusque himself held down the job for less than two weeks after Trailbreaker had been sent to take command of the garrison in Protihex.

Wheeljack was their chief engineer, but in Grotusque's opinion he was as much of a danger to the gathered Autobots and Decepticons as he was to the invaders. He'd built quite a few detection and defense systems into the tunnels surrounding the base...but he'd also blown up three different lab spaces and caused such a ruckus in the armory that Crosshairs had changed all the locks.

Barricade and Direct Hit were more or less useless when it came to long-term strategy. They'd both hit their ceiling as leaders of their respective Micromaster teams, and they mostly contributed nothing to Grosusque's little council. But neither Grotusque nor Hun-grrr wanted to alienate the camp's Decepticons by forming a command staff with five Autobots and only one Decepticon, so the duo had gotten invitations anyway. Unfortunately, neither one of them was self-aware enough to realize they were out of their depth, and the rest of the group frequently had to waste good time explaining to them why their suggestions were almost always terrible ideas.

Blaster had opted out of the session, and the last few, to spend more time working out the kinks of the video encryption system that Buzzsaw had send the specs for. Grotusque knew that the bigger Autobot was more comfortable knee-deep in communications equipment or enemy soldiers than he was at a conference table, and the Autobot leader also suspected that he was making a concerted effort to stay away so that he wouldn't undermine Grotusque's position. But frankly, on most days he'd happily trade some measure legitimacy for the other Autobot's counsel. Because Blaster had the one thing that Grotusque didn't: experience.

"Look, I realize I'm not Captain Trustworthy myself over here," Barrricade was saying, "but a dump of intel like this reeks of 'too good to be true'. Are we sure we can trust...well, any of this?"

"On it's own?" Fizzle spoke up. "Absolutely not. But a lot of it confirms what we've already learned independently, or is otherwise corroborated by what we already know." The Autobot Sparkler, who was presenting the data to the group, used his laser pointer to direct their attention to one of the documents that was displaying on the room's makeshift array of different-sized screens. "For example, we'd already seen the troop movements around Polyhex. We didn't understand what was going on, at first, but now that we've seen this –" he gestured to a different screen, "– we know that they are rotating fresh troops down from Overlord's flagship before it leaves its orbit. They also seem to be reducing their garrison numbers in general."

"Then we should hit Polyhex and take it back!" Barricade piped up.

"That's hardly our top priority," Fizzle retorted. "Or at least it shouldn't be. If their flagship is withdrawing, then we need to take the opportunity to get our own ships in the air. If we could get in touch with Earthforce or the crew we sent to Cameron, maybe–"

"You would be shot down by their patrol ships before you made it out of the atmosphere," Direct-Hit told him. "Trust me, I know firsthand."

"I hate being the one to say it," Gunrunner interjected, "but we don't even know if either of those groups are still alive. We need to focus on what's in front of us. We can't pin our hopes on being rescued by allies that might not even be out there anymore."

"'re always the one to say it," Hun-grrr interjected. "But you're right. We had a whole planet full of Autobots and Decepticons, and now we're reduced to this. Drrr...if they're still alive, they're probably in even bigger trouble than we are."

Grotusque held his hands up to forestall any further debate. "Look, I think we can all agree that there's too much here to even start pulling on all the threads right now. Personnel reports, troop movements, propaganda dumps, information on our captured allies, classified ship designs...even if it's all true, there's so much here that we could spend the next month poring over it. If I didn't know better I'd guess that the whole point was to keep us so busy thinking about what to do next that they could attack the base while we were unprepared."

"Well...let's not do that, then," Wheeljack interjected.

"Obviously," Grotusque agreed. "So we need to decide on the few things that are most important and concentrate on those. And I think we can all agree that the impending attack – which notably wasn't in the datacards, but came by word of mouth instead – should be at the top of the list. We need to move out."

No." Hun-grrr's blunt contradiction drew every set of optic sensors to him. He immediately seemed to regret speaking up, but still plowed forward. "Grrr...we kill as many of them as we can, then we move out."

The others nodded in agreement.

"If that's what you want, I can't stop you," Grotusque agreed reluctantly. "But after that, what's next? That's what we need to figure out." He looked around the room. "Each of you, take the next hour to..." he sighed. "To go over as much of this as you can, I guess. Each of you pick one thing that you think we need to take care of. Between the group of us we'll whittle it down to a manageable number. Sparky can do the math and let us know what we've actually got the manpower to tackle."

Fizzle visibly bristled at the nickname, but only nodded and said, "Will do."

"Alright." Grotusque sighed. "Maybe now we'll actually be able to do some good for a change."

"If that was supposed to impress me," Counterpunch said as he loomed over Rage's desk, "you're going to be disappointed."

"I realize we've only known each other a few days," Rage replied, doing his absolute best to rein in the fury that he'd let slip through the cracks as he'd dealt with the group of failed subordinates. "But I still think you know me better than that, Counterpunch. Those buffoons deserved all they got and then some, and they would have gotten it whether you were in the room or not." He chuckled. "Although it was a bit more satisfying, maybe, with an audience. But you didn't come here to talk about the useless henchmen that I've been cursed with. What 'betrayal' were you ranting about?"

"You know exactly what I was talking about," Counterpunch pressed. "I had more right than anyone here to be on the strike team going to the Autobots' base."

"And you will be," Rage assured him. "I plan to lead the attack personally, when the time comes."

"'When the time comes'?" Counterpunch leaned in, closing the distance between himself and the Decepticon who'd freed him from the Autobots' yoke. "Don't treat me like I'm one of them," he said, gesturing vaguely in the direction that the fired officers had left. "Nemesis left an hour ago, and I know where he's going."

Rage had gotten his name for a reason, and he felt it begin to make itself known. The anger was rising up in his belly as he processed what the spy had to say. "That makes one of us," he growled. "Do you mean to say that Nemesis went out on his own to try and deal with the Autobots?"

"You didn't know?" The disbelief in Counterpunch's voice was clear.

"Do I sound like someone who knew?" Rage asked, feeling his control start to slip as the fury built. He was keeping it dammed up for now, but only just. "No, I Xal-damned well didn't know! Is there anyone in this entire Scraplet-blighted city who isn't ignoring my authority?"

"I haven't been here long enough to say," Counterpunch told him. "But at a glance? Not many."

"I'll kill him," Rage said in a rush of almost euphoric fury that came over him like a revelation from on high. "I'll rip his optics out with my bare hands and plant my sword where they used to be. I don't even care what plans Overlord had for him."

But Counterpunch, bless him, threw cold water on that immediately. "You have more important things to deal with, here and now," he told the commander bluntly. "And frankly, things like this are below your new pay grade. But you've got a counter-intelligence expert who knows the layout of the tunnels standing right in front of you."

"Even if I trusted you – which, for the record, is going to take a lot more time – there's no way I would send you after Nemesis alone." Rage pinched the bridge of his nose and reclined in his seat, trying – and failing – to restore his previous calm. But there was too much going through his head, and all of those thoughts and feelings were amplified by the symptoms of withdrawal that had been afflicting him over the last few days. Right now all he could think about was how much he wanted to drink something, inject something or execute a narcotic program on his sensory processors. But he didn't. Instead, he did his best to shove the murderous fury into a distant corner of his mind for the moment. "He didn't go alone, did he?"

"No," Counterpunch said. "He's got his band of lunatics with him, at the very least, and the rumours say that he grabbed several squads of troopers as well."

Rage felt himself rising to a boil again at the thought of so many of his underlings shirking their duties like that. But he forced himself to stay lucid.

"Go," he told Counterpunch. "Not by yourself. I'll have four of my best meet you at the gates. Nemesis is probably headed for the tunnel entrance in Altihex. I'm guessing you know one closer. Find him. Turn him around and send him to me. Intact, preferably."

"Shouldn't we continue with the attack and deal with his betrayal later?" Counterpunch asked. "After this little game, the element of surprise might be lost."

"You know how we made him?" Rage asked. When the other Decepticon nodded, he continued. "I don't trust Nemesis to be in the same city as the Autobots without supervision, let alone a battlefield. His behaviour with regards to them has been even more erratic than yours. No, you shouldn't engage the throwbacks unless it is absolutely unavoidable." He waved a hand in dismissal. "Now get going before I think better of this."

If you'd asked Hun-grrr if there was anything he didn't like about being in command of all the Decepticons left on Cybertron, the Terrorcon leader probably would have responded with "everything". He'd only been put in charge of his team in the first place because he could kick the most ass of the bunch, and he'd only ever been promoted beyond that because Scorponok and later Megatron could plainly see that he had no interest in actually commanding anything. So he found himself actually looking forward to the impending Imperial attack, as perverse as that felt. Anything chance to shove aside his unwanted responsibilities and enjoy the simple pleasure of ripping ugly green footsoldiers to pieces was a welcome one.

But before that, unfortunately, there was one more duty to carry out. One more tedious meeting.

In spite of his indifference for all things command-related, Hun-grrr had gotten to know Grotusque pretty well since they'd started to work together. Aside from the tiresome, constant attempts at humour, he'd found the Autobot to be acceptable company, and an adequate leader. But he'd never found him to be overly excitable, so it was hard not to notice that his Autobot counterpart was practically bouncing with enthusiasm about something.

"So..." Grotusque settled into his seat at the head of the table, the last of the group to join them aside from Blaster. He was clearly trying to hold back a grin, and he wasn't doing a very good job of it. "There's news. You all know that we've been trading coded messages with another group of survivors who've holed up in the Rad Zone. You might not know that Buzzsaw and Blaster have been collaborating on a system that would let us communicate with each other in real time. It's ready to test now, apparently. We were planning to conference Kup and Bugly in on our discussion to see if they had any suggestions on how to proceed, or if they could spare any manpower to follow up on any of our leads. But as I said...there's news."

Hun-grrr immediately noticed something odd about the Autobot leader's disposition. He was cheerful, more so that he'd been in weeks. But there was none of the jocularity that usually accompanied Grotusque's good moods. He was serious about being happy. Almost manic, if Hun-grrr put a specific word on it. Kind of like how Cutthroat got when he was anticipating a really good session of carnage.

"Ah, Blaster, there you are." As the other Autobot darkened their doorway, Grotusque waved him forward. "Are you ready?"

"I think so."

Being a fairly large Transformer himself, Hun-grrr had found it more than a little difficult to get around the compact smuggler bolt-holes that they'd converted into a base. Blaster was half again as big as he was, and he had to bend over nearly double just to pass through the doorway. But if he was feeling at all self-conscious about it, the big Autobot didn't show it. In fact, he seemed to be in nearly as breezy a mood as Grotusque was.

"I've built some equipment that should be able to make the connection, but for the first time it's better if I run it myself," Blaster was saying. "Wheeljack, did you run the cables I asked for?"

"You know it, buddy," Wheeljack responded. "They terminate at the network jack by your chair."

"Perfect." Blaster crossed the room with a couple long strides, then stopped by his (decidedly too small) chair and said, "Here goes nothing." The Autobot transformed to his cassette deck mode, shrinking in the process from a behemoth of a warrior to a tiny piece of equipment that landed on the conference table. Hun-grrr noticed a strange black rectangle with three projector lenses attached to the Autobot's carry handle, projectors that lit up as the Autobot plugged a probe into the network port Wheeljack had indicated.

The resulting hologram took a few moments to solidify, but when it did Hun-grrr couldn't keep himself from letting out an embarrassing whoop of joy. Luckily for him he wasn't the only one – he heard joyful expressions from Wheeljack, Fizzle and Direct-Hit as well, and even the stern-to-a-fault Gunrunner seemed to be on the verge of cracking a smile. Only Barricade managed to keep a straight face at what they saw, and it was obvious that he only managed it because he was trying to seem aloof.

"Why do I get the feeling," one of the figures in the hologram asked gruffly, "that it's not me that you're all so happy to see?"

"Sorry, Kup," Grotusque broke into a wide grin, "but if we wanted to look at a mug as ugly as yours, I could just transform to beast mode for a while."

The conversation continued, but Hun-grrr found himself zoning out as he listened. He was amazed at how a little thing like this could raise everyone's spirits so much even with a doomsday clock ticking away in the background. But how could it not? Even a brutal tactical philistine like himself knew that their long-term chances of survival had probably doubled, maybe tripled, from what they were a few minutes ago.

Megatron and Optimus Prime were back. And if nothing else, they'd brought hope with them.

And, Hun-grrr thought with a dawning sense of relief, I don't have to pretend to be the leader of the Decepticons anymore!

Nemesis supposed that he should have felt bad about this. He'd lied to his own men, ignored his orders and more or less threatened several platoons of common soldiers into accompanying him on this attack. Any one of those things were beneath him, and he knew it. The fact that he'd done them all because he was intent on killing a group of people that were, in essence, mostly innocent...well, that didn't even bear thinking about. By all rights, he should have been absolutely crippled by the shame of it all.

But he wasn't. The only thing that that mattered to him now was extinguishing the Autobots' lives. Wiping them out, utterly. They were a painful reminder of what he once was, of what he'd been before Overlord had so utterly perverted his mind and spirit. And he knew he'd never be at peace until they were gone.

"Uh, boss?" Slicer's voice cut into his reverie. "Yeah, yeah, I know, 'No talking or I'll kill you'. But I'm pretty sure we're walking in circles." The blue Decepticon gestured towards one of the nearby walls. "See there? Those marks are from my sword. Not the last time we went by, but the time before that."

Nemesis let out a guttural snarl. "Are you implying that I'm lost?"

"Oh, no, no, no," Slicer said insistently. "Not at all. I'm just saying that you, maybe, don't know where we're going? Maybe we could let Snare carry the map for a while?"

"I don't need Snare to tell me—" Nemesis growled again. "Stop. One breem to rest! I should be able to get my bearings by then."

The unholy doppelganger of Optimus Prime walked away from his troops and headed into a nearby tunnel before anyone could think to question him.

Rippersnapper didn't even try to hide the disgust on his tooth-filled monstrous face. "I tell ya, Cutthroat, I've had it right upta here with this scrap!"

The Terrorcon was gesturing vigorously with his claws as the duo wandered down their assigned section of tunnel, looking for the Imperials they'd been promised. So far, they'd had no luck.

"First we run away from these green idjits, then we haveta shack up with the Autobots an' make nice. And now the green idjits are back and we're supposed to run away again! Well I tell ya, I ain't doing it!"

"Well of course you're not, you dummy!" Cutthroat told him. "None of us are. That's why the boss says we're staying." He stroked the twin barrels of his magnetizer rifle lovingly. "And me, I'm looking forward to it."

"Right, but we've gotta take orders from Sinnertwin now ta do it! Like, really? Sinnertwin? It ain't right!" Rippersnapper threw his hands up in disgust.

"I hear ya, I hear ya," Cutthroat told him. "But this sorta thing is his specialty, you know? Just like how the boss'd have left me in charge if we needed to track down and murder some fool. Or how he'd put you in charge of, uh...whatever it is you're good at. Inferiority complexes?"

"Complexes? Oh, I'll show ya complexes!"

"Believe me," Cutthroat said, totally ignoring Rippersnapper's predictable attempts to start a fight, "you are."

The winged Terrorcon had meant to say more, but he stopped in his tracks and pointed ahead.

"See that?" he asked his partner.

"I ain't blind!" Rippersnapper retorted. "It's one of them silly ash lines that Sinnertwin insisted on laying for some reason."

"Right, it is," Cutthroat smiled. "And it's been trampled. Someone's been through here."

Rippersnapper took a closer look. "Lots of someones." He grinned. "Lots of faces ta punch in!"

"Now there's the Rippersnapper I know and tolerate!" Cutthroat responded. "You wanna call it in?"

"As if. I ain't sharin' any of the fun."

Cutthroat's razor-sharp beak split open with a grin. "Good."

Grotusque resisted the urge to sigh as the communique ended. Seeing Optimus and Megatron again should have, really should have, been a good thing. But first Kup had flipped out over Grotusque's gentle ribbing, and then both sides talked in circles because neither one wanted to reveal what they'd found even over a scrambled transmission. And that was before the whole mess with Soundwave got brought up. Followed by Hun-grrr bringing up the equally-awkward situation that was Punch. Or Counterpunch. Whoever he really was. Grotusque had cut things off in a hurry to keep things from getting even more ugly than they already had.

"Well," Blaster seemed to speak for everyone after he'd closed the channel. "That was swell."

He declined to transform back to robot mode, probably because there were no chairs big enough for him to sit on and he didn't want to scrape his antennae on the ceiling by standing any more than he absolutely had to.

Gunrunner fixed Hun-grrr with a glare. "Did you have to bring up Counterpunch? Really?"

"Ndddd...did I have to tell my boss that his best spy was a mole? How is that even a question? Gnnn...would you hide it from Optimus if it turned out that Jazz had been a Decepticon all these years?'' Hun-grrr made an annoyed sound. "Besides, you told them about Soundwave. Grrr..."

"And this is why I didn't want to let them promote me," Direct-Hit grumbled.

"Trust me," Barricade told him, "the rest of us didn't want them to either!"

"You guys need to cool it—" Grotusque tried to interject, but no one was listening.

"This? This right here?" Blaster said. "This is why we never shoulda shacked up with the Decepticreeps!"

Fizzle sighed. "Don't say that. The Decepticons are perfectly good tactical assets—"

"Oh, so that's all we are?" Barricade raised his voice. "I've had about enough of this Autobot condescension! I say we go it alone! We don't need them!"

"What you say doesn't matter," Hun-grrr told him tartly. "You aren't in command here. I am."

"Oh, so now you want to be in charge?" Barricade threw his hands up. "Fat lot of good it does now. Where were you the last two months, hiding under a desk?"

"Cool it!" Grotusque raised his voice but people still weren't listening. Only Wheeljack met his eyes, and his gaze looked as helpless as Grotusque felt.

Hun-grrr was getting out of his seat. "I won't let a runt like you question my authority. want to step up? I'll eat you for dinner!"

"Fine," Grotusque sighed, even though no one was listening to him. "But you guys brought this on yourselves."

Gunrunner had gotten up, hoping to restrain Hun-grrr before he could do anything stupid. But he only made it a few steps before the meeting room's rickety old table exploded like an artillery shell had landed on it. Before he'd had a chance to process that, the old field commander had to duck the gout of flame that was suddenly cutting through the room right at head level. Assuming that they were under attack, he primed his shoulder missiles for launch and reached for his plasma machine gun.

Then he looked up and saw Grotusque's beast mode standing where the table had been, flames still licking out from behind his fangs.

"Do I have your attention now?" the Monsterbot demanded. "Good. I'm only going to say this once. If any of you idiots want a fight, you can step up to me first. I'll set you on fire and bite your head off, and then the rest of us can get down to business. And if you think I'm joking, ask Gunny."

In spite of himself, Gunrunner felt a small stirring of pride at the other Autobot's gumption. The rest of the room, however, was stunned into silence. Most of them had already instinctively backed away from the ruins of the table, and most of them took another step back now. The only exception was Blaster, who was lying on the ground in tapedeck mode.

"No takers?" Grotusque said. "Good. My stomach doesn't have enough room for all of your heads anyway." He transformed back to robot mode and gingerly stepped off of the broken table. "Now, can you please keep in mind that we have work to do?"

Blaster wasn't happy with being buried under a broken table, but he had to admit that he liked Grotusque's style. The Autobot reminded him of himself, a bit. A younger version of himself, anyway. Blaster used to have fire in his belly like that – figuratively, anyway. He figured the Monsterbot definitely had him beat on that score.

Blaster had had the fire, once. But then he'd died, blown apart by Starscream when the Decepticon had possessed the powers of the Underbase. Grimlock of all people had brought him back from the dead, in spite of their past disagreements. But he'd used a strange, alien fuel called Nucleon to do it. Dozens of Autobots had been revived by the new superfuel, and it they'd all paid a terrible price for it. Most of the rejuvenated Autobots had lost the ability to transform within a few weeks as the Nucleon had corroded their systems. But the damage went deeper than that, psychologically. Revival sickness, First Aid had called it. An ailment made more acute than usual by the ticking time bomb that they all knew was working away inside them – a time bomb that would eventually rob them not only the ability to transform, but of their very lives.

A lot of the Autobots had suffered, but Blaster had it particularly bad. The life that he'd lived before had been hard. So very, very hard. And death...death had been easy. He hadn't really wanted to come back, if he was being honest with himself. And having done so, he simply didn't have the passion, the will to fight, that he'd once had. It was hard to do fight for your life when you secretly wished you were still dead. So while his comrades had been watching their bodies decay in mute fear, doing everything they could to ward off the specter of a second death, Blaster had secretly welcomed it.

He'd gotten over that, mostly. Beating the 'Cons on Klo and going home to a restored Cybertron had helped, and the brief stretch of peace that had followed had made him realize that there were things worth living for. But he'd never gone back to being the self-assured, unstoppable Blaster of old. Optimus had noticed it, certainly. And though he'd never asked about it directly, it was certainly why he'd seen fit to assign Blaster to run Autobase's command hub instead of asking him to lead field teams once the Imperial threat had reared its ugly head.

It was a job that the old Blaster would have hated. But the new Blaster? It was right up his alley. In fact, he'd been happy doing it, happier than he'd been in as long as he could remember. But now he found himself living in a secret base in their world's sewers, dodging monsters and hiding from invaders. And while the old Blaster would have been in his element, that was about as far from happy as the new Blaster could get.

Seeing Grotusque take charge these last few weeks, leading the Autobot survivors with the same fire and determination that Blaster himself had once boasted, made him happy indeed. But Blaster knew that was a selfish reaction, because deep down he knew that Grotusque shouldn't have to do it. That should have been Blaster's burden to bear, but he'd abandoned his responsibilities and left a younger, less-experienced Autobot to take them up in his stead. But for good or ill, that ship had sailed. People had stopped looking to him for guidance and started looking to the Monsterbot. And shamefully, he was glad of it. The last time his fellow Autobots had looked to him like that, the last time he'd tried to do right by them, he'd wound up spending six months in a variable voltage harness.

Not wanting to transform with a pile of trash atop him, Blaster used his speakers to generate a subsonic pulse that shook himself clear before he returned to robot mode. Once he had, he remained sitting on the floor so that he wouldn't wind up scraping up against the low ceiling.

"The boss is right," he told the others. "Trouble's already coming our way. We don't need to brew up any more of it for ourselves. Now, I've been busy with the whole comm-link thing, but a little bird told me something about an intel drop?"

Blaster caught the subtle look of thanks that Grotusque flashed his way before returning to robot mode himself.

"That's right," the Monsterbot said. "An ally of Clench's has given us a ridiculous amount of info. I assume the rest of you have managed to spend some time reading it?"

"Read, schmead!" Barricade fired back. "I don't care what any of the rest of it says. They've left the door to Polyhex unguarded and I'm gonna kick it down! And you ain't stopping me!"

"Who's stopping you?" Grotusque told him. "You're going and Blaster is going with you."

"I am?" Blaster asked, confused. "Since when?"

"See, this is what happens when you skip all the staff meetings," Grotusque told him with a jocular tone. "You get volunteered for all the worst jobs! And troop drawdown or not, the best backup I can send these guys is someone who can ride in on one of their dashboards. Which is why Eject and Grand Slam are going too."

"I..." Blaster shook his head. "Hell. I really never wanted to go back. Not a lotta good memories in Polyhex, you dig?"

"I can sympathize," Grotusque said, suddenly fully serious. "But your familiarity with the place is another good reason why you're the best choice. Would it help if I told Seaspray to go along too?"

"Probably not," Blaster replied bluntly. "But it couldn't hurt either."

"Then consider it done," Grotusque told him with an amicable nod. "What next?"

Gunrunner spoke up. "We all knew that we weren't going to be able to keep what we heard a secret," he told them. "I expected it to take more than an hour, though. While we were on recess, Kick-Off found me. Do you guys know Kick-Off?"

Most of the room shook his head, but the name sounded familiar to Blaster. "He was one of those dudes who got let out in the big prisoner swap after the alliance was formed, right? A tough nut to crack. He spent half a million years on the wrong side of the 'Cons prison bars."

"No less time than Counterpunch," Barricade retorted.

"Not what we're here to discuss," Grotusque reminded them.

" this case is sort of is," Gunrunner clarified, "because he read some of the reports on prisoner transfers. He thinks he knows where our captured comrades have been sent, and he means to rescue them. Alone, if necessary."

"But you're not going to let him go alone," Fizzle finished for the other Autobot. "This is a dangerous line of thinking, Gunrunner."

"Is it?" Gunrunner crossed his arms. "We know where the prisoners are being held—"

"Aboard the enemy flagship!" Fizzle finished for him. "Mounting an attack would be suicide."

"We know where they're being held," Gunrunner continued, undaunted, "and we know how to get there. The enemy's troop rotations."

"You mean to impersonate enemy troops to get aboard without a fight." Direct-Hit nodded approvingly. "A solid plan. If it works."

"Oh, it'll work," Wheeljack cut in. "It'll give us a chance to field-test the reactive camo paint I've been working on, too."

"You've already been talking to people about this," Grotusque said. It wasn't a question.

Gunrunner nodded.

"Promise me you plan on coming back."

Grotusque's concern for his friend's welfare was obvious to Blaster, probably because he'd heard it in his own voice more than once over the vorns.

"I can promise you that they will," a steely-eyed Gunrunner replied. "And before you say anything, no, you can't do this yourself. There aren't many gargoyles in the Imperial army. Or double-headed dragons, cassette players or Micromasters. Like it or not, this one has to be me. It's the right thing to do and you know it."

"Grrr...he's got a point. They have dozens of us locked up. Hnnn...maybe hundreds," Hun-grrr interjected. "We could use the manpower, rrrar, and the morale boost."

"Can't says I disagree," Blaster chipped in. He gave Grotusque a sympathetic glance. "It's a big risk, but I think it's worth it. Heck, imagine the damage a couple hundred 'Bots and 'Cons could do to their flagship on the way out!"

"Alright," Grotusque clearly wasn't happy about it, but he'd come around. "Alright. If you guys want to do this, then do it. Wheeljack, you're going with him."

"Yes sir, I am," the engineer said with a nod. "He's going to need someone who can crack locks and computers. And maybe someone to make sense of that monster of engineering that the other side calls a space ship."

"Good," Grotusque told him. "Then consider yourself the designated adult. I expect you to make sure no one does anything stupid."

"Gotcha, boss," Wheeljack nodded. "No doomed heroics or suicidal charges on my watch."

"Is this really necessary?" Gunrunner asked with annoyance.

"I really don't want to have to find a new chief strategist because you got yourself killed and I had to promote Sparky to second in command," Grotusque said. " After going through four in one year, candidates are getting hard to find. So yeah, it is."

Blaster recognized that the leader was trying to deflect the argument with humour. Partly, he guessed, to lighten the mood, but also partly to hide the fact that he still had some genuine – and legitimate – concerns about Gunrunner's mental state.

"Gee, thanks, boss," Fizzle cut in. "You sure know how to make a guy feel appreciated. Anyway, all of these things are a good idea but I'm sure it's occurred to all of you that we still have teams active above-ground in Iacon."

The blank stares that he got from everyone else – Blaster included, the communications officer had to sheepishly admit – showed that the others hadn't thought of it at all.

"I'll take that as a no." Fizzle sighed. "Someone has to warn them about what's happening, or they'll come back here and find that a branch of Imps-R-Us has opened up while they were gone."

" they won't," Hun-grrr insisted. "No Imperials will get in here. Nnnn...not for long, anyway. My Terrorcons are staying, grrr, and we'll kill anyone who dares face us!"

"I understand you have some volunteers as well," Fizzle said. "Chainclaw and the rest of the Autobot security team?"

"And he's got me, too," Direct-Hit piped up. "I talked to my boys before the meeting. We're all sick and tired of running." He looked up at Hun-grrr. "If there's a stand to be made, sir, we'll make it with you."

"I wish you'd all reconsider—" Grotusque started to say, before he was cut off.

"We won't," Direct-Hit told him.

"I know," Grotusque said. "I wish you would, but I know you won't, so I'll just ask you to be careful. Don't stay long enough to get pinned down by their reinforcements."

Then the Monsterbot looked over at Fizzle and said, "You're right, of course. We need to round up our field teams too. Can you handle that?"

Fizzle shrugged. "What choice do I have? I'm the only one left for you to ask, so I'll have to do. Again."

Ouch, Blaster thought. That's one guy who's not reactin' well to the field promotion. The boss's constant jokes probably aren't helpin' much either.

"Good," Grotusque said. "I know you can do it, Fizzle. And we'll be able to back each other up if need be, because I'm going into Iacon as well." Leaning on what remained of a high-backed chair, he expanded. "Clench's replacement is about to be sworn in, and Overlord wants to make a big deal out of it for morale's sake. I've got exactly the same idea...only I want to move the morale needle in the opposite direction, if you get my drift. A few bombs in the crowd, maybe a sniper or two..."

"Is that really what we are now?" Fizzle asked tartly. "Is that really what you want us to be? Common terrorists?"

"No, we're going to be magnificent terrorists," Grotusque said with a grin. But then he seemed to pick up on Fizzle's increasing discomfort and grew serious. "I understand that this sort of indiscriminate attack goes against everything we were taught. Really, I do. But the situation then and the situation now are totally different." With a sidelong glance at Hun-grrr, he said, "Even the Decepticons had civilians. They might not have been nice to them all the time, but they still needed people paying their taxes and running an economy so that they could fund their war effort. But there's no such thing as an Imperial civilian, at least not on Cybertron. Everyone from Overlord on down to the guy who sweeps the floors is wearing military colours and carrying a weapon, and that makes them all acceptable targets."

"At this risk of making this my catchphrase," Blaster chimed in, "I can't say that I disagree with that either. It's not like we're back in Polyhex in the old days, fighting a tyrant like Straxus. There's no Grease Pits, no Dead End, no Helix... The people who used to live and work in places like that – the ones that we're here to protect? They were carted up to the Imperials' prison just as quickly as our captured soldiers were. The only civvies left are the guys down here with us. They deserve their homes back, and it's up to give it to them. If we have to play dirty to do it, then that's what we do. If the Imperials don't like being bombed on their off-hours, they should have stayed home, or at least stayed the hell away from ours. Because Cybertron's our planet, not theirs."

Huh. For a second there, Blaster mused, I sounded like the old me.

Grotusque gave him another appreciative glance. "Thanks, Blaster," he said. "I'm not happy about it, but it's got to be done. They outnumber us a hundred to one and we're not going to right that balance by playing fair. And I think that's the last of the missions, since Sparky tells me we only have enough manpower for—"

Before he could finish, the meeting room's door swung open.

"Sorry to interrupt...!" Siren practically shouted, only to trail off as he saw the smashed table and flame-damaged walls. He seemed to mull over whether or not he should ask what had happened, then decided better of it. "Sinnertwin has me watching his security switchboard while he's out on patrol! Something tripped the gunfire sensors at marker eight! I would assume that one of our patrols was dealing with an angry beastie, except, well...!"

"Except we all know better," Gunrunner finished for him. "Anyone call it in?"

"No, and no one took credit when I asked, either!"

"Well, that's that," Grotusque said. "We'd better get moving. Marker eight is forty-two miles out, but they'll be here before we know it. I guess now we know that at least some of Clench's info is good."

That last bit made Blaster think some more. "Uh...what last thing, boss," he said. "Speaking of Clench...what are we going to do with him?"

Counterpunch didn't know what to make of the squad that Rage had assigned to him. There was a pint-sized Scorponok knockoff, painted in obscenely bright colours and muttering about how he needed to punch something. Beside him was an arrogant martial artist who never seemed to transform. A heavily-armed thug who looked at everyone and everything he saw as if he was evaluating how much he'd be able to sell them for rounded out the full-sized troops. And last and certainly least, there was a Ravage wannabe who transformed into a gun.

The Imperial commander had talked about them as if they were the best of the best that he had under his command. Counterpunch found that absolutely terrifying if it was true. Because if this rabble was the best that the Empire could marshal, just how bad must their regular line troops have been? It would have been enough to make him reconsider throwing his lot in with them if, of course, he'd planned on being at all loyal to the Imperial cause. But he couldn't care less about the Liege Maximo, whoever that even was, or his dream of galactic conquest. Counterpunch cared about one thing and one thing only.


Prowl was dead, alas. And Optimus Prime was Primus only knows where. But they weren't the only ones responsible for what had happened to him, not by a long shot. Dozens of Autobots had known about what was done to him and said nothing, done nothing, to prevent it. And the madman who'd actually implemented Prowl's designs, at the very least, was close at hand. Wheeljack had escaped the purge of Iacon and he was almost certainly among the refugees in the camp that Nemesis was bearing down on. Counterpunch looked forward to pulling his ridiculous-looking ears off and beating him to death with them.

So of course Counterpunch had no intention of stopping Nemesis in his self-appointed mission. Just the opposite, in fact – his plan had been to join him.

Which was why it was so goddamned frustrating to find himself shooting at Nemesis instead.

Oh, things had started out pretty well. They'd stumbled upon the massive black-painted Transformer on his own in one of the corridors. They'd seemingly caught him deep in thought, because he didn't notice that they'd arrived right away. For a moment Counterpunch had felt his Autobot self's memories clawing at him, felt Punch's visceral worship being triggered merely by the sight of his leader's face, graven in black. And in the moment that it took for him to choke down that disgusting feeling, that idiot Double Punch had rushed forward, claws snapping.

Double Punch had demanded that Nemesis surrender himself or face the consequences. And Nemesis had, of course, promptly shot him.

The Imperial hadn't been killed, thankfully. That would have created all sorts of extra complications that Counterpunch really didn't need in his life right now. But he'd certainly been stung enough to make him think twice about pulling another stunt like that.

Of course the gunfire, it had immediately enticed Gutcruncher, Banzai-Tron and Catgut into attacking as well, and that had drawn the attention of Nemesis' underlings. They had seemed to be entirely uninterested in defending their boss, so of course Catgut had decided to try and eat one of them. That had gone about as well as you'd expect, and now there was a full-fledged five-on-five shootout going on in the tunnels. If there was a bright side to it all, Counterpunch supposed that the other side's decision to leave their troopers to guard the rear had to qualify. In such a lopsided fight, it would have been almost impossible to keep these idiots from killing each other long enough to figure out a way to calm things down.

Rippersnapper scampered forward as fast as his ungainly form would take him, with Cutthroat hopping along behind him. The Terrorcons had realized by now that the ashy footprints they were following led towards one of the underground's rare spaces that were wider than a hallway. Rippersnapper expected to find the enemy congregating in the larger cavern, so he was taken entirely by surprise when a greasy claw shot out of the shadows and dragged him to a stop.

From behind him, Cutthroat groused, "If you tell me we've been following Blot all this time..."

"Get yer grimy paws offa me!" Rippersnapper shoved Blot away, adding in a snap of his shark-like jaws for good measure.

Blot responded with a slobbery hiss that sprayed lubricant in Rippersnapper's general direction. "You followed me. I followed them."

He grabbed Rippersnapper again, by the head this time, and shoved him face-first into the wall. Rippersnapper growled and tried to squirm free, but the big lummox had a grip like a vice.


Belatedly, Rippersnapper realized that Blot was guiding him towards a spy hole. Glaring through it, he saw...what? Several unfamiliar mechs having a shootout. But as he watched the fight, he realized that not all of them were unfamiliar.

"Where the frag did Optimus Prime come from, and who are he and Wheeljack blastin'?"

"Move it!" Cutthroat shoved Rippersnapper aside with the flex of a wing so that he could press one side of his avian head up against the peephole. "It's not Optimus Prime and Wheeljack," he said with a poorly-feigned patience that was just dripping with contempt. "It's that Nemesis character and some other dumb Imps. And...Counterpunch? What's he doing there?"

"Doesn't matter," Blot told them. "Let them fight."

"What the Pit're you sayin'?" Rippersnapper demanded. "That ooze you're always leakin' finally start ta eat yer brain? You tryin' ta tell us not ta jump 'em?"

"No, dummy," Blot said, shoving Rippersnapper roughly. "We're jumping someone. Just not them." He jerked a thumb in the other direction. "Come."

"And just what the blazing frag is over there that's worth passin' up a good scrap for?" Rippersnapper demanded.

"An even bigger scrap," Blot told him. "With their backup."

"So this is it, huh?"

Gunrunner looked around what was left of Grotusque's office. The one-time storage closet was now completely empty save for a makeshift "desk" on one side of the room and the two Autobots standing around it.

"Yeah. A big job of packing, let me tell you," Grotusque told him. "Lucky we had so much time!"

"You know that's not what I mean." Gunrunner sighed, then hopped up to sit on the desk. "Squalid as it is, I'm going to miss this place." He looked the other Autobot square in the eyes. "And I'm going to miss you too."

"Whoa, whoa! Reel in the drama." Grotusque held up his hands. "I don't plan on needing to be 'missed' for a hell of a long time."

"No one plans on dying," Gunrunner told him. Then he scoffed. "Except for maybe me, on my bad days. Before you gave me the kick in the ass that I needed to go on living. Kinda figured I'd have had longer to work on repaying you for that. And I know you're thinking that I might not come back from the Imperials' prison. But what you've got planned makes me wonder which one of us needs to hear the 'you've got so much to live for!' talk today."

"I told you," Grotusque said, his voice actually starting to show signs of annoyance, "I don't plan on turning this into a suicide mission."

"Trying to sneak into Iacon while security is heightened for the ceremony is bad enough," Gunrunner countered. "But trying to do it with Clench in tow? What else would you call it, if not suicidal?"

"I'd prefer 'bold'," Grotusque told him. "But I'd settle for 'fiendishly clever'." He sighed. "Look, Clench has to go somewhere. We can't leave him here to be captured, I don't trust him alone with our civilians, and I'm sure as hell not going to risk sending him up to the enemy's flagship. At least we know he has some friends left in Iacon. And honestly, Imperial or not...look at who we've got left to choose from, Gunny."

"If you're not happy with the quality of troops under your command," Gunrunner told him, "you should have done something to improve them while you were able to."

"That's not—" Grotusque sighed again. "I didn't even have a chance to be unhappy with them, Gunny, because I don't even know any of them! Blaze? Firecracker? Windmill? Who even are these people? Most of them have only been here a few weeks. I don't know their abilities or weaknesses, I don't know who's best for what..."

A third voice cut in. "That's because it's not your Primus-damned job to do that anymore! Or did you forget that the letters on your door spell 'Autobot Leader' and not 'Chief Strategist'?"

Gunrunner turned to see Fizzle standing in that same doorway.

"I ain't got any letters on my door," Grotusque told him. "Hell, I ain't even got a door anymore. Hun-grrr took it to use as a barricade. Which isn't to say that it's not damned rude to walk in on a private conversation!"

"You know what else is damned rude?" Fizzle said. "Hiring someone for a job and then spending the next two months undermining them at every turn."

"I have not undermined—" Grotusque was getting angry now, but his anger was no match for the white-hot fury that erupted from the Sparkabot. Gunrunner was impressed – he'd never seen Fizzle stand up like this before.

"Every single Primus-damned day!" Fizzle roared. "Every day you remind me that I've only got this job because everyone who's actually qualified for it is already dead. Every damned day you tell everyone who'll listen that you're already looking for my replacement because I'll probably be dead soon myself. It's not funny, nobody but you ever laughs, but you just can't keep it to yourself. But I kept my mouth shut, and I got the job done with zero resources, zero support and zero respect. And unlike you, I have taken the time to get to know all the new Autobots who've joined us. So instead of griping, how about you stop and think that maybe the guy that you chose for your old job has chosen the best people for this one?" Fizzle stopped and shook his head. "Ah, what's the point? You're just going to try and play it off with another stupid joke anyway. Whatever. Some of us still have work to do."

Fizzle started to leave, but only managed to get half-way turned around before he added, "And another thing! Stop calling me 'Sparky'! It's demeaning."

Gunrunner just stared after the strategist as he walked out. ", that was something, alright."

"Well, we all say goodbye in our own ways, Gunny," Grotusque told him. "And the little guy probably has a point. It's hard not to second-guess the guy doing your old job. And it's hard not to take the second-guessing personally when you know you only got the job through attrition. You and I both know that feeling." He sighed. "Ah, hell, that's no excuse. I know I'm not the easiest guy to get along with. But if I'm supposed to be the boss here, shouldn't I have at least tried, just a little bit?

"Ah, hell," he repeated again.

"It wouldn't hurt to try to take things just a bit more seriously," Gunrunner told him. "We all know how grim things are. Not everyone can stare death in the face and laugh at it the way you can. Like you told me a few weeks ago...sometimes they need you lie to them and tell them it's all going to be alright." He scoffed. "But I guess if I'd ever figured that part out, I'd probably be on the other side of that desk right now."

"Can I say how much I wish we were living in that universe?" Grotusque sighed. "But we're living in the universe where you're supposed to be going undercover as Imperials to do the prison break thing. So why am I still seeing you on that side of the desk?"

Gunrunner shrugged. "My team – and really, Fizzle did pick a good one – are getting the last of their stuff together. We should be out of here in ten minutes." He frowned. "Though Wheeljack might take longer. I told him if he doesn't finish rummaging through his junk drawers by the time the rest of us are ready to set out, he's going to have to catch up."

"Ditching the chaperone already?" Grotusque chuckled. "You're usually supposed to wait until you're out of the authority figure's earshot before you talk about doing that. Let alone tell him to his face."

"Yeah, well," Gunrunner said uncomfortably, "maybe that's because I think of you less as a boss, and more as a friend." He headed for the door before things could get any more awkward, only slowing down to add, "And in case this really is goodbye, Grotusque, you've been a good one. Thanks. For everything."

Skyjack only had a few minutes to get settled behind the desk in his new, still-bare office before he found an angry black and burgundy figure looming over him.

"Hello Rage," the Imperial Security Director said, feigning nonchalance and not looking up from the report he was pretending to read. "What can I do for you?"

"You can start by telling my where my head of security has been for the last two days," Rage told him humourlessly. "And before you try playing the 'you aren't technically my boss until tomorrow' card, stop and ask yourself just how many times I've heard that over the last few days."

"Your security director," Skyjack reminded him, "didn't want to be your security director, remember? And in spite of the fancy new office and title, I'm still the only halfway decent spy on our side. I still need to maintain relationships with my contacts, and I'm sorry, but sometimes that means I'll be working out of the office."

All of which was explicitly true, and none of which was an actual explanation for where he'd been. Even though Rage was probably the closest thing Skyjack had to an ally – let alone friend, Xal forbid – these days, the Cyberjet still struggled with the idea of actually being truthful with him. After the life he'd led, telling the truth, even in small doses, left him feeling naked. No, it was easier to offer a half-truth. Even when the actual truth would serve the same purpose and make for fewer complications, he just couldn't help himself.

Thankfully, Rage didn't seem to be in a mood to challenge him on the finer details. He did, however, certainly seem to be in a mood. "That's all well and good, but if you're going to disappear you need to let me know beforehand. I had a job for you and you were nowhere to be found." He crossed his arms and scowled. "Nemesis apparently got ahold of the location of the Autobots' base and decided to go on a merry jaunt to kill them all, with a handful of actually useful soldiers and a few dozen cannon fodder. Since you weren't here, I had to send Counterpunch of all people to go reign him in."

"You don't actually expect him to do that, do you?" Skyjack asked. "Counterpunch has every bit as much reason to go after the Autobots as Nemesis does. Maybe more so."

"Of course not," Rage waved a hand in the air. "But Overlord would be furious if I left myself to collect his wayward plaything, and I can't openly send reinforcements to someone who's defying me. And since my head of security wasn't available..."

"Again, I'm sorry about that."

I'm sure you are," Rage said in a voice that made it clear he didn't even slightly believe that. "Well, now you can start to make it up to me. Drench has also gone missing, and I trust him to behave far, far less than I trust you, or even Nemesis and Counterpunch. The fool didn't even show up for his own firing.

"Considering how close he was to our wonderful friend Clench," Rage added, turning their former commander's name into something resembling a growled curse, "I want him found and brought in for questioning immediately."

Skyjack felt a quick, cold jolt of fear stab at his innards. At times like this, he was very, very happy that his lineage had left him with a single inexpressive, T-shaped optic visor for a face, because what Rage was asking was exactly the last thing he wanted to do right now. In spite of what he'd said to his very unwilling catspaw a few days ago, he did genuinely think that Drench was a coward, and he had no doubts that the other Decepticon would spill everything he knew at the first sign of a harsh questioning. And since Rage almost certainly meant to lead the interrogation himself...

"I'm afraid I can't do that," Skyjack said, talking to fill the air as he desperately spun another lie in his head.

Rage looked like he was trying to work up the energy to explode in anger, but then he just sighed and deflated a bit. Clearly, the weight of all the high level insubordination he'd had to deal with recently was starting to weigh on him. "And why not?"

"Because I have the same suspicions you do. I think he's talking to Clench." Skyjack supposed that was true enough. After all, he'd sent the coordinator to talk to Clench, so he'd like to think that he actually had.

"He came back to base a few hours ago and I've had people watching him since he arrived. I'm hoping he'll lead us to the rest of his cell, but he's not dumb. If I bring him in for questioning – or if you drag him in for a beating – he'll know we're onto him. And then he won't have anything to do with them ever again."

Rage sighed again, more audibly this time. "Okay," he said. "Do it your way. But keep me informed. I've got a bad feeling that they've got something nasty in the works."

"So do I," Skyjack told him. "So do I."

That much actually was true. But he hadn't decided yet whether he wanted to stop whatever nasty thing it was that they were plotting, or if it would benefit him more to just let it happen. He certainly knew better to voice that thought to Rage, though. Friends or not, openly sympathizing with Clench and his associates was still the quickest way to wind up in the new commander's bad books.

Trying to deflect the conversation away from this topic before Rage could bring up any even more uncomfortable questions, Skyjack asked with feigned guilelessness, "So...enjoying the job so far?"

"Pah!" With that wordless exclamation, Rage turned on his heel and left.

As he tossed the gaudy scorpion into another wall, Nemesis reflected that he hadn't expected such an...exuberant reaction to his mission.

"Come now, Double Punch," he said, following up with a blow to the back of the head. "It is Double Punch, isn't it? The Empire doesn't prioritize introductions among its troops."

The eye-searing package of blacks, purples, teals, oranges and blues only responded with a snarl and another slash of his claws.

A loud crunch from behind caught Nemesis's attention, so he half-turned in time to catch sight of another of the loud-coloured morons (he thought this one was Banzai-Tron) standing over Slicer, preparing to drive a bayonet into the fallen soldier's head.

"Do it and you're next." Nemesis aimed his laser rifle one-handed at the martial artist. "I've been holding back. You don't want me to stop."

"What if we do?" The one with the shoulder cannon – Gutcruncher, he thought – had somehow brought an artillery piece to the fight, which he had parked on top of Take-Off and Turbo Master. He was ignoring their struggles and pointing all of the gun emplacement's batteries at Nemesis. "What if we've just been waiting for an excuse to scrap you since the moment your zombie carcass walked in the door two months ago?" He glanced at Banzai-Tron and said conversationally, "I know a family of Mecannibals who would pay handsomely to eat Optimus Prime's body, even if he's not the one currently occupying it."

"Oh, will all of you just stop already?" The voice came from behind cover, but Nemesis recognized it as Counterpunch, the new defector who'd recently joined their camp. "Seriously. And you people wonder why you started getting stomped on as soon as some real opposition showed up. You people are supposed to be a monolithic empire but I don't think I've met a single person in your camp who isn't a completely self-absorbed moron."

"I object to that last part!" Snare, who had demurred from joining the fight, also called out. "But otherwise I agree with this guy. Why exactly did you attack us for?"

"Certainly not on my orders," Counterpunch said, stepping out from behind his cover. "Or Rage's. Or anyone else's, for that matter. We're here to find you, not kill you."

"We're not?" Gutcruncher looked disappointed. "But the rates of return—"

"Nemesis is Overlord's pet project," Counterpunch reminded them all. "What do you suppose your 'reward' for killing him would be, exactly?"

"Fair point," Gutcruncher admitted. "I suppose I hadn't fully considered the profit/risk equation."

Counterpunch started to walk towards Nemesis. The all-black Decepticon tensed, his finger tightening on his laser rifle's trigger. But Counterpunch raised his empty hands in a placating gesture.

"Rage asked me to bring you back. Intact," Counterpunch told him. "Yes, he also told me not to fight the Autobots if I could avoid it, but..." he shrugged. "If you refuse to come back, my only choices are to fight you, or to go with you and fight them."

There was a scrabbling sound, and the small feline one – Catgut, Nemesis though it was – crawled out from under a wall panel that had been dropped on him. He scratched behind his ear with one paw and said, "I think we all know that's not what Rage meant."

"It definitely isn't," Counterpunch agreed. "But be honest with me. Who would you rather fight? Them," he gestured towards Nemesis's crew, "or them?"

He pointed deeper into the tunnels.

"I know what I'd rather do." He looked around. "Any objections?"

When no one spoke up, he turned to Nemesis. "Well, what are you waiting for?"

Nemesis still hadn't lowered his weapon, but he allowed his trigger finger to loosen, fractionally, off of the trigger. But after a few moments' consideration, he eventually let his arm fall slack at his side.

"My backup," he said eventually. "I'm waiting for my backup. Slicer, call them in."

The blue and grey Imperial looked up nervously at Banzai-Tron, who was still looming over him with bayonet in hand. But the martial artist stood down, allowing Slicer to climb to his feet.

"Unit Fifteen, we're ready to move out." There was no response. "Unit Fifteen? Sergeant 15-, uh...435? This is Slicer. Respond."

The air was dead for a few moment longer...until a fuel-curdling scream broke the silence. It trailed off into a dying gurgle, then was replaced by a sound like some slavering beast cackling before the channel went dead.

"I don't think they're coming," Turbo Master chipped in dumbly.

"Clearly not," Nemesis said. He tried not to let it sound like a groan, but he didn't think he'd succeeded. Then he glared over at Counterpunch. "Fine, you get your wish. Since my backup is busy being...I'm going to guess 'eaten', you're my new backup. Try to do better than they did."

Only a few moments later, Sinnertwin led his small contingent of guards into the space that the Cybertronians had so recently occupied. He sniffed the air with one head, then made a different disgusted face with both of them has the stench of ozone assaulted his senses.

"This is the spot," he said. "There's been a fight here, recently. Very recently. Spread out and look for clues."

"No bodies," Chainclaw noted. He transformed to robot mode and stood in the middle of the room as his shell sniffed around. "No signs of serious damage of any kind."

"So whatever this spat was about," Ironfist chipped in, "they seem to have settled it."

"Well, that's too bad." This came from Half-Track, a Decepticon – An actual Decepticon! Under Sinnertwin's command! – Micromaster who was the closest thing to a raw rookie that they had in their camp. "I was hoping they'd done our work for us."

"Pffft! What kind of talk is that?" Meltdown, who was Half-Track's senior partner and allegedly the other half of his Micromaster combiner vehicle mode (though unlike most, they could and did function separately more often than not), certainly wasn't about to let that stand. "I wanna smash them myself! No Impies are gonna cheat me out of a good scrap!"

"Lovely. They found me another Rippersnapper..." Sinnertwin growled lowly, then said, "I think you're going to get your wish. Ideas, people?"

"You had us circle around," Ironfist said. "If they left, and they didn't run into us, then we know where they're going." He stroked his lightformer cannon with something more than just anticipation.

"That makes sense, but—"

Before Sinnertwin could finish his thought, the entire tunnel shook as the sound of a nearby explosion rumbled his audio sensors. The rest of his team fell to the ground, but Sinnertwin's quadrupedal stance helped him keep on his feet.

"What in Unicron's black heart...?" Sinnertwin snarled, then opened a comm link and barked, "Siren, what in the hell just blew up?"

"There was a fuel dump at marker nine!" Siren called out over the comlink. "It's not there anymore! But! I'm reading three transponders! The special ones you told me about!"

Sinnertwin instinctively spat two mouthfuls of fire into the ground. "Those idiots," he said. Then, more loudly, "Those idiots! Are they still online?"

"I think so! The transponders are, anyway!"

"Good. That means I can kill them myself." Sinnertwin turned off the comm before Siren could should about whether or not he was serious. "Alright, change of plans. I have to go rescue my teammates from whatever they've gotten themselves into."

He looked over the group as if he was deciding who to leave in charge, but honestly it was no real choice. "Chainclaw, I trust you'll be able to pick up their trail. Follow them, but don't engage. Like Ironfist said, we know where they're going. If you call in to Hun-grrr, he'll be able to tell you the best spot to get the drop on them. I'm sure he's got some traps set up and waiting."

He'd damned well better! I'm sick of doing all the work in this outfit.

"I should be right behind you," he continued. "Hopefully with three other Terrorcons in tow. And if they're really, really lucky, they'll be in one piece too."

After tending to what seemed like two dozen "one last thing"s that his men had brought to him, Grotusque had finally been able to leave the base and make his way down to the small cubbyhole that his squad was gathering at. He had, after the combination of Fizzle's tongue-lashing and Gunrunner's talking-to, forced himself to trust in the fact that his strategist had made the right personnel choices. Even if he was only passingly familiar with one of them, he had to accept that Siren, Autofire and Blaze were the right choice for the job. Even if they would have their work cut out for them watching out for Clench...

...and Doublecross?

Seeing his fellow Monsterbot among the group of what amounted to strangers filled Grotusque with a mix of surprise and relief. But as much as the relief buoyed him, as a commander the surprise had to win out.

"What're you doing here, Two-Heads?" he asked, trying to keep his tone light. "I thought you said you were rolling out with the supply train and the civilians."

"That doesn't sound like something I'd say." Doublecross scratched his head in confusion with one of his dragon-faced hands. "No, Overflow said they'd be fine without me. The Micros have Crosshairs and a few Go-Bots to watch their back, and the Throttlebots waiting for them at the new fallback point. So I got them loaded up and saw them off."

Grotusque really wasn't sure about that, but again he forced himself to accept that his subordinates knew what they were doing. If worst came to worst, the Micromasters' Battlefield Headquarters truck was the farthest thing from defenseless.

"But how did you wind up here?"

"I was at loose ends. Fizzle spotted me and told me that he thought you could use a friendly face in the crowd. He pointed me in this direction and here I am. Glad to see me?"

"You have no idea," Grotusque told him. He would have embraced the other Monsterbot right then and there if it wouldn't have been so unseemly in front of the other Autobots...and if it wouldn't have been a sign of weakness in front of Clench.

And speak of the devil...

Clench moved forward from the crowd and spoke up. "We should get moving," he said in a tone of voice that made it clear he was trying very, very hard not to just give orders. "My supporters in Iacon will be able to aid us. But the longer we delay, the more time Rage will have had to root them out, and the more time Skyjack will have had to compromise them."

"Considering Skyjack is the one that led you to us," Grotusque pointed out, "I'm not entirely sure that he's not on our side."

Clench scoffed. "Don't make the mistake of trusting him. Anyone that does quickly comes to regret it. Skyjack is on no one's side but his own. Rage has made an ally of the spy at his own peril."

"I don't trust him," Grotusque said, "and I don't trust you either, Clench. But that doesn't mean that I won't work with you or him, if if it gets me closer to what \I want. You're helping us because Overlord turned on you the moment you stopped being useful to him. Skyjack seems to have his own reasons, and right now I'll happily take on anyone else who's willing to defy Imperial authority. 'Why' is a question for later. Is that clear?"

"Perfectly," Clench said. "Just one thing. If you do that, watch your back. Not all of my former colleagues are as trustworthy as I am."

When Drench returned to the cramped habitation suite that Rage had spitefully assigned him, he was not at all surprised to find Skyjack waiting for him. What did surprise him was that the Cyberjet didn't immediately try to kill him.

Skyjack, of course, responded as if he could read Drench's thoughts. "You can relax," he said. "If I was here to get rid of you...well, I'd hardly be here, would I? I'd have left a proximity mine under your desk and made sure I was somewhere with 200 witnesses when it went off."

"The head of security," Drench shook his head in disbelief, "is talking about orchestrating a terrorist bombing to kill the troops he's supposed to protect. What a time to be alive!"

"And if you cooperate, you'll stay that way," Skyjack reminded him. "Now tell me – did you see Clench?"

Drench took a minute to answer that. He didn't want to say anything that could betray his Liege, but he actually did believe that – in spite of his shifty behaviour and general untrustworthiness – Skyjack really did want to do what was right. Even if the supposed head of security himself probably didn't want to admit it. And right now, that meant doing what had to be done to improve their position, not looking to carry out petty vendettas. For Drench, that was a way of thinking that would take some getting used to.

"Yes," he finally admitted. "Yes, I saw him briefly. The Autobots are keeping him prisoner, but they're treating him well and he seems to be cooperating."

"That's actually more than I would have expected," Skyjack responded. "Clench seemed far too stubborn to actually change sides. I'm curious what happened to change that."

Drench smiled to himself, secure in the knowledge that this faceplate would hide all evidence of the expression from his...superior? Handler? Interrogator? Conspirator? However you defined their relationship, Drench enjoyed the fact that he knew something that Skyjack didn't. Clench and the Autobots had shown him the damning video evidence, and he knew exactly what had passed between Overlord, Rage and Skyjack a few days ago to bring about their very sudden promotions...and exactly how Clench had reacted to it.

"And how did they react to the information I asked you to pass along?" Skyjack probed further.

"Exactly how you'd expect," Drench responded as unhelpfully as possible. "Surprised, but not really."

"So they believed you?"

"Like they'd tell me if they didn't?" Drench scoffed.

"You're a smart guy," Skyjack responded archly. "Do you think they believed you?"

"I don't think they were willing to take the risk of not believing me," Drench told him after some thought.

"Good." Skyjack got up from Drench's desk and headed for the door. "I'll be in touch the next time I need something from you." He stopped on the threshold and added, "Oh, and be sure to let me know the next time Clench contacts you. Because I'll know anyway."

As the security chief walked away, Drench found himself struggling to find a really, really good reason not to shoot him in the back. Alas, he did.

He's still in Overlord's good graces, Drench reminded himself. Killing him now would accomplish nothing but putting me in front of a firing squad. Later, though...soon enough, these games he's playing will come back to bite him. And when they do...when they do, Skyjack, Overlord will be the last thing you need to worry about.

It seemed like today was just Nemesis's day for being shot at. No more than three minutes after Counterpunch had rallied his team of idiots into joining Nemesis' hunting party, the vanguard of their unit (made up of the equally idiotic Slicer and Turbo Master) walked right into a set of laser tripwires. Those tripwires set off a series of drone guns that had been poorly hidden in the tunnels' walls. As the complete morons around him panicked and got drilled with heavy machine gun fire, Nemesis coolly drew his laser rifle and started blasting the guns apart, firing over his troops' heads without bothering to worry about whether or not he'd hit them. Out of the corner of his optics he saw Counterpunch doing the same, which assured him that at least one of his team had a decent head on his shoulders.

Or two, in his case, Nemesis thought, remembering what he'd read about Counterpunch's past in the classified reports that he'd broken into.

The Imperials' awful information security was just another reason that he was brimming with contempt for them.

Belatedly, the other Imperials finally seemed to catch on that they were being shot at and started to do something about it. Snare and Banzai-Tron were the first, with the others following suit. The drone guns were made short work of after that, though it left the slowest among them (Double Punch in the physical sense and Turbo Master in the mental) rather worse for wear.

"You fools!" Nemesis barked at the entire group. "Don't forget your IR sweeps! There could be traps everywhere!" He kicked the nearest of the blown-out drones, sending it flying in Slicer's general direction. "Now get moving!"

No one actually bothered to obey Nemesis's last order as they left the room, which was a good thing for Vanquish and Fireshot. The two Micromasters were hiding in plain sight, so to speak, rendered invisible by their own built-in stealth plating combined with a small camouflage mesh that Wheeljack had loaned them. It left them totally invisible to the naked eye, but a more intensive scan would have been able to penetrate it.

And that would just be embarrassing...

Once the other group had left, Fireshot started to mutter to himself. Vanquish had long since learned to tune out the other Decepticon's ramblings, which tended to alternate between paranoid conspiracy theories and wild self-aggrandizement. He seemed to be on the latter today, judging by the few words Vanquish caught about how they totally could have taken the ten bulks who'd just wandered through.

Triggering his comm, the more sedate member of the Micromaster team reported in. "Hun-grrr, Direct-Hit, this is Vanquish. Ten hostiles just crossed our position. The surprise took something out of them, but they're all still moving. I'd estimate eight minutes before they arrive at your defense line."

"Good, good," Direct-Hit responded. Then, correcting himself, he said, "I mean, good work. Meltdown and Halftrack are right behind them, with a group of Autobots. Fall in with them and get back."

"Sure thing, boss," Like the rest of the squad, Vanquish knew that Direct-Hit wasn't really a 'boss' at all, just a mouthpiece who relayed orders and panicked in the field when they went wrong and nobody was there to tell him what to do. Unlike the others, he was mostly fine with that. Sometimes, being part of a unit that was notoriously mediocre was the best way to stay alive. After all, no one would ever think to waste the Terrorcons in a non-combat spotter role. Or the Combaticons, whenever the Decepticon medical staff had a chance to glue their blasted carcasses back together. But the Battle Squad? Being a part of the Battle Squad was the easiest gig that Vanquish had ever had.

Now I just have to make sure we don't mess it up by dying in the next few hours, and everything will be fine...

"You gigantic, blundering moron!" Rippesnapper shouted at Blot. "Why'd you go and do that, anyway?"

"Me?" Blot looked up from the Imperial trooper that he was pummeling into the ground with his massive fists. If the bulky ogre of a Terrorcon even noticed the flames that now filled the room, or the debris that had rained down on him, he didn't show it. "You're the one who fired the missiles into the room full of fuel tanks!"

"You're the idiot who opened door!" Rippersnapper shot back. His own armour was blackened and dented from the explosion, though he was truthfully one the worse for wear.

"Because there were Imperials in there!" Blot responded hotly.

"Well, they ain't any in there now, is there?" Rippersnapper was practically shouting now.

Cutthroat gave both of them a slap upside the head with his wings. "Argue later, morons! In case you hadn't noticed, there's still a bunch more of them." He clicked his beak, gesturing to a wall of several dozen Imperial troops making their way purposefully in the Terrorcons' direction. "And it seems like they've finally noticed there's only three of us."

"More for me to tear!" Rippersnapper barked, still buoyed by one of effervescent rages that he seemed to be fueled by.

"Uh...that sure is a lot of them," Blot, somehow coming across as the smarter of the two, pointed out. "I'm not so sure..."

"Ahhh!" Rippersnapper made a contemptuous sound. "Lemme at 'em!"

Sinnertwin watched it all through the feed from a camera that had somehow survived the carnage as he perched behind a false wall shortly up the corridor from where the other Terrorcons were preparing to make their last stand. He was, of course, in perfect position to save them...and he was, of course, not going to do it until he'd gotten to watch them squirm a little bit more.

"Ahhh! Get 'em offa me!"

As Rippersnapper ran past him, Cutthroat made a noise of contempt. "Wait, I thought you wanted to be let at them?"

"Ah, shuddup!" The white and blue Terrorcon was so busy trying to dislodge the half dozen Minibot-sized Imperial troops that had latched onto him that he ran face-first into a wall. Cutthroat got an enjoyable chuckle out of that, but he didn't have time to make any snide remarks before a hulking brute of an Imperial closed in and backhanded him. Instead of being batted away, though, Cutthroat latched onto the bigger enemy with his talons and beak and started to lash out with his wings. Out of the corner of his optics he saw Blot, who had climbed three quarters of the way up the wall, fending off half a dozen smaller foes with his flame breath while his slime shooter reduced their armour to mush.

Rippersnapper managed to pull off two of the Mini-Imperials, then used them as clubs to batter away the other four. "See, I told ya we got this!" he said...mere moments before another overly large Imperial joined the fray by clubbing him over the head.

"You moron!" Cutthroat snapped. "Fight more and brag less, or we'll—ahhh!" The winged Terrorcon realized belatedly he shouldn't hare let go of his quarry to speak, as the big Imperial dumped him to the ground and pinned him down with a foot. "Get off of me or I'll...I'll..."

Thankfully, Cutthroat didn't need to think of a credible way to end the threat as the Imperials' rear echelon started to scream bloody murder. Cutthroat saw half a dozen of them wreathed in flames, and so did his hefty opponent. The big Imperial took his attention – and more importantly, his weight – off of Cutthroat as he turned to investigate.

"Moron." Since he thought honour was for saps, Cutthroat had absolutely no qualms about transforming to robot mode and firing shot after shot from his magnetizer into the bulky enemy's back. The Imperial writhed and strained until finally his torso armour split in half from the opposing magnetic forces. As the big guy fell to his knees, Cutthroat grabbed a big chunk of wiring through the crack and pulled, tearing out as much of the other Transformers' insides as he could.

"That's right!" he said as the Imperial fell to the ground, deactivated. "That's what happens when you try to fight the Terrorcons."

"And don't you forget it," a new, familiar voice said, dripping with sarcasm.

"Sinnertwin," Cutthroat said, his own voice growing cold.

Great. We'll never hear the end of this.

"Cutthroat." Sinnertwin padded through the broken, burned-out bodies of the Imperials he'd attacked from behind, his twin beast-mode heads still on the lookout for enemy threats. "For the record, this? This right here? This is why I told you to call in before you engaged any enemies."

"We didn't need your help, you two-headed officious dope!" Cutthroat retorted. "We were doing fine on our own."

"Yeah, I saw that," Sinnertwin said dryly. Transforming to robot mode, he shot the big Imperial that had been dominating Rippersnapper in the back with his grenade launcher. "Now if you three are done playing – and if you can still walk – come with me."

If Rippersnapper didn't seem to be any more grateful for the help than Cutthroat was. "What makes you think we'd go anywhere with you, huh?"

Sinnertwin sighed. "Because where I'm going," he said, "there's a lot more enemies to hit."

Blot, the only one of them who'd seemed to have warded off his own attackers unscathed, dropped down off the wall and said, "Well? What are we waiting for?"

"What indeed?" Cutthroat asked rhetorically. "Lead on, two-heads. Places to go, people to kill and all that."

"If there's any killing ta do, I'll be the one doin' it!" Rippersnapper barked.

"You three didn't learn a thing from this, did you?" Sinnertwin asked wearily.

"Like what?" Blot asked innocently.

Sinnertwin sighed. "Forget I asked."

Grotusque stared at the blocked tunnel with a blank expression on his bestial face. He hadn't been here when the cave-in had happened, hadn't been witness to the tremendous loss of life – albeit, mostly enemy life – that it had caused or felt the horror as the Autobots' leader had brought the ceiling down on his own head to give his surviving troops a chance to escape. He'd only heard tell of the terror and the heroism second hand, and that had been enough to chill him to the core.

He hadn't been here then, and shamefully, he hadn't been here until now. Even though two Autobots that he considered friends were buried under the rubble, he hadn't bothered to come and say his goodbyes. There'd always been something more pressing, something more important. Or so he'd told himself, anyway. The truth was he hadn't wanted to come, because coming here would make it real. And it wasn't the loss he was trying to avoid. It was the extra weight of responsibility that settled itself on his shoulders when he let himself admit that they were really gone, and that he was really in charge down here.

Well, at least I don't need to worry about that anymore...

Almost immediately, he felt like slugging himself for his reflexive irreverence.

"Sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry. Prowl, both deserve better than I seem to be capable of giving."

" do alright." Doublecross interrupted the private moment of grief without apology, his twin dragon heads making a big show of looking quizzically at their fellow Monsterbot. "And you're not the only one who misses them."

Grotusque's fangs scraped against one another as he said, "Before they died, you made a point of telling people how dreadfully boring Rewind was every time his name was brought up."

"That doesn't sound like someth—"

"And calling Prowl a rules-obsessed obstructive stick in the mud."

"Now, that does sound like something I'd say," Doublecross admitted. "But that's not really the point, is it? Just because I didn't want to spend time with someone while they were alive doesn't mean I don't miss them now that they're gone. And it's not like I didn't like them. I just...don't always think before I talk, sometimes. You know how I get."

"I do," Grotusque said. "And you know how I get, but you decided to come with me anyway. I won't forget that."

"Are you thanking me or threatening me?"

Grotusque couldn't help but laugh at that.

But Fizzle, apparently, didn't share his mirth. "If you two are done having a 'moment', can we please get on with it? This...defilement is bad enough without having to wait our sweet time."

"Pardon me," Grotusque responded with a not-insignificant amount of annoyance, "but all of this was your idea. It couldn't have been mine, because you were very clear about not wanting me to second-guess your strategies."

"Yeah, well, it turns out that you're not the only one whose new job has him doing things he's not very happy about." Fizzle – who very much had been here, and knew exactly what was buried under all this twisted metal and rock – gave him a sour look. "We're ready. I'm going to need to bathe in acid before I stop feeling dirty about it, but we're ready."

Grotusque nodded. It was Fizzle's plan, and in any other situation he would have left the other Autobot to give the order. But here and now...

"Erector, set the timers," he said.

"Aye sir." The Micromaster didn't seem any more comfortable with what he was doing than Fizzle was, but like Fizzle he was swallowing his disgust and doing his job. He manipulated a remote for a few seconds, then added. "Timers are set for thirty seconds. I recommend you all stand back."

Grotusque did as the other Autobot asked, fluttering his wings and flying back around the last turn in the tunnel, where the rest of their team was waiting. Doublecross followed suit, while Erector and Fizzle chose the more traditional method of running like hell. All four of them got to cover with a few seconds to spare, giving Grotusque one more chance to regret what they were about to do before an explosion shook the entire tunnel around them.

With grim determination, the Autobots' leader made sure that he was the first one back around the corner to see what they'd wrought. In a different situation, Wheeljack's forcefield bombs would have impressed him with their brilliance. They'd managed to entirely remove the obstruction, while at the same time blossoming protective energy shields into place to hold the tonnes of rock and metal above them in place. It was a majestic feat of engineering, and Grotusque would have been happy to stop and stare at it...of the obstruction they'd just vapourized hadn't contained the last mortal remains of two of his friends.

Not wanting to linger on this ugly necessity a moment longer than he had to, he asked Erector, "How long will the fields hold?"

"Not long," the Micromaster responded. "Perhaps five minutes before the power cells are burned out. And after that..."

"After that, another cave-in," Fizzle said, following them out. "So we'd better get moving. The tunnel branches off not long past here. My team needs to head west to find our undercover operatives. You'll want to head north. I gave Doublecross a map of the tunnels with the path you'll need to follow—"

"No you didn't!" Doublecross asserted. "I'd remember a thing like that."

Not missing a beat, Fizzle continued, "—but since I knew he'd forget about it, I also made a copy for you." He handed a small datacard to Grotusque.

"Thanks." Grotusque took the card with one clawed hand and tucked it safely into a compartment, then hopped forward and under the umbrella of the force field that held the roof safely (?) in place. "Thanks for everything, Spar—" He shook his head. "No. Thank you, Fizzle. You took on a hard job at an awful time, you've done really good and I've done nothing but make it harder on you. So thank you for doing the job, and thank you for putting up with me." He clapped a hand on the other Autobot's shoulder. "If I do manage to somehow get myself killed, I know things will in good hands. But I'm not planning to die any time soon, so lets get this show on the road!"

Then Grotusque walked away, leaving a bemused Sparkabot and an amused Doublecross in his wake.

As much as Skyjack wished he could spend his whole day harassing Drench, he'd had actual work to do as well. There was a lot more to being head of security than dealing with the ins and outs of counterespionage, after all – such as making sure that security for Rage's ridiculous formal promotion ceremony was airtight. With Overlord's public appearances being so few and far between, everyone from the Autobots to Clench-supporting renegades to alien bounty hunters would be looking to take a shot at him.

The difficult part was that Skyjack, on an emotional level, wished them nothing but the best if they tried. Overlord had proven himself quite the madman, and Skyjack had no desire to remain yoked under the command of someone like that. But the odds were that they wouldn't succeed, and if they didn't, Skyjack himself had no interest in wearing the blame for a failed attack. And so, grudgingly, he would do his job to the best of his abilities...this time.

Looking over the plans that his underlings had prepared for his approval, the Imperial Security Director instantly saw at least six glaring holes that could be exploited by a skilled enough assassin. If he'd had a mouth, he would have let out a sigh.

I don't know which I'd rather think, he mused. That my minions' loyalties are as divided as my own, or that they're actually this bad at their jobs. I'd almost rather have Drench doing the job...

After taking the time to scribble corrections and new instructions over top of the papers he'd been left, Skyjack pressed the comm controls on his desk. "Rage, this is Skyjack. I've got the security protocols for this afternoon's ceremony ready for your approval."

After a not insignificant delay, Rage's voice came back. He sounded less than enthused. "I don't suppose they call for us to cancel the whole stupid thing, stay here to get some work done?"

Skyjack's T-shaped optic visor glinted with amusement. "Something tells me Overlord wouldn't sign off on that."

"No, I wouldn't be so lucky." Rage made a sound like stressed metal creaking. "Very well. Send them through and I'll take a look. The sooner we get this stupid thing over with, the better."

Counterpunch had never exactly qualified as a friend in Hun-grrr's books. He'd been too standoffish, too suspicious and too energetic for the Terrorcon leader to ever truly bond with. But he'd been a comrade, and since the truce had come into effect Hun-grrr had spent a significant amount of time working with the other Decepticon. He'd liked him well enough, and he'd gotten to know him fairly well. Or so he'd thought, anyway.

But clearly he'd never known the spy at all, because the Counterpunch he'd thought he'd known would have never led an Imperial raiding party right to his supposed comrades' front door.

But Counterpunch had done just that. Flanked by the all-black Optimus clone that they really should have killed back in Iacon when they'd had the chance – Hun-grrr had volunteered to eat him, but Prowl was having none of it – Counterpunch had appeared at the head of a column of heavily-armed enemy troops.

Behind Hun-grrr, the doors to the base remained resolutely shut. The space inside should have been empty by now, but of course Autobots would be Autobots and no small number of them were dragging their heels about evacuating. And coming from Hun-grrr of all people, that meant they were really dragging their feet.

Since the rest of the Terrorcons were out in the tunnels creating the kind of horror show that the surviving Imperials would have nightmares about for centuries, Hun-grrr's own resources were rather limited. Deluge and his rear guard unit were clearing out the last of the stragglers, and Chainclaw was leading a patrol back down the tunnels towards the rear of the enemy formation. Sinnertwin and the other Terrorcons weren't far behind, either. Unfortunately, none of them were in a position to be of much help to the Terrorcon leader right now, when he was the last thing standing between ten vicious Imperial killers and a base that was still infested with noncombatants.

Hun-grrr's beast heads lolled open in mirror-image smiles of anticipation. Right now, there wasn't a single place on the planet that he'd rather be.

The Imperials jostled forward, eager for battle, but Counterpunch stilled them with a gesture. "I owe it to this one to give him a chance to stand aside," the spy said. "Hun-grrr, you're a Decepticon. You know what the Autobots did to me, and what they did to Soundwave. Stop protecting them! There's a place for you and your Terrorcons in our ranks!"

"Your ranks?" Hun-grrr laughed from his left mouth as he spoke from his right. "Drrr...there isn't even a place for you, idiot! Or your monochrome knockoff buddy. The moment we're dead, you're next. Nnnn...don't pretend you don't know it! Is your revenge really worth your life?"

"I don't know, but it's sure as hell worth yours." Counterpunch shrugged. "I tried. Let him have it, boys!"

Double Punch was first, of course. Double Punch was always first, the vanguard of any attack he was a part of. And against a lesser enemy, a less-seasoned fighter, he was frequently last as well. His massive size and overwhelming strength was enough to smother most enemies under wave after wave of wild, rage-fueled attacks.

But none of this was new to Hun-grrr. The Terrorcon leader had sparred with the mighty Scorponok and held his own. And for all his vaunted ability, Double Punch was certainly no Scorponok.

The first thing Hun-grrr did was spit a mouthful of floor in the Imperial's face, blinding him for a few precious seconds. The second thing he did was lunge out with both necks, grabbing hold of his enemy's arms to try and keep his highly dangerous claws out of the fight. Scorponok, of course, was strong enough to wrestle out of this hold in a few moments' time. During their matches Hun-grrr had needed to very quickly jockey for position to avoid coming under renewed attack.

But, again, Double-Punch was no Scorponok. His strength wasn't equal to the task of pulling free, and neither was his armour equal to Hun-grrr's vice-like bite. With the horrible sound of tearing metal and ripping wiring, Hun-grrr bit both of the Imperial's arms off at the elbows.

Double Punch let out a decidedly un-Scorponoklike shriek before a quick blow from Hun-grrr's right head knocked him unconscious.

"Nnn...I really hope that wasn't the best you brought, Counterpunch." He smiled as he said it, because they both knew that it was. And he also knew what would be coming next – the mad rush of a disorganized mob, looking to avenge their fallen comrade but also terrified to engage Hun-grrr one on one. He wasn't disappointed. Seven Imperials charged all at once, blasters sizzling and melee weapons cutting the air in anticipation of soon meeting the Terrorcon leader's armour. And Hun-grrr? He dropped flat half a second before a barrage of hot plasma lanced through the door that he'd been protecting.

Hun-grrr's resources were limited, not nonexistent.

As Direct-Hit and Power Punch filled the corridor with streams of burning white death, the Imperial hit squad quickly scrambled for cover. Hun-grrr did the same as soon as a gap in their firing pattern presented itself. Once he was in a relatively safe spot, he transformed to robot mode and added the powerful booms of his sonic stun gun to the suppressing fire that the Micromasters were laying down. And even though they hadn't crippled or killed any more of the enemy, Hun-grrr smiled with satisfaction. The Imperials was going nowhere, his own backup was only minutes away, and the rest of the evacuees were surely already heading out the back exit, running scared from the sound of gunfire. He'd won, or so he thought.

But in all the commotion, he didn't notice that Nemesis and Counterpunch had slipped away...

In the month or so since Grotusque had last been topside, Iacon had changed. Where there had been nothing but swaths of abandoned, black cityscape, now there were lights strung up across the buildings, blazing like broad Nebulon daylight even in Cybertron's usual perpetual twilight. Or at least, they were blazing everywhere that there were still buildings.

Lying under a camouflage net atop the remains of an eight-story building that had once been a shopping complex, looking towards what had once been Iacon's downtown, Grotusque saw...practically nothing. The walls of the Decagon stood in the middle distance, brightly lit with dozens of squat, ugly prefabricated buildings dotting the space around it. The otherwise empty space. For at least five miles in every direction of the Autobots' old headquarters, there was nothing but flat, empty ground.

Huddled under a camo net of his own nearby, Siren asked, "When did they have time to do all of this?"

Grotusque winced at the volume of the other Autobot's voice. The Headmaster was trying to whisper, he knew, but his words still came out just a bit louder than your average Autobot's normal speaking voice.

"I have no idea," the Monsterbot admitted. "The Throttlebots' last report, when they were up here a week and a half ago, mentioned that the Imperials had started doing some demolitions. But this? This, I wasn't expecting."

He sighed.

"Well, there's nothing to do but go on with it, anyway. Be careful, get as close as we can, and see if any of us can get in a position to cause some trouble."

After Counterpunch had led him to the Autobot base's back entrance, Nemesis had immediately charged in. Laser at the ready, he kicked open doors and looked for Autobot stragglers. But Counterpunch...he didn't need to search. Thanks to the maps that Punch had been given, he knew exactly where he was going.

Wheeljack's lab was situated at the back of the old smugglers' warren. There were no labels, but it was obvious all the same. The fact that it had an intact door, and that the door had been reinforced, were a dead giveaway. No one wanted the Autobot tinkerer's latest inventions blowing up in everyone else's faces.

The reinforcement, however, did little to stop the trio of photon blasts that Counterpunch fired into each hinge.

As the battered door tipped to the ground in front of him, Counterpunch walked right into the lab without breaking stride. And when he did, he found himself face to face with the monster who'd defiled his body and violated his mind.


The Autobot engineer, for his part, was surprisingly calm. "Counterpunch, I assume? I suspected I might run into you here."

"That's all you have to say? After all you did to me? After all I suffered at your hands?" Counterpunch raised his sidearm and aimed it at the Autobot's head. Or he tried to. As he struggled to rein in his emotions, he found that his hands were shaking.

"Now, you're probably thinking about blasting me," Wheeljack continued as if he wasn't staring down the barrel of a deadly weapon. "I can't say that—"

Counterpunch's finger spasmed on the trigger. He missed the Autobot entirely even though he'd fired at point blank range, blasting a crater into the metal wall behind him instead.

"—I blame you," Wheeljack said, not even flinching in the face of the attack. "But really, you need to take into account two things. First off: you're dead. Literally. You died in prison a good decade ago. The only reason you think you're still alive is because we wired your brain into a living Autobot. So whatever poor excuse for a life you think you've got now, you owe to Punch. And to me. And second—"

Counterpunch had heard enough. Bringing up his left hand to steady his aim, he drew a careful bead on Wheeljack's forehead and pulled the trigger. The energy bolt hit dead on this time...but cut straight through the Autobot without doing any damage.

"Second," Wheeljack said, "you can't hurt me because I'm not really there. I rigged up this hologram because...well, because I actually am sorry for what I did to you. You were only ever supposed to be a mask for Punch, a subroutine he could switch on for better camouflage. You were never supposed to be alive. Or to think you were. But you do, and you're mad, and...yeah. I really should have known better, I guess is what I'm saying."

The holographic Autobot chuckled. "I'm sure you've unloaded on me at least once by now. And again – I don't blame you, really. But you might want to think twice about this mad-on you've got going. Because the thing is, you might be in the driver's seat now. But Punch? He's still in there. And me, I'm the guy who put you two together. And I'm not saying that I'm the guy who can take you apart again, but I'm damned sure going to have a better shot at it than anyone else. So maybe think twice about the shooty-shooty if we ever meet in person, okay?"

He chuckled again. "Of course, that's me thinkin' that the reason you're leading the baddies here is a personal grudge. Maybe they've just got a really good pension and benefits package, and maybe you didn't just charge from the door straight into my lab. And maybe it was one of your new green buddies who triggered my holoproj by blowing the door off. In that case," Wheeljack waved jauntily, "Hi random soldier #400006! Sorry for the confusing rambling! But hey, if I'm wrong then it won't hurt anyone when I say: Activate protocol aleph-seventeen!"

Counterpunch felt it like a stab behind the eyes. The Autobots' activation code was hard-wired into the body that he shared with Punch, and he could feel himself starting to change forms against his will. He could also feel the Autobot's mind begin to wake from it's slumber, digging its' hooks into their shared consciousness and trying to shove Counterpunch back into the dark closet that the Autobots had built for him. But this time he knew what was happening, and this time he could fight it.

"It hurts, doesn't it? I really am sorry about that. It wasn't supposed to, but...well, I'd never exactly done this before. But a way, he was more savvy than me, you know? He had me pack in some extra protocols, just in case that whatever's happened to you ever did happen. Activate anti-resistance subprotocol sentinel-nine."

The pain doubled and redoubled again, Punch's mind digging into his like a white-hot drill as it fought for dominance.

"Oh, and another. Activ—"

"NO!" Counterpunch fired, and fired, and fired again, his sidearm blasting anything and everything that looked like it might be a holoprojector. He didn't know how many shots he'd fired, or which one of them had done the trick. Only that eventually the Autobot was no longer standing in front of him and he could no longer hear him calling out command protocols.

But that was a small victory, almost meaningless compared to the battle that he was fighting inside his own head...and losing. Little by little, second by second, he felt more and more of himself slipping away. His body began to slowly reconfigure again, and only excruciating effort forced it back into its right shape – his shape. But only for a few moments at a time.

"No," he said again, much more quietly. "No. I'll die before I let you back in," he whispered to his Autobot counterpart. To show how serious he was, he forced his gun-hand back, inch by inch against his own body's resistance until the barrel was pressed firmly against his own chin. "I'll die first, do you hear me!"

His finger tightened on the trigger, but with torturous lethargy, with Punch fighting him with every ounce of his own strength. With every micron it got harder to move, his finger suddenly seeming to weigh more than his whole body—

And then his world went black.

Nemesis had no idea what he'd just witnessed. But he'd understood enough. Counterpunch was a tortured creature, twisted into a shape not of his own making by uncaring creators concerned only with how they could use him. A tool, to be used and discarded no matter how terrible the impact on his own life, his own mind.

Counterpunch was a kindred spirit.

That was why Nemesis had skillfully blown apart the holoprojector with his laser rifle when Counterpunch's own, scattered fire had proven inadequate to the task. It was why he'd brought the butt of that same laser rifle down over top of the other Transformer's head before he could take his own life, and it was why he now flung Counterpunch over his shoulder and carried him off towards the poorly-equipped medical alcove that the Autobots had left behind.

Because Counterpunch was just like him, and he couldn't stand aside and let him fall apart.

Because there, but for the grace of whichever of the Transformers' imaginary gods you care to choose, go I.

And Nemesis refused to go there. He refused to believe that there was no alternative to wallowing in self-loathing, desperately trying to reconcile the memories shouting to him that he was Optimus Prime with the Imperial programming that injected him with nothing but contempt for his past life. Because if there wasn't, if this really was all that he had to look forward to in life...then he might as well do what Counterpunch had been about to do, and decorate the base with the contents of his own skull.

I won't live like this, he thought grimly to himself. Not for one moment more.

The battle, such as it was, didn't last for very long after Chainclaw and company arrived, but not because their own numbers had evened the odds that Hun-grrr had been facing. Frankly, it really hadn't seemed like the Terrorcon leader had needed the help. But they'd kept the Imperials pinned down for long enough that the other Terrorcons had arrived, and...well, after that it was academic. The Decepticon beasts were nigh unstoppable in their combined form, as a blue enemy Wheeljack lookalike was learning as the massive combiner pummeled him against the tunnel ceiling. After a few moments the combiner dropped his quarry to the ground, where he lay unmoving.

And that, as they said, was that. Even the late arrival of a dozen or so of the Imperials' grey-green footsoldiers – survivors of the butt-kicking that Sinnertwin and company had laid out – hadn't been enough to change the equation. It was over, and the Autobots and Decepticons had won.

Of course, Chainclaw knew it wasn't as simple as all that. This had only been an advance team. Or maybe, he thought, the Imperials had genuinely thought that this was a strong enough force to defeat them. Truthfully, maybe it would have been if they hadn't been forewarned by Clench's stoolie. But either way, as soon as the enemy's commanders realized that no one was coming back they'd be following up in much, much greater force. And when that happened, Chainclaw really didn't want to still be here.

He looked over at Abominus and felt a not-insignificant amount of relief to see the Decepticon combiner split up into his component parts. Many were the stories of gestalts running rampant after a victorious battle, tearing into their own allies, so great was their blood lust. And Chainclaw definitely didn't want to deal with that today. Or ever.

"So." he asked Hun-grrr. "Where to from here?"

" didn't come up." A smugly satisfied grin split the Terrorcon commander's face. " one expected us to live through this. But for me? Polyhex. Can't let Blaster have all the fun. Drrr...for the rest of you? Not my problem." He shrugged. "Grrr...Grotusque probably wants you to head to the rendezvous though. Protect the civilians."

"To Unicron with that!" Ironfist muscled his way through the battle debris, kicking aside a fallen, feline-shaped enemy as he did. "If Polyhex is where the fight is, then Polyhex is where I'm going."

"Whatever," Hun-grrr shrugged. "No armour off my nose."

Chainclaw felt his shell's teeth grinding even as he said, "I'm coming too. I can't let you guys wander off and be stupid all by yourselves, can I?"

And that, as they say, was that.

Epilogue: ...are better than one

Half a kilometer closer to the downtown and nearly two kilometers higher up, Grotusque and Doublecross looked down on the massive enemy assembly.

The Autobot team had split up into pairs, each exploring a different avenue to launch an attack. While Autofire had accompanied Clench to a meeting with some of his partisans in the hopes of infiltrating from within the crowd, Siren and Blaze had tunnelled into Iacon's sewers in an attempt to approach from below. That left the two Monsterbots to take the high road.

So to speak.

The Compasspoint, as this tower had once been called, was by far the tallest building in Iacon. In its heyday a pair of Autobot resistance fighters wouldn't have even been able to get in the door, let alone to the penthouse suite. To say that things had changed since then would be an understatement. Abandoned for several hundred vorns now, the tower's entire east side had been opened to the atmosphere by an aerial bombardment. The entire thing had been build so well that it didn't just collapse, as a lesser building would have. But the twenty-degree slant that it acquired in the process made it a precarious perch. And more importantly, it made for a place that the Imperials wanted no part of...and thus, a place above their network of lights and sensors. The occasional air patrol had flown their way, but camouflage netting was more than up to the task of hiding the two Autobots' presence.

Which only left them with the problem of how exactly the two of them were going to take on the ten thousand or more Imperial troopers filling the square below.

"Doesn't look too promising, does it?" Grotusque asked his companion.

"Well, it's not hopeless," Doublecross responded. "We just need to drop a starship on them."

"Know where we could find one?"

With anyone else that would have been a rhetorical question, but with Doublecross...

"One that flies?" He frowned, rubbing his chin with one of his dragon-head hands pensively. "One that's close enough to get here in time but well-hidden enough that it'll still be accessible? I might actually..." But then Doublecross shook his head firmly, his voice changing slightly. "No. No, not any more."

Grotusque knew better than to ask.

"Well, we'd better figure something out fast. I love vacations as much as the next guy, but after seeing how the Imps have redecorated, Iacon sure isn't going to be on my destination list any—"

And then the world went white, taking the rest of Grotusque's joke with it.

He woke up as abruptly as he'd been knocked out, a stark blow to the head dragging him back to reality. Vision blurred, he was still able to make out Doublecross above him, getting ready for another slap.

"I'm up, I'm up," Grotusque told him. The Autobots' leader tried to sit, but his field of vision turned into one big blur as soon as he lifted his head off of the ground.

"Take it slow," Doublecross's voice said as he felt something toothy take hold of his arm as gently as it could. "That was one hell of an EMP. I'm only on my feet because I have twice as many brains to scramble."

"What...what happened?"

"Words won't do it justice. Can you stand?"

"No," Grotusque replied. "But I'm going to anyway. Give me a...hand? Mouth? Whatever."

The other Monsterbot gingerly dragged Grotusque to his feet. The commander obliged him by doing everything he could not to lose consciousness. Once he felt his dizziness fade, he slowly made his way over to the gaping hole where hundreds of years ago there'd been a window. Then he looked down...and couldn't believe what he was seeing.

The entire western grandstand, which had been packed with thousands of troopers a few moments ago, was gone. Not ablaze, or blown to bits, or flattened...gone, entirely, as if it had never been. Grotusque's internal radiation sensors screamed at him, and only then was he able to process what he was seeing.

"Well...we definitely didn't do that."

"Not any of the others either," Doublecross told him. "Not unless Crosshairs was hiding some really fancy ordnance from us all these weeks."

"Not important right now. Finding the others is." Grotusque activated his comm on the encrypted channel that they'd chosen...and got an earful of high-pitched static for his trouble.

"They're all like that," Doublecross warned him. "We're too close to the hot zone to punch anything through."

"Then let's get moving," Grotusque told him. "We'll have to track down the others on foot."

"Good idea," Doublecross said, jumping out the window and transforming to dragon mode. "The sooner we get out of here, the better."

"No," Grotusque likewise jumped out and transformed. "The sooner we take advantage of this, the better. The Imperials are nuking each other now, Two-Heads," he said with a toothy gargoyle grin. "There's no way they can keep a lid on this. And as soon as they tear into each other...we'll be there to finish off the survivors."

← Part Twenty-One | Index | Part Twenty-Three coming soon!

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