1. Best First by SkyShadow
*Part One: Thundercracker.*
His name is Optimus Prime.
Actually it’s not, but it’s a close approximation that refers to a language from which many fleshlings derive their own. His Cybertronian name was actually taken from an ancient binary code he found scrawled upon the walls of Polyhex during the infancy of the Autobot-Decepticon war. It read: ‘Send out the best first’. The graffiti addressed the unfortunate Decepticon practice of initially deploying weak but riotous soldiers to instil fear in the Autobot opposition. There was a name for those soldiers: each one was a Thundercracker.
And so am I.
For once, however, I was uncharacteristically silent. If I were human, my quietude could probably have been associated with the dirt which filled my mouth and pressed into my face. As I’m not, and my vocal circuitry wasn’t too severely impaired by the dust, I imagine it had something to do with the fact that there was a rifle pressed against the back of my head.
“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t pull this trigger, Thundercracker.” It was Optimus who initiated this conversation.
I scoured my files for a suitable dissuasion. Finding one, I hoped it was enough. “Did you ever meet Sentinel Prime?” At my inquiry I felt alleviation at the pressure plate on the back of my neck.
“Once. . .” Prime’s voice was more solemn than I had ever heard it before. “Only once.” I reminded myself to thank Swindle for selling me that new search engine. But I wasn’t out of the smelting pool yet.
“Me too,” I replied. “Like you, he had me at gunpoint and yet he let me go.” I winced at my choice of words. ‘Gunpoint’, more like ‘gunspoint’, Sentinel Prime was a living battle station. “He gave me an ultimatum, the terms of which I fulfilled.” I started grinning despite the dirt. “If you let me live I might even tell you about it.”
The terms of our subsequent agreement were as follows: I tell him about the time I met Sentinel Prime, and Optimus decides whether or not to vape me. They weren’t great, but they were better than nothing and I was in no position to bargain. I began my narrative.
It was shortly after the Vos-Tarn civil war. My fellow Thundercrackers and I were performing a raid on an Iaconian steel processing facility.
“Let’s clean this place up!”
“I believe the term is ‘clean this place out’, Windsweeper.” Apparently unperturbed, Spinister glibly corrected our colleague on his choice of phrase although I know Spin’ himself was always nervous about the ostentatious nature of Thundercracking. “Regardless, that’s not what we’re here to do. This is a simple hit and fly operation.”
“Then let’s take out the trash!” It was clearly apparent that Windsweeper’s job as Cybertronian Sanitation Officer was not left behind in his role as an army reservist.
Our task was to wreak havoc, and it was one at which I was undoubtedly proficient. We wasted the steel plant and the ‘Bots ran like. . .
“Is this relevant?” Prime interrupted. Apparently my descriptiveness offended his auditory sensors.
“No, I guess not.” I edited my story. “Anyway we hit and flew. . .”
On our return to Castle Decepticon, we perceived some sort of commotion at the foot of the fortress, but as fliers we considered such ground-based concerns as both metaphorically and literally beneath us. After entering through the sky-hanger, the three of us celebrated our success at the Castle’s oil house where we were meeting a colleague. He was a small, grotty ground support Thundercracker named Ruckus who used to hang around with us at least partially because he enjoyed offending Windsweeper’s aesthetic sensibilities.
“What’s going on downstairs?” I asked, referring to the hubbub at ground level.
“I was lucky to get into the castle!” Ruckus shouted. Shouting was Ruckus’s conventional method of communication. It was part of what made him an effective Thundercracker. “It looked like Sentinel Prime was setting up some sort of blockade!” he yelled.
Ruckus was fond of practical jokes. I assume they’re called ‘practical’ because they’re practically jokes, only they lack the aspect of humour. I wasn’t too concerned about what he’d told us, as his penchant for mockery had resulted in my taking everything Ruckus said with a grain of sodium chloride.
On finishing our drinks we began the trek to our quarters through the labyrinthine corridors of the castle. The other three talked among themselves and even Ruckus had lowered the volume of his vocal circuitry so that I wouldn’t overhear. I was slightly offended, but I had been a co-conspirator in, as well as the butt of enough of Ruckus’s ‘jokes’ to know that it wasn’t personal. Passing a door in an unfamiliar corridor, the only sound I heard from Spinister, Ruckus and Windsweeper was a synchronised count of “one. . . two. . . three. . . push!”
And that was how I was thrust into a meeting of the Decepticon council.
I recognised several of the faces turned towards me. On opposite sides of the room sat Shockwave and Starscream, the former rulers of Tarn and Vos respectively. I say former rulers, but I mean the rulers of what were formerly Tarn and Vos, before their war led to Starscream impatiently firing a photon warhead at his nemesis’s city. The only logical recompense for Shockwave was to send his own ‘deterrent’ missile against Vos, in the hope that Starscream wouldn’t survive long enough to desecrate the ashes of Tarn. Ironically, both leaders survived the destruction of their city-states and their legendary hostilities had led to their positions in the highest echelon of the fledgling Decepticon Empire.
Other familiar Decepticon figureheads included Soundwave, Scorponok and… I froze. There, before me was the Decepticon Overlord, our ruler.
“Yes?” The Overlord unfortunately thought that my entrance warranted a break in proceedings. I began to wish I had Spinister’s alleged ability to turn invisible. On that subject, I suddenly noticed Ravage, the Overlord’s black, cat-like bodyguard and another Decepticon, both of whom were almost indistinguishable in the shadows by the door.
“I’m sorry, I’m in the wrong place.” I wanted to self-destruct.
“I am 97% certain that you are correct, Thundercracker,” said the ever-logical Shockwave, referring to my rank rather than my name.
“On the contrary, Shockwave, his timing couldn’t have been better.” The Overlord spoke haughtily. “We need an emissary to Sentinel Prime. We need to know his demands and why he’s begun this foolish blockade. This Thundercracker will be that messenger.”
Starscream laughed oilthirstily, the first time I’d heard the maniacal snigger that I would hear so often in the millennia to come. His laugh was joined by others as I turned to leave. At the door, I noticed that the Decepticons I’d seen in the shadows had not joined in with the laughter. For the first time, I saw the Decepticon accompanied by Ravage. The illumination from his yellow eyes created light, but also emphasised the shadows that fell upon his face. He subtly nodded his head as if to salute. I returned the gesture, and left through the door I should never have entered.
I moved through the passageways like a facsimile construct, a mindless drone. Sentinel Prime was rumoured to be an unrelenting predator and I was live bait. The Decepticons in the foyer stood well away from the doors when they opened and yet as soon as I left the safety of the castle they slammed the gates shut behind me.
Prime was an awesome sight, the branches of his battle-station mode stretching in all directions like an unharnessed vine. With my appearance he transformed, draining the tendrils into and around himself until the visage of Iacon’s protector became unmistakable.
“You are not the Overlord.” Sentinel’s voice boomed in a way that made Ruckus sound timid.
“I am his emissary.” I was surprised that I could remember my assignment. I recited the Overlord’s requests. “What are your demands and why have you begun this fool. . .” /Oh, Primus. He’s going to eat me alive and use my rockets as toothpicks/, “. . . fool*proof* blockade?”
“My ‘demands,’” he continued. I had thought the Overlord would be the most condescending Cybertronian I would speak to that day. I was mistaken. “My demands are that the Overlord stop hiding inside his tin castle and that he stop sending gun fodder against my troops.”
His point was sound. My squad was lucky; not many Thundercrackers had lasted as long as we did. Most never even survived their first mission.
He lowered his volume. “Look, Thundercracker, I recognise you from the holovids of several corporate raids against my city-state. You’re good, but I’m better and you won’t last much longer the way things are. I’m offering you a chance. Lead a campaign against the Overlord’s ‘weak first’ policy.”
I was astonished. The Autobot commander-in-chief was trying to recruit me? Again in a low tone of voice, Sentinel continued. “People like you are the limbs of the Decepticon empire, I need an opportunity to attack the head. I’ll keep my optical sensors on you, but do what I ask and I won’t train my laser sights on you as well.” He subtly palmed a communicator into my hand. “I shall call on you again,” he said.
The missing decibels returned to his volume. “When they send out the best first, I shall be ready.”
And with that, he transformed and the battle station flowed out through the streets of Polyhex like a canal.
I paused, ruminating on the event. *Optimus* Prime’s voice brought me back to the present.
“You said that you only met him once. That was it, then?” he asked. I noticed, for the first time that Optimus sounded just like Sentinel did when he diminished his volume.
“Meet him? Yes, just that once.” I crossed my fingers for luck, in accordance with the fleshling custom. “So, Prime, does that story buy me my life?”
He paused. “Not yet. Tell me about the aftermath of your meeting. Then I’ll deliver my verdict.”
I frowned and continued my tale.
Dumbfounded, I turned back towards the Castle and for the first time I noticed a multitude of faces peering out through the portholes. The doors opened, and despite Sentinel’s absence, the Decepticons in the atrium stood away from the entrance once more. Likewise, the robots in the corridors stared, but stayed away from me. I was concerned that they’d overheard Sentinel’s hushed decree, but I soon recognised the emotion emanating from my comrades. It was fear. The reputation Sentinel Prime had built around himself was one of an unforgiving, vengeful Autobot. Thus, the fact that I’d survived a confrontation with him had instantly infused in me a notoriety of my own.
I returned to the quarters that my fellow Thundercrackers and I shared. Spinister and Windsweeper were missing, and the absence of certain armaments suggested they wouldn’t be back any time soon. Collapsing into a chair, I initiated a corporeal shutdown. After processing, I compiled an index of the information with which I’d been bombarded during those fateful breems. 1.1: Prime wanted me to terminate the ‘weak first’ policy. That would certainly be seen as treasonous within the empire, but it had its advantages. 1.2: Officially known as the upkeep legislation, the ‘weak first’ policy regulated the deployment of Thundercrackers and other shock troops while preserving any ranking Decepticons in bureaucratic roles within the castle. 2.1: The high mortality rate of Thundercrackers would be greatly lowered if we were accompanied by more powerful Decepticons, it would be an enormous benefit to have warriors like Starscream and Scorponok in the field. 3.1:. . .
I rebooted with a start to the sound of my distaphone. Glancing at its display, I noticed there were two messages. Had I slept through the first one or had I neglected to notice it on my homecoming? Initiating its replay button, I was shocked to hear the various pitches of monotony that were easily recognisable as Soundwave’s vocal tones.
“Thundercracker, our Overlord is pleased with today’s success. Meet us in the council chambers as soon as you receive this message.”
I pulled myself out of my chair and scampered towards the door. The second message began to play. The background noise was obscuring the vocal track to the point where I could barely recognise Spinister’s voice.
“It’s me. . .” he said over the commotion. I absconded our quarters, knowing the message would have to wait. Destiny was calling.
I pushed open the door to the throne room. For what seemed like the hundredth time today, faces turned towards me.
From Scorponok I heard a muffled “doesn’t he ever knock?”
“I left him a message *decabreems* ago,” mumbled Soundwave.
“Ah, Thundercracker. Thank you for clearing the junk out of our front yard.” I couldn’t wait to tell Windsweeper that the Decepticon Overlord used sanitation metaphors. “You’ve saved us considerable annoyance: the council could really use a Decepticon like you. There’s an opening in our Propaganda Ministry, and with that silver tongue of yours, I think you might just be able to fill it.”
“Whatever the Ministry needs,” I said, genuflecting.
“Very good,” said the Overlord, “because the Ministry needs a Minister.”
Even *I* was almost speechless. Job interviews always made me nervous, and I suddenly realised that I was being interviewed by the biggest authority figure of them all. “Of course,” I said, getting my mouth into first gear. My cerebro-centre, however, was still lingering behind. “What happened to the old Minister?” I asked.
The Overlord smiled. “The previous Minister was killed for defamation,” he replied.
“I didn’t know you could be killed for defamation,” I said, slightly shocked.
The Overlord’s smile broadened into a grin. “You can if the robots you’ve defamed get their gauntlets on you,” he said. Behind him, Scorponok failed to stifle a snigger. I glared at him.
“I accept the position,” I said, abruptly.
“*Good*,” the Overlord replied, in his resonant bass-baritone. “Soundwave should be able to tell you what you need to know about your new occupation. I wish you luck.” He turned to the others, “Valvolux. . .”
I didn’t really listen to the rest of the meeting, awe-struck as I was with my new position. Having learned what I could from Soundwave and, it seemed, once he had learned what he could about me I finally pushed all thoughts of Sentinel Prime out of my cranium. Prime couldn’t get near me in my role as Minister of Propaganda, the irony of which escaped me at the time. For once, I had nothing to fear. Unless I started defaming dangerous Decepticons, of course.
My first treatise as Minister of Propaganda was to be a positive spin on the battle of Valvolux, most of which had taken place, embarrassingly, while I was shut down that evening. Soundwave equipped me with the necessary files and I made my way back to the barracks.
On my way out it struck me that Ravage and the Decepticon with the yellow eyes had been absent from the meeting. It seemed particularly odd that Ravage, the Overlord’s bodyguard was nowhere near his master’s body. Not that the Overlord really needed anyone to protect him. Even if he wasn’t within the inherent safety of the castle, our leader was such an imposing figure that most adversaries fell to their knees just at the sight of him.
The Overlord had once been Sentinel Prime’s main political opponent, back when the division between Autobot and Decepticon was first becoming apparent. I must admit that Sentinel was a great man of action, but his deeds tended to be overshadowed by the Overlord’s oratorical skill. Prime’s achievements as Cybertron’s premier martial lawman could not compare to the Overlord’s promises for our race’s future. When the Overlord came to power, he took credit for policies put in place by the previous government, while any failures of his own were blamed on others.
Valvolux was one of these failures. My first duty as Minister of Propaganda was to blame the Battle of Valvolux on a little-known Decepticon officer.
His name was Megatron.
*Part Two: Megatron.*
Optimus Prime was pacing back and forth in obvious aggravation. For a moment I thought that in his distracted state of mind he might not notice if I transformed to my jet configuration and took flight. But only for a moment. Of all the Autobots, Optimus was the most composed and as such he would have soon recollected his thoughts and blown me out of the sky. As it was, very few subjects upset the Autobot Commander. Unfortunately, I’d touched upon the worst.
“It always comes back to Megatron, doesn’t it?” He asked this of the universe in general. When it became clear that the universe had no intention of replying, he turned to me for a response.
“Umm, Prime?” I answered. “It’s going to be pretty hard for me to continue this tale without referring to. . . that particular Decepticon. At this point in the story, he’s basically the main protagonist. Perhaps it would be best if we just called it a day.” Smiling, I packed up some imaginary belongings and prepared to leave.
While crawling around in the dirt, I soon felt the now-familiar muzzle of Prime’s blaster at the rear of my neck. “You owe me an anecdote, Thundercracker,” said Optimus, from the other end of the rifle. “I’ll either hear it now, or I’ll remove it from your cranium and view it later.” As I mentioned, nothing riled Prime like the reminder of Megatron’s existence.
“Alright, alright,” I said repetitively. “But I won’t energon-coat it for you. No censorship this time.” I wasn’t really in a position to bargain, but Optimus had been stifling my creativity. Surprisingly, he agreed.
“Tell the story as you see fit,” he said. “Just remember who’s adjudicating.”
As if I could forget. Frowning, I recommenced my tale.
I finished my article, and hit ‘send.’ Relaxing in my chair, I savoured the fuel-soaked night air. I was *the* Thundercracker, the Decepticon Minister of Propaganda and I had just written my first editorial. I was amazed by the feeling of power with which I was infused. Mine was the power to mold reality. What I wrote was fiction and what I wrote was fact.
The ‘fact’ was that the Battle of Valvolux had been a disaster. We should have walked all over the Iaconians, but they had been tipped off, which wasn’t surprising. Most Decepticons considered the borough of Valvolux a personal matter, whether they approved of its existence or not.
After the destruction of Vos and Tarn, the Iaconians had provided refuge for any of the survivors who wished not to remain in Decepticon territory. Valvolux was the borough of Iacon set aside for the refugees. The district itself had very little going for it: the Iaconian oil pit was situated right on Valvolux’s border, and many of the ‘New Autobots’ were hired as Pitworkers. The work was dirty, menial and badly paid and in fact, Valvolux was little more than a ghetto for Ethnic Decepticons.
For every Decepticon who believed the New Autobots were traitors, there was one who, in spite of misgivings, had valued friends or family in Valvolux. The Thundercrackers’ mission was to put the oil pit out of commission and offer repatriation for the Ethnic Decepticon refugees. The casualties that would have doubtless occurred on both sides were insignificant in the minds of the Decepticon Council, who believed the message to the ex-Cons and the destruction of the pit would outweigh the negatives. Regardless, the Iaconians were waiting, the Thundercrackers were ambushed and our front line was annihilated. The mission was a mitigated unsuccess and, just as victories attract all the sheep, failures tend to draw only one scapegoat. It was my job to make a robot called Megatron the fall-bot of Valvolux.
Optimus Prime grinned from aural receptor to aural receptor. It was not an easy phenomenon to observe (mainly due to the fact that he has no mouth), but his eyes spoke volumes.
“You’re actually enjoying this, aren’t you?” I asked him.
“No, I’m not,” said Prime, clearly trying to regaining his composure. “I only just remembered *that* article.”
I was aghast. “You thought my editorial was funny?” My creative temperament was urging me to beat the grease out of him.
“No,” said Prime, luckily for both of us (but mostly lucky for me). “I just remembered that you described Megatron as ‘unfit to lead iron filings to a magnet.’”
“I’m not proud of it,” I said, remorsefully. “When did you get a chance to download it, Prime?”
“Actually, I read it when it was first published,” Optimus said. “I had been at Valvolux, so the article piqued my interest.”
“What?” I solicited more information, because Prime’s statement didn’t mesh with what I knew of his history.
“I was at the battle of Valvolux,” he continued. “At that time I was just a soldier. My superiors had offered me countless promotions, but I told them that I would rather take than give orders. At Valvolux, I was simultaneously amazed and horrified by the surprise attack we had prepared for the Decepticons. Sentinel Prime was otherwise occupied, so the trap was set by his deputy, Alpha Spreem. Spreem had always been a good Autobot, but was perhaps overprotective of Iacon to the point that he would defend it at all costs. He requisitioned half the Autobot army, and we submerged ourselves in the oil pit, up to our optical sensors. When the Thundercrackers arrived, they were on the receiving end of both a literal and metaphorical oilbath.”
For the second time in minutes, Prime composed himself. “The next day I accepted my promotion. Not because I had taken pleasure in what I had been a part of, but because in the future I wanted the power to make things different.”
“You know,” I said, after a lull in the conversation. “I would have sworn that Valvolux was before your time.”
After another silence, Prime spoke again. “You know what they say: if you can remember Valvolux, you weren’t there.”
/Did ‘they’ say that?/ Although it sounded vaguely familiar, I didn’t have enough time to consider the cliche’s origins before Prime interrupted my train of thought. “Don’t overstep the boundaries in our captor/gun fodder relationship, Thundercracker. You were telling me about Megatron.”
Prime *wanted* to hear about Megatron: my day had just become even stranger. I picked up my story where I’d left off.
Even at this early stage in his career, Megatron had a chequered history. He was a Tarnish citizen, but after Starscream nuked the city-state, Megatron had to start his life again from scratch. Like many of the refugees from Tarn and Vos, he journeyed to Polyhex, the city of chance. Although Megatron had been a celebrated gladiator and public figure in his hometown, Polyhex was a completely different smelting pool of Sharkticons. The Polyhexians saw the asylum seekers from the devastated cities as competition for fuel and employment, and resented the ‘special’ treatment the refugees received from the Empire. Consequently, Megatron’s ambitions to build a new name for himself were quelled by his inferior social status. He saw the military as the only available road to greatness, and signed up with the Thundercrackers.
Megatron’s personal magnetism and gladiatorial skill fueled a swift rise to power which, due to the upkeep legislation, took him away from Thundercracking and placed him in a career of bureaucracy. His resentment of this was almost tangible, and although he had never accompanied our unit of Thundercrackers, it was a well-known fact that Megatron had never cancelled his commission and regularly led militias into battle. This displeased the Overlord, for it was clear to him that the soldiers’ respect for Megatron was almost greater than was their reverence of their Overlord. I myself had often heard stories from other units who, fresh from combat, could not contain their veneration for the Tarnish soldier who had led them to victory and proclaimed him the greatest of all Decepticons. Time and again, the Overlord had told Megatron to cease Thundercracking, and yet Megatron refused to withdraw from the corps. The Overlord’s most recent appeal had been rejected immediately before the Battle of Valvolux.
The Overlord had told Megatron that he was sending the Thundercrackers to Valvolux, to raze the borough’s oil pit and deal with the treacherous New Autobots. Knowing he could enhance the Thundercrackers’ effectiveness, Megatron informed the Overlord that he was now determined to lead the attack. In spite of the Overlord’s apparent reluctance to let Megatron spearhead the operation, he eventually acquiesced to the Tarnish refugee and sanctioned the request. As it was, Megatron would have been better off if he’d stayed at home. My editorial would stop his career in its tracks. Oddly, in spite of this, the adrenalon surges in my processors kept me above any concern for my safety. /After all,/ my logic workstation told me, /if I was safe from Sentinel Prime then I was safe from Megatron./
I had assumed that Spinister and Windsweeper must have fought and fled alongside Megatron at Valvolux. What I couldn’t understand was why they hadn’t returned. From all reports, aerial Thundercrackers weren’t even involved in the actual battle, so they should definitely have been back at the Castle. I decided to wait up for them.
I was woken by a loud *thump*. Turning to the door, I saw that Spinister had barely entered the room before he dumped his trademark burden of military hardware and equipment on the barracks’ floor. Spin’ lived by the dictum that it was better to be safe than sorry, and always carried twice as much weaponry as anyone could ever need to use. In contrast, Windsweeper appeared to be unarmed, a misapprehension that had been many Autobots’ last. ‘Sweeper had developed what he called ‘Triggercon’ technology, a self-contained weapons system that he had built into his own arms. Spinister and I had both been amazed by the speed at which Windsweeper’s new laser cannons deployed, but he claimed that we’d missed the beauty of them. Apparently the point wasn’t the rapidity at which the weapons were armed, but how neatly they folded away.
“So, where have you been?” Spinister addressed me while Windsweeper cleaned up Spin’s stockpile of armaments.
“Where have *I* been?” My confusion at Spinister’s surreal interrogative was clearly evident. “Should I not be asking that of you?”
“Didn’t you check the distaphone?” Spinister’s question provoked a moment of realisation.
“Oh, grease!” I moved over to the phone, the display now read: ‘three messages.’ I pressed ‘replay’ twice, skipping the message from Soundwave. Again, I scarcely heard Spinister’s husky tones above the racket that surrounded him.
“It’s me,” his voice said again. Now that I was less preoccupied, I recognised the soundtrack to his message as gunfire combined with some sort of unintelligible moaning. “We’ve been ambushed, the front line got hit, but the rest of us have strategically withdrawn. Ruckus has been hurt bad. Meet us at the military hospital when you get this message.” Spinister’s second communique (which he must have left during my second meeting with the council) was much more concise. All he asked was “where *are* you?”
After the messages, none of us wanted to break the silence. Finally, I asked, “How’s Ruckus?”
“He was in intensive care all night.” Windsweeper put down the fusion bomb that he was cleaning. “His phalanx reached Valvolux first, and shortly afterwards they were ambushed by the Autobots. Although he was hit by a proton missile, Ruckus still managed to scream out a warning to the rest of us. Spinister and I flew over the oil pit and grabbed any pieces of Ruckus that looked important before flying out of the firefight.” I couldn’t believe it. Windsweeper actually went in close proximity to an oil pit.
Spinister continued the tale. “It was at this point that I called you the first time. We flew what remained of Ruckus to the field hospital. Unfortunately, I was the one who rescued his voicebox, because he didn’t shut up at any point during the entire trip.” I gathered that Ruckus’s moaning was the other part of the backdrop to Spinister’s message.
Windsweeper took over again. “At the hospital, we gave the components that had been Ruckus to the mechanics and waited. After a while, we were joined by another Decepticon. . .”
“Megatron!” Spinister interrupted. I had never heard him so excited about anything. “He was there to commend Ruckus for warning the rest of us about the Autobots’ trap.” I suddenly felt very guilty about the propaganda that would no doubt be all over the Castle by now.
“The three of us went to check on Ruckus,” Windsweeper continued, glaring at Spinister for cutting in. “Ruckus was a complete mess of melted steel, loose wires and leaking oil, even more so than usual. He asked where you were, he thought that maybe you didn’t come because you were mad at him for pushing you into the council chambers.” As bad as I felt about discrediting Megatron, I felt worse about Ruckus’s misconception.
“That was when I called you the second time,” Spinister interposed. “The mechanics worked on him all night while we waited outside. ‘Sweeper and I spent the hours of darkness talking to Megatron. We must have shut down, because the next thing we remember was being approached by one of the mechanics.” Spinister stopped. For the first time since the story began he didn’t want to continue.
Eventually, Windsweeper put an end to any tranquillity. “Ruckus didn’t make it,” he said.
*Part Three: Flywheels.*
“I would rather die than lose my wings,” I said to Optimus Prime, apropos of nothing.
“That can be arranged, Thundercracker,” he replied, still playing the part of disinterested executioner. I knew, however, that he would have killed me by now if he hadn’t genuinely been drawn in by my story.
It was true about my wings, at least to an extent. I *would* rather die than know I could never fly again. Of course, Decepticon science could easily fashion new wings for me, so my previous statement was clearly hyperbolic. Mindwipe had once shown me a program in which a rabbit was held captive by a fox and a bear. The rabbit tricked the other animals into setting him free, by saying he would endure all sorts of tortures, but there was one that he couldn’t abide, which was being placed in a certain environment. The fox and the bear then chose the environmental torture that the rabbit had suggested, but it was a bluff. Apparently, the rabbit had been created and trained in that particular ecosystem.
“For now, I’d like to hear the rest of your story,” Prime continued, interrupting my train of thought. “If you would, Uncle Thundercracker?”
/Slag,/ I thought. /Prime must have also seen the rabbit program./
I resumed my tale.
I spent my days feeling claustrophobic within Castle Decepticon, so by night, I would go up to the sky-hanger, transform and take to the air. Flying had always helped me clear my head, but a little air could never clear me of my deeds. I was the Decepticon Minister of Propaganda, and as such, I could make everyone believe that Cybertron was flat and the sky was blue. I had already convinced the Decepticon populace that Megatron was a fool. But I knew the truth. Reality was staring me in the face and it was unalterable, as irreversible as death.
Morning had broken, the sky was black and robots were moving like insects through the unholy nest that they called Polyhex. While airborne, I could distance myself from terrestrial concerns, but it was time to bid farewell to the stars and ground myself once more. The ants were mysteriously gathering at the foot of the Castle. I landed, transformed and found myself among them. Moving through the crowd, I eventually saw someone I recognised. “What’s the fuss, Flywheels?” I asked.
I wasn’t too surprised to see the maroon and brown Decepticon, because he had a habit of being wherever the action was. With respect to this, Flywheels did have the advantage of being able to literally exist in two places at once. As a Duocon, he could simultaneously transform his upper torso into a jet while his lower appendages retracted into the shape of a tank. The vehicles could function independently, yet one could still recall the other for recombination if necessary. This talent would have proven invaluable in whatever path of employment he chose to follow, but fortunately for me, he seemed content in his role as my research assistant. Nevertheless, I wasn’t used to seeing my research ‘team’ outdoors, and clearly he too was finding it difficult to reconcile my al fresco presence with the workaholic he saw in the office.
“Thundercracker, sir,” Flywheels began uncertainly. “See the fuss for yourself.” He eagerly led me to the front of the crowd, towards the object of everyone’s interest. Bizarrely, when I got there, all that they were staring at was the wall. Actually, it wasn’t the wall itself that had garnered their interest, but rather the words written upon it. There, on the wall, in binary code was the message, ‘dirige optimum prime’; ‘send out the best first.’
The voices of the mob were unified in their confusion. They were joined by another. “What does it mean?” Flywheels asked, holding back the crowd and looking to me for the answer.
What *did* it mean, “send out the best first”? They were the exact words that Sentinel Prime had used as an ironic counterpoint to the Weak First policy. Presumably it was a challenge to the Overlord, the ‘best’ of Decepticons, a sign that Prime was ready to settle their differences once and for all. At the same time, it could have been a measure to protect the weak, those who were compelled by Upkeep Legislation to prosper or perish. Of course, some of us did prosper, joining the ranks of the ‘best’ in the process. Others, like Ruckus, perished as testament to their weakness.
“I don’t know what it means,” I lied.
Flywheels and I disengaged ourselves from the mob and transformed into our respective jet configurations. We flew up to the sky-hanger, leaving both my assistant’s tank persona and the writing on the wall behind us. I had no idea how ‘Wheels’ reappeared at the top of the castle ready to rejoin his flying counterpart, but I knew what the graffiti meant. I knew more than anyone.
I had written it.
“*You* wrote it?” Prime asked. Although it had once been a relief, his penchant for interrupting my narrative had grown to the status of ‘annoyance.’
“I just *said* I wrote it, what possible reason could I have for making it up?” I asked. Of course, there were numerous reasons why I might have made it up, not the least of which was the possible sympathy it might inspire in Optimus, the master of my fate himself. I hoped he hadn’t taken offense at my tone of voice, but Prime didn’t even seem to notice. He was suddenly introverted and it took me a while before I came upon a suitable theory as to why. /Sludge,/ I thought. /Did Prime *name* himself after that slogan?/
“Oh, Primus,” I blurted out. “I just wrote it on a wall, Sentinel Prime made it up.” I felt greasy just thinking that I might have inspired the name of the Decepticons’ greatest enemy. Optimus didn’t respond, so I delivered my own conclusion.
“I was doing a job for Sentinel Prime,” I said, but Prime was still withdrawn, so I felt it needed an addendum. “Believe me, *neither* of us will speak of the other alternative ever again.”
Prime finally nodded his agreement. I took advantage of his newfound quietude and continued my story.
I hadn’t coped very well with Ruckus’s death.
When Windsweeper told me the bad news, I went through a spectrum of emotions. I finally settled upon anger. I was mad at the fact that Ruckus was little more than a glorified messenger droid, and yet he was expected to fight and die in the first line of offence. In stature, he was the epitome of the ‘weak’ that the Upkeep Legislation sought to weed out. Yet, in spite of his size, he was always full of life, and the loudest Decepticon I had ever met. It was difficult for me to reconcile *that* Ruckus, with the lifeless one that ‘Sweeper had described, the one that would never make a sound again.
I knew the irony of my silent protest would have been lost on Ruckus himself, but for me, it was a catharsis. I felt no remorse for what I had done and I was resolved to do it again. As the Decepticon Minister of Propaganda, I rewrote history for the Overlord. In my spare time, I would write my own history on the walls of Cybertron. Although my fear of capture was ever present, my work for the council was of such a standard that no one considered me capable of dissension. And while they saw my vapour trail in the sky, they would never suspect that my feet were planted firmly on the ground.
“To translate that into Autobot: although my taillights weren’t lit, I had firmly slammed on the brakes,” I explained, masterfully.
“I understood your original metaphor perfectly well, Thundercracker.” Prime had unfortunately recovered from his bout of silence. “But believe me, the constant platitudes aren’t helping to extend your life expectancy.”
“I’ll do you a deal,” I suggested, since my previous strategy was more transparent than I’d thought. “I’ll give up on the truisms and get on with the plot if you stop interrupting.”
“You’re in a compromising position, not a position for compromising,” Prime said. Presumably, he thought it was witty. I took it as acquiescence.
I continued exactly where I’d left off.
I was resolved to move out of my old barracks and into one of the Officers’ quarters. The lodgings I shared with Spinister and Windsweeper were meant for Thundercrackers, and I used the fact that I had resigned my commission to justify my departure. The real reason was the likelihood of my housemates detecting the felonious nature of my avocation. As it was, it would have only been a matter of time before ‘Sweeper berated me for trekking paint through the lobby, or Spin’ decided to shadow one of my nocturnal expeditions.
Flywheels knew of an appropriate, soon-to-be-vacated residence in Castle Decepticon. He pulled some cables, gave a couple of vintage oil tanks to the right robots, and the dwelling was mine.
I bid farewell to my old life and made my way towards the new.
Encumbered by my cube of possessions, I clumsily fumbled with the door to my new room. To my surprise it was finally opened from the inside.
The occupant stuck his head around the side of the door and grumbled, “at least give me time to move everything out.”
I glanced at my chronometer. “I’m sorry, I was told that you’d be gone by now. I’ll come back later.”
The ill-tempered robot became slightly more welcoming and opened the door fully. “No, come in and put down your load. I’ve nearly finished anyway.”
“Thanks,” I said, glad that I could finally ditch my burden. As soon as I passed through the doorway into my new lodgings, I plunged my cube and myself towards the floor. When I propped myself up on the luggage, I saw the room for the first time. The floorspace was vast, arguably because it was almost bereft of furniture, but it was still clearly larger than the quarters I shared with ‘Sweeper and Spinister. While the irritable robot carried some of his own cubes outside, I took a better look at my new abode.
I was living only a few floors down from the sky-hanger and could see the hunter-seekers flying right past my porthole. Castle Decepticon towered above every other building, so I overlooked the whole city; an acrophobe’s nightmare and thus my greatest dream. I turned on the taps in the galley and the sound of cool running oil drowned out the aerial traffic. I moved to my new built-in desk and surveyed my empire. A relic from the old regime had been left behind, the robot’s nameplate was still on my desk. I picked it up and turned it over in my hands. A single word was written upon its shiny surface: ‘Megatron’.
“Thanks,” said the robot now known as Megatron, reclaiming the plate that bore his name. I had been so focussed upon it that I hadn’t even noticed his return. “Not much use for that now though, is there?” he continued. Was that sarcasm in his voice? I was the Thundercracker whose advancement had come at the cost of his downfall, a downfall for which *I* was ultimately responsible. Maybe Megatron *wasn’t* grumpy in general, maybe he was just snarled off at me.
I couldn’t be certain that my speakers hadn’t gone into shock with the rest of me, but I decided to clear the air. “I’m sorry that you have to leave because of me,” I said, with some distortion.
“Hey, it’s no filings off *my* nose, I had to leave sometime.” Megatron was taking it better than I thought. He put the nameplate on top of his final cube, picked up his belongings and moved towards the door. With his free hand, he passed me a small metal tag, “just in case you ever need me,” he said.
With that, he was gone, and with him went a huge weight off my shoulders. All of my reservations about Megatron were unwarranted and I could live my life with one less fear. I began to unpack.
About a breem later, I realised that I had already made quite a mess. Living with Windsweeper’s fastidiousness had made me indolent. Not only had I not cleaned anything in vorns, but Spinister and I had decided that ‘Sweeper actually enjoyed tidying, so we did our best to make our quarters as messy as possible. I turned off the oil taps, cleared my desk and picked up a small, metal tag that I must have dropped on the floor. I placed it before my optics. ‘*I, Haul*: removalist and locksmith,’ it read.
I paused to consider its origin. Then I did something very unusual. I burst into laughter, huge fits of laughter, hysterical convulsions that took an age to subside.
Then I called Haul back to change the locks.
That night, I intended to break in my new quarters with Spinister, Windsweeper and Flywheels, but I couldn’t get in contact with any of them. I was subconsciously hoping that my comrades would be available, as it would give me an excuse to stay at home. As it was, I could either spend the night rationalising with myself or I could paint the town red. I put a custom attachment on my incendiary gun and started loading it up with paintballs.
Consciously, I wasn’t too disappointed about Spin’ and ‘Sweeper’s unavailability, but I had hoped that I could thank Flywheels for finding my new residence. In spite of his occasional deference to my rank, Flywheels could easily hold conversations at my level and we could discuss confidential matters, which made my life more tolerable. Because ‘Wheels was familiar with the Megatron file, we could have laughed at my confusion over Haul’s identity. I couldn’t have talked about it with anyone else. It was insane for me to be adding more secrecy to my life, when the secrets I kept within the Ministry were already a constantly unwelcome presence in my processors.
Sometimes you meet a robot who seems to be destined for greater things. Flywheels was one of those robots. As a research assistant he was invaluable, and he could solicit information from Cybertronians without them even realising what they’d revealed. He was in an almost unique position in that he could empathise with groundlings and he knew what it was like to fly. He basically traded in favours and his bipartisan qualities only enhanced his efficiency in this respect. After Ruckus’s demise, Flywheels helped to fill the void in my life. Even so, the void was clearly still half-empty.
I cocked my weapon. /Better half-empty than half-cocked,/ I thought.
My second target was Darkmount, the administrative arm of Polyhex’s government. Rather uncreatively, I painted the same message upon the fortress as I had written on the Castle, “dirige optimum prime”. Satisfied, I made my way home.
After vorns of living with Spinister, even the most stealthy of Decepticons would have found it difficult to sneak under my sensors. Although I couldn’t actually see my pursuer, I could recognise the air he displaced as he moved. I took a shot at the apparently vacant space to my port side. Ravage took a direct hit, but unless he was allergic to paint, I realised that my reflex barrage was not a particularly great achievement. I ran, and Ravage continued his close pursuit.
After a while, I began to tally up my options. I could have transformed and fled into the skies, but that would have been the fastest method in which to expose my identity. Sure, Skyraider-model Decepticons were fairly common, but my colouring would have given me away in an instant. I favoured my chances better on the ground. Likewise, I deemed my plan to paint myself as a different Skyraider ‘impractical while tearing through the streets of Polyhex.’
While still running, I turned my head to see if I had lost my shadow. Fixated on the streets behind me, I became fairly certain that Ravage was nowhere to be seen. Unfortunately, I had been so occupied with the dangers to my stern that I neglected to remember the fairly rudimentary risks of not looking where I was going. I slammed headlong into something solid and knocked myself to the ground. Rising to my knees and then faltering, I noticed that the solid shape was a Transformer. When my optical sensors regained their focus, I recognised the individual. It was the robot with the piercing yellow eyes whom I had seen once before, in Decepticon council chambers. The robot began to help me to my feet just as a red-tinted Ravage rounded the corner and skulked towards us.
“Ah, master”, said Ravage. The odd juxtaposition of a talking cat struck me as less odd than the fact that the Overlord’s supposed bodyguard was addressing this Decepticon as ‘master’. The cat continued. “This is the Thundercracker of whom I told you”. “Thundercracker”, said Ravage, turning to me. “Thundercracker, meet Megatron”.
I blacked out.
I awoke in a cavernous room supported by high archways and flying buttresses. At its centre was a bizarre laboratory primarily constructed of glass, with assorted chemicals flowing through tubes that led, apparently at random, to various areas of the vast structure. Megatron stood between the lab and myself while a small crowd of Decepticons had gathered around us. Three of these Decepticons were distinctly familiar.
“My loyal troops”, he began. “Allow me to introduce to you the illustrious Thundercracker.” Addressing me, he said “I believe you know Spinister and Windsweeper.” My former colleagues were lounging against some objects that could have been loosely described as furniture. They waved in my direction. “These two were highly instrumental in our quest to find you, Thundercracker.”
“Really?” I asked, somewhat rhetorically. “I must remember to thank them later.” *If there is a later*, I thought.
“However, they were nowhere near as useful as *this* Decepticon”. Megatron gestured towards the third and final hornblower. Flywheels was clearly ashamed and couldn’t even look me in the eye. Similarly, I had nothing to say to *him*. I’d known he had two bodies, but I never suspected that he had two faces to match.
Megatron guided me away from Flywheels, towards a not entirely sane looking figure that was busily mixing chemicals at the nucleus of the lab. “Thundercracker, this is Mixer, our chemist. I believe you’ll find his work of interest.” I felt that unless Mixer was going to teach me how to make TNT, Megatron was sorely mistaken. Not for the first time that day, I was wrong.
A disgruntled Mixer put down his chemicals and went to unveil a large glass case filled with a pinkish liquid. Needless to say, it was not the liquid that interested me. There, enveloped by the liquid was a Transformer. He was larger and better armed than when I last saw him, but there was no mistaking his identity. It was Ruckus, and he was shouting at me.
“Don’t worry about the shouting.” Megatron turned to me. “He’s been doing it ever since he was reactivated. We don’t think he understands the limited acoustical properties of liquid energon.”
I placed an auditory sensor against the glass. It took me a while before I could interpret what Ruckus was yelling, and there was a good reason for that. He wasn’t shouting to communicate, he was just spouting anything and everything that he could think of. He was doing it to remind himself that he was alive, to celebrate that fact. Eventually he stopped.
“Can you hear me?” He asked, mouthing the words carefully. With exaggerated movement, I bobbed my head up and down. “When do I get out of here?” He continued.
I asked Mixer, who took time out from stirring an odd-looking concoction to say, “in cycles three, when Cybertron and moons align, he shall be healed.”
I held three fingers against the glass for Ruckus to see, while spinning the trigger finger of my other hand to indicate rotation. Ruckus mimicked my overstated nodding style to indicate that he understood. I laughed, which must have been infectious, as Mixer started to cackle like a lunatic. Even after I’d waved farewell to Ruckus, Mixer’s laugh failed to subside. Slowly, I edged myself away from the hysterical chemist.
Megatron beckoned me into a small room that continued the glass décor of the cavern. From inside, I could see everything going on in the rest of the grotto, but the room was soundproofed to eliminate aural distractions. This was clearly Megatron’s centre of operations. He faced away from me, observing his dominion.
“I know what you did.” These five words made my petroleum turn more than Mixer’s cauldron.
Eventually I replied, “I’m sorry, I was just doing my job.”
Megatron turned and looked at me quizzically. Then he laughed. /If I survive this I can always consider a career as a comedian/, I thought.
“You’re talking about the Valvolux Propaganda?” Megatron realised. He *wasn’t* talking about the Propaganda. I was building my own funeral casket piece by piece.
“You weren’t?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “I was referring to the graffiti.”
My fuel pump stopped. This was worse than a personal vendetta, Megatron knew of my collusion with the enemy. My crime was treason.
The penalty was death.
*Part Four: Spectro.*
“I feel like I just walked in on the fourth act of the wrong play,” said Optimus Prime.
I knew that I recognised all the words, but Prime’s sentence just didn’t make grammatical sense. He seemed to have used too many ‘doing’ words. In order to process the information, I gathered that “play” must be an Autobot codeword for some sort of facility. “Acts” were almost certainly subsectors of these installations. From the tone of Prime’s voice, I inferred that the locale to which he referred was a negative one. Thus, for my own safety, I left a mental cookie to remind me never to walk into the fourth act of *any* play. That was, if I ever walked anywhere again.
“I thought I told you not to interrupt,” I said, rather more bluntly than a sensible Decepticon might have in my situation. I had wagered my life on Prime’s reaction to this story, so even if he’d asked to hear about little pink petrorabbits then it was in my best interest to include them. I had a fairly good idea as to why the intrusive narrative had returned at this point.
“Am I even interrupting the same story?” Prime asked, proving that he had at least been paying attention. I had previously left off with a scene in which I found myself at the mercy of Megatron: a Decepticon known for his many great qualities, although ‘mercy’ has never been counted among them. Consequently, Prime had found the point at which I again took up the narrative rather unsatisfactory, mainly because it only presented the aftermath of my previous self’s meeting with Megatron. A previous self who was somehow still in one piece.
“It’s the same story,” I said. “I may have left out a pivotal scene here or there, but that’s only because. . .”
“Because you’re withholding information?” Prime interrupted. /Again/. Then he continued. “It’s not wise, Thundercracker. Not when information’s the only thing keeping you alive.”
Compulsive gamblers can lose everything to their addiction. Possessions, family, friends and respect can be lost to nothing more than the whims of fate. I had bet everything on one charger before and I would do it again. After all, I had nothing left to lose.
“What you call ‘withholding information,’ I call ‘omission for the sake of suspense,’” I said, again increasing the stakes on my life. “I *will* tell you what happened to me in Megatron’s centre of operations, but not now. For now I’ll only tell you about what happened afterwards.”
Prime responded with the Iaconian gesture that indicates ‘acquiescence while subtly implying that the thing being acquiesced to is in fact ridiculous’. Most Decepticons wouldn’t have caught the latter implication of the signal, but I’d been exposed to the Iaconian language ever since I was a fledgling. And Prime was right, the suggestion *was* ridiculous. I had upped the ante simply for the sake of storytelling, but for some reason, I couldn’t compromise on this issue. I kept searching for different options, but the result was always the same: /never let chronology get in the way of a good story/.
“So where was I?” I asked rhetorically, for I knew exactly where I was. And yet, for some reason, I then took off in a completely different direction altogether.
Some robots are so memorable that they become etched in your memory from the moment you meet them. Spectro, on the other hand, was the sort of robot that inspires you to subconsciously trash any memory of him from your files the moment he leaves your sight. It wasn’t that he was unattractive in any way, it was just that I couldn’t have imagined him ever being important enough to remember. It was that nebulous quality which had made Spectro outstandingly qualified for his career in reconnaissance. Personally, I was surprised that someone had actually acknowledged Spectro’s existence for long enough to employ him in the first place. Then again, maybe nothing about Spectro’s employer should have surprised me.
In the twentieth century, Spectro developed a passion for photography. He would talk for hours on end about his hobby, although no one ever really listened. Once, I absent-mindedly tuned my aural sensors in to one of Spectro’s monologues, and decided that it might actually have been worth recording. It was almost an allegorical summary of Spectro’s entire life, a summary that resonated eerily with how I felt about my own. He said that sometimes a photograph contains a ghost, someone who wasn’t there when the picture was taken, but whose fuzzy image somehow makes it into the photo nonetheless. Even though the ghost was never the snapshot’s initial subject, it’s there in the final proof, defiantly declaring its existence.
After Spectro’s soliloquy, while I was trawling through my trashed history files, I found footage that suggested that I either needed to exorcise my optical sensors, or that Spectro had in fact been hovering, unnoticed, at the periphery of my life, long before I first acknowledged his presence. He was watching our Thundercracker unit as we raided the Iaconian franchise of /Steel Yourself/. He was in the crowd at the Keep Polyhex Bipedal conference, when I was almost killed by animal rights activists. He was shoved aside so that Flywheels and I could get a better look at the graffiti on the ramparts of Castle Decepticon. He was just *there*, as if the images had needed one extra generic robot in the background, just for the sake of aesthetics. One could never meet a more forgettable Transformer than Spectro. In fact, the first time I *did* actually acknowledge his existence he’d already been speaking for a breem before I even noticed.
“. . . Megatron said I could if it was alright with you,” the red robot continued, although I had no idea exactly what he was continuing. “So is all that okay?”
I looked to Flywheels for help. “Do you think we could manage ‘all that’, Flywheels?”
“Manage all what?” Flywheels asked, clearly of no help whatsoever. “Oh, hello, I didn’t see you there. My name’s Flywheels,” said my assistant, noticing the red robot for the first time.
“Don’t worry,” the red robot sighed, “it happens all the time. I’m Spectro, from reconnaissance. It was our agents in Valvolux who intercepted the War Games transmission. . .”
Some events are so momentous that they’re destined to be documented by historians forevermore. Even then, we could just feel that the interception of the War Games transmission was thick with four dimensions of viscous future history. We knew it would be seen a crucial turning-point in the Autobot/Decepticon war, although at that time we thought it would be for completely different reasons than the ones which eventuated.
The War Games transmission was broadcast over the wavelength used only by Iacon’s military elite. It was a call for all of the city-state’s ranking officers to participate in military training exercises that were to be held in Hybris, Iacon’s capital suburb. A few of Megatron’s Valvolux-based Decepticons had monitored the transmission and passed the message on to those of us in Polyhex. The fact that Megatron’s clandestine guerrilla operation *did* reach as far as Valvolux would once have surprised me. However, at that point even if Megatron had told me he was the servant of Unicron himself I would barely have blinked an optic.
The above-stated optic and its counterpart had by this time started to drift around the plexiglass, open-planned interior of the Cavern. It was unlike anywhere else in Polyhex. My world had always been one of small rooms and narrow corridors. Even in the open space of the Cavern, I walked with my wings swept back. It was a lifetime’s habit, grown from the hope that if I gave others enough personal space then they’d reciprocate. My roaming thoughts intertwined, and I began to envisage Megatron walking through corridors. Even confined by passageways, my conceptual Megatron retained the long, broad stride with which I associated the original. In fact, I even began to picture other robots in the corridors, all standing back against the walls so as not to disturb Megatron’s promenade.
Looking over at the real Megatron I could see just how comfortable he was within the surroundings of the Cavern. The spacious design was clearly Tarnish, and the whole building felt almost like a colossal extension of that robot who’d commissioned its creation. By contrast, the Decepticon to whom Megatron was talking seemed completely out of place in the Cavern. It was a robot whom I’d never seen set food outside the safe and self-sufficient Castle Decepticon. He would also never have compromised his position within the Overlord’s Empire unless he thought he’d found something better. My opportunistic colleague, the Minister of Communications, had joined Megatron’s Decepticons. Soundwave’s presence was a sure sign of which way the traffic was moving.
“. . . So is all that okay?” asked Spectro, in conclusion.
It had happened again. Pleadingly, I looked towards Flywheels. He shook his head. This clearly wasn’t working.
“Spectro,” I said, “as concisely as possible, tell us what is it that you want.”
“I want to be famous,” he replied concisely.
“Umm. . .” Flywheels took over. “We don’t really do freelance propaganda.”
“I don’t want propaganda,” Spectro continued. “I want to really be part of history.”
“Propaganda isn’t *just* about lies, Spectro.” Flywheels said, paraphrasing our own press release. “Sometimes all it requires is revelation of the truth.”
Once Flywheels had finished rationalising his chosen career path, Spectro expressed some decisions about his own. “The events of the next few orns will never be forgotten, and all I want is to be a part of them. I want to go to the Valvolux reconnaissance base *with* you. . .”
As asked by Megatron, we’d leaked the content of War Games transmission to our Overlord, who responded, predictably, by assembling the Thundercrackers for deployment. The Overlord’s plan to spurn Megatron by blaming him for the lost Battle of Valvolux had failed: Megatron had lost his ministerial position, but the loyalty of his troops never faltered. As a Thundercracker himself, Megatron was never seen as less than first amongst his equals in their ranks, and the Thundercrackers formed the core of his guerrilla movement. The Overlord had wished to prohibit Megatron from serving with his comrades during the attack on Hybris, but I convinced him to acquiesce by stressing the probability of copious Decepticon casualties. I also suggested that Soundwave be sent to ‘supervise’ the Thundercrackers and record any breaches in battle protocol. The Overlord was very taken by that suggestion, as Megatron was notorious for breaking the rules. What the Overlord of the Decepticons didn’t realise was that you can break the rules all you want if it’s your own game.
I didn’t know why Megatron wanted Soundwave with him in Hybris; personally I’d consider a city-state border between myself and the Minister of Communications to be a cause for celebration. Nevertheless, in spite of my higher rank, it wasn’t my place to question Megatron’s decisions; his authority transcended such symbolic gradation as ranking. When Flywheels, Spinister and Windsweeper ‘sacrificed’ me to Megatron I had never felt so betrayed, but I soon realised that they’d sold me out for something better. My friends had found something great and they wanted me to be a part of it. Future historians would call it a ‘personality cult’, and maybe that’s all it was: hundreds of Decepticons all transfixed by the strength of one personality, but at that particular time and place there was no other personality like it.
While the Thundercrackers were headed for Hybris, Flywheels and I were off to the lesser Iaconian borough of Valvolux. Once we’d found the Valvolux reconnaissance base we were to monitor military communications, although we also wanted to learn more about the War Games transmission. There was something impalpably odd about the War Games transcript we’d received at the Cavern, and Flywheels and I wanted to relieve our concerns by listening to the original. We’d hoped that Sparkstalker, our colleague and Cybertron’s greatest cryptologist would be able to come with us. Unfortunately, Sparky’s lifelong search for the Soul of Cybertron had meant that the tip-off he’d received about the artefact’s location superseded all other commitments, and Sparkstalker had set off once more to find his Soul. With our absences and the Thundercrackers’ mission to Hybris, I knew the Cavern would have only an exoskeleton crew; Mixer, the still-recuperating Ruckus, Viewfinder, Spyglass and. . . I was fairly sure that there was someone else who I’d forgotten.
“. . . So is all that okay?” asked Spectro, the forgotten Decepticon. This was getting ridiculous.
I decided to change tack. “Spectro, transform!” I ordered.
He jumped, more out of shock than for any dramatic effect, and a hole in subspace ripped open. Entire sheets of metal were sucked out of our world, as Spectro shrank, folded and shifted into a. . .
“. . . what *are* you?” I asked, as the rift in subspace subsided.
“I’m one-third of a Microx 05 reconnaissance device, of course.” The words emanated from a small object on the ground that was allegedly one-third of a Microx 05 reconnaissance device.
“Regardless,” I said, “you’re small enough for Flywheels to carry, which is all we need”
My assistant shot a look in my direction. “Small enough for *me* to carry?”
“You won’t even notice he’s there,” I replied, more honestly than anyone else who’d ever uttered that phrase.
“You’re in luck, Spectro,” Flywheels said, taking over with a wayward grin. “According to our mission statement, we require three Decepticons for the trip to Valvolux, and since Sparkstalker pulled out at the last minute, there’s an opening for an experienced, self-motivated robot like yourself.”
/Mission statement?/ I glowered at Flywheels. “I have some last-breem issues to sort out before the mission, then I’ll meet both of you in Mixer’s laboratory at 1900 joors. Any further questions?”
Flywheels gave the Iaconian hand-signal that conveyed the meaning: ‘yes, but my question will almost certainly be facetious’. “Any *serious* questions?” I asked, while wondering exactly when it was that Flywheels had learnt Iaconian.
There were no further questions or hand-signals, so I said goodbye to Flywheels and we went our separate ways.
Several breems later, I came darting back into that same part of the Cavern and found it almost completely bare, except for a small object on the ground that looked remarkably like one-third of a Microx 05 reconnaissance device.
“Spectro, you can transform back into robot mode now!” I exclaimed, wondering how much longer he would have stayed on the floor if I hadn’t returned.
“I’m sorry, Spectro,” I said sincerely. “I just forgot you were there.”
*Part Five: Ravage.*
Small dots began to appear on the ground. They were slightly darker than the rest of the dry brown earth on which I sat, and they appeared indiscriminately, like a burgeoning fractal created by mathematics too complex for my meagre understanding. There was a flash of light, then a sound like a sonic boom. And I was getting wet.
Back on our homeworld, rain was considered a bad omen. Like most superstitions, this notion was originally rooted in common sense but had, over the vorns, been blown out of all proportion. In this case, the fact that all Cybertronian rain was of the ‘acid’ variety had once been seen as very bad luck, in that it tended to liquidate those unfortunates who happened to be outside during a storm. Of course our race had long since anodised ourselves against acid rain, but the superstition remained. Irrational as it was, sitting in the rain on that day, I couldn’t help feeling like something bad was going to happen. Not that being held at gunpoint by the leader of the Autobots didn’t fall into the realm of ‘bad enough’.
I looked through the rainfall, towards Optimus Prime. While *I* no doubt looked like something Ravage had dragged in, played with and then dumped in a puddle of mud, Optimus looked like he was almost embracing the downpour, like vorns of grime were finally being washed away. I, on the other hand, found that my enjoyment of being up to my tailfins in slush was seriously hampered by the life-or-death situation that accompanied it.
“Do you remember when we last spent this much time in the same place?” I asked, hoping to spark memories of happier times.
“Of course,” Prime replied. “We were ripped from our own dimension and dumped in Limbo where we were subjected to what was, unbeknownst to us, a virtual reality in which you massacred a race of cyborganic apes whose leader then tried to kill me, which you encouraged by opining the phrase ‘yeah - *kill him*!’”
/Ah/, I thought, /*not* happier times, then/.
“To be fair,” I said, attempting to pick up the pieces, “it *was* a fairly non-specific ‘kill him’. That is, I didn’t really care which of you was killed, just so long as there was *some* sort of oilshed.” As soon as I said those words, I finally realised exactly why I failed Autobot Psychology the first time around. And the second.
I decided to try my hand at Autobot thought one last time. “Okay,” I began, “you know how you believed that what we experienced in Limbo was allegorical, representing the origins of our own war; with the planet’s inhabitants signifying the Autobots, the monkey-like invaders being Decepticons and the neighbouring territory to which the war was heading symbolising Earth?”
“Yes,” Prime replied looking annoyed, “it was *my* theory.”
“Well I have a different interpretation,” I said, which were, incidentally, the very words that led to my probation during my time at the Academy. “I don’t think it was an allusion to the past, but rather a premonition of the future. The fact that the invaders were represented as cyborganic monkeys is unlikely to have been accidental, not when humans and Nebulans, the two species with which Transformers are most closely affiliated are *also* monkeys.”
“*Evolved* from monkeys,” said Prime, as if it made some sort of difference. “Or ape-like species, anyway.”
I actually envied the humans. They never needed to worry about living in harmony with the other species on their planet. They killed the other animals for fuel, wore them as armour, used them as slaves and vehicles and turned them into sculptures. /Cybertron was like that once/, I thought, longingly.
“*Anyway*,” I continued, “the half-robot-half-ape invaders *could* possibly represent the evolution towards binary-bonded Transformers; Head, Power, Targetmasters et cetera, and the consequential extinction of robots like myself, those who are still untainted by fleshlings. However, I think it’s more likely to represent a much less literal union between an ape species and a robot species, one that will ultimately drive the other race of robots away from the planet. Which, in this case, would represent a move *away* from Earth.”
“Hmm. . .” said Prime, contemplating my theory. “Well, I suppose you’ll just have to beg to differ”
“You mean *we’ll* have to *agree* to differ,” I said, helpfully.
“No,” said Prime. “No, I don’t.”
We were then silent for a while, but our silence was rather offset by the relentless sibilation of ambient rainfall. It was Optimus who finally spoke up once more.
“So,” he said, “going by *your* interpretation, who do you think will be driven from the Earth; the Autobots or the Decepticons?”
“Well,” I said, after some contemplation, “although I would of course like to think that the Decepticons will ultimately be victorious, I can’t really see us ever being allied with fleshlings, not even symbolically. So, going by my theory, I suppose the Decepticons will be driven from the Earth.” Unhappy with that option, I came up with another appraisal. “Of course, the premonition could be completely literal. Maybe one of our races is destined to become cyborg monkeys.”
“Monkeys?” Optimus laughed. “I’m a truck, not a monkey!” He seemed to accept it soon enough, though. “Okay. Hypothetically, if we’re the apes, then what are you? When we were in Limbo, what sort of creatures were the Cloran, the race that the apes were repelling?”
“The Cloran?” I repeated, mainly because I hadn’t quite had time to prepare a reply. “Well, they looked a bit like bipedal cats, I suppose.”
Then, wiping the water from my optics, I decided to forget about possible futures for a while and found security again in my tale of Cybertron’s past.
I couldn’t be bothered to tell Spectro that he was early and should come back later. I’d already sent him away at 1600 joors and then again when he returned at 1700, but he was just so unobtrusive that doing it again really wasn’t worth my effort. Crouched beside him, the not-entirely-sane chemist known as Mixer was polishing Ravage with industrial solvent. It was part of a daily exfoliation regime that the feline Transformer had recently added to its lifestyle.
“Grrr,” said Ravage. “If this paint doesn’t come off before I get back from Hybris, you’d better watch your shadow, Thundercracker.”
“If my shadow has a reddish tinge, I’ll be scared,” I mocked. “And you’re looking less ruddy every day; when you return from Hybris, I’m sure you’ll be back to your usual achromatic self.” /Or, even better you could be run over by a passing Autobot/.
From my daily observation of Mixer’s interaction with Ravage I noticed that the two creatures had quite a strong rapport. I suppose it was understandable: one of them was a robot that acted like an animal, the other a beast that behaved like a biped. I didn’t trust Mixer as far as I could throw him, which was the main reason I spent so much time in his laboratory. Ruckus was still recuperating in one of Mixer’s vitreous vats of liquid energon, and any time I spent in my friend’s presence was time in which I knew he wasn’t being dissected or having his parts sold on the black market.
Not that my time at the laboratory was unpleasant, quite the contrary, actually. The regular pantomime of shouting that Ruckus and I would go through as we attempted (and often failed) to communicate with each other through the glass walls of his energonarium was always enjoyable, and while I gave my speakers a rest between exchanges, there was never any shortage of interesting objects for me to scrutinise. Somehow Mixer had managed to accumulate an assortment of antiques that put even Sparkstalker’s Museum of Unnatural History to shame. Although Flywheels had claimed that the collection was ‘a load of rubbish,’ even *he* started to leak at the oil cap when I showed him the dozen cans of ’33 Valvolux Gold that were part of Mixer’s trove. In fact, the chemist seemed to have quite a partiality for the high-life, so it seemed odd that he should have ended up slumming it in a clandestine guerrilla group like ours. It may have been odd, but fortunately for me, both Mixer and his hoard had their uses.
“Can I borrow this?” I showed him the object I’d had my optics on since I knew I was headed for Valvolux.
“These days it is unutilised by me,” Mixer asserted, waving it away with fanatical hand gestures.
“Thanks,” I said, grasping my prize with aplomb. “This should make our trip to the Valvolux reconnaissance base much easier,”
“‘Valvolux reconnaissance base’, is *that* what they’re calling it now?” Ravage purred. The cat’s sudden contentedness didn’t bode well for my party.
“Why? What was it called before?” I asked, tentatively.
Ravage started grinning. “Primaeval’s Lair,” he said, and a shiver surged down my stern.
Primaeval was the spark that rekindled the evolution of our race, but the resultant flame cast an embarrassing shadow. The Autobots have a word they use when they know they’ve done something unacceptable. They call it a “necessary evil.” To them, we Decepticons are the quintessential unnecessary evil, but we do serve a purpose. We make their evils look good by contrast. Sometimes, even the Autobots transgress the boundaries of acceptability. Primaeval was an Autobot whose actions crossed the lines of necessity. Shortly afterwards, he reduced those lines to ashes.
Even in his heyday, Primaeval’s existence was the stuff of rumour and whispered tales. Nothing “known” about him was indisputable, and even the name ‘Primaeval’ was probably created by the denizens of oil houses to facilitate their rumourmongering. Originally, the moniker probably derived from his vehicular form’s resemblance to that of Prima. The rumour that he was employed in the Overlords’ service since the Fabrication only helped to cement the name’s plausibility. Exactly how much of his “research” was sanctioned by the Overlords is uncertain, but there’s no denying their knowledge of his animal experimentation. Ravage-the-talking-cat himself was evidence enough of that.
Flywheels popped his head around the doorway, the effect of which was rather spoiled by the fact that the walls of the laboratory were all made of glass. “Hi,” he said. “Sorry I’m early, I know how you hate that, but I’m just so excited about this trip.”
“Grrr,” said Ravage to the newcomer. “Grrr,” the cat continued as it made its way backwards out the opposite door to the one from which Flywheels had just entered. Everyone stared as the growling Ravage receded into the distance.
“What a strange little dog,” said Flywheels.
After shouting my goodbyes to Ruckus, I promised Mixer that I’d bring him back some Valvolux Gold as long as my aforementioned friend was still in one piece when I got back. Then, Flywheels, Spectro and I made our way out of the Cavern. As we moved, I noticed that Ravage had caught up with Soundwave and the Thundercrackers, all of whom were about to make their way towards Hybris. I nodded my respects to Windsweeper and Spinister before leading my own party into the streets of Darkmount.
“Okay, let’s transform and fly to Valvolux,” said Flywheels, enthusiastically.
“Flywheels, we can’t just fly straight into Iaconian airspace. I’m a skyraider, the archetypical Decepticon design. Even though Valvolux is full of ethnic Decepticons, you and I don’t look like we’ve been assimilated by the Autobots.”
“Sorry, is this better?” he asked, his face contorted into an inane grin.
‘Wheels’ lack of understanding of the distinction between Autobots and Decepticons was fairly typical of Cybertronians at that point in our history. Clearly, two races had grown from one, and yet, for most Cybertronians it was difficult to define exactly what made the two different. From my point of view, I like to use the spectrum as an aid to my understanding. Viewing the spectrum as a line, you have red at one end, which represents the purest Autobot. At the other end is ultraviolet, representing the ultimate Decepticon. Everyone else falls somewhere in-between the two points and whichever end you’re closest to determines whether you’re an Autobot or a Decepticon. I explained my theory to Flywheels once and he, rather characteristically, pointed out that it was possible to be exactly in the middle and thus both an Autobot *and* a Decepticon. I told him it was just a stupid theory and that I hadn’t got all the bugs ironed out of it.
While I was ruminating, we’d been surrounded by wild battle unicorns. I pushed through the herd, and made a mental note to maximise the metropolitan culling of the four-hoofed pests. “Anyway,” I said, pulling out the object I’d borrowed form Mixer. “This should make our time in Valvolux much easier.”
“What, this old piece of junk?” Flywheels asked, appropriating the object from me and inspecting it thoroughly. “Hmm. . . maybe it’s *meant* to look like an old piece of junk, but it’s actually something useful. Is it a signature weapon with an optical palm reader that allows only you to use it?”
“No. Flywheels, it’s. . .”
“Then is it packed with explosives and triggered by noise of a certain pitch?”
“No, look it’s a. . .”
“Does it transform into a rocket launcher”
“*Flywheels*!” I vituperated, and hankered for a return to the days when he treated me more like an employer than as a friend. “It’s an *Autobrand*. With this, we can give ourselves Autobot insignias that will pass all but the most thorough of examinations.”
“Oh,” said Flywheels, a little disappointed that the Autobrand wasn’t actually a weapon of mass destruction. “So where are we going to do that?”
“We’ll use it at Spectro’s house,” I replied.
“Oh, I’d forgotten about him,” Flywheels continued. “Are we meeting him there?”
“I’m right *here*, Flywheels,” said an exasperated Spectro, who happened to be walking immediately beside Flywheels.
“Oh, sorry.” Flywheels went back to examining at the Autobrand. “You know, these things requires an awful lot of red paint.”
“Red paint?” I echoed, with a smile on my face. “Fortunately, that’s something of which I happen to have a surplus.”
Spectro’s house was the ideal location for our illegal change of allegiance. Nobody seemed to notice the fact that the Decepticon Minister of Propaganda entered the house with two colleagues, and no-one noticed when we came back out emblazoned with Autobot symbols. Spectro went a bit over-the-top, thinking that nobody could fail to notice him if he were covered in Autobot sigils. It wasn’t until he’d already stamped himself fifteen times that I realised what he was doing and confiscated the Autobrand.
The three of us transformed, and Spectro, in his miniature reconnaissance mode, landed in Flywheels’ cockpit. All of our circuits surged with excitement, knowing we were on the verge of something momentous.
“I’m *bored*,” Flywheels said, only a few breems after we’d taken off, but in a frustrated tone that suggested that his ennui had been building for quite a while and he’d finally decided to express it.
Personally, I was never bored while flying. While airborne, one spectacular view would soon be replaced by the next, and I loved it. Even at that point of my existence I already had the scenic equivalent of cathode-ray dependence: a stagnant vista was no longer capable of holding my attention, but the changing perspectives from the air would always captivate me. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Flywheels.
“Well,” I said, leading up to my suggested cure for Flywheels’ weariness, “as Thundercrackers, Windsweeper, Spinister and I used to tell each other stories on long flights. We’ve plenty of time to fill, so we could each tell. . .” I did some mental arithmetic, “. . .two stories on the way to the Lair, and two on the way back.”
After a short pause, Flywheels asked, “*Spectro*, can *you* think of any ways to pass the time?”
“Come on Flywheels,” Spectro said, from Wheels’ cockpit, “it’ll be fun. I’ll start if you like.”
“*No*!” Flywheels and I exclaimed in unison, with visions of Spectro’s story boring us both into catatonia, and imagery of two planes plummeting towards the ground passing through our heads-up displays.
“I think it’s best if we save your stories for the pedestrian part of our journey, Spectro,” Flywheels said, diplomatically using the word ‘best’ instead of ‘safer’. “Sir,” he continued, addressing me, “you can go first, if you like. Show us how it’s done.”
Well aware of the fact that Flywheels had deliberately fobbed off the first story onto me, I looked to the cityscape for inspiration. Finding both inspiration and a twinge of nostalgia, I began my tale.
“My early existence was lived out in the subsurburban sprawl beneath us: the outskirts of Polyhex. My origins were typical for a Polyhexian; I had an eight-corridor house, two-point-five Guardians and one beast. Of course, this was back in the time when robots were robots and beasts were beasts. Back then, animals didn’t have representatives in the High Council, they didn’t transform into bipedal robots and, most importantly, they didn’t talk. Everything was as it had always been, and everyone was happy.
“Like many Cybertronians, I was sitting in front of the household monitor at the time of the now-legendary broadcast. My Guardian units called it ‘Overlord propaganda,’ but at that age, I saw media transmissions as no more than a source of entertainment and information. To this very orn, I can still recall the feeling of elation that surged through my circuits when the Overlords introduced a pair of jaguars, at which point I naively thought that the press conference had been cancelled and replaced by beast baiting. That initial high was something, but what happened next took my spirits to a whole new level.
“My own loyal beast was sitting beside me, and as I watched the transmission, I manipulated his jugular rotator cuff in the way that beasts seem to enjoy. On-screen, one of the two jaguars approached the microphone.
““Greetings, my name is Nightstalker,” said the first jaguar, turning the world upside-down
“Even if he were a biped, Nightstalker would have been deemed ‘eloquent.’ He spoke at length, answering all the journalists’ questions and informing them that he and the other jaguar, Ravage, were the Overlords’ new bodyguards. Politically, it was a work of genius. No-one could criticise a government that had talking animals, and no-one would attack a leader who had a talking animal for a bodyguard.
“However, as the conference progressed, it became clear that only one jaguar did all the talking. A cynical mind might have thought that they’d only developed *one* talking animal, and conveniently placed a dumb one in shot so the audience would infer that there were *two* talking animals. And, as the two jaguars were at a press conference, the crowd was filled to overflowing with cynical minds.
““What about Ravage?” asked Eject, an Iaconian sports commentator whose thoughts mirrored those of the other journalists.
““Yes, why doesn’t it speak?” asked another member of the crowd, inciting the others to chant similar questions.
“Dodging the journalists’ barrage of interrogatives, Nightstalker removed himself from the podium and Ravage took his place at the microphone. The cat did not speak over the top of the journalists’ commotion. Some of the crowd members believed that the jaguar may have been waiting for the questions to abate before speaking, and these robots began to let down their tyres, creating the hissing sound that inspires quietude. Eventually, the whole crowd was absolutely silent.
““In my experience,” Ravage said at last. “I’ve found that only ignorant robots ask questions while the wise learn everything from observation.”
“The journalists were perplexed by this statement, and wished to ask the cat many questions. However, they did not want to look ignorant in front of the talking cat, so they remained silent.
“The remainder of the conference was footage of Ravage preening himself. I turned off the household monitor, stood up and looked at my pet beast. I wondered if he too could he talk, but had been deceiving me with his orns of silence. He scuttled away to his hutch, but my concerns never left me.
“I never played with Scorponok in the same way ever again.”
Not wanting to appear ignorant, Flywheels and Spectro were silent for about half a breem. Flywheels broke first.
“You know, you should have told that story at the ‘Keep Polyhex Bipedal’ conference,” he said, deliberately not asking a question. “It would have gone down like a Catholicon after a can of oil.”
Spectro ignored both Flywheels and the conceptual boycott on questions. “So sir, are you saying that the Minister for Beasts, Executions and the Arts used to be your pet?” he asked, from Flywheels’ cabin.
“Maybe, maybe not,” I replied. “Scorponok’s a popular name.”
“*Now* it’s a popular name, it wasn’t back *then*,” said Flywheels “and it wasn’t *that* Scorponok. The Minister for Beasts, Executions and the Arts hates our minister’s solar plexi. No offence, sir.”
“None taken,” I said, conscientiously filing Flywheels’ diatribe away until his next performance evaluation, “and maybe the Minister just hates me because I never took him for walks. Anyway, you’re up next: tell *us* a story.”
“I don’t have any stories,” Flywheels said, “and even when I do I can’t tell them right.”
“Come on, you could tell us a story of your own youth,” I suggested.
“I don’t remember my youth,” he replied, sounding comparatively sincere.
“Really?” I asked, surprised that ‘Wheels had never mentioned it before. “What’s the earliest thing you can remember?”
“I’m looking at large columns that form the façade of a temple, with several Transformers at its base. The elder robots are talking amongst themselves while the young ones are running back and forth between the pillars in a sort-of game. All I want is to be one of them.”
After waiting for the rest of Flywheels’ anecdote, I eventually realised that there *wasn’t* any more. “You were right,” I said.
“You *are* bad at telling stories,” I said.
Flying over the border and into Valvolux, I was glad that the Iaconians still had an ‘open door’ immigration policy. Polyhex’s regulations had once been the same, but in recent vorns, just going through customs was like having your grinders pulled. In fact, if the stories were to be believed, some of the inspections *did* involve the extraction of migrants’ grinders.
“I can’t pick up Radio Polyhex any more,” moaned Spectro.
“I don’t think we’re in Polyhex any more, Spectro,” Flywheels replied, sarcastically.
“But still, it should be. . .” Spectro either trailed off or I’d started to ignore him again.
Looking at the wasteland that was once Valvolux, I wondered if the Autobrand had even been necessary. The once-bustling province now seemed to be a postbellum ghost town. Even still, Autobot airspace was no place for a Decepticon minister.
“We’ll transform and go the rest of the way by ground,” I said, already descending from the sky and returning to my bipedal form. Flywheels followed suit and ejected Spectro from his canopy just as subspace opened up, releasing the reconnaissance device’s extra mass. The steel foundations of Valvolux resounded as the three of us set foot upon Autobot territory.
“Right!” said Spectro the instant we landed, shocking Flywheels and me to attention. “Now we’re here it’s time for my story, and you’re *both* going to listen to it.
“Once. . .” Spectro began.
“. . . From that day onwards, no-one ever ignored the buoy again and everyone (except the other bells, which were completely destroyed by the wolframbeast’s extremely sharp, barbed, pain-receptor inducing incisors) lived happily forevermore,” Spectro concluded.
I looked over at Flywheels. He shook his head. “Great,” I said, looking at the unfamiliar ruins and realising that I had no idea how far we’d walked during Spectro’s story. I also realised that as I was the only one entrusted with the location of the reconnaissance base, we were now thoroughly lost. “We need directions. Keep an optic out for any sign of life.”
Flywheels was the first to find some. “There’s movement in our slipstream, sir,” he said, looking diagonally back and to his port side.
I followed his gaze and saw a small purple monkey going through what had once been some sort of dwelling. “Keep an optic out for any *other* sign of life,” I said.
Flywheels sighed. “Why do you hate beasts so much, sir?” he asked.
“I don’t hate them, they hate me,” I replied, half-honestly.
“Well, maybe if you weren’t so outspoken against them they wouldn’t dislike you so much,” he continued.
“I’m not outspoken against beasts,” I said. “I’m just a spokesbot for the rights of bipeds. If certain beasts happen to not be bipedal, then that’s not my fault, is it?”
Flywheels didn’t argue with my faultless logic. “It can’t hurt to ask it directions.”
“Fine,” I grumbled, and approached the monkey. /It probably can’t talk anyway/, I thought.
I moved to the edge of the monkey’s tenement and it looked up from its salvage. “Where. Are. We?” I asked it, distinctly and clearly.
The monkey crawled over the shambles and stood at my feet.
“Hello monkey,” I continued. “Where. Is. The. Church?” After waiting for a reaction, I turned to Flywheels and Spectro. “See, it doesn’t know anyaargh!”
The monkey had delivered a solid uppercut to my kneecap. As I hopped around grasping my leg I tried to get a clean shot off, but Flywheels pinioned my free arm.
The monkey got away in the struggle.
After wandering aimlessly for breems, we somehow managed to come across a useful landmark: the Valvolux oil pit. Just as miraculously, Flywheels was still squawking on about the same thing.
“You can’t just go around shooting animals,” he continued, although as *I* was the one reduced to limping I didn’t really consider *him* the expert on what one may or may not do to one’s assailant.
“If you can’t shoot animals then what *can* you shoot?” I asked, profoundly.
“These things have political ramifications.” He went on. “Can you imagine what would happen if Scorponok found out you’d killed an ape?”
“Thanks to you I never got the chance.” I suddenly realised that with my recent luck at shooting game, my guns probably weren’t even loaded with a more dangerous substance than paint. I shot a few rounds into the oil pit just to remind myself whether I was firing bullets or paintballs.
At that point, some sort of creature rose from the lake of lubricant. It ran out of the pit, carrying one end of its tail and following the other end to the shore until it reached some sort of oil siphon. As we approached, I noticed that what I’d thought was its tail was actually some sort of hose. A hose that was now riddled with bullet holes.
“Minister!” it cried, unsubtly throwing its hose behind its back. Did I know this creature? I looked to Flywheels for support.
“Greasepit,” said my assistant, informing me of the robot’s rather apt name. “I had always thought that ‘crude’ referred to the type of oil you sell, not the method by which you collect it.”
The purpose of Flywheels’ banter was to prompt my remembrance of the Greasepit’s identity without making it obvious that I had no idea who he was. It was a technique we’d developed and utilised when I realised that Flywheels had a much better facial recognition program than I did. The faculty for ‘remembering’ names that I thus displayed served me well in my ministerial duties. Greasepit, however, was hardly worth remembering.
“Ah, Greasepit,” I said. “Have you siphoned fuel from any ministers lately?
“That was an honest mistake,” Greasepit replied. “I accidentally had the petrol bowser set on reverse.”
“*Honest* petrol bowsers don’t *have* a reverse function,” I said.
“It’s the boss’s policy. . .” Greasepit paused as an electrical storm rumbled in the distance. “Sometimes it’s better to stand behind a great robot than to be great yourself,” he said, turning to watch the storm.
Spectro, resplendent with his fifteen Autobot symbols, approached Greasepit. With only a thin layer of oil left covering the station attendant’s assemblage, I become aware of Greasepit’s own Autobot insignia. Fortunately, as inauthentic as Spectro’s were, Greasepit’s symbol looked like it had been affixed by an eight vorn-old. At least I knew we were dealing with a real Decepticon, but I would still have to be subtle in asking for directions.
“Greasepit, do you know where Primaeval’s Lair is?” Spectro asked. I grimaced and raised my optics skyward.
“It’s about a decabreem’s walk that way.” Greasepit directed us down a nearby street. “Just opposite the old Church of Primus. You know it?”
“Where is it on this?” Spectro asked, shoving a holomap under Greasepit’s nose.
“I know where it is,” I said, thoroughly incensed by the fact that Spectro hadn’t thought to tell me he had a holomap back when we actually needed it.
Spectro looked up, but didn’t move the map. “Still, it couldn’t hurt to. . .”
“I *know* where it is,” I said, grabbing the holomap and throwing it into the oil pit. “Follow me or stay here!”
As I stormed off towards the church I could hear Spectro squelching about behind me. “And for Primus’s sake, leave that map alone!”
If by ‘old Church of Primus’ Greasepit meant the ‘former Church of Primus’ then he wasn’t far wrong in his description of our destination. What had once been the pride of the whole borough was now a burnt-out husk of a building, a permanent reminder of the Battle of Valvolux. The irony was, the Decepticons hardly pulled a trigger at the battle. This damage had all been done by Autobots.
“I’m sorry,” said Spectro, breaking the silence while still trying to wipe the oil off his right arm.
I looked in his direction. “That’s alright, I’m sorry for ruining your holomap.”
“No, I mean I’m sorry about all *this*.” Spectro gestured towards what was left of the church. “You’re a Primusite, aren’t you?”
My fuel pump skipped a rotation. “What makes you think that?”
Flywheels took over. “Oh come on! After a vorn of cleaning your shrine three times a day do you really think Windsweeper still believed it was, as you claimed, an ‘antique anvil.’ You disappear at 0900 joors every orn, which just happens to be the sacred joor for Primusite prayer. And do I even have to mention the Primusite fear and doubt that hang over you like a smog.”
I said nothing, but unfortunately, Spectro didn’t follow my lead. “You know, it’s unusual for a Polyhexian to be a Primusite,” he said.
“Yeah, well it’s much more difficult than it used to be,” I said, reluctantly. “In the past, when all it took to travel from Polyhex to Iacon and back again was my time, this was my church. My Guardians and I would cross the border and come here every holy day.” I put my defences back up. “You’re not one of those Quintessence theorists, are you?”
“The ones who believe that we were created by five-faced tentacle-creatures?”
“Primus no!” Flywheels teased.
“Regardless, whether you believe in Primus, the Ultimate Warrior or tentacle monsters, it’s really the same thing.” I said, stooping to wipe black carbon sediment from what was once a colossus.
Spectro bent down and helped me clean the soot from the statue. “And do you still believe in Primus?” he asked, brushing away the final layer of sediment.
“I have to believe in something,” I said, staring at the fractured effigy of my god.
*Part Six: Overkill.*
Optimus Prime was sitting cross-legged on the waterlogged earth, patiently listening to my tale. It seemed odd that the commander of my enemies had lowered himself to my level, particularly when my own leader spent so much of his time sitting in lofty thrones. Still, as the adage goes, ‘the leader of my enemy is my friend’, and while I had the chance to manipulate Optimus I saw no reason not to take it. I paused my story, pre-empting Prime’s predictable interruption. When it didn’t come, I provided an intermission of my own.
“Shouldn’t you have interrupted by now?” I asked, annoyed by Prime’s disregard for the status quo.
“I thought you didn’t want me to interrupt,” he rebuked, “and I don’t think it’s possible to interrupt something that stops of its own accord. The real question is then; ‘why is Thundercracker so desperate for feedback?’”
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that I needed to know if my story was on the right track, hitting the sensors that would encourage Prime to set me free. Not that I could tell *him* that.
“I have validation issues,” I said, slightly less sincerely than I would have liked, but far more honestly than I’d anticipated.
I looked to the sky, my oldest friend. /A friend I might never rejoin/, I thought. Although the rain had finally abated, ominous clouds still loomed in the atmosphere. Prime shuffled on the spot, uncrossing one of his legs and stretching it out, presumably to let the oil circulate.
“It’s been such a primitive war.” His non sequitur was accompanied by a sigh. “So many talents, and everyone a warrior. Did you know Ultra Magnus used to play second flugelhorn for Iacon? That Grimlock can pinpoint the exact borough from which a Cybertronian comes, merely from hearing their dialect? That Kup,” Prime wiped some residual rain from his optics, “Kup could tell a story that would put even *yours* to shame.”
Ordinarily I would have argued against such a critique, but something inside me acceded Kup’s narrative superiority.
“On the subject of the war,” I added, “you’re *Optimus Prime*.”
Prime looked pixilated. He was the most famous of all Transformers: Autobot and Decepticon alike recognised him on sight, whether or not he’d even met them. He wasn’t used to having his identity pointed out to anyone. Most of all, he wasn’t used to having his identity pointed out to *himself*.
I clarified my point. “I mean, you’re the leader of the Autobots. Don’t you have something better to do than sit here and listen to my story?”
“Actually,” Prime’s faceplate seemed to smile, “for the first time in a hundred-thousand vorns, I can honestly say that I have *nothing* better to do than sit here and listen to your story.”
I took that as a cue to continue my tale, but before I could begin, Prime murmured some final words.
“Which is exactly how things *should* be,” he said, softly.
I returned to my tale.
The church had been rocked to its foundations. Flywheels and Spectro found it difficult to appreciate that the pile of distended metal upon which we stood could have ever possessed the splendour that I described.
“It was immense,” I continued, “unimaginably massive, and yet incredibly ornate. Nothing was merely functional, every millispan of the building revealed a tiny artwork or an inscription.”
In an attempt to verify this statement, my colleagues tried to pry some debris from the ground, but failed. Anything optically pleasing and small enough to ransack had already been looted, probably by Autobot soldiers or kleptomaniacal purple monkeys. With the minutiae gone, all that was left was tectonic; the walls, the girders, the Iaconic columns. Everything that had once held up the great Church of Primus now lay useless on the ground beneath us.
Unable to pick anything up from the wreckage, Flywheels crouched down in order to examine a broken pillar.
“What does it say?” Spectro asked, still hoping for some revelatory inscription, but the Duocon didn’t reply.
Instead, Flywheels started to run from relic to relic, looking at each one as if it were a clue to the next piece of a puzzle. Spectro gave me a questioning look, but I was no wiser to Flywheels’ motivations than he was. After pausing to put the pieces together in his data bank, Flywheels turned to me.
“What?” I asked.
“We ought to get back to work,” he said, evasively. “The reconnaissance base is around here somewhere, and we know it has active personnel. With most of the borough vacated, it shouldn’t be too hard to find if we just look for signs of life. Spectro, you have something to say?” Flywheels’ haste to turn all attention to Spectro only emphasised the anxiety that my assistant was suddenly exuding.
“Er, yes,” said Spectro, slightly thrown by the fact that he’d been called on before he had a chance to get his thoughts in order. He pointed across the autoway. “Signs of life,” he said.
It was a bicoloured robot, approximately cyan and magenta, carrying an assortment of wires and mechanical components. When it caught sight of us, the robot dropped its burden and took to its heels.
“Stop!” shouted Flywheels, running across the road after it.
Spectro and I followed slightly behind, slowed by his dilatory civilian design and my broken patella. Nevertheless, we could still see the bicolour robot until it disappeared through the front door of a Valvolux bungalow. Arriving at the threshold only moments later, Flywheels gave the hatchway several hard knocks while his system recovered from the chase. As Spectro and I caught up, a small peephole opened in the middle of the door.
“Hello?” it asked, in a slow, cautious voice.
“Peace through tyranny,” I said, moving to the forefront.
The door creaked open. We were in the right place.
If I’d had to identify the point at which it all went wrong, then ‘walking through the door’ would probably be on the top of my list. A possible alternative would be the moment afterwards, when Slugfest, the large quadrupedal Decepticon beast behind the talking peephole, caught sight of the Autobot insignia on my starboard wing. Personally, though, it would be hard to go past the juncture at which Squawkbox, the bicolour robot, chose to inflict grievous bodily harm upon *my* body.
“I’m sure we can sort this out if you’d just listen,” I said, from the confines of the headlock created by Squawkbox’s arm.
From my restrained position I could see that Spectro was faring no better, having been sat upon by the immobilising weight of Slugfest. As I strained to see where Flywheels was through all of this, something above us detonated.
We all stopped what we were doing, and turned to see my assistant holding his cannon above his shoulders, perpendicular to the ground. Smoke was emanating from the barrel, wafting up towards a smouldering hole in the ceiling. He audibly exhaled. “Is violence the only language you Decepticons understand?” he said, in mock-tragic tones. I was going to reprimand Flywheels for such ill-timed levity, but Slugfest spoke before I could regain my composure.
“Squawkbox understands thousands of languages,” said the beast, completely missing Flywheels’ point. “Or at least, one of his personalities does. He’s bipolar.” The last two words were spoken in a ridiculously loud whisper that was heard by everyone, including Squawkbox, who turned his snarling face towards Slugfest.
“You really let your pet talk so candidly, Squawkbox?” I said. “An inability to keep beasts in their place is a sign of weakness.”
Squawkbox spun around to slap me again, but I grabbed his wrist in midair. There was a sound of whirring gears within the violent robot, and his other personality took over. The new Squawkbox started to shout expletives at us in an assortment of alien languages. With my free hand, I gagged the insane robot’s faceplate and held him at arm’s length.
“They’re going to kill us!” Slugfest screamed, diving to the ground and covering his head with his forelegs.
“Nobody’s killing anyone,” Flywheels said. I feigned a look of disappointment. He raised his eyes skyward in reply. “Amongst some of the galaxy’s more colourful languages, Squawkbox’s second personality mentioned that he took offense at your bestial intolerance. Might I remind the Minister that this is not the first time he has faced such an indictment, and that his advisory body is growing tired of acid-washing such accusations.”
Frustrated, I let go of Squawkbox, who fledged his way out of my reach. I did appreciate the lengths to which Flywheels would go in order to keep me out of trouble, and his ability to translate Squawkbox’s gibberish was yet another aspect of this usefulness. Nevertheless, If I’d had the time to think, I might have wondered exactly when Flywheels had downloaded a translator program, and why.
Squawkbox suddenly started garbling some more polyglot, but soon settled into Polyhexian, “. . . your assumption that *I* was in charge, and that Slugfest was *my* beast. Is the thought that a beast might run this outpost really so repugnant to you?”
Without giving me a chance to reply, Flywheels said, “whichever of you is in charge ought to know that we’re the reinforcements from Polyhex; here to augment your staff and help you monitor transmissions.”
“*Autobot* reinforcements?” Squawkbox peeped, skeptically touching a finger to the insignia on Flywheels’s chest.
“We’re *not* Autobots,” I said, disgusted.
“Not Autobots?” Slugfest mumbled, his voicebox muffled by the fact that he’d stuck his head underneath his prostrate body. “This one’s absolutely *covered* in Autobot symbols.” In horror, I realised that Spectro was still being crushed by Slugfest’s weight.
“Slugfest!” I shouted. “I am a Minister of the Decepticon council and I order you to get off the floor!” Looking at the massive beast’s target profile as he leapt from Spectro’s wounded form, I couldn’t believe that Slugfest had thought his best defensive action was to cover his eyes. “What sort of menagerie have I limped in on?” I grumbled.
“What sort of menagerie indeed?” hissed a voice with which I was unfamiliar. I looked around for the speaker, but in such an incommodious room, it seemed impossible that another robot could have gone unnoticed.
“I have observed enough,” the voice enunciated, and this time I made a conscious effort to follow the source of the sound. Down at my feet stood a tiny, blue-and-white bipedal beast. I bent down to pick it up and, with the beast standing on my horizontal palm, I slowly returned to my upright position.
“What is it?” Flywheels asked.
“Some sort of rodent, perhaps?” I suggested.
“Oh, how you wound me,” said the beast. “You misjudge my status, merely because of my diminutive stature. Oh, I am mortally wounded, I am crushed. I die.” He curled up into the gestate position. Not long afterwards, he unfurled with a smirk on his toothsome face.
“I am Overkill, the direc*tor* of the Valvolux reconnaissance base,” said the beast, as if ‘tor’ were the most important syllable in the whole sentence.
“I’m. . .” I began, but my handful interrupted.
“Your reputation precedes you, Minister,” said Overkill, rolling his alveolar approximants. “I *hope* you can live it down.”
“Overkill, we need to talk,” I said.
“Indeed,” he replied. “Slugfest, carry Spectro,” he pointed at my compressed companion, “down to the Energon tank. Flywheels, if you wish to ‘augment my staff,’ there is a carpentry kit in that locker.”
Flywheels looked confused. “What do I do with it?” he asked, pulling the kit out of the locker.
“Fix my ceiling!” Overkill decreed, pointing a minuscule arm up in the direction of the hole Flywheels had made.
“And *you*.” As the diminutive beast turned to Squawkbox, I could swear I almost saw the schizophonic Decepticon shudder. “Heat up a pot of oil, will you? I have a feeling this is going to be a long night.”
In our preliminary discussions, Overkill and I realised that we both wanted the same thing. He didn’t want me in his way and I didn’t want him in mine. Consequently, we agreed that his staff would continue with their orn-to-orn running of the base, while Flywheels and I would spend our time downstairs, searching the archives for the original War Games transmission and keeping an optical sensor on Spectro’s condition. In the meantime, it was decided that Flywheels and I should reacquaint ourselves with Overkill’s staff, both in the interest of base morale and on the assumption that it couldn’t possibly go any worse than last time. Thus, once all the chores were completed, a full complement of active personnel gathered around the scullery table to enjoy some warm, communal oil.
Flywheels lifted his oilcan to just below his rhinal sensor and took an olfactory sample. I cringed. If anything was going to go wrong, this was it.
“Motor oil. . . resplendent with ethanol. . . and just a hint of charcoal around a nucleus of petrorabbit. An outstanding bouquet,” declared Flywheels. As I began to relax, he took a sip. “Very concentrated. . . seriously deep. . . full bodied, and a long, clean sign-off.” He ingested. “A tremendously powerful, lingering aftermath. *Def*initely Valvolux Gold and I’d say. . . vorn twenty. . . nine?” He looked around for approval.
“Twenty-eight, actually,” Overkill corrected, “but very impressive nonetheless. Not that oil is *my* drink; one drop and it goes to my head. No, the oil is a remnant from the Master’s days.”
“The Master?” I asked.
“Hmm? Oh, of course. I suspect the Master would be better known to you as ‘Primaeval.’”
“You worked for Primaeval?” asked Flywheels, astonished.
“‘Worked for’?” Overkill repeated. “In a way, I suppose. ‘Primaeval’, as you call him, *Primaeval* was our creator.”
And then the lights went out.
I couldn’t believe it. Five Cybertronians in one room (six, if you count Squawkbox twice) and not one of us had headlights. For a short while, everything was as black as oil, but soon the flash of a small spark permeated the darkness. The spark slowly grew until it unveiled itself in the form of a lantern, supported by Squawkbox. He placed the oil-lamp in the middle of the table and settled back into his chair.
“The war’s on again,” he said, in a sombre version of the voice that I’d previously associated with his violent self.
I nodded. “The Thundercrackers won’t have made it to Hybris yet, but I’d say they’ve taken a couple of power stations out on the way”. /At least/, I thought, /that’s what I would have done/. “So what does the blackout mean for the base?” I asked.
“Anything important, that is, the communication facilities and the computers have back-up power,” said Overkill. “We have an oil-lamp in every room, everything else we can go without.”
I’d never seen the war from the other side before; in fact I don’t think I’d even seen the war as a war. I tried in vain to make out some of the detail in the shadows. “It’s a slagging annoyance, isn’t it?”
“‘A slagging annoyance?’” Overkill asked, sounding somewhat more than annoyed. “Robots with guns destroyed our entire borough. Of our neighbours, the ones who weren’t killed have fled. If the ones who survived came back to their homes, they would find them gutted, ransacked and uninhabitable. *This*,” he stuck his stubby arms in the air, “is a blackout. Deal with it.”
After a short silence, Flywheels said, “he’s sorry, Overkill.”
“I can apologise for myself, Flywheels,” I snapped.
“Oh, can you?” he asked. “Can you? Because I’d like to see it.”
Nobody spoke for a while.
“Overkill,” I said, “why are you working for Megatron?”
“We’re helping him end the war,” he said.
With Overkill in one hand and the lamp from the kitchen in the other, Squawkbox led me downstairs to the archive. The bipolar robot shone his light around the room until he caught sight of the archive’s oil-lamp. Then, using the flame from his own lantern, Squawkbox kindled the second lamp and placed it on one of the room's many furnishings.
“I'd better bring the other one back upstairs,” said Squawkbox, in the thick accent of his multi-lingual personality. “Slugfest could cause all kinds of damage, running around in the dark.”
“You do that, Squawkbox,” said Overkill, igniting some sort of jetpack and floating over to a nearby cabinet. “I will be up shortly, after I have explained the filing system to the Minister.”
“As you wish,” replied Squawkbox, disappearing up the staircase.
I waited until I was sure Squawkbox couldn't hear us, and faced Overkill. “You have *him* well trained,” I said.
“I could say the same about you and Flywheels,” he replied, not actually specifying which of us was the trainer and which the trainee. “However, if you were alluding to the fact that I, a beast, appear to command one of *your* kind, then you have misconstrued the situation. What file were you looking for again?”
“Er, the War Games transmission,” I said.
“That's right, I remember that one. It is probably not in the third cabinet up; that’s where we file the immemorable transmissions,” Overkill confided. “But you should probably look there just in case.”
Balancing his tail, Overkill swung his hind legs over the side of the cabinet on which he sat. “When the Master lost his faith in your kind he confined himself to this building,” he said. “Of course, he soon realised that your society was constructed in such a way that it was impossible to exclude oneself entirely. Ironically, in order to be self-sufficient the Master needed an intermediary who could go out into the world for him. The disk racks are over there and over there,” he said, pointing his miniature hands in opposite directions.
I noticed that Overkill was telling me a story about Primaeval and explaining the filing system at the same time. Overkill’s process of doing two or more things at once was known outside the Decepticon government by the term ‘multitasking’. Within the government, it was known as ‘impossible’.
Overkill continued. “Trusting only his two beasts, his permanent companions, the Master resolved to send them out into the world. First, he sent out his loyal bird. Blessed with the gift of speech, the bird seemed like an ideal voicebox for the Master in your world of jargon and circumlocution. But once the bird was out there in the real world, everything he knew and said was useless. Your kind mocked him because of his form and ignored his requests for oil and materials. When he finally convinced some robots to sell him supplies, the bird found that he was too weak to carry the provisions back home and returned, empty-clawed, to the Master.”
“So what did Primaeval do next?” I asked.
“After the bird’s failure,” Overkill went on, “the Master sent out his other beast. This one had a more acceptable form, but could not successfully verbalise his intentions. Tired of trying to communicate with misapprehensive suppliers, the beast beat up some robots and stole their provisions. But the Master was still not happy.” Overkill looked towards the door. “There is a computer in the room across the hall; you can access the information on the disks in there.”
Taking advantage of the break in the narrative, I asked, “does your story *really* have anything to do with Squawkbox?”
Overkill ignored me. “The attention garnered by a gratuitously boticidal beast was the last thing the Master needed, so he came up with another solution. As Cybertron’s foremost authority on Gestaltism. . .” Overkill looked at me for a spark of recognition. There wasn’t one. “Gestaltism is the science of piecing two or more Transformers together to create one single robot,” he explained. “The Master decided that if he was determined to send beasts to do an android’s job, then through Gestaltism, his beasts would at least look the part. However, although I believe he had previously made functional Gestalts from *your* kind, the Master’s attempts to piece beasts together had always been grotesque failures. If you’re interested, the drawer under me contains the schematics of every robot the Master has worked on; even Slugfest and me.”
“That’s all very nice,” I said, no longer finding the archive’s facilities particularly gripping. “What happened next?”
“Well, hoping that he had isolated the flaw as one of *mental*, rather than *physical* rejection, the Master engineered his own beasts so that they could form a Gestalt body, but still retain two distinct minds.” Overkill approximated a smile. “His success has meant that when his beasts are combined, only *one* of them can control the body at any given time. So that's how the Master gave his bird strength, and his other beast a voice.”
“So those two beasts are Squawkbox,” I surmised, probably stating the obvious.
Overkill nodded. “Yes, he is *not* one of yours, but rather two of mine. By your own standards, Squawkbox is twice as bad as *me*.”
Someone started screaming.
“That *is* Squawkbox,” Overkill declared; the light from his thrusters already disappearing up the stairwell.
“Good,” I said to myself, grabbing the oil-lamp as I began my slow climb up the stairs. “For a moment there, I thought it might have been me.”
A mixture of oil, petrol and other bodily fluids was seeping from the neck of Slugfest's carcass. From my time in the Thundercrackers I knew that losing one’s life-oil was probably not an unusual side-effect of decapitation. What *was* unusual about Slugfest’s case was that his body was still wandering around the room.
“His cerebro-centre is in the top of his back,” explained Overkill, as Slugfest’s body smashed into another wall. “Having his head severed won’t kill him, it just stops him from seeing and talking.”
“Maybe that’s exactly what the attacker wanted,” I said, stooping to inspect Slugfest’s detached head. At its collar there was a clean cut where the rest of its body had once been. “Squawkbox, scour every millispan of the building. The culprit could still be here.”
As the Gestalt went off to forage through the scullery cupboards for assassins, I noticed that there seemed to be something wrong with his legs. Before I could think about it, Overkill started speaking in an undertone. “Did you consider the possibility that the culprit might be one of *us*?”
I nodded. “You and I have been together the whole time, but what about the others? After Squawkbox left us, there was at least a breem before he screamed. Why did it take him so long to find the body?” Slugfest’s remains charged in my direction. “It’s not exactly subtle,” I said, hobbling out of its way.
Flywheels returned from the front door, carrying a lantern. “All the exits are still locked,” he said, “and from the inside.”
I felt coolant down my back. “The assassin’s still here,” I muttered.
Flywheels’ lamp flickered, illuminating his right hand. It was covered in oil.
“What happened to your hand?” asked Overkill, before I had the chance.
“What?” Flywheels looked at the offending appendage. “Oh, I. . .” he looked pleadingly in my direction.
“Did it happen when you tried to get the holomap out of the oil pit?” I suggested, helpfully. That sounded right. *Someone* had tried to fish the holomap out of the pit, and it wasn’t me. Who else could it have. . .
“Oh slag!” I said, heading back towards the stairwell. “I’m going to check on Spectro.”
/I just hope the killer hasn’t checked on him first/, I thought.
As I descended the stairs, I realised just how oddly Flywheels had been acting since we’d arrived at the base. He knew something about the Church of Primus that he wasn’t telling, and I couldn’t ignore the fact that he’d raised his volume at me in the scullery, when I didn’t apologise for the ‘slagging annoyance’ incident. I had to face the possibility that Flywheels had been doing other out-of-character things. Like slaughtering large, talking quadrupeds, for example.
I sensed something wet beneath my treads and shone my lantern at the stairs. Along my path was an ominous trail of pink liquid. I increased my velocity and hoped I wasn’t too late. When I arrived at the threshold of the infirmary, I realised just how late I was.
The floor was saturated with liquid energon, and shards of glass shattered beneath my feet. Lines of fatigue had formed a cortex over Spectro’s crumpled body. It would have been a tragic sight indeed, if it weren’t for the fact that Spectro was very much alive. And he was brandishing an axe.
“Ah, Minister,” said Spectro, running his finger down the oil-coated blade of the axe. “I gather you’ve found Slugfest’s body. I wonder how long it will be before someone finds *yours*.”
*Part Seven: Overlord.*
“If you were told that you could become someone great; if you were guaranteed an indelible mark on the history of the universe but at the cost of everything that makes you who you are, would you do it? Would you sacrifice your entire identity for recognition?” I asked.
Optimus Prime was reclining flat on the ground beside me, his hands behind his head and his optics staring up at the sky. “Sorry,” I said, “I’m asking the wrong person.”
“No, I know exactly what you mean, Thundercracker,” said Prime. I doubted that very much, so I decided to elaborate.
“Do you remember anything about Scourge?” I asked.
“Scourge?” Prime tilted his head in my direction. “In another timeline, he was a fallen Decepticon resurrected by Unicron. In that reality, Scourge became joint leader of the Decepticons back in 2008. He time-travelled a bit; the first time sent me to limbo where, you may recall, I met up with you. Later, during Scourge’s next soiree through our universe, he teamed up with a Nebulan and served under Scorponok as a Targetmaster. When he finally returned to his own era he willingly helped seal the rift in time and space that his presence had created.” Prime recommenced gazing at the sky. “What of it?” he asked.
I was slightly thrown by Prime’s knowledge on the subject, but it would take more than that to take *my* voicebox out of gear. “In that timestream,” I continued, “*I* was that resurrected Decepticon. *I* was destined to become a great leader, but with a different name, a different physiognomy, a different identity. Can you even imagine what that’s like?”
“*Yes*,” said Prime, perhaps a bit too patronizingly for my liking.
“No, look,” I said, “I still don’t think you understand.” I noticed a visual aid squirming on the wet ground. I leant down, and gently placed my hand down flat alongside it.
“This creature is called a caterpillar,” I said, as the tiny insect started to crawl onto the tip of my index finger. “It’s ugly, strangely repellant and doesn’t seem to do much except eat. However, what you probably don’t realise is that it has the option of transforming into a ‘butterfly’. Butterflies are aesthetically pleasing, universally loved beasts who assist in the propagation of this planets plantlife, and can even *fly*. However, although our creature can transform from caterpillar to butterfly, it can never go back again.”
“How much would you sacrifice for greatness,” I asked Optimus Prime, waving the tiny caterpillar on my index finger into his line of sight. “If it meant sacrificing your very caterpillarness could you do it?” I asked.
Prime sat up slightly, leaving his elbows on the ground for support.
“That’s a worm,” he said, nodding in the direction of my caterpillar.
“That’s not a caterpillar, it's a worm,” he elaborated.
“Oh,” I said, looking at my worm. “So what does it transform into?” I asked.
“Nothing,” said Prime, lying down again, this time with his arms by his sides. “It’s just a worm.”
“Oh,” I said, again. “Well that’s just depressing, isn’t it.”
/It’s always the quiet ones/, I thought, staring at my reflection in the blade of Spectro’s axe. A tricolour Skyraider stared back at me, a resigned look in his optics. He was generic, a production line robot with nothing more than a colour scheme and personality to distinguish him from his brethren. Everything else was mass-produced; his body, his wings, his rudders, his gauntlets, his tail fins. The oil-lamp was a new addition, of course, but all the customisable accessories that came standard with the model were still present. The tricolour Skyraider suddenly smiled.
“I have machine guns!” I said, like a particularly stupid Gestalt who just discovered a new limb. Robots with machine guns could easily kill robots with axes.
“Me too,” said Spectro, pulling out a shutter gun and aiming it at my head.
I made a mental note: /in future, shoot first and talk later/.
Almost imperceptibly, I paused the narrative to consider that precept.
“Don't even think about it,” said Prime, still lying on his back, but patting his rifle with an outstretched arm.
“Good call,” I said, returning to my story.
It all made sense now; Spectro was the ultimate assassin. A robot to whom everyone turns a blind optic has amnesty to do absolutely anything. He could behead a large, green, quadrupedal beast without anyone noticing and still have time to kill a Decepticon Minister before moonset. Someone else would always be around to take the blame.
Holding my oil-lamp in his starboard hand and his own shutter gun in the other, Spectro watched carefully as I removed the ammunition from my launchers. I couldn’t believe I’d let the situation get so dire, but sacrificing my weapons seemed better than a hole in the head.
“So, who do you work for?” I asked, dropping my last cartridge to the ground. “Sentinel Prime? The Overlord?”
“You know who I work for,” Spectro replied, his gun still pointed at my cranium. “The same robot as you do.”
“Megatron?” I inferred. “Then why are you doing this? What do you want?”
“What do all Decepticons want?” Spectro asked.
“Power,” I said, knowingly.
Spectro shook his head. “Attention,” he said, relieving the pressure on his stress fractures by leaning against the wall of the infirmary. “It’s like the joke: ‘how many Decepticons does it take to change a headlight?’”
“I don’t know,” I said, never good with jokes, “how many Decepticons *does* it take to change a headlight?”
A satisfied smirk added itself to the wrinkles on Spectro’s face. “‘One squadron to invade a broadcast studio; one to transmit a message on all wavelengths, threatening the universe with his masterful plan to ransack /Headlights Are Us/; and one battalion to be foiled at /Headlights Are Us/ by the guards who stepped up their security measures because some megalomaniac had threatened to ransack their headlight production facility.’”
“So,” I repeated myself, “how many Decepticons *does* it take to change a headlight?”
“‘What headlight?’” Spectro said, grinning.
About a breem later, the subject matter hadn’t progressed much further, although I had managed to turn Spectro’s grin upside down.
“‘What headlight?’ *is* the punchline,” he said, exasperated.
“Ohhh. . .” I drawled, nodding my head slowly. “I understand.”
“You don’t, do you,” moaned Spectro.
“No, I don’t, actually.” I flashed a smile in his direction. “So, how many Decepticons does it take to change a headlight?”
Ostensibly prompted by my statement, the infirmary began to hum with power, and the lights gradually flickered back into existence. Spectro flung his now-useless lamp into the corner.
“Slugfest was an *animal*,” Spectro sneered, riled by my absence-of-humour. “I ended up in this infirmary because that beast ignored me. You of all robots have no right to judge me for killing it.”
He was right, of course. Under legislation put forward by myself, thousands of quadrupeds were to be culled every decivorn. Battle unicorns had hit critical mass: there were too many of them competing for the same fuel source. Culling them was more merciful than letting them die from energon starvation.
/Do I really believe that,/ I thought, /or have I just said it to the press so many times that I can’t remember what I really believe?/
“You’re right,” I said, abandoning my attempts to bait Spectro and deciding that it would be better to placate him. “At the moment you’ve just decapitated a beast. That’s not a crime, but killing a Decepticon Minister *is.* Just put down the gun, Spectro, and we can forget all about this incident.”
“You won’t forget,” Spectro cackled. “The one time I want you to forget about me, you won’t be able to do it. There’s no way you’ll let me take part in the mission now. I’ll be nothing but a broken hyperlink in the annals of history. But there is another way. The last Autobot Overlord may have been a great robot, but the most enduring facets of his life are the rumours about his death. At first I wanted something as transient as fame, but I now know how I can possess an eternity of infamy.” Spectro’s trigger finger started to quiver. “You and all your kind are redundant, Minister. Today, the real power isn’t in politics, but in the military. You can talk all you want, but it makes no difference against a gun.”
Spectro was wrong. Words *were* power. You just had to choose them carefully. I wiped all traces of emotion from my face.
“Sorry,” I said, absent-mindedly. “I wasn’t paying attention. What did you say?”
Spectro screamed like a madbot, pulling the trigger of his shutter gun an instant after I’d grabbed the weapon’s barrel and wrested it away from my head. The oil-lamp in the corner exploded as projectiles pierced its shell. Burning well, the oil-fire slowly spread towards the volatile pink trail of energon on the floor.
“We have to get out of here,” Spectro panicked, trying to shake his gun free from my hand.
“Do we?” I asked, still holding tight to the butt of the gun. “I’m redundant anyway, what do I have to live for? I might as well just stand here and wait for the end.”
Spectro continued to pull his gun from side to side. “You’re blocking the doorway!”
“Am I?” I asked, my wings uncharacteristically outstretched and clearly blocking the infirmary’s only exit. “Not that it makes any difference. You can’t walk out that door without letting go of your gun. You can’t let go of your gun without relinquishing it to me. And believe me, if you relinquish your gun then you’re not walking out of here alive anyway.”
Still shaking the gun, Spectro turned to look at the fire, which by that time was only millispans away from the puddle of energon on the floor. “What can I do?” he pleaded.
“Transform,” I said. “I’ll carry you out of here and back to Polyhex, where you can explain your actions to the Overlord.”
Still staring at the fire, Spectro finished weighing up his options. Then, a portal wrenched itself open, engulfing most of Spectro’s mass and all of the gun that had been in my hand. When space and subspace separated once more, all that was left of Spectro’s bulk was a third of a reconnaissance device on the energon-coated floor.
I opened my chest canopy, threw Spectro inside, and closed the hatch.
“Ha!” I said to my chest, adrenalon surging through my body. “Words: one, guns: zero!”
“Get out of the room!” My chest replied.
About a millibreem after I threw myself out the door, the infirmary exploded.
I ran upstairs to the sound of exploding ammunition, one of the oil-fire’s acts of defiance against the automated extinguishers that had started to ward off the burning energon. I couldn’t waste any time helping the fire-fighting system’s struggle against its nemesis; my task was far more important.
Spectro may have been truly responsible for beheading Slugfest, but during my absence, Overkill and Squawkbox had no doubt already condemned Flywheels for the crime. I could only imagine the sort of tortures Squawkbox could inflict upon poor Flywheels. Images of electroshocks, white noise, even the Kalisian oil torture passed through my head-up display. But I couldn’t even have begun to imagine the reality of the situation.
As I entered the communications facility, I was so aggrieved by the scene before me that I honestly couldn’t speak.
“I’m in stasis,” Flywheels groaned, briefly raising his cranium to look me in the optics and attempt a smile before letting his head drop once more.
Squawkbox was sitting opposite Flywheels, and the object between them was clearly responsible for my assistant’s torment. I couldn’t really understand why. The horde of captured white pieces in front of Flywheels suggested to me that he was winning by quite a margin, and his militia of coloured pieces had almost completely enveloped the Fullstasis board.
“Vig’s Quarg to Vig Prime,” said one of only two remaining white pieces on the Fullstasis table. Squawkbox removed a coloured piece, and the talking white piece walked over to fill the newly-abandoned square, in spite of the fact that the piece looked nothing like a humble Quarg, while very much resembling a small, supercilious bipedal beast.
“You are still in stasis, Flywheels,” said Overkill. He looked up in my direction. “Greetings, Minister. I *trust* you have sorted out our rogue decapitator.”
“Ro. . .” I began. “Cap. . .” I continued. “Spectro just tried to shoot me in the head, and you’re all up here playing board games?” I wailed.
“You were gone for a long time, sir,” said Flywheels, barely listening, and not at all diverting his optics from the game. “It was kind of hard to sustain a sense of urgency.”
“Why didn’t you come down and see what was keeping me?” I asked. “I could have been killed!”
“I think that’s why we didn’t go downstairs,” Flywheels said, cautiously moving one of his pieces. “Safety in numbers, you know.”
“Oh you poor deluded automaton,” Overkill interposed from his square on the Fullstasis board. “There is nothing safe about numbers, Flywheels, and this is not a game of attrition. One only needs two pieces in order to win: a figurehead,” he said, saluting the other white piece on the Fullstasis board, “and a pawn.” Overkill took a deep bow, and his tail collided with Flywheels’ Vig, knocking it over in the process. “Fullstasis,” said Overkill, smirking.
My assistant scoured the board for any hope of redemption. He found none. “Well played, Overkill,” said Flywheels. He then gave me his full attention for the first time since I’d entered the communications room. “So how was Spectro?” Flywheels asked.
“I’ve been better,” muttered Spectro from within my chest cavity.
There was immediate silence from the Fullstasis club.
“Oh, *this* gets your attention,” Spectro grumbled.
After bringing the other Decepticons up to date about the Spectro situation, and not before Overkill could supply me with a good breem of castigation over my destruction of the infirmary, Flywheels and I finally started to establish ourselves in the archive, beginning our search for the master copy of the War Games transmission. Fortunately, the fire at the infirmary hadn’t spread to the neighbouring archive, but even if it had, our work couldn’t have been made much more difficult.
As it turned out, the files were far more disorganised than I’d expected from a base run by the obsessive-compulsive Overkill. The beasts had long since run out of blank microdisks, so some new transmissions had been crammed at the end of old diskettes, others were scattered over multiple disks while others had no doubt already been recorded over. Half of the process of finding the information for which we searched would involve Flywheels and myself scouring each disk individually. The other half would be the work of blind luck.
However, I *had* successfully located Slugfest’s schematics at Squawkbox’s request, and Squawky had carried the plans upstairs in order to start work on reattaching Slugfest’s head to his body. As Squawkbox walked, I noticed that whatever had previously been wrong with his legs had apparently been repaired, and by that time my own broken knee had also fixed itself. Overkill appeared to be generally concerned about something upstairs, but it didn’t seem to hinder his ability to taunt me at every opportunity.
“I am sure you will find it difficult, Minister, but could you at least *try* not to incinerate anything today?” Overkill called, projecting his mock mellifluous tones down the stairwell.
“When I do,” I mumbled to myself, “I’ll be sure to make room on the pyre for one more shrimp.”
“He’s not that bad once you get to know him,” Flywheels mediated, pulling a diskette out of the computer terminal and replacing it with another.
“I know,” I said.
“You. . . know?” Flywheels stopped scanning the computer screen and turned to me. “You, the beast-hating Decepticon Minister of Propaganda, know that Overkill, a beast, really isn’t that bad?”
“I thought it was strange too,” I said.
“It’s not strange,” said Flywheels, smiling. “I’ve finally turned you into a rounded robot being. As of today, I can retire, happy.”
“You know I couldn’t do my job without you,” I said, and a frown formed on Flywheels’ face before he went back to work on the computer. “But the beast thing *is* strange,” I continued. “I drink petrorabbit oil that comes from battery rabbits. I’m responsible for the battle unicorn culls. And yet, when Slugfest, one single animal was beheaded, I felt. . . disturbed.”
“That’s because we’re a ‘head’ species,” said Flywheels. “We value our heads physically and symbolically above all else. We even chose faces to symbolise our affiliation.” He pointed at the Autobot insignia that was still on my wing. “Or fake an affiliation, in our case.”
“I don’t think that’s all it is,” I said.
“Oh no?” Flywheels asked. “What do I transform into?”
“A jet,” I said slowly, trying to follow Flywheels’ line of reasoning. “And a tank!” I added, hoping it wouldn’t sound like the afterthought it was. I started leafing through a nearby cabinet to feign disinterest, but I was soon generally distracted by an old hyperscrapbook that had been filed away at the back. I pulled the book out and put it on top of the cabinet before paying attention to Flywheels again.
“. . . Generally, there’s a cultural bias where a greater importance is attributed to a robot’s head region,” he said “That’s why robots tend to attribute greater value to my jet mode than my tank configuration, and it’s why Slugfest is still alive today.”
“Because his head was just a symbol, rather than something crucial to his existence,” I suggested.
“Exactly,” said Flywheels.
I considered the concept some more. “So if jet Flywheels and tank Flywheels are of equal value, how do you reconcile their two different viewpoints when you return to robot mode?”
Flywheels ejected the disk from the computer. “With difficulty,” he said, reaching out his hand for another diskette.
After searching through a memory-numbing number of profitless disks, our ennui was temporarily interrupted when Squawkbox emerged from the stairwell carrying a tankard-covered tray. “I thought you could do with some libations,” he trilled.
“You are a godssend, Squawky,” said Flywheels, immediately clearing piles of disks from the closest table with a swipe of his forearm.
Squawkbox lowered the tray onto the side-table. “There you go,” he said, passing Flywheels a tankard full of warm oil.
Flywheels took his first sip. “Make sure you don’t spill this one,” Squawkbox said, airily.
Flywheels chortled and accidentally expunged half the contents of his mouth.
“What’s the joke?” I asked, wondering if I’d completely lost whatever sense of humour had been installed into me.
“During the blackout,” Squawkbox began, “Flywheels thought he’d take the opportunity to enjoy some of the Master’s oilstock. While feeling around in the dark, your friend managed to wipe out vorns thirty-one through thirty-four of Valvolux Gold, and trampled a ten-pack of Three-Exxx.”
“Hence the oil on my person when you found Slugfest’s body,” Flywheels interjected, helpfully.
“For future reference, Flywheels,” I said, “posing as a murderer is probably not the most suitable cover for your ethanolism.”
Flywheels stuck out his glossal sensor, which was one of the more profane Iaconian sign-gestures.
Taking umbrage at the gesture, I contorted my fingers into the most obscene sign in the Iaconian language.
Flywheels didn’t even flinch.
“That was rude.” Squawkbox glared at me, clearly more fluent in Iaconian than Flywheels was.
Avoiding his glare, I noticed the hyperscrapbook that I’d left on top of a nearby cabinet. I grabbed it, and picked up a tankard of oil before my idle hands could get me into any more trouble. “So how are the repairs on Slugfest going?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Slowly but surely,” Squawkbox said, picking up an oilcan for himself. “It was impossible for us to work on him in this combined mode, since my alter ego can’t understand the schematics, and I’m not good at manual work. We separated into our beast modes, and I’ve been translating the instructions while Beastbox does the physical work, but his beast mode just isn’t designed for that sort of thing.”
“Your squeamishness can’t help matters much, Talky,” Flywheels interjected, before I could elicit any more information about Beastbox’s design limitations. Turning to me, Flywheels said, “during the blackout, Squawkbox’s Squawktalk persona was having a one-sided conversation with Slugfest for well over a breem. When Talky finished his monologue, he casually shone his oil-lamp towards his audience and saw a gaping hole where Slugfest’s head should have been.” Flywheels started laughing again. “Talky screamed and fainted and didn’t wake up until we were halfway through the first round of Fullstasis!”
“But when Overkill and I found Squawkbox with Slugfest’s body, Squawky was still conscious,” I said. “He just seemed to be having trouble walking around and standing up.”
“Dead legs,” said Flywheels.
“What?” I asked.
“‘Dead legs’. It’s a combiner thing,” Flywheels explained. “Uncooperative lower limbs, legs with wandering minds, lower appendages that have fainted. It happens to me sometimes.”
“So Flywheels,” I said, attempting to up the intellectual ante of the conversation, “does that technically make you a Gestalt?”
A grin formed on Flywheels’ face. “Who taught you that word?” he asked.
“Which word?” I asked, evasively.
“‘Gestalt’,” said Flywheels, still grinning.
“I’ve always known that word,” I lied.
Flywheels looked skeptical.
“Alright,” I admitted, “Overkill defined it for me.”
“*Overkill*,” said Flywheels, “now *there’s* a character. Spill it, Squawkbox, you must have some grimy anecdotes about him.”
“My beak is sealed,” said Squawkbox.
“Overkill already told me about *your* inability to get provisions for Primaeval,” I said, manipulatively.
“Oh did he?” Squawkbox asked. “Then, for the record, my beak *is* sealed, I just don’t talk through my beak in this mode. Actually, come to think of it, I’m talking out of Beastbox’s. . . But I digress,” he said. “Is there anything in particular that you wanted to know about Overkill?”
I knew exactly what I wanted to hear. As with most small Transformers, Overkill ‘talked big’, like the way in which Ruckus compensated for his lack of size by shouting louder than everybody else in existence. Unlike Ruckus, however, Overkill’s bearing just didn’t feel like it *was* compensatory. Overkill was the smallest Transformer I’d ever seen, and yet he carried himself like a true behemoth.
“I have a question.” The room was silent. “Where’d Overkill learn to play Fullstasis like tha. . .” Flywheels stopped himself at approximately the point when I looked electron-scimitars at him. “Oh, yeah. Why is he so small?” Flywheels asked.
Squawkbox leant forward in his chair, tightly clasping his warm tankard of oil. “Overkill lost most of his mass to one of the Master’s subspace experiments,” Squawky said, secretively. “The Master was a genius, an eradicator of boundaries, and as such, he wanted to see if there was a limit to the amount of matter that could be contained within subspace. He reengineered Overkill’s configuration so that he could transform into a microdisk, which the Master did perfectly, much as he had done for Beastbox and myself many orns before. When Overkill transformed, he shrank down to the size of a microdisk and the rest of his bulk was successfully transferred to subspace. However, that success left Overkill a huge failure. When he returned to beast mode, he remained minuscule, remained the size of a microdisk. The Master surmised that Overkill’s bulk had broken the bonds of its subspace chamber, making it impossible for his systems to relocate and retrieve. The rest of his body was lost forever.”
It sounded a bit farfetched to me. I turned to Squawkbox. “How big was Overkill before the experiment?” I asked.
“Slightly bigger than his little brother,” replied Squawky, unhelpfully.
“And his little brother is. . .” I said, in the hope that someone would fill in the blanks.
“*Trypticon*,” said Squawkbox, dramatically.
I looked to Flywheels for help. “Trypticon?” I mouthed.
“You’d definitely know him if you’d met him,” my aide replied succinctly.
Flywheels and Squawkbox kept talking as they finished off their oil, while I finally got a good look at the hyperscrapbook in my hand. The first half was full of press cut-and-pastings about Primaeval, some so old that they had almost certainly been collated by the Master himself. I flipped through, just scanning the headlines: /Overlords Employ Iaconian Prodigy/; /Talking Cats Leave Crowd Speechless/; /Are Talking Cats Taking Our Jobs?/
I smiled, and skipped ahead to a section which seemed to have a regular theme: /Phi Spreem Missing/; /Search for Spreem Continues/; /Small Yellow Clips Found: Link to Spreem Case?/; /Clips Identified, Primaeval Implicated/. The final headline in the scrapbook read; /Primaeval Executed for Spreem Murder/. The rest of the book was filled with research notes and other such writings.
“Is this yours?” I asked Squawkbox, holding up the scrapbook.
Squawky shook his head. “I’ve never seen it before,” he said, putting down his empty tankard of oil. “I’d better get back to Slugfest.”
“I’ll walk you back,” I said, putting my book down.
“Great,” Flywheels muttered, returning to his place at the computer.
As Squawkbox and I walked back up the stairs, I was reminded of some concerns I had about my assistant.
“Squawktalk, you’re a linguist, right?” I asked.
Squawky responded with a series of high-pitched noises that I didn’t understand.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” I said. “Have you noticed anything odd about Flywheels’ methods of communication?”
“You mean the occasional bouts of Iaconian sign-language?” he asked.
“Exactly,” I said, impressed by Squawkbox’s observation skills. “That and the fact that he understood your multilingual outburst when we arrived here.”
“Hmmm,” Squawkbox mused. “Well, my ‘outburst’ consisted primarily of off-world expletives. The fact that he understood them, and yet doesn’t seem to understand some of the more complex aspects of the languages suggests to me that he’s downloaded an off-world translator program, but is still only in an early stage of immersion.”
In my expression, Squawkbox observed a similar state of incomprehension.
“Because you always learn the swear words first, you see,” he explained.
“Ah,” I said, noticing Slugfest’s body in the corner of the room. The new pieces of his head had clearly begun to take shape, but it was just a skeleton: all the spaces needed to be filled in.
“The Iaconian is different, though,” Squawkbox continued. “Flywheels doesn’t understand the language, it seems more like some sort of proprioception, or unconscious physical response, rather than conscious communication.”
“So what does it mean?” I asked.
“May I make a suggestion?” Squawkbox said, taking his place beside Slugfest’s body.
“Please do,” I said.
“Flywheels is your friend,” Squawkbox said. “So why don’t you talk to him about it?”
“So is there anything that you’d like to talk about, Flywheels?” I asked, taking Squawkbox’s advice in the closest tone I could get to ‘earnestness’ without sounding sardonic. “Is there anything weighing on your mind?”
Flywheels threw another diskette onto the now monumental pile of reject microdisks and turned from the computer. “Other than this exercise in futility, you mean?”
“Right,” I said. “I mean, you haven’t really been yourself since you got here.”
“Myself?” Flywheels snapped. “And just who do you think I am?”
I pulled up a chair next to Flywheels, and put another unread disk into the disk-drive. “If you want to talk about it I’ll be right here,” I said, casually scanning the information on the computer-screen for even a trace of the War Games Transmission.
Flywheels got up and started to pace around the archive. “We’re Decepticons,” he said. “We don’t talk about emotions.”
“We’re also one of the most psychologically messed-up species in the galaxy,” I said. “I think there might be some sort of correlation. If I were you, I’d start talking before you end up a raving boltcase like Spectro.”
“I can *hear* you, you know?” said a voice from my cockpit.
I replicated the Iaconian hand gesture that had previously been wasted on Flywheels and flexed it towards my chest cavity.
“I saw that!” said Spectro.
I ignored him. “So what is it about this place that has you so bugged, Flywheels,” I asked.
Flywheels sighed, and sat down again. “When we first came to the Church of Primus,” he said, “I staged a mental reconstruction of the ruins, just to see if it lived up to your hype. It did that, and more. From that conceptual restoration, I gathered that the church would once have been a very similar temple to the one from my earliest memory, the one I told you about on the trip over here. Now I appreciate the fact that it’s probably a generic Iaconian building design, but it was *something*, a link to my past, no matter how tenuous.”
Ordinarily I would have pointed out that there was nothing generic about the Valvoluxian Church of Primus, but I thought it was best to let Flywheels continue to vent, particularly as my opinions on the Church were in no small part coloured by my own nostalgia.
“Orns and orns ago,” Flywheels continued, “I bought a ticket to get off the planet, and I swore I’d use it as soon as you didn’t need me any more, but you always did. I even bought an off-world translator, but never really got the chance to fully immerse myself in it. I don’t have *time* to think about myself when my every moment is spent cleaning up my Minister’s latest indecorum or anticipating the next one. I want to travel the universe; find out who *I* am, but instead I’m searching through microdisks for a transmission that may or may not even be. . .” He jumped up suddenly and headed for the stairwell. “We’ll finish this later,” he said, disappearing up the steps.
I was left in silence.
“Did that go well?” I asked myself.
“I have no idea,” said Spectro.
Having given up on ever finding the War Games Transmission, I picked up the hyperscrapbook once more. I flipped through the research notes at the back of the book and my whole world was torn apart.
It made sense, of course. As well as any other, perhaps *better* than any other Primusite, I knew and felt the exclusive nature of the Covenant. The scriptures were supposed to encourage every Primusite to be his best, so every adherent who lived his life as Primus decreed could potentially be the chosen one. And yet it was written that ‘an Autobot’ would ‘rise. . . and light our darkest hour.’ ‘An Autobot’, not ‘a Cybertronian’ or even ‘a Transformer’ but ‘an *Autobot*’. Those two words had arguably been responsible for more division than anything else in our planet’s history.
According to the research paper, the Overlords had asked Primaeval to quell the burgeoning rift between Autobot and Decepticon by creating a hybrid, a uniting entity to rule when the last Overlord had fallen. It was to be a literal ‘deus ex machina’, a God from machinery.
They were building their own messiah.
A potential Autobot subject was approached, and unreservedly volunteered. He was to tell nobody about the experiment, not even to say goodbye to his friends and family. To all intents and purposes, Phi Spreem disappeared off the face of Cybertron. Information on the unnamed Decepticon subject was more scarce, and nowhere was it specified whether his participation was voluntary or enforced. Regardless, it seemed that the two of them were to become a symbol to stop the war, and lost themselves in the process.
Other than the subjects themselves, knowledge of the project was limited only to Primaeval and the last Autobot Overlord. On one fateful orn, that Overlord fared Primaeval well in his task, went to the city of Tarn and never again returned. At the same time, Phi Spreem had seemingly vanished without a trace, until some of his discarded body parts were discovered in a routine search of a kup truck that was heading into an Iaconian scrapyard. The parts were traced back to Primaeval, and with the Autobot Overlord dead, and Phi Spreem dissected and reconstructed into another, nobody who could verify the truth remained. Primaeval pled ‘guilty,’ and took the secret to his funeral casket.
/None of which makes any sense/, I thought, closing the hyperscrapbook. Primaeval couldn’t have put together the book I held in my hands, as it contained a news pasting from the day after his execution. /So whose book was it?/
I put the scrapbook down and picked up my oil container. Taking a swig, I noticed something on the label of the tankard.
Like Flywheels before me, I spat oil across the room.
/Valvolux Gold/, it read. /Vorn thirty-five/. I rechecked the date of the news article about Primaeval’s execution. /Vorn thirty-four/, it said. I looked at the tankard once more. Squawkbox had called it ‘the Master’s oilstock.’ Overkill had said that the oil was ‘a remnant from the Master’s days’, and yet that would have meant that Primaeval had somehow purchased the oil *after* he’d been executed.
Remembering something that Overkill had told me, I slid my chair over to Primaeval’s schematics drawer. Overkill said the cabinet contained ‘the schematics of every robot the Master has worked on.’ I pulled the drawer open and fingered past the hard copy plans of Nightstalker and then Ravage and then. . . It was all there. Plans, sketches and schematics of Primaeval’s synthetic chosen one. I pulled the sheets out of the drawer and looked them over.
“You have got to be slagging joking!” I blurted.
“I promise you, I was most assuredly *not* joking when I called you to come upstairs!” Overkill bellowed while hovering in the stairwell.
I dropped the documents out of shock, having had no idea that the tiny beast was nearby.
“You’ll get your boron compressor up to the communications room *immediately* if you know what’s good for you,” Overkill continued.
Without another thought, I got my boron compressor up to the communications room.
When I reached the door of the com’ room, three heads turned in my direction. Slugfest’s head was now fully functional, though only some of the holes in his skull had been filled in. There was also the crested head of a small cyan bird that I had never seen before, but who I instinctively recognised as Squawktalk in his bestial form. In spite of the novelty of these two faces, it was the third, and most familiar head, that garnered my most intense attention.
“We found it,” said Flywheels’ head as it turned towards the wall.
I followed Flywheels’ gaze, and noticed that a data transmission was being projected onto a large screen.
“I believe it is what you have been looking for,” Overkill said, jetpacking over my shoulder and into the room.
“Where was it?” I asked.
“You may remember Squawktalk mentioning the fact that he, Overkill and Beastbox could turn into microdisks,” Flywheels said. “It just stood to reason that when they ran out of supplies they might have started to save transmissions on *themselves*.” He pointed at the screen. “I found the War Games Transmission on Beastbox.”
I looked around in vain for Squawktalk’s counterpart and concluded that he must have been in the projector.
I moved up close to the screen. “So can I see the original transmission?” I asked.
“Yes, you can see the original transmission,” Slugfest said, proudly.
There was an uncomfortable silence while nobody moved. “Well?” I asked, “where is it?”
The large beast looked at me quizzically. “You can see it over there,” he said, gesturing towards the projection screen with his empty head.
“No,” I said, already tired of dealing with the spiny-backed simpleton and turning to Overkill. “This is the unscrambled transcript, I need to see if there were any errors in translation.”
“I am sorry, Minister” said Overkill, “but Slugfest is correct. That is the initial format of the message we received.”
At that moment, I finally realised what it was about the War Games Transmission that had been so incongruous. It *hadn’t* been scrambled, which meant the Autobots had *wanted* to tell us that their ranking officers were going to be in Hybris. I looked over towards Flywheels. Consciously or not, he was giving an Iaconian hand sign that mirrored my own conclusions.
“It’s a trap,” I said.
*Part Eight: Sinnertwin.*
“That was a long one,” said Optimus Prime, presumably talking about the length of time since the narrative had last been broken.
“And this is a short one,” I said, returning to my story.
I was standing in the communications room of the Valvolux reconnaissance base.
The console in front of me was the very same one that had intercepted the message dubbed ‘the War Games Transmission’. That very message had been projected onto the screen above me, stating that Iacon’s ranking officers would all be in the same place at the same time: at a military training camp in Hybris. To my starboard bow was the very beast who had informed Megatron about this opportunity to cut off the heads of the Autobot army, an opportunity that had inspired Megatron and the entire Decepticon militia to travel to Hybris. And I was the very robot who had just realised that the Autobots had intended for us to intercept the message in the first place.
I looked at my chronometer. There was no time to lose.
“Overkill,” I said, pivoting to starboard, “send a message to Megatron, now! Tell him it’s a trap; tell him to turn back!”
Hovering over the com’ console, Overkill adeptly operated equipment designed for robots thirty times his size. He turned back in my direction, concern registering on his tiny face. “I am afraid it is not that easy, Minister,” he said. “All the Decepticon frequencies are out.”
“*All* of them?” It was unprecedented. “Is it related to the blackout?” I asked. The outage we’d experienced earlier had most likely been a result of our own troops temporarily nullifying the Iaconian power grid. If those actions had shorted our communications equipment then the Thundercrackers had sealed their own mausoleum.
Overkill shook his head. “The radio silence began before you even arrived. Such a variation in routine is frustrating, but not entirely unusual during this kind of military operation.”
Squawktalk perched himself on the console and started turning some dials. “What *is* unusual is the specificity with which the frequencies have been targeted.” He pointed a wing at the display. “Decepticon military access. . . DCB. . . Look, even Radio Polyhex is flatlining.”
A little voice inside me said, “I told you so.” It took me a moment to realise that the voice was not my own. “I *told* you there was something wrong, back when we first came to Valvolux,” Spectro went on, still imprisoned in my chest canopy.
“Shut up, Spectro,” said Flywheels, beating me to it. “The transmissions, they’re all being jammed,” he continued, anxiously.
“Flywheels, grab anything you need.” I ejected the Beastbox microdisk from the transmission projector, and passed it to my assistant. “We’re going back to Polyhex.”
“To do what?” Flywheels shelved Beastbox in his cockpit before grabbing a tankard of Valvolux Gold and cramming it in alongside the minidisk.
I shook my head in distaste. “To tell the council; amass reinforcements; sign a slagging extradition treaty,” I said, “whatever it takes to get our troops out of Hybris.”
I was distracted once again by the earthworm on my fingertip.
“Are you *sure* it doesn’t transform into anything?” I asked, plaintively.
“I’m fairly sure, Thundercracker,” replied Optimus Prime. Now lying on his front, he had started to remind me of the solar powered humans that congregate around water, sand and sunlight. “Although if you cut off its tail it should be able to grow a new one,” Prime continued.
/Regeneration/, I thought. I *knew* there was something special about that worm. But there was a complication.
“Which end is its tail, anyway?” I asked.
“I suspect it’s the end that doesn’t move forwards,” Prime said, lifting his head.
I surveyed the ground. If Optimus was wrong, I didn’t want to risk decapitating my own worm, so I started looking for another.
“There *is* a type of worm where if you cut it in half, the head end grows a new tail, and the tail end grows a new head,” Prime elaborated, “so if you cut one of them in half, you end up with two worms.”
“That’s basically how Jhiaxus’s second-generation Decepticons reproduced, isn’t it?” I asked, now wondering if the creature on my finger was actually one of those ‘deluxe’ worms that Prime was talking about.
“True,” said Prime. “It was a twisted perversion of the way in which the original Transformers multiplied.”
“You know,” I said, “there are probably young robots around today who think *we’re* the original Transformers.”
Prime gave a chuckle. “Speaking of original Transformers, who *was* Primaeval’s ‘chosen one?’”
“It wasn’t *you*, if that’s what you mean.” I said. “Not everything revolves around *you*.”
“Oh, it does,” said Optimus Prime, “but hopefully that will all end soon.”
“Huh?” I said, inarticulately.
“Just finish the story, Thundercracker,” Prime replied. “Then maybe we can both go home.”
I liked the sound of that. The problem was, the unfinished parts of my story were a bit like Jhiaxus’s Decepticons. You’d finish off what you thought was the last one, only to find another in its wake.
It was time for a grand finale.
Or a semi-finale, depending on how you looked at it.
Flywheels and I waved one final farewell to the Valvolux reconnaissance base. Then, lagging slightly behind in my own transformation, I watched as my assistant tore himself in half. As we flew up into the wide black yonder, I turned my optical sensors to rear view, and observed Slugfest chatting to Flywheels’ tank mode as they went back inside the lair. It was hard for me to think of that tank as Flywheels, and recent events certainly hadn’t conspired to make that concept any easier to grasp. I had to accept the fact that while I talked to Flywheels in the air, Slugfest could be having an equally valid conversation with Flywheels on the ground. Even Flywheels’ respective halves had no idea what the other half was doing until they recombined, so every time that jet or tank transformed to robot mode it suddenly became liable for a whole heap of second-hand experiences. It would be like taking responsibility for someone else’s mistakes, someone else’s conversations, someone else’s *life*. Which, when I thought about it, was pretty much exactly what Flywheels did for me.
“Flywheels, we have to talk,” I said. “Later,” I added, remembering that we had company present.
“Don’t stop on my account,” said Spectro, from within my cockpit.
“Nor mine,” said Squawktalk, in disk mode, filed next to the Beastbox microdisk in Flywheels’ canopy. Squawky had refused to be separated from his partner, and with my new insights in Gestaltism, I honestly couldn’t blame him for that.
“Oh *please* share your profound conversation with us, Minister,” said Overkill, also taking a trip in Flywheels’ cockpit on the proviso that he could procure his ‘little’ brother’s services for the rescue mission into Hybris. “I have heard that the flight recorders from your little journeys are counted amongst Cybertron’s greatest literary duologues,” Overkill continued, in a crescendo of sarcasm.
“You know, it’s *such* a shame that Slugfest couldn’t join us,” I replied, in a tone no less corrosive than Overkill’s own. “Can you remind me again, just *why* isn’t he here with us?”
“You *know* why,” Overkill said, uncharacteristically reticent.
Reflexively, a small part of my fuselage restructured itself into a grin. Slugfest *had* wanted to join us, but it turned out to be a logistical impossibility. It seemed that Primaeval’s experiments on Slugfest had resulted in a subspace mishap not entirely unlike the one that had left Overkill so diminutive. However, in Slugfest’s case the problem was his complete failure to access subspace at all, which meant there was no reduction in mass when he transformed. So although Flywheels and I were easily able to transport microdisk-sized monsters, we certainly weren’t equipped to carry a monster-sized microdisk like Slugfest.
“For a genius, your Master sure had a skill for screwing things up,” I said, before reconsidering my statement. “Or would it be more accurate for me to say he *has* a skill for screwing things up?”
Magnifying my view of Flywheels’ cockpit, I watched as a toothy smile formed on Overkill’s face.
“Legends cannot be contained by death, Minister,” said Overkill. “They just reincarnate themselves, again and again.”
My airfoils gave an involuntary shudder.
Oblivious to the subtext of my conversation with Overkill, Flywheels started to address his passengers. “Coming up on the horizon you’ll soon be able to see the subsuburbs in which the Minister grew up, just over the Polyhex borderline.”
Overkill leant over to the front of the cockpit to get a better view. “What exactly is the function of the upside-down turrets along the border?” he asked.
“They’re our city’s famous ‘melting pots’,” Flywheels announced. “The pots are designed to deter unwanted immigrants from entering Polyhex by air.”
“They’re automated missile launchers,” I rephrased.
There was a time when we Decepticons walked side-by-side with the Autobots all over Cybertron, but the sky belonged solely to *us*. Perhaps it was that domination of the skies which *made* us so territorial, so eager to divide the planet into Autobot and Decepticon provinces. However it was through segregation that we sacrificed our greatest advantage. By abandoning the terrain of city-states like Iacon to the Autobots, we also left the airspace above open to Autobot expansion. As a result, some Autobots learnt to fly.
“The melting pots insulate Polyhex from expatriated Decepticons and flying Autobots,” I said. The pots were a solution to the problems we had ourselves created.
“I see,” said Overkill. “Forgive my ignorance, but what will deter those ‘pots’ from melting *us*?”
“The melting pots will receive a signal from Flywheels and I as we pass over the border,” I explained, relishing of the chance to be more knowledgeable than Overkill. “This will let them know that we’re Polyhexians and are not to be fired upon.”
“It’s not a radio signal is it?” asked Squawktalk. “Because. . .”
Before Squawktalk could finish his sentence, he was thrown across the cockpit as Flywheels barrel-rolled to port. I followed close behind my assistant, and both of us were now flying parallel to the border, on the Valvoluxian side.
“There’s no flightpath home,” I realised, “not while the Iaconians are jamming all Decepticon transmissions.”
Flywheels hesitated before stating the obvious.
“You know, we’ll have to go through customs,” he said, finally.
“There must be another way,” I said, but deep in my nacelle I knew that customs was the only avenue left.
Overkill looked confused. “Customs?” he said. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“Then you obviously haven’t travelled to Polyhex recently,” I said, beginning the long descent towards our terminus.
Flywheels and I kicked up a cloud of soot as our feet landed in the thick layer of ash that covered the grounds of Customs House.
“How’s Slugfest?” I asked my assistant, once again the sum of his parts.
“He’s fine,” Flywheels replied. “He had a bit of a migraine, so I showed him how to make that hangover cure that I like.” He started to chuckle as he recalled his tank-mode exploits. “We made a bit of a mess, since neither of us had hands.”
A whirring sound started to emanate from Flywheels’ cockpit. I soon realised that it was Overkill’s hyperventilators switching on, probably a reaction to finding out that his base was a mess and knowing that there was nothing he could do about it.
“Speaking of hangovers,” I began, as we approached the threshold of Customs House, “do you really think it was appropriate to bring that tankard of Valvolux Gold with us?”
“It’s for Mixer,” he said.
“I don’t *care* if you dilute it. . .”
“It’s for *Mixer*,” Flywheels interrupted. “The Mixer who gave you the autobrand for the Autobot symbols we’re wearing. The very Mixer who promised not to dismantle Ruckus, *your* friend, if *you* brought him a tankard of Gold back from Valvolux.”
“Oh,” I said, apologetically, “*that* Mixer.”
/What was I ever going to do without Flywheels?/
Through my conversation with my assistant, Overkill’s hyperventilators had been slowly increasing in volume and pitch. Suddenly, the noise abated.
“Overkill?” Flywheels opened his canopy.
Overkill had blacked out.
While Overkill recovered in sleep mode, Flywheels and I made our way through the customs building. It seemed to be little more than a perpetual corridor, lit only by occasional torchiers that were fixed to the walls at seemingly random intervals. A dry heat radiated from the entirely black décor of the passageway.
“Please!” said Squawktalk for the umpteenth time.
“I really *can’t* let you stretch your wings, Squawky” said Flywheels, regretfully. “If a customs officer sees you, we’ll be booked for bird smuggling.”
“And I can’t recombine with Beastbox in robot mode, because then we’d be an illegal immigrant,” Squawktalk parroted, in a sing-song voice. “I *know* that, but it’s just so hot in here.”
“It’s no breeze out here either,” I said, wading through the stagnant air, “but the customs office will tie us up with any red tape they can find. Even with you and Beastbox as microdisks, they’ll probably charge us import duty.”
“I wonder what they’ll do when they find out you’re holding a Polyhexian citizen hostage,” Spectro smarmed.
“No more than I wonder what you’ll do if a selfish desire to save your own hide results in the deaths of countless Decepticons,” I said, “so mute yourself.”
The frustratingly infinite nature of the corridor had led Flywheels to increase his pace until he was walking as quickly as is possible without actually running. “Do you really think we can convince the rest of the council to act upon the Hybris situation?” he asked.
“I think we can get the votes,” I puffed, doing my best to keep up with him.
“The Overlord wants Megatron dead,” he said.
“I think we can get the *other* votes,” I said. “Or enough of them, anyway.”
“The Minister for Beasts, Executions and the Arts?” Flywheels asked, passing me a bottle of coolant.
“Scorponok and I may have our differences,” I said, and then took a swig from Flywheels’ flask. There was a hiss as a drop of coolant hit my chin and quickly evaporated. I wiped my mouth and handed the bottle back to my assistant. “But at his fuel pump, Scorponok’s a good robot. I believe he’ll side with us.”
“And Starscream and Shockwave?” Flywheels inquired. “It seems to me that they could swing either way.”
I nodded. “That’s true, but it won’t be a problem. Starscream only votes to spite Shockwave. They just cancel each other out.”
Flywheels had slowed a little, and I noticed he’d extended three fingers on one hand and two on the other. I smiled. Our bodies were run by pure mathematics, and yet Flywheels still had the eccentric need to tally the votes on his fingers.
“The Minister for Communications himself is in Hybris as an official observer for the Overlord,” I continued. “If it really doesn’t look like we have the numbers, I’m willing to say that Soundwave authorised you to vote in his stead. With the entire Decepticon network down, the Overlord can’t prove that you’re *not* Soundwave’s proxy, and he won’t risk the embarrassment of arguing that Soundwave would want us to let him die.”
Flywheels chortled at my greasy tactics. “You’re still a Thundercracker,” he said, warmly.
“You’re *always* a Thundercracker,” I said, and suddenly realised I was quoting someone else.
“Flywheels,” I said, “you’re not going to want to hear this. . .”
And then I saw something that I didn’t want to see.
It is said that the mythical gates to the Inferno are guarded by a cerberus, a three-headed dog. This is in itself is not particularly odd. However, what *is* rather odd about this is the fact that throughout the galaxy there are numerous other cultures that also believe the path to and from the afterlife is blocked by one of these creatures. There are several possible reasons for this phenomenon. Skeptics have said that it is ‘merely a fiction derived from the fact that the universal purpose of guard dogs is to frighten. This suggests that three-headed dogs, if they existed, would be three times as frightening and thus are sufficiently scary fictional creations to guard imaginary underworlds throughout the universe. If indeed there *is* a universe.’ On the other hand, Rad, the noted Autobot aerospace engineer and quantum physicist, went on record as saying that ‘in our infinite universe there are an infinite number of three-headed dogs guarding netherworlds and it’s a wonder that we haven’t found more of them.’
However, the most ominous and most likely explanation is that the gates to the hereafter *are* in fact universally guarded by a three-headed dog and that there are some beings throughout the cosmos who have seen it and somehow returned home to tell the tale.
It was this thought alone that gave me hope when the lambent light revealed that we were not alone in the corridor.
“You’re not going anywhere,” said the cerberus.
One of the cerberus’s heads said something that sounded like, “do you have any last requests?” I couldn’t be sure that those were the head’s exact words, since its enunciation was limited by the Autobot leg on which it was chewing. An Autobot leg which still had the rest of its Autobot attached. Visually, I followed the limp Autobot’s form from port to starboard: his suspended leg at one end, his incongruously functional head at the other.
“Both of you, run!” the Autobot proclaimed, heroically. “I’ll take care of the beast!”
Neither Flywheels nor I moved a pulley. The Autobot’s expression swiftly transformed from ‘defiant’ to ‘dejected.’
“It’s nothing personal, Autobot,” I said, “but I’m just not willing to entrust my life to the defensive abilities of someone’s breakfast.”
“I’m glad *somebody* respects the value of proper procedure,” said the cerberus’s second and third heads. Strangely, although both heads had mouthed the words in unison, I heard only a solo voice. After staring at the heads for a while, I realised that what had appeared to be the creature’s third head was actually just a shadow cast on the wall by the torchlight illuminating the beast’s second head.
“It only has two heads,” I whispered to Flywheels.
Overhearing my statement, the remaining two heads of the cerberus looked around frantically for a long time, and then relaxed, as if suddenly remembering there was no cause for concern.
“What happened to your other head?” Flywheels asked the cerberus, cautiously. One of the beast's heads looked me in the optics while the other sneered at Flywheels.
“We ate it,” said the second head, scowling.
The long, uncomfortable pause that succeeded this statement was finally broken when the beast started to roll on the floor, both its heads in fits of laughter.
With the cerberean creature unable to simultaneously laugh and chew on a leg, the Autobot reclaimed his crumpled appendage and floundered towards the nearest exit. The beast pounced and latched onto the robot’s leg once more, only this time the Autobot was bitten by the beast’s second head.
“No, I’m an orthrus,” said the first head of the beast now known as an orthrus. “Two heads, see?” it continued, shaking each head in turn.
“So we’re not dead then,” said Flywheels, a relieved smile on his face.
“Of course not,” said the orthrus’s first head, reaching into a drawer and pulling out a pile of documents with his mouth. He mumbled something through gritted teeth that almost certainly contained the phrase, “soon wish you *were* dead” before dumping the documents on top of his desk
“So,” said the first head, smiling once more, “do you have anything to declare?”
“Name?” asked the orthrus. As it switched on the phosphorescent lamp on its desk, the quadrupedal sentry and its passageway suddenly looked far less foreboding. The orthrus had done his best to make his section of corridor his own; the ash was neatly swept to either side of his desk, and the desk itself had all sorts of trinkets and executive toys meticulously spaced on top of it. Amongst the objects there was even a posed holograph of the orthrus and a slightly larger relative, huge grins on each of their four heads. Optimistically, I was hoping that the real-life orthrus would be just as amenable as he looked in the holograph.
“Look, orthrus, it’s imperative that you let Flywheels and I through to Polyhex immediately.”
“Name?” repeated the orthrus. In the phosphorescent light, I could now clearly observe the robot hanging from the orthrus’s other mouth. Like many Autobots he was primarily red, and yet there was something else about him, something intangibly familiar about his countenance. Divorced from that, the Autobot looked remarkably calm for a robot in his situation. He was certainly much more calm than myself.
“This is ridiculous,” I cried. “*Everyone* knows my name. Stop wasting time and let us through.”
“Look, sir, I am customs officer Sinnertwin,” said the orthrus, rearing up to display the badge on his chest that verified his claim. “If you have any complaints about my service, feel free to take them up with the Minister.”
“Oh, you can be sure I’ll do that,” I said, pulling out my memo pad. Sinnertwin was messing with the wrong robot. “So which minister would that be?”
“Um, sir. . .” Flywheels blurted.
“The minister in charge of tourism,” said Sinnertwin.
“Sir. . .” Flywheels repeated.
“Right,” I said, recording that information on my pad. “And which portfolio does that fall under?”
“Will you just *listen*!” Flywheels shouted, rousing everyone’s attention. “Tourism falls under the same portfolio as *anti*-tourism”
“Oh,” I said humbly, as the information clicked into place. “You mean this operation is governed by. . .”
“The Decepticon Minister of Propaganda,” interrupted Sinnertwin.
“*I’m* the Decepticon Minister of Propaganda!” I growled, closing my notepad and realising we were back to exactly where we started.
“Yes and I’m his assistant,” said Flywheels.
“And *I’m* the Decepticon Overlord,” declared the red Autobot. “I order you to let us into Polyhex at once.”
“No, I mean, well obviously he’s not the Decepticon Overlord, but Flywheels and I are who we say we are,” I explained, clumsily.
“Come *on*,” implored Flywheels, “do you honestly think anyone would *pretend* to be the Minister of Propaganda? The guy’s an absolute gutcruncher.”
“Very droll, Flywheels,” I mumbled. My assistant shrugged and smiled. He was right, though. Maybe I wasn’t a gutcruncher, but I had been a fool. I should have realised that the corridor was under my dominion back when Sinnertwin first opened his mouths. His greeting, ‘you’re not going anywhere,’ was the slogan for the Polyhex anti-tourism campaign. A slogan that I myself had coined.
I could hear the rumble of a vehicle in the distance, slowly making its way up the corridor from Valvolux.
“I’d turn back now if I were him,” I muttered.
As the vehicle grew closer the torchlight revealed it to be some sort of kup truck with unusually large wheels and with a bulky appliance in its tray. Transforming, it unfolded itself into an oil-covered robot with occasional patches of yellow, purple, blue and grey.
“Greasepit,” moaned Flywheels, Sinnertwin and I simultaneously.
“If it isn’t three of my favourite beings,” said Greasepit, unloading the oil siphon from his back. “I don’t suppose you’re thirsty?” he asked, a sloppy grin on his face.
“As I see it, we’ve reached twinstasis,” said Flywheels, before extracting some oil from the hose in his mouth.
“Sorry?” asked Sinnertwin’s first head, looking up from its own bowl of oil on the corridor floor.
“‘Twinstasis’,” Flywheels repeated, “it’s a term from a board game. Basically it means none of us on either side can progress any further. I *know* it’s your policy to hold us up until we get frustrated and turn back, but we need to get to Polyhex, so we’re never going to turn back. We can’t shoot you, since the Minister accidentally exploded his own ammunition, while mine was. . . confiscated after an unfortunate incident involving a ceiling. You can’t let the Minister and I through to Polyhex in case we *aren’t* who we say we are, and if we *are* who we say we are you’ll lose your job once we get back home, which means you’re back to obstructing us perpetually.”
“So is there any way out of twinstasis?” asked the orthrus’s first head, oil drooling from its jaws. The head then took a bite of the red Autobot’s leg, giving the orthrus’s second head a chance to drink and talk.
“Only a genius can break twinstasis,” Flywheels lamented.
Holding one of his siphon’s hoses, Greasepit refilled Sinnertwin’s bowl. “Have you seen that three-headed, three-bodied robot yet?” he asked.
Sinnertwin shook his heads.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, absent-mindedly fiddling with one of the toys on Sinnertwin’s desk.
“Greasepit once predicted that my life, and life of everyone else on Cybertron would be changed on the day when a three-headed, three-bodied robot passes through Customs House.” The orthrus said, apprehensively watching my hands as I played with his toy.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “No robot has three heads and three bodies.”
“Unless it’s just three robots,” Flywheels added, helpfully.
“Where’s your other friend?” Greasepit asked. “He looked like the three-headed, three-bodied type.”
“No!” Screamed Spectro from my chest. “I have *one* head and *one* body. I’m an individual!”
Everyone’s optics fixed themselves on my chest canopy.
“I’m a ventriloquist.” I suggested, pathetically.
“There were also wings,” said Sinnertwin, astonishingly convinced by my appalling explanation for Spectro’s outburst. “Greasepit said the robot would have three heads, three-bodies and two wings.”
“*I* have three heads, three bodies and two wings,” said the red Autobot in Sinnertwin’s mouth.
I raised my optics. “Ignore him, he does that,” I informed Greasepit.
“No, really,” said the Autobot. “During experiments towards the end of the Autobot Overlords’ dynasty, my evolutionary potential was pushed until it surpassed all previous limits.” The Autobot began to transform, but in a rather unusual way. His limbs (one of which was still in one of Sinnertwin’s mouths) turned yellow and his body turned black, while a drill-like growth emerged from the top of his head.
“A way was found for me to tap transformations that I never knew were inside me,” said the no-longer-red Autobot. He ‘evolved’ again, molten chrome coating his arms while his legs regained the characteristic red colour with which I associated the robot. The drill retracted from his head, and it too turned red.
“A third head on a third body,” said an incredulous Flywheels.
“What about the two wings?” asked Sinnertwin, suspiciously.
The orthrus’s eyes boggled, as the leg in his mouth and the Autobot’s other leg sprouted blade-like wings.
“Three heads, three bodies and two wings,” said the Autobot, proudly.
“You didn’t evolve,” I said to the Autobot, now knowing exactly why I recognised him.
“I beg your pardon?” he replied.
“I’ve read your creator’s notes, Powerdasher. You were Primaeval’s last creation before his messiah, before his ‘god from machinery’. Primaeval never found a way to tap extra transformations. I don’t understand how he did it, but somehow he tapped entire new Transformers from within you, scooped out their cranial matter and gave their bodies and transformations to you. Didn’t you ever think it was odd that you have three distinct robot modes? You never evolved, Powerdasher. You just took up residence in the corpses of your descendants!”
Powerdasher’s third head disgorged the contents of its last ingestion all over Sinnertwin’s immaculately swept floor.
I suddenly realised what Primaeval had done. Overkill had implied it when he said that ‘legends reincarnate themselves, again and again’. From all I’d learnt of Primaeval, I knew he’d have had no qualms about undergoing the procedure he’d developed on Powerdasher, no problems with incarnating himself inside a neonatal body. There would be nowhere better for an executed robot to hide than within someone who doesn’t officially exist.
Or maybe I was wrong.
It felt like it had been orns since I’d really got anything right. I’d been wrong about beasts, about Spectro, about Flywheels, about Megatron, wrong even about myself. I was deluded by my Ministerial position into thinking I was somehow special, trying to prove myself capable of dealing with situations that I knew were beyond me. It was only Flywheels who, like his namesakes, had kept me going when I’d never have been able to continue on my own. What I hadn’t realised was that I didn’t have to be alone. That I had access to some incredible robot resources. I thought that to be a great leader I’d have to be great myself, but I was wrong. I just needed to learn how to delegate.
I slapped my forehead. “How terribly foolish of me, we *do* have some things to declare. Flywheels, could you please show Sinnertwin those two microdisks?”
Sinnertwin’s second head stopped slurping from its bowl. “I’m glad you’re finally going about things properly,” it said.
Flywheels removed Squawktalk and Beastbox from his canopy before closing it again. “Turn up the heat,” I murmured.
Sinnertwin stuck his heads right up against Flywheels’ hand, inspecting the microdisks. “Oh you can be sure that the import duty for these will exceed your duty free allowance and you will need proof of ownership and I hope you have receipts and we’ll have to screen the disks of course and. . .” he stuck his heads in the air. “What is that annoying sound?”
“It appears to be coming from Flywheels’ cockpit,” said Greasepit, over the whirring crescendo.
Before Sinnertwin could investigate Flywheels’ canopy, it ejected, hit the wall of the corridor and clattered on the ground.
“For badness sake, is it too much to ask for air conditioning?” beggared a revived Overkill, hovering out of Flywheels’ cockpit.
Sinnertwin leaped up onto his desk and shrieked. “I *knew* you two were carrying contraband. Whatever that beastly little thing is it will have to be quarantined.”
“Come over here and say that,” said Overkill, lunging towards Sinnertwin’s desk. Both Sinnertwin’s heads screamed, temporarily dropping Powerdasher until the orthrus’s second head snared the Autobot one more. “All of you, go to Polyhex, go wherever you want, just take that. . . mouse thing with you!” Sinnertwin cried. “On today of all days, a few more queuejumpers won’t make any difference anyway.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Your friends all barged through here before you arrived,” whimpered Sinnertwin. “They didn’t even fill in any forms!”
A grin covered my face from port to starboard. “They must have realised it was a trap and returned home.”
Flywheels didn’t look convinced. “*Which* friends?” he asked.
“Sentinel Prime. . . the Spreems. . . the robot in my other mouth. . .” said Sinnertwin. “It seemed like the whole Autobot army. Except for you guys, of course.”
I looked at Autobot insignia on my wing.
“The Autobots have invaded,” I said, stupified.
There was no last breem reprieve, no deus ex machina. The Thundercrackers were still in Hybris, and Polyhex was completely undefended.
I looked around our little group, in hope of some inspirational words.
No one said anything at all.
*Part Nine: Optimus Prime.*
I told him the whole story.
I recounted my tale of how Sentinel Prime had asked me to act out against the Overlord’s ‘weak first’ policy. How I had then scrawled Sentinel’s slogan, ‘send out the best first’ on the walls of both Castle Decepticon and Darkmount. I was under the assumption that those acts would sway my judge’s decision about my fate, but to know for certain I would have to offload the question that had been burdening me.
“So,” I began, staring at my feet, “do I live or do I die?”
I looked up. He was now standing, facing away from me and observing our surroundings. There he was: one of the most charismatic, powerful, most intelligent Transformers in existence, and my life was in his hands. I fixed my optics upon the back of his head, awaiting his response. To be honest, I expected something a bit more eloquent.
“Hm?” he replied, half-turning his head until he could see me in his peripheral vision. “Oh, forget about it,” he said, smiling. “Let he who *isn’t* working with Sentinel Prime cast the first shell.”
I looked around at the predominately glass building in which he lived, wondering if it were wise for Megatron to be bringing up the subject of projectile weapons. Certainly, the talk of shells had inspired me to pay attention to the crate of Skyraider attachments and ammunition that was sitting underneath Megatron’s desk. I’d even begun to formulate scenarios for each attachment; air rifle, null-ray, laser rifle and so on, in order to calculate which weapon would be most practical for deactivating Megatron and for liberating myself from his cavernous stronghold. Since all of my dramatic preconstructions resulted in me being melted in a blast of fusion before I even attached a weapon to my arm, I opted to let Megatron make the next move.
“I need robots like you, Thundercracker,” said Megatron, and I silently praised my scenario forecasting software for preventing me from doing anything stupid. Unfortunately, the software was completely ineffective when it came to intercepting stupid things I planned to *say*.
“I’m not a Thundercracker anymore,” I said, idiotically focussing on the semantics of Megatron’s sentence while completely ignoring the part that offered me the opportunity to continue living.
“Ah, but you’re always a Thundercracker,” said Megatron, turning away to face his domain once more. “You know as well as I do that we’ll never win this war while great Decepticons hide themselves away in the Castle. We share the same cause, Thundercracker, but you can only do so much on your own. Join us, and discover the true power of the masses.”
Megatron was right. Though I was more interested in preventing the death of innocent Thundercrackers than I was in winning an incipient war, our goals were the same. I walked over to Megatron and stood beside him.
“I’m in,” I said, but I still had some doubts. “The Overlord won’t be pleased,” I opined, as I looked through the panes of glass to the scene outside.
“The Decepticon Overlord is a coward,” Megatron replied, still staring out at the rest of his cavern, “and not your concern. Continue in your orn-to-orn dealings with him; he shall be taken care of in time.”
“You seem confident,” I said.
“He wouldn’t be the first Overlord I’ve killed,” said Megatron. “He won’t be the last.” Megatron’s head moved slightly as he found a new focal point. I synthesised Megatron’s line of sight. For an instant I met a second pair of optics, until Flywheels instinctively turned away.
“He certainly won’t be the last,” Megatron recapitulated.
“Incoming!” said Spectro, from my cockpit.
I paused the memory playback, freezing the image of Flywheels on my heads-up display. Looking through that ethereal replica and towards the horizon, I saw one of the Autobot invaders who had beset my homeland. From the converging volleys of neutronic laser fire, I could only assume that the Autobot had seen me first.
Sideslipping to port, I juked out of the beams’ trajectory, lowering my nosecone in order to retaliate. Targeting the offensive Autobot tank in my sights, I pulled my trigger. The tank was completely unaffected.
/Sludge/, I thought, vigorously reflating my trajectory.
“You blew up all your ammunition back at the base, remember,” said my passenger, ever helpful.
“I think we can *both* take responsibility for that incident, thank you very much, Spectro,” I grumbled, dodging another of the tank’s fusillades.
“You should do one of those things where you roll upside-down,” Spectro suggested.
“Oh, you’re an expert on ‘those things’ are you?” I asked, evading more potshots. “I guess it’s due to all that flying you must do as one-*slagging*-third of a reconnaissance device.”
I felt a jolt of pain as one of the laser beams lanced my starboard rudder.
“Do it!” Spectro shouted.
I don’t know why I listened to him. In spite of the agony from my rudder, I barrel rolled, going through a full inversion before righting myself once more.
The Autobot tank began to unfold itself into robot mode, a conspicuous arm emerging from one of its barrels, its weapon pointing skywards in my direction.
“*This* is why everyone ignores you, Spectro,” I said, straining my rudder once again. I was manoeuvring too slowly to dodge laser blasts, and braced myself for the blow.
Then the transformed Autobot did something very odd. In a sweeping gesture, he arced his gun arm down to his side, an exaggerated version of the Iaconian hand-signal for an apology.
“What was that all about?” I asked Spectro as the Autobot passed harmlessly beneath us. “Is a barrel roll some sort of secret Autobot signal?” I continued, assuming that Spectro’s background in reconnaissance might have given him such an insight into covert Autobot procedure.
“Why did Slugfest try to kill me?” Spectro asked, answering my question with a question. “Why did Sinnertwin disbelieve everything you said?” He continued, asking another one.
“My wings. . .” I began.
“You have Autobot insignias on the top side of your wings,” Spectro said, clearly irritated. “Is that so hard to remember?”
A light went on my dashboard.
“Slag,” I said, switching on my radio, “he’s hailing us down. Spectro. . .”
“I know; ‘Spectro, shut up’,” said Spectro, before heeding his own words.
Reluctantly, I tuned in to the frequency of the Autobot’s hailing signal.
“I’m glad you’re not a better shot,” I said, doing my best to sound congenial despite the gaping hole in one of my airfoils.
Polite laughter emanated from my radio. “Sorry about that,” said the Autobot, in an uncannily familiar voice, “but you picked a bad time to visit Polyhex. Sentinel Prime’s placed the whole city under martial law.”
Since the robot believed I was an Autobot Skyraider, I decided to play up to the stereotype. “I’m sorry, sir, but I haven’t seen my family since our homeland. . .” /Slag/, I thought, searching my schematics for a production stamp, /*which* city-state had the Skyraider factory, again?/ I always got them mixed up. I found the stamp near my portside tail fin: ‘product of Vos.’
Vos had once been a beautiful industrial city, at least until the point at which Shockwave photon bombed it. Before then, the pride of the city-state was its Skyraider production facility. Officially contracted to be the sole manufacturer of aerodyne Decepticons, the Skyraider corporation was the soul of Vos, being the city’s chief employer, exporter and source of economic growth. Everything revolved around the Skyraider, to the point where the city was basically ruled by its demanding spokesmodel, the Skyraider known as Starscream. As ‘the face’ of Skyraider Industries, Starscream was the company’s dominant representative at press conferences, and the exclusive figure in their advertisements. Their first advertising campaign had been so convincing that even my media-savvy Guardians had ordered one of the first Skyraiders, and I was shipped off to Polyhex as soon as I left the production line.
At the time of Vos’s destruction, a large fraction of the population were Skyraiders, and that percentage was equally represented in the survivors of the photon war. Consequently, when Iacon started to assimilate refugees from Vos, the curious phenomenon of Autobot Skyraiders had arisen.
“I haven’t seen my family since our homeland of *Vos* was destroyed,” I rephrased. “I need to be with them now; to make sure they’re alright, to help them through this time of adversity,” I continued, laying on the pathos with a supreme-sized scoop.
For a while, there was dead air on my radio. Then the Autobot’s voice returned. “You refugees have suffered enough,” it said. “I know what it’s like to lose a family member. Go on ahead, I’ll broadcast an All Autobot Bulletin to let the others know you’re not to be harmed. Where does your family live?”
“Erm, Darkmount,” I said. Darkmount was in fact along the same trajectory as my actual destination, but far enough away from it to avoid arousing the Autobot’s suspicion.
“Darkmount should be nice and quiet,” the Autobot replied. “Just try to stay away from obvious trouble spots like the Castle, okay?”
“Thank you so much, Officer. . .?” I proffered.
“Spreem,” said the voice, “Sigma Spreem. Good luck.”
There was a click as Sigma Spreem switched off his radio.
I flew onwards, all my systems concentrated on stabilising my starboard rudder.
“Do you know who that guy sounded like?” Spectro asked, breaking his silence.
“Flywheels,” I muttered.
“Yeah,” Spectro agreed. “Of course, it makes sense, since they’re half-brothers.”
I lost control of my rudder, rolling into a spin until I could muster the will to right myself once more.
“So how did you know,” I asked Spectro, bracing my rudder for the response.
“You forget that I’ve been here in your canopy since the incident in the infirmary.” Spectro replied. “I’ve heard everything you’ve heard and seen everything you’ve seen. From Flywheels’ first memory to the images of him in Primaeval’s notes, I’ve observed it all. I’m ‘one-*slagging*-third of a reconnaissance device’, remember. I might not do much, but what I do, I do well.”
“So what are you going to do about it?” I asked, willing to accept whatever form of blackmail Spectro was going to deliver.
“Nothing,” Spectro said, surprisingly. “In this case, I trust your judgement. There are more important things at stake right now than Flywheels, or even myself.”
“Spectro,” I said, with lingering sentimentality from my Autobot Skyraider mindset, “Of all the people who’ve tried to kill me, you’re one of the best.”
Spectro began to chuckle, but quickly repressed it. “You know,” he went on, “he should have made it to the Castle by now.”
After our escape from Customs House, Flywheels and I had agreed to split up the group. Along with Overkill, Squawktalk and Beastbox, Flywheels had flown to Castle Decepticon to lobby support for the Thundercrackers and start a militia to combat the Autobot incursion. Spectro and I were headed to the Cavern with the intention of conscripting whoever was there and gathering whatever we could carry from Megatron’s ample cache of weapons. We had allowed Greasepit to leave customs and return to his station on the proviso that our militia was to have unrestricted access to oil and fuel, and that he wasn’t to sell or supply anything to the Autobots. Greasepit had grudgingly accepted. We left Powerdasher at Customs House to be masticated by Sinnertwin. Under the circumstances, the Autobot might have been useful to us, but since Greasepit had predicted that everyone’s life would change ‘on the day when a three-headed, three-bodied, two-winged robot passes through Customs House,’ we didn’t want to tempt fate by allowing Powerdasher to pass through into Polyhex.
“I’m risking everything by going back to the Cavern,” said Spectro, for no apparent reason.
“Ah,” I said, as one does when preparing to deliver a well-worn platitude, “you *know* what they say about the value of risk.”
“No. What do they say?” Spectro sounded genuinely interested.
“I don’t remember,” I said, dejected. “Actually, I was really hoping you’d be the one to remind me.”
Spectro was right: the time to tell Flywheels about his heritage had not yet passed. Nevertheless, that knowledge didn’t absolve me from guilt. I had asked Flywheels to save the robot who had vowed to kill him, and to rescue the army that followed Megatron’s every order.
An amalgam of an innominate Decepticon and Phi Spreem, an Autobot from Iacon’s largest and most noble family, Flywheels was created to fall exactly in the middle of the Autobot-Decepticon spectrum. He was a being who could potentially represent and understand both sides of the conflict, a mediator designed to prevent further hostilities from breaking out, a final Overlord to watch over our race. Flywheels had been fashioned as a tool to unite the Autobots and Decepticons as one. At that crucial turning-point of the war, I couldn’t help but think that I was misusing him.
Although Flywheels was oblivious to his destiny, I could think of approximately five individuals who weren’t. Me and Spectro, of course, Primaeval (wherever and whoever he was), Megatron and *Ravage*. It seemed probable that Ravage knew about the experiment, and it helped explain his unprovoked hostility towards Flywheels. The only others who had known were the deceased Autobot Overlords, which helped to fuse my theory as to exactly when Ravage and Megatron might have garnered what they knew about Flywheels’ intended fate.
It was widely rumoured that Megatron and Ravage were the final robots to see the last Autobot Overlord before his death. Of course, if, as Megatron had implied, they killed the Overlord themselves, then the rumours were true by definition. It seemed paradoxical that Ravage, the Overlord’s bodyguard, should have precipitated his employer’s death, but was it really any worse than my own revolving door allegiances? As it was, I could only continue to rotate in the doorway for so long. The time would come when I’d have to decide which way I was facing and finally walk out the door.
“I’ve been thinking,” said Spectro, reminding me of his presence. “Do the Thundercrackers even need to be saved? I mean, if the Autobot army is here in Polyhex, then who’s defending Hybris?”
“That’s a decent question,” I said, running a quick frequency scan. “Unfortunately we can’t find out what’s going on while the Autobots continue to jam all Decepticon wavelengths.”
I had a look at the landscape beneath us. The streets had been almost completely abandoned, the only exception being a few isolated Autobots who, true to Sigma’s word, had kindly refrained from assailing me. The airways were incongruously vacant, and while I would ordinarily have revelled in the experience of having the skies of Polyhex to myself, there was something eerie about being so alone. Lowering my trajectory, I started skirting between the skyscrapers. I soon visualised my target. Due to its lack of aboveground structure, Megatron’s secret base stood out like a warped wing amongst the towering Polyhexian architecture.
“So do you *still* think Decepticons want power more than attention?” Spectro asked, presumably making his own observation about the Cavern’s conspicuousness.
I transformed into robot mode and landed, the phantom rudder pain forcing me to wince as my feet hit the ground.
“To be honest,” I said, “I think there are some Decepticons who covet both power *and* attention.”
I considered the concept as it pertained to myself.
“On the other hand, some of us might be much happier with neither,” I said, candidly.
“Oh, it’s you,” said Mixer, turning his back on me and starting down the stairs from which he came.
“I missed you too, Mixer,” I muttered, letting myself in.
As I closed the front doors of the Cavern behind me, I noticed a rifle lying in the stairwell, a lethal reminder of my purpose. As I picked up the weapon, another Decepticon came bounding up the stairs to meet me.
“Minister,” the approaching robot declared, wholeenginedly, “may I be the first to express just how reassuring it is to see you at this point in time. Not that it isn’t ordinarily wonderful to see you, I mean, *nobody* pulls off the Starscream look quite like you do, but at this otherwise demoralising juncture, just the sight of you is inspirational.”
“Viewfinder. . .” I began, before losing my train of thought. “This isn’t a ‘Starscream look,’ we were just poured from the same mold.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Viewfinder said. “Spyglass,” he continued, turning to a shadowy part of the stairwell in which another robot was concealed, “tell the Minister how great he looks.”
Somehow, the shadow around Spyglass seemed to dim even further.
“Spyglass,” I said, switching to a less awkward topic, “how many active Decepticons are here in the Cavern?”
His face began to glow in the darkness. “Just you, me, Viewfinder and Mixer,” said Spyglass. He levelled his hand at a point that was deeper into the Cavern, slowly illuminating Mixer’s laboratory. “Ruckus is still convalescing in the Energon tank,” Spyglass continued, brightening my spirit with the news of Ruckus’s survival.
“And Spectro appears to be inside your cockpit,” Viewfinder added, focusing on my chest canopy. “I hope he hasn’t been too much trouble.”
“Oh, *most* of the time, Spectro was no trouble whatsoever,” I affirmed. “If it weren’t for his attempts to kill both myself and one of the Reconnaissance Base’s full-time staffers, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed that he’s as nutty as a boltcake.”
Concern registered in Viewfinder’s optic. “I’m sorry.” he said, as if it were his fault. “Owing to Spectro’s. . . condition, I’m surprised that Megatron allowed him to go to Valvolux at all.”
“His condition?” I solicited, inattentively inspecting my rifle.
“He has an independent streak a kilospan wide,” Spyglass explained, “but Spectro *is* dependant. He might like to assert his individuality, but he’s not really an individual, not in the way that you are. Since you’re a politician, we’ll try to explain it in terms you can understand.”
Before I could voice a protest, Viewfinder had begun the analogy.
“As you know, we Decepticons are ruled by a council,” he said. “The Overlord may be a figurehead, but he doesn’t have absolute power: he’s limited by what you and the other councillors allow him to do. However, If we were ruled by a dictator, one robot alone, then that Decepticon could do whatever he wished, without restraint. You understand?”
I had no idea what Viewfinder was talking about. “So how do you know this?” I asked. “About Spectro, I mean.”
“Let him out and we’ll show you,” said Spyglass, now perceivable as little more than glowing eyes in the darkness.
I had some concerns about releasing Spectro, many of which happened to be concerns for my own safety. Conversely, I needed as many warriors as I could gather, so as long as I could ensure that he only attacked Autobots, I might have found an opportunity to put Spectro’s aggression to good use.
“Don’t worry, I won’t let him get away,” said Viewfinder, reading my expression.
I checked my rifle for ammunition. Finding it fully-loaded, I ejected Spectro from my canopy, and trained my weapon on his growing form as he drew in extra mass from subspace. As he configured himself into robot mode, the stress fractures that Spectro had suffered at the feet of Slugfest grew from thin lines to deep contours. I felt almost ashamed for pointing a gun at such a pathetic figure. /Almost/, I thought as I primed the rifle.
Suddenly, a steel spike shot out of each of Viewfinder’s shoulders. While one spike hurtled towards Spectro, the second speared Spyglass in the arm. Spectro leaped backwards, evading the full brunt of the trajectile that then scraped along his chest. The spike dislodged one of Spectro’s loose body panels, the panel clattering as it hit the floor. Two subspace rifts opened, absorbing pieces of Viewfinder and Spyglass until they atrophied into what was unmistakably two-thirds of a Microx 05 reconnaissance device.
“Slag,” said the device, managing to sound defeated despite its harmoniously resonant voice.
“I’m not ready,” said Spectro to the box on the stairs.
“Viewfinder and Spyglass,” I began, incredulous, “they’re a *part* of you?”
“Only if I let them be,” Spectro replied, placing a foot on the device, “and I won’t. As long as we’re separated, I grow closer to overcoming my insignificance. If you want to get technical about it, the three of us are actually a part of something bigger, something that reflects all of us and yet none of us. And the more we’re together, the more I lose of myself.”
“But you’re unstable without them,” I said. “You almost killed two innocent robots!”
“Weren’t you about to ask Spyglass and Viewfinder to go out into Polyhex and kill innocent robots?” Spectro asked. “Maybe I was just ahead of my time.”
“That’s different,” I lied, “and at least I can trust that they’ll only attack Autobots. Can I say the same for you?”
“Can I keep a secret?” Spectro replied, rhetorically.
As it happened, I had been having my own doubts about how far I could carry my imprisonment of Spectro. Over and over I had rehearsed what I was going to tell the Overlord about him, and each time it sounded more ridiculous. If someone had come up to me and said, “Spectro failed to cull a beast and then he attempted to shoot me,” I would probably have laughed in their face. But what did that say about the Decepticon condition? If we’re tolerant and capable of killing our own kind, what sort of a species were we? Was Spectro right, was he just ahead of his time?
“Will you fight alongside them, as long as you don’t combine?” I asked Spectro, looking at the box under his foot.
I threw the rifle to him. Spectro caught it by the barrel and brought it down by his side, parallel to the ground. “Make sure the three of you collect as many weapons and as much ammunition as you can carry,” I ordered.
“Minister,” Spectro began.
I raised an eyecap.
“Thanks,” he said, smiling.
“It’s nothing,” I said, turning to walk down the stairs. “You’re just lucky that I actually *need* violent psychopaths right now.”
I removed my battered aural sensor from the side of Ruckus’s energon tank. In spite of the fact that Ruckus shouted at everyone, I felt that I truly deserved it, that he had every right to yell at me.
“What the slag is Ruckus still doing in that tank, Mixer?” I did some yelling of my own. “You told me he’d be out of there *cycles* ago, during the alignment. Ruckus took my *word* on it!”
“Complications, Minister,” Mixer replied, polishing a gearbox that he’d no doubt stripped from some unfortunate robot. “Not all things are repaired by words alone.”
“Not if the words are yours, obviously,” I mumbled.
“And what of you, how good’s your word?” Mixer asked, putting the cannibalised transmission aside. “Where is the Gold you promised me?”
/Slag/, I thought. “The Valvolux Gold is with Flywheels, and it will be yours, in time.”
“Then this too will be yours,” Mixer said, gesturing towards Ruckus, “in time. Although if we’re relying on the Duocon, I wouldn’t hold your fuel line,” Mixer snapped, the last sentence pouring out of his mouth without even an veneer of restraint.
“You would prolong Ruckus’s discomfort, just for a tankard of oil?” I asked in disgust. “You may not have noticed, but there’s a war being waged outside, and we need Ruckus, we need *every* Decepticon to fight it.”
“It’s not my war,” Mixer said, starting to potter around with the gearbox again.
“It slagging well *is* your war,” I said, arresting Mixer’s attention by striking the gearbox to the floor. “It’s *everyone’s* war. If you won’t fight, you can tend to the injured.”
Though he was bending down to pick up the gearbox, it was impossible for me to miss the gleeful grin that was spreading over Mixer’s face.
“Oh, you’d like that, would you?” I asked. “I’m not going to even begin to pretend to understand what drives you, Mixer, but I’m willing to stake everything on my belief that there’s one very sick robot here today.” I clenched my gauntlets. “And it’s not Ruckus.”
The energon tank burst, its shards of glass swept up in a gushing torrent of liquid until all that was left standing was a sopping wet yellow and indigo Decepticon.
“No!” Mixer howled. “You gave me your word!”
“Complications, Mixer,” I declared, wiping the energon from my fist. “Ruckus?” I turned to my disconcertingly silent friend. “Ruckus?”
Ruckus clutched at me, clinging on as if for dear life. /Primus/, what had I done?
“Ruckus, are you alright?” I pleaded, holding his saturated shoulders out at arms length, and looking into his optical sensors.
He bobbed his head up and down and smiled.
“I’m just speechless,” he whispered, hoarsely.
I sent Ruckus, and the rather less willing Mixer off to be armed by the reconnaissance trio while I investigated the crate of Skyraider accessories in Megatron’s office. The crate was considerably less bountiful than the previous time I’d seen it, so presumably some of Megatron’s other Skyraiders had ransacked it before heading to Hybris. It was encouraging to know that they were well armed, but unfortunately it meant that I would be rather less so. Pushing the useless assortment of launchers and landing gear aside, I was literally scraping the bottom of the barrel when I saw them: a dozen drone rockets. /And they’re blue!/ I thought, rather inappropriately.
I gathered up the rockets and prepared to leave when I caught sight of something red and black on Megatron’s desk. I picked it up, and it was exactly as it seemed: a miniature replica of Spectro. Putting it back where I’d found it and noticing the other figures around it, I realised what I was looking at. It was a game of Fullstasis.
The real Spectro and the other four Decepticons walked past my window towards the stairs, all five of them draped with weapons and ammunition. Ruckus waved at me.
“I’ll be right there,” I said, before remembering that Megatron’s office was soundproof. Nevertheless, Ruckus nodded his understanding, visually reading my lips through the glass just as he’d done during his time in the energonarium.
I had another look at the Fullstasis board, wishing that Flywheels or Overkill were there to explain it to me. The coloured pieces had amassed most of the board, but, as I’d learnt from Overkill, that didn’t necessarily mean they were winning.
Slightly apart from Spectro, to his the starboard side, there were colour representations of Megatron, Ravage and some Thundercrackers who I recognised, but didn’t know by name. I could see the other two facets of Spectro at the opposite end of the board, in the form of a miniature Viewfinder and minuscule Spyglass, and these too were coloured pieces. Only a few squares away from Spyglass stood a diminutive facsimile of Sentinel Prime, in his customary yellow and orange hues, while the next space across from Sentinel was filled by the Decepticon Overlord, atypically cast in white. Nearby were some meticulously moulded icons of Starscream, Shockwave and Scorponok, all in colour. Not too far away but in an isolated part of the board, was a miniature colour Soundwave. I smiled at the fact that none of the other pieces seemed to want to be around him.
I had a look at the pieces that had been taken off the board. Although some were coloured, most were white and a couple of them particularly piqued my interest. One was a small colour replica of my colleague, Sparkstalker, the great cryptologist, while the other was a white scale model of the last Autobot Overlord: the one Megatron claimed to have killed. Before I could begin to consider the potential ramifications of what that meant for poor Sparky, I saw something even more sobering.
There, closer to Spectro were two figurines. The first was a good-looking, predominantly blue Skyraider. The other was an imitation of Flywheels. In white. I tried to remember what Overkill had said about Fullstasis strategy; something along the lines of, “one only needs two pieces in order to win: a figurehead and a pawn.” Flywheels and the Decepticon Overlord were the only two white pieces left on Megatron’s Fullstasis board. I didn’t really care whether or not they won, but I had a feeling that it wouldn’t be a particularly safe game for them to lose.
The door of the control room suddenly opened, and I instinctively pretended I wasn’t looking at the Fullstasis board, unsubtly knocking over a few pieces in the process. Spectro didn’t even seem to notice my antics.
“Minister,” he said, “you have to see this.”
It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.
Through the vista of the main street of Polyhex we watched. We watched a giant scorpion crushing an Autobot in each claw before impaling a third on his tail. Watched as, grid by grid, a flying gun as big as an airbus methodically detonated Autobot occupied streets. Watched as a Skyraider dropped out of the sky and ruthlessly eradicated any Autobot survivors. Watched as other Decepticons, from Lords down to plebeians followed Scorponok, Shockwave and Starscream’s example and fought to reclaim Polyhex.
“What are you waiting for?” I asked my entourage, irreverently. “If you find any unarmed Decepticons, arm them; if they’re wounded, help in whatever way you can.”
“And if we find any Autobots?” Viewfinder asked, assiduously.
“Improvise,” I replied, with a smirk.
Ruckus let out a battle-cry and the other four joined in, before entering the fray.
I started to follow, but was interrupted by a high-pitched sound that came from somewhere on my being.
Spectro turned back to face me. “What’s that, sir?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” I replied, before finding the noise’s source. It was a small communicator.
“Are the Decepticon frequencies back online?” asked Spectro.
/No/, I thought, looking at the communicator, /not the *Decepticon* frequencies/.
“Help. . . me,” it said, weakly.
“Sir?” Spectro repeated, but he never received a reply.
I was too busy running away.
I just ran. As fast as my legs would carry me, ignoring the pain of every second stride as my sore rudder hit the ground, I ran. I couldn’t fly; flying would clear my head, and I didn’t want a clear head, I wanted to run.
Until finally I stopped in my tracks. There in the distance, was a crimson Autobot, kneeling over the fallen body of his comrade. I collapsed behind a nearby building, and just lay there on my back, clasping my turbojet engine. As the heaving subsided, I started to hear noises other than my compressors.
“We all have our nemeses.” I was hearing voices. Lying there on the cold Polyhexian ground, I decided that I’d finally gone insane. “But don’t let them rule your life. . . or you’ll end up like me,” the voice continued. It sounded familiar, though oddly shrill.
“But you beat him,” said a voice I hadn’t heard before, as piercing as the first. “You killed the Decepticon Overlord.”
/The Overlord is dead?/ I thought, shocked into realising that the voices weren’t in my head, but in my hand. I held up the communicator in my palm. According to its Cybertronian Positioning System, the source of the transmission was only spans away from my own location.
“At what cost?” asked the first voice. Though distorted, and pitchshifted up a few degrees, it was unmistakably the voice of Sentinel Prime. “My life? The life of countless other Autobots? All of Hybris?”
There was a hiss of static as something interfered with my reception, so I warily stuck my head around the side of the building. I magnified my view of the Autobots I’d hidden from, and recognised the wounded one immediately as Sentinel Prime himself. The other robot had his back to me, but from what I could make out, he appeared to have stolen something from Prime’s dying form. As the thieving Autobot pocketed his goods, my communicator’s reception improved again.
“I’m not worthy.” It was the voice of the crimson Autobot.
“*I* wasn’t worthy,” Sentinel replied, shaking his head, “but I think you *are*.” His voice was obscured by more static, until he said, “. . . rise. . . and light our darkest hour.” He’d started quoting from the Covenant of Primus. Sentinel’s obvious derangement gave me new faith in my own sanity.
“Just leave me as you found me; let me rest,” ordered Sentinel of the red robot, but the robot stayed by his side. “What is your name, officer?” Sentinel asked.
The crimson Autobot’s reply was lost in static, but I saw Sentinel Prime look up at the wall in front of him and laugh. The other Autobot followed his gaze.
“They sent out the best first,” Sentinel said, feebly. “I am ready. . .”
For a long time, the other Autobot silently held Sentinel Prime before eventually standing up. Picking up a nearby sheet of scrap metal, the Autobot shrouded Sentinel’s body. I then watched as the crimson robot sombrely marched away, until I lost sight of him in the distance.
I got up, and paced over to the metal sheet, uncovering Sentinel Prime’s corpse. In life, he may have been unrelenting and vengeful, but in death, Sentinel looked like he was finally at peace. His chestplate was open and the cavity inside seemed strangely vacuous. I took care to refill the vacant space and closed his chest.
As I got ready to leave, I noticed that on the wall facing Sentinel’s lifeless body was a familiar message, written in binary code. I couldn’t help but smile as I wandered back to the vantage point from which I had watched Sentinel’s departure. Once there, I turned and took one last look at Iacon’s greatest lawman.
My drone rocket flew noiselessly through the air until it made contact with its brethren in Sentinel Prime’s chest. Their detonation quickly dissolved most of the corpse before the growing explosion laid waste to the surrounding Darkmount walls.
Trusting that the burning street would finish Sentinel’s cremation, I headed back towards Castle Decepticon, absently picking my teeth with my one remaining rocket.
The Decepticon Overlord’s body was found later that day, only a few streets away from a section of Darkmount that had earlier exploded under mysterious circumstances. According to popular rumour, the Overlord had been warned in advance of the Autobots’ mass convergence upon Castle Decepticon, and had secluded himself in a secret Darkmount safehouse. The same rumour went on to imply that perhaps the safehouse wasn’t so secret, the Overlord wasn’t so secluded, and that Sentinel Prime had finally fulfilled his vendetta. But then, the rumours about Sentinel’s sudden disappearance were even more outrageous.
“I heard that Primus gave him a new body and new troops to command,” said Viewfinder, once more at home in the Cavern.
“I heard his personality was downloaded onto a diskette and then his body was fired off into space,” Spyglass added, from his bunk under the stairwell.
“I heard the Minister of Propaganda blew him up,” said Spectro.
For one united millibreem, all of us stared at Spectro, agape.
Then everyone burst into laughter, except myself. It seemed that my conspicuous absence during their successful reclamation of Polyhex had already become somewhat of a joke, particularly since most of the other Ministers had been so prominent.
Before the laughter subsided, Spectro whispered into my aural sensor. “Told you I knew how to keep a secret,” he said, casually dousing his Autobot symbols with paint solvent.
I gave him a greasy look.
“Hey, *Someone* had to keep an optic on you,” he murmured, smiling. “At least until Flywheels got back, anyway.”
I glanced over at Flywheels. Since he returned to the Cavern with Squawkbox and Overkill, I still hadn’t a chance to speak with him alone. However, though the beasts had been a bit apprehensive on finding Spectro out and about, they had otherwise meshed well with the others in my circle of Decepticons, in no small way due to everyone’s unified interest in ridiculing me. It was possible that I’d be able to abduct Flywheels while all the others were lost in tales of my derision.
“We have to give the Minister of Propaganda *some* credit,” said Spinister, still discussing that very topic. Spinister and Windsweeper had been amongst the first of the Thundercrackers to return from Iacon, and more were slowly trickling into the Cavern every breem. Megatron, Ravage and Soundwave had also returned and had secured themselves away in Megatron’s centre of operations. I couldn’t be sure as to what they were discussing, but I was fairly certain that Megatron’s cold stares at Flywheels may have been something of a clue. Spinister prodded me in the arm. “At least you’re braver than the Minister of Communications,” he said.
“Really?” I asked, even more eager than usual for grungy gossip about Soundwave. “What did he do?”
“He didn’t even go to Iacon,” Spinister divulged, “just gave some meagre excuse about not being able to leave Polyhex because he had to work.”
“And Megatron allowed it?” I asked, slightly stunned.
Spinister shrugged. “He probably anticipated Soundwave’s gutlessness.”
It didn’t make any sense. On Megatron’s orders, I’d put great efforts into convincing the Overlord to instate Soundwave as his official observer in Hybris, only for the Minister to stay behind. /And/, I thought, /if Soundwave *was* in Polyhex all this time, why wasn’t he involved in its liberation?/
“So how *was* Hybris?” Ruckus asked the other Thundercrackers. As Spectro had suspected, with the Autobot troops securing Polyhex, the Iaconian capital had been left almost undefended.
“Hybris?” Windsweeper echoed. “More like *debris*.”
Windsweeper looked around our ring of suddenly silent Decepticons meeting nothing but deadpan expressions.
“More like *debris*,” Windsweeper repeated, to the same response.
“Oh, slag you all,” he said, storming off to find a more receptive audience.
As soon as ‘Sweeper was far enough away, we laughed our catalytic data assemblies off.
There was a loud knocking at the front doors.
All optics turned to the entrance in anticipation of the new arrival. Unfortunately, despite everyone’s visual attentiveness to the doors, almost no one really wanted to be the one to climb the stairs and open them.
The doors settled into some protracted, more impatient knocking.
“I’ll get it,” piped Squawktalk, rising to his feet while the rest of us relaxed.
Once at the top of the stairwell, he opened the front doors.
“Never fear, everyone,” boomed the newcomer, “Sparkstalker has returned! So,” he continued, sliding past Squawkbox and shimmying down the stairs, “Did anything happen while I was away?”
We brought Sparkstalker up to date on current events, and though those events had immense cultural resonance, Sparky seemed far more interested in recounting the tales of his own latest adventure. In actual fact, Sparky’s expedition had been a complete waste, since the tip-off he’d received about finding the Soul of Cybertron had proven inaccurate, but he regaled us nonetheless with tales of monsters he’d supposedly found along the way, and passed around some alleged ‘treasures’ that he’d collected for his Museum of Unnatural History.
Since Sparky was obviously functional, his return also highlighted the fact that if Megatron’s Fullstasis board had any meaning beyond just being a game then it was obviously more complicated than my original rudimentary interpretations.
After Sparkstalker had concluded his anecdotes, and despite my better judgement, I felt I probably ought to introduce him to Overkill and Squawkbox.
“Not *the* Sparkstalker, of ‘some of my best friends are beasts’ fame?” Overkill was off already. “From the Minister’s description, I had expected you to be a bit more. . . *bestial*.”
“That’s my fault,” said Sparkstalker, turning around to display his rump while awkwardly looking over his shoulder. “I should be wearing a bumper sticker that says ‘my other mode is an insect-creature.”
“And this is Squawkbox,” I said, stretching my starboard wing to swab it with paint stripper and point at Squawky.
“Perhaps he should meet us both,” Squawkbox commented, transforming.
As Squawkbox slowly coalesced into his two beast modes I began to wonder if he were truly a robot made up of two lesser creatures, or if I was actually watching a single robot’s evolution into two beasts. My ponderance of that concept was cut short, however, when Squawktalk emerged in his familiar avifaunal form while Beastbox’s own animal form was revealed to me. He was a small purple monkey.
I spent a good part of the next breem being restrained by Flywheels and Sparkstalker, while shouting expletives at the very monkey who had shattered my kneecap back when I was first searching for the Valvolux Reconnaissance Base. I then calmed down as soon as I realised something else.
“Squawkbox has three heads, three bodies and two wings,” I said, steadily.
We had brought Squawkbox through Customs House. We had fulfilled Greasepit’s prophecy. On that day, the lives of everyone on Cybertron would be changed forever.
Ruckus started to shout at us from the other side of the Cavern. “Have you heard the news?” he asked.
I squinted blankly at him.
“Megatron’s going to fight for the new Decepticon leadership!” he yelled.
It had begun.
Ravage’s speeches had come a long way since the holovised press conference that I’d watched in my youth. This one had it all; word games, logical fallacies, appeals to patriotism, to pride, to fear. I jealously wished I’d written it myself. The last Overlord was dead, and it was time to find a successor or to begin a new tradition. Even just the symbolism of the former Overlord’s bodyguard being Megatron’s spokescat was masterful, as if hinting that Megatron could fulfill either role, or even both of them. Nobody else; Shockwave, Starscream, Scorponok, Soundwave and least of all myself, nobody stood a chance. The only solid thing I’d garnered from the lecture was that Megatron was disbanding the Thundercrackers and building a proper army, one with Decepticons of all echelons, where the weak could become stronger, and where the best would have a chance to shine.
“Anyone who wants to leave may do so now, without repercussion,” Ravage claimed, reaching his conclusion.
From my vantage point at the back, I watched as a crowd of faces looked inquisitively for signs of dissent. No one left.
Ravage continued. “Anyone who believes there is a more rightful heir to the Overlord dynasty: speak now, or forever be silent.”
Amongst the bustling mob, a lone head turned in my direction.
Spectro gave me a look of support, suggesting not that he was interested in seeing my reaction, but that he was willing to back me up, whatever my decision.
I turned to the robot standing beside me.
Flywheels’ wide-eyed, unalloyed smile told me all I needed to know.
I shook my head, forever to be silent.
“Flywheels,” I said, withdrawing from the crowd, “we have to talk.”
We made our way out into the warm Polyhex night, shutting the Cavern’s doors behind us.
“Do you trust me?” I asked Flywheels.
“Of course,” he replied, still smiling.
“That off-world ticket you bought all those orns ago, do you still have it?” I asked.
“Yes. . .” Flywheels began, rummaging around in his canopy. He eventually pulled out an e-ticket. “Why?”
I grabbed the pass from him and took a look at it. It was still valid.
“Take the next flight off-planet,” I told Flywheels, handing back his ticket. “Don’t stop anywhere, don’t even go home to collect your belongings. Find yourself, discover everything the universe has to offer, but do it *now*. You may never get another chance.”
Flywheels looked at his ticket, perplexed. “Are you trying to tell me that this won’t be valid under the new government?” he asked.
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Yes,” I replied, “that’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“Can I borrow your paint stripper?” Flywheels asked, looking at his chest plate. “This Autobot symbol is liable to get me killed.”
Only too aware of just how ironic that statement was, I handed the solvent to Flywheels. “Just promise me that you won’t come back until Megatron is gone,” I said.
Flywheels looked dubious.
“*Promise* me,” I ordered.
“Okay, I promise,” Flywheels said, wiping the Autobot symbol from his frame. “There’s more to this than politics, isn’t there?” he asked.
“More or less,” I replied, sincerely. “You’ve done your job, Flywheels,” I said, holding out my hand. “I won’t be needing your services any longer.
Flywheels shook my outstretched limb. “What’s this?” he asked, looking at the item I’d placed in his palm.
“It’s a thank you gift,” I said, looking at the blue rocket in Flywheels’ hand. “It’s not much, but it’s all I have.”
I made my way back into the Cavern. The crowd had dispersed and its individual components had recommenced their everyday lives.
“Minister!” Sparkstalker called once he spotted me, and I made my way to where he was standing outside Mixer’s laboratory. Overkill was beside him, sitting on Beastbox’s head while Squawktalk hovered overhead. “I was just introducing these three to the movers and shakers of the Cavernous world,” Sparky continued.
“*And* Mixer?” I suggested, caustically.
“Ignore the vitriolic Skyraider,” Sparky advised.
“We do,” Overkill rumbled.
Sparkstalker lead us into Mixer’s lab. “This is Mixer,” he announced, gesturing towards the mad scientist.
Overkill looked him up and down. “I see you’ve changed again,” he declared.
Mixer replied with a polite nod. “Overkill.”
Sparkstalker pulled me aside. “How does your friend know Mixmaster?”
“Oh, Overkill’s not my. . . Hold on, did you say Mix*master*? I asked, disoriented.
Sparky nodded. “That’s Mixer’s full name.”
I considered this new information.
“How pretentious,” I concluded.
“Oh, is that right, *Minister*?” Sparky commented, sardonically.
“Very funny,” I replied. “Anyway, I suspect there’s no room for ministers in Megatron’s empire, so you can call me by my old name again.”
Sparkstalker nodded. “Or you could choose a new one,” he said.
I felt a light tap on my shoulder. I turned around, but there was nobody there.
“Ahem!” Overkill coughed. I turned my head to see him sitting on my scapula. “We’re going home,” he said.
“Already?” I asked, realising I was genuinely discouraged by the news. “Hold on a few breems while I sort myself out and I’ll give you a lift,” I suggested.
“It won’t be necessary,” Overkill replied, hovering up off my shoulder. “Squawktalk can fly us back, and if the melting pots give us any trouble, I can take care of Sinnertwin.”
“I’m sure you can,” I said, earnestly. “I hope Mixer didn’t put you off.”
Overkill shook his toothy head. “Not directly,” he said. “He served as a final reminder that some robots just aren’t the robots I thought they were. We need to get home to Slugfest, to where we belong.”
“I understand,” I said, “but do look me up next time you’re in Polyhex.”
“And if you ever find yourself in Valvolux, remember that our door is always locked,” Overkill rejoined.
“I shall,” I said with a smile. “You’re a good robot, Overkill.”
“For a beast?” he asked, flying in front of my face.
“For a Cybertronian,” I said, reaching up to shake his tiny hand.
As I watched the three Valvoluxians leave, I was reminded of the reason I met them in the first place.
“You never got a chance to look at the War Games Transmission, did you?” I asked Sparkstalker.
The pink and white robot shook his head. “I was called away before I got the chance.”
I walked towards the Cavern’s primary computer terminal. “Tell me what you think,” I said.
It took Sparkstalker all of a breem to tell me more about the transmission than I had managed to discover over several days.
“This message has never been scrambled: the syntax isn’t right,” Sparky explained. “Plus, Autobot cyphers aren’t even capable of representing some of these words. Whoever sent this *wanted* us to have this information and they made it blatantly unsubtle just so it wouldn’t be overlooked.”
“Thanks,” I said, as the final cog slipped into gear.
If Sparkstalker hadn’t received the tip-off about the Soul of Cybertron, he would have seen the message. If he’d seen the message then the Thundercrackers wouldn’t have gone to Hybris. If the Thundercrackers hadn’t gone to Hybris, Soundwave wouldn’t have been given leave to go with them. And if Soundwave hadn’t been given leave to go with the Thundercrackers, his absence could never have gone unnoticed for so long.
With hindsight, I knew that there was only one robot on Cybertron who could have blocked all Decepticon transmissions as successfully and for as long as he did, and it wasn’t an Autobot. As a species, the most valuable tool we have is communication. If we’re deprived of it, everything falls apart; cities fall, robots die. Which means communication can be used not only as a tool, but as a weapon.
Megatron knew that. Once he’d gotten Sparkstalker out of the way and Soundwave in place, he played us all like pawns. He boxed in the Decepticon Overlord with a ruthless Autobot, and Flywheels with an unstable Decepticon. He amassed all the other pieces and secured victory. In his quest for power, Megatron had willingly sacrificed two Autobot commanders, the leader of the Decepticons and anyone else who stood in his way.
A grin formed on my face.
With no one to oppose him, Megatron would have this war won in less than a decivorn.
“So can I keep a copy of this for the museum?” Sparkstalker asked, hovering over the computer monitor.
“Why?” I was a bit thrown by the request. “It’s not historical.”
Sparky pulled out a microdisk and plugged it into the terminal.
“It will be,” he said.
Sparkstalker was preoccupied with the computer so I made my way back to my usual corner of the Cavern. As I approached, Spectro came up to me looking even worse for wear than when I’d last seen him, with Spyglass and Viewfinder in tow.
“Sir,” Spectro began, “I just came to say that you probably won’t be seeing me around much anymore.”
“What?” I asked. “Why not?”
Spectro pointed a thumb at each of his companions.
“Ah,” I said, understanding. “What made you change your mind?”
“After you left with Flywheels, I. . . failed to restrain myself from starting a fight with a couple of other crowd-members who had invaded my personal space,” Spectro explained, “but that was just the final screw, really. There always comes a point when you need to choose between being yourself and being lost in the group. I finally made my decision.”
Spectro’s words reminded me of something we’d been told just before we found Primaeval’s lair. Greasepit had said that ‘sometimes it’s better to stand behind a great robot than to be great yourself,’ and I was beginning to think that there was some truth to it.
“So, anyway, I’m sorry for what I did to you and to Slugfest,” Spectro said, humbly.
I shook my head. “You didn’t do anything to me, and Slugfest is alive and well. And who knows? Maybe death threats and decapitating other Decepticons will be a core part of Megatron’s regime,” I joked.
Spectro chuckled, unrepressed.
“Oh, and Spectro,” I added.
His countenance turned serious again.
“Thank *you*,” I said.
Spectro looked happy as the steel spike impaled itself in his shoulder. As Viewfinder’s other spike pierced Spyglass, the air around them tore open to form three subspace rifts, engulfing everything that was surplus to its ends before sealing shut. For a brief moment, I finally saw a complete Microx 05 reconnaissance device, sitting on the floor.
Then it too disappeared, cloaked into obscurity.
“Just one more adjustment and. . . there,” Windsweeper said, removing his wrench from Ruckus’s shoulder.
“This had better be good, ‘Sweeper,” I said.
“Oh it will be,” Windsweeper replied. “Now we just have to wait for Spinister.”
On returning to my corner of the cavern, I’d found Windsweeper huddled over a meticulous arrangement of tools and materials, performing some sort of operation on Ruckus’s back and shoulders. I wasn’t allowed to find out what was going on until Spinister arrived.
“Spinister, get your boron compressor over here!” Ruckus shouted.
/That should do it/, I thought.
Above our heads, something not entirely unlike a subspace rift opened up, and two robots came tumbling out with some momentum, which was dampened at about the point when they hit the floor. The rift closed again, leaving Spinister and a robot I didn’t know collapsed on the ground.
“Better,” said Spinister to the other robot. “What did you want?” Spin’ asked us as he pulled himself up.
“To show you this!” Windsweeper said with a flourish. “*Now*, Ruckus,” he mumbled out of the side of his mouth.
On each side of Ruckus’s back, a sheet of metal slid aside, followed by a whirring sound. Slowly, two gun barrels emerged from the hollows where the sheet metal had been, steadily arcing up over Ruckus’s shoulders and sedately coming to a halt once there were two guns resting on either side of his head.
The groan from Spinister suggested that he had the same reaction as I did.
“Windsweeper,” I began, “I can see that you’ve put a lot of work into this, but how many times must we tell you that the good part of your Triggercon technology is the rapid speed of your weapons’ deployment, *not* the neatness with which they can be packed away?”
“Hey, *you* try deploying mercury-tipped heavy rocket launchers any faster than this,” Windsweeper said, indignantly.
Spinister and I just stared, agape at Windsweeper’s choice of weapons.
“Just to be sure that we never lose him again,” ‘Sweeper said, patting Ruckus on the back.
/It feels good to be back with my old group again,/ I thought. /Just me, Spinister, Windsweeper, Ruckus and. . ./ I glanced at the robot I didn’t know. He was of the same Skyraider design as myself, only in colours of black and purple.
“Ah, you two haven’t met,” Spinister began, holding one arm out towards the other Skyraider. “This is Skywarp. I’m mentoring him in the art of stealth.”
“And you’re doing a bang-up job of it too,” I sniped, recalling their clumsy entrance.
Spinister rolled his optics. “And Skywarp, this is. . . sorry what was your name again? All Skyraiders look the same to me.”
It was an in-joke amongst my friends, and I knew that behind his deadpan faceplate, Spinister was grinning his blades off.
“As it happens, I’ve chosen a new name,” I said, ignoring Spinister’s folly.
“Oh really?” Windsweeper asked, cynically. “And what would that be?”
“Thundercracker,” I said, greeting Skywarp with the appropriate Cybertronian hand gesture. “My name is Thundercracker.”
I’d told him the whole story.
“So do I live or do I die?” I asked Optimus Prime, openly.
“You’ll do both,” Prime replied, “just like everyone else on the planet.” He was standing again, staring out into the distance. “But for now, just look at the amazing things life has to offer.”
I followed his gaze. The rain had moved on towards the horizon, and the light from the sun behind out heads had affected the precipitation in a remarkable way. An immense arch had formed in mid-air, made up of all the colours in the spectrum from red to violet.
“It’s incredible,” I said, awestruck. “Why haven’t I seen one of these before?”
Optimus shrugged. “I suppose you were too occupied by the thunder,” he replied.
For a while, we watched the arch in silence.
“Kup died, the other day,” Optimus said, in calm tones.
I was suddenly rather less than calm. “I never laid a sight on him,” I avowed, holding up my arms in a gesture of innocence.
Prime ignored me. “He just. . . shut down. No attack, no wounds, no warrior’s death; he just. . . passed away.” Prime looked me in the optics. “You know a war has gone on for too long when your soldiers start dying of old age.”
It was my turn to shrug. “Well what can you do?” I asked, in a throw-away, defeatist, rhetorical sort of way.
“You can deliver a message for me,” Prime replied, holding out a data disk.
I took it and routinely turned it over in my hands. “What is it?” I asked.
“Read it if you want,” Prime suggested. “It’s essentially a graphical survey of this planet. The line down the bottom is the amount of energy that the Earth has left. The line that is significantly higher than that one is the amount of energy that would need to be expended in order to *harness* that energy.”
I stared blankly at him.
“Megatron will understand,” Optimus explained. “There’s an abundance of supporting documentation attached to the file, if he’s interested.” Prime’s optics were smiling again.
“So I’m delivering this to Megatron?” I asked, for clarification.
Prime nodded. “You’ll do it?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said. If Prime was willing to spare my life then running a message to Megatron was the least I could do. I was only headed back to Decepticon headquarters anyway, and I’d have a chance to scan over the disk during the trip.
Prime said something that I didn’t quite catch.
“What did you say?” I asked.
“Fullstasis,” he repeated, cryptically.
I took one last look at the spectral arch. It was reassuring to know that the rain could produce so much more than just mud.
I turned back towards the sun. There was only one thing left to do.
“After you,” I said, motioning Prime towards the open road.
“No, after you,” Optimus Prime replied. “Best first.”