1. Round and Round by Scott_Kampa
Thundercracker reached out to the computer console and scanned back through the video image he had been studying for the last three hours. He had lost count of how many times he had rewound to the very end of the battle. He was enveloped in a sort of fog; it would take a proton missile to rouse him from his position. All he knew was that he had to watch this as many times as he could. It was only a matter of time before somebody erased the video and the battle was relegated to memory.
The battle had been over for six hours. Thundercracker was one of the few to escape with precious few injuries. He had still yet to visit the infirmary to have the minor crack in his wing examined or the dent on his back hammered back into place. He had a few lacerations and scorch marks scattered across his frame, but he never bothered the field medic on duty with these. He could just as easily fix these himself without diverting attention from those who were in more serious need of medical help. He was lucky. Skywarp’s back was torn apart from laser fire and a crash. Two-thirds of Reflector was still in stasis, their injuries extensive and in need of undivided attention from Hook. There was some question whether Thrust would even wake up.
‘This is insane,’ Thundercracker thought. Over and over again, as he watched his somber teammates try to hold together their dignity after an embarrassing defeat and listened to Megatron berate them for their poor performance, this is all Thundercracker could manage to think. A numbness set in deeper the more he passed the injured forms of his wingmates, the louder Megatron’s voice bellowed about honor and the empire, the quieter and quieter Starscream’s rebuttals grew.
‘This is insane.’
Thundercracker stopped the video and where he had each time for the last hour and a half. It was towards the end of the battle. All of the Constructicons were still operational, Thrust was still functioning and causing havoc in the skies for the landbound Autobots, but the rout was about to commence. Skywarp had been dropped from the skies. He had been putting on a brave face from his defensive location behind a rock 70 yards from a similar position Thundercracker was attacking from. Starscream was leading the other three jets, their attacks becoming more and more defensive. The Autobots and the positions of his teammates were keeping Thundercracker busy. He hadn’t found time to locate Megatron, who was supervising the solar collector and near the center of the battle, expecting any orders would come via radio. No orders came. Instead, Thundercracker and the other Decepticons watched as the ship that was meant to be for their escape if Autobot interference got out of hand lift off and blast away. Soon after the casualties began to mount.
Thundercracker usually did not study the video to see what went well in battle and what did not. He had been doing this long enough to know these things already. The only reason he had for watching them this time was his need to get his mind off the pain and near-death that surrounded him. So he retreated to the dark auditorium and popped in the feed. It showed him everything that happened that he himself had not seen.
The video feed, set up for analysis of battle procedure, was locked onto Megatron. Near the solar panels, an escape ship sat with Megatron and Soundwave near it. Thundercracker watched on the video as Megatron looked around frantically before locking his gaze on Soundwave. The video did not have any audio, but the words leaving Megatron’s mouth were unquestionable.
“Get me out of here, Soundwave. Now.”
On the video, Soundwave glanced back towards the battle and the rest of the Decepticons before being interrupted by Megatron.
Thundercracker watched on the video as the shuttle lifted off and flew out of the feed’s field of vision. He reached towards the console and turned the feed off. He already knew how the battle ended.
Thrust was knocked out of the sky, surprised by the abrupt launch of the shuttle. Once on the ground, he was shot by the Autobot Warpath and crushed beneath the tank’s treads. He hasn’t awakened since. Three Constructicons were injured trying to get him to cover. Thundercracker had rushed to help, dragging the unconscious Decepticon and a badly damaged Long Haul out of Autobot line of sight. The Autobots quickly regrouped and attacked. Reflector was the first one to fall. Laser fire then nearly took off Thundercracker’s head. The only reason it did not was the quick reaction from Skywarp and Starscream. Skywarp sprinted towards Thundercracker, tackling him and taking the brunt of the attack on his injured back. Starscream, with aid from Dirge and Ramjet, quickly worked to scatter the Autobot forces. Starscream then flew towards the solar collector and destroyed it himself, a move that Thundercracker had become more and more sure spared the lives of all the Decepticons left on the battlefield.
Megatron had not seen it that way. He berated the air commander for a solid hour about the loss of the collector, claiming the Starscream had set the Decepticons back weeks in their energy collection and their eventual return to Cybertron. Starscream, never at a loss for words, readily volleyed back, stating that the only reason the Decepticons were alive to return back the base was that very move and questioning where Megatron had been. Megatron deflected the question and continue to spread the blame around. The warriors were clumsy on the ground and out of formation in the air. There was no communication or teamwork. Everybody suffered from a complete lack of concentration; that’s the only way the weakling Autobots could defeat Decepticons. The solar collector worked too slowly and was shoddily constructed. The blame never once fell on the shoulders of the Decepticon commander.
Thundercracker rose from his seat and walked into the bright hallway outside, wishing he could drive the memory of the battle from his thoughts. After so many years wondering what his place was with the Decepticons, he had come to understand that there was no escaping it. He could only try to think his way through it. When he was troubled, he liked to walk through the halls of the base. It always helped him think for some reason. And today he had a lot to think about.
After all the talk about how much the Decepticons suck, Megatron dove seamlessly into the propaganda. The Decepticons fight for honor and the glory of the growing Decepticon Empire. Those who stand to stop the Decepticons deserved to be crushed beneath their feet. The Decepticons matter first and foremost; other species are worms or tools who get what they deserve. The Decepticons are a race of warriors. They do not sit idle while there are worlds to explore and claim as their own. They do not snivel to the Autobots and try to conform. Decepticons would die if they were stagnant. The Decepticons fight this war for Cybertron, for the planet that is their right to rule. The Autobots are only looking to change the Decepticons into something they are not. Glory to the Decepticons! Forever! By the end of the speech, half of those present seemed to think that they had won the battle just past. After all, he heard several Decepticons say, they had come away with some energon cubes.
The other Decepticons didn’t think of it as propaganda, of course. Skywarp had laughed it off the one time that Thundercracker had mentioned the term. No, he had said, that’s what the Autobots call it. Thundercracker left it at that. The other Decepticons didn’t seem to see it. They thought of all of that, plus the multitude of other quips, as the Decepticon mantra.
Thundercracker knew better. They were only words. Words that Megatron certainly knew how to use. A pass by the main hall of their underwater headquarters showed the power of those words. Repaired and unharmed warriors from the battle jockeyed back and forth, tussling with one another, acting out various aspects of the battle freshly ended and lost, all as if it had been a victory. Nearly forgotten were Skywarp and Thrust, Reflector, Long Haul, and Scavenger. Thundercracker walked wordlessly on. With several well-placed phrases emphasizing strength and courage, Megatron had effectively erased the outcome of the battle from memory. It happened every time they lost a battle.
Again and again. Round and round.
After several more moments, Thundercracker paused. Before him was the door to the infirmary. He felt torn. He yearned to continue walking, to try to forget the pain and suffering that was in there. In the end, he knew he could not simply pass by, not with his comrades in need. He stepped up to the door and, with a soft hiss, it slid open before him.
It was a sight that Thundercracker was getting all too used to over the last several years. Two of the Reflector trio were lying in stasis, awaiting to be repaired. Scavenger and Long Haul were on tables adjacent to one another with Soundwave concentrating mainly on Long Haul for the moment. Skywarp was lying with his back up, his circuitry already nearly repaired by Mixmaster. Thrust was in the back of the room. Hook and an obviously injured Scrapper were hunched over the jet. Even Megatron was present, aiding with the repair of Long Haul. Thundercracker walked into the room and looked over at Hook. He paused in his work and motioned towards Mixmaster, who was tending to Skywarp. Thundercracker nodded and hurried to his wingmate’s side.
Mixmaster looked up at the blue Decepticon and said, “Hold this panel in place for me.” Thundercracker pressed down on the panel, feeling Skywarp jump slightly.
“Sorry,” Thundercracker mumbled.
“Don’t worry about it,” Skywarp said, the usual easy-going tone vacant from his vocal pattern. After a second, Skywarp turned and looked up at Thundercracker and shot him a crooked smile, as if apologizing for his tone.
Thundercracker smiled back as Skywarp laid his head down again. Mixmaster continuing welding Skywarp’s back panel into place. Thundercracker found his optics wandering towards Megatron. The Decepticon leader and Soundwave continued to work on Long Haul. Soundwave was doing the bulk of the repairs with Megatron helping when he could. From time to time, Megatron would speak to the injured Constructicon, his voice too soft for Thundercracker to make out the conversation. Long Haul even chuckled a couple of times.
Thundercracker could not help but marvel at this. This Megatron walking Long Haul through the reattachment of several key components, the one that was not only a commander but also a friend, was a Megatron that Thundercracker remembered. It didn’t seem that long ago. Upon joining the Decepticon army, this aspect of the commander of all Decepticon forces was something that struck him. It made him feel as if he belonged here, as if this were almost a family. Talk of teamwork and courage and conquest did not seem as foreign then. Actions backed up those words. Now it did not seem as such. Megatron had changed. It seemed that he had become more worried about himself and what he could gain rather than the good of all Decepticons.
Thundercracker looked back down at Skywarp, watching the fiery tip of the laser scalpel in Mixmaster’s hand seamlessly reattach the black jet’s armor. But, in some ways, Megatron had never changed. The speeches were the same, but he could never remember Megatron saying that a plan was not thought through enough. It was simply that their missions failed less often on Cybertron. Here on Earth, the Autobots almost seemed revitalized. They were fighting on new terrain. Most importantly, they outnumbered the Decepticons on Earth. While conquest on Cybertron continued unabated, the Decepticons on Earth were learning what it felt like to lose battles. To Thundercracker, trained as a warrior, he felt that this experience was actually helping the warriors. Too many of the younger recruits were complacent in battle, as if the outcome were assured. He had watched Rumble and Frenzy become excellent warriors in a very short time. They no longer sauntered into battle expecting a rout. They stayed with a battle until victory was assured. They were learning faster here than they ever could at the Decepticon War Academy.
Megatron, however, seemed stuck in a pre-Earth mentality. Stealth was rarely an option. He muscled into an enemy installation to acquire energy when a more subtle approach could lead to more energy. He taunted his foes rather than simply finishing them off. Megatron’s warriors were adapting to the new front in the war. Megatron himself was stuck in the past. So it would go. The Decepticons would embark on a mission too easy to device in too exposed a location. The Autobots would naturally arrive in short order and attack. The Decepticons would be outnumbered and forced to retreat, sometimes with energy, sometimes not. Then it’s back to base where the blame is cast around liberally and then off to another obvious mission. Round and round.
Mixmaster switched off his scalpel and patted Skywarp on the shoulder.
“Finished. Go on back to the recharger and relax for a bit while you got a chance.”
Skywarp lifted himself up slowly, twisting his back a couple of times as if to test the workmanship. Mixmaster had already hurried to the back of the room where Hook and Scrapper were hecticly working on Thrust. Thundercracker purposefully did not allow his gaze to fall on his fallen wingmate, afraid that more of these hauntingly familiar doubts would surface. As he was about to turn and leave, Skywarp grabbed his arm.
“Hey, Thundercracker,” he said. After a pause, he continued. “Thanks.”
Thundercracker watched the black jet for a second. ‘What did I do?’ he thought.
Finally, Thundercracker shrugged. “No problem.”
Skywarp smiled weakly and turned towards the energizers. Thundercracker could not help but notice that he too avoided looking at Thrust as he walked off.
Thundercracker exited the infirmary and began wandering the halls of the base again, his head down in concentration. The somber mood of the Decepticons that seemed to envelop the entire ship was cut into from time to time by a random hoot of joy from the main room. ‘Maybe it’s not just me,’ he thought as he watched Astrotrain walk past without a word, a forlorn expression riveted to his face. ‘Maybe this is how everyone feels after a loss. Maybe this isn’t doubt. Maybe it’s simply disappointment that we did not succeed.’
The Decepticon stopped and slammed his fist against the wall and leaned his head against it. ‘No,’ he berated himself. ‘You saw what happened in the battle and the aftermath. You saw what happened to Thrust.’ He turned around, leaning his back against the wall, and looked at the ceiling. He knew what he was feeling was more than disappointment. He knew that this wasn’t right. For millions of years, he was taught that loyalty to your comrades would be rewarded. Today, that loyalty was rewarded with near death for Thrust as his commander flew off in the safety of their escape ship. Did that loyalty not include their commander? Was he somehow above all of that simply because he was the leader? The escape ship had a few hundred energon cubes when it took off. Did Megatron really feel that those few cubes were worth abandoning those who live and die by his command?
Thundercracker shut his optics as his thoughts wandered from one particular battle to the war effort itself. For so many years he had been searching for a reason that old beliefs in the greater Decepticon good based on what was good for the entire group should be tossed aside to satisfy the whims of a single individual. Though Megatron would deny this if confronted with it, his actions speak volumes on the subject. In fact Thundercracker half expected that if he presented this theory to his leader, he would never see the light of day again. This too was something that wasn’t always the case. There was a time that no warrior was afraid to voice his opinion on the subject. Now they were often threatened for speaking up. “A warrior doesn’t need a head, just a good strong body.” Megatron had said this once, not so long ago. It stood in stark contrast with what he was told upon joining the Decepticon forces. He was told that the Decepticons were always in need of sharp minds, independent thinkers. That was the only way to vanquish the Autobots that would oppress them. It didn’t seem that way anymore. It seemed to Thundercracker that it was the Decepticons that are the oppressors and the Autobots that wanted the independent thinkers.
Thundercracker looked to his left. The mental sojourns he was so accustomed to taking always seemed to lead here: the exit of the Decepticon base. He had been standing here many times in the past, wondering if he was actually going to go through with it, if he had the guts to leave. This time, he felt that he did. But he found himself wondering something he had never thought of before. ‘Where would I go?’
The Autobots were not an option. They might take an independent thinker, but Thundercracker doubted they would accept one that is a Decepticon. Through all of this, that was one thing that Thundercracker never doubted; he was a Decepticon. To him, being a Decepticon was still all those things it used to be before selfishness infected the upper ranks of the hierarchy. It still meant being part of a team that explores the universe, conquering worlds that stood against the Empire. The Autobots would chafe against this, just as Thundercracker would in being forced to become something that he was not. He could do that just as well here among beings with the same aspirations.
That left only one option open. He would have to strike out on his own. He would have to venture out into the universe without knowing where he would end up. He could continue living as the Decepticon he was always meant to be, not one living a stunted existence under a selfish leader who said he was acting for the good of all Decepticons but was actually serving himself. That is what he would have to do.
Thundercracker reached for the panel to activate the lift to the surface. He paused. His mind wandered back to Skywarp, sitting in a recharging chamber in the infirmary. He thought about Starscream, who was most likely still fuming over Megatron’s insanely obtuse treatment of him after the battle. They were his friends. They always had been. Even more, they were partners in this war. They watched each others’ back when there was no one else to watch it. Who would watch out for them now? And who would watch out for him? He knew deep down that he still needed them. And that they still needed him. His hand hovered next to the panel.
‘Do I have the will to do this?’ he thought.
His hand reached forward. And then slowly drew back.