As soon as Cyclonus pierced the outer casing of the Quintesson shield generator with the nosecone Wheeljack had forged him, all the defenders turned their weapons on him at once, and he could not take evasive action. The barrage thundered against his exposed sides, agony flaming through him, but he held grimly on until the upload of Hook’s nanovirus was complete. The shield wall collapsed into flickers of static as all the microgenerators ringed around Cybertron began exploding into small firebursts. Cyclonus began to withdraw, hoping to join the incoming wave of attack and do a little more before he was destroyed, but it was too late. Though he saw Defensor’s mighty fist coming, he had already sustained too much damage; he could not evade in time.
The smashing blow crushed his last two functioning thrusters and sent him tumbling far out into space and past the outer limits of the battle even as it was fully joined. He was unable even to right himself. The others could not turn away to aid him; he had completed his critical task, but they all still had their own to perform. He approved the cold determination that kept them in their positions: it was he who had commanded it, looking intently at his few Autobot warriors to be sure they too would accept the necessity of it. “There is no rescue possible in this battle,” he had said quietly. “None who go shall return. Let no one come who does not understand that and is prepared to endure that fate—for both themselves and their comrades.”
Now it was he who had to endure, a pain far worse than his physical wounds to hear them all fighting, dying, incinerated and smashed, while he could do nothing more. Cyclonus could only see the battlefield in the brief moments in his rotation when he was facing it with his three still-functional visual sensors, and his damaged comlink caught only snatches of the chatter of the battle. But he had opened the way for them. “See y’all on the other side!” Ironhide shouted, a last ferocious roar that broke through the general clamor. Cyclonus was spinning far distant by then; the transmission reached him on a five-minute delay. Even as he heard it, a blooming pillar of flame was erupting from Cybertron’s surface, and he knew that Ironhide was already dead.
But he had not died in vain. The explosions began happening swiftly after that, one after another gouting from the planet’s surface, the chain reaction they’d hoped for. Even as the writhing Quintesson vessels began to erupt from the planet like grotesque spores attempting to launch from some dying monstrous growth, the flames caught and engulfed them. Scourge and the Sweeps had held back for this moment: they plunged into the maelstrom and blasted every last Quintesson pod and shuttle back into the fires, even as they were consumed themselves.
And then—the blinding light as the final explosion ignited inside the planet’s core, and the end of it all, a relief and an agony both equally complete. Cyclonus knew it was over long before the end came for him: even as he caught the glimpses of bright flares as Scourge and the last few of the Sweeps disintegrated into ash and flame, his sensors told him it would be nine minutes and forty-six seconds before the blast wave caught up and incinerated him as well. But there was one saving grace in the long wait: of all his systems, the warp drive had not been damaged, and his space-time sensors, ordinarily tuned to avoid collisions during warp ignition, read not a single warp signature activating.
They had—not won; this was a victory too pyrrhic to deserve the name. But they had accomplished the task. The Quintessons were eradicated. Their victims had received the final mercy they longed for. And free Cybertronians yet lived. Only their one small fragmentary band left, but they lived, and Soundwave and Wheeljack were among them: the two surviving Cybertronians who had mastered the infinitely complex skill of sparking new life. They had been left behind safe in the fastness of Earth’s moon with the handful of warriors who had been too badly damaged to join the last fight. They would go back to Earth now and make a new way there. There would be no more legions of Autobots made blank-eyed Quintesson slaves coming to slaughter them. They were all dead.
And…Galvatron. Galvatron was dead.
The Quintessons had not been able to seize control of his mind. They had twisted it instead, bent it like soft scrap metal to their will: they had pretended to bow before him themselves, they had told him they surrendered to him and that Cybertron was his; they had built him a palace and a plaything of a throne and paraded their enslaved mechs before him pleading and scraping; they had let him murder a dozen mind-stolen Autobots at a whim whenever he wished. What did any of it cost them? And Galvatron had succumbed to the illusion. Cyclonus had taken the Sweeps and Scourge and fought his way savagely through all the defenses of Cybertron—not to destroy, that time, but to rescue. But…Galvatron had refused to leave. He had blasted Cyclonus to the ground and called him a traitor.
Scourge had carried him away barely conscious. Cyclonus would not have left otherwise. He would have stayed there huddled at his lord’s feet, the one place made for him in the universe, until the Sharkticon guards arrived and finished destroying him. He had not been deceiving himself with any false hope; he had known Galvatron would not stop them. But what else was there for him to do but die?
Even after Scourge had gotten him back to the moon base, after they had repaired his injuries, Cyclonus had continued to lie quiet in their narrow infirmary, conscious but unmoving, unspeaking. Hook had tried to jolt him into motion with tortures, Soundwave with careful mental prodding, Scourge with pleas for his help. He had not answered any of them. He had been trapped within a vast yawning emptiness, a prison within his own mind. Strange, that it had been Ironhide, of all of them, who had found the key to turn in his door.
Cyclonus had closed the door of that prison behind him after he had left it. With help from Soundwave, he had painstakingly built himself a mental wall around that place, the deepest core of his mind; a wall that had shut out the one thundering imperative of his existence, the great bittersweet joy of his life. It had been the only way to do what had to be done. But now he had done all that had been required of him, and death was coming, swiftly. Seven minutes and twelve astroseconds left, and Cyclonus permitted the wall to collapse; he let the all-devouring love back out, that he might feel the final grief for his lord, the terrible dark quasar at the heart of his galaxy. He had been built to serve Galvatron—and he had destroyed Galvatron. For these last moments, he would mourn, and pay the price for his treason.
He was prepared for soul-destroying pain, for a kind of eradication of his very self; he had never been able to imagine a universe, an existence for himself, that did not contain Galvatron in it. But the agony did not come. Instead, vividly in his mind for a moment he saw Galvatron—Galvatron not in that Quintesson mockery of a throne room, but laughing with savage exultation on a battlefield, jeering at death even as he dealt it with a sweep of his cannon, and Cyclonus felt rising in him suddenly, like a benediction, the absolute certainty that he had not failed after all. He had served his lord, to the very end. He gasped, an exhalation that made no sound, that no one would ever hear or know of, and then he whispered, “Farewell, Galvatron,” to the void. He found that he wished that he could have told Ironhide; and still more startling, he found that he was a little sorry, after all, to die.
It was so strange a realization that it took him four more of his dwindling minutes for his logic processor to raise to his attention the chance that he could survive: he couldn’t aim himself, but he could calculate a trajectory for Earth’s solar system and then engage his warp drive when he was aligned in the right direction. He would almost certainly lose consciousness from the strain on his battered frame, but his engines would deliver him to the target once engaged. He needed only set a simple distress beacon broadcasting on the general channel, and the others would find him.
He slowly began the calculations, trying to decide if he truly meant to survive this day. He could think of no better resting place than here—with his lord, and also with Scourge, with Ironhide, with the Combaticons and the Predacons, with Grimlock; the last handful of all their greatest warriors, those who had fought to the end against the Quintesson yoke. But to die only through inaction—not in battle, but in surrender—no. That was not a warrior’s death, and if he died it, he would not deserve to mingle his ashes with theirs. They had not died for no purpose.
The leading edge of the blast wave was nearly upon him: it would be a near-run thing, and his warp drive might interact badly with the disruption of space-time. That did not matter. He would try. “Rest in honor, my comrades,” he said softly, as his visual sensors swept one last time across the expanding field of debris, most of it still glowing: all the remnants of his world and the rushing expanding surface of the shockwave sphere so near he could already feel the molten heat of it upon his frame. Then he was turning away from it, towards Earth, and as the glow rose up around him, he engaged the beacon, and flung himself into warp.
He rose gradually through layers of consciousness, his sensors gathering data about his surroundings while his diagnostics ran. They began to flash strange warnings of inconsistency even before his mind came fully back online, and an impossible and familiar voice said, “Looks like our sleepin’ beauty’s finally decided to wake up. Maybe now we can get some answers.”
Cyclonus turned his head slowly, in wary disbelief: Ironhide was standing beside the repair table, looking down at him, his mouth hard with suspicion. Cyclonus stared at him. “All right, you old hardnose, back off my patient,” another voice said; Cyclonus slowly turned the other way: another Autobot, unfamiliar—that was strange enough; he knew every last surviving Cybertronian—was leaning over him with a medical scanner. “Hey there. Got a designation?”
“I am called Cyclonus,” he said slowly, trying to grasp what was happening: had he suffered core injury? Was his mind substituting the dead for people around him? But the other was unfamiliar, and they did not seem to know him—
“How are you feeling?” the medic asked. “Wherever you came from, looks like it was getting pretty toasty before you left. And like you’d been hit by a couple of asteroids to boot.”
“I am functioning within acceptable parameters,” Cyclonus said, although he felt dubious about the claim. His diagnostics were insisting all his systems were functioning correctly. And then his archival databases abruptly served up a name for the other Autobot: Ratchet, medic, killed in the opening attack of the Battle of Autobot City.
Cyclonus jerked up on the table, snapping through the light restraints. Ironhide at once went for his gun and snapped, “Hold it! No sudden moves—”
“All right, Ironhide, keep it holstered,” a deep resonant voice said from behind. Cyclonus had never heard it in life before. It was familiar enough from recordings that he knew which mech he was going to see, but turning to see Optimus Prime approaching still made the situation ever more unreal. Cyclonus shut off his optics a moment and rested his head in his hands, forcing his logic processor to stop issuing complaints about data inconsistencies. The data was not the problem. He was—on Earth, his gravitational sensors supplied—and in the presence of three dead mechs, two of whom had died before his own creation. He could not have traveled through time: his systems were stable, as they would not have been if the very matter of his frame was beginning to disintegrate as the universe corrected a duplication. Therefore, he had—been flung into a parallel universe, his processor finally, grudgingly offered, dredging up an improbable solution to a still more improbable set of parameters.
“Welcome, Cyclonus,” Prime said, coming to stand before him. “Glad to see you functioning again. We weren’t sure we could get you jumpstarted—were you drifting a long time?”
“Unless he’s been driftin’ for eight million years, maybe the first question we oughta be askin’ is which side he’s on,” Ironhide said. “Because he’s sure packing a lot of heat.”
Cyclonus was still struggling to reorient himself; he hardly believed his own processing. “If I were a Decepticon, and I had just woken up among Autobots, surely I would lie about it,” he pointed out half absently.
Ratchet gave a snort of laughter. “He’s got you there, Ironhide.”
“Yeah, well, we can at least put him to the trouble,” Ironhide growled. “So let’s have it: what are you, an Autobot or a Decepticon?”
Cyclonus raised his head to stare at him. It occurred to him that if he were somehow fantasizing the entire encounter, his brain was managing an excellent facsimile of Ironhide’s hardheaded intransigence. “The war…ended for me,” he said. “Some time ago.” It was strange, almost luxurious, to imagine Autobots as enemies again. They had become oddly precious to him by the end; perhaps because so few of them had been able to escape the Quintessons. They were not ferocious enough; there were chinks in their mental armor where the Quintessons could insert their tendrils and catch at their sentimentality and compassion, their instinctive affection for more-fragile creatures, and through that one vulnerability seize control of the entire system. Wheeljack and Perceptor and most of the other survivors had stayed hidden deep inside the moon base, in fear of being caught and taken over; Ironhide had been one of the vanishingly few who had managed to resist.
“I can understand that sentiment,” Optimus Prime said. “But unfortunately, you’ve landed right back in the middle of it here. You’re in our base on Earth. We picked up your distress beacon a couple of days ago, and Cosmos was able to retrieve you—but he just barely beat out Astrotrain to your location. So the Decepticons know we got you, and they’ll probably assume that you’re one of us, now.”
“Unless they know better,” Ironhide said. “Prime, there’s somethin’ fishy about this. Just look at him!” He waved a hand up and down over Cyclonus’s frame. “He’s a new model if I ever saw one, and he’s fully loaded. And we sure don’t have any Autobot named Cyclonus in our databanks.”
“We don’t have a Decepticon named Cyclonus in the databanks either!” Ratchet said.
“He could’ve made up the name,” Ironhide said stubbornly, and Cyclonus laughed aloud at the familiarity of it, a helpless wonder rising in him: Ironhide was alive. And precisely as stiffnecked as always. They were all still alive. Cybertron itself still existed, in this universe.
“Yeah, he sure seems like a Decepticon,” Ratchet said. Ironhide scowled in irritation. However, the remark made Cyclonus realize he was far outside his normal behavior parameters; his systems were all badly askew. He drew a deep breath and focused on his internal power flows, one by one consciously forcing them to stability. It was not an easy task. “Whoa,” Ratchet said suddenly. “Look at—hey, are you doing that on purpose?”
“I am,” Cyclonus said, opening his eyes again.
“What?” Ironhide demanded. “What’s he doin’?”
“He’s consciously managing his power flow system,” Ratchet said. “I’d sure like to be able to do that for patients on the table. Do you have some kind of controller—no, it’s all that extra circuitry, isn’t it?” He shook his head. “Must come in handy.”
“What extra circuitry?” Ironhide said.
“He’s got about an order of magnitude more circuitry than any of us,” Ratchet said. “You’re not wrong that he’s a new model, Ironhide. Looks about—twelve years from construction?” he asked Cyclonus.
“Thirteen,” Cyclonus said. Thirteen years, since Unicron had reformed him from fragments of the honored dead. Thirteen years since the Decepticon Empire had fallen before Unicron’s assault; since the Quintessons had returned to seize the remnants. What had happened instead, in this universe? He looked around the room.
“An’ who made him?” Ironhide demanded, folding his arms across his chest and scowling at Cyclonus.
“Well, I can tell you who didn’t make him,” Ratchet said tartly. “Megatron. If the Decepticons had developed this kind of technology, the first thing he’d do with it is upgrade himself.”
“No, I was not made by the Decepticons,” Cyclonus said. “My creator…was not from Cybertron.”
“Was?” Ratchet said.
“He is dead,” Cyclonus said.
Ratchet’s shoulders slumped a little, with a misplaced sympathy which Cyclonus did not mean to reject: it might prove useful. “In the war?”
“In battle,” Cyclonus said. “Yes.”
“I’m sorry,” Optimus Prime said quietly. “We’ve all lost too many good mechs.”
Ironhide gave a small snort, but Ratchet glared at him. “All right, get off his case,” he told Ironhide sharply. “Optimus, he’s fine. I’d like to release him from medical supervision.”
Prime nodded and said to him, “Cyclonus, I’ll need your word that you won’t leave the base for now—”
“No,” Cyclonus said, breaking in, and Prime paused. “I am grateful for my rescue, and the repairs you have performed,” he inclined his head to Ratchet, “but I am not a member of your army. I will not subject myself to your judgement of where I am to go.”
“Would you rather be locked up in a comfy cell?” Ironhide said. “Because we could set that up for ya any time.”
“Yes,” Cyclonus answered. Ironhide stared back at him. “Fetters and cell doors can easily be broken. My word of honor, once given, is not. I prefer the former prison to the latter.”
“Still think he sounds like a Decepticon, Ironhide?” Optimus said, sounding faintly amused. Cyclonus controlled his instinctive irritation: as though most Autobots maintained a formal word of honor worth the name. Of course, Prime was not wrong that most Decepticons did not, either. “All right, Cyclonus, I appreciate your honesty. In that case, we’re going to have to keep you under guard for now, and if you attempt to leave the inner base without permission, we’ll have to restrain you. I apologize: this isn’t the way we normally do business around here, but we’re working on a major project, and secrecy is of the utmost importance. It’s about a week from being completed, and at the end of that time, we’ll happily fuel you up and let you continue on your way, wherever it may take you.”
“I volunteer to be the one keepin’ an eye on him, Optimus,” Ironhide said.
“I couldn’t ask anyone better, Ironhide,” Prime said, clapping him on the shoulder.
“I have no objections,” Cyclonus said. He would have had many to the arrangement, if this were a Decepticon base, but the folly of one’s enemies was a warrior’s greatest advantage. Ironhide was a powerful and well-armored fighter, but he was simply not in Cyclonus’s class in any individual contest. Then again, few were.
However, Ironhide himself was not much given to optimistic folly; he scowled over Cyclonus, and then said to Optimus, “I might ask Grimlock to keep us company, too.”
“If you can talk him into it, go ahead,” Optimus said. “They’ll need him full-time on the north tower tomorrow, though. But hopefully by then, Cyclonus will have set your mind at ease about his intentions.”
Cyclonus remained satisfied. Grimlock and Ironhide together would indeed pose a significant threat, but he hardly minded a day’s wait. Indeed, it would offer a welcome opportunity to acquire intelligence about the present state of the war in this universe, and determine his course. He would sooner have dismantled himself than voluntarily abandon the Decepticon cause, but neither could he ever again relish the prospect of slaughtering Autobots, and though this Ironhide was not his own former companion, yet he might be too close to be considered anything but a brother in arms, one to whom Cyclonus owed debts beyond repayment. How he might reconcile his loyalties, he did not yet know.
He swung his legs over the table and stood. The Autobots had even refueled him to capacity, and what damage their medic had overlooked, to the nanotech-level circuitry he had most likely not even noticed, Cyclonus’s self-repair systems were already busily mending. He rotated his arms and flexed his knees; he would have liked to do a few kata to loosen his joints up more thoroughly and flush his system, but he did not think it prudent to give the Autobots any significant demonstration of his capabilities.
“All right, you done? Let’s go pick up the big guy,” Ironhide growled, and jerked his head. Cyclonus inclined his head to Prime and the medic, and followed him.
Outside the infirmary, the Autobot base was large and under extensive construction: mostly by humans, whom he could glimpse working inside the half-built walls in their ant-swarms. He had learned long since not to disdain them; what they lacked in virtually every other arena, they made up for in sheer weight of numbers and the unbelievable rapidity of their organic timescale. Without their aid, the Quintessons would never have been defeated. “This base is itself the project, is it not?” Cyclonus said to Ironhide, as they walked through the hallways; he gestured to one of the bare, unclad walls. “The one that Optimus Prime wishes to conceal.”
Ironhide gave him only an unfriendly look. “Why dontcha save the questions until you’ve been around for a while longer.”
Of course, the specific point being concealed could not precisely have been the base itself, given the scale; it was surely visible from low orbit and too large to cloak entirely. Cyclonus more carefully studied the work being done; there was something vaguely familiar in it, which he suspected his databases would eventually retrieve, given enough inputs to match against.
They came to a large doorway at the end of a hall, and stepped out of it into a wide open courtyard beneath the brilliant dazzling blue of Earth’s sky, the small cheering globe of Sol’s light nearly at zenith. Cyclonus drew a deep breath of the air: the pleasant ozone tang of active construction in the air. The Dinobots were idly pounding scrap metal into compressed pieces: more like play than real training, but they were as always an aesthetic pleasure to behold in their destructive power.
“Pretty impressive, huh?” Ironhide said.
“Indeed,” Cyclonus said. He had to sternly repress the desire to ask if he might join them: he had rarely had so effective a fighting partner as Grimlock, and his systems were still flinching with involuntary satisfaction merely from seeing Cybertronians like this—out in the open under the sky, confident in their security, relaxed enough to give themselves the pleasure of play. He had to remind himself that he was at war with them.
“Good,” Ironhide said, with emphasis. “Hey, Grimlock, buddy, you mind lendin’ me a hand with somethin?” he called.
“Me Grimlock glad to help buddy Ironhide,” Grimlock said, tearing a twisted sheet of durasteel straight down the middle with his jaws. “You Dinobots stay here and finish pounding scrap.”
“Me Slag bored with pounding scrap!” Slag said. “Me Slag want to come too.”
“No!” Grimlock said. “Ironhide no want Slag! Ironhide want Grimlock!”
Some ten minutes of squabbling later, they finally returned to the corridors. “Your companions seem to be impatient with their task,” Cyclonus said to Grimlock as they walked: the Dinobot leader was a most powerful and deadly opponent in the field, but out of it, he was an easy target for even mild subtleties. “Have you been laboring upon this base long?”
“All we Dinobots working and working for months now,” Grimlock said. “Boring work! Dig hole here, pound scrap there, put up girder here. Us not like it, but me Grimlock say, ‘Dinobots, do what Wheeljack say!’ And Dinobots do.”
“Your discipline is commendable,” Cyclonus said.
“Hrm,” Grimlock said. “Me Grimlock not know what that means.”
“He’s butterin’ you up like toast is what it means,” Ironhide growled from Cyclonus’s other side.
Cyclonus tilted an inquiry at him. “I do not know what that means. What is ‘toast’?”
“It’s a food the humans—ah, nevermind,” Ironhide said.
“Me Grimlock is a little hungry,” Grimlock said. “Me Grimlock go get snack.” He turned abruptly into a different corridor.
“Hey!” Ironhide said. “Grimlock, I don’t want to take him into the finished—ah, shoot,” he muttered under his breath: the Dinobot leader was already lumbering away around the corner. Ironhide glared at Cyclonus, who made no great effort to conceal his own amusement: corralling Grimlock was no easy task, and it was enjoyable to watch someone else attempt it. He recognized that he might almost have laughed outright again: his emotional system was truly running amok. Evidently he would have to resign himself to suffering a period of near-hysteria.
Ironhide narrowed his optics. “I can see you thinkin’ about smilin’, and you can just quit it,” he growled, then jerked his head impatiently. “All right, come on, we’re stickin’ with him. I guess there’s nothing too bad you can see in the commissary.”
They caught up with Grimlock just as he emerged into a different courtyard: the work here was more advanced, with the finished panels already covering the walls. Cyclonus abruptly did recognize them: they were the same design patterns used in Metroplex’s construction. So they were building another city-mech, undoubtedly one with some significant advancements; no wonder Prime was anxious to keep the intelligence from the Decepticons. “Move it along,” Ironhide snapped, when Cyclonus would have liked to look more closely, and Grimlock was already entering another building on the other side of the courtyard. Cyclonus followed through the doors on his heels, and ground to a halt.
“Yum!” Grimlock said, moving away towards the energon dispensers. Ironhide bumped into Cyclonus from the back, and then tried to nudge him forward out of the doorway. Cyclonus should have let Ironhide move him, some part of his logic circuitry informed him, but he didn’t; he stood locked in place, his emotional subsystem grinding to a halt as every one of the overenthusiastic subroutines crashed violently at the same time.
“Hey!” Ironhide said loudly. “You mind?”
Cyclonus turned and seized him by the arms. Ironhide jerked and tried to get loose, but Cyclonus grated out, “What is the date?”
Ironhide was trying to reach his weapon; he paused and stared up at Cyclonus. “What?”
“The date!” Cyclonus roared at him. “What is the date?”
“The ninth of Malar?” Ironhide said, confused enough to answer him before he added, “An’ if you don’t get yer hands off me right this—”
Cyclonus shook him. “What year? What year is it?”
Ironhide stopped struggling, really staring at him now. Slowly he said, “It’s the year 592 in vorn 14378.” Cyclonus let go of him and staggered a few paces away, turning back to the room, to the placid orderly commissary full of tables and chairs with the energon dispensers along the wall. He knew this room, intimately. He and Grimlock had killed Ultra Magnus in this room together, fighting to clear a back route to the city’s command center, desperate to sever Metroplex’s cybernetic brain before the Quintessons could have him destroy Trypticon and crush the human factories working to build the fatal nova-weapon against them.
This was not another city mech. This was Metroplex himself that they were building. And he would be functional in one week’s time. In one week’s time, the Battle of Autobot City would occur, and—
“You all right?” Ironhide said, a grudgingly asked question. Cyclonus looked up: he had sunk to the floor, his back against the wall, without deliberately choosing to do so. Ironhide was staring down at him, still suspicious, but a flicker of Autobot concern and sympathy showing there.
“Cyclonus, the floor is not for sitting,” Grimlock said, lumbering back over; he had transformed into robot mode and was holding an energon cube. “Tables and chairs are for sitting. Me Grimlock will show you.” He reached down a hand; Cyclonus took it, and let Grimlock pull him to his feet. “Ungh, you heavier than you look,” Grimlock said.
“The weight of my engines,” Cyclonus said blankly. Some power had been diverted from his antigrav unit to the emotional subsystem in order to help him recover. He walked heavily to the nearest empty table and sank down at it.
“Maybe we oughta get you back to the doc after all,” Ironhide said, frowning; he had sat down across from Cyclonus.
“No,” Cyclonus managed. “No.” He put his face into his hands.
“What wrong with Cyclonus?” Grimlock asked.
“Beats me,” Ironhide said. “He got all squirrelly soon as we walked in here, went nuts and started asking me what year it is. You can’t have been driftin’ that long; doc said you were only thirteen years off the line.”
Cyclonus slowly raised his head and looked at them: he had not been wrong, he thought distantly. They were his brothers in arms; they would be. And every other Autobot in this city—and the very city itself—would be dead. He was in a parallel universe, but one so close to his own that it was nearly identical. The only real difference was—a hiccup in time. A single missed heartbeat of the universe. Thirteen years. And only scant days left to stop it all from happening again. To save Cybertron, to save the Autobots, to save the Decepticons—
And then blossoming in his mind, like a nebula igniting into the pure white flame of a blinding supergiant star—
To save Galvatron.
“I am not,” he said.
“What?” Ironhide stared at him.
“I am not thirteen years off the line,” Cyclonus said. “You are building Autobot City. Or, I should say—you are building Metroplex.”
Grimlock scratched his head. “Uh, Ironhide, me thought that was big secret?”
“It sure as hell is a big secret,” Ironhide said, planting his hands on the table. “And how you found out—”
Cyclonus leaned forward and gripped him by the chestplate and dragged him in. “I know,” he hissed, “because I have seen Metroplex striding across the horizon. I know, because I have been in this very room. With both of you.”
“The hell you—”
“I have been,” Cyclonus said, “and I will be again. Thirteen years from now.”
Ironhide gaped at him, shocked.
“Me Grimlock get it!” Grimlock said. “Cyclonus from the future!”
“Yes,” Cyclonus said, and stood up from the table. “Come with me.”
Ironhide had been thrown for a loop enough that he didn’t immediately react, but after Cyclonus walked away towards the back doors, he scrambled up with a jerk and came charging after him. “We’re not goin’ that way,” he snapped. “It’s off-limits—”
Cyclonus wheeled on him and said, cold and level, “In one week’s time, Optimus Prime will be dead.” Ironhide froze, his face stilling. Cyclonus nodded. “Follow me if you want to save him.”
He pushed through the doors and walked down the corridor to the terminus. The passageway was deserted, unlit, and at the other end a gaping hole stood, showing the deep plummeting shaft; they hadn’t yet put in the walls. They would have to pump so much energon into Metroplex’s brain during his sparking that they’d needed the access to their main energon supply. Cyclonus turned back as Ironhide and Grimlock caught up with him.
“Grimlock, stand in front of that shaft. And you’re gonna explain yourself before we go one step further,” Ironhide said through his teeth. “If you really were from the future, you’d’ve started disintegratin’ by—”
“Enough!” Cyclonus said. “Yes, technically speaking, I am from a parallel universe. But one extremely close to your own, whose timestream is only a very little accelerated. Almost certainly the split occurred fairly recently, perhaps some twelfth-dimension anomaly passing through our shared progenitor universe.” It occurred to him suddenly—perhaps it had even been the accidental doing of the Quintessons themselves. An effect of the timestream-device they had used to hide from Unicron…He shook his head, dismissing it with a furious jerk, and spoke to Ironhide and himself at once. “That is unimportant. What matters is that if our universes are so close that Metroplex is at the same stage of construction on the same day, then my past is highly predictive of your future. And I assure you, it is a future you do not want to see. Do you wish to keep interrogating me long enough to see me proven right, or will you help me avert it?”
“Give me one reason,” Ironhide said flatly. “Give me one reason to think you’re not some Decepticon saboteur trying to sell me a story so crazy you figure I wouldn’t think you’d make it up. Because I got news for you, I sure do think that—”
“Turn off your audio receptors,” Cyclonus told Grimlock.
“What for?” Grimlock said.
“Because I must tell Ironhide something in confidence,” Cyclonus said.
“Like hell you do,” Ironhide said. “What’re you going to tell me about from some other universe, and who made you promise to keep it a secret?”
“You did not make me promise,” Cyclonus said, and Ironhide stiffened. “But you spoke knowing that I would not share the information.”
Grimlock looked at Ironhide, who was scowling, but said, “All right, what the hell, I guess I can always tell you after, Grimlock. Keep your ears shut, but if he so much as twitches towards me, you pound him.”
“OK, me Grimlock do that,” Grimlock said. “Me Grimlock not listening anymore.”
“Fine, so what’s this secret I told you about?” Ironhide growled. “Gonna tell me I told you some Autobot codes, maybe, or—”
“Your daughter’s name was Mirrormade,” Cyclonus said quietly, and Ironhide went utterly still, all his joints locking.
“How me Grimlock gonna know when to start listening again?” Grimlock said suddenly, into the silence.
“I never…I never told anyone about—” Ironhide said hoarsely. “How could—I never told Optimus. I never told Ratchet. I told you? Why—why would—who are—” He choked off. There was a trickle of lubricant oozing from his optics, on both sides; he hurriedly reached up and scrubbed his fist across the sides of his face.
Cyclonus said, “You told me that day that the truest and most final measure of a warrior’s courage does not lie in never giving up hope. It comes in the moment when hope is lost beyond question. When victory…becomes impossible. For you, even if not for your comrades or your cause. And then you told me how all hope was lost for you. As I too had lost mine.”
Ironhide had a fist clenched over his mouth, looking away. Cyclonus said softly, “I ask you to forgive me for repeating her name, even only to you. I would not have uttered it in a lesser cause. But because you made me the gift of your grief, I rose, and rejoined the fight to save our people, and thus I am here now, to tell you what I know of the destruction that lies ahead. If you wish to see it so, you yourself sent me here. And I am not lying.”
Ironhide swallowed. He cleared his throat a couple of times before he tried to speak, and then said roughly, “Who’d you lose?”
Cyclonus had to fight down his own swell of grief; Ironhide, of all mechs, had a right to ask him that question; here more than ever, when Cyclonus had just wielded his own pain against him like a bludgeon. “My lord,” he said. “My lord, whom I…whom I betrayed.”
“Your lord?” Ironhide said. “He have a name?”
“Galvatron,” Cyclonus said.
“That’s no Autobot name,” Ironhide growled.
“No,” Cyclonus said. “But then, I am a Decepticon, as you surmised. Decepticon Commander, by the end.”
“Decepticon Commander—” Ironhide’s voice rose in disbelief. “An’ I was palling around with—”
“I was your commander too, then. There were less than fifty Autobots left alive and free-willed by the time I accepted the title,” Cyclonus said. “And only a few hundred Decepticons. Ten of us died rescuing you and the last Autobot resistance cell from the Quintessons. The war you are fighting is not my war.”
“This is like some kinda bad dream,” Ironhide said aloud.
“No,” Cyclonus said, low and harsh. “But it will be.”
Ironhide looked at him, and the last doubts and resistance faded out of his old, hard-bitten features; they settled heavily. “You said Optimus gets killed,” he said, low. “That’s how it starts?”
Cyclonus inclined his head.
“How does it—ah, hell, Grimlock, turn your ears back on!” Ironhide waved his hands at Grimlock.
“Me Grimlock cannot hear what you are saying, Ironhide,” Grimlock said.
“I will not tell you all that happened,” Cyclonus said, after they’d managed to get Grimlock’s audio receptors back on. “I dare not. There will be temptation beyond belief to try to pick and choose out of the future, to aim towards one event or another, and in so doing, cause the greater disaster.” He tried not to think about his own words as he spoke. He would certainly not tell Ironhide and Grimlock of the Autobots retaking Cybertron, the overthrow of the Decepticon Empire in the aftermath of Unicron’s attack. “But I will tell you how it begins: on the day that Autobot City is inaugurated, the Decepticons will attack in full force, an all-out effort to destroy the city and the entire Autobot resistance. In that assault, Megatron will slay Optimus Prime—”
“I shoulda known it would be that dirty, bloodthirsty—” Ironhide growled, his optics lighting fiercely, although he subsided when Cyclonus raised his hand.
“And in that battle, will himself be so wounded that Starscream will seize the opportunity to usurp his power,” Cyclonus finished. “Bereft of both leaders, both Autobots and Decepticons will be left in turmoil—and that is when Unicron will attack. The battle to defeat him was won only in the last moments, after he had already caused much destruction that left our entire race vulnerable—”
“—for these Quintessons you were talkin’ about?” Ironhide finished grimly.
Cyclonus nodded. “Now listen to me: the only weapon that can destroy Unicron is the Matrix of Leadership. He must be located, and then the Matrix must be taken to him and used before he can reach Cybertron. It must be opened within him.”
“He big enough for Optimus to get inside?” Ironhide said, raising an eyeridge.
“Yes,” Cyclonus said dryly. “He is big enough.”
“All right,” Ironhide said. “So we need to start lookin’ for this mech Unicron, an’ we need to stop Megatron murderin’ Optimus—”
“Megatron does not murder him,” Cyclonus said severely. “They met in open battle, in a great contest of supremely gifted warriors, fought fiercely and without quarter on both sides. Megatron proved the mightier, by the slimmest of margins, but Prime gave an extraordinary account of himself and died with honor on the field, leaving his foe wounded almost mortally himself. Any warrior might justly wish for such an end.”
Ironhide and Grimlock stared at him, exchanged a look, then stared at him again.
“Me Grimlock think that big load of hooey,” Grimlock said. “Me Grimlock think Optimus Prime wish to not die fighting Megatron.”
“I guess you really are a Decepticon,” Ironhide said, squinting at him dubiously.
“I thank you for the compliment,” Cyclonus said. “But regardless of any disagreement we might have about the value of a glorious death in battle, we are united for the moment in our practical goal: their deaths, glorious or not, must be averted for the greater good.”
“Hang on a second,” Ironhide said abruptly. “You said the only thing that stopped Unicron was the Matrix. But if Optimus was dead by then—who opened the Matrix in your universe?”
That event, at least, was nothing that Cyclonus feared Ironhide trying to bring about. “His name is Rodimus Prime,” he said dryly.
“Who the hell is—no,” Ironhide said, recoiling, in tones of flat horror. “You are not tellin’ me that punk-ass speed freak—”
“Yes,” Cyclonus said. “I would not say he proved a highly effective replacement.”
“No kiddin’,” Ironhide said, running a hand over his face. “He’s the next Prime? I swear I’m gonna start ridin’ his ass six ways from Sunday right now. And who takes over the Decepticons? Starscream? No, hang on a second—this Galvatron you were talking about. He’s the one?”
Cyclonus swallowed with difficulty. “Yes,” he said. “He becomes the Decepticon leader. But that is only after Starscream murders Megatron—and that is murder,” he added, more easily. “A more treacherous, cowardly, pathetic—” He shook his head fiercely.
“Yeah, sounds like ol’ Starscream to me, all right,” Ironhide said. “So what’s the plan? Once we tell Optimus about all this—”
“No,” Cyclonus said. “You must not. No more than I will tell Megatron, or Starscream, of the events to come.”
“What?” Ironhide said, staring. “You think we’re gonna keep this a secret from Optimus—”
“Ironhide,” Cyclonus said, “why are the Autobots building this city?”
Ironhide said warily, “You tell me, since you know so much.”
“You are building it to protect humans,” Cyclonus said. “You are building it to have an impregnable shelter that can move to the site of any major action and immediately evacuate all the human bystanders who presently die by legions as a consequence of our conflict. It will also provide a massive strategic advantage over Earth’s energon supply, of course, but saving humans is the primary function from your perspective. If you tell Optimus Prime that as soon as the city becomes operational, the Decepticons will attack, and he will perish in that attack, but the city will remain functional, will he delay its construction to save himself?”
Ironhide had stiffened, his mouth turning down. “Ah, hell,” he muttered under his breath.
Cyclonus nodded. “And if I tell Megatron that his attack on Autobot City fails, that the Decepticons are thrown back and he is subsequently murdered—but that he first succeeds in slaying Optimus Prime, will he cancel the attack? If I tell Starscream that when he seizes power from Megatron, he will almost at once be destroyed in return by Galvatron, will he stay his hand? No. They will each attempt to divert their own fate, but not the general course of events—and therein lies the certainty of disaster. They cannot save themselves. We must save them.”
Ironhide shook his head a little. “All right, dammit, you’ve got me. I wish you didn’t, but you’ve got me. What is your game plan?”
“Grimlock, you will return to the Dinobots,” Cyclonus said. “Pretend to have received some sort of message from them, which they will naturally deny sending. A few moments later, Ironhide, you will send a distress signal. Your comrades will find you below, in the city command center, wounded, with Metroplex’s control systems severely damaged. I will destroy the transformation cog and the primary cybernetic relays. That should delay the construction by at least another month’s time.”
“I can’t believe I’m actually thinkin’ about lettin’ this happen,” Ironhide said under his breath.
Cyclonus nodded in sympathy; he understood the anguish of it. “You will tell your comrades that as I departed, I shouted, ‘You will never be permitted to build a rival to the mighty Unicron, who will devour you all!’ and you will give them this recorded trajectory, which I followed.” He transmitted the coordinates. “The trajectory will lead to the region of space where I believe Unicron should at this time approximately be located. Any nearby settled worlds with interstellar travel should have rumors of his passage aplenty. You must encourage Prime to let you go there with Cosmos to investigate—you can persuade him you are angry that you allowed me to damage the city and wish to make amends.”
“Optimus will not let Grimlock go into space.” Grimlock said. “Me have to help with city.”
“Yes,” Cyclonus said. “You must do so very badly. If the city nears completion again, I suggest you egg on the other Dinobots into a quarrel amongst yourselves, and do as much damage as you can to the city to delay it further.”
“Huh, okay,” Grimlock said. “Dinobots can do that.”
“And should our efforts fail,” Cyclonus said, “should the city be completed, and the Decepticons launch their final attack, then it must be your duty to guard Optimus Prime in that battle. No matter whomever else you must leave to be slain or wounded, and no matter what orders he gives you. For Megatron will likely not engage the both of you at once in single combat, and if he does, he can be dissuaded—”
“Oh, it’ll work, Megatron’s not that crazy,” Ironhide growled. “And what are you gonna be doing all this time?”
“I am going to go to Decepticon Headquarters and attempt to integrate myself into the Earth-based forces,” Cyclonus said. “There I will do what I can to delay or prevent the attack. Megatron may be irritated at my having sabotaged the city, as he is likely holding off until it is full of humans before attacking it, expecting to hamstring your defense tactics—”
“Yeah, that sounds about right,” Ironhide muttered.
“—but if so, I hope he will be mollified by the intelligence I will give him about the city being itself a living Transformer.”
“Hey, wait a second—”
“We are trying to keep Megatron from committing to an all-out attack on the city,” Cyclonus said. “The city’s transformation ability radically alters the tactical situation. I will do my best to persuade Megatron that he will need significantly more troops and more support. If possible, I will seek to have him first approve a plan of sabotage that will permit us to delay the city’s completion still further, rather than a full-scale battle.”
“An’ meanwhile, humans are still goin’ to be dyin’ left an’ right, all over the planet!” Ironhide said. “Which I guess you probably don’t give a mecharat’s ass about, but we do.”
“Yes but me Grimlock care more about Optimus not being dead,” Grimlock put in.
Ironhide glared at him. Cyclonus snorted softly. “He has always been clearer-thinking than most of you.” Ironhide transferred the glare to him. “Ironhide, these are all mere delaying tactics. Despite all our best efforts, even if I can persuade the Decepticons to begin a concerted campaign of sabotage, we cannot forever delay the city’s completion. It is too close. Eventually Optimus will simply throw all the Autobots’ resources into protecting and completing the cybernetic mind, then activate as much of the city as can be made to function, with the intention of repairing and completing the rest afterwards. And when that happens, Megatron in turn will throw all his forces into a final cataclysmic battle against the city, because he cannot permit you to establish so great a strategic advantage on Earth while Cybertron remains without fuel.”
“Uh, me Grimlock not get it,” Grimlock said. “If battle will happen no matter what—”
“The battle will not happen if we find Unicron first. When that occurs, all other quarrels will fall into abeyance.”
“How can you be so sure?” Ironhide demanded. “What’s Unicron gonna do that’s so bad for all of us?”
“He will attempt to devour Cybertron,” Cyclonus said.
“Come again?” Ironhide said.
“You did not mishear me,” Cyclonus said. “Unicron is an ancient cannibal. As far as we were able to learn, he was created near the same time as Cybertron itself, as a mech intended to clean up and process discarded parts and the relics of cybernetic life forms. But his programming went awry. He began to take those parts and build them onto his own frame, and to take them from the living as well as the dead. For countless millions of years he has grown and grown, finding cybernetic societies and devouring them. He has grown so large he cannot be sated by mere cities and space stations anymore. He now makes for Cybertron itself: an entire world with which to feed his hunger. And if we do not stop him, he will quite literally tear the planet apart and consume it, piece by piece.”
He spoke as dispassionately as he could; Unicron required no dramatization. Ironhide and Grimlock both listened to his recital in silence, without interruption, and when he had finished they sat in total silence for several astroseconds more.
“I don’t believe it,” Ironhide said finally.
“Yeah,” Grimlock said. “Me Grimlock not believe you either.”
Cyclonus nodded. “I know. That, too, is why we cannot tell the others now. Unicron is too monstrous to be believed in. Not until it is too late. But once you have seen him…you will believe me. When I tell you of the Quintessons, and what they will do.”
Ironhide blew out a deep sigh and looked away. “I wish like hell I could convince myself you’re just some lyin’ double-crossin’ rustbucket of a Decepticon,” he said after a moment.
“Yes,” Cyclonus said. “I know. But as we both know too well—a warrior cannot believe what he wishes to believe.”
Cyclonus’s fuel pump was hammering a rapid beat as he flew over the ocean towards the site he had dug out of deep archives: the old Decepticon base on Earth, the one they had abandoned in the aftermath of the loss at Autobot City. The humans had bombed the empty base into rubble from their submarines, afterwards, and it had never been possible to re-establish another foothold on Earth, even for raiding: the planetary defenses had grown too powerful. Another thing to blame Starscream for.
And yet if Starscream had not ordered that panicked retreat—if Starscream had not stepped forward in what should have been a moment of supreme solicitude and honor, and discarded the battered frame of his leader like so much space trash—
But Cyclonus knew he had not misspoken to Ironhide, no matter the desperate longing that lived in him now—all his dead hope lurching back to life and scrabbling violently for purchase in his heart. There had been a time when he could have yielded everything to that longing—when he had been only Galvatron’s second, with no burden of duty beyond that pure, unadulterated glory of service. But that time was past. He had accepted, though in agony, the mantle of Decepticon Commander from his fellows; and afterwards he had even accepted the unified title from the Autobots. Some might argue that his oaths and loyalties did not carry from one universe to the next; he did not subscribe to that sophistry. His chain of duty was too painfully and sharply clear to him: first, to the survival of his very species and their homeworld; second, to the Decepticon cause; and only third, to Galvatron.
And therefore so too was his immediate decision: the Battle of Autobot City could not be allowed to occur. Optimus Prime had to survive, to carry the Matrix to Unicron and destroy him well before Unicron could smash Cybertron’s defenses and throw the Decepticon Empire into the total disarray that would leave them easy targets for the Autobots—who would themselves become too easily the victims of the Quintessons after.
Cyclonus would not slip into the folly of trying to take history partway down the treacherous path it had followed. He would divert its course as fully as he could, and then merely…remain alert. There would still be a moment. There would be a chance, a brief one, once he knew where Unicron was. Unicron could be bargained with. He could be misled. Cyclonus disdained lying under most circumstances: it was a brutish and clumsy method of deceit, inelegant and unsatisfying. But he would rewrite his own archives if need be to lie to Unicron effectively. He would swear that in their universe, Galvatron had destroyed the Matrix for him, and that the Decepticons now served as his advance guard throughout the galaxy, sweeping out to find targets for his hunger. Surely, surely he could be persuaded to do so little a thing as remake one Cybertronian.
And then…Cyclonus would only have to convince Megatron to come to Unicron with him, before Prime arrived to destroy him. That should not be difficult. He would demonstrate his own technological advances, his superior weaponry and armor, far beyond current Cybertronian capabilities; then he would tell Megatron how he had been reforged, and offer to take him there. Some part of him recoiled from the treacherous nature of the stratagem, but he thrust it down. Megatron was not his commander. His duty to Galvatron did come before any personal loyalty to the current Decepticon Commander. So Cyclonus would see Galvatron reborn if he could—and then save him truly. He would lie to Galvatron as well if need be. He could sedate him, perhaps—simply keep him unconscious in some deep fastness of Cybertron until Unicron had been destroyed. And then rouse him to take his place, his rightful place, as Decepticon Commander and ruler of Cybertron, in time to defend them all against the Quintessons and their hideous malice.
His flight had brought him to the coordinates. He transmitted the ancient code, extracted out of historical archives. Moments later, the massive tower rose from the depths of the sea, water pouring off its sides, and the doorway opened black to receive him. He transformed and landed within, the door closing behind him. The whole shaft lowered back down into the depths with him inside it, and an irresistible shudder took his body entire for an instant, only letting go in the moment as the doors slid open across the gleaming silver expanse of Megatron’s breastplate, the cold red gleam of his waiting optics, the stern lines of mouth and face and polished helm—so close, so agonizingly close to the features burned into his memory and his heart.
Starscream and Soundwave stood flanking him, three of the Constructicons and a few other Decepticon warriors also lingering—none of them on high alert. They were not afraid, nor should they have been. Their mighty lord stood among them in their own base, and no interloper could alarm them. Cyclonus inclined his head. “Lord Megatron,” he said. “I am Cyclonus of Chaar, a Decepticon warrior. I apologize for having entered Earth’s system without permission.”
“Of Chaar, you say,” Megatron said, low and acid and thoughtful. “Soundwave?”
“A minor Decepticon energy-mining outpost established shortly before the outbreak of the war,” Soundwave said after a moment. “Dropped from active list on orders of Straxus in vorn 9572. Believed abandoned.”
“Indeed,” Megatron said, turning back to Cyclonus. “So why didn’t you abandon it?”
Cyclonus shrugged a little. “So far as I know, we never received an order to do so. We are few in number, our base self-sustaining. We have continued in our duties. When possible, we have made use of captured technology to upgrade our capabilities. I myself was constructed relatively recently.”
“Mm, so I see,” Megatron said, glancing him up and down. “Intriguing. And why precisely haven’t we been hearing anything from you all this time?”
“I cannot say,” Cyclonus said, carefully picking his way around outright lies that might catch on Soundwave’s sensors. “We have continued to receive the general information pipeline. Reports should have gone from Chaar on an annual basis to Kornovox City—”
Starscream snorted. “Well, I can’t imagine why no one’s been reading those. A shame Kornovox was never rebuilt, isn’t it, fearless leader?” he said to Megatron, taunting and insinuating; Cyclonus with an effort kept his fists from clenching instinctively. “Didn’t you give some speech about it at the time? Rising from the ashes, that sort of thing—”
“And so it shall, Starscream,” Megatron said coldly. “When at last we have refueled Cybertron.”
“Oh, right, when that happens,” Starscream said, not entirely under his breath.
Megatron ignored him and returned his attention to Cyclonus. “And now here you are on Earth,” he said in ruminating tones. “Explain yourself. And while you’re at it, you can explain how you got away from the Autobots—and in such polished condition.”
“I suffered severe damage to my thrusters in a battle of which I was the only survivor,” Cyclonus said. “With maneuverability limited, I set my warp navigation systems towards the Decepticon outpost I could aim for most easily—”
Megatron’s eyes narrowed. “You’re personally capable of warp navigation?” he barked out. “You don’t need a fixed course?”
“I am,” Cyclonus said.
“A single passenger, and roughly five hundred cubic meters,” Cyclonus said, slightly surprised by the questions—they were eminently reasonable questions, of course, but they were operational questions; they did not seem like the kind a supreme commander would ask. “My tanks hold forty astroliters.”
Megatron’s optics flashed. “Good. Go on.”
Cyclonus plunged onward. “My databases informed me there was a heavy Autobot presence in the system as well. My symbols had already been damaged. It occurred to me that by simply broadcasting on the general signal, I could ensure that if the Autobots retrieved me, they would believe I was one of their own, at least long enough for me to escape.”
Megatron chuckled slightly. “Clever,” he said. “They are almost absurdly easy to mislead.” He seemed so ready to accept the explanation that it took Cyclonus aback when Megatron added in a deceptively mild tone, “And how exactly did you get out of this new base of theirs? I’m sure there’s an excellent explanation for why they didn’t keep you under guard, given how they’ve been at such pains to keep their project secret.”
Cyclonus was attuned to wild shifts in mood, but not such carefully orchestrated ones. He understood perfectly well, however—and appreciated—that his existence hung in the balance; Megatron was willing to listen, but not inclined to accept a risk to his own security. He was not an overly trusting Autobot.
“I was indeed kept under guard,” Cyclonus said. “Ironhide and Grimlock escorted me through the base and restricted my movements—”
“Until you defeated them both in a magnificent battle and escaped?” Starscream suggested, in disingenuous tones.
“The city’s structure is vulnerable to close-range viriton particle scanning,” Cyclonus said, continuing to address Megatron. “I was able to identify a point of access to the internal structure. At that point, I diverted Grimlock with a minor ruse—a spoofed distress signal from the other Dinobots. When he had gone, I overpowered Ironhide, and did as much damage in the command center as I could before taking flight.”
Megatron’s stiffened. “Did you. And exactly how much damage was that?”
“I believe I may have delayed the city’s reaching operational status by at least an additional month,” Cyclonus said.
“Well, isn’t that wonderful,” Starscream said sarcastically, as Megatron’s optics flared. “Don’t you just love when soldiers take initiative?”
Cyclonus glanced at him. “I could see no strategic benefit to permitting the Autobots to complete the city on their timeframe.”
“Strategic benefit?” Megatron hissed. “The strategic benefit, you interfering clod, is that the instant the city is complete, the Autobots will fill it to capacity with the fleshling humans they so adore! Rendering themselves and the city’s defenses useless! We’ve been readying our assault for six months, timed to their supply-shuttle schedule! You’ve disrupted an entire major operation, you idiot!”
Cyclonus had himself anticipated the possible objection, but he realized he had not entirely expected to be confronted with it. But at least he was ready; he paused a moment and said, “Would the city not merely shift modes to enclose the human structures? I saw none which would be left exposed.”
Megatron’s optics narrowed sharply. “What?”
“You really are an idiot,” Starscream said. “You think the entire city can transform? Where did you get that brilliant idea?”
“From the transformation cog that I found in the control center,” Cyclonus said. In the moment’s silence that followed, he drew out the fragment he’d enclosed inside his subspace compartment. “I could not take all of the device away, but I attempted to remove a section substantial enough to force them to reconstruct it from scratch—”
Hook lunged forward to snatch it from his hands, holding the segment up in the air in front of him: his optics were shining vividly as his processor rapidly dissected the circuitry patterns and interwoven quantum fibers. “Well?” Megatron said.
“Oh,” Hook said. “Oh. It’s magnificent. Oh, Wheeljack’s outdone himself…”
“Would it work?” Megatron hissed.
“Yes, absolutely,” Hook said. He sounded almost dreamy. Cyclonus regarded him slightly bemused; Hook did occasionally value the pure beauty of engineering solutions higher than their military worth, but Cyclonus had never seen him so purely enthusiastic. “Give me a moment, I think I can extrapolate …” Hook’s optics pulsed several more times, and then abruptly he put up a holographic projector module and the rest of the transformation cog grew around the solid fragment in a translucent-walled image, the many layers rendered in different shades of light for clarity.
Megatron and Soundwave and Starscream all drew close around it, studying the diagram; Hook himself turned back to Cyclonus and demanded, “What other data did you collect? Did you see any joints? Get any readings of the tensile materials used in the—”
Cyclonus held out a data chip in answer; Hook grabbed it out of his hand and then hesitated with a glance at Megatron, who said without looking away from the diagram, “Soundwave,” and motioned to it.
Soundwave took the chip and inserted it into a sanitizing module. “Data chip clean,” he said after a moment. “Current secondary-level Decepticon encryption standard in use, in accordance with intelligence guidelines for handling data extracted from Autobot sources.” He ejected it and handed it to Hook, who instantly plugged it in and sat there frowning into space as it downloaded; Scrapper was hovering impatiently at his side waiting for it.
“Yes,” Hook said. “Ahhh…yes…oh, all right, hang on,” he added, batting at Scrapper, who’d clanked his knuckles impatiently next to the data port. “Here already.” He ejected and handed off the chip while he continued to process the data. “Megatron, he got everything we need. I can design us one in a week, only even better—I can see a few flaws, they prioritized for armor and shielding in unnecessary places, such an Autobot design—oh, I’ll build you a citadel of destruction—”
“Calm yourself,” Megatron growled, turning away from the design. “They are homeless exiles. We have all the cities of Cybertron. Soundwave, assessment?” He waved a hand towards Cyclonus.
“Chance of Autobots voluntarily permitting us to acquire this intelligence: 0.003 percent,” Soundwave said. “In conjunction with possession of current Decepticon codes, knowledge of remote Decepticon outposts, and overall design, chance of Autobot spy mission: below minimal threshold of possibility. Recommend standard released-prisoner sanitization procedures.”
“Good,” Megatron said. He turned to Cyclonus. “I was wrong,” he said. Cyclonus with difficulty restrained himself from flinching in surprise; Megatron was already going on. “You were correct to sabotage the city, and you’ve brought us priceless intelligence. You’re not going back to this Chaar of yours. Soundwave, take him down to interrogation. As soon as you’ve cleared him, put him on the roster—” Megatron swept a look up and down Cyclonus again, “—on a half ration,” he finished. “Hook, Scrapper, I want a full updated schematic of the city in four hours, with any points of vulnerability you can identify marked. Starscream, start putting together a sabotage campaign. I want another month at least—”
“I can get you more than that,” Starscream said instantly, pointing at the north wall. “Ugh, I can’t believe they’re building this thing just to protect humans. Assuming that really is their usual idiocy and not just a front, we can halve the city’s capacity with a single raid—”
Soundwave had touched Cyclonus on his arm, and jerked his head towards the corridor; Cyclonus turned and followed him slowly, glad that any sluggishness would likely be credited to the common distaste for sanitization procedures. He’d assumed it would be a week or more of demonstrating his skills and gaining respect before he could cautiously offer Megatron any suggestions for altering the established mission plan. Instead, it seemed he needed do nothing at all. The situation had changed; the tactical plan was being altered in response. It was eminently reasonable, and precisely the outcome he had desired. He was well aware he should have felt satisfaction; he could not. Some part of him cried out in agony. He had not expected to so swiftly destroy the chain of events which would have led to Galvatron’s creation.
He entered the sanitization chamber and plugged in the sweeper cables mechanically, without hesitation. The procedures were of course unpleasant, but he had learned to far prefer the mere physical discomfort to the consequences of avoidance. In any case, the sanitization Soundwave initiated was perfunctory compared to the standard he had established during the Quintesson war. A standard, Cyclonus abruptly thought, set only after several attacks had slipped through their defenses.
“Soundwave,” he said, and Soundwave’s head came up from the monitors. “Your sweep is omitting the lower levels of the personality component system. My comrades and I recently discovered an infection which targeted those regions.”
“Describe the technique,” Soundwave said.
“I am not familiar with the technical details. Our specialist—” who had of course been Soundwave himself “—described it as a neural unraveller packaged in a nanoviral injector. The injector did not act upon the infected directly, but was transmitted to the central communications network and from there distributed to all connected mechs.”
Soundwave paused silently processing and said finally, “Vulnerability identified. Neural programming techniques required to instantiate such an attack: significantly beyond current Autobot or Decepticon capabilities. Describe source of attack.”
“My comrades and I found the remains of considerably older Cybertronian lifeforms aboard a drifting vessel,” Cyclonus said, carefully modulating his audio processor and controlling the power flows to his logic centers, so that the monitors Soundwave had observing his brain activity would see nothing out of order; he was now very close to lying. He and Scourge and the Sweeps were considerably younger than nearly all the other Cybertronians, and they had once been on a drifting vessel with a group of dead Autobots, victims of the Quintesson attack—but they’d just finished killing all of them at the time. A mercy killing. “Analysis of their bodies revealed the neural attack. We never found the specific perpetrators.”
“Understood,” Soundwave said. “Instantiating deeper neural scan. Discomfort will increase.”
“I am prepared,” Cyclonus said, satisfied: he had managed to give the Decepticons additional defenses against the enemy they did not yet know to fear.
The full scan took some six hours. The surface-thought probe had required some slight effort to manage, but Cyclonus had simply manually loaded his usual mental routines for deep-space travel and lost himself in a simulated philosophical debate between three great masters of the Kohir Rangers, the Palladian Knights, and the Destroyers of Ytrymal. It fully occupied his processor and memory units for the duration of the scan and had the added benefit of further settling his disrupted circuitry. He felt calmer and steadier when he emerged, despite the lingering pain of his ruthlessly probed systems.
“Sanitization procedures complete,” Soundwave said. “You may report to infirmary for pain relief.”
“I require none,” Cyclonus said, stepping down. “Are there standard duties for soldiers on the roster?”
Soundwave regarded him in silence for a moment. “You do not wish to defer active duty.”
Cyclonus looked at him in surprise—but of course, Soundwave did not know him yet. “No. I dislike inactivity.”
Soundwave kept looking at him. Cyclonus had no difficulty bearing his gaze. He knew many found Soundwave unsettlingly impenetrable, but for his own part, he had always found him perhaps the clearest of all Decepticons. Only one obstacle had ever divided their hearts and minds from an otherwise shared purpose: the vast towering edifice of his own loyalty to Galvatron, which he had always sensed, with the instinct of the truly devoted, that Soundwave did not share. His discipline and obedience had never slackened, but his heart had not been given.
But that obstacle had been eroded away, by the end. They had fought together to the last, and Soundwave had never faltered, never cracked. He did not show his emotions nor speak of them: what of that? His actions spoke a thousand times louder than the boasts and shouts of other mechs. And in the end, Cyclonus had left the destiny of the Decepticons in his hands and gone to his own death without hesitation or fear. He could offer no higher praise.
But to Soundwave, he was as yet a cipher, and it occurred to Cyclonus that this, of all things, Soundwave would find discomfiting. “You do not know me,” he said, slowly. Soundwave tilted his head, expectantly. “And words are hollow until backed by deeds. But if you desire to understand me, then know this: I am a Decepticon warrior, first and last. There are other aspects to my nature, but none superseding that.”
“Self-assessment noted,” Soundwave said after a moment. “Confirmation: ongoing. Proceed to sixth level for maintenance duty cycle, then to assigned barracks alpha-six for rest and defrag. Report to training center on lowest level at 0250 for exercise, then a second rest cycle. Skills assessment scheduled for 2150. Permanent assignment to follow.”
Cyclonus inclined his head, and went.
The maintenance duty cycle involved cleaning and repair of individual weapons: a well-thought-out assignment. He was certainly being observed closely the entire time; if he performed some sabotage, it would be caught, with little harm done. Meanwhile his familiarity with the weapons in use at this base was being tested and for that matter improved; it was desirable for warriors to be able to use each other’s equipment in extremis. And his basic engineering skills were being assessed as a function of how quickly he could perform the variety of tasks.
He was not a gifted engineer; his hands were not built for detail work. But he had educated himself on every weapons system used by Decepticons or any enemy they had ever encountered, and none here were unfamiliar. Rather than waste time attempting to clean crevices that his fingers could not easily reach, he disassembled all the weapons to bare components, blasted them clean with the sonic washer, and reassembled them. There was a small target gallery set up in the room: he fired each one twice, adjusted the balance and aim, and then confirmed with one final shot that he was able to hit the precise center of each target without compensating for the weapon: his preferred balance between testing and energy expenditure.
He set aside three units which failed testing and required replacement focusing crystals, a repair most likely not worth doing given their overall condition, and deposited the remainder in the waiting bin. He had just finished doing so when Reflector came in, all three of his components carrying another full bin of damaged weapons. “These too,” they said, putting them on the table. Cyclonus inclined his head without complaint: the weapons themselves were unimportant, but he was clearly meant to spend a set amount of time performing the task.
The barracks he found afterwards were designed mostly for mechs on a smaller scale. There was one suspension unit in his assigned quarters large enough to hold him comfortably, which was inactivated due to some minor damage, and a unit only slightly too small. Cyclonus considered the problem, another clever assessment: should priority be given to adequate rest before the assigned exercise routine, or to repairing the unit required for comfort? It was an interesting question, which ordinarily he would have answered in favor of increased rest, but they had given him six full hours before his training assignment, and he only required a rest cycle of five. He repaired the larger unit.
As he was putting away his tools, Motormaster and the Stunticons came in, a noisy group, and Motormaster immediately made for the largest unit. “Out of my way,” he growled.
Cyclonus turned to face him, the unit at his back. The situation was obviously manufactured as well, but the Stunticons enjoyed displaying their brute strength given mild excuse, even when the targets were their fellow Decepticons. He was meant to perceive himself as threatened with damage, and the simplest way to arrange that was to actually threaten him. “I intend to use this unit now,” he said. “I would prefer to avoid a quarrel, but I am in fact capable of disabling all five of you, and will do so if necessary. Is it?”
They paused and exchanged glances. “Oh, you are, huh?” Drag Strip said. “All five of us? Big talk, wow.”
There was nothing to be served by prolonging the banter. “Attack, stand down, or be attacked. Choose now,” Cyclonus said.
Motormaster snorted and turned his head, jerking his thumb towards Cyclonus. “Get a load of this guy—”
Cyclonus seized him by the top and bottom edges of his breastplate, wrenched him off his feet, and threw him bodily into the other four, knocking them all flat beneath him—a few dents, but no serious damage—and even as Dead End squalled, “My finish!” from underneath and Motormaster began to flail his way off them, Cyclonus mounted his oxidizing laser rifle from subspace and leveled it between Motormaster’s optics at close range, freezing him in place still pinning the others down. “Are we done?” he said quietly.
Motormaster darted a wary look up at him and back to the muzzle and said, “Uh—yeah. Yeah, we’re done.”
“Good,” Cyclonus said. He returned the gun to subspace and held out his hand and helped Motormaster back to his feet with an easy jerk. “You are the Stunticons.”
Motormaster paused, and the others, scrambling to their feet, looked at him. “Yeah,” he said, warily.
Cyclonus nodded. “I am familiar with your work in the Siberian pipeline operation. The damage reports were remarkable.”
“You’ve heard of us!” Drag Strip said, gleefully. “Even out on that back-end—where the hell did you say were you from, anyway?”
“Chaar,” Cyclonus said.
He spoke with them a little longer, learning a few valuable tidbits about the tensile strength of Earth materials currently popular in their vehicles, and then excused himself on the grounds of his scheduled exercise session and entered the unit; the Stunticons made no further attempt to harass him. He had some slight difficulty entering a rest cycle; when he switched off his sensory system, his processor abruptly retrieved instead the towering pillar of flame erupting from Cybertron’s surface, and a sudden terrible grief attempted to take hold of his system: they were dead, all of them, even those who yet lived in this universe…Galvatron…
But he had a wide experience of grief, and he had only once permitted it to interfere with his duties. He opened his processor to it fully, enduring for precisely forty-seven astroseconds the blistering agony it sparked along all his emotional circuitry, and then he flushed his system and loaded back in the debate from his tertiary memory bank. He programmed his power flows to begin gradually receding towards rest-cycle levels over the next two-point-three minutes, and let it take the rest of his system down with it. He sank into rest cycle after only one-point-seven-two minutes, with Atrophy of the Palladian Knights arguing that the paramount quality of a warrior was the speed of his decision-making in the field.
Cyclonus returned to full consciousness again with nine minutes to spare before his exercise cycle. He stayed in the unit, reviewing his internal diagnostics: the quiet duty and the rest cycle had given his self-repair systems ample time to work, particularly thanks to the full fuel tank the Autobots had, so unwarily, provided him. He was at 93% functionality: better than he had been for the vast majority of the battles of his life.
He stepped down and proceeded to the training level: a large well-reinforced chamber with a heavy-duty simulator. He disliked simulators, however: he felt they encouraged warriors to waste time on excessively dangerous maneuvers, knowing the failsafes would spare them, which they later did not wish to risk in actual battle. There was no one else in the room, and no instruction provided: he was plainly being permitted to set his own course. He swung the simulator out of the way against the wall, and knelt in the middle of the room to center himself. It was as always a deep relief to clear his mind of all but the purity of battle. He let his mind wander for a few moments over the feast of possibilities in his database of kata: a Wardovian bare-hand sequence? A Minervan gauntlet cycle? It was tempting to take advantage of a rare quiet opportunity to explore some new technique he had not yet mastered, but practical considerations guided him back instead to his preferred Oregar forms, the most efficient hand-to-hand combat kata for a cybernetic organism of his general design. He was still being tested.
The decision made, he let that consideration fade away also. He had not been given any time limit on his use of the facility, and he would only require another five hours of rest before the skills assessment, so he rose into the starting position of the first form, level one, and began the slow precise movements, every shift of his limbs calculated to maintain the exact same speed throughout the full extent of the form.
When he started the fifth form, still at the same speed, a noisy sigh emanated from the corner of the room, and Rumble transformed out of his cassette mode: he had been concealed among the loose equipment stacked there. “You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me,” he declared, and stomped out of the room. Cyclonus ignored him: Rumble could be chastised for breaking discipline by others, the responsibility was not his. He didn’t let the interruption break his own flow.
He completed the fifth form and returned seamlessly to the level two complication of the first form, where every movement had to be initiated at the start of the movement two before it, and the speed doubled. He was halfway through the third form of that level when Rumble stomped back in with Soundwave and gestured at him. “See! Don’t believe me? He’s still doin’ the same weird slow-mo thing!”
Soundwave looked down at Rumble and then up at him. “Cyclonus. Identify training program.”
“Oregar single kata, complete,” Cyclonus said, maintaining his flow. “Several hours remain in the sequence. Do you wish me to accelerate?”
“Wait, you wanna keep training like this for hours?” Rumble said. “Aw, come on! Soundwave, I’ll go nuts—”
“Continue as you wish,” Soundwave said, so Cyclonus let them fall from the foreground of his consciousness again. A brief time later Soundwave left again, leaving a sullen Rumble sitting by the door glaring at him. Cyclonus had only completed the fourth form when he burst out again, “Why the hell are you even doin’ this? You’re big enough, you should be bashin’ through Autobots in the simulator like tin cans!”
“The full Oregar kata produces a reflex speed acceleration of six percent which persists over a week,” Cyclonus said. “It is the single most effective exercise program a warrior of my general configuration can follow, although its effects can be improved upon by a combination of other kata, which take more time. Merely clubbing simulated Autobots produces no benefit to a warrior who has recently had time in the field, and very little even to an idle one.”
“I have no clue what you’re talking about,” Rumble said, sounding mystified. “Ore-whatsit? I can’t even find this stuff in the archive.”
“If you are interested, I will upload a copy of my personal database,” Cyclonus said. He finished the fifth form and continued into the first movement of the third level, which he had initiated three movements before, and doubled his speed again.
“Whoa, what just happened?” Rumble said.
“I have begun the third level,” Cyclonus said. “I will cease responding from the fourth level onward when my processor must be fully dedicated to the kata, so ask whatever remaining questions you have now.”
“Are you gonna get faster?”
“For the fourth and fifth levels, yes,” Cyclonus said. “The sixth is a precision level. The subsequent levels will evolve out of the previous ones and are unpredictable.”
“This is seriously the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” Rumble said. “Hey, you mind if I get some of the others? Frenzy’s gotta see this.”
“I am carrying out my own orders. I do not know the parameters of yours,” Cyclonus said. “Do as you wish within them.”
Rumble left and returned with Frenzy as Cyclonus entered the fourth level. They spoke, but he was only distantly aware of their conversation and presence: they were not significant. All his focus was on maintaining speed and initiating each movement sufficiently far in advance. He was approaching the liminal state, beginning to feel his way towards the advanced levels.
And then halfway through the sixth level he fell into it, and time and conscious decision dropped away. There was only the unyielding imperative of the kata, each movement simultaneously dictated by the ones far before it and shaping the ones far ahead, an unending flow forcing all his circuitry to align for optimal efficiency. He knew when others came into the room and looked at him, but his emotional system did not activate, even when Starscream came in and watched for a while, arms-folded, and then sneered, “I’ve never seen anything this stupid in my life. What’s he going to do on the battlefield, ask the Autobots to dance with him?”
“Starscream, you’re being even more of an idiot than usual,” Megatron said, from the door. “Shoot him.”
“What?” Starscream said.
“You heard me,” Megatron said. “Go ahead and shoot him.”
Starscream shrugged and fired his weapon. His stance, the movement of his arm, the alignment of the gun, the charge of the weapon, all fell into the imperative. The blast shot past Cyclonus’s head and struck the wall harmlessly as he continued.
“What the hell, Screamer, somethin’ wrong with your targeting systems?” Rumble sniggered.
“Be silent, you twerp, there is nothing wrong with—”
“Again,” Megatron interrupted.
“What?” Starscream looked at him.
“Again, Starscream,” Megatron said.
Starscream stared at him, and then whirled and fired a dozen blasts, each one a thousand points of data falling into the endless flow; Cyclonus moved around them. “What is—it’s some kind of trick!” Starscream burst out. “He’s generating a force field—”
“He’s reached the advanced levels of an Oregar kata,” Megatron said. “As long as he’s successfully maintaining the kata, you can’t do anything within range of his sensors that his systems can’t adjust for. Cyclonus, end at the next point of harmony.”
As soon as Megatron gave the order, Cyclonus knew there was one coming forty-three movements away, at the end of the twelfth level; he moved towards it steadily, with accelerating speed, until he at last reached it and came to a halt. It hadn’t been far enough for maximum benefit, but Megatron was regarding him with a bright gleam in his eye. “Do you know the pair kata?” he asked.
Cyclonus inclined his head. Megatron took off his cannon and rested it against the wall, and took up position opposite him. “I won’t make you work up the whole way again,” Megatron said. “Start at the third level.”
“As you wish,” Cyclonus said. Megatron beckoned his hand, begin, and Cyclonus swept the first blow towards his optics as he turned swiftly out of its way.
“Whoa,” Rumble muttered.
Megatron clearly didn’t make a routine of the kata anymore, but it was evident almost at once that he had mastered it to a far higher level than Cyclonus had himself. Cyclonus let him control the flow, Megatron directed the movements that required the faster reflex-speed to him, and they began the climb back to the liminal state together. Starting at the third level made it far more difficult to reach without falling out of the kata, but by the start of the fifth level, Cyclonus knew without question they were going to reach it again. Megatron was slightly slower, and he had shorter reach, but his sheer power compensated; he moved through the kata with such force that his movements lingered in the air, palpable.
They fell into the liminal state at the end of the sixth level, and from there it was pure exaltation. Cyclonus had run the pair kata a dozen times with the master he’d dug up on Mintus 5, who’d taught him both versions, and once he’d taught it to Grimlock, they’d run it on a regular basis, fifty times, sixty perhaps. But it was clear to Cyclonus that Megatron must have run the complete kata at least one million times. He evolved the levels in surprising yet natural directions that flowered into even more astonishing complications, ones Cyclonus had never seen before even in ancient holographic records, exchanges of blows that climaxed in dizzying sequences of spiraling movements; they moved without a pause around the chamber, through all three dimensions, around other Decepticons who’d piled in to observe even as they startled leaping and diving out of the way, each action forming yet another part of the pattern.
The points of harmony flared like starbursts as they swept through them, one after another. The levels flew past. Cyclonus normally wound up at the thirtieth, and the highest he’d ever gone before even in a solo kata was fifty-third. Quantum processing limits would be hit at the ninety-second level: he’d read speculation that once past that point either the kata would break or a different state would arise, but he’d never found a record of anyone reaching that far. They blew through the fiftieth and onward without a pause; Megatron was pushing their speed to new levels. At the eighty-ninth level they fell into a close-quarters sequence of exquisite violence, every blow concentrating all the power of their bodies, the culmination of eighty-nine moves reaching fruition; each one at killing speed and force and each one avoided by mere microns, and Cyclonus became suddenly and vividly aware of death joining the kata, an invisible supervising master, waiting to seize any who faltered.
He did not falter, even for an instant; he felt suffused with delight, and across from him Megatron laughed suddenly aloud, an almost wondering joy, and Cyclonus realized even as they moved onward that the final culmination of the kata was death; a simultaneous movement into another realm of existence, and for one instant he half longed to go even so far, to pursue the purity of form to the very end—
But he and Megatron both had other work to do. They turned aside simultaneously and spiraled out into one final deadly graceful exchange that ended with them standing motionless, arms extended to full length, each one barely, barely brushing against the surface of the other’s armor. The liminal state fell away; Cyclonus lowered his arm, and bowed to Megatron, who was grinning at him in pure delight. “Soundwave!” he said over his shoulder.
“Yes, Megatron,” Soundwave said, from near the door; Cyclonus became aware more consciously that there were nearly a dozen soldiers crammed around the edges of the room watching open-mouthed.
“Put him on tomorrow’s raid, and rank him warrior, first class,” Megatron said. He laughed aloud again. He seized Cyclonus by the shoulders and shook him. “No wonder you got out of the Autobots’ hands without a scratch. I can’t wait to put you in the field,” he said, exultantly savage. “They aren’t going to know what hit them. Go fuel up, and get some rest. We launch at 0430.”
He thumped Cyclonus on the shoulder once more and turned away, swinging his cannon back onto his arm without a pause before striding through the door, a degree of fluidity added to his movements. Starscream had been watching with narrowed optics; he turned and left immediately afterwards. Soundwave nodded to Cyclonus once and followed them out. Cyclonus glanced round at the other Decepticons, most of them eyeing him back, a little uncertain: he was still a new quantity to them, and now revealed as a deadly and powerful one, who might as easily be cruel or malicious as not. He looked at Rumble, who was perched on a stack of equipment. “Well, Rumble, do you see the point of the kata now?”
“Are you kiddin’ me?” Rumble said, incredulously. “Hey, can anybody learn it?”
“The Oregar kata is more advantageous for a heavily armored warrior whose strength and speed are closely matched, with strength having a slight edge,” Cyclonus said. “You would find the Diminar cycle a better exercise.” He paused and added with a glance around the room, “I have had less opportunity lately than all of you to fight Autobots. If I have had more to expand my skills, I would be glad to share what I have learned with any fellow Decepticon warrior.”
It was an invitation, and they took it; they crowded in around him, asking eager questions—where had he learned the kata, would he show them the first moves, what would be most suitable—all of them full of hunger and vivid excitement he had never seen among his comrades even before the Quintessons, and he suddenly required every ounce of discipline and calm the glory of the kata had brought him not to break, to turn from them and hide his face in a strange and inexplicable anguish.
Cyclonus rose half an hour before the raid and sought the training room for a quick warm-up, although he scarcely needed one after the previous day’s kata. There were a few other warriors there also making ready; they did not speak, but exchanged brief nods. He had already reviewed the mission parameters: the raid was a straightforward attack on a human power station with a target goal of 500 astroliters of energon—a modest raid by their current standards, he gathered, and what would have sounded like unimaginable riches to him in the days of Chaar, when they had scrabbled after a dozen astroliters at a time in dried-out husks of dead planets, while on Cybertron the Autobots raised up wide fountains with the gifts of their human allies.
The perpetual energy shortage had surely aggravated Galvatron’s injuries, sped his mental deterioration. True, he had taken the largest share, but he required the largest share; Cyclonus’s own systems were designed for extreme efficiency, and Scourge and the Sweeps even more so. But even they had all gone hungry for long stretches, surviving on dregs and drips from their gas nets in between the occasional bounty of a successful raid. Cyclonus had tried to establish a regular schedule of low-level raiding on minor targets to bring in a steady supply, but Galvatron had disrupted it too often with unplanned major raids utilizing all personnel, which often left the warriors too exhausted or injured to carry out smaller missions. In times of desperation, Cyclonus had often been forced to go out on solo raids for lack of anyone else to go with him, though to do so meant leaving Galvatron brooding in silence and darkness and isolation that none of his comrades, not even Scourge, would dare to break. Afterwards Galvatron would not speak or move for hours, sometimes days, even when Cyclonus pleaded with him to drink, to leave the throne room, to give him some order to obey.
Those days were a long distance behind him now. The energon that they had once fought to steal had been given freely at the end, as the humans came to the rescue of their Autobot friends. Cyclonus had not suffered a single episode of hunger in the years since he had risen from his repair bed and taken up the command of the last remnants of the two Cybertronian armies.
But he would gladly have given up all the astroliters of supply that flowed to the moonbase from Earth, he would without an instant’s hesitation have spent the rest of his days starved and dizzy from lack of fuel, scrounging in the darkest, filthiest corners of the galaxy, only to have his lord restored to him again. Restored as he had been, during those few shining days Cyclonus had locked in his memory banks; two hundred thirty-nine scant hours of serving the mightiest warrior who ever bestrode the galaxy, a colossus of whom Megatron in all his conqueror’s glory had only been the harbinger.
He forced the ashen taste of longing from his mind and put his attention onto the mission again. He himself had been detailed to the aerial unit under Starscream’s command; nothing he anticipated with pleasure, and still less after Starscream made them a strutting and unnecessary speech about their duty, which he seemed to think was less to fulfill their mission than to make him look good doing it. The only specific guidance he provided was saying sneeringly, “You’ll bring up the rear, Cyclonus, and provide cover fire. If anyone bothers to shoot at you, do feel free to engage them. I’m not sure if they’ll be willing to wait for you to run your kata, though.”
Cyclonus said nothing. He had no rank here to entitle him to make a response, and in any case, for a senior officer to taunt the warriors under his command was pathetic, and deserved no response. He took up position silently at the rear of the formation as they set out, and made use of the flying time to assess the qualities of his comrades. They were primarily Seeker variants, their transform modes specialized for atmospheric combat, and they all flew skillfully; but Thundercracker drifted significantly out of formation simply to have the pleasure of more flying room, and Skywarp wasted energon firing at passing avians for no purpose. Ramjet, Dirge, and Thrust maintained position, but they spent the entire flight talking amongst themselves on a trine channel the rest of them could pick up as muffled static, irritating yet incomprehensible. Astrotrain and Blitzwing occasionally exchanged a vicious remark about the others, quiet enough that Cyclonus could only hear them thanks to his deep-range sensors. Starscream ignored all the indiscipline: he himself occasionally performed pointless showy maneuvers mid-flight, and set an energy-inefficient pace that appeared to be slightly uncomfortable for the triple-changers, which Cyclonus initially thought merely selfish incompetence, and only realized was malice after Astrotrain finally lost patience and broadcast, “Hey! I’m sick of the new guy’s nosecone up my afterburners! Quit it, he’s not having any trouble keeping up!” and Starscream grudgingly cut their speed.
They were forty minutes out from their target when Soundwave’s voice crackled out over the main combat channel, “Autobot response dispatched. Aerialbots incoming.” The attack vector came in simultaneously on the data line. The Aerialbots were approaching on their flank, and Astrotrain and Blitzwing would naturally be their primary targets: they had the largest carrying capacity for energon. They should have been moved to the front of the formation at once and ordered to outdistance the rest of them, but Starscream only ordered, “Maintain formation!” and kept them as before. Cyclonus silently adjusted his speed to open up more maneuvering room between him and the triple changers, in case of attack, and slid slightly out of formation to put himself between them and the Aerialbot approach.
The Aerialbots were in visual confirmation distance and closing into range when Starscream finally said, “On my mark, prepare to execute evasive maneuver alpha-92!”
Evasive maneuver alpha-92 was inexplicably not present in the database; Cyclonus realized an instant later that it had been deleted recently, just as Starscream said, “Now!” and the formation split from around him and fell away beneath a deep cloud bank, leaving him alone and entirely exposed. The Aerialbots opened fire simultaneously with the maneuver: Starscream’s timing had been brilliantly precise, which Cyclonus could coldly appreciate even while fury ignited his emotional circuitry. Fortunately, the instant’s warning had been sufficient: he simultaneously fired his retrothrusters at full power, and blasted directly backwards through the Aerialbots’ formation, angling just enough to pass between Silverbolt and Air Raid. The Aerialbots yelped as they instinctively tilted away from the force of his passage: then he was behind them, with a clear shot, and he had already mounted his missile launchers.
The concussion missiles went off directly amidst their formation, scattering them; Cyclonus then immediately targeted Fireflight, who as usual had been insufficiently focused on the oncoming battle and had taken evasive maneuvers too late to avoid being dazed by the missiles. Cyclonus accelerated full speed towards him, and as Fireflight frantically banked out of the way, Cyclonus fired a gravity mine that attached itself to his undercarriage and dragged him into a yelling wild tailspin.
“Fireflight!” Air Raid shouted, and executed a flip to fling himself imprudently directly towards Cyclonus, firing his lasers: Cyclonus ignored the pain and damage reports and permitted him to get into point-blank range before firing a single shot from his oxidizing laser. The blast coruscated over Air Raid’s surface and plunged within, fusing circuitry, and a moment later he was arcing down from the sky as well, streaming smoke.
The predictable move for Silverbolt with two mechs down was to order the remaining two Aerialbots to close into tighter formation while attempting to loop him. Cyclonus accelerated ahead of their flight path and then reversed backwards into the flank position Slingshot was aiming for. His aft engines were massively more dense than Slingshot’s relatively weaker frame, and Wheeljack had built all his armor twice over in the last four years, each time finding new atomic structures that were at once stronger than the armor he had once built for his Autobot companions, and light enough to meet Decepticon flight requirements.
The Aerialbot screamed aloud in pain as they collided and his nosecone crumpled into a solid block under his own momentum. Before the others could react, Cyclonus rolled over onto Silverbolt’s position, locked the Aerialbot leader’s wings to his with magnetic clamps, and ruthlessly flung them together into a brutally tight tailspin dive at near-escape velocity before disengaging with a jerk and peeling away to let Silverbolt continue careening dizzy and out-of-control towards the earth: his weak stomach for challenging flying was easy to exploit. Skydive alone remained, the most dangerous warrior of the lot, but isolated he was no serious threat. He had dived after Silverbolt, and on their separation he fired: the lasers scored a few sharp hits along Cyclonus’s wings, but nothing to impede his functionality. Cyclonus accelerated towards him, and the Aerialbot executed an elegant evasive maneuver—one which would have worked on an atmosphere-only fighter, but Cyclonus simply fired his z-thrusters and ended with one clear shot directly at Skydive’s undercarriage. He did not need a second.
He circled the area once to confirm that the Aerialbots had all been disabled: they were all either grounded or on the way there, and three of them, he judged, had taken damage that would require more than a month’s repair time. He banked and scanned ahead: the Decepticon formation had continued onward. He was far behind enough he would have to use his booster engines to catch up, and his temper was sufficiently roused that he deliberately fired them for five seconds longer than necessary. He overshot the formation with his full engines roaring and cut them to leave a cloud of smoke for Starscream to fly directly into.
“Cyclonus!” Starscream said, jerking aside slightly as he came through and found Cyclonus flying at his side. “How nice of you to rejoin us. You really should have spent more time reviewing the aerial drill. Did you have a difficult time losing the Aerialbots?”
“No, Commander,” Cyclonus said flatly. “As you gave me permission to engage the enemy if they fired upon me, I did so. They are all down. Three casualties, two disabled. My injuries are insignificant.” He fired his reverse thrusters and passed over the rest of the formation, dropping precisely back into his place at the rear.
There was a total silence on the shared aerial channel. “Is he just blowing smoke?” Blitzwing muttered to Astrotrain.
“I’m scanning for them,” Astrotrain muttered back. “They’re not in the air…” He trailed off.
“Well?” Blitzwing hissed.
“He’s not blowing smoke,” Astrotrain said a little blankly. “They’re all down. Three of them aren’t moving. The other two are in robot mode. Both damaged.”
They were both silent. Then Blitzwing hissed, “Tell everyone.”
“Huh?” Astrotrain said.
“Screamer left our asses hanging out in the air just to yank the new guy’s chain! Tell everyone.”
“Oh, right,” Astrotrain said, and on the general battle channel said, “Air Commander, my scanners confirm that Cyclonus has brought down all five Aerialbots. Three casualties, two disabled.”
“That’s enough chatter on the main line!” Starscream snapped on the aerial channel.
“Oh, sorry, Starscream,” Astrotrain said back, insincerely. “I figured everybody should know.”
A vast wave of irritation swelled through Cyclonus, rising to a crest of true anger: these petty fools squabbling and jabbing one another, when the chasm of destruction yawned wide ahead to swallow them all. “Perhaps we might now cease all chatter, and focus on our mission,” he snarled across the channel. “And if it is not too much to hope for, maintain a level of discipline appropriate to Decepticon warriors rather than Aldebarian slimelords!”
There was total silence on the aerial channel for the remainder of the flight. The trine channels remained silent. Thundercracker even edged back into formation.
Megatron sent for him some hours after their return to base. Cyclonus had taken his half-ration—he had not been assigned a full one yet—and handled the repairs to his own armor, which were minor and within his capabilities. No one had yet added him to the duty roster. He had been about to enter a rest cycle, but he immediately reported to the command center. Megatron was reviewing footage of the raid, which had ended in success: they had acquired nearly 600 astroliters and returned to headquarters with no casualties; meanwhile the Autobot ground troops had suffered another four due to their lack of aerial cover.
Megatron left the screens running as he turned back to Cyclonus. “Aldebarian slimelords, eh?”
Cyclonus compressed his jaw. Naturally Soundwave had been monitoring all the channels. “I apologize.”
“What for, exactly?”
“Speaking inappropriately to a superior officer.”
Megatron snorted. “If I started enforcing that particular stricture, Starscream wouldn’t last two days before execution. Even he hasn’t quite had the gall to come complain of you to me on those grounds.”
“I do not aspire to Starscream’s performance,” Cyclonus said.
Megatron leaned back in his chair, looking slightly fascinated. “He’s the second in command of the entire army. What do you aspire to?”
“Something resembling discipline and honor. Qualities which appear to have evaded him.”
Megatron laughed. “You’re getting back into Aldebarian slimelord territory.” He cocked his head. “I’m curious. How did you get Astrotrain to confirm your kill for you? It had far more impact than if you’d announced it yourself.”
“I prefer not to speak for my comrades.”
“I don’t care what you prefer,” Megatron said. “Answer the question.”
Cyclonus said slowly, “Astrotrain doubted my initial report and confirmed it for himself out of curiosity. He and Blitzwing were displeased with a tactical decision Starscream made earlier during our flight, and he announced it on the general channel as a means of paying him back.”
“And what was this tactical decision?”
“He left them in the rear after the Aerialbot approach was announced,” Cyclonus said.
“And he did that because…” Megatron prompted.
“He had a specific evasive maneuver in mind.”
Megatron was frowning at him. “Do you know, Cyclonus, I’ve had an easier time pulling arms out of triple-reinforced socket joints. You’re certainly not shy about insulting Starscream to his face. Why wouldn’t you want to inform me that he deleted an aerial maneuver out of the database and set you up as a shooting dummy for the Aerialbots?”
Cyclonus paused. “Lord Megatron—”
“Megatron will do. We both know my rank, I don’t need bowing and scraping.”
Cyclonus suppressed a flinch that tried to seize him from nowhere, a lance of sharp emotions he pushed aside without examination. “I cannot answer your question without speaking more freely than I would consider appropriate.”
“Do it anyway.”
“Starscream is conniving, disrespectful, and selfish,” Cyclonus said. “At every turn, when offered a choice between serving the cause and serving the petty demands of his own ego, he has chosen wrongly.”
“Go on,” Megatron said, sounding amused. “Tell me how you really feel.”
“And it is impossible that this should have escaped your attention before now,” Cyclonus said. “Yet he remains second in command. Therefore you have chosen to keep him in his rank despite his flaws. For me to tell you that he has once again displayed them seems pointless.”
“I do punish Starscream occasionally, when he’s stepped too far over the line. It doesn’t keep him entirely behind it, but it exerts a degree of restraint.”
Cyclonus shrugged slightly. “He has been punished already.”
Megatron’s eyes narrowed. “Has he? How, exactly?”
“As you know. I defeated the enemies he assumed would prove my undoing, Astrotrain publicly lauded me, and he was made to appear incompetent before his own unit,” Cyclonus said. “A punishment more likely to check him than any other.”
Megatron drummed his fingertips against the edge of the console, studying him. “All right,” he said finally. “If you want to handle Starscream yourself that badly, I’ll let you try. Few else have managed it, but perhaps you’ve got hidden depths. You can go.” He waved a hand, turning back around to the screens.
Cyclonus was about to return to the barracks, but then it occurred to him: Megatron was running alternate simulations on the events of the battle, examining the projected effects of minor tactical and weaponry differences. It was a useful but time-consuming and processor-intensive exercise, and he was nearly finished, which meant he had not had a rest cycle since the battle himself: some 39 hours of unbroken functionality. Not yet an unreasonable amount, but the operations screen in the corner was showing twenty-three high-priority tasks queued in the red, and there did not seem to be anyone else working on any of them. “Megatron.”
“Yes?” Megatron said over his shoulder.
Cyclonus paused: there again was that deceptively mild tone, shaded with cynicism, as though Megatron expected him to want something—but what that was, he could not guess, and discarded it as unimportant. “May I be of assistance?”
Megatron turned slowly round, eyes narrowed. “With what, exactly?”
Cyclonus indicated the ops screen. “I am not yet familiar with all base procedures, but I would be glad to do what routine tasks I can.”
Megatron contemplated him with that same half-suspicious expression a moment longer, then his eyes gleamed. “In that case,” he said, with a faintly malicious air, “you can take the duty roster. It’s overdue. Do five days’ worth and show it to me.”
He turned back to his task. Cyclonus went to the ops station and downloaded the duty roster for the last six months and used it to work out the rationale used—it appeared straightforward and effective overall, although there were many scattered exceptions for which he could see no reasoning; he decided to ignore those cases for purposes of generating the assignments. It was a valuable exercise: he had to familiarize himself with the current capabilities of all the soldiers on active duty, which even for those warriors he had known were somewhat different, and he gained a broad understanding of the overall functioning of the headquarters and general operations. When he was finished, it was no great difficulty to generate the assignments out for five days: he did not even have to check whether they had adequate energon for their tasks.
He returned to Megatron’s side and offered him the roster; Megatron glanced up. “You took your time.” He flicked it open and began to scan the assignments.
“It will not take me so long in future,” Cyclonus said. “Reviewing the capabilities of all active-duty personnel and reverse-engineering the existing algorithm for comparison’s sake consumed the bulk of the time.”
“How diligent of you. And what algorithm did you use?” Megatron’s eyes didn’t leave the roster, scanning it over.
“I began with task priority and operational capability, followed by current workload and opportunities for rest, as in the current method. Then I considered access to battle—”
Megatron looked around. “Access to battle?”
“To ensure every Decepticon warrior has a fair chance for combat at least every two weeks,” Cyclonus said.
“I see. All right, go on,” Megatron said; he had an air of suppressed amusement.
“The final high priority was minimizing energon usage. After that, the remaining criteria were somewhat interchangeable. There are some maintenance tasks most soldiers prefer to avoid; where possible, I have distributed them fairly, tilted towards higher-ranking—”
“Distasteful tasks grow more so when they become associated with low status,” Cyclonus said. “Higher ranked soldiers can be called upon to set an example by performing them without complaint, and feel themselves serving the cause.”
“Oh they can, can they?” Megatron said. “It’ll be an interesting experiment. Have you assigned yourself any of these distasteful—well, look at that, you have.” He frowned, and abruptly the roster narrowed to only Cyclonus’s own assignments. “You’ve assigned yourself more.”
“Of course,” Cyclonus said. “Otherwise suspicion would arise that I had arranged the roster to suit myself rather than to serve the cause.”
“Of course,” Megatron said. “Go on, tell me the rest of your brilliant scheme, I’m quite intrigued.”
“Overall time efficiency was included as a factor, but at low priority, to avoid rewarding slower performance,” Cyclonus said. “Some soldiers prefer a single task at which they can become expert, others prefer variety. I have attempted to ascertain those preferences based on the past roster and, where possible, accommodate them, within the bounds of ensuring that there are always at least four active-duty personnel with recent experience in a given task. And finally…” he hesitated, but shrugged and went on. “A liminal factor.”
Megatron frowned at him.
“I sometimes find a given soldier coming intuitively to mind for a task,” Cyclonus said. “I do not permit that to override objective criteria, but use it where no other deciding factor exists.”
“So you’ve done this sort of work before, have you,” Megatron said thoughtfully. “Strange. It doesn’t seem there would be much call for this level of attention to detail in an obscure minor base.”
“If you will forgive my contradicting you,” Cyclonus said dryly, “I would say rather that where resources are few, complexity increases. We did not have as many choices among personnel, but we had to choose which tasks had to be left undone, and who would suffer the consequences. I found the present task easier.” And, he did not add, even more trivial compared to when he had ended up having to also manage Autobots and their wildly counterintuitive needs: if they were given battle more than once a week, they began to suffer bizarre problems with their defrag cycles; they required non-rest time to merely sit around doing nothing of purpose whatsoever; and they grew morose if they were not regularly scheduled in company with particular friends—that designation being purely arbitrary and based on absolutely no objective criteria or binding principles he had ever been able to discover, and each Autobot possessing their own unique list of soldiers matching the designation, not always reciprocal, rarely fully compatible with another’s, and subject to change without notice. He had rapidly developed an enormous if grudging admiration for the ops skills of every single Autobot officer who had ever existed.
“All right, that’s a fair point,” Megatron said. He flicked the roster off his screen. “The job’s yours. I want the roster generated six weeks out and posted to the main network once weekly. You can make changes…as you see fit, let us say.”
Cyclonus inclined his head and returned to the ops station. Generating the roster over six weeks was not difficult, as he had promised; in fact the longer timespan permitted him to spread out the assignments more effectively. When he was finished, he posted it to the network at once: the previous duty roster had been about to run out entirely in two days. “I have finished. Are there other tasks?” he asked.
Megatron absently flicked a hand towards the queue. “Help yourself.”
Cyclonus skimmed the list: a routine survey of the base exterior had climbed high onto the priority queue by having been neglected for too long; the task was made unpleasant for most Decepticons to carry out by the pressure of the ocean depths, but he would have no difficulty. He assigned it to himself, set a deadline of two days, and removed it from the queue. After a moment’s thought, he went back to the duty roster and made a few edits to put Astrotrain on the task in place of one of his routine maintenance duties: he too would encounter no challenge in the oceanic conditions, and his scanners were more than adequate to the task itself.
He found another four routine tasks he could carry out himself, and seven items were different lingering project proposals that Scavenger had submitted for approval, all of which had been kicked ruthlessly off the queue multiple times, and been resubmitted. Scavenger was remarkably competent when asked to carry out a task, but his judgement was flawed by an excessive hunger for praise and respect. He had formed a counterproductive habit of attempting to gain it by desperately offering virtually any proposal his processor generated, and when they were therefore all ignored, he moped and whined to anyone around him, which rendered him distasteful to his own teammates and most Decepticons.
In his own universe, Cyclonus had eventually dealt with the symptoms by pushing the evaluation of Scavenger’s projects back into his own hands, and requiring him to submit ten detailed proposals at once, all ranked by his own assessment of their relative value: the highest-ranked one was nearly always worth serious consideration, which satisfied Scavenger’s hopes, and the rest could be safely ignored. It had improved both his performance and his personality interactions considerably, which in turn had improved the overall performance of the Constructicons to a statistically significant extent. Cyclonus did not currently have the authority to issue such an order himself, but he was about to show Megatron the list of Scavenger’s proposals, and offer the solution, when the command center doors shot open and Starscream stormed in.
“Megatron! That new idiot Cyclonus actually had the gall to post a new duty roster without my approval—” He jerked to a halt, seeing Cyclonus, and glared at him. Cyclonus regarded him coldly. It was no surprise at all to learn that the neglected task had been his: it was only a surprise that it had been done so well as it had been.
“Why, Starscream, I’m surprised to find you so distressed,” Megatron said, without even looking around. “I know how much you dislike the job, so I thought I’d give it to someone else.”
“What?” Starscream said, his optics flaring with indignation. “To him? He got here two days ago! He hasn’t even met half the soldiers on active duty—”
“And yet he actually managed to produce a workable roster, an achievement which eludes you on a regular basis,” Megatron said.
“He’s not even an officer!” Starscream said.
“Now that is an excellent point,” Megatron said thoughtfully. He turned his chair and contemplated Cyclonus. “It isn’t entirely appropriate for a soldier to be in charge of the duty roster.”
Starscream folded his arms. “I’m glad you can see that much sense.”
“So I’ll make him a lieutenant,” Megatron said. “Congratulations, Cyclonus. You’re advancing quite quickly for such a newcomer.” Starscream gawked, and drew breath for some eruption, but Megatron turned on him with a sudden warning flare of his optics. “Enough, Starscream. Consider it motivation to perform your other duties to a higher standard—or maybe I’ll give him some of those, too.”
Starscream swelled up with indignation, but evidently he could recognize when he had reached the limits of his tether; he swallowed it and whirled and left without another word. Megatron was smiling thinly, watching him go, but his eyes when he turned them to Cyclonus were flinty. “Don’t let it go to your head,” he said, menacingly. “What I give, I can also take back.”
Cyclonus inclined his head. “I will take neither the honor nor the responsibility lightly.”
“See that you don’t,” Megatron said. He’d finished watching the last of the simulations; he stood from the console and looked down at Cyclonus. “And see that you watch your back while you’re at it. You’re proving quite useful. It would be a shame if you let Starscream accidentally shove you into an incinerator.” He turned and strode out.
Cyclonus put the warning into background processing while he wrote up the order for Scavenger, which he felt was now adequately in his purview; there were another six tasks on the list he had felt beyond his authority, which he now also handled or put into his own assignments. When he was finished, he cleared his mind of the routine and sat a while contemplating the situation.
Megatron tolerated Starscream’s flaws, and Megatron was not a fool. Therefore Starscream possessed qualities which offset those flaws. If Cyclonus considered the situation impartially, that malicious maneuver had shown an uncanny mastery of tactical timing. The roster had been done well, barring those random exceptions, and Megatron plainly did not suffer from an overabundance of officers capable of doing competent staff work. Very well. So Megatron accepted the exchange. That did not mean he approved of Starscream’s flaws, or found them satisfactory. He laid his hand on the reins whenever opportunity afforded itself…and Cyclonus had just afforded him that opportunity.
The promotion was, in fact, undeserved. Megatron could not value Cyclonus so highly yet. Performing advanced kata in a training session revealed only the technical skill and not the true heart of a warrior: only the crisis of deadly combat could do that, and Megatron had only seen him lightly tried in battle so far. Similarly, any ambitious soldier could manage a brief burst of activity: the true challenge of staff work was its relentless never-ending tedium, which required far more rigorous discipline to withstand than any kata ever invented. Cyclonus himself would never have promoted a soldier after a mere two days’ familiarity. No: at the moment, Cyclonus’s true value to Megatron was as a goad for Starscream.
Starscream had already displayed jealousy towards him, undoubtedly spurred by the kata, which had evidently made him recognize Cyclonus as a rival in battlefield prowess. Megatron had now seized on an excuse to give Cyclonus officer rank and even one of Starscream’s own duties. The result was predictable: Starscream would now see him as an even greater threat to his status, and perhaps even to his very position. And it was perfectly clear even without Megatron’s warning that Starscream would react to that threat with extreme measures.
But while doing his best to eliminate his new rival, Starscream would also undoubtedly do his best to demonstrate to the utmost to Megatron why he was still worth tolerating, even at the cost of other promising officers. And Starscream’s foremost task at present was—the sabotage of Autobot City. The situation was therefore ideal. Cyclonus required Megatron’s confidence and an officer’s access. He had acquired those things far more swiftly than he had hoped possible, and in so doing, he had become a spur to Starscream, who would now certainly put at least half his attention on a grandiose campaign of sabotage that would delay the construction of Autobot City long enough for Unicron to be located. And the only price for it all would be Starscream attempting to murder him with the other half of his attention.
Cyclonus was not certain why he felt so—dissatisfied. It did not matter that Starscream was a low, vicious, conniving schemer. His days were numbered. Galvatron would never endure him—had not endured him. Cyclonus would have a chance to enjoy his destruction properly soon enough. And until then, he would defend himself against Starscream’s attacks when necessary, and if possible, deflect them. He did not need to challenge Starscream actively, not more than he unintentionally had already. Though it went against the grain, Cyclonus thought he might even go so far as to attempt to conciliate him slightly. To do so might make him concentrate his attention on Autobot City.
Cyclonus nevertheless chose his quarters with care. The chamber next to Soundwave’s on the officer level was vacant, likely avoided by the superstitious who imagined him able to probe their minds without instruments. Cyclonus was not among their number. Soundwave was capable of picking up thoughts that had entered the communications subsystem, and many mechs internally routed their high-surface thoughts in such a manner, but that was undisciplined processing and vulnerable to Autobot eavesdropping as well. Cyclonus did not permit it in himself.
The chamber was unusually large with a handsome view of the exterior ocean, pleasant though not necessary. The true value was that it would be difficult for someone to slip in for some act of sabotage without fearing to be overheard by Soundwave or one of his cassettes, and it would limit the scale of potential destruction: Megatron was not likely to tolerate harm to his critical communications specialist. Cyclonus further secured the chamber by stripping it of all furnishings but the rest unit. While depositing the furnishings in the base storage vaults—which were wretchedly untidy, he noted in disapproval—he picked up eight tons of otherwise useless scrap and brought it upstairs and welded the additional weight together as a plinth for the base of the unit, which put the whole adequately beyond the weight limits for a Seeker model to move without assistance. Finally, he used his detail lasers to etch a nanometer-scale pattern of furring over the surface that any touch would mark. A single one-second magnification scan on every side would instantly reveal if it had been meddled with in some fashion: an adequate balance between security and wasted time.
He took his rest cycle afterwards, and rose after five hours refreshed. He and Astrotrain were scheduled to go out for the external hull survey in an hour. The room, with nothing in it but the rest unit, had enough room for Cyclonus to carry out a light precision kata, all the warm up he required for a maintenance mission. Finished, he went to take his half-ration of energon—considerably larger than his weekly ration on Chaar had been, and completely adequate to his needs—and even as he drew it out from the dispenser, Starscream popped up beside him. “There you are, Cyclonus, I was wondering if you’d find your way to the officers’ mess,” he said, but there was nothing malicious in the tone; it was if anything almost friendly.
Cyclonus gritted his teeth against a deep instinctive surge of dislike, and reminded himself of his resolve. “Commander,” he said politely.
“Oh, that’s all right, Starscream will do,” Starscream said airily, drawing himself a cube and casually using a small charge to zap the override for a signal light that was flashing the warning that he’d exceeded his own ration already. Evidently the system was not automatically enforced for officers. Not that it should have mattered, for officers. “I have always felt that we could stand a little more formality, but there’s no point trying when Megatron treats it all like a waste of time. Come, let’s sit down.” He reached out and took Cyclonus by the elbow and began guiding him invitingly to a nearby table.
Cyclonus redirected additional power flow to his elbow armor, which heated it and made Starscream instinctively drop his fingers after a few steps, but he sat himself grimly down at the table regardless. There was no excuse to avoid the conversation. His scanners indicated there was no difference between this table and the next, no explosive devices in range that matched anything in his database, and Starscream had left his weapons in subspace, barely perceptible. Cyclonus set a monitoring process scanning Starscream’s subspace management system at 200 microsecond intervals. If Starscream tried to bring his weapons out, that would be more than enough time for Cyclonus to smash a fist through his cockpit and rip out his fuel pump. It was not an unpleasant image.
But instead Starscream was leaning in towards him smiling, which was. “You know,” he said in confidential tones, “it occurs to me I’ve been—unreasonable.”
“Have you,” Cyclonus said.
Starscream waved a hand lightly. “The truth is, I can’t stand doing the roster. You really don’t mind it?”
“Well, then!” Starscream gestured up and down at him, sitting back. “I should be grateful to you. It’s not your fault that Megatron didn’t bother to inform me—I’m afraid he’s not really much for respecting his own officers.”
“I have found respect given where I have earned it,” Cyclonus said.
Starscream snorted. “You’ve only been here three days. Give it a few weeks for the shine to wear off. But far be it from me to talk you into discontent,” an almost absurd contradiction to virtually every other word Starscream had uttered. “I’m delighted that you’re taking the initiative to help with operations, especially as I benefit personally. It just occurred to me that seeing as how you’re so new, you might need a little additional guidance. There’s often a little tweaking needed—different warriors have different needs, after all.”
Cyclonus had to forcefully repress his own reluctance to accept any overture from Starscream, which was both locally inappropriate, given Starscream’s superior rank, and contrary to his own mission parameters. “I did notice a number of exceptions in the earlier rosters for which I could find no rationale,” he said grudgingly. “I would welcome further explanation.”
“Oh, there’s not really an explanation, per se,” Starscream said. “It’s just something that comes with long experience. You get to know your soldiers, you form a gut feeling about where they are. Take that raid the day after tomorrow, for instance.”
Cyclonus repressed a grimace. What Starscream described seemed precisely the same as the liminal factor Cyclonus himself used in the absence of other criteria: he could hardly argue that it did not merit consideration here. He projected his holographic interface system out of his arm and called up the roster for the run: it was a minor raid, as the energon target was small enough that it did not merit a large party of soldiers; ideally they would be gone again before the Autobots could arrive. The goal was primarily to give soldiers additional exercise and a chance to refuel from fresh sources, saving energon locally. “I have assigned Dirge as leader. Ravage for initial penetration, Thrust for additional transport and acquisition, Dead End and Drag Strip for perimeter patrol. The party seems complete.”
“Oh, they’ll do just fine,” Starscream said. “But Rumble really could use the chance to go with them. Just pop him in, will you?” He peered at the interface. “Where did you get that thing, anyway?”
Cyclonus was frowning at him, baffled; it occurred to him that Rumble and Frenzy had regularly been among the exceptions. “Starscream, I cannot see the rationale behind your suggestion. Rumble has a training session scheduled at the time of the raid, and given his current discipline record, he requires if anything more training rather than less. In addition, the seismic survey of this site indicates no vulnerability, rendering his primary attack useless, and in Soundwave’s absence, he has a lamentable tendency to run up high energon usage in the field. He is assigned to another raid two weeks afterwards, where Soundwave will be present.”
“He doesn’t need training, he needs to get out of Soundwave’s shadow more,” Starscream declared. Cyclonus nearly gawked at him. “Yes, he cuts loose once in a while, but who doesn’t? You’ll just have to trust me on this, Cyclonus. Put him in,” he finished, his eyes narrowing.
Cyclonus stared at him, and said, “Why?”
“I just told—”
“No,” Cyclonus said, with mounting coldness. “Why must I trust you on this?” Starscream stopped, visibly taken aback. “Megatron has approved the roster and the criteria I used to generate it. Now you ask me to alter it in a manner which seems to me counterproductive, and your only stated rationale is in blatant contradiction of every personnel assessment in Rumble’s records, several of which you yourself have written. If you are asking me to do so on the basis of a personal trust between us, that does not exist. Is there in fact a reason why I must trust you on this matter?”
Starscream’s optics were flaring to scarlet rage. “You know, Cyclonus,” he said silkily, “I was trying to give you a chance. Most mechs who come into a new base know better than to start picking fights right away. And I happen to be a very bad enemy to make.”
Cyclonus nodded slightly. “I understand.” He downed the rest of his cube, then planted both hands on the table and stood to his full height, bending towards Starscream and shifting his power flows to put a deep resonating hum into the lower registers of his vocal unit: a threat display that would convey the implication of his maximum power output. “So am I.” He stepped over the bench and stalked out of the mess.
“Do you actually have a death wish, or does this kind of thing just come from living on an isolated planetoid in the middle of nowhere not talking to anyone?” Astrotrain asked him on their mission channel, with an air of sincere curiosity.
“Compose your secondary level infrared radiation scanners with the transmitted frequency on the data channel,” Cyclonus said. “That will compensate for the distortion caused by the water. Begin your scan of the hull in the far quadrant there. I do not wish for death. Neither do I fear it. Either condition is inimical to a warrior’s focus.”
“Uh huh, you know what’s really inimical to a warrior’s focus is a null ray right between the shoulderblades,” Astrotrain said.
His Unicron-forged core circuitry was impervious to null ray technology, but that was an advantage Cyclonus did not intend to share with anyone until Starscream hopefully made a trial of it that would give Cyclonus the excuse to rip his cranial unit off his spine the way he felt an increasingly passionate desire to do. He truly had not sufficiently enjoyed Starscream’s disintegration at the time. “I appreciate the warning, although it is unnecessary.”
“Yeah? Because you can handle Starscream?” Astrotrain said sarcastically. “I’ve heard that before.”
“No,” Cyclonus said. “Because I am already aware that Starscream both desires and intends to do me harm, and is capable of doing so. What precautions I can take, which will not interfere with performing my duty, I have taken. I can only trust to my ability to react in the moment for the rest. If I can handle him, I will do so. If not, he will succeed. I do not intend to devote further resources to the situation.”
“Okay, then,” Astrotrain said after a moment. “Good luck with that.”
“Thank you,” Cyclonus said. “Do you observe a current at the coordinates I am transmitting on the data channel?”
“Huh?” Astrotrain said, peering over. “Where?”
Astrotrain required another six adjustments to his scanners before he began to adequately detect the near-microscopic currents indicating where heat was escaping the interior, signs of potential future breach. “I don’t believe I’m having to slog around down here looking for water currents,” he grumbled. “Do you know how many Decepticons there are with my capabilities?”
“At this base? Interstellar-grade armor, twelve,” Cyclonus said. “Mid range scanners capable of being tuned to the sensitivity required to detect the currents visible before an actual breach forms, eight. Mental tolerance for high-pressure environments and altered gravitational conditions, six. The intersection of all three qualities includes only the two of us. That is why you are down here looking for currents.”
“Oh,” Astrotrain said. After a minute he said, “Hang on a second. You’re in charge of the roster now.”
“Why are you down here looking for currents?”
“The hull scan has been postponed sixteen times since the last round of significant repairs, and neither of us have ever undertaken it before. It was clearly unwise to rely upon a single scan. When you have tuned your sensors, we will each perform a separate survey and compare our results. In future, either of us can perform the task alone, and I will schedule us to do it alternately, on the correct schedule, to achieve the same overall effect.”
Astrotrain eyed him. “You know, if you’re trying to get up Megatron’s access ports, this isn’t the way to do it. He’s not even going to notice.”
Cyclonus sighed. “Astrotrain, if the hull breaches, we will all notice.”
“Sure, but you could blame it on—uh, nevermind—”
“I took this task from the ops queue,” Cyclonus said. “The final responsibility would be mine, regardless of whether I simply assigned the task elsewhere or not.”
“That’s why nobody does that,” Astrotrain said, with a snort.
Cyclonus turned on him. “And that,” he growled, “is lamentable to see in Decepticon warriors. It is as cowardly to shrink from responsibility as from the front lines of battle.”
Astrotrain stared at him. After a moment he said cautiously, “Are you just—saying that?”
“Man, they build ’em weird on Chaar,” Astrotrain muttered, but at least his grumbling subsided.
When they had finished, Cyclonus detailed the locations requiring examination and possible reinforcement in a task document and assigned it after a moment's consideration directly to Scavenger, shifting his roster duties to make room for the work—he would take pleasure in the direct contact—and simultaneously sent a subchannel note to Scrapper to inform him and offer him the opportunity to reassign the task if he wished. Combiner team commanders were often jealous of their prerogatives, and Scrapper was by no means an exception.
Only one of the weak points was potentially urgent, so when they got back inside with an hour left in their duty cycle, Cyclonus told Astrotrain, “Take the remainder of your cycle at liberty. I will finish the interior review.” He also noted a minor commendation in Astrotrain’s record for gaining a new skill, which he added to the capabilities database.
The one place where a current had been moving swiftly enough to suggest deterioration sufficient to risk a breach was a storage compartment in the lowest reaches of the base. Cyclonus made his way down to the low dark level and flew down to the floor. There was a great deal of equipment heaped in the way: this compartment was beyond untidiness and had nearly reached junkyard state. He added an ops task for sorting it properly and assigned it after some thought to Swindle, with a notation that he was permitted to keep any five items for personal use, subject to approval, once the remaining material was properly stored and categorized. The contents of the room were unusable at present, and the task was onerous enough to deserve some reward; Swindle would go through the room exhaustively with real pleasure just to be certain he was acquiring the most valuable of the items. Cyclonus added a note to Onslaught, with a private request that he review Swindle’s organizational system to determine if it were actually appropriate for military usage.
He moved the immediate blocking equipment out of the way without difficulty and found the potential hot spot: a seam showing definite signs of strain. Cyclonus added a high-priority task to the engineering queue, marked to Mixmaster’s attention, and then temporarily patched it himself with a little metal and silicone. He was nearly finished when a clang sounded overhead and he heard Rumble call, “Hey, Cyclonus, you down here?”
“I am,” Cyclonus said, without interrupting his work. Rumble hopped easily down and perched on one of the rather precarious boxes, peering down.
“Why are you doin’ that?” he said. “You made lieutenant yesterday. It’s all over the base.”
“It is an urgent task associated with my current duty cycle and affecting base security,” Cyclonus said. “I can spare the time to do it myself. My only actual assigned duty as an officer at present is generating the roster, which will next require my sustained attention for half an hour next week.”
“Speakin’ of that,” Rumble said. “This raid day after tomorrow—I was kinda hoping to go on it.”
“You are assigned to the raid in two weeks,” Cyclonus said, repressing irritation. Suddenly the earlier interaction made more sense: Starscream had promised Rumble the assignment, surely as a result of this same sort of undisciplined coaxing, but had neglected to actually generate the duty roster in question before Megatron had given Cyclonus the task, and he had not wished to appear as though he no longer had the power to grant the request.
“I could do both,” Rumble said. “Just slip me in, whaddya say?”
Cyclonus sighed. He had finished the patch. He put away the spot-welder and straightened. “Rumble—” He stopped; Rumble had put a compressed energon cube down, small but holding a full astroliter. He grinned at Cyclonus and nudged it over towards him, with an expectant air. For a moment Cyclonus could not speak; his sight was dimmed with rage. When he refocused, Rumble had drawn back and was staring at him uncertainly. Cyclonus became aware that his power core had come fully online and was making an ominous whine in the room, and his eyes were illuminating the chamber.
“This cube is more than your daily ration,” he said, forcing the words through his clenched jaw. “You would not personally acquire more than this on the mission. You are not attempting to bribe me for access to more energon. Why are you attempting to bribe me?”
Rumble was still drawn back warily. “I—I wanna go on the raid! And bash Autobots!”
Cyclonus went through another air intake cycle. The first heat of rage had gone; now an icy coldness was descending. “Your enthusiasm for battle does you credit,” he said after a moment. “Your means of indulging it does not. You are presently not a significant asset to a raiding party except if Soundwave is present to keep you in check, and if the target site is vulnerable to seismic damage. If you wish me to assign you to more raids, you must improve your energon discipline, and increase your combat skills until you can pose a threat to Autobots outside your weight class in hand-to-hand combat.”
“What?” Rumble said, jumping to his feet. “You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me! I can scrap with any two ’bots outta my weight class! I can—”
“I do not refer to hurling yourself bodily at an Autobot warrior and beating your fists against his armor until he grows irritated and runs you over,” Cyclonus said sharply. “I mean a significant threat. You must learn to target joints and optics. You must improve your evasive maneuvering along the vertical, and avoid losing your head and allowing yourself to be grappled. These are achievable goals. Accomplish them, and given your small size and low energon usage, you will be assigned to virtually every raiding party as a matter of course, as adding considerable advantage for low cost. Do you understand?”
Rumble was staring up at him open-mouthed. He looked down at the energon cube glowing next to him and then looked up and said plaintively, “Aw, come on, you sure you won’t—”
“I would rip out my own fuel pump first!” Cyclonus roared at him as his temper slipped its leash at this fresh provocation. “And if you ever again attempt to bribe me, ever, I will instantly and without mercy destroy you. Do I make myself clear?”
Rumble was leaning back wide-eyed, hands held up. “Whoa! Whoa! Yeah! You do! What’s all the destroying talk!”
“I do not blame you alone, or even foremost,” Cyclonus said, dragging himself back to calm with an effort. “But corruption is a betrayal not only of our cause, but of all your fellow Decepticons. Do not let me hear of you engaging in it again, Rumble.”
“Uh, okay,” Rumble said. “Just, y’know, Screamer—”
“I know who was responsible for this duty in the past,” Cyclonus snapped. “If he did not outrank me…” He cut himself off and stood in silence for several moments, but calm was not returning. He was too angry. “I will come to your and Frenzy’s next training session,” he said at last, giving up the attempt. “We will formulate a course of exercise that will enable you to develop the skills I have described. The two of you have demonstrated more discipline than I would have expected in order to save this quantity of energon out of your rations. In future, apply it in a way that serves the cause, rather than undermines it.”
He launched himself for the hatch above. Rumble popped his head through a moment later and called after him, “Uh, Cyclonus, where are you going?”
“The training room,” he said shortly.
The training room was fortunately open, occupied only by Drag Strip, Motormaster, and Brawl, who were about to activate the simulator for hand-to-hand combat. “May I join you?” he said to them.
“We’re gonna be poundin’ em on the ground, not floofin’ about in the sky!” Brawl said.
“That will be more than satisfactory,” Cyclonus said savagely. “Computer! Set my target difficulty level to maximum, and begin!”
He spent the next hour in a cleansing orgy of violence, tearing targets to pieces with his bare hands and crushing them brutally with kicks and blows. The simulator’s maximum capability only generated enemies with an intelligence roughly at Sharkticon level, but in his present mood, quantity was preferable to quality. As the numbers increased in response to the slaughter, the others fell into a loose square formation with him, and the ecstatic satisfaction of fighting shoulder to shoulder with fellow Decepticons swelled through him, lifting him out of black fury. These were his comrades, these were warriors who deserved the name, who found their joy not in sly tricks and scheming, but the fierce hot savagery of battle! He was able to fight with more pleasure and less mindless rage, targeting opponents who threatened to overwhelm his fellows when they began to reach the limits of their own strength and skill, enabling all of them to continue fighting in the face of the swelling horde, until the simulator at last announced mechanically, “Maximum difficulty and target number reached. No further progression can be generated,” and Drag Strip whooped in glee and yelled, “We broke the sim!”
They permitted the program to come to an end, clearing out the last handful of enemies, and Cyclonus turned and exchanged thumping blows with the others, all of them exhilarated. “Now that was something!” Motormaster declared. “Damn, we’re good!” He gave Cyclonus a friendly shove. “Guess you’re not just another pretty flyboy, either. Tell Megatron to put you on the ground next time, and we’ll pound some Autobots into the dirt!”
“Gladly, if I am not needed aloft,” Cyclonus said. “Indeed the satisfactions of ground combat are many. A most stimulating session: I thank you all.” He had expended more energon than he would strictly have preferred for a training exercise, but it had been a more than worthwhile exchange to break the grip of wrath.
They retired to the general mess, where the others drew energon and they sat together discussing tactics for dealing with Autobot attackers coming in with momentum on their side, generally the case when running defense for an energon raid. “Here I thought we’d finally have the chance to really hit them back at Autobot City,” Motormaster said sourly. “Then you had to muck it up.” He kicked Cyclonus’s chair, but not ungently.
“I am sorry to have robbed you of the chance for a satisfying battle,” Cyclonus said. “I trust another will offer itself soon enough.”
He returned to his quarters, where his elevated mood was at once eradicated: his rest unit had indeed been tampered with. There were eleven finger marks in the furred pattern. Matching his own fingers to the marks enabled him to track down the damage: three small wires deep within the power routing had been carefully rerouted, almost undetectably, with the effect of setting off an explosion halfway through the rest cycle, powered by his own fuel. Cyclonus repaired the sabotage and stood contemplating the unit a while, then left again. He tapped on Soundwave’s door. “Enter,” Soundwave said, and looked up at him. “Cyclonus.”
He inclined his head. “I wonder if you would tell me which quarters belong to Starscream.”
Soundwave tilted his head. “The third door from the end.”
“I thank you,” Cyclonus said. He went to the room, broke the encryption lock on the door with his accelerated brute-forcer, and set to work. Starscream’s quarters were crammed with elaborate furnishings and miscellaneous artifacts and trophies of battles he most likely hadn’t won himself—Cyclonus was aware he was generating petty and ill-founded speculations, and could not bring himself to care—but an hour’s work achieved a respectable effect. Cyclonus finished and left the room with the door wide open before returning to his own chamber. Starscream was scheduled for a rest cycle in an hour’s time, so rather than entering an interrupted cycle himself, Cyclonus knelt and meditated for an hour, ignoring the increasing noise of snickering and outright laughter from the corridor, until Starscream’s shrill and furious voice rose out of the hallway in a howl, “Who did this!”
Cyclonus allowed another few minutes to transpire before he rose and went outside. He was slightly surprised by the gathered crowd, who were all jostling for a clear view of Starscream's chambers, the entire contents of which he had reoriented at 180 degrees by welding most of the furniture to the walls and ceiling.
Starscream had seized Rumble by the throat and was choking him midair while Frenzy kicked at his ankle, yelling, “Let ’im go!”
“If you did this, you insolent little twerp—” Starscream was snarling.
“Starscream!” Cyclonus said sharply. “Release him. This is my doing, of course.”
Starscream jerked around to stare at him. So did every other Decepticon in the hallway. “You—you admit it!”
Cyclonus deliberately affected a tone of mild surprise. “Of course. An expression of gratitude.”
“Of—of—are you malfunctioning?” Starscream nearly shrieked.
Cyclonus spread his palms. “For the stimulating puzzle you left in my quarters. I have occasionally carried out sabotage missions, but rarely have I seen neater work.” Starscream paused, his expression suddenly wary. Cyclonus added softly, “I thought it only appropriate I make a return for your kindness. Did you not find it intriguing?”
“This isn’t sabotage, you idiot! This is a moronic prank!” Starscream hissed back after a moment.
Cyclonus tilted his head. “Ah. You haven’t found it yet, then. Well, I will not spoil the surprise. Do let me know your final opinion. Perhaps if you find it enjoyable, we might continue this exchange in future. I will be happy to do my best to match your ingenuity, however great the challenge may be.”
He turned and went back to his quarters without another word, and finally entered his rest cycle. But it was interrupted after all: he was only half an hour in when a subtle harmonic noise nearby gradually stirred him back to consciousness and he opened his eyes and said aloud, “Thank you, Soundwave, I am awake. What do you require of me?”
“Report to command center,” Soundwave said over the intercom. Cyclonus stepped down from the unit and went.
“So what did you do?” Megatron said. He was reclining in his seat and contemplating a video feed of Starscream’s still-disordered quarters: Starscream had dragooned Scavenger and Reflector into searching them, which they were somewhat nervously doing.
“Nothing but what you see,” Cyclonus said. “Actual sabotage would have risked damage to the base and injury to him.”
Megatron turned around. “That’s something you wanted to avoid?”
“He did not attack me openly, and I have no proof of his sabotage. He has not given me grounds to act,” Cyclonus said. “I may disagree with your decision to preserve him in his rank, but I do not imagine that it is my place to defy it.”
“I’m so glad,” Megatron said dryly.
“And the exhaustive search for a nonexistent device will cost him far more time and mental effort than actually finding and disabling one,” Cyclonus added. “Time which he will not spend on further attempts.”
“Or, for that matter, on his work,” Megatron said.
Cyclonus paused, and inclined his head, regretfully. “A consideration I should have given more weight. I apologize.”
Megatron regarded him with an expression of incredulity. “Oh, that’s all right,” he said, so exaggeratedly that it was plainly intended to mock. “He did only just try to murder you. I can understand why it might have been a little distracting.”
“I will not allow it to occur in future,” Cyclonus said.
“The murder attempts?”
“I cannot govern Starscream’s actions. I mean that I will not allow his behavior to distract me so far from my duty.”
“If this is an act, you’re certainly keeping it up consistently, I’ll give you that much,” Megatron said after a moment.
Cyclonus shrugged. “What is character but an ongoing choice to consistently maintain honor?”
Megatron snorted. “So you’re a Gortian philosopher, are you?”
“I find the Four Doors a useful framework,” Cyclonus agreed. “But my own inclination hews closer to the Master of Brilior.”
“Oh, please,” Megatron said. “All that nonsense about counter-pragmatics—” Then he stopped and glared at Cyclonus as if somehow offended. “The hell you’ve read Brilior.”
Cyclonus said baffled, “Why would I pretend it?”
Megatron’s eyes narrowed. “Give me your word you won’t kill Starscream.”
“No,” Cyclonus said.
“I’m ordering you as Decepticon Commander,” Megatron said.
“No,” Cyclonus said. “But I should mention the paradox condition you are attempting to induce is not in force.”
“Why the hell not?” Megatron demanded.
“Because Starscream has attempted to assassinate you on fourteen separate occasions in recent recorded archives. On those occasions, you have repeatedly indicated you believe his success in such an attempt would be disastrous to the cause.” More to the point, Cyclonus had concrete data confirming it, and he technically might be argued to possess a higher rank than Megatron himself, having served as Cybertronian Commander and not merely Decepticon Commander, but he did not even need to raise those points for purposes of making the philosophical argument. “Therefore I am not substituting my judgement for the more-proven one of my commander’s in insisting upon maintaining the freedom to kill him: I am only refusing to be prevented from exercising my full capacity to serve your judgement, which—”
“Yes, all right, fine, you damned nitpicker. Would you give me your word, other conditions aside?”
“No,” Cyclonus admitted.
“Ah!” Megatron pointed at him.
“However, the exalted state is explicitly outlined by Brilior as an unreachable goal,” Cyclonus said. “I do accept that my inability to give my word in those circumstances would represent a failure in the full attainment of honor.”
Megatron glared at him. “And that’s what’s idiotic about Brilior. What the hell’s the point if you give yourself an out? Just stop bothering with the nonsense of the counter-pragmatics at all.”
“I do not entirely believe that there is an out,” Cyclonus said. “My own suspicion is that the exalted state can be reached at the moment of death, but only if sufficient proximity has been maintained beforehand.”
Megatron’s eyes narrowed. “Give me your word you won’t move from that spot for thirty-nine seconds,” he said softly. “And that’s an order.”
“You have my word,” Cyclonus said instantly.
Megatron rose and aimed his fusion cannon directly at his head. The circuitry engaged, lights flickering along the length of the massive bulk of the weapon as it drove to full power. Cyclonus looked into the mouth of death and considered the situation: was it his duty to break his word and move, knowing that if he died here, his knowledge of the future died with him? But he had already provided the necessary information to stop the battle of Autobot City almost certainly for long enough for Ironhide to seek out Unicron. Cyclonus had broken the chain that led to the fall of the Decepticon Empire. All that he could be certain would be lost now would be the hope of Galvatron’s restoration. But Galvatron’s restoration was his personal duty, not his duty as a Decepticon officer…The choice had to be made: the firing circuitry was engaging, and in precisely zero-point-eight-six astroseconds more, Megatron would no longer be able to halt the ignition sequence—
Starscream burst into the room. “Megatron, if you don’t do some—” and stopped, staring open-mouthed, just as Megatron carefully kicked Cyclonus’s left foot slightly out from under him, tilting him aside as the cannon erupted, roaring two microns past the edge of his helm and searing right past Starscream’s head as well, to shoot through the open doorway and blast a massive hole through the interior wall of the hall beyond.
Megatron lowered his cannon and roared, “This ends now!” at both of them. Starscream had flailed aside from the course of the blast; he jerked his head back around wide-eyed. Megatron pointed at him. “You are going to stop wasting your time trying to assassinate a junior officer, and get back to working on that sabotage campaign,” he snarled, and transferred the gesture to Cyclonus. “And you are going to stop wasting a senior officer’s time! And whichever one of you disobeys me first is going to be standing there next time.” He pointed back at the disintegrated and smoking hole in the hallway. Then he turned to Cyclonus and growled, “And just to make sure you’re busy enough for a while not to be tempted to come up with any more clever ideas, I don’t want to see you above the training deck again except for refueling and rest cycles until every last storeroom in this facility has been sorted and reorganized, top to bottom. Am I clear?”
“You are,” Cyclonus said sincerely, almost dazzled by the efficiency of it. Megatron had tested his new warrior’s commitment to his claimed philosophy as effectively as possible without actually destroying him and wasting his value to the force—Megatron himself was clearly a practitioner of Vekosian pragmatics—and had simultaneously used the incident to make it appear to Starscream that his rival had been being violently chastised. And by giving Cyclonus an onerous and punitive duty, and emphasizing his junior rank and Starscream’s own far more important assignment, he had likely soothed Starscream’s ego and shifted the balance of his attention back where Megatron wanted it.
He had also provided an effective framework for Starscream’s future attempts on Cyclonus’s life. Starscream plainly did not like taking the risk of offering a direct challenge to Cyclonus—a sensible though craven assessment on his part—and Megatron had now told him virtually outright that all Starscream needed to do was provoke Cyclonus into taking some first action, and Megatron would destroy Cyclonus for him. And meanwhile Megatron himself now knew, thanks to the trial he had just made, that Cyclonus would endure virtually any amount of provocation within the boundaries his commander had set. It was a magnificent, nearly symphonic piece of officer management, and it had clearly been both devised and carried out in the space of mere astroseconds, likely triggered by some warning system that alerted Megatron when Starscream approached the command center. Cyclonus bowed his head in respect.
Megatron glared at him, as if he had noticed the sincerity and was irritated by it. Starscream stepped forward. “You certainly are, mighty Megatron,” he said, in an oozingly unctuous tone, which Cyclonus could only imagine required significant amounts of Megatron’s obviously ironclad discipline to tolerate on a regular basis. “I do wish to assure you that I have not permitted this—minor irritant,” with a sneering flick of his hand in Cyclonus’s direction, “to distract me from our cause. In fact, I’ve already developed the sabotage raid plans to a point where I thought it wise to consult with you—if this is a good time?”
“You’re dismissed,” Megatron growled to Cyclonus, and turned without a pause back to the console, giving Starscream his full attention. “Show me.”
Cyclonus strode from the room at once, still suffused with admiration and satisfaction. Even the punitive task Megatron had set for him was only so by Starscream’s standards, and not Cyclonus’s own—it was an important task that required doing, and Brilior’s counter-pragmatics specifically emphasized the importance of performing menial tasks that served the overall cause with the same enthusiasm and attention to detail as great ones; the lowliest janitorial mech might as easily follow Brilior as the most senior officer, one of the many reasons Cyclonus approved of the philosophy as well.
He had a further advantage—he had only yesterday assigned Swindle the task of sorting one of those storerooms, with Onslaught to oversee the categorization; meaning that he would already have a valuable example to work from. An advantage, he belatedly realized, that Megatron almost certainly knew of, despite Astrotrain’s assertion that Megatron did not pay attention to the performance of ops tasks.
So Megatron chose to let his soldiers believe he did not pay close attention—hm, almost certainly because they were already avoiding too many of the tasks, and he felt they would be more rather than less inclined to do so if they feared his judgement. Cyclonus frowned. It was a reasonable choice based on Vekosian principles, but he himself disliked it. Of course…Megatron did not have a second in command that he could trust to set an example of making valuable use of a superior’s criticism and maintaining dignity in the face of it. That was if anything more important than the commander’s own behavior; Cyclonus had found it so, as Galvatron’s second…
His mind flinched from a sharp jab of uneasy, unclear emotions. Cyclonus suppressed them: he had work to do, and Megatron meant him to do it quickly, since he had bound Cyclonus to the base and out of combat duty until it was finished.
The first order of business was taking his interrupted rest cycle, since his functionality was dipping to 78%; not yet unacceptably low, but Megatron had explicitly ordered him not to omit rest cycles. He went back to his chambers and put himself under for five hours, consumed his half-ration—very welcome by then, given the over-energetic training session—and then took himself down to the lowest storeroom, where he was unsurprised to find Swindle ecstatically half-buried in a heap of useful components, nearly finished with his sorting task. His head popped up and he said, “Oh! Hey! Cyclonus, right? I gotta tell you, I haven’t found anything really great in here—”
“Swindle,” Cyclonus said, cutting him off, “You need not conceal your findings. I did not set the parameters of the assignment on the assumption that you would find nothing of significant value. I will withhold approval only if you find something that would truly violate security or represent a critical advantage to us, and if you did keep such an item, there would likely be negative consequences for you. Therefore you are better off showing me what you have found, which will put the responsibility for letting you keep the items on my shoulders rather than your own.”
It was not an honorable argument, and Cyclonus would not ordinarily have insulted a Decepticon warrior by making it, but as he knew, Swindle did not aspire to be a warrior. They had once had an exceptionally illuminating conversation about his philosophy: at the time, Swindle had managed to steal some additional energon, which unbeknownst to him Cyclonus had set aside because it was slightly tainted, and he had been operating in a disordered and excessively-honest state as a result. Cyclonus had afterwards abandoned any effort to treat Swindle as an honorable fellow warrior, and kept all interactions with him ruthlessly organized on the basis of channeling Swindle’s self-interest into serving the cause. It was significantly more effective, if it did leave him with the sense of having had to wade through some cloying oil-swamp.
“Oh,” Swindle said after a moment. “Well, I haven’t decided yet, but tell me if these would be okay,” and then set out five items for his perusal—four of which were of low value, and one of considerable worth, a micronic resonator which could be used to substantially enhance a sonic weapon, such as the secondary gun Onslaught carried. Swindle likely meant to squirrel it away to use to placate his commander for some future offense. It would have been better for him to simply give the item to Onslaught immediately, of course, but that was not Swindle’s way. In any case, it was certainly not the most valuable item Swindle had found: he was sacrificing it as a test to see whether Cyclonus meant it.
“All approved if you desire them,” Cyclonus said. “But I should warn you that I will not intercede for you if Onslaught learns you have concealed the resonator from him and is displeased, nor will I lie to him if he asks me. I do not interfere in the authority of team commanders. However, if you tell him honestly that you have kept it with my permission and he wishes to confiscate it anyway, you may inform him I wish him to discuss the matter with me first, and I will do my best to find a resolution that satisfies you both. That said, I suggest that you might be better off keeping a different item and giving this to him directly as a gift, which I will also authorize if you wish. But that I leave to your own judgement.”
Swindle stared up at him for several moments, obviously processing the situation. Then he set out one additional item: a coil nearly the thickness of a finger of one-micron-wide coronal wiring, impossible to produce except in deep space, necessary for processor repairs and useful in many other injuries, and exceedingly valuable. It had almost certainly been dumped into this room through some blatant error, probably as a result of too-hasty clearing of damage from the ship’s original crash landing, and belonged in the base infirmary under secure monitoring and rationed out under the approval of two separate medical personnel.
“Approved,” Cyclonus said, with only a small sigh. It was still better in Swindle’s hands than buried under twenty tons of debris. “If it is required for repairs, you need not manufacture an excuse to produce it. Privately inform me of the price you wish to set, and I will serve as intermediary, without charging you a fee, and inform the medical staff that I cannot reveal the source. Do you have further questions or have I made my own position clear?”
“Yeah, okay,” Swindle said, in slightly wary tones, meaning he had not. “Just, it’s kinda funny, I woulda sworn you were one of those law-and-order-and-brimstone types.”
“Your instincts are entirely correct,” Cyclonus said. “If you closely examine our interactions purely with your logic unit, setting my highest priority to be overall benefit to the Decepticon cause, and the secondary priority to be inducing you to form the habit of reliably remaining honest with me in contravention of your own tertiary emotional instincts, I believe you will be able to work out the chain of my reasoning.”
Swindle was totally silent for several minutes, obviously carrying out the analysis, and then said, bemused, “Huh, willya look at that.” He tilted his head upwards curiously at Cyclonus. “Doesn’t it give your emotional subsystem a jag?”
“I do not permit my emotional needs to override my service to the cause,” Cyclonus said. “Should I do so, I would experience an overall negative feedback cycle.”
“Well, all righty then,” Swindle said. “You know, Cyclonus, I think we’re gonna get along just fine.”
“Yes. I imagine we will,” Cyclonus said somewhat grimly. “What is the organizational system you have settled upon?”
“Here ya go,” Swindle said, tossing it to him on a data channel. “Onslaught kicked it around a bit.” Effectively so; Cyclonus nodded in approval as he reviewed it. “Hey, I don’t suppose there’s any more storage rooms you need sorted out?” Swindle said casually.
“All of them,” Cyclonus said. “As quickly as possible.”
“Well,” Swindle said, giving him a wide, offensively smirking smile. “Maybe I could give you a hand with that…”
Cyclonus sighed. This would be a punitive task after all.
However, Swindle was in fact exceptionally efficient at sorting out the useful from the garbage and the valuable from the common. Cyclonus let him stay in one place quickly running through items, while he himself carried heaped bins over to him, then put them back in sorted order. Together they worked through two more storage rooms steadily over the course of the entire day. Swindle made no more attempts to conceal objects from him, and even voluntarily handed him a moderately valuable memory-crystal almost certainly lost from the ship’s computers, which might well have important and potentially dangerous data on it.
There were still four chambers left. Swindle rejoined him the next morning, and they had just completed one and started on the second when Onslaught stalked in, visibly annoyed. “Swindle, I don’t care how often you skive off from your own training, but Combaticon sessions are not optional,” he hissed, and looked coldly at Cyclonus, who straightened and leveled a hard look at Swindle.
“I forgot!” Swindle yelped, and cringed back from Onslaught’s flaring optics. “No, this time I really did! Look, I’ve been assisting Cyclonus with the storage room sorting—”
“It is true that I accepted Swindle’s assistance without asking if he had other duties not on the roster,” Cyclonus said to Onslaught. “My apologies, Onslaught. I would not have diverted him from training if I had known. If you wish, I will rearrange the roster to add an opening for you to hold a replacement session.”
Onslaught frowned, and Swindle hastily said, “And hey, boss, look what I turned up along the way,” and handed him the resonator. “Cyclonus says no sweat taking it.”
“Hmm, this might actually prove useful,” Onslaught said, turning it around. “Very well, Swindle, I’ll tolerate the lapse—this once. But the next time you miss a session, I’ll have you scrubbing re-entry burns off Blast Off’s armor for a week. And I want to hold the replacement session tomorrow,” he added to Cyclonus sharply.
Cyclonus pulled up the roster and studied the options: yes, he could shift a couple of other training sessions to leave room for the Combaticons to practice; he would also have to transfer two of their maintenance cycles elsewhere, but they would not object to that, and the overall roster had the flexibility available. “It can be done. 1250 hours. Is that acceptable?”
“Yes, I suppose it is,” Onslaught said, mollified. “I’m glad at least you fix your mistakes.”
“When I can,” Cyclonus said.
Onslaught looked around the room. “It’s certainly high time the mess down here was straightened out, too. I don’t suppose you’ve been keeping a catalogue? Knowledge of available resources is the critical data point for the formulation of strategy.”
“I would personally argue that knowledge of the enemy’s resources takes the primacy,” Cyclonus said, “but yes, the catalogue is in process in the shared data channel.”
Onslaught’s head swung sharply around. “Is it possible you’re referring to Lirixian theory?”
“Indeed,” Cyclonus said.
“What the hell’s Lirixian theory?” Swindle said, eyeing them both.
The remainder of the sorting was enlivened considerably by Onslaught following Cyclonus around the room arguing strategic schools of thought; he even began to assist with moving the materials around, and an hour into the conversation said, “Wait, you can’t still be on duty cycle. Let’s go have a round of Tanaxian War in the officers’ mess.”
“I cannot,” Cyclonus said. “Megatron has ordered me to remain below the training deck until the storerooms have been sorted.”
“You’re being punished because Starscream couldn’t murder you competently? How unreasonable.”
Cyclonus shrugged. “I do not find it so.”
“Oh, of course you don’t, you’re one of those lunatics who thinks Brilior was on to something, aren’t you? Yes, it’s written all over you.” Onslaught suddenly leaned back and frowned at him intently, then huffed out a breath. “Do you know, I’m starting to think Starscream’s absolutely right for once.”
“What?” Cyclonus said, startled.
“Megatron’s not stupid enough to fall for Brilior, but it’s perfectly obvious he’d like to, isn’t it? Yes, I rather think Starscream’s days are finally numbered in the double-digits, unless of course you’re some really magnificent fake.” Onslaught paused and looked around the immense storeroom, then turned to look narrow-eyed at Cyclonus for several moments more before saying decisively, “Let’s say you’re not a fake. All right, let’s speed this up.” He tapped his comlink. “Combaticons, report to the storage room on level nine.”
The Combaticons were generally disinclined to cooperate with one another, much less anyone else, but Brawl still remembered the previous day’s training session with pleasure, and all of them expressed having enjoyed Starscream’s discomfiture. With their many hands, the work accelerated considerably, and Cyclonus did not refuse the help, but he was conscious of disturbed emotions. Onslaught had not offered his assistance from some sort of odd generosity, of course. He truly thought there was a significant chance Megatron would replace Starscream with him, in the relatively near future, and he was making the calculated choice of spending a little of his soldiers’ time now in order to establish a healthy relationship with a new executive officer.
It was a foolish conclusion to leap to. Starscream had served as second-in-command for millions of years; Megatron knew him intimately, both his flaws and virtues, and had never seen fit to replace him before now. It had already been peculiar for Megatron to promote a newcomer to officer rank at all; to make him second-in-command as abruptly would be ludicrous. And yet…Onslaught was not a fool. Of course, the cost to him was small, and the reward potentially great. At worst, he gained the good will of the officer in charge of the roster. But it was strange that he should even consider it a possibility, enough of one to speak aloud.
Cyclonus did not know why it left his emotions unsettled. He did not aspire to the position. He wanted nothing more than to step back into his place by Galvatron’s side, but until that place existed, he had no personal ambition to strive for; he desired only to do what he could to strengthen the Decepticons as a whole. Then again, perhaps it was that desire which stirred him, borne of his distaste for Starscream. Megatron was not his lord, but he was unquestionably a great warrior and a commander of vision. He deserved better in his second than Starscream. It was…distressing to any Decepticon warrior to see him so ill-served. It angered Cyclonus once again to think that Galvatron had only arisen through the vicious act of a self-serving traitor.
His shoulders sought to shudder, involuntarily; he firmly controlled the movement.
Together, they completed the reorganization in only three more hours, and Cyclonus gladly granted Onslaught his game afterwards when the request was renewed; diving into the complex depths of Tanaxian War demanded the full concentration of his processor and his logic and strategic units, and drove all churning emotions back beneath the surface where they belonged. However, he realized too late he had not considered external factors as well as he should have: shortly after they added on the sixth board, Starscream appeared in the officers’ mess, took an incredulous double-take over at them, and went right out again.
Onslaught sniggered as soon as he’d left the room. “Oh, it’s delicious. Like watching an electrovole wander straight into the mouth of a charnolite.”
Cyclonus compressed his jaw, angry with himself. “This does not serve the cause,” he said, low.
“Is that a joke?” Onslaught looked up at him, raising his eyebrow. “You’ve been here for five days. Are you really telling me that hasn’t been ample time for you to determine that you’d be a massive improvement over Starscream? It’s only taken me about an hour in your company, and I had to consider the possibility that you were putting on a false front.”
“I would thank you for the compliment, if I could take it so,” Cyclonus said dryly. “But disrupting the established command structure has its own costs.”
Onslaught shrugged slightly. “You can’t make durasteel without running a smelter.”
Cyclonus had to suppress the urge to argue with him further; Onslaught was too good a strategist himself, and the game had given him too much opportunity to assess Cyclonus’s own skills. If Cyclonus continued to argue the point, Onslaught would very quickly begin to suspect not that Cyclonus was mistaken, but that he possessed some relevant data that Onslaught himself did not—and since he indeed did, Cyclonus could not afford to have Onslaught begin to pry.
Megatron strode into the mess five minutes later with real irritation in his eyes and Starscream on his heels; he put his glowing optics on Cyclonus. “The storerooms?” he demanded.
“The reorganization is complete,” Cyclonus said. “Thanks in large part to the assistance of Commander Onslaught and his team, who offered their aid.”
“Did they,” Megatron said, turning narrowed eyes on Onslaught.
“The Combaticons are always ready to do our part for the cause,” Onslaught said sententiously, putting a hand over his breastplate, and gestured at the game structure. “Also, you can’t really expect me to pass up a chance at wringing a game out of a competent partner. Care to join us? I estimate we could reach seventeen boards.”
Megatron glanced at the game impatiently, and then paused, caught by the intriguing action developing at the intersection of the fourth, fifth, and sixth boards; after a moment he jerked his head back away from it. “I wonder if you’ve thought your priorities through,” he snapped.
Onslaught had his hand hovering over a piece. He paused and looked across the table at Cyclonus for a long considering moment; his eyes drifted to the same intersection, and then he raised his head and looked Megatron directly in the face. “Do you know, I believe I have,” he said, softly.
Cyclonus stiffened, and saw Megatron do the same. Onslaught might as well have stood up and declared before the room that he was siding with Cyclonus. Which implied there was a side to be taken. He glared at Onslaught himself. Even under Galvatron’s far more absolute rule, the desires and opinions of senior officers and especially team leaders had demanded careful negotiation—by Cyclonus and not Galvatron himself, of course, but nevertheless. Here—if they chose, as Onslaught just had, to express a desire for change, Cyclonus felt certain that Megatron would not ignore their wishes. He would not be governed by them in so significant a matter, but he would—consider. And more than that—he would explicitly demonstrate that he considered, so that even should he decide against their will, they would feel that he had given their opinions their due respect.
And Starscream was not in fact an idiot; he had gone from seething irritation to the stillness of flat-out rage. He too had understood the remark and its implications. Whatever smoothing of his ailerons Megatron had achieved was surely ruined now.
Megatron stood a moment with his own face hard as well. Then he said, “I’m delighted with all this newfound enthusiasm. In fact, I’m finding it inspirational.” He turned and barked out, “We’re going on the Autobot City sabotage raid now. Departure time thirty minutes. Starscream, send out the plan and scramble all aerial fighters. You’re in charge in the air. I’ll command ground forces. Onslaught, Motormaster, Scrapper, assemble your teams.” And then he turned and looked hard down at Cyclonus. “You’ll liaise among them,” he said flatly before he turned and strode out of the room.
It was as good a balance as Megatron could have struck: rather than leaving the matter festering, he meant to throw it immediately into the field, and offer Starscream a chance to re-establish his primacy by leading a successful raid, while giving Onslaught the mere sop of offering his candidate a chance to demonstrate a little leadership in an unnecessary role. It was as much support as he could have given Starscream without outright insulting Onslaught; but that plainly did not content Starscream: he threw a look of savage hatred at Megatron’s back that made Cyclonus reach instinctively for his gun in subspace. Then Starscream looked back around at Onslaught and said murderously soft, “I won’t forget this,” and whirled and left.
The plan of attack was already coming over the data line: it was indeed tactically sound, Cyclonus noted, although it relied a little too heavily for his taste on the aerial forces, given the city’s already-active anti-aircraft guns. If any substantial part of the air cover was knocked out, the ground troops could be caught in an awkward situation during their withdrawal.
“Will you keep Vortex and Blast Off from the front lines?” he asked Onslaught even as they rose from the table, abandoning the game.
“If certain elements don’t taunt them right into it,” Onslaught said dryly, glancing at Motormaster and Scrapper as the other two team leaders approached.
Cyclonus nodded and looked at them. “Perhaps Drag Strip, Brawl, and Bonecrusher would care to join me in the initial rush,” he suggested. “I will ask Megatron for the honor, if you are all in agreement, and do my best to ensure none of them take damage which might bar their combining.”
“Hmm,” Scrapper said, eyeing him sidelong, clearly dubious.
“You haven’t seen him taking ’em down,” Motormaster told Scrapper. “Yeah, you can have Drag Strip. Just as well to let him cool his engines off at the start a little. Just leave a few of them for the rest of us!”
Megatron was in his private pre-launch chamber making minor adjustments to his fusion cannon. “If you can talk their team leaders into it,” he said with curt impatience, when Cyclonus made the request. “Good luck with that, by the way.”
“They have already agreed.”
Megatron jerked his head up. “They—” He cut his rising incredulity off and just stared at him. After a moment he said savagely, “Tell me, do you actually think I’m going to make you second in command after you’ve been here less than a week?”
“No,” Cyclonus said grimly. “Onslaught’s support was not solicited.”
“Then where did it come from!” Megatron snarled at him. “Do you seriously expect me to believe he stuck his neck out for no reason? Starscream’s going to have the knives out for him, too, now.”
“Of course he did not,” Cyclonus said. “He thinks—” He stopped, recognizing belatedly that he was not offering an improvement. “He claims to think you will,” he corrected, for what little good it was.
“I see. So he’s decided to take on Starscream for virtually no reason, and you’re playing along with it?” Megatron said silkily.
“No reason?” Cyclonus said. “Megatron, Onslaught has ample reason to desire a change. He has three grossly undisciplined team members; his strategic plans are routinely rendered useless because they run amok in the field and his tactical processor is incapable of compensating in realtime. Starscream should be offering him assistance both with discipline and with tactical calculations in the field; instead he writes personnel reports mocking him when he does not actively cast blame.”
“How the hell did you find that out? If you’re going to tell me Onslaught told you—”
“No, his pride would never allow such a thing,” Cyclonus said. “But I reviewed all personnel reports before generating the roster, and half an hour of Tanaxian War offered ample illustration of the speed mismatch between his strategic and tactical units.”
Megatron drew back from him slightly; his anger was now visibly warring with something more like bewilderment. “And why did Motormaster agree?” he demanded.
“We engaged in a ground-combat simulator run yesterday,” Cyclonus said. “It went well, and gave him confidence I could keep my assurance of making sure Drag Strip suffered no injury that would bar his combining.” He paused, considering, and then added, “And Starscream routinely belittles the value of ground action and favors aerial units, which plainly irritates and offends him and his team members.”
Megatron said through his teeth, “And Scrapper?”
Cyclonus shrugged. “He permitted himself to be persuaded by Motormaster, I assume because Bonecrusher is given to hurling himself into the front lines regardless of restraint anyway, meaning he loses little by acquiescing, and gains some chance of my shielding Bonecrusher from the worst consequences of his battle-lust.”
Megatron ground his jaw, as if Cyclonus had offended him. “You have an answer for everything, it seems.” He leaned in, his optics flaring. “I suggest you make sure your battlefield performance today is equally flawless. Because if you give me any excuse, I’m breaking you back to warrior when it’s over, and Onslaught and Motormaster can go jump in the ocean if they don’t like it! I don’t care if Starscream hurts their damned feelings! This is a war, not an Autobot pleasure tour, and we’re on a precipice! I’m not turning my command structure upside down five seconds before the Autobots establish a massive strategic advantage over Earth’s energon supply!”
“I understand,” Cyclonus said quietly.
“I don’t care whether you understand!” Megatron snapped, and stalked out of the chamber to the launch room.
Cyclonus analyzed the plan of attack further as they flew. He was forced to admit that despite the slight imbalance towards aerial power, the design was more than merely competent: it was subtle and well-thought-out in every respect. The small initial rush against the west wall was meant to both do some damage in another location and also pull the Autobots out of the city in that direction, leaving the north wall vulnerable for the opening of the main assault, during which the still-under-construction north tower would be wide open for aerial bombardment runs that the Seekers could take turns doing in between providing air cover to the ground assault. The antiaircraft guns were a danger, but the Seekers were exceptionally maneuverable and skillful, and it was not unreasonable to expect them to evade successfully, especially as three of the Aerialbots were likely still out of commission.
Cyclonus took his small team ahead of the main body, opening a ten minute gap, and then landed some distance from the west wall and ordered Bonecrusher to take point in vehicle mode. He, Brawl, and Drag Strip all charged just on his heels, firing their weapons ahead of him to soften up the wall. A pack of eight Autobots came boiling out of the nearest city gate almost immediately, but their firepower was relatively weak at the distance. “Ignore them until they close to melee range!” he ordered. “Keep your fire focused on the wall!” By the time they reached the wall, it had been sufficiently damaged that Bonecrusher barely checked his momentum: he smashed into it and tore a massive gaping hole, then reversed out and tore still more.
“Keep at it!” Cyclonus roared at him. “Drag Strip, Brawl, fall in!” They turned and made a wall of themselves in front of Bonecrusher as the Autobots came charging towards them. “Target their weapons!” He suited action to command and they took out four enemy guns before they managed to close, which would seriously hamper their ability to threaten the aerial units later in the battle. Then the Autobots were on them.
Brawn gave a roar and barreled directly towards him head down. Cyclonus planted himself in a crouch as if to receive, then threw himself in a dive over the short Autobot, who managed to plow himself destructively into the very wall he was attempting to defend. Mirage was only a few paces behind, trusting to his cloaking device to cover him even though he was standing on dirt, not steel: the earth was slightly depressed beneath his feet. Cyclonus took him in a tackle, smashing him into the ground, and sprang onward to seize Jazz by the arm before he could use his sonic weapon. Cyclonus swung him around and hurled him bodily into Bluestreak, letting the two of them topple into a heap that tangled two other of the Autobots.
He backed away swiftly afterwards, catching Brawl by the arm before his enthusiasm could lead him too far into the mass of troops. “Keep in supporting range!” he ordered, and threw a quick glance behind: Bonecrusher was still widening the hole in the wall with gleeful yowls at the destruction he was creating.
“More Decepticons incoming at the north wall!” Prowl was yelling. “We’ve got to knock these ones out fast! That big one in front, that’s Cyclonus; hit him with everything you’ve got!”
“Flank them!” Cyclonus ordered Brawl and Drag Strip, instantly.
“Uh, you sure?” Drag Strip said.
“Go!” Cyclonus said. He threw full power into his head and torso shields and fell into a half-crouch that dropped his center of gravity. Then he simply switched off the antigrav in his legs and let the Autobots pound on the armor Wheeljack had made him to resist exactly that; the warp engines in his legs were so enormously heavy without the antigrav compensating that their blows could not easily knock him over, and meanwhile they were being compressed into a small wedge by Brawl and Drag Strip. When they were so close they began fouling each other’s swings, Cyclonus shouted, “Bomb them!” and rapid-fired three concussion missiles into the massed pack that went off with a cacophonous roar along with Brawl and Drag Strip’s own bombs. It threw nearly all the Autobots off their feet at the least, and many of them lay groaning on the ground after.
Explosions in the distance indicated that the main assault had gotten underway. “Decepticons, withdraw and rendezvous with your teams!” Cyclonus ordered, and waited until the others had gotten off the ground before following them aloft. He tossed two more bombs into the large gaping wound Bonecrusher had left in the wall, to increase the damage and throw shrapnel among the Autobots as they struggled back to their feet, then caught up.
The north wall was already heavily pockmarked when they joined the main assault, but there was heavy resistance building as well: Optimus Prime and a host of other Autobots were firing down from the top of the wall as the Protectobots swiftly ferried away the human workers, and as Cyclonus landed at Megatron’s shoulder, the Dinobots came charging from within the city—but, with Grimlock in the lead, actually charged through it, smashing a massive hole themselves.
“Grimlock, no!” Optimus Prime cried out in dismay, too late.
Megatron actually laughed aloud. “Those dimwitted dolts will do half the work for us! Constructicons, start hitting that wall—you can’t let the Dinobots outdo you! The rest of you, let the Autobots taste your fire—and focus on any of them that try for the air units!” He stretched his arm forth and blasted a dangling chunk of the wall to drop three Autobots flailing off of it; Motormaster led the Stunticons in a rolling charge against them, and Prime leapt from the wall to help confront them, and the hand-to-hand battle was joined in earnest.
Cyclonus had always tried to keep near Galvatron’s side in fighting; Galvatron was virtually unstoppable as an offensive force, but when battle-fury overtook him, he left himself vulnerable. But Megatron fought with far more wariness. This raid was nothing near the no-holds-barred fight that had led to disaster: they were here only to damage the city and withdraw, taking as little damage in return as possible, and Megatron was controlling his exposure accordingly. Cyclonus soon gave himself the liberty to start roving more widely across the battlefield, giving support and assistance to any Decepticons who were in danger of being overwhelmed. He had established a back channel among himself, Motormaster, Onslaught, and Scrapper; he used a compressed data stream to keep all three updated on the relative positions of their forces, and alerted them when any one member was exposed or separated too far from the others.
The plan of battle called for only one of the combiners to form, and only for the final blows, after the assault had already created weakness in the city’s structures that could be exploited with a few massive strikes. A careful balance had to be struck: the combiners were extraordinarily powerful, but they also had inevitable vulnerabilities, and the consequences of injury were extreme. When a combiner took damage, every member of the team generally suffered, and if they were knocked apart, severely so. It was critically important to maintain the option whenever possible, but it was an option used only judiciously and in extreme circumstances. In this instance, Megatron would decide which of the titans to summon into the field at the last minute, based on the situation on the ground when they achieved the target level of damage.
A situation, Cyclonus suddenly realized, which was worsening even as they approached that level: they had lost a significant amount of air cover, and more Autobot defenders were popping up along the wall and pounding them with fire unopposed. A quick scan revealed that the Seekers had focused their attention too much on the north tower, which was indeed weakening, but leaving the ground troops exposed.
Just as Cyclonus reached his conclusion, Megatron roared over the general channel, “Starscream, you idiot! Leave that tower alone and get the aerial cover back here! We’re done! Constructicons, Combaticons, fall back and cover our withdrawal; Stunticons, prepare to form Menasor!”
“At once, Megatron!” Starscream said. “All aerial units, fall back, alpha-12!” Cyclonus began backing away with Onslaught and Scrapper, firing steadily along with both teams to give Motormaster cover; Megatron himself had moved nearer the front to compensate for the lack of air cover: his cannon blasts were powerful enough to force multiple Autobots to duck for cover and jump away with every one. Cyclonus paused even as they fell back; as the immediate pressure of battle fell away, his tactical unit was more thoroughly processing the wider board before him, and there was something—
He searched the database for maneuver alpha-12—it was present, but he had reviewed every last aerial maneuver two days ago after the last debacle, and it had been altered. The contents had been exchanged with maneuver alpha-34, a careful evasive pattern ideal for the situation. But until two days ago, alpha-12 had been a straightforward linear flight path, and that was the one that the Seekers were all actually flying. A pattern that did not even require cybernetic intelligence to identify; a simple low-level neural network could follow it, and even as Cyclonus jerked his head up, the city’s guns began blasting freely among them.
“You morons!” Starscream was yelling. “Alpha-12! I said alpha-12!” He himself was flying the more complex pattern, weaving easily among the bolts.
“What the hell, Starscream!” Thundercracker yelled back.
“It’s too late! Get more elevation and get away from those guns! Megatron, we can’t make it back to you! I’ll do what I can!” Starscream shouted, and then immediately launched two massive cluster bombs at the damaged wall, one landing too far and blasting Motormaster and Dead End off their feet, and the other—destroying the wall right in front of Megatron, blasting it into shreds and raining a hail of shrapnel over him.
“Autobots! Target Megatron!” Optimus Prime shouted instantly, and all of them seized the opening and started blasting him at once. Megatron threw up an arm over his optics and started blasting return fire as he backed away, but even as he tried to withdraw, Silverbolt and Slingshot appeared in the air with Swoop, blocking an aerial escape, and the Protectobots came roaring through the gap and swerved around him to cut off his retreat—and they began to form into Defensor.
“Oh, that clever, clever bastard,” Onslaught said, half-admiringly, from their distance. “Megatron really might have had it this time.”
“Not while I function!” Cyclonus snarled. “Onslaught! Take charge of the retreat! Get Vortex and Blast Off in there to cover you, and pull out the Stunticons! I am going for Defensor.”
“Have you lost your mind?” Onslaught shouted after him, but Cyclonus was already pounding forward across the field towards Megatron’s position. Defensor was straightening up, raising his fist, that same mighty fist that had served the Quintessons, at the end. Megatron could not even fully turn to face him; the Autobots had him pinned under a torrential rain of blaster fire that he couldn’t afford to take on his back armor.
Cyclonus hit the flat metal foundations of the city and transformed, pushing off it. He still had the dorium-plated nosecone Wheeljack had made him: every single molecule formed painstakingly one after another over the course of a month, the strongest material known to Cybertronian science—and as yet unknown, here. He aimed straight for the back of Defensor’s knee, and fired his thrusters at full power.
Defensor cried out in his deep harmonic voice as Cyclonus came plunging into his knee. As he crumpled, his full massive weight began to come down upon Cyclonus’s back with crushing force, but the nosecone had done massive piercing damage; Cyclonus blasted his launch thrusters again and forced his way completely through, ripping Streetwise entirely off the rest of the body, metal screaming around him as it gouged deep furrows into his hull. As Defensor came apart and the rest of the Protectobots collapsed into a heap behind him, Cyclonus burst through and skidded nearly into the dirt at Megatron’s side and opened his cockpit.
Megatron fired three massive blasts at the Autobots still pouring fire down on his head, and leaped inside. Prime was leading a charge directly at them, the Dinobots alongside him, and the aerial escape was still blocked. Cyclonus checked his fuel capacity: he was at 7%. It would be enough; barely, but enough. “Hold on!” he told Megatron, and ignited his warp sequence.
The entire world stretched around them like elastic for a single agonizingly long moment, a high thin whine emitted as his warp engines fought off Earth’s gravity: going into warp in the gravity well of a planet was brutally expensive and brutally unpleasant. But he ignored the howling of his pain circuitry and fed every last drop of his energon reserves into the engine, and abruptly gravity lost the battle: he snapped forward and dived out of the universe, skimming the oceanic dazzle of raw spacetime like a rock skipping over water, only the barest single hop, and plunged back into it not even one fuel pump cycle later, emerging over the Pacific.
His visual sensors had difficulty processing the location. His fuel was nearly entirely expended. Megatron was transmitting the code to the base himself; Cyclonus flopped gracelessly into the opening as the sea tower raised for them. It was blessedly quiet inside: everyone else was still on the other side of the planet. Megatron climbed out. Cyclonus managed with an effort to transform. False sparks were skittering over his vision despite the dark, and he was light-headed: the old familiar signs of complete energon depletion. His systems were going to stall out. He tried to tell Megatron, but his vocal unit was already shutting down: noncritical systems were going.
“I suppose it’s my own damn fault for ordering you to be flawless,” Megatron was growling at him. “But what the hell am I going to do with you?”
Cyclonus had no opportunity to offer a suggestion; his optics shut down, and he fell to the ground, and unconsciousness claimed him.
“Megatron, you wouldn’t believe the complexity of his circuitry,” Hook was saying in passionate fervor. “Are you sure I can’t dissect just a little piece—a finger, even—”
“Shut up! If you so much as scrape a micrometer of coating off his chassis, I’ll take you to pieces,” Megatron snarled, “and I won’t dissect you neatly, either! I ordered you to get him functional again, not give me a technical analysis!”
“I would put it back afterwards,” Hook muttered sulkily. “Anyway, the repairs are already done! The worst thing wrong with him was he’d run out of energon. His engines—ohh, his engines, what I could do with his engines—his engines are gloriously efficient, but even he can’t go to warp in a planetary well on seven percent capacity, even with a forty astroliter tank.”
“He was at seven percent?”
“Yes!” Hook said eagerly. “And I looked up the refueling logs: he was only at twelve percent when he went out, can you imagine, he fought that entire battle on two astroliters—Megatron, please, if I could pop out his fuel pump for just a single sca-aan,” his voice squeaked suddenly higher, and then he was saying hastily, “Yes, of course, sorry, point taken: what I meant to say is, I’ve got him hooked onto a refueling line, I’ll just turn it up a bit more, shall I…”
Megatron was standing at the foot of the repair table glaring ferociously, his arms crossed over his chest, when Cyclonus managed to activate his optics fifteen astroseconds later. Hook was leaning down over him. “There, all better, I trust?” he said brightly.
“Yes,” Cyclonus said. “And Hook, the next time you are tempted to dissect parts of my anatomy, I will disassemble you.”
“Yes, of course,” Hook said, glumly. “I don’t suppose you have your own schematics tucked away in there?”
“Some,” Cyclonus said, sitting up. “But my circuitry requires quantum-etched transistors, which—”
“What?” Hook howled. “Where, how, that’s,” and lunged forward and grabbed him by the breastplate. “Who built you?” he snarled. Cyclonus looked down at him bemused; Hook was nearly dangling off him in an outright frenzy. “Where is—Megatron,” Hook burst out, letting go and whirling around. “I don’t care how great a warrior he is! It’s meaningless! His creator—we have to get his creator here! You’ve got to send someone to Chaar for him instantly—”
“Hook,” Cyclonus interrupted. “He is not on Chaar. He was not a Decepticon.” They both looked at him. “He was…passing through our territory. He made a bargain with our commander.”
“To build you,” Megatron said, his eyes narrow.
Cyclonus nodded. “There had recently been…several casualties. He built me out of their remains.”
“And then your commander just let him go?” Hook said. “What kind of idiot was he!”
“The matter was not under his control,” Cyclonus said dryly.
“Oh…I suppose,” Hook said grudgingly. “If he could build this…” He stared at Cyclonus with avid longing, instinctively drifting closer, his hands coming up as if to paw at Cyclonus’s breastplate. “Do you have any idea where he went?”
“I cannot say for certain,” Cyclonus said. “I have not been in communication with him.”
“We must find him,” Hook said. He turned to Megatron. “We must. Megatron—look, do you have any idea what I could do for your power output if I had this technology? Your cannon—you’d incinerate Autobots with a single shot. Even Prime’s armor couldn’t stand up to it!” He was pleading outright.
“All right, enough,” Megatron growled. “You don’t need to work that hard to persuade me we want to track this mech down.” He looked at Cyclonus. “What’s his name?” he demanded.
Cyclonus was conscious of a strange, irrational reluctance to speak. It was bizarre. He could scarcely have arranged a more effective inducement than Hook’s near-hysterical passion. Megatron would gladly go with him now, if Cyclonus told him that he had located his own creator and persuaded him to give Megatron the gift of the same technology. It was all he might have hoped for. But he had to restart his vocal unit twice to make it engage. “Unicron,” he said. “His name is Unicron.”
Megatron nodded. “Fine,” he said. “We’ll look into sending out a patrol to Chaar to start looking for him—after we’ve resolved the situation of Autobot City, and no, I don’t want to hear it, Hook,” he added sharply. He jerked his head towards Cyclonus. “Is he battle-ready?”
“Yes,” Hook said sullenly, and started disconnecting the monitoring cables, muttering about short-sighted military types barely under his breath. “Sit there until you’re refueled to capacity, you need it after the total depletion,” he told Cyclonus, still in bitter tones, and stalked away still quietly hissing to himself.
Megatron ignored him; he was still glaring at Cyclonus. “Why haven’t you been drinking a full energon ration?” he barked out. “Some sort of moronic display of stoicism?”
Cyclonus was certain Megatron had not forgotten his assigned energon level; his question was why Cyclonus had kept to it. “I have not been suffering from energon shortage,” he said. “I did not anticipate having to go to warp from the planet’s surface, and I had more than adequate energon to carry out my other duties. Otherwise, I would have informed you and requested an increase in my ration.”
“Yes, you’re hyper-efficient in all respects,” Megatron sneered. “Are you trying to say you like being quarter-fueled all the time?”
“What does what I like have to do with it?” Cyclonus said. “I would no more exceed my assigned ration than I would stab another Decepticon in the back.”
“Don’t be melodramatic. It can’t have escaped your attention that every other officer exceeds their ration.”
“It has not. But I do not permit the behavior of others to dictate mine where theirs seems incompatible with discipline.” Cyclonus hesitated and said, tentatively, “Megatron—I do not—I do not seek comfort. I am a warrior. That is not a mere hollow word for me. It is my calling. I have never found any pleasure that could compare for me with the profound satisfaction of its heights. But no one can reach those heights who seeks them haphazardly, for one moment at a time, then turns aside at the next. To break discipline for so small a thing as the discomfort of low fuel—and for me, a quarter-tank is far from that—would be to lose far more than I would gain.”
He halted there. Megatron was looking at him with that same strange expression from the pre-launch room again, half-angry and bewildered, as though he did not like the explanation, or perhaps did not believe it. But it was the only one Cyclonus could find to give. He had scarcely ever articulated so much before even to himself. He had not needed to. Galvatron had never questioned him, only relied upon him without a thought.
“Well, I’ll spare you the trouble,” Megatron said harshly after a moment. “Start taking a double ration instead, warrior: the way I’m going to use you, you’re going to need it.” He paused and then added, “You’re promoted to commander rank, and I’m putting you in charge of energon acquisition.”
Cyclonus nodded. “Do you wish me to avoid taking Seekers on raids?” The air units were Starscream’s cohort; for Cyclonus to take them on missions would be a clear provocation.
“No,” Megatron said flatly, and turned and left. Soundwave put out the notice of his promotion on the general data feed as a high-priority item less than a minute later.
Cyclonus ignored the congratulatory messages that poured in and instead worked on loading a risk-reward simulation analysis into the base computer running over the full current list of energon acquisition targets. Once he had finished doing so, he pulled up the final battle reports for review while he finished refueling, his jaw tightening in anger as he read them. Starscream's treachery had resulted in far worse consequences than his own temporary collapse: the north tower of Autobot City had sustained damage, but not to the fundamental structure, and they had not been able to capitalize on the weakening of the north wall. The worst actual damage done had been by the Dinobots. In fact, Grimlock had kept the Dinobots fighting on the damaged wall and thereby added even more structural damage to its foundations. But even so, the Autobots would have the damage repaired in perhaps two additional weeks at most.
There was a post-mortem scheduled in an hour. Cyclonus checked his energon levels: he had reached full capacity. He detached the line and levered himself up onto his feet and left the repair bay; Rumble and Frenzy were still scheduled for their training session today. When he arrived at the training room they were in the midst of programming the simulator—or rather hacking the simulator, he noted somewhat resignedly, in order to give themselves targets they could actually smash to pieces, even though those bore not even the most superficial resemblance to any real Autobot. “What use precisely do you imagine this exercise will be to you?” he said, and they both jumped and stared at him.
“What’re you doin’ here?” Rumble said.
Cyclonus looked down at him. “I told you I would join you at your next training session.”
They both stared up at him. “You just got promoted,” Frenzy said.
“Yeah, and you just got clobbered,” Rumble said.
“I have been repaired, I am functioning at 86% capacity, and I have no assigned duty for the next hour,” Cyclonus said. “Let us begin. And not with drones made out of aluminum foil.”
He programmed the simulator to generate an environment rather than targets: a large space full of small obstacles and multiple levels, with very little of the floor exposed. When he was satisfied, he said, “Computer, generate reciprocal targets on both combatants, ten centimeters wide, and track hits.” Rumble and Frenzy looked over each other and pointed and laughed as they saw target dots in bright colors appear in scattered locations over their bodies. Cyclonus nodded. “Your goal in this exercise is to hit the most targets on the other while minimizing the ones you take,” he informed them. “Do not expend more than an astroliter of energon. Wild firing is not the goal.”
He watched them work for half the session, gathering data; then stopped them and made them both do several exercises to start the creation of new neural pathways that would enable them to evade simultaneously while targeting. They managed to keep using the exercises during the session for nearly ten minutes afterwards, a good sign. When they began to lose focus, he stopped them and told them to take the final ten minutes in whatever exercise they liked. “Repeat this session daily for a week, and I will assess your progress and adjust,” he said. “Once the two of you increase both your hits and evasions to more than 100 per session, you will be permitted to come on any raid you wish.”
It had been a satisfying use of the time: their straightforward courage and enthusiasm was heartening. He carried the memory of it with him into the post-mortem as a kind of armor, one he was grateful for as Starscream looked at him from across the room with pure hatred as they all filed in. Megatron stalked in and threw himself into the chair at the head of the table and gestured. “Well, Starscream?” he growled. “Let’s have it.”
Starscream rose and proceeded to shade the truth and outright lie to suggest that the mission had been a success, and more specifically, his success. “The bulk of the Autobot defenders were successfully diverted to the western wall by the initial rush, as I had planned, and considerable structural damage was achieved,” he announced, a blatant exaggeration, which beyond that made no mention of any of the warriors involved, even Bonecrusher, who had singlehandedly caused the damage in question. “The Seekers under my command were able to do considerable damage to the critical north tower, and provided effective cover until those idiots carried out the wrong evasive maneuver—after which, unfortunately, the Stunticons were unable to overcome enemy fire to combine—”
As he went on, around the table the team leaders glared at him with brooding resentment, but none of them spoke to contradict him; Megatron let him speak to the end, his face full of cold, cynical amusement, and then looked around the table. “Anyone care to add to Starscream’s evaluation?” he said.
None of the others spoke. A deep simmering rage was roiling in Cyclonus’s secondary processor, seething violently; he felt it climbing into frontal processing, trying to access his combat systems. He struggled to remind himself that he would serve nothing by spurring any further conflict between himself and Starscream. Megatron and the others clearly knew Starscream was lying, as he surely had lied a thousand times before, a thousand thousand times, and would lie again, scheme again, every day of his existence until at last fortune gave him the chance he did not deserve, a day when his commander, his lord, was wounded almost mortally in casting down their greatest enemy—
“I do have some remarks to add,” Cyclonus said through his teeth, because the only other option his central motivator was offering was to stand up and hurl his chair through Starscream’s cockpit. The others looked at him. “First, I wish to commend the Air Commander for a truly impressive series of contortions and falsehoods. Indeed, if only victory in battle could be achieved through words rather than tiresome and inconvenient deeds, we would surely by now have conquered the galaxy under his illustrious leadership.”
There were poorly suppressed twitches and coughs around the table; Starscream’s optics nearly bulged, and Motormaster brayed an outright laugh. Cyclonus did not pause long enough for anyone to interject. “Second, I wish to suggest that any future alteration to the maneuver databases require notification and mandatory response of all with access to the given database. While it is the responsibility of all soldiers to remain aware of the current maneuvers, it is that of their officers to keep that responsibility from being an excessively challenging one.”
Megatron drawled, “So ordered. Soundwave, see to it.”
“Affirmative,” Soundwave said.
“Any other brilliant ideas?” Megatron said, looking at him.
Cyclonus drew a breath and released it, establishing more control over his emotions. “The coordination of teams was reasonably effective. However, a routine difficulty was the tendency of a few members to stretch the radius their team commanders set, generally in an effort to interact with particular members of other teams in a competitive spirit, resulting in repeated distractions for their commanders at unpredictable moments in the battle. I would suggest deflecting the tendency by ordering those team members to collaborate in combat should they come into proximity, and publishing their combat statistics only in unified form after every battle in which they do so. The arrangement is likely to result in their avoiding one another on the battlefield rather than otherwise.”
When he finished, Megatron was staring at him in open surprise; they all were. Even Starscream looked more taken aback than merely enraged. Onslaught said, “That’s…oddly clever,” in bemused tones.
“I would also suggest adding energon usage to combat statistics for all energon raids, and more generally changing the posted hit statistics to be an average of hits per shots fired,” Cyclonus added. “While the absolute number is the more significant from a tactical perspective, in my experience encouraging energon and targeting discipline has a superior effect on the final outcome.”
He had finished, and so fell silent. After a moment, Megatron said to him flatly, “Get it all done.” He looked round the table. “Anyone else?” No one else said anything. “Splendid. You’re dismissed.” He stood himself and walked out without another word.
“My, actual productive suggestions in a post-mortem,” Onslaught said blandly, standing up after the doors shut. “How—innovative of you, Cyclonus. I’ll have to start engaging my coprocessors for officer meetings from now on if it’s not just going to be theatrical grandstanding anymore.”
“I am sorry to put you to the trouble,” Cyclonus said dryly. He looked across the table as they all rose. “Scrapper, Bonecrusher performed exceptionally in the raid. All structural damage achieved at the western target was accomplished entirely by him, and he maintained discipline and carried out his orders rather than personally seeking battle. Would you prefer to allocate an energon bonus yourself, or have me do so?”
Everyone paused again, as though he’d said something peculiar. It occurred to him belatedly that he remembered meeting some of the same confusion from these officers in the early days of his life—but it had been mitigated, then; the Decepticons had been in crisis, painfully beaten-down, and Scourge had come with no expectations of his own. And of course he himself had not yet truly known how to serve as second-in-command.
And even once he had formulated a sense of what was required of a competent officer, he had never been able to do as he truly thought best. There had been no post-mortems such as this; he had felt them valuable in theory, but two attempts had forced him to give up the idea. He had tried to hold one with Galvatron, who had gone around demanding that each of the officers recount their personal performance during the battle, and threatened to obliterate any of them who had not accomplished enough; they had all hastily counterfeited heroics that Cyclonus had not felt he could dispute under the circumstances. Then he had tried to hold an officers-only post-mortem, and had been forced to shout them all out of the chamber entirely after ten minutes to prevent them devolving from a litany of complaints against their lord into outright treasonous plotting. He too had never known a productive meeting, not while Galvatron…
He repressed the violent shudder that wanted to seize his body, and forced his emotional system to restart. It protested by dumping core, but he could ignore the pain. Scrapper was saying, in slightly wary tones, “I’ll give it myself. And I’ll…tell him you approved.”
Cyclonus nodded. “I also take this opportunity to mention that Megatron has tasked me with energon acquisition. If you have any training sessions of your own,” he inclined his head to Onslaught, “or other team roster items that you wish me to schedule raids around, I ask that you direct them to my data file by 1950 today. The first raid will be tomorrow.”
“How very busy of you,” Starscream said, from the end of the table, his optics seething over folded arms.
“Do you find me so?” Cyclonus said contemptuously. “I am afraid I cannot perform at your level of service to the cause.”
He turned away and stalked out of the room. But anger remained a churning vivid presence on his frontal processors. Starscream had squandered their best chance to truly delay the construction of Metroplex. He had undermined his own raid, exposed his own warriors, tried to murder his own leader—Cyclonus savagely regretted that Megatron had tied his hands; how gladly, how joyfully, he could have shredded Starscream’s frame.
But some of his anger was directed at himself. He, too, had acted wrongly. He recognized that he had just actively challenged Starscream: it was as much as throwing down a gauntlet, signaling that he did after all desire Starscream’s position. And it was one thing to carry out his orders and duties to the best of his ability while awaiting the chance to do his duty to Galvatron; it was another to encourage Megatron to rely upon him, when he was not free to give his personal loyalties. But he could not endure seeing a loathsome traitor in a position of honor and respect; he could not stand by and watch Starscream connive and betray—
His system was so overheated he only noticed the high-priority secure ping after the third signal. He jerked himself out of the spiral of anger and strode quickly onward to his quarters; the door securely shut, he opened a shielded compartment in his thigh and took out one of his remaining handful of channel locks: Soundwave and Wheeljack had developed them together to shield their communications from the Quintessons. He put the device down on the floor and pressed it to establish the undetectable channel, encrypted with a code Soundwave would not generate for thirteen years; when the small round wheel glowed green, he connected and activated his forearm monitor, and Grimlock’s head appeared.
“You Decepticons do rotten sabotage job,” Grimlock said. “Dinobots do more damage than you! Optimus say so.”
“Yes, I am aware,” Cyclonus said grimly. “Starscream disrupted the mission.” The anger seethed upwards again.
“Well, now there big trouble,” Grimlock said. “Optimus tell Dinobots he very disappointed. He sound sad! Now all Dinobots doing their best except me Grimlock! They not want to fight. Not even Snarl. Me Grimlock would have to tell them secret to make them fight, but Swoop not keep secret from Powerglide if I tell him, and other Dinobots not keep secret from Swoop if I tell them. And if Powerglide know, everybody know! Slugs on some other planet know! Then Optimus know too for sure.”
Cyclonus nodded. “No; you cannot tell them. Have you heard anything from Ironhide?”
Grimlock shook his head. “Optimus send message to get him to come back to Earth,” he said heavily. “Ironhide not answer. Cosmos not answer either. Optimus worried they run into Decepticon patrol somewhere.”
Cyclonus rubbed a hand over his face.
“And us running out of time,” Grimlock said. “Optimus say Decepticons will keep trying so we got to hurry up. Wheeljack and Ratchet and First Aid not fix anyone else anymore. They working all time down in Metroplex brain. And humans working all over city now too. More people come today. Spike tell Optimus, everybody agree they not care if Decepticons hurt them, they want city finished. They all volunteer for job. And Optimus say yes!”
Cyclonus frowned. “He agreed to let more humans endanger themselves?”
Grimlock nodded. “Protectobots make big stink. They not like humans in danger. But Optimus say, all humanity in danger. He say that matter more. Protectobots still not happy but Optimus say that final and stop talking and they stop.”
“That is indeed unfortunate,” Cyclonus said grimly. He knew, most likely even better than Optimus Prime, how quickly humans could accomplish tasks when they were unleashed in all their teeming masses. He himself had spent the first year of their alliance in a state of routine confusion as joint projects he had laboriously scheduled out over the span of months were completed in weeks. Finally he had realized that he needed to recalibrate his long-term planning processor to use absurdly small time-slices and assume enormous masses of workers performing almost meaninglessly tiny fragments of work instead of one hundred doing a reasonable amount. The resulting difference in time estimates had been so vast that he had redone the calculations three times and then forced five other Cybertronians to reproduce his work before he showed the bizarre calibration settings to Spike, who had just looked at him in puzzlement and said, “Yeah, and?” as if he hadn’t understood the question, and then he’d added, “Although we usually calculate work in hours, not days,” and pointed out the option of using shifts, which only exaggerated the effect.
Cyclonus now used those settings and plugged in the number of human workers Grimlock gave him; a quick calculation produced the alarming number of—twenty days to completion. By inducing the Autobots to bring on more human workers, the sabotage had lost them a day.
Grimlock shook his head. “Me Grimlock gotta go. Somebody catch me talking with weird green thingy, they ask what it is.” He paused and then added abruptly, “Cyclonus, you OK for Decepticon, so me Grimlock be honest with you. If Megatron come, me Grimlock tell all Dinobots about Optimus dying, and we all fight to kill Megatron first. Me Grimlock will lead them.”
“I know,” Cyclonus said quietly, “And if that battle should be joined, I will stand in your way. Farewell, Grimlock. It will be an honor to face you upon the field, should we meet there.”
Grimlock nodded. “You too, Cyclonus. Good luck. Me hope me not have to kill you.”
Cyclonus cut the connection and bowed his head. His anger had been consumed by rising despair. Sabotage had failed. All further attempts would now be washed away by the vast tidal wave of human hands. And soon—too soon—Megatron would realize that the city was progressing even faster than he had anticipated. Then he would inevitably make the only decision a true Decepticon warrior could make: he would choose battle, a final, no-holds-barred battle, risking all on their valor and fury, rather than allowing the Autobots to gain a decisive advantage that would let them slowly but inevitably creep their grip back over Cybertron. Even if Cyclonus told Megatron of his peril, that decision would not change. Nor would Cyclonus wish it to change. It was the correct decision. It was Starscream who had failed the Decepticons, by calling the retreat. Better had they all died in battle that day at Autobot City, fighting to the end over the fallen body of their leader, who had led them in honor to the end; better that by far than being driven from Cybertron, better that than to fall from this to the grotesque mockery of Chaar—
Better, except for the unchecked horror of the Quintessons to come, a horror that would engulf the Autobots forever without end if there were no Decepticons to save them. Cyclonus tried to persuade himself that it would be the Autobots’ own doing, if it came to that; he could not. He remembered involuntarily Rodimus Prime’s face, his clutching hand and final whisper: Kill us. Please kill us.
He rested his head in his hand. He did not know what to do.
The base computer signaled him: his risk-return simulations had completed. He could scarcely induce himself to open the results; what did it matter? But—discipline remained, even when all else was gone. He opened the results and looked at the list of targets. It was almost unimaginably long and rich, like some kind of mockery; the tertiary targets were worth ten times more than the most ambitious of his raids from Chaar. If he’d unleashed the systematic low-level raiding technique he’d tried to use on Charr on these targets—
He stopped suddenly, staring at the list. Then he jerked forward and began to make the calculations—he had twenty days; twenty days of raiding. If he simply jettisoned every single target with a combat risk rating over 10%, that still left him with more than twenty thousand targets. All of them from the tertiary list; that was why they’d been ignored. They were used for quick refueling stops where they would not be interrupted, not for serious raiding. A low risk rating was not truly a value: Decepticons did not avoid battle.
But they would now.
“Hey, Cyclonus, I don’t get it,” Rumble said to him on the first raid, the next morning, waving an arm in confusion around the large gasoline station; cars stood abandoned all around. The humans had all fled as soon as they had landed; on the other side of the nearby trees, the highway was crammed with abandoned cars as well. “This place has bupkis. We’re not gonna get more than two hundred astroliters out of it.”
“Get them as quickly as possible,” Cyclonus said. “We have another three targets to hit.”
“What, on this raid?”
“Yes,” he said flatly.
His party—Drag Strip, Dead End, Rumble, and Astrotrain—were all moderately irritated by the end of the proceedings. “So what gives?” Astrotrain said, glaring at him. “We’ve flown halfway around the planet and back for piddly little crap targets, and we haven’t seen a single Autobot.”
“Yes,” Cyclonus said. “Take the assembled energon to the spacebridge and send it to Shockwave.”
“Huh?” Astrotrain said. “We’ve only got six hundred astroliters, that’s not worth sending. It costs thirty every time you open the damn thing.”
“Follow my orders,” Cyclonus said flatly. “I am going to rendezvous with the next raiding party.”
“Did he say there’s another raid going out today?” Drag Strip said to Dead End, who only shrugged slightly.
Blitzwing, Scavenger, and Bonecrusher were similarly irritated by the conclusion of the second raid. Cyclonus ignored the rapidly increasing mutters throughout the base over the next three days and kept them at it. Starscream smirked at him across the room when Motormaster confronted him in the main mess with half a dozen other warriors behind him and said, “Cyclonus, what the hell!” There was a great deal of supportive murmuring all around.
Cyclonus looked at him and said quietly, “In the last three days, we have sent five thousand astroliters to Cybertron. After the cost of operating the spacebridge, and refueling.”
Motormaster stared at him. The muttering died completely, and the smirk fell off Starscream’s face.
“I know that this style of raiding cannot be satisfying to any of you,” Cyclonus said, looking around the room. “It is not to me, either. We are warriors by nature, and it goes against the grain to avoid battle rather than seek it out. But it is the Autobots who have chosen to hide from us—behind the vast wall of their city-warrior. When their colossus is complete, there will be no more large-scale raiding possible. Whenever we set forth in real numbers, they will no longer come and fight honorably, risking themselves in battle to stand in our way. They will simply send their city-warrior to block us bodily. And we cannot stop them building it forever. This must be our answer.”
He turned back to Motormaster. “Beginning tomorrow, we are adding still more raiding parties. You will be commanding two each day. Take two of the Stunticons with you each time, along with Laserbeak or Buzzsaw to give you aerial support and surveillance. Onslaught and Scrapper will also be raiding twice daily, as will I, and any warriors who show effective energon discipline will be considered for promotion to raid leader,” he added, looking around the room. “We will strike as many targets as we can, as swiftly as we can, and send energon in a narrow but steady stream back to Cybertron, offering the Autobots no opportunity to interrupt that stream.
“Let the Autobots build their city,” he said softly, looking around the room, seeing only nods and rising determination: they were with him now, they all had understood. “We will save our own despite them.”
He had avoided assigning Seekers to the first few raids; there had been no necessity, and as little as he cared for Starscream’s feelings, he had preferred to have the first few days to shake out the program without the distraction of the quarrel. However, once the pace of raiding had ramped up, he required them; he wanted at least one air combat unit on each mission, to provide necessary cover at a minimal energy cost should the Autobots actually be able to respond to any given raid.
Starscream was still scheduling sabotage runs against Autobot City, but he had not bothered to send Cyclonus his schedule; the natural consequence was that a conflict arose—and indeed within two days, Skywarp did not appear for his scheduled raid.
Cyclonus docked his energon and sent Astrotrain in his place. He found Skywarp later that afternoon in the mess, drinking with Thundercracker and Ramjet: a quick check of the computer indicated that Starscream had authorized an additional energon ration in place of the one he had been docked. Cyclonus went to the table and stood silently at its edge looking at the three of them until Skywarp said, a little warily, “Uh, hey, Cyclonus—I don’t know if Starscream mentioned—”
They all jumped as Cyclonus dropped a bar of coronid alloy on the table in front of them with a loud clang: it was nearly a meter across and considerably thicker than any of the Seeker models’ primary struts. Cyclonus said, “I find a demonstration is necessary.” He indicated the bar. “Scan it.”
They had a rapt audience: Brawl and Vortex were at another table with Rumble; Long Haul and Scavenger had been in conversation over some sort of schematic; they were all now craning their heads to look. Skywarp darted his eyes to the bar nervously; Thundercracker reached out and waved a hand over it. “It’s just solid coronid,” he said.
“Yes,” Cyclonus said. He picked it up in his hands, rerouted power to his shoulders and arms, realigning the billions of nanometer-sized servos throughout his torso and legs to exert maximum shearing force, and tore the bar in half. All three of them flinched back, optics widening. Cyclonus thumped the two halves on the table in his fists, leaning in, and said quietly, “The next time you fail to appear for an assigned raid, I will not dock your energon. I will rip your wings off your frame for insubordination. If you are given conflicting orders, you will inform me immediately so the situation can be dealt with at officer level. I trust I have made myself clear.”
“Yes?” Skywarp said after a moment, slightly high-pitched.
Cyclonus nodded and straightened and looked at Ramjet. “I will see you tomorrow at 0345 for the South American raid.”
“Uh, yeah,” Ramjet said, staring at the two crushed lumps of coronid. “Yeah, I’ll…be there.”
Three days later, Cyclonus was in the training room when Dirge came in—with Ramjet and Thrust at his back, and a somewhat anxious mien—and said, “Uh, Cyclonus—I can’t make the raid tomorrow. I’m on the sabotage run.”
Since the sabotage attempts were occurring only every few days, another conflict so close together was unlikely. Starscream was deliberately cross-assigning personnel. Cyclonus finished tracking and destroying the six targets currently active in his shooting exercise and turned. “You are assigned to the raid,” he said flatly. “Be there. I will inform Starscream personally that you are unavailable for the sabotage run.”
Starscream was in the officers’ mess lounging with his feet up on a table and reading a Tydarian political manual. Cyclonus regarded it and him with distaste. “Is there something you wanted, Cyclonus?” Starscream said lightly, without looking up.
“Dirge is assigned to tomorrow’s raid,” Cyclonus said. “That information has been publicly posted for six days. You have failed to respect it, and you have also failed to post any of the assignments for your own sabotage runs. This interferes with the energon acquisition program I have been ordered to undertake. Do you wish to discuss the situation with our commander, or would you prefer to correct what I am sure was only an innocent misunderstanding?” He didn’t bother keeping the contempt from his voice.
“I’m afraid Dirge’s sonic weaponry is required on this particular run,” Starscream said. “You’ll need to adjust your plans.”
“I have offered you the only options I choose to make available to you,” Cyclonus said. “If you refuse either, I will report to Megatron alone and ask for permission to chastise you for encouraging indiscipline.” He leaned forward and said softly, “I assure you that it would give me great pleasure.”
Starscream’s head came up, his optics flaring into rage. “You dare,” he hissed, discarding the pad and surging to his feet.
“Daring is hardly required,” Cyclonus said. “You are far from what I would consider a worthy opponent. Well? Do we go to Megatron, or will you respect the raiding schedule?”
Starscream visibly swallowed his rage and said after a moment tightly, “You know, Cyclonus, you’re right. I should have checked your schedule. I’m sure there’s a way to resolve any conflicts. I’ll look it over.”
Cyclonus did not bother to respond to the pathetic cowardice of his retreat. He only turned and left in disgust. It did not occur to him that the retreat had been a strategic one until Megatron summoned him to the command center and he found Starscream there with his arms folded. Cyclonus eyed him in irritation.
“I don’t know why the two of you seem to need a referee,” Megatron said icily. “But in case I haven’t made it clear, if you try to turn me into one, the final ruling will be permanent. Why aren’t you letting Starscream have Dirge?”
Cyclonus shrugged. “He does not want Dirge. He wants whichever member of the aerial units is assigned to the raid opposite the next sabotage run. If permitted to take them, he will disrupt half a dozen raids over the next week, causing a significant decrease in the amount of energon acquisition.”
“That’s nonsense!” Starscream snapped. “There’s only three sabotage runs over the next week!”
“The remaining raids will be disrupted because the warriors in question will be in the infirmary for repairs after suffering the penalty for insubordination,” Cyclonus said. “Failing to appear for an assigned duty is not acceptable merely because another officer encourages it. Every warrior is responsible for his own conduct.”
“Megatron, this inflexibility is absurd!” Starscream said. “Listen to him! He’s assuming that I’m deliberately undermining his raiding! It’s paranoid nonsense. I’m adjusting the tactical plans for the sabotage runs to correspond to the situation on the ground! The Autobots are moving resources and personnel around the city constantly. I don’t know the best units for the job until virtually the last minute. Meanwhile, his so-called raids haven’t seen a minute of combat since they began. What difference does it make if he swaps someone else out for Dirge!”
“Well?” Megatron said to him.
Cyclonus stared at him, incredulous. “What difference does it make? Megatron, even on a purely first-order pragmatic level, encouraging warriors to neglect their assigned duties has immediate negative consequences, vastly outweighing virtually any possible benefit from a minor tactical adjustment to a sabotage raid—whose entire impact can in any case only be minimal!”
“You haven’t the faintest idea what the impact of my raid will be!” Starscream snapped.
“If you have made Dirge the focal point, you are almost certainly planning a fairly trivial attack against the eastern wall of the city, which is the only location that possesses a substantial number of glass walls whose resonance he might possibly be able to exploit,” Cyclonus said flatly. “In the best case, assuming the Autobots have not taken the fairly routine precaution of installing noise-cancellation units on the inside of the structure, achieving the total success of shattering every last panel would delay the city’s activation point by the two hours required to clean up the glass.”
Megatron snorted, and Starscream stiffened in rage. He whirled towards Megatron. “Is he in charge of the sabotage campaign now too?” he hissed.
Megatron stood up and glared down at him. “Starscream, stop wasting my time. If you want someone he’s assigned to a raid, you don’t order them to skip out on it. You ask him, with at least six hours’ notice. And then, because it doesn’t make a difference in the field, he’ll give you whoever you’ve asked for. And then,” his optics sparking as he picked up steam, “once you’re not having the fun of mucking up his raids, it’s at least slightly possible that you will start using your brain and planning effective sabotage runs!” he finished in a roar. “And if you don’t, then maybe he will end up in charge of the campaign! Now both of you, get out!”
Cyclonus left with the dawning realization that he had once again allowed his dislike of Starscream to lead him astray—and that Onslaught had been closer to the mark than he realized, after all. Megatron was no longer trying find a way to stabilize the two of them so he could make use of a valuable new officer without disrupting his command hierarchy. Instead he was beginning the process of replacing his executive officer. It was the only explanation for the exchange that had just occurred. Megatron hardly needed to be told why it was inadvisable to let soldiers ignore their assignments. What he did need was more evidence that Cyclonus could do Starscream’s job. And Cyclonus had just provided him with precisely that.
The pragmatic balance had tipped, and Megatron was pursuing it with ruthless speed. He would not commit at once—he would not act incautiously. But his direction was perfectly clear. He would now gradually but systematically transfer responsibility onto Cyclonus’s shoulders, away from Starscream’s; he would piece by piece hand over more of his trust, until he had given it fully, or until—until he had been given some cause to halt, or— Cyclonus abruptly discarded the train of thought and forcibly loaded back in the assessments he had been working on when Megatron’s summons had interrupted him. It was not his responsibility to evaluate Megatron’s actions. He could only follow his own duty.
Nevertheless, it was very little surprise to him the following morning when Megatron appeared without announcement in the conference room off the launch chamber. The day’s raid leaders were assembled for the quick briefing Cyclonus usually gave: he reviewed the expected, minimum acceptable, and maximum energon guidelines for every target, along with energy expenditure limits as well; then the possible Autobot avenues of response, along with their relative likelihood. Even as he did so, however, he was mentally revising those chances considerably downward.
Megatron remained at the back of the room through the briefing, watching silent and intent. Cyclonus did not interrupt or alter the procedure; Megatron clearly wanted to observe, not assume command. Most of the others did not even notice he was there until the briefing ended, then did small double-takes as they left the room—except for Onslaught, who glanced back at Cyclonus and smirked meaningfully. Afterwards Megatron came to the front of the room and said blandly, “You’re taking the first raid? I’ll come along; I need a little exercise.”
“As you wish,” Cyclonus said grimly. “In that case, I would prefer to add Rumble and Frenzy to the raid list, and authorize preemptive activation of energy weapons systems.”
Megatron frowned. “Did you say Rumble and Frenzy?”
“They have significantly improved their targeting efficiency over the last week, and have no energon expenditure for transport. I am assuming that you desire the raid to remain characteristic, even though the Autobots are virtually certain to respond in force at our third target of the day if you are present.”
Megatron glared at him. “It’s possible you’re too clever for your own good. Fine, call up the terrible two, and let’s get moving.”
Cyclonus was more concerned than he felt he could say. He had always disliked it when Galvatron exposed himself on the field, particularly without a sufficient strategic advantage to be gained. But of course, Megatron did have a strategic goal: to see his prospective second in the field, evaluate his command style, and for that matter, to see what Cyclonus did when he found himself commanding in an unequal situation. He had clearly judged it worth the risk; that did not, however, in any way obviate the need for Cyclonus to consider his commander’s defense.
The third target was too close for his liking to Autobot City itself. It was not impossible at all to predict the final targets of each raid given the constraints Cyclonus was working with; Teletran-One was certainly capable of doing so. The reason the Autobots had not been attacking was that Cyclonus had deliberately chosen those third targets so that the likelihood of harm to humans was significantly increased if the Autobots came and provoked armed combat. That robbed the Autobots of their strongest emotional incentive for battle—which, odd as he found it, they required. Indeed, he might almost have been willing to rely on that protection, even with Megatron there as enticement—but not if Grimlock learned of his presence. He would certainly order the other Dinobots to attack, even against direct orders from Prime himself.
The first target of the day was a small oil depot near the coast of the northwestern continent; Cyclonus did a quick perimeter flyover himself while Long Haul, Swindle, and Drag Strip set up the energon taps and Rumble and Frenzy began forming the cubes. Megatron had removed himself to the edge of the site and was almost entirely out of visual range, managing to convey a quality of disinterest, and Cyclonus was pleased to see the others had maintained discipline despite his presence. However, when Cyclonus landed, he took a stack of the empty cubes and brought them to Megatron, who did a double-take at him of vague indignation.
“Your own fuel requirements will cause this raid to fall below minimum acceptable levels if we do not acquire another sixty astroliters to compensate,” Cyclonus said blandly. “If you are forced to use your cannon, three hundred astroliters. Of course the decision is yours—”
“Yes, definitely too clever,” Megatron growled at him, and took the stack of cubes. The others were slightly startled to see him filling cubes alongside them, and it increased their pace; useful on its own, but the primary benefit as far as Cyclonus was concerned was keeping Megatron in and among them. He too labored with the rest, and kept himself in close range. Ordinarily he would have halted when they reached the expected target level—he was trying to encourage the other raid leaders not to invest too much time in any given site—but this time he kept them working until they reached the maximum target, both at the first and the second targets.
At the third, another and larger oil depot, somewhat more spread out, he left the others below and did a quick pass aloft, marking avenues of retreat. He paused when he came in for a landing: Megatron had assisted with the cubes at the second site, without hesitation, but now he was waving off Rumble with another empty stack. Instead he was looking over the perimeter, thoughtfully, and when Cyclonus landed he turned, his optics narrowing. “Why this one third?” he demanded. “That first site had a more defensible layout.”
“The site is virtually surrounded by human settlements too large to be evacuated during the course of the raid, and visibility in all directions is excellent,” Cyclonus said. “The Autobots cannot approach without inducing ranged attacks that might lead to loss of human life.”
Megatron grunted. “That’s how you’ve been diverting them from your later targets?” Cyclonus inclined his head. “Not bad. It never ceases to amaze me, the lengths to which they’ll go for these flesh creatures. But you do think they’re going to hit us?”
“If Grimlock finds out,” Cyclonus said. “We are in sufficient range of Autobot City for the Dinobots to reach us in time.”
“Grimlock?” Megatron said in faint incredulity. “That lunkhead doesn’t have anything like initiative.”
“I believe you are mistaken,” Cyclonus said. “He has no intellectual ability, and his tactical coprocessor is clearly limited, but I would rank him among the Autobots’ best strategists.”
Megatron stared at him. “You’ve never previously shown signs of insanity.”
“The Temaran cave operation, four years ago,” Cyclonus said.
Megatron paused, accessing the archive. “Because the Dinobots got bored helping with the evacuation and stumbled on our actual site?”
“They did not stumble,” Cyclonus said. “Grimlock was ordered back to the evacuation twice, once by Wheeljack, once by Optimus Prime. Both times he paused briefly, considered the order, then ignored it and proceeded onward directly towards the site. The only reasonable explanation is that he recognized that the attack on the human outpost was a diversion, and from its design managed to reverse-engineer the likely location of the real operation. There are several other instances as well, but it is the most marked among them.”
Megatron was now looking into the distance, clearly reviewing a slew of previous operation reports: there was enough scattered among them to justify the assessment, although Cyclonus of course had based his own on the far more useful experience of commanding Grimlock. After the third occasion on which Grimlock had ignored orders and taken an action that resulted in a considerably better strategic outcome, Cyclonus had belatedly realized his indiscipline was merely reluctance to undertake the for-him difficult task of having to explain his thinking.
“That’s ludicrous,” Megatron said flatly, as he went through them. “It may in fact be true, but it’s still ludicrous. I don’t have any idea how you fished that out.”
“I spent some time under guard by him in Autobot City,” Cyclonus said.
“I’ve spent time with him, it never made me think he had anything in his cranial unit but a solid block of titanium,” Megatron said. Then he frowned in sudden indignation, almost certainly realizing that Grimlock had deliberately joined the Decepticons temporarily the one time they’d attempted to suborn them. “Why, that electroplated reptile,” he snarled. “The next time I see him—” Then he paused. “Wait one damned minute. You really think the Dinobots are going to hit us!” He turned and looked incredulously at the tiny group of Decepticons. “You are out of your mind! Swindle’s going to run and hide the second they get here, and if they get their teeth on Long Haul and Drag Strip, that’s Devastator and Menasor out of commission for who knows how long! And the only warriors you wanted to add to this team were Rumble and Frenzy?”
“Sludge and Snarl are too slow to reach us in time,” Cyclonus said. “It will only be the other three. And you had already added yourself.”
“Oh, well that’s all right then!” Megatron said, glaring at him. “When I said I needed a little exercise, I didn’t mean taking on Grimlock and Slag at the same time!”
“Slag and Swoop,” Cyclonus said. “I suggest I take Grimlock.”
“The hell you do.”
Cyclonus shrugged slightly. “I will have Rumble and Frenzy irritate him into saurian mode. I will then have a sixty-seven percent chance of victory.”
Megatron paused, narrowing his optics. “Sixty-seven percent? How specific of you.”
“I use idle time on my combat system coprocessor to run simulations of individual battles against various opponents in order to identify weaknesses in my combat style,” Cyclonus said. “I grant you that it does not truly correspond to real-world conditions, but it is the nearest approximation. May I suggest that we—”
“Dinobots!” Rumble yelled frantically. “We got Dinobots incoming!” and Cyclonus tackled Megatron instantly without bothering to look; Swoop’s bombs landed directly where he’d been standing bare moments later, and Grimlock and Slag were charging across the site.
Fighting Grimlock was not a task which allowed for any distractions—one of the reasons Cyclonus so enjoyed it; he had rarely found any opponent, save Ultra Magnus, who offered him more satisfaction in battle. His knowledge of Grimlock was of course an advantage, but not an exceptionally unfair one, as Grimlock did not actually retain previous battles for tactical purposes anyway. Grimlock did however make the mistake of allowing himself a distraction—specifically, trying to go after Megatron even once Cyclonus had confronted him. It was an unwise choice.
As Grimlock barreled directly towards him, Cyclonus waited until the last moment, then swung aside and stamped down with all his weight on the backward-facing talon at the base of Grimlock’s heel, crushing it. Grimlock roared, earth-shatteringly, and swung his massive tail, bashing Cyclonus off his feet. But that was a blow his armor could withstand, if not without a second-tier array of pain sensors activating. Cyclonus rolled away with the momentum of it and back onto his feet, just barely ducking away in time from Grimlock’s jaws snapping onto his shoulder, and whirled around to slam a hard punch directly into one of Grimlock’s optics, which Frenzy had already hit dead-on with three shots: the lens cracked directly across.
“Raarrgh!” Grimlock yelled. “Grimlock eye hurts!” and in a fury simply smashed his massively armored head directly against Cyclonus’s. Cyclonus toppled backwards dazed with his entire skull clanging, a clamoring of pain circuitry and complaints from his diagnostic systems distracting him, and he only just managed to dump the reports from frontal processing in time to roll desperately out of the way as Grimlock smashed down with both feet directly where he had been on the ground, landing so heavily the entire concrete surface cracked into a deep meter-wide chasm running in both directions.
But the roll left him positioned behind Grimlock once again, and Cyclonus clenched his jaw and forced himself through the pain and up onto his side to crush the second spur as well with his two hands clenched together. He had only a moment of satisfaction, and then Grimlock kicked backwards, sending him flying thirty meters through the air to smash bodily into the far silo. Swindle was hiding from the battle there, behind some machinery: he jumped when Cyclonus came smashing past him.
“Keep filling cubes!” Cyclonus snarled at him as he fought his way out of the groaning steel beams; Swindle blinked and then said with wide relief, “You got it!” and ran around to the back of the silo. Cyclonus pushed himself up only slowly, with a gasping effort. Across the site, Grimlock was wheeling to charge him, but without the bracing spurs—began to tip. Roaring, he windmilled his useless small forelimbs—a magnificent example of Autobots permitting considerations other than battlefield efficacy to drive design—and toppled completely over onto his side with a mighty crash.
Cyclonus forced himself quickly up and charged at him instead: as he reached Grimlock, he partially initiated transform and shifted his hands into their backup thruster mode, and fired them directly down at Grimlock’s flailing knee servos. The unshielded metal of Cyclonus’s own forearm armor melted in the blowback from the roaring heat, agonizingly, but so did the metal caps on Grimlock’s knees, leaving the massive Dinobot paralyzed on the ground, thrashing himself around with wild beating strikes of his tail: he couldn’t transform without his knee joints.
“Grimlock! Me Swoop coming!” Swoop yelled frantically from above, his volume increasing as he came diving; Cyclonus staggered around to try and meet the threat, recognizing grimly he was not functioning well enough to take Swoop on—
A massive cannon-blast took Swoop in the undercarriage and blew him off-course, so his own momentum drove his beak deep into the concrete; then Drag Strip flew through the air yelling wildly and crashed into Swoop’s left wing and drove him over backwards, twisting his frame and leaving him stuck.
Megatron landed next to Cyclonus and shouted, “Decepticons, move out!” Slag was lying smoking in the ruins of one of the silos, which was burning furiously, pumping black smoke into the air: they would not be exposed to enemy fire in retreat. Cyclonus gladly put his arm around Megatron’s shoulders and accepted the offered assist getting into the air: his systems were throwing as much power as he would let them into self-repair, and his antigrav units whined slightly in takeoff.
“Not precisely profitable, as raids go,” Megatron said to him dryly, as they flew.
Cyclonus said a little raspily, “I think we have managed. Swindle, what was your total?”
“Uhhh,” Swindle said, a little nervously, from the back; he was hanging slightly behind, evidently trying to avoid notice by the comrades he had not aided during the battle. “I got us another three hundred astroliters?”
Megatron craned to look back towards him incredulously, and then threw Cyclonus an outraged look. “Much too clever,” he snarled, and was almost seething the rest of the way.
Megatron was on the repair table alongside him this time: Slag and Swoop had gotten in several solid hits. Hook patched him up first; after Megatron stood, he came and glared down at Cyclonus a moment, and then said curtly, “Report to the command center when you’re done,” before stalking out.
While doing Cyclonus’s repairs, Hook actually tried to simultaneously steal a bit of his internals and wheedle more information about Unicron’s possible location out of him. “I could whip up a few warp-capable drones and just send them looking…”
“Hook,” Cyclonus said warningly, “put it back.”
“I just thought it might need some tuning up,” Hook said, so unenthusiastically it barely functioned as an excuse, and put the small power-cycler back in place. He stared longingly at the panel after he closed it. “I don’t even understand how he did it!” he burst out. “It’s theoretically impossible to do quantum etching without a laser running the diameter of half of Cybertron! And you’d need a focus the size of the Arcturus Crater!”
Cyclonus did not satisfy his curiosity. His diagnostics were indicating that his systems were back at self-repair levels, and the terse order was in his private queue reminding him to report to the command center: Megatron presumably wished to review the raiding strategy with him. He disconnected the monitoring cables himself and left with Hook trailing him to the door plaintively.
Unfortunately, the officers’ lift stopped after only two levels, and Starscream got on it. Cyclonus said nothing to him and called up a text of short meditations by the Queens of Ragith on the importance of discipline, or tried to, but Starscream said, “Are you all right?”
Cyclonus twitched and glanced at him in surprise. Starscream gestured at him. “You took out Grimlock. I’d have expected you to be in the infirmary for a week, not walking out after a few hours. Does your armor just hide damage, or are you really in decent order?”
“I am functioning within battle-ready parameters,” Cyclonus said shortly. Starscream’s concern seemed almost sincere. He manually adjusted his suspicion evaluation function to maximum levels.
Starscream nodded in a thoughtful way. “Well, that’s very impressive. There aren’t many warriors who can take him on. Why, he’s even pounded Megatron flat a few times.” He reached out casually and flipped the halt switch, making the lift grind to a stop. “You know,” he said softly, “Perhaps you and I have been working at cross-purposes all this time. You’re truly devoted to the Decepticon cause, aren’t you?”
“I am,” Cyclonus said through his teeth. If Starscream were trying to find a way to provoke him into breaking his orders, he had hit upon an act of genius. Except of course Starscream was not, which was why it was a brilliant provocation. He reached for the halt switch, but Starscream blocked it with his body.
“Relax,” Starscream said. He flipped open his arm panel and showed Cyclonus a blue gleam shining inside. “It’s a special noise cancellation field I built myself. It generates a completely innocuous conversation for anyone more than a meter out of its radius. Not even Soundwave can get around this little beauty, I assure you.”
Cyclonus had to clench his jaw shut on a surge of fresh outrage. He believed the claim entirely: of course Starscream was enough of an engineer to construct such a sophisticated device; he had built his own null-rays, he had built the Combaticons’ current frames—and of course he was using that talent for dishonorable conspiracy—Cyclonus desperately dragged Megatron’s orders back into primary memory; he was not to strike Starscream down, he was not to be the first to—
Starscream took his silence for permission to keep going. “You’ve spent your entire existence on this—Chaar place,” he said, leaning in. “Probably half-starved the entire time—of course you keep rigid energon discipline; it’s the only way you all stayed alive, isn’t it? No orders, no contact from Cybertron for eons, nothing to do but scattered, pointless raiding and a bit of equally pointless low-energy combat against insignificant Autobot outposts…You didn’t really come here to Earth by accident, did you? You probably just couldn’t stand it anymore. And you get here and you look around—compared to what you’ve known, it must be like paradise. Enough energon for everyone to stay fueled up—decent facilities—even some sense of actual purpose—”
Cyclonus—couldn’t speak. His vocal unit had locked down. His motor functions were all running in full combat mode, but his motivator could generate no targets, no direction. His emotional subsystem was trying to seize control of his frontal processors, to get into the reasoning part of his brain—
Starscream leaned back and studied his face; he nodded as if satisfied with what he’d done. “But don’t you realize that this—” he waved a hand around, “—is as far from where we should be as your Chaar is from this? You’ve never seen Cybertron at the height of its glory. There used to be rivers of energon, fountains of it. Now the whole place is a heap of darkened rubble. Kornovox City is in ruins, it’s been in ruins for seven million years. Your every report, all your struggles, everything you tried to do—it was going straight into an unlit trash receptacle, a pure black hole that swallowed everything you could throw at it and gave nothing back…”
Cyclonus flinched, spikes of agony hammering at his temples. Starscream’s optics gleamed in the darkness of the lift, and he said softly, “Don’t you see what we could have, the glory we could reach…if only we had true leadership? Effective, disciplined—”
Cyclonus was beginning to have visualization flickers through his brain as his creativity subsystem constructed a detailed, intoxicatingly beautiful scenario of wrapping one hand around Starscream’s throat and plunging his other fist through Starscream’s chest and ripping his ventral column out through his body even as his head kept screaming, an act of pure, unleashed, glorious violence. His gun had emerged into his hand from subspace unwilled. He could not fully keep the craving for destruction at bay even with rigid discipline, even with orders—at least he had not given his word, at least that, but Megatron had asked for his word; Megatron had wanted it given, Megatron wanted to preserve this piece of refuse, this grotesque leering jester, because—because—he had no one better—
“Don’t you see,” Starscream breathed out, as if he were imparting some deep focused truth, as if he were opening up the innermost recesses of his heart instead of simply his selfish corrupt gaping maw, “that there’s someone to blame?”
“I do,” Cyclonus whispered. “I do. And I blame you.”
Starscream paused, startled, and in absolute desperation, Cyclonus jerked his arm up over his head and blasted the top of the lift open, turning up his own antigrav units so the entire suspension structure fell away from around him and plummeted to the bottom of the shaft, Starscream’s shrieked yelp of alarm trailing away beneath him ending in a crash. Cyclonus managed to shove his gun back into subspace and flew up blindly to the next level, forcing the doors open; he staggered out through them into the hallway and sank to his knees, panting for breath.
The sharp insistent signal of the waiting command flared in his mind again as the base computer sent him another reminder: he had left the infirmary, he was expected in the command center. His leader ordered it. The heaving intake cycles calmed with only another two breaths, and Cyclonus pulled himself back up onto his feet, straightening with gratitude as the cool shining armor of discipline settled back into its well-worn grooves in his mind: returning because he never let it fade for long; because he had fought through even this grotesque horror to cling to it—by the shreds, perhaps, but he had managed; he had held on.
He thought he had mastery over himself again when he entered the command center. He had even added an ops task for repairing the officers’ lift on the way. Megatron was sitting at the console watching his combat with Grimlock play out again, once more with the computer running its analysis of alternate moves, trying to find improvements, errors. Cyclonus came up silently and watched with him: the base computer of course had far greater processing resources than his own brain to contribute to the analysis, but he compensated for that by devoting regular processor time to the task, and there had not been a great many random factors at play in the combat. The computer examined every move and found no beneficial alternatives, and only two equally good choices—for him, at least; Grimlock had made a variety of minor tactical errors, unsurprisingly, as his tactical processor was quite basic and primarily relied on his usually overwhelming power to obtain victory once battle was joined. However, Cyclonus was pleased to see his own choices had been optimal even if Grimlock had not made the mistakes: the entire battle had been decided by Grimlock’s opening attempt to rush him, which had enabled Cyclonus to take out the first rear talon without exposing himself to potentially fatal damage. Cyclonus nodded with satisfaction as the analysis completed.
“Yes,” Megatron said shortly. “Very impressive. I don’t think I’ve seen a literally optimal fight since I was in the arena, and those were staged beforehand. That analysis you run in advance seems to be highly effective.”
Cyclonus inclined his head. “It requires considerable processor time, but I find it so.”
“Mm.” Megatron stood up and turned to face him. “Tell me, do you ever run this analysis against other Decepticons? Oh—Starscream, for instance.”
“Starscream?” Cyclonus said, faintly incredulous. “No. Yourself, Shockwave, and Astrotrain and Blitzwing together. Ultra Magnus and Optimus Prime are the only other useful targets. If I have a significant period of spare time, against one of the combiner teams: although the sheer number of possibilities in such a battle renders a truly exhaustive analysis impossible, occasionally I am able to uncover an unexpected vulnerability to a sequence of moves.”
Megatron had folded his arms; his optics were glittering. “And how do you do against me?”
“Seventy-three percent chance of victory,” Cyclonus said. “The power-routing circuitry of my armor enables me to diffuse energy weapon impact at the rate of 1 terajoule per millisecond. My armor can take roughly five direct hits from your cannon so long as I avoid being struck in the same place twice. That is usually long enough for my edge in speed to tell.”
“How very interesting,” Megatron said through his teeth. “Should I be expecting a formal challenge at some point?”
Cyclonus flinched back; it felt like being struck, as if—as if Starscream’s vileness had just come into his face out of Megatron’s mouth. And then, with another nauseating wrench of his gut, he recognized that it had. That was Starscream’s treachery, which he had taught his own commander to expect. “Do you think I am a fool?” Cyclonus burst out, taking a step towards him. Megatron actually startled into leaning back.
Cyclonus gestured wildly. “Since I began the raiding, we have sent energon loads to Cybertron an average of every six hours,” he said. “There has not been a single one that did not go with a substantial communications upload under your personal seal. I have been handling the roster for two weeks now: I am notified when a senior officer preempts the training schedule, so I can allocate replacement time. You have taken one hour of training across three days; today’s raid was the first time you had even left the base since the sabotage run. Megatron, I have run Oregar with you! I know what you have sacrificed, what you do sacrifice, to rule! And I would give it if the cause demanded it of me; I would do what must be done. But I am not—I am not—a slinking, petty slaarg who imagines that leadership means clawing my way to the summit of the highest pile of scrap to sit there crowing loudly of my own glory!”
He stopped, panting. Megatron was gaping at him in open surprise again, bewildered again, as if—as if he had gone so long without meeting—actual devotion to the cause, that he hardly knew how to recognize it when it was before him—had gone so long, that he snarled wordlessly in sudden spiraling rage, and came surging forward and slammed Cyclonus back against the wall, the sheer terrible force of him palpable and half-familiar. Megatron smashed his fist against the wall beside Cyclonus’s head and grated out, “What the hell is wrong with you?” The words were sincere; they were a plea, somehow wild and desperate. “There’s got to be something! What the hell is it? If I thought you meant it—if I could believe you—”
He was almost shaking with his own violence, and then he looked down suddenly, almost involuntarily. They were standing close, their bodies aligned; Cyclonus was taller, but he had an interface junction positioned low, the plug tucked neatly beneath a protective panel underneath the flare of his hip struts, directly across from Megatron’s ventral port. Megatron stared at it, and Cyclonus realized that he was—he contemplated—offering deep access; he considered exposing himself to intrusion just to have Cyclonus’s processes flowing completely through his hardware, to see into them without barrier—
It would be—disastrous. It would be impossible to conceal the truth from him. Cyclonus could not, he could not—except the decision was sliding out of rational thought. A surge of uncontrollable desire was climbing through him with furious speed, a sudden savage hunger. He wanted to seize Megatron’s shoulders and drag him in across the intervening space, he wanted to—he wanted to run his thumb against the edge of that access port, asking; he wanted—he wanted to open another of his own, to offer a reciprocal connection, no matter what he would expose; he wanted to fall into an impossible perfect harmony with him, he lusted for it as for battle—
Megatron put a hand on his hip, and Cyclonus dragged in a harsh desperate breath, helplessly eager for his own doom, and suddenly the door opened and Starscream burst in, saying, “Megatron, I don’t know what he’s told you—” before scraping audibly to a halt in sparks across the floor.
Megatron jerked away with convulsive speed, his hands clenching into fists as he turned aside. A dimming haze still lingered over Cyclonus’s vision; he had to exert conscious control over his body not to tremble where he stood. He was only slightly aware of Starscream’s shocked gawking, his optics darting between them; he could not tear his own optics from the wide expanse of Megatron’s back. His memory unit was calling to mind the morning’s battle, the moment when he had carried Megatron to the ground; a mad distorted fantasy spawning from it, of pinning Megatron beneath him, opening a port invitingly, entering into him and claiming him all at once—
“Get out,” Megatron said, completely flat, without even the expression of rage behind it; utterly controlled, just when Cyclonus felt as though he had been utterly unmoored and left drifting.
Starscream stood rooted in place a moment and blurted, “Megatron, I—”
“If you’re still in this room in ten astroseconds, I’ll kill you,” Megatron said, and Starscream gulped and turned and fled. Cyclonus stared at the door; he required half the allotted time merely to engage his servos, and the rest to slowly cross the chamber; the doors slid shut behind him as the deadline ticked over, and he stopped there in the hallway with a hand on the wall, blank with the pulsing, violent urge to go back inside, to hurl himself to his own destruction, the exposure of his heart’s deepest desire—
A scrape of metal crossed his attention threshold: Starscream was standing in the dim light of the next corridor junction staring at him, his optics seething with—with jealousy; as if he desired, as if he wanted to get his slime-encrusted unworthy hands on Megatron’s ports—the better to murder him!—and even as fresh wild rage kindled in Cyclonus’s deep circuits, Starscream whirled and vanished around the corner into the recesses of the base.
Cyclonus stood alone and put his hand over his face; he breathed in and out, for five cycles, and then he manually programmed the path to his quarters into his motor control system and triggered his body to follow it, like an automaton. He went inside and shut the door. Both lust and rage had beaten themselves out. There was only a strange ashen hollowness deep in his emotional subsystem, the old clawing of the devouring, all-consuming grief. He almost lay down in the rest unit without looking it over. Did it matter if he never rose from it again? But he made an effort and reached for—for Ironhide’s low rasping voice, telling him how his daughter had died, how she had died for his mistake: the mistake of one of the great engineers of Anhedron, who in his hubris had tried to make a Cybertronian of such strength and beauty and perfection that she could spark new life alone, and instead had created one whose own spark trickled inexorably out of her core by slow agonizing degrees over a mere century of existence, every shining moment with her at once joy and torment, until the final dark came and claimed her.
“I went into the mines,” Ironhide said. “I peeled off my exoskeleton and built on a miner frame, and I went and worked for half a million years in Beryllian. Not a single accident, not as much as a scratch, while around me mechs got slagged after a week on the line. Then…then one day Megatron walked in there. He told all of them if they helped him, fought for him, maybe nine of ten of them would die, but they’d never have to work in a mine again. He got ’em all to follow him upstairs and throw themselves at the mine’s Guardians as cannon fodder. Well, it wasn’t one out of ten that made it, it was one out of all ten thousand of them, and that poor bastard got slagged at the door by the defenses, but he got it open so Megatron and his crew could bust in there and kill—everybody, kill the administrators and the engineers; they stole everything out of the place and then they piled in the bodies and blew the whole thing up.”
He had paused and looked over at Cyclonus. “You probably don’t get why all of that bothered me. They died fighting for the cause, so that’s still better than dyin’ in a mine, right? Happy endin’ all around?” He’d snorted. “Anyway, I was the only one who’d said no to the killing, so I was the only one who didn’t die. My own work detail tied me up on the side because I wouldn’t help. Optimus found me there the next day when he came with his people. He didn’t ask me why I was there, just cut me loose and asked me to show him around so they could try and find anybody to save out of the wreckage. But after the search was over, he looked at me and he said, ‘I don’t know if we can help you. But you could sure help us. Because you’ve been in the dark a long time. And we’ve got a dark road ahead.’ So I went with him.”
Cyclonus stood with the echo of that husked voice in his audio receptors, mingled with Ironhide’s final yowl of fierce defiance. Ironhide had gone fighting to the very end of his dark road; he had lit a towering beacon with his death for others to follow, if their courage and their honor did not fail. It stood before him in memory, a blazing demand, and with painstaking care, Cyclonus reached for the loose scattered bricks of the mental wall Soundwave had once helped him construct. He did not look at the emotions he was walling up; he did not dare. He closed away the bright ferocity of both joy and rage and agony. When he was done, he scanned the rest unit fully, finding no marks, and then he climbed into it and lay down. There was a cold bleak quietness in his mind, like honed steel. It was familiar. He did not have difficulty entering a rest cycle.
He spent the next week in unbroken activity. He brought the pace of systematic raiding to its limits. Ops tasks threatened to accumulate again, but he had already identified several potential candidates for raid captains. He spoke to them privately and asked them to begin taking ops tasks of their own volition, offering his assistance if they were unsure how to achieve them, and found that given only a little encouragement they rose to the challenge.
The Autobots had begun to notice what they were doing, so there was a little combat to leaven the otherwise tedious work. First the Autobots made the obvious attempt to attack the spacebridge, but as it was obvious, Cyclonus had already asked the Constructicons to take measures. They had moved the actual bridge and left a decoy behind. He gave the honor of guarding it each day to those warriors who had maintained the best energon discipline over the past day’s raiding. When the Autobots did attack, the defenders held the decoy site long enough to make them expend significant resources, then seized the false spacebridge controls and fled, bombing the remainder of the site as if they meant to deny it to the Autobots.
At the third decoy, the Autobots finally analyzed the wreckage well enough to realize they were being tricked. They gave up trying to find the spacebridge—the Constructicons had already built three separate real sites by then, with half a dozen decoy sites—and instead tried to chase after every raiding party that went out, tracking them from a newly launched mass of spy satellites. Cyclonus simply relocated all training sessions to take place in small groups outside the base, giving the Autobots too many potential groups to follow, which had the additional benefit of discouraging simulator use in favor of the targeted exercises he had begun recommending to each individual warrior as he had an opportunity to observe their performance more closely. The additional energon expenditure of travel slightly slowed the stream, but not to a great extent: by the end of the second week, they had already sent nearly forty thousand astroliters to Cybertron.
But that very day, shortly before Cyclonus was about to go out for his second raid, Megatron sent out an abrupt message canceling all that afternoon’s raiding, and called a general meeting. At first puzzled, Cyclonus pulled up their most recent surveillance footage of Metroplex, and saw grimly that he had again underestimated the impact of human hands: the city was nearly finished. Starscream had continued his sabotage campaign, but his limited aerial bombing runs had clearly not had any significant impact. The sparking was clearly at hand. Metroplex would be operational within three days at most. If Megatron was unsatisfied with the alternative of the systematic raiding, if he felt they still could not allow Metroplex to be sparked…
Cyclonus sat silently at the console. There was only half an hour to the meeting. He opened a fresh data chip and began rapidly to assemble a review of the raiding program: the statistics, the long list of targets as yet untouched. Even primary and secondary targets would serve, and tertiary targets with higher combat risk—they merely needed to be prepared to leave a site before they extracted all the energon available, as soon as an Autobot response was en route. He charted the return on each raid, a steadily increasing number—energon discipline was improving—and the total astroliters sent to Cybertron. He gathered it all as ammunition; he would show Megatron the results, try and persuade him that an attack on Metroplex was unnecessary, even counterproductive—let the Autobots waste their time and resources on the massive city-mech—
But when Megatron strode into the mess, he offered no chance for discussion; he only went to the dais at the head of the room and surveyed his troops. Everyone was on alert, excited—many of them, Cyclonus knew, with mingled pride and agony, hoped for what he dreaded: they longed for the battle that would be their doom. They had kept discipline with him, but they were warriors; they were not made to be sneak thieves always fleeing before the enemy. And still others glanced at him, expectantly—Onslaught drifted close and leaned in and murmured, “He’s making it official a little sooner than I anticipated, but you have been very energetic,” meaningfully, before easing away, while Starscream stood at the far edge of the room in a cluster with the Seekers, his own face set in near-murderous lines and his arms folded, very stiff—
“Two hours ago, we received a transmission from Commander Shockwave,” Megatron said, cutting through the murmurs and whispering speculation. “Soundwave, if you’ll do the honors.”
He stepped aside and gestured at the screen on the wall. Soundwave was standing beside him; he touched his chest panel, and a recording of Shockwave appeared on the screen. “Hail, Megatron!” he said. “It is my honor and great satisfaction to report that mission X-1672, codename Ignition, begun by your orders on the twenty-sixth of Korix in the year 586 of this vorn, has completed with total success.” He paused and added, “Reactor One of Darkmount functions once again—” and if he said anything more, it was impossible to hear; the whole room erupted in pandemonium, wild howls of cheering.
Cyclonus stood almost numbly, dazed, as Astrotrain pounded his shoulders. He couldn’t take his own eyes off Megatron, who remained standing at the head of the room, smiling slightly as he watched his soldiers’ frenzied joy. The reactors—the fusion reactors deep beneath Darkmount—had fueled the Decepticon war machine for thousands of vorn, until the Autobots had sacrificed their own last reactors beneath Iacon to create a chain reaction through Cybertron’s interconnected network and snuff out all the last lights of their world at once. To restart even a single one would have required—six hundred thousand astroliters of energon. Six hundred thousand—
“All right, settle down,” Megatron said, although he sounded too warm for severity; the room quieted anyway. “This doesn’t mean the hard work is over. We still need more energon, and a lot of it. We’ve had to strip every last drop out of Cybertron to survive the long drought, and it’s going to be almost as long a time before we can fill the planet back up. And we can be sure that the Autobots are going to do their very best to get in the way.” He paused, and then he smiled suddenly, brilliantly. “But for today, we celebrate. Computer, allocate ten rations for every warrior, and all duty cycles canceled. And turn off your energy weapons!” he added, raising his voice over the first whistles and cheers. “Because if you get drunk and perforate the hull, you’ll be repairing it under Hook’s personal supervision.”
He stepped down into the room, and the warriors crowded around him, reaching to touch him; talking to him eagerly or even merely saying his name. Many others were already at the dispensers pouring large cubes of energon, shouting the first toasts: to Megatron, to Shockwave, to Cybertron; to Darkmount and to Polyhex; to the memory of Straxus and Jhiaxus, to other great warriors long gone.
Cyclonus sank into a seat at one of the tables, answering without attention the rejoicing remarks addressed to him while he opened his interface and dragged up one old mission report after another from the long years on Earth, seeing only now, between the lines, the careful, subtle maneuvering at work. Three thousand astroliters extracted in this operation, five thousand in this... Every last major operation on Earth, every grandiose scheme Megatron had orchestrated over the last ten years—there had been a hope of total victory in each one, a chance that this time they would overwhelm the Autobots completely. But there had also been, in every one, steps towards eventual victory, a steady grinding progress. The scale of each operation had even functioned as an effective distraction—he’d offered the Autobots enormous targets to stop, half a million astroliters, more; meanwhile with his other hand he’d quietly handed Shockwave more modest sums to be carefully and secretly stored away, until at last the engines of Cybertron could be woken again.
The darkened halls of Polyhex would be shining again. Cyclonus had walked them only once in his own universe, wandering their dim cavernous expanses with a sense of wonder: he had been newly created, and his lord had that very day destroyed the treacherous usurper who had tried to claim the Decepticon throne. Cyclonus had touched gently the ancient pitted surfaces of the interior halls of Darkmount, scarred with the relics of battles long past, the quarrels and struggle of warriors gone before him. He had gone down still further and paid respects at the tombs of the honored dead whose names and legends filled his archives, some of the names being shouted even now by his comrades. At the newly raised markers of those whose remains had formed his own frame, he had left a small token of energon taken from his own fuel lines to make a briefly-flickering light in the nearly impenetrable dark. He had found the beginning of his own way in the hush of those ancient crypts; he had seen the work to be done to truly earn a place within them, and he had resolved that it would be done, if he could do it. If anything in his existence had given him the strength to rise, when Ironhide had called on him to have courage, it had been those scant few hours, that first commitment.
He had thought of those halls many times since in the long ash-dry years of exile on Chaar. He had tried to imagine them illuminated and restored to full glory; he had thought wistfully of lighting the flames before each marker. He had never been able to generate an image to his satisfaction. But now…the first mighty reactor would soon have provided enough energon to relight the second. In half the time, they would relight the third. After that—there were others, smaller facilities, to awaken. All the great Decepticon strongholds would be coming back to life…
Cyclonus slowly pushed himself up from the table. He felt strangely blank. But as he rose, Motormaster grabbed him by the arm and put a cube of energon in his hand and shouted over the room, “Hey! Hey! Here’s to Cyclonus for putting us over the top!” and the room full of his comrades, his fellow warriors—whose courage he had seen tested to the utmost limits, whose honor he knew as well as his own; together they raised their cubes to him and cheered his name among those they had found worthy to think of, in a victorious hour.
He inclined his head to them in a gratitude too great for words, and also a terrible stirring unease. He had spent this week locked in the safe fastness of discipline and work, behind the security of his mental wall, and he had not removed it, not deliberately, but he now nevertheless felt a sense of dangerous fragmentation, as though the pressure of emotion within was growing too great to be constrained. He pressed it back, and with rigid control offered his own measured toasts to each of the teams and their commanders, saluting Onslaught and the Combaticons’ deadly precision; Motormaster and the Stunticons’ glorious brutality; Scrapper and the Constructicons’ brilliance and iron discipline. It did not immediately occur to him that he had usurped Starscream’s place in doing so, but in any case, it was a place abandoned: Starscream had left the mess almost at once, as if he would not share in the rejoicing because the victory was not his.
But Cyclonus himself stayed only a little longer. He drank with those who saluted him while he let the eddies of the crowd carry him into the back of the room; he exchanged a toast with Rumble and Frenzy, both of them dancing atop a table and already considerably inebriated, and spent a few moments in conversation with Soundwave, telling him of their achievements, and commending their work. Soundwave listened and nodded when he was done, silently; Cyclonus gripped his shoulder and moved onward. Frenzy was yelling, “Hey! Hey! How about some tunes!” and for once not one of his comrades raised an objection; but it was all Cyclonus could bear. He slipped out into the hallway with the wild pounding music reverberating through the metal behind him. It felt as though it were shaking his own foundations, widening the cracks in his wall of protection. He could not focus his thoughts well enough to rebuild it. He thought of going to the training room, but he could not imagine attempting a kata.
He went in desperation to the empty command center. He checked all the sensors and their extensive surveillance network: it was unlikely the Autobots would interrupt their labor on the city to mount a serious attack, but it was worth being wary—the Autobots had occasionally managed to establish surveillance on the base, and if they knew all the Decepticons were over-energized, they might have taken advantage. But there were no unusual signs of activity: Prime was walking in the streets of Autobot City with Wheeljack, likely reviewing the construction; his second, Prowl, was patrolling the perimeter with Cliffjumper and Brawn. The Protectobots were anxiously hovering in the streets, clearly on high alert for any more sabotage attempts.
When Cyclonus had exhausted that meager duty, he turned to the handful of ops tasks in the queue, relatively small items: the only longer one was a request for tactical analysis of the engineering report on Metroplex that Hook and Scrapper had lately completed. Cyclonus could do that with particular ease, since he had considerable real-world experience to draw upon. The actual challenge was making certain that he tied all his analysis back to the report. He took it out of the queue and was in the midst of it when a single small light flickered briefly on the console, an unlabeled indicator; he looked at it frowning, and reached to try and determine what had triggered the signal, when behind him he heard the door mechanism engage.
A burst of noise of carousing floated in behind Starscream as he came into the room and pulled up sharply; he looked at the tactical report taking shape on the console and his optics widened in fresh fury. “What, you haven’t clinched it yet?” he spat out savagely. “I would have thought you’d have it in the bag by now. You certainly looked more than willing to put out a significant effort to seal the deal. Didn’t Megatron take you up on it? I’m surprised, he has a taste for purple.”
“You are as vulgar as you are contemptible,” Cyclonus said through his teeth; rage, too, was now pounding at the inner wall of resistance, trying to force its way out. “Do you truly entertain the fantasy that Megatron would require any incentive to replace you beyond the mere display of competence? If so, you are delusional as well.”
Starscream ground his teeth. “Listen, you bootlicking two-horned automaton, you may have wriggled your way into Megatron’s confidence, but don’t you think for an instant that it’s going to last,” he hissed. “All your noble posturing—I almost can’t believe even Megatron’s been stupid enough to fall for it, but evidently I’ve underestimated our brilliant leader’s gullibility by a considerable margin. Sooner or later, he’ll see through you! And everyone else will, too. And when that happens, I’m going to ask him to let me personally enjoy teaching you a little respect.”
“Respect?” Cyclonus found himself on his feet, looming; he was incredulous nearly to the point of laughter. “Respect?” His voice rose thrumming off the walls, resonating, as Starscream jerked back from him in alarm. “Starscream, there may be some warriors in this army to whom you could teach fear; there may be, to my sorrow, some whom you could lead into the ways of corruption and dishonor. But there is not one, not one Decepticon, to whom you could ever teach respect.
“And you should be teaching them! You are second-in-command! You should be the model for the entire army! Megatron is too far above them; it is you who must show the others what a Decepticon warrior ought to be—how in every action great or small, every thought, he can serve the cause! Instead, you shirk your duties, accept bribes, disregard energon discipline, encourage infighting; you sneer at soldiers under your command and relentlessly manipulate your fellow officers to your own imagined benefit.
“And you will teach me respect? You, who give none anywhere? You, who behave with perpetual treachery and insolence to your own commander, a mech as far above you in purpose, will, and cunning as he is in power; you, who treat your fellow warriors as mere props and decoration for the theater of your own glory; you, who think your own desires stand above the cause? You are not even worthy of my contempt!”
The words roared out of him like a torrent, unstoppable; they tore through his cold implacable wall, a shattering flood that carried it away and left a violent chaotic thunder in his emotional circuitry. He wanted with blind hunger to put his hands on Starscream’s body, to tear him apart, but Megatron’s orders glowed in his mind like hot coals; instead he stalked nearly through him, forcing Starscream scrambling back out of his way, and strode away from temptation to the door.
And then, behind him, like a song of exquisite beauty, rose the sharp peaked whine of a null-ray firing. Cyclonus halted in his tracks even as the squealing echoed off the bare walls and the blast struck him in the middle of the back, the entropic radiation frantically traveling all over his body trying to get purchase on him, on any part of his armor, useless except to trigger his pain circuitry to a level of frenzied agony that could not compete with the nearly beatific relief swelling through him. Cyclonus stood beneath the spidercrawling mesh until the power faded out of it, and then he turned, his gun already in his hand. Starscream was staring at his body, appalled, and then he jerked his head up—
“My turn,” Cyclonus said, softly, and shot him directly in the head.
Starscream gave a strangled gasp and went over backwards thrashing as the oxidizing blast crackled over his entire frame. He had already collapsed into a twitching heap by the time Cyclonus, moving at an unhurried pace, reached him. His panicked optics darted frantically towards him, his arms and legs trying uselessly to move: a pinned squirming bit of vermin—truly not worthy even of contempt. Cyclonus dismissed his gun and bent down and slung Starscream over his shoulder and carried him down to the infirmary.
The Constructicons had withdrawn there for a more private celebration; empty cubes littered the ground and they were all arguing drunkenly but vociferously over a set of designs plastered somewhat askew over all the walls. Familiar designs: Cyclonus looked at them bemused as he heaved Starscream onto a repair table. It was already recognizably Trypticon.
“Well, well, what’s our beloved Air Commander gotten himself into now?” Hook said, wandering over. Starscream’s frantic optics darted towards him helplessly. Hook peered into them with interest, then reached down and jerked off Starscream’s chest panel curiously, peering inside. “What in Cybertron—I’ve never seen damage like this before. His circuitry’s in clumps. How exactly did this happen?”
“I shot him,” Cyclonus said.
Hook slowly lifted his head up staring. Then he said, “With what?”
Cyclonus showed him the oxidizing laser. Hook abandoned Starscream to spend several minutes crooning over it and scanning it in loving passionate detail, muttering about multivariant pathways and coil focusers. “Yes, all right,” he said sadly when Cyclonus held his hand out for it back; he let his fingers stroke along the barrel even as he let it go. “Ugh, it’s unbearable. We have to find this Unicron. Surely now Megatron can be persuaded to start a search. It wouldn’t cost more than a thousand astroliters to launch a few drones off to Chaar—Scrapper, you’ve got to try and reason with him. Just look at the exquisite pattern of this circuitry destruction!”
Scrapper weaved over somewhat unsteadily and peered in with a hiccup. “Oh, look at that one, that’s got to be exceedingly painful,” he said in admiration, poking a knot. Starscream managed to emit a faint squall of distress. “Was this at full power?”
“Five percent,” Cyclonus said. “A direct hit to the exposed section of the cranial unit at close range. If I had used full power, he would be dead.”
“Oh, that wasn’t the idea?” Hook said, sounding faintly dubious. “Er, did you want us to fix him?”
“Megatron has not ordered his death,” Cyclonus said. “Therefore yes. I must go and inform him of our quarrel. How long will Starscream require for repairs?”
Hook looked down consideringly. “I think we’re going to just have to rip out his entire internal cabling and replace it from scratch.”
“Mm,” Scrapper agreed, nodding. “There’s no sense trying to fix these wires.”
Hook patted Starscream’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, it won’t take long,” he told him. “It’s going to be hideously agonizing, but it won’t take long.” Starscream looked as exceedingly worried as it was possible for his half-destroyed facial circuitry to be.
Scrapper chugged back the rest of his cube and tossed the empty behind him. “I suppose we might as well get it done tonight, I’m too overenergized to figure out the power routing at the moment anyway. Do you like it?” he asked Cyclonus, jerking his head back towards the designs. “I know Megatron’s going to say it’s a waste of resources…”
“I do,” Cyclonus said softly; in his memory he was hearing Trypticon’s shattering roar, and feeling around him the trembling of the walls as Metroplex crashed into him. “I will speak on the project’s behalf at the next officers’ meeting, if you wish. I think it has exceptional strategic value.” Scrapper beamed at him.
Cyclonus walked from the infirmary half-puzzled by his own state. His mental wall had almost completely disintegrated again, but the terrible choking grief had not returned. He was not certain why: he shied from examining his own emotions deeply, but he was not being sustained by rage. Starscream was not a worthy opponent. In the final event, even with a perfect excuse in his hands, Cyclonus had not been irresistibly impelled to kill him. Megatron might still make use of him somehow to serve the cause. That mattered more than his own distaste. It had always mattered more; it was only strange that somehow that had become suddenly a trivial irritant to endure, instead of grotesquely intolerable.
He walked through the base, looking for Megatron. The noise of carousing had nearly died off, and the mess had almost emptied. Warriors lay throughout the base in happy, stupefied heaps, occasionally together: some of them had clearly indulged in interfacing as well as overenergizing. Cyclonus ignored it tolerantly. Megatron’s order about energy weapons at least had been obeyed, although the Stunticons had left considerable dents in the fifth-level corridors by joyriding wildly up and down the halls, which were not designed to accommodate racing.
He at last reached the upper observation decks of the base without finding Megatron and stopped there in a dark corner. He fell nearly into a meditative trance, looking out into the oceanic mirk; he did not stir even when metal footfalls from the opposite deck told him he was not alone in seeking the quiet levels, until Megatron said with a sigh, “Well, old friend, here we are.” Two chairs creaked, and Cyclonus paused, caught.
“Congratulations,” Soundwave said, quietly.
“Mm.” Megatron didn’t sound particularly enthusiastic. “Yes, quite a step forward, isn’t it.”
“Affirmative,” Soundwave said. There was a brief silence; Cyclonus was on the verge of crossing to the other deck and making his presence known to them, but then Soundwave said abruptly, “Observation: Cyclonus has been exceptionally effective,” and Cyclonus halted, almost involuntarily.
Megatron snorted. “Prying into my cranial chamber again? Yes, he has been, hasn’t he. Forty thousand astroliters in two weeks. I thought it was going to take another two years—and that’s before Prime came up with that monstrosity of a mech to put in our way.” He sighed heavily; the sound of a swallow came.
Soundwave said, “You are not enthused.”
Megatron did not answer for a long while, and then finally said, softly, “I’ve had six million years with Starscream in which to contemplate in extensive detail my vision of the ideal second-in-command. The main reason I’ve never obliterated him is because it’s been painfully clear to me that there wasn’t the slightest chance I’d find a better match. A warrior with the combat skills to command the respect of every other Decepticon soldier, a tactician good enough to be given a free hand with aerial operations, a strategist capable of contributing worthwhile suggestions to long-range planning, a staff officer competent to manage at least some of the minutiae of operations—hoping for more than that was delusional.
“And now, as if to prove me wrong…here comes Cyclonus. Every single good quality Starscream possesses, he has in greater measure, and all his bad qualities, Cyclonus has in mirror-reverse. He’s ruthlessly disciplined, courageous almost but not quite to a fault, clear-sighted, an inspiration to his fellow warriors, and, as far as I’ve been able to tell, completely and unswervingly devoted to the Decepticon cause. And if all that weren’t enough—he’s likable. Hell, you like him, don’t you? And you don’t like anyone.”
“Affirmative. His mind is…unusually focused.”
“That’s one word for it. Have you looked at the ops queue lately?”
“The ops queue is empty,” Soundwave said after a moment: he’d obviously checked it.
“He cleared it five days after I first promoted him, and nothing’s stayed on it for longer than two days since. I’m not actually sure how he’s done it. I haven’t investigated very much, except to make sure the first few tasks were in fact done properly; it’s felt too much like meddling with magic.” Megatron snorted audibly. “Do you know how often I’ve thought what I could do if I didn’t have to spend three-quarters of my conscious processor time on operations? In these last two weeks alone, I’ve finally managed to resolve that idiotic standoff between Shockwave and Mordant, and the Polyhex-Vox pipeline will open in twelve weeks—just in time for the Darkmount fuel sinks to reach capacity and start feeding it. I’ve gotten the Council of Eight back in line—admittedly, I had to execute two of them, but the rest of them shaped up quickly enough—and I’ve got them started re-establishing contact with all our lost outposts they can track down. We’ll have a real trade network running through Cybertron again by the end of the year. Last week I started three new long-term strategic plans evolving in frontal processing, and I haven’t had to preempt a single one.”
“You do intend to replace Starscream.”
“Replace Starscream?” Megatron laughed harshly aloud. “I’m barely resisting the temptation to hand Cyclonus the army and get out of the field myself. The second I do—the war’s over, for all intents and purposes. He’s handed me a steady flow of energon that I don’t even have to think about, morale and discipline is through the roof—I can just start building the Empire. I don’t need to crush the Autobots anymore. He’ll probably do it for me incidentally at some point and write it up in one paragraph of a weekly report I won’t bother to read because he does everything perfectly. And that’s how much space it will be worth. In a thousand years, the Decepticon banner will stand on ten thousand worlds, and Optimus Prime will be a footnote in our historical archives, whether he’s lingering alive or dead.”
“Then where is the source of your difficulty?”
Megatron didn’t answer for a long moment, and wearily when he did. “Perhaps nowhere. I’d like to believe there isn’t one. Cybertron, how I’d like to believe there isn’t. I’ve been fighting this war for eight million years now, and I’ve become a suspicious and cynical old mech who can’t accept victory when it’s in my grasp; maybe that’s all it is. But…he’s literally out of my dreams, Soundwave.” Megatron sounded almost baffled. “If someone had invited me to design the perfect second in command, the ideal Decepticon officer to serve me, I’d have made him. And now he’s been dropped into my lap like a gift from someone I don’t know. I can’t help thinking there’s going to be a catch somewhere.”
He paused, and then he said in a different voice, almost whimsically, “I suppose I shouldn’t worry about it. If he ever decides to stab me in the back, I’m sure he’ll do that perfectly, too.”
“Cyclonus is not a traitor,” Soundwave said. “Ninety-nine-point-nine nine nine nine eight probability.”
“You say that as though it doesn’t make it worse. If Starscream ever overthrew me, he’d do it to serve his swollen ego, and he’d probably get himself assassinated five minutes later from incompetence. Cyclonus—he’d do it because he decided I wasn’t the best leader for the Decepticon cause anymore.” Megatron barked a laugh. “Do you know, I don’t think I could bear it. My perfect Decepticon knight telling me I wasn’t good enough for him. I suppose that’s what I’m afraid of, after all.”
Cyclonus stood without moving for several hours after they had left the room, even as the sunlight began to filter down from above, lightening the waters to a deep green. It wasn’t a deliberate act of concealment; half his systems were deadlocked, thoughts like misaligned gears grinding uselessly against each other. When at last he could move, a little, he didn’t go to his quarters. He went to the sea-tower, and raised it with his officer’s code, and launched himself blindly into the air. He had refueled to capacity that morning out of the proceeds of the raid that he had run for Megatron—for Megatron—with so much satisfaction; he had been thinking of some adjustments, how he would train more warriors in proper energon discipline to ensure a steadily positive flow even if the targets grew smaller…
He ignited his engines and blasted through the atmosphere at full howling speed, gravity clawing at him until its last grip slid finally off his frame and he was driving away deep into the void, the shining cold grey disk of the moon ahead of him illuminated, a familiar and terrible beacon. He accelerated towards it, the universe smearing as he transitioned into warp speed, and he broke out of it again a few moments later and thundered down into the surface hard with both feet, a silent impact driving up clouds of dust and ash. He straightened and looked around himself. He knew the planetoid well. He had surveyed it thoroughly before he had chosen their headquarters, their desperate final hiding place, the last shelter of his people.
He was not far from the location. He walked towards it mechanically. He somehow half expected to find the concealed entry point, to hear the cold challenge issued by Grimlock or Whirl, to step inside the quarantine unit…but of course, there was only bare and solid rock. His scanners could detect the deep hollow cavern below, but it had not been excavated. He knelt by the familiar threshold stone and drew his hand across it, leaving the trail of his fingers through the ancient thickness of dust, undisturbed for perhaps billions of years; aeons even by the standards of Cybertronian life. Here might it lie for billions more, and never know the touch of another hand.
Tomorrow, he would ask Megatron to launch drones, to have Shockwave turn the deep-space scanners in the direction of Unicron’s advent. Even if Ironhide had failed, they would locate him, and bring Prime to destroy him in time. The Quintessons might crawl out of their holes afterwards—but what would that matter? They would not find a half-shattered world full of Autobots, easy prey. They would face the might of the Decepticon Empire, a shining and terrible phoenix rising swiftly out of the ashes of the war, under the hand of its greatest leader…
Cyclonus put his face into his hand, and wept. The sound of his whirring gasps was loud inside his helm, though silent in the vacuum around him, as the lubricant trickled between his fingers. He had not wept before. He had given himself to despair, but never wept. Strange, that it was somehow worse to discover that hope—returned. That he could look upon the universe, and find joy in it again. And worse than that. That he could look upon the universe, and choose.
He had to, of course, because Megatron was right. The only reason Cyclonus could ever raise his hand against him would be if he could truly persuade himself that Megatron were not the greatest leader the Decepticons could have. If he could convince himself that he served his cause by betraying its leader, leading him to the slaughter to be torn apart and reformed to Unicron’s design. And that…was not a lie he could believe anymore. A warrior could not believe what he wanted to believe.
But what flayed him to agony was that—he did not want to. There was no effort required to hold back. The effort had been not to walk straight into the observation deck, and kneel at his lord’s feet, and swear his wholehearted allegiance. To tell Megatron that he need have no doubt, and claim from him a place in this universe. A place for which he had indeed been made. To Megatron’s own specifications, a wish read out of his heart with brutal efficiency to write upon the second-in-command that Unicron had built for his own servant. For Galvatron.
Cyclonus wiped the last slow-dripping oil tracks from his face as the pain, a final dying spasm of love, inexorably and with terrible ease faded. He had come here in a desperate lunge, seeking some kind of pilgrimage, but as calm returned, and the clear processing of his circuits, he recognized that it had been only a delay. This was no monument where he could pay final respects, no resting place. The only place Galvatron would ever exist in this universe was in his own heart, and he had already said their last farewell. He had done his duty to the end. He had held the Decepticons together in exile; he had preserved their honor and sustained them under the hand of a leader who himself labored under a burden of shadow. He had saved his lord from the Quintessons, and given him the grace of an honorable death: the final gift of his service…a service which had ended with that death.
When calm returned, Cyclonus rose and looked out at the small blue jewel of Earth in the distance, streaked with clouds, turning slowly through the sun’s radiance. He drew a draught of fresh power into his system, letting it cleanse his emotional circuits. It was time to return to Megatron—and tell him all. There was no longer any need to conceal the truth. Megatron would believe him and heed his warnings. Cyclonus felt the perfect certainty of it in his heart. Megatron had only ever doubted him correctly. Just as Cyclonus once had known that Soundwave did not fully give his allegiance to Galvatron, so had Megatron recognized instinctively that something was withheld in Cyclonus’s breast, some deeper devotion. And even after it had not been withheld, even after Cyclonus’s heart had slipped away without his knowledge to be given whole, he had labored to deceive them both. Megatron’s frustration was suddenly painfully understandable—and Cyclonus realized with half-amused regret that their shared impulse to interface would in fact have saved a week of it. He could not have deceived either of them in the revealing light of that pure connection.
He indulged himself sufficiently to fly back to Earth without warp, a long meditative flight with the stars gleaming cold around him. He did not expect much activity in the base today; Megatron had quietly cleared today’s duty roster after his announcement, obviously intending to give everyone much-needed time to recover. But as soon as Cyclonus reentered the atmosphere, a brief signal pinged him, calling him back: he was wanted.
He responded to say he was on the way, and accelerated; he felt a sudden eager urgency. The tower raised to meet him, and he came down and found Skywarp and Thundercracker waiting for him. “Megatron wants you in the command center, stat,” Thundercracker said shortly. Cyclonus nodded and strode into the base; they fell in behind him. His logic circuits notified him belatedly that they were following him in guard position, and he paused and looked at them. They both stared back at him woodenly, and in sudden alarm he turned and went quicker and pushed into the center.
Megatron sat before the base computer. His face was cold and remote, a mask he had put on again. Soundwave flanked him, and Starscream was standing at the other side of the console leaning against it, already repaired; his arms were folded across his chest, and his eyes were gleaming with satisfaction and malicious pleasure. “Why Cyclonus,” he said, with a purr. “I’m so glad you could make it back. Not out raiding this time? I wonder where you did go?”
Cyclonus looked at him, then glanced at Hook and Scrapper, who were standing somewhat nervously beside him. He turned to Megatron. “You wished to see me,” he said quietly.
They were not alone in the room; far from it: Onslaught and Motormaster were also present, with grim faces and their weapons drawn. Cyclonus paid them no attention, but Megatron didn’t answer; it was Starscream who spoke again. “Yes, you see, we have a few questions for you. For instance, this place Chaar, that you supposedly came from.” He leaned over to the console and flicked up a wide image of the surface of Chaar—an image painfully familiar from the first bleak and terrible days of their exile, with energon stores and morale dwindling in equal measure; their lord gone, their empire fallen into dust, and not even the most meager shelter. “It seems, oddly enough, that there isn’t any base there at all. Very odd. It makes us wonder where exactly you really did come from.” He shut it off and leaned forward, his eyes narrowing, and added softly, “Especially when you’re getting encrypted communications from Ironhide.”
Megatron still hadn’t looked around. Starscream glanced at him, a smirking triumph in his eyes that made Cyclonus want to gouge them out of his cranial unit: Starscream was enjoying this, not for the mere selfish pleasure of seeing his rival cast down, but because he understood that he was wounding Megatron. Starscream looked back at him, and the smirk widened to real delight. “Well, Cyclonus? No excuses from our noble warrior? How many lies have you told us all, exactly?”
“None,” Cyclonus said quietly. Starscream paused, frowning. “Save by omission, which you may consider rises to the level.”
“And what have you omitted?” Megatron grated out, standing up suddenly and rounding on him. “Besides the actual location of your base? Perhaps your Autobot designation?”
“No,” Cyclonus said. “I am and have always been a Decepticon warrior. And my base was on Chaar, as I have said.”
“Do you think we just flew the drone around the planet once?” Starscream said contemptuously, waving a hand towards Hook. “We scanned the entire planetoid. There isn’t so much as a reasonably sized cavern, much less an intact building! It’s nothing but ruins and dust. Are we supposed to believe you served there eight million years ago or something?”
“No,” Cyclonus said. “The base on Chaar where I served began operation on the forty-seventh of Malar in the year 592 in vorn 14378.”
Starscream screwed up his face. “What are you talking about? That’s twelve days from…now…” he trailed off, and Megatron took a step forward, staring at him.
“I am from another universe,” Cyclonus said to him softly. “A universe so close to your own that they barely stand apart but for the briefest flicker of a timestream. Thirteen years’ difference. Only a little more than the time since my own creation.” He gestured a hand at the base, around at the others, all of them staring at him also, uncertainty now wavering in their faces. “In that universe, I served with many of you. Fought beside you, in a thousand battles. I knew that the Autobots were building Metroplex, and not merely Autobot City, because I have seen him take the field. I had your codes to hand because they were in my recent archival records, not yet retired to deep storage.”
“This is insane!” Starscream burst out suddenly. He whirled. “Megatron, you can’t possibly be considering believing this—this—ludicrous nonsense! Claiming to be from the future? Oh, yes, with your convenient excuse of mysteriously adjacent parallel universes,” he sneered in Cyclonus’s direction. “Why the hell would we ever start up an outpost on Chaar? It’s an isolated bare rock almost out of reach of Cybertron!”
Megatron glanced at him, and looked at Cyclonus. “Well?” he said, heavily.
“It was not an outpost,” Cyclonus said. “It was…our headquarters.”
“What?” Megatron said, frowning.
“The Empire was lost,” Cyclonus said. “The remnants of the army fell back on Chaar in retreat and disarray—”
“Retreat? From Cybertron?” Megatron broke in savagely, his eyes blazing, in a snarl. “Over my dead body.”
Cyclonus breathed out a soft gasp. “Yes,” he said. “It was.” There was a total silence in the room, all the others looking almost wildly at Megatron; he was staring at Cyclonus, transfixed. “And all that I have done in this universe, all my deceit, has been to prevent my future from becoming—yours.”
Megatron turned away from him. He put his hand on the back of the chair; he was staring at the console, and the mask had broken away. Cyclonus could see the struggle in him, the instinctive will to believe warring with a desperate determination not to be tricked, and ached for what he had done by confiding too late. “The transmission from Ironhide,” Megatron grated out.
Cyclonus turned to Soundwave. “The code which encrypts the transmission from Ironhide is one that you generated, thirteen years from now. It was an iteration of the forty-second generation of Polyhex—”
“Code generated,” Soundwave interrupted. “Transmission decrypted.”
“Put it on the screen!” Megatron ordered, and after a moment’s flicker, Ironhide’s old battered face appeared on the screen. He looked hollowed-out, sick with horror.
“We—we found it,” he said flatly. “Him. He was…eating.” He paused for a long moment, running a hand down his long jaw; lubricant trickled from one of his optics. All the Decepticons stared up at the visual. Ironhide added harshly, “I believe you. Whatever damn insane thing you want to tell me next, I’ll believe you.” He looked down and then jerked his head up and blurted, “The Matrix is gonna stop that thing?” He paused and took a visible deep breath, knuckling away the trickle of lubricant from his face. “He’s about four days out from Cybertron. We’re headed back to Earth to tell Optimus. Guess…guess I’ll talk to you soon.”
The message flicked out. “Coordinates attached,” Soundwave said.
“Send them to Shockwave and have him point the deep-space sensors in that direction,” Megatron said. “Now.”
“Orders sent. Patching in connection to Darkmount central scanning now,” Soundwave said, and a moment later the scanning data began to appear, single pixels illuminating one after another as the warp particles bounced back with their data.
“He’s made a mistake in the settings, the scale’s wrong!” Starscream said a little shrilly, as the solid mass began to take shape, a circle outlined and rapidly being filled in.
“The scale is not wrong,” Cyclonus said with finality.
There was a long silence as the outline completed, and more data began to be gathered and integrated, the shape forming slowly into three dimensions, materials information being added, power routing lines, the joints and struts; and deep within, visible through the great dorsal vent, the faint outline of the edge of the titanic plate of the transformation cog.
“What—is that thing?” Hook said faintly at last; he and Scrapper had pressed up to the console’s very edge.
“That is Unicron,” Cyclonus said. “My creator. And in four days’ time, if he is not stopped, he will devour our world.”
“I admit this new mech of yours is impressive, Prime,” Megatron said, looking out the window: the central tower of Autobot City stood complete, sheathed in glass. “One doesn’t truly appreciate the scale from the ground.”
“Hope you appreciate the scale when he’s plantin’ his foot right in your afterburners,” Ironhide growled from the other side of the table. The room was crowded with familiar Autobot faces, many of warriors Cyclonus recognized. He had killed a great many of them: mercy killings, to save them from the Quintessons.
Megatron snorted. “Will he actually be able to move a limb in under fifteen minutes in robot mode?” He turned and spread his hand. “Enough chatter. I presume Ironhide has filled you in on why we’re here.”
Optimus Prime was seated at the center of the table on the Autobot side with his hands folded, his head slightly bowed. “He has,” he said heavily.
“An’ gave him the video footage,” Ironhide muttered, with a hard shake of his head. He looked across the table at Cyclonus, who nodded back.
“Under the circumstances,” Megatron said dryly, “I’m not inclined to be picky about the details. Astrotrain and Cyclonus and the Seekers make the most sense to get you inside that thing, but bring whatever escort you want.”
“Yeah, thanks a lot, real nice of you,” Kup growled. “We’re all coming. Like we’d trust you ’cons not to stab Optimus in the back the second you get this Unicron handled.”
“No, Kup,” Optimus said quietly.
“Oh, hell, no,” Kup said, turning sharply around. “No, no, no. Optimus, you are not sailing into that—that thing with a bunch of Decepticons—”
“No,” Optimus said, with a terrible, bleak finality, and Cyclonus felt a sudden slow horror seize him. “I’m not.”
Even the Autobots were gawking at him. “Is that some sort of joke?” Megatron said. “What are you planning to do, stand by and watch him destroy Cybertron?”
Optimus looked up at him. “You made me make this choice once before, Megatron. Do you remember? A choice to save Cybertron at the cost of Earth. And last time—I made the wrong choice. The devastation…the millions of humans who died…” His voice trailed away. He shook his head. “I swore in their memory that I would never again make that mistake.”
“Optimus, stoppin’ that thing’s not gonna hurt Earth!” Ironhide said, staring. “Hell, for all we know, Earth’s next on his menu, if he gets a sniff of Metroplex here.” He gestured around.
“And if he comes to Earth, I will stop him,” Optimus said.
Megatron’s eyes were flaring red. “But you’ll let Cybertron be torn apart, devoured,” he grated out, “because it’s in Decepticon hands.”
“Megatron, do you think I’m a fool?” Optimus said. “We know how much energon you’ve sent back to Cybertron these last two weeks.” He gestured towards Ultra Magnus and Kup. “There are still Autobots on Cybertron. We’ve got eyes on you. We know the reactors under Darkmount have been reignited. We know the pipeline is about to open.”
Megatron was stiffening. “You know the war’s over,” he said, after a moment. “And that you’ve lost.”
Now the Autobots were turning towards Prime in desperation, as though they hoped he was going to tell them it wasn’t true. But Prime’s weary, impassive face gave them no answer they wanted. “Optimus,” Ironhide said, in horror; he had half risen from his chair. Optimus reached out and put a hand on Ironhide’s shoulder, silently.
“And this is the revenge you mean to take?” Megatron said through clenched teeth. “I never took you for a sore loser, Prime.”
“Revenge?” Optimus said, looking up at him again. “You’re not turning the home fires back on so you can settle in and start rebuilding! How many thousands of Decepticon warriors are in stasis under Vox? The minute that pipeline opens, you’re going to start reactivating them by the dozen, and when you do, you’re going to send them here. To murder humans and steal energon, to wake still more who’ll come and do the same thing. The dawn of the Decepticon Empire means the destruction of Earth and the slaughter of humanity. I won’t let that happen. I can’t let that happen. No matter the cost.”
No one spoke. Cyclonus could not formulate any response; this was an answer he had never even envisioned, in any universe.
It was Megatron who broke the silence at last. “After all these years, Optimus, you still manage to surprise me,” he said slowly. “That future Cyclonus warned us away from—the Battle of Autobot City. You orchestrated it deliberately, didn’t you. You knew—even before the last raiding campaign, you knew we were getting close to relighting the reactors. You didn’t build this city to protect humans. You built it to make me commit to an all-out fight.” Megatron sounded almost fascinated. “All for the chance that you might be able to kill me?”
All the Autobots around the table were gaping at their own leader, waiting for a denial, but Optimus only snorted faintly. “Megatron, I didn’t have to kill you to win. All I needed to do was hit you hard enough that Starscream would finish the job.”
Starscream twitched a bit nervously, but Megatron only huffed a chuckle. “Yes, very true.” He shook his head. “Planning a cold-blooded assassination. I didn’t think you had it in you.” He looked over at Cyclonus and jerked his head towards Prime. “If we rip the Matrix out of his chest, can we open it?”
“No,” Cyclonus managed. He felt shocked to blankness; his processor had not yet recovered to help him frame any kind of persuasion—the very idea that Prime would deliberately sacrifice Cybertron— “Only an Autobot Prime can open it.”
“How was it done in your universe? He was already dead,” Megatron said.
Cyclonus jerked his head towards Hot Rod, who was standing horrified with arms wrapped around himself, behind Kup. “His successor.”
Hot Rod looked around behind himself as if he expected to find someone else standing there; then he turned his head wildly back and darted his eyes around to them all. “I’m, I don’t, what?”
Kup turned slowly around to stare at him. “Ah, hell,” he said flatly after a moment.
“He’s a Decepticon!” Hot Rod blurted to him. “He’s making it up!”
“No, he’s not,” Kup said.
“Yes he is!” Hot Rod said. “Kup, you’ve gotta be kidding, you really think—!”
“Kid,” Kup said, “it’s gotta be true. Because nobody in their goddamn right mind would make that up.”
Hot Rod gave him back an utterly appalled look, as did most of the other Autobots. Ironhide had put his head in his hands. But Megatron shrugged and leaned over the table towards him. “Well?” he demanded. Hot Rod jerked around and stared at him in confusion. “Will you do it?”
He gawked at Megatron, and then blurted out indignantly, “What, if you rip it out of Optimus’s chest?”
“Will you save Cybertron?” Megatron snarled at him. “Will you stop this monstrosity from devouring our homeworld?”
Hot Rod flinched back from him. He jerked a wild look over at Optimus half-pleading, then around all the other Autobots. But Prime was still looking down at his own hands on the table, and did not turn to meet his gaze; the others all stared at him in total blank helplessness, all of them clearly trapped in an emotional vortex between their leader’s guidance and the horror of imagining their world lost. He himself was trembling where he stood.
But then he slowly turned his head back to Megatron, his eyes wide, and said in a faint, cracking voice, “No. I—I won’t help you. Not—not—when it means—setting you all loose on the galaxy. It’s not just Earth you’d destroy. I—can’t.” His voice broke, and he stopped, and sank down on an empty chair in a sudden limp collapse.
Optimus Prime looked up and around at him, half-bemused; Kup took his memno-stick out of his mouth and stared. All the other Autobots about him, his closest companions, were gawking at him, as if they’d all suddenly seen in him the half-obscured shadow of Rodimus Prime’s shape. After a moment, Optimus reached out and put his hand gently on Hot Rod’s shoulder, and Hot Rod looked up at him: they shared a moment’s look of real anguish—and of perfect unity.
Witnessing it, Cyclonus realized in sudden terrible clarity that there was no solution. He could say nothing, tell them nothing, that would persuade them. The Autobots had chosen his future. They had chosen the destruction of Cybertron—the destruction of their own world and all but a fragmentary remnant of their own people—over any alternative which permitted the Decepticon Empire to arise. They were deliberately laying their own bodies down in its path. If he told them of the Quintessons, of the horror that lay before them, the grotesque fate that they and all their fellows would suffer—even that would not alter their resolve. Because in that future…the Decepticon Empire had still fallen, and only Cybertronians, once more mingled inextricably, had remained to go on, to build a future linked through the gentler ties of alliance and mutual benefit with the rising force of humanity.
Grimlock stood up and hit the table with his fist hard enough to make it shake. “No!” he said. “No! This plan stupid! Let Unicron eat Cybertron? Stupid! Cybertron never get built again! Everybody lose! No chance to win ever! Dinobots will fight to save humans from Decepticons, but Dinobots not give up Cybertron! Grimlock open Matrix?” he demanded, looking at Cyclonus. “Any Dinobot open Matrix? We all try! Me Grimlock say!”
Cyclonus shook his head a little. “You tried,” he said, distorted by a lagging of his vocal unit. “All the Autobots who survived Rodimus Prime in my universe…none could open it.” He gestured at Optimus. “It is—it is their very folly which permits them to access it.”
“Guess that explains it,” Springer muttered, hollowly. Arcee hit him with a clang.
Megatron was regarding Prime with a set expression, even as the other Decepticons began turning to him in their own mounting alarm. They did not yet know the worst of the future that awaited them, but they saw enough to fear: Unicron would tear apart their cities, the homeworld for which they had fought so relentlessly. Megatron might hurl his legions against Unicron until they were all eradicated; it would do no good. But if he surrendered, if he yielded Cybertron to destruction—told his warriors to flee, to abandon their world—he would break the beating heart of the empire he had fought so long to build.
Optimus Prime looked back up at him. There was no satisfaction or pleasure in his face. “I am truly sorry, Megatron, though I don’t expect you to believe me. But this is my final answer.”
“Oh, I believe you, Prime,” Megatron said after a moment. “Fortunately, it’s not mine.” Cyclonus jerked and looked at him, a desperate hope rising in him. If Megatron had thought of something, if he had found some escape for them all—even the other Autobots had turned their gazes to him with almost equal desperation, as if they hoped, too; Optimus Prime himself had stilled.
Megatron reached out deliberately and took hold of the chair he had neglected, across from Prime; he dragged it out from the table and seated himself with a thump, then gestured across the surface. “Well? Let’s have it,” he said. “Name your terms.”
Optimus was staring at him. “Terms,” he said, slowly.
“Peace terms,” Megatron said. “Don’t tell me you haven’t spent some stupidly significant fraction of your conscious time over the last eight million years drafting some hypothetical peace treaty that you thought would actually hold, and which you knew I’d reject out of hand. Well, congratulations, your moment has come. Go ahead and pull it out.” And then he leaned across the table, his optics igniting to scarlet flame. “But hurry it up,” he said, low and menacingly. “Because you’ve got me over a barrel for three days more. And if you haven’t got what you want by then, and I have to order a general retreat from Cybertron, you had better believe that by the time Unicron gets to this planet, I will have laid it waste before him.”
The threat was both required, and unnecessary. Prime’s impassivity had already broken; he had a hand over his faceplate, and lubricant tears were sliding from his optics. He made not even a token effort to master his vocal unit when he said, in a shaking voice, “The great circle through Morhex and Vorlaine as boundary.”
Megatron ground his jaw and said through his teeth, “Fine.”
“Oh. You’re—you’re serious,” Starscream said, his voice cracking high. He groped after a chair himself and dragged it out and sat as well. Then he blurted, “Through Corbel and Iberion!”
“No,” Optimus said. “Not one inch of the titanium flats, and no access to the Equatorial Passage—”
“Forgive me,” Cyclonus said, breaking in. He himself had made the effort to master his vocal unit, but it had not been a trivial task. “But this negotiation will shortly be rendered pointless.”
“Aw, hell,” Ironhide suddenly muttered. “Lemme guess,” he said across the table, his pitted old optics narrowing. “This is when you drop the other shoe.”
“Yes,” Cyclonus said. He turned to Optimus and Megatron. “The actual division of the planet must be dictated by imminent defensive needs. The entire planetary interior, from twenty meters below the surface down to the core, as Autobot territory—”
Megatron’s optics widened, and Starscream said shrilly, “Are you insane? We might as well give them the keys to Darkmount!”
“No,” Cyclonus said. “They must give us the keys to Iacon. From the surface up, Decepticon territory, but operating under the standard for hostile occupation. The twenty meters in between must be made into a quarantine zone, lined with palladium sheathing, and any personnel moving between must undergo the following sanitization procedures.” He transmitted them along an open data channel, and saw all of them stiffen as they saw the details. “All offworld outposts, including bases on Earth, must form a similar arrangement. Autobot transports must have a shielded interior and Decepticon escort—”
“Cyclonus,” Megatron said, in a vaguely resigned tone, “I’m assuming there’s some reason why we’d go to all these lengths to protect Autobots?”
There was a deeper, more painful answer to that question, but he gave the practical one instead: they would all learn the other soon enough. “If we do not, the Quintessons will turn them into an army to use against us.”
“They’re an army being used against us now!” Starscream said.
“Yes,” Cyclonus said. “Imagine them stripped of all compassion, morality, and instinct for self-preservation. Then imagine them backed by another army of ten million heavy-armor semisentient drones, and an incessant flow of engineered cyberneural infections targeting our very cores.”
From the expressions on both sides of the table, they were imagining it, and without pleasure. “Who the hell are these—Quintessons?” Ultra Magnus demanded. “How could they do this to us?”
“They are our creators,” Cyclonus said. “And Unicron’s as well. They built us as slaves to serve them, but Unicron escaped his leash and began to devour all their worlds. So they hid themselves out of the timestream to escape the monster they created, to return only after he is destroyed. And they want us all back.”
Megatron stared at him for a long moment, and then he heaved a massive exhale and said, “Soundwave, give me an enteric sheet.”
Soundwave silently extruded the sheet and handed it to him. Megatron inscribed it with one line: On the thirty-sixth day of Malar in the year 592 of vorn 14378, the Third Cybertronian War ended. He signed it, and pressed on his thumbseal, and handed it to Optimus with an air of resignation.
Prime took it and sat there staring at it. The lubricant was leaking so freely from his optics now that it limned all the edges of his face. Then he put it down and signed it, somewhat shakily, and printed it with his own seal. He said to Megatron, “Ultra Magnus will handle the handover for us.”
“Shockwave will take it on our side,” Megatron said. “We can get ten percent done by tomorrow morning.”
Prime nodded. “We’ll be ready to head to Cybertron in an hour. Assign whoever you want to the Unicron mission. I’ll wait for confirmation from Magnus about the handover of the subterranean levels of the Darkmount reactors before I go in.” They both stood, and he held out his hand, and Megatron reached out and gripped it.
Prime turned and looked around the table. “I want senior staff in the west conference room, now. Ultra Magnus, Kup, please join us.” He paused, and then added, softly, “You too, Hot Rod,” before he strode without hesitation from the chamber. Hot Rod gulped visibly, looking over at Springer and Arcee, and then he pushed himself up and followed the other senior officers out.
Grimlock shook his head in massive irritation as they left and pushed himself up. “Me Grimlock stuck underground too?” he demanded of Cyclonus. “Quintessons get in my brains?”
“No,” Cyclonus said quietly. “You and the Dinobots are resistant to the Quintesson infection.”
“OK, that something,” Grimlock said. He looked at Megatron. “This not as stupid as other plan,” he said bluntly. “Me Grimlock still not like you, but at least you not dumb. Dinobots fight with Decepticons from now on.”
“Grimlock!” Wheeljack said, horrified, reaching out a hand.
“No! Forget it!” Grimlock said to him. “Optimus give Dinobots bad orders for last time.”
“Wait, okay, Grimlock, listen, I know this is complicated—” Wheeljack started.
“Grimlock, we would welcome your voice in our strategic discussion,” Megatron interrupted. “I think it would be invaluable.”
Wheeljack paused and gaped at him; so did Onslaught. Grimlock snorted. “See, him really not dumb. But me Grimlock not stay and talk,” he added to Megatron. “You tell Grimlock plan later, Grimlock tell you if dumb or not. Now me go tell other Dinobots war over and Cybertron not getting eaten. No thanks to Optimus Prime!” He shook his head again. “But me Grimlock still want rematch someday!” he told Cyclonus. “Me Grimlock stay in robot mode next time.”
Cyclonus bowed to him. “It will be my honor, when that day should come.”
After he stalked heavily out, the rest of the Autobots all still just stood there staring at Megatron in a kind of overwhelmed confusion, until he raised an eyebrow and flicked his hand at them dismissively. “Well? Run along. We’ve got our own discussion to have.”
“Megatron,” Starscream said, the instant they’d cleared out. “If you give them the reactor levels, we’ll never get them out again!”
“Which is exactly why Prime’s going to wait until we hand them over before he takes out Unicron,” Megatron said dryly. He looked at Cyclonus. “And you’re certain there’s no way to dump the Autobots? Get them and these Quintessons to take care of one another for us?”
Cyclonus hesitated. “Forgive me, but—we will not want to.”
“Are you—no, of course you’re not joking, you’re always mortally serious, and completely insane!” Starscream yelled at him. “We’re not going to want to dump the Autobots?”
“When the Quintessons began their—repossession,” Cyclonus said, “they did not yet realize that Decepticons were not vulnerable. They began with the Autobots because they held Cybertron. Having secured the planet, they then sent a few of them to transmit the infection to us, assuming it would work as easily. But no Decepticons fell, and we did not even notice the attempt. We thought the Autobots had come as saboteurs. But they behaved strangely during interrogation, and after a few days, Soundwave found the neural hold. And a way to break it.” He stopped, falling silent; he had been in the detention center that day, as Soundwave carefully dislodged the Quintessons’ neural grip.
“As soon as the Autobots were freed,” he said finally, “they begged us to kill them. Incessantly. They could speak of nothing else. When we left one unrestrained for barely a moment, he seized the nearest tool, a hydraulic bonder, and plunged it through one of his own optics and activated it.” Everyone winced back from him grimacing involuntarily. “The next day, having realized their danger, the Quintessons launched a full assault on Chaar. Using their new Autobot slaves. I slew Rodimus Prime on that field, and as he died, he made a great effort, and transmitted to me the list of all the Autobots’ armor resonance frequencies.”
“He what?” Scrapper said. “But that would—we could tune our energy weapons to rip through them like scrap!”
“Yes,” Cyclonus said. “He gave me the list and begged me to kill them all.” He did not go on for some time; he was standing again on the desolate field of Chaar, battle raging all around him, Rodimus Prime’s hand clutching at his arm, whispering, “Please kill us,” as he died. “We slaughtered them that day by the hundreds. They thanked us with their final vocalizations. At the end of that battle we stood surrounded by their corpses, and there was an expression of profound relief on all their faces. As though we had given them mercy instead of death.”
He gestured slightly at the door the Autobots had gone through. “Ironhide and the Dinobots were among the few who did not succumb. They were defending a small location on one of Cybertron’s moons where Wheeljack and the last few Autobot scientists were quarantined, laboring to find a cure. When they were discovered and besieged, they sent a desperate distress beacon in the clear. Soundwave detected it scant hours after we had flung off the Quintesson assault. I asked for volunteers to go with me to bring them out. Every Decepticon not too injured to stand volunteered.”
The others had all fallen silent. Cyclonus spread his hands. “They have been our enemies for vorn upon vorn. They are soft and undisciplined and maddening, and they stand in the way of the Empire we would build. But they are still our brethren. What the Quintessons did to them…it was not something we could endure. Even though, in my future, they had driven us from Cybertron into exile and shadow.”
“Nnng, I don’t buy it,” Motormaster growled after a moment, crossing his arms over his chest in defiance. “You gonna tell me I volunteered to go save Autobots?”
Cyclonus looked at him, and a wary look crossed Motormaster’s face. “Not long after,” Cyclonus said, “you and the Stunticons went to retrieve another handful of Autobots at a small offworld outpost. The Quintessons tracked you and used a virus to penetrate the base computers. They disabled the shields and attacked. They sent legions of their Sharkticon warriors against you. You still had your ship, but the Autobots you had come to retrieve were deep underground, and the computer sabotage had locked out the elevators. There was no way for them to get out.
“We found the scraps of five thousand of the enemy littering the ground around your bodies. And when at last you alone remained, and they breached the final defenses—you blew open the shaft and went down to kill the Autobots yourself, before they could be taken. So that they would not have to force themselves to kill one another.”
After a long moment, Onslaught said, “Cyclonus, I believe I speak for us all when I say, please stop telling us things. We’ll make peace with the damned Autobots already, only just—shut up.”
There were several expressions of strong agreement, but Megatron heaved a deep breath and said, “No. He’s going to tell us every last damn thing he can, anything we can possibly use against these Quintessons. Because this is a war I intend to win fast. I’m not spending the rest of my days as an Autobot nursemaid.
“Onslaught, get the Combaticons to the spacebridge. You’re going to Cybertron with us. I want you and Shockwave to work with Cyclonus and put together a strategic analysis of all planetary defenses—and do consult Grimlock; that wasn’t a joke, as insane as it sounds. Scrapper, I want the Constructicons there too. Starscream, I’m leaving you in charge here on Earth. Get the Autobots here quarantined.” He made a face. “You’ll probably need to put them in our base. And do something about this,” he jerked a thumb out the window at the city around. He looked at Cyclonus. “Is he vulnerable to these Quintessons?”
“Extremely,” Cyclonus said.
“Wonderful,” Megatron said in exasperation. “I’m so glad Prime spent so much time and effort building this thing.”
“What are we going to do about energon?” Starscream demanded. “I can’t imagine they’ll sit quietly in their quarantines if we keep raiding.”
“If they don’t want us to raid, they can get their fleshling allies to fork it over,” Megatron said.
“We will want an alliance with the humans of our own, if they can be persuaded to negotiate with us,” Cyclonus said.
Megatron put a hand over his forehead. “With the humans.”
“If you recalibrate your long-term strategic processing unit to operate on a one-hour time slice—”
“It is a meaningful amount of time for them,” Cyclonus said. “You must also set work units to micron scale, and force the potential number of actors to one billion. Even a small quantity of processing time should then suffice to illustrate the impact of—”
“Yes, thank you,” Megatron said, with an appalled expression of intense distaste; Starscream and Onslaught were both looking nearly distraught as well. “That can’t possibly be realistic.”
“It is a low estimate of functional actors. Their population is currently six billion,” Cyclonus said. “In thirteen years, it reached nine billion.”
“Well, every single part of this entire conversation has been the most horrible thing I’ve ever heard,” Onslaught said. “Can we go now, before we end up adopting kittens or something? I want to solace my bruised processors by telling the other Combaticons we’re making peace with the Autobots and humans and enjoying their howls of anguish all the way to Cybertron. My misery needs company.”
Megatron nodded dismissal to the rest of them, but he made no move to go himself; he turned his optics to Cyclonus as the others left, and Cyclonus stayed, waiting until they were alone. “So,” Megatron said, studying him levelly. “Who exactly ended up in charge of the Decepticons in this universe of yours?”
Cyclonus paused and then said softly, “I did.”
Megatron nodded thoughtfully and glanced around at the empty chamber. “Two Decepticon Supreme Commanders in a room. This doesn’t generally end well.”
Cyclonus found himself almost wanting to smile. A swell of deep sparking joy was rising out of him, from that reservoir he’d thought forever dry. “You need not be concerned. I outrank you.”
Megatron stared at him in startled indignation. “You what?”
“I was Supreme Cybertronian Commander by the end,” Cyclonus said. “The Autobots made me their leader as well.”
Megatron glared at him speechlessly. Cyclonus said, “But surely that should not surprise you. That, too, is what you wanted in a second. One who would carry on the work if you should fall. You do not desire to build in ash.”
“No, I suppose I don’t,” Megatron said after a moment, grudging and a little bemused. He looked out of the window again at the spires. “So instead it seems now I’ll have to build with Autobots and humans. Do you have any idea how much more complicated it’s going to be to get anything done?”
“Yes,” Cyclonus said emphatically.
“Well, that’s encouraging,” Megatron growled. Then he turned and looked at Cyclonus, his optics gleaming and intent. “But at least I’ll have you to help me.”
It was nearly impossible to speak; his emotional circuitry was stealing power from every one of his systems, to fuel the sudden and still-rising incandescent surge of happiness. “Yes,” Cyclonus said. “Yes, my lord. You will.”