The halls of the dead were hushed, the sound of Cyclonus’s footfalls swallowed swiftly by distance and dust. The noise of construction had not yet penetrated here. But the quarantine layer would have to pass above it, and the Constructicons were making rapid progress with many Autobot hands to assist in the work. They would be sealing off the passage to the upper halls of Darkmount by tomorrow. So Cyclonus had stolen one precious day away from the urgent work above to come down.
He had brought tools with him; all three of the Darkmount reactors were alive and pulsing with energy now, deep below, but the old channels were mostly clogged and rusted shut by the eons of disuse. He worked backwards to open the lines from each of the tombs to the central fountain, and from there it took several hours more to clear the blockages all the way back to the main trunk of the fuel lines flowing up to the surface. But once he had finished and opened the gate, energon came running to all of them at once, a faint violet glow cast up into all the niches.
Cyclonus pulled himself out from beneath the fountain and straightened, wincing slightly at the creaking in his back and leg servos: he was not designed to fit into small spaces. He would have to get a lubricant shot later. For the moment, he stretched a little, and then took one of the igniters down from the wall and began at one side, lighting the cups one after another, until the white flames leapt before every marker. He finished and returned to the entrance, putting the igniter away, and then turned and let himself take in the chamber, the massive markers thrown into vivid relief by light and deepened shadows, their stern faces gazing towards eternity, and the enormous Decepticon symbol standing at the end of the hall lit now from behind by a wall of flame.
A deep satisfaction swelled out of his emotional circuitry, if touched by the bittersweet of regret: tomorrow this hall would pass into the keeping of the Autobots. He did not fear that they would dishonor it, but neither would they come to pay their respects and kindle their own hearts with courage. And the quarantine would be sufficiently onerous to bar his own crossing only for the sake of paying a visit. He would have little cause to come below otherwise, and much to occupy him above. The separation would be nearly as complete as when he had been an exile on Chaar. But at least he would have this memory, stored clear and sharp-edged, and it was far more than he had hoped to have.
He recognized the footsteps behind him as soon as he heard them. “So this is where you vanished off to,” Megatron said, emerging from the dark of the corridor to join him, the silver of his armor catching the flames. He stood by Cyclonus’s side, looking around the chamber. “Did you spend the whole day fixing up this dusty old mausoleum?” But there was a touch of wistfulness in his voice, despite the dismissive words, and even as he spoke, he walked on into the room and paused by the first of the markers, resting his fingers on the engraved plaque as he looked up at the statue of Bludgeon.
It occurred to Cyclonus that Megatron himself had dedicated each of these statues; he had fought beside these warriors, and chosen them for the honor when they had fallen. He stepped to Megatron’s side and said softly, “Will you tell me of them?”
Megatron snorted. “Are you sure you want me to? Statues have fewer flaws. Mostly they wound up in here because they made stupid mistakes.”
Cyclonus shrugged. “No warrior is free from error. They must surely have avoided many more.”
“True enough,” Megatron said. He jerked his chin up towards Bludgeon. “You’d have liked him as a sparring partner. The blade’s not an affectation; he was a Metallikato master.”
They did not leave for a long time. Cyclonus drank in every story Megatron shared, priceless treasures, and laid them glowing into the edifice of the memory he was building. But Megatron grew more brooding as he spoke of the dead, and his voice dipped low, though he did not stop. When at last they had visited each marker, he paused one more time to look back at them, and there was something bleak in his face. “I wonder what they’d say if they saw us now,” he said aloud, glancing up; Bonecrusher was now audibly at work overhead.
“Do you think they would reproach you for finding a way to preserve Cybertron?” Cyclonus said.
“With a peace treaty? Deathsaurus would be howling for every last drop of oil in my tubing,” Megatron said. He made a short impatient gesture, waving off his own emotions. “But he’s dead, so he doesn’t get a say. All right, let’s get out of here.”
They went back up the access shaft, pausing briefly to speak with the Constructicons, who were already beginning to fit the seals to the walls. “We’re getting ahead of schedule,” Scrapper said. “I think we’ll finish the quarantine zone under Darkmount tomorrow, and all of Polyhex in another four days. And then—well, not to pick a fight, but Megatron, it doesn’t make sense for us to push all the way to Iacon from here. We’re inevitably going to be creating points of vulnerability if we try to create a safe zone that big. I realize the Autobots aren’t going to like living in Decepticon territory—”
“What they really aren’t going to like is having their brains rewritten by Quintessons, so they’ll have to get used to it,” Megatron said. “Once you finish the zone under Polyhex, put in a secure perimeter and stop there for now. I’ll have the fight with Prime if I have to, but I won’t; he’s not an idiot.”
“What the Autobots will object to is a lack of range, more than the location,” Cyclonus said. “Many of them suffer from anxiety if denied sufficient driving distances. But if the Constructicons cleared rough ramps throughout the levels of the secure region, that would facilitate their taking exercise.”
“Get it done,” Megatron told Scrapper. “After you’ve got the perimeter finished.”
They went the rest of the way up, and there the vast expanse of tasks pressed them apart again. Cyclonus was devoting the last few hours of every day to working with Soundwave and Ratchet; together they were carefully extracting all the details of technical advancements he could dredge up from his memory, everything they had used in the many years of the Quintesson war, defensive and offensive both. Wheeljack was deliberately absenting himself: his creativity operated better if he did not attempt to guide it. “I’m crap at reverse-engineering, even if it’s me who did the forward-engineering the first time. Anything you get, if there’s something Ratchet can’t figure out, Scrapper and Hook can still probably finish it better than me,” Wheeljack had said. “I’m gonna start working on new things.”
They were working as carefully as possible, and the Autobot medic in particular had an exceptionally gentle hand, but radical memory probing, attempting to retrieve technical information on a level he had not himself ever understood, was inevitably painful and tiring. And even though Cyclonus was well aware of the value of the information, he could not take any true satisfaction in lying on a repair bed for hours.
But this day Ratchet stopped the session after only an hour, before Cyclonus had more than a mild headache. “All right, that’s enough, I’m calling it,” Ratchet said, firmly, putting down his tools.
“The level of pain is not yet severe,” Cyclonus said.
“Yeah, but you’re rising through those pain levels a lot quicker than when we started this,” Ratchet said. “We’re not taking chances on blowing a core pathway here. It’s not worth it. We’ve already got a hell of a lot to work on as it is—in fact, we’re skipping the rest of the week. We’ll start in on what we’ve already got, and I want you all the way back to baseline before we do another session. For now, go do something relaxing.”
Cyclonus frowned slightly, but when he glanced over, Soundwave only nodded his agreement. “Recommended activity: two hour training session,” he said.
“I said relaxing!” Ratchet said.
“That sounds exceptionally relaxing,” Cyclonus said, swinging his legs over the side and standing up. “I have been forced to severely curtail my training sessions over the last three weeks.”
Ratchet eyed him up and down. “Right. Decepticons,” he muttered to himself, with a small shake of his head. “Yes, fine, go ahead and spend two hours in extreme violence.” He sighed faintly.
Cyclonus nodded to them both and left. It made the day feel even more of a holiday, and the Darkmount training facilities, fully powered, made a glorious mockery of anything he had ever used before. The main training arena covered a square kilometer of ground and had sufficient height for bombing runs. It fired his imagination with dreamy visions of large-scale combat training sessions—they could practice with the combiners, they could simulate assaults on major fortifications. The simulator was more than capable of producing truly intelligent opposition—it could even simulate specific Cybertronian opponents almost accurately.
It felt almost sybaritic for a mere personal session, and he flung himself into it with delight, giving the simulator free rein to throw different opponents at him. It first took him through an exhilaratingly difficult dogfight against Starscream, Thundercracker, Skydive, Air Raid, and Vortex, who proved so complex a set of opponents that Cyclonus greatly regretted that the Aerialbots except for Slingshot would all have to go into quarantine: they would have made a devastating offensive combination to hurl at the Quintesson aerial drones.
He managed to outfly them long enough to bring down Air Raid, which left a weakness in the line, and then Thundercracker; but with the two of them down, the computer had Starscream order Vortex into a vulnerable position that Cyclonus recognized as a trap a moment too late. Even as he took Vortex and Air Raid down, Starscream managed to hit him directly in his aft engine control center with a concussion missile, and the simulator ended and informed him he had been brought down.
He landed with his intakes still cycling rapidly, fiercely delighted; a simulator that could bring him down. It was glorious, and he still had another hour left. “Computer, simulate personal combat, half-hour match,” Cyclonus said. “Opponent: Ultra Magnus.”
Magnus was his most deadly opponent. When Grimlock remained in robot mode, Cyclonus’s victory rate dropped to 52% against him, but he had never yet managed to get his rate above the halfway mark with Magnus regardless of conditions. He had never even imagined trying to run a simulation of live combat against him; it would only be irritating to face so unsatisfying a version of his foe. He was not sure even this simulator could manage it—but it was at least worth an attempt, and indeed, after the first few passes he could tell that it was close enough to make the fight a challenge.
But it was not quite right—on the fourth exchange, Cyclonus managed to solidly throw him with a maneuver he felt instinctively that Ultra Magnus would have found some way to evade; if it had succeeded in a real battle, he would have thought Magnus distracted. Cyclonus paused the simulator, considering, and then said, “Computer, add Shockwave as secondary opponent.”
That served well: the match became brutally difficult at once. Cyclonus had to remain almost entirely on the defensive, and was forced to use his alt mode to simply move out of range on several occasions. He just barely managed to stay alive for the half hour, and ended it at last to find Megatron observing, his arms folded over his chest with irritation bright in his eyes. “Ultra Magnus and Shockwave?” he snapped.
Cyclonus inclined his head. “A most effective combination of opponents.” Megatron glared at him. Cyclonus frowned puzzled back, then said, “But you objected to my using you as a simulation target,” repressing some amusement at the narrowing of Megatron’s optics. He gestured at the open floor. “Would you care to join me? I have half an hour remaining. I meant to use it to simulate a Sharkticon swarm.”
Megatron scowled at him, still visibly annoyed, and then growled, “Fine. I’d just as soon see how these things fight.”
Cyclonus had considerable data on the Sharkticons, more than enough to feed the simulator; they were hardly challenging to simulate compared to Cybertronian warriors. Their deadly quality was in their endless ranks, their inexorable determination to kill. Cyclonus did not tell the simulator how many opponents to provide; it generated thirty to start, and as the battle was joined, more and more of them kept appearing on the far edge, and occasionally appeared unexpectedly from behind them.
They began back-to-back, covering one another as they blasted the Sharkticons in waves and smashed them back with crushing blows. They had not fought like this before, the two of them alone against a unified enemy, and at first Cyclonus noticed nothing unusual, but Megatron glanced at him, once or twice, then abruptly flicked a hand to signal for his attention, and simply—handed over his defense, and oriented himself entirely towards offense.
It was a strangely familiar echo of fighting alongside Galvatron, trying to cover him, and yet nothing like it. Megatron did not simply ignore his presence and forge ahead; they were fighting together. Megatron blasted wide swaths through the Sharkticons, while Cyclonus gave him steady cover and funneled the horde into a narrow wedge that fed them to his cannon; when the swarm pressed too hard and he needed more room, Megatron fired several blasts to clear space for him, without any signal necessary, and shifted back with him. They consolidated their position and surged forward, again with not a word transmitted, and drove into the pack once more. It was breathlessly magnificent; all the delight of being part of a larger whole, the same sense of purpose and discipline that he found in being part of an army, made manifest in battle. And Megatron—trusting him, consciously and deliberately laying his life into his hands.
When the simulation reached the time limit, they had destroyed nearly two thousand Sharkticons, with no damage taken beyond what their self-repair systems could keep up with; they finished amid a heap of wreckage together, Megatron’s optics gleaming and his chest heaving with his air intakes, and Cyclonus landed beside him and Megatron abruptly turned to him, caught his head, and pulled him down—
Cyclonus nearly lost command of all his mechanical systems; he was gripping Megatron’s arms and they fell together to the ground, heavily, even as he opened the contacts in his mouth wide. The fierce current of Megatron’s thoughts surged into him, still full of battle-heat and intensity, and Cyclonus slid a hand along the smooth hard edge of his leg to find the rarely-used port on the thigh. Megatron groaned into his mouth and opened the port to his touch, shuddering as Cyclonus stroked it before plugging in a cable from his wrist. Megatron’s hands were cupping his face, his thumbs sliding along the edges where his helm met his face, still maintaining contact, and Cyclonus eagerly yielded to the press of the connection, opening the most secure levels of his hardware and letting Megatron into him, and Megatron shuddered again, sighed against him, and let him in as well.
The first long, glowing moment of union seemed at once endless and over too quickly; but then, oh, the sensation as Megatron’s processes began to run through him. The barely leashed ferocity of him like the flow of molten durasteel, and the ironclad will that held that ferocity in check; the razor-sharp edges of his pragmatism, his cunning and his ruthlessness; the bright pillars of strategy and tactics. Cyclonus caught delicious, glittering glimpses of his military planning, the vast scope of Cybertron’s defenses—Megatron was intimately aware of every vulnerability, every capability; millions of years of experience like a bottomless well unveiled, and with it the savage determination to eradicate the Quintessons entirely, which made Cyclonus sigh softly in satisfaction.
But then behind them, almost involuntary, came the gleam of imperial vision, so dazzling Cyclonus caught his breath: the empire Megatron had so long envisioned, the empire he had raised an army to build, the empire he had promised them—an empire that would rule the cosmos, a deep, vast purpose for Decepticon might; something worth fighting for, spending their lives for—something all those warriors entombed below had spent their lives for, in the sure confidence that their lord would use their sacrifice well, would never surrender that vision, would never give it up—
Tears stung Cyclonus’s eyes as he felt the surge of Megatron’s involuntary shame and grief for the shattering of the promise. Megatron’s pragmatism was his driving force, and he would follow it with grim determination, but—it did not live in his heart. His heart yearned, in an achingly familiar way, for something his cooler mind refused to allow him to pursue without rational limits and bounds. For glory, for honor, that same elusive target Cyclonus pursued. And in his heart, he felt them forever lost; the vision clouded and falling into dark.
Cyclonus let the sorrow live in him, shared Megatron’s grief; it was a loss worth grief, worth mourning. But then he leaned forward and pressed his forehead against Megatron’s, and reaching into the bleak deep recesses of his mind called up his own vision—a memory he had not given to Soundwave and Ratchet; a memory no Cybertronian in this universe or any other shared with him. The memory of the pillar of flame rising from the heart of their homeworld, towering higher than the starscrapers, and then—then the rest of it; the terrible gouting cracks opening, fires howling out into space as they consumed—everything: their cities and their tombs, their histories and their lives, everything eradicated in the final agonizing nova of destruction, with only the least fragmentary scrap of hope saved from the flame.
He shared it whole, felt Megatron shaking with its horror, a horror made infinitely worse because Cyclonus had been forced to experience it as a success; he had been forced to destroy Cybertron with his own hand, and that grotesque end had been not bitterest loss, but a victory. Cyclonus grew aware that he himself was trembling also, tears sliding that he had not before let flow, and Megatron’s grip was clamped around the back of his neck, holding on, steadying. They were breathing in short rasping intakes together, still shivering.
But when at last Cyclonus had managed to restore an even flow of power, he gave Megatron also his own spark-deep gratitude, the moment of his shattering relief when Megatron had found a way to save their world. When Megatron had chosen to sacrifice his vision, his life’s work, more precious to him than that life—to avert the horror that Cyclonus himself had lived through. Megatron drew in a short rasping breath, and a trickle of lubricant leaked from his own optics, his own relief: he had…he had thought it a failure. He had thought he should have found another way, some better scheme—
Cyclonus kissed him once more, softly, and Megatron held him, lingering with him in the moment, and then drew a deep breath and disengaged. He let himself sink back flat, drawing deep intake cycles, and Cyclonus rolled over onto his own back beside him. After a moment, Megatron chuckled faintly, and then more wholeheartedly laughed. Cyclonus looked over at him a little bemused, and Megatron said, almost choking, “You pile of rusted bolts, you wanted to trade me in for that—that lunatic.”
Cyclonus said reproachfully, “He was my lord.”
“He was not your lord!” Megatron said. “He wasn’t anyone’s lord! He was out of his blasted mind! I’ve never seen a mech that insane still functioning. What the hell happened, did his entire logic unit get dismantled or something?”
“He was—flung into a plasma lake.”
“Splendid! Fused cranial circuitry is just what’s called for in a Decepticon Commander. I can’t believe you made me worry for months over that.” Megatron grunted and heaved himself up on one elbow to glare down at Cyclonus. “And just so we’re clear, if anything like that ever happens to me, you will damned well destroy me, not prop me up like some grotesque caricature.”
“I cannot promise you that,” Cyclonus said softly, looking up at him. “Only—that should anything like that ever happen to you, I will make every possible effort to have died first.”
Megatron glared at him harder. “Oh, shut up.”