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be not afraid, be not afraid

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“Here are the warning systems and alert systems. I’ll be notified if any of these buttons are pushed or if the alarms are tripped,” Depth Charge explained, finally coming to the end of the tour. “Any questions?”

“I believe you’ve been very thorough. If I come up with any, I’ll let you know,” said Apelinq, the newest unfortunate soul to be stationed on Colony Omicron. “Now, I would appreciate having the time to start unpacking.”

“Of course. Don’t let me get in your way,” Depth Charge muttered. What a prick.

He’d argued against this, strenuously. It was dangerous, a huge risk to the colony—especially for something they’d had no part in. If the scientists in Maximal high command wanted to do fragged-up experiments, that was their problem. They should have been able to deal with it without foisting their mistakes on colonies.

Depth Charge had been overruled, which was how he found himself where he was: in a new prison division specifically constructed for this purpose, to include both a high security cell and a lab, currently cluttered with storage containers. Even though the experiment was over, ostensibly. Apparently there was still work to be done.

The most important one had already been locked away, and Depth Charge strolled over to examine it. The stasis pod hadn’t been opened yet. It wouldn’t be, until everything else was in place and secured, but Depth Charge’s work was done for now—titanium walls and bars, laced with high-charge electric shocks, not to mention emergency alerts that would go off if a certain amount of pressure was applied to the the walls. The cell was covered in a special electromagnetic field that neutralized the internal weapons functions they hadn’t been able to simply remove. There were embedded stun guns hidden in various parts of the room that could be aimed and controlled remotely. There were security cameras both inside and outside the cell, being monitored at all times.

Depth Charge had read the reports they’d sent him so that he could prepare. He didn’t get a complete picture—about half of it was redacted—but according to the Maximal scientists, this would be more than enough to keep Protoform X under wraps.

There were other things in the cell. A berth, a datapad with limited accessibility, a washrack. They couldn’t furnish it with much without worrying about the experiment being able to use items in an attempt to escape, but even sins against Vector Sigma deserved some basic amenities.

“Don’t worry. The pod won’t be opened until tomorrow, as you requested,” Apelinq told him.

He’d misinterpreted Depth Charge’s line of thought, but he let that go. “Make sure it isn’t. We need to test the whole system one more time. And I need to be there in case something goes wrong,” Depth Charge said firmly. He didn’t trust this scientist for being involved in the project in the first place, and his demeanor wasn’t helping any.

“As you say,” Apelinq responded, and went back to unpacking.

Depth Charge left him to it.

The next day, he met Protoform X for the first time.

The security system had been tested and was ready to go. Apelinq had all of his equipment unpacked and put away. Depth Charge had a full security detail in side the lab and another on the other side of the cell, which opened to a secure hallway for better ease of accessibility on the security team’s side.

“May I have permission to continue?” Apelinq asked.

Depth Charge merely nodded, not wanting to make it obvious he was getting on Depth Charge’s nerves already. Apelinq pressed a series of buttons on the computer console in front of him, and there was movement from inside the cell. Slowly, the pod slid open, and everyone in the room waited as if frozen for the experiment to stir.

When he finally did, his movements were slow and calculated. He grabbed the sides of the pod and raised himself up, finally allowing Depth Charge to see what they had created.

Against all odds, his optics were the first thing Depth Charge noticed—they took in the room and everyone in it, searching—he focused on Apelinq for a moment, recognition clear in his gaze, then turned to Depth Charge.

Depth Charge stared right back.

Protoform X pulled himself out of the pod and walked over to the wall where Depth Charge and Apelinq were watching. “Where am I?” he asked, vocals gravelly from disuse.

“Colony Omicron. I told you where we were going before we left,” Apelinq explained. “This is going to be your new home.”

Protoform X looked around the cell. “Cosy,” he said, then shifted his attention to Depth Charge. “Who’re you?”

“This is Depth Charge,” Apelinq explained for him. “Imperial Peace Marshal. He’s in charge of making sure you don’t go anywhere. You’ll be seeing a lot of him from now on, I imagine.”

“Fun,” Protoform X muttered. He looked at the bars of his cell contemplatively for a moment, then stuck out a claw and touched one.

The force of the electrocution threw back his arm and forced him to take a step back to keep his balance. “I would avoid doing that,” Depth Charge said. Protoform X just scowled at him.

Apelinq was typing into the computer console again. “I’ll leave you time to get acquainted with your new home soon, but first we need to retrieve the stasis pod,” he said, and just like that, a tranquilizer dart shot from one of the guns behind Protoform X and stuck him in the neck. Just a few kliks later, the failed experiment was on the floor and unmoving.

Depth Charge directed his team to open the door and remove the stasis pod, no fewer than 20 officers tasked only with keeping their guns trained on the unmoving figure. The operation went off without a hitch. Protoform X continued to lay there, motionless.

“I believe that went well,” Apelinq said.

“This isn’t one of those monsters that becomes immune to things over time, is it?” Depth Charge asked.

“No, no. Just unkillable. But very much vulnerable,” the scientist responded. “Protoform X should be out for quite some time, and I don’t want to keep you from your duties any longer. Thank you for your assistance.”

Depth Charge couldn’t help feeling like he was trying to get rid of him, but the whole place could be seen from the security cameras. “I’m leaving a few guards here for the next few solar cycles, just to make sure everything goes smoothly,” Depth Charge informed him.

“Wonderful. Thank you again for your time,” Apelinq said, having already turned his attention back to the computer console.

Depth Charge spared one last look at the experiment before he left—he was unsettling, huge and motionless. A mistake if he’d ever seen one.

He tried to put it out of his head.

Protoform X was on Depth Charge’s regular patrol route. He had people he could delegate to, but ultimately, the safety of Omicron came down to him, and it made people feel safer to see that he was out doing his job. The last thing he wanted to do was to leave their gravest security risk to underlings.

So he passed by, often. He tried to choose times when Apelinq wouldn’t be there—he couldn’t place exactly what it was, but he didn’t like the scientist. That meant that, more often than not, he was facing Protoform X alone.

The first few times, it was nothing special. Sometimes Depth Charge would find him pacing the cell, or lying on the berth, or, more concerningly, standing in place and staring at a fixed spot on the wall. When Depth Charge stopped by, he would watch him, but didn’t speak. Depth Charge had reviewed the security footage as well—there was no evidence the experiment was doing anything he wasn’t supposed to. Maybe he’d misjudged him. Maybe this was why the Maximals had given up on this line of research.

Then, suddenly, he started speaking to him.

Protoform X had been lying on the berth when Depth Charge approached. Usually Depth Charge didn’t stop—just looked inside, made sure nothing was out of place and that Protoform X was still there, and went on his way. This time, as soon as he saw Depth Charge, he stood and approached the cell bars.

“Yes?” Depth Charge asked.

“You’re Depth Charge,” Protoform X stated.

“I am,” Depth Charge responded slowly. He didn’t especially appreciate Apelinq revealing personal information about him to a prisoner. “You need something?”

“I don’t suppose you’d let me out,” Protoform X said.

“No, that’s not going to happen,” Depth Charge said.

Protoform X grinned, or tried to. “Aww.”

Depth Charge waited for a klik more. “If you need something, talk to Apelinq,” he said, and turned to leave. He could feel Protoform X’s gaze on his back until he turned the corner.

The next time, Protoform X was sitting by the bars, waiting for him. Depth Charge tried not to talk to prisoners as a rule—it just never went anywhere productive—but it looked like today he could just throw that out.

“Depth Charge,” Protoform X greeted.

“Yes?” Depth Charge answered, and tried to devoid his voice of annoyance.

“What’s the news on Cybertron? Apelinq won’t tell me anything,” Protoform X said.

Depth Charge got the feeling this was just an attempt at idle conversation. He doubted any of the scientists had spent much time discussing planetary politics with their experiment. Still, a memory came unbidden of the report Depth Charge had read just earlier that solar cycle of increased tension between Maximal and Predacon high command. “Business as usual,” Depth Charge said. “But you don’t need to worry about Cybertron out here. We handle ourselves.”

“Yeah?” Protoform X asked. “You’re not worried about a Predacon attack?”

“No,” Depth Charge said. Maybe they had discussed politics with him, then—he was probably meant to help fight the Predacons if war ever presented itself.

“Hmm. I bet the Predacons would let me out,” Protoform X said.

Depth Charge didn’t respond to that. This had gone on long enough, and he had the rest of his patrols route to finish. Protoform X threw a goodbye out after him—it lodged itself in Depth Charge’s professor as a quiet but very present annoyance.

“Who’s in charge of this place?” Protoform X asked the next time they saw each other. “If it’s not you.”

“The governor of Omicron is Maximal General Sonar,” Depth Charge informed. “She’s built up the colony from the beginning.”

“How long have you been here? Protoform X asked.

Depth Charge didn’t like all the questions—it was possible he was just bored and didn’t have anything else to talk about, but Depth Charge was automatically distrustful. “For almost as long as she has.”

“They didn’t trust you to build a colony, huh?” Depth Charge could see the amusement in the experiment’s optics, could see that he was trying to get on Depth Charge’s nerves, and Depth Charge hated that it was working.

“I never wanted that job,” was Depth Charge’s clipped reply, and he turned to leave.

“Whatever helps you recharge at night,” Protoform X called after him.

Depth Charge switched up his usual routine so that he would end up by Protoform X’s cell at a different time than normal. His hope was that Protoform X wouldn’t be expecting him and he would be able to get past quickly. His hopes were dashed when he rounded the corner and found Protoform X by the bars, lying down and staring at the ceiling. He looked over as Depth Charge approached, and quickly sat up.

“Depth Charge,” he said, sounding delighted. “You’re early.”

“Busy day today,” Depth Charge lied.

“Oh?” Protoform X asked as he stood. “Are you meeting with friends? That’s surprising.”

He should have just walked away. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You just don’t seem like the kind of person that has friends,” Protoform X said bluntly.

“That means a lot coming from someone living in a cage,” Depth Charge snapped back.

Protoform X shrugged. “I’ve been locked up my whole life,”  he said. “What’s your excuse?”

“I don’t need any excuse,” Depth Charge shot back tensely. There was no reason he should have been responding to this. The jabs were petty, and it was unprofessional, but something about the way he said them got on Depth Charge’s nerves. Maybe it was inherited from the scientists who worked on him—Depth Charge didn’t like Apelinq, but he, at least, wasn’t deliberately trying to be annoying. Or if he was, he hid it better.

Depth Charge turned to leave. “Aw, come back,” Protoform X called after him. “Please?”

He didn’t.

Depth Charge wanted to avoid an incident like that happening again. He had better things to do with his time than get into arguments with prisoners, and at this point, Protoform X had been with them for awhile. He hadn’t posed any security threats yet, or even exhibited any particularly suspicious behavior beyond what was expected. He was strange, but he hadn’t made a dent in the security systems yet, or even really tried to. Thus, Depth Charge had to conclude that his presence wasn’t immediately necessary.

Instead, he assigned a rotating roster of his most trusted officers to take over the job of patrolling the lab and cell. Depth Charge himself kept a close eye on the security feeds, but if he could limit the amount of personal interaction he had to have with Apelinq and his abomination of a science experiment, all the better.

It seemed to go well. For almost a deca-cycle, Depth Charge had no reason to pass by that particular cell.

Then the emergency security alarm went off.

Depth Charge rushed to the cell, giving out orders the whole way, and found chaos when he arrived. At the very least, they knew the security measures worked—Protoform X was at the bars, trying desperately to pull them apart and create a space to slip through, despite the visible arcs of electricity coming off them and shocking him. He was moving slowly. Three of the tranquilizer guns had shot him, and he seemed to be powering through it due to sheer force of will.

When Depth Charge entered the room, he could see Protoform X’s gaze shoot to him. He made an expression that looked a lot like the one he made when he’d just said something that was calculated to bother Depth Charge. Moments later, the experiment was on the floor, unconscious.

Depth Charge walked to the computer console and manually shut off the shrieking alarm.

“Well. I’m glad that’s over,” Apelinq huffed, extracting himself from a corner of the room.

“Why did he freak out?” Depth Charge demanded, whirling on him.

“I haven’t a clue. He’s been behaving oddly lately, but I wasn’t expecting an outburst like this,” Apelinq said, gesturing to the bent bars. “He knows he can’t escape. This is illogical.”

Depth Charge sighed, and gave the order for some of the security guards to disperse. Protoform X seemed to be well and truly knocked out. Most of them could go back to doing their jobs. “When did he start acting different?” Depth Charge asked.

“Oh, about a deca-cycle ago,” Apelinq said.

“And you didn’t think maybe you should tell me that?”

Apelinq folded his arms over his chest. “I’m not required to report to you on scientific matters. As I said, I didn’t believe his change in behavior to be a security threat. He wasn’t acting more violent than usual,” he explained. “Besides, you had access to the camera feeds.”

Depth Charge had, and hadn’t caught anything. But then, he supposed he wouldn’t really know what to look for.

“I’ll talk to him when he wakes up,” Depth Charge said. He didn’t want to, and wasn’t sure it would help, but he didn’t want any more incidents like this. As unlikely as it seemed, there was always a possibility he would find a loophole in the security system and escape. The last thing they needed were repeat escape attempts.

Apelinq shrugged. “Suit yourself,” he said. “If you’re planning on cleaning up the cell, I would suggest you do it now while he’s in stasis.”

Protoform X hadn’t started with the bars, evidently. He’d ripped his berth from the floor and flung it to the side, making it unusable, and there were claw marks on the wall in various places. Those wouldn’t get fixed, but Depth Charge didn’t want him to figure out how to use a loose berth as a means of escape. He had his guards retrieve it, and replace it with a soft pad with no metal that sat on the floor. It would have been his own fault if he’d had to recharge on the hard floor, but Depth Charge wasn’t going to break prison codes for petty revenge.

While the rest of them dispersed, Depth Charge waited.

It took a long time for the multiple tranquilizer shots to wear off. Even when Protoform X started to stir, he wasn’t awake and alert immediately.

When he finally did turn to look at Depth Charge, he stared, spaced out for a moment, before seeming to come back to himself. “Depth Charge,” he greeted, sounding pleased, if tired.

Depth Charge wanted to get this over with. “Why did you try to escape?”

“I missed you,” Protoform X said.

“I’m serious,” Depth Charge snapped.

“Why don’t we switch places? I’m sure you’d love it in here,” the experiment hissed. “Or you could just join me. We’ll keep each other company.”

Depth Charge stepped closer to the bars of the cell. “Listen to me, X,” he said, his voice low. “I don’t blame you for not liking it here. But the more you try to escape, the tighter I have to lock you down. You’re better off accepting what you have.”

Protoform X snorted. “I’ll get out someday,” he said. “Maybe not soon. But I will.”

“Not while I’m around,” Depth Charge vowed.

Protoform X smirked. “Then I guess you’d better stick around for a long time.”

The experiment’s words were concerning, and Depth Charge had no doubt he would try again, so he took back his original patrol route. He didn’t trust anyone but himself to keep an eye on him. Small annoyances in the form of petty jabs weren’t worth the risk of allowing security to get sloppy.

He did continue to stop by at different times every day, at random. Most often, X was there at the bars waiting for him. He always tried to start up some conversation. And if Depth Charge was being honest, even if he didn’t enjoy it, there were worse aspects of his job.

Today, though. Today, Depth Charge came in during the vitals tests.

Apelinq did this every deca-cycle. Depth Charge had seen it from the camera feeds. He’d never been present for it, and didn’t want to be, but here he was.

“Ah, Marshal. What an honor to have you here today,” the scientist said. “I’ll be done shortly.”

X saw him, and said nothing, which was a troubling change considering the circumstances. He was strapped to a table, each limb carefully tied down. He had pieces of armor removed and cables plugged in throughout his body. Worst of all, his spark chamber was open—held open by painful-looking clamps, making it clear he hadn’t opened it on his own—leaving his mutated spark exposed for any passers-by to see.

It was obscene. Depth Charge tried not to look. Not even criminals deserved this kind of treatment.

Depth Charge was not a scientist, and couldn’t guess at what exactly Apelinq was doing. He would look at and take note of a readout on one of the screens, and fiddle with some controls, which lead to Protoform jerking violently and, when he could keep it in no longer, screaming in pain. Then Apelinq would take more notes of more readouts, turn back the controls, and move on to something else.

All of it seemed to be painful, but nothing compared to the probe Apelinq unceremoniously shoved into his spark chamber. Depth Charge felt sick watching it.

Thankfully, that was the last one. The scientist removed the cables and replaced the armor. The slab X was strapped to was wheeled back into the cell so that he could be released. As he went, he met Depth Charge’s optic. Depth Charge looked away.

“We need to talk,” he said to Apelinq.

The scientist followed Depth Charge to a far corner so that they wouldn’t be easily overheard. “What can I do for you?”

“Is all that really necessary?” Depth Charge asked.

Apelinq sighed. “Marshal, I don’t tell you how to your job,” he said. “It might seem cruel, but the information we’re getting from Protoform X is crucial to our understanding of sparks and mutations. If we don’t continue studying him, everything we sacrificed to get to this point was wasted. He would be sitting in a cell for the rest of his life to rust.”

“He’s already doing that,” Depth Charge said. He’d read the reports before Protoform X had arrived—or, what was left of them after they’d been redacted. He knew something had happened, but didn’t know exactly what. “What you’re doing violates multiple rules of conduct that apply to every other prisoner.”

“Yes, but I have orders from the Maximal High Council to continue doing it. If you would like to make a complaint, you can take it up with them,” Apelinq said. “Besides. He only has to put up with it once a deca-cycle. This is much better than what he dealt with on Cybertron.”

Depth Charge scowled at him, but it was clear this conversation wasn’t going to change anything, and it reminded him why he didn’t like talking to Apelinq.

He took his leave. On his way out, he glanced back into the cell, but Protoform X wasn’t moving.

Their interactions were… different, after that. It wasn’t a marked difference, and not one anyone else would notice, but Depth Charge did. X was a little bit quieter, at first, but he quickly went back to being his old, irritating self. Depth Charge felt himself shift in his responses, just slightly. They were still antagonistic to each other, but Depth Charge viewed it less as an attempt at being annoying and more as an attempt at making any kind of connection with someone besides Apelinq. And he certainly couldn’t fault X for that.

It went on like that for a long time. Depth Charge stopped by for a cycle or two on his patrol. They threw insults at each other, and Depth Charge went on his way. X made no more attempts to escape. He had a few… episodes. But no escape attempts.

“There you are,” X said as soon as he saw Depth Charge. “I was starting to think you’d forgotten about me.”

“I was just here yesterday,” Depth Charge said. He was getting there later than usual, though—his day had been spent making last minute preparations. “I’m leaving Omicron tomorrow. I’ll be back in half a deca-cycle.”

X tilted his head to the side. “Where are you going?” he demanded.

“Starbase Rugby, to see some friends,” Depth Charge said. He saw no reason to hide that.

“So you do have friends. I was worried it was just me,” X chuckled.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” He was relieved that X seemed to be taking it alright. It was always hard to tell what kind of mental state he’d be in, these days. “I’m leaving my security officers in charge. They’re perfectly capable and competent. You need to be on your best behavior for them.”

“Who do you think I am?” X asked.

“I’m serious, X,” Depth Charge said, looking him straight in the optic. “Don’t try to escape.”

He didn’t like the look he got back. “I won’t try,” X said.

Depth Charge left Omicron for the first time in solar cycles, taking a long-overdue vacation. He saw friends and classmates he hadn’t seen since his academy days. For a few moments, he even let Omicron fade from his thoughts, content in the knowledge that his team could handle whatever came up, and they would contact him if he was needed.

Everything was fine until after Depth Charge got back into his ship and was on his way home. Communication with Omicron had been going just fine, and then… it stopped.

Depth Charge kept calm. Omicron was a remote colony. Sometimes things broke, and it took time to fix them.

Contact with Omicron wasn’t reestablished the whole time it took for Depth Charge to get there from Starbase Rugby. His requests for permission to land were ignored. And in fact, the landing field was deserted and still.

Something was very wrong.

It didn’t take long for Depth Charge to start finding bodies.

They were everywhere, the floor painted in energon. And it was indiscriminate—not just security officers, or Maximal leaders. It was everyone.

Depth Charge made his way down to the lab and to Protoform X’s cell, his tanks churning more with every body he had to step over. Apelinq was dismembered and barely recognizable on the floor of the lab, and…

X was gone.

Depth Charge needed to make sure he didn’t make it off the colony.

He ran, now, glancing into every room and hallway. The computers were destroyed, so he couldn’t contact Cybertron until he got back to his ship, and that was also where he wanted to make sure X wasn’t.

He didn’t quite reach the landing field. He got to the hallway and found X at the end of it, not even bothering to step over the bodies of those he’d murdered, crushing them instead. He turned when he heard Depth Charge’s steps.

“Depth Charge,” he greeted, as pleased as ever.

“X,” Depth Charge shouted. “ Why?

“I did what you said,” X called back, as if nothing was wrong, as if they were still talking from opposite sides of a jail cell. “I didn’t try. I succeeded.

Depth Charge growled and charged at him, pulling out his gun to fire off a few shots as he did so. There was no space in the hallway to dodge, so X took them directly in the chest, but it didn’t slow him down at all. They collided and crashed to the ground, and they fought.

Depth Charge had been in a lot of conflicts in his life, but he had never done it with so much anger. Omicron was his responsibility to protect, and he had utterly failed. All because of the monster in front of him.

They were about evenly matched, but Depth Charge didn’t have the healing factor that X did. It took awhile, but he was eventually outpaced. X disabled one of his arms and got his clawed grip around Depth Charge’s intake. Try as he might, Depth Charge couldn’t wrestle free.

This was it, then. This was how he died.

X leaned close. “Catch me if you can,” he whispered, and Depth Charge’s world went black.

He awoke lying in a sticky pool of energon that was not entirely his own. Every part of him ached. For a moment, that was all he could think about.

And then the rest of it came flooding back. Depth Charge’s world had changed in what felt like a single moment. He was at a loss for what to do next.

Eventually, he dragged himself outside and to his ship. He pulled himself up into his chair, and opened a communications line to Cybertron. It would take time for it to reach its destination.

“This... is Maximal Imperial Peace Marshal Depth Charge on the colony Omicron,” he spoke. “Protoform X has escaped, and... and killed the majority of the residents of the colony.” The words felt foreign, impossible, but he spoke them anyway. Depth Charge took another moment to steel himself before continuing.

“I’m going to look for survivors,” he said. “And then I’m going to hunt down that glitch.”