Even as she trudged on, Coil's feet ached. She felt it most strongly in the arch. Each time she brought down a sole and then lifted from heel to toe as though peeling it, she felt the swell of a warm ache that was not necessarily unpleasant but was definitely not going away. Her whole body was warm, her hardware even now overheated from the day's work, and she stretched, lifting her arms and neck to the skyline ceiling with a strained moan, exposing as much of her surface as she could to the cooling air.
Everyone else was in recharge, and the plant echoed like a gong. Every footstep resounded through the space around her, draping her from all sides with her own presence. It was the third night in a row Coil was up while everyone else was asleep, and she already liked wandering the compound alone enough to make a habit out of it. The ringing sound and darkness all around her made her feel small but big at the same time, like she was continually expanding.
Nevertheless, she knew the smart thing right now would be to be in the sleeping quarters with everyone else. Today's work had been grueling, and Coil had been here long enough now to know that tomorrow would be no different. Still, the knowledge that she had to get up early somehow propelled Coil out of bed. What weird impulse compelled her in such a way was a complete mystery. Perhaps the simple fact was that Coil was too sore to sleep. But if that were the case, wandering the halls at night was certainly not helping, as Coil's limbs continued to burn with their continual motion.
Still, Coil was content. So content, in fact, that she felt ashamed of it, as though her peace of mind could only be due to some miscalculation. People in general didn't seem to have any illusions about being happy anymore, if they ever did. The concern was not happiness but survival, considered both in the long term and in terms of he coming dawn. Coil herself had spent many sleepless nights consumed by what seemed to her to be an inevitable approaching doom.
Old habits die hard, she supposed.
Turning the corner, Coil tilted her head up and marveled again at the sheer size of the place where she now worked and lived. Each floor of the compound could be seen stacked above her like the dissected layers of a cake, and strung above the space where she now walked were the walkways leading from one side of the vault to the other. The undersides loomed darkly amidst the twinkling safety lights, the only source of light still active in the nighttime. The sight of these structures, empty as though forsaken, caused a shiver of awe to rise in Coil's chest. To think that a place like this had been here so long and she and so many others ignorant all the time.
Coil's first week was not yet over when she realized she was working for criminals. She'd had her suspicions right away when that shady sports car had approached her after she had been turned away from yet another mining job. He had worn no insignia, just like she did not, and he had promised her work, "good work" if she could come to a certain location "and come alone." The man never even removed his face mask. Coil acknowledged that actually going was idiotic even as she drove up to the place he'd said, a tiny little moveable trailer parked in the middle of nowhere. But the idea of a risk turning out badly was almost a relief. Coil's lowest point had come a few months earlier, when she had noticed that a fuel line powering a street lamp was torn, and she had placed her mouth upon it, sucking up the sweet Energon drop by drop. She felt optics casting their glow on her from all sides, and her neck burned with shame, but she didn't stop until she heard that anticipated Autobot shout ("Hey! What in the pit do you think you're doing?"), and she tore her lips away and fled without a backward look.
When she had stepped inside the trailer, she was greeted with the sight of several other bots all sitting in a row, most of them with their chins in their hands or tapping idly against the hollow wall, all of them unaligned like her. When the door had slid closed, they heard the rather imposing mech standing before them promise them work, hard work but good wages. They would have to live on the premises. No questions asked.
Well, okay. Work was work, and Coil was gratified that at least she was not about to be murdered.
And, to their credit, these people had delivered exactly what they'd promised. The place where they were all taken in the trailer (because of course every one of them had agreed) turned out to be a foundry that produced products needed for the war. Coil's job was in the interior of the machinery, amidst the catwalks draped like webs all over the gears and groaning mechanisms, where she sprayed the clicking limbs with a big hose to keep them from overheating. There were sensors placed all over the many structures that beeped and flashed red whenever the temperature was approaching the danger zone, and the searing light and sound were now permanently burned into Coil's internal processor, illuminating her dreams with screaming red notes. It was busy work that involved a lot of stairs, and she had tripped over the hose more than once - and tripped her coworkers more than twice - but the wages… Oh, the wages… Coil couldn't believe it when she saw the numbers clicking up on the personal account her employers had set up at the plant. That much? Coil had whooped and hollered so much another bot had chucked a wrench at her head. ("Keep it down, greenhorn!") At that point, shadiness be damned, Coil was ready to declare her employers to be the greatest people on the face of Cybertron.
Even when it became clear she was working for Decepticons - it was hard to miss; all the important people seemed to have the insignia - she still didn't care. No war happened in here and any job where she wasn't getting shot at was fine by Coil.
The only problem was, she ruminated as she stepped from the atrium into the inner storage rooms of the complex, what to spend the money on. Amazingly, Energon was provided for free at every break - it actually ran from taps when you twisted the handle in the sleeping quarters - and with her primary expense removed, Coil had no idea what to do with the numbers that faced her on the screen, gorging themselves idly on her labor. Perhaps, she thought as she walked, she could save up to get a ship. The good kind, with space bridge projection and turbo handling. They made ships here, she knew that for a fact. Maybe she could get a discount. After all, they wouldn't have to ship it. (Ha ha.) First, though, she would need to learn how to fly. Maybe she could get flying lessons. Did they even have those for people who weren't in the military?
And, once she did get a ship, and the whole sky was open, what then? Where would she go exactly? She had seen the bursts of fire wink in the skies, blooming like a second garden over the backdrop of stars. She had seen the war footage - it was impossible to avoid in this day and age - and too often she had seen a ship flying level in the dark, all quiet and in control, before a blast of light from nowhere seared it open like a cracked Energon cube, sending the pilot's body spinning out head over heals like shrapnel. The skies were a jumpy place.
But, if she knew how to fly, why stay on Cybertron? Yeah! There were plenty of other places, weren't there? Places where there was no war. No war… Coil could hardly imagine such a thing. Animatron, obviously, was a no-go, but there was one planet accepting refugees… If only she could remember the name! Was it Caminus? No, that wasn't it. She would have to keep an ear open. Before, she had never paid any mind to evacuating the planet because she knew such talk didn't apply to her. She had never had the money to pay for a trip, and those people running the enterprise were a piece of work. Once they knew you were desperate, they'd screw you. But now that there was something in the world she owned besides her own protoform, Coil was racking her brains. What planet was it? Probably somewhere far because of course. How long a trip would that be, sitting there idly with nothing but the shimmering hum of the engine? That could be dull. Maybe she shouldn't go alone, but who would she bring? And would they need snacks on a trip like that? That was something to consider.
Suddenly, she stopped. The walls, which had been reverberating naught but her own footsteps back to her, were now ringing with a different sound, a murmur that had intruded on her idle thoughts. Childishly, she found herself leaning towards the nearest wall, as if it had been the one whispering. The sound didn't become any louder, but it filled her senses as she turned it over in her circuit board. It reminded her of rain. Once, years ago, she had taken a particularly loathsome job at the Acid Wastes, and she remembered the Code Green alert that would go out when the storm clouds gathered and the acid rain fell with a soft, hungry hiss. She and the other workers would huddle under the awnings surrounding the place, paranoid of any splashes that would drench the tops of their boots. On a dare, Coil had once stuck her finger out during a shower and felt the tiny drops tapping on her like the winks of an eye. She had felt no pain at all, and she had been filled with wonder that such tiny things could wash away skin and erode metal plating when they felt so soft and powerless.
That was what she heard now. A falling whisper of gentle death.
Her feet moved again, carrying her deeper into the complex. The blue glass of her optics cast mirrored rings over the darkening interior as her gaze darted back and forth, searching for the sound. All the nights she had been up, she had never heard it here; this was the first time the silence had been broken by something other than herself, and as she drew nearer to the source, it became clear that what she was hearing was not rain but a voice.
The words had not come, but the voice was deep and clear and sonorous. It was a male voice, and upon realizing this, Coil at first became nervous. Who was up at this hour, talking to himself? Suppose this was some over-energized creep - not implausible considering this was the first time for many to have access to free Energon - or some glitch with a serious head virus? Something like that could be catching. And yet, the voice didn't seem slurred. In fact, it was becoming quite clear.
"For none had ever looked upon him as she did, with clear eyes unmasked by fear or disdain, and no ears had ever taken in his words without being turned on the head that spurned them. And unbeknownst to her, his devotion to her was from that moment virgin and absolute, and in his mind he lay himself at her feet…"
It was beautiful. It was gentle and warm, and Coil felt the warmth in her chest as though it were an organ and found herself smiling faintly. It was a warmth that could lay you to sleep and rock you gently through the night. It was hard to believe there was another person at the end of that voice and it was not just her and a disembodied song alone in that black hall.
Turn here, turn there. No, it's quieter here. Double back. Coil's steps had become soft now, and she willed even her engine to be quiet. She wanted to find him, the one weaving those words in the air that seemed to blend together into a meaningless hymn.
"It was the darkness growing inside him that compelled him to take her hand, and perhaps it was also what moved her to wrap her fingers around the tips of his own. In the grip of Night, they felt no fear, only desire, and not all desire is destruction. There are some desires that move those who possess them toward beauty, and light and love are only possible because of what one dreams and writhes in the absence of the sun…"
Behind the corner ahead of her, a pool of light glowed, spread like a hand over the wall leading into the next room. The voice had grown quieter, in the curious way it does when the echoes are behind you, and Coil's lip was clenched beneath her teeth as she placed the curves of her fingers on that corner and slowly peered into the opening.
And there, unveiled to her eyes and moving its jaws under the light, was a wolf.
Its coat was the deep blue of old coins and it hung thick and shaggy over its curiously shrunken frame. Its back was to her, the feather duster tail curled over its haunches, and from the little corner of the white face she could see above the pointed snout, she could tell that its eyes were closed, leaving only the thick black line of the lids, curved as though painted on.
Coil was a little embarrassed. She had not been expecting an Animatronian. Not that she minded them of course. She had seen them around before, in line for rations, passing by her on the street with their decorated heads down, and she had even glimpsed a few working in this very compound. But to see one in its alt-mode - beast mode, she reminded herself - was something of a shock. Suddenly coming face to face with a giant talking animal was a moment so bizarre that Coil found herself momentarily disoriented. No wonder they chose to stay in robot mode; if they walked around in beast mode, there would be no end to the staring. Poor guys. Coil did feel sorry for them. How could anyone not, considering all they'd gone through?
The wolf had not turned, didn't seem to notice she was there. Once or twice, he paused, as though to remember what came next, and then he would continue, seemingly unconscious of his audience. Coil offlined her optics and listened.
"Their souls were etched on the surface of glass, and the rifts that spread through them all fractured between and over them, ripping and warping what was once set and sacred. Minds became twisted as well as bonds. Brotherhood that had been forged in flame now melted. Loneliness splintered into jealousy, trust into favoritism, and longing into obsession. Thus it was that he, who had always hungered for her touch, was now starving…"
Is this how people spoke on Animatron? Not just the words themselves - she'd never heard any guy on Cybertron talk like that before - but the voice. She let it fill her mind, unencumbered by shapes or shadows. It was soothing and gentle, yet there was something like confidence behind it, a confidence all the more striking from someone not old, as if he had seen enough of life to know he could handle it from here on out. It was a voice that felt… revealing. Too many times voices seemed tacked on to the persons who possessed them, an accessory that did not suit their being, clumsily used and masking the mind meant to be revealed through their incompetent use. But this voice… it seemed to come straight from the soul, and Coil was glad there was no one else to hear it. It was voice that would take you softly by the hand and look straight into your eyes; it was a voice that would confide in you a secret you would never tell. It seemed to step straight from another world where people never floundered or were unnecessary, and all the infinite interiority that made up an inner person was effortlessly yours through a single word.
Coil's optics flickered on. The wolf hadn't moved. His eyes were still closed. Why was he saying all these words to himself, alone at night? Somehow, it felt wrong to ask. Reluctantly, Coil pulled back from the doorway, slowly sliding one hand down the wall as she stepped to turn away.
But just before the moment when she put her foot down, the wolf paused his long recitation, and the tap of Coil's sole on the floor echoed in rings through the chamber.
Coil heard the sudden silence and sucked her lip back into her mouth. The wolf's right ear, the one closest to her, twitched, stretching on its membrane before snapping back. A shudder ran down the tip of every synthetic hair before a moment passed and the wolf's muzzle was pointed straight at Coil, his wild eyes locked with hers. She hadn't seen him turn around. He was too fast for that.
Coil didn't move, though she would have liked nothing more than to transform and peel around the corner at top speed. "Uh…" was all she could manage.
The glow from his optics was mesmerizing. The piercing yellow shined over his muzzle like a lamp, but what were even more striking were those round pupils that shimmered with white light, as though they were pools or mirrors casting back what was thrown into them.
His eyes were wide, and he seemed strangely still. "You…" he said, stiffly, "You heard me, didn't you?"
Coil tore her gaze away from his and looked toward the floor, abashed. "Well, yeah…" she admitted, her cheeks burning, "I did. Sorry."
She raised her eyes to meet his again and was taken aback when she saw him smiling.
That look he'd worn when he'd first turned around had been startling. Those wide eyes, that stillness so complete it seemed even his coat had frozen, and the hesitating voice that had just been so self-assured, coupled with that shudder that had run over his suddenly hunched shoulders, had all given Coil the impression that she had not just surprised him, but frightened him. That look that arrested her had killed any excuses halfway up her throat because of the sheer terror that accompanied it. She had felt herself to be a transgressor but instead found herself abruptly accused as a monster.
But a quick turn of the head and suddenly his gaze was completely serene. So serene, in fact, that she blankly wondered if she had merely imagined his earlier terror.
"No, no, I should apologize," he said. He was uncoiling himself from the floor, and Coil saw all four of his thin legs moving under the curtain of his body. "I didn't realize there was anyone still awake!"
That self-confidence was back. He might have been continuing the story. Coil found herself laughing as she rubbed the side of her neck. "Yeah, I'm, kind of an insomniac I guess."
"Really?" The wolf had turned and was slowly moving in her direction, something Coil noticed but failed to see as important. "How strange. Me, too!"
"Yeah? Maybe there's something in the air here. Keeping us up." That was a stupid thing to say. Coil berated herself. Why did she say that?
His ears were flat against his head. There was a deliberation to the way he lifted one paw and then the other, placing them gingerly in front of him like dancers' steps. He laughed, too. "Oh, I wouldn't know about that. Are you new here? I don't think I've seen you around before."
"You got me. I actually just started a few weeks ago. I gotta say, in all the places I've worked I've never seen-"
He'd waited until she was looking away for a thought, as he had noticed she often did, searching the corners of her skull for what to say next. He'd waited until she was halfway through a sentence, so all her attention was focused on finishing it. But most importantly of all, he'd waited until he was close enough to make the jump from where he crouched to where she stood, leaning idly against the wall, and the next thing she felt was the floor slamming into her shoulders and the points of ten claws piercing her chest armor. A pair of mandibles scissored into each cheek and ground over each other on top of her tongue as her mouth was filled with the taste of her own Energon. Coil was not a fighter, had never been a fighter, never wanted to be a fighter, and she did not even have time to lament that she would die from that fact because her breathless last moments were taken up completely by blind panic.
She thrashed on the floor desperately, her eyes wide, her voice echoing into his throat, pushing her hands up into the underbrush of his coat, feeling the soft hairs running between her splayed fingers as they became more and more soggy with her Energon. She seized a fistful of his coat and tried to heft it back. Her hands were strong workers' hands, but they had no idea where to hold and how long, were clumsy and novice in how they could fight for the death of another who wanted your life.
As he silenced her, his paws tore into her throat and chest, as though digging in the earth and uncovering the wells underneath. Luminous purple liquid soaked each of his feet, and the screams funneled into his mouth gurgled as he tore her open along the seam he had created. There, beneath his paw, he felt the pulsing hum of her spark chamber, and without hesitating - who knows what might be heard, what might be felt in that moment of indecision - he dug his claws into that box and pushed, feeling it tear behind his step. He felt the cables, those wires that connected her essence to the rest of her body, pulling taught as he yanked, feeling the edge shear away as the shell protecting that faint flicker of life crumpled on top of itself like a plastic wrapper, and the last traces of Coil's spark fizzled out into the dark air.
Now that that worker had stopped moving, Steeljaw found that he was stuck. One of her hands was wrapped around one side of his head; no problem there, he could just wiggle out, but the other was buried deep in the fur on his flank, and could feel each individual hair being clenched tightly in her dead fingers. The hum around her body had grown silent, her colors had already faded to gray, and still she wouldn't let go. Steeljaw jerked his body to the side and felt a whimper escape him as his fur snagged. How humiliating. He gingerly raised his back foot and tapped forward blindly until he felt it catch in the palm of that curled hand. Slowly, his remaining legs shaking with the effort, he clipped at that hand with his nails, hearing them tapping against the hollow metal, until, amazed at his own flexibility, he managed to fit his paw into the gap between his coat and her hand and pry her fingers loose. Her hand remained upright, cupping the space which still smarted from her grasp.
Steeljaw blinked and slowly opened his jaws. His teeth slid out wetly from the gashes in each of the worker's cheeks. At one point, he felt a tooth snag on something, a moment he had been dreading, and he had to slowly slide his teeth back in before pulling them out from a different direction, fearful of loudly ripping and tearing anymore now that she had finally grown quiet.
Finally, he smacked his jaws and flicked his tongue over his palate as her ruined face, still warm from his wet mouth, thudded to the floor. Steeljaw looked down at her, though he understood it was a mistake. The holes in her cheeks were ragged, the metal fraying into the night amidst the pools of purple Energon, which were filling the back of her throat. If she were still alive, she would have to gargle her own fluids. The optics were wide, and the expression above the shorn mouth was fear mixed with confusion. Weren't we just talking just a second ago?
Steeljaw panted, letting the Energon that had filled his mouth drop in strands to the floor. He was loathe to swallow any of it, though he had been filled up in this way before, Primus knows. The leakage from his mouth poured over her corpse, and the sound of its dripping echoed sickly in the empty hallway.
That had been too close. How long had that worker been standing there, listening to him? He had been doing this for years and had never once had anyone come across him. Clearly he had been getting too bold. If that Cybertronian had slipped away with his back still turned, he would never have known she was there. Then, how long before she ran her mouth, how many days would he spend smug in his own peace of mind before word reached those to whom it would actually matter? Then what would become of him?
And, suppose this wasn't the first time he had been overheard? What if some other, smarter imbecile had come across him and tapped away unseen, unknown to him forever more?
Steeljaw shuddered. He felt irritated with this nameless worker, laying dead at his feet, for breaking the spell. He had thought himself secure; now he knew he was not. Damn fool.
Steeljaw lifted his head and swiveled his ears toward the dark hall. He could hear no footsteps. No voices. There didn't seem to be anyone else coming. Steeljaw looked back down at the worker. When was the last time he had spoken to another person? He couldn't actually remember. It must have been back in his cell. Steeljaw took in the sight of the crumpled form before him, at those limbs and empty eyes that were totemic of a person. He had already run one risk too many tonight, but he couldn't resist.
"Idiot!" he shouted at her. His voice became louder. "Worthless moron! Pile of scrap! Rusting machine!" He pranced on the spot, excited. "Thought you could just wander wherever you pleased, did you? Thought this place was yours to roam, hmm? Did you honestly think you were free?"
Of course, she didn't respond, as she had been doing just a moment ago. Steeljaw paused and took a moment to marvel. He had spoken to her. Actually spoken to her. And she had spoken back. They had talked. It had been so long and yet it had come so naturally, so easily. As one fear flared, another died. Steeljaw had feared that he would forget how, that years of forced silence would turn him into some idiot mute. But exchanging words with the worker had been so effortless, and what's more, not only had she responded to him, but she had trusted him. She had lowered her guard. She was about to leave, but he made her stay. He did that!
His lips pulled back over his gleaming teeth as he grinned. Contrail thought he had silenced him, but his words were not gone. To the contrary, they were a weapon; he had used them to kill. His voice had not been stolen but sharpened.
But it was too soon to celebrate. He hadn't quite gotten away with it, yet. First thing to do was get rid of the body. He bent down over the worker, clutched her neck between his jaws, and began to drag her across the floor. Her Energon was leaving a faintly glowing track, but he would worry about that later. Feeling the strain in his own neck as he watched her limbs trail and jerk, he considered where to put her. In the smelter? No, they would notice the metal had been corrupted. Better be the trash compactor. The cubes, he knew, ended up in the incinerator, and if they did discover a body there, a crushed hand or a cracked, open eye, there would no longer be any trace of him to find.
He changed direction, and the trail swerved, turning toward the disposal flue waiting in the corner of one of the other rooms. Once he had dragged the worker to the foot of it, he clenched his mouth around her armpit and lifted himself to his hind legs, his voice straining with the pull in his neck and the ache in his teeth. Torturously, he pushed his muzzle against the swinging silver door as he hefted the worker's arm into the massive opening. Soot peppered his olfactory sensors as his face emerged over the lip in the drop, and he found his head surrounded by pitch black darkness. The thought crossed his mind, fighting for space with the pain of his shaking neck stabilizers, that this would be a lot easier in robot mode, but no, no, he couldn't afford to take any more risks, the fates would be too tempted by his boldness, and instead he lifted himself further into the chute, dragging the worker's body with it, until she was balanced on the curve of her back, her shoulders in and her midriff and legs trailing out.
This done, Steeljaw scrambled out of the opening, feeling the door scrape backwards against the roots of his coat, before he thudded to the floor. A quick push from below and he heard the heavy bellowing of the tunnel as it received her body, reverberating with the force of each impact as she hurtled down to the disposal unit far below their feet.
Most bots wouldn't have been able to hear the sound of the body hitting the trash pile down below, but Steeljaw heard it, was listening for it, in fact. He remained still, one ear turned toward the tunnel, until he heard the crunch far below, echoing up through the chute like hot air through an instrument. Only when the tiny shiftings of rubble miles below ceased did Steeljaw turn away. The track of her Energon was beginning to dry. Steeljaw could see the large puddles marking where he had to stop and rest, where the Energon had not been painted over the floor but simply allowed to puddle. Probably no one but him would detect the smell, but that trail had to go. Steeljaw looked at the chute behind him then sighed. No use now. Cringing and forcing down the shudders he felt threatening to overtake him, Steeljaw lowered his muzzle to the shinning liquid, feeling it cling to the hairs on his chin, before he dragged his tongue slowly across the floor, and the rancid taste of her fluids coated the bumps on his tongue before sliding wetly to the back of his throat.
Steeljaw knew there was once a time when he hadn't killed anyone. He knew there was a time when he'd never been to Cybertron, when he felt the warm crackle of earth beneath his paws and the dappled sunlight over his brow. He knew there must have been a time when his conscience was clean, when he was allowed to walk upright and speak whenever he chose, when he was free, when she was by his side.
He knew these things, and yet he didn't feel them. His own past no longer seemed real, instead manifesting itself as a series of facts of which he was certain but which had no power to move him, just as he knew for a fact that the stars must exist but had never seen one up close.
For instance, Steeljaw knew it was a fact that he had once seen snow. They didn't have it on Cybertron, but Steeljaw knew it from Animatron. He knew that snow was cold and white and fell from the sky when the sky was also white, and he knew that it coated everything, including each of his own hairs, and he knew that he had once played and romped in it, leaving the scattered debris of the clumsy trail he had traced behind him as the icy air exhilarated him. He knew he had done these things, but the memories had grown faint and stale. They came to him not as a crunch of compressing ice under his paws, not as the flurry of light that rained down when he shook out his coat, not as the ringing peal of her laughter muffled as if by a blanket, but merely as a series of adjectives: Cold. White. Happy. You were there. That was it.
Not that he hadn't tried. Many times, Steeljaw had willed himself to dream of Animatron. He had curled up onto himself, squeezed his eyes shut, and repeated the words in his head like a mantra. Take me there. Take me there. Make me forget I'm here. Make feel sorrow when I wake up and find myself here again. But there was never any sorrow because he always dreamed of Cybertron. He would wake up annoyed, after yet another dream of cold metal and darkness, of Contrail's grin as he gently moved his hand back and forth on the space between Steeljaw's ears. "Good boy."
If Contrail were in a good mood, he might use Steeljaw's name. Most of the time, though, it was just "boy", which Steeljaw hated. Whether or not Contrail knew Steeljaw hated this, however, was uncertain. Sometimes, Contrail seemed to operating under the delusion that Steeljaw was completely content because of course why wouldn't he be? "We're getting a bunch of new recruits today. Isn't that exciting, boy?" But other times, it seemed more than certain that Contrail was merely pretending to be an idiot. "Oh? Did you want this, boy? What makes you think you get the same cut as the rest of us?"
It seemed counterintuitive, but Steeljaw had never actually hated anyone that he killed. It seemed natural that such a violent crime should be accompanied with strong emotion, but most of the time, he didn't even know his victims. Contrail had a system. He'd hold out an object to Steeljaw, something small that the target had touched, a datapad, a discarded screw, even a few drops of Energon soaked in a rag, and say, "Someone's been causing some trouble for us. Take care of them, won't you, boy?" And Steeljaw would sniff at the thing in his hand, learning the scent, before he would be off, his paws moving rapidly over the outer grounds of the compound. The sentries high up in their towers or floating overhead in vehicle mode would have already been given the message that Steeljaw was on a mission and they would let him pass, a small gray animal moving over the vast metal landscape. These hits were the only times that Steeljaw was allowed outside the compound, and sometimes they could last for several days as he chased the scent over city lines, weaving in and out of alleys and finding himself stopped at a valley or any other dead end, forced to then turn away and pray that he could pick up the trail again. Contrail didn't like failure.
Something else Contrail didn't like were beatings. Perhaps it was because he was too slender (as most Seekers were) or maybe it was just sheer laziness, but Contrail never took the time to punish his subordinates himself. He would simply look down at Steeljaw with that frown that chilled his veins, say, "I'm very disappointed in you, boy," and then leave, whereupon Contrail's lackeys would beat Steeljaw for him. Every time a foot or fist collided with him, Steeljaw would let out a loud yelp, not because the pain was particularly brutal (in fact, Steeljaw found that he had built up an impressive pain tolerance over the years) but because they seemed to think it was funny, and if they were in a good mood, it was more likely that they would stop sooner. They would laugh and say, "Aw, did that hurt? Poor puppy," before giving him another savage kick to the chest cavity and doubling over again as Steeljaw made a proper show of crawling pathetically to the wall. Once they'd had their fill, they would shoot one final jeering laugh over their shoulders before closing the door behind them, and then Steeljaw would know that the punishment was over.
Later, if they saw Steeljaw licking his wounds, they would start up again. Pointing to him across the room, they'd coo, "Look, I think Contrail's pet hurt himself! Poor widdle baby!" Steeljaw didn't quite understand the logic that made them use baby talk, but if the intent was to anger him, then it was undeniably working.
But more than any wound or humiliation, it was that cold look of disappointment from Contrail that made Steeljaw shiver in fear. What was it about that look that was so much more terrible than the punishment it preceded?
It was that look that drove Steeljaw across the war torn landscape of Cybertron to seek out the scent of Contrail's doomed enemies. He always felt himself freeze when he saw them, and he dropped into a crouch that was perhaps instinctive. Sometimes they were at home or in a group, and he had to tail them silently from the shadows, waiting for a moment when they were on their own. And even when that moment came, victory was not assured. The people Steeljaw hunted were sometimes soldiers. Steeljaw was not. Sometimes they had weapons. Steeljaw did not. Some of them could fly. Steeljaw never could. He learned quickly that in a straight fight, all he had were his jaws and talons, which were sharp but not nearly enough against an opponent who was ready and wanted to live. So, if he wanted a chance at success, or even more, at survival, because once someone wanted you dead, you would never be safe unless they were gone, he could never wait for them to be ready. The best time to take them was at night, and the best place was from right beneath their feet. He trained himself through experience, sometimes hard experience, to tread softly, to watch silently, like the monster they all feared he was. Because he knew that in that moment when they heard his footsteps, when they felt the wind from his fur brush their legs, when they looked up startled and cried, "Who's there!?" in that moment, it was all over.
So, that moment must never come. For his own sake, never.
Sometimes when a fight got too intense, Steeljaw was forced to flee, choosing his own hide over Contrail's convenience. Sometimes, the incensed target pursued, and Steeljaw was on his feet for many days before managing to finally shake them. And then what else was waiting for him when he returned but a beating, for he, of course, had failed, and any attempt to protest that his opponent was too strong for him would only be met with a harder beating.
Contrail preferred for Steeljaw to bring back a body part from a target he had successfully dispatched. Fingers were Steeljaw's personal favorite because they were small and came off relatively easily. They could even be torn off before the target was dead, though Steeljaw didn't dare try to trick Contrail that way. If Contrail ever learned someone he'd sent Steeljaw to "take care of" was actually still out there, well… Steeljaw did not have the courage to imagine what would happen in that case.
It sometimes happened that Steeljaw successfully killed his opponent but due to cruel fate, lost access to the body. Sometimes, the target had friends, and he was forced to make a hasty retreat. Sometimes the body fell into a ravine or into a swelter and was out of his reach. And sometimes, for no reason Steeljaw could see other than pure spite, the target blew themselves up, so there was nothing to salvage. At such times, Steeljaw would return empty-handed, whereupon Contrail would have him beaten anyway. One thing Contrail did like was routine.
And yet, for all this, on those days when he found himself roaming beyond the gates and outside the gazes of the sentries, no matter what Steeljaw always returned. Why was this? Steeljaw didn't have an answer. Did he fear that Contrail would find him? Not particularly, he doubted whether he would even look for him. Was he wary of the war he knew was brewing outside this gate at this very moment? Perhaps that was it. Steeljaw had not an ally or friend within those walls, but they were reinforced. And Contrail, with his foundry, was important to the Decepticon cause. An Autobot attack was of course always possible, but at least in here only one faction was the enemy. Out there, it was two.
Those were very fine, very prudent justifications, but, whispered something within Steeljaw, might the truth not be simpler than that? Perhaps it is simply that you have been broken in, as Contrail always planned you would be.
No. Pulling his tongue over the stained floor, Steeljaw's rejection was instant and total. His brain shuddered with the violence of it. I am not broken. I am not broken. I am not.
He stopped and flayed his tongue against his top teeth, feeling the grit. He coughed and then hacked, his two rows of teeth displayed in a grin of disgust. These floors were hardly ever cleaned, and he'd just been dragging a corpse over them. The pit of his stomach felt sour, and there was still so much left. How much blood was in this damn woman? Steeljaw snarled, driving the image of what he knew he must look like from his mind. A filthy animal, retching over the half-swallowed bloodstain of the blameless woman he had killed. If a more wretched creature existed anywhere, he himself would be repulsed by the sight of it. He knew he had no dignity, no pride left.
But, really, what good were pride or dignity? he thought as he lowered his tongue to the floor again. They had had dignity. They had been brave. Steeljaw could still remember how they had stood tall and looked their captors straight in the eye. And where had their bravery gotten them? Where were they now? Steeljaw didn't know where they were now, but he knew where they must once have been: In the garbage chute, same as the worker.
Only one he knew for sure was not there, and it was her. Her. Steeljaw cursed her name as his tongue peeled from the sticky Energon stain on the floor. Not for the first time, no. Far from the first time.
He could still hear her voice even now. Why, when all else had faded, did her voice remain? It brushed against him softly from across time. "I've decided I'm staying here." "I'll miss you. Be safe."
He had picked up the habit early of talking to himself at night, since he was forbidden to ever speak to anyone, and he had made it a priority to hurtle curses at her. "Traitor!" he yelled. "You selfish, sanctimonious deserter! You left me to rot!" There was something liberating in bellowing such abuse at her, though she was far away and could never hear. Alive or dead, his venomous words would never reach her.
And, he admitted, as he moved his muzzle over the floor, what happened wasn't really her fault anyway. None of it.
Her name was Timber, and he had known her longer than any of the others.
They were a crew of six. The others were Eye Spot, Ringtail, Quetzal, and Flipside. Out of all of them, only Timber turned into a wolf, like him.
Though, if you saw them up close, you could never, ever mix them up. While Steeljaw's coat was a light bluish gray, Timber's was solidly black, and while Steeljaw's eyes glowed yellow, Timber's were an icy blue. Once, Steeljaw had also been bigger than her, standing taller from the tips of his ears to the ground than she, although he suspected that after years of groveling at the feet of Decepticons, this was no longer the case. He noticed that his back was more curved, the point of his muzzle closer to the ground than it had been before. Still, even now, he suspected that he was still stronger than her, as he had always been before. In their youth, when they had romped and wrestled, Steeljaw had always pinned Timber effortlessly, to her never-ending annoyance. "You cheater!" she'd always shout as she struggled to pull away, laughing.
"You only seem to call it cheating when you're losing!" he'd always shout back.
On the other hand, she had always been the faster. When it came to races, Timber was often waiting patiently at whatever they had designated as the finish line, a particular tree or maybe the cobblestone path to the market, her nose resting on her folded paws, as Steeljaw panted into view. "Now who's cheating?" he would ask, which delighted her immensely. Once he had played a trick on her by watching her speed ahead of him and then heading home. He had been in the study, idly reading a datapad on subsonics, which she had come thundering in, claiming to be absolutely livid despite the glint in her optics and the way her lips moved convulsively on her face, both betraying the fact that she was barely holding it together. At the sight of her, Steeljaw couldn't help himself and had doubled over in laughter, too.
Since then, they had grown up and had been flying in Eye Spot's crew for many years before being dispatched to Cybertron. None of them had ever been to Cybertron before. "Not exactly what you'd call a vacation spot," Quetzal had quipped, more often than perhaps he realized.
The fact was that nobody on Animatron had a very high opinion of Cybertron. Among Animatronians, the planet had gained the reputation of a hellhole. Cybertron was plagued by war, a civil war that had been tearing the planet apart for generations. Leaders on each side had risen and fallen, one after the other, and even now there was no end in sight. A time when Cybertron was not at war was now in the distant past.
And even despite their constant warmongering, the people of Cybertron still looked down upon Animatron and its inhabitants. There were many on Cybertron who viewed vehicle modes, those of machines, as pure, and saw those of Animatron, with their forms that flapped and swam and crawled, as remnants of something dirty and obsolete. To Steeljaw, this logic was incredible. Didn't these Cybertron idiots know that one of the Thirteen, Onyx Prime, had possessed a beast mode? That beast forms were older than these so-called Decepticons and certainly older than Autobots? Even while living amongst constant violence, they still managed to preen themselves in the face of those who had much better lives than they. It was maddening, and Steeljaw chafed at the idea of spending several months in the company of these fools. The others saw it differently.
"So, guys," Quetzal had said on the ship, once Alpha Centauri was in sight, "Is it true they don't have any trees on Cybertron?"
Ringtail's fingers were tapping away at her console, her tail wrapped around the base of her chair. "That's what they say," she said flatly.
"But where does the oxygen come from?" Quetzal asked.
"There is no oxygen." Ringtail never looked anyone in the face if she could help it.
"You're kidding!" Quetzal exclaimed. "What do the animals breathe?"
"There are no animals either. You would know all this if you paid attention at the briefing."
Quetzal's plumage ruffled indignantly, but Eye Spot put her hand on his shoulder.
"Hey, Ringtail, no sassing once we reach Cybertron!" she called, "We're representing Animatron, and I want us to make a good impression for these Autobots!"
Flipside, who had been checking the route in the corner, laughed heartily. "Considering what those bots are used to, I'd say we're fine as we are!" he chortled. "Wait 'til they get a hold of us!"
"Now, now, Flipside, don't make fun." But Eye Spot was smiling, too.
Steeljaw had nothing to do. He sat with his arm propped on his knee and looked over at Timber, who was lounging in the giant porthole, watching the stars drift by with her back pressed against the circular frame. The lights of the interior shone over the curve of her cheek.
"Timber," he said, "You look like you're thinking hard."
"Hmm?" She turned. "Oh. Right." She smiled at him then faced the glass again. "I was just wondering what 'barring additional circumstances' means."
"Oh," Steeljaw recalled, "The briefing."
"You remember? They said we're on Cybertron for eight months, 'barring additional circumstances.' What additional circumstances? They already know they need help on Cybertron, and they know the war will still be going when we leave. What could make them keep us there longer?"
"What are you two talking about?"
Steeljaw and Timber looked up to see Flipside grinning down at them. Flipside's back was broad enough to cast an eclipse over the seated pair. Timber grinned. "Oh, I was just wondering what it would take for them to strand us on Cybertron."
Flipside snorted. "Well, obviously, they'll be reading our reports," he said, "So all we have to do is tell them they're fine! Or, you know, about as fine as they were before we got there."
"Really?" Timber grin faded slightly. She turned her face back to the window. "That's not how I see it," she said to the glass.
Steeljaw gazed at her. "Timber? How do you see it?"
Timber worked her mouth over her teeth. "Well, how much sooner could this war have ended if nobody ever said, 'it makes no difference anyway'? If nobody felt that way, maybe the war would be over by now."
Flipside whistled. "Now where's this coming from?" he marveled, "I never would have pinned you for the altruistic type."
Timber laughed, perhaps self-consciously. "I guess the king's speech really got to me," she said.
Steeljaw cocked an eyebrow, and Flipside's smile lost its mirth. "Timber," said Flipside, "You know that speech was bogus."
Timber looked down. "Right," she said.
The king. It was common knowledge that Cybertron had two leaders, constantly fighting for dominance, one for the Autobots, and one for the Decepticons, but on Animatron, things didn't work like that. There was one king, who ruled over the entire planet, and all of Animatron was loyal to him. It was he who had sent them on this mission, along with many other crews, to dispatch aid to the Autobots. And it was true that the speech he gave, to justify his doing so, was very moving. In that speech, he painted the Autobots as the underdogs, who fought for liberty and equality on their planet and who, despite the harsh reality of their everyday lives, never gave in to those who would seek to destroy them. Too long, he said, had Animatron stood idly by as war raged on Cybertron. Now was the time to show those who fought for peace that they were not alone.
All very pretty words, but many on Animatron had begun to suspect an ulterior motive for them. There was a rumor that the king desired for Animatron to enter the war, not merely as suppliers of aid but as allies to the Autobots. There was no proof that he was considering this, and yet the idea was universally loathed. A war that last for hundreds of millions of years, that had splintered Cybertron and turned its population permanently against itself, a war that even threatened to make Cybertron's very core grow cold, what could Animatron have to gain by such a war as that?
But the king's orders were absolute, and Animatron hadn't declared war on the Decepticons yet, so there they were, the six of them, on their way to Cybertron.
Flipside reached out a scaly arm and scooped Timber off the windowsill. She yelped with surprise as he hoisted her onto his vast shoulder. "Hey, don't be so glum!" he boomed. "We're not doing nothing! Why, the six of us, we're practically saviors! They'll be thrilled to see us!" Timber was laughing, as Steeljaw watched from below.
Well, as it turned out, Flipside was partially right.
Eye Spot's crew was welcomed warmly on Cybertron. The Autobot leader, Optimus Prime himself, came personally to shake her hand. Though, besides that historic moment, the arrival could have gone smoother. "Say, when do we see the bombs?" were the very first words out of Flipside's mouth as he stepped down the ship's runway in Iacon City.
Prowl, a high-ranking Autobot officer, had been standing nearby at the time and overheard Flipside's attempt at a joke. "You're a day late," he said, "They were here yesterday."
Flipside laughed boisterously. He was the only one who did. Steeljaw covered his face with his hand as he heard Prowl answer, "What exactly is so funny?"
Still, when they saw the long line of Autobot civilians snaking back and forth from the front of their ship, it was hard not to think that Flipside had been right, that they really were saviors. There was a larger cargo ship from Animatron hovering over Cybertron's airspace, and everyday, Eye Spot's crew would fly up to reload with supplies, Energon, repair kits, spare parts, then fly back down to the next Autobot city on the list. It had been a tough moment at the end of the first day when Eye Spot had been forced to shout: "That's it! We're out for today!" and the chorus of moans and pleading had risen up from the still vast crowd. The people directly before her, who had just seen the last Autobots walk away with their arms full, looked particularly heartbroken. All six knew they had been waiting since morning, and the entire crew sought out their own personal stores of Energon to get them through night one.
At every city they landed, the story was the same. Droves of Autobots appeared, and occasionally even the spare Decepticon, though nobody in the crowd seemed to mind, all holding out their hands for whatever the Animatronians could give them. They were needed, they were wanted, and when their optics rose to see that ship flying down with its belly full, their faces shone as if Primus himself had come to save them.
But Flipside was not right about everything. He had declared that the Cybertronians would be thrilled to see them. And that wasn't exactly true.
Certainly, none of them were completely ostracized. They all had their moments. Many of the younger ones were in awe of Flipside. As the tallest and broadest of the group, he always attracted everyone's eye, and Cybertronian children loved nothing better than to clamber all over Flipside's shell while he was in beast mode, pushing themselves up the patterned mound and sliding down the sides as though he were the world's best playground, as the parents stood by, gazing approvingly at Flipside's tickled laughter. Steeljaw, for his part, had once been approached by an impetuous pair of children who had asked, in their best-behavior voices, if they could touch his tail. Seeing no sign of rescue, Steeljaw acquiesced, and felt the tiny fingers running through the thick fur as he swished his tail back and forth. "It's so soft!" they marveled with their mouths wide open in wonder. Probably they had never touched hair before.
They all had moments like that, moments of curiosity or play, but they had been there for only a few days before Steeljaw noticed that Timber was approached more often than anyone else.
More people wanted to talk to Timber than all the rest of them combined. And it was not much longer before Steeljaw realized why. Out of the whole crew, Timber was the one who looked the most humanoid. Her glass optics, her oval-shaped face, her talon-less hands, everything about her was palatable to the Cybertronian masses. In a lineup of Autobots, she would stand out, but framed against her fellow Animatronians, suddenly she was familiar. Approachable. She encouraged them, engaging them in small talk, and they responded, asking her about her trip, what she thought of Cybertron, about Animatron. "Oh, Animatron is beautiful," she always said, "The sun is so bright, and the air is so sweet," and there were often furrows in their brows as they tried but not quiet succeeded, to picture the home she was dreaming of. None of the rest of the crew were ever asked anything like that. With Flipside's massive shell and beak, Eye Spot's alien head, Ringtail's pointed snout and opposable toes, and Quetzal's bright green plumage, the crew as a whole resembled a menagerie. Even Steeljaw couldn't compare. Though he and Timber had similar beast modes, their robot modes couldn't be more different. Timber's tail wrapped around her waist in robot mode, causing her to look as though she were wearing a furry belt. Steeljaw's massive tail trailed behind his feet, and his snout, pointed ears, and sharp claws all remained to him even when standing on two legs. Beside her, Steeljaw realized they must see him as a mere wild beast.
Most gallingly of all, some addressed Timber as though she were the one in charge. Too many times some Autobot came up to her and said, "I just want to thank you and your people for all that you've done." To her credit, Timber was always embarrassed by these mixups. "Thanks," she'd say, "But you really ought to be thanking my superior officer, Eye Spot." She would then point at Eye Spot, who more often than not would be standing somewhere directly behind her.
Sometimes, Steeljaw was satisfied to see these people react to such an error in the correct way: with embarrassment. They would blink at Eye Spot, look down, and then smile back up at her sheepishly, self-conscious of their own mistake. "Oh, I'm really sorry!" they'd say, "Thank you very much, ma'am!" and Eye Spot, in turn, would react with grace: "It's no trouble. Take care of yourself!" But sometimes, their optics would slide over to Eye Spot, taking in her large, compact eyes and feathered antennae, before sliding back to Timber, whereupon they would continue speaking to her as though nothing had happened. Steeljaw had always wanted to take these idiots and shake them when this happened.
That night in the ship, Timber would be morose. "I wish they wouldn't do that," she'd say quietly.
"I really don't mind," Eye Spot would say. Her arms would be folded.
Timber didn't even have to look at her. "You don't have to say that," she'd murmur.
Amazingly, however, Timber oftentimes didn't seem to notice the special treatment she received. Timber, on yet another night: "Did you hear what that woman said about the Decepticons trying to recruit her when she was a kid? When she was a kid!"
"No." Ringtail kept her gaze down on the table between them. "I didn't."
"It's barbaric!" Timber had risen from her seat. Her feet tapped on the ground, back and forth, back and forth. "And these Decepticons are always saying how they're an 'elite organization,' that they can all trace their lineage all the way back to the Thirteen, and all the time they're saying that, they're pulling kids off the streets!"
Ringtail didn't look up. "Is that bad?" she asked.
"Of course, it's bad! Don't you remember what Bronze Hand said?"
Steeljaw had been following the conversation from a nearby console with one pointed ear swiveled toward his two crew mates. Now, he turned his head to face Timber. "Who?" he asked.
"Autobot in line today," she said impatiently, "Green paint. He said he had a friend who went to the university in Iacon. Well, after this friend joined the Decepticons, they found his personal file - You know the one that every Cybertronian has? - and they changed it so it looks like he was always a Decepticon! They even hacked into the school's alumni list and deleted his name! It's like he never went there at all! It's unbelievable! And they honestly think they can get away with it!"
Steeljaw blinked. "Timber. How do you know these things?"
Timber didn't seem to understand. "Well, they… They told us!" She looked down where Ringtail was still sitting. "Didn't they?"
Ringtail didn't move. "They told you," she said. "They don't say stuff like that to the rest of us."
Timber looked confused. "No… No that can't be right. Why wouldn't they?"
Ringtail slowly turned her head toward Steeljaw, standing across the room, and fixed her large round eyes unblinkingly to his own. It was the only time Steeljaw could recall her looking him in the face. Those eyes pierced through him, and though their glare was cast up at him from below, he felt was though it were he who was pressed beneath glass. Ringtail lowered her gaze back to the table. "I don't know," she answered.
Ringtail often kept her mouth closed, but her presence was never effaced as those of so many other quiet ones were. At that moment, no words had been necessary. Steeljaw had gotten the message: "Don't you dare say a word."
It was a curious agreement they had all made to shield Timber from the ugliness they faced without her. It was as though Ringtail feared that learning the true reason that Timber's connection with Cybertron was possible would shatter the ideal that she was now immersed in, an ideal that seemed to be leading her to something broad and profound.
And yet there were many times when Steeljaw would have liked nothing better than to shatter her dream and get it over and done with. What had always been meant to be a charitable show of support was, in her hands, becoming an obsession. Steeljaw still remembered one infamous night where they had stopped at an Autobot bunker. Past experience from other cities teaching them to overstock and a lower Autobot head count than they'd ever encountered meant that the time of departure came that night when there were still supplies in the cargo hold, something that had never occurred before. The Autobot command had already given them permission to pull out, so when the time came, Eye Spot made the announcement over the ship's broadcasting system. "Alright, people! That's it! We're heading out! Thank you very much for having us today!"
The moans and protests from the still quite substantial crowd were immediate. Still, the crew began to pack up without paying them any mind. They had been on their feet all day and were ready to turn in, grateful that they would not have to pack as much the next morning.
But Steeljaw had already seen the warning sign. Where everyone else was busy loading the supplies on display back into the hold, Timber was standing still, her index finger lying curled over her lips as she looked over the Autobots with that pitying martyr expression of which she had grown so fond as of late. She turned to her comrades behind her, smiled tiredly beneath her dull optics, and said: "Why don't you guys just go in and get some sleep? I'll take care of the rest."
The Autobots near enough to hear began clapping and cheering in earnest, and soon the roar of approval had rolled down the entire mass of soldiers. Her crew mates were flabbergasted.
"Are you crazy?" shouted Quetzal. "You can't do all that by yourself!"
"It's better than nothing, right?" Timber was bracing herself up with one arm, which shuddered on the wrist pressed flat to the table. "You guys go ahead."
"Timber, you need to sleep!" said Steeljaw.
"But we're not coming back tomorrow. It doesn't seem right-"
Steeljaw had heard enough. Without waiting for her to finish, he crossed the space between them in two strides and hoisted up Timber with one arm. Timber's flat optics snapped to full brightness as she gasped to find her stomach sliding over Steeljaw's shoulder, with the spread of his hand clamped over her flank.
"What the-? Hey!"
"Sorry! We're closed!" Steeljaw shouted as he swung Timber over his arm and stormed up the ramp into the ship, right beside the gaping mouth of Flipside, who was wearing an expression as though he didn't know whether to laugh or holler.
Timber, for her part, was wide awake now.
"Steeljaw, what is your malfunction!?" she shrieked. Her fists pounded against his back as her torso twisted. "Are you crazy!? Put me down!"
Over her shrill protests, Steeljaw could hear the crowd below him catcalling. "C'mon, let the lady stay!" shouted someone.
Other Autobots were laughing. "Hey, come back! Here doggy!" Whistles accompanied this comment. "Drop it, boy! You hear me? You drop!"
Steeljaw snarled as the airlock closed behind him. These people. These people!
For better or worse, however, Timber didn't seem to have heard.
As soon as Steeljaw dropped her to the ground, she pushed him in the chest, hard. He stumbled back as she lay into him. "What the scrap is your problem!?" she shouted. "I'm not a little kid, you know!"
"It was the only way to make you stop your nonsense!" Steeljaw shouted back. "I'm tired of arguing with you every time you're being unreasonable!"
"I'm being unreasonable!? Excuse me! Who was the one manhandling me just now!?"
"You were given an order to pack up and leave, and you were ignoring it!"
"We've never left with leftover supplies before!"
"There's only one of you! You can't give it all to them!"
Timber's fury seemed to fizzle as she looked at Steeljaw. "What… What are you talking about?"
It was the first time that this fear had been wrenched from Steeljaw's throat. He thought of placing a hand on her shoulder. He thought of cupping it under her chin. He did neither of those things. "It's a whole planet," he said, "And there's only one of you."
Timber was staring at Steeljaw's face as though something were being slowly unveiled there. But, was it something to do with him? She had still made no sound when Eye Spot came and clapped a hand on each of their shoulders.
"Hey," she said, "What was going on out there?"
Both Steeljaw and Timber looked away.
"Nothing," Timber finally muttered. "We're all just tired, that's all. It was nothing."
"Right." Eye Spot's expression was grave. "Alright, you two, turn in. Now." Her arms slid off their backs as she walked away. "Ringtail! Quetzal! Fly us out of here!"
He was losing her. He knew this, and he was helpless to stop it. She was sliding out from between his fingers; she was becoming intangible like smoke. It was just like before on Animatron. She would dart ahead of him, and around the next corner she was gone.
"I'm thinking of asking to stay longer," she said one day, idly.
She had the appearance of talking to nobody in particular, but everyone had been present when she said those words to the room. They had been on Cybertron for more than seven months. The date of return was looming.
"What? Do you mean by yourself?" asked Eye Spot.
"Not this again," growled Steeljaw.
Timber chose to ignore this comment. "I feel like there's so much more to do. I don't want to leave them behind."
"And we don't want to leave you behind!" Quetzal was frantic. "We're all going home; you should come with us! Aren't you always saying how much you miss Animatron!"
Timber smiled gently to herself. It was a wise, fond smile. Steeljaw hated it. She turned her head and looked out the window, to the planet's surface below. "That's true," she admitted.
It was true. Timber could never be counted on to say anything bad about the Autobots, but when it came to Cybertron itself, the complaints were nonstop. It was dirty, she said. And dangerous. Industrial equipment was sometimes left abandoned after a battle. Weaponry was often faulty, a problem in a place where everyone seemed to be armed. Clouds of debris and soot were carried by wind for thousands of miles across the planet's surface, so that battles in Kaon darkened the skies above Vos. In no way could it ever compare to the green light of Animatron.
But the strange thing was, the more she hated the land, the more she pitied the people. "They told me Cybertron was beautiful once," she'd said, "I wonder if they believe it."
"Listen, Timber," Flipside was saying, "You've worked hard, and you've done great stuff, but you need a vacation. Come home with us! Get some R&R! If you want, you can go back later!"
Cunning strategy, thought Steeljaw. Eye Spot seemed to agree. "He's right! And besides, we're the most useful as a group! There's not really much you could do by yourself!"
Timber's smile turned rueful. Amazing how someone's smile could change in less than a year. "You're right," she said. "You're all right. It was just an idea."
By this time, Timber has developed a habit that despite his best efforts, Steeljaw could never shake her of. Sometimes, during breaks, while the rest of the crew was reenergizing, Timber would transform and take off to parts unknown. She was always back in time to resume her work. She never really told anyone where she went while she was away. Steeljaw had complained to Eye Spot many times, but because Timber had already asked Eye Spot's permission to explore the city, Steeljaw's disdain was powerless.
One day, Timber returned to the ship to find the tables bare and unmanned. One table lay on its side, the edge against the ground already stained with tar. The wind whistled through the crack of a drained Energon cube. Timber sniffed the air with her ears folded back. The crowds were gone. Her crew was gone. Where did everyone go in the last hour?
She lifted her ears and heard movement within the ship. Slowly, her hackles raised, she approached it. The ship's sensors recognized her, and obediently, the door slid open at her approach. She transformed and stepped onto the deck.
Everyone was there, sitting in a group with their backs to the doorway. "Hey, guys? What's going-?"
"Oh, Timber!" Quetzal rose to his feet and threw himself at her. Timber jumped, startled, as his arms wrapped around her, and he sobbed violently into her neck. His plumage brushed up against her jaw. She felt his cool membrane of his feathers shaking against her armor, catching in her fur, as his cries were muffled in her shoulder. She lay her arms against his trembling back while he wailed. "Oh, Timber, it can't be true! It can't be!"
"What are you talking about?" Timber cried. "What happened?"
She turned to the others. The weight of Quetzal's entire soul forced her to the ground. He clutched her as Eye Spot rose and approached them. Timber had never seen an expression like that on her face.
"Timber." It was a struggle to get just that one word out. "We've just gotten word from Animatron."
None of the others were looking at them. "And? What happened?"
"The king is dead. There was a coup. A new king has taken his place."
Timber stared. "What? When did this happen?"
"This morning." Flipside's voice was bitter, something Timber had never heard. "We just found out."
"Well? What does that mean?"
"The new king," continued Eye Spot, "has closed the air space above Animatron. Travel in or out of the planet is forbidden. All ships attempting to land will be shot down."
Timber laughed. The sound of her laugh matched the note of Quetzal's sobs. "Shot down?" she repeated with a broken smile. "Shot down with what?"
All their life they had been told, "War doesn't happen on Animatron." Other races tore themselves apart, but Animatron knew peace. There was no war, there were no soldiers, there were no weapons. They believed these things to be true. What would such weapons even be for?
Now they knew. The weapons are for us.
"You mean…" Timber's face was crumpling, even as Quetzal clutched her as though she could keep him from breaking. "You mean we can't go home?"
Nobody said a word. And that act in itself made words unnecessary.
"But! But they can't! What have we done!?"
Eye Spot knelt and placed a hand on Timber's shoulder. It brushed against Quetzal's trembling arm. "I don't know."
"Oh, you don't, do you?"
Eye Spot turned. Steeljaw sat glaring at her. He turned to them all. "None of you really have any idea what's happening here?"
Steeljaw's tone chilled something inside them. The look on Flipside's face was almost like disgust. "Are you saying you do?"
Steeljaw laughed. It was harsh, cold, and deranged. "Isn't it obvious? We came here!" Steeljaw rose to his feet. They crossed each other over the floor, bringing him closer to Timber. "We all came here and mingled with Autobots, and why? Because our dearly departed king told us to! But it was all preliminary, you see! Giving aid, helping the needy, when what he really wanted was to send us to war!"
"No! You wanted to find out what's happening, and I'm telling you! Why would he spend so much time fraternizing with Autobots? Because he wanted us here! He wanted us to fight here and die here!"
"You don't know that!" Timber cried.
"Oh, I don't, do I?" Steeljaw was in a strange sort of ecstasy. "And I supposed nobody else ever did, either? I guess this is all something that I just sort of made up!"
Timber opened her mouth again, but no words came out. Her expression was twisting.
"He wanted us to fight," Steeljaw went on, "But nobody back home wanted that! Why would they? They've never fought for anything in their miserable lives! So, they overthrow the king and bring in a new one, and what's the first thing he does? Banish the war! Just like everyone wanted! All of us? Who have been living and mixing with Autobots for eight months, we carry the war with us! We're contaminated by it!"
Eye Spot: "Steeljaw, stop-!"
Steeljaw grinned manically at Timber. "You and your damn Autobot sentiment!" he laughed. "'I feel so sorry for them! We're not doing enough! Can't you see they need help?' Those are exactly the things they were hoping you'd come back and say! We're reeking of war! We carry it with us like a plague! And now we're all stuck here just like you wanted!"
"STEELJAW, ENOUGH!" Eye Spot had risen to her feet, authority radiating from her, but it was too late. Steeljaw had transformed and skittered down the hall, his tail ripping around the corner, his shame trailing behind him.
She was right. Steeljaw knew this, as he found himself before the stain that had pooled around the worker's body. Draining out her cheeks. They were both right. It wasn't her fault. She hadn't wanted to be stranded on Cybertron, any more than he did. He had seen the light come into her face when she spoke of going home. She missed it. She never had any real love for Cybertron. All she ever felt for this place was pity. Steeljaw's teeth scraped and pinched over the sticky floor. If pity is all it takes to draw you, then why are you not here?
Something turned in Steeljaw's stomach. Steeljaw stopped and hacked. The sourness that had been boiling there suddenly spiked, and Steeljaw felt his body heave. A irresistible pressure was building in the tube in his chest. Shuddering, Steeljaw turned and ran back down the corridor to the disposal chute. Quickly, he shoved his head back through the swinging door and felt the worker's fluids rip their way out his throat and gush over his teeth. They splattered against the wall of the tunnel, trickling down into the void beyond. Steeljaw licked his teeth, feeling the goo of Energon twice swallowed. But even with the corners of his mouth dyed purple, Steeljaw managed a small feeling of triumph. Not inside me, he thought. Not inside after all.
He pushed away from the wall. The door swung closed.
Steeljaw padded his slow way back to the place where the worker's body had fallen. There was still some left. He lapped it up, comforting himself that a tank purge on the walls of the chute would be suspicious to nobody. A lot of Energon was wasted that way. What else could be expected when these starving fools were allowed to guzzle as much as they pleased?
They had no control, these Cybertronians. He had seen them running forward with their arms outstretched. Please. Please. A life of nothing had led them to swallow whatever was in front of them in an instant. It was not tearing they were doing to each other; it was eating.
They made a plan. Gigantion, a planet far away, was accepting refugees. They had more than enough space; they welcomed all. Many other Animatronians were heading there. They decided to do the same.
The ship would be taken to Caminus first for maintenance. They couldn't refuel there, though. Caminus didn't have enough to spare. They would have to ration it.
The Animatronian cargo ship hovering in orbit over Cybertron had been raided. Not by Decepticons but by Animatronians. The crew of the cargo ship had tried to leave orbit with it, but a fleet of Autobot ships blocked the way. By order of Optimus Prime. You helped us, now we will help you.
Timber was there. She grabbed everything that she could carry, same as them. Armful after armful were dumped in the hold of Eye Spot's ship, while Flipside stood guard. Hard to believe these Animatronians, which had once lorded their plenty over the Autobots, were now scrambling themselves. The first time Steeljaw drew blood was not under Contrail's employ, it was on the cargo ship when someone tried to rip a medical kit out of his arms. Without thinking, he had yanked it back, and his claws had punctured a hole in the would-be thief's wrist. Steeljaw had stared at the bright stain as it crept down the tips of his fingers.
Timber had been there. But before they left, she said something: "I've decided I'm staying here."
They were all in the ship when she said it. It wasn't like before, when it had been tossed out idly to be caught by someone in the air. She looked them all in the eyes. "I'm going to become an Autobot."
Steeljaw banged his fist into the wall. Quetzal jumped. Timber did not. Steeljaw could not even bear to look at her.
Later, in his quarters, Ringtail appeared. She didn't knock. She simply slid the door open. "Hello?"
Steeljaw was seated on his berth. He had been occupied with staring at the door in the dark. Now that it was a rectangle of light, with Ringtail's outline cut into it, he narrowed his eyes and turned away.
Ringtail stepped in and sat on the bed. Her ankle was folded underneath her. She and Steeljaw sat next to each other, facing opposite directions.
"Timber's not here," she said. "She's going to get her insignia."
Steeljaw didn't say anything.
"It seems like everything's already arranged. She must have been planning this for a while."
Steeljaw's hand curled on the metal surface.
Ringtail's eyes cast a glow over the space behind Steeljaw's ear. "When she leaves, you should say goodbye," she said.
That day came, all too soon. The five of them lined up before the ship, that ship that Timber would never set foot on again. Timber stood before them, her Autobot insignia shining over the once blank place on her stomach. Over the landscape of black, there was now a beacon of red.
Eye Spot was first. They shook hands, both of them smiling at each other. "Good luck out there," said Eye Spot warmly.
"I should say the same thing," said Timber. "It's a long trip to Gigantion."
"It'll be longer without you. But we'll manage."
Quetzal was next. He was a wreck. "We might never see you again!" he sobbed.
Timber's face crumpled, but she pulled her smile back onto it. "Don't say that," she whispered. "I'll be fine!" She clapped a hand to her upper arm and made a fist, grinning. "Those Decepticons won't know what hit 'em!"
Flipside laughed and clapped Timber on the shoulder. "That's the spirit!" he boomed. "Kick some Decepticon tail!"
Timber laughed. "Oh, I will!"
It was Ringtail's turn. Timber took her hand and squeezed it. Ringtail lifted her gaze so her eyes were fixed squarely on Timber's chin. "I believe in you," she said quietly.
Timber nodded. "That means a lot. Thank you. And, uh, I believe in you, too."
"I know," said Ringtail.
Steeljaw was last. He was looking away when Timber stepped before him, so she saw his face in profile, the long ears, the pointed snout. What had once been familiar. She reached out a hand hesitatingly before dropping it again.
"Steeljaw," she tried, "I…"
The silence hung, suspended. They could both feel the eyes of the rest of the crew on them. Quetzal leaned over to get a better view.
Suddenly, Steeljaw felt a soft warmth enfold him, and Timber was in his arms with her arms behind his head and her cheek pressed into the crook of his neck. He froze, startled, looking down to the curve of her nape as it flowed to her shoulders. He hesitated before clasping her to him as she tightened her own embrace.
"I'll miss you," she said. "Be safe."
He stared over her shoulder at the twisted landscape beyond. She released him, and he saw that she was smiling sadly.
She began to walk away but stopped and looked down. Steeljaw's arms no longer encircled her, but his hand was still wrapped around her elbow, his fingers curled around the soft joint. She stared and pulled away, and his hand trailed over her forearm until her own hand was in his. And then even the tips of her fingers had slipped away, and his curled on the empty air, cooler now for her absence.
She looked back only once to wave one final time as her crew cheered her on. She did not look at Steeljaw again. Some goodbyes are tainted if prolonged.
They didn't make it to Gigantion. They didn't make it to Caminus.
In truth, they did not even make it off Cybertron.
Shortly after takeoff, they were shot down by Contrail's men. They stood in a line with their eyes down and their hands on the backs of their heads, as instructed. There had been panicking and screaming before. That time was over now.
A small Decepticon chopper paced back and forth before them. Instinctively, none of them followed his movements with their eyes. They could hear the smug tone of his voice.
"Look at what we got here!" he shouted. "Seems like there's been a breakout at the zoo!"
A flock of raucous laughter met those words. Steeljaw felt his hairs bristling, but he didn't raise his eyes from the ground.
He heard the Decepticon's footsteps stop. "What's your problem, big guy?"
"Who, me?" Flipside's expression was innocent. "I don't have a problem. Except, there's a little too much ugly in my line of sight right now."
The reaction was instantaneous. Without making a sound, the Decepticon swung his fist into the side of Flipside's head. Next moment, there was a loud clang, and he was doubled over, clutching his sparking hand in his fingers.
"Augh!" the Decepticon screamed, "What the pit was-?"
Flipside was laughing, and the mirth of the other Decepticons formed a backdrop. "You're gonna have to hit a little harder than that, pipsqueak!"
The Decepticon grimaced, pulled the blaster out of his holster with his good hand, and shoved the barrel into Flipside's open mouth. There was a flash, and Flipside was on his hands and knees coughing as a plume of smoke rose from his throat. Ringtail screamed.
"Oh, am I?" The Decepticon jeered as Flipside gagged. His audience cackled their appreciation An empty Energon cube shattered against Flipside's shell.
Eye Spot, who was standing beside Flipside, dropped to her knees and hooked one arm around his own.
"Hey, you!" The Decepticon hollered, "Stand up!"
Eye Spot looked him right straight in the face. "Of course," she said. She bent back down, and crossed her other arm over Flipside's chest. Slowly, she lifted him to his feet, then faced the Decepticon with her hands behind her head.
The Decepticon struck her across the cheek with the butt of the gun. "Oh, you think you real smart, don't you?" he spat.
Eye Spot chose not to respond.
They were escorted to a cell, one for all of them. There was enough room for them to all lay down side by side with their arms tucked in. The bars were rigged to deliver a shock if they were touched. Not that anyone had tested this fact. Steeljaw had heard the hum of electricity moving through them. At all times, there was a guard watching them. Steeljaw entertained himself with the idea that the guard was disappointed they never touched the bars.
The next day, the door to the cage slid open. A different Decepticon stood in front of them, with two on either side. Steeljaw guessed he was a triple changer by the look of him.
"Which one of you is in charge?" he demanded.
Eye Spot rose to her feet. "That would be me," she said.
The Decepticon smirked and cocked an eyebrow. "They told me about you," he said, "You're the lady who was getting smart."
Eye Spot shrugged. "I suppose."
There was nothing but an open doorway between him and her. They could all see it, but she spoke as if the cell were not there.
"Listen, insect," the triple-changer sneered, "I don't know if you've heard, but things have changed. Contrail is the one who's in charge, not you."
Eye Spot waited. The triple-changer looked behind her to the rest of the crew.
"Contrail," he said, with a sweep of the arm that looked rehearsed, "is merciful. If you agree to serve him, you'll all be treated well."
Eye Spot folded her arms. "So, Contrail was your master's name?" she asked.
The triple-changer seemed to sense that he had stumbled. He raised himself to his full height. "My one and only master is Megatron!" he announced with a huff.
Eye Spot smirked. "Right," she said, "I'm sure that answer would please Megatron if you ever meet him in person."
The triple-changer was bristling. Steeljaw suddenly felt as though the woman standing before him was a stranger. Eye Spot had never been a soldier, had never so much as even touched a weapon. Where was this iron coming from?
"You can tell Contrail," said Eye Spot, "That there is no world in this life or the next where any of us will be slaves to a pack of thugs."
For a moment, the triple-changer looked to be in a state of shock. But his expression soon hardened. "Get her out of here," he hissed with a throw of his arm. The two on either side stepped around the triple-changer and grabbed Eye Spot by the arms. Quetzal shouted her name, as the door slid closed and she was led away, with a blaster pointed at her back.
Ringtail tucked her head beneath her arms, but Steeljaw knew it would be no use. He would hear the shot no matter what.
The pool was gone. The floor shined. Steeljaw wearily trudged off to the corner where he spent his nights. There was no trace of the worker anywhere now, except in his tank, the wall of the chute, and miles below his feet. The night was more than half over, but perhaps he could get a few hours of shut-eye before dawn. But was it even worth it when his dreams were of this hateful place?
He heard it before he felt the floor rumble. His ear swiveled in the direction of the sound while his eyes remained closed. A scraping and groaning engorged by a hollow cavern of metal. The trash compactor. The worker's body, with her wide, confused eyes, was shifting in the pile as the titanic walls slowly pressed into the scrap, pushing it up. Steeljaw shivered and tried to block out the sound, but the bellowing echo cried out with a moan he felt corroding the depths of his soul, which cruelly, cruelly, still remained.
He saw Contrail for the first time a few days later.
The tan and blue Seeker stepped before the cell where the four of them sat huddled together. The doors did not open this time. He merely stood, the breadth of his wings bisecting the light from the bulb outside of the cell. He smiled as though at a private joke.
"Here they are, sir," the same triple-changer from before was saying. "Not a particularly cooperative lot, if you ask me."
Contrail slowly moved the white gaze of his optics over each of their faces, one after the other. All of them felt the sting of that light meeting their eyes in turn, except for Steeljaw, who kept his eyes to the floor.
Contrail turned his head and placed his face close to the helm of the triple-changer. All of them saw his lips move, but only Steeljaw was able to hear the words he whispered: "The dog."
Contrail left, as the cage door was sliding open with a bang. The triple-changer stepped in and grabbed Quetzal's arm. "Alright, let's go," was all he said.
"No, please, don't!" Ringtail threw herself forward and grabbed onto Quetzal's legs. "Please, don't hurt him!"
"Shut up!" The point of a boot swung painfully into Ringtail's side. She collapsed to the floor as the door closed, with a bizarrely silent Quetzal being hustled from sight.
And so it was, one after the other. Steeljaw lost track of the time that passed between each murder. The flow of time seemed to be marked only by those screams and frantic writhing. Everything else was mere void.
Still, there was one light of hope, and that was Timber. Timber was an Autobot. She was somewhere out there fighting people like this, ripping them apart with her claws, tearing into them with her teeth. Surely, soon she would appear and lead them back outside to where the sky could still be seen, despite the collapse of time and life and the world as he knew it. Perhaps this was the reason she had become an Autobot, so that she might break through the walls and save them.
Of course, she did not come. But Steeljaw waited, and he waited, and he waited, and he did not give up until everyone but him was dead.
One day, when Steeljaw was alone, they tossed something into his cell. It was a huge round something that boomed like a drum, and it turned slowly on the ground before Steeljaw's eyes. It was Flipside's shell. It was empty now. Flipside had once dwelt in this shell, but they had scooped him out. Spine, spark chamber, Energon tank, skeleton, protoform, vocal chords, gears veins, nerves, all of it, scraped and emptied, dumped like stew.
When Steeljaw's eyes fell into that wide hollow, he screamed. It wasn't the scream of any voice the Decepticons had ever heard. It was a dog's scream, high and piercing, anguished and raw. The scream of an animal in agony. The Decepticons near the cage clamped their hands over their audio sensors. "Shut him up, will you!?" the triple-changer yelled over the noise.
"No." Contrail placed a hand on his servant's shoulder. His ironic smile was unmoved. "Let him get it out of his system. It'll be good for him."
Perhaps it was good for Steeljaw's sake that Contrail felt that way, because it was nearly dawn before he finally stopped.
Thus begun Steeljaw's training. First, they silenced him. Steeljaw never had anything to say to his captors, but they found a way to work around that. They asked him a series of yes or no questions. Is the light outside on or off? Are you tired? Does Contrail own you? If he answered a question incorrectly, they would beat him. If he verbally answered with a "yes" or "no," they would beat him. If he failed to answer the question at all, they would beat him. Sometimes, they would beat him for no reason at all. If he cried out during this beating, they would beat him a second time.
Soon, he learned the correct response. A nod for yes, a shake of the head for no. If his voice escaped his mouth, even in his dreams, the only outcome would be pain.
Next, they crippled him. They wanted a dog, not a mech. They began a routine where they would enter his cell - the cell that had once held five but was now his alone - at random times. If he was in robot mode, they would beat him. If he were in beast mode, they would look over him once and then leave without comment. They very rarely told Steeljaw what they wanted; they seemed content to leave him to figure it out for himself. It didn't take long for Steeljaw to realize the correlation. Beast mode meant no beatings. If he wanted to avoid pain, he'd better be a wolf when they came by.
Occasionally, Steeljaw had been able to pass a solitary moment in robot mode. There seemed to be no camera in his cell, none that he could find anyway, and now that he was alone, there was no longer a guard stationed outside the cage. But one occasion where they chose to surprise him in the middle of the night put a stop to that habit. He had been sitting in the corner with his arm propped up on his knee when he heard the door to the prison slide open and the telltale sound of footsteps. Hastily, he turned into a wolf. The Decepticon they'd sent to check on him was grinning when he peered through the bars.
"I thought I heard the sound of transforming in here!" he crooned, as the cage door slid open. "You think we're as dumb as you, mutt?"
They had a lot of insults like that, tags they liked to stick onto him, though "mutt" was unquestionably their favorite. "Mongrel" was also popular. Still, Steeljaw quickly learned the rules. He was, after all, a "smart doggie," as they frequently told him. He learned to crawl, to obey, to whimper. He felt gagged; he felt mutilated. Trapped in a single form, stretched and pulled and stuffed with barbed wire. He would have given anything, anything, even his very spark, to trail his fingers through a pool of water or the crack in the wall of his cell. Or perhaps wrap them around Contrail's throat. That would be very fine, as well.
One day, they came to him while he was curled onto himself on the floor, the tail brushing over his nose. He lifted his head when the door slid open. His senses seemed especially tuned to that sound.
There was a larger crowd here than usual. There seemed to be four of them. Steeljaw was still bleary from his dreams and didn't become nervous until he heard the one in front say, "Transform. Now."
Steeljaw's ears flattened against his head. He slowly unfurled himself from the floor, his tail between his legs. Was this a trick?
The Decepticon had something in his hand, a long, rodlike something that Steeljaw had never seen before. He tapped this threateningly against the bars framing the doorway. The current in the bars cracked excitedly. "What, are you deaf? Transform!"
Steeljaw obeyed. He remained crouched on the floor, not daring to stand.
The Decepticons all filed into his cell. The door slid shut behind them. Steeljaw looked up at the one who had spoken, waiting for some explanation.
He should have known better. "Lean forward."
Steeljaw wasn't sure exactly what he meant, but he knew better than to ask. He spread out his palms and stretched his arms over the floor as far as they would go.
And the next moment, despite himself, he yelped as a Decepticon on each side stomped down on his hands and rooted their heels in his fingers. He screamed and tried to pull free, twisting and jerking his arms and shoulders, but it was as though they were not being crushed but sliced with a blade.
"Hold him still!" he heard someone shout, and the next moment the crackle of electricity was right in his ears as something white hot burned itself into each of his shoulders. He saw the other two Decepticons, one of whom was the speaker, pressing those rods into the blank pieces of armor on his upper arms. "Quit squirming!" he was shouting. "It'll come out crooked!"
Finally, the noise stopped. The scent of burning was in the air. The Decepticons lifted their feet off of Steeljaw's hands, which miraculously still seemed to be whole, and Steeljaw fell forward, clutching his shoulders. He turned his head as he held his hand over the place where he could still feel the heat radiating under his fingers, expecting to see a scar. What he saw instead was the Decepticon insignia.
They left him, not bothering to punish him for breaking the rules by screaming. He transformed. He felt the heat of those marks pressing into his innards. This way, the marks were hidden.
They stopped bringing him fuel for a while after that. Steeljaw was unafraid. He figured they wouldn't kill him now that they had branded him, but the lack of fuel was starting to make his thoughts go fuzzy. He spent the days waiting for anything at all that might choose to happen. He found that it was difficult now to stay asleep, but it was equally difficult to stay awake. Sometimes, lying by himself on the metal floor with the emptiness of his own tank blossoming within him, he found himself wondering where his other crew mates were. Were they in the other room? Would they be back soon? Then he would have to remind himself, Oh, that's right. They're dead, and he would note this as a fact before this thoughts wandered on. Faces, shapes, voices floated all around him at all hours, never near enough to keep him company, but always there to push back the silence. "I'll miss you. Be safe." He wondered who had said that to him.
Once, someone opened his cell and barked "Transform!" and he complied, too drained now to wonder at it as before. Nothing happened, except the person knelt beside him and ran his thumb over the gleaming, purple insignia. "Yeah, that looks good," Steeljaw heard him mutter. He left the cell, and Steeljaw heard him shout down the hall, "I just checked it! It looks good!" before the door to the prison closed. The fact that he was now someone to shout about amused Steeljaw in a way he couldn't explain.
Then, finally, Contrail was there. Steeljaw lifted his head and saw him. Does Contrail own you? Yes, yes.
"Goodness, look at you," said Contrail softly. "Who did this to you, boy?"
Steeljaw didn't know. No one had ever told him their name. The only name he knew was Contrail's, so that was the name he said in his head. Contrail. Contrail did this to me.
The cage door opened. Contrail gestured to someone Steeljaw couldn't see, and an Energon cube was placed into his hand. Steeljaw bolted up with a strength that astonished him. The glow was hypnotic.
Contrail stepped into the cell and held the cube above his head with one hand. The surface of the liquid danced over his fingers. "You want this, boy?"
Steeljaw nodded, his nose pointed straight at the prize.
"Alright," said Contrail, "Let's see you beg."
If Steeljaw had not been dying, he might have obeyed right away. As it was, he only stared blankly at Contrail, as the command struggled to reach his exhausted circuits. Contrail only waited a few seconds before he shrugged.
"I see," he said with a sad smile. "Well, goodbye."
He left, taking the cube with him. Steeljaw could have wept.
He returned the next day. The cube was in his hand as soon as his form appeared in the hall. Steeljaw nearly ran into the bars in his excitement.
This time, when Contrail said, "Beg!" Steeljaw was ready. He lifted himself up onto his hind legs with his front paws dangling over his chest, flattened his ears against his head, and whimpered. Contrail laughed warmly.
"That's more like it!" he said. He placed the cube on the floor and slid it over to Steeljaw. Steeljaw fell into it at once, lapping greedily. Droplets flew over his face and spattered over his paws. Contrail bent down and moved his hand over the place between Steeljaw's ears.
"Good boy," he said.
It was a few days later when Contrail made the deal. "Steeljaw," he said, "Would you like to get out of this cell?"
He bent down and opened his hand, revealing a small, cracked lens. It looked to Steeljaw as though it came off a camera.
"Someone's been causing some trouble for me," Contrail said softly. "Take care of them for me, and you'll never have to set foot in this cell again."
So Steeljaw set off, across Cybertron's surface, and he returned, with a mouthful of fingers clenched in his teeth. And he left many times and always, always returned.
Steeljaw had been wandering the compound for many months before he dared to use his voice again. In the dead of night, he found a place, deep in the bowels of the foundry, where there seemed to be no one. He stepped into the room quietly, slowly, his yellow eyes darting back and forth from corner to corner. All was silence. All was stillness.
He sat and lifted his head. His ears flicked to the side, frightfully probing what could be there, who could be there. The night seemed to be filled with no one but him.
He pointed his face to the corner where the wall met the ceiling. He wasn't sure where to look, but up seemed to be right. A sound sent up flew far away until it fluttered and shrunk and was touched by no one.
He opened his mouth. "He… Hello," he said.
His voice was raspy, shaky from months of neglect. He hunched his shoulders, waiting for the hammer to fall, for someone to catch him, for the punishment.
It didn't come.
"Hello!" he called again. The ceiling echoed it back. Hello, hello…
"My name," he said, his voice wavering, "is Steeljaw. I'm from Animatron." The words were robotic, factual. They seemed to be a report, like those he had once sent to the king long dead. " I came here with my crew. They were murdered by Contrail's men. Their names are Eye Spot, Quetzal, Ringtail, and Flipside. I am the only survivor."
He paused. The effort of speaking made him weary. He went on.
"There is one crew member who is unaccounted for. An Autobot named Timber." He paused again. The vibrations in the sound increased. His voice, so recently regained, was already threatening to break. "I don't know," he said, "if she's alive or dead. Timber…" Here, he stopped. There was another sentence he was planning, but he seemed to have lost it. "Timber…" he repeated again. His voice was shattering, splintering.
"Timber," he muttered, his face crumpling, "you'd better have died." He opened his eyes and lifted himself toward the heavens. He was screaming. "Timber! You'd better be dead! Do you hear me? IF YOU DIDN'T COME FOR US, THEN YOU'D BETTER BE DEAD!"
Steeljaw wailed hysterically, and the walls of every chamber received his sobs. It was a miracle that no one caught him that night, as loudly as he was carrying on. It was the first miracle he had known in a long time.
Years later, on the night when Steeljaw slept with his belly full of a Coil's Energon, Steeljaw knew another miracle. He dreamed of Animatron.
He opened his eyes, and he was there. It was snowing. The flakes blanketed the branches, the forest floor, his own brow. He sent out a breath, and a steamy cloud poured from his nostrils. He gasped in delight, thrilled that his mind would produce such a trick, and he romped through the snow, his paws scooping out footfalls of powder. The cold air muffled his whooping and hollering as he charged through the piles, throwing the debris of his clumsy trail into the air.
Suddenly, his paw collided with something hard. Steeljaw stumbled and peered down. A solid metal corner was jetting out of the ice. Steeljaw cleared it away and saw the blankly confused eyes of the worker he had killed, wide open and staring at nothing. She was there, spread out under the snow. The fingers of her hand were curled over the wind that blew icy grains over her palm.
Steeljaw snarled in irritation and tried to move on, but his foot collided with another body. The steps were no longer soft but poked and blunted the pads under his paws. There were bodies everywhere, barely concealed by the snow that blew over them, all appearing black under the mass of blinding white, their limbs and faces thinly veiled by ice. Many of them were his targets, staring at him with eyes that asked, Who's there? and some were strangers, but all of them were Cybertronian. And the knowledge became clear that this was his fault, that he was filthy and contaminated and had brought war to Animatron.
Suddenly, he heard a groan. He looked up and saw Timber, lying on top of the snow. Her fur was also black, but he could see her stirring, hear her voice murmuring in the chill. Excitedly, he ran to her, stepping on jagged edges all the way, but when he came to her, he felt his spark go cold.
She was still alive, yes, but she was deeply ill. She twisted and writhed atop the mound of bodies, her head tossing from side to side, captured in her own body's agony. He looked over her anxiously, wondering what he should do, and that was when he saw it.
The Autobot insignia gleaming over her stomach was pulsing. It radiated with a lurid red glow, and he could see it growing and contracting like an organ. Tiny red veins ran like wiring from the mark which pulled and stretched her skin and disappeared into her depths. There was no doubt in Steeljaw's mind that that Autobot insignia was killing her.
He was smiling serenely because he knew exactly what to do. He placed a paw, which he now saw was a hand, against her stomach, and slowly, slowly, dragged his claws over that mark. It felt warm under his hand. Beads of her Energon appeared and swelled along the edges of the gashes. The twisted lines from his claws dragged the skin of her stomach down as they tore it, and Steeljaw marveled at their beauty, shivering in the sheer ecstasy of those claws softly tearing through her flesh. Perhaps he was hurting her, but he felt no fear, because he knew he how to save her.
The smile that Steeljaw wore in his dream was carried to his lips as he slept, his flank rising and falling softly. It was the first peaceful night he had known in many years.
"The Beast" is what I chose to call this story, and "The Beast" is what it became. Are you looking at that word count? What the hell is wrong with me?
Regardless, Happy Halloween, everyone! Here, have some misery!
This story is part of a larger universe that I call Transformers: Machina (name subject to change). So, there won't be any more chapters to this story. Please do not ask for them.
Steeljaw doesn't seem to have a backstory in RID, so I thought it might be fun to come up with one. Obviously, not everything I've come up with works for the world of the show, but I tried to base as much of Steeljaw's actions and motivations off his canon personality traits. I'm sorry that this story is so densely populated with OCs. Contrail is not an OC, but even he isn't important enough to be on 's preset character list. Such is life.
FYI, the story that Coil overheard Steeljaw reciting is the tale of Solus Prime and Megatronus. There's no conscious reason why Steeljaw chose it, he was just practicing.
I would like to thank Combiner Wars for teaching me the word "sanctimonious." Vocabulary!
I think it's discernible from the text, but just in case, here are the beast modes for everyone in Steeljaw's crew:
Eye Spot = Butterfly
Flipside = Tortoise
Quetzal = Bird (Look it up!)
Ringtail = Lemur
And, of course, Timber and Steeljaw are both wolves.
If, for whatever insane reason, you want to know what a dog's scream actually sounds like, there is a Youtube video called "Abused Dog Feels For the First Time Petting Instead of Abusing." It's not a graphic video at all, in fact it's actually quite heartwarming, but you should be warned, the first few seconds are the worst sound you will ever hear.
I am a little afraid that some of the content in this story may be too intense for a T rating. If anyone messages me saying that they feel the rating is too low, then I'll probably change it. I have a friend who is honest-to-God triggered by vomit. Sorry.
I've already typed too much, and it's six am. Hope you enjoyed "The Beast!"