There are worse things to wake up to than a grinning Starscream, but at the moment I couldn't think of any. My vision stabilized, allowing me to determine that I was lying in the base's excuse for a medical bay, and my internal diagnostics told me that I was more or less repaired.
Starscream's grin widened as he saw I was awake. "Welcome back, Leader." He straightened up, folding his arms, as I sat up and tested my shoulder, gingerly, waiting for the pain.
"How long have I been out?" I snapped, refusing to acknowledge his obvious self-congratulation. The grin didn't waver.
"Three days. The Constructicons said you'd be awake some time today." He was fairly vibrating with his desire to show me whatever it was he'd been up to while I had been subject to the Constructicons' tender mercies. I wasn't about to indulge him, which was becoming apparent. "Mighty Megatron, don't you want to know what's been happening during your recovery?"
"Do I?" I swung my legs off the recharge couch and stood up, testing my equilibrium. Not bad. There was still some residual pain in the shoulder, and in my chest, but I dismissed this as unimportant. "I'm sure even you couldn't have caused too much damage in just three days, Starscream."
"You wound me, Leader," he said, that grin still stretching from audio to audio. "I've only managed to recapture the Nightbird and hold it ransom for the Autobots' entire stock of energon cubes."
There was a brief pause, as I reran that statement several times through my central processor; for a moment I saw flickering images of violet and grey, tilted optics bright against a sky darkening too quickly as my energy drained out; the familiar reflection of my own face superimposed on the darkness of the ocean beyond my viewport.
"You did what?" My voice was very, very calm.
"I knew you'd be pleased, mighty Mega---urk..." He struggled as my fingers tightened once more about his throat. I do like that look on him; it suits him well. Grabbing him by the throat with my right hand has the added benefit of allowing him a nice view right up the barrel of my fusion cannon, which helps to get my point across.
"You had the nerve to use my forces to get us involved in a ridiculous hostage situation with the Autobots? Oh, well done, Starscream. Well done indeed. You deserve a commendation." I lifted the Seeker off the medical bay floor and cocked my arm back, calculating distance and velocity, and flung him hard enough against the wall that his left wingtip snapped off and bounced amusingly on the floor. He shrieked.
"Where is the Nightbird?" I demanded, as he curled up in a heap of dented metal. "What have you done with her?"
"...it's.....in the brig......under guard...." Starscream gasped, glaring at me with a delightful combination of fury and surprised hurt.
"Get yourself fixed and go out on patrol, Starscream. I don't want to see you for at least a day. I've got enough to do trying to fix this little situation you've got us into."
Optimus Prime paced the Ark's command room floor. Their failure to retrieve the Nightbird was, for him, not only a professional but also a personal failing; he had given Fujiyama his word, and he had not been able to follow through.
He took no satisfaction in the fact that they'd clearly hurt Megatron badly in the fight at Black River; Bumblebee had lost an arm, and both Ironhide and Jazz had taken nasty hits. Of course Ratchet had been able to repair them, but they should never have been hurt in the first place; it was his fault as leader, and he forced himself to remember that, over and over. I must not fail again.
He had been surprised when the communication came in from the Decepticon base demanding the Nightbird's ransom; that wasn't Megatron's style. Megatron would have used her for something, made the best of the situation by using her capabilities to win him something he would otherwise have been unable to capture; he wouldn't have done anything as dramatic and poorly conceived as holding the ninja robot for ransom. But, as Starscream—who had been the one to contact them—had said, the Autobots had no choice. Either they handed over the energon cubes and retrieved the Nightbird, or the Decepticons would unleash her on the world with orders to destroy all humans she came across.
Part of Optimus Prime wanted to tell Starscream to go ahead and set her free—surely the combined forces of the Autobots would be enough to find and destroy Nightbird before she caused too much damage—but the intrinsic Optimus flinched at the thought of all the needless deaths she would doubtless achieve. Nightbird was a weapon, and the safety of humanity required her to be locked up and deactivated.
That was where they came in.
He was waiting for Ratchet to give him the all-clear. Several other Autobots besides Bumblebee, Jazz and Ironhide had been injured in the fight at Black River, and Prime wasn't about to send his warriors into battle when they were still trying to heal. They were hanging back and biding their time. Optimus knew that retrieving the Nightbird from Megatron's underwater fortress would not be easy, or pleasant, but it was something he had to do. I have a duty, he thought. Those who can fight must protect those who have no defenses.
I have a duty.
One of the first things I did when my ship crashed to the bottom of the wretched Pacific Ocean was to strengthen all the lower hulls. We were far enough down here for the pressure of the countless tons of water to pose a real danger to our hull's structural integrity; while my ship had been designed to withstand the beating of atmospheric reentry and the airless void of hard vacuum, the combination of pressure with corrosive salt water raised concerns about how long the ship itself could survive. So I had the hulls reinforced, to much grumbling from my crew; and while doing so, I had the brig on the lowest deck reinforced as well. Eight-inch-thick duralloy walls enclosed the cell chambers; rather than relying on energy fields as bars, I had had duralloy bars installed through which four thousand volts pulsed in an irregular, unpredictable pattern. Nobody had ever broken out of my brig. I took some little pride in this.
She sat curled up in a ball in the farthest corner of the cell, her face resting on her folded arms, every line of her body expressing weary resignation. I knew better than to believe it, though, and as I stepped closer to the crackling bars I caught the slight tensing of her shoulders, the almost imperceptible flexing of muscle cables that meant she was at full attention and ready to spring.
The dull pain in my shoulder seemed to pulse in the same irregular rhythm as the energy fields imprisoning her. It was an odd feeling; the crystal-clear, straightforward world that I had always known seemed to be cracked, flawed somehow; my course of action was no longer perfectly clear to me. I shook my head, trying to clear it, and brought the palm of my hand down flat on the energy controls.
The bars went dead. With another keystroke I let them retract into the ceiling, the whine of servomotors and the clang of pistons retreating into their sheaths suddenly too loud in the silence. Nightbird looked up. Her body was still taut as a bowstring, ready to leap, ready to destroy. I made no move to enter the cell; rather, I just stood there, aware of myself as I have rarely been. Aware of my physical form, in this clumsy iteration forced on me by the limitations of this world. I am a utilitarian object at best; but I am fearsome. It is on this fear that I have built my strength. Yet...
Yet I am not sure of what I feel when I regard the Nightbird.
She regarded me with those tilted yellow optics, completely devoid of expression, and got to her feet in a coiled, controlled release of energy. It was the movement of a caged animal about to leap past its captor to freedom, but she held herself in check, and after a moment—as if she had to check what her voice modulator was for—she rasped "Where?"
"where am I." I folded my arms.
"You are in the Decepticon base," I said levelly. "I am Megatron, leader of the Decepticons." I refrained from adding "and you belong to me," for some reason.
"Cage," she rasped. Her voice was rusty with lack of use, low, without the squeaky rapid-cycle modulations I normally associate with female vocalizations. "Why?"
"An error," I said. "My subordinates misinterpreted my intention. You are not my prisoner, Nightbird."
"Night...bird," she repeated, as if tasting the name. "What...am I...then?" It was evident that her speech patterns were based on what she had been hearing, and it was interesting to note the improvement with each consecutive sentence.
I had to think about that one for a minute. "You are a Decepticon warrior," I told her. "You are one of us, now."
I hadn't realized it, but it was what I'd intended, all along. To make her one of us. One of mine.
I held out a hand, and after a long moment she took it, black fingers against black fingers, her strength held in check, as was my own. I led her out of the brig, releasing her hand, and tried to get my self-control back: this was not like me, this concern, this level of thought about anything other than logistics and tactics and war. Something profound was happening to me, and despite my best efforts, it was beyond my control.