Unction IV

But break, my heart, that I must hold my tongue.

Cyclonus drifted. His astrogation systems were fully active, and he was paying attention to his surroundings with about forty percent of his processing power, but his mind was very far away from the junk of the Quintessa asteroid fields and what they contained; as was becoming more and more common with him, he was thinking about something else. He merely let his body obey its orders and carry him at a respectable clip through space, toward the coordinates Soundwave had given them, while he pondered.

He had woken from recharge with nothing more than a lingering ache in his side and his wingtip; as Hook had predicted, he was perfectly functional. There was still the odd itching sensation of his nanites working to decrystallize the stressed metal of the wing-struts—even in jet mode, he kept wanting to reach up and scratch the trailing edge of his right wing—but nothing he couldn't handle. Which was both a good thing and a bad thing, since being relatively pain-free meant that he could concentrate on other subjects than his own misery.

He rather thought he preferred the misery.

Scourge and three Sweeps were holding their position around him. For once, Scourge was neither needling him nor attempting to engage him in serious conversation—and for once, Cyclonus almost wished he would. There wasn't much out here to distract him from the problem which was sitting firmly in the forefront of his mind. There was no doubt that the seizures were getting worse, and that the attendant debilitating psychosis was reaching the point where Galvatron would soon be unable to command at all. He had seen the madness pass like a magenta filter over Galvatron's optics earlier that morning, in the control room: the colour of the optic sensors seemed to shift suddenly, and then return to their normal Decepticon red; perhaps it had just been an effect of the bluish flares that sparked around his helmet, but he couldn't help thinking that Galvatron's body itself was changing under the onslaught of chaotic and unstable energy.

Cyclonus found himself thinking of the time that Scourge had managed to steal the Autobots' Matrix and install it in himself, and been mutated into a hideous, lumpy, dangerously powerful creature in the process. Was it possible that Galvatron's physical composition, too, was being slowly altered by the poisonous energy given off by the plasma damage? Could he end up like Scourge had—raving, maddened with power and pain, almost unrecognizable as himself?

Cyclonus knew he couldn't let that happen...but there really weren't very many things he could do to stop it, short of somehow reversing time to prevent the plasma submersion in the first place.

"Credit for your thoughts, Cyc," Scourge drawled over the internal comm, surprising him enough so that he jigged slightly, regaining control with ease. Well...squelching him is better than going over all this again, I suppose.

"What?" he said, in his most chillingly offensive voice. Scourge, undaunted, went on. It was difficult to squelch someone who was used to going into battle with pink-painted claws and a pointy villain beard; when he was in a better mood, Cyclonus found the Sweep leader amusing for his look and for his outlook. Currently he wanted to belabor him around the head and shoulders with one of his own stupid fuselage-wings.

"Well, you're acting funny even for you. Galvatron must've slagged you worse than normal, huh? I mean, that's saying something."

Cyclonus shot him a freezing glare. Scourge nodded to himself, rather ostentatiously. "Thought so. I've never seen him that tweaked." As Cyclonus didn't reply, he added after a moment "I don't get why you just take that kind of slag from him. He's completely wingnuts, Cyc."

"Watch your voice modulator," Cyclonus snapped. "That's insubordination."

"Oh, yeah, what are you going to do? Report me to Galvatron? He's so crosswired he wouldn't even know what you were saying." The urge to beat Scourge with his own wings was now beginning to be an urge to shoot a hole directly through him.

"I warn you, Scourge," he growled. "Any more talk like that and I will have you on report. Now be quiet and fly. We aren't far off from the target."

"You ought to watch yourself, Cyc," said the Sweep leader, the bantering tone gone from his voice. "The rest of the Decepticons are getting fed up with this."

"I said shut up," Cyclonus said, lead and stone and steel in his voice. "What part of that are you having difficulty processing?"

The voice worked, as the voice always did. Scourge fell back a little and maintained his position in the formation, managing to look subdued even in vehicle mode. The jet ramped up his engines slightly, pulling ahead, and was only vaguely surprised to find that the little exchange had improved his mood considerably.

Springer gave his microwelder a last jolt, and returned it to subspace. The active guts of the repeater station were back online and fully functional at last; the damage had been minor, just a few meteorite strikes and some short-circuiting, but it had taken him more time than he'd expected to repair. He stood up and closed the access panel, noting with satisfaction that all the telltales on the housing were clear green and steady, and activated the repeller forcefield which had burned out and allowed the micrometeorites through to damage the equipment.

Although why they had to send me instead of one of the Protectobots is still a mystery. He activated his comlink, hailed the Autobot headquarters. "Springer to base, do you read me?"

"Loud and clear," said Ultra Magnus, several light-years away. "What's the situation?"

"Repeater station back online and transmitting. I'm going to head on back."

"Roger," said Magnus. "Good work, Springer. Any sign of Decepticon activity in your area?"

"Negative." Springer looked up; the asteroid they'd selected for their amplification/repeater installation was one of the larger chunks of what had once been Quintessa, deep in the middle of the asteroid field, and the space around him was bright with tumbling reflections from a million fracture planes; the faint purple glow from the repeller field reassured him that even if one of those chunks managed to hit the installation asteroid, it wouldn't make it through to damage the station. "All I see is bits of Quintessa."

"That's good news," said another voice on the comlink. "Come on back, Springer. Arcee's getting worried."

"I am not!" The third voice was indignant: there was some garbled byplay, and then Rodimus came back.

"Watch out, though," he said. "Just because the Cons haven't shown up yet doesn't mean they aren't going to."

"Gotcha." Springer cut the connection and took a last look around before launching himself off the asteroid and heading back into clear space.

A few moments later, as the Autobot's form receded into the distance, another signal—not the one from the repeater station—blinked into life, in the dark half of a chunk of Quintesson debris. There was no voice transmission: there did not need to be. It had all been prearranged.

Back on Cybertron, Rodimus Prime rather wished he had the impersonal faceplate Optimus had worn. It was difficult to keep his face straight. Honestly, the whole thing was so simple it was a bit embarrassing he'd had to be alerted to the possibilities by Punch…but then again one of the archivists had dug up a concept called synchronicity, a human word for the phenomenon of coinciding meanings and developments. Had Punch not pointed out the opportunities inherent in the Decepticon high command's current state, complete with sketched-out plan for taking advantage thereof, the fact that the junk-belt repeater station had gone down would have meant little to nothing in the grander scheme of things. But it had, and it was the work of a moment to send out spurious reports of a power installation at those coordinates.

He'd sent Springer out to repair the amplifier, of course, because unlike the Protectobots Springer was extremely good at fighting off Decepticons; if any of them showed up before Rodimus intended them to, Springer would have had no problem getting away safely. He'd have to sacrifice the amplifier station to the Cons, of course, but that was nothing compared to what might be won in return.

Out there in the junkbelt, the signal continued to beat—weakly, irregularly, as if the receiver were badly damaged or losing its battery charge. Beat, beat, beat. When Cyclonus found it, he would be one interested Con.

"I don't believe this!" Cyclonus spat, hovering in space with his attitudinal jets firing. "The Autobots left a, a repeater station here and our reports mistook it for a power facility? Who the slag is running our intelligence gathering these days?"

Scourge shrugged his wings. "Thought that was you and Monotone. Falling down on the job, eh, Cyc? We can still blow the Autobots' little communication station to tiny pieces."

"That's not the point, I don't understand it, we've never been wrong about things like this…" Cyclonus let out a grunt of frustrated anger, and pounded his fist against his palm. "I don't like it, Scourge. Any of this. Fan out, be prepared for ambush. It's taken the accursed Autobots long enough to learn subterfuge."

The Sweeps spread out, all their sensors on high alert, watching for any sign of Autobots in hiding. Cyclonus took out the repulsor field around the transmitter with a single burst of his lasers, and relieved his feelings somewhat by smashing the transmitter to shards with his fist. The shock rang along all his recently-repaired wounds, aching sharply.

It seemed as though the universe had finally and irrevocably turned against them, he thought, shaking some life back into his hand and wondering what the sweet molten slag he was going to say to Galvatron when they got back. Bad enough that they'd failed to capture the power station, but that they'd been fooled by some kind of, of Autobot trickery? He knew perfectly well how that would fly with his leader.

Cyclonus stared at the wreck of the comm station dourly and wondered, as he had often wondered recently, if it were worth going back at all.

"Hey!" one of the Swoops called. He looked up—now what, minefields?—but the Swoop was hovering by a twisted bit of Quintessan junk and looking interestedly at something on the other side of it. He exchanged looks with Scourge, and left the ruined transmitter to go and have a look.

The Swoop had found a very battered personal comm/data storage unit of the sort generally carried by travelling merchants. It was giving out a feeble, irregular location signal, as these things did when not activated for a certain length of time: a built-in safety feature.

"Probably some relic of the Quintessons," Cyclonus opined, shrugging. "Worthless. Let's not waste any more time here."

"Hang on, let's hear what it says." Scourge grabbed the unit from his underling and thumbed the replay button. For a moment there was nothing, just static.

"…from Torqulon, but they're not interested in a fair price…make a note: must hire mercenaries. This could change everything. No lack of customers—something like this that actually does what it says on the package…"

The recording faded away, as the low-battery light on the little device blinked slower and slower and went out.

"Eh, you were right, Cyc, " said Scourge. "Junk. I'll toss it."

"Wait," said Cyclonus, and put out his hand. "Not yet. I want to hear the rest of that message." The word Torqulon had snared his attention like a hook. Much as he wanted never to have heard of the blasted planet, the few garbled words he'd heard had made him wonder if the rest of it was worth the hearing.

Scourge gave him a you're going as nutty as Galvatron look, but handed over the unit. Cyclonus tucked it away, hoping he'd have time to secure it in his quarters before Galvatron spread him all over the landscape.

"There's nothing else here. Decepticons, back to Charr. I will take full responsibility for the lack of success on this mission."

As he always did.

For once, though, luck was on Cyclonus's side. When they touched down on Charr and returned to the command center Soundwave was alone before the big screens; and when Scourge and his Swoops had gone, he told Cyclonus that Galvatron was in with Hook, getting some of his subroutines finetuned. Cyclonus was bright enough to catch that this meant the side-effects of his plasma seizures were getting bad enough even for Galvatron to mind them, and thought again of the night he'd passed his quarters in the dark and heard the industrial grinding noises of his leader's body violently offloading energon.

He nodded, and hurried for his own quarters, leaving a message to be summoned at once when Galvatron was back, and had hooked the little data-storage recorder up to a power feed. It wasn't long before the unit's batteries were back online, and he could cue it up to play the message from the beginning.

Ten minutes later he left his quarters again, the unit's message safely stored in his own central core memory, and went in search of the resident Autobot expert. He vaguely remembered that the mech's name was Counterpunch.