This story is the counterpart and parallel of "Lines"; Skyfire's side of things instead. Read "Lines" first.
"So why do you keep a copy of that picture, Skyfire?" he asked me. Starscream lazed on the shore of a viridian stream, looking dreamily at the sky; I was busy repairing his rather mangled left wing.
I thought about that for a moment, but not very long. I knew the reason very well. "Because it was the last, best message I had from you for--" my voice faltered, "--until now."
"For the rest of my life, you meant?" Starscream waved one hand in a dismissive gesture. "Don't get sappy on me, Sky." He smirked. "You certainly weren't then!"
"You'd be surprised," I said.
"So surprise me. I never did hear your side of that whole mess, and it looks like I'm not going anywhere for a while." He winced as I forced the outer strut back into alignment.
"Sorry. Next time, don't auger in if you don't want to suffer through my sloppy repair technique." I smiled very slightly; in spite of everything else he'd been and done, a few things about Starscream had never changed.
"Not my fault those green clouds were full of aerial algae that choked my engines!" Starscream said, a bit sulkily.
I sighed. "I'm starting to remember why I got so good at patching you up, all those years ago. Do you always have to find out about the local hazards by flying into them? Would it hurt to exercise a tiny smidgen of caution?"
"Where's the fun in that?"
Instead of replying, I sighed and dredged up the old memories...
The chronometer ticked over, again and again, one minute after another, one hour after another. Still I sat in my quarters, staring at the lighted screen of my terminal. The unfinished after-action report remained there, accusing me of laziness and indecision. I knew I was innocent of the one, but very guilty of the other.
The account of my actions on Cybertron were easy enough to write; just a straightforward recounting of events. The hard part, the oh-so-very-hard part was the conclusion and recommendations.
Starscream had nearly destroyed the Earth. He had been stopped within seconds of destruction because Shockwave, a Decepticon, had warned his leader, Megatron--and Prime. Together, the two leaders had stopped Dr. Arkeville's exponential generator from going up like a bomb.
I felt cold in all my circuits; if not for the help of the Megatron himself, every living thing on Earth would have died. It had been that close. Starscream, my old friend Starscream, had callously condemned all the innocent people and creatures for what? A whim? His own mad craving for power?
Megatron had apparently taken care of Starscream. I felt a brief twinge of regret at the downward course my once-friend had spun into after my entrapment in the ice. Why did he have to follow that bastard Megatron? I know so little of what happened to him after I was lost... if I had been there, could I have made a difference? Could I have provided some balance to whatever else happened?
"Recommendation: Confiscate the contents of Dr. Arkeville's laboratory and either destroy it, or turn it over to Wheeljack for evaluation."
That one was easy. From what I could re-construct of Dr. Arkeville's notes, the so-called 'exponential generator' had been very similar to a certain type of planetbuster bomb. Dr. Arkeville's lab was full of similarly dangerous toys from the future, and the good doctor had disappeared. Prudence dictated that such temptation be removed from the path of the wicked.
"Recommendation #2: ..." Here I hesitated; I couldn't even reason this one out coherently, let alone argue it in a way that Prime would accept. How do I say that, even for a Decepticon, there is such a thing as going too far? How do I say that mercy is wrong if it means letting innocents die by the billion? How do I say that the only way to stop a remorseless, amoral killer from killing again and again in the name of his own twisted ambition is to kill him without hesitation, without second chances, without mercy?
I erased the start of the second recommendation. I couldn't find a way to argue it that Prime would accept, and Starscream's likely end at Megatron's hands made it moot.
A month later, I again stared at the terminal screen--this time in horror and disbelief. Spycams showed three Seekers flying in formation--black and purple, red and blue, black and sky-blue. Starscream still lived, and was back in business.
He would do it again, I knew. They weren't people to him, just obstacles or tools in his rise to power. When had my friend lost his soul? If only I had been there to provide Starscream help, or just friendly advice or something--everything might have been different. If only I hadn't been so stubborn about pushing on into that storm. Odd, that--Starscream was usually the rash one of us.
Even the older Autobots couldn't tell me much of Starscream's history before Megatron's rise to power. He'd been too obscure nine million years ago for anyone to remember anything about his return to Cybertron after losing me. Later, he'd somehow wound up as co-ruler of Vos--some said, figurehead ruler. The mutual destruction of Vos and Tarn had signaled his rise in the Decepticons. I couldn't help but wonder just what effect those years in the highest level politics of Vos had had on him.
So be it. The responsibility belonged to me, just as the original failure belonged to me. There was only one way to prevent Starscream from ever harming the innocents of Earth again.
"I surrender, Autobot!"
At the end of the battle, I steeled myself, trying desperately to hold to my determination to do what I must. It had to be done--there was no other way. But... my former friend at least deserved to know why he was going to die.
"That's not an option, Starscream. You've tried to kill every living thing on this planet at least twice. You have no remorse, and no intention of stopping while you live," I told him. "I can't forgive that, I can't look the other way anymore. For the sake of the innocent people of Earth, I can have no mercy on you."
Starscream stared back at me, an expression of utter bewilderment and shock on his face. I almost lost my resolve right then and there. No! I had to do this--now, quick and clean!
"No, Skyfire! I'm defenseless--"
I fired my particle rifle, aimed right where I knew Starscream's laser core to be. The powerful weapon pierced him through from front to back; Starscream toppled onto his back with a dreadful silence and did not move.
I very nearly dropped my rifle, but caught it at the last instant and racked it in its slot. One thought kept echoing through my mind: I'd just killed my oldest friend.
I forced myself forward, though it seemed like I weighed a thousand tons. I had to finish this. Only the formality of it let me stay the course and finish my task; I would end it with the same formality that I began this execution. I bent over Starscream's body and felt along his neck joint for the weak point--
"I'm sorry, Starscream," I said. "Not that you'd understand, because the Starscream I'm apologizing to died a long time ago."
I found the weak point, grabbed firm hold with both hands, and twisted. Cables, joints and struts sheared as Starscream's head came away from his body.
I stood, still holding my friend's head. I nearly dropped back to my knees as I looked at his dead face. "It's done. I hope that whatever is left of you, wherever you are, understands. I couldn't let you keep on this way; four billion innocent lives is too high a price for patience and tolerance. I don't ask for or expect forgiveness, just... understanding. We were friends and more than friends once--I understood you then. I haven't since you woke me from the ice--and I doubt you understood me anymore, either."
"Nice speech. Wish I'd been online to hear it, but I figured out your message anyway."
"I thought you were dead at the time."
"Hate to break the news to you, Sky, but just because you're dead doesn't mean you hear everything people have to say to you, either. In my case, that's probably a good thing. People had a lot of rude things to say to and about me." His tone was light and mocking; it usually is, the rare times he touches on his own death.
"And how would you know that?" I couldn't resist asking.
He smirked. "Just because I was dead doesn't mean I didn't hear anything people had to say to me."
The thunder of distant jets stirred me from my gloomy reverie. As I unlimbered my particle rifle, I felt the pain of my wounds for the first time. I'd been so intent on my self-imposed mission that I hadn't really felt the damage from the swarm of cluster bombs. Alarms blinked redly at me, several deep in my diagnostics queue. I was in no shape for another fight, but it didn't look like I would have a choice.
The sound of jets became the sight of two brightly-colored jets circling warily; I stood and watched them, my rifle at the ready. They did not fire. All at once, as if a decision had been reached, they transformed and landed, one beside the other. Skywarp and Thundercracker looked at me. Thundercracker held his hands back against his nose cone, palms out, his arm-guns not pointed at me. Skywarp simply folded his arms, leaving his arm-guns pointed at the ground.
Thundercracker glanced at Starscream's headless body and then at me. "We'd like him back, if you don't mind."
"Megatron is not going to be happy about this," said Skywarp. "Or with any of us," he added, rotating his hand in a gesture that took in both them and me and what remained of my former friend.
"Forgive me if I fail to be grieved over Megatron's reaction," I said, my voice hollow and flat even to my ears. "Take him. He was a true Decepticon to the end; let him rest on Cybertron where he belongs."
Thundercracker stooped and picked up Starscream's body, and looked expectantly at me. The soul-weariness numbed my mind; I had no idea what he wanted.
"Go! I have been forbearing enough with you!" A shadow of anger echoed in my voice; I could barely stand the sight of these Decepticons.
"We'd like the rest of him, too," Skywarp said, pointing at Starscream's head, still held in my left hand.
I twitched involuntarily in my anger, my fingers bending torn and broken struts a little more. My anger must have showed in my face; Skywarp stepped back quickly.
Thundercracker did not budge. "Megatron collects trophy heads; didn't know you did, too."
I shuddered, the comparison to Megatron was like a sword shoved through my lasercore. I held out my grisly prize. "Take it, and go! Leave before I kill you both!"
Skywarp jumped forward and snatched the head from my hand, then vanished, teleporting out of reach. Thundercracker ignited his boot jets and lifted into the sky, carrying Starscream's cannon- and beam-riddled body. I watched them leave, not moving.