The purple jet-form of Stalker arced gracefully through the Cybertronian sky. She enjoyed flying and still considered it a new experience even after months of existence. Her original form had been one that could become a land-vehicle, but when Shockwave and the Decepticons took her mind out of stasis, they decided to redesign her for flight – she was a triple-changer now. Yet another reason to be loyal to the Decepticon cause.
She had a purpose now. She hadn't before. She was built during Decepticon rule, but hadn't been a part of the war effort, merely a tunnel-crawler. It didn't matter now. She was Stalker, warrior in the Decepticon army, brought back to the land of the conscious for one function: To track the female Autobots on Cybertron. Most Decepticons were creatures of the sky, and thus mildly claustrophobic. Stalker was used to the depths of the planet.
Stalker smiled. She liked being part of a cause.
* * *
It was ten minutes before Starscream had the presence of mind to take a tally of his damages. He activated his optical sensors – tried to. Only one worked, and he found himself looking at a bank of lights. So, he was flat on his back. He could feel his arms, his legs, his wings… good. No dismemberment. His entire chassis tingled, warning of massive damage. Right wing and left arm felt damp; probably hydraulic fluid from where the joints ruptured.
Starscream paused, gathered his strength, and managed to sit up. Now he could see the extent of the destruction. Severe mangling, here a plate was torn, here a few wires hung loose, a scorch mark… only one. He had expected more fusion burns. Instead, it seemed that the first shot was merely to catch him off-guard so that Megatron could tear him apart with his bare hands.
It wasn't fair. He hadn't questioned Megatron's authority for days, had barely even seen his commander in the last twenty-four hours. Of course, the Decepticons hadn't actually done anything for the last few weeks, so Starscream didn't have a chance to cause trouble. He hadn't even complained about idleness. Megatron had told the Seeker to meet him on one of the lower levels of the base, and Starscream walked right into it.
I thought he had a new mission for me, or a new plan, thought Starscream bitterly. Oh, yes, he had a plan, all right, and I walked right into his trap. Before the Seeker could ask, "What now?", even before the door had fully closed behind him, Starscream found himself under attack.
There was no time to counter, not even time to accept what was happening. Megatron and Starscream had a longstanding feud, but it had never fallen to this. Certainly blows were exchanged on occasion, but not like this. Even Starscream, who spent much of his time plotting to overthrow his commander, would never have considered such an ambush.
Five minutes after it began, Megatron left his second-in-command in a broken pile on the floor. Starscream knew Megatron probably thought about beating the slag out of him, but he didn't think he'd actually do it. Not on a trick. Not unprovoked. It wasn't Megatron's style.
It isn't fair.
Extreme effort got Starscream's legs under his body, and he managed to stand. Walking was difficult; he had to use the wall for balance and could only use his right arm for that task. I have to get to the workshop, to the Constructicons. He repeated the thought with each step. At the door, he stopped. Megatron might still be around somewhere, and he was in no condition to face him again.
But, his mind added helpfully, Megatron might come back and decide to finish the job. Starscream kept walking.
Once at the workshop, Starscream was reminded how much he hated the Constructicons. One sneered at his condition: "What happened? Fall down the stairs?"
Starscream ignored it, instead concentrated on pulling himself painfully to the table. Of course, being a machine, he wasn't actually in pain, but the extent of his damages made movement difficult. He managed to sit down without falling over. It was bad enough that he now had to trust himself to the tender mercies of the Constructicons; they didn't have to rub his nose in it.
"Oh, I know," said Longhaul. "He walked into a door."
The general sniggering was abruptly cut off as a blue hand caught the offender around the throat. Even damaged, Starscream was still the fastest of the Decepticons. And while strangulation wouldn't cut off the Constructicon's air supply ( robots don't breathe ), crushing his neck would still cause him much… inconvenience.
The Seeker managed to turn his head to fix his remaining eye on his captive. "My weapons systems… are still… operational." Longhaul had an excellent view straight down Starscream's right turret, mounted on his upper arm. His weapon of choice was the null-ray, which, under ordinary circumstances, would disrupt power flow in electronic devices for a few minutes. Right now, it was four inches from the Constructicon's hard drive.
The flash of panic in the Constructicon's eyes indicated he didn't want to find out the results. Pecking order firmly restored, Starscream let the offender go, and lay back on the work table.
* * *
The sound was one of those things that you didn't notice for the first few minutes, and once you did notice it, couldn't ignore. It wasn't even a sound per se, as it couldn't be heard. It was a vibration, a mildly pleasant feeling that seemed to enter through the feet and tingle through the entire chassis. Given time, other sub- and supersonics would be added to change the feeling. The vibration was music, but not a type to be appreciated by human senses.
It was inescapable that Soundwave's hobby would be sound.
Currently, it wasn't being appreciated by robotic senses. "Turn it off. I can't think with that noise rattling through me."
Quite used to Megatron's not-exactly-polite manner, Soundwave shut off his machine without comment or insult and waited.
"What is it you're working on, anyway?"
Soundwave told him, without bothering to explain the more obscure terminology. Megatron had no scientific training, but was still quick to pick up concepts and had no patience for dumbed-down explanations. Soundwave appreciated this; the only others who could follow scientific terminology were the Constructicons, who wouldn't talk to him, and Starscream, who wasn't interested except to point out flaws.
Of course, Megatron wasn't much for appreciating the aesthetic side of things. "Interesting. Tactical applications?"
"Against humans." Subsonics between fourteen and twenty cycles, for instance, produced a terror response.
"Perhaps a frequency that could shatter metal like glass?"
"Crystal," Soundwave corrected. "It depends on the uniformity of the molecular structure."
"Hmm. Not possible, then?"
* * *
"Hey, Air Commander, wakey-time."
If Bonecrusher was addressing him by title, it meant they were still afraid that he'd blast them. Good. Not that he was 'asleep'. He merely let his mind wander, rather than the simulated unconsciousness that others effected while undergoing repairs. Not that repairs hurt, but it was somewhat unnerving to feel the dents being hammered out. Starscream didn't like unconsciousness. Now he allowed awareness to flow out into his chassis again, bringing back light and feeling and sound.
Starscream swung his feet over the edge of the table and sat up to glare at the closest Constructicon. While a true headache was a physical impossibility, Starscream found himself with the technological equivalent of one. "What is that noise?"
The Constructicons registered confusion. Scavenger asked, "What noise?"
"That high-pitched whistle." It was a quiet sound, but grating. "Unless your work on my audio receptors was shoddy and I'm getting feedback?"
General head-shaking. Hook sniffed, "I checked your audio when I repaired your optic sensors. Nothing wrong with you."
"Except for the usual." Snigger, snigger, snigger.
He was meant to hear it, but Starscream ignored it. All the Constructicons were carefully standing out of range; unable to claim a hostage, he'd have to take them all on. Which, given the fact that he just got repaired, would be a particularly stupid idea. Instead, he just left.
Starscream was partway down the hall away from the workshop before he stopped. Where am I going? became Where is there to go? Even though they didn't need to sleep, the Decepticons tended to have their own quarters, as personal space in an off-limits zone to the others. Which would be the first place Megatron would look if he decided to finish him off.
He sighed. Not even safe in my own base any more. Which answered his second question. Starscream went to the hangar.
* * *
Energy was always a problem. Not only did the Decepticons have to fuel themselves, but they had to send energon shipments to Cybertron as well. Fortunately, many things could be converted into energon, if one had the right equipment. Which the Decepticons did.
Megatron didn't spend the whole time talking to Soundwave about his hobbies. His lieutenant had offered a suggestion about an easily obtainable source of energy, one they didn't have to steal from humans or fight the Autobots for: Solar power. The space-bridge was in a desert; just find a nice, open, empty spot… It was almost embarrassingly easy. He would send a scout to find the ideal place to set up the collectors, then just sit back and watch the energy accumulate. Of course, they would have to cause trouble once in a while, just to keep the Autobots from getting suspicious…
Skywarp bumped into Megatron as the latter was heading towards the control room. Instead of apologizing, however, the Seeker gave him a dirty look and continued down the hall. Megatron scowled at him but kept walking. Such insolence deserved a good whack, but the Decepticon commander let it go. This time. He knew Skywarp was becoming bored with idleness, which explained his rather dangerous action. Still, such things shouldn't be tolerated. He would talk to Starscream about keeping his forces in line…
That twinged something in his memory circuits, something important about Starscream… Megatron shook the thought aside. Whatever it was would come, and for now he had other concerns. He hit the intercom: "Starscream, report to the control room. I have a scouting mission for you."
Two minutes later: "Starscream, report."
Two minutes later: "Where is that useless pile of scrap Starscream!?"
This time there was an answer, but it was from Scrapper: "Took off after we repaired him."
"'Repaired him'? What was that fool doing that got him injured?"
"Come on down and ask, as if you don't know," sneered the Constructicon. Megatron switched off the intercom and stormed down to the workshop.
Five minutes later, anger was overshadowed by confusion. "… mostly impact or crushing damage, but one severe fusion burn to the upper chassis. Since Starscream was in the base at the time and nobody else uses a fusion cannon…" Hook trailed off accusingly. The Constructicons weren't fond of Starscream, but they weren't sympathetic to unprovoked ambushes of one's own team-mates. "Not a scratch on you, though. You must have been very fast."
Megatron's eyes narrowed. "You're saying I gave Starscream a phoney order, waited for him in a storage room, and nearly tore him apart?"
The Constructicons each took a quick step back at the tone. "All evidence points to it," said Scrapper eventually.
All in all, a most disturbing situation. Megatron had been in an increasingly foul temper for the last several days, and all at once, some hours ago, it lifted. Which coincided with when Starscream was mangled, and Megatron found his normally clear memory hazy. Did he just snap, nearly destroy his Air Commander, and block the memory? It wasn't a nice thought; it implied a lack of control. And if he did beat up Starscream, he would have preferred to remember it.
Megatron left the workshop in a bad mood. The scouting assignment could be delegated to another flyer, but Starscream still had to be found if only to clear up the identity of his attacker. And if it was Megatron, then Megatron was losing his mind, becoming unfit for command.
* * *
She was in the sky, but her senses searched the ground and she caught a glimpse of red and silver among the uniform blue-gray of the city. Stalker shifted as she came down, so that a robot landed rather than a jet. She expected to find one of the female Autobots, and was surprised when she was wrong. "Starscream!"
The Seeker was sitting on the top floor of a burned-out husk of a building, elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He looked up just long enough to identify the intrusion, then looked down again. "Go away."
"Air Commander, why are you here? I was not told…"
"I'm telling you! Go away! We… I don't need you!"
Stalker and Starscream hadn't got along at the best of times, but the amount of venom was surprising. "'We'?"
Starscream stood and turned his back on the tracker. "The Decepticon army will fall apart without me! The other Seekers haven't my skill or experience. Megatron will have to ask me back… and I won't go! I don't have to. It isn't feedback."
That's it; he's snapped. Stalker had always considered Starscream a bit loopy, and now he was proving it. She took a few steps back to the broken window. "All right, Air Commander. I'll leave you alone."
The tracker was partway out the window when Starscream seemed to come to a decision. "Wait!"
Stalker had no intention of waiting. A few laserfire near-misses galvanized her resolve that she had made the right choice. She was in over her head; she would ask Shockwave what the Seeker was doing on Cybertron.
Minutes later, Stalker reached the control tower. Fortunately, there was no pursuit. She knew she wasn't a match for the Seeker. "Shockwave! For what reason is Starscream here?" she demanded, barrelling into the control room.
If the monitor was jointed to shrug, he would have. "He said he had business. I figured it was none of mine."
"Well, he's moping around in an abandoned building, talking crazy. And he took a couple shots at me," Stalker reported. "I want to know just how official his business is."
Shockwave was considering his answer when the radio activated and Megatron's voice growled through: "Shockwave! Our instruments report there was an unauthorised activation of the space-bridge some hours ago. Is Starscream up there?"
"Told you so," murmured Stalker, sotto voce.
"Yes," said Shockwave, not to the tracker.
"Prepare the bridge," Megatron told him. "I'll send a team up to bring him back."
* * *
It took the better part of an hour to drag Starscream back to Earth. He was easy enough to find; he hadn't moved from where Stalker had left him. However, the second he saw pursuit, he took off, and even insane he could fly rings around the other Decepticons. Skywarp finally managed to teleport next to Starscream, grab him, and shoot out one of his thrusters.
Once grounded, the Seeker continued kicking and screaming, though his ranting was focused on himself: "Starscream! Starscream! I am Starscream!" His struggles, while violent, didn't seem to be aimed at the Decepticons who held his arms and dragged him bodily back to the space-bridge.
On Earth, in their headquarters, Starscream seemed to give up his fight. Astrotrain and Thundercracker let him go and stood back with Skywarp and Soundwave. Starscream swayed a bit, but didn't fall. Megatron stepped in front of him. "I'm going to ask you what happened, but only because I'm curious. Now then," he paused, not pleased with the first question he had to ask. "Has this to do with the damages you sustained earlier today?" Megatron decided not to put his name in yet, though the others had likely already heard the story.
Starscream gave him a strange look – as in, the look itself was strange. It was hard to tell with Transformer optics, but Megatron felt that whatever Starscream was seeing, no one else could. "It wasn't your fault. I understand now. It makes you feel… more. It caught you when you were angry, so you couldn't see it."
"See what?" demanded Megatron, resisting the urge to shake some sense into the Seeker. "What is 'it'?"
"It… it sang to me, Megatron." Starscream's voice had taken on the odd crooning quality of what Megatron had come to think of as the Seeker's 'bargaining voice'. Usually it sounded weak and pathetic, but not now. The wistful whisper was almost frightening with its intensity. "It sang to me, told me that I could help it… Isn't that all I've ever wanted?.."
The Decepticon commander could feel the others staring at him, and knew that the only non-judgemental look came from Soundwave. Soundwave knew, of course. Long ago, Megatron and Starscream had been friends. There had been a falling-out, and Starscream began his bizarre quest to 'get even' with him, striking at what he knew Megatron defined himself by – leadership of the Decepticons. There was still a respect ( however grudging ) and a reluctance to let go of history, so the feud rarely progressed beyond traded insults, even when opportunities to finish the other presented themselves.
The crowd was getting on his nerves. Pointing a finger at the door, Megatron ordered, "Out." Soundwave could handle them. And if he couldn't, let them wonder. It wasn't their business. The others left.
Whatever was singing to Starscream seemed to make him forget to be bitter and conniving; perhaps there was no room for it behind the disquietingly far-away look. For whatever reason, Starscream saw an old friend rather than his hated competition. Or maybe he saw nothing. "But the song wasn't right. It didn't want me. It was using me to get at another…"
"I-I don't remember." The Seeker's eyes widened with terror. "Help me, I don't remember! It hates me now; I fought back. I fought back, but the song is winning! It hates me now, it wants to leave… Megatron, Megatron, help me! I DON'T WANT TO BE ALONE AGAIN!" The light behind his optics faded, and Starscream collapsed at his commander's feet.
Megatron knelt down. Starscream still functioned, but his energy-levels barely registered. He picked up his fallen warrior, stepped outside, and ignored the curious looks from the others. "Don't just stand there, you fools! Send for Stalker. Now."
* * *
Tension was high in the Decepticon base. Specifically, in the workshop, where Megatron, Soundwave, Starscream, and two Constructicons were gathered. And Stalker. Starscream lay stretched out on the worktable, life-support levels at a dangerous ebb. His life-force was fading, and would fail without an energy infusion. Other than that, only one leg was damaged, and Stalker couldn't understand why she was needed. She was trained in tracking, not repair-work. Did they expect she could talk him back to consciousness?
A Constructicon – Hook – explained: "This isn't a case of needing a simple recharge, Stalker. Life-force is a tricky business. You are the only one with a compatible energy pattern."
Stalker looked down at the fallen Air Commander with dislike. Stationed on Cybertron, Stalker hadn't met many of the Decepticon army personally. One, however, was Starscream, and the two had quickly developed an aversion to one another. The idea of giving him any sort of transfusion was disgusting. With that in mind, forgetting who else was in the room, Stalker said, "Can't we just replace him?"
Megatron had already considered that, many times, in many situations. Starscream was a dangerous asset; the Seeker wanted to overthrow him, and made no secret of it. But, in a way, Megatron enjoyed the competition. It kept him on his toes and gave him someone to yell at when things went wrong. Experience was at a premium and Starscream was very good at his job. He wouldn't be so dangerous if he wasn't. And he still had an old voice in his mind: It sang to me… told me I could help it… using me to get at another… help me… Not that he had to admit any of his thoughts or give reasons to his subordinates. "Stalker, do it."
You didn't argue with that tone of voice. Without further fuss, Stalker opened one of her chest-plates and extracted the necessary cable. A Constructicon ( she wasn't sure of his name ) did the same for Starscream, and established the link.
It was a strange sensation, feeling your life-force flow out. One of the others might compare it to giving blood, but the idea was unknown to Stalker, unused to flesh-creatures. After she had adjusted to the feeling of flow, she looked around. The Constructicons had left but Megatron and Soundwave remained. Soundwave watched without interest, Megatron with feigned indifference.
Stalker wished she had the nerve to ask the others to go away: On one hand, she resented the intrusion. She didn't like Starscream, but this life-force transference felt… well… too intimate for her to be comfortable with an observer in the room. On the other hand, she was glad of the company. Stalker didn't want to be the only one around when Starscream woke up. On the other-other hand, there was a resentment of Starscream's intrusion, though intrusion on what, Stalker wasn't entirely sure.
There was confusion in her mind, and she didn't like it. Usually her thoughts were clear, proper, but Earth seemed to be clouding her up. Perhaps something in the air that her filters couldn't quite deal with. But it sometimes happened on Cybertron, concepts flowing together in ways she knew they shouldn't, the only cure to focus on her duty. She tried that now: I am Stalker, in name and in function. I serve the Decepticon army. My orders are to transfuse energy into the Air Commander until he regains consciousness.
It didn't help. In fact, the confusion grew worse. Stalker looked up at the others. Megatron had always scared her, so she focused on Soundwave. He never seemed muddled. The lieutenant had stopped watching her, either out of boredom or courtesy, and was getting some work done on a nearby console. That helped, slightly. Stable, dependable Soundwave. Nothing fazed him, and Stalker was envious of that ability.
She wasn't sure how long it was before her attention was caught by the Would-Someone-Get-The-Number-Of-The-Truck-That-Hit-Me groan from the table. The light panels of Starscream's optical sensors pulsed weakly as he tried to focus. Focus found, he groaned again. "I can think… of many faces… I'd rather wake up to."
"Poor baby," crooned Stalker, not meaning it. She looked across him and asked, "Is that enough then, Megatron? He seems to be…"
The sentence was never finished. At the sound of the name, Starscream shrieked and tried to roll to a defensive crouch. Which might have worked if he wasn't weakened, on a table, and still connected to Stalker by the transfer cables. The final effect was that the two Seekers ended up in a tangled pile on the floor. The tracker found her voice first: "Get off me, you big oaf!"
Starscream didn't even resister her existence. Instead, he cringed back, holding up his hands as if to ward off a blow. "But… but I didn't do anything, Megatron! Haven't I always been loyal to the Decepticon cause?"
That was the Starscream that Megatron was used to. "I'm not going to attack you, you idiot! That was fourteen hours ago!"
"Re… repairs took fourteen hours?.."
"Are we supposed to sneak out now and let them yell at each other?" While Megatron and Starscream argued, Stalker ( with Soundwave's help ) managed to get extracted from the Air Commander.
Soundwave mulled the question over with his usual thoroughness before answering. "You go."
* * *
After about twenty minutes, Starscream stormed out of the room. Megatron and Soundwave exited more sedately a few minutes later. Megatron, not in a good mood, snarled: "Are you still here?"
There were people who could talk to Megatron without feeling nervous. Stalker was not one of these. It didn't help that she was getting a mild feedback effect, probably due to power loss. "Commander, I have an idea of how to find Elita-1's base, but I need approval first."
"Get it from Shockwave; you report to him," Megatron growled.
"Shockwave and his sentinels have their part, but I need your warriors," said Stalker, trying not to cringe at his tone. "I have considered capturing one of the Autobots and slipping a tracer into her system. It is too obvious and the Autobots are too paranoid to allow such a trick to work. Energon is too unstable to attach a tracer to…"
Her commander looked impatient. "You're babbling."
Stalker took an unneeded breath. "My plan is this…"
* * *
Shockwave was at his usual post when Stalker returned on the space-bridge. He didn't look over; he knew who it was. "Megatron sent the outline of your little scheme. It might work. How was the assignment?"
The tracker was sure Shockwave didn't actually care; certainly she didn't whenever she asked about his day. But, as the only intelligent beings in the area ( there were other sentient robots around, but they were all dumb ), Shockwave and Stalker put an effort into being polite to one another. "Strange. I'd never heard of a life-force transfusion before, let alone participated in one. I'm curious: Skywarp and Thundercracker are closer in design to Starscream than I am. Why was I required?"
The monitor finished a minor task before addressing her question. "There are differences enough between the Seekers to make them incompatible. Until you, we hadn't any females in our army for a long time." Shockwave considered mentioning Nightbird, but decided she didn't count. For one, she was built by humans, wasn't a true Transformer. For another, she hadn't been around for long and he didn't know enough of her to comment. He continued his story: "We had no way to program a female mind from scratch, but we found your mind downloaded into an archive in one of the dead cities. We reactivated you in a new body. Because your new body was designed for speed and flight, we used Starscream as your prototype."
"What? That's… that's…"
"That's what happened," finished Shockwave. He should know; he put her together to Megatron's design. Starscream already knew of the connection; he disliked Stalker mostly because her existence meant he was no longer unique. "Refuel and go. You have patrol."
Stalker, however, had a different view entirely. The confusion had settled over her mind again. As her body folded into jet-form and streaked into the sky she thought: How distasteful to know that Starscream is my own flesh. That made the Air Commander her – what? Father? Brother? Yuck. Neither of those ideas were appealing.
The trap was easily set. Shockwave provided her the specs of the last Autobot raid on the energon stockpile: It had been some time, and they hadn't taken much. Which meant Elita-1 and her crew were probably running low. Stalker smiled. Perfect. Of course, she wouldn't risk actual energon in this endeavour; the Constructicons had kindly provided a device to give a false energon signature.
Over the next couple of days, Shockwave sent out orders to the assorted menial robots about moving part of the energon stockpile to another warehouse. If Stalker read her prey right, the Autobots would be monitoring the transmissions and would find the transfer convoy too tempting a target to resist. Of course, Stalker would have to put up a fight for the show of it…
Stalker already had the area for the trap mapped out. She had been planning this ever since she had awakened in the Decepticon army.
* * *
"Cover me, girls."
"Aw, come on, Firestar, it's just the menials."
"Exactly. It's too soon after our discovery; they can't have forgotten us yet. There'll be sentinels or worse guarding this shipment. If it is just menials, I can take them. If not, I want you five as back-up."
"Let's roll, girls."
From the shadows of the ruined building, Stalker smiled. Six of them. Good. Should be a sizeable firefight. She set the listening equipment she borrowed from the control tower away and chose her target. The battle-plan of the female Autobots was sensible, except for one thing: Stalker didn't have any interest in trying to protect the 'energon shipment'.
Firestar easily tore through the menial robots. It wasn't until only the carrier was left that it occurred to her that it was too easy. Maybe her companions had dealt with the sentinels, but the whole thing was just a bit too convenient. So she wasn't caught completely by surprise when she found the carrier empty but for a small machine broadcasting an energon signature. "It's a trap!"
The Autobot was knocked off her feet by a shadow that dove from the sky like a hawk. "What did you expect?" asked Stalker. "Sentinels, attack!"
Seconds later, Stalker was airborne, but not by choice. She crashed into a wall and rolled to her feet. Firestar was already on hers. "You must be Shockwave's tracker," said the Autobot. "I've heard of you."
"I'm flattered." The tracker let loose a barrage of energy, but missed Firestar, hitting a semi-demolished building behind her. If she had been paying closer attention, she would have realised that the Decepticon missed on purpose.
The near-mindless sentinels were faring poorly. Usually they were controlled by Shockwave in difficult situations, but Stalker asked him to stay out of it. She didn't want to win. She did, however, intend to put up a most spectacular fight.
The building behind Firestar exploded, sending shrapnel everywhere. Stalker knew what to expect and had taken cover. Firestar was knocked flying, one arm nearly torn off by flung debris. Unfortunately for Stalker, it wasn't the arm holding the gun. Lights obscured her vision, and the tracker slipped into machine unconsciousness.
* * *
Starscream's memory didn't return. As far as his perceptions went, Megatron thrashed him, and the next thing he knew Stalker was playing life-force donor to him. As such, the Air Commander was alternating between twitchy and downright surly if Megatron was anywhere around. His attitude was infecting the other Seekers – they weren't really friends with Starscream, but the jets tended to stick together. If that wasn't nuisance enough, the rest of the air force was starting to be influenced. A bit of action might clear the air, and that was soon to come, but Megatron wanted to check something first.
For the first time in years – possibly ever – he was having doubts about himself.
It would be easy if it was just Starscream's word against his, except that Starscream wouldn't tear himself apart and fake temporary insanity and amnesia just to make Megatron question himself. If the entire conspiracy idea wasn't silly enough, there was also Megatron's own bit of missing time to account for. Megatron couldn't read his own mind, so he went to someone who could.
Soundwave said, "No."
The first thought was that Soundwave was being affected by the overall distrust in the air. Which was impossible; it was Soundwave, the only Decepticon who would never break his word once given. It was given rarely, and Megatron had it. So he asked, "Why not."
There was a slight, uncomfortable pause. "I no longer have that ability." Soundwave's radar was so sharp that if he concentrated he could detect the slight electrical impulses generated by thought. Machine telepathy. It wasn't easy. Now it appeared non-existent.
"Are all my Decepticons either broken or insane!?.. No, don't answer that," Megatron added, holding up a hand. "When did you realise this?"
Another, more uncomfortable pause. "Two-point-three-three months."
The number seemed familiar. Perhaps it would attach to something later, but right now it just sat there. There wasn't anything more to say on the subject, so Megatron changed it. "Stalker has been captured, according to her plan. We can now use the tracer implanted in her own body to find the base of Elita-1." He scowled and sat down heavily in a chair, steepling his fingers under his nose. "Maybe the malcontents in the air force will stop grumbling if we engage in some wholesale destruction."
* * *
"Laserbeak, Ravage: Eject."
"How did you talk me into this? I'm not even speaking to you."
"Shut up, Starscream." Megatron hadn't actually wanted the Seeker to be there, he just tagged along. The rest of the force were in Shockwave's control tower, awaiting further orders. So the three were out in the dead city alone.
They hadn't planned it that way. Shockwave pointed out on the map where Stalker set her Autobot trap, and a couple of interesting coincidences occurred to Megatron and Soundwave at the same time: Two-point-three-three months ago, Megatron, Soundwave, and Shockwave had found Stalker's mind in stasis… in the building which had now been destroyed in the firefight with Elita-1's forces. Curiousity caught by events, the Decepticon commander and his lieutenant decided to check the area out first. His other lieutenant decided that they were going to try to pull something behind his back, and went along to make sure they didn't.
First assumptions proved correct. The remains of a sentinel showed that it was laced with explosives, something Shockwave denied knowledge of. Stalker had deliberately destroyed the building.
Megatron tossed a heavy sheet of metal aside, trying to assess the damage to the structure. "Of all the places she could have picked," he grumbled. "There might have been more minds inside that we could have…"
"I know this place."
The voice was dangerously quiet. Megatron looked up, and saw Starscream looking down on the ruin from the next building over. The Seeker continued to himself: "I know this place. It's been so long…" Suddenly he looked over, and the eyes that turned to his commander literally blazed with hate. "I know this place. You left me here!"
There was no time for anything but to brace for impact. Starscream launched himself at Megatron, and the two went tumbling through the debris. Being more-or-less the one in control, the lieutenant managed to pin his commander. "You coward! You called the retreat, you got away, but I was captured!"
Megatron managed to get a leg under the Seeker and kick him away. "What are you babbling about?"
Starscream attacked again, but Megatron was ready and managed to ward off his blows. "The last Cybertronian war, the one before this, the one just before the Autobots took over last time!" shouted Starscream, continuing the attack. "I was captured; they brought me here for rehabilitation! Great Cybertron, do you know what it's like to have your brain downloaded into the system? – No eyes, no ears, no feeling, just your thoughts in the darkness. No way even to deactivate yourself, just empty, alone…"
"Oh, for… They put you in stasis, you idiot!" roared Megatron, swatting his subordinate away again. "You were asleep!"
"THE STASIS DIDN'T TAKE!"
Megatron froze as the horror of the thought hit, which left ample opening for Starscream to do the same, knocking his commander sprawling. The stasis didn't take… The Seeker advanced again, still talking: "How long was I in there, Megatron? A thousand years? A million? You'd think time wouldn't matter…"
A few things were starting to come together in Megatron's mind. Small wonder Starscream's first action after being returned to his body at the start of the latest war was to attack him. It explained his resentment of Soundwave as well; Starscream didn't like the idea of being replaced, given up for lost. And what could be done? There was nothing you could say to someone who had spent thousands of years in sensory-deprivation chamber without sounding pathetic. Starscream had been loyal and enthusiastic once, but he had a long time to convince himself otherwise.
The pride of the Cybertronian War Academy was dead, the neurotic Starscream remained.
Megatron punched him. He might have been able to reason with his old friend, but his Air Commander needed to be reminded of the hierarchy first.
Soundwave let the other two fight it out. As long as they were content to trade blows rather than laserfire, as long as neither was in danger of destruction, he didn't see why he needed to be involved.
So, this place was a prison, an Autobot rehabilitation centre. The captive minds, like Stalker, were probably prisoners. Did she destroy it as a symbol of her own freedom? Perhaps, but… Soundwave shuddered within his own mind. The place was… he searched for words, but found none suitable. He certainly couldn't report that the ruins felt haunted.
And yet… that was the best description. A pall hung over the fallen building, a strange aura… which was perfectly ridiculous. Even if such phenomena as ghosts existed, they wouldn't exist on a robot world. Perhaps there had been other minds like Starscream's, strange minds that stasis couldn't affect, and their agonies were filling the air with the subtle vibration of terror.
Somehow he knew that wasn't right. That would be a natural explanation, a sensible one. There was nothing natural about the nameless dread that hung over the area like a shroud… Soundwave shook the thought aside. Megatron and Starscream weren't going to get any work done, so it was up to him. He moved aside some debris so that Ravage could slip into a less-damaged area of the building. He wasn't reassured when Ravage came barrelling out a minute later, tailpipe between his legs.
Ravage was all too happy to return to the relative safety of the compartment in Soundwave's chest. He played back the tape to himself, and remembered what he had forgot.
A concussion blast separated the other two, who both glared at its source. Attention caught, Soundwave said, "Listen."
This place was a prison, explained Soundwave, but not only for Transformers. Something else had been caught in the mind-stasis machinery long ago, either by accident or because it was deliberately trapped. It had a mind, but signs pointed to it being a living weapon. It was a foul creature, and the walls still echoed its life-pattern. Soundwave gave it a name, but it was unscientific and he gave it very reluctantly: Feedback vampire.
Starscream's first thought was to laugh at the theory, but stopped. If Soundwave was coming up with a ridiculous hypothesis, it was more likely to be true than a reasonable-sounding one from someone else. Instead he said, "Explain."
It could affect minds, Soundwave ventured. His own senses brushed across it when they first found Stalker, and that contact was enough to make him block memory and subconsciously refuse to use his machine telepathy. And now the creature was running loose.
"Stalker must have freed it when she destroyed the building," growled Megatron.
"Incorrect," intoned Soundwave. "Creature was freed by you."
Soundwave had already thought his hypothesis through. Building security was still operational when they were searching it two months ago. The system probably caught Megatron, allowing the feedback vampire to download into his mind. From there, it erased the memory of the attack and used Megatron's mind to learn about the world around it. But it was still weak, so it took two months for it to siphon off enough of Megatron's power to return to full strength, said Soundwave.
But it needs a host, and Megatron was somehow unsuitable, so it transferred to Starscream…
"What?" demanded Starscream.
"It would explain why you were acting stranger than usual," said Megatron. "And your memory loss."
"And yours," added Soundwave. It was indeed Megatron who tore into Starscream, but it was to cover something else; the feedback vampire can't simply jump bodies, it has to be downloaded.
Starscream huffed. "Still no reason to attack me. How nice of that thing to give you an excuse."
"It wasn't your fault. I understand now. It makes you feel… more. It caught you when you were angry, so you couldn't see it." – That was what Starscream first said while possessed. Somehow he was aware of the feedback vampire in his body. Megatron reminded the others of that fact.
The Seeker looked sceptical and Soundwave gave him a contemplative look. "You knew. Perhaps the information is still in your mind."
"Don't even think about it, Soundwave."
"Correct. You think about it," Megatron ordered.
Starscream considered being defiant, but gave up and allowed Soundwave to scan his mind. It worked for about ten seconds, then with a scream, both Decepticons collapsed. "Soundwave! Starscream!"
"Oh, brilliant idea, Megatron."
Judging by the responses, both were fine and he didn't have to worry about them. So, to business: "Find anything."
"Ha ha," grumbled Starscream. "If only we had birthdays so that I could forget yours."
Soundwave mentally played back the conversation and corrected it. "Nothing more than already known. A sane mind cannot properly comprehend the creature."
Starscream spread his arms to the heavens: "A rare vote of confidence! Soundwave thinks me sane!"
"Shut up, Starscream," directed Megatron. "Soundwave, is the creature still with him?"
"No." Soundwave was absolutely sure of that.
Megatron answered it: "Stalker. It must have jumped to her over the energy transfusion link, then come up with its plan to destroy the prison. Without the mind-stasis equipment, it can't be bound again."
"If its tied to its host body, it should be easy enough to destroy," said Starscream casually. "And once we've used Stalker to find the female Autobots, her usefulness will run out."
* * *
Forty minutes later, the force-field dropped, but Stalker didn't have a chance to use that fact. She had barely got to her feet when Soundwave ( thrown ) knocked her off of them. The Autobot guards reactivated the force-field and left, leaving the two Decepticons to sort themselves out. Soundwave regained his feet, touched the switch on his shoulder and intoned: "Rumble: Eject."
Nothing happened. Inasmuch as the lieutenant could look annoyed, he did. Stalker walked over to him and tapped a finger on the seam where his chest was supposed to open. "You've been welded. That must have hurt." When Soundwave didn't bother to reply, Stalker kept going: "Could be worse. This just looks tacked, rather than being properly melted together. If I had a chisel, even I could deal with it." She paused and repeated, "If I had a chisel. How did you get captured?"
"Ambush." As it turned out, even Stalker underestimated Elita-1's cunning. The Autobots detected the tracking device in Stalker, removed it, and used it for bait in a trap. The last Soundwave knew, the Decepticon strike-force was outnumbered, considering retreat, and really quite angry. "Weapons?"
"Gone." She held out her arms for inspection. There were little holes with dangling wires where the guns had been bodily removed. "I've still got flashlights in my gauntlets, if you can think of a use for that."
He couldn't. Soundwave assessed the situation. No firepower ( his weapons were also taken. ) There was a jamming field in place, so getting a message out was impossible. Rumble might have been able to knock a hole in the wall, but he and the other tapes were locked inside his body. The force-field was solid, rather than in bars, so transforming into his smallish tape-deck form and being pushed out wouldn't work. That and he was stuck in a cell with the one who was currently possessed by the feedback vampire.
But he was here and so was it, so he might as well clear up a few points: "You destroyed the building to cover your tracks and make sure you could never be bound again."
Stalker looked up sharply; it was the longest sentence Soundwave had ever said to her. Then the words sank in and she hung her head. "I did. It was the only way I could think of to keep you and the others from learning I was in the Asylum." She looked up again, this time with terror in her eyes. "I hoped you would never find out, that I could stay and serve the Decepticon cause. I am loyal, I do my best…"
Many questions came to mind, and Soundwave asked the first: "'Asylum'?"
The tracker nodded miserably. "I have a… a glitch in my coding. I don't think properly. I was in the Asylum for reprogramming. Something must have happened to the administration, because I was never treated. My consciousness was downloaded, put into stasis… and then I woke up in this body with Megatron telling me my new function."
Asylum. The Autobots used it as a prison, but Stalker was around during Decepticon rule. She wasn't a convict, she was a patient. And she had no idea that the feedback vampire even existed. "Do you hear anything?"
Stalker cocked her head to one side. "The hum of the force-field. The whirring of my own machinery. A high whistle, like feedback but quiet. Strange." When Soundwave waited, she filled up the silence: "I heard it after I finished the transfusion to Starscream. I thought it was a symptom of my life-force levels being low, but I can still hear it."
That tied it. The Constructicons said that Starscream had griped of the same thing after Megatron attacked him. And, come to think of it, it explained why Megatron had been complaining about Soundwave's music experiments; they subconsciously reminded him of being possessed.
But if all it wanted was to destroy the mind-stasis equipment, why didn't it use Megatron or Starscream to achieve its goal? Why Stalker? She had her own reasons for wanting the prison/Asylum demolished, but so did Starscream. It wasn't picking its hosts at random; while possessed and on Cybertron, Starscream tried to shoot down Stalker. Later the vampire drained so much of his energy that he needed a transfusion, and only one of the Decepticons could give it.
The tracker was obviously a specific target, but Soundwave couldn't find a reason for it. For sheer power, knowledge, experience, or rank, the feedback vampire would have been better off with Megatron or Starscream. Was Cybertron the connection? Starscream had fled here while possessed. Or was it something about Stalker's mind?..
"A sane mind cannot properly comprehend the creature." Those were his own words. But did that imply that an insane mind could, perhaps wouldn't be as adversely affected by the alien presence? Stalker had been awaiting reprogramming in the Asylum, but for what illness? He couldn't attempt machine telepathy on her, not with his transmitter jammed and certainly not with the feedback vampire in her mind. There wasn't anything else he could do, so he asked.
Stalker made a slight choking noise at the question, but managed to compose herself. "It is… shameful," she managed. "Somehow physical concerns got mixed up into my programming – I think of myself as female. Intellectually, I can understand that, but it's at such a basic level that I can't fully ignore it. It is a… a perversion to think in such a way, to think of creator as 'father', to want more than a mental rapport in a personal relationship, to want to be close to someone even though there is no biological use…"
The conversation would strike any organic being as odd, but then, that's because they're organic. A robot has no use for the concept of family in any stage. Children do not exist, parents don't matter, and mates are unneeded. Not that male/female relationships couldn't occur, but they occurred at the intellectual/emotional level and no more. And, of course, male/male or female/female or even higher numbers were neither unknown, discouraged, or seen as strange. Transformers were asexual – perceived gender was just another identifier, no more important than the colour of one's paintjob.
It was certainly very strange, but Soundwave still couldn't see why the feedback vampire wanted her. Not that it mattered. She would have to be killed in order to destroy the creature anyway, now that they knew where it was. It was a waste, yes, but it couldn't be helped.
She was still talking to him, but he didn't notice until he felt a hand on his arm. "… I mean, for instance, the rest of you didn't see the life-force transfusion as a big deal. I did. It was the most intensely personal thing I'd ever had to do, and it had to be with someone like Starscream. I don't even like Starscream. You and Megatron could have at least let me deal with it alone; it was embarrassing to have an audience. At least I thought so, even if it didn't really matter… But to me… Great Cybertron, having to do something like that to someone I don't even like in front of someone I…" She trailed off, embarrassed, and snatched her hand away.
Soundwave took a couple steps away from her to get his personal space back. Her proximity was unnerving; was it a symptom of her condition, or was the feedback vampire readying for an attack? They had deduced much, but the creature was still mysterious. How powerful was it now, especially after draining Starscream to critical levels? It must have known that Megatron wouldn't let Starscream deactivate, else it wouldn't have taken such a chance with its host. Could it now transfer through simple contact? A careful look at his own mind said 'no'. Stalker had touched him, but the feedback vampire didn't transfer to him, either because it couldn't or it didn't want to. He settled on the former. It didn't make sense that the creature could suddenly switch methods of transportation, regardless of power levels.
Caught up in his own concerns, he suddenly realised that his cellmate was on a completely different planet. Stalker ducked around in front of him, laying her hands on his chest-plate to stop him. "Please! I know my mind is mixed-up, but please don't report me! It hasn't interfered with my duties. I have done my best to do the cause proud. I would never let it interfere…"
"You already said that."
"It's true!" she shouted. "Destroying the Asylum was planned, yes, but I worked it into the plan against the Autobots! It isn't my fault that they guessed my trick. And even though I didn't want to, I did give Starscream his transfusion – the closest thing to intimacy our kind can have, and not only did I have to waste it on him, but I had to have you as an audience! Great Cybertron, I would have loved to have been able to share something like that with you!.."
Both Decepticons took a step back at that, but each for their own reasons – Stalker: That's it; I've blown it and I'm doomed. Soundwave: She is only a link in the chain!
The feedback vampire was using Stalker to get at him.
Without weapons, without the advantage of flight, Stalker wouldn't be able to take Soundwave in a fight, so the feedback vampire had to be sneaky. It obviously didn't know that Soundwave already knew of its existence. Its motive for wanting him was easy: It could only transfer itself through download, but with Soundwave's broadcasting capabilities, it could reach anywhere, expand itself a thousandfold, copy itself onto his tapes…
"I'm… I'm sorry. I didn't mean for you to know. It's just… you're so easy to talk to – patient, stable… everything I'm not…" The whistling in her mind never changed, but somehow grew more insistent. Her problems had never, never stopped her from acting like a proper Decepticon warrior before, despite her thoughts, and she was finding herself close to panic. "I'm babbling, I know. I can't help myself. I'm sorry…"
Soundwave gave her the benefit of a doubt and in his own mind blamed the feedback vampire. Not that he could tell Stalker about this without letting the thing in her mind know that he was aware of it. Instead, he aimed for what she perceived was the problem: "Relax. That is an order."
The direct command helped snap her out of it, reasserting her Decepticon identity. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
Now there was the problem of escape. The lieutenant looked down at himself. The welding job looked rushed; of course, the Autobots were probably in a hurry, not knowing when he might wake up and needing to get back into the main fight. A good pull might snap the bonds. He told Stalker this.
She looked sceptical. "You want me to pull you open? Sir?" He nodded. Stalker was possessed, but he had to trust her. The tracker managed to wedge slender fingers into the seam, braced herself, and gave a good yank. The sound of tearing metal was overshadowed by the sound of Stalker losing her grip and tumbling over backwards.
Soundwave tried again: "Rumble: Eject."
Seconds later, the small Decepticon stood in the cell. "Way to get captured, boss," then, "Yeah, yeah, I'm goin'…" when Soundwave pointed at one of the side walls. In less than a minute, said wall had a rupture in it large enough to climb through.
The next room was also a cell, but it had the important distinction of not having a force-field. "Ha!" whooped Stalker once she was through, catching up Soundwave in a ringing embrace. "It worked! You're brilliant!" Before Soundwave could protest the contact ( fortunately, Rumble didn't have a chance to notice or comment ), she had run out into the hall. "No guards. I would have thought the noise Rumble made would have brought them running."
"You're dealin' with an expert," said Rumble happily.
"Laserbeak: Eject." The robot hawk flew off down the corridor to scout with the three other Decepticons in pursuit. Strangely enough, they met none.
The hawk was sitting quietly on an outcropping outside when the others caught up. Stalker kicked a wall in frustration. "Slag! This wasn't even the base at all, just an old building with holding cells! I am starting to develop a healthy dislike for my prey." She walked over to Laserbeak and patted the mechanical head. "My plan completely failed. I'm going to be in so much trouble…"
"Laserbeak, Rumble: Return." More than you know. With the feedback vampire inside of her, the other Decepticons planned to kill her on sight. Soundwave sat down to think.
There was an alternative, but it depended heavily on if two hunches about the feedback vampire were correct.
He chose his words carefully, trying to work with a concept he couldn't even grasp on a hypothetical level. "You wished a sharing?"
Stalker was pulled from contemplations of doom to look surprised. "What? Oh. I didn't mean to say it. Really. It just slipped. I… yes."
"Life-force incompatible. Will memory suffice?" Ordinary energy probably wouldn't suit the vampire's transfer needs. Memory contact would give it a nice, wide, and hopefully irresistible path. An alternative would be a full mind-sharing, like the Constructicon gestalt, but such things were dangerous if you weren't programmed specifically for it. Memory would be enough, and he could do a last-minute check of a certain hypothesis…
"'Suffice'?" Stalker laughed, ran over, and kissed him where his mouth was supposed to be. "Soundwave, you're absolutely wonderful."
Her behaviour was nonsensical, but he had more important considerations than debating the tracker's insanities. The entire transfer idea was as impersonal to him as delivering a report, so he had no emotional or moral squeamishness. Instead, he focused inward, on the workings of his own mind, as he twisted the two lead wires together.
"I can't think with that noise rattling through me…"
"Unless your work on my audio receptors was shoddy and I'm getting feedback?.."
"It wasn't your fault. I understand now. It makes you feel… more. It caught you when you were angry, so you couldn't see it…"
"Re… repairs took fourteen hours?..""Still no reason to attack me…"
"The hum of the force-field. The whirring of my own machinery. A high whistle, like feedback but quiet…""I'm babbling, I know. I can't help myself. I'm sorry…"
The song of the feedback filled his mind immediately, a single note that never began and would never end. Its terror came from mystery, and Soundwave understood it now.
Megatron was possessed when he was angry, and that anger unleashed itself on Starscream.
Starscream was possessed when he was broken and introspective, and looking into himself he perceived the creature in his mind.
Stalker was possessed when she was looking to Soundwave as a role model, and it played with her obsessions.
The feedback vampire's control wasn't complete; it could only enhance feelings, make actions more extreme. It couldn't make you do something you would never do. Megatron would never attack Soundwave, but Starscream would, so it jumped to Starscream. But the creature didn't want Soundwave damaged, so it jumped to Stalker in hopes that she could convince him to effect a transfer peacefully. The others didn't know that Stalker had been in the Asylum, so apparently the creature could read minds…
… But not his.
The feedback vampire made one serious error in judgement: It couldn't force its host to do something they would never do, and Soundwave would never help such a creature.
He could perceive the being now, and in the end, it was just… sound. In a way, the feedback whistle was its body, able to merge with mechanics to force extreme behaviour. Within his mind, the Decepticon smiled. He knew sound.
With a mental switch, Soundwave turned on his transmitter, but not to the frequency the feedback vampire wanted. He took the creature and scattered it across the audio spectrum, spread so wide that even if its consciousness still existed, if it could survive outside a host body, it would take eons for it to gather itself again.
There were a few minor details to deal with. Stalker's memory of her time possessed would be gone, if what happened to the other two was any indication. She would have some questions, which was a better situation than if she had the true answers. Currently, she was sitting slumped against him, unconscious. That part at least was his doing; a power surge back along the connection. Loss of memory would save her embarrassment.
He also had to report to Megatron. It would be a somewhat edited version, of course. Megatron would have to be told of Stalker's reason for being in the Asylum, but Soundwave could leave out some details. He stood up and stretched his senses, seeking out and sending a message to the control tower.
* * *
"It was just sound?"
"No. Its form was sound." Explanations were going harder than anticipated. Soundwave could get his mind around the idea of a sound-based creature, but was having a heck of a time trying to get Megatron to understand.
Fortunately, Megatron gave up. "I'll take your word for it." He was pleased enough to have some outside source to blame, rather than the usual mistakes and incompetence of his crew. Besides, Stalker's plan failed and the Decepticons got their afterburners handed to them by Elita-1's Autobots? Typical day. Strangely, despite the defeat, morale had much improved since the battle. It doesn't matter if you win or lose, it's how much damage you cause to the other party.
Megatron sighed and leaned back in his chair. Things were back to status quo. It wasn't an ideal situation, but breaking even was better than coming in second. Besides, they still had their solar energy collectors, out in the desert…