Hound grunted softly as he landed heavily on his left arm, another small noise of discomfort escaping his vocaliser as his mangled hologram emitter bounced off his shoulder and landed on the floor near his head. Behind him, the cell door closed with a very final-sounding clang, enshrouding the small cell in darkness. The scout did not even think to activate his infra-red; he already knew that the place would be desolate and barren, yielding no such thing as a loose seam or weak fracture in the metal.
Straightening and nursing his aching shoulder, the soldier cursed himself for failing in his mission, for letting his commander down, for being so stupid as to allow himself to be detected only a breem into the start of his surveillance. Not that he could report to the general, of course; the first thing the paranoid Emirate had ordered was that his radio and internal communications be fried out.
"Damn," he said to himself, calmer than he felt, his voice matter-of-fact and resigned to his failure and his fate. Azure optics flared, lending some scant light to the darkness, and he became aware of another pair of blue pinpricks staring at him.
"Hound?" called a voice he recognised but could not place, "is that you?"
Fighting down his initial surprise at there being another mech in this hole, Hound squinted in the direction of the voice, finally thinking to activate his infra-red. A comfortingly familiar shape loomed out of the darkness; a large, shuttle with an innocent, well-meaning face, sitting next to what appeared to be a large, misformed cinder block.
"Skyfire?" The Jeep's jaw dropped in disbelief, and the sitting mech nodded once in affirmation. "We were told you were dead... that you'd gone offworld and been killed..."
A single shake of the great white head. "As you see," replied the scientist snidely, "I'm not dead. I'm in here, and I've been in here since just after Starscream made his move and ran for it." A small moan came from the cinder block; a second glance revealed it to be another mech, curled up half-transformed, huddled brokenly against the wall and against Skyfire's thigh. The shuttle glanced at it and laid a hand on its plating. "Red Alert is here too, as you can see."
Another moan answered, and Skyfire shook his head. "He fritzed almost as soon as we were brought in. I've been doing what I can for him, but there's not much I can do, if I am frank."
"But why would the Emirate have you imprisoned?" asked the green-bodied scout, shuffling closer for the proximity to another living, processing Cybertronian.
"Officially," came the toneless response, "we were arrested because of our past dealings with Starscream, despite the fact that my association with him was before Megatron was even known to be a threat and Red was out of his mind when he made his dealings."
Hound caught the undertone and asked sardonically, "and unofficially?"
A weary shrug. When he did at last answer, Skyfire's tone was dark. "I know for a fact that some senate bullies were putting the pressure on Perceptor to undertake a job developing some new kind of weapon. Perceptor was adamant he would have nothing to do with it – as for what I can gather, he has been making good progress since my arrest."
For a moment, there was silence.
"I don't understand. Weapons development? That's not Perceptor's forte at all. Why not get Wheeljack to do it? He'd certainly resist less, I'm sure."
"Don't you know? Wheeljack's been MIA for deca-cycles. No one at Altihex or Cronum has seen him since Prowl was murdered."
Again, the dark silence, punctuated only by Red's animalistic whimpers, as though he were in pain.
"They convicted Starscream of that," Hound mumbled finally, "at his trial."
"Of what, sorry?"
Skyfire's azure optics narrowed. "I don't believe for an instant he had anything to do with it."
"Despite the fact he's a murdering sadist?"
Regardless of Hound's pressing, Skyfire remained adamant. "I was present at his trial, and I saw the military director read the charges out. Prowl's death was the only thing on that list he denied – and I know Starscream is the type to take pride in his achievements, no matter how disgusting and violent they are. If he had killed Prowl, he would have announced it at the top of his screechy voice in that courtroom. No, I think he's been set up as a scapegoat." Another shrug. "Not that it makes much difference what I think, with me in here and him being condemned to execution anyway."
Another silence. It dragged on.
Skyfire sighed and stroked Red's plating; the one-time security director moaned again helplessly, flecks of lubricant spattering from his lips, his optics wide and fearful but dim. Hound glanced at him and reached to touch, to offer comfort, but Skyfire shook his head slowly and gently pushed his hand away.
"Best not risk it," he whispered, holding up his spare hand – there were unhealed bite marks over the knuckles, marring the once-perfect plating.
The scout withdrew his hand, unable to help cringing a little as he considered the fate of yet another mech he had once fought alongside – perhaps death would have been kinder.
".... You hear a lot in here," Skyfire said softly, light and conversational. "The guards and the interrogators gossip endlessly. I think I have learned more about current affairs in here than I ever did outside. Last thing I heard, an Alpha was attacked and almost killed in Tyrest, and one of the Decepticons was arrested on suspicion for it." His optics dimmed. "They took him down to one of the high-security holding cells for questioning. He's not in good shape... I do not recall the Decepticon's name, but from the description of the victim, it was either Tracks or Mirage."
"It was Mirage," the green-bodied mech mumbled quietly, before his head snapped up. "W – but that information was classified! No one outside of law enforcement should know it!"
"Read into it what you will," said Skyfire, sparing Hound a Look. A moment later, he sighed again. "... I can't say more here. I'm pretty sure the room is bugged, which is most likely part of the reason for Red's breakdown. You know how sensitive he is to taps and breaches."
Before Hound could respond, the shuffling half-transformed mess of Red Alert screamed and threw his head back against the wall with a clang. Oil sprayed from his lips, misting lightly over the scout's plating as Skyfire soothed the dazed security director.
"... What was that!?"
"That was his sensor reacting," replied Skyfire softly, stroking his fingers soothingly down Red's bonnet. "It happens every time someone enters the corridor this cell opens on to."
Sure enough, mere nanokliks later, heavy footsteps sounded approaching the cell, and Hound looked around just in time for his optics to be dazzled into temporary blindness by the door opening abruptly and shedding the pitch-black cell with light; Skyfire had had the good sense (or maybe just the practise) to look away, and Red was beyond caring.
"You," growled one of the three burly mechs framed by the halo of white light, his finger pointing rudely at Hound. "You're comin' with us. We got some questions and you got some answers."
Fast and wraithlike, the interrogator's two enforcers swept up next to the scout, shackling his wrists and dragging him to his feet.
As he glanced back while being hauled from the holding cell, Hound caught a glimpse of Skyfire's mournful gaze following him, before the shuttle turned back to carefully wipe away a dribble of spent oil that was leaking its way down Red's chin.
"So you see, my Lord, I had stationed him to disguise himself only to give you added security, should one of the dissenters attack you..." Aeschor narrowly dodged Ratbat's backhand; the Emirate was seething.
"I did not order your security! Don't waste my time, you wretch!" The politician's golden optics narrowed. "You are not programmed to take the initiative, you are programmed to obey, so obey me! Next time you step out of line, I will not be so merciful with whichever sad sap of a mech you station to spy on me!"
"My Lord," crooned the military supervisor beseechingly, "the blame lies with me, not with my soldiers. They perform only to the best of their abilities under my lead. Should you punish a mech for this intrusion, then please lay your punishment upon my shoulders."
Ratbat relaxed, slightly mollified. ".... make sure it does not happen again. My patience with you undercastes is wearing thin." At a silent command over his communicator, two mechs carried out Hound; though the soldier was doing his best to walk on his own, he had to be supported quite heavily.
Aeschor nodded his thanks in one gesture as he stooped to give support to his subordinate. "I thank you, great Emirate, for your mercy."
"Begone from my sight, filth," snapped Ratbat, placated but clearly in no mood to be interrupted longer. Slowly, the two military mechs hobbled from sight.
"... I am sorry to be a burden, sir," Hound managed, his voice noticeably thick and slurred. "He detected me on his sensors almost immediately."
Kindly, Aeschor shook his head. "You're a good mech, Hound. The blame lies with me. I should have considered the possibility, and not put you at risk."
"Glad to risk myself for the greater good, sir."
The general glanced at one of Hound's hands when he felt it clawed, tense and shaking against his plating – and even the hardened soldier's processor lurched when he saw that all the fingertips were missing, wrenched off by the roots. One of them was still sparking.
"Ah..." Hound smirked wryly when he noticed where his commander's gaze was fixed. "I did not tell them anything that would implicate yourself or Lord Reverence in any way, sir."
"... For that you have my deepest thanks." Aeschor supported Hound to the small skimmer he had used to reach Ratbat's spire. "Right, soldier!" he barked as he took the pilot's controls, Hound safely in the copilot's seat, "when we reach the barracks, you are to go directly to repairs and have yourself a well-deserved rest from duty." His expression softened. "That's an order."
"Thank you, sir." Hound answered, his voice soft, his gaze distracted. "Before that, though, there is some information of interest that I think requires your attention..."
"Report," snapped the Emirate, cold contempt the only emotion showing behind his icy visor, "or have you been wasting time instead of hunting for a dangerous fugitive?"
Prime stood stiffly to attention, his own optics fixed directly on those of his superior. "On the contrary," he lied smoothly, his mouthplate giving away nothing, "I patrolled the Toor perimeter and found no trace of Starscream there, nor anything to suggest he even landed in that vector."
"...." Reverence regarded him critically before opening a link on his communicator and saying, slowly and clearly so that Prime could hear, "... I want a strikeforce organised. Proceed to Toor and smoke the fugitive Decepticon out of hiding."
"Sir," crackled the faceless voice over the open radio link, "what about the law of Sanctuary if he is in the shrine?"
"There is no need to enter. Barricade it. In time, the need for energon will drive him out, or his systems will starve to death. Either way, his sentence will be carried out and justice served. Do I make myself clear?"
"Crystal, sir. Landshark out."
There was an air of smugness about Reverence's otherwise expressionless lips as he stared at Prime, who regarded him coolly.
"My Lord," questioned Optimus at last, "why the waste of resources? I have just told you, I checked that area personally and found no trace of the Decepticon."
Reverence sneered. "I do not trust you, Optronix, and until I can verify myself that the Decepticon is not there, I will not take your word for it."
"You are wasting resources and energy better spent elsewhere," countered Prime desperately, wondering if by trying to save Starscream, he had condemned the mech.
"What better spend of energy than public security?" replied the Emirate waspishly. "You are not half the Prime that Sentinel was, you glorified archivist."
"In your eyes," replied Prime calmly, "no one could be."
The Autobot leader looked around as there was a soft knock on the door, which opened to reveal Aeschor. Reverence stared at his military co-ordinator a moment before waving his hand at Prime as a silent gesture that he was finished with the matrix-bearer. "You're dismissed, Prime."
Wordlessly, silently seething, Prime rose and turned on his heel, leaving the Emirate's conference room, catching only the beginning of Aeschor's sentence as the door closed heavily behind him.
"My Lord," the general was saying, "I have something of great interest to tell you..."