Hunted: Chapter One

          "Why were we not awakened before this?"

          The sentiment was echoed from the six other screens.  Shockwave sighed.  "The necessary power wasn't available, and I have been busy."  There were eight watchtowers on Cybertron, each to oversee an eighth of the planet.  For the last two million years, only Shockwave's was operative.  The other seven monitors ( and their Sectors ) had been in machine hibernation to conserve power.

          "'Busy'?" huffed Vapourblade.  "We've been in stasis for two million years!"

          "And if I didn't tell you, you'd have never known, so stop whining," directed Shockwave.  "Even still, this meeting is only an update.  Power levels are still too low to keep the entire planet running."

          Lightray rested his chin on his hand.  "Meaning we'll be put under again.  Thanks lots, Shocker."

          "I've already filled you in on Commander Megatron's status," said Shockwave.  "Once he accumulates enough energy from the Earth-planet, I'll awaken one of you and help set up a second space-bridge.  Then we can have two teams collecting energon, and so forth."

          "He's had years to gather energy," rumbled Frosttalon.  "Even with a cadre of Autobots chasing him around, he should have been able to deal with it."

          "He should have," Shockwave agreed.  "But he is our leader and still our best chance at reviving Cybertron."  Not that Shockwave had no ambition.  He did, but he also had patience.  Even when Cybertron returned to glory, Megatron by nature would still be out in the galaxy, collecting energy, expanding the empire… leaving Shockwave in charge of Cybertron itself.  Megatron didn't have to be dead to be out of the way.

          Not that he intended the others to know of his plans.  "You have been informed," said Shockwave.  "I will re-establish planetary stasis in two hours, so you have time to check the files in detail.  Shockwave out."

          Another transmission soon followed the first, but instead of Cybertron, this one came from Earth.  Shockwave acknowledged: "The space-bridge is ready, Megatron."

          "Excellent.  Then the next batch of energon cubes should be arriving…" Megatron paused for a second.  "Now."

          The space-bridge opened, revealing Skywarp, Thundercracker, and a skid piled high with energon cubes.  If Shockwave had eyes, he would have rolled them.  "Hi," said Skywarp.  "Where do you want 'em?"

          "There's a storage area two grids to the west.  I'll summon Stalker to guide you," Shockwave informed them.

* * *

          Perhaps the other monitors were content to wait, but Frosttalon had his own plans.  Stasis wasn't painful or even boring; he simply lost time.  Which bothered him.  Frosttalon would rather be bored than out of the loop, and besides, he didn't like the idea of Shockwave running the whole planet.  You could never tell what Shockwave was thinking, and it would be far too easy for him to just terminate the other monitors while they hibernated.

          The ice-blue Decepticon surveyed his control room.  Simply not returning to the stasis chamber wouldn't do any good; even if Shockwave didn't notice his absence, Frosttalon would eventually   terminate from lack of energy.  With the Third Sector shut down, there would be no way to recharge.  If he went to the First Sector, he would eventually be found out.  And lurking in the shadows like a hunted thing didn't appeal to him.

          So, there had to be a way to stay awake and keep power flowing to his sector, and all without Shockwave's notice.  Perhaps if he could rig up a jamming field or false sensor relays… but Shockwave had the main computer and controlled all.  He had to circumvent that control in such a way that the main computers wouldn't realise what was happening, one that could feed false signals – false lack of signals – as was needed.  In short, he needed a more sophisticated computer.

          And, he realised with a start, he had one…

* * *

          "Tell me, we actually showing an increase here?"

          Stalker locked the storage bunker and turned to Skywarp.  "Yes.  It's minor, of course, since there's so few of you on collection duty.  Unfortunately, we haven't the power to send any more teams."

          "It's a circle," mused Thundercracker.  "There has to be a better way than plundering Earth.  Maybe we could get Astrotrain to search for another living world, one without any sentient life so the Autobots don't charge in."

          The three Seekers shifted.  Skywarp said, "Ahh, you know Megatron.  If it's too easy, he'll get fidgety and take it out on the rest of us."

          "Take it out on Starscream, anyway," chuckled Thundercracker.

          "It would be easier if Cybertron was actually orbiting a sun," said Stalker.  A series of strange occurrences before her awakening left Cybertron hurtling through space.  Fortunately, space was quite empty and they hadn't hit anything.  "If we get close enough to a star, Shockwave was thinking we could rig up some planetary jets and get an orbit around it.  Even if that uses up all our supplies, we'll be able to set up solar panels and solve our basic energy problem."

          Skywarp added: "Solve the Autobot problem, too.  We could get the army back up to strength and outnumber them for a change."

          The distance from the storage bunker to the control tower was covered in minutes.  The Seekers shifted back to their robot forms as they landed and went back inside.  Skywarp saluted: "Mission accomplished, Shockwave.  Let's have it with the bridge thing."

          "Space-bridge technology is far from refined," said Shockwave.  "Quite delicate, as well."

          The black Seeker folded his arms over his chest.  "You busted it.  Right.  How long for repairs?"

          "I estimate four hours."

          "Four hours!" Skywarp repeated.  "What do we do until then?"

          Shockwave turned back to his console.  "I don't care as long as you're out of my way."

          "I've got some work to do," said Stalker, "but I can keep them out of trouble for a while."

          Once outside, Skywarp snorted.  "'Work'?  What do you do?"

          "Hunt Autobots," said Stalker.  "Check on assorted menials.  Map the lower Levels.  Do computer work.  Basically, I do all the wingwork so that Shockwave doesn't have to leave his post, and if he does leave his post, I can cover for him."  After a minute, she added, "I think I keep Shockwave from getting too bored.  Right now I'm to check up on some rebuilding at the edge of the Sector.  Want to come along?"

          "As if we have anything else to do…"

* * *

          "Boooooooring!"  Skywarp kicked his heels against the wall.  "How much longer?"

          He could have checked his own internal chronometer, but there are people who would always ask petty questions, if only to fill up silences.  Thundercracker knew this, so he answered.  "Three hours and twenty-seven minutes."

          "Ahh, wing-nuts."  Stalker had left them several minutes ago, her task in the area complete.  Skywarp and Thundercracker were currently sitting on the wall overlooking the rebuilding work.  Skywarp occasionally threw things at the menials.  It was a minor diversion, and didn't hold his interest for long.  "Come on, let's go give ourselves a tour."

          "Nothing to see," Thundercracker reminded him.  "Most of the planet is in stasis."

          Skywarp waved a vague hand at the landscape.  "No it isn't.  Not right now.  Shockwave did some planet-wide check-up or something not long before we arrived.  Everything's on for the next ninety minutes or so."

          "How do you know that?"

          "Stalker mentioned it and you weren't paying attention," teased Skywarp, shifting to jet-form.  "Come on; when the lights go out, we'll know it's time to start heading back."

          Thundercracker sighed and followed.

* * *

          He might not always agree with the Decepticon cause or general attitude, but here, on Cybertron, doubts were difficult.  Thinking was easy here, rather than on that mudball with the scrabbling little primates.  On his worst days, Thundercracker almost forgot Cybertron existed, thought that it was just a story concocted by Megatron as an excuse to keep fighting.  Thundercracker loved his home planet, the great blue-gray cities stretching to the sky, the cool glow of the lights…  "Uh-oh."

          "You know I hate when you say that, TC."

          "Check your radar; something's following us."

          Skywarp checked.  A plane the colour of midnight was behind them and closing fast.  A plane? thought Skywarp, confused.  No Cybertronian jet looks like that.  It looked vaguely like Dirge; he was a dark blue plane, but the space-bridge wouldn't open for…

          … another seventy minutes.  Thundercracker asked something else: "Didn't you say the planetary stasis was supposed to reactivate, say, an hour ago?  The city lights are still on.  And how come this one is still awake?"

          "Automatic defence systems?" asked Skywarp nervously.  He wasn't the brightest Decepticon, but an active imagination was putting together an unpleasant picture.  He switched to radio to speak to the other: "Hail, friend.  We're just passing through on our way back to the First Sector, and Shockwave can vouch for us."

          The other opened fire.

          Skywarp teleported to dodge the barrage and reappeared behind the aggressor.  "All right, you asked for it!"

          "'Warp, he's a Decepticon!  He's got the symbol!" called Thundercracker as he dove out of the way.

          "He's an idiot for picking this fight," snapped Skywarp.  "And when I'm through, he's going to be scrap."  The Seeker unleashed his own arsenal.  A good ninety percent of his shots hit, but the midnight blue plane didn't seem to take any damage.  It looped in the air and smashed into Skywarp, who went spiralling.

          Thundercracker arced around the other, blasting as he went and meeting with no better luck than Skywarp.  None of their shots so much as slowed the aggressor down, let alone left a mark.  The Seeker decided to try another trick; he let loose a concentrated sonic boom.

          This time there was a result; the blast shattered the other's cockpit and left it disoriented.  Before Thundercracker could fire again, Skywarp radioed him not to and appeared in the air above the other, landing on its back, where he drove a jagged piece of metal into it where he guessed the other's head to be.  The unknown Decepticon spiralled out of the sky and crashed into a building.  The Seekers followed it down.

          It was trying to transform, but the piece of metal stuck in it was preventing the shift.  Its nosecone and right wing were broken from the crash.  Skywarp kicked it to get its attention.  "You going to talk now, maybe explain why you shot at us?"

          The other said nothing.  After another five minutes, it stopped struggling.  "I hope that wasn't anyone important."

          "No one I know," said Skywarp.  "Which is strange.  It's a plane, almost an Earth-style jet.  No one up here should look like that."

          "No one in this Sector should be awake," Thundercracker reminded him.  "This is weird.  We should report this to Shockwave."

          Skywarp shook his head.  "Are you kidding, TC?  Shockwave runs this planet, controls when the Sectors are active.  He's probably behind this, whatever 'this' is.  We have to tell Megatron."

          "Tell him what?  'Cybertron's not under planetary stasis and we were shot at by a Decepticon airplane.  Oh, and we think Shockwave's behind it'?" asked Thundercracker.  "That wouldn't go over well."

          The black Seeker shifted back to jet-mode.  "We need more information," he said.  "Come on, TC."

          Years of being Skywarp's ally, friend, and companion had given Thundercracker a certain perspective on the other's mind.  In general, if Skywarp had an idea, it was a bad one.  If he wanted Thundercracker's help with it, it was much, much worse.  And Thundercracker, knowing this, would still aid his friend because even if he disapproved, Skywarp would go through with his plans anyway.  And if he helped him, Thundercracker could at least keep an eye on him and help shoulder the inevitable blame.

          So, Thundercracker followed.  "Where to?"

          "This Sector's watchtower."

* * *

          It took longer than it should have to reach the watchtower.  Of course, Skywarp and Thundercracker were being careful; flying low, then walking, keeping to the shadows, watching for pursuit…  But, as Skywarp pointed out with his own logic, that since no one tried to stop them, they obviously hadn't been spotted.  Needless to say, Thundercracker wasn't reassured.

          But they made it, which posed another problem.  "Right," said Thundercracker.  "And how are we supposed to get in without setting off the alarms?"

          "Easy.  We teleport."

          Thundercracker decided it was time to give his friend an incredulous look.  "'We'?  How much extra mass can you teleport with?"

          "Enough.  Didn't you see me during the latest skirmish with the Autobots?  I grabbed Powerglide in mid-flight, warped to ten feet in front of the cliff, then warped away.  Inertia kept him going, he didn't have a chance to correct course, and he crashed."  Skywarp sighed and shook his head.  "It was a gorgeous move and you missed it."

          He didn't consciously intend to, but Thundercracker found himself backing away.  "I'm not going to end up missing a foot or a wingtip or anything?..  Besides, intruder alerts don't have to just be attached to the doors…"

          "Gotta chance it.  We have to get inside," said Skywarp, sounding not in the least apprehensive.  "Come on, Mr Edgy.  If you're squirming, you're definitely going to lose a foot…"

          "All right, all right."  Against his better judgement, Thundercracker allowed his friend to take hold of him, and seconds later decided he had been right in the first place: Teleportation was a lousy way to travel.  The trip took between one second and the next, and left his gyros spinning like he'd been struck by lightning while attempting a backwards loop at Mach 2.  Fortunately, Skywarp held him up until his mind cleared.  "You do this for fun?"

          Skywarp let go of him carefully, making sure Thundercracker could stand on his own.  "I'm built for it; the jump doesn't affect me.  You okay?"

          "Yeah," said Thundercracker, but swayed a bit.  "How far was the warp?"

          The black Seeker smiled slightly.  "Four metres."

          "Ugh."

          After that, they both fell silent.  The watchtower was probably built to the same design as Shockwave's, so the control room should be easy enough to find.  Thundercracker wasn't sure what Skywarp intended to do once they got there; probably knock the monitor down and try to interrogate him.

          It turned out to be a moot point.  A midnight blue Seeker with flame-green eyes, flanked by two other Decepticons of the same colour, stepped into the hall in front of them, weapons raised.  Skywarp and Thundercracker were about to respond in kind when footsteps behind them informed them they were surrounded.  The lead Seeker flashed them a perfect smile and cocked its head in a come along gesture.  There was nothing to do but follow.

          The green-eyed Seeker tapped the door controls, then stepped aside with a mocking bow as the Decepticons behind Skywarp and Thundercracker shoved them into the room.  Skywarp started: "Your little honour guard could stand to learn some…" but stopped and gaped.

          The Monitor of the Third Sector was an ice-blue Decepticon whose outline suggested a spaceship of some sort.  At least, it might have, once upon a time.  Now he was missing chunks of his exoskeleton and the top of his head, wires trailing from the exposed parts and into the ceiling.  But what was left of his head turned and the optics flashed with life.  The mouth moved when he spoke: "Hrm.  Soldiers from the force on the Earth planet."

          "That's us," said Skywarp, admirably recovering his poise after the initial shock.  "Anything happens to us, and the army will melt you down."

          The monitor's mouth twitched in an ironic smile.  "You certainly rant like your commander," he said.  "But words are not enough.  Words will not re-energize this planet."

          "You've got a better plan, I assume?"

          "Of course."  The blue bulk shifted a bit, causing the wires to crawl and incidentally send another shudder of revulsion through the two Seekers.  "I am the Monitor Frosttalon, at my post for four million years.  'At my post', but not awake.  Shockwave set the planet on full stasis-watch over two million years ago."

          "We've been out of it, too," Thundercracker interjected.  "For the full four million years.  We only woke up three years ago…"  He might have said more, but a blow from one of the Decepticons behind knocked him to his knees.

          Frosttalon waited for Thundercracker to regain his feet before continuing.  "Three years should have been time enough to collect the power to awaken another Sector and send another team out to gather energy.  Shockwave filled us all in at the meeting, so I've already heard all the excuses for failure.  I tire of waiting for Megatron, so I've assembled my own force, my own Hunters."

          "Impossible," said Skywarp.  "Where did you pull the power from to build them?  Where did you get their minds from?"  Vector Sigma's key was destroyed, and the great machine was no longer friendly to the Decepticons.

          "The power was pulled from the planet itself," said Frosttalon.  "Shockwave should have noticed.  He should have noticed that the Third Sector is still active, but his computers can be fooled," – he nodded slightly, gesturing to the wires streaming from his form – "if one can outthink them.  He has no reason to send his menials or his pet tracker to see if the lights are on.

          "And the minds…"  Frosttalon smiled.  "There are other ways to give a new shell independent thought without Vector Sigma.  Old minds in stasis, but then you're never sure exactly what you're going to get.  Programming it yourself, but the mind would be infantile.  Or," – he paused – "known minds could be copied.  Cybertron's records are quite detailed, if you know where to look.  And what better way to rub Megatron's nose in it than to show him what his army could have been?"

          This time, Skywarp didn't bother to hide his revulsion.  "You're sick.  Those things are us?"

          "None of these here," he gestured at the five who caught them – "are either of you specifically, but, yes, the Hunters are Megatron's core army," said Frosttalon.  "I've improved on the designs, and, of course, the minds aren't quite as you have them now.  I stripped the program down to the core persona, leaving them… open to suggestion.  Certainly they don't in-fight or argue about who should be the leader."

          "Because that's you," agreed Skywarp.  "So, what, you're going to kill us all and collect Earth's energy your way?"

          "Essentially, yes."  Frosttalon's attention shifted to the midnight blue Seeker.  "Mourningstar, destroy them."

          Skywarp jumped aside before the order was completed, incidentally tumbling into Thundercracker.  "Thanks for blabbing your scheme, Frosty!"  The Seekers vanished.

* * *

          "Don't move, TC.  Wait for your gyros to balance."

          Thundercracker couldn't have moved if he wanted to.  He had thought the first teleport was bad, this one left him feeling so awful he couldn't even find the words to describe it.  His stabilizers were spinning, leaving him with the sickening sensation of tailspin, even though he could feel the ground beneath him.  Internal warnings fired off with such intensity that it was physically – impossibly – painful.  If he were human, he would have thrown up.

          It was ten minutes before the stars stopped flashing behind his optics and he managed to ask, "Where?.."

          "Flat on your back, five miles from Frosttalon's watchtower.  They're probably looking for us, but they've got no way of knowing which way we went," said Skywarp.  It was a safe bet that Frosttalon would know Skywarp's teleportation abilities and range, which was about two-and-a-half miles.  So Skywarp teleported twice.

          "You know the instant right before you crash?  I feel like that, only it just keeps going and going…"

          Skywarp patted his wing.  "Shh, you're fine, your stabilizers are just acting up.  Your system will eventually realise that nothing's happening."

          "It'd better hurry."  After another few minutes, Thundercracker tried to sit up, and quickly changed his mind.  "Why'd you have to go and do that?"

          "What, aside from the part about saving our lives?" asked Skywarp.  "No, when the Hunters took us to Frosttalon instead of shooting us in the hall, it occurred to me that whoever was in charge was probably the type to want to explain his Big Plan.  And since Frosty so kindly obliged, it was time to make our Daring Last-Minute Escape.  Sorry about your stabilizers, though."

          Thundercracker sat up, and this time Cybertron didn't lurch under him.  "Can we just fly back to Shockwave's tower?  No more warping?"

          "No way could I teleport all the way back to the First Sector.  My power levels are getting low as it is," said Skywarp, helping Thundercracker to his feet.  "You okay to fly?"

          "I think so."  The Seekers shifted and took to the sky.  "I hope you know which way you're going, because I think you've broken my internal compass," complained Thundercracker.

          "This way.  Follow me."

          They flew.  They got pretty far before a barrage of laserfire told them that they'd been spotted.  "Two of them," announced Skywarp, dodging.  "Can we take them?"

          "Are you kidding?"

          The Seekers tried to outrun their pursuit, but it was quickly apparent that it wasn't going to happen.  "I've got an idea, TC," said Skywarp.  "It's got a good chance of failing, is amazingly dangerous, and even if it succeeds, you're not going to like it."

          Thundercracker barely managed to avoid a blast of heat.  "If we don't do anything, we're going to get fried."

          It was permission enough.  "Vent your fuel and trust me."

          Five seconds later, the Hunters saw an impressive explosion and called off the chase.

* * *

          "Here."

          A savaged hunk of metal landed unceremoniously at Thundercracker's feet.  "What's this?"

          "Menial robot," said Skywarp, sitting down on what had once been a wall.  "I've left half of its energy for you."  When the other Seeker's only response was a stunned silence, Skywarp continued, "Look, I don't like doing the vampire thing either, but if we jack into a power station the drain will be traced.  At least this way our presence won't be immediately noticeable."

          They had tricked the Hunters at no small cost to themselves.  Thundercracker vented his fuel, and just before the Hunter's heat-ray ignited it, Skywarp teleported himself and his friend away to what turned out to be a debris field.  Fortunately, the explosion was large enough that the Hunters decided the Seekers were destroyed and went away.  Unfortunately, both Skywarp and Thundercracker were now running dangerously low on energy.

          Thundercracker made the necessary connections and drained what power the minor robot had left.  After a few interminable minutes of silence, Skywarp couldn't take it any more.  "Come on, TC, say something."

          "Like what?"

          "Like that.  Anything," said Skywarp.  "Great Cybertron, look at us; hunted like animals on our own planet.  I hope Shockwave's looking for us."

          The other chuckled dryly.  "Does he even know we're missing?  He doesn't even expect us back for another half-hour."

          "And he doesn't even know that this Sector is awake."  Skywarp stood.  "Well, we'd better get moving again.  It'll take forever to get back to the control tower on foot."  He helped Thundercracker to his feet and they walked on.

          Later, Thundercracker said, "The important part is giving Shockwave the message about Frosttalon's treachery, right?  We could radio…"

          "The important part is saving our own carapaces," Skywarp informed him.  "A transmission would lead the Hunters right to us, and there's no guarantee that the message would get through at all."

          "We could get a proper recharge first," continued the blue Seeker, "and maybe hack into a ground connection.  That will be harder to jam…"

          "We'll be tracked down and killed," snapped Skywarp.

          Thundercracker looked up at the sky.  "It'll take the Hunters time to get to us, and fully charged we can outrun them or fight until Shockwave sends reinforcements."  He paused.  "I'll do it.  You keep going, in case I can't get through."  With that, he turned and walked away.

          "Arrgh!  Fine!  Go play hero!  I'm leaving!"

          Five minutes later, Thundercracker felt a hand on his arm.  "You're an idiot, but you won't die alone," sighed Skywarp.  "Manipulative son of a biplane."

          Thundercracker smiled.

* * *

          It took another twenty minutes of walking, senses stretched to maximum, jumping at every noise, before they found a power station.  "Here's the jack-in," said Skywarp.  "Juice up and try to contact the tower.  I'll cover you."  For all the good I'll be until I recharge.

          Thundercracker nodded, then jacked into the station.  Recharging took several minutes, and when he finished, Skywarp immediately took his place.  Behind him, Thundercracker said, "My radio's not working.  Might be damaged, might be a jamming field.  I'll try a ground line."  He wandered off a ways to do just that.

          He had barely started hacking the system when the panel went dead.  "Oh, scrap…"

Running back, he found Skywarp methodically reciting a colourful list of words.  The black Seeker stopped to say: "The station went dead.  I'm barely charged."

          "The communications system was cut, too," added Thundercracker.  "He knows we're here.  Can you transform?"

          Skywarp concentrated for a second.  "No.  My power's still too low."

          "Maybe I can carry you…"

          "No.  I'll just slow you down."  Pause.  "I've got energy enough for a few shots.  Get to Shockwave; I'll try to stall pursuit."

          "Skywarp…"

          Skywarp managed a weak smile.  "You already got your quota of heroic self-sacrifice in, TC."

          "No I didn't.  You came along," Thundercracker reminded him, taking him by the arm and walking away from the power station.  "And you're coming along this time, too."

          "Fine.  Leggo my arm," he said, but his eyes showed relief.  Thundercracker released him, and opened one of his chest panels.  "Now what are you up to?"

          "I'm fully charged, you're not.  I can give at least some of my power to you."

          Any answer Skywarp could have given was lost in an explosion that blasted the two Seekers apart and knocked them flying.  A quick scan told Thundercracker that his only damage was from getting smashed into the wall; the blast itself was nothing more than a sonic boom.

          "Help!  Thundercracker!"

          A deep blue Hunter was crouched on Skywarp's fallen form, talons raised for the killing blow.  Thundercracker loosed a shot at it – it glanced off the armoured wing, but it was enough to get the creature's attention.

          Hunter green eyes met Decepticon red, and Thundercracker hesitated.

          Skywarp screamed again: "Thundercracker, Thundercracker, shoot it!"

          Thundercracker set his jaw, and fired.

          The Hunter silently collapsed as the laserfire tore into its chest.  Thundercracker ran over.

          Wasting no time, Skywarp had got himself from under the Hunter's bulk, and was pulling a cable out of its body.  "What are you doing?" asked Thundercracker.

          "Recharging," said Skywarp grimly.  "It's not dead yet, but once I drain its energy cells it will be."  When Thundercracker's hand shot out and caught his wrist, Skywarp glared.  "What is your problem?"

          "'Warp, don't you recognise it?" pleaded Thundercracker.  "That thing is… it was me."

          "It's one of Frosttalon's Hunters, nothing more.  If it recovers, it's going to try to kill us again."

          Thundercracker bodily pulled his friend away from the Hunter, and in Skywarp's drained condition, he couldn't fight back.  "Listen to me; when it saw me, it hesitated.  It knew me."  Quieter: "It is me."

          "Then why didn't it know me?" demanded Skywarp.  "Or have you got some secret wish to do me in?"

          "It probably didn't know you," said Thundercracker.  "But it knew me and I knew it…  Frosttalon said he based his Hunters on our tech specs, and to some degree, our minds.  Memory and interpersonal relationships are gone of course, but the core persona is there.  Ultimately, it can't help being me."

          "Cybertron to Thundercracker: It can't help being a Hunter, either."

          The blue Seeker agonized over that for a few seconds.  On one hand, he wasn't terribly fond of the idea of another him running around, especially one that Frosttalon had converted into a Hunter.  But it was still him, and he couldn't bear the thought of hurting it…  "Let me talk to it."

          Skywarp scowled.  "Play it your way, but I get to drain it enough so it's not dangerous.  I promise not to take more than that.  Deal?"

          "Deal."  Thundercracker let Skywarp go, then both knelt down beside the Hunter.  Skywarp made his energy-transfer connection and began the drain, though Thundercracker kept a close eye on the Hunter's power levels.

A second before Thundercracker told Skywarp to stop, he did.  "That's better," said Skywarp, standing to flex his wings.  "Not a full charge, but good enough for now."  He stepped back.

Out of the corner of his optic, Thundercracker saw Skywarp ready his weapons.  Well, he couldn't blame his friend for the precaution, even though the Hunter barely had the power to run its most basic systems.  It hadn't radioed for help, either; that was another thing Thundercracker had been watching for.

          He tapped the Hunter on the forehead to get its attention.  "Wake up, you; I want to talk.  Do you understand me?"  The Hunter nodded as it was able, and Thundercracker realised that he'd never heard a Hunter speak before.  Maybe they couldn't.  Still…  "Who are you?"

          I… am Stormwing.

          The Hunter's mouth hadn't moved, but that wasn't what caused Thundercracker to shoot a look at Skywarp for confirmation.  The creature didn't use sound; the voice spoke straight into the mind.  "You hear that, 'Warp?"

          "Not 'hear', per se…"

          "Hunters don't talk; they communicate telepathically, by internal radio," mused Thundercracker.  "Like Soundwave does when he's deliberately trying to be creepy."  He asked Stormwing, "Am I right?"

          Yes.

          And Stormwing asked: You… are me?

          "I am Thundercracker.  You were built from my design.  Frosttalon created you and the other Hunters to replace us originals and overthrow our true Commander," said Thundercracker, trying to be convinced in his own mind.  His plan would collapse if Stormwing could fully read his thoughts, find his doubts…  "Frosttalon is a traitor.  You must help us get a message to the Decepticons so that he can be stopped."

          Stormwing's green optics flashed a tormented indecisiveness.  Frosttalon gave it life, but this one who spoke was it, and if it couldn't trust itself…  Torn by doubt, it looked from Thundercracker to Skywarp for confirmation.

          It got it.  Skywarp crouched down and lifted Stormwing's arm so it could see its gauntlet.  "See that?" asked Skywarp, pointing at the purple emblem on its arm and then on his own wing.  "That means that you're a Decepticon, and you serve Megatron and the Decepticon cause.  Frosttalon claims to be a Decepticon, but he's really trying to tear it all down."

          The Hunter laid his head back to look at Thundercracker again.  I… am a Decepticon.  How may I serve?

          "How is Frosttalon blocking communications?" asked Thundercracker.  "A jamming field?"

          Frosttalon… controls all.

          "We've got to get out of the area, then," said Skywarp.  "We'll never get a message out otherwise.  We're fully charged, TC, we can make a break for it."

          Thundercracker didn't really want to leave Stormwing, helpless as it was, but knew the reaction he'd get if he said that.  Still, making a run for it would be so obvious that Frosttalon could set the Hunters on them in minutes.  They had to be sneaky.  "Maybe we can make our way underground…"

          "Not if Frosty's controlling it.  The tunnels are full of cameras and old traps, and we won't have any manoeuvring room."  Of course, the Hunters would have mobility problems too, but the security system would remain the greater threat.

          "We could take on Frosttalon ourselves, or at least sabotage his shielding…"

          "Can't you come up with a plan that doesn't guarantee our deaths?.."

          Maybe… another way.  Hunters…

          "You think we'll be able to convince the other Hunters to turn on Frosttalon?" Thundercracker asked.  Not that he could see any way to do so; converting Stormwing was a million-to-one chance.  Thundercracker gambled that his own doubts about the Decepticon cause would translate into doubts about Frosttalon's cause in Stormwing.  But for the most part, the army was loyal to Megatron, and thus the Hunters would be loyal to Frosttalon.  Maybe if we found the equivalent to Starscream…

          No.  Hunter communication.  Telepathy.

          Thundercracker considered that.  "Could you use that power to reach the control tower in the First Sector?"

          No.  Not strong enough.  Pause, then: Deathsong is.

          To be continued…