Three jets flew over Cybertron. It would have been safer to walk, but they needed the speed. As it was, they were flying low through the streets, desperately dodging buildings and hoping that their flight wouldn't be detected. One said: "Why, why, why do I have a bad feeling about dealing with someone named 'Deathsong'?"
"Psychosomatic, probably. We all have names like that."
"Rhetorical question, TC."
Much to Skywarp's dismay, he found himself following Thundercracker and Stormwing back into the heart of the Third Sector. They couldn't take on Frosttalon's defences or his Hunters, but they might be able to handle one Hunter. Deathsong was the most powerful telepath of the group, acting as a co-ordinator for their activities. The plan was to overpower it and hook up its radio to Stormwing – who had compatible machinery – so they could get a message to Shockwave. Failing that, they would try to deactivate Frosttalon's shields from Deathsong's control room. Failing that… well, they'd be dead mechanisms.
They had also allowed Stormwing to recharge. Skywarp had protested at first, but saw the logic once Stormwing gave Frosttalon a phoney report about his and Thundercracker's whereabouts. With luck, the other Hunters would be off on a wild goose chase.
Down there, said Stormwing, banking a turn and settling in for a landing near a small building. The others followed. I… will try to catch Deathsong by surprise. Follow.
They did, several metres behind, hovering as so to not make any noise, and stopped just outside the control room door. Not that eavesdropping would have helped overhearing whatever telepathic conversation the Hunters had. If there was one. There was, however, the sudden sound of laserfire, and the Seekers decided to act. Deathsong was caught off-guard by the jets, and fell with a clang.
"There. It's down," said Skywarp, running over to the fallen Hunter. "Quick; help me with this."
"Deathsong was probably based on Soundwave," said Thundercracker quietly.
"Don't go all maudlin on me," Skywarp snapped. "Never liked that walking tape-deck anyway, him and his lousy midgets." He wouldn't admit it, but the situation had him on edge. Frosttalon might have told them his plan, but hearing it wasn't the same as seeing it… Look, they're just copies. You're not really gunning down your friends and allies, even if Frosttalon used their mind-patterns to give them life… Skywarp yanked a final wire. "There. I've disconnected its power supply. You got its radio yet, TC?"
Thundercracker held it up. "Here. Hold still, Stormwing, while we hook you up." The Hunter obliged. The Seekers quickly made the connections. "See if you can get Shockwave or his control tower."
Contact. I am with his computer. Its optics flashed and it said: Frosttalon senses the connection!
"Well don't just sit there, Stormy!" yelled Skywarp. "Upload quick!"
I… don't have all the information… Stormwing looked at Skywarp and tore the information from his mind, sending it hurtling down the connection. The contact sent both reeling.
"TC, you've got to help him!.."
Message… sent. Stormwing's radio went silent.
After a few minutes, Skywarp laid a hand on his friend's arm. "That's it, TC. He did it. His mind wasn't built to handle that kind of power. He knew it – I could feel his thoughts when he zapped me – but he did it. Let's get out of here."
* * *
The 'Incoming Message' light flared in the control room, and Shockwave checked the source-tracker out of habit. Strange. Who would be calling from the Third Sector?.. No one was supposed to even be there.
The mystery was compounded when it turned out that whoever had signalled him had, for want of a better term, hung up. They did, however, leave a message.
Shockwave listened to it, checked his readings of the Third Sector, and quickly placed an interplanetary call.
* * *
"That's it. We failed. No one's coming. We're going to die."
This would be the eleventh time Thundercracker repeated his litany – every ten minutes exactly for the last two hours. "Stop saying that. We're not going to die. It just takes time to get here," Skywarp replied, a variation on his theme of replies. After their message was sent, the Seekers fled Deathsong's control centre on the ( correct ) assumption that it would be the first place the Hunters would look for them. They had flown for a distance, but caught sight of one of the Hunters and decided it might be safer to wait.
As such, they had found a burnt-out building, choosing it as a hiding-place on the grounds that Frosttalon's new senses couldn't find them where no computer systems functioned. Thundercracker had sat down in a corner and almost instantly sank into despair. Skywarp spent about twenty minutes trying to cheer his friend up before resigning himself to the fact that it wasn't going to happen. Now he focused his attention on the skies, searching for friend or foe, and trying to parry Thundercracker's chant about being doomed. Skywarp sighed. Poor Thundercracker. What would he do without me?..
Skywarp's thoughts scattered when he caught movement at the extreme range of his optic sensors. "Psst! TC, I see something!"
It took a minute before the distant shapes could be sorted into anything intelligible. "Negative, TC; it's Megatron and Starscream! I told you the Decepticons would come looking for us."
"Might be a trap," said Thundercracker without looking over. "A hologram or something."
"Then I'll need you up and ready for action, 'cause I'm signalling them now."
Thundercracker turned out to be wrong, and minutes later Megatron and Starscream landed. "Shockwave received your message," said Megatron by way of greeting. "Once we arrived on Cybertron, we tried to contact Frosttalon, but there's a jamming field up."
"And such a jamming field," agreed Starscream. "It even masks its own presence." When Megatron glared at him, he folded his arms and looked away. "I thought it was clever."
"I don't care what you think," Megatron replied automatically. "We're here to have a… talk with Frosttalon."
* * *
The door to the watchtower opened automatically as the Decepticons approached. It probably wasn't a good sign. "Skywarp, Thundercracker, remain out here and watch for Frosttalon's pets," ordered Megatron. "Starscream, you're with me." The Decepticon army being as small what it was, Megatron didn't often get a chance to demonstrate what happened to traitors. Letting Starscream watch him deal with Frosttalon might do him good.
The Air Commander hung back. "What if it's a trap?.."
"Of course it's a trap. Come on."
Interestingly enough, it turned out not to be a trap. No Hunters dropped from the shadows, no internal security system impeded their progress. Within minutes, Megatron and Starscream reached the control room. A voice from the walls said, "Ah, Commander Megatron. Forgive me if I don't stand up."
Megatron gave the bulk that was Frosttalon a disdainful glance. "I've been told of your treachery, monitor. I am not pleased."
"And I should be pleased with your bungling?" asked Frosttalon. "You have had years to awaken Cybertron, and you have failed. Answer me."
"I answer to no one," Megatron reminded him.
"You answer to Cybertron."
"But not to you," snapped the Decepticon High Commander. "I know my responsibilities, as you have forgotten yours. You think you can usurp my authority with a batch of brainwashed clones?"
The room trembled. "You answer to Cybertron," Frosttalon repeated. "In time, I will be Cybertron."
"Never." Megatron aimed, but his shot was thrown off when a burst of laserfire caught him in the shoulder.
"You think I would leave myself unprotected?" rumbled what was once Frosttalon. "Mourningstar!" A shadow dropped from the ceiling and Starscream found himself face-to-face with his double.
Mourningstar was… magnificent. There was no other way to describe the chrome shine, the perfect symmetry of the curved wings, the lazy smile of the predator. This creature was Starscream, but Starscream as he had always wanted to be, or perhaps how he privately thought of himself. If savagery had an avatar, it would be this being. The flame-green eyes said, I am glorious, I am destruction, I am power. You are nothing. Mourningstar was beautiful, and it was the beauty of a fallen angel.
Green eyes flashed and the mental voice whispered: Challenge.
Starscream's fist caught it between the optics, knocking it to the floor. "Accepted."
Megatron raised his fusion cannon to blast the Hunter, but Starscream sent him such a look of demonical fury that he stopped. Fine. Starscream wants to have his duel, let him. The Hunter would be kept busy, at least. Megatron turned back to the main threat. "No duplicate of me, Frosttalon? I'm hurt."
"Too dangerous," said Frosttalon. "The amount of personality I'd have to remove from it to keep it from rising against me would leave it with no will of its own."
"How unfortunate." He levelled his cannon point-blank at Frosttalon.
The face no longer moved, but the smile was evident in the voice: "Destroy that shell if you like; I no longer inhabit it."
Megatron considered blasting Frosttalon, but decided not to. Even if what he said was true, they might be able to figure out a way to get him back into his body.
"Your choice," said Frosttalon magnanimously. A slight pause, then, "Your lieutenant is losing."
Megatron turned. It was true; despite the ferocity of Starscream's attack, he was the one being torn apart while Mourningstar barely showed a mark. Whatever else Frosttalon did, he made his Hunters strong.
The Seeker had known the fight was a hopeless one, even as Mourningstar dropped from the shadows. Starscream knew that, but he couldn't stop himself. As soon as he saw the other's smile, he wanted to crush it under his foot. It wasn't that Starscream hated himself; quite the opposite, in fact. Starscream's hatred of the other was simply this: He was Starscream, and no one would take his place! He wasn't going to let some copy steal his identity, especially not a copy as mocking as Mourningstar was so obviously designed to be.
He had… tolerated others in the past. The copy Megatron had made once to fool the Autobots didn't count, for it was mindless and marked for destruction anyway. Stalker was based on his tech specs, but her mind was her own, and therefore she didn't need to be terminated. This creature, however, was an abomination. This creature had to be destroyed. This creature…
This creature was tearing him apart.
But he accepted the challenge. He couldn't back out of it and no one could help him. I'm not ready! I'm NOT READY! Great Cybertron, I don't want to die…
Though the haze of damage warnings and despair, he heard Megatron command: "Starscream, give me your hand."
Too exhausted to protest, Starscream got an arm free and reached out. Megatron flipped in the air, folded, and came to rest, fusion-gun mode, in Starscream's outstretched hand. Before the Hunter could react, the barrel clicked against its forehead.
Mourningstar's body collapsed slowly. Its head, however, was a spray of shrapnel across the room. Starscream sat quietly for a minute, gathering himself, before remembering who he was and what he was doing. Absently, he tossed the fusion-gun in the air to allow his Commander to transform, and became aware that the walls were shouting: "That was cheating! He was challenged!"
"Your point?" asked Megatron. There were times when honour was important. This wasn't one of them.
"He accepted the challenge!" insisted Frosttalon. "He wanted to destroy the Hunter himself! You interfered!"
Leaning heavily on the wall, Starscream managed to get to his feet. "I didn't mind." It would have been more satisfying if he could have done it himself, but that was second to the death of the Hunter.
The air thundered; Frosttalon was not happy about the destruction of his prize Hunter. "Mourningstar was a work of art, but I can always rebuild," he rumbled. "And I have other Hunters; you cannot stand against them all. You will not leave Cybertron!"
Leave, yes. Abandon, never. Unfortunately, there was nothing more they could do here, and in any case, staying would mean certain destruction. Megatron gestured to his lieutenant: "We're leaving," – then turned back to the room and said: "Don't think you've won."
"Not yet," agreed Frosttalon.
* * *
They re-grouped in the Second Sector – Skywarp, Thundercracker, Megatron, and Starscream – within sight of the lights of the Third. It was a reasonably safe place to talk; no power flowed, so Frosttalon's senses couldn't reach there. Not until he learned to turn it on.
"The Hunters are too strong for us, Megatron," said Starscream as he landed. "It took both of us to destroy just one, and even then we were lucky."
Skywarp nodded. "Me and Thundercracker got two; first with luck, second with help from Stormwing." He quickly filled in the details of his and Thundercracker's time in the Third Sector.
"The Hunters are of secondary importance," growled Megatron. "Frosttalon is the threat. Given time, his mind will control all of Cybertron." There just wasn't any real way to stop him. Destroying the influenced sections of computer wouldn't help because Frosttalon could just transfer to another area. Blocking off the sections would be impossible; there were simply too many connections. The only way to be sure of Frosttalon's destruction would be to blow out all of Cybertron's systems.
So how are we supposed to target just Frosttalon's ever-expanding mind in the vastness of the planet's systems while doing a minimum of damage? "Too bad we destroyed the Robo-Smasher," Megatron grumbled. "We might have used that to pull him out."
"Of course. Always keep equipment handy, even after it tries to kill you," sneered Starscream. He had been one of the ones that the Robo-Smasher captured when it was out of control. While the others who had been pulled into the machine's void might remember the experience with a bit of traitorous wistfulness, Starscream had spent far too long in his own private oblivion to enjoy a collective one.
"Maybe a computer virus…" started Skywarp.
Megatron cut him off. "Didn't you ever hear of Traansen IV?"
"Our scientists there made a computer virus, and were destroyed when the virus adapted faster than they could," said Megatron. "The planet still under quarantine."
"Make a virus too smart and it will outsmart you. That's why we stopped using them epochs ago," agreed Starscream. Then, "Could one of us enter the computer system and hunt down Frosttalon that way?"
Megatron snorted. "Are you volunteering?" Unfortunately, it was the best suggestion so far.
"Does the void still exist?" asked Thundercracker.
Everyone else had to scan back the argument a few minutes to figure out where Thundercracker's train of thought was meandering in from. "What, that soup of dissoluted minds that the Robo-Smasher had collected?" asked Starscream, with obvious distaste.
"It does," said Megatron.
Starscream waved his hands in exasperation. "Why doesn't anyone tell me anything!?"
"Because you would have gone off and smashed it if you knew it was still intact," Megatron snapped. "It hasn't been destroyed because we don't know what would happen if that 'soup of dissoluted minds' is let out." On one hand, the mental graveyard might just evaporate. On the other, it might settle over Cybertron like a shroud, melting the minds of the living and drawing them into its blissfully oblivious collective. "Well, Thundercracker?"
Thundercracker paused slightly, not used to being the centre of attention, but spoke: "Could the void be released into the computer system?"
"That's ridiculous," started Megatron.
"No, no," said Starscream. "Don't you see? The void will melt Frosttalon's mind, but is itself unthinking, so it won't damage the workings of Cybertron. Over time it will scatter itself through the planet's systems, spread too thin to pull any more minds in. Brilliant."
It sounded good, but Megatron had learned to distrust any idea that Starscream liked. Still… "The best place to release it would be in Frosttalon's watchtower control room, where his body is," Megatron said eventually. "That traitor's mind is probably still centred there. Starscream, Shockwave keeps the void-case in a hold in his tower. Get it from him and bring it here."
"But I'm still damaged…"
"You're still the fastest one here," Megatron reminded him. "Meet us back at Frosttalon's tower. We will deal with the Hunters."
Starscream shifted and left. Megatron turned back to the others. "You said the Hunters were controlled from a central location?"
"Not controlled – co-ordinated," Skywarp corrected. "Deathsong kept them in touch with each other so they would work better as a team. Not a gestalt; they still had the reaction-speed of independent thought. Since we deactivated Deathsong, the Hunters won't be as synchronized, but they're still jazzed-up versions of us. They'll know our moves, and we're outnumbered."
The Decepticon Commander smiled grimly. "There isn't a copy of me. Take us to Deathsong's control room."
* * *
Unfortunately, Deathsong's control centre was under Frosttalon's control, as the ex-monitor's voice informed them seconds before unleashing the building's defences. The Decepticons cut through them without bothering to reply.
The control room was as Skywarp and Thundercracker had left it, with Deathsong and Stormwing collapsed on the floor. Both Seekers carefully avoided looking at the latter. Megatron went to the central console, rather wishing that he'd brought Soundwave along. His lieutenant was the most skilled at hacking computer systems, and could also have told them if the room was clear of listening devices. Skywarp came up behind him. "You have a plan, Megatron?"
"I always have a plan," said the commander. "The mental link of the Hunters can be turned against them, if we can get at it. We can turn them against each other, or shut them off from here…"
"Only co-ordination, not control," Skywarp reminded him.
"Then perhaps the power can be increased and made to control." Megatron linked with the computer, then yanked his hand back as a feedback loop surged through it. Frosttalon didn't want them getting into the files. Still, there were other ways of finding information. He pointed at one husk on the floor: "This is Deathsong?"
Skywarp looked over. "That's it. Stormwing knocked it down and I yanked its power cables."
Which meant the Hunter's mind would still be intact, even if the shock of instant power-loss extinguished its life. It was just a computer now, independent of Frosttalon, and could be accessed. Soundwave would have been better at it, but there was nothing for it, and after a few minutes of searching, Megatron scowled. Control would be impossible; the Hunters were free-willed beings.
And probably on the way. Frosttalon did know where they were, after all, and they did tear apart the building's security system to get in… Blast it, there's something here, something I'm missing… Suddenly Megatron pointed at the Seekers: "Quickly! Tell me the cause of Stormwing's termination!"
They flinched back slightly, partly at the tone but mostly because Megatron pointing at you suddenly with his right arm was usually a bad sign. Thundercracker managed to say, "Burn-out. He used Deathsong's transmitter to send our message to Shockwave. It was too much for him."
So, despite the fact that they can be co-ordinated, their minds aren't any stronger than ours, mused Megatron. That's it. I know I can use this… He went to collect the device, and glared at Skywarp when he tried to stop him.
Skywarp danced back and held up his hands. "Look, no offence, but if it burned out Stormwing, it'll burn you out. Nothing about strength of mind – the interface is wrong. Besides, the Hunters are used to being co-ordinated telepathically."
"Not co-ordinated, Skywarp, linked," said Megatron. "Made gestalt. And I needn't interface with the device, merely turn it on." He did, making the adjustments that he hoped meant the minds of the Hunters were now fully open to one another. "This will blow their minds, or at least confuse them too much for them to function. You two, find Starscream and escort him to the watchtower in case Frosttalon has the planetary defence systems working. I will meet you there."
* * *
The results of Megatron's plan were obvious, especially where a Hunter had spiralled out of the sky, tearing a wake of destruction as it crashed, unable to control its own movements. Curious, Skywarp and Thundercracker landed next to one. "It's conscious, but it's paralysed," said Thundercracker after waving a hand in front of its optics.
"No wonder; they weren't designed to be a gestalt." Skywarp grinned, then shifted back to jet-form. "Besides, you know how dumb Devastator is, and the Constructicons are built to be linked. And there's only six of them…"
Thundercracker chuckled. "And about fifteen Hunters, all who have to agree on what they want to do if they even want one of them to make one movement." His radar blipped. "There's Starscream."
Laserfire lanced out from the ground. "And there's trouble," said Skywarp, dodging. "Screamer! Get the lead out, hotshot; we'll cover you."
Easy for you to say, thought Starscream bitterly. You're not carrying the nasty little brain-melter in your cockpit. He said: "Don't mess up or I'll tell Soundwave what you said about him while you were over-energized last week."
"You do that and I'll fill your quarters with packing-peanuts again."
"I'll put you on permanent space-bridge guard duty!"
"Whitewash, Screamer! Right when you least expect it!"
Ten minutes, five laser burns, and fifty-eight threats later, the Seekers landed outside Frosttalon's watchtower. Starscream plucked at a loose wire dangling from a rent in the outer wall and gave it a nasty smile. "I'm guessing that Megatron is already here?"
* * *
Frosttalon looked down into the room with sight that wasn't quite sight. Megatron was leaning against the wall, relaxed but alert. Frosttalon asked, "What are you doing?"
Megatron looked up vaguely and said, "Waiting."
The wait was not long. The Seekers walked in and Megatron asked, "Do you have it?"
Starscream opened his cockpit and removed the small device. "I've got it. I admit, I expected it to be larger." The void-case could be held in one hand. Megatron took it and crossed to the control console, which he opened and began connecting the device to.
Suddenly Starscream looked up with alarm. "Power surge! Megatron!.."
The resulting blast knocked Megatron across the room, narrowly missing Thundercracker. Skywarp and Starscream ran over to the smoking console. "Frosttalon has destroyed the void-case fail-safes! It'll rupture in seconds!"
"Who are you, the narrator?" snapped Skywarp. "Do something, Starscream!"
"Shut up, then." Blast! The connector's fused and the console is half-melted. There's no way to contain the void unless… He selected one of the tools in his hand and plunged it into the void-case.
When the fireworks ended, Starscream was slumped, smoking slightly, against the console. Skywarp turned him over and nearly dropped him – Starscream's optics were sparkling purple. He didn't. That idiot couldn't possibly have… "Starscream?"
He was fighting it. A mind could hold onto its individuality as long as his will held out – minutes, hours, days. But now it was plugged directly into Starscream, and even if his will held, his mind would probably break from the pressure. Concentrated oblivion.
"To the… console… Help me…"
Skywarp half-dragged the other Seeker to the next computer station and opened the front panel. Starscream jammed his hand into the wires. There was a flash, and Starscream went limp in Skywarp's arms. This time when his optics turned back on, though, they were red. He managed to stand and dust himself off. "Well, that was disgusting."
Suddenly, the watchtower lights went out. From somewhere, Thundercracker said, "I hope that's a good sign. Has anyone got a flashlight?" Assorted lights came on from assorted Decepticons.
A light fell on the lieutenant, and Megatron growled, "Starscream, why do I have the feeling that this is your fault?"
"Excuse me for saving the planet, I'm sure," said Starscream, radiating near-tangible smugness. "Like to have seen you do that."
"He took the void into himself, then channelled it into the computer," Skywarp explained, impressed. His sole experience with the void was when the Robo-Smasher tagged him. It was only for a few seconds, but Skywarp had been ready to dissolve into it.
Starscream's optics narrowed, pride replaced by bitterness. "You couldn't have done that, Megatron. You're not used to oblivion."
Skywarp and Thundercracker took a couple steps back, feeling as though they had just walked into the middle of something rather dangerous. Fortunately, the undercurrents stopped as suddenly as they had started, and the subtle menace in the air faded as the combatants decided to ignore one another. Megatron said, "We'll check back here in a few days, to make sure that Frosttalon has been destroyed."
The Decepticons left the tower and took to the air. Thundercracker asked, "What about the Hunters?"
Starscream's mouth curled into a snarl. "I say we exterminate them."
* * *
"Any sign of Frosttalon?"
"None, Megatron," Shockwave replied. It was four days after the void was released into the computer system, time enough for the void to have pulled the renegade monitor into itself. Unless Frosttalon had managed to slip into another system… which was impossible. He couldn't have learned enough to travel an area of stasis without activating it, so he'd have been trapped in the Third Sector.
There was a million-to-one chance that Frosttalon got away, but Megatron doubted it. It rather annoyed him to know that Frosttalon would have died happy, though. "Good. Put the Third Sector back under stasis. Have all the Hunters been accounted for?"
"Affirmative. Starscream reports he has only three more to terminate." Decepticons as a species valued their individual identity highly enough that the idea of copies running around was repulsive to them – Starscream felt it in particular, and practically begged permission to destroy the Hunters.
He was granted it, and Megatron had to admit the Seeker's scheme was clever: Starscream didn't terminate them immediately. First he went around and disabled the Hunters, then went back and yanked their power cables. If he had just destroyed them as he found them, the gestalt-paralysis would have eventually weakened to the point that the Hunters could function. And even one Hunter could have easily destroyed Starscream. "Tell him to hurry up. I want him for a raid on a human military installation."
"I will inform him."
* * *
"It was fun."
"I think you got shot too many times and your cranial circuits have fried." Thundercracker was currently on duty-shift in the Decepticon Headquarters control room. He turned back to his screen. "Looks like Starscream did sign you up for space-bridge guard duty for the next month."
"I'll use my time standing around to come up with something suitably nasty to do to him," said Skywarp. Switching back to his first point, he said, "Come on, TC, nothing ever happens on those supply runs. That one was exciting."
Thundercracker snorted. "I'll stick to storm-tag."
The black Seeker leaned over the other's shoulder to take a look at the duty roster. "That Screamer can't take a joke. Sheesh, guard duty and nothing but. What are you up to right now, anyway?"
"Shuffling the roster. I traded a few shifts with Dirge and Ramjet."
Skywarp noted just what was changed. "Avoiding Cybertron energon supply runs for the next while?"
The blue Seeker nodded. "I thought it best."
"Yeah." Silence fell, and, strangely, it was Thundercracker who broke it. "I don't get it. I didn't like the idea of having a double, but I didn't actively hate him. Not like the others." Once the report was leaked, the rest of the Decepticons were up in arms about the fact that they were cloned, and quite supportive of the idea of the Hunters' destruction. "Think they would have felt that way if they actually met their copies?"
"I hear Starscream blew his double's head off."
"That's Starscream," said Thundercracker, as if that explained everything. Then, "What would you have done if you ran into your Hunter?"
Skywarp leaned back against a table and looked at the ceiling. "Probably would've welded a 'Kick Me' sign to its back," he said, though the question actually shook him. Skywarp was immeasurably glad that he hadn't actually run into his own double. He had no idea what he would have done if he did. Still, for Thundercracker's sake, he kept the tone light. "I don't think the crew could handle two of me. I sure couldn't; I'd drive myself nuts. I mean, I like me, but I don't think I'd be able to stand myself if I met me in person. Or something."
He lost his own train of thought, but at least it had the desired effect; Thundercracker laughed. "'Warp, sometimes you talk too much."