I am surrounded by the enemy.
The enemy sit at tables against the side wall, drinking their energon out of shining metal mugs. The enemy stand in front of me, laughing with one another, talking and throwing flechettes at a board on the wall. The enemy curls up beside me on the couch and rests her head on my shoulder.
I exist in this environment only because of my current mode, my third mode, the second of two robot modes, the form that sports the purple symbol of the enemy. Under the hood I am an Autobot. If my companions knew this truth, they would tear me apart.
Sitting here on the couch in the soldiers' lounge of the hidden Decepticon base on Yl'krr, I curl up with the female who calls herself my consort and pretend that I am watching the holovid playing in the entertainment center. But it is a different movie playing in my mind tonight, and I'm the unwilling star in a film called The Decepticons Find A Spy In Their Midst.
I can see the enemy around me now and I know all their names. Onslaught, my erstwhile commander. Runabout, Wildrider, Swindle, my so called fellow ground warriors. Dirge, Vortex, Blitzwing, my presumed fellow Decepticons. Nadir, the femme who thinks she is my lover.
They would grab hold of me, blind my optics and bind my limbs, and drag me down the hall to the brig. They would call Vortex or Soundwave...or someone worse...to interrogate me. Yes, Vortex and Soundwave, what a team they would make: Vortex to yell at me, threaten me, torture me as is his specialty-the mechanism who has turned unbearable torment into a fine art. During Vortex's breaks from his "labours" on me, Soundwave would speak to me in his calm, soothing voice, assuring me that it was simple overreaction on the high command's part and everything would be okay if I would only tell him everything I knew.
Vortex claps me on the shoulder and asks if I'd like a drink.
And my lips form a smile and I say yeah, thanks buddy.
And he says no problem.
I live every day, every moment, surrounded by the enemy.
I can't think about that. Were I to dwell on what would happen if they were ever to catch me, I could never live this way.
I've lived the life of a Decepticon for centuries. I could live this way for many more, if Autobot High Command permits me, and if I'm careful. I'm a deep cover mole. Prime's not going to waste me on some minor pieces of information like where the Decepticons are caching fuel, or some piddling mission like assassinating a Decepticon unit commander when there are a hundred other Cons who could take his place. As long as I don't slip up, I'll be fine.
I'm doubtlessly being saved for something very special, for The Big One, and I give myself fifty-fifty odds that I survive that final mission when it comes. And if I do, I give myself six days tops before the Decepticons catch up to me and tear me apart. You don't live with other mechanisms for countless years, sharing fuel with them, sharing quarters with them, sharing hopes and dreams and fears and hardships with them, only to suddenly bring about their deaths some day--you can't do that and retain any hope that the survivors might forgive you when all is said and done.
The battlefield is a truly bizarre place.
I'm in a trench with my enemies, and just like them I'm firing across an expanse of shattered land. But I do it with a twist...I fire at my own teammates.
My teammates. The teammates I never knew. I was only online for a few months before I was planted in the ranks of the Decepticons. I accompanied the Autobots on a raid to a Decepticon factory, where a freshly activated Decepticon was terminated and I was left in his place. My brief life as an Autobot had been all military training. From the first second I was indoctrinated in the value of my glorious purpose...to further the Autobot cause...and praised for the sacrifice I would make in the name of the greater good.
But I barely knew them, my fellow Autobots, for my entire existence in their ranks had been spent learning my trade as a spy and preparing to infiltrate the Decepticon's ranks. I had instructors and superiors and overseers. I did not have friends.
Around me now surge the only friends and comrades and lovers I've ever known, firing with all their might at the Autobots.
Soundwave frightens me.
Even walking down the trench in the middle of a battle, even when I'm sure he's got better things to do than question my loyalty to the Decepticons, Soundwave frightens me.
Some days I swear from the way he looks at me that his optics can pierce my frame and see right into my very core. I've heard that he's a telepath. Can he really read my treacherous Autobot thoughts like words on a view screen?
I remind myself that my continued survival is evidence that he cannot.
I find it surprisingly easy to shoot at the Autobots.
Prime gave me permission to do so. He said that in order to be a convincing Decepticon I would have to fire on Autobot troops from time to time.
But, I remind myself, he also ordered me to attempt to miss. I wonder sometimes how good a job of it I do, or if the increasing number of "accidents" I have are, in any form, preventable.
Maybe it's because the Autobots don't know who I am. They fire at me like they'd fire on any other Decepticon, and they're shooting to kill. This is presumably for my own protection...after all, no Autobot can give away my secret under duress if they don't know I have a secret to begin with. But every time I get hit by an Autobot laser blast, I sometimes wonder just how effective this "protection" is. Wouldn't it be the supreme irony if the Autobots killed me themselves.
I've shot Autobots to save my own life. I've shot Autobots to save the lives of my comrades...because it would be far too suspicious if I didn't. That's my reason, right? I've shot Autobots when my superiors came along the trench, just so they'd have no reason to think badly of me. I need to protect myself, don't I? Or I won't be any good to Prime when The Big One comes, to sacrifice myself on that final mission.
Every night I justify these things in my head until I am awarded peace enough to sleep.
But all the justifications in the world cannot explain why time has made it easier for me to pull the trigger on those strangers in the other trench, those faces I do not recognize. Nor does it explain all the times when I've come upon dying Decepticons alone in shattered cities, where one blast of my cannon would mean one less adversary to the Autobot cause and no one would ever know. Instead, I call up Con search-and-rescue. Every time.
Sometimes it's because I recognize the faces of the wounded and dying. When I know the guy it's easy to explain.
But why I call up help for the Decepticons I've never met--I have no idea.
Back on Charr, Nadir and I are on guard duty when a strange occurrence takes place. The Aerialbots, flying a tight diamond-shaped pattern, buzz low over the Decepticon base. She orders our anti-aircraft guns to open fire, but they begin shooting too late to get an accurate fix on the Aerialbots. Before long the intruders are out of range.
"They're crazy," Nadir says. "They took that much of a risk just to show off? There aren't even any other Autobots around to see them."
Yes there are, my dear Nadir. You're standing right next to one. And that diamond shaped pattern was no foolish stunt. That's my summons...to return to Autobot City and report in.
Please, don't let this be The Big One. I--I want to laugh with my friends again. I want to continue enjoying my life. I don't want this to be my last night with Nadir. I don't want to die for some abstract cause, for the sake of mechanisms I've barely met.
But I'm an Autobot, and I will do as I am ordered to do, and so I begin thinking of means to explain my absence for the next few days.
My fuel turns cold within me as Prime calls me in to his office in Autobot City. I transform from vehicle mode into a form I rarely use: my thir--my first mode, my Autobot form.
"Unit Punch," Prime says to me, "we have urgent need of the location of the secret Decepticon base in the Yl'krr sector. The Decepticons are making a big push in that area and our forces are being shot to pieces. Yl'krr is the key to the whole surrounding region. If the Decepticons get Yl'krr we're apt to lose the entire quadrant. From there the Decepticons would be in position to resume attacks on Cybertron."
The surrounding Autobots look at me, judgementally, awaiting an answer. Some of them I don't even know who they are. I recognize Ultra Magnus, and feel a frisson of fear...the Decepticons have no choice but to begrudgingly respect the battle prowess of the Autobot field commander. I can also identify Ol' Rustbucke--Kup. The Autobots call him Kup. I try not to think of him with the name the Decepticons give him. And, of course, Snot-Rod the Ex-Prime. Leave it to Autobots to suffer a fallen leader to live.
"Well?" Optimus asks.
"I don't know," I reply. "I've never been to the Yl'krr sector."
Which, I realize as I speak it, is an outright lie, because I just got back from there a month ago. Of course I know the Decepticons are making a big push there. I was part of it.
But the Autobots don't question me. Kup grumbles something to the other Autobots while Prime and Magnus exchange looks. Finally, Prime nods.
"Your mission is to find out where it is and let us know with all due haste," he says, emphasizing his last words, and then he adds quietly, "I'm sure you understand how important this is, Punch. The fate of the Autobots could well rest in your hands. To keep that sector safe there is no sacrifice too great." His optics lock with mine, finalizing the pronouncement.
It's The Big One.
So this is the beginning of the end--the last big mission that will bring about my doom. I'm the next card for the Autobots to play in their great battle against the Decepticons.
I salute Optimus Prime and walk out the door. At any moment I could stop and tell him where the Yl'krr base is. But I don't.
This morning, like every other morning, I wake up and wonder who I am.
Punch or Counterpunch? Autobot or Decepticon?
But you're not a Decepticon, I remind myself, you're an Autobot pretending to be a Decepticon.
Of late I have found myself reciting this litany like a mantra.
I am an Autobot that's lived his whole life with Decepticons, whose friends are Decepticons, who talks and feels and thinks like a Decepticon-
-but, I add, whose loyalties are to the Autobot cause. Loyalties my creators programmed right into me.
So why do I find myself relieved to be waking up in the Decepticon barracks on Charr, instead of in Autobot City on Earth?
And why do I feel so bitter that this great and wonderful cause, that I was built to serve, is ordering me to give my life to betray the only family I've ever had?
So tonight I stand on a ridge overlooking the smoking, charred remains of what was once the Autobot fortress on Yl'krr.
"Excellent work," Cyclonus says to me. "It was because of your discovery of the Autobot passcodes that we were able to infiltrate the fortress and bring it down from within. Soon the entire quadrant will be under our control. And then we will finally be posed to do what we have waited for so long...to begin reclaiming our home planet."
I simply nod by way of reply.
Cyclonus turns away, back to the business of command. The other Decepticons share with me the customary slaps on the back, words of congratulations, and invitations to the bar back in the base mess hall, and then they depart in twos and threes. They seem to sense that I want to be alone with the victory I brought about.
I can smell the fragrance of fire and cordite and triumph on the night air. I ask myself if I have regrets, and though I search, I find none. You don't live with other mechanisms for countless years, sharing fuel with them, sharing quarters with them, sharing hopes and dreams and fears and hardships with them, only to suddenly bring about their deaths some day--you can't do that and retain any hope that you might someday forgive yourself when all is said and done.
And then I realize, with a start, that I am not alone after all. One Decepticon has remained behind. Soundwave.
He looks over at the city and says, quietly, "Why did you do it?"
In that moment I realize he has known all along, or at least long enough. And evidently he has told no one.
"Because I understand now where my loyalties lie," I answer him.
Soundwave's reply is to reach out a hand to me, and slowly but inorexably I find myself drawn to place my hand in his.
"The name you call yourself is…?"
"Counterpunch," I reply, firmly, for I am certain at last.
"Counterpunch," he repeats. "Welcome to the Decepticons."