Breakdown took the data pad handed out to him and looked over the list of oil refineries, power plants and research institutes. Their locations and defences were displayed as well – none particularly well-guarded, he noted, and if they were on Swindle's list they were unlikely to be in contact with the Autobots as well.

"What do you want us to do?" he said.

"Oh, nothing difficult," Swindle said. "Just show up at whichever one of these we decide in advance, and make believe you're going to attack it. Then I'll come out and tell you to leave, because those humans are with us."

"And then what?" Drag Strip said.

"Uh… then you leave."

"What are you, crazy?" Drag Strip was on his feet at once. "We turn tailpipe and run? That's what you're asking us to do?"

Swindle rubbed one hand over his faceplate. "That's the whole point. See, these humans pay us to leave them alone and to make sure other Decepticons do the same. So we keep them off the radar and everything's fine. But if things are too calm for too long, the humans get comfy. They take their safety for granted and think they're paying for nothing. So you're going to turn up, scare the humans and let me defend them. That'll convince them that their money's going to a good cause."

"And then we back off," Drag Strip said, evidently revolted.

Breakdown handed the data pad back. "But what else can we do? If we actually attack them, they won't pay."

"Primus forbid," Swindle said, equally revolted.

"Well, leave me out of this." Drag Strip thudded back down on the couch, folding his arms and hunching his shoulders into angry knots.

"Sure," Swindle said. "Yellow race cars aren't particularly frightening, now that I come to think about it."'

The other Stunticons glanced at Drag Strip out of the corners of their optics to see if he would rise to the bait. Breakdown could tell that he longed to prove Swindle wrong, but finally he settled for glaring first at the Combaticon and then at a corner of the common room.

"You're certain these places won't contact the Autobots for assistance?" Dead End said.

"Positive," Swindle said cheerfully. "They've never done it before, and that's the beauty of the scheme. They know that if they call in the Autobots, there'll be a fight. No two ways around it. That means buildings damaged, roads torn up, vehicles smashed, maybe even humans hurt. In the end, it's cheaper and easier to just pay us. They're safe, we're happy and the Autobots feel useless. Win-win-win."

"And by 'us' I take it you mean the other Combaticons," Dead End said, "since you've clearly had this in place for some time. So why didn't you ask your friends first?"

Swindle hesitated, then shrugged. "Brawl would start attacking no matter what I said and Vortex… well, he can be pretty slagging scary one-on-one, but the only way for him to really impress a group of people is to go to alt mode and make wind funnels. Or shoot. And the humans won't pay if there's serious property damage, or if they're dead."

"I see. How much do we get?"

Breakdown didn't listen to the negotiations; those were up to Dead End, who could sound indifferent without even trying. He just hoped he wouldn't be the one picked to actually fake-attack anything. He could scout out areas and provide backup, but when humans looked at him, he felt as though his armor had disappeared, and something cold and slick was sliding along his exposed circuits.

Finally the negotiations stopped at twenty per cent, plus an assurance that the Stunticons would not have go far out of their way to visit the facilities on Swindle's list. None of them was about to submit their patrol routes to him, so they decided Breakdown would coordinate their schedules with Swindle's, which was fine with Breakdown. Unlike his teammates, he liked poring over maps and timetables to work out a plan well in advance.

"I also need to be sure of what you'll say," Swindle said. "You'll have to talk a good show, 'cause I can't have you actually shooting or damaging anything."

Wildrider shook his head in disbelief. "You sure you don't want to hire bumper cars?"

"Maybe. They'd be cheaper," Swindle said, and spent the next ten minutes hammering out a script of what the Stunticons were supposed to say as they arrived and left. "Better memorize those lines," he said as he and got up to leave. "Who's first, by the way?"

"Me," Wildrider said. Breakdown wasn't surprised; Wildrider would try anything once.

"You'll be bored," Drag Strip said. "You can't squish anyone or bust anything up."

"Not there," Wildrider said. "But I'll find something to play with on the highway after I'm done with the work."

"Work?" Drag Strip's mouth twisted. "More like a pathetic spectacle. A slagging jeep's going to threaten you and you'll run like he's Megatron or something. The humans will think you're a coward."

"Who cares what they think?" Dead End said. "Besides, it's not just him. Breakdown and I are in this too."

"Yeah, well, Breakdown is a coward."

There was an instant of tense silence before the primary Stunticon comm channel came to life. "C'mon, Dragster," Wildrider said over the radio. "You know the drill – if you wanna start something, wait till the company's gone."

"This is why we wouldn't associate with you if we weren't forced to do so," Dead End said coolly, and although Drag Strip didn't react visibly at first, Breakdown had to stop himself from wincing. "We know that you're unfamiliar with the concepts of self-control, maturity and good judgment, but is a little loyalty also too much to expect?"

Breakdown had thought that hitting Drag Strip in the ego would hurt him the most, but when the yellow racer looked away, he realized that Dead End had found even more of a vulnerability. The Stunticons were the only mechs who spoke to Drag Strip (voluntarily, anyway) or spent any amount of time with him, so to hear that they had to be forced to tolerate him couldn't have been easy.

For Breakdown's part, though, other Decepticons had called him a coward before, so it didn't bother him too much. He knew that there had been times when he froze up in battle thanks to his fears, and he would have given anything not to be like that. But he had also known, on a level deeper than thought, that the other Stunticons would shore up his weakness. Just as he would find ways to work around his crippling condition and do his part.

So now he said, "Let's drop it." He knew better than to expect an apology and he didn't need one; it wasn't the first time Drag Strip had jeered at him, though it was the first time that had happened in front of someone who wasn't part of their team. "Finish up with Swindle."

The radio went silent and the Stunticons turned back to Swindle, who had been watching them with poorly concealed curiosity. "It's settled, then," Dead End said in his usual calm tone. "Breakdown will make the arrangements for you and Wildrider."

Swindle nodded and went to the door. "Nice doing business with you."

"A pleasure. As always."

That was how Wildrider got the first assignment, and he set out genuinely intending to do a good job of it. He raced up to an oil refinery, hit his thrusters and soared over the gates at the entrance. He landed with a thump on a flowerbed in the shape and colors of the the oil company's logo, and Swindle drove up immediately.

At that point, everything might have gone according to plan, except that two things happened. The first was that Swindle got a little carried away with the role-playing and delivered his "the humans are with us" speech almost as enthusiastically as an Autobot would have done, stressing that the facility was under the protection of the Combaticons.

The second thing was that Wildrider completely forgot about the script, so Swindle's declaration sent him into a fit of giggles. "Does that make you a Protecticon?" he said. "If Onslaught and the others are here, will you merge to form Defensicus?" Fortunately he was laughing so hard that none of the humans understood what he said. Unfortunately, by then the whole mission was such a farce that Swindle yelled at him to get out, and said over the radio that he was going to deduct the cost of the flowerbed from the Stunticons' share.

Dead End got the next assignment, and might have carried it out successfully if Swindle hadn't called for him when he was in one of his bleaker moods. As a result, he drove up to the gates of a power plant at twenty miles below the speed limit, parked outside and recited his lines in a sullen monotone. Not only did that fail to convince anyone, but one of the humans on guard actually fired at him.

That turned out to be a mistake. Dead End had been far too depressed to bother to activate his forcefield, so the bullet left a deep furrow on the side of his glossy hood. Swindle managed to get between him and the humans just in time, though the Combaticon needed minor repairs afterwards and sent another radio message to the Stunticons to say that they would have to pay him to work with Dead End again. Drag Strip pointed out that it must all have looked very realistic to the humans, and said that he would change his mind about participating if it meant he could hit Swindle too.

Since that wasn't an option, the only one left was Breakdown. Swindle tentatively hinted at asking Motormaster, but a chorus of "slag, no!" settled that. So the next time Breakdown went out on an exploration run, he took a detour to a huge military laboratory which paid the Decepticons with regular, covert shipments of spare parts and chemical supplies.

Even though it was dark and there weren't likely to be many people lying in wait, he felt a familiar unease crawling over him. He did a radar scan of the area, knowing he would see nothing, saw nothing and didn't feel any better.

A few of the other Decepticons had asked if his paranoia was due to living in the Nemesis, where Soundwave's cassette spies and cameras could be (and were) everywhere, but Breakdown knew better. He had been like that from the moment he came online for the first time; his earliest memory was of Megatron looking over the Stunticons with glowing red optics. It was a stare that cut with the precision and heat of surgical lasers. It was the kind of look that said, I made you. I know what you are from the inside out. I own you.

And since nearly all the other Decepticons had optics the same color, Breakdown often felt the same way when they looked at him. One reason he was more comfortable among his teammates was because they all had violet optics instead, and after the first time they had merged, he knew them and they knew him. It was a joining, a connection that went both ways, rather than the ugly, invasive feeling of strangers looking at him, as if their eyes were prying him open.

As for stoplights and cameras and anything else mechanical, they were just extensions of those strangers, the humans who owned the world where Breakdown was an outsider. It had taken him a long time to recognize that traffic lights were inanimate even though they changed and responded (and went as red as Megatron's optics sometimes). Realizing that he had the ability to cause mechanical failures in such devices had helped, but there were still moments when he wished he could be completely alone in a small, quiet, featureless place.

That would drive Wildrider crazy, he thought. Crazier.

Oddly, that calmed him. Wildrider was tough and fearless and always eager for action, but there was something he couldn't handle that Breakdown could. Just as I can handle this, Breakdown thought as the military laboratory came into view. I'm not a coward – well, not always. I'm a Stunticon, and I'll get the job done.

He pinged Swindle on the comm channel they had decided on beforehand. "In position," the Combaticon replied. "Whenever you're ready."

Against the dark sky, the laboratory was a darker slab with a few windows still lit and looking unnaturally bright in contrast. Like open eyes. No, they're just windows. Breakdown checked his coordinates for the third time and took a side road off the highway. His headlights were off, but he didn't need them; the huge sign before the laboratory was illuminated. With a soft squeal of brakes he took the turn up the long drive towards the employees-only area.

The barrier over the entryway was down, and there were two soldiers on guard, machine-guns slung over their shoulders. Breakdown kept his speed at a nice restful sixty mph to give his engine time to affect them as he drove up to the barrier. The soldiers shouted at him to stop and fired an instant later, both guns jamming. Breakdown killed his speed again and halted before the two terrified humans, wishing they would look away from him. He would have crashed through the barrier, but he remembered that Swindle had asked them to damage as little as possible.

"Raise that." He couldn't speak loudly when he was nervous, so the command came out in a subdued mutter rather than the lunatic yell Wildrider might have produced, but it seemed to unnerve the humans. One backed away, still clutching the useless gun, while the other hurried to the controls at the checkpoint. Breakdown supposed their reactions were understandable – the Stunticons were all used to Motormaster bellowing at them, but when he spoke quietly they fought to get out of his way.

The barrier went up. In his peripheral vision, Breakdown saw the other guard speaking rapidly into a walkie-talkie, but that was fine. He drove into the parking lot, transformed and grabbed his concussion rifle from subspace as more guards ran around the side of the building. They stopped in their tracks when they saw him, but he shot at them anyway. His rifle had no effect on organics, but it focused the same dissonant vibrations his engine gave off, and ruined anything mechanical in the firing line.

Now for the hard part. He had practised his lines repeatedly in his quarters, even though he knew he wasn't going to forget them. "We tracked another Decepticon to this location," he said as coldly as he could. "It didn't show up on our maps before, but we're aware of it now. You have three minutes to get out before we strike in force and--"

The growl of another engine made him stop, and a moment later Swindle raced around the building, headlights on and wheels throwing up gravel. "Hold it!" he shouted as he transformed. "Doesn't matter whether you followed me or not, Darklash!"

"Who the slag is Darklash?" Breakdown said over his radio.

"Someone scarier than 'Breakdown'." Swindle went back to speaking aloud. "This facility and everyone in it is under the protection of the Combaticons. Got that?"

"Under…" Breakdown lowered his rifle. "Under your protection?" He looked around, as if expecting all the Combaticons to appear out of nowhere and rush him at once.

"Yes. Erase its location from your nav system and go hit someplace else." Swindle paused for effect, drew himself up to his full (if limited) height and snapped, "That's an order!"

Breakdown couldn't move. Looking around had been a mistake; once his optics met the eyes of the humans fixed on him, he felt as if his limbs had frozen. "Swindle," he said over his radio, "make them stop staring at me--"

Swindle pointed up at once. "Is that a Seeker?"

The humans all stared in the direction he pointed. Breakdown stowed his rifle, transformed and started his engine just as Swindle said, "No, just a low-flying duck. Sorry!"

Breakdown accelerated, and the humans threw themselves out of his way as he shot forward. He heard Swindle say, "All right, citizens, go back to your lives!" as he hurtled down the drive and took the turn, heading back towards the highway. Slowly he started to recover; it was a relief to be away from anyone looking at him.

His radio crackled. "Well, at least that wasn't a complete failure." Swindle sounded relieved too.

"Yes. We'll expect the payment transfer before nineteen hundred today."

There was a pause before Swindle replied. "You know," he said thoughtfully, "that money's yours."

"Of course it's ours." Breakdown didn't understand. Does he think I did all that work for free?

"No, I meant it's yours. As in, it belongs to you in particular, not to anyone else in your team."

"No, it doesn't."

"It does," Swindle insisted. "You're the one who actually got the job done, so the payment belongs to you. Or are you just saying that because you think the other Stunticons will rough you up if you don't--"

"Swindle," Breakdown said carefully, "if you're trying to… what's that word Drag Strip uses? Oh yeah… if you're trying to mindfrag with me--"

"Slag, no! Look, we're working together this time. I don't try that with someone who's on my side." Swindle sighed. "I guess you have to cut Motormaster in..."

"I guess so too, unless I want him torqued off at me." More so than he normally is, anyway.

"…but Drag Strip? He flat-out refused to help! He called you--"

"He's a Stunticon too." Even if Drag Strip had never known about the plan, it would never have occurred to Breakdown to divide the payment into quarters rather than fifths. It was completely acceptable to hold another Stunticon in hatred and contempt – and to hit him, if the aggressor could get away with doing so – but not to cheat him. "Besides, he'll be taking the next assignment."

"Huh? He said…" But Swindle caught on quickly. "Oh, now that you've done it, he won't be able to resist showing he's better."

"Exactly." Breakdown would have grinned if he had been in robot mode. "Just call him something sillier than 'Darklash'."

"Like what, Death Strip?"

Breakdown snickered. Sounds more like a snuff film than a Stunticon - he'll hate being teased about that. "See you back at the base," he said, and cut the connection.

He turned his radio back on. A station was playing a song called "Smooth Criminal" and he hummed along with the music as he touched a comfortable cruising speed of a hundred and fifty. The road unspooled beneath him, taking him towards the seafront town in the distance, the ocean that lay beyond it and his home far beneath the water.