Wildrider twitched, then stared at the kangaroo's head, not sure whether to be surprised. He'd heard that Optimus Prime's severed head had managed to speak to Megatron once, so maybe organics could do the same thing.
On the other hand, it was always possible that that was another side-effect of his insanity. He had what Dead End called "episodes" once in a while – usually when reality became too difficult to bear.
"You're not mad at me?" he said.
"Why would I be?" the kangaroo said. "You didn't mean to hurt me. And while I hate to point out the obvious, you must have noticed that I'm dead. It doesn't hurt to be shot at when you're dead."
"I wish I was dead, then," Wildrider said bitterly. He knew that wasn't like him – of all the Stunticons, he enjoyed life the most – but at the moment there was nothing to enjoy. And he couldn't see anything to live for either, except more punishment in the future when he slagged up again and Motormaster smashed the rest of his things. Then I can live in an empty room. Or maybe I'll just get into this box instead of the trash.
He rested his elbow on the edge of the crate and looked into it. Why not? Humans get put in boxes after they deactivate, so I should just get into this one. No one could hurt me if I was in a box.
"Wildrider," the kangaroo said gently, "it'll be all right."
"No, it won't," Wildrider said without looking away from the crate. He felt defeated in a way the Autobots would never have been able to make him feel, and his shoulders slumped. "You don't know Motormaster like I do. Once he finds a good way to discipline you, he'll do it again and again and again, and I won't have anything left in the end."
"Which end?" the kangaroo said.
"Dead End." Wildrider giggled, then realized that he was starting to slide off the edge. What did that matter now, though? "I should be more like him," he said, swallowing a spurt of crazy laughter. "If I didn't care about anything--"
"Which end?" the kangaroo said again. "That one?"
The bottom of the crate rippled and turned to liquid. Wildrider stared in fascination – it was as though the crate and floor and decks beneath him and the ship's hull itself had vanished, leaving nothing between him and the ocean. He felt as though he was staring down into a great distance, like looking into a well.
"Hey, that's cool," he said. "How did you--"
An image wobbled beneath the water. It reminded Wildrider of the time he had painted the words Someone is wotching you on the bottom of a cube of energon, then left it at Breakdown's place on the table. The joke had lasted exactly long enough for Dead End to point out the misspelling.
This was more fascinating than funny, though, and he watched as the water drained away and disappeared, leaving the image clear. He saw bare cliffs and fallen rocks, but a familiar shadow fell across them. Menasor straightened up from a crouch, Motormaster's sword appearing in one hand.
Wildrider tensed, wondering if something else of his was going to be smashed, but Menasor slid out from behind the piled boulders that had concealed him. Something flashed on the edge of the image, a green and purple smudge that resolved itself into a Constructicon. No, all the Constructicons. Devastator.
Except he turned too slowly as Menasor bulled towards him. Wildrider couldn't hear anything, but for once the silence didn't bother him. He didn't think he could have looked away from the vision before him if Motormaster had stormed back in.
The sword whirled with unstoppable force. Wildrider nearly flinched in sympathy as it smashed into the Constructicon gestalt, but he didn't expect to see Devastator split into his components. That's weird. He's not that much of a wuss.
Why are we fighting Devastator, anyway? The Constructicons had never tried to usurp Megatron. And where are we? He didn't recognize anything – not the place and not even the constellations in the sky.
The Constructicons reformed Devastator, to Wildrider's relief. That was the one normal thing in the whole bizarre scenario. Red optics burned in the battered faceplate, and Devastator's mouth moved as he spoke.
Without looking away, Wildrider knocked sharply on the side of the crate, wondering if that would make the sound come on somehow. That didn't succeed, but Menasor did. One-handed, he hefted the sword. Energy burned raw and bitter along its edge, eclipsing even the bright yellow arm that held it.
He half-twisted, the sword blurring through the air almost too fast to see and all his strength was behind the swing. When the Constructicons went down that time, they didn't re-combine. The five of them lay in a dazed heap before Menasor
Five? Wildrider frowned as the Constructicons bolted for cover, but as they scattered he saw what had lain between them and Menasor. A single cube of energon glowed on the ground.
That's what we were fighting for? One cube?
Menasor reached down for the cube and the scene rippled. It went out of focus and changed to a featureless silver. Wildrider turned to look at the kangaroo's head.
"What the frag was that?" he said.
"Look again," the kangaroo said.
Wildrider glanced down. He saw a huge hall, which looked even larger with great windows that showed another unfamiliar sky and buildings that were lit up. The tiny shapes of fliers circled a few of them. Inside, though, the hall was filled with familiar mechs – the Seekers stood to one side and the Constructicons seemed to be providing music from an upper gallery.
At the end of the hall, on a throne set on a high dais, was Megatron.
"Where is this?" Wildrider said without daring to take his optics off the scene in case it changed before he could look back. Shockwave stood to one side of Megatron. "Is it Cybertron? Is it after we win the war?"
Motormaster stepped into the scene and strode towards the throne. The other Stunticons flanked him, keeping pace as he approached Megatron. Wildrider stared at the small image of himself, and couldn't help being pleased. His paint looked freshly applied, his glass polished deep as rubies and his chrome gleaming.
I'm all shiny. He reached down to see if he could jab Motormaster in the back of the head and maybe knock him over, but the scene just wobbled under his touch and Motormaster kept walking until he reached the dais.
He went to one knee, and the other Stunticons did the same. Megatron smiled slightly, and the scene faded.
"No, no!" Wildrider said. "I didn't mean to do that. Change it back. I wanna see what--"
The bottom of the crate turned a glossy purple. Wildrider drew back a little, startled, and the scene receded as well. He was looking into an optic… an optic set in a red faceplate… his own face, he realized a moment later. Wires and cables plugged into his cranial unit, trailing from the empty socket of his other optic. A tube fed dark fuel into his mouth.
"What the frag?"
The scene receded even further. The wires were hooked up to machines where dials monitored his systems and a printer spat out paper that a human was collecting. A few more humans – armed and in navy-blue uniforms – seemed to be patrolling the area, though they didn't even glance at his immobile form. As though he had been there for so long that they had grown accustomed to him.
Or as though I can't do anything to defend myself, he thought numbly as he saw his open chest and the bare circuits that had been drawn out of his half-dissected hands and plugged back in to make feedback loops. The scene didn't show his legs, and Wildrider wondered whether that was because he no longer had any.
The colors ebbed away as though being washed out of the picture, and a new picture began to form. To his relief he was alive in it, and more than alive, racing. Racing against Dead End, though for some reason they were in a spaceship, and it wasn't Astrotrain.
They neared an armory just as its door began to open. Dead End braked, burning speed and skidding as he did so to line up perfectly parallel with the armory's door. It was such a showy maneuver that Wildrider's own engine revved a little, but the grey Ferrari in the scene only braked even more sharply, ended up airborne – transforming as he did so – and slid smoothly over Dead End's roof to land on his feet on the other side.
Wildrider grinned. Hey, that was neat too--
The door of the armory slid open completely and now he saw who had opened it. The Aerialbot commander stood in the doorway with plasma cannons in both hands.
Wildrider froze, but Dead End didn't even seem to notice Silverbolt as he transformed languidly and brushed a speck of dust off his roof. Silverbolt was saying something, but the sound on Wildrider's makeshift television still wasn't working. He saw himself grin and hold out a hand. Silverbolt tossed him one cannon and Dead End took the other.
"Why is he…" Wildrider couldn't ever recall being more bewildered. "Are we… are we working together?" He thought he would prefer to be back on wherever-it-was fighting Devastator.
The scene altered. A grey Ferrari half-drove and half-bounced through a narrow ravine. The red windows and Decepticon symbol were familiar enough, but to Wildrider's fascination, that car had far more artillery than he did. A cannon of some sort was mounted on the roof, and there were missile launchers on each door. He brightened up at once, wondering if those could take planes down.
Or just plain blow up Autobots, he thought as the police car appeared suddenly, blocking the path through the canyon, strobe lights flashing. The Ferrari's headlong rush never slowed, and one missile fired.
Both of Prowl's headlights flipped over and gun barrels emerged. He shot the missile out of the air in the next instant.
Ooh. Now it's getting interesting. Apparently the Autobot had had some modifications too.
Prowl accelerated. Wildrider couldn't hear the police car's engine roaring, but he didn't need to – the cloud of dust flung up by its rear tires was more than enough – and its shape grew swiftly larger as it closed the distance between itself and the Ferrari. It drove faster than he had ever seen Prowl move, and waves of heat-shimmer rose into the air above it. The sight was confused, blurring, moving at such speed that some 'cons wouldn't have been able to see what happened next.
But Wildrider was used to the lightning pace of events on a battlefield, accustomed to spotting details through choking gusts of smoke and dust. And he noticed everything about road vehicles. He saw the police car's hubcaps protrude outward as if bulging, saw the bulges turn to steel spikes with serrated ridges. The spikes spun.
Prowl slewed to one side as the Ferrari tried to ram him, barely dodging its reinforced grille. He swept back in sideways to bring the whirring spikes against the Ferrari's wheels, but the grey car reacted as fast. It spun around and shot vertically up the side of the cliff, then let gravity pull it into a flip that sent it flying through the air. Twisting, it fired the remaining missile – not at Prowl, but at the cliff above him.
The police car skidded to a near-stop, trying to turn, and a hail of boulders crashed down on it. A wall of dust rose. Wildrider gripped the edges of the crate, willing the scene to clear, and nearly cheered when it did.
He stood there, a little battered, his paintjob smeared to a uniform dullness and his gun in his hands, but there was no sign of Prowl beneath the cairn of rocks. Good, Wildrider thought. I've never seen anything like that on tires… hey, I wonder if the Constructicons could fit them on mine? It was worth a--
Behind the small figure of himself, the ground erupted.
In the scene, Wildrider spun around, but it was already too late. A pale arm shot up through cracked rock. A cable burst from its wrist, whipped out and wrapped itself around the barrel of his scattershot gun. Wildrider saw his own finger tighten on the trigger at once.
Except that was what Prowl had expected him to do, and the cable hadn't been intended to yank the gun out of his hands. It had been to squeeze the barrel shut.
The blinding flash of heat sent him stumbling back, and Prowl took advantage of the moment to drag himself free of the ground. He was battered and scraped, but that wasn't what startled Wildrider – it was the sight of the Autobot's optics.
Or what had been the Autobot's optics, because there was nothing there now, only two hollows that seemed to hold an endless depth. Deadspace and emptiness.
The scene altered. Wildrider yelled in frustration, but stopped as soon as he saw Megatron. Even if he was watching through a crate somehow, only one 'con got to shout his cranial unit off in Megatron's presence, and that was Megatron.
The Decepticon leader looked as though he was in another spaceship, but one which had sustained a lot of damage. There were new scorch marks on the floor, too, and the walls were an ugly orange color. Wildrider looked with interest at the mechs surrounding Megatron and listening as he spoke silently, but he couldn't see himself or any of the other Stunticons anywhere.
Megatron seemed to have finished giving orders. Thundercracker saluted and walked off, while Reflector's three components nodded in unison. Only Starscream, as usual, seemed displeased. He stalked away across the length of the room, past a huge grey form that hung in chains from the roof and swayed a little as the tip of his wing clipped it.
Wildrider frowned. He knew a deactivated Transformer when he saw one, but that shell looked like it might have been Optimus Prime when it had been alive. Is that the Ark? Did we win the war? He had no objections at all to such a happy finale, but what puzzled him were the lack of Stunticons. Everyone else was there – well, everyone except the Combaticons, but they had never been all that loyal – so where was Megatron's elite gestalt?
"See the plaque on the wall?" a voice said.
Wildrider started – he had forgotten all about the kangaroo whose head he still held – but the small plaque caught his attention at once. He dialed up the zoom function on his optics and read the words that looked as though they had been burned on to flat metal with a laser.
In memory of the Stunticons, who gave their lives to the Decepticon cause.
"We did what?" Wildrider's voice came out as a squawk, but the scene changed again. This time, even when he saw himself tearing down an open highway with the sun pouring down on him, he didn't relax. Something terrible was going to happen, he just knew it. Even though the place looked like Earth and he was evidently alive, there was sure to be some nasty surprise in store.
In the distance was a city, and the grey Ferrari sped towards it.
The sunlight made the city blaze as if it was plated with mirrors. Even at that distance, it stung Wildrider's optics a little, but the Ferrari only rocketed on towards huge gates that opened at the last moment. Wildrider watched, wondering if he would have a demolition derby or something else that felt normal.
The road ahead was… strange, though. The Ferrari took it easily. Not only was it kept in excellent condition, but it was deserted, no traffic lights or any such human slag. It would have been perfect for racing, except that it looped and turned back on itself periodically as if tracing a pattern through the city. Wildrider could tell that the Ferrari was making progress onward, but he couldn't understand why the road wasn't just straight, instead of curving and twisting and even making what looked like a figure-S track.
Before he could decipher that, though he saw the statues of racecars on either side, all on pedestals. Some were in marble and others metal, but they all looked ferociously gaudy, plated with gold or studded with topazes.
Wildrider began to get a suspicious feeling, especially when the statues changed to ones of a mech who seemed somehow familiar (although huge and impossibly regal). Moments later he reached the end of the road. It was the heart of the city, and all around were giant mirrors that reflected Drag Strip, who was in the central plaza. He was stretched out on a pedestal even higher than Megatron's dais, surrounded by humans who seemed to be polishing him, bringing him energon and singing his praises in general. Bright yellow banners streamed out overhead. And to Wildrider's utter horror, he realized that even the road which had led him there had been built to spell out Drag Strip's name.
"Okay, that's it! Stop!"
Wildrider looked around desperately for a lid, found none and turned the crate upside down instead. He was half afraid that the scene would spill out somehow, maybe swallowing him up and sending him to some world where Drag Strip's ego reigned unchecked, but to his relief the crate behaved just like a crate. Sighing, he leveled an accusing look at the kangaroo's head, which gazed back at him innocently.
"What was that?" he said, gesturing at the crate with his free hand.
The kangaroo blinked. "Life isn't a straight road with only one possible end. In the future, it could be better than it is now."
"It could be worse, too!" Wildrider thought the only end he'd really liked had been the one on Cybertron, where they had all gathered for Megatron's victory, and even that scene had been over before it had begun. Though if there was some future Earth where he had a city to himself, like Drag Strip, it wouldn't be too bad either. Especially if his city had obstacle courses and ramps and flyovers and plenty of things to crash into, things that looked like Motormaster.
He turned the crate over curiously, but the bottom was solid. He tapped it hard with a finger, but nothing happened. Disappointed, he looked at the kangaroo, which twitched muscles above its eyes as if trying to raise nonexistent optic ridges.
"It distracted you when you needed it. You don't need it any more."
I guess not. Wildrider set the kangaroo's head down carefully. Might as well start cleaning up, he thought and started to fill the crate.
"So none of it was real?" he said as he worked. "I'm fragged in the head, so maybe I just imagined that I saw us starving to death or winning the war. But if it wasn't my imagination, I want to know. I want to know how it's going to end for us."
"You can't and it doesn't." The kangaroo spoke so simply that for a moment Wildrider thought it had gone as crazy as he was – maybe insanity was contagious if you shared a room. "It's like looking down a highway and knowing one exit ramp will take you north and the other south. Doesn't mean you know right away which one you're going to take. Or which one will be better for you, in the long drive. You know now that there could be futures where you fail and worlds where you win, but I'm sure you'd rather be alive and fighting over a cube of energon than dead and remembered only in a few words on the wall of the Autobot ship. Which Megatron would have abandoned anyway when he returned to Cybertron."
"You mean he wouldn't even have taken our frames to the Crypt?"
"There was nothing to take."
Wildrider couldn't decide whether to be horrified or confused, and settled for both. "How did that even… wait, how do you know?"
The kangaroo's gaze shifted from side to side. "I'm guessing," it said, and peeked cautiously at him.
Wildrider didn't buy the excuse. "C'mon, tell me! Or I'll… I'll…" He couldn't think of any threat which would work on something which had been beheaded and shot at, but seemed unconcerned. "Okay, then tell me how can I make sure that we don't end up dead. Or with me being some humans' prisoner with wires stuffed up ports I didn't even know I had."
The kangaroo tilted its head a little as if deep in thought. "The only sure way to not die is to never stop living."
Wildrider glared at it. "I think I liked it better when you weren't talking."
"Sorry." The kangaroo glanced down. "Didn't mean to get all philosophical on you. What I meant was… don't feel sorry for yourself or be ready to give up too soon. Your team's already got that, so they don't need any more of it. They need you instead."
Wildrider couldn't help feeling a little better – like the time he had gotten lost in some Arabian desert, had nearly burned his engine out from overheating and had then driven straight into an oasis because he'd taken it for a mirage. He still remembered the glub-glub of water bubbling through his vents and the delicious cool feeling as he'd sunk beneath the surface.
The best part, though, had been jumping out when Motormaster approached the oasis, looked around and demanded to know where he was.
"See?" The corners of the kangaroo's mouth turned up. "I can talk about living but you do it. And none of what you saw was the end, either. Life has a way of going on, no matter what happens or who's defeated, so sooner or later you have to go on with it."
Wildrider had almost finished filling the crate. "So it's like a film?" he said as he picked up the last few things. "You think it's over when the credits roll, but it turns out there's a sequel?"
"Yeah. Except you get to decide whether there is one – and to some extent, what role you're going to play."
Wildrider liked the sound of that. He propped his elbows on the crate and leaned forward. "Okay, but you've got to tell me how you know all this. How 'bout if I give you a… a…" What could a disembodied head use? "A hat?"
Before the kangaroo could reply, there was a knock on the door.
Wildrider jerked, turning sharply before he realized it couldn't be Motormaster, who wouldn't have knocked. When he gave the order to open, the door slid aside and Breakdown looked around and behind him before stepping in.
"We're halfway through the film, so I thought you might need some help," he said.
Wildrider grinned, gesturing at the full crate. "Nah. I cleaned it all up."
The tentative, concerned expression drained off Breakdown's face, leaving it curiously blank. His gaze slid across the room and when it returned to Wildrider, he looked skeptical instead.
"What?" Wildrider said.
"Wildrider," Breakdown said carefully, "you've boxed up everything that isn't broken."
Wildrider felt his mouth open and close. He stared around and saw for the first time what he had done. "Slag." Shaking his head, he began to empty the crate. "I must've gotten distracted talking to it."
"To what?" Breakdown knelt beside the crate and took the collection of model cars out.
"The kangaroo. Well, its head anyway."
Breakdown stopped. "Its head?"
Wildrider pointed at the kangaroo's head, waiting for it to confirm what he had just said. There was no reply. The black glass eyes looked flat as a stone floor, and less revealing.
"Well, it was talking," he said, turning to Breakdown. "It told me things would be better in the future – no, no, there was more than that, it showed me what might happen to us! In the crate. It was like watching different clips of shows on TV, 'cause there was one where we were all on Cybertron and there was another where Prowl was so fragging--"
Breakdown slapped him.
Wildrider's head snapped to one side. For a moment he thought he was in some kind of bizarre scenario all over again, but there hadn't been any sound previously. Now the sharp clank of metal on metal still rang in his audials, and the numbness of the impact gave way to a hot sting.
Not that that would have bothered him at all, normally – thanks to Motormaster, his pain threshold was almost as high as a Seeker's cruising altitude. But what left him shocked was being hit by Breakdown. That had never happened before. Breakdown swung back when they fought or grappled playfully, but he never threw the first punch.
"Wildrider?" Breakdown said.
Still unable to process what had just happened, Wildrider turned his head, half-expecting to see some crazy Prowl-like version of Breakdown with molten optics and spiked armor. There was no such change, though, and Breakdown looked just as taken aback. I can't believe he hit me, Wildrider thought. He's so quiet and nervous and scared--
He still is.
The gestalt link showed him that. He did what he always did when something couldn't be understood with his conscious mind – he sank into the subconscious side of it instead, the bond that would exist as long as they lived. And he felt Breakdown's fear clearly. Not fear of him, but of his continuing to slide off the edge, of Motormaster's reaction but worse, of what would happen if they couldn't bring him back.
Since he knew exactly what Breakdown did under such circumstances, he tapped into the Stunticon channel.
"It's Wildrider," he heard Breakdown say. "He's having another epitaph."
"Episode," Dead End corrected.
Drag Strip made a contemptuous sound. "Wildrider doesn't have episodes – he has an entire fragging series."
"You watch it or I'll flatten your faceplate," Wildrider snapped. Just because he was crazy didn't mean he had to take slag from Drag Strip. "And I won't tell you about your city either. I'll bet those humans spit in your energon when you aren't looking."
The silence that followed ended only when Breakdown said, "See what I mean?" and cut the transmission. He looked at Wildrider, then spoke quietly and openly. "Wildrider… whatever you think you saw, it wasn't real. None of it."
"But…" Wildrider didn't mind not being able to see the scenes in the bottom of the crate, but he felt as if Breakdown was taking away their afterimages in his memory as well. He looked at the kangaroo for help but the severed head just lay on the ground, dead and silent.
"You were imagining things," Breakdown said, "and we don't blame you. That's… well, that's just a conditioner you have."
In other words, I'm insane, Wildrider thought. So it hadn't been something special that had happened to make up for what Motormaster had done. It hadn't been a secret revealed to him and him alone. It had just been his fragged-up, broken, stupid stupid stupid mind.
"You can't really help it, but you're okay now," Breakdown said. "Doesn't matter what you were saying before. You're fine now."
"I guess I am," Wildrider said slowly. He didn't feel fine, but that was better than Breakdown agreeing with him and telling him what a mess he was. The magic was gone, anyway, long gone. The kangaroo's head was just that – a stuffed animal's head that would be incinerated soon – the crate was a crate, and a room half full of broken things was a room half full of broken things.
The tense line of Breakdown's shoulders relaxed, and he smiled hesitantly. "I'll help clean up, okay?" Wildrider nodded, and he glanced around. "We can get another kite. But he broke your cookie clock too."
"Uh, no, I opened that up. I'm gonna paint the cuckoo to look like Laserbeak."
Breakdown stared at him, shook his head and continued to work. Wildrider joined him, and within minutes it was done – everything ruined was in the crate. Except me, Wildrider thought as Breakdown put the kangaroo's head inside, on top of the rest of the trash. He looked from the broken things in the box to the whole ones on their shelves – half of his belongings in one place and half in the other.
And he realized that while part of him was broken too, and had been since the moment of his creation, the other part wasn't. Maybe it never would be, no matter what happened in the future. Or even in the present. He'd managed to struggle back after what Motormaster had done – and had made him do – to his belongings, and he hadn't given in to despair or hopelessness. He would live. We all will.
"I'll take that," he said as Breakdown got up with the crate in his arms. Breakdown relinquished it, but the skeptical look appeared again.
Wildrider sighed. "I'm going down to the incinerators, Breakdown. You can come with me if you think I'm going to put all this in my subspace compartments instead."
"I guess it's your call if you are." Breakdown opened the door.
"Slag, I'm not that crazy." Wildrider did keep a lot of what the other Stunticons considered junk in his subspace pockets, but none of it was smashed or nonfunctioning. "I'm not even broken." Just cracked… and sometimes the cracks let the light in.
"Or out," the kangaroo whispered as he walked away down the corridor.
Author's note : Thanks for reading and reviewing. :) The first scenario Wildrider sees is taken from the episode "Five Faces of Darkness", and others are from either AUs or as-yet-unwritten fics of mine. Except the one with Drag Strip's city, which is too horrifying to contemplate for long.
Also, the modification to Prowl's tires is a shameless rip-off from Messala's chariot wheels in the film Ben-Hur.