Location: Earth's Atmosphere, En Route to Nemesis
Time: 3:10 PM (PST)
Starscream didn't like admitting that things were out of his control. Before the war, he had been the commanding officer for countless Seekers in the Cybertronian Air Force and an aide for Optimus Prime's predecessor, Sentinel Prime. More recently, he had been appointed as the commander of the Decepticon forces when Megatron had left to gather more troops, a position he had held for three Earth years. During that time, he had set the forces to work at mining the rich Energon deposits: no vein was touched without his command. He had been in control, the same way he was in control of his flight while he and his squadron flew towards the Nemesis.
When the rogues had attacked, that had been an affront to his control. Encountering Slipstream with that Minicon, whose involvement with the attacks had been confirmed several times already, had disturbed the Sky Commander far more than he had let on. Knowing that she was part of the group was a development that had to be approached with caution. Such was Slipstream's reputation.
As the Seeker and his guard flew into a position next to the Nemesis and the code was sent to open the hanger, he pondered. Before the War, Slipstream had been an ex-scientist that had switched her focus to military affairs not long before Megatron's revolution, and at the time of the Battle of Praxus, she had risen to the commanding position of the Stalkers, a sub-division of the Air Force. Unlike the Energon Seekers, Stalkers were less focused on bombing and dogfights and collectively well-known for their skills in stealth, sniping, and recon, and were considered to be the fastest breed of flier on Cybertron. Slipstream had been the finest hunter on the planet during those times, and had been Starscream's trusted lieutenant.
He knew her service record was impressive, almost stellar. He also knew, as they glided and landed inside the massive warship, that not long after the Great Exodus, Slipstream had vanished and never come back. The popular opinion on the Nemesis was that she was a yellow-plated deserter, but Starscream – like the surviving Stalkers – wasn't so sure of that. It didn't fit at all with personal experiences with her. She was cunning, cruel, and sarcastic, among other things, but she wasn't a coward.
The Decepticons on duty shut the doors, allowing the ship's artificial atmosphere to return to the hanger. The arch-Seeker and his guard transformed and landed on their pedes, and without a word he began to return to the ship at large. Those on duty saluted as they opened the door, but he only nodded curtly before dismissing his guards.
They melted into the labyrinth of corridors – probably heading to the rec room for a refuel. Ordinarily Starscream would head up to the bridge, where he could keep on top of any intelligence that Soundwave and his subordinates had dug up, but not now. Soundwave would want to know just why he had contacted him about the Hardlock, and now was not the time for everyone and their split-spark twin to know that Slipstream had emerged from the void of unexplored space.
That had been partly why the grey-red Seeker had not ordered for a groundbridge to be opened for him. He needed time to get his thoughts – and plans – in order.
The War Room was on the deck above this one, located midship. Starscream made it there quickly, and when he sealed the doors behind him and checked the monitors, he found that Thundercracker had followed his instructions to the letter. Every image capture taken by the drone they had planted above the site, along with audio and video clips donated by the other Seekers that had participated in the ambush, had been condensed and sent to the War Room.
Downloading the information into a datachip and erasing traces of it from the memory banks, the Seeker looked it over. True, the audio wasn't as good as Soundwave could have made it, and perhaps the videos and images weren't as crisp, but they would suit his needs. Starscream reopened his comm. channels and sought out one Decepticon in particular. ::Nightshock, come in.::
Barely a nanoklik passed before a reply came. ::Yes, Lord Starscream,:: said the femme, voice silvery and smooth despite the fact she must have just come out of recharge.
::Report to the War Room immediately.::
::I'm on my way. Nightshock out.::
The entire exchange could not have lasted longer than twenty astroseconds. Such was Nightshock's nature: cool, efficient, and deadly. She had been the second in command of the Stalkers since Slipstream had vanished, and as its current leader, she would be the best to confer with about this situation. For some reason, Nightshock didn't enjoy being the leader, preferring the days when she had been Slipstream's right-servo-femme. Starscream didn't see how anyone could prefer being second to anyone, but to each their own.
True to form, it wasn't long before the doors opened to admit the Stalker. The femme – as an officer that did not operate on Earth – still wore the alt-mode that was programmed into her after she had emerged from the Well of All Sparks: the model of inter-stellar jets that the Stalkers all had as their primary alt-mode. Her frame was a velvety black, with ribbons of electric blue criss-crossing over her like the stripes of the Earth tiger.
"You sent for me, my Lord?" Nightshock asked, standing with her backstrut straight and wings rigid before the Decepticon throne. For the last three years it had been vacant, waiting for Megatron to return from his travels, but after the space bridge incident, the Seeker had begun to occupy it himself. Some of the original Decepticons – the gladiators and laborers from Kaon that Megatron had rallied – had grumbled that this was a sacrilege, as Megatron was still alive, but she herself saw the wisdom.
Alive the Decepticon Warlord might be, but there wasn't much leading he could do while in stasis lock.
"Affirmative. There has been a new development in the situation with the rogues, and a puzzling one at that. I believe you could shed some clarity to it – you have been keeping up on it, I presume?"
"That I have, though I do not understand my Lord's meaning," she murmured, her thin optic ridges furrowing in confusion. "But if I can be of service to you, I will."
Satisfied, the grey Energon Seeker passed the datachip to her. "These were taken from an ambush arranged less than one Earth hour ago. Two of the rogues returned to the scene of last night's attack, and fell into our trap."
"Where are they now?" Nightshock asked, opening a port on her left arm to insert the chip into.
"They were able to escape through a groundbridge. Once you see their identities, you will see how that was possible."
Curiosity piqued by Starscream's avoidance of the subject – that was not something he did very often – the black-blue Stalker plugged the chip into her arm and downloaded the content inside to her processer. From his position on the Decepticon throne, the arch-Seeker had a very good view to her reaction to the data: her wings at first drooped in astonishment, then flared out as her body unconsciously tightened, her fight-or-flight programs being run.
"Slipstream is here? In this system?" she asked, her voice somewhat faltering, as if she was unsure of herself – strange on its own, as Nightshock was a very confident femme.
"Yes, Nightshock. Tell me, does Slipstream seem like herself in those images?"
The Stalker recovered quickly, and was once again composed when she replied. "No, my Lord. The light in her optics is unfocused, like she is confused. While it wouldn't be a surprise when she got ambushed, the images of her falling and shooting at your lieutenants show the same thing. I'm no medic, but it may indicate processer damage, as I doubt the time away from the Decepticons was sufficient to erase memories of the War."
"I agree. Records show that Lord Megatron" – Nightshock noted that Starscream didn't bother to hide his sneer of contempt in regard to the comatose ex-gladiator – "dispatched her alone from the Nemesis five stellar cycles after the Exodus. Her mission took her close to where the Autobot force was last known to be at the time, in search of an artifact from the time of the Golden Age, and she never returned."
"Close to Autobot-controlled space," mused the femme, removing the datachip from her arm and turning it over between two fingers. "Perhaps they caused what ails her now. I doubt Prime had a direct servo in it, but there must be scientists with fewer scruples embedded in their ranks. My Lord, did the records say what the artifact was?"
"Negative, but they did suggest the artifact was on Earth."
"It may still be on Earth, if she was captured and never recovered it."
"Perhaps, but that isn't my intent. If we find the rogues again, the skills of Silent Echo will be required planetside to apprehend Slipstream and her cohorts."
"We will be ready when the time comes. Burning Sky, Shadewing, and Blackwind have all wished to serve on Earth for a time."
"Very good. Return to your squad: I must task Soundwave with finding any transmissions that will indicate they have come back. I will contact you when the time comes."
"Yes, my Lord." Nightshock turned and began walking to the door, then paused as a thought occurred to her. "My Lord, if we are successful in capturing the rogues, what will be their fate?"
Upon the Decepticon throne, Starscream's expression was almost forbidding, but his response was cool. "The grounder, the Minicons, and the two other fliers will be questioned extensively, and if they do not have any other use to us, they will be disposed of. Slipstream will be analyzed, questioned, and – if circumstances transpire in our favor – she may return to the Decepticons. Am I clear, Captain Nightshock?"
"Yes, my Lord." The ebony-blue femme took her leave of the War Room, and when the clicks of her heel struts faded from his audio perception, Starscream left as well.
Location: Nemesis, Deck D
Time: 3:24 PM (PST)
Deck D was the part of the Nemesis that was mainly occupied by the fliers. Most were former members of the Cybertronian Air Force that had joined the Decepticons, though their reasons had varied. Flying gladiators had been rare in the pits of Kaon and Slaughter City, but many of that rare breed had been part of Megatron's revolutionary force. Others had joined out of fear for their lives when Vos had been invaded and taken, but they were not fully trusted by the other Decepticons. The vast majority were the lieutenants that had followed Starscream to Megatron's side, and they made up the highest ranks of this new Air Force.
Nightshock was amongst the most powerful of the fliers, and was considered a minor power on the Nemesis – or would be if she and her squadron were actually on the cruiser long enough to play the cutthroat games of the commanding officers. When the Hardlock was docked, she was a common sight on Deck D, but she didn't interact very much with anyone other than members of the Stalkers. Today, she didn't converse with anyone she met outside of salutations – she was too busy thinking.
She was returning to the rest of Silent Echo: the elite squadron of fliers that was commanded by the leader of the Stalkers. Nightshock had inherited leadership of the group upon Slipstream's disappearance, but even the change in headship had not affected the team's fearsome reputation and flawless mission record. This mission happened to have more on the line than most did, however.
Starscream's parting words had implied that Slipstream might return to her position as the arch-Stalker. Nightshock hoped that he was telling the truth, and that circumstances would conspire to restore her friend – being the boss of an entire division plus a mixed squadron, as opposed to being the second to Slipstream, both in the squad and in their trine, was not much fun. She just needed to fill her squad in on the situation.
Pausing in front of a door, the Stalker keyed in the access code that opened the portal into the quarters for Silent Echo, letting it slide open. After their return from an assignment in another system, everyone was either recharging or relaxing; Nightshock herself had been in recharge after wrapping up her report to Soundwave when Starscream had called for her.
Much to her surprise, everyone was active and waiting, a pall of smoke hovering in the artificial atmosphere. That emanated from Sunraider's cy-gar, who was sitting in a chair beside the table Burning Sky and Shadewing occupied, watching them play cards. Blackwind had reclaimed ownership of the dark corner, surrounded by stacks of datapads – probably working on his latest flight of scientific fancy. Back in the old days, Nightshock and Slipstream would have been with him, helping with the work, but responsibilities kept the current Stalker leader occupied.
Gesturing for the dark Energon Seeker to join her, the black and blue femme crossed the room and pulled up a seat beside the others. Something in her expression must have tipped them off, since the two other Stalkers immediately put away their card hands and Sunraider extinguished his cy-gar.
"What was up, Boss?" Burning Sky asked, the dim light wrapping over her scarlet and ebony shell as she spoke. "What'd Starscream want?"
"Probably another mission," answered Blackwind, taking a seat next to gold-plated Sunraider. "That was it, right?"
"If it is, I hope it sounded more exciting than the last one," grumbled Shadewing, whose dark grey armor almost made her look like a female version of Starscream. "There weren't enough Autobots to make it worth the trip."
For a moment Nightshock was quiet, looking at the other four – at Shadewing, the youngest member of Silent Echo; at Burning Sky, the wielder of heavy weapons and her fellow trinemate; at Blackwind, the field medic; at Sunraider, the Seeker whose sniping skills were on par with Slipstream herself. All had been part of the original Silent Echo during the Great War, yet they all unconsciously left a space when they gathered for a meeting. Despite Slipstream's disappearance and the fact they had an empty place for a new warrior, they had never moved to fill it. Somehow, they all knew that the original Stalker commander could not be replaced.
"No," she finally said, placing the datachip Starscream had given her onto the table. "It has something to do with Slipstream."
Location: Olympus Mons, Mars
Time: 4:45 PM (Earth PST)
Much to the surprise of the two beat-up rogues, the apocalyptic dressing-down they had been expecting from their conference with Battleburst did not come. After reporting their respective encounters with the enemy to the indigo-silver femme, it was the Blackbird-former's turn to drop a proverbial bomb.
As it turned out, she and Scatterray had been expected something like this to happen for some time.
"You think they could've told us," grumbled Lunarflash, getting off the medical berth and stretching her joints, the new welds on her replaced armor plates gleaming on her ventral side. Her body had taken a sound beating from the black-yellow mudslogger that had forced her and Quicksilver to ground, with plasma burns on her shins and crumple marks from hard stone all over her torso. By contrast, Slipstream had escaped with minor damage, mostly cosmetic in nature.
Across the room, Slipstream herself put away the paint she had been applying to her scratches and fanned her wings, trying to make it dry faster. "Technically they did – just not beforehand."
"True," the Skyraider conceded. "Still would've been nice if they did tell us earlier – we wouldn't have been as worried about their reaction if they did."
The Stalker shrugged, waving aside Scatterray's medical drones and opening the way out. "Maybe that was the point: always expect the worst from life."
"Great, another one of those life-lessons Scatterray's always giving us. Just what I needed." A pause as the two femmes left the medical bay and began walking down the hallways side-by-side, then: "Sometimes I think the others don't trust us."
"Think about it, Lunarflash: They stumbled across our stasis-locked shells in that Primus-forsaken jungle, and when they reactivated us, we had no clue how we had gotten there. Do you think we'd trust ourselves, if we were in their position?"
A sigh came from the younger flier – clearly she was determined to remain in a foul mood. Slipstream readjusted her line of thought to something that had occurred to her since they had entered the medbay, than broached its accompanying subject carefully. "You probably have a point, though. They're hiding something, or at least are up to something."
"And that's supposed to be news? They lead this crusade we're on; they're always up to something."
"Suspend your disbelief for a klik and listen. While those drones were welding your armor back on, I heard the bridge activate and then deactivate. It might not mean anything, but it sounds a bit odd. And I don't know about you, but I think it's a little strange about how I managed to outrace Starscream and his crew to the bridge back here. Battleburst always said that he was the fastest flier in the Decepticon army, even with an Earth alt-mode. So how could I beat him through pure speed?"
Lunarflash was silent for a few moments, allowing Slipstream to duck back to the Energon dispensary and get two cubes for themselves. After ingesting about a third of the cube's contents, the Skyraider added slowly, "You're right. There was another thing about it, something I didn't mention to Battleburst: that Decepticon I fought had a Human with him: A little Human, with a gold helm decoration, some sort of optical enhancement on his faceplate, and a yellow, blue, and white chassis."
"Technically, all Humans are little compared to us, Lune. Do you mean 'halfway up your lower leg' little or 'barely to your pede-joint' little?"
"Definitely pede-joint, though I think his helm décor gave him some extra height. It's weird, since the most contact Decepticons have with the fleshlings is when they accidentally step on them. I doubt that a special division of their crew would have Human companions – those two we fought last night didn't have any."
Before they could think too deeply into this, their comm. links crackled, and Scatterray's voice echoed in their audio receptors. "Slipstream, Lunarflash, come to the communications center. You'll want to see this."
Location: Jasper, Nevada (Outskirts)
Time: 4:51 PM (PST)
Bumblebee was still in the medical wing of the Autobot base, but Raf doubted that it was because Ratchet still needed to patch him up. The last time he'd wandered by, Arcee and Optimus had been in there too, so they were probably pumping his friend for information on the fight. Optimus would need the details to accurately pass them along to Agent Fowler, certainly, but it would most likely come down to one single question: Would Lunarflash, the flier that had attacked him and Bumblebee in the desert, be safe to welcome back into the ranks, if and when they finally apprehended her?
It had been something Raf had been thinking about since that very morning – had it just been that morning? – when Bumblebee had filled him in on the new Cybertronians and told him about how he and Lunarflash had been friends back on Cybertron, sort of like Bulkhead and Wheeljack's friendship even though he and she had not been part of the same part of the Autobots, and that – according to Bumblebee himself – pure luck had caused them to be fighting together in their first battle.
Sitting in the nook the Autobots had set aside for their Human companions, the blond boy looked around at the others. Jack and Miko had found the whole angle of Bumblebee knowing one of the rogue Cybertronians fascinating to a point, but they had been far more intrigued when Raf had told them that the same female had attacked them on the way to the base. Miko had been disappointed it hadn't happened to her and Bulkhead: both because she was confident that he could've beaten Lunarflash and brought her to base, and that she had missed out on another brawl between Cybertronians. She'd been forced to be content with Raf's account, and he'd thrown in extra details to make sure she was placated. There were few things in the galaxy scarier than a grouchy Miko, aside from a ticked-off Megatron or Ratchet in the blackest of foul moods.
Even the eyewitness account of a clash of the titans couldn't hold the attention of the others forever – after a while Jack's eyes had started to glaze over – so their powwow had eventually broken up. Jack had shifted into his own little corner to do his homework, whereas Miko had been spending her time procrastinating on her homework, alternatively between video games and her drawing pad. She had shifted the pad into an angle that allowed the 9th-grader to get a glimpse of what she was working on, and while not quite on par with some of his artist classmates, it was undoubtedly a rough sketch of a Sukhoi Su-35, Lunarflash's alt-mode.
The image returned Raf to his original question: was Lunarflash really someone they wanted hanging around base? The boy tried to imagine the black-and-white flier – who had, in the course of her brawl with Bumblebee, fused his door-wing-joints and tried to use what had been identified as an EMP Shotgun on him – playing video games with him, Jack, and Miko, Lobbing with Bulkhead, and dodging wrenches from Ratchet. With his only impression being a negative one, Raf couldn't envision it, despite Bumblebee's vouching for her.
Curiosity now aroused, he pulled out his laptop and booted it up. Early in their partnership with the Autobots, he had configured the computer's systems so he could exchange data with the base's mainframe. Doing so had allowed Ratchet to gain access to Human programs, but since it worked both ways, Raf could access some of the data files the Autobots themselves had. Optimus had configured them to be read in English and Japanese (for Miko's sake) as well as Cybertronian, but when Ratchet had discovered this, the somewhat paranoid medic had encrypted some of the more important programs.
The blonde computer whiz hadn't yet bothered to try and crack them – assuming he was successful with the Cybertronian codes in the first place, he had seen the medic throw too many wrenches at high velocity to make the attempt.
The encrypted systems were mostly concerning the base's functions and the Autobots' private connection to Agent Fowler, but Raf wasn't interested in those: he was more interested in the service records. Casting a casual look over the top of his screen – neither Miko nor Jack had noticed his actions – he pulled up the database and began searching for Lunarflash. While the database could search by anything from rank to "chassis build" (whatever that was), he simply entered in what he knew.
A half-dozen hits appeared, but it didn't take much searching to find the flier he was looking for: the image attached to her records confirmed it, even if she was in a base Cybertronian form. Unknown to him, he was seeing the same data that Optimus Prime had pulled up earlier that day.
Unlike the Autobot leader, however, his eyes were the eyes of a hacker. And even without seeing the bare code, he knew there had been some hacking done before he had shown up.
The ninth-grader's eyebrows knit in puzzlement and resolve. He couldn't access the code unless Ratchet or Optimus – or both – allowed him, and neither were available at the moment. All the same, he wouldn't need to look at the code to know that the data concerning Lunarflash's status was corrupted, or at least been tampered with by a better hacker than him.
His musings were cut off by an alarm from the giant array of computers that Ratchet was so protective over. A loud chorus of heavy pedesteps heralded Ratchet sprinting back in like his skidplates were on fire, hotly pursued by Arcee, Bumblebee, and Optimus himself. Jack and Miko had dropped their notebooks and were peering over the side of the nook to listen in on what was being said; Raf shut his laptop and joined them on the sofa.
"Unknown Cybertronian signatures detected in Arizona," Ratchet reported, everyone trying to read over his shoulders. "Seems to be centered on the Grand Canyon region; two of the signatures match the rogues Arcee, Bulkhead, and Bumblee fought."
Optimus leaned over and sent a signal, calling Bulkhead back from patrol duty while Ratchet found the ex-Wreaker and opened a groundbridge. Behind the Prime, Bumblebee sent out a few clicks and whistles, outlining his question.
"We'll have to see," he said quietly in response, as the portal closed behind the arriving Bulkhead.
A/N: Bleeeeh. Sorry about how long this took, guys; I hit a patch of writer's block, and the end of this feels kinda weak to me. , Hopefully I'll be able to make up for it by writing a good, proper action-y fight in the next chapter.
I'm guesstimating there'll be two, maybe three, more chapters left in Loose Ends, then I'll take a break and prepare for the sequel.
Thanks for your patience. =D