A/N: Here is Chapter 10, possibly the last post for the year for this story. Thank you to all who continue to follow me even in spite of the long spaces in-between chapters. This chapter officially begins the set-up I have planned for Starscream, as well as gives more of an idea of his life at the Autobot base. Plus, a few more familiar characters make the scene. Hopefully, I've gotten their personalities down well enough. Enjoy!

Now for those review responses I couldn't do personally:

To moonlightnight1, thank you for the review. I hope you enjoy this chapter as well.

To G. Wings, I think I can arrange that wish of yours concerning Hound eventually. In fact, I suspect it will be done very soon. ^^

Qwertzu, it's always a pleasure to pick up a new reader. I hope this satisfies your wait. ^^

Samson443, good to see you again. Hope this chapter will be worth the wait for you.

Warnings for this chapter: None

Time units (as found on TFWiki):
Breem - 8.3 minutes
Orn - 1 Cybertronian day (2 Earth weeks)
Joor - 1 Cybertronian hour (6 to 6.5 hours)
Vorn - 1 Cybertronian year (83.3 Earth years)
Klik - 1 Cybertronian minute

"Hounded out by everyone/Met with hatred everywhere/No kind words from anyone/No compassion anywhere." - Phantom of the Opera, Down Once More

Iacon - Autobot HQ, 3 orns later
Rec Room

"Hey, Starscream!"

Starscream looked up at the sound of the jovial greeting, smiling when he saw who it was. "Wheeljack." He then turned his attention back to the datapad he was holding, idly gesturing towards the seat next to him as he did so.

Wheeljack's fins flashed a bright yellow as he took the offered chair, chuckling and shaking his head as he did so. Some would have called the Seeker rude for his casual attitude towards him, but over the last ten vorns he'd worked with Starscream, he'd come to notice the signs indicating that the jet had become absorbed in a new project of some type. One of those was being more interested in a datapad than in the world around him. Wheeljack took a few sips of his energon, watching as Starscream frowned, muttered about how that wasn't right, and erased and corrected some details of whatever had him so absorbed. After a few kliks, the Chief Engineer got curious enough to speak up.

"So, what're you working on?"

Starscream didn't even look up as he replied distractedly, "A weapons system."

Wheeljack raised a browridge. He had to admit he hadn't been expecting that answer. Sure, such tasks were part of their duties here, but Starscream hadn't really involved himself too deeply in the creation of the Autobots' weapons, just the analysis and testing for the most part, plus a little repairing. Wheeljack suspected it had something to do with the notion of not wanting to be considered a weapon, but he'd never asked, not quite knowing how to bring up such a tender subject. To see him break from his usual habits was curious, to say the least. "Really? What type?"

A slightly annoyed look crossed the jet's features. "Wheeljack..."

"Hey, take it easy." Wheeljack held up his hands. "I'm just curious, that's all. It's not something you normally do."

Starscream glanced back at the datapad in his hands. This had been one of the projects he'd come up with while imprisoned, but he'd never been able to come up with more than a bare outline for it. Now, he was able to take the time to do a more in-depth look. His first ten vorns in the army hadn't allowed for it, and skirmishes and other duties hadn't really given him much of a chance to work on the idea for the next ten, but he'd done his best to find time to work on it. The design was a simple one, but it would do the job. The only problem was his difficulty in finding a method to channel the flow of energy properly. All of his simulations were falling short, either proving too lethal or not effective enough.

He glanced back at Wheeljack. As much as he didn't care to ask for help (and Wheeljack's help more often than not proved to be explosive when he did), it probably couldn't hurt to ask for advice. After all, not like I'm asking him to help me build it.

Starscream handed the datapad over, explaining as he did so: "For some time I've had the idea of creating a defensive weapon, one that has the capability of scrambling electronic relays. It can stun a mech to various degrees without killing them." He suddenly looked uncomfortable as he said the next words: "I decided I needed a better method of fighting after Simfur..."

Ah, that explains it, Wheeljack thought as he scanned the datapad. The schematics displayed a weapon of approximately arm-length. It had a simple, yet sleek appearance, narrow and thin. The weapon also appeared to be designed to be hardwired directly into one's systems, mounted as if it were part of a mech's physical design.

The engineer had never seen something quite like this before, and could imagine that if it worked, it would likely pack a pretty good punch. "What do you call this?" he asked.

"I call it a null-ray." The Seeker leaned back in his seat. "But I've run into a problem. If you look further down, you'll see that I've had to do a bit of internal rewiring. I can't seem to find the right combination for some reason, and the internal simulations I've run have all proven unsuccessful. The weapon either kills or fails to incapacitate enough."

Wheeljack scanned and saw what Starscream was talking about. He did a few tweaks of the design, but found the same results when he did his own simulations. He frowned behind his mask, thinking. After a moment, he said, "Maybe it's not the wiring. Have you tried inserting a power converter in there?"

Starscream's optics widened. Why didn't I think of that? He reached out and took the datapad back from Wheeljack and sketched in the converter, using the wiring he'd done initially. The simulation showed it was still too strong, but not quite as lethal as it had been before. But now he had something to work with, which was more than he'd had before. "Thanks, Jack."

Wheeljack's optics crinkled and his fins flashed yellow once more. "No problem! Glad to help!"

Starscream chuckled and put the datapad in his subspace. He'd work on it a bit later on in his room. "So how did the meeting go, or is that classified?" he asked in a half-serious, half-amused tone.

Wheeljack's optics darkened. The meeting had been to discuss the possible reasons for Altihex's fall and potential courses of action. Ironhide had demanded an attack on Kaon right away, while Optimus and Prowl felt that there without conclusive proof of Decepticon involvement, an attack would simply be a waste of resources and mechpower. Wheeljack hadn't liked the look in Prowl's optics, though. He suspected Prowl would do it if he had the chance, and Prime let him off the leash. But after what he pulled at Simfur, Prime was not likely to allow it for some time, if ever. After Ironhide objected to what they said, Perceptor had dropped the bombshell.

It hadn't gone over well.

"Percy told them about the tests we ran on the engines and what we discovered," he said in a low, serious voice, looking around as he did so, making sure no one else was close enough to hear.

Starscream's own face became grim. A few joors after his "chat" with Mirage, he'd been called to assist Wheeljack and Perceptor with the scans of the anti-grav engines of Altihex. It was hoped that the scans would show why the engines had failed. And to a point, they had. They'd found traces of dead viral nanites. From what the three of them could tell, the nanites appeared to have bonded to the anti-grav engines, and likely had caused some type of cascade systems failure somehow. They'd smelted the engines as soon as they'd learned this and scanned themselves in case the nanovirus was transferable. But none had been found in their systems, fortunately. The only thing they could conclude from what little they had was that they may well have been engineered to the engines alone, and had somehow been able to disguise themselves. But that, along with the identity of the virus's creator and how they were planted, was only speculation, and Starscream didn't think they'd ever really have a definitive answer.

"So what did they say?" he asked, also in a low voice. No point in creating panic. He had enough slag to deal with.

"Aside from Jazz voicing the realization that the 'Cons had a new weapon?" Wheeljack replied wearily. "Well, Red Alert wanted to know if there was any possibility that there might be a security risk, and Prowl wanted to know if there was a way to replicate it for our own use." The sad part, Wheeljack thought, was that Prowl's words hadn't shocked him. But then again, he reflected, nothing the SIC did shocked him anymore.

"I see." For his own part, Starscream wasn't surprised either, not given his own indirect experiences with the mech. "And what was the response to that?"

Wheeljack sipped at his energon before answering. "Perceptor said it was likely that whoever it was came up with the virus already had a cure handy just in case, and mentioned that even if we were to try replicating it, the chances for the virus mutating and infecting us as well was high."

He shifted in his seat. "Red Alert wants the survivors scanned, and Ratchet said he'd already run intensive scans on them as part of their baseline when they'd been brought in and enlisted. He found no traces of any nanovirus."

"And even if he had, it's been eleven orns, more than long enough to have had an effect," Starscream concluded. He shook his head. "I don't like this, Jack. If the Decepticons are coming up with weapons like this...It won't be long before Prime is going to have to come down hard. It's almost like we're on the defensive now, in spite of the increased raids we've been doing. More reacting, instead of acting."

Wheeljack nodded. "I know. He made it clear that given the danger, he wouldn't agree to the idea of a counter nanovirus weapon, as it could possibly deplete good mechpower unnecessarily." Which was starting to become slightly less of an issue since Simfur as enlistments had gone through a slight increase, mostly from the smaller city-states, but the 'Cons still seemed to have the edge in that. Wheeljack sighed through his vents. "However, while he doesn't want us creating any viral weapons, he wants us to start designing stronger conventional weapons."

Starscream stared at Wheeljack with a grim expression. "I see." He understood the implications very well. Simfur had been bad enough, but Altihex just drove home the fact that there was apparently nothing the 'Cons wouldn't do to succeed. He thought of his recent nightmares, and shuddered inwardly. "So when does he want us to start?"

Before Wheeljack could reply, another voice chimed in: "Well, well. Looks like the murderin' 'Con with a 'Bot insignia is showing his face where he's not welcome. Again." Wheeljack inwardly groaned at the sound of the all-too familiar voice. Ever since his arrival in Iacon, Cliffjumper had done everything he could to try and make Starscream's life Pit. He looked up to see the red mini approaching their table, followed by a small contingent of his frame type. Cliffjumper looked at Wheeljack and grinned. "You really should pick your company better, Jack. His 'Con tendencies could rub off on you."

Wheeljack didn't reply, instead giving a sidelong glance at Starscream. He was looking over the small group, consisting of Cliffjumper, Gears, Huffer, Powerglide and Windcharger, his face unreadable, but Wheeljack had seen his optics narrow momentarily when the mini had referred to him as a murderer. The Seeker had gotten better at controlling his temper over the vorns, but there were certain things that could set him off and that accusation was one of them. Cliffjumper in particular seemed to enjoy taunting him with it.

Hoping to avert a fight, Wheeljack opened his mouth to ask the group to leave. But before he could say a word, Starscream's gaze flickered back to the hot-tempered mech, and he gave a cool smirk and said in one of the most sarcastic tones Wheeljack had ever heard from him, "Well, well. Looks like the 'Bot with more bearings than processor power has decided to stick his nose where it's not welcome. Again." The grin faded from the horned mini's face at those words and his fists started to clench. Either oblivious or deliberately ignoring the warning signs (and the green and white mech believed it was more the second option), Starscream continued: "You know, I've heard that only cowards band together when they feel the need to bully someone. Something about compensating for their individual lack of courage." Wheeljack took a quick sidelong glance at the small group, noting that now Huffer and Gears also had their fists clenched. Powerglide (for some reason) now appeared a bit uncomfortable, and Windcharger also seemed to be having second thoughts. It would seem that they hadn't expected this type of response, given that Starscream usually either ignored them, mostly confining his responses to glares. Unfortunately, reflected Wheeljack, Cliffjumper had more than likely finally reached Starscream's breaking point with the constant accusations of not only being a Decepticon but a murderer as well.

The Seeker leaned back in his seat as he turned his gaze back to Wheeljack once more, speaking casually as he did so: "I've also heard that such tendencies as ganging up on mechs larger than oneself never ends well. In fact, I believe such tendencies are referred to as suicidal." He shrugged. "I'd say that it's more extreme stupidity than suicidal tendencies, but then, the end result is usually the same..."

He likely would have gone on in a similar vein for a while longer if Cliffjumper hadn't roared and leaped for the Seeker, only to be stopped in midair. He flailed for a moment before he realized what had happened.

"Windcharger, what the slag are you doin'?!" Cliffjumper yelled. "Put me down! This slagger has it coming!"

The small smoky gray and red mech shook his head. "Not worth it, Cliff. Let's just go."

"Are you out of your mind? Didn't you hear what this filthy Seeker said about us?" Gears shouted.

Powerglide now shook his head. He wasn't the brightest in the bunch, but even he knew better than to tick off a Seeker. He'd seen a few when they were slagged off, and the results to their opponents hadn't been pretty. Starscream hadn't responded like this before, and he knew like everyone else that the mech had been a part of the Prison Brigade. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what would happen if the other flier finally decided to act with his fists and not just words, but he had a feeling that it wouldn't end well for his friend.

"I just don't want trouble with Prowl," was all the orange-red mech replied. A glance at Windcharger told him that the other mech was experiencing similar thoughts. Sure, Prowl seemed to be hard on Starscream, but Wheeljack had a good rep and he would be right there to say that Cliff had instigated it. Prowl wouldn't go easy on them any more than he would Starscream if he learned that.

The words seemed to get through to the others, and they turned away, Gears only pausing to take the time to sneer, "This isn't over, Seeker."

As they left, carrying the flailing, yelling Cliffjumper, Wheeljack cast a worried look at Starscream who was now glaring after the departing minis, his optics glowing brightly. His hands were clenched into fists, trembling with suppressed anger.

"Starscream?" the engineer asked worriedly, his headfins flashing orange.

The Seeker turned towards him, anger still apparent. "I hate them, Jack," he said in a soft, low voice. "If it weren't for my promise to Prime..." He took a deep intake. "Pit, if it weren't for the few of you who give a slag..."

Wheeljack nodded, understanding exactly what he meant. "I know." And he did. He knew that aside from a small handful (including himself) who actually sat and talked with him, most either ignored Starscream or were openly hostile, such as the minis, and it was mechs like those that Starscream was having the hardest time dealing with. And to make it worse, the insults and attacks weren't letting up, no matter what Starscream did. Small wonder his resentment was finally boiling over to the point where he was willing to instigate a fight over choosing his regular non-violent methods of dealing with things. Wheeljack often cursed Prowl inwardly for creating this situation, and just as often found himself wishing he could do more to make the situation easier for his friend. He swallowed his last bit of energon. "Look, let's go down to the labs. We've got a long few orns ahead of us what with the new orders from Prime. To answer your earlier question, he wants us to start as soon as we can." He gave a faint smile behind his face mask. "Plus, I think we both need to vent a bit."

Starscream nodded, taking a few more intakes as he did so in an attempt to calm down. At least in the labs he could work off his anger in a more controlled fashion and at the same time be allowed to vent vocally without fear of reprisal. Without another word spoken, they rose and headed for the science wing, both lost in their own bitter thoughts.

Vos, Military Barracks

The slagging fool.

This was Stormraiser's thought as he stalked down the halls of the base towards the Common Room in search of his Trinemates. It had been eleven orns since the fall of Altihex and Megatron had just given him his new orders as well as informed him of the true cause of Altihex's fall.

Shockwave put us all in danger and all our Lord could speak of was how quickly the city fell and without any indication of our involvement. He growled, causing a few of those in the gray-green Seeker's path to move swiftly out of his way.

It wasn't as though Stormraiser had much scientific knowledge, nor did he care much for what happened to Altihex. Those who didn't join with the Decepticons got what they deserved, as far as he was concerned. What did concern him most (as always concerned him most about the "scientist") was how little Shockwave had seemed to care about the potential danger to the rest of them. Yes, he had the cure, but would he have created it if Megatron hadn't ordered him to?

Stormraiser doubted it, but he knew better than to bring this up to Megatron. Over the past ten vorns since the Autobot Seeker had been brought to his attention, Megatron seemed to be a bit cooler towards his Air Commander. He'd been sharper in his reprimands and his punishments, especially if his SIC complained about either Shockwave or Soundwave. Stormraiser was no fool and it hadn't taken him too long to read the writing on the wall. So he shut his mouth and kept his opinions to himself after the first few times.

It had had little obvious effect so far, but Stormraiser wasn't about to let go of his place without a fight. Right now, he had orders to deliver. Dealing with the threat to his position could wait until afterwards.

Arriving at the dimly lit Common Room, he looked around. A number of Seekers were milling about the steel-gray room, gossiping and/or drinking energon, or just plain sitting and watching the others. After a few kliks, he finally spotted the two he was looking for. He walked across the room to a table where a black Seeker and a navy blue Seeker sat.

"Thundercracker. Skywarp," he greeted in a calm, level voice.

"Hiya, Stormy!" Skywarp returned with a cheerful grin. Thundercracker just nodded with his usual stoic expression.

Stormraiser glared at Skywarp for his use of the nickname, but refrained from comment. He'd learned long ago that the more he responded, the more it baited the mech into continuing. Instead, he pulled a chair over from the empty table next to theirs and sat down, saying as he did so, "You're fortunate I have no time for your antics today. Megatron has ordered me to assign you a particular mission which requires your abilities."

Skywarp perked up at that. "What's he want me to do?"

Stormraiser reached into his subspace and pulled out a datapad, handing it to Skywarp. As his Trinemate began to read, Thundercracker finally spoke up: "So what are the orders? If I might ask."

The Trineleader turned to look at Thundercracker. As always, it was hard to read the mech's expression, but Stormraiser knew his wingmates had been friends for a number of vorns before he met them, so it wasn't difficult to assume he wanted to know if he should go along, just in case of trouble.

"As long as you don't spread it around, I'll tell you," Stormraiser replied in a low voice, ignoring how Thundercracker's optics flashed at the insinuation that he was a gossip. "Megatron has a special package he needs delivered to a mech called Scrapper in Crystal City."

"For what purpose?"

Stormraiser shrugged. "He did not say, and as you know, he has made it clear of late he is not pleased with me. I did not ask why. I do assume it has something to do with the Autobot Seeker."

Thundercracker nodded, making no further comment.

Skywarp in the meantime had finished reading the datapad and stashed it in his subspace. "He planning on destroying the place?"

Stormraiser shook his head. "I did ask that, and he said not at this time. He has no wish to confirm the Autobots' suspicions concerning our involvement with Altihex's fall right now, and destroying another city-state so soon after Altihex will do that. He wishes only to send a message. Again, I did not ask further."

"So what do you know?" Skywarp said, a bit sarcastically.

Stormraiser smiled coldly. "I know he is planning to deal with a larger thorn in his side before too much longer. The main source of the Autobots' recruits."

Skywarp and Thundercracker both sat up straighter in their seats. "You don't mean...," Thundercracker began in a low voice, looking around to make certain they were not being overheard.

"I do. But first, he wishes to deal with this matter." Privately, Stormraiser suspected that Crystal City would eventually meet the same fate as Altihex and Simfur, probably very soon after Megatron's next target fell. Not that Stormraiser would be sorry to see Crystal City fall. Full of decadent nobles who'd dictated to Cybertron for far too long, as far as he was concerned.

As for Praxus, they deserved the fate they received for turning on their sister city. Stormraiser looked forward to that orn.

For now, though...

"Thundercracker, you will go with Skywarp to the very edge of the city-state, but you will not be accompanying him further." As Thundercracker frowned, Stormraiser explained: "Megatron wishes to keep our machinations quiet, and Skywarp is the only one who can get in and out unseen. If he does report trouble, then by all means assist. But until then, hold back."

Thundercracker's frown didn't fade, indicating he still wasn't really pleased with the order. For his own part, Skywarp merely shrugged. He wouldn't mind a fight with some Autobots or Enforcers, but he'd follow orders if it meant helping the cause. "Ah, won't be so bad, TC. Just in and out. This guy an ally?" he asked his Trineleader.

Stormraiser nodded. "Megatron says he and his team have agreed to officially join us when the time is right."

Skywarp shrugged again, gulping down the last of his energon. "Works for me."

Thundercracker said nothing, just took a few more sips of his energon.

His Trineleader looked at him with a frown of his own. "Thundercracker, Megatron wished Skywarp to go alone. Be glad I am allowing you to go with him at all."

Thundercracker's only response was to turn his gaze out on the rest of the room momentarily. When he finally spoke, the words weren't quite what Stormraiser expected.

"What does he intend to do with the Autobot Seeker?"

Before Stormraiser could respond, Skywarp snorted. "Why should we care about a Seeker traitor? He deserves whatever he gets."

Stormraiser personally agreed, but he doubted that Megatron would kill the mech, at least not right away. "I believe he plans on trying to recruit him to our cause and away from the Autobots."

"The slag he is! Why would he want a traitor in our ranks?!"

"Keep your voice down, Skywarp," Stormraiser hissed, noticing a few gazes turning their way. "As for why, I have my suspicions. But for now, we follow orders concerning trying to recruit the Seeker, like it or not. And if he won't turn, well then..." There was a cold smirk on his face as his voice trailed off, allowing his wingmates to guess the implications. For his own part, he was more than willing to remove the potential threat to himself.

Skywarp subsided. He didn't like the notion of allowing a traitor to join them, but he'd let it go for the moment. There was always later to deal with the mech, after all.

Thundercracker's only response was: "I see."

Stormraiser raised a browridge. Even after so many vorns as wingmate to this mech, he still could not understand him. He knew there were times that even Skywarp was puzzled by his friend's personality.

But that was a matter to think about for another time. He rose from his seat. "You both have your orders. Lord Megatron expects the job to be done within the next three joors, Skywarp."

Skywarp shrugged. "Yeah, yeah. Come on, TC, let's go." His wingmates rose from their seats, and all three of them left the room.

Ten kliks later, after retrieving the package from his quarters, Stormraiser stood on the edge of the barracks roof, watching his wingmates depart. As soon as they were out of sight, he opened a link.

::Stormraiser to Lord Megatron::

::What is it, Stormraiser?::

::I have given Skywarp his orders and the package, just as you commanded. He is on his way to Crystal City as we speak.::

::Very good, Stormraiser. I trust he will do his job without being sidetracked?::

Stormraiser smiled coldly as he heard the rare praise. ::Of course. He knows what's at stake.::

A dark laugh echoed through the comm. link.

::Well done. Return to base.::

Stormraiser cut off the communication and turned his gaze once more towards Crystal City, wearing the same cold smile.

Moments later, he was transformed and flying toward Kaon, leaving behind echoes of cruel laughter in his wake.

"And so it begins..."- Kosh, Babylon 5:"Chrysalis"