"And the war went on"

Title: Without

Warning: Implied violence

Rating: G

Continuity: G1

Characters: Everyone except one.

Disclaimer: The theatre doesn't own the script or actors, nor does it make a profit from the play.

Motivation (Prompt): Scenario: visiting a place you haven't been for a very long time.

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Politics were like chemicals: volatile and not to be wielded by the untrained. Amateurs caused so much damage it made professionals look bad, but a true professional used whatever came to hand. Mixmaster tinkered and brewed in his laboratory, and his mind combined elements far greater in scope than mere pieces of the periodic table. The predicted had happened at long last. It had finally happened as planned, but a contained situation had blown completely out of proportion. The Decepticons were in flux, and Mixmaster found that his tools were inadequate. If the Decepticons were his experiment, he'd call the faction a loss and throw it out. All theories had been proven wrong. Unexplained errors turned up in the equations. The chemist lifted a vial to the light, adding the last chemical and watching the mixture cloud. He'd taken a vital ingredient out of the compound, a reactive chemical amateurs all-too-often didn't realize was necessary, and he watched the mistake coming with a murmured, "Boom!"

echoed, mirrored by screaming alarms that lit Skywarp's HUD up like a Las Vegas casino. The black jet went into a tailspin, shrieking as one wing tore off and pinwheeled away. He fell, and some part of him numbly felt like he'd been waiting to fall for ages. A target had sketched itself across his cockpit when he took the sky in a duo instead of a trine. There were reasons Decepticons flew in threes, and it wasn't just because standard battle formations drilled the Fleet until the position gaped open automatically. Megatron had refused their uneasy, but realistic, request for a replacement third from Cybertron, and Skywarp still caught himself allowing that extra space for a missing wingmate. A space they all left empty, open air no one in the Decepticon ranks shot into for that critical moment until memory caught up with reflex. A moment AirRaid had used to slide through and open fire, and now Skywarp fell. The world spun, closer and closer, but he couldn't feel more than vague acceptance past the wound-shock. He'd been waiting for this moment since

no one else was qualified for the job on Earth, Thrust had ended up with it. And frag if he didn't understand why nobody wanted the position. Air Commander didn't automatically mean Second in Command, and the Air Commander position by itself was a thankless job of nonstop challenges to the holder's rank and abilities. He'd been to Cybertron to put down minor mutinies in the Fleet so many times that he'd grumbled to Shockwave about applying for a Frequent Flyer Space Bridge card. Shockwave hadn't gotten the joke, but nobody else had laughed, either. Humor was in short supply these days. It wasn't fair. They'd been in statis on Earth for four million years, but the Fleet had accepted resumption of command from the Air Commander on Earth. There hadn't been a thruster out of line back on Cybertron. Put Thrust in charge, and overnight, every mech and his wing called from Cybertron to Earth issuing challenges that Thrust then had to meet. What made it worse was going through all the personnel files he suddenly had access to. After browsing those, it was hard to blame the Fleet for its rebellion. He'd never realized how blasted fractioned the flyer ranks were. Their seemingly-incompatible range of abilities and personalities been pinned into a fighting force by sheer willpower and nothing else

where, the difference may not have been so obvious. At least at first. In a war that stretched across Cybertron and its satellite colonies, following the Decepticons' progress might have been more difficult. The sudden downward turn was hard to miss on Earth, however. Were it depression in the ranks, Hook could solve the problem easily. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to be as simple as morale. The Constructicon surgeon folded his hands and rested his chin on them, brooding silently as he studied the gathered statistics. On the right: old data from specific mission of conquest, back from the days when Megatron followed other advisors who agreed instead of nitpicked; when his nagging voice of contention went missing for one reason or another; when he had no one to verbally spar with over plans. On the left: far more current reports following a similar trend. The correlation disturbed Hook. This wasn't a matter that affected only Megatron; the other Decepticons had taken a beating, and, obvious or not, their confidence continued to take subtle damage the more battles they lost. History showed that no one wanted to step forward to contradict a notoriously unstable leader. Megatron had not started a rebellion as a power-mad tyrant, but time

opened Motormaster's optics, and his confidence in Lord Megatron faltered. He'd come online knowing that his team was meant to bolster the Decepticons' abilities on Earth. It hadn't occurred to him to wonder why until the Fleet's undiluted resentment became thick enough to choke even him. Research wasn't a natural talent for him, but he had been sparked a combiner team leader. Despite his youth and accompanying hot temper, Motormaster knew he had duties to fulfill. The open hate threatening to strangle his team made a duty out of researching why a ground team had been created. Curiosity spurred him further than Lord Megatron's brusque explanation of countering the Autobots ground modes. The Autobots had always had ground forms, hadn't they? The Decepticons in the history texts Motormaster accessed flaunted their pride in the Fleet, which was supposed to be the greatest Decepticon strength - the one that the Autobots couldn't effectively counter. The Aerialbots had been sparked specifically to fight the Stunticons, hadn't they? Odd that the Autobots hadn't ever made a flyer team before Earth. From what he read, the Autobots had actively avoided the air on Cybertron as if it had belonged to the Decepticons alone. That avoidance seemed to have ended, as if the Fleet's power had just up and gone away overnight. He puzzled over what had happened to make Stunticons a necessary

or not, Reflector missed the aesthetics. Not just physical beauty, although he missed that greatly. The blackmail and plotting lacked…gusto. It was boring to observe the intricate social workings of the Decepticons now. They were all so keenly aware of the absence of a knife-sharp wit and cutting tongue, amusing them even as it had dodged blame and set up complicated snares against Autobot and ally alike. The excitement of living fell flat when they realized there was no one to provoke them out of complacency. They'd grown used to the "shit being stirred," as the humans put it, and now there were entire days when Reflector found nothing worth having evidence of. Reflector found the other Decepticons as boring as the dull walls, and he missed the true beauty found in a truly diabolical plot. The Decepticon base was a fundamentally ugly place, built for function instead of form, and it lacked things to look at. There were a fair number of images stored in his processors that captured moments of surprising intimacy, the kind that came from stalking an unaware mech through everyday life. Reflector took them out occasionally, sharing them amidst himself on the greyest, ugliest days: a small smile here at a wry comment; a wild gesticulation in the middle of a rant; an undignified sprawl against the wall; an idle inspection of a thruster, one leg crossed over the other; intense concentration while working; false innocence while begging

only worked if Megatron actually saw him. More often than not, Thundercracker disappeared into his frame type. He could sometimes use it, walking onto the command bridge with a confidence he never felt anymore because arrogant strutting from his frametype was so expected that half the time no one actually noticed his presence until he made it to his duty station. Once in the paper-thin safety of duty, he tried to be invisible, tucking his wings close so not even a flick would draw attention. He could never predict if Megatron would be unconsciously soothed by seeing the tilt of familiar wings out of the corner of an optic, or unexpectedly enraged by the same. Those were the other times, the times when Thundercracker scrambled to escape among the sudden chaos as oddly sympathetic Decepticons grew clumsy and stood between Megatron and the frightened Seeker. But no one would stand up to the warlord when he cornered Thundercracker, stomping on blue wings but obviously seeing another color, and those were the worst times. Those were the times when Thundercracker's voice cracked as he pleaded with his leader to see him, him, he hadn't done anything to be punished! But no matter how high he pitched his voice, it was never quite enough like

Earth, Cybertron had its own cultural mores. A lot of them made no sense from an outsider's perspective. Some of them were old and outdated beyond all usefulness. Some, however, were there for reasons that were logical if one understood the underlying culture. Megatron, Astrotrain realized on a cresting wave of horror, had never really dabbled in the flight-capable sub-groups' cultures. He probably didn't even know why Astrotrain and Blitzwing were always paired off in base assignments, just like Octane always had a partner (usually a larger mech, because…yeah, Octane was Octane) and even that annoying Autobot helicopter had a close-knit unit backing him up. Astrotrain had always just assumed that Megatron had acknowledged the triple-changers' needs when they joined the war. Now that he thought back, however, the agreement over pairing-assignments had been mostly verbal and haggled out face-to-face with the Air Commander, not the Supreme Commander of the Decepticons. Which made sense because that's who commanded the Fleet, and the triple-changers were almost all flyers. But Thrust was Air Commander now, and Thrust didn't have the knowledge or willpower to actually take control of the Fleet on his own, much less countermand Megatron's newest orders. Assuming Megatron even gave a bolt that Astrotrain and Blitzwing cared more about sticking together than plotting behind the warlord's back these

were treasonous thoughts, but Scrapper had to think them. He bent over the model, but the majority of his attention stayed on a more important issue. Omega Supreme had resorted to ripping out their programming in an attempt to restore the Constructicons' minds. The City Guardian hadn't taken into consideration that all loyalty programming had a time limit, either degrading or integrating into a mech's own programming as core systems rooted out the foreign coding. The Constructicons had discarded the remains of the enforced loyalty long ago and chosen to stay with the Decepticons. Then, anyway. Now was the time for reconsideration of that decision. Scrapper did not doubt the Decepticon cause as he knew it, but he doubted that the faction as it was remained true to that cause. He doubted Megatron's sanity. The odds were becoming increasingly stacked in the Autobots' favor here on Earth, and if Megatron lost here, Cybertron would be sure to follow as the Decepticons continued to lose confidence and battles. Scrapper had to consider the possibility that defecting would serve the Decepticon cause — and the Constructicons — best. Yet if the Constructicons went to the Autobots, there was a distinct probability that they would end up reprogrammed, forcefully reverted to who they had once been "for their own good." Scrapper was no longer who he had been back in Crystal City, and this was a problem he

was sane. Or rather, he was no more insane than he'd been before. Megatron strode through the halls of the base, snarling as the cowards scrambled from his path. Looking back, he could see the mistake he'd made. Not in the final execution, but in his mercy. It had fooled the ranks, weakening them until they thought forgiveness was a foregone conclusion. When had failure ceased being punished with death? When had they begun to assume that they were immune from hard physical blows when they were idiots in front of him? At some point, random violence practiced on the rank and file to keep them dangerous and constantly aware, honing their minds and bodies into Cybertron's living weapons, had become directed at one target in particular. It had become a release valve for Megatron instead of an example to the ranks. They had grown lax. They'd lapsed back into Autobot ideals in companionship and combat. Megatron had awoken as if from a dream, resuming normal habits only to find his Decepticons following strict military rules that protected soft recruits instead of practicing fierce infighting to harden them. They'd forgotten the harsh reality of conquest, and now the weaklings resented being held to the same standards that had brought Cybertron to its knees before

Thrust and Ramjet had been Glutware and Wiretrip. Before them had been another duo, and another before that. Dirge had always been part of a wing, flying in a group of three, but it was a formality. He'd accepted his trine assignments, and until the current two, he'd lost them with the same acceptance. It was a fact of his existence. It took a certain kind of processor to deal with the constant assault of fear from Dirge's engines, and enough exposure wore down the best mechs. Start to fear him as a wingmate, and it was only a matter of time before the choice on the battlefield became him or them. Depressing as that fact was, Dirge had learnt to live with it — right up until he'd been assigned to a trio slated to join the Elite. New wingmates, a new go round the cycle, and a commander who not only understood what Dirge's engines did, but connected the dots in what the constant exposure would do to his wing. Also to Dirge himself, something that Dirge had never thought about in terms of his morbidly apathetic attitude. It'd been surprising, even a little embarrassing, which was why he'd never told the other two in his wing why they were overhauled so frequently. They'd apparently put it down to having an obsessed perfectionist for a commander and gotten used to being ordered into the private lab. Now the post-mission tweaking had halted, however, and his wingmates were starting

immediately after the execution, the Decepticons had begun to outright fear their leader. There had always been a reasonable amount of fear, of course, because fear was a motivational tool like no other. Like in all things, there had to be balance. That balance had snarked and defied his way around his way around Megatron like a miniature pendulum of reassurance swinging from treason to loyalty and back again. Look, every outburst said loud and clear to the watching Decepticons, Megatron isn't a complete monster. He's still a mech like us to show flashes of humor and weakness, and he has control of us and his own temper. He is still the gladiator who founded a revolution. He is a leader to be feared and respected, not a megalomaniac who will murder us for being individuals instead of a pack of drones. Which was why Shockwave preferred the drones, and why he had failed to sway the loyalty of Cybertron in the course of four million years. The Decepticons had feared his cold, emotionless logic like they now feared Lord Megatron's crazed, power-hungry foot grinding into their necks. Shockwave had vowed loyalty to the mech he judged most likely to win, but it seemed that choice had

Wildrider thought about it more, he'd be able to say why he was afraid now. He hadn't always been. Time was, he'd been as careless as his name. These days, he veered crazily between overly-cautious tip-toeing around the base and mad exuberance outside it. Every time he got out, it felt like he'd slipped the hangman's noose. Freedom, celebrated again and again, and he had the crawling, mad-eyed feeling that he was building momentum. Soon he'd be careening out of control, and even if he wanted to stop, he wouldn't be able to. Wildrider had lost his equilibrium. His speedometer had maxed out. He was driving on black ice toward a cliff. There had always been a standard to be measured against in the Decepticons. There'd been a line drawn, and everyone knew not to cross it because they could see that only one mech could jump the line and survive. That standard had been torn down. Now there were no guidelines. There was only sudden doom when Decepticons tripped over unknown boundaries and violated Megatron's inexplicable, ever-changing rules. Punishment and favor were as fickle and dangerous as the Supreme Commander's moods. But Wildrider didn't think about it. If he thought about it, it would ruin the desperate joy he grabbed in escaping the deathtrap that the base had become, and that only made him feel stupidly helpless

ness haunted him like a waking dream. The loyalty programs were complicated lines of code twined through his core system operating codes. The complex knots tied his thoughts up like a shibari fetish. The method of binding he and his team into loyal service had to be admired, but trying to plan around the steel flex and hold of the restraint code left Onslaught cowering in the corners of his own mind in agonized, shamed frustration. It backed him there, denied the Combaticon release, and punished him for thinking of self-preservation until he writhed, mentally prostrate beneath the heavy weight of another mech's tyrannical rule. He could not leave the Decepticons, could not act to save his team from Megatron's loss of control, and by the time someone found him, Onslaught could not even save himself. He'd exhausted himself fighting the program imperative submit surrender yield compressing his personality matrix into sensory deprivation, and now all was dark

as the pitch-black space between the stars, Ravage stole from shadow to shadow in the base. His own base, for once. It was rare that he returned to the Decepticon base, these days, and his behavior was that of a spy entering enemy territory. He used less caution when traversing the Autobot base, to be honest. The Cassetticons were among the loyalist warriors in the Decepticon ranks, but they were small. Many mechs had a tendency to consider them little more than drones and therefore disposable. They were more vulnerable than they liked to let on, because of the tiny, delicate parts required for their repairs. All of these factors had gone into a simple equation involving their proximity to Megatron's increasingly unpredictable and violent temper. The Cassetticons' solution: evasion. They had Soundwave's blessing for their desertion of him, but being given missions one right after another allowed Ravage the unique perspective of an outsider visiting when he finally returned to base. What he saw was…disturbing. Confidence had dropped beneath low, into uncertainty and fear. The corridors were quiet. Mechs who had filled the base to overflowing with clashing voices now spoke in level tones that ebbed and flowed, hiding under the ever-present and suddenly ominous wash of water over the ship hull. Where there had been challenge, there was now avoidance. Passivity had replaced passion. The Decepticons stayed out of sight as if dodging someone's attention. Ravage melted back into the shadows, and he had the ringing thought that one day soon he would not emerge from this darkness again

and again, Soundwave searched for a replacement. There had to be someone with the combination of talent and personality required to stand up to Lord Megatron. Over and over again, Soundwave admitted failure. Finding an appropriate Air Commander had not been easy the first time, but he'd had a much wider pool of candidates to select from back then. The fact that the original chosen candidate had proven himself ambitious and contentious enough to slot into the Second In Command position as well had been fortuitous. The significance hadn't occurred to Soundwave until both positions came empty in one fell swoop, leaving a power vacuum strong enough to unbalance an entire faction. Lord Megatron was not precisely sane. A personality charismatic and strong enough to shape and lead a rebellion couldn't be, which had been all well and good when the Decepticons were still a rebellion. The war had, however, progressed far beyond a mere uprising. It had become civil war, and then conquest. A leader appropriate for the circumstances had come about by the careful shaping of those who knew what changes the faction needed, and while Soundwave had laid hand on the knife, he had not been the whetstone that honed it. That whetstone had been broken. With it gone, Lord Megatron dulled. Now, when the Decepticons needed a razor-sharp mind at the helm, they had a blunt object. Soundwave

would not find a replacement. It was a bitter, exultant truth. It was the final mocking laugh of a dead mech, and only now were the Decepticons coming to realize what they had lost. It glorified him until, in death, he became the legend they'd mocked in life. It was, Laserbeak thought, an oddly disproportionate reaction to one death among many in a war. But he'd watched his entire life, and one thing Laserbeak knew from observation was the sheer, perverse lengths this mech had gone to stand out. Trying to shuffle this death off into history was like trying to contain the wind. Which left Soundwave trying to fill a void. Which left the Decepticons forlornly elevating the sacrilegious to sacred, a spontaneous shrine to the past hidden away in the dingiest room in the base. Which left Laserbeak watching as bits and pieces of a once-lived life assembled, reconstructed by word-of-mouth and half-unwilling belief. Decepticons snuck in, bring drips and dribbles of passing acquaintance: an old polishing cloth, a fleck of red metal, a reassembled but mysteriously inoperative null ray. They stumped in bold or quiet, humiliated or finding pride in nostalgia. They left offerings of half-empty energon cubes or muttered words, and they hurried away as if disbelieving that they'd ever entered the room in the first place. Laserbeak watched them come, watched them go, and eventually he flew down from his perch to awkwardly hop across the floor himself. He could not put into words why

did he miss the fragger? Swindle sipped the high grade, but the taste fouled his intake system. He made a face and pushed the cube away. He just wasn't in the mood to celebrate a victory over the Autobots, and around him, the other Decepticons were similarly subdued. The battle had felt hollow, and the win didn't feel like one. There was something fragile in the air lately, an empty tang like breathing inside a house of cards just before it tumbled down. Swindle swept the room with a glance and dismissed the idea of selling anything tonight. The delicate weakness permeating the ranks had resulted in most Decepticons holding their credits close. He hadn't turned a profit in months. No one was willing to gamble. Nobody wanted to put their necks out on any sort of risk, and if Swindle weren't so resigned to the loyalty programming clinging to his — no. There was no use thinking about that. No use to thinking about what — or who - was missing here, and the pointlessness burnt under his spark more today than it had yesterday, or the day before that, the month before that, the year before that. He shook his head and reached resolutely for the high grade again, determined to banish the shaky feeling of fighting off grief. This was supposed to be a victory party. This wasn't a mourning wake, and he wouldn't drink to the

war continued. It might always continue. There might always be untimely deaths or scheduled executions. Regardless of duration, or even of location, it hadn't changed. Just one death. One missing voice from the battlefield din, a pair of wings in the air. Just one death couldn't stop the juggernaut of civil war. The Decepticon faction did not come crashing down. The Autobots didn't automatically win. But something – yes, something – altered. What that something was, well, it was difficult to pinpoint. No one wanted to acknowledge it, anyway. Not out loud. But it was gone, and no matter how they furtively tried, it couldn't be brought back or recreated. There were gods and legends in ancient Cybertronian history, but one mech's death became a symbol. Not so much of who he'd been or what he'd done, but of what he'd left behind. And the war went on without

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