The Nightbird had repercussions the Autobots never saw.

Title: Fly Birds

Warnings: 'Enter the Nightbird' and episode aftermath from a non-funny angle; torture; unrecognized self-mutilation (as in, he doesn't feel himself doing it).

Rating: PG-13 for violence

Continuity: Backstage G1 - this is actually set between 'Backstage' and 'Improv Act'

Characters: Hook, Mixmaster, Long Haul, Scrapper, Astrotrain, Frenzy, Skywarp, Dirge, Thundercracker, Starscream

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

Motivation (Prompt): "If you ever leave me..."; "Crushed underfoot"; and "It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one." - George Washington + Auction fic

[* * * * *]

"There's danger here, so get away; fly birds fly, and do not stay"

[* * * * *]

As if the Constructicons didn't have enough to do on any given day, the Nightbird fiasco left a repair list the length of Bonecrusher's arm. Not just the anticipated cosmetic nicks and dings from playing dumbafts for the Autobots, either. Combat had gotten real, and only the blasted Autobots' Earth-mad blindness had kept them from seeing the serious side of the fight today.

Thing had seemed serious as usual, but then again, Megatron could pull off the worst cliché evil tyrant overlord lines with a straight face. Appearing serious and actually being so under the surface were two completely different things. The grand act put on by the Decepticons required multiple layers of distraction and hidden action. The reality of conquest was concealed beneath everything they showed the Autobots, and the play-acting plot today had been heavily layered to hide that reality.

The play-act had turned real, however. Take-Over-The-Decepticons Attempt #4 Billion and One by Starscream had somehow taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque. An idle, time-filling plot to steal some human's science project turned on its head when the project caused an actual fight among the high officer cadre. Things had gone from surprising to near-lethal in a matter of hours. The actual plan the theft had been intended to cover had been troop transfer through the space bridge out in the Gobi Desert; that was quietly canceled. The Elite Decepticons warily hunkered down for the storm, instead.

Finding out about Dr. Fujiyama's robot project had presented another opportunity for Autobot-distracting antics, right up until the Constructicons actually got a look at the robot. Then Starscream and Megatron started yelling at each other.

Starscream attempted to take over the Decepticons approximately every other week on Earth. Sometimes every week if there was a lot of back-and-forth between Cybertron and Earth that needed to be covered up. That was normal and laughable.

In reality, the clashes between Air Commander and Supreme Commander of the Decepticons were neither normal nor laughable. Shouted disagreements, yes, that was par for the course. They were capable of rational, level-voiced arguments, but Starscream had never been a quiet mech and Megatron had to bellow to be heard above the noise when the jet really got going. Sparking weaponry and dented metal, however, signaled something far beyond the norm. That signaled a clash of the titans. Lesser mortals beware.

That was the signal the other Decepticons received this time, and it was bad signal to get. The two high officers stalked through the base once they'd inspected the human-made robot, and the smell of discharged energy weapons smoked from their tense frames. They had one yelling match before they even left the repair bay, and the next one brewed the air between them darker with every step.

The three top Decepticon officers on Earth cloistered themselves in the privacy of a briefing room, an out-of-the-way room painstakingly secured by Soundwave. Unlike the grandiose throne room where the weirdest plots were talked about in order to let even the most incompetent Autobot spy overhear, the briefing room allowed nothing in or out. No Autobots could see or hear whatever went on in there, and neither could any Decepticons waiting about outside. Which was exactly what they were doing, even if they tried not to look like that's what they were doing.

Having the command staff retreat to that room was a Not Good thing. The foolish mission to capture the humans' robot had been a success, but something had gone terribly wrong all the same. Nobody was sure what got skewed, however. The Elite Decepticons uneasily played their parts throughout the rest of the base, laughing nervously about how the humans had created their own downfall in the Nightbird. Had everyone heard how Megatron threatened to replace Starscream with her? Good news, right?

Ha ha ha. Ha. Ha.

When Scrapper and Hook turned in their joint report on the level of technology used to construct the Nightbird, things came to a head. Violently so, if the deep boom of a fist hitting a wall said anything about how happy the officers were. Starscream's voice shrieked out of the doors to the briefing room when they slid open just long enough for Soundwave to stride hurriedly toward the bridge and the ship's communications center console. Megatron's gravelly bark chased his Third out, demanding the traitorous accountant be brought to him right now.

Ravage was present in the corridor, and he bounded off to retrieve Ratbat before orders were even transmitted. In the meantime, Soundwave ignored everyone on his way to the bridge, where he scrambled a link to Cybertron. That was another big sign of Very Bad. Bringing Shockwave into the matter risked transmission interception, and Soundwave was never that incautious with Megatron's many-layered deception of the Autobots. But apparently direct contacted was needed, and needed now. Soundwave and Shockwave held a quick consultation about whether or not the Autobots were the ones who'd allowed this travesty, and then the Communications Officer cut off the link to return to the meeting, walking just as fast as he'd left it.

The eavesdropping Decepticons on the bridge gave each other startled looks when he'd gone. Accusations of leaking Cybertronian technology to the humans were no trifling matter. The Nightbird was primitive, but she was still been far beyond what the humans should have been able to construct. She was, in fact, a spark and better quality material away from being a protoform. The Constructicons were incensed, but their fury over the humans' warping of Cybertronian design was nothing compared to the upper officer cadre's burning fury.

"Your fragging plan will have us enslaved again!" the Air Commander's voice whipped through the open door, and the entire corridor outside winced under that lash. That was no melodramatic acting for the Autobots' benefit. Starscream was angry. "Give this species a fingerwidth, and they'll take the whole base! They use technology like the parasites they are. They will use us given the chance. If they can build a - a Nightbird, what will be next? Your frametype? Mine?! We'll be fighting perversions of our own kind soon, and we'll have handed them over into slavery. If this doesn't convince you of their danger, then - "

A heavy smash of metal signaled Megatron's fist coming down on the table, but not even Rumble dared move enough to peer through the cracked-open door to see if Megatron had stood to confront his treacherous Second head-on. "Your cowardice sickens me. The humans are advanced enough to be useful; we will destroy or enslave them when we are done with this filthy planet. Perhaps you are afraid that this Nightbird will replace you, hmm?"

Ravage's summons brought Ratbat winging through down the corridor at that moment, interrupting Starscream's furious reply, although the roaring screech had been answer enough to pin the air ranks to the walls. Ratbat nearly backwinged away from the door, in fact, but Soundwave plucked him neatly out of the air as the Communication Officer grimly shouldered back into the briefing room. The Cassetticon had good cause to be jittery and all but throwing his purchase books open for inspection. Primus knew the Cassette would use whatever wasn't nailed down to acquire more fuel for energon conversion, but even he wouldn't tamper with the technology ban. He wouldn't sell the humans Cybertronian tech just for more energon.

Megatron's orders on the matter were absolute: the humans were too dangerous already with just Autobot assistance. The aid of Cybertronian tech could make them a real threat. Defying the ban was an automatic death sentence.

The rest of the Elite weren't privy to the rest of the argument, but Bombshell's sudden inclusion in the Nightbird plot said better than eavesdropping that Megatron had decided to use the abomination instead of destroy it. He'd chosen to disregard Starscream's words. That rarely ended well. Never, really. The flyers suddenly weren't the only ones walking carefully. There were very good reasons that a commander didn't piss off his executive officer - or wave off his cautions. The same could be said about the reverse, but only an idiot would have tried telling either Supreme Commander or Air Commander about power balances and unchecked egos right then.

Genuine conflict happened sometimes. The Decepticons were founded on the ideals of strength honed by constant testing and peace won through war, and that was a philosophy that made life…interesting. Advancement through the ranks was often fatal for those displaced to make way for new metal. Starscream and Megatron were notoriously combative on the best of days, but the situation exacerbated their personality differences. In addition to that, the absurd roles they played on Earth stung their pride in the worst way. Violence was to be expected when the two monumentally strong and proud mechs heading the faction got riled enough to clash.

Between stung pride, stubbornness, and different perspectives on a volatile situation, it was no surprise that they'd turned on each other today. The timing, however, had even Soundwave looking hunted. The off-world campaigns were just getting started; tensions were high. Everyone was policing their behavior, trying to keep the Autobots deceived as the Decepticon troops on Cybertron stealthily began shifting through space bridges to conquer new worlds. The whole Elite knew that one slip on their end could alert the Prime's group of Earth-mad Autobots to the deception. This was not the time for a major upset in the upper ranks!

Fortunately, both officers knew that - or they'd remembered after Soundwave and Shockwave had respectfully reminded them. Either way, the brewing storm ended in a sour-faced Starscream stalking from the briefing room. The Seeker resumed his role in the ploy without a hitch, but he didn't bother to hide his fuming. That was bad enough, but Megatron's smug triumph for making the Air Commander back down had the Elite tip-toeing around for fear of setting the two temperamental officers off again.

Making the Nightbird intelligent had unnerved the lot of them already. Bombshell had come out of consultation with the Constructicons looking disturbed at how little he'd had to install. Bringing the human-made drone up to the level of artificial intelligence had been too easy. She was that close to their own designs. Too close.

Megatron's continued sniping commentary about replacing the Air Commander with her sent the air ranks fluttering, unsettled all over again. It was one thing to joke about making her a Decepticon in the context of the deception, but replacing an officer? Replacing Starscream? Everyone's unease deepened gradually to where nobody could tell whether or not the Supreme Commander was being serious anymore. It was a joke in poor taste, at this point. Replacing Starscream with a human-made construct? Not a good idea, no, and a joke that wasn't funny in the least.

It was also a joke that'd run too far. Everyone knew when the Air Commander took an actual shot at Megatron's back. Outside of, well, the whole traitor act put on for the Autobots, that was. It was kind of a big deal. Not the shot itself - if the Seeker had wanted to cause real damage, he had better weapons on hand - but the symbolism.

The Supreme Commander bellowed laughter, apparently chalking it up to his Second's flashpoint temper, but his Second had been taking a stand that everyone witnessed. That wasn't so laughable. Yes, they'd grinned and gone along with the plot. Yes, they'd abandoned the Air Commander to his 'punishment' and left to follow Megatron. Their uncertainty leaked out around the edges, however. Mumbles and discreet mutters were exchanged the whole flight to the battleground, but nothing was resolved.

The Decepticons were divided and confused by the time they met the Autobots in battle: half believing Starscream was right in disagreeing with the plan, and half stubbornly convinced that the show must go on. They'd taken their internal conflict out on the Autobots, because that at least didn't change. Trying to kill the infernally lucky 'bots was something they could all agree on. Things would be so much easier if one of them could just manage to take out the blasted Prime! No more playing along with the charade, pretending that humankind could defeat them. They could wipe the whole fragging planet and be done with it. No more infernally clever natives to build almost-Cybertronian robots.

Then Starscream took matters into his own hands.

Letting the Nightbird fall back into the Autobots' mad hands had not been part of Megatron's plan, but it was something Starscream ensured would happen. He deviated from the plan intentionally by shooting the Nightbird in the back. The Seeker seemed absolutely determined that Megatron realize how dangerous the humans could be, and letting the fleshlings keep their first attempt at Cybertronian frame-building had thumbed his nose at his commander. Megatron was furious.

Starscream's defiant act took the Nightbird away from the Decepticons. In order to retrieve her, it would now require a serious long-term plan to divert the Autobots' attention and make sure they never realized the Decepticons on Earth were fully capable instead of crazy. Soundwave immediately began constructing such a plan. What choice did he have? They couldn't allow the humans to keep her.

In two years time, Dr. Fujiyama and all his assistants would die in a tragic laboratory explosion, his notes would disappear into classified files confiscated by the Japanese government, and somehow, the Nightbird herself would just disappear. Any suspicion or inquiries into the project would run into corrupt government bureaucracy. If there wasn't corruption in place now, there would be by then. The Decepticons would never be connected to the accident, the missing files, or the ninjabot's disappearance.

It wouldn't erase humankind's odd venture into Cybertronian technology, but Starscream's victorious, vicious smile made it clear he found it a better solution than whatever Megatron had originally planned.

The Supreme Commander was…not pleased by his Second's underhanded sabotage. The Autobot spies that followed them from the battlefield witnessed one of the few real beatdowns Starscream had earned on Earth since the Decepticons had woken from their madness. The Seeker hadn't put Megatron's grand scheme at risk, but his obstinate refusal to go along with the cover had disrupted what would have otherwise been an effective operation meant to distract the Autobots. The Nightbird would have kept them from looking anywhere near where the space bridge opened.

Instead of beginning an invasion, Shockwave had shut down the space bridge and was waiting for a new operational schedule from Soundwave. The Communications Officer had been in repairs since the Nightbird's recapture. That wasn't a surprise, as half the Elite had been in repairs.

Hence, the Constructicons' long repair list.

That wasn't as big a deal as it sounded. They were used to long repair jobs, and triage had already shuffled the worst injuries in and out of the repair bay. Mixmaster and Long Haul were down to hammering out dents and restringing popped wires for mechs who couldn't fix themselves, and Scrapper was trying to get the electricity back in the barracks'-extension that'd been built onto the Victory. Bonecrusher and Scavenger were working off-base on constructing a hidden energon storage depot. It was all tedious scutwork, but necessary. Even the lead team in the Decepticon Empire's Engineering Division occasionally had to fix stuff well below their skill level, even if Hook never let anyone hear the end of it. It kept the illusion of incompetency up for the Autobots, in any case. What possible reason other than being stark raving bonkers would have Megatron wasting his best surgeon's time untangling a Cassetticon's knotted tape?

The other Constructicons actually found the menial work oddly satisfying. Every time a patient left or a console got patched, the list updated. There was something profoundly pleasant about watching a repair list get shorter.

It was prioritized and posted on the touchscreen just inside the repair bay door. If anyone came in to give them grief about how long it was taking to patch that leak down on Level 6, Scrapper could just point at the list. The screen was locked to Constructicon use only, because particularly persistent naggers often tried to change the priority order. Then Bonecrusher took great pleasure in showing the list up close and personal by smashing attempted-meddlers' faces into the wall next to the screen.

Decepticons could be slow learners however, so Mixmaster and Long Haul both turned to glare when Astrotrain poked his head in the door. "Status on Soundwave?"

"Why do people never use the comm. for status updates anymore?" Hook asked no one from further back in the repair bay. His cohorts just pointed at the screen and turned back to their own work.

Astrotrain hadn't used the communications system because using the comm. wouldn't get him up and moving. Security shift duty involved far too much sitting around on his aft watching other mechs do things on big monitors. Important to keep track of, yeah, but monumentally boring. Fortunately, he was sharing a shift with Ravage right now. Not only could the technimal do the surveillance thing better than Astrotrain ever could, but he preferred to do it alone. The weird part was that Ravage, of everybody, had indicated ignorance on Soundwave's status before practically shoving his shift-partner out the door to go check the repair bay in person.

Not that the shuttle would ever admit to being ordered around by a Cassetticon smaller than his hand. He'd come here so he wasn't sitting still anymore. He walked in, taking the pointed fingers as implicit permission to invade Constructicon territory, and checked the screen. "Huh. Says here he was released."

"Congratulations, you can read." Hook finally made an appearance, following the wave of contempt he projected ahead of himself like a self-important schooner plowing through a lake of disdain. The healthy intruder to the H.M.S. Hook's domain found himself under a vulture's speculative gaze. "Is there a point to informing us of what we already know?"

Said healthy intruder, one Astrotrain by name, hated talked to the Constructicons for this very reason. They were engineers, not medics, so he always got the feeling they were one step away from using his offline carcass for raw materials. They constantly eyed him like they were just waiting for him to end up under their tools. He could swear that Scavenger sized up his thrusters for future salvage whenever he was in for maintenance. "Yeah," Astrotrain said, surreptitiously putting another repair berth between himself and the surgeon. "Where is he?"

Hook's supremely unimpressed look yawned vast, indicating that he neither knew nor cared that Soundwave had been due to send Shockwave the revised operations schedule three breems ago. Other mechs' scheduling SNAFUs were not Hook's problem. Also, he didn't care where Soundwave had disappeared to. He was a surgical engineer, not a nannybot. 'Feel the depths of how little I care,' his Look said.

"Megatron sent me to find him," Astrotrain blithely informed The Look, neglecting to add that Megatron hadn't told him to go dump locating Soundwave onto the Constructicons' shoulders. To be fair, Astrotrain had tried pinging a location request at Soundwave before Ravage had sent him to the repair bay.

Name-dropping did wonders. As did Hook's perfectionist tendencies, which popped up the nagging question of whether the Communication Officer's repairs had actually been complete. It wasn't likely that Soundwave had collapsed in a corner somewhere, but it was vaguely possible. The H.M.S. Hook tolerated no errors on board. "Frenzy! Get your miniature chassis and underclocked processor over here," he called back the way he'd come.

Grumbling preceded the Cassetticon. He walked with a distinct limp, still, which explained his presence in the repair bay. Also why he wasn't putting up more of a fuss than, "'Miniature' my pile-drivers!" to Hook's snide comment. Astrotrain grinned appreciatively. Ah, power. It was a beautiful thing to behold - and hold over someone.

"Where's Soundwave?"


Hook bent down and lifted Frenzy by one arm, ignoring the kicking and cursing that commenced. "I said, where is the Third-in-Command of the Decepticons?" the Constructicon demanded with more emphasis. Emphasis that came in the form of some armor-unsettling shaking to spell out that this wasn't idle conversation.

The watching triple-changer sighed wistfully. If he had the authority to do that to Ravage, tromping around the base like a messenger-bot could have been avoided. Well, if he hadn't kind of wanted to get out of the boring Security room in the first place. And if he didn't mind four paws full of really sharp claws ambushing him out of dark places for the rest of eternity. Ravage didn't hold grudges so much as keep them alive to play with later like a housecat slowly mangling a mouse.

"Ga-a-a-ah! Cu-u-ut it ou-ou-out!" The surgeon did so with ill grace, and Frenzy hung from his hand with helm tokking back and forth for a moment more. "…I dunno. Wait!" The Cassetticon flung up his free arm, legs kicking helplessly as Hook lifted him for more shaking. "Seriously! I don't know where he is! He's not answering my comm.!"

"Really." The Constructicon stared down at him, more alerts popping up in his perfectionist mind. Soundwave not abiding by schedules was one of the signs of the Carmeggedon, wasn't it? Not picking up a Cassetticon call was a definite sign of problems, anyway, and that meant Hook had missed something. What could he have possibly missed repairing that was bad enough to take Soundwave out?

"I think he's in his quarters," Frenzy added helpfully. Mostly because being helpful beat getting shaken until his head lolled. "Rumble said the door's locked, though. Dunno why." That was less helpful than he thought, and he hesitated before adding, "Laserbeak thinks he's hiding."

Both Hook and Astrotrain just…looked at him. Soundwave. Hiding. These two words did not line up in their minds.

Before either of them could ask anything more, the door slid open again. Bright wings and brighter optics tumbled in and turned, all aflurry, to paw at the priority list. The screen blurred around desperately pressing fingers, but the list stayed locked.

"Why's Starscream not repaired yet?" Dirge yelped, stabbing harder. Skywarp leaned heavily against his side as he attempted to catch and drag the numbers around, but the Conehead was too dismayed by the list to protest being a makeshift crutch. Or rather, from the shaky look about him, he seemed to be relying on the support just as much. "Why's he so far down on this thing? You gotta repair him, Hook! You - "

Skywarp slowly transferred his weight to the wall, turning to put his wings flat against it as he slid downward. Dirge yipped and tried to drag him back upright, but that just made the Seeker slumped against the Conehead's other side lose his balance. Thundercracker didn't so much fall as melt to the floor. Dirge looked between Skywarp and Thundercracker and whined, engines spinning up in audible distress.

Mixmaster and Long Haul jolted, caught by the false-fear Dirge was notorious for. The sound was generated by the Conehead's engines. Only being aware of the source of their senseless fear kept the two Constructicons from panicking, but they stepped closer together as if to fend off the sound. Astrotrain shook his shoulders as if to break loose of it.

"Ah…" Hook straightened as much to loom as to remind himself that he wasn't actually afraid. Frenzy kicking his leg repeatedly helped with that. "Megatron's orders, you know that. Starscream is not to be repaired until all other repairs are completed."

After the chaos caused by the upset of the Nightbird plan, the Air Commander should count himself lucky he'd be repaired at all, even if those repairs were long in coming. Megatron didn't incapacitate his Second on a whim; he'd been understandably furious. Starscream had remained defiant through most of the beating, under the sniveling and begging put on for the Autobot spies, and Megatron had taken the punishment further as a result. Insubordination, even for the Air Commander, carried consequences. Although even Hook had to admit that the Decepticon Supreme Commander had been pushing the mech. Not that it excused turning the Nightbird over to the humans again, but that was a debate for another time. Starscream had been a beaten pile of scrap when Hook had seen him last.

It…didn't appear that was the case anymore.

Dirge wasn't in good shape. Beyond the stressed, whining drone from his engines, the Conehead had a frantic, frightened look on his face. There seemed to be finger-shaped indents on his neck cabling, and there was a definite handprint embossed into his cone-helm. A set of bite marks decorated one air intake. The mech looked like he'd barely stumbled away from a mauling.

The other two Seekers weren't any better off. Skywarp was gazing around the repair bay as if he'd never seen it before, and Dirge's twitchy prey imitation had nothing on the way Skywarp's wings and hands tried to dig themselves into the wall. Petro-rabbits outside their boltholes had that same look if someone nailed them with a spotlight.

Alarmed, Hook took a step forward. Skywarp had a hole punched through his cockpit, and - was that spark-light?! It glittered through the cockpit's remaining glass, and the reflected light made Thundercracker's dazed optics look empty. The blue Seeker didn't have a mark on him, which made his condition all the more baffling.

Astrotrain cautiously waved a hand in front of the unharmed jet's face without a response. "Nobody home," the shuttle said, giving Hook a puzzled look.

Dirge spun in place, optics tearing from Thundercracker to Skywarp to the door and back again. The Conehead seemed conflicted about which way to flee, and Hook fought off a brief spasm of unreasonable fear (The ceiling was not going to cave in!) as fine-tuned engines roared. Astrotrain grimaced, one massive fist raised in clear threat. Dirge didn't even seem to notice, but his engine hit an air pocket in a kinked fuel line and sputtered into a revving set of hiccups.

"What is going on here?" Hook asked. Nobody answered.

Huffing air through his systems impatiently, the surgeon dropped Frenzy. The Cassetticon immediately scurried under a repair berth by the other two Constructicons, who'd stopped their own work to watch. Astrotrain had let his fist fall and gone back to poking at Thundercracker, and Dirge was making little abortive steps toward the nearest berths like he wanted to hide behind them. Skywarp seemed the easiest jet to examine at the moment, so Hook went to one knee at his side. The purple-and-black Seeker kept looking around the room without focusing on the Constructicon now beside him, and when Hook experimentally ghosted a hand over the periphery of the flyer's electromagnetic field, it felt oddly flat against his palm.

He didn't do gentle well on the best of days, but Hook did his best to not sound - how did Scrapper put it? Ah, yes - like an overbearingly arrogant know-it-all. A charming description of a fellow gestaltmate, but Hook's scathing retort hadn't been any kinder. Regardless, this was not a situation to pull such tones of voice out in. Skywarp looked traumatized enough.

"Skywarp," Hook said, not gently but not entirely impatiently. "Skywarp, can you hear me?"

For a moment, the jet didn't reply. Hook brought his hand close enough to brush one shoulder, however, and Skywarp exploded into a whirlwind of flailing limbs scrambling down the wall away from him. "Whuuyaaaaah!" One turbine kicked out and, by luck mostly, clanged off Hook's helm.

"Skywarp!" barked out. The H.M.S. Hook was in full sail on the Sea of Caustic Contempt. "Sit your aft down before I weld it to the floor!"

Skywarp stopped in mid-flail, but the pitiful look hiding behind the arms flung up to cover his face was almost worse than the spastic motions. This was a Seeker of the Decepticon Elite, not a lost, helpless refugee of war. "…Hook?"

"Yes," the Constructicon confirmed. "Are you sane enough to be examined, or shall I restrain you?"

The Seeker's optics darted about the room in a strange manner. The lenses were blown wide, and Hook would almost have diagnosed him as blinded if he hadn't glimpsed a split-second of recognition when Skywarp pinpointed his location. The abnormal behavior seemed to be the result of an inability to focus, then. "Hook, where…where am I?"

"You're in the repair bay, moron," Astrotrain drawled. Hook glanced to the side, where the shuttle had manhandled Thundercracker upright again. The blue flyer still wasn't responsive, but he was pliant enough to obey physical urging and stand on his own. Now he swayed in place, staring at nothing. It bothered Hook to see solemn, dignified Thundercracker stalled out this way.

"No. I mean, where..?" A tentative hand reached out, and it wavered badly. The fingers flexed as if Skywarp literally couldn't find Hook. "I mean…Hook?" The Constructicon was kneeling beside him. Even if his equilibrium and optic sensors were shot, Skywarp should have been able to find him by radar, lidar, proximity sensors, or by hearing. Hook frowned and moved his own hand to intercept, helping the flyer find him, and Skywarp's hand clamped on with an urgency not present in the Seeker's uncertain voice. The clinginess was remarkably strange, if nothing else. "Where am I, Hook?" The hand squeezed, begging for reassurance. "I don't know where I am. I don't have - it's all gone. I can't find the calculations. The equations are giving me gibberish. The numbers are wrong, Hook!"

Half-hysteria broke back down to quiet terror when Astrotrain finally thumped Dirge, cutting off the Conehead's false-fear engine thrum. It'd been building back up steadily, which explained some of Skywarp's disorientation, anyway. Hook shook himself, shrugging off the after-effects, but the Seeker jolted before relaxing only slightly. He began rocking in place, wings knocking against the wall softly. His hand slid from Hook's and went instead to cover the exposed blue-white glitter of spark-light.

And he talked, quiet and almost chanting, "The sky is falling. The sky is falling. The sky is falling. The sky…Hook?" The dark Seeker's head tilted, unfocused optics crimped at the corners with the strain it took to gather shreds of sanity. The wide red lenses looked straight through Hook. "Are we still on Earth?"

*"I'm calling Scrapper,"* Mixmaster announced over internal commlink.

*"I don't know if he's the one we need,"* Hook countered, lifting one hand to wave steadily back and forth in front of the flyer's face. The optics didn't track. *"His spatial sensors are either completely out of alignment or blown out. We need to recalibrate his warp generator from the sensor net all the way back to program integration if that's the case."* Aloud, he said, "Yes, Skywarp. We're still on Earth. Why did you think we would have left?"

The jet tilted his head the other way, wounded Neutral look as pathetic as any Hook had ever seen. "Because the numbers are all wrong. The sky's gone." Skywarp sounded strangely plaintive, as if he wanted the surgeon to make the universe right again. "He took the world away."

*"Sounds like more than his spatial sensors are out of whack,"* Long Haul put in, and amusement seeped over the gestalt bond. It was kind of funny listening to Skywarp like this, at least in a sick way.

*"His processor's capacity is streamlined for information efficiency,"* Hook said, more interested in Skywarp's physical symptoms than the Seeker's rambling words. *"Get a glitch that unbalances the generator's equation model, and his CPU starts diverting more than it can spare to trying to run the numbers until they correct."*

*"He's got escape precedence set into his self-repair,"* Scrapper reminded them, dropping into the conversation easily. *"Everything goes into that warp generator.*"

*"I've never seen him this disoriented before,"* Long Haul mused. *"His network conduits have hardlines running on either side of his spark chamber. They might be damaged enough to be feeding him bad data."*

*"If he's getting as many wrong numbers as he's saying, his sensors could be telling him he's on Mars right now for all he knows. I'm two breems from finishing this task. Knock the flyers out and put them on the list above the Level 6 leak, and send Astrotrain to fetch Soundwave. We're going to need a program specialist on this one."* Scrapper cut back out of the conversation, presumably returning to his work.

*"Wonder who piledrived that hole in him?"* Mixmaster asked, also returning to work.

"He took the world away," Skywarp mumbled to the floor, a mantra that was doing nothing to calm Dirge down. The Conehead's engines were whining again despite the threatening fist Astrotrain raised. "He took the world away."

"Dirge!" Hook snapped, standing. "Plant your aft on that berth and do not move." He pointed to the nearest berth, ignoring the Cassetticon hiding underneath it. Dirge's engine hiccupped again, so at least the jet registered the Constructicon's presence. He wasn't obeying the order, but he'd heard Hook speak. That was more than Thundercracker was apparently capable of. The surgeon shook his head angrily and grabbed Skywarp by the arm the Seeker wasn't using to cover his broken cockpit. He wasn't so cruel as to take away whatever sad protection was left for the jet's exposed spark chamber. "Astrotrain, bring me Soundwave. I am calling repair priority unless Lord Megatron personally overrides me."

The triple-changer shut his mouth, cut off mid-protest by the surgeon's words. Considering the odd circumstances, Megatron would likely concede that the repair bay had a better claim on his Third at the moment. Shockwave would protest, but he could wait a while longer. Cybertron wasn't going anywhere. Anyway, that was something for the Decepticon high command and the Constructicon currently pulling on Skywarp's arm to hash out, not something for Astrotrain to protest.

"Skywarp, get up," Hook ordered, dismissing the triple-changer from the repair bay and his austere presence in one. "Get up. Straighten your legs. Good. Now, move."

Astrotrain headed out of the repair bay toward the officer quarters as the surgeon began hauling Skywarp toward a berth. Frenzy laughed at the Constructicon's grunt of effort and the black-and-purple Seeker's continued mumbled mantra, but an annoyed glare from the crane had the Cassetticon limping out from under shelter. Wise Decepticons knew to stay in the Constructicons' good graces.

Frenzy started to chivvy Dirge along. "Yo, move your winged aft. Hellooo? Wake up and move it, flybo - whoa!" The smaller mech skittered back as Dirge darted forward, lunged around the berth, and hid behind it. "Slagbucket!"

Shaking arms came up, trying to aim at the door, and the unstable rattle of Dirge's fans underscored his strained voice. "Get away from me!"

It'd have been a much more threatening display if the connector points for his shoulder-mounted weaponry weren't damaged scrap. Snapped wires and warped metal sparked where the weapons themselves had been torn loose. Hook gave the mech a disgusted look and guided his reeling charge right through the 'blast zone.' Dirge didn't seem to register that he was coming off as less than threatening at the moment. His arms wavered, trying to aim missing weapons around the two mechs passing through his targeted area.

Frenzy stood on the other side of the berth, head craned to see over it, and snorted at the lame intimidation attempt. "Or what? You'll point at me? Ooo, scary."

The two Constructicons still working exchanged a long look. The frantic flyer seemed to have forgotten that they were standing behind him. Long Haul took a step forward, seized the jet by the sizzling connectors on either shoulder, and heaved him up onto the berth top before Dirge could do more than thrash once in panicked reflex. The Conehead scrambled for a second, but that only pulled more wires out of already damaged connectors. He yelped, flinching back, and the Constructicon now looming over him reached up to dig his fingers into the handprint that'd been pressed into the distinctive helm of the jet's frametype. Long Haul's hand was too broad for the print, but he pressed his fingertips into the damaged areas to make sure it hurt.

"Sit," the hauler pulled the jet backward until he could snarl right into his face, borrowing some of his gestaltmate's acidic verbal bite to make certain he had Dirge's full attention, "or I'll tie you down." He released his handhold so forcefully the flyer had to flail his arms to keep from being flung to the floor.

Dirge looked back at Long Haul, tensed to flee. Long Haul glared, held up the hand he'd used to grab the jet's head, and balled it, one finger at a time, into a fist.

Dirge sat.

"Okay, right," Frenzy said, smirking. "Glad that's settled."

"Right," Long Haul agreed. He didn't look away from the jet. Dirge stared back, optics flicking cagily from him to the door. The mech was obviously going to run for it the moment the Constructicon blinked. Therefore, Long Haul didn't blink. Whatever threat might come through the door couldn't compare right this moment with the actual threat that was the big fist being held over the flyer's head.

If Hook hadn't been wrestling his own jet around, he'd have spared an approving nod for his gestaltmate's handling of the Conehead. Unfortunately, he missed Long Haul channeling his personality because Skywarp was being difficult. The purple-and-black Seeker wasn't fighting Hook's directions, but he wasn't helping, either. It was like trying to wrestle a life-sized Decepticon doll around. It reminded the other two Constructicons in the room of how Hook and Scrapper had manhandled the Nightbird robot around earlier, and the surgeon had to shake off the unease leaking through the gestalt bond. Skywarp's mind was dazed, not absent. It was a consequence of a glitch drawing power from his CPU, possibly shock from having his spark hanging out in the open. It was fixable.

In the meantime, it was annoying as a squeaky joint. "You are useless," the Seeker was told with a shove toward the berth. Hook huffed irritably when Skywarp overshot and stumbled into Dirge's berth instead of the one beside it. "Rust your wings!"

The nervous Conehead on the berth jittered, having settled on staring fixedly at the door. He didn't even notice Skywarp practically slouched on top of him. "You gotta fix him," Dirge told no one and everyone. "He's crazy. You gotta fix him before he gets worse." Glazed, fitfully-flickering optics looked at Hook when the surgeon went around the berth after Skywarp. The dark Seeker was fumbling along, hands still searching for something stable to hold on to. "Why haven't you fixed him? You gotta fix him."

The Cassetticon still standing in front of the berth looked warily at the door. Dirge's engine noise aside, the mech's injuries weren't inspiring confidence that he was just babbling nonsense. "What happened to him?" Frenzy asked. He tried to sound tough and barely managed wary.

"Looks like he underestimated the Air Commander," Long Haul speculated, deciding that his teammate could probably use a hand. No matter the insulted look he got in return. Dirge had evolved from mere blathering to clinging like a barnacle when Skywarp found and latched onto his thruster. It'd take some doing to get the two flyers separated. "Mech's nasty when he's got a point to prove, y'know."

As if he wasn't talking to a Cassetticon? Frenzy directed an unimpressed look at the Constructicon. He worked surveillance and information, for pity's sake. He knew how vicious Starscream could be when damaged, or when he felt his rank was threatened.

Long Haul shrugged back. He was merely pointing out what he thought had happened. "In-fighting in the flight ranks, maybe."

It fit the weirdly physical damage left on Dirge, but…it still didn't sit right. Teeth marks and imprinted handprints, yeah, but what the frag could Starscream have done to leave Thundercracker staring vacantly into space? Or glitched Skywarp into wandering in dizzy circles? Hook cursed and tried to get clear of Dirge's hold in order to guide the pathetically dazed Seeker to the correct berth, but even with Long Haul helping pry fingers loose, the Conehead wasn't letting go. The three flyers sure didn't seem like they were ready to overthrow the Air Commander. Slag if Frenzy could recall Dirge ever making a power grab without Thrust or Ramjet at his side, either. Things weren't quite adding up correctly.

"Doesn't make sense." Troubled, Frenzy looked between the door and the tangle of Constructicons and Seekers. Long Haul made a questioning noise indicating he was still listening, but the short mech was mostly thinking out loud. "Last order I got from Soundwave was to make sure the base was clear of Autobot widgets. We did a sweep right before my docket on the list came up." He'd reported an 'all-clear' to Soundwave, and then gone to Hook for repairs.

And that's when the Communication Officer had pointedly cut off comm. contact. That'd been odd to begin with, but securing the base and then his own quarters seemed to reinforce the theory about a power struggle in the flight ranks. Keeping the Autobots from seeing beyond the Earth-mad play-act was priority one, and disguising how Decepticon politics really worked was a big part of that. Secondary concern for Soundwave's low-risk profile, however, was to keep himself safe during dangerous upheavals in the ranks. Keeping his Cassettes out and gathering information during the worst of it fit his low-risk preference, too.

Low-risk for himself, anyway. He sent them out where he wouldn't venture.

Sometimes it sucked, being Soundwave's Cassette.

Overall, Frenzy's conclusion was that Something Was Up. He narrowed his visor, rapidly gathering information from his fellow Cassetticons. *"Check-in. Whose got optics on heavy damage?"*

The only mech on base still sporting major wounds should have been curled up in his quarters recharging or working at self-repair in one of the lower labs. Starscream wasn't one for exposing himself to potential assassination attempts while out of Megatron's favor; both his quarters and the lab he'd claimed as his own were minor defensive fortresses.

Ravage was slotted into the Security room's monitor array covering for Astrotrain's absence, and he sent back a denial on those two obvious locations. *"Corridor cameras show no activity in the relevant officer deck beyond Soundwave returning to quarters. The locks for the laboratories haven't been tampered with. The logs list Mixmaster and Scavenger in the past two orns."*

Hook finally got Dirge to let go of his arm with a quick stiff-fingered jab into sensitive circuitry. "I will fix Starscream when his slot on the list comes up, and not before. Take care of this one," he snapped at his teammate. Long Haul snorted hot air out his vents, already smacking Dirge flat and spooling a set of restraints out of the head and foot of the berth. The Conehead really began struggling when he saw that! Mixmaster put down his work at last, grumbling, and headed over to help. Dirge almost succeeded in squirming free of Long Haul's hold, and that's when the wrestling match truly began.

"He took the sky away," Skywarp continually repeated in the meantime, optics still blindly unfocused. His hands clenched and opened uncertainly at his sides. His head kept turning, but he didn't see anything. "He took the sky away."

He startled violently, trying to jerk away when Hook brusquely nabbed him by one wing and used it to push him toward the right berth this time. The surgeon was having none of it, however, and took advantage of the Seeker's reeling lack of focus to pin one wrist down enough to get a restraint around it. That seemed to flummox the flyer briefly. Skywarp pulled on his trapped wrist, blown-wide optical lenses at least pointed in the right direction. It was an improvement of sorts. Hook observed him for a long moment, trying to tell if it program glitch or hardware error causing the disorientation and strange behavior.

Frenzy took a step back from the berth Dirge was fighting to stay off of as Rumble reported, *"I've seen zilch while standin' guard. Megatron's got the bridge cleared."* That meant the tyrant was probably sitting in his command chair, savoring the silence and brooding.

Ratbat nixed that thought by chiming in, *"I am currently discussing my purchasing schedule with him. Why isn't Soundwave answering hails? Shockwave must be updated immediately."*

*"How'd you get past me?!"* Rumble blustered. *"You're lyin'! Where the fragging scrap are ya, liar!"*

The technimal Cassetticon scorned words and just sent back a rude image of the back of Rumble's helm, facing down the corridor leading to the Victory's control room. It'd obviously been taken from the door to the room itself, which Rumble was supposed to be guarding from intruders. Autobot intruders, not fellow Cassettes, but still. That was a zing to Rumble's guarding abilities, right there.

*"C'mon, mech,"* Frenzy teased absently, combing through the lock-logs Ravage had sent him. The Insecticons had been busy in the lower labs, but that wasn't news. There'd been talk of bringing them out to distract the Autobots someday soon, which was going to be a riot of idiocy. Insecticon clones everywhere were going to make life interesting, to say the least. He hadn't found sign of Starscream, however, and that was worrying him. *"That the best you can do? I've guarded - "*

*"What?"* Rumble demanded sourly. *"Guarded your own aft? Because we all know that's - "*

His twin fell silent as well. Laserbeak's transmission had gone up to Ravage's post in the Security room, and the jaguar technimal had forwarded it to the rest of the Cassettes. Now they all watched speechlessly.

Laserbeak had found Starscream. Frenzy had been right to worry.

The mess of fluids left where two competent warriors had once stood puddled along the floor, spreading by the second. The two flyers had curled in on themselves in either submission or an attempt to staunch the spurting fluids, but the glowing liquid stretched well beyond their huddled forms. It tracked down the corridor, following the feet dragging it behind in scraping, sliding footprints leading away from the two Coneheads. Their attacker was done with them.

Processed fuel and oil-hued lubricant pitter-pattered from drenched forearms and hands, but it wasn't the result of self-repair. Home surgery, perhaps, but not on the gaping injuries just barely patched on the Seeker's own body. Twisted wings flared, defiance filling in for the punctured plating. Broken leg-structure half-welded straight were enough to walk on, evidently, although not in a straight line. The footsteps left wet trails on the floor, and those trails wavered where the mech's balance had given out and required a quick side-step to recover.

The video swayed, and the Cassetticons collectively shook their heads. Laserbeak chirped, confused. The transmission interrupted for a moment while he reset his recording equipment and sent a system check query to Ravage as explanation. The birdlike technimal's equilibrium chips were malfunctioning, spinning wildly as the battered form advanced down the hall toward his perch. His sensor network was in upset, causing the malfunction, but Ravage sent back a baseline reading that indicated it was external, not internal error. That alarmed Laserbeak even more, as nothing his visual and audio recording equipment was picking up would account for the loss of equilibrium.

The picture spun, but the audio was fine save for a high, shrill buzzing. Laserbeak rocked back and forth on his perch, trying to keep the picture on the figure trudging toward him. The other Cassetticons could all hear a distinctive rasping chuckle above two sets of gurgling, drowning air filters giving their last gasps. Thrust and Ramjet were in bad shape. Their attacker was intent on acquiring new targets, and the nova-bright fire in his working optic searched the corridor. The birdlike technimal froze as it swept over him, and his fellow Cassetticons tensed.

The optic moved on, fastening on a target somewhere past Laserbeak's perch.

"Where?" Starscream coughed, spitting out a mouthful of energon that might have been his own. Frenzy didn't understand the question. "Where are they?"

*"Astrotrain,"* Ravage growled. *"I've got him on camera at the end of the corridor. Laserbeak, get out of there."*

The technimal Cassetticon chirped again, internal tape tightening to the point of tearing as the shrilling buzz rose in his receivers. His automatic system check query transmitted a system log that made no sense when Ravage shared it; the sound registered as a non-sound, despite being heard. It was affecting the Cassette's recording equipment as if it were a near-visible fog clogging his systems.

From the draining tap on the edge of his comm. array, Frenzy knew Soundwave had linked in to download the live view. The Communication Officer's retreat to safety abruptly made pragmatic sense; Frenzy sure as slag didn't want to be outside of a secure location, suddenly. Laserbeak transmitted a stream of mixed-up data that defied interpretation, along with a request for retrieval. He didn't believe himself able to fly. There had to be an error with his equilibrium chips. His gyros were out of whack, but not physically. The sensor input was completely wrong, and he scrambled to fix the information flow.

The red optic and pink-glowing hands could still be seen even through the odd twist affecting the picture. Starscream's blurred form stalked past Laserbeak's perch. "Where?!"

An emergency data purge cleared some of the mix-up, and the technimal Cassetticon shakily sent video again. The corridor dipped crazily until the birdlike Cassette managed to find Starscream again. It wasn't difficult. Astrotrain backed down the corridor one step for every step the damaged Air Commander took toward him, posture defensive. The expression on the triple-changer's face couldn't be made out, even once Ravage took over the broadcast with footage from the security camera. Soundwave issued a retrieval order to Ratbat, who'd either finished his audience with Megatron or been dismissed. Ratbat didn't protest and merely winged through the base toward Laserbeak's location.

Astrotrain continued to retreat. Starscream kept advancing.

Frenzy finally figured out who 'they' were. Also where they were relative to where he was right now.

Aw, frag. Soundwave had had the right idea, hiding out until the danger passed.

"Guys." The Constructicons were too busy to look up when the Cassetticon limped between them, heading toward the back of the bay, but they listened. Frenzy rarely sounded so flat. "Dunno where they're at on the list, but I think you oughta move Ramjet and Thrust up. They're kinda, uh, gushing."

That did nothing to help Long Haul and Mixmaster. Dirge struggled harder, nearly yelling, "You gotta fix him!" He kicked his thrusters out, managing to clobber Mixmaster in the head with a twist of his body that didn't seem possible. Long Haul dove over the berth and caught one elbow before the Conehead could eel free. "You gotta!"

Skywarp moaned, optics out of focus but homing in on Dirge's fear nonetheless. Both of the dark flyer's wrists were caught in the repair berth's straps, now, but he wriggled free when Hook paused in winching him down. The Constructicon scowled as the Seeker slipped off the other side of the berth, but the would-be fugitive's knees gave out before he could go anywhere. Skywarp went to the floor almost slowly, blinking the whole way down as if bewildered by his lack of escape. His wrists, still caught, took his weight. The restraints swung him around until he hung by his arms from the head of the berth, legs scraping over to hit the berth supports. He gave a confused squirm, not quite processing what had just happened.

Well, that was a pathetic sight. Elite Decepticon warrior, terror of the skies, reduced to being baffled by a pair of buckled straps. "Fine, sit there for all I care," Hook snapped at him. Skywarp obediently drew his knees up and sat his aft on the floor underneath the berth. That was…disturbing. But whatever. It kept the Seeker in one place.

That was more than could be said of Dirge, whom Long Haul and Mixmaster hadn't wrestled down yet. Hook was surrounded by incompetents.

"What are you talking about?" was spat at Frenzy as the H.M.S. Hook sailed in to seize control of the situation. By grabbing a thruster. Not by the bottom, of course, because panicking jets were prone to doing stupid things like taking flight without sufficient clearance when provoked. It didn't often achieve actual flight, but lit thrusters did tend to do a lot of damage on the ground. The Cassetticon vanished into the back room without answering, and Hook's engine ground angrily, downshifting. The pipsqueak would regret not answering him later, once the surgeon had him open to continue untangling his tap.

Plans of revenge would have to wait. "Dirge! Dirge, you idiot." Hook slammed the foot he was holding down with enough force to flatten the rounded heel-thruster, and that finally got the Conehead's attention. The surgeon leaned his considerable weight on the pinned limb, making sure it stayed pinned as he barked, "Where are your wingmates?"

Red optics fritzing toward white with panic went wider, and the Constructicons clustered around the berth heaved as the flyer bucked. Arm joints strained, but numbers and mass held the advantage for the moment.

*"I'm getting a priority repair retrieval notice from Security,"* Scrapper said over internal commlink, and the three teammates raised their heads in unison. Their gestalt leader forwarded the notice a moment later, and they exchanged looks that were, just slightly, worried. Dirge continued to writhe and kick under their hands. *"Prep the workshop for surgery, Hook. Looks like…Thrust and Ramjet. Is Dirge still in the repair bay?"*

*"He is,"* Hook confirmed. Mixmaster lunged and managed to catch Dirge's other thruster at last, although it took all his weight to pin it down to the berth. When he got the leg straight, Hook scooped it into his own hold. The chemist immediately had to lean heavily on the flyer's knees, keeping them straight until his teammate had a grip on both feet.

*"Something strange's going on,"* Long Haul said at the same time, meeting the surgeon's visor with his own. *"We need to sedate these two."* As one, they looked to where Skywarp had stuffed himself under the berth, optics blind but mouth working. He kept repeating the same set of words: lost, away, sky, gone, took. *"My thinking's that Starscream's flipped and started whaling on whoever he thinks crossed him today."*

*"That could be anyone,"* Mixmaster put in. He ducked around Long Haul and unspooled a restraint strap. *"His standards for that are iffy enough when he's not out for vital fluids. My vote is we move Starscream up the repair queue. Seems that he's not disabled enough not to be a threat, but he took some hits to the head. Anybody else catch a look at his helm when Lord Megatron was through with him? We might be looking at processor damage."*

*"It is entirely possible that he is using that as an excuse to go after his subordinates."* Hook grunted when a particularly hard thrash almost kicked Dirge's legs free. Mixmaster was swearing steadily as he tried to loop the restraint strap around the Conehead's neck, trying to at least keep him on the berth. The chemist couldn't push an energon siphon into a main line when the patient was quite this active. Even Hook had to grudgingly admit that his list of talents didn't include that, so he reserved his ire for Starscream's questionable sanity. *"He never does take it well when his rank is questioned, and Pit knows the air ranks played that up with that disgusting humanoid today."*

In Hook's mind, the Nightbird would never qualify as a robot droid, much less a Cybertronian. She'd been a perversion of a real mech's frametype. Scrapper had been reluctantly intrigued by the design innovations, but Hook had been insulted on behalf of his race. He wasn't going to forgive mankind the insult anytime soon, either.

Not that he'd thrown in support of Starscream's cautions to Lord Megatron, but the sentiment could be shared. Hook had definite opinions about such things. He just wasn't going to shriek them at the top of his vocalizer at the armed, volatile Supreme Commander of his own faction. Hence the reason Hook remained undamaged and Starscream had been pounded scrap metal when last seen.

*"That could be coming around to shoot them in the afts,"* Scrapper agreed, sounding annoyed. Starscream really was the type to pretend a head wound had caused him to wreck bloody vengeance across the base. *"Alright. Move him up the list. I'll stand witness to the damage being life-threatening if anyone questions us. Oh, slag and waste, what a mess."* Their leader's voice lifted a bit in surprise. It dropped immediately into professional calm, so he must have come across Thrust and Ramjet. *"Long Haul, I need you here to help transport what's left of these two back to the repair bay. Hook - "*

"*I will ready the workshop momentarily,"* the surgeon interrupted. He didn't need a reminder like some witless Seeker. *"Just get them here, if you can manage that simple task yourself."*

Long Haul looked up at the ceiling as if asking Primus for patience, then stepped back to let Hook deal with the squirming Conehead on his own. *"On my way."*

Mixmaster grinned appreciatively, hiding it by turning his shoulder. Hook had to almost sit on Dirge to keep the jet down, which left the surgeon glaring after Long Haul in affront for the dirty move. Mixmaster himself concentrated on getting the wrist strap buckled. That was the throat strap and one wrist restraint in place; Dirge wasn't getting off the berth, now, however much he flailed.

*"List's updated,"* Long Haul said lightly, walking to the door to drag names around on the priority list before leaving. *"I'll let Security know we're looking for the Air Commander, shall I?"*

He casually sauntered out the door. A thrown piece of glass shaken loose from Skywarp's broken canopy shattered against the corridor wall opposite the door, missing him by a fraction of a second, and the hauler's smug chuckle floated back through the door as it closed. Hook's aim was, as all things he practiced, perfect. Just a tad tardy, in this case.

"Fragger," the surgeon muttered. "Frenzy! Get your undersized aft over here and help!" There was no sign of the Cassetticon obeying his order, and the Constructicon marked that down as something else the little mech would learn to regret, later. No one crossed the surgeon for long, especially not on Earth. A ridiculously humiliating revenge on his enemies could be easily worked into an Autobot distraction ploy and suggested to Megatron as part of a larger plan.

Later would come, oh yes, and then Frenzy would regret not obeying orders.

For now, the Cassetticon's disobedience left Mixmaster and Hook on their own. Subduing Dirge was far more of a nuisance task than Hook would have thought. Wrestling the jet around was heating him uncomfortably, and his fans switched on. His systems quickened when internal temperature didn't dump fast enough. The external air temperature was too high to suck heat out. The surgeon twitched as his onboard computer blipped the new numbers onto his heads-up display, and he automatically set a monitoring program on his internal systems. The external temperature reading was obviously an error. The ship had never maintained that temperature, much less now that it had sunk to the bottom of the ocean.

That meant that his temperature gauge was off. How typical of how the orn was going. With Hook's luck today, he'd caught a virus of some kind. That was one more mark against the blasted Conehead, so far as he was concerned.

"Dirge. Dirge! Oh, for…stop. Stop, you fool!" Of all the times for Scavenger and Bonecrusher to be offbase, it would be when they needed muscle in the repair bay.

Because lowering himself to manually restraining a patient wasn't annoying enough, his audios decided it was time to chime in with a problem as well. They were registering an error. His whole body was being inundated with a low, building buzz, like a subsonic rattle too subtle to be heard. It ebbed and flowed, surging through him from the feet up, and it rattled his crane line. Mixmaster tried to catch his gaze as if wondering if he felt it, too.

Hook shook his head violently and tried to drive the buzz from his head. "Enough! Sedate him!" he ordered the chemist.

"Fix him!" the Conehead yelled deliriously, still thrashing. They'd gotten his thrusters down at last, but he wasn't letting them get his free hand without a fight.

"He took the world away," Skywarp kept saying, and his volume climbed. His wrists jerked against the restraints helplessly, sawing the straps against the berth edge, but they were meant to hold up to more abuse than mere pulling. The flyer had somehow managed to wedge himself under the berth's head despite his wingspan. The restraints kept his arms outstretched, however, and his knees drew up as if to protect his exposed spark chamber. His head twisted and turned, peering in unfocused hysteria around the repair bay. "He took the world away!"

"Do you hear that?" Mixmaster asked, troubled. The chemist's head tilted to the side, and he gave it a shake as if trying to dislodge a weight.

The question ticked Hook off all the more, and the odd sense of building pressure certainly wasn't helping his temper. His own head felt like it was being squeezed in a clamp, and his audios burred. It was less of a sound than a rough, escalating vibration. It caused his vision to fizzle around the edges before his onboard computer compensated for the sensation, but that popped up another set of alerts on his HUD. As his audios kept buzzing, the whirring vibration spread to his equilibrium chips. That temperature glitch wasn't helping matters as his HUD crowded more alerts onto his queue. That temperature reading was unreal.

The surgeon dismissed the glitch in favor of the vibration. That, at least, was real. "The ship is shaking. Seismic shift, perhaps."

"No." Red optics looked down at the free wrist in his grasp, and Mixmaster frowned. Dirge yanked futilely. "That's not a dirtside sound."

The alerts multiplied. A whole host of new errors entered his queue. Hook scowled at them, at his teammate, at the blasted flyers disrupting his day. Why, by Primus' rusted crooked camshaft, had an atmospheric reading just shut down his flight systems? He didn't need to fly anywhere at the moment, but that wasn't the point. His flight systems were fine-tuned. He'd done the maintenance himself. When flight could mean the difference between life or death in a fight, a mech didn't let even small errors slide. Hook didn't let any errors slide, ever. The barrage of error alerts was a personal offense.

The flight system shut-down was as irritating as the temperature gauge glitch. Hook's body wasn't prone to unexplainable errors, especially ones with no basis in reality. He sent a system query after the alert and found the series of warnings that'd led to it: air composition drop. The necessary gas combination for atmospheric flight had been disappearing from the repair bay's air. The Constructicons were not Seeker frames with advanced flight engines, but his thrusters were no more capable of space flight than theirs, either. His flight system had shut down on automatic, claiming that there was no atmosphere to feed the flames.

How absurd. His intakes sucked in a full ventilation cycle, chemical receptors at the ready, and he force-fed the resulting data into his onboard computer. It was stale, but it was air.

It was…hot. Hot enough to heat-soften sensitive receptor nodes, and that was something no glitch could cause.

Hook had just enough time to look up, fritzing sensors zeroing in on the direction of the heat source, as the buzzing, whining thrum came to a crescendo.

The door to the repair bay peeled open, and a volcanic wind blew Hook and Mixmaster off balance. They stumbled back, arms flung up over their faces defensively, so they missed dragon's breath melting their carefully-sorted priority list to slag on the wall. Even if they'd seen, they'd have been taking shelter instead of protesting. The screen warped, sagged, and burst into flames before drooling to the floor in a stream of liquefied material. The metal circuitry behind the screen dribbled downward as well, only to be met by a blast of rising heat. A fan of scalding droplets scattered in an upward spray that melted paint on impact.

Fire crawled through the open door and licked up the frame in writhing coils, decorating it like Hell's threshold. A roaring wave poured through and rolled over the floor in a tidal flood the moment the door slid open far enough. The corridor outside was a screen of dancing blue-white-orange-red that radiated heat that burned the very air in the repair bay.

From the lethal, hypnotic smelter's mouth emerged blue, silver-white, red. He strode into the repair bay wreathed in a crackling inferno, and the multicolored flames painted his wings dazzling colors where the metal plating had been wrenched away. His injuries burned brighter, transmuting weakness to strength. Torn edges heated cherry red and sparking. The damage to his helm reflected brilliant diamonds and piercing flashes of color like a crown of suns. His one working optic was brightest yet: a pit to an inferno, a gateway to rage that reflected and fed a fire hotter than flames.

The floor at his feet softened and spread, a steaming ripple laid out before royalty. Where the fuel evaporated to gas, it ignited. A carpet of scorching, roiling flame hovered at knee height, and he stood in the boiling pool of fire like he'd risen untouched from the source.

Starscream knew how to make an entrance.

*"He opened a Primus'-fragged fuel line,"* Mixmaster gasped, and now the air really was gone. Their intakes labored, taking in more heat than their fans could dump.

The buzzing vibration had risen to a high, throbbing roar like the burn of fire in space, snatching combustion from the airless void and dying in the process. Hook shook his head, audios overwhelmed by the screaming pitch of solar winds and light waves and gas burning so hot it'd melt optic sensors that dared look too closely. Starscream's electromagnetic field coursed through the room, impossibly transmitted through fire and spilling fuel and every piece of metal they touched. It radiated from the floors, berths, and every fleck of melted metal bubbling and bursting. They couldn't escape it. He dominated the room like a star bursting into existence in their midst. They could no more fight his presence than they could reach out and snuff the sun with their hands.

Rampant electricity burnt off the damaged Air Commander, filling his injuries with white light and pure energy unleashed, and it snapped around the Constructicon's arms where they'd raised them to defensively shield their faces. The fire beat at them, but Starscream seemed unaffected. Maybe he wasn't touched by the flames. Maybe he couldn't feel the tongues of blue and white lapping up his thighs, stirred by his slow walk into the room until the giant ripples reached the far walls of the repair bay. Maybe he was a creature of the Pit, vengeance personified, or maybe he was just that far gone.

Skywarp twisted desperately, mouth just barely above the surface of the fire, trapped under the berth and burning alive in the puddled fuel. If Starscream saw his wingmate clawing and wailing, he didn't seem to care. He didn't seem to care about the way his wings dripped melted metal, either. Maybe the cracked sanity behind the cracked optics didn't feel the blackening plating, or recognize the agonized noise as coming from his wingmate.

They'd forgotten, here on Earth. They'd forgotten that the idiot play-act belittled a Decepticon who could outfly them all, on or off the planet. His screeching histrionics so often deceived them, because they so often forgot that the flighty, devious officer under the act was protected by a spark powerful enough to earn a name most mechs didn't think closely about. They didn't think about how no other Seeker took to space, had a name that even suggested it, but the Air Commander embraced his oddity. He embraced it, owned it, and flung it through the room to consume them under pressure and pounding waves of electromagnetic field melded with spark energy.

It pulsed off his spark, and the Constructicons staggered back before the impossible energy. It was impossible! Not possible! That spark gave off too much energy, it wasn't possible, but it was undeniably identifiable as Starscream. Every working sensor they had blared Starscream. They were surrounded by, invaded by Starscream, and the energy he radiated stripped the world away to replace it with the insubstantial, airless void of space. Space - and fire.

Under the painful scream of a star, the base-wide alarms finally going off were almost unheard.

*"Containment team to the repair bay!"* Hook managed through his coughing. He'd caught a face full of searing, burning oxygen, and delicate equipment melting inside his throat and chest had him gagging. He squinted his visor and turned his back, trying to protect his sensitive hands as fuel sloshed over his feet and black smoke billowed across the ceiling. *"Emergency containment: subdue Starscream and extinguish the fire, and I do not care in what order it's done!"* Between his disorientation and Mixmaster's surprised yelp as his tires caught fire, they were in no shape to stand up to a genuine mad mech on their own!

The fuel kept splashing, pushing the fire higher, and Hook took a quick look over his shoulder. This was too much fuel for one mech! Who was bleeding out in the corridor to provide this flood? He reached out over the gestalt bond instinctively, searching for Long Haul, but Starscream's wild energy assault had him too off-balance to focus, unable to even seen straight as his equilibrium chip flat-out gave up. It was no surprise that Skywarp's specialized spatial sensors had been knocked for a loop if this was what he'd faced!

The dark flyer was thrashing under the rising flames, and Mixmaster cursed as he forged through the hovering river of fire between the berths. The chemist fumbled, trying to undo the wrist restraints while protecting his own face. Hook couldn't stop coughing. He didn't dare turn around to bear the brunt of the heat again, but he reached one hand back and tore at the nearest restraint. Dirge shrieked pitifully at his back, half-pinned to the berth and scraping his thrusters against it as he tried to get away. When Hook risked a glance back, the Conehead's optics were windows into sheer terror as he stared at the unreal Seeker stalking across the room.

But it was Thundercracker who caught Starscream's attention. Perhaps because of close proximity, as the out-of-it blue Seeker was still just standing there in the front of the repair bay. Although he'd started react to the fire torching his paint black, he seemed to be doing so in slow motion. He was looking down at the pool of flames at his knees, absentmindedly making the connection between pain and cause.

The blue Seeker's optics reset several times, and sense seeped into them as the pain filtered in. "What..?"

"Thundercracker," rasped around the room, ruffling the flames.

Like the ebbing, thrumming keen of cosmic sound it sounded like, Starscream's voice whipped the inferno higher in its wake, and Mixmaster gave up trying to reach Skywarp. Hook stumbled forward, abandoning Dirge despite the shrieking, wordless plea that chased after him. The two Constructicons retreated, fleeing the firestorm front room of the repair bay and leaving it to Starscream insanity.

Which paced around his wingmate, ever closer, and Thundercracker froze under that skewed regard. Froze the way he had when the world had gone away, because what was thunder without sky to echo in? The first snap of out-of-control energy had thrown his processor into a recursive loop, Skywarp's generator into complete confusion, and the Coneheads into terror. They knew a head injury when they saw such aberrant behavior, but this - this -

This was dangerous, and not just because Starscream didn't seem to be noticing pain.

He could fight, but the Air Commander's hand had already wrapped around the back of his neck, caressed under his helm, and the blue Seeker's went rigid. Burning pain or not, Skywarp's croaking cries and Dirge's shrieking aside, he wasn't going to move until those fingers lost their grip on the components they'd settled on. He could take a few burns. He couldn't take his head being ripped open.

"Thundercracker," Starscream rasped again, split lips smiling widely.

The fire danced around them, but no more than the unstable light behind his wingleader's cracked optic. Thundercracker looked into lunacy and bent submissively, allowing the hold on his head to guide him closer. Walking into the mad Seeker's arms voluntarily was no guarantee of safety, but struggling guaranteed worse. Starscream's free arm closed around him, and a lash of flame seared over the back of his wings like an extension of the injured, crazed mech's will. Paint blistered. Thundercracker arched but bit off his cry.

"So you think a human construct could replace me, hmm?" That whispered scream purred fire and space into his audio, words almost unimportant.

Except that he could ignore them only at his peril. Thundercracker gasped for air, gasped for atmosphere that had fled. "No."

"Megatron could never replace me," Starscream overrode his wingmate's soft protest, pouring liquid heat through a void, and the blue Seeker shuddered despite himself. "I'll destroy anyone who tries. Remember that, Thundercracker."

He'd promise anything to escape right now, but this was a promise he could honestly make. "I'll remember," the blue flyer swore. His hands pressed against Starscream's shattered cockpit, earnestly projecting his honesty through his own small, nearly-subsumed EM field. The strong push of skepticism in return broke through the sludgy haze of the past few breems, forcing memory to the surface.

Primus, he remembered the crack and garbled screech when Starscream coldly punched through Skywarp's chest and maimed his spark chamber, forcing the disoriented teleporter to the wall. The savage Air Commander had demanded answers for their actions and words today, and he'd been most displeased by the replies he'd gotten. All Skywarp could babble were excuses. Excuses of fear and duty and rational thought that had made sense when standing between Megatron and Starscream earlier, but they counted for nothing right now.

Not now, when Starscream's free hand was tipping Thundercracker's chin up and that glowing optic searched him pitilessly. The trapped jet prayed his wingleader would accept silence, because it was better to offer no excuse than a bad one when he was dead either way.

The back of Starscream's free hand brushed down Thundercracker's cheek, and the burning Seeker whispered close enough to breathe smoke and flickers of starburst energy over trembling lips, "If you ever leave me…"

"I won't. Starscream, I won't."

"If you ever leave me…"

"I won't!" That hand slid down his body as the fire licked up it, burning metal and insanity advancing from opposite directions. The blue Seeker whimpered quietly, paralyzed by the squeeze of fingers under his helm and the throbbing sound of a star. The flames left black marks and agony, but the palm of Starscream's hand spread flat over golden canopy glass in tender, blatant threat. The skepticism and achingly hot anger pulsed in electric surges around him, through him, and it turned suddenly intent. The whimper turned into a frantic, strangled appeal.

Dark lips curved, smirking, against Thundercracker's mouth.

The containment team arrived almost too late to save him.

[* * * * *]