Chapter 17: Back in the Saddle Again

*****

Iacon, Planet Cybertron
Earth Date January 6, 2008 (approx.)

Captain Marissa Fairborn of the United States Air Force checked her appearance in the mirror for what had to be the tenth time or so. Over two years stranded on an alien world and she didn't remember being this nervous before. Oh, sure, she'd been scared stiff, lost, confused, devastated, and without hope, but nervous?

Her second encounter with Shockwave had left a permanent mark on her once again. Not as serious as the first time, of course, seeing as she lost no further limbs, but a prominent streak of grey stood out among her chestnut coloured hair. Well, the nearest supplier of hair dye was however many light years away, so there was nothing to be done about it now. The rest of her appearance was spotless, her cybernetic limbs gleamed like new.

Deciding to get things over with, she walked over to her Headmaster Unit and suited up. She left the helmet and visor up, though. Since the hiding part of her stay on Cybertron was most definitely over with, she might as well enjoy the fresh air while she could. Fresh air in the sense that she only had to take the occasional breath from her breather unit, of course, seeing as Cybertron's atmosphere still wasn't quite up to human standards. She was playing for time, she realized. Time to get moving.

Walking out of her rooms, she headed toward the nearby staging area where Maverick's Maniacs were stationed whenever they were in Iacon. Every step toward those big hangar doors made the butterflies in her stomach more frantic, but she ignored them as best as she could. Nothing to it, she kept telling herself. You've done this dozens of times already. Only difference is that they all know now. They all know that you're actually an alien life form that's using one of their dead bodies for a joy ride. What could possibly go wrong?

Much too soon she arrived at the hangar doors and they opened up. Behind it stood over a dozen Autobot flyers and all of them were looking at her. She forced herself to keep walking towards them, even though her heart was beating so fast she feared it might burst from her chest.

Swoop, her second-in-command, took a step toward her and crouched down, putting himself almost at eye level with her.

"So our big, bad, fearless leader is actually a tiny little fleshling from an alien world, eh? Who'd have thought?"

Gulping down her nervousness, she met his optics straight on.

"You got a problem with that, Autobot?" she asked, her voice almost steady.

"So what if I have?" he asked.

"Then get over it! We've got a war to win."

Swoop kept it up a moment longer, then laughed. "Good answer, squishy. And here we feared you'd lost your marbles for good after your encounter with ol' one-eye."

He rose, looking at the other Autobots. "Maniacs! Attention!"

All the Autobots stood at attention, forming a corridor between her and the headless form of Thrymir. Marissa had almost laughed the first time she had seen the truly massive amount of additional hardware Wheeljack had strapped onto it. A short test flight had sufficed to convince him to take some of it off again, as Marissa had barely gotten off the ground in jet mode. While slightly more heavily armed and armoured than before, Thrymir was now flight-worthy again.

Coming to a stop before it, she sealed up her suit and shouted "HEAD ON!". A moment later she was seeing the world from atop a giant's shoulders once again. Which also let her realize that her squadron had apparently gained two new members in her absence. Two very small new members.

"Swoop, I see we have newcomers?" she asked, walking towards them.

The two new Autobots were barely any bigger than her Headmaster Unit and she couldn't see any visible signs of a jet alternate mode, either.

"Yeah, Wheeljack and Brainstorm have apparently gotten into some kind of upgrade competition lately."

Brainstorm? Yes, she remembered that name. Apparently he was Wheeljack's main rival for the title of mad scientist among the Autobots and regularly designed stuff that was immediately scrapped again for being far, far too dangerous to use. But what did that have to do with...?

"Highbrow and Steelwing, time to get in gear!" Swoop commanded.

The two tiny Autobots nodded and then jumped into the air, transforming into... heads? Only now did Marissa notice the two headless bodies standing at the side of the hangar, bodies that quite clearly showed flight mode elements. The two newly-transformed heads attached to the bodies and they came to attention.

Marissa was dumbfounded for a moment, but then remembered Rewind's throw-away comment from when Wheeljack had first presented her with her Headmaster Unit. About how bigger Cybertronians could downsize for energy preservation and only link up with larger bodies for combat purposes.

"So... Wheeljack or Brainstorm?" she asked Swoop.

"Both, kind of. Wheeljack came up with the initial design, but had put it aside for the moment to work on upgrading your stuff. Apparently Brainstorm couldn't resist and created the first two transectors – as he calls them – for combat use. Highbrow and Steelwing volunteered to be downsized and retrofitted. All while Wheeljack and Brainstorm had a truly epic shouting match, I believe."

Marissa could only imagine. She hadn't met Brainstorm yet, but she knew how Wheeljack could get about his inventions.

"I assume you two have already given your new shells a spin and tested everything?" she asked.

"Sure thing, Maverick," Steelwing said. "Everything's working just fine. Ready to blast some Seekers out of the sky."

"Same here," Highbrow just said. He seemed less enthusiastic than Steelwing, but Marissa was certain that Swoop would have put them both through their paces.

"Optimus figured that no one would be better suited for the first field tests of the new 'Autobot Headmasters' then the squadron that's already got one of those," Swoop said, smirking.

"Are the interfaces generalized or is each shell calibrated for just one specific Headmaster?" she asked, imagining battlefield scenarios where 'head swapping' might be a feasible tactic to take the enemy by surprise.

"So far each transector has to be fine-tuned individually," Highbrow said. "Brainstorm said something about improving the next batch to the point where they'd offer a universal head interface, but at that point Wheeljack was already trying to punch him out, so I'm not certain how soon that will come about."

"I'm kinda sorry I wasn't there for all that," Marissa mused.

Turning to look at her squadron, she took a deep breath. There was something she had to get off her chest before they went into combat again.

"I'm not sure how much all of you have been told about my specific situation, so I'll try and be frank with you. Shockwave is after me. He believes he can extract information from my brain that will lead him to my home world, which he believes has all the resources the Decepticons will need to win this war. So my point is, whenever our squadron appears on the battle field, odds are that a lot of Decepticons are going to come gunning for me, meaning they'll come gunning for everyone on this squadron as well.

"While all of you know the risks of combat, none of you signed up for having a huge bulls eye painted on your hulls. So if anyone wants to transfer to a different squadron, I will understand."

There was silence for a moment, before Steelwing took a step forward.

"Maverick... Captain Fairborn. Thank you for your words, but even the youngest among us here has fought in this war far, far longer than you have even been alive. We know the risks and the Decepticons will come gunning for us no matter what, simply because of this." She pointed at the Autobot symbol on her chassis. "And whatever additional danger your presence might put us in, well, we figure it's more than worth it, considering how much things have already improved thanks to you."

"We're all hoping that this war will end, the sooner the better," Highbrow chipped in. "For the first time in a long time we actually believe it might be possible. And if we can do it in time to make sure you see your home world again... that's just one more reason to get it done."

"The rookies are right, boss," Swoop added, still smirking. "Besides, quite a few bots here have already placed wagers that we're going to beat out the Wreckers this Vorn for number of scrapped Cons. We figure that having the squishy on our team can only help with that."

Marissa simply nodded, not quite trusting her ability to form words right now.

"Thank you," she finally said.

Turning toward the hangar exit, she brought up all of Thrymir's system to full capacity and began to head out.

"Maniacs, form up!" she ordered.

*****

Tagan Heights, Planet Cybertron
Earth Date January 6, 2008 (approx.)

"Air support coming in," Hound yelled, keeping his head down amidst heavy Decepticon shelling.

"About time," Sideswipe spat, squeezing off shots between explosions.

"We'll take out the artillery position in 0.7 cycles. Prepare to move forward the moment the shelling stops!"

Sideswipe looked at Hound. "Was that...?" he began.

"Sure thing," Hound replied, grinning. "It seems Maverick's Maniacs are back in action."

Some distance in front of them several big explosions bloomed. A moment later the shelling stopped.

"Move out, Autobots," Hound yelled, breaking cover. Whooping enthusiastically, his unit followed.

End Chapter 17