You might want to get yourself a cup of tea/coffee/wine/energon, because this first chapter is long, for me. ;-) Anyway, enjoy! This is the sequel to Uneasy Elements. Hugs to all my readers. :-)

Chapter 1

Darkmount, the Decepticon prison, loomed large amid a bubbling lake of scalding magma and slag, glowing red and white-hot as it oozed round the spiked, imposing structure – a most effective preventative measure against escape. No bot could break free from these forbidding walls, not even the strongest mech could snap the heavy chains, or bust the thick bars that bound them. So Rumble and Frenzy had no chance at all.

Frenzy sat in the corner of the cell, holding his metallic hands out in front of him, staring at them with detached numbness, trying to process the awful truth that kept repeating itself, over and over, in his processor.

He was going to die.

Or, rather, they were going to die. It was just a question of when. Low-grade energon had been delivered to the cell periodically – it tasted disgusting and had sediment in the bottom, but the casseticons had drained every last drop. Nevertheless Frenzy felt exhausted. He sat slumped in the corner, whilst his brother, Rumble, paced the cell, pausing every now and then to grab at the thick bars that ran along one wall.

'Right, right… right,' he muttered furiously, his optics narrowed with frantic thought. 'So, the bars are a no-no, we can't get to the vents… what about the floor? We could try the floor, again… perhaps tunnel our way to the…'

'Rumble, bro, what are you doing?' Frenzy said miserably. 'We can't get out of here!'

'We can!' his brother hissed, wheeling about and glaring at Frenzy. 'We just need to figure out how!'

'You think we can escape Darkmount? No one can! We're just casseticons!'

'I am NOT going to die!' Rumble snarled, clenching his fists.

'Even we could bust outta here, where would we go?'

'Anywhere,' said Rumble promptly, resuming his pacing. 'We're small, we can blend in. Sneak aboard a shipment vessel, start a new life someplace…'

Frenzy shook his head. Rumble knew as well as he did that they were both slagged. Bound for the scrapheap. On their way to meet Primus. What had made things much worse, was that Starscream was drawing out their agony – it had been five orbital cycles since their arrest and imprisonment. Frenzy had expected to be hauled before the High Court the very next cycle, but nothing had happened… and Rumble in particular was close to cracking. Starscream was a master of torture, and in this case, he didn't have to hurt them – didn't even have to lay a finger on them to cause them extreme torment. He just had to make them wait, at his leisure.

The High Court was merely a formality, anyway. Frenzy went back to staring miserably at his hands, trying to process the realization that soon they would be devoid of life, of movement. What he and Rumble had done immediately warranted the death penalty. If he could turn back time… he drew his knees into his chest, and off-lined his optics, in order to block out the sight of Rumble pacing. If only Alexis were here. Frenzy didn't know how she did it, but somehow his human friend had the capacity to make Starscream see reason, to show mercy… what he wouldn't give to have her here now! He huddled further into himself, as if by doing so he could make himself so small as to be barely noticeable when the guards finally came for them…

5 cycles earlier, on the planet Lithone.

Arcee was a petite mech, when standing upright she only just came up to Optimus' chest plates, yet in this cramped bar she felt like a giant next to the other punters. Lithone's population divided neatly into two types: the upper class were tall and broad, with shining silver bodies, in fact silver was the majority element on Lithone – from space it gleamed like a mirrored marble. The upper classes had their own hot-spots and haunts, with soaring ceilings and wide doorways. This grubby little establishment was for the lower orders: small knee-high bronze mechs who survived on low pay and did most of the menial work. Lithone was a planet of contradiction: obscene wealth sat alongside dire poverty. Arcee was here alone. Since the arrival of the Autobots back on Cybertron, she had rejoiced at being back in with her own kind, and it was only now she realized how lonely she had been in those dark days hiding from the Decepticons. But, she was still a loner through and through, and this mission was hers alone. That was how she liked it.

She nodded to the bar-bot, who scurried off down the far end to fetch her another drink. When it had been built, this place obviously harboured pathetic hopes that the higher orders would come in here for refreshment: the bar had been made to allow tall transformers to stand at it comfortably, meaning Arcee had to stand on tiptoe to see over properly. The small mechs had to climb with difficulty onto high stools. Arcee was too big for the stools, and too small to see over the bar properly. What a stupid design, she thought irritably. Still, if she had to give her money to anyone on this gaudy sphere, she would rather give it to the underdog than the top dog. Hence choosing this dive to re-energise in.

Her drink arrived and she nodded her thanks, activating her com link to send credits directly into the bar's data banks. She blinked when the transaction failed and the small bar-bot with dented armour gave a nervous smile.

'Sorry ma'am,' he chirped. 'We don't have that kind of technology here.'

Arcee waved away his apologies, digging into her cargo hold and placing some credit chips on the bar. The bar-bot took them with a nod of thanks, but then looked up, his optics widening at a sight behind her. Arcee turned to follow his gaze.

What she saw turned her spark cold. Yet years of training kicked in, and she just about managed to keep her expression neutral.

A Decepticon jet had entered the bar. He had to duck his head, and turn sideways in order to accommodate his impressive wingspan. Arcee watched him straighten up with a grunt, his head grazing the ceiling. He was so huge he blocked out the light of the doorway, his slanted red optics casting a pale glow over the bar and its inhabitants. The diminutive clientele murmured amongst themselves, impressed and intimidated.

He began moving forward, his footsteps thumping the floor, negotiating his way through the tiny tables. The dimness of the bar made his colours difficult to make out, but Arcee caught a flash of blue right before she turned around to face the bar.


Thundercracker reached the bar, and positioned himself right next to Arcee. She was confident he wouldn't recognize her – before she left Cybertron she had had her energy signature dampened and replaced with an artificial one. Ratchet had also helped her completely overhaul her armour – she wore an anonymous, dull grey and green ensemble, meant to resemble a patch-job outfit worn by a traveling mech of limited means. But she still felt a thrill of nerves in her spark as the hulking Decepticon arrived next to her, his figure blocking the lights overhead, throwing her into shadow. He leaned in, his deep voice rumbling as he addressed the bar-bot. 'Your finest grade, right here.' A handful of credit chips tumbled onto the bar, clattering in her audio receptors.

'Right,' squeaked the bar-bot. 'Uh… do you want a half, or a whole serving, sir?'

Thundercracker raised an eyebrow, straightening up to his full, impressive height. 'Do l look like I want a half measure?'

The bar-bot's optics traveled up, and up, over the seeker's wide chest, spread jet wings, and up to his glowing optics framed by a black and blue helmet. '…No…'

'I didn't think so. Extra large. And get me one of your Lithomorph-hound Sandwiches. Might as well give the local cuisine a try.'

The bot nodded, hurrying off. Thundercracker stretched, slowly and leisurely, turning around to survey the scene, leaning back on the bar. Beside him, the small green and grey femme stared straight ahead. Thundercracker noticed with amusement that her chin barely made it to the bar. How cute. She gripped her cup with both hands, seemingly lost in thought.

Thundercracker rubbed his chin. 'So… you're not a local, are you? Just passing through?'

The femme was silent for a few moments, as if wondering whether or not to speak to him. Finally, she answered, though she didn't look up. 'Yeah. Just passing through.'

Thundercracker nodded. 'I hear there's plenty of work round here if you want it. You in one of the refineries, or somethin'?'

The femme paused. 'Bar work, mostly.'

'Ah!' Thundercracker nodded, holding up a hand. 'I shoulda guessed. A little slice of premium pie like you would be wasted down in the refineries.'

Jerk. Arcee nodded briefly, willing him to just go away. What in Primus' name was he even doing here? She needed to make her escape, and looked about the bar, sussing out potential exits. To her dismay, she saw a large delivery of energon and other goods were being brought in through the front, several small mechs straining as they hauled on palettes that blocked the doorway. Slag! She was stuck. At least her disguise seemed to be working.

Thundercracker's drink arrived, as well as a platter, that, in spite of herself, she craned to see, curious. It consisted of two vast chunks of silvery granite, in between which there oozed a thick sludge, silvery and black, with hunks of dessicated hound circuitry. It was topped off with sprinkled chunks of Augite. The whole thing would have fed her for several cycles. She stared, revolted, as Thundercracker lifted it up, turning it over curiously before taking a huge bite out of it.

'Hmm,' he rumbled as he munched, finally swallowing. 'Nice. Kinda heavy.' He stifled a burp, taking another bite. Arcee shuddered. He must have more sophisticated inner workings than she gave him credit for, if he could process solid matter like that. How could he actually consume something that used to be alive? In a few quick bites he had devoured it, dusting off his hands. 'Not bad at all. I'll have another one of those.' He gestured carelessly to the bar-bot, reaching for his energon. She glanced at the door once more, cursing internally. That infernal delivery was still going on. She fought the urge to go over and help the delivery mechs, just so she could escape quicker.

'One thing I can't quite figure out though,' said Thundercracker casually, gulping down a huge mouthful of energon, before turning to face her. She stayed where she was, still facing the bar, only half turning her head. Out the corner of her optics she could see his broad chest at head height. 'Oh?'

'Yeah. I'm sure you're great at your job… but working in a bar can't be much fun for you. I mean, surely a femme like you gets mechs groping your aft all the time.'

There was a silence. Arcee froze, her hands gripping her cup a little tighter.

He knows.

She looked up, to find he had bent down to her level, a knowing grin spreading across his face as he studied her closely. She stared back, forcing her features to remain calm, swallowing her mouthful of energon. He moved in a little closer.

'Hello, Arcee. Fancy seeing you here.'

She was rendered speechless for a moment. Her mind immediately began working fast. There were currently no clear exits out of the bar. They were in a cramped space – she had the advantage in that her smaller size meant she could get out faster than he could, unless he destroyed the building… which he probably would, she realized, her spark sinking. Out in the open she would have felt more confident faced with the seeker, but in here he had her completely cornered. Her optics wandered to his guns, gleaming lethally in the lamplight. Her weapons were no match.

He raised his brows, following her gaze. 'Oh, don't worry. I'm sure we won't need to resort to those.' He clamped a hand down onto her shoulder – the weight of it made her knees buckle slightly. The bar-bot brought the second sandwich, placing it on the bar between them. 'Anything else, sir?'

'Yeah.' Thundercracker spoke without taking his eyes off Arcee, his fingers tightening over her shoulder. 'I wanna chat with my friend here. Got anywhere private?'

'Uh… there's a booth, right over there…'

'Great. Bring my sandwich. And another drink for the lady.'

Arcee lowered her head, scowling as Thundercracker firmly steered her into a corner, where a huge curved booth loomed over the other tables. He stood back to allow Arcee to seat herself first. She paused, glancing over at the door. It was still blocked: the palette had become wedged in the doorframe. She cursed internally again, looking up at her captor. Thundercracker smiled smoothly, gesturing her to the chair. Reluctantly, she slid into the booth.

The seeker wedged himself opposite with difficulty, grumbling as he struggled to seat his large frame. Arcee's feet dangled off the floor, yet Thundercracker's knees bumped up against the bottom of the table. The sandwich arrived, followed by another large energon. A smaller cup was placed at Arcee's elbow. She ignored it, glaring at the seeker, who was busy with his second sandwich, lifting it up delightedly. 'I gotta find out how you make these!'

He took a bite, leaning forwards, speaking with his mouth full. 'So… Arcee.' He swallowed, and smiled wolfishly. 'How've you been?'

She scowled up at him. 'What do you want, Thundercracker?'

'Oh, that's nice!' he replied, with mock hurt. 'Can't a mech enquire after the health of a femmebot without an ulterior motive?'

She tilted her head, her words acidic. 'I'm guessing you didn't just come in here to stuff yourself like a space-hog and make small talk.'

He grinned wickedly, her insults sliding off him like oil. 'Well, I must say I didn't expect there to be such a juicy dessert option on the menu… I'd better save some room…'

He leaned forwards some more, his shape like a cliff-face bearing down on her. She recoiled, turning to jump out of the booth and run for it. His huge hand shot out, engulfing her slim wrist and pulling her back.

'No, no! Don't run! Look, I'm sorry, that was outta line. Decepticon humour. I'm not gonna hurt you, Arcee.'

'And why should I believe you?'

The jet sat back, tossing the last bite of sandwich into his mouth and gulping it down in one go. 'Well, not to sound like a total aft-hole, you don't really have a choice. I'm bigger and stronger than you. I can stop you from leaving if you try.' His tone was matter-of-fact. 'But I'm not gonna hurt you. Hear me out.'

'You've never held back in the past when you wanted to hurt me, neither you nor your brothers. Or have you forgotten?'

He laughed, the sound booming throughout the bar. 'I recall it was you who slapped me last time we met, lady! But I didn't come here to go over past… conflicts.'

His tone became serious, and he leaned on the table, causing it to groan under his weight. 'The fact of the matter is, in less than a demi-cycle, this whole planet will belong to the Decepticons. My brother is on his way here right now, with his entire army behind him.'

Her optics widened. 'What? Why?'

Thundercracker smiled grimly. 'Lithone is up to its optics in debt.'

'In debt… To Starscream?'

Thundercracker nodded. 'They've been behind in their payments for stellar cycles now. Then, in their last shipment, they send sub-grade energon thinking we wouldn't notice. They'd diluted it with crater dust, or some slag like that. Very, very unwise move.'

Arcee slumped back in her seat. She suddenly found herself in need of a drink, grabbing her cup. She had meant to leave it, as a snub to Thundercracker, but that was now forgotten. Thundercracker finished his energon, setting the tumbler back down with a thump.

'Starscream sent me ahead to assess potential resistance.' He chuckled as she looked up. 'You stick out a mile, Arcee.'

Arcee looked at the table, her hands in her lap. 'What gave me away?' she asked quietly.

Thundercracker lounged back, his optics roving appraisingly over her slight frame. She wasn't used to being stared at like that and looked away, embarrassed. 'The way you move, your posture. The way you hold your head up. We've been enemies a long time, Arcee. I just knew. What are you doing here anyway?'

She had a sarcastic retort all ready on the tip of her glossa, but to her chagrin she found herself biting it back. 'Just… making my own enquiries about something.'

'You're going after the source of the Betagon, huh?' he grinned at her expression. 'Ah, I thought so. The lone femme, playing detective, hmm?'

She lifted her chin. 'So what if I am?'

He held up two large hands. 'Hey, none of my business, I know. All I'm saying is, you're about to be caught up in a Decepticon invasion. My brother is… sadly unsympathetic to Autobots who happen to be in his way, recent events notwithstanding, obviously. You'll be treated like any other prisoner of war if you're found.' He snorted contemptuously. 'Though I'd hardly call it a war. More like shooting silver space barnacles in a barrel. This planet is all shine, no sense.'

Arcee couldn't help but agree. Foolishness came off Lithone in waves: Greed and materialism radiated off the ostentatious buildings, whilst the real work was done by lowly mechs who were kept largely out of sight. It looked pretty from afar, but you didn't have to be here long to spy the rot. She felt a pang of sympathy for the little bronze mechs scuttling about in the bar, nevertheless. What would their lives be like under the ruthless grip of Starscream? As if reading her thoughts, Thundercracker followed the sweep of her saddened optics.

'They'll be alright,' he said gruffly. 'Starscream isn't here for them, he's got bigger prey to think about: namely the idiots running this show. Who knows, they might even enjoy seeing their superiors brought down a peg or two.'

'Maybe,' said Arcee. Thundercracker continued to watch her as she stared into space, lost in thought for a moment. Then, abruptly, she shook herself, and slid out of the booth.

'Well… I suppose thanks are in order, for the warning,' she said stiffly, avoiding optic contact. Thundercracker smiled, inclining his head. 'I'll lay low until your charming brother's finished his handiwork. There's still work I want to do here. Goodbye.'

To her relief the mechs had shifted the load, leaving the doorway clear. She hurried through the tables and strode out into the street, shaking slightly. What had just happened? Okay, so the Autobots and Decepticons weren't technically at war anymore, but they were still enemies! She wove her way through the crowd, head and shoulders above the bronze bustle. To think that bolt-bucket had been flirting with her! When was the last time anyone had flirted with her? She couldn't remember.

A loud scraping sound made her look back, to see Thundercracker trying to heave his bulk out of the door. With an impatient growl, he wrenched free, sending debris raining down into the street. She snarled, annoyed, and quickened her pace, head held high, as he strode after her, causing the low-end mechs to scatter before his feet.

'Didn't you hear what I said?' he asked as he drew alongside her. Despite her size, she moved along at a remarkable pace and he had to concentrate on matching it. 'Starscream is on his way here to invade this planet. I think it best you're out of the way of the conflict!'

'Sadly for you, I don't let Decepticons decide what is best for me, thank you.'

He sighed. 'Look, this is a friendly warning! I'm trying to help!'

'Friendly? Help?' she stopped short, and he almost rammed into her, optics wide in surprise. 'You call cornering me in a bar, referring to me as dessert, making sure I know you can force me to stay there… friendly?' With each emphasized word she poked his cockpit roughly.

He grinned haplessly and shrugged. 'Hey, I'm a Decepticon. I'm outta practise when it comes to friendly.'

'Understatement of the mega-cycle.' She marched off, mingling with the crowd once more. Thundercracker was poised to follow her, when suddenly his com-link beeped.

All units, prepare for atmosphere entry. Thundercracker, report.

'Uh… Thundercracker reporting,' he said, peering distractedly down the busy street. 'Anticipation of attack: nil. Resistance capabilities: poor. I'll join you directly, Starscream.'

Good. Five kliks to entry.

He ran after the Autobot, dodging round a mech pushing a scrap metal cart, and found her ascending the steps to a dilapidated data library. 'Arcee… wait!'

She ignored him. 'I've finished talking to you, Thundercracker.'

He grabbed her wrists. 'Time for you to leave.'

Her optics widened. 'Get your servos off me!'

She squirmed, trying to wriggle free, but he passed both wrists to his left hand, closing his fingers around them firmly. As she kicked at him, he transformed his right hand into a charge pulse node. Her optics widened further. 'Don't you dare!'

'Don't be mad… I know you'll be angry about this, but it's for the best, I promise…'

He gently touched the wires to her temple, delivering a charge that stunned her. Her knees buckled and she slumped forwards, as limp as a doll. He lifted her into his arms, and she lay huddled against his cockpit, her legs dangling over his arm. He took off with a roar of engine fire, the city soon dwindling to a speck beneath them.

He flew far out into space, until Lithone glimmered below them. Arcee stirred in his arms with a groan.

'You'll be fully operational again in about ten kliks,' he assured her, as he released her and she floated in the vacuum of space, her optics flickering confusedly. 'By then the planet will be in lockdown, and no one will be able to leave or enter, unless you possess a Decepticon energy signal. You should be safe here, your signal dampener is still working fine. I uh… I'm sorry about that, but it was the only way to get you out of there. You should be able to make it back to Cybertron with no trouble.'

She merely glared at him, her vocal processor still recovering from the charge. He rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly.

'Well, I enjoyed that. I haven't had a date in… oooh, gotta be two million cycles.'

Her optics fizzed in rage, and she forced the words out, her vocal processor corrupted with static. 'That…. wasssssssnnnnn't a…dd-dddate!'

He grinned. 'See ya around, Arcee.'

He transformed into jet mode, and wheeled away in an arc, shooting back towards the silver planet.

Auxo now realized he had been tricked. He had been far too vain to see it.

At the top of the Solar, the ground shook once more as another blast rocked the building. The Solar was a wide, transparent dome at the top of a fortress from which defence commands were issued, and the security legions of Lithone were managed. The whole fortress was shaped like a huge beehive, wide at the bottom, with ever narrowing tiers as it rose upwards. From the beginning of his relatively short life, Auxo had looked up at it as a symbol of strength and security. That illusion was now being shattered as the Decepticons fought their way to the top. Where he was.

This morning he had been personal assistant to Stritho, ruler of the Higher Lithonians. Stritho was an imposing figure, if a little too fond of energon overloading and chasing young femmes. Until today Auxo had never even been allowed inside the Solar, a place reserved for a select elite. But Stritho had hurriedly ushered him up here, an arm around his shoulders, saying words to the effect of '… Think you're ready for this next step in your career…. Get a taste of command … destined for great things, young Auxo…'

Then he had hurriedly taken off into the sky. Auxo had been swelling with pride, so much so that he hadn't realized he'd been set up.

He stared miserably out of the windows down at the main city, as behind him a group of operatives fidgeted and twittered anxiously. The Decepticons were moving through the streets, setting up perimeters and stopping people from leaving. Numbly he observed there wasn't too much gunfire, at least they weren't destroying the city, not yet anyway.

There was another worrying tremor, this one felt much closer. The Decepticons were almost through to the top tier. He began to shake. He wasn't programmed for this! Behind him, one of the operatives was asking him what they should do. How should he know?

'H… have we re-routed power to the main door seals?'

The answer came in the form of an almighty boom, and the door to the Solar shook. The operatives cried out and scurried to the back of the room.

Another boom, and the door flew open with a crash, smoke billowing into the wide space.

The jet known to Auxo as Starscream moved into the room, his narrowed red optics moving from side to side, taking in the computers, the trembling operatives, and Auxo. Behind him were more Decepticons, fanning out as they entered the Solar. His voice, when he spoke, was a low, menacing rasp.

'Who's in charge here?'

His glare landed on the operatives, huddled together, their silver armour clattering as they shook. 'H… he is!' they squeaked, pointing trembling fingers to Auxo. Starscream wheeled round, and began to stalk towards Auxo, who backed up, raising his servos. 'No… wait… I'm not…'

Starscream pushed him back, slamming him against the wall with one hand. His unforgiving gaze swept the young bot's form disdainfully. 'So, it seems Stritho has cut and run, and all I have to play with is a pathetic protoform. What's your name, soldier?'

'Au… Auxo,' Auxo stammered. 'I'm not a soldier… just a senior clerk bot…'

Starscream raised his free hand to cut him off, and Auxo's mouth shut with a snap. The jet turned to face his men without letting go of the young Lithonian. Auxo watched as a huge blue mech opened his chest cavity, and two small mechs hopped out onto the floor. They seemed vaguely familiar to Auxo, though his frightened processor was whirling so much he couldn't place them.

'Gain access to the main computer and freeze all assets, Frenzy,' ordered Starscream. The small mech nodded and he and his brother headed to the terminal, swinging themselves up to the keyboard, beginning to type rapidly. Starscream turned back to Auxo, one hand still pinning him to the wall.

'Now then, Auxo…'

Suddenly there was a commotion in the doorway, and four members of the Lithonian Guard burst into the room, momentarily taking the Decepticons by surprise. Auxo immediately screamed at them. 'Help me!'

Starscream didn't even look round. He raised his free arm behind him, and fired his cannon four times. One. Two. Three. Four. The guards dropped to the floor one by one, offlined. Auxo's optics grew wide with horror.

Starscream shifted his hand to the young mech's throat, squeezing it tightly. 'I have a problem, Auxo,' he said coldly. 'It seems your master has run off and left you to explain to me why I haven't been getting my repayments as we agreed. And why I receive this…' He produced an energon cube and tipped it upside down. The liquid splashed onto the floor, spattering Auxo's feet. '…Sub-standard, low grade filth that I'm supposed to believe is top energon. So, Auxo… what can you tell me?'

Auxo struggled against the iron grip holding his neck. 'I… don't know anything about that… I swear…'

Starscream rolled his optics, letting out an exasperated sigh. 'One more time, Auxo… I'm not known for my patience…'

Auxo scrabbled at the fist, his fighting instincts, weak as they were, kicking in. He'd bought a recent upgrade with his bonus, a nice little stinger installed in his right wrist. It clicked out of his hide and fired, grazing the jet's face and leaving a gash under his left optic.

That turned out to be a mistake. Starscream flinched and hissed in pain… then he slammed his fist into the side of Auxo's head with the force of a battering ram, stunning him. Auxo crashed to the floor. Above him he heard a deadly whine as a powerful weapon on Starscream's arm began to charge: the infamous Requiem Blaster, the weapon that had allegedly killed his predecessor, Megatron. He curled up, raising his hands pathetically. 'No… no! Please!'

'Skywarp!' Starscream bellowed, his optics glaring down on the stricken young Lithonian. 'Come over here!'

Starscream was joined promptly by his wingmate, who looked at Starscream expectantly. Starscream pointed at the trembling figure at his feet.

'Strip his servo down. Get me that weapon.'

Skywarp knelt down, and using his knee to pin the arm in place, began brutally dismantling the young mech's wrist, tearing away the plating and slicing through wires. Auxo screamed in agony, trying to wriggle away, but Starscream planted a foot on his chest, his arms folded as he watched his brother work.

Skywarp straightened up, opening his palm to show the small, sleek canister, trailing wires. 'Here y'are, Screamer. That's weird. It kinda looks like…'

Starscream leaned in, incredulity on his face. 'That's… one of my designs…' he muttered in disbelief. 'It's still in the testing phase… not even in the main armouries on Cybertron yet… how in Primus' name did this little slagger get hold of one?'

With a growl, he reached down, grabbing the hapless Auxo once more and shaking him mercilessly. 'Where did you get that weapon, you grease stain?' he snarled, bringing the mech's face right up to his own. 'Tell me, before I send you to meet Primus!'

Auxo mouthed silently a few times, struggling to form words through the agony in his arm.

'ANSWER ME!' screamed the jet, his weapons charging once more, the Requiem Blaster pushed into the side of Auxo's face.

'I... I… b… bought it… down in the… the… upgrade markets…' he sobbed. 'It was a legitimate purchase, I swear to Primus…'

'How can you have bought this upgrade on Lithone when it isn't even available to my own men yet?' Starscream asked coldly. Auxo's optics flickered between the enraged Decepticon's face, and the Blaster, still shoved against his head.

'Two mechs… s… sold it to me…'

He was dropped roughly to the floor, landing on his knees. 'Who?' the jet hissed, both arms aimed at the mech, ready to fire. 'Give me names, Litho-scum, and I may yet leave you with a few spare parts.'

Auxo raised his head, looking round wildly. His optics settled on the two casseticons, busy at the main terminal, and with a shriek of recognition he pointed with his good arm. 'Them! It was them! I knew I'd seen them before! I have the records in my data banks, you can check them!' Auxo stabbed his finger once more as the two casseticons slowly turned round, their optics widening in fear, shrinking back. 'They sold it to me!'

Frenzy shuddered at the memory. It had started so easily a short time back… he and Rumble had lost credits gambling at the arena, and needed to get the money back, fast. He'd hacked into the database containing the armoury catalogues and downloaded specifications for some minor upgrades, selling them on the black market to service mechs and refinery workers. With bated processors, they'd waited for the uproar from Blackout about supplies going missing. But nothing had ever come of it – Frenzy's hacking skills were impressive. And, little by little, they'd become more daring, sneaking stolen Decepticon weapon stock onto trade trips, and slipping into the markets to sell them at a tidy profit. Each time, Frenzy had told himself, was the last time. But then he and Rumble would find themselves low on credit, and it was too easy, too easy, to steal a little bit more.

Frenzy cringed as he recalled Starscream's galactic levels of rage. He'd expected to be slaughtered right there on the spot, but instead he and Rumble had been chained up, and taken back to Cybertron, slung into Darkmount to await trial. Traditionally the leader of the Decepticons gave their subjects the chance to plead for their lives, but Frenzy knew there was little hope of survival. Suddenly the bars to their cell rattled back, and Frenzy spied the feet of Thundercracker, his deep voice rumbling above them.

'Come on, you two. It's time. Don't keep your Lord waiting.'

Rumble strode over to Frenzy, grabbing his brother's arm. 'Remember what I said. Don't speak,' he hissed. Frenzy nodded, his glossa seemed to have jammed, his energon tanks backing up with fear. He wasn't sure he could speak even if he wanted to.

The circular court room was packed: news of the casseticon's crime had spread through the Decepticon ranks like wildfire. The central platform where the accused stood was usually sunken into the floor, in order to make the guilty mech feel small and intimidated, but at the cassecticon's height of six and a half feet, this wasn't really necessary, and the platform had been raised in order to give everyone a good view. Frenzy looked up briefly as they were pushed onto the platform, stasis cuffs round their wrists. Every seat was filled, and mechs were standing up at the back. The throne, where Starscream would sit, was empty. Frenzy spotted his master, Soundwave, sitting impassively in the front row. Any help from him was unlikely: Soundwave's very core lay in the unshakeable belief in the law. They would not find sympathy or advocacy there. Rumble kept his head down, scowling sullenly. Frenzy wished he had his brother's self control. He felt his knees knock together as the courtroom suddenly got to its feet, Thundercracker taking his place in front of a lectern.

'All hail Lord Starscream.'

'All hail Lord Starscream,' the crowd answered, as the Decepticon leader entered the court.

The brothers kept their heads down as the jet stalked in and took his seat. Frenzy glanced sideways at Rumble, who shot him another warning look: Keep it together. He fidgeted in his cuffs, his spark pulsing in his chest so hard he thought it would burst before Starscream got a chance to vaporize him. Thundercracker's voice rumbled overhead once more.

'Rumble and Frenzy. You are accused of stealing from your lord and master, Starscream, with intent to profit from top secret, Decepticon weaponry. You have disgraced the name of Decepticon, and committed treachery of the most vile kind. How do you plea? You may answer guilty, or not guilty. Rumble, you speak first.'

'Guilty,' Rumble muttered sullenly, his optics still fixed on his feet. There was a stir and a collected murmur from the assembled mechs. Starscream said nothing, his optics blazing with silent fury as he beheld the two casseticons below him, hands gripping the armrests on his throne.

Thundercracker didn't react, turning to Frenzy. 'Frenzy. How do you plea?'

Frenzy looked up. 'G… guilty.'

Thundercracker nodded. 'Now… it lies to me to proclaim your sentence, after…'

'…But we're so, so, so, so sorry! We didn't mean it to get this bad, it just started kinda small, you know!' Frenzy burst out, stepping forward. To his right, Rumble's head snapped up. 'Frenzy… shut up!'

'We never meant it to go so far, we didn't stop to think about it, we wouldn't ever wanna betray the Decepticon cause!' Frenzy gabbled at top speed, and turned beseechingly to Starscream, his cuffed wrists held out in front of him in desperate appeal. Thundercracker unleashed his ray, blasting the platform right next to Frenzy, who yelped and leapt aside, crashing into Rumble. The two of them fell over, legs entangled, Rumble cursing at his brother repeatedly.

'ON YOUR FEET, AND SHUT YOUR MISERABLE MOUTHS,' Thundercracker boomed. The brothers struggled upright. 'You do not speak to Lord Starscream unless spoken to!'

Frenzy bowed his head, pressing his lip components together, whilst Rumble looked daggers at him. There were grumbles and chuckles from the audience, quickly quietened with a glare from Thundercracker.

'The sentence for such a crime is death, at the hand of your leader,' Thundercracker continued. 'Now, when you are permitted, you may plead for mercy from Starscream. Lord Starscream, do you permit these mechs to address you?'

The two casseticons looked up at Starscream. The court was silent. Finally, Starscream nodded. 'Let them address me. I want to know just what they have to say for themselves.'

Thundercracker nodded. 'Rumble, you may speak first.'

Rumble glared at the floor, his wrists twitching in the stasis cuffs. 'I have nothing to say, my Lord,' he muttered quietly.

Starscream raised an eyebrow. 'Nothing? No remorse, no plea for clemency?'

'Obviously I'm sorry for my treachery,' Rumble said. His voice was low, and steady. 'But I'll take whatever punishment I'm due.'

Starscream sat back, seemingly unimpressed. He gestured lazily to Frenzy. 'Frenzy, what about you?'

Frenzy looked up, swallowing hard, staring round at the assembled mechs before setting his optics on Starscream. 'I'm really, really really sorry,' he squeaked. 'Please don't kill me!'

'Eloquently put,' said Starscream drily. 'Why shouldn't I kill you? Actually…' he leaned forward. 'There is another question you can answer first. Whose idea was this in the first place? Hmm? I'm curious.'

Frenzy and Rumble exchanged glances, both reluctant to speak up.

'I find it hard to believe Frenzy would have the gall to think of this by himself,' said Starscream coldly. 'Was it you, Rumble?'

Rumble said nothing, staring at the floor.

'You don't deny it,' said Starscream. The tip of his ray began to glow, building up to its deadliest setting. 'I take that as a confession…'

Frenzy stepped in front of his brother. 'No, Lord!' he cried desperately. 'We are both to blame, I swear it!'

'So I should execute you both, then, is what you are saying?'

'Yes! I mean, no!'

'Rumble has shown me no remorse for his actions,' said Starscream, his optics narrowed to evil slits. 'Why should I spare his life when he will not give me a reason to?'

Frenzy fell to his knees. 'Please, please don't kill my brother,' he mumbled, his head hung low. 'I'll do anything to spare him, anything!'

There was another silence. Frenzy looked up, tense, certain that any klik would be his last as the white-hot ray reduced them both to ashes. Starscream smiled, and leaned forward, his crimson gaze boring into the casseticon's frightened optics.

'Anything, Frenzy?'