TFP: Terminus, Vol. I – Ghosts

Chapter XXII: Degrees of Cruelty

(Disclaimer: Team TFPro owns no part of the 'Transformers' franchise. WARNING: In this chapter, there is a mention of a character contemplating and nearly following through with suicide.)

*Glossary

- Breem: The Cybertronian equivalent of approximately 8.3 Earth minutes

0000

"Whoa!"

Jack, Raf, Miko, and June met the Autobots when they entered the command center. The humans' eyes widened and their jaws dropped at the damages sustained by their Cybertronian friends.

"Bulk, you… Your…" For once, Miko showed restraint while examining Bulkhead's face-plate. "What in the world happened to you guys?"

"Predacons. New ones," Arcee answered. "The battle at Hoover Dam turned into a total rout."

Bumblebee stood beside the deck holding the kids' couches and TV. Raf ran over with an upset cry, inspecting the Scout's empty limb-socket, Miko, Jack, and June joining him seconds later.

:It's not as bad as it looks,: said Bumblebee, trying to lift their spirits.

"The…the hell it isn't!" Raf exclaimed.

June placed her hands on his shoulders. "Missing limbs can be replaced and accommodated for, Rafael," she said gently.

Ratchet nodded. "If we had extra limbs stored here, Terminus Prime, Arcee, and Bumblebee would be fighting fit in a few hours, but we can make adequate substitutes with raw materials – Decepticon weaponry, for instance."

A grin split Miko's face. "Cool! I get it; you guys are gonna take up arms?"

Terminus Prime cringed. That…was painful.

Jack groaned loudest at the girl's ridiculous pun, but Wheeljack laughed appreciatively and replied, "Yeah. We're gonna kick Decepticon aft with their own armaments."

"Oh, please stop!" Ratchet pleaded.

Jack stated, "That was bad, and you should both feel bad." Ignoring Miko's, "Well, we don't," he noticed one Autobot missing and asked, "Hey, where's Ultra Magnus?"

"Captured. The Decepticons have him imprisoned." Terminus Prime paused for a moment when June and the children gasped. "One of our first orders of business is getting him back safely."

"This time, with much-needed assistance."

Everyone turned to the elevator and watched General Bryce and two strangers walk out. The first man behind the general wore a one-piece indigo suit covered with a black multi-pocketed vest, sheaths and other wearable containers strapped to his arms, thighs, belt, and combat boots. An eyepatch covered his right eye, and scars streaked his severe, weather-worn face. However, the second man's appearance came from the opposite side of the coin; he sported an impeccably clean, black business suit, his striped tie looked brand-new, and his black shoes gave off a bright sheen. His balding head gave way to a lightly tanned face lined with a dark moustache and a whitening beard, and a prim pair of glasses sat on his nose.

"From this point onward," continued the second man, a benevolent smile playing on his lips, "the Autobots will no longer combat the Decepticons on their own reconnaissance."

"And who are you?" Miko asked. Jack elbowed her.

The man's smile didn't waver, though Terminus Prime saw something cold flicker in his eyes.

He may be one of the tribunal's required personnel for Team Prime, but there's something off about this guy.

General Bryce cleared his throat. "This fine gentleman, Miss Nakadai, would be Mr. Harold Attinger of the CIA, the Autobots' new political liaison, and the other gentlemen here," he indicated the man wearing the eyepatch, "is Commander Malcolm Solomon, leader of the United States' newly-formed Decepticon Response and Extermination Unit. They will be assisting the Autobots in combating and eliminating the Decepticon threat on and around Earth."

"Wait a minute," June interrupted, her voice much more polite. "Isn't Agent Fowler the Autobots' liaison?"

"Was, Ms. Darby," Attinger replied. "For playing part in the Autobots' failures leading up to the Hoover Dam Tragedy, Agent William Fowler has been demoted and now serves a position of non-administrative capacity."

"What? But none of what happened was his fault!" Jack protested.

"Not even the three occasions in which he provided prominent Decepticon officers with their alt-modes, granting them dangerous levels of mobility?"

"How is any of that related to Hoover Dam? And you're leaving out all the times he succeeded in helping out the Autobots – and us!" He waved at himself, his mother, and his friends, who all nodded. "There were times when we couldn't do without Agent Fowler!"

Obviously troubled, General Bryce closed his eyes, but under the CIA agent's gaze, he did not argue for his subordinate. Likewise, Commander Solomon remained silent, his expression neutral.

This is so messed up, Terminus Prime thought, and he sighed, saying, "Jack, I sympathize with you, believe me, but the decision has already been made. Stand down."

"But―!"

"I said stand down," Terminus Prime ordered. He met the boy's – and Miko, Raf, and June's – surprised and angry eyes squarely. "I won't tell you a third time."

Please listen, you guys.

"Listen to your commanding officer, son," Commander Solomon spoke softly but with unquestionable authority. "Wise soldiers not only obey their superiors; they also know when a battle is beyond salvation."

"Besides, the removal of one ineffective officer should no longer be your primary concern," Attinger added. "Due to your extensive involvement in classified government and extraterrestrial affairs, you four are no longer considered free citizens but wards of the United States government. June Darby, your employment with the Jasper City Hospital is terminated, your public records do not exist, and you will be an aid for treatment of wounded D.R.E.U. soldiers from now on."

A taken-aback noise escaped June's throat, failing to bother Attinger in the least.

"As for you children, Jackson Darby, Rafael Jorge Gonzales Esquivel, and Miko Nakadai, after reviewing your 'contributions' to the Autobots' efforts, I deem your presences distracting and reckless to a dangerous degree, and you will no longer be permitted contact with any Cybertronian unless requested specifically. Of course, since none of you will be returning to your homes, and in your case, Miss Nakadai, your country of origin, within the foreseeable future, you will be soon transported to a federal facility where your individual lives and educations will continue under the tutelage of instructors best suiting your…unique skills and styles of learning."

The backlash from Miko, Jack, and Raf came as expected.

"This is freaking kidnapping!"

"You can't do this!"

"I won't leave Bee! Or any of the bots!"

"You will not take my son from me, Attinger," said June, calm and menacing. "He and I will take our chances with Megatron himself before I let you do any such thing." She marched to the elevator, shoved past General Bryce, and came within striking distance – Terminus Prime saw her clenched fists – of the CIA agent. "And neither I nor the children are things that you can throw around where and when you please, you pompous―!"

"Ms. Darby, I advise you to step back," said Bryce. "Mr. Attinger holds substantial rank among the tribunal; any threats or other offenses against him warrant severe legal consequences."

"General, please. I appreciate your defense, but I can speak for myself." Attinger's smile remained unchanged, and he never looked away from June, nor did her ferocity make him so much as twitch. "Ms. Darby, your maternal loyalty is quite touching, but it changes nothing and is also rather melodramatic. Our government is reasonable; you will be able speak with and visit young Jackson during any shared, adequately lengthy downtime. Also, the facility in question maintains the highest quality standards of personal care. The children's needs will be more than met, and once the extraterrestrial threat posed by the Decepticons is eliminated for the rest of time, most of your citizenship statuses and freedoms will steadily if slowly return."

Terminus Prime heard the soft groaning of Bulkhead, Bumblebee, Arcee, Ratchet, and Wheeljack's metal joints, but none of them followed June's example.

"And what, exactly, do you mean by saying 'most' of our freedoms will return?"

One dark eyebrow arched over Attinger's glasses. "I thought each of my statements self-explanatory, but I shall enlighten you further."

"Pompous" is right, Terminus Prime thought with distaste.

"As I already said, Ms. Darby, you, your son, and your son's two friends here have been made privy to information and witnessed events that over seven billion people will, hopefully, never experience beyond Jasper, New York, or 'Remember Sarah'. Even after the Cybertronians' war ends, there are obviously no bribes or other methods that can make the four of you forget your contact with the Autobots and Decepticons."

Terminus Prime shuddered internally. Good thing humans can't perform mnemosurgery.

"As such," the man went on, "you four are liabilities; you and the knowledge you possess are invaluable to anti-government sentiment stemming from the destruction Earth has suffered at Cybertronian hands. Promise secrecy until Armageddon – swear upon whatever god or honor you live by, if you feel you must – but I guarantee from…personal experience…that, if the skeletons in your closets come to public light, there will come a threat, promise, or torture that will make one of you talk.

"Thus, your living arrangements inside 'open' American society will be monitored always. No move you make, no property you purchase or sell, no person you may meet, no matter how briefly or to what degree, will escape notice. Under the circumstances we face currently, Uncle Sam does not care overly much for those who talk, and I don't think I really need to mention the response you face if secrets are proven to have been revealed outside of duress."

Attinger's smile abandoned his face; no levity surrounded him now. Only his chilling words remained, emphasizing his implacable composure.

June swallowed and took a half-step back. The children, even Miko, fell silent and moved inward toward each other.

None of the bots dignified Attinger's implicit warning, but Terminus Prime saw both Bryce and Solomon glance their direction.

"Required personnel" or no, I won't let him threaten June, Raf, Miko, and Jack further.

"And…why would you feel us so possibly untrustworthy that we might willingly break the Autobots' trust – or yours – by confiding in anyone who's not a verified government agent dealing in legitimate, wholesome Cybertronian affairs?" June queried carefully.

"Ah, and there is the linchpin of the matter, Ms. Darby: trust." Attinger's affable façade returned. "Prove yourselves consistently trustworthy and discreet, as I'm sure you will, and, in proportion, our fair and reasonable government will lift imposed restrictions. You will still be under surveillance, of course, but you should find Uncle Sam's hand less of a burden and more of a courtesy as your lives go on."

Bulkhead, Wheeljack, Arcee, and Ratchet scoffed.

"Now, are there any other questions?" No one responded, and Attinger clasped his hands in front of him. "Good. General Bryce, please escort the children out of Area 51. Their transportation is waiting."

Bryce saluted. "Yes, sir." Beckoning to Jack, Miko, and Raf, he ordered, "Come along. It's time to go."

"Go with them, guys," Terminus Prime said when the kids looked at him. He nearly choked on his next sentence: "Even if it hadn't already been decided…it's what's best."

"We're not going!" Miko yelled suddenly, wrapping her arms around Jack and Raf. "Jack and Jack's mom are right; you can't do this! We have rights!"

"I'm afraid we more than can 'do this', Miss Nakadai," Attinger replied, "and whatever 'rights' you possessed, besides the rights to live and be taken care of humanely and so on, have been revoked more or less indefinitely by the United States' highest-ranking authorities. Even the ruling parties of your native land won't contest our decisions in this matter, Miss Nakadai; I and other colleagues of mine have already spoken personally with the appropriate representatives, and they assured us legal jurisdiction."

He then snapped his fingers when the elevator dinged a second time, and a small group of masked soldiers marched into the command center.

"I hoped it would not come to this," the CIA agent sighed, his tone not striking Terminus Prime as too regretful, "but if you children, or you, Ms. Darby, continue acting non-compliant, we are prepared to remove you forcefully. Please do not make us resort to such an uncivilized option; it does no one any good."

Terminus Prime's displeased scowl deepened. Way to play the "don't make us the enemy" card, Attinger.

Miko shouted, "Come at me, then!" Jack and Raf grabbed her arms, keeping her from rushing the men. "I'll make you guys regret―!"

"Go with them, Miko!" boomed a deep voice.

The girl stopped yelling and whipped around to stare at Bulkhead.

"Bulk, I…" She shook her head. "No, I won't―"

"You don't have a choice, and you're making things harder than they need to be." Bulkhead turned his back on her. "Go on and get out of here. We've got a war to win, and you're in the way."

Miko looked like the Wrecker had slapped her. "Bulkhead… How could―?"

"GET OUT OF HERE!"

Terminus Prime watched tears fill Miko's eyes. Her resistance ceased, and, head hanging, she trudged away with Jack, Raf, and General Bryce.

:We're sorry,: beeped Bumblebee, at a loss to say anything else.

Raf was the only one who looked back at him. The boy murmured, "Us, too," before the elevator closed.

Forgive us. Terminus Prime watched the elevator until it lifted from sight. Stay safe. Hope we can see you again soon.

Attinger broke the emotional silence. "And that drama is finally over. Now, we can get back to our real business." He addressed Terminus Prime, "Our next move is to reequip you Autobots. Properly. The scientists who developed the Decepticon Incapacitation Missiles are waiting in the weapon-storage area, and your expertise will aid them in maintaining and modifying the Decepticon technology you choose for the battles ahead. While there, you shall also meet Commander Solomon's hand-selected soldiers of the D.R.E.U. and mutual practice begins tomorrow. Try to maintain a more professional relationship with them than you did with the children."

Terminus Prime kept the thought, Thank you for restating what we already knew, private while he and the other Autobots left the command center.

"Please follow me, Nurse Darby. Quickly now; we've already wasted enough time on your account."

Antarctica sounds like a good assignment for this guy.

0000

I wish I never came to Earth.

Deep inside the brig of the Nemesis, Knock Out sat alone, arm-struts wrapped around his knee-joints. His pleas, sometimes screams, for freedom and mercy had long since stopped, and the former medic no longer held enough coolant to cry. A force-field shimmered around every wall of his prison, including the purposefully transparent door, assuring the others onboard the ship that his Darkened thirst could not help him escape on its own.

Not that the idea of using – well, sacrificing – someone else hasn't crossed my mind...

Knock Out felt his optic shutters drooping, heavy from lack of rest. He did not enter recharge mode if he could help it; fears of his thirst's strength aside, a ghostly, near-white femme, a Decepticon captive, kept appearing in his dreams, her frame bearing obvious marks of abuse: slashes, punctures, and marks of blunt trauma, the worst being multiple cracks around her spark chamber. No matter how well he treated her injuries and warned her captor about overdoing things, she always returned worse off than the time before. Knock Out thought he was treating Serenade at first, but this femme lacked the scarred Seeker's boldness and deranged vitriol.

Nevertheless, whenever the mystery femme spoke, it was always the same phrases, the first being, "I pray you don't end up like me one day."

However, the second phrase spooked him; the femme always appeared ravaged and partially gutted, her frame splattered with her own energon and dots of Darkened purple.

"I'm sorry they're murdering you too."

Knock Out hugged his leg-struts closer, and, silent for a long time, he looked out the door.

What would I do out there anyway? If I manage to escape the warship somehow, Megatron would sic Soundwave after me. Not to mention I need reliable sources of energon if I want to keep from turning into another CYLAS, and optics and audio-receptors will be patrolling every mine and keeping tabs on each Vehicon and Predacon – the Autobots, too, I'd wager, whenever they're out and about.

Let's face it: I'd fare no better on my own than Starscream, and he didn't have to deal with being an, it took effort to even think the words, energon vampire.

Knock Out relived trying to rejoin the All-Spark by his own servos and not mustering up the courage to deal any of the blows that would end his accursed existence.

Too afraid. Too weak. His helm dropped into one of his palms. Primus, I've become disgusting and pathetic.

Pathetic indeed, to give up so easily.

Oh, great, now I'm hearing voices again. Leave me alone. If I wanted an imaginary friend, I would've asked for pointers from Serenade.

Serenade, who ended up trapped here just like you through little fault of her own. It was Megatron's order that sent the Seeker Armada after her; he just can't resist the opportunity to catch one more prisoner.

Yeah, kind of like how I ended up here thanks to Megatron's order to keep experimenting on CYLAS despite the obvious risks – which I predicted, no less! Knock Out growled. One more prisoner and one more monster – Megatron just has to have them whenever he sees the chance, no matter who it hurts! And beyond that horrid surgery, there's no telling what he's putting Starscream through, if Starscream's survived. He could've ended up right here with me.

Knock Out's engines revved, Dark and Synthetic Energon running hot through his fuel lines.

Curse Megatron to the Pit, and may Soundwave and Shockwave follow him! They deserve it and worse! The former medic's energon stinger arched, its pincers clicking together. Oh, if only I could bite a chunk off of one of them whether or not they offlined me right after. Knowing Megatron or one of his pet officers would end up just like me…death would be so worth it.

Would it? Think more carefully.

...

Hate to admit it, All-Knowing Voice From Nowhere, but once they got themselves in gear, Megatron and his pet officers did quarantine and eliminate the original thirst outbreak quickly and efficiently while the drones killed each other off. Instead of their just desserts, my revenge-suicide would probably give my so-called "liege" and his lieutenants another useful weapon against the Autobots. Slaggit!

Knock Out's tank flared with hunger pain, reminding him of what his heightened aggression would cost him. Hours passed since Shockwave last delivered an energon ration – not taken live, unfortunately for Knock Out's new tastes – and the "feeding schedule" was irregular.

The medic struck the wall he sat against. I'm just one more fascinating little experiment for those Pit-bound scrap-eaters!

At that moment, some bot – no, two bots – walked into the brig, their weighty ped-steps coming closer to Knock Out's cell. The sounds of a dragging struggle accompanied the steps, and the cry, "I swear I didn't do it! Lord Megatron, Lord Shockwave, please believe me!" sharpened the energon vampire's thirst, the intermittent unintelligible wailing of the incoming victim making irresistible tugs at the eager energon stinger.

So, I'm a method of cruel and unusual execution again? If this were any other situation, I might feel honored.

Megatron and Shockwave halted before Knock Out's cell, a Vehicon held in Megatron's unyielding grasp. The drone took one look at Knock Out and writhed and jerked with all its strength to escape.

"Pity that Soundwave found tangible and unmistakable proof of your theft from our energon stores, drone," said Megatron. "I might have given you some benefit of the doubt were the discovery not so. Soundwave, disable the force-field around Section 1 of Cell 7 and switch Section 1 from solid partition to H/S grid."

The force-field surrounding the door vanished, and crisscrossing high-voltage lasers, heated to the point of melting any body parts softer than armor, replaced the solid barrier. Next, the Lord of the Decepticons stretched out the captive Vehicon's left arm-strut and held it alongside openings in the grid, spaces more than wide enough for an energon stinger to slip through. Preventing further thrashing from the drone, Shockwave pulled forth, from a hidden compartment in his frame, a syringe filled with a paralyzing chemical compound and stuck it into the drone's fuel line.

"Dinner is served, Knock Out," said Megatron, holding the drone in an accessible spot without standing too near the cell door.

Knock Out's optics rested on the Vehicon offered as his next meal, but while his vampiric instincts urged him to leap immediately and let the energon stinger do its work, he remained sitting. Megatron and Shockwave, who typed away on his beloved data pad, observed him, the former's gaze betraying his interest by the slightest margin.

Moving for the kill instantly or sitting here until I lose my mind – Victor Shockenstein and Megatron are the only ones who gain anything from this no matter what I do. It's all part of the scientific process, and we all know I can't hold out forever.

"Hmm? Not hungry, Knock Out? After so long?" Megatron asked. "Impressive, if you really are building up your resilience. Or is the taste of Vehicon no longer to your liking after the incident in your quarters?"

An incident you orchestrated, perhaps like the "proof" behind this execution, Knock Out almost replied, but he knew his stinger wouldn't waste the opportunity if he opened his mouth for a single word.

He watched the Vehicon's lolling helm.

We're both powerless in this sick game of Megatron's design, but for one of us, the torment ends soon…in what has to be the worst possible way. I get why Breakdown always treated the Vehicons like friends rather than pawns or slaves. Unappreciated, disposable: The group made for drawing the short straws. Seeing things from their side... He ground his denta. In the end, I guess the Decepticons whose designations aren't "Soundwave" or "Shockwave" have hardly more purpose than drones.

"Well, Knock Out, for the sake of brevity, I shall make your choice easier for you – or harder, I suppose, if you have developed a more," Megatron chuckled mockingly, "noble conscience."

With one fast movement, the former gladiator dug a sharp digit into the Vehicon's arm-strut and tore it open. Fresh energon plopped on the brig's floor, the sight and scent overwhelming Knock Out's senses despite his best efforts.

Oh, just get it over with!

Immobilized, the Vehicon could not show whether it felt pain while, drop after drop, Knock Out drained its life and preserved his own. The energon stinger burrowed through the drone's arm-strut, seeking out a large fuel line and latching on, and the energon vampire shuddered delightedly, refueling himself with delicious vital fluid. It seemed too soon when the very last droplet slid down his ingestion conduit, the stinger, finding nothing more, recoiling with no small amount of reluctance.

There. It's done…for now.

Destroying the corpse before it revived, Megatron laughed again. "That wasn't so difficult once you came right down to it."

Knock Out backed away from the grid. "Maybe from your perspective, Lord Megatron."

A frown flashed over Megatron's face-plate. "While I share your displeasure about becoming a creature forced to feed on the lifeblood of its own kind, I would not push the limits of my tolerance for your survival were I you. Especially considering that I would have you released from this prison at some time in the near future."

Freezing, Knock Out asked, "Released?" hardly believing the possibility.

"You heard correctly. After all, I would appreciate having my designated medic return to the fold."

Of course. Why else? Knock Out resisted rolling his optics. "Shockwave isn't taking the responsibility? He's capable of performing my duties, and he's not, you know, an energon vampire."

"Shockwave is undertaking too many other projects, including the search and completion of a vaccine for energon thirst, to also serve as a full-time medic, and you need not remind me of the threat your condition poses to the troops. I will post a perpetual, reliable guard that ensures their safety. On the subject, Shockwave theorizes that keeping you attached to a constant flow of energon should curb your...appetite, and if what we've witnessed until now is any indication, you've already proven yourself capable of retaining your mind and resisting your impulses voluntarily, even after long periods without feeding."

And what's to stop me from simply attacking someone if I feel like it? What if I could get away with it subtly?

Almost on cue, a third set of ped-steps sounded, a prelude to Soundwave's appearance.

"As you might guess," Megatron answered, "Soundwave has volunteered his personal observation while you treat any patients, at least until a proven vaccine is readied. He has already configured Lazerbeak for manning his console on the bridge whenever he guards the med-bay. Before you ask, he has analyzed every detail of every nano-klik of the security footage documenting CYLAS' and your vampiric attacks, and his countermeasures are readied. Test him at your own peril."

So, it's a waiting game.

Knock Out said, "Understood, Lord Megatron."

Yes. Watch and wait, and form a foolproof plan – the hallmark strategies for hunting the most dangerous game.

0000

"What do you want now?"

The doors of Serenade's cell closed, and Cipher sat down, leaning back against them, sighing, and shuttering his optics. A myriad of emotions, frustration not the least of them, pounded his processor.

Primus, please let working with these humans become easier after today. At least keep the bureaucratic ones silent during and away from actual battles!

"Let me guess: another Autobot failure?"

Strangely, Serenade's jab held little of her usual spite.

Tired. Exasperated. Great minds form sentiments alike.

"Well, you know my thoughts on those matters. Insert your own insults there."

Cipher opened his optics and stared at Serenade in surprise, which prompted her to raise an optic-ridge.

"What? You want me to chew you out?"

No. Yes, Cipher thought, then shook his helm. "I don't know."

Serenade blinked for a moment. "I...don't know what's more odd: you suffering a severe masochistic streak, or me not jumping onto this opportunity."

So, should I feel grateful? The spy sighed again. Better question: Do I want to feel grateful?

He loosed a cynical laugh. "Hope you don't think me too rude, but I'm honestly too tired for thanking you."

"Um...wow. How in the Pit did things go wrong this time?"

Cipher told her.

"Are you telling me...Megatron's okay with his pets eating...?" Serenade's face-plate took on a light of shocked outrage. "As if the Decepticons needed to go the extra mile... Frag me flying! And you Autobots? I don't... I cannot... GAH!"

Finally, some things we both can agree on.

Serenade's caustic demeanor faded. "If you have time for this visit, you should be spending it on the firing range. Your little Prime needs to get himself and the rest of you whipped into shape, 'cause the Decepticons might have something worse than Predacons waiting in the wings."

Cipher tensed. "What are you talking about?"

It was Serenade's turn to sigh, very aggravatedly.

"The uppity preacher-wannabe's really rubbing off on me. Damn her," she said mostly to herself. Her stare, one optic shuttering, shifted to an empty corner. "Oh, shut up."

Cipher's lower-mandible tightened. Serenade, if you know something...

"And you," Serenade looked at him, "hold your pneuma-ponies; I'm getting to what you wanna hear." Again, the Seeker's irascibility disappeared almost as quickly as it came. "This is just one of my more...unpleasant dreams to recall."

Some of the spy's anxiety evaporated. "A dream?"

"Keep interrupting and I won't tell you a slagging thing," Serenade scolded. "A dream, yes, but I know it's more than that." She then huffed, presumably at Blister, "All right, all right! ...can't believe I'm doing this, but if getting it out and straight will pry you off my aft...

"Blister has a connection with Knock Out. Don't ask me how or why - mostly because she won't tell me. She just does, and something is now very wrong with him, something that'll make you wish human-eating Predacons were the last of Megatron's thirst for power."

For a nano-klik, Cipher's spark stopped beating in its chamber.

Blister...and Knock Out? Primus, she would never!

"Hey, spybot, worry about the state of your love-life later." Short pause. "Frag me flying, now I'm the one going soft in the helm... Okay, you know what, don't think about that right now. Railgun!"

Cipher snapped back to attention. Serenade's scars further twisted her disquieted grimace.

"Railgun, how would you feel about coming down with a sudden and insatiable thirst for your comrades' living energon?"

0000

"Release the targets."

Shockwave opened the holding pen, and most of the humans within - Earth's dredges, snatched from slums and gutters the world over - scattered, diving into the inescapable maze before them like robo-rats. The healthiest ones rounded corners and scaled barriers at full tilt, putting the greatest possible distance between themselves and the Decepticons, while the sick, weak, and injured who remained physically able to vie for "safety" could only hobble along, crying out for help.

An amusing sight.

Though a few of the flesh-sacks made no move from their initial prison. Of these, some had succumbed to whatever maladies plagued them, but the eyes of the living others shown dully, nary a trace of any expected vitality to be seen.

"Hn. Pity the rest of humankind isn't so willing to accept the inevitable," said Megatron. "Nonetheless, these are of no use for our current purpose, Shockwave. Cull them."

Megatron did not bother watching the trash disposal but instead kept track of the humans still working their ways through the labyrinth. Many had already chosen some rather conveniently provided hiding places - a servoful of humans even fought off or killed their fellows for the more prime areas of protection (so they thought). The rest continued searching for a way out or some other form of help, every effort in vain.

"Specimen 02, commence your hunt."

Unfurling from the darkness above, where Megatron's sharp optics could not pick out its form if it did not move, the twin-headed Predacon set to work with swift, remorseless efficiency. The un-hidden humans fell prey first, the majority knowing not what hit them until, for those who lived long enough, that last instant of clarity before death, their heads crushed or hearts pierced by snapping fangs and spearing claws.

Death-screams echoing through the passages of the labyrinth, the bait smart enough to seek shelter all quailed in fear. However, luck was the main determinant of those who lasted the longest, the Predacon sniffing them out one by one, and the entire hunt ended before a full two breems passed.

After cleaning itself of blood and gore, the Predacon came and sat before its Lord, both heads raised and eager for more orders.

Megatron nodded. "Well done, Specimen 02. You show promise. Return to your perch and wait for your next trial."

Wingless, yet with serpentine grace, Specimen 02 glided up one of the trial-area walls at once and disappeared into the blackness cloaking the ceiling. Below, the maze disappeared, sinking through the floor panels and leaving the area wide-open.

"Shockwave, bring out Specimen 02.1 and begin his simulation."

Across the open space, hard light holograms flashed into being, simulacrums of middle-tier Autobot warriors and scouts including Bumblebee and Arcee. No two bots were identical, and each fighter bore a unique set of equipment.

Specimen 02.1 appeared beside Megatron, and the Lord of the Decepticons examined Shockwave's handiwork. The grafted arm-struts, servos, and wings, created from samples of the two-headed Predacon's CNA, had adjusted well, like they had been part of Megatron's first lieutenant since the beginning.

Now let's see how he uses them. "Crush the Autobot scum."

The Autobots charged, firing their weapons, and the new and improved Starscream retaliated. No cowardice showed from him now; he struck with ferocious speed and put his upgraded talons to great effect, ribbons of his enemies' ripped-open frames peppering the air with dissolving light particles. His expression, when Megatron caught sight of it, held nothing except focus.

Impressive. Quite improved from his pre-surgery state.

Sooner than Megatron estimated, the battle ended, leaving the very dismembered Bumblebee and Arcee the sole survivors - a situation not long-lasting. Starscream loomed over their limbless, squirming bodies for a moment, then pierced their spark chambers with two simultaneous blows. The holograms' optics flickered out before their frames, and a hint of the Decepticons' second-in-command's characteristic manic grin returned.

"Excellent work, Starscream. Continue performing well, and you will once again hold your original station."

The sneer vanishing, Starscream turned and bowed sans any dramatic flourish. "I am yours to command, Lord Megatron."

"And I shall not forget it, nor fail to reward that which is given: fealty with favor, mettle with honor," the Decepticon Warlord eyed the Seeker, "and disloyalty with vengeance."

"I hear and obey, my liege."

"Excellent. I expect nothing less." I believe that the ninety-one percent behavioral modification may be sufficient after all. "Now, prepare yourself. Shockwave, commence with Specimen Simulation 2!"

For the remainder of the solar cycle, Megatron put Specimen 02 and Starscream through their paces, and he returned to the Nemesis satisfied.

Although, his satisfaction might not have exceeded Starscream's, whose covert glance - hued purple within the span of a single optic-blink - at Specimen 02's left head sent a thrill through the unconverted nine percent of his personality.