Chapter 29: Darkness, My Old Friend
I'd die for you, that's easy to say . . .
I'd live for you, and that's hard to do,
Even harder when you know it's not true.
All these questions, they're for real
Like "Who would you live for?"
"Who would you die for?"
And "Would you ever kill?"
- Ride, Twenty One Pilots
Some would have called life in the cave monotonous. Shockwave would not have disagreed. The definition of monotony—repetitive, predictable, characterized by uniformity—accurately described his time here. His schedule was routine. Waking at the same time each stellar cycle. Tending his experiments. Refueling. Research.
Yes. It was monotonous.
That did not mean it did not suit him or that he wished for a change. No. Leaving the ship, severing ties with his temperamental crewmates and their emotionally charged decisions had been for the best. The best for everyone.
It was typical of Starscream, and aggravating, that she refused to accept that.
"You must see how ridiculous it is, holing up in this pit, Shockwave," she said, pacing back and forth with her hands behind her back and her head held high. "You talk about 'logic', but good heavens, where is the logic in watching expensive equipment rust and corrode in this dank place?"
"I have mitigated such effects with proper climate control."
"And how effective can you be all alone, no lab assistants, no engineers—"
"I am far more productive when I am left undisturbed." He put the slightest stress on undisturbed.
"And what, exactly, have you 'produced' for the cause since fleeing the Heretic, Shockwave? Anything of substance? Anything at all?"
"Science does not adhere to a timetable, Starscream. It is surprising that you have forgotten this."
"And it is surprising that you have forgotten how to report your progress, my dear Shockwave."
"She called him 'dear', I heard it," one of the Citizens whispered excitedly from where they were respectfully but very obviously eavesdropping a distance away.
"I knew it," another loud-whispered back.
Shockwave turned his gaze on them. His single, blue optic made it impossible to roll his eyes, not that he had been prone to such a gesture even when he had two of them to work with. He understood the Citizens' admiration of himself and Starscream; they had worked in tandem to free them from their prison back on Cybertron, so a positive emotional response was natural. But he did not understand the Citizens' intense belief that he and Starscream were, or should be, entangled in a romantic liaison.
Starscream either had not heard the Citizens or was pretending not too.
"Sureshock, Fanbelt, don't be shy, come over," she gestured. "The rest of you, too."
The Citizens hurried over, clustering around Shockwave. "Hello!" "We've missed you, Shocks." "It's me, Downdraft! I changed my Tell, but it's me—" "How are you?"
"I have been well. I regret that my absence caused you distress, Sureshock. Hello, Downdraft."
His head rotated and tilted this way and that, trying to keep up with the nine chattering bots. When he'd heard the roar of jet engines outside his cave, he had considered sequestering himself in a covert location (as he had done when Megatron had come calling) until they left. The Citizens accompanying Starscream had changed his mind. He had always found their presence . . . favorable. Perhaps it was not logical to feel gratification upon finding they still chose to wear orange paint (a lighter shade of his own basepaint) even after recent events. But he felt it nonetheless.
"Shockwave, didja know we've got clones now? On the ship?" "Someone told me you made them, is that true?" "Why'd you choose an Autobot? You should make more of Starscream and Megatron. We'd be unstoppable then!" "I heard you were cloning something for Starscream—to impress her." "Fanbeeelt!" "It's just what I heard." "So—is it true?"
Nine eager Citizens leaned forward, looking for his reaction.
"I am not cloning anything for Starscream, nor do I have any romantic designs on her," he said simply. He was not offended by their assumption; he merely wondered at its origin and its refusal to be stamped out. "Although I acknowledge that she is a talented and intelligent bot."
The Citizens nudged each other, their visors bright. Apparently the second part of his statement had somehow led them to forget the first part. Most peculiar. He looked for Starscream to back him up and express her lack of interest.
But Starscream was no longer in the room.
Perhaps Lord Megatron had been unwilling to fully explore Shockwave's little hole in the ground but that was what a Second-in-Command was for, to ensure that what must be done would be done. Starscream felt no twinge of conscience as she sent nine eager Vehicons to storm Shockwave, and she barely waiting for his attention to turn to them before slipping out. What he was hiding, she would find. For all that she had berated him, she was sure that his progress was not so scant as the barren entrance of the cave suggested.
Her suspicions were confirmed when she stepped into a large natural cavern dominated by cylindrical bio-stasis tanks, each one containing a specimen floating in a glowing golden liquid through which lazy bubbles rose. A large work station stood at the end of the room, consisting of spare equipment, a table, various tools, and a jury-rigged but functional computer.
The work station could wait, however. At the moment Starscream's was more interested in the protoforms developing within the tanks. Bestial in form and black-ish in hue, the creatures floated in an unnaturally still slumber. They were in varying stages of development, but most were sizeable. How had Shockwave achieved so much progress in six months?
Or had he had this hidden lab the whole time they'd been on Earth? He had always been prone to keeping secrets.
Heavy footsteps echoed behind her.
"Starscream." Shockwave's voice, monotone as usual, betrayed neither apprehension nor anger at having his laboratory uncovered.
"Shockwave, hello again. I'm slightly surprised that you managed to evade your eager fans."
"I told them I wished to speak with you alone. Which they took great delight in misconstruing."
Starscream could guess. She'd once discovered some files with stories in which she and Shockwave . . . Well, the very inventive authors had spent a long time scrubbing the decks. "So you've been busy after all. Does Lord Megatron know about this little zoo of yours?"
"Yes. He recognized the scientific value of the project."
"Really." His statement might have been partially factual, but she knew it was not the whole truth. What Lord Megatron knew, his Second-in-Command knew. "Because the last report you submitted suggested that you were trying to clone spare frames for injured Citizens, not resurrect prehistory. These are Predacons, are they not?"
"That is correct. Their primitive frames can be replicated more readily than those of modern Cybertronians. Therefore I concentrated on their construction."
"Except that we do not need beasts, we need medical advancements!"
"The Heretic requires a strong defense. It is static and our enemies know where it lies."
"Well, yes . . ."
"And Dreadwing is dead, lowering our defensive capability considerably."
Starscream reminded herself that Shockwave could not help sounding as he did, and probably was not as utterly indifferent to Dreadwing's sacrifice as he sounded.
Besides, he had a point. A pack of vicious Predacons would be an unpleasant surprise for any invading Autobots.
"But what about those Citizen frames? Are you telling me you haven't done any work on them?"
"My calculations indicate that using the Predacons as frontliners will drastically lower Citizen casualty rates. Therefore I concentrated all my research on cloning the Predacons."
Again, Starscream had to admit the logic (hmph, this visit was leaving her tired of the word) of his reasoning. "I see. Well. I don't understand why you couldn't keep us informed, but it does have . . . potential. I'm sure we can find room for your pets on the ship."
"They are specimens, not pets, and I will not be returning to the Heretic. My work is here. Moving it would be—"
"—illogical, yes yes." Starscream pinched the bridge of her noseguard.
"I was going to say highly involved."
"Regardless, we could use your talents on the ship since, as you undoubtedly know, we are wrangling two energetic and excitable young clones." She tilted her head, eyeing him from the side. "I don't suppose you know how the Autobots gained access to cloning technology? Or details of their origins?"
Shockwave paused, then shook his head. "I was unaware of their existence until Megatron informed me. I provided him with all relevant notes and research related to cloning."
"Mmm, yes, I read it. But it was along the lines of a 'how-to' manual and the last thing we need is more of them. They are interesting, of course—sweet, even, in their way—but they come with such baggage. "
"I cannot help you," Shockwave said, "with their 'baggage'. I suggest you ask Trauma. It is his area of expertise."
How could Starscream resist such a perfect segue? "He does his best, but he is preoccupied with another patient. Soundwave."
Shockwave didn't move. Or speak.
"Shockwave," Starscream continued, channeling all of her regret and sympathy into her expression, "I'm afraid Soundwave is not well."
"By what measure?"
"Any you care to name. He drifts about the ship in a daze, blasting music, barely aware of his surroundings and the people about him. The eyes and ears of the Decepticon army, they used to call him—you recall?" She shook her head. "His eyes are turned inward now. He is lost within himself."
"That is regrettable." His voice was as flat as ever, but his antennae kept make minute shifts forwards and back, one at a time.
"Very. Trauma worries about him. We all do."
"I am not blind to what you are trying to do, Starscream. You are attempting to influence me."
She huffed through her vents. "All right, yes. I am trying to get your dratted treads back on the Heretic where they belong, I admit it. But Soundwave is adrift, Trauma is worried, and he does feel you can help."
"He is incorrect."
"And who are you to decide that?" Starscream's missiles scraped against her arms as she crossed them. "You said it yourself: Trauma is the expert when it comes to the mind."
"He is inexperienced."
"All the more reason why you should return and help with Soundwave."
"He would not want to see me." His head dipped slightly, hiding the top of his huge blue optic beneath the orange plating that framed it. It gave the illusion that he was frowning.
"Shockwave . . ." Feeling a surge of pity for the scientist, Starscream rested a hand on the hulking gun barrel that constituted his left arm. "You're wrong. He asks about you constantly. He misses you. Don't you owe this to him? To yourself? Come home. He will forgive you."
"I do not require forgiveness. I do not regret my actions." He raised his head, his eye as intense and emotionless as any star burning a galaxy away. "Two lives are more valuable than one. A sacrifice was simply logical."
Starscream's fingers curled as she withdrew her hand.
"Air Commander?" Fanblade had been hanging around the end of the passageway, hoping to be the first to greet Starscream. Seeing her face, he had second thoughts.
"Gather the others. We are leaving."
Fanblade saluted. "And Shockwave?"
Starscream's mouth pressed thin. "Staying."
The Citizens fell into formation and transformed, dragging a pall of silence behind the Air Commander the whole way home.
"Still hard at work, Doctor?"
"Just cleaning up for the night." Knockdown glanced at Starscream, who was tapping her chin, pretending to find interest in the way he was pouring expired medical grade energon down the sink. She didn't appear to be injured. But she was here, wings high and tense. After a moment he said, "I have some reports I'd like you to look at."
He retreated to his office, returning with two steaming cubes of energon in his hands and a few reports tucked under his arm. With his head, he gestured for her to follow. The medical hangars were two flights down. He bumped a button with his elbow and the doors drew back, opening slowly on a gibbous moon that cast a pale glow on the ice far below. The two Seekers sat on the pitted metal floor, letting their legs dangle.
Picking up the reports, Starscream ran her optics over them in a perfunctory fashion before setting them aside, taking a long sip from her cube.
"Tungsten." Knockdown leaned back on his arms, watching the stars wheel slowly across the sky.
Neither of them spoke for a while.
"I paid a visit to Shockwave today."
Knockdown lifted his optic ridges. "How'd that go?"
"I gathered valuable information," she said slowly, "yet my honest answer would be . . . poorly."
"I see . . . "
"Did you know him before the war? Shockwave."
"I knew of him."
"Ah yes, he was quite flashy as a senator. Quite the rabble rouser." She rested her cheek on her palm. "Well. The war changed us all, one way or another."
"Yes . . ."
They looked out at the bay, listening to the wind sweeping through the pines.
"These reports," Starscream said presently, looking at them. They were simple scouting reports. Very simple. Ampule's read: There wasn't anything. Jumpstart's was one word longer: I saw a bear. Her lip plate twitched upward. "Most impressive. Where did you send them?"
"Just around the bay."
"I see. Vital intel."
"Well, I know you like to be kept current." He hid his own smile behind his cube.
"Indeed, Knockdown, indeed." She stood, flexing her wings as she stretched. "Well, I must take my leave. I still have to—"
"Go to bed. Doctor's orders."
"Hmm, I outrank you."
"Not on medical matters." He swung his legs back from the edge and got to his pedes, taking the empty cube from her. "Want a sleeping aid?"
"It's not a question of not being able to sleep, Knockdown, it's a question of not having ti-i-ime." She stifled a yawn; the CMO lifted an eyebrow. "Oh, don't give me the look. I'll be in bed in an hour."
"A half hour."
They shared a small smile.
"Good night, Doctor."
"Good night, Air Commander."
Shockwave was not bothered by the discovery of his latest experiments. He had known it would happen sooner or later, and Starscream's reaction had been favorable once he had laid out the logic of the situation. Furthermore, her opinion carried great weight with Megatron.
Yes. It had been a good day.
Shockwave was uncertain why it had left him so . . . unsettled.
Life in the cave was repetitive, predictable, characterized by uniformity. But it was 23:00 (local Earthen time) and Shockwave was still awake. An irregularity.
His cot creaked as he stood. If he could not sleep, then he would work. He typed his password into the console and began to compose a graph of the Predacons' comparable growth rates.
At 23:53, the barrage of text messages began. "QUERY: YOU ARE IN THE CAFETERIA?"
"QUERY: YOU ARE IN YOUR ROOM?"
"YOUR DOOR IS LOCKED."
"OBSERVATION: YOU ARE NOT IN YOUR ROOM."
"QUERY: YOU ARE IN THE ARENA?"
Then five cat videos sent in rapid succession.
Shockwave stood with his good hand poised over the keyboard, waiting for Soundwave's next missive. But no more came.
It was for the best. Shockwave had no time for frivolities. He had research to conduct. Deliveries to receive. He had, as Starscream had pointed out, duties. He began typing again. Why he had stopped in the first place he could not say.
Nor could he say why his processor kept returning to Starscream. Calculating the percentage her optics had widened, then narrowed. Quantifying the stiffening of her back and the fall of her wings. And analyzing her final, clipped words in the narrow hall: "It was not your sacrifice to make."
After a moment he moved the cat videos to his 'Save' folder and continued his work.
It took all his weight to keep Trauma's face pressed into the rust-shards.
"It'll be all right, it'll be quick, it'll be all right," Knock Out repeated, but Trauma thrashed and screamed and wouldn't believe him and wouldn't shut up shut up shut up until Knock Out slapped him hard enough to make his hand sting. That stunned him long enough for Knock Out to raise his arm high (Trauma saw it coming and nearly shoved him off then) and bring his buzzsaw down. Energon sprayed from a major line, staining Knock Out's chest, raining back on Trauma.
Even then Trauma wouldn't stop screaming, so Knock Out brought the saw down again and again, again and again, and welcomed the moments when its whine overpowered his friend's cries. But Trauma still wouldn't shut up, not after his lines bled into a pool around them, not after Knock Out bisected his vocalizer—
Through his chestplates then, hacking madly, without skill, prying up the lavender plating and not caring when his fingertips snapped, until Trauma's spark trembled before him. Knock Out sunk his broken claws into it. The spark guttered and extinguished but the scream did not.
"Why won't you just let me help you? I'm doing this for you!" Knock Out screamed back, shaking him by the shoulders. Trauma's optics were dark and his head flopped lifelessly, almost severed from his neck struts. But he was still screaming.
"Interesting," said a voice by his ear. Trauma was crouching beside him, purple and gold plating barely dinged. He ran his red optics over the mangled corpse Knock Out was clutching and gave him a sardonic smile. "Seems I'm not dead yet. You'd better do it again."
Knock Out woke up.
For a long while he remained still and tensed, straining his audials. But the only sound was the hum of the ship's automated life support systems and the slight, persistent rattle of his own plating.
I never used to dream. I never used to. Maybe he hated Trauma after all.
"Bumblebee." The voice was quiet, urgent, and right in his audial. "I need the Phase Shifter."
"Wha. Knock Out?" What time was it? Late. Late-late. "Phase Shifter. Why?"
Bumblebee was too tired to ask for more details. He fumbled the relic out of his interior compartment, pushing it towards the 'Con.
"Thanks. I'll bring it back."
"Mmhm, mmhm, 'kay. Don't do anything I wouldn't do," Bumblebee mumbled, flopping an arm over his optics. Knock Out's lack of response was not noteworthy enough to keep him from sleep.