Deep in a Coleop forest, in a clearing near a cave, there was, for want of a better term, a campfire.
There was no actual fire; the beings who camped there didn’t need the extra warmth, nor did they need to cook their food, and the light from Coleop’s three moons was adequate to see by. Three beings were in the loose, wide circle; two humanoids sitting on fallen trees, one insectoid crouched over his meal and chewing loudly.
One asked, “Must you do that?”
The bronze locust looked up. “What? Eat?”
He couldn’t help eating, and metal jaws on metal food meant he couldn’t help eating loudly. Still … “Why don’t you just eat trees like the rest of us? Food is food,” said Chopshop irritably.
“Why don’t you like me to eat coleop? Food is food.”
Chopshop sighed, an indication that he had no desire to continue the argument, and Ransack returned to his noisy mastication. Admitting to the warrior that watching him with his face buried in the body of a giant insect, with the creature’s legs still twitching feebly was … unnerving … was probably not the best way to keep on his good side. At best, Ransack would laugh it off and forget about it. At worst, it would be seen as a sign of weakness, and Chopshop wasn’t sure just how far the locust would go with his cannibalistic tendencies …
He didn’t know why they stayed together: Ransack treated them with the same casual contempt he treated everyone, Barrage was always off in his own little world, Venom acted like he owned them … Chopshop paused, very aware that their leader was – for the time being – not there. “Why do we stay with Venom? He’s always bossing us around, and it’s not like we need him for anything.”
“We have no choice but to serve him,” said Barrage. “He has holds on us.”
The stag beetle sighed. “Oh. Right.”
Ransack paused in his crunching. “Where is the noisemaker, anyway? He’s been gone for days.”
“Who knows and who cares? Off scouting around, I suppose,” shrugged Chopshop. “I’m just as happy if he gets eaten by a morphobot.”
“Don’t say such things. Venom has a plan,” said Barrage.
“He hasn’t discussed it with me,” said Barrage simply.
There was an explosive burst of laughter from Ransack. “You’re just makin’ this up. Venom doesn’t have any idea what he’s doing, but he tells you he has, and you believe it.”
Chopshop seized on this: “Why do you stay with him, then?”
“None ‘a your business,” snapped the locust, and Chopshop knew he meant, “I don’t know.”
It had been months, and Coronapis still treated her mobility with the same joyful wonder that she had when she first tried her legs.
To Shrapnel, it was just another thing to love about her. Having been trapped in her chamber for the first sixteen years of her existence, Coronapis only returned to her powerful, immobile form when she had to. The rest of the time, she wanted to be out – in the Hive, outside, it didn’t matter.
She was their Queen – not their ruler, but their Vector Sigma – and they treated her as if she was just another Insecticon. Coronapis appreciated this; she wouldn’t know how to handle being treated like their leader. This way she could walk around without stopping the flow of work, and talk to people and have them answer truthfully. She came across as interested in everyone and what they were doing … and, in fact, she was.
When not in the thick of things in the Hive, Coronapis could usually be found outside. It was where she was now, her hand tucked into Shrapnel’s, exclaiming over this tree or that cloud. Today there was nothing else to do, and the pair had wandered far, stopping occasionally to nibble the scenery. Once in a while, one would point out that they should start back, and neither would act on it.
The conversation had wandered, as conversations do, and having temporarily exhausted the topic of their friends, had drifted in the opposite direction. “Kickback wants to hunt Venom and his cohorts down, down,” said Shrapnel, then made a face. “Kickback has issues, issues.”
“He was killed by Ransack … sort of,” said Coronapis. With Bombshell’s help, Kickback’s mind had actually been in another body at the time, but through that form’s optics, he watched his real body get torn apart. Soon after, Bombshell recreated his shell, and Kickback was now back to normal. As normal as possible, at least.
Coronapis sighed then. “I can’t help but think it’s my fault they’re like that, the renegade Insecticons.” She spoke only of Ransack, Chopshop, and Barrage. Venom was a Decepticon, one who had his mind placed in an Insecticon body to attempt a revenge on the original Insecticons. Shrapnel, Kickback, and Bombshell were known as Sabocons before the accident that made them Insecticons, and Venom had always thought he should lead them. “Maybe I should start guiding the minds I bestow, to keep this from happening again …” In her chamber, as the Insecticon Queen, Coronapis was tied to the Hive and its databanks. From there she would randomly pick a half-dozen personality traits and channel them into the shell presented. With a basic personality - training and intelligence was pre-programmed into the shell’s hard drive, - the new Insecticon could start its life, gathering experience as it went.
“No, no,” said Shrapnel emphatically, catching her shoulders. “It has to be neutral, has to be chance, otherwise there’s no point, no point. Where would you stop?”
“Only to keep them from becoming psychopaths.”
Shrapnel shook his head. “They were obsessive types, yes, but not killers. Not until Venom got his hands on them, on them. It wasn’t your fault. It was just random, random.”
“Then I … I don’t know if I can be the Insecticon Queen any more.”
“But it’s what you are, you are.”
“Not always,” she said, stepping back and waving at the sky. “Not right now, for instance. Right now I’m Coronapis – just Coronapis – an Insecticon out for a walk with her bondmate. All the things that make me the Queen are back in my chamber. With modifications, anyone could plug themselves into the equipment and act as the channel.” Coronapis sighed, looking at her hands. “I’m much less out here; not as strong, not as powerful, no transformation capabilities even, but I prefer it.”
Shrapnel took up her hands. “We need you. You’re our only advantage over the Decepticons, cons. The Insecticons will eventually die out without a Queen.”
“Then find another; one who can be objective,” said Coronapis. “After all that’s happened, I’m not sure if I can keep from tampering any more. Perhaps Bombshell could take the job. He does have psychiatric training and would understand …”
“Bombshell is the biggest meddler I know, I know,” Shrapnel countered.
“Not Bombshell, then. There must be someone … And …” She peered up at Shrapnel. “Will you mind if I’m just Coronapis?”
He let go of her hands to sweep her off her feet. “Silly creature, creature. I love you because you are Coronapis; why should I care what your function is, as long as you’re happy? Still, you’ve been a very good Queen, and it will be difficult to find one better, better.”
Coronapis patted the side of his face. “Of course I’ll hold my post as long as I must; I wouldn’t abandon my people. Still, if a replacement is possible …”
“One rule: No trying to specifically create a successor, successor.”
“Certainly not,” said Coronapis. “Besides, I know I don’t know enough psychology yet to create a specific type of personality.”
Bombshell was not, by nature, a tidy being. In fact, one could say that the Hive’s main laboratory was the messiest room in the station, between the half-finished projects lying on every available surface, technical drawings scattered about, and occasional cobweb hanging from the ceiling. It probably didn’t help that the space was shared by anyone who wanted it. However, when Bombshell put something down, he knew where it was. Currently he was digging through the mountain of junk on his desk, searching for a few particular tools that, by rights, should have been there.
The weevil sighed resignedly, straightened, and yelled: “SKITTER! GIVE ME BACK MY STUFF! ”
“You bellowed, Your Weevishness?”
Bombshell traced the source of the voice, looking up to where a brown head peeked down from an access vent. Skitter wasn’t a kleptomaniac so much as she was a scatterhead, constantly bouncing from one project to the next, with the bad habit of borrowing Bombshell’s tools. She was actually quite brilliant and the best multitasker Bombshell knew, but dealing with her works-in-progress was exasperating.
With a neat twist, Skitter hopped down from the vent. She extended one hand, meekly proffering the borrowed toolkit … at least, it would have been meek if she wasn’t grinning. “Well, you weren’t using them and they were right there …”
“Why, why were you in the vent?”
She looked around conspiratorially. “I was hiding from Frostbite. She just dragged in another coleop, and with most of the techs busy at the competition, I just know she’ll want me to help with dissecting it so she can catalogue it. Ick! I get squeamish just doing repairs on people!”
Which was another odd trait of hers, and one that Bombshell didn’t entirely understand himself. Many of the Insecticons still had hold-over ways of thinking from when they were non-sentient coleop – in Skitter’s case, remembering organic life, she couldn’t stand dealing with the inner workings of others, despite the fact that it was no different than working with any other machine. Those few times when she herself needed repairs, no matter how minor, she’d put herself into stasis until it was over.
Bombshell took the toolkit from her and turned away, only to have the ant tag along after him. “What are you working on, anyway? Do you need help? Can I help?”
“No, I do not need help, just my tools. Don’t you have your own things to work on?”
She waved a hand, dismissing her projects. “It’ll all wait for me to get back.”
“Until someone complains about the clutter you left in the vent?”
“That stuff’s at a delicate stage. I can let it sit, but I can’t move it until I finish.” She peered up at him. “And I can’t finish it without your tools. No one else has a Class Five frequency pulse-modulator. I checked.”
The weevil tapped a door control, which opened the way to his private office, where he kept his pickier work. “Put in a request with Procurement to get one the next time the Decepticons send supplies.”
If Bombshell thought the suggested minor task would get rid of Skitter, he was wrong. She ducked into his office before him, and immediately sat at his desk. “I’ll do that later. The next shipment isn’t for a week. I doubt you need yours that long. And if I help, maybe I can get it back faster. So, what are we doing?”
“Will you just go away? I’m busy.”
“Ooooh!” Skitter turned and stomped a foot in mock-petulance. “You are the stodgiest, most boringest creature I have ever met!” With that, she stormed out the door.
A few seconds later, she peeked back in and grinned. “Which is probably why you’re so much fun. I’ll be holding your flux inductors hostage until I get the modulator back.”
They had both lost their weapons long ago; the fight was now a combination of claws, skill, and dirty tricks. It was a deadly dance, and both combatants were showing it through scratches, gashes, and dents. Suffice to say, Kickback and Dagger were enjoying themselves immensely.
Quick as his sparring partner, Dagger sidestepped a kick, then did one of his own to send Kickback sprawling. The assassin bug planted one foot on Kickback’s chest, pinioning the smaller Insecticon. He looked down and asked severely: “Do you yield?”
Kickback laughed, despite his predicament. “You’ve been taking ‘How To Pose Like A Decepticon’ lessons, haven’t you, Dagger? Yeah, I suppose you beat …” Suddenly, Kickback shifted to his grasshopper-mode, throwing his opponent from what was now his back. Lightning-quick, he turned and pounced on the other warrior, pinning him on his stomach. “Shouldn’t pose, friend.”
The sawblade Dagger wore in his back roared to life, catching the grasshopper by surprise and severely gashing his front leg. Kickback leapt back, tumbling to the ground in robot-mode, cradling his damaged arm. “Okay, okay, you win.”
The warrior helped him to his feet, then looked at the fresh smear of energon along his hand. “You’re leaking pretty badly. Come on.” Then, optics sparkling a grin, he added, “Sway’s next match isn’t for another twenty minutes, I’d say. Plenty of time for you to get repaired in time to watch …”
“Don’t you lot have anything better to do than gossip about me?”
“We’re Insecticons; we’ll gossip about anyone. You just happen to be an easy target.”
Still bickering, Kickback allowed himself to be led from the tournament area. The little outdoor competition was useful training for two very different classes of Insecticons: In the actual tournament, the warriors honed their combat skills. And on the fringes, the medics and mechanics could practice their craft on the warriors. Kickback was pleased with the system, even if Shrapnel thought it a bit silly. At least Bombshell understood, for his own reasons – it kept the Insecticons occupied. Bored Insecticons tended to cause trouble.
Most of the techs were busy to one degree or another, mostly on minor things, though there were a few unoccupied ones. “All right, who’s next?”
Kickback looked around for the source of the softly sibilant voice, tracing it to a deep green grasshopper with copper highlights. “That would be … You!? ”
The medic recoiled slightly at the violence of the statement. “Ah…”
“You! You’re … You’re Cutter!”
“A bit of an unfortunate name, I’ll grant, given my function …”
“Bombshell! I’ll smelt him for this!” Kickback shifted to grasshopper-mode and took off, despite Dagger’s protests, back towards the Hive.
Ransack shrugged. “Patrol. Patrollin’ for what, I couldn’t tell you.” The warrior stretched languidly in the sun, enjoying the warmth on his dark armour. “Think Barrage has a thing for Venom?”
“No, I do not. Barrage just likes to be told what to do. And you have far too much time on your hands if you’re trying to find relationships where there aren’t any … especially in the context of our esteemed leader.”
The warrior snickered at the emphasis. “Nah, too much time on your hands is going on patrol. Or doing whatever it is Venom’s doing wherever he is. Never met a bigger waste of energy than that loopy cicada, I tell you …”
“Speaking of energy, how is your recharger working?”
Ransack rolled to his feet, taking up his concussion-blaster from where it clipped to his leg. He fired three quick shots at a tree across the clearing, then looked over at Chopshop. “Works fine. Venom was good for one thing, at least; instead ‘a hoarding our ammo, we can recharge our weapons with our own power.” He reattached the blaster and sat down again. “Wish he didn’t think of it first, though. Just gives ‘im something to be smug about.”
“Somehow, I don’t think he cares.” Chopshop sat on a wide, flat rock nearby and pulled his sidearm out of subspace to inspect it. He preferred hand-weapons, but understood the advantages of ranged attack. “He seemed more exasperated about it, like it was an obvious thing to do.”
“Well, excuse us for being poor, stupid Insecticons, I’m sure.” After a minute, Ransack asked, “How come Bombshell didn’t think of it? He was a Decepticon too, at least.”
The beetle shrugged. “Bombshell, Shrapnel, and Kickback have subspace connections, like I do. Most Insecticons don’t have them because we can’t duplicate the technology yet and have to get it off the Decepticons. Also, most Insecticons use hand-weapons, not guns.”
“So it didn’t occur to anyone to give us non-subspace-equipped bugs some kind of charger. We were designed by idiots.”
“I’m afraid so.”
Bombshell looked up from his work long enough to establish the identity of who just came through his door. “Hello, Kickback.”
“Talk fast, weevil.”
The aforementioned weevil continued to sort through the junk on his desk. “What now?”
Before Bombshell could react, he found himself pulled from his chair, lifted to Kickback’s eye level, and roughly shaken. “Cutter. I just ran into him, and you’re going to tell me why.”
“Put me down! It wasn’t my fault!” yelled Bombshell. “I fully intended to smelt the ‘Cutter’ body after I transferred you to your current one, but one of my technicians thought it was sitting out with the intent to be sparked. By the time I found out about the mistake, he was already up and walking around. What did you want me to do – blast him?”
Kickback put him down. “Then Coronapis should have known. She saw me as Cutter.”
“She didn’t make the connection.” Bombshell inspected his arms, grumpily running his fingers over his shoulders where Kickback’s talons scratched him. “And before you ask, yes, I’ve already psych-typed him. He’s not your double or your opposite or your arch-nemesis or anything that silly. He’s just Cutter. Now sit down so I can tend your arm. You’re dripping all over my floor.”
The grasshopper sat and shifted his one limb to two so Bombshell could more easily reach the damaged area. Bombshell took a few items from his desk and settled in to repair his friend. After a minute, Kickback said, “Are you sure he’s ‘just Cutter’? That shell was mine for a time. Could there be a… a left-over energy residue or something?”
“Don’t be strange. The only incongruity is that the ‘Cutter’ shell was designed for combat, so he’ll be the toughest medic on the field.” Bombshell fixed the hole in Kickback’s fuel line, and started work on his wiring. “At most, he’ll have some of your fighting skills; you know how these coleop bodies hold on to reflexes.”
Shifting his gaze from his arm to Bombshell, Kickback asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I knew you’d act like a twit about it,” retorted Bombshell. “I already talked to Coronapis; if she’s told Shrapnel, I don’t know about it. Sway doesn’t know, either. That should be it for anyone who would recognise him, except for Venom’s crew … Oh, rivets!”
Ignoring his patient, Bombshell crossed to the door, stepped out, and shouted, “SKITTER! ”
Curious as to his friend’s behaviour, Kickback was surprised when a small Insecticon appeared at the door. “Yes, O Loud-and-Grumpy One?”
“I want my sander back.”
“And I didn’t take it.” Skitter slipped past Bombshell before he could protest, and within seconds lifted a small tool from his desk. “I picked it up when I was in here last, but you made me leave in too much of a hurry to put it back exactly.” She grinned up at him. “Still, it’s kind of flattering that when you find something missing, you think of me.”
Bombshell considered yelling, then decided it wouldn’t help, and instead covered his face with his hand. “Oh, go away … No, give me that first, then go away.” Skitter pouted, handed the sander over, and flounced off. With a sigh, Bombshell returned to his work on Kickback’s arm.
Kickback watched the scene with an amused expression. “You two have quite the act going. Who was that?”
“Skitter.” Bombshell said the name as if it was a curse. “One of my techs. I think she’s trying to get me to short-circuit, but I’m not sure yet.”
“Cute. My people just try to kill me for fun.”
When he finished sanding down the weld, Bombshell stood back. “There. See if that works.”
Kickback shifted his arm a few times, then let it settle into robot-mode. “Seems to.”
“Good. Check in with the repair bay sometime for the rest of your injuries, but at least you’re no longer dripping.”
“Thanks. Don’t think this lets you off the hook, though.”
“Give it a rest,” Bombshell said. “It isn’t my fault he’s around. Besides, Cutter’s no threat to you.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
Shrapnel paused, listening to an internal transmission. After a moment, he said, “We should start back, back.”
It was the tone that caught Coronapis’ attention. “What’s happened?”
“That was Bombshell. He’s promising a crisis of epic proportions if we don’t talk some sense into Kickback, kickback.”
“Cutter?” At Shrapnel’s nod, Coronapis sighed. “I should never have sparked that form.”
“It’s too late now, so don’t worry about him, about him.” Shrapnel shifted to insect-mode and took to the air, Coronapis following. “Why us? Why won’t Kickback listen to Bombshell, bombshell?”
“He’s still angry with him over the way Bombshell decided to deal with Venom last month,” said Coronapis. “Kickback did take the worst of that battle. It’s sad, really … Bombshell is the one who could help Kickback the most, but Kickback won’t let him. Sway can only do so much; while she is an excellent warrior, she’s no psychologist.”
Shrapnel made a razzing noise. “Bombshell isn’t used to using his psychological training to help people, and Kickback knows it, knows it.”
“Frankly, I’m not sure why you’re all hung-up about all this,” said Sway once Kickback finished explaining the situation to her. “So you, hmm, wore the body for a while. So, hmm, what? He’s not you.”
“That’s not the point!”
Sway settled back against a silver-blue tree, folding her arms across her chest, the noise from the tournament still audible at this distance. She was a bit scratched up from a few earlier matches, and was somewhat annoyed at having her sport interrupted for something she saw as a silly matter. “What is the point then, hmm?”
“Sway, don’t be difficult.”
“I’m not the one with a vendetta against someone merely because he’s alive, hmm?”
The grasshopper turned away, but it was only to kick at a small stone. “I … I don’t know how to explain it. Bombshell says Cutter isn’t me, and I suppose he knows what he’s talking about, but what if he’s wrong? Coleop shells hold on to instincts and automatic reactions …”
He paused, and Sway added, “And memories, hmm? You’re afraid he remembers being you.”
“Have you been hanging around Bombshell?”
Sway snorted. “You’d blame Bombshell for the rain if you could get away with it. Mm, no, I just know you.”
Kickback clasped his hands behind his back, looking up at the sky. “Though if Cutter does have my memories, maybe Bombshell will bother him instead of me …”
“Oh, give up. You, hmm, like arguing with him and you know it,” Sway told him. “Besides, he hasn’t tried to analyse you for months.” Then, after a minute, “The, hmm, only one who has even the slightest interest in invading your paranoid privacy is me … for an, mm, entirely different reason.”
“I know, baby. Give me time.”
“I am, hmm, not a patient being, Kickback.” Quietly, she stepped up behind him and ran her claws along his side. “But for you, I’ll, hmm, attempt it.” Then the sound of transformation, the whirring of wings, and she was gone.
Kickback looked over his shoulder and smiled faintly at the empty clearing. “I know. I’ll make it worth the wait, Sway. I promise.”
At the noise, Chopshop looked up. It wasn’t something he wanted to hear; the sound of some heavy body being dragged along. Which meant that Barrage had got himself torn up by a morphobot or some coleop, and it would be up to Chopshop to put the fool back together again. It annoyed him – he wasn’t supposed to be a mechanic, but neither Barrage or Ransack seemed inclined to repair anything, and Venom would only lower himself to help out if termination was imminent.
To the beetle’s surprise, it wasn’t Barrage returning from his pointless patrol, but Venom, covered in dirt, and pulling a very large … something along behind him. However, it was the locust who spoke first: “Well, well, look who it isn’t,” Ransack purred insincerely. “Venom, looking as if he’s seen better days … and bringing food! Astounding.”
“Hands off, Ransack,” Venom snarled, still dragging the large, copper shape behind him. “I have plans for this creature.”
Chopshop looked over the insect with some apprehension. The creature was at least the size of Ransack, and covered in spines and thick armour. “What is the, ah, state of the creature?”
“Unconscious … and she’ll stay that way until I choose for her to awaken,” said Venom. It had taken him a while to concoct the proper poison, but he was certain of its effectiveness.
“Uh-huh, and what are you going to do with it?” asked Ransack.
The cicada knelt by the insect, lifting its head so the sightless eyes could stare at Ransack. “She’s from a parasite species of ant. She allows herself to be captured by an enemy species, then kills their queen and takes her place. Her captors care for her young as if they were of their queen, and eventually die out. I found it … inspiring.”
The locust was singularly uninspired. “Coronapis is a termite-type thing. The Insecticons are going to very easily realise that your pet isn’t their Queen.”
“And if Coronapis is dead, then what?” asked Chopshop. “That … creature can’t create viable minds.”
“Don’t be a fool. Queen Coronapis has a mobile form now, yes?” asked Venom. Chopshop nodded; he was the one who did most of the spying, and was the one who passed that bit of information to Venom. “A mobile, powerless form. Which means her power stems from her chamber. Once she’s out of the way, I can see about getting the chamber to work for other people.”
To be continued ...