Haunting My Own Doppelganger
He thought he was moving quietly, but the Hive’s main lab was far too cluttered for that. Kickback didn’t see anyone, but when he knocked over a chair, a voice piped, “Who’s that?”
He recognised the voice, and looked for its source. “It’s me – Kickback. Skitter?”
“That’s me.” A pile of papers shook, scattered, and revealed the small, brown Insecticon. “Whatcha looking for, Kickback?”
“Just some information,” said the grasshopper. “I want to know who fixed up the form that became Cutter, and brought it to Coronapis for sparking.”
Skitter picked up a datapad and keyed into it. “Weaver. And don’t you do anything to her because of it.”
Not Bombshell, then. Astounding – he was telling the truth. “I won’t.”
He moved to leave, but Skitter stepped in front of him and folded her arms. “Are you going to take it out on Bombshell?”
“He didn’t do it.” It was the weevil’s kind of trick, though.
“But you’re still out to get him.” The tech scowled. “Because you’re silly. Bombshell said so.”
Kickback, who had been considering just picking Skitter up and moving her aside, stopped and frowned. “Who else has Bombshell been gossiping about me with?”
“Just me,” said Skitter. “Oh, come on – he’s worried about you, but you won’t talk to him, and he’s gotta talk to someone …”
In his function as a spy, Kickback was very good at summing people up, and now gave Skitter a careful look. “Why you?”
“Because I’m there.”
‘Still, it’s kind of flattering that when you find something missing, you think of me.’ How much work do you put into making sure it’s you there? He said, “I suppose that’s not so bad, then. What are you working on?”
As Skitter turned away to pick up her latest project, Kickback snatched a few tools from her desk that he recognised as Bombshell’s. In all the clutter, she’d never miss them.
He didn’t know what a psychologist’s office should look like, but Cutter was certain that this wasn’t it. At the very least, one shouldn’t enter to find their psychologist methodically cursing whilst removing plastic wrap from his desk.
Not that Bombshell is a psychologist, really, Cutter unhelpfully reminded himself. His function is psychological warfare. He’ll use anything I tell against me at the first opportunity … Which is a very Kickback way of thinking. I’m not Kickback. I’m Cutter. “Um, hello?”
Without turning, Bombshell waved him in, then returned to unwrapping his desk. “I’ll be with you in a minute, Cutter. If you can find the chair, you can have a seat.”
With some trepidation, the grasshopper looked around. Everything seemed to be covered in plastic wrapping, but it was transparent, so the things underneath were identifiable. He located the chair and used a claw to slit the plastic, then peeled the rest of it away. There was a note on the seat, so Cutter picked it up. “Bombshell …”
Bombshell snatched the note away before Cutter could finish, but not before he saw the message: Weevil 0, Ant 41. Heeheeheeheehee! This is what you get for standing me up on the lithium-copper! – You-Know-Who. Cutter decided he really didn’t want to know who would take the time to write out a giggle. “Ah… about my appointment…”
“You were late, for one,” Bombshell irritably told the plastic wrap twined around his fingers. “Rumour around the Hive has it that your shell hung on to some of Kickback’s memories. Unfortunately for me, Kickback wasn’t terribly happy with me during the time he wore your form, which means I’m going to have a bother of a time trying to get anything from you.”
Cutter’s visor flashed. “I might have some of his memories and reflexes, but I’m not Kickback.”
The weevil nodded vaguely, pulling at another piece of plastic wrap. While for once his motives were reasonably pure – Bombshell was interested in the study of memory-retention in coleop shells – he still used his old tricks. It was fortunate for him that Cutter wasn’t Kickback. Kickback would have easily recognised the reverse psychology: Kickback won’t tell me anything, Cutter, but you’re not Kickback … and to prove it, you’ll do the opposite of what he would do … Or what I say he would do.
It wasn’t particularly fair, but neither was Bombshell.
“Hold still. It’s your fault for taking on one of those blue centipedes, so you might as well cooperate.”
Barrage obligingly held still, either responding to the command, or, more likely, zoning out again. Chopshop found it disconcerting; the gunner tended to move like an automaton, and when responding to the world, seeming as if he was reacting to something not-quite real … Except in combat, Chopshop added. Then he’s sharp, rather than off in his own little world. No wonder he’s Venom’s favourite – he’s deadly in battle and obeys without question …
“He isn’t an Insecticon,” said Barrage, pulling Chopshop out of his reverie.
“I know he isn’t,” said Chopshop. So did everyone else – Venom was a Decepticon mind in an Insecticon body. “Why is it important?”
The gunner fell silent. Chopshop rapped on the scarab’s chest plating to get his attention. “Barrage, what is going on?” demanded the beetle. “Venom vanishes for days at a time – where does he go? What’s he working on?”
Barrage said nothing. Chopshop hammered a few dents out of the scarab’s armour before welding the plate back in place. “That’s the worst of it. You can go, but no fighting any more centipedes.”
“Ants,” said Barrage. “Venom is working on ants.”
If the pitch of his voice wasn’t immediately recognisable, his stutter was. Kickback turned and waited in the corridor for Shrapnel and Coronapis to catch up to him. “How goes the search, search?”
Kickback shrugged. “We still haven’t located the Jade Fan. She may have left on her own. She may have been eaten by a morphobot. Either way, we won’t be able to find her. Still, she’s one of ours, so I have a few searchers out.”
“Not much hope, then?”
“No.” Coronapis looked so dejected that Kickback cringed internally. They were pretty much opposites, he realised; Kickback was a warrior, Coronapis existed to give life. Where she was open and giving, he kept tightly to himself. And, most of all, she loved all of her people. “I’m sorry, Coronapis; there’s just not much we can do if she’s dead or doesn’t want to be found.”
Coronapis nodded. “I understand.”
He was a hunter, and he finally had worthy prey.
Ransack stretched his senses to their limits, searching for the trail of the copper Insecticon. He wasn’t sure what Venom had programmed her with, except for a mean-streak and combat skills at least equal to his own. Still, she was new, inexperienced, and left a trail that a trained tracker could easily follow. And he had to follow.
In theory, Chopshop should have gone with him; the beetle was clever, and perfectly silent when he chose to be, but Ransack felt he could do better alone … No, I lie. I told them I could do better solo; I felt I had to do this alone. Venom wasn’t happy and Chopshop looked at me funny, but who cares what they think? I’ll bring her back, or …
The trail was hours old – Ransack had almost been killed by the copper Insecticon, and it took Chopshop that long to repair him. Still, it was enough, and suddenly moot as the sounds of combat reached the locust’s audio receptors.
He silently ran to the site, but didn’t bother to unhook his concussion-blaster from where it clipped to his leg when he arrived – it wouldn’t have any effect on the morphobot.
The locust had fought morphobots with only his claws before, but he didn’t do it often. Ransack enjoyed taking risks, but unarmed combat against the alien plants was generally considered a very stupid activity. And while Ransack was many things – violent, hot-headed, impulsive – he wasn’t stupid.
It was currently a stand-off – that is, while the morphobot held her tightly in its tendrils, the copper Insecticon hadn’t been eaten yet. She had lost her sword – Ransack could see where it lay on the ground, near a few severed tentacles – and her hands were bound, but her struggles still kept her from the mouth of the plant.
Ransack dodged the plant’s grasping tendrils, catching up the other warrior’s sword, then turning and slashing at the morphobot. It wasn’t a weapon he was proficient with, but a few graceless strokes still managed to hack through the tentacle holding the copper Insecticon’s hands. Partially freed, she took her other sword from her tail, and slashed though her remaining bonds.
She could have run then, but instead leapt back at the alien plant. She and Ransack managed to cut off most of its limbs before she drove her sword into what passed as the organs of the thing.
Battle over, running low on energy and splattered in morphobot fluids, she knelt, leaning heavily on her sword, and snarled. “You can tell your master that I will not return to him.”
“You don’t understand,” said Ransack. He stabbed her other sword into the ground, within her reach. “I came to serve you.”
Kickback was grinning. The grasshopper had several degrees of smiles, calculated for various effects, but the one he wore now meant nothing but trouble. Bombshell ignored it for as long as he could before looking over. “What do you want, Kickback?”
“You wound me. I want nothing. You, on the other hand, might want these.” Kickback reached into a small storage compartment in his leg and withdrew a handful of tools, which he set on the desk.
“I’ve been looking for those. Where did you find them?”
The grasshopper sighed expansively, folding his arms and resting a hip against the desk. “You know perfectly well who had them. And …” – Kickback’s smile brightened – “… I think you know why.”
Bombshell picked up the tools, stashing two in a compartment on himself and dropping the rest in a drawer. “Skitter borrows my stuff. She always returns it when I ask her to. So what?”
“‘So what?’ he says,” mimicked Kickback, trying and failing to copy Bombshell’s wheezing voice. “‘So what?’ For a psychologist, you sure are dumb.” Suddenly Kickback turned, leaning down across the desk so their noses almost touched. “She’s doing it to get your attention.”
He danced back before Bombshell could take a swing at him. “And you know the best part?” asked Kickback, safely out of reach. “You don’t discourage it.”
“I do so.”
“Puh-leeze. If you went about it any more half-heartedly, I’d have to come up with a new fraction.”
Bombshell turned back to his work. “Why don’t you go deal with your own relationship problems?”
“Don’t change the subject. Besides, you got bigger problems than I do.”
“What? You’re actually admitting you’re in a relationship?”
Kickback sighed. “Everyone and his clone knows I’m with Sway, all right?” He shook his head, the grin fading from his face. “I’m not ready to bond again.”
“Bonding is secondary, you idiot!” Bombshell snapped. “All Sway wants is acknowledgement.”
“But she knows …”
The weevil made a noise of exasperation. “Of course she knows! And she knows you know it. That isn’t the point.”
“And you’re changing the subject!”
“Indeed I am.” Bombshell settled back in his chair. “Look, I’ll admit it – Skitter and I flirt. It’s a game. Nothing more.”
Kickback sighed, but nodded and turned to leave. “I see.”
“Wait a second, Kickback; I have an assignment for you …”
The grasshopper waited, and found a compad pushed into his hand. “What’s this for?”
“Last I checked, you were our Official Insecticon Emissary Person, or whatever silly title you gave yourself,” said Bombshell. “I want you to go to Cybertron and transfer our old Sabocon files to the Hive computer.”
“What do you want those for? They’re four million years out of date.”
Bombshell shrugged. “They might still be useful. Besides, better we have them than someone else.”
“Our next shipment to Cybertron is in four days. I’ll go then,” said Kickback, tucking the compad into a compartment in his leg. At the door, he turned and grinned. “Say ‘hi’ to Skitter for me.”
Bombshell threw a wrench at him, but the door had already closed.
At first, Chopshop welcomed Venom’s absences; it meant the cicada wasn’t there, listening to their every word. After a while, they worried him – Chopshop wasn’t concerned for Venom’s safety, but when he wasn’t around, Chopshop couldn’t keep track of him. Last time, Venom brought back that giant, copper ant. This time, who knows what he’ll be up to …
This time, Chopshop followed the cicada. Venom didn’t notice. He might have been caught up entirely in his destination, though with his paranoia, it was more likely Chopshop’s own skill that kept him from detection.
“Come in, Chopshop. You may as well help me get her on the table.”
Or not, sighed the beetle. How does he do that? Chopshop stepped into the cavern, optics compensating for the low light. Venom stood by the still, copper form of an ant nearly the size of him. It’s poisoned, most likely. With no real choice, Chopshop helped Venom lift the creature onto a rough table, where Venom immediately cut a small incision in the back of its head.
Chopshop tapped his claws on the armour of the ant. He was no entomologist, but he was reasonably certain that this creature was a worker of the same species as Venom’s pet. “You’ve obviously been here before. What are you doing to them?”
“Very little. In a way, they do it to themselves,” said Venom, raising a hand for inspection. The silver hand was almost black, and the stain moved …
“The Swarm,” said Chopshop. “Your nanomachines. I thought they were all destroyed … or can they replicate themselves?”
Venom shook his head. “No, they can’t. But there were millions of them, and Shrapnel couldn’t destroy them all. I recalled what were left, and there are still millions. I infect a few of these ants, and they spread the Swarm to others. I’ve been coming back to run tests.”
“How do you control them?”
“That’s not for you to know.” Venom had built an extra control box … but had it stored in its component pieces so to be undetectable by Shrapnel’s scan. Not that he was going to tell Chopshop.
The beetle folded his arms. “All right, so you’ve got ants. Now what?”
“I have a small colony of ants,” corrected Venom. “And whenever Ransack gets back, what we are going to do is attack the Hive.”
“Bombshell is enjoying himself far more than is strictly necessary,” grumbled Cutter. He was soon to go to his next session with the weevil, and wasn’t thrilled. While he knew that all Bombshell was up to was the study of memory retention in coleop shells, it was difficult to hold down the mistrust he inherited from Kickback. And for reasons he didn’t want to examine too closely, Cutter sought out Sway.
The dragonfly looked over at his approach, ceasing her practice and sheathing the spear she was using to chop up a defenceless tree. “Hmm, I did warn you about him.”
Cutter grinned. “You did. I swear, you’re the only one who knows my past and still treats me like my own being … What’s wrong?”
The dragonfly relaxed after a moment. “More holdover reflexes,” said Sway. “You just, hmm, smiled like Kickback does. It startled me.”
“Sorry.” Inwardly, Cutter kicked himself. Now I have to pay attention to my facial expressions?.. Though Bombshell never mentioned it …
Cutter jumped; not so much because he was startled, but because he would know that voice anywhere. He spun to see Kickback, standing casually, the faintest mocking grin tugging at the corner of the warrior’s mouth. “We were just talking.”
“You speak quickly, Cutter.”
Behind Cutter, Sway clapped a hand to her forehead in exasperation. “Kickback …”
“I was just razzing him …”
“I have things to do. Excuse me.” With a slight nod to Sway, deliberately ignoring Kickback, Cutter left.
“Hrmm, you didn’t have to do that,” rumbled Sway once the medic was out of sight. Still, it would be foolish to try to call Cutter back now, so she switched her attention to Kickback. “You seem pleased with yourself.”
“Oh, I am,” agreed Kickback, dancing a few steps. “The weevil is in both love and denial.”
“Nope. And now I can annoy him about it.”
The dragonfly crossed her arms, leaning against a tree. “You would anyway. Who’s the, hrmm, lucky Insecticon, hmm?”
“Skitter,” said Kickback. “I don’t think you know her.”
“I barely do. I’ve only seen her twice, really. She’s one of the techs.”
“What makes you think they’re in love, hmm?”
“Oh, it’s obvious,” said Kickback carelessly. “They’re constantly getting on each other’s nerves, looking for things to argue about …”
Sway grinned. “The way you and Bombshell act around each other, hmm?”
“That, Sway, is an entirely different thing,” Kickback retorted. “What Bombshell and I do is a game to keep our wits sharp. What Bombshell and Skitter do is a carefully crafted attempt to catch the other’s attention without looking like they’re trying to. Bombshell claims it’s a game, but if it was, he wouldn’t have denied it at first.”
“The way you and Bombshell act around each other,” Sway deadpanned.
She chuckled. “Hmm, sorry, but you left it wide open.”
“If I wanted Bombshell’s notice, I’d sit on him and tell him to pay attention to me,” said Kickback. “As it is, I don’t want it; I don’t trust him … Blast. I hope he doesn’t use Cutter’s retained memories against me …” At Sway’s glare, he trailed off. “What?”
“You’re paranoid. He, hrmm, wants to help you.”
“Of course he says that. I’m concerned, is all.” Kickback took the compad from the compartment in his hip. “Vaguely speaking of the weevil, he wants me to go to Cybertron to transfer the old Sabocon records here. I’ll be going in four days. Want to come along?”
Kickback cocked his head then, checking his internal chronometer. “Anyway, I’m off for now. I’ve got a rematch with Dagger.”
The dragonfly watched him leave, then went her own way. “Hrmph.”
“Venom! Where are you, noisemaker?”
The cicada stifled a sigh at the voice. It was times like this that he regretted making his minions immune to the Swarm … Ransack could stand to be more respectful, at least … Venom pulled himself to his feet and stepped out of the cavern.
“Well, I brought her back,” rumbled Ransack before Venom could get a word in edgewise. He waved a hand at the copper Insecticon, who stood a bit behind him. “She just needed things explained to her. Her name is Nihil.”
Venom, while pleased to have her returned, didn’t trust it one bit. “She’s damaged. Ransack, I told you …”
“She was caught by a morphobot,” said Ransack.
“We destroyed it,” added Nihil. Her face was blank, but her optics glittered and there was triumph in her voice.
Which could be a good thing or a bad thing. On one hand, if she was loyal, her bloodlust was exactly what Venom wanted. On the other hand, loyalty was unlikely. Still, she was needed, at least for a while … “Very good. Report to Chopshop for repairs. When that’s finished, I’ll be filling you and the others in on our plans for the immediate future.”
Ransack tilted his head in a ‘come along’ gesture and started away, Nihil following. Venom settled back on his seat, steepling his fingers. Ransack got to her first, filled her new and inexperienced mind with his own ideas, and turned her against me. They’ll both have to be destroyed, or at least brought to heel. Just as soon as I don’t need them any more …
When Cutter showed up for his next appointment, Bombshell was scraping paper off of his wall. It was off-white printed with tiny purple flowers. Cutter decided not to ask why it had been put up, or where the perpetrator even found wallpaper in the first place.
Bombshell gave up fighting with the wallpaper when Cutter walked in. “You’re early.”
“I was talking to Sway. Kickback chased me off.”
The grasshopper thought that over. “No. He showed up and I left.” Then, “I was wondering … How much like Kickback do I act? Unconsciously, I mean; gestures, mannerisms, facial expressions..?”
“Only in fight or flight situations, from what I can tell.” He pushed the chair to Cutter, who took it and sat down. Bombshell considered sitting on the desk, but decided that would look unprofessional, so chose the lesser of two evils and leaned against it.
“I see.” Cutter rested his elbows on his knees, hands loosely clasped together. “I don’t know if I can keep talking to you like this, Bombshell,” sighed Cutter. “I do remember being Kickback, but only the emotionally intense times … and he was angry with you. I can control it – they were his feelings, not mine – but there are times …”
Bombshell’s optics flashed a grin. “He decked me while in your form. Maybe you can use that for catharsis.” And that’s not what you want to talk about, anyway. I’ll wait.
The medic shook his head. “No, no, it’s not so bad with you. It’s easy to tell where his thoughts end and mine begin, and he was only mad at you for short periods. It’s … it’s Sway. I … I remember loving her.”
Twisting his hands in his lap, Cutter continued: “And … Kickback thought about her constantly, whenever he wasn’t immediately occupied with something else. He thought about her so much, and his emotions were so strong … I think … I think I would have at least liked Sway, in any case, but here and now I can barely talk to her without remembering things … The worry that Ransack had killed her, the feel of her in my arms … The look on her face when she thought Kickback died, and knowing I… knowing Kickback couldn’t tell her. As if Kickback needs another reason to be out to get me.” Cutter sighed. “Maybe if I could get a different body …”
“Do you think it would help?”
“Probably not,” Cutter agreed. “I’d still have Kickback’s memories, and I don’t really want to transfer.”
Bombshell nodded. Just because Transformers could easily switch bodies didn’t mean they did it if there was any way to keep their old form. If nothing else, they were creatures of habit, and once used to a body didn’t like to have to learn a new one. For example, Kickback could have simply kept the ‘Cutter’ shell – it was larger and stronger than his own – but he insisted his own body be recreated.
“And you know what’s worse?” asked Cutter. “Around her, I act like Kickback. I didn’t notice until she mentioned I did one of his flashbulb smiles – you know what I’m talking about – and after that I looked back and realised …”
He stopped, burying his face in his hands. “I don’t want to be Kickback! Is it the part of me that is him that reacts to Sway like that, or am I unconsciously trying to win her over by acting like him..? But I don’t want to avoid her, either. She’s the only one who doesn’t treat me like I’m their evil clone or some kind of research project!..”
As soon as he said it, he regretted it. “Sorry. I … I just …”
He heard Bombshell shift his weight slightly, but couldn’t look at him yet. “Don’t hold back,” said Bombshell. “The point of these little sessions is for me to figure out the extent to which Kickback imprinted on the body. If you tell me what you think I want to hear, I’ll get skewed results.”
“You don’t even care, do you? Not about me, just about your results.”
“I can’t help you unless I know how much Kickback’s patterns influence you.”
He had finished the tree he had been eating, so Barrage reverted to robot mode, sitting on what was left of the fallen log and staring at the ground. “He isn’t an Insecticon.”
Chopshop, still in insect-mode, took another bite of the tree he’d been working on. “Barrage, if you say that one more time, I’m going to short your vocaliser.”
The gunner turned a blank stare on Chopshop. “It’s important.”
“We attack tomorrow. We must protect Venom. We must take him to Cybertron.”
Chopshop, at the end of his patience, was about to demand why, but caught sight of Barrage’s optics and stopped.
No longer blank, pinpoint fires burned in their depths; fires that spoke of determination, intelligence, and, above all, purpose.
The twin fires fixed on Chopshop, resolute and unwavering. “But I need your skills.”
“You know, I think I’ve seen more of Coleop in the last three months than I did in the last sixteen years, years.” And from the ground, which was also strange. All Insecticons could fly, but Coronapis liked to walk. She claimed that flight made one miss all the interesting things.
“Shh!” Coronapis took on a pose of careful listening, then her hand shot out into a clump of tall grass. When she drew back, she was holding a dome-shaped beetle whose carapace shone like an oil slick. On Earth it would have been huge, but it was only the length of Coronapis’ hand. She turned it over and proceeded to inspect it. “You were saying?”
“Nothing important, important,” said Shrapnel, poking the beetle in the stomach and watching it wiggle. The bug was officially classed as a member of species Coleop S-46-423, but the not-so-official name was ‘green nibblers’. While they ordinarily ate grass, they also had a taste for the Hive’s wiring, and with their comparatively tiny size often slipped into the system and caused minor blackouts. The Insecticon technicians hated the nibblers with a passion.
The Queen set the nibbler back on the ground, and gave it a tap on its shell to send it running back for cover. Shrapnel, who more than once had to fix chewed wires and clean out electrocuted nibbler husks, would have just as soon stepped on it. “Frostbite keeps a few as pets,” said Coronapis. “She says they’re very sweet and loyal if you catch them as grubs.”
“She also threatens to let them loose in people’s rooms if they bother her, bother her.”
Coronapis made a face at him, but the ground started shaking, and the two Insecticons automatically drew closer together. “Earthquake, Shrapnel? I thought we weren’t anywhere near a fault line.”
Shrapnel knelt to feel the ground. “I’m not sure, not sure. The vibrations feel strange …”
The rumbling faded, but not completely. “Whatever is causing this seems to be … running underground?” asked Coronapis, following the vibrations a few steps. “We’re still discovering new types of insects here. Some type of huge tunnelling worm, perhaps?..” Suddenly, the ground gave way beneath her. “Yeek!”
“I was just startled. I’m all right,” said Coronapis, green optics glittering up out of the darkness. “Come down; you might want to see this.”
Shrapnel hopped down. “A tunnel indeed, indeed. If this was caused by some type of worm, I don’t want to know what it eats, eats.” There was enough clearance for his spines.
“If it’s a worm, it has millions of little feet,” Coronapis added, kneeling on the cave floor.
“Ants, ants. But I thought they migrated overland, overland.”
Coronapis nodded. “So did I.”
To be continued ...