Mr Venom, Hero
Venom sighed. There was confusion in his mind – all his memories of being a Coleop Insecticon were tangled up and blurry – and he didn’t like that. Barrage had given him a fairly detailed report of his time on Coleop, but it was also extremely biased.
Of course, thought Venom, Barrage would find my latest attempts at retaking the Sabocons brilliant. Barrage will do anything to avoid thinking for himself. Even the scarab’s plan to return Venom’s sanity was for the express purpose of getting his leader back. Once Barrage decided that the cicada was functional again, he had lapsed back into drone-like silence.
Chopshop wasn’t quite so hopeless, despite his dislike of making choices, for fear that he might make the wrong one. All Venom had to do was say, “Do this, because it’s right,” and he did. At least Chopshop had the sense to realise that everything wasn’t right …
His attention shifted from inward musings to the security cameras. Being the former liaison between the Sabocons and the rest of the Decepticon army, the neural-lock let Venom in through the front door. He couldn’t get into the computer himself, but since Kickback so kindly activated it…
The information in the databanks didn’t interest him – it was four million years out of date. Besides, stopping the flow of information might alert the Insecticons. Instead, he watched the screen and tried to think of a way to get through to Kickback.
Kickback … Venom thought of the warrior as one of his failures. He couldn’t read Kickback, who could shut off all outward signs of his thoughts, his feelings … With his training, Bombshell was almost as bad – Megatron probably had him programmed to be a psychological warfare expert just to annoy me – but Bombshell’s thoughts could at least be guessed at. Kickback was a closed book, and Venom had made a pet project out of trying to read him.
Now it was important that Venom get past the mask. Without an idea of how the grasshopper thought, he could never know how to convince him that the Sabocons would be better off under Venom’s control …
‘Insecticons’, Venom corrected himself. And they need me now more than ever. They can’t stay ahead of the Decepticons forever, not without someone who understands the empire’s politics. Sooner or later, they’re going to slip, and the Decepticons will step on them.
Currently, Kickback sat in the cell, staring at nothing, his face blank. Conversely, Sway was almost embarrassingly easy to read; she had an uncomplicated mind. There was black, there was white, and few shades of gray in between. Such minds were easy to control. One filled with gray thoughts was better controlled by sowing confusion and doubt … and then twisting it to his advantage.
Venom didn’t have the faintest idea which way Kickback thought.
“Huh?.. This is the medbay …”
“To hear Skitter tell it, bringing you back was quite an ordeal, ordeal.” Shrapnel clasped Bombshell’s arm and grinned. “Though, knowing her, she was exaggerating, just a bit, bit. She and Frostbite were unharmed, if you were wondering.”
“I was.” Bombshell let Shrapnel and Coronapis help him to a sitting position, performed a quick internal scan on himself, and decided all his systems were in their proper alignments. “Nice to see you two made it back all right. What happened to you after you ran off?”
“I lost Nihil, but Shrapnel found me,” said Coronapis. “He managed to throw Ransack off his trail with a few clones. Eventually we just used the clones to dig out of the nest. It wasn’t enjoyable waiting for them to finish, I can tell you.”
“And just after Shrapnel ran off, Ransack shot me. Ransack is immune to cerebro-shells – ugh, I should have known Venom would have made the adjustments.” Bombshell hopped down from the table, testing his limbs. “He said a few things while faking being under my control, so I have no idea if he was lying about it or not.”
The Queen chuckled without humour. “Nihil does seem a bit determined to decapitate me, if that’s what you mean.”
“There was more.” Bombshell would have preferred to talk to Coronapis alone about her impressions of the warrior Queen, but the day’s events had put Shrapnel into a protective mood, and he didn’t seem inclined to leave her, even in the safety of the Hive. I suppose it doesn’t really matter. They’re bonded – Shrapnel will know everything Coronapis knows, eventually. And he knows better than to interrupt me. “Ransack said that Nihil thinks like an ant, and that she has some kind of control over him.”
“She still has her pre-Insecticon memories of being an ant,” said Coronapis, thoughtfully. “She remembered taking over an ant colony before, by being captured and killing the host queen. Now that she’s an Insecticon, the colony she has to, by nature, take over is ours. As to control … Well, all I know was that I was running before she even started chasing me.”
“What did she say, exactly?”
Coronapis considered that. “I asked her who she was and what she was trying to do. She said, ‘I was born long ago, and fulfilled my purpose; I was taken by the Others and replaced their queen. Perhaps my daughters have done the same since. I do not know. Then I was reborn, but you were not with your colony. I could not make it mine. I am Nihil, the queen of the ants reborn.’ Then I ran.”
“Why did you run?”
“She was going to try to chop my head off. Why do you think I ran?” she asked dryly.
“How did you know she was going to try to decapitate you?”
“She said …”
Bombshell cut in: “She didn’t. Nihil strongly implied that she was going to kill you, yes, but never stated the method. I suppose Shrapnel just told you later.”
“He … didn’t.”
The beetle nodded. “I didn’t, didn’t.” He tightened his grip around Coronapis slightly when she gave him a curious look. “Well, you were already exhausted and upset, and I didn’t think telling you something that … that nasty would have benefited you.”
As Bombshell was out of questions for them, Shrapnel and Coronapis left the weevil considering his next move. After a minute, he activated his radio: “Bombshell to Skitter – Where are you?”
He had to damp his audios at the ant’s delighted squeal: “Eeeeee! Stodgyweevil! You’re repaired!”
“I know that I am, but thank you for telling me.” If he had a mouth, Bombshell would have grinned. “Now then, where are you? I need to wring a report out of you.”
“I’m in Frosty’s lab.”
The entomology laboratory, the place where Frostbite dissected Coleop insects to study and categorize. It was a place that Skitter couldn’t be dragged into. “What are you doing there?”
“Staying out of Frosty’s way. Come on over – We’ve got something you might find interesting …”
“You two sillies managed to catch one of the ants on your own?”
“Yep,” said Skitter happily. “And while we were lugging you around, too.”
“Ignore her, hon,” said Frostbite. “One happened to be in the underground road, so I stung it and carried it back here.”
The copper ant was paralysed and unconscious, as well as strapped to the table in Frostbite’s lab. And, despite his outward incredulity, Bombshell was proud of the two techs. Neither were fighters and wouldn’t have been able to capture the large ant by force, but apparently Frostbite had managed to synthesise the correct pheromone to make the ants think they were friends, which enabled her to get close enough to paralyse it. And Skitter, who was – for want of a better term – squeamish about working on living robots had managed to stabilize Bombshell after Ransack shot him. Skitter was even worse about working on insects, but had decided that since she was part of the project, she should be there, even if all she did was sit on the counter at the far side of the room and dangle her feet.
Frostbite and Bombshell had a section of the unconscious ant’s head open. It had been infected with Venom’s nanomachines, but they cleaned those out and attached a few probes to the insect’s brain. “Skittles!” Frostbite called over her shoulder. “Get your petiole off my counter and go check the readings.”
The tech hopped down and went to the indicated machine, then read off the display aloud, finishing with, “Hope those numbers mean something to you, Frosty, because they don’t to me.”
“They do mean something. They just don’t make a lot of sense.” Due to the Insecticons’ usual screwy mentality, they only had one entomologist, and Frostbite was her. Bombshell had picked up a bit of the biological sciences while on Earth, but it was no where near Frostbite’s level. Which meant there was no one who could actually understand her work. I swear, the next Insecticon built will be a biologist … “Bombshell, increase power to probe number four. Skitter, what does the indicator say now?”
“Energy output jumped by almost zero-point-two percent.”
The wasp frowned. “This doesn’t make sense. Why is it giving off so much energy under stimulation?”
“That’s the communication centre of its brain, isn’t it? Hmm.” Bombshell wandered over to the graph displays, then pointed at one. “The pattern looks vaguely familiar … Sort of like the energy readout for a low-level radio transmission … Frostbite, could Coronapis have known instinctively that Nihil’s species has a habit of decapitation?”
“No possible way,” retorted the entomologist. “Coronapis is termite-based. While some ant species have termite slaves, they don’t do the ‘kill the queen and take over’ bit to them. And this copper species is new to me, so she couldn’t have heard about … Hey, I’ve got it!” Frostbite did a little wasp-dance, then grinned at the others. “Those copper ants have those big brains because they need them for greater than normal energy output! They’re telepathic!”
“That’s nuts,” said Skitter. “They might be metal, but they’re organic. Organic minds aren’t powerful enough for telepathy. Besides, those ants are just animals.”
“Sentience has nothing to do with it, and the weakness of organic minds is a common misconception,” said Bombshell. “Not as powerful as our internal radio, certainly, but the minds of these ants are strong enough for their thoughts to reach outside of their heads. All these use it for is communication, thought pulses rather than just sound or pheromones.”
Frostbite nodded. “And since Nihil’s still got her ant mind …”
“She projected,” finished Bombshell. “She probably didn’t even do it consciously.”
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” muttered Kickback. “Venom was on the front door’s neural-lock because he was our liaison with the army, though he wasn’t on our computer lock. And he’s still got his Decepticon mind, so the door happily let him in. Ugh.”
“Hmm, stop moping and help me think of a way out of here,” Sway grumbled. “You probably designed this cell in the first place …”
Kickback made a face. “Probably, and I would have made it impossible to get out of.”
“You overestimate yourself,” snorted Sway. “Hmm, maybe I could set a vibration that could rattle the shield generator enough …”
“You won’t have to do that.”
The grasshopper glared at the figure standing beyond the shield. “What do you want, Chopshop?”
The beetle keyed in the sequence to remove the force-field. “I’m letting you out of here. Venom might be sane now, but it’s gone too far. Return to Coleop. Warn the Insecticons.”
“Hang on,” demanded Sway. “Hrmm, what do you mean Venom is ‘sane now’?”
“He’s not an Insecticon any more … not a Coleop one, anyway,” said Chopshop. “He still looks like one, but he’s a Cybertron robot again. His mind was incompatible with the inputs from his former part-insect body.” He spread his hands. “Look, that’s just what Barrage said, and it seems to have worked.”
Kickback watched the warrior carefully, searching for any signs of deceit, and decided he was telling the truth. “Come back with us. I’ll put in a good word for you.”
Chopshop shook his head. “My place is with Venom. Besides, I have to keep an eye on Barrage. Go quickly; in three minutes, I’ll raise the alarm.”
Venom, watching the monitors, considered stopping Kickback and Sway from escaping, and decided not to bother. He wasn’t particularly thrilled with Chopshop’s disobedience, but chose to let it slide. He could always mention that he knew about it some other time, when it might have some advantage.
Besides, Venom had a new plan. The Insecticons had no hope of defending against it, not now. Their own rebellious natures left them open to the simplest takeover imaginable …
Summoned by Kickback, what passed as the upper echelon of the Insecticon subfaction convened in the chamber they designated the council room. While they had no true command structure, it was generally accepted that Shrapnel, Kickback, Bombshell, and Coronapis led the Insecticons. Sway, Frostbite, and Skitter tagged along for the meeting. Once they were all seated, Kickback tapped the table to catch their attention: “Venom’s on Cybertron, and sane again.”
Bombshell spoke first, saying only one word, but it summed up his thoughts succinctly, if impolitely. Shrapnel frowned. “If Venom’s on Cybertron, he’s not here bothering us, us. I’m more worried about Ransack and Nihil, nihil.”
“Forget them,” snapped Bombshell. “They’ve run off somewhere. Venom is the greater threat!”
“Venom who just happens to be your old rival, rival!”
“Yeah? And Ransack and Nihil tried to kill Coronapis!” Bombshell retorted. Then, “Still, no reason to discount any of them. They’re all dangerous, even if they’re no longer connected.”
Frostbite nodded. “The warrior-Queen … she acts like an ant. When Venom made her, he must have just attached the Jade Fan’s cleared processor to the ant’s brain. She knows she’s an Insecticon, but she still has all her instincts. But it’s balanced – she doesn’t fight her insect nature, but it doesn’t overwhelm her intelligence.” The entomologist sighed, twisting her hands. “Basically, Nihil’s not going to give up until she’s chopped Coronapis’ head off.”
“And she’s got Ransack’s help, and he used to be a member of the Hive,” agreed Skitter.
“He loves her.”
The other six turned to look at him. Bombshell shook his head. “Not how you’re thinking. Maybe ‘love’ is the wrong word. ‘Worship’ is closer.” The weevil sighed. “Sway, you remember how Ransack treated you?”
“Hrmm, hard to forget,” Sway grumbled. “He claimed that while he did beat me in a fight, I was a decent challenge, so he’d keep me. So, hrmm, flattering.”
“I think Nihil actually beat him,” said Bombshell, steepling his fingers under his nose. “She beat him, so he’s decided that he belongs to her. And he likes it.”
Kickback snorted. “You’re kidding. Ransack’s the biggest anti-authority bug I’ve ever met.”
“Because he didn’t respect anyone until now,” Bombshell retorted. “He wants to be told what to do, but by someone he respects. Which means someone who can thrash him. Nihil’s telepathic abilities might enhance it, but he’s not fighting it.” He snorted. “I never said Ransack was the sanest creature I’d ever met.”
Skitter kicked her heels against the legs of her chair. “Were the other two like that, Barrage and Chopshop? Wanting to be led, I mean, and that’s how Venom got them?”
“Probably, then once Venom had that hold, he could strengthen it,” Bombshell agreed.
“Though why does Nihil keep him, then?” asked Frostbite. “She runs on instinct, not emotion. And male ants are absolutely useless outside of mating, and even then, they only do that once before they die. At least in most species.”
“She must find him useful, somehow,” said Kickback. Sway just snorted.
“Just because she does things by instinct doesn’t mean she can’t have emotions,” Skitter chimed in. “You’re our analyst, Bombshell – what’s your guess?”
The weevil sighed. “I have no idea. Come on – I only really saw her once, and it was for two seconds before Ransack caused the cave-in, and I was lying on the ground at the time anyway. The only one of us who has actually spoken to her is Coronapis.”
All optics turned to the Queen, who had been silent until now. “I don’t have Bombshell’s skill,” said Coronapis slowly. “And we spoke for only a couple minutes. She showed no emotion, only her drive to fulfill what has always been her role. Her confidence and sense of purpose are impenetrable. She is Nihil, and that’s all that matters to her.” She shrugged, then, “Kickback, what of Venom and the others? You were the one who summoned us here.”
Kickback nodded. “Venom’s got a new body now – the insect inputs from his coleop body were damaging his mind. Barrage realised this, and used the cover of the ant colony attack to drag Venom off to Cybertron. And Venom’s got himself holed up in the Sabocon base.”
“He’s still compatible with the neural-lock, of course. Scrap,” grumbled Bombshell. “Did he get into the computer? The files you sent from Cybertron all came through all right.”
The grasshopper scowled. “He got in, thanks to me. I didn’t know he was in the base until after I started the transfer. He probably let it complete to avoid attracting attention.”
“What about the other two, two?”
“We never saw Barrage, Shrapnel, though he’s still with Venom.” Kickback paused. “There may be some hope to bring Chopshop back, someday. He’s the one that helped us escape. I told Mimic to have his people keep watch over them.”
Bombshell settled back in his chair, steepling his fingers under his nose. “Venom sane again … We are in big trouble.”
Cutter flinched as he recognised Kickback’s voice. Meetings with the warrior usually meant trouble, but, because he was polite and because running wouldn’t help, he waited.
The black grasshopper landed lightly, his expression neutral. “Cutter, I … never had a chance to thank you for saving Sway’s life after the battle.”
“I was just performing my function.”
“I’m still grateful.” Kickback sighed, then, “I don’t know if I can ever truly like you, but I don’t regret your existence.”
“I can’t help …”
“… Having some of my memories. I know. I don’t like it, but I don’t blame you for it.” The warrior turned to leave, then stopped. “Listen, you may not have noticed this, but pretty much no one outside of Bombshell and myself care that you’re sort of me. If you’re still worried about acceptance, Bombshell told me to tell you to look up Skitter and Frostbite. He thinks they’ll like you, and he’s the psychologist.” With a faint smirk, Kickback left.
Much as she loved people, sometimes Coronapis preferred to think things over alone. Shrapnel was in a protective mood, but she managed to convince him she’d be perfectly safe in the Hive. She didn’t need to go anywhere.
Now she sat on the steps of the dais in her chamber, one knee jackknifed so she could rest her chin on it. And where are you now, Nihil?
Their contact had been brief, a few words exchanged, before Coronapis fled. If she had tried to reason with the warrior, she would be dead, and she knew that.
Bombshell said Nihil was telepathic, and assumed some of her thoughts had reached Coronapis’ mind. Coronapis could believe it. There was something about Nihil, something primal and … straight-forward. You would make an excellent Queen, Nihil. Completely single-minded in your dedication; you would never doubt your function, as I sometimes do.
Of course, she couldn’t extend the offer – Nihil would insist on Cornapis’ destruction first, and Coronapis had a healthy streak of self-preservation. Maybe I should ask one of the warriors to train me to fight, for self-defence, as well as the ability to help protect my people …
Coronapis stood, slowly, then turned to look at the great, pale gold ‘tail’ that was most of her body, and what connected her to the Hive and made her the Insecticon Queen. For sixteen years she had been trapped in her chamber, tied to her body, until Bombshell figured out a way to separate Coronapis from the Queen. It was often dull, unable to leave, but … but she had never truly doubted her purpose. When Venom first attacked, she was sad that Barrage and Ransack and Chopshop – her ‘children’ all – had sided with the cicada. It wasn’t until she started spending as much time as possible as just Coronapis that she contemplated ‘guiding’ the sparks she created, and worried that she was to blame for the ones gone wrong.
Too much time away, just playing, thinking about things that I already had answers to, thought Coronapis, running a hand along the smooth metal of her body and her prison. The entire Insecticon cause – such as we have – prizes individuality and free will … and in a much more complete sense than the Decepticons would have us believe they do. To ‘program’ a spark, even with the best of intentions, goes against everything we are.
But I was tempted to do it anyway, and chose to try to pass the duty to another rather than face the challenge… But something in you spoke to me, Nihil. You awakened instincts I thought had been lost to my Insecticon machinery, and you reminded me of who I am. Despite my doubts, I am the Insecticon Queen.
Coronapis stepped into her body, feeling the clamps and connections on her legs, and the old feeling of power. She did have an insect-mode, in this body, and she shifted to it, letting her senses adjust to her wings, her fangs, her six limbs. Mobility was limited but, ah, there was strength, and her mind was opened to the Hive’s computer … So much to learn here, to experience later …
She, a nightmare termite in gold and copper, folded her legs underneath herself in a posture that mimicked sleep, and let her mind drift on the currents of the Hive. She was Coronapis, yes, but she was also the Insecticon Queen. She just had to remember that …
The space-bridge activated without authorization, but there were already a few extra guards – Mimic’s spies on Cybertron had already called ahead to Coleop to warn them that they had company coming. The guards took the traveller directly to what served as the Hive’s council room. By the time they arrived, Shrapnel, Coronapis, Bombshell, and Kickback were already waiting. The prisoner didn’t resist, and Kickback sent the guards away. Then he turned his attention on the newcomer: “Coming here without back-up – Very brave of you, Venom.” He drew his rifle. “Or maybe just stupid. I’m not picky.”
Shrapnel held up a hand to stop the grasshopper. “As long as he’s here, we might as well listen, listen.” Then, to the cicada, “You have one minute.”
“I don’t need it. Read this.”
Venom handed Shrapnel a datapad, which he looked over carefully, Coronapis reading over his shoulder. “This isn’t possible … is it, Shrapnel?”
“This might have been faked, faked.” With a thought, he activated his communicator. “Who’s on-shift up there, up there?.. Thornsharp, double-check the code I’m about to send, then report back with the verification.”
After a moment, Thornsharp signalled him. Shrapnel listened, his frown deepening until it was a scowl. He directed the expression at Venom. “You went over us. You went straight to Megatron, megatron.”
“Indeed I did. And he has decreed that while the Sabocons were autonomous, you are no longer Sabocons.” Venom paused. “By order of the Decepticon Empire, I lead the Insecticons.”
“What!?” yelled Kickback.
“Megatron didn’t so much as look at your qualifications!” snapped Bombshell. “He only gave the order because he knew we wouldn’t want him to!”
The cicada made a sound like a shrug. “I am well aware of that, but I don’t particularly care. I have what I want. You Insecticons should have put more effort into staying on Megatron’s good side.”
“We won’t give up without a fight, Venom!” Kickback shouted.
Shrapnel laid a restraining hand on his arm. “No, Kickback, kickback. We will.” Then, addressing Venom: “You’re the leader of the Insecticons, Venom. I was, but I give you the title and all it means, means.”
The stag beetle started to turn away, but he looked back over his shoulder and grinned. “Which is absolutely nothing. Lead all you like, Venom, but Insecticons don’t follow, follow.”
“How long do you give Venom before he begs Megatron to let us be self-governing again?”
“A few months, maybe. He’s very stubborn.” Bombshell looked back towards a spot on the ceiling. “If he’s smart he’ll realise that we’re just going to carry on as we always have, no matter who thinks he’s in charge. Hnh – We are sort of like ants.”
Kickback followed his comrade’s gaze as he leaned against the wall of the Hive’s main lab area. “Spiteful ants, maybe. You’re waiting for something.”
There was a rattle in the vent, followed by a splash and a screech. Kickback looked up. “You finally played a counter-prank, I take it?”
“I’d start running if I were you.”
“Sound advice,” agreed Bombshell, but didn’t move. For his part, Kickback took a few steps away from him. Just in case.
After some muffled noises and clattering, Skitter dropped from the vent, dripping purple paint off of most of her upper body. She stormed up to Bombshell, and poking a finger at his chest shouted, “No fair getting me back!”
“You left the paint in my office.”
“Ooooh!” She folded her arms petulantly and tapped her foot. After four taps, she stopped, grinned mischievously, and threw her arms around Bombshell’s waist … where his struggles to get free just got more paint on him. After a minute, Skitter let him go, and with a cry of, “Nyah!” shifted to insect-mode and ran out into the corridor.
Bombshell looked down at himself with a sigh. “Great. Now I need to wash this stuff off before it dries, or I’ll have to have my paintjob redone … Hey!”
Kickback poked him again. “Forget your paintjob. If you’re going to play, learn the rules. You’ve been tagged. You’re supposed to chase her, you idiot.”
Both Insecticons looked over to where the currently-purple ant was peeking around the door. “And you still owe me fifty kilograms of lithium-copper! You said you’d give it to me.”
“You said I’d give it to you!” Bombshell corrected.
“Close enough. Now are you going to play for once in your stuffy life, or do I have to wallpaper your office again?”
“It took hours to undo your redecorating last time! You stay out of there!”
“Make me!.. Eeeek!” Claws scrabbled on the deck plates as Skitter turned and bolted, weevil-mode Bombshell at her six heels. Kickback grinned, then activated his radio to summon a clean-up crew to the lab. Then, carefully stepping around the patches of wet paint, he shifted to his own insect form and chased after them both. He knew it wouldn’t be long until the majority of the Insecticons were swept up in the impromptu game of tag.
Kickback vaguely wondered what Venom would think of it, but couldn’t bring himself to care.