The Human Condition
On The Road Again
When the Decepticons heard the explanation, they were not happy.
They had little reason to be happy - they were all stuck in human form due to magic. It had taken them two hours to regroup… those that could regroup. The Stunticons couldn’t be contacted, the Combaticons told the Decepticons to get lost, and the Insecticons were in Bali, which could have been another planet for all the good they could do. Thrust and Dirge were missing as well; the change hit while they were on an energy raid and their fates were unknown. Astrotrain was probably still at the space-bridge. Megatron and his strike force were still in England somewhere. All in all, it wasn’t shaping up to be a good day.
Fortunately, the Decepticon base was equipped to deal with human guests, for those few occasions there were any. However, it was impossible to stay there due to size problems - Soundwave and Hook managed to get everything set to voice-control, which helped, but not enough, - so they were considering relocating to the mainland and finding a land-base. This was easier than it sounded when the idea was first broached - before leaving their base, the Decepticons tapped into assorted human computer systems, giving them access to whatever funding they needed. Everything else could be dealt with later.
Except… they actually had to get out of the base first. Decepticon Headquarters was underwater, and while fairly close to the coastline, none of the Decepticons could swim. They never had to before. Skywarp sighed. Currently, he and Soundwave were in charge of the main force… except that Soundwave was being even less talkative than usual, leaving Skywarp feeling rather put-upon. He sat in the chair at the console, cross-legged, looking down at the general assembly. “Any suggestions?”
“Yeah! Contact Cybertron and have them send someone down,” yelled Blitzwing.
“Inadvisable,” muttered Soundwave, still working on the console with Hook.
“What’d he say?”
“He says you’re a moron, Blitz,” Skywarp translated. “Think about it - this dumb curse hit all us Decepticons. If another shows up, he might get zapped, too. And if he doesn’t… well, is there anyone you trust enough to let them see you this way?”
The crowd grumbled amongst themselves and fidgeted for a few minutes. Any friends close enough were members of the elite - and therefore on Earth. For the most part. “Call the Insecticons on Coleop,” suggested Kickback. “The worst Shrapnel and them will do is laugh at us.”
Getting laughed at by Insecticons wasn’t high on Skywarp’s list of preferred things to happen. Besides… “Uh-uh. They’d have to go through two space-bridges to get here, and Shockwave rarely lets anyone through without an explanation. Your pals might not do anything nasty to us, but you Insecticons have a habit of opening your mouths. You really think they could get here without gloating about it?” Kickback started to protest, but stopped. He knew his friends, and Skywarp was right.
“Send for a neutral, then,” said Stormcloud eventually. “They won’t be affected, nor will they have any designs against us.”
Skywarp nodded absently. “Getting warmer I’d say, except that most neutrals just want the war to end, and one way to do that is to remove one army. Hey, Hook!” Hook peered down, so Skywarp continued, “We have any sort of transports here? I don’t know - a mini-shuttle or something to get us out of the base at least?”
“What did we ever need one for?” demanded Hook. “We even scrapped the space-bridge transport pods for parts when we stopped using them.”
“Maybe we could re-work an unused body-shell into somethin’,” Longhaul called up. “We always have a couple sitting around in the shop.” Beside him, Mixmaster made a razzing noise. Longhaul shrugged. “It’s worth a shot.”
“Okay, now we’re getting somewhere,” Skywarp announced. “Right. Let’s see… you two Insecticons get up here and do whatever Soundwave tells you to. The rest of us are going to help the Constructicons do their thing.” It would keep everyone busy, at least.
“Is this everyone?”
“The main force, except for Thrust and Dirge,” agreed Skywarp. The two planes still hadn’t been located, and neither had the Stunticons. The Insecticons seemed fine where they were. In a rare show of sympathy, the Combaticons allowed Astrotrain to stick with them until he was picked up by the Decepticons.
“It seems like less,” said Thundercracker, turning back to the window.
It was five days after the curse had taken effect. It had taken that long to rework a jet body-shell into a voice-controlled transport and collect the others. Now the Decepticons were in temporary control of a small meeting hall in a coastal city to plan their next move. Not that everyone was in attendance.
At least Megatron was back, which suited Skywarp fine. Megatron always knew what to do. Not that anyone else seemed to be agreeing at the moment. Starscream had already stormed out, after shouting his usual threats about the Decepticons needing new leadership. And while many of the others were inclined to agree with him, none followed. Megatron got them into this mess, and they would see him get them out of it.
Skywarp took a quick look around the hall. Soundwave wasn’t anywhere to be seen, though Skywarp didn’t blame him. The lieutenant had enough problems right now without having to deal with anyone else’s. The Constructicons had vanished somewhere. Megatron was conspicuously absent as well.
Which didn’t really leave a lot of Decepticons, all things considered. There was Thundercracker, beside him as usual, looking out the window. There was Stormcloud, talking with Blitzwing and Astrotrain. There was Rumble, sitting on the floor with an arm draped around Ravage’s feline shoulders. There was Ramjet, standing stoically by himself in the corner. There were Kickback and Sway, chatting together and occasionally snickering at some Insecticon joke. And Reflector…
Now there’s a weird case, Skywarp mused. He had rather expected the spy to end up triplets, but Reflector the human was only one man. Rather twitchy, always looking about, but still only a single being. Of course, Reflector had always been only one being - he usually had three bodies, but only one mind looked out from behind six optics. Skywarp didn’t know much about him… no one did, really. Reflector was simply there, doing minor tasks and answering in his three voices. Some sort of failed gestalt, or just a bizarre experiment…
A door opened and Megatron walked in, carefully schooling his expression before anyone saw it. Or at least so he thought. Skywarp quickly looked away to avoid getting caught. Great Cybertron, Soundwave must have really put him through the wringer. Justifiable, yes, but Skywarp couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for his commander. Not that Megatron would appreciate the sympathy.
Starscream walked. There wasn’t much else for him to do. Unfortunately, he’d been walking for several hours, and had no idea of where he was going. Or what he was going to do now.
He’d left the city limits almost forty minutes ago, and was walking along the shoulder of a lightly-travelled road. Cars had passed him, and one person had actually stopped and asked if he wanted a lift, but Starscream was too angry to accept charity. Now he was starting to regret turning down the offer.
He shouldn’t have left, not until he had a plan, but Megatron was just being so stupid! He wanted to use the curse, rather than putting his efforts towards a cure! As what always happened when they disagreed, he and Megatron shouted at each other, and Starscream left in a huff. However, this time he couldn’t just fly off anywhere; he had to walk, a mode of locomotion he was learning to loathe.
Lost in his thoughts, Starscream didn’t notice the car until it screeched to a halt, blocking his path and nearly running over his toes. The driver grinned and peeked over his sunglasses at him. “Hey, stranger. Need a lift?”
It took a second for Starscream to return to the present and identify the man. “Rumble. If Megatron’s sent you to bring me back, you can…”
“Ahh, keep yer coolant,” said Rumble, leaning over to open the passenger door. “Megatron didn’t send me, Soundwave did. He hates bein’ human more than you do, and he sent me to help you out.”
“Right. What can you do for me?”
“I can give you a lift.”
Starscream couldn’t argue with that. He got into the car. Rumble waited for him to figure out the seatbelt before getting back on the road. “Where to?”
“I don’t know.” Starscream leaned back in the seat, just glad to have the weight off his feet. “The Combaticons would be the closest, I think, and they don’t like being human… Except they’ve already refused to help us. Is it just Soundwave on my side?”
“Most don’t like it,” said Rumble, “but they’re stickin’ with Megatron because it’s safe. They don’t know how to be human, and he’s put together a fairly tight cover story. That dumb Skywarp’s enjoying himself, but I think he’s the worst case. The Constructicons walked out an hour after you.”
“They did?” The Constructicons were some of the more loyal warriors in the army.
Rumble nodded, not looking away from the road. “Yep. As soon as their gang got back together, they locked themselves in a room for an hour. When they came out, they told Megatron off and left.” He chuckled. “They’re in so much trouble when we change back to our real forms.”
Opening his eyes, Starscream looked over at Rumble. “What do you think of all this?”
He shrugged. “I wouldn’t mind it much, really, ‘cept that Soundwave don’t like it, and… and Frenzy, Buzzsaw, and Laserbeak were inside Soundwave when it happened. They just… just vanished,” he finished quietly.
“I… didn’t know.” While Starscream wasn’t a sympathetic creature and didn’t like Soundwave at the best of times, what happened to the lieutenant and his spy-cassettes was pure horror. In the uncomfortable silence, Starscream tried to distract his attention by rifling through the glove compartment. Pulling out a small folder, he asked, “You have a driver’s license?”
“A fake one,” agreed Rumble cheerfully. “Soundwave whomped up some fake ID for the gang. I’ve got a credit card, too. It’s a little more complicated than what you did.” In the five days between the curse taking effect and the Decepticons re-grouping, Megatron’s strike-force had waited in a hotel… after Starscream had hacked the computer system to say that, yes, they did have a reservation.
Starscream shuffled through the wallet. “This isn’t your name.”
“Duh. How far am I gonna get tellin’ people my name is ‘Rumble’?”
He had a point. Still, a name should imply function and personality. What was an ‘Edward Roberts’? Starscream asked and Rumble shrugged again. He just liked the sound of it, and that seemed to be what humans went by, anyway. “You should put together a human identity for yourself, too. I can call Soundwave and get him to do it.”
“But I don’t want a…” He would need one. Starscream sighed.
“Want to know what the others are callin’ themselves?”
They had to stop at a hotel for a few days, so that they had a fixed address to have Starscream’s identification sent to. And, as he grudgingly admitted to himself, he would never have made it even this far without Rumble’s help. The spy-cassettes, by their function, saw more of humans than the other Decepticons did, so Rumble had an idea of class distinctions and how to act around people.
He did it fairly well, too. A little knowledge went a long way when one had the proper persona. In Rumble’s case, he was a type of corporate scout; his official job seemed to be to tear around the country and do things for his parent company. Humans were easily impressed - and thus controlled - by the appearance of power - Rumble and Starscream were still Decepticons inside, and their former experience and power clung to their human forms.
“Hey, think fast!”
Starscream caught the envelope that Rumble flipped to him and removed the contents. He reviewed the counterfeit papers with a sigh. “It’s official. I’m human. Oh, Cybertron, the entire force of the Decepticon elite struck down by a stupid curse!”
“Relax. You won’t get anythin’ done if you short yourself out,” Rumble said, picking up an apple from a bowl on the table. “Besides, Megatron thinks he’s got a way to use this to our advantage.” Starscream might have been happy to lounge about and mope, but Rumble kept in close contact with Soundwave, at least in part to keep up on events. The Decepticons had relocated inland, for one thing.
The taller man slumped back in his chair and looked at the ceiling. “I know, I know. He told me about it - that’s why I left. Selling our technology to the humans for natural resources to send to Cybertron is just asking for trouble.”
Rumble took a bite out of the apple. “Just minor stuff; no weapons. He’s not dumb.”
“‘Dumb’ is too mild a word. And must you do that?”
Starscream leaned back and closed his eyes again. “Eat in front of me. That’s disgusting.”
“Humans eat socially. Deal with it.” But Rumble put the apple down. Starscream might have had some weird hang-ups, but Soundwave insisted his spy co-operate with him, so he would. “It’s just refuelling. I dunno; pretend you’re an Insecticon or somethin’.”
The other made a rude noise. Starscream hated everything that had to do with the maintenance of his human body, and would put things like eating and sleeping off until necessity forced him to do it. If that wasn’t bad enough, he wouldn’t touch any food that wasn’t processed until its natural form was unrecognisable. He was an absolute nuisance to look after and Rumble several times considered just abandoning him, but orders were orders… “Hey, look, we gotta get going. We’ve been hangin’ around too long as it is.”
Rumble grinned and leaned against the doorjamb behind him. “I’m really a double-agent. Megatron knows I’m with you, but he don’t know that I’m really here to help you find a cure. Still, we gotta do some stuff for him to keep up appearances. Our official assignment is to bail out Thrust and Dirge.”
Collecting up his identification, Starscream asked, “‘Bail out’? Soundwave found them? Where are they?”
“In jail,” chortled Rumble. “They were on an energy-raid when they got changed, and the security staff arrested them. Our job is to give large amounts of money to those in charge and send those dumb cone-heads back to the main force.”
“Ah, bribery.” Starscream felt a little more comfortable.
Rumble shook his head. “Not bribe, ‘bail’. We buy their freedom and it’s all legal.”
“I am never going to understand humans…”
“Lawyer? We have a lawyer?”
Thrust watched curiously as an arrogant, dark-skinned man in a deep red suit pushed past the security guard. “The Company sent me. You may go,” said the man, addressing his second remark to the guard, who glared and left. He nodded to the two in the cell: “Now then, Thrust, Dirge, you can begin by telling me everything you told the humans so that I can begin damage control.”
Curiousity changed to staring incredulity as the former plane recognised the voice: “Sta… Starscream?”
“Very good. Don’t let the humans hear you call me that. Here.” Starscream slipped a small rectangle of light cardstock through the bars. “My business card. Call me this name.” When Thrust’s only response was to stand there with his mouth hanging open, Starscream sighed. “Look, we were all hit with a magical curse that turned us human. We’ve set up base in Central City for now. We’ll arrange transportation for you as soon as Rumble negotiates your release.”
This time, Thrust did speak: “Rumble?”
“Refer to him as ‘Roberts’,” said Starscream shortly. “Now then, I only have a few minutes to fill you in on your new identities. Save your other questions until we’re out of here. Now, what did you tell the humans?”
As it turned out, Thrust had in fact told the police his and Dirge’s real names. However, he also claimed to be a Decepticon warrior and was, for obvious reasons, disbelieved. The idea seemed to be that they were just a couple of nuts who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, so the damage Thrust’s admission could cause seemed to be minor. Still, Soundwave informed them that the Decepticons would keep an eye on it.
Rumble snapped his cell phone closed and flopped back on his bed. “Not too shabby for our first time out.”
Leaning on the frame of the door that connected their rooms, looking past him out the window, Starscream grumbled, “There’d better not be many more times.”
“Aw, come on, it was fun. Even in these squishy little bodies, we’re still better than the humans.”
Starscream glared at him. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were enjoying yourself.” And he did know better. Despite the spy’s upbeat attitude, there were some things that couldn’t be hidden… like the amount of time he spent on the phone with Soundwave, or the fact that Starscream caught him napping a few times and knew that Rumble slept curled up as small as possible, preferably with the blankets up over his head.
“As much as I can, despite wanting to be me again,” agreed Rumble, sitting up. “C’mon, think about it, Starscream: Clothes feel nice, food tastes good, and no one’s trying to shoot us. Even on the business side ‘a things, the Autobots have no idea where we are or what we’re doing, so they don’t know how to stop us. Besides, it’s kind of neat having the humans do all our work for us.”
“Megatron must love that.” He always did have a taste for irony… which got the Decepticons in trouble more than once. Starscream shook his head. People did what Decepticon warriors told them to do because they were afraid of them. Humans would work for them, but they’d run away at the first opportunity. As humans, the Decepticons commanded respect because of the force of their personalities - even the youngest of their number had several thousand years of conscious existence, and that kind of experience couldn’t be hidden in a human shell.
But humans worked for them now. Out of choice. Starscream, of course, didn’t trust it one bit. “Has Megatron a new assignment for us?”
Rumble nodded. “Yep. We’re supposed to head south to start looking for a new place to set up headquarters. Central’s too close to the Autobots for everyone’s liking.”
“Didn’t you once go to the planet where the people could change shape due to a magical pool of water?”
“Don’t even think about it, Starscream. ‘Sides, how’re we supposed to get there?” asked Rumble. He wasn’t going to add that he himself had fallen into the Well of Transformation, and was tricked into becoming a tree. No one knew about that… well, Soundwave did, of course, but he wouldn’t tell so Rumble figured that didn’t count.
They were on the road again, headed south. Rumble had offered to teach Starscream how to drive, but was turned down. It was bad enough that he had to ride around in something that looked like an Autobot. It hadn’t yet occurred to Starscream that he would be very stranded if Rumble ever got tired of him and left him somewhere.
“I’ve got it!”
The sudden declaration startled Rumble, who managed to keep the car on the road, but swerved and scraped along the side of the gray car to the left of them. “Don’t do that, Starscream! Now look what you made me do!” Annoyed, he pulled over to the shoulder behind the other car. Better to try to patch things up now rather than risk a criminal record. We wouldn’t want to draw any negative attention towards ourselves…
Rumble grabbed his wallet from the glove compartment and riffled through it as he walked to the other car. “Insurance information… insurance information… Hey, buddy, sorry about gettin’ Ford on your Chevy… Oh, scrap.”
The gray car unfolded. Rumble jumped back, automatically searching for the mental trigger that would extend the pile-drivers on his arms. While the trigger still existed, it no longer connected to anything.
Fortunately, Bluestreak misunderstood the man’s terror. “Easy, friend. Sorry about startling you like that.”
‘Startled’ don’t begin to cover it, thought Rumble, trying to recollect his wits. This is the test then, Rumble - you’re a spy, get sneaky. Holding back his panic about being in such a potentially dangerous situation, Rumble held up his license for inspection. “Er, hi. This is kinda the first time I’ve been in a car accident. I think we’re supposed to swap insurance information now, but, ah…”
The Autobot grinned and waved it away. “Don’t worry about it; I’ve had worse. Drive carefully - next time you might not sideswipe someone so understanding.” With that, Bluestreak shifted back to car-mode and sped away.
Rumble shook his head and walked back to his car. Starscream was still there, face buried in his hands: “Doomed, doomed, doomed, doomed…”
“I took care of the big, bad ‘Bot. You can open your eyes now.”
Starscream looked up, and realising the Autobot was gone, glared at Rumble. “Of all the vehicles you had to sideswipe…”
“Didn’t recognise me and let me off with a warnin’,” said Rumble happily, pulling back onto the road. “And it was you who made me crash, so there. What were you saying?”
Starscream mentally rewound to the conversation before their literal run-in with Bluestreak. “It should be possible to build new Transformer bodies for ourselves, then upload our minds into them. It’s all just electric patterns.” He chuckled slightly. “We can even give ourselves improvements while we’re at it.”
“Hmm, not bad, I suppose. It won’t help Frenzy and the birds any, but…” Rumble stopped, determined to remain positive. Soundwave was depressed enough for all of them. “Maybe I’ll finally be able to convince the boss to upgrade to DVDs. Except that we haven’t got the equipment for either buildin’ new shells or doing mind-switchy things. We could do it real easy on Cybertron, sure, but we don’t want anyone back home to know what happened to us.”
“We can build the equipment here, on Earth,” said Starscream. “It should be feasible.”
“Uh-huh, and what about Megatron?”
The dark man made a face. “Megatron can go jump off a bridge for all I care; I’ll get my wings back despite him. Still, I can’t create the equipment myself. Not in this form.” Starscream considered that, then said, “Where’s your cell-phone.”
“In the glove compartment. What’re you up to now?”
“I’m calling Soundwave. If anyone can find the Constructicons, he can. And if anyone can build Decepticon shells and transfer equipment despite being trapped in flesh-creature form, it’s the Constructicons.”
To be continued ...