The Human Condition
Size does matter. Especially when one is six feet tall and one’s equipment is built for someone twenty feet tall. All their equipment could be set to accept voice-commands, but that only went so far. Skywarp settled back slightly in his chair in the new Decepticon Headquarters - an office building in California - and said, “I think we’re going to have to risk it and call Cybertron.” Certainly ladders could be set up to reach consoles and tabletops in the currently-abandoned underwater Decepticon base, but that didn’t mean they could lift tools designed for much larger, stronger beings.
“We could build a menial, like we made a jet out of a body-shell,” said Megatron.
“Not without the Constructicons,” rumbled Soundwave. It wasn’t true, but no reason to remind Megatron that most of the Decepticons had sufficient technical knowledge for a simple rework job…
Megatron bit back a noise of exasperation. “Then find them.”
“Impossible,” lied Soundwave. He had, in fact, tracked down the Constructicons almost two weeks ago, at Starscream’s request. Starscream and Rumble were with them now - in Toronto, Canada, where they had scammed lab space from the AnnanTech Corporation, - trying to come up with a way to get the Decepticons back into robot bodies. Unfortunately, Megatron would try to stop them if he heard about it; he wasn’t enjoying being human, but he did like how well his plans were going.
The plan was a simple one, and Megatron spent some of his time kicking himself for not thinking of it as soon as the Decepticons woke up from their four-million year hibernation: They would trade some of their technology for natural resources to be sent to Cybertron. None of their more impressive equipment, of course, and certainly no weapons, but many minor things that Decepticons took for granted were the next best thing to magic to a human.
And, for once, the plan was working. Moreover, the Autobots had no idea what was going on. There were still a few spy-bugs in the Autobot Base, and Megatron had made a minor hobby of watching his enemies come up with wild theories about what happened to him. It was a temptation to drop hints or just call them up and gloat, but it was too dangerous.
However, most of the army was ready for mutiny, seeing the curse as the final straw, but hadn’t left because it was safer to stay with Megatron. He had a plan and they had no idea how to function in human society. Still, if there was a chance they could return to their proper forms, they would take it, Megatron be damned. Soundwave himself, ordinarily the most loyal of the army, had been working since the curse set in to find a cure. However, Soundwave could help the likes of Starscream and the Constructicons better from a position of power, so he continued to work for Megatron… mostly.
Skywarp was probably the last one who was truly loyal to Megatron, with no hidden agenda. He was one of the few who actually enjoyed being human. But then, Skywarp had always been… Soundwave searched for the word: Flighty? Hedonistic? He was a being who ran on emotions, and now that he had physical counterparts to those emotions, he wanted to try everything. Of course, Thundercracker was generally miserable in human form, and Skywarp’s enthusiasm wouldn’t be able to hold out forever in the face of that.
Still, Soundwave found it a difficult balance to be loyal to Megatron whilst being disloyal to the current plan. Mostly he tried to make the scheme seem impossible, in hopes that Megatron would give it up. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem as if he intended to any time soon, which meant Soundwave was in just bad enough a mood to make a suggestion.
Rumble didn’t like the Constructicons on the principle that Soundwave didn’t like them, but he found them interesting to watch. Even if they had never been a gestalt, they still would have nine million years of experience with one another. The Constructicons worked with barely a word passed between them, yet each knew exactly where his place was and what he was doing.
For another thing, they were always touching each other. Rarely more than a pat on the arm, but it was there if you were looking. It hadn’t been there when they were robots, or else Rumble just never noticed before. It was the gestalt at work, as well as it could in the circumstances. Talking could cover at least some of the mental bond, but they were used to having a physical tie as well. The thing was, it didn’t fit any human model - The contact wasn’t familial, and was too close to be just friendly. It was intimate, but completely void of any sort of sexual undertones. It was simply something they did, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
It probably was, for them. Contrast that with, say, Starscream, who hated any kind of physical contact. The Constructicons were a gestalt, Starscream was a Seeker, aloof and preferring his own company. Heck, thought Rumble, contrast all ‘a that with me. As a spy-cassette, Rumble was used to spending a good chunk of his time folded up snug in Soundwave’s chest. Now he was fighting the urge to ask someone for a hug. Not, of course, because it would make him seem weak. It wouldn’t - why would a robot have hang-ups about his perceived masculinity? No, it was simply because Rumble didn’t like any of the others enough to want to be that close to them.
There was no gentle way of asking. Scrapper mentally kicked himself - the Constructicons were always open with one another. Just because they couldn’t bind didn’t mean they couldn’t talk to each other. With that in the forefront of is mind, he pushed open the door.
Mixmaster looked up and waved. “Ah, good, if you didn’t come to me, I’d have had to find you. I’ve finished the calculations you wanted.” They were only going to remake one of their forms on Earth - Scrapper’s. He had the combination of technical skill and rank that could get him use of one of the factories on Cybertron, no questions asked. Everyone else could then be remade properly.
The architect took the proffered page, but didn’t look at it. “You’ve been doing… well.”
The chemist’s smile faded. “And you want to know how I’ve managed it. I’m fine if I’ve got something to do. At first I had to focus on adapting to human form, then the Indy job kept me occupied, now Starscream’s little plan, and watching over Scavenger is practically a full-time job…”
“You can’t always be busy,” Scrapper nudged, not unkindly.
“There is… another way,” said Mixmaster quietly. “I started to slip during the break in the Indy job, and accidentally found a way to stay focused.” Carefully avoiding Scrapper’s gaze, he reluctantly rolled up one of his sleeves. The bicep was crisscrossed with a network of scars in various stages of healing. “Pain works. It… it gives me something to focus on or I’ll just sca-sca-scatter. Scatter,” he corrected himself harshly, digging his nails into his palm. “Scatter.”
Stuttering had always been the first symptom of Mixmaster’s strange insanity. Technically, he was never actually sane, but he could fake it - He knew he was crazy, but he also knew what normal was, and, as such, could force himself to act it. The gestalt balanced him. Or, if he had a set task, he could focus on it. Without anything to do, his mind would start to wander, and he would stop thinking about how to act and just give in to his own warped programming. If there were other stress factors, the process was that much faster. It was a slippery slope; in his saner moments, he fought against his madness, but as it took hold, he would give himself up to it. If he was fighting, it was a good sign.
Scrapper leaned down so their foreheads touched, resting his hands on his friend’s shoulders. “Hold on. Just a while longer. You can - we know you can.”
The chemist managed a smile. “Thanks.”
“Remind me to send a nice ‘thank you’ bomb to Soundwave for getting me into this.”
Kickback looked from Skywarp to Sway. “Do we like Soundwave?”
“Hmm, Ravage took a snap at me yesterday.”
“Close enough,” agreed Kickback. “Sure we’ll remind you.” Skywarp rolled his eyes. Insecticons weren’t his first choice for a strike-force, but since it was a stealth mission, they were sent along: Kickback had a knack for talking his way out of situations and Sway was a expert warrior. Skywarp was mildly nervous that he didn’t have his teleportation powers as back-up, but smiled. This would give him a chance to see how good he really was.
Their current assignment was a relatively straight-forward one: The Decepticons needed someone Transformer-sized to work the equipment in the underwater base and make energy shipments. Unfortunately, every Decepticon on Earth was currently human. Therefore they had to find someone who wasn’t a Decepticon.
Skywarp looked at the university’s door from the shadows. “Electronic locks and surveillance,” he said. “Got any bright ideas?”
“I’ve got something better,” said Kickback, retrieving a small device from his satchel. “A Class-Two frequency pulse-modulator override - my lock-pick of choice. Scaled down to human-size, of course.” Just because he was human didn’t mean he was limited to human tools.
“A simple ‘yes’ would have sufficed,” teased Skywarp. Then: “If they’ve got someone watching the monitors, they’ll see it blip.”
“Hmm, so?” asked Sway. “If this, hmm, works, we only need secrecy on the way in.”
“And they might not check a minor malfunction, anyway,” finished Kickback, already fiddling with the device. After a few seconds, he said, “I’ve found the frequency; let’s go.”
“Starting final phase of test fourteen.”
“Who are you talking to?”
Hook jumped, located the speaker, then turned back to the console and continued working. “Hello, Scrapper. And I’m talking to a recording device. I want a back-up of these tests.”
“We ran simulations all afternoon. Everything works perfectly.” Scrapper paused. “Have you found a problem?”
“No. All my trials show everything working at optimum levels. But I want to be sure.”
The architect smiled. “All this for me? I’m flattered.” To the outside observer, Scrapper and Hook were rivals, constantly sniping at one another and questioning the other’s plans. Those closer knew better; both wanted to do things right and needed a harsh editor - of his own skill level or better - to catch mistakes before they happened. Both complained bitterly if an error was pointed out, but they were glad of the system.
“We would be incomplete without you, Scrapper.” Hook stopped to tap a few buttons at his station. “Test fourteen complete. No errors. Setting up the next simulation.”
Scrapper caught his wrists and pulled the engineer away from the console. “It’s late. You’re tired. The equipment might be working at its optimal condition, but you won’t be tomorrow if you don’t get some sleep tonight.”
“One more test…”
“No,” said Scrapper. “Get going; I’ll shut the system down.” The engineer nodded, and reluctantly turned to leave. “Hook…”
“If something… does… go wrong…” He paused, then, quickly: “Take care of the others for me.”
Hook looked back with a faint smile. “Did you really think I wouldn’t?”
“Ah, there’s our Sleeping Beauty.”
Kickback looked up at the stasis-tube. “If you want to try to reactivate her with a kiss, Skywarp, be my guest.”
“I’m spoken for; I don’t need a princess.”
The being in question wasn’t a princess at all - the farthest thing from it in fact, for the being in question was the robot ninja Nightbird. Skywarp turned to the Insecticons. “Is there any way she could be sentient?”
“How should I know?” demanded Kickback. “All I know about her is what little Bombshell told me: He boosted her power, tightened her response times, expanded her martial arts set, and gave her some basic instructions - Steal the World Energy Chip and attack anyone wearing an Autobot symbol.” Kickback shrugged. “If Bombshell installed some learning protocols or logic functions, she might have a rudimentary intelligence. Not sentience.”
“Good. That ties with how she acted,” said Skywarp. Nightbird was a primitive construct by Decepticon standards. It was rather fun to watch her work while she lasted, though, in about the same way that it was fun to watch a dog pretend to be human. However, she was the right size, and since she wasn’t sentient, she couldn’t be a Decepticon. “Open it up; we’ll keep watch.”
Kickback scanned the stasis-tube with his pulse-modulator, then tapped the security code into the keypad. Obligingly, the tube opened, revealing the prone form of the robot ninja. Kickback scrambled up the equipment to sit on her midsection, then opened a panel on her chest to see if he could reactivate her.
The power-booster was gone, though something kin to it was in its place - apparently the human scientist Fujiyama had studied the Decepticon technology and adapted it to suit his robot better. It was just as well; if Starscream hadn’t shot her, Nightbird would have probably burned out within the next hour or so. From what he could see, her motor-relays seemed fine. Kickback closed the panel and walked around to get a look inside her head.
Not knowing exactly what changes Bombshell had done to the original design made Kickback’s job rather difficult. Not knowing the details of human-designed robotics compounded the problem. The beam of his flashlight suddenly glinted off a fine silver mesh, and Kickback smiled to himself. This delicate little network he recognised - apparently Bombshell used a bit of cerebro-shell technology to serve as a type of learning protocol. As Nightbird gained experience, the silver web would grow, connecting various parts of her simple mind. The human scientist couldn’t possibly remove it without destroying Nightbird’s hard drive.
The mesh seemed unbroken, which meant it was probably still functional. “Skywarp,” he said quietly to catch the other’s attention. “I think she’ll work, but I won’t know until she’s had a recharge and I can check the connections.” With a quick glance down the hall, Skywarp left his position to tap in the necessary sequence.
As power flowed into the robot ninja, Kickback checked another hand-held scanner. Everything flowed; there were no tears in the net. He grinned and looked down. “Looks good, Skywarp. I’ll code in her new orders. Once she’s finished her recharge, we can get out of here.”
The Seeker nodded and went back to watching the hall while Kickback set about his reprogramming job. Should be easy enough, a simple voice-command protocol… We’ll key her to specific voices later; for now I’ll just use mine… Absorbed in his task, Kickback didn’t notice anything amiss until a gray hand scooped him up and unceremoniously dropped him on the floor.
Skywarp turned at the sound of scraping metal. “What the… Kickback?..”
Sway ran over to help Kickback, and quickly realised that there wasn’t much she could do. Not against a twenty-foot tall robot ninja. She pulled Kickback to his feet, never taking her eyes from Nightbird. “‘Oops’, hmm?”
“It was nothing I did; she got up on her own.”
Skywarp, who had dealt with Nightbird before, wasn’t quite as worried. He waved to catch the robot’s attention: “Hey, up there! Be a good cybernetic being and lie down again so you can finish your nice recharge and Kickback can finish your programming.”
Nightbird ignored him, methodically removing the various cables and wires that still attached her to the stasis-tube.
The Seeker waved again. “Stop that. We’re freeing you from your human oppressors. You get to work for the Decepticons again.”
The ninja turned. Skywarp smiled. “That’s right - Decepticons. We don’t look like much now, but we’re here to help.”
It turned out to be the wrong thing to say.
“Nightbird?” sneered Starscream. “So a combination of Decepticon programming and human reprogramming accidentally caused her to become sentient. How sweet. Skywarp had better watch out for his job.” Megatron had actually threatened to replace Starscream on a number of occasions, often with less flattering things than a mobile, humanoid weapon. Still, Starscream had been in a bad mood at the time and Megatron just wouldn’t shut up about his new toy… Starscream shook off the train of thought. It wasn’t getting him anywhere.
“It’s more than that,” said Rumble, grinning madly. “She wasn’t just sentient, she was angry. When Skywarp told her who and what he was, she tried to step on him.”
Starscream raised an eyebrow. “‘Tried’?”
“Seems she’s a Decepticon at heart,” Rumble said happily. “Remember what that crazy wizard said - ‘Any Decepticon who would do harm on Earth shall be made flesh.’ So when she tried to step on that moron Skywarp…”
It was some time before Starscream could get his voice back. “She… she turned human! Oh, that’s too… too…” He broke into fresh peals of laughter, and didn’t stop for some time.
Every day, Soundwave found more reasons to hate being human. Currently his pet-peeve was the level of technology. The Decepticons were able to take a few of their toys when they left the underwater base, but most were just too big for them to move.
So it was with human equipment, tied into the underwater Decepticon Base’s systems, that Soundwave performed his primary function: He was a communications officer, after all, and monitoring enemy transmissions was his job.
Today he found reason to be glad of his skill. He tapped a button for the intercom and summoned Megatron to his office.
“I feel like an idiot.”
“That’s your human side talking; you’re certainly looking better,” teased Mixmaster, helping Scrapper put on the assorted transfer equipment. It was blocky and trailing wires, but it was metal and the Constructicons found its aesthetics more appealing than their soft human forms. “In a few minutes, you’ll feel like a new man… well, not like a man at all if all goes right.”
“I hope this works,” said Scavenger, standing behind a console.
“It will work - The simulations worked,” said Hook. “Stations, everyone!”
Mixmaster finished the assorted connections, squeezed Scrapper’s shoulder, one of the few parts not covered by metal and wire, reassuringly, then went back to stand by Bonecrusher. “It will work,” repeated Hook under his breath, then, “Longhaul, activate the machine.”
He hesitated, for the slightest instant, then pulled the switch. “Connections all functional,” reported Scavenger.
“Power levels good,” said Bonecrusher. Beside him, Mixmaster twisted his hands together and muttered under his breath.
Hook nodded and bit his lip, trying to watch his own console and Scrapper at the same time. In theory, the equipment would transfer Scrapper’s mind to the Transformer body they’d built for him. It was possible; thought was just electrical signals after all, wasn’t it? He wasn’t sure what would happen to Scrapper’s human body once the download was complete, though - Would it go into some type of stasis, or would it just terminate, or… He had read up on human physiology, but there was still so much he didn’t know…
The engineer looked back at the read-out on the screen. The transfer was working. Under the equipment, Scrapper’s human form struggled to stay standing, but sank to one knee. The read-out went wild an instant before the architect screamed.
“Shut it down!” shouted Hook. Longhaul quickly obeyed, then ran to join the others around Scrapper.
Hook was there first and had the equipment off of Scrapper before the rest arrived. The engineer sat on the floor, his friend gathered into his arms. “Scrapper? Come on; you’ve been through worse than this…”
“Is he still… functional?” asked Mixmaster quietly.
“Yes, but he’s weakened. And I don’t know what to do!” Hook’s voice was muffled against Scrapper’s hair, and his own fell so the others couldn’t see his face. “Come on, old friend - I’ll never alter your blueprints again if you’ll just wake up…”
“Unngh… Careful or I’ll take you up on that,” grumbled Scrapper. “You’re such a fret sometimes, Hook.”
“You would have panicked too if what happened to you happened to any of the rest of us. And I am not.”
Scrapper allowed himself to be pulled to his feet and be supported by the others, all of whom were either expressing their happiness that he was uninjured or asking questions. “Oof, one at a time. I can’t sort you all in this form.”
There was a brief pause, then Bonecrusher and Mixmaster both tried to talk at once. They stopped, glared at each other, and promptly did it again. This time, Mixmaster folded his arms and looked away petulantly, allowing the other the conversational right-of-way. With a final scowl at the chemist, Bonecrusher asked, “What went wrong?”
“If you allowed me to go first, you wouldn’t have had to ask that,” snipped Mixmaster. “Obviously the curse extends to this; instead of turning Scrapper’s new robot body human, his mind simply couldn’t enter the robot body in the first place. Simple.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“Please don’t fight,” pleaded Scavenger, clasping the hands of the other two as if he could settle their differences through the contact. “Not real-fighting, anyway. I can’t take it.”
Longhaul asked, “Could there have been something wrong with the transfer equipment?”
“Impossible,” said Hook. “I checked over the entire system. Every simulation worked. I physically went over every centimetre of wire twice. I don’t make mistakes.”
“You didn’t make mistakes,” Scrapper amended. “These human brains aren’t as efficient as our Transformer minds were. All the knowledge is there, but it’s harder to access. We forget things - remember your hand?”
The engineer’s automatic thought was to argue, but flexed his hand and decided against it. He’d suffered a burn several weeks ago trying to grasp a hot pot handle, after forgetting he wasn’t a robot. Still, the reminder annoyed him. “I’m going to check the connections again,” he announced, walking back to where the bulk of the equipment was.
“Impossible,” said Megatron. “There’s no way they could have found out. None.”
Soundwave tapped a few keys on his computer and played back the relevant conversation from the Autobot base. Megatron scowled. “How did they find out?”
“Unknown,” said Soundwave. He didn’t like Megatron’s plan, but the idea of being caught by Autobots while human was infinitely worse.
Megatron angrily turned to pace the room. After a few passes, he said, “They might have broken into our underwater base, but we removed all clues to our condition - they would think we just left suddenly.” This included deleting all communication records after the curse took effect. “It’s even possible that they found us as dealers in Cybertronian equipment. But they can’t know who we are. Our aliases don’t even suggest at our true natures. The entire situation is completely illogical - logic could never have told them our condition… The human authorities had Thrust and Dirge for a time, and they admitted their names. Or they could have caught the Stunticons, which is why we haven’t been able to locate them.”
He crossed the room, then stopped, glaring at the wall. “It’s possible that they found the time-gate, went back, and the human wizard told them. It’s more likely that one of our own is the informant.” He looked back at Soundwave. “I know perfectly well that most of the Decepticons are… unhappy with the current situation. One of them might have snapped and informed them before thinking better of it.”
As usual, Soundwave looked impassive and waited for Megatron to speak again. He did: “Everyone has a motive and everyone has had ample opportunity. The culprit isn’t going to be easy to find.”
“If there is one,” Soundwave reminded him. He knew the mood of the crew better than Megatron did and was sure none of the Decepticons would alert the Autobots to their vulnerable condition. Of course, he couldn’t divulge how he knew this without admitting his own role in it. And, frankly, he was just as curious how their condition became known. “Shall I continue to monitor?”
Megatron hesitated, then nodded and left. Soundwave was upset at the loss of his tapes, yes, but then, if he couldn’t trust Soundwave, who could he trust?
It didn’t work.
Starscream sat in his room, face in his hands. Ideally, he should have had a half-empty bottle of hard liquor beside him for the look of the thing, but he didn’t drink.
It didn’t work.
The curse wouldn’t let them return to Transformer bodies. At all. The only cure would be to get Bayorf to lift it, but he had no reason to. They couldn’t even force him to. It was over.
He was chained by gravity in a fragile body that wouldn’t last another fifty years, forced to do disgusting things like eat, tormented by dreams… He couldn’t function as a human. Deep within himself, Starscream knew that. He’d already remade himself twice in his long life, but he had millennia to do it in. He couldn’t do it again, not in this form. There wasn’t time.
Starscream buried his face in his arms and allowed himself to give in to despair. Things had finally started going right for him. He ruled a planet… yes, it was Stormworld, yes, it was more a scientific mission than a conquest, but it was his. His subordinates respected him. There was so much left to do on Stormworld, and he wouldn’t be there for it!
He paused, considering. He could. Stormworld could support human life. He would have to make sure the microscopic life wouldn’t be harmful, but he could call his people and…
… And… Starscream forced himself to stay sitting, to think his theory through: If the curse was specific enough to catch Nightbird - ‘Any Decepticon who would do harm on Earth shall be made flesh.’ - when she tried to step on Skywarp, maybe its effects wouldn’t reach off-planet. He could go back to Stormworld and have his technicians duplicate the Constructicons’ experiment.
Starscream had two major advantages over the other Decepticons: Not only did he have a friend off-world whom he could trust with his life, said friend’s transform was a spacecraft. He wouldn’t have to deal with Shockwave and space-bridges…
There was one problem - Dreadmoon would actually have to come to Earth. If he were noticed, if he were forced to defend himself, the curse would tag him as well. Starscream allowed himself a brief snicker at the idea of his second as a human, but stopped. It wasn’t a condition he would wish on an enemy, much less a friend.
But it might be his only chance…
“So what?” asked Thrust. “Autobots like humans. We’re human. What can they do to us?”
“Aside from step on us?” asked Blitzwing. Megatron had called a general meeting, so the Decepticons had gathered. Given the situation and everyone’s feelings, he couldn’t trust anyone. The choice was either keep Soundwave’s report about the informant to himself or tell everyone - so he told everyone. Hopefully the traitor would let himself slip.
Soundwave had searched the Autobot’s communication records and found the initial transmission: A male voice had simply stated that the Decepticons had been turned human. Of course, the voice meant nothing - any of them had access to flanging equipment… or could even have bribed a human to place the call. Fortunately, it would take a little while for the Autobots to track them.
“They’re Autobots; we’d probably just be locked away somewhere,” said Skywarp. “Not that I want to be locked away.”
Astrotrain snorted and jerked a thumb at a corner of the room. “I want to know why she’s here. She’s not one of us.”
In the indicated corner was Nightbird, leaning against the wall, but somehow giving the impression that despite the relaxed pose she could spring into action at any moment. She was still mute, but she could hear perfectly well and favoured Astrotrain with a dark look. Not that she had yet given a friendly look to any of the Decepticons. Megatron shrugged. “She’s the one person I’m certain didn’t betray us to the Autobots.” That, and the ninja had nowhere else to go - she had less of a chance of passing for human than the Decepticons did. Nightbird may have been built by humans, but she knew nothing of them except that they had locked her away and kept her in stasis. “Nightbird isn’t a problem - the Autobots and our traitor are.”
“Bali,” said Kickback, who waited for the attention to be on him. “We could go to Bali.”
“And hide in a swamp,” scoffed Skywarp.
Kickback shook his head. “Not hide. We’ve done well for ourselves here. I’m sure we can put together a private army. Bali is an island; the Autobots will find it hard to attack, especially with humans guarding it. And we would still have access to our equipment through the Insecticon base.”
“What about Starscream and Rumble? Or the gestalts?” asked Thundercracker.
“The Combaticons can look after their fool selves and we still don’t know where the Constructicons went or where the Stunticons are,” said Megatron. “Starscream and Rumble will be informed and given instructions to meet us there.”
To be continued ...