“Insecticons. Why did it have to be Insecticons? Every time I run into them, I get chewed on.”
For lack of anywhere better to look, Jazz glanced towards one of the wall monitors. “How often has that been?”
“Once,” admitted Skyfire after a minute. “I should think it was enough.”
“Don’t worry; it’s only a recon mission,” Jazz assured him. The Insecticons were in North Africa, according to reports, on a small, primitive island. The island was isolated; this was a pre-industrial tribal population. The Insecticons didn’t seem to be causing any trouble - yet - but the island was inhabited and it was generally a good idea to keep tabs on one’s enemies.
The space-jet’s laugh echoed from the walls. “‘Recon’? As in ‘sneak’? Sending me is almost as bad as if he sent Omega Supreme or the Dinobots.” Thirty feet tall and gleaming white, Skyfire tended to stand out in most places. However, he was one of the few Autobots with both flight and passenger-carrying capabilities. He was also one of the fastest, so despite his appearance, he tended to get roped into sneak missions.
Forty minutes later, Skyfire set down on the side of the island farthest from the village, letting Jazz out before shifting to his own robot form. Sizing up Skyfire compared to the trees, Jazz said, “Maybe you should wait here.”
“One of these days,” grumbled Skyfire as the other left, “I’m going to have a subspace storage-generator installed for my robot-mode, if only to stop whacking my head on the doors at headquarters.”
He knew he was being watched.
Right now, the clichéd, “It’s quiet… Too quiet,” kept playing through his mind. Certainly his own presence would scare off animal life in the immediate vicinity, but he couldn’t even hear any insects - either the Earthly or Decepticon types. Which meant that someone or someones were lurking nearby.
His unseen trackers seemed content merely to watch. That might have suited some Autobots fine, but Jazz knew he should be wary: On one hand, they might not have any interest in fighting today; on the other, they might be preparing to strike. Or, the Insecticons might have spotted Skyfire coming and fled, and the only thing following him was his imagination. The swamp was an eerie place, the sunlight filtering strangely through the thick trees, the only sounds the faint whirr of his own machinery and his steps through the water…
He shook the thoughts aside as too distracting, and kept walking.
Jazz didn’t see the slightest evidence of Insecticon activity - no panicked humans, no chewed trees - until he reached the village itself. Standing twelve metres into the clearing was an Insecticon - Kickback - who was looking straight at him. Arms folded across his chest, Kickback said, “Well? State your business, Autobot.”
So, he wanted to talk. Unusual, but preferable to being shot at… unless the dialogue was meant to serve as a distraction. Jazz quickly called up what he knew about the Insecticon - not much. The Insecticons sometimes worked for Megatron, but were usually found devouring the landscape. Anything specific the Autobot’s files had on Kickback or his friends would be obsolete, dating back to before they became Insecticons.
Jazz stepped carefully into the clearing, keeping his senses open for a trap. Insecticons were deceptively silly-looking creatures - small and strangely organic. Still, they were quick, armed, and could eat through sheet metal. “What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?”
No lie would work, especially since the Insecticon’s pose stated that he already had an idea of Jazz’s purpose. “Making sure you’re not causing trouble.”
“We’re not,” said Kickback. “Go away.”
And, strangely enough, it seemed true. There were no signs of property destruction or human enslavement. In fact, the humans seemed to be going about their ordinary, if primitive, lives. They seemed to give Kickback a fairly wide berth, but were throwing more worried looks at Jazz himself. Of course, the Insecticons might have lived in this area for who knew how long, so they could have been a reasonably common sight.
Still, there had to be something else at work here; Decepticons didn’t just show up on out-of-the-way islands for their summer vacations. “If you’re on the level, you won’t mind me looking around.”
The grasshopper seemed about to protest, but refrained. “Please yourself, Autobot. But remember, these people are under our protection. If you harm any of them…” Then, as if remembering what he was talking to, Kickback snapped his mouth shut and merely stood aside.
It wasn’t a gracious invitation, but it was still an invitation. Kickback obviously didn’t want a fight… and, strangely, it wasn’t to save his own skin, but because he didn’t want to risk the villagers. It couldn’t be for altruistic reasons, so what was it?
Jazz activated his communicator: “Skyfire, the Insecticons know we’re here, but seem to want to avoid a fight. They’ve agreed to let us look around. Get in the air.”
There was a pause before Skyfire replied, with some incredulity, “What am I looking for?”
What is he looking for? What am I looking for? “Anything suspicious. Jazz out.”
Skyfire stared at his communicator for a few seconds after the other signed off. The Insecticons agreed to let them look around? Well, that was certainly nice of them. Skyfire made a face before shifting to jet-mode and taking to the sky.
He went through the entire village twice, careful not to disrupt anything, and very aware of Kickback watching him. Which Jazz - with his training - could use to his advantage. Autobot records said that Kickback was a spy by function, but either his training was forgotten or he was under a great deal of stress given what he’d already let slip: First, the aborted protest when Jazz asked to look around; second, the warnings not to harm the villagers. Since when did the Decepticons respect human life?
For whatever reason, Kickback wasn’t in complete control of his emotions. Currently he just watched Jazz through sullen red optics, but when Jazz went too close to a certain hut, he would… tighten. There was no better word for it. The grasshopper would freeze, relays tensed to attack. If he were human, he’d likely be holding his breath. It was almost a protective stance, in a weird sort of way. Kickback probably didn’t even realise he was doing it.
If that wasn’t strange enough, there didn’t seem to be anything special about the place. It was just another hut. A middle-aged woman was inside, performing some domestic human task. A baby slept quietly in a sort of basket on the floor. There was a cooking fire, a few household items… some were obviously Decepticon manufacture, but it wasn’t anything more threatening than pots or other forged tools - the island culture didn’t have any metalwork of its own.
So the Insecticons were taking care of the humans, or perhaps paying their ‘rent’ with minor tools. And that was all.
Jazz walked by the hut once more, just to see if Kickback would tighten again. He did. So, obviously whatever the Insecticons were hiding was here. An Insecticon couldn’t even fit into the hut. The woman was attending to the baby now, her hands dark against the comparatively pale form…
That was it. Humans all tended to look alike to Transformers, but Jazz had seen enough of them to recognise racial variations. He turned to look at Kickback. “Haven’t you done enough without stooping to kidnapping babies?”
“We didn’t kidnap him!”
The shouted denial startled several humans… and Jazz. “It’s obvious the child isn’t an islander.”
Kickback was poised to spring, but wavering slightly, unwilling to make an attack so close to what was obviously the crux of the situation. “We didn’t kidnap him,” repeated the grasshopper, optics fairly blazing with hatred. “He is mine.”
Which didn’t mean a lot. ‘Mine’ to a Decepticon meant ‘that which I happen to possess at the moment, regardless of how I procured it.’ Still, Jazz felt that Kickback was telling the truth; his denial seemed too impulsive to be a lie. The child could have been acquired in some other way; perhaps the Insecticons killed his parents in one of their raids and actually felt some remorse for their actions. Or some other primitive culture mistook them for demons, gave them the baby as a sacrifice, and the Insecticons couldn’t think of anything else to do with it. Or even that some poor woman left her baby in a basket on their doorstep.
Decepticon mentality was hard enough to figure out; trying to guess an Insecticon’s motives could prove to be impossible. Jazz signalled Skyfire, then walked back to the rendezvous point.
Skyfire had been waiting when Jazz arrived, and for twenty minutes they batted theories back and forth. The child must have been kidnapped… so why did Kickback deny something so obvious? He wasn’t stupid - did he think that bluff and bluster could trick the Autobots? But he wasn’t lying. He couldn’t have been lying… but did normal non-verbal clues apply to beings as strange as the Insecticons?
Around and around and around and still Jazz couldn’t make sense of it. “Unless… no.”
Jazz shook his head. “I was just thinking… Kickback said the child was his, strong emphasis. The Decepticons were human for several months. You’ve got the scientific training, Skyfire - could he have meant it… well… literally?”
The space-jet considered that. “They were only human for four months. Human gestation is nine. Of course, the mother may have been a proper Earth human, and thus unaffected when the Decepticons themselves changed back. Or else the female Decepticon held her human shape until the child was born. Certainly this is the first Decepticon activity we’ve heard of since they became Transformers again; there was time.” Skyfire paused. “Goodness, that’s weird.”
“It fits,” sighed Jazz. “Why else would Kickback be so protective?” Decepticons, despite their faults, tended to look after their own.
“It leaves us with a rather unpleasant question, though: What do we do? If Kickback is the child’s… progenitor… we have no right to take him away,” Skyfire said. “And you said the Insecticons seem to be taking good care of him.”
Jazz sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I know, but it doesn’t seem right.”
“I, for one, intend on reporting that they’re doing nothing untoward.”
The dragonfly shifted, and Sway landed beside Kickback. She tapped him on the shoulder and said, “They’re, hmm, gone. How did it go?”
Kickback’s head was cocked to the side, as if listening. At the touch, he straightened and grinned. “Jazz was so busy lurking around that he didn’t notice the bug I planted on him.”
The grasshopper chuckled and cracked his knuckles in a human gesture of self-satisfaction. “I still got it - those two idiots bought it. Call Tangleweb and tell her to inform the Maharajah that his son is perfectly safe, and will remain so for as long as he lends his solar power station to Decepticon use.”