“Shockwave, I have the latest report on the rebuilding in… Shockwave?” Stalker looked up, confused, at the empty room. Shockwave had duties outside the control tower; his absence wasn’t unusual. The tracker shrugged and set about downloading the contents of her notepad into the system.
When Stalker returned from patrol, Shockwave still wasn’t there. He might have come back in the meantime and left again, or whatever he was working on earlier delayed him, and either way he didn’t have to tell her anything. Nothing for it but to get on with her own duties.
This time, Stalker was starting to get worried. She never knew Shockwave to be away from his post for this long before. It might have been nice if he left a note or something… He didn’t like to be disturbed when he was busy, but the tracker was getting worried. Stalker switched on the communicator: “Shockwave, report.”
No answer, not even a flicker. Still, there was a chance that it was nothing… Bother that. If a Cybertronian could have woman’s intuition, she had it. Shockwave was conscientious, she knew, the type of person to report in at regular intervals and, importantly, make a ‘to-do’ list. It was the equivalent of this list that she looked for.
She was right. Shockwave’s last entry in the computer had been made eighteen hours ago: Drain in the planetary energy system in Grid 34-32-68. Lost: Four repair robots, two menials.
Checking the duty roster, Stalker found three sentinels were missing, too. It was obvious enough where her superior had gone. She considered the co-ordinates; they were within levels of Cybertron’s core. Didn’t seem to be near anything important, but anything that could siphon power from the planet’s systems didn’t have to be. It was too early to guess what the problem could be ( a simple power leak? Some new Autobot trick? ), but her duty was plain: She had to go find Shockwave.
However, unlike her superior, Stalker decided there was danger and took what precautions she could. First, she made a full report of what she knew, and set the interplanetary communicator to relay it to the Decepticons on Earth if she didn’t return in six hours.
It was easy to get lost on Cybertron… or, more accurately, in Cybertron. It was an artificial world, first built on a small moon, then built up upon itself. The cities on the surface were built on top of the cities of the last age, as those were built on the ruins of the one before, and so on through the layers. There were no accurate maps for deeper than the fourth layer ( work was done in lower levels, but the menials and such stuck to the corridors they knew ), and Stalker was going to Level 68.
Grid 34-32-68 was about as abandoned as you could get on a mostly-dead planet. And, as Stalker suspected, there were no real maps of the area; the closest she had was the one that simply named the grid-cubes. Well, as long as she was in the area, she could try to map it and figure out what was causing the energy drain. Stalker drafted a sentinel ( strong, armed, able to fly, a modicum of intelligence ) into carrying her equipment, and set off for the core.
There might have been elevators or mass transit tubes, but Stalker opted for the direct approach. On one side of Cybertron was a great Chasm that reached deep into the heart of the world. To Stalker’s annoyance, it only reached Level 63. Still, it saved trying to go straight through the planet. She found an opening and the sentinel followed her in as she landed. The tracker checked her map: Grid 32-27-63 - still a bit of a walk. It would be faster to use her land-vehicle mode ( she was a triple-changer, ) but she wanted her weapons ready. Stalker instructed the sentinel to map their route while she notched doorways ( leaving a trail made her feel safer ) and tracked the energy drain.
At Grid 33-29-68, Stalker stopped. What if the energy drain wasn’t tapped into the planet directly? What if it was some sort of field that would drain her as soon as she walked into it? Or if it was guarded? Well, she mused, that was what the sentinel was for. Stalker collected the map from the lesser robot and sent it ahead, herself following about fifty metres behind.
Stalker had a bit of trouble trying to divide her attention between mapmaking and keeping an eye on the sentinel’s and her own power readings, but managed. Her footsteps sent too-loud echoes down the passage, but she remedied that by hovering. The place seemed incredibly, incredibly ancient. There were mines and such even deeper, but those weren’t so bad because they were in use. This place was abandoned and, well… creepy.
‘Creepy’, Stalker thought, disgusted. ‘Creepy’. You’re a Decepticon warrior, you stupid creature - you don’t do ‘creepy’. You are Stalker, a guardian of Cybertron, and you have a job to do.
33-30-68. 33-31-68. 34-31-68. 34-32-68…
The grid-cubes were actually quite large, built like mazes, and it took a fair amount of time to even get that far, but Stalker knew her existence might be on the line and didn’t let her attention drift on the way. Which turned out to be the right thing to do: Stalker wasn’t caught by surprise when the sound of tearing metal reached her audio sensors from, oh, about fifty metres ahead. A quick look at her equipment confirmed it: The sentinel was no longer giving a power reading. Forget a draining field; it was torn apart.
The tracker moved cautiously. There was probably an old security system down here, and the older the system, the less subtle it was. If Shockwave walked into it… Stalker shuddered. She would have to bring at least a piece of him back as part of her report.
Stalker found a reflective piece of metal and used it to peer around the corner: A hall, long, high-ceilings, enough room to fly if she needed it. Empty but for scrap, including a sentinel. Nothing moved. She set down her equipment, readied her weapons and stepped around the corner.
No movement, no sound. The remains of the sentinel lay about thirty metres down the hall. The next pile of scrap was somewhat beyond that. There was a curve to the hall so she couldn’t see the end of it. Still not moving from the entrance, she looked along the walls where the sentinel lay fallen, and smiled slightly. She had been worried about infra-red tripwires, magnetic sensors, anything sneaky - not several holes in the wall, ranging from an inch to a foot in diameter. It was too obvious… but then, obvious could be sneaky, too. It was never expected.
The tracker hovered into the hallway, less nervous, but still alert. She stopped three metres away from her sentinel. It had several holes in it, simply punched through, corresponding to the holes in the wall. Easy enough trap to avoid; she simply flew over the holes. Stalker counted four more traps like it, complete with piles of scrap that used to be sentinels, menials, or repair-robots.
The floor erupted in white coils.
Stalker shifted as she fled. As a jet, she didn’t have as precise control over her aim as she did when she had arms, but she was faster and much more agile. Get out. Warn… warn the others. Warn anybody. More coils lashed out at her, coils she noticed had barbs on the end. No time for a close inspection. The holes in the walls sprouted tentacles, as she suspected they would, so she was ready for them. The weaving coils were nearly impossible to hit, and a couple managed to tear thin rents in her carapace.
Metres from the end of the hall, coils tore new holes in the walls. One punched through her right wing, then looped back on itself to hold her fast. Another smashed the glass of her cockpit, a questing feeler seeking a way into her system…
She shifted to robot again, brought her lasers in line, and shot off the coils that held her. Without so much as a final glance, certainly not stopping to pick up her map or scanner, Stalker fled back through the maze, up the Chasm, and didn’t stop until she made it back to the control tower.
“That’s the report, Commander,” finished Stalker. Talking to Megatron via the communications screen was easier than dealing with him in person, but not by much.
Expression unreadable he asked, “How much of a threat do you think it is?”
I don’t give opinions. I might give the wrong ones. “It’s tapped the planetary energy grid. The drain has been speeding up over the last several months; hardly measurable, but there. It defends itself with a system too modern for the time of Level 68. I barely escaped it myself.” Please send someone, send anyone, I’m alone up here and I’m scared.
“Prepare the space-bridge. A team will be up shortly.” Megatron signed off.
“Thank you,” she said to the blank screen, allowing herself to collapse back against a console with relief. There was one thing about the encounter with the coils that she didn’t report. It was unprofessional, a feeling, but…
… But there was something… disturbing about the touch of those coils, a kind of pleasure… If she hadn’t been so focused on warning the others, she would have stayed…
Stalker shuddered and went to the storage locker for an energon cube. Terror and flight had left her drained.
“It never rains…” growled Megatron at the blank screen.
“Not underwater, it doesn’t,” agreed Starscream, secure in the knowledge that he was on the opposite side of the room with a large console between himself and his commander. Decepticon headquarters was spacious, high-tech… and quite thoroughly underwater. The arrangement made most of the air force twitchy - beings of the clouds and air tended to be slightly claustrophobic.
“Human expression,” said Soundwave.
“Stupid expression,” muttered Starscream. “Of course it rains.”
It never rains, but it pours, thought Megatron glumly. Trouble never could seem to space itself out. You go through life trying to mind your own business, trying to keep a low profile, trying to collect energy for Cybertron with the least amount of bother, then things start to happen. Autobots smash your solar panels, Cybertron starts to lose power for no apparent reason, and your second-in-command decides to take everything literally just to annoy you.
Well… Starscream could be ignored or chased away, and the Autobots only found one cache of solar panels - You haven’t checked the Mojave or the Sahara, Prime! I dare you to find them! - so perhaps there was only one serious problem after all. Of course, Shockwave had already done all the reasonable things… and was destroyed by whatever it was that was lurking in Cybertron. The description of the thing sounded familiar, but…
Megatron stood. “You look bored, Starscream. Gather the Seekers; we’re going to Cybertron.”
“Imagine my joy.”
Stalker managed to put the energon cube-husk away before the space-bridge opened and the Decepticons stepped out. The first thing she noticed was that Megatron himself had come along. The second thing was the size of the strike-force. Stalker had expected the usual four or five; Megatron had brought ten: Starscream, Soundwave, Skywarp, Thundercracker, and the six Constructicons. The initial thought of Megatron took me seriously! was quickly overshadowed by, Oh, slag, if Megatron is worried…
“Call up Shockwave’s log entries,” Megatron ordered.
The power drain had been minor enough that it was counted as a general fluctuation within accepted limits, at least, until twenty-two hours ago. Then it had hit that magic mark that changed it from Negligible to This May Be A Problem. Following procedure, Shockwave sent a repair robot to check it out. Then four more minor robots, all of which disappeared. Then, presumably, he went to check the problem himself, with three sentinels as back-up. And vanished. Add to that Stalker’s narrow escape and her description of the thing…
There was a reason Megatron brought the Constructicons along, but if anyone asked, he’d say it was to fix whatever was causing the energy drain. Well, it was mostly true.
“Haven’t been up here in a while,” said Mixmaster.
“How long ago was that?” Stalker had met a few of the Constructicons, but only on Earth.
Longhaul chuckled. “About four million years sounds about right.” Contrary to some sources, the Constructicons were created on Cybertron. However, they were rebuilt on Earth; only their minds made the initial journey on the flagship, and it was some time before the Decepticons had a chance to reawaken them in new bodies. Being construction-type machinery on Cybertron made them Autobots by creation, but they were Decepticons by choice. The Decepticon cause suited their temperaments and gave them opportunities that the Autobots couldn’t begin to fathom.
“There has to be a camera there. The planet is lousy with cameras.”
“Perhaps not in the older sections.” Megatron and Soundwave ( respectively ) ignored the chatter behind them, still looking through the files.
Or something removed them, thought Megatron. “Could a power surge be caused to blow out the… security system Stalker encountered?”
“Dangerous,” said Soundwave. “It taps into the planetary energy system. Surge could destroy anything from the security system to the planet itself.” He called up another screen. “System independent from Shockwave’s computers. Override is impossible.”
Typical. “We’ll have to deal with it directly. Once the security system is destroyed, we can work on tracking down what’s controlling it.”
“This is it,” said Stalker with mixed emotions. On one hand, she was nominally in the lead… well, she knew the way down to the hall in Grid 34-32-68, so she was playing guide. On the other hand, she was walking into a dangerous, creepy place. Stalker focused on the pride; she was part of the team. She rarely worked with the other Decepticons and she wanted to make a good impression. Admitting fear was out of the question. “Be careful; they’re fast and can rip through the walls and floor, at least.”
Megatron addressed the group: “Move cautiously, but be prepared for action at any instant.”
“Goodness, I would never have thought of that! But then, you’re the brilliant strategist…”
“Shut up, Starscream.”
They walked. Nothing attacked. Stalker marked distance by the four ( five if you counted the sentinel she brought ) menials she had passed on her first inspection of the area. The floor was torn were the coils first attacked her, but they were gone now. The Decepticons passed two more shattered minor robots without incident.
Stalker wondered why they had only come across six destroyed menial robots since Shockwave had sent out nine. They found those three missing minor robots ( one of each type ), two female Autobots, and Shockwave himself at the end of the great hall. All were bound to the wall by several loops of gleaming white metal. Restraining herself, Stalker kept her approach slow and hissed, “Shockwave!”
The monitor’s single eye flickered weakly. “S-stalker?”
“I’m here, boss. So are the others. We’ll get you out.” She gave a metal coil an experimental tug.
The eye flared suddenly. “Get out! That is an order! It let you come this far!..”
Shockwave screamed. Stalker tore at the bonds, ineffectively. She hadn’t wanted to use her lasers in case she hit him, but a mere laser blast couldn’t pull that kind of scream from him. Stalker took a step back to aim…
… And a white coil flashed by, narrowly missing her shoulder carapace. More erupted from the walls.
It was Starscream who gave the order, but if Megatron noticed, he wasn’t about to argue. Because in the split-second of initial attack, he recognised the white coils with their strange tips. He had thought it was destroyed long ago, but apparently his creature still functioned.
He fired his fusion cannon, but there was nothing to fire at. Destroy one tentacle and another would fill the space. There was no main body to shoot at and no way to guess where it could be.
Scrapper screamed as a tendril plunged into his back. Mixmaster tore it out, tried to pull his fellow Constructicon to safety, and was immediately roped by white coils. Skywarp was also bound, but he vanished and reappeared in a clear space to continue fighting. Two tentacles smashed through Thundercracker’s wing, but Hook slashed the things off with his laser-sword before more damage could be done. A few coils looped around Soundwave, who managed to shift to his small tape-player form, fall out of the thing’s grasp, and shift back before the tendrils could recover.
Fusion-fire lanced over Starscream’s head, and even he was too busy trying to disentangle his feet to ask if Megatron might possibly try to aim a little lower next time. Bonecrusher transformed, ran over a few coils that were snaking along the ground, and was lifted up by more overhead. Stalker and Longhaul found themselves back-to-back until the sound of tearing metal alerted Stalker that her back was no longer protected. Scavenger ran to help him, but Longhaul roughly pushed him away, incidentally saving him from the coils that were about to drop over his head.
It shouldn’t be this powerful! There shouldn’t be this much of it! But it was, and there was, and Megatron had to get his people out of there. “Decepticons, retreat!”
The retreat went about as well as the battle. A coil struck, knocking Hook sprawling, but Thundercracker dived, picked up the Constructicon, and threw him to a clear spot. It slowed him, though, and a tendril smashed into his back and… did something, drained him, and the Seeker fell limp to the floor.
Soundwave was next, not being as fast as the others. Coils lashed out, binding his feet and tripping him, too tight to transform. He took a shot at the tentacles, but another caught his wrist. Only one thing left to do: He reached the button on his shoulder and said a command: “Eject. Run.” A few of the tapes got out before the coils bound his chest. Only Rumble managed to follow Soundwave’s command.
“Megatron! Help!” It was a strange fact, but when he was in serious trouble, Starscream would always turn to Megatron. Or, perhaps not so strange; Megatron tended to be the most powerful of the group, and, despite everything, he was still the closest thing that Starscream had to a friend.
So Megatron did stop, he did turn, and immediately saw that the Seeker’s position was hopeless. Coils wound around the Air Commander’s legs up to his waist, too strong to pull off, too many to shoot through, and more on the way. Starscream still fought, but his optics burned with terror.
I will come back for you. I will come back for all of you. Nothing more could be done and both knew it. Megatron turned and ran.
There were so few of them left…
Skywarp. Hook. Scavenger. Stalker. Rumble. Himself. Once out of the planet and into the Chasm, Stalker had shouted something incoherent about abandoning the others and had tried to fly back in. Fortunately, Skywarp grabbed her before she could cause herself any damage.
It was forty minutes later. The tracker was sitting curled in a corner of the control room, with Skywarp and Rumble occasionally trying to talk to her. The two remaining Constructicons were half-heartedly repairing one another, talking in low voices and sending dark looks his way. Megatron was alone. Usually in a mood this black he could talk things over with Soundwave, or even get into a shouting match with Starscream just to relieve the tension. Not now.
He tried to call the base on Earth, but interplanetary communications were down. So was the space-bridge. Megatron wished he had noticed the signs before, minor systems failures where the… thing had taken over.
He wished the thing had been destroyed in the first place.
He wished he could have predicted the size of the threat.
Mostly he wished he hadn’t turned and seen Starscream’s expression.
Not the look of terror. The one right after.
The look of hope.
Around him, the others were talking: “All that… all that slaughter… I can cut down an enemy without a second thought, but to watch my own people…” Stalker. She was still so new at this…
“His last thought, can you believe that? His last thought was to get the rest of us to safety…” Rumble. Well, at least Soundwave tried…
Shockwave was still alive, after almost a day. Maybe there’s still a chance…
“It was just so… cold. I’m not sure if I… I can handle this…” Stalker. If she were human, she’d be sobbing.
“Look, sister, who did you lose? I’ve known Thundercracker since before the War Academy. He was my companion.” Skywarp. He and Thundercracker had been as close as two Cybertronians could get without being part of a gestalt.
Unless Shockwave was merely used for bait… Not that. It’s not possible…
“Soundwave, Frenzy, Ravage, Buzzsaw, Laserbeak… You want a list, big guy?” Rumble. Soundwave’s tapes were his and his alone, and he was protective of them.
“At least you are still complete.” Hook.
“We lost our gestalt.” And Scavenger. Together, one third of the mega-robot Devastator. Even if Megatron didn’t use Devastator so often in battle, the Constructicons would form him anyway. It wasn’t the sheer power of the shape that they liked, it was the group-mind, a merging of thoughts, being the others as well as yourself.
And they had been torn apart.
“And for what?” sneered Hook. “That thing was the Robo-Smasher.”
They knew. “It was.”
“Maybe… maybe the others can be rebuilt.” Stalker looked up, radiating hope. “As long as the mind is intact, the body isn’t important… We can assemble another strike-force, collect the pieces…”
Skywarp waved a hand at the inactive space-bridge. “You think that thing is going to let us haul in reinforcements?”
“You think they’re going to have any minds left?” demanded Scavenger. “That thing was the Robo-Smasher!”
“We have to destroy it,” said Megatron flatly. “We have to find its body and destroy it.” He hated losing people. If you asked, he’d say it was because it reflected badly on him as a leader.
“Brilliant plan,” snapped Skywarp. “Since Starscream is so conspicuously absent, I nominate me to be Devil’s Advocate: OF COURSE WE HAVE TO DESTROY IT, YOU MORON! But you did lead us on that first strike, which completely blew up in our faces…”
There are many ways to get someone’s attention. Megatron found that grabbing his victim by the neck so they get a good look down his fusion cannon worked pretty well. It did this time, too. “Listen carefully,” he snarled, “I am still Decepticon High Commander, while you are a soldier with a death-wish…”
“He’s right,” sighed Hook. “We cannot possibly get a new leader now. Especially since both Starscream and Soundwave were struck down and I wouldn’t trust the rest of you to lead the way out of a paper bag…” In other circumstances, he might have tried to take over himself, but the gestalt was lost…
“You can shut up, too,” Megatron growled, releasing Skywarp. “Consider this, then: The space-bridge is non-functional. You are marooned on Cybertron. You can stay with me and have a shot at destroying the creature, or you can walk out right now and take your chances.” As speeches went, it wasn’t one of his better ones. But no one left.
A few, long moments passed. Rumble asked: “Um. What’s the plan then?”
“Maps,” said Megatron. “I want every blasted map made of the area. Stalker, see if you can call up Shockwave’s notes again and look up anything pertaining to the energy drain, missing menials, everything. Hook, Scavenger, can you find or remember the plans for the design of the Robo-Smasher?”
“It’ll be different by now…”
“The blueprints will be a start,” snapped Megatron as the remains of his strike-force set to work. They were good people. Decepticon standards allowed for nothing less than the best.
Stalker looked over, apologetically. “Um, Commander? Incoming transmission.”
“From where?.. Never mind; patch it through.”
“Pay up, girls! I knew he’d be there! Trouble this big, it had to be Megatron!”
“Chromia, hush.” The first speaker was off-camera. The second was a pink female Autobot that Stalker and Megatron knew all to well. Elita-1 turned back to the screen. “Having a few problems?”
“Nothing we can’t handle,” snarled Megatron. Damned if he was going to show weakness in front of the enemy.
Elita-1’s face was perfectly neutral. “Incorrect. A force of twelve went in, six came out. Interplanetary communications are non-functional, as is the space-bridge.” The expression flickered for an instant, then: “Five of my people have been lost to whatever lurks around the power-drain. If they live, they must be rescued. A truce, Megatron? I will lend you my warriors on your word that we will be allowed to leave safely once our goal is accomplished.”
Autobots, thought Megatron, can be amazingly naive at times. He said, “Very well, Elita-1. We will meet you at Grid 32-27-63, at the entrance to the Chasm in two hours.”
“Good,” said Elita-1. “Oh, and Megatron? We outnumber you.”
She signed off. Megatron punched a console in frustration. Just what he needed - an Autobot who had been around Decepticons so long she was starting to think like one, the little terrorist… Even if they destroyed the Robo-Smasher, it would be some time before everything was working again, and if Elita-1 chose to attack then, the Decepticons wouldn’t have a chance. But, of course, she wouldn’t. Not unless he attacked first. Lousy Autobots…
“She said five of her people were missing. I only saw two,” said Stalker.
“They were probably being held elsewhere,” said Megatron. “Did you trace the transmission?”
“I tried to. I got through two baffles before she cut off.”
Two hours was given partly so the Decepticons could get the worst of their damages repaired, and partly because they had no idea how long it would take Elita-1’s people to get down to Level 63. Very few Autobots could fly. Nevertheless, the Autobots were at the meeting site when the Decepticons arrived.
Megatron looked them over with distaste. “Only four?”
“Chromia. Firestar. Shatterlight,” said Elita-1, waving a vague hand at three car-people ( light blue, red-orange, and yellow and purple, respectively. ) “We prefer stealth to brute-force, though sometimes the latter is needed. What are we up against?”
“The Robo-Smasher,” said Megatron. “It’s out of control. I take it your maps for these levels are more accurate than ours?”
“Probably. Shatterlight, bring them over.”
“Good. We won’t get anywhere fighting its arms. We need to find the main body and stop it.”
“What will it reprogram people into now, if it’s out of control?” Elita-1 mused.
Megatron glared at her, then returned his attention to the map. “Autobot propaganda. The Robo-Smasher wasn’t created to reprogram. Your people came up with that idea because they were embarrassed at how many of them were joining the glory of the Decepticon cause…”
“No editorials, please.”
“Hrmph. It takes minds,” Megatron explained. “It was an information collector.” And a weapon of terror. An empty husk was more frightening than a pile of scrap. “It wasn’t very large when we first created it, but it seems to have grown. The energy drain seems to centre here,” - he jabbed a finger at the map - “which is where we’ll find it. It will defend itself.”
“I know that area. There are several passages we could use… And we’ll need a distraction…”
“We’ll take the Constructicons…”
“Shouldn’t we be doing something?” asked Rumble to the assembly in general.
“You got any ideas, shorty?” Chromia retorted. “Let ‘em plot; it’s what commanders are for.”
Most of the combined force were lurking in the shadows around the mouth of the hall in Grid 34-32-68, giving each other wary looks and generally grumbling.
“Distraction. I know what ‘distraction’ means,” muttered Shatterlight.
Rumble nodded. “‘Expendable’.”
“That’s the petro-rabbit.”
The plan was simple enough: Skywarp, Stalker, Rumble, Chromia, Firestar, and Shatterlight were to go back to the hall and attack, drawing the attention of the Robo-Smasher. Megatron, Elita-1, Hook, and Scavenger would find the body of the creature itself and deactivate it. “We’ve got the easy job,” bragged Skywarp, but he didn’t sound convinced. “We just have to stay alive.”
Stalker made a face at him. “Easy for you to say. You can teleport.”
Chromia’s radio beeped. “That’s the signal, gang. Time to roll.”
“Run that thing up some big repair bills!”
“Who wants to live forever?”
“Great Cybertron…” whispered Elita-1.
Scavenger looked up. And up. “You know, I don’t remember it being this big…”
The Robo-Smasher had been a spider-like creation with a body eight feet in diameter. Now it was a great white lump, towering into the shadows of the high ceiling. It must have crawled down here after its run-in with Omega Supreme, broken, but not destroyed. It plugged itself into the planetary energy grid to begin repairs and simply never stopped. Finally it started to pull enough power to draw attention to itself, and it caught the first menial robots and learned from them. Then it caught Shockwave, and careful, conscientious Shockwave knew all about the systems that ran Cybertron…
“We have to stop it without destroying it,” said Megatron. “Our people are in there. Find the controls for its arms; that’s what makes it dangerous.”
Elita-1 shoved him aside and shot at a coil. “It knows we’re here! Constructicons, deactivate it! We’ll cover you!”
“How’re we supposed to find anything in this mountain?” wailed Scavenger.
“Shut up and start looking,” Hook ordered, tearing off the nearest access panel. He had no idea where to start, but Megatron and Elita-1 were buying them time and he wasn’t going to waste it. Except… nothing looked familiar. The Robo-Smasher had changed too much, he didn’t know where the thing’s control systems could be. He couldn’t just start tearing out wires for fear that he might destroy one of the trapped minds…
A coil lashed out and would have torn into him if Scavenger hadn’t caught it. “Shoot it, Hook! I can’t hold onto it forever!”
Maybe… thought Hook.
“Oh, and I suppose I’m supposed to apologise for nearly blowing off your arm? Not my fault you were dumb enough to walk into my trap!” Stalker shot a coil about to drape over Firestar.
“Yeah? I’m not sorry for tearing your guns off! I should have welded your legs on backwards while I was at it!” Firestar stomped on a tentacle twining around Stalker’s foot.
“Play nice, girls.”
“Shut up, Chromia!”
No casualties… yet. Logic: Everyone knew what they were up against this time. Duty: No one wanted to look like a wimp in front of the enemy. Emotion: This thing would pay for taking their friends. Skywarp teleported to a spot behind Chromia and strafed the tendrils that were closing in on her.
“Nyaaaaah! Can’t get meeeeee!” A smallish yellow-and-purple car howled down the hall, coils stretched in pursuit, coils that became an easy target for Firestar to burn off. Shatterlight made a tire-scorching turn and charged back into the fray, incidentally knocking Rumble out of the way of a few too-close tentacles. “You look about my size, shorty. Hop on; I got an idea.”
Rumble scrambled onto the roof of the car. “I get it. I’ll just hold up my laser-sword here…”
“And if any nasty tentacles get in the way of it, it’s not our fault! Hold on! Yeeee-haaaa!”
“Wha… what are you doing?” Scavenger’s attention was too focused on trying to keep from getting skewered by the tendril to be able to stop Hook from opening one of his ( Scavenger’s ) side panels.
“Don’t argue. We’re merging. When I give the signal, transform into Devastator.”
“We can’t! We can’t! We’re incomplete!” shouted Scavenger desperately. “Hook, just shoot this lousy thing!”
Hook plugged one of his own cables into the other’s side and felt the familiar dissolution of self as Scavenger’s panicked thoughts flowed into him. “You will transform in your mind when the time is right! You’ll know because I’ll know.” Then he took the writhing coil from Scavenger’s unresisting hands. And let go.
The tendril plunged into Hook’s chest, twisting inside until it reached the mechanical equivalent of his nervous system.
Hook! Hook, I can feel them! I can feel myself!
Be me, Scavenger, but hold onto yourself. You are the anchor.
I understand, but it feels so wonderful in there…
Inside the Robo-Smasher:
The Robo-Smasher takes minds. It downloads them into itself to learn from them. And when it finishes its examination, the mind is discarded into a great void within itself, wherein exists the total of the minds already captured. A captive can hold onto his individuality as long as his will holds out. It isn’t easy with the pressure of the swirling aggregation of thousands of dissoluted minds, knowing how easy it would be to let yourself go and join the collective in oblivion… Not death, but eventual complete melting of identity, lost in the pleasure of mind-sharing…
Unless you’re used to dissolution. Unless you know how to pull yourself out of it.
In other words, unless you’re already part of a gestalt.
Transform and merge! ordered Hook.
The Constructions pulled together; not in body, but in spirit.
I am incomplete. A part of myself is… here but not here?
A part of myself is waiting. I must search the Robo-Smasher and find its control centre. I must leave a part of myself loose so I am not absorbed by the whole.
I could let myself merge into the whole, to flow with it, to be…
No. The whole is too big. I would be lost. Lost, the whole would not matter, because I could not feel it to enjoy it. I am Devastator so I can focus on the task.
A spark streaked by, howling defiance into the void.
Starscream is alone. They are all alone, even here. As long as they are alone, I can save them.
The void was actually empty, but being a graveyard of the mind, Devastator’s imagination made it real. To him it looked like thin indigo haze with a slight sparkle. Intact minds were points of light like little stars. Starscream was an angry red comet, looking for a way out that didn’t exist. Soundwave was a constellation, a blue fire surrounded by little points of light. Another blue star wandered aimless - Thundercracker. A purple star was fading around the edges - Shockwave had been there longer than the other Decepticons. There were others, but Devastator didn’t know them.
What can be downloaded can be uploaded. I must search.
“Hook!” Megatron swung his fusion cannon around to blast through the tendril embedded in the Constructicon.
“Wait,” said Hook and Scavenger in unison. Hook wasn’t the lead Constructicon, but he was Devastator’s head, and now he spoke in Devastator’s voice. “Robo-Smasher is alone. I am Devastator.”
Those lunatics think they can take control by merging, Megatron realised. But could they? And did Megatron really have any choice in the matter? Besides, shooting the tendril now would shatter the linked gestalt, and who knew what kind of damage that would cause to the Constructicons?
Megatron fired, but it was to shear the coil looped around Elita-1.
A tentacle struck out, and the barb blew one of Shatterlight’s back tires. At the speed she was going, it flipped her right over, sending Rumble flying. The Autobot shifted as she fell, and came up with her guns blazing.
Stalker shrieked as a coil ripped a hole in her wing and started to pull her deeper into the hall. The pull stopped as suddenly as it started. “You owe me one, creepy-girl!” Firestar called out from behind her.
“Like I haven’t saved your afterburner already!” Stalker snapped, yanking the remains of the tendril out before getting back into the rhythm of the battle. “You’re not half bad, hotshot. The Decepticons could use people like you.”
“Yeah - DUCK! - right. You lot are a bunch of fanatics.”
The tracker dodged and fired. “I’m getting this from you? We’re the establishment, sister!”
Chromia found herself backed into a corner, and while able to hold off the coils for several minutes, she was quickly getting overwhelmed. Skywarp was closest, but there was no room to fly to her or even teleport…
The Seeker dove, catching up the tendrils ( carefully avoiding their tips ), and when he couldn’t hold any more, he teleported. While he could carry things during a warp, there was a size limit, and he dropped the sheared and lifeless coils from his arms.
Yes. I assumed that because the Robo-Smasher absorbed knowledge, it was intelligent. But it is not sentient. It is an animal and uses its stolen knowledge as such.
I am Devastator. I am in control. I will bring this creature to heel.
Teleportation was a useful skill. Even if a tendril anchored itself in one of his wings, Skywarp could still escape it. It did no good when one finally caught him in the back, barb digging into what was essentially his spinal cord. But he could still warp, could still…
… He didn’t want to.
There was a fight happening, but it couldn’t possibly concern him. Skywarp’s mind filled with haze, melting his will and pulling him out of himself. He wanted to go, it felt right, welcoming… Thundercracker’s out there somewhere… probably bored without me…
The tendril went slack and Skywarp flooded back into himself with a speed that left his circuits ringing. The Seeker fell to the ground like all his strings were cut, and covered his face: “No. No, no, no, no…”
A hand caught him by the shoulder and tore the coil from his back. “Skywarp?”
Stalker. Skywarp glared at her. “Why couldn’t you have let me go?”
“Wasn’t me,” she contradicted. Then, quieter, “I know what it was like. One of them almost got me the first time.”
Around them, the coils that had been whipping around now lay in dead heaps. “The tentacles have stopped! Megatron did it!” cheered Rumble.
“You mean Elita-1 did it,” Firestar challenged.
Shatterlight waved her hands in exasperation. “Someone did it, hooray, hooray! Let’s collect our people and get out of this creepy place!”
Skywarp’s radio chimed. He tapped the button and asked, “Yes?”
“Any new casualties?”
He glared at Stalker before replying: “None, Megatron.”
“Good. Don’t take down our people until I give the order. We’re not finished here yet.”
“Got it.” Skywarp switched off his communicator. “The rest of you hear that?”
“Yeah, yeah.” “Sure.” “Yes.” “Bossy guy, that Megatron.”
Megatron switched off his communicator and walked over to the Constructicons. “Can the others be saved?”
“What has been downloaded can be uploaded,” said Hook and Scavenger in unison. “I will open the way.”
The others cannot hear me. How will they know they can go back?
Stars twinkled in the haze and drifted away.
Transform and split.
The mighty sun that was Devastator split into six small lights.
See you in the real world, said one.
The stars went out.
“Megatron says we can get them all down now.”
“Took him long enough,” said Chromia. “Come on. The sooner we can tear these nasty white coils out of the walls, the better.”
Stalker went to Shockwave first. She did promise, after all. Now that the coils weren’t moving, it was short work to shoot through them. No longer supported, Shockwave fell forward. Stalker caught him and lowered him carefully to the floor, then ripped out the cable embedded in his back. “Boss? Shockwave? It’s me again. The Robo-Smasher is dead. You’re safe now.”
His eye flashed once. “Great Cybertron, the paperwork… Deactivate me now…” he moaned. Shockwave was fine. Stalker went to help Rumble free his fellow tapes.
“TC, Thundercracker, come on, buddy! I need my straight-man back!”
“Quit shaking me; I’m awake.”
“I’ll get Redrider and Moonracer down, Firestar. You get started with these other guys.”
Starscream was awake and his usual self, if a bit hazy: “Where am I? Where is Megatron? Am I your prisoner?”
“Depends.” Shatterlight grinned up at him from where she was removing his bonds. “Do you want to be?”
“Control yourself, Shatterlight,” Elita-1 directed as she, Megatron, Hook, and Scavenger arrived. “He wouldn’t match the furniture.”
“Easy, big guy. Don’t try to stand up yet.”
Soundwave allowed himself to be guided into a sitting position. “My…”
“Your tapes are fine,” said Stalker. “Don’t move. Rumble and I got them down first. He’s with them now.” Because we both knew you’d fidget and fuss and be a general nuisance until they were all accounted for.
The commander of the female Autobots surveyed the area. “The Robo-Smasher is deactivated. Our part of the bargain is complete, Megatron. We will leave you now; our search is not yet over.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” said Scavenger automatically. “Your girls are a couple sections over, in Grid 34-34-68. We saw them leave the void.”
Elita-1’s cool exterior cracked into a smile. “Thank you.” She turned to her people and called: “Autobots! Roll out!”
“You sure I can’t keep him? He’d look real good in my room, in a great big jar…”
The Decepticon Air Commander managed to get to his feet and limp over to Megatron. “What was that?”
Megatron snorted. “A female Autobot.”
“I meant the nasty thing with the tentacles.” There was a long pause as Starscream carefully looked over his injuries. Megatron watched the tattered strike-force pick each other up and assess their own damages. Without looking up from where he was testing a wing-joint, Starscream said quietly, “You came back for us.”
“I always come back for my people.” Pause. Quieter: “Even if it takes a long time.”
“You… you knew what the thing was and you still sent us in!?”
“How was I supposed to know that it would be that big?” Camaraderie with Starscream seldom lasted more than a few minutes before something set the Seeker off again. Hours later, Starscream was very much back to normal.
“What? The great Megatron didn’t know something? Oh, no, now the sky will fall on our heads for… Yow! Watch what you’re doing with that micro-welder, you…”
Mixmaster glared down at his patient. “If you don’t knock off the expansive hand-gestures, I’m going to weld you to the table.”
The strike-force was still on Cybertron, repair efforts for the most part being done on the Decepticons themselves rather than the equipment. Menials were cleaning out the remains of the Robo-Smasher and fixing the energy leak. The Constructicons would double-check it later. Soundwave was trying to get the interplanetary communicator and/or the space-bridge working again. Shockwave and Stalker were checking the planetary systems to see what else was affected.
Starscream was actually one of the last to be repaired. Immediate usefulness was given preference over rank, and while his mechanical skills were fairly high, people like Soundwave or the Constructicons were that much better at it. Those who hadn’t been torn into by the Robo-Smasher didn’t need any specific expertise and had been repaired by assorted menials. Now Starscream growled a bit, but settled his chin on his arms and stopped moving. The Constructicon returned to mending the torn wires in the Seeker’s back where the Robo-Smasher had made contact.
“It all worked out in the end, didn’t it?” Megatron asked, solely because he knew it would get Starscream frothing.
“‘Worked out’? ‘Worked out’!?” hollered Starscream. “More than half of the team was captured and mind-wiped because you couldn’t confess your mistakes! I said watch it with the micro-welder, you lunatic!”
“I said stop moving around! I am this close to sitting on you…”
Megatron leaned against the wall and looked down at the Seeker. “Can’t you complain without the hand-gestures, Starscream?”
“Of course not!” yelled Starscream, propping himself up on an elbow so that he could wave his free hand. “How else am I supposed to express the vastness of your idiocy?”
Megatron and Starscream glared at each other. Then, to Mixmaster’s surprise, they laughed.
“Astrotrain’s report received.”
“Is the base still standing?” asked Megatron. For the most part, the Decepticons were fairly responsible. Unless they got bored or cranky, whereupon they made their own fun, which usually meant a sizable repair bill later. Hopefully Astrotrain had been keeping everyone in line… and hadn’t done anything too stupid himself. He should have left Soundwave or Starscream behind; anything could have happened in two days…
Soundwave looked over. “Affirmative. However, Mojave solar panels smashed.”
“Blast, blast, blast!”
“Yes, it likely went like that.”
Megatron sat down heavily in a chair and scowled. “Don’t you start sarcasm on me. I already have to put up with Starscream parading around and asking if there’s any other semi-intelligent super-weapons I’ve left lying about.”
As usual, Soundwave didn’t reply. He wasn’t ignoring his commander, he was waiting. He didn’t have to wait long before Megatron filled the silence. “I made a mistake. From Stalker’s report, I knew the Robo-Smasher had grown, but I underestimated it. I walked right in, thinking we could subdue it and trace its tentacles back to its body. I nearly got the whole team killed.”
“Almost.” Soundwave said: But we still live. And Soundwave said: It doesn’t cancel out.
“I didn’t hear any alternate plans,” Megatron accused. What he wanted to hear was some variation of, ‘It’s okay; we all make mistakes.’ What he was getting was angry.
Apparently Soundwave was, too. His visor flashed. “We didn’t have all the information.”
The chair’s armrest crumpled under Megatron’s hand, but the noise brought him back to himself. Soundwave felt angry that he was nearly destroyed, Soundwave felt betrayed that he was not confided in, and, worst, Soundwave was right. Fighting with Starscream was easier; the Seeker could be sidetracked and the actual point of the argument made less important than the fight itself. You couldn’t yell at Soundwave because it didn’t have any effect. He couldn’t be distracted and would wait quietly, letting your own words stare at you as they hung in the air. “Next time,” said Megatron.
Soundwave nodded. “Next time.”