All But Less Than He
…And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater?…
Starscream stood on the bluff, looking out over his domain. For once it wasn’t raining, but the clouds were still thick and dark above him, stretching as far as he could see. It was almost as if a great violet dome spread over the world, soft and smothering and heavy…
The Seeker shook those thoughts aside. Most jets were at least mildly claustrophobic, but this was ridiculous. As if to prove to himself that the sky was still his, Starscream threw himself off the cliff, shifting as he fell, to pull up just before he hit the waves below. He arced into a steep climb, smashing through the clouds, temporarily scattering them, reminding the world and himself just who ruled the skies.
The top layer of the clouds exploded outwards as Starscream ripped through them and into the brilliant sunshine. Nothing could be seen but the sky above and the purple carpet of clouds below. Even with all of space around him, Starscream still couldn’t shake his feelings of unease.
It annoyed him. Things were finally coming together. There had been problems: The weather, assorted crewmembers making general nuisances of themselves, the detail that they were still going through more energon than they should be - it didn’t matter, not here, but it still annoyed him, - M-03 turning out to be a sentient killer Deceptitraan… the fact that he’d admitted to some things that he’d have preferred to keep secret. At least Dreadmoon hadn’t tried to ask him any more questions since then. Starscream didn’t mind the fact that someone, someone was finally loyal to him, but the monitor could be downright stifling in his concern. As if Starscream needed someone to look after him!
Everything is fine, he told himself sternly, twisting in the air to dive again. The satellite works. The crew have been behaving themselves. Once we get the space-bridge working, we’ll be able to import the parts needed to set up a proper energon factory, and I’ll be able to declare Stormworld conquered and rejoin the main force on Earth.
So why do I feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop?
Not feeling much better for his flight, Starscream dove back through the clouds and went back to headquarters. Dreadmoon waved him over when he entered the control room. “Starscream! Are you any good at space-bridge calculations?”
“Are you kidding? No one understands hyperspatial mathematics except Shockwave, and I think he fudges it half the time,” Starscream said, leaning over Dreadmoon’s shoulder to look at the screen display. “Stuck?”
Dreadmoon snorted. “It always seems to make sense while Shockwave’s explaining it, but the second I try the calculations on my own, my hard drive freezes. I’ve been tempted just to take a break and chart a hyperbola matrix or something just to prove that I still have basic math skills.” He sighed. “Should I just give in and ask him for help, or do you want to take a shot at it?”
“In theory, all the information should be there,” said Starscream, tapping at the console. “We just need to take Shockwave’s data and compare it to our astrometric surveys to find the ideal location for the space-bridge receiver…” He trailed off.
The monitor waited what he determined to be a tactful amount of time before saying, “You’re stuck.”
“I’m not stuck.”
“You’re stuck. Don’t worry; Vapourtrail couldn’t get her head around it, Lightseeker asked if the whole thing was a joke, and Shrillcry accused me of making it up as I went along,” smiled Dreadmoon. “I’ll see if I can convince Shockwave to look over our information and do the calculations himself.” The Operations Commander would be annoyed at the extra work, but would balance that against the smugness of proving himself smarter than the Stormworlders.
Dreadmoon went to another console, leaving Starscream to curse at the hyperspatial calculations. After a few minutes, he pulled the front panel off the computer, fiddled with it, and tried the call again. “Erm, Starscream…”
“Our long-range communications system is fritzing.”
“Oh, for the… Let me see that.” Dreadmoon stepped aside so Starscream could look at the computer himself. “Nothing looks wrong,” he grumbled after a minute. “And I can contact the satellite, but it can’t contact Cybertron. When did we last use it?”
Dreadmoon quickly checked the logs. “Twenty-one point three hours ago.”
And it could have happened anywhere between then and now. “Find Vapourtrail and tell her to go check it out. I’ll double-check the system down here.”
The monitor started out, then paused and turned. “M-03 was the one who programmed the satellite. Could she have..?”
“There’s no way for her to have tapped the system from the brig, and no reason to have put a timed destruction device in it,” said Starscream. “Get going.”
There was something in the sky…
It would be impossible to describe what he saw, for he didn’t truly see. Nor hear, nor smell, nor taste, nor touch. It could be said that he felt and, perhaps more importantly, that he recognised. These things took time.
He was patient, but only because he had never learned impatience.
He wasn’t alone. A great… something had crept up on the tempest-world, then engulfed it. And with this strange shadow came… others.
At first, he thought they might be others like himself - certainly Stormworld would have been a perfect place for such things - but he quickly learned different. Still, he was nothing if not adaptable.
In a way, he had learned from the best…
Starscream didn’t think it was possible that M-03 was jamming their signals, but Dreadmoon didn’t want to overlook even the most remote possibility. Vapourtrail had checked the satellite herself and reported that everything was in working order; at least, she couldn’t find any problems. More disturbing was the fact that her own radio couldn’t reach Cybertron, either - the satellite was only to cut through the atmospheric interference; it was the base’s communicator that was the actual radio.
Which meant that it probably wasn’t M-03’s doing. Still, communications black-out was the first thing that happened before Skyvortex’s crew went insane, and M-03 was there when it happened so she might at least have some sort of useful information. Dreadmoon stepped into the brig, but kept well away from the bars of the cell. Without preamble, he said, “We can’t contact Cybertron.”
“What?” M-03 ran to the bars, her usual calm demeanour shattered. “That’s how it started! Communications failure, then madness!”
Dreadmoon stayed back. “Were there any other signs?”
“I don’t know. There might have been minor ones, but by the time I awoke to sentience, Skyvortex’s people were already going insane. I replaced Memory during the confusion; all I know of the earlier situation, I know through her memories - and since she was low-ranking, she knew very little.”
The monitor tilted his head slightly, confused. “You became sentient while everyone else was going insane? Not before?”
M-03 waved her hands in frustration. “You think there’s a connection? Suddenly I’m self-aware and everyone else is trying to kill each other! If this ship still flies, we’ve got to get off of this planet!”
“We can’t leave,” Dreadmoon countered. “It might be a microbe or something else communicable that causes Stormworld madness, and we don’t want to infect the rest of Cybertron. Besides, the answers will be here.”
“Decepticons are idiots!” howled M-03. “Please, Dreadmoon! You were right about some things; I did destroy Memory so that I could use her shell, and I killed the five of the rescue party to use their energy for my own hibernation, but that was all for survival! I could have destroyed you when I first escaped, I could have killed you all, but I didn’t! I’ve fought too hard to die insane! Dreadmoon…”
The monitor snapped, “What killed Skyvortex’s crew?”
“I don’t know!” wailed M-03. “I don’t know! I just know it’s all happening again!”
The lights in the control room flickered and one console erupted in a shower of sparks. Starscream turned, weapons ready, but relaxed when he recognised the smoky form of Razorshift-in-phase. Not that he was pleased. “If this isn’t important, warrior, you’re fixing that.”
Razorshift’s outline sharpened and filled in, and he saluted out of habit. “It is important. It’s Lightseeker… or, at least I think it’s her. The colours seem right and there’s not much…”
With a growing feeling of dread, Starscream asked, “What happened to her, Razorshift?”
“She’s dead. At least I’m pretty sure it’s her…”
It was worse than he thought. Given Razorshift’s sketchy report, Starscream had expected some pretty severe mutilations. He didn’t expect that the Insecticon would be spread throughout an entire hall - the largest piece wasn’t much bigger than his hand. Razorshift had been right; it was Lightseeker. The pale green and gray metal might have belonged to Vapourtrail, but a quick scan of the debris proved it to be the alloy of a Coleop Insecticon shell.
Starscream’s sensors swept the corridor, and he scowled. “No residual energy readings, except her own. She’s been dead for about four hours.” Not long enough for anyone to notice her missing, not with a crew so thinly spread.
The black Seeker picked up one of the larger bits of metal. “No shear lines or burn-marks on the edges, either. She was…” Razorshift trailed off, but his training kicked in again. “She was torn apart. Sir.” This wasn’t his kind of situation. Razorshift was designed to shoot enemies out of the air, not trip over bodies in disused corridors.
“That’s no help. Any of us are strong enough to do so. Except maybe Gadget,” Starscream corrected. He stood up. “Cordon this area off until further notice. I’ll send Dreadmoon down to have a look at the crime scene; he’s had some experience with this sort of investigation.”
“How do you know Dreadmoon didn’t do it?”
“How do I know you didn’t?” Starscream countered, not maliciously. Razorshift’s paranoia was valid. “I’m going to go check the security logs.”
M-03 looked up in surprise when the cell door opened and was held that way by Dreadmoon. “Get up,” he said quietly. “I don’t trust you, but I do believe you.”
She rose to her feet, but didn’t move to leave. “What changed your mind?”
“Lightseeker is offline. Destroyed. You’re the only one who couldn’t have done it. Everyone else had the opportunity.”
M-03 stepped forward, but stopped. “How do I know you didn’t destroy her?”
The monitor opened his mouth to reply, then stopped, considering. Finally he said, “As the only one who couldn’t have done it and as the only one with experience on Stormworld, you would probably be the greatest threat to whoever did do it. If I wanted to destroy you, I would have shot you from across the room rather than coming close.”
It sounded logical enough, but… “How do I know that Lightseeker is dead at all?”
Her paranoia was rational enough. Dreadmoon considered his options, found one, and didn’t like it. “You have contact telepathy, correct? You can tap into any machine and extract what you want?” M-03 nodded. Dreadmoon continued, “I don’t trust you, but I need you. Reach into my mind; you’ll know that I’m telling the truth.”
“No. No, the offer alone is enough,” said M-03 eventually. “I’ll help you.”
“Thank you.” Dreadmoon stepped back out of the doorway, motioning for the other to follow. “I could take you to the crime scene, but I’m not sure what you could get out of it. There were no cameras in that corridor and most of us would be strong enough to… destroy the body as much as it was.” The moth had been literally torn apart. Normally Dreadmoon wasn’t disturbed by the husks of the dead; they were just collections of parts, after all, no worse than looking at a scrap heap. Besides, hadn’t he been a warrior for almost two million years prior to taking on more administrative duties? He had caused enough destruction in his time. One more body shouldn’t worry him.
But… this was different. Lightseeker wore the Decepticon symbol, she worked for the cause, but she was no warrior. She was a scientist, and should have had a long, uneventful existence. Besides, Dreadmoon liked the chipper little Insecticon. She was honestly helpful, which was a hard quality to find in the Decepticon ranks.
M-03, lost in thoughts of her own, suddenly asked, “Has her body been smelted yet?”
“Then I might have a chance,” said M-03. “Her brain is still a computer, even if her life is extinguished. If there’s enough of her hard drive left, if I can access her last memories… If she knows who destroyed her, I will as well.”
The Seeker turned at Dreadmoon’s voice and scowled. “Why did you release M-03?”
“I needed her help investigating Lightseeker’s death,” explained the monitor, moving slightly to place himself between his commander and the Deceptitraan. “She was able to tap into Lightseeker’s hard drive and access her memories. Starscream, she was killed by Shatterwing.”
“Shatterwing?” The quiet one. Of course. Isn’t it always the one you least suspect? Starscream thought, then, Frankly, I didn’t have any specific suspect in mind. “How do I know she’s telling the truth?”
Dreadmoon made an exasperated noise. “What would she gain by lying? Besides, she was locked up; she couldn’t have done it herself!”
“I have killed, true,” said M-03. “But I did not harm the Insecticon or any other in your crew.”
“All right, all right!” shouted Starscream. “I’ll believe you.” He reached over to a computer console and called up the duty roster. “Shatterwing is on cartography duty in the west. He signed out properly, so he can’t have totally snapped. Still, he could have signed out, killed Lightseeker, then left. He must know we’ve found her by now, though he has no reason to think we suspect him. Shift’s over in ninety minutes. We’ll wait for him to return… No. I don’t want him running loose; he might attack one of the others on shift. I’ll send out a general recall; once he returns, we’ll grab him.”
“He might not return,” said Dreadmoon quietly after Starscream sent the signal.
Starscream snorted. “Then we’ll trace him through his communicator. Besides, where does he have to go? If he wants to refuel, he has to come back.”
“Shatterwing is suicidal,” Dreadmoon reminded him. “He joined the Cybertronian Guard to die, but then Cybertron went into stasis and he never had a chance to. So he came here.”
“So when did he decide to become homicidal as well?” challenged Starscream.
M-03 said, “The madness of Stormworld, commander. That which decimated Skyvortex’s crew. If he has it, his actions cannot be predicted.”
“But what is the ‘madness of Stormworld’?” Starscream demanded. “Skyvortex had no idea, and he was much better equipped to look for an answer. Certainly the place is ugly and depressing, but it shouldn’t have that kind of effect on us! I’ve read the first expedition’s reports so many times I could set them to music, and they could find nothing; not weird energy fields, not radiation, not microbes, not sabotage, not anything! Great Cybertron, by the end, they were starting to think the planet was…”
The Seeker’s words were cut off by his own scream. His body arched back as if electrocuted, sending him crashing to the floor.
Dreadmoon and M-03 were by him in seconds, trying to quiet his thrashing, when Starscream went suddenly limp, light gone from his optics.
Starscream tried as best he could to quell his panic and think rationally, but it wasn’t easy. Whatever hit him had struck with the full force of a storm, concentrated into one bolt. Now he couldn’t see or hear or feel his body…
No, he could. The shock had driven rational thought from him, but now he realised that he knew the strangely claustrophobic feeling of being trapped within himself - Starscream was in stasis-mode.
He hated stasis. Most Transformers simply sank into a peaceful coma while their systems went into power-save mode, but for reasons he didn’t know, he didn’t. Starscream’s mind was always conscious, even when his body wasn’t. Yes, there had been instances of proper oblivion, but only in extreme circumstances. He was infinitely glad that he was damaged badly enough when the Decepticon ship crashed on Earth that he was unconscious for the four million year hibernation.
So now his body slept and he was trapped in it. He hoped he didn’t have long to wait. Last time he slipped into stasis-mode, he got caught in a twisted memory-loop and had thought himself buried under ice. This time, he decided, he would focus on the present…
It was about then that Starscream realised he wasn’t alone.
There was no sight here, but he felt the other’s smile. There was no sound, but the other whispered: Remember meee?
“Mourningstar.” Then it sunk in. “Mourningstar! But… but… I destroyed you!” Quite thoroughly, he had thought. Getting one’s head blown off by Megatron’s gun-mode was usually enough to stop anyone.
Destroyyyed? asked the mocking whisper. What is death when one has the will to surviiive?
Verrry nasssty what you did to meee, shooting me like that. Not neeearly as nasty as what you did to my fellow Huntersss or to my creator Frosssttalon. The Hunter’s pattern swirled around Starscream, binding him. It took me a long time to realissse what had happened to meee, but I figured it out. Actually, I thought you figured it ouuut, once or twiiice.
“The poltergeist effects,” said Starscream, falling back on a human word. Of course, if non-corporeal Mourningstar wanted to affect the physical world, he had to get physical energy from somewhere… like from Starscream’s crew. Which was why they were going through more energon than expected - Mourningstar was draining them to pull his little tricks.
Starscream tried to lash out, but Mourningstar’s essence settled around him like a shroud, smothering his will. He tried to push the intruder away, but it was like trying to fight smoke. We cannot both exist, Starscreeeam. You know that.
He did. Mourningstar was not a clone, but a being designed directly from Starscream’s mental patterns. Starscream couldn’t stand the thought of not being unique, and as such, neither could Mourningstar. “What do you want?”
Mourningstar’s laugh shuddered through Starscream. Your body, my prototype. Mine was destroyyyed. I considered being remade, but my true form is too recogniiisable. So I will assume yourrr form and identity.
“You can’t do that!” howled Starscream. He might as well have been shouting into a hurricane. “You’ll be found out! You might be based on me, but you’ll never be me!”
So who wants to beee you? asked Mourningstar.
“Dreadmoon and the others will destroy you!”
The Hunter’s chuckle manifested as cool, oily pressure: What makes you think that theyyy will be themselllves?
“He still functions.”
“I know that; I’ve got sensors, too,” snapped Dreadmoon. Still, it was good to hear it from an unbiased source. And, though it was irrational, he shook the Seeker slightly and commanded, “Starscream! Snap out of it!”
M-03 bit back a sigh. “He can’t hear you. He’s in stasis-mode.”
“Can you pull him out of it?”
“Maybe,” she admitted, leaning closer to let a cable tap into Starscream’s system.
It was like a wall reared up and hit her in the face. M-03 visibly recoiled, breaking the connection. “He’s… He’s blocking me,” she managed after a minute. “I don’t know how. It should be impossible…”
“What do you mean?” shouted Starscream, knowing full well that shouting would do no good, but that he had to do something. “What have you done to my people?”
I? Iii will do nothiiing. Though, whispered Mourningstar, I could take any of their bodies easilyyy; I practiccced on Cybertron. He paused, considering. I might like to take the form of your seconnnd instead. He is a pretty creaturrre, and I can alwaaays destroy you rather than possess you…
“If you so much as give Dreadmoon a bad look, I’ll…”
The Hunter’s delighted laugh shimmered in the air. So protective of one you won’t even acknowledge aloud as a friennnd. But thennn, it’s not like you’ve had much luck with friendsss, and it’s been such a long time since you took a compannnion…
Starscream snarled. “It’s me you want. Leave him out of this.”
Very true. Very wellll. The air sighed, but brightened. But Iii need do nothing to your friennnd. Do you think you are alone on this world? Not all life is visible, Starscreeeam. Certainly you felt their presennnce? They riiide the lightning.
He did, now that he thought about it. The strangely claustrophobic feeling he felt as he surveyed the sky, the strange feeling of being watched, but he had dismissed it, thinking himself a victim of stress. Lightseeker might have been able to tell them more… which was why she was targeted for destruction.
A wassste, sighed Mourningstar. The lossss of a perfectly good body. Unfortunately, with her skills, she might have detected the Whisssperers. She could detect meee, though she didn’t know it; she thought Iii was you.
The Whisperers have promised to leave your body to meee if I help them take your crew. Now, then, stop your struggling. I am a Hunter; I am you, but betterrr. You can’t win.
The mental vice tightened. Starscream was near panic; he only defeated Mourningstar the first time because he had help. Alone, he had no chance against a Hunter; Mourningstar was stronger, faster, more powerful…
Starscream paused. Physically, Mourningstar was his superior. Here, in the mind, they were even. They were, in the end, the same person…
… Or were they?
The Seeker gathered his will and lashed out, scattering the Hunter’s essence. There were differences. Mourningstar was him, yes, but… younger. When Frosttalon created his Hunters, he stripped them down to their core personas so that he could bend them to his will. Mourningstar hadn’t Starscream’s experience, hadn’t remade himself from the ashes of betrayals and losses and defeats, hadn’t been forced to hold on to his sanity for thousands of years of total sensory-deprivation…
Their will to survive was equal, but only Starscream had actually been forced to test his resolve. The smoky pressure that was Mourningstar dispersed into the void with a thin wail.
Suddenly conscious, Starscream sat up and immediately regretted it when his stabilizers complained and set his head spinning. Two sets of hands caught him and helped him to his feet. “Dreadmoon? M-03?” At least, please let it be them…
“I’m here, Starscream. What happened?”
Running on the assumption that a malevolent non-corporeal intelligence couldn’t fake Dreadmoon’s usually annoying concern, Starscream said, “Mourningstar was here.”
Dreadmoon knew the story. “Mourningstar is dead.”
“He survived. Somehow his mind managed to survive. I chased him off… Too much to hope that I destroyed him this time…” Starscream groaned and would have collapsed if the other two still weren’t holding him.
The monitor and the computer engineer exchanged glances: There’s no such thing as ghosts. Paranoia was one of the symptoms of the madness that destroyed Skyvortex’s crew.
The Seeker glared at them. “I saw that look. I’m not losing my mind. Despite the destruction of his physical body, Mourningstar’s mind has managed to survive as a disembodied intelligence. I don’t know how.” Starscream paused to gather his thoughts. “There’s something out there, in the storm; some sort of energy creatures that Mourningstar calls the ‘Whisperers’. They’re what destroyed the first expedition. Mourningstar befriended them. Because he’s non-corporeal himself, he was of no use to them. They need physical bodies if they want to affect the physical world.”
“Bodily possession,” murmured M-03. “So why haven’t they taken us all yet? Walls couldn’t stop them.”
“They ride the lightning,” Starscream explained. “That’s how the Whisperers can get into Transformer systems. Shatterwing must have been struck.”
“That’s better than it could be, then,” said Dreadmoon. “Crowbar, Gadget, Shrillcry, and M-03 wouldn’t have had a chance to be struck, since they’re rarely outside. Same with Lightseeker; they couldn’t just possess her to get her out of the way because they’d never have a chance. That leaves you, Razorshift, Vapourtrail, Sway, and, unfortunately, me.”
Starscream chuckled grimly. “Not me; Mourningstar wanted me for himself. There’s an easy way to find out if anyone else might be possessed, though.” He activated his radio. “Starscream to Crowbar. Has anyone been in for repairs in the last, hmm, five days?”
The radio responded, “Yes.”
Biting back a groan, Starscream tried, “Who were they and what damages were caused them?”
“Vapourtrail; had a few scratches on her gauntlets. Shatterwing; burns on his shoulder carapace. Shrillcry; dropped a box on her foot. Happy?”
“Ecstatic.” He closed the connection. “There. At least we know there isn’t anyone else. We’ll need to come up with a way to block them or stop them. If Shatterwing comes back, we might be able to figure out a way to get the Whisperer out of him.”
Silence fell for a few moments, Starscream, Dreadmoon, and M-03 each lost in their own thoughts. Eventually Dreadmoon said, “It doesn’t have to be a Transformer system, does it? They could take over any piece of machinery, right?”
“Probably,” said Starscream slowly. “No reason that they couldn’t.” Then, reluctantly, “Why?”
Dreadmoon twisted his hands together nervously. “The base gets its power through a lightning rod…”
Down the hall, something exploded, causing the station to rock. Breaking into a run, the others close at his heels, Starscream demanded, “You just had to say that, didn’t you!?”
To be continued ...