[Crown the Empire] Reign 04

When Ratchet showed up outside Decepticon Headquarters in New Iacon, flanked by two obvious soldiers, and a deep-set scowl on his face, Starscream felt a twinge of aggravation. A helmache, if you would, building at the back of his processor.

He really didn’t want to deal with this today. But Grimlock was otherwise occupied, Cyclonus was off-shift, and while Starscream could foist this off on Thundercracker, his wingmate didn’t have the access codes to the brig. Also, the Autobots were getting impatient, Ratchet was done with delaying care and really, one did not deny the Hatchet anything when he had a legitimate concern.

Starscream planted a smile on his face. “You’re right on time,” he said, trying not to cut his gaze at the two mechs who were obviously Ratchet’s escorts.

“It wasn’t my idea,” the Autobot CMO growled. His gaze shifted to the slim blue mech on one side of him, and the brightly painted brat on the other. “You two wait out here.”

“Uh, Magnus said not to let you go in there alone,” the flame-colored mech said. He shifted from pede to pede and gave Starscream something of a nervous look.

The blue mech beside him nodded in solidarity.

“Oh, for Primus’ sake.” Ratchet rolled his optics and whirled toward them, planting his hands on his hips. “You think that I am incapable of defending myself, is that it? You think I can’t handle one screechy Seeker?”

“Hey,” Starscream said with a lazy drawl. “I resemble that remark.”

Ratchet snorted.

“But Ultra Magnus said–”

Ratchet held up a hand, cutting the obvious youngling off, and then pointed a finger at both of them. “Stay. Here,” he repeated, enunciating his words. “Else I’ll make sure when we start making maintenance appointments, you two get Knock Out. Got me?”

Starscream’s lips twitched. Using the Decepticon medic as a scare tactic? How rude. Except that Ratchet had a point. Knock Out was a passable medic and a better surgeon. He could repair someone, given the proper incentive, it was the definition of incentive that caused many a problem.

Starscream found himself going to Glit when he had a minor issue, like say a misaligned joint that he couldn’t reach. But he’d already told Thundercracker and Skywarp that if he was ever seriously injured, he wanted to be taken to the Autobot medical team. Not Knock Out. Or Ambulon as Starscream didn’t trust a Neutral any further than he could throw them.

Blue and Flame lowered their helms, muttering ‘yes, sir’ in sullen, but meek tones.

Satisfied, Ratchet whirled back toward Starscream and stalked forward, leaving Starscream no choice but to hurry to catch up to him.

“Let’s get this over with,” Ratchet near-snarled. He was obviously uncomfortable, given how tight his armor was clamped to his frame. His field was restrained, and what little bits leaked free made Starscream nauseous.

It wasn’t fear, but Ratchet did not want to be here.

“I seem to recall the other medic petitioning to come here,” Starscream said in a mild tone as Ratchet drew up short at the entrance, unable to key the panel open.

Starscream flicked his fingers over the panel, and the door slid open, Ratchet barging inside as though trying to get this done as soon as possible. Starscream couldn’t blame him. While Ratchet had spent the majority of his time in Constructicon custody, Megatron had not resisted the opportunity to berth Optimus’ CMO and dear friend.

In fact, until Megatron got Optimus, Ratchet was his favorite toy. The Constructicons had often sniffled about it.

“I was not about to have First Aid come here and talk to that monster,” Ratchet said as Starscream’s slower pace forced him to slow down.

Starscream intended to take him a roundabout route, one that would ensure as few Decepticons as possible would see them, and no one would be in a position to harass Ratchet. Not to mention there were more than a few Constructicons wandering the upper floors for their daily, temporary release in order to aid construction.

“He would have been better suited,” Starscream pointed out. “He was actually there whenever Shockwave was doing whatever he was doing in there.”

Starscream had read Shockwave’s notes. He’d seen what was left of the data Shockwave hadn’t destroyed.

He didn’t understand a bit of it except that Shockwave seemed to be trying to re-create the circumstances that had spawned the Autobot split-spark twins. His notes seemed to suggest he was trying to make newsparks since Vector Sigma was no longer an option. In theory, it was a noble pursuit. Their population dwindled and without Vector Sigma, there was no hope to repopulate.

Starscream hoped to pursue some of Shockwave’s theories further. Not the abhorrent ones involving the Autobot twins, the Dinobot, and the last piece of Defensor. But other theories could have some merit, ones that would call for volunteers, rather than unwilling participants.

In this, he and Shockwave were in agreement. Surely there was some answer in their sparks. Surely, there was some mix of myth and legend and reality that could ensure the continuation of their species.

Starscream also knew better than to suggest this aloud. Autobots and their sensitivities. Pah. Starscream was realistic. He hadn’t cared for the torture Shockwave inflicted on his subjects. But he couldn’t deny the research was necessary.

“Which is exactly why he’s staying away from Shockwave unless it becomes absolutely necessary,” Ratchet retorted in a near-growl. He cut a look at Starscream as if daring him to argue.

Starscream was wise enough to let the topic drop.

“As you insist,” Starscream demurred. They arrived at the lift, and he gestured Ratchet in ahead of him. He hit the button for the lowest level. “Is there anything else the Autobots have need from us right now?”

Ratchet folded his arms and leaned against the side of the lift. His helm tilted, his blue optics sharp and cutting. “Yeah. Why don’t you tell me what the deal is with Soundwave.”

Starscream cycled his optics. “Beg pardon?”

“He attached himself to Optimus pretty quickly,” Ratchet pointed out with a raised orbital ridge. “Or didn’t you notice?”

Starscream frowned. He had noticed. He hadn’t been surprised either. Soundwave was drawn to mechs with power and authority. Megatron was a case in point. Though that did make him wonder why Soundwave hadn’t gravitated toward Grimlock. Soundwave attached himself to Optimus long before the battle for leadership of the Decepticons began.

“Soundwave’s free to make his own choices,” Starscream hedged. Soundwave might not be a Decepticon anymore, but he remained reluctant to give away Soundwave’s secrets. What little of them Starscream knew. “He’s smart. He knows how to keep himself safe.”

Ratchet stared at him. He drummed the fingers of one hand against his own armor. “You can’t tell me it’s self-preservation. Soundwave’s never further than Optimus’ shadow.”

“You worried?”

Ratchet snorted. “Optimus can take care of himself. I just want to make sure it’s not some plot of yours to undermine us.”

Starscream barked a laugh as the lift stopped in the basement. “Soundwave and I don’t trust each other that much. If he’s planning anything, it has nothing to do with me. If you’re that curious, medic, you should ask him yourself.” He gestured for Ratchet to precede him off the lift.

The hallway beyond was brightly lit and pockmarked with multiple cameras from all angles. Starscream was taking no chances. Some of these Decepticons would happily murder him in his recharge, and he rather liked living.

“Soundwave isn’t chatty,” Ratchet retorted. Disgruntled was his default mood apparently.

“Some things never change,” Starscream said as they approached the door at the end of the hall, this one also locked. He paused, however, and waited to make sure Ratchet was paying attention. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Ratchet narrowed his optics. “Do I look like I make a habit of changing my mind?”

Starscream sighed and gritted his denta. Several responses cropped up, but as none of them were polite and likely to lead to an impromptu exchange of useless snark, he said nothing. He punched his code into the panel.

They had made every effort possible to ensure that their prisoners were contained. Some were more dangerous than others, such as those who remained loyal to Megatron. They were kept on an entirely separate floor until such time as Grimlock could spare to deal with him. The jury was still out on what that meant.

Exile, perhaps, save for the fact that they could very well come back with an army. Starscream was more than aware Tarn and his murderous reprobates were still out there, and they were very loyal to Megatron. Tarn might return to Cybertron for revenge. He and his entire time were a threat, and Starscream was certain they were not the only ones.

Execution seemed the safer bet, but even Starscream was loath to start shooting prisoners in the spark. He didn’t want to wait for them to prove they were a threat either. It was a conundrum. Therefore, the prisoners could rot until a decision was made, and no one would shed a tear.

This particular floor held the prisoners willing to submit to Grimlock’s leadership, but had committed atrocities against the Autobots. This made them political liabilities. They were divided into two groups: those who were useful, and those who were not.

Some had already been released on a trial parole. Reflector, as far as Starscream could tell, behaved. He kept his helm down. He reported to his shifts. H worked without complaint. If he continued this behavior, his parole would gradually turn into freedom.

There were others, too.

But Shockwave was one prisoner who the three Decepticon leaders could not decide what to do with. He was valuable. In these uncertain times, they needed scientists. But did they need scientists with such morally dark centers? Shockwave remained unapologetic.

“It was necessary,” he was prone to say. “It had to be done. For science.”

Grimlock held a personal grudge. He had only to look at Swoop and any interest he might have had in scientific advancement came to a screeching halt. Cyclonus, as always, voted on the side of Cybertron. If Shockwave could figure out how to repopulate their species, then so long as he had oversight, he should be allowed back into his lab.

Starscream was somewhere in the middle. He loathed Shockwave, but couldn’t deny his use. He, like those in the more secure ward, was a conundrum that they all pushed aside. Eventually, they would solve it.

There were three guards down here, all of them Cyclonus’ mechs. Starscream didn’t recognize any of them, but security was Cyclonus’ area, not Starscream’s. His HUD lit up with their designations, Scourge the most prominent of them. Scourge was Cyclonus’ second and now served as his head of security.

“Commander Starscream,” the blue-white flyer rasped with a dip of his helm. “We’ve removed the prisoner to a meeting room per your orders.” He gestured to the first of two they had available. “It is soundproof as you requested.”

“Thank you, Scourge. Did he cause any trouble?”

Scourage shook his helm. “No. But he does wish to petition, again, for his release.”

Starscream’s frown deepened. Shockwave behaved better than most of the prisoners, but his constant petitions were irritating.

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Starscream gestured for Ratchet to follow him, the medic eying the Decepticon soldiers with nothing short of suspicion.

His optics kept flicking to the other corridor where they kept those imprisoned in cells. There was more community allowed here. These particular prisoners could talk to each other if they wanted, unlike those in the more secure ward.

Starscream opened the door to the interrogation room and entered ahead of Ratchet. Shockwave was indeed present, sitting on the other side of the table. He wasn’t visibly restrained, but then, Shockwave had been nothing short of a model prisoner. He wasn’t making efforts to escape.

Not that Starscream intended to lighten the security on him.

Starscream dismissed the soldier standing guard. He suspected Ratchet wanted privacy for this.

“Shockwave, the Autobot CMO has a few questions he’d like to ask you,” Starscream said as Ratchet stepped in behind him. “It is in your best interest to answer honestly.”

“I understand. I have nothing to hide.” Shockwave’s vocals were almost pleasant.

“Do you know why I’m here?” Ratchet asked as he took the only available chair. His field vibrated with detectable tension before he was able to draw it in.

Shockwave tilted his helm. “I imagine it is to inquire about one of my subjects as I am personally in perfect repair.”

“Sideswipe and Sunstreaker,” Ratchet said and he tapped his finger on the table. “They are not your subjects. They are your victims.”

Shockwave shifted his weight. “Semantics,” he said, heedless to the tension thickening the air. “Ask your question, medic.”

Ratchet gritted his denta, the grinding of metal on metal audible. “I want to know what you did and how I can help them.”

“Of course you do.” Shockwave rested one hand on the table. “The answer is simple. They need to bond.”

Ratchet leaned forward, his optics cycling down to angry slits. “They are already bonded,” he hissed. His hands tightened into fists until his knuckles creaked. “To each other.”

Shockwave inclined his helm. “Yes, but their bond has destabilized. It is no longer capable of equalizing. They need a third to balance it out.”

Starscream frowned and folded his arms over his cockpit. His tanks rolled with nausea, and his plating clamped down to hide his unease.

“What did you do to them, you sick slagger?” Ratchet snarled. His engine revved to a higher pitch.

Shockwave remained solid in the face of the medic’s rightful fury. He glanced at Starscream as though seeking permission.

“Tell him,” Starscream ground out. “I don’t care about whatever you think is classified. You will tell him what he needs to know, or I will see to it that you never see anything beyond your prison cell.”

“Very well.” Shockwave’s stump of an arm, lacking his cannon per prison rules, rested on the top of the table. “They are twins, formed of a split-spark. I attempted to recreate those circumstances in an effort to discern what caused the destabilization and split in the first place.”

Ratchet’s field lashed through the room, so thick with outrage and anger that Starscream’s own drew in tight. It was enough to make him dizzy.

“You made them fuse?” he demanded, vocals a near shriek.

Shockwave nodded. “Yes. However, I was quite disappointed. When they separated again, there was no discernible difference in their personalities. They were by all accounts the same mechs they had been before, albeit with a new dependency for physical proximity that hadn’t been present before.”

“That shouldn’t have caused their current state though,” Starscream said with a frown. “They merge all the time as I understand it.” The Reflector triplets certainly did. And so had Runamuck and Runabout. Merging was a given for twinned sparks.

Ratchet leaned harder against the table until it creaked beneath him. “Because Shockwave didn’t just have them merge, he had them fuse back into a single spark. There’s a difference.” He ex-vented sharply. “How many times, you monster? How many times did you make them fuse and then force them to split?”

Starscream’s wings shivered. He felt ill right down to his protoform. A bout with dizziness made him lean against the wall so he didn’t fall down. His loathing for Shockwave increased tenfold.

“I repeated my experiment seventeen times,” Shockwave said, still in that coldly even voice of his. “It failed every time. I was close to conceding that my hypothesis was incorrect, and was in the process of seeking a third spark, when my laboratory was raided.”

Ratchet shot to his pedes, the chair knocking down behind him. Starscream was there in a flash, laying a hand on his shoulder, hoping to keep Ratchet from throwing himself across the table. Ratchet shrugged off his hand and slapped him away.

“Back off, Starscream! I’m not going to attack him,” Ratchet snarled, even though every rattling plate on his frame suggested otherwise. “And don’t touch me again.”

Starscream held up his hands and obeyed, stepping back a stride. He and Ratchet were of a height, and he had no doubt he was more skilled than Ratchet. But Ratchet had more mass than him and anger on his side. Not to mention Starscream knew better than to cause harm to Optimus’ close friend. He didn’t want a fight.

But he wouldn’t let Ratchet attack Shockwave either.

“I won’t,” Starscream said. “So long as you stay on this side of the table.”

Ratchet cast him a sideways look before returning his attention to Shockwave. He leaned forward, palms slapping down on the table. “What gave you the right to do that?”

“Our population is diminished, medic. I did what was necessary.” Shockwave leaned back in his chair. “Your soldiers will live. Convince someone to bond with them, and their sparks will stabilize.”

“There’s no other solution?” Starscream demanded.

“No.” Shockwave did not sound the least bit apologetic. “Separating them is liable to kill them, and they are no longer capable of regulating their spark energy on their own. It was an unfortunate side effect.”

“Unfortunate side effect!” Ratchet hissed, and his fingers scraped at the table. “You could have killed them!”

“But I did not.”

Ratchet’s engine reached a dangerous pitch. His field was a nauseating blend of fury and revulsion. Starscream worried that it wouldn’t take much more to send the medic across the table, and as it was, they might need Shockwave in the future. Piece of scum that he was.

“I think that’s enough for today,” Starscream said as he discreetly sent a ping to Scourge to retrieve Shockwave. “You have the answer you came for, Ratchet.” Even if it wasn’t one any of them wanted to hear.

Ratchet pushed back from the table, his armor clamped so tightly to his protoform that it had to have hurt. His jaw was clenched, his hands drawn into fists.

“You’re right. I’m done here.”

He spun on a heel and shoved out of the room before Starscream could say anything further. He sighed and rubbed his faceplate, feeling an ache forming in his helm.

“I will be interested to know the results of that,” Shockwave said into the following silence. “I am curious which spark type might stabilize them better.”

Starscream glared at him. “You are lucky that we might find a use for you, Shockwave. Grimlock’s not going to be happy to hear you antagonized the mech he considers his creator.”

“The Dinobot is ruled by emotion. It can’t be helped,” Shockwave said. “But you and I know better, Starscream. Such things are necessary if Cybertron is to survive.”

Starscream’s wings twitched. “We are nothing alike,” he snapped as Scourge came into the room with another mech.

“We have more in common than you think,” Shockwave said.

Starscream shuddered. “Put him back in his cell, Scourge. His request for release is denied.”

“Yes, Commander.”

Starscream left before Shockwave could try to persuade him otherwise. He had a sudden need to visit the washracks and scrub himself down with boiling solvent. Going through Shockwave’s lab had been awful enough. Reading Shockwave’s notes had left him ill. Speaking with Shockwave was a special kind of horror.

Ratchet waited for him by the main door, glaring at the locked panel as though blaming it for his inner distress.

“Will it work?” Starscream asked as he keyed open the panel.

Ratchet rubbed at his chevron. “In theory. I don’t know. It’s not as though I can test it out. And it’s not like it’s a viable option.”

“Can they function in their current state?”

They stepped into the lift and back up they went. Starscream checked the schedule to ensure they wouldn’t run into any Constructicons on their way out.

“They can’t be more than five feet from each other,” Ratchet said with an audible sigh. “The only thing we can have them do is monitor duty, but the lack of movement will be a further stress on their systems.”

Starscream folded his arms, contemplating. “What about a few friendly merges? Do you think that might help?”

“It’s worth a try. But convincing those two to trust someone with their sparks after what Shockwave did? That’s another matter.” Ratchet rubbed harder at his chevron as the lift stopped on the main floor. “They were rather insular before all this. I can’t imagine they are more willing to open up to someone now.”

“At least they have a choice this time,” Starscream said. “For a certain definition anyway. You can give them their options, let them decide, and in the meantime, try and find another way. Maybe you’ll get lucky.”

Ratchet snorted. “And maybe Primus will reach up and finally give us the help we’ve been praying for.”

Ah, yes. Ratchet was known for his optimism.

They pushed through the main doors. Ratchet’s escorts waited outside for him, playfully sparring with each other. At least they felt relaxed enough to do so.

“If you can think of anything else Shockwave might be able to answer, we’re willing to accommodate you again,” Starscream said. “As a gesture of good faith.”

Ratchet stared at him before shaking his helm. “If it wasn’t for Grimlock, I wouldn’t believe a single word out of your mouth, Starscream.” He started down the steps, nothing in his field speaking of calm. “Though I’ll take you over Megatron any day.”

“Should I take that as a compliment?” Starscream asked, burying his amusement behind a blank expression.

“Take it however you like,” Ratchet called back to him and gestured toward his two guards. “Come on, brats. Let’s go back to Polyhex. I’m done here.”

Starscream lingered long enough to make sure that the three Autobots were on their way out without anyone hassling them. Hopefully, despite Shockwave’s actions, helping the medic had accorded them some good will from the Autobots.

That being said, Starscream turned around and headed back into the command center. He needed to find Grimlock. There was a certain matter that needed attending today. They had three Phase Sixers sitting in a locked room in the medbay, and Knock Out was starting to irritate Starscream with the number of pings he’d sent expressing his discomfort with their vacant stares.

He sent a ping to his lord and master and, as of late, his berth-partner, and waited. He expected to find that Grimlock was either touring New Iacon to check on the reconstruction or overseeing some of their parolees or even in the command center. But no. Grimlock pinged back to say he was in his habsuite.

Not, Starscream needed to point out, the penthouse Megatron had used. That particular suite had been emptied out, stripped clean, and sanitized. Still, no one wanted to live there. The massive Prime suite thus sat empty and unused. It was probably for the best.

Instead, Grimlock had commandeered the penthouse of a nearby apartment complex. Iacon had always been a city for grounders so the complex wasn’t as tall as something Starscream might find in Vos. But it was large enough for Grimlock and his extended family. Because where one Dinobot was, the rest were sure to follow.

Starscream changed course and aimed for the squat apartment building, which looked to be in poor shape on the outside. But Scrapper had gone over it from top to bottom and declared it safe for habitation. It didn’t look pretty, but it was stable. Which was not something they could say for most of New Iacon, despite all the rebuilding they’d been doing before the successful coup.

Megatron, after all, hadn’t been interested in rebuilding Cybertron. He’d only wanted to expand and as soon as possible.

Grimlock, apparently, didn’t care about security either because the main doors to the apartment complex were flung wide open. Starscream strolled inside and followed the sound of shouting to the second pair of doors that led to a large room Grimlock had converted into a training arena.

No one spotted him at first, which provided Starscream with an excellent opportunity to observe. He lingered in the doorway and watched with a mixture of exasperation and surprise.

All of the surviving Dinobots were here which was a rare occurrence. Usually at least one of them was on duty.

Grimlock and Snarl sparred in one corner. Though Starscream wasn’t sure if he should call it sparring since Snarl seemed to be spending most of his time on the mat with Grimlock pinning him down. But if there was one thing a Dinobot could do, it was take a hit. Snarl bounced back up and demanded more.

Opposite from them was an unlikely duo. Slag sparred with Brawl of all mechs. Starscream knew Brawl had been lingering around New Iacon more than any of the other Combaticons, but he would have never called this. At least their training session looked a bit more even. Nice to know even someone as perpetually angry as Slag could make a friend.

Swoop was present as well. He sat on a stack of scavenged mats, huddled over a datapad. He wasn’t alone, however. Thundercracker was here with him, and he appeared to be explaining whatever was on the datapad.

Starscream’s optics narrowed. Wasn’t he supposed to be elsewhere right now?

Grimlock threw Snarl again, the Dinobot skidding across the mat. One of his spikes caught on the ragged cover with a loud rip. Snarl sprawled, his vents dragging in desperate gulps of air.

“Yield,” he gasped, helm thunking backward.

Grimlock stood over him, his visor bright from exertion. His own fans spun at full bore, audible to Starscream despite the distance. But as a leader, Grimlock knew the value of not showing weakness.

“You getting better,” he said.

Grimlock often affected an odd mix of Dinobot dialect and proper Cybertronian when he spoke to his fellow Dinobots.

“Maybe someday you’ll even be strong enough to beat me,” Grimlock added, though it was with a dark chuckle. “Then you can make rules.”

“Me Snarl will get stronger.” Snarl glared at his leader. “You Grimlock wait and see.”

Grimlock stepped over him and dusted off his hands. “You rest. Then I’ll let you try again.” He looked up then and noticed Starscream. His armor fluffed out, opening to ease the overheated components beneath. “Where Ratchet?”

“I didn’t know you wanted me to bring him.” Starscream pushed off the door frame and stepped further into the room.

Brawl and Slag were still throwing each other around as though they had nothing better to do. Starscream doubted they noticed him. But Thundercracker and Swoop had looked up. Thundercracker’s face gave nothing away, but Starscream knew his trinemate too well.

So much for he and Skywarp thinking Swoop an annoyance. Clearly, something had changed.

“Besides,” Starscream continued as he shifted his attention back to Grimlock, “he was pretty keen on getting out of New Iacon as fast as possible. And so were his guards.”

Grimlock barked a laugh. “Prime sent him with guards? He’s lucky we didn’t take that as an insult.”

Starscream smirked and crossed his arms over his cockpit. “To be fair, he sent two mechs I didn’t recognize. Ultra Magnus’ crew, I think. Nobody who could have posed a threat.”

Grimlock made a noncommittal noise, his helm tilted as though he were considering the new information. He often did that. Starscream could see why others would think he was slow, dull-witted even. What they didn’t realize was how deeply Grimlock thought, or how he carefully considered all the angles.

He was scarily intelligent.

“Prime has his own issues right now,” Grimlock finally said. “We can ignore a faux pas. Soundwave needs to make sure he doesn’t do the same to Metalhawk.”

Metalhawk chomped at the bit for the smallest thing to use against either faction. He would pounce at anything to take it as an insult. For a mech so vocal about hating war and conflict, he sure seemed determined to start one.

Starscream frowned. He really did not like that mech.

“But you didn’t find me to talk about Prime,” Grimlock said. “What urgent matter needs my attention?”

Starscream cut him a sideways look. “Well,” he drawled. “I’d hate to break up the family meeting. I can always find something better to do if you’re busy.”

Grimlock stepped closer, his field pulsing against Starscream’s in a heavy slide of heat that tasted ever so faintly of lust. “Is that a subtle request to take this somewhere private?”

A shiver danced down Starscream’s backstrut at the sound of Grimlock’s rolling purr. He remembered all too well those powerful hands gripping him, hard enough to hurt but leaving only pleasure behind. His wings twitched.

“We have work to do,” Starscream snapped. Or he attempted to. But at best it came out a stern reminder.

Grimlock’s visor darkened. “Yes, we do.” He half-turned toward the others, all of whom were watching their interaction now. Even Brawl and Slag.

“Keep practicing,” Grimlock ordered. “Slag, you’re on duty in two hours. Swoop, you go to medcenter for checkup and Snarl, you take him.”

“Whatever you Grimlock say,” Snarl said as Slag nodded in agreement.

“Yes, Grimlock,” Swoop replied, though he ducked his helm. His plating remained clamped tight to his frame.

Starscream loathed Shockwave all over again. Perhaps he should revisit Shockwave and see if he could get some answers regarding Swoop. Grimlock hadn’t asked questions, mostly because he swore if he saw Shockwave, he would kill him. He didn’t want Shockwave’s help either. But Starscream had no such compunctions.

“There,” Grimlock said. “Now we work.”

“So glad I could finally have your attention,” Starscream drawled.

Grimlock’s field pushed at his, ripe with amusement. “I am more than the Decepticon leader,” he said. “It’s what makes me better than Megatron.”

“It’s not the only thing,” Starscream replied before he cycled his optics, realizing he’d spoken before thinking. Not that it wasn’t true, but that he was normally more guarded than this.

“That almost sounded like approval,” Grimlock said.

Starscream hurried ahead of him, leaving the training room behind and feeling Thundercracker watching him every step of the way. “It certainly wasn’t a criticism.”

Grimlock laughed. “To each his own. Now what terribly important piece of politics needs our attention now?” His tone was amused, but his field spoke of nothing but business.

“Overlord. Black Shadow. Sixshot.” Starscream ticked off each designation one by one. “Knock Out’s requested that we decide what to do with them.”

“Hm.”

They left Grimlock’s apartment building and headed for the medcenter that Knock Out had made for his own. They had moved most of the equipment out of the one the Constructicons had used. Knock Out had claimed an entire building, though at the moment he was only making use of two floors. One was the medcenter, another was his private living quarters.

“Anything else?”

Starscream rolled his optics. “The problems are endless. We can’t construct fast enough to provide adequate, suitable housing for all of our Decepticons. We’re still rooting out those who are loyal to Megatron, an issue hampered by the fact our best spy went and joined the Autobots. On top of that, communications are also spotty due to, you guessed it, Soundwave jumping ship.”

“You didn’t see it coming?”

Starscream cycled a ventilation. “If you asked someone who the most loyal Decepticon was, they probably would have pointed at Soundwave. No, I didn’t see it coming.”

Grimlock tilted his helm, giving him a curious look. “Except for the part where he helped you take down Megatron.”

“That’s different.”

“Is it?”

Starscream frowned and they paused outside of the medcenter, a building in a curious state of half-repair and half-dilapidation. “Being loyal to Megatron and being loyal to the Decepticons aren’t the same thing. Otherwise I would have left long ago.”

“To join the Autobots?”

Starscream snorted. “Perish the thought. I’m a lot of things, but Autobot isn’t one of them.” His wings flicked and he pushed open the door to the medcenter. “Are you coming or not?”

Grimlock, amusingly, hesitated. “Knock Out is the best medic we have?”

“Unless you want to give the Constructicons both free rein and a command position. Though I can’t see the Autobots or Ratchet taking that with a smile,” Starscream said. He held the door open, waiting.

“They are lucky we’re in need of their skills,” Grimlock said with a grunt. He entered the medcenter ahead of Starscream.

“A lot of our prisoners are lucky for that reason,” Starscream agreed as he followed Grimlock inside.

Knock Out’s medcenter was on the first floor, which made it easier for the injured to get to him. He saw a steady stream of minor injuries and maintenance. He employed a few part-time medics, namely those who were decent field medics or half-sparked engineers. But for the most part, the medcenter was his domain.

He had no patients at the moment, save the ones Grimlock and Starscream had come to see. Starscream was not at all surprised to find Knock Out muttering over a datapad as he paced back and forth in the receiving room. His crimson paint was buffed to a flawless shine and as he mumbled to himself, he ticked something off on his long, clawed fingers.

The door chimed as Starscream and Grimlock stepped through it, attracting Knock Out’s attention. In a flash, his expression went from irritated to smarmy.

“Lord Grimlock, Commander Starscream, how good of you to finally come by,” Knock Out said with an exaggerated bow. His datapad vanished, perhaps to subspace. “After all, I’ve only been waiting for several cycles for you to attend to this matter.”

A low rumble rose in Grimlock’s engine.

“Your patients were in no danger, Knock Out,” Starscream said curtly. “There were other matters of more importance than a bit of mild discomfort.”

“Of course, my liege. I was only thinking of political perception.” Knock Out straightened and planted a hand on his hip. “I can think of no few Autobots who would love to sneak in here and finish them off.”

Grimlock snorted. “I’m tempted to do it myself.”

“And I doubt anyone would shed a tear, my lord,” Knock Out drawled. “After all, they didn’t limit themselves to Autobot victims.”

Grimlock’s visor shifted toward Starscream in question. He cycled a ventilation and rubbed at his face.

“They were Megatron’s favorites,” Starscream admitted with no shortage of disgust in his tone. “He let them do what they wanted, so long as they didn’t damage anyone permanently. He chose them for their viciousness. The process to turn them into Phase Sixers didn’t leave much compassion behind.”

Knock Out scoffed. “I doubt they had much to begin with.” He flicked a hand toward one of the back rooms. “They’re in there. If you don’t mind, I’ll just stay out here and finish inventory. They’re creepy.”

“Where’s Glit?” Starscream asked.

“Busy.” Knock Out’s datapad reappeared in his hands as he turned his backplate toward them. “Just like me since I’m now in charge of this mess thanks to you.”

Responsibility had always been something Knock Out avoided. No doubt he missed all the free time he had to cruise down the empty highways at top speed.

Starscream arched an orbital ridge. “You could have turned me down.”

“So you could pass it on to Glit? Frag that.” Knock Out’s lip curled with derision. “I’m not taking orders from a minicon.”

Ah, so it came down to a sense of personal pride. Knock Out hated Glit, and vice versa.

“Then maybe you’ll get lucky, and there will be another medic with some new arrivals,” Starscream said.

Knock Out peered at his datapad. “So long as it isn’t Flatline.”

Starscream smirked. “Do you get along with any of the Decepticon medics?”

Knock Out’s shoulder tires twitched. “I can’t help that they are all jealous.”

Starscream laughed and shook his helm. But Grimlock gave him an impatient look so he cut the conversation short.

“As you were, doctor,” he said and joined his leader at the locked door.

The lock was redundant in Starscream’s opinion. All three Phase Sixers were mind-wiped. All that functioned was basic survival protocols. They consumed energon if it was handed to them. Their vents and cooling fans worked. Their systems ran. But there was no one upstairs. No personality. Their memory cores were wiped clean.

Such was the contingency plan Megatron had arranged. Arrogant and brash Megatron might be, but he recognized the risk in building super soldiers who were capable of destroying him if they put their minds to it. He didn’t want to kill them, but making it easier to retake control and bend their will to his? Megatron had no problems with that.

Right now, the Phase Sixers were effectively blank slates. Someone like Trepan, or Metalhawk’s mech, could come in and program them however they wanted.

Though Starscream had to agree with Knock Out. As he and Grimlock walked into the room, three empty gazes stared back at them. Three very large, very powerful mechs sat on berths without moving. They would have been silent, if not for the ambient noise of a frame ventilating.

They were fragging creepy.

Grimlock paced around the room, examining each mech in turn. They were all undamaged. A single individualized phrase made them drop in place without need for an extensive fight.

“What are our options?” Grimlock asked.

Starscream leaned a hip against a table. “We could always open their chestplates and shoot their sparks. After we take them far away, of course. These sparks tend to go boom.”

“Is that our only option?”

“You really want to keep them alive?” Starscream arched an orbital ridge. “You’re not that much of an Autobot.”

Grimlock barked a laugh. “I was thinking of the future.”

“Do you know something I don’t?”

“I know that we’re vulnerable right now.” Grimlock paused in front of Sixshot, looking the six-changer up and down. “I know that we don’t have the protection of the Galactic Council. I know that we’ve made a lot of enemies. And I know that our population is so small that it’s not a simple fraction of what it used to be.” He turned away from Sixshot and glanced at Starscream. “I also know just how valuable Earth is, not just for us, and how barely guarded it is.”

Starscream inclined his helm. “You’re thinking of a back-up plan. A contingency in case we come up against an enemy and we find ourselves outclassed.”

“I’m thinking that I’m reluctant to throw away something that could be of use, no matter how abhorrent I find it,” Grimlock said. His visor darkened.

“That’s hardly ethical.”

Grimlock tilted his helm. “As you said, I’m not that much of an Autobot. If we lived in a perfect world, maybe I’d be more like Optimus. But right now, I can’t afford that.”

Starscream crossed his arms. “They still have their spark memories. Spark traits. No matter how much re-programming we do, some of their behavior is inevitable.”

“Then we keep the kill codes.” Grimlock paused in front of Black Shadow, the massive Phase Sixer easily half again his mass and height. “We’ve got time. We can figure out a better method to control them.”

Starscream drummed his fingers on his forearm, contemplating. “You thinking cold storage?” He tried not to shudder and failed.

Cold storage aka separating the spark from the frame. It was a punishment in itself. Who’s to say that the three wouldn’t come out more psychotic than when they went in? They could be building something worse than a monster.

“Is it better or worse than a closet?” Grimlock asked, but there was something in his tone that suggested the question was rhetorical. “What’s more ethical? Because I’m not restoring their memories and giving them free rein. So either I kill them, or I find a way to make use of them.”

Starscream lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “You want ethical, you ask Optimus Prime. I’m only interested in protecting Cybertron and getting our species back to where we need to be. If it means using those three as pawns, then so be it.”

Grimlock turned away from the Phase Sixers and came closer to Starscream. Close enough that their fields intersected and Starscream could feel the heat of him. Grimlock always seemed to run about ten degrees hotter than the average.

Starscream looked up at him, certain Grimlock wasn’t trying to intimidate. Like Megatron, Grimlock was perfectly aware of his own size and power. But he didn’t use it to loom. Grimlock didn’t need to show he was superior. He already knew it.

“I don’t want to ask Optimus Prime,” Grimlock said and this time his vocals were near a purr. He leaned closer, his hand curling around Starscream’s chin in a hold that was almost gentle. “I’m asking you, my second and my Air Commander. What do you think is the better course?”

Starscream’s vents hitched. “Politically, we might catch some flak,” he said, his gaze holding Grimlock’s. “Metalhawk will vote for execution. I don’t know about Optimus. He’s a lot more ruthless than he used to be.” His intake bobbed as Grimlock’s thumb stroked over his bottom lip. The Dinobot leader made a humming noise, indicating he should continue. “But I’d also hate to be rid of an asset. We just need to be smart about it. Find a way to control them before we even think about releasing them.”

“I agree.” Grimlock’s field stroked along his, thick with approval and arousal both. “Does that mean we’re done with our work here?”

Really? Two could place this game.

Starscream flicked out his glossa, tasting the tip of Grimlock’s thumb. “Why? Did you have something else in mind?”

Rumbling amusement echoed through Grimlock’s chassis. “Another opportunity to get my hands on your wings, as a matter of fact.”

Starscream shivered. He sucked Grimlock’s thumb into his mouth, denta nipping at the tip of it.

“I think that can be arranged.”

Mutually beneficial agreements indeed.

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