[Crown the Empire] Reign 12

Millennia spent in pseudo-command of the Decepticons had left Starscream paranoid, more paranoid than the average mech. When it came down to his daily itinerary, the only one who knew where Starscream intended to be was Starscream. Which meant tracking down every place he had been in a given day had to be done the old-fashioned way – by retracing his steps.

“He said he’d gone to the medbay,” Skywarp said as he tapped his lips with two fingers.

“If he’d been in the medbay, how did they not realize he was unwell?” Thundercracker asked as he peered at the datapad containing their notes on Starscream’s behavior prior to falling out of the sky.

There wasn’t much. The only thing they did know for sure was that Starscream had arranged a meeting with Acid Storm and Sunstorm earlier that cycle. Grimlock said he hadn’t seen Starscream since they went their separate ways that morning.

“Maybe he wasn’t getting examined?” Skywarp proposed, his wings twitching in restless intervals that grated on Thundercracker’s patience. “You know how he is. If he gets hurt, he’d rather try and court Ratchet’s good grace than depend on Knock Out.”

Thundercracker sighed, rubbing at his forehelm. “Yes. I know.” If anything of note had occurred during Starscream’s visit, he was sure Knock Out would have mentioned it. “Where was he before that?”

“In a meeting probably.” Skywarp hitched himself onto a table, swinging his legs as he sat on the edge.

“The one with Sunstorm?” Thundercracker flipped back to his notes, checking the time stamps. “No. That was beforehand. Who else could he have met with?”

Skywarp rolled his helm, stretching out his neck. “That was midday energon, right? So he must have been holed up in his office.”

“We’ll have to double-check that. We log all codes in the command center, right?” Thundercracker asked. His processor began to ache. He started to curse Soundwave for leaving.

“Well, we’re supposed to,” Skywarp said, and his wings twitched. He rubbed at his forehelm. “Whether or not Starscream actually did is another matter. What did Sunstorm say?”

“Nothing. I haven’t asked him yet.”

Skywarp huffed a ventilation and sagged in his chair. “Then why don’t we start with him?” Fatigue lined Skywarp’s field, fatigue and concern both. They had neither of them been recharging well, and worry about Starscream was not helping matters. While they’d spent many an hour cuddled with Swoop, not even the Dinobot’s steady field had been enough to encourage a deep, meaningful rest.

“Fine.” Thudercracker shoved a datapad his trinemate’s direction. “Then you try and figure out where he was in this gap.”

“Don’t we have cameras or something?”

Thundercracker sighed. “Searching the hours of footage is our next step. Pray that we find something else first.”

Skywarp muttered something subvocally, but Thundercracker didn’t catch it. Which meant it did not matter.

Ignoring him for the moment, Thundercracker pinged Sunstorm and waited for the other Seeker to respond. Perhaps he could shed some light on either Starscream’s behavior, or the gaps in Starscream’s schedule. Maybe Starscream mentioned something in passing.

“Sunstorm here,” the bright yellow Seeker answered. “What can I do for you, sir?”

“You can drop the ‘sir’ for starters,” Thundercracker said as he paged through one of Starscream’s encrypted datapads, absently putting in code after code. Surely one of them could work. “You had a meeting with Starscream the day he dropped, right?”

“Earlier, yes. Only I had to cancel at the last minute. Acid Storm went alone.”

Thundercracker blinked. He sat up straight. “Beg pardon?” Given Acid Storm’s barely concealed distaste for Starscream, he couldn’t imagine that was a good idea.

“Believe me, I wouldn’t have asked if there wasn’t a matter that needed my attention. I fully intended to be there,” Sunstorm replied. “But I spoke with Acid Storm, and he didn’t mention anything of note.”

Thundercracker’s ventilations quickened. He exchanged a glance with Skywarp, already drawing an unfortunate suspicion. Acid Storm had made little secret of the fact he wasn’t fond of Starscream and did not enjoy serving under Starscream.

“Perhaps you weren’t asking the right questions,” Thundercracker said quietly. “I’ll contact him myself. Thank you, Sunstorm.”

“Whatever you need, sir,” Sunstorm replied, and he indeed sounded earnest. “I want to catch whoever did this to Starscream, too. So if I think of anything, I’ll give you a ping.”

“See that you do.”

Thundercracker ended the comm and looked at Skywarp again. “I hesitate to accuse a fellow Seeker of any misconduct but…”

Skywarp shook his helm. “All you’re doing is asking a question.” His engine growled. “And for Acid Storm’s sake, he better have an acceptable answer.”

Thundercracker rubbed a hand down his faceplate and pinged Acid Storm. There was no response. He pinged twice more, adding a commander-level override to the second one. No response.

“He’s not answering.”

“Let me try.”

A minute passed before Skywarp’s frown deepened. “No. He’s ignoring me, too. And I just checked the schedule, TC. He’s off-shift, but not in recharge. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be answering, especially since we’re all on alert.”

Cyclonus was on duty. Thundercracker pinged him to ask if anyone had seen or heard from Acid Storm, all the while suspecting he wouldn’t like the answer. While he waited for Cyclonus to check the logs, Thundercracker rose to his pedes.

“Come on,” he said, striding from the small room.

Skywap fell into step beside him. “Where are we going?”

“To speak with Acid Storm directly.”

The Seeker barracks were less than a minute away by air. Maybe they were overreacting, and Acid Storm was in recharge. Perhaps he was sparring in the lower levels and had turned off his comms to prevent distraction. Maybe he was a rare Seeker who didn’t mind the sublevels, down where the signals didn’t reach.

Either way, Thundercracker wasn’t going to stand around and wait.

The moment they stepped out of the building, Thundercracker shot into the air in root mode. Skywarp rose beside him, and they turned toward the Seeker barracks. As they did so, however, Thundercracker saw a jet take flight from the roof, and streak through the air. From this distance, it was hard to tell color, and a questioning ping bounced back.

“Skywarp.”

“It’s probably him,” his trinemate said with a note of disappointment.

The Seeker, whoever he was, pointed in a direction which led directly out of New Iacon and straight toward Nova Cronum. Maybe it was coincidence.

Thundercracker’s comm pinged. It was Cyclonus.

“Sensors pick him up heading due north,” Cyclonus said, and there was regret in his tone. “He took off toward Nova Cronum.”

“We have him in sight. Initiating pursuit,” Thundercracker replied, shifting to alt-mode in the blink of an optic.

“Belay that!”

Thundercracker nearly stalled in mid-air, Skywarp curving into a tight circle around him. He’d always been the faster one between them.

“Why?” Skywarp demanded, his thrusters burning and his wings tilted.

Acid Storm got further away, until only the burn of his thrusters could identify him against the bright horizon.

“Because he’ll reach Metalhawk before you catch up to him,” Cyclonus replied grimly. “Once he’s in Nova Cronum, there’s nothing we can do per the terms of the treaty.”

Skywarp jiggered in a tight circle. “We don’t know that’s where he’s going. I can still catch him! It’s only two jumps.”

Thundercracker transformed to root mode, hovering mid-air. Anger made his engine rumble, his hands pull into fists.

“No, Cyclonus is right,” he said, glaring at the last specks of Acid Storm’s afterburners. “If Acid Storm did this, and with Metalhawk’s blessing at that, then even if we could catch him, it would be politically ill-advised.”

Skywarp transformed in a snap. “We can’t let him get away with this!” he cried, whipping a hand and pointing in Acid Storm’s direction. “Star could die because of him.” His vents heaved, thrusters spitting fire.

“He won’t,” Thundercracker said with confidence. He spun mid-air, aiming toward the medbay where he suspected their fearless leader would be. “Come on, Skywarp. We’ll tell Grimlock what we know and let him decide from there.”

Skywarp muttered something and pulled up alongside him. “This should be a Seeker matter.”

“Except it’s not. You know as well as I do Acid Storm did not code that virus himself. He had help.”

Thundercracker’s proximity sensors pinged. He swung his attention to the left, where a bright gold Seeker approached, only to transform to root mode at the last second. Sunstorm’s expression was blank, but his field was a full of frenetic dismay.

“When you asked me about Acid Storm, I feared the worst,” he said by way of explanation, nodding a greeting to Skywarp as well. His gaze shifted to the horizon, not that Acid Storm could be seen any longer. “It appears I was right.”

“You knew he would do this?” Skywarp demanded, his engines revving again.

Thundercracker held out a hand, more gesture than physical restraint, to keep Skywarp from doing something rash. “It would be rather foolish of Sunstorm to out himself if he was at all responsible for this.”

“Yes, it would. And I am many things, but foolish is not one of them.” Sunstorm sighed and rubbed at his faceplate. “I knew Acid Storm was upset. He remained unconvinced of Starscream’s right to leadership. Our lack of a third only worsened matters. I tried speaking with him otherwise, but my words fell on deaf audials.”

Thundercracker’s frown deepened. “But to go so far?”

“He did not come to this conclusion on his own.” Sunstorm’s reply was fierce, his optics flashing. “He had to have been swayed, promised something, I do not know. But he was aware Starscream’s death would not automatically grant him the position of Air Commander. I have told him numerous times it was not so simple.”

“If anything, TC would step in,” Skywarp said with a snort.

Thundercracker shook his helm. “It is not a position I would accept.” Frankly, if there was anyone he’d consider, it was Sunstorm, Starscream clone or not. “However, we are presenting a rather high-value target up here. I suggest we land.”

“I agree. To the medbay then?” Sunstorm said. “I can’t imagine Lord Grimlock would be anywhere else.”

He was right, of course.

“Yes,” Thundercracker answered, and turned toward the medbay roof access again. “He needs to know this as well.”

This and so much more.

0o0o0

He would never get used to the sounds of the machines. They were an obnoxious noise, yet Grimlock clung to them. For as long as the machines beeped and whirred, Starscream was alive. For now, he was stable. Grimlock had lingered around Ratchet long enough to know that stable could turn to critical in a sparkbeat.

He bowed his helm, one of Starscream’s hands clasped between his own. Starscream felt cold to the touch, as though his frame reserved all of the latent heat for his chassis and spark chamber. His field was nonexistent, barely a hum of life to it. No matter how hard Grimlock reached, Starscream did not reach back.

The anger built again, so thick and cloying he almost couldn’t swallow it. He had nowhere to direct his fury, save in the vague direction of Metalhawk.

Grimlock was tempted.

He was so very tempted to damn the treaty, damn the consequences, and unleash the full might of the Decepticon army against Metalhawk’s collection of Neutrals.

Megatron would have. Not for Starscream’s sake, of course not, but because if there was one thing Megatron did not despise, it was looking weak in any shape. He would not have tolerated an assault on his home, on his residence. He would not have cared for repercussions.

He would have laid waste to Nova Cronum and gladly waited for the consequences. It was, Grimlock knew, one of the many reasons he was now slag at the bottom of a pool.

Grimlock was not Megatron. He would never become Megatron. But in moments like these, it was a tempting thought.

His comm pinged. Grimlock cycled a ventilation and gently set Starscream’s hand back to the berth. He leaned back in the chair and reached for his comm.

“Yes?”

“You have some visitors.” His creator’s voice came through, sounding exhausted. “Duty calls, kid.”

“Understood. Thank you, Ratchet.”

The comm crackled back to silence. Grimlock pushed to his pedes. Duty called indeed. He’d promised Thundercracker and Cyclonus his relationship with Starscream would not be a detriment to his leadership of the Decepticons. He meant that promise.

Grimlock leaned back over the berth, pressing his mouthplate to Starscream’s forehelm. He’d return as soon as his business was handled.

He put on a metaphorical mask and eased from Starscream’s private room, nodding a greeting to Blackout, one of Cyclonus’ mechs who had been installed as guard over Starscream. Blackout had a list of mechs who were allowed access to Starscream’s room. Anyone not on that list had to be approved by Ratchet or Grimlock and only them. Not even Knock Out was allowed to approve a visitor.

Anyone could be a suspect. Anyone could be to blame. Grimlock couldn’t afford to take any more chances.

He almost passed Ratchet in the hall, but his creator paused and so Grimlock did as well. Ratchet’s optics were dim, his shoulders hunched. One hand carried what looked to be a load of fluid refill bags, the other held a datapad.

“Any news?” Grimlock asked.

Ratchet shook his helm. “Some. Shockwave’s cooked up something, but we’re running tests first. I’m not uploading anything into Starscream until I’m sure it won’t make matters worse.”

Grimlock cycled a ventilation. “Thank you for your caution.”

“He’s your Intended.” Ratchet offered a crooked grin. “Of course I’m going to make sure he’s okay, kid. He’s almost family.”

Won’t Starscream be delighted to hear that?

Despite himself, Grimlock chuckled. “Yes, I suppose he is.”

Ratchet’s engine grumbled. “Just don’t tell him I said that.” He tilted his helm, gesturing to the hall behind him. “You’ve got a makeshift team meeting out in the reception area. Everyone’s looking fidgety, so it might be a good time to remind them who’s in charge around here.”

“I’ll remember that.” Grimlock briefly rested a hand on the medic’s shoulder before excusing himself.

He couldn’t hear the chatter through the thick doors dividing the medbay from reception, but he could sense the growing disturbance of energy fields. It ran the gamut from anger to resignation to agitation. If Metalhawk had intended to sow discord, he was on the right path.

Fortunately for Grimlock, the Decepticons were a lot stronger and united than Metalhawk could have dreamed. They would not dissolve or fracture. Grimlock would see to it.

He pushed through the door and stepped into the reception hall. It was not a large space, but it seemed even smaller with upwards of six mechs crowded into it, two of which were Dinobots and three of which were Seekers who demanded more personal space than nearly any other frametype.

Cyclonus was not present, of course. He should be on duty in the command center right now with Krok available on standby. The leader of the Scavengers was a bit of a twitchy sort, but he knew how to handle authority, and when to defer. He was a good asset.

It remained to be seen whether the rest of his team would integrate well. Grimlock had heard Spinister was something of a medic, but hadn’t heard Knock Out whine about the addition to his staff. Either Spinister had chosen not to make himself available to the medbay, or no one had given him the option.

“You have news?” Grimlock asked by way of introduction as the door slid shut behind him. His voice sliced through the low buzz of conversation.

Three Seekers, two Dinobots, and a Combaticon. It wasn’t quite the collection Grimlock expected to see, but so long as answers were to be had, he wouldn’t question it.

“Yes.” Sunstorm was the first to speak up, though discomfort lingered around him like a bad smell. His armor had clamped tight, and his wings pressed against his back. “We believe we’ve discovered the identity of the mech who infected Starscream.”

Grimlock went still. He cycled several ventilations, forcing himself to stay under control. “Who?”

Thundercracker lifted his helm. “Acid Storm.”

That… was unexpected. Grimlock chewed on the information. Weeks ago, Starscream had mentioned a disagreement of sorts throughout the aerial forces, but he had been scant on the details. He said he would handle it, that there was nothing to be concerned about.

Obviously, he was mistaken.

“Why?” Grimlock demanded.

“Metalhawk.”

That answer came from Brawl, who leaned against the wall nearest the exit door. Several paint scrapes and dents in his armor suggested he’d been sparring with Slag before they both appeared here. Not an unusual occurrence.

“And you know this how?” Grimlock asked.

Brawl tapped his helm. “Ya know Ons’ is in deep, right? He says yer missin’ Seeker’s up in Nova Cronum now, takin’ refuge with the Neutrals. On invitation, I hear.”

“He was last seen taking flight toward Nova Cronum,” Thundercracker confirmed, the darkness of his optics hinting of a banked anger the likes of which Grimlock had never seen in the usually calm Seeker.

“Then since we know where he is, we can go get him, right?” Skywarp asked, his wings twitching rapidly. He was the only one of them in constant motion, his field the most grating in the room.

“Him Acid Storm need whooping,” Slag grumbled, sneezing a brief gout of flame and nearly singeing Brawl’s legs.

The Combaticon didn’t so much as flinch.

“It is not so simple,” Grimlock said. He rubbed at his forehelm.

As much as he wanted to storm into Nova Cronum and drag Acid Storm out by his thrusters, he knew the treaty forbade it. He was certain there were rules that allowed Grimlock to demand extradition as the offense Acid Storm committed had been in Decepticon territory, to a Decepticon resident, by a Decepticon. But Grimlock suspected Metalhawk would not make things so easy.

His comm pinged. Again. Only this time it was Cyclonus.

Grimlock held up a hand. “Quiet,” he ordered, and shifted his attention to his comm. “Yes, Cyclonus.”

“We have just received through official channels an expedited request for a defection petition,” Cyclonus replied tersely. He sounded annoyed, each word spat into the comm.

Grimlock shifted his weight. “From Acid Storm?”

“No. From Metalhawk on Acid Storm’s behalf.” Cyclonus cycled an audible ventilation. “Am I correct in assuming this has something to do with Starscream?”

“You are.”

“Petition or not, we can still demand Acid Storm’s return as he did not go through the official channels on our end,” Cyclonus replied. He would know, as he’d studied the treaty as thoroughly as Ultra Magnus must have.

Grimlock rubbed harder at his forehelm. “No. Not without being able to prove, beyond any doubt, that Acid Storm is responsible for Starscream’s condition. Guilty behavior is not enough.”

“You wish to catch Metalhawk as well,” Cyclonus said, understanding lit in his vocals. “Very well. Shall I accept the petition and file it?”

Grimlock would have smirked, had he a mouth. “Metalhawk did say he wanted to be close allies. Let us pretend we are.”

“Understood. Cyclonus, out.”

The comm went silent, allowing Grimlock to redirect his attention to the rest of those in the room.

“I just don’t understand why he would do this,” Sunstorm muttered into the gloom. His shoulders sank, wings drooping with it.

“Him Acid Storm want trine,” Slag offered with a snort. He pawed at the ground with his right foot before abruptly shifting to root mode and randomly punching Brawl in the shoulder.

Given that all the Combaticon did was grunt, this was apparently a common occurrence? Grimlock honestly didn’t want to know. So long as they both agreed to it, he really did not want to know.

“Well,” Brawl added with a shrug, as though the punch had stirred something in his helm. “He’s not wrong. The Neutrals’ have two untrined Seekers, and they’re looking for a third.”

Sunstorm shook his helm. “That can’t be all. We’ve been talking about courting Misfire, for Primus’ sake. He’d seemed excited about the idea of it.”

“Maybe that wasn’t enough. Who knows. We won’t until we can ask him,” Skywarp said with a snort. His wing flicked dismissively. “Which I guess we can’t do until we find some proof.”

Sunstorm cycled a ventilation. “I’ll search his quarters,” he said, and rubbed at his face. “I’ll ask around as well. Perhaps Red Wing or Nacelle know something.”

“We should come with you,” Thundercracker said, only to draw up short when Sunstorm shook his helm.

A small, sad smile pulled at Sunstorm’s lips. “Normally, I would welcome you. But Acid Storm was not the only Seeker who was not content to bow to Starscream simply because he returned. I may not get any answers if I show up with Starscream’s trinemates beside me.”

“But–”

“Fair enough,” Grimlock said, cutting off Skywarp’s building protest. “Do what you need to do, Sunstorm. Report back to Thundercracker when you are through.”

“Yes, my Lord.” Sunstorm dipped his helm in a show of respect. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go see to that now.”

Grimlock waved him off.

It wasn’t until Sunstorm had gone that he looked to Thundercracker and Skywarp. “Seekers come in threes,” Grimlock said, referring not only to the book Thundercracker had loaned him, but what he’d observed. “Who was Sunstorm and Acid Storm’s third?”

Skywarp folded his arms over his chestplate. “From what I understand, it was Icestorm.”

“And then Novastorm when Icestorm… exploded,” Thundercracker said with an audible ex-vent. His plating drew taut. “Novastorm attempted to warp. As far as Shockwave’s notes indicated he, well, disintegrated.”

Skywarp rolled his optics. “That’s not how warping works, TC. If Shockwave had any idea what he was playing with, maybe he’d have understood that.”

“How does it work?” Grimlock asked.

“Pfft. Do I look like an engineer?” Skywarp flicked a hand in the air. “Do you think that spy can explain why his electro-disruptor works? Or Soundwave knows what makes his telepathy tick? You’d be better off asking Primus.”

Grimlock’s helm began to ache. He resisted the urge to rub at it. “Understood.” He nodded at Thundercracker and Skywarp. “I appreciate your assistance in the investigation.” He shifted his attention to Brawl next. “Please extend gratitude to your commander as well. If he has anything further to add, he is welcome to contact me.”

Brawl scratched at his faceguard. “Sure thing.” He elbowed Slag in the side. “Come on, Dinobot. Let’s hit up Swin’s. I know where he keeps the good stuff.”

“Him Slag be there in minute,” Slag grumbled, giving him a sidelong look.

Brawl shrugged. “Whatever. Ya know where it is.” He departed, leaving Grimlock to offer Slag a curious look.

“Was there something else?”

“Just me Slag checking on you Grimlock.” Slag strode toward him and planted his hands on Grimlock’s shoulders, looking up at him with his version of concern. “You Grimlock okay? Not see you Grimlock in us Dinobot home.”

He shifted his weight, pointedly ignoring the fact that Thundercracker and Skywarp were watching with curious optics.

“Me Grimlock fine,” he replied and rested one of his hands over Slag’s, giving it a quick squeeze. “Worried about him Starscream. So stay here.”

Slag nodded. “Him Swoop worried. Miss cuddles.” His lips curved into a laugh, mouthful of pointed denta disconcerting to anyone who wasn’t a Dinobot. “Him Grimlock need rest, too. Or can’t help him Starscream.”

“Me Grimlock keep that in mind. Thanks.”

“Pfft. Me Slag only ask for him Swoop. That all.” Slag retracted his hands quickly, as though offended he’d had a moment of genuine concern. He rubbed at his nasal ridge and gave Grimlock a sideways look. “But you Grimlock call if need us, yeah?”

Grimlock folded his arms over his chestplate. “Always.”

“Okay.” Slag nodded as though to himself and then spun on a heelstrut, nearly poking Grimlock with one of his Dino-helm horns in the process. “If you Grimlock say so. Bye now.”

Contentious Slag might be at times, but he was still a Dinobot, and they were still brothers. When it came down to it, that was what mattered most.

Amusement tugged at Grimlock as he watched his argumentative sibling leave. Slag had certainly settled since he’d begun sparring and spending time with Brawl. Grimlock didn’t know if it was romantic or friendly, and it was none of his business. So long as they weren’t hurting each other and Slag was happy, Grimlock would wait until Slag was willing to share.

It was just nice to see that they no longer had to rely only on each other for companionship. That they weren’t relegated to a closet or the times when Optimus needed a heavy-hitter and remembered they existed.

It was nice, Grimlock reflected, to have friends.

“What now?” Thundercracker asked, reminding Grimlock that he and Skywarp yet remained.

Back to business.

Grimlock gathered himself together. “Now we search for proof, and we wait to see if Shockwave is half as good as he thinks he is.”

Skywarp bounced on his heelstruts. “Will they let us see him?”

“Yes. I’ll tell Blackout you’re on the list,” Grimlock replied, tilting his helm toward the entrance to medbay proper. “Just be careful. He’s surrounded by a lot of machinery. It’s all that is keeping him functioning.”

Skywarp rolled his optics. “It wouldn’t be the first time,” he muttered. He made his way to the door, only to pause when he realized Thundercracker hadn’t followed him. “Aren’t you coming?”

“In a moment.”

Skywarp gave him an odd look before he shrugged and continued, leaving Thundercracker and Grimlock alone.

“I assume there was something you wanted to say privately?” Grimlock asked. He would admit that at times, he was uneasy around Thundercracker.

Not because he feared Thundercracker, but because there was a depth to Thundercracker which was hard to penetrate. He was a Decepticon, but had always carried himself differently. He was close to Skywarp – lovers, Grimlock assumed – but still somehow held himself apart. He was silent when others spoke, and there was a coldness about him.

In many ways, Thundercracker reminded Grimlock of Prowl. Which was not necessarily a bad thing. That did, however, make him difficult to read.

“Of a sort,” Thundercracker finally said, and closed the distance between them. “It is nothing urgent, but I did have a request.”

Grimlock nodded. “Go on.”

Thundercracker cycled a ventilation. “I am content to do this for Starscream now. I recognize the necessity of it. But in the future, I recommend Sunstorm be nominated as temporary Air Commander, and he who should be listed as Starscream’s heir.”

“You are certain?”

Thundercracker nodded. “Yes.” He unfolded his arms, straightening his backstrut. “Leadership has never been my purview, and while Sunstorm is young in comparison, he has already demonstrated an aptitude for intelligence, fairness, and competence. I would support his ascension, should we need it.”

“Hopefully, it will not come to that, save far in the future,” Grimlock replied. “But I will keep your nomination in mind. So long as Starscream seconds it, I see no issues.”

“Thank you.” The corner of Thundercracker’s lips curved in an approximate smile. “For what it is worth, I am relieved that you are the leader we now serve. I am glad, also, for the effect you have had on Starscream.”

“I adore him,” Grimlock said. He saw no reason to be coy. His affection for Starscream was no secret, especially not one he intended to keep from Starscream’s trinemates.

Thundercracker huffed a laugh. “I am beginning to see that.” He inclined his helm. “Skywarp and I will sit with him for a time. Perhaps you should see to your siblings? Consider some recharge, refueling, maybe even a trip through the washracks?”

Grimlock could take a hint when he was given one. He didn’t have to look down at himself to know that while he wasn’t filthy, the daily grit of life had accumulated in his joints, and his armor had taken on a dull, dusty sheen. He hardly resembled the picture of a leader in control.

“Very well.” Grimlock unfolded his arms. “Comm me if anything changes. I’ll have the emergency line open to you.”

“Yes, my lord.” Thundercracker’s helm dipped in a respectful bow. “Recharge well.”

If such a thing were even possible, Grimlock didn’t know. He grunted an acknowledgment and took his leave.

He would simply have to trust Starscream to his trinemates for now.

~

Knock Out ached. Fatigue tugged at his struts, his cables. He loathed this feeling with every wire of his being. He had endured it during the war; he did not expect to endure it after the war was called to an end.

But he, like Ratchet and Shockwave, had been working around the clock to find a means to repair Commander Starscream. Knock Out could not more slow down than the others could. He felt, however, the lack of adequate rest and adequate fueling. His finish was atrocious. He hadn’t touched his buffer in days.

Primus, but he needed a drink.

“Thank you, Snarl.”

Knock Out looked up from his datapad, the numbers swimming before his optics, to find Snarl had made himself useful again. Instead of repairing some piece of archaic technology Ratchet insisted would be helpful, he’d brought his creator a cube of what looked to be mid-grade. Spiced in some manner, given the specks floating about in it.

Well. Of course he would bring something for Ratchet.

Knock Out huffed to himself and buried his attention back in his datapad. He knew that right now, he was the least useful of those attempting to help Starscream. He knew nothing of viruses or coding. He was a medic by choice, not creation. He’d bought his way into the academy, bought the best hands a medic could use, and bought everything else he needed.

Including a certificate of graduation when a few of his scores didn’t quite meet the medical standard.

He wished he could say it was because he wanted that much to help people. But the truth was far from it. The medical field carried prestige, honor. It carried a heaping ton of creds, especially for those who focused on augmentations and modifications, and those Knock Out excelled at.

He could alter a mech. He could change them. He could stylize them. He could fix things that were broken. Basic things.

What had been done to Starscream was another matter altogether. It was as much science as it was medicine. It was an insidious, twisted creation, and all Knock Out could do was treat the symptoms.

He’d failed the class on anti-viral coding. He looked at the datapad Ratchet and Shockwave had passed to him – coding which had also been examined by Perceptor and Wheeljack – and all Knock Out could see was gibberish. He could pick out a few things that were basic and easily recognized.

The rest, however, might as well have been written in Skuxxoid.

“You Knock Out need energon.”

Knock Out cycled his optics and looked up, only to see a cube of energon thrust toward his faceplate. It paused within an inch of striking his nasal ridge. It, too, was mid-grade, and subtle sparkling indicated that it had been flavored with iron sprinkles.

Which was his favorite.

“I…” He accepted the cube as Snarl looked down at him. “Thank you, Snarl.” Did he look as surprised as he felt? He hoped not.

A subtle sniff informed him that yes, indeed, it was flavored exactly how he liked it, and obviously different than Ratchet’s had been. How did Snarl know?

“You Knock Out welcome,” Snarl replied and leaned down to tap the datapad. “Hard work, yes? You Knock Out need concentrate.”

Knock Out’s fingers curled around the energon. “That I do. Thank you again.”

Snarl all but beamed at him and then straightened. “Me Snarl go back to work on oscillator–” He carefully pronounced the last word. “You call if need me Snarl.”

“Will do,” Ratchet said, sounding as exhausted as Knock Out felt. “Thanks, kid.”

Snarl’s arm spikes wriggled with happiness. “Mama Ratchet welcome.” His field flooded the room before he lumbered back toward his workstation in the corner of the room.

The tiny space was not one meant to be shared, but it was better to toss ideas across the room then rely solely on comms. Save Shockwave, who was locked in a storage closet nearby, one guarded by one of the new arrivals, a rotary named Spinister. He was a twitchy sort, Knock Out had learned, but he seemed competent. Until Knock Out could observe him in action, however, guard duty would suffice. Glit had the unfortunate luck to be the medic on permanent-call while Knock Out tended to Commander Starscream.

Glit, at least, had the bearings to admit he knew nothing of coding and couldn’t be of help in creating a cure.

The door opened, and Knock Out’s gaze swung toward it as Breakdown rushed inside, clutching a stack of datapads. The Stunticon had been serving as something of a runner for the time being, until they could spare time to begin teaching him. For now, some minor field medicine was the best he could do.

“I have it,” Breakdown announced, waving one of the datapads in particular. “Shockwave updated the coding to account for… for…” He paused and made a face. “For whatever the problem was that made the last test bot, um, explode.”

Explode was a kind way of putting it. The test drone’s processor had melted, his false-spark had imploded, and it had flopped around on the floor as if in the throes of seizure. Ratchet later attributed the failure to some kind of self-defense mechanism on the part of the viruses. A self-executing contingency plan.

Shockwave had called it an ‘unfortunate setback.’

Knock Out powered down his datapad and stood, ignoring the brief wave of dizziness that attacked him. When was the last time he recharged more than a stasis nap? He honestly couldn’t remember. With Lord Grimlock venting down his backstrut, he couldn’t relax enough to power down for longer than a few joors.

“Bring it here,” Ratchet said as he, too, stood. He stowed his own datapad, accepting the one Breakdown offered. “What was the estimated success rate?”

“Ninety-two percent,” Breakdown replied. He moved on to Knock Out, offering another datapad. “Should I go get a test drone?”

“No need get,” Snarl offered as he rummaged underneath his workstation and produced one, though it had obviously seen better days. “Me Snarl fix this one earlier.”

Of course he did. Apparently, Dinobots were geniuses. Who knew?

“Thank you, Snarl. That is most helpful. Knock Out, if you would?” Ratchet produced a transfer cable from his subspace, leaving Knock Out the joyous task of prepping the drone.

He cycled a ventilation and took the drone from Snarl. He produced his own datapad and cable, transferring a clean copy of the virus from the datapad directly into the drone. It was a vile thing. No way was Knock Out letting it get anywhere close to his own systems.

The drone itself was outfitted with an analogue for a Cybertronian’s processor and basic life functions such as coolant cycling, hydraulics, and energon dispersal. It held a central core, a spark analogue, which powered the frame, and even had a small engine.

It was the closest thing they could get to a safe test without using a live Cybertronian. So far, they had destroyed three drones with Shockwave’s ‘cure’. Hope grew dimmer by the moment. Yet, they continued to try.

“It’s ready,” Knock Out said as he plopped the drone onto a stool. He remote-accessed the software, putting the drone into standby. “Infected and waiting for activation.”

“Then here goes nothing.” Ratchet cycled a loud ventilation and connected the anti-viral datapad to the drone’s datapart. “Proceed with activation.”

Knock Out did not hold his ventilations, but he was sorely tempted to do so. He sent the command and watched as the drone twitched, engine instantly revving into a high degree. The virus might have taken time to fully infect Starscream, but this drone had no firewalls, no anti-virus software, nothing to protect it. There was nothing to slow down the progress of the infection.

“Proceeding with anti-viral upload,” Ratchet said, and his fingers flew across the datapad.

There was nothing left to do but wait, watch, and see.

Knock Out disconnected the infected datapad, and took a step back. He learned his lesson from the last one. There was still processor casing stuck in one of his ventral seams and until he could take the time for a detail, it would stay there.

Ratchet, he noticed, also took a step back, though he couldn’t go far as the cord connecting the datapad to the drone did not extend far. Then again, given the condition of Ratchet’s paint job, another processor eruption couldn’t possibly do him much damage.

Knock Out focused on the drone. He checked his chronometer. Thirty seconds and no convulsions. That was a good sign. Then again, the first trial had lasted at least thirty seconds as well.

And then that drone had promptly purged all of the energon in its pseudo-tank and proceeded to claw at its own frame. Subconscious survival protocols had it attacking the source of its discomfort, whatever that had been. It had gotten to its spark-analogue before Knock Out or Ratchet could stop it.

Shockwave’s response: “It was only a drone. Let us try this route instead.”

Sick fragger.

Knock Out pinged his chronometer again.

Two minutes and nothing. The drone shook, its optics flickering. Its hands twitched, but so far, it didn’t appear explosive. It kept its energon in its tanks.

Knock Out glanced at Ratchet, but the chief medic’s face was devoid of expression. He looked calm, his focus pinned on the drone.

Five minutes became ten. By now, trial number three had resulted in Knock Out getting an unwanted blast of processor bits against his chestplate.

The drone’s restless twitching stopped. Its optics brightened and held steady. The low purr of its engine continued to be just that.

Ten minutes became thirty became an hour. Still nothing. No sign of any unfortunate side effects. The drone’s internal temperature was slightly elevated, but that was standard.

“It working?” Snarl asked, the sudden question making Knock Out jump in the expectant silence.

Ratchet stirred. “That is a good question.” He disconnected the anti-viral datapad and set it aside. He crouched down next to the drone. “Hand me a spare datapad, would you? I want to check its coding.”

“Here.” Breakdown juggled the datapads in his arms and offered Ratchet one before Knock Out could so much as stir. “This one’s empty.”

“Thanks.” Ratchet connected it to the drone and started to run a basic diagnostic. His face remained empty of expression, as though he didn’t dare hope.

Knock Out folded his arms over his chestplate. He resisted the urge to tap his pede. If Snarl and Breakdown could wait patiently, so could he.

“The virus is gone,” Ratchet said with a shake of his helm. “It’s nowhere in the drone’s system. I’m seeing elevated spark rate, fuel pump rate, and temperature, but nothing worse than what the average mech would suffer with a nasty rust infection.”

“It works?” Knock Out asked.

“So it would seem.” Ratchet rose to his pedes, still examining the datapad in detail. “I’d like to run the simulation several more times before I even suggest trying it on a living mech, much less Starscream. But yes, it would appear we have a cure.”

Relief left Knock Out sagging. He cycled a long ventilation. Thank, Primus. While he wasn’t close to Starscream, he’d seen the effect Starscream’s condition had on Lord Grimlock and his trinemates. He knew how it could affect the treaty if Starscream died.

Knock Out did not want to go back to war. He quite liked not having to fear for his spark every day of his life.

“And we have Shockwave to thank for it,” Breakdown muttered, clutching his datapads tighter. “Is Lord Grimlock really going to release him?”

“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Ratchet growled. “But that is neither here nor there. Right now, we worry about making sure Starscream recovers. Shockwave can sit in his closet until then.”

“I’ll get another drone,” Knock Out said, already spinning on a heelstrut.

He might not be able to work on the coding, but he could at least play fetch. He hadn’t needed schooling to teach him that much.

Good news was good news, no matter the form it came in. Maybe once Starscream was fixed, things could go back to normal, and Knock Out wouldn’t have to spend days staring at mechs who made him feel inadequate.

That and he could finally have a wash.

One could only hope.

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