[Crown the Empire] Reign 14

Thundercracker’s comm chirped half-a-minute before he was due to hand command back over to Scourge. His engine revved from sheer frustration – he was tired, damn it – but it didn’t last once he realized it was Grimlock pinging him.

One could not ignore the summons of their Lord and Commander.

He bit back a sigh and accepted the ping. Grimlock had better show up for his next shift or so help him Primus, Thundercracker would have words with the entirety of the command staff, Starscream in medbay or not. They might not have been as understaffed as the Autobots, but they still lacked in command mechs.

That was going to change, and soon, if Thundercracker had his way.

“Thundercracker here.”

“I need a headcount,” Grimlock said by way of greeting. “I need a list of every Decepticon’s location as of last night for three hours surrounding midnight. I also need someone to double-check that all prisoners are accounted for and that none could have slipped from their cells.”

Thundercracker cycled his optics. “Has there been a breach?”

“Not in Iacon, but in Polyhex. Optimus’ third was attacked last night, suspected assassination attempt.” A low growl echoed through the comm. “I’ve no doubt Metalhawk is behind it, but I still want data to back us up.”

“I understand. I will gather that information as soon as possible.” Faster, even. This was a potential disaster in the making. “Shall I transmit it to you or–”

“No. I’ll send someone to retrieve it. Thank you, Thundercracker.”

“Yes, sir.” He hesitated to switch the topic to something unprofessional, but since he had Grimlock on the line, it couldn’t hurt to ask. “How is Starscream?”

The business-like nature of Grimlock’s vocals warmed. “He’s expected to make a full recovery. I’ll let you know when he can have visitors. Grimlock, out.”

The comm went silent. Ever abrupt, Grimlock was. And of course he left Thundercracker with a wealth of work to do, something he couldn’t simply entrust to Scourge.

No. Come to think of it, he could impart half of it to Scourge. Cyclonus’ former second doubled as their prison warden after all. He’d know best about the prisoners.

As for the rest…

A smile tugged on Thundercracker’s lips.

It was time that Skywarp got off his lazy aft and did some work around here. If Thundercracker had to work instead of recharging, then so would Skywarp.

~

Nonsense.

It was all nonsense.

Knock Out cursed and whipped the datapad across the floor. It smacked into the wall and tumbled to the ground with a satisfying crack and crinkle of broken transsteel. His engine growled as he glared at the damaged thing.

It was nonsense, and it was pointless, and he didn’t even know why he bothered to try. What was the point anyway? No one cared if Knock Out knew how to code or could read the damn language. They had Shockwave. They had Perceptor. They didn’t need some body modification surgeon making a half-afted effort.

Knock Out huffed a ventilation and stomped across the floor. He swept the datapad up and tossed it into the trash can nearby. He glared at the debris left behind, and ground his denta. He should clean that up, but frag if he wanted to.

“You Knock Out broke thing?”

Knock Out whipped around, surprise echoing in his field. He’d thought he was alone, but no, there was Snarl, the Dinobot peering around the corner at him.

“No,” Knock Out snapped and spun toward the datapad shelf again. “It was broken when I found it.”

“Want me Snarl fix it?”

His engine revved. “What’s the point?” Knock Out retorted, though it came out more petulant than anything. “It’s not going to help me.”

“Help you Knock Out with what?”

Pedesteps. A heavy tread. Well, not even his sour disposition could convince the Dinobot to take shelter elsewhere it seemed. Then again, Snarl did claim Ratchet for a genitor, and Grimlock for an older brother, and Slag for another sibling.

“Nothing,” Knock Out ground out. He flicked a hand dismissively at Snarl. “Don’t you have somewhere to be? Aren’t you off?”

Though, did Snarl even have duties? True Snarl had been given assignment to the medbay, but he wasn’t on the roster. He just seemed to show up whenever he felt like it, and did whatever duty Knock Out pointed him toward.

“Me Snarl where me want be. You Knock Out want energon?”

“Do I… what on Cybertron are you talking about?” Knock Out turned back toward the Dinobot, his face creased with confusion.

Sure enough, Snarl held out a cube of energon to him, the same as before, midgrade spiced with magnesium filings, perfectly mixed and Knock Out’s favorite. Snarl didn’t have a cube of his own either, which meant he’d consumed it already, or had brought this one specifically for Knock Out.

It was late. Too late for any rational mech to be here in the medbay except for the third-shift medic which was Knock Out this time around. He should be alone right now, except for his patients, of which there was just the one – Starscream.

“You Knock Out should refuel,” Snarl said, pushing it toward him again.

Knock Out didn’t know what else to do but accept it. He drew the cube toward his mouth, in-venting the delicate scent. It did smell wonderful, and he found himself drinking half of it before he could think otherwise.

“Thank you,” he said with a little sigh, and rubbed at his forehelm. “I apologize for shouting.”

“That not shouting,” Snarl said with a shrug. “You should hear Mama Ratchet. That shouting.”

Knock Out’s lips curved. “So I’ve been informed.” He shifted his weight, cocking a hip as he looked at Snarl again. “Shouldn’t you be home? It’s the middle of the night.”

Snarl shrugged and ambled further into the room Knock Out had claimed for a pseudo office. “Why you Knock Out throw datapad?”

Knock Out pressed his lips together and focused on the energon cube. He didn’t much like that his ridiculous tantrum had been witnessed. Besides, he didn’t want to talk about it.

“You can tell me Snarl,” the Dinobot insisted, his field rising, but indecipherable to Knock Out, as it often was. “Me Snarl listen good. Me Snarl keep secrets good, too. No one talks to me Snarl so me Snarl have no one to tell.”

Knock Out shook his helm and spun toward his desk. “It’s not something you’d understand, though thanks for your concern.” He flopped into his chair and leaned his helm back, offlining his optics. “You should go home.”

“Don’t wanna.” There was a loud thump as Snarl dropped into the chair across from Knock Out, making a few of his decorative items rattle. “You Knock Out need talk. Me Snarl need listen. Me Snarl stay.”

Knock Out onlined an optic and peered at the Dinobot, who sat there as stubbornly as his elder brother had earlier today. “You won’t go away until I do, will you?”

“Nope. Got nothing better to do,” Snarl replied with a smile full of denta. And apparently, all the patience in the world.

“Fine.” He cycled a ventilation. “I threw the datapad because I don’t understand it.”

Snarl blinked at him. “That make no sense.”

“I’m aware of that.” Knock Out’s lips curled into a thin curve. “Frustration often results in actions that are both unproductive and make no sense.”

“Why you no understand?”

Knock Out scraped his hand down his face. “Because I didn’t pay attention when I should have, and I never learned.”

“You Knock Out can learn now.”

“No, I can’t. I tried.” He made a vague gesture toward the debris on the floor, and the datapad that was no longer of use. “It doesn’t matter anyway.”

“Me Snarl say it do.” The chair creaked beneath Snarl as he leaned forward. “You Knock Out no understand cause you need teaching. Same with me Snarl.” One hand knocked the Dinobot’s helm. “Can’t learn what don’t know.”

Knock Out stared at him.

Should he be concerned that Snarl’s comment actually made sense to him? That of course he couldn’t teach himself something he never understood in the first place.

Only…

Only that meant he would have to ask for help. He would have to grit his denta and make a comm. He would have to put his pride aside and admit that yes, he had his failings, and yes, he wanted to correct them.

Knock Out’s tank twisted.

No. There was no way he was going to contact Ratchet, the CMO of the Autobots and a legend unto himself across all Cybertronians, and admit he needed help. Frag that. No. No way.

Not that First Aid kid either. Learn from some kid who was learning himself? The one who was already set to do great things, since Ratchet had decided Aid would be his successor?

Double no thank you.

“You call Mama Ratchet. He help,” Snarl said.

Knock Out emphatically shook his helm. “Absolutely not. I’d rather throw myself into a hail storm.” Damage to his paint and all.

He rapped his fingertips on the desk, a frown pulling at his lips. He refused to go to an Autobot for help. However… the Neutrals had a medic, didn’t they? Ambulon, he thought the name was, a former Decepticon.

Yes, his paintjob was atrocious, and Knock Out was sure the mech didn’t know how to smile, but he’d seemed professional enough. Exchanging resources had been part of the treaty. He supposed it couldn’t hurt to ask and pfft. Like he cared what a bunch of Neutrals thought about him anyway.

Besides, wasn’t Ambulon helping the Autobots with their spark-twin problem? That meant he had training. Good training. The kind of training that could decipher the mess of coding on the datapad Knock Out hadn’t destroyed.

“But,” Knock Out said slowly before Snarl could suggest someone else, “perhaps Ambulon would be willing to teach me.”

“Me don’t know him Ambulon.” Snarl shrugged. “But whatever you Knock Out say.” He leaned forward, plopping his elbows on the desk. “You call now?”

Knock Out shifted in his chair. “It’s the middle of the night.”

“So?”

Despite himself, Knock Out chuckled. “They really didn’t give you many social protocols, did they?”

Snarl snorted at him. “Me Snarl learning,” he said. “Me Snarl need teacher, too.”

“Really?” Knock Out leaned forward, bracing his elbows and tangling his fingers together. His lips curved into a smile. “Are you asking me for a favor, Snarl?” He had to admit, it was an intriguing idea.

Besides, he figured he had to find some way to say thank you for all the things Snarl had fixed in the medbay. He was proving to be more use and less trouble than Knock Out had initially feared.

That he could remember Knock Out’s favorite energon was a definite plus.

“Not favor. Just asking,” Snarl said, and he ducked his helm as though embarrassed. “Me Snarl no want sound stupid anymore.”

It felt like a punch to the spark. Knock Out could sympathize. Wasn’t it the very same thing he was just ranting to himself about? How very little he knew in his professed field.

“All right,” Knock Out agreed quietly. “I’ll teach you, and maybe you can show me how to fix the converter.”

Snarl’s helm snapped back up. “Me Snarl just fixed that!”

“Yeah. Well, I might have… broken it? Again.” Knock Out coughed a ventilation over his shoulder, letting his apology fizzle in his field. “Do we have a deal?”

Snarl grumbled something and shoved his hand across the desk. “Okay,” he said. “Deal.”

Well, Knock Out reasoned as they shook. It wasn’t the worst decision he’d ever made. Besides, it might even turn out to be fun, and that was definitely something in short supply around here.

~

Starscream surfaced to consciousness, feeling dull, achy, and parched. It was a familiar sensation, one he’d grown to loathe during the entirety of his tenure with the Decepticons. Sadly, his short-term memory was not being helpful.

What had he done to frag off Megatron this time around?

He didn’t online his optics, not just yet. Nor did he move. He didn’t want Hook to know he was online, because that usually meant Megatron would be alerted, and he’d come by just to snarl and threaten at Starscream all over again.

Recovery was never a solitary process either.

System checks returned. The diagnosis confused him. He’d been repaired, but there was no evidence of physical damage. Instead, it looked as though his internals had taken a beating. His processing felt sluggish, his ventilations shallow.

That was new.

Awareness returned, albeit at a slow crawl. He registered that he was connected to a few machines, one of which was definitely an energon drip. His levels currently hovered at sixty percent, which was pretty standard for a mechanism who had gone through surgery recently. But he wasn’t alone. His field detected that of another, albeit one that was in a resting state.

No one ever bothered to hover by his berthside after Megatron’s lessons. Thundercracker and Skywarp used to, until they learned that could often cultivate Megatron’s wrath on its own. Megatron wanted Starscream isolated. Wanted him abandoned and alone.

He certainly succeeded in that much.

Starscream couldn’t pretend to be unconscious forever. He wouldn’t be the coward who hid from Megatron’s rage. He would find a way. He always did.

Steadying himself, Starscream forced his optics online. Above him, a metallic ceiling held white lights at half-power.

This was not the Victory. He’d have known the Constructicon medbay anywhere, and this was not it.

Sluggish processing kernels started to show some life. Memories filtered in, slotting back into place. No. The Decepticons had abandoned the Victory and Earth. They’d pulled back to Cybertron. Because Starscream had a plan and for once, Megatron had listened.

Had that plan failed? Was that what required this punishment?

Or… No. No, the plan had succeeded. It had succeeded too well, as a matter of fact. Megatron reveled in his victory. He gloated about it, as though the plan had been his all along.

He’d killed Skyfire.

Yes. Starscream remembered now. He’d killed any Autobot capable of space travel, and then every Autobot capable of flight. He’d hunted down the rest and made them captives. He’d destroyed Optimus Prime in all but name.

Until…

Starscream turned his helm and found the origin of the second energy field, draped over the side of Starscream’s medberth and deep in recharge. One hand enclosed one of Starscream’s, and ex-vents tickled at his plating.

Grimlock.

Starscream twitched his hand, easing it from Grimlock’s loosened hold. It took greater effort than he liked to move it toward his lover, resting his palm against the side of Grimlock’s helm. His thumb brushed the edge of Grimlock’s face mask as he heard Grimlock’s ventilations tick upward, signs that he was waking.

His field reached out, searching for Starscream’s, and it was sad that his own was ragged as it reached back. Something had done a number on him. Something that was not Megatron, obviously. The last thing Starscream remembered was feeling odd seconds before he blacked out mid-flight.

Grimlock’s visor dimmed and then lit. He lifted his helm, visor turning toward Starscream, and then his field spiked, jagged and warm.

“Starscream…?”

“How long was I out?” Starscream asked, alarmed by the croak in his vocalizer. It grated and ground as though it hadn’t been activated in days.

His hand slid from Grimlock’s helm to his shoulder and down Grimlock’s arm, until Grimlock captured it again as he sat up straight.

“A little under two weeks,” Grimlock answered, his voice wreathed in static as well. “There was a moment there we feared you wouldn’t survive.”

Starscream cycled his vocalizer. “Survive what?”

“A virus.” Grimlock squeezed his hand, his field almost suffocating the way it surrounded Starscream and encloaked him. “One Acid Storm passed to you when you exchanged datapads.”

Acid Storm?

Starscream went cold internally. One of his own had betrayed him? Not only a Decepticon, but a Seeker as well? He wished he weren’t so surprised. He knew Acid Storm had expressed displeasure with Starscream’s leadership, but to attempt to kill him?

Starscream worked his intake. “I assume he is in the brig then?”

“No. Acid Storm fled to Nova Cronum. He is under Metalhawk’s protection right now.” Grimlock’s free hand rubbed at his mask, his field spiking with irritation. “In case you were wondering where he got such a virus.”

Anger spiked within Starscream, but he didn’t have enough energy to sustain it. There was only a tired outrage. Then again, he should have known. Kill Starscream was sort of the Decepticon mantra. That no one had ever succeeded didn’t make it less so.

“I see,” Starscream said, but his lips softened into a smile nonetheless because Grimlock was here. “And you… you’ve been here?”

Grimlock scooted forward, leaning close enough that he could press their forehelms together. “Where else would I be?”

“I don’t know. Running the Decepticons perhaps?”

Grimlock loosed a soft chuckle. “Cyclonus and Thundercracker, though not happy with it, have been more than capable substitutes.”

“Mmm.” Fatigue tugged at Starscream. He couldn’t shake it. “I guess since I’m awake, I’m going to make it?”

Grimlock squeezed his hand, his field wrapping around Starscream. “Yes. Your frame needs to recover. The virus infected your self-repair. So you’ll be berthbound for a bit, but yes, Starscream, you’re going to make it.”

“That’s good.” Starscream managed a smile, his field reaching for Grimlock’s as well. “Guess I’m still hard to kill.”

“I’m glad for that.” Grimlock leaned back. He pulled Starscream’s hand to his mouthplate and pressed Starscream’s knuckles against it. “I didn’t want to lose you.”

Starscream’s spark throbbed. “You could have just found another Seeker,” he said flippantly.

“Not when you’re the one I want.” Grimlock’s visor dimmed, his vocals crackling with static. “Do not even joke about such things.”

Starscream worked his intake. The fierceness in Grimlock’s reply surprised him. “You sure?” he asked, ignoring the tug of fatigue, the pop ups that insisted he return to the pull of recharge. “Fun is all well and good, but I’m damaged goods, my lord. There’s a lot more broken in me than that virus caused.”

“You are neither damaged nor broken, but one of the strongest mechs I know,” Grimlock insisted, leaning closer. “You will recover, you will get out of this berth, and together, we will make sure Metalhawk is not a threat, the DJD are nothing to fear, and the Decepticons should have been in your hands all along.”

Starscream’s ventilations hitched. “You mean that.”

“Yes, I do.” Grimlock’s hands squeezed his. “I asked to court you, and I meant that as well. Circumstances what they are, I haven’t even begun to show you how much.”

Starscream’s mouth opened, but he had no words. His spark was squeezing in his chassis, as though the emotion was too heavy to bear. There was nothing but sincerity in Grimlock’s voice, in his field.

One of Grimlock’s hands cupped his helm, thumb sweeping over his cheek. “You need to rest now. In this berth, mind. Don’t think I don’t know you’re going to try and get out of it.”

“I don’t much like lying around,” Starscream admitted, and he pressed his helm into Grimlock’s hand, unable to help his need for comfort. “But I guess I have to in this case. I don’t think I can move anyway.”

“That’s because most of your motor relays are still non-responsive.” Grimlock paused and tilted his helm as he straightened. “Hold on. Optimus is pinging me.”

Starscream frowned. What in the world could the Prime want now? What had he missed while he was unconscious and aberth?

Whatever had happened, the conversation was happening internally. Grimlock had no expression to read, but his field rippled with irritation, and just a hint of agitation. His fingers tightened briefly around Starscream’s, before his visor brightened and he focused on Starscream again.

“Damn,” he muttered. “Duty calls.”

“What does Optimus want?”

“To discuss Metalhawk and Jazz both,” Grimlock replied with a heavy ventilation. “Jazz was attacked two nights ago, suspected assassination attempt, though Metalhawk’s the only one who thinks they blame us.”

Starscream’s optics cycled wide. “All that happening and you think I’m going to remain in the berth?”

Grimlock chuckled and rose to his pedes. “I think that’s exactly where you’re going to stay.”

Starscream huffed. “And why is that?”

“Because you’ll be scarier when you’re repaired.” He leaned over the berth, pressing his mouthplate to Starscream’s forehelm. “Recharge. Recover. I’ll return as soon as I can.”

Starscream grumbled, but even if he wanted to argue otherwise he couldn’t. His frame betrayed him with fatigue. Warmth flooded his internals.

“All right,” he said, and found himself reluctant to let Grimlock go as his partner – his Intended – drew back. “Stay safe out there.”

Grimlock chuckled. “Me Grimlock Lord,” he said, affecting his former speech patterns as one hand thumped his chestplate. “No one defeat me Grimlock.”

“You’re lucky I find that charming,” Starscream muttered. But it did put a small smile on his face.

Recharge tugged at him harder, his awareness slowly pulling inward as his systems began shifting into standby.

“Come back later,” Starscream murmured as he felt himself sliding back toward the dark, though this time it was warm and welcome, rather than alarming.

Grimlock said something back, but it was lost to the embrace of recharge.

~

“Captain on deck!”

“Welcome, captain,” Thundercracker said as Krok stepped onto the central command platform. He’d never been so glad to see another Decepticon before.

Thundercracker was exhausted and ready to go back to berth to snuggle with Swoop and Skywarp. He’d worked a double yesterday, including finding that information for Lord Grimlock, and today, he’d worked a shift and a half. All he wanted now was a nice long night of uninterrupted recharge as well, and both of his flying companions owed him a nice polish.

Krok snapped off a quick salute. “Anything I should know before I take over?” he asked with an air of professionalism Thundercracker greatly appreciated.

“No.” Thundercracker shook his helm and gestured to the calm command center around him, where the rest of the stations were being swapped out for shift change as well. “All’s quiet so far. Keep an audial open for potential communiques from Nova Cronum or Polyhex, but otherwise, there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Good to know.” Krok tilted his helm and looked at him, visor glowing dimly. “And if you don’t mind me saying so, sir, you could use some recharge.”

Thundercracker chuckled. “Don’t I know it. If you need an answer from higher up, Cyclonus should be out of his scheduled recharge in an hour.”

“Will do.” Krok nodded and folded his arms behind his back, taking Thundercracker’s place. “Have a pleasant recharge.”

“I shall certainly try.” Thundercracker dipped his helm in farewell and turned to go, relief throbbing through every inch of his achy, exhausted struts.

Which was of course the moment something in the command panel behind him started to chime. He told himself to ignore it, to keep walking. Krok was on duty; Krok could handle it.

“Frag,” the Scavenger captain cursed, loud enough that it rang through Thundercracker’s audials and snagged him. “Sir, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think this is above my paygrade.”

Of course it was. When would they get to the part where Thundercracker said he didn’t want to lead and others believed him?

Thundercracker’s shoulders sagged. He turned back toward Krok, mentally preparing a list of Decepticons who needed the worst duties. “What is it?”

“A new arrival.” Krok pressed several keys on the console, activating the main screen and tapping into the surveillance system. “Due to land in about fifteen minutes, it just broke atmosphere.”

Thundercracker’s optics lifted to the screen as a sleek, silver ship came into view. “Decepticon?”

“That depends on who you’re asking,” Krok said in a tight tone. His plating shivered. “It’s the Peaceful Tyranny.”

Thundercracker stepped closer, his orbital ridge drawing down. “Should that name mean something to me?”

Krok glanced around them and then lowered his vocals, stepping closer. “It’s the ship that belongs to the Decepticon Justice Division, sir,” he said, anxiety leaking into his field and his tone.

Thundercracker startled, his spark strobing in his chassis. “How did we not track their arrival sooner?” he demanded as he lurched toward the console, already queuing up the emergency contact list in his processor.

“We don’t have a communications specialist! And they can cloak their ship,” Krok explained as he moved aside, to another console. The screen above them split, showing several surveillance angles. “I’d brought the decoding algorithm with me, but they must have reprogrammed their shields. I’m sorry.”

Thundercracker shook his helm. “It’s not your fault. You did the best you could. Contact the medbay and let them know we have incoming. I’ll ping Grimlock. After that, start prepping the troops, put everyone on standby.”

“Yes, sir.”

Thundercracker worked his intake, and tried not to let his worry consume him. They were only five mechs. Powerful, skilled, and talented mechs. But there were only five. Clearly, they wouldn’t be able to destroy the entirety of the Decepticons on their own.

It was the casualties required to take them down, however, that had Thundercracker worried.

He braced himself and pinged Grimlock.

“Sir, we have a situation.”

~

Glit had just walked out the door, it sliding shut behind him, when Knock Out’s comm pinged. He groaned, rubbing a hand down his faceplate. Seriously? The moment he took over?

“Knock Out here,” he answered as he browsed the datapad Glit had left for him. It was his report on Starscream’s progress and the list of maintenance appointments Knock Out had for the day – fewer than he would have expected.

“It’s Thundercracker,” came the terse response. “We’re on high alert. Prep the medbay for potential casualties and lock it down in case of a breach. I’ve contacted Blackout and Spinister both as extra security.”

Knock Out paused midstep, his spark thumping his chassis. “Are we under attack?”

“Of a sort. The DJD will land in ten minutes.”

The DJD!?

Knock Out’s datapad nearly flew out of his hands. Primus! He looked down, checking and reassuring himself that his Decepticon badge was present and accounted for. Sure, sometimes, he didn’t bother to keep it because it clashed with his paintjob. But at times like these, a little color-clashing couldn’t hurt, right?

There it was, an unsightly bright purple mark in the middle of his hood. An unsightly badge that might be enough to save his spark.

Might.

Did it count if he was a Decepticon under Grimlock, a former Autobot? Or would they all be considered guilty by association?

Oh, Primus. He’d helped repair an Autobot or two, hadn’t he?

He was doomed. Totally and utterly doomed.

“Knock Out!”

Thundercracker growled at him across the comm, snatching Knock Out from his spiraling thoughts of despair. His hands shook, he realized. He couldn’t run. There was nowhere to run.

“I’ll…” Knock Out paused, cycled a ventilation. “I’ll prepare the medbay, sir.” He lifted his gaze to the door, where Snarl and Breakdown perched at their respective workstations. The former was repairing some kind of pump; the latter was studying a basic skills datapad.

“It is a precaution. We’re already establishing a line of defense, but put Blackout on Starscream’s door anyway,” Thundercracker added, sounding as harried as Knock Out felt. “They’ll come for him if we fall.”

Knock Out’s ventilations stuttered. He thought, for a split-second, that he should flee while he still could. He’d seen remnants of Tarn’s idea of justice. He’d seen the lowest of what Megatron was capable, and knew his enforcers were ten times worse.

“Then I pray that you do not fall, sir,” Knock Out said, with more bravery then he ever thought himself capable.

“At this point, prayers can only help. Thundercracker out.” The line went dead. It buzzed with empty space.

Knock Out stared unseeing into the distance. Fear warred with duty. He knew what he was supposed to do. He didn’t know if he was brave enough to do it.

He stepped into the main atrium, and both Breakdown and Snarl looked up at him. “We’re expecting unfriendlies shortly,” Knock Out said by way of warning. “I’ll be remaining here to prepare for casualties. As for you two–”

“Me Snarl stay,” Snarl said with a huff, turning back toward his work. His shoulders hunched. “Medics always need protection. Me Snarl stay.”

“I’ll stay, too,” Breakdown added, though it was with a ducked helm. He didn’t sound as confident as Snarl. “I mean, I don’t really have anywhere else to go, and I’m still not allowed to have my weapons, but I’ll do what I can, you know?”

Knock Out leaned against the frame and watched them both. “It is the DJD,” he said.

“So?” Snarl asked.

“They’ll find me eventually.” Breakdown shrugged. “Like Dead End would say, ‘why delay the inevitable?’” He leaned back over his datapad.

And that, Knock Out supposed was that. He couldn’t very well run away now. Besides, where would he go?

“Suit yourselves,” Knock Out said, pushing himself off the frame and waving at them dismissively. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Snarl’s dismissive snort followed him back out.

~

Cyclonus ended the comm with Krok and cursed subvocally, a low growl building in his intake. He’d gotten rest, but only just, and now was the worst time for something to happen, which explained why the DJD picked this moment to arrive.

It was only a matter of time before the all call to battle standby went out. Cyclonus himself knew he would be on the frontlines. He would not trust his safety to others, and as third in command, he felt it was his duty to stand against the DJD.

Cyclonus had never been fond of Megatron’s justice department, or Megatron’s decision to create one. It was one of many reasons Cyclonus had taken his unit and volunteered for the more distant outposts. Tarn’s brand of loyalty was something that Cyclonus did not want anyone in his unit to emulate.

Cyclonus moved to his locked cabinet and pulled open the doors. There was a single item he kept in here, one meant for emergencies only. The Great Sword was not a weapon to use lightly. It was one for times of desperation.

This counted as one.

Cyclonus removed the sword from its housing and attached it to the clasp on his back, one that often went unused. He felt the gem in the hilt reach for and latch into his energy field. His spark pulsed in greeting.

But therein lay the danger.

Cyclonus closed the cabinet and headed for the door. There was nothing else he needed here. Nothing except…

He paused and accessed his comm, dialing Tailgate’s private line. The minibot would be receiving the call to arms soon, and Cyclonus did not want him to respond. Tailgate had no business fighting. If he had only listened to reason, he’d still be in Nova Cronum, in relative safety.

Tailgate picked up almost immediately. “Cyclonus? Shouldn’t you still be in recharge? What’s wrong?”

“Do you remember where the nearest maintenance tunnel access is?”

“Of course I do.” Tailgate’s confusion flooded his vocals. “Why are you asking me that? Is there a problem?”

Cyclonus cycled a ventilation and told himself not to pace. The Great Sword sent a wave of reassurance, but it fell flat. “The Decepticons are facing an attack. I want you to head for the tunnels and take them straight to Nova Cronum.”

If Iacon fell, Cyclonus had no doubt Polyhex was next. He prayed Metalhawk had enough sense to leave were such to happen. Cyclonus did not know if Tarn would target the Neutrals or not. Megatron had never been fond of anything that branded itself Neutral, claiming they were merely almost-Autobots.

“What? No! I can fight!” Tailgate argued, the huff of his ventilations transferring through the comm. “I don’t want to run away!”

“The DJD don’t care how brave you are, Tailgate!” Cyclonus snapped and had to force himself to cycle back. He rubbed a hand down his faceplate. “They will murder you and mutilate you because they can. And they will laugh while they do it. If I must fight them, then I cannot do it whilst I am concerned for your safety. Do you understand?”

Silence.

“Tailgate?”

“You’re worried about me,” the minibot finally responded, though he sounded more subdued than Cyclonus expected. “I do understand that. And… and I’ll do what you ask. This time. But don’t you dare die, Cyclonus. You hear me?” His words gained strength by the end, until they were fierce and strong.

Cyclonus bowed his helm, hands pulling into loose fists at his side. “I am not in the habit of making promises I cannot keep, but I mean to survive this.”

“I guess that’s all I can ask for.” Tailgate paused before adding, “Good luck, Cyclonus.”

The comm went silent. Cyclonus cycled a ventilation. That was one concern out of the way, now for the rest.

He left the room, dialing one more comm as he did so. Lord Grimlock might not approve of the plan, but Cyclonus was leaving nothing to chance. If the DJD got through the first line of defense, Cyclonus did not intend to give them an opportunity to wreak havoc elsewhere.

“Scourge? I need you to prep contingency plan alpha,” Cyclonus said as his second in command responded. “Be prepared to activate them if the worst should happen, but not until then. Am I clear?”

For what else could stop a threat like Tarn and his band of marauding murderers but a trio of Phase Sixers?

Cyclonus could only hope that it would not come to that.

~

Surveillance tracking supposed that the Peaceful Tyranny would land here, in the middle of the air field. Having no experience against its commander, Tarn, Grimlock bowed to the knowledge of his subordinates.

Tarn, they said, was a showman. He was all the worst parts of Megatron, including his ego. He would make no attempt to attack in stealth and silence. He would make a production out of it.

So that he would land in the middle of Iacon proper was expected.

Grimlock was not nervous. Agitation threatened to infect his field, but he battled it back down. He would not lose. There was too much at stake. He was not afraid of a handful of soldiers, no matter how special they were. His leadership was on the line. His spark was on the line.

Starscream’s spark was on the line.

Grimlock would not lose. He took precautions because he was not an idiot, but he still had no intention of losing. There were only a half-dozen of them. He did not believe for a second that they could get past this line of defense. But he would rather be over-prepared than under-prepared. He would rather know that his soldiers were safe, and Cybertron as well, then let concern distract him.

He refused to fall here. He refused to let Megatron’s favorite pet be his end.

A locator ping made Grimlock look up to see a jet streaking into view overhead before it transformed to root-mode, dropping down to the ground beside him. He recognized Cyclonus immediately, though not the rather large sword strapped to his third’s back.

“Scourge is preparing our contingency plan,” Cyclonus said as he folded his arms across his chestplate. “He’s dialed into the surveillance and has been instructed not to activate unless we have offlined.”

Grimlock inclined his helm. “Good. The evacuations?”

A loud boom preceded Thundercracker’s arrival, seconds before he, too, dropped from the sky to land on Grimlock’s other side. Fragging flyers, always had to make an entrance. He was not alone either, both Skywarp and Sunstorm arrived with him, though they were in much better shape than Thundercracker. His field reeked of fatigue, but his optics were bright and angry.

“You are in no condition to fight,” Grimlock observed.

Thundercracker shook his helm. “If I must die, it will be fighting, not asleep in my berth.” He cycled a loud ventilation, his hands forming fists. “Everyone’s received the call to arms. Non-combatants are making their way to the gate now. I assume Polyhex is set to welcome them?”

“Polyhex intends to evacuate as well. They will send every non-combatant through the space bridge and they are on standby to do so.” Grimlock shifted his weight, his gaze focused on the horizon. “There are plans in place to destroy it behind them, should the need arise.”

“And here we thought you weren’t taking their threat seriously,” Skywarp said with a laugh. “I knew you were smarter than you looked.”

Grimlock cut him a look, not that it did anything to dissuade the cheer in Skywarp’s tone.

“We are the first line of defense,” Grimlock said. “I intend for us to be the only line that will be needed.”

“Awful optimistic, aren’t you?” Sunstorm commented. His armor gave off a slight glow, and Grimlock seemed to remember hearing he could be radioactive at times.

That would come in handy.

“You could call it that. I am also stubborn and determined.” Grimlock cycled a ventilation. “I’ll not lose anyone else.”

Mild noise behind him made Grimlock turn, finding that Brawl, Slag and Swoop had arrived, the former two jostling each other and making macho grunts at one another.

“We fight, too!” Slag announced with a huff and a snort. If he’d been in Dino-mode, he’d have spewed fire as well.

“You are no longer a Decepticon,” Grimlock said, addressing Brawl specifically. Somehow, he didn’t think Onslaught would approve of this.

Brawl shrugged. “I’m not anythin’ with a badge,” he said, and scratched at his faceguard. “I’m whatever I wanna be and right now, I wanna kick some DJD aft. That a problem?”

“That no problem!” Slag said, loudly. “I kick more DJD aft than you.”

“Hah.” A deep laugh rolled through Brawl’s chassis. “We’ll see about that.”

“Frankly, I’m all for anyone fighting who wants to fight,” Sunstorm said, his wings twitching and his field a jittery mess. “Especially if it betters the odds.”

“Me Swoop fight,” Swoop said as he came up on Grimlock’s side, sliding in next to Thundercracker. “You Grimlock not stand alone.”

Grimlock patted him on the shoulder. He knew better than to argue with any of his brothers, though he strongly wanted to do so. The images of Sludge still haunted him. He would never forgive himself for that failure.

“Snarl’s in the medbay,” he said to Swoop.

“Me know.” Swoop grinned, a sparkle glinting in his optics. “Him Snarl have crush on him Knock Out.”

Grimlock rebooted his audials. “What?”

“They are here.” Cyclonus’ grim announcement dragged Grimlock back to what was more important, though he slotted that little piece of information to the back of his processor for later.

Cyclonus was correct. Grimlock followed his line of sight to see a sleek, silver ship descending from the sky. It was unerringly headed toward where Grimlock and his Decepticons had gathered.

“Are the snipers in place?” Grimlock asked as his defensive and offensive protocols started cycling into readiness. All around him, he could hear many systems powering on, blasters charging, fields vibrating with agitation.

“Yes,” Cyclonus said.

“I still say we should try bombing it out of the sky,” Skywarp muttered.

“We don’t know what kind of ordinance the ship is carrying, Warp,” Thundercracker reminded him as he rubbed a hand down his face. “We risk setting off a massive chain effect.”

“And we don’t want that,” Sunstorm said.

No, they did not. And that uncertainty was the only reason Grimlock hadn’t ordered that they blow the Peaceful Tyranny out of the sky.

The ship landed, gleaming in the passing starlight. The exit ramp descended, but no one appeared just yet. They liked to make an entrance, Grimlock had heard. Surely, they knew the agitation was only building.

Grimlock pushed to the front of his command staff, his gaze focused on the ship. “If any of you wish to flee now, I will not hold it against you.”

“We’re with you, boss,” Skywarp said.

“I refuse to run,” Cyclonus said. “There is something I must protect.”

No one fled. Not that Grimlock expected them to.

A shadow darkened the frame of the ship’s docking ramp. In a flash of light, Grimlock saw the echo of a Decepticon badge.

So be it.

Let them come.

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