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Screaming Blue Murder, chapter 18

Been a bit delinquent with my posting, sorry. :\ It's always up to date on FF.net, but doing the hutmuls for ElJay takes a while. Maybe I shouldn't use so many ital- nah. We like italics, yess. *nods*


Screaming Blue Murder
Chapter 18

Recycling plant 4, district west 19, was quiet, and empty, and abandoned – certainly for several vorns at a minimum, and probably for far longer if the little clusters of flourishing green xenobiotics were anything to go by. It was the perfect place for machines to meet to discuss things that should not be discussed in polite society.

Skywarp touched down lightly in the large open area at the centre, depositing Pulsar roughly onto her feet in front of him – she was quivering, but he wasn’t sure whether it was because of their speed of travel, being in such close proximity to someone who’d threatened to kill her, or that she just didn’t like heights, and she seemed disinclined to elaborate.

To say the place was “creepy” was probably a contender for “understatement of the vorn”. The plant had obviously gone unused for a small eternity, and the old piles of waste material intended for recycling had become loosely-defined hills, slumping into each other over time. The unkempt mills and smelters had gone oxidised with age, seizing up into crippled inactivity – Cybertron’s atmosphere wasn’t particularly moist, but there was apparently enough damp in the air for heavy layers of rust to have formed. Some of the oldest machines had rotted right away, in places, sagging sideways like old dead trees. Spindly little green and blue vines had even sprung up, scrambling in a bright curtain up over the worn machinery – xenoforms that had probably been walked in by some unwary scientist, before the war, had found a tenuous roothold in this deserted place, and evolved to fill a niche that had never been occupied until now.

Neither machine liked it. It felt far too much like an inorganic graveyeard. The slightest wrong move, and they’d both end up scattered like so many brightly coloured chips of junk across these old hills, being slowly chewed down into dust by alien plantlife.

“So where are these ‘contacts’ of yours, then?” Skywarp challenged, folding his arms, trying not to look unnerved by the choice of meeting place. He didn’t charge his weapons juust yet, but made sure the energy was there and the plasma coils were hot for a quick startup.

“I don’t know. They just gave me the time and location,” Pulsar wrapped her arms around herself, unconsciously moving a tiny fraction closer to him. (Better the devil you know, and all that.) “They’ll find us. They’re always one step ahead, they’re probably watching us right now.”

“Huh. I don’t like the idea of them having the upper hand,” he observed, turning a full circle and casting an efficient hunting gaze over the piles of junk. “We’re already at the disadvantage, without having to be at their beck and call just to remain functional, as well.”

“Well, unfortunately that’s just something you’re going to have to get used to,” a voice said, from somewhere behind, and even Skywarp jumped. One of the pools of shadow shifted, divided into two, then there was the low hum of power-convertors, and the smaller inkblot rippled, shimmered away…

Fatigue emerged from behind his baffle, and his smirk was spread all the way from one audio vent to the other. “And my, look who it is. My favourite little Seeker. You want a rematch, love, or shall we just get straight to business without me having to grind you into the ground first?”

Skywarp twitched, and flexed his fingers into fists at his side. “I seem to remember you running away last time,” he pointed out, and was satisfied to see more than a flicker of irritation pass through his rival’s face.

“I seem to remember you could barely stand up.”

“…and I still managed to thoroughly kick your aft.” Skywarp lifted his chin and stared defiantly up at him. “What exactly do you want?”

“What do you think I want?”

“I won’t play your games, Fatty. Just come out with it.”

“Well, unless I’m very much mistaken, you have a small problem,” Fatigue said, smoothly. “And you won’t find a solution to that problem unless you come with us. We’ll… discuss matters. Come to an agreement of some sort.”

“You’re referring to the Blue,” Skywarp guessed, flatly.

“Of course. We’re honoured to finally have you on our ‘payroll’,” Fatigue swept down into a mocking bow of fake respect.

“Only through sneaking and trickery,” Skywarp snapped, defensively.

“Like any good Decepticon,” the giant added, sweetly.

“No. Not at all like any good Decepticon,” Skywarp argued, irritably. “We give people a choice.”

“Oh, so now you’re all noble values and honour.” The caterpillar tractor made a face that could have been best described as rolling his optics. “Well, come on, Sir Seeker. We can’t be keeping the Boss waiting.” He bowed and gestured to where Deuce stood waiting at the head of a narrow aisle between junk-heaps.

Pulsar needed no second bidding – she was low on supplies already. Skywarp was a little more hesitant about complying – Primus only knew what he’d be following them into – but if he could bargain his way off this stuff, then so much the better. Fatigue took up the rearmost position, just in case either thought about making a run for it, and close enough that he stood a good chance at grabbing the flier if he got any ideas of taking flight.

“So… you know him?” Pulsar asked, softly, jerking her head very slightly backwards to indicate the tractor, as they followed Deuce down the narrow aisle between precarious heaps of debris. “He didn’t say.”

“We met, briefly,” Skywarp confirmed, darkly, then noticed the giant was listening in, and sneered and added; “I wiped the floor with him.”

“At least, he made a valiant effort at doing so,” Fatigue corrected, and gave him a big affectionate slap on the back of one shoulder vent that almost sent the flier sprawling into one of the heaps.

“How is your nose, now?” Skywarp challenged, pointedly, easily recovering his poise. “I seem to remember you took a pretty good dive into a wall, last time we met.”

“Don’t push your luck.” Another slap, but this time it was less ‘friendly’, clipped smartly around the back of his head. “Boss wants you on the payroll, but never said it had to be in one piece.”

The central hub of the recycling plant, a vaguely star-shaped building that had once housed offices and dormitories as well as smaller refinery stations, loomed large and foreboding in front of them. It had once been a vision in glittering chrome efficiency, but now it hulked down like a giant rusting beetle, a flurry of broken chimneys jutting from its humped sides like poison quills.

Siphon was waiting just inside the entrance portal, dwarfed by the huge doors; the rusted, flaked metal fronting completely disguised the glittering new alloys that had been plated over the older surfaces just inside.

Skywarp hesitated very very briefly in the doorway; looked pretty dark, and pretty confined in there… No Seeker particularly enjoyed being confined in places where there was no sky visible, and itty-bitty spaces like this were avoided at all costs. He quickly recovered, though – squared his shoulders, set his jaw, and strode boldly through the entrance. Wouldn’t do to let on too much to them about what pressed the wrong buttons, for him. Bad enough they’d got him snared with that disgusting Blue stuff, giving them ideas about his phobias would just compound their hold on him.

“Welcome, friend,” Siphon greeted, bowing amusedly. “We were laying bets on which of Megatron’s Mighty Defectors our little spy in the nest would snare.”

Pulsar sensed a hostile crimson glare on the back of her neck, and averted her gaze.

Siphon shrugged, and smirked. “…We figured it would probably be you.”

“I hate to disappoint,” Skywarp muttered, sourly.

“We have need for your skills,” Siphon explained, seriously, once he was sure he had Skywarp’s attention. “Join us, and we’ll make sure you are well rewarded and well respected. Fight us, and, well… your options will become somewhat limited.”

“When you say ‘join you’, you mean embrace this addiction like you lot clearly have, and denounce any loyalty I have towards my wingmates and my faction?” Skywarp guessed.

“You say that like it’s such a bad thing.” Siphon feigned a hurt tone of voice, woundedly touching his fingers to his chest.

“But you’re biased.”

“If you mean we all use Blue, of one variant or another, then you’re correct,” Siphon confirmed. “Fatigue takes Prophet, Deuce prefers Ruin, and I’m more the Basic sort. But it doesn’t interfere with our daily operations, because we don’t let ourselves run down to vapours, like Skinny over there insists on doing. If she used the product as it was designed, instead of trying to fight it, she wouldn’t keep messing herself up.”

Pulsar cringed back away from him, shamefaced.

“Of course, we anticipate – nay, expect – that you will require perhaps a few orns to make the decision that is most mutually acceptable,” Siphon went on, sweetly. “We have plenty of facilities here for you to use while you think it over.”

“I think you misunderstand – there’ll be no difficulty in coming to a decision,” Skywarp corrected, with a forced smile. “Because it’s ‘no’. I want off this project of yours. Now.”

“Oh, I think you misunderstand, friend Seeker,” the tanker oiled. “The emphasis was on the mutual acceptability of the decision. We can’t just let you amble away with the knowledge you have.”

“What exactly led you to believe that I would find anything about this ‘mutually acceptable’?!” Skywarp flexed his hands. “You’ve got me here through trickery, you’ve got me reliant on your poison through trickery, you beat my wingmate to within an inch of termination, and let’s not forget that you’re trying to usurp the Decepticon position in society, and now you seem to think I’ll just forget all that and agree to whatever nonsense you’re trying to get me to agree to?!”

“Listen, you dopey airhead,” Fatigue broke in, irritably. “One way or another, you’ll work for us. The amount of choice you get is entirely down to you. Accept the proposal, and things will be easy. You’ll get to keep your privileges, respect, autonomy, and so on.” His optics narrowed. “Keep on fragging about the way you are at the moment, and we’ll give you somewhere nice to cool your afterburners while you things through.” He paused, for effect. “Oh, and we’ll only give you a short leash, so we can be sure we know what you’re up to.”

“So it essentially boils down to the one option, right?” Skywarp lifted his chin, trying to maintain the aura of aggressive, arrogant flier. Just to remind them who they were messing with. “We’ll do whatever it takes to get you onto the programme, and if it takes exotic semantics to disguise our meaning, so be it?”

Fatigue leaned down closer to Deuce and murmured, softly, clearly not anticipating Skywarp would hear him; “before we can even try and get anywhere by reasoning with him, we’re gonna have to get him appropriately subdued-”

“Subdued? I’ll show you subdued!” Skywarp howled, and flew at him.

Pulsar scrambled cover behind one of the old drums. She hadn’t expected the violence to flare quite so quickly, and didn’t want to be caught up in it – she was built lightly enough that a kick that would just dent one of the males would probably break her right in half.

Skywarp was every bit as hard to keep hold of as they remembered. There wasn’t the space for him to fly, but the instant he got past the walls – because he’d surely worked out by now that the plating was interfering with his triangulation as well as his communication – he’d be gone. They had to keep him inside… he was clearly aiming for the door, but Deuce got in his way, hefting a bit of old steel like a bat. A badly-placed blow across the lower margin of the wing got the Seeker tumbling in the opposite direction, but now the flier had charged his weapons relays and was bristling with laser fire.

For a few moments, nothing managed to make an effective connection with any of the loyalists, but then a shot clipped a vital support strut and topped on old gantry down square on Fatigue’s broad head. He gave an oof! of effort and staggered beneath the weight, dazedly, gyroscopes smacked offline, out of the fight for now.

Skywarp had no time to spare on gloating. Deuce was back in the fray, trying to get to his wings, and Siphon was directly opposite, behind the Seeker, struggling to get a clean shot into his motor trunk, at the junction where his neck met his fuselage. Skywarp was constantly moving, though, dodging unpredictably and strafing his own laser fire down across them, working his steady way to the door…

Fatigue was predictably resilient – he squared up his gyroscopes very rapidly, recovered his balance, and poised to get back into the thick of the fighting – but also surprisingly speedy, for a machine so large. He lunged back into the offensive before Skywarp had collected enough of his wits to counter him, and delivered a hammer blow from one massive fist to the underside of his jaw. The Seeker promptly collapsed in a jumble of limbs, the impact destabilising his cortex and briefly offlining him.

“All right, quick.” Fatigue snapped off commands. “Hitch, go find a welding torch. Siphon, Deuce, go get the room ready. I’ll bring our troublemaking ‘ally’ along…”

Skywarp made little delirious noises and Fatigue felt a flicker of dismay at the idea he’d actually broken him properly. There was no way they’d somehow succeed at getting another Seeker, especially not the way they’d snagged this one. The other two were far too bright to be caught out with tainted fuel.

“Ought to cut these damn wings off of you,” he groused, manhandling the Seeker up off the floor and slinging his limp form over one shoulder. “How the slag you live a normal life with these great flat lumps of metal sticking out of you, getting in your way all the time, I have no idea. Buuut, the Boss wants a flier, so I guess we’ll just have to work around it…”

Skywarp finally started coming around a breem or so later, once his gyroscopes had finally settled and the electrical disturbance to his shock-destabilised cortex evened out. Everything felt-… odd. Wrong. His gyroscopes suggested he was upright, but he couldn’t feel anyone supporting him. His cannons had deactivated, and there was some sort of baffle keeping commands routing through to reactivate them. And there was the flicker of white light in the corner of his vision, and a thin crackle of high, sharp sound. At first he assumed it was a sensory fault, but reconsidered. It wasn’t static – he was familiar enough with that recently. Sounded like… was that sparks? And what was that hissing?

The world came back into focus with all his weight supported from his wrists, high above his head, and the bright, low hiss of an acetylene torch in the background. That woke him up properly. “What in the-?!” He lurched the rest of the way to his feet, and jerked at a wrist. Heavy chains clanked ominously.

“Oh, good, you are all right,” Fatigue cooed, watching as the Seeker conducted a very brief and frantic examination of his arms, and discovered a tight band of thick chain wrapped twice around the narrowest portion of each wrist, spots of weld keeping it tight. “I began to think I hit you too hard. Primus knows you little fliers are so delicate.”

The Seeker made an inarticulate noise of shocked anger and lurched at him, but the chains pulled him up short. “You let me go at once!” he shrilled, alarmed, sounding uncannily like Starscream for a moment. “Right this instant, you hear me?! Let me go!”

Fatigue chuckled. “Looks like our little Seeker thinks he’s in a good position to be making demands. Isn’t that just…” Beat. “…adorable?”

As if he’d been waiting for the cue all along, Skywarp made a strangled little noise of outrage and threw himself uselessly at the tractor. “I swear I’ll get you for this…!” But the links clanked with a despairing finality at his wrists, and his clawing hands flexed impotently above his head. “How dare you treat me like this-!”

“Well, we gave you all the options you needed, and you didn’t want ’em, so we revised things a smidge,” Fatigue shrugged. “Now you have two choices. Either you quit whining and just take your medicine the easy way, or we’ll wait until you’re hungry enough to see some sense.”

“Don’t get your hopes up for a short wait, Fatty,” Skywarp countered, leaning as close up to the broad face as the restraints would let him. “I don’t know what your usual ‘customers’ are like, but you won’t find me so easy to deal with.”

Fatigue smiled. “Is that so? Well, we’ll see. Come on, lads, we’ll leave him some time to think-…”

Skywarp snarled, inarticulately. Oh, How. Dare. They. Even with his arms pinned, he had one last trick in his subspace, just enough to prove he was no kitten – he twisted his wrists to grab onto the chains and tucked his feet up, supporting himself from his bonds, then kicked, strongly.

Half-Hitch gave a gasp of shock and collapsed; the powerful blow from one of the flying heels had clipped him in the small of the back, where the armour was thin, and severed most of the way through his motor trunk.

“Primus alive-!” Siphon leaped out of reach, tripping over Deuce.

“What in frag’s name-” Fatigue’s smirk fell off so fast it was as if it had been greased. “How the Pit-… Primus, are you gonna regret that-!” He balled his fists, came closer…

Skywarp seized his chance, and lunged for Fatigue the instant the giant had got within range enough-

-Fatigue howled in pain and jerked back, but the Seeker clung on like a particularly tenacious purple attack dog, his dental plates clamped down on one sensitive antenna, thrashing his knife-edged heels at the tractor’s flanks and abdomen, determined to tear something off, if at all possible.

Fatigue bellowed in undisguised outrage, delivered a punch to his assailant’s nose (which had absolutely no effect on the sharp plates that had clamped into his delicate sensory array), then flung his weight backwards and felt the low shhhrrp as the antenna came clean away, trailing wires.

Skywarp bared his denta, triumphantly, clutching the dismembered part between them. “Ha!”

“All right!” Fatigue roared, infuriated. “All right, I’ve had enough. I am completely out of patience! Deuce, Siphon, grab his feet. We’re just gonna have to give him no more options apart from doing exactly what we say, to the damn letter!”

“But Fatigue,” Deuce eyed the wicked thrustered feet that had done such easy, crippling damage to Half-Hitch. “What if he gets me-?”

Skywarp hissed warningly at him, mostly for effect.

“I don’t remember you being such a damn coward before,” Fatigue snarled, and shoved him bodily out of the way; Deuce sprawled inelegantly over Half-Hitch, who lay still watching quietly by the door. “Fine, I’ll do it. The pair of you, go get the torch-”

Skywarp’s first wild kick sent a fracture racing all the way from Fatigue’s elbow joint to the front of his shoulder, and the second snapped his little finger the wrong way, but Fatigue got lucky and managed to secure a hold on his foot on the third flail, and it was all downhill from there. The purple Seeker’s angry yells and shrieks would have done a banshee proud; he struggled valiantly, but Fatigue had the edge when it came down to strength, and easily trapped his flailing legs in a crushing parody of a hug while Deuce carefully looped chain around each of his ankles and Siphon secured it with those little dabs of acetylene weld. The ends of the chain were in turn secured to the floor – not quite closely enough that he could touch his feet together, but with enough slack that he could shift his weight about a little.

“You can’t leave me like this,” Skywarp insisted, grimly, and rustled the heavy metal links across the floor. “You can’t just leave me like this!”

“Oh, we’ll come back, in maybe a vorn or two,” Fatigue snapped, holding the door while Deuce shuffled out, dragging Half-Hitch along, holding him under his arms. “Maybe you’ll have learnt some manners, after that long, although I ain’t holding out a whole lot of hope.”

Then the door banged, a booming thunderclap of sound that made Skywarp wince and his audios ring in pain, and then… silence.

And it’s kinda dark in here, Skywarp noticed, unhappily, putting a little more power behind his optics, wondering if the light would help. The high beam of brilliant crimson struck out into the gloom, brightening one patch and deepening the shadows everywhere else, and reflected sullenly back off black plate wall that seemed to be closing in on him in front. He flinched, involuntarily, in spite of knowing the walls weren’t moving at all – it was just his optics, playing tricks. That was all. Just his optics. Right. He offlined his optics, but that didn’t make it much better.

He shuffled his feet against the floor, and the low clank-clank of his restraints seemed muffled, dampened by the heavy walls. The dark itself seemed to flatten all the sound out. The dark was suffocating, smothering, as if the walls had closed right down on him. His cooling fans sounded inappropriately loud. All the sounds from outside had vanished – he might as well be trapped under a mountain. He forced himself to imagine that he was actually outside, under the endless sky, not so far away from it – so far away from it.

His vents were puffing noisily. How long had he been in here anyway? He had to have been joking when he said he’d leave him here for a vorn. Had to have been. They couldn’t possibly leave him here in this little blot of shadows for ever. He tugged on one arm again, wondering if he could pop the tiny welds that held the chain closed, but the weak points seemed to be in the wrong places for him to get his flagging strength behind. There was just more muffled jangling, quieter than last time. Have to get out.

“…let me out…?” a little voice asked, faintly, and it was only after a moment or two of thought that he recognised it as his own.

The tractor was attempting temporary repairs on his antennae when she finally tracked him down.

Those Unicron-damned Seekers and their stupid ideas. Ow, did his head ever hurt. And he was effectively deaf on one side now. Not all the wires that had been yanked out were solely related to his auditory relays, either. Damn that fragger to the Pit. It’d take major repairs, for such a piffling injury-

“Sl-… Fatigue?” a soft voice spoke up from behind.

Fatigue glanced down at the reflection in the mirror, and curled his lip in a sneer. “What do you want?” he didn’t even turn to look at the shaky Policebot behind him, just watched her via the reflection.

“I’ve… run out of my… ‘medication’,” she replied, faintly, rubbing the palm of her left hand against her hip, trying to get rid of the twitchy feeling in it.

“And…?” the tractor prompted, twisting tiny blobs of adhesive tape around the raw ends of wire jutting from his torn antennae.

Pulsar noticed he didn’t sound particularly friendly. “I-… I need… You said you’d resupply if I brought a Seeker-” she tried, faintly.

He stared down on her, and shrugged, casually. “You haven’t complied with our instructions, femme,” he corrected, softly, examining the tape, and elevated his voice a smidgen to be heard over her protests. “What we said was that you would need to have a Seeker with you, ready to take his next orders from us. Now does that,” he gestured backward at the door that separated them, “look like he is even remotely ready to be taking any instructions from us?”

“But-… but he’s here, doesn’t that count?!” The fracture around her torso had begun to ache at the memory of having the angry Seeker on top of her. “Getting him just to come with me almost killed me-”

“Look, you’ll get your medicine when he starts to behave,” Fatigue grated, softly. “You can either wait it out, or else you can try bribing him into co-operating, if you can’t wait that long.”

She cast her gaze at the closed door, and retreated back away. “I-I’ll wait,” she agreed, hoarsely.

“Good girl.” A massive hand gave her head a mocking pat for good behaviour, and almost drove it down between her shoulders. “Now don’t ask again.”

Something strange was going on with the Blue samples.

Starscream had slipped away from the lab and down to the cold store, where the bulk of the Blue was being kept, determined to get to the bottom of things. All the Blue he tried to test was so contaminated it was worthless – Calibrator’s analyses all recorded something so pure and clean it was hard to believe it was so dangerous, but all the samples he had to work with were disgustingly filthy. He was on the hunt for a clean sample.

An expert fiddle with the lock, the insertion of a couple of wires in exactly the right places and a flick of a switch, and the door pssh-ed softly and depressurised. He smirked triumphantly at the little cloud of vapour that rolled out across the floor, then hooked his fingers around the chilly edge of the door and pulled it open.

The shelving inside was mostly empty; it was probably an old evidence locker, hastily turned into a refrigerator to keep the Blue stable. The shelves at the far end twinkled, however, and threw a sickly cobalt glow into the interior – there were three layers of shelves with ruthlessly neat lines of little samples, all sorted by colour, potency, age, all ready for use. Starscream permitted himself a wry grin – a femme after his own obsessive-compulsive heart. (The ordering could admittedly stand to be revised, as this didn’t make a lot of sense, but that could wait. Besides, Cali would probably go into a panic and change it all back.)

He ran his fingers along the edge of the shelf as he inspected the eye-level samples; all were labelled up with tiny sticky labels written in Cali’s tiny handwriting with variant name, where it had been confiscated from, and when. Most of these had already been tested, he knew, but with luck he’d be able to find a fresh batch. He picked up the analytical device he’d jury-rigged from the lab equipment, thumbed the lid off the closest sample, set the stylus-thin probe into the liquid and watched as the numbers cycled on the readout screen, finally coming up with ‘amber’ level contamination.

Hm. He pursed his lips, thoughtfully, wiped the probe clean on a microfibre cloth, tried the next. He’d assigned a ranking system of contamination, ‘green’ being solely the fractal Blue intoxicant in good high-grade, ‘amber’ being additional chemicals like analytical reagents from the earlier testing, ‘red’ being all the way to low-grade energon and particulate matter. The first few containers were contaminated to amber level, as he’d guessed. So were the next. And the next were all the way into the red. He made a disgruntled face, his optics narrowing. There had to be some greens here somewhere. He dipped the slim probe into the next cube along, running out of samples on this shelf to test, and watched the numbers on the handheld reader cycle slowly for a moment or two. Contaminated, came the report.

Again? Primus, this is getting beyond a joke. He rubbed the back of his neck, irritably. Am I just misinterpreting her results? The first samples were clean as the acid-washed analytical flasks they were stored in – no impurities, nothing, just high quality energon, and that weird fractal intoxicant. He moved along to the next shelf and the next sample. Maybe that was a fluke. Maybe street Blue genuinely IS this filthy.

Or maybe… the thought made him scowl. Maybe shoddy labwork has just spoiled the samples. Never trust a police officer to do a real scientist’s job.

“Well well, what have we here?” a familiar voice intruded on the quiet. “One little Decepticon, caught with his fingers in the till. What exactly are you playing at, Starscream?”

“Not that I feel obliged to explain my actions to you, Autobot – not that you’d understand the subtle nuances of the science anyway – I wanted to find a sample that the forensics lab here hasn’t contaminated beyond useful analysis,” Starscream admitted, glaring over his shoulder at Prowl, sounding more irritable at having to reveal his plans than being caught. “But they’ve contaminated the whole batch. Nothing here is remotely usable.”

“What do you want it for?” Prowl chased. “There’s more than enough raw material here for you to work with.”

“See, I said you wouldn’t get it,” Starscream waved the stylus, angrily, and went back to his testing, crouching by the lower shelf. “I need a clean sample. I need to see what’s on the streets, not this lab-garbled stuff we have in here. If I base a cure off this,” he waved a hand at the spread of sullen cobalt, “I risk basing the cure off the wrong intoxicant, and wasting orns of time getting back on track.”

“Hmm,” Prowl considered, for a while, then – completely unexpectedly – offered; “how about I see if I could find you some?”

“What?” Starscream looked back up, his scowl being replaced by a curious pout.

“Well, you can hardly go, can you?” Prowl challenged. “They think you’re dead. If they find out you’re not, they may try again.”

“Tch, what is this nonsense? ‘Care for your pet Decepticon’ day?”

“Oh, hardly. I just don’t want the collateral damage on my conscience when they try to get at you, because it occurs to me that they don’t seem the sort to just give up if there’s something they want and don’t have.”

“Hm. Well, you know, I have got quite good at pretending to be someone I’m not, and like you say, they already think I’m dead,” Starscream reminded, amusedly. “A lick of paint and they’ll probably never know.”

“Possibly – but there’s not many of your kind about here, right now, are there? It’ll only look suspicious.”

“They didn’t suspect last time.”

“That’s as may be. Best we err on the side of caution – who else are we possibly going to find to cure the thing if you get yourself incapacitated?”

The last had been intended as sarcastic, but Starscream either didn’t see it or – more likely – ignored it. He nodded modestly. “Well, that is true. I am the most competent scientist here. All right, Autobot. If you can find me some new supplies, it would be most useful.”

With nothing else to do, Pulsar had settled outside Skywarp’s closed door, legs crossed, and rested her chin in her hands. She was a confused muddle of emotions – resentment, fear, shame, even a flicker of sympathy for the poor Seeker behind the door. Not all the sounds that had spilled mutedly around the edge of the door had been nasty curses or the crashing noises of useless struggle – some had been the thinner, quieter, fracturing mumblings of someone trying not to let their phobias betray their confidence. Fatigue and co would never have bothered to listen to him in the first place, and she felt oddly obliged to keep her own counsel; blurting out that the Seeker sounded more than a little claustrophobic might have earned her a reward in the short term, but it didn’t seem worth it.

“Guilt is a terrible affliction to have, isn’t it, little femme?” Fatigue snickered, in a parody of concern, and patted her head, as he strolled up to check on their prisoner.

She glanced up at him, as he stabbed in the entry code on the doorpad, and briefly considered a catty comeback, but remained silent. Wasn’t worth adding more grief to the pile. Besides, his comment wasn’t so far off the mark. She’d dragged Skywarp into this, and had been an idiot to think he’d just accept it.

It had taken a cycle or so of frenetic activity, but Skywarp had thrashed and flailed himself into a near-torpor in his attempt at escaping. He’d worked himself like a dervish, determined to somehow somehow get out, get out from the conflicting crushing dark and the tight little walls and back into open spaces and broad skies, and only succeeded at fairly comprehensively exhausting his fuel reserves.

He hung slack in his bonds, weight resting back down on his abused wrists, and glared with an exhausted, neurotic kind of hate at them as they entered the room, lacking even the spirit or energy to smirk triumphantly at the lopsided vision of Fatigue’s still-missing antenna.

He’d been surprisingly imaginative in his efforts at escaping, but ultimately it had proved futile – the duranium chain had proved tougher than he was. His ankles were just too far apart for him to use the white heat from one thruster to melt through the pinion on the other leg. Even if he’d got his feet free, his wrists were still caught – he flexed his hands angrily and jerked hard on the short chains, but his wrist plates were dented already.

“This is your last chance, flier,” Fatigue said, softly, leaning down closer – just out of range of another bite. “See sense and start to talk politics with us, or we’ll leave you alone for a little longer, to think things through.

“You are not going to intimidate me into anything,” Skywarp repeated, quietly.

“But I’m sure you could do with a little drop of fuel, by now,”

“I’m fine, thank you. I don’t need your tainted sympathies.”

Fatigue shrugged, loosely. “You’ll change your mind.”

“Don’t get your hopes up too high.”

Siphon caught Fatigue’s arm and tugged him away. “Just give me the nod, Boss,” he suggested, quietly. “I’ll get him to take it, the same way we did Skinny.”

“No, not this time,” Fatigue shook his head. “I want him to take it of his own conscious volition. I want him to be forced to admit we’re his superiors. I want him crushed by knowing he has to rely on what we provide.” He let his lips pull up into a smirk. “Taking it will acknowledge our dominance over him. And that is the lesson I want him to learn.”

“He’ll never do it now you’ve spilled the plans while he’s in auditory range-”

“Oh, I think he will. And that will make the victory so much sweeter, when he finally acknowledges that we were right.”

“There’s only one thing that’s right about you, and that’s the side of you that isn’t the left,” Skywarp cut in. He’d summoned the energy to get back to his feet, properly, and was again somehow managing to give off the aura of unbowed, unintimidated Decepticon elite. “You will not get me on your side. And you will not get me willingly taking that filth.”

“Still don’t wanna take it? Don’t even want to talk about it with us?” Fatigue sighed an exaggeratedly long-suffering sigh, and feigned a deeply dismayed face, peeling a pre-cut length of adhesive tape up off his forearm. “Fine…”

He lunged, and slapped the length of tape firmly down over Skywarp’s mouth, and wrinkled his lip in scornful amusement as the thrashing became a renewed attempt at a startled escape, as if the flier could somehow buck the gag off himself. Purple feet scrabbled uselessly over the floor, throwing up a shower of bright sparks.

The tractor sneered haughtily down into the crimson optics that had widened into startled pools. “Now you can’t do either. We’ll see how co-operative you are tomorrow morning.”

Skywarp managed a muffled mmmh! of furious alarm, leaning forwards into his restraints and not even bothering to keep the pleading look out of his blazing optics.

“Quite the angry little button, isn’t he?” Siphon commented, innocently, from the doorway, as Fatigue slipped past him and back into the light. “Are you sure one night will tame that volatile spark?”

“Perhaps you’re right, perhaps we ought to leave him a little longer,” Fatigue mused, thoughtfully. “We’ll give him a few orns to start with, see if he’s gonna talk sense after that. Blue deprivation might convince him where his allegiances would best lie.”

There was a jangle and a muffled noise of blind rage, and the shriek of thrusters being ground against an unyielding floor, but nothing else. Then the door closed anyway.

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