Chapter Six

When I look back, I think that I should have seen the crisis coming, but I didn't. Now I find myself crushed to the floor as 71 walks up to me, the Fallen's spear in his hands and his optics dead. Behind him, the Fallen says, "Kill the one who always hurts you, Alpha. He's there before you."

But the day began just like many others.

I sit in the meeting with my department heads as they make their reports. The immediate fallout from lifting the restrictions on the Fours wanes now. After dealing with the stupidest of the worst offenders, the rest know swift punishment awaits them and they move more cautiously.

While the Fours still suffer more violence than the other levels, it is a fraction of what they suffered previously. Well, we know no culture changes overnight. The Fours possess their voices, their coms, and their self-defense. Now it's up to them to gain respect.

The Council knows that both 30 and 95's squads approach the end of this assignment, and today the fights over who gets them next begins. "Do you think the corruption in the police forces went away overnight just because Barricade's in space and we made a few decrees?" Counterpunch argues. "Yes, it's better because I've got those squads keeping them honest. I need more time! "

A few of the other department heads join in the argument as I muse over those drones. Something is different about them, but I can't track down what. I've run background checks before I let them escort 71, and all of them came through clean. I've encountered them frequently. They work well with all classes. They give each level respect, but when they need to, they fight like demons, no holds barred.

"They're Commanders, not police," Strika argues. "They need to come back to the military where they belong."

Finally I grasp the impression that eludes me. The squad members act like Autobots.

"Enough," I snap. "Counterpunch, you have another vorn. By that time, you'll either have the problem solved or you'll be replaced. Find other watchdogs. Get recommendations from 95 and 30 if you need to. "

They subside. Of course, Scavenger and Scrapper start fighting over changing the age of the humans going into shells now that we no longer need so many Fours replaced, and my mind drifts again.

More than once, I've checked for a spark signature from those Commanders on 30 and 95's squad. But I never find one, which means they must be drones. Only Cybertronians have spark signatures. I've wondered a few times if somehow some Autobots managed to create drones and slide them into our society, but Optimus would glitch at the very idea of creating drones of sentient beings. While we made the first shell as Sam Witwicky watched, knowing he would enter it, I imagined how Optimus would cringe as I showed him Alpha.

"Is there any reason to increase the number of drones?" I ask. After hearing arguments, I ruled, "Only make more drones to replace losses. Use the best of the humans for the tasks needed, using the test results and the reports of the Masters supervising that human. Scavenger, just keep the population in reasonable limits, it doesn't matter if some of the humans age out."

We discovered early that humans above a certain age don't survive the integration part of becoming drones, even if they are in good physical health. Barricade brought in the three who fought and off-lined Frenzy, even though Soundwave managed to rebuild him. Keller died during integration.

"I wish drones could survive space," Strika said, longing in her voice. "We could conquer the galaxy. Those drones on 95's and 30's squad especially. "

"We've tried," Hook said flatly. "Both Starscream and I, remember? I lost two of my favorite drones that way." He glared at the table as an unusual silence fell. Everyone remembered that day.

Maggie and Glenn, drones G-1 and G-2, became Hook's favorites when they retained skill in programming. He liked Beta, but she was always mine first and his second. In addition, Starscream grabbed Trent, a young male who came after Beta, and made him into A-1, the first admin. I remember how excited those drones got, climbing onto the shuttle. Alpha stood by me, watching with longing.

"When the base is finished I'll take you to see it," I consoled him. "I need my personal assistant here."

"I won't be first," he pouted. While he was an able assistant, he was still a youngling. The others came out of integration more mature, due to the shell upgrades. Hook wanted to upgrade Alpha and I refused. I liked the idea of raising him the way I wanted, molding him into my perfect assistant.

"You're always first with me," I told him, and he quit pouting at least.

The moment they hit free fall, the drones went into convulsions and died despite all that Starscream and Hook could do. I remember how quiet that made Alpha for all of twelve hours, a record at the time. Primus, he was such a live wire then, endlessly working or chattering, seldom still unless focused on work or recharging.

Thinking of Alpha brings my mind to 71. I plan to raise his level to the same as the rest of the committee drones at the same time that I raise several Fours to Threes as they assume supervisory roles in Service. 71 asked me to wait to raise his level when I do the others.

I do everything I can to convince him that no matter what, he will stay with me. He no longer begs for constant interfacing, afraid I eventually tire of him. He runs my office with quiet confidence. He radiates contentment, and that security enhances his beauty. But he remains quiet, speaking up only at need with strangers. With me and others he knows well, he talks a little more, but not much. The legacy of his restrictions as a Four haunt him still.

I wonder how much 71 will change when he recalls. 71 is nothing like Alpha, but then again the personalities of the shells differ every time. He twitches in his recharge at times. Sometimes he jerks awake, waking me with him. Gestures and terms used when he was still human surface at times. He uses some of Alpha's old solutions for unusual problems. Sometimes I think he's aware that he knows facts without knowing why. I agree with 47. He's fighting the recall. Alpha's done this before, and it's never ended well. Usually when I refused to acknowledge some kind of abuse or gross inequity, Alpha burst through when the current personality became desperately conflicted. 71 is no longer desperate. He's so happy now, and neither of us wants that to end.

Explosions jerk me from my musing. "What in the Pit?" Long Haul shouts, as the building shakes.

"Blast Off!" Strika hisses. "How dare he! What do the Combaticons think they're doing?"

"Get the jets out," I say grimly as I head for the nearest communications relay. "All drones, combat readiness. Masters, defend the human compounds. Fours, get to safety and prepare to provide support as needed. Commanders, contact your supervisors for orders." Then I sent a com to 95, "Get 71 to the medbay with 47 until I contact him."

"71 is in the medbay." 95 tells me. "He collapsed fighting recall and we took him before the defense system went off. We left to investigate when all hell broke loose." As he details the damage, I don't hear 95, I hear Epsilon. "Blast Off is firing from space. He's gotten past the defense network somehow."

30 contacts me through the relay. "Barricade just showed up, and he's got a lot of the police drones following him," he said grimly. "My squad is barely holding them off. The Fours warned us, or we'd be dead now."

Just then 35 hailed me through the medbay relay. "71's been kidnapped from medbay," he said urgently. "The kidnapper just appeared. 71 floated over to him. We were thrown against the wall, we couldn't do anything. Then he said, 'Tell your lord that his brother died. I don't need him anymore. Alpha will take his place.'"

I hiss. "The Fallen." Everything fell into place now. How Blast Off got past most of the satellite defenses without triggering alarms. How Barricade managed to show up after being exiled to space. Optimus, the last Prime, my bulwark against the Fallen, the one who kept him in my shadow passive, died, and now the Fallen is free to destroy this world and ravage anything in his path. Has he found the Matrix? I've sabotaged that research for centuries. He's using all the ones I sent to space, the ones who did not find a place building this empire, the ones who loved violence and destroyed more than they built. I sent them to space to find the Autobots, telling them not to come back until they had news. Most never returned.

Megatronus is a Prime, one of the most powerful, but he is no leader. Why else did he leave everything to me? The one time he tried using someone else, someone as evil as he, the pawn wound up in pieces. Oh, I knew. I knew from the moment I came back that Megatronus Prime, the Fallen, tried to replace me with Shockwave while I chased down that signal. Just like he knew that I'd get rid of him if I could. How I wished I could have awakened Sentinel before he and the space bridge were destroyed! I take a moment to mourn Optimus my brother, and then turn my attention back to the fight. "Strika, we've got a takeover bid," I tell her. "Assume the traitors have inside knowledge of security." I send a databurst of updates, omitting nothing. "The Fallen took 71."

"Kill Alpha if he turns," she advises harshly, and cuts me off. I turn my attention back to the battle.

My forces on the moon force Blast Off into atmosphere, where the jets attack. Vortex, Swindle, Brawl and Onslaught jump out on a low pass. They have a few Seekers, the Coneheads, but without Starscream to command them the Jets manage to contain them, led by J-3912. "He fights like a Seeker himself," Dead End tells me as I pass by him. Then he launches himself at Brawl while others attack Onslaught. They're ensuring that Bruticus doesn't form.

Then a shot hits 12, and he goes down. "Get him to medbay," I shout, and transform to lead the jets myself. As I transform, I pass 12, and I sense a spark signature. Even as I transform, I look for who is nearby. But there is no Cybertronian nearby, only 12 and the medidrones helping him. Two other jets go down before I take out Thrust and the others converge on Dirge and Ramjet.

The two fight frantically. Two more jets go down, but Starscream designed the jets' training, and soon Dirge and Ramjet crash. Even as I turn to check, I saw Hook racing over in his alt form. "Put them in stasis if they surrender. If they keep fighting, kill them," I order, and head back to the base. I see Counterpunch facing off on Vortex and Swindle, with Scavenger beside him. "Uninjured jets, assist Lord Counterpunch. Injured, head for the medbay. " With my department heads busy, I contact 30 and 95.

"P-7769 is working with us," he says, "coordinating the fight. He's the best I've ever met with tactics! About half the P-drones fight with Barricade, and some of the higher level drones joined him, the ones who didn't like our changes." He barked a laugh. "Lord Hauler, C-6784 and he are working with G-5299 on the defense. C-2330 and the smaller Commanders work with the Fours because they can get into the service corridors. It's making a huge difference. The Fours know all the service accesses and those are everywhere."

"I'm coming in." I see the jets drive Vortex back, even as Counterpunch and Swindle fight hand to hand. I knock Swindle flying with one good swipe, and Counterpunch pounces even as I enter the base, heading for the medbay. As soon as I ping the door open, a set of drones rush the door, and two get out. Right behind them C-2330 and 95 rush past, firing. One good swing throws the rest of them back. As I enter, the trapped drones retreat. Several Fours stand in a service corridor.

"Get out of our way, you little whores!" a One shouts. I fire, getting two down, but the rest fire back while others rush the Fours. I wonder how many rebel drones roam the Service corridors; I can't fire without killing the Fours too. Just as I think that, the Fours huddle together. As soon as the first One touches them, he flies back into the other two. I fire, and hear firing on either side. The drones go down.

"Good, Fours," C-2330 tell the Fours, who nod even as they slump to the floor. Looking at me, he says, "P-7769's idea. We're herding the rebels into corridors. G-5299 shuts their access down, and then we get into them with the service corridors. The Fours guide us."

"You've done well," I tell the Fours, and they glow at the praise. "Get to safety, and rest." To the others, I say," I need to get to the medbay to speak to 12." I study C-2330 as I speak. Who does he remind me of? Yellow Jacket, was it? Some kind of Autobot with a insect name. Could it be? But he has no spark signature.

"Someone please hear me," I hear then. From the look on 95's face, he hears it as well. "It's 71, but I don't know how much longer, I can't keep fighting him." The com is full of pain and exhaustion.

"71, where are you?" I ask urgently. I hear 95 and C-2330 but focus on that com.

"I don't know, Lord Megatron," the despair in his voice terrible to hear. "I've barely managed to get my com on. The Fallen's reprograming me. If I fight him, he activates a memory file in real time. Alpha's. Torture. I can't keep fighting. It hurts too much." Sudden urgency. "Don't come after me. He's going to kill you. He's forcing me to recall, making me his puppet. Don't come." Then he cut off.

I scream in frustration. "My lord," 95 says, "G-5299 traced the com."

"Traced?" C-2330 says blankly.

"We can trace drone coms if we know who's transmitting," 95 explains, "using what we did to activate the Fours' new programming." C-2330 nodded. I frown; don't all drones know this? "I didn't hear the last part."

"Do you know who the Fallen is?" Most drones don't, but 95 is Epsilon, and he nods. C-2330 shakes his head, and I send him a databurst. "He's reprogramming 71 using Alpha's memory files of torture in real time. "

95 hisses. "God!" I gauge how much 95's been integrated into Epsilon by that human curse. To C-2330, he explains, "When a drone remembers in real-time, it's like he's actually living the file again." C-2330 hisses in response. Then 95 goes still. "71's in Egypt. Petra."

"Give me the burst. I'm going after him. Who's in the area?" It's desert, and we mined out the mineral resources long ago. There's a communication relay nearby, and I hail Strika.

"We've got them contained," she says, "but they may have reinforcements, we're getting something from the defense net."

"I'm headed for Egypt to deal with the Fallen. Get me backup there. Otherwise, you're in charge. " I cut her off and head outside. On the way, questions swirl through my mind. C-2330 reminds me of the insect Autobot. Many others from that squad behave like Autobots. Then I dismiss the idea. They're fighting for me. Autobots would never do that. Besides, they have no spark signature. Why is the Fallen focusing on 71 like this, now? Why are they in Petra? The Fallen hates Alpha, and no mechanical being I know likes the sand out there. I can't kill the Fallen, but if I can get there in time, I might be able to save 71. Then I can focus on saving my empire before the Fallen destroys us all.

I land in Petra and com 95. "My lord," he says urgently "I've arranged effective assistance. Can you hold on long enough for them to get there?"

"I'll keep a line open and you find me." I tell him. "I have to find 71."

"He's probably Alpha now," 95/Epsilon warns me, his tone heavy.

Pain tears through me. "I'll take that risk. 71 has no personal reason to rebel. The others did."

"Acknowledged," he tells me, and patches me to G-5299 for the trace. I never get the chance to use it. Someone strikes me from behind, throwing me offline. When I on-line again, I lay in this tomb, pinned to the floor and staring up at the Fallen. "Fool! Did you think I didn't know how much you despised me? You built this paltry empire to replace Cybertron and forgot the cause I trained you for!"

"Cybertron is dead already," I spat back at him, and I try to lunge. He holds me to the floor with ease. "Why else would Shockwave come here?"

"He was defeated," he hisses. "By the Autobots. We lied to you. I personally worked with every single exile, those that didn't go over- the traitors! Your precious Starscream? He's rebuilding Vos. Your tame ex-Prime, Sentinel?" Ha, I wish, I think as he rants on. "He's with Optimus. They've rebuilt the space bridge, and I intend to use it to finish what I started!" As he speaks, he brandished something in his hand in my face. It's a delicate filigreed and curved object, beautiful in its own right. "The Matrix of Leadership," he gloats. "I found it in spite of the humans, in spite of my brothers, in spite of all of you! Once my new toy kills you, I'll take control of the rest. Shockwave found out how to keep the drones alive in space. I got the information before they tore him apart. "

He turns to look behind him. "Come, my little one," he croons, and 71 steps up. "Come now. Kill the one who always hurts you, Alpha. He's there before you."

71 steps up. "Yes, Master," he says, and takes the spear. "I will kill the one who torments me. I will give Megatron what he deserves."

He steps forward, slowly. But before he swings, I see his optics come alive again, and where the Fallen cannot see him, he smiles at me.

The spear swings.

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