Rob's Pile of Transformers: "The Razor's Edge"

This one is even more of an anomaly than "Peaceful Warfare" -- it's an ALL-Decepticon story! (or more accurately, all-Cybertronian.) The idea for it came to me as I was re-writing "Corrosion of War Without End" a while ago, and some of that story's throw-away characters managed to catch my interest; I figured it be fun to play with them a bit. I will warn you right off the bat that there are no Feature Characters in this little tale... sorry. It's more like a self-indulgent fanboyish all-action no-deep-thoughts kinda thing.

The setting is post-G2 comics, some time after "Corrosion". The story will eventually be available on the Web at http://members.tripod.com/repowers/ along with bios of the characters. Comments are invited and sought; I'm especially interested to know if the "story within a story" format works or is just a distraction (I suspect the latter, but what the heck. It could probably stand another re-write, but it's been hanging around on my hard drive for so long that I'm sick of looking at it. :]

And as always, enjoy!

The Razor's Edge

Iso's optic sensors detected nothing at first... then, grey. Stone grey.

She shifted the sensors' direction, and after a moment realized what it was: she was lying face-down on a floor. At the edges of her vision, she could barely make out the forms of two of her teammates, Syncro (or was it Syntho? Hard to tell) and Proto. They too lay prone, unmoving.

Iso tried to stretch and climb to her feet, but her arms hardly budged when she commanded them to do so. It was only then that she noticed that they were twisted behind her back, clasped at the wrists.

*Bound,* she thought. *Of course... we were captured.*

Captured. What a humiliating word. Whoever had done this would pay but good.

*Whoever did this...* Iso sent commands through her neural net, setting things back on-line, calling up her recent memories. Fuzzy, damaged a bit from all the knocks she'd taken, but clear enough: the Uracians. Strange organic creatures whose bodies synthesized metal. Thirty feet tall on average... sometimes bigger. Capable of holding their own against Cybertronian combat troops. More than capable, it turned out. They'd learned that the hard way. The rest of the squad... shot down with amazing precision by shockingly powerful weapons... torn apart by hand... killed. Last, desperate resort -- she and the other six Quanticons had merged into their ultra-powerful gestalt form, Quanticus, only to be handed an astounding defeat. The last memory -- falling, stunned, separating...

Iso wondered why this race didn't venture forth to the stars, if they were so powerful and advanced.

She squirmed and wiggled, trying to turn over onto her back; her armor scraped and clanked against the stone floor. Finally she maneuvered herself so she was sitting upright, and could look around at the little dungeon-like chamber they had been dumped into. The rest of the team was starting to awaken as well; Iso saw movement from Proto, the group's leader. She sent him a message -- by com. No telling who was listening.

< Proto, are you damaged? We have to get out of here. They'll kill us.>

< Assessing damage... assessed as moderate. Still combat-capable.>

< I don't think we've got time to worry about combat, Proto. Let's concentrate on getting ourselves free.>

< Present circumstances considered, our most feasible option is to wait until we are moved and seek opportunity then.>

< Are you nuts?! What if they _don't_ move us? What if they just walk in and start vaping us one after the next?>

< Unlikely. Going through the effort involved in capturing us implies an interest in keeping us alive for a while.>

< Alright, good point. But we should still try to escape now if we can!>

< I assess our condition as prohibiting such an effort. We are in a high-security facility. None of us are free to move. Our armaments have been removed. We do not-->

< Alright, alright, I give,> Iso cut him off. < For now... we'll wait. But isn't that what you wanted to do at T-Effue, too?>

* * *

The T-Effue system was home to an enormous, dense asteroid field, where the Cybertronians ran light mining operations. The Quanticons had been on guard duty there earlier that year, as punishment for another job they had recenently bungled -- letting a measly squad of five Autobots escape right out from under them at the Fiiry system (an incident that Iso still steamed to think about.) The horrificly boring assignment at T-Effue was a resultant disciplinary measure.

The group had been running normal patrol patterns when several squads of Autobots materialized out of the ether and attacked. It was a far bigger attack force than anyone had ever anticipated being sent against the Effue system, and the hapless Cybertronians had been overun. In minutes the mining centers were destroyed, and their support ships were a flaming memory. The Quanticons and about a dozen other survivors scattered in the confusion, dodging and eluding through the thousands of tumbling space-borne rocks. The Autobots hunted them till they were all forced into hiding on various asteroids, unable to contact or even locate one another without giving away their positions. They all hunkered down, waiting for some miracle, perhaps, to get them out of their quandry.

*If we wait on Proto to think of a way out of this, we'll be here till the universe ends,* Iso thought, half an hour after she had landed in a darkened crevice. *He'll be waiting for the Autobots to drop their guard, or give us some kind of opening. They're not going to, though. They're too good, and there's too many of them. And sooner or later they'll find us if we just keep hiding like this.*

As if to confirm her suspicions, a panicked distress call came over the tac net from one of their fellows. The call was cut off in mid-sentence.

*Some days, you just have to go for it.*

With no further thoughts, she transformed and launched, soaring up from her asteroid right on the tail of two Autobot searchers. She flamed them both with firebombs before they even knew she was there. The explosions were like a beacon, visible for miles around.

"Quanticons, let's go! Move it, quickly!" she shouted over the net. *Before I get toasted!* she didn't add aloud.

Every Autobot in sight turned to give chase. She led over a dozen of them on a merry ride through the asteroid field, dodging their shots and the floating rocks with equal dexterity.

"You are not authorized to supercede my orders," Proto radioed back. "Quanticons, launch and regroup."

Iso smiled. Proto might not like her methods, but she didn't see him complaining about the results. Her six companions darted out from their various asteroids, firing like mad, and suddenly the Autobot squad found itself under attack from all directions as the rest of the survivors joined in as well.

The ones tailing Iso were caught in the crossifre. One after the next they took hits and either spiraled out of control till they hit one of the asteroids, or else floated listlessly in the middle of the battlefield. None of them were left to oppose the Quanticons as they rendevoused with Iso.

The surviving Autobots surrounded them, and called in their support ships, a pair of light fighter/transports. But by the time the ships got there, they were facing a decidedly different opponent: Quanticus, the combined form of the seven Cybertronians.

The ships' proton blasts had no effect on the giant robot; he advanced on them without pause. Quanticus smashed one of the Autobot fighters in the bridge; the momentum of his swing was great enough that his fist went straight through the ship, ripping open its front end. The other ship turned to escape, but a blast from Quanticus's particle gun destroyed its engines, and the hulk careened into an asteroid.

With those obstacles removed, Quanticus contemplated his next move. He could escape, true; but now that they were merged, the dangers that the Quanticons had faced before were far less significant. In fact, if he stayed and fought with the remaining Autobots, victory was almost assured. And without their support ships, the Autobots no longer had any way to escape.

Quanticus was normally a completely emotionless being, but the part of his mind that came from Iso was so satisfied that he almost seemed to smile with pleasure as he moved in to begin crushing the Autobots.

* * *

< Irrelevant example,> Proto told her. < Our circumstances are radically different.>

*But the principle's the same,* Iso thought. *Not that you'd know.*

< He's right,> came a transmission from Nucleo. < We won't escape by force. Wait a bit -- maybe we can try something more discreet.>

< Alright, alright, we'll wait,> Iso sent back. *For now.*

The others in the group were beginning to stir, when a loud clanking heralded the opening of their cell door.

< Can anyone see what's going on?> broadcast Exo, who hadn't managed to get himself upright yet, despite thrashing and twisting for several minutes.

< A bunch of guards just came in,> Endo sent to him. < Big guys, but they don't look like they're here to damage us -- they're carrying out Syntho... and me too... looks like all of us.>

Iso noted Synchro squirming uncomfortably as Syntho was carried off, till two more hulking Uracian guards came for her as well. < Everyone be ready,> Iso transmitted, as she too was scooped up by the arms. < Keep your sensors open, watch for a chance to make a break.>

< You are _not_ in command of this group,> Proto said. < _I_ shall determine the proper time to attempt an escape.>

< Oh, wonderful,> Iso replied.

Iso's gaze turned in every direction as they were carried down a long, stone-walled corridor. They were unceremoniously dropped onto the floor of a small, featureless room, from which an energy beam levitated the entire group up several hundred feet. Another floor slid into place beneath them and their guards, who then carried them through a maze of passageways full of scurrying Uracians. At length, they were carried through a set of heavily guarded double doors and entered a tremendous, arena-like room, with a semi-circle of high seats at one end overlooking a vast hexagonal space that was lined with smaller seats. Though there was seating here for thousands, only the dozen or so raised seats at the end were occupied. Several dozen more guards stood at the ready around the edges of the chamber. Lights mounted on the distant ceiling cast thin shafts of light into the darkness that seemed to peter out long before they reached the floor.

< What is this place?> Endo wondered.

< Courtroom? Ruling chamber? Arena, maybe? I dunno,> Exo replied.

< Perhaps all three,> Nucleo mused.

< I don't like what that implies,> Iso commented.

< Uh, what _does_ it imply?> Endo asked.

< Don't worry about it. Let's just roll with it for now,> Iso replied.

At the end of the room, a group of Uracians were seated in the large semi-circle, a slightly larger chair marking the center of their ring. The Quanticons were made to stand before this group, roughly prodded upright. The aliens loomed over them, scrutinizing them, appraising them.

< Creepy,> Endo sent. < Man, I'm feeling kinda small right now.>

< That's their intention,> Nucleo told him.

< They're not much bigger or stronger than us. Ignore it,> Iso added.

"The invaders that we captured, your Eminence," the head guard announced in his own language, addressing the center chair's occupant. Iso perked up. They had downloaded a rudimentary knowledge of the Uracian language before the attack -- their lives might hinge on how well they could put it to use.

< Pay attention, everyone,> she sent. < Listen to every word they say. We've got about no minutes to brush up on their language.>

< Credible advice. Obey her suggestion, Quanticons,> Proto radioed.

"Mmm," answered the Uracian who inhabited the center seat, regarding them. He was no bigger or smaller than the other dozen or so who surrounded him, but he somehow seemed... older, Iso decided. Wizened, perhaps. "Councilmen. Your thoughts."

"Destroy them swiftly," one council member spoke up immediately. "They can only be a danger to us."

< We gotta talk 'em out of that,> Iso sent to Proto.

< Remember that I am the spokesman for this group,> Proto replied.

< How _could_ I forget,> Iso sent back.

"Hasty," one of his peers countered. "They are an off-world technology. These seven survived our defenses. Perhaps we can learn from them."

< You see? Waiting was indeed advisable,> Proto sent.

"They are hostile beings," the first councilman responded. "They will not cooperate --"

"I was not suggesting that they would. Turn them over to our researchers. Vivisect them to unlock their secrets."

< Oh, yeah, that's a whole hell of a lot better,> Iso shot back.

"My thought as well," another of the councilers spoke. "We have not had off-world contact in many lifetimes. There is much we could learn from these creatures' bodies and minds if they are properly probed."

"You would risk their running loose on our world again? Suppose they should escape! How will we explain this to the populace? Will you answer for the damage they cause? The lives they take?"

"Will _you_ explain how we failed to learn all we could about them, and thus were not able to mount an adequate defense against them should more of their kind come?"

The first counciler glared a moment, but nodded ascent. "Your point is... noted."

"And may I remind the council that they were part of an attempt to sieze our world and slaughter our people. If we do not take the initiative to wring some productive use from them, popular opinion may well demand their destruction regardless," the second member said.

The head counciler nodded. "Be there any that would oppose this plan?" Throaty assents came from all the councilers. Iso suppressed a shudder.

"Liscenaus," the leader said to a particular council member. "You have examined them once."

"I have, your Eminence."

"Do you believe your laboratories are up to the task of desiphering these beings' information, whatever form it may be in?"

"I do, your Emminence."

< Proto, we gotta do something now,> Iso sent urgently. < This is our last chance to talk them out of it.>

< Their decision is made. We will have to await better circumstances.>

"Very well. Guards, remove the prisoners to the High Institutes campus. They are to remain under maximum security at all times. Understood?"

"Understood. Guard squad, your orders. Move." The group surrounding them came to attention and tightened their grips.

< Proto! They're gonna slice us open!> Nothing came in response.

They were lifted off their feet; the councilmen stirred, the session evidently at an end. Proto did not resist as he was lifted up. But Iso squirmed and fought, keeping the guards from grasping her firmly. "Wait!" she shouted in the Uracian language. All eyes suddenly turned on her.

"You would speak with us?" the head counciler asked, incredulous.

< You are hereby ordered to remain silent,> Proto sent immediately.

< Too late for that, sludge brain,> she responded, simultaneously speaking aloud. "Please... I humbly seek an audience with your Eminence," she said, throwing every bit of humility she had into the words.

< There is no logical reason for you to -->

< Proto, just trust me on this, okay?!> Iso sent. She didn't bother explaining. Proto would never comprehend her reasoning, since she was simply doing what she did best -- running on instinct...

* * *

The gravity of a black hole was a peculiar sensation, one that Iso rather enjoyed. Space curved so sharply around them that you could _feel_ it. You could sense the pressures of the nothingness that defined and permeated all of existence -- Iso little understood the physical workings of gravity and space-time, but she knew that the closer she got to the event horizon, the more her molecules were tugged by invisible pressures, as her body began to try to re-align itself into something like a flattened spiral, something that according to the science datatracks would stretch into an infinitely thin, infinitely long line if permitted. The first time she'd drifted above a black hole, she had just come close enough to catch a whiff of the feeling. It had intrigued her, made her curious for more. On her second, third, and fourth times she had fallen progressively further in towards the event horizon, feeling the stresses work their strange force on her. It hurt, true, but it was a hurt far different from that inflicted by mere exostructural wounds. It was a strange and fascinating experience, unlike anything she'd encountered before, the feeling of _existence_itself_ altering. Each time whetted her appetite, persuaded her that next time she would go closer.

Every time, Proto demanded to know the rationale behind her wantonly careless actions; every time, she told him to shove it.

*And that's what I'll tell the slaghead this time, too,* she thought, picturing him stoically interrogating the others over her absence, stomping around the corridors of the temporary base where they'd been sent after the escape from T-Effue. As long as she came back intact, what she did between missions was her business and her business alone.

She was slowly spiraling around the void in space in the M-M'vai system's center. A thin spiral of glowing white gas curved into the singularity, unwillingly surrendered to the black hole's pull by the system's other component, a tiny white pulsar which spun on its axis several times per second. Its magnetic poles threw off deadly streams of electromagnetic energy, but in a regular cone-shaped pattern that was easy to avoid. Endo had warned her that pulsars weren't one hundred percent predictable, but, again, it was a risk she was willing to take. Just in case, she kept a sensor tuned to the dead star's emissions, to make sure they continued in the same steady stream.

Over the course of an hour or so, her path took her under the pulsar's emission cone, and over the plasma stream falling into the singularity. She began to pick up speed as the distance to the black hole dropped. *Quite a sight,* she thought, as she really started to feel the collapsed star's tug, the strange pressure that squeezed her in one direction and stretched her in another. She flexed her limbs, resisting the feeling, then letting it take over again. Invigorating!

She marveled for a moment over what she was seeing -- an actual point in the universe where the laws of physics broke down and ceased to have meaning. An infinitely small point, of infinite density. And she was closer to it, out on her own, than most beings dared venture in the safety of spacecraft --

Her sensors twitched. Iso had a split second to realize that the pulsar's rotations had skipped a beat. In that same instant she saw it coming, a wall of energy from the pulsar that was sure to scramble her systems at the very least. It hit her before she could even begin to react.

The next thing she knew she had gone limp, and the pull of gravity on her was far stronger than she had ever felt before. Her chronometer told her she'd been out for several minutes, drifting unchecked. Ignoring the fact that her armor was blackened all over, Iso quickly computed her distance from the singularity.

*Only 0.3 A.U.! Slag!* She'd never come so close to one before. It was definitely time to put a cap on this little escapade.

Iso transformed back to starcraft mode and flipped around, away from the collapsed star. Her thrusters fired, blasting orange fire into the void.

For all practical purposes, nothing happened. Her decent into the void barely slowed. Her engines couldn't break her out of the decaying orbit.

*No problem,* she thought, changing direction. She would just go with a more gradual approach, change the orbit from a decaying spiral to an increasing one. She burned her engines again, this time parallel to her path.

Again, nothing changed. The orbit was spiraling in so quickly she couldn't even reverse the rate of decay.

Iso threw all her reserve power into her thrusters, to no avail. She couldn't break the inbound spiral. A quick check showed she was down to 0.2 A.U. from the singularity, and terrifyingly close to the event horizon -- the point beyond which neither light nor matter ever returned. Panic seized her. For the briefest of instants she felt certain she was about to die.

*No! No chance in hell!* she violently squashed the thought. *I'm getting out of this, I've _got_ to get out of this. There's gotta be a way. Think!*

Then it hit her. *If I can't break free myself, I'll do it another way. I'll let gravity break me free.* She turned herself and again punched thrusters to full. Very soon she was curving in even faster than before, the gravity carrying her along at dizzying speeds. She let herself fall to within a few million miles of the event horizon -- less than one-tenth A.U. She was moving far faster than she ever could on her own. There was no time for calculations; this would have to be done on gut instinct. When the gravitational pressures became so great she thought her structure was on the verge of failure, she kicked in a course change.

Her speed whipped her out of the spiral; the inbound orbit became an outbound ellipse as her momentum slung her far from the black hole. Judicious course changes kept her from colliding -- barely -- with the stream of plasma being sucked from the pulsar as she passed over it. She continued on maximum burn, till she was certain she had escaped from the tenacious grasp of the collapsed star.

She was relieved for the briefest of seconds, and tired -- the long thruster burn had drained her. But sudden exultation overcame her other feelings. In her own small way, she had challenged one of the universe's mightiest forces, and survived. Iso felt a rush of invincibility.

"Yeah! Ha ha! YEAH!!"

* * *

"Do not waste our time with this worthless invader's pathetic entreaties, Eminence," one of the Councilmen said.

Iso squelched an urge to respond to the indirect challenge and get caught up in a useless shouting match; instead she continued to direct her words to the head councilor. "Your Eminence, I ask you to consider -- what harm could come from listening to me? You said you want information from us. What better way than by conversation?"

"Dissection," another councilor said, eliciting several chuckles from the group.

"But are you sure that's the wisest answer? You may find out what makes our fuel flow, but not what drives our minds -- what brought us here. Or..." Iso paused, preparing to play her first card, "how you can stop it from happening again."

That got the head councilor's attention; he spoke gravely to her. "If we destroy you, we can be certain you will not return."

"But what about others like us? We come from a huge army, with legions of troops. You beat our group, yes, but what about next time?"

"Yes, what about next time? Do you think you've really tested the limits of our defenses? Next time, the slaughter of your kind will be faster and more complete," one of the councilors said.

Iso shook her head. "It wouldn't be wise to stake your world on that."

"You would have us believe it would be wiser to release our only prisoners from this attack?"

"Listen. What you saw yesterday was nothing -- a fraction of a fraction of our forces. If the Cybertronians don't hear from our party, they'll return in force -- real force. Sure, you could kill us now, as you did the rest of our squad. But we'll be missed, believe me. The Cybertronian Empire takes care of its own. And when they find out that our squad disappeared on this world, they'll destroy everything here. Everything. Including you. Your people. Your civilization. Everything."

"In the same manner that you did? Ha. Ha ha ha. I look forward to that day."

"No, not in the same manner. From orbit, where you can't even touch them. With starships bigger than you can imagine, weapons more powerful than even what you possess. You'll be annihilated before you even know what's going on."

"Are you threatening us, little robot? Trying to bully your way to freedom?"

"Maybe," Iso conceded, maintaining confidence in her tone. "You don't really know, do you? The only way to keep them from coming is to let us go. We _might_ be persuaded to put in a kind word for you, pass along that the planet's not worth the bother. Maybe. But that kind of favor's hard to do from a prison cell."

"You ask us to release you simply on your promise, that you will speak words of dubious persuasion to commanders who may or may not listen, in an army that for all we know may be a total fiction? You, who have invaded our planet, killed our citizens, fought our soldiers, trampled our territory, destroyed our property -- all utterly without provocation?"

Iso paused to collect her thoughts, daunted by the task before her -- everything the high councilor said was true. Proto chose that moment to speak up.

"Our reasons for coming here and attacking were --"

< Proto, if you do not shut the hell up right the hell now I WILL KILL YOU!> Iso sent.

"--clearly misguided," she completed his sentence aloud at the same time, cutting him off. "Had we understood this world, we would never have attacked here in the first place. We do not bother with races that are clearly worthy and fit to exist. Only lesser, non-sentient forms need fear us."

"Lesser life forms?" the High Councilor said, incredulous. "And by what right are you sent to judge us like this?"

"We hold you only to the standard of ourselves, no more. You are a powerful race," Iso said evenly. "As are we. We seek glory for our race, and find it through expanding and conquering, spreading our species to the far corners of the galaxy. We encounter many species in these journeys... but it is not often we find one that is so closely our equal. With your might and intelligence, I suspect that the Cybertronians would decide not to bother your planet again... if they only knew the truth about you. Like, say, if they had some first-hand testimony."

The head councilor leaned back in his chair thoughtfully.

"You let us go, and you have my solemn word we'll do everything we can to persuade our superiors not to come back here."

"Or we could kill you now, and take our chances with the very likely probability that you are simply lying to save your own skin, or that you will return with a stronger force to carry out the threats you just made."

"If that's true, the Cybertronians will be back either way. But if I'm right... and you release us... then and only then will you have a chance that they won't return in force."

The council leader sat back, contemplating for a moment; Iso began to feel a ray of hope. After a moment of silence, he spoke again. "You are trying to survive. For this I do not fault you. But you have committed a grave injustice to our world. It is my people's belief that you must be punished."

"What do they need to know about it? We'll leave on our own with no fuss at all. You destroyed our entire battle group; isn't that enough punishment? We're the last survivors -- don't you think that we've been through enough losing so many friends and teammates? We made a mistake in coming here -- you've punished us severely for it already."

"Terribly touching. But in the experience of our own race, conquerors are very rarely beings of great nobility or sincere sentiment... or trustworthiness."

"But does that mean everyone under them isn't? We aren't the high commanders, just a group of warriors --"

"You are a symbol and a perpetrator of what happened on Uracus yesterday."

"No, the real symbols are all the dead Cybertronians out there on the battlefield. In the end, what have you got to lose? If I'm lying, you've lost a measly seven prisoners -- that's nothing compared to all of us you've already killed. And I mean, come on, do you really think we'd ever come back here after what happened? And if I'm telling the truth, you're keeping a wholesale slaughter of your people from happening. Are you really willing to risk it?"

"I won't have you released if there's nothing to be gained by it. Guards, remove the prisoners. We will now consider the robot's words."

This time, Iso didn't resist as she was carted off by her captors. She'd said everything she wanted to say... that was all she could really hope for.

- - -

They waited for hours, tossed carelessly into a storage room in the science institute, waiting to learn whether their fate would be dissection or freedom. Iso sat against a wall, replaying the entire exchange with the head councilor, wondering if she'd said everything right. Her mind extrapolated a thousand ways things might have unfolded in the council chamber after they were carried out.

"Your insubordination is considerable," Proto commented to Iso, rousing her from her thoughts. "You may look forward to appropriate disciplinary action upon our return to the fleets."

Iso shook her head. "Don't you have _anything_ better to worry about right now? We _might_ have a chance to get free without a fight now... no thanks to you."

"The results of your stratagem remain to be seen."

"It's had a lot more results so far than your waiting has," Iso snapped.

"An appropriate opportunity has not yet arisen for us to attempt an escape."

"And it's not going to! We're going to have to make our own opportunity, don't you get it?"

"Perhaps. But we must wait for the correct time to do so."

"Ugh! Proto, I'd say talking to you is like talking to a wall, but the wall might take offense." Iso turned her head in another direction, the best she could do to tell him the conversation was over.

Proto tilted his head a fraction. "A highly illogical response," he said to himself.

"Well, I think she did a pretty good job," Endo said.

"Her performance is not the issue under discussion. Her obedience is."

"But... commander, why's that really matter right now? We've got to do everything we can to get out of here."

"Discipline must be a constant, not a randomly implemented variable."

"The dead have poor discipline," Nucleo muttered quietly, just loud enough for them all to hear.

Iso never got to hear Proto's response to that, for at that moment an officious-looking aide with two guards behind him appeared in the storage room doors, and spoke directly to the Quanticons.

"The Council has reached a decision. A representative of your group is to be tested. Your fates will be decided accordingly."

"What sort of test?" Iso asked immediately.

"The representative will learn as the testing occurs."

Iso sent quick messages to Endo and Nucleo. < Guys -- you've got to help me make sure I'm the one who gets chosen for this 'testing'.>

< Subtlety and subterfuge. I approve,> Nucleo sent back.

< But what if Proto says it should him?> Endo radioed. < You can't ask me to choose sides if the two of you -->

< If any component of this 'test' is emotional or mental, he'll flunk it. He's too inflexible to change his mind, and he can't lie even to save his own hide!>

< But he's the boss -->

< Endo, do you want to get out of this alive? Then help me out!>

Endo didn't answer, just heaved his shoulders in a sigh.

"We will allow one of you to volunteer, if you wish," the guard said.

Iso sat up as best she could, but Proto spoke before she could say anything.

"As commander of the group, I will submit for the testing."

"No, wait --"

"Do not attempt to countermand my orders again," Proto said.

"She's not --" Endo said quickly. "It's just that... are you sure this is the smartest thing to do here?"

"I am in charge --"

"And -- therefore -- you... shouldn't be placing yourself in danger like this!"

Iso almost groaned aloud, till Nucleo leaned toward them.

"Might have a point," he said in low tones to Proto. "You're the boss. You die, group's weakened." He nodded his head toward Iso. "She wants to get torn apart, let her. Meantime..." he lowered his voice still further, "we can find a way out."

Proto considered for a moment. "Iso. Do you still wish to submit for the testing."

"Yes."

"Very well then. Guards. We have made our decision. Iso shall be the subject for the testing."

Iso clenched a fist in victory as she was picked up and carted away from the others. Nucleo sure had a way with words! And Proto... gods, he sure could be an idiot sometimes...

* * *

She hadn't always thought that way about her group commander. Her first interactions with Proto had showed her just what a vast intellect he had, what a gift for strategy and planning. For a long time, Iso had been in awe of him.

Over time, however, various little things began to gnaw away at her respect for Proto. His lack of emotion. The way he never seemed to care when something happened to one of the team. Still, it was not till the incident on Pennphil that'd she'd really begun to feel antipathy towards him.

The Quanticons had been part of a battalion which conquered the planet. A squad of Autobots had arrived and counterattacked, but they were hopelessly outnumbered and the Cybertronians simply overran them. The survivors were hidden away by the few natives who had escaped. The Quanticons had drawn the assignment of rooting out the remaining Autobots.

They were holding a group of Pennphilli at gun point, and Proto was interrogating them in his typically stoic manner.

"Where are the Autobots?" Proto asked.

"We do not know," one of the natives answered calmly.

"Then I shall kill you."

"Then I shall die."

"That would be a foolish waste of effort. Your life will be spared if you simply reveal where the Autobots are."

"I cannot do that."

"You have no other choice."

"I do. I choose death."

"The Autobots cannot help you. You sacrifice yourself in vain. They face total strategic disadvantage -- there is no conceivable way they could defeat our forces here."

"I will not betray our saviors."

Iso's face screwed up in distaste, and she stepped forward. "What do you mean, 'saviors'? They haven't saved you. We kicked their tailpipes in, in case you didn't notice."

"Ah, but they have yet to make their strike. The time is not yet right. The saviors shall yet rise up again."

"What in the hell are you talking about?" she asked the alien. "The Autobots aren't _anybody's_ savior, least of all yours. If they try to rise up, we'll smite the living slag out of 'em."

"They shall rise again," one of the aliens spoke up. "They have come to stop your works."

"They cannot, however," Proto said.

"An illusion, a passing phase. It has been foretold."

Iso shook her head in near disbelief. "What?" she asked.

"These 'Autobots' you seek. They are the counterpoint to your evil, the..." here the alien uttered a word Iso didn't know.

"Light gods," Exo translated for the other Quanticons. "They literally see us as the embodiment of their legendary dark gods, and the Autobots as their saviors."

"Have you not fulfilled the forespoken words? That the dark armies shall come from the skies, and ravage all before them? And that the light gods shall appear in their midst as salvation, slaying the dark gods and bringing an age of fulfillment upon our world."

"The fleshling is clearly deranged," Proto said. He raised his weapon and put a shot through the Pennphillian's head, shattering it. Translucent light red blood sprayed out, staining the ground by Proto's feet. Iso stared at him, stunned.

"Proto... what... what are you _doing_?"

"An unsound mind is not a fit subject for interrogation," Proto stated. "We shall gain the required information from another." He turned to the next alien in the group. "You heard the questions. Answer them."

"As he said," the alien answered, saddened apparently, but peaceful. Iso recognized the look -- resignment. Acceptance. "The light gods have come among us. Who would risk their wrath? Better to die at your hands than betray our saviors."

"You will all be shot if you do not reveal the Autobots' whereabouts," Proto announced.

"There is a special place in the afterlife for those who die in the defense of righteousness," one of the group said.

"We will gladly die for the light gods," another added.

"The Autobots are not gods. They are sentient machines like ourselves, of dubious rationality. They are incapable of helping you at this point. To defend them thus is foolish and irrational, and will only result in your deaths."

"We will defend the light gods," said an alien, and the others nodded agreement.

Iso couldn't contain herself any longer. "Look, you idiots, do I look like a god to you? I'm a machine! That's all! Just metal plates and circuits and cables and stuff! Here, I'll show you!" She transformed to her starcraft form, then back again. "I'm not a god! And neither are the Autobots!"

"You are a deceiver, sent to make us betray the light gods," said another of the aliens in that same calm tone. "This too has been foretold."

"Gahh!" Iso exclaimed in frustration. And at that point, she clearly understood: nothing they could do would convince these aliens that the Autobots were anything less than the embodiment of their religious faith. With that conclusion reached, clearly some other tactic was needed. But Proto had persisted, ignoring her arguments, completely failing to see the logic of faith. He continued using the same straightforward threat of death against the Pennphillians, shooting them one after the next, certain that they would break when it became clear that talking was their only hope of survival.

Until every one of their captives was dead, leaving them with absolutely no leads on the Autobots.

They never did find their quarry. A week later a pair of shuttles was stolen from one of the terraforming sites, and zipped away into space before they could be tracked and followed. The incident went on record as an unsolved case, but to Iso it was one hundred percent clear what had happened. Her suspicions were confirmed two weeks afterward, when an army of Autobots invaded and liberated the planet from the Cybertronians. The planet and its surviving inhabitants became staunch allies of the Autobots (who, though no longer revered as gods, were nevertheless held in high esteem.)

To this day Iso placed the blame for the entire loss squarely on Proto.

* * *

*Well, not this time,* Iso thought, as she lay strapped to a board in a machinery-filled room. *This time, it's all on you, girl.*

She was already glad she'd talked Proto out of coming here himself -- the test was apparently going to be some kind of mind probe. He wouldn't have lasted a minute.

For about the twentieth time, she took stock of the room in which she was held. Small, one way in and out. High ceiling. Two armed guards, and two science types attaching stuff to her. Above, a clear panel in the wall, with some sort of control booth beyond it; inside, three tech types pushing buttons. They had been buzzing around her for hours, figuring out how to read her systems and interface with them. Her limbs were secured with magnetic clamps, keeping her immobile. At last, one of the tech types approached her.

"We must access your mind circuitry now. Open a portal for us, or we shall create one for you."

"Put away the hacksaws," Iso said, unfastening links in the armor on her head with a mental command. "I've got all the ports you need." Eyeing the lab's vicious-looking cutting tools, she amended: "I hope."

"This will suffice," one of the techs said, jamming a connecting wire into one of the ports exposed on her head.

"You mind? That's my brain in there," Iso snapped at him. By way of reply, the tech simply cuffed her across the chin.

"I really don't care," he said.

"The test begins," boomed a voice from the control room. "Prepare yourself."

Iso had barely registered that, when her sensory perceptions dropped away, leaving only the black unknown of mindscape. *Not my favorite battleground. Well, you wanted something new and exciting; now you got it...*

And then the probe came. Like a sledgehammer, it smashed into her mind, reaching without preamble for the very core of her consciousness, tearing into her deepest thoughts. Reflexively, she resisted, fighting against this raping invasion of her mind. And immediately, she heard booming words spoken, god-like: *NO RESISTANCE!*

But she couldn't help it; by sheer instinct she fought the probe, making it work for every level of access it gained. The probe bore directly toward her recollection of the session with the councilors. Desperate, almost panicking, she tried to lead it in other directions, trying to make them home in only gradually on the data they wanted.

*DO NOT FIGHT THE PROBE! YOUR RESISTANCE WILL BE CONSTRUED AS FALSEHOOD AND WE WILL DESTROY YOU!*

Swiftly, steadily, the probe forced its way into her mind, tearing open her hopes, her fears, her most private thoughts, her dreams, her feelings -- every fiber of her mind laid bare, converted to data on a laboratory screen. She couldn't stop its progress.

And so she aided it instead.

Iso intentionally sent thought after thought at the probe, letting it search every proverbial inch of her psyche -- everything about her, her relationships with and feelings toward the others, her role in the grand Cybertronian fleets -- she made sure they saw many images of the Cybertronian armies -- her training, her history, her missions. She fed the alien program as fast as she could, futiley trying to sate its terrible thirst for knowledge -- and to keep it away from the meeting with the councilors. She desperately shoveled knowledge and emotion into it -- and studied, studied, carefully watched the way it absorbed each bit of information, observed how it steadily made its way around each and every mental safeguard and security measure her brain had in place --

And she saw it. A way out, a microscopic crack in the defenses exposed by her sheer resistance. She didn't know much about computer links, but she knew it wasn't hard to destroy them. She sent her mind diving for this chink in the probe's armor, even as it sifted through the last bits of her mind. Unconstrained for a few seconds, she smashed every pathway, every file, every safeguard she could find. It was an all-or-nothing gamble -- they'd be killed for sure if they didn't get away now. Some things were resistant to her, but for the most part she left a trail of electronic devastation in her mind's wake, till finally she killed the links to the probe's source.

Her mind surged back to control of her body, like returning to the surface after a prolonged underwater dive. Her guards were looking about frantically as the lights flickered and dimmed, and uncontrolled surges came through the computer. In the control booth, the operators were equally frantic.

Iso swiftly yanked the merging cords out of her head and leapt to her feet, the magnetic clamps gone; she tossed the techs aside as they tried to restrain her. The guards pointed, but she was already flying through the air as they did, foot aiming for the cranium of the closest one. The kick was swift and clean; the Uracian hit the deck with a thud. The other fired his weapon; she ducked, and the barrage tore open the doorway. Grabbing the downed guard's weapon, she turned and barreled straight through the damaged door, disappearing around a corner before two more guards outside could bring their weapons to bear.

The hallway was too tight to use her starcraft mode; she sprinted as fast as she was capable of, blasting open barrier doors as she went. Alarms were sounding through the hallways; she had to shoot down several guards along the way. Fortunately, it took only a couple of moments to reach the storage area where the others were being held. A few seconds before she got there, she sent a radio message ahead: < Guys! I'm free! I'm onto your position -- be ready to move right now!>

When she burst through the storage room door, every head in the place turned to stare at her -- and the bound Quanticons leapt to their feet, galvanized by the prospect of escape. Iso fired, hitting two of the guards as she ran; meanwhile, Nucleo used his wrist restraints to throttle a third from behind, and Syntho and Syncho body slammed a fourth from either side. But Iso still found herself badly outnumbered. She opened fire randomly to keep the others guards from getting their bearings. They scattered, grabbing frantically for their weapons; meanwhile, Endo -- still bound at the wrists and feet -- rolled awkwardly across the floor, till he was lying right at her feet. With a wordless smile, Iso shot away his restraints. Freed, Endo scrambled to his feet and flew at the nearest guard, tackling him to the deck, then leaping away before the metalloid organic could bring his fearsome strength to bear. Endo snatched a weapon from one of the downed guards and freed the twins, before blasting a guard who'd drawn a bead on Iso. Syntho and Synchro leapt to the attack, knocking down two more guards and arming themselves. They along with Iso kept up enough random fire to give Endo time to free the others.

"Now!" Iso said. "Everyone, merge!"

For once, Proto didn't argue with her. As the remaining guards rushed forward, the seven Cybertronians flew together, shifting, folding, and combining into the colossal Quanticus. The giant robot immediately bashed aside the guards, then launched into the air. Quanticus drew back his fist and punched a hole in the ceiling, exposing the upper floors beyond it, then flew straight through the opening, rending it open even further. The superwarrior smashed his way through three more floors and a ceiling -- and the blue sky beckoned beyond.

Ripping through the building's roof amid a shower of shattered concrete, Quanticus split apart into his seven components, each in their starcraft forms, each blazing at top speed for space, none of them daring to look back. In minutes, they had passed beyond the atmosphere; once in the vacuum, they re-combined into Quanticus and disappeared into warp -- safe at last.

*Good work,* a thought-feeling touched Iso's mind, as the stars blurred. She recognized the warmth, the feel of it -- Endo. Exo and Nucleo echoed it a moment later; she also distantly sensed approval from Syntho and Synchro. She did her best to acknowledge them without actually saying or feeling anything. Iso's mind reeled, her pumps still working overtime from the frenzied, abrupt escape.

As a gestalt member, she was naturally trained in closing off certain parts of her mind, keeping her mental privacy even as her mind co-mingled with that of her comrades. But now she pulled in completely, held off from sharing even the strongest and public parts of her psyche. The probe still lingered in her mind, invading her thoughts, the very core of her being. And she had helped it.

She mentally shuddered at the idea of sharing her mind voluntarily; as best she could she blocked off the others, letting them do the thinking while her mind drifted, securely cocooned from participation in the gestalt mind. It was easier with Quanticus than most gestalts; normally a gestalt mind was a unified whole, and there was no escaping its touch. Since the Quanticons frequently spent long times merged for the purpose of warp travel, however, their merge was designed so that they at times could completely detach themselves from the whole, retaining near-total mental privacy. It was an option that Iso was unspeakably grateful for as she sorted out the day's events.

She had given them everything. The thought had circled round and round on the fringes of her mind while she dealt with other matters, hovering like an insect looking for a place to land, present but not consciously acknowledged. Everything, everything... round and round... till at last her emotions and thoughts were orderly enough to deal with the nagging strategic issue, and contemplate its implications.

She had given them everything.

Her knowledge of the fleets. Of tactics. Of firepower. Of shields, troop capabilities, strategies, repair times, armor strength... every bit of tactical information she had about the Cybertronian Empire, she had eagerly shoveled out to the Uracians. All in the hands of a species that had torn apart an entire Cybertronian invasion party.

Did that make her a traitor? Was that a reasonable price to pay for their escape? She didn't know... she wasn't sure she wanted to know.

It was several hours later when she finally felt ready to deal with the mental touch of the others; slowly she lowered her mental blocks, let her presence be felt by the others. She sensed multiple consciousnesses, each individual team member, rather than the singular mind of Quanticus. So the others, too, were mentally detached from the whole, merged in body only. They could communicate directly in this mode, no differently than speaking.

*Hey, Iso,* came a thought from Exo, as she let herself be known. *That was pretty amazing.*

*Thanks,* she answered, reluctantly. Reticently. Taking the cue, the others did not bother her -- even Proto. She finally spoke again a few moments later.

*Proto,* she sent. *You'll notice we got out of there alive...*

*In a manner with an eighty-seven percent probability of failure. You behaved foolishly and irrationally, and violated several direct orders, and threatened the life of a superior officer, all of which will go on record.*

*Oh, come on -- you really think you'd have gotten a better chance to break free? Face it, Proto, I got us out of there. And I'm only reminding you because I need to ask you something.*

Proto was silent for a moment. *What is it you wish?*

*When we get back to the fleets... tell them not to go back there.*

*That is illogical. Uracus is a world rich in energy and material wealth --*

*Proto, it's just one measly little planet. It won't make any difference to the Empire either way.*

*Such rationalization inevitably leads to a decline in fortitude at all levels of a military organization. It cannot be permitted. No exceptions can be made.*

*Proto, please! Just do this for me. It's all I ask. If you want, you can call me on the floor for insubordination, throw me in the brig, whatever sparks your wires. I won't put up a fight, if you just tell the fleets... Uracus isn't worth it.*

Another long silence ensued. With any other commander, any other comrade, Iso would expect them to reach out mentally to her, trying to feel out what her motivation was. It was no surprise to her, however, that Proto made no such effort; there was simply a long silence, till Proto finally spoke again. *I shall report to our superiors that... Uracus is not suitable for colonization.*

*Thank you, Proto! Thank you!* Iso sent, in pure sincerity.

*The armaments and nature of the inhabitants make the colonization process unnecessarily difficult and dangerous, not a profitable venture.*

*Whatever makes you happy, Proto, just as long as the chiefs get the message not to go back there.*

*Wow,* Endo's mind wandered into the mix. *You really meant all that stuff you said, then?*

Iso choked off irritation. *There's a lot more to it than that. But yeah, I did mean it. Don't lose any rest cycles about it, okay?* she sent. She closed her mind off from the others again, with the lingering hope that Proto would keep his word. And not just for the sake of the Cybertronians.

Her mind, however, eventually recalled Endo's words. The test. What would the Uracians have found? She dwelled on that for a long moment... and realized she didn't know the answer herself. Had she really meant to keep her word? It hardly even seemed to matter at the time -- all that was important was convincing their captors that she _was_ sincere, getting that one-shot chance at freedom. She had focused so intently on that goal, she'd hardly bothered to address the actual question of what she'd do if they were freed. Iso wondered what the council would have made of that, had the probe gotten that far into her mind.

*Sliced us open,* her mind answered immediately.

Her mind rippled in displeasure at the thought, and at the realization of what a large chance she'd taken. The risk. Normally she'd get a thrill out of it, a sense of achievement. But her gamble, had it failed, would have taken the whole team down with her. And if she'd done that... she wouldn't really be any better than Proto in looking out for her friends and comrades. And in that case, why had she done what she'd done?

*Gods. Did I do this just to upstage Proto?*

It was a startling thought. And one that seemed to hit too close to home for her to be comfortable with. But she faced the realization head-on.

*My quarrel is with him alone. I have no right to endanger the others by dragging them into it. So if it happens again, I go straight to him... no. Not if.*

*When.*

She'd just stepped over a line of some sort. She knew Proto well enough to know... it was only a matter of time till it happened, till he pushed the wrong buttons, made the wrong orders, ignored the team one too many times.

As Quanticus sailed on throught the void, Iso's mind lingered on that thought. *Only a matter of time till we settle this, Proto... one way or another...*

*********************The End*****************************

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I'm not sure if there was any real point to this story. But Iso is fun to write about. :] BTW, the Quanticons will be seen again... so I hope they're not *too* boring a group.

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