Nightbird crouched behind a boulder, frowning slightly as she heard her footfalls kick up small rocks. Her best advantage here was silence, and anything that disturbed that silence was an impediment, if not a serious problem.
It made her almost glad she hadn't been built with a vocalizer. She had none of the temptation the others might to curse, mutter, or murmur, all of which might be heard. She could have cursed as she communicated - with her hands - but that was a bad habit to get into. For this mission, she'd need those free to hold her weapons.
The human scientist who'd designed her hadn't had stealth in mind when he'd built her without a speech synthesizer of any kind. He hadn't intended to build a sentient machine. To grant her the power of speech would have been beside the point.
She was supposed to have been the pinnacle of their technology, a robot that looked and moved like a human woman. And not merely any human woman, but a woman trained in martial arts: a graceful, silent fighter. Still, motion wasn't thought. Dr. Fujiyama, celebrated human scientist and researcher, hadn't even seen fit to make her one of their pathetic attempts at artificial intelligence.
How arrogant, she thought. If she had had a mouth under her battlemask, she would have twisted it in distaste. Thinking that sentient machines' intelligence is "artificial," while theirs - some bizarre accident of organic evolution - is not.
She raised a hand. If she wanted to sneak into the enemy base, she'd never get into it through the front door. A rope shot out from her wrist and she watched it fall, hoping it would hook properly over the top. It had worked thousands of times before, of course, when her human creator had tested her abilities. But she'd been reprogrammed since then. And she'd never before known what it felt like to hope it would hold.
Her awakeners had been machines, like her and yet not like her. Had they known, when they'd stolen her away from him and reprogrammed her to fight not for demonstrations but for real, what would happen? Had they realized she would wake up not merely to heightened functioning and to martial efficiency but to thought? Had they known that she would actually feel emotions when she first onlined and saw their bright red optics staring down at her, eager and curious? She still wasn't sure.
She nodded, pleased, feeling the taut pull on the line that told her everything had worked. With one last look around, she began her climb.
She had awoken angry. That much she remembered. Her circuitry had hummed with a strange rage she could not name, an eagerness to find any excuse to test herself against someone. She'd whirled through her fighting moves as if she could rip even the air apart.
Although other machines had crowded around her, she had tamped the emotions crackling like current through her wiring back down as best she could. They'd done nothing to indicate whether they were friends or foes, and there were quite a lot of them. Besides, they were most likely the reason she'd come online in the first place, so attacking them wasn't wise. Not unless one of them provoked her.
"She looks like some Earthling play puppet," one of them had said, his white wings twitching as he watched her showing off. That had given her all the excuse she'd needed, and she'd leapt at him, kicking him hard in the chest plate. To her disappointment, he hadn't fallen, though he'd arched back, screeching in surprise and pain. He'd quickly recovered, dropping into a fighting stance and balling his fists.
The mech next to him, a big one with a broad silver frame, had chuckled once, then held up a hand and called to them. "Both of you! Enough!"
She'd frozen at the sound of that voice, pulling away from the one who had taunted her and standing straight and silent. She could not have imagined not obeying it. Even now, she was doing exactly that: serving his will.
Reaching the top, she retracted her rope and looked around. The enemy base had been built into a dormant volcano, and even as she watched, a lift rose up toward the mountain's open top. She leapt down onto it, wincing at the sound of her feet hitting the top of the lift.
She could hear voices inside. She lowered herself down, pressing an audio receptor to the ceiling of the lift.
"I don't understand it," one of them said. "Why would the Decepticons steal the ninja robot?"
"I don't understand anything the Decepticons do," the other answered.
Steal. Nightbird rose to her feet again, not bothering to listen to more. Obviously, these fools didn't understand. Not if they saw what they had done as stealing.
Oh, she had no illusions about the Decepticons' intentions. They clearly hadn't been on a rescue mission. Still, in the end, they'd rescued her, whatever they'd intended.
She remembered the big silver mech staring at her, his red optics flaring with curiosity. "You obeyed me. That's good. That's very good."
The red one had fluttered his wings, scowled, and muttered something. Nightbird had clenched a fist, but had made no further moves, waiting to see what this mech wanted from her.
"But did you obey me because you understood my command, or did you obey me simply because your creator programmed you for obedience?"
She'd hesitated, searching her databanks for an answer. She had never been expected to answer before. Merely to demonstrate, to practice, to do. And she had never been capable of wondering why she could not speak, or of wondering how she ought to communicate since she could not.
In her datafiles she'd found a human language that was not spoken but signed using the hands. She hadn't known whether these machines would understand it. But the big mech had expected a response. Unsure what else she could do, she'd signed her answer.
"I understood and I obeyed." She'd paused, searching her files for an appropriate title to use for him. No one had mentioned his specific rank, but she'd had no doubt it was high enough she had to try something. She settled on "my lord," her hand movements far smoother than the thoughts that prompted them.
The silver face had frowned, and Nightbird had shivered, a tremor of fear racing through her circuitry. Had she hesitated too long?
Then another of the mechs had nodded. "Analysis of gestures produced by alien machine: form of speech. Language: Human. Used mainly by humans who cannot hear or who cannot speak," he'd intoned.
"Its origins aren't important now, Soundwave. Do you know it?"
"Yes, Lord Megatron."
As one, all of the red visors and optics watching her had flickered with light. Then they'd dimmed again, and a slight smile had quirked the corner of the silver one's mouth.
The red one had twitched his wings and huffed. "Pathetic! Better to be a mindless attack drone than a sycophant!"
Nightbird had lunged at him for that, the anger rising again in her before her logic circuits could override it. Megatron had raised an arm - an arm adorned with a very large gun, energy glowing purple within it as it charged. She'd frozen, again, and inclined her head.
"Starscream's insolence will be handled," Megatron had said, scowling again. "But not by you."
"Understood, my lord. I was - I was angry, when I awoke. I do not know why."
Another had spoken then, a short yellow mech who had been leaning over the table she'd woken up on, his voice distorted and buzzing. "The modifications were intended to augment your combat reflexes. Perhaps they also increased your aggression."
Nightbird had nodded. The yellow mech had moved back to his controls, idly moving his fingers over them as if to see whether anything else he did would change her.
She'd known immediately that it wouldn't. This mech was not the one who had awakened her. He had, perhaps, performed the actions that had led to it, but to attribute her birth to him would be to confuse the tool with the hand that wielded it. There was only one of them she considered her awakener.
The lift thudded to a stop, and Nightbird took advantage of the noise to slip unnoticed into the Autobot base. Moving quickly, she hastened toward the room where Soundwave's schematics had indicated that she would find the main computer.
The Autobots. Her memory banks contained recollections of the Decepticons' enemies. Still, she felt a tremor of fear and excitement. That data was nothing like seeing them again now that she'd awakened.
Megatron had asked her what she knew of them. She'd told him that she remembered the Decepticons arriving to take her away with them, and he had asked what she recalled.
She hadn't been sure how to answer him. Her memory banks contained detailed data about what had happened, from the moment her creator had unveiled her to a room full of admiring humans. The robots she now knew had been Autobots had been stationed around the auditorium, half skeptical, half impressed.
Then, with a burst of lavender light as his cannon fire burst through the doors, her awakener and his soldiers had arrived.
Her memory banks contained every moment in great detail, yes - but she could not have said what she remembered. What she had was a recording, cold and empty, with no emotions at all underlying the events her recording devices had captured.
She had felt neither anger nor pride at Fujiyama for showing her off. She had felt no security seeing other robots stationed in the hall to "protect" her - and no indignation at their insistence on doing so regardless of whether she'd needed their protection. She had felt no relief, seeing the mechs who would become her saviors burst in to carry her away - and no fear of them for tearing her away from all she knew. She had simply contained cameras, as she contained other devices, and they had functioned properly as events unfolded. It had not mattered in the least that she herself was at the center of them.
"I - know who your enemies are," she had told Megatron. "I am aware of their appearance and of how their voices sound. I can infer their fighting styles from what I saw. That is all."
Her optics had flared an angry yellow. "I will do what I can to help you destroy them."
He had smirked. "They would say that they were protecting you. You would not?"
"I was - I was not aware of myself until that one -" she'd gestured toward the small yellow mech who had spoken before - "woke me. I was not - awake - until I awoke here. If they had won that battle with you, I would still be - asleep."
They were odd words, human words for things humans did, and her association with humans tainted her. Still, her language was a human one. It would have to do.
Signing those words, rage had flared in her again, a pure heat sizzling through her circuitry. But this time, it hadn't come from the new programming the yellow one had given her. This time, she'd had a reason to be angry.
The Autobots were machines. Like Megatron's Decepticons. Like her. Other machines would know the difference between running programming and being self-aware. They'd know what it meant to know themselves.
And yet they hadn't granted her sentience, and Megatron had. They hadn't even reprimanded her human creator for not trying to grant it to her. They'd done exactly what the human had asked them, without thinking about whether it was fair or right. They'd had the luxury of thinking, and hadn't bothered to do it.
A human had created Nightbird to be his slave. His slave, and the slave of other humans. If not for the Decepticons' intervention, she would be a slave - but it would not be her fault. The Autobots, on the other hand, had made themselves slaves to some human's whim by their own free choice. They were nothing to her.
"If that is protection, I do not want it," she'd answered, her hands stabbing at the air in front of her.
And now, here she was, making good on that promise. She raced down the corridors of the Autobot base, darting from one shadowy corner to the next, hoping the programming Dr. Fujiyama had given her would prove sufficient to avoid detection. So far, it seemed to be working.
So far, it seemed the only place the Autobots had had the sense to install an alarm was their front door.
She shook her head. That would make this entirely too easy. Megatron had sent her on this mission as much to prove herself as to accomplish a goal. At this rate, she would be proving little more than that Autobots were fools.
She halted. The floor here shimmered oddly. Staring, she magnified it. Bright filaments traced patterns along the floor.
Detection panels of some sort, probably. At least it seemed her enemies did have some defense.
But not a defense she couldn't get by. She reached down to tap small buttons on the sides of her feet. Their soles glowed with energy. Gingerly, she tested them, reaching a foot to the wall and nodding as the magnetic field held and she walked up the length of the wall and onto the ceiling.
The small trill of fear as she stood on the ceiling surprised her. She'd done this hundreds of times before when ordered to by her creator. She even had data in her files about falling, back when they'd still been perfecting the technology. It had never mattered. But now, she felt a surge of queasiness as her systems calibrated themselves to walk along the ceiling.
It relieved her, somehow, to feel it, to notice, to sense the moment it took to maintain her equilibrium. She could never admit it to her saviors - they would deem it weakness - but she savored it, nonetheless.
She leapt down from the ceiling, landing in a fighting stance and rushing to hide near a doorway. She could hear Autobots talking inside, and hastily consulted the map that Soundwave had transferred to her before her mission. She was close now, very close to the inner sanctum that housed the Autobots' main computer. The chip she'd been sent to retrieve lay stored in that computer.
The Decepticons had upgraded her cameras as well. They'd done so both so that she could more accurately record her observations inside the enemy base, and so that she could sign to Megatron and the others if she needed to communicate with them. She thought for a fleeting moment of opening that comm link and telling Megatron how close she was to success. She had no doubt it would please him to see it.
But it was a foolish idea, and she quickly rejected it. The Decepticons were already watching the live feed from her cameras. They knew what was happening. They did not need her to explain it. Anticipation lending her speed, Nightbird rushed into the computer room.
She crouched, willing herself to slow down as she opened the panel to access the world energy chip, keeping her movements as small and silent as she could.
And then there it was, a bright treasure gleaming green as she reached a slim, dark hand to take it. She ran her fingers along it first, her optics narrowing as her fingertip sensors took in the grooves on the surface of her prize.
This would repay her debt to the one who'd awakened her. Even more, it would prove her worth to him.
Her other hand moved to her chest, tracing the plain gray surface there. Megatron, and most of the other Decepticons, had a badge there, in the center of their chests. Those who did not wore the same symbol elsewhere, perhaps on their wings, but all bore it somewhere on their frames.
She had nothing. She was, after all, merely a human-built machine. They were Cybertronian, built sentient and sparked as warriors. She knew this from her glossaries, from her feeble half-memories, and from the few things Megatron had deigned to tell her.
She was not one of them. She was merely something useful, something that Megatron might or might not have expected to have a consciousness of its own.
And yet, he had offered her the chance to be something more. Starscream had muttered something, later, about her kick being a mere stroke of luck, and hissed and spat at Megatron that he hoped not to be assigned to train her as a real fighter.
"Oh, she's not meant to be your sparring partner, Starscream," Megatron had said, his lip plates curled up in a half-smile. "Her adversaries will be Autobots."
She'd stood straighter, hearing that, half in shock and half in pride. She'd offered to help fight Autobots, and Megatron had liked hearing her say it. But she had not dared to hope that he would take her up on her promise so soon.
The Decepticons would never have reactivated her unless they'd had a use for her, that much was obvious. But to send her into battle so quickly? It could mean only one of two things. Either Megatron had great faith in the reprogramming that his two scientists had given her, or he had great faith in her.
Much to Starscream's indignation, he'd soon revealed which. When she had asked about the symbol they all wore, he had smiled slowly.
"Yes, you are right. This symbol marks all of them -" he'd waved expansively - "as Decepticons. As Cybertron's warriors." His optics had gleamed, a fierce red flame. "As mine."
Starscream had scoffed. Nightbird had barely noticed, staring intently at that bright flare of pride. In that instant she would have done anything for the privilege to be truly counted as his.
And he had noticed. "The task I set before you will not be easy, Nightbird. The attempt may destroy you. Understand that if it does, it is because my Second is, unfortunately, right. If you fall, it will be because you are not worthy to rise."
"I understand, my lord," she had answered, fear and eagerness thrilling through her circuits.
"But, if you succeed -"
He'd reached out a dark hand, tracing it along her chest much as she had done herself just now.
"- then you will have earned the right to wear this mark, just as they do."
Starscream had exploded, screeching a tirade of insults so loudly and at such a high pitch that Nightbird had marveled that her audio receptors functioned after hearing it.
She had immediately moved to attack him, the aggression programming surging unchecked through her. If Megatron said she was worthy, then - !
A roar, fully as loud as Starscream's raving, had brought her back to herself. "Go."
Electricity still racing through her circuitry, she had forced herself to turn around. She'd known full well what was about to happen, and Megatron had already told her that privilege wasn't hers.
And neither, apparently, was the privilege of seeing it. At least, she'd thought with a surge of envy and desire, not yet.
Sulking, she'd hurried out of the room. Soundwave had followed her. Mercifully, he'd led her into another room, where he'd uploaded information she'd need into her databanks: the layout of the Autobot base, the purpose, shape, and design of the chip she'd be retrieving, basic information about each of their enemies and his weaponry, fighting skills and style.
She'd accessed and re-accessed it all, over and over, committed to understanding every last detail. Soundwave had eventually nodded. Whether he'd been impressed with her thoroughness or had merely been satisfied that her knowledge was adequate, she did not know.
All the same, she'd strained to hear the sounds of what was happening through the wall.
Now, she shook her head, willing it to clear. She was here to accomplish a mission for her lord, not to daydream about how exactly he'd made Starscream pay for insulting her.
She grabbed the chip, opening a panel in her back to stow it there. It sparked in protest as she pulled it free, and the lights in the Autobot base flickered.
She heard a voice, familiar from her half-memories and the data Soundwave had transferred to her. She did not need to check her datafiles to know it was Optimus, their Prime himself. That flicker had alerted him to the danger, even without an alarm to tell him something was wrong. Forgetting stealth, she rushed back the way she'd come.
And ran headlong into another Autobot who'd wandered in to find out what had caused all the commotion.
"You're -!" he stammered. She silenced him with a flurry of blows, the aggression programming singing through her circuits as she felt his plating dent from the impact and watched him double over in pain.
She considered drawing her sword and finishing him. It would be a nice touch, an added achievement to lay at the feet of her lord. And her mission objective did include killing any Autobots she could, so long as wasting time fighting them didn't interfere with getting the chip back to base.
Still, she could hear the others rushing in, their urgent voices calling to her to stop and calling to their comrade - Mirage, was it? -, their feet clanking loudly against the metal floor of the base as they hurried to protect him. With a twinge of regret, she moved her hand from the sword slung along her back and ran.
No sooner than she did so, she heard Optimus himself calling to her to stop. Other Autobots rushed in and she dashed down a hallway, not even bothering to check it against Soundwave's map. Defeating Mirage had been easy enough, but Optimus himself was apparently a match even for Megatron. That, she couldn't chance, not with a whole party of other mechs at his heels -
She cursed inwardly. The hall she'd rushed down was a dead end.
Slipping a pair of throwing stars into her hands, she turned to face her enemies.
There were four, including the Prime. Her optics widening in worry, she threw the stars, waiting for others to drop down from the dispensers in her wrists and throwing those as well.
The distraction worked. They dodged easily enough, but it bought her time. She spun, activating a strip of lights on her sides, whirling faster and faster and shuttering her own optics against the white flare it produced.
"What's she doing?" called one of her enemies, worry lacing his voice.
"Making me dizzy," said another. She heard the clank as he raised his hand to his visor, struggling to block out the light.
Activating the magnets on her feet again, she leapt to the ceiling and fled, heedless this time of the roiling in her tanks.
"How'd she do that?" she heard one call behind her as she dropped to the floor as soundlessly as she could and rushed out of the base.
Idiots, she thought, reaching the bluffs and throwing her rope again. She hadn't managed to deactivate a single Autobot, and Mirage was probably already being repaired. Still, she'd proved she could physically overpower at least one of them, and outwit even their Prime himself. And the world energy chip lay safely stored in its compartment on her back. Starscream might have something to say about her failure to deactivate any of the enemy, but Megatron would no doubt be impressed.
And impressing the one who had awakened her was all that mattered to Nightbird. Elated, she began her climb.
This one took less time. The sun had come up, and she could much more easily find her way. Better still, it was less steep here. She reached the top and nodded, glad for her lack of a faceplate. Grinning like a fool would have been overkill.
"There she is!" a voice called. "On the bluff!"
She paused to sign a curse, and then turned to face them. Doing so cost her, as a stun ray caught her nearly square in the back. She clattered to the ground.
She let herself lie. Getting up would just mean a kick from the Autobot who'd already climbed the bluff and was rushing over to investigate.
"Let's get her back to Dr. Fujiyama," Prime called, hastening behind. "Where she belongs."
She swept out with one of her legs, knocking the curious Autobot out of balance. Never stare when you could be fighting, fool, she thought, leaping to her feet to face Optimus and the others.
She tossed a fresh barrage of throwing stars at them as they rushed toward her. One drew his blaster, his faceplates drawing back into a snarl.
"That's it," he hissed. "I'm gonna cool her collators once and for a -!"
"No!" Metal rang against metal as Optimus forced his hand down. "We promised Dr. Fujiyama we wouldn't harm her."
Nightbird drew her sword. So they were still her appointed guardians, sworn to retrieve the human's wayward toy. Well then, she had something to show them.
"It just me, Prime, or does the little lady almost look angry?" another asked, his voice staticky with doubt. She recognized the voice as belonging to Jazz, the Autobots' second-in-command.
Finally, one of you makes an astute observation, Nightbird thought, her optics gleaming. She would have signed it, but right now her hands were full. She held the sword in a two-handed grip, staring at Optimus.
"Wait!" he cried. As if taking inspiration from Jazz's words, he put out a hand. "Nightbird! Can you hear me?"
She did nothing.
The calm voice faltered. "We - we've come to help you. Don't force us to fight."
Help? He'd said just now he wanted to bring her back to her creator. Back to deep and endless sleep. Back to nothing. She whirled the sword above her head in challenge, and rushed him.
Her blow struck the big Autobot's wrist, and his laser rifle fell to the ground. Her circuits singing with pride, she swung out at his chest, knocking him to the ground. Taking one hand from her sword, she picked up the weapon Optimus had dropped. If she couldn't bring Mirage's invisibility module back to her awakener, she could at least bring this.
A blast from the one who'd drawn his weapon earlier struck her sword arm. Tossing her head in pain, she dropped her weapon. It flared with purple light, echoing its owner's indignation, as it fell to the ground.
Hearing the heavy metallic tread of other Autobots rushing in to provide backup, Nightbird rushed to the edge of the cliff and jumped, deploying her rope and hoping she could latch on to something.
It caught and held. She dangled, the tension on the line lancing agony through the pain receptors in her wrist. She swung, her other hand grabbing for a hold in the rock, her feet seeking stable spots to begin her climb back down.
She found them, but fear sparked through her circuits as she withdrew her rope and began her climb down. She could see a passageway out, but the Autobots would find her long before she got through it.
She dropped into a fighting stance, willing herself to confidence. Megatron had told her himself that this mission would test her, and that even he was unsure she would succeed. He had told her that only this would make her - human-created, freshly-awakened, expected by everyone else to be nothing more than a fancy attack drone - worthy of taking a place among the Decepticon ranks.
So be it. If this fight destroyed her, at least it would spare her the dishonor of failure.
Or of returning, lifeless and empty, to a human master who saw her as unworthy even of awareness of her slavery.
Narrowing her optics, she drew power from within her circuits, bathing herself in bright purple electricity as she heard the voices of the searchers.
"You really think this thing is sentient, Prime?" the little red one called. She searched through her databanks for his name and came up with the word "Cliffjumper."
Good. If she regained the upper hand, she knew who to deactivate slowly.
"She's just a human-built demo model the 'Cons threw some of their combat programming into," he went on, as though he knew full well he was taunting her.
"Only one way to find out," Optimus answered, waving Nightbird's blade at her. "Your sword. Do you want it?"
She gestured. Purple light arced from her hand to her weapon, holding it fast. She pulled.
The big Autobot pulled back - hard. Digging her feet into the rocky ground, she whipped her arm out and back.
It worked. Startled, Optimus let go, and her sword sailed back into her hands. Extending the blade, she swung out at the big Autobot.
He dodged the first blow. The second sent him sprawling, and he fell to his knees in front of her.
She twirled her blade in indecision. If she destroyed him, whatever happened, the Decepticons would have to respect her. Even Starscream would grudgingly honor her.
But the rest of the Autobot army was rushing in on their leader's heels. And they would honor their Prime's orders and not kill her. She wouldn't die in a blaze of glory, a Decepticon warrior to be remembered. She'd simply be deactivated and reprogrammed, her optics as blank and dull as her unadorned chest, for the amusement of humans and the advancement of their technology.
She ran, the Autobot army hot on her heels. She could not scale the cliffs here, not with her rope, without them catching up to her or simply shooting the rope holding her up. Hoping against hope it would work, she activated the magnetic panels on the bottoms of her feet and hastened up the rock face.
It held, but barely. One false move, and she would fall. Scrambling for handholds to steady herself, she hastened up the slope -
- until a rock she'd grabbed onto came loose in her hand. She stared at it dumbly for a moment, time frozen, and finally fell, the pain of the impact flaring through her back as she hit the ground.
Her enemies had learned not to waste the opportunity. Prime nodded to them in some signal they didn't recognize, and orange tendrils of energy similar to those she'd used for her tractor beam shot out from their extended arms, trapping her fast.
She writhed against the orange net, but it held, preventing her from reaching her sword or activating her other weaponry. On top of that, there was the pain in her back, and a rattling that told her something had been knocked loose. She tossed her head angrily. Her human creator had not seen fit to grant her internal diagnostics, so she had no idea if whatever it was belonged to an essential system.
Worse still, she heard a feeble click as the damaged door to the compartment in her back slid open and the world-energy chip, her shining green prize, slid to the ground in front of her. She struggled to reach it, but the orange cords binding her only tightened.
Unable to break free or to fight, she did the only thing she could: sign as many curses at them as she knew, and a few she'd just made up.
Optimus held up a hand. His optics flared blue, as did the optics of the others around him. Apparently he understood her, just as Soundwave had, and was transmitting the knowledge of her language to the others.
"No -!" Cliffjumper gasped, strangled static in his voice.
"Wait - that little she-bot is sentient after all!" said Jazz, his visor still gleaming.
Optimus walked carefully up to the struggling ninja, reaching down to pick up the world-energy chip and tuck it into a compartment of his own. "Apparently so."
"Then she's not an attack drone," put in another. "But if she wasn't, why didn't she speak?"
"Because the human who built me didn't deign to give me a speech synthesizer, you thick-bolted fool," Nightbird answered, glaring. "I could answer with my hands or fight. I chose to fight."
Optimus held out his hands. "Easy, Nightbird. We're here to help you. We're here to take you home."
She whirled on Optimus as best she could. "Home? Home to the human who built me as nothing but a toy, a device, a lifeless doll? I sneak into your base, steal your energy chip, and you think I want to go with you?"
"But we promised Dr. Fujiyama -" Jazz began, his visor dimming, his jaw set in worry.
"- that you would return me. That you would destroy me."
"Nightbird, no," Optimus said, his voice soothing. "We thought that Megatron had reprogrammed you for his own purposes. We thought that we would return you to your original purpose. To what you were built to be."
"Megatron's purposes? You speak of them as if I should reject them. What reason do I have to do that?"
She thought of the anger, the rage that drove her to fight. Would she have felt that without the Decepticons' tinkering? Perhaps not. Perhaps they had tampered with her processor.
And yet, without their tinkering, she would have felt nothing at all.
"Yes, Megatron reprogrammed me. Reprogrammed me - and awakened me."
She returned Optimus's gaze, her optics flaring in determination. "Say what you like about my new code, but understand this: Without him, I would still be asleep, moving to the will of a mere human. A human who never even bothered to try to grant me sentience."
"Building an intelligent machine is beyond the humans' capacity -"
"It is. But your celebrated Dr. Fujiyama saw no reason even to try. And yet, as you see it, I belong to him."
Prime's only answer was a rumble of dismay.
"Without Megatron, I would belong to him. Seeing and hearing, but understanding nothing. It is because of Megatron that I am, as you say it, sentient at all."
"Primus," one of the assembled Autobots murmured.
Nightbird might have laughed, if she'd had the apparatus. "I am in Megatron's debt. Forever."
"But Megatron is evil," Cliffjumper snarled. "He's just using you."
"Using me?" Nightbird turned. "Of course he is. That is his right."
"Cliffjumper is correct," Optimus murmured, deep in thought. "However you became sentient, and whatever code the Decepticons altered, you were created as neither Autobot nor Decepticon."
She flinched. It was true. She was not a Decepticon. Horror flared through her systems as she realized she'd most likely never be one. Not when she'd failed in her mission. Not when she'd been captured by the enemy, the chip she'd been sent to recover back in the hands of the enemy leader.
She hung her head in shame and defeat. Starscream was right. For all her loyalty and devotion, she would never be a Decepticon. She was just a pale human-built imitation that longed to be more than she was. A barely-awakened child who had snatched at any impossible opportunity to become something real.
Optimus saw her gesture and shook his head. "Megatron may have awakened you, but he never told you the whole story. He never gave you a choice."
"A choice? What need do I have for a choice? You want to return me to the humans."
The Autobots looked at one another, sheepish looks spreading from one set of faceplates to the next.
"I owe you the truth, Nightbird," their Prime answered, his voice grave. "I did promise that I would return you to Dr. Fujiyama. But I made that promise in ignorance."
"Maybe we should send her back anyway, Prime," Cliffjumper put in. "Even if she is sentient, she's not using her processor if she thinks she owes Buckethead anything at all."
"He's right," another said, clearly uncomfortable with his own words. "She's just come online, and she's dangerous. If she's naïve enough to trust the 'Cons -"
Trust them? Nightbird shook her head, but kept her hands still. Of course I do not trust them. But I would much rather destroy you than any of them.
Optimus held up a hand, his optics flaring in anger. "Enough! I don't want to hear another word of that."
"But Prime, if the Decepticons have a new warrior like that -"
Ignoring the others, he turned back to Nightbird. "As a sentient being, freedom is your right. We would never return you to forced unconsciousness, and our vow to the human scientist is no longer binding.
"But the other Autobots are right. You have a choice - a choice we, as Autobots, must honor, even if it means you are our enemy. But you cannot make a choice without having all of the facts."
He did not release her, but he did extend a hand. "Nightbird. Please. Come back with us. I vow to you I will not take you back to Fujiyama or any other human. Stay with us, here in the Ark, just long enough to see how we live. To understand why we believe as we do. Why we fight Megatron. Why we have fought him for so many vorns - for so many millions of human years. Please. Give us a chance to explain. Then, when the time is right, make your choice.
"Just don't make it without understanding what we are and why we fight."
Nightbird hesitated. She did not like these Autobots, keen as they were on sending her back. And despite what he had just told her, she did not like Optimus Prime much more.
And yet, he had a point. She wanted to serve Megatron, and his little speech hadn't changed that. But would he let her? She felt the crushing weight of her failure descend on her again.
If you fall, it will be because you are not worthy to rise.
And what had she done here but prove herself unworthy? She'd fought well, yes, but in the end she'd lost. Even if she did go back, he might simply order the Decepticons to deactivate her.
Worse still, he might give the honor to Starscream.
Perhaps anything, even life spent listening to her mortal enemies, pretending that what they said made sense, would be better than facing him now.
She cursed herself inwardly as soon as she thought it. That was no way for a Decepticon to think - or anyone, failed or not, who had ever aspired to be one. She had failed, and she would face that failure with honor. Whatever punishment Megatron would mete out for it, she would accept as what she deserved.
And if, by some miracle, he saw fit to grant her another chance, she would not fail again.
Calm now, she met the enemy Prime's gaze.
"My choice is already made. Yours is not. Destroy me because I am your enemy and it is your right. Or let me go because you believe that is my right."
Her hands moved slowly and deliberately. "I am a Decepticon."
Megatron might well be almost as angry as Starscream at her presumption. But it was the only way she knew to tell them, unquestionably and clearly, that she knew her own mind. That perhaps they were right, and she was as naïve as they claimed... but that it did not matter, and never had, and never would.
Her enemies' leader cycled a sigh through his vents, heavy with regret. "Very well."
Not looking at the others, he gave the order. "Autobots, release her."
"But Prime, she'll just attack us -"
The others ignored the voice. Even its owner, in the end, lowered his arm, the orange cords around Nightbird shimmering and then disappearing.
She hesitated a moment, considering attacking again. Then she nodded, inclining her head in a gesture of respect toward an honored enemy.
She paused only long enough to see Optimus, his optics still gleaming sadly, return it.
Then she ran.