It started with the wall. That's what Shiv would have told anyone who asked. No one ever had and probably no one ever would, but that's what he would have said. Because what happened to Radar's crew could have been a coincidence.
Shiv wanted to believe it was a coincidence.
He wanted to believe it, for Breakdown's sake. A final mark of respect for the big guy. And maybe that proved Knock Out's point . . . that even Shiv, a Vehicon, mourned the loss of six of his compatriots for Breakdown's sake. Not for Radar's sake. Not for his crew. For Breakdown.
Not that Knock Out would have put it like that. He had never talked to Shiv beyond "stay off that wing for a few days" for one thing, and he would never have said "Radar" for another. Even before Breakdown's termination, he never called Vehicons by name. None of the officers did; it was always "you there" or "drone" or something like that. But Breakdown did know their names, all of them, and he talked with them and laughed with them and Knock Out smiled indulgently at his partner. Only at his partner. To him every Vehicon was simply "Vehicon." His indifference didn't bother Shiv. It was normal. At least Knock Out patched them up skillfully and with relative care, even if he didn't, despite his name, believe in anesthetic.
Vehicons weren't stupid, despite what some believed. They knew they were meant to be faceless, identical, disposable. The officers weren't supposed to get attached. The Vehicons weren't supposed to get above themselves. No one was supposed to care when they died. Generally, no one did. Three cheers for a caste-less society.
It hurt, but there were advantages too. Shiv and his friends raided the energon stores frequently—the guards willingly looked the other way, they were Vehicons too—and if Soundwave's cameras caught them as they snuck down the halls with their arms full of cubes, well, even Soundwave couldn't tell one Vehicon from another. Or maybe he just couldn't be bothered to try. At any rate, unless the raiding party was unlucky enough to run into an officer in person, they were free and clear. Even Lord Megatron wouldn't punish every Vehicon on the ship just to correct a minor infraction. Their anonymity was a shield.
Until the wall.
But maybe, after all, it had started before then, maybe it had started with Radar. Because if Shiv was telling the story (which he wasn't, because no one would ever care enough to ask), then he'd have to explain about Radar to make the wall make sense. It didn't matter that what happened to Radar and his crew was (probably) a coincidence. What mattered was how it changed things.
The news had spread quickly; Airachnid escaped, Breakdown dead. In their barracks, the Vehicons sat stunned or toasted his memory or wept or raged. Breakdown, their friend. Their confidant. The only bot who ever treated them like they were real.
Stupid. fragging. Airachnid.
They cursed her name, her cruelty, her very spark and laid down plans to deactivate her, make her pay, all the while knowing, pathetically, how useless they would be against her.
Diesel said, without much hope, "Maybe Knock Out will kill her." It was the first mention of the medic.
"What could Knock Out do against Airachnid?" Decepticons were supposed to be hulking, strong, and brave. Knock Out was none of these things. That was why Breakdown had been his partner to begin with, right? To protect him. He was a good medic, but just a medic. "I think we'd have better luck."
"He could poison her," Cantilever suggested listlessly. He was leaning his helm on his knees. "Find out where she's hiding and poison her energon."
Yes, everyone agreed, he could do that.
"I'm going to go see him," Radar said suddenly, pushing to his pedes.
"He can't really do anything. He can't poison her. No one knows where she is."
"I know that, I just . . . I think I should see him."
Shiv went with him. Radar was right; Breakdown would've wanted someone to take care of his little cherry red partner.
The door to the med bay was open, which was unusual, and Knock Out was polishing his medical instruments, all set out in neat rows, arranged by size. Which might not have been unusual under different circumstances. He worked a crumpled rag over a tiny screwdriver, his fingers rolling the soft material around the thin shank.
He looked . . . he looked normal. Calm. Absorbed in his work.
Oh Primus, what if he didn't know? Like a coward, Shiv remained in the doorway, refusing to be moved by any of his friend's whispered arguments or insults. In the end, Radar stepped through the entrance alone.
Knock Out, still polishing, looked up. Inquisitive. Casual. "Well, Vehicon?" he said after Radar had stood on the other side of the table for a few seconds, wings twitching nervously. "Spit it out. Where's it hurt?"
"It's not . . . I'm not injured, sir. It's just . . . You don't know me, but my name's Radar and . . ." His words tumbled out faster and faster. "I just wanted to say I'm sorry about Breakdown, really sorry, and we all miss him and if there's anything I can do, if there's anything you need . . ."
Knock Out flicked his wrist sideways, tossing the screwdriver onto the table. It landed with a tinny clatter, skewing a laser scalpel and a soldering iron out of their perfect formation. The shiny red medic began wiping his hands off with the cloth, marred with grease though it was. "What did you say your name was?"
"Radar. What a nice name. Except." Knock Out's arm shot forward in a blur of red and silver as he drove his claws up into Radar's chestplate. "Vehicons don't have names, do they?" Delicate instruments clattered to the floor as he dragged the panicked flyer across the table, fingers hooked under his plating. "Am I wrong? Has our glorious army changed the regulations when I wasn't looking?"
"P-please, sir, it's just a nickname, I didn't—"
Thin shrieks of metal as the medic's free hand scored lines of silver down the glossy purple finish. "What is your designation?"
" RA-239! It's RA-239, sir!"
"And what is your name?"
"I don't have one, sir! Please!"
"Good. Don't forget it." Knock Out shoved him backwards, watching dispassionately as Radar landed with a clang and started to scramble away. The doctor raised an optic ridge, looking pointedly to the medical tools scattered across the floor. Trembling, Radar crawled over to gather them up into the crook of his arm before depositing them on the table as quickly as he could.
Knock Out calmly began to sort them into rows again, biggest to smallest. "Dismissed, Vehicon," he said without looking up. He was back to polishing by the time Radar reached the door.
Shiv pulled him onto his shoulder and let him lean for a minute. Megatron strode past them as they made their way down the hall, not sparing a glance for a couple of Vehicons leaving the medical bay, one injured—which was, after all, a common sight.
His deep voice floated out to them as they walked away.
"Ah, Doctor. I wonder if you might examine my arm. It has been unsatisfactorily stiff as of late."
"Certainly, my liege. Your cannon is throwing off your balance, unless I miss my guess. But with some simple recalibrations . . ."
Radar and his flight squad were sent out the next day in response to an Autobot raid. That was strange; it should have been Pitchback and his team, except the roster was changed at the last minute. Only Sideswing and Cantilever made it back. Sadly, that was not strange in the least; the Autobots were increasingly good shots.
Radar, leading the left wing, had been the first to go down.
It was probably a coincidence. Soundwave arranged all the flight rosters. Soundwave. He must have had his reasons.
It must have been a coincidence. No matter what people said.
Visits to the medical bay took on a nightmarish quality, after that. Previously Knock Out had ignored the Vehicons even as he worked on them, letting Breakdown do all the small talk aside from the occasional interjection of "Can you feel this?" or "Bend your arm as far as you can." But now he chattered continuously, jovial and sharp and digging for answers, and the question that always came up, so playful and so dangerous, was "And what's your name?"
Maybe Breakdown hadn't been protecting the medic. Maybe he'd been protecting everyone else.
Knock Out, for his part, went about his duties and barely seemed to notice that his partner was gone. True, Diesel swore that while he was on monitor duty, the doctor strode onto the bridge—"I mean, onto the bridge, while Lord Megatron was standing right there!"—and vowed to retrieve a relic in Breakdown's memory or something, but Diesel had been fairly hungover that day and Shiv was sure he was wrong. That was just not something a Decepticon officer would do, especially not in front of Megatron. If a Decepticon died, it was because he was weak and unworthy, end of story; that was the official line. And nobody got ahead by linking themselves to a failure.
Maybe Diesel had something, though, because the doctor begged Megatron—publically begged him—to give him the organic creature which had nested in Breakdown's corpse and his glee, when Megatron decreed that "Silas" would end up on his dissection table, was unmistakable. "Breakdown would be tickled . . ."
Breakdown, oh Primus, poor Breakdown. Shiv had seen a lot and lost a lot during the war, but seeing an organic parasite inhabiting his friend's mutilated frame . . . He repressed a shudder as he and Diesel helped Knock Out strap the struggling abomination down.
"Please, let me go . . . Please! PLEASE, I CAN HELP YOU! Knock Out . . . Knock Out, it's me! Don't you recognize me? It's me, it's Breakdown!"
Knock Out smiled down at him. If Shiv had been on the other end of that smile, he would have killed himself. "No. It's not."
"I swear I am! I just, just didn't want Megatron to know b-because he wouldn't believe me—"
Shiv shrank in on himself as Knock Out grabbed him by the back of his neck and pushed him forward.
"Who is this?"
"It's, it's a Vehicon. You see, I knew that!! Knock Out, please—"
"Who. WHO. Tell me who this is." Shiv's plating rattled as Knock Out shook him in Breakdown's—Silas'—face. "Tell me his NAME."
"He . . . I don't know . . . th-they all look the same—"
The medic's lip curled. "You're not Breakdown." He pulled Shiv back, releasing him so suddenly he almost fell. "Get out, Vehicon."
"Let me go, please, oh God, oh God—"
A crooning laugh, the whine of a buzzsaw.
The medical bay did not become any less frightening now that the alien implanted in Breakdown's body had become an apparently permanent fixture. True, Knock Out's bedside manner towards the Vehicons actually improved; he had gone back to asking only medically necessary questions, like "How many fingers am I holding up?". But the organic creature off to the side, screaming, crying, and begging in the mutilated, rust-splotched body of a former comrade put a damper on things.
Especially with Knock Out's habit of occasionally dragging a Vehicon over to Silas and demanding, in his most mocking tone, "Tell me his NAME, Breakdown. Oh dear, can't you remember? Tell me his NAME."
A few of the Vehicons had begun covertly studying datapads on first aid to minimize their trips to the med bay. It was that bad.
And then the wall happened, and bad became worse.