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It got out of hand by the end, but that was seriously not Rumble’s fault. It also wasn’t his fault at the beginning either. If it was anybody’s fault, it was that loser Starscream. He was supposed to be in charge of the mission, so it was up to him to keep it on track. Rumble didn’t even know what the mission was, in the briefing Screamer went on and on with his usual thing of perfect discipline obey his orders or die blah blah, like he didn’t give Megatron scrap by the truckload every single day of his existence, and anyway he wasn’t going to kill Rumble because Soundwave would rewrite his brain circuitry from the inside out, so by the time Starscream finally got around to telling them what they were doing, Rumble had started playing Skyrim instead. He loved that game, it was super trippy. Humans did okay stuff sometimes, not that you could tell boring people that. Anyway he just set a motor system routine to follow Thundercracker wherever he was going, and kept playing, and he only paused the game and took it out of his visual cortex when they got off Astrotrain and then he was all “Whoa! What the fragging scrap! Where are we!” because there were like, aliens everywhere—and yeah there were aliens everywhere on Earth but that didn’t count anymore, they’d been there long enough—and of course Starscream was all you moron why weren’t you listening in the briefing. Yeah, WHY, Starscream. WHY.

So okay, they were there to buy some thing that Megatron wanted that you could only get in a big interstellar market, and the whole place was amazing. Rumble had never seen nine tenths of all the crazy scrap anywhere before, and Thundercracker kept grabbing him and hauling him back in line and smacking him across the back of the head and going on and on how there were robot slavers in places like this and Soundwave was gonna kick all their asses if they lost him so stop being a scrap-for-brains and stick close, but come on.

Then Starscream started negotiating with some weird squiggly-tentacle-face alien about buying the thing, and the alien said something and pointed at Rumble, and Starscream said sourly, “If only,” so Rumble loaded up his heavy-duty translation routines and figured out the alien wanted to buy him, so he kicked Starscream in the leg, and then Starscream picked him up by the head and told him to go sit quietly next to the stall or he was getting a null ray up the ass and getting carried the rest of the day. And yeah, Starscream would totally do that, the jerk, so Rumble sat for a whole ten minutes while Starscream kept going on and on with squiggleface.

Then he noticed nobody was watching him anymore, so he got up and went to wander around and check out the place some more. Seriously only some really dumb robot slaver would mess with a Decepticon. One lizard-alien thing did actually come up to him and try to get him to go down some dark alley and Rumble was all, yeah, because I’m stupid, and also see this badge here on my chest, it means I will frag you in thirty seconds, don’t let the small package fool ya, so buzz off, and the alien did. Nobody else tried to load him with scrap, and he wasn’t making trouble, he was just checking out all the cool junk everywhere, not doing anything wrong, he hadn’t meant to break that thing, but then all of a sudden right behind him out of nowhere Megatron said, “I will rip out every functioning piece of your innards!” and Rumble jumped like a mile and whirled around yelping, “What! What’d I do! I didn’t! I—”

Then he stopped yelling because it wasn’t Megatron—whewwww—or actually it was Megatron, but it was a hologram of Megatron, being projected off a building into the street, pointing his hand and thundering that line. “Whoa,” Rumble said, and went to the little skinny stick alien standing in front of the building trying to get people to go in. “What is this?” He jerked his thumb at Megatron, who was already being morphed into some weird fish-lady thing doing a slinky dance. “Why’ve you got a holo of Megatron?”

“Ahh! I see you are a true connossieur of violence!” the alien said. “We have almost the entire complete run available for premium full-sensory viewing—”

“Complete run of what?” Rumble said.

“The gladiatorial career of the great undefeated Champion of Tarn!” Sticky said, pointing to a poster on the wall with a picture of the Megatron holo. “All preserved and remastered to the highest degree! The finest seats in the Arena, immersive direct input—it’ll be like you were there! We have his terrifying match against the Destroyer of Slargir—a full hour of astonishing brutality! The magnificent contest against the Psyllion Serpent—forty minutes of a blood-and-oil-soaked dance with death! And of course, we offer ten, hundred, and thousand match packages for those more discerning viewers who prefer to indulge in the refined pleasure of his absolute dominance—victories achieved with nearly unimaginable swiftness and skill! Perhaps you would care to try the experience? We offer the famous Duel from the Door as a free sample—”

That was when Thundercracker grabbed Rumble by the shoulder. “Did you just switch off your whole brain today or something, you little rusted lugnut?” he demanded. “Starscream’s gonna kick your ass, and he’s gonna have to wait in line because I’m gonna do it first!”

“Wait, wait, wait! Wait for it!” Rumble said, holding up his hands. 

“Huh?” Thundercracker said, and then the holo recording went off again right behind him and he jumped all over himself gasping, “What! Megatron! I was just looking for him! I—what the slagging hell?” He glared down while Rumble sat down on his ass in the street laughing his head off at him. “Now I’m really gonna kick your ass!”

“Aw, come on, that’s the best!” Rumble said. “Don’t be like that, it got me too, you shoulda seen my face. Come on, we’ve got to set Screamer up for it.”

Thundercracker hesitated, but he wasn’t a total loser, so he finally agreed and radioed Starscream and the others to come, and it was awesome, Starscream was grabbing Rumble by the throat and holding him up yelling at him and it went off and Starscream literally threw him away and shrieked, “Megatron!” The dents when Rumble landed were worth it.

And then Starscream wanted to slag them all right there obviously, because he could not for five astroseconds get over himself, but at least Astrotrain and Skywarp had both freaked out too, so it hadn’t just been him, and after Thundercracker did some fast talking,  Rumble said, “Hey, listen, they got a free sample, let’s check it out!” and went and got Sticky, who had gone hiding behind the ticket booth after Starscream started in on the yelling.

“We’re here on a mission, not a pleasure outing!” Starscream hissed.

“We already got the vortex amplifier! And I need another five hours to recharge my engines for warp anyway,” Astrotrain said. “Come on, I want to see Tarn Arena, that place was demolished before I even got built.”

Starscream didn’t like it, but everybody else did, and what was he going to do, hang out pissy in the street with Megatron yelling at him every five minutes, so even he went in with them all. The holoroom was really small; Astrotrain’s head was almost bumping the top even when Sticky opened it up all the way, but then he said, “Loading program!” and all of a sudden they were standing in this crazy huge arena, like Darkmount big only five times bigger. When Rumble looked across at the other side of the seats, he couldn’t even see the faces of the mechs sitting there, and when he turned his head and looked up there was like a thousand rows of seats and all of them were crammed and everyone was chanting,Meg-a-tron! Meg-a-tron!” at the top of their lungs, so loud that the seats were vibrating. It was so freaking cool. Also there was this seriously horrible-looking metal monster going out in the middle of the arena floor, a thing like a mining borer only hopped up ten million times, with snakey arms and durasteel claws and a crushing jaw opening and shutting and it was hovering around the arena crazy fast. Rumble had no idea how you would even get near the thing.

Then the big arena door opened at the far end and everyone started just screaming pure noise, and Megatron stepped into the doorway and paused there while everyone was howling and the monster was flailing around the floor and shrilling and waving its arms waiting for him, and then Megatron took his sword and flipped it in his hand and threw it—and it socked right into the borer’s open jaw and sank all the way in, and all of a sudden fragging sparks were going everywhere all over it and the thing exploded in six places at once and died right there, and Megatron turned right around and went back inside like oh well, guess that’s it for the day, done.

“That was awesome!” Rumble yelled, as the holo ended. “Come on, let’s check out some more!”

“I would be more than happy to offer you a curated selection to fill your available time, at a bargain rate,” Sticky said. “Shall we say…three hundred galcreds?” 

“Is that a joke?” Starscream said. “Three hundred galcreds to sit here and indulge in this pathetic hero worship—”

“Two hundred!” Sticky said hurriedly. “And of course, of course I understand—you want to see him work for it! The Duel from the Door is really just to showcase the simulator technology! Perhaps the Slag-Beast of Morthauk—two solid hours, and you’ll see him half-junked by the end! The fight many believe he came closest to losing—”

Starscream paused.

“Hey, do you have energon goodies?” Astrotrain asked Sticky.

The fight with the Slag-Beast thing was awesome. Rumble would’ve gotten kind of freaked out a few times if he didn’t know Megatron had made it, duh, since he was back on Earth right now just fine, but even knowing, it was creepy on top of great. The monster whatever it was had some kind of spit that dissolved durasteel, and so did its blood, so every time Megatron hit it or cut it, his weapons started to come apart, and any time it hit him, he had to dive into the arena gravel and smother the stuff and he still ended up with all these massive gaping holes all over his armor. Rumble was yelling along with everyone in the arena, cheering frantically, but he seriously had no freaking idea how Megatron was going to get out of this, he kept getting hit and slagged a little more and a little more, he kept having to dump his weapons and bits of his own armor and gravel into a pile in the middle of the arena, and it looked like he was seriously going to bite it, and then all of a sudden he tripped.

“Slagging scrap!” Rumble shrieked as the slag-beast lunged, and then Megatron jumped into the air and the beast ran past him right into the heap of piled up stuff. Megatron landed on the back of its neck and reached down and grabbed the arena floor on either side and jammed the beast’s head down into the whole pile even as it started slagging it, and he kept its face buried and it started thrashing and trying to get him off, but it couldn’t, he had his legs clamped around its neck, and after like seriously ten minutes of thrashing it finally collapsed and died.

The whole arena was like, insane, after that: everyone was screaming and some of them were crying and mechs were jumping down onto the floor of the arena running towards Megatron and getting zapped by these stun guns around the edges, and Megatron just sat there on the slag-beast ignoring it all for another ten minutes before he got up and limped out of the arena.

“That was the best,” Rumble said, dreamily, when the holo-sim ended.

“Did you see that!” Thundercracker was saying. “Did you see that! He planned the whole thing! He started making that pile like one minute into the fight!”

Starscream just sniffed. He’d probably been getting his jets off while Megatron was getting half-slagged, the creeparoid. “Yes, I’m amazed by the sheer genius of his tactics,” he sneered. “Who could have thought of smothering a Morthaukian slime-dweller, it’s not like that’s the recommended defensive technique described in the Space Exploration Corps field guide or anything. Did he ever face anything more challenging?” he demanded of Sticky.

“Well—there’s his very last battle,” Sticky said. “Of course, it’s not really a classic Arena battle—there isn’t a kill at the end, you see, so it’s something of a bit of esoterica. But some experts consider it his most challenging bout even so—”

“Sure, what the hell, let’s check it out,” Astrotrain said. “Load it up.”

The arena opened up around them again, the cheering crowd even louder than before and the announcer portentously saying, “Today at last—what you’ve all been longing to see for the last ten thousand years—the meeting of champions! The devastatingly brutal Champion of Tarn faces the coldly precise Champion of Vox! Who will take the crown?” and two doors opened at the same time, and Megatron came out of one, and out of the other—

“Whoa, is that Shockwave?” Rumble said, staring. Starscream’s eyes widened, and he leaned in close. It was Shockwave, except Shockwave had, like, a face: his head was still blocky but he had two optics and a faceplate. They looked super weird. 

The fight didn’t seem like it was as tough as the one with the slag-beast, to start. Megatron and Shockwave both fought careful and smart, moving around each other more than they took shots. It was kinda boring even, Rumble saw Megatron fight this way all the time. He didn’t have the cannon, but otherwise it was pretty much the usual way he took on somebody like Optimus Prime or one of the Dinobots, whatever. Rumble was even about to be all, hey, how much longer does this go, when all of a sudden Megatron just stopped in the ring and said something to Shockwave. The two of them talked for a few seconds—though Rumble couldn’t hear what they were saying—and then Megatron nodded and instantly attacked.

From there on in, the two of them were really fighting, and as soon he saw them start going at it for real, Rumble got that the rest of it had been total junkyard scrap. Not just the rest of this fight, the rest of all the fights. The slag-beast, the drone thing—hell, every battle he’d ever fought in with Megatron—they’d all been, whatever, just about Megatron figuring out how he was going to win or if he was gonna put enough into this one fight to win it. But this—this was a real slagging fight. Megatron and Shockwave didn’t know who was going to win, they both wanted to, and neither one of them was going to back down.

And damn, it was brutal. Rumble hadn’t seen Shockwave fight all that often. Shockwave was like, the quiet boring guy who minded the store at home and sometimes told you that you had exceeded your energon usage allocation and were gonna be put into stasis if you didn’t straighten out and you believed him, but this was—this was a whole new level, he was a slagging monster. Megatron and him were ripping apart each other’s armor with their bare hands, slamming each other into the walls—the whole freaking arena was shaking with the blows. There were shields and weapons scattered all around the arena, spiked maces and swords and sledgehammers, and they both just grabbed anything that was nearby and used it like it was all the same, they could use any of it.

Around when Megatron sheared off half Shockwave’s face with a sword, people even stopped cheering, Rumble figured because it was kind of—freaky. Like you didn’t even know anyone could fight like this, didn’t know that anyone had that much power under the hood when it came down to it, and now that you were seeing it, you were starting to get—scared, Rumble realized, looking around the stands; they were full of those skinny underarmored Golden Age Autobots that had all gotten slagged pretty early on in the war, and all of them were sort of covering their mouths and sitting almost in silence, staring down at Megatron and Shockwave. Heh, even Starscream looked kind of freaked out.

Then Megatron took a swing that missed Shockwave by a couple centimeters, and his fist went into the wall right underneath their seats, crushing a gaping hole through the steel. A weird jolt went through the seats, and Rumble looked down: he was sticking to it, what the hell, and then Megatron ripped his arm out again, and the block of seats all went crashing down together with a wild jerk. “Whoa!” Rumble yelled, but the magnetic clamping held them all in place—

—just in time for Shockwave to slam his fist right where Megatron’s head had been, plunging into the base of their seats about five centimeters short of Starscream’s feet. The impact shook them all back and forth violently, but they still didn’t come loose, and then Shockwave tried to yank his arm back and his optics widened because he couldn’t: the magnetic clamping field had got him. So naturally he tried to look around to guard his side, his other arm coming up for a block—except the optic he’d lost was on that side, too, so he couldn’t get a clear visual on Megatron anymore. “He planned it again!” Thundercracker was yelling. “He planned it! He bashed that part of the wall six times this fight!”

Megatron could’ve taken the rest of Shockwave’s head off right then. The whole fragging arena started chanting for it, too, a call and response where one side screamed out Megatron’s name and the other side screamed back, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” But Megatron just kept standing there, his sword held at his side, and started talking to Shockwave again. They hung out for a while longer right there, just like, chatting or something, while the frenzied cheering slowly died off into confusion. Rumble could practically look right into Shockwave’s face—his real face, which was there behind the stuff Megatron had hacked off. The faceplate and the optics were fake, someone had just stuck them on top of Shockwave’s head and split his optical wiring, like, who even knew, they’d wanted to make him look like he had a regular face. Weird. Anyway, you still couldn’t tell what the hell he was actually thinking, but then he looked partway around towards Megatron and inclined his head.

And Megatron tossed his sword aside. He gave Shockwave his hands, then he braced one foot against the wall and helped Shockwave rip his other arm free. It took out the rest of the wall. Rumble yelped again as their block of seats actually got dumped down onto the arena floor with a jolt. But Megatron and Shockwave were already walking off across the floor together. The arena door didn’t open for them, but Megatron punched it in the middle and the whole thing crumpled, corners peeling out, and Shockwave caught one of them and ripped the whole thing out of their way and tossed it behind him casually. They barely even slowed down.

The holo ended there and Sticky popped back inside. “As you can see, an inconclusive match,” he said. “And neither champion ever returned to the arena! They both retired immediately afterwards. But many aficionados do consider it their favorite—”

“What were they saying down there?” Starscream demanded.

“Ah!” Sticky said. “It is a question many have asked. But unfortunately, the holocam audio pickups were designed for battle noises and ambient sound, to generate a vivid experience. Ordinary conversation was filtered out with amphoric resonators for privacy concerns, so—”

“Hey, I can reverse that in five seconds,” Rumble interrupted. “Gimme the audio feed, I’ll get it.”

Sticky blinked at him and then said slowly, “Would you…be willing to provide a transcription in exchange? I have several clients…”

“Sure, I don’t care,” Rumble said, snapping his fingers. Sticky gave him a cable so he could jack in, and yeah, sure enough, when he pulled the audioforms into higher dimensions, he could hear how they’d scrubbed it. Soundwave had figured out how to make Autobot amphoric resonators scrapworthy a long time ago. Rumble picked out the faint edge-of-audible scratches right at the edges of the field, ran the whole thing through his inverter chamber a dozen times and through the backfilling algorithms, and got them. He also got a lot of scrap-boring people yakking around them too, but he already had voiceprints for Megatron and Shockwave, so it was easy to dump everybody else, once he tweaked Shockwave’s to compensate for the stupid fake faceplate in the way. “Okay, got it, here’s the first one before they really started going at it,” he said, and played it back. 

Megatron’s voice came out of his chest speakers. “I’ve gotten sick of all this lately. You?”

“Arena combat is wasteful and illogical except at the most immediate level,” Shockwave said. “However, so is your continued participation. Even assuming ongoing maximal levels of personal expenditure, you should have reached a quantity of capital sufficient to retire on four thousand years ago. Twenty-three thousand years remain in my own career to reach the same point. Why have you not done so?”

“The arena’s the least of it, don’t you think?” Megatron said. “I’ve been saving up to start a revolution.”

Shockwave didn’t say anything for a long moment. “I presume you mean to propose our united involvement, which would increase the success probability of such an endeavor by an order of magnitude,” he said finally.  

“I do,” Megatron said.

“Very well. I agree in principle. This would seem an apropos moment to determine leadership. Ongoing internal conflict would be counterproductive.”

That was it for the first chunk. “Okay,” Rumble said, “now here’s the one where Shockwave’s arm was stuck,” and started playback again. He couldn’t completely filter out the screaming of kill kill kill above, but he’d boosted the voices so they could hear them.

“Is that enough?” Megatron asked. “I don’t really want to delay for repairs.”

Shockwave said, “You imply the existence of a timeline.”

“We’re going to hit the Senate in three days,” Megatron said.

“That is either unreasonably hasty or—”

“I’m the one who bribed the Vox arena administrators to set up this fight,” Megatron said. “Everything else is ready. Well?”

“Your confidence seems illogical,” Shockwave said. “We have never met. You could not be certain I would agree.”

“Shockwave,” Megatron said, “the power of logic is constrained by the illogic of the universe. There are victories that can only be achieved through the occasional leap of faith.”

Shockwave just sat there processing that for a bit, then said, “I am prepared to provisionally accept your working hypothesis and re-evaluate after initial results.”

“Fair enough,” Megatron said. “Let’s get to work.”

“And that’s all there is,” Rumble said, shutting it down. Everyone else was staring at him open-mouthed, so he rewound it and played it back in his own head, actually listening to it himself this time. “Hey, that’s kinda cool, huh!”

“What the fragging hell,” Thundercracker said blankly. “Are they—is this—did they just—agree to start the war?

“And Shockwave wanted to lead?” Skywarp said. “He’s only following Megatron ’cause Megatron kicked his ass?”

Starscream had an expression like somebody had just made him drink toxic sludge, ha ha, he was probably thinking about how that meant he’d have to beat both Shockwave and Megatron if he ever wanted to take over for real. Not that he was ever gonna beat Megatron anyway.

Rumble fired off a clear audio of the whole thing to Sticky, who waved his weird skinny stick fingers around in what he guessed was happy. “I am most grateful,” Sticky said. “And I believe you do have time for another of the substantive matches, if you would care for a recommendation—”

“No!” Starscream snapped. “I’ve seen more than enough of this pointless brawling.”

“Hey!” Rumble said.

“Oh—I completely understand, sir,” Sticky said to Starscream. “A more refined taste! Considering the assistance you have offered, I would be delighted to upgrade you gratis to my most exclusive holo—I only acquired it with considerable difficulty at an exorbitant premium; virtually all copies were destroyed in the civil war—”

“What is it?” Astrotrain said.

“A tour of the Champion’s private residence, and,” Sticky leaned in like he was about to tell them something really exciting, “even a brief interview with the Champion himself!” Sticky straightened and waved his fingers. “He reads an excerpt of his own poetry!”

“Of his what?” Starscream said, his voice going high and shrill with laughter. “Megatron writing poetry? It’s going to be like seeing a Bovarin hippo-mule trying to do pirouettes. Go get it!”

“No way! Screw the poetry, I wanna see another fight!” Rumble said.

“Shut up and be grateful I’m not disassembling you!” Starscream snarled at him. Jerk.

Rumble sulked for a bit even after the holo loaded, but he couldn’t help getting interested: it started them out inside a transport flying along this wicked cool elevated highway right through Tarn. Rumble turned around on the seat to look out the window. Tarn had been trashed long before he’d been built, all of Cybertron had; he’d never seen what any Golden Age cities had looked like except in regular vids, not even a full holovid like this. It was pretty amazing: all these huge shining towers with the highway running like a big golden stripe around them, and it was full of people, people walking around and riding on the highway—it was big enough for seven lanes across.

“Hey, check it out,” he said. “You can see the arena from here.” It looked even bigger from outside, like an impact crater from some giant hulking asteroid. He didn’t see almost any Decepticons around, though; it was all Autobot alt modes zipping along beside them. He didn’t get it; he’d always thought of Tarn as a Decepticon city. “Where’s all the ’Cons?” he asked.

“Up here with all the shiny Autobots?” Thundercracker said. “Nah. Look down, punk. Like, two layers down.”

“But why aren’t any of us flying over?”

“Decepticons don’t have flight yet, you idiot,” Starscream said. “The Autobots wouldn’t allow Decepticons to be built with antigrav. Decepticons illegally overhauled themselves to fly overhead and bomb them—an obvious strategy, really, since they’d conveniently arranged the entire planet with themselves exposed on the surface and all of us fortified below.” He snorted. “Hardly the act of genius that some people want to make it out to be.”

Rumble did finally see some Decepticons for a minute, or thought he did, working on some construction off the side of the highway just before they took their own exit. The transport went into a tunnel that started climbing up, way up, driving through a mess of steel girders and concrete and wiring. Rumble finally figured out they were going through a new overlayer that was being built over the rest of the city. When they finally came out, they were on another highway, even wider than the other one, but pristine and shiny and practically deserted. Way down below he could still see the rest of the city and the arena, even that looking small.

The transport took the highway all the way until it turned into a narrower street that climbed in a slow spiral between a whole bunch of big fancy mansions, with gates and guards on the doors and scrap like that. “Pretty chi-chi,” Thundercracker said, looking out himself. “Never got to see a brand-new overlayer before—you guys?”

Even Astrotrain shook his head. “The last one got blown away a couple centuries before me.”

The transport kept going all the way to the very top of the hill where a huge pair of metal gates stood with a pair of big-ass swords mounted on them, crossed. The swords were all hacked and dented. The gates swung open and the transport rolled inside, the top coming down, and they all stared. Even Starscream.

“That—that can’t be Megatron’s—house?” Astrotrain said after a second.

“That thing’s bigger than our whole freaking base,” Rumble said.

“That thing’s bigger than Darkmount Hall!” Skywarp said. “Like scrap Megatron lived here.”

But the side of the transport was opening and folding away from them, the holo setting them down onto the ground, and there was a little mech coming down the stairs to meet them. “Welcome, welcome!” he said. “On the Champion’s behalf, allow me to welcome you to his home. I’m Brickbat, his manager, and it will be my pleasure to guide you on this tour. Please come inside.”

The manager kept going on with some schpiel about how much Megatron appreciated his most devoted fans, but Rumble quit listening to him, because he didn’t have enough attention capacity to do that and see everything around, and slagging scrap. It was…nuts. Megatron’s house was a freaking palace. They came in through this huge gallery with niches along the walls and really cool junk in them, like huge carved-liquicrete sculptures of gladiators covered in gold and platinum, giant floating holos of monsters with little plaques under them saying defeated by the Champion on and the day Megatron had slagged ’em, scrap like that.

“I’m overwhelmed by the elegance,” Starscream sneered as they were led through it. “Really, it’s ever so sophisticated.”

“It’s crazy is what it is! Astrotrain said, staring around. “How could he afford all this? It must’ve cost—I don’t even know.

“I’m often asked how much the house cost,” the manager said over his shoulder, had to be a smart holo trigger. “The Champion was solicited as a core subscriber for the overlayer, of course, but since then the furnishings have changed several times and we’ve expanded vertically twice, so it’s difficult to put a single round number on it. My current best estimate is roughly 1.2 billion enercreds.”

What?” Skywarp yelled. “What? A billion enercreds!”

“Now if only money could buy taste,” Starscream said, but what the hell did he know, he wasn’t the one with a billion-credit mansion. Besides, it was awesome, Rumble didn’t even know what his problem was. They got taken through something like fifty rooms—a giant banquet room, a dancehall, a rollerball gallery, on and on. The lower level was a whole bathhouse. Not, like, a private oil tub, which was already more than Rumble had ever seen for just one mech. A bathhouse. The main oil vat was so hot that big luxurious bubbles were slowly surfacing and popping with little sexy bursts every so often, even though it was so fragging big that all of them could’ve gone for a soak at the same time and not even filled it halfway. There was a whole bank of salt and sonic scrubbers, there were heating tables with fresh coolant tubes hooked up right next to them, there was a whole chamber that the manager said you could fill up with suspension fluid and just float in it if you wanted to. Even the floors were cool, titanium and inlaid durasteel and platinum.

And then the manager took them downstairs one more level and there was a fragging holodeck arcade. Yeah, Rumble would’ve hung out at Megatron’s place anytime. “Hey, where is Megatron, anyway?” he asked, after Thundercracker dragged him away from the giant bombing-run simulator. “We’ve been all over the place and no sign of him. Is he at the arena or something?”

“I imagine you’re wondering where Megatron is,” manager-bot said. “He prefers to spend most of his time in the inner study. Perhaps we’ll stop by and see if he can be persuaded to talk with you a little. But I’m afraid the Champion is quite a private mech—please don’t take it personally if he’s not in the mood for company. He’s refused to speak to senators, you know—high-ranking guests often ask to stop by his chambers after a match, but if he doesn’t want to talk—well, it’s rarely a good idea to press him.” The manager tittered a little and whispered conspiratorially, “Once he picked up a corporation head and a province justice in each hand and threw them out.” He coughed. “Their security…did try to object, but they thought better of pursuing the matter.”

He took them out the other side of the arcade and down a big side hallway that led to a heavy soundproofed door like a vault. He unlocked it with a handprint and acted relieved when it opened. “He hasn’t sealed it today, that’s always a good sign,” he said, and swung the huge thing open.

It opened into a single big room that was built right out of the overlayer cliff, with a solid glass wall looking out to Cybertron’s horizon. They were so high up you could even kinda see the curve of the Iacon Dome out in the distance. The other walls were gigantic archive panels, sleek and shining. It wasn’t just a straight up-and-down box, though: if you looked at them for a while you noticed there were more than four sides and they were at angles leaning against each other; it was cool, although maybe a little boring compared to the rest of the house. The whole room was empty except for a big computer console and a single big chair positioned right in the middle. Megatron was sitting in it with a pad facing the view. “Brickbat, am I about to be angry?” he asked without looking up.

The little manager gulped and said hurriedly, “No, no—it’s just the tour? The holocam tour of the house? You remember I told you last week…”

“I also remember I told you I didn’t care what you did with this monstrosity at any point in its construction or since,” Megatron said. “Did I explicitly need to mention that didn’t include here?” He glanced around, an impatient gleam in his optics. “What is this for?”

“An exclusive for the premium ticket holders…”

Megatron snorted. “I give only one kind of performance, and when it’s over, someone’s dead. Get them out of here.” He turned back to the pad he was working with.

“I thought you might…share some of the poetry?” Brickbat said.

Megatron swiveled the chair around and leveled a narrow-optic look at him. “You want me to read some of the poetry,” he said flatly. “On a holovid special for ten-million-credit seat holders.”

“Oh, no!” Brickbat said. “That’s the deluxe level, this is the premium. Box holders only.”

“Well, in that case!” Megatron actually laughed out loud. “By all means, then,” he said, looking over at them, and his eyes were shining maliciously, which made Rumble automatically nervous, even when it wasn’t being aimed at him, because it meant Megatron was really ready to slag someone. He flicked up something on his pad and read softly, “Will you ask to live? You will. You know you will. When the hand closes on your throat, when the ash thickens your breath, you will ask, and ask again—”

“What—what garbage is this!” Starscream exploded. “What—stop it!” he yelled—at Megatron; he actually had his fists clenched and was taking a step at him, even though it was a holo. “Stop it! You have the—the gall to pass this off as yours—

“Starscream, what’s your problem, it’s a fragging holo!” Astrotrain said.

Starscream whirled on them. “You—you idiots!” he howled. “That’s not Megatron’s poetry! That’s from The Sacrifice of Violence!

“Whatever, who cares!” Rumble said, but sadly, the answer to that was, Starscream cared, and he kept on ranting at them, so Rumble used a magnetic clamp to fish up the audio jack that Sticky had left out somewhere on the holodeck floor, and he plugged in and filtered Starscream’s voice out on all the output channels except his own. Thundercracker gave him a thumbs up behind Starscream’s back.

Megatron was still reading the poem. “What promises will you make, when your shining dome comes down, that you withheld to see it rise? Will you still value its bright curve, steel and stone, higher than a breath in freedom? What will you then want more than the unbound hand and the open mouth? Make ready your offers and your bargains. Breathe. Breathe now.”

He stopped and put down the pad. “Well?” he said softly, mockingly. “Did you like it? Applause, really?” because the holocam crew had probably clapped. “How absurd. I can see I’ll have to publish it anonymously. All right, enough of this, get them out of here,” he said flatly to the manager, turning the chair away again, and Brickbat jumped to hurry them away.

“—can’t believe I have to serve with all of you uncultured idiots!” Starscream was still going when the holo ended. “I’m surprised you didn’t applaud too!” He was practically yelling. He whirled around as Sticky came in. “When was this recorded?” he demanded. “How many people have even seen it? I can’t believe no one ever caught him trying to—trying to pass himself off as the Voice of Tarn, it’s pathetic!

“Oh?” Sticky said vaguely. “I’m afraid I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of anyone identifying the Champion’s poetry…This was recorded I believe some twelve hundred years before the final battle you saw.”

Starscream paused and said after a moment, “What? But that’s—that’s not—The Sacrifice of Violence wasn’t published until two hundred years before the war!” He glared at Sticky, who just spread his twiggy fingers wide helplessly, and Starscream gave a wordless snarl and turned and stormed out of the holoroom and the whole studio.

He didn’t stop once he got to the street, either; they all ended up having to chase him through the market just trying to keep up. “Hey! Where are we even going?” Astrotrain yelled at his back. “You were the one who wanted to take off right away!”

“Shut up!” Starscream said over his shoulder. “I’m not going anywhere until I prove he’s a complete pathetic fraud!”

He kept going until he got to this huge building that was some kind of public archive or library or other incredibly boring pile of junkyard scrap like that, and once he went inside he yelled at the local aliens some more until someone gave him a computer console just to shut him up. Then it was too small for his hands, so he grabbed Rumble by the arm and dragged him over. “Pull it up!” he snarled. “The Sacrifice of Violence.”

Rumble shrugged and got it. It came up pretty quick, so it wasn’t even stored that deep, and when Rumble checked it out, he could see why: it was pretty cool stuff. Also no slagging wonder Megatron had been all, whatever, about rich wasteholes wanting to hear his poetry, because half of it was like, you Autobots all suck cracked ports and I want to kill you all and slag your scrapheap planet and meanwhile the datastruct tag with it had a list eight memory pages long of awards that it had won.

“Why are you taking so long?” Starscream demanded.

“I was reading it,” Rumble said. “It’s good stuff! Ow!” he yelped as Starscream smacked him across the back of the head.

“Of course it’s good stuff, you ten-credit moron!” he hissed. “It’s one of the greatest works of Cybertronian literature! The Voice of Tarn called to light the decadence and abuse of the Golden Age! He foresaw the civil war!”

“Uh, Starscream, Megatron started the civil war,” Thundercracker said.

“How do I get this through your thick casings, Megatron did not write this!” Starscream shrieked at them. Rumble flickered his optics at Thundercracker in code for what a nut, but Starscream caught it and whipped around and smacked him again. “Now upload a full dump of all your sources for Megatron’s voiceprint and run a comparative literary analysis!”

“A what?” Rumble said. Starscream ground his jaw and shoved an algorithm at him across the mission channel. “Are you kidding me? This is gonna take twelve hours to run on this chintzy hardware!”

I don’t care!” Starscream yelled. “Get it started!”

Rumble gave up and got it running, then put the results on-screen. As soon as he was done, Starscream grabbed the chair and dumped him off it and took it himself instead and sat there glaring at it with determination. His optics got brighter and brighter as the positive-match results started racking up right away, which no kidding.

“So now what, we’re sticking around here for another twelve hours?” Astrotrain said. “Seriously?”

“We are not leaving until I’ve proven Megatron didn’t write this!” Starscream said.

“Starscream, what’s the big slagging deal?” Skywarp groaned.

“It’s not gonna work anyway!” Rumble said.

Starscream turned and glared at him. “What? Why not! My comparative-analysis algorithm is taken straight from the Academia of Oriulawn, if you didn’t upload it correctly—”

“I uploaded your dumb fragging algorithm fine, but it’s not gonna work unless it’s broken!” Rumble said. “Megatron did write it! How can you not tell he wrote it?”

 Thundercracker squinted down at him. “Uh, how can you tell?”

“Whaddya mean? It’s him!” Rumble said. “It sounds like him. Just do the audio generation in your head. Can’t you hear it? Take that one, the one he was reading. When the hand closes on your throat, when the ash thickens your breath—”

“Megatron does not talk like that!” Starscream said.

“Sure, not all the time! He’s working it in the poem,” Rumble said. “But it’s—it’s his rhythm. It’s his moves!” He threw up his hands because they were all staring at him. “Why am I even trying, you losers can’t even visualize audio in more than three dimensions. Whatever, he wrote it!”

Starscream ground his jaw and snapped, “What do you know, you don’t even have enough room in your braincase for a full-size logic unit! We’re staying until my algorithm completes, and that’s final!” He turned his chair around to face the screen and sulked deeper into it.

Rumble was gonna yell at him some more, but then he realized, who cared. “Hey, in that case, I’m goin’ back to the holo place. I wanna see more of those fights. You coming?” he asked Thundercracker.

He looked at Skywarp and Astrotrain and shrugged; they shrugged back. “Beats standing around here for twelve hours, that’s for sure,” Astrotrain said.

#

Sticky was happy to get a copy of Megatron’s poetry, and it was getting to be late and the streets were getting empty, so he was cool and let them hang out in the holo suite while the place was closed, watching Megatron scrap a whole bunch of monsters. Sometimes he fought like five other mechs at once. He didn’t even have the cannon, he still crushed. It was awesome. And you could totally tell he wrote the fragging poetry! Like, the arena was in the poetry. Rumble tried to explain it to the other guys again, but they still didn’t get it. Finally he got pissed off enough he cleared room in his frontal processor and memory banks and threw down the most obvious one of the poems—I can take a beating I’ll rise again, Starscream was such a fragging idiot!—and started laying down some percussion tracks behind it, lining it up with Megatron’s fighting pace, which you could, because he freaking wrote it, he wrote it like straight out of his body.

When Rumble got it moving right, he played a chunk of it along with the next fight, and all three of the others stared at him. “Come on! Now you get it, right?” he demanded. 

“No,” Skywarp said. Astrotrain shook his head. Even Thundercracker just shrugged. “But it’s cool, though,” he added. “Better than that crap you and Frenzy are always blasting.”

“Shard-pop is awesome, you don’t know music from scrap,” Rumble said, but he listened to the track over again himself, and hey, it was cool. He added some more layers of music while they watched more of the fights, and by the time they finally collected Starscream—who didn’t say squat about his stupid algorithm and pretended he hadn’t been doing anything the whole time, so it had also told him Megatron wrote it, duh—Rumble was pretty happy with it. He put it on for the trip and none of the others even told him to shut it off except Starscream, who said it while he slammed off into Astrotrain’s back compartment where he couldn’t hear it anyway, so who cared about him. Astrotrain even let Rumble hook up to his internal speakers and get some really good sound going.

It was funny, he hadn’t ever tried to make his own music before. It took a lot of his processing capacity, he had to put a bunch of his other systems in low-power mode, but it was worth it; this was cooler than anything else he’d ever done with his brain. He even started noodling on a second one on the way, and it didn’t occur to him until kind of late—as in, they were about to land back on Earth late—that, uh, maybe Megatron wasn’t going to be cool with Rumble jacking his poetry to turn it into music.

He really didn’t want to stop, though, so when they docked, he took a gulp and tailed after Starscream to the command center. Megatron was there working—it was weird-cool to see him for real again after watching him slagging monsters; not that Rumble didn’t already know that Megatron was badass, but it was different.

“Starscream, I imagine there’s some exceptionally good reason that a mission that should have taken at most ten hours has instead taken twenty-three; I’m eager to learn what it is,” Megatron said, without looking around.

Starscream just slammed the vortex thingy on the console and snarled, “We got it, didn’t we?” and whirled and shot right out of the room.

Megatron was so surprised he didn’t even get pissed off, just turned around and stared after Starscream confused like what the scrap; then he looked at Rumble and his optics got all narrow. “What did happen?”

“Screamer’s just being a weirdo,” Rumble said. “He freaked out over your poetry.”

“Over my what?

“We saw this holo,” Rumble said, and hurriedly added, “while Astrotrain’s engines were recharging!” because Megatron was about to be pissed off. “There was a holo place that had all your old arena fights, and this holotour of your house—hey, was that place real? Or was it just, I don’t know, faked for the tour—uh, anyway, you read some of your poetry in the holo, and Starscream flipped out cause he didn’t believe you wrote it.”

“I don’t even remember this,” Megatron said, sounding baffled. “Why in Cybertron’s orbit did he even care? It must have been more than eight million years ago.”

Rumble shrugged. “Yeah, none of us knew what he was on about, but it really pissed him off. He made us stick around for twelve hours so he could run some stupid algorithm on your book to make sure it was really you, and then he was pissed off when it was.”

Megatron gawked at him for another second and then actually busted out laughing. “Oh, poor Starscream,” he wheezed, almost choking. “Of course. The Autobot literati loaded it up with awards and nonsense. He probably had to study it at his precious Space Corps Academy. I imagine he wrote an essay on its brillance and insight.”

Rumble cracked up. “Bet he got a good eval, too.”

“I’m sure,” Megatron said, still laughing softly. “Well, I think I’ll have to take pity on him after all. How awful for him.”

He waved Rumble away and turned back to the console, and Rumble took a deep breath and said, “Hey, Megatron, would you—mind if—” Megatron paused and looked around at him with a rising cold light in his eyes, and Rumble gulped and got it out fast, “—if I laid down some tracks with it? The poetry, I mean.”

Megatron stopped getting mad and looked confused all over again. “If you what?”

“Music, I mean,” Rumble said. “I was trying to show the guys, they couldn’t tell you wrote it either—not that they thought you didn’t, because they’re not losers, but they couldn’t hear it, so I was trying to show ’em—”

Megatron was staring at him. “Are you saying you could tell?”

“Yeah, sure! I mean, it’s in there!” Rumble said. “Rise up rise up, rise up rise up, the way it piles up—that’s right out of the arena, that’s the kickback sound that comes out of your servos because you start them into the motor routine to get back up even before you hit the ground. Anyway, that one it’s just dumb not to see it, it’s the whole fragging war, too—like, you’re saying come on, let’s go take down that overlayer with all those wasteholes living on it. You can hear the metal ripping.”

“I suppose I really should have some pity on Starscream,” Megatron said, kind of to himself. He was looking totally bemused, but hey, Rumble would take that over totally pissed off any time.

“Anyway, it didn’t work to show them, but the mix came out pretty cool. You wanna hear it?” Rumble tried. “I just didn’t want to piss you off—

“I’ll pass,” Megatron said. “But no, Rumble, I don’t care in the slightest what you do with it.”

“Awesome,” Rumble said, relieved. Megatron really didn’t look pissed off, enough that Rumble thought maybe he could push his luck. He blurted, “Uh, hey, you don’t—do you have any more of it?” There were only thirty poems in the whole databook, and some of them couldn’t really work with music, so he was gonna run out pretty quick—

Megatron stared down at him again, but then he barked another short laugh. “Do you know, Rumble, you’re the first person who’s ever asked me that for any decent reason.” He reached out to the console and sent him an access link to a datarepo, and sweet, there were like, a thousand more poems in there. “There you are. But keep this project to your recreational time. If poetry could actually change the world, I’d have stopped there,” he added, dryly.

#

Frenzy got into it right away too. They went deep on the first track and reworked his draft from the ground up: he had better rhythm, but Frenzy had better harmonics. Laserbeak and Buzzsaw listened to it and helped them tune the ultrasonic bands, and Ravage nudged them to punch a hole in the deeper bass levels in the chorus that made your audio pickup go into cycling mode and set up a really cool feel in your back processor. It was killer by the time they were done, and Rumble couldn’t wait to share it, except they had a raid that afternoon and they’d worked up to the wire on it, so by the time he went looking for Thundercracker and Skywarp, they were already heading to the launch room.

“No, we can’t wait! You need to get fueled up and get your punk ass in gear! When we get back,” Thundercracker said, but it wasn’t a rinky-dink let’s-go-out-for-lunch raid, it was a big-ass operation and the Autobots were totally going to show, so half of them were gonna be in the repair bay afterwards, and everybody was gonna be grouchy and headachy.

So Rumble held off until they had all the taps going and Megatron and Starscream and Soundwave had all headed out front to keep an eye out for the Autobots, and then he said, “Hey, as long as we’re just hanging out,” and he and Frenzy punched up the track together—they were calling it Champion. Even though half the guys instantly shot him annoyed looks, it got all of them by the first line of the first chorus. By the end they were all kind of nodding along with it. Thundercracker said, “Not bad, punk,” and clanked the back of his head with a knuckle as he carried a stack of cubes to load up, and Motormaster even shouted, “Hey, turn that scrap up!” when they hit the bridge the second time through. They played it six times before the ’Bots finally showed up, and nobody got tired of it. 

He and Frenzy bumped fists on the way back to base jubilantly, even though they were kinda banged up themselves. “Man, we gotta make more of these,” Frenzy said.

It was harder with the other ones: that poem was pretty short and tight, but a lot of Megatron’s stuff, the rhythm went really long. It was like his tough fights: he had a plan the whole way, but you had to go a long way into it before it landed. But they threw together loose drafts of a dozen tracks fast just to have something to listen to while they worked, and they started in on it.

The others wanted to work on it too, but it was tough to find time when they were all around: Laserbeak and Buzzsaw and Ravage didn’t get a lot of base time because they were usually out on surveillance except when there was a big op about to go, and he and Frenzy pretty much only got let out when there were fights on deck, because they got into too much trouble otherwise. Rumble took a shot anyway and asked Soundwave if they could have some rec time outside, and Soundwave looked at him and said, “Maintain current week’s standard of behavior for another two.” That was more than they’d hoped for, actually—turned out they hadn’t gotten any demerits the whole last week because they’d been busy with the music—but they really didn’t wanna wait two weeks.

So…okay, that meant the next part was kind of his fault, but nothing bad happened that time; they didn’t mess anything up. It really was a rinky-dink raid that afternoon, so they got the taps going and then Rumble said loudly, “Hey, Frenzy, let’s go hang out in back in case the Autobots try to sneak up,” and Soundwave even nodded. Ravage and Laserbeak and Buzzsaw were done too, so they huddled there together over the booster unit Rumble had squashed into his subspace compartment—ow, not fun—and punched up another couple tracks right there. They even had time to go back in and play them for everybody a couple times before the Autobots hit them.

And Rumble didn’t even do anything the next time: Frenzy wasn’t on that day’s raid with him and Ravage and the birds were off somewhere else, so he was just playing the tracks for the guys, because they’d asked him to—which, how cool was that? Anyway Rumble was just minding his own business, and the fighting had started so he had even shut off the music and was totally ready to go start busting some Autobot tail, and then all of a sudden Blaster was all hissing, “Rumble!” from right behind him.

And yeah, okay, Rumble freaked out a little, because he was in the back away from the others and cornered, and he thought he was gonna get slagged, him against Blaster solo was not a fair fight, and what was that loser even doing, Soundwave was out front banging Sunstreaker into a wall, he should’ve been out there

“No, chill out, I just wanted—where’d you get those tracks?” Blaster said.

“Huh?” Rumble said.

“The music, man!” Blaster said. “I heard you playing it last time, I’ve been scanning the planet’s airwaves for a week solid, I haven’t picked up any of them. Where’d they come from?”

“I made ’em,” Rumble said, staring at him. His fuel pump was still hammering.

Blaster gawked at him. “Are you kiddin’ me?”

And okay, maybe it crossed Rumble’s mind for like five seconds that it was kind of awesome that even Blaster liked his tracks, and that was why he said, “Yeah, you like ’em? Pretty cool, huh?”

“Damn, you’re serious?” Blaster said. “Man, that scrap is hot.” And then he paused and darted a guilty look over at the fighting, where Sideswipe was getting his ass kicked now, and then he said really hurried, “Hey, hook me up, will ya? I couldn’t get a full sample,” and obviously that was gonna get him to go out front and take on somebody his own size, which was the only reason Rumble tossed him a copy of the datafiles.

He didn’t mean it to be nice or anything, Autobots were just so fragging dumb they thought you were being nice as long as you weren’t shooting them in the face that second or something, which was not his fault. Anyway, four days later he and Frenzy managed to hook up with the others out back of a raid again, only they got stuck on the bridge for Underlayers, and they kept trying things and it kept not working, and then all of a sudden there was like this frustrated feedback static noise and Blaster transformed out of this crack they hadn’t spotted where he’d been listening in and said, “No! You gotta start different! The open’s gotta be way softer.”

And obviously they were all gonna yell for the others and pile on him in a second, except Blaster tossed out this sweet little riff, and Rumble put it into the mix just to see, and it was so awesome they got distracted and messed with it for a little while and then everybody else started fighting out front and they all had to jump to get in it before anyone noticed.

And—okay, from there they didn’t really have an excuse. The thing was—Blaster wasn’t anywhere near as good as Soundwave, obviously, but he still had a lot more processing power under the hood than any of them did, and also he taught them this really cool technique for putting audio through a transform process—when you took it with you through subspace it ended up in a totally new form too, and sometimes the transformed version showed you the parts that were wrong and when you fixed it and transformed it back, it was way cooler.

Right around then, him and Frenzy did get that outside rec time from Soundwave, and maybe…maybe they let slip to Blaster where they were gonna go to work on the music—they’d found this gigantic abandoned aircraft hangar on the coast that the humans had put up and just left there, there was nothing else around for miles—and maybe he figured he’d come to make sure they didn’t scrap anything, that was all that it was, they weren’t meeting up on purpose, and anyway they were keeping Blaster busy, right? Rumble had a whole explanation in his head ready to go just in case Thundercracker swung by some time to check out what they were up to.

Except that wasn’t what happened. What happened was they were in the middle of working out this great off-the-chain melodic line for Will You Ask To Live and all of a sudden Jazz’s voice was coming towards them from the front of the hangar saying, “Hey man, you in here? I’ve been tryin’ to raise you for half an hour, I just got an early drop of the new Kanye track—” and then he came around the boxes and stopped.

Blaster had jerked his head up and totally frozen all freaked out, and so had all of them; there wasn’t enough time to split or anything. Jazz looked around at them with his mouth hanging open and they all stared back at him and then he stared at Blaster and said, “What the fragging hell are you doing?

Blaster couldn’t even talk he was so freaked out, but Frenzy always yakked when he got nervous, so he blurted, “We’re workin’ on a track!”

So then Jazz yelled at Blaster, “Have you scattered all your ever-lovin’ transistors?” and Rumble cued up the track just so Blaster would have some time to come up with something, because he couldn’t think of anything else to do, and Jazz turned on him and was all, “Shut it down, are you kiddin’ me? I don’t know what bug you got up Blaster’s ass, but I sure don’t wanna hear your crazy-ass shard pop—” and then he stopped when the change-up before the chorus kicked in and started listening.

After they hit the bridge, Blaster finally pulled himself together and said, “Look, man, come on, just—that track I played you the other week, you remember—”

“What?” Jazz said, and jerked around at him again in horror. “You been doin’ this for weeks?

Blaster opened and shut his mouth a few times and then he blurted desperately, “It’s hot, man! Come on! Look just—play Champion for him!” he said to Rumble. “I didn’t play it for him yet—”

“No!” Jazz said. “No! Absolutely not!” except Champion already was pounding out over him, and he stopped and listened to the whole thing and he was moving with it by the end and then it stopped and he jerked loose and threw his arms up and yelled at Blaster, “You are out of your head, man! You wanna sit around and make music with Decepticons?”

“Hey, you waste disposal units are the ones always goin’ on about how fighting all the time sucks, what are you complaining about? Why don’t you start shooting if you’re so into it,” Frenzy said, opening his big mouth again, except instead of pulling out his guns and going at them, Jazz actually stopped talking and just stood there looking kind of confused, like Frenzy had a point.

After a minute of him just standing there not shooting them, Buzzsaw put out a mic and generated a voicestream to ask, “New Kanye?”

Jazz stared at him. “You like Kanye?”

Buzzsaw nodded.

No Church In The Wild’s his favorite,” Rumble said.

#

So then they were stuck with Jazz in on it too. And you woulda figured two Autobots would be enough for anyone, except no, because Prowl was some kind of weirdo who got all lonely if Jazz wasn’t around every minute of the day, so not even two weeks later he showed up looking for him. He flipped out even harder, and he had like, defective audio hardware, so Jazz had to drag him away behind some crates and interface with him right there just to get him to appreciate the music right and get how cool it was. Gross.

And then afterwards Prowl went on this whole thing anyway about how this was all wrong and they were fraterizing the enemy which Rumble didn’t know what that even was, but nobody was doing it to him, Prowl could keep Jazz’s plugs all to himself, and when he told Prowl that, Prowl got so embarrassed his vocal unit fritzed out, like he hadn’t just been ’facing practically in front of them five seconds ago. Seriously, they’d been three meters away, it hadn’t been subtle or anything.

Jazz pretty much had to beg but finally Prowl caved and agreed he wasn’t gonna snitch, but he also said he wasn’t going to let Jazz and Blaster keep doing this when clearly they were getting set up to get caught by the other Decepticons and murdered, so he was going to come along and guard them. Which, whatever, it couldn’t hurt to have someone watching the door, but then apparently three Autobots was some kind of critical mass and more of them kept sticking their noses in to see what they were up to.

At first Rumble figured that was Jazz and Blaster’s problem, they could worry about the other Autobots telling on them, but after that fuel nozzle Sunstreaker popped up and acted like it was Jazz and Blaster making the music and the rest of them were being allowed to hang out with them because the Autobots were so cool, Rumble lost his temper. “Screw you! That’s it, we’re out!”

And then Blaster was all, “Wait, no—look, man, everybody loves the stuff! Don’t stop the music! We gotta do like, a concert or something.”

“We’re not doing a concert for your loser Autobot pals!” Frenzy said.

“Well, who do you wanna bring?” Blaster said. “We’ll make it a no-fighting zone.” 

“Are you out of your tiny fragging minds?” Thundercracker howled, the second Rumble brought him into the hangar and he saw the Autobots hanging out.

“Hey, man, chill out, okay?” Jazz said. “It’s cool, all right? It’s just temporary, we’re gonna listen to some tunes, go our separate ways after. It’s a one-night no-fighting zone.”

“Are you out of your bigger fragging mind?” Thundercracker yelled at him. “No! This is not a ‘no-fighting zone’!” He made little pops in the air with his fingers around it. “This is a sudden death zone for me if Starscream finds out about this!”

“Man, name me one person even on your side who’s going to invite that loser,” Blaster said.

Rumble shrugged at Thundercracker. “You gotta admit he’s got a point.”

“He does not have a point!” Thundercracker said. “You wanna have a dance party with Autobots, there is no point anywhere!”

All of them stared at him in awe. “A dance party,” Jazz breathed out. “Man, you are a genius.”

Thundercracker stared at him and then said to Rumble flatly, “You’re all gonna get slagged, and I’m not staying.

“Aw, come on!” Rumble said. “You can’t leave us here with just Autobots!”

No, you know what, you’re right!” Thundercracker said. “I’m taking you with me! Straight to Soundwave!

Ravage growled, and Laserbeak and Buzzsaw landed on Thundercracker’s shoulders and hissed at him. He jumped. “Yeah, try it!” Rumble said. “We’ll tell Soundwave you knew about it the whole time!”

“You will not, you little rusted nut,” Thundercracker said in horror.

“We thought it was okay ‘cause Thundercracker didn’t make us quit,” Frenzy said, with his optics really wide. Ravage nodded next to him.

“I’m gonna slag all of you,” Thundercracker said. 

“Look, if we just get everybody in on it, then we can’t get into that much trouble,” Rumble said.

“Like hell we can’t!”

“Hey, I’m gonna radio Motormaster,” Frenzy said.

“No!” Thundercracker yelped, and then backed away covering his mouth so he couldn’t be overheard as Motormaster started roaring at Frenzy over the open channel and telling him he was lead-for-brains if he thought the Stunticons were going to be in on a no-fighting zone for five minutes, forget one night.

“Ah, forget those draggers!” Jazz said. “They’re just gonna be downers, bet they can’t even dance.”

“Screw you, Autobot!” Motormaster yelled back. “Like the Stunticons can’t party five times as hard as any of you pathetic losers.”

“Uh huh, sure,” Jazz said. “You couldn’t crash a party without breakin’ it up even if the doors were wide open and waitin’!”

So then the Stunticons did show up, and after Thundercracker couldn’t hide from them anymore, he just gave up and called Skywarp and Ramjet and Dirge and Thrust because what else was he gonna do, and more Autobots started popping up at the same time, and Blaster grabbed Rumble and hauled him to the side of the warehouse and they piled up some crates and got on top and just started playing the music, swapping off with Frenzy and Jazz, and it was happening, and it was awesome. When they finished the night off with Champion, everyone stomped along with it and the whole place was just pounding—it was the arena, they’d gotten back the arena sound, only this was a million times better because it wasn’t a bunch of losers just watching, they were all in it, and even Prowl with his defective hardware was like, “Huh, that was something,” after.

Blaster gave him a fistbump at the end of the night and then said, “So, uh—next month?”

“Yeah, totally,” Rumble said.

#

It all got out of hand from there super fast. Astrotrain overheard Dirge and Thrust talking about it and came snooping in for the next one, and the time after that he brought Blitzwing, and by then half the Combaticons were showing up because Drag Strip had told Brawl, and Brawl told Vortex and Bonecrusher, and Bonecrusher didn’t come the first time but Vortex did and told him it was awesome so he came the next time, and Long Haul and Scavenger came with him after that.

On the Autobot side, someone told that total loser Powerglide and he showed up and was all, “What this party needs is some zap-bang-pizzazz!” which screw him, Rumble was about to be pissed off, except it turned out by pizzazz he meant energon. He was pals with some weirdo rich humans, and when he told them about it they showed up at the hangar and they got all these lights set up and opened up this old fuel line, all in exchange for being allowed to have a big dance floor for humans set up on a platform in the back—on a suspension rig so they didn’t get bounced right off into the air when the rest of them were jumping—and Powerglide stood behind this big metal bar pouring drinks and smirking and showing off, but who cared, he made sick energon cocktails, and by the end of that night Rumble was kinda woozy and Ravage had to dunk him in the ocean a few times to get the smell of the additives off him before they headed back to base.

And yeah, okay, after a while, the parties made it a little weird fighting the Autobots the rest of the time. All the ’Bots got completely weirded out by it, and if they hit you in a raid they always sort of eyed you sideways at the next party for an hour before they got over it. Blaster actually even tried to dump it on him once, all, “But Rumble, man, this just don’t make any sense. Why are we fighting all the time?”

“Shut up, whaddya think I am, a traitor or something?” Rumble demanded.

“How would you feel if I hurt Soundwave in a fight?” Blaster said. “I don’t mean just scuffed his armor or whatever, really hurt him!”

“Yeah, you and Grimlock together maybe, in your dreams,” Rumble said. “Anyway, you’d be a moron, Megatron would totally slaughter your ass in three seconds. Both of you,” he added to Jazz.

Jazz snorted. “What, you think Megatron’s gonna avenge Soundwave or somethin’? Rumble, look me in the face, you really think Megatron gives a damn about anybody but himself? He’s in it to stick himself on top of a junkyard pile and rule the damn galaxy even if it’s nothing but scrap left by the time he’s done, and he’ll use y’all right up if it gets him there.”

Rumble did stare right in his stupid face. “What kind of moron are you? Have you even been listening to any of the scrap we’ve been working on this whole time?”

“Huh?” Jazz stared at him. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“What, did you think I wrote this stuff myself?” Rumble said.

Jazz and Blaster looked at each other and shrugged. “Okay, I gotta admit, we were wondering how you were coming up with all these lyrics,” Blaster said. “I didn’t know you could even have two thoughts in your head at the same time.”

“Hey, frag you,” Rumble said. “But I didn’t come up with it. Megatron writes poetry—”

“Shut up,” Jazz said in horror, raising his hands flat out. “No, for serious, shut up, I don’t wanna know, forget I asked anything. You’re bein’ visited by divine inspiration from Primus, that works for me.”

Rumble blew a rude noise out his exhausts. “Yeah, listen to you losers. Megatron had a freaking billion-credit house on top of Tarn and they made holovids of his life for creepers to watch, but sure, he’s just fragging you for the scrap. Anyway, he would be pissed off if you hit Soundwave, but that’s not why he’d kill you, he just couldn’t let the ’Bots still have you two if anything bad happened to Soundwave. So he’d do whatever he had to and take you out. Duh. Maybe get a working strategy unit sometime.”

Jazz and Blaster both got a weird look on their faces like they hadn’t figured that out, and fifteen minutes later Laserbeak pinged him to listen in on a snooper line, laughing his head off because Jazz was like, asking Prowl if that was maybe the reason why Optimus Prime never authorized targeting Soundwave in a fight, and Prowl was all, uh, yeah, dumbass.

But okay, the truth was, it was getting a little weird even for Rumble. He couldn’t really get pissed off at the Autobots the same way anymore. They were dumb losers but at least they knew good scrapping music when they heard it, and he kept…he kept thinking about Tarn, actually. About that whole giant city and those cool highways and buildings and everybody who’d lived there and how they were all dead and the whole place was slagged. He’d even checked it in the archives: Megatron’s own house was slagged. He’d done it himself; he’d turned the whole place into a giant bomb and used it to blow up that overlayer they’d been building.

And Rumble got better than ever that it had all been for a good fragging reason, he wasn’t a dumbass Autobot, but…whatever, it kinda got to him. Not that he was planning on going south; he’d cut his own primary fuel lines before he’d back out on Megatron, much less Soundwave, it just kinda made him feel down about the war, instead of hot for it. Like it was some loser duty he had to do because he’d fragged something up. Except he hadn’t, except, uh, for this thing where he was spinning with the Autobots once a month, which wasn’t really his fault anyway.

He tried not to let it show, he did his job and all, but the day before the next party they were out on a raid, and Rumble knocked Beachcomber over bad enough to bust his axle, and Beachcomber was the biggest geek in the entire universe but completely chill and cool and really liked the music, and a couple months ago he’d given Rumble a whole datachip full of live Earth tunes he’d collected himself at these festivals he went to hang out at with humans.

Before they headed back to base, Soundwave put his hand on Rumble’s shoulder and opened his chest compartment, inviting. Rumble transformed and went in and switched off about three quarters of his brain and just lay there inside the cradling steady musical hum of Soundwave’s presence, and he felt better at first, but then they got back to base and Soundwave let him out, and Rumble went to the alcove where he and the others all had their own rest units and put his brain back on, and then he started feeling a whole lot worse.

Soundwave hadn’t pushed, he hadn’t opened up a connection and made Rumble avoid it, because Soundwave didn’t do stuff like that—well, he did stuff like that all the time, but only when he was interrogating losers, not to them—but he had made loud and clear that he got that something was wrong. And there was, and Rumble wasn’t telling him, and that was messed up. And now he was thinking about it, what the frag was he gonna do, what were they all gonna do; were none of them ever gonna link up with Soundwave again? And that was such obvious scrap that it meant—it meant—it was all gonna have to end, and pretty soon. One of them was gonna tell Soundwave, and Rumble instantly got the awful sick feeling that the others were all waiting on him, to give him a chance to do it. But even if he didn’t, sooner or later somebody would have to. One of them would get hurt and need to link up, their sparks weren’t stable enough for some repairs without it.

And then—Soundwave wasn’t even gonna be mad. This was beyond him being mad. Soundwave was gonna sit and hold Rumble in his arms for a while, and then Soundwave was gonna have to go tell Megatron. So Megatron could decide what he was gonna do, just how bad this was and whether he was gonna have to slag Rumble for it so nobody would ever get the bright idea of pulling any stunt like this again, and if he did decide he had to do that, Soundwave was gonna have to let him. That’s how bad it was, and if Megatron had to do it, it was gonna mess Soundwave up, and that was gonna mess up all the others, too.

Rumble couldn’t even get into a rest cycle. He just lay there shivering a little, and he knew, flat-out knew, that he couldn’t keep it going. “I’m gonna tell Soundwave after the next one,” he whispered, really soft. “After…after tomorrow.”

The others didn’t say anything at first. But Frenzy put out his hand from the rest unit next to him and grabbed his hand tight, and on the other side Ravage nudged his arm, and Buzzsaw and Laserbeak sent faint pings running against his back receiver, a stream of comforting white noise.

#

He figured he’d only tell Blaster and Jazz at the end of the night. Why not let it go one more time. But they both looked kind of down anyway. Jazz was all the way on one side of the hangar, and Prowl was all the way on the other with a miserable look on his face.

“Sorry,” Rumble muttered to Beachcomber as he passed him at the bar; he was there but sitting down on one of the big empty oil drums they used for chairs: he wasn’t gonna be dancing any tonight.

“Hey, man, it’s cool,” Beachcomber said, patting his shoulder. “It’s not groovy, but it’s cool. And that’s about as good as things can get, ya dig?”

 “Yeah,” Rumble said, and felt even more like a pile of rusted scrap.  

“Rumble,” Blaster said to him, before they started to play, as people started to show. 

Rumble shook his head hard. “Screw talking, okay?” he said. “Not now. Let’s just go.”

“All right, man, you got it,” Blaster said softly, after a moment, and Rumble figured maybe he wouldn’t need to be told after all. It seemed almost like everybody had gotten the idea that this was it, actually; the place got crammed full almost right away, everyone getting in early, and everyone was there; everybody who’d ever been invited. Powerglide was slinging drinks so fast he didn’t even turn off the fuel tap in between, and the dance floor was packed from the first song.

They went ten tracks without stopping, and the worst of it was Rumble believed every one of them. Megatron was right, slag the Autobots anyway, he was right. Blaster and Jazz could be cool and nice all they wanted, it was easy to be cool and nice when you didn’t live down in a hole with somebody building an overlayer on top of you so rich mechs could have fancy big palaces. They’d never lived in a hole like that. Rumble hadn’t either, but he got how it had been, and he could tell that was where it all went again if the Autobots won.

They were cool and nice, and they liked to do stuff together, so they’d build stuff, and then they’d be all, hey this is our stuff, we’re just gonna put it here, you don’t mind, right? And you wouldn’t mind to start because Cybertron was a total pit right now, but they’d keep going, and meanwhile, what the slag were he and the rest of the Decepticons gonna do? They were for fighting, that’s what they were for, slagging stuff, not building it, and sure they could do it, but they’d still get into fights and slag their own stuff more often than not, and pretty soon everything was going to be Autobot stuff again and Decepticons were gonna be getting buried in the trash or going out to die like in Death Under A Distant Star, or getting tossed into arenas, because they couldn’t get enercreds for doing anything else.

So Megatron was right, and Rumble wasn’t gonna ditch him. He was going to go and say he was sorry even if Megatron did slag him, and if Megatron didn’t slag him, he was gonna do his best to help win it no matter how much it sucked to go around slagging Autobots when he knew them. Because what else was there to do? The Autobots all thought they were wasteholes, for real not just trash-talking. Jazz saying Megatron only cared about himself like he really meant it, he really thought all the Decepticons were slagging morons for following him, or just into blowing Cybertron to scrap for kicks, or who even knew.

It made Rumble angry again thinking about it, which you woulda thought would help, but Blaster kept looking at him sad, not just sad but miserable, and Blaster didn’t get it but he also wasn’t fighting to save everybody he loved from getting slagged in arenas, and now Rumble and his bros were his friends, so he probably wouldn’t be willing to slag any of them ever again no matter what, which meant he was gonna get slagged sooner and not later, because Megatron would notice something like that and he’d use it. And Rumble wasn’t even gonna be able to say please don’t because that was just slagging stupid, either he was in or he was lying down to get built over and laying Soundwave and all the others down for it, too. It wasn’t like he got to choose something else just because his two choices sucked ports.

He couldn’t tell Blaster any of that, but he fragging wanted to, and then he sent Laserbeak a line, asking, and Laserbeak settled down on top of the big extra speakers that Powerglide’s humans had also set up for them, and he started projecting the lyrics on the wall across from them while they played, cold silver-white light with red flaring around it. Blaster did look at them, so Rumble started picking tracks to try and say it that way; not going for the flow of the music, and then he threw up Will You Ask To Live, which he’d never played at the parties because you couldn’t dance to it. And on an impulse Rumble grabbed the sample out of his memory banks, Megatron’s own voice reading the poem, and mixed it in: not loud enough to make anyone freak out and think he was here, just enough to buzz all their brains with the hint of it.

The dance floor started to go dead right away, and everybody just stood there for a while watching the words, and while it was still going, the chain on the big door in the side of the hangar suddenly just popped and the door swung open with a single yank, and Optimus Prime was standing there looking in at all of them, with Ironhide and Silverbolt behind him.

“Oh, shit,” Blaster said faintly, and all the amps dropped off.

Nobody moved. Prime stared around the hangar at all of them. The Autobots looked way more freaked out than the Decepticons; Prowl was standing right next to the door with his face totally stricken. Prime looked over at him—not mad, exactly, just completely confused, and said, “Prowl, what is going on here?”

Prowl opened his mouth and shut it again, and then Jazz pushed out off the dance floor and said, “It’s—Optimus, it’s my fault. We—we started—” He sort of waved his hand helplessly at the screen; the song was still going, even though it was quiet because Blaster had freaked out.

Optimus stared up at the screen and said, “You’re setting The Sacrifice of Violence to music? And—and you’re all—all of you—?” he trailed off like he couldn’t actually come up with anything to finish the sentence; he looked back around at the Decepticons.

Ravage jumped up on the speaker platform suddenly and snarled. Rumble jerked his head around from watching to see if Optimus Prime was gonna start slagging them all or something. He stared at Ravage, and then Ravage put out a mic and blared the generated words at him, “Prime left base.

“Oh, frag me!” Rumble said, jumping to his feet, but it was too late: the big door on the other side of the warehouse didn’t get yanked open nicely, it just got ripped straight out of the wall, and Megatron came in with Soundwave and Starscream behind him.

“Okay, well, it’s been nice being alive,” Rumble said, and just sat down and waited for the end. Ravage was crouched down completely flat right next to him. Megatron was staring around the hangar about as incredulously as Prime had, at all the knots of Autobots and Decepticons on the dance floor, at the lyrics on the wall and over at the speakers.

And then it got worse: Soundwave had gone totally still, and then he looked right across the room straight at Rumble, and Rumble gulped and put his head down because he couldn’t stand to look back at him. Maybe if he was lucky, Optimus Prime would take a shot at Megatron and they would all end up fighting and he could die in a hail of blaster fire. He would jump in a hail of blaster fire, if only somebody would give him a chance, he swore.

“This—this is where you’ve been going?” Starscream suddenly burst out, his voice going shrill. “This is where you’ve been disappearing to for the last five months—” Rumble couldn’t help peeking up: Thundercracker and all the Seekers were in a cringing knot trying to back away. “I’m going to slag every last one of you down to molten steel!” He took a step towards them like he was about to get started right then—and then Megatron put out a hand and stopped him.

Starscream jerked his head around for a double-take. Megatron’s face had gone kind of strange. He didn’t look pissed-off, he looked…calm, like really calm, and Rumble thought all of a sudden about the way Megatron had looked in that fight with Shockwave, just before they’d gone at it. And then Megatron let go of Starscream and reached his hand over his body and popped his cannon off his arm.

Rumble felt his jaw servos just drop out. Starscream’s optics were bugging. Hell, even Prime was just staring. Megatron walked right into the hangar, across the dance floor—everyone cleared out of his way really fast—and he went straight up to the bar and sat down. Poor Beachcomber was staring up at him and had pulled in on his seat as small as he could get. Megatron didn’t pay any attention to him, though. He leaned his cannon against the bar, and then he beckoned to Powerglide, who had frozen with a cocktail half-mixed in his hands back when Prime had come in. He hadn’t gotten unstuck since. “Well?” Megatron said. “Give me one of those.”

Powerglide looked down like he’d forgotten what he was holding, but then his brainless showoff routines kicked back in and he said only a little squeaky, “Right, one Triple-Loop Enerkick Special coming right up!” and finished mixing it and handed it to Megatron.

Rumble hadn’t been able to look away, and he almost flipped right off the platform as a touch came on his shoulder. He jerked around and froze: Soundwave had come up to him.

“Resume,” Soundwave said softly, and opened him a channel.

Rumble stared at him wildly, and then he managed to nod and made the connection. Soundwave reached out and took the speaker hookup out of Blaster’s side—Blaster was still basically catatonic over there and didn’t even twitch—and Rumble took them kicking into the nonstop shredding bass line of the opening of Victory Condition.

That song could make you dance if you were like, dead at the time, and the humans up on the platform who ran the light show had probably all figured out that if they didn’t want to be dead, it would be really good if everyone started dancing again, because they took it all dark enough and started strobing deep jewel colors so nobody could see Megatron and Optimus anymore or really anybody’s faces at all. Rumble threw most of his own brain to the audio and just focused on getting everyone to dance: he kept the song going nearly ten minutes with a remix on the spot: he blended it into Gateway and back, telling everyone to move move move, and by the end of it, everyone was moving again.

He didn’t have another complete thought the rest of the night. He kind of vaguely noticed Starscream going over to Megatron and waving his arms wildly towards the rest of the room until Megatron reached over and grabbed the drink Powerglide was about to serve someone else and shoved it in Starscream’s hand and clearly told him to drink up and like it.

Optimus Prime stayed off to the side for a while still looking baffled any time the lights hit his head long enough for Rumble to catch a glimpse. Jazz was next to him, pretty clearly talking as fast as he could go, and then at some point in the long furious escalator climb of Steel and Stone, Rumble looked over and Prime was at the bar. He and Megatron were about six meters apart with absolutely nobody between them—because yeah, not a single mech was stupid enough to get into that spot; Beachcomber had scooted all the way to the end on Prime’s other side—and Prime was putting his gun down and getting a drink too. He still looked pretty baffled, and just then Jazz popped up at the DJ station in kind of a frantic panic and hissed, “The lyrics, man! Get the lyrics back up!”

“Huh?” Rumble said, vaguely.

“Optimus is down with them!” Jazz said. “He knows them, like primary memory knows them! He said it was the Voice of Tarn! I thought you said Megatron wrote ’em!”

“Yeah, that’s him,” Rumble said. “Yeah, the Voice of Tarn. That’s Megatron.”

“It is not,” Jazz said.

Champion, you dumbass!” Rumble said, because like frag could Jazz not hear it.

Jazz stared at him with his mouth open and then he said, “Man, I need to go drink a whole lot more,” and then he went away. Rumble sent Laserbeak and Buzzsaw a line. They got the lyrics projecting again, and Prime really was reading them, he kept staring up at them the whole time, especially all the new stuff that Megatron had given Rumble that wasn’t out of the book.

Powerglide got a couple of the Autobots to slide over one of the speakers so he could set up a second bar station over there out of sight of Optimus and Megatron for everyone who was too freaked to go too close to them, and he kept the drinks coming. Pretty soon everyone had gotten drunk enough on energon or dancing to stop thinking, and Rumble kept the music going the whole night, longer than they’d ever gone before, and everyone kept dancing like crazy all the way. He had no idea what was going to happen when he stopped, and he had just enough spare brain capacity to be freaked out by it, so he just kept on throwing out one track after another, until suddenly there was a thin crack of light showing out on the horizon, through the hole in the side of the building, and it was about to be morning.

Soundwave glanced over at him, and Rumble knew they’d run out of time. “Just the last one,” he said to Soundwave, and as the current track started to fade out, he cued up Champion.

Everyone knew it by now. He ended with it every time. When the first thundering drumbeats hit, everyone went back out on the floor. It was only Megatron and Prime—and Starscream sulking next to Megatron—still on the side. Even Beachcomber had gone out; Ratchet had gone up to him and got his arm over his shoulders; they were standing at the edge and just nodding along to the music together.

Everyone started stamping along as the song went into the bridge, and then all of a sudden the Decepticons were singing along with it too, all their voices rolling through it, rise up rise up, rise up rise up. Megatron had that same weird, really calm look on his face, but Starscream was staring up at the lyrics getting this kind of horrified look on his face like even he couldn’t pretend he didn’t hear the arena anymore. And it wasn’t just him. Prime’s eyes were getting wider, and then he slowly turned his head from the lyrics and stared at Megatron suddenly, like he’d got it too, like he’d just heard Megatron getting back up in the arena, calling everyone else to get up to start the war.

Rumble couldn’t keep it playing forever, so he didn’t try to stretch it out. The song rolled into the last chorus and ran roaring all the way to the end, and then he let the music sink into the slow soft wordless line he usually left going while everyone came down and packed it in.

The sun was coming up. Nobody really started to move for the doors, though; they all pretty much just stopped right where they were, most of them sagging. People were leaning against whoever was closest, Autobot or Decepticon, breathing hard. Everybody was all mixed up together on the floor. Rumble gulped hard. His brain had come back online with the music dropped out of it, and he felt weird and wiped out. He didn’t really want it to be over. He didn’t want…he didn’t want to go back. He knew he had to, but he didn’t know how he was gonna be able to.

Megatron straightened up from the bar. Prime was still staring at him, but Megatron didn’t look at him. He walked over to the DJ station and gave Soundwave a small nod, and when he turned and spoke, his voice came out over the speakers, amped.

“We’ve all been fighting this war a long time,” he said. All through the hangar, everyone started dragging up their heads and looking at him. “It’s not unnatural to want to stop. To want to remember that we are still brethren, when we stand on an alien world, and our own is dark and choked with ash.”

He paused there. Megatron never sounded gentle, but it was as close to it as Rumble had ever heard him get. It made him think about Tarn again—but he was seeing it the way it was now, with that giant hole slagged through it, the overlayer crushed into the city and the lights all out. It made the backed-up feeling in his exhaust system get worse.

“But I picked up a gun because poetry doesn’t change the world,” Megatron said. He jerked his head at the blank wall where the lyrics had been. “When I wrote those words you’ve been dancing beneath, it was only Autobots who walked in the light, while Decepticons bled in the dark. They chained us with laws they called justice that served only their needs. They built overlayers for themselves out of the steel that Decepticon warriors won in distant battles, and then drove us into the depths below them to rust out of their sight. I spent fifty thousand years as a butcher for their entertainment with them cheering for my death in every match. And when they couldn’t find a way to kill me, they tried to bribe me with energon and oil-soaked treasure to consider myself one of them.”

He turned and looked straight at Optimus Prime. “Well, I’ve given you my answer, and it will never change.”

Nobody said anything. Prime was staring back at him stricken, and a lot of the Autobots were crying. Megatron nodded slightly after a moment and turned back to the Decepticons, all of them staring at him. “If you’re tired, I don’t blame you,” he said. “All courage has limits, and this war has been carving at ours for eight million years. If some of you have reached the end of yours, and you want to put down your weapons, no vengeance of mine will pursue you. But I’m not putting down mine. And they’ll never win this war unless they kill me.”

He finished talking, and for a second the whole room was just completely quiet, and then there was a sudden scrape of metal right next to Rumble. He looked over: Starscream had stood up. He bent down and picked up Megatron’s cannon and took it over to him, held out on his hands, and then he said, “They’ll have to get through me first.”

Rumble stared. Wow, he was like halfway sure Starscream actually meant it. Maybe even more than halfway. His face looked, Rumble didn’t even know, like he’d just dumped his reality matrix or something. Megatron stared at him and actually looked a little weirded out, which no kidding, but after a moment, he nodded, and he reached out and took the cannon and put it back on. He turned and said, steady, “Decepticons, move out.”

All around the room, the other Decepticons started forming up. Long Haul had hit the bar like twenty times and was so out of it he’d sat down on the floor against the wall, but Bonecrusher and Scavenger went over and hauled him up. Thundercracker was wincing: he and Skywarp and the other Seekers were all doing hard resets, had to be a world of hurt, but they were all falling in behind Starscream.

It didn’t make it—good. Rumble kind of thought it was never gonna feel good again. But it loosened up that rotten tight feeling in his chest. He took a deep breath and looked over at Blaster, who was one of the ’Bots crying, and he nodded to him and then hopped down and went over to Soundwave, who’d already gone over to Megatron’s side. Frenzy and Ravage joined him, and Laserbeak and Buzzsaw were already perched on some of the twisted metal at the entrance, waiting to take off. Nobody was staying behind. Megatron looked over them all, and he looked—he didn’t look happy, but he looked kind of fierce and proud. He turned to lead them out.

“Wait,” Optimus Prime said suddenly behind them, through a sharp crackle of distortion, like his vocal unit was mostly offline. “Megatron, wait. Please.

Megatron was almost at the door, but when Prime said please, he paused and looked back at him. Rumble did too, and wow, Prime was crying. And it looked like he was fighting his own system trying to get his voice working; it was a couple more moments before he finally choked out, “I’ve read The Sacrifice of Violence every day since I became the leader of the Autobots.”

He stopped there while pretty much everybody gawked at him, because it didn’t actually make any sense. Every day? That meant he had to be dumping it from his main memory just to load it back in again. But he ran a couple exhaust cycles and cleared more of the distortion and said, “I read it to remind me of the wrongs that led to the war. So that if we ever did have a chance to build anew, we’d never again create a world that left half our brethren a choice between violence and surrender. I’ve known—all this time I’ve known—that we didn’t listen to you, and the war was the price we had to pay for it. But I didn’t—I’m sorry,” his voice crackled again, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know that I still wasn’t listening. That you were still speaking to us—in the only way we left you.”

Megatron was frowning at him. The other Decepticons had opened a lane between them, and the Autobots had gathered up across from them, around Prime. Prime waved his hand around to all of them. “If we can’t win this war without silencing the Voice of Tarn, this is a war we don’t want to win. And if we haven’t been listening—that doesn’t mean we can never open our ears. I won’t blame you if you aren’t willing to trust us for it, now or for a long time to come. But I swear to you on my life, on all our lives—that we will die, too, sooner than bury you.”

Megatron snorted. “Well, that’s very quixotic of you, Prime. Are you offering to surrender?

“We can’t let you kill humans,” Prime said. “We won’t. But—you don’t need to take energon from Earth. The only reason you couldn’t simply build a coriolis station on one of the gas giants and get ten times the energy with a quarter of the effort is that you knew we’d sabotage the project if you tried. But we won’t now. And if—if you want us to withdraw the rest of our underground cells from Cybertron, we will.”

Rumble looked up at Soundwave, wondering if he was the only one really confused here. Them getting all of Cybertron and loads of energon—he wasn’t exactly sure how that wasn’t the Autobots surrendering. It kinda sounded like surrendering?

It wasn’t just him: Soundwave had half put his arms out around all of them, like he wanted to pull them in close, and when Rumble looked around, everybody else was staring at Prime too. Thundercracker’s mouth was open. Even Megatron looked shocked. Hell, the Autobots were all completely freaked out; Prowl and Ironhide were clutching on to each other and staring at Prime like they were thinking about maybe tackling him and dragging him off, and the Aerialbots were all huddling around Silverbolt talking to him really fast like they were thinking about doing something too. They all clearly thought that Prime had just lost it, which was fair enough, since he had

And then Megatron said abruptly, “Tell your underground cells they can come out. We’ll stop hunting them. There’s not much point to simply trading places, after all.”

All the Autobot’s heads went around to him like some kind of coordinated dance move, gaping. The only one who didn’t look surprised was Prime; he just sort of sagged like he was massively relieved. “I will,” he said quietly. “Thank you. Would—would you agree to meet again?”

Megatron had his head tilted a little, studying him. Then his mouth quirked a little and he turned and looked right at Rumble, oh scrap, and then he said, “Well, Rumble? When’s the next one?”

It took a second to process that he wasn’t being slagged before he actually got that Megatron was saying— “In—in a month?” Rumble squeaked out, not totally sure this was really happening. Maybe he’d dumped his reality matrix by accident somewhere. He looked over at Blaster, who had started crying again, except this time he was grinning too, and giving him a thumbs up.

“Well, then,” Megatron said, and looked at Prime. “I believe we’ll see you then.”

“We’ll be here,” Prime said softly, and for scrap’s sake, his optics were literally shining. What was wrong with Autobots, seriously. The warehouse was dark, everybody could totally see; it was just embarrassing. Why not just open an unsecured wide channel and be like, and hey, how about we slip off for a little time together just the two of us while you’re in the area. Rumble was gonna have to warn Megatron not to let Prime get him anywhere totally not private like behind the speakers or something.

Oh, and to top it off, Starscream had folded his arms across his chest and was scowling at Prime like now he was gonna be jealous or something. What a freaking weirdo.

# End