Ultra Magnus knew damn well that Cyclonus was a Decepticon to the core and through it, passionately loyal to his cause and his psychotic mess of a leader, and absolutely committed to killing him and everyone he loved. Whenever they met on a battlefield—which was reasonably often, since pretty much nobody else on Cyclonus’s side wanted to take him on, and Ultra Magnus wasn’t going to let anyone else get themselves killed trying to take Cyclonus on—it was a no-holds-barred fight to the death each and every time. Hell, even if he had wanted to cut Cyclonus any slack—which he didn’t—Cyclonus would probably have gotten offended and tried even harder to kill him.
Sure, it was rotten that one of the greatest Cybertronian warriors he’d ever seen in his entire ten-million-year lifespan was on the other side. The whole damn war was rotten like that. They’d ended up fighting together a handful of times, and being back to back with Cyclonus on a battlefield was…well, it wasn’t an experience Magnus had ever had with anybody else. Like they could just keep going forever if they had to, and nothing was going to take them down. He hated fighting; he’d spent virtually his entire existence doing it, and he would’ve been sick of it even if he had liked it in the first place, which he never had. But on those scattered occasions, he’d suddenly glimpsed, understood, something of what it was that Decepticons got out of it. Which was even more rotten, because he’d realized they were never going to get tired of the damn war.
But he was used to rotten. Things were about as good for the Autobots now as they’d ever been, like Optimus had finally bought them victory with the sacrifice of his own life. Cybertron was back in their hands, even if it was still mostly rubble. They had real allies now in the humans. Rodimus…Rodimus was still a kid on some level, but he had the guidance of the Matrix, and he was doing his best. And Galvatron was stone-cold crazy, so the Decepticons weren’t getting much of anywhere even if Rodimus did make a fair share of mistakes himself. Magnus would take it.
The point being, he wasn’t an idiot, and he wasn’t even a little tempted to pull his punches with Cyclonus—and even so, he couldn’t help liking the guy. Cyclonus usually nodded a salute to him in farewell when he took off with the rest of the Decepticons—or more commonly after the rest of the Decepticons—and Magnus had gotten into the bad habit of nodding back, like they were buddies on a work detail clocking out together at the end of the day, and at some point after that, he’d fallen into the even worse habit of talking to Cyclonus a little bit when they fought. Now they had a running conversation about military philosophy that they picked up most times, and once Cyclonus had actually told Magnus he was losing power in his left shoulder lower servo and he should get it looked at—assuming Cyclonus didn’t kill him in the current fight. He’d been right, too. There’d been a blockage in one of Magnus’s smaller fuel lines that would’ve backed up further and given him a nasty surprise in about four or five fights. But that was Cyclonus: he wanted to kill you, but he wanted to kill you fair.
So after the second fight in two weeks where Galvatron made no appearance and Cyclonus fought like he was trying to make up for the lack of a madman on their side, Magnus started having to grit his teeth not to ask him something completely insane like what’s wrong, and halfway into the third fight, he couldn’t help himself anymore. He’d had to tackle Cyclonus away from First Aid and Streetwise anyway—Cyclonus had taken all the Protectobots on by himself to make room for the Sweeps to grab bigger piles of durasteel. The Decepticons had been stealing weird varieties of refined construction materials lately, a lot of which were involved in, say, major repairs.
The two of them ended up rolling down a slope from the refinery and washing up in a small courtyard one level down, which was the kind of scenario where they usually ended up just putting the rest of the combatants aside and concentrating on each other, except this time Cyclonus didn’t; he actually tried to get past Magnus and back to the main fight three times, almost to the point of leaving himself dangerously open. Ultra Magnus slammed him into the wall and pinned him for a hold that would last at least another five astroseconds, and then he ground his teeth and said, “Cyclonus, did something—happen to Galvatron?”
Cyclonus grunted faintly, since the hold had his vocal unit constricted, and then managed to break loose after four astroseconds, because of course he did. They traded a handful of fast blows and ended up crashing through the wall of the building. They both staggered up, shaking crumbling concrete and plasteel off their shoulders, and dropped into a crouch facing off, and Cyclonus said, “He is—” and then paused, and said, “She is—”
“Huh?” Magnus said.
“—carrying a spark,” Cyclonus finished, and charged him, carrying him through the other wall of the building, and back out under the air battle, where the Sweeps were getting it from the Aerialbots. Cyclonus shoved him away, sending him skidding flat on his back across the ground, and instantly took the chance to shoot Silverbolt right in the aft thrusters, which dropped him out of the air with a squawk.
That gave Magnus a chance to sweep-kick his legs out from under him, and in wrestling on the ground he had an edge, except he couldn’t take full advantage of it, because what the hell! “Galvatron’s—female?” he said incredulously, and grunted as Cyclonus slammed an elbow right into his lower ventilation unit.
“You are permitting yourself to be distracted,” Cyclonus said severely. He flipped them and ended up pinning Ultra Magnus’s shoulders to the ground with his knees and turning off his antigrav units, which left Magnus with approximately a hundred fifty tons of warp drive engine sitting right on his back, dammit. He grabbed his secondary gun from subspace and shot over his shoulder to keep Cyclonus from just stabbing his gun right down into his skull, which would have been instant death. Then he had to throw all his power to his arm and shoulder servos to heave his upper body up and get Cyclonus’s weight off him, which meant that after Cyclonus caught himself, he had room for another five hard blows before Magnus managed to redistribute power effectively to his legs, and those were five blows he couldn’t afford to let Cyclonus have in a fight.
Fortunately—except not—Cyclonus traded them for taking a couple more shots at the Aerialbots, which cleared things up for the Sweeps way too nicely: half of them started divebombing the rest of the defenders while the other half grabbed more material, and they were going to make it out of here with at least four hundred tons. Magnus blasted Cyclonus in the shoulder to blow his aim and stop that getting any worse. “Nngh!” Cyclonus said, before returning fire that Magnus just barely managed to dodge, diving and rolling in close to grapple with him: giving Cyclonus the range to use his Unicronian weapons was a bad idea.
“I will grant you that it was a surprise to us as well,” Cyclonus added as they paced a circle around each other, never taking his eyes off Magnus’s shoulders, which no matter the best he could do always gave a 3-microsecond warning of which way he was going.
“And she’s carrying a spark?” Magnus said, still trying to wrap his head around it, and then the fairly obvious question surged up. “Uh—who is—who struck it?”
“I am the other progenitor,” Cyclonus said, which was the fairly obvious answer, to be fair, but still—wow.
“Well, uh, congratulations,” Ultra Magnus said, blankly.
Cyclonus paused and said sincerely, “Thank you, Magnus,” looking touched, and then punched him in the head.
They didn’t have a chance for any more conversation before the Decepticons were pulling out with their ill-gotten haul, Cyclonus tilting his hand in a small farewell as usual before he took off after them. Ultra Magnus usually took at least one parting hail-Mary shot at his rear thrusters, because if you passed up all your chances to get lucky, you never would, but this time he just sat down with a thunk on a convenient chunk of destroyed building and just stared after them a bit helplessly.
“Ultra Magnus! Are you okay?” Rodimus jumped down to check on him, looking anxious.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Ultra Magnus said bemusedly. “Just—wow.” He suddenly let out a deep belly laugh.
“Huh?” Rodimus said. “Magnus, are you sure Cyclonus didn’t hit you in the head?”
“No,” Ultra Magnus said, still chuckling a little. “Well, actually, yes, he did, several times, but that’s not what’s funny. I just found out why Galvatron hasn’t been showing up on the last few raids.”
At first they all thought it was pretty damn funny—because it was, on top of startling. Ultra Magnus had never actually heard of a female Decepticon before, and the idea that Galvatron of all mechs turned out to be one, and that he—she, and that was going to take some getting used to—had gotten herself sparked by Cyclonus.
Not that it was really a surprise that it was Cyclonus if it was anyone. Ultra Magnus had never previously given a thought to Decepticon interfacing habits, but he sure would’ve picked Cyclonus over anyone else in that bunch, and it wasn’t like Cyclonus would’ve said anything but which access port do you want me to open first if Galvatron had asked. And apparently Galvatron had opened an access port of his—her—own along the way, which was a surprise—Cyclonus would’ve extinguished his own core before he deliberately did anything to hurt Galvatron, but still. Galvatron letting someone into her hardware?
It didn’t get old for anyone before they got back to Iacon, where it turned into the single biggest gossip story of the last vorn almost instantly. The only one who didn’t think it was hilarious was Carly, who actually got angry at them for laughing about it at first, which confused them for a long time until they worked out that she thought it was some kind of unwanted accident, as if Galvatron could be keeping the spark contained without conscious effort involved. That conversation then led to them all getting far more education than any of them really wanted in what turned out to be the horrifying parasitic human reproductive process, in which the budding new organism radically reengineered its female host to its own convenience and had to be literally cut out in order to stop it consuming virtually all her body’s resources during the later stages, and if not otherwise removed finally emerged by forcing an exit through an extremely inadequate port. Ultra Magnus had no idea how there were so many humans if they all had to be produced in this nightmarish fashion, but he was already too appalled to risk asking any more questions.
They were all still thinking of the situation as entertaining gossip when Kup got back from doing a survey of Kalis a couple of days later. He plunked himself down with a sigh at a table in the lounge with Magnus and Rodimus and a few of the Protectobots and asked, “So what’s the news?” as he drank his energon.
Rodimus said, grinning around the table, “Oh, I can’t wait to see his face,” and told him.
Except Kup just put down his drink and stared at him and said flatly, “You seem to think this is funny, so please tell me you’re kidding.”
Rodimus stared back. “Uh. No…?”
Kup nodded slowly. “Right. The two most powerful mechs on the Decepticon side, the ones already chock-full of advanced technology that we don’t understand, have just turned into a breeding pair. Ha ha ha.” He looked around the table incredulously. “Have all of you been yukking it up over this? Did you drop your brains down a gravity well? What the hell is our one military advantage over the Decepticons! The one thing we’ve had going for us, the whole goddamn war!”
“Diversity of form,” Ultra Magnus said, staring at him. “But what does sparking have to do with it? Decepticons just have fewer designs—”
“Oh, for—” Kup put his face into his hands for a moment, then said fiercely, “That’s why! You, and you, and you, and him, and him, and her—” He was pointing around the table, then around the room, at a dozen mechs, different designs. “You weren’t dreamed up in some goddamn lab! You’re all based on sparked designs!”
“Kup, you’re going to have to back up,” Rodimus said. “Sparks are just—sparks! You still have to build the body—”
“No, Kup’s right; it’s not the same thing at all, Rodimus,” First Aid said slowly, and they looked at him. “Systematically designing a new form in the lab—it’s always incremental, it’s always still got to be based off existing work. If you try to make too many changes from a functional design, you’ll end up in the mirk and it won’t take a core. Spark transfer is completely different. The spark guides you to a coherent body design that fits it, and it can be radically different from anything ever made. It usually has strong influence from the progenitors, of course…but Kup, it still seems a stretch to be anxious just because Galvatron’s contained one spark!”
Kup glared at him. “It’s a stretch, huh? Half of us in this room right now are based on designs from the sparks of one pair that was running back in vorn 8402! Magnus, you know Cyclonus. How does he feel about Galvatron?”
Ultra Magnus flinched a little; he’d been conscious of feeling vaguely guilty about—whatever the hell was going on with him and Cyclonus, but it hadn’t occurred to him anyone else had noticed. “He’s—completely devoted to him. Her.”
“Right,” Kup said. “And Galvatron was apparently lettin’ Cyclonus in her ports even when she didn’t think she had anything to gain for it, so now? The only reason Decepticons haven’t been sparking to keep up with us is they tried and it didn’t work! There are female Decepticon designs, but they quit building ’em because Decepticon sparks aren’t like Autobot sparks, they don’t wanna stick around. They’d always bust out of the chamber and fall apart. But Galvatron’s already been out of commission for how long did you say, three weeks? And they’re collecting materials? To build bodies with! Dammit, this is a disaster.”
Blades gave a noisy sigh. “Kup, like hell it is! Jeez, you old paranoid. Actually, you know what this really is, it’s a gift! You’re right, and that means Decepticons don’t have a single medic who knows how to do spark transfer! It’s not gonna work, you don’t do it the same way as building a mech to an existing design at all. I guarantee you they’ll build the body wrong, and when they try and do the transfer, the spark’s gonna blow out its own core and probably kill Galvatron right along with it from the backlash!” He finished beaming, and looked around the table and then got embarrassed; First Aid had a look of stricken horror, and even Rodimus and Kup were wincing. “I mean,” Blades said hurriedly, “Not that—I don’t—it’s not like I’d want—I’m just saying, you don’t need to worry about…” He trailed off uncomfortably and then said, “Uh, hey, I just remembered I’ve got to,” and got up from the table and scooted out.
“He right?” Kup demanded of First Aid a moment later, jerking his head after Blades.
First Aid still looked appalled. “Yes,” he said after a moment, faintly. “Spark transfer…it’s complicated. Even if you know what you’re doing, you can lose a spark pretty easily. And if you don’t know, if you don’t isolate the progenitor’s core properly…” He trailed off and just looked nauseated.
“Well,” Kup said, after a couple of moments, sounding grudgingly mollified, “I guess it couldn’t happen to a nicer mech. But damn, I’ll be happier when I get intel that there’s been an explosion on Chaar.” He polished off his cube and tossed the shell. “Rodimus, let’s go up to the command center, there’s a couple things I need to show you about the Kalis perimeter—”
They got up and left just First Aid and him, and First Aid made a muttered excuse that Magnus didn’t even hear and got up and left, too. Nobody else sat down with him: it was getting late and the shifts were about to switch over, most mechs were heading to rest or duty cycles. Ultra Magnus stared blindly down at his hands holding the energon cube and tried not to think about it; he tried not to, but he couldn’t help it; he saw it vividly as if it had already happened: Cyclonus standing over Galvatron’s corpse blackened with the afterburn of their spark’s one desperate flare of life. And it was going to work out even better than Blades had thought. Because after Galvatron was dead, knowing he’d killed her with the spark they’d made, Cyclonus wasn’t going to take over the Decepticons in her memory. He was going to go fly straight into a star, and they’d get both of them for the price of one.
Ultra Magnus wasn’t going to do anything about it, obviously. What the hell was he going to do, help Cyclonus so he and Galvatron could give the Decepticons an armada of new designs that could turn the whole war around for them? He didn’t know anything about spark transfer himself anyway; he couldn’t help even if he’d wanted to. It was out of his hands, and even if it hadn’t been, this was a crystal-clear case where his duty to the Autobots came before his duty to his—best enemy. Cyclonus himself sure wouldn’t have expected Ultra Magnus to help him. If somehow after it was all—over, if somehow he found out that Magnus had known, he wouldn’t even be surprised. He’d just nod in understanding. On his way to flying into the sun.
“Cyclonus—listen, wait a minute,” Magnus said, swallowing, four days later at the Aethedis factory, where the Sweeps had just finished carting off a dozen boxes of trinium nanochips. Cyclonus had just disengaged to go after them. The two of them had ended up down among the smelting pits, and they’d both nearly managed to melt each other down half-a-dozen times, but when he spoke, Cyclonus stopped and turned back to him without hesitation, even though his own support was getting further away by the second and there were twenty pissed-off Autobots up above who were now free to come pouring down here if Magnus so much as gave a ping on the combat channel.
“Spark transfer,” Ultra Magnus said. “If you don’t know how to do it right, it’s—dangerous to the carrying progenitor.”
Cyclonus stiffened. “How dangerous?”
“Fatal,” Magnus said. “Blades and First Aid—they both think it’s a pretty sure thing. I—thought you should know.”
Cyclonus stared at him, stricken, and then he turned and was gone, blasting away after everyone else, and Ultra Magnus sat down heavily next to the bubbling molten vat and ran a hand down his face and tried not to feel like a traitor. At least it wasn’t like he’d handed the Decepticons anything they could use. He’d just—saved Galvatron’s life, saved the mech who had launched one murderous rampage after another to pillage and destroy and who wanted to slaughter all Autobots and humans and turn Cybertron into the heart of a massive war machine, and this was why you didn’t fraternize with the enemy! Dammit.
He had a few bad days with it sitting in his gut, and then it got worse. The outpost at Regis Minor called in an alarm: one of their patrols had spotted Cyclonus just outside the Maldine Asteroid Belt—where you could among other things find a tiny supply of the kolitine crystals that could be used for building cores. It was hard to get to the deposits because they were only on a handful of the biggest asteroids in the middle of smaller ones moving at deadly-fast speeds, and you only needed about three grams, so it made sense for Cyclonus to go alone, except why was he still collecting core materials, and the patrol reported he’d been parked on a stray moonlet outside the belt for an hour, which made zero sense.
“Yeah, I’ll go,” Ultra Magnus said grimly, when Rodimus asked him to check it out. He took a shuttle and landed it on the far side of the moon after a cautious approach: in some conditions he had an edge and in some he couldn’t avoid letting Cyclonus have one, but getting into a dogfight in space with him wasn’t giving him an edge; that was just a dumb way to die. He approached with his gun out, but when he got a visual, Cyclonus wasn’t even on his feet; he was sitting hunched with his arms on his knees and his head bowed forward. He didn’t have a single weapon mounted.
Ultra Magnus tried to talk himself into taking the completely wide-open shot he had from cover and failed so pathetically he was putting his gun away even before he started the internal argument. He stepped out and said, “Cyclonus,” hoping against all hope that Cyclonus would jump up and rush him and they could beat each other senseless or something, and instead Cyclonus didn’t even lift his head; he just kept sitting there.
There wasn’t any help for it. Magnus went over to him. There was a good clear view of the belt, great place to start from if you were going to try and navigate to one of the deposits. Cyclonus was staring out at it dully. After a moment Magnus sat down next to him, for lack of any other damn thing to do. They sat there together for maybe ten minutes before Cyclonus said, almost inaudibly, “She…she won’t release the spark.”
“What?” Ultra Magnus said. “But—does she think it’s a trick?”
Cyclonus shook his head just a little. “I knew she would not believe the information if it came from you. I told her I found it in an archive and begged her to release the spark. She…she sneered and said that what killed countless others could do nothing to harm her. And then she ordered me to stop being a coward and to get the kolitine. It is only a week more, and she will not— Her courage—” His voice cracked off and he put his face in his hands.
“If—if you don’t get it?” Ultra Magnus said, after a moment, helplessly.
Cyclonus said brokenly, “She will only send me away, or destroy me, and then she will send the Sweeps one after another until one gains it.” He didn’t seem to have the least problem with the idea that Galvatron would destroy him, either; Magnus half wanted to yell at him and shake him, except he more than half wanted to put his arm around him. It was like having to sit and watch someone get tortured to death in front of him.
And then suddenly Cyclonus’s head came up sharply, a dawning, almost beatific light coming into it. Ultra Magnus stared at him, baffled, and then horror grabbed him, because Cyclonus breathed out, “I can hold the spark. Not before, but she can give it to me for the transfer,” joyfully, joyfully. He reached out and took hold of Magnus’s shoulder and gripped it with a small shake; he had his other hand over his optics for a moment as he ran three huge gulping exhaust cycles of pure unadulterated relief, and then he turned and said softly, seriously, “Magnus, you must forgive me; I cannot offer you battle today. What you have given me—” He broke off, shaking his head, like he couldn’t even find the words; he gripped tight again and after a moment said, roughly, “It has been an honor to have known you, and I am sorry we will never decide our contest. I hope that you know that had I met death at your hands, I would have counted it among the highest of all possible ends—my friend.”
And then he stood up and transformed and launched himself straight into the asteroid belt without another moment’s hesitation. There were a thousand hurtling masses big enough to smash him to pieces, a chaotic cloud with every one moving at violent speeds; he wound through them with effortless grace, landed on the largest asteroid, and transformed to collect the deposit; it took him less than a minute and then he was weaving back out on the other side, and in the clear, and warping away into a single gleam of light. Back to Chaar, back to Galvatron. Ultra Magnus was on his feet watching the whole time, uselessly, his fuel pump clenching in hard painful spasms.
He’d saved Galvatron’s life. And he’d killed Cyclonus instead.
He hadn’t figured out anything the hell to do by the next day when the Decepticons hit Sanara Longe mine and the stock of coronid alloy there. Magnus was on Cybertron at the time, but he still could’ve hopped on a shuttle and gotten there for the tail end of the fight, cornered Cyclonus and tried to talk him out of—heroically dying to save the life of his liege, yeah, because that was going to work.
Magnus sat staring at the monitor in a rising, desperate rage, and instead of heading to the shuttle pad, he used his officer override to open a direct comm channel to Chaar. Galvatron actually answered it herself, probably because she’d sent everyone else out on the raid—so they could get extra materials for more mechs, and Ultra Magnus recognized dimly that he had kind of lost it somewhere around the time he was yelling at her furiously, “You’re going to watch him die in front of you, and you’re not even going to care, you warped unit, you’ll probably just try again, see how many Sweeps you get through before you figure out how to do it—”
“I should have known it was you filling Cyclonus’s head with nonsense and lies!” Galvatron snarled, her eyes blazing red. “How dare you take advantage of him! I will disassemble you into scrap metal for this!”
“Yeah, sure,” Magnus snarled back at her. “I’m lying. But you’re still going to let Cyclonus hold the spark for the transfer, aren’t you—just in case I’m not making it up. I’d say I hope he dies cursing you, but he’ll probably thank you for the damn privilege of dying for you!”
“No one is going to hold the spark for me!” Galvatron roared. “I would have indulged Cyclonus, but not when he has been stupid enough to listen to an Autobot liar! I alone will have the glory of achieving what no Decepticon has! And when I have this spark transferred, the first thing I am going to do is hunt you down and destroy you!”
Then she blasted her own comm panel with her cannon like she thought that was going to transmit over the connection. To be fair, Magnus did instinctively go windmilling over backwards when the ignition sequence went off in his face and landed on the floor gasping as the connection cut out. He lay flat staring up at the ceiling. Great. This was just—great.
He got up and didn’t even bother struggling with his conscience anymore, because it was clearly just out for the duration. The Protectobots were off-duty, so he went to First Aid’s quarters and knocked; the door slid half open after a moment, and First Aid stuck his head out, blocking the interior with his body; he was probably working on some mech’s internals in there. “Ultra Magnus!” he said, awkwardly. “Is—um. Is there—something I can—help you with?”
“Yeah,” Ultra Magnus said grimly. “I was wondering if you could give me a data chip with a detailed rundown of the spark transfer process.” First Aid gawked up at him. Magnus wasn’t going to lie to him, but he wanted to give First Aid plausible deniability if this ended up in a court martial, which it sure as hell deserved to. So he looked First Aid squarely in the eye and added, “I’m asking—for a friend.”
First Aid was still just staring at him a moment, and then he said, in a small voice, “It’s not just…there has to be one person working on the transfer with experience, or the failure rate…it’s not total, but—”
“Dammit,” Ultra Magnus said, looking away with his jaw clenched, and then First Aid opened the door the rest of the way, and there was a portable medkit spread out on his bunk with a bunch of tools and small parts Magnus had never seen before going into it, and a small cloaking device he had to have flat-out stolen from the locked military storage. Magnus stared at it and then looked at him.
“The spark—the spark’s innocent,” First Aid blurted desperately. “I know it’s a Decepticon, but it hasn’t done anything. The spark transfer—it’s going to be torn apart in agony. I couldn’t just let it die like that.”
“Oh, thank Vector Sigma,” Ultra Magnus said, running a hand over his face. “Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do.”
What they were going to do was so incredibly stupid that he had to not think about it while he piloted the small shuttle down to Chaar—under that cloaking device, handy of First Aid to have picked it up. Magnus was very much not the mech you wanted for sneaking around under basically any circumstances whatsoever, but fortunately the Decepticons had only just gotten back from their raid and were all being really busy stashing all the stolen alloy in a big warehouse and as far as he could tell, staying far away from the base. The only one he didn’t spot among them was Cyclonus himself.
The reason for that became fairly obvious the second he cautiously eased inside the apparently unguarded door of the main headquarters building and heard Galvatron yelling furiously about how Cyclonus was a moron who had fallen for an obvious Autobot attempt to sabotage their plans, and he was lucky Galvatron didn’t just obliterate him right then for stupidity. The howling tirade was audible three levels down, helpfully, since Magnus could just follow the sound through the base, and also since all the other Decepticons had prudently cleared out of range: he didn’t run into a single guard along the way.
When he poked his head around into Galvatron’s quarters, Cyclonus was saying, “Galvatron, please, I beg you,” anguished, trying to reach out to her from the ground; Galvatron just slugged him back down flat and stood over him glaring savagely.
“Not another word!” she hissed. “You pathetic fool! For a month I have been holding our sparkling against its every attempt at escape, I have felt its glorious ferocity! It will be a magnificent terror! And you would throw it away for cowardice! You don’t deserve to hold it! Its frame is nearly complete, and when it is done—”
“Doesn’t work that way,” Ultra Magnus said, stepping into the room.
“You!” Galvatron bellowed, and instantly blasted three wild shots right at him across the room. Fortunately, Magnus had been expecting just that, so he’d already been moving; he dodged two and dived and rolled under the third and came up grabbing Galvatron’s wrists. She promptly just swung him around and bashed him straight into the wall, but as soon as she did, he activated the magnetic clamps he used for transporting other Autobots, and then she couldn’t haul him off again without ripping the whole wall apart and dumping the ceiling in on them all.
That was clearly on the agenda, but he had a minute to work with. “Cyclonus!” he yelled. “If you want her to live, she needs to listen to me!”
Cyclonus had picked himself up off the floor—a bit dazed—and had been about to dive in. He stared at Magnus, and then he did dive in, except he grabbed Galvatron from behind and managed to haul her a little bit back, enough that she couldn’t just tear the place apart. “Galvatron, I beg you, let him speak!”
Galvatron just howled with fury and tried to bash him with her head, but he dodged it. Ultra Magnus took the chance and yelled in her ear, “You can’t build the frame first! You have to spark the core first and build out. Otherwise, the spark will burn out the second you put it into the frame! It’ll blow up the entire mech, die, and—” take your core with it, he’d been about to say, but Galvatron had already jerked back around and snarled, “What?” and stopped fighting them.
“First Aid has done spark transfers,” Ultra Magnus said cautiously. “They’re not like normal builds. He gave me a data dump—”
“Full of lies!” Galvatron snapped. “And you expect me to fall for this? As if you Autobots wouldn’t rejoice if I died!”
“Not like this!” Cyclonus said desperately, pulling her around to face him. “Galvatron, what honor would there be in letting you and the sparkling die so?”
“Pah! As if Autobots know anything of honor!” Galvatron said.
“Magnus does,” Cyclonus said, which was almost embarrassing. “Please. What harm can there be in hearing him out? We are on Chaar, in our own base—”
“Gnnnarrgh!” Galvatron snarled, and abruptly heaved both of them off her with a convulsive surge, but she didn’t go back to fighting right away; she stalked away seething a few paces and finally snapped, “Load up the data!”
Cyclonus turned to him instantly, and Ultra Magnus handed him the chip; Cyclonus shoved it into the upload port on the nearby wall console without even scanning it in a perfunctory way and loaded it straight into his live memory—Magnus had to suppress an automatic what are you doing yelp; he would’ve smacked an Autobot who’d taken a chip from him like that. But Cyclonus was already stiffening as he processed the information, and Galvatron stalked over to look at it, scowling.
The scowl didn’t leave her face as she read, but it settled in deep, hardening the downturned lines of her mouth, and her hands flexed and clenched. Cyclonus watched her go through it. “Galvatron,” he whispered.
“If you dare suggest to me one more time that I release the spark, I will incinerate you to ash!” Galvatron snarled at him. “Stop behaving like a soft-headed moron! It’s all a lie intended to make me do just that! The Autobots would do anything to stop us from overcoming their advantage! And you make yourself their mouthpiece? Ngggrrh, I should destroy both of you!” She turned away from the console, battle-fury starting to build in her optics again.
“The point of that data isn’t to make you release the spark,” Ultra Magnus said.
Cyclonus looked at him, desperately. “The failure rate without an experienced medic present—”
Ultra Magnus took a deep breath. Yeah, this was going to go over well. He’d tried to work up to it as best he could, but there really wasn’t a way to slip this past Galvatron, given the circumstances. “First Aid is willing to help,” he said.
Galvatron’s optics got so wide he could see the gyvex webbing that held the lenses in place. “What?” she shrieked. “Let an Autobot put hands on my sparkling? I’d sooner slaughter you all! I will slaughter you all! Starting with you!”
The room wasn’t in very good shape by the time Galvatron had vented enough rage to even pause actively blasting at him. Neither was the next room over, really, even with all Cyclonus could do to hang on to her. Ultra Magnus crouched panting heavily behind the far side of the recharge bed there—had to be Cyclonus’s quarters, given the size. That had been a pretty nice Davoxian war blade on the wall; too bad. Also, he was significantly ramping up his assessment of Cyclonus’s courage and downgrading his intelligence, common sense, and sanity, because the recharge bed contacts were dusty. Cyclonus hadn’t just been banging helmets with Galvatron once in a while when the mood struck: they were going at it on a regular basis. Kup was going to love this even more than he already had been going to. Assuming Ultra Magnus ever got the chance to tell him anything about it, which was looking fairly iffy, and given that he’d come here voluntarily, maybe he didn’t have a lot of room to talk about anyone else’s intelligence, common sense, or sanity.
“I’m not saying he’d do the transfer alone!” he shouted across the distance. “Hook and Soundwave will be right there! And anyone else you want! Have your entire damn army there!”
“Never!” she screamed at him. “You want to sabotage my spark! You want to turn it into one of you, a soft pathetic mewling coward! I will rip out your fuel pump with my bare hands and swallow it, first! Now come out here and die!”
“Galvatron,” Cyclonus said, trying to restrain her again, and she grabbed him with one fist and threw him over her head, sending him flying through the hole in the wall and smashing into the recharge bed. Ultra Magnus winced. Cyclonus staggered up again, and Galvatron was pointing her cannon right at him.
“And you, you traitor!” she snarled at him. “You wanted me to release the spark, you wanted me to hand it to you—so you could release it! You would have let it go!”
“No!” Cyclonus said.
“And now this!” she hissed. “I am done listening to your coward’s advice! I will never let the Autobots touch the sparkling, never! And I will not let you hold it! We will proceed with our design, and I don’t want to hear another word out of you about it! Now shut up and kill him, or I’ll kill you!”
Cyclonus stood there in front of the bed a moment, staring at her, and then he said, brokenly, “Very well.”
Magnus tensed up—but Cyclonus didn’t move towards him. Galvatron had paused a moment, satisfaction lighting her face, but when he didn’t do anything, she snapped, “Well? Go on!”
“I am not going to kill him,” Cyclonus said.
“What?” Her optics went incandescent, and Ultra Magnus had a hot sick moment of horror. “You dare defy me?”
“Yes,” Cyclonus said. His voice cracked. “I will defy you.” Galvatron gaped at him, and before she said anything, he made a small gesture at the room. “I will defy you and fall here at your hands, a traitor, dishonored and disgraced, sooner than yield. I have never asked anything but to serve you. To fight by your side is the greatest honor I could ever seek. I would die for you with joy; I would lay the galaxy at your feet. But I will not—I will not watch you die like this.” He choked it out. “This one thing I will not give you.”
Galvatron was so stunned she dropped her cannon arm and just stared at him, baffled, and then she ground her jaw and snarled, “Then I’ll have you locked up until it’s over, and make you beg my forgiveness after! Sweeps!” she bellowed. “Sweeps!”
Magnus was pretty sure there wasn’t going to be any answer any time soon, given the fact that no one in the base had come anywhere near the destructive rampage, but Cyclonus said, almost inaudibly, “No. Forgive me, Galvatron. I cannot bear it,” and then he—he pulled his own gun, and put it to his head—
A shout of horror broke out of Magnus’s throat; he started to lunge over the recharge bed, but he could already tell he was going to be too late, his reflexes weren’t as fast—and then he had to duck instead, as Galvatron screamed and blasted the gun out of Cyclonus’s hand, just in time to send the shot going off into the wall. The blast knocked him backwards onto the recharge bed, his hand half slagged. Galvatron lunged at him and dragged him up and shook him violently. “How dare you!” she said. “How dare—what are you doing? Stop looking at me like that! Stop it! I’ll rend you limb from—I’ll—I’ll—”
But Cyclonus kept just lying limp and unresisting in her grip, staring up at her in dull resignation. It didn’t even take a coherently functioning logic unit to figure out that if she didn’t kill him, he was going to take care of the job himself the second she quit actively stopping him. Galvatron was obviously getting it loud and clear herself, and it was funny; Magnus had known Cyclonus loved Galvatron, but he’d never even considered the possibility that Galvatron loved him back, except she looked gutted, and also completely panicked; she pretty clearly had no idea what the hell to do when she couldn’t just threaten to kill him.
After a long frozen moment staring down at him, she actually trembled all over, and then she said pleadingly, “They’ll corrupt the spark. They’ll deform its frame, they’ll—they’ll make it weak, they’ll hurt it—” She choked off.
Cyclonus stared up at her blankly a moment, as if he didn’t understand, and then he slowly, shakily reached up his own hands, even the poor half-melted one, and put them over hers. “If they do, we will wreak a vengeance upon them that will reduce even Cybertron itself to ash and ruin,” he said almost in a whisper, as if he didn’t completely believe he could get away with saying it.
Galvatron shuddered all over again, and then she said, almost inaudible, “I don’t trust them. I don’t believe…I can’t believe them. I can’t!”
Cyclonus was still gazing up at her like he’d spent a vorn crawling through the Flats and had just stumbled onto a fountain of energon, five seconds before his internal reactor was about to die. “Believe me,” he said, in a shaking voice. “Galvatron. Believe me.”
He was sitting up, slowly, carefully putting his arms around her, and Galvatron made a strange, incoherent noise that wasn’t words, just agony, and put her hands around his head, holding him close against her, their helms touching. And then she jerked her chin in a small nod, barely more than a decimeter, and Cyclonus caught her suddenly close and—okay, yep, that was enough of that for Magnus, even if it meant he did get shot in the back.
The moment of harmony didn’t last all that long. “If you even dare think about trying to insert any Autobot components into my sparkling’s body—” Galvatron snarled at First Aid, the second he walked into the infirmary.
“Galvatron, I won’t be choosing any components at all,” First Aid said. “You have to do that.”
“We already have,” Hook said coldly, waving a hand at the table full of parts behind them, “and I understand that you’re the one who insisted we disassemble them all.” He hadn’t liked the idea of inviting First Aid to the party either, although Cyclonus had closed him down pretty quick. He was standing over the now-emptied repair bed with his arms folded, sullenly.
“I don’t mean you as in Decepticons,” First Aid said. “I mean Galvatron personally.”
“What?” Galvatron glared at him. “I am no medic!”
“I should clarify,” First Aid said. “It’s the spark that has to choose. But you’re the one in direct contact with it. So you’re going to have to tell us what it wants, one piece at a time. That’s how it works,” he added, turning to Hook, Scrapper, Mixmaster and Soundwave. “The spark goes into the core, first. Then we build everything onto it.”
“Which, I might point out, is patently ridiculous,” Hook said. “The brain needs the rest of the components and the frame around them, or else it won’t instantiate! If we’re building it live, we’d have to be adding on components faster than the core’s control-expansion rate, or else the forming personality will collapse, and the backlash would blow the whole thing up!”
“Yes,” First Aid said quietly. “Exactly. That’s why spark transfer is dangerous.”
Hook stopped, open-mouthed. After a moment he said, “You’re serious? You—you want us to build it fast enough to—and without even picking the components ahead of time?”
“Yes,” First Aid said. “We have to add the components at the rate of roughly one every seventy-three astroseconds, and we have to go in with no preconceptions. The timeframe’s shortest at the beginning, while we’re working on the components closest to the core, and then towards the end it becomes more relaxed and we may even end up trying and replacing some parts once we get to externals, but for the most part we’re going from the start to the finish, no pauses. The longest spark transfer I’ve ever been on was Sky Lynx, and it took three hours. And that’s because we had to take down the bulkhead in between repair bays to build most of his body when we realized how big he was.” He paused and looked around at the walls. “Do these come down?”
“No,” Scrapper said, still staring at him.
“I’ll bring them down if I have to!” Galvatron said.
“Massive explosions in the middle of spark transfer are not desirable!” First Aid said. “It’s all right, you’re going to have to do some preparation beforehand, we’ll find a way to open it up while you’re getting ready.” The Constructicons and Soundwave were all still eyeing First Aid like they thought he had lost his mind; he turned back to them. “You all know that spark transfer produces unpredictable new designs. This is why. If you build the body and spark it manually or from a factory, the spark naturally forms to fit the body. But this spark already exists. The only way to get it to bond with the body is if we build it to the spark’s own specifications. Otherwise it will reject the body.”
He turned to Galvatron. “Momentum is everything in this process, and there’s a specific protocol to follow to maintain it. The spark can’t communicate coherently yet, but you’ve been in contact with it for months. You have an intuitive understanding of its needs and desires. So you’re the primary.” He gestured to the table. “We’re going to arrange a variety of components on the table. At each step, you have to tell us which component seems right to you next.”
“This is idiotic! I don’t know what they do! How am I supposed to know what the right component is?” Galvatron snapped.
“You won’t know,” First Aid said. “You’ll feel. It’s in fact critical that you don’t try to make any kind of intellectual decision. For instance, you can’t pick—I don’t know, corbine wiring, just because you want the sparkling to have a specific kind of energy weapon. If you do that kind of thing, it’ll go wrong and we’ll lose the spark. But,” he added, “you won’t always have an instinctive answer. When that happens, we fall back to the secondary, the other progenitor.” First Aid looked at Cyclonus. “You will try to make a call if you can, the same way.”
Cyclonus nodded. “And if I cannot?”
“You need to choose a tertiary,” First Aid said. “It should be someone you trust—you’ll have to interface with each other beforehand—”
“What?” Galvatron erupted, looming up over him. “Cyclonus interfaces with no one but me! He is mine!”
First Aid had jumped back in alarm, but Cyclonus put his hand on Galvatron’s arm, and his optics were shining like someone had just handed him a surface-to-space electron missile launcher. “I am,” he said softly. She looked at him, and he put his fingertips on her cheek. “I am.”
Galvatron had that panicky near-helpless expression on her face again, and then she jerked her head in a nod and looked away. “Very well,” she muttered. “This once—”
First Aid gulped a bit and said, slightly squeakily, “You—you’ll have to interface as well, first—you have to meditate for an hour beforehand alone to commune with the spark, then you interface with the secondary,” he gestured to Cyclonus, “and then he interfaces with the tertiary. And whenever there’s a case where neither of you can choose, the tertiary chooses a component at random—any component, it’s often something that isn’t installed until later in the process, but it shapes the direction of the build.”
Cyclonus nodded, and then he looked over and said, “Ultra Magnus, will you stand with me?”
Magnus stared at Cyclonus helplessly. First Aid looked roughly as shocked as if someone had plugged him into an Earth socket, and Galvatron roared, “What? Him?”
Cyclonus just turned and took her hand in both of his and said softly, “But for him…” He didn’t finish, just kissed her hand and stood looking down at her tenderly. “He is a warrior of honor, a worthy adversary, and my friend. I will withdraw the request if you object, but he would be the choice of my heart.”
Galvatron stared up at him, then ground her jaw audibly and said, “Fine!” in a vaguely desperate tone. She obviously didn’t like this new status quo where Cyclonus wasn’t even batting an eye at her rages, but given what had happened upstairs, it wasn’t like she was ever going to be able to successfully threaten him again.
Which Ultra Magnus was pretty sorry for under the circumstances, because it left him squarely on the hook. “I’d—be honored,” he said, a little faintly, when Cyclonus looked back at him. This was all absolutely his own fault, and he was going to remember this the next time he was remotely tempted to so much as make eye contact with a Decepticon. He wondered if there was any chance whatsoever of getting First Aid to keep this from the other Protectobots. Probably not. He looked at First Aid, who was standing there with his eyes popping. Nope, not a chance in hell. Assuming Galvatron didn’t just order their deaths after this, anyway. That wasn’t ordinarily something Magnus would’ve considered a desirable outcome, but given that his alternative was going to be explaining this whole debacle to Rodimus and Kup in detail, it was starting to look okay to him.
He sat down along the wall glumly waiting for his doom while Galvatron and Cyclonus went off to a room down the hall to—yeah, he wasn’t going to think about that. First Aid and the Decepticon techs were all busy laying out a spread of components all around the table, not grouped in any real order other than internals and externals, which he had them put further down the tables. “We’ll take turns installing each part, round-robin style,” he was explaining to them. “The selection process will generally be roughly three components ahead of us. If the next component in line is one you don’t know how to install, just say ‘pass’ and the next person who knows it will take it. We need to stay in order of selection. If it’s a component that can’t be installed yet, just put it on the table in roughly the right location where it’s going to go. If you install the neighbor to a laid-out part, add it on as soon as you’re done.”
Meanwhile Scavenger and Bonecrusher were opening up the wall of the infirmary. The room next door had been an interrogation room, twice as big as the actual repair bay. They had to clear out a whole bunch of gruesome mind-probe devices to make room. Nice. Primus, what was he doing here. Magnus rubbed his face.
“Should we turn this into a roll-up wall?” Scavenger asked, pointing to the exterior wall.
“Do we have time?” First Aid said, dubiously. “We’ll need to go as soon as they’re done.”
“Then we’ve got time,” Hook said dryly.
Ultra Magnus wondered what he meant for another couple astrominutes of sweet, glorious incomprehension, and then faintly he heard the first moaning from down the hall, and shortly after that Galvatron was yelling, “Yes! Cyclonus, yes!” about as loudly as she’d been howling him to pieces earlier.
“Um,” First Aid said, listening to it with an appalled expression, “are—are they—going to be—doing that—for long?”
“Affirmative,” Soundwave said. All the Decepticons just looked mostly resigned.
“They went three hours once,” Scrapper volunteered, totally unnecessarily. “That’s when the spark was generated.”
“Hours?” First Aid said, a little shrilly. “Hours of interfacing?”
“Unicron put some sort of odd core-attached unit deep into their emotional subsystem,” Hook said. “I’ve never gotten a very close look, but it seems to be stimulated by, well, that.” He waved a hand towards the hall, grimacing. “I’ve speculated that it was intended to give him an alternate avenue of control. It certainly leaves Galvatron much more amenable afterwards. She’s even let Cyclonus talk her out of a few of her crazier plans.” All of the others nodded, with enthusiasm.
Then Hook looked over and smirked at Ultra Magnus. “I’m sure you’ll enjoy yourself,” he added maliciously. “Cyclonus clearly strives to give satisfaction.” The Decepticons sniggered quietly among themselves, and First Aid looked even more appalled. Ultra Magnus let his head thunk back against the wall.
The fairly mild forbidden-fruit pleasure of interfacing had gotten old for him after a few rounds back in his first ten vorn. It wasn’t actually a recommended use of the hardware, and it mostly felt weird to have someone else knocking around inside your head. Anyway, the few times he’d done it, the other Autobot tended to spend the next ten years or so blowing out their systems trying to do too much. The only time that hadn’t happened, Magnus had gone a round with Optimus the night after they’d blown the last reactors on Cybertron, mostly to help him come down from the aftermath of doing what had needed to be done, and he’d ended up with a bad headache for the next three years himself. He hated the war and he hated fighting, but he didn’t hate it the way Optimus had hated it. Optimus had been sick with misery every minute of his eight million years, and he’d almost never let it show to anyone. Having had a glimpse was the one thing that had let Magnus keep it together better than most of the other Autobots, after Optimus had died. He’d known it was almost a mercy.
Anyway it wasn’t exactly an experience he’d have lined up for under normal circumstances, and under normal circumstances an interfacing session lasted about three minutes, not three hours. He really hoped Cyclonus wasn’t going to take it the wrong way if he tried to cut things a little bit short. Maybe Unicron had kitted Cyclonus and Galvatron out with specialized access ports anyway—if they were going for hours, they almost had to have some kind of different equipment. Magnus could always say he was feeling some discomfort.
“Oh, Sweet Cybertron,” was what he actually said, strangled, about half an astrosecond after Cyclonus made the first connection. “Oh. Oh, hell.”
“Are you in discomfort?” Cyclonus inquired, except it was a question Magnus felt inside his brain, a warm bright line of consideration gently winding itself through his emotional subsystem, sweet as triple-refined energon and totally pure. He’d—he’d known, somehow, Magnus realized dimly; he still didn’t know how he’d known, but he’d grasped on some level that Cyclonus was like this, shining durasteel all the way to the core. But he hadn’t felt it before. And he hadn’t felt this before either, getting a glimpse of his own image reflected back to him in that durasteel mirror, the way Cyclonus saw him: in the cleanest, sharpest lines, as a towering icon standing with a protective hand over a crowd of small blurred figures, unyielding, with a long deep-black shadow of proven courage and iron will stretching away over ten million years of war. Something to aspire to, an enemy he could measure himself against and never doubt that he wasn’t reaching for his own pinnacle while he did it.
“No,” Magnus managed to say, strangled faintly. Before he’d come in here, First Aid had said, staring at a point somewhere to the left of Magnus’s head, that it would be a good idea to make a reciprocal connection, if he didn’t mind, and Magnus had sighed and nodded. Now he almost didn’t think he could bear letting Cyclonus actually take on his processes; it took more courage to plug into the access port Cyclonus opened for him than it had to fly here in the first place.
“Oh,” Cyclonus said, sounding vaguely startled, and then blooming back through his own routines came a wave of utter, bewildered astonishment and appalled shock: Magnus hated the war—Magnus hated fighting?
Well, yeah, Ultra Magnus vaguely thought back; he was still reeling just as helplessly, because apparently Cyclonus had never even imagined that Magnus had held for those ten million years hating every damn minute of it, without even the total ecstatic glory of battle to sustain him against moments of defeat and the agony of having to retreat, of feeling you’d failed your cause and your leader—and oh, that was really disturbing, seeing Galvatron through Cyclonus’s eyes: she wasn’t actually a person in his brain, she was—she was a force of nature, unstoppable and glorious, some kind of primal blazing incarnation of war—Magnus had to make an effort to remind himself that no, actually Galvatron was a batshit crazy tyrant who wanted to set the whole damn universe on fire, and then Cyclonus radiated back sorrow at him because poor Magnus couldn’t appreciate her perfect glory. Right. He wasn’t surprised Galvatron kept Cyclonus at this for three hours anymore; he was surprised she let him out of bed, and then Cyclonus actually got a bit embarrassed and faintly guilty for being too self-indulgent and distracting Galvatron from—
—from the war that was literally agony for Magnus and every other Autobot, which Cyclonus hadn’t actually understood, and now that he had, he had no idea what to do with it; a cloud of confused looping processes swung back through his head: why were they fighting then? Why didn’t they just surrender and accept the glory of the peace and order the Decepticons wanted to establish—
You’ve got to be kidding me, Magnus thought, but no, Cyclonus actually believed the goddamn Decepticon party line of perfect unending peace brought about by ruthless violence, he had a beautiful shining picture in his head of that, too: this massive soap bubble utopia of an empire full of towers and unbroken tranquility on the inside with a constantly expanding border of unceasing, raging war to try the mettle of Decepticon warriors and purify them so they could keep that internal peace without ever succumbing to self-interest.
“Have you ever actually—talked to any other Decepticons?” Magnus asked out loud, vaguely curious, and Cyclonus squirmed a bit mentally, admitting that not all his comrades were always exactly up to his own standards, and then there was a pile-up in his thoughts of the fairly flimsy excuses he’d been generating for them basically since he’d been created. Then he gave a sort of massive mental gulp and blew the mess away with the firm determination that at least they were going in the right direction, oh boy.
Only Cyclonus now understood clearly that they had to find some other way to get the poor misguided Autobots on the transport: he’d sincerely thought they were all just fighting to preserve their right to turn to violence whenever they wanted—which was something he sympathized with, even if he considered it undisciplined—but if it was just that the Decepticons hadn’t convinced them that they really meant all their shining ideals, then they just needed to start trying harder—
Magnus started to have a vaguely fatalistic feeling around then; it occurred to him much too late that actually the real strategic problem with all this wasn’t going to be the Decepticons starting to put together a whole bunch of sparklings, the real problem was, Galvatron was going to have to stick to base a lot to do it, which meant they weren’t going to be facing a complete goddamn lunatic in the field anymore; they were going to be facing Cyclonus.
Who got misty about Magnus’s total horror about the idea of having him leading the army; he was honored by Ultra Magnus’s confidence in his ability. Also mildly sympathetic about Magnus’s involuntary thought of oh, crap, Rodimus was not ready for this. “Okay, no,” Magnus said fairly desperately, because he was not going to start having a detailed meeting of the minds with Cyclonus on the subject of Rodimus’s problems staying focused or his tactical and strategic weaknesses.
“Of course,” Cyclonus said, in total understanding, and then he—
“Oh,” Magnus said blindly, as Cyclonus just casually, as if he did this kind of thing all the time, opened up the secondary access port and with perfect trust let him straight into the gloriously smooth purring of his lower-level core processing, beyond conscious thought and into sheer sparking bliss, and Magnus had absolutely never even considered, with anyone—“Oh, Primus,” he said, possibly kind of loud, and then fast before he could think about what he was doing, he let Cyclonus into him, power surges running along his circuitry as Cyclonus extended his connector and plugged in deeper, and then Magnus wasn’t thinking anymore, he was just feeling, an emotion he couldn’t form words for at the moment, something so deep and essential it went to his core, and it glowed through him for a single perfect timeless moment, and the next thing he knew he was gasping on the floor next to Cyclonus, disengaged, with half of his motor processes completely offline.
“Magnus, my dear friend,” Cyclonus said out loud. He gave a grunt and then pushed up on one elbow looking down at him, actually smiling; he looked almost as happy as when he’d come up with his great plan of dying to save Galvatron’s life.
“Cyclonus, don’t take this the wrong way,” Ultra Magnus said after a moment, once he got control of his vocal unit back, “but I’m never doing this again ever. Ever.”
“Galvatron would not like it,” Cyclonus agreed, with a faintly regretful tone.
“Yeah,” Magnus said, and then he reached up and pulled Cyclonus’s head down and kissed him, which he figured he’d let himself get away with once and once only.
Galvatron glared at him with cold furious suspicion when they got back, and First Aid resolutely avoided meeting his eyes at all, and all the Decepticons were looking even more smirky than they had when he’d first gone down the hall. Ultra Magnus firmly refused to let himself consider any possible reasons why. His vocal unit, audio receptors, and most of his mechanical subsystems had lost their diagnostics logs from the last, uh, hour, so he couldn’t confirm anything anyway.
“All right, let’s get started!” First Aid said, a little too loudly and cheerily. “Galvatron, come stand here, please. You’ll need to run a connection through this shielded intermediate interface to the core—”
“What is this for?” Galvatron demanded, looking at the interface suspiciously. “Why wouldn’t this reduce my connection to the spark?”
“Er, well, that’s what it’s for,” First Aid said. “So that if something goes wrong, the backlash doesn’t hit your core—”
Galvatron glared at him. “But the spark might break loose!”
“Well—it does significantly reduce the success rate of the initial transfer,” First Aid said slowly. “But without it, if something goes wrong, you’ll—”
Galvatron grabbed it and threw it across the room to smash into pieces against the wall. “No!” she snapped, and instantly turned to glare at Cyclonus. “Don’t even try,” she snarled at him. “I will not risk losing the spark! It is all I can do to keep it contained even now!”
Cyclonus swallowed and nodded. First Aid was looking slightly bewildered; he said uncertainly, “You—you do understand there’s a significant personal risk—?”
“I don’t care!” Galvatron shouted. “Do you think I’m some cowering Autobot? I fear nothing! And if you idiots do let anything go wrong, I’ll destroy you all!”
“All right,” First Aid said, sounding even more confused. “Well—in that case, you’ll—connect directly to the core, and push the spark into it. As soon as you do—look at the components, and start telling us what to use. Just remember to rely on instinct—”
“I don’t need repetition!” Galvatron said. She looked down at the dull inert grey of the core block on the table for a moment, and then she reached down and brought out an uplink, and connected it to the side. She frowned in sudden tight concentration, her jaw clenching tightly. “Nnnggh,” she grunted, and Cyclonus stiffened in anxiety, and then abruptly she gasped and a single blazing white gleam came shooting along the cable and the core ignited to bright coruscating pink, light flashing against the sides, like the spark was beating against the walls of the block trying to get out. Galvatron was panting in rapid intake cycles, her face still screwed up with the struggle of holding it.
“The components, quickly!” First Aid urged.
Galvatron turned and stared at the table and then said in a half-choked voice, “That!” pointing at one tiny blue cube, and First Aid grabbed it and instantly started attaching it to the lower left corner of the core block, drawing circuitry lines onto the surface. “And that!” Galvatron added, and then she was off; she pointed at half a dozen things in a row, and suddenly it was going: First Aid, Hook, Soundwave, Scrapper, all of them were rushing as fast as they could, building on one thing after another.
“Cyclonus!” Galvatron said abruptly, and Cyclonus jumped and then said, “There!” pointing at a small green chip. Ultra Magnus didn’t even have a clue what any of them did; these were all such low-level components you didn’t see them on a battlefield unless you literally blew someone’s head open, and in that case usually most of them had disintegrated. He had never seen a spark transfer build before himself: he’d seen regular sparkings in progress, though, and those frames took months to build, carefully; it was almost impossible to imagine this was actually going to work.
But they kept moving, and the core was taking actual shape: they’d almost enclosed the entire glowing block now, and then Galvatron said suddenly, in a panicked yell, “It’s not here!”
“What?” First Aid said, jerking his head up as he finished laying down the last bit of connection for the part he was working on.
“It’s not here!” Galvatron shouted at him. “It’s missing! Where is it!”
First Aid gawked at him, then looked over the tables. “What does it look like? Do you have any sense?” he blurted. “What does it attach to?”
“It’s—it’s—black!” Galvatron said, roving frantically over the tables of components stretching as far as the cable would let her. “And—a rectangle, and—” She looked around at the core frantically, and then she pointed to a small opening between three other components where a square of glowing pink was still exposed, the last direct-core attachment point left. “There! It has to go there!”
“It’s that unit!” Hook said suddenly. “That bizarre unit Unicron put in them!”
First Aid stared at him, then at the spot, then jerked and stared at Galvatron with a shocked expression. Then abruptly he lurched into motion, running for his own kit, and he dived in and came out with a small black rectangle. “Is this—”
“Yes!” Galvatron all but howled. “Quickly!”
First Aid just gawked at her for another moment, and then he ran over to the table just as Soundwave finished hooking on the last waiting chip. First Aid took the rectangle and slotted it in, made the connections—and then the core was completely enclosed, and they were moving onward. Galvatron was already grabbing more parts and putting them on the line.
It got kicked to Ultra Magnus for the first time ten minutes in; Cyclonus looked back and forth over the tables and then shook his head and turned to him. “Magnus?”
“Oh boy,” he muttered under his breath, and looked over the parts, helplessly; so he was just supposed to randomly—nothing was jumping out, and then instead his eye caught on a weird triangular scrap of metal on the floor that Bonecrusher had left there from cutting open the wall, and he couldn’t stop looking at it, and abruptly he grabbed it and picked it up and put it on the table and looked desperately at First Aid. “Is that—”
First Aid stared at it and said, “Oh. I—I think that’s going to be for an aileron. We’d better get another table in here.”
By the end of the first half-hour, the torso was already taking visible shape on the table: roughly Cyclonus’s height and chunkier around the shoulders, an impression of massive power, with a weird jointing around the hips that took Hook and Scrapper working together five solid minutes to figure out from a series of twelve parts that Galvatron dumped on the line in a single armful. Afterwards Hook stepped back from it and stared at his own work and said, “Cybertron, look at that volumetric expansion,” whatever the hell that meant.
“Long Haul, go get more of the durasteel,” Scrapper said, staring at it too. “At least—fifty tons more.”
“And hurry up!” Galvatron said, putting down two massive coils of wire and an entire box of power dispersal units that First Aid jumped on instantly.
They were still building out the legs when Galvatron gave a sudden yelp and the mech abruptly sat up on the table and said, “No! I want solid trinium panels for those, not just plated!” and then paused and looked around in sudden surprise. “Oh, this is nice,” he said sounding vaguely pleased, and held up his own hands to look at them.
“Don’t transform yet!” First Aid yelled suddenly, as the mech put his hands down on the table. “We’re not done! Just hang on! And get yourself detached!” he added to Galvatron, who was staring open-mouthed at the mech with a kind of wonder.
Cyclonus was staring too. “I do not think we have enough trinium for that,” he said bemusedly, looking down at the ten-meter-long panels.
“You can replace them later,” First Aid said to the mech. “Do you want to tell us your name?”
The mech said, “Oh, I’m Stratofortress.” He paused and frowned. “I feel kind of empty,” he complained.
“Yes, yes, we haven’t hooked in all your additional mass,” Hook said impatiently, without looking up from the panel he was welding. “That’s why you can’t transform yet. Be patient! It takes time to integrate a hundred tons of durasteel.”
“I don’t want to be patient!” Stratofortress said, optics going bright, so he was clearly a chip off the old block, except Cyclonus said a bit severely, “Stratofortress! A little more discipline, please,” and the mech muttered a little something under his breath and subsided, although he was still glaring at Hook.
Galvatron was still staring at him dazed. “He’s…he’s magnificent,” she said, almost tearfully. “Cyclonus, look at him!”
Cyclonus stepped close and put his arm around her shoulders, and Stratofortress paused and looked over at them with a suddenly puzzled expression that went a little—shy, almost; he said to Galvatron after a moment, tentatively, “Do—do I—I know you,” with sudden rising certainty. “I know you!” he repeated. Then he frowned. “You wouldn’t let me out!” he added, accusingly.
“Of course I wouldn’t let you out,” Galvatron said impatiently. “You’d have disintegrated! But now look at you!” she added exultantly. “You will lay waste to my enemies! None will stand in your way!”
“Oh, all right, I guess this is pretty good,” Stratofortress said after a moment, a bit grudgingly, looking at his own arms. “If you ever get done!” he added to the Constructicons. “How much longer is this going to take?”
It took another half hour to get him put together the rest of the way, and then he promptly hopped down and went outside and transformed into a nightmarishly enormous flying fortress of a warship big enough to carry a dozen Sweeps and who even knew what kind of munitions. He took off joyriding around the base whooping in glee, blasting random targets and scattering terrified other Decepticons in all directions while Galvatron almost sobbed with incandescent joy in Cyclonus’s arms.
“We are going to make a hundred sparklings!” she vowed. “A thousand!” and grabbed him and pulled him down and kissed him right there in front of everyone.
“Perhaps I should first devote some time to training this one,” Cyclonus said after she let him go; he was blushing hot on infrared radar. “Before he destroys half the base.”
“Bah, we will rebuild it,” Galvatron said dismissively. Cyclonus gave a faint sigh.
Galvatron didn’t even make a token attempt at stopping Ultra Magnus and First Aid from leaving; she was still watching Stratofortress fly around and was so purely happy she actually said grudgingly, “You’ve served me well. I might even consider letting you stay,” in tones of enormous magnanimity, and let Cyclonus see them out to the landing site where they’d left the ship, so he could escort them past the Decepticon defenses.
“I will not insult you by asking if you would consider it,” Cyclonus said a touch wistfully, as they walked, “but I trust you know what satisfaction it would give me were we to stand together as comrades, instead of across the lines of battle. Surely that day will come: I will labor for it, my friend, and hope that we shall see it together.”
Ultra Magnus sighed a little helplessly and put his hand out. “’Til all are one,” he said half ruefully, and Cyclonus reached out and clasped it.
First Aid didn’t say anything, just went aboard and quietly helped with the launch sequence, and sat in the back staring out at Chaar until they’d made the jump to warp and were safely on their way back to Cybertron. Ultra Magnus left the autopilot handling the trip and turned to look at him. “You okay?” he asked, half dreading the answer, and First Aid suddenly all at once put his hands over his face and burst into noisy gulping sobs. Ah, hell. Magnus bowed his head a moment, and then he got up and went over to him and put a hand on his shoulder; First Aid just kept crying in choked gasps.
“We had to,” Ultra Magnus said, struggling with it. “First Aid—we did the right thing. No matter what—we—we did the right thing, and—”
“We did!” First Aid strangled out, a thin frantic wail, and sobbed some more. Ultra Magnus stared at him. “We did, Magnus, we did—oh, Primus, we did.”
“Uh,” Magnus said a bit cautiously.
First Aid gasped again and managed to get control of himself; he was still shaking. “You don’t,” he said, and heaved for breath, “you don’t understand. It’s—Magnus, the unit—”
“That weird one?” Ultra Magnus said slowly. “The rectangle—”
First Aid nodded. “They didn’t have it, they don’t even know about it, because—because it’s not a Decepticon component. There’s no way to integrate it into any of the existing Decepticon brain configurations. And there’s no way to build an Autobot brain configuration without it.”
Magnus stared at him. “What—is it?”
“It’s a low-level interface between the deepest parts of the emotional subsystem and the core,” First Aid said. “It’s the component that—it’s what makes love possible, Magnus. Decepticons can’t feel love at the core level. Because they don’t have it. Except—Galvatron and Cyclonus—do. They both have it. And—and it’s so integral to brain design that it’s almost certain that every sparkling they make—is going to have it.” He gulped again and wiped his face. “They’re going to build Decepticons who can love. Who can feel empathy.”
“Not that I want to make you feel less good about this,” Magnus said, half warily, “but it didn’t really look to me like Stratofortress was all that—empathic. Not to mention Galvatron—”
“Well, they’re still Decepticons,” First Aid said. “They’re designed for war. But Magnus, surely you see—you’re the one who did see, you saw before any of us. Cyclonus isn’t some hateful relentless killing machine. He loves. He loves Galvatron, and he loves you, and he’s going to love Stratofortress—and once you love something, you have a stake in the universe. You can’t just want to destroy and mangle! Yes, even Galvatron! She’s mad and she craves destruction, but she still risked her very core just to protect that spark. Most Autobot progenitors don’t do that! And she’s clearly in love with Cyclonus too. It can’t be comfortable interfacing that often. They’re only doing it because they haven’t worked out any of the far more convenient ways to express love.”
“Uh, right, yeah,” Ultra Magnus said hurriedly.
Fortunately, First Aid was sailing right on. “And love feels better than any other emotion! Once you’ve had a taste of it, your brain starts to prioritize for it. I’m confident even Galvatron would choose love over violent rage if she was forced to it.”
Ultra Magnus stared at him, remembering Galvatron holding on to Cyclonus, in a flat rage, caught between fury and love—and she had. She’d chosen love. First Aid was right. And Cyclonus himself…Cyclonus realizing the war was hurting the Autobots, and not wanting it to…
“And it’s going to spread,” First Aid said. “It might be another million years, two million, before the number of Decepticons with empathy reaches critical mass—but Galvatron and Cyclonus are so much more powerful, the Decepticons aren’t going to keep building their old designs. They’ll switch over. Magnus, we’ve won. Even if we lose—we’ll still have won. When I think—if we hadn’t, if we’d let Galvatron die—” First Aid shuddered all over with another choked sob.
Ultra Magnus put his arm around First Aid’s shoulders. First Aid leaned against him, still trembling with reaction, with—happiness, with love—and Magnus recognized the deep warm glow rising in his own mind, familiar, endlessly sweet: not quite as, uh, intense as during the interface, but still there, shining. “Huh,” he said, bemused, staring out the window at the stars streaking past as spiraling blurs.
“And here I thought it was going to be awful, having to tell the others about this,” First Aid said with a deep sigh, his frame loosening up as he relaxed. “I really wasn’t looking forward to the court martial.”
“Or Kup’s lectures,” Ultra Magnus agreed.
First Aid shuddered. “Or having to look Rodimus in the face.”
After a moment, Ultra Magnus said tentatively, “Do you think maybe we could skip telling them about the part where—”
First Aid snorted without even lifting his head. “Not a chance, Magnus. Not a chance.”