Anyone who had spent more than ten minutes in Washington would tell you that it was a complicated city. Everyone had their place in a sprawling web of alliances forged from shared ideology--or more often, the desire to maximize power.
If you were to map out the multifaceted network between the hundreds of people living and working in the capital--lobbyists, bureaucrats, elected officials, journalists, and countless others-- on a board, with an endless spool of red string and an industrial-sized box of pushpins, you would eventually notice that all the lines radiated out from two specific women: President Optimus Prime and Megatron, the Senate Majority Leader.
The Prime family was the closest thing America had to royalty, boasting a vice president, three senators and two congressmen, and a number of highly esteemed war heroes. Optimus’s great-great-grandfather came to New York during the Great Migration and fell in love with the daughter of a wealthy Harlem bootlegger. Together, they built a fortune off of liquor and jazz clubs, investing the money in businesses that white bankers refused to lend to and creating scholarships and eventually entire academies for the children who played on their street. Optimus loved to tell family stories at her campaign rallies.
“Life is difficult. But when my resolve wavers, I think about my great-great grandmother registering voters, or my great-uncle on the beach at Iwo Jima. The people who came before me weren’t afraid to make tough choices. They knew that there can be no victory without sacrifice.”
Optimus graduated from West Point at the top of her class. She climbed the promotion ladder quickly, achieving the rank of general by the respectable age of forty and when she announced she was running for office, New York’s political elite tripped over themselves to endorse her, practically lining up around the corner of her brownstone, the same brownstone her great-grandparents bought all those decades ago.
Her presidential race had been a well-orchestrated whirlwind. Optimus perfectly embodied the all-American girl, blending her near-royal background with a kind of effortless humility. Cable news hosts swooned over her with barely concealed awe, reporting breathlessly on her eating pie in Kentucky diners or shaking hands with truckers in Arizona. She always wore a jean jacket instead of a blazer, and in many pictures the sunlight shone through her short natural hair like it was a halo.
She was sworn in on a twenty-degree January day before a historically large crowd, her husband holding the bible with a blinding smile. After delivering her rousing inauguration address, she waded into the crowd, hugging children and shaking hands.
Sitting two rows back from the podium at Optimus’s inauguration, face impassive, was Megatron, the other nucleus of power in Washington.
Megatron did not come from a royal family. Her history was the subject of much mythologizing in the city’s back rooms--everyone had a theory on where she was from. The most common guess, whispered with equal parts fear and admiration, was “hell itself.” The truth was somewhat less dramatic. She had been born dirt-poor in a Texas town with nothing--her parents spoke little English and nowhere paid fairly—and she had fought tooth and nail for every inch of the ground she stood on.
“People like to tell you that if you just work hard and wait you can make it.” Megatron would say in her speeches, her voice level but every word charged with meaning. “If you believe that, you are being deceived. No one will give up their power without a fight, no matter how hard you work.”
She earned a full-ride scholarship at the United States Naval Academy and had an extensive, somewhat shady combat record that nevertheless racked up victory after victory. After catching shrapnel in her knee during a classified mission she received an honorable discharge and went into politics.
Her supporters loved her all the more for her fierceness, her ruthlessness. When she was sworn into Congress for the first time, Megatron looked out at the surrounding journalists and politicians and thought ruefully: none of them think someone like me deserves to be here, and I know that I do. That’s why I terrify them. In the first few weeks of her tenure, a well-known lobbyist spread a rumor about her family’s origins. Megatron shrugged off the whispers, but a week later an anonymous tip called in thousands of dollars of illegal drugs and weapons hidden in the walls of his McMansion. He got a jail sentence, and the press got the message.
She moved quickly from congresswoman to senator, and by her second term she’d locked in the position of majority whip, assembling a circle of supporters tied to her through both reverence and fear and racking up a notable list of legislative accomplishments. Fellow senators who wavered on her bills were maneuvered into her office by her stone-faced policy director or her icy grinning chief of staff and emerged a sickly grey and “very much looking forward to working together.”
The day after Optimus announced her presidential candidacy at the Iowa 80 truck stop, the aging Senate majority leader gave a press conference and declared he was retiring to spend more time with his family. Megatron stood by his side with a faint smile on her face.
The two women kept up a veneer of civility in public out of a mutual understanding that their rivalry would only harm both of their reputations if it was aired in the open, but the animosity between them was the worst kept secret in the city. It was the subject of gossip columns, academic papers, and the occasional tell-all book that took up space on everyone’s coffee table for months. And, at the moment, it was about to cause a government shutdown.
“And we’re back on Meet The Press. I’m Chuck Todd. Now, there have been rumors about a government shutdown for the past few weeks, and we know that the Senate and the White House have conflicting ideas on the military budget. The Senate is still refusing to approve funds for President Prime’s ambitious new research and development package. We’ve got Starscream, chief of staff from the Majority Leader’s office and Jazz, communications director from the White House, here with us to discuss the ongoing negotiations. Starscream, is it true that talks stalled out last night over the so-called “Peace Through Diplomacy” program?”
“Thank you for having me, Chuck.” Starscream folded her hands on the desk and regarded the anchor with an polite look that would have looked sincere if the viewer knew absolutely nothing about her. “Over in the Senate, we like to call it “Peace Through Capitulation.” I understand that the narrative right now is that the Majority Leader is being unreasonable by delaying the funds for the program, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth is that we’re simply trying to guarantee that millions of American tax dollars aren’t going up in smoke for a pie-in-the-sky plan that’s unlikely to accomplish what the President says it will.”
“Strong words.” Chuck Todd turned to the other guest. “Jazz, do you have a rebuttal?”
“Of course!” Jazz smiled the same smile that regularly got campaign donors to hand over their checkbooks, addressing Chuck Todd like he was an old friend. “Honestly, I’d hardly call this plan ‘pie-in-the-sky.’ I’ve met with the officials at the State Department who drafted it and they’ve worked hard to cover every contingency.”
Starscream snorted. “Of course.”
Jazz opened her mouth to respond, but Chuck Todd spoke first. “Funding for the State Department has been another point of contention this week.”
“It certainly has been.” Jazz smiled sardonically. “It’s such a shame to see our Senate leadership disrespect such hardworking diplomats.”
“That’s another classic misrepresentation of the Senate’s position, Chuck.” Starscream tapped a manicured finger on the table, her eyes cold. “Megatron understands the value of diplomacy, she simply wishes President Prime would spend less time trying to negotiate when there’s clearly no deal to be had. Sometimes--and I know the White House doesn’t like to hear this--but sometimes you have to make war before you can make peace.”
Jazz was unperturbed. “Hold on now. I think the President understands conflict, having been on the ground during multiple wars. Her service record is one of the reasons she was elected.”
Starscream gave Jazz a look of exaggerated patience. “The President is hardly the only person in Washington with an understanding of conflict or a service record. Need I remind you that Megatron served alongside her on the Congressional Veterans Caucus?”
Chuck interrupted again. “Sorry, we only have a few minutes left. Before I have to let you go, do you have any comments on whether or not we’ll be seeing a bill pass tonight?”
“The White House will be working tirelessly to keep the government running for the American people but--” Jazz met Starscream’s eyes, a threat creeping in under her jovial tone. “We’re going to stand by our program. It’s what the president promised to do and she keeps her promises.”
Starscream smiled, all sharp teeth. “The Majority Leader will continue to represent the people who are concerned that the White House is too caught up in playing the hero to govern.”
“I told you to be cordial! Where the hell did ‘pie-in-the-sky’ come from?”
“You said to cordially make it clear we weren’t going to compromise! And I did!” Starscream cranked up the heat in her car, fighting the urge to hang up on her idiot boss. “I didn’t even take the bait on the whole ‘stand by our legislation,’ noble hero crap she threw at me, even though she clearly wanted me to.”
“Oh, that was you not taking the bait? What would taking the bait have looked like, out of curiosity? Would you have told her to go fuck herself like you did with Ironhide during the debt ceiling crisis?”
“I knew it! I fucking knew you were going to throw that in my face. It was one time. And the Vice President goaded me into saying it.”
“Which was why you weren’t supposed to say it, princess.”
Blood roared in her ears. “Don’t condescend to me.”
“I’m your boss. I’ll do whatever I want. Where are you, by the way? You should be back by now.”
Starscream hesitated. “Traffic is bad.”
“Will that be all, ma’am?” Shit. The world’s slowest barista had to pick that moment to give her her white chocolate mocha through the drive-through window. She gave the woman her best death glare and snatched it out of her hand, stepping on the gas.
“Starscream.” Megatron sounded deceptively calm.
“Mm-hm?” Great. Like this wasn't already going to be a shit day.
“Are you getting coffee?”
“Nope. Not me. You must have heard something else.”
There was a long pause, long enough for Starscream to contemplate getting the fuck out of Dodge, as she did on a near-hourly basis. “If you are not in this office in ten minutes, I swear, I’m going to rip you limb from limb and mount your idiot head above my desk as a warning to anyone else who contemplates blowing off work on the day of a potential shutdown for a cup of sugary, overpriced garbage. Do I make myself clear, Starscream?”
“Crystal, Senator.” She punched the off button and flicked her phone away from her like it was a live thing that would bite her. Traffic was thankfully light as she sped through the city, indulging in one of her favorite fantasies--the one where she was the majority leader, barking orders at terrified senators and propping her high heels up on the antique desk.
Soundwave, Megatron’s policy director, gave her a disappointed look as she entered the office, but she’d deal with the silent treatment later. Soundwave always had such hangups about protocol.
Prowl looked like she hadn’t slept in days. Her normally neat-as-a-pin office was scattered with binders, memos, and at least three different laptops. Jazz didn’t think of herself as someone who got concerned easily but she would readily admit that she was worried about her.
“Did you just...nest in here last night?”
The president’s chief of staff didn’t look up from her computer. “I’ll sleep when we have a functioning government.”
“Prowler. Babe. I swear the office will still be here if you go home for a few hours.”
“I disagree with that assessment. Anyway, I slept for forty minutes around midnight so I will be fine for at least another two days. Anything to report on Meet The Press?”
“Chuck Todd sends his regards, the Majority Leader’s office wants us all to die horribly, and I got you coffee.”
Prowl did look up at that. “Is it an Americano?”
“Yes. Double-shot, splash of cream. Just how you like it.” She held it out with a flourish. Prowl took it, staring at the cup like it was the holy grail.
“Thank you,” she said stiffly. Jazz didn’t mind the stiffness. Prowl’s faint smile was reward enough.
“No prob, girl. Any updates?”
“Negotiations with the Senate are still stalled out and the president got called to the Situation room about a half hour ago. I need you to get a statement ready in case there’s a shutdown so we can release it the minute the clock strikes twelve. As soon as the president is back, she’ll want to do a round-table meeting about our strategy, so stay in the building.”
“On it.” She winked and headed to her office, nearly running over Bumblebee in the process.
“Bee! What are you doing here on a Sunday?”
The intern scrambled to pick the files she’d dropped, and Jazz knelt to help her, wondering in the back of her mind where the kid had bought the bright yellow sweater she was wearing. She suspected Target, which was simply not acceptable. It was bad enough that the president insisted on wearing denim in the Oval Office, but her boss was set in her ways. Bee still had a chance to learn. She’d take her shopping one day at lunch when everything wasn’t going to hell.
“I called and Prowl said I could come in! And I wanted to help out.”
“Are you doing anything right now?”
“I have to drop these off at Sunstreaker’s office.” Bumblebee’s smile faltered slightly. “I don’t think she’ll have much for me to do.”
“That’s okay.” Jazz put an arm around Bumblebee, turning her towards her office. “I have plenty for you to do, and my office has the best snacks. Have you ever written a press release?”
“That’s fine. We can wing it..” She’d deal with Sunstreaker later.
Even though it was late November and most of the trees had shed their leaves, the atmosphere in the city felt the same way it did on summer afternoons before a thunderstorm, when the air was so thick with anticipation that tourists hid in their overpriced hotel rooms and even locals nervously glanced at the dark, ominous purple-grey sky. Journalists and bloggers hovered around the Capitol office buildings and the White House, hoping for any scrap of information. The day passed, minute by agonizing minute, and no compromise was reached.
“No. When a course of action is reached, your office will be informed. In the meantime, suggestion: stop tying up the line.” Soundwave hung up the phone. “Shockwave’s office again.”
Starscream rolled her eyes.
“And Scrapper’s office called five minutes ago.” She knocked on Megatron’s closed office door, ignoring Soundwave’s glare. “Do we have a plan, esteemed leader? Or are we just going to wait for the government to shut down like a bunch of idiots?”
The door flew open and Megatron glared at her chief of staff. “Soundwave, my office.” She shook her head at Starscream when she made to follow. “Not you. Answer the phones if they ring, and stay out of trouble. If you can manage that.” Starscream flipped her off and slumped behind her desk, muttering resentfully to herself.
“I do have a plan, of course.” Megatron said, as soon as the door closed. “Prime knows if they let the clock run out they have even less of a chance of getting their package approved. So at some point in the next two hours, we’re going to get a call from the White House.”
Soundwave nodded. “They will want to negotiate. Or at least give the appearance of it.”
“Exactly. And the longer we wait, the better the offer gets.”
“Query: Do you plan to accept the offer?”
Megatron snorted. “Absolutely not. They’re taking a much bigger hit on this than we are. If the government shuts down, they’ll have to shift focus from the budget package to getting the lights turned back on. With luck, we can get whatever they’ve worked up to convince us tonight and the ridiculous “Peace Through Capitulation” package goes back on the shelf to collect dust. It’s exactly--” Starscream stuck her head in, interrupting her mid-sentence. “Did you not hear me tell you to stay by the phone?”
“I did. The White House is on line one. Should I tell them you’re busy?”
“What did they say?”
“The president wants a meeting.”
Megatron raised an eyebrow at Soundwave, who gave her an almost imperceptible nod in return.
“All right. Get the Congressional leadership together, you two. Now.”
Ten minutes later, a crowd of women had assembled in the Majority Leader’s office. Anticipation practically crackled in the air as Megatron addressed them.
“If any of you get the impulse to say something brilliant, I’m telling you right now that my orders are for you to keep that to yourself. This is a precarious situation and the one thing it doesn’t need is someone deciding to be clever. And finally--” She glared at her at her chief of staff. “I shouldn’t have to mention this because it should be obvious, but yes, there will be pastries. Prime will tell you to help yourselves, but none of you are going to take any. We’re in enemy territory, those are enemy pastries, and taking them is a concession.”
“Every time they show up, I feel like ominous background music starts playing.”
Prowl sighed. “Be serious, Jazz.”
“I’m being serious.” The White House staff had clustered near the Roosevelt Room to watch the Congressional leadership sweep in. “Should we go in?”
“Wait for the president.”
“No need to wait.” A ripple went through the assembled crowd. “I’m here.” President Optimus Prime had dark circles under her eyes, but she radiated the same steadiness that had led both staffers and soldiers through catastrophe after catastrophe. Vice President Ironhide stood behind her, looking grim. “Anything to report, Prowl?”
“Nothing new, Madame President.”
Optimus nodded. “Well, there’s no use in delaying the inevitable. Let’s roll.”
Megatron rose when they entered, giving the president a curt nod and ignoring everyone else. “President Prime.”
Optimus returned her nod. “Senator.” She sat, gesturing at the vice president and her staff to do the same. The delegation from Congress hesitated, waiting for Megatron to sit before they did. There was a brief silence where everyone glowered at each other before the president cleared her throat and spoke. “The kitchen was generous enough to provide us with a selection from their bakery. Feel free to help yourself.”
“We’re fine. Let’s dispense with the pleasantries. Funding for the government is due to run out in less than an hour. The budget worked out by our negotiators is palatable, with one exception--your “Peace Through Diplomacy” package.”
Ironhide laughed. “Of course. What was the exact term, Jazz-- ‘pie-in-the-sky?’”
“Yeah, that was it.”
Megatron’s jaw tightened almost imperceptibly. “You’ll have to forgive my chief of staff. She can be a bit overzealous with descriptions.”
Starscream gave an obviously fake laugh and grabbed a bear claw from the plate in the middle of the table, biting into it with an exaggerated moan of satisfaction. “Great pastries, Madame President.” There was a muffled thump and she flinched like someone had kicked her under the table. Beside her, Soundwave rubbed her temples in obvious exasperation.
Optimus cleared her throat. “Descriptions aside--the point of this to reduce international tensions overseas, which are reaching a point that I know none of us agree is sustainable. We’re all here because we have the best interests of the people at heart, why are you so unwilling to embrace a peaceful solution?”
“Because your plan is built on an unstable foundation. You continue to subscribe to the belief that nations can develop outside of their own self-interest, despite all historical evidence to the contrary. I’m unwilling to stake taxpayer dollars on something that will leave us all more vulnerable. Approving that package is a sign of weakness. I see that, and others will see it too.”
“Alliances need not equal weakness. We exist in a global society--a problem anywhere affects people everywhere. If we can take a step towards maximizing peace and prosperity for everyone, why shouldn’t we?”
Megatron laughed ruefully. “It’s hardly for everyone, is it? These kinds of programs never mean better for everyone.”
“So you would prefer for things to continue in their current condition, with our nation on the brink of war?”
“I would prefer that your administration stop trying to enforce idealistic fantasies and live in the real world with the rest of us. Drop your diplomacy program and we’ll pass the budget tonight. Keep pushing it, and the government shuts down. Those are your options, Prime. Pick one.”
Ironhide shifted forward in her seat. “That’s President Prime to you. Show her some respect.”
Optimus shook her head slightly, “It’s all right, ‘Hide. Senator, I don’t respond to threats. If you came here to negotiate in good faith, I am willing to listen. But I will not stand by and let you hold the country’s budget hostage.”
The two women stared at each other across the table for a long moment, neither willing to back down and then Megatron stood, pushing her chair back. “The people will find your administration responsible for the shutdown.”
Her glare had struck fear in the hearts of hundreds, but Optimus met it with confidence. “I don’t think you give the people enough credit.”
And the meeting was over.
The president stared out the window, wishing the night had some answers. “Old friend, remind me why I wanted this job so badly?”
Ironhide handed her a drink and she took a sip without really tasting it, even though it was her favorite beer and it had been months since she’d indulged. “Because you’re the leader the country needs.”
“I thought I could right the ship. But maybe I was wrong.”
“Everyone who’s here is here because they believe in you.” The bottle was a cold, solid presence in her hand. It reminded her of the handle of a gun, being on the battleground with blood roaring in her ears. Sometimes she wondered if every decision she made was just sending the world careening closer to destruction.
“I’m not the leader people believe I am.”
“Madame President, I don’t believe that you’re anything. I know who you are. I saw it when we fought together for all those years. And I’d still follow you anywhere.”
“She’s not the only one.” The president turned in surprise at her husband’s voice. Ironhide must have dialed when she was distracted.
“Elita. How are things in New York?”
“About the same. I’ve got a flight to DC booked for tomorrow.”
“I don’t want to keep you from the education conference. I’m sure they’re looking forward to your opening speech.”
“I knew you’d say that.” She could tell by his voice that he was smiling. “The flight’s in the afternoon. I’ll bring you something from Katz’s for dinner, it’s been ages since you’ve had decent deli food.”
“The options in Washington aren’t terrible.”
“That’s a lie and you know it.”
The president laughed for the first time that day. “I love you, you know that?”
“I love you too.”
Prowl stuck her head in the office, another cup of coffee in her hand. The president made a mental note to insist that her chief of staff use some of her vacation days after the shutdown was over.
“Madame President. I’m sorry to interrupt, but you’re needed in the Situation Room.”
Optimus took a final swig of her beer and stood. “No rest for the weary. Elita, I’ll call you tomorrow morning before the conference.”
“Talk to you then. Remember that the people chose you.”
After the negotiations, Megatron sent most of her staff home for the rest of the night, ordering them to be back at six. The order did not extend to her chief of staff, who she caught trying to sneak out behind Soundwave.
“Are you serious? I haven’t seen the inside of my apartment in days, and I didn’t have any dinner.”
Megatron was unmoved. “You had that pastry, didn't you?” Starscream rolled her eyes, shrugging off her bright red swing coat. Despite her theatrical annoyance, she didn’t pull away when Megatron grabbed her elbow. “Get in my office. We need to talk strategy.”
The ensuing “discussion” lasted well past midnight, but strategy didn't come up for quite a while, as was often the case with their late-night meetings.
“Senator." Megatron looked up from her desk, where she’d been scrolling through the flurry of news alerts that had come in in the short time they’d been away from their electronic devices. Starscream was fishing through her purse, but her eyes were on her boss. "Regarding the shutdown--”
“Look, even if the plan stayed on the budget, it would be a huge uphill battle for the White House to actually get it funded. And it’s going to be hard to spin this in our favor. I’m just worried your ego is getting us in unnecessary hot water.”
“Do you really think that I hadn’t thought of that? It would have been harder to spin a compromise--if we handed a win to the administration, who knows what they’d try to push through next? That package is a joke, and you know it. I can’t believe she’s still pushing it.”
“Did you expect anything else?” Starscream primly lit a cigarette with a sharp click, reclining on the office couch and letting her purse fall to the floor with a thud. “She’s Optimus fucking Prime. She always has to wear the white hat.”
“I thought I told you to stop smoking in my office.”
Starscream blew a stream of smoke in her direction. “And I thought I told you to take me to a hotel like every other Washington powerhouse carrying on a torrid affair. Just my luck that the mighty Majority Leader is a fucking penny-pincher.”
Megatron stalked towards the couch, her patience at an end. “Are you capable of taking anything seriously?” Starscream actually rolled her eyes at that, taking another drag of her cigarette. Megatron reached the couch and pulled it away from her mouth. “You ought to show some semblance of respect.”
Starscream smirked up at her. “To you, or to the situation?”
“To everything, brat.” The cigarette smoke rising up between them smelled unbelievably tantalizing, especially after the complete disaster of a meeting. Starscream noticed her looking and relaxed her grip slightly, allowing Megatron to raise both her hand and the cigarette to her lips and inhale. It was good quality--Starscream never bought anything else--and she closed her eyes and sighed contentedly as the nicotine hit her bloodstream. “I was going to quit.”
“You say that every time.” Starscream raised an eyebrow, and Megatron leaned closer, pressing her down on the couch.
“One day, your attitude is going to get you in trouble, dearest Starscream.” She could feel the smaller woman’s pulse speeding up under her fingers. The cigarette was inches away from her annoyingly perfect face, and Megatron noticed her eyes darting to it. She moved just slightly closer, and Starscream’s lower lip trembled, just a fraction but Megatron saw it right away. She grinned, tightening her grip just enough to let her chief of staff know she’d noticed. “Someone might get in their head to teach you a lesson.”
“Senator, I--” Megatron stopped her with a look, moving their intertwined hands so the cigarette was nearly touching her skin.
“Say my name, Starscream.” Starscream looked up at her. Blood was already rising to her cheeks. She wasn’t smirking now, her eyes were wide with a combination of fear and excitement and she swallowed hard as Megatron leaned closer. “Well?”
“Megatron.” Her voice was shaky, unguarded, the kind of tone Megatron only ever heard in these in-between moments when it was just the two of them alone.
“Say it again.”
The cigarette tip glowed red, slowly burning down to its filter. “Again.”
Megatron stroked her cheek. “Good.” She turned the cigarette and held it to Starscream’s parted lips as a reward. Starscream breathed in, her eyes fluttering closed. Megatron took a final drag and then dropped it in a coffee cup on the end table and bent down to kiss her little shit of a chief of staff, both of them tasting like stale coffee and cigarettes. Starscream arched into her touch, and she knew that strategizing for the shutdown would have to wait.
An hour later, Megatron watched Starscream dart around the room, scooping her clothes off the floor and pulling them back on and then snatching up her phone from where it was charging, scrolling through the news while she wrapped the charger cord around her thin wrist. Her motions were quick and jittery, reminding Megatron of the tiny sparrows that perched on the birdfeeder outside her house. She’d never understood why she saw such a strong resemblance until one viciously attacked a blue jay for no reason one morning and she immediately thought of her chief of staff with a kind of fond resignation.
“They want someone from our office on CNN tomorrow to discuss the shutdown.”
“You don’t want me to do it?”
“I don’t want a repeat of ‘pie-in-the-sky.”
Starscream glared at her. “Fine. I’ll call her once I get out of the shower.”
“Call her before.” Megatron rubbed her knee--the old shrapnel wound always acted up when it got cold out--and tried not to think about what a complete catastrophe the day was likely to be.
“Go to the shooting range.”
Megatron looked up, surprised to see that her chief of staff was still there. “What?”
“You always do your best thinking there. Or that’s what you say. I don’t know. Do it or don’t.” She was gone before Megatron could respond. Outside, the horizon was gradually getting lighter as the city began to stir. A faint wind rippled the surface of the Potomac River, and apartment windows began to light up.