When Megatron was seven years old, strangers came to the motel room she had been staying in with her parents. Her mother locked her in the bathroom, warning her that if she made a noise, they’d all die, and so she curled into a ball in the cold bathtub and pressed her hands tightly against her ears.
The gunshot was loud, so loud that no one heard her scream. Afterwards, she heard her mother softly crying, stern voices, and then silence. A long, terrifying silence.
Her mother told her not to look but she did. At first she didn’t understand what was wrong with her father, but then she saw that his usually bright eyes were glassy and there was blood trickling down his temple and she knew.
They drove across the desert for two days in a minivan that held all of their belongings. Megatron asked her mother where they were going once, and her glare warned her not to ask again. She watched the road blink by instead, counting the telephone poles and trying to forget what her father’s body looked like. At night, her mother would make her a bed in the back of the car, but she never slept, she just watched the back of her mother’s neck and imagined that there was a house waiting for them around the next corner.
There was never a house, but she decided she liked the apartment that her mother finally settled them in. It was less cramped than the car and she could look out at the people walking by without them seeing her. The day after they moved in, her mother took her to a huge loud building full of people shooting at targets and handed her a silver handgun. They stayed until it closed, and then returned the next day and the day after that, until Megatron hit the center of the target every time. At first, Megatron cried and begged for a break--her wrists throbbed and the loud noises gave her a blinding headache-- but her mother just shook her head. When someone wants you dead, they won’t give you a break. Try again.
Her mother worked three jobs, and once she deemed Megatron’s skills sufficient she would leave her in the apartment with the gun, warning her not to ever open the door.
The public library sold books for a quarter, and Megatron would stack them up next to the couch that was also her bed where she slept and alternate between reading and watching old westerns and telenovelas and infomercials on the black-and-white television her mother bought her for her birthday. It was good for learning English. She never really slept for long, waking up after short bursts to check that the gun was still there, on the table next to the couch.
When she was seven years old, Optimus Prime liked to study the family tree that hung in a place of pride on the wall of her family’s brownstone, tracing the sprawl of the branches and trying to sound out the harder to pronounce words. She always got a little thrill when she saw her name there. It meant she was part of something she didn’t quite understand, but she knew it mattered.
She spent an entire weekend mapping out when each family member lived, using a giant roll of brown wrapping paper, her favorite sixty-four color box of crayons, and her American history textbook. The next summer she spent the Prime family’s annual 4th of July barbecue interviewing her family members with the video camera her parents bought her for her birthday. Her uncle showed her a black and white picture of him and three other soldiers. They were leaning on each other, exhausted but grinning confidently.
“Are they your friends?”
He shook his head. “It’s more than that. When someone would die for you in a heartbeat and you’d do the same for them--when you’ve put your life on the line for them--they become your family.” He touched the face of one of the men, the one closest to him. “He was my best friend, and he didn’t make it.”
“How could you go, knowing that you might not come back?”
She realized after she asked the question that it might have been insensitive, but her uncle didn’t look offended, just tugged one of her braids affectionately. “When you get older, I promise you’ll understand.”
Before dessert, he promised to take her to Arlington Cemetery, and that Memorial Day weekend, they drove to Virginia. Her uncle showed her where his friend was buried. Someone had put a tiny American flag there, and her uncle carefully straightened it before placing a quarter on the headstone. Optimus rolled the penny he had given between her fingers for a moment before putting it next to the flag.
“There are a lot of Primes buried here,” her uncle said quietly.
Optimus looked up at him, pulling her jacket tighter around her and straightening her spine. “Show me.”
She got her first job at fifteen, working as a waitress at the diner across the street from their apartment building. Her mother insisted she keep her grades up, refusing to let her drop out of school to get a second job, even when the landlord threatened to evict them. One night, he leered at her mother and suggested that perhaps she could pay their debt in some way other than money, and something icy rose up in Megatron’s throat. She was seven again, huddled in the bathtub, but she wouldn’t be powerless, not this time.
That night, she slipped the gun into her backpack and told her mother she had an extra shift at the diner, kissing her on the cheek before she could argue.
Their landlord sobbed when she held the gun to his head. She told him what she wanted calmly, and then a little more firmly when he made no move to sign the papers. After he signed, she warned him that if he ever threatened them again she’d be back, and next time she’d pull the trigger. When she stepped out into the warm Texas night and breathed in, it felt like a weight she didn’t even realize she’d been carrying had been lifted. She realized some part of her had never left that motel room, but now she was out, and she would stay out. No one and nothing would ever keep her back again.
She was fifteen, studying for the SATs, when her parents asked her to come into their bedroom. Her first thought was that they’d found out that she took a sip of beer at her best friend’s birthday party a week ago, but then her mother quietly told her that her uncle had killed himself and the entire world spun off its axis. Her mother kept talking, using words like shell-shock and trauma, but all Optimus could hear was a loud, high-pitched ringing in her ears.
His funeral was crowded, as all Prime family events were. Optimus held her aunt’s hand as she cried, telling herself that she wouldn’t, that she needed to be strong for her family. It was partly that and partly that she really, truly didn’t know how to cry. It was like that part of her brain had gone numb. She watched the light change as it passed through the stained glass windows and tried to imagine that her uncle was at peace wherever he was, even though she only half believed it. At the reception afterwards, Optimus stood and talked about her uncle, about his crooked half-smile and the way he always told the funniest stories, and it was like the whole room slowly breathed out.
Megatron joined the Navy so she could secure a salary to send back to her mother and because she needed to know how to fight. It didn’t matter that her English teacher thought her writing could get her a scholarship to the University of Iowa, because she knew the world wasn’t kind to silly girls who wanted to be poets. She allowed herself a cheap notebook that she hid under her mattress and kept the rest of her poetry in her head.
It didn’t take her long to figure out that she was good at what you needed to be good at to be a soldier, good enough to astonish her instructors and keep her classmates at a safe distance. Strategizing was easy for her, combat even easier. Unlike some of the softer-hearted recruits, didn’t think about the people on the other end of her gun, because if it came down to them or her she’d save herself every time. That was how it had to be. No one would put your life above theirs, so you had to be the one to do it.
People didn’t meet her eyes when she walked down hallways, but she didn’t mind. She knew what they whispered--ruthless, brutal, cold--but she also knew that she succeeded again and again where everyone else failed and they needed her because she knew how to do what it took.
The first time Optimus was put in charge of a mission she stayed up late the night before, trying to prepare for every contingency. The mess hall was quiet, so quiet she could hear her own heartbeat in her ears like a ticking clock, and soon she was leading her people out into combat, asking them to die for her, and she still didn’t feel ready. Things went wrong, but there were no fatalities. One of her soldiers was shot in the leg, however, and Optimus held her hand while the medic sterilized it and gave her stitches, not wincing when the woman squeezed so hard she heard something crack.
She liked being in the army. She also hated it.
“You can’t save everyone,” said Ironhide one night, her usually cheerful Texas drawl sounding almost deflated. They were sitting to together in the bed of a pickup truck in the middle of a burnt out city, passing the only remaining beer back and forth between them. “I know you want to, Prime. That’s why I like you. But you can’t.”
She had taken a swig and stared off into the distance, not sure what she was looking at. “I have to try, don’t I? Who would I be if I didn’t try?”
Ironhide had looked at her sideways, running a hand through her already-greying hair. “Is it because you’re a Prime?”
Optimus handed her the beer, waving it away when Ironhide offered it back to her. It took her a while to think of an answer. “It’s because I’m me.”
Her friend nodded and said nothing else.
Shortly after she received a promotion to general, two of her people were captured and taken behind enemy lines. She spent a sleepless three days negotiating before finally just leaving the base in the middle of the night on an unauthorized mission. Ironhide, Ratchet, and Elita insisted on coming along. Initially, she was outraged when she found them in the back of the truck she’d “borrowed” but none of them cared. Elita looked her in the eye and said firmly that they wouldn’t let her do something so stupid alone and she thought of the black-and-white photograph of her uncle and his army family that she had stuck in the slats of her bunk and something caught in her throat.
It took two days to rescue the captured soldiers, and they nearly didn’t make it--Elita took a grenade blast that broke his leg in three places and he was barely conscious as Optimus drove the truck out of the concrete compound.
Interlude in Washington: Part I
A photographer snapped a picture of her climbing out of the truck--sunlight shining through her short natural hair, her denim jacket torn and streaked with dust, a determined glint in her dark brown eyes--and it won a Pulitzer Prize. The higher-ups were furious but they knew there would be an outcry if they discharged General Optimus Prime, the golden all-American hero, so she got a medal at a stuffy ceremony in Washington instead.
“You should think about running for office,” Elita said after the scowling president pinned a medal on her.
“Are you serious?”
“The people need someone to believe in right now. Call me crazy, but I think that someone should be you.” He turned and nearly crashed into a tall woman in a dark grey suit. “Sorry about that.”
“It’s nothing.” The woman held out a hand to Optimus. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Megatron. And you’re America’s savior, Optimus Prime?”
Optimus shook her hand, noting the woman’s firm grip. She’d heard of her, mostly through osmosis. The word ruthless got thrown around a lot. Brutal was another one she'd heard.
“I’m Optimus Prime, but I wouldn’t call myself a ‘savior.’ I was just doing my job.”
Megatron didn’t crack a smile. “Of course. They did tell me you were an idealist.”
Elita looked like he wanted to say something but Optimus stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “No one should leave their own behind enemy lines.”
“Even if saving them necessitates reckless action that could further endanger national security?”
Optimus gave the woman the smile her mother had taught her years ago, the smile that said very politely that the recipient should back down. “Even if.”
Megatron raised an eyebrow at that. “Interesting.” Before she could continue, something caught her eye across the room. “Excuse me, duty calls. I’m sure we’ll have the chance to talk again sometime soon, Prime.”
She brushed between them and Optimus watched her speak with some expressionless D.C. insider in dark glasses, thinking wars were always easier when you knew who the enemy was.
The townhouse that Soundwave recommended she buy was utterly generic in every way. She left the framed portraits of cherry trees and the Lincoln Memorial on the walls and dropped some extra cash to keep the display furniture because apparently, she was the kind of person who could drop some extra cash and think nothing of it. She used to hate that kind of person, and now that’s who she was.
On her first night, she sat on the townhouse steps and smoked until her hands were steady, listening to the rumble of cars and the occasional youthful shouts of college students and thought I am here, I am here. It kept her grounded but didn’t give her any comfort. Her knee throbbed where the shrapnel had been embedded in it. The doctor had told her that she’d gotten it all out, but doctors lied all the time.
If it was hard to sleep in Texas, it was impossible to sleep in Washington. She would lie down in her bed and then jolt awake moments later, groping for a weapon. Her gun wasn’t there, it was locked in a safe thousands of miles away in Texas, and that was probably good because she really didn’t need a news story about how she shot out the window across the street. The problem wasn’t that she didn’t feel safe, it was that she knew she wasn’t safe, that she was never safe, that no one was, and how could you be expected to sleep knowing that?
After about a month of running on two hours of sleep, she finally hit on a system that worked--she’d put on a black-and-white western or an old telenovela and lie down on the couch to watch it, and her brain would eventually pull her under, guided by half-forgotten memories of her childhood apartment. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but she could function at work and that was all she really needed to do.
Starscream made fun of the bad special effects and dramatic music when she stayed over but Megatron didn’t mind, because once her chief of staff fell asleep in her lap she could concentrate on the steady rhythm of her even breaths (the only time the girl was ever quiet), and it would lull her to sleep after a while as well. It made absolutely no sense that Starscream--scheming, petty, far too pretty for her own good--would be the missing piece, the thing that allowed her to actually sleep, but then again, she thought as she breathed in the scent of the girl’s expensive shampoo, nothing about Starscream made sense.
Elita won’t hear it when she apologizes for her night terrors. After all, he said, Optimus was there when he had his leg amputated, she helped him through physical therapy. He wanted to help her. You can be as noble as you want with everyone else, he said. But not with me.
It was easier to sleep when he held her, but she still found herself bolting awake at odd hours, screaming the names of the people she couldn’t save.
Ratchet gave her some breathing exercises to try, websites to visit and they helped somewhat. She traced the wood patterns on the Oval Office desk and counted backward from ten, from twenty, from fifty, focusing on minute details in the room--the Route 66 snowglobe on her desk, her medal of honor that someone had framed and put on the wall, the texture of her denim jacket.
I’m here, she thought to herself, I’m here.
She told Elita about her uncle when he found her sitting at the White House kitchen table at two in the morning with a cup of the herbal tea she’d ordered off one of the therapeutic websites, staring at nothing. He didn’t say anything, just covered her hand with his own and wove their fingers together and let her lift the weight of the world off of her shoulders for a moment. It was enough. It had to be.
Interlude in Washington: Part II
“I won’t start another war.” Optimus could feel her heartbeat in her temples, behind her eyes. Megatron sat across from her in the Oval Office, and the president wondered if her own undereye circles were as bad as the majority leader’s. She hadn’t seen her own face in a mirror for a while, so she didn’t know for sure. “Our soldiers have been fighting long enough.”
Megatron laughed humorlessly. “Have we ever not been at war, Prime? You and me, is there ever a time when we haven’t been fighting? We were born soldiers and now we’re commanders. The only thing that changes is the battlefield”
“That’s not the same thing.”
“Isn’t it?” Megatron took a sip of coffee, her posture ramrod-straight. “I thought you were smarter than that.”
“Why are you so desperate for battle, Senator? You’ve got a combat history too, you know what we’re sending those kids into. Do you really think their lives are less valuable than your own desire for power?”
“It is precisely because of my experience that I think we need to strike now. When I was in the field I saw people die because of weak leadership. Moments like this require someone who will do what is necessary to create stability. I’ve watched you try diplomacy to solve the problem for weeks, and you have failed.”
Optimus leaned forward in her chair, trying not to feel exasperated. “My administration secured a temporary ceasefire and negotiated fair treatment for refugees displaced by the war. I’d hardly call that failure.”
“A temporary ceasefire is not a solution.”
“It’s a step towards one.”
“You can’t have peace through incrementalism.”
The president shook her head. “I would rather seek peace through incrementalism than peace through tyranny, Megatron.”
“You call doing the necessary thing tyranny?”
“I call your way of doing it tyranny.”
Megatron placed her empty cup on the desk, folding her hands in her lap. “Prime, do you ever wonder why we’re here?”
“The two of us. How do you think we got here?”
“I’m really not interested in playing games, Megatron.” She rose, pushing back her chair and turning her back. “This meeting is over. I trust you know the way out?”
“The people chose you because you give them hope. You’re the American ideal, and they need that. And they chose me because I remind them how fragile that hope really is. Honestly, you should be grateful for me. Every hero needs a villain.”
Optimus didn’t turn around. She didn’t need to, she could see the other woman’s reflection clearly in the darkened window. “I’m not a hero, Megatron. And I don’t think you’re the villain you say you are.”
Megatron stood to leave, adjusting her worn grey blazer. “Perhaps. But it’s not really about what we are, it’s about what people see. Always a pleasure, Prime.” She swept out of the office, and the president didn’t bother to watch her go, focusing instead on what she could see of the night sky. It would probably rain again tonight, she thought. It seemed to always be raining or about to rain in Washington.