Ah. His master had returned. No one else roared his designation with such unquenchable fury - or at least, not before he'd done anything to deserve it.
Starscream sunk into a bow as Megatron approached. Streaks of burnt polish striped the Warlord's vast shoulder guards. He must've driven through an acid storm before crossing the space bridge to inspect their foul new world.
Having traipsed around said foul, muddy, horrifically organic world for the better part of a lunar-cycle now, Starsceam missed the stinging flurries of Cybertronian rain. The Nemesis's solvent showers never seemed strong enough to strip the dust from his gears. While an acid storm would ruin his finish, it'd be worth it to feel clean again.
"My lord. I trust your mission to locate a new alt-mode was a success?"
"You will meet me on the flight deck in a joor.” Not an answer. It seemed the Mighty Megatron didn't deem his Second in Command worthy of reply. “And Starscream?”
Starscream jumped, hastily smoothing his scowl. “Yes, my lord?”
“You will be alone."
That was that. Megatron walked away. While his gait was unhurried, the floor of the Nemesis's command deck still rattled with each fall of his pedes.
Shivers jittered up Starscream's slim ankle struts. He told himself they were from the vibrations; nothing to do with fear.
"Y-yes, My Lord. It would be my pleasure.”
Lies, of course. Whatever Megatron thought him guilty of, whatever punishment lay in wait, Starscream suspected pleasure would be the last thing on his mind.
The only problem was, as he trudged to the mess hall for his morning cube, he couldn't think of what he'd done.
Megatron had been away for several solar-cycles, foraging through the battlefields left on Cybertron's pitted crust, scanning cadaver after cadaver in his quest for a suitable alt. He'd left leadership in Starscream's capable servos - and Starscream had performed with verve and vim. Why, they hadn't lost a single soldier!
Admittedly, they hadn't sourced any new energon deposits either. But caution was a valued tactic - and one Lord Megatron, when left to his own devices, sorely lacked.
Criticisms of his Master regardless, this lick of authority had smoothed Starscream's proverbial feathers. He'd been on his best behavior! Not even Soundwave, that overbearing watchdog, could have any treachery to report.
So why - why in the pit! - had Megatron ordered him to meet him alone?
Starscream shook his helm. No point fretting about it. Best just get it over with.
Lie back, think of Vos. Have Knock Out prepare the medbay in advance.
Grimly downing his rations, he sent the medic a private ping. Then he delivered his cube to the recycler, and – feeling like a prisoner of war on his way to the smelting pits – started the long march to the top deck.
Megatron awaited him. He stood with his back to the lift, servos clasped behind him, admiring the play of sunlight over the horizon line of their grotty new world.
He had already dismissed the Vehicons on patrol. The pair of them were the only sparks left on this level. With the exception of Soundwave's ever-present cameras, there was no one to bear witness to whatever horrors the Warlord might inflict on his poor, undeserving lieutenant.
Starscream dithered in the doorway. One dainty pede clinked on the edge of the lift, the other on the chrome floor beyond. His wings sunk to their lowest; he forced them valiantly up.
He refused to broadcast his terror. Whatever sin Megatron thought he'd committed, he was, for once, mistaken.
Starscream would not snivel. Starscream would not beg. If Megatron wished to punish him for imagined slights, so be it! Starscream would bear his beating, and commend his spark to the martyrs of the old sky-city: those who perished when Vos burned.
Or he'd jet overboard at the first sign of trouble. Yes, that sounded preferable. It wasn't like the old slagger could chase him.
"Yes?" No stutter - a success.
Starscream did. He picked his way over the cracks and hatches stamped into the Nemesis's crust. He held his breath as he entered Megatron's radius, within grasping reach of those huge, clawed hands, not quite daring to take that final step to bring himself and his Master level.
Megatron's sneer was a terrible thing. His dentae flashed sharper than an insecticon's fangs; his optics crackled red as dying stars. "I have a task for you, my Second."
Starscream’s wings drooped, despite him willing them to the contrary. Still, a chore - no matter how demeaning - was better than being punched through the nearest bulkhead. It meant another chance for failure, yes. But a chance to excel too! Starscream was nothing if not convinced of his own prowess.
"And how may I serve?"
"Teach me to fly."
Starscream froze. "What."
Megatron cranked up a brow ridge. "I have acquired a new alt-mode. I wish to learn how to use it."
"You have, you - a - a..." Starscream couldn't keep his disbelief from his tone. "A... flight model, my liege?"
Surely he hadn't been so foolish! Few natural-sparked jets could take to the air while making accommodations for Megatron's hefty gladiatorial plating. For a miner-construct to attempt the same...
Frankly, it'd be a miracle of Primus if the lumber-head got off the ground.
Megatron had never been fond of repeating himself. He strode for the edge of the Nemesis. "This was not a request. You will teach me, Starscream. Now."
"Wait, wait." Starscream's processor was whirling. "You want me? To teach you to fly?"
"For the last time - "
"In a single day?"
Megatron glowered at him then, over one jagged cliff of a shoulder. His eyes were almandine slits. "No, Starscream. In a joor."
Starscream's mouth fell open. A word fell out. "Impossible."
Megatron's eyes thinned further. "I dislike 'impossible'."
"Well - it doesn't really matter what you like, does it?"
Scrap, he hadn't meant to snap. But Megatron didn't snarl. He studied Starscream, waiting for him to elaborate.
Starscream, gaining some minor confidence from his continued function, angled his wings up once more. "This isn't a matter of innate talent, my lord. A skill cannot be snatched at. It must be strived for. Flying... flying is one of the greatest skills known to Cybertronian kind!”
"I do not need to engage in your Seeker-style of aerial ballet."
Starscream's faceplates heated. "It's not -"
"All I need is to take to the air, perform evasive manoeuvres, and land. Preferably without off-lining myself." Megatron stopped at the precipice of the flight deck, tossing a smirk back at his Lieutenant. "Do you think you can handle that?"
A challenge. Oh, Starscream longed to meet it.
But... No! Megatron was setting him up! If Starscream played this game, he would lose. Inevitably, laughably, miserably.
He hadn't lied. Learning to fly in a joor? Ridiculous! There was simply no way it could be done! Not even if your student was a diligent, obedient mech, with the fleetest processor known to all of Cybertron.
Megatron didn't hit those first two specifications, and, as proven by this latest stunt, he was very far from the third.
Starscream bowed, fanning his wings in feigned submission. Any true flier would recognise the gesture as a defensive one, so that he could roll into a transformation and blast away should Megatron take this poorly.
"My apologies," he began. Surprise flickered across the Warlord's faceplates. Had he really expected Starscream to bite? "What you speak of still requires an affinity for reading the movements of the air. It is not as simple as, say, strapping a jetpack to a groundpounder – I, uh, mean a vehicular-frametype..."
"No need to watch your language. I am not a groundpounder anymore."
Starscream swallowed his snort. It wasn't that simple. A grounder – like Megatron, accustomed to turning into a heavyweight Cybertronian gun-tank – might scan an aerial frame. But he would never know what it meant to be sparked of the sky. He would never lust for it, yearn for its tender caresses on his wings. And he would never, ever achieve a modicum of a Seeker's grace.
But, as Megatron made clear, grace wasn't the desired result. Starscream wasn't sure it even featured in his vocabulary.
What was his alternative? Let Soundwave take over Megatron's tutoring?
Unacceptable. If their Lord was to fly, he would do it to Starscream's standards, not those of a glorified drone.
Starscream donned a slinky smile. "Very well, My Lord. I can endeavour to teach you the... basics. But I suspect you have been ambitious in your targets. Were I instructing a class of initiates for the Seeker trials -"
"Which you are not," Megatron reminded him.
"- I would still stress the importance of flight fundamentals. Those can take lunar-cycles to learn, and vorns to gain mastery over."
Megatron hummed. He considered his options, pitting his own clumsy miner-frame against the svelte, sharp forms of Vos's brightest and best, all of whom had been designed in their protoform-stage for aerial dominance. And, of course, he deemed himself superior.
"You have a pentacycle," he announced. "We will meet here and train for five joors each morning, starting from today."
Starscream's wings were sagging again. "Do I get a choice in this?"
Megatron's glare said it all. Do you even need to ask?
Starscream tried again. "And what, my liege, if, come the end of this-" ludicrous, idiotic "-tight timeframe, you are still not competent in flight?"
Megatron's smirk had bathed in the energon of countless foes. The scars on his face creased to make way for it, revealing one fang after the next. "Oh, but I am confident in the prowess of my tutor."
Starscream released a nervous snigger.
No doubt about it. He was doomed.
Would Megatron at least have the decency to make it quick, once the week had passed? No - his Master had always taken a cruelly karmic view on punishment. If Starscream lost this gamble, his wings would be wrenched off at the root, and he would be wedged into the smallest cell in the Nemesis brig until flight-withdrawal left him gibbering, sobbing, scratching open his own lines...
Starscream swallowed. He plastered on a smile, in the hopes it looked more confident than he felt.
"Well, we'd best get started. We have a lot of work ahead. Let's try a basic transformation, and - wait! What are you - no! A transformation on deck!"
Too late. Megatron had already flung himself over the edge.
Starscream buried his helm in his hands. "Scrap."
Then he realized that he had yet to hear the ignition of an engine. And that his Master was still falling.
He could, of course, let him plummet. The old fragger deserved it, if only for adding this most recent stress to Starscream's workload. But Megatron was almost as accomplished when it came to thwarting death as...
Well. As Starscream himself.
Starscream spent another five kliks bemoaning (in order) his Master's arrogance, his own naiveté for ever presenting his chestplates to be branded in the name of the Decepticon cause, this thin-atmosphered dust-bowl of a world, the Nemesis, Soundwave, and anything else he could think of.
Then he went to save Megatron’s sorry aft. He didn’t dare hope he’d be grateful.
Starscream flipped off the Nemesis's deck, angling himself like a diver. He sliced through the air. His wings tucked close, streamlining his body.
Free fall. It was glorious, exhilarating. Nothing quite like it. But having spent several centuries commanding the most renowned Seeker squadron to ever hail from the City of Wings, Starscream knew how to chomp down on that instinctive awe. He worried it, grinding it to cold fury between his dentae.
First rule of Flight School. Listen to your instructor.
But since when did Lord Megatron ever listen to anyone but himself?
Starscream gained velocity. He cut the crosswinds like a javelin. He transformed – a single push, flexing out of his own plating. His body twisted, dislocated, reshuffling itself to form his secondary, yet no lesser, shape. The thruster lifted from the struts of his spine. High-grade, Seeker-strength energon churned in his fuel tank.
Turbines roared. Starscream shot after Lord Megatron's rapidly dwindling shape. He broke the sound barrier with a boom Thundercracker would've been proud of.
His Master was, as he predicted, making an utter aft of himself. Failing to ignite his own thruster, the Warlord had flipped in the air, nosecone to the earth then nosecone to the sky, over and over in a dizzying spiral. He decided to transform back into bipedal mode - as if that would help! - and roared his wrath at the atmosphere for daring to conspire against him.
Or, just yelled at Starscream. No changes there.
"Old slagger," Starscream grumbled. He caught up within two seconds, decelerating to match Megatron's speed. Approximately thirty remained until impact – assuming that they kept descending at terminal velocity, of course.
Starscream ought to do something about that. He transformed, lashing out with his claws.
Megatron snarled. His processor would be spinning beneath that old rusty miner's helmet, convincing him that somehow, this was all Starscream's fault. That his second had manipulated him into this. That he had followed him down to finish the job.
And Starscream could. That was the worst thing. But frag it. If Megatron meant what he said about hunting down an army, it would make Starscream's future conquest of this planet easier. After he'd won them to his side, of course.
He dug his claws into the Warlord's chassis. He had to keep his legs out the way of his turbine before activating it in bipedal mode - the last thing he wanted was to scorch his ankle joints. And – blast! No other option.
He'd better not get the wrong idea, thought Starscream viciously, as he wrapped his legs around Megatron's waist.
The gladiator's sudden silence told him that was exactly what had happened. Starscream wished he had time to set the record straight, but that was one commodity they were swiftly running out of.
"Hold tight," gritted Starscream, in his Master's audial. "And do try not to get melted."
And with that, he activated his thruster.
Whoof. Flames blazed out below, a hot smoking tail. Their descent steadied. Starscream could never hold Megatron's weight - not in the air, nor anywhere but microgravity. Still, he could stop his dizzying death-spiral.
The gyros in the Warlord's processing unit must thank him for it. Thick arms wrapped around Starscream. They didn't seem inclined to let go.
Unfortunately, that was requisite to their continued survival. Starscream flapped his wings, impatient.
"Master, you need to release me."
"You said to hold tight," said Megatron. The usual bass, velvet confidence had been banished from his timbre. His voice croaked like a pede crunching through gravel. He sounded very almost petulant.
Starscream found a smile creeping onto his face. He hastily forced it off again. Where in the blazes had that come from?
Whatever he and Megatron might once have cultivated, war had shot it dead – as it had so many of their comrades, their morals, and any other purpose but claiming victory. Dominance. Over everyone, including each other.
One little flying lesson wasn't going to change that. Like Starscream said, a single day wasn't enough.
The wind rushed by. He could barely hear his Master speak. He activated the internal comms, his voice diverted directly into Megatron’s helm.
"That was then," he explained. "This is now. Let go of me."
"You're going to let me fall again."
"I'm not, I - I promise." How long had it been, since he last said those words? Well - not exactly vorns. But how long had it been since he meant them? Especially to this giant afthead?
Megatron scowled like he didn't believe him. Understandable, if offensive. And while ground approached with less urgency, it was still expanding, the horizon swelling until it painted an ugly, desert-brown stripe across Starscream's vision.
No. He refused for this to be the end! If he was going to off-line, it wouldn't be on this foul rock, that was for sure.
"Listen," he said, forcing his voice to remain level. "We'll simply skip a few days in your training. I was going to save crash landing for Day 3, but as you are so determined to prove yourself ahead of the curve..."
Megatron's optics widened. "Crash landing?"
Starscream hooked his claws into the creases between Megatron’s armour. He was all-too-aware of the vast fusion cannon, larger than his entire torso, strapped to the arm that kept him locked to Megatron's chest in this nauseating, faux-tender embrace.
He had to convince him of his intentions. Preferably, faster than they were falling.
"It's a vital lesson, Master! As we are about to find out! So please..." And here he was, begging again. "You have to let go of me! You have to trust me!"
Megatron scoffed - but his arms unpeeled. His weight dragged him away from Starscream. His glare, however, remained fixed to him. Smoldering, fiery, red as the Pit itself.
Starsceam psyched himself for the inevitable. Then he transformed and dived once more.
He flew level with Megatron, the both of them dropping at the same pace, Starscream's thruster to the sky. Then he scooped, flicking his nosecone forwards, bashing his Master hard behind the knees.
Megatron's roar was almost worth the agony when he drove his claws through Starscream's cockpit.
No time to gloat. Starscream could see the individual hoodoos and stacks rising from the crumbling sand. Megatron crushed into him, driving him down far faster than Starscream's thruster could compensate. So, he didn't try to go straight down. He shot off at an angle, diagonal, skirting past the desert formations on a sideways collision course.
"You said you would teach me how to crash land," said Megatron. His voice buzzed through Starscream when they were clasped together like this. It would very almost be pleasant, if Starscream wasn't aware of what came next.
"Yes, Master,” he growled. “Watch and learn."
Ground rushing up to meet them.
Flashes. Brown dirt, rock, tarmac, rock again, more dirt, sand -
Megatron stood above him. His shadow cut a dark slice from the baking sand. It fell over Starscream, pleasantly cool.
His foreboding silence stretched for so long that Starscream (who'd crumpled out of alt-mode after skidding across several miles of shrubs and badland) wondered how bad the damage was. Perhaps it was grievous enough that Megatron was toying with a mercy-kill.
Of course, the old slagger got away with barely a scratch. Blasted miner plating. Seekers were precision instruments, and - as Knock Out loved to remind Starscream - that came with a certain degree of fragility.
Knowing how to minimize impact damage had saved Starscream's spark on several occasions so far, but such endeavors were made considerably harder when you had a giant Warlord riding on your back.
Megatron reached up. Not to level his fusion cannon, but to activate the manual comm link on the side of his neck.
"Megatron to Soundwave. Groundbridge to my coordinates." A long pause, drawn out further by each rattle of Starscream's laboring, energon-speckled intakes. "Bring the medic."
So, all in all, Lesson 1 had been a failure. One of abysmal proportions.
After being shrilly berated by Knock Out, there was nothing Starscream desired to do more than to relax on his medical berth and slip into recharge. Lord Megatron's shape, melding from the shadowed doorway, made that difficult.
Knock Out's optics popped wide. He stopped fussing and evacuated as fast as he could, ushering his assistant before him. "Come along, Breakdown. We just got an urgent ping from a vehicon on Deck, uh, F-4. Did you bring the bag? No - oh well, forget it. I'm sure we'll work something out."
Fragger. He just didn't want to act the spectator to whatever Megatron did next.
A private ping popped up on Starscream's HUD. I'll be back to clean up the mess in 20. Do try to stay alive - and don't talk back, if you value your spark.
Starscream sneered. He could scratch the medic's precious faceplates later. For now, he mustered his strength and gave Lord Megatron his smarmiest smile.
"Come to admire your handiwork, Master?"
"This was not my intention."
And yet here I am. In the medbay again. By your hand.
Megatron paused a pace away. His warm ex-vents rippled over Starscream's left wing - what was left of it. "You could've let me fall."
Starscream shut his optics. "I could."
"Why didn't you?"
Knock Out had put him on pain-blockers. While Starscream recognized the wooziness in his helm, the slow sludge into which his processing functions had dissolved, he wasn't quick enough to stop his glossa shaping the next words: "Because your spark has this infuriating aversion to death."
Megatron snorted. "As does yours."
Once upon a time, long ago in their mutual history, that bass growl never failed to make Starscream's fans a-whirr. But time cooled all things, whether you were talking about passions or thermodynamic heat-death. Now, when air rushed over his busted ailerons (damaged sensors zapping haywire, telling him he flew through a typhoon) Starscream flinched.
Instinct, fear. An expectation of pain.
Megatron's hand froze, a metre from cupping his face. In Cybertronian terms, that metre was barely an inch.
Starscream didn't let his helm fall into his grip. He watched Megatron, and Megatron watched him. Eventually, the silence grew too heavy to bear.
Starscream turned his face. Away from the hand, away from Megatron. A clearer rejection would be hard to come by, when bolted to a medical berth.
"Master," he croaked. His glossa was dry; he sucked lubricant from his cheek mesh to dampen it. "Will our lessons resume in the morning?"
Megatron stepped back. His huge hand dropped, dangling limp by his side. "Our lessons resume once you are able. Knock Out assures me it will not be for two solar-cycles yet."
Scrap. Starscream floundered, fighting to sit. Megatron, at last, made contact, if only to press him back down on the pallet. His hand remained, claws splayed above the Decepticon insignia, above Starscream's spark.
Starscream hated it, if only because Megatron would be able to tell just how fast that spark was pulsing.
"Rest," Megatron insisted. "You are of no use to me if you damage yourself further."
Starscream wriggled, but it was more out of defiance than of hope. "But the week - our deal!"
Realization crossed Megatron's faceplates. "The deadline shall also be extended. This is a vital task, and I approach it with the utmost sincerity."
Starscream bit down on his laugh. Could've fooled him. Mechs who were sincere about flight-training didn't take a running leap off the nearest cliff.
Megatron leaned closer. Each ex-vent heated the air around him to the faintest of blurs. "Why do you think I did not request for Soundwave to be my mentor?"
That was a point. Starscream hadn't given it much thought (because of course he was the superior flyer, and therefore the obvious choice). But now, the question pressed on his mind. Why would he be selected over the spy? Megatron made his preference between them as clear as the distinction between night and day on this fast-spinning, alien earth.
"Because he's poor company?" he guessed.
The tips of Megatron's claws rested on Starscream's chest plates, over the insignia that declared him his. "No. Because Soundwave has his skillset, but in flight, you are the best. You excel in the air, unmatched, unparalleled." For a moment, as the Warlord gazed down at him, Starscream almost thought he was going to smile. "Why do you think I chose my new alt-mode?"
Starscream's spark hammered, so hard and fierce that he swore he heard the rebound in his audials. Was Megatron really saying...?
"Oh," he managed. His faceplates heated, curse it all. "I - I see."
Megatron towered over him a moment longer - sadist - pressing the Seeker into the birth, savouring the tense quiver of his form, the hike of his snapped wings. Then, at last, he stepped away.
His claws lingered longest. They left miniature divots, mimicking those scarred into Starscream's back from where Megatron had clutched his nosecone as they scraped and slid across the desert floor.
"Two days," he reminded him. "Be ready."
He left Starscream shivering on the berth, fuel-lines fizzling, faceplates flushed and all the more furious because of it.