Much to learn
There was something strange about this Autobot. Not his rank, nor his courage. It was more like an ability: an unexplainable talent to remain cheerful and jaunty throughout the many-million-years-long war, half of which he’d spent as the Third in Command, and as the Head of Special Operations. He had wounds, on his chassis and in his spark, but he had been able to get through all that damage.
Not for the first time, Top Surprise noted he’d have to learn how to live that way, from his daddy and those around him. Optimus Prime had surrounded himself with mechs who could keep good morale up. Empirically, that had compensated for the Decepticons’ strength in strategic value and in more advanced military engineering. Keeping an army together by fear didn’t work on the long term; he’d seen far too many cases of that philosophy gone wrong. Now the young mech was eager to learn how to do it right.
Negotiations with his own father went smoothly, but they had too many points to agree on. As Megatron’s appointed heir, he was meant to lead the Decepticons to victory, even if he’d never agreed to that role. Tarn had been preparing Top Surprise for this ever since the DJD had entered the dying Soundwave’s cell. But what is victory? Possession of some barren land that nobody would want to inhabit? Eliminating his enemies before they would eliminate him? Or was it the ability to enjoy life like this strange mech under the Prime’s command did, unbroken despite all that slag that had happened to him in the past?
Over the holographic chart that displayed Autobot, Decepticon, and Third Party territories on Cybertron’s surface, the Teeker’s attention wandered off to the mostly-white Autobot. He didn’t need scientific knowledge anymore, nor power plants, nor a fleet of Warworlds. He needed to know where the strength of a mech like Jazz would come from.
He looked into Optimus Prime’s blue optics.
“It will take time for both our armies to retreat from all the mutual borderlines,” he pointed out. “It will take even more to build a new network that would be able to face the Third Party effectively. I don’t see the point of continuing this negotiation until that is completed.”
“I agree.” Optimus Prime leaned back in his chair. His stance was still formal, as he forcefully reminded himself that he was talking to the Decepticons’ new leader, not only to his son whom he had met for the first time. Top Surprise also kept a rather formal distance from the mech who had kept him alive in his first weeks of existence, but that cold behavior was a lot more natural from Soundwave’s descendant.
The Prime’s optics turned brighter when Top Surprise met the older mech’s gaze. Soundwave’s traits or not, the speed of withdrawal from the Autobot-Decepticon borderlines was just his excuse to catch a break from the negotiations. “I could show you around Higher Iacon before we continue,” Optimus offered.
“That would be a pleasure, sir. Not even the best intelligence is a match to personal experience.” The Teeker didn’t smile, didn’t radiate eagerness. If he had any detectable emotion, the deflector on his right shoulder prevented anybot from noticing. He only pinged Buzzsaw for his whereabouts, and the tiny birdformer replied that the area was safe. Everything else the telepath needed, he could reach from the hacked Iacon surveillance network, or from the minds of the Autobots in the city.
Even if he didn’t feel safe in enemy territory, he concealed his fears well.
First, they walked in silence. The corridors were too crowded to roll through, but once they were out of the Towers, Top Surprise transformed. His father dropped to his wheels as well, and took the lead.
Iacon was still too crowded and hot, compared to the barren snowfields on Messatine. There, were Autobots here, as far as the optic could see. Out of his four cassettes, one was dead, one was mauled, and one chose to stay with the DJD on the long term. He’d lost Sixshot. Tesarus died in a way no mech ever should. Tarn was on Messatine, patched up by a beginner medic candidate. Last time the Teeker got news from Ambulon, it read ‘Delphi is safe for now.’ The Keys, the squad he’d picked literally from the death row, had been decimated by the Third Party. As for the ships, Frenzy had parked the Peaceful Tyranny in one of the abandoned shafts where only Megatron would know to look. The Well-Concealed Heroism was halfway home from Earth, its eponymic cloaking device broken. His closest normal-size soldier was Gorelock, waiting outside of Iacon, probably overseeing the preparation for the next clash with the Third Party and plotting his vengeance on those who had landed him in prison a while back.
Top Surprise pointed his antenna toward the nearest interplanetary satellite. Accessing Delphi’s logs took him five astroseconds, downloading Laserbeak’s and Tarn’s files took another five. Apparently, both these patients had been assigned to his dad.
At least he didn’t have to worry about anyone on the nucleon-rich, snowy planet. They wouldn’t kill each other in the near future. He could deal with his closer family.
::Daddy:: he radioed the Prime, still on the secret frequency he had discovered in Jetfire’s communicator. ::Thank you. For everything::
::You’re welcome, Top Surprise. And I thank you for giving the Autobots a second chance. We will reach the plato over Sherma’s Valley in a klik, there we can talk freely::
::I’m really looking forward to it::
::I cannot feel anything:: Optimus admitted. ::None of your emotions come through::
::That is how I don’t jam my own sensor:: Top Surprise replied. ::I would be deaf and blind if I were too easy to teek:: However, in the next moment, the Prime could feel amazement and awe flood the younger mech’s spark as he took the last turn to the lookout high-ground.
In front of them, right under their tires, lay the great polity of Iacon.
It was colorful, pulsing with life. Like a spark. But behind it, dark and barren, was the wasteland of wrecks and bomb craters. The Teeker detected the sense of duty of an ancient Guardian taking off with a squad of soldiers, although it happened so far away he couldn’t see him.
::Will we win the war against the Third Party?:: he timidly asked, still on his wheels.
“It depends on us, Top,” the Prime replied as he rose to robot mode. “They show a united front. Our people spent the past million years fighting each other. But if Cybertron survived that, there’s a chance it’ll survive the Third Party as well.”
Next to him, the Teeker transformed. “I told Gorelock to make sure the ‘Cons on the mutual line are compatible with the ‘Bot on your side. Kick-Off with the Terrorcons, Defensor with the Predacons.” Top Surprise spoke up, then shook his head. “Tarn never understood why I encouraged fraternizing. Not even Tesarus did.”
This was the second time Optimus could pick up an emotion from his son. It was deep, quickly suppressed grief. But even when that happened, the kid’s posture and facial expression didn’t change the slightest. He just went quiet for a while.
After a long consideration and several swallowed-back words of comfort, the Prime broke the silence. “Remembering someone you’ve lost is not a weakness. In fact, their memory can be a source of strength.”
“I don’t need you to translate your Autobot truth to a badly spoken Decepticon language.” There was a smile, if hardly visible, on Top Surprise’s faceplates. But that smile was bitter.
“I wonder if a mech can bore himself to death in the Pit,” the young mech continued. “That’s impossible, right?”
“I believe in no Pit. All sparks, regardless of how good or bad the mech may have been, return to Primus through the Well. Your friend Tesarus might be now welcomed back to his source. Consider Primus to be looking up at us, at you, through his optics.”
“Visor. He had a custom-made visor. The attempt at comfort is noted, daddy.” Then, remembering his thoughts from the negotiations, he asked, “You have all been through a lot of losses, haven’t you? How do you deal with that? I have seen Tarn trying to turn his grief into vengeance, which he would then store deep in his spark. I’ve been witness to what this method has done to him. Sixshot honestly doesn’t care, but then, he never worries about his own self either.”
Optimus was torn between taking a step back, and rushing to hold the young mech tight in his embrace. He did neither. This was a quiet place for a private talk, but it would still look awkward if the Autobot leader threw his arms around Megatron’s offspring and appointed heir. Even if it was his offspring, too.
“Maybe the difference is that we do
care. At least, some of us. We help each other through,” Optimus Prime explained. His subconscious programming was screaming at him that this was all bad. A few-months-old sparkling should not need guidance on how to get over grief, nor any other war damage. But Top Surprise had already lost one mentor, and had seen more damage than what he could possibly comprehend.
“I noticed your spec ops commander is one of those keeping their spirits up.”
“Jazz? Absolutely. Do you want to meet him before the battle for Lower Altihex?”
Eagerness. Optimus started to understand how he could read Top Surprise. The mech was not without emotions, but he let them show only for brief moments.
“Daddy? I think we should go back. The Third Party won’t wait to give us time to prepare ourselves.”
“I agree,” Optimus Prime said as he transformed. ::But I hope you didn’t think this visit was a waste::
::Far from it, daddy::
Top Surprise pointed his antenna at the interplanetary communication satellite again, and checked for any change in the status reports from Delphi. He had to make sure the mechs there still hadn’t torn each other apart.
Jazz was reading through the reports from his subordinates. Once it would have taken a joor to do. Now, he was done in five breems. There were so many agents who would never give a report again...
In front of him, on the other side of the blue visor and unaware of the text on his HUD, the official talk between the Prime and the Decepticon leader-to-be continued. It was more about discussing details and comparing notes, instead of what opposing party leaders were normally supposed to do. Was it a distraction attempt from the young ‘Con communication officer? Unlikely. Neither had he come to Iacon to spy on anybot, nor to assassinate anyone.
Despite that, Jazz kept alert, and so did Ironhide. Just because Optimus had voluntarily allowed his spark be tainted by Megatron to let this sparkling live, the white mech had no right to be given an opportunity to kill an Autobot. And why wouldn’t he? He was raised by the DJD...
::It’s not like I couldn’t kill you right now, if I really wanted to:: The message came without warning, without invocation, without a byte of signature. As Jazz tracked it back, the signal led back to a camera drone that was floating around elegant hall. Unlike others of its kind, it had a sharp antenna aimed at a gap in Jazz’s armor. ::As you just pointed out, I’ve been raised by fine mechs. I am not aligned to either faction, but my training is that of a Decepticon::
Jazz scanned his surroundings. Nobot seemed to have noticed the verbal/mental exchange. Perhaps their attention had simply got deflected.
::I’ll keep an optic on you during the next break:: he messaged back.
::I’m looking forward to it!::
Was that a flash of eagerness? Just one, tiny wave, but impressive and unmistakeable?
::Count on me to be there!::
This time, it was the Prime who initiated a few-breem-long escape from the negotiations. The Decepticons’ leader-to-be nodded formally. As Optimus left the room through the main entrance, the young almost-a-Decepticon took a step towards the mostly-white Autobot.
He teeked into the many Autobot sparks around him. All of the mechs here were content with their present. They were proud and happy. They were at home.
“Autobot Jazz. I heard much appreciation of your skills in music. If your offer still stands, I would be honored by your company.”
“The honor is mine.”
After just a moment of awkward silence, the Autobots around them continued chatting with each other, exchanging pings and datapacks. Comparing observations with their partners.
“This way, please. There’s a soundproof room on jus’ the floor below. Nobot wou’ mind a little loud music there!”
Top Surprise took a step back. Coming to enemy headquarters was one thing; walking into an isolated room was entirely different.
“No. I’m not walking into anything trap-like.”
Jazz made a sad grimace. “Aww, mech. I fo’got you’ve been raised by Decepti-slags.”
Top Surprise replied on the personal radio frequency, but those witness to the exchange of words and the expression on the mech’s face could easily guess at the message. After a similarly encrypted reply was sent, Top’s expression turned darker. “I want you to apologize just as publicly.”
“Now.” To give weight to that single word, Top Surprise took a combat-ready pose. Hooks replaced his hands and his feet.
The Autobots around them formed a circle, keeping a respectable distance from them. The background communication, however, didn’t stop. The Teeker could read their minds so clearly that he could tell what move Jazz would try before the Spec Ops mech himself. He was at an advantage.
But the Autobot was fast.
Knowing that letting the opponent land the first blow would be suicide, Jazz attacked. He grabbed his weapons from subspace when he was already in the air, not giving the Decepticon-raised mech a chance to identify them.
So Top Surprise blocked the first hit without identifying them.
Jazz immediately jumped back, before the deadly hooks could grab his frame.
But Top Surprise followed him. With the tenacity the DJD was famous for. The floor quietly frizzled under the tips of his yellow-glowing foot hooks.
Jazz was not intimidated, but he realized his options were more limited than in a normal fight. This was a negotiator he had insulted, worse than that: this was Optimus Prime’s lost sparkling, so causing him any serious damage was out of question. No tearing his head off. No breaking his spark casing.
Jazz just managed to block the two hand-hooks before they took off a visor and maybe half of his face along with it. He caught the pair of deadly orange blades in the loops of his blue electro-chains.
From this close, Top Surprise had a good view on the pair of weapons Jazz was using. They looked identical, glowing in the same shade of blue as the Autobot’s visor. Each consisted of two heavy batons, and a chain holding them together, about as long as the width of Jazz’s wheels. The chains weren’t bladed like those he’d been trained to grab, and he’d soon learned why: as Jazz initiated the next attack, he’d gripped the links faster than he’d have never been able to do with razor-sharp blades. In their next clash, Jazz swung the two batons around his wrist, maintaining momentum and confusing the opponent. The Teeker grudgingly admitted that it worked.
Jazz had clearly received different training than what Tarn could offer. He was volatile and cheerful, nowhere near as serious as the old Decepticon. Not careless, but care-free.
There, he had it. Jazz was buoyant. Delighted, and delightful. Perhaps consciously, he maintained a jovial view of his surroundings, a feat Tarn completely failed at. Even when four sharp hooks were out to tear into him, Jazz was more light-sparked than Tarn had been in the friendliest of their mock-fights.
Top Surprise retreated to let Jazz attack him again, then he stepped aside before the Autobot would have reached him. The batons swung in the air, and Top Surprise had the impression this was at least partially intentional. In return he also missed Jazz’s visor with his right leg hook the next time he kicked the mech in the face.
Tarn had so often told him not to rush, not to end a fight too soon. To show the opponent that he could drag it out as long as he wanted to. Well, Tarn had said ‘enemy’ which is not the same, but the youngling had learned not to take everything at face value. To him, enemy was the Third Party. Jazz was an opponent.
A peculiar, agile, and creative one. Dangerous, too: the moment the Teeker’s attention wandered off, one of the electric-blue things hit him, too close to the left hand-hook’s field generator. That hook lost its orange-yellow glow as the protecting energon layer deactivated. But it was still sharp, and it could still straighten an armor plate where it was supposed to be bent.
Jazz kicked Top Surprise’s hook out of his plating and assumed battle stance again. Their next clash had only caused damage to few work-tables and a holoprojector. The two mechs were so engaged, they didn’t even notice.
The bystanders had formed a loud and enthusiastic audience around the two fighting mechs, cheering them on to continue whenever they took a nanosecond off. But this was not the blood-thirst one could expect from the Decepticons. These Autobots were interested in the show, in the big clashes and well-timed blocks. As the fight progressed, their reactions were less and less helpful to the Teeker, until they became more of a distraction than a source of warnings.
Besides, Top Surprise’s thermal regulation had adapted to the cold of Messatine, and even on his home planet, most of the training fights took place in the open. Cybertron, even an arctic city like Iacon, was a lot warmer than that, and they’ve been in a room which had been heated by ex-vents of dozens of mechs. The Teeker realized that if he couldn’t win the fight very soon, he’d be losing it.
Until now, he hadn’t been attacking with quite the rage Tarn would have expected of him. It had been more of an evaluation. He wanted to learn from Jazz, learn his attitude and his movements. Even without teeking, he could tell Jazz had been doing the same: evaluating him and taking the opportunity to learn.
::We should call it a draw before it escalates:: he messaged on a private frequency. His signal was weaker than what an average spectator could pick up in the background noise. ::This is supposed to be a negotiation::
Just as swiftly as the fight started, it stopped. The two mechs were standing motionless. Only Jazz’s louder and Top Surprise’s weaker vents were audible.
“Draw?” Jazz asked.
“Draw.” The Teeker nodded.
Despite the intensity of the fight, there were only minor scratches on the Autobot and minor dents on the guest. Both white frames were radiating heat, and both mechs were grinning contentedly.
::I still want you to apologize. Now, when our audience is still paying attention::
Jazz rubbed the side of his helm, and loudly announced that Top Surprise had been trained by skilled, worthy, and dedicated warriors.
But he said that in Primal Vernacular, a language most Autobots had trouble understanding. The Teeker gave him an angry look, but didn’t comment with a single beep.
A draw was a draw.
((Part 2’s music can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfNKZt1I8jA