To say that Dead End was morbid and death-obsessed would be like saying Swindle was greedy. Both were fundamental facts of Decepticon nature. Unlike most death-obsessed Decepticons, the death he was obsessed with was not the death of others, but his own. The fact that it hadn't happened yet only made him more darkly obsessive.
Unlike Dirge, Dead End was not in the least afraid of his eventual death. He anticipated it with a certain morbid relish. He wasn't quite suicidal--he didn't actively try to die. Yet.
The tale of Starscream's Ghost ran through the Decepticon ranks like wildfire, with varying degrees of accuracy. At first, Dead End did not believe the story, but a chance remark by Cyclonus convinced him that the essentials might be true. Dead End didn't remember what the context of the remark was, but Cyclonus had simply said in his matter-of-fact way, "I worry that Starscream will be more dangerous dead than he ever was alive."
Dead End knew that if Cyclonus feared something, then that something was real. The fate of Starscream intrigued Dead End to the point of obsession. Starscream had died, but he still existed. Perhaps one could talk to him. Perhaps Dead End could talk to him.
He wondered what it had been like, to die like that, to feel Galvatron's full power rip through him and burn him to ashes. Dead End had seen it happen, but that was far different from experiencing it. And what was it like to be a ghost, dead yet still able to act?
What was it like to be possessed by the vindictive ghost? Did the victim share any of the ghost's dark knowledge? Did the possessed feel the essence of death in himself? What was it like?!?
It took Dead End some while to think of the right cover story to go with the questions he needed to ask. Dead End knew he was morbid and obsessed even beyond the Decepticons' loose definition of sanity; most Decepticons' reaction to his obsession would be an offer to show him death first hand, no waiting.
He approached Cyclonus first. Cyclonus was not as helpful as Dead End had hoped.
"You want to know what?" The tall purple Decepticon looked oddly at Dead End.
"What it felt like.. to be possessed by Starscream." Dead End shrugged. "I would like to be able to... sense it, if it should happen to any of us."
"I have no idea what it felt like--one instant I was in the Crypt with that traitor Octane, the next instant I was back here with a hole shot through me. I don't remember anything in between..." Cyclonus looked thoughtful. "You might ask the Sweeps. Something about the Crypt had them spooked. Perhaps they sensed something I didn't."
# # #
The Sweeps were not much more helpful. One of them regarded Dead End with bright, malefic red eyes, when he asked if they had sensed Starscream's ghost somehow, or his possession of Cyclonus.
"And why would you want to know that?" it asked rather archly.
"It would not be good for us if he should possess one of the Stunticons," Dead End answered. "It might be very bad for forming Menasor. I'd like some forewarning."
"I can't imagine Starscream wanting to do that. You're not fliers, after all," it replied.
The other two Sweeps glanced at the one who had first spoken and shifted uneasily. "There was presence, presence in the Crypt," one of them said. "We could feel it--felt like a nearby storm, when the air is full of static, and your circuits crawl. And Cyclonus did not act like himself, after, after. He talked like Starscream, sometimes."
# # #
The obsession continued to eat at Dead End, driving him to distraction as he tried to find time away from his duties to plan, to do what he felt driven to do. He had to talk to Starscream; he had to know. What was it like to die? What happened afterwards? ...Where was Starscream?
The Crypt. He had to be in the Decepticon Crypt. Dead End would have to travel to Cybertron and descend into the Crypt. But how? He was no flier, and commandeering a spaceship would attract all kinds of unwanted attention.
Dead End felt more useless than ever. In a space war, who needs cars? All Galvatron ever wanted the Stunticons for anymore was Menasor. In either mode he simply did not have the range or agility to get to Cybertron. Not to mention Dead End had no idea how to get through the Autobot's air defenses around Cybertron. He could not do it.
Dead End curled up in his chamber for days that crept into weeks, brooding on the bleakness and hopelessness and uselessness that ate him alive. He didn't care enough to join his fellows in their pointless duty rounds; neither Motormaster's futile threats nor Breakdown's empty pleas moved him in the least. All Dead End cared about was his obsession with death, and that was stymied. He knew he was a fool for it, but nothing else mattered at all.
Dead End's inertia did not pass unnoticed outside the Stunticons. Galvatron finally sent Cyclonus to execute Dead End if the Stunticon continued to be useless.
"If you will not do your duty as Decepticon, the Decepticons have no place for you," Cyclonus told Dead End over the end of his energy pistol.
"Execute me if you must. I do not care." A dark thrill surged through Dead End. He wouldn't have to ask Starscream what it was like, after all. He felt rather relieved; everything that ate at him would finally be put to rest, along with him. The thought almost cheered Dead End.
"I'd rather not ruin such a fine team as the Stunticons, but you've already ruined it. I had hoped to salvage something from the mess you are making," said Cyclonus, a hint of frustration shading his voice. "Your death will destroy the Stunticons. There will be no place for such as Breakdown or Wildrider without the Stunticons. Not without you."
Dead End looked up sharply at that. He could read between the lines. If the team broke up, Galvatron would have no use for a Decepticon as paranoid and unstable as Breakdown. Nor would he tolerate Wildrider's inability to follow orders. As for Drag Strip and Motormaster, they were unpopular enough that other Decepticons might just let 'accidents' happen to them. The Stunticon team was the only protection they all had. And Breakdown was the closest thing he had to a friend. This would not do.
"What? I'm sorry. I didn't think of that." He lifted himself from the bench he'd occupied for the last few weeks. "I can't help how I was made, but I didn't mean to endanger the others."
"You should listen to your teammates more, Dead End. They've been telling you this for weeks." Cyclonus put away his pistol. "They tried to cover for you for the last two weeks, but they cannot form Menasor without you, and Galvatron notices such things."
"The absence of Menasor would be rather.. noticeable," Dead End said. "I'll try to do my duties. Somehow."
"You are a powerful Decepticon warrior, Dead End. You will find a way."
"I will find a way," Dead End said as Cyclonus departed, but he was not thinking of his duties.
# # #
A few days later, Dead End stumbled on the solution. He'd been turning the problem over in his mind, and re-phrased the crucial sticking point: Unfortunately, we just don't run regularly scheduled passenger flights from Charr to Cybertron...
Then it hit him:
..but Aldebaran VII does! Of course! You can get from civilized worlds to Cybertron--and Astrotrain does regular supply runs from Charr to Aldebaran VII and back.
After that it was just a matter of badgering Astrotrain into letting him ride along. Astrotrain was willing to take him along for some R&R on Aldebaran VII, especially after Dead End shoved a gun barrel into one of his fuel ports and threatened to send them both to oblivion.
No Decepticon would ever believe Dead End was bluffing over a threat that suicidal.
# # #
Dead End took off the hooded cloak that had disguised him on Cybertron's surface when he entered the Crypt. Here, he would be Dead End, Stunticon and Decepticon. This was a place of honor for the Decepticon dead, not a hall for tourists.
In spite of the perpetual flames kept burning in the central rotunda, gloom and dankness pervaded the halls. Only the motionless statues of the dead kept Dead End company as he roamed up and down. He rather liked the place. It was peaceful, and the only inhabitants were dead. Their company suited Dead End; he felt a certain kinship.
Dead End felt nothing of the presence that spooked the Sweeps. His circuits did not crawl at the shadows, no coldness brushed him in the dark. It didn't take him long to find Starscream's marker, beside that of Skywarp's and Thundercracker's.
Are you here, Starscream? Would you hear me if I called?
Dead End could not bring himself to yell Starscream's name. Yelling seemed inappropriate in this place. Instead, he sat and waited at Starscream's marker.
And waited. After some time, Dead End decided that the Crypts were more boring than peaceful. Why had he come here? He was a fool as well as useless. Starscream was dead and would stay that way; the story of his ghost was probably more of Galvatron's madness--
"I give up--just what are you doing here, Dead End? I've been watching you mope at the foot of my grave for a week now." Starscream asked. "You didn't bring flowers, did you?" he added hopefully.
Dead End lifted his head. Starscream hovered a few feet off the ground, leaning forward to peer quizzically at Dead End. The deceased Seeker was somewhat transparent; light shimmered around his half-visible form.
Dead End leaped to his feet. "Starscream! Y-you are here! You are real!"
Starscream looked himself over critically. "Not as real as I'd like, but I am here." He cocked his head and looked at Dead End thoughtfully. "I'd like to think you were looking for me, but only my ego believes that. What does bring a Stunticon down here?"
"I was looking for you, Starscream. I thought I might find you here." Dead End answered, quivering with something between dread and anticipation.
"I," Dead End stared steadily back at Starscream. All the bleakness and despair of his twenty-odd years of existence echoed in his voice. "I need to know--what is it like, Starscream? What is it like to die, and... what happens afterwards?" He trembled violently.
"Why do you want to know such a thing?" Starscream said, shocked.
Dead End hesitated at the unexpected question. In all his imaginary rehearsals of this conversation, he'd never really expected Starscream to act like... Starscream. He wasn't supposed to ask difficult questions back!
Dead End didn't have a ready answer, so he blurted out the truth. "Death calls me, Starscream. For twenty years I've existed on the knife-edge. I'd like to know just what it is I yearn for so much."
Starscream drifted around the crouching Stunticon. "There is an obvious way to find out," he said cautiously, an unusual softness in his voice.
"Do you think I have not considered that?" Dead End growled. "Duty stops me. Without me, or any one of us, the Stunticons are nothing. Without the whole, without being Stunticons, none of us are anything. Besides," he added, "I'm not sure that's what I truly want. I wish--I'd like to think that there's some reason, some purpose for me beyond being just a particularly bleak piece of Menasor. But if not--I'm tired of the emptiness, of being worthless and useless and dead inside."
If Dead End had been looking at Starscream's face at that instant, he would have seen a odd expression cross the ghost's face. For an unguarded instant, there was compassion in the dead Decepticon's face. He brushed an insubstantial hand across Dead End's shoulder--
And Dead End jumped like he'd been shocked. "What did you just do? I had the oddest feeling..."
Starscream looked at himself and Dead End in surprise. "I.. touched you, I think. I didn't think I could--I usually have to possess someone to actually do anything."
"What's it like when you possess someone?" Dead End looked up at Starscream.
"It's like having a body again, which is something you cannot appreciate until you've had to do without," Starscream said dryly.
He tentatively stroked Dead End's shoulder again; this time, the Stunticon twitched a bit, and then relaxed as Starscream continued to run his ghostly fingers over Dead End's shoulders and back.
"You probably take for granted all the little things like the buzz of good energon and buffing yourself shiny with a new coat of wax and the feel of your wheels on the road and the wind across your cowling, or even the thrum of your fuel pump circulating energon and the sharp nip of an Autobot laser, you own weapon blazing in reply..."
"Yes, yes, I do," Dead End said, his voice less bitter, more thoughtful. "Perhaps I should not." He leaned back as Starscream stroked his neck joint. "What are you doing, Screamer?"
"Finding out what I can do with you. I never suspected I could affect a living Transformer like this. This is interesting. You are interesting--did you know that your engine almost purrs when I run my fingers along your main conduit right... here?" Starscream dipped ghostly fingers into Dead End's back.
"Ah!" Dead End shuddered. "I felt that! Don't--No, yes, it's okay. I think."
Starscream paused; a look of concern crossed his face. "Did I hurt you?"
"N-no. Rather the opposite, and I wasn't expecting it. I don't think I've ever felt anything like that. Try it again if you like." Dead End leaned over on his side and stretched his legs out along the floor.
"This is fun!" said Starscream as ran his fingers down Dead End's main power conduit again, much to Dead End's discomfiture. "Your reactions are so.. interesting. I didn't know you could wiggle like that. I wonder what happens if I..." He turned fully invisible.
"Starscream? Where are you?"
Right here, with you, Starscream whispered in Dead End's mind.
What are you doing? Dead End asked. How are you doing this?
I'm overlapping you but not taking over, not possessing you. I should have realized that if I can possess Transformers, I can interact with their circuits in less extreme ways.
Telepathy, in fact, observed Dead End.
Exactly! I think--yes, it's a gradient, I go deeper than just words without knocking you out and taking over entirely! Dead End could feel Starscream's excitement at the discovery as if it were his own. Starscream, the Stunticon realized, was a very whimsical, excitable, vibrant person, constantly aquiver with emotion--Dead End's polar opposite.
And now, Starscream added impulsively, I can answer some of your questions. Brace yourself, Dead End! My memories are not for the weak.
# # #
"Megatron, is that you?" Shock. Dismay. Bitterness--not again!
"Here's a hint!" Galvatron, reforming himself into a fusion canon. Firing. Horror. No! He can't really mean to--
Light. An immense impact. The briefest touch of pain, lost immediately. Too, too much light.
Everything gone. Nothing to hold onto. Falling away into a vast darkness--
Something jerked him back, hard.
Falling away again, but this time as Dead End, not Starscream. A distant point of light in the abyss--
Again, something jerked him back, hard.
# # #
DEAD END! Wake up!
Dead End found himself on the floor of the crypt, cold and shuddering uncontrollably. Starscream knelt beside him, his ghostly silver face very close to Dead End's own, looking very concerned. Dead End could feel the worry radiating from him.
He could also still hear some of the dead Seeker's thoughts: Stupid, stupid Starscream! I should have known this would happen! You shouldn't have trusted me!
"Starscream!" Diagnostic alarms clogged his memory queue; three-fourths of his vital systems had gone offline. One by one they stabilized and returned to normal. "Starscream, what did you do to me?!?"
"Kept you alive," the ghost Seeker answered. "You nearly deactivated yourself at the end. Your body listened to all the messages your mind was sending about dying..." I had to possess you to stop the cascade failure. I really ought to make up for nearly killing you... The mental link faded as Starscream pulled himself away, apparently unaware of the lingering effect.
"I thought I died." Dead End raised himself to a sitting position, leaning on one arm. He looked up at Starscream. "It didn't really hurt," the Stunticon said, mildly surprised.
"It happened too fast. You have to have circuits left to feel pain."
"I don't suppose it would be a good idea to ask about afterwards?" Dead End sounded wistful.
Starscream sat down beside the dark red and black Stunticon and idly traced the angles and curves of his head with intangible fingers that left a tingle wherever they touched Dead End's circuits.
"Not so much a bad idea as pointless. I can't tell you."
"Why not? Who's stopping you?"
Starscream shook his head while stroking Dead End's scapular power conduit. Dead End shivered at the touch. "There aren't words for it. You haven't been there, so you can't understand what I have been through. It's not like anything you know."
"Like explaining the color 'blue' to a bot with no optics?"
"Mm-hmm. It's nice to talk to someone who understands what I'm saying the first time." Starscream caressed the entire length of Dead End's main power conduit; the Stunticon arched his back and shivered.
"S-Starscream! That's very distracting!"
"Considering what you've been focusing on, I think you should be distracted," Starscream said. "Is that your ventral power conduit?" The red and blue ghost slid insubstantial fingers into Dead End's right hip joint. "I think it is!" he said gleefully as the Stunticon whimpered and twitched.
Starscream paused for a moment. "You're sure I'm not hurting you? You act like you're being tortured." The smug look on Starscream's face betrayed his apparent concern.
"No, no, I'm fine. Keep on doing, ah, what you were doing."
Starscream smirked. "On with the torture!"
# # #
By the time Starscream had finished mapping out Dead End's primary and auxiliary power systems, the Stunticon was reduced to twitching, exhausted disarray.
Starscream lay across Dead End's chest, glowing red eyes looking into the Stunticon's masked face. Though the ghost was still intangible, Dead End imagined he could feel the slightest tingle of pressure where transparent arms and amber cockpit seemed to press against his chestplate. There was no need to imagine the smug smile on Starscream's face.
"No one has ever done anything like that to me before," the Stunticon said slowly.
"Really? Dead End, you need to make more friends! Or make better use of the ones you've got." Starscream sounded slightly surprised. "You mean the rumors are wrong about the things gestalts do on their off time?" He smirked.
"Erm, not the Stunticons, anyway." Dead End sighed. "Don't ever do that to me again." He sat up slowly; Starscream stood up and looked at the Stunticon in surprise.
"What?" Dead End could swear Starscream's wings actually drooped.
"I am a Decepticon and a Stunticon, not some soft Autobot!" Metal clashed as Dead End made a fist and smacked it into his other hand. "I don't take favors I can't return. Galvatron should not have killed you! If you were alive, well..." Dead End's cultured voice dropped down into a sensual purr as he got to his feet.
"I agree with you about Galvatron, but we both know very well that if I were still alive you'd ignore 'that attention-seeking idiot Starscream'. You're only interested in me because I'm dead."
Dead End sighed. "You're probably right."
"But I am dead now, you are interested in me, and I am a glutton for attention, so I will take complete advantage of you, Dead End! You weren't the only one who was having fun, idiot!" Starscream laughed. "I feel most of what you're feeling when I overlap your circuits."
Starscream sidled around Dead End, who turned his head sharply to look at the ghostly Seeker. "Really?" said Dead End, drawing the word out into an invitation, his voice again dropping to a slow, sensual purr.
Starscream chuckled and ran his hands across Dead End's back, barely touching the metal with intangible fingers. "I don't believe I checked out your sensor networks yet, did I?" Swift fingers darted into Dead End's mid-section. "Oh, look, you have two sensor nets, primary and secondary! A lot of circuitry to trace here!"
"Hey, I--ay-yi-yi!" Dead End found himself on the floor, twitching and whimpering with pleasure. Again.
# # #
Dead End wobbled a bit as he slipped out of the Decepticon Crypt. Some of his gyro-stabilizers were still a bit off-center from all the stimulation they'd sustained. Starscream was the most intense person the Stunticon had ever met, and very disturbing to be around. Dead End considered that a good thing. His mind had needed disturbing. Though he felt like his laser core was buzzing around inside his chassis with a few connections loose from his CPU, what Dead End didn't feel was the old bleakness and despair, nor the urge to stare death in the face as a prelude to embracing it.
Dead End had tasted Starscream's death. It was enough; he no longer needed to know about his own.
As he boarded the passenger starship for the long, round-about trip back home, Dead End thought briefly and wistfully of his encounter with Starscream. He regretted, just a bit, leaving behind the dead but still very active Seeker--but Dead End had no intention of returning to the Decepticon Crypt until his blasted shell was interred there.
And whatever made you think I was stuck in that Crypt, dear Stunticon? Starscream whispered in his mind.
- FIN -