The Only Good Robot is a Dead Robot

by Dragoness Eclectic

Slightly AU fic and a Duskwing story (previously met in "Stupidity in Blue, Redux", and "Art Appreciation 101"): Cobra is in the same continuity as G1 Transformers--wait, that's canonical!--and various Marvel TF comics characters have wandered into the cartoon continuity. (About par for the course in fanfic). It's AU to my own continuity, as Duskwing is back to what passes for "normal" long before Starscream becomes a ghost. That, and Dr. Mindbender should probably be dead by this point in G.I. Joe/Cobra history.

Josie Beller, aka Circuit Breaker, was not happy--not happy at all. Much in her life had conspired to make her unhappy over the years: her near-death at the hands of Shockwave, her paralysis, her continuing inability to get revenge on the killer machines that had crippled her--but at the present moment, her unhappiness had a lot more to do with being strapped to a decidedly unpleasant interrogation device deep in Cobra Base. Worse yet, without her Circuit Breaker rig, she was plain old triplegic Josie Beller--even if she were free of the machine, she'd be totally helpless.

Something shook the base--another distant explosion. They'd been going on for a while now. Dust sifted down from somewhere far above. Explosions, she thought, were a good thing. It meant someone or something was giving Cobra a hard time--unless they were so inept as to accidentally blow themselves up. Josie was all for that, too. It had taken less than two hours in the hands of Cobra for her to put them in the same category as those giant robots: someone who desperately needed killing.

Josie never thought she'd feel that way about a real, live human being. She'd never before been captured, stripped down and examined like a lab specimen, and tortured to find out what made her tick before, either. Fortunately, the attack on the base by whomever had interrupted that unpleasantness. That Dr. Mindbender creep had been very close to figuring out that the source of her powers was entirely in her rig, and that she herself was completely expendable. Unfortunately, without her rig, she had no chance of getting free--her only chance was if the unknown attackers defeated the Cobra troops.

Last time, the attackers were supposed to have been robots--she'd been ready for the robots to attack Swift Enterprises and carry off the experimental fusion reactor. It was their kind of target, and the information had been carefully leaked to the press at just the right time. Her ambush was all ready; one group or the other of the killer machines would rush to the research lab, and no doubt the other group would show up to fight them for the prize--and Circuit Breaker and RAAT had both been ready. She wasn't working with RAAT any more--Circuit Breaker took orders from no one where the robots were concerned--but she was willing to add to their firepower if she got the chance to kill robots. None of them had been prepared for a combined ground/air assault team of uniformed humans, armed with beyond-cutting-edge heavy weaponry! A nearby explosion had knocked her out of the sky, and she'd woken up here, in the hands of Cobra.

Another chain of explosions shook the base. Out of sight to her left, Josie heard a door hiss open and several sets of feet come running in. A dark-haired woman cradling a bullpup rifle under her arm came into Josie's view, along with Dr. Mindbender.

"I do not care what Serpentor's orders are," she told the mad scientist in a rich, aristocratic voice with a faint European accent. "We can't hold against the Decepticons without Cobra Commander's forces, and he's left us to swing in the wind, thanks to your treachery! Sauve qui peut." She hurried across the room.

Dr. Mindbender touched her arm. "Baroness--wait. There is one option."

"Speak quickly."

"The Talisman of the Devourer. I have deciphered it--I can invoke the destructive force it summons," he said, twirling his moustache and smiling. There was something off-key about that smile, Josie thought, like a laugh at a funeral.

"Turn it loose in the middle of those robots to cover our retreat?" The Baroness nodded thoughtfully. "Go ahead. It can't make things any worse, and it might buy us enough time to get the reactor out of here."

"I'm glad you approve, since I've already performed the ritual." Dr. Mindbender's smile turned into a cruel smirk.

"I should have known you'd do something like that," the Baroness said. "Get moving."

Dr. Mindbender glanced up at Josie, as if noticing her for the first time. "I didn't finish with her, we need to--"

The Baroness shoved the muzzle of her rifle into the mad scientist's kidneys. "I said 'Get moving!' We don't have time, you fool!" They hurried across the room and out another door.

Decepticons! Josie shuddered; just her luck, Cobra's attackers were more of those killing machines! Damn them all!

For quite some while after that, all Josie heard were the sounds of battle--more explosions, the thunder of some very powerful energy weapon, and screams. The screams bothered her--she shouldn't have been able to hear human screams through the armored walls and doors. A memory came to her, unbidden, of the last time she'd fought the giant robots and the very loud shrieks of pain when she'd hit them. Those screams would be loud enough to penetrate these walls... No! Soulless killing machines didn't feel pain!

Out of the corner of her eye, something very large moved. Josie turned her head--to her horror, it was one of them. It stood well over twenty feet high, nearly reaching the ceiling of the Dr. Mindbender's huge lab. It was a blue and purple jet-form Transformer, trimmed with olive-gray, a large purple sigil emblazoned on its chest. It swung this way and that, looking around the lab; there was something furtive in its manner.

How the hell did something that big get in here without my noticing it? There's only one set of vehicle-sized doors in here, and they're right in front of me! It sure the hell didn't come in that way, and I didn't hear any other doors opening--oh crap, the damn robot's looking at me!

Red optics glowed. "A squishy, still here?" It's voice was distinctly masculine, and there was a nasal quality to it that reminded Josie of New York City. It leaned forward to look more closely at her, silvery metal face much too close to hers. "A squishy babe, at that. All tied down. Not a friend of Cobra, are you?"

Josie gritted her teeth. "No, my good friends always strip me down and tie me up and leave me for killer robots to find!" I can't believe I just said that!

It looked puzzled for a few moments--Josie was surprised by the expressiveness of the machine's face--then smirked. "You're a sarcastic squishy bint! Yeah, that's the word. Sarcastic." It looked at her for a few more minutes; Josie was ready to scream from sheer tension. What the hell was this machine planning to do?

"You don't look very tough, but... Cobra thinks you're dangerous," the robot said. "That could be useful," it said slowly. "Enemy of my enemy and all."

Josie blinked; had she just heard the machine correctly? Well, it was worth a try--any risk to get free and back into her rig was worth it.

"Just set me free and find my rig and I'll show you just how dangerous I can be," Josie said, gritting her teeth.

"Help me fight Cobra," it said. "Need help getting a friend out of this mess--they've got control of him somehow."

Machines have friends? They're soulless machines! Probably just programming to support each other. Josie kept remembering how those other robots tried to help each other, and part of her wondered...

"Sure, I'll fight Cobra," she answered. Right after I scrap you.

It touched the device restraining her--straps unbuckled themselves and fell away as the Decepticon ran his fingers past them, carefully avoiding Josie's hands and arms. It looked at her, puzzled again.

"Now," she said, "I need my rig. I can't move without it. They stowed it in that safe over there," Josie pointed with her one good arm. "Careful you don't damage it!"

"A squishy doll who can't move is dangerous to Cobra?" The jet Transformer sounded skeptical. "You're one strange squishy." Nevertheless, it turned to the indicated vault, a man-sized affair with a complex-looking electronic lock, crouched down, and poked at it. Josie heard the whir of gears as the lock opened.

How does it do that? I thought it would just blast the vault open--what is it, a safe-cracking robot?

"What am I looking for?" it asked. "All I see in here is a pile of metal tape." Suspicion colored its already-surly voice.

"That's it! Just bring it here and drop it on me, I can handle it from there!" Josie's teeth hurt from grinding them together all this time.

The giant blue and purple robot stood up and swung around, the ball of metallic tape that comprised her rig held gingerly between its fingers. "Here, squishy. Catch!" It dropped the rig on her chest from about fifteen feet up, knocking the breath out of her. The damn robot actually snickered!

After she finished gasping for breath, Josie grabbed one broad end of the metallic tape with her good hand and affixed the neural interface to the back of her skull. Strength and control flowed back into her like life itself as she mentally commanded her rig to wind itself back around her body.

The robot watched her quizzically as the tapes wrapped themselves around Josie's limbs and she levitated into the air. "Neat trick, squishy babe. Didn't know you could fly. What else can you do?"

Circuit Breaker smirked. "This," she said, and threw a bolt of electricity straight at the robot's head. "For the record, the name is Circuit Breaker, not 'squishy babe'-- What the hell?"

Her lightning bolt had missed at point-blank range--or passed straight through the robot without affecting it, a patent impossibility that she dismissed immediately. It stared at her with that puzzled expression again.

"What was that supposed to be?" it asked.

This is not the smartest robot I've ever faced...

"As far as I'm concerned, the only good robot is a dead robot!" Circuit Breaker snarled, throwing another blast of electricity at the robot's chest. This time, she saw it go straight through the robot and blast some piece of equipment behind him.

The robot stared at her with that same puzzled look for a few moments, then it smirked. As she watched, it faded, losing color and opacity until it was quite translucent.

"Aw, you like me!" he said.

"What the HELL?" Circuit Breaker wished she could think of something more original to say, but this was just too weird.

"You said it yourself," he replied. "You like dead robots." His smirk deepened to grin. "I've been dead for years--so you like me! For the record, my name is Duskwing." He drifted back and through various pieces of equipment taking up the lab.

"That's not possible," Circuit Breaker said. "That's just not possible! Machines don't have souls--they can't be ghosts!" Yeah, Josie, either he can make himself insubstantial at will, or he's telling the truth. Either one would explain how he got in here without using the doors or making a sound. But you don't want to think about the implications of him being a ghost, do you?

Duskwing shrugged. "You still going to fight Cobra, or did I waste my time?"

Circuit Breaker's eyes narrowed. "You can't hurt them yourself, can you? That's why you needed me, isn't it?"

Duskwing looked sheepish. "Um, no. I can look whole, but I'm not solid. My guns won't hit live guys."

"Pretty face, lots of attitude, no substance underneath to back it up. Sounds like most men I've known," muttered Circuit Breaker.

"Fine!" she snapped. "I'm getting out of here, and anyone--Cobra or robot--who gets in my way gets blasted!" She looked around. "Now which way is out?"

Duskwing grinned at her again. "Need a guide?" A nearby explosion rocked the base.

Circuit Breaker opened her mouth to say something rude, then closed it again. She did need a guide. Stumbling into the middle of a firefight or a large concentration of either side would be a good way to turn her into a ghost. But how could she trust this ghost of a machine?

There's that 'ghost' thing again. How can machines have souls? And if they do....

"Yes... but how can I trust you, robot?" She hovered at his eye level, arms folded.

"Duskwing. The name is Duskwing, Circuit Breaker." An touch of annoyance crossed his face. "I told you, I need you to help me free my friend from Cobra control. You can't do that if I let you get squished."

"I said I'd fight Cobra. I didn't say anything about helping you damn machines!" Circuit Breaker said angrily. Way to go, girl. Make sure he doesn't have a reason to help you!

The big, transparent blue and purple robot looked back at her for several long moments, frustration clear in his ghostly silver face. "If you won't help me, why should I help you?" he finally asked, his voice surly again.

Gotcha, Josie! The robot has a really good point. Why am I acting like such a jerk? Maybe because he's one of them--the Decepticons. The ones who crippled me. Killers.

They're all killers! None of them can be trusted... yeah, just keep telling yourself that. Not like I haven't made alliances of convenience before, with Autobots.

Autobots--the ones who say they want to protect humans, though they seem to be in the middle of robot-caused death and destruction every time, for all their fancy words. But.. they're the ones who never fought back when I attacked them. Made it easy to scrap them. The few times I fought the Decepticons, I got my ass handed to me.

I may hate all robots, but even I can tell the difference between the guys with the red sigil and the ones with the purple sigil. The Decepticons make no secret of their ruthless nature. And this guy is a Decepticon! He's a killer, he can't be trusted!

Alliance of convenience. Mutual interest here. She sighed.

"Fine! I'll help your friend if I can--but don't you dare ask me to help you against humans. Except Cobra. You want to squish them, they're fair game in my book."

Duskwing shrugged. "They're the only squishies around, besides you," Duskwing said, then disappeared into a swirl of light--a swirl of light that darted through one of the closed doors.

Okay... that was an interesting maneuver. The hairs on the back of Josie's neck stood on end. I'm beginning to think he really is a ghost!

Duskwing re-appeared just inside the door. "It's clear this way. Might run into a few scattered troops a bit further down."

Circuit Breaker charged up, glowing with power--

"Save your power," Duskwing said, and reached into the door. It slid open smoothly.

Circuit Breaker's eyes narrowed. "I thought you weren't solid enough to do anything!"

"I can touch stuff, move small things--not much," he shrugged again. Circuit Breaker wondered if that was Duskwing's response to everything.

"You're a poltergeist," she said.

He stared at her for a moment and nodded. "Yeah, that's the word. Poltergeist." He faded out again, becoming nothing more than a drifting spark of light. "Come on," his voice echoed as the spark darted down the corridor beyond.

Circuit Breaker flew down the corridor, following him. He is a ghost. The soul of a dead machine. Josie, you are in so deep! Wrecking mindless, soulless machines--no matter how clever the AI routines--is one thing, but... a soul means a life. And ending lives is killing.

Killing without a very good reason is murder.

# # #

"Whoa! Hell of a party out there!" Circuit Breaker had just popped out of the access shaft on the roof of Cobra Base--well, part of the roof. Much of Cobra Base no longer had a roof.

Explosions rocked the base again and again; energy beams criss-crossed the air, snapping and shrieking. The roar of a heavy energy weapon shook the air again and again. Brightly colored planes dove and zoomed--ornate Decepticon Seekers in a deadly dance with Cobra-branded jets. In the center of the maelstrom, a colossal, hideous robot fired at a knot of Decepticons lurking behind a broken wall. At its feet sprawled rusting hulks of machinery--Circuit Breaker couldn't tell what they had once been. Around one of the corroded masses of metal sprawled skeletal figures in Cobra uniforms.

Duskwing formed in the air beside her, a barely visible hint of transparent shape, like glass in water.

"What the hell is that?" Circuit Breaker asked. "And why is it attacking your guys?" She felt a chill all the way to her bones, just looking at the thing--she wanted to run far, far away, find a deep, dark closet and hide in it.

"They call it Monstructor," Duskwing said. "That's not its real name." It seemed to Josie that the ghost shuddered. "Cobra brought it here from Cybertron."

"What?" Circuit Breaker gaped at the dead Seeker. "Where is Cybertron?"

Duskwing looked back at her, puzzled. "My world. Where we come from." He gestured at the Decepticons returning fire at Monstructor. "Slog and the others were on Cybertron and then-- here. Me, too--I follow Slog around."

"Hold it, hold it, hold it! I need some explanations here. That... horror is one of you? Your friend is Slog--that thing?"

"He's trapped in it. Once they form Monstructor, it won't release them until it's too tired," Duskwing said, sounding and looking frustrated. "Megatron didn't send them--he can't transport 'Cons like that without using the space bridge."

"Who's this 'them' you keep mentioning? Your friend Slog and who else? Are you saying that thing is a Decepticon?" Circuit Breaker started gritting her teeth again. I do not have time to play twenty questions with this idiot!

"Slog, Scowl, Wildfly, Icepick, Bristleback, and Birdbrain. They're the Pretender-Monsters. They're... what do you call it..." He groped for the word.

"I don't know, Duskwing, what do you call it?" Circuit Breaker snapped.

Duskwing glared angrily at her for a moment; the brief anger faded as he found the word he wanted. "Combiners. Yeah, that's the word. They're combiners. They combine to form Monstructor. Only, he's not a regular combiner. He's... evil."

"Real charmer, your friend," Circuit Breaker said. But he's right--that thing is pure evil. I can feel it in my bones.

That frustrated look crossed Duskwing's face again. "Slog, most of them, don't want any part of Monstructor. Something forced them to combine and transported them here. Something set them on the Decepticons over there-- 'Breaker, they are Decepticons! This is all wrong! They shouldn't be here, they shouldn't be combined, they shouldn't be fighting Megatron!"

A memory shot through her mind like a bolt from the blue:

"The Talisman of the Devourer. I have deciphered it--I can invoke the destructive force it summons," Dr Mindbender had said.

"Turn it loose in the middle of those robots to cover our retreat?" The Baroness had given her approval. "Go ahead. It can't make things any worse, and it might buy us enough time to get that reactor out of here."

"I'm glad you approve, since I've already performed the ritual," Dr. Mindbender said.

"Duskwing! We need to find Dr. Mindbender! He's the one responsible for this!" Circuit Breaker dove back down the hatch. "Come on, help me find him!"

The spark that was Duskwing plunged after her. "Which squishy is he?"

Circuit Breaker thought quickly. "First off, he'll be with the Baroness--so look for at least two squi--humans in a group, one of whom is female--uh, you do know the difference between human males and females, seeing as you kept calling me 'squishy babe'?"

"Yeah, females are the squishies that look like Autobot femmes, sorta. Males don't. I wouldn't have noticed the difference, except that Octane--everyone's favorite flying fuel wagon--has a kink about them and always kept pinups, you know? So I got to know what they look like real good."

Autobot femmes? I don't want to know. I really don't.

"Okay. Fine. Mindbender has a moustache, monocle in his eye, and wears a flashy blue cape; the Baroness was in a dark jumpsuit and had dark hair. She's the female. They'll be trying to get the stolen reactor out of here, so look near that, first. You do know about the reactor, right?"

"It's the thing Megatron was trying to steal?" Duskwing hazarded.

"Megatron was trying to steal it? Well that explains why the Decepticons are attacking Cobra--Cobra must have beaten him to it!"

The faint spark of Duskwing vanished back at the bottom corridor leading from Dr. Mindbender's lab. Circuit Breaker looked around. "Well, two searching cover more ground than one," she muttered to herself. "Let's try that way."

She hadn't found anything beyond two fleeing Cobra troopers (quickly stunned and knocked out by electro-blasts) when Duskwing stepped out of a wall, once again a translucent blue and purple robot.

"This way," he said, and stepped back the way he came, through the wall.

Circuit Breaker stopped and stared at the wall, tapping one foot on the floor. A few minutes later, Duskwing stuck his head back through the wall and said, "You coming?"

"Mmm, Duskwing? I don't walk through walls quite as well as you do."

Duskwing gave her a slightly confused look. "Oh yeah, right. Well, just blast a hole through, it's pretty thin. I'll go distract them."

Distract them? Hell, that means they're close by!

Circuit Breaker charged up, glowing with electrical power, and loosed a two-handed blast at the wall. The concrete blocks blew apart with a very satisfactory explosion, making a gaping hole in the wall that revealed a cavernous chamber beyond. Circuit Breaker flew through the hole.

Various pieces of heavy ordinance filled what was obviously an armory and underground hangar, but what caught Circuit Breaker's eye was the long black jet--a modified SR-71--at one end of what looked like a launch catapult, and Duskwing, standing up at full height, in full opaque color and pointing his arm guns at the knot of people standing around the Cobra Night Raven jet.

Circuit Breaker could see the Baroness, still craddling her bullpup rifle, Dr. Mindbender, carrying an aluminum briefcase, a cargo palette covered with tarp and six or eight Cobra soldiers either loading the palette into the plane or standing guard--or now, pointing their guns at the blue and purple Decepticon between the Night Raven jet and its escape hatch.

"Keep loading, you fools!" the Baroness shouted. "He's trying to delay us!"

"Yeah, go ahead and put all the presents in one package for us," Duskwing said. "Just don't plan on going anywhere with it." He laughed nastily. "Megatron will love this! Top Cobra guys--and don't think Megatron doesn't know who's been interfering in half his plans--and the reactor!"

Now where the hell is the Talisman of the Devourer? I don't even know what it looks like--I'm just guessing that Mindcreep here will keep it with him. Hmm... he wasn't carrying a briefcase before!

Circuit Breaker swept in while all attention was focused on the large, irritated-looking robot. One shock-blast knocked down the soldiers pointing guns at Duskwing--they wouldn't be turning those guns on her next, a second narrowly missed the Baroness as the dark-haired Cobra operative threw herself to one side. Then Circuit Breaker slammed into Dr. Mindbender, knocking him sprawling, stunned by the surge from her charged coils. She snatched the brief case and zoomed down the escape tunnel.

Duskwing looked startled as she flashed by, turned, and fired an arm cannon in her direction. The beam skimmed over her back, close enough to have seared half the flesh from her ribs--but nothing happened, except a slight illumination of the tunnel.

He wasn't lying about that--his weapons really can't hurt anything in this world. Why did he shoot me--ah, right. Keeping up appearances. We're not supposed to be on the same side. Sometimes he's almost intelligent.

She dropped to the ground and blasted open the aluminum case. Inside, wrapped in smoldering cloth, was a plaque made of some alloy Josie didn't recognize. It was big--about the size of a turkey platter and engraved in high relief with symbols that made her head hurt to look at it. A pale green phosphoresce played over it, like the sheen of decay, and the thing reeked. It smelled of all the worst kinds of rot and corrosion, and felt slimy as she gingerly picked it up.

Josie screamed and almost dropped it then and there, as a wave of utter malevolence hit her. She felt like her brain had been dipped in ice and drowned in a black sea of death and hate. She didn't see the dark tunnel--the ruins above filled her sight, as she/it rampaged on. What little had been left of the base aboveground had been leveled; the remaining Decepticons bore marks of savage battle and seemed to stumble with weariness. She/it surged with boundless strength, energy stolen from the battered Decepticons, growing faster and stronger as the other robots staggered and slowed. Under her/its feet, time-etched bones snapped and crumbled.

Inside her head, five minds screamed in horror and despair; one cackled with mad delight. Overwhelming it all, that sea of endless hate. Hate called to hate; she felt it gather in her. Kill them, kill the robots, kill Cobra, slaughter them all!

I promised to help Duskwing's friend. And I'm not a murderer!

I hate them! They ruined me! They left me half-dead and paralyzed, a cripple! They tortured me! I lost everything! The robots deserve to die! Cobra deserves to die!

If that's true, why have I been only stunning the Cobra soldiers? I could have killed them with the electro-blasts, easily. I am not a murderer!

Kill them! Kill them all! They hurt you! Hurt them back!

I've been letting them go on one excuse or another, ever since I learned that they cared for each other. Ever since I began to suspect they might be... people. I WILL NOT BE A MURDERER!

They're not people! They're soulless machines! Destroy them!

So what's Duskwing? And it's certainly not true of the Cobras!


Somewhere below that sea of death and hate, one of the five despairing minds struggled up on the slimmest thread of hope. "Duskwing's friend am I," a weak voice welled up in her mind. "Slog, I am. Control, break you must. Combiner, break up then will."

Josie wrenched free of the Talisman's spell. A ripple ran through the phosphorescence; suddenly, Josie knew that it was aware of her. She slammed the plaque to the floor with all the strength in her electro-magnetically enhanced arms. It rang, concrete chips flew, but it did not break.

Mentally, Circuit Breaker flipped an override--and hit the plaque with every erg her rig could generate. The brilliant flash blinded her; she heard metal sizzle and melt--the stench of hot slag filled her nostrils. She blinked, trying to clear the dazzle from her eyes. A low roar, rapidly building, filled her ears.

Translucent blue and purple flashed over and through her; something grabbed her with a jerk. Circuit Breaker found herself being carried through the air, surrounded by a half-visible F-15 jet. Ahead, sunlight glared in as the catapult's escape hatch opened. Duskwing's insubstantial wings sailed through the still-opening hangar doors.

"WHAT? Why?"

"Cobra jet launching. You'd be a real squished bint if I left you there, 'Breaker. And crispy-fried," replied Duskwing.

"I thought you could only move small things!"

"You're a small thing, 'Breaker."

Circuit Breaker looked at the ground receding beneath her, nothing apparently holding her up, and her stomach heaved. "Please--get a bit more solid-looking before I puke!"

Duskwing obligingly filled out to his living colors, a blue and purple F-15 jet, trimmed in olive-gray. "You don't like heights? You fly!"

"It's one thing when I'm doing the flying, and another thing to be dragged along like a sack of kitty litter! I blew every erg in this rig to melt that Talisman--hope it did some good, because I can't fly or shoot until it recharges some." Circuit Breaker craned her neck to look back over the battle, only to see the Cobra Night Raven scrambling for altitude.

"Duskwing, can you catch that plane? Cobra isn't getting away with their prize if I can help it! It won't take me that long to re-charge!"

Duskwing banked and flew in pursuit of the Cobra jet. "Looks like Monstructor broke up. Slog's okay."

# # #

A few minutes earlier, in the pile of ruins that had been a Cobra Base, Megatron watched in surprise as Monstructor suddenly turned away from him and lumbered toward the other end of the base with startling speed--then, without warning, broke apart into its six component Decepticons.

"Soundwave, Blitzwing, bring the traitors to me!" Megatron ordered, bracing himself with his fusion cannon. Great swaths of rust marred his formerly gleaming carapace. "I want some answers!"

The ground shook as blast doors swung open beyond the far end of the base and a blue and purple Seeker screamed into the sky, followed by a long black twin-engined jet with a Cobra emblem emblazoned on the nose. The black jet banked sharply, turning away from the Seeker; about half a minute later, the Seeker banked and turned to chase the Cobra jet.

Megatron glared at the Seeker--a trick of the light had made it seem almost transparent for a moment. "Starscream! Who is that?" He pointed at the blue and purple Seeker. Without waiting for an answer, he continued, "Don't just stand there, you fool, get that Cobra jet! They have my reactor! Thundercracker, Skywarp, go with him!"

"Right away, mighty leader!" Starscream said in his usual mocking tone as he transformed and leaped into the air, Thundercracker and Skywarp right on his tail.

"So, Screamer, who is that?" asked Thundercracker as they flew in hot pursuit.

"Someone who should be dead," Starscream answered. "Or have you forgotten Duskwing?"

"That idiot who was caught stealing our hard-earned Earth energon and selling it on the black market?" Thundercracker said incredulously. "I thought Slog killed him!"

"He did," Skywarp said. "I've seen the final artwork."

"I've heard of it," Thundercracker laughed cruelly. "What a way to end up!"

"Whoever that is has a lot of questions to answer when I catch up to him," snarled Starscream.

# # #

"Look out!" Circuit Breaker yelled. "Missile launch!"

Duskwing jigged, letting the missiles from the Cobra Night Raven hurtle harmlessly past. "No problem. They're heat-seekers. I don't have any heat."

"I do!"

"Not nearly as much as the guys behind us," Duskwing said and laughed nastily.

Circuit Breaker craned her neck to look behind them, and spotted the three brightly-painted F-15s rapidly gaining on them. The center one, colored red and blue, fired its weapons and blew the missiles out of the sky. "I've seen these robots before--with Shockwave." Her voice turned ugly.

"Eh. Starscream's the one in the middle, the purple and black guy is Skywarp, and the other guy is Thundercracker," Duskwing said. If she could have seen his face, Josie was sure he'd be grinning.

"They're gaining on us, and I haven't re-charged yet. Just a few more minutes..."

"We're gaining on the Cobra jet. Think we'll all meet in the middle?" Duskwing sounded disgustingly cheery.

"Just out of curiosity, why did you ask me to help you? Why not one of your buddies there?" Circuit Breaker jerked a thumb toward the pursuing Seekers.

"Well... two reasons. One, maybe you squishies get along fine with your ghosts, but 'Cons get weird on me if they know I'm dead and I pop up and ask them for favors. Two, they aren't my buddies, and not gonna do me any favors. In fact, if Slog hadn't killed me, they would have," Duskwing said.

"Your friend Slog killed you?" Circuit Breaker checked the charge on her rig again. Almost 100 per cent...

"He wasn't my friend then. And it was self-defense. I tried to kill him first," Duskwing said sulkily. "Bad move on my part."

Circuit Breaker tried to raise both eyebrows at once. "Let me get this straight--you tried to kill Slog, he killed you, and then you got to be friends?"

"He helped me out of the mess I'd got myself into--the reason I'm a ghost. I got sort of stuck halfway through my death and didn't realize I was dead. When Slog found out I was haunting his studio, he made me see that I was dead, and not in pain anymore," Duskwing said, in a tone of relief and gratitude.

Josie shivered, suddenly feeling cold all over. There are worse things than waking up paralyzed in a hospital bed. Much worse things.

...And he forgives his killer. What kind of machine can forgive? ...What kind of human cannot?

She looked up. "Hey! The Cobras are getting away!" White fire blazed from the Night Raven's engines as its afterburners ignited.

"Good. Starscream is about to crawl up my afterburners, and keeps yelling at me on the radio. I'm getting tired of pretending to ignore him," Duskwing said, suddenly surly. Circuit Breaker felt herself gripped more firmly as Duskwing surged forward, easily catching up with the Cobra jet.

"That's a modified SR-71. F-15s just aren't this fast," Circuit Breaker protested.

"I'm not an F-15. I just look like one. I'm a Decepticon Seeker, and much faster than those Earth jets." Duskwing laughed. "Well, faster than F-15s, anyway."

"I'm still trying to wrap my head around you being a ghost that can carry me around at jet aircraft speeds," Circuit Breaker replied.

"Why? Are squishy ghosts immobile or something?" Duskwing asked.

"I don't think so, I've always heard that they move just like they did in life, or fly."

"Okay, I'm flying just like I did in life." Duskwing dodged another pair of missiles, rapidly followed by a second pair. "Except I don't have to worry about getting hit."

Somewhere astern, a jet screamed. Circuit Breaker glanced back; Thundercracker spiraled down, one engine trailing smoke. Skywarp peeled off to follow him, leaving only Starscream behind them.

"I'm ready! Brace me and open the cockpit," she said, charging her grid.

"Just shoot on through. I'm not really here, remember?"

"Right!" Circuit Breaker hurled an electro-blast at the Night Raven, scoring a hit along the rear fuselage. Aluminum shredded and melted; the left horizontal stabilizer tore away. The Cobra jet wobbled as the pilot tried to compensate for the battle damage. More missiles fired at them--this time close enough that they hurtled straight through Duskwing's left wing to no effect.

Lasers snarled nearby and the two missiles exploded.

"Duskwing! Hold your fire! I want that jet intact!" Starscream yelled as he pulled up, nearly wingtip to wingtip.

"But I don't," yelled Circuit Breaker as she hurled twin electro-blasts at the Night Raven's engines--

"Stuff it up your afterburner, Screamer!" Duskwing yelled back, and then pulled up, hard--

The Cobra jet's engines exploded in a spray of turbine blades and other shrapnel. It nosed over into a dive and began to roll, trailing twin plumes of smoke behind it.

Starscream howled in pain as three shattered turbine blades scythed through his nose cone; Duskwing leveled out well above the spray of debris ejected from the crippled Night Raven. Starscream fell back, flying sloppily, then turned away.

"Knew that was going to happen. Starscream should have paid more attention. He's too used to fighting ground-pounders," Duskwing said.

"What happened to him?" Circuit Breaker asked.

"Caught some turbine blades in the nose. That can really hurt if they hit your head."

Circuit Breaker sighed. "Sounds like we're in the clear. Let's go home."

"Um....where? I don't think I can take you to my home, and I don't know where your home is."

Circuit Breaker sighed again. "I'll give you directions to the nearest Blackrock Industries plant. That'll do. G.B. will help me out the rest of the way." A few minutes later, she added, "Can you turn mostly transparent again?"

"I thought you didn't like that!" Duskwing answered.

"Just for a bit."

"As you like," he said sounding faintly puzzled. His colors faded and became more translucent, until Circuit Breaker found herself riding in the barest outline of an F-15, with only hints of color.

She laughed. "All I need now is a golden lasso! Wonder Woman and her Invisible Jet, secret identity, Josie Beller!" She laughed again and wiped a tear away. "Thank you, Duskwing. You're all right!"

There was a long silence. Finally Duskwing said, "You're weird, but... not so bad for a squishy."

As they approached Josie's destination, she asked, "Where'll you go?"

"Back to check on Slog, then whatever planet he's on," Duskwing answered.

"Don't you have an afterlife or something to move on to?" Josie asked. I'm actually worrying about the soul of a robot... Josie, maybe it's time to re-think this whole Circuit Breaker thing.

"Yah, but I'm not in a hurry. Besides, someone has to watch Slog's back. He's an artist."

# # #

Slog stared up at Megatron's cannon with the same imperturbability he reserved for enraged ghosts and fellow artists. "Monstructor, by someone else controlled. Forced combination, transported here then. My doing, not." He gestured at his fellow Pretender-Monsters, all looking battered and exhausted. "Our doing, not. No control, we had."

"I would not believe that story from anyone else," Megatron said, lowering his cannon, "but you have a reputation for honesty and loyalty--unlike some around here." Megatron glared at the wounded Starscream, and continued, "Shockwave does not report any use of the Space Bridge today, authorized or not. That part of your story checks out."

The Decepticon leader turned to Starscream. "Thanks to your bungling, the reactor was destroyed in the crash, and the Cobra leaders escaped! We have neither my reactor, nor revenge. Who was that renegade who shot down the Cobra jet?"

"I have no idea, mighty Megatron," Starscream said. "I've never seen him before, or if I have, he's too obscure to remember."

Megatron looked at Thundercracker and Skywarp expectantly.

Thundercracker shook his head. "Couldn't place him."

"Neither could I, mighty Megatron," Skywarp said.

"When I find out who he is, that traitor will wish he'd never been built!" Megatron snarled. "Decepticons, return to base!" He lifted off and flew East, toward the coast.

As the three wounded Seekers limped along behind the others, Starscream said quietly to the other two, "I hope your fit of amnesia remains chronic, Skywarp, Thundercracker."

"You think I'm going to tell Megatron we were chasing a guy who's been dead for over ten years? You recognized him, 'Warp recognized him, and he was no re-paint, either--I saw missiles go right through his wings! Tell Megatron that?" Thundercracker said. "No, I am not 'Stupidity in Sky-Blue', thank you!"

Skywarp added, "Fewer things to explain. Especially when we don't have the explanations Megatron will want."

"And mighty Megatron hardly believes in ghosts!" Starscream finished.

-- FIN --

Acknowledgements: K. Pulver for Cobra information and helping me brainstorm this crazy plotbunny into a real story.