Cybertronians did not experience grogginess. Unlike humans, there were no levels of consciousness; they were either offline or online. Moonhunter had tried to explain what it was like to Whiplash once, on a Saturday morning when her human brother Cassidy had been reluctant to get out of bed. But the young Maximal had not been able to fathom what it was like and she still couldn’t.
Although, when she snapped online to find herself in a dark cell, staring up at a barely-illuminated ceiling, she found herself wishing she could control her level of consciousness and go back offline without fully registering the freakishness into which she had just awoken.
She played back her most recent memories for some clue as to how she’d wound up here. There had a huge sphere in the sky, suddenly spearing out of nowhere while she scouted a valley on some remote planet. A blue light had illuminated her and then nothingness. It must have been a stun ray, or a tractor beam, or some efficient combination of both. She hadn’t even had time to signal an SOS. But why? She went further back in her personal chronology and recalled a distress beacon on a nearby planet which Moonhunter had insisted they divert their course and respond to. It was a trap, she realized angrily. That distress beacon must have been a fake to lure good-natured saps into a trap. Frag it, that’s what I get for helping total strangers, she grumbled. Leave it to my oh-so-righteous creator to get me sticking my neck out for strangers his stupid sense of heroics. I should have gone back to petty thievery.
One wall was transparent, giving her a view of a darkened hallway. Made sense, if this was some kind of cell. She snarled and drew her blaster. It was a modest weapon, mid-range power levels. She did not care for ranged weapons. In battle, she preferred to wield the whips she had named herself after. They were more stylish, she would tell others, with that toothy bravado she was known for. But the truth was, she was a lousy shot with a gun. However even she couldn’t miss a point-blank shot, assuming her captors hadn’t depowered her weapons.
They hadn’t. As she interfaced with the weapon in her hand and began charging it, she realized how much she was looking forward to breaking something. Captivity always made her surly. She slid the armor plating down over her mouthplate and took a shot, expected a magnificent shattering or melting of whatever-it-was. Deadly light leapt from her gun… and absorbed into the transparent wall like a stone into water, except there was not even a ripple.
Whiplash growled, a grating noise which carried over as she transformed into her alternate mode and smoothly switched over to her secondary vocalizer. Now the sound matched the face, or rather the muzzle of a rather nasty-looking predatory creature from a distant planet, with bark for skin, two vine-like tails and a grass-like mane. Call it clinical a clinical case of alternate-mode-attachment, but she saw no reason to reformat from this mode after necessity had once deemed it vital for her to take a native form on a hostile alien world. The skin of a “forest-hound” suited her. As the final plating snapped shut and she was the creature once again, she launched herself at the window, bringing all her bulk to bare. That did nothing. She kicked with her massive forelegs and clawed with her forearms in a crazed flurry. The window took all the punishment without taking a scratch. What was this stuff?
Her muzzle flared as she vented air to cool her warming internals. Even if she hadn’t freed herself, she had managed to expect her rage. That had to count for something. “Okay,” she said to herself. “What would Moonhunter do in this situation?”
“He’d wait for Moonhunter to come rescue him,” the familiar gravel voice said from down the hall. Whiplash’s four eyes all grew wide and she slammed herself against the window to look as far out as she could. Sure enough, there was Moonhunter, edging down the hall with his rifle leading the way. The white, green and gold Maximal was followed up by Cassidy, the white lycanthrope who was a carbon-copy of Moonhunter’s own chosen beast mode. Literally. He was a clone, who Moonhunter had taken in after his accidental creation and raised as a son. And since Moonhunter was also Whiplash’s creator, that basically made her siblings with an organic accident.
With a subtle tick of smugness on his face that only those who knew him well would discern, he finished, “Because I’m just that good.”
“Good? It took you…” She checked her chronometer. “Thirteen hours to find me! You call this a rescue? This is all your fault anyway.”
She was overjoyed to see him, but she would rather die than admit it. He ignored her protests, knew they were just a cover for her elation. He knew how to handle her, which only aggravated her even more. Once estranged, they had gotten to know each other quite well; as they grew closer, the pleasure and the frustration fed each other cyclically, both growing in strength. Moonhunter always had that affect on her. She had never wanted anyone to know her that intimately, but at the same time – it was nice someone did.
“I don’t see a control panel,” Cassidy said as he took his place by Moonhunter’s side on the other side of her cage. He was dressed in his battle armor, looking utterly absurd in that stupid helmet Moonhunter made him wear. His robot drone SPOT was connected to his arms in its weapon mode. “Should we try shooting her out?”
“Don’t you think I already tried that?” she said condescendingly.
Cassidy stuck his tongue out at her. “Maybe we should just leave her here.”
Brat. Suck-up daddy’s boy, she thought, amongst worse words.
Moonhunter gave Cassidy The Look. “Not the time,” he said, and that was it. Then, to her: “Watch the language.” Primus, how did he always know? Moonhunter had a pipe so far up his aft so long that it came out his mouth, but he always knew what was going on around him and he always got results. That was why Whiplash had ultimately agreed to become his protégée after they’d been reunited. There was a lot he could teach her. Assuming he didn’t get her killed, or worse, stuck in a three-point-five square meter room for the rest of her life.
>Now is indeed not the time.< A voice came out of nowhere and everywhere.
“Who said that?” Moonhunter said, bringing his twin pistols to bare and sweeping them up and down the hallway.
>I did,< the Voice said again, this time focused into one location: inside the cell, behind her. The grass on the back of Whiplash’s neck stood on end and her tails lashed against the floor. From the stunned expressions on Moonhunter’s and Cassidy’s faces, she didn’t want to turn around.
“It’s…” Cassidy faltered, then looked at Moonhunter. “What is it, Dad?”
>To answer your question, boy, I call myself the Zookeeper.<
Behind them, all the other cells in the hallway lit up, each containing a different mini-environment for its inhabitant. Directly across from her, Whiplash could make out an orange furry quadruped creature with gills but no eyes. She didn’t recognize the species. Another cell contained something she did recognize, a silicon-based creature that looked like rock but moved in a way that reminded her of a human crawling around with a rug thrown over it. That species’ name escaped her, not that she really cared at the moment. The third cell she could see contained a pair of identical squat humanoids, their dome-shaped heads making them look like living potatoes.
>I trust the rest is self-explanatory,< said the entity. Whiplash finally tilted her head to see a mass of glowing energy in the vague shape of a biped.
“Not all of it,” Moonhunter growled. “I’m guessing you’re a noncorporeal. And we’re just seeing a projection of yourself and this isn’t just your ship but your whole body. How’m I doing?”
>Impressive, for a Cybertronian.< It actually did sound impressed, in a condescending sort of way. >I’ve had one or two of your kind in my collection before, but they always got out. Not worth the trouble.<
“So what did you take me for then?” Whiplash asked. Her voice squeaked, betraying her nerves. How could Moonhunter be so unflappable even in front of – no, inside of – this?
>Coercion,< it said. >You, Moonhunter, will bring me what I want, and I will release your companion.<
“And just what is it that you want?”
>Why, to do your job, of course. You are a bounty hunter. I am hiring you to bring me a human.<
“A human?” Cassidy asked.
>Unlike Cybertronians which scatter every which way, humans stick close together. Especially the farther out from their homeworld they go. Capturing a single one would be difficult even for me.<
“I think you’re confused,” Moonhunter said. “I go after people, but only ones that break the law. I’m no kidnapper.”
>There is very little difference from my perspective.<
“If you want a human so bad, take me!” Cassidy shouted, leaping forward and puffing his chest out. He pointed at himself as he declared, “Take me and just let her go!”
“Cassidy!” Moonhunter snapped.
>You? You’re not fully human. You’re genetic trash. I require a prime specimen for my collection.<
Whiplash winced, feeling Cassidy’s pain. What he’d just offered was noble as hell, and he’d not only been shot down, but insulted in the worst possible way. Moonhunter had used human DNA in creating his lycanthrope beast mode, which Cassidy had spawned from. Everyone just considered him human by default. She snarled at the shape. Her brother was hers to insult, and even she knew that was bellow the belt.
“A prime specimen? Fine.” To Whiplash’s shock, Moonhunter spun around and began walking out the way he’d come. “Come on, kid. Whiplash, we’ll be back. I promise.”
“What?” Whiplash demanded. “Wait! You’re not really gonna give in to this asshat!”
The Zookeeper’s projection winked out. >Better hurry!< its voice echoed as he vanished.
Whiplash did little besides pace in a circle around her cell. Every now and then she would grow bored with her current mode and transform, only to resume pacing in her other body. On the second day, three energon cubes appeared out of nowhere in the center of the room.
>To keep your strength up,< the Zookeeper said. >Never let it be said that I don’t take care of my guests.<
She scowled up at the ceiling, because that was as good a place as any to scowl when it was everywhere. “Forget it.”
>Now now. I have already been feeding that photosynthetic plant matter you have grafted onto your body. Matching the wavelengths of light you require is child’s play to me. Or did you not notice you were practically on the verge of blooming?<
Whiplash froze and took mental stock of herself. She raised her hand to take a good look at the forest hound’s face mounted on the side. Sure enough, the bark looked healthy, almost radiant. The grass mane which hung off the back of her robot head was fullbodied and lustrous. It hadn’t been this healthy since her last visit planetside.
She could almost hear the smug grin in the Zookeeper’s voice as it went on, >You have already been accepting my care, so it makes very little sense to be picky about it now. And if you do not cooperate, we can do it the hard way…<
“All right, fine!” she snapped. She had a feeling that whatever the “hard way” was, he would enjoy it too much. And she wouldn’t give him that. She took the cubes and drained them quickly. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of enjoying herself either.
But then she realized she’d absorbed too much fuel too fast. Static overcharge. Like when Cassidy drank something too cold too fast, he would grasp his head as if he were in pain. A similar whammy hit her, but its affect was more of the mind. The world spun; inhibitions peeled away.
“Oh man,” she slurred. “Oh man. Shoulda been more careful. Wut a rush.” The sound of her own voice humored her for some reason, and she grinned. “Hee. I shound funny. I think I’m… uh… what’sh th’word?”
“Fine, be that way.” She dropped onto her aft. Her tailed wriggled in the floor around her, and for a moment she tried to grab on. It dodged her hand of its own volition. She giggled. “C’mere y’bastard,” she taunted her own body part. It came closer, but when she tried to snatch it again it swished out of her reach. “Fine, be that way,” she told it too.
She looked around the room, hoping there would be something fun to do. “I don’t suppose you got any video games? A book? A dirty magazine? C’mon, don’t leave a gal hanging!”
Still no answer.
“Screw it,” she grumbled, then louder “Screw you!” She fell the rest of the way down, onto her back and laughed mirthlessly. “Screw it, I’mma nap.”
“I can’t believe it. Even locked in a box you can’t stay out of trouble,” Moonhunter’s voice said inside her head.
No, it wasn’t inside her head, it was coming from outside. He was just pulsing it through her internal communicator so she could hear it while offline. Whiplash reactivated. Déjà vu. Like the first time, she wished she hadn’t, but for different reasons. Her processor ached from the last vestiges of overcharge.
Moonhunter stood outside the box, hands on his hips and giving her that look of sanctimonious annoyance only a straight-lace could give. Well what did he expect? She’d grown up on the streets while he had been off galavanting amongst the stars, looking to avenge her death when she had been alive the whole time. Maybe if he’d actually stuck around to look for her then she would have turned out more like him. That thought made her shudder and sent another wave of nausea through her processor. Her, like Moonhunter? Ugh.
She looked for Cassidy but he wasn’t around. Of course, Moonhunter wouldn’t have brought him back. Instead, a human she did not recognize stood behind him, handcuffed and gagged. She couldn’t believe it…
“A deal’s a deal!” Moonhunter shouted at the walls. “Now let her go!”
The apparition reformed near beside Moonhunter. >Is this my human?< It sounded gleeful, like a child about to open a Christmas present. Whiplash thought she was going to hurl.
“This is a human,” Moonhunter said. “Jude Goldstein. Earth-stock. A very rare and special breed.”
“He’s…” Moonhunter looked at the human, then back at the apparition. The human looked absolutely terrified. “Jewish.”
>Oh! I’ve heard of those!<
“Of course you have. Now… the exchange?”
>Yes, yes, of course!< the Zookeeper said. The glass window winked out of existence. >Just put Jude Goldstein in there.<
Whiplash almost refused to go. Being gagged, Jude was expressing his unwillingness the only way he could, by shaking his head emphatically. How could she live free knowing it was at the expense of another living being?
“Whiplash, come on out of there,” Moonhunter insisted. “Come on. Trust me, I know what I’m doing.”
Maybe he deserved it. Moonhunter was crafty like that. He would catch some murderer, or someone who deserved to be locked up, and hand him over to the Zookeeper. He wouldn’t condemn some random innocent to this hellhole. Would he?
She acquiesced, walking by Jude and Moonhunter shoved him in. The moment they passed each other, Whiplash felt a sinking in the gut she didn’t have. This was really happening, and she looked at him and their eyes met and she pleaded for him to forgive her because she had no choice, Moonhunter would shut her down and haul her out if he had to. That was the way he was, he got stuff done. Even when it went against every lesson of morality he had taught her.
As they walked out of the hallway, the human’s voice suddenly rung out, pleading and invoking for mercy and even damning them both. The Zookeeper must have removed his bonds. Whiplash picked up her pace to get out of there as soon as they could. That was no murderer or bad man, she could tell by the fear in his voice. Just a frightened lamb sacrificed for her.
It was quite a walk back to Moonhunter’s ship, over the barren jagged mountains where she had first been kidnapped. He had parked a way’s away, probably motivated out of his damn paranoia. She said nothing to him for the entire walk. She had nothing to say. The only sound came from the haunted winds whistling their displeasure around them. If he wanted her in his life so much, she was damn well sure she wasn’t going to let him get any satisfaction out of it. Soon as they made it to a civilized planet she was off, she was gone. She never wanted to see him again.
They boarded the ship and Cassidy was there, at the controls. He smiled in sad relief to see her. It wasn’t his fault, he was just following his daddy’s orders, but he had been party to this and she hated him too. When the hatch closed behind them, she snapped. Turning on Moonhunter, she shoved him hard. “HOW COULD YOU?” she shouted, then balled up her fists and began pounding on the canine head he displayed on his chest. “WHAT THE HELL SLAG DID YOU JUST DO?”
She went on. Moonhunter just watched her patiently while she unloaded on him, accepting all her abuse and scorn. She paused, gave him a window to defend himself if he dared. But if he did dare, if he tried to justify what he had done in any way, she would hate him all the more.
But instead of words came a loud BOOM! Behind them, an explosion. Coming from the Zookeeper’s ship. She turned and rushed to the window. Energy, reds and blues and yellows, an unholy lightshow, streamed into the sky from the massive orb.
Moonhunter approached her from behind. “Remember when I said that human was a ‘prime specimen’?” he asked.
She reeled on him again, seeing him in a whole new light. His devious side. The trickster. Her creator had so many facets that she could not keep track of them all. “Yes?” she said hesitantly.
“I didn’t mean because he was Jewish. He’s metahuman. Energy-manipulator.”
“Energy-manipulator?” She was starting to put it together. The Zookeeper was energy.
“That lightshow you see? It’s the Zookeeper. Being dispersed. Jude’s an old friend of mine. Owed me a favor.”
“He’s killing the Zookeeper?” she asked.
“Yep. Got a problem with that?”
“No…” she pondered it, then agreed with her initial reaction. “No. He was a menace, kidnapping people and ruining their lives.”
A particularly bright comet of energy streaked from the ruined ship and flew toward them. As its glow subsided Whiplash could make out the figure of a human: Goldstein, flying right at them.
“Cassidy, stay inside. Jude’ll be emitting some pretty high rads for a while,” Moonhunter said as he reopened the hatch and stepped out. Whiplash stayed close behind. Jude landed before them just as the final aura around his body subsided.
“Hey, Jude,” Moonhunter said.
Whiplash gave him a look. “Really?” she asked flatly. He was going to ruin the moment with a Beatles quote? “Really?”
“That was trickier than I thought. Never dealt with sentient energy before.” He paused, tilted his head. “Tastes like pastrami.”
Moonhunter placed his hands on his hips. “You clean?”
“Yeah. Rads are all dispersed.”
“Come on, I owe you a ride home. Great acting back there, by the way. Two thumbs up.”
“What about the other captives in the zoo?” Whiplash asked.
Moonhunter tilted his head toward her. “Already got that covered. There’s a Maximal science vessel waiting at the edge of the system. The Axalon. They’re gonna come down here and try to get as many of them home as they can.”
She should have known, Moonhunter had it all covered. She was sorry she doubted him. Again. Not that she would admit it. Instead, she punched him in the arm. “Don’t scare me like that again!” she chided.
“Don’t get yourself kidnapped again,” was his retort.
She groaned. “Deal.”