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Children of Cybertron

Book One

Chapter 1: Power Struggle

It was the one thing that employees at the McMillan Processing Plant talked about the most.  It was also the one thing they most feared.

"Code Violet!  Decepticon attack!"  The words rang throughout the entire complex over the building's intercom.  "Repeat, Code Violet!  This is not a drill!  Repeat, this is not a drill!"  The emergency alarm sounded a moment later.

Despite months of preparation and hours of training videos, most of the employees did what came naturally--namely, they made a break for the nearest fire exit.  Thermos bottles were toppled over as people jumped from their desks; purses and reading glasses were abandoned; phones were left off the hooks.  No one bothered to help an elderly gentleman who had been knocked over in the panic.

Half a dozen security guards burst into the room, brandishing expensive rifles and official-looking badges.  They enveloped the room in a prearranged formation, preparing for the inevitable.

A faint buzzing gave way to a low rumbling thunder, as five distant objects became visible through the skylight.  They advanced on the building like falling meteors, showing no signs of hesitation.

Each of the guards held their positions, each knowing full well that they would be powerless against the approaching warriors from the sky.


Megatron had allowed the jets to take the lead; he didn't like dirtying his hands over a mere energy raid.  Besides, the other Decepticons seemed to enjoy terrorizing the humans, and the fleshlings' fear of the Decepticons only ensured their cooperation.

Ramjet was first to smash through the north wall of the complex, with Dirge and Thrust close behind.  Ramjet chuckled to himself as several of the guards' bullets bounced off his wings and nosecone like raindrops.  A few of the humans scattered, fleeing to avoid the flying plaster and concrete from Ramjet's makeshift entrance.

Ramjet transformed to his comparatively larger robot form, crushing an office cubicle beneath his boots.  A computer monitor exploded in protest, giving off a waft of black smoke as its screen shattered.

"I think you broke one of their toys," droned Dirge, also in robot mode and wearing a faint smirk.

"I'll break more than that!" snickered Thrust, half-heartedly raising a foot as if to squish something beneath it.  As the remaining guards fell back, Thrust kicked a chunk of plaster in their direction.

"Enough fun, Thrust," Megatron ordered, entering the building through the break in the wall with Soundwave at his side.  "Begin draining this facility of its energy at once!"

The three jets broke through to the next room to find the humongous processing chambers that converted fossil fuels into energy, powering almost a third of the city.  Each of the Decepticons touched their index fingers to one another and produced an energon cube, using the built-in generators in their palms.  Holding the cubes close to the processing machines, their glowing forcefield containers began sucking electrical power from the generators, converting that power through a miracle of Decepticon technology into the life-giving substance known as energon.

"Soundwave," Megatron said off-handedly, "destroy this building's means of communication, and broadcast a jamming frequency."

"As you command, Megatron," responded Soundwave in a synthesized monotone.  "Ravage, eject!"  He depressed a button on his shoulder, and the window on his chest popped open.  A gleaming black cassette launched out of his cassette drive, transforming in mid-air into the feline form known as Ravage.

"Locate and destroy primitive communication equipment," Soundwave ordered.  Ravage growled excitedly, dashing across the room until his sensors detected the wiring that led to the telephone lines outside.  He launched a missile from his hip, which obliterated the entire wall.  Ravage purred to himself contentedly.  

Soundwave pressed a button on his pelvis, causing a tiny satellite dish to emerge from a component on his shoulder.  "Jamming frequency established, mighty Megatron."

"Continue energy collection, but prepare yourselves for Autobot interference," Megatron announced.  Despite Soundwave's measures, Megatron knew the Autobots would soon arrive and attempt to thwart him... again.


Less than five minutes later, Optimus Prime and a small caravan came into view, kicking up dust that went back for a quarter-mile.  

"Autobots, transform and attack!" commanded the Autobot leader.

Optimus reverted to his robot form, followed in rapid succession by Inferno, Smokescreen, Mirage, and Hubcap.  

"Better lay low, Spike," Jazz told his passenger.  "Things are about to get hairy."  Spike Witwicky climbed out of Jazz's passenger-side door and ducked behind an overturned table.

"Looks like old Mega-twerp is at it again!" Inferno said.  

"Yeah, maybe they should start offering him frequent-flier miles!" offered Jazz, who had joined the others in robot mode.

"Hold it right there, Megatron!" Optimus warned, training his laser rifle on the Decepticon leader.

"I've got a better idea," Megatron taunted.  "Catch!"  With lightning speed, Megatron scooped up an energon cube and hurtled it at Prime.  Instinctively, Prime blasted it--temporarily painting the entire room a blinding white.

"Soundwave, demolish Optimus Prime!" Megatron shouted.  With that, Megatron leaped into the air, shifting and rearranging his body into his fearsome weapon mode, coming to rest in the awaiting hands of Soundwave.  

Optimus made a dive for the ground as a fusion blast cut through the wall immediately behind where Prime had been standing.  Scrambling to his feet, he fired at Soundwave but missed, instead striking a girder hanging from the ceiling.  

"Let us show them the true meaning of fear!" Thrust exclaimed, charging toward the Autobots and beckoning his brothers to follow.  He fired randomly into their direction, sending Hubcap and Smokescreen scrambling for safety.

"How about a lesson in the meaning of stealth?" came a voice from behind Thrust.  He whirled around and fired, but hit Dirge instead, who collapsed to the ground with a groan.

A glowing rectangular prism appeared just to the left of where Dirge had been standing, depositing Mirage back into reality.  "Now that wasn't very nice," Mirage teased.  "What did he ever do to you, Decepti-crumb?"

"Nothing compared to what I'm going to do to you!" Thrust shrieked, taking a mighty swing at his Autobot opponent.  Mirage managed to sidestep the blow, but just then Ramjet approached and head-butted Mirage, knocking him out.

Inferno had lifted a large oak desk over his head.  "Lights out, Soundwave!" he exclaimed, pitching the desk into Soundwave's head.  The Decepticon let out a monotone growl as the desk shattered into three parts, sending him tumbling into a support beam.

Megatron sprang from Soundwave's grasp, returning to robot mode.  "Decepticons, gather the energon cubes and retreat!"  Megatron and Soundwave provided cover fire while the jets approached their pile of energon cubes.

"I've got a better idea," said Smokescreen, brandishing his gun.  "Howsabout I scramble their circuits from here to the Moon?"  Inferno and Hubcap approached as well, making as to encircle the Decepticon troops and their prize.  

"Leave this facility now, Megatron," said Optimus Prime sternly, "or you won't enjoy the consequences."  

"On the contrary," spat Megatron, "It's been a pleasure as always, Prime.  In fact, you could say it's been--a blast!"  With that, Megatron fired a burst from his fusion cannon into the energon cubes, creating an explosion powerful enough to throw the jets to the floor, knocking Optimus Prime back a few steps into a vending machine.  With that, Megatron rocketed into the ceiling, sending more broken glass and metal debris tumbling down into the building.  Several of the Autobots fired after them, but their laser bolts disappeared into the afternoon sky.  Through the remains of the ceiling, Optimus spotted his arch foe rejoining the Decepticon jets, with Soundwave following suit.


Optimus Prime got to his feet, not bothering to brush the rubble from his armor.  Once again, he had underestimated Megatron.  He had never expected the Decepticon leader to destroy the energon he had worked so hard to steal.

"C'mon, chief!  Let's get after those tin can turkeys!" Inferno pleaded, pointing his gun-arm at the sky.

Some of the plant workers began crawling out of the woodwork, uttering sighs of relief, confusion... and pain.

Optimus stared off after the Decepticons for a moment, then turned his head away.  "No, Inferno.  We have a duty to help repair the damage wrought by the Decepticons."

"We could radio headquarters and have them dispatch a cleanup crew," offered Smokescreen.

One of the plant workers cautiously approached the Autobots.  "Mister, uh, Optimal Prime?  I'm Zed Williamson, plant supervisor."

Prime knelt down to make himself more approachable.  "I am Optimus Prime," he said, preparing to graciously accept the usual heartfelt thanks for saving their lives he'd heard countless times before.

"Why did you have to get involved?"

Prime ran a diagnostic of his cyber-definition translator because he was sure he'd misunderstood the gentleman.  

"All they wanted was our energy," the man continued.  "We had enough generators running that we could handle the loss.  Instead you had to come in here with gun blazing and nearly destroy the place.  Now we'll probably have to shut down for reconstruction.  Do you know what kind of burden that will be on the city?  It was bad enough just trying to get Y2K compliant without having to deal with... this!"

"We were only acting in the best interests of your people," Prime explained.  "Innocent lives were in jeopardy."

"Aye, lad!  Force is the only language the Decepticons understand," added Hubcap.  "Not that we have nay tried other ways of reasoning with 'em."

"But that's just it!" continued the supervisor, who was becoming clearly agitated.  "Nobody started shooting until you guys got here.  You guys are just as dangerous as the Decepticons!"

"The Autobots want to stop the Decepticons!" Spike interjected.  "If it weren't for them, we'd all be Megatron's slaves by now!"

"And for that matter, what business do you have dragging a boy into your war?" he continued, sizing up Spike.

"What?  First of all, I'm 23," Spike pointed out.  "And second, I'm here because I want to help the Autobots!  They're doing what they do for us--for all of us!"

Two more plant workers entered the room, supporting a woman by the arms.  

"Zed," the taller one said, "Angel's leg is broken.  The paramedics are already on their way."

"We can handle the little lady," Jazz offered, leaping into the air and landing in his race car mode.  "Just strap her on in, and I'll have her at a hospital before you can say 'HMO billing plan!'  Heh."

"You machines have done enough for one day," the supervisor scowled.  "Why don't you just go back to your spaceship before I have you all towed to the nearest junkyard?"

Hubcap could barely suppress a snort.

"We shall do as you ask, sir," Prime said somberly.  "But I beg you to reconsider."  

Smokescreen was helping Mirage get to his feet, still disoriented from the battle.  "What's the good word, Optimus?  Did we beat the Decepticons?  Did we win?"

"We beat the Decepticons," Optimus sighed, shaking his head.  "But nobody won today, Mirage."

***

Chapter 2: Shifting Faults

Autobot Headquarters, actually a space craft known as the Ark that had been halfway buried within a volcano, was uncharacteristically quiet.  It was the first time the Autobots could remember that they had been shunned by the humans of their own accord.

"Man, I don't get it," Jazz grumbled, pacing the control room.  "We save their butts from the business-end of Megatron's fusion cannon, and not so much as a 'thank-you!'"  

"It'd serve them right if we didn't bother to show up next time," grumbled Inferno.

"You know we can't do that, Inferno," Prime said slowly.  "The humans are not capable of defending themselves against the Decepticons.  Whether they realize it or not... they need us."

"Well, we certainly don't need them," Cliffjumper affirmed.  "We spend more time pandering to their needs than we do stopping the Decepticons!  They can just--"

Spike cleared his throat loudly.

"Er, ah, present company excepted, Spike," Cliffjumper amended hastily.

Hubcap knelt next to Spike and murmured softly.  "Not all of us are quite so unappreciative, lad.  Cliffy, he knows ye've done more than yer fair share t' help us.  And so do I."  That warranted a small, heartfelt smile from Spike.

Spike shrugged his shoulders.  "Hey, it's not like I've got anything else to do around here."  He smirked sarcastically, not certain of how many of the Autobots present detected his insincerity.

Optimus Prime turned to Teletraan 1 and turned on the computer's communications console.  "Silverbolt, this is Optimus Prime.  I want you and the Aerialbots to maintain watch over the North Atlantic.  Alert me at the first sign of Decepticon activity.  Take Powerglide and Cosmos as back-up."

An image of Silverbolt in jet mode appeared on the computer monitor, courtesy of the Sky Spy satellite.  "Message received, Prime," came the response from the no-nonsense Silverbolt.  "We will maintain an aerial radius of 20 miles from Decepticon Headquarters until further notice."

"Teletraan 1," Prime said, "has the Decepticon space bridge been activated yet?"

"Negative," came the mechanical reply.  "No shipments to or from Cybertron have been made."

"Why isn't Megatron sending the energon cubes from his last few raids to Cybertron?" Prime wondered.

"Current data insufficient.  Motives remain unknown," responded Teletraan.

"I wasn't talking to you," said Prime.  He switched communication channels again.  "Ironhide, report."

The grizzled old Autobot appeared on the monitor in van mode; he was stopped at a crosswalk.  "Everythin's quiet in the residential part of town, Prime."

"Maybe too quiet," Prime said under his breath.  "Radio your team and tell them to return to headquarters for recharging.  We've done all we can for one day."

"You got it, Prime."

"Optimus," asked Spike, "what do you think the Decepticons are up to?"

"I don't know for sure," said Prime.  "But if I know Megatron, any time he's not carrying out one of his evil plans, he's preparing to do so.  All we can do for now is wait."

***

The control room for the Decepticon Headquarters on Earth was bustling with activity.  While the Decepticon forces had steadily grown since their awakening on Earth, the space cruiser that served as their home simply wasn't built to accommodate more than twenty or so warriors.  The decision was made, at great aghast to Megatron, to erect smaller headquarters for the likes of the Stunticons and Combaticons.  It was well-known that Megatron didn't like his troops dwelling too far from his gaze; the isolation of the Decepticon mini-bases made it easier for the Autobots to ambush the teams... and for the sub-groups to plot against Megatron.

Even within the hull of the Nemesis II, dissent was abound.  The entire original compliment was present, including the Triple Changers, as were the Constructicons and Insecticons (who had come for the free energon hors deouvers).  For the moment, Starscream held the floor.

"That's precisely my point, my dear Bombshell," Starscream addressed the Insecticon, raising his voice to be heard over the murmurings from the others.  "It's been over fifteen years in Earth time since we woke up on this mudball, and we still haven't sent even a fraction of the energon needed to repower Cybertron!  At the rate Megatron's going, Earth will be a shriveled husk before we ever get back home!"

"What difference does it make what happens to this planet?" asked Bombshell.  "I'll suck it dry to the core!"

"I've got no ties to this world," chimed in Scrapper.

"Yeah, and what happens when Earth is dead?" Astrotrain wondered, partly to himself.  "We still won't have enough energy to restore Cybertron, so we'll have to relocate to another planet."

"And another... and another... and another!" finished Starscream.  "I don't know about the rest of you, but this isn't the sort of life I wanted to lead--hopping from one pathetic world to another, filling millions of energon cubes--and for what?  We still haven't beaten the Autobots!"

More murmuring, and then Blitzwing cleared his throat.  "And what would you have us do, Starscream?"

Starscream allowed himself a smirk.  He had played his audience like a song; now it was time for the crescendo.  "Megatron's lost sight of his goals.  He's become so taken with the idea of wiping out the Autobots that--"

"Especially Optimus Prime!" blurted out Rumble from somewhere behind Soundwave.

"Yeah, Optimus Prime!" came Frenzy's voice.

"Yes," admitted Starscream, trying out the words like a new pair of boots, "especially Optimus Prime.  In his mad quest to rid himself of Prime, Megatron's forgotten the true purpose of the Decepticons--to restore Cybertron to its former glory as the capital of the galaxy!"

The crowd became hushed--Starscream was amazed at his own ability for melodrama.  But then he saw the real reason for their sudden silence: Megatron was standing in the doorway to the control room.  The Decepticon leader did not appear pleased.

"Megatron!  How did you know what I was--" Starscream began, then shot a dirty look at Soundwave.  "You!"  

Soundwave gave no noticeable acknowledgement, but Starscream could have sworn on his life that Soundwave was smirking at him behind his face plate.

"Holding a pep rally, Starscream?" inquired Megatron, with a trace of forced sarcasm in his voice.  "I don't recall that being on today's schedule."

To Starscream's credit, he did not falter.  "It's time we found our direction again, Megatron," he said, almost as a warning.

The Decepticon leader approached Starscream until the two Decepticons stood eye-to-eye.  Starscream, who was nearly a head shorter than Megatron, knew Megatron was trying to intimidate him.  

"Starscream," said the Decepticon leader, "I believe you are correct.  Things have remained as they are for far too long, now.  New steps must be taken, if we are to move forward."

Starscream's expression was one of utter surprise.  He hadn't imagined that Megatron would forgive him for calling a conference without his consent, let alone praise him for it.  Then it occurred to Starscream that his leader's words might have had a hidden meaning.

"The real thorn in my side is not the humans; it is not Optimus Prime..." Megatron said, narrowing his gaze.  Starscream felt his eyes burning right through his steel-alloy armor and into his very soul.  "It is you," Megatron finished, raising his fusion cannon.

Starscream took a step back, then began pacing.  "Oh, yes.  Blame me again, Megatron.  When your brilliant plans fail, it's Starscream's fault.  When the latest superweapon goes kaput, blame Starscream.  When Optimus Prime beats you to within a mini-inch of your life, who can you take it out on?  Say, I hear that Starscream makes a good scapegoat!"

Starscream was projecting, still trying to work the crowd--but his energon pump was beating insistently.  "But isn't it a poor leader who blames his followers?  Why not seek the true source of your failure, my dear Megatron... the problem lies not with me, but with you!  You are the one who sends your warriors to their doom, but gives the order to retreat the moment you've been wounded!  You are the one who wastes thousands of astro-liters of energy trying to destroy a single Autobot instead of sending that energy back home, where it could be used against all the Autobots!  And you, Megatron," he finished, milking every word, "are the one who continues to sabotage your own plans with your own inflated pomposity!"  He took a short breath and stood, waiting for the retort.

Megatron stared at Starscream coldly for several moments.  The other Decepticons remained motionless in their tracks; the never ending drama between the two most power-hungry Decepticons never ceased to enthrall them.

Then, Megatron lowered his fusion cannon and averted his gaze.  It was the first time Starscream had escaped punishment for such a tirade, and he was visibly stunned.  "Decepticons, return to work," he grumbled.  "I will be in my quarters.  I do not wish to be disturbed."

Starscream was paralyzed.  "Are you simply going to let my accusations go unchallenged?!" he demanded, knowing Megatron must have some ulterior motive.

Megatron stopped long enough to turn his head and narrow his gaze.  "As you wish.  Soundwave, Starscream is officially grounded and stripped of rank.  He will not be allowed access to computer control or leave headquarters without my express authorization."

As Megatron re-entered the lift, the crowd of robots dispersed, leaving a very confused Starscream standing in the middle of the room.

"What just happened...?" he asked no one in particular.

***

Chapter 3:  New Element

The ship made its descent through the stratosphere at a fantastic rate of speed.  Making a furious incision through the cloud cover, the sleek, dark form showed no sign of hesitation as it plunged into the murky waters.  Steam shot up like a geyser, as the ocean shrieked at the invasion of its solitude by this foreign body.

Slowly, with purpose, the ship made its descent.  Evidently in no great hurry, it took some time before the craft touched the ocean floor.  The resultant landing compelled a swordfish to abandon its resting place behind a patch of pink coral.

"Reconfigure to land mode," came the command from the cockpit.  With that, the V-shaped craft retracted its wings and sprouted treads more suitable for the rocky underwater terrain.  Unerringly, it crawled the bed of the Atlantic, making its way toward an unearthly relic that never belonged under the sea.  Purple, monolithic, and covered in corrosion, it was the the former space cruiser in which the Decepticons had since taken residence...

***  

Megatron stared out the portal into the darkness of the sea.  It was almost like staring into space--the ocean extended, seemingly, to infinity; the tiny objects in the distance could easily be stars, not starfish.  Only when a curious sea creature swam too close to the hull of the ship, passing by Megatron's furtive gaze, was the illusion shattered.

Megatron stood, lost in the depths, his fusion cannon propped against the wall beside him.  He rarely allowed himself the luxury of relieving himself of its weight, but there were times, often borne of supreme confidence, when he saw no need to burden himself with his primary weapon.  Megatron was a living weapon, he reminded himself with a faint smirk--the fusion cannon was merely an extension of his power.

At the moment, however, his confidence was not supreme.  While Starscream's pointless little tirade would only serve, ultimately, to remind the other Decepticons what a power-hungry child he was, Megatron knew that Starscream sensed the growing futility in the Decepticons' mission on Earth.  They all sensed it.  The space bridge had been inactive for months; the cumulative energy the Decepticons had acquired during that time had barely been enough to charge their weapons and bodies, and effect repairs to injuries incurred during their battles with the Autobots.  

Somehow, Megatron knew in the back of his mind that if he could find a rich enough energy source, the cost of attacking and raiding the facility would be more than justified.  Once the energon shipments to Cybertron resumed, Megatron would finally be able to abandon Earth and return to Cybertron... to Decepticon Headquarters... to his personal quarters.  His sanctuary.  His home.

Megatron took a brief glance at his surroundings and sputtered in disgust.  His quarters on board the ship were small, unadorned, and equipped with only the basic necessities.  He had given up setting up holo-displays and battle souvenirs; every time he decorated his quarters, the Constructicons inevitably asked him to take everything back down so they could conduct structural maintenance or repair some leak in the hull.  

He despised his underwater prison to the point that he would take any opportunity that presented itself to set up operations elsewhere, despite Starscream's usual whine that it was a fool's ploy.  Megatron assured Starscream that a temporary base was a tactical advantage because the Autobots were unaware of its existence, but the truth of the matter was, Megatron longed for a chance to stretch his legs.

The problem was, the Autobots would never allow Megatron to collect enough energy to leave the blasted planet.  What Starscream refused to comprehend was that as long as Optimus Prime was convinced it was his personal calling to bring an end to Megatron's tyranny, there would be no returning home.  Optimus Prime had to be removed from the equation; Megatron was willing, reluctantly, to devote precious resources to develop the means to eliminate his arch foe if it meant he would be free to continue his work after Prime was destroyed.

In the meantime, finding enough energon just to survive was becoming increasingly more difficult.  Ever since the additions of the Combaticons and those fuel-guzzling Stunticons to the team, not to mention the hundreds of Insecticons that were swarming around at any given moment, nearly twice the amount of energon from their raids was going to feed the troops than just a few years ago.  On more than one occasion, Megatron had considered just shipping the lot of them back to Cybertron.  He knew his original crew; they were reliable, if not trustworthy--but the Autobots already had the Decepticons so badly outnumbered...

"Attention, Megatron," came Soundwave's voice over the communicator.  Roused from his reverie, Megatron turned slowly to the com panel and tapped it.  "Soundwave!" he snapped.  "I told you that no one was to--"

"Urgent message, Megatron," said Soundwave.  "Intruder of unknown type has penetrated base perimeter.  Location is seven point five-eight mechano-meters and closing."

"What intruder?" Megatron demanded.

"Scanners indicate vehicle of Cybertronian origin," reported Soundwave.

"Why didn't you say so in the first place?"  Without further ceremony, Megatron adjusted the controls to open a channel to Cybertron.  A moment passed while the ship's communications systems bridged the subspace gap, and Shockwave's one-eyed visage appeared on the screen.

"Hail Megatron," recited Shockwave, drawing his fist to his chest.

"Shockwave, have you sent me more troops?"  It was a question to which Megatron already knew the answer.  Megatron couldn't imagine why Shockwave would waste the energy to ship more warriors at this point, but he had to be certain.

Shockwave seemed taken aback for a moment.  "N-no, great Megatron.  I received no such directive... there must have been a dimensional interference... but I will endeavour to--"

"Spare me your pathetic excuses!" Megatron snarled, and cut the transmission.  Sliding his fusion cannon back into place, he flexed his arms before summoning his warriors for an intercept party.  There was only one other possibility as to who dared to venture into Decepticon domain, and the thought of it soured Megatron's mood instantly.

"Autobots," he sneered.


The first blast was almost imperceptible.  

The shock barely registered on any of the vessel's onboard scanners; it could have easily have been attributed to a few underwater landmarks settling as the result of the V-tank's presence.  The next shot, however, was clearly meant as an attack--the resultant explosion sent debris biting into the hull of the craft.  

The sole occupant took the only logical course of action available--escape.


"Next time, Dirge," berated Megatron, "try hitting the target, you oaf!"  

Dirge elbowed Ramjet in the gut, provoking a volley of air bubbles to trickle from his cockpit.  "My aim will get better when he stops crowding me,"  Dirge said.

"Me?" said Ramjet.  "You are the idiot who cannot shoot straight!"  This elicited a giggle from Thrust.

"Shut up, all of you!" ordered Megatron.  He shot a quick warning glance at Astrotrain and Blitzwing, but the Triple Changers showed no signs of disobeying their leader.

"Megatron," announced Soundwave, "our quarry escapes."  He pointed to a dark, slender form exiting the cockpit of the craft.  The pilot took one look at the Decepticons before she darted away.

"An Autobot!" exclaimed Megatron.  "Capture her!"

Soundwave took this as a cue to launch Laserbeak and Buzzsaw from the compartment in his chest.  The two cassettes unfolded into condors and took off after their prey like missiles.  The avian Decepticons were well-suited for underwater operations, and wasted no time opening fire on their target.

The assailant responded by standing her ground, deflecting most of the shots with a blade weapon.  She then transformed into some kind of a Cybertronic craft and responded in kind, launching directly towards them.  Laserbeak and Buzzsaw veered off in opposite directions as she flew right in between the two Decepticons.

Soundwave took a step back and looked to Megatron, apparently not having expected this level of resistance.  

"Destroy her!" Megatron commanded, unleashing a volley of blasts with his fusion cannon.  Soundwave, Astrotrain, and the jets followed suit.  

Blitzwing, meanwhile, had transformed to his tank mode and was encroaching upon the V-tank.  Was he feeling threatened by it, Megatron wondered?  The V-tank suddenly responded to Blitzwing's presence by directing its artillery cannon in his direction and launching half a dozen missiles.  To his credit, Blitzwing didn't budge, and his gambit paid off--not a single direct hit.

Blitzwing produced a guttural laugh.  "No automated defense system gets the better of me!"  He fired several rounds from his turret-mounted cannon, shattering the cockpit of the V-tank.  It took no further aggressive action.

"Ha!" Blitzwing spat, proudly.  

The foreign Transformer was on a direct course for the Decepticon jets; Ramjet and Dirge fired blindly at it, while Thrust retreated behind a rocky embankment.  A few of their laser bolts hit the jet, but did not deter her course; Ramjet and Dirge each took a dive for the ocean bed as the jet swooped right in between them.

Megatron stopped firing long enough to watch this invader.  She had managed to dodge the majority of the Decepticons' firepower, but she wasn't shooting back.  What kind of a suicidal Autobot took on the entire Decepticon army by herself?

The jet made another pass, this time directly behind Megatron and Soundwave.  Megatron felt the powerful backlash of sea water, and her trail temporarily obscured his view.  He whirled around just in time to see her disappear behind the lip of a jagged rock face.  

She was playing with them!

It was times like these that Megatron wished he still had a vehicular mode himself--he longed to hunt down this deluded warrior and tear her to pieces himself.  How dare she waste Megatron's time with ridiculous games!  

"Soundwave," Megatron said, "prepare to receive!  Demolish her!"  Megatron transformed to his weapons mode, which Soundwave obediently plucked from its floating position.  Soundwave twisted around for a moment to confirm that his cassettes were out of range, then pulled the trigger.  The fusion blast from Megatron's barrel severed the mountain in two, causing it to collapse in on itself.  The thunderous roar, almost deafening as it rippled through the ocean's depths, subsided.  There was no sign of the invader.

"Intruder eliminated," Soundwave announced with a satisfied tone.

Megatron returned to robot mode so he could see for himself.  There was something wrong--no Autobot showed that much agility only to be buried by a few tons of rubble.  

"Astrotrain, Blitzwing," Megatron ordered, "retrieve her body."  

As the Triple Changers stepped past Soundwave, the dark blue V-tank suddenly rumbled to life again.  Blitzwing whirled around and gaped as the V-tank separated into two forms--one of them transforming into a bulky robot configuration, twice as tall as either of the Triple Changers. 

The lumbering robot grabbed a Decepticon in each hand; neither Astrotrain nor Blitzwing were strong enough to break its grip.  "Megatron, help!" whined Blitzwing.  

The smaller component of the vessel assumed a similarly-colored robot mode, turning toward the demolished rock face and fired at it with twin missile launchers.  Its missiles reduced the remains of the cliff to particles, allowing the female warrior to emerge from the debris in robot mode.  She leapt from the chasm, floating serenely through the water to land a few feet away from Megatron, with just the hint of a smile on her face.

Megatron himself was amused, in a way.  This Autobot was apparently unconcerned that she was about to die by Megatron's hand.  She was either very courageous or very stupid.

There was still no excuse for taunting his warriors and wasting valuable time and energy just so she could play water games, however.  "Any last words, Autobot?" he said, pointing his fusion cannon at her head.  To her credit, she didn't flinch.

In fact, she laughed.  "Do you really think an Autobot would have lasted two techno-seconds down here?  Guess again."  She pointed to the insignia on her pelvis.

At first Megatron mistook her gesture, until he recognized the purple symbol she wore.  No other Decepticon on Earth bore that insignia--nor on Cybertron, for that matter.  Megatron's smirk vanished.

"I am Anthrax," she said.  "And as you doubtless know... we have much to discuss."

***

Chapter 4: Crackdown

Optimus Prime hovered over the makeshift table, studying his troops.  None of them, he reminded himself, were ever programmed to be warriors.  Most of them were his friends, truth be told.  And yet, that was exactly how he thought of most of them--soldiers, every one of them.

"I don't have to tell you," he addressed them, "why I've called you here."

Prowl, Ironhide, Perceptor, and Jazz were seated before Prime in what served as the Autobots' conference room.  The Ark once had a proper auditorium, but it was in the part of the ship that had been destroyed when it crashed into the volcano so many millions of years ago.  Now, the control room that housed Teletraan 1 also served that function.

"The situation is getting worse," Prime continued.  "Megatron's raids are becoming more and more brazen.  He doesn't seem to even care about stealing energy anymore.  Now he seems to do it just for his own twisted amusement."

"That is not consistent behavior," said Perceptor, "for Megatron."

"You think he's gettin' ready to leave Earth?" asked Ironhide.  "That he's gotten what he needs?"

Prowl sighed.  "Well, based on what information we have about Megatron's energy raids, I estimate only a thirty-seven percent probability that he's gotten enough energon from Earth to revitalize Cybertron."

"Other planets, then?" said Perceptor.

Jazz shook his head.  "No way, man.  If the Decepticons were looting outer space again, we'd know about it.  Whatever Megatron's got going on, it sure ain't intergalactic hijinks."

"My main concern right now is the humans," said Prime.  "We can't allow any more human casualties.  Protecting them must remain our top concern."

Ironhide let out a low grumble.  "They sure don't make it too easy, Prime."

"Yeah," chimed in Jazz.  "You'd think they never had big, bad robots tryin' to take over their planet before," he added with a half-smirk.

"According to Teletraan 1," noted Prowl, "the humans have more than enough weaponry at their disposal to deal with the Decepticons."

"Perhaps, Prowl," said Prime.  "But not all nations of the Earth are in agreement.  Any aggressive action taken by one country could be viewed as a threat towards another.  Besides, it's not the humans' responsibility to deal with the Decepticons.  We're the ones who brought them here.  We're the ones who've got to stop them."

The other Autobots were silent for a moment.  Prime rose from his seat and faced the wall behind him.  He felt like he had had this same discussion dozens of times before.  No matter what kind of new measures he took, it never seemed to make a difference, ultimately.  And yet, to falter in his efforts would set the Autobots back farther than Prime even cared to think about.  "Tomorrow morning, I want Blaster to contact the Protectobots and tell them to relocate to Autobot Headquarters.  They're too valuable to be stationed so far away."

"Of course, Prime," said Prowl, making a mental note.

"I also want Hoist, Grapple, and Sideswipe to start clearing out the main antechamber.  If there's any equipment left on board that's salvageable, I want it."

Perceptor cleared his throat politely.  "That will interfere with Hoist's maintenance schedule, Optimus."

Prime didn't appear to hear this at first.  He finally looked at Perceptor and said, "Tell Hoist he can resume his duties as soon as he gets that rubble cleared."  Perceptor and Prowl nodded in sync.

"And finally," Prime said, "I want Wheeljack to do something with those blasted Dinobots.  They're too much of a liability to operate near humans, but... they're too useful to just keep locked away all the time."

Ironhide chuckled.  "Ol' Wheeljack's gonna be old and rusty before he ever gets those Dino-dimwits workin' right."

Prime's stance seemed to relax a bit.  There was something about Ironhide's ineffable charm that relaxed the Autobot leader.  "That's it for now.  Go get some rest, and we'll hope tomorrow isn't a complete disaster."  No one could ever tell whether Prime was smiling, but his off-handed manner let the Autobots know he wasn't upset with them.

As Prime turned to leave, he spotted Mirage standing by the doorway.

"And just how long have you been standing there, Mirage?" he asked, placing a hand on his hip.

"You haven't seen me before now, have you?"  

"It's good to see you up and running again," Prime told him, "but it's time to recharge."

Mirage's voice turned urgent.  "Wait, Prime.  I... just wanted to talk to you for an astro-second."

Prime gestured to the table.  Mirage sat.

"Prime, do you remember what you told me before we left Cybertron?" Mirage asked.

"I said a lot of things before we left Cybertron," responded Prime.

Mirage seemed hesitant.  "I signed up on this mission because I wanted to help out.  I didn't want to see the Decepticons do to me what they did to Bluestreak...  When we were detoured to Earth, well... things happen, of course.  I was willing to do my duty as an Autobot, but..."  He trailed off, apparently hoping Prime would understand where he was going.

"Mirage," said Prime, "none of us want to be here.  We all miss Cybertron."

"But you said," Mirage continued, "that I'd only have to be on active duty for maybe a quartex or two.  I'm not cut out to be a soldier.  If I'm going to remain on Earth, I've got to be assigned to something else."

Prime looked at Mirage for a moment.  He had an idea of what Mirage was going through--Prime used to feel the same way, in another lifetime.  "Mirage, if you want to leave, I can't stop you.  But as long as you're an active member of the team, we need your full participation here, on Earth."

"I just hope that by the time we're done with Earth," said Mirage, "that there's still a Cybertron to go home to."

***

Chapter 5: The Tide is High

Starscream had paced his quarters frantically for about 20 astro-minutes before he finally settled down.  Soundwave had helpfully escorted Starscream to the lower level and locked him in, presumably so he could key in new access codes to the base's computers.  Access codes to which Starscream had never been denied access... until now.

It had taken Starscream that long to realize that he was fully capable of manipulating the lock on the door with a little ingenuity and the help of some tools he had laying around his quarters.  He seethed as he worked the lock with his instruments, though.  "Megatron will pay for keeping me trapped like a laboratory animal," he muttered under his breath as he operated on the wall panel.  Starscream was a scientist by nature, but even more, he was a creature of the skies.  Living underwater was frustrating enough, but any type of prolonged detention made Starscream fidgety.  

The wiring inside the door panel sparked a bit, and Starscream heard the magnetic lock release itself.  Megatron knew full well that Starscream couldn't be kept trapped for any significant length of time--being restricted to his quarters was a psychological dig, more than anything else.  Megatron would no doubt have expected Starscream to have escaped by now.  Starscream allowed himself a faint smile--he was looking forward to the chance to gloat a bit at Megatron for failing at whatever energy raid he'd gone off to implement.  Megatron would spit some nasty words in Starscream's direction and threaten to kill him, and Starscream would remind Megatron how much Megatron needed him.  Starscream delighted in being indispensable--it had its perks, to say the least.  And taunting Megatron was not the least of them.

Starscream wandered out into the hallway just in time to catch up to Skywarp and Thundercracker, who were discussing something in a most secretive manner, snickering amongst themselves.  

"And what are you two lugnuts laughing about?" Starscream demanded, stepping sideways to keep the pace with Skywarp.  

Skywarp was still smirking out of the corner of his mouth.  "I was just telling Thundercracker that it's a shame we didn't get a chance to straighten up the place before we had guests over."

"What are you talking about?" Starscream asked, pushing his way ahead of Thundercracker to block the entrance to the hydraulic lift that led to the main level of the ship.

"Nothing you'd be interested in, Screamer," Skywarp said, giggling again.  "Megatron just found himself a new friend."

That gave Starscream pause--just long enough for Skywarp to teleport past Starscream into the lift.  Starscream knew Skywarp's cryptic responses were just his way of trying to push Starscream's buttons, answering him without actually giving him any useful information.  Skywarp was infuriating that way--he always seemed to find a way to find a loophole around one of Starscream's orders without actually disobeying it.  Starscream glared at Skywarp as the lift carried the three Decepticons to the ship's control center.  

When the doors opened, Starscream's eyes met the form of Megatron standing on the bridge, talking to a Decepticon he'd never seen before.  He blinked.  A female Decepticon.  Starscream's optic sensors narrowed suspiciously at the newcomer, and he immediately felt the pace of his ventilator quicken.  Decepticon or no, Starscream remembered quite vividly what had happened the last time Megatron had found himself a "new friend."  An Earth robot that Megatron fancied as his new plaything was one thing, but a female Decepticon... a creature who by all rights wasn't even supposed to exist--

"Starscream," Megatron beckoned, interrupting the air commander's train of thought, "It's nice to see you up and about again.  I thought you'd be sulking in your quarters all night."  His manner was decidedly off-handed, as though he had something very important on his mind.  "You might as well take your rations and recharge for a bit--I won't be needing you until morning," he said.  "If then," he added casually, but it had the taste of one of his more familiar jibes.  

Megatron turned to the conference room, with Soundwave and the newcomer following him as though responding to some unspoken command.  Soundwave looked back for just an instant and shot him a look that turned Starscream's fluids cold.  Starscream wasn't sure whether it was meant as a warning not to try to break Soundwave's encryption codes while he was absent... or to rub in the fact that Starscream wasn't privy to this secret meeting with the visitor.  Was Soundwave really capable of that kind of vengeful attitude?  

Skywarp and Thundercracker, still standing at the doorway to the hydraulic lift, made an effort to suppress the fit of snickers that hit them both simultaneously.  They failed miserably.

"Oh, shut up, you lugnuts," said Starscream.

***

Chapter 6:  Meeting of the Minds

Megatron was seated at the widest point of the trapezoidal table and Anthrax at the most narrow, while Soundwave took an unassuming position against the adjacent wall and pressed a button on his pelvis.

Anthrax contorted her face as she regarded Soundwave.  "I do not approve of his presence, Megatron."

Megatron leaned back and clasped his hands.  "I agreed to confer with your under my terms.  Soundwave's presence ensures that no one's words are... misinterpreted at a future date.  It really is in your best interest, my dear.  If you like," he added snidely, gesturing toward his communications officer, "he can make you a copy when we're done."

"I have come to you," Anthrax said, "at great personal risk to myself on a matter of utmost urgency.  You already know that none of the Decepticon campaigns on other planets has succeeded, despite the expenditure of tremendous amounts of energy to that end."

Megatron felt the sting of her words.  He preferred not to dwell on the energon wasted by Decepticons halfway across the galaxy--somewhere in the back of his mind, he planned, one day, to take command of those campaigns personally, after Earth and Cybertron were under his control.

"My patience wears thin," Megatron intoned.  

"In short, Megatron," said Anthrax, resting her elbows on the table gingerly, "what I am proposing is a merger.  My Decepticon forces will combine with yours and allow you to take control of Cybertron, if you will help us conquer our home planet in exchange."

"Why has your commander not come to meet with me in person?" demanded Megatron.  "My time is wasted on messengers."

Anthrax cleared her throat politely.  "Megatron, I am leader of these Decepticon forces."

Megatron burst out into a deep fit of laughter.  "How absurd.  No female has ever achieved the position of command.  Not on Cybertron or any other planet."

"I would venture," said Anthrax, "that you don't know as much about female Decepticons as you think you do."

Megatron suddenly remembered the unusual Decepticon symbol Anthrax wore.  He gestured to Soundwave, who shifted his stance slightly.  "Searching data banks," he explained, almost apologetically.  After a moment, he reported:  "Female Decepticons presumed extinct prior to Third Cybertron War.  Reason for extinction: unknown."  His gaze shifted as a way of indicating that he had exhausted his records on the subject.

"Your data, such as they are, seem to be a bit out of date," Anthrax said.  "Megatron, what do you know about the Hub?"

"Only that it was the place where Cybertron was designed and built... or so say the legends," Megatron admitted, racking his brain for the faint memories that lingered.  "Why?"

"I've seen the Hub," Anthrax said.  "It is real.  Some Decepticons consider it the focal point of the Empire, from which all other Cybertrons originated.  While your planet is predominantly made up of a Decepticon warrior caste, my world is largely populated by strategists."

"Weaklings!" Megatron scoffed reflexively.

"The battle outside your base between your forces and myself would appear to disprove that," Anthrax remarked cooly.  "Dreadwing and I could have destroyed your forces if we so chose."

"I have no need for new strategies," Megatron said with a dismissive wave of his left hand.  

"I suggest that you listen to me, Megatron," Anthrax said.  "What I am offering you is not merely a few tacticians huddled together in a room devising new battle formations.  With the help of your Decepticons, we can unlock the secret to an unprecedented source of such power the likes of which you have never before seen.  You have nothing to lose but a few days."

"And what if I refuse to help you and just take your power source instead?" Megatron said, leaning forward.

"It doesn't exist yet, Megatron," Anthrax said, smiling.  "That's where I come in.  All you have to do is allow me to command some of your warriors for a short time--"

"I am the leader of all Decepticons," snarled Megatron.  "Which includes you, Anthrax."

"I would beg to differ, Megatron," she said.  "You and I are each the leader of our respective planets--or the Decepticons on those planets, at any rate.  In a sense, we are peers--and we each follow the will of the Liege Maximo."

"Fairy tales," Megatron spat.  "There is no Liege Maximo."  For just a microsecond, Megatron's glance shifted to Soundwave, but his communications officer showed no signs of countering Megatron's assertion.

"The Liege was the one who sent me to find you, Megatron," Anthrax said with a kind of hushed reverence.  "It is his plan to unite the Cybertrons under a single banner."

"I will never turn over the planet for which I have fought so hard--" Megatron was at a momentary loss for words, he was so furious.  "--to an entity that may or may not even exist!"

Anthrax consulted the chronometer on her arm.  "Cybertron will remain yours, in title and deed.  No one will interfere with how your rule your world.  I do not profess to understand the mind of the Liege," she said, making a hurried religious gesture that Megatron did not recognize, "but I believe it his intent to... bring the children of Cybertron back home."  She adjusted her gaze to the sigil on Megatron's chest, and then again to her own.

Megatron pursed his silver lips and took a breath.  "I require proof," he said with an air of finality.

Anthrax stood up, the reflections from the artificial lighting cascading down her black and purple form.  "If I take you to see the Liege Maximo, will you accept my offer?" she asked, placing the back of her hand on her hip.

Megatron left the table and turned to the portal behind him.  If he agreed, he was effectively admitting that the campaign against Optimus Prime had been a failure.  Megatron had devoted his entire life to ridding himself of Prime once and for all, and had vowed never to rest until he had crushed Prime with his bare hands.  Anthrax was many things--an outsider, who knew nothing of the Autobot-Decepticon war... a female, who could never be an equal in his eyes... and something far worse than either of those combined.  She represented the idea that there was a greater force in the universe, that there was another Decepticon in control of his destiny.  It went against the fiber of Megatron's being; he was certain she was trying to deceive him in some way, but was he really willing to question the core of his beliefs to prove it?  What if there really was more to the Decepticon Empire than a few straggling survivors... leftovers from the very creation of the Decepticons who had migrated to other worlds?

Megatron stared Anthrax squarely in the eyes.  "Soundwave," he said, "escort our guest to the docking tower.  We have no further business here."

Anthrax's face grew stern.  "You are passing up the greatest opportunity of your life, Megatron.  The Liege personally selected you for my first liaison.  If you refuse, there are other Decepticons who stand to gain from your foolishness.  There will not be a second chance at this kind of victory.  When the Liege's vision is attained, you will be remembered not as the great Decepticon leader who made it possible, but as one of many insignificant warriors who followed in that leader's wake--if you are indeed remembered at all!"

Soundwave touched Anthrax's shoulders, directing her to the doorway.  Anthrax had only the time to turn around and address Megatron with a single phrase:  "You'll live to regret this!" she promised.

Megatron was visibly thrown, but only for an instant.  "Leave this planet," he said, exactly as he would address a soldier under his command, "and take your superstitious drivel with you."  With that, Soundwave escorted her to sea level where Dreadwing awaited.

Megatron left the conference room a few moments later, ignored the questioning and accusing looks of Starscream on the bridge, and wandered wearily to his quarters.  It was only a few million astro-seconds before daybreak on this side of the planet, but those few precious cycles would have to suffice.  Megatron needed his rest.

As he reclined and prepared to shut himself down, to give his batteries time to recharge and allow data to be processed by systems that were otherwise engaged when he was conscious, Megatron felt a sense of dread pervade his being.  It was the same feeling he frequently experienced when the Autobots arrived before he and his warriors had gotten the chance to drain a given Earth facility of its fuel--a feeling, Megatron had to admit, he was growing uncomfortably familiar with.

Megatron knew very little about the affairs on the other Cybertrons, and he liked it that way.  He knew that back home, Shockwave communicated with some of the other planets on occasion, but Shockwave had learned to stop relaying the results of those communiques to Megatron after the Decepticon commander repeatedly expressed his disgust about them.  The fact that these other worlds existed at all was no great secret, but they could have been in another Universe for all Megatron cared.  They did not affect him directly in any way, and he therefore had absolutely no interest in them, at least for the time being.  He would one day find those wayward Decepticons and welcome them back to the fold, of course... but not while the fate of Cybertron--his Cybertron--was still undecided.

Megatron had made his decision.  To accept the assistance of an outsider would mean he had finally given up, and that was something he would never be willing to do.  He would yet find a way to destroy Optimus Prime through his own machinations, and at long last take the planet that was rightfully his, and always had been.  He would then conquer the other Cybertrons, one at a time, until the entire Empire was within his grasp.  Including the planet from which that uppity female hailed.

Unfortunately, Megatron was, at the moment, right back where he had started when the day had begun... and the quartex before... and an entire planetary cycle before that.  None of the other Decepticons had a more clear grasp of the situation than Megatron, and it was at once sobering and terrifying.  Like Cybertron, the Earth's resources were not infinite.  Every energy raid weakened the planet more, and most of the installations that Megatron had attacked would never fully recover.  New facilities were being built, but certainly not at the rate Megatron was destroying them.

Megatron had done the calculations, once.  He had estimated that, even after the loss of the ruby crystal mine, it would still only take him five or six Earth years to collect the energon he needed.  Things had changed, since then.  The discovery of the Insecticons...  Starscream's treachery... Omega Supreme joining the Autobots on Earth...  all of these things caused him setbacks that he couldn't afford.  It was the dawn of a new millennium on this Earth, but if things remained as they were, the Decepticons would go down in history as the losers of the Third Cybertron War.

No matter what else happened, Megatron realized, the Decepticons needed an infusion of energy and they needed it now. Megatron's last thought before he deactivated for the night was a promise to himself.  It was the core philosophy to which he always returned, one that was comfortable, and yet always seemed to elude him.  The longer the Decepticons were at war, however, the more determined Megatron became to see it through:  "I will win by any means... at any cost!"

END OF BOOK ONE

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