Last time: The Decepticons' need for energy on Earth grows desperate, but Megatron refuses to accept assistance from a Decepticon visiting from another world.
Starscream felt a rush of power as he slipped into the night sky. It was not uncommon for Starscream to go for night flights over the ocean; like many of the other Decepticons, he vastly preferred the open expanse of the skies to the cold, dismal existence of living beneath the ocean's surface. Tonight, the fact that the Decepticons were accustomed to his excursions would work to his advantage.
Although no one noticed him leave, Starscream knew that if Soundwave were still awake, he would likely be monitoring Starscream's activity. Soundwave liked to know everything, especially when it concerned the activities of a known dissident. So, for the benefit of Megatron's favorite sycophant, Starscream remained to within a few miles of headquarters, performing a few of his favorite aerial maneuvers that he rarely had the luxury of performing during the daytime or during the heat of battle.
After ten minutes or more, when Starscream was satisfied that he'd put on an adequate show for Soundwave's potentially eavesdropping sensors, Starscream headed for his true destination. He stayed as low to the water as possible, skimming the ocean's surface as a hovercraft might, spraying a tremendous foamy white trail behind him. He was concerned about being picked up by human satellites, but not so much to avoid their interference than to prevent the Decepticons back at the base from detecting the humans' response. This mission required all the stealth Starscream could muster, and no one could know about it.
It wasn't long before Starscream reached land; he switched on his radar only long enough to confirm his precise location, and then began flying cold once more. In the back of his mind, Starscream cursed the clunky, angular design of his Earth mode, whose unimaginative angles were easily betrayed by radar detection.
Finally, he reached his destination--a mountainous area, probably in the region the humans called Oregon, or possibly Montana, Starscream guessed. He'd never really bothered learning the political separations of the humans' land masses (although he liked to think that he was familiar with most of the major continents).
Starscream transformed a few feet from the ground, allowing the thrusters in his feet to lower him down safely. He approached a rock face that resembled the shape of the Decepticon insignia--because that was precisely what it had been sculpted into, during one of Scrapper's more inspired moments. It was weathered a bit by the elements, the result of close to 15 years' worth of age, but it had held up remarkably well. Starscream had always wondered what the purpose was of plastering a gigantic sigil in front of what he had thought was supposed to be a "secret base," but far be it from him to question the will of the great Megatron...
Megatron was losing his touch, Starscream realized. For all Megatron's many flaws, Starscream had respected the Decepticon leader--once. But the more Starscream grew to know him, and the more he had learned about the Decepticon hierarchy, the more disgusted Starscream had become. It had been years since Megatron was clearly focused on conquering Cybertron; sometimes Starscream wondered if Megatron even missed the Decepticons' true home. Starscream's leader was, it seems, quickly spiralling into his own world of vengeance and obsession, and Megatron was apparently prepared to drag the other Decepticons right down with him.
Starscream was not.
Approaching the Decepticon sigil, he opened the cockpit in his chest compartment and removed a small actuator device. He extended its antenna and pressed a button on its control surface, pointing it in the direction of the rock face. At first nothing happened and Starscream cursed himself for not remembering the correct frequency, but at last the rock wall shivered and slid backwards to reveal the entrance to the Decepticons' former temporary base.
Tapping a button on his helmet, he activated his forehead-mounted photon light and plunged himself into the darkness. An almost imperceptible scuffling sound caught Starscream's attention; whirring around in the approximate direction of the noise, Starscream caught a glimpse of a small desert creature skittering away.
Starscream groped at the walls until he bumped into the base's main generator. Extending a cable from his chest, he plugged into the generator, feeding it the power necessary to bring it back to life. A moment later, the generator began singing a low, steady hum, and the base's lights fluttered slowly into awareness. Starscream instinctively took a cursory glance over his shoulder, though he immediately felt rather silly for doing so. He felt like a thief, even though by all rights (or so he rationalized) he belonged here every bit as much as any other Decepticon did.
Starscream's mood soured, as he was briefly reminded of the last time he had entered this hidden lair. Unwanted sounds and images invaded his consciousness--the ninja robot who had humiliated Starscream; Megatron's threats to replace him with her. Starscream was usually able to gauge Megatron's behavior reasonably well; he always knew just how far he could test Megatron's patience, exactly how much Megatron would tolerate from him before he struck back. This time, however, it had been different--Megatron had been prepared, apparently, to demote Starscream on a whim without the slightest provocation on Starscream's part, and Starscream had detected no indication that Megatron was anything less than serious.
Now, it seemed that it would happen again, but this time Starscream was determined to stop the situation in its tracks. It was the presence of the new female Decepticon who had reminded Starscream that this base still existed, in fact. Presumably, dismantling it and recycling its components was somewhere on the Constructicons' to-do list, but the fact that the Autobots had never discovered it had made that a low-priority task.
Shrugging off the unpleasant reminders, he moved to the control center, dusting off some rock particles that had probably broken loose from the cavern ceiling. He tapped a few controls, and to his delight, his suspicions were confirmed--everything still worked. More importantly than that, however... Soundwave had never encrypted the codes for these controls.
Starscream began reconfiguring the computer for long-range transmission capability. All of the required physical components was still in place, but the Constructicons had only given the base the bare-bones minimum necessary to operate in terms of software. Computer programming was not Starscream's forte, but he had sufficient knowledge to instruct the base's communicator that he wanted to send a signal through subspace to Cybertron.
He had no idea whether he was getting through, but he began broadcasting all the same: "Attention, Cybertron! This is Air Commander Starscream on planet Earth. I have an urgent message concerning the activities of Decepticon Leader Megatron."
Starscream continued his transmission, making sure to relay names, places, and dates. He relayed the chain of events following Optimus Prime's cosmotron leak and apparent death. He told of Megatron's fateful duel with Optimus Prime in which Megatron unleashed the combined powers of every Decepticon on Earth. He spent the better part of an hour documenting Megatron's often wasteful methods for the acquisition of energon, his disregard for humans, and his treatment of his troops, especially his penchant to retreat from battle without the regard for his soldiers at the drop of a pin.
When he was finished, Starscream briefly considered setting his message to begin repeating the signal automatically, but quickly frowned upon the idea, as Soundwave would no doubt detect the broadcast in the morning. Once would have to suffice.
Now, Starscream was hungry. Powering up the base again had required most of his stored energon, and until Cybertron responded to his call, his immediate situation was no different than before. He was convinced that this would soon change, however. Starscream grew eager at the thought of what was to come, grinning insanely and delightfully tickled. Fueled by mechadrenaline and feeling bolder now, Starscream took to the night sky once more...
Chapter 8: Selfish Gifts
Autobot Headquarters was bustling with activity. Optimus Prime was directing most of the various operations as the Autobot teams carried out their assorted tasks: Sideswipe was helping Hoist and Grapple excavate the remains of the antechamber that had become buried during the Ark's crash; Wheeljack and Ratchet were tinkering with some possible new cerebro-enhancers for the Dinobots; and Blaster and Hubcap were working on boosting the transmission capability of Teletraan One and the Sky Spy satellite. Huffer and Brawn had been dispatched to help the Protectobots relocate to Autobot Headquarters, while most of the other Autobots were out on supply runs or patrolling the city. The Aerialbots had remained at the base, maintaining a perimeter around the volcano in case of a Decepticon attack.
Complex operations had become second nature to Prime, particularly after the remainder of the Ark's crew had been recovered about a year after the Autobots' awakening on Earth. He'd had roughly five million years to practice making full use of the resources available to him, and he liked to think he'd become pretty good at it. Apparently, humans weren't quite as accustomed to it--Spike and his friends Chip and Carly had stopped by earlier that morning, but they hadn't stayed for long, joking that they were afraid one of the Autobots would step on them. Prime usually enjoyed the company of his human friends, but today... it was just as well that they'd left.
Prime still couldn't shake the feeling that everything he was doing to protect the Earth would never be enough. Back home, at least Prime had the luxury to launch attacks of his own. On this world, however, he was largely resigned to a defensive position... and had about six billion more lives to consider. Organizing aggressive action against the Decepticons was simply not an option--at least, not while Megatron persisted in setting his sights on energy installations owned and operated by human beings.
Prime had to physically shrug off the idea that usually tried to sneak its way into his consciousness whenever he followed this particular train of thought--
"Hey, Optimus!" Hoist shouted from the antechamber. "I think we found something!"
Optimus Prime turned to Hoist and Grapple; the excavators' vehicle-mode tool arms frantically clearing away some of the rubble that was piled up in front of them. "It's times like this," said Grapple, "I wish we had a dump truck on our team."
"I'll give you a hand," said Prime, transforming to his tractor trailer mode. "Or more accurately, a claw." He connected with his trailer for just an instant, then pulled away to enable the trailer to unfold into his Combat Deck. The artillery robot extended to its full length and began collecting some of the larger pieces of rock with its single mechanoid claw. The cab portion transformed back to Optimus Prime's robot mode.
Sideswipe, who had still been knocking away at some of the mineral around the edges of the work site, finally shut down his pile drivers. They retracted back into his forearms and were quickly replaced with his hands. "So, uh," he said, brushing some dust off his arms, "what exactly did we find?"
Hoist switched to robot mode and approached the object in question--an orange, rectangular-shaped component that looked as though it had once been part of the ship's systems, but had since been torn from the hull.
"Our particle collector," Grapple affirmed after returning to robot form. "I wonder if it still works?"
Wheeljack apparently caught Grapple's words, as he approached the congregation of Autobots a moment later. "Well," he said, "there's only one way to find out." He groped at the device until he discovered its access panel. He popped it open and deftly began testing internals and checking wiring, as though he'd done this hundreds of time before. He quite possibly had.
Optimus regarded the particle collector with mixed feelings. The device, originally intended to fuel the Ark by accumulating particles during its journey through space and annihilating them to create energy, could still be a useful tool, even if the ship that it once powered had been dormant for four million years. The Autobots did not want for fuel, thanks to the generous contributions of the United States and several other countries. Autobot Headquarters maintained a direct feed to six independently operating generators throughout the world, whose precise locations remained hidden to the Decepticons--and most of the Autobots.
Still, the particle collector would be invaluable if it could be adapted to the Earth's atmosphere. Optimus Prime didn't want to have to depend on the humans forever, and given recent events, it seemed the feeling was mutual. Besides, the fuel that the world leaders had donated to the Autobots in order to help them launch the Ark back to Cybertron still hadn't proved enough to get spaceborne. In retrospect, Prime wondered if humanity didn't have some ulterior motives for being so willing to help...
"Yeah," said Wheeljack, "I think I can do it. I'm gonna need some help, though."
Prime turned and called to his medic. "Ratchet, it looks like priorities have shifted. Help Wheeljack get this collector back to the lab."
Ratchet sighed, but he was smiling. "Well, I've done about all I can with the Dinobots' brain circuits for one day anyhow." His surgeon's tool retracted into his forearm, replaced by his hand an instant later. "Come on, Wheeljack."
"I'll bet the Decepticons would love to get their hands on that," Grapple said morosely.
"Bite your tongue, Grapple," said Hoist.
"Yeah," chimed in Sideswipe. "Don't give the Decepti-creeps any ideas."
As if on cue, Teletraan 1 suddenly piped up. "Attention, Optimus Prime!"
"Ow!" Blaster jerked up and banged his head on the opening to the panel he'd buried himself in. "Man, that smarts! I dinged my parts!"
Hubcap looked at him quizzically. "Laddie, why is it I cannay ever understand a bloody thing you say?"
Prime approached the computer monitor. "What is it, Teletraan?"
"Code One Emergency. Decepticons detected attacking the O'Donnell Research Institute."
Prime's expression turned grim. "Oh no..."
"That's a nuclear facility!" Hoist exclaimed.
"Megatron's taken it too far this time," said Prime. "Jazz's patrol is closest. Optimus Prime to Jazz!" Teletraan switched channels, and an instant later Jazz appeared on-screen in his car mode as some school children strolled past him on a crosswalk.
"Yo, Prime, whassup?" said Jazz.
"Take your team to the O'Donnell Research Center. Teletraan's sending you the coordinates now. You've got to stop the Decepticons! The Aerialbots and I will meet you there as soon as we can."
"Roger that, Prime! We're on it!" confirmed Jazz. The viewscreen went blank.
"Aerialbots!" shouted Prime, and the monitor produced a view of them in formation over the volcano. "We're moving out, now!"
"Teletraan," ordered Prime as he transformed, "contact the Protectobots and tell 'em to get there immediately. We're gonna need all the help we can get." Prime accelerated at full speed towards the main exit. "The rest of you remain here," he called out. "I'll keep you advised!"
Chapter 9: Atomic
Starscream tore at the crumbling side of the building until he had created a large enough hole to enter the complex and extend to his full height. Megatron had left him out of the last three straight energy raids, and he wasn't about to let that continue. If Megatron wasn't willing to seize this world's power for his own, then it was obviously up to Starscream to start calling the shots.
He felt confident, now. With his trump card in place, Starscream's world took on a whole new color. His fear that Megatron would discover his plans was ever-present, but for the moment, Starscream had the strength to take more brazen measures, which he was convinced would demonstrate to the other Decepticons that Megatron's grasp on him, as well as that of the others, had finally weakened. It hadn't taken Starscream long to convince the Combaticons, his own creations, to accompany him--particularly since they, too, had been deprived of their fair share of fuel during the most recent energy raids. Their hunger, it seemed, prevailed over Megatron's supposedly fool-proof reprogramming of the former renegade Decepticons.
"Combaticons," he commanded regally, a finger extended, "begin producing energon cubes! Fill them to capacity and let no one stand in your way!"
Swindle and Brawl were in their respective jeep and tank transformations, firing potshots at the human workers to scare them away. Vortex had collected several of them and was busy flying around the perimeter of the room in helicopter mode, cackling wildly. Onslaught and Blast Off were in robot mode on either side of Starscream.
"This assault is strategically unsound," said Onslaught in his clipped accent. "We have no way of safely transporting that much energon back to base, even if the Autobots allow us to--"
"This is my operation!" Starscream exploded. "You will do as I say, or I won't let you have a single drop of energy!" Why did the Combaticons have to be so difficult sometimes? Starscream wondered for a fleeting moment whether they would have responded this way to Megatron.
"Blast Off, transform! You will carry the energon back to Decepticon Headquarters!" Starscream ordered.
Blast Off jerked his head back dramatically. "Really, Starscream. I am a warrior, not a cargo shuttle. You must realize that manual labor is entirely beneath me. I couldn't possibly--"
Starscream shoved his arm cannon in Blast Off's face. "You'll do it, or I'll blast you into so many pieces that we'll have to find somebody to carry you back to base!"
Blast Off sighed a long, drawn-out sigh. "Oh, very well. But I think you should know I'm doing this under protest." He took a few steps back and expanded to his space shuttle mode.
Starscream touched his fingertips together and then drew them apart, producing an empty energon cube. (Energy raids were so much easier when he didn't have to depend on Soundwave!) He approached one of the nuclear generators, a bit uncertain at first how to extract from it. Finally, he grasped the cube and forced its transparent form halfway into the body of the generator unit. Slowly, a pink, glowing liquid began to occupy the volume of the cube as it converted the nuclear power into energon.
"I have succeeded where Megatron could not!" laughed Starscream. "Once we return, I will take my rightful place as Decepticon leader!" After Starscream brought back enough energon to fuel the entire Decepticon army, Megatron would be forced to step down and give him command!
"Aww, I didn't know it was your birthday, Starscream!" came Jazz's voice. Starscream whirled around to find a trio of Autobots parked inside the gaping hole the Combaticons had created. "How about if I give you a nice, big headache instead?"
"Autobot fool!" Starscream shouted, shaking his fist. "The three of you will never defeat me!"
"Autobots, transform!" Jazz ordered. He, Smokescreen, and Windcharger reconfigured for battle.
Starscream was momentarily hesitant. He knew that the Autobots would eventually have interfered... part of him had been hoping the operation would have gone quickly enough that Blast Off could depart as soon as the Autobots had gotten there. He certainly didn't want to risk losing the energon during a battle. On the other hand, Prime hadn't showed up yet, which meant that Starscream still had the advantage!
"Combaticons, assemble for battle!" Starscream commanded, and the five warriors quickly gathered around him. "Destroy these Autobot upstarts!"
"I do wish you'd make up your mind," Blast Off sighed.
"Yeah," agreed Vortex, as his former passengers scrambled for safety, "just when it was getting fun!"
"No way!" grumbled Brawl. "Smashin' Autobots is much more fun!" He charged towards the Autobots, brandishing his electron gun.
"Er, I don't know how to tell you this, Decepticon," said Windcharger, "but we're not here for that kind of fun!" He pushed his palms forward in the direction of the Combaticon, and Brawl suddenly found himself flying back into the floor, head first.
"We'd better be careful," Windcharger cautioned. "One stray shot could make this whole place go up like a rocket!"
"And what's more, Starscream knows it," added Smokescreen.
"We gotta lead 'em outta here before we can fight 'em," Jazz realized. "And I think I know just how to do that!" With that, Jazz switched back to his Porsche mode, producing a pair of oversized speakers from behind his vehicle-mode spoiler. "All right, Combaticons!" he said with enthusiasm. "It's time for Starscream's birthday bash! Let's boogie down!" He then started up one of his personal favorites, a hard rock number called "Cold Slither"--at 150 decibels. Simultaneously, his headlights kicked in, bathing the Decepticons in seemingly random lights of assorted colors and intensity.
"What is that horrible din?!" yelled Onslaught, cupping his audio receptors as though he was afraid they would fly right off his head.
"Oooh, and the lights! They're making me dizzy!" screamed Vortex, groping at the air for support.
"It's just a light show, you idiots!" Starscream shrieked, trying to make himself heard over the noise. "Attack him! Destroy him!" Starscream began firing randomly into the Autobots' direction, shielding his own optic sensors. A lucky shot made contact with Jazz, causing him to roll back a few feet. The music cut out abruptly.
"Now, we end this!" Starscream said. "Combaticons, unite!"
Each of the Combaticons took a moment to regain their bearings. Then they initiated their own unique transformation sequence, as parts shifted and realigned, components connected to one another, and individual consciousness took a backseat to the towering behemoth that was Starscream's own creation.
"Bruticus!" Starscream commanded. "Smash those Autobots!"
Bruticus breathed heavily as he approached, scraping his helmet and the guns on his back against the rafters on the ceiling. "Place too big for Bruticus..." he said in a deep tone. He spotted Jazz below him and nonchalantly kicked the Autobot out of his way.
"Looks like Jazz is out for the count," Windcharger said. "Got any ideas?"
Smokescreen smiled insincerely. With Jazz unconscious, he now held the highest rank, and the decisions now fell to him. "Yeah, I've got a trick or two up my sleeve."
Smokescreen was accustomed to thinking on his feet; it was practically his job description, and was the one thing he did very well. He enjoyed the freedom of being able to act on his own instincts; though he realized he was probably deluding himself, it made him feel important, even worthwhile, that his decisions had a direct impact on Autobot operations. He couldn't understand why so many of the others were content spending their existence drifting from day to day, battles and patrols and all blurring together as one. Didn't they have any drive, any ambitions? Did they ever look beyond their duties as an Autobot, longing for something more fulfilling? What the other Autobots probably didn't realize was that Smokescreen actively despised most of them; he was friendly toward every single one of them, and he played the role well. So well, in fact, that even he believed it sometimes. In the end, though, he was biding his time, it seemed--waiting for his tenure to end or change, but that elusive something still had yet to come.
For the moment, however, Smokescreen was an Autobot first and foremost, and he knew his duty.
He transformed to car mode, circling behind Bruticus and back around to the other side of the giant robot. "Hey, what are you waiting for?" he taunted. "Come and get me, you big galoot!"
Bruticus chased Smokescreen through the torn-open wall onto the lawn outside the complex. Smokescreen was making figure-eights as he weaved around Bruticus; the Decepticon conglomeration didn't have the reflexes to keep up with him.
Windcharger ran over to Jazz, whose headlights were flickering like a neon sign. Windcharger grabbed him by the roof and nudged him. "Come on, buddy, wake up!"
"Why don't you join him instead?" Starscream suggested, swooping towards Windcharger and firing both null rays. "Take a nap!" Windcharger's body flashed with pink energy for an instant before he collapsed to the ground.
Outside, Smokescreen was still keeping Bruticus busy. He couldn't keep it up forever--he wasn't getting very good traction on the grass, and Bruticus' fingers had just barely scratched his paint a couple of times. He considered himself lucky that Bruticus was apparently too dumb to start shooting at him, or to separate back into his far more agile individual forms.
Starscream flew out of the building and landed in front of the main entrance. "Step on him, you idiot!" he yelled to Bruticus.
"Not so fast!" boomed Optimus Prime's voice. He rumbled over the landscape, transforming and skidding to a halt on the pavement, sparks shooting from his feet. "Aerialbots, unite!"
The Aerialbots came swooping into the scene in tight formation. The five jets rocketed close enough to the ground to make the meticulously-planted trees shudder violently; the jets then cut sharply up into the air. As one, they reconfigured into the body parts of a larger whole, connecting together fluidly and landing on the ground as a single robot.
"Superion," commanded Optimus, "use extreme caution. We must protect this facility at all costs." Superion nodded in acknowledgement.
Starscream saw his chance to turn the situation to his advantage. "That's right, Optimus Prime! You wouldn't want anything to 'accidentally' happen to one of these nuclear generators!" He aimed his arm-mounted gun at the inside of the building in a terribly pointed manner.
Surprisingly, Prime didn't seem convinced. "You're not that foolish, Starscream. One stray blast would destroy this entire facility--including you."
The difference between Megatron and Starscream, at least in Starscream's eyes, is that Starscream was a better bluffer. "It would be worth it to rid the Universe of Optimus Prime! I would be the most famous Decepticon in history!"
Smokescreen didn't need further incentive to act. He circled wide around Bruticus, easily avoiding the Decepticon's ungainly attempts to flatten him. He headed for the main entrance, spraying his dark, thick exhaust smoke in Starscream's direction. Only a few seconds later, the entire front of the building was completely enshrouded.
"Aaah!" shrieked Starscream. "Bruticus, do something!"
Bruticus lumbered slowly over to the hovering cloud of black smoke. With uncertainty in his voice, he asked slowly, "What do you want Bruticus to do?"
Starscream shrieked again. "Stop him!"
Bruticus was hesitant for a moment, then pierced the cloud with his left hand. Smokescreen collided into Bruticus' palm with a sharp metallic clang, and Bruticus plucked the Autobot out of the smoke. Smokescreen switched to robot mode and, still in the behemoth's clutches, fired at Bruticus with his shoulder-mounted disrupters. Bruticus deflected the bursts with his other palm. "Puny robot!" he grumbled. "You cannot hurt Bruticus!"
Jazz and Windcharger wandered out of the building, shaking off the effects of the null rays. Superion took a step toward Bruticus, but seemed unsure how to act. He cast a glance at Optimus Prime.
Optimus Prime didn't know Starscream quite as well he knew Megatron. Prime was usually fairly good at predicting Megatron's behavior, the debacle from yesterday notwithstanding. The chances that Starscream was willing to destroy himself were extraordinarily slim... and yet the possibility existed. Prime's gaze met the edge of the city, less than a mile from the O'Donnell installation. The destruction of the nuclear plant represented far more than the loss of another energy source for the humans.
"Superion, stand down," ordered Prime.
"How very wise of you, Optimus Prime," taunted Starscream. "Bruticus, grab the energon cubes!" The gigantic Decepticon stuck his right hand inside the gaping hole of the research center, rummaged around for a moment, and came back with a handful of energon cubes.
"Hey, man! What about Smokescreen?" Jazz called out.
Starscream just smirked. "He will be our insurance that you do not try to stop us! If I spot anything following us that even looks like an Autobot, I'll order Bruticus to crush him!"
"Prime, you can't let him do this!" urged Jazz.
The sound of fire engine and police car sirens could be heard in the distance.
Prime looked straight at Smokescreen, still struggling to free himself from Bruticus' grasp. Then he turned away and explained, matter-of-factly, "We have no choice, Jazz. We can't risk a nuclear incident this close to the city."
The Protectobots rumbled onto the scene, all five of them quickly shifting to their robot forms. Brawn and Huffer were close behind.
"Protectobots," said Hot Spot, "transform into Defensor!"
"Belay that order, Protectobots," Prime said sternly. "Take no action against the Decepticons."
"Bruticus, transform!" commanded Starscream. The giant robot's fists retracted into his forearms before his arms detached and assumed the more familiar forms of Blast Off, carrying the payload of energon cubes... and Vortex, who carried Smokescreen. The other three Combaticons shrank back to their robot forms and entered Blast Off through a side access hatch.
"Farewell, Autobots!" Starscream cackled madly, transforming to his F-15 mode and leading the Combaticons back toward the Atlantic ocean.
"Is anybody hurt?" asked First Aid.
"Nah, just a little tingly," said Windcharger.
"Sorry we didn't get here sooner, Optimus Prime," Hot Spot said, the remorse evident in his voice, "but there was an automobile accident in the city. We were there before the human paramedics arrived, so we took the injured humans to a medical care facility."
"You did the right thing, Hot Spot," Prime assured him. "I'm just thankful the generators weren't damaged. The results of this facility's destruction would be... catastrophic."
"Yeah, Fallout City," Jazz said.
Huffer approached the somewhat battered nuclear power station, tasting the air with his fingertips. "No radiation detected, Prime."
"But what about Smokescreen?" Windcharger wondered.
"We'll deal with him later," Prime said. "Protectobots, remain here and guard the plant until the humans arrive. The rest of you, let's head back to base. I want to have a little talk with Megatron," Prime said, the deliberation chiseled on his face.
Chapter 10: Baggage
Starscream was still giggling triumphantly to himself as the docking tower broke the water's surface and opened up to greet him. Vortex spat Smokescreen out of his cargo hold and transformed, swooping in and clutching him again in mid-air. The large, toothy drawbridge closed up, swallowing up the Decepticons and their prisoner a few seconds later.
Starscream stepped onto the bridge of the ship where Megatron and Soundwave awaited.
"I am triumphant, Megatron!" Starscream announced, raising his arms victoriously.
"You are brain dead, Starscream!" Megatron sneered. "I thought I told you that you were not to leave the base!"
"Oh, it must have slipped my mind, mighty Megatron," he said, emphasizing Megatron's preferred title in a manner that conveyed anything but respect. "But the Combaticons and I--"
"I gave you no authorization to take the Combaticons at all! You're all traitors!"
"Hey, wait a minute," piped up Swindle, "you said Megatron gave you the go-ahead on the attack on that nuclear power station!"
Megatron's arm thrust forward faster than Starscream could react, grasping him by the throat. "Are your brain circuits completely scrambled?!" he seethed. Starscream knew that Megatron could lift objects ten times his size effortlessly, and yet he could feel Megatron trembling.
"We... we gathered almost twenty... energy cubes!" he squeaked.
"From a nuclear facility, you dolt! If you had destroyed the plant, you would have killed hundreds of those puny fleshlings in the process!"
"So... what?" Starscream said in a strangled tone, trying to wrench Megatron's fingers free with both hands. "They mean... nothing... to us...!"
Megatron growled and threw Starscream into the wall. Starscream scrambled to an upright position, but made no effort to stand. "If we begin exterminating the flesh creatures en masse, Optimus Prime and the Autobots will be all over us like a swarm of mosquito-trons!"
Starscream was confused. "But I... I didn't think that--"
"No, you didn't stop to think, did you? From now on, leave the thinking to others, Starscream."
Starscream was determined to salvage the situation. "But we even captured an Autobot! Optimus Prime was completely unable to stop us as long as we had this Autobot in our clutches!"
Megatron walked toward Starscream and lifted him by the shoulders. "Only because he was unwilling to risk destroying the nuclear power plant, you idiot!" Megatron thrust him into the wall. "Now Optimus Prime will certainly launch an assault on our base to recover him! You've failed miserably, Starscream!" Disgusted, Megatron allowed Starscream to crumple to the ground.
"But, Megatron! The energon cubes we collected--"
"Will be wasted defending our headquarters from the Autobots! If we don't get rid of that Autobot before Prime attacks--"
"Attention, Megatron," intoned Soundwave. "Message received from Autobot Headquarters."
"Reroute to the main screen, Soundwave," said Megatron. "This isn't over, Starscream!" he hissed over his shoulder.
Optimus Prime's gleaming metal face plate appeared on the Decepticons' monitor. The mask that covered the lower half of his face sometimes made it difficult to read his expressions, but a few million years' worth of experience with the Autobot commander told Megatron that Prime was not pleased.
"Megatron," Prime said simply.
Megatron assumed his best conversational tone. "To what do I owe the pleasure, Optimus Prime?"
Prime's icy stare remained unchanged. "I didn't contact you to exchange pleasantries, Megatron. I want to effect a trade."
Megatron's curiosity was piqued. He wondered what sort of price Prime was willing to assign to the captive Autobot's life. "What could you possibly have that would persuade me to surrender my prisoner?"
Starscream could hardly suppress a snort.
"I'm not negotiating for Smokescreen's release," Prime said.
Standing within earshot, still in Vortex's clutches, Smokescreen's optics grew wide. "What?"
Megatron's thoughts echoed Smokescreen's sentiment, and he grew more curious. "What is it that you want, Prime?"
"It's simple, Megatron. I'm prepared to give you the means to create as much energy as you want. We'll give you our starship's particle collector, which converts matter directly into energon."
Megatron sputtered. "What kind of a fool do you take me for?"
"But in exchange for this," Prime continued, "you must leave the planet Earth forever. We will take our war back to Cybertron where it belongs."
"Don't do it, Megatron!" Starscream said insistently. "It's a tr--" He was abruptly cut off when Megatron cuffed him in the face.
"Do you really expect me to take you up on such a transparent ploy, Prime?" Megatron sneered. "The only reason you would come to me with such a generous offer..." he realized, "is if there were an even greater energy source available for the taking!" He laughed. "Nice try, Prime. But you'll have to try much harder if you want to outsmart me! Megatron out!" He closed the channel before Prime could persist further.
Unfortunately, Megatron had no clue what this new power source might be. Prime had tipped his hand, but now that Megatron had called his bluff, he had to act quickly. If Prime was trying to prevent Megatron from acquiring it, then it was something the Autobots did not yet have.
"Soundwave, can you open a channel to Dreadwing?" Megatron asked, hoping that the female Decepticon had not already traveled beyond even Soundwave's communication range.
"Affirmative, Megatron." Soundwave responded quickly. "Dreadwing has not yet left Earth orbit."
"Decepticon energy signature located five mechano-meters above sea level."
Megatron cracked a smile. Anthrax knew he would change his mind! She'd been waiting for him the whole time.
Chapter 11: The Situation
Optimus Prime was angrier than he could remember being in a very long time. After Megatron had cut off communications with him, Prime had returned to his quarters without a word to the other Autobots. Prime had spent more and more time brooding of late, and he knew it didn't do much for the other Autobots' morale, not to mention unhealthy for him personally. What was he to do when his hands were completely tied, though? The Autobots had been trapped in a defensive stance for years, ever since Prime realized that the safety of the humans precluded him from taking the measures that would allow the Autobots to triumph. Rarely taking the initiative, the Autobots were reduced to reacting only when the Decepticons made the first move. What was worse, the Decepticons knew it.
How long before the other Autobots grew tired of this endless game, as Mirage had? It was one thing for the Autobots to restrict themselves to low weapon settings and short-range combat--rules which Prime himself admitted were counterproductive at times, but which he rigidly enforced. It was another thing entirely for the Autobots to start giving up the fight...
"Optimus," came Red Alert's voice over the communicator, "it's time for the weekly security briefing." Prime sighed inwardly; this wasn't the first time that meeting with Red Alert had slipped his mind.
"Meet me in my quarters, Red," responded Prime, still seated at his console.
The door to Prime's quarters slid open, and there stood Red Alert. Prime would have questioned why Red had contacted him via communicator when he was standing directly outside Prime's door, but thought better of it.
Prime was prepared for the usual requests--more detection panels for the base perimeter, sealing off all auxiliary entrances to the volcano--in short, all the little things that barely merited Prime's attention. "Let's hear it, Red," he said.
"I've devised a plan," he began, thrusting a data pad in Prime's face, "to change over all Autobot transmission codes and frequencies on a randomized basis, implement a voice recognition protocol in Teletraan I, install automated gun batteries in the surface of the volcano--"
"Red Alert," said Prime, "What's all this for?"
Red Alert actually jumped back a bit as though reeling from a blow to the head. His expression was one of utter shock, his optics hinting at the touch of madness. "Smokescreen! As long as the Decepticons--" he spat the word out with utter disgust--"hold him hostage, the security of our very operation is in jeopardy!
"He knows things, Prime," Red continued in conspiratory tone. "Important things. If the Decepticons were to corrupt him--"
"Red Alert," Prime began.
"--or reprogram him somehow, the chances of them learning--"
"Red Alert!" Prime said again, exasperated. "Smokescreen is a fellow Autobot. I have every confidence that he won't betray us."
Red wasn't anywhere close to convinced, but he sensed that Prime wasn't about to budge on the issue. "Well, aren't we at least going to try to rescue him?"
Optimus barely acknowledged the question. "Smokescreen's been in worse fixes before. He can take care of himself. We've got more important things to worry about."
Red's eyes shone like beacons. "What could possibly be more important than this?!"
Optimus reached across the console and produced another data pad. "I just received word from home," he said. "The Decepticons on Cybertron are become more aggressive than ever before. They've begun hunting down Autobots to learn the location of the Autobot secret base." At this point, Prime handed the data pad to Red Alert.
Red studied the readout for a moment, then froze in his tracks. Sweet Primus were the words his lips formed.
"Sit down, Sideswipe," Prime said.
"Is that a suggestion, or an order?" Sideswipe asked, cocking his head and smirking.
"Or stand, if you prefer," Prime responded.
"There's no good way to deliver bad news," Prime said, allowing himself a short sigh. "It's about Disco... she's been killed."
"What happened," came a faint ghost of Sideswipe's voice.
"Elita thinks the Decepticons found her during a scouting mission," Prime said, his voice neutral, but about half its normal volume. "There was nothing they could do for her. Elita sends her regrets."
"I want to see her," Sideswipe said finally. "I mean, I want to see her... remains."
Optimus Prime stood up slowly. "I realize that, Sideswipe, but we can't risk that right now. Megatron's more desperate than ever, and we need every Autobot here on Earth."
Sideswipe stood and glared at Prime. His words were interspersed with carefully controlled breaths. "I don't give a flarg about Megatron."
Prime had a feeling this was coming. "I understand how you feel, Sidesw--"
"No, Prime. You don't."
Prime cleared his throat. "And for what it's worth, you have my sympathies as well."
Sideswipe seemed to be processing this, when his head jerked up a moment and said in an amazingly lucid manner, "Shouldn't we go back to Cybertron long enough to find out what the Decepticons are up to? If they're that desperate to find the remaining Autobots, there must be an important reason for it."
Prime knew that he had a valid point, but he wasn't certain how much of his idea was based on tactical sense. "Elita can handle the Decepticons for now," he replied.
Sideswipe's attitude promptly caved in on itself. "Apparently she didn't handle all of them," he said darkly.
"I'll consult with Prowl and Trailbreaker in the morning," Prime added at last, with an air of finality.
"Permission to be dismissed," Sideswipe hissed as he spun and left the room.
Prime suspected that Sideswipe would react this way. Ever since Prime had known him, Sideswipe was always a little rebellious, as though he were waiting for that final cog to slip out of alignment, pushing him completely over the edge.
Prime shared Sideswipe's grief, but for an altogether different reason. How many more Autobots' lives would be ruined because of this war, Prime wondered? After millions of years of senseless fighting, even assuming the Autobots eventually emerged triumphant... how could any of them ever be the same again?
Sideswipe stormed through the hallway, his fists tightly clenched. His optic sensors barely registered Jazz as he approached from the opposite direction; Sideswipe didn't seem to notice when he knocked Jazz out of the way and into the wall.
"Hey, man!" Jazz called out, chasing after Sideswipe. "What Insecticon crawled up your tail pipe, huh?"
Sideswipe's pace continued, unrelenting. "If you must know, Jazz," he snarled, "Disco is dead."
Jazz shrugged. "So what else is new? It was ten feet under before we even woke up on this planet, man!"
"No, Jazz," Sideswipe spat, "she is dead."
"What??" Jazz said, freezing in his tracks for a moment. "Oh... man. I-I don't believe it. Not Disco... How do you know?"
"Prime told me. Some 'Cons on Cybertron found her and killed her."
"Are you sure?" Jazz asked.
"And what's worse is that Prime doesn't give a flying wingnut. He's refusing to let me go to Cybertron, or at least check it out himself."
"Well, maybe Prime'll change his mind tomorrow," Jazz offered. "I was just going to talk to him about the Decepticon situation on Earth anyway, so maybe we'll figure somethin' out."
Sideswipe screamed a scream of inarticulate rage and punched one of the wall panels. "Change his mind? Prime never changes his mind. Everything's gotta be done his way. Well, you know something? I'm sick of his way! It doesn't work!"
Uncertainly, after casting a glance at the dent in the wall, Jazz put his hand on Sideswipe's shoulder. "Look, man, Prime's trying to win this fight for all the Autobots. Once the Decepticons are out of the picture, we can go back to Cybertron and--"
Sideswipe brushed Jazz's hand away coldly. His eyes were slits, glowing intensely. "You don't get it, Jazz. Disco was the whole reason I wanted to get back to Cybertron. Without her, I've got nothing left... nothing to look forward to... no one to fight for. I'm in this fight because of her, and now that she's gone..."
Sideswipe's glare took on a new determination that Jazz had never seen before. "Now that she's gone, the only pleasure left in life is taking care of the Decepticons that did this to her."
By now the two Autobots had approached the main entrance to the base, which was for the time being was still open to the night air. The cold mountain winds of February struck Jazz on the face, but the sting went almost completely unnoticed.
"C'mon, Sideswipe. She was special to me, too... she was a real class act." Jazz trailed off for a moment, apparently lost in thought. "But you know that a lot of Autobots still got loved ones back home. We can't give up. For their sakes."
Sideswipe turned away, staring into the moonlight. "I gave it everything I had, Jazz. I poured my whole life into fighting the Decepticons. I gave up a lot to do it, too. A whole lot. And where did it get me? I'm still stuck on this mudball, and Disco... and Disco's..."
He turned to Jazz. "And what about you, huh? What's up with you making plans with Prime about the Decepticons? How can you think about the mission at a time like this? Don't you even care that she's gone?"
Jazz's demeanor remained constant, but his voice took on an edge of sadness. "Yeah, I care. We each just gotta deal with it in our own way."
Sideswipe stepped forward and transformed to his Lamborghini form. "New rules," he muttered to himself. "From now on, this is my game, and I call the shots." He drove down the mountain path that led to the city before Jazz could find the words to respond.
Jazz drove in the opposite direction, with no particular destination in mind. He found himself cruising through a familiar chasm, one which he had visited a few times before. He had discovered some time ago that its acoustic resonance was ideal for the occasional musical diversion.
Jazz turned off his motor, allowing himself to roll to a comfortable stop in vehicle mode. He sat there for a moment, simply absorbing the moment. Then, slowly, he extended the oversized speakers mounted behind his vehicular spoiler, taking a moment to precisely align them to produce the maximum stereophonic effect.
And then, the music began. Jazz was immersed in its sound--he was its source, but as it projected forward and deflected off the rock surfaces like a stone skipping across a pond, the music was all around. Bathing in its richness, Jazz allowed himself to disappear into its spontaneous melody. Few Autobots could detect the mathematical patterns behind the seemingly random notes that were strung together to form the art of jazz music, but Jazz himself recognized its genius, and was not entirely unlike the songs that Jazz loved on Cybertron.
Now, however, despite the fact that back home, his Earthen vehicular mode would be completely unrecognizable; despite the fact that he was on a faraway world playing a recording of alien music--this song was for his beloved Disco. With no immediate regard for the mineral deposits he was shaking loose from the rock walls, which tumbled to the Earth after bouncing off of Jazz's body, he continued his serenade into the darkest hour of the morning.
It was the first and last song ever played in memory of Disco.
Anthrax was welcomed back onto the Nemesis II, this time as an honored guest. Megatron had made certain to make her feel as comfortable as possible during her stay on Earth--he knew how inhospitable a world it could be, particularly to Decepticons. In a way, it pleased him, to at least give Anthrax the benefit of the measures Megatron had taken over the years to ensure the comfort of his warriors on this dismal planet. After all, although she was from another world, Anthrax was still a Decepticon.
Megatron was humbled, but refused to acknowledge that Anthrax had not only anticipated this move, but had completely deceived him in the process. He was torn between berating Soundwave for not having detected her sooner and capturing Dreadwing in order to steal this new cloaking technology. For now, however, it served Megatron's best interests to welcome Anthrax with open arms...
"I have reconsidered your proposal, Anthrax," Megatron said, sounding as gracious as possible. "I will help you conquer your home world, as it is to the benefit of all Decepticons."
Anthrax's expression changed--for just a moment, she allowed herself a satisfied smirk. "Well, that is certainly generous of you, Megatron. I am pleased that you have finally chosen to see reason."
The question of just how long Anthrax had planned to hover above Decepticon Headquarters was on Megatron's lips, but he didn't want to give her the satisfaction of his curiosity.
"We have much to do," Anthrax explained. "As I explained before, the potential exists for a new energy source of unprecedented potential. We have only to create it."
"You said you had the power source in your possession!" Megatron snarled.
"I said nothing of the sort, Megatron," Anthrax said, enunciating her words pointedly. "Soundwave will attest to that fact."
Megatron glared at his communications officer, whose gaze had shifted to study a particularly fascinating metal panel on the wall.
"First," Anthrax continued without missing a beat, "I'll need to make some modifications to your energon cubes to increase their storage capacity and molecular resolution."
Megatron's brow raised slightly. "Why?"
"Because your energon cubes are too weak to contain a power source of this magnitude," Anthrax said with a touch of condescension in her voice.
"I have concerns about devoting my resources to this endeavour," Megatron grumbled.
"Well, Megatron, we have three choices." Anthrax said, gesticulating rapidly. "We can stand around and waste time talking about it. Or we can spend less than ten thousand astro-seconds to make some extraordinarily simple design modifications. Or, if you prefer, we can both go back to our home planets and pretend that we don't need each other's help." Her optics trained on Megatron, she nodded her head slightly, awaiting a response.
Megatron appeared to physically change gears; his stance shifted, his face lightened. "Of course, my dear Anthrax. Soundwave will assist you with whatever you might require." He made an exaggerated gesture toward the Decepticon communications officer.
Without further ceremony, Anthrax departed for the laboratory with Soundwave in tow.
Chapter 12: Lying in Waiting
Smokescreen had spent some time pacing his "cell" before he had finally resigned himself to the fact that he wasn't going anywhere for the time being. The Decepticons apparently hadn't bothered to construct a proper detention area when they built their ship (and it stood to reason that they weren't expecting to capture too many prisoners on the bottom of the ocean). Smokescreen guessed he was actually in an energon storage room, since there weren't even any ports to which computer consoles or weapons systems could be attached--just the generator for the restraint force fields that held energon cubes in place during theoretical transport to Cybertron. Some clever Decepticon had apparently figured out that it would also serve nicely as a containment field for an Autobot prisoner, especially if they slapped some trilithium bars in front of it for visual effect.
Barring any immediate means of escape available to him, Smokescreen decided his next best bet would be to learn everything he could about the guard. All he knew so far was that the Decepticon's name was Dreadwing, and that he had arrived only very recently on Earth along with another Decepticon named Anthrax. Smokescreen had never heard either of these names before, but it struck him that Anthrax was involved in something terribly important to the Decepticons, given Megatron's hastened orders to yank Smokescreen off the bridge before Anthrax had arrived. Dreadwing had been assigned to guard duty soon afterwards, along with his disturbingly vacant partner.
"Cozy," Smokescreen said aloud, peering through the doorway that led to the outer chamber, the glowing cell bars giving off a faint hum. "All I need now is a bowl of energon goodies and I'm set for life."
Dreadwing turned his head in Smokescreen's direction and cast a cold gaze at him before resuming his former posture.
"Well," Smokescreen added, "and maybe a new episode of The Young and the Breathless."
Dreadwing didn't even acknowledge that one.
"I don't suppose you're programmed to speak, hmm?" Smokescreen asked. "That would make you a little too entertaining, wouldn't it?"
Dreadwing turned again, although he appeared to be making a laborious task of it. "Of course I can speak," he said finally, in an accent Smokescreen couldn't quite place. "I'm in no mood to have any kind of a conversation with you, though."
Smokescreen shrugged. "Fine. I have no idea how long they plan on keeping me locked up here, so you may be here a very long while. I thought striking up a little chit-chat might make the time pass more quickly, but since you're so clearly enjoying yourself..." Smokescreen turned his back long enough to walk over to the corner of the restraint field, crossing his arms and leaning against the far wall.
Dreadwing let out the most pointed sigh Smokescreen had ever heard. "Oh, very well. Talk, if you must. But don't be at all surprised if I don't have anything to contribute to your ridiculous prattling."
"You must really enjoy your life," Smokescreen said, with something like mock realization.
"My life," said Dreadwing, "is one continuous string of pointless, boring, repetitive tasks. Not that it's any concern of yours."
"Oh, no, I don't suppose it is," Smokescreen replied. "I guess I always thought that most Decepticons aspired to be great warriors, conquerors, that sort of thing. I wouldn't imagine that any self-respecting Decepticon would be content to play guard duty... but I probably don't know what I'm talking about."
Dreadwing let out a low grumble. "You understand the Decepticons better than you think."
"So which is it?" Smokescreen asked casually. "Are you dissatisfied with your duties, or..."
"Actually," Dreadwing said with a perverse amount of pride, "I'm not dissatisfied at all. I simply don't have any self-respect."
"Really," Smokescreen mused, with a touch of deliberate disappointment in his voice. This, the warm-up session, was going quite well indeed; Smokescreen didn't care in the least about Dreadwing's personal aspirations, but he was beginning to get a good feel for the Decepticon's psyche. It was just about time to start the game.
"What about you, Autobot?" Dreadwing asked, his voice a song with only half a note. "Word has it that your friends don't even care enough to come after you."
Smokescreen had seriously considered the possibility that this might actually be the case. He understood the reasoning behind Prime allowing Smokescreen to be taken as a hostage, but when Prime came right out and said that he wasn't even interested in bargaining for Smokescreen's release, Smokescreen was floored. Was this some stalling tactic on Prime's part? Was Smokescreen supposed to have made some inference from Prime's message that he didn't pick up on? Or was Prime simply going to leave Smokescreen up to his own devices and trust that he would find a way out of his predicament? The more Smokescreen had pondered the matter at hand, the more he believed the last possibility to be the most likely... and the more betrayed he felt.
No, Smokescreen had realized--if Prime had wanted to rescue Smokescreen, he would have done so. Therefore, Prime had a reason for Smokescreen's continued presence in Decepticon Headquarters. The more Smokescreen ran this idea through his processors, the more it made sense to him. It had occurred to him that Megatron did not want him here--that something very important was happening, regardless of whether Prime was aware of it or not--and that it probably involved this Anthrax, and that Starscream had demonstrated colossally poor judgment by bringing a prisoner to the base. The situation was ideal--assuming Smokescreen could discover what Megatron was planning. And that, of course, entailed removing himself from Dreadwing's delightful company.
Dreadwing was half-heartedly trying to get Smokescreen's attention. "Or you could just ignore me. All works out the same in the end."
Smokescreen made a quizzical noise, then pretended to suddenly remembered the question. "Hmm. No, you're right. It doesn't look as if the Autobots are coming back for me. I guess I'm stuck here a while."
Dreadwing took a sideways glance at the smaller robot next to him (a drone, Smokescreen realized) as if expecting a response. Dreadwing didn't look at all surprised when he didn't receive one.
"But you'll keep me entertained, won't you?" Smokescreen continued, eyeing Dreadwing carefully. "I imagine it's rather dismal here, for you, without anyone to converse with."
Dreadwing's face was unreadable, but the way he held his head, Smokescreen suspected he was either about to cry or faint. Or both. "I prefer it that way," he said.
"Well, I can't say I blame you," Smokescreen replied. "Not too many people enjoy my company."
"I would enjoy your company more," Dreadwing grumbled conspiratorially, "if your company were on a separate planet from mine."
Smokescreen smiled. He realized that he wasn't the least bit anxious about the situation--he'd never actually been taken as a prisoner of war before, but he knew that coercing Dreadwing into setting him free would be a piece of chrome-alloy cake. Gauging others was all too easy, especially when they had character quirks so obvious as Dreadwing's--flaws that Smokescreen could hook onto, teasing them to the surface, magnifying them until they completely overwhelmed.
Stop it, Smokescreen warned himself. You're doing it again.
Smokescreen glared, but his expression was directed inwards--he really was disgusted with himself sometimes. It was one thing for his job, his duty, to require an almost constant string of deceptions; it was quite another, though, for Smokescreen to revel in it as he often did. Once he started praying on someone else's mind, his entire mindset shifted. The words always came first, but whatever lies he told, part of him was able to believe them. That was the trick. That was his gift. Although he was used to wading through a sea of perpetual falsehoods, it nauseated him of late.
Even in casual conversations, Smokescreen was rarely afforded the opportunity to speak his mind--when he talked, his purpose was almost always coaxing an appropriate reaction. He'd come to realize some time ago that sincerity was largely a foreign concept to him--very little of what he told the others was borne from his true feelings, but rather what he believed was expected of him at the time. None of the Autobots could ever truly be his friends anyway, since not a one of them had the vaguest inkling of who Smokescreen really was.
There were days when Smokescreen ached to tear away the mask, to finally step out of the smoke and reveal his true persona--to just be himself. No more stories, no more games. Those days were more and more frequent, lately, but he knew that until the war was finally over, his duties as an Autobot precluded him from ever being himself! For all his supposed freedom to act within the Autobot ranks, Smokescreen lived his life in shackles.
There was nothing he could do about it now, though, and the game was in full swing. "Well," Smokescreen said to Dreadwing, "this is going to be a thrill and a half. It's a wonder you Decepticons ever make friends at all."
Smokescreen detected a shift in Dreadwing's mood. He wasn't entirely sure whether Dreadwing was growing angry or whether he had sunken even deeper into his own misery, if such a thing were even possible. "I don't want to be your friend. I don't have friends, Autobot. Please, please, please just shut up."
"Whatever you say," Smokescreen responded with a smile. "You haven't exactly been the life of the party yourself, you know."
Dreadwing didn't respond.
Smokescreen let the silence build for a little while, but he did take the opportunity to sit down in front of the restraining bars next to the much larger Decepticon. Part of him realized that this was the closest proximity in which he'd ever been to a Decepticon in a non-combat situation. "Hey, it's not like I'm totally desperate for companionship over here. If you've got important things you'd rather be doing, don't put them off on my account." Smokescreen said. "I sure don't want your superiors blaming me for getting in the way of your assignments."
"This is my assignment," Dreadwing languished. "I have been given the mind-numbing task of watching you for the remainder of the day. I cannot tell you how much the prospect utterly fails to ignite any delight in me whatsoever."
"Well, look on the bright side. At least you'll be rewarded for a job well done once today's over, right?"
"To the best of my recollection, I have received," Dreadwing began, taking a moment to do some arithmetic on his fingers, "exactly zero commendations for the services I have performed."
"Well, well. I admit, that's rough," Smokescreen mused, resting his chin on his knuckles. "So what incentive do you have to perform well? Are you punished when you fail, or what?"
"Sometimes my energon rations are withheld. I have found that hunger makes life a bit more interesting; it heightens the senses, teaches one to... appreciate the moment."
"That's it? Not much more than a slap on the wrists, if you ask me," Smokescreen replied, tapping a panel on his own wrist, ostensibly for dramatic emphasis.
"There was one occasion on which I was physically reprimanded," Dreadwing explained. He stopped for almost an entire minute, apparently reliving the horrible experience... or savoring the memory? "While I found the experience difficult to endure, it did provide a certain... flavor to my existence. The pain was not without its invigorating moments. Reminds you that you're mortal, really."
"You don't say," Smokescreen said, treading very carefully now. "At least you survived the ordeal. I bet you wouldn't want to go through that again, though. Right?"
Dreadwing's massive, hulking frame nearly collapsed in on itself. "There are times when the punishment is almost preferable to the monotony... especially when the possibility exists, no matter how slim, that it will be the last reprimand I will ever endure."
Smokescreen took a second to digest the ramifications of that statement, then replied, "Are you actually saying that you'd be better off if you didn't have to be here? I don't get it."
"What I am saying," came the voice at the very bottom of the well of misery that was Dreadwing, "is that conversing with you will in no way bring me closer to my final, ultimate goal. Thus, engaging in further discussion with you, Autobot, is entirely beyond my realm of interests."
"It's probably just as well." Smokescreen put on his most placid expression. "You have no idea how much I've enjoyed your company. It's been a real thrill an astro-minute." Smokescreen shuddered involuntarily. Though laced with sarcasm, there was a certain ring of truth to that statement which Smokescreen found a little disturbing. As much as he tried to shake the sensation, it remained with him, embracing his consciousness gently, yet firmly. Was he starting to believe his own lies again, or had he inadvertently slipped and revealed more of the truth than he cared to admit to himself?
Suddenly, Smokescreen was very unsure of his situation.
Smokescreen thought about what it meant to return to the Autobots. It was familiar, of course, and comfortable, yet strangely unsatisfying. What other options were there, though? Seceding from the Autobot army was far too dangerous a proposition to consider--isolation from the group would make him vulnerable from both sides, and Smokescreen didn't want to go into hiding for the rest of his life as others had done... like Skyfire, for one.
"I promise you," Dreadwing announced, "the feeling is most assuredly not mutual."
It was time to end this. "You know, it's a good thing for you that I rust easily," Smokescreen said. "Otherwise I'd probably break out of here just to spite you. Another failure on your record might actually teach you a little courtesy. Assuming that matters at all to you, of course."
Dreadwing was glowering, but didn't reply.
What Dreadwing didn't know was that Smokescreen had gotten close enough to the control panel for the forcefield generator to gain access to it. The generator was far beyond Smokescreen's reach, even if he'd been able to fit his hand in between the humming energy restraints; it was not, however, beyond the range of the electronic interface cable in his forearm. Dreadwing had failed to notice that while Smokescreen was busy keeping him occupied in conversation, his interface linkup had been deployed, snaked along the ground, connected to the generator, and was even now studying the electronic pathways that made up the circuitry of the forcefield generator, learning how to send false signals to the equipment.
"You're right," Dreadwing admitted with a long, drawn-out sigh, still lost in his own world. "Ultimately it wouldn't matter whether you escaped or not... I just don't care."
The game was ended, and Smokescreen had won.
Instead of sending a remote signal through the interlink cable to shut off the forcefield bars, though, Smokescreen just stood motionless--as though in a trance. Finally, with an almost imperceptible jerk of the arm, Smokescreen summoned the interlink cable back into his wrist; the forcefield bars remained.
The one thing Smokescreen hadn't counted on... was the fact that he wasn't sure he wanted to leave.
In the dead blackness of the night, Sideswipe owned the world, but it would never be enough.
Traveling probably three times or more the velocity which human laws would impose on him, headlights off, Sideswipe was a gleaming red bullet on the highway. Street lights, few and far between on the infrequently traveled highway, flashed across his form in time with his energon pump. Sideswipe had no intention of stopping--if and when the road ended, so too would he.
His rear-view mirror caught a glimmer of yellow light, far brighter than the street lamps. Whatever it was, it was gaining on him rapidly.
"If you're a Decepticon," Sideswipe snarled under his breath, "I am not in the mood."
Sideswipe accelerated to the point where he could feel the vibrations from his own engine, but his visitor remained in pursuit. It had to be a Stunticon... Breakdown, from the looks of it. What in blazes was a lone Stunticon doing, trying to hunt him down like a turbo-fox? Not that it mattered--Sideswipe knew he could leave any Decepticon in the dust.
The unwelcome guest was still closing in! Now that he had a good look, he realized it wasn't a Decepticon at all, but something far worse. The rear-mounted, stupidly over-stepped engine was unmistakable.
"Back off, Sunstreaker!" Sideswipe shouted. "Or you're gonna be texture-coating the asphalt!"
It only took Sunstreaker another minute or so before he overtook Sideswipe, pulling up alongside him on the left. "Sideswipe!" he shouted over the din of their engines, resonating at almost precisely the same tone as one another. "Pull over!"
Pull over? What did Sunstreaker think he was, a police car? Sideswipe responded with a sharp jerk to the left, slamming into Sunstreaker's fender with the sound of rending metal. Satisfied that would convince his brother to drop the matter, Sideswipe resumed his course; he was utterly shocked, then, when Sunstreaker returned the favor in kind--only with much greater force. The high-speed collision flipped Sideswipe over easily, raising sparks as both Autobots scraped against the street, skidding off the road into the desert sands.
Sideswipe transformed in mid-tumble, grasping at the ground to slow the force of the impact without much success. He finally came to a halt, not too far away from Sunstreaker, who had ended up back on his wheels. Sideswipe climbed to his feet and delivered a good, swift kick that remedied that situation nicely.
"Why don't you just leave me the flarg alone??" Sideswipe screamed, his words bouncing off the night sky.
Sunstreaker reverted to robot mode and made a flying leap for his fellow Autobot. He tackled Sideswipe, knocking him back down to the ground. This maneuver was good for a moment of shock value; aggressive physical combat usually wasn't Sunstreaker's style.
Sideswipe was the stronger of the two opponents, though, and had little trouble breaking his brother's grip. He flipped over, pinning Sunstreaker for only an instant before Sunstreaker lifted his legs and delivered a full-force kick that sent Sideswipe flying into a cactus, breaking it into pieces.
"That's it!" Sideswipe shrieked, leaping into the air. His rear-mounted rockets gave him the boost needed to propel himself toward Sunstreaker in mid-air; Sunstreaker sidestepped the attack, but Sideswipe still managed to grab him by the arm. The sudden extra weight proved too much for Sideswipe's rockets to endure; they were both airborne for only seconds before Sideswipe spiralled and they both collapsed in a heap.
"You are gonna get such a pounding!" Sideswipe bellowed. He got up to his knees and began pummeling Sunstreaker's chest. The force of his punches sent flecks of paint, and then metal, flying into his eyes, but that didn't stop his assault.
"Come on, fight back!" Sideswipe yelled, his voice cracking. "Fight me!"
After Sideswipe realized after a few moments that Sunstreaker was unable or unwilling to oblige, he finally relented. "What's wrong... with you?" he asked, panting heavily. "You've fought... your way... through worse than that. Get up, you're not hurt."
Sunstreaker stood up slowly and deliberately, staring at himself forlornly and gesturing uselessly. "Speak for yourself. Aw, cripes, look at me! I'm scratched right down to the primer. It's gonna take the whole weekend just to get this repainted... forget about waxing and polishing!"
"I don't get it, bro," Sideswipe said. "Did Prime send you after me or something?"
"Er, no," Sunstreaker shook his head. "It was Jazz, actually."
"Pheh. That figures... everybody's favorite right-hand suck-up." Sideswipe expectorated. "Well, you can go tell him to stick it up his tailpipe. I don't need anybody babysitting me, and I'll come back home when I'm damn good and ready. Not before. I'm playing by my rules now."
Sunstreaker shoved Sideswipe with such force that it knocked him back to the ground. "Don't be an idiot. Do you really think I came all the way out here because Jazz ordered me to? Cripes, you're dim. How self-absorbed can you get?"
"Like you're one to talk," Sideswipe grumbled, picking up a fair-sized rock and chucking it at Sunstreaker, which ricocheted off his right foot with a satisfying plink!
"Oh, that's nice. Very funny. Do you want me to put a dent where your face used to be?" Sunstreaker asked, kicking some dirt in his brother's face.
Sideswipe started to scramble to his feet, but before he could stand up, Sunstreaker was already on top of him, grabbing at his wrists to try to keep him from fighting back. Sideswipe tried flipping again, but this time Sunstreaker was ready for that one, keeping a tight grasp on Sideswipe's left arm even as he rolled, and before he knew it, Sideswipe was flat on his face, pinned.
Sunstreaker laughed. "You are so predictable."
Sideswipe tried to wiggle his way out of Sunstreaker's grip, but after a moment of futility he collapsed again. As the absurdity of the moment struck him, he joined in Sunstreaker's laughter, but he instantly realized that it was a mistake. Once the flood gates had been opened, other, less welcome emotions inexplicably came tumbling up to the surface.
"She's gone, Streaker. She's gone and there's nothing... I can do about it..."
Sunstreaker offered his hand. "C'mon, bro."
"It hurts... so much. It's like somebody reached right into me... tied everything up in knots..."
Sunstreaker helped Sideswipe to his feet.
"Just make it stop... Primus, it hurts..."
"Can you transform?" Sunstreaker asked.
Sideswipe gave his brother a positively dazed look. "Huh? Oh, uh... yeah."
"Let's go." The two Autobots switched back to their vehicular modes, moving back onto the main road and toward the base. Even though they took the same path they each had before, the journey seemed longer, this time. On the road home, neither exchanged another word... but Sideswipe kept his headlights on the whole way back.
Chapter 13: New Technology
As morning broke, several of the Autobots departed headquarters to begin their routine patrols. One small group had left aboard Omega Supreme to investigate a report that something had been detected crashing into the Atlantic ocean, but it was a fairly low-priority mission--if it had been a craft or anything else of importance, the Aerialbots would have detected it during their watch over the seas.
Swerve and Wheeljack, meanwhile, remained to conduct a demonstration in the control room. While both the metallurgist and the engineer enjoyed a good scientific endeavour for its own merits, there was also a practical purpose behind their presentation.
"Go ahead," Wheeljack said to the smaller robot. "This one's your brain child, Swerve. Show 'em what you've got."
Swerve took several moments to gather his thoughts before he addressed the Autobots present--several of the smaller Autobots, or "Minibots" as they were sometimes affectionately called, as well as Carly. "Well... it's been a theory of mine for some time now... well, not really my theory, exactly, since a lot of my work was based on the ancient texts..."
Seaspray cleared his throat.
"What was that?" Beachcomber asked.
"I was clearing my throat," Seaspray responded. "Get on with it, Swerve!"
"Yes, of course," Swerve continued. "Anyway... it seemed to me that one of the Autobots' greatest disadvantages was our relative lack of air support."
"That's a good point," Carly commented quietly. "Why aren't there more flying Autobots?" she asked Bumblebee.
"Because then we'd all have to change our names to the Aerialbots," Bumblebee grinned.
"If I may continue," Swerve intoned. "Now where was I..."
"Air support," offered Wheeljack.
"Ah, yes. The Decepticons' aerial capabilities enables them to detect us at a far greater range than we can detect them. Even our own Sky Spy can only survey so much of the planet at once. However, if we were to, ah, render the Decepticons' radar readings useless, we would not be at such a disadvantage."
"Some kind of refractory metal?" Carly suggested, intrigued.
"Not as such, no. But close. The alloy I've developed... well, it, ah, absorbs radar readings rather than reflecting them." He half-heartedly pointed at an illustration of a molecular chain. "The signals never make it back to the Decepticons, and so, you see, nothing shows up on their scanners."
"Lad, will this technology also work underwater?" Hubcap asked.
"I, well, that is, we believe so," Swerve replied thoughtfully. "Yes... yes. The concept is the same. There's no reason... no, there's no reason why it wouldn't also work. In the water, that is."
"Water?" asked Seaspray. "You planning something, Hubcap?"
"Aye, it would be the perfect cover for a rescue operation," he said, almost conspiratorially. "Uh, the rescue operation, that is. We'd slip right into the Connies' base, nab Smokescreen, and high-tail it before they ever knew what hit 'em."
Wheeljack stroked his face plate contemplatively. "You know, that's not a bad little idea. And we could test the refractive alloy at the same time. Uh, if it was okay with Optimus Prime, that is."
"He already gave me the go-ahead on the rescue operation," Hubcap said, "so this should make it even easier, methinks. Beachcomber, your geologic sensors up for an Autobot hunt?"
"Hey," Beachcomber replied, "as long as you're not planning on mixing it up with any underwater nasties, like, I'm there."
"Let me come too, guys," said Bumblebee. "I can see underwater a lot farther than you can."
"Any chance I could tag along, too?" asked Carly.
Hubcap averted his optics for a moment. "Eh, lass, you flesh creatures aren't exactly built for deep-sea excursions, are ye?"
"I don't recall you transforming into a submersible yourself," Carly said, without batting an eyelash, "but I can swim with the best of them. Besides, I know where the Decepticons are probably keeping Smokescreen. I've been in their detention hold before."
"So have I," Seaspray said, kneeling at Carly's eye-level, "and I actually am built for the water."
"Then I'll be in good company," Carly grinned.
"Hubcap, are you sure you cleared this with Optimus Prime?" Wheeljack asked.
"'Tis what I said, isn't it? Ye may want to have your audio receptors checked, lad."
"Uh, what about Spike?" Bumblebee wondered.
"He's at home watching Daniel," she shrugged. "It'll take too long to find a sitter, and I've only got one full scuba tank. We can tell him all about it later."
As the smaller Autobots shuffled off into the lab, Wheeljack collected Swerve's charts from the display and gathered them in his arms. "Come on, old buddy, it's time to whip up a batch of that stuff."
Swerve's head jerked up violently, as though he were being awakened from a dream. "Hm? What are you talking about?"
"Your refractory alloy," Wheeljack said. "Time to get cracking!"
"Oh, uh, yes, quite right. I'll prepare the necessary metals immediately. Incidentally, er... where did everybody go?"
Anthrax studied her instruments as intently as a hidden predator might carefully stalk her unwitting prey--the only sign of movement was the lights from her instruments dancing on her face. "Increase the thermal shielding by 1.75, and adjust the field resistance rate to compensate," she ordered.
Soundwave obediently carried out Anthrax's instructions. Fully immersed in making the preparations for the new energon cubes, the untrained observer might expect that he was otherwise unaware of Anthrax's presence. A Decepticon who was literally a living communications array, however, never had to be looking directly at his subject to be monitoring her every action with digital precision.
"Modifications completed," he said, tonelessly.
"All right, let's try it again." Anthrax summoned her energon cube computer model once more. "Inputting new parameters now. Wait, they didn't take. What's wrong? Why isn't it working?"
Soundwave motioned to the housing for the science station's main computer array. "Applied force is occasionally necessary to facilitate systems operation." To illustrate his point, he gave the computer a swift chop with the side of his hand, prompting it to chirp happily and produce the updated study model.
Anthrax was momentarily dumbfounded, but quickly regained her composure. "How any of you can tolerate such abysmal working conditions is beyond me! At any rate, prepare the next test."
As before, Soundwave plugged into the databank with a small computer key which extended from his index finger. Using the new specifications, Soundwave produced an empty energon cube from his chest window, which he placed in the center of the test area, such as it was. The Decepticons had never planned to conduct anything resembling serious scientific endeavors aboard the craft; the test area itself was separated from the workstations by crude, makeshift dividers welded to the floor.
"Fill the energon cube to full capacity," Anthrax ordered. Soundwave stepped out of the lab and returned a moment later with a siphoning cable, hooked up to one of the ship's main reactors. While the craft was no longer capable of moving under its own power, the generators provided much-needed climate control and computer power--requiring a lot of energon to do so. Soundwave suspected that Anthrax hadn't bothered to tell Megatron just how much of the Decepticons' precious energy reserves she would be expending for these tests; he briefly considered reporting this to Megatron, but thought it best to postpone until he had confirmed his suspicions as to the precise reason for these tests...
"Now," commanded Anthrax, "shoot the cube with a low-level proton burst. Aim precisely for the center of the cube."
"Computer simulation has not yet been completed for this phase of the experiment," Soundwave noted.
"Yes, it has," Anthrax smiled, tapping the side of her forehead. "I've run the numbers through in my mind dozens of times. I only needed your computers to lay in the precise specifications for your energon containment field. Trust me."
Soundwave shrugged almost imperceptibly, but complied. The cube promptly exploded; Anthrax instinctively shielded her optic sensors, despite the quarantine field that was in place around the test area.
"Rrrgh! It should have worked that time!" Anthrax pushed herself away from the monitor and started pacing frenetically. "If we cannot contain the new power supply, this entire endeavour is useless! There must be a way past this. If you would just allow me to plug into your computers, Soundwave, I wouldn't even need your help!"
Soundwave's posture stiffened. "That would violate security protocol," he explained.
"Gah!" she spat. "You must have some other effective means of storing and transporting energy!"
Soundwave's lack of a response told her he was either unable or unwilling to provide that information.
"All right... let's take a different approach. I want you to produce one of your standard energon cubes, but fill it slowly this time. I want to study the cube as it reaches maximum capacity, find out precisely what causes it to lose its molecular cohesion."
Soundwave generated another energon cube and attached the siphon. "Prepared," he announced.
"Begin," Anthrax ordered, turning back to her monitor. "Keep it steady, Soundwave. I'll keep an eye on these readings. That's fine... Cube integrity is still holding. What is its current volume?"
"Cube volume at 49.7 astro-liters," he responded.
"About halfway there," she murmured. "Slow it down a bit... don't push it. I want to watch the process, but gradually."
Soundwave gave a short nod and complied.
Anthrax cocked her head to one side and seemed to be studying not the monitor, but Soundwave. For some reason he felt rather uncomfortable under her gaze, as though he were a specimen about to be experimented on. There were very few things in the universe that turned Soundwave's fluids cold, but this female Decepticons was among them.
"You're different than the others," she said. It was more of an observation than a question.
"I am not the only Decepticon capable of generating energon cubes," he explained.
"No, no. That's not what I meant. I mean, you are different. Your voice, your temperament."
"Cube volume at 74.8 astro-liters," he announced.
Anthrax leaned down on her elbows, peering at the Decepticon intensely. "Why are you different, Soundwave? I'll bet no one's ever asked you that before, have they? I'm quite curious, really. Were you purposefully programmed this way?"
Soundwave glared at her with an intensity he rarely afforded other Decepticons. "Inquiries irrelevant to this experiment."
"I mean, are you capable of forming complete sentences?" Anthrax continued, unabated. "Come on, I won't tell anyone. I just want to know."
Soundwave shot another look at her, fists clenched. "Yes, I am able to form complete sentences. I am the Decepticon Communications Officer; I value succinctness and perspicuity. Reiteration: your inquiries are irrelevant!"
"And you're very defensive about it," Anthrax observed. "There's something you're not telling me, but that's all right. I'll figure it out eventually. How about a cube status?"
"Cube volume," Soundwave noted, "at 98.3 astro-liters."
"Aaah, this is it." Anthrax's attention was intent on her monitor now. "Go ahead, fill it beyond capacity. Let it burst. This time, I'm going to find out why it happens... and how to stop it.
"It's a physical container, correct? Not made from energy?" she asked.
"Affirmative," Soundwave said. "High-pressure micro-crystalline magnetic poly-alloy."
"That's quite a mouthful. Sounds like what we use back home on the windows for our ships," she muttered, partly to herself. "Great for the vacuum of space, but not too resistant to energy bursts. Energon is too volatile for that... it's probably the worst thing you can store in an energon cube," she realized.
"You compress Earth fuel into energon," she said. "Forcing it into the cube at unbelievable pressures. What we need is a way to wrap some kind of force field around that... even if it has to feed off the energy inside the cube to do it."
"Megatron forbids such an experiment," Soundwave explained, in what Anthrax thought was an almost lamentable tone.
"Why?" Anthrax asked. Was Megatron aware of some dangers to such an endeavour that Anthrax hadn't considered?
"He considers it wasteful," Soundwave said.
"Wasteful? How does he know whether it's wasteful if he doesn't even attempt it? A force field would require less than ten percent of the energon within the cube, but implementing the field would allow the cube to carry perhaps as much as ten times as much energy!" She made a sound that was a mix of disgust and frustration. "It's no wonder you Decepticons are still stuck in the dark ages! No anamorphic weaponry, no cloaking fields... do you even have trans-warp?"
"Energon cube detonation commencing," Soundwave reminded her.
Predictably, the cube burst under the pressure of the energon, showering the inside of the quarantine field.
"I've been staring at the solution the whole time," said Anthrax, "and I was too busy starting from a completely faulty premise to even see it. Disgraceful! If the Liege were to learn of my incompetence--" she stopped cold and performed the same religious gesture Soundwave had seen earlier.
"No matter. I know what to do now! We will rebuild the energon cubes from scratch, this time. I'm not sure whether to encase the physical cubes in an energy shield, or to just create some kind of interphasic containment field... I'll have to run some tests on that first."
"Megatron forbids the use of interphasic technology," Soundwave reminded her.
"Hrrgh! Megatron is an impossibly unreasonable creature," Anthrax grumbled. "We cannot proceed unless we develop this technology... whether your leader agrees with me or not." Without further notice, she quickly began entering a new programming sequence into the computer, a preliminary model for a new interphasic energon cube.
"I will report this to Megatron," Soundwave announced. He spun and marched out of the room.
"If you insist. You have your orders, and I understand that," she said non-committaly. Returning to her computations, focusing intently on the monitor, it took her a moment to notice her reflection in the screen, wearing a sly, devious grin...
END OF BOOK TWO
This Page Created August 2000