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Children of Cybertron

Book Three

Last time:  Anthrax, leader of a Decepticon contingent from one of the many other Cybertrons in the heavens, joins with Megatron to secure a new, deadly power source; Smokescreen is captured by the Decepticons, prompting Hubcap to organize a rescue operation; and Optimus Prime, concerned about the increased hostilities on Cybertron, prepares to take action.

Chapter 14: Command Decisions

"Autobots, assemble!"  Optimus Prime's comfortably familiar but nonetheless authoritative voice boomed throughout Autobot Headquarters.  "Repeat--all available Autobots, assemble immediately."

The Ark had not been a small ship by any means, and even with a full third of its inner chambers inaccessible, it was still considerably spacious.  It took several minutes for the main control room to swell with occupants; Optimus gestured for silence after most of the Autobots stationed at headquarters had assembled.

"Some of you may have noticed that your recharging cycles were cut short last night," Prime said.

"No kidding," Gears spoke up.  "Do you realize that this was the first time in months I was actually having a nice dream for a change?  Of course, just as I'm getting to the good part... klaxons in my audio receptors.  Typical!"

"We're experiencing an energy shortage," Prime explained.  "Our defenses are still operating at full power, but we're going to need to make an energy run to supplement our reserves before they run dry completely.  The Simmons Petrochemical Reservoir is about twelve miles north of Central City, and they've agreed to supply us with what we need.  Hot Spot, I need you to take the Protectobots there as quickly as possible."

"You got it, Optimus.  Let's go, Protectobots!" ordered Hot Spot.  "Transform and move out!"  Assuming their Earth modes, the five emergency vehicles raced out the main corridor, the morning sunlight striking their metal bodies.  Several of them switched on their sirens, enabling them to proceed at maximum velocity as they quickly disappeared beyond the horizon.

It was around this time that Laserbeak departed as well.

***

His directive completed, Laserbeak leap from his perch at the mouth of the volcano, retracting his recording equipment back into his cranial unit.  He allowed the wind currents to carry him a few hundred feet before his rockets kicked in, propelling him toward the raging ocean.  It was only minutes before he was close enough to signal the docking tower to break through the water's surface, swallowing him up a moment later and plunging back into the depths of the sea.

"Surveillance report from Laserbeak," announced Soundwave.  The avian Decepticon folded up in mid-air into a more suitable mode for conveying information, finally coming to rest inside the cassette drives housed within Soundwave's chest.

"Is spying on the Autobots always this easy?" Anthrax asked, her arms crossed.

"Our espionage technology is eons ahead of theirs," Megatron explained with a dismissive gesture, "and their surveillance capability is minimal, at best.  Now observe, dear Anthrax, as we learn the Autobots' most carefully guarded secrets, stolen right from under their noses."  Megatron chuckled contemptuously.

After Laserbeak had finished condensing and editing the information, Soundwave pressed his playback button and the Autobot leader's worlds issued from Soundwave's instruments.  "We need to make an energy run," Optimus Prime unwittingly explained to his mortal enemies.  Though its sound quality was slightly muffled, the recording had also been made from several hundred feet away--and through several layers of rock and metal.  "The Simmons Petrochemical Reservoir is 12 miles north of Central City.  They've agreed to supply us with what we need."

"We cannot afford to waste this opportunity," Megatron said.  "Soundwave, summon Ramjet, Thrust, Dirge, and the Triple Changers and order them to the fuel reservoir, but instruct them not to attack the facility."

Megatron took a moment to revel in his own cleverness.  "We'll let the Autobots collect the energy for us.  Then, we'll take it from them when they least expect it!"  He grinned confidently at Anthrax, but she didn't seem particularly impressed.

"This is an exercise in futility, Megatron," she said.  "We already have the potential for a far greater energy source--"

"Which you still have not provided me with," Megatron said tersely.

"Only because you suspended my research!" Anthrax hissed.

"Watch your tone, Anthrax," Megatron warned her.  "Regardless of how you may run Decepticon operations on your world, I do not tolerate dissent in my ranks."

What followed was a tense, potentially volatile silence that communicated volumes.  Each of the Decepticon leaders wore a furious gaze that was firmly locked on the other, and each pair of optic sensors glowed with unmitigated intensity.  This time, it was Anthrax who finally turned away.

"With your permission, Megatron," she said respectfully, "I would like to continue my work in the lab."

"There will be time for that later," Megatron said with another dismissive wave.  "For now, we will focus our efforts in preparation for the energy raid."  Megatron busied himself with the main computer controls.

"I won't have any time later," Anthrax whispered, unaware that nothing was inaudible to Soundwave.

***

"Attention," announced Teletraan I.  "Sky spy has detected Decepticon Laserbeak departing from Autobot Headquarters."  The computer rerouted the images from the Autobots' sub-orbital satellite to the main view screen.

"Well, so much for that," Gears said angrily.  "Just once I'd like to wring that scrawny bird's little neck... there's another plan down the tubes!"

"Not just yet," Prime said, the hint of a smirk evident in his voice.  "We want  the Decepticons to get that energy."

The expected murmuring issued from the group, and the phrases "short-circuit" and "gotta be kidding" could be heard from a couple of the less-than-tactful troops.

"Blaster," Prime said, "before we continue, please conduct a sensor sweep for any additional detection devices.  This time, let's make sure we really are alone."

"If they're still in town, I'll hunt 'em down," Blaster affirmed with a crooked smile, stepping away from the crowd and opening the cassette door in his chest, giving him manual access to his sensor arrays.  He allowed it to guide him for a moment, leading him in seemingly random directions around the room before he reported, "No spies in disguise snoopin' on the troops, this time, Prime.  The only electronic monitoring signals I'm getting are from good ol' Teletraan."  He tapped out a quick rhythm on the computer's main screen.

"Hey Blaster," offered Trailbreaker, "does that mean that we're being 'monitored?'  Heh heh!"  This elicited I-can't-believe-you-just-said-that groans from several of the Autobots, triggering a satisfied chuckle from Trailbreaker.  Prime allowed a moment of this before gesturing for silence again.

"The time for games is over.  I have made a decision to return to Cybertron to learn the reason for the increased Decepticon hostilities on Cybertron," he said.  "However, Omega Supreme is still investigating that anomaly, and I've been unable to raise Skyfire.  My only option is to cross the Decepticon space bridge."

Red Alert spoke up immediately.  "Far too risky, Prime.  Megatron will catch you for certain!  There must be another way."

"How will you activate the space bridge without the Decepticon control codes?" Prowl asked.  "Teletraan successfully cracked their computers once; it's only reasonable that they would have devised measures to prevent that from occurring a second time."

"We're going to let the Decepticons do that for us," Prime said.

"Let me go instead, Optimus Prime," offered Cosmos.  "I can take a few passengers to keep me company, and we--"

"No," Prime said sternly.  "This is a potentially volatile situation, and you don't have the cargo capacity to carry enough Autobots to fight back should the Decepticons attack you.  That's why I'm going to take the Dinobots with me."

"Prime, let me come with you!" Ironhide demanded.  He even had several possible counter-arguments already lined up in anticipation of Prime refusing his proposal.

"Agreed," Prime said.  He tapped a panel on his arm to activate his communicator, opening a channel to Wheeljack, who was still working in the lab.  "I need the Dinobots fully charged and ready to move out in the next 2000 astro-seconds."

"But I still haven't finished these new cerebro-enhancers, Optimus," came the response over Prime's communicator.  "I think I'm on the verge of a breakthrough, if I can just have a little more--"

"There's no time for that now," Prime said, closing the channel.

Optimus turned to the group of Autobots.  "Trailbreaker, you're in command until I return," he said.

"Huh?"  Trailbreaker said, grasping at the back of his neck before finally cracking a broad smile.  "Oh, I get it.  The joke's on me, right?"

"Negative.  I'll need you to take charge if Megatron makes a move while we're on Cybertron."

Trailbreaker absently scratched at his audio receptor.  "And, uh, just how long do you plan to be gone?"

"We'll only know that," said Prime," once we get there."

***

Some of the Autobots, most notably Wheeljack, had questioned now and again the practice of shutting down the Dinobots and keeping them in storage.  Although they hadn't been created the way most Autobots had been and their intelligence was limited, Wheeljack had always believed that they were a vital part of the team and had the rights that any other Autobot would.

Prime agreed to an extent, but also believed that their containment was, perhaps, a necessary cruelty.  Too large to roam free throughout headquarters and too undisciplined to exist unsupervised in a base of their own, the Dinobots were a constant liability.  Attempts to relocate, retrain, or reprogram them had all met with limited results, and the Dinobots themselves didn't even seem to object to the final decision--the equivalent of being stuffed in the closet when not in use.  Chances were very good that they didn't fully understand why Wheeljack had vehemently protested.

"Are the Dinobots ready for transport?" Prime asked as he entered Wheeljack's lab with Ironhide and Perceptor close behind him.  Spike Witwicky had arrived earlier to give Wheeljack a hand, and was busy calibrating one of the instruments.

"Well, their weapons and power cells are charged up," Wheeljack said, the sensors on either side of his head flashing in time with his words, "and it will only take me about half an hour to finish installing the new brain modules.  Fifteen minutes, with Spike's help."  Wheeljack had developed a habit of slipping into units of Earth time measurement--probably the result of having worked so closely with Sparkplug over the years.

"I've already told you that we don't have time for that," Prime said apologetically.  "I want to put this plan into action before the Decepticons realize what we're doing.  Activate them, Wheeljack," he ordered.

Wheeljack hesitated for only a moment before keying in the security commands that unlocked the Dinobots' storage chamber.  A panel within the walls of the ship retracted into itself, and in its place stood five of the largest and most powerful Transformers on the planet.

Grimlock's optic sensors flickered on and he stretched his mighty arms, yawning loudly.  "Hrrr... long nap.  Me still tired."

Optimus Prime stood before the Dinobot leader, one of the few troops under his command who was significantly taller than Prime himself.  "Grimlock, I need you and the Dinobots to come with me to Cybertron," he said, making a conscious effort to avoid speaking in a condescending tone.

"Mmm, Cybertron," grumbled Snarl.  "Me miss Cybertron.  Want to go back!"

Grimlock's gaze found its way over to Wheeljack, then the other Dinobots, then Ironhide and Perceptor, and finally back to Prime.  "Me, Grimlock, no feel like going.  Me leader; Dinobots do what me want."  

Next to Grimlock, Sludge nodded thoughtfully.  "Uhh, Dinobots do what him, Grimlock, want.  Always."

Wheeljack tried and failed to suppress a chuckle.  Prime turned to him and shot him a quizzical look.

"Grimlock's not flat out disobeying you," Wheeljack explained.  "He's just asserting his authority over the others."

Prime decided to appeal to Grimlock's sensibilities, such as they were.  "The Decepticons may attack us if they find us.  I'll need you to help me combat them."

"Ah, yes!" Slag spoke up, clenching his fists and shaking them excitedly.  "Combat means we fight them!  Me like combating!"

"That's right," Prime said.  "I won't be able to do it without you, Dinobots.  Will you help?"

Not even trying to be subtle, Grimlock put his hands on his hips proudly and cooed to himself.  "Oooh.  Optimus Prime need me, Grimlock, to fight for him.  Optimus Prime not strong enough to fight alone.  Decepticons stronger than Optimus Prime, but Dinobots even more stronger!  Hoo hoo!"

Wheeljack said nothing, but his head-mounted sensors were flashing brightly--usually an indication that he was suppressing a fit of laughter.  He only thought to compose himself after he glanced up and noticed that Prime didn't quite seem to share his amusement.

"How we get to Cybertron?  We fly?" asked Swoop.

"I should hardly think that you would have the aerial capacity for an interplanetary excursion," Perceptor noted.

"No, we'll be using the space bridge," said Prime.

"Space bridge make us fly," Swoop announced, as though it were his idea.

"Perceptor," said Prime, "For this plan to work, the timing needs to be perfect.  I want you and Teletraan to watch for possible interdimensional signals--maybe you can determine exactly where the space bridge is going to appear when they reopen it.  Ironhide and the Dinobots and I will have a much better chance of getting to Cybertron undetected if we know where we need to be in advance."

"I will endeavour to accomplish your request, Prime... but I should mention parenthetically that tracking the interdimensional frequencies are uniquely problematic.  I am not confident that I can locate the expected destination with precise accuracy."

Prime placed a comforting hand on Perceptor's shoulder.  "Do the best you can, Perceptor.  That's all I ask."

"I want to go too, Prime," Spike said.

Prime stopped in mid-stride inside the laboratory doorway and turned to his human friend, who only came up to Prime's knees.  " I don't think that's a good idea, Spike.  According to the reports from Cybertron, our homeworld is a very dangerous place to be right now."

"The Decepticons are sure to spot you as soon as you get there," Spike said, "but I'm so small that they wouldn't even notice me."

"He's got a point, Prime," Ironhide said.

Spike had a way of appealing to Optimus Prime's sensibilities; Prime felt single-handedly responsible for bringing the Autobot-Decepticon war to Earth, and he felt obligated to do anything in his power to make it up to the humans, particularly Spike.  The young boy Prime had once known had since grown up and was raising a family, but he seemed more eager than ever to help the Autobots.  Though he was only a carbon-based life form, Optimus Prime considered Spike to be part of the Autobot team in every meaningful sense.

In the meantime, Spike was one of the only humans Prime had ever met who seemed to recognize that the Decepticons weren't just the Autobots' problem--the Decepticons represented a threat to every human on Earth, not to mention every living being on every other planet in the cosmos.  Prime sometimes wondered how much more effective the Autobots' efforts would be if they had the complete support of the planet they were trying so desperately to protect.

"As you wish, Spike," Prime agreed.

***

Chapter 15: Out of Gas, Out of Luck

The Protectobots' journey to the petrochemical reservoir met without incident.  Even though the engineers working there were expecting a visit by the Autobots, Hot Spot was still met with a number of astonished looks after he'd transformed to robot mode.  Their reaction was curious; even though they'd later explained while pumping the fuel into Hot Spot's tanks that they were well aware of the Transformers' presence on the planet, they'd never met one in person.  It was, they'd said, an entirely different thing when confronted with a giant robot face to face.  Hot Spot understood, or tried to, but in his estimation, the humans were more than happy to see the Protectobots finally leave.  He sometimes wondered whether the Autobots' presence on Earth would ever be fully accepted by the human populace.

"Well, that was a complete waste of time," Blades pouted, catching the swirls of dust with his helicopter blades kicked up in the wake of his teammates.

"Hardly," Hot Spot responded over the Protectobot frequency.  "We got all the fuel we were supposed to, just as Optimus Prime ordered."

"Yeah, but I was really hopin' to cut into a Decepticon armor plate or two.  You know, just in the interest of keeping my blades sharp and everything."

"I'll never understand why you're so eager to engage the enemy, Blades," First Aid interjected.  "Wouldn't you be happier if this war were finally over?  If no one else had to get hurt?"

"Heh.  You ask that question, and you've known him for how long?" Streetwise added.

"Yeah, I guess," Blades responded.  "I mean, of course I would.  But as long as there are Decepticons around, I wanna be the one to take 'em out!"

"Hey, I think we got some sparring partners headed our way now," Streetwise announced, extending a sensor apparatus from his roof lights assembly.  "Give me a sec.  Oh, yeah, I definitely smell 'em now.  They can't be more than two miles away.  Freshly-fueled and rarin' to go, I'd say.  And I hear... hmm, half a dozen.  One of 'em's Thrust.  I recognize the pitch."

"Looks like you got your wish, Blades.  Protectobots," ordered Hot Spot, "let's keep moving.  Pretend you don't notice them until they're right on top of us.  Then, when I hit the brakes, everybody transform and defend yourselves.  We want to make it look like we're putting up a fight."

"Can we hurt 'em?" Blades asked eagerly.  "I mean, we wanna make it look good, right?"

Hot Spot laughed.  "Well, Optimus Prime did say to make it convincing."

"All right!" Blades cheered, his voice tinged with a thirst for oil.


"Autobots within firing range," Blitzwing reported.

"Pick off the others at your leisure," Astrotrain ordered, as though delivering a regal decree, "but don't shoot Hot Spot.  He's carrying the fuel we want!"

"Sounds like a barrel of laughs!  Actually, make that a barrel of oil!" Octane said, chuckling to himself.

Leading the aerial formation, the Triple Changers opened fire first, prompting three of the Protectobots to screech to a halt and open up into their robot forms.  As Blades landed and joined the group, Ramjet, Thrust and Dirge provided a second wave of firepower, sending Hot Spot and his troops scrambling for cover.

In mid-somersault, Hot Spot whipped out his twin fireball cannons.  He came to rest on one knee just in time to jerk forward, avoiding a Decepticon laser blast that zipped past his shoulder.  He realized with a passing thought that the Decepticons had chosen the ideal time for an ambush; the maintenance road that led away from the reservoir was inconveniently barren.  The odd boulder, barely the size of one of Hot Spot's boots, appeared to be the only means of cover available.  They were outnumbered, and facing off against some of Megatron's most capable warriors.  Even worse, the fuel payload Hot Spot was carrying made it extremely dangerous to rush out into the heat of the battle.  In short... this was one of the days that made it all worthwhile!

Groove, meanwhile, apparently hadn't heard Hot Spot's commands; he was still blissfully puttering along the path in motorcycle mode, humming a bouncy tune to himself.

"Just the kind of victim I like!" Blitzwing growled loudly, "An oblivious one!  Whahaa!"  He zeroed in on Groove, coming to within only a few feet of his target before switching to his tank mode and plummeting to Earth with a thud.  This in itself was not enough to sustain Groove's attention, but the photonic shells launched by Blitzwing, whose explosions engulfed the entire width of the road, proved more than adequate.

"Whoa!" shrieked Groove, slamming on the brakes with such force that it caused him to flip in vehicle mode.  He attempted to switch to robot mode and land on his feet, but his inertia carried him directly into the aftermath of the photonic blast.  

"Come back and fight me, punk!" Blitzwing screamed.  "You won't escape that easily!"  He transformed to robot mode and brandished his electron scimitar, poking around in the air until the electromagnetic blade managed to grab Groove's body mass.  The pull of Blitzwing's blade was strong enough that it yanked Groove out of the smoldering debris with such force that he might have been impaled, had he not swung around and deftly kicked the blade from Blitzwing's hand.  He bounced off of Blitzwing's chest; he and the sword clattered to the ground.

Octane had joined Blitzwing in robot mode while Groove rose to his feet, training his pistol on them but holding fast.

"You little runt," Octane scoffed, brandishing his own weapon.  "You can't beat a Decepticon!"

"I don't want to shoot you," Groove said calmly.  "If I have a choice, I'd rather settle this without pulling any triggers."  He tossed his pistol aside.  "You have the courage to do the same thing?  Or are you just another Decepticon who's only good to go as long as he has a gun to hide behind?"

Octane guffawed, throwing his rifle over his shoulder.  "Sure, why not?  Makes no difference to me, since this place is still gonna be littered with Autobot parts when I'm done with you."

Blitzwing took a step back, and had only just opened his mouth to warn Octane when Groove blasted the Decepticons with twin streams of liquid nitrogen from his leg-mounted vaporator cannons.  Blitzwing had managed to turn so that his shoulder armor absorbed most of the spray, but Octane was caught completely off-guard, immobilized in a look of complete and utter shock.

"I'll gut you for that!" Blitzwing promised, drawing back with difficulty accompanied by a disturbing crunching sound, and hit Groove in the midsection with such force that it sent him flying back into the crater Blitzwing had made in the road.


"First Aid," Hot Spot ordered over his communicator, "tend to Groove.  Streetwise, give First Aid all the cover fire he needs.  Blades, try to get airborne again and see if you can keep one or two of those Triple Changers busy from the sky.  Don't pour it on too thick, though--"  He was cut off as another volley of shots rained down on him.

"Understood," First Aid replied.

"I gotcha, Hot Spot," Blades said.  "I won't squash 'em... I'll just clip their wings a little."  Luckily, the Protectobots' random frequency modulators were synchronized with one another, so even if a Decepticon did inadvertently detect one of their transmissions, it wouldn't be for more than a fraction of a second.

Blades took to the sky, sending a pair of rockets in Blitzwing's direction to try to get his attention.  Having apparently forgotten about Groove entirely, Blitzwing resumed his airborne mode and gave chase.

"Death awaits, Autobots!" promised Thrust.

"Blah, blah, blah," Dirge said.  "Same song, different day.  You never change."

"No kidding," Ramjet agreed.  "Just for once, I would like to see him do... this!"  With that, Ramjet broke formation and set himself on a collision course for the Protectobots.  He didn't particularly care which of them he hit--he wasn't one to worry about details--so he simply allowed himself to glide into the fray, sending a couple of them diving for cover before he smashed into Hot Spot, launching the Protectobot leader into the air for the briefest of moments before sending him tumbling to the ground with the satisfying sound of twisting metal.

"No, no!  Not him!" Astrotrain shouted.  "Decepticons, call off the attack!  Call off the attack!  Ramjet, you idiot!"

"Uhhh..." Hot Spot groaned, taking a little bit longer than usual to get back on his feet.  By the time his head had stopped spinning and he looked around, four of the Decepticons had their cannons targeted at his head.

"You wouldn't shoot me," Hot Spot said gruffly.  "I've got enough petrochemicals in my tanks that an explosion would wipe you guys out, too!"

"I'm not aiming for your tanks," Astrotrain said with a grin.  "My ionic displacer is a weapon of extreme precision.  I can disintegrate your head clean off your body and extract the fuel myself, if that's what you really want.  Octane, get over here!"

"Could get messy," Dirge added.

"Well, I guess you've got me this time."  Trying not to seem too eager, Hot Spot transformed to his fire engine configuration.  Streetwise and Blades arrived on the scene, weapons drawn, but as they came upon the group of Decepticons, both realized the battle was lost, allowing their arms to drop to their sides.

Octane was cackling happily to himself.  "You Autobots are pathetic.  Didn't even put up a fight!"  He transformed to his tanker truck mode and pulled up alongside Hot Spot.  "Fill 'er up, guys!  And don't forget to change the oil!  Heh heh."

Ramjet and Thrust connected one of Hot Spot's hoses to Octane's tank nozzle.  "Aah," Octane sighed.  "A little crude, but this is the good stuff.  And it's the real thing, too.  You Autobots played right into our hands.  What losers!"

"That's... the last of it," Hot Spot said.  "Now what will you do with us?"

"There's no sense expending any more energy against you," Astrotrain declared.  "You're barely worth the trouble."  Astrotrain plucked Hot Spot's hose out of Octane and unceremoniously dropped it to the ground.  He swept his arm toward the skies and announced, "Decepticons, we've done what we came to do!  Back to Headquarters!"

Octane switched to robot mode.  "Hey, Astrotrain," he said pulling the larger robot aside, "we've got enough fuel now to power ourselves for weeks, if it were just you and me divvying up the spoils.  What do you think about ditching these low-grade losers and going into business for ourselves?"

"I think you're a naive fool, Octane," Astrotrain said, "whose dreams of power surface whenever your tanks are filled with fuel.  Don't waste my time.  Decepticons, transform!"

Ramjet was the last to join the group, giving Hot Spot a farewell head butt before launching into the boundless skies.  

"Hot Spot, can you drive on three flat tires?" Streetwise asked as he approached.  

"You never cease to amaze me," Hot Spot said.  "I'm not even gonna ask how you knew that."

"I can hear the air escaping," he said in a matter-of-fact tone.  "Can't you?"

"Blades, give me a hand," First Aid called out, in his ambulance mode.  "Groove can't transform.  Would you help him climb inside, please?"

"I can't believe we let those dirty Decepticons make a clean getaway," Streetwise grumbled.

"Holding back during that battle was the hardest thing I ever had to do," Hot Spot said.  "Especially after Groove got hurt."

"I sure hope this plan that the boss cooked up pans out," Streetwise added.

"You're not the only one, Streetwise," Hot Spot said.

***

Chapter 16: Summons

"It's about time you got back," Megatron snarled.  "Did you get the energy?"

"You bet, Megatron," Octane boasted, the pride evident in his voice.  "Nearly eight thousand gallons of raw, undistilled petrofuel."

"Only eight thousand?  The Protectobots could have carried twice that much!  Why did you imbeciles interrupt them before they finished collecting the energy?"

"But... but Megatron..." stammered Thrust.

"Whoa-ho!  Not even close!" Octane protested.

Astrotrain cleared his throat and shot a look at Octane.  "We attacked the Protectobots after they left the reservoir, great Megatron," he said.

Anthrax crossed her arms, raising one hand to her chin.  "That barely makes it worth shipping the energy to Cybertron," she said.  "This mission was a failure."

"No!" Megatron said between gritted teeth, striking the nearest convenient object--Astrotrain, as it turned out.  "The energy will be transported to Cybertron.  Even you must see that a small advantage is better than no advantage at all."  Megatron flipped open his wrist communicator.  "Thundercracker, Skywarp, report to the command tower."  He turned to his communications officer.  "Soundwave, contact Cybertron and get the new space bridge coordinates from Shockwave."

"But the energon we will expend activating the space bridge," Anthrax pressed on, "is very nearly equal to the amount of fuel your robots have captured.  Why waste the effort on such a paltry sum?"  

"I have warned you once before," Megatron said, "about overstepping your boundaries."

"And I have explained to you repeatedly," Anthrax said, matching his tone, "that I am not under your command."

"Attention, Megatron," Soundwave's voice came over the communicator, cutting through the uneasy silence.  "Transmission received from Cybertron.  Priority one, encrypted message, secure channel."

That was unusual.  Shockwave usually had no need for such secrecy.  Megatron rarely bothered with such cowardly measures, and he was hardly in the mood to decode some scrambled message.  Still, Anthrax's presence on Earth, not to mention that Autobot holed up in storage, both represented potential tactical liabilities.

"Direct it to the war chamber," he instructed Soundwave, "and meet me there.  Megatron out."

Anthrax promptly sidestepped Megatron.  "Is there something you're keeping from me, Megatron?  We're all Decepticons here, after all.  Don't you agree it would be best if I were to sit in on this communique?  We wouldn't want to lose the data in the event something... unfortunate were to befall you, now would we?"  Her tone was sincere, despite the implied threat.

"Soundwave can fulfil that function more than adequately," Megatron snarled derisively as he stepped over the prone form of Astrotrain and disappeared into the lift.


Megatron's original war chamber was the facility in which he had planned most of the greatest conquests of his career.  His current headquarters was furnished with one somewhat similar to the one back home--adorned with maps of galaxies he planned to conquer, trophies that took the form of body parts belonging to former enemies, and the weapons he'd used to destroy them.  It was a glorious tribute to the Decepticon way of life, one that never failed to provoke a satisfied grin on Megatron's face; if it could be said to lack anything, it would be the fact that Optimus Prime's battered, demolished form did not decorate the large empty space on the front wall.

Megatron sat in the control module, tapping a security clearance code on an interface panel just as Soundwave entered the room.

"Patch Shockwave through," Megatron said.

"Negative, Megatron," Soundwave said in what Megatron knew passed for his apologetic tone.  "Transmission is from Cybertron Council."

Megatron's face fell, and his mind began instinctively racing.  What possible reason could they have to contact him now?  They'd largely left him to his business, even after they had been informed of the Autobots' and Decepticons' reawakening on Earth.  Megatron had long suspected that his being such a long distance away from home made him less of a threat, in their eyes.  As it was, he hadn't been to Cybertron in months, and space bridge activity had been virtually non-existent of late.  What could have prompted their attention?  Unfortunately, Megatron somehow had a hard time convincing himself that they were simply paying a courtesy call.

"Activate," Megatron ordered.

Soundwave took a moment to verify the clearance codes he'd received before switching on the channel.  On the viewscreen, six times larger than life, stood a darkly-colored robot wearing a Decepticon sigil, and a mask that concealed all intentions.  Megatron pursed his lips and gritted his teeth as recognition took hold.

"This is Council Coordinator Jetstorm, speaking on behalf of the Cybertron Council," he said smoothly.  "At the request of my fellow Council members, I am ordering you to report to Cybertron for a formal hearing before the Tribunal."

"Absurd!" was Megatron's immediate reaction.  "What are the charges?"

Jetstorm consulted someone off-screen for a moment and replied, "If you wish, I will transmit a full docket.  In the interest of brevity, however, I believe they are too numerous to recite presently."

"This is ridiculous!" Megatron spat. "Your charges are irrelevant.  I refused to submit to your inquisition!"

"I must admit, your reaction... perplexes me," Jetstorm said, cocking his head to one side slightly.  "Cybertron Council law applies to all Cybertronians.  Have you renounced your citizenship since last we spoke?"

"Don't be a fool!  Of course I haven't," Megatron said sternly.  How could Megatron ever hope to own Cybertron if he weren't a rightful patriot of his own planet?  Giving up that right was tantamount to relinquishing leadership of his Decepticons and, to Megatron, unthinkable.

Jetstorm seemed confused, and a little annoyed.  "You... have no choice but to comply.  Surely you must realize that.  If you resist, we will send armed escorts to bring you back to Cybertron.  Do not disobey, or I will instruct them to apprehend you at all costs.  You have fourteen megacycles to comply.  Council out."  The transmission was terminated.  Static happily danced on the screen in its wake.

Megatron was left seething in his command module, not realizing the full extent of his frustration until he discovered that he had crushed the interface panel in his clutches.  He loosened his grip to allow what remained of the control panel to drop to the ground, staring at the fragments as though they somehow held the answer to this new predicament.

"Soundwave," he asked wearily, dreading the answer, "do we have enough energon stockpiled to repel a full-force attack?"

Soundwave, who was already standing at a computer access port, needed only to exchange tools before plugging back into the network.  Soundwave had created the computer that governed the ship; though he had never bothered to name it, and he failed to see the appeal of a voice interface, he enjoyed interfacing directly with it a great deal.  He found that it afforded him the chance to communicate in terms of pure data, rather than worrying about the intricacies and ambiguities of social contact.

It only took a moment before the computer returned a precise manifest of the Decepticons' current energy stockpiles, broken down categorically by troop rations, utility reserves, computer systems-allocated power, and stored energon.  The computer had already been updated with the fuel gleaned from the Triple Changers' raid, but even after factoring that in, the news was grim.

"At current energon levels, resistance of full-scale assault will be effective for five hours."

Five hours.  Even if they attempted to conserve their strength, that battle would be over before it ever began.

"Soundwave," Megatron said, "take Anthrax back to the laboratory and finish your work on the new energon cubes."

"Yes, Megatron."  Soundwave was gone before Megatron had even stood up.

Megatron sometimes wondered why it seemed as though every action he took drove him deeper towards despair, no matter how desperately he tried to pull himself out of the stygian abyss.  Even if the new energon cubes worked, they would be useless without a new power source to fill them.  It was difficult enough just scavenging the energy needed to survive, let alone the kind of power than Anthrax had vaguely alluded to.  What was worse, a battle of the kind of magnitude that Jetstorm had hinted at could possibly drive the Decepticons from Earth itself; when a Decepticon said "at all costs," that almost always translated to "with every weapon at our disposal."  Under normal circumstances that would only be a temporary setback, as regrouping after the fact would normally be an option, but Megatron's resources were so limited that he doubted the ability of even his most robust troops to survive in the void of space for any length of time, with no steady fuel source and no base of operations.

For no real reason, Megatron blamed Starscream for this predicament.  It was a comforting thought, but it didn't do much to amend the situation.

Again, the choice came down to forging ahead on his own, or swallowing his pride and requesting assistance from Anthrax.  Megatron was never one to pass up a tactical advantage, and Anthrax's technology could certainly provide him with that.  Her attitude, however, was beginning to grate on him in a way that very few Decepticons were capable of.  Even more, Megatron was certain Anthrax was deceiving him about something.  He hadn't risen to the most powerful position in the Decepticon hierarchy by blissfully going along with every newcomer who had wild dreams of galactic conquest.  There was also, of course, the fact that she was a female, which automatically meant she could never possibly be Megatron's equal in any conceivable respect.

The battle would be fought... and Megatron would win it.

***

Chapter 17: Sting

The ocean depths played a special kind of music.  Whether it was the rhythmic pulsing of the waves above, the songs of distant sea creatures, or the heartbeat of the Earth itself that contributed, was ultimately irrelevant.  More likely, it was some combination of all of these.  Like the individual instruments in an orchestra, conspiring together as one, the result of that union was far more significant than the elements that comprised it.

This was the world that Seaspray called home.

While his duties as an Autobot warrior required him to operate on land the vast majority of the time, and Seaspray usually never groused about it, it was within the ocean that he felt he performed at his best.  Immersed in the enriching coolness of the water, Seaspray became a lithe and graceful creature, no longer the awkward, clunky robot so many of his comrades-in-arms considered him to be.  In a way, he felt fortunate to have allies on this particular mission, friends who would, perhaps, attest to his graceful performance in the depths of the seas.

Seaspray and the four others who had accompanied him had chosen a reconnaissance point about half a mile away from the underwater Decepticon base, behind a titanic chunk of sunken wreckage.  Carly had chosen the spot, insisting that the Decepticons wouldn't be able to detect their presence until they had confirmed that their new refractory armor would, indeed, effectively elude Decepticon sensors.

Seaspray extended his forearm long enough to examine his new reflective paint job once more.  He had faith in Swerve's skills, and the fact that the other Autobots standing nearby weren't registering on his sensors was reassuring to an extent... but how could they know whether Decepticon scanning technology would be fooled as well?  At Wheeljack's suggestion, Swerve had devised a unique frequency modulation for each of the four Autobots, which manifested itself as a different color in each case.  Hopefully, if the Decepticons did manage to detect the Autobots, they would only find one of them.  Maybe they'd even dismiss it as a sensor glitch, since a single Autobot would have to be very brave or very crazy to approach the base alone...

"All's quiet so far," Seaspray said as surreptitiously as his vocal components allowed.

"Aye, it's always dead before the storm," Hubcap whispered, "right before ye're swept right off your feet."

"How are we gonna get inside?" Bumblebee wondered.

"Hey, just leave that to me," Beachcomber replied smoothly.  "My sensors are totally on it.  Mmm-hmm.  There's a weakness in the hull.  Like, maybe you can see it from here, little Bee.  They must'a gotten a little lazy and used some Earth metals for replacement panels... right there," he said, pointing to what had once been the aft section of the ship.

"You're right," Bumblebee said, after taking a moment for a quick optical magnification in that direction.  "Heck, even I could put a hole through that!"

Carly seemed more preoccupied with examining the wreckage than appraising their tactical situation; she ran her bare fingers along the rusted hull, apparently reveling in the tactile sensation.  

"I never thought I'd see it up close," Carly said with hushed reverence.

"It is impressive," Seaspray added.  "I had no idea humans had ever made ships that big."

"Well, whaddya know," Beachcomber said, after directing his sensors in the opposite direction.  "Alloy composition's the same.  I'd say this is where they're finding their... spare parts."

"Aye, one-stop shopping.  I wouldnay be a'tall surprised if this hunk o' junk were the reason the Sky Spy's been having trouble pinpointing the Connies' base," Hubcap said.

"Hmm, you could have something there," Beachcomber mused.  "That's one humdinger, uh-huh."

"So this was the reason ye wanted to tag along so badly, eh?" Hubcap said, nudging her.  "So ye could gape at a leakin' boat?"

"No, of course not!  It's not like I don't own the movie, you know."  Carly took advantage of her watery environment, paddling up to face Hubcap at eye level.  "But now we know that Swerve's new armor actually works.  The Decepticons would have come after us by now if they'd picked you guys up on their scanners.  The 'leaking boat,' as you call it, was the best place to hide just in case they did detect us."

"Pull the other one," Hubcap said.

"Really, Hubcap," she said, with a sigh that sent a trickle of air bubbles out of her mask.  "Not everybody has ulterior motives, you know."

"Take it from one who knows, lassie," Hubcap said.  "There's a word for one who trusts too much."

"And that would be what?" Carly asked.

"Corpse," Hubcap said.

"C'mon, guys," Bumblebee said urgently.  "We gotta save Smokescreen!"


Hubcap didn't believe in any kind of categorical ranking system, and never had.  To him, seniority was no replacement for experience (concepts which were confused with one another far too often, as far as Hubcap was concerned); the amount of time you'd been on the clock should, theoretically, have no bearing on your performance, especially when you were an ineffective liability for most of your tenure.  The fact that Hubcap had been scrounging for energy and fighting for his own survival almost the entire time Optimus Prime and friends were taking their four-million-year nap should have been a testament to his capability, not a setback.

Once Hubcap and the others who had been searching for the Ark had finally arrived on Earth, though, it really didn't surprise Hubcap when Optimus Prime had assigned him to a fairly low position in the ranks.  It certainly would have made more sense, to, say, actually integrate the crews of both ships together, instead of relegating Pipes' entire crew to the bottom of the blasted food chain.  Hubcap had been Pipes' second in command; joining the Earthbound Autobots was, in effect, a demotion.  He'd have been better off still dodging asteroids in space.  One of the less sensible results of the merger was the fact that Bumblebee was, technically, Hubcap's commanding officer.  Hubcap's response to such absurdity usually consisted of three words:  Not.  Bloody.  Likely.

Therefore, Hubcap had decided to appoint himself commander of this mission.  He simply didn't choose to make it a public announcement.  The other two were likely pushovers, but it would take far too much time and effort to convince Bumblebee than Hubcap cared to expend.  Some vague allusion to having a past relationship with Smokescreen, making Hubcap the ideal person to confront him, placated them nicely in the meantime.  Hubcap's objectives were the same as those of the others, but his motives likely weren't anywhere close to theirs.  Of course, what they didn't know wouldn't hurt them.

Rescuing the Autobot was of the utmost significance to Hubcap.  Not that he had any personal attachment to him; he barely knew Smokescreen on a personal level.  He didn't have to.  All that mattered was that as part of the Autobot team, Smokescreen was immensely valuable to Optimus Prime, and that Hubcap would be the one to deliver Smokescreen to him.  Such an heroic act would do quite nicely to advance Hubcap's inherent value in the eyes of Optimus.  Hubcap would be rewarded.  Perhaps he'd be given more responsibilities or given the chance to advance in the ranks a bit.  A promotion would mean, of course, that which Hubcap was fully convinced was the only thing that really mattered to anyone--more energy.  Energy meant power, and power meant freedom.  Wasn't that the one thing everybody ultimately worked towards--the only real purpose in life?

He had to do it alone, however.  It had to be Hubcap's solitary act of duty and valor that would truly impress Optimus Prime; group efforts were run-of-the-mill and received no such special accolades.  Right now, it was Hubcap's best chance of finally getting something back out of the Autobots--coming one step closer to his ultimate goals.

Hubcap's goals were, at the moment, obscured by little things.  Ridiculous, shiny little yellow things.

He'd have to see about that.


"There, that was easy," Bumblebee said, discarding the remains of the makeshift metal patch.

"I think you've got more strength in that body than you let on sometimes, Bumblebee," Carly crooned.  

"Better let me go first, laddie, just 'ncase there're 'Connies roaming about," Hubcap suggested.  "We cannay afford t'lose ya on this mission."

"Gosh, thanks!" Bumblebee replied.

Hubcap paddled up and entered the breach in the bottom of the Decepticon ship, followed quickly by Carly.  Hubcap stretched out his arm and offered it to Carly; she grabbed onto the tire mounted to his wrist as he gently raised her through the gap.

Hubcap took a moment to open up his passenger-side door, spilling some ocean water (along with a small starfish) onto Bumblebee, who was in the process of climbing up through the opening.

"Well, thanks for nothing, Hubcap," Bumblebee said, looking three-quarters amused, extracting the starfish from his foot before tossing it back into the sea.

"I've always said you were wet behind the audio receptors," Seaspray said.  He made a noise that could possibly have been his version of a chuckle.

"Still quiet so far," Beachcomber said, taking an uneasy sidelong glance down the corridor, pausing to reflect on his green metallic armor plating.  "I've got, like, zero idea where we are, though.  Seaspray?"

Seaspray just shrugged.  "This wasn't the way I came last time.  All these hallways look the same to me... purple."

Carly pulled off her scuba mask and pulled her hair away from her face.  "You men are so helpless when it comes to directions.  Let's see now... the bomb I planted on the outside of the ship flooded the detention level, so that means we have to go... all the way up.  We need to find an elevator or an air duct or something."

"Ye bombed the 'Connie's base?" Hubcap asked.  "That's quite impressive, lass.  Human or otherwise."

"Yeah, ancient history.  I was just a kid back then.  Anyway," she continued, "it's also closer to the forward section of the ship.  I guess we've got some walking to do."

"Bumblebee, if I might make a small suggestion," Hubcap said, "if I remember my Autobot training, a mission such as this dictates that we split up and search."

"It does?" Bumblebee asked.

"Hmmm.  Well, we would cover the ship four times as fast," Beachcomber noted.

"Five times, actually," Carly said.

"And make it four times as likely that one of us will run into a Decepticon?" Bumblebee countered.  "No way!"

"Hel-lo?" Carly said, waving her arms.  "Remember me?  The female human?"

Hubcap slung his arm around Bumblebee's shoulder like they'd been buddies their entire lives.  "Laddie, you're the smartest Autobot among us.  There's no question o' that.  Ye already know that even if we all stick together, we wouldnay have the power to stop a single Decepticon by ourselves.  And that's assuming that we got lucky and only ran into a single one."

"Well..." Bumblebee replied.

Hubcap pulled Bumblebee aside.  "Lad, this is the first time ye commanded a mission.  The fate of yer team rests in yer hands.  Aye, it's a big responsibility.  If you pull this one off, though, just think about how the other Autobots'd look at ye."  Hubcap spread his hands out, as though calling attention to something wondrous and valuable.  "Ye'd be a hero, lad.  Ye deserve t'know what that's like."

"It's just that..." Bumblebee began.

"I know, lad," Hubcap said.  "Ye dinnae want to be the one who gets yer team killed.  Can ye imagine the guilt that ye'd have to carry around with ye for the rest of yer life?" Hubcap made a fist and made as if to stab himself in the abdomen.  "'Tis a sickening, gut-wrenching feeling... t'say nothing of what the other Autobots would think of ye."  

Hubcap clutched Bumblebee by both shoulders.  "Oh, laddie.  Ye're such a bright spark, with such potential... d'ye know how it would kill me if I let ye do that to yerself, if I let ye throw yer life away?  I can't let ye do that... all because ye made the wrong decision."

"Well, uh, maybe we could put it to a vote..."

"But lad," Hubcap said, "ye're the one in charge, here.  Ye get to make the decisions this time.  Show us all what ye're made of!  But--ah!  I shall say n'more.  'Tis not my place.  I know ye'll do the right thing."

"I'll, uh, give it a shot," Bumblebee said, then turned back to the group.  "Okay, guys, this is what we're gonna do..."

He looked at Hubcap, who made an apologetic grimace as he winced and stabbed himself in the gut again.

"We're splitting up," Bumblebee said.  "Beachcomber, Seaspray, you guys go back the other way.  Carly and I'll head in this direction.  Whaddya want to do, Hubcap?"

"With yer permission, sir, I'll finish checking this level," Hubcap said with an enthusiastic salute.

"Let's meet back here in... whaddya think, about thirty thousand astro-seconds?" Bumblebee asked.

"You got it, Little Bee," Beachcomber said, setting his chronometer.


"Wow, Bumblebee," Carly said a few minutes later, "I've never seen you so assertive before.  That was really impressive."

"Aw, c'mon, Carly," Bumblebee shrugged.  "It wasn't a big deal.  Besides, I had Hubcap coaching me.  I couldn't have done that on my own."

"Don't put yourself down like that!" Carly said.  "The point is that you did do it on your own.  You gave an order, and the other Autobots listened to you!  You really know how to take charge of a situation.  I have to admit that it's kind of attractive, actually."

Bumblebee managed an incomprehensible stammer.  He was certain that his normally pallid face plate had begun to take on a crimson glow.  It was natural for Transformer physiology to change color as a result of an increase or decrease in energon flow; Bumblebee had always assumed it was a feature unique to robotic life forms, until he'd learned recently that humans did it, too.  They called it "blushing," and it seemed to serve much the same purpose in Transformers as it did in humans.

Bumblebee was about to ask Carly to explain more about this phenomenon when several realizations dawned on him simultaneously.

The first was that he was standing before two Decepticons who had just turned the corner, both of whom were easily twice Bumblebee's size and had their weapons drawn.  The second thing he noticed was that the was the disturbingly shrill noise he'd just heard but had been unable to immediately recognize had, in fact, come from Carly, who now laid prone on the violet flooring.  The third was that the reason for her distress was because one of the Decepticons had just shot her with his weapon.

His final realization was that he was going to be next.

***

Chapter 18: Acquiescence

Megatron burst into the laboratory loudly, putting scratch marks on the paint as he pried the doors apart.

"M-Megatron!" Anthrax stammered, jumping from the computer console and almost tripping over her chair in the process.  Remarkably, she managed to regain her composure almost immediately.  "I didn't hear you come in.  Is there anything you require of--"

"The only reason I continue to tolerate your disobeying my direct orders is because I have a use for you," he seethed.  "Are the new energon cubes completed?"

Anthrax's tone softened as her inquisitive side grabbed hold of her.  "You...will allow it to continue?  Why the sudden change of heart?"

"We must prepare to engage enemy forces from Cybertron in less than twelve hours," he explained, almost shoving her aside in order to take a glance at the readouts on her monitors.  "We need the cubes, and a new power source to fill them with.  How soon can they be ready?"

"This wasn't exactly part of the plan," she said with uncertainty.  "The cubes are finished, for all intents and purposes.  As for the power source I had in mind, however, it will take several days to make the preparations to harvest them.  Why this sudden aggression from the Autobots, though?  You told me their forces on Cybertron were almost nonexistent."

"This has nothing to do with the Autobots," Megatron said.  "Millions of years ago, before the war, a Council was elected to govern our society.  It comprises both Autobots and Decepticons to ensure its neutrality, but its members are no longer politically affiliated."

"My planet uses third-party moderators to handle all political disputes," Anthrax said.  "How well does your system work?"

"The Council claims to be impartial," Megatron said, "but in my experience, they tend to favor whichever allegiance holds power."

"And yet your Decepticons largely control your world," Anthrax mused.  "Strange that they would come after a Decepticon, then.  Could they be favoring the Autobot resistance movement for some reason?"

"I have a feeling I know who is responsible for this," Megatron said.  "This is nothing more than a power ploy designed to draw me away from my command base.  I refuse to submit to whatever ridiculous charges have been brought against me!"

"There are charges involved?" Anthrax asked.  "Megatron, I admit that I'm not familiar with your particular brand of jurisprudence, but don't you think it would be best to meet these charges head-on?  If they're false, you should have no problem readily disproving them."

"Unless my accuser has struck a bargain with the Council," Megatron said grimly.

"Megatron... we're not ready to repel an assault.  Not yet.  I consider you a worthy ally, but please understand that I can't... won't help you fight a losing battle."

"Then I will take your energon cubes and do it myself," Megatron said.

"With all due respect, Megatron, I doubt you would be able to.  These aren't any ordinary energon cubes; they require a special power source.  To be blunt, you can't use them until I tell you how."

"We'll see about that," Megatron said.  "You are dismissed, my dear Anthrax.  Get off this planet, and take your empty promises with you!"

"Do you have any idea what my presence here represents, Megatron?  You have been fighting a war for millions of years, always able to drive the Autobots back, but never able to completely wipe them out.  I am offering you the means to completely destroy them.  This is a tactical advantage that you simply cannot pass up!"

"If you really do have such power, why have you not yet conquered your own homeworld?" Megatron countered.

"We have the means, but not the ability.  My Decepticons... they're not warriors like yours are.  They lack strength, and morale is low.  They don't have what it takes to conquer our homeworld.  We can't do it alone... we need your help."

"Then you have no choice," Megatron said, "but to do exactly as I say."

"No, I won't.  I take no orders from you, Megatron.  However, I'm perfectly willing to entertain... a polite request."

"Don't be absurd!  Decepticons take what is rightfully theirs.  I ask for nothing!"

"Then you will get nothing."

Moments passed far too quickly.  Megatron felt his internal cables involuntarily tightening.  "Very well.  If you give me this power, I swear by the Smelter that you will receive all the assistance that you require.  Together, we will crush every Autobot in the universe and conquer every Cybertron in the heavens!"

"Well," said Anthrax, "that was more like striking a bargain than asking for help, but I suppose it will have to do."

"Then we must prepare to repel the invasion at once!" Megatron said.

"No," Anthrax said.  "Even if there were somehow enough time to secure this new power source, I wouldn't do it.  If we are to cement this alliance, Megatron, I will require evidence of your good faith.  I must admit I'm having some degree of difficulty respecting an ally who cannot even respect the laws of his own society.  Have you no sense of honor, Megatron?"

"My honor is based on Decepticon philosophies," Megatron replied, "and the laws of Cybertron do not apply to me while I am on Earth!"

"Nevertheless, I feel I must insist that you address this concern before we proceed."

"Only because you wish to see me incarcerated!"

"On the contrary, Megatron; my mission parameters won't allow for it.  I have no intention of seeing you imprisoned.  If you wish, I'll accompany you."

How much more was this newcomer going to demand before she finally gave Megatron the secrets she had promised him?  He wasn't even completely convinced that she could provide him with anything useful at all.  She'd offered no evidence to support her claims aside from the modified energon cubes (which by themselves proved nothing), and yet Megatron was blindly following her every suggestion.  She knew he was desperate, and she hadn't hesitated to exploit that--not by upping the ante and demanding more resources from Megatron in exchange for her power source, but by forcing Megatron to practically grovel before her.  She seemed to delight in humbling Megatron, and made no secret of it.  What Anthrax didn't seem to realize was that she had even less time than she realized--and that it would run out the instant she gave Megatron this power source.  There simply wasn't enough room on Cybertron for two Decepticon leaders.

"Very well, Anthrax," Megatron said.  "But I promise you that if anything happens to me, your entire homeworld will suffer for it!"

"Threatening an entire planet?" replied Anthrax, with a sly smirk.  "Be careful, Megatron.  I'm sure there's a legal precedent for that, too."

***

Chapter 19: Verisimilitude

On the lower decks, Dreadwing jerked his head up for a moment, then pressed a button on his helmet.  He sighed heavily, but didn't stir for several moments.  "Well, it appears I'm being pressed into service once again," he grumbled.  He rose to his feet and moaned pitifully, making the whole affair as though it were far more effort to do so than it could possibly have been worth.

He had almost made his way out the doorway when he stopped, backed up a bit (his massive frame and large shoulder cannon prevented him from turning around fully), and cast a forlorn glance at his prisoner.  He took a breath and half-heartedly gestured toward Smokescreen, but whatever he was about to say was overcome by a long, drawn-out sigh, and his gesture dissipated as his arms collapsed at his sides again.  Dreadwing departed, his soul entrenched in molasses, with his smaller drone partner in tow.  

Smokescreen remained undecided which of the two made the better conversationalist.


Navigating the Decepticon base was not entirely unlike finding his way around Autobot Headquarters, Hubcap realized, and either was enough to send him over the brink.

Hubcap was accustomed to the winding underground mazes back on Cybertron--the twisting, turning tunnels that never seemed to go the same direction twice, whose design seemed the result of a dozen different blueprints that had all collided head-on, which even the most clever glitch-mouse would have difficulty navigating.  The mindlessly straightforward and positively banal corridors that constituted most Cybertronic spacecraft, on the other hand, tended to make Hubcap's cranial module ache.  It was far too structured for his tastes.  It reminded him of the Autobots, in a way, and as his mind made the connection he found himself vaguely wondering if the others were having better luck than he was.  It was strictly a curiosity, borne from his habit of keeping tabs on the activities of those around him.  It was his sincerest hope, actually, that they failed... or were at least detained.  Above all else, he had to reach Smokescreen first.

Hubcap didn't actually wish any harm to befall the others; they could still probably be useful tools.  Tricking the others into accompanying him on this mission was simply the easiest way to get this far.  Playing on Bumblebee's insecurities had proven even easier than he'd expected, and now he was able to function alone without the hindrance of lesser Autobots.  Besides, maybe it would end up doing the little twerp some good, build a little character... assuming he survived this whole affair.

Not that Hubcap had anything personal against Bumblebee, of course.  Hubcap would be the first to point out that he was a mostly amicable bloke.  Indeed, he went out of his way to help out anyone who could potentially be useful to him; since he recognized the potential to exploit very nearly every living being he encountered, the result was that he was extraordinarily helpful to virtually everyone around him, be they Autobot or human.  They were, of course, immensely grateful to him for his generosity, but he suspected none of them had a clue as to Hubcap's true motives.  Hubcap, meanwhile, knew that eventually one of them would have something he wanted (or would be able to provide him with something he needed).  Life tended to be so much easier when they gave it to him willingly, feeling some sense of obligation that they owed him a favor due to his past services.  At least it saved him the trouble of psychologically manipulating them long enough to coax it out of them.

This was Hubcap's special brand of friendship, and it had served him quite well.  The only time it didn't work was in the rare instance that Hubcap encountered a wholly useless specimen with no special talents, no real authority, and a sphere of influence that was so limited as to be non-existent.  Anyone that he couldn't squeeze something useful out of became an obstacle in his path.  For these beings, Hubcap did no special favors.  He never went so far as to placing anyone else directly in harm's way, of course; he wasn't a Decepticon, after all.  He just didn't make every possible effort to remove them from harm's way should they stumble into it on their own.

Hubcap knew that Bumblebee likely would follow his Autobot training, which would have served as a significant impediment to Hubcap's goals had Bumblebee actually remembered that splitting up the group was probably the last thing that a sensible Autobot would have done.  Hubcap should know; ever since he'd gotten to Earth, he'd had to endure a particularly rigorous brand of training by some abrasive Autobot who couldn't go ten astro-seconds without shouting an onomatopoeia in Hubcap's audio receptors.  The experience alone was enough to make him reject these regulations on principle, were he not already sworn to his own particular methods of operation.

With the others gone, it was time to toss conventional Autobot methods out the nearest airlock and go back to what he knew best... dirty, underhanded trickery.

Hubcap's internal communications array granted him access to a broad spectrum of frequencies that most Autobots didn't even know existed.  It was, to Hubcap, like being able to distinguish ten shades of purple while living among the colorblind.  This was but one of the reasons why Hubcap was superior to virtually any other Autobot.  To Hubcap, this wasn't a matter of ego; it was simply a fact he'd learned to accept.  Actually, at times it was more of a curse than a blessing.  Sometimes, Hubcap wished that he weren't so vastly talented; at least that way, he wouldn't have to live with the constant feeling that he was surrounded by inferior mechanisms.

It only took a minute's worth of tasting the airwaves, sampling the dozens of communication transmissions between Decepticons and their assorted computer systems before he found a likely candidate.  Hubcap strode toward a wall panel that was just slightly too high for comfort and opened a communications channel.  He had the necessary equipment to broadcast it directly himself, but there was just something deliciously sinister about using the Decepticons' own communications device to screw them over.

"Where is that Autobot prisoner at?" Hubcap demanded, affecting a more neutral accent.

"Huh?  Who wants to know?" came the response from the comm array.

"He is due for energon rations," Hubcap explained.  "Megatron does not want the miserable runt to starve to death until he has outlived his usefulness.  How do I get to him?"

"How am I supposed to know?" replied the Decepticon.  "It's not my job to keep track of every single--"

"Now look here, you wretched pile of refuse, your job is to do as you are ordered!  If that Autobot dies because of your incompetence, Megatron will have you recycled!"

"Hey, no need to get testy," the Decepticon said defensively.  "Far as I know, he's below decks.  They chucked him in one of the energon storage rooms."

"Of course!  I already know that, moron!  The password!  I need the password!"

"Uh... oh, wait.  Here we go."   The Decepticon on the other end recited a string of numbers.  "Happy now?  Of course, if those motorheads had actually bothered to give this to you in the first pl--"

"Enough!  Do you think I have nothing better to do with my time than listen to you ramble?!" Hubcap yelled into the comm array.  "Now get back to your duties before I have you written up, you pitiful rustbucket!"

As Hubcap closed the comm channel, he found himself wondering how any of the Autobots who lacked his talents ever got anything done at all.


It wasn't that Smokescreen had trouble making decisions; he made split-second choices nearly every day of his life, for better or worse.  In fact, he was already very clear about what was, indeed, the correct thing to do.  He just wasn't completely convinced that it was the right thing to do.

Smokescreen was reasonably confident that once he found an air lock, if he transformed to vehicle mode just before bursting through, the trapped air in his cabin combined with his momentum would be sufficient to propel him several dozen mechano-meters from the Decepticon base.  Although he'd never done it underwater, it stood to reason that his exhaust smoke would cover his escape in much the same manner that a cybersquid could hide within a cloud of ink.  From that point, he could simply drive along the ocean floor until he reached the shore.  This seemed to him to be the most reasonable course of action--indeed, what any rational, well-minded Autobot would already have attempted.

On the other hand, he was equally convinced that if he remained at Decepticon Headquarters, he could learn something more about whatever it was that they were planning.  Whatever errors in judgment he may have made up to this point would surely been redeemed if he became the one to foil the Decepticons' plans.  This was a unique opportunity, after all, to have unrestricted access to the Decepticons' computer files.  Smokescreen had an obligation to at least try, didn't he?  Didn't that override standard operating procedure, at least in this once instance?

That was, of course, assuming that the Decepticons hadn't already put into motion whatever it was they were planning.  If they had, then none of this mattered at all--and Smokescreen had no way of knowing one way or the other until he figured out just what in the blazes he was going to do.

Something else which hadn't occurred to Smokescreen until just now was that the only reason the Decepticons had kept him alive was to use him as a bargaining chip.  As soon as Optimus Prime had announced, in effect, that Smokescreen's life meant nothing to him, the likelihood that the Decepticons would allow him to continue functioning for any significant length of time was so minuscule that Smokescreen didn't care to dwell on it.  Whatever he chose to do, he needed to do it immediately... or sooner.

The guards are gone, he reminded himself.  You're no longer forced to remain here.  You can escape.  Intellectually this all made perfect sense, but on an emotional level, something simply hadn't clicked into place.

An Autobot would want to escape from here.  You're an Autobot.  Therefore, you should want to escape.

So why didn't he?

Without a sense of urgency to drive him, Smokescreen found himself at a loss for a quick solution.  Answers came to him easily in the heat of battle, where his fine-tuned instincts and reflexes took precedent over deep philosophical considerations.  He normally kept so busy that the only things on his mind were the task at hand.  It was a rare moment that Smokescreen had nothing to do, and it bothered him.  It forced him to think, and he hated being alone with his thoughts.  His thoughts inevitably turned to subjects that Smokescreen avoided whenever possible.

Not all Cybertronians were Transformers, and not all Transformers were Autobots.  Smokescreen had been all of these things his entire life, and as such he attached equal importance to each of them.  What he had only recently begun to realize, though, was while being an Autobot was a way of life, it was not the only way of life.

The distinction between the Autobot race and the Autobot army was a fine one, but it did exist.  There were plenty of robots on Cybertron who considered themselves Autobots, but were not formally part of the Autobot team as commanded by Optimus Prime.  However, there was no real need to ever make such a distinction, since it went without saying that any robot created as an Autobot would automatically follow the traditional Autobot ideals.  The few times this didn't happen, it was dismissed as a programming glitch, and was forgotten as soon as it was corrected.  

Smokescreen had known for a long time that there was something fundamentally different about him.  His understanding of precisely what set him apart from the others was a somewhat vague one, but he had a hard time attributing it to a simple programming flaw.  Occasionally, when these darker, decidedly non-Autobot thoughts dominated his consciousness, Smokescreen had the presence of mind to remind himself that they were most likely the result of a processor imbalance.  By whose standards was it considered an imbalance, though?  What if, instead, it was simply who Smokescreen was?

Smokescreen was at a crossroads, it seemed.  He'd been presented with an opportunity, a chance to redefine his destiny.  It occurred to him that if he hadn't had this situation forced upon him, he might never have had the impetus to approach this decision for himself; it had taken the Decepticons to do that for him.  Typical Autobot, he snarled inwardly.  Always reacting, but never taking action.  Always waiting for someone else to make the first move.  Always leaving your fate in someone else's hands.

Maybe this was exactly what Smokescreen needed.  He was no stranger to the path of least resistance; for as long as he could remember, Smokescreen followed the ebb and flow of the tides, going wherever the currents of fate would lead him, and he accepted that.  When the war began, he took up arms as he was expected to so that he could defend his way of life.  When the Ark crashed on Earth, he vowed to remain and protect the planet, as the other crew members had.  He accepted whatever lot in life was handed to him, because that was simply the way things were.  

The conclusion he kept coming back to, though, was that the only reason he had remained part of the Autobot team, despite his perpetual and ever-growing dissatisfaction, was because it was familiar.  It was what Smokescreen had known, and always had known.  Was he really so terrified of the unknown that he would rather suffer than embrace it?  Was the only reason he tolerated such misery was because it was--

"Comfortable?"

Smokescreen jerked his head up instantly.  He didn't recognize the little Autobot with the chrome red finish at first, but the voice was unmistakably Hubcap's.

"Yeah, it's a regular vacation on Monacus," Smokescreen quipped, even as a dozen questions jumped to the forefront of his mind.  What had made Optimus Prime change his mind?  How did Hubcap get into the base undetected?  Why hadn't the Autobots sent help sooner than this?

"Nice t'see the 'Connies didnay rough ye up too badly," Hubcap observed.  "In my experience, not too many prisoners o' war even live to tell about it.  Ye're lucky to be in one piece, laddie."  The words were comforting, but Smokescreen detected something about Hubcap's demeanor that belied his sincerity.  Judging from the way the other Autobots usually reacted to him, Smokescreen had observed, he seemed to be one of the only ones who were not immediately taken in by Hubcap's attempts at camaraderie.

"I'd say the same goes double for you," Smokescreen responded, and realized that Hubcap's presence indicated several important things.  The first was that Optimus Prime had been bluffing when he said he wasn't interested in seeing Smokescreen freed.  Also, the Decepticons had probably already put their plans into action, since their absence from the base was the only readily evident explanation for Hubcap's ability to infiltrate it so easily.  Finally, whatever it was that the Decepticons were up to, the Autobots weren't aware of it yet, since Optimus Prime would never have sent Hubcap to bring back Smokescreen if there were imminent Decepticon concerns.

"You came alone?" Smokescreen asked.

"Aye, of course.  'Twas the only way to get in without the Connies spotting me, y'see.  Well, mostly alone, actually.  The others are waiting just outside the Connies' base.  They willnay wait long, though....let's get ye out of this sunken wreck!"

More than anything else, though, Hubcap's being here told Smokescreen that the Autobots had intended for Smokescreen to escape on his own all along, and that the reason Hubcap was here now was because they believed Smokescreen had failed to do so.  Blast it!  He'd had more than enough time to access the Decepticon computers, but he'd completely wasted it!  He couldn't face Optimus Prime with more excuses... explanations for his own ineptitude... another failure.

Hubcap reached out with the vehicular wheel mounted on his wrist and brushed against one of the trilithium bars.  It responded with an angry sizzling noise.

"Electrified," Hubcap said.  "Any way around it?"

The only way to salvage the situation now, Smokescreen realized, would be to discover the Decepticons' plans and deliver them to Optimus Prime.  The success of such a mission would wash away most of Smokescreen's doubts about his cause... and might be the only chance to redeem himself.  However, if this was indeed a covert mission--and Prime had communicated this much to Smokescreen with such subtlety that Smokescreen himself had nearly misinterpreted the message--then Hubcap couldn't know about it.  Smokescreen had never trusted him to begin with, and the fact that Hubcap didn't seem to know why Smokescreen was here meant that Prime had chosen not to reveal the nature of Smokescreen's mission... perhaps with good reason.  

Hubcap was lying about something.  He couldn't possibly have gotten to the Decepticon base without being detected, and that went for these other Autobots supposedly waiting in the wings.  It occurred to Smokescreen that there may have been another very good reason as to why Hubcap had successfully entered the base.  Someone had let him in.

"I've already tried it," Smokescreen explained with a shrug.  "There's no way out of here."

Hubcap looked around the room for a moment and set his sights on a wall panel.  He marched over and his fingers hovered before the console for a moment before he typed in a sequence on the keypad.  The lights on the panel changed color, and the energy field around the trilithium bars dissipated.

"Well, you certainly have a way with Decepticon command codes," Smokescreen observed.  It was becoming more and more clear that Hubcap was, in fact, a Decepticon agent.  It was now the only explanation that completely satisfied his logic circuits.  Smokescreen thought back to Hubcap's arrival years ago, and Smokescreen realized that he might even have been working for the Decepticons before he joined the Autobots on Earth.  There was just something about his mysterious nature, his apparent duplicity that had always made Smokescreen suspicious.  The other Autobots had always seemed quite taken with Hubcap's infectious personality, but not Smokescreen.  Maybe it took a master of lies to spot another liar.

Hubcap pulled at the metal bars, even going so far as to planting his feet on them and yanking on them from there, but they refused to budge.  "A bit o' help would be nice, laddie," he grunted.

If this was true, then whatever Hubcap was planning, it did not involve taking Smokescreen back to Autobot Headquarters.

"If ye're holding out for a personalized invitation, ye may be waiting a very long time.  Let's get a move-on!" Hubcap urged.

"Look, this isn't going to work," Smokescreen protested.  "There are Decepticons crawling all around this base.  We'll never get out of here without being spotted.  Besides, I'm not built for the water.  The pressure would crush me like a tin can."

"Ye dinnae need t'worry about Decepticons.  I can get ye past 'em!" Hubcap said, his voice taking on a slightly more frantic edge, as though he were in a race against time and starting to lose.  Why was he in such a hurry?

"If ye're really that worried," Hubcap continued, "we can kick a hole in the hull or something, and while all the Connies are busy with that, we'll slip onto the bridge and escape through the docking tower.  Now, together this time.  Pull!"

This wasn't working.  Smokescreen had to convince Hubcap that he wasn't a threat to the Decepticons, but he had to do it in such a way that he wouldn't let on that he knew that Hubcap was working for them.  Time for the game again.

"Look, there's something you should know," Smokescreen said, in the same manner that he might tell someone his gas tank door had popped open.  "I could have gotten out of here a long time ago.  There's a good reason why I'm still here."

"And what could that possibly be, lad?" Hubcap asked, jumping back down to the ground.

"I... can't tell you," Smokescreen said.  "You're just going to have to trust me."

"Trust ye?" Hubcap said incredulously.

"Everyone else does," Smokescreen offered.

"Not everyone," Hubcap said.  He stopped and stared intently at Smokescreen for a moment.  "Wait a minute... ye dinnay want t'leave?"

"Not particularly.  You don't think I was captured, do you?  I asked the Decepticons to take me back with them.  Right now, I'm just hanging out here until Dreadwing comes back.  We're good pals now, him and me.  He's told me a lot about the Decepticons, and so far I like what I've heard."

"Aye," Hubcap said with a slow, understanding nod.  "I think I understand now."

"You do?" Smokescreen asked.

"Well, that does change things a mite, doesn't it?  There's certainly no sense in dragging ye out of here now, is there?"

"No, I don't think there is," Smokescreen said.

Hubcap bellowed as he swung his fist into the computer station against the wall.  He didn't succeed in putting his fist through it completely, so he tried again.  And again.  On the third try, he broke the surface of the console in half, sending bolts and bits of purple metal flying into the air.  A single electrical spark shot out of the remains as Hubcap pulled back, and the viewscreen display promptly disappeared from existence.

"Hey!" Smokescreen yelled.  Now he really was trapped!

Hubcap's next attack was directed squarely at Smokescreen.  Hubcap slung his fist right between the cell bars, hitting Smokescreen in the front bumper with enough force to send him stumbling backwards into the wall behind him.

"I cannay believe I risked my life getting all the way down here, only t'find that ye're nothing more than a bloody Decepticon sympathizer!"

What?  He was accusing Smokescreen of betrayal?  Hubcap was the Decepticon agent here, not him!  But if Hubcap wasn't a traitor, then how had he gotten into the base to begin with?  How did he know Decepticon command codes?  None of this made sense.  If Hubcap really was an Autobot, though, then he'd repeat to Optimus Prime what Smokescreen had just told him!

Hubcap stormed over to a communications console, tapped in another key sequence, and shouted in a surprisingly neutral accent, "You cretin!  There are Autobots on the bridge!  Get up there and destroy them at once!"

"What in the--?!" came the response.  "How'd they get all the way up there?  We'll slaughter 'em!  C'mon, Thundercracker!"  The transmission ended with the sounds of metallic footfalls and clattering weapons.

Hubcap spun around and glowered at Smokescreen.  "Dinnay think this is over, ye bloody Decepticon!  The only reason I havenay killed ye already is because you're worth more to me alive!"

"Now hang on an astro-sec," Smokescreen said, "just give me a chance to explain that I'm not really--"

"Aye, you'll get your chance," Hubcap said, "on the battlefield!  And don't worry, I promise ye that I willnay let anyone hurt ye... because I'll be the one t'destroy ye m'self!"

With that, Hubcap transformed and peeled out, leaving streak marks on the floor plating.

Smokescreen's head was spinning.

Great Cybertron, what have I just done?

***

Chapter 20: Suspend

When he first postulated the notion of deliberately tearing holes in space-time, Shockwave would undoubtedly have been met with a strongly negative reaction, were he surrounded by beings capable of independent thought.  As it was, his sentinels offered no objections to the idea, which Shockwave evidently took as ample reason to pursue the dangerously untested technology.  He studied Cybertron's historical files extensively, searching for some precedent in the admittedly spotty records about past technological endeavours.  When he arrived at the conclusion that no technology on this level had ever been attempted before, he took it upon himself to invent it.

The space bridge computers on Cybertron monitored the position of the Earth at all times, since the former planet's position in the cosmos was forever changing with respect to the latter.  It sometimes took days or even weeks until transport was possible; though Cybertron itself had been moved to the Milky Way Galaxy some years ago, the comparative distance between the two worlds was still great, and even a single molecule of space dust could potentially throw the teleport beam off-course.  Furthermore, there were the problems involved with the majority of the Earth's surface being covered with water; transport simply wasn't possible when Cybertron's teleport tower pointed at the ocean, so the Decepticons were resigned to waiting patiently until the planets were precisely aligned.

It was for this reason that Shockwave would transmit the space bridge teleporter module in advance whenever possible.  The module, the ring-shaped platform designed to open the rift into interdimensional space, was far too large to store safely on Cybertron and too bulky for the Decepticons on Earth to move from place to place, so it was retained in dimensional space until needed.  Once a dimensional linkup with the Earth module was complete, it could be maintained indefinitely, in theory.  This was very rarely put into practice, however, since it consumed more energy than the space bridge shipments themselves provided.  Furthermore, the Autobots discovering the space bridge module and destroying it would pose a serious tactical liability.


"Are you sure this bridge of yours is safe, Megatron?" Anthrax asked over Dreadwing's communications array.  "It sounds like a positively crude piece of technology."

"It has proven adequate for our purposes," Megatron replied, flying in robot mode alongside Dreadwing as they neared their destination, near the planet's southern pole.

"Coming up on scanners now, mistress Anthrax," Dreadwing said, "along with an unidentified Transformer."

"What?  Who is it?" Megatron demanded.

"Ground vehicle, measuring about 60 technometers in length," Dreadwing reported.  "Red.  Kind of boxy."

"Optimus Prime!" Megatron exclaimed.

"That's your nemesis?" Anthrax said with a snort, peering through Dreadwing's canopy window.  "He's practically an antique!"

"He's going after my space bridge!" Megatron said.  "Do not let him succeed!  Decepticons, attack!"  He broke formation and propelled himself toward Optimus Prime, arms poised to strike.

Anthrax sighed a semi-amused sigh.  "Our dear Megatron still thinks he calls the shots here.  He never learns, does he? Well, we may as well help him.  Dreadwing, open canopy!"

Anthrax leapt from Dreadwing's cockpit and transformed to her Cybertronic jet form.  "Dreadwing, launch your drone," she ordered, "and assume flanking positions.  I'm certain the Autobot didn't come alone."

"Prime!" Megatron shouted.  "Get away from my property!"  His fusion cannon erupted into a shower of atomic energy bursts, tearing up the ice-covered landscape just ahead of Optimus even as he barreled across the terrain at full steam.  


"Leakin' lubricants!  What's goin' on out there, Prime?" Ironhide asked from within Prime's trailer module, barely able to stay on his wheels.  "I'm bouncin' off the walls in here!"

"We found the space bridge, but Megatron's also found us!" Prime replied.  "Spike, you all right in there?"

"Y-y-yeah, Optimus," Spike said in between fusion blasts, "but y-y-you really need some n-n-new shocks!"

"They're not carrying the energon cubes," Prime realized.  "Looks like our ploy didn't work.  The important thing is that we can still activate the space bridge.  I'm gonna try to lead them away from it!"  Prime cut into a sharp right turn and slammed on the brakes, kicking up a tremendous white ice cloud.  His trailer door swung open and fell to the ground with a thud.

"It's go time!" Ironhide said, springing from Prime's trailer.  "C'mon, Dinos, let's roll!"

"Me, Grimlock, not roll!  Me, Grimlock, stomp!"

"And me, Swoop, fly!" chimed in Swoop.

"And me, Sludge... uhh, stomp!" affirmed Sludge.

Slag and Snarl contributed some sufficiently menacing, guttural growls to the conversation; Swoop took to the skies while the other four Dinobots stampeded toward Megatron, who was closing in fast from the air.

"Soundwave," Megatron said, "keep Optimus Prime busy!  I'll deal with these prehistoric scrap piles!"  With that, Megatron removed Soundwave from his hip plate and tossed the tiny cassette player into the sky.

Soundwave transformed, expanding to his full size and taking flight before sending his cassettes into action.  "Rumble, Frenzy, Laserbeak, Buzzsaw, eject!  Operation: Circumvention!"  The four Decepticons launched into the air at his command, transforming to battle mode and preparing to circle around Optimus Prime from behind.  Soundwave took aim for Prime's tires; he managed to burst one of them, but it didn't appear to be significantly affecting Prime's locomotion.

Megatron touched down gracefully, then took a step back and let loose another fusion assault.  The blasts were obviously hitting the Dinobots--he was leaving scorch marks--but it only seemed to strengthen their resolve.

"I'll destroy every one of you!" Megatron promised.

"Huh!" remarked Grimlock.  "You not beat me even on good day, Megatron!  And this not good day!"  He sprinted ahead of his Dinobot brothers, charging head-on even as Megatron continued to fire, until the two collided.  Grimlock was the larger and heavier of the two, and managed to knock the Decepticon leader clear off his heels.  Megatron turned and crashed to the ground, scrambling to regain his footing.

All four cassettes were closing in on Prime.  "Looks like our fan club's here.  Hang on tight, Spike," Prime cautioned.  "This is where its gets a little bumpy!"

"I, uh, hardly noticed," Spike said, clutching the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles were white.

With a jerk, Prime launched away from his trailer module, which deployed its anchors and skidded to a halt as the mechanical triptych unfolded into Combat Deck mode.  The artillery robot extended to its full height and readied its laser cannons, while the six-wheeled scout vehicle known as Roller raced down the ramp, chirping frantically to itself.

"The odds are a little more even now," Prime said.

"Hey, he's not supposed to be able to do that!" Rumble shrieked.  "Wha'do we do now?"

"Shoot 'em all up!" Frenzy cried.

Laserbeak and Buzzsaw squawked in agreement.

Without his trailer module in tow, Prime was faster and presented a smaller target, but he was afforded less momentum on the icy plains, and felt far more vulnerable.  It was imperative that he disposed of his passenger so that he could fight back, but exposing Spike to the harsh climate, to say nothing of the raging battlefield, would be far more dangerous for his human friend than it would for Prime.

Ironhide had switched to robot mode and was attempting to blast the Decepticons out of the sky.  "Let's see how good you fly with lead gummin' up your thrusters!" he exclaimed, spitting liquefied metal from his fingertips into the skies.  Unfortunately, the antarctic winds were throwing the molten projectiles off course; they created gusts of hot steam as they hit the Earth, melting clear through the ice.

"Whoa!" Ironhide said.  "I dunno how far down that ice goes, but I'd better stick to the super-cooled stuff!"


Anthrax was never one to charge headlong into a combat zone without assessing her opponents.  She'd counted nine Autobot targets; while all of them but one appeared to be limited to operating on the ground, that hadn't stopped several of them from trampling Megatron.  Furthermore, Soundwave seemed completely incapable of coordinating his troops, who were busy haphazardly spraying laser bolts in the general direction of the Autobots without immobilizing a single one of them.  Anthrax realized that the battle would end as soon as the Decepticons exhausted their ammunition; they would not win a battle on the ground, and would be forced to withdraw.

She noticed the small, roving vehicle weaving in and out of the fray, babbling to itself in computer code but not offering any resistance.  Why wasn't it attacking?  Was it carrying explosives that could be detonated remotely?  Was it transmitting some kind of scrambler field that was interfering with the Decepticons' weapon functions?  Or was it simply a decoy target?  In any event, Anthrax saw no reason to allow its continued existence.  It was always good strategy to eliminate the peripheral obstacles before focusing on one's primary targets.

Anthrax targeted the vehicle and launched a wing-mounted missile, which immediately dived toward the planet's surface.  The missile was oblivious to the explosions and laser blasts around it as it rocketed straight toward the tiny vehicle, and was programmed to travel over, around, or directly through any obstacles in its path until it reached its target.

The little vehicle was apparently self-sufficient enough to detect when it was in danger, as it immediately swung around and attempted to evade the attack.  It probably would have been vastly more maneuverable on a proper Cybertronic landscape, but effective navigation on the ice was next to impossible, especially now that it had significantly picked up speed.  When it turned its wheels, instead of changing direction, it was instead propelled along on the same course, only facing sideways.

It occurred to Anthrax that her target was not alive at all.  Though she naturally had a vested interest in the outcome of this confrontation, the concept of a contest between two artificially intelligent mechanisms was fascinating from a scientific outlook as well.  The impromptu experiment was about to end far too quickly for her taste... but then, there really was no doubt as to the superiority of her own technology.

Roller let out an electronic shriek an instant before it was obliterated in a shower of sparks and flying debris.


"Nrraaaagh!" Optimus Prime screamed as his brakes instinctively clamped down and he involuntarily began skidding out of control.  Pain like he had never before known jolted through him with no known injury to attribute it to.  His sensory input was flooded; static obscured his vision.  It was as someone had reached into his body and was crushing his internal components from the inside!

Spike was flung headfirst into the dashboard and back again into the passenger seat.  "Prime, what's going on?!" he shouted.

Prime was only peripherally aware of Spike's presence as he struggled to bring himself to a halt, but his brakes were completely ineffective.  Prime engaged his automatic ejection system--praying that Spike would be safely expelled--and without a reason to concentrate on holding his vehicle transformation together, he allowed that part of his mind to let go.  He sprung into robot mode as he continued to scrape along against the ice, unwittingly digging into its surface with the sharp angles of his armor.  He finally came to rest, face-down, as the airborne particles of ice settled around him.


"Optimus!" Ironhide shouted, heading directly for his leader as quickly as the terrain allowed.

Spike had been thrown into a snowbank and was, to his utter relief and shock, remarkably unscathed.  His dad was always fond of saying that you couldn't kill a Witwicky--and considering he'd just been thrown out of a moving vehicle and and hadn't even broken a bone, he was beginning to believe it.  He hadn't even been wearing his hardhat!  He got to his knees and brushed the snow away from his face, which he noticed was tinged with red.  Spike touched his forehead and examined his fingertips, assessing the minor scrapes he'd incurred riding inside Optimus Prime.

Spike dashed toward Prime, who was letting out a low, pained moan, and aside from the movement of his face plate was otherwise immobile.

"Ironhide, what's wrong with Optimus Prime?" he shouted.

Prime struggled to rise to his feet, but after a moment, he collapsed again.

"They got Roller!" Ironhide said, wrapping Prime's arm behind his neck and attempting to help the much larger Autobot stand up.

"What does that mean?" Spike demanded.

"It means Prime could be in big trouble," Ironhide admitted.  "Prime doesn't just control his other components... every piece is Optimus Prime.  You hurt one, you hurt 'em all."

"He's unconscious," Spike said, "but he's still alive... barely."  Optimus Prime was completely motionless now; the shock from losing one of his own components had apparently completely overtaken him.

"Prime, we'll get you out of here!  Dinobots, we need cover!" Ironhide shouted.

"But... that means Prime can't operate the guns!" Spike realized, pointing at the transformed Combat Deck.  No longer reacting to the combatants around it, the artillery robot had slumped over onto itself, its single robotic arm hanging loosely at its side.

Instinctively, Spike ran toward the Combat Deck with as much speed as he was afforded, as Ironhide's protests went unheeded.  Hurrying up the ramp, which was considerably larger than Spike had realized until he was actually on top of it, he made his way to the artillery robot mounted at the end and grabbed onto its mechanized claw.  With considerable difficulty, Spike managed to climb the length of the robot arm until he stood on what passed for its head module.  Fumbling for the lock that unsealed the canopy window, Spike opened it up to reveal a conveniently human-sized control seat.  Spike had recalled Ratchet mentioning the control chair in passing during one of Prime's recent overhauls.  He knew only of its existence; he hadn't a clue as to the reason it was there.

Once inside, Spike frantically searched the control panels for something that might activate the onboard weapons system.  His knowledge of the Autobots' written language was incredibly basic; he knew enough to recognize it when it saw it, but he could barely interpret more than a handful of root words--

Brak-brak!  Ka-wham!  The familiar sound of Decepticon laser bolts were quickly followed by an explosion that Spike was certain had been a direct hit.  He knew that any part of Optimus Prime could sustain a prolonged assault from the regular Decepticons, but if these new Decepticons could obliterate Roller with a single shot...

He grasped the navigation implement in front of him, which vaguely resembled the handlebars of a bicycle; by adjusting its position he discovered that he could easily control the orientation of the robot itself, but that didn't do him any good if he couldn't figure out how to shoot the damn gun!

There were hundreds of control switches on a dozen separate instrument panels.  Spike hadn't even mastered the remote control for his VCR; how was he supposed to figure this out?  There had to be some logical control layout at work, here.  Think, think!  The only way Spike would be able to keep his sights on a moving target before firing would be if there were a switch right on the navigation controls themselves, like the ones in the center of the handles... wait, it had to be one of those!  But which one?  Mupz'te?  Mapz'te?  Mepz'te?  What was the difference?

Spike guessed that this was a measure of intensity, and therefore hit the button in the middle; this immediately brought up a targeting screen, which was superimposed on top of the cockpit window.  Laserbeak and his twin were circling above like vultures, appropriately enough.  He didn't know if they'd seen Spike climb into the artillery robot, but they'd obviously caught onto the fact that the Combat Deck was no longer an active combatant, and were probably preparing to pick it apart.

"Surprise, surprise, Decepticons," Spike muttered under his breath as he punched a button with each thumb, "you're about to get grounded!"

Spike thought he had aimed squarely at Laserbeak, but instead the pair of rockets (physical projectiles, not orange laser bolts as he'd expected) zipped right past the Decepticon on either side.  Spike had completely forgotten that he was armed with not one, but two cannons!  Thankfully, this still proved sufficient to frighten Laserbeak off; instead of swooping around for another pass, he broke off and rocketed out of Spike's targeting range.

The other Decepticon condor wasn't so easily deterred; he had launched himself directly at Spike, having placed himself in Spike's blind shot--probably in the anticipation that Spike would make the same mistake again.  This time, however, Spike realized how the targeting system was designed to work; each cannon was capable of locking onto a target, but they were made to fire successively, not simultaneously.

Spike's aim was true; the artillery robot pivoted slightly before sending the second blast chasing after the first.  In an instant, the Decepticon whose name Spike had never learned erupted into flames.  At first Spike thought he'd pierced the avian robot's fuel tank, and the shards of flaming metal he spotted seemed to confirm that, until he realized that the smoldering debris that tumbled helplessly to the ground was all that remained.

Spike fell back in the control chair.  That hadn't been a decoy of some kind, was it?  No, Spike realized; he'd seen that one before.  In New York, probably.  There was no doubt of it, then.  

Spike had been in battles with the Decepticons before, but he'd never seen one of them outright destroyed, not even by Prime.  Spike had always recognized the awesome potential that existed within Optimus Prime, but somehow it hadn't occurred to Spike that Prime's weaponry--and auxiliary weaponry, at that--could be this powerful.  It was only now fully registering with him how much lethal firepower Optimus Prime possessed, and how much restraint he exercised... even when dealing with his mortal enemies.


Soundwave had been methodically firing on the Dinobots from the air, testing each part of their saurian bodies as a possible weak point, and finding none.  He remained in the air, keeping his distance lest one of them managed to catch him unawares and trample him as well, but also had to remain close enough that he could be confident in firing on the Dinobots without hitting Megatron.  Even at his concussion cannon's strongest setting, however, none of them seemed to even notice his presence.

It was then that Soundwave's detection system was alerted to the fact that Buzzsaw had ceased transmitting his standard locator beacon.  A quick sensor sweep of the immediate area revealed no trace of him, but it didn't take long for Soundwave to notice the smoldering remains of his former comrade, halfway immersed within the icy plains.

"Attention: Rumble, Frenzy, Laserbeak," he announced.  "Concentrate firepower.  Destroy Autobot weapon."

Soundwave readied his shoulder-mounted cannon and launched three maximum-power bursts at the only remaining functional component of Optimus Prime.  The artillery robot was slow to respond, but it still managed to just barely evade the attack by retracting into itself; the bursts caused a shower of ice just behind the Autobot mechanism as they struck the Earth.  The other Decepticons' shots fared no better, but their attack prompted a small organic creature to leap out of the robot's main compartment and attempt to escape.

"Ravage, eject."  The feline Decepticon was expelled from Soundwave's chest; Soundwave gestured toward the fleeing human.  "Operation: Retribution."

No longer guided by an operative mind, the artillery robot had no way of defending itself from Soundwave's next volley of shots.  The upper half of the deck-mounted robot was cleanly severed from its base; only a thick trail of black smoke issuing from the robot's trunk remained.  Perhaps not fully realizing that the threat had been neutralized, Frenzy continued to pummel the remains of the deck with shots from his laser pistol.

Ravage had discovered the advantage of extending his claws to traverse the ice, making him significantly more adept on the terrain than his human prey.  He had apparently been so intent on the hunt that he hadn't realized where his target was headed for until Ravage was nearly on top of Ironhide and the prostrate form of Optimus Prime.  Ironhide took a mighty swing at Ravage, sending him flying across the ice before he managed to orient himself back on all fours and skitter away.

"Decepticons, cease attack," Soundwave ordered.  "Prepare to withdraw."

Megatron, meanwhile, seemed torn between asserting his superiority and fearing for his life.  "You'll never defeat me, you slow-witted throwbacks!  Soundwave, destroy these fools!" Megatron shouted, still in the clutches of the Dinobots and nearly on the verge of panic.  "I'll crush you all with my bare hands!  Soundwave, do something!"

"Rumble, Frenzy, Laserbeak, Ravage, return!"  As one, the four smaller Decepticons immediately folded up into their cassette configurations and, in perfect formation, slid back into Soundwave's tape compartment.

Soundwave made his way to the spot where Buzzsaw had crashed.  He retracted his hand long enough to extinguish the remaining flames before gingerly scooping up Buzzsaw's remains, carefully supporting the cranial unit of the much smaller Decepticon.

With that, Soundwave took to the skies.


"Uuhhh... Roller..."

"Prime, you're okay!" Spike said.

Optimus shook his head, clutching at his forehead.  "I... don't think I'd go that far.  Where... where's Megatron?"

"Grimlock jumped him!" Spike said.  "The Dinobots are really giving it to him!"

"Then there's still a chance... to get to the space bridge," Prime realized.

"Optimus, we gotta get you outta here," Ironhide insisted.

"Negative," Prime said, supporting himself on Ironhide's shoulders for a moment before he stood to his full height.  "I'll be okay... but I want you to take Spike and get out of here.  The Dinobots and I will finish this."

"Nothin' doin', Optimus!  I'm stayin' right here!" Ironhide said, planting his feet firmly in the ice.

"Listen, Ironhide.  Whatever Megatron's up to, he's not here to transport energon cubes.  I've got to find out what's going on, and the only way to do that is to get to Cybertron."

"Then at least let us keep those Decepticreeps busy," Spike declared, "long enough to give you a chance to do it!"

One of Optimus Prime's many virtues as a military commander was his ability to make quick decisions.  Without further ceremony, he nodded and made his way toward the space bridge again, as the remaining airborne Decepticons opened fire on him.  Prime moved clumsily at first, still recovering from the shock, but managed to evade the energy bursts--and produced his laser rifle in mid-stride in order to return the courtesy.

"C'mon, Spike!" Ironhide said, transforming to vehicular mode and swinging his hatchback open.  "Let's roll!"

Spike jumped inside and manned Ironhide's static laser cannon.  It was designed for Transformers slightly larger than Spike was, but that didn't stop him from grasping the controls tightly and letting loose with half a dozen laser pulses.  The smallest of the Decepticon aircraft dropped back behind the others and descended, adeptly evading Spike's energy blasts even as it flew towards them.

Spike's attack had provided an only momentary distraction; the other two Decepticons renewed their air strike on Optimus Prime, who was forced to stop long enough to counter their salvo of shots.  Unlike the Decepticons which Prime was accustomed to combating, his present foes had the ability to fire at him from nearly any angle, even when not facing him directly; Prime was barely afforded an instant's reprieve between assaults.

The tiny Decepticon jet that had taken notice of Ironhide and Spike was nearly at ground level now; weaving in and out of their cannon range with a rare aerial agility.  For the moment, it offered no aggressive action, but as long as it gave chase, it occupied Ironhide and Spike's full attention, leaving none for Optimus Prime.

"Looks like he's keepin' us busy instead!" Ironhide observed.

"I can't get a bead on him!" Spike said, frantically swinging the pulse cannon in a vain attempt to match the Decepticon's erratic path.

"Dinobots, we need that cover fire!  Get your keysters over here!" Ironhide called to the others.

"NO!" Grimlock shouted, as clearly as he was able to enunciate while struggling to retain Megatron's forearm in his jaws.  "Me got Decepticon leader right where me want him!  You take care of Optimus Prime.  Me 'take care' of Megatron!"


Megatron was holding his own against the Dinobots--barely.  He was flanked at every turn, and as the Dinobots apparently had no concept of personal space, Megatron wasn't just fighting them at close quarters; he could see the encrusted oil caked on their teeth and smell their noxious breath.  Grimlock still had his jaw locked tightly, and with the momentary inability to use his left arm, Megatron had quickly discovered that defending himself proved challenging, to say the least.  He tried kicking Slag in the face a couple of times, and got a horn in the foot for his efforts both times.  He attempted to knock Sludge in the head, but the much larger Dinobot responded with a mighty swing of his neck that knocked the cannon right off of Megatron's free arm.  He instinctively swung his back-mounted cannon down into firing position, but without the freedom to twist his body enough to fire on Snarl, he was forced to endure the humiliation of being a target for the Dinobot's nostril lasers.  Furthermore, although he was far too occupied to confirm this, he was fairly certain that Swoop was perched on his back and was pecking at the back of his head.

Megatron's trans-dimensional communicator was chirping.  "Megatron," came Shockwave's voice, distorted only slightly by its transmission from across the heavens, "space bridge transport must commence within the next one thousand astro-seconds.  Please acknowledge."

"The bridge will remain closed until I order it opened!" Megatron replied.  His communicator was, at the moment, resting against the roof of Grimlock's mouth; he wasn't sure Shockwave would even hear him.  What he did know, though, was he'd make Prime pay dearly for his interference.  It was one thing for the Autobots to jump in every time they sensed the Earth or its precious humans were in danger, but it was quite another when they started interfering in Megatron's personal affairs!  Optimus had no idea how grave the stakes were today, but by the sacred spires, Megatron would make him realize in force!

Megatron reached back blindly and managed to grasp Swoop by the wing, hurtling him forward and sending him crashing into Sludge.  Having dispersed part of the attacking mob, Megatron now had enough room to swing around, deploy his back-mounted cannon into attack configuration, and fire on them with it.  Sludge's thick skin was more than adequate to sustain the blast, but the force of the shot was sufficiently powerful enough to topple Sludge over on top of Swoop.  The considerably smaller Dinobot struggled helplessly beneath his comrade; Sludge was either too ungainly to right himself, or too stupid to know how.

Even now, Optimus Prime was fumbling with the space bridge controls!  Megatron could not permit this under any circumstances--he would sooner let the transport cycle go to waste than allow Prime to achieve his goals!  Megatron would have shouted in protest were it not for Snarl's decision to slap Megatron with his studded tail, the spikes scraping against his face with the sound of rending metal.  Megatron's protest turned to a cry of anger, but rather than retaliate he was forced to shield his head as Slag belched a fireball in his direction.

"Megatron, you must respond!" Shockwave urged once again.  "The space bridge must be activated immediately!"

"No, not yet, Shockwave!" Megatron ordered.  "Not yet!"  

"It is too late!" Shockwave replied.  "Any further delays will result in a permanent rupture in the space-time continuum that would tear Cybertron apart.  Space bridge transport cycle commencing!"

Optimus Prime was forced to leap forward just as the gigantic sliding doors crashed shut behind him.


Anthrax was positively mystified by the chaotic behavior these Transformers exhibited--the inability on both sides to nullify a single target, the complete lack of strategy.  They were barbarians!  It was small wonder that their war had gone on for as long as it had; they barely had any concept of warfare at all.  It was time to educate them.

"Dreadwing," Anthrax ordered, "activate rotorpedo cannon.  Destroy the space bridge."

Dreadwing had been languidly circling the battlefield, but with his new directive, his mighty propulsion engines roared to life, pushing him out of his segue and down toward the space bridge, which had already begun the transport sequence.  The ring-shaped device was electrified with color as its circuitry launched into the lyrical song that would open the dimensional gateway.  Dreadwing's torpedo missed the space bridge module, instead piercing the ice just next to it.  

The resultant explosion would later be recorded by the humans as a small earthquake.

Destructive energy ballooned from beneath the space bridge and engulfed it in a potent, blinding burst.  Tremendous icy chunks were thrust into the air in every direction, ripping into the sky, but were reduced to vapor before they ever touched down.  The antarctic surface itself ruptured as icy plates violently crashed into one another in an attempt to escape the fury, only to become part of it.  The dimensional portal directly above also absorbed its fair share of the blast, but with nothing to keep the portal in focus, it quickly enveloped everything within the immediate vicinity before sealing itself shut.

The thunderous din echoed throughout the valley, causing frozen chunks to tumble off the nearby glaciers into the freezing waters below.  The shimmering cloud of mist and metal fragments began to settle, unveiling an impossibly wide crater in the ice that would remain a scar on the Earth's surface for the rest of its days.  Where the space bridge once stood, not a trace of Cybertronian technology remained.

"Good shot, Dreadwing!" Anthrax laughed. "Very, very good!"


END OF BOOK THREE

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