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Children of Cybertron

Book Four

Previously:  Anthrax, a Decepticon from one of the many Cybertrons in the heavens, has teamed up with Megatron to create a powerful new energy source, but before they can develop it, Megatron is summoned to stand trial before the Cybertron Council.  Also, Bumblebee leads the Mini Autobots on a mission to rescue the captive Smokescreen from Decepticon Headquarters, only for Hubcap to discover that Smokescreen has no intention of leaving.  Meanwhile, Optimus Prime attempts to use the space bridge to investigate Decepticon activity on Cybertron, but his mission ends in disaster.

Chapter 21: Remnants

"My space bridge!" Megatron screamed, poised as if he were about to tear a hole in the continuum with his bare hands.  "What have you done to my magnificent space bridge?!"

The destruction of the space bridge module had left a gaping crater in the Earth's glacial plains, wider than Megatron could jump.  He stood at its edge, gaping in disbelief where the most sophisticated piece of technology known to Decepticon science had existed only moments earlier, and where now only molten pellets of metal remained, half-sunken within the ice.

With the Dinobots momentarily stunned by the wake of the horrific explosion, oblivious now to the villainous robot who had been the target of their savage attacks just moments ago, Grimlock had involuntarily loosened his grip on Megatron.  The Decepticon leader was now able to wriggle his arm free from Grimlock's jaws; upon noticing this violation of what should have been a certain victory, Grimlock growled an angry growl, but took no further action.

Making a swift descent from the sky, Anthrax swooped down to Earth as her purple and black aerial mode unfolded back into her small, lithe robot mode.  She touched down, landing in a crouching position before quickly springing up again.  "Ahh!  Decepticon technology is a beautiful thing!  A bit on the messy side, perhaps, but effective.  This, Megatron, is the destructive power I alluded to earlier.  With a single complement of torpedos, the Autobot leader has been removed from the equation."

Megatron made a broad, sweeping gesture, pushing Anthrax aside before reactivating his communicator.  "Shockwave, report!"

The signal received from planet Cybertron was nothing but white noise.  Megatron thought for a moment that solar flares were interfering with the transmission, but after a moment Shockwave's voice finally came through, amid the sounds of emergency alarms and the frantic shouts of other Decepticons.  "Space bridge receiver has been completely destroyed!  Levels ten, nine, eight, and seven have lost structural integrity.  Power levels are dropping rapidly!"

"Never mind that!  What about Optimus Prime?" Megatron demanded.

"No passengers or cargo received," Shockwave confirmed.  "Teleport chamber exploded before transport cycle was completed.  Structural collapse of the base is imminent.  Evacuation commencing!"  The channel abruptly closed.

"This time you have gone too far!" Megatron said, turning to Anthrax and raising a stern finger.  "You disobey my direct orders, you destroy our only means of transporting energy to Cybertron, you demolish my headquarters and jeopardize the lives of my Decepticons, and you rob me the pleasure of destroying Optimus Prime!"

"What's the difference?  He's gone, isn't he?"

Megatron struck her.  It was a casual gesture, a quick and sudden flick of the wrist, but the force of Megatron's blow sent Anthrax reeling backwards and collapsing on the icy Antarctic plains.  She stumbled to her knees, clutching the side of her face.

"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't end your miserable existence right now," Megatron said.

"S-synergon," Anthrax said.

"What?" Megatron said, his teeth clenched.

"The power source... the one I promised to share with you... it's called synergon," she explained.  "It's a concentrated form of plasma energy... extremely potent, but almost impossible to harvest.  It completely wrecks conventional processing systems.  That's why we had to invent new energon cubes to contain it."

"Plasma energy?" Megatron scoffed.  "That's impossible."

"Nothing's impossible," Anthrax countered.  "Merely varying degrees of improbable."

"It doesn't matter!  Even if your energy source does exist, without the space bridge it will take days to get to Cybertron!" Megatron said.  

Part of his mind was already putting together plans for another energy raid that would provide enough fuel for a trip to Cybertron, and considering which of the remaining Decepticons might be made worthy of space flight.  With the Autobots stopping him at every turn and even his most desperate ideas exhausted, though, Megatron wasn't convinced that there was a way to collect enough energy for the trip.  Nothing else mattered now except finding a way to get to Cybertron.  Given that the Cybertron Council had the power to forcibly collect him should he fail to present himself before them, appeasing them had to take precedence over all else.  Only after he had addressed the legal charges brought against him could he devote his attention to the development of this new energy source once more.

Anthrax probably had the ability to help him, Megatron mused, but he also knew full well based on her past behavior that she wouldn't lift a digit before she got to see him grovel at her feet once again.  After all, she'd remained on the planet even after Megatron had ordered her gone, knowing somehow he would later crawl to her, needing her help.  Later, she'd held the promise of her new power source over his head, taunting him with it, dangling it like a prize, until he agreed to face the Tribunal.  What would her next demands be?  She seemed to derive a perverse amount of pleasure from watching Megatron admit to his own inadequacies, as if she valued that far more than the alliance she'd forged with him.  Like Starscream, she was testing the limits of Megatron's patience, pushing him, nudging him, waiting to see just how far she could take her demands before Megatron would have no more of it.  While Starscream ultimately held no real power over Megatron, however, Anthrax did--and she was milking her position for all it was worth.  

As it stood, what she would undoubtedly ask of him now--the indignity of being forced to admit not only that he couldn't lead the Decepticons to victory on his own, but having to ask her for what he would normally take for himself without a second's hesitation--was beyond intolerable.

"Dreadwing is fully equipped for trans-warp travel," Anthrax offered, of her own accord, much to Megatron's surprise.  "You might look on him as a portable space bridge.  The mechanics are very similar, anyway."

"Preposterous," Megatron scoffed.  Before he could continue, he was suddenly distracted by the late-dawning realization that he was missing several Decepticons.  The notion of their absence was so inconceivable a thing that it hadn't registered with him until just that moment.  "Where is Soundwave?" he said.

"I don't know," Anthrax said after a moment's contemplation, with what seemed to be an utterly excessive amount of amazement in her voice.

A quick visual scan of the area revealed no trace of any of Megatron's warriors.  Had they been caught in the wake of the space bridge's destruction?  No, Megatron realized--they had been fighting off one of Optimus Prime's auxiliary components.  Judging by the cleanly-severed remains of the artillery robot back the other way, Soundwave had obviously neutralized his target, so what had become of him?

Anthrax had extended her head-mounted antennae slightly, probably conducting some kind of scanner sweep, when her head jerked up suddenly, then back down, as if she'd heard or seen something but realized she was wrong.  It was, probably, a coincidence that she'd been staring toward the general direction of Decepticon Headquarters.


Grimlock was very tired of the other Autobots always telling him to control his temper.  It really made him want to knock them all into a wall and stomp on them repeatedly.  It was never a lasting impulse, really, but it was a familiar one.  This was just part of his basic nature, and Grimlock neither had the ability nor the desire to change what he was.  At this moment, however, the sensations welling up inside him were so powerful, so vivid, that he was almost frightened by his own total lack of control.

Control was usually what other Autobots attempted to wrest over Grimlock, and it was the sort of thing he growled at them over.  He was particularly sensitive about any threats to his own authority.  Grimlock should have been controlling them, not the other way around.  Grimlock hadn't simply inherited the mantle of leadership from someone else; he was, literally, a born leader.  It was his calling, by right and by design.  Tyrannosaurus rex, the proper name for the Earth creature he had been built to resemble, translated from one human language to another human language into something like "king of the lizards."  That made Grimlock, by extension, King of the Dinobots.  Not only did the other Dinobots accept this without question, most of the Autobots acknowledged his mastery as well.  They gave him a wide berth, almost never argued with him, and indeed seemed to fear him.  The only Autobot who had never once cowed before Grimlock's royal presence was Optimus Prime.

As a direct result of this, Grimlock had developed a rather comfortable loathing for Optimus Prime's leadership over the years.  Prime had always demonstrated a total lack of control.  He let humans dictate terms to him.  He let Decepticons escape without destroying them.  He even let other Autobots make decisions for him.  Optimus was the King of the Autobots, and the fact that he refused to exercise control over everyone else made Grimlock want to bite him.  He needed to be more ruthless.  More relentless.  More willing to defeat his enemies at all costs.  More like Grimlock, in other words.  It wasn't too much of a mental leap to realize that nobody was better at being more like Grimlock than Grimlock himself, and that made him the best choice to replace Optimus Prime.

None of the Autobots understood this.  All they saw was Grimlock talking back to Prime, questioning his orders, refusing to be controlled, and they completely misinterpreted Grimlock's disdain for Prime's leadership.  They all thought he disliked Prime on a personal level.  Maybe wanted him out of the way so Grimlock could take charge.  In fact, nothing was further from the truth.  Grimlock respected Prime precisely because he wielded so much power.  And the notion that something was even more powerful than Prime, something that could destroy him utterly, represented a deeply disturbing impossibility.  It was the ultimate loss of control, and that made Grimlock want to destroy everything in sight.

"Decepticons make Optimus Prime go away," Grimlock proclaimed, thrusting a lofty hand forward framed by gold, sharpened claws.  "Now me, Grimlock, make Decepticons go away!  Forever!"

Ironhide grabbed Grimlock by the wrist with both hands, and Grimlock came to a halt.  Ironhide was a much smaller robot, nowhere near capable of forcing Grimlock to stop; Grimlock did so because he chose to.  "Hang on, Dino-buddy!  Prime's more important!" Ironhide said.  "There might be a chance he's still alive--but we'll never know it if we don't get back to the base!"

"But Decepticons right there!" Grimlock exclaimed.  Didn't the others realize that the enemy was still within their midst?  The battle wasn't over as long as they were still standing.  It baffled him that this tiny Autobot was missing something so obvious.  "Me smash them first!"

"No, Grimlock!  They're too powerful," Ironhide said.  "You saw what they did to the space bridge."

"Me, Grimlock, more stronger than any Decepticon!  Me not care what face they wear, they still Decepticon!"

"And you're still an Autobot!" Spike interjected, "so start acting like one and do what you're ordered to!"

Grimlock let out a low, threatening grumble, which elevated into a monstrous growl.  "Maybe me not stronger than Decepticons.  Maybe me even run away from stupid Decepticons!  But me never, never take orders from puny human!"

He turned to the other Dinobots and raised his fist.  "Me, Grimlock," he said, strongly emphasising his name, "decide that me no want to fight.  Dinobots follow Grimlock!  NOW!"

"But, leader Grimlock," Snarl said, "other Dinobots still hurt."  He pointed to the prone forms of Sludge and Swoop, still in dinosaur mode.

"Then we carry them!  Slag, you carry Swoop!  Me carry Sludge!"  Grimlock slung Sludge over his shoulder, wearing him almost like an absurdly-oversized boa.  Not limited to the same design hindrance as the most of the vehicular Autobots, Grimlock launched himself into the sky.  Slag quickly followed after stopping to scoop up Swoop.

"Me take you, Spike," Snarl grumbled softly, gesturing with a robot-mode arm.  Spike stepped forward and found himself a relatively secure seating arrangement in between the plating on Snarl's back.  The last of the Dinobots propelled himself forward and joined the rest of his airborne brethren.

***

Ironhide had remained on the ground with his nitrogen gun at the ready, in the event one of the Decepticons gave chase after the Dinobots.  For whatever reason, though, it was now clear that they were so concerned with their own affairs that they had no intention of continuing the battle.  Ironhide took a brief glimpse behind him at the remains of Prime's trailer before transforming to his own vehicle mode and, after taking a moment to swap his normal tires with specialized ones designed for traversing slippery terrain, began the long trek back to North America.

***

Chapter 22: Catalyst

"Windrazor, got some interesting news for you," Eagle Eye reported as he and Terradive emerged from the lift and stepped onto the top floor of the Fortress, his voice echoing coldly.  This, the command base for the Decepticon Alliance, was where every campaign against the Autobots on Cybertron had been planned for the last four million years.  These campaigns were typically violent, brutal, and left one's audio sensors ringing for days, and yet within the heart of the Decepticon war machine, it was always unnervingly silent.

"If it does not directly concern the discovery of the Autobot secret base," Windrazor grumbled, "it does not interest me in the least."

"Uh... well, it's not exactly about the Autobots," Terradive offered with a non-committal shrug.  "I guess it's sort of got to do with them, from a certain point of view..."

"It's the space bridge," Eagle Eye said.  "Completely destroyed.  Along with half the old Decepticon base, from the looks of it."  He was terse by nature, but his words reverberated through the chamber in such a way that lent each word an air of undeserved importance, and he thought it best not to invade the silence any more than necessary.

"See, Eagle and me, we're just flyin' around, when all the sudden there's this big ol' flash of light, and then, just like that, KABLOOIE!" Terradive explained, sharing none of Eagle Eye's trepidation, making all sorts of wild gestures to illustrate the scenario.

"The Autobots shouldn't possess that kind of destructive capability," Windrazor said.  "How many of them did you see?"

"Didn't actually see any," Eagle Eye admitted with a shrug.

"Then what makes you think they were involved?" Windrazor asked, far more patiently than Eagle Eye probably deserved.

"I was overhead when the base went up.  Looked pretty bad.  No way they'd do that to themselves on purpose.  Shockwave was even getting ready to pack up and leave.  Saw him loading the rest of his robots inside a shuttle."

"So, the last of Megatron's followers have finally decided to rejoin him," Windrazor said.  "Can it be that Megatron actually succeeded in conquering that little planet he's been so obsessed with?"

"What's it matter?" Eagle Eye asked.

"Megatron was always fond of destroying things once they ceased being useful to him," Windrazor said.  "From your description, the space bridge was activated an instant before the explosion, suggesting that the bridge on this end was destroyed remotely, from Earth.  The only reason Megatron would intentionally destroy it would be if he were making planet Earth his new staging ground."

"But boss, you said he'd never beat those Autobots!" Terradive said, far more loudly than necessary.

"Perhaps I underestimated him," Windrazor said.  "In any event, we cannot allow him to succeed.  I believe it's time we paid our good friend Megatron a visit."

***

"Heads up!" Skram yelled, skidding into the main chamber of the Autobots' secret base, still in vehicle mode.  Unlike the Decepticon sky fortress, the Autobot staging grounds extended horizontally throughout hidden corridors and forgotten passageways, deep within the planet.  This sometimes made for difficult navigation, which Skram was busy rediscovering as he bounced off a wall, narrowly missing a computer terminal before shifting into robot form.

"Big news, boss!" he said, panting.  "And I mean we're talking bigger than big!"

"Report," ordered Rapido.

"Windrazor's outta here!" Skram said, his extended palm making a swift ascent off an invisible platform and into the air.  "Me and Turbofire spotted his flagship leavin' Cybertron space!"

"Windrazor has departed?" Rapido asked.  "Are you absolutely certain?"

"Positive," Turbofire said with a nod.

"Oh, yeah.  It was Windbag's ship, all right," Skram said.  "I dunno what he's doin', but it's gotta be somethin' pretty big to forget all about turnin' us into molten slag, I can tell ya that!"

Rapido turned to Windbreaker, who was seated opposite the Decepticon called Snipe.  At first glance it might have appeared to an onlooker as though the two were intently studying each other's gaze, were it not for the interlink cable running from Windbreaker's head to Snipe's, and the decidedly vacant expression on the latter.

"Have you obtained any useful information, Windbreaker?" Rapido asked.  "Did Snipe know about any plans his leader might have had to leave Cybertron?"

"I'm, uh, actually getting some pretty interesting stuff out of this, but I'm having to backtrack and piece a lot of it together in order to do it," Windbreaker said, in a manner which suggested he was concentrating heavily on something else.  "It's like his entire brain is encrypted or something.  If every Decepticon's mind is built this way, I can't begin to imagine how a single one of this is even capable of a coherent thought."

"Pretty simple," Skram sputtered.  "They ain't."

"If there were prearranged plans to leave the planet, though," Windbreaker continued, "I haven't found any reference to them yet.  I'm only about halfway done, though, so take that for what it's worth."

"If the Decepticons wanted to keep this mission a secret, they would not have been so obvious about their departure," Rapido mused.  "Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the information would have been heavily encrypted within Snipe's memory banks.  We can thus conclude that Windrazor made this decision after Snipe fell into our custody."

"What does it matter whether veg-head here knew about it or not?" Skram asked.

"This means," said Rapido, "that an unanticipated event of monumental proportions has prompted Windrazor's departure."

"Or, it's a trap," Skram said in an inappropriately light-hearted tone.  "They know we got Snipe, and they also know that whatever it was he found on the other end o' that space warp, it was such a big deal that he couldn't radio it, 'coz we mighta found outta 'bout it.  I'm tellin' ya, they're tryin' to set us up!"

"We cannot ignore that possibility, but we also cannot remain inactive.  Windbreaker, summon the others.  We must track Windrazor to his destination until we know what he is planning."

"You don't want me to unplug now, do you?" Windbreaker said.  "If I break the connection, I'll have to start over completely--disc one, bank one."

"Negative," Rapido responded.  "We will take the Decepticon with us so that you may continue processing the information stored in his memory banks."

"Negative," Skram said in his best Rapido voice, "We will take the Decepticon with us, because that's exactly what Windrazor wants us to do.  For revvin' out loud, Rap, this is the most shell-headed move you've ever pulled!  Windrazor knows we're gonna follow him!"

"There is a 68.71 percent chance you are right," said Rapido.

***

Chapter 23: Abdominal Stripes

Bumblebee considered himself to be a fairly brave Autobot.  He wasn't anywhere close to being on par with Optimus Prime or Ironhide, but he still liked to think he could hold his own on the battlefield.  That was providing, of course, that he could fall back on his basic training.

The first tenet of being an Autobot, Bumblebee had quickly learned, was that it meant being part of a team.  Bumblebee wasn't just a single robot; he was one of many robots, each with his own unique skills and talents.  The Autobot team, then, wasn't so much a collection of individuals but a vast machine unto itself, which had the capability of utilizing the abilities of its individual members in different ways, depending on the task ahead.  It was a fairly philosophical concept, and one that Bumblebee didn't think he fully understood, but he still liked it.  The idea that every Autobot was equally vital to this vast machine made Bumblebee feel useful and important, and he knew that despite his own shortcomings, he always had the rest of the group to compensate for his own inadequacies.  As long as he had them to fall back on, Bumblebee knew he would never let the team down.

It wasn't just that he was trapped in the depths of the Decepticon undersea headquarters, then, cut off from the majority of the Autobot army with no way to signal for help.  Nor was it just the fact that he was facing off two enemies over twice his size with guns trained on his head.  For that matter, it wasn't just that the rest of his rescue party had wandered off in other directions, leaving Bumblebee quite alone and ineffective, like a single, useless cog with no machinery in which to operate.  No, it was the fact that Bumblebee had already failed, having lost the one thing he would have fought most to protect.  At this moment, Bumblebee wished that he were some other Autobot... anyone else but himself.

"Aww, it's only a little 'un!" said one of the Decepticons, painted almost entirely white.  "Hardly worth capturin'."

"No kiddin'," the other, almost identical robot said in an equally identical voice, only this one was painted black.  "Awful pretty, though.  Nice n' shiny."

"Aw, what's the point?" the first one said.  "Nobody's even gonna notice if we bring in this little runt.  Nobody ever notices, unless it's, like..."

"Optimus Prime or somebody."

"Yeah.  Capturin' him would be a pretty big deal, but this little twerp's hardly worth mentioning.  What are we gonna say?  'Hey, boss, we found a Minibot down on deck 10.  Oh, and I saw a starfish outside the window!  Oooh!'"

"Heh heh heh heh.  Runamuck, you crack me up."

"Aw, you probably don't even know what a starfish is."

"Of course I know what a starfish is.  C'mon, I'm not stupid."

"Well, what is it, then?"

"You know, it's one of those... fish..."

"Yeah?"

"One of those fish... that, uh, shoots stars."

"Shoots stars?  What, like some kind of ninja fish?"

Bumblebee was more than a little confused at this positively amicable display.  It sure wasn't the way he was used to Decepticons behaving... but then, he'd never seen these two around before.  He guessed they'd recently come from Cybertron (though from the look of their body shells, they'd probably already adopted Earth-style vehicular transformations), and from what little he'd heard, apparently Cybertron had become a very different place in the past four million years.  Even more surprising, though, was the fact that as soon as Carly had been shot by one of these Decepticons, they'd taken no further notice of her whatsoever--not to congratulate each other on their marksmanship, not to taunt Bumblebee with pointed references to having killed his friend.  It occurred to Bumblebee that she may have been the first human they'd ever seen, and it may not even have registered with them that she'd been a sentient life form.  To them, she may as well have not even been there at all.  Part of Bumblebee hoped that these two would be so wrapped up in their conversation that he'd be able to sneak away unnoticed.

...And, as long as Bumblebee was dreaming, he wished he could fly.

"Hey, Runabout, speaking of fish, this little runt reminds me of something.  What happens when they catch fish that are too small to bother eating?"

"What, on Cybertron?"

"No, on that one planet.  The one with the fish."

"Oh, yeah.  Heh.  The one with the fish."

"So, what do they do with the little fish, the ones that are too small?"

"Uh, I forget.  Do they throw 'em back?"

"Naw, then somebody else'll just catch 'em again, and they'll have to throw 'em back.  Oh, I remember now.  They use 'em for bait!"

The twin Decepticons, apparently remembering their prize suddenly, turned back to Bumblebee, weapons at the ready.  Bumblebee had no idea what kind of guns they were, but judging from the way Carly's skin had taken on an unhealthy reddish tone, only a few shades lighter than Bumblebee's insignia, getting shot probably wouldn't do wonders for Bumblebee's continued well-being, either.  For some reason, the two Decepticons hadn't bothered to flank Bumblebee completely; he literally had his back to the wall, but he still had a clear escape route on the right, just past Runabout.  

Bumblebee was certain that he could dart past them quickly enough to turn the corner and elude them, at least temporarily.  It was even possible that these guys wouldn't bother to sound the alert, since they didn't seem to think that Bumblebee was much of a catch.  That in itself was a fairly offensive prospect, but Bumblebee would probably find a way to live with the humiliation, assuming he survived this encounter.  What if they did try to reel him in, though?  An intruder alert meant there would eventually be Decepticon sentries all over the base searching for him.  Not only would that severely limit Bumblebee's ability to navigate the base, it would also put Seaspray, Beachcomber, and Hubcap at risk, who were all still searching for the detention level in order to rescue Smokescreen.

What was he going to do about Carly, though?  He couldn't just scoop her up like a bag of bolts and run, not when there was even the slightest chance that she might still be alive.  Humans had far more frail physiques than Autobots, and a move like that was liable to damage one of her vital components.  If he stopped for even an astro-second to carefully collect her fragile body, though, the Decepticons would just shoot him, and they'd both be dead.  Leaving her behind might have meant that the Decepticons would capture her as a prisoner, but given her current condition, allowing her to go without the medical care she most assuredly needed right now was almost certainly a death sentence unto itself.  Which meant that no matter which course of action Bumblebee chose, Carly's life could not be saved.

Despite the fact that everything he knew on an emotional level was in direct contrast with this, Bumblebee's logic circuits told him that given the available data, Carly was a variable that could, quite simply, be written out of the equation.

This was one of the times when logic went straight out the window.

Runamuck and Runabout were chuckling, as though the aforementioned notion of using small Autobots as fish bait was part of some long-running joke between them.  Runabout even stopped to wipe a drop of lubricant from his optic visor, letting out a long, dopey sigh.

"Aw, scrap it all.  Let's just kill him," Runamuck said, sobering up a bit.  "We'll say we shot first and asked questions later, or something."

"Heh heh.  I do that all'a time anyway."

"Aw, c'mon, guys," Bumblebee said with a nervous laugh.  "You wouldn't shoot little ol' me, would ya?  At least be a sport and give me a running start, huh?"

Arms extended, the Decepticons aimed squarely at Bumblebee's forehead.

Bumblebee ran.

Darting down the hallway as fast as possible, slipping right under Runabout's left arm and straight into the corridor, Bumblebee ran as fast as he knew how.  He took advantage of a trick Sunstreaker had taught him once, extending the wheels in his feet ever so slightly to afford him better traction.  He was sure glad he'd remembered that one!  Without any reason to look back (the heavy footfalls and brutish laughter gave him a very accurate gauge of just how far ahead of his pursuers he wasn't), Bumblebee tried desperately to ignore the pangs of guilt that welled up inside him, concentrating instead on finding some passage or opening that he could slip into, one that was too small for anyone to follow.  With any luck, the Decepticons wouldn't be able to track Bumblebee with their sensors once he had gotten into the ventilation system, and from that point he could make an attempt to rendezvous with the others...

...but as soon as he eluded their grasp, the Decepticons would sound the alarm, and the other Autobots would pay for Bumblebee's decision with their lives.  Was this, Bumblebee found himself asking, what being in command was all about?  Putting the lives of those under your charge before your own?  He wondered how he'd ever let Hubcap talk him into taking command of this mission.  Bumblebee was barely in a class with the other Autobots, let alone command material.  Optimus Prime wouldn't have had any trouble making this decision, Bumblebee realized.  Prime knowingly put himself in danger on a frequent basis--not, surely, because he enjoyed doing so, but because it was worth it to take the risk if it meant protecting those under his leadership.  Was Bumblebee ready to do the same?

Given some time to ponder these deep philosophical questions, Bumblebee might have arrived at a satisfactory answer.  Unfortunately, he wasn't exactly afforded the opportunity to weigh the issues while in the midst of running for his life.

Bumblebee ran toward the end of the hall, intending to use the far wall as a springboard to propel himself back in the other direction, hopefully darting straight through the Decepticons' grasp again.  Stubbornly refusing to give up on Carly, Bumblebee hoped that this tactic would buy him the precious seconds he needed to stop and retrieve her.  Instead, however, he came to a mobile computer console, parked at an odd angle in the middle of the hallway, obviously in the middle of being moved to somewhere.  Unable to come to a stop in time, Bumblebee instinctively turned the momentum of his stride into a flying kick.  The console was probably twice as heavy as he was, but its center of weight was also distributed badly--instead of springing off of it as he'd intended, Bumblebee hit the computer with enough force to tip it over, shattering the monitor as it hit, and with most of the momentum from his would-be ricochet absorbed, he fell uselessly to the ground.

Runamuck apparently thought this was priceless, bursting into hysterical laughter that sounded, for a moment, like a kremzeek was causing a feedback loop in his vocalizer unit.  "Wahahahahahaaa!  Did you see that crash?  Wooo!  Aw, I wish I'd gotten that on holovid."

"Yeah," Runabout added, "where's Reflector when you need him?"

Recovering quickly, Bumblebee scrambled to his feet as he instinctively began searching for an escape route.  He noticed an air duct on the far wall; it wasn't easily accessible, and getting to it would probably involve jumping off the head of one of these Decepticons, but it was just small enough that they wouldn't be able to follow him should he manage to reach it. Bumblebee was barely a match for a single Decepticon cassette; what chance did he have against two of the full-grown variety?  Absolutely none, was the readily available answer.

It took every iota of self-control Bumblebee possessed to stand his ground.

One of the programming traits that had enabled the Autobots to survive near-extinction was a strongly developed, deep rooted self-preservation instinct.  In extremely dangerous situations, it kicked in and actually overrode the decisions of a robot's consciousness, should he not already happen to have his mind set squarely on saving himself from destruction.  Needless to say, this programming, while probably quite useful to the early Autobots, before war broke out on Cybertron, was a significant detriment to any Autobots under Optimus Prime's command.  With proper training, most of them learned how to suppress this drive.  Some Autobots, however, never learned to circumvent this programming, making them useless as warriors.

Something that Ironhide said to Bumblebee about this once, just before the launch of the Ark, had always stuck with him for some reason.  He and Wheeljack had gone on a supply run and were ambushed by Decepticon troopers; as a spy, Bumblebee rarely functioned on the front lines, but after much begging and pleading, he'd finally been allowed on the mission.  He'd instantly regretted it.  It was the first time in his life that the Decepticons were targeting him specifically, and the experience had shaken Bumblebee up rather badly.  Later on, Ironhide had said to him that this was, actually, a good thing.  There was no such thing, he'd said, as an Autobot who was built for fighting.  The Autobots who were least fond of it ended up making the best warriors, because they were the ones who wanted it to end the most.  That was what made Optimus Prime one of the best Autobot warriors.

Since their arrival on Earth, there actually had been a few Autobots constructed for the war effort, but the basic message behind Ironhide's advice still rang true.  It always came back to Bumblebee in situations like this, if only for a fleeting moment, but for some reason he never really believed in it.

Bumblebee's internal struggle with his own instincts must have been visibly noticeable.  "Aww, lookit that," Runabout said in an utterly unsympathetic tone.  "The poor thing's tremblin'."

"Eh, maybe he's just cold," Runamuck said.  "I bet I could heat him up in a hurry," he said, twirling his gun around his finger.

"The only thing that scares me, Decepticons," Bumblebee said with a false air of confidence, "is your plug-ugly faces!"

If Bumblebee escaped, then he saved his own life--at the cost of Carly's life, and the lives of the other Autobots still present inside the Decepticon base.  The thing was, of course, that the only good that could possibly come out of Bumblebee's escape would be the preservation of his own existence.  This happened to mean a lot to Bumblebee on a personal level, but it was wholly insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  The fact remained that facing these two Decepticons now, even if it meant certain death, represented the strong possibility that the others could complete the mission and escape.  With any luck, these two would be too dumb to realize Bumblebee wasn't alone; even if they realized why he wasn't appearing on their sensors and found a way to scan for his refractory alloy, it would be at a different frequency modulation from each of the others, who would still remain undetected.  

Bumblebee realized that his continued existence could potentially represent other lives saved in the future, but it still couldn't compare with the lives of the four other Autobots still inside the Decepticon base.  Why throw away his life so recklessly?  In his heart, Bumblebee already knew the answer.  As much as he hated to admit it, he knew that he'd never be able to live down the fact that he ran away and abandoned his comrades.  It sounded terribly clichéd, like something out of a comic book, but ultimately, it was the Autobot ideal.  Bumblebee didn't know whether he was the ideal Autobot, but he could at least meet his end like one.  He may have been the smallest, the weakest, and possibly least useful Autobot of all, but he also realized--in an epiphany that can only come during one's last moments of existence--that the fact alone that he was an Autobot meant that none of these things mattered.

As they fired, Bumblebee met the twin blasts with his eyes open--

***

--and they ricocheted off his gleaming, golden chest, crossing one another and hitting both Decepticons instead!

"Ha!  Wasn't expecting that, were ya?" Bumblebee taunted, neglecting to mention that it was the last possible thing he had been expecting himself.

Runamuck tumbled backwards, his arms flailing, until he hit the wall behind him and sprung forward, falling on his face.  Runabout had absorbed the blast from Runamuck's gun, which looked to have some kind of super-heating effect on his armor.  A concentrated burst might have done some real damage, but the short blast which they had no doubt expected to finish Bumblebee off hadn't been powerful enough to disable Runabout.

Runabout simply stared at Bumblebee in disbelief, finally extending his arm and firing again.  The blast bounced once more, and this time had the same detrimental effects as it had to Runamuck.  The second Decepticon staggered back and tripped over the immobile form of the first, collapsing in a heap.

"You know what they say," Bumblebee offered.  "Fool you once, shame on me.  Fool you twice, and... geez, you just can't get much dumber, can you?"

***

Chapter 24: Mantle Pieces

A handful of the key Autobots were assembled in the control room, as they had been only days earlier.  The most importance difference today was that one of their number was missing, and his absence created a void that could never be filled.

As Ironhide was finishing his explanation of what had happened in the Antarctic Circle, Perceptor was programming some command codes into the nearby computer console.  He finally turned to face the others; he wasn't an Autobot particularly given to emotional displays, but the despair was etched in his face as clearly as binary code.

"I have programmed the Sky Spy to transmit any data it may have accumulated from the space bridge explosion," he explained.  "Unfortunately, the satellite was in geosynchronous orbit above the Atlantic Ocean during that period, so its findings will be limited to long-range scanner readings only."

"There's no time to wait!" Red Alert said.  "What if Optimus was blown clear through the ice and wound up in the ocean?  Your satellite couldn't tell us that, now could it?  Could it?!  I think not!  We should send out search teams now!"

Prowl just shook his head.  "I'm, uh, hesitant to make conclusions until we have some hard data.  You were there, Ironhide.  What do you think?"

"C'mon, Prowl," Ironhide said, clearly a little annoyed by the question, "this is Prime we're talkin' about."  No further elaboration was necessary; his point was clear.

"Right," Trailbreaker said.  "Prime's been in worse jams before.  There's no way he's gone for good."

Red Alert was nibbling away at the tips of his digits with such tenacity that the paint was beginning to wear off.  "Without Optimus Prime, we're vulnerable to a Decepticon attack.  We've got to do something before we're ambushed!"

Ironhide crossed his arms and eyed Red Alert cautiously.  "Naw, the Dinobots trashed Mega-turkey but good.  He came here now, and he'd just be askin' for another wallopin'."

"But attacking us now would be a sound strategy on their part," Prowl said, "and it wouldn't be the first time Megatron attempted to use Optimus Prime's incapacitation to his advantage."

"A course of recommended action would be prudent," Perceptor said.

It took Trailbreaker three full seconds before he realized Perceptor was addressing him.

"Me?" he asked.

"You're asking me what to do?" he continued.

"You're asking me what to do," he said.

"Optimus Prime did leave you in command," Perceptor said.  It sounded a little patronizing, but Perceptor was such a genius that just about anything he said came off like he was talking down to someone.

"Well... sure," Trailbreaker said, "because it was my rotation on the duty roster.  I mean, c'mon, guys," he said with a nervous laugh, "I was just supposed to look after things while he was on this mission... y'know, lock the door at night, feed the cat, say 'transform and roll out,' stuff like that."

Trailbreaker regretted his words immediately; aside from going against Prime's orders, to reject his duty could only mean that he did foresee it as a permanent change--that Optimus Prime really was gone, and that Trailbreaker was his replacement.  (He already knew he'd make a pretty lousy Prime, mostly on account of how stupid he looked towing a trailer in vehicle mode.)  He also knew that, as the Autobots' resident cheerleader, his behavior significantly contributed to the Autobots' morale.  Ironically, replacing Optimus Prime was the best way Trailbreaker could prove that Prime might still be alive.

"Unless," Perceptor said, "you choose to exercise the decision to delegate your command status in light of a perceived inability to function adequately in a position of authority."

"No, that's okay," Trailbreaker said.  "I don't actually know what you just said, but I'm just going to pass on it all the same.  So, we need to deal with the Decepticons.  Prowl, what's our battle-ready status?"

"Well, the Protectobots are still recovering from injuries incurred during the theft of the petroleum reserves," Prowl reported, "and Ratchet's still putting a couple of the Dinobots back together.  Other than that, all Autobots on the duty roster are available."

"Well, we could get the Aerialbots to circle the volcano," Trailbreaker said, "at least that would give us some warning."

"An excellent suggestion," Perceptor said.  "What do you propose for defensive measures?"

"Uh, maybe a big sign outside the door that reads 'No Solicitors,'" Trailbreaker offered with a weak smile.

"What about Cybertron?" Red Alert asked.  "Prime was trying to find out what the Decepticons there are up to.  Shouldn't we at least try to find out?"

"I think we can probably all agree that Prime's original mission has to take a back seat right now," Prowl said.

"Well, I don't," Ironhide said, slowly and deliberately.  "Prime was willing to take a mighty big risk to get to Cybertron.  He knew that whatever was goin' on, it was somethin' big.  Decepticons don't just go around huntin' down Autobots for no good reason.  They're after somethin', all right.  We don't find out now, and alla' this will have been for nothin.'"

"Omega Supreme should be on his way back now," Prowl pointed out.

Perceptor had walked away for a moment to consult with Teletraan I.  "Autobots, I fear I have some sobering news.  The Sky Spy detected a massive detonation of plasma energy immediately preceding the destruction of the space bridge."

"The Decepticons are using plasmatic weapons?" Prowl asked.  "How is that possible?"

"My understanding," Perceptor said, "is that it should not be possible at all."

"Maybe the satellite readings are inaccurate," Prowl suggested.

"Negative," Perceptor said.  "Residual particle scans on Ironhide and the Dinobots confirm the presence of plasma radiation in the atmosphere.  I fear that only two equally grim results have availed themselves.  The first is that Optimus Prime did not survive the eruption.  However, in the unlikely event that Optimus Prime somehow escaped the space bridge explosion unscathed, the plasma energy would have irradiated his circuitry, nullifying all positronic activity in his cerebral processor."

"But that means that if he wasn't destroyed..." Red Alert began.

"...Then he may as well have been," Trailbreaker finished.

"Well, that settles it, then," Ironhide said.  "I'm gonna have to go to Cybertron."

"I suggest assembling a team to assist you," Perceptor said.

"No, I'll travel solo this time," Ironhide said.  "Omega Supreme can get me there, and he can also be my back-up.  I don't want to risk anyone else, this time.  Besides, I've also got something else to do while I'm there."

"What's that?" Prowl asked.

"I'm gonna have to tell Elita One."

***

Chapter 25: Home Again

Dreadwing docked on the landing platform in the heart of the Decepticon camp, slowly descending as his retro-rockets guided him toward the grey, metallic surface.  Megatron had spent most of the journey in silence, enduring Anthrax's prattling about her advanced trans-warp technology being light-years ahead of any propulsion systems Megatron had ever seen, pretending not to be at all interested, let alone giving her the satisfaction of asking her to share her technology.  He'd own it soon enough.  Thankfully, Anthrax had shut up once they'd entered Cybertron space; indeed, as they touched down, her jaw was practically hanging wide open, her optic sensors glued to the canopy window.

"This is incredible," Anthrax gasped, speaking for the first time since they'd approached the planet.  "I've never seen any Cybertron at this stage of development before... well, a functional one, anyway.  It's like the historical archives have come to life."

Dreadwing unsealed his canopy hatch.  Without hesitation, Megatron darted forward and landed, touching the surface of his home planet for the first time in over two planetary revolutions.

Upon returning home after so long an absence, Megatron was always struck by how infinitely more breathable the air was.  The air on planet Earth a veritable suspension of putrid airborne particles--ranging from organic plant matter that had been spat into the air for no discernible reason, to the inefficient waste created by their primitive aircraft, automobiles, and factories.  As a result, that planet's atmosphere was also filled with so many types of gases that were poisonous to organic life that Megatron suspected, if given enough time, that life forms of that world would eventually exterminate themselves with their own technology.  Megatron didn't have time to wait nearly that long, of course, but the irony of the situation was still a deliciously comforting thought.

More than anything else, though, Megatron was momentarily overwhelmed by the vast expanse that was his homeworld.  While Cybertron was a much smaller planet than Earth, the latter world was almost completely covered in water, making most of its surface area useless.  Cybertron, then, had far more surface area by contrast.  And, unlike the miserable mudball whose limited construction potential still hadn't been realized, even in the millions of years since Megatron had first crashed there, every cubic mini-inch of Cybertron's volume was dedicated to a specific, functional purpose--or, at least, once had been before its destruction during the war with the Autobots.  The restoration of Cybertron's energy reserves was only one of Megatron's ultimate goals, albeit the most important of them.  Secondarily, he sought its reconstruction into a fully operative and complete planet, as it once was in eons past.

"It has been far too long," he said somberly--not with reverence, but with the desire to own what he beheld.  "Megatron returns to Cybertron at last."

"Pouring on the melodrama a little thick, aren't we?" Anthrax said.

Megatron only shot her a passing glance before dismissing her presence and turning his attention back to the horizon, where a small contingent was heading toward the landing platform.  Dreadwing transformed, shrinking back down and separating into his drone module and larger robot form.

"My fuel cells are nearly depleted," Dreadwing noted.

"Don't worry about that now," Anthrax said.

There were four ground vehicles steadily approaching the docking platform.  Megatron hadn't yet signalled to Jetstorm that he'd landed; clearly, then, they'd been anticipating his arrival most eagerly.  Megatron found himself vaguely wondering just how many Transformers they had at their disposal, should he have refused to appear before the Council.  The one in the lead, a dark-colored buggy clearly suited for Cybertron's more desolate, rubble-strewn regions, came to an abrupt halt and smoothly unfolded into the robot form Megatron recognized as Jetstorm.  He was one of the older constructs, evident not to the untrained optics but to the careful observer, in details like the construction of his joints, and even the sound that his mechanisms made as he transformed.

"Megatron," he began in a formal tone, "you are hereby summoned to appear before the Cybertron Council.  Please allow us to escort you to the Council Chambers."  His words were phrased as a request, but his tone clearly conveyed that there was only one acceptable answer.

Megatron was not accustomed to being uncomfortable.  He was by no means worried, since his past experience with the Council had taught him that a bit of smooth talking went a long way to placating their concerns, but at this particular moment he would have given a lot to be anywhere but here.  This entire affair was an absurd waste of time and resources, and it was this--his knowingly spending his efforts on such a futile endeavour, inefficient actions which did not directly contribute to the Decepticon campaign, and which idiots like Starscream would surely hold over his head as being representative of his lack of a cohesive military vision for months to come--which made him feel uncomfortable.

Making a resolution to end this charade as cleanly as possible, Megatron instinctively went into public service mode.  "Greetings, Jetstorm," he said with a grand gesture and a nauseating smile, "and thank you for your hospitality.  You have my word that I will do everything in my power to facilitate these proceedings."

Jetstorm turned to one of the others, who were now in robot mode as well, and cocked his head slightly, indicating Anthrax.  The other simply nodded.

"Perhaps your Autobot prisoner should be escorted to a holding cell before we begin?" Jetstorm asked, uncertainty in his voice.

"She is no prisoner," Megatron explained.  "Anthrax has come from--"

"I have renounced my allegiance to the Autobots," she said quickly.

"I see," Jetstorm said.

"If I might inquire," said Anthrax, "by what honorific should I address you?"

"Individually, we have no formal titles," he explained.  "'Jetstorm' will suffice."

"In that case, Jetstorm," she said, "I would ask that you suspend the proceedings.  Megatron just fought his way through a horde of savage Autobots to get here, and as you can see," she said, drawing attention to the particularly nasty swipe Megatron had taken to his face, "the battle has taken its toll.  He requires extensive repairs before he can appear before the Council."

"I am afraid that will not be possible," Jetstorm said.  "The trial is scheduled to begin at the beginning of the next rotation cycle."

"Bah!" spat Megatron.  "I am functioning at full capacity.  Let us meet these ridiculous charges head-on at once!"

Her back turned to Megatron, Anthrax drew her arm up in a "be silent!" gesture.  Megatron was so completely dumbfounded that she would dare issue such a demand, verbally or otherwise, that he was, in fact, stunned into silence.  It occurred to him only an instant later that Anthrax required his silence only because she was orchestrating a deception, and Megatron hadn't yet been playing along.

"Are you acting on Megatron's behalf?"  Jetstorm asked.

"I am his legal representative, yes," she said, "and I strongly suggest that you grant Megatron this one simple request.  After all, it would reflect poorly on the Council were you to deny Megatron the opportunity to be restored to full function before he is put on trial for his very life."

Jetstorm consulted with the others for a moment before replying.  "This is... highly unorthodox," he said,"but we will delay the proceedings until your repairs are completed.  Deluge will accompany you."  He turned to the white and blue robot beside him.  "Deluge, please escort Megatron and his partner, and see to it once they are done that they make their way to the Council Chambers."

Megatron sputtered at the suggestion that Anthrax was his partner, but offered no further commentary.

"Indubitably, Jetstorm," Deluge replied softly.  "I also possess," he explained to Anthrax, "technical skills that may prove useful to you."

"I do not require a chaperone!" Megatron muttered under his ventilation.

"Please forgive him," Anthrax explained to Jetstorm.  "I believe he's exhibiting a cascade failure."

"I suggest that you see to correcting it before the hearing," Jetstorm replied.  He and the other two robots transformed back to their ground vehicle modes and departed.


It took nearly all the restraint Megatron possessed not to explode at Anthrax for her presumptive behavior, and he longed for the opportunity to address her privately.  He knew, however, that as long as a member of the Council was present, anything Megatron said or did could somehow be twisted around and used against him.  Megatron had never been acquainted with Deluge personally, and if he had any hidden motives, he was being very careful not to reveal them.  Regardless, Megatron had learned long ago to trust no one... and to trust the Council even less.

Anthrax was happily babbling away at Deluge, with questions about Cybertronic jurisprudence that bordered on an interrogation.  Deluge remained silent, for the most part, nodding slowly at the right times and occasionally offering tidbits of information, but it was clear to Megatron that he found her just as irritating as he did.

Megatron believed in no higher power, but nevertheless prayed that these proceedings would be over as quickly as possible.  The loss of Optimus Prime would be a crippling blow to the Autobots, ensuring that activities on Earth would be temporarily curtailed, but Megatron was nevertheless resigned to return there as quickly as possible.  For some reason, Megatron had the sense that something was about to go dreadfully wrong.  There were just too many variables involved, and Megatron could have attended to each of them and eliminated them, had there been more time.  Had Optimus Prime indeed been destroyed?  Why had Soundwave abandoned the battle?  Where was Starscream, and what was he doing?  Why was Anthrax apparently stringing Megatron along, and how did it relate to her reluctance to reveal her true origins to the Council?  Any one of these elements, or all of them, could turn around and take a bite out of Megatron's hide.

Megatron had actively spent five million years of his life attempting to conquer Cybertron, and the prospect that he was so very close now made him... anxious.  Excited.  These were not the qualities of an effective military commander, however, and it took a conscious effort on Megatron's part to keep himself in check.  

Deluge stopped and pointed to a clearing that was just barely visible above the horizon.  "I believe my laboratory will be suitable for your needs.  I have no dedicated repair bay, but I own several medicroids."

Megatron almost visibly flinched at the thought of medicroids coming anywhere near his chassis with their crude, barely-surgical instruments.  He proffered a gracious, fabricated smile.

"The fastest way is straight through," Deluge explained, "but there have been some territorial disputes in this sector.  I suggest you transform to your most expedient forms.  It would be... unwise," he said, adding an unsettling weight to the word, "to stop until we reach our destination."

Dreadwing looked to Anthrax, who responded by transforming to her aerial mode.  "Dreadwing is low on power, so he'll have to follow us in his ground vehicle mode," she said.  Dreadwing combined with his drone, forming the same V-tank mode Megatron had seen earlier.

"As you wish," Deluge said, also transforming.  He revved his engine a few times.  "Megatron, we are operating on a time table.  Please transform."

"I only transform when I choose to do so," Megatron said.

"He doesn't possess a vehicular form," Anthrax offered.  "He transforms into a pistol."

"I am a fusion rifle," Megatron said, "capable of demolishing entire cities!"

"Well, right now you're a fusion rifle who needs to ride shotgun.  Climb on!" Anthrax invited.  Megatron stepped onto her frame and crouched down, managing to balance himself on her wings with some difficulty.

"I was unaware your current configuration does not include a vehicular form," Deluge said with a combination of something like apology and disdain.

"It is a revolting Earth transformation which I intend to rid myself of once I have conquered that mudball of a planet," Megatron said.

"If you wish," Deluge said, "we can restore your Cybertronic form after the hearing."

"Why not do it now?" Anthrax said, enthusiastically.  More calmly, she added, "Since he needs to be fixed up anyway, I mean.  Besides, Megatron won't want to address the Council in this antiquated alien form.  I mean, look at him," she said, the words breaking up into a laugh.  "It would be completely disgraceful for him to present himself this way during a formal hearing."

"I will confer with the Council on this after we reach our destination," Deluge said.

"Ah, because you're a Decepticon, and you need to consult with the Autobots on the Council to ensure that they approve of your actions," Anthrax surmised.

"You misunderstand," Deluge said.

"Then why?" Anthrax pressed on.

"That is none of your concern," Deluge said, quietly.

"You don't trust me, do you?" Anthrax said.

"No," Deluge said.

"Because I'm a Decepticon?" Anthrax asked.

"Surely you're not surprised," Deluge said.

"Tell me, why didn't Jetstorm send one of the Autobots on the Council to watch over us instead of you?"

"I'm not Jetstorm," Deluge said.  "I don't know."

"I think it's because he knew we would be more likely to cooperate with a fellow Decepticon, " Anthrax said.  "It also means that the others trust you to uphold the will of the Council.  The decision is yours to make, Deluge.  I have every confidence that you will abide by the Council's best interests in this matter."

"Very well," Deluge said.  "I deem this permissible, on the condition that you can make the necessary modifications before the beginning of the next rotation cycle.  For now, I suggest you pay attention to your surroundings.  The warring factions in this sector do not take kindly to Transformers of any allegiance invading their territory."

As if to punctuate Deluge's warning, a surge of energy jolted out of one of the abandoned structures, striking the metal framework just ahead of the group and carrying throughout the framework before it sizzled out.  Anthrax teetered to the side in an attempt to avoid it, sending Megatron tumbling off the back of her vehicle mode.  A second electro-blast followed from the opposite direction, and then a third, sending voltage crackling into the air.  A stray bolt made contact with the ground-mode Deluge, who shuddered involuntarily from the surge but seemed otherwise unaffected.

"There's a reason I adopted a form with vulcanized tires," Deluge said.

"It's a gang war," Anthrax said, transforming to robot mode.  "Are they Autobots or Decepticons?"

"I've never bothered to study them long enough to make that determination," Deluge said, swerving to avoid another surge of energy.  "If we remain here, we will not survive.  The laboratory is close by.  We must leave now!"

"Bah!  I will destroy them!  No one attacks Megatron and continues to ventilate through the correct openings!"

"There you go, referring to yourself in the third person again.  Do you have a complex or something?" Anthrax said.

Megatron made as if to strike the smaller Decepticon, but Anthrax only grinned.  "You don't really want to go to trial with no one to defend you, now do you?  Or do you really think you could find a single other Transformer on this planet who supports your cause, as I do?"

Megatron lowered his fist.

"I didn't think so," Anthrax said.

***

Chapter 26: Higher Duty

A planet away, miles beneath sea level, the section of the Decepticon space cruiser that had since been converted to a repair bay was littered with equipment.  Some of it was so esoteric in function that it had previously gone entirely unused; other devices had failed or broken down, leaving virtually none of the Decepticons to know how to properly repair it; and still other components were so vastly sophisticated that the time it took to learn how to operate them rivaled the time it had taken to invent them in the first place.

Soundwave was attempting to operate them all simultaneously.

As the living communications center for the Decepticons, Soundwave was quite accustomed to tackling multiple tasks at once.  During normal Decepticon operations, he intercepted, rerouted, and broadcast almost all communiques between the troops--many of whom never realized that their messages weren't being sent directly to the intended recipient.  Even when he wasn't functioning as a relay station, at almost any given time part of Soundwave's mind was monitoring the multitude of transmissions that blanketed the surface of the planet, originating from various sources of human technology.  He listened to music, observed television programs, eavesdropped on cordless telephone and cell phone signals, heard conversation originating from commercial airplanes, police cars, military installations, and so much more.  Most of it was useless to him, but he listened to it all the same, on the off chance that an interesting piece of information availed itself.  At the moment, however, his receiver was turned off.  He needed every iota of concentration he possessed for the task ahead.  

Before him, scattered loosely across what passed for the operating table, were the remains of Buzzsaw.

A panel in his left forearm hung open, as did two more in his lower leg and one from his forehead, where he'd removed components for use in the procedure.  It wouldn't be enough.  He already knew that parts storage had long since been picked clean; Swindle had exhausted its wares when he had rebuilt the Combaticons some years ago, and what little remained had recently been acquisitioned to give the Battlechargers their Earth forms.  The Decepticons had never quite gotten around to replenishing any of it, which meant that the only way to supply Buzzsaw with the needed life-saving components there at headquarters would be to extract them from another Decepticon.

Of the thirteen Decepticons which Soundwave considered entirely expendable, however, not one of them was stationed at the Decepticon base.  This left only one course of action open.

"Constructicons," Soundwave said, opening a transmission, "report at once."


A brief moment after resuming a scan of the transmissions within his receptor range, Soundwave isolated a single communique from the Mistron Robotics Research Center in California which had described, in part, some of the equipment he required, and took five of the Constructicons with him to find it.  The worldwide communications net used by the humans, accessible via satellite transmissions, had grown at such a phenomenal rate that Soundwave had recognized it long ago to be a highly useful tool for gathering information about the Earth and its resources, despite the heavy junk-filtering typically required just to get to that information.  Megatron considered it a waste of his time, and usually didn't allow Soundwave to gather information about fuel sources in this manner.  However, Megatron also wasn't here right now.  Unfortunately.

Soundwave believed he had taken every reasonable action possible during the battle.  He and the cassettes had been ineffective against the Dinobots, and so as soon as he was within transmission range, Soundwave had planned to contact the Stunticons and order them to the Antarctic.  En route back to Headquarters, however, Soundwave had detected a communique from Megatron to Cybertron, thus confirming that Megatron had defeated the Dinobots.  With his leader no longer in imminent danger, Soundwave was free to turn his attention to more pressing matters, hoping that Megatron would understand the reason for Soundwave's failure to return immediately.

Shortly thereafter, however, Megatron's locator signal moved out of orbit and quickly disappeared from Soundwave's scanning range.  The most likely explanation was that Megatron had left for Cybertron to confirm that Optimus Prime had not made it across the space bridge.  It was not unlike him to simply drop everything and depart without conveying a message to the others, as Megatron had noted on many occasions that he was under no obligation to explain himself to his own troops.  Given that Megatron had left no mission itinerary or standing orders, Soundwave would continue to place emphasis on the usual priorities--collecting energy, monitoring Autobot activities, and maintaining the troops.  For the moment, Soundwave felt it necessary to place a strong emphasis on the last of these.

"Attention," Soundwave announced to the Constructicons, "target located.  Prepare for attack."  He pointed to a multi-level building, quite large for a human construct, with a spacious green lawn and a majestic fountain framing the entrance with its twin arms of sparkling blue water.  Soundwave landed in front of the building and blasted a hole in the ground, neatly severing the fountain's water lines.  It was a feeble attempt at obscuring visibility of the structure, to be sure.

"Ravage, eject," Soundwave commanded as the feline cassette robot issued from his cassette drive.  "Disable primitive communications equipment."

Ravage leapt forward and fired a proton rocket at the base of the telephone pole near the building, causing it to collapse in a heap on the side of the road, wires snapping and whipping away as it fell.  He growled softly as he circled the smoldering remains, almost as if he expected it to spring to life again.

Soundwave wasn't able to readily locate the research lab, and he didn't want to tear the entire building to pieces and risk destroying everything inside.  Human technology was primitive, but it was absurdly wasteful not to take advantage of what few useful bits of technology they managed to produce on occasion.

"Constructicons, begin systematic excavation.  Locate robotics laboratory," he ordered.

Scrapper gave the command to the others to transform, and Mixmaster wasted no time in spraying the outside of the building with a softening agent.  In no time, the other Constructicons were cutting into the base of the building, noisily scooping away pieces of steel girders and half-dissolved concrete wall.  In seconds, humans were pouring from the building like a swarm of insects, demanding to know what was happening.  The Constructicons fired back a couple of witty retorts, but Soundwave ignored them entirely.  The flesh creatures were so utterly beneath him that he simply derived no pleasure from taunting them.  He was quite baffled, in fact, by the other Decepticons who appeared to revel in it.

One of the humans was already behaving quite erratically.  His body heat had risen, and his voice had doubled in volume and taken on a shrill quality that Soundwave didn't care for.  "Please," it was shrieking, "we'll give you whatever you want!  Just stop!"

"Thermal reaction coils, neutronic processing drive, poly-alloy micro-plating, hyperkinetic integrated power core," Soundwave said, rattling off the components he needed from this particular installation.

"Uhh... sure!  No problem!  I'll go see about it right now, okay?  Just wait a few minutes!"  The human scrambled back into the building.  Soundwave detected a distress call being sent to the Autobots via the satellite dish on the roof of the building, but Soundwave had already taken the liberty of broadcasting a jamming signal as soon as he'd arrived.  "Constructicons, continue excavation," he said.

By now, the Constructicons had already dug through the outer wall; Scavenger had taken the lead, systematically driving into each room and sniffing around with the sensors in his shovel.  More humans poured from the building; some were diving out of second- and third-story windows into the shrubs that lined the perimeter of the building, while others had climbed to the roof and were shouting and waving their arms frantically at no one in particular.  Such terribly stupid creatures.

"Soundwave, I think we've found something," Scrapper called over his communicator.

Soundwave climbed into the building, tearing away at the opening and parts of the second-story floor as he went.  The Constructicons had, indeed, reached the laboratory.  The dust from the demolished drywall was obscuring his visibility, but his sensors confirmed that these were the components he needed.  Surprisingly, the Autobots were nowhere to be found.  It was entirely possible they weren't even aware of this mission yet.  It was a refreshing change from the past few failed missions, and Soundwave found himself wondering why operations didn't always go over this smoothly.

"I've got them," Scrapper said, brandishing the components in his shovel.

"Hey, I was the one who sniffed 'em out," Scavenger said, waving his own shovel menacingly.

"I've got more cargo room," Long Haul said, "so give 'em to me!"

"No, give them to me!  Me, me, me!" Mixmaster demanded.

"You don't even have a cargo hold, you idiot!" Bonecrusher said.

This show of grandstanding was a clear attempt at insinuating themselves into Soundwave's good graces, and might have been inspiring if it weren't such a transparent ploy.  With Megatron gone, Soundwave wouldn't have been at all surprised if the Constructicons had held the components hostage in exchange for a promotion, perhaps even a partnership--which was why Soundwave had taken the precaution of instructing the most likely of them to incite such a ploy, the egomaniacal Hook, to remain behind.

"Silence!" Soundwave shouted with a calculated level of fury.  This shocked the Constructicons into submission.  Temporarily robbed of their ability to combine into anything useful, any thoughts they may have had of acting against Soundwave's authority would be easily quelled.  Scrapper transformed and cupped his hands, pouring the miniaturized devices into Soundwave's palm.  He opened his cassette door and placed them inside, next to Buzzsaw's broken body.

Soundwave detected the distant rumbling of what was unmistakably a Decepticon cruiser entering the outer atmosphere; it was Shockwave's evacuation party, no doubt.  Why hadn't Shockwave simply waited for Megatron's arrival?  Or, preferably, why hadn't he simply remained on Cybertron?

"Decepticon space cruiser arriving from Cybertron," Soundwave told the others.  "Constructicons, prepare to return to Headquarters."  The remaining Constructicons switched back to robot mode, dusting themselves off and following Soundwave back out of the remains of the human-built structure.

Soundwave didn't care for the idea of Shockwave relocating to Earth, not only because it was tactically unsound (a weak Decepticon foothold on their home planet was a foothold nevertheless) but for personal reasons as well.  Soundwave detested Shockwave intensely, who seemed to perceive the world through a binary filter--calculating, but never understanding; convinced of his own superiority over every functional life form, but pretending to graciously and humbly serve Megatron.  Soundwave could barely stand to ventilate the same airborne particles that Shockwave did, let alone work together with him.  Suffice to say, Soundwave had been beyond delighted when Megatron had elected him to remain behind, millions of years ago.  In the interim, Shockwave's absence afforded Soundwave a place at Megatron's side, reporting directly to him under most circumstances.  The prospect of Shockwave and his mindless followers joining the Decepticons on Earth was not a pleasant one, to Soundwave's mind.

As he stepped onto the rubble-strewn lawn, the orange sunset bathing the landscape, it came to his attention that the engines on Shockwave's craft sounded in dire need of maintenance.  Very few Decepticons possessed Soundwave's acute sense of hearing; though it was abundantly obvious to him, Soundwave recognized that not every Decepticon would immediately pick up on the subtle change in timbre.

Soundwave made a mental note to have the Constructicons address this as soon as it landed; a working space cruiser would be eminently useful if it were in good repair, particularly since--with Astrotrain in the repair bay for unexplained injuries--it represented the only means by which to acquire the remaining components Soundwave required.  A moment later, though, Soundwave realized that no functional space craft sounded like that.

"Look!" Scavenger shouted, pointing as the craft became visible, glowing as it entered the inner atmosphere.  "There's something wrong!"  It was clear now that the ship's descent was not a controlled one; it was falling sideways, with its thrusters still running, as though it had been scrambling to go in a different direction before the Earth's gravity well sucked it in.  Gleaming metal fragments which flaked away from the side of the craft confirmed that it had been struck by something--a foreign object, or possibly weapons fire.

The latter of these possibilities was confirmed when another craft appeared and gave chase, this one smaller and sleeker, and whose design Soundwave had never seen before.  A short burst of energy issued from the pursuing ship's underbelly, tearing into the first ship's wound and creating a second one as it exited through the other side.

"Is that an Autobot ship?" Scrapper asked.  It was the wrong profile for an Autobot craft, and yet that was the only conceivable explanation for such a brazen act of war.

"Constructicons, prepare to reconnoiter," Soundwave ordered, taking the lead as he took to the skies and headed in the most probable direction the ship would crash, based on his calculations of its current trajectory.  Shockwave had obviously been pointed toward Decepticon Headquarters before the attack, which probably meant he hadn't been aware he was being pursued until after he had set his course.  Soundwave disengaged his jamming transmission and, sure enough, Shockwave's automated distress signal was coming through loud and clear.  Something told him that had he remained at headquarters, he would have known about this immediately and might have been able to do something about it.

The ship was plummeting toward the planet in the most ungainly manner possible; plowing through the air at full profile was doing an unintentionally good job of slowing its descent, but such an orientation also represented much more potential damage if the ship crashed.  Soundwave was chiefly interested in preserving the ship.  However, there was no method he could think of to slow its descent without destroying it.

"Constructicons," Soundwave ordered, "ready weapons.  Maximum firepower."  From the air, he began shooting up the hillside, already eclipsed in shadow by the space cruiser screaming toward the Earth.  The Constructicons followed his lead, piercing more and more holes into the dry desert terrain until the crusty surface began to dance and crumble.  Their weapons had never been designed to work on dirt, of course--which was precisely what Soundwave was counting on.

As he had hoped, they hadn't destroyed the landscape at all, but had cultivated the soil just enough to make for a softer landing.  His calculations, as it turned out, hadn't been quite so precise as he'd hoped--the starboard sensor array of the ship was the first piece to strike the Earth, rending backwards into itself as it scraped along the crust of the planet, scooping up more and more yellow sand until finally snapping off under the stress.  It wasn't until the side of the ship was already grinding helplessly into the ground that the ship's inertia carried it into the soft patch Soundwave had intended for it.  The craft finally came to a rest, groaning as it settled into itself, smoke seeping from its wound but, from all visual indications, otherwise intact.

Intact, at least, until the second craft swooped in and opened fire once more, igniting the craft and causing an eruption that consumed the entire space cruiser from the inside out.

The escape pod that had been jetissoned moments before the crash fell to the ground, lodging itself in the soil before losing structural integrity, spilling its passengers as the hatch flung open like plastic soldiers being dumped out of a toy box.  

Shockwave recovered quickly and proceeded to do what he did best: state the brutally obvious.  "We are under attack!  Sentinels, prepare for a counter-offensive strike!"  Several of the dome-headed warriors readied their weapons, while others, either too disoriented from the crash or too damaged to function correctly, flailed about in their tracks.

From the attacking ship issued three gleaming metallic jets, clearly Cybertronic in origin, flying in perfect formation toward their target.  Soundwave motioned for the Constructicons to rejoin him as he approached Shockwave's group and assumed a battle-ready stance.  Professional differences notwithstanding, Shockwave was still a fellow Decepticon; he would stand side-by-side with him to face the enemy.

The attackers transformed in tandem, landed, and approached.  One of them had twin Decepticon symbols on his chest panels.

"That was a warning," he said to Shockwave.  "Perhaps next time, you will obey my commands the first time I issue them."

"Your self-proclaimed authority is meaningless, Windrazor," Shockwave said.  "I serve only Megatron."

"That will change soon enough," Windrazor promised.  "I hereby claim this planet and all its spoils as the property of the Decepticon Alliance.  The contingent stationed on this world is now under my command.  Anyone who disputes my claim may do so now by challenging me in battle."

Windrazor made a grand show of retrieving his weapon from the storage compartment in his chest, twirling it like a baton and tossing it into the air before catching it with his other hand.  "I promise," he added, "that it will be an exquisitely painful experience!"

Shockwave turned to Soundwave.  "Where is Megatron?"

Soundwave's gaze met Shockwave's, and he found himself wondering how a robot whose entire cranial unit was dedicated to a single sensory function could be so utterly blind.  "On Cybertron," he said.

"Boss, you said Megatron would be here!" exclaimed the taller, black robot behind Windrazor.

"Shut up, Terradive," Windrazor said.  "Megatron abandoned the Decepticon Empire once; I can't say I'm surprised that he did so a second time.  It hardly matters; his presence isn't necessary.  I will dispose of him when and if he deigns to return."

"Your claims on the Decepticon Empire are invalid!" Shockwave reiterated.  "As long as Megatron is still operational--"

"Megatron was inoperative for four million years, you dolt!" Windrazor said.  "Perhaps you were content to sit and rust while awaiting his promised return, but true Decepticons do not stand idly by and wait for destiny to greet them.  They seek it out and seize it!"

By now, the twenty or so robot sentinels who had survived the crash had joined Shockwave--some missing arms, some with cracked head domes, and one that was apparently still operative despite having been severed in half at the waist.

"Your army of tin soldiers has no jurisdiction here, Shockwave," Windrazor said, his face taking on an eerie green glow as the setting sun eclipsed his powerful silver frame.  "Regardless of whether you choose to recognize my claim on your own forces, the fact remains that you have no power to stop me on this world."

"He... is right," Shockwave admitted.  "My charge as guardian of Cybertron does not extend to other planets."

Soundwave brandished his concussion cannon and stepped forward.  "Challenge accepted," he said.

***

Chapter 27: Nutshell

Grimlock really wasn't capable of being stealthy.  It wasn't so much his frame of mind that was the issue, but the fact that he simply wasn't built for it.  With an impractical dinosaur transformation based on little more than a pile of bones and some guesswork, he was afforded very little in the way of practical mobility.  If he'd been given a choice, he might have opted for an Earth vehicle form like most of the Autobots had; perhaps then he'd be allowed to operate outdoors, as the Autobots were.  As it happened, Grimlock was surprised that he hadn't been shut down after the last tangle with the Decepticons.  If he'd devoted some time to pondering the issue, he might have arrived at the conclusion that the Autobots were so busy with other concerns that they'd simply forgotten about him.

This left Grimlock free to wander, exploring the vast, dormant ship that was the Autobot base.  He'd never realized before just how much of the ship was devoted to crew quarters.  He'd been shooed away on three separate occasions when he accidentally wandered into some Autobot's personal quarters.  He couldn't begin to guess at how many Autobots were part of the team on Earth at this point; he'd never actually seen them all together before.  He'd been particularly surprised to learn at one point than none of the Autobots were shut down during periods of inactivity, as the Dinobots routinely were.  Wheeljack had explained previously that the Dinobots consumed a lot of energy, and that their regular operation would be too costly.  Surely that applied to the Autobots as well, though, didn't it?

Grimlock was developing a suspicion in the back of his mind that the Autobots didn't want the Dinobots around if they could help it, but Grimlock was at a loss to explain this to himself.  After all, hadn't the Dinobots saved the Autobots' hides on just about every occasion they'd been summoned to assist?  

There were exceptions, admittedly... like Optimus Prime.

This disturbed Grimlock deeply.  Prime would have met his end eventually, of course; dozens of Autobot leaders had before him, as would plenty more in the future.  This time, though, Grimlock had been there.  His presence alone should have paved the way to a clear victory, as it always had in the past.  The Autobots never bothered to summon the Dinobots 'till their backs were to the wall, and the Dinobots always came through.  Until now.  

Grimlock was not accustomed to failure, and part of him was determined to make amends.  For the time being, though, Grimlock had been left to his own devices.  It was the first time he could remember that one of the Autobots hadn't given him something to do.  While it made him feel restless, he was also beginning to relish the freedom, and he didn't want to risk creating any more disruptions, just in case one of the Autobots decided to shut him back down.  After a blunder of this magnitude, part of Grimlock feared that the Autobots would opt to never awaken Grimlock again--as had almost been the case shortly after he was created.  

Perhaps he could find something useful to do, something that demonstrated to the Autobots that he should remain active and functional.  Until such an opportunity availed itself, however, Grimlock fervently hoped that none of the Autobots took notice of the giant robotic dinosaur stumbling around in their midst.

He had little choice in the matter when navigating Autobot Headquarters, unfortunately.  His robot mode was larger than that of just about any Autobot, and was too bulky and cumbersome to fit through most of the interior passageways.  So, Grimlock quietly stomped his way through the main corridor, surreptitiously banging his prehistoric head on the protruding stalactites, and whacking his tail against the walls in such a way as to avoid detection.

"Grimlock," Ratchet said, addressing the doorway where Grimlock would eventually make his appearance, "I told you not to come down here.  Why don't you go back up to the main level?"  Grimlock stumbled past the unconscious forms of Sludge and Swoop, laying in stages of mid-assembly on Ratchet's operating tables.  Ratchet was administering a diagnostic tool to Swoop, whose entire upper body shell had been removed.  Most Autobots would have found such a sight to be a little disturbing, but for Grimlock, the unpleasant association simply didn't exist.

In fact, Grimlock suddenly felt that it was terribly important for him to remain.  "No want to go," he said. "Me, Grimlock, Dinobot leader.  Me stay until you fix Dinobots."

"Ohh... all right," Ratchet acquiesced.  "But don't touch anything.  I'm working with some very sensitive equipment here."

Grimlock snickered.  "Me only smash what me want to smash.  Like Decepticons.  Me not smash Autobot stuff.  Grimlock have finesse!"

"Right," Ratchet said, in what Grimlock recognized as his dismissive tone, returning to his work.  "Just keep your 'finesse' off the operating table, all right?  These components are already fused together enough as it is without you belching flame breath all over the place.  Understand?"

"Me, Grimlock, understand."

Ratchet turned back to his work on Swoop, occasionally muttering to himself.  "Okay, let's get this party started... Ahh, great, it's completely fused in place.  Like I've got the tools for this.  How am I supposed to...?" he trailed off, retracting a single fingertip and replacing it with a tiny, pointed surgical instrument.  He shook his head, retracted it and replaced it with an even smaller one.

"This is gonna be fun," he muttered to himself.  "Like this wasn't gonna be hard enough without having to..."  Whatever he'd been thinking, he hadn't bothered to finish articulating it.  There was silence for several minutes as Ratchet studied Swoop's internal components carefully, prodding with the instrument, peering into Swoop's inner workings some more, and administering his instrument again.  He did this several times over, stopping at one point to examine his surgical tool as though it were the cause of the problem.  

Finally, Ratchet dug into the half-melted component.  The tip of his surgeon's cutter promptly snapped off and went flying across the room to parts unknown.  

"Of all the stupid--uhhhhh!" Ratchet shouted, pounding his fist on the work table.  "Stupid, stupid!"  His head sank into his remaining hand for a moment before jerking up again and turning to Grimlock.

"And you're not helping things," Ratchet said.  "I told you once to get out of here, didn't I?  How am I supposed to get anything done with you fogging up my optic lenses?"

Grimlock stirred uncomfortably.

"Didn't you hear me?  Get out of here or I'll shut you down myself!  Go away and let me work!"

Grimlock hadn't moved right away.  Once Ratchet's eyes started glowing, however, Grimlock took that as his cue to find something else to do.

"Me, Grimlock, decide that me no want to be here.  Me leaving!"

***

Grimlock returned to his wandering.  On a conscious level, he didn't have a specific destination in mind.

After making his way to one of the deeper levels of the ship, he came upon an open doorway at the end of the corridor.  He peered inside, but didn't see anyone there.  This doorway was Autobot-sized, so Grimlock had no chance of slipping inside as a dinosaur.  He transformed to robot mode, bowing his head as he worked his way into the room, which he now recognized as Wheeljack's laboratory.  This was the place where Wheeljack had created all of his inventions, including the Dinobots themselves.  This was the place Grimlock was born.

Grimlock had spent a good deal of time here in his early days, including several of the test-run sequences before Wheeljack had unveiled the Dinobots in a full demonstration, and later as Wheeljack had made several upgrades to the Dinobots' onboard computers.  He had only vague recollections of those times, now; flashes of familiarity, faint impressions that triggered long-dormant memories no longer accessible to his conscious mind.  Nevertheless, Grimlock reasoned, this was as good a place as any for him to be, at least for the moment.

He hadn't been in the laboratory for a few years, now.  Wheeljack had spoke on occasion about doing some more work on the Dinobots, saying something about how projects were never finished; only abandoned.  He'd never quite gotten around to doing it, though, which was fine with Grimlock, since the whole idea had always struck him as being a little strange.  After all, Swoop already had his wings, Slag already had his horns, and Snarl was already equipped with lasers in his nasal cavity; none of the Dinobots were missing anything.  What kind of work could they possibly need?

Something caught Grimlock's eye in the center of the room that he headed for instinctively, not fully knowing why.  He picked it up, taking care not to damage it, since he knew that Wheeljack placed great value on his many inventions--even the ones that he couldn't get to work.  His mind grasped for the cloudy images from his early days as he strained to make the connection that he was certain existed, until he finally realized what he was seeing.  It was one of the new memory components.

Wheeljack had developed something similar not too long after the first three Dinobots had been built.  According to Wheeljack, in addition to boosting their brain power, the devices had made the Dinobots capable of verbal communication.  Grimlock wasn't fully convinced of this; he liked to think he'd always been capable of speech, but he simply hadn't had much to say up to that point.  In any event, Grimlock recognized the device in his hand; it was slightly larger than his own, but otherwise the same.  He wondered why Wheeljack would make another one.

He raised his other hand and touched the top of his helmet, finding the original memory component still nestled in the correct spot.  Had Grimlock really thought it wouldn't still be there?  It was, in effect, what made Grimlock what he was.  Had it gone missing, it was doubtful Grimlock would have had the wherewithal to appreciate its absence.  For some reason, he found himself wondering how securely it was attached.  He instinctively knew that he was more vulnerable in robot mode, which was why he always engaged in battle as a dinosaur.  What if he were in robot mode and this component were damaged, though?  Would he revert to the Grimlock he once was, when he was first created?  Would he become the stupid, bungling Grimlock that all the Autobots still believed him to be today?

Even Ratchet looked at him that way.  For the first time ever, he'd called Grimlock stupid, right to his face.  Perhaps Wheeljack felt that way, too.  Why else would he have created a new memory component?  Grimlock already knew he was the brightest of the Dinobots, but perhaps that simply wasn't enough.  Not when the Autobots still shunned him.  Not when they usually kept him squirreled away in a storage unit so that he wouldn't break things.  Not when Grimlock hadn't been able to save Optimus Prime.

He wanted control back.

Grimlock didn't have a clear recollection of the events that followed.  The next thing he knew, though, he was wearing the new memory component, and had crushed the old one beneath his boot.

***

Chapter 28: Under the Gun

"I thought you said you had a laboratory," Anthrax said, "not a junkyard."

Deluge transformed to robot mode and punched a command code into the access panel.  The double doors, along with the pile of garbage that appeared to have been dumped in front of the doors, slowly split in half along a heretofore invisible seam, spreading apart with a mechanical grinding sound.

"I've found the less-than-pristine appearance of my laboratory to be advantageous to its continued existence," Deluge explained.  "The warring gangs are far less likely to ransack the place, if you'll pardon the pun, if they believe it's been abandoned.

He gestured for Anthrax to enter, graciously guiding her inside with his other hand.  "After you," he said.

Megatron was the last to enter the dilapidated structure, pushing aside some scrap metal with his boot in an attempt to clear a path.  He looked back as the doors closed behind him, noting that Dreadwing was nowhere to be seen.  He cared nothing for the robot, but he quite possibly represented Megatron's only means back to Earth.  Anthrax had shown a surprising lack of concern for him when he'd fallen behind the group; whether she knew he could take care of himself or she simply considered him expendable, Megatron couldn't say.

"It's been a long time since I've seen a workshop like this, and that includes my own," Anthrax appraised, surveying the multiple experiments and projects in varying stages of construction.  "Do your duties on the Council keep you busy?"

"It's been some time since the last formal assembly of the Tribunal," Deluge said, hunching over a computer monitor.  "Megatron, if you'll lie down on the table next to your female Autobot friend, my medicroids will deactivate you and begin your restoration."

"What?  Why aren't you doing it yourself?" Megatron demanded.

"I have to prepare for your trial," Deluge said.  "Please notify me when you are ready to depart."  He turned and left the room.

Megatron watched with disdain as two older-model repair drones rolled into the room, chirping in computer code and brandishing rusted cutting instruments and flickering laser scalpels that occasionally spat tiny electrical sparks.

"I refuse to submit to the machinations of these malfunctioning mechanoids!" Megatron said.

"Ooh, points for alliteration," Anthrax said with a wry smile.  "Not too sensible, though.  If you don't want those machines near your circuitry, though, I guess I'll have to do it."

"Never!" Megatron spat.

"Take a look around you, Megatron," Anthrax whispered.  "You're rapidly running out of alternative surgeons.  If I don't repair you, then you won't get repaired.  You don't really want to make a formal appearance looking like fodder for the recycling units, do you?"

"You are not to be trusted," Megatron said with narrow optics.

"You've got some serious personal issues, don't you?" Anthrax said.  "Look... I promise you that no harm will come to you.  You have my word as a Decepticon.  Besides, I need you alive and well to fulfil your end of our bargain, remember?"

"Very well, Anthrax... but when I awaken, if I find so much as a single microchip out of place..."

"You can take me to court for malpractice," Anthrax promised.

***

Chapter 29: Resilient Silence

Hubcap skidded through the barren corridors in his Earthly vehicle mode, slowing down only long enough to check his current position against the map his internal navigator had hastily composed on the way in.  Smokescreen had made his choice, it seemed, and with no continued reason for Hubcap's presence in the Decepticon base, he was resigned to removing himself from it as quickly as possible.  If he managed to manipulate the other Autobots into getting to the hull breach at roughly the same time he did, he might even take them back with him.

"Bumblebee, come in," he said, transmitting on a wide bandwidth and using his internal equipment to boost the signal to maximum strength, ensuring that it would carry throughout the entire Decepticon base.  "The Deceptic'ns are onto us," he continued, adding a touch of terror to his voice for good measure.  "I was about t'leave through the docking tower, but one of them spotted me and warned the bridge we were coming.  Now, th' only way out is the way we came in, through the loading bay in the aft section.  Meet me there, lad!"

With any luck, the Decepticon guards Hubcap had previously sent scurrying up to the bridge were even now making their way back down to the loading area.  It would be interesting to see whether Bumblebee and the other Autobots actually had the brains to see through Hubcap's admittedly simple misdirection.

The lack of response on Bumblebee's end indicated any of several possibilities.  The most likely of these was that he had been destroyed.  That would be a shame.  Another possibility was that Bumblebee had understood the message and was playing along, opting to maintain radio silence so as not to make it too obvious that Hubcap's message was meant just as much for their benefit.  No, Hubcap realized.  Bumblebee wasn't nearly that clever.

Hubcap drove up to the hull breach in the floor and transformed.  With any luck, most of the active Decepticons were all the way on the other end of the ship, looking for phantom Autobots in the loading bay.  There was still no sign of the others, though.

Bumblebee finally responded a moment later, apparently mocking Hubcap's accent in a moment of cuteness.  His signal sounded half-scrambled; all Hubcap could make out was something about the Decepticons and the docking tower and... wait a minute.  That wasn't Bumblebee; the transmission was in Hubcap's own voice.  Why was Bumblebee transmitting Hubcap's original message back to him?  He couldn't have been, though.  Bumblebee didn't have the capability to transmit such a powerful signal under his own power.  The only Autobot with the equipment for that was... well, was Hubcap.

The refractory metal!  Hubcap clutched his forehead in dismay.  Swerve's blasted refractory armor absorbed Decepticon scanner signals quite nicely, but the plating underneath it was bouncing Hubcap's own transmissions back to him!  The others hadn't even heard his message; the only reason it had gotten back to Hubcap at all was because he'd cranked up the signal strength so bloody high.

They weren't worth going back for, Hubcap decided.  After all, he still carried potentially valuable information about Smokescreen's defection from the Autobots, which would surely be worth something to Optimus Prime, and a potential stepping stone to Hubcap's career.  He would make it a point to be appropriately remorseful over the loss of the other Autobots, of course.  Perhaps Decepticon sentries had caught Hubcap's team unawares, and he had been the only one to escape with his life.  Perhaps Bumblebee had ordered Hubcap to flee while he and the others stayed behind?  A noble sacrifice, to be sure.  Optimus Prime would be deeply moved by such a show of heroism, and Hubcap would manage to look good by association.

Unless, of course, if by some miracle one of the others managed to escape the base as well, and survived long enough to tell a different story.  If Hubcap left now, the only way to do so securely would be to make sure that the others never--

"Hubcap!" three voices shouted in unison.

Hubcap practically had to peel himself off the ceiling.  Not bad, he mused, for an Autobot who can't fly.

"Thirty... thousand... astro-seconds," Bumblebee panted.  "Just like we planned.  You're right on time!"

Hubcap shook his head as he forced himself to shift gears.  "Aye, laddie," he lied, "I never miss an appointment!"

"No go on the Smokescreen situation either, hmm?" Beachcomber asked.

"I'll... tell ye about it later," Hubcap said somberly.

"Carly's been hurt," Bumblebee said, cradling her limp form in his arms.  "The Decepticons shot her.  We gotta get her topside!"

"Wait a minute, lad," Hubcap said.  "She was spotted by the Connies?  How did ye get her away from them?"

Bumblebee obviously had his mind on other matters, but he managed a crooked, almost embarrassed smile.  "I sorta, well, beat them.  Heck, there were only two of 'em."

Seaspray jumped down through the hole in the ship and transformed to his hovercraft mode, floating on the water's surface.  A hatch opened in the top of his vehicle form.  "Load her inside, Bumblebee.  My cabin is air pressurized."

"Will do," Bumblebee said, gingerly placing Carly inside.  "Just take it easy, okay?"

"Lead the way, Seaspray!" Beachcomber called, diving in after him.

For some reason, Hubcap was having a tough time getting the words from his brain to his mouth.  "Ye actually... defeated... a pair of Decepticons?"

"Come on, Hubcap!" Bumblebee said, jumping through the hole.

"Aye," Hubcap said between gritted teeth, leaping feet first back into the salty waters.  How in the bloody blue blazes had Bumblebee managed to become the hero, here?  That little yellow runt had somehow managed to get the whole team out alive, including the human, meaning that Bumblebee would be the one showered with accolades, now.  It took a moment for Hubcap to realize that the reason he had started to trail behind the others was because he'd been trying to swim with tightly-clenched fists.  He couldn't remember the last time he'd managed to botch an operation this badly.  What an idiot!  An unauthorized excursion into dangerous waters, and all he had to show for his efforts was a pitiful little intelligence report, which would mean nothing to Optimus Prime compared to the safe return of all his little robots.  

At this point, all Hubcap could do was pray that Prime had already left for Cybertron.  Though he realized it was futile, part of him wished Prime would never return.

***

Chapter 30: Sucker Punch

"If you wish to challenge me for Decepticon supremacy, Soundwave, then so be it," Windrazor said.  "One-on-one combat.  The winner will be granted authority over all Decepticons on Earth.  As for the loser... well," he said, extending his free palm in a matter-of-fact gesture, "I'll decide what to do with you later."

Soundwave didn't know who this Windrazor was, or where he'd gotten the foolish notion that he had any acting power over the Decepticons.  He was clearly and openly defiant to the will of Megatron, though, and this made him a traitor to the cause.  Under any other circumstances, Soundwave would have been only too happy to allow Megatron to deal with this treasonous claim on his throne, but with Megatron absent and Starscream having gone missing, the task of upholding the honor and integrity of the Decepticons fell to Soundwave.

"I cannot assist you," Shockwave said to Soundwave, neither glad nor apologetic.

"You just stay in that holding pattern for a while longer, Shockwave," Windrazor said in a mocking tone.  "You will serve me soon enough.  We begin now, Soundwave.  Prepare yourself!"

Soundwave made as if to adjust the settings on his concussion cannon, when Windrazor unexpectedly jumped forward, kicking Soundwave in the control panel and sending him reeling backwards a few steps.  Windrazor was barely larger than an Insecticon, but he was clearly powerful.  It also appeared that he planned on fighting dirty; Soundwave was only too happy to oblige.

Windrazor transformed to his Cybertronic jet form, darting up into the sky like a rocket.  Soundwave lost visual track of him after a moment, but he could still hear Windrazor tearing through the atmosphere and was able to track his trajectory that way.  Windrazor swung up and around, apparently hoping to catch Soundwave unawares from behind.  Was this Decepticon really that fundamentally deficient in basic warfare strategy?

Soundwave turned to face Windrazor as he became visible once more, but instead of the expected maneuver, he simply launched himself back into the clouds.  He was taunting Soundwave, hoping Soundwave would follow him into the skies where he would have the clear aerial advantage.  

"Why has Megatron departed for Cybertron?" Shockwave demanded, apparently quite firmly stuck on the previous conversation.

"Explanations will commence following outcome of battle," Soundwave said tersely.  Refusing to be baited by Windrazor's tactics, Soundwave settled for taking potshots at the sky with his concussion cannon.  Not surprisingly, Windrazor evaded them, but Soundwave had also managed to get the foreign Decepticon's attention.

Windrazor didn't fly like any other Decepticon that Soundwave had ever seen.  His flight path was graceless and jerky, cutting into air currents rather than taking advantage of them; it was amazing that he even managed to remain aloft.  It was generally assumed that there hadn't been too many technological advancements on Cybertron in the past four million years; when Megatron's crew had left, there had barely been enough energy on the planet to stay alive, let alone work on technological endeavours.  Now, Soundwave was beginning to wonder if that were true.

Suddenly, Windrazor bolted straight toward the Earth, apparently headed directly for Soundwave.  This unsophisticated strategy left Soundwave completely unfazed; it was obviously meant to look like a suicide run, but Soundwave stood his ground, knowing full well that it would never come to pass.  He aimed his cannon directly upwards and locked onto his target--

He instinctively made a mighty leap, colliding with the ground just as the ground exploded behind him.  Windrazor had detached an undercarriage bomb during his descent and had flown parallel to it, then swooped away at the last possible second as the bomb continued along the same trajectory.  If Soundwave had fired on his target, he would have detonated the bomb and destroyed himself.  The only thing that had prevented him from doing so was the fact that he realized he had been hearing not one object falling toward him, but two.

Apparently out of tricks, Windrazor caressed the ground before transforming back to robot mode and winding up in a mid-air, battle-ready stance.  He produced his weapon and fired, not at Soundwave but at the ground around him.  Soundwave had to side-step to avoid being shot in the foot a couple of times, but Windrazor's intent was clearly not to attack him, but to tear up the terrain.  After only a moment, Windrazor had made the immediate battleground almost impossible to navigate on foot.  He was clearly intent on fighting in the air.

Soundwave stood his ground and let loose with a series of sonic pulses; Windrazor was enveloped by them, but seemed completely unaffected.  Windrazor couldn't possibly have scanned Soundwave's weapons systems to anticipate such an attack; Soundwave would have known if he'd done so.  He obviously hadn't seen that coming, then, and yet he'd shrugged it off like so much radio static.  This was an unsettling prospect.  That had been one of Soundwave's most effective attacks.

Windrazor himself had remained eerily quiet; the silence was broken only by the cries of "get 'im, boss!" and "blast him into oblivion!" coming from his two troops.  The Constructicons were apparently too enthralled to do the same.

Soundwave wasn't at full power, meaning that while he was in no immediate danger of running out of energy, fighting Windrazor with too many more energon-consumptive attacks would run the risk of leaving him defenseless.  Most of his emergency reserves had been rerouted to his cassette drives in order to keep Buzzsaw alive, who still lay dormant but remained safely protected inside Soundwave's chest compartment.  There was also the fact that Soundwave disliked having to combat a fellow Decepticon to begin with.  What would Megatron do in this situation?

Megatron, Soundwave realized, would set aside his personal concerns and fight with every ounce of strength he possessed until he won.

He charged the smaller Decepticon, nearly stumbling on the uneven landscape, swinging at him awkwardly.  He managed to connect with Windrazor's shoulder, knocking him out of the air and into the dirt.  Windrazor quickly launched himself back into the sky and transformed until he was well out of visual range.  This was, Soundwave decided, getting quite tiresome.

Soundwave had plenty of aerial combat skill; Windrazor couldn't possibly be much more adept than he was, even in the skies.  He gave chase and quickly located his quarry based solely on the noise he made as he sliced through the atmosphere.  He fired a few shots in Windrazor's general direction, just to make sure he knew Soundwave was following him.  Now, it was Soundwave's turn to get tricky.

As expected, Windrazor swung around in that same haphazard manner as before and pointed himself at Soundwave, who responded by transforming to his cassette player mode.  Without a good-sized target to lock on, Windrazor predictably flew right past him.  Soundwave returned to his full-sized robot form and reignited his rockets, firing on Windrazor from behind.  This time, he had no intention of missing.

Windrazor cut his engines altogether and must have applied some kind of retro-thrusters; it was almost as if he'd hit the brakes in mid-air.  How was that possible?  With no way to immediately halt himself, Soundwave found himself practically on top of him.  Windrazor returned to robot mode, grabbed onto Soundwave, and began pummeling the larger robot even as the two fell.  It took only seconds before they hit the planet.

Soundwave bounced once and somersaulted twice before coming to rest, only to find that Windrazor had managed to hold on the entire time, and immediately renewed his assault.  Soundwave tried to pry Windrazor loose, noticing that one of his opponent's former wing tips now came to broken, jagged point.  It took a special kind of madness to deliberately inflict that level of bodily harm on one's self in the course of defeating an enemy, and Soundwave had absolutely no intention of returning the favor.

Soundwave used his arms to block his left side from further punishment; Windrazor took advantage of the opening Soundwave had provided and began punching Soundwave in the right shoulder.  His blows were stronger than Soundwave had anticipated; he could feel his armor warping slightly with each punch.  Soundwave had never seen such a small Decepticon pack such a wallop; he was easily on par with Soundwave's own physical strength.

At precisely the same instant that Windrazor suddenly stopped, perhaps realizing he was dangerously close to Soundwave's shoulder-mounted cannon, Soundwave shot him with it, knocking him back onto the ground.  Hoping Windrazor would not realize how much of his energy reserves had dwindled, Soundwave stood up and readied his concussion cannon.  Windrazor would certainly yield, unless he wanted another taste of--

Suddenly, Windrazor grasped the barrel of Soundwave's gun with both hands.  Instinctively, Soundwave pulled the trigger, scoring a direct hit on Windrazor's armor and leaving a searing hole in his chest.  This in itself did not serve as a deterrent; Windrazor yanked the cannon out of Soundwave's grip and tossed it aside.  Soundwave drew his fist back and took another swing, but Windrazor matched the attack with a punch of equal force, his own fist colliding into Soundwave's with a heavy metallic thunk.

Using his other fist, Windrazor's next punch hit Soundwave squarely, shattering his chest window into dozens of airborne fragments.

Soundwave let out a tormented, synthesized cry and dropped to his knees, his hands clutching uselessly at what remained of his cassette door.  Parts of Buzzsaw were spilling out of him.

"Come, now," Windrazor said, speaking for the first time since the battle began.  "Surely you're not ready to throw in the towline already... not when we've only just begun."  He offered his hand.  "Prove to me that you're a worthy opponent, and I promise you I won't destroy you after I defeat you."

Soundwave had not been badly damaged on a physical level, but he found himself momentarily paralyzed.  His logic processors were on the verge of overloading as they shouted at him in a never-ending cycle.  To admit defeat now would be to admit that he had failed Megatron, humiliated the Decepticon army, and quite possibly threaten his own existence as well.  To do anything else would be to condemn Buzzsaw to certain death.  As Windrazor's troopers looked on in giddy anticipation, the Constructicons stood watching anxiously, and Shockwave's single optic sensor shone a bright yellow as he awaited the outcome of this confrontation, Soundwave made his decision.

"Defeat accepted," Soundwave said, quietly.

***

Chapter 31: Absence of Presence

It was never easy to relate to Omega Supreme on a personal level.  For starters, he was the largest Autobot known to exist; most Autobots rarely ever caught a glimpse of his face, let alone being afforded the chance to converse with him eye-to-eye.  There was also the fact that the guy simply didn't seem predisposed to friendly conversation.  It could have been either a particular fluke in his personality or a programming trait in common with all Guardian Robots, but since Omega Supreme was possibly the only one left in existence, it was pretty much a moot point.

The best way to get his attention, Sideswipe rationalized, would be to jump up onto Omega's tank tracks.  For a moment he didn't think the roving battle tank had even noticed him, but as it came to within a mechano-meter or two, the rumbling juggernaut finally ground to a halt before him.  The tank module appeared to survey the obstacle in front of it with its turret before finally resigning itself to the fact that it wasn't going anywhere any time soon.  The tank's motor rumbled and settled, leaving only the sound of the rocket base tower computers making some final pre-flight astro-navigational calculations.

"Progress: impeded," grumbled a deep voice, emanating not from the tank module at all, as Sideswipe had expected, but from the space rocket resting in the center of the oval-shaped track.  Sideswipe spun around and stared into the sky, shielding his optic sensors from the daylight reflecting off the surface of the towering rocket, dwarfed only by the volcano itself.

"Explain interruption," Omega Supreme demanded.

Feeling not just a little bit foolish, Sideswipe leapt off the track and addressed the rocket module.  "Uh, look... I need to get to Cybertron.  Any chance I could hitch a ride?"

"Your attendance: not on mission itinerary," Omega Supreme explained.

"Yeah, I know that," Sideswipe said.  "I just... I just need a favor, okay?  I already talked to Ironhide, and he won't listen to reason.  Just let me aboard and pretend I'm not there.  It wouldn't make any difference to you whether I was there or not."

"Passengers: affect fuel consumption," Omega pointed out.

"Fine, then I'll knock over a refueling station on the way back," Sideswipe said.  He'd been trying to keep his voice even, but the words came out as a growl.  "Like I'm really asking you to go out of your way.  I mean, you're already going to Cybertron.  It's not like I'm asking to get to the glitchin' Nebulon system."

"Trip to Cybertron: priority mission," Omega Supreme noted.  "Additional passengers: unwelcome."

"Unwelcome?" Sideswipe laughed.  "Tactful.  Yeah, real tactful.  Anything else you'd like to add?  Have I got gunk in my wheel wells again?  Bug on my windshield, perhaps?  Go on, I can take it."

"Hostility: unwarranted," Omega Supreme replied.

"Oh, you haven't even seen hostile," Sideswipe said.  "When I get my hands on the ones who..."  He trailed off, not caring to pursue that avenue of thought just yet.  There would be plenty of time for that later.

Ironhide emerged from the Autobot base in van mode.  "Let's move, Omega Supreme.  Time's a-wastin'!"  The rocket's docking ramp descended and Ironhide drove inside.  The shuttle hatch closed back up before Sideswipe even had time to consider sneaking aboard.

"Systems check: completed.  Departure for Cybertron: commencing.  Continued presence near launch pad: hazardous.  Personnel evacuation: recommended."

"Yeah, thanks a heap," Sideswipe said, delivering a good, swift kick to the rocket's landing pod before storming off in the other direction.  "You know, the next time you lose the most important thing in your whole glitchin' universe, the one thing that keeps you going when nothing else matters, the only reason you have to even keep on living... well, I'll try really hard to care."

"Launch sequence: initiated," Omega Supreme said, probably more for his passenger's benefit than anything else.  "Countdown: beginning.  10... 9... 8..."

"Wait," Omega Supreme's tank module said, even as the rocket module continued its countdown.

Sideswipe stopped.

***

Chapter 32: A Decepticon Traitor in Cybertron Court

In an all-but-forgotten era, the Cybertron Council had been charged with the primary function of keeping the peace, to prevent civil disputes between Autobots and Decepticons from escalating into anything more significant than an unpleasant disagreement.  Needless to say, their inability to settle the fundamental differences between the two robotic breeds had rendered them largely useless in the wake of the Third Cybertron War.  The laws that both forces had helped to create remained in place, but the dwindling numbers in the Council represented no practical way of enforcing them.  Furthermore, with many of the laws written in a deliberately vague sense in an attempt to appease both parties, the question of what precisely constituted a legal violation was eternally up for debate.

The only thing that prevented the Transformers from abandoning this system entirely was the deep-rooted, collective knowledge that it was still far better than the system that had been in place before it.

Like much of Cybertron, the Council Chambers were old and mysterious, their creators long forgotten and their original purpose never fully realized by the Transformers who used them.  The large, domed building was patched together in places where the earliest Cybertron war had apparently taken its toll.  The main chambers sported gigantic double doors directly opposite from the Council seats, and a ceiling high enough to accommodate a dozen Guardian Robots comfortably.  Perhaps the most striking feature, though, was the large, circular floor panel that dominated the room.  The panel had presumably been designed to open, but the mechanisms that governed its operation had long since failed.  Sensor analysis revealed that a large pit had been constructed, descending some three or four levels into the planet, but a metallurgic scan demonstrated that it was completely empty aside from a few scraps of corroding metal.  Given that unsealing the panel would require tearing up the chambers and rendering them unusable, it was decided to simply leave it be, remaining one of Cybertron's many ancient secrets.

Clearly, the news that Megatron was to be put on trial had remained a secret to practically no one.  In the days that followed the official announcement of the court date, not only had numerous Autobot and Decepticon spectators gathered at the promise of seeing Megatron either incarcerated or exonorated (their specific preferences depending, naturally, on the respective allegiances of said spectators) but visitors from neighboring planets had also arrived.  Most of them were mechanical life forms, and many of them came from planets which had on some level been affected by Megatron's campaigns.  Eventually, the courtroom had gotten so crowded that bailiffs had to begin turning newcomers away.

***

Megatron had once sworn that he would never set foot within the Council Chambers.

The laws of Cybertron, he'd realized a very long time ago, were bound within their own tendrils.  They were weeds that had sprouted overnight, whose roots had tangled together to the point where they interfered with one another, preventing any further growth, neither thriving nor dying; and yet uprooting a single one was impossible without extricating them all.  Megatron would have been utterly delighted to do just that, were it not for the continued existence of the Council.

The laws they had written to govern Cybertron were based not on Autobot or Decepticon ideals, but a sad compromise of both--mutually agreed upon by both sides but not significantly beneficial to either.  It was the only way any kind of legal system could be set in place at all without significantly favoring one side or the other.  While the Decepticons had demanded the rights to settle their differences in combat, the Autobots had insisted on clear-cut regulations to govern these disputes which practically rendered the act itself meaningless.  When the Decepticons had refused to back down on their policy of expanding their domain to other worlds, the Autobots had agreed on the sole condition that they would abide by the laws and customs of those worlds, which effectively neutered the expansion campaign.

Historically, the Council had demonstrated a tendency to favor the dominant power operating on Cybertron at any given time, carefully finding ways to interpret the laws already on record to the benefit of that dominant force.  Some believed they were attempting to serve the best interests of the majority in order to be in that power's good favor, while others suspected the Council simply had no ideals of their own, whimsically siding with whichever group was winning the war, regardless of its allegiance.  This behavior, the tendency of this so-called politically unaligned group to side with Autobot or Decepticon depending on what color flag was flying in the capital city, had earned the group a nickname: the Color Changers.

Unfortunately, the balance of power on Cybertron could shift far too dramatically in far too short a time to accurately gauge the Council's responses.  So, Megatron had largely played by their rules.  He'd managed remarkably well, all things considered to get as far as he had.  Until now.

With Anthrax on one side and Deluge on the other, Megatron entered the chamber with a grim determination, paying no mind to the multitude of spectators, many of which shook their fists and cast obscenities at him, until the Council finally called for silence.  At least, Megatron mused, he hadn't been forced to endure the additional humiliation of making his appearance in the hideous Earth configuration given to him by that hateful Autobot computer, in what could only have been one of Teletraan's more ironic moments.  Now, however, Megatron was once again in a form native to his homeland, one which would once more command admiration and respect.

The refit which Anthrax had engineered was a fairly good likeness of Megatron's original Cybertronic form, or at least the vehicle mode was.  He had been displeased at first to discover upon awakening that she'd made some cosmetic changes to his robot mode, explaining apologetically that her work had been limited by the materials Deluge had supplied her with and her own admittedly spotty knowledge of what she'd referred to as the "woefully ancient technology" that had been used to create Megatron to begin with.  Despite the thinly-veiled insult, however, Anthrax had very clearly been proud of her work.

In truth, some of the changes were definite improvements.  His once-unweildly, arm-mounted fusion cannon now rested comfortably on his right shoulder, and was fully integrated into his design.  Anthrax had boosted his physical strength and increased the maximum range of his robot-mode flight systems. She'd dramatically improved his fuel-efficiency, which she promised would be even more effective once the synergon had been manufactured.  Also, Megatron stood several heads taller now, creating an even more commanding presence than ever before.  Furthermore, she'd made good on her promise and had fully repaired not only the damages he'd incurred during his scrape with the Dinobots, but many other old injuries that Megatron's technicians hadn't quite been able to fully correct; it was as if he were in a brand-new body.  It was almost enough to forgive the choice of metals Anthrax had used for the procedure, which were a rather unattractive shade of green.

Deluge nodded slowly at Megatron.  "I must join the others on the Council now," he said, and without further pleasantries he made his way to the front of the room where the other three awaited.

Anthrax was toggling between murmuring to herself excitedly as she studied a data pad and babbling at Megatron directly.

"Your legal system as it's been laid out for me makes absolutely no sense," she said, tapping buttons on the pad as she scrolled through the information on its display screen.  "I understand the letter of the law, but there are loopholes all over the place and established precedents that directly contradict one another--and those are just the few remaining records that haven't been destroyed in your wars.  Why haven't your archivists developed a better record-keeping system?"

"I no longer require your presence, Anthrax," Megatron said.  "I shall be speaking on my own behalf."

"Megatron," she said, "I've been studying your laws for the past three days, and I think I can safely say at this point that I know more about your legal system than you do.  Besides, if you're being put on trial for your crimes against the populace, your behavior here will have a direct affect on the outcome of these proceedings... and to be quite blunt, I have my doubts about your ability to maintain your composure in the face of your prosecutor."

She pointed to Starscream, who--with the Combaticons in tow--had entered the chambers wearing a set of oversized ceremonial shoulder armor and an absurdly smug grin.

***

"This court is now in session," Jetstorm began.  He was seated in one of four throne-like seats that overlooked the room with two other Council members on either side of him.  Deluge was kneeling on the floor in the center of the room, making some final adjustments to a piece of equipment mounted atop the chair in which Starscream sat.  Megatron recognized the component as a memory monitor device, and was seated in a chair equipped with one of his own.  Anthrax stood at his side, her arms crossed.

The seating arrangements were uncomfortable; Deluge had explained that they had been designed for standard-sized Transformers, and that Megatron's new form was just slightly too large for it.  Megatron found himself longing for the comfortable weight of his old fusion cannon; even disarmed, its presence served to comfort him.  He did manage, however, to derive some small degree of vindication after Starscream had difficulties of his own, due to the wings mounted on his back.

"Bailiffs--seal the doors, block all transmissions, and activate the weapons suppression field," Jetstorm ordered.  The twin red robots with cassette drives in their chests who were flanking the main doors proceeded to salute and press a sequence of buttons on their control panels.

"Wait a minute!" Anthrax said.  "Why are you blocking transmissions?  You can't!"

"To ensure the accuracy of the memory monitor isn't affected by outside signals," Jetstorm explained.

"But... but I need to maintain a constant link with my ship at all times," Anthrax stammered.

One of the bailiffs consulted a readout in his forearm.  "I am, indeed, reading a continuous signal," he confirmed.

"Very well, we will allow transmissions to remain open," Jetstorm said.  "However, our own scanners will be monitoring ingoing and outgoing signals at all times."

"I understand," Anthrax said.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" Starscream yelled.  "I demand that justice be served now!"

"An optic for an optic!" chimed in Brawl, from the courtroom audience.

"Yeah!  Key him up and throw away the lock!" added Vortex.

"Looks like Starscream's brought his own cheering section," Anthrax noted.

"The equipment is ready," Deluge announced.

"Ahem," Jetstorm said, resetting his vocalizer.  "Megatron, military commander of the Decepticon Battle Fleet, you are hereby charged with two violations of Cybertron code of combat regulations, the reckless endangerment of Cybertronians under your command, general failure to adhere to the regulations for extraplanetary activities as outlined in the Visitations Charter, and four specific violations of said charter.  Before we proceed, do you wish to make a statement?"

"Most exalted one," Megatron replied graciously, "these charges are a complete and utter fabrication... a traitorous attempt from within my own ranks to usurp my power.  I humbly request that the allegations be dropped so that I might return to Earth and continue my mission."

The orange and blue robot seated on the council leaned forward and peered at Megatron.  "Looks to me like one of the reasons we're here is to figure out just what your mission actually is.  Just be patient and all will be dealt with in due time."

"Starscream, the floor is yours," Jetstorm said.

"Yes, most honored one," Starscream replied eagerly, gesturing in a most exaggerated manner, probably to make up for the fact that he wasn't physically able to dominate the room.  One good thing about being hooked up to the memory monitor, Megatron realized, was that it prevented Starscream from parading flamboyantly about the courtroom.  "Before you is the Decepticon known as Megatron, the one who has led the Decepticons into a downward spiral of desolation and despair!  He has no regard for the laws of our society or any other, freely dismissing them in pursuit of his own twisted desires!  His continued freedom is an insult to the existence of civilized Cybertronians everywhere!"

"You preposterous piece of flotsam!" Megatron exploded.

Anthrax sidestepped Megatron so quickly that it barely registered on his peripheral sensors.  Despite the fact that she still wasn't tall enough to address Megatron eye-to-eye, her gaze was one of such intensity that he couldn't help but feel as though he were being looked down upon.  "This is what I was talking about!" she hissed quietly.  "You keep that up, and the Council will have you rusting in a cell before you know it.  For your sake and mine, Megatron, try to exercise at least some modicum of self-control!"

"The first charge is the violation of Cybertron's battle code," Jetstorm said.

"Ah, yes.  One of Megatron's more truly deplorable, despicable moments, indeed.  And, may I just say that I am personally disgusted with our dear Megatron's complete and utter lack of--"

"Enough pontificating, Starscream," said a wide-eyed, green robot, the last of the four seated on the Council.  "Let's cut to the chase!"

"As you wish," Starscream relented.  Megatron knew Starscream's reluctance was an act; if anything, Starscream was more eager than anyone else in the courtroom to jump to the heart of the matter.  It was only due to his incessant need for dramatics that he hadn't done so already.

The memory monitor display kicked in and the wall facing the Council became a viewscreen, displaying events directly from Starscream's cerebral circuitry, ten times larger than life.  "After Optimus Prime was badly wounded defending a human munitions factory, Megatron led an attack on the remaining Autobot troops.  At the end of the battle, he questioned if there was anyone in the universe left to defeat him, and in so doing, invoked the Cybertron battle code.  When Optimus Prime appeared and answered his challenge, he willfully broke regulations by requesting reinforcements!"

It actually took Megatron a moment to remember the events Starscream was referring to, a process which manifested itself as static on the viewscreen until Megatron summoned the specific battle from memory.  Instantly, scenes from this encounter with Optimus Prime appeared on the screen, having been converted into visual form directly from Megatron's consciousness.  Megatron was quite familiar with the procedure, but he was nevertheless quite bothered that information taken directly from his own mind were being displayed for the room's entire audience.  The accuracy of the memory monitor could not be denied; Megatron's recollection of the scene was shown to be markedly similar to Starscream's own, the main difference being that the same events were being shown from two different pairs of optic sensors.  After a moment, the devices attached to Starscream and Megatron's minds found a common vantage point and began a synchronous telling of events.

So, this was Starscream's game, was it?  Megatron knew full well that it was impossible to deceive the Council about events as they transpired, not when they could quite clearly witness these events, second-hand, for themselves.  Starscream was apparently trying to do the next best thing, and put an entirely different spin on these selfsame events, essentially inventing a brand-new interpretation of reality.

Megatron could play that game, too.

"You misunderstand, Starscream," Megatron said.  "My words were purely rhetorical.  Optimus Prime chose to interpret them as a challenge, taking advantage of my weakened state.  Were I truly the dishonorable monster you believe me to be, I would have backed down and refused to accept Optimus Prime's response to my challenge.  Instead, I was honor bound to accept his challenge, despite my weakened state."

"But you demanded reinforcements!" Starscream pressed on.

"Careless words spoken in haste," Anthrax interjected.  "As you can plainly see, no reinforcements came to Megatron's aid.  Look... right there.  He left the battlefield of his own volition, and Optimus Prime remained the rightful victor of that encounter.  No battle code violation ever took place."

"That is not for you to decide!" Starscream shouted.

"Calm yourself," Jetstorm said.  "I am in agreement with the defense.  Megatron's actions demonstrate that he did abide by battle code regulations."  He waited a moment for a possible disagreement from the other Council members, and when he heard none, he announced:  "Proceed to the next charge."

"Megatron may have escaped justice once, but there can be no disputing the next violation," Starscream said after a frustrated intake of breath.  "You, Megatron, removed the power chip rectifier circuits from your troops and implanted them within your own body.  You then challenged Optimus Prime to a duel, and in doing so violated code of combat regulations!"

"I would ask the Council to please read for us this specific part of the code of combat regulations," Anthrax said.

"Section 98, Subsection 16 of the Code for Combat Regulations," recited Deluge, "states, and I quote:  'The participation of any additional warriors or reinforcements in favor of a combatant following the initiation of the contest will result in immediate forfeit in favor of the opposing combatant.'  Reference point: HMW-DFG."

"Ah, but that regulation forbids combatants from accepting the assistance of additional warriors," Anthrax countered, placing special emphasis on the last word.  "It says nothing about making improvements to one's own physical form.  After all, preventing warriors from making any improvements to themselves after the challenge is accepted would also make it a violation to, say, recharge their energizers.  Did Optimus Prime recharge himself before he engaged Megatron in battle?  Did his medics and mechanics bring him up to peak operating condition before the duel began?  If so, he is no less guilty than Megatron."

"Optimus Prime is not on trial!" Starscream insisted.

"But the point stands," Anthrax said.

"I find myself in agreement," Jetstorm said, nodding.

"Now, just hold on for a moment.  Let's examine this further," the orange-and-blue robot said, placing an elbow on the arm rest of his chair and leaning forward studiously.  

"As you wish," Jetstorm said.  "Proceed, Gobots."

"Did Megatron remove the entire power converter assembly from each of his troops, or only the power circuit that governed their operation?"  Gobots asked.  "In other words, were his troops still functional afterwards?"

Megatron was temporarily distracted by the Council robot's unusual name, which suggested heritage from a planet other than Cybertron.  He found himself wondering how a robot from another planet had ever attained a position of such high rank within Cybertron's legal system, but quickly turned his thoughts back to the matter at hand.  "My warriors willingly donated their power chips to me," he affirmed, "but it was I who provided the energy that enabled their use.  Every single Decepticon remained fully functional after the power transfusion was complete."

"Except for the use of our special powers!" Starscream interjected.

"It never seemed to affect your ability to prattle endlessly," Megatron remarked dryly.

"Megatron, this is a formal warning," Jetstorm said.  "How you address Decepticons under your command is your business, but here in this courtroom, Starscream will be addressed with the same respect afforded to the rest of the Council."

"As you wish," Megatron said.

"Starscream, what exactly is your special power?" Deluge asked.

"I have been blessed with numerous powers to aid in the Decepticon cause, most exalted one," Starscream explained, "but the ones of which the other Decepticons are the most envious are my null rays, my cluster bombs, my aerial precision and speed, my handsome--"

"Okay, we get the point," interjected the green Council member.  "You're all that and a bag of computer chips."

"Without these rays and bombs," Deluge asked, "would you consider yourself... inadequate?"

"Of course not!" Starscream scoffed.

"If the other Decepticons were not adversely affected by the transfusion process in such a way that would have prevented their ability to theoretically sustain themselves in battle," Jetstorm said, "then we must conclude that the addition of these powers to Megatron's arsenal cannot be considered 'additional warriors or reinforcements' under the combat law.  Proceed with the next charge."

"But that's not what I--" Starscream began.

"We're waiting, most noble representative for the prosecution," Megatron said with forced emphasis and a sincere grin.

"Fine, let's talk about the Decepticons who were destroyed when our space cruiser crashed into the ocean!" Starscream barked, and the images on the monitor screen were dramatically replaced with a scene on the bridge of the flaming, burning wreck of the Decepticons' ill-fated space cruiser.  Starscream obviously had a clear memory of the events leading up to the crash, and they hadn't been pretty.  The ship's impact with the surface of the water had sent several crew members tumbling back into the flaming remains of the navigation controls and were instantly enveloped; its collision with the ocean floor itself had killed four more when sections of the outer hull had pierced the forward section of the ship, along with their bodies.  Several more went unaccounted for and were eventually presumed lost in the aftermath.  When all was said and done, of the original crew complement of 23, only 11 had survived.

"You sacrificed over half your forces for a single load of energon which we never even got a chance to use!" Starscream said.  "Harbinger, Herald, Twilight, Tussle... they were all destroyed, and their fluids are on your hands!"

"You seem to be conveniently failing to remember the reason our space cruiser crashed," Megatron snarled.  "Do you recall the Autobot who snuck on board and sabotaged the ship?  Do you also recall that the reason he was successful is because I was busy dealing with an assassination attempt from within my own ranks?  No?  Perhaps, then, you have also forgotten that I made every attempt to save the ship and its crew from crashing?  That I refused to abandon the ship, despite the imminent danger to my continued existence, prepared to share the fate of all Decepticons under my command?"  Megatron's words were punctuated with images from his memory of these events.  Then, when Starscream's monitor went completely blank, Megatron continued:  "You will no doubt also need a reminder that immediately after the crash, it was I who searched for energy and supplies to revitalize every surviving Decepticon on board.

"You were among the warriors who were knocked unconscious in the crash, Starscream," Megatron added after a contemplative pause.  "Perhaps I would have been better off leaving you to rust at the bottom of the sea."

"Megatron, how do you account for this Autobot boarding your ship in the first place?" Gobots asked.  "Who was he?"

"It was an Autobot called Mirage," Megatron said.

"You'll have to be a little more specific than that," Gobots replied.

"He generates some form of light-bending field around his body, which renders him completely invisible," Megatron continued.  "The miserable wretch probably slipped right past me as I was ensuring that all my Decepticons boarded safely.  My only crime, most exalted Council members, was attempting to return home with the energy that Cybertron so desperately needed, and still needs to this day... an attempt that was thwarted by that Autobot!"

"The Autobots are not on trial here!" Starscream reminded him.

"We are well aware of that, Starscream," Jetstorm said.  "That said, I see no evidence that Megatron was directly responsible for the loss of life on board his ship.  Are there any objections?  I see that there are none.  Proceed with the next charge."

It was at this point that Megatron took notice of two things: the fact that Jetstorm seemed to be speaking for the group at large, and the fact that he was reaching his decisions extraordinarily quickly.  Typically, the Council was known to deliberate on even the most infinitesimally insignificant points before reaching a verdict.  Had the political structure and personal motives of the individual Council members really changed so drastically since Megatron had left Cybertron, or was there another reason for the unpleasantly expedient pace of this trial?

"As if his careless regard for his troops weren't enough," Starscream continued, completely unabated, "Megatron willfully sends his own troops to certain doom!  Consider the experimental space bridge technology--completely untested and extremely dangerous, and yet soldiers under Megatron's own command were forced to pilot the space bridge vehicles on several occasions, at great risk to their own lives."

"I don't seem to recall issuing that order," Megatron said as the image of one of Reflector's modules being sealed inside the vehicle appeared on the viewscreen.  "I believe you were the one who made the decision to risk his life, Starscream, not me.  Furthermore, you may recall that I had already crossed the space bridge once without the vehicle, thus proving it was perfectly safe."

"But that isn't what--" Starscream began again.

"Consider yourself lucky that you have not been brought up on charges yourself, Starscream," Jetstorm said.  "Take note that you are losing your credibility in this courtroom.  Have you a single charge to bring against Megatron that was in fact a criminal act?"

Flashes of inspiration were not uncommon to Megatron's mind, but the chance to act on them immediately was a rare opportunity.  It was all too often that the Autobots put a stop to his plans, sometimes before they even realized his true motives, but not this time--not when Optimus Prime's forces weren't even on the same planet.  

Now, however, Megatron realized that this was his chance to turn the tables on Starscream--to not only emerge victorious from these ridiculous legal proceedings but rid himself of his treacherous second-in-command at the same time--and he would use Starscream's own charges against Megatron to do it.

Reflecting on the irony of the moment, Megatron allowed himself a sinister smile.

***

Chapter 33: Temporal Interlude

It had long been known that, just as sound traveled in waves, and light existed as both a particle and a wave, the flow of time could be measured simultaneously as particles, waves, and rings.

The passage of time could be tracked in much the same way that one could follow the individual ripples created when thousands of raindrops fell into the water--very poorly, in other words.  In a controlled environment, a single raindrop would theoretically create ripples in the surface of the water carrying all the way to the edges of the pond and back again.  Of course, raindrops very rarely travel alone, and such is the way of temporal existence.  Tracking down individual chronometric disturbances would be like trying to find specific drops of rain that have already kissed the water and become forever lost within its depths, and the surface of this hypothetical lake is infinitesimal compared to the infinite reaches of the space-time continuum.  

Also, just as the ripples in a pond will travel both away from the origin point and then toward it again, so too does chronal energy journey in two directions.  A single distortion in space-time can extend indefinitely, not only forwards in time but also back through history, altering events that took place before the distortion was ever created.  Suffice to say, it is for this reason that tampering with time travel has more far-reaching effects that any mortal being can imagine; each ripple in the continuum can potentially affect every event in the known universe.

***

"What, precisely, is going to happen?" asked the Quintesson commander.

The scientist who had been left in charge of the historical restructurization project simply shook his head.  His commanding officer simply didn't have the cranial capacity to fully comprehend the ramifications of recent events--the time window was a fragile, unique, and ancient piece of technology, and its name belied the complexity of its inner workings.  However, he recognized that the commander would eventually need to provide some substantial answers when his commander demanded a report, so he did his best to summarize and condense the sum total of his knowledge regarding chronometric physics.

"Everything," he said, sounding far more frantic than he'd intended.  "Some events will repeat in an endless loop; other phenomena may reverse their natural order.  Past and present will collide; ultimately--as every natural law breaks down--the universe will cease to exist!"

The commander seemed to be taking things remarkably well, considering reality itself was about to become Sharkticon chow.  The possibility existed that he was putting forth a facade of calmness in the face of extreme circumstances, as any good leader might do.  It was far more likely, however, that his esteemed commander simply wasn't hovering on all five energy beams.

"Well," he said in a decidedly casual manner, applying a fresh secretion to his tentacles, "is there anything we can do?"

"Yes!" the scientist exclaimed.  How did the commander's brain manage to avoid imploding under the weight of its own density?  The scientist's next words were simple, to the point, and as abundantly clear as he was capable of speaking.  "Destroy the time window before it destroys us all!"

A spark of recognition, at last.  The situation had finally begun to run parallel with the commander's military training, and he happened to be very good at destroying things.  He sent a note to the other warships and initiated an assault on the entire asteroid staging ground (he was never one who did things by halves).  The attack eventually failed, but it later proved fairly easy to manipulate Autobot leader Rodimus Prime into doing the job for them.  With the time window destroyed, most of the nearby distortions created by its prolonged activation were excised.  Its loss represented a crippling blow to Quintesson science, but better that than the alternative.  There would be other plans, other schemes to retake Cybertron, but there was only one plane of existence on which to do this.  It just wouldn't do to destroy it.

And yet, the Quintesson scientist knew that the damage to the continuum could never be fully undone, that traces of multiple time periods intermingling still remained, that it was beyond the power of any living or technological race to mend the tears in the fabric of space and time.  The Junkions, whose television reception would be permanently affected following the incident, would later refer to it as the "Big Fuck-Up of 2006."

The Quintesson scientist thought it best to omit that piece of information from his report.

***

Earth date 2010 marked a banner year for the Autobots, heralding in two monumental historic events: the discovery of Nucleon, and the beginning of the end of their race.

The Decepticon Action Masters had begun a systematic sweep of the galaxy, using Scorponok as their mobile assault base, and it had only taken them two years to exterminate the Autobot presence on nearly every world they had touched.  The fact that they had to wipe out every trace of life on those planets was of little consequence to them.

"We head for the mountains," Scattershot said, climbing out of the wreckage of Fortress Maximus and nursing a wounded shoulder that inhibited his transformation functions.  Grimly, he led the Technobots into the dark, barren wilderness of a planet whose name he didn't even know.

"No way, I don't wanna hide!" Afterburner said, cocking back his sonic blaster.  "I'd rather fight 'em than let 'em pick us off!"

"Yeah," chimed in Strafe, "we've got no shortage of ammo, so why not just take our chances blasting them to pieces?"

"You should consider," admonished Nosecone, "the superior firepower we would be potentially dealing with.  Scorponok alone possesses the equivalent weapons strength and combat presence of fifteen standard Decepticon troops--"

"To say nothing of the ten fully-armed Decepticon Action Masters, multiplied by a factor of six to account for the Nucleon in their systems," Lightspeed quickly added.

"We're not going there to hide," Scattershot said.  "We're going there to make our last stand."


Life was pretty damn good sometimes, Axer decided.  Originally, he had only enlisted with the Decepticons as a one-time gig, ages ago, lured by the promise of more energon than he'd collected for his last three bounties combined.  He cared nothing for the Decepticon cause, and as soon as he got paid he would be on his way Alaxaoo to see about capturing the creature who was reportedly going around eating all the plantobots.

Quite by accident, however, he'd developed something of a kinship with them.  Sure, he was wearing their badge on his shoulder, but he knew it ran deeper than that.  The Decepticons provided him with energy, and occasional maintenance when necessary.  They supplied him with weapons and, after he'd ingested the Nucleon and lost the ability to transform, had given him an appropriate set of wheels to replace his lost vehicle form.  They weren't doing this because they wanted something in return; they did it for Axer without question, simply because he was part of the team.  Axer had never been afforded this kind of treatment before.  At first, it had confused him.  He resisted it; after all, loyalty is a foreign concept to a bounty hunter.  Eventually, however, he came to expect it.  In fact, he'd grown to depend on it.  And, surprisingly, he found that he was quite willing to do the same for other Decepticon troops for the exact same reasons.  Axer, then, had come to be a Decepticon, not by technological heritage or by simple association, but in the truest sense.  He had come to wear the badge proudly.

"Banzai-Tron does so hope," said Banzai-Tron, riding in the sidecar of Axer's turbo cycle, "that this last batch of Autobots accrues slightly more on the secondary market than those ridiculous Throttlebots did.  The scrap metal did not even pay for the fuel Banzai-Tron used to make the shuttle run back home."

Banzai-Tron was a newer recruit and, Axer had realized some time ago, was still more concerned with immediate personal gain than any long-term or far-reaching goals. It was unlikely he'd ever log enough combat time to change his program, either.  The Decepticons owned Cybertron and more neighboring planets than Axer could tally up in his mind, had enough energon and Nucleon stored to sustain every Decepticon alive for twenty million years, and as far as anyone knew, their only remaining opposition was the group of war-torn Technobots busy heading for the hills.  

Axer had generally assumed that his role in the war wouldn't end until the day he was destroyed.  It was a natural expectation for pretty much any Cybertronian, really.  It was quite clear that the Decepticon way of life was gradually winding down, that the all-consuming purpose for which Axer had steadily worked for a sizeable chunk of his professional career would no longer be a necessity at all.  Soon enough, the troops would go their separate ways, to pursue their own dreams.  In effect, the Decepticons were going out of business.  It was a strange and unsettling prospect.

Under any other circumstances, Axer would have simply moved on to the next bounty--but this was different, somehow.  He was witnessing the true end of an era, for both the Autobots and the Decepticons.

"My bike can't handle this kind of terrain," Axer said after being jostled several times and slowing down considerably.  "Maybe we'd better just turn around and let Gutcruncher handle this."

"Banzai-Tron is not in the mood to give up a quarry simply because of a few rocks," Banzai-Tron said.  "The Autobots will tire long before your tires give out."


It was an unsatisfyingly short hunt.  The Technobots had scrambled up into the mountain range, but they were moving slowly due to injuries and depleted energon reserves.  Despite being among the few remaining Transformers still running on an inferior energy source, one of them was apparently still able to transform into aerial mode and flew deeper into the mountains; another had turned into a motorcycle and had somehow managed to drive straight up the rock face.  Axer, meanwhile, hadn't even found it necessary to activate his coolant reserves.  Most Decepticons would be thrilled to be tracking down the last survivors of the Autobot race, he mused, but Axer had grown weary of the game.  It was difficult to muster up any motivation as he caught and tore the head off the largest of the group, not when he knew that there was no chance left for battlefield promotions or a raise in pay.  He was going through the motions out of habit, and he found the prospect depressing.  Axer found himself wishing more and more that he were in another time and place, during the heyday of the Decepticon empire, when he still felt as though he had a useful purpose to carry out.

Banzai-Tron, on the other hand, was anything but disinterested, having gotten into a brief argument with his Action Master partner, Razor-Sharp, over which of them would get to hack the predominantly red robot into pieces.  After a larger Autobot with treads on his arms sprang out of hiding in an attempt to defend him, Banzai-Tron and his crustaceanoid partner split the difference, literally, by chopping each of them in half at the waist and trading parts.  Banzai-Tron seemed particularly gleeful when he realized that his half was comprised in part of a durabyllium alloy drill that would net him a fortune on the secondary market.

"How many more were there, again?" Axer found himself asking.  "Two or three?"

"Only two," Banzai-Tron said, "and Banzai-Tron saw them climb to the summit."


"I'm... I'm too low on power," Strafe said, panting.  "Can't fly."  He stood unsteadily on the highest peak of the purple mountain range, affording a generous view of the planetary surface.  In the distance, Scorponok had apparently landed and, after changing to its gigantic mechanical arachnid mode, had made its way towards the wreckage of Fortress Maximus and had begun systematically tearing the lifeless Autobot fortress apart.

"They're not looking for more survivors, are they?" Strafe asked.

"Well... we were, anyway," Axer said, vaulting over a protruding edge of the precipice and landing gracefully in front of the battered Autobots.  "But we've found them, now."

Strafe found himself overcome by a veil of dejection, and knew instinctively that Afterburner felt as he did.  The Decepticons had tracked them and caught up to them in half the time it had taken them to get this far, and now there was little left to do but accept their fate.  He felt as if the universe itself had him in its clutches; even the rings around the nearby planets themselves appeared to have taken an aggressive stance, and were even now moving to strike--

Wait.  None of the planets in this system had rings circling them.  Strafe wasn't just imagining things; whatever it was that he was seeing was moving towards them!

"Hey, what are those rings?" Strafe said.

"I don't hear anything," Afterburner said, cocking his head to one side and shrugging.

"No, the other kind of ring!  Up there!" Strafe said insistently, pointing.  "Circular rings, in space!"  It was nighttime on that particular side of the planet, so the distant stars were clearly visible, along with a series of glowing energy rings that seemed to be passing toward the planet with considerable speed.

"Concentricity of electricity," Banzai-Tron said out loud.

"Some kind of Autobot trick?" Axer added.

"A Decepticon weapon?" Afterburner guessed, hesitantly.

"Decepticons don't have weapons like that," Strafe said.

The energy rings drew closer, and it became evident that anything that was so readily visible from such an astronomical distance must be incredibly large indeed, and they had what could only be described as an intense presence.  Just as powerfully bright lights leave a lasting impression on the eyes, and tremendously loud sounds have a physical presence that can be felt by the observer, so too did this unnatural force of time and space have a temporal echo that gave the observer a feeling of backwards déja vu: the sensation that events had already occurred, and yet the observer could not readily recollect them because they hadn't actually happened yet.

"Shoot it!" was Strafe's response, accompanied by an appropriately matching action.  His heat-ray gun was set on a wide dispersal setting, and appeared to pass harmlessly through the center of the closest ring.  However, Strafe was a firm believer in being thorough, and proceeded to shoot the energy rings again.  And again.  And again.  The scorching heat from Strafe's weapon seemed to draw the energy rings toward him, and as he fired once more for good measure, he was engulfed by them.

All of this took place near-instantaneously, and it was only after the fifth shot was fired that Afterburner managed to react, grabbing Strafe's weapon arm in an attempt to knock his aim off course, knowing full well that any verbal attempts to dissuade him would be utterly useless.


Banzai-Tron made a move to attack them, but Axer blocked him with an outstretched arm.  Somehow, he knew exactly what was about to happen, as though some kind of pre-echo had been imprinted in his mind.

Now in direct contact with the rings of chronal energy, the two Autobots were momentarily frozen in time, physically manifested for just an instant within the center of each of the infinite-numbered glowing rings before being launched backwards through them and disappearing from view.  The effect left the impression that the Technobots themselves had created the rings, spreading outward like ripples in space as they broke the surface of space-time only to disappear within the depths of existence.

The Autobots were gone.

"Why did you interrupt Banzai-Tron from interrupting their currents?  We had a job to do!"

"Our job is done," Axer said.  "Our work is over, finished."

The Action Masters had killed the Transformers.

***

Chapter 34: Trial of Errors

"There's still a lot more work ahead of us," Anthrax said, pacing frantically outside the Council Chambers.  "We've still got to convince the Council members that you're acting in Cybertron's best interests--and to be entirely blunt, Megatron, I don't think we've swayed their opinion of you in the least."

"You have nothing to fear, my dear Anthrax," Megatron said.  "Neither Starscream nor the Council represents a threat to the ultimate destiny of the Decepticons."

"I hope you realize what's at stake here," Anthrax said, taking on a new tone to her voice.  "The crimes you're being charged with are serious.  It's not as though they'll let you throw some energon at them, perform some community service, and let you be merrily on your way.  If we lose, you're looking at being imprisoned for a very long time.  That leaves not only your campaign in dire jeopardy, but mine as well.  Remember, you promised to help me conquer my Cybertron when this is all over, but I can't do that without you!"

"This recess is over," Megatron said.  "Let us return to the Council Chambers and defeat these baseless accusations once and for all."

"You really do talk like that all the time, don't you?" Anthrax said.

***

"We will resume with the charge of reckless endangerment against Cybertronians under your charge," said Jetstorm.  "You have the floor, Starscream."

Starscream appeared to have put the court recess to good use, since he looked to be as refreshed and energetic as ever, even while restrained within the memory monitor device.  "We all know of Megatron's reputation for leaving his troops behind--abandoning them to their fate either because he's gotten what he wanted, or just to save his own hide--"

Megatron leaned forward in preparation for a good shouting fit, but stopped himself.

"--but I will demonstrate his guilt beyond the shadow of a doubt!"  Starscream made a show of resetting his vocalizer in preparation for his next legal strike.  "Many of you in these hallowed chambers may recall the fateful day when Megatron moved Cybertron into orbit around the planet Earth..."

"Yeah, how could we forget?" shouted an enraged Vortex.

"Shaddup, stupid!  We weren't even awake for that," Swindle said.

"...bringing Cybertron into close enough proximity to threaten both planets.  As if that weren't bad enough, while the other Decepticon troops were fighting for their lives against the Autobots, Megatron slipped away in his starship, leaving every one of us behind!"

"Didn't it ever occur to you that I wasn't about to make the same mistake twice?" Megatron said pointedly.  "Only a fool would have announced to the world that the ship was about to launch.  Besides, the starship was designed only to carry the energon cubes.  The other Decepticons were quite capable of flying to Cybertron on their own.  You, meanwhile, were too busy attempting to sabotage the operation to be worrying about such matters.  I believe you were the one who caused the delay that gave the Autobots time to arrive and ultimately destroy my craft, which carried enough energy to revitalize the entire planet!  Surely that is a crime against Cybertron, is it not?"

"And your pattern of stranding your troops continued, shortly after the discovery of Dinobot Island," Starscream continued.

"Not to mention stranding us for over four million years!" Vortex shouted from the audience.  "We're sentenced for a few hundred thousand years, and the next thing we know, we wake up and half our lives are wasted!  Howsabout that, eh?"

"That will be quite enough," Deluge said.  "Any further outbursts and you will be removed from the Council Chambers."

"Where is the crime?"  Anthrax demanded.  "The only 'evidence' that appears to have come to light is that Starscream's fragile ego has been bruised.  Please, show me the law being broken here, because quite frankly I don't see one."

"I suggest you review the Visitations Charter," Jetstorm said dryly.

"Well, uh..." Anthrax said, hastily flipping through sections on her data pad.  "Oh."  She studied the passage more thoroughly.  "Uh-oh," she said.

"What?" Megatron demanded.

"Uh, nothing," Anthrax said.

"What?" Megatron said again.

"It's just that the charter states that activities on other planets," Anthrax said in a small voice, "must conform to the laws in effect on those worlds."

"Phah," Megatron spat.  "I have operated on each planet in accordance with the laws written for those planets.  I have done nothing wrong."

"Nothing wrong, eh?" Starscream smirked, obviously sensing a challenge.  "What about enslaving humans?  You did it after Cybertron's orbit was changed, and again after the Autobots were exiled from Earth!"

"I believe the good Dr. Archeville was the slave master during the orbit redirection, Starscream," Megatron said.  "It was his invention that made slaves of the humans, so perhaps you would care to find him and put him on trial instead?  As for the period of Autobot exile, I would hardly call that slavery.  I simply placed the population under martial law, a human custom that is completely legal."

"But you have also destroyed human property!" Starscream said.

"So have the Autobots," Megatron countered.  "I remember a time when the Autobots blasted apart an entire city to get rid of a few Insecticons.  Why, Optimus Prime threw an oil tanker at me once!  I am hardly the only one responsible for the destruction of Earth property."

"And you endanger human lives!" Starscream declared.

"Only humans who have attacked us or allied themselves with the Autobots," Megatron said.  "Any humans fighting for their cause are honorary Autobots, and should be treated as such.  I cannot help that they have endangered themselves by involving themselves in a war that is not their affair.  Besides, the humans destroy each other in their wars against one another, so any aggression against them is well within their own customs."

"And you steal the humans' energy!" Starscream said, exasperated.

"Preposterous," Megatron said.  "Humans have no laws governing the movement of the Moon or the tides!  They have no jurisdiction over the Sun!  They have no edicts regarding the position of the Earth with respect to other orbital bodies!"

"Exactly," Anthrax said, a hand on one hip.  "Show me the Earth laws they've written about robots from other planets!  I defy you to show me!"

"However," said Gobots, "there are laws on record about stealing energy from other planets.  It doesn't matter if Earth doesn't have any specific legal restrictions about gigantic alien robots in their books, you see.  Cybertron does.  As long as you remain a citizen of Cybertron, you are bound by our laws no matter which planet you happen to be standing on.  And our laws are very clear about the harvesting of energy from unauthorized sources.  Every war in the history of Cybertron has been about control over resources, so you can imagine how seriously we take this sort of offense."

"But Megatron hasn't stolen energy," Anthrax said.  "He harvests from natural resources, of which the Earth has in abundance.  You heard him--solar power, tidal waves..."

"Power stations, oil fields, hydroelectric plants," Starscream added.  "All controlled and operated by humans."

"Energy which the humans willingly give to the Autobots, but not to us!" Megatron exploded.  "Where are the millions of astro-liters of energy the Autobots have gleefully siphoned from their precious planet Earth?  What's that, you say?  Not a single drop of energy has ever made it back to this dried-up husk of a planet we call home?  What, then, has all that valuable energy been used for, you may ask?  Why, those noble, heroic Autobots have devoted every micro-spark of their resources to destroying their enemies, the evil Decepticons!  And to think that our malevolent purpose--which has been denied us for over 15 years on that wretched little planet--is none other than to collect enough energy to restore Cybertron to its former glory, to make it a planet that can once again sustain us all, to undo the damage done by the Autobots, who have all but sucked Cybertron dry in their undying quest to destroy every last Decepticon alive!"

"Your pathetic sympathy ploy won't work here, Megatron!  I've seen the crimes you committed!  They're all right up here!" Starscream said, milking the last few words for dramatic effect and pointing to the side of his helmet.

"Yes, of course they are," Megatron smiled graciously.  "I'm sure you've fully recovered from the incident in which you were reprogrammed by that Insecticon cerebro-shell, haven't you?  Oh, perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned that.  I would hate to cast any doubts about your reliability as a witness.  You did tell the court about this, didn't you?"

From all indications, Starscream was speechless.  For once.

"I believe... we'll need some time to deliberate on this," said Jetstorm.

***

The adjunct to the Council Chambers was a small, unassuming room that had clearly been added as an afterthought, almost as if it had never occurred to the designers that judicial meetings would ever need to be conducted in secrecy.  The room was dominated by a plaque on the wall sporting a handful of lifelike robotic masks, each wearing a different expression, bearing an inscription at the bottom in ancient Cybertronian that read, "JUSTICE IS SERVED."

"We must reach a consensus," Jetstorm said, standing before the pentagonal table in the center of the room.

"Megatron's in clear violation of the Visitations Charter.  He's guilty, hands down," said Drench, placing his own green-armored hands squarely on the edge of the table for emphasis.

"It occurs to me," said Deluge, "that if we convict Megatron of crimes against Earth, we will effectively be dooming Cybertron.  After all, the fact remains that Megatron is the only one who has made any efforts to revitalize our world."

"That is completely irrelevant," Jetstorm said.  "Our purpose is to address the legal charges, not decide the fate of the entire planet."

"Besides, I reckon the Autobots would be sending plenty of energy to Cybertron if they didn't have to use it all against the Decepticons," said Drench.

"I believe your political bias is showing, Drench," said Jetstorm.  "Resource expenditures are not the main issue.  Our primary concern is whether Megatron is guilty of the crimes of which he's been accused."

"Starscream was so busy out there trying to embarrass Megatron on a personal level that he barely scratched the surface of Megatron's criminal record," said Drench.  "C'mon, guys.  Every one of us knows that he's anything but a law-abiding citizen.  There are reports that he's been killing Cybertronians ever since he came online.  We've got him right where we want him, so why not take advantage of that while we have the chance?"

"Are you suggesting that we convict him of crimes he wasn't accused of?" asked Gobots.

"We've already had to coerce him to appear in chambers under threat of force," Deluge said.  "To incarcerate him even after his prosecutor has failed to demonstrate his guilt--"

"Would serve justice despite the fact that Starscream completely bungled the case!" Drench said.

"--would be tantamount to ignoring the laws that we ourselves wrote simply because we find it convenient to do so," Deluge finished.

"The laws cannot be changed," Jetstorm reminded them.  "It was written long ago that any attempts to change the legislation as originally conceived would result in the immediate disbandment of the Cybertron Council."

"Our laws were written to protect Cybertron and its inhabitants, not to allow criminals to roam free by slipping through loopholes," Drench said.

"Your place is not to make accusations, Drench," Jetstorm said.  "Only to deliberate.  Deluge, do you believe Megatron violated Cybertron law?"

Deluge was silent for a moment before replying.  "The issue of Starscream's programming having been tampered with throws everything into question," he said.  "He cannot be considered a reliable witness, particularly considering his clear agenda against Megatron."

Gobots slowly drew some fresh air into his ventilator and expelled it again.  "And yet, Megatron's own memory records corroborate everything that Starscream claimed," he noted.

"To allow him to go free would undermine everything we've worked towards," Drench said.  "Megatron is a dangerous criminal, specific charges or otherwise.  If we let him off on a technicality, we'll never hear the end of it.  He'll go back to plundering Earth with reckless abandon, demonstrating that anyone can freely ignore our legal system as long as they go somewhere else to do it.  Can you imagine the reaction this would get?"

"If Earth ever learned of our failure to protect its resources from theft, they would almost certainly withhold the distribution of any further energy," Gobots said.  "Autobots and Decepticons alike would be cut off, and Cybertron would die."

"And yet," said Deluge, "to willfully crucify Megatron on unsubstantiated charges would mean the end of the Cybertron Council.  We would be destroying a legal system that has been in place for more than ten million years, just to put away a single Decepticon criminal."

"Though it pains me to say it," Jetstorm said, "there can be only one course of action." 

***

"This is ridiculous!" Onslaught grumbled, still seated in the courtroom.  "We didn't even get a formal trial before we were imprisoned!"

"You may want to keep your voice down, Onslaught," Blast Off said in his usual aristocratic tone, gesturing to some smaller robots seated nearby who had taken inordinate interest in Onslaught's outburst.  "Surely you realize that we were never officially pardoned, don't you?"

"Bah," Onslaught replied.  "Our sentence should have ended three-point-nine million years ago.  The only reason we were never released was because the one who had locked us away was busy taking a nap!"

"They're getting restless," Anthrax noted, standing on a metal stool and removing the last of the memory monitor cables from Megatron's head.  "And I can't say I blame them."

"This will all be over soon enough," Megatron said, but he instantly regretted the foreboding undercurrent behind his words.

As if on cue, the doors to the chamber slid open and the four Council members marched out and resumed their places at the front of the chamber.  Calling for order was wholly unnecessary; as one, the audience murmurs evaporated into ear-shattering silence.

"Megatron, military commander of the Decepticon Battle Fleet, it is the decision of this court that on the charges of violating Cybertron code of combat regulations and the reckless endangerment of Decepticons under your command, you are hereby declared not guilty."

"What?!" Starscream shrieked.

"Excellent," Anthrax said.  "Your faith in the system worked, Megatron.  I am most impressed."

Megatron allowed himself a smile.

"However," Jetstorm continued, "on the charge of violating extraplanetary regulations as defined by the Visitations Charter, this court finds you guilty as charged.  You are hereby sentenced to non-corporeal imprisonment for one hundred thousand planetary revolutions in the Cybertron detention center.  Bailiffs, please take the defendant into custody."

Without a word, the two red robots posted at either end of the room walked towards Megatron and Anthrax.

"Please stand aside," one of them said, casually knocking Anthrax to the floor.

"You pathetic--unnghaaahh!" Megatron began, just as the bailiffs simultaneously zapped him with their submission guns--the only weapons capable of functioning with the suppression field in place around the entire structure.  They were obviously accustomed to dealing with much smaller robots than Megatron.  The blast points left by their weapons had stung, leaving discolored blotches upon Megatron's green-armored body, but had left Megatron's motor controls unaffected.  He took a mighty swing that sent one of the bailiffs soaring into the wall head-first.  Clearly, the Council Chambers were constructed from a far more durable alloy than the bailiff's head, which had collapsed on impact.

The courtroom had erupted into a frenzy of activity, with robots from all over the galaxy having uniformly decided they had no intention of playing a part in this madness and were heading for the main doors.  Two of the largest attendees had managed to break them down, and the group began spilling out of the chambers in a panic.

"No, wait!" Starscream was shrieking, having been caught up in the stampede of robotic bodies.  "Stop, you fools!  I'm a legal representative of--aaaighhh!"  He was promptly trampled.

Megatron had just gotten the second bailiff in his clutches, refusing to let his lack of functioning weaponry stop him from turning a handful of this robot's internal components inside-out, when he was blasted with enough force to blow the smaller robot out of his hands and knock Megatron to the ground.  He thought for a moment that his vital components had been compromised and that he was leaking internal fluids, until he realized that his entire body was dripping wet.  He'd merely been shot with water.

Jetstorm was now standing in the center of the room and aiming an arm-mounted blaster at Megatron.  "My weapon has ten separate settings.  At its highest setting, it can erode even the strongest of metals into powder in a matter of astro-seconds."  He demonstrated by blasting the floor in front of Megatron, cutting into the floor paneling with the precision of a laser beam.  After making three of these cuts, the panel crumbled and fell into the boundless depths below.  "That was setting number two," Jetstorm said.

Megatron looked around for Anthrax, but she was gone.

The other three Council members had surrounded Megatron, all with weapons trained on Megatron.

"Surrender or be destroyed," Jetstorm ordered.

Megatron surrendered.

END OF BOOK FOUR

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