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Children of Cybertron

Book Five

Last time:  Following Megatron's incarceration by the Cybertron Council, Windrazor, the leader of the Decepticon Alliance on Cybertron, arrives on Earth and seizes command of the remaining Decepticons.  Elsewhere, in the wake of Optimus Prime's apparent destruction, Ironhide and Jazz journey to Cybertron to deliver the news to Elita One, unaware that Sideswipe has stowed away in an attempt to discover the true fate of his beloved Disco.  Meanwhile, two of the Technobots have been plucked from the year 2012 by a temporal distortion and are brought to the present day, but they are only afforded a moment to ponder this development before the Decepticons attack!

Chapter 35: Displaced

"Outta the way, humans," the frantic Autobot cried, "or I'm gonna run you right over!"

Strafe and Afterburner sped furiously along the stretches of the humid shoreline, sodium chloride invading their olfactory senses, the sounds of their engines barely audible as hundreds of people scrambled chaotically in every direction to clear a path for them.  Afterburner was still shouting at the humans, threatening irreparable bodily harm to them if they didn't remove themselves from his immediate path.  Afterburner's motorcycle mode was smaller and faster than Strafe's bulky jet configuration, making him far more adept at driving on the loose, dry sand.  As the humans obediently fled, they left in their wake a multi-colored spectacle, a veritable jackpot of giant umbrellas, drink coolers, towels, and soda cans that practically covered the terrain, forcing Afterburner to slalom through the obstacle course of abandoned artifacts.

Strafe could have sworn he was on the Planet of Junk.

The larger of the two, Strafe was lagging farther and farther behind.  His attempts to fly met with negligible results, as he was still low on power to propel himself into the air for more than an instant before his engines gasped and sputtered.  He was forced to gracelessly plow through the terrain, kicking up a tremendous amount of sand and causing it to rain upon the crowd of dispersing, terrified humans.  It was the abundance of the panicking populace that had tipped off Strafe to his true planetary location, but his initial confusion seemed understandable.

"Don't wait up for me!" Strafe cried out.  "Just drive!  Drive as fast as you can, and don't look back--unnhhh!"  He swerved out of control momentarily as his blunted, titanium wing tip tore through the legs of a lifeguard's chair, toppling the entire structure into a pile of half-painted lumber.  Where Afterburner was managing to maneuver around most of the obstacles with comparative ease, Strafe was left with little choice than to drive straight through them.  Truth be told, the only reason he wasn't blasting his way through every living and unliving object in his path was because he simply didn't have the energon reserves to spare.

Unfortunately, Strafe and Afterburner were faced with far more immediate problems than poor driving conditions.  Facing with none of the challenges their ground-based prey had to deal with, Terradive and Eagle Eye continued their pursuit from the air, approaching at a frightening and threatening rate.

"Go ahead and run, you stupid pieces of Autobot garbage!" Terradive exclaimed.  "You'll never get away, so don't even try!  We'll hunt you down just like the rusted junk you are!"

"Just once, Terradive, I wish you'd shut up," Eagle Eye said.  "That didn't even make sense."

"Bite me, Eagle Eye," was Terradive's reply.

Afterburner faltered slightly as the high tide came rushing in, momentarily overtaking him.  He emerged seconds later, tangles of seaweed clinging to his canopy.  "My rocket packs are empty," he called to Strafe.  "I'm all outta oomph!"

"Just stick with me," Strafe said.  "We can still outrun 'em!"  How had these Decepticons managed to instantly transport him to Earth?  For what purpose?  Strafe had no idea.  All he knew is that these Decepticons were obviously every bit as intent on destroying them as those Action Masters that he and Afterburner had been running from only minutes ago.

"Forget that," Afterburner said.  "You do what you want, but I'm makin' a break for the water!"

"In that case, maybe I can pull enough power from my weapons systems to get airborne again," Strafe said, more to himself now, as he initiated the proper mental commands to shunt all his remaining energy reserves into his flight systems.  He despised the idea of being completely defenseless.  He'd always thought of his jet mode as little more than a delivery system for his weaponry, like the only reason he had wings was to get his guns into the sky.  There was almost no point in being able to fly if he couldn't shoot anything while he was airborne, but he was left with little choice.  They'd kill him if he didn't find a way to escape.

Incredibly, his engines ignited immediately, propelling Strafe into the sky.  With most of his automated flight systems too low on power to operate, he had to focus intently on keeping his wings level.  On some level, it occurred to him that he wasn't being fired on, which struck him as being extraordinarily unusual, but certainly not worth dwelling on.  Perhaps they were toying with him, or maybe they just hadn't noticed yet.  Whatever the Decepticons' ultimate intentions were, Strafe was in absolutely no condition to put up a fight.

Afterburner, meanwhile, had made a sharp left turn directly into the ocean, obviously counting on the Decepticons' reluctance or inability to follow him into its depths.  That proved to be a mistake when the larger of the two Decepticons extended two gleaming black robot arms from the bottom of his fuselage, quickly broke the surface of the water, and emerged only an instant later with Afterburner in his clutches, who was still spinning his wheels frantically in motorcycle mode.

Afterburner transformed and managed to break the Decepticon's grip, leaping back into the ocean.  The Decepticon finished his conversion to robot form and hovered in mid-air, wearing a stupefied expression.  "Aw, blast!  He's all slippery, now.  Maybe 'coz he's wet.  Eagle Eye, c'mere and give me a hand!"

The green Decepticon jet also transformed, flew over to his companion, and delivered a swift punch to his head.  "Idiot!  I'll do it," he said, diving into the water.

By now, Strafe had managed to fly a comparatively safe distance away, having taken refuge beneath a large cement bridge that served as an overpass, leading to the human city in the distance.  He didn't even dare peek around the corner.  He hated the idea of abandoning Afterburner, but with no offensive capabilities of his own, the only act he could initiate at this point would lead to his own capture and destruction.  Hoping dearly that Afterburner would forgive him, and praying that the concrete would serve to block their detection sensors and that his dangerously-low energy levels would preclude a proper signal lock, Strafe was left with no choice but to shut himself down for some much-needed rest and self-repair.  The last thing he saw in the distance before his optic sensors went off-line was the pair of Decepticons hauling Afterburner away into the sky.

***

"Caught one of 'em," Eagle Eye reported to his leader, dropping the muddy-orange Technobot onto the lawn in front of what had once been, up until very recently, a prominent robotics research center.  At the moment, it more closely resembled a demolitions site.

"No idea where the other one went to," he continued.  "Couldn't have gotten far, though."

"One Autobot will do," Windrazor said, gesturing toward the large vessel that had completed its landing in the research center parking lot, having crushed half a dozen lifeless vehicles beneath its massive purple frame.  "Take him to the ship."

"I hate this planet!" Terradive exclaimed, stomping on the ground repeatedly with the apparent intent of hurting it.  "The air moves around too much!  It's impossible to fly!"

"This doesn't make sense," Windrazor said, mostly to himself.  "Why would the Autobots of this planet deploy only two troops against us who were too weak and helpless to put up a resistance?  Even if they were intended as a diversion of some sort, no Autobot commander would willingly allow two of his followers to be captured or destroyed.  We seem to be missing a large piece of the puzzle.  Perhaps this Autobot will be kind enough to provide us with some answers."

"I try to fly left," Terradive continued, "and the wind pushes me to the right!  I try to fly down, and I get pushed back up!  Grr!  Stupid wind!"

"We can adapt our forms to better function on this world later," Windrazor said.  "First, we have business to attend to."

Windrazor turned to Shockwave, who remained at attention along with five of the Constructicons and a small contingent of his sentinel robots.  "What are your commands, Windrazor?" he asked.

"Yes, that's much more like it," Windrazor said with a glint in his optic.  "It's about time you fell into place.  Shockwave, board my ship and await further orders.  May I remind you that Decepticons on Earth are now under my command, and any who defy me will meet a swift and most unpleasant fate."  He turned to Soundwave, who stood unsteadily, with a decidedly forlorn regard for his recently-broken chest window.

"We'll replace it later," Windrazor said in a dismissive tone.  "Board my craft.  I need you to show me where Megatron's base of operations is so we can begin a new campaign.  It is imperative that we act as quickly as possible."

Somehow, Soundwave managed to stagger up the ramp into the ship, still reeling from the aftermath of the confrontation with Windrazor and the knowledge that he may have not only forfeited the life of one of his own cassettes, but the very future of the Decepticon Empire as well.

***

Chapter 36: Extra Life

Omega Supreme touched down in rocket mode in the center of Autobot territory, only a few mega-miles away from Iacon.  The chances of Decepticon activity in this sector were still possible--in fact, judging by the numerous battle scars across the landscape, Ironhide estimated they were more than probable--but this was nevertheless the safest place to land.

"Destination: Cybertron," Omega Supreme announced.

"Any activity outside, Omega?" Ironhide asked, standing by the ramp entrance inside the rocket, taking a moment to inspect his rifle.

"Activity: null," Omega reported.

Without further commentary, the ramp extended from the center of the cylindrical rocket, connecting with the cold, metallic surface of the planet.

"Ahh, there ain't nothin' like home," Jazz said as he surveyed the surrounding area with a frown.  "And this sure ain't nothin' like home."

It was just as well that they'd chosen to land outside Iacon; a huge chunk was missing from the main bridge that led to the city.  Whether the damage had been caused by a single blast or was the product of erosion wasn't immediately clear, but similar-sized holes were littered across the region, like craters in the surface of the steel-grey planet.  There was no direct evidence of combat--none of the characteristic armor bolts or discarded weapon cartridges or bits of scrap metal that were typically found on the battlefield were in evidence.

The strange and disturbing impression Ironhide came away with was that someone had been systematically pounding the planet from the air, not with weapons designed to kill, but with weapons designed to do as much damage as possible to the surface of the planet and its immediate underlying layers.  At a guess, the Decepticons had been trying to find one of the hidden Autobot alcoves, and they wanted to find it bad.  

"Prime was right," Ironhide said.  "The Decepticons aren't messin' around this time.  Are you getting any signals from the city?"

Jazz transformed and pointed his spoiler-mounted receptor dishes in the direction of the great domed compound.  "All I'm gettin' from Iacon is feedback, and I don't mean the helpful, constructive kind."

Ironhide knew that Iacon's usefulness as the Autobots' primary staging base had waned considerably since the launch of the Ark, but there should have still been enough surviving Autobot contingents in the immediate vicinity to at least defend the stronghold.  Something didn't add up here, but Ironhide was at a loss to explain why.  Communication with Cybertron had been spotty in recent years, ever since Alpha Trion had sacrificed himself and the remaining Autobots had turned to Elita One for guidance.  Ironhide found Elita's leadership style to be less than stellar, and one of the military decisions she'd made was to break contact with Earth, deeming it too great a security risk.  The only way to find out what was happening for sure, then, would be to find one of the missing Autobot contingents.  Luckily, if there were any surviving Autobots left on Cybertron at all, Ironhide had a pretty good idea of where he'd find them.

"Wonder if the Decepticons know we're here yet?" Jazz said.

"Omega Supreme, wait here for us," Ironhide said.  "We're gonna get to the bottom of all this."  Omega's roving tank module rumbled to life and began its patrol on the track that encompassed the rocket base.

"Let's get our axles out of here!" Jazz said.  He and Ironhide transformed to vehicle mode and made their way away from the Autobot safe haven into dangerous and uncertain territory.

***

Sideswipe felt quite ill indeed.

For some reason it had never occurred to him before that while Omega Supreme's rocket module traveled at an accelerated rate through normal space, the rest of his body was temporarily shunted into subspace, reappearing in advance on whatever planet the rocket was traveling to.  He'd never actually traveled aboard Omega before, so he really hadn't given it any thought; for all he knew, Omega had a separate body waiting for him on whatever planets he regularly visited.  It wasn't until after Omega had coaxed him into stowing away inside the tank module that Sideswipe had realized what was about to happen, and by then it was too late to protest.

The experience was, he realized, very similar to how he imagined being turned inside-out must feel like.  He knew that some Decepticons supposedly had the ability to actually stuff their entire bodies into subspace, but he couldn't imagine how any sane robot would ever inflict such an experience on himself.  He was having an extraordinary amount of difficulty even forcing himself to stand up, since the only thing he really wanted to do at the moment was disgorge the contents of his energon convertor.

"I think I'm gonna be sick," he said to no one in particular.

"Disembarkation: strongly suggested," Omega Supreme replied.

Opening the hatch in the forward section of the tank module, Sideswipe climbed out, dizzy and disoriented, not realizing the tank was still in motion until after he'd tried to climb out of it.  He stumbled back clumsily, tripping over the tank's turret on the way back and finally landing in a heap next to the oval-shaped track that encircled the rocket base.

Cursing himself, he managed to scramble around with some effort to the side of the roving tank module, planting his palms on it and following it as he peered around it, hoping his embarrassing loss of motor control had gone unnoticed.  Apparently he hadn't been heard, as Ironhide was still headed in the opposite direction at full speed, with Jazz following close behind.

Sideswipe seethed with anger, trying to justify to himself how wrong and unfair it was that Jazz had been allowed to go on this mission, but he knew he wasn't fooling anyone but himself.  The simple fact was that Jazz outranked him, and what's more, he just happened to specialize in precisely this sort of assignment.  The only real advantage Sideswipe had over Jazz was being able to fly, but being equipped with a rocket backpack didn't usually get you hand-picked for vitally important missions.  Sideswipe had been deluding himself, forcing himself to believe that he could one-up Jazz if he managed to make it to Cybertron on his own.  It was only natural that Jazz would have been assigned to accompany Ironhide, but for some reason Sideswipe had never considered the possibility.  Probably, he realized, because he hadn't wanted to.

Well, while Jazz was busy doing things by the book and searching for Autobot hidey-holes, Sideswipe would be the one to find out what had happened to his beloved Disco and why.  He was now convinced that she must have been carrying something of extreme value--either some kind of new invention, or possibly surveillance information--something that the Decepticons had wanted at all costs.  He also knew that Disco had been one of the toughest fighters Sideswipe had ever known, and it was utterly inconceivable that she'd simply been caught off-guard.  She'd gone down fighting.  Clearly, she'd died for a reason, protecting something of the utmost importance.

Sideswipe vowed to find whatever it was.  And that meant hunting down the Decepticons who had killed her.

***

Chapter 37:  Legal Counsel

Anthrax caught up to Deluge on his way out of the Council Chambers, which was now devoid of occupants, save the technicians who were busy reattaching the main doors and grumbling to each other about mob psychology.  She had to sprint to catch up with him, as Deluge was moving with speed and purpose.

"You wouldn't happen to know... where I can go... to get some energon around here, do you?" Anthrax asked breathlessly.

"With Megatron in detention," Deluge said, "I very much doubt there will be any energon on this planet for quite some time."

"Er... yes," Anthrax said.  "Look, I'm sorry about that.  I really am.  I didn't want to see Megatron lose the trial, either.  He's the whole reason that I... well, he's very important to my plans.  Don't worry, though.  I have a contingency plan, but I need to get back to Earth, and I can't do that without Dreadwing."

"Didn't you say something about maintaining a continuous link with him?" Deluge asked.

"Well, yes, of course," Anthrax said.  "A slip of the tongue.  What I meant to say was that I can't do that until I refuel Dreadwing.  I need energon to power his fuel cells."

"I can't help you," Deluge said.

Anthrax darted around in front of Deluge, forcing him to stop.  "You can't help me, or you won't?"

"The end result is the same," Deluge said.  "Now, if you'll excuse me--"

"What are you in such a big hurry for, anyway?  Got another big trial coming up?"

"Actually, no," Deluge said.  "Once Megatron's imprisonment is initiated, the Council will be permanently disbanded."

"It..." Anthrax began.

"But..." she continued.

"You..." she elaborated.

She shook her head violently.  "Why?" she finally managed.  "Is it because of me?"

"Don't flatter yourself," Deluge said with a snort.  "The Council deemed Megatron's imprisonment to be beneficial to the welfare of Cybertron as a whole, and more important than maintaining the integrity of the Council itself."

"But without Megatron to bring back energy to re-energize the planet..." Anthrax began.  She couldn't bring herself to finish.

"Had the decision been mine alone to make, Megatron would not have been incarcerated," Deluge said.

"What will you do now?" Anthrax said.

Deluge stopped and glared at Anthrax.  His expression was of an uncharacteristic intensity that looked out-of-place on the Decepticon's face.  "I have spent nearly my entire existence creating the laws that govern our society," he said.  "I find that I am now left without a purpose to fulfil.  I find that extraordinarily... disquieting."

"I'm on my way back to Earth," Anthrax explained.  "You're more than welcome to accompany me," she added, just as she caught Starscream and his group in her peripheral vision.  "We could use someone with your... uhh, I... hang on," she said, in a desperate need to be in two places at once.  She didn't want to just leave Deluge hanging, the conversation half-finished, particularly since she felt partly responsible for his plight, but circumventing Starscream had to take priority.

"I, uh, really need to speak to him," she finished lamely, and cut into the crowd ahead of her.

***

Starscream was sauntering flamboyantly across Cybertron's landscape, feeling very much like the lead float in his own personal parade.  He'd groused for a short while about the indignity with which he'd been treated during the trial (particularly those last few moments), but the delicious sight of a defeated and disarmed Megatron, hands chained behind his back, being led towards the detention center put everything in a completely different light.  

Starscream had finally done it!  He'd proven once and for all that Megatron was no longer fit to be Decepticon leader, and in front of the entire planet to boot!  The fact that he'd even done it all legally, that Megatron's utter incompetence would be recorded for all time within the central Infocore, was just lubricant on the oil-cake, as far as he was concerned.  The important thing was that he'd shown them all!  He felt like celebrating.  He wanted to go home and decorate the entire base with purple balloons and streamers.  Well, maybe not purple.  He'd always disliked purple.  In any event, Starscream was in control, now.  He'd proven it to everyone, especially--

"Aww, it's not fair!" Brawl shouted at much-higher-than-normal volume, even for him.  "I wanna see Megatron get his head ripped off!  C'mon, you at least owe us that much!"

"My word, Brawl, don't be such a barbarian," Blast Off said.  "Incarcerations haven't been that brutal for millions of years.  I'm sure they simply surgically extract the personality components these days and dispose of the body."

"Nevertheless, I, for one, would quite like to remain behind and witness the procedure first-hand," Onslaught chimed in, his clipped accent at odds with his savage tone.  "Not only would it enable us to verify that the Council is indeed carrying out the sentence, but I would derive a great amount of... personal satisfaction from the experience."

"We have no time for petty vengeance now," Starscream said.  For just a moment, he found himself wondering whose words those were, since they didn't particularly sound like his.  Starscream liked petty vengeance.  He lived for it, truth be told.  What was interesting, though, was that he no longer had to go along with whatever Megatron decided.  Ha!  As if Megatron were in a position to make any decisions now!  

Starscream realized that for perhaps the first time ever, the next course of action was entirely his decision.  He'd been in command plenty of times in the past, of course, but only for the briefest of periods, and always with the ever-present intention of foiling Megatron's plans.  Now, however, there were no plans to foil.  The responsibilities once belonging to Megatron, which Starscream had always done his best to sabotage, now belonged to Starscream himself.

He found, to his surprise, that this made him a little uncomfortable.

"Don't look now," Swindle said, nudging Blast Off with his elbow, "but I think we're being watched."

Vortex spun around for a look in the most obvious way imaginable.  Walking backwards for just a moment, he peered into the distance, using his hand as a visor to block sunlight that wasn't there.  Then he stumbled backwards on a raised metal panel, flipping back and landing on his head, the helicopter blades on his back spinning aimlessly.

"Real subtle," Swindle said, making a vigorous thumbs-up gesture and nodding.  "Could you be any more nosy?"

"I don't have a nose," Vortex said defensively.

Onslaught stopped long enough to help Vortex to his feet.  "What were you looking at?" he asked.

Swindle pointed to a mechanical outcropping that was probably once a communications array.  "Well, you wouldn't know it now, but there was somebody following us.  A little green guy."

"Oooh, little green men!" Vortex said, holding his hands to his head and sticking up his index fingers like antennae.

"No, it was a robot.  I didn't see an insignia on him, though.  But now that I think about it, I think I saw him during the trial.  He was watching us then, too."

"Speaking of the trial," Blast Off said, "isn't that Megatron's attorney?"

Starscream stopped dead in his tracks just as Anthrax appeared in jet mode, transforming and landing uncomfortably close to him.

"Well, if it isn't Megatron's little friend," Starscream said in his most patronizing tone.  "No doubt you've come to grovel for a position in my new and improved Decepticon army.  Perhaps if you get down on your knees and--"

"Don't be absurd," Anthrax said.  "Did you really believe I was so incompetent as to be unable to defeat you in any capacity?  I allowed Megatron to be imprisoned, if only temporarily, because it suited my purpose.  I have a mission to fulfill, and he was in my way."

Starscream laughed heartily.  "Even Megatron's strongest supporters plot his undoing!  How delicious!  I suppose I have you to thank for that service... Anthrax, wasn't it?  Unfortunately, I simply don't have time to express my gratitude properly.  You see, I have a rather pressing date with a small blue-green planet, and Mother Earth does so hate to be kept waiting."  He turned and resumed his course for the launch pad in the distance.

Anthrax pressed on.  "Starscream, you need to understand why I came to Earth in the first place.  The new energon cubes were only the first step of the operation.  Now that we have a container that can hold the synergon, we must harvest the energy needed to create it.  I can't do that without your help."

"I suppose that means you can't do it at all," Starscream said, grinning.  "Megatron may have felt compelled to take you in as his ally, or consort, or whatever his twisted sense of honor demanded at that moment, but I assure you that my interests lay elsewhere.  As long as I am in command--as I expect to be for a very, very long time--the Decepticons will no longer be focusing predominantly on the destruction of the Autobots.  I do not share Megatron's mad obsession with Optimus Prime.  My goals are more simple, much more productive.  Would you care to guess what they are, my dear?"

Anthrax sputtered.  "Getting a more masculine vocalizer?"

Starscream just smiled.  "Blast Off, transform!  We're headed for Earth!"

Anthrax stepped in front of Starscream, making "no, no" gestures with her hands.  "Wait, Starscream.  Just listen to me.  Megatron was a fool to pass up this opportunity.  The energy source I'm offering you would enable you to lay waste to every Autobot you encounter, to conquer your Cybertron, to fulfil whatever dreams you can imagine.  Megatron lacked the vision necessary to recognize this, and it cost him dearly.  You have a chance to claim what he denied, to seize the power that he refused--"

"Megatron already possessed more power than he ever realized," Starscream said.  "He simply had no idea how to use it.  Now that I have taken his place, I possess that power--which means I have no need for you, your partnership, or your empty promises."

Blast Off was now in his much larger space shuttle mode, and the other Combaticons had already begun climbing inside.  Starscream was the last to enter, stepping gracefully into the air lock before turning in mid-stride to face Anthrax again.  "Let me know if you ever need a job," he said, smirking.  "We can always use more troops for gunfodder!"  Starscream cackled hysterically, even long after the air lock was shut and Blast Off was rocketing off into space.

***

Chapter 38:  Prelude to the Hunt

Sideswipe hated operating alone.

That wasn't an entirely true statement, on the surface.  He'd discovered a long time ago that most of the Autobots were content to blindly follow whatever orders Prime had doled out on any given day, and it was a complacency within the ranks that Sideswipe found most disquieting.  It was only natural, then, that he primarily gravitated only towards those Autobots who shared his innate distaste for authority.  Sunstreaker, for example.  In a way, the fact that Sunstreaker also preferred to work alone made them the perfect partners.  The fact that they were brothers, forged from the same fires and constructed by the same maker was, ultimately, serendipity.

Strangely, sadly, this was the first time Sideswipe had been faced with a predicament that Sunstreaker couldn't share with him on any meaningful level.  The handsome yellow machine had looked at Sideswipe with a vacant, almost bored expression as Sideswipe had attempted to quantify precisely how different his life had become, how horribly, impossibly empty he was feeling, and how nothing could possibly ever be the same again.  Sunstreaker had suggested that things weren't nearly as bad as Sideswipe was making them out to be, that he himself had lost Moonshine many ages ago and knew all about the loss of a companion, and had even suggested that he was overreacting, perhaps being melodramatic just for its own sake, or perhaps just looking for sympathy.  Sunstreaker had always had a reputation for being colder than Sideswipe, but Sideswipe had never realized how deeply that difference truly ran.  He and Sunstreaker had fought countless battles together and had lost plenty of mutual friends over the millenia, but for the first time ever, Sunstreaker and Sideswipe simply didn't have a common reference point to work from.  Sunstreaker could never... would never understand.  

There were other reasons why he didn't want Sunstreaker along with him, but that was the big one.

So, before he left, Sideswipe had sabotaged Sunstreaker's recharging unit.  He'd thought about finding a way to set the unit in an endless recharging cycle, but he didn't have the technical knowledge to bypass the recharger's computers, and he didn't have the security clearance to get Teletraan to do it for him.  So, he settled for unplugging the unit in mid-cycle.  Sure, Sunstreaker would eventually wake up after his internal diagnostics figured out that someone had cut the energon feed.  With any luck, Sunstreaker would blame it on Trailbreaker, since it was precisely the same sort of ridiculous prank he was likely to pull.  Even if Sunstreaker figured out who was really responsible, though, by then Sideswipe would be well on his way to Cybertron on board the only Autobot capable of making the trip.

At the time, he'd rationalized the act to himself as a simple precautionary measure, but the more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that he'd overstepped some invisible line this time.  He preferred not to dwell on it, tucking that thought away into some hidden, unseen compartment in his mind, replacing it with something else.  The only solace he found was in the notion that he had more important things to dwell on now.

Unfortunately, despite how vastly Sideswipe preferred to work by himself, he simply wasn't very good at it.  At the moment, his primary objective was to reconstruct the events that had led to Disco's death.  The only things standing in his way were the fact that he possessed no detective skills, that he wasn't equipped with any dedicated scanners or tracking sensors, and that he transformed into a bright red Earth vehicle that was a virtual invitation to be attacked by anyone who wasn't colorblind.  (Sunstreaker's screaming yellow paint job wouldn't have helped matters much, either.  That was one of the other reasons he'd left his brother behind.)  These were insignificant obstacles for an elite hand-picked Autobot unit with a wide variety of collective skills, but Sideswipe, alone, wasn't good for much else besides breaking things with his piledriver arms and the occasional short-range flight.

Hi, I'm Sideswipe.  What's that, you say?  Sure, I can destroy that very small bridge for you!  There you go!  Oh, I'm sorry, you wanted to cross the bridge first?  Well, I reckon I can take you across, but I should warn you that my rockets will cut out after about four seconds!

What possible good could Sideswipe do by himself?  What did he hope to accomplish?  He had no idea how Disco had died or who had done it.  He didn't even know where on Cybertron it had happened.  Elita One knew, obviously, but she and the other female Autobots had reportedly relocated to a new base back in the 1980's, and Sideswipe didn't know where it was.

In a way, the situation was delicious.  No, not because of what had happened, or why he was here now.  It was precisely because he didn't quite know what to do next.  Optimus Prime's methods were all about careful planning, perfect execution.  It was a method that was so ingrained in Sideswipe, he had trouble shaking it off, despite the fact that he hated it.  There were rules that Prime had enforced, in that confident way he had, not really barking orders, but making it very clear that he believed in a certain way of doing things, and that the Autobots under his command were expected to follow along on the same page.  These were the rules that threatened to nearly grind Sideswipe to a halt.  He wanted to carry out his missions, fulfil his purpose, but the elaborate dance he had to do before even taking a single action, which other Autobots seemed to have mastered so well, was a stumbling block that had gotten in his way again and again.

In combat, Sideswipe knew what needed to be done--but wait!  Was this following Autobot protocol?  Should be place "i" before "e"?  Should he show, not tell?  It was the sort of self-censorship that made it impossible for Sideswipe to function.  He didn't care about these rules, not personally, and the only reason he'd followed them was because of Prime, because somewhere deep down, he knew Prime would be watching him, judging him, possibly, and that despite his disdain for the laws of the Autobots, Sideswipe did carry a healthy modicum of respect for the one who enforced them.  With Prime gone, though, everything had changed.

All he could do was find the remains of the old base and hope that there was something... computer files, personal effects, anything... that would provide him with a clue.  Unfortunately, this brought him right back to square one--he simply didn't know how to do this stuff on his own.

It occurred to him, though, that there was one Autobot on Cybertron who might be able to help him.

***

Chapter 39:  Falling Star

It ended up becoming a race.

Blast Off had gotten a considerable head start, forcing Anthrax to take some creative measures in order to get Dreadwing refueled.  She'd allowed Dreadwing to run low on power intentionally, of course, thus ensuring that Megatron would remain on the planet long enough to see the trial through to its completion, but she hadn't counted on Starscream making a play for Decepticon leadership.  In retrospect, such opportunism was inevitable, perhaps, but it clashed rather badly with Anthrax's plan to temporarily assume leadership herself.

Thankfully, Dreadwing had much more sophisticated propulsion systems than Blast Off, so it was a simple matter of siphoning energy from Anthrax's internal reserves to get him spaceborne once again and eventually catch up to the slower craft.  This placed her in a potentially vulnerable position once she returned to Earth, should Starscream opt to force the issue of leadership with a physical confrontation, but Anthrax was reasonably confident she could persuade him with a little psychology.

"Scanners have picked up Starscream's craft," Dreadwing reported in a sullen monotone.

"I see it," Anthrax said, peering through the red-tinged canopy window.  "Move to intercept.  Get ahead of him, but don't overdo it.  We need to go just fast enough to push him beyond his breaking point."

Dreadwing overtook Blast Off just as both ships entered Earth's upper atmosphere.  Sure enough, Starscream must have given the order to pour it on, as Blast Off's velocity suddenly jumped, even as flecks of paint began to tear away from his nose cone under the intense heat of re-entry.  Anthrax pictured Starscream screaming at the top of his ventilators for Blast Off to make it to the planet first, no matter how many pieces they were in when they arrived, and the sheer absurdity of such a notion brought a smile to her face.  Starscream's oneupmanship was so strong, she realized, that he would probably even risk his own life to come out on top.  With Megatron gone, Anthrax also realized that she, herself, was the one Starscream would now compete with for supremacy.  She found herself wondering what Starscream would ever do with himself when there was nobody left for him to compete against.

Blast Off was now literally white-hot, suggesting to Anthrax that he was at least partly comprised of something other than Cybertronian metals.  That in itself was interesting.  Starscream apparently had opted to press on, despite the inadequate heat shielding of his craft and fellow Decepticon warrior, possibly counting on their impending immersion within the cool depths of the ocean to rectify the rapidly-deteriorating external armor plating.  Only a few dark patches of Blast Off's original paint scheme remained, making him look as if someone had applied a hasty and absurdly-colored camouflage scheme to his exterior surface.

Anthrax was half-tempted to tie into Blast Off's navigational controls remotely and arrange for him to plummet into the coast of one of the planet's continental land masses, rather than allowing Starscream and his crew the luxury of a comparatively safe splashdown.  Starscream's antics back on Cybertron had inadvertently provided her with a convenient means by which to dispose of the decidedly uncooperative Megatron, at least temporarily, but had nonetheless cost her precious time which she could not afford to waste.  Unfortunately, the absence of both Megatron and Starscream, coupled with the strange disappearance of Soundwave during the Arctic battle, would probably disrupt the Decepticon power structure so drastically that taking command of them would be completely impossible.  She needed Starscream to provide a stable element.  The fact that he already craved the idea of taking Megatron's place was ideal; the only trick now was to persuade him that proceeding with Anthrax's plans--effectively running counter to Megatron's efforts up to this point--was exactly what he wanted to do.

Blast Off hit the sea with explosive force, displacing enough water to create a gaping wound in the ocean's surface before it all came thrusting upwards again and shooting up into the sky.  The superheated outer shell of the space craft transformed the water with which it came into contact, creating a tremendous burst of steam before the craft plummeted to the ocean depths below.  Dreadwing pierced the thick, white cloud of airborne mist unabated, easily tracking his quarry despite its being completely visually obscured.  Anthrax was unconcerned by this development, though she did entertain the passing thought that unlike her last visit to this world, the inhabitants of this planet would undoubtedly detect her arrival this time.  She'd been so busy thinking about how to deal with Starscream that she'd forgotten to initiate Dreadwing's cloaking device.

Blast Off seemed to be having some difficulty traversing an aquatic environment, though it was unclear whether this was because of the damages he'd incurred during re-entry, or simply due to faulty design.  In any event, Anthrax saw no further reason to pretend that Starscream had any chance of beating her to the Decepticon base.

"Dreadwing," she commanded, "Assume optimum configuration for aquatic... wait, ignore that."  Anthrax discovered that Starscream and the other Combaticons had exited through Blast Off's side hatch.  An interesting strategy, to be sure, but did he really expect that she wouldn't notice his escape attempt?  It was only after Blast Off reverted to his smaller robot form and joined the others that Anthrax realized they were, indeed, planning to force a confrontation.

Starscream hadn't been there when Anthrax had first arrived at the Decepticon base, so he obviously had no clue that Anthrax excelled at underwater warfare.  She wasn't at all interested in fighting him now, despite the fact that she was confident she could best him easily, at least under normal circumstances.  The whole situation was a bit ridiculous, and she felt as if she was about to relive a previous and very recent chapter in her life.  She'd already proven herself to these Decepticons once; it was pointless to go through the entire song and dance once more.  Then again, she mused, what else can you expect from an entire planet's worth of Decepticons devoted exclusively to warfare?

Anthrax pressed the canopy release button and allowed the cabin to flood with water before she raised the canopy completely and emerged into the ice-cold depths.  Dreadwing transformed and split into his larger robot and smaller drone components, handheld weapons at the ready.

Starscream had landed on the ocean floor and was apparently barking orders on some frequency Anthrax wasn't currently equipped to receive.  The Combaticons were transforming to something other than their vehicle modes, some kind of bizarre intermediate forms, at once rounded and blocky, which almost looked like the arms and legs of some gigantic... wait, that's exactly what it was.  They were combining together.

"Go, Bruticus!"  Starscream commanded, now fully audible, as their transformation was completed.  "Show her what happens to anyone who defies my ultimate supremacy!"

On instinct, Anthrax armed her wing-mounted missiles and fired on the connection points, hoping to break the behemoth back apart before he had a chance to strike.  Her attack was completely ineffective.  The huge, lumbering monster had grown in size by a considerable margin, with both his arms now the size of Blast Off's full-grown space shuttle mode, and a body to match.  It became evident now that all of the Combaticons had suffered some lingering effects from the unprotected re-entry into the atmosphere, as the giant's entire body was riddled with more of those dark, sickly splotches.  Starscream seemed to have suffered similar detrimental effects to his wings, ostensibly the only parts of his form that had, at some point, been replaced with inferior Earth metals.  Whatever damages the Combaticons had incurred appeared to be strictly superficial, however, as the monster advanced on Anthrax and Dreadwing with no sign of slowing down.

"Fire rotorpedos!" Anthrax commanded, and the oversized launcher on Dreadwing's back swung forward to dispense a volley of shots, the same weapons that had obliterated the Earthbound space bridge module.

Bruticus dodged two missiles and absorbed the brunt of two more with his upturned left arm.  The resultant explosions temporarily engulfed Bruticus in a dark cloud, but it quickly dissipated, revealing the giant Decepticon to be no worse for wear.   Anthrax knew that the water would have hindered the destructive capability of Dreadwing's torpedos, but she hadn't realized Bruticus would be so heavily-armored.  Without further ceremony, the propeller blade mounted on his left arm began spinning, creating a powerful torrent that caused Anthrax to lose her footing and tumble backwards.  She shifted into jet mode and punctured the torrent with her nose cone, flying unevenly but managing, at least, to avoid being swept back any further.

With Dreadwing's complement of torpedos apparently ineffective and Anthrax too low on power to use any of her energy weapons, Anthrax was at a loss for an easy solution.  It occurred to her for just a moment that perhaps this had been Starscream's plan all along, to lure her into the watery depths in order to unleash this secret weapon upon her.  Whether Starscream actually possessed that kind of strategic ingenuity was anybody's guess, but the fact remained, for the moment, that he had her at a distinct disadvantage.

Bruticus stopped his rotor blades and began lumbering towards her once more, slowly, uncertainly.  He took a clumsy swipe at her with his left arm, which she evaded easily.  He changed position and, after a moment of hesitation, tried to crush her beneath his foot.  Once again, his slow and awkward movements, almost playful in nature, belied the dangerous nature of the situation.  Anthrax had no trouble outmaneuvering his half-hearted attacks.  Bruticus clearly held the upper hand in size and strength, but it looked to Anthrax as if he just didn't know what he was doing.

"Use your weapons, you dolt!" Starscream urged.  "Shoot her!  Destroy her!"

With renewed vigor, Bruticus struck a menacing pose and produced a weapon that was easily as long as Anthrax was tall.  He fired in her general direction, apparently not bothering to take aim.  Anthrax quickly realized he didn't have to.  The effects of the weapon rocked the underwater landscape with sonic waves that made her sensors go numb, disrupting her motor controls and gyroscopic functions.  Dreadwing and his drone unit had been standing in the epicenter of the sonic blast, visibly shaken by it, likely suffering no lasting damage but clearly too disoriented to take immediate action.  Luckily, Bruticus was only as powerful as the mind controlling him, Anthrax realized, and that mind was not his own.  It was time to take down Starscream.

Still in jet mode, Anthrax turned from her attackers and headed upwards, making as if she was preparing to retreat, but quickly executed a climb that turned into a backwards loop.  She was upside-down in the water for just a moment, far above Bruticus, before dropping straight down, headed directly towards Starscream, who had up until this point been standing behind Bruticus at a safe distance away.  Only now realizing what was happening, Starscream stumbled back in a panic, tripping over a rock formation and blindly firing his arm-mounted guns into the watery depths as he tumbled backwards uncontrollably.  She transformed in mid-dive and assumed her most aquadynamic pose, brandishing her sword and pointing it straight at Starscream, still on his back, who covered his face with his hands and forearms, screaming in terror.

The blast came from out of nowhere, knocking Starscream upwards as he collided with Anthrax, sending both of them hurtling through the water and crashing into a coral reef.  Anthrax scrambled to get out from underneath the dead weight of the larger Decepticon and spotted Bruticus, standing above the two, his face unreadable.  He cocked his head to one side, as though he were waiting for approval, or further orders, or both.

"Not me, you idiot!" Starscream said, fumbling for support, awkwardly grasping behind him at Anthrax's body and wings in an attempt to get himself righted again.

"But you told Bruticus to use weapons," Bruticus explained lamely.

"Grab her!" Starscream shrieked.  Bruticus tossed his weapon aside and picked up Starscream in one of his gigantic hands, grasping Anthrax in the other before she had a chance to transform again.  He raised them both above his head triumphantly, like a child with a pair of new toys.  Anthrax wondered if he was about to squash them both.  She tried to shout orders to Dreadwing, but her ventilator was already constricted by the clutches of the monstrous Decepticon.

"Crush her!" Starscream commanded, and Anthrax instantly felt his grip around her tighten even more.  She was made of tougher alloys than him, but he had so many units of pressure behind his massive grip that even her vastly superior technology wouldn't save her now--

"Stop fighting!" a powerful, booming voice said.  Bruticus instantly froze in his tracks, and Anthrax was able to breathe again.  She turned as much as she was afforded, and spotted a small envoy of robots in the water.  In the lead was a small, grey robot with twin Decepticon insignias on his chest panels.

"Who are you?" Anthrax and Starscream said in unison.

"My name is Windrazor," he said with a glint in his eye.  "Welcome back to the fold, my Decepticons."

***

Chapter 40:  The Search for Elita One

"I've been back home a few times over the years," Ironhide said, "but I ain't never felt this out of place before."

"You'll get used to it again, man," Jazz said, blissfully careening back and forth, making little screeching sounds as he grasped the terrain with his tires.  "You just gotta know how to get back into the groove.  These Earth wheels might be made for rocky roads, but improv is a cinch with a little fancy footwork."

"Naw, that's not what I mean," Ironhide grumbled.  "It's not me, it's the rest of the planet.  We haven't seen anyone since we touched down.  I don't like it.  Something's just not right."

Naturally, he and Jazz had ventured forth with caution at first, keeping alert for possible signs of Decepticon activity.  The fact that there had been no unpleasant welcoming party when Omega Supreme had touched down was a stroke of luck, and it was equally fortunate that they had remained undetected after Ironhide and Jazz were forced to switch on their headlights to continue their journey once the north side of the planet went into its night cycle.  It was only after they had crossed the remains of the Iacon bridge that they grew suspicious.  Ironhide had made it safely across using his short-range rocket boosters, but when Jazz attempted a slightly more fancy approach by swinging across using the grappling hook in his arm, the support beam he'd hooked it onto had given way.  Both Jazz and a large section of the bridge would have fallen into the abyss if Jazz hadn't ignited his own retro-rockets long enough to make it to the other side--something he should have done in the first place.

Suffice to say, the accident had created a receptor-piercing cacophony on the otherwise dead-silent planet, and it was at this point that Jazz and Ironhide both realized that something was definitely wrong.  At this point, the only reason the Decepticons hadn't heard them was because the Decepticons weren't there.

Jazz had put that theory to the test by transforming back to car mode and taking a moment to zero in on what should have been the Decepticon air traffic frequency.  At any given time, he reasoned, there would have to be at least some radio communication between the troops, if only to report their progress while patrolling a given sector or just swapping dirty jokes to pass the time.  Nothing.

Instead of alleviating Ironhide's worries as he and Jazz approached the entrance to the female Autobot secret base, however, this revelation only served to heighten those concerns.

"So, how d'we get in?" Jazz asked, pacing around what was obviously a hatch of some kind, but which lacked handles or knobs or control buttons of any kind.

"I only saw 'em do this once," Ironhide admitted, fiddling with the sensor dish mounted in his forearm until he managed to produce the correct intermittent signal.  The hatch opened to reveal a glowing energy beam that extended from the ground which Ironhide recognized as one of their many security measures.  Theoretically, the beam acted as a force field that granted access only to robots wearing Autobot insignias.

"You better stay up here," Ironhide said.  "Keep a lookout for trouble.  If you see any Decepticons, lead 'em away from the base.  We have to keep it a secret from 'em."

He was expecting the usual argument from Jazz--the same argument, he realized, he himself would have given, were their roles reversed.  Jazz had convinced Ironhide to take him along only because he'd made Ironhide see the folly in embarking on a solo mission, that Cybertron was far too dangerous now to travel alone, that losing Optimus Prime had been bad enough without losing another piece of the command element as well.  And yet, that was precisely what Ironhide was suggesting now.

He hoped it was the right decision.

***

It was dark.  At first Ironhide suspected that nobody was home, that the headquarters for the female Autobots was just as barren and lifeless as the rest of the planet.  Only after activating his thermal sensors did he realize that the computers were still running on minimal power.  The base was still active, but it looked like someone was trying to reduce its energy profile to minimal levels, probably to avoid detection from the surface.  That meant there were no heating elements running, no defensive shields, and, judging by the low sensor readings, probably almost no energon rations inside the base.

Living in hiding your whole life wasn't a strategy Ironhide particularly cared for.  He knew that the female Autobots had been all but exterminated, that aside from a handful of robots who had migrated to other parts of the galaxy, the small troupe under Elita One's command were all that remained of a gender that once numbered in the millions.  Ironhide hated to think of any of them as frail or weak, but the evidence against their ability to survive in the wake of the war against the Decepticons was overwhelmingly strong.  Like their male counterparts, none of them had been designed for warfare, and only those with the ability to evade attacks, coupled with an indomitable strength of will, had managed to survive.

To have lost yet another member so recently, when their numbers were already so low, must have been a crippling blow to them.  Judging by the absence of Transformers on the planet, the war had apparently all but ended quite some time ago, which made the mystery of Disco's violent death all the more troubling.  Ironhide was hoping to learn more about the attack and what had caused it, both for his own sake and to somehow vindicate the loss of Optimus Prime.  If he discovered the reason behind the attack, Prime's sacrifice would not be in vain.  The space bridge tragedy had only renewed Ironhide's resolve to see this mission through to the end, despite the bitter taste it had left.  Prime's loss would be felt on countless worlds.  Ironhide would also have to deliver word of this tragedy to Elita One.  Somehow, delivering such grim news remotely from Earth just wouldn't have been sufficient; Ironhide had to convey this information in person.

There were footfalls in the corridor, and they weren't his own.  Ironhide came to a halt as he heard a small metal object falling to the ground behind him.  Instinctively, Ironhide whirled around and pointed his sonidar sensor at the source of the sound, but the small scanner dish in his forearm was unable to pinpoint the origin of the noise.  His equipment was ancient, Ironhide mused.  It had served him well enough on Earth, a planet almost completely devoid of technology, but back on Cybertron, a planet that was entirely technology, he could barely distinguish a ground trooper from the ground itself.  He readied his liquid nitrogen tanks as he opened his fingertips and extended his hand outward.

"Who's there?  Show yourself!" he demanded.

Without warning, he was fired upon from behind.  He dodged the blast, clumsily, and might have avoided it if he'd been a mechanism designed without a head.  As it happened, the shot caught him squarely in the side of the helmet, and he let out a pained groan as he stumbled to the ground.  He recognized the tingling sensation as the effects of a stun weapon.  Fighting the dizzy sensations, he reached around and sprayed frozen nitrogen in the general direction of his assailant, but the lack of an audible reaction from the Decepticon told him he'd missed his mark.

Thinking quickly, Ironhide attempted to relay a distress signal to Jazz, but he was unable to establish a communications link.  Had Jazz already strayed so far from the base that he was already out of transmission range?  Or was there some sort of shielding on this level that prevented signals from reaching the surface?

Ironhide scrambled to his feet and charged toward his attacker.  Orange laser bolts issued forth from the darkness, striking Ironhide in the chest and shoulders.  He weathered the stun effects, but he wouldn't be able to endure much more before he was rendered completely unconscious--

Wait.  Decepticons didn't shoot orange laser bolts, did they?

"Hold your fire!" Ironhide exclaimed.  "I'm an Autobot!"

The attack ended as abruptly as it had begun.  For a long time, there was silence.

"You should not have come here."

Ironhide spun around to address the darkness.  "Elita?"

"You have endangered us all with your very presence," she responded.

"Then I'll leave as soon as I get some answers," Ironhide said.  "Now, why don't you c'mon outta there where I can see you."

Elita One emerged from the shadows.  Her body was tarnished, apparently scarred from what must have been countless battles.  One antenna on the side of her helmet had been contorted out of shape, while the other had been torn off completely.  Small, steel-grey panels were welded to one of her arms, serving as makeshift protection for visibly deep gashes in her armor, clashing badly with her natural pink hues.

"You leave Cybertron largely to its fate until its affairs manage to grow and extend to encompass Earth as well," Elita said.  "Once the Decepticon Alliance set its sights on Earth, it was only a matter of time before you sat up and took notice."

"Decepticon Alliance?" Ironhide said.  "Naw, you're wrong.  This doesn't have anything to do with Earth.  I just came here to find out what's been goin' on on Cybertron."

"The events you are referring to have now spread beyond Cybertron," Elita One said.  "The ones responsible for the increased hostilities here have tracked their quarry to Earth."

"What quarry?" Ironhide asked.  "What are the Decepticons after?"

"Based on the information we've gathered, one of their number discovered a space warp that leads to another part of the universe.  He discovered something of vital significance, something too sensitive to transmit electronically.  He was captured by enemy forces before he could return to the Decepticons, and now they will do anything to recover that information."

"So that's why the Decepticons have been takin' potshots from the air," Ironhide realized.  "They're tryin' to uncover the Autobot base."

"What they don't realize is that there are several Autobot sects on this planet," Elita said.  "Only one of them is holding the Decepticon spy.  They've been so desperate to recover him that they will interrogate any Autobots they find, usually killing them in the process."

"You ever thought about joining forces with one of these other factions?" Ironhide asked.

"We have very... different ideas about the future of the Autobot race," Elita said.  "Such an alliance would only serve as a hindrance."

It was unfathomable to Ironhide that joining forces with one's fellow Autobots could ever be a detriment to the better good.  He didn't know what to say, so he just said nothing.

"Now that you have the information you need," Elita said,  "I strongly suggest you depart immediately.  Even with the Decepticon Alliance gone, Cybertron is still a very dangerous place to be."

"Well, there is one more thing," Ironhide said.  "I have some bad news."

"Optimus Prime," Elita said softly, slowly.  "He never would have sent you here alone.  He would have come himself.  The fact that you are here, now, means that he is unable to be."

"Yeah," Ironhide affirmed.  "We lost him in the space bridge explosion."

"Do you mean to say that you saw him destroyed, or that he was literally lost?  Please, I must know."

"We're not sure," Ironhide admitted.  "We haven't found him yet, but there isn't--"

"You must make every effort to locate him," Elita said.  Her words were spoken softly, but she sounded as if she were issuing an ultimatum.

"Well, there's not much hope," Ironhide said.  "The Decepticons who attacked him were usin' some kinda plasma energy weapons.  Our guys don't think that leaves a whole lotta wiggle room."

"You don't understand," Elita said, more urgently now.  "Optimus Prime was elected as guardian of the Matrix of Light.  It is the singularly most important artifact in the history of the Autobots.  It holds the key to our past, present, and future.  You must recover it at all costs."

"Recover it?  What about Prime?"

"Even Optimus Prime himself would place the preservation of the Matrix before his own life," Elita said.  "You don't understand its importance.  When Alpha Trion created his first three New Defenders, he warned us of a future time, the dawning of a new age when the lives of every Autobot and Decepticon on Cybertron would be threatened, when the Autobot who opens the Matrix would be bathed in its power to shed light upon the darkness.  That hour is fast approaching."

"And you believe in that?" Ironhide asked.

"As should you," Elita said.  "Alpha Trion's prophecies have an uncanny way of coming true."

***

As Ironhide made his way out, he was left with a sense of foreboding dread.  It was bad enough to have lost Optimus Prime, particularly during a time when the Decepticons seemed to be converging towards Earth on all fronts.  The Autobots had lost leaders before and survived, though, and Ironhide had been confident they would eventually manage to continue the struggle just as effectively as ever.  It was, simply, what the Autobots did.

The strange and haunting importance Elita One had placed on the Matrix cast some small doubts over this prospect, however, and Ironhide was loathe to consider the possibility that Elita was right, nor was he prepared to linger on the idea, however important it might be, that Elita One had seemed far more concerned with the recovery of the Matrix than she had been affected by the news about Optimus Prime.

"I knew it.  I just knew that you would come back and then leave without ever saying hello."

Ironhide approached the chamber that led to the surface, and found that it was blocked by an old enemy and friend.

"There isn't time for this, Chromia," Ironhide said.  "I came here on important business.  We can talk later.  Now, get outta my way."

"You said that four million years ago, and it still hasn't happened yet," Chromia said, standing with her hands on her hips, fire raging in her eyes.

"Look, something major is happening back on Earth," Ironhide said.  "I gotta get back there and find out what it is."

"I think I can give you a pretty good idea of what it is right now," Chromia said pointedly.  "It's just about every male Autobot alive, running around on some stupid muddy planet and trying to avoid stepping on the locals, while us girls get the honor of trying to keep this entire planet from falling under the Decepticons' grasp.  How long's it gonna be this time, huh?"

"Don't you think I try to get back to Cybertron every chance I can?" Ironhide said.

"I haven't seen you in fifteen revolutions!  You call that 'everah chaynce ah cayhn'?"

"I don't have time for this," Ironhide said.  "Get away from the lift, Chromia."

"You'll have to get through me first," she promised.  Chromia's normally pale-blue optic sensors had taken on a decidedly reddish hue.

"Step aside, Chromia." Ironhide said, his voice tightening a little.

"What's the matter, huh?" Chromia taunted.  She was in a battle-ready stance, making come-get-me gestures with both hands.  "Every moment you waste here puts your precious Earth in greater danger."

"You think I care about Earth more than Cybertron?" Ironhide said.  "You think that's what this is all about?  Whaddya think the Decepticons'll do if we just stand aside and let 'em get Earth's energy?  Huh?  The only reason we're tryin' to stop them from getting Earth is so they don't get Cybertron, too!"

"Look around you, Ironhide!" Chromia said, exasperated.  "This planet is dead.  Why are you still fighting over this?  You're four million years too late!  There's nothing left to save!"

"That's not true," Ironhide said.  "I know it's not true.  Now, I'm only gonna tell you one more time.  Get out of my way."

"Stay with me," Chromia said.  "You don't have to go back.  There are plenty of Autobots on Earth already.  They can do whatever needs to be done.  Whatever's gonna happen, it'll happen whether you're there or not.  This is the only place you can make a difference, now.  I know, because I'm still here.  You can make a difference if you just stay.  Just stay here with me.  Just stay here and be with me."

"You know I can't do that," Ironhide said.  "They need me."

"No, they don't need you.  You're not that important.  You're Prime's bodyguard, and Prime's dead.  What good are you to them now?"

"Every Autobot is important.  Why don't you come back with me?  Cybertron'll still be here."

"I'm not going, Ironhide.  You don't know that Cybertron will still be around.  And I... I can't live anywhere else.  I will turn this planet around, even if it takes another four million years.  And you know, at this point I don't care if you're going to be there to help me or not."

Chromia stepped aside.

"I will tell you this, though.  If you leave again, we're finished."

Ironhide looked for some sign on her face, some kind of cue as to what to say next.  He found nothing.  She was blank, unreadable.

"You can't mean that," he said.

"Try me."

There was a long silence as Ironhide tried to somehow make sense of the thoughts swirling around his head and translate them into a single, coherent statement.  It wasn't an easy task.

"Never mind," Chromia said, stepping off the platform.  "If you even have to think about it at all... that tells me everything I need to know."

She walked away from the energy lift, her slender blue form engulfed by the darkness behind it.

***

Chapter 41: Concessions

After much begging and pleading with the medical staff, Bumblebee had finally been allowed to enter the hospital on the reasonable condition that he leave his weapon with the security guard, and the unusual but understandable condition that he refrained from transforming to vehicle mode while inside the building.  It was, he mused, one of the few perks that came with being one of the smallest Autobots.  

After around twelve hours of medical examination and treatment, Carly was out of immediate danger, but her full recovery remained uncertain.  Bumblebee resolved to remain with her until she awoke.  He felt he owed it to her.

Spike burst through the room with Daniel trotting along close behind.  "Wheeljack brought us here as soon as you called," he said.  "What happened?"

"We were in the Decepticon undersea headquarters," Bumblebee explained, "and one of the Decepticons shot her.  I'm not sure what kind of weapon it was, but the doctors have diagnosed her with first-degree electrical burns.  I'm sorry, Spike... I should have protected her.  I did everything I could to get her out of there alive, but..."

Spike turned to his betrothed and touched her hand.  "You didn't even tell me where you were," he said to her.

"Daddy, what's wrong with Mommy?" Daniel asked.  "She looks really red.  Does she have a fever?"

"Mommy's very sick, son," Spike said.  "She's going to stay here until she gets better."

"Until Ratchet fixes her," Daniel said, with confidence.

"Well, it's not that simple, Daniel.  I don't think Ratchet knows how," Spike said.

"Ohhhhh, okay," Daniel said, nodding at a new realization.  "First Aid can fix her.  Right?"

"No, son," Spike said.  "You can't just fix a person the way you fix a robot."

"Don't worry," Bumblebee said to Daniel, crouching down as much as he was able to bring himself closer to eye-level with the boy.  "The doctors will take real good care of your mom.  She'll be home before you know it."  Bumblebee smiled, not entirely sure who he was trying to convince more: Daniel, or himself.

"Daddy, can we go home now?  This place is boring.  And I'm thirsty."

"In a little while," Spike said.

A woman's voice rang over the intercom.  "Attention, please.  Will the owner of a white Lancia Stratos Turbo please remove your vehicle from the emergency loading zone," she said.

"This is all my fault," Bumblebee said.  "I was in command of the mission.  I was the one who decided to split up the rescue team.  If we'd just stuck together, then maybe..."

"No, it's my fault," Spike said.  "Lately it's gotten harder and harder for her to find time to help the Autobots.  She's so busy with things like trying to get her physics degree and working odd jobs that she hardly ever gets a chance to make it out to the volcano.  She was just trying to make up for lost time, I think."

"You really think so, Spike?" Bumblebee said, uncertainly.

"What other reason could she possibly have had?" was Spike's response.

***

Over the years, Bumblebee had become closer to the Witwicky family than any of the other Autobots.  He supposed that most humans felt like they could relate to him more easily than some of the others because of his diminutive size.  He was still several heads taller than your average human, but compared to the others, some of whom towered like giants over the tiny little humans, he was far more approachable.  He'd become the Autobots' unofficial liaison to the human population, and he didn't mind the job at all.  Though he knew a few of the Autobots didn't much care for humans, even actively resented them, Bumblebee had never felt that way.  When he was around humans, he felt important.  He felt useful.  He liked the feeling of acceptance.

While he'd met plenty of humans over the years, and had even come to know a few of them, his very best friends were Spike and Carly.  They'd both taken him in as a friend the very first time they'd each met him, a far more amicable response than he'd been expecting from a species who had never interacted with beings from other planets before.  He'd become almost like a part of the family, and it was a designation he was proud to hold.  Any Autobot could provide free taxi services, but Bumblebee's participation in their lives far exceeded the sorts of things he could do on four wheels.  They frequently invited him to dine with them, which Bumblebee knew to be a social function as much as it was a biological necessity.  He'd helped them scoop the seeds from gourds and cut faces into them, and he'd taken part in rituals involving erecting vegetation in their living room so they could hang plastic figurines and candy mints on the branches.  These were important social traditions, indeed.  They'd even taken him along with them on vacation a few years back.

If they'd merely wanted an Autobot in their presence at all times to protect them, they'd have chosen someone stronger, someone larger.  Tracks, perhaps, or Trailbreaker.  Someone with actual weapons and defensive capability.  No, the fact that they chose Bumblebee meant they actually liked him, that they enjoyed his company.  This made Bumblebee deliriously happy.  Back at headquarters, he was perpetually the last choice for any task, but when he was with the Witwickys, he was their first choice.  He'd never been anybody's first choice before, until the Earth mission.  That, alone, was reason enough for Bumblebee to want to stay on the planet forever.

So, now that Daniel was learning to read, Bumblebee had taken on the additional task of home-schooling the boy.  Given how closely Spike and Carly worked with the Autobots, they'd both agreed that it was too dangerous to enroll Daniel in public school and risk the Decepticons happening upon his name in the school's computer records.  Posting Autobot guards at the school would only attract unwanted attention, so the only remaining option would be to provide his education in the safety of his own home.  Bumblebee was only too happy to take on the task.

Recently, he'd been reading Daniel a series of short stories that followed the adventures of a young boy and some of his plush animal toys.  The concept of writing fictional tales about toys seemed a bit odd, but Bumblebee found them enjoyable nevertheless.  The central character to the stories was a stuffed bear, but Bumblebee found himself drawn to one character in particular, a young piglet, who was the smallest and weakest of the group.  Many of the stories made mention of the piglet's dependency on the others because there wasn't much he was capable of, on his own.  Bumblebee felt a strong affinity for the character, but at the same time he found the portrayal to be a rather insulting stereotype.  Being small did not automatically equate to being worthless.

At the moment, though, he felt worthless.  He didn't care how impressed the others were that he'd managed to defeat Runamuck and Runabout.  He'd been lucky, and nothing more.  What was worse, Carly's luck hadn't held out nearly so well.

Bumblebee was roused from his thoughts when he heard a soft knock at the door.  He reached forward and pushed the button, causing the door to swing open automatically.  Behind the door was Hound, peeking around the corner of the door frame cautiously.

"How is she?" Hound asked.

"The nurse came by a little while ago to check her vital signs," Bumblebee said.  "She's in stable condition, at least.  They won't know how bad the tissue damage really is until she wakes up, though.  One of the doctors said she might end up needing optic transplants."

Hound sighed slowly.

"Why don't you come in, Hound?"  Bumblebee asked.  "There's room enough for another Autobot.  I bet she'd be real happy to have you here when she comes around."

"Uh, no," Hound said, taking a step inside the room, ducking under the oversized door frame.  "I can't... I mean, I wouldn't want to disturb her.  She needs rest.  I shouldn't..."

He reached out and touched her hand.

"She's very warm," he said.

"Are you sure about that?" Bumblebee asked.  "The nurse said her body temperature had dropped to within acceptable levels, so--"

"I know what her normal body temperature is," Hound said with a strange level of certainty.  "This isn't it."

He knelt beside her.  

"Come back to us, Carly," he said.  "We all miss you.  I miss you, too."

Hound stood up and made his way out the door.  He stopped and looked back at Bumblebee, despair etched on his face.  Hound looked as if he wanted to say something more, but then he turned and left.

***

Chapter 42:  Coercion

"Wait a minute," Anthrax said, shaking the remaining water out of her systems as she entered the lift that led to the Decepticon base.  "Do you mean to tell me that while Starscream and I were locked in legal combat to determine who would remain in control over the Decepticons, you just swooped in underneath both our nosecones and took over?"

"When Megatron left Cybertron so very long ago," Windrazor said as the lift doors opened, granting access to the main control room of the Decepticon base, "many of the Decepticons waited patiently for his fabled return.  They told stories of the glorious riches he would bring back with him one day, the wealth of energy supplies he would discover, the limitless power his second coming would represent.  Some even went searching for him, but never returned."

"I take it you weren't one of the True Believers," Anthrax said, following him onto the bridge, with Starscream trailing close behind them.

"I was not willing to waste my existence waiting for a savior who would never come," Windrazor said.  "Hundreds of thousands of revolutions passed.  Finally, I assembled a small force of like-minded warriors to form the Decepticon Alliance.  At first, we attempted to continue Megatron's work, searching for energy to revitalize Cybertron."

"At first?" Anthrax asked.

"Cybertron began to wither.  It became clear to us that the war with the Autobots had drained our ancient planet inexorably.  There was simply nothing left worth restoring.  I came to realize that our only remaining option was to amass enough energy to explore the heavens and one day find a new world to inhabit."

"You would simply abandon Cybertron?  Coward!" Starscream squawked.

Windrazor's optic sensors momentarily met Starscream's with a ferocious, glowing intensity, then subsided.  "I realize you must be accustomed to Megatron's distinctive style of command," he said.  "As your new commander, I will give you a chance to adapt.  I do not tolerate interruptions.  I do not permit my soldiers to contradict me, nor do I allow anyone under my command to insult me.  This is your only warning.  I suggest you heed it."

"But you can't just turn Cybertron over to the Autobots!  The planet has secrets that are far too valuable, no matter how much energy other worlds might--"

Windrazor's kick was swift and savage, hitting Starscream squarely in the chest canopy and sending him soaring back into the wall behind him.  Anthrax shielded her face from the barrage as she was showered with shards of orange glass.

"You will behave as you are ordered to or I will rend your body into pieces!" Windrazor shouted.  "I will not repeat my warning again!"

Starscream groaned as he unsteadily sat upright, glancing at the dent in the wall behind him before responding.  "I... will obey."

Windrazor nodded in acknowledgement, then proffered his hand to help Starscream to his feet.

"The age of Cybertron is long past," he said.  "It is time to embrace the future.  Recently, my technicians master perfected the means by which to travel through a localized dimensional warp in space.  It was our plan to relocate to a new world through one of these warps, enabling us to explore a new, untapped region of space as yet unmarred by our wars.  Were it not for the interference of the Autobots, we would be there now."

"You were willing to withdraw from the war entirely?" Anthrax said, her optic sensors shimmering with a purple glint.  "You'd be handing the Autobots exactly what they're supposedly fighting for.  They'd get to live in peace, and you'd get to resume your exploration of the universe."  It was a notion that made Anthrax's energon pump skip a circulatory cycle.  What Windrazor was describing was the ideal existence.  To shed the arms of combat, to delve into the unknown reaches of the cosmos in the name of science... it was the life she lived in her dreams.

Anthrax felt a kinship with Windrazor, connecting with him immediately in a way that she'd completely failed to do with Megatron.  Where Megatron was a warmonger determined to kill the Autobots at the cost of every last spark of energy, Windrazor was a pragmatist, who recognized the value in a flexible military doctrine.  Anthrax, too, was willing to accommodate modifications to her original plans.  While she'd intended to eventually free Megatron from his incarceration once her preliminary preparations were completed, she was now quite favorably reconsidering that notion.  Surely her mission could be completed without him, couldn't it?

"Somehow," Anthrax said, "it doesn't surprise me that the Autobots would put a halt to your plans.  They tend to talk a lot about a peaceful and harmonic coexistence, but when it comes right down to it, I think what they're really interested in is converting us to their way of life."

"Anything we Decepticons manage to accomplish is something the Autobots want stopped," Windrazor said, "simply by virtue of the fact that it was we, not they, who accomplished it.  Snipe, my technician, was the first one to travel through the space warp he had created.  His discovery there would have changed the tide of Decepticon destiny forever.  Shortly after his return, however, he was captured by the Autobots before he could fully disclose his findings."

"What findings?  A new energy source?" Anthrax asked.

"I speak not of some random fuel source," Windrazor said.  "Snipe was hesitant to transmit his findings in detail for fear the Autobots would intercept his transmission... but he described it as more powerful than the assembled forces of every Decepticon in existence.  He said that it was completely unprecedented in the history of Cybertron."

"But you don't know what, precisely, it was?" Anthrax said.

"Snipe has always been my most trusted warrior," Windrazor said, "and he is not given to exaggeration.  I believe his every word."

"And now the Autobots have him," Anthrax said.

"My primary reason for coming to Earth was to investigate why the space bridge was destroyed," Windrazor said, "but it was also my intent to draw Rapido out of hiding.  Just before you arrived, Soundwave was kind enough to assist me in using this ship's scanners to determine that my ploy was, indeed, successful.  Rapido is here, on this planet.  If what you say is true, and Optimus Prime has been destroyed, then Rapido may even be commanding this planet's troops.  There must be some way to recover Snipe.  There must.  He holds the key to our greatest victory."

"Well, if you'll allow me a moment to refuel, I'll gladly accompany you," Anthrax said.

"No, no, you don't understand.  Rapido is a master strategist.  He is far too cunning to ever permit Snipe to be reclaimed through conventional means.  To emerge victorious over him, we must first outsmart him."

"What we need is a tactical advantage," Anthrax said.  "The Decepticons of this world have been here for dozens of revolutions.  Perhaps their knowledge of the planet can serve you."

"Rapido's first step will be to ally himself with the Autobots of this planet," Windrazor said.  "We hold no such advantage in that regard."

"Wait!" Starscream said.  "We have an Autobot prisoner.  Smokescreen, their tactical strategist.  He's in the holding cells.  We can exchange him for your missing warrior!"

Windrazor's stance visibly sharpened.  "If the Autobots have discovered the secret of the space warp, they may gain the greatest advantage they have ever possessed over the Decepticons.  They would never place the value of a single life over information of this magnitude.  However, our prisoner doesn't yet know what's at stake.  Perhaps... yes.  I may yet be able to persuade him to assist us."

***

Smokescreen hated himself.

Though he knew that he'd only been in solitary confinement for a matter of days, for some reason it seemed much longer.  He felt as if he'd been relegated to some plane of non-existence, being suspended indefinitely until the powers that be finally got around to deciding his ultimate fate.  Cut off from the rest of the world, unable to interact with another living soul, he had begun to wonder if the Decepticons had simply forgotten about him.  At the moment, even Dreadwing's perverse company would have been preferable to this mindless existence.

He cursed himself for allowing himself to be caught up in this situation in the first place.  Had been able to cast his doubts aside, he'd be well on his way back to Autobot Headquarters by now.  As it stood, even despite his indecision, he'd still been given another chance to escape in the surprising form of Hubcap.  Rather than accept the solution handed to him, Smokescreen had once again over-analyzed the situation, second-guessing his every move, twisting around the reality of the situation until he'd completely lost sight of his purpose.

No other Autobot had the capability for deceit that Smokescreen did, and this time he'd been done in by his own self-deception.

There was nothing now but to wait for his end.  He wasn't entirely certain how he would perish, as several possibilities availed themselves.  Perhaps the Decepticons would decide he was no longer of any use and destroy him on the spot.  Or, perhaps them would blast in into pieces and deliver him to Autobot Headquarters as a message and warning.  Maybe they would ferry him into the sky and drop him so the airborne troops could use him for target practice.  Or, if Smokescreen's suspicions were accurate, perhaps they really had forgotten about him altogether, and he would simply starve to death.

The worst part of all this was that even if Smokescreen managed to bring back some useful information about the Decepticons' plans (never mind the fact that at the moment, he hadn't got the slightest clue what they were up to), and even if he somehow managed to somehow escape (despite the fact that no amount of coaxing with his onboard access cable would be effective when the computer access terminal was quite thoroughly trashed), it still wouldn't do him any good.  Hubcap had no doubt made it back home and had already relayed the story Smokescreen had fed him about having befriended the Decepticons and wanting to remain behind.  Had Hubcap actually been a Decepticon traitor, this move would have worked quite favorably for Smokescreen.  As it stood, all he'd managed to do was botch his own rescue mission and, in all probability, destroyed whatever trust Optimus Prime had once placed in him.

Smokescreen realized that his best chance of getting out of all this probably rested in Dreadwing.  He'd spend enough time with the Decepticon, in Dreadwing's capacity as his jail guard, that Smokescreen felt like he had a good working understanding of the twisted robot's mind.  He almost felt sorry for the poor, tormented creature.  He'd obviously been psychologically abused, regularly and frequently, to the point where he just didn't care any more what happened to him.  Smokescreen was well trained in the art of discovering character flaws and rooting them out in order to exploit them, but Dreadwing was so deeply troubled that it hadn't taken any effort on Smokescreen's part to manipulate him.  When it came to unraveling the hidden secrets of a given target, Smokescreen knew that most of the old wounds he managed to open up would close again, in time.  With Dreadwing, it was a different case.  He'd already been teetering on the brink of psychological collapse, long before Smokescreen had intervened, and it seemed that he'd quite skillfully broken down whatever remaining barriers Dreadwing had erected in his mind to protect himself.  Smokescreen felt responsible for him, in a way.  Maybe there would be some way they could help each other--

Wait.  What was that?

He'd heard a faint clatter in the distance.  Smokescreen jerked up, unable to decide whether he'd just been imagining things.  He'd been in the base long enough to recognize that the ship occasionally groaned softly as its weight shifted under the tremendous pressure of the oceanic waters, but this was an altogether more purposeful noise.

Smokescreen sighed.  The Decepticons didn't need to do anything.  Left to his own devices, he'd think himself to death.

The ancillary door slid open to reveal Starscream, followed by two unfamiliar Decepticons.  One was a female, clad in purple and black.  Smokescreen guessed this one was probably Anthrax, the one the Decepticons had been talking about just before he'd been thrown in detention.  The other was a somewhat smaller robot, but he carried himself with an air of authority.  He stopped in front of Smokescreen's prison cell bars and studied him for a moment.

"Greetings, Autobot," he said at last.  "I am Windrazor, the new commander of the Decepticons.  I have a proposition for you."

"Yeah?  If it's got something to do with opening up this cell, I'm all ears," Smokescreen said.  Instantly, his mind began racing.  New commander of the Decepticons?  Where'd this guy come from?  What had become of Megatron?

"Actually, it does.  You see, your Autobot allies have captured a friend of mine.  I'm very fond of him, and would very much like to effect his safe return to our camp."

"I always said you Decepticons were just big softies at heart," Smokescreen quipped.  He immediately began wondering who this mysterious friend in question might be, since he wasn't aware of any prisoners of war being held at the base, Decepticon or otherwise.  Smokescreen sensed that some very significant events had transpired recently, but he was at a complete loss to explain what it was, or how Windrazor was involved.  Had Megatron been captured?  Was Windrazor part of some special task force assigned to retrieve him?

"Unfortunately," Windrazor said, "I expect that we will meet with considerable resistance should we effect a frontal assault.  I wish to avoid wasting energy on a confrontation if at all possible."

"Not that wasting energy will be an issue for much longer," Starscream noted.

Anthrax made a guttural noise.  "Muzzle it, Starscream, before I do it for you."

"What difference does it make?" Starscream said, his hand on one hip.  "The Autobots will all find out about the synergon when we use it against them!"

"In any event," Windrazor continued, "there is one method by which our efforts might be facilitated.  You are familiar with the layout of their headquarters.  You know its weaknesses.  You know where their holding cells are.  You, Autobot, know the safest and most effective method by which to rescue my friend, thus eliminating any unnecessary conflict."

"Give me a break.  You don't seriously expect me to spill our defensive secrets, do you?"

"Actually, I do indeed."  Windrazor's battle mask covered most of his face, but Smokescreen was certain he was smiling.  "You see, my Decepticons are powerful.  We have already killed Optimus Prime, and if necessary we will kill every Autobot who comes between us and the acquisition of our quarry.  Should you fail to cooperate, you will be directly responsible for every one of their deaths."

The notion of Optimus Prime's destruction was a bluff, obviously, but the very real threat existed that Windrazor actually would start taking lives in the purpose of his goal.  Smokescreen's first instinct was to simply refuse to help.  You couldn't make a deal with a Decepticon, not when Decepticons had this universal tendency to go against their word as soon as it was convenient for them.  At the same time, though, he couldn't ignore the possibility that Windrazor was being sincere.  What if Smokescreen's assistance prevented the deaths of his friends?  Wasn't that worth making a pact with the devil?

"How do I know I can trust you?" Smokescreen said.  "For all I know, you'll just destroy us all anyway.  Why should I help you?"

"I thought you might require a demonstration of my good faith," Windrazor said.  "Anthrax, please open the cell."

Anthrax approached the computer terminal and, after a moment, reached into the damaged console and pulled out a handful of wiring.  She stripped the coating off a couple of them with her teeth and tied the ends together.  Then she keyed in a sequence on the control panel.  This proved sufficient to cause the energy shield to dissipate as the cell bars were pulled into the ceiling with a slow, labored grinding sound.

"If you decline to help me, so be it," Windrazor said, making a welcoming gesture towards the ancillary exit.  "You are free to go.  My Decepticons will make no attempts to hinder your departure.  We will proceed with our rescue attempt, with or without you.  However, I believe all of our best interests will be served by your assistance."

It occurred to Smokescreen that he had a third option.  Now that Anthrax had repaired the controls, Smokescreen would easily be able to access them from his cell.  All he had to do, at this point, was get the Decepticons out of the room so he could escape undetected.  Maybe he hadn't completely botched things after all... perhaps there was yet a chance for him to redeem himself.

"All right," Smokescreen said, "I'll tell you the best way to get inside.  Our base is actually a ship, you see, and all our sensors are forward-mounted.  If you sneak up and attack the ship from behind--"

"Yes," Starscream said with a thoughtful gaze.  "Attack the ship from behind.  An excellent suggestion!"

At least somebody was playing along this time, Smokescreen mused.

"Actually, I felt we could utilize your talents in a more immediate capacity," Windrazor said in that same sickeningly satisfied tone.  "Your participation will serve to ensure that the operation runs smoothly... affording us a contingency plan in the event you have misjudged the weak point in your defenses.  Come, my Decepticons.  We will make preparations and then attack under cover of nightfall!"

Windrazor had caught him.  There was no way now to avoid doing exactly what the Decepticons wanted him to do.  If he continued feeding them erroneous information, the ensuing battle would only be prolonged, and the Autobots would be unable to use lethal force against the Decepticons as long as they had Smokescreen in their possession.  The only course of action left now was to make this rescue operation run as smoothly as possible, with a minimum of casualties, and pray the Autobots could forgive him.

And pray that he could forgive himself.

***

Chapter 43:  Fire in the Hole

Sideswipe had never actually set foot inside the Cybertron Institute for Higher Programming when it was still a fully-functional facility.  Being a warrior-type, he'd neither had the need nor the desire.  He had no doubt in his mind that the place had provided a highly-valued service, at one time, with so many of the denizens of Cybertron having dedicated their lives to higher learning and exploration of the cosmos.  When the wars had begun, those horrible, awful wars which created hundreds of new facilities, a renewed sense of purpose for tens or hundreds of thousands of Autobots, it was the places like this, filled with Transformers who refused to embrace change, that were the first to be destroyed.  

More's the pity, thought Sideswipe.

He climbed over the remains of the overturned, larger-than-life statues that had once welcomed visitors with open arms, but which now laid awkwardly in pieces in front of the main entrance.  He couldn't help but be momentarily overwhelmed by the sheer perversity that only now had he thought to seek out this place, after it had been all but obliterated.  

He kicked the head of one of the statues, causing it to come loose from its moorings, crumbling into powdery chunks as it fell away.  

***

The interior of the facility had probably once been very impressive, judging by the sheer size of its main chamber, which spanned at least six or seven stories (possibly more, at one time, but it was difficult to tell since the roof of the building was missing along with however many levels had been destroyed).  A few computer terminals were propped up against the walls at various odd angles, but it was obvious that at one point they had stood end-to-end, literally covering the walls in every direction.

"Feh," Sideswipe said.  "Give me a jet-judo training room any day."

A private joke, one which Sunstreaker might have snickered at.

He crossed the floor of the programming room and, after piledriving his way through a fallen wall panel that blocked the entrance to the next room, entered a smaller chamber whose purpose he couldn't even begin to ascertain.  There was nothing left that even hinted at its original function.  There were plenty of buildings on Cybertron like this, of course, particularly in the war zones.  Unlike the programming room, though, this room didn't give the overall appearance of one that had been destroyed in a Decepticon attack and then abandoned.  The walls were still in a state of disrepair and there was plenty of rubble on the floor, but the artifacts within the room--including a couple of patchwork computer terminals --had clearly been used recently.  If anything, it just looked like a really messy laboratory.

"Pardon my housekeeping," came a voice, "but the maintenance droid hasn't stopped by in a few million years."

Sideswipe whirled around and came face-to-face with something that wasn't another robot's face.  For a moment he'd thought it was the gigantic blue visor of some bizarrely-shaped mechanoid, until he realized it was actually a vehicular cockpit.  Then, he looked up and saw the rest of the robot to which this cockpit was attached.

"Hello," said Skyfire.

"I'd, uh, forgotten just how tall you really were," Sideswipe said.

"And I've forgotten your name," Skyfire said.  "My apologies.  It's been a long time since I've seen an Autobot."

"Sideswipe.  The name's Sideswipe.  Me and Wheeljack dug you out of the ice, remember?"

"The ice..." Skyfire said, apparently lost in thought for a moment.  "Oh, you mean the second time.  Yes, I remember.  Sideswipe and Wheeljack.  You're the one with the piledrivers."

Sideswipe winced for an instant, then spread out his forearms, matter-of-factly.  "Yeah.  I'm the guy with the piledrivers."

"I suppose I do owe you a debt of gratitude.  For what it's worth, you have my thanks," Skyfire said.  "Now, please leave."

"Hey, wait a minute.  You've got to listen to me," Sideswipe said.  It was only as he finished his sentence that he realized he was saying this to Skyfire's dual-barreled cannon.

"Always demanding, but never asking," Skyfire said, in what Sideswipe thought was an inappropriately amused tone.  "Isn't that just like an Autobot?"

"You're an Autobot too, y'know," Sideswipe said.  As if to confirm what he already knew, he pointed at the insignia on Skyfire's chest, only to discover that the symbol in question wasn't there.  He looked around, hoping perhaps it had simply fallen off.

"In case you haven't noticed, I haven't been an Autobot for a very long time," Skyfire responded.

"I always wondered about that," Sideswipe said.  "Nobody ever could get a straight answer out of Prime.  All he said was something about how you'd 'made your decision' and that we 'had to respect that,' whatever the flarg that's supposed to mean.  So, what's the deal?  What made you change your mind about, y'know, fighting the good fight?"

"You know, I've got a gun trained on your head.  Do you really think this is an appropriate time to be telling stories?"

Sideswipe shrugged.  "I've seen it work," he said.

"Let's just say," Skyfire said, "that your leader and I had some differences of opinion.  I willingly endured several combat missions, feeling I owed something to the Autobots for taking me in.  I was content to put my scientific endeavours aside for the sake of helping the Autobots in their fight and... serving as their transport."  Skyfire emphasised the word with a tone that could have hinted at disgust, or malice, or possibly both.  Sideswipe almost liked it better when Skyfire was training a gun at his head and smiling.

"Okay, so you didn't like playing cargo ship.  So you left the Autobots over that?"

"No," Skyfire said.  "As I said, we had some differences in opinion.  Now, I've asked you to leave once.  Please don't force the issue," he said, his aim finding newfound resolve.

"Now, this is just stupid," Sideswipe said.  "You can't just go around sticking blasters in everybody's face every time they rub your polish the wrong way.  That's what Decepticons do.  If they weren't so busy trying to--"

Sideswipe's train of thought was rudely interrupted.  Not by the laser bolt that he'd been expecting, and had been fully prepared to dodge, but by the hard steel butt-end of the double-barreled blaster itself.  It wasn't a particularly forceful attack, though Sideswipe knew that Skyfire could probably have knocked him into the next room, if he'd been so inclined.  As it stood, Sideswipe now had a small dent in his helmet, and was developing a very large headache.

"I don't believe it... you actually just bonked me on the head," Sideswipe said.  "Is that your idea of forcing the issue?"

"I don't want to hurt you," Skyfire said, "but I will if you don't leave.  I don't know how you found me, but..."

"It was the only building left standing that was big enough for you to hide in," Sideswipe offered.

"...but you are simply not welcome here," Skyfire continued.  "I was the one who blocked the entrance with that large metal panel that you so helpfully demolished.  Perhaps you didn't take the hint."

"I suppose you put those statues in front of the entrance, too?" Sideswipe mused.

"No..." Skyfire said.  "That happened during the original attack.  I prefer using the back entrance.  Incidentally, that was Chromedome's head you kicked."

"Eh, he didn't need it anyway," Sideswipe said.

To Sideswipe's surprise, Skyfire smiled a little.

"I'm not going back," Skyfire said.  "Not to Earth, and not to the Autobots."

"I wasn't going to ask you to," Sideswipe said.

"And," Skyfire said, more sternly, "I am not going to take you to whatever planet you need to get to."

"I'm already where I need to be.  I just need... that is, I could use... I mean, I would like..."

"You've almost got it," Skyfire said, crossing his arms and leaning back a little.

"Please help me," Sideswipe said.  "I'm asking for your help."

***

Chapter 44:  Rapid Approach

"So what you're saying, guys," Trailbreaker said, "is that you want to build a bunch of guns and stick them on the volcano?"

"No, no!" Hoist said, bubbling with enthusiasm.  "That's the beauty of it.  Not on the volcano; in the volcano.  Secret compartments, hidden within the rock, that would slide open to reveal the defensive artillery.  Why, the shock value alone would be enough to send the Decepticons packing!  Isn't that right, Grapple?"

"Well, not necessarily," Grapple admitted.  "But it would give us a much better chance of defending against surprise attacks, at least on a temporary basis until the troops are mobilized."

"But what if the Decepticons try to steal these new weapons?"  Trailbreaker asked in a somber tone, placing a hand on Grapple's shoulder.  "We'd better set up some additional guns to keep the Decepticons from taking them.  Of course, we'll have to install even more guns to keep them from stealing the additional ones."

"What?" Grapple said.

"It was a joke," Trailbreaker said.

"Oh," Grapple said.

"And it will cost almost nothing to build," Hoist said excitedly, waving a blueprint or something in front of Trailbreaker's face.  "If Wheeljack helps us, we can have it done in five days."

"If Wheeljack doesn't help us, we can have it done in three," Grapple added.

"Yeah, go for it," Trailbreaker said.  "You could even get Huffer to help."

"Er, well, I suppose we could, at that," Hoist said.  "But, er, why?"

"Well, he is our resident construction engineer, y'know," Trailbreaker said.

"Yes, but he's always so pessimistic," Hoist said.  "He's impossible to work with."

"Have you ever tried?" was Trailbreaker's response.

"Well, it's just that..." Hoist began, then turned to Grapple and exchanged a knowing glance with him.  

"Look, I know you're trying to do your best, taking command and all," Hoist said, "but there are some things you just don't understand yet.  Those of you who were awakened at the same time Optimus Prime was, you had an entire year's worth of experiences that the rest of us just didn't get.  You all got a chance to get to know each other, to bond together.  Those of us who were still trapped in the rubble, don't you think we could see how differently Optimus Prime treated you, how you treated each other?"

"Is this before or after you got out of the rubble?" Trailbreaker asked with a smirk.

"Why, afterwards, of course," Hoist said.  "There's a world of difference between us.  You and I, for example, are nothing alike."

Trailbreaker looked at Hoist.  Then he looked at himself.  Then he looked at Hoist again.  "Actually, I've never really noticed this before, but you and I do kinda look alike."

"That's not what I mean, and you know it," Hoist said with a frustrated sigh.  "Optimus Prime understood that we were different.  Why can't you?"

"Well, I'm not a Prime," Trailbreaker admitted, "mostly because I'd have to change my name to Trailbreaktimus or something, and that sounds awfully dorky.  Right now, though, I am the boss.  Which means I get to boss you around and make you work with Huffer."

"But--" Grapple began.

"Be nice," Trailbreaker said, "before I make you work with Gears, too."

"Attention," Teletraan I said, in that strange casual-but-urgent manner it had, "foreign object approaching Autobot Headquarters."

"Uh, you wanna be a little more specific?" Trailbreaker said.  "Is it bigger than a breadbox?"

"Approaching object matches approximate size and profile of TFTM-86 Autobot class shuttle.  Precise nature of object unknown," Teletraan said.

"You got a visual?" Trailbreaker asked.

A large orange space craft appeared on Teletraan's primary viewscreen, sporting gigantic red symbols on either wing in the shape of a robot's face.

"This is Autobot platoon commander Rapido requesting landing clearance," came a transmission from the ship.  "Please respond."

"Y'know, Teletraan, for future reference," Trailbreaker said, "if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably ain't an albatross."

***

"I have come to request an audience with Optimus Prime," said Rapido, a small, unremarkable red Autobot.  He stood before Trailbreaker and Perceptor and a small squad of Autobots who had arrived to greet him.  Behind Rapido, two of his troopers were already carrying some supplies down the cargo ramp.

"Well, not to put too fine a point on it," Trailbreaker said, "but Prime's, uh, well, not here right now.  If you want to leave your name and number and a brief message..."

"Please provide me with his location," Rapido said.  "I wish to speak with him."

"If I had his location, I'd give it to you," Trailbreaker said.  "But I don't.  He's missing.  Possibly destroyed... but we don't know for sure.  For now, at least, I'm behind the wheel."

"Very well," Rapido said.  "I am taking command of this unit.  Please return inside and await further orders."

"Hey, whoa there, horsie," Trailbreaker said.

"Optimus Prime was, up until quite recently," Perceptor interjected, "the commanding officer over the crew stationed on this planet.  He elected Trailbreaker to assume command during his absence, which, unfortunately, may have been inadvertently protracted to an indefinite duration."

"In other words," Trailbreaker said to Rapido, "he left me in charge.  Not you."

"That fact is irrelevant," Rapido said.  "I am platoon commander of the Autobots on Cybertron, and as such I hold the highest rank of any Autobot under Optimus Prime's command."

"So, eh, what exactly happened to ol' diesel breath, anyway?" one of Rapido's troopers asked, turning in mid-stride with a crate on one shoulder.

Trailbreaker started to answer, but Perceptor raised his hand in warning.  He pointed to the last member of Rapido's crew, an orange-and-blue robot who emerged with an interlink cable leading from the side of his helmet.  As he descended the cargo ramp, it became apparent that the interlink cable was connected to a Decepticon, being led by the hand out of Rapido's craft, apparently under his own power.

"Perhaps in the interest of security," Perceptor said, "it would be prudent not to divulge any additional information until we have determined significantly more about our visitors," he said.

"Look, before you guys move in and start rearranging all the furniture, why don't we sit down and talk about this a little?" Trailbreaker suggested.

"Given that there is nothing to discuss here," Rapido said, "I find that suggestion to be wasteful.  There are far more pressing matters to attend to."

"Now, wait just a minute," Trailbreaker said, blocking Rapido's path.  "I may not be up on every tiny detail of Autobot protocol, but I am not gonna let you just waltz right into our base."

Rapido sidestepped Trailbreaker and entered the volcano entrance, beckoning the rest of his crew to follow.

"Well, okay, I guess you can come in, but I'm definitely not letting you bring a Decepticon inside."

The orange robot was the last in line behind Rapido, with his interlink subject in tow.

"Okay, fine, the Decepticon can come too, but I am absolutely not gonna let you turn around, get back in your ship, and blast off to the Moon."

After a moment, Trailbreaker turned to Perceptor and smiled weakly.  "See?  They're listening.  It's all in the delivery."

***

"Teletraan, let's hear everything you've got on the political structure on Cybertron following the departure of the Ark," Trailbreaker said.

"Insufficient data," Teletraan replied.  "Please redefine search variables."

"Uh, okay.  Just give me all the information available about the Autobot hierarchy on Cybertron in the last four million years," Trailbreaker said.

"Insufficient data," Teletraan said again after a moment.  "New search variables must be specified."

Trailbreaker scratched his head, casting a sidelong glance at Perceptor for a moment before addressing the computer again.  "Look, all I want to know is if this Rapido character checks out.  Can you at least give me the names of the Autobots who took command on Cybertron after Optimus Prime left?"

"Working," Teletraan said.

"Poor thing's been smashed up by the Dinobots one too many times," Trailbreaker mused.

Prowl was propped up against a stalactite-stalagmite column in a casual pose, arms crossed and one foot resting against the column, but was studying Rapido and his troops with a suspicious eye as they began setting up operations inside the volcano.  "His story just doesn't add up," he said.  "If he really is in charge on Cybertron, why didn't he ever make any attempt to contact us?  Why haven't we heard anything from him since we awakened on Earth?"

"And, perhaps most importantly," Perceptor interjected, "what series of events has recently transpired that caused Rapido to become aware of our presence and provided the impetus for his arrival?"

"Teletraan, what's the story?" Trailbreaker urged.

"Working," Teletraan announced.  "Please stand by."

"You're a big help," Trailbreaker muttered.  "All right, look.  We can at least go along with this guy until we find out what he's all about.  He didn't attack us, so that's points in his favor right there, and they are wearing Autobot symbols... wait, are those Autobot symbols?  What are those?"

"Perhaps we should consult Teletraan," Perceptor suggested.

"I'll do the jokes," Trailbreaker said.  "Actually, now that I get a good look at 'em, they do look a little familiar."

Trailbreaker was afforded a better view of Rapido's faction symbol as the smallish red Autobot approached Trailbreaker and stood before him.  It was, quite unmistakably, a symbol representing the face of Optimus Prime.

"I will require a complete technical readout of this ship and its functional facilities," Rapido said.  "I will also need immediate access to a secure holding cell."

"Well, we've got a dungeon on the lower decks with some energon bars in front of it," Trailbreaker offered.  "The jail kind, I mean."

"That is unacceptable," Rapido said.  "Have you no high-security facilities at all?"

"Hey, pal," Trailbreaker said.  "We were originally on an energy-scouting mission.  This whole place is just an oversized cargo ship.  We weren't exactly equipped for a long-term detour."

"I find it highly circumspect that Optimus Prime would have assembled a crew of thirty-two Autobots aboard a Vanguard-class craft if the purpose of his mission were simply to collect energy.  I have long held the belief that Optimus Prime's true plans were to escape the war and relocate to another world."

"Oh, now everybody's making with the jokes," Trailbreaker said.  "Look, you couldn't be farther from the truth.  Nobody was running away.  I dunno what part of the planet you were living on, but the entire North Side was totally drained.  There wasn't any energy left to fight over!"

"Additionally," Perceptor said, "we were well aware that the Decepticons were experiencing a similar shortage in resources.  The crew was bolstered thusly in anticipation of a Decepticon boarding party."

"Right.  We were expecting a fight," Trailbreaker said.  "We just didn't expect to crash and get knocked offline for the next four million years."

Rapido seemed to be assimilating this information, and the conversation went completely dead as he processed the data.  Without another word, he turned to address Skram about something.  Trailbreaker could have listened in, were he so inclined, but the truth was he just glad to be rid of Rapido's presence for the moment.  There was something altogether odd about the Autobot that set Trailbreaker on edge.  It wasn't just the rude and authoritative manner in which he'd taken command, though of course that was a sticking point.  There were little things about his behavior, odd mannerisms that sent chills down Trailbreaker's servo-motors.  His infuriatingly calm, even, almost toneless manner of speech, for starters, or the way he never really made eye contact with anyone when he spoke to them.  Rapido was obviously a living machine, but for all his complete lack of basic social skills, he might as well have been an automaton.  It was a little bit like trying to hold a conversation with Teletraan, really, the main difference being that Teletraan didn't suck all the life out of the room.

"So, uh, how 'bout those Pistons, huh?" Trailbreaker offered.

Rapido turned to Trailbreaker and stared at something just behind his head.  "We have tracked a group of Decepticons to this planet.  We believe they have joined forces with the contingent stationed on this world.  The soldier in our custody is carrying extremely valuable information.  Given the great lengths to which this Decepticon went to secure the information, I calculate with 98.1 percent certainty that Windrazor will launch an attack on this structure and attempt to reclaim him.  I must have access to your database if I am to compute an effective defensive strategy against them."

"Only ninety-eight percent?" Trailbreaker asked.  "What's the other two percent?"

"My calculations also allow for the very small possibility," Rapido said, "that Windrazor will attack with the intent of destroying this structure and everything inside it."

"And, uh, what are the odds that you're completely wrong?" Trailbreaker asked, wearily.

"Less than one hundred-millionth of a percent."

***

Chapter 45:  Empty Spaces

Hubcap trudged through the aft section of the Ark, making about as much of a scene as possible for an Autobot of his stature.  Carelessly, deliberately, he kicked stones and bits of debris out of his way, watching with perverse indifference as they created pock marks in the corridor walls.  This was the least important section of the Ark, the least-trafficked and most unkempt part of the craft, the part that had been the most heavily damaged in the crash, the least strategically important area of the whole bloody ship.  And it was, naturally, the section of the craft to which Optimus Prime had assigned Pipes and his crew to live.

The rescue mission at the Decepticon base had left an incredibly bad taste in Hubcap's mouth, but he was determined to somehow turn things around to his advantage.  Word around headquarters was that Optimus Prime had been destroyed in a space bridge accident, which rather nicely let Hubcap off the hook.  At least he didn't have to worry about a reprimand for organizing an unauthorized excursion to the Decepticon headquarters, since the only robot capable of confirming whether he'd actually gotten permission for it was... well, in no position to corroborate anything.  Despite himself, Hubcap couldn't help feeling that Optimus Prime's destruction was a great personal loss.  He didn't like developing sentimental attachments of any kind, but in this case he really was profoundly and deeply troubled.  After all, he'd spent years playing off Prime's sensibilities, slowly building a reputation as a loyal and dependable Autobot.  Now he'd have to start all over again, right back at the bottom of the bloody food chain.  What a waste.

What happened next would represent a profound impact on Hubcap's role with the Autobots.  The question of which among the current troops would assume the mantle of leadership would determine whether Hubcap had a chance at getting in on the ground floor, or would miss the ride completely.  Naturally, it was in Hubcap's best interests for an Autobot to take command with whom Hubcap already had a working relationship.  Unfortunately, he'd devoted almost all his efforts to sucking up to Optimus Prime; he hadn't really bothered to impress his talent and skills upon anyone else.  Well, with one possible exception.

Hubcap entered his personal quarters, which he shared with his former ship commander, Pipes, and fellow crewmate Outback.  It was an arrangement made out of necessity, as most of the functional rooms in the great ship had already been assigned a dedicated function, so there had been very few remaining, usable facilities to accommodate Pipes and his crew.  Hubcap had no complaints, however, since even the most dismal and dirty parts of the Ark were leagues ahead of the tiny ship that Hubcap had called his home for longer than he cared to dwell upon.  That, and the fact that he didn't have to bunk with Swerve and Tailgate.

Not surprisingly, Hubcap found Pipes seated before his work station.  Junk station might have been a more accurate term, given the sheer amount of useless artifacts that cluttered his desk.  Hubcap had been tempted once or twice to dump it all down the volcano's mouth and be done with it.  The only thing stopping him from having done so already was the notion that it might send Pipes completely over the brink, crossing that final line between eccentricity and insanity, and Pipes would be far more useful to Hubcap if he still held some tenuous grasp on reality.  At the moment, Pipes was clutching some alien trinket in his hands, peering at it intently as he held it up from different angles, watching how the light struck its surface, occasionally peering at it through a lens so that he could study it at even greater magnification.

It was a level of utter and intense fascination that sent shudders down Hubcap's spinal assembly.

"New toy?" Hubcap asked, slathering on plenty of cheerfulness for good measure.

"Hi, Hubcap," Pipes said.  "Oh, yeah.  Come look at this.  Almost every Earth car has one.  I'm thinking about asking Swerve to equip me with one."

"What is it, lad?"  Hubcap asked.  He squinted and examined the device Pipes was carrying.  It was incredibly tiny, silver in color, vaguely cylindrical-shaped, hollow on one end and sporting a black knob on the other end.  He wondered what sort of equipment would be considered standard-issue in today's world.  "Is it a weapon?"

"Close," said Pipes.  "It's a cigarette lighter.  See, it's too difficult for humans to start a fire while they're driving, so they plug this device into the car's dashboard.  It collects energy from the engine and ejects automatically when its storage cycle is completed.  The device causes the cigarettes to combust so humans can inhale the vapors and increase their mental and physical performance.  It's the most ingenious thing I've ever seen."

"Aye, bloody brilliant," Hubcap said, in mock-awe.

"I went into town the other day to purchase some cigarettes to test it out.  Unfortunately, the shopkeeper said he needed positive proof of my age.  For some reason, he didn't seem to believe me when I told him I was over nine million years old.  Anyway, I'm going into the Department of Motorized Vehicles tomorrow to undergo a skill assessment test.  If I'm successful, they'll reward me with a driving license that proves I've mastered the use of the cigarette lighter.  Showing this license to the shopkeeper will enable me to purchase cigarettes."

"Ye don't say," Hubcap said.

"Cigarettes must be an incredibly valuable commodity for such high-security measures to have been set in place for their acquisition," Pipes mused.  "Did you know that Mirage was based on an Earth vehicle designed to promote their commercial sale?"

"Look, commander, this is all bonny fascinating, but I've got something to discuss with ye that's a wee bit more important."

Pipes put away his Earthen treasures.  Hubcap had once believed that Pipes was immersing himself in the planet's culture and technology in an effort to learn as much about it as possible, to use it as a strategic advantage, but Hubcap quickly grew to realize that Pipes was only particularly well-versed in a very specific field.  The truth was that he knew very little about human culture and behavior, but he had managed to become the Autobots' foremost authority when it came to trinkets, gadgets, and doodads.  None of this knowledge had ever proven to be strategically significant, or even marginally interesting to anyone aside from Pipes.  The precise reason he was obsessed with the accumulation of worthless Earth junk remained unknown, not unlike the reason most of the aforementioned junk had ever been invented to begin with.

Hubcap was well aware that the group he'd fallen in with was, probably, the most dysfunctional collection of Autobots he'd ever met.  He wasn't sure whether they'd all been like that from the start or whether the long period they'd spent in space, isolated from the rest of the universe save for one another, had taken its toll on their minds.  He'd never cared enough about them to take stock.  What was worse, their personality flaws tended to play off each other, often with disastrous results.  The worst of these was an episode which Hubcap had dubbed the "can opener incident," and one of Hubcap's many self-appointed jobs was to see that it was never repeated in any way, shape, or form.

"What's on your mind, Hubcap?" Pipes asked.

"Well, sir, the others and I have been talking," Hubcap began, making a mental note to actually discuss this with the others at some point, "and we've all agreed 'tis time for a change."

"Oh?" Pipes said.

"Aye," Hubcap affirmed.  "After all, our mission was to find what happened to the Ark and its crew.  The only reason we remained here was because ye promised Optimus Prime we'd stick around and help fight the Connies.  A noble deed, t'be sure, but now that Prime's gone, is there any point in staying on Earth?"

"Well, there's still Decepticons around," Pipes said.

"Aye, and the Decepticons will always be around.  There are more than enough Autobots on Earth to take care o' them, though.  What d'we need them for, eh?  Let's strike out on our own.  After all, we've got a working ship and a good crew."  In the interest of effective persuasion, he omitted the part about their ship having as bad a personality complex as the rest of the crew.

"I dunno, Hubcap," Pipes said.  "Packing our bags and leaving, just like that... seems an awful lot like desertion, to me."

Weak answers.  He was dancing around the main issue, and he'd keep on inventing as many excuses as necessary... anything to avoid admitting the true reason why Pipes wouldn't abandon the Earth now if his life had depended on it.

The long journey through space had taken its toll on the crew.  They'd only been expecting to search for the missing Ark for a revolution or three, but a number of complications had arisen, not the least of which being the Constructicon ship that had ambushed them and left them for dead.  In retrospect, it wasn't really surprising that nobody had ever bothered to send a rescue ship after the rescue ship.  They'd spent eons adrift, floating through space with enough energon to sustain their life functions, but no way of communicating with Cybertron.  There had, however, been far greater problems.

Each of the Autobots on board the ship, up to and including the ship himself, began to develop odd personality quirks.  Pipes had attempted to build several emergency beacons or transmission systems until hopelessness eventually began to set in.  After that, he began to develop an unhealthy fascination with the useless devices he'd managed to construct, as if they still held the key to the crew's salvation if he continued to obsessively tinker with them.  Swerve, the ship's resident genius, developed a cascade failure and started forgetting where he was, what he'd been doing, and even the names of the other crew members.  Outback and Tailgate were no better off, each of them taking on increasingly odd characteristics in their behavior.  Even the cassettes, who had been assigned to the crew to collect data, each seemed lost in his own respective little world.  Hubcap, as far as he himself was concerned, was the only one who had managed to stave off the encroaching madness, the only one who could still be considered even remotely normal.

"Besides," Hubcap said, testing the waters now, "'twould be a bonny shame t'leave this planet."

"Ain't that the truth," Pipes said.

"Especially now that we've lost Optimus Prime," Hubcap added.

"No kidding," Pipes said.  "Poor guy.  What a tragedy.  They just don't make 'em like that anymore."

"Aye.  I cannae help but wonder, though, which among us will be the one t' take his place?"

Pipes actually looked up from his studies..  He stared at the wall for a moment, apparently lost in thought, then shook his head slowly and lowered it again.  "Nah.  You just can't replace somebody like Optimus Prime."

"But if one of us was t' take command... someone with experience leading a crew, someone who recognizes th' value of cutting his losses... he could make th' decision to return th' Autobots home.  D'ya ken my meaning, lad?"

"I'm not sure," Pipes admitted.  "Give me a hint."

"Someone with the wisdom t' see the right course of action and the strength o' character t' do it," Hubcap said.

"Uh... give me another hint," Pipes said.

"Someone about my height with smokestacks for arms who turns into a truck," Hubcap said, flatly.

"Huffer?"

Hubcap sighed.  "No.  'Tis ye, Pipes.  Ye could be the one to step up and take charge o' things, lad.  Ye could be the one t' assemble the Autobots scattered all over the planet and take us back t' Cybertron once and for all."

"I'll... have to think about that, Hubcap," Pipes said.  "I'm not really cut out for the job.  And even if I was, I just don't think leaving Earth would be the right thing to do.  I mean, we still don't know for sure what happened to Optimus Prime.  And the humans still need us to protect them from the Decepticons.  We can't just walk away from all this.  Not yet."

He was obsessed.  Pipes had descended so deeply into his fantasy world that he may not have even been aware of how desperately he needed help.  He'd continue to produce justifications for why the crew's presence on Earth was required, but ultimately, the singular driving force of his existence was the continued acquisition of his collection.  Putting aside the fact that Pipes wasn't even part of the target audience this stuff was designed for, he didn't even use most of the junk he collected.  He brought it home, fiddled with it for a bit, then put it up on a shelf.  All in all, it was behavior as inexplicable as it was bizarre.

Hubcap already knew he didn't have the resources to strike out on his own, not without the backing of the rest of the crew.  For now, at least, that imposed something of a limitation on his current options.  Well, if the others were bent on remaining on Earth, then so, too, would Hubcap.  There were, thankfully, other ways of getting ahead at this game, and Hubcap fully intended to exploit any and all opportunities that arose.

Humans, Hubcap had quickly learned, were the one variable in this equation that were the trickiest to calculate.  It was humans who got in the way and prevented the Autobots from doing what it took to stop the Decepticons.  It was humans who invented traffic lights and trespassing laws and endangered species protection and noise ordinances and hundreds of other obstacles that the Autobots had to continually jump around if they wanted to remain in the humans' good favor.  Perhaps most importantly, it was humans who controlled most of the energy sources on the planet, essentially reducing the Autobots to begging for handouts just to sustain their life functions, depending on the charity of these greedy life-forms who had more resources available to them than they could conceivably use in their lifetimes, and yet upon whose entire economy it depended.

Hubcap had conducted some research into this phenomenon before he eventually became too disgusted with the whole ordeal to continue.  It wasn't the fuel sources at all that the humans were interested in coveting.  Instead, they were more concerned with small, painted scraps of paper that they used as currency.  These pieces of paper were the most valuable thing in human society.  Sometimes, they declined to carry around multiple slips of paper in favor of a single small, thin piece of plastic, which represented an arbitrary, imaginary amount of currency that was determined by an electronic banking system.  Amazingly, this intrinsically useless form of currency was what governed almost all of human society.  Even the humans who had acquired enough currency to buy vast amounts of fuel almost never did, instead focusing most of their efforts on collecting metals.  They were not, however, metals that had any strategic or practical usefulness.  Most humans favored gold and silver on the basis that they were shiny and could be easily shaped into decorative jewelry.  In short, humans lived on a planet teeming with energy, but aside from occasionally buying enough to fuel their automobiles, they let it all go to waste.  Human society was singularly stupid.

The Autobots remained the only thing that stopped the Decepticons from getting the energy they needed, but the humans got in the way of the Autobots doing it effectively.  It was a vicious little cycle that would, as near as Hubcap was able to figure, continue indefinitely.  Killing all the humans was one possible, if messy, solution.  After all, if they weren't around to interfere, the Autobots could use the force necessary to blow the Decepticons off the planet.  Secondarily, if the humans demanded that the Autobots leave the planet, they would begrudgingly obey.  That would leave the path wide open for the Decepticons to do some quick plundering and head back to Cybertron.  In either scenario, there would be plenty of energy left for one lone Autobot who chose to remain behind and partake of its riches...

The humans didn't want the Autobot-Decepticon war to be prolonged any more than anyone else, of course.  The Cybertronian combatants had caused more property damage and exhausted more of the planet's resources in the short time they had been functional on the planet than the sum total of all of human civilization combined, and it would only escalate until Earth was a shriveled, dried-up shell, much as Cybertron had become.  Hubcap recalled what Carly had told him about her attempts to bomb the Decepticon base.  Even she, now a staunch friend to the Autobots, was once so terrified of the robotic beings invading the sanctity of her planet that she'd been willing to risk her own life in an attempt to get rid of them.

Hubcap went to go look for something to do.  Maybe he'd kill someone, just to pass the time.

"Hey, wait!" Pipes said as Hubcap left the room.  "You've got to see this next one.  Windshield wipers... for your headlights!"

***

Chapter 46:  Metal Position

Anthrax entered the laboratory and discovered Soundwave huddled studiously over the main repair bay.

"Oh," Anthrax said.  "I didn't know anyone was in here.  The Constructicons are busy making some changes to Windrazor and his jets, so I thought I'd conduct some tests on the, uh, synergon cubes..."

Soundwave appeared to be ignoring her.

"What are you working on?" she asked, standing on the tips of her toes to try to peer over his left shoulder.  "Ohhhh.  I see.  One of your cartridge robots.  Listen, I'm sorry about that.  I know they mean a great deal to you.  Perhaps I might be of some--"

"Emergency repairs are needed," Soundwave said.  "Interference will not be tolerated."  Still immersed in his work, he threw his fist behind his shoulder and gestured firmly at the door.

Anthrax peered at Soundwave with one optic sensor.  "How exactly do you talk to those animals of yours, anyway?  Do they just use words when I'm not around, or do you know how to speak in animal tongues?  How does that work, exactly?"

Soundwave's gaze spoke volumes of malevolence.

"I... sense that this is a sensitive issue.  Never mind, you can answer some other time.  I think you're in pretty serious need of an energy conversion regulator, though," she said.  

Without another word, she opened the canopy in her torso and carefully unplugged a small, black component with a cable protruding from one end.

Soundwave stared at her incredulously.

"Redundant design," she explained.  "I have one for robot mode and one for jet mode.  You can have this one.  I'll be fine.  Go, on, take it."

Soundwave snatched away the proffered component and turned back to his work, immediately plugging the device into a matching port inside Buzzsaw's dismantled body.

"You're welcome," she said.

Buzzsaw was barely recognizable as a Decepticon.  His cranial unit had been completely separated from his body, now connected by two small wires to an emergency power supply.  His once avian form was blackened and charred, the once golden armor panels comprising his upper body now almost completely colorless.  Each of his wings hung limp, the pistons and mechanisms that governed their inner workings protruding through large gashes in the ruined metal exostructure.  What was worse, the visible scars likely paled immeasurably in comparison to the hidden internal damages, which Soundwave was so desperately scrambling to correct.  Even if he managed to keep Buzzsaw alive, however, the prospect of restoring his body to operational condition was daunting, to say the least.

"You're going to need my help if you want to save him," Anthrax said.  "If you'd rather be alone, though, just say so and I'll leave."

"Your assistance," Soundwave said slowly, "would be commodious."

"As you wish," Anthrax replied with a gracious, sideways nod.  "In exchange for my scientific knowledge, you can satisfy my scientific curiosity.  I'd very much like to know why you're so different from the others.  Your voice, your mannerisms, your obvious difficulty in forming complete sentences.  I want to know what happened.  Tell me your secret, Soundwave."

"Your conditions are unacceptable," Soundwave said.

"I can keep a secret," Anthrax promised.

"That information has been lost," Soundwave said.  "Memory circuits were erased during mission to siphon nova energy from Iron Mountain."

"Ah, of course," Anthrax said.  "No wonder you got so defensive when I asked you about this earlier.  You just didn't know the answer.  Well, surely your comrades, or at least the ones who were around during... whatever it was that made you the way you are, surely they could tell you about it, couldn't they?"

"Megatron is the only one who possesses that information," Soundwave said.

"Oh," Anthrax said.  "Yes.  I can see why that might be a problem."

***

Chapter 47:  Last Dance

Skyfire had, reluctantly, told Sideswipe what he needed to know.  Sideswipe had no idea whether it would be enough to go on, or even if it was accurate.

Or, for that matter, whether he wanted to believe it was true.

He'd had a considerable amount of time to dwell on the reports about Disco since he'd learned of her death.  Probably moreso than most, comparatively speaking, because he was devoting nearly all of his spare processor power to the predicament.  Using what little he did know, coupled with what he knew in his heart about Disco herself to be true, he'd managed to formulate a fairly accurate approximation in his mind of what had happened.

Disco goes on a routine patrol and discovers something very important.  Maybe it's an artifact, some kind of Decepticon weapon, or maybe what she's got isn't tangible at all, but is some kind of super-secret passcode or some weakness in the Decepticons that nobody knew about before.  Doesn't matter too much.  The point is, she finds it, recognizes how utterly important it is to deliver it to the Autobots, and immediately retreats.  She could easily take on the Decepticons who give chase, but she knows better than to force a confrontation when something this important is at stake.  She also knows that she can't just lead the Decepticons to her hidden base, though, so she does something they'd never expect, and cuts right through Decepticon territory.

What she doesn't realize until it's too late is that she's stumbled onto an entire Decepticon fleet.  There are maybe 20 or 30 troops, possibly more, and they've got her surrounded.  Not even Optimus Prime could survive an attack of that magnitude, let alone a single female Autobot, and she knows it.  She also knows that the Decepticons want what she's got, and they want it badly.  So she destroys it.  Physically smashes this artifact, or scrambles the data beyond recognition, or whatever.  This makes the Decepticons furious.  Now, at this point she is of no further use to them at all.  She's got no tactical advantage over them at all, and it would be a complete waste of energy to continue hunting her down.  They do it anyway, because that's what Decepticons do.

So she fights back.  Takes as many down with her as she can.  She blasts them into so many pieces that a body count isn't even possible.  She fights until the last drop of energon in her systems is exhausted, and only then does she fall.  She's gone, but with her she takes the best-kept secret the Decepticons ever had.  It's a major victory for the Autobots.  She dies a hero.

Sideswipe couldn't pinpoint all the details, naturally.  The specifics of who fired the first shot, or the words and taunts that were used, or the precise manner in which she was destroyed, these things were an unknown variable.  Much of the scenario he'd constructed in his head, though, he knew to be a given--as confident in this as he was in the movements of the planets and the color of the stars.

Sideswipe was a sleek, black bullet cutting through the night, his new guise better affording him the ability to enter the darkest realm of Cybertron unnoticed.  It was comfortable, like the grip of a well-used laser rifle, wrapped snugly around him, now part of him.  Skyfire's laboratory had had the means, and he hadn't hesitated to make use of them.  He'd made sure to do it right, bathing in a particularly harsh acid that had eroded the last remnants of his old paint job until nothing remained but the bare, steel-grey alloy metal, before immersing himself in his new, protective skin.  This wasn't simply camouflage paint that washed off the next day.  This was Sideswipe reborn.

Strangely, there were no Decepticons in evidence.  Conditions had been considerably different during Sideswipe's last visit home several years previously, with Starscream and Shockwave evidently orchestrating some kind of coup having to do with using the space bridge to move planets around, but that didn't account for the strange, echoless night that offered no sound of activity.  Where were the watchdog drones, ever-vigilantly searching for raw materials for the industrial factories?  Where were the Skyraider jets circling the ink-black skies like hungry predators, awaiting some hapless traveler to unwittingly enter their domain?  Sideswipe heard and saw none of this, and he found it far more reason for concern than the angry laser blasts and explosions he'd been anticipating.

Perhaps, he mused, the problem is that he was disappointed that he wouldn't find anyone to fight.

Sideswipe had also been devoting a considerable amount of thought to what he was going to do to the Decepticons responsible for what had happened.  He was, admittedly, wallowing in some particularly dark and decidedly un-Autobot-like thoughts.  Thoughts that involved lots of bodily fluids.  Thoughts that were almost so graphic as to be disconcerting, almost too specific in the manner of their demise as to be repulsive.  As an Autobot, Sideswipe was hardwired to reject these things, having been trained this way since he was little more than a subroutine inside Vector Sigma's mainframe.  The fact that he was now breaking so completely beyond his base programming was, in a way, delightful.  Autobots who couldn't grow only got in the way of those Autobots who could.

Wait... something wasn't right here.

Sideswipe slowed down, allowing his sensors to momentarily take over as he checked the coordinates Skyfire had given him, and then checked them again.  Skyfire hadn't seen or been anywhere near the incident, not surprisingly, but Sideswipe had guessed that Skyfire, the only Transformer on the planet not totally preoccupied with war, might have at least heard some rumors about it.  He'd guessed wrong.  Skyfire had done him one better, having played back a half-scrambled message, sent from one Decepticon aerial warrior to another, that was intercepted by his laboratory computers during a standard frequency scan.

Most of it was utter garbage--joking with one another about who would make the first kill, one insulting the other for his lack of visual acuity or something along those lines--and the signal was cluttered with so much white noise it was difficult to make out specific words, even after Skyfire had ran it through an audio filter.  One important piece of information availed itself, however--a set of three-dimensional coordinates that pinpointed the precise location on the planet Disco had been standing when the Decepticons first found her.

It wasn't much to go on, but it was a start.

Sideswipe's tracking circuitry was about as basic as it got, and was, regrettably, about four millions years obsolete.  He was working partly from a very vague recollection of the way parts of the planet had been constructed (which is to say that it had been built, destroyed, and rebuilt in a wholly different fashion) and the way the sectors had been designated (specifically, named and then renamed to reflect the sectors that now existed only in empty, gaping space where chunks of the planet itself were missing), but he was operating mostly on instinct.  What bothered him, though, was that as he crossed deeper into Decepticon ground, counting off sector divisions in his head as he went, he realized that he'd gone so far as to be nearly back out of their territory and very close to Autobot ground.  It didn't make sense that Disco would have faced off against an entire army of Decepticons this close to an Autobot-controlled sector... no, wait.  Yes, it did.  They would have risked anything to recover what she'd taken from them.  He knew this.

Sideswipe slowed to a crawl and then transformed, unfolding into his now predominantly night-black robot form.  He shifted his gaze over what passed for the horizon, not entirely sure what he hoped to find.  He staggered for an instant, surprised at his own loss of coordination until he realized that he'd lost his footing on something slippery.  He bent down on one knee, proffered a finger, and slathered it up.  Drawing it to his mouth, he tasted.

Energon.

It was old, depleted, essentially reduced to whatever fuel source it had originally been made from, but still recognizable.  It glowed faintly blue in color, a sign that it had endured prolonged exposure to the atmosphere, lacking a warm, functional body to keep its healthy pink hue.  Was this where Disco had made her stand?

No.  There wasn't any sign of a fight--no blast marks in the metal flooring, no jagged chunks of damaged Decepticon armor.  She'd been wounded at some previous point, and this was where they'd finally caught up to her.  Yes, this actually made sense.  She'd broken into a full retreat, knowing that the safety of her sisters-in-arms was nearby.  That was the only possible explanation.

Sideswipe transformed again, momentarily forgetting about the energon-soaked ground beneath him, and ended up spinning his tires stupidly for astro-seconds on end before involuntarily sliding off in an entirely different direction.  He tried again, with pretty much the same result.  The definition of insanity, he mused, was doing the same thing over and over yet expecting different results.  So he tried a third time.  This time, he ejected a set of large, steel spikes from each of his tires that held fast to the ground, propelling him into the night once more.

On more than one occasion, he'd had to backtrack because he'd lost her trail completely, wasting precious time.  Tracking sensors would have really come in handy, but it was pointless to dwell on what he couldn't do.  As it stood, all he could do was turn on his fog lights, hoping some of the light would reflect off the glistening lifeblood, all the while wondering whether the Decepticons would notice the lights but relying on a gut instinct that they would not.  Something told him nobody was home tonight.  He prayed to beings he'd never believed in that he was right.

He came to an overpass and stopped.  If Disco had been bleeding, wounded, she wouldn't have taken the long way around.  She would have cut straight through.  Sideswipe drove on, his suspicions quickly confirmed by the smell and sight of more drops of energon.  The splotches of faintly glowing fluid were growing farther apart from one another now.  Disco wouldn't have had time to effect repairs, not in mid-retreat, so this wasn't an indication that she'd repaired the leak to some extent.  Had she started to move faster, now?  Yes, that was it--she'd transformed.

And then... nothing.  The energon splotches suddenly ended.  Had she doubled back to intentionally mislead anyone who might have been on her trail?  No, not if her pursuers were so close behind that she'd had to convert to vehicular mode to keep ahead of them.  What, then?  Had some aerial Decepticons picked her up where she stood and ferreted her away?  No, that clashed rather badly with the reports Sideswipe had heard.  She'd been killed on the field, not captured by the enemy.

Sideswipe returned to robot mode and gazed off into the distance, musing that the answer was probably right at his feet once again.  Despite himself, he looked down and noticed an access panel that descended to the second level.  It had been closed, hastily, but not sealed back up again.  It remained unlocked.

That was where she'd gone.

***

Sideswipe was nearly ready to give up the search.  He'd trudged through two or three sectors' worth of winding tunnels and corridors, which were too small to navigate comfortably in vehicle mode and littered with too much debris to traverse on four wheels, even with his tire-spikes deployed.  It was an oppressive and hazardous environment, with long-dead power cables jutting menacingly from the walls, scraps of sharp, half-rusted metal littering the floors, and entire sections of the ceiling threatening to collapse, having been compromised from countless battles upon the surface.  Warfare was rarely conducted within the deeper levels, if ever, so the subterranean chambers were relatively unscathed.  Being virtually unused, they also cast a far more accurate impression of the planet's truly ancient age, its origins lost to even the earliest Autobot accounts.

Sideswipe had dutifully patrolled the corridors, keeping an ever-vigilant eye open for any sign of a struggle, any indication at all that Disco had been down here.  He found none.  There was, like every place else on the planet, it seemed, absolutely no sign of life.  Sideswipe began to wonder what had transpired, what had caused so many citizens of the planet to evacuate, or go into hiding, or be destroyed, or whatever event had removed the bulk of the once-teeming population.  Female Autobots were a dying breed, so it wasn't too surprising that Elita One and her group had retreated to a secret base.  That didn't account for the utter absence of Transformers on Cybertron, however.  It was as if they'd all either disappeared or met the same fate as...

Sideswipe then saw what he refused to believe.

That couldn't be her lifeless, broken form on the ground.  She wasn't laying on her face, her body and limbs contorted in impossible ways, resting in a dark puddle of her own fluids.  The deep, gaping wound in the center of her chest wasn't really large enough to see through.

Sideswipe froze, his mind racing frantically, trying to make sense of what he knew he couldn't possibly be seeing.  He was unwilling to accept that the impossible was in fact true.

He'd learned of her death second-hand, reported to him from Optimus Prime, who had also learned of it second-hand.  Though his mind and heart were consumed with rage and despair, he'd harbored the lingering doubt that somehow the reports were wrong, that someone had made a clerical mistake, that his most selfish and horrible fantasies would come true, that it had been some other Autobot who had died, someone he'd never known, never cared about.  Even the slightest chance had existed that this was some kind of a test, some sick game of Optimus Prime's, a manner by which to judge how well Sideswipe would obey orders and remain on Earth, even when his most beloved companion had been killed, and Sideswipe would have gladly accepted the harshest of reprimands had that been the case.

Now, bent down before her, cradling her heavy head in his hands, gently brushing the soil from her beautiful, perfect face, Sideswipe knew it was impossible to deny reality, impossible to avoid confronting the cold, savage truth, that no possibilities remained.  The very universe as he knew it was gone forever, and in its place was a grey, dismal shell, devoid of life, devoid of meaning.  His few precious memories of Disco were all that remained of her fragile existence, and Sideswipe would guard those memories forever, selfishly keeping part of her alive, for as long as he continued to function.

He would take her body back to Autobot ground for interment.  He would dig a grave with his own hands and ensure that she at least received a proper burial.  But first, he would take one last, long look at her.  As much as he wanted to remember her as he'd once known her, so many millions of years before, he owed it to her to acknowledge what she'd become.  He had to look her in the eyes one last time.

She'd been tampered with.  He'd already known that on some level, not quite consciously aware of it until he turned to look down upon her mangled body.  There was battle damage, yes, but there was more.  The panel on her lower torso had been left hanging open, evidence of foreign lubricants encrusted around her power filter interface.  The Decepticons had not only taken her life, but had forcibly drained the remaining energon from her body, siphoning her lifeblood, violating her body.  Whether they'd done so before or after the light had faded from her eyes was unknown to him, but either prospect was equally unsettling.

Lost in thought, a new reality dawned on Sideswipe, one as equally impossible to comprehend as the last.  It should have been impossible to find Disco here.  He'd been looking for evidence of the Decepticons who had hunted her down; he'd never expected to find her at all.  Why was her body still down here?  Why hadn't Elita One come to retrieve her?  Cybertron was dangerous... maybe sending another warrior out to find her would be too risky.  But that meant... that meant that Elita One had declared her dead without ever seeing her body.  So had Optimus Prime.  They'd assumed that she'd been destroyed, but they'd had no idea.  They'd just written her off.  Maybe she had still been alive.  Maybe something could have been done.  What if she'd been clinging to the last threads of existence, hoping in her heart that someone would find her before the end came?  Maybe Sideswipe could have saved her if Prime hadn't refused to let him see her. Maybe he could have made a difference if he'd gotten to Cybertron just a day sooner.   Maybe he could have stopped this disgusting abuse of her body.  Maybe whatever she'd been carrying, whatever it was the Decepticons had wanted, maybe the secret could have been exposed.  If it was important enough for Disco to risk her life over, it was important enough to change the world.

Sideswipe had to know what it was.

He had to know what she knew.  He had to know what it was she'd discovered, why the Decepticons had hunted her down, why they'd killed her.  He had to know if she had still been alive when they violated her, if they'd left her to suffer afterwards.  He had to know who these Decepticons were, how many they were in number, what their putrid faces looked like, what their sickening voices sounded like.  He had to find them and destroy them for what they'd done.

Far past the threshold of any level of restraint or decency, Sideswipe knew there was only one way to gain access to this information.  She had no way of stopping him.  

Sideswipe would do this for Disco because he loved her.

***

Chapter 48: The Devil in the Details

"What is our operating status?" asked Rapido.

"You want the good news first, or the bad news?" Skram asked, transforming to robot mode and pulling out a collection of weathered, rolled-up parchments from the vehicle-mode canopy on his back.  He unrolled one of them, a schematic for the Ark, and spread it out for Rapido's approval as Perceptor and Trailbreaker looked on.

"Information is not inherently good or bad," Rapido said.  "It's what one does with that knowledge that determines the outcome."

"Eh, it was a trick question anyway," Skram said.  "It's all bad news.  About two-thirds of the ship is trashed.  You can't even get into most of the forward areas, including this big chunk here," he said, directing his leader's attention to the corresponding areas on the schematic, "unless you happen to be able to walk through solid rock.  We got no shields, no weapons, and you can forget about ever getting this hunk a' junk into space again."

As if to punctuate Skram's words, a faint rumbling could be heard from somewhere within the volcano's depths.  For the briefest of moments, the ground beneath their feet trembled slightly.  Rapido casually brushed some fallen debris from the surface of the blueprints.

"Uh, does that... usually happen?" Skram asked in a faint voice.

"Occasional tremors are not entirely uncommon," Perceptor explained, "due to the residual activity of the tectonic plates upon which this volcano rests."

"Proceed, Skram," Rapido said.

"Yeah, uh, sure," Skram said, casting an uneasy glance at the ceiling before continuing.  "Anyway, I put out a call to round up the troops, but there's no tellin' when they'll actually show up.  There's a gazillion Autobots to keep track of, and I don't even know how many of 'em are on the planet.  I swear, you need a picture-catalog just to keep track of 'em all."

Another series of tremors shook the base, causing both Rapido and Perceptor to momentarily lose their footing.  The low, deep rumbling echoed throughout the rough-hewn, rocky walls of the base before gradually subsiding.

"Is it just my imagination, or are those gettin' louder?" Skram asked.

"Upon secondary reflection," Perceptor noted, "perhaps an excursion is indicated to investigate potentially volatile seismic wave activity."

"Not only that, but we'd probably better check on the volcano," Trailbreaker said.

"Are you suggesting through inference that my admittedly lexiphanic phraseology should be more perspicuous?" Perceptor said.

"No,  of course not," Trailbreaker said.  "Mostly because I don't know what any of that means."

"I'm goin' too," Skram said.  "You couldn't pay me enough to stick around in this death trap any longer."

***

The three Autobots emerged from an artificially-created passage, leading from the ship to the expansive interior of the great volcano.  The inner depths of the volcano might have, at one time, been immediately accessible through a hatch in the forward section of the ship.  Over the eons, however, deposits of molten rock had been occasionally ejected from the magma pools below, settling upon the surface of the craft and cooling to normal temperatures.  The process continued over millions of years, until the section of the Ark that had pierced the surface of the volcanic mountain had become completely encased in solidified, volcanic rock.

An oval-shaped chamber beneath the ship still remained, consisting of a wide, circular pathway encompassing a glowing hot magma pool.  The original volcanic shaft had since been rerouted by the Autobots to travel around the ship, in the hopeful prevention of damages incurred during possible future eruptions.  This also enabled them to launch satellites directly from the Ark and out the volcano summit.  Now completely cut off from the outside daylight, the molten lava cast a red-colored hue upon the entire chamber that was as oppressive as the sweltering heat emanating from its center.

"Y'know, I don't get you guys," Skram said.  "You're only sittin' on top of one of the biggest sources of free energy on the planet, but you ain't got a single energy collector set up.  What gives?"

"The feeder conduit beneath this mountain leads to a magma chamber deep beneath the Earth's crust," Perceptor explained.  "To tamper with the natural balance of the volcano's energies could inadvertently serve as the catalyst for an eruption, compromising the structural integrity of our base, to say nothing of the unforeseen consequences such activity might pose to other parts of the world."

"Yeah, that was right up there on Optimus Prime's 'That Big List of No-No's,'" Trailbreaker said.  "Our ship's computer tapped into it long enough to repair us and give us our Earth modes, but we haven't touched it since then."

Skram harumphed.

"Upon a cursory visual inspection, it appears there has not been any recent volcanic activity," Perceptor said.  "I shall endeavour to conduct a more thorough analysis."  He straightened his body and transformed into microscope mode.  Though he was capable of reducing his physical size during transformation, enabling other Autobots to peer comfortable through his lenses, he remained at full-size in order to conduct his inspection.  He scanned the surface of the magma pool with his lenses, sweeping silently back and forth across its surface.

"Y'know, when we get around to picking out our Earth modes," Skram said, pointing an outstretched thumb in Perceptor's direction, "remind me not to pick anything that looks like that."

"Are you kidding?  That's the best disguise I've ever seen," Trailbreaker said.  "Put him in a group of bright red, ten-foot-tall microscopes and he blends right in."

"Autobots!  I have inadvertently stumbled onto a most alarming discovery!" Perceptor said.  "Upon studying the surface of the cavern walls at full magnification, I observed a quantity of microscopic fissures in the rock that are strongly indicative of a potential ruptur--"

Without warning, the cavern ceiling erupted in a thunderous cacophony, showering the Autobots with flying particles of rock and ash as Skram and Trailbreaker dove for cover.  Instinctively, Perceptor whirled his magnification lenses to zero in on the direction of the explosion.  As one, the Autobots were blinded with a brilliant wave of sunlight, pouring in through the breach and washing everything in a brilliant orange glow.  Four airborne vehicles poured out of the gash in the ceiling like a swarm of metal insects, spraying laser blasts as they leveled off, leaving the falling debris to its fate as they headed for the cavern exit.

"It appears that the tremors we had initially attributed to the volcanic activity were, in fact, the result of a successful Decepticon attempt to penetra--"

"Later, Perceptor!  We gotta book!" Trailbreaker shouted as he broke into a run, flipping open a panel on his forearm to open a communications channel.  "Blaster, sound the alert!  Decepticons have infiltrated the base through the volcano summit!  Blaster, come in!  Hello?  Operator?"

Perceptor had attempted to match Trailbreaker's pace in his mobile microscope mode, but the terrain proved too difficult to navigate effectively as he stumbled and stalled upon the pieces of rock that had fallen from above.  He quickly transformed back to robot mode, sprinting off to catch up with Trailbreaker.

"Hey Perceptor, did you just pick up my transmission?" Trailbreaker asked.

"Negative," Perceptor said, huffing as he jogged.

Trailbreaker made an adjustment to his communicator.  "Can you hear me now?"

Perceptor shook his head.

"Well," Trailbreaker said, "either Blaster forgot to pay the phone bill, or somebody's blocking signals in the base.  My jammer beam won't do any good without a signal boost.  Let's head for the communications room.  We've got to alert the rest of Autobots!"

"Alert, nothin'!" Skram said, now in his Cybertronic vehicle form, racing sideways on two wheels and pulling up next to Trailbreaker as they ascended the winding path that led back to the base.  "That was Windrazor's bunch!  We already know he's gonna make a play to get his soldier back!  We gotta stop him!"

"Not a chance," Trailbreaker said.  "The safety of the Autobots comes first!  If those guys knocked out the perimeter guards, we're the only ones who know they're here!  The others won't even see it coming if they don't even know we're under attack!"

***

With Windrazor in the lead, the group of aerial Decepticons rocketed through the annals of the volcano until they reached the orange, tarnished hull of the Autobot space craft.

"Skyscorchers, transform!" Windrazor commanded.  He stood before the ancient craft with Terradive and Eagle Eye at either side.  Behind him hovered Dreadwing, now in a modified version of his jet mode.

"Now that's what I'm talkin' about!" Terradive exclaimed.  "That was great!  Bite me, you stupid wind!  Nyah hah!"

"Terradive," Windrazor commanded, "make us an entrance!"

Terradive stepped forth, the crimson light from the volcanic lava shimmering against his gleaming, black body.  He reached forth with two mighty hands, pressing his fingertips into a seam in the great ship's metal armor, and pulled.  The hull of the space craft was breached in seconds, and after tearing away the last vestiges of fuel lines and electronic cables that remained behind the interior wall, Terradive broke through to the inside of the Ark.

"Eagle Eye," Windrazor said, "take the lead and watch for traps."

"One step ahead of you," Eagle Eye said, tapping a button on the side of his helmet.  "Something up ahead, probably an alarm trigger.  Panel in the floor, visible circuit detailing.  Don't walk on it."

"Anthrax, we need our guide," Windrazor said.  "Quickly!"

Anthrax and Soundwave emerged from Dreadwing's canopy and each jumped to the ground, Soundwave carrying his concussion cannon and Anthrax holding her electro-sword.  Dreadwing and his drone jet disengaged from one another; Dreadwing shrank down as he transformed back to robot mode, still dwarfing the other Decepticons present.  Anthrax approached the sleek drone jet and pressed a button to open its canopy.  Inside sat Smokescreen, his arms bound tightly in energon chains.

Anthrax grabbed the chains which clasped Smokescreen's wrists together and tugged sharply, pulling the Autobot out of his seat and onto the drone jet's wing.  He bounced awkwardly and rolled off the surface of the craft, tumbling in a heap in front of the makeshift entrance to the base.

Anthrax winced and shot Windrazor an apologetic look.

"Now, Autobot," Windrazor said, "lead us to the holding cells at once!"

"If we act now, before the Autobots counterattack," Anthrax reminded him as she pulled him to his feet, "we can get this done as quickly and painlessly as possible.  Your cooperation is vital if you wish to avoid casualties."

"We don't actually use this part of the ship anymore.  It was damaged in the crash, so they sealed it off," Smokescreen said.  "We've got two choices now.  If we go in that direction, to the left, we'll end up in the engine room.  We'll have to go deeper into the ship and it will take longer to get to the detention area, but we'll encounter less resistance.  It's faster to go this way, to the right, which takes us straight through the main control room, but there will be a lot more Autobots to get through."

"Once the Autobots are mobilized, they will converge in force on the main invasion party," Windrazor said.  "The Skyscorchers and I will proceed to the control room and engage the Autobot response.  The rest of you follow this Autobot to the holding area and recover Snipe."

"Wait, you never said anything about splitting up," Anthrax said.  "There could be a hundred Autobots waiting for you in there.  You'll need our firepower!"

"All we need to do is hold the Autobots at bay," Windrazor said.  "If Rapido believes he is preventing me from reaching my objective, that gives me the upper hand.  As soon as you have recovered Snipe, we will withdraw.  Come, my Skyscorchers!"

"You heard him," Anthrax said to Smokescreen, nudging him gently in the back with the tip of her sword.  "Lead the way!"

***

"What's that noise?" Prowl asked, just before the sliding doors that led to the main control room were smashed into pieces.  Huge, orange chunks of metal burst outwards, as if the door had been destroyed by a particularly powerful punch.  Three winged warriors emerged from the corridors, charging through the doorway and immediately started shooting everything in sight.

"Decepticons!" Prowl exclaimed, instantly reaching for his acid pellet gun.  He aimed straight up and fired repeatedly at the rocky ceiling.  The hardened deposits came loose and crumbled into large fragments, tumbling down and piercing the Decepticons beneath the weight of the rubble.

"That won't hold them for long," Prowl told Rapido, who had also drawn his weapon.  "We've got to mobilize our defenses!"

"I have already ordered the remaining Autobots to return to the base," Rapido pointed out, "but I calculate with 89.1 percent certainty that further attempts at communication will be blocked.  We must proceed using resources that are immediately available.  Turbofire, explore this ship as quickly as you can and alert every Autobot you find to report here and engage the enemy.  If you find Skram, ask him to do the same."

"Acknowledged," Turbofire said with a salute, transforming to his utility vehicle mode and speeding off down the opposite corridor.

"There were only three of them," Prowl noted.

"My tactical analysis circuitry is fully operational," Rapido replied.

The pile of broken rocks burst open, forcing the two Autobots to shield their faces from flying debris.  When the dust cloud settled, Windrazor stood tall and proud.

"I see you have joined forces with these rusted relics of a bygone era," Windrazor said, "but you have only managed to seal their fate along with your own.  You are the only obstacle that stands before me now, and once I have eliminated you, I will reclaim my wayward warrior and exterminate every Autobot ever to be manufactured!"

"You have omitted one vital factor in your calculations," Rapido said.  "There are over 50 Autobots stationed at this base prepared to stop you from accomplishing your objectives.  The three of you will not succeed."

"I have omitted nothing, you pompous waste of processors," Windrazor hissed.  "And there is a world of difference between being outnumbered and outmatched.  Decepticons, destroy!"

***

Trailbreaker burst into the communications room, with Perceptor and Skram close behind.

"Blaster, we've got a Decepticon infestation inside the volcano!"

"Yeah, I figured as much," Blaster said, standing before a computer terminal with static on the screen.  "Every signal in the base is being blocked, and I'll bet my subwoofers that Soundwave's on the clock."

"We've gotta warn the others somehow.  Can you boost my jamming beam?" Trailbreaker asked.

"Maybe if Hubcap were here.  He's probably the only Autobot unaffected by all this," Blaster said.  "I'll do you one better, though."  He jumped into the air, transforming and shrinking down to his stereo cassette deck mode.  Trailbreaker reached out and caught him by the handle in mid-air.

"Geez, not another one," Skram said.  "Do any of you guys turn into, I dunno, somethin' with wheels?"

"Wait 'till you meet the Dinobots," Trailbreaker said.

"It's peanut butter jelly time, with the accent on 'jam,'" Blaster said.  "Plug me into that terminal, and I'll relay the news directly through every intercom speaker in the base, post haste.  We won't get the word out to the guys on the outside, but at least we can warn everybody on the home front."

"Do it!" Trailbreaker said.

"Attention, Autobots!  Attention all Autobots!" Blaster shouted.  "We're under attack, and that's a fact!  We got Decepticons in the base, and we're meetin' them face-to-face!  Emergency!  Emergency!  Hear my shout!  The base is being attacked from the inside out!"

***

Klaxons sounded throughout the ship as Smokescreen's group continued, unabated, through the engine room.  The long-dormant chamber had been deemed unsuitable for any purpose, the star drive having long since been gutted of any useful mechanical parts.  Smokescreen switched on his chest-mounted headlights, casting a somber glow upon the still heart of the ancient ship.  Tremendous brownish-green stalactites protruded obscenely from the metal ceiling, the results of millions of years' worth of slow, gradual limestone deposits.  The living rock formations made for a bizarre contrast against the stark, dead metal of the Autobot ship.  For Smokescreen, it was at once an eerie and captivating sight.  He had never been this way before.

Smokescreen had never realized just how tremendous the damages to the ship had actually been.  The craft had been launched into the side of the volcano with enough force to break through its outer surface, permanently wedging the great craft within the bowels of the mountain.  While the structural integrity of the ship's forward section had remained surprisingly intact, the force of the impact had proven enough to bend the craft down the middle, the aft third of the ship now jutting upwards at an angle with respect to the rest of the ship.  As he ascended to the very back of the engine room, Smokescreen had to clutch tightly at the handrails of the catwalks around the perimeter of the room.

Smokescreen whirled around as his audio receptors were pierced by the sound of groaning, rending metal.  Dreadwing cried out as he plummeted backwards, the long-abandoned catwalk having collapsed beneath his bulky weight.  He'd managed to grasp the broken handrail, but he didn't appear to be making any effort to pull himself back up.  His drone partner stood and watched stupidly.

Anthrax rushed over and grasped his arm, barely able to wrap her tiny hands around his wrist.  "Unngh!  I can't lift you!  Transform and fly back up!"

"Useless... all useless," he said in a pitifully disinterested tone.  "Just forget about me.  I'm not worth the trouble."

"Structural collapse of bridge is imminent," Soundwave warned.

"Dreadwing, you're the only one here with the cargo room to carry that Decepticon prisoner," Smokescreen said, thinking quickly.  "This rescue mission can't succeed without you.  We'll all be destroyed!"

Still hanging by one hand, Dreadwing let out a contented sigh, as if he were revelling in the thought.  "You have a refreshingly realistic grasp on the situation, Autobot," he said.

"At least... at least I can take some small comfort in finally watching you fall to your death," Smokescreen said.

"Oh... really?" Dreadwing asked.  "Would that satisfy you?"

"Very much so," Smokescreen said.

With some degree of effort, Dreadwing hoisted himself upwards, swinging his feet above his head to make contact with the remains of the catwalk, enabling him to climb back up to a stable section of the platform.  He looked at Smokescreen with dead, empty eyes.

"Satisfaction is an illusion," he said to Smokescreen, "created only when you've momentarily forgotten how dismal your existence truly is."  He trudged forward without another word, his drone partner obediently following along behind.

Anthrax cast a suspicious glare at Smokescreen.  "Nice trick," she said.  "I don't know why you did that, but... uh, anyway, good job."

Smokescreen nodded curtly.  He gestured for the Decepticons to follow quickly, continuing his journey through the propulsion room and back down to the other side, leading back into the vertically-oriented area of the ship.

By the time they made their way to the other end of the chamber, the faint sound of weapons fire could be heard from elsewhere in the ship.  Windrazor's party had no doubt engaged the Autobots.  Smokescreen closed his optic sensors tightly and shook his head, suppressing the guilt welling up inside of him.  He never imagined he would ever be in a situation where he willingly helped the Decepticons, much less lead a sneak attack into the heart of his own base.  In less civilized times, this was the sort of traitorous act that got Autobots beheaded, their bodies smelted, and their still-living cranial units put on display and made and example of.  Even in this modern age, Smokescreen knew that such an act of treason would not go unpunished, even if his motives were pure.  Optimus Prime would not be so forgiving of Smokescreen going his own way this time... and that was assuming Optimus was still alive.

He tried to shake off the feeling of impending doom and bring his concentration back to the task at hand, knowing that even a second's hesitation might lead to even more mayhem and destruction than he'd already unleashed.

Smokescreen tugged on the hatch leading to the secondary corridor.  The detention block wasn't far away.

"What's wrong?" Anthrax asked.

"The door's locked," Smokescreen said.  "Blasting it open would make too much noise."  He stepped forth ahead of the group, deftly circumventing the detection panels on the floor, and reached the access panel next to the door.  He hesitated for a moment, then keyed in his passcode.  The color of the lights on the control panel changed from blue to green, indicating it was now unlocked.

"Red Alert's getting sloppy," Smokescreen mused.

***

"I hope you're hungry," Brawn grunted, his fists clenched tightly as he let loose swing after swing at his Decepticon opponent, "because your mug is about to get force-fed a supersized order of my McFist!"

He'd never seen these Decepticons before.  He had no idea how they'd gotten inside.  Fortunately, it wasn't his job to figure that out.  He didn't need to know.  All he needed to hear were the sounds of rending metal; all he need to see was the dents in his enemy's face created by his hydraulic knuckles.

"Warning," Teletraan I calmly announced, its voice barely audible above the laser fire and cries of war, "Decepticons have infiltrated Autobot Headquarters."

"You don't say," Brawn remarked dryly.  "What else is new?"

The Decepticon was taller than Brawn, a little bigger than an Insecticon, built of gleaming black alloys that protruded every which way.  Like every Decepticon, he came with convenient built-in carrying handles.  Brawn grabbed at one of the components on his opponent's shoulders and came away with a fistful of landing gear components.  He grabbed again, aiming for solid metal, and was rewarded this time with a secure grasp.  His fingertips dug into the robot's shoulder, creating a decidedly ergonomic grip, and Brawn made a move as if to fling the robot across the room.

The Decepticon jerked back with a force equal to, or possibly greater than, Brawn's mighty would-be vault.  Brawn staggered.  The larger robot stared at Brawn, his strange, haunting green eyes glaring, and then he laughed.  It was an ill-mannered, raunchy laugh, and Brawn was certain he'd have been pelted by flying expectorate were it not for the equally green mask on the robot's face.  

Brawn's opponent reached forth and grasped the vehicular hood mounted behind Brawn's head with both hands.  He crushed it between his hands as he lifted Brawn off the ground with it, throwing him down to the floor with enough force to upturn a panel in the floor as a protruding corner was caught by Brawn's chest armor.  Momentarily dazed by the impact, Brawn was relieved by Cliffjumper, who leapt to his friend's rescue and latched himself onto the Decepticon's chest-mounted canopy, pummeling the Decepticon in the head with his elbows.

"You little freaks!  I'm gonna turn you both into keychains!"  The Decepticon laughed again and tore Cliffjumper off, drawing back and pitching the little red Autobot into Brawn, who blocked his face with his forearms an instant before Cliffjumper plowed into it.

***

By now, most of the Autobots present at the base had been alerted to the intrusion in the control room, and what had begun as a skirmish has escalated into a full-scale brawl.  The operations center of the ship was spacious, but not nearly so much as to allow for effective close-combat.  Autobots found themselves back-to-back, entwined in one another's doors and windshields as they attempted to fend off the small but potent attacking force.

Mirage was reminded of the attack from outer space, the ambush which enabled Megatron's crew to board the ship and cause its literal downfall.  Ever since the Decepticons had awakened and abandoned the downed craft, the ship had remained the Autobots' sacred shrine, their one safe haven, which lone Decepticons had occasionally managed to penetrate, but the aftereffects of this were never long-lasting.  Now, the Autobots faced an invasive assault like never before, focused in the heart of the ship, from which a ready means of victory seemed completely out of grasp.  It was an unthinkable violation now, and the last time they'd managed to get this far, it had changed the course of history forever.  The unstoppable force of destiny couldn't be halted, but perhaps it could be temporarily averted.  Mirage found himself longing, much as he'd felt when the Ark was attacked, that he simply wasn't there.

Thankfully, this could be arranged with remarkable ease.

Stepping back and taking a quick visual survey of the room, mostly out of habit, to ensure that none of his foes were looking directly at him, Mirage touched a panel on his chest and activated his invisibility field.  He was instantly enveloped within a rectangular-shaped prism that glowed with a faint pink hue before vanishing, and Mirage was instantly removed from the universe.

Naturally, calling it an invisibility field was simply a handy way of referring to the multiple number of radiation shields and sophisticated holographic displacement beams that went into effect whenever Mirage utilized this ability.  The term was terribly misleading, but very few Autobots understood how many images Mirage had to simultaneously project in order to create the illusion that he wasn't really there.  The real-time holographic transmitters which effectively covered his body, which numbered in the tens of thousands and which each projected an image at a very specific angle of Mirage's current environment (sans Mirage) were beyond the comprehension of even some of the science-minded Autobots, let alone the warrior types, up to and including Mirage himself.  Only on one occasion had the technology been duplicated reasonably well by the Decepticons after covering their bodies with microtransmitting nanites, but their crude attempts at copying Mirage's unique gift had ultimately betrayed their presence in the base to Teletraan I.

Mirage, now completely blind, listened intently for a moment to the sounds of the battle raging in the room.  He heard Inferno groan in anguish as a Decepticon laughed excitedly and delivered a blow to his body that shattered his windshield.  He heard Warpath punctuating the fight with inappropriately comical sound effects, and Powerglide chiding him for his ineffective combat technique.  After a short period of observation, Mirage had constructed a virtual mental construct of the fight, and he was able to track the movement of both his allies and enemies with reasonable accuracy as long as their blasters sounded off as they fired and as long as they shouted cries of encouragement and anger and pain.  The only elements that remained a mystery to Mirage were the Autobots who had already been rendered unconscious and no longer contributed to the cacophony.  Brawn, Cliffjumper, Gears, and Hoist were among those unaccounted for by Mirage's mental tally.

He aimed and fired his rifle, his illusory field changing dimensions to accommodate his now outstretched arm and weapon, and knew that he'd missed his shot.  Quickly, he ducked and somersaulted, running behind an unsuspecting Beachcomber and Seaspray, taking cover behind an ages-old stalactite column that had fused with one of Teletraan's auxiliary computer banks.  He couldn't afford to make that mistake again, as his laser bolts were fully visible outside of his distortion field, and pointed quite clearly to the existence of an invisible Autobot warrior in the midst.

Assessing the battle for another instant, Mirage took aim, but one of the Decepticons had changed direction and was headed towards him.  Mirage debated whether to stand his ground or scramble for cover again, but he didn't want to risk giving himself away as he scraped against the rocky flooring.  He stood fast, thinking the Decepticon was possibly trying to get around Tracks and take him from behind, until Mirage realized he, himself, was being addressed directly.

"Nice trick," he said, "but any camouflaged prey can be detected by the senses of a finely-honed predator."

In disbelief, Mirage ran a quick check of his illusory circuitry.  There was no malfunction; everything was functioning as it always had, and yet, somehow, this Decepticon could see him!

Mirage did something almost completely unknown to him; he panicked.  He scrambled backwards, tripping over a broken stalagmite that he'd neglected to account for.  The airborne Decepticon descended upon him like a specter, the vile scent of his foreign exhaust fumes growing stronger and his oddly-shaped wingspan filling Mirage's peripheral vision.  With no further reason to prolong his illusion, Mirage deactivated his cloaking field and re-entered the world.

"Had no idea technology like yours still existed," the green-and-black Decepticon quipped.  "As you can see, modern Decepticon technology has progressed far beyond your simple parlor tricks.  And yet, I find you to be a curiosity.  An artifact out of time.  Something worth owning."

Before Mirage could react, the Decepticon swung forward violently with his arm-mounted thrusters ignited.  The intense heat from his thrusters softened Mirage's armor, enabling the force of his blow to penetrate through the external shell.  He jerked back, his fist closed, and when it emerged, he was holding the tiny component which made Mirage everything he was.

"How quaint," the Decepticon said.  Mirage steeled himself, waiting for the blow to his cranial unit that would knock his processors off-line, but it never came.  He was left with the horrible realization that he'd been robbed of all his temporary solutions, and that if he were to remove himself from this fight and this war, as he was so desperate to do... he would have to do it permanently.

***

Chapter 49:  Dead Herring

The ancient scanning and replication technology aboard the Ark had been designed to survey a given planet with its probes in order to amass a sampling of mechanical forms that would be used as the basis for the Autobots' new exostructures.  This enabled the Autobots to better function by giving them vehicular modes that were perfectly suited to the environment, and even enable them to blend in if necessary by disguising themselves as native mechanisms.  The disadvantage to this technology is that the Ark's probes weren't very good at observing machinery in its proper context.  Teletraan had been programmed to create mechanical alterations based on an approximate match in size or shape or function, but the computer was lost when it came to the subtlety of how that machine was used in society or for what purpose.

As a result, the Sky Spy had returned with a small sampling of Earth forms that was decidedly atypical for the locale.  Teletraan hadn't any way of recognizing this small but important fact, of course.  The first location it had discovered that contained potential conversion matches for the Autobots was a car dealership that specialized in expensive, exotic sports cars.  This resulted in many of the Autobots with comparable vehicular profiles being turned into high-performance luxury vehicles which, as the Autobots would later discover, rarely escaped detection by the human populace.  The only advantage to this programming oversight was that the Decepticons themselves couldn't distinguish the difference in vehicle types any better than Teletraan had.  It was partly due to this problem that a very small number of Autobots had opted not to undergo a mechanical conversion of any kind.

It was fortunate for the Autobots, in this instance, that the climate of Antarctica was far too harsh for human habitation, since the sight of a bright green flying saucer descending from the sky would probably have been more than due cause for concern for any passers-by.  The fact that this flying saucer proceeded to touch down and deposit two exotic vehicles on the ice that were decidedly terrestrial in origin and distinctly not suited for a subzero environment would have probably been ultimately immaterial.

Red Alert was the last to drive down Cosmos' boarding ramp.  He ejected a small, yellow cassette from his onboard tape deck before he transformed to robot mode.  The cassette unfolded into a robotic lion and landed deftly at Red Alert's side.  Steeljaw let out a synthesized, mechanical growl as he sniffed the air.

"You'd better remain up above, Cosmos," Red Alert said.  "If the Decepticons come anywhere near this continent, we'll need to know about them before they know about us.  Understand?"

"I suppose," Cosmos said dejectedly.  "If you need me, I'll be just be counting the craters on the Moon... again."  He lifted off and sped away into the sky.

Red Alert made a visual sweep of the terrain.  Just as Ironhide had described, the battle had obviously been an intense one, as evidenced by the numerous detonated missile shells, armor parts, and a significant amount of tarnished, purple metal shards.  Space bridge remnants, most likely.  There was even a small patch of coagulated organic matter with significant ferrous content, which Steeljaw seemed to be taking an inordinate amount of interest in.  Red Alert presumed it to be human blood.

The largest and most obvious artifact from the battle, however, was the gigantic chasm in the ice.  The mouth of the ravine was tattered and fragile, having been sprayed with explosive energy that had vaporized the ice on contact.  The explosion had also interrupted the space bridge transport cycle; the only reason the damage hadn't been greater still was that the dimensional rift created by the Decepticons had absorbed much of the explosion before sealing itself shut.  This much was determined by the long-range readings recovered from Teletraan's sub-orbital satellite, but Red Alert had been determined to inspect the battlefield first-hand.  Teletraan's sensor readings were accurate to a point, but Red Alert was the first to admit that the computer was known to overlook a few details here and there.

Red Alert's terrestrial mode, for example, had been based on an uncharacteristically expensive vehicle belonging to a corrupt city official.  Fire chief Stonebraker had been skimming money off the top for years, appropriating city funding for his own personal use.  He'd apparently kept it hidden at first, until his taste for extravagance had gotten the better of him, and his illicit activities had begun to manifest themselves in more obvious ways, like buying a $100,000 municipal vehicle.  The Autobots had apparently run into him at least once, not too long before he was ultimately dismissed from the fire department, though Red Alert had been, or so he'd been told, too preoccupied with other things at the time to take notice.

"If only the space bridge hadn't been destroyed," Red Alert said.  "With all this debris, it's impossible to know how much of it is space bridge metal and how much of it is..."  He couldn't bring himself to finish the thought.

Steeljaw growled quietly.  He skulked along, his nose close to the ground, inspecting each and every metal fragment with his olfactory sensors.

"Well," said Skids, continuing only after a long, contemplative pause, "there are only three possibilities as I see it.  One is that Optimus did, indeed, make it across the space bridge to Cybertron.  The second is that he wasn't actually captured by the transport beam before it shut off, and that he's still here on Earth somewhere.  The third is that he entered the transport cycle, but the explosion threw him off course and he was lost somewhere in dimensional space."

"But Teletraan said that the Decepticons were using plasma energy weapons," Red Alert said.  "It would have irradiated his circuitry, no matter what planet Prime ended up on."

"Then we might be looking for a terminal unit," Skids said, using the delicate euphemism.

Steeljaw was circling around the mouth of the crater, making increasingly plaintive sounds as he paced.  He stopped at the edge of the chasm, pawing at the icy ground and looking at Red Alert and Skids expectantly.

"He's found something," Red Alert said excitedly.  "If you transform back to your van mode, you can lower us down to the bottom."

Skids stepped forward and transformed, turning forward for a moment to change direction and then backing up towards the mouth of the chasm.  His rear hatch swung open to reveal a winch and cable assembly.

"Honda City Turbo, actually," Skids said.

"Excuse me?" Red Alert said.

"I'm not a van.  I'm a Honda City Turbo," Skids explained.

"Well, you look like a van to me," Red Alert insisted.

"And you look like embezzled municipal finances," Skids said.

Steeljaw roared.

"What he said," Red Alert said.  "Just take us down there, all right?"

Steeljaw transformed back to his cassette mode and, using his capacity for electromagnetizing himself in this form, attached himself to Red Alert's forearm for the trip down to the bottom.  Red Alert regarded the smaller, strangely out-of-place robot attached to his body as rather disconcerting, but quickly shrugged off the sensation.  He grabbed tightly onto the grappling hook affixed to Skids' winch assembly and motioned for Skids to lower him down.

The chasm was deep, but did not penetrate completely through the ice to the ocean's surface.  Red Alert estimated that the ice at the bottom was around a quarter-mile thick, judging by the sounds of the raging current beneath it.  Numerous flecks of purple-grey metal were still in evidence, jutting from the chasm walls at odd angles, many of them deeply wedged within the frozen surface.  As much as seven-and-a-half metric tons, judging by the smell alone.  Steeljaw could probably have come up with a more accurate figure, but the precise measurements weren't important right now.

"What exactly is a Honda City Turbo, anyway?" Red Alert called out after he was about halfway down.

"What?" Skids called out.

"Is it like a utility vehicle, or what?" Red elaborated.

"Japanese car," Skids said.  "Also marketed in parts of Europe, I've been told."

"Oh," Red Alert said.

"They called it the Honda Jazz over there," Skids added.

"Why would they market the same product under two completely different names?" Red Alert asked.

"Beats me," Skids called out.  "Probably some trademark thing."

Red Alert rappelled off the side of the crater wall for the last leg of the trip, tugging on Skids' tow-line to announce that he'd hit bottom.  Steeljaw disengaged himself from Red Alert's forearm and unfolded back into his full-sized lion mode.  He let out a low, steady, contemplative growl.

This was probably an exercise in futility, Red Alert mused.  Or, at least, he fervently wished that it was.  Rd Alert spent a great deal of his time seeking and deliberately rooting out problems.  It was his duty.  If something wasn't amiss upon first glance, he'd check again until it was.  He didn't particularly enjoy being hypercritical of everyone and everything he encountered, despite the reputation he'd cultivated among the Autobots.  He derived no pleasure from pointing out that Prowl's ideas weren't sound enough or that Wheeljack's inventions weren't reliable enough or that Bumblebee wasn't... well, anything enough.  It was just his job.  He didn't like to be right.  It was, however, something he had to do--because if he didn't find the one tiny, insignificant flaw and correct it himself, somebody else would find it and exploit it.  The other Autobots accepted the fact that the Decepticons continually poked around, looking for holes in Autobot defenses, their psyches.  Expected it from them, even.  On some level, though, they hated it when Red Alert did it.  And they'd hate it if he came back with the one discovery that he was dreading he'd discover.

"Sensor readings are inconclusive so far," Red Alert said.

Steeljaw was pacing about, his mouth half-open as he took olfactory samples from the air, when he suddenly stopped.  His tail went rigid and his bright, blue optic sensors became wide.  He crawled over to a spot near the center of the crater, poking at the ice tenuously with his paw, then more deliberately.  He let out a multisyllabic call to Red Alert.

Red Alert approached the vicinity of Steeljaw's newfound fascination and looked very intently into the surface.  There was something metallic under the ice.  Something intact.  It was long, black, and cylindrical.  Red Alert pulled out his high-energy particle beam rifle and directed it at the frozen surface.  The ice began to slowly ebb away, revealing the sleek, slender form of a distinctly Autobot weapon.  That weapon was still in the clutches of a dark blue gauntlet, which in turn was connected to a bright red forearm.

"Optimus Prime!  Skids, we've found him!" Red Alert exclaimed excitedly as he cranked up the setting on his particle gun.  "Grab hold, Steeljaw.  Don't let him sink!"

Steeljaw reached forward and grasped the barrel of Prime's rifle with his teeth as he hunkered down and sunk his claws into the ice.  He muttered an acknowledgement, inasmuch as he was capable of doing so with his mouth full.

"Carefully," Red Alert said.  "We'll have the rest of him freed in just a few mi--"

Suddenly, inexplicably, Steeljaw sprang backwards and tumbled onto the ice.  He probably would have managed to land on his feet under any other circumstances, but the unexpected lack of resistance, combined with the slippery terrain, proved enough of a disadvantage to send him sliding backwards onto his head.

Still in Steeljaw's clutches was Prime's rifle.  Red Alert instinctively reached into the small hemmorage he'd created in the ice to grab Prime's hand, but it wasn't there.  Red Alert did a double-take at Steeljaw.  The rifle in Steeljaw's grip was still attached to Prime's forearm.  The arm, however, wasn't attached to anything at all.  What remained of the elbow joint was melted and fused and singed beyond recognition.  It was precisely the sort of damage one might expect to find as the result of exposure to extremely high temperatures, or an energon explosion, or both.

Red Alert drew his particle beam rifle again and focused it on the same spot as before.  He watched as the ice melted away in every direction, yielding under the heat and pressure of the energy beam.  He continued his particle bombardment until the space he'd created was larger than he was.  Then, he jumped into it and started spraying high-energy particles in every direction.  He proceeded to hit every surface of the crater, melting away ice in all directions until he began to hit layers of ice that had not been exposed to the atmosphere in years, if not longer.  He was well past the point of discovering any remaining space bridge fragments wedged in the ice, and yet he pressed on.  He continued this assault until his particle rifle was out of energy and he, himself, was too exhausted to stand.

"Cosmos," he said breathlessly over his communicator, "come get us.  We've... we've failed."

***

Chapter 50: Pair Bonding

"I've tried to understand you Decepticons for centuries," Windbreaker said, half to himself, as he stared into the vacant optic sensors of his current pet project.  His subject was not readily forthcoming with answers, or with any response at all.  "Now that I've finally got one of you here,  I've peered into your very soul... and I'm still no closer to understanding you than before.  I've learned nothing from you."

The Decepticon was a smallish, oddly monochromatic type, adorned with the fairly typical wings protruding from his back that one might expect from a predominantly aerial race.  There was nothing particularly remarkable about his appearance, aside from his clear fondness for the color blue.  It dominated his form, accented by the occasional grey bits.  Windbreaker recalled that his leader, Windrazor, was entirely grey with the occasional blue bits.  It amused Windbreaker to believe that the Decepticons did this to cut costs so they could forge multiple components simultaneously out of the same batch of materials.

Windbreaker let out a frustrated sigh through his olfactory ventilators.  He'd known that downloading the contents of Snipe's memory banks and translating the data into Autobot format would be a difficult task, but he'd been more than up to the challenge.  Information retrieval was his primary function and he considered himself extremely good at his job.  What he hadn't counted on was the data themselves being completely indecipherable garbage.  Had Skram's decidedly enthusiastic interrogation of the Decepticon earlier somehow damaged his metaprocessor?  Had Snipe purposefully scrambled his own circuits, knowing it was the only way to prevent the secrets hidden inside his mind to fall under Autobot control?  Had Windrazor given him orders to sacrifice his own mind to prevent his secrets from falling into Autobot hands?  Such an act of self-sacrifice would be surprising for a Decepticon, in Windbreaker's estimation.  There had to be another answer--

Windbreaker was roused from his reverie as the detention area door opened and one of the Autobots poked his head through the doorway.  He was a stocky robot, adorned in blue, red, and white.  He appeared momentarily surprised to see Windbreaker, but quickly regained his composure.

"I don't know how you got in here, but this area is off-limits," Windbreaker explained.  "Rapido's orders."

The Autobot responded by firing an electrical discharge from the cannons on either side of his head.  Windbreaker immediately felt as if he'd been taken apart, broken down into his component pieces, and then reassembled completely backwards.  Nothing seemed to work.  His arms and legs were doing things completely independent of the commands his brain was giving them; his circuit pathways were twisted pretzels.

The effects of the Autobot's attack were such that Windbreaker was unable to perceive events in their natural order or recall them in sequence.  He saw and felt a dark, slender, feminine form, probably a Decepticon, strike him hard enough to render him unconscious.  The next thing he knew, she had forcibly cut off his interlink connection with Snipe using her electrified sword, interrupting the data flow in the most dangerous way imaginable and causing untold damage to the information banks of both subjects.  Then a large, bulky Decepticon collected Snipe, throwing the unconscious robot over his mammoth shoulder, inadvertently pulling Windbreaker along for the ride due to the inexplicably intact interlink cable that bound the two subjects together.  The Decepticon proceeded to rip apart the energon bars, apparently absorbing the electrified bursts with his grasp in a manner than should have been excruciatingly painful for any living being, granting him free access to Snipe, who was seated inside the cell.  The Decepticons then burst into the room, barking orders at the red-and-blue Autobot, who was apparently allied with them.  The last thing Windbreaker remembered was their Autobot cohort entering the room alone, cautiously, which according to Windbreaker's internal diagnostics had been sufficient reason for Windbreaker to spontaneously lose consciousness.

***

Carly dreamed she had died.

Her broken, lifeless body laid on a cold metal floor, her skin having turned to an impossible and unnatural shade of grey.  She thought of what her forcible absence from the world would mean.  She thought of Daniel, whose upbringing had been confused and irreparably tainted, and what he would become without her guidance, living in a world populated by warmongering mechanical aliens.  She thought of Spike, whom she feared would likewise be lost without her, and would continue to immerse himself in his own affairs at the expense of everything that mattered.  She thought of her mother, bitter and angry at the world for taking away Carly's father, and who would spiral into even further decline at the loss of her child, only remaining kin.  She thought, too, of things dark and forbidden, things which she was unable to summon to the forefront of her mind.

An astral spectator, she bore witness to her own body being creamated, her flesh crumbling away into ashes and leaving only the bones, which shone with a faint metallic sheen in the fires.  Her heart was likewise intact, suspended in the center of her rib cage, beating with steady rhythm as it hung unsupported.  The heart itself was not a blood-pumping muscle, however, but a gleaming silver energon pump, distributing glowing pink lifeblood throughout her skeletal framework.  She watched as her own musculature was reconstructed, molecule by molecule, as the energy-rich fluid spilled over her bones and solidified.  As her body began to take form once more, the energon continued to spill from her mouth, her fingertips, her veins, until she was enveloped by a rich, luminescent cocoon of energy.

Through the flames, Carly saw the author of her ressurection.  Before her stood a dog, specifically a bloodhound, who likewise shone brightly with the glow of energon.  It was this noble creature who had selflessly granted her his lifeblood that she might live.  But what of the beast, would it now die?  The answer was not known to Carly, and her vision was now obscured by the flames.  The animal disappeared from view, and Carly was left disturbing sensations of guilt and frustration and pain.

Physical pain, in fact.  A deep-rooted ache that radiated throughout her body.  Carly slowly realized that she wasn't dead after all.  The main reason she arrived at this conclusion was because she couldn't possibly be in this much pain unless she were still alive.

She opened her eyes with some degree of effort, finding herself staring at a curtain suspended from the ceiling.  There were frogs printed on it, like her shower curtain.  She hadn't fallen asleep in the bathtub again, had she?  No, wait.  She was in an examination room at the Metro City Hospital.  She recognized the decor.  She'd given birth to Daniel here.

Bumblebee must have detected her awakening, because he reached over and whispered her name, uncertainly.

"I do believe my hospital room is bugged," Carly quipped softly.

Bumblebee shot up like a rocket and started looking under furniture and lifting picture frames off the walls.

Carly managed a weak laugh.  "It was a joke, Bumblebee."

Bumblebee stopped in his tracks.  "Oh, I get it.  Bugged.  Heh, yeah.  That's a good one."

"What day is it?" Carly asked, her voice cracking.  Her mouth felt terribly dry.

"Wednesday," Bumblebee said.

"Oh," Carly said.  She wasn't sure whether that was reassuring or not.  What day had she thought it was?  She didn't know.  She didn't remember.  She had to think.  Had to piece together what had gone wrong.

"How do you feel?" Bumblebee asked.

"Like a rotisserie chicken, I think," Carly said.  "But alive.  I'm still alive.  Bumblebee, what happened?  We were in the undersea base.  Those two Decepticons... their weapons... we should have been killed.  Both of us."

"You almost were," Bumblebee said quietly.  "But don't worry," he added.  "Spike says as soon as you're feeling up to it, we can nail those Decepti-creeps who did this to you."

"Are you all right? Carly asked.  "They had guns!  Are you hurt?"

"No, I'm fine," Bumblebee said, pointing to his gleaming golden chest.  "Bounced right off me.  This refractory metal is amazing stuff.  Not sure I like the color, though."

"Oh, I don't know about that.  I think you look quite dashing in gold," Carly said.  "Can I see the hospital chart?"

"What about you?  You okay?" Bumblebee asked, pulling the clipboard off the end of the bed and handing it to her.

"I'll be fine," she said, but in truth, her vision was blurry and her eyeballs stung like they'd been splashed with saltwater.  She couldn't focus well enough to read the charts, but she had a feeling she already knew what they said.

"Spike didn't stay here?" Carly asked.

"He wanted to," Bumblebee said.  "But Danny was getting kind of cranky, and, well, you know how he gets when it's past his bedtime."

"I'm glad Daniel's okay," she said absent-mindedly.

"There are big things happening at Headquarters," Bumblebee added.  "I don't know how much longer I'll be able to stay.  Bluestreak radioed me and said something about the space bridge being destroyed, and that there were some other Autobots who found the volcano and... well, I'm probably boring you.  I can tell you later.  I'd better go."

"No, please!" Carly said with far more urgency than she'd intended.  "I... I'd really like some company right now.  I don't want to be alone."

"Well, sure, Carly," Bumblebee said.  "I'll be here for as long as you need me."

Carly was momentarily lost in the ambient sound of the air conditioner along the far wall.  Raised in the desert, she'd grown up accustomed to using oscillating fans by her bedside her whole life, even in the dead of winter.  As a child, she'd always fond the white noise essential to her comfort, and found it impossible to sleep in total silence.  The low mechanical rattle was strangely unsettling now, but for some reason she felt almost guilty about the prospect of asking Bumblebee to switch it off.

"I'm sorry," Bumblebee said, finally breaking the converational silence.

"Sorry?  For what?" Carly said.

"For not protecting you," Bumblebee said.  "I let you down.  You were nearly killed because of me."

"Bumblebee," Carly said incredulously, "you did protect me.  You rescued me from the Decepticons.  I'm alive because of you.  Please don't apologize for that."

"I guess... I've just never seen a human hurt so badly before.  I feel really guilty."

"It happens," Carly said.  "It's not like there are any rules about who can get hurt in this war and who can't."

"Yeah," Bumblebee said.  "But there oughta be."

"Bumblebee," Carly asked after a long pause, "did Optimus Prime ever talk about leaving Earth?"

"What, you mean instead of sticking around?  Yeah, it came up once or twice when we first woke up.  A few of us were really in favor of the idea.  Prime said that leaving was totally out of the question, though.  Not if it meant leaving the Decepticons behind to plunder the planet."

"But they wouldn't have stayed on Earth forever, would they?"

"The Decepticons?  Well, no, I guess not," Bumblebee shrugged.  "But they would have stolen as much energy as they could before they left."

"Do you think they would have destroyed the planet?  Killed all its people?"

"Probably not," Bumblebee said.  "Not really their style.  That'd be a waste of energy."

"And yet they're still here," Carly said.  "Still trying to complete their mission.  And they'll spend a million years doing it, if they have to."

"That's why we have to stop them," Bumblebee said.

"But that's just it, Bumblebee!" Carly said.  "Don't you see?  The Decepticons won't stop until they get the energy they need, but the Autobots won't use lethal force to stop the Decepticons.  Our planet pays the price every day for this war.  Not just its resources, but the land, the environment, its people.  A million years might be nothing to you, but to me it's impossibly long.  Not just a lifetime, but ten thousand lifetimes.  I'll be the last living generation who will remember what planet Earth was like before the Transformers landed."

Bumblebee was shaking his head.  "A million years is a long time for me, too.  Nobody wanted the war to last as long as it did.  Cybertron should have lasted forever, but we've done so much damage, drained so much of its power, that there may never be a way to restore it to the Golden Age.  Being old enough to remember what it was like before the war doesn't change the fact that I'll never see those days again."

Sometimes it was easy to forget that the Autobots were living, feeling machines.  In her youth, Carly had suspected that the Autobots were little more than extremely sophisticated artificial intelligence programs, that they would eventually start to repeat the same responses and keywords if you engaged them in conversation for long enough periods.  It was times like this, though, when Bumblebee's impassioned words were laced with emotion, that she realized he was every bit as alive as she was.  And that, perhaps, made this moment more difficult than anything else.

"You know," Carly said, "before I met you and Spike all those years ago, I thought the news reports about giant robots were just media hype.  You know, a 'War of the Worlds' sort of thing, where Orson Welles comes on at the end and apologizes."

"What made you change your mind?" Bumblebee asked.

"Eleven-four," Carly said.

"What?"

"Sorry.  Stupid euphemism," she said.  "November 4, 1984.  The day Cybertron came into orbit.  It caused billions of dollars in property damage and killed thousands of people.  It also completely changed the way the world looked at the Decepticons.  It opened our eyes to the magnitude of the threat.  It was also the impetus that compelled the world leaders to turn to the Autobots and pledge their cooperation and support in their fight against the Evil Robot Empire."

"That's something we've never been able to do," Bumblebee admitted.  "Joining together with the Decepticons, united in a common goal, I mean."

"It hasn't done us much good," Carly said with a half-hearted shrug.  "Nobody's willing to do what needs to be done to end this war, or at least take it back to Cybertron where it belongs.  It's time for things to change."

"What do you think we should do, Carly?" Bumblebee asked.

"I don't know.  All I know is that whatever it is, it's got to be done soon.  I remember a time, not so long ago, when I could look up into the sky and not cringe every time I saw a plane flying overhead, because it really was just an airplane.  I remember wanting so badly to have a baby, but not yet dreading the idea of bringing new life into this world we've made for ourselves.  I remember the days before energy usage laws, when I could leave the hall light turned on and didn't have to cook everything I ate over an open fire.  I remember a time, before I became so totally desensitized, that I'd actually sit up and take notice if I heard an explosion outside my window.  I haven't forgotten what life used to be like, Bumblebee.  I want those days to come back again."

"Me too, Carly," Bumblebee said, "but sometimes you just can't recapture the past."

"You can if you try hard enough," Carly said quietly.

***

Chapter 51: Violations

Sideswipe had no physical form to speak of, but he was nonetheless able to interact with his environment, which itself was distinctly lacking tangible reality.  It was similar to a dream, the main difference being that he was completely conscious, and as such was not a slave to the careless whimsy of his subconscious mind.  Able to deliberately and willfully travel through this ethereal plane, Sideswipe began his journey.

Images surrounded him, both above and below, behind and ahead of him.  Some were immediately recognizable icons with obvious importance; he saw Optimus Prime, images of familiar places on Cybertron, the city-base of Iacon, and giant flying Autobot insignias crashing into giant flying Decepticon insignias like some kind of absurd exercise in obvious symbolism.  Some images were equally recognizable, but whose meanings and significance were not know to him.  He saw places that were obviously Cybertron, but the precise locales were foreign to him.  He saw the faces of robots he had never met, and heard their voices repeat conversations he had never witnessed.  Most of what Sideswipe saw, however, was vague and ill-defined.  Fuzzy shapes that may have been robots, or vehicles, or both.  They passed by him at alarming speeds, leaving him to wonder why they were fleeing so quickly and why he was unable to make out any details about them.  Sounds in the background were muffled and indistinct, so much so that it was impossible to determine whether they were in fact voices, and if so, what they were saying.

Sideswipe was struck with a feeling of intense guilt.  None of this was meant for him.  These weren't his thoughts, his feelings, his impressions.  And yet he pressed on, knowing that it was impossible to turn back now.

He plunged into the mad depths of fragmented memories, not even trying to make sense of the disjointed, half-focused imagery.  He supposed his mind was filled with many of these same half-erased files, long since abandoned in the dark annals of his memory banks as he continually and routinely overwrote them with new, current information.  A thorough databank purge would take care of most of these half-forgotten memories, and might even eliminate the curious sensation of suddenly and unexpectedly recalling some acquaintance or setting from ages past, apparently for no particular or relevant reason.  Few had the patience to endure a complete wipe of the auxiliary memory files, however, which took many days to properly execute, so Sideswipe guessed that a great many Autobots carried around with them a jumbled, secondary copy of their databanks.  In a way, Sideswipe felt comforted by this notion.  He knew that if and when he was terminated, at least some of his memories and experiences would be retained, even after he went off-line.

He recalled once that Disco had told him she felt the same way.

They'd never initiated the spark bond, a fact about which Sideswipe had mixed regrets.  It wouldn't had granted Sideswipe any insight into the final moments of Disco's life, wouldn't have answered any of his questions about what information she was carrying or why the Decepticons were so determined to capture her... but it would have been something.  A meaningful, powerful exchange of information between their two minds, purposefully and deliberately joining together and becoming one single functional operating system for a moment, would at least have created a record of Disco's life experiences that would have survived her passing.  Sideswipe could have been the one to carry that knowledge.  Now it was too late.  Sifting through her lifeless databanks was maddening and impossible, and there would be no hope of ever gathering up any kind of organized information pattern, not without a life spark to serve as a driving force for those memories, the tenuous thread that kept the entire tapestry from unraveling.

He plunged further into the swirling nightmare of images, pushing forward, as deep as possible, determined not to waste this opportunity.  He shut his optics and thrust into the depths, knowing that the longer he remained, the more likely the chaos would drive him to madness.  He had to focus.  He concentrated intently, using his own life force to give the imagery coherency and meaning, if only for a moment.  He gravitated towards the strongest, largest, most vibrant images, in the hopes that the moments before Disco's death had created a lasting impression on her memory banks.

Something was coming into focus.  It was a great army of Decepticons, sweeping through the sky like some great metal cloud, casting a jagged-edged shadow over Cybertron's landscape.  They moved as one, as if tethered together by an unseen force, and descended upon the planet.  Their numbers were impossibly huge, as wave after wave of troops landed and dispersed, covering every surface of the planet.  They marched forward and outward, the sound of their footfalls disturbing and loud, and they were led by a silver warrior with stylized markings on his wings that looked like the majestic sweeping feathers of a bird, or the splattering of blood, or both.  He and the rest of his warriors issued forth like mechanical zombies, their eyes and faces glowing a ghoulish green color, casting a sickly, unnatural light on the surface of Cybertron.

Sideswipe wasn't sure how to interpret what he was seeing.  It was too bizarre to be taken literally.  At a guess, what he was seeing was not one of Disco's memories of something she'd once witnessed or experienced, but an exaggerated impression of hers that remained as an imprint in her mind.  Sideswipe would have to remember that not everything he discovered here could be taken at face value; he had to take into account the mind's natural tendency to filter and distort events, regardless of how little the end result actually had to do with reality.

The scene shifted, and Sideswipe saw something... no, someone.  A slender, shapely form, standing at the central launch pad in Iacon.  It was Elita One.  She was joined by her troupe of female Autobots, including Disco, who had arrived in the final moments before the launch of the Ark to join the crew in their search for energy.  Sideswipe, too, remembered the day all too clearly; there had been enough tension as it was about the success of the mission, and the possibility of the Decepticons attempting to intercept them, without Elita stubbornly insisting that she accompany the crew.  

Sideswipe had never agreed with Optimus Prime's reasoning.  Optimus Prime had refused to allow them to board, explaining that the Autobots would need a strong leader to guide them if the Ark never returned, and that Elita One and her followers possessed special powers that the male Autobots lacked, making them too valuable to risk losing in an attack.  Perhaps if they'd been on board, the combined male and female Autobot forces would have been strong enough to repel the Decepticon boarding party before the ships had been sucked into the gravity well.  As it happened, when Shockwave had launched his pre-emptive attack on the Ark before the launch, the female Autobots had been caught outside the protective walls of the great ship.  Prime's crew had been under the impression that all of Elita's followers had been died instantly in the blast, until Elita and a handful of survivors had been discovered by the Decepticons about a year after the crew had been reactivated on Earth.

What Sideswipe was seeing now was the aftermath of that insipid attack, which was far more brutal and devastating than Sideswipe had ever imagined it to be.  Several female Autobots had been torn to pieces by the explosion, their comrades desperately trying and failing to resuscitate them.  Though the scene was one of chaos and confusion, Sideswipe's eyes naturally drifted towards Disco.  She was screaming at Oasis, tugging at her arm and shouting for her to wake up, but a shard of metal from the explosion had been driven into her helmet, pinning her head to the ground, and she was showing no signs of consciousness.  Instinctively, Sideswipe took a step towards them, planning to help, but caught himself in mid-stride.  Sideswipe had only met Oasis once or twice, but he knew that she and Disco had been close friends at one time.  Sideswipe heard Elita One command Disco twice to fall back and retreat, and he recognized on some level that this meant Disco must have remembered hearing the command, but it wasn't until the third time Elita One gave the order that Disco finally stepped back and let her friend's arm drop lifelessly to the ground.

Nearby, Shockwave's blast had started a fire that would quickly reach the fuel canisters that had yet to be loaded on board the great ship, threatening to destroy everyone on the launch platform, and possibly the Ark itself.  As Elita One made the difficult decision to leave the dead behind and evacuate the remaining troops, Five Alarm had bravely volunteered to remain behind, using her unique ability to suppress the explosion until both the female Autobots and the Ark were safely out of range, despite the fact that this unique gift drained her of her very life force, and would leave her with no strength left to flee before the fuel cels detonated.  Her noble gift could very well have spared the lives of Optimus Prime and every other Autobot aboard the craft, despite none of them ever having known of her sacrifice.

Unlike many of the vague, fuzzy images Sideswipe had observed up to this point, this sequence of events was crystal-clear, deeply and permanently etched into the annals of Disco's unconscious psyche.  This moment had clearly made a profound and disturbing impact on her psyche.

Sideswipe had never known of any of this until now.  Inside the control room of the Ark, he vaguely recalled that Prowl had reported a possible danger of the unloaded fuel cels exploding, and Inferno had taken a small team down to the engineering room en route to extinguish them.  Once the sensors reported that the fire was out and there was no further risk to the ship, however, the crew had though nothing more of it.

It was time to move on.  Sideswipe delved deeper still, knowing full well that this should have ended before it ever began, but also knowing that he couldn't possibly turn back now.

The entire fabric of the universe momentarily came apart like a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces rearranging into a completely different scene.  Now, he saw Disco again--a younger Disco, back when she carried a smaller pistol, before she was retrofitted with shoulder armor and leg guards.  It wasn't immediately apparent who she was arguing with, maybe because her memories of this moment weren't very clear.  Only a few hints of his outward appearance remained visible--a gleaming, black helmet with squared-off horns, tightly-clenched black fists, and a vehicular windshield on his back that caught the light of the stars as he turned his back to her.

She turned away also, muttering something unintelligible to Sideswipe, but obviously on the upset side of the emotional spectrum.  It was frustrating, trying to make sense of what were obviously someone else's very fuzzy memories.  Sideswipe didn't have an immediate recollection of this argument, either, and he'd only ever had two or three arguments with Disco that had ever come close to being this heated.

"It's my choice," Disco was saying.  Her voice was hollow, as if being broadcasted from some great distance.

"We were made for each other!" he was saying.  There was no true sequence of events here; they were hearing each other, despite the fact that they were talking simultaneously, their voices overlapping out of context.  Sideswipe recognized on some level that these were snippets of a much longer conversation, that only the highlights remained in Disco's memory banks.

It wasn't a pleasant parting, Sideswipe realized.  The conversation had ended, and the two were going their separate ways, but Sideswipe recognized an air of tragic finality to the moment, a feeling of despair and loss that was almost tangible, like he could reach out and grab hold of it.

Sideswipe had gone in the wrong direction.  He was journeying back through history to witness moments from Disco's early life, rather than the final moments of her existence.  He had to retrace his steps.  He turned around, uncertain of exactly which direction would take him forward.  Off in the distance, a brilliant source of light became visible, so Sideswipe headed directly for it.  Almost at once, he felt himself being pulled towards it at an uncomfortable accelerated velocity, unable to halt or even change course.  Images whirled above and below him, little more than streaks of color, far too fast to comprehend.  For the briefest of moments, Sideswipe though he'd caught a flash of Disco's face, sharply-angled purple insignias reflecting in her tender blue eyes, and he wondered what it meant.

Then he returned.

***

Chapter 52:  The Smelting Pool

Megatron had often wondered how he would meet his end.

It was a subject that he refused to dwell on, but on the few occasions that he'd given it due consideration, he imagined himself going out in a blaze of glory.  A grand, magnificent scheme that probably involved the destruction of the Earth, or the planet's sun, or perhaps even Cybertron, if it had come to that.  He envisioned himself standing triumphant, in his final moment of heroism, as a badly-beaten Optimus Prime looked on helplessly, completely powerless to stop Megatron from realizing his dream.  Megatron would fire the blast that ignited his destiny, taking the hated leader of the Autobots with him.  Megatron would gladly have given his own life to wipe the stain of the Autobots from the universe, to ensure that the Decepticons who survived him would emerge as the rightful masters of the galaxy.

Somehow, impossibly, Megatron was about to meet an entirely different fate, one which he himself had helped to bring about.  By placing his trust in Anthrax, by allowing Starscream to lure him into a contest on his own terms, by walking into the custody of the Council of his own volition, Megatron had managed to inexorably seal his own destiny.

"Is the prisoner ready for processing?" Jetstorm asked.

"Sorry for the delay," Drench said, making some final adjustments to a platform in the flooring.  "Megatron's a lot bigger and heavier than our records indicated. I've had to recalibrate the pressure plates so they'll work correctly."

Something about Drench's words sparked Megatron's curiosity, but he couldn't quite place a digital unit on why.  He did feel considerably heavier since Anthrax had refurbished his configuration.  Gravity on Cybertron had taken some getting used to, upon his return, but there was something else.  He felt lethargic, his motors slow to respond to his mental commands.  Why this now came to the forefront of his mind, at what could be the final moments of his existence, was not known to him.

"Members of the Cybertron Council," Jetstorm recited dryly, reading from what appeared to be an ancient, rusted metal tablet, "let it hereby be known that Megatron, prisoner #81766, former commander-in-chief of the Decepticons on planet Earth, has been declared guilty of crimes against Cybertron and its populace, and in accordance with the Council's decision, shall be assigned forthwith to imprisonment within the banks of the Cybertron detention center for a period no less than one hundred thousand planetary revolutions."

Jetstorm stood upon the top of a five-tier platform overlooking a large, cylindrical vat with a spiral design evident on the lid.  Fellow council member Drench was standing beside him, shaking visibly, probably either out of excitement or nervousness.  Gobots and Deluge stood on either side of Megatron, each clutching one end of the faintly-glowing suppression manacles that bound Megatron's arms behind his back.  Unable to fire his weapons, transform, or even speak, Megatron could do little more than watch as the members of the Council calmly and methodically send him to an excruciating form of imprisonment that he himself had devised.  The savage irony was impossible to escape.

"Gobots," said Jetstorm, "please remove the prisoner's personality component for processing."

Gobots stepped forth, brandishing his shoulder-mounted cannon, and began cutting open the small, red panel in Megatron's torso.  He appeared to be taking his time about it, moving at an implausibly slow speed, though his heavily-shielded face made it impossible to tell whether he was drawing out the act and relishing it, or simply being methodical about it.

"Hey, look.  'M' is for 'Megatron.'  I hadn't noticed that earlier," Drench said.

"What are you talking about?" Gobots asked.

"That panel you're cutting open.  The alphanumeric character on it is from one of Earth's written languages.  That character is the first letter of Megatron's name when you translate it to the English tongue."

"I'm sure the resemblance is just a coincidence," Gobots muttered.  "For some reason, I'm having difficulty imagining why any Cybertronian would go around with the English letter 'M' emblazoned on his body."

"Well, I seem to recall certain GoBotronians wearing little badges that looked an awful lot like the letters 'E' and 'F'.  How do you explain that, eh?"

"You read way too much into things," Gobots said.

"In the interest of expedience, perhaps we could resume the proceedings," Jetstorm said, "at some point before the next planetary revolution."

"It's open," Gobots said, prying the panel open.  He stopped for a minute to retract his left hand and exchanged it for a specialized grasping claw, then reached inside Megatron's body.  Megatron was forced to watch as this repulsive robot withdrew his claw a moment later with a fairly small cube-shaped component in its clutches, humming softly and glowing with a faint pink hue.

"Deluge, please confirm that Megatron's personality component has been correctly extracted," Jetstorm said.

Deluge produced a scanner device and pointed it at Megatron, then at the component Gobots carried, then at Megatron again.  "Extraction was successful.  There is no life force emanating from Megatron."

Megatron himself took that statement as something of a surprise.

Jetstorm pressed a button on an elevated control panel, and the spiral-designed cover on the execution vat began to dilate.  The five identical panels that had once joined together in unison to form a seal on the vat now spread apart, revealing the steaming, bubbling, frothing substance within.  Megatron knew precisely what it was, because it was he who had commissioned its creation specifically for this chamber.  More deadly than molten lava, more destructive than acid, the vat contained a special breed of nanitic termite that was designed to eat anything larger than itself.  All the deadly beasts started out at the same size, but the instant a foreign element was introduced into their environment, the termites immediately attempted to consume it.  Any termite that even took so much as a single bite instantly registered on the others' primitive sensors as a potential target, so it, too, was eventually consumed by the others, while those who consumed it were, in turn, consumed by still others.  It was a diabolical form of cannibalism, Insecticons taken to the nth degree, and Megatron was about to be subjected to it.

Megatron had watched the Autobot remove that component from his body, and yet he was still functioning as well as ever, or at least as well as could be expected with the restraining manacles in place.  Something had gone wrong.  Had Deluge's scanning device malfunctioned?  Or was he purposefully lying to Jetstorm?  If that wasn't his personality component they'd just extracted, why did Megatron have something inside his anatomy that looked precisely like one?  

Anthrax!

She'd deceived him!  She'd known all along that Megatron would lose the trial--indeed, had purposefully orchestrated his loss by her own hand--and she'd intentionally brought him back to Cybertron with the sole intent of handing him over to the Council!  What's more, she'd deliberately installed some kind of decoy component within his body for the Council to find, knowing full well that they would destroy his physical form once they believed they'd extracted his life force.  This was worse than anything Starscream had ever attempted, despite the fact that he'd inadvertently had a hand in Anthrax's sinister plans.  Thanks to her unmitigated treachery, Megatron wasn't simply having his personality extracted while his body was disposed of... he was about to be eaten alive!

He'd kill her.  If he somehow found a way out of this, his first act would be to track her down and crush her body with his bare hands.

With no way of moving, no way of communicating, Megatron had no way of indicating to the Council that he was still very much alive, that the component they were planning to imprison, which they believed to contain his life-essence, was in fact as dead and empty as their feeble little minds!

"Process him," Jetstorm said coldly.

Megatron fell.  It was the only such time he could recall being airborne without being able to control his descent.  He fell gracelessly, hitting the glistening, silvery-purple surface of the material in the vat with a sickening gooey splat.  It had resembled liquid from a distance, but as he came into contact with it, he could see that it more closely resembled molten slag, rippling and churning and cultivating itself.  The micro-sized termites which comprised the ooze were not visible to his unassisted optics, but he could hear them chittering like an ensemble of tiny crickets.  There were millions of them.  No, billions.  Their hungry little sensors had detected his presence as soon as he had fallen into their midst, and they had already converged upon his body and were busy devouring him a molecule at a time.  He felt no pain.

The ooze was beginning to change in consistency, presumably as the nanites grew in size.  As the first ones to feed became larger, they, too, would register as food for the others to consume.  This slowed the execution process, as the termites' attention was now divided between devouring Megatron himself and eating those which had already feasted.  Theoretically, they could continue feeding off one another nearly indefinitely.  Megatron found himself torn between the desire for this mockery of justice to end quickly and the fleeting, desperate hope that these mechanical cannibals would become distracted from their main course long enough for Megatron to formulate some kind of escape plan.  Unfortunately, he found that he was incapable of formulating such a plan.  Thoughts went unfinished; memory cells came up empty.  The termites were gnawing away at his brain.

Megatron made one last, desperate effort to escape, straining with all his might to free himself of the suppression manacles.  Halfway immersed within the thick, viscous nanitic pool, his efforts only caused him to sink even deeper.  Feeling the tension around his wrists release, Megatron realized the termites must have chewed through the restraining manacles.  Knowing this would be his only chance to escape, Megatron thrust his fists into the air, the purple blotches covering his body like living camouflage.  His newfound efforts came far too late to be of any use to him, however, as the rockets within his boots failed to ignite, and the servo mechanisms that governed his motor controls were being consumed from the inside out.  He couldn't move.  Using all his remaining strength, Megatron cried out, but his scream was likewise stolen away from him.  His vision grew dim.  

Megatron stopped struggling.  He was disgusted by acts of weakness, and would not give his viewing audience the satisfaction of watching him die in a panic.  He would met his fate head-on.  He would meet his end like a Decepticon.

I have survived crashing into the harsh, unforgiving depths of the oceans, Megatron realized.  I have survived entire mountains crumbling and falling upon me, burying me alive.  I have survived exploding starships and molten lava.  I have braved the very rift between dimensions, trapped in the boundary that separates time and space, and I have lived to tell the tale.  Nothing...

...can destroy Megatron...  

...I will survive anything...

...even if it means...

... selling my soul in the process!

It was the last coherent thought Megatron was able to form before he felt his cerebro-circuitry break down completely.

***

Chapter 53:  Leftovers

Skram and Perceptor burst into the detention area to find Windbreaker laying on the ground and twitching.

"We're too late!" Skram said, throwing himself on his knees and skidding towards the prone form of Windbreaker.  He turned Windbreaker over and plucked the remains of the frayed interlink cable from the side of his helmet.  He shook his comrade, trying to ellicit a reaction.  "Aw, c'mon, Breaker, say something!"

"Their... their attacked the warrior and Decepticons me recovered," Windbreaker said, struggling to communicate.  "Them I stop couldn't."

"Autobots these days employ a rather curious grammatical syntax," Perceptor noted.

"Them an was helping Autobot," Windbreaker added, with some degree of difficulty.

"Eh, hang on a sec," Skram said.  He raised his palm, drew it backwards, and swung forward with enough force to rock Windbreaker up into a seated position.

"Thanks," Windbreaker said.  "Scramblers left me a little jumbled.  Anyway, as I was saying, the Decepticons had an Autobot working with them.  He bypassed the security doors and took me by surprise.  He's the one who blasted me!"

"If you were indeed accosted by an Autobot," Perceptor said, "I find it extraordinarily unlikely that he was operating of his own volition."

"And what happened to my security detail?" Windbreaker said pointedly.  "Rapido ordered at least half a dozen guards on this level.  If they'd been here like they were supposed to be, maybe--"

"Worry about that later, huh?" Skram suggested, tapping a button on his helmet. He tapped it again.  "Transmissions are still on the blink.  We gotta find Rapido and let him know what's goin' on!"

***

"Soundwave, signal Windrazor that it's time to withdraw," Anthrax said.

"Transmissions cannot be sent while jamming field is activated," Soundwave explained.

"Oh, right," Anthrax said.  "I'd forgotten about that.  Well, we've still got to let Windrazor know we've got his prize without letting these guys send a distress call to every other Autobot on the planet.  What about those cartridge robots of yours?  Couldn't you send one back inside to alert the Skyscorchers?"

"Negative," Soundwave said.

"Why not?" Anthrax asked.

"Cassette ejection mechanism malfunction," Soundwave explained.

"I... see.  During your earlier encounter with Windrazor, no doubt?"

"Affirmative," Soundwave replied quickly.

Anthrax let out a resolute sigh.  "All right.  Soundwave, board Dreadwing and take our little Skyscorcher friend back to your underwater base.  I'm going back in there."

"What about the Autobot?" Dreadwing asked.

"He's coming with me," Anthrax said.  "He'll be my life insurance."

***

The side of the mountain exploded, quickly engulfed by the aftermath of the blast.  Through the lingering haze emerged Dreadwing, rumbling down the base of the mountain in tank mode, a trail of smoke billowing from his rotary cannon.

"Look," Pipes whispered to the rest of his group, hunched down behind a rocky outcropping.  "That's one of the Decepticons that infiltrated the base.  Big one, too.  Really big.  Maybe this wasn't such a good idea."

"Bah, he's no match for us, laddie," Hubcap said.  "We c'n take 'im!"

"Tailgate," Pipes said, "Can you use your magnets to hold him in place long enough for us to disable him?"

"...torturing that poor, innocent cigarette lighter..."

"Tailgate?" Pipes asked again.

"Okay," Tailgate said.  "But afterwards you and me are going to sit down and have a little talk about freedom and the rights of sentient appliances."

"Yeah, let's do that," Pipes said flatly.  "Outback, you ready?"

"Fair dinkum!" Outback exclaimed.  "Let's hit the frogger!"

"I hope that means 'yes,'" Pipes said.  "Swerve, you with it?"

"Hm?  What?  Oh, I mean, certainly!  Absolutely!" Swerve said.

"Hubcap, you all set?" Pipes asked.

"Aye," Hubcap replied, "all set t' plant me foot s'far up his linkage that he'll have t' dump his WDU out his audio receptors!"

"Charming mental image," Pipes said.  "Okay, on three.  Wait for him to clear the mountain path.  One... two..."

Dreadwing stopped rolling, retracted his treads, and sprouted a pair of wings.

"He's going t' take off!" Hubcap shouted, leaping out from behind the outcropping and throwing himself at the ground.  He folded up and landed as a vehicle, his tires catching the terrain unsteadily as he bounced off the rocky landscape.  He sped towards Dreadwing, springing into robot mode again and grabbing hold of his undercarriage rotorpedo launcher, just as the huge Decepticon jet lifted off the ground. 

"...Three," Pipes finished.

Hubcap wrapped his legs around the cannon, grasping at the warheads protruding from the launcher.  Dreadwing, obviously having detected his presence, was actually trying to blast him at point blank range.  Hubcap swung backwards as two missiles ejected noisily from the launcher, and he was left momentarily hanging from the bottom of the Decepticon craft like a circus acrobat.  Using all his abdominal strength, he managed to swing himself back up and grabbed on with his hands again.  He shimmied along the length of the launcher, reached up blindly, and discovered Dreadwing's tail fins.  With a lucky flip, he managed to get on top of the craft.  Hubcap scrambled up past the air intakes and peered inside the top windows of Dreadwing's cockpit.  All he saw when he looked through the red-tinted glass was Soundwave in tape deck mode, plugged into the controls, and a smallish winged Decepticon seated limply next to him.

"Blast!" Hubcap exclaimed.  "He's not in there--"

Dreadwing was tipping back and forth, probably trying to throw Hubcap off, but the addition of an Autobot passenger on the top of his fuselage wasn't very aerodynamic, and it was obviously affecting his ability to fly.  As Hubcap tightened his grip, the air intake he was clinging to suddenly came unfastened and a rather large fists emerged from one end.  It began pounding violently on the surface of the craft blindly and randomly.

Hubcap actually found himself let go, due to the utter surprise of watching Dreadwing beating himself up more than anything else, losing all control for just a moment and tumbling towards the back of the craft before grasping Dreadwing's tail fins again.  He had to admit, that move was good for some shock value.  He was almost afraid to ask what was next.

"Mistress Anthrax will be most displeased," Dreadwing bellowed in a low monotone, "if I fail to complete this mission.  My punishment would be most severe.  I... cannot... endure..."  That was the last word Dreadwing spoke before he jettisoned a fairly significant chuck of his aft section.  Naturally, it had to be the chunk to which the tail fins were attached.

Hubcap plummeted, along with the drone jet to which he was now helplessly clinging.  Dreadwing hadn't gotten very far off the ground by this point, but the fall was more than adequate enough to break Hubcap's grip from the drone and send him tumbling across the ground.  He bounced several times before landing at the top of the path that led to the volcano.  The upturned jet module remained lifeless on the ground, its twin launchers mounted under each wing, still armed with the same missiles Dreadwing was equipped with.  If it was a remote-controlled unit, the jammer beam Soundwave was busy broadcasting from Dreadwing's canopy would effectively prevent Dreadwing from recovering the drone remotely.

He stood up, picking out a rock that had embedded itself in his elbow joint.  He glanced down, noting that his feet were so badly scraped that his original, yellow paint was clearly visible in places.  Swerve was such an idiot sometimes.  He invents this miracle alloy that not only bounces transmissions, but it's about as durable as aluminum foil.  What a complete waste.

His thoughts were diverted from absent-minded inventors when he realized that from where he stood now, he had a perfect vantage point.  He could see every existing exit out of the volcano, including the passage out of the summit where the Decepticons had no doubt entered the base.  Nobody could leave headquarters without Hubcap seeing it.

"Bloody marvelous," he said.

***

"Windrazor!" Anthrax called out, shoving a pair of orange Autobots to either side as she entered the fray, dragging Smokescreen behind her as he stumbled to try to match her pace.  "We must leave immediately!"

Windrazor nodded.  "Skyscorchers, prepare to withdraw!"

Windrazor and his two troops transformed back to their new Earth forms, rocketing through the control room and out the main entrance with the force of a small hurricane as a volley of Autobot laser bolts chased after them.  

"Well, it's been a laugh riot," Smokescreen said, his wrists still bound in electrified chains.  "We'll have to do this again some time."

"As a matter of fact, that's exactly what I was planning, Autobot," Anthrax said, grabbing him by the arm.  "I'm not finished with you yet.  You're coming back with me."

"I knew you just couldn't get enough of me," Smokescreen quipped.  "Is it the red?  Tell me it's the red.  Girls go crazy for Autobots in red."

"It's not your body that concerns me as much as your mind.  You already know a great deal about what we're planning, and that makes you a strategic liability."

"Well, why not just zap me now and get it over with?" Smokescreen asked.

"Because the data would still linger within your circuitry even after I killed you," Anthrax explained.  "I intend to irradiate your memory banks and purge everything you've learned about our plans."

"What are you gonna do, carry me all the way back to your underwater base?"

"No.  Not all of you, anyway."

Anthrax ran her small, black fingers along the sharp edge of her sword.  "Shall I elaborate?"

***

Anthrax and Smokescreen emerged from the Autobot base to find Dreadwing parked near the front entrance.

"Soundwave, what are you still doing here?" Anthrax exclaimed.  "I told you to return to your base!"

"You do not possess necessary flight range capability without energy conversion regulator," Soundwave said.  "Dreadwing required for transport back to base."

"I'm sure I would have managed somehow," Anthrax said.  "This will save us some time, though.  Open the hatch--we're taking the Autobot with us."  

Anthrax stopped for a moment.  "Something's not right, here.  Dreadwing, are you missing a piece?"

"Resistance encountered," Soundwave explained.  "Drone module jettisoned to eliminate Autobot attacker."

"We can swing around and pick it up once we get airborne," Anthrax said.  "Soundwave, you'd better take Snipe and head back to base now.  We can't risk losing him again.  Dreadwing, as soon as Soundwave is out of range, send a signal to your drone to rejoin us.  Soundwave, I'll catch up with you as soon as I've--"

"Hold it right there, lady," Trailbreaker said.

"--eliminated a nuisance," Anthrax finished.

Trailbreaker's black, metallic form nearly disappeared against the backdrop of the night sky.  His presence was betrayed only by the silver chrome of the equipment mounted behind his head and his lone gun-arm.  The latter of these shone faintly in the moonlight as he trained his arm, his weapon, on Anthrax.

"Dreadwing, don't let our friend out of your sight," Anthrax said, indicating Smokescreen, before strutting off in the other direction.  "This won't take long."

"So, are we gonna do this the usual way," said Trailbreaker, "or can we try something different and settle this peaceful-like?"

Anthrax drew her electro-sword, slowly and deliberately.  She, too, was nearly engulfed in darkness, her shadowy silhouette highlighted by the pinpricks of light reflecting off the angles in her armor.

"A stubborn ritualist, huh?" Trailbreaker said.  "Well, far be it from me to upset the tradition."

Anthrax shouted a battle cry as she charged down the side of the volcano, her energized sword glowing purple.  Trailbreaker opened fire with his gun-arm, firing ten times successively and missing each time.

"Eleventh time's the charm," he quipped, hitting her in the chest panel just as she was within striking distance, knocking her backwards onto the ground with a squeal of pain.

"You... you almost..." she said, clutching her wound as the fluids seeped from between her fingers.  She was visibly shaken, but only for a moment.  Her impassive expression quickly returned.

"If you can't be good," Trailbreaker quipped, "be lucky."

"You're ancient history, Autobot," she said, renewing her charge at full speed.

Trailbreaker stood fast, bracing himself for the blow.  As she raised her sword over her head and took a mighty swing, it connected in a blaze of electricity--not with Trailbreaker's body, but with the  perfectly-round, dome-shaped forcefield he had erected above his head an instant before her sword strike.

She drew back, clutching her sword with both hands now, and the blade surged with violent crackling energy.  Her face was crumpled into a wretched scowl, but her voice was remarkably calm.  "Obviously an energy-based repulsor field with resistance to both physical and electrical influence," she said.  She once again raised the sword above her head.  "My objective, then, is not to break through it by force, but to bypass it by determining and matching its resonance frequency."

"If you're trying to sweet-talk me," Trailbreaker said, "you're doing one heck of a lousy job."

She swung once again, and despite the fact that she'd just delivered a full disclosure of her attack strategy, Trailbreaker was forced to play along.  He held his ground, grinding his feet into the dry, crumbling dirt, as he held his shield-generating gun-arm towards her, his forcefield radiating in rippling, multi-colored hues.  Anthrax's sword, too, was changing color, its pulse attempting to keep time with the rhythmic pulsations of his own energy shield.  Unable to initiate his own counterattack without disengaging his shield and leaving himself vulnerable, Trailbreaker could do little more than watch, praying her gambit would fail.

"You're wasting your time, girly," Trailbreaker said.  "The day somebody gets through one of my shields is the day I eat my front bumper."

For just an instant, Anthrax's weapon glowed brightly, taking on the same rainbow-striped colors as Trailbreaker's shield.  At that moment, it passed cleanly through the energy shield.  The shield itself was never visibly scarred, nor did it shatter--the sword simply passed through it as if it had never been there.

Trailbreaker stumbled back, letting out a cry of pain.  Deactivating his shield, he stood clutching the fresh wound in his forearm.  "Ouch.  That's a first.  Well, if you'll excuse me, I'll just pop inside and grab the horseradish.  Gonna make me a bumper sandwich."

Anthrax wasted no time in renewing her attack.  Instinctively, Trailbreaker renewed his forcefield and raised his arms to block the sword strike, but it may as well have been a hologram.  With her sword now attuned to the precise frequency of the shield, Trailbreaker realized, Anthrax could easily defeat his primary means of defense.  The trick, then, was to stop her from using the sword.

Trailbreaker took a step back, and another, and another.  With each swipe of her blade, Anthrax seemed to grow more determined to end this conflict, and Trailbreaker was in no position to argue with the sentiment.  Unfortunately, he really didn't want to lose any vital body parts as a result of this battle's conclusion, where his opponent seemed to have other ideas.  For an instant, his mind flashed back to something Sparkplug had said last year about the rising costs of auto insurance.

She raised her arms for another strike, and this time Trailbreaker turned and outstretched his gun-arm as far as it would reach, the convex, rippling forcefield at the end of his gun barrel still humming away.  The blade of her weapon cut straight through the barrel, cleaving it evenly and continuing deep into his forearm with the shriek of rending metal, and suddenly stopped as soon as the sword handle touched his forcefield.  The shield sparked and sputtered, holding fast even as the blade pierced its surface, but only the electrified element of the sword was given access.  Trailbreaker's desperate gambit had paid off; the shield remained impervious to the weapon handle.

Anthrax held fast, desperately trying to pry her weapon loose from her target.  She grasped at Trailbreaker's cloven gun-arm, her hands still covered in slippery fluid from her fresh wounds.  For an instant, Anthrax lost her grip on the weapon as she attempted to pry it loose, and in that moment, Trailbreaker shut off the shield and pulled away, her sword still lodged inside his sparking, dripping arm.

Suddenly, Anthrax turned and ran.  It was a carefully-orchestrated move, Trailbreaker realized, since this Decepticon appeared quite adept at calculating her battlefield maneuvers to seven decimal places.  He was crippled and in immense pain, his diagnostic alarms screaming at him loudly enough to give his audio receptors feedback.  He staggered as he tried to fight off the dizzy sensations, hoping his repair systems would understand if he was hesitant to remove the foreign object wedged halfway up his arm that was the only thing keeping his energon from spraying all over the mountainside.

Trailbreaker watched as Anthrax transformed to jet mode and swung around for an aerial assault.  Like Trailbreaker, she seemed to have a decent sense of strategy, which meant that whatever move she made next would be designed to catch Trailbreaker unprepared.  She would do something he wasn't expecting.  Unless, of course, she knew he'd be anticipating something unexpected, in which case she might opt for a straightforward gambit just to throw him off-guard.  The possibility existed, though, that she'd realize he was bracing himself for such a course of action, which meant that she'd deliberately do something completely off-the-wall.

As it happened, Trailbreaker was right the first time.  She fired a missile, probably intending to knock Trailbreaker off his feet in preparation for whatever she'd planned next.  Trailbreaker was still struggling to remain conscious, to put the hundreds of systems failure warnings out of his mind long enough to prevent getting himself killed.  His diagnostics could scream all they wanted about broken circuit pathways at some point in the future when he wasn't fighting for his life.

***

Anthrax hadn't even bothered to activate her targeting system.  It wasn't a matter of arrogance; her Autobot opponent had stopped moving, and it was senseless to waste the energy and computing power on a completely immobile target.  Whether he was petrified with fear or suffering from some kind of a processor malfunction was unknown to her, and it was ultimately immaterial.  All that mattered was eliminating the obstacles that stood in the way of completing her mission.  Time was running out.

She detected a flash of light, momentarily setting up a receptor buffer in anticipation of the explosive force of her weaponry.  It never came.  Lowering her buffer shield, she realized with dismay that her Autobot target had initiated a second self-contained energy field, launching it from the component on his back and directing it into the sky until it came into contact with her missile.  It had enveloped the missile moments before it detonated, capturing the plasmatic explosion and containing it perfectly.  The forcefield hovered and danced in mid-air, as if in mockery of her.

For the moment, her maneuverability was limited in the air, since her missing sword was an integrated module, designed to form the stabilizer fin for her jet configuration.  She descended and briefly coasted along the ground before returning to robot mode.  She approached Trailbreaker, readying her wing-mounted missiles.

"Mistress Anthrax!" Dreadwing called out, now joined by his formerly wayward drone unit.  He readied his shoulder-mounted cannon.  "I will assist you!"

"No, stay right where you are!  That's an order!" she cried, indicating the forcefield that hovered over the combatants like a vicious raincloud.  "You might release the contained detonation before it dissipates.  Besides, I don't need fancy weapons to end this little skirmish."

"You know," the Autobot was saying, looking up at her while still doubled over, "this kind of reminds me of a funny joke."

"Really," Anthrax said with a kind of detached amusement.

"Yeah, see, there's this Decepticon who walks into a club," Trailbreaker said.

It was at that moment that a small, shiny red Autobot with wheels on his arms appeared out of nowhere and whacked her in the head with the butt-end of what was almost certainly one of Dreadwing's missile launchers.  Anthrax saw another flash of light, and everything went dark.

"The humor's kind of subjective," Trailbreaker admitted, as she lapsed into unconsciousness.

***

"Trailbreaker!" Hubcap exclaimed, stepping casually over the prone form of Anthrax, who was laying on her side in the dirt.  Hubcap wasn't the slightest bit interested in the well-being of his acting commander, but he'd learned over the ages that it paid to put on a show of concern.  He steeled himself for his very best look of mock sympathy.  "Are ye badly wounded, sir?"

"Nothing an amputation won't fix," Trailbreaker said weakly with a half-smile, struggling to stand.  He looked down at his arm, Anthrax's blade still lodged inside the gun barrel.  "Great timing, by the way.  We should take our act on the road some time."

Trailbreaker had a remarkably flippant outlook on life, one which would probably get him killed sooner or later.  Given a choice, Hubcap hoped it would be sooner rather than later.

"Perhaps another time," Hubcap said graciously.  "Right now, I think it best if we deal with the enemy in our midst."

"You're right," Trailbreaker said, reaching down and scooping up Anthrax, slinging her over his shoulder with his functional arm.  "Maybe we can convince tall, dark and twosome over there what might happen to Decepti-Chick if he doesn't stand down."

Flippant and stupid.  Great combination, there.

"Actually, I was referring t' th' other enemy in our midst," Hubcap said, marching towards Dreadwing and his drone.  They had Smokescreen flanked, acting like they were both dead set against letting him get away, but Smokescreen appeared remarkably unperturbed by his predicament.  He wasn't even trying to pretend he was a captive at this point.

"You and Dreadwing appear to have similar taste in weaponry," Smokescreen said, indicating the dark-colored gun that Hubcap had slung over his shoulder like a bazooka.

"Aye, laddie, that we do," Hubcap replied.  Even now, with a weapon trained on his central processor, he was trying to intimate somehow that Hubcap was the Decepticon sympathizer here.  What possible reason he had to try to obfuscate the issue was anyone's guess, but Hubcap didn't have to understand the madness behind Smokescreen's subterfuge to be able to recognize it.

"All right, listen to me," Smokescreen said.  "No more games, no more lies.  I'm not a Decepticon agent, and I never was.  When I saw you in the Decepticon base, I thought you were working for them.  I hadn't realized you were trying to rescue me."

"Go on," Hubcap said, wondering where this was all leading.  Nowhere fast, was his first guess.

"The Decepticons are in the middle of developing a new energy source that could wipe out the Autobots," Smokescreen explained.  "That trooper they just sprung from the base has the secrets they need to make it all work.  That female Decepticons is the key to their operations.  Without her--"

"Do us both a favor and dispense with the bloody chicanery," Hubcap said.  "Do ye seriously expect me to believe that this Decepticon would allow ye to stand here and spill his secret plans to his mortal enemy?"

"Under normal circumstances, probably not," Smokescreen admitted.  "Dreadwing's a special case, though.  He's got... issues."

"Oh, do go on," Dreadwing moaned in a tone that was anything but sincere.  "It simply thrills me to ecstasy when my deepest psychological scars are laid bare for the amusement of total strangers."

"See?" Smokescreen said with a there-you-have-it gesture.  "He's so immersed in his own little world that he's not even making an effort to stop Trailbreaker from scooping up his companion."

"She ordered me not to help her," Dreadwing lamented, mostly to himself.  "To defy a direct order would be to incur punishment the likes of which few mortal beings can endure.  Far be it from me to anticipate what Mistress Anthrax might ask of me were she not slung over the shoulder of that Autobot like so many spare parts..."  He continued this for a while, but Hubcap had long stopped listening by this point.

"Forgive me, laddie, if I'm not awash with sympathy for this Decepticon's tormented existence," Hubcap snarled.

"Oh, that's quite all right," Dreadwing stopped in mid-rant to point out.  "Nobody ever is."

"Be that as it may," Hubcap said, struggling to recover the conversation, "ye have yet t' give me one good reason t' trust ye.  Either you really are telling the truth, and ye are a Decepticon captive, or ye both are trying to hornswoggle me.  I'll grant ye just one chance to win me over, lad.  Give me one reason, any reason, why I shouldnay blast ye into so many pieces that they'll have t' change the weather forecast for th' next three days."

Hubcap pointed to the Decepticon, who seemed largely oblivious to what was at stake here.  "If ye truly have no love for the 'Connies, if ya really are an Autobot at heart, then ye can show me by putting this wretched beast out of his misery."

Dreadwing shifted a little.  "Oh, don't do me any favors," he groaned.

Smokescreen appeared to be mulling over the options in his head.  What could he possibly be so unsure about?  He was still equipped with his head-mounted scramblers.  All he had to do was turn and immobilize the Decepticon, effectively demonstrating his true allegiance.  Hubcap couldn't begin to guess what was going on in Smokescreen's mind, but if past experience was any indication, he was busy concocting some elaborate deception, some attempt at getting Hubcap to lower his guard long enough for Smokescreen to pull a fast one.  Smokescreen turned to Dreadwing for a moment, but rather than aiming his weapons, it was clear he was attempting read the Decepticon's impassive expression, perhaps as if to relay some kind of message to his colluder.

"Sorry," Smokescreen said, finally.  "I won't allow you to coerce me into acting against my principles.  I'm a liar and a manipulator, yes, but I'm not a murderer.  I won't destroy this Decepticon just to prove a point to you.  I won't kill an enemy unless he's trying to kill me, even if he wants to die.  That's simply not what Autobots do."

"Guess again," Hubcap said, and fired his weapon.

At this point, several things happened in rapid succession.  Hubcap had greatly underestimated the explosive kick of Dreadwing's rifle, which clearly had never been intended for short-range use, and the resultant blast threw him clear off his feet.  Almost simultaneously, Anthrax, still slung over Trailbreaker's shoulder, had awakened and proceeded to grasp the handle of her sword, still lodged halfway up his arm.  Despite his shouts of protest, she yanked her weapon free, oil spattering everywhere, and she proceeded to swing her weapon up and over towards the forcefield projector mounted behind Trailbreaker's head, slicing the component clean from its moorings.  With no power source to energize the shield that was hovering above their heads, the forcefield containing Anthrax's exploded missile ceased to exist, and the force of its detonation was finally unleashed, knocking both Trailbreaker and Anthrax down to the ground.

When the smoke from both explosions cleared, Anthrax and Dreadwing were already rocketing off into the sky.  Trailbreaker looked as if he was ready to collapse, hunched down on one knee and cradling his ruined arm, his wounds simultaneously spraying fluids and sparking with electricity.

Hubcap approached the remains of the Autobot who had once been known as Smokescreen.  He'd had no idea the rifle he'd been toting was so powerful as to be able to completely disintegrate its targets.  As it happened, Hubcap's target had been Smokescreen's head.  It was a shame that Dreadwing had evidently absconded with it before he retreated; such a weapon would have come in handy for possible future encounters.  Hubcap might have even been willing to endure a roof mount attachment of some sort, as was becoming increasingly common among Autobots who were more interested in surviving the war than worrying about whether they were spoiling the aerodynamics of their vehicle modes.  Well, it was all pretty much a moot point now.

Hubcap helped Trailbreaker to his feet and headed towards the base entrance.  Right before they disappeared inside, Hubcap looked back at Smokescreen, and the corners of his mouth curled upwards a bit as a trail of thick, black smoke billowed from the scorched hole in the lifeless body of his former Autobot comrade.

"Poetic justice," Hubcap said to himself.

END OF BOOK FIVE

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