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Children of Cybertron

Book Six

Last time:  After Optimus Prime is lost in an explosion that destroys the space bridge and devastated Decepticon Headquarters on Cybertron, Autobot Field Commander Rapido arrives from Cybertron and takes command of the Autobots on Earth.  Meanwhile, in the wake of Megatron's incarceration and ceremonial execution, Windrazor travels to Earth and seizes control of the Decepticons.  He then launches a devastating attack on Autobot Headquarters on Earth to recover his missing warrior, Snipe, whose unconscious mind contains a deadly secret.  

Chapter 54:  Lifeless

Anthrax stepped out of the lift and entered the control room to the Decepticon underwater base.  She took a moment to slap the side of her helmet, trying to shake the residual fluids out of her audio receptors.  The salty water dipped from the seams in her armored paneling, giving her shivers as it trickled down the purple, metal skin of her neck.  Anthrax made a mental note to find out who, precisely, was responsible for the upkeep of this sorry excuse for a space craft, and see if they could devise some kind of docking entrance to the base that could somehow telescope from the seabed to reach the ocean's surface without splashing anyone who was even remotely close when it emerged.

She glanced down at the scorch marks on her armor plating, a wound incurred during her battle with the Autobots of Earth.  She was no longer in pain, but the unsightly discoloration served as a reminder of how dangerous the enemies of the Decepticons could be.  She made a mental note, resolving to be more careful in the future.  Her mission was of the utmost importance, and she had sworn by her life to the Liege Maximo that she would succeed.

She knew that she didn't belong here.  She saw it in the way the others glanced at her from over their shoulders when they thought she wasn't watching.  She heard it in the jovial conversations that quickly came to a halt when she entered a room.  The others saw her as an intrusion, an unwanted element that was best excised and quickly forgotten about.  Anthrax would have thought that the introduction of a new ally would have been a welcome change, if for no other reason to counteract the stagnant conditions in which the Decepticons had existed since their awakening on this world.  After all, she had already proven herself as a powerful warrior and cunning strategist in her own right, and yet they rejected her.  She wasn't entirely sure what it was about her that they disliked so much.  Was it because the female Decepticons of their home planet had gone extinct ages ago, and she unwittingly served as an uncomfortable reminder of this fact?  Was it because she was a Decepticon scientist, which was practically a contradiction in terms to this particular warrior clan?  Or was it because she hailed from another world, and this group was so xenophobic that they rejected the existence of the other Cybertrons in the heavens, and her along with them?

In any event, it remained clear that the sooner she was gone, the happier everyone would be.

Shockwave was standing near the front of the room, just ahead of the control chair, his complete attention on the main viewscreen before him.  It was displaying what looked like a random series of images of Earth topography.  They flashed by at a rate far faster than Anthrax's eyes were comfortable with, but he seemed to be absorbing all the necessary information instantaneously with his single yellow eye.

"How do you get by with only a single optic sensor, anyway?" Anthrax found herself asking.  "Do you find it difficult to aim that big gun-arm of yours without any sense of depth perception?"  She had about six or seven more questions lined up, but she quickly decided against voicing them.  If there was one thing she'd learned about this batch of Decepticons, it was that they didn't take kindly to her scientific curiosity.

"My visual acuity is second only to Megatron's," Shockwave noted.  "I am able to detect radiation on the visual, infrared, and x-ray spectrum.  I can distinguish objects at the molecular resolution and can effectively pinpoint a target as small as a microchip from sub-orbital distances."  Coming from anyone else, it would have sounded like he was boasting, but Shockwave recited this list of abilities in a bored, matter-of-fact tone that almost suggested she probably should have known all of this already.

"Oh," she managed.  "Well, that's... uh, very informative.  So what are you doing, exactly?"

"I am conducting several investigations simultaneously," Shockwave said.  "I am surveying regions of the planet suitable for a new Decepticon base of operations.  I am also conducting a scan for the highest concentration of natural energy sources.  Furthermore, I am attempting to determine whether or not the remains of Optimus Prime were successfully transported by the space bridge before it was destroyed.  Additionally, I am creating a list of sites from which the Decepticons have previously collected energy but which are no longer viable for future collection because the resources are depleted, destroyed, or so heavily fortified that the energy expenditure to defeat them would be greater than the return.  Finally, I am cataloging a database of monuments, artifacts, and historic sites created by the humans which the Autobots have reportedly taken steps to defend and protect, despite their lack of strategic value or tactical importance."

"Is that all?" Anthrax asked, with one eyebrow raised.

"The ship's computer systems are too limited to manage a more comprehensive investigation," Shockwave said flatly.

"Right," Anthrax said.  "So where's Windrazor?"

"Commander Windrazor is in the repair bay," Shockwave said, never taking his gaze from the view screen.  "He requested that you join him upon your arrival.  He also asked me to relay to you," he added, in a tone that suggested strongly that he didn't care for being utilized as a messenger drone, "that you have a visitor."

"I have a visitor?" Anthrax asked.  "As in me, personally?"

"He mentioned you were acquainted with him and that you had invited him here," Shockwave explained.

"How interesting," Anthrax said, mostly to herself.  She had only been on this world for the briefest of periods, and she hadn't yet had a chance to communicate with the Decepticons back on her homeworld.  If she had indeed extended an invitation to someone, she was at a temporary loss.  Whom had she spoken with recently?  There had been a lot of things going on during Megatron's trial.  

"Which way is the repair bay again?" Anthrax asked.

"Enter the security code to gain access to the lift, take the lift down to the third deck, turn left and proceed through the door, turn right, proceed through the hallway, turn left, enter the third door on the right, proceed to the end of the corridor, and enter the security code to gain access to the repair bay."

"Uh, would you care to run that by me just one more time?" Anthrax asked.

"I can arrange to have the sentinels show you the way if you require an escort," Shockwave said, images of continents and land masses still dancing across the view screen.

"That's all right," Anthrax said, "I'll manage."  She marched back into the intership lift, keying in the passcode sequence that Soundwave had taught her.

"In the future, I suggest adjusting the proximity of your docking tower beacon so that it has already emerged upon your arrival," Shockwave said, just as the double doors slid shut.

***

Sure enough, Windrazor was in the main repair bay, barking orders to the Constructicons as well as the two troopers he'd brought with him from Cybertron.  Starscream was also present, repeating Windrazor's orders as though he'd thought of them first.  They'd set up the body of Snipe in an upright restraining device, having hooked up their once-wayward Decepticon comrade to a variety of energon feeder tubes and computer link-up cables in an attempt to jumpstart his operating systems.  Judging by the way his head hung loosely at his shoulders and the lack of illumination from his optic visor, their attempts had met with little success.

"I must apologize for my tardiness," Anthrax said, making some final adjustments to her beacon transmitter, "but I was accosted by an Autobot on the way out of--"

"Excuses aren't necessary," Windrazor said, hovering over a medical instrument designed to display and monitor life signs.  "The important thing now is that your mission was a success, and Snipe is back in our custody.  Well done, Anthrax.  You are to be commended."

The green and black trooper Anthrax recognized as Eagle Eye took a moment to look up from his instruments, glaring at Anthrax with an uncomfortable intensity.

"Good job," he echoed in a tone that was anything but sincere.  "Takes a lot to impress the boss."

"What's his condition?" Anthrax asked.

"Alive, but unconscious," one of the Constructicons said, taking an audible gasp before continuing.  "None of the usual methods of bringing him around are working.  The problem seems to be that his metaprocessor was damaged," he said, "as a result of the Autobots' attempts to access his memory files."

"That doesn't seem right," Anthrax said, puzzled.  "The Autobots damaged his brain just by plugging into his memory cells?"

"No, but someone sent a powerful electrical burst into the cable the Autobot was using to transfer the data," the Constructicon said wearily.  "The resultant electrical feedback irreparably scrambled his onboard processors.  In effect, he's brain-dead."

"Oh," Anthrax said softly.  "I see."

"But you said that the information may still exist, Scrapper," Windrazor said.

"The data's probably still in there, somewhere," Scrapper admitted with a shrug, "but there's no way to get to it.  Not without extracting his core processor and picking through it piece by piece."

Windrazor's strike was lightning fast, backhanding Scrapper with enough force to send the like-sized Decepticon tumbling backwards into some unused medical equipment hanging from the wall.  It clattered as it fell, forcing Scrapper to shield his eyes and face.

"I am the commander of this unit," Windrazor shouted, enunciating his syllables with extra care, "and as such, I expect you to answer my questions to the best of your ability.  You will never again withhold information from me because you believe it to be irrelevant.  You will obey my orders to the letter, or your body will be dismantled and used to refit Decepticons capable of obeying me.  Do you understand?"

"Yes... yes, noble Windrazor," Scrapper stuttered.  "You have my complete obedience, of course."

Anthrax shuddered involuntarily.  In her early career, long before she'd risen to command over her own planet of Decepticons, she'd experienced a wide variety of leadership styles, ranging from the harsh to the lackluster to the utterly incompetent.  She'd never before seen a commander like Windrazor, though, who was only too willing to physically abuse his own followers at the drop of a cranial cap.  If he struck a soldier simply for failing to suggest an unreasonably dangerous and potentially deadly option, what would he do if he were to learn that Anthrax had failed to report that she had been the one to cut the interlink cable with her electrified sword?

Windrazor reached forward and helped Scrapper to his feet.  "Begin the procedure," he said.

"A complete core extraction would take months to carry out," one of the other Constructicons said in a smooth, professional tone, "and that's assuming we drop all our maintenance duties to begin this project in the first place."

"That is precisely what you will do, Hook," Windrazor said.  "The core extraction is now your top priority assignment.  You will forgo all scheduled projects until this assignment is completed.  Starscream, I'm leaving you to oversee the procedure.  Notify me of any progress."  His orders delivered, Windrazor wasted no time and headed for the lift doors, leaving the Constructicons to chatter amongst themselves anxiously over this sudden change.

Anthrax struggled to match Windrazor's pace.  "Pardon this breach of protocol," she whispered, "but are you aware that a core extraction will kill him?  You'll be throwing his life away without even knowing if you can still get this secret information out of his memory banks.  Surely there must be another way."

"No remaining options have presented themselves," Windrazor said, "and every Decepticon under my command understands the inherent risks.  Like all of us, Snipe has a higher duty to the greater good of the Decepticon Alliance, and his life will not be forfeit in vain."

"There's just one problem," Anthrax said.  "The Autobots may have successfully extracted the information from Snipe's mind.  What if they learn the truth about his discovery before we do?"

"Just before he was captured, Snipe transmitted that he was going to encrypt the information in his data banks," Windrazor explained.  "It would be impossible for the Autobots to decipher our security protocols."

"Nothing is impossible, Windrazor," Anthrax said, "only varying degrees of improbable.  There's an important difference.  The possibility exists, no matter how remote, that the Autobots may successfully crack your code.  I strongly suggest that we launch another attack."

"We were fortunate enough to be able to penetrate the Autobot defenses once," Windrazor said, "but Rapido would never allow it to happen a second time.  I am certain he is making preparations against future attacks even as we speak."

"Then we attack by unconventional means," Anthrax said.  "Tunnel under the volcano, perhaps, or create a diversion to lure the Autobots away from their base."

"Rapido will have already considered that and prepared for it," Windrazor said.  "He is a brilliant tactician.  Outsmarting him is not a feasible option."

"Then we must proceed with my plans to create the synergon," Anthrax said as they approached the lift.  "It's ten times more powerful than conventional energon.  It would give your warriors the power to defeat every Autobot they encountered."

The automated doors to the lift spread open, and it took Anthrax a full second to match the name with the face of the robot who stood before her.

"Deluge!" she said.  Now she remembered.  After his helpful assistance during Megatron's trial, she had asked Deluge to return with her to Earth.  She had been distracted before he gave his answer, however, and she had assumed he had declined her offer based on the lack of a response.  If he was here now, though, then what had happened to the other Color Changers?

"I have an alternative suggestion," Deluge said calmly.  "A method by which you may yet be able to secure the information in your warrior's mind without destroying his usefulness to your cause."

"Deluge," she said again.  "You've been listening to us?"

"Indubitably," Deluge said.

"A tracker," Anthrax realized.  "You planted a tracker on me."  Anthrax replayed her meeting with Deluge in her mind, and recalled that he had touched her briefly as he guided her into his laboratory.  She reached behind her back, and the tips of her fingers located a small, protruding disk directly below her left wing.  She was left wondering just how much Deluge had observed--just how much he had learned while Anthrax had worked in his laboratory.

"One does not ascend to one of the most powerful roles in Cybertron society without learning how to take precautions against treachery," Deluge explained.  "It's nothing personal.  I just didn't trust you."

"What about your neutral political affiliation?"  Anthrax asked.  "Were the other members of the Cybertron Council okay with you rejoining the Decepticons?"

"Your solution," Windrazor urged.  "What is it?"

"The solution is simple," Deluge explained.  "The problem is that your warrior's brain circuitry is no longer viable, because it cannot process the information stored in his memory banks.  Therefore, all we need to do... is find him another brain."

***

Chapter 55: Life of the Party

"Thank you for your punctual attendance," Rapido said to the small group of Autobots who had gathered in the conference room.  Turbofire was the last to arrive, sitting down without a word next to Windbreaker.

"We are here to discuss possible future courses of action," Rapido said. "Skram, what is our operating status?"

"Not too great, thanks to Windbag crashing the party," Skram said.  "We got about 15 troops in the repair bay, including most of the air force, and one Autobot permanently outta the picture."

"Those casualties represent 28.57% of our fighting force," Rapido observed.  "Such a drastic reduction in numbers will greatly decrease our defensive capability.  Windbreaker, please relay a signal to any Autobots outside the base to return here immediately."

"Got it, boss," Windbreaker said.  "I'll get the communications officer on it as soon as we're done here."

"Proceed, Skram," Rapido said.

"Not much else to report," Skram said with a shrug.  "They were workin' on puttin' some guns or something in the side of the volcano, for all the good it's gonna do.  All it would take is one well-placed bomb to bring this whole rock down on top of our heads.  Anyway, at the moment it's still in the who-knows-whether-it's-gonna-work-or-not stages."

"I'd say 'or not' gets my vote," Windbreaker said.  "Not if they're still planning to have that substandard calculator of theirs controlling the weapons systems."

"Is the performance of their Teletraan unit less than satisfactory?" Rapido asked.

"That's putting it mildly," Windbreaker said.  "Most of its computing power is already tied up in watching the orbital satellite and monitoring the planet's energy resources that it can barely keep tabs on the base surveillance cameras and security detection panels.  Overload it with another subroutine and its core matrix would probably collapse in on itself.  Earlier, I wanted to plug into the computer and devote some of its processing power to helping me unravel the data that I'd collected from Windrazor's buddy, and it actually tried to argue with me over the request.  If it were up to me, I'd wipe the whole blasted mainframe clean and start from scratch."

"That course of action would also erase the data that the Autobots have collected about this planet and its resources," Rapido pointed out.

"Detrimental," Turbofire said.

"Speakin' of resources," Skram said, "we're gonna run into problems soon if we don't start lookin' for a power supply.  Those monkeys running the planet give us a steady supply of juice, all right, but it's barely enough to live on.  Once the reserves on board our shuttle run dry, we're gonna be up the creek without an onboard motor.  In the meantime, you can just forget about takin' on Windrazor again."

"We will begin to explore other options, then," Rapido said.  "Windbreaker, how much time will you require until your analysis of the Decepticon data will be completed?"

"Beats me," Windbreaker said with a shrug.  "Before the feed was interrupted, I would have said maybe a day or two.  The formatting's so badly screwed-up now that I'm not sure I can make headlights or tail lights out of it now.  I'm gonna give it a shot, of course.  I'll let you know by tomorrow."

"If the Decepticons are unable to retrieve the data from Snipe, I calculate a twelve percent possibility that they will launch a second attack in order to capture you, Windbreaker.  I suggest that you transfer the Decepticon data to an external processing unit for security purposes, and install a decoy file in your memory banks in the event you are captured and interrogated."

"Always got my best interests at heart, eh, chief?" Windrazor said with a smirk.  "Well, the only other processor on the planet that can hold as much data as mine is that blasted Teletraan unit.  I guess him and me are gonna have to sit down for a little confab."

"Thank you for your input, Autobots," Rapido said.  "Windbreaker, you have your orders.  Turbofire, I want you to start collecting materials so we can begin construction of a new, more strategically-viable fortification.  Skram, I want you to study the crew manifest.  I will need to know the strengths and weaknesses of every Autobot under my command if I am to effectively manage them.  Please have your report ready by the end of the day.  That is all."

"There is, uh, just one other thing," Skram said.  "I dunno about the rest of you, but I've been gettin' some pretty bad vibes from some of those other Autobots.  I don't think they exactly appreciate us showin' up on their doorstep and takin' over the joint."

"Whether they appreciate it or not, the fact remains that they will require a leader," Rapido said.  "It is lamentable that Optimus Prime is no longer commanding the unit, but nothing can be done to rectify his fate at this stage.  Dwelling on the past is an exercise in futility."

"The question is," Skram said, "are those Autobots gonna see it that way?"

"They must," Rapido said.  "It is the only logical conclusion upon which they can arrive."

***

Over the years, Ratchet had developed the reputation of being able to repair nearly anyone or anything.  He'd restored Optimus Prime to full function after the Decepticons had dismantled him and reassembled his parts into some sort of twisted reptilian creature.  He'd rebuilt all five Dinobots using the original blueprints after an airport explosion tore them all limb from limb.  At one point, he'd even managed to disassemble over 500 human-owned vehicles, which the Decepticons had stolen and converted into remote-controlled robots, and successfully rebuilt them into normally-functioning Earth cars.  He took pride in his accomplishments, and even though he'd occasionally accepted assistance from Wheeljack or Hoist or even Sparkplug, if he was desperate, the fact remained that none of them possessed his medical skills.  Ratchet not only kept most of the Autobots in operating condition; he kept them alive.

For some reason, it had never really occurred to him before that he'd ever be faced with treating an Autobot that he couldn't save.

"Hey, nurse," Trailbreaker called, jolting Ratchet from his thoughts, "I hate to be a bother, but could you give me a hand?"  He was sitting upright on the repair table, assorted wiring and cables still hanging from the end of his elbow joint.  "Or at least the rest of my arm," he added with a wry smile.

"I told you to just sit tight for two astro-seconds, didn't I?" Ratchet said, probably sounding more irritated than he meant to.  "Don't make me shut down your operating system, 'coz I'll do it if I have to."  

Ratchet took a look around the repair bay, mentally categorizing his patients depending on the severity of their injuries.  The Aerialbots had all been gunned down, with Air Raid taking the worst of the damage, but once their wings were welded back in place and the scorch marks were buffed off, they'd be as good as new.  Mirage and Brawn would both require new sets of armor paneling, and Inferno needed a new windshield, but none of their injuries were life-threatening.  A few of the others had been knocked unconscious, but they were already up and running once again.  Of his surviving patients, Trailbreaker had probably incurred the worst injuries during the battle.  He'd nearly had his arm sliced clean off by a female Decepticon warrior with an electrified sword, so perhaps it was understandable that he was being so demanding.  Indeed, Ratchet would have thought his wounds would have left him in extreme pain, but if that were the case, Trailbreaker was doing a remarkably good job of hiding it.

Ratchet turned back to his work station and reached over a pile of tools and components for Trailbreaker's forearm.  He'd managed to replace the gun barrel and repaired the structural wounds, but he suspected the damage to Trailbreaker had gone far deeper still.  It was difficult enough that he'd been thrust into a unfamiliar position of leadership, without the added turmoil of also having been soundly beaten by a single Decepticon, and a she-bot at that, during his first major confrontation acting as Autobot leader.  Ratchet already knew all too well about Trailbreaker's doubtfulness about his usefulness to the cause.  When you're a doctor, Ratchet mused, your patients seem to have nothing better to do than spill their circuits.  He'd heard Trailbreaker's life story at least two or three times, now, and if the past was any indication, this sort of humiliating defeat was only likely to multiply his self-doubts several times over.  Whether he admitted this to anyone, or even himself, was another matter entirely.

"Here we go," Ratchet said, presenting the newly-repaired arm for Trailbreaker's approval.  "There was nothing I could do for the gun barrel, so I replaced it with a slightly different design," he said, drawing attention to the shorter, dual-barreled extension.  "It was either that or scavenge the extra one you donated to Autobot X, but I think Sparkplug had rigged it into a grappling hook of some kind," he explained.

"Look, I don't mean to seem ungrateful or anything," Trailbreaker said, "but I was kind of hoping for, uh, y'know..."  Trailbreaker held up his left arm and waggled his fingers.

"And if I had a functional hand in the storeroom to provide you with, I'd give you one," Ratchet said.  "Parts are scarce, and you know it.  Just consider yourself lucky you didn't lose your other hand as well," Ratchet said, "or right now you'd have all the manual dexterity of Omega Supreme."

"Thanks, nurse," Trailbreaker said with a nod, watching as Ratchet plugged together the cables leading from his arm into the forearm component.  "You always do a bang-up job, no matter how badly I get banged up.  Now how about rigging that forcefield projector back up?"

"I told you twice already," Ratchet said, shaking his head with a sigh, "I've got an entire workbay full of Autobots to tend to.  You'll be fine without it for a week or two.  I'll send for you as soon as it's ready, okay?  Now, scoot!"

"Service with a sneer," Trailbreaker said as he jumped down from the operating table.  He headed for the door, but stopped and turned on his way out.  "Hey, nurse, do me a favor, huh?  When Hoist wakes up, could you pretend to slip up and call him Trailbreaker once or twice?  I think that'd be a hoot."

"No, I will not," Ratchet called out.  "And stop calling me 'nurse,' would you?"

"Nobody appreciates pop culture references anymore," Trailbreaker said as the doors slid shut.

After double-checking Air Raid's vital signs to ensure they had stabilized, Ratchet turned his attention to the remains of Smokescreen, propped up lifelessly on a work bench where Hoist was preparing some equipment.  Hubcap, who had brought Smokescreen in, looked on thoughtfully.

"Th' Connies really did a number on him, eh?" Hubcap said in a somber tone.

"You're not kidding," Ratchet said.  As the Autobots' senior medical officer, Ratchet had borne witness to plenty of mechanical gore in his day, and he considered himself desensitized to even the oiliest wounds.  Despite this, the grim sight of Smokescreen's headless body, the remains of his cranial unit ending in a tattered, charred stump atop his shoulders, cables protruding every which way from panels in his upper torso, was enough to send shivers down Ratchet's spinal assembly.  The Decepticon who had done this to Smokescreen had obviously lacked any sense of decency, let alone a sense of fair combat.  Smokescreen had never stood a chance.

"If you'll just step to the side, Hubcap," Hoist said in that horribly cheerful tone of his, "I need to made some adjustments to this equipment so I can finish the diagnostics of his vital signs."

"What?  What vital signs?  Isn't it obvious to ye the lad is a wee bit too far gone for that now?" Hubcap said.

"I admit, the chances of his survival are pretty slim, but I've seen Autobots pull through damages almost as bad," Ratchet said.  "You should ask Wheeljack some time about why he wears that face mask of his.  Just make sure," Ratchet added, "you're sitting down when he tells you."

"I'm sure it's bonny captivating," Hubcap said.

Hoist was making some adjustments to the sensitivity reading of the instruments, for all the good it would do at this point.  If he increased the sensitivity readings much more, the scanners would start detecting a pulse from Ratchet, Hoist, Hubcap, and the electromagnetic conduits inside the walls of the ship.

"The readings are coming up," Hoist said, leaning over and staring into the equipment, which included a readout display designed to wrap around his optic sensors like a visor.  "Metaprocessor activity at zero.  Energon readings at point zero zero three.  Electrochemical readings at zero."

"What?  What does it mean?" Hubcap asked.

"That's about what I figured," Ratchet said.  Even a fraction of an energon reading didn't mean anything by itself; all it indicated was residual energy reserves that had yet to be exhausted.  It was the central processor and electrochemical activity that demonstrated the presence of a life force.  "Hoist, I can wrap this up if you want to start forging those parts for Mirage.  Just don't forget to unplug the scanner and put it back on the charging station."

"Certainly, Ratchet," Hoist said, shutting down the equipment.

"Dinnae keep me in th' dark," Hubcap said anxiously.

"I know you're concerned about him, Hubcap," Ratchet said, putting a consoling hand on Hubcap's shoulder, "but there's nothing you could have done.  Thanks for everything."

"After all we've been through together," Hubcap said earnestly, "taking him down was the least I could do.  He deserved it."

"Hmm?" Ratchet said, looking up from his instruments with a quizzical look.

"Taking him down to the repair bay," Hubcap said.  "Aye, he deserved the best medical attention possible."

"Wait a moment," Hoist was saying to himself.  "That can't have been right."

He switched on the scanning equipment still connected to Smokescreen's body and hunched down again until his optics were covered by the diagnostic readout.  "Ratchet, I think you should have a look at this."

Figuring Hoist was just misinterpreting one of the readings, Ratchet began a mental preparation of the numerical values and their relationship to the patient.  He took a turn staring into the display.

"On the second-to-last line, where it shows the data from the auxiliary processor," Hoist urged.

"Hmm.  I wonder if that's right.  Did you check the equipment?" Ratchet asked.

"Checked and double-checked," Hoist confirmed.  "It's the right reading, all right."

"Would anyone mind filling in some of the Autobots present who are too bonny short to look int' that bloody thing?" asked Hubcap.

"Well, I'm not sure yet," Ratchet said.  "Normally, in the event of a catastrophic metaprocessor failure, an Autobot will basically dump his data banks into the auxiliary processor in his torso."

"Heh heh," Hoist said, injecting an inappropriate level of jocularity into the conversation, "do you remember when our cybertonium started to chemically deteriorate, and Powerglide's head actually fell off?"

"Do I remember it,' he asks," Ratchet grumbled.  "I was the one who had to put him back together, remember?"

"He's sitting here," Hoist said, trying to fight back a laughing fit, "he's sitting here and saying something like, 'Don't worry, sports fans,'" Hoist continued, doing a remarkably good Powerglide impression, "'ol' Powerglide'll zip to Cybertron and back so fast it'll make your heads spin!'  And as he stands up, his own head spins right off and lands in his hands!  Ho, ho!"

"Aye," Hubcap said, "I'm sure it was a veritable barrel of truck-monkeys."

"It was pretty funny," Hoist said with a giggle, wiping a bead of hydraulic lubricant from his optic visor, "if you'd been there."

"Anyway," Ratchet said pointedly, "Powerglide was fine as soon as we reattached his head.  Theoretically, we should be able to construct a new head for Smokescreen and restore him in a similar nature.  However, there seems to be a problem."

"The suspense is killing me," Hubcap said.

"There's nothing in his auxiliary memory circuits," Ratchet said.  "According to his processor log, nothing was ever downloaded.  It's like his mind, his life force, it just..."

"Went up in smoke?" Hubcap suggested.

"Something like that," Ratchet said, wearily.  He was well aware that some Autobots reacted more poorly to carnage and destruction than others, and they'd all built up their own self-defense mechanisms to deal with the trauma.  Trailbreaker, of course, had his jokes.  Hoist seemed to wrap himself up in cheer and called it good.  Hubcap... well, Ratchet really had no idea what went on in Hubcap's little mind.  He hadn't known him for very long, having only met him after Pipes and his crew came to Earth, and there were so many Autobots at the base these days that it was difficult to develop meaningful acquaintances with most of them.

"'Tis a shame, t'be sure," Hubcap said.  "Aye, he will be missed."

Ratchet kept his eyes on Hubcap until the shiny little red Autobot (didn't he used to be yellow?) had walked all the way around the repair table, as if to survey Smokescreen one final time, and made his way out into the corridor.

"Teletraan, let's keep that door locked from now on," Ratchet said, not really knowing why.

"Unable to comply.  Please stand by," Teletraan I replied.

"What else is new," Ratchet grumbled.  "Where's Chip when you need him?"

"I believe he's still on his honeymoon," Hoist said, disconnecting the cables from the monitoring equipment.

"Figure of speech, Hoist," Ratchet sighed.

Hoist shrugged and headed towards the repair table currently occupied by Mirage.  Aside from the loss of his illusion-projecting circuitry at the hands of the Decepticons, Mirage had suffered little physical damage.  Hoist was using his head-mounted sensor to create a three-dimensional scan of Mirage's chest armor before grabbing a piece of sheet metal off the work bench and began the slow, laborious task of hammering it into the correct shape. Using the equipment available on Cybertron, Ratchet would have been able to forge armor paneling in a matter of astro-seconds, but unfortunately such luxuries didn't come standard aboard the Ark.  Ratchet observed Hoist's work for a moment, some small part of him thankful that he had assistants to handle some of the more menial tasks.

Before turning his attention to other matters, Ratchet realized the least he could do for Smokescreen was to clean him up and prepare his body to be interred on Cybertron.  It was a time-honored ritual, one which Ratchet hadn't yet had occasion to perform since the Autobots awakened on Earth.  Traditionally, the task of performing the ceremony would fall to the Autobot leader; Ratchet made a mental note to ask Rapido whether he felt sufficiently up to the task, or whether he felt it would be more appropriate, given that he'd only just recently assumed command of the group, to have another Autobot do it who had worked more closely with Smokescreen.  Ratchet pondered just which of the Autobots might have developed a close friendship with Smokescreen, someone who would be willing to speak a few words about him.  After several moments, Ratchet found that he couldn't think of anyone.

"Hoist," Ratchet called out, making a frustrated grunt as he stopped himself in mid-stride, "I thought I told you to get this equipment put away.  There's still a cable connected to Smokescreen."

"I thought I'd gotten them all," said Hoist.  "Are you sure?"

"I think I know an electrical cable when I see one, Hoist," Ratchet barked.  "It's only basic mechanics--" He picked up the blue-colored cable to demonstrate, when he realized that it wasn't connected to Smokescreen's torso at all; rather, it was protruding from an interface port in his wrist.  A handful of Autobots were equipped with this sort of interface circuitry, so its existence was no surprise to Ratchet, but he couldn't imagine why, mere seconds before his destruction at the hands of the Decepticons, why Smokescreen would choose that moment to deploy his interface cable.

"Never mind, Hoist," Ratchet said.  "False alarm.  How's that armor paneling coming along?"

"Well, I really wouldn't know for sure," Hoist said.  "After all, you're the expert here.  Perhaps you'd be better off waiting until Wheeljack gets back from the hospital or First Aid is finished fixing up the Protectobots, eh?  If you need me, I'll be studying."

"Studying?  Studying what?" Ratchet said, exasperated.

"Why, basic mechanics, of course," Hoist said as he left the room.

***

Chapter 56: Claims

Cybertron had at one time, in theory, once been a fully-functional planetary facility.  No accounts of its creation remained on record, or even in living memory, but a casual observer would be able to piece together what the planet had once looked like, particularly if this observation were made while within the bounds of the planet's electrosphere.  Even from an orbital vantage point, the damages to the battered planet were apparent and severe, as if some monstrous, hungry entity had taken absurdly huge bites out of the mechanical planet's surface like an overripe fruit.

It was only after one touched down and actually set foot on Cybertron that the full extent of the damages to the ravaged planet would be fully realized, however.  Numerous buildings had toppled beneath their own weight, their broken, oxidized forms a testament to battles of ages past.  Bridges, erected to replace ones that had collapsed, had likewise collapsed upon the remains of the first ones.  Entire sectors were without power, the conduits that had once supplied them long since rerouted to provide energy to the few remaining functional facilities that so desperately needed it.  

Most of the remaining populace had come to believe that Cybertron was dying.  Only a few surviving Transformers, lost amid the ruins and within themselves, knew the truth: Cybertron was already dead.

***

"Creeping through the night like a predatory beast," whispered Leadfoot loudly, creeping through the night like a predatory beast, "our hero moves ever-closer towards his goal, remaining completely undetected by all, save his faithful sidekick."

"I'm not your crankin' sidekick," Manta Ray grumbled, "And can it with the third-person play-by-play.  The last thing we want to do is attract any attention."

The two yellow-and-blue robots might have once blended into the scenery almost perfectly during the height of the planet's Golden Age, but the both of them stood out like a pair of malfunctioning opposable digital units against the stark, dead metal of the long-abandoned facility which, hopefully, would prove to be of some use to the pair of scavengers.

"On sound advice from his panic-mongering compatriot," Leadfoot said, about half a decibel lower, "our fearless hero becomes the epitome of stealth and guile, knowing it may be his only chance of surviving this death-defying venture into hostile territory."

"An abandoned enemy encampment isn't exactly my idea of 'death-defying," Manta Ray said with a shrug.

"And that is precisely why, my coral-encrusted companion," Leadfoot said, "we must take advantage of the opportunity our fearsome foes have unwittingly provided us, never suspecting that within their carelessly-strewn structure lies the key to their downfall!  And who better to find it than us?  None better, say I!"

"Well, I guess it wouldn't hurt to check to see if they left any supplies behind," Manta Ray said, flexing and rotating his wrist.  "Some of my gears are so stripped down, they don't even grind anymore."

"Setting his sights on an abandoned storage container," Leadfoot said, "our intrepid hero realizes only too well that outward appearances can be deceiving.  While it may appear to be little more than a simple metal box to some, those with the keenest of senses recognize the potential for great discovery within, and all that stands between our hero and the treasures that may lurk within is a simple electronic lock!  While most would be daunted by this development, our dauntless hero possesses in his arsenal precisely the tools needed to bypass this obstinate obstacle!"

"Any excuse to use the rotors," Manta Ray said.

"Carefully examining his options, our well-equipped hero and prepares precisely the perfect weapon from his awesome arsenal," Leadfoot continued.

"The only weapon in your arsenal," Manta Ray noted, taking a concerned look out the doorway.

Leadfoot's heroic narrative ended here for the moment, as the high-pitched whirring sounds created by his arm-mounted rotor weapon were far too intrusive on his conversation with himself.  He stretched his arms in, then out, then in again, apparently in an attempt to intimidate his hapless, immobile target.  Suddenly, he took a lightning-fast swipe at it, shaving off the face of the half-rusted keypad like a slice of sheet metal.  It was remarkable that the storage unit hadn't simply exploded then and there.  Come to think of it, mused Manta Ray, that was still a distinct possibility.

"You know," said Manta Ray, "it occurs to me--" 

"Having successfully bypassed the enemy's feeble locking mechanism," Leadfoot proclaimed triumphantly, rubbing his hands together with zeal, "our handsome hero seizes the treasure of the hated enemy, revealing it to be ZKKTZZZTTTTT!"  An electrical surge launched forth from the storage container like some kind of huge glowing snake, zapping Leadfoot squarely in the chest.  He was thrown backwards, his limbs thrust outward and frozen, as he babbled to himself in uncontrollable tongues.

"What was that?" Manta Ray said, coming back inside.

"U'cw vwwb mloows... vt ainw jubs id..." Leadfoot said with some difficulty as he spat sparks out of his optics.

"Congratulations," Manta Ray said, his arms folded across his chest.  "Our heroic hero just fell for the oldest trick on file."

"Tiy xlb fkilr lviyr ur klrwe," Leadfoot stammered.

"I guess I can gloat about it later," Manta Ray chuckled.  "Can you at least transform?"

"Si u kiij kujw u xlb relbadien?" Leadfoot said.

"I guess that answers my question," Manta Ray said.  "I'm calling for air support.  In the meantime, we'd better get you out of here."

Manta Ray grabbed Leadfoot by the shoulders, enabling him to roll his companion out of the remains of the storage salvo on his leg-mounted wheels in a manner not entirely unlike a freight dolly.  Manta Ray propped him up against the wall, prompting Leadfoot to make a noise that sounded like "wnvleelaaubf."

"Psst, guys," Manta Ray said, speaking into a handheld communicator, "the mission's a bust.  We need you to get back here as soon as you can."

Taking much-needed solace in Leadfoot's temporary inability to communicate, Manta Ray pressed himself up against the wall of the structure and slowly, cautiously turned the corner.  So far, the telltale signs of an enemy presence remained absent.  This was a risky venture, despite the fact that this weapons depot (or whatever it had once been) was obviously abandoned.  It was still sufficiently deep enough into enemy grounds that they'd do unspeakable things to any trespassers they found here.  Manta Ray didn't care to dwell on the prospects.

Was that a shadow moving across the walls?  Manta Ray had to be alert.  What if they found them here, like this?  He couldn't carry Leadfoot, not by himself, and staying behind to fight simply wasn't an option.  Manta Ray loved a good brawl, but even he recognized that he'd never be able to survive on his own.  Wanting to stay alive wasn't selfish, not when there were so few of them left.  Surviving meant there was one more soldier left functional to fight.

He heard footsteps.  Heavy ones, from the sound of it.  It was a horrible, mechanical clanking, the sort that could only come from a machine of tremendous proportions.  Manta Ray reached down and disconnected Leadfoot's arm-mounted weapon, grasping it tightly in one hand as he raised his own weapon in the other.  Even a double dose of rotoprop weaponry wouldn't be enough to stop the titanic monster approaching.  Was it too late to just transform and speed away as fast as possible?  Nobody would blame him for refusing to take on an impossibly huge enemy, would they?  He wanted to run, but his feet felt like they'd been welded to the ground.

It turned the corner, and Manta Ray screamed.

It was even bigger than he'd expected.  The tremendous beast towered over Manta Ray, brandishing jagged horns and claws and uttering a guttural, unintelligible growl of anguish.  Tarnished and scorched, bleeding oil and energon where the armor paneling had been seared away, it advanced upon him clumsily, staggering towards him.  Its eyes met his own; it seemed drawn towards him.  It was also missing pieces, waving the remains of its limb like a weapon, electricity sparking uncontrollably from the wound.  It growled and lunged for him.

Manta Ray shot two spinning rotors into its chest, burrowing into the armored paneling.  It continued to advance blindly, angrily.  What in blazes was this monstrosity?  He panicked and fired two more, aiming badly, managing only to slice off the laser cannon that was mounted on its arm.

The titanic creature flailed about, spinning wildly as it waved its good arm in random directions and making unintelligible roaring sounds.  Manta Ray, now out of rotoprops, armed himself with the only weapon now available to him.

"Get back!" he shrieked as loudly as possible, assuming the most intimidating stance he was capable of assuming.  The fact that his assailant was three times his size did in no way prevent him from making the following threat:  "I'm warning you!  Don't take another step!"

Clearly, Manta Ray's verbal assault had done wonders to cow his approaching would-be attacker into a cowering mass of metal.  The gargantuan machine groaned, defeated, and collapsed in a heap right in front of Manta Ray's feet.

"Boo-yah!" exclaimed the triumphant Manta Ray, kicking his fallen opponent seven or eight times for good measure.  "Whooooo!  Take that!  Yeah!"

"U qla qeibf," Leadfoot said, mostly to himself.  "Rglr ua wnvleelaaubf."

"I hope that wasn't some thinly-veiled attack on my character that your hopelessly-scrambled circuits weren't able to effectively process into intelligible language," Manta Ray said.

"Oweuag rgw rgiyfgr," Leadfoot said.

Now that the immediate danger had passed, or at least passed out, Manta Ray took a moment to more closely examine the newcomer.  He was badly wounded, that much was obvious.  For him to have suffered this kind of structural damage and still be able to walk at all, though, he had to have been one tough son of a motherboarder.  Manta Ray couldn't begin to imagine where he'd come from.  Was he Autobot?  Decepticon?  Not that it mattered much, of course.  Manta Ray was far less concerned about the giant's past than he was about his future.

If there was any way at all to get this monster to fight for them, Manta Ray realized, his involvement alone could turn the tide.  All they would have to do is get him repaired, or at least running at minimal operating status, and do a bit of friendly reprogramming.  Nothing too drastic, of course... just enough to teach him rotor from wrong.  It was possible, wasn't it?  

"Approaching your position, vector three six zero by zero nine zero," came a familiar voice over Manta Ray's communicator.  "Looks like you found something, eh?"

"Or it found us," Manta Ray replied, peering into the perpetual blackness of the night sky.  "I can see you from here, boys.  Better come in low, just in case."

Two aerial vehicles drifted below the horizon, one with a front-mounted propeller and the other with a dorsal-mounted one.  The jet drifted elegantly into the lower atmosphere, caressing the ground with its pontoons before transforming to robot form and drifting into a sliding crouch.  The helicopter followed closely behind, skillfully skimming the surface of the planet before unfolding into robot form.  It was at this point that he lost control, scraping against the surface of the planet not once, not twice, but three times in a row, each time showering both himself and the ground with blue sparks and flecks of metal.  He finally managed to slow his landing by planting his own face into the ground, catching an upended panel in the metal flooring and catapulting himself onto his back.

"Better luck on the landing next time, Powerdive," said the crouching robot, extending to his full height and turning towards Manta Ray.  "And speaking of luck, what is this most fortuitous discovery, eh?"

"Wow," Powerdive said with a gasp.  "That is one big dude."

"Whoever or whatever he is," Manta Ray said, "you and Ransack are going to need to carry him back home."

"Uh, carry him?  Uh, what about you two?"  Powerdive said, taking a step back and nearly stumbling over himself.

"It doesn't matter what happens to me or Leadfoot," Manta Ray said with a matter-of-fact shrug.  "This guy could mean everything.  He could single handedly wipe out the opposition.  He's worth more than me and three Leadfoots put together.  We'll take our chances.  You've got to take him!"

"Sib'r U fwr l cirw?" Leadfoot said.

"Cashing in two active soldiers for a single wounded one, and of dubious allegiance to boot, eh?" remarked Ransack.  "Not exactly a sound tactical decision."

"It might be the best decision we've ever made," Manta Ray pleaded.  "Look, don't worry about Leadfoot and me.  I'll get his vocoder unscrambled and then we'll both meet you guys back home.  Until I get him unscrambled, though, Leadfoot can't drive, and you guys can't carry both him and Big Red here at the same time."

"Something tells me I'm going to regret this," Ransack muttered.  With that, he effected a partial transformation to his aerial form, extending his robot arms to grasp each of the tremendous robot's boots.  "Powerdive, you grab the other end."

Powerdive staggered for a moment and transformed, also extending his arms from either side of his fuselage.  "Hey, no fair.  How's am I supposed to get a good grip on this guy when he ain't got no arm?"

***

Chapter 57: Unspoken Secrets

The repair bay in the Decepticon undersea headquarters had never been intended to be used as such.  Like many facilities aboard the base, the repair bay had once been designed with an entirely separate purpose in mind, but setting up the downed space cruiser as a permanent base of operations had necessitated the reassignment of several shipboard facilities.  The engine room had been rebuilt into a weapons storage room; the onboard weapons array had been gutted for parts years ago and now served as little more than a spare parts depot.  Attempts had been made to rebuild the extravehicular boarding chute into a docking tower prototype, but the designs had been flawed and the docking chamber had had to be sealed off to prevent the entire ship from flooding.  Just about the only shipboard facilities that still functioned as they had when the Nemesis II was spaceborne were the main bridge, still serving as the focal point of Decepticon operations; and the crew quarters of the Decepticon base, which had eventually supplanted the stasis chambers as the crew complement had swelled and the need for additional quarters had become apparent.

While the Decepticons called it the repair bay, the new name for the facility that had once been the ship's cargo bay was actually a catch-all for a room with several different uses.  It was also a manufacturing facility, where the Constructicons hammered new armor panels into shape and built new weapons for the Decepticon troops.  It served as a laboratory of sorts for the diabolical Bombshell, who used it to find ways to improve his cerebro-shells and effect even more effective psychological control over his victims.  The reinforced walls of the former cargo bay also made it an excellent combat arena, for smaller robots at least, and was usually where Soundwave's cassettes could be found engaged in sparring challenges, taking out their frustrations without causing significant damage to the rest of the base.

On one end of the spacious chamber stood Windrazor and Starscream, the latter of which stood tall and proud next to the comparatively smaller Decepticon commander, folding his arms in a most regal manner with a look of unbridled disdain etched on his metal face.  He stared intently at the unconscious subject of the impending medical procedure, strapped securely to an operating table.  The doubtfulness as to the success of this endeavour was shared by every Decepticon present, but Starscream seemed to be the only one brazen enough to so openly display it.

Anthrax and Scrapper knelt on either side of the unconscious warrior known as Snipe, each of them calibrating the instruments to which he was connected.  She was making the final preparations as Deluge had instructed, though the idea of what they were about to do turned her fluids cold.  Anthrax was accustomed to designing, forging, and building Decepticon warriors from the ground up, and then taking them apart again once they had served their cause.  After all, an unliving Decepticon body was little more than an assembly of moving parts and circuit boards; whether he was yet to be activated or had already been terminated, there was nothing inherently wrong with tinkering with a lifeless husk.

This time, however, their subject was a living, ventilating machine.  Snipe was damaged, yes, but he was still a functional mechanism.  Conducting any kind of experimentation to him while a life force still pulsated within him took on an entirely different meaning.  Given the almost casual manner in which Deluge had started talking about cutting Snipe open and extracting his core consciousness, he could just as easily have been talking about exchanging the ammunition cartridge in his gun.  It made Anthrax wonder what sort of existence he'd led that caused him to become so willfully indifferent to such a disturbing proposition, but she knew better than to ask.  The only way she'd managed to learn anything about him so far was by verbally prying the information out of him, and it was far more effort than Anthrax was willing to expend on him.

If Deluge had been monitoring Anthrax since her visit to Cybertron, however, then that meant he knew everything she had done, including her work in his secret laboratory when she was preparing Megatron for his appearance before the Cybertron Council.  He could have offered this information to the Cybertron Council at any time.  For that matter, he could have reported his discovery to Windrazor.  The true reason why he had not betrayed Anthrax's secret up to this point was not known to her, but she suspected that perhaps, for Deluge, keeping quiet was simply a way of life.

Nearby, Deluge sat at a makeshift workstation and was studying the screen readout intently.  As usual, he offered no indication of what was going on in that secretive little mind of his.  Anthrax wondered if Deluge recognized the irony of his own name.

"So you want us to override all the interface safeguards?  Even the back-ups?" Anthrax asked.

"Yes, you've got it right," Deluge said, eyes locked on his instrument panel.  "If I am to effectively monitor the subject's vital signs, however, I will require that you stop speaking to me."

"Just making sure," Anthrax muttered.

On the opposite side of the room, the twin Decepticon cassettes Rumble and Frenzy were engaged in what looked like a rowdy but good-natured wrestling match, punctuated by a good amount of giggling and verbal gibes.  Ravage occasionally entered the fray, leaping into the middle of the brawl and grabbing whatever part of either combatant he could with his jaws, only to be playfully thrown or kicked aside.  He would growl a bit as he tumbled backwards, always righting himself before he landed, before wiggling his haunches a little and then jumping back into the thick of things all over again.

Laserbeak sat alone, partially obscured in shadow.  He was perched atop one of the pistons that had originally been used to open and close the great cargo bay doors.  His gaze was focused on the activities of the other cassettes, but his head hung low and the illumination of his optic sensors was uncharacteristically dim.

Anthrax knew that the color of a Decepticon's optic scanners was determined predominantly by the weapons technology that was integrated into his systems and what type of targeting technology was appropriate.  Most Decepticon warriors with energy beam weapons had standard-issue red-tinted visors, while those capable of launching missiles or other projectiles usually had yellow-tinted visors with specialized technology that enabled them to track their ballistics to their targets.  Autobots, meanwhile, usually lacked any sort of integrated targeting systems, and as a result their eyes were usually as blue and vacant as the open sky.  There were exceptions, of course (particularly on planets where parts grew scarce and the shortage necessitated the marriage of optical technology with incompatible weapons technology), and a handful of Transformers she'd encountered were even equipped with multiple targeting systems that manifested themselves as different optic colors as they toggled between technologies.  Most of the time, though, Anthrax was able to correctly identify what types of weapons her enemies were equipped with just by getting a good look at their eyes.

Usually, the only times she was unable to correctly ascertain the color of another robot's eyes was because that mechanoid had been drained of its life force and there was no power flowing to its visual scanners.  The fact that Laserbeak sat securely on his perch was a testament to his condition as a functional mechanism, but considering how his optics were so utterly devoid of light, he looked to Anthrax like an empty carcass.

"Wasn't Soundwave supposed to be assisting us?" Anthrax inquired, to nobody in particular.

"Said something about a project," Scrapper said between gasps.  "Maintenance, I think.  It's hard to tell with that one."

The personnel doors to the cargo bay opened, and two Decepticons entered.  One was the Constructicon called Hook, but the other was a Decepticon with a strange apparatus on his head whom Anthrax didn't recognize.  They were towing another operating table, similar to the one Snipe was resting upon, pulling it upright on two wheels.  Strapped securely in place was a muddy-orange and decidedly furious robot, shouting some very loud and very rude vulgarities.  Anthrax surmised this was probably the rogue Autobot she'd heard Eagle Eye and Terradive mention that they'd captured on the beach near the robotics laboratory.

"...and when I'm done ripping you into pieces," the enraged Autobot was screaming, his voice hoarse from shouting, "I'm gonna stomp those sorry pieces into the ground!  And then after that, I'm gonna dig 'em up, melt 'em down, and use those pieces to build a roadblock!  And then do you know what I'm gonna do with the roadblock?!  I'm gonna drive right through it!"

"I know somebody who needs a sedative," Starscream snorted.

"Ah, our honored guest has arrived," Windrazor said, approaching the like-sized Autobot.  "Afterburner, isn't it?  Thank you for being so punctual."

"The only thing I'm gonna punch, Decepticon," Afterburner replied, struggling in his restraints, making violent, threatening movements with his shoulders, "is you!  Over and over and over!  Nraaaghh!"

"Shut up, you pathetic Autobot junkheap," Starscream warned, readying his arm-mounted weapon, "or I'll use you for target practice!"

"Bombshell," Windrazor said wearily, "I believe I asked you to get this mongrel Autobot under control."

"I did," said the Decepticon with the odd-shaped helmet apparatus.  "Or at least, I tried to.  Cerebro-shells won't work on him."  He pointed to the small hole he had burrowed into the center of the Autobot's forehead.

"At first I had simply assumed that this Insecticon..." Hook said, clearly regarding Bombshell's sub-group designation with some degree of repulsion, "had imprecisely implanted his control device.  I discovered while extracting it, however, that this Autobot completely lacks a metaprocessor."

"A decoy?" Windrazor asked.

"I'm not certain," Bombshell replied.  "He sure seems to think he's alive.  When we scanned him, though, he doesn't register any life signs."

"The Skyscorchers went to great lengths to secure this Autobot," Windrazor mused, stroking his mask in a contemplative manner.  "They described his escape attempts as skilled and innovative.  No unliving mechanism I've ever encountered is capable of that kind of creative thinking."

"Come two steps closer, and I'll innovate my fist right through your energon pump!" Afterburner promised.

"I told you to shut up!" Starscream shrieked.  "I can't take his endless whining!  It's going to drive me mad!"

"That'd be a short drive," Bombshell quipped.

"Hook, please silence him," Windrazor said.

"At once," Hook smirked, prying off one of Afterburner's chest panels.  Afterburner continued his angry tirade as Hook gently grasped a tube-shaped component no larger than his fingertip.  With one swift motion, he unplugged the component, and Afterburner's movements ground to a halt.

"I wasn't talking about the Autobot," Windrazor said, casting a sidelong glance at Starscream.  "But I suppose that will suffice."

"Let me get a good look at his cranial chamber," Anthrax said.  "Scrapper, can you bring that electro-scanner over here?"

Scrapper reached for the overhead scanner probe that hung from the ceiling of the room.  He made some quick adjustments to the knobs on either side of the device before handing it off to Anthrax.  She pulled it down to her eye level and peered through the electro-scanner, whose optical magnification capability enabled her to literally see into Snipe's brain.

"Looks like Hook's right," Anthrax said after a long pause.  

"As if there were any doubt," Hook scoffed.

"I have to admit that I've never seen anything like this before," Anthrax continued.  "I had no idea the Autobots of this world were capable of creating artificial intelligence so technologically advanced.  This is probably a good generation or two ahead of anything I've got back on my home planet, short of being generated directly by Vector Epsilon."

"At the moment, Anthrax," Windrazor said, "I am far more concerned by whether or not we will be able to proceed with the operation."

"I don't see why not," Anthrax said.  "The reason we were going to just swap Snipe's personality component with Afterburner's was so that Snipe could have an intact cerebral processor.  He's still alive, but the heavy damage to his brain circuitry is preventing him from reaching consciousness."

"Like a car that can't drive anywhere because all the roads are out," Scrapper added.

"A bit Autobot-centric, but you've got the idea," Anthrax said.  "If Afterburner really is little more than a highly sophisticated automaton, though, then that makes things a lot easier.  In fact, instead of risking damage to Snipe's personality component, we could actually physically transplant Afterburner's core processor and replace it with Snipe's damaged one."

"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," Starscream scoffed.  "And I've heard some pretty ridiculous things while under Megatron's command, let me tell you!"

"Starscream, my patience with you grows infinitesimally small.  I now present you with a choice.  You may remain a part of this endeavour with your vocalizer on mute, or you may wait for your new cockpit in the recovery room," Windrazor said.

"New cockpit?" Starscream echoed.  "But I don't need a new c--"

Windrazor backhanded Starscream with sufficient force to shatter his canopy glass, sending him tripping backwards on the numerous cables snaking from access ports in the walls.  Starscream landed awkwardly, scooping himself up into a seated position.  He remained still, as if he were considering whether or not to stand up again.

"If we proceed with this new plan, what are the risks to Snipe?" Windrazor asked, without missing a beat.

"It won't kill him," Anthrax said.  "The worst thing that can happen is that he won't be able to adapt to the new circuit pathways of the foreign core processor.  It would be like getting lost on the highway without a road map, to expand on Scrapper's metaphor.  If Snipe rejects the new brain circuitry, then he won't regain consciousness.  If that's the case, then we'll be no worse off than we are now."

"What will become of the Autobot personality, though?" Windrazor asked.

"There's no life force inside Afterburner... just sophisticated algorithms, like a Decepti-Traan unit.  Theoretically, once Snipe awakens, he would immediately begin to override the Afterburner programming.  There might be some initial programming conflicts as the two opposing sets of data compete for the same space, but eventually, you'd never be able to tell the difference between the new Snipe and the old one."

"And what are the chances of any loss of data?" Windrazor asked.

"There is risk in everything," said Deluge.

"I can't make any guarantees," Anthrax said.  "I know that the secret buried somewhere inside Snipe's mind is important to you, and I want to recover it as much as you do.  Under the circumstances, though, perhaps you should consider allowing me to work on a contingency plan."

"The synergon," Windrazor said with a nod.  "If this power source is as potent as you claim, it will be a vital asset to the Decepticon Alliance.  Proceed with your plans, Anthrax.  You have access to any resources and personnel you may require, but I will remain here with Hook and Deluge to implement the core transplant procedure."

"I should probably be present when he awakens," Anthrax said.

"Agreed.  I will notify you when we have completed the transplant."

"Thank you, Windrazor," Anthrax said with a slight nod of her head.  "Come with me, Scrapper.  I could use someone with your expertise."

Anthrax and Scrapper made their way towards the lift.  Anthrax stopped for a moment, turning to take a last look at the unconscious technician known as Snipe.  She found herself torn between offering a guilty confession to Windrazor about what she had done to the interlink cable... and fearing what Windrazor might do to her should he learn that she may have been responsible for exacerbating Snipe's condition.  She found herself wondering if working with Megatron hadn't been so bad after all.  He had been infuriatingly stubborn, embarrassingly egotistical and impossible to reason with, but at least she hadn't worried about her continued function cycle whenever she had been in the same room with him.  She wondered how Windrazor had ever ascended to ruling the Decepticons of Cybertron in Megatron's absence in the first place.  If he brutalized any Decepticon who so much as rubbed his metal polish the wrong way, what did he do to Decepticons who openly defied him?  Had he simply killed anyone who refused to serve him with every spark of enthusiasm they could muster?  Was this why he seemed to only have two or three troopers at his command?  If this Decepticon Alliance was such a magnificent empire, where were the rest of his forces?

"Are your servo-motors jammed?" Scrapper asked.

Anthrax realized that she had stopped in mid-stride, temporarily distracted by her thoughts.  "No, Scrapper, I'm fine," she said.  "I just realized, uh, I don't think I've ever seen this many Decepticon scientists together in the same room before."  She made a sweeping gesture with her arm, indicating Deluge, Bombshell, Hook, Starscream, and then herself and Scrapper.  "You'd think we were a dying breed, or something."

"We are," Scrapper said in a solemn tone, keying in his access code to activate the lift.  "In my experience, most Decepticons tend to shun the science of warfare in favor of a more... direct approach."

"Their loss, I suppose," Anthrax said with a shrug.

"Windrazor," said Bombshell, "you said that if I helped you with this experiment, you'd allow the Insecticons to join the Decepticons on a permanent basis."

"Yes, of course," Windrazor said with a gracious bow.  "You must grow weary of mercenary work, never knowing where your next meal will come from.  Go and retrieve your Insecticon brothers.  Your services have proven invaluable, and I would be honored to make the three of you full-fledged members of the Decepticon Alliance."

***

"So are all the Constructicons painted the same way you are?" Anthrax asked as the lift doors opened and they stepped inside.

"More or less," Scrapper said.  "It was supposed to be part of our Earth disguise.  You know, so we could blend in with normal-looking construction vehicles... not too many bright green front loaders around these parts, though.  If you ask me, Starscream needs his color perceptors adjusted."

"That's not the only thing Starscream needs adjusted," Anthrax said, just as the lift doors shut and the lift began its ascent.

"So how do we create this new energon?" Scrapper asked.

"Technically, it's not energon at all," Anthrax explained.  "Energon is the highly concentrated energy that results from the hyperconversion of solid energy sources, liquid fuel, or combustible gas.  Synergon is a super-concentrated form of the fourth and final state of matter."

"Plasma?" Scrapped asked.

"Exactly," Anthrax said.  "As a raw energy source, plasma energy is useless.  It would destroy every nuclear bond in our bodies and break our alloys down to their component elements long before our processing systems ever had a chance to use it as fuel.  Convert plasma energy into synergon, though, and you've got one of the most efficient sources of energy ever devised by Decepticon science.  One synergon cube would power this entire base, and every Decepticon living on this planet, for two or three days."

"That's impossible," Scrapper said, shaking his head.

"Impossible?" Anthrax said.  "Since I came to this planet, I've been in three major battles, two of them underwater, and I haven't stopped to refuel yet.  I probably won't need to until after I complete my mission here and return home."

"I'll believe it when I see it," Scrapper grunted.

"And taste it," Anthrax added.  "It's the most pure, refined fuel source you'll ever find.  It makes regular energon taste like turbine fluid."

"It sounds quite impressive," Scrapper said.  Was he being sincere or sarcastic?  It was difficult to read this particular Constructicon, in part due to the large visor that covered his optic sensors and the mask that shielded the rest of his face.  Anthrax knew all too well the dangers of combat and how many Decepticons wore as much armor and protection as possible, but she found that it tended to put a strain on conversations.

"Scrapper, what do you know about Soundwave?" Anthrax asked.

Scrapped tilted his head to one side and shrugged.  "Nothing you probably haven't already figured out.  He's third-in-command under Starscream, doesn't talk much... and about as friendly as a case of rotor rust."

"Any idea why he talks the way he does?" Anthrax asked.

"Beats me," Scrapper said.  "Maybe his creator dropped him on the head when he was born.  Or maybe he just needs some serious debugging."

"Have you ever... you know, worked on him?" Anthrax asked.

"Not me personally, no," Scrapper said.  "One of the advantages of being Constructicon leader is that I get to delegate.  I usually leave him to Hook.  He and Hook get along really, really well."  Scrapper chuckled, apparently at some private joke.

"Do you have long-range communications capability aboard this craft?" Anthrax asked.  "Could we contact my homeworld?"

"Don't expect a crystal-clear transmission," Scrapper said, "but we can do it."

"I'll need to summon some warriors to Earth to help us," Anthrax said.  "It won't take long for them to get here, but we'll have some time to kill.  In the meanwhile, I was wondering if you could help me with a special project."

"Windrazor left me at your disposal," Scrapper replied.

"That's good to hear, Scrapper," she said.  "Now, let's put those bright green hands of yours to good use."

***

Chapter 58: No Right Turn on Red

It had taken the bridge crew of the Ark a long time to make the adjustment to life on Earth.  Most of the troops had assumed that their tour of duty on such a backwards world would only be a temporary one; many of them had refused to unpack their personal belongings, even after it became clear that the Decepticon threat would be a continuous one.  Eventually, Megatron's obsession with gathering Earth's resources, coupled with the irreparable condition of the Ark's propulsion systems, it had become clear that Earth was more than a temporary staging ground--it was the new home of the Ark crew.  There had been some strong opposition to Optimus Prime's decision to stay, particularly from Mirage and Huffer, but in the end, the Autobot team as a whole had accepted this drastic but necessary decision.

Approximately a year later, the engineering team of the Ark had finally been unearthed, having been buried during the devastating crash into the volcano.  Excavation teams had originally deemed the engineering section of the Ark inaccessible and the engineers regrettably lost, until a fortuitous Decepticon attack had caused a mountainslide that revealed an access hatch directly to the aft section of the ship.  It was there that Perceptor and the remaining dozen members of the crew were discovered--deactivated and covered in a thin layer of limestone deposit, but otherwise intact.

By this point, however, the relationships between the members of the comparatively small bridge crew had grown.  During the first year they had been stranded on Earth, their roles as soldiers with a common cause had changed to a casual working relationship, and then again to something resembling family.  They had endured countless battles with the Decepticons and many close encounters in which several of them had nearly lost their lives.  They had learned a great deal about each other--their strengths, their aspirations, their dreams, and their personal quirks.  Friendships were formed, as well as personal grudges.  The metamorphosis of casual acquaintances into a close-knit unit arguably made the Autobots more effective as warriors, more compassionate towards the humans, and more dedicated as defenders of the Earth.

The reintroduction of Perceptor and the engineering crew into the fray had caused a considerable and unexpected amount of strife among the Autobots.  The two groups had only worked for the briefest of periods aboard the ship before it was attacked by Decepticons and pulled into the gravity well of the nearest planet.  While the bolstering of the Autobot forces with much-needed troops was a welcome addition, the interpersonal aspect of this change created a considerable amount of friction.  The old guard, whose roles on Earth had been firmly and clearly established, had been disrupted by the reintroduction of high-ranking officers like the ship's security director and the communications officer.  Autobots who had previously become accustomed to their seniority had been bumped down a few notches in the hierarchy by default, and the adjustment had required a significant shakedown period.  In the end, a very clear dichotomy remained between the bridge crew and the engineering officers, and social intermingling between the two was decidedly rare.

The arrival of Pipes and his crew some years later had also created a temporary disruption, but not nearly as significant due to the simple fact that none of the Autobots aboard the recovery ship had outranked any of the Autobots already stationed on Earth.  

Prowl, whose logistics processors were arguably the most sophisticated among the Autobots stationed on the planet, was at a complete loss to explain this phenomenon.  If an Autobot like Perceptor or Red Alert had the skills and abilities that had originally earned him a command rank that placed him higher than Ironhide or Wheeljack, then it only made sense to allow him to assume his position in the hierarchy.  The fact that so many of the old guard had complained so bitterly about the fusion of the two groups was a confounding, emotional reaction that, as far as Prowl was concerned, had no place in a military endeavour.  For a mechanical race for whom corporeal restructuring was commonplace, Autobots seemed unusually resistant to change.

"So whaddya think the head honcho called us in for?" Trailbreaker asked, opening his palm towards Prowl and Perceptor as if to illustrate his lack of information.  The group of Autobots were traversing the main corridor of the Ark, but Trailbreaker had suggested taking the long route to the conference room.  This would, he explained, give the Autobots a chance to survey the damage done during the recent Decepticon invasion of Autobot Headquarters, and while his logic was questionable, neither of the other two had disagreed.

"At this early stage," Perceptor ventured, "it would be premature to anticipate Rapido's command style or possible courses of action without further analysis."

"My suspicion is that he's ready to give out orders," Prowl said.

"And what possible data have you accumulated that enable you to arrive at that hypothesis?" Perceptor asked.

"Call it an educated guess," Prowl replied.  "It's what I'd be doing if I were in command."

"I still don't feel right about all this guy just swooping in out of nowhere and taking control of things," Trailbreaker said.  "I mean, Prime left me in command for a reason, right?  I was familiar with his command style and everything.  He knew I could keep things running smoothly until he got back."

Prowl found it odd that Trailbreaker would be objecting at this stage.  He had been thrust into a leadership role unexpectedly, and virtually all he had done was complain that he wasn't right for the job.  As soon as Rapido had arrived and assumed command, though, Trailbreaker had flaunted that same authority, suddenly and inexplicably unwilling to give it up.  Perhaps some Autobots only wanted what they couldn't have, Prowl mused.

"Given that this lamentable predicament remains unaffected, regardless of your emotional reaction to the situation," Perceptor said, "perhaps it would be more prudent to focus on the manner by which our situation might potentially affected by this unexpected alteration of our command structure."

"The microscope tells me I need to see the big picture," Trailbreaker grumbled.  "I love irony."

The three Autobots entered the conference room and found Rapido already waiting for them.  Prowl had expected Rapido's small entourage to be there as well, but to his surprise, they were nowhere to be seen.  Prowl liked to think he knew a little about military psychology, and he'd computed that Rapido would utilize the presence of his other troops to better reinforce whatever these new policies were that he had summoned the Autobots to discuss.  The fact that he had not opted to employ this method suggested to Prowl that he was so confident in his viewpoint that he had no need to put on such a show.

"Greetings, Autobots," Rapido said, extending a gesture for them to sit.  "Where is Security Director Red Alert?"

"Haven't seen 'im," Trailbreaker said with a shrug.  

"I place a high value on punctuality," Rapido said.  "Please inform him of this when you brief him on this meeting.  We will begin without him."

Trailbreaker cast a sidelong glance at Perceptor, cocking his head in the direction of the diminutive Autobot field commander.  Prowl was aware that this form of nonverbal communication loosely translated to an editorial commentary that would have been far too inappropriate to express verbally.

"I calculate with 95.5 percent certainty that as a group, the Autobots are reluctant to accept me as Optimus Prime's replacement.  I understand that they will require an adjustment period before they are able to fully adapt to my new role as Autobot leader.  Therefore, I propose that Defense Strategist Trailblazer relay my orders to the troops during a transitional period of ten days, until such time as the Autobots have become accustomed to--"

"Uh, I hate to interrupt, but the name's Trailbreaker."

"That is not the name provided in your personnel file," Rapido countered.

"Er, yeah, I know," Trailbreaker said, scratching his olfactory sensor.  "That was a little joke of mine, back in the day.  Figured I could get out of Ark duty.  Obviously, it didn't work.  Anyway, it's not really a big deal.  It's sort of become a running gag."

"Computer, please update Trailbreaker's personnel file with the correct information," Rapido said, his optic sensors still locked on Trailbreaker.

"No errors in files detected," Teletraan I replied.  "Please stand by."  Prowl observed that whenever Teletraan spoke, most of the other Autobots jerked their heads upwards, as if Teletraan itself could be seen somewhere amongst the stalactites that covered most of the surface of the ceiling.  Teletraan communicated through the intercom speakers throughout the ship, so it was possible they were simply directing their audio receptors to hear the computer more clearly.  The fact that Teletraan wasn't visible in the room meant that there was nothing to look at, and yet that hadn't stopped Trailbreaker or Perceptor from momentarily glancing upwards.  The only Autobot who didn't adjust his gaze was Rapido.

"Teletraan's performance has been markedly lethargic of late," Perceptor noted.

"My intelligence officer is already working on creating a replacement for your Teletraan unit," Rapido replied.  "The next order of business is to assign Autobot technicians and engineers to assist Turbofire in his construction project.  I have ordered him to begin the development of a new, more strategically viable fortification that will replace this one."

"But this place is our home," Trailbreaker said.  "Has been for years.  Four million years, if you want to get technical."

"This combat unit has no place for impractical sentimentality," Rapido said.  "This facility cannot be properly secured from further Decepticon invasions.  I am placing Huffer in command of the construction crew, which will also include Grapple, Wheeljack, Hoist, Gears, and Pipes.  Perceptor, please assemble the crew and begin dismantling the Ark for salvageable materials."

"Er, pardon me for asking, Rapido," Perceptor said, "but given my command-level rank, should I not be the one with authority over such a project?"

"Huffer is the construction engineer assigned to this unit," Rapido replied calmly.  "He is the Autobot I have selected to command the construction crew."

"No offense," Trailbreaker said, "but the only reason Huffer's personnel file lists him as a Construction Engineer is because Optimus Prime wanted something else next to his name on the crew manifest besides 'Whiny Crybaby.'  You know?"

"Was Optimus Prime in the habit of routinely falsifying personnel records?" Rapido asked.

"He didn't falsify anything," Trailbreaker insisted.  "Look, all I'm saying is that Huffer probably isn't the best 'bot for the job.  He's only actually been in charge of... what, two operations?"  He turned to Prowl and Perceptor for approval.  Perceptor shook his head and made an apologetic face.

"Then this will be his third," Rapido replied.  "The next item on my itinerary is to reorganize the remaining Autobot forces to more effectively patrol the surroundings until our other endeavours have been completed.  Prowl, please confer with Skram to develop a rotating duty schedule for all operable Autobots.  I want three separate patrols of at least six Autobots on duty for a minimum of twelve Earth hours at a time."

"That's twice as long as our usual duty shifts," Prowl spoke up.

"Your calculations are accurate, if elementary," Rapido replied.  "When you find Red Alert, please brief him of the changes we have discussed, and inform him I wish to speak with him.  You are dismissed."

***

"Well, he's nothing if not efficient," Prowl commented, once the Autobots were in the safety of the corridor.

"Nothing if not annoying, 'smore like it," Trailbreaker remarked.  "Speaking of annoying, does anybody else hear that buzzing noise?"

"I detect no such sound," Perceptor said.

"Me neither," Prowl said.  "Maybe your receptors need adjusting, Trailbreaker."

"Maybe," Trailbreaker admitted.  He cocked his head to one side, then shook his head back and forth.  "He didn't even mention looking for Optimus Prime.  It's like he's already decided Prime's gone forever."

"That reminds me," Prowl said, "Does anyone know why Red Alert never came back?"

"Last I heard, " Trailbreaker said, "he was going to take Cosmos into sub-orbital space and try to spot Prime with Coz's long-range gizmos."

"Apparently, he neglected to inform Rapido of his alternate mission objectives," Perceptor observed.

"Can't say I blame 'im, honestly," Trailbreaker said.  "Does anybody else get the impression that he's making all these changes just for the sake of making changes?  It's like he's trying to mark his territory or something.  Everything he's said so far has rubbed me the wrong way.  I am not a happy camper truck."

Trailbreaker stumbled, staggering and trying to catch himself on Prowl and Perceptor.  Both the other Autobots moved aside as if to give him the room he needed to correct his course, but with no further obstacles in his path, Trailbreaker staggered head-first into the wall, and then back onto the floor.

"Thank goodness nobody saw that," Trailbreaker said, as Prowl and Perceptor looked on.  "Otherwise I'd be really embarrassed right about now."

"What happened?" Prowl asked.

"I'm not sure," Trailbreaker said, grabbing his leg and flexing it at the knee joint.  "This is gonna sound weird, but I think my leg just tried to transform."  He reached down and spun the wheel that had inexplicably emerged from the compartment in his lower leg.

"That ever happened to you before?" Prowl asked.

"Not since that whole cybertonium thing, but that was years ago," Trailbreaker said.  "Guess I need to go pay Nurse Ratchet another visit at some point after I'm done playing messenger boy for Number Nineteen."

"Number Nineteen?" Prowl asked.

"I, too, observed that Rapido appears to have modified his superstructure to incorporate indigenous alphanumeric characters," Perceptor noted.

"Hmm," Prowl said.  "If the members of his crew have adopted Earth vehicle configurations, that strongly suggests they're planning to operate on this planet for an extended length of time.  I guess Rapido is planning on sticking around for a while."

***

Transforming into a spaceship, Cosmos mused, was something of a double-edged sword.  Humans tended to describe his particular vehicle form as a "flying saucer" or a "UFO," a laughable appellation at best.  He was hardly distinctive by Cybertronian standards, easily recognizable as a Spaceracer-class scout ship, but he was entirely unique on Earth.  Unlike pretty much all of the Autobots who were stationed on the humans' homeworld, Cosmos had elected not to undergo a mechanical reconfiguration into a terrestrial form, arguing that retaining his original configuration enabled him to make the greatest contribution to the Autobot team.  Not only was he capable of long-range flight, an ability shared by a very small percentage of Autobots, he was also able to venture forth into outer space, a function that made him potentially invaluable as a long-range scout, communications satellite, and interplanetary transport.

On the other hand, outer space was significantly devoid of companionship.  There were no other Autobots to talk to, very rarely Decepticons to spy upon, and no humans to befriend.  Cosmos would never know the joy of racing against his fellow Autobots on a dirt track, or forming a comraderie with his brother-in-arms on the battlefield, or developing a true friendship with any of the native humans on the planet below.  He often asked himself why he had allowed himself to continue serving in a role that he really disliked.  It was an empty, thankless job that neither provided him a challenge or captivated his interest, and yet he continued to perform his duties with a sort of resigned indifference, only occasionally finding himself in circumstances that made him feel as if he were truly making a difference in the Autobot cause.

At the moment, Cosmos was conducting a survey of the entire planet Earth.  Red Alert had tweaked his sensors to focus exclusively on cybertronic metals in their continued efforts to attempt to locate Optimus Prime.  Red Alert was convinced that--after having found Optimus Prime's severed right arm--the rest of Prime was still somewhere on Earth, perhaps having sunk beneath the Antarctic ice in the wake of the space bridge explosion.  The very real possibility existed that Prime was no longer emitting life signs, but his metallic composition was uniquely cybertronic and thus, in theory, would be easily-detected in a metallurgical scan.

Cosmos had always suspected that there was something deeply wrong with Red Alert, and his behavior on this mission had only reinforced this belief.  It was one thing to work towards a goal with a degree of perseverance and passion, but Red Alert's obsession with tracking down Optimus Prime's remains was positively scary.  He was so determined to locate Prime that he had refused to return to Autobot Headquarters and enlist the help of Swerve, despite the fact that the skills of the resident Autobot metallurgist might have been potentially valuable.  Of course, Cosmos suspected the true reason Red Alert had refused to return home was that this was an unauthorized excursion, unsanctioned by the current Autobot commander.  Once he returned to the base, he would likely be not permitted to make a second attempt, so it was imperative that he did everything possible to find Prime now.

There was a great deal of metallic debris on planet Earth that was cybertronic in origin, marked by a significantly greater molecular density than the terrestrial metals.  It was due in part to the diligence of Skids and his meticulous record-keeping that enabled Red Alert to dismiss potential points of interest as merely beings the sites of previous Autobot-Decepticon skirmishes or downed Cybertron satellites.  

"We're making another sweep over the North Pacific," Red Alert said, peering through the drop-down periscope.  "I'm picking up something at nine point three degrees latitude South and one hundred sixty degrees longitude East."  

Skids rose from his seat to peer through a viewport to the chain of islands some five miles below.  "Solomon Islands," he noted.  "That's supposedly where Starscream constructed the Combaticons."

Steeljaw climbed up onto his hind legs to have a look through the viewport on the other side, uttering a guttural commentary.

"Sometimes I can't believe you can remember all of these details," Red Alert said.

"It's just a matter of paying attention," Skids explained.  "Cosmos, how much cybertronic metal are you detecting?"

"Readings are scattered, but it could be as much as 200,000 or 250,000 astrograms," Cosmos announced.

"Not nearly enough," Skids said.

"But weren't the Combaticons constructed from abandoned Earth vehicles?" Red Alert asked.  "They're not made of cybertroid alloys."

"Maybe Starscream left some tools behind when he was done building them," Skids postulated.  "Or maybe Starscream incorporated some of his own components into their design but a few parts got left behind.  Either way, it's not enough to go on."

Steeljaw snorted.

"Coming up on the North American continent," Red Alert announced.  "Zeroing in on a target at forty point seven degrees latitude North and one hundred twenty-four degrees longitude West."

"That's California," Skids said, still peering out the viewport.  "Probably Crescent City or Eureka.  I'm not aware of any specific reasons why there would be cybertroid alloys on the Pacific coast, though.  Completely wrong end of the world for most of the Decepticon operations."

"How much is there, Cosmos?" Red Alert asked.

"A lot more, this time," Cosmos replied with a hopeful excitment in his voice.  "Nearly one million astrograms."

"Still not Optimus Prime," Red Alert said.  "Let's do a sweep over Canada and then--"

"Wait a minute, Cosmos," Skids interrupted.  "That's a pretty significant reading.  Not to be morbid, but we already know Optimus Prime isn't completely intact.  It could be one of his legs, perhaps.  I suggest we investigate."

"Very well," Red Alert acquiesced.  "Cosmos, let's check it out."

Cosmos always felt a little naughty on the rare occasions during which he actually descended into the Earth's lower atmosphere.  As one of the few Autobots without a proper Earth disguise, he was never able to blend in with the native technology, even if he wanted to.  He often wondered what it would be like to be able to instantly blend in with the local machinery, to be able to take a breather in a nearby parking lot or to spend the night at a drive-in movie without arousing the slightest suspicion.  As it happened, every time he descended into the atmosphere, somebody invariably alerted the news media that they had spotted a super-secret government craft telephoned the Aeronautics and Space Travel Regency to tell them they had seen a flying saucer (as if ASTR has nothing better to do than follow up on every lunatic's claim that he'd seen an alien spaceship).  The Transformers had been operating on Earth for nearly 15 years, and yet huge, ignorant chunks of the human population remained blissfully unaware of this very basic fact.

Of course, the Autobots themselves were at least partly responsible for perpetuating the mystery that surrounded their existence.  While they had operated openly in public for the first two or three years after their awakening, it soon became apparent that their continued safety, not to mention the safety of their human allies and friends, would depend on a more clandestine approach.  Eventually, the mountainous dirt road that had once led directly to Autobot Headquarters was closed after Fox Creek Canyon "mysteriously" flooded.  Fearing for the safety of the humans, the Autobots stopped making publicity appearances, no longer attended the openings of schools and shopping centers, and began declining television interviews.  By the late 1980's, the Transformers, as a whole, began to fall out of the public eye.  Even the Decepticons seemed to have sensed the need for more covert operations, as their once-brazen attacks on power plants and oil fields began to manifest themselves as secret energy raids designed to attract as little public attention as possible.  Only rarely, when they grew hungry and desperate, did they launch the full-scale attacks that had once been their trademark.  As per the fickle nature of humans, interest in robots in disguise began to wane in favor of new phenomena, like the huge mutated tortoises that had been spotted on the East coast.

None of this did anything to assuade Cosmos or his intense longing for friendship, since the lack of a recognizable Autobot presence necessitated his eternal vigil in outer space.  Even the bright, red Autobot symbol that adored his framework, an icon that humans had once recognized as representing freedom and justice, now did nothing to stop humans from fleeing in terror at the sight of a giant, green flying saucer on the horizon.

As it happened on this day, the weather would work to the advantage of a lonely UFO.  The California snowfall was as unseasonal as it was fortuitous, and the roads that Cosmos had anticipated to be filled with freaked-out, gawking motorists were serene and empty.  The interstate was as empty as the galactic void, and Cosmos found it to be at once unnerving and comfortably familiar.

"Whatever it is, it's beneath that underpass down below," Skids reported.  "Cosmos, you'd better land."

Cosmos completed his descent, floating into a perfect two-point landing before his three passengers disembarked.  Steeljaw sprinted into the lead, his specialized olfactory sensors locking into his target .  The subject in question was clearly Transformer in design, but not recognizable to Cosmos.  He was huddled into a crouching position, as if to present the smallest radar profile possible, and completely immobile.  Whether he had shut down due to the climate or some other reason was not immediately clear.  

Steeljaw let out a puzzled snort as he pawed at the foreign warrior tentatively.

Skids approached the unknown robot cautiously, brushing a thick layer of snow off his shoulders.  He was decorated in red and white, and the faintest outline of a battlefield sigil was visible on either side of his chest.  "He's an Autobot," Skids announced.

Cosmos didn't really know that many of the specific details of the Autobot campaigns; if it didn't involve him directly, which it seldom did, he usually only found out about it from the inter-Autobot communications that he himself often relayed in his role as a satellite transmitter.  He was quite certain that he would have been aware of a lone Autobot who had somehow found his way to the California beaches and had inexplicably shut down his operating systems.  The fact that the scholarly Skids himself was unaware of his origins further reinforced the mystery.

"How completely bizarre," Red Alert commented, trudging through the fallen snow to get a better look at the mysterious foreigner.  "Where could he have possibly come from?  Is it some kind of Decepticon creation?"

"I say he's an Autobot, and the first conclusion you reach is that he must be a Decepticon," Skids remarked.  "I really do worry about you, Red."

***

Chapter 59: Trademark Disputes

While most of Cybertron's surface landscape was covered in a shiny, metallic sheen, many of the lower levels told another story.  Without the benefit of the constant winds issuing from the Theremin Chasms which effectively polished the alloys of the planet with their undying ebb, many of the subchambers of Cybertron, remaining unexposed to the elements, had turned a putrid, rust-colored brown.  For a race of mechanical life forms, this was the hue of death and decay; the unwelcome color of corrosion and poor personal hygiene.  Some of the subchambers had passages which were no longer accessible because the portals that had once led to them had rusted shut, while other areas were accessible to anyone and everyone after the doors had simply fallen off their hinges.

Cybertronian archvists, if prompted, would designate planetary corridor CB-33 on the fourteenth level down as little more than an obsolete maintenance shed, an unused storage facility that had once housed spare parts for the air ventilation systems that had been designed to cool the planet's long-dormant factory facilities.  The intrepid explorer would no doubt turn up the occasional ventilator cover, or possibly a piece of one of the powerful fan blades that had been an integral part of the cooling systems.  Now, of course, the entire level was of little use to anyone, and with no serviceable parts left to salvage, it had gone into disuse by the vast majority of the population.

This was the place the Rotor Force called their home.

"I just think, uh," Powerdive was attempting to articulate as he grappled awkwardly at his rather large prize, "that we should name him."

"I'm quite sure he's got a name already, eh?" Ransack responded, clutching at the other leg of their fallen guest as the two comparatively smallish robots dragged him across the floor of their base.  Ransack grunted with a decided air of finality, dropping the unconscious warrior's massive, tarnished boot to the ground.  "As soon as he wakes up, we can ask him what it is."

"But, uh, I got this idea," Powerdive explained.  

Ransack let out a disgusted sigh and shook his head.

"If we can rewire him, we can get him to fight for us," Powerdive continued.  "We'd finally get the drop on them energy-guzzling freaks, you know?"

"I'll be the first to admit that he would be a considerably formidable ally," Ransack said, eyeing their prize.  Despite his lack of two serviceable appendages and some obvious battle scars, the monster that had attacked Manta Ray was still clearly in his fighting prime.

"But if we reprogram him, see, he's gonna need a new name, you know?" Powerdive concluded.

"Okay, I'll bite," Ransack said.  "What would you call him?"

"That's just it.  I can't think of no good ones," Powerdive admitted with a shrug.

"Windshield," Ransack suggested, gesturing at the robot's chest.  "Because of those... window things he's got."

"That's kind of bland," Powerdive said.  "I mean... 'ooh, he has a windshield, so let's call him Windshield.'"

"Okay, what about Stacks?  Because of the things on his arms?" Ransack said.

"Makes him sound like he transforms into a waffle iron," Powerdive said.

"How about Mudflap?" Ransack suggested.

"That's dumb," Powerdive snorted.  "Ain't nobody in his right mind gonna call himself Mudflap.  That's more like an example of a name that a Transformer would never use, you know?"

"Well, what do you think about the name Powerdrive?"

"Too close to mine.  People would get confused," Powerdive said.

"You've got a point," Ransack said, raising a hand to his chin.  "Something having to do with his color, maybe?  Red Alert?  Red Herring?  Red Skelton?"

"Trans-Skelton," Powerdive said.

"What?" Ransack asked.

"Nothing... just free associating," Powerdive replied.  "Hey, what was it that Manta Ray called him?  Big Red?"

"He was just being Manta Ray," Ransack said.  "He was being cute, not suggesting a new identity."

"Say, what do you think he turns into?" Powerdive asked.  He leaned over the form of the massive fallen warrior.  "A bus?"

"Those look like retractable wheel wells in his hips," Ransack observed.  "That's why I went with Mudflap."

"Will you just drop it with the whole Mudflap thing already?" Powerdive sneered.  "I bet he's, uh, like, a bulldozer... or a freight train or something."

"How about Carjack?" Ransack suggested.

"Nah," Powerdive said.  "That makes him sound like a bad guy.  He's on our side, remember?"

"Truckstop?"

"Ugh," Powerdive replied.

"Well, whatever he turns into, I bet he burns more energon than you and me put together," Ransack observed.  "I mean, he'd have to.  Probably the high-octane stuff, with our luck."

Ransack and Powerdive slowly met each other's gaze.

"Octane!" they exclaimed simultaneously.

A rust-colored piece of equipment propped up in a far corner of the room rattled for a moment, sputtered, and finally began producing an intermittent tapping sound.  

"That's Manta Ray," Ransack said.  "I'll go up and open the vent."

"You know," Powerdive said, mostly to himself, "he don't really look like he's in bad shape."  He grasped at a twisted piece of metal protruding from the much larger robot's chest and wiggled it back and forth until it snapped off.  "Exo-structure damage, mostly."  He continued to yank off extraneous bits of torn and charred armor, ostensibly to see just how deep the damages were.

"We return at last!" Leadfoot proclaimed as he jumped through the opening in the ceiling, landing in a crouching position and then springing back up with outstretched arms, as if he'd just won a first-place trophy.  "Not even the most treacherous traps, the most dangerous dungeons, or the most potent pitfalls can silence my circuitry!"

"Thank goodness you fixed him," Ransack quipped.  "I was afraid he'd never be able to do that again."

Manta Ray peered through the opening to the base.  "Don't look at me," he said with a shrug.  "His repair system took care of it all by itself."

"You know, if our scouting missions keep turning out like this," Ransack said somberly, "we might as well just throw in the towline right now, hmm?"

"I'm thinking that tall, dark and handless over there could really change all that," Manta Ray said.  "I mean, think about it!  We get him up and running, convince him to fight for us, and before you know it, we'll own the entire quadrant!  Those Laser Losers won't stand a chance against us!"

"You may have a point," Ransack mused.  "The Laser Rods are greater both in strength and numbers... particularly ever since Leadhead here sent our dear departed Spinblast to a rather untimely demise."

"I keep telling you," Leadfoot responded in an irritated sing-song tone, "I keep my rotors fully wound and loaded at all times.  If he'd just done what I told him to and kept his nose out of my weapons stash..."

"He wouldn't have had it sliced clean off his face?" Manta Ray offered playfully.

"That stretches out your springs, you know," Ransack offered.  "Reduces your maximum rotor velocity."

"That's an urban legend!" Leadfoot proclaimed resolutely.

"Face it, Leadfoot," Manta Ray said with a sigh.  "You're just wound up too tight."

"Uhhnhh..." came a voice from Powerdive's general vicinity.

"Believe me, Powerdive," Ransack said, "I'm not any more predisposed to listening to these two quarrel than you are."

"It ain't me," Powerdive said in a hushed whisper.  "It's... it's him!"

All eight pairs of optic sensors immediately targeted the large, fallen warrior before which Powerdive was kneeling.  The foreign robot was attempting to move, but the labored sound of his servos straining made it clear he was still recovering from whatever ordeal he had endured.

"Hey, can you talk?" Powerdive said.  "Can we call you Octane?"

"Are you forgetting that there's already a Decepticon named Octane?" Ransack said.

"This from the guy with the recycled Insecticon name," Powerdive said pointedly.

"Hey, big guy," Manta Ray said with a fair amount of trepidation.  He held up his hands in a defensive posture, as if he were expecting to be pelted with water balloons.  "No offense about earlier, right?  I mean, the whole kicking thing?"

"You kicked him?" Ransack asked, incredulously.

"He was attacking me, Ransack," Manta Ray said, using the same tone of voice he might use on a neo-programmed drone.  "I had to defend myself, for crankin' out loud!"

"Uh, guys..." Leadfoot said.

"I'm really having trouble understanding this line of thinking," Ransack said.  "You plant your foot squarely into the capacitors of an attacking foe, then you get Powerdive and me to haul him back to our hidden base so we can all join hands and sing battle hymns?"

"Guys..." Leadfoot interjected.

"Look, it's not like I planned any of this!" Manta Ray protested.  "What was I supposed to do, leave him for dead?  We need him, Ransack!  And from the looks of his injuries, he needs us, too.  We fix him up, and he helps us take care of the Laser Rods.  It's a win-win situation.  'Specially if we're the ones who win!"

"Fyta..." Leadfoot said.  Electrical sparks started arcing from his head.  He shook his head violently and whacked himself in the side of the helmet, then looked upwards and pointed.

The rest of the Rotor Force followed Leadfoot's line of sight until they laid their scanners on a robot standing before them who was nearly three times their height.

"Heh heh.  Hi there," Manta Ray said, weakly.  He waved.

"Wow!" Powerdive exclaimed, taking a step forward.  "This is great!  I can't believe he's--"  At this point, Powerdive tripped over his own feet, tumbling forward and ending up in a heap on the floor.

"Ransack's the name," Ransack said.  He extended his right hand, but looked at the torn, jagged stump at the end of the other robot's right arm and retracted his hand awkwardly.  "Er, right.  Sorry.  Anyway, Powerdive and I were the ones who brought you here.  That's Leadfoot, and the one cowering in the corner is Manta Ray."

"What's your name, stranger?" Powerdive asked.

The robot answered.

***

The apparent complete and utter lack of Transformers on planet Cybertron was, to Jazz, an impossibility.  It was like an Earth oceanbed with no water, or a Titan house of worship with no religious idol, or a Zetaxis elementary school without thermonuclear warheads hidden in the basement.  The strange and inexplicable disappearance of the general populace was as unsettling as it was unexplained, and Jazz had devoted a considerable amount of thought to it.

Though Jazz had a primary responsibility to patrol the immediate perimeter of the entrance to the female Autobot base, he didn't want to be terribly obvious about what he was doing.  Instead of simply zipping back and forth in a straight line, as if to advertise the precise location he was monitoring, he decided it would be far more prudent to engage in a seemingly random path, sometimes pretending he was lost, sometimes acting he was in a hurry but suddenly remembering he'd forgotten something, and sometimes just casually strolling along the surface of the planet as if he were taking in the sights for the first time.  Occasionally, he'd even allowed the entrance to the base disappear entirely from his view.  Surely, he reasoned, nobody who was guarding something so vital would actually allow it out of their sight, so he was quite confident that his true objectives would be more than adequately masked to any potential observers.  While he engaged in this clever ruse, he had time to ponder the missing populace and what possible chain of events had caused what appeared to be the complete evacuation of Cybertron.

Zip, turn, slide, zoom.

Teletraan I had been programmed to request periodic status inquiries from the planet's main infocore, which helped to the Autobots keep up-to-date about some of the important goings-on regarding their homeworld.  The infolink sometimes got scrambled to the point that almost no useful information could be recovered (Perceptor had blamed solar flares as the culprit), but it was still the most reliable means by which the Autobots could keep informed.  If anything had happened to the planet itself, like an explosion or an electrical storm or an extraplanetary invasion, Jazz was certain that Teletraan would have received word about it.

Therefore, it had to have been something else.  Something that was the antithesis of monumental; something so seemingly small, so insignificant, that it hadn't even warranted a footnote in the scheduled infocore report.  At the same time, though, it had to have been a universally applicable scenario; it hadn't caused only some or most of the Autobots and Decepticons to disappear--it had affected all of them.

Zig, zag, turn, vroom.  

The only conceivable scenario Jazz was able to come up with was that Cybertron was, at long last, finally out of energy.  Its resources had been already dwindling by the point Optimus Prime elected to launch the Ark, in what was originally intended to be a desperate search for an alternate energy supply.  While it was true that Optimus Prime and Megatron were the commanding officers of their respective armies, and as such made most of the decisions related to the implementation of Cybertron's energy resources, their departure had not simply put the war on temporary hold.  In the absence of the military generals, there were still territories to be disputed, war-ravaged facilities to be rebuilt, and technological innovations to be developed.  All of these things required energy, and Cybertron did not have enough energy reserves in storage to maintain these endeavours indefinitely.

The Autobots had been aware of Cybertron's dwindling power supplies for centuries, and had made several earlier attempts to locate a potential new power supply, but the Decepticons had been alerted to these missions and had done their best to put a stop to them each time.  The Decepticons obviously didn't want their planet to die any more than the Autobots did, but it was clear that they wanted to be the ones to revitalize it, enabling them to dominate the planet with their own resources.  The problem with the way Cybertron was designed was that once the planet was revitalized, its renewed energy sources were accessible by anyone on the planet, be it Autobot or Decepticon.  The planet had never been designed to be segmented into two territories as the warring factions had done; all the planet's fuel reserves were essentially community property.

This meant that ever since the Decepticons on Earth had been sending energy shipments over the space bridge back to Cybertron, they had never once poured that energon back into the community reserve.  They were obviously selfishly hoarding it somewhere, perhaps in secret bunkers or underground storage facilities, in order to prevent the Autobots from ever accessing it.  This also meant that despite the millions of astro-liters of energy the Decepticons had appropriated over the years, the planet Cybertron continued to die a slow, quiet, painful death.

Zoom, turn, slide, turn again.

Had this been the cause for some sort of planetwide exodus, then?  Had the remaining Autobots and Decepticons on this planet, at some point very recently, reached the general consensus that nothing remained on Cybertron worth fighting for, and departed their homeworld once and for all?  It seemed an immensely unlikely scenario (and indeed if this were the case, Jazz was quite confident the Autobots and Decepticons would have arrived at the conclusion to leave separately, not through any cooperative meeting of the minds), but the evacuation of Cybertron was an equally unlikely scenario, and yet this was precisely what appeared to have happened.  Obviously, at least a handful of troops would have remained behind (Shockwave had stayed home to run the space bridge receiver, and reports of Decepticon marauders chasing and gunning down female Autobots suggested that at least a few stragglers remained), but the more Jazz pondered this possibility, the more he believed it was the answer to the mystery.

If this really was the case, though, then why had no one contacted Earth to let them know where they'd gone?  Why had they left the planetary infocore behind, arguably one of the most valuable sources of information to which the Transformers had access?  Why had they not even bothered to activate the planetary defenses while they were away, to prevent foreign invaders from trying to commandeer the planet while the population was out planet-hopping?  One of Jazz's favorite Earth expressions was "the devil is in the details," and it was more than applicable here.  Things just didn't add up.

Swish, turn, slide--WHAM!

Jazz was suddenly and unexpectedly hit with such force that his driver's side door was utterly crushed.  As flecks of metal and tiny particles of glass flew in every direction, he was helplessly forced sideways, his tires no longer grasping the smooth paneling of the planet's surface.  He had been hit by a jet-black enemy who had slammed into him like a battering ram, and the collision had barely slowed his assailant down.  After the cacophony of the crash ceased to echo through the metallic night and Jazz's uncontrolled journey began to slow, his attacker reversed direction, digging into the ground with spike-studded wheels, managing to extricate himself from Jazz's ruined vehicular frame.  His attacker transformed to a sleek robot configuration, training his shoulder cannon on a helpless Jazz.  Though his color scheme was different, his methods were unmistakably familiar, and now Jazz recognized him for who he really was.

"Sideswipe!" Jazz screamed.  "What in blazes is wrong with you, man?!"  He attempted to effect a switch to robot mode himself, but his damaged outer frame was partly folded over on itself and refused to unlock.  With a quick internal command, he switched off his auto-transformation circuits and unflexed his body into robot configuration manually.  He was left with one unretracted door, hanging off his left shoulder at an awkward angle, but that was by far the least of his problems at the moment.  His Autobot training precluded drawing his weapon at this stage, but he kept an internal trigger ready to pull his rifle from subspace, just in case.

"I think the question here, Jazz," seethed Sideswipe, "is what's wrong with you?  I always knew that you and Disco had broken up, but I never realized just how miserable you really made her."

"Huh?" Jazz replied.  Incredulous didn't begin to cover it.  "What are you talking about?"

"You know exactly what I mean," Sideswipe said.  Each word was an accusation.  It was difficult to tell whether his rocket launcher was armed, or if he was just waving it around for show.  "For some reason I can't begin to understand, Disco actually loved you once.  But you were too busy ingratiating yourself in the eyes of Optimus Prime to ever pay attention to her."

"And I suppose that's why you stole her from me?" Jazz countered.

"I didn't steal anyone," Sideswipe said.  "She came willingly."

The words hung in the air for a moment, and entirely against his will, Jazz's brain began playing back brief flashes of the breakup.  Yes, he had been preoccupied with helping Optimus get the crew of the Ark trained for combat-ready status and teaching them some survival skills.  Yes, he'd been promising Disco that they'd get together and make up for lost time at some unspecified date, but this promise always seemed to get pushed back a few more days every time some new recruits rolled in, or another Decepticon attack set back Prime's timetable.  In the end, Disco had grown tired of waiting for Jazz and had, apparently, set her eyes on Sideswipe: a younger, enthusiastic soldier painted bright red, a rebel who believed in cheating to get ahead and breaking every rule to get his way.

"He's there for me," Disco had told him.  "You're not."

Autobots believed strongly in pair-bonding, a concept that originated with organic species as a mating ritual that had no doubt rubbed off on Cybertron culture as a result of the Autobots coming into contact with so many other planets and cultures.  Obviously, this tendency to gravitate towards the opposite gender was more of a social function than a sexual one, though the existence of the spark bond ritual was a very personal, very private affair that was tantamount to the mating rituals in other cultures.  Jazz had been surprised to learn that of all the many ways in which other species propagated their young, not one of them was able to exchange memories and experiences and knowledge through the coupling that was possible for Transformers.  In organic species, it seemed, it was strictly an exchange of DNA, a cold and business-like affair whose sole purpose was to breed more offspring of the same species.  It completely lacked the poetry of the deeper intermingling of souls, the literal touching of one life essence to another.

While mating rituals among humans, for example, was a comparatively clumsy ordeal in which males randomly selected females based on a set of fairly arbitrary and superficial criteria (a youthful appearance, which could be simulated in older females with the application of artificial paints; adequately large mammary glands capable of sustaining offspring, which could also be augmented with some deceptive surgical procedures), in the hopes that the females would acquiesce and agree to mate, this was frequently a highly inexact and inefficient process.  Jazz had listened to Spike grouse on numerous occasions about female humans with whom he'd failed to copulate, young females with supple mammary glands who had rebuffed his advances, despite his generous offerings of sustinence, transportation, and the exhaustion of his financial reserves.  Given all the complex variables and potential for error, it was a miracle that he had ever copulated with Carly at all.

Autobots, by contrast, were frequently created with a specific counterpart in mind, a predetermined comrade of the opposite gender who shared similar interests, functions, abilities, and even in some cases, a similar name.  The once-teeming female Autobot population had no need to compete over potential male suitors, particularly since those with whom they were destined to pair bond were often the only ones with whom their circuitry could properly interface.

Jazz had never met Sideswipe before the young hotshot had joined Optimus Prime's elite troupe, so he'd never seen Sideswipe and Pile-Up together, nor had he ever known the female Autobot in question.  The first real impression Jazz had ever formed of Sideswipe was watching him at the initiation ceremony.  Jazz had noted how Sideswipe was barely listening to Optimus Prime addressing him, welcoming him and Sunstreaker as the newests addition to the crew of the Ark.  Sideswipe had, apparently, been far more interested in making eyes at Disco, who had been watching from the sidelines with a curiously strong interest that Jazz should, in retrospect, have recognized as a warning sign.

"She was never meant for you, man," Jazz said, at last.  "She was made for me."

"So you were the one who said that," Sideswipe remarked.  The sudden change to his expression suggested that he realized he had uttered something he knew he shouldn't have said, but the damage had already been done.

"How did you...?" Jazz asked.  His mind whirled, trying to reconcile what he knew was true with Sideswipe's apparent intimate knowledge of Jazz's last conversation with Disco.  Jazz had come to her only moments prior to the launch of the Ark, letting her know that both he and Sideswipe had been hand-picked by Optimus Prime and that they expected to be gone for several planetary revolutions.  He had intended to forgive her, to let her know that he, too, was to blame for the sorry state of affairs between them but that he was more than willing to start fresh and take her back, if she'd have him.  Instead, she had protested her love for Sideswipe like never before, and the brief meeting had escalated into a shouting match that had ended even more badly than their breakup.  

Disco had not seen Sideswipe after this meeting.  There was no way that she could have told him what had transpired, no possible way that Sideswipe would have been aware of who had said what during what was fated to be Jazz's final conversation with Disco.

"You found her," Jazz realized.  "You found her!"

"She's gone, Jazz," Sideswipe said.  "There's nothing left."

"But how could you...?" Jazz began, trailing off again.  There was exactly one way by which Sideswipe could have possibly gleaned information from Disco's memory after she had died.  It was such a vile, repugnant thought that Jazz found himself wincing, shutting his optic lenses tightly as if to prevent such an insidious concept from invading his mind.

"You interfaced!" Jazz cried.  "She was dead, and you interfaced with her!"

"The Decepticons got to her long before I did," Sideswipe said.  "If Prime hadn't stopped me from coming back home, I might have been able to stop them.  I could have saved her."

"You claim you loved her," Jazz said, aghast, "and yet you willingly violated her?!"

"I am not the bad guy here!" Sideswipe said.  Fiery rage filled his eyes.  "The Decepticons murdered her!"

"And you hacked her!" Jazz said.  He was not given to using vulgarities, but there came a point when polite conversation went entirely out the window.

"You think I wanted to?" Sideswipe protested.

"You always wanted to," Jazz countered with a sneer, his fists clenched tightly.

Sideswipe lunged forward, tackling Jazz with both arms and wrapping his arms around Jazz's upper torso.  Jazz retracted his fist, replacing it with a grappling hook and quickly fired it at the overpass that cast a curved shadow over both the Autobot combatants.  It found purchase with a satisfying ka-chunk sound, and the motors inside Jazz's forearm groaned as he retracted the tether and both Autobots abruptly launched into the air.

Sideswipe held on to Jazz's single protruding wing-door with his right hand, transforming his other arm into pile driver mode and began pummeling Jazz in the chest.  Jazz's tether cable finally snapped under the extra weight, and both Autobots fell uncontrolled before crashing to the ground below, Jazz's damaged door finally breaking clean off and tumbling away to parts unknown.  Sideswipe fired at Jazz with his rocket launcher, but he obviously hadn't reset his gyroscope after the fall, as the rocket spun clumsily into the night sky and exploded at some point far in the distance.

Jazz readied his shoulder-mounted flamethrower, which issued from a compartment from his back and telescoped to its full length.  It was an illegal weapon, technically, one which he'd been equipped with before the current, more stringent Autobot regulations had gone into effect.  It was a weapon which he almost never had occasion to use.  At this point, though, Sideswipe had initiated a show of potentially deadly force (clumsy though it had been), and Jazz was determined to end this encounter quickly before things got drastically out of hand.

Sideswipe was on his feet now, charging Jazz with both arms outstretched.  Jazz sidestepped his opponent at the last possible instant, allowing Sideswipe to stumble head first into a support column.  He shook off the impact, spinning around and preparing to strike a second time, but this time Jazz was ready with his shoulder-mounted flamethrower.  He let loose a billowing flame that struck Sideswipe, engulfing the entire upper half of his body, compelling him to fall to his knees, shielding his eyes and face from the intense heat.  

"You'd better quit while you're behind," Jazz quipped, pointing his photon rifle at his comrade.

"Stop!" came a loud, guttural voice.  As one, Sideswipe and Jazz whirled their heads as Ironhide came charging over the horizon.  

"What in tarnation is goin' on here?" he demanded.  "Jazz, you better have an explanation."

"He started it," Sideswipe said, flames still dancing across several patches of his dark, gleaming armor.  He indicated Jazz with an extended thumb unit.

"Jazz, I told you to guard the entrance to the base until I got out," Ironhide said.  His regional accent seemed more pronounced when he was angry.

"That's exactly what I was doing, man," Jazz said.

"I know why the Decepticons killed Disco," Sideswipe said.  "We've got to get back to Earth as soon as possible."

"You just read my mind," Ironhide said.  "Jazz, I'll deal with you later.  Right now, let's get back to Omega Supreme.  Can you both transform?"

"No problem," Sideswipe said.  His body reconfigured itself into his new, jet-black vehicular form.  He had apparently suffered no ill effects from the collision.

Jazz transformed as well, leaping into the air and landing in a slightly battered car mode.  If Ironhide took note of the missing driver's side door, he said nothing about it.

Whatever Sideswipe had learned from his interface with Disco, it was no doubt precisely what Optimus Prime had departed for Cybertron to discover in the first place.  Perhaps this would, in some small way, validate the space bridge tragedy in which Optimus Prime had lost his life.  It would not, however, in any way validate the horrible thing Sideswipe had done in order to secure that information in the first place.  Regardless of whether Sideswipe ever received an official reprimand, this was one act for which Jazz could never forgive him.

"Thanks for tryin' to help, Sideswipe, but I already got the lowdown from Elita One," Ironhide explained, leading the small patrol of Autobots in his van mode.  "She said there's a gang of Decepticons whose buddy got captured by one of the Autobot groups on Cybertron.  He found somethin' important inside some kind of warp in space.  They're tryin' to get him back, and any Autobots they find are fair game."

"There's more to it than that, Ironhide," Sideswipe said.  "A Decepticon group calling themselves the Skyscorchers sent one of their troops to pioneer some kind of new space warp technology.  Before this trooper could report what he found on the other side, though, he got captured by a group of Autobots called the Axelerators, led by somebody called Rapido."

"I think that's the same guy who showed up at Autobot Headquarters looking for Optimus Prime," Ironhide affirmed.  "According to Trailbreaker's update, he arrived just after we left.  He took command of the Autobots on Earth."

"That means he's got the trooper the Decepticons are looking for," Sideswipe said.  "Disco was spying on them the whole time.  She's the one who told the Axelerators where to find this guy.  After Rapido's unit captured him, though, a couple of Skyscorchers found Disco and went after her."

"But if the Axelerators are on Earth, that means the Skyscorchers will have followed 'em there," Jazz concluded.

"So what happens when they get their missing guy back?  They can open up the space warp again?" Ironhide asked.

"I don't think it's the warp technology they're really after, but what's on the other side of the warp," Sideswipe said.  Disco saw it, whatever it was.  They killed her, Ironhide, so she couldn't tell anybody what she saw."

"If only Elita One hadn't been so stubborn," Ironhide said with a sigh.  "If she had just joined forces with Rapido in the first place, maybe none of this would have ever happened."

"There are little splinter groups all over the planet now," Jazz realized.  "It sure ain't like it used to be."

The Autobots approached the mighty Omega Supreme, still in defense base mode.  His battle tank module dutifully patrolled the track that encircled his launcher and rocket module, the latter of which jutted into the dark night like a metal skyscraper.

"Preflight check: engaged," Omega Supreme reported.

The trio of Autobots transformed to robot mode and waited for the rocket ramp to extend fully to the ground.  As it touched bottom softly, they began to ascend the ramp.

"The Axelerators didn't even try to rescue Disco," Sideswipe said, angrily.  "As soon as they discovered the Decepticons' secret, they forgot all about her.  Elita One didn't do much to help her, either.  They left her for dead without even looking for her.  I was the one who found her body, and I was the one who gave her a proper resting place."  He held up his hands, revealing the scuff marks on his fingertips caused, apparently, by digging her grave by hand.

"That must be one whopper of a secret," Jazz remarked.  Had all the Transformers on Cybertron gone completely crazy?  The Disco he had once known would have never risked her life so foolishly, no matter what prize she'd discovered--and as caretaker over the female Autobots, Elita One should never have allowed it to begin with.  Disco's safety should have come before anything else, no matter how valuable this discovery might have been.  The Axelerators, meanwhile, had used Disco as a tool to gain access to this Decepticon secret, and once she ceased being useful, they had discarded her like an empty ammo clip.  That was something Decepticons did, not Autobots.  Come to think of it, the Skyscorchers had done anything it took to recover their wayward soldier, something Jazz had never heard of a Decepticon doing before.  Decepticons had no compassion for their fellow troops; warriors were expendable, in their eyes.  Their show of concern, if indeed that's what it was, seemed more Autobot-like than anything else.  What possible discovery could have been so monumental that it turned the entire planet of Cybertron completely topsy-turvy?

"Well, it's not our place to judge the other Autobot teams," Ironhide said with a resolute sigh.  "Right now, all we can do is get back to Earth and try to stop these new Decepticons from getting their trooper back."

"Assuming they haven't done so already," Sideswipe added, as the rocket hatch closed behind him.

***

"What do you mean, you don't remember?" Powerdive asked, insistently.

"I'm sorry, my friend," the mystery robot replied.  "I seem to be having some trouble with my short-term memory circuits.  I'm sure they'll come back online at any moment.  I have a distant recollection of an explosion... perhaps... I'm not certain.  It's all incredibly vague.  Again, I apologize."

"Hey, maybe he was somewhere nearby when the Decepticon space bridge receiver blew up," Manta Ray suggested.  "That was one big boom."

"Space... bridge?" the newcomer said, testing out the words with uncertainty.  "Yes, that may have been it.  That seems familiar somehow."

"Well, quite frankly, big guy," said Ransack, completing his assessment of the larger robot's injuries, "it's a miracle that you're even functioning.  We're going to have to forge some new armor panels for you and do something about that missing arm, but your basis exostructure is still intact.  You're giving off a lot of residual radiation, like you took a bath in plasma energy or something.  You also had some kind of foreign carbon-based substance slathered all over your insides.  I don't recognize it, but whatever it was, it might have protected you from the plasma exposure to some degree.  Without it, I doubt you'd have survived."

"Well, well, well," Leadfoot said, tucking his hands behind his back and periodically toggling between teetering on his heels and balancing on his toes.  "Now all that's left is to get this guy fixed up, get him armed to the teeth, and get him out there so we can fight!"

"Fight?" the newcomer asked.  "Why?  Are we at war?"

"Oh, crank it all," grumbled Manta Ray.  "We find the biggest, baddest robot this end of the North Side, and he's bright as a burned-out bulb."

"Listen, friend," Ransack said smoothly.  "I don't know how long you've been out of it, but we're in a fight for survival here.  Brains versus brawn, as it were.  Have been for a while.  If you don't choose sides, then you're liable to get trampled in the middle somewhere.  It's that simple."

"Brains versus brawn," the newcomer repeated.  "What side are we on?  Autobots?  Decepticons?"

"It don't really work like that no more," Powerdive said.  "Some of us are Autobots by birth and some of us are Decepticons, but that don't matter now.  What's important is that we all got what you might call a common ideal.  We're all part of the Rotor Force."

"Rotor Force?" the newcomer parroted.

"One of those placeholder names that just ended up sticking," Manta Ray shrugged.  "I voted for 'Energy Conservation League' but that doesn't really roll off the tongue."

"Right," replied Ransack.  "In this day and age, the only way to survive is to conserve energy.  Well, sir, we've taken that concept to the ultimate extreme.  Our vehicle modes, our weapons, even our headquarters... powered by stored energy, whenever possible.  You know, wind-up springs, weights and pulleys, solar reserves, kinetic batteries... anything that doesn't burn up energon."

"If everybody just thought as we did," added Leadfoot, "this planet would, indeed, be a better place for all citizens of Cybertron."

"That's why we're at war," said Ransack.

"Against whom?" the newcomer asked.

"The Laser Rods," Powerdive said, stomping the ground in disgust.  Just one of them greedy guzzlers sucks more energy out of this dying planet than the four of us put together.  They waste fuel just 'cause they can, and we're all paying for it.  If we don't stop them, then Cybertron is gonna to die, and so is everybody who's still left."

"Laser Rods," the newcomer said.  "They don't sound familiar."

"We used to be able to keep them under control, relatively speaking," Ransack said.  "Ever since the Skyscorchers started blitzing the Autobot camps and driving everyone underground, though, the Laser Rods seem to have taken that as their cue to come to the surface and try to secure some additional territory.  They've been on the prowl for a while now.  It's madness.  Utter madness."  He shook his head with helpless resignation.

"Skyscorchers?" the newcomer asked, puzzled.  "On the prowl?"

"Wow, you really have been out of it," Manta Ray said.  

"You think his memory banks are permanently damaged?" Powerdive asked.

"There's no way of knowing for sure," Ransack said.  "I don't have the equipment to do a proper brain scan.  The fact that he's conscious is a good sign, certainly.  Perhaps some of his memory will return in time."

"You have my gratitude for bringing me here, and for offering to repair me," the stranger said.  "However, I'm not sure I'm quite ready to join your cause.  I don't even know if I'm capable of fighting."

"Look, friend, Leadfoot and Manta Ray took an awfully big risk in order to get you here," Ransack said.  "Gratitude is all well and good, but if we actually do spend precious time and materials and energy to repair you, then that means you'll owe us a little more than gratitude, eh?  We could have left you out there to expire slowly, but we didn't.  We saved you.  I think it's only fair that you do something for us in return, hmm?"

"You're right, of course," the newcomer replied.  "I'll help you in any way I can, at least for now."

"That's better," Manta Ray said.  "Now, you just need a name."

"A name," the newcomer repeated.  "How about... Octane?"

Powerdive giggled in delight.

***

Chapter 60:  House of Cards

There had been a point in Carly Anderson's life during which she felt as if she'd gotten her affairs largely under control.  She'd built a very respectable wardrobe filled with a lot of fashionable yet functional outfits; she'd amassed a tremendous collection of books, of both the educational and entertaining variety; she'd not only paid off her credit card debt, but she'd even managed to save up a few thousand dollars in her bank account.  She was at a point, by age 18, where she knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life and how to achieve it.

Then the Transformers came, and everything went to hell.

Naturally, she had been curious.  Giant mechanical beings who had infiltrated the human population, but who could also disguise themselves as cars and planes and trucks?  It was like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon.  She'd suspected it was some kind of a publicity stunt, possibly some clever advertising for an upcoming science fiction movie or something.  Even the most reputable news stations seemed divided as to whether the numerous robot sightings were legitimate or some kind of elaborate hoax.  Carly was fascinated with the concept of artificial intelligence, and she had resolved to one day determine for herself the truth about these crazy robot stories.

The first day she met one of them had changed her life irreparably.

He was smaller than she'd expected.  The reports had claimed these mechanical monsters were 20 or 30 feet tall, but this one was only a few heads taller than she was.  Colored bright yellow and eminently cheerful, he was hunched over an arcade console and showing off his formidable gaming skills.  This was the warmongering machine that demolished energy installations and terrorized the populace?  Surely the news stations had been mistaken.  Carly would later learn to distinguish Autobot from Decepticon and recognize the latter as a legitimate threat, of course, but in that moment, Carly was about to introduce herself to an intelligent machine.

Spike Witwicky, the kid with the unpronounceable last name, had somehow gotten to the Autobots before she had, and in the few short months he'd known them, he'd developed a rapport with them that Carly found to be entirely inappropriate.  Somehow he'd tripped and stumbled into a default role as Earth's ambassador to the Autobots, representing the entire human race and taking it upon himself to educate these ages-old warriors about comic books, television programs and pizza toppings.  Had the opportunity fallen in Carly's lap first, she would have unhesitantly fulfilled the role of a true political diplomat.  She would have seen the need to request an audience with the President of the United States, forging a true alliance between the Autobots and the U.S. government that would have served them well in their endeavors.  Instead, the Autobots received their Earth education from a teenage boy, becoming the first alien robots on the planet to be able to recite all of Cold Slither's rock songs by heart.

Initially, Carly had found Spike to be irritating and obnoxious.  She'd never admit this to his face, of course, but she'd originally feigned interest in him only because of his association with the Autobots.  She yearned to have what had come to him so easily--a close working relationship, even a friendship, with these amazing mechanical creations.  Her fondness for Spike, himself, had grown over time.  She came to find him endearing, in a goofy and immature kind of way.  He obviously admired her for her intelligence and her technological skills, two traits which practically seemed tailor-made for an ally to the Autobots.  Of course, the fact that he liked her body didn't hurt, either.

It was funny how life worked.  Over the course of time, it became clear that the Transformers weren't going back home.  They had made Earth a permanent staging ground, for all intents and purposes.  Sure, it was entirely possible that these proponents of a war that had lasted millions of years would eventually move their conflict to other planets in other galaxies in the due course of time--perhaps a hundred years, perhaps a thousand--but what difference did that make to a human whose lifespan lasted but an infinitesimal fraction of theirs?  The things that she had once thought important, like her hardback book collection or her personal credit score, were unimportant trifles in a life that was no longer hers.  The romantic notion of being a close, personal friend to the alien robots had faded, having been replaced with the harsh reality that she was inexorably chained to these machines, and their concerns and worries and fears were now hers to bear.  

She imagined that the day-to-day life she lived was similar to the conditions that people experienced after going to war in another country, or in the aftermath of a natural disaster like an earthquake or hurricane.  The Decepticons had raped the Earth to the point where resources she had once taken for granted had completely vanished from her daily routine.  She wore the same clothes for several days in a row unless she took the time to wash them by hand; she put off washing her hair for as long as possible because the lack of a blowdryer made it impossible to maintain her hairstyle.  Refrigerated foods no longer existed, and anything that had to be cooked before it was edible required an open flame, so Carly tended to eat on the go--her meals taking the form of beef jerky or dried apricots or other sustinence that required little or no preparation.  Like the early pioneers of Oregon, Carly planned her days around the rising and setting of the sun, knowing that once the daylight was stolen away from her, there would be no electric lights by which to mend her shoes, only candlelight.

The main difference was that wars eventually ended and soldiers returned home; disaster cleanup was eventually completed as towns and communities were rebuilt.  The war between the Autobots and Decepticons never ended, which means that the life on Earth that Carly had once known would no longer be hers to enjoy again.

She endured it some days better than others.  She spent a great deal of her time at Autobot Headquarters, one of the few remaining facilities in America that was provided a constant flow of electricity.  She had claimed a small weapons storage locker as her own personal space--a place to keep a change of clothing, a small collection of her favorite books, and a tiny lock box filled with personal documents that she clung to in the desperate hope that one day she would again have a need for things like a birth certificate and social security card.  She busied herself with the day-to-day activities of the Autobots, helping fine-tune their weaponry or analyze battlefield data, and she found that the more she immersed herself in their affairs, the less she dwelled on her own.  On the few occasions when she ventured to her tiny one-room apartment in the suburbs to pick up supplies, though, she found herself awash with a wave of sadness.  It went far beyond nostalgia for the past; it was a heartfelt yearning that she felt in her bones.

She had left the hospital against medical advice, knowing that the longer she stayed, the more medical expenses she'd incur.  Her body would heal, in time, regardless of whether she was staying in a hospital room whose daily charges overshadowed the most luxurious hotel by a considerable margin--and the Carlton-Ritz had better food.  Her eyesight, meanwhile, was another matter entirely.  She'd gone from complete blindness in the wake of the Battlechargers' attack to gradually being able to detect colors and shapes.  At this point, her vision was still blurry, but slowly improving.  She'd had to squint in order to read and sign the hospital release forms, and her doctor had warned her that the damage to her optic nerves was probably permanent, but at this point she didn't care.  Staying in that hospital room one more day would have driven her mad.  She didn't need to be reminded of how she had almost died at the hands of the Decepticons.  All she wanted was to rejoin the Autobots and continue her efforts to help them win their stupid giant robot war so they could all pile up in their giant robot spaceship and fly back to their stupid giant robot planet.

So, for now it was back to Autobot Headquarters.  Though Carly had been grateful to Bumblebee for his bedside vigil, she was hesitant to allow him to drive her back to the base.  While his vehicle mode had once blended in seamlessly with the rest of the interstate traffic, these days he was almost instantly recognizable as an Autobot agent.  The Decepticons had been targeting bright yellow Volkswagen Beetles for years, systematically eliminating every single one they found on the roads until it had seemingly gotten to the point where Bumblebee was, in all likelihood, the only one left on the roads.  His stubborn refusal to upgrade his vehicle form to something more contemporary made him an artifact out of time.  Tracks had recently returned from investigating the site of a possible Decepticon craft landing, and had volunteered to escort her in Bumblebee's place.  His particular 1980's-era vehicle form wasn't particularly suited for the dawn of the millennium, either, but Carly had to take what she could get.  She was in no condition to drive herself.

"I simply cannot stand this dismal weather," Tracks was saying.  He drew out all the vowel sounds in that exaggerated, aristocratic tone of his.  It always reminded Carly of the millionaire from that old TV show about the tourists stuck on an island.  "The snow turns into slush, builds up underneath my wheel wells, and then freezes back into ice so it's stuck there.  Absolutely dreadful."

"I can imagine how that must bother you, Tracks," Carly said.  She shut her eyes tightly and began grinding her fists into her eyelids, trying to chase away the spots that invaded her peripheral vision.  

"And then there's the salt," Tracks continued.  "Must the humans completely slather the roads with salt crystals?  I've got so many sodium chloride spots on my fenders that it's absolutely embarrassing.  If I have to get yet another undercarriage wash this week, I just don't know what I'll do."

There was something insane and ridiculous about the fact that Carly had long ago given up primping and polishing in favor of more worldly concerns, only to have fallen in with an Autobot whose only worldly concerns were primping and polishing.

"Tracks," Carly asked, "do you ever wonder what the other Autobots think of you?"

"Oh, I know exactly what most of them think about me," Tracks replied haughtily.  "They don't make any secret of their disdain for me, let me tell you."

"Does it ever bother you?" Carly asked.

"It used to," Tracks admitted.  "The constant taunting and childish mockery really does get old after a while.  It's as if some Autobots have nothing better to do with their time than ridiculing other Autobots.  It doesn't bother me much these days, because I think I finally figured out why they do it in the first place."

"And why is that?" Carly asked.

"They're obviously jealous of me," Tracks said.

"Obviously," Carly said.

"This is where the road ends," Tracks said.  Carly peered through the salt-encrusted windshield to confirm Tracks' observation: the dirt road that had once led to Autobot Headquarters was now blocked with hazard signs and guard rails.  This was usually the point at which Carly expected her Autobot chauffeur to come to a stop, transform to robot mode and walk around the barrier, and change back to vehicle mode to complete the drive down the mountain path.  She began to unfasten her seat belt when she remembered that Tracks tended to circumvent this approach entirely.  Tracks accelerated and sprouted a pair of wings a the last possible moment, lifting off the road and right over the blockade, soaring gracefully the remainder of the distance to the volcano.

"Thanks for the lift, Tracks," Carly said, climbing out of the canopy and stepping into the freshly-fallen snow.  There were a handful of large, rectangular-shaped footprints outside the base and two or three sets of tire tracks, but the serene tranquility of the winter landscape was otherwise undisturbed.

"Think nothing of it," Tracks replied as he returned to robot mode.  He reached down and scraped a finger's worth of grey-colored slush out from behind the tire on his left leg, flicking it into the side of the volcano with a kind of mildly disgusted resignation.  "I vastly prefer the company of humans over my fellow Autobots any day of the week and twice on Sundays.  At least you don't taunt me mercilessly just because I happen to take pride in my appearance."

"Maybe it's just the way you come off to everybody else," Carly suggested as the two entered the volcano base.  "I mean, didn't you call Sideswipe and Sunstreaker lazy because they didn't get a car wash every day?"

"I never used the word 'lazy,'" Tracks said.  "I simply pointed out that it impresses me when Autobots take care of themselves, and the extra effort doesn't go lost on me.  I was actually paying them a compliment.  Sometimes I think those two just wait for me to open my mouth so they can twist it all around into some kind of attack on them."

"I'm sure that's not it," Carly said.  "Nobody wants to feel insulted.  Maybe if you tried to be more--"

"I hate to cut this short," Tracks interrupted, "but if I don't get this salt scraped off, it's going to drive me crazy.  Let's talk about this later, shall we?"  With that, he turned down the corridor, periodically taking a few steps and then trying to shake some of the residue from his boot.

Tracks was just doing what Carly herself was doing, she realized.  He was concerning himself in silly things that didn't really matter so he didn't have to think about the things that really were important.  She wondered how many of the Autobots were doing the exact same thing.  Did Jazz soak up Earth culture like a sponge because he was trying to distract himself from some deep, personal issues?  Did Wheeljack bury himself in his workshop, busying himself with projects because there were greater concerns looming over his head that he didn't care to address?  Did Trailbreaker crack jokes in order to hide his pain?  The Autobots really weren't unlike humankind at all, Carly mused.  Take them out of those big, metal bodies and they had the same neuroses and insecurities as every human being on the planet.

Speaking of neurotic, insecure people, she knew that Spike had to be here somewhere.  She'd quickly learned that the Ark was so tremendous that, even with a large section of the ship completely inaccessible to personnel, that she could still wander the corridors for hours if she was looking for something or someone specific.

"Teletraan I," she said, "can you tell me where Spike is?"

"Please stand by," Teletraan replied.

She waited for a moment.  Maybe one of the Autobots was running some kind of algorithm that sucked up most of the computer's processing power.  When she didn't get a response, she tried again.

"Teletraan, I'm looking for Spike Witwicky.  Is he here in Autobot Headquarters?"

"Following the expedition of the Autobot flagship Ark," Teletraan I replied, "communication with the ship was lost.  Two rescue missions were conducted--both of them unsuccessful--and the ship and her crew were declared lost.  With the Matrix of Leadership presumed destroyed, no successor to Optimus Prime was named, but several smaller Autobot groups emerged, each under separate leadership.  One contingent includes the female Autobots, commanded by Elita One.  Another group includes the Axelerators, led by Rapido, acting Field Commander with a military rank equal to Optimus Prime."

"Um, that's very... interesting," Carly said, "but that's not what I asked."

"All inquiries will be responded to in the order in which they were received," Teletraan explained.

"Thank you," Carly sang impatiently.  Wheeljack must have been tinkering with Teletraan's mainframe again.  Well, sometimes you just had to do things the old-fashioned way.

These days, very few of the Ark's accessible facilities were being used for their original purpose.  The ship had been designed with cargo storage as a primary consideration, and while the ship never had a chance to complete its mission, the immense storage capacity had made it easy to make the transition from energy-collecting flagship to Autobot Motel.  At least half the ship had retrofitted into the personal quarters for the fifty-odd Autobot troops who were currently stationed on Earth, a number that had swelled a bit following the arrival of the Protectobots, and again when Broadside and his crew had returned to the fold.

Originally, Carly had failed to understand why the Autobots needed so much space to use as living quarters.  They were machines, after all.  They didn't need living space; they needed a recharging chamber.  Or maybe a garage.  It wasn't until the first time she set foot inside Ironhide's quarters during her first tour of the base that she finally understood.  Each Autobot had personalized his individual living space to reflect his tastes and interests.  Some of them had hung battle trophies on the walls in the form of Decepticon jet wing parts; others had personal articles of sentimental value; a few had quarters with only the bare necessities needed to function.  The unifying theme that tied them all together was that every one of the Autobots had built for himself a tiny little piece of home, a miniature chunk of Cybertron that they could call their own.  It was at that moment that Carly had realized the Autobots were indeed living beings, not just highly complex automatons.  They were stranded on an alien world, light years from home.  Even the new vehicular configurations into which they now transformed were foreign and uncomfortable to them.  While some had acclimated to their surroundings more readily than others, none of them truly belonged here.

Carly strolled down the corridor, able to recall the locations of most of the individual Autobot quarters from memory.  Some of them still had placards in Cybertronian writing, but Carly only had a rudimentary understanding of their written language, and most of the name plaques were missing anyhow.  There were always telltale signs to serve as a reminder, however.  The quarters shared by Sideswipe and Sunstreaker had several dents in the door where one or the other of them had punched the door in frustration over some perceived injustice.  The access panel to Wheeljack's quarters, which was also shared by Ratchet, hung open and dangled by the wiring, the result of an attempted modification by Wheeljack that he'd never quite gotten around to finishing.  Though it was quiet at the moment, it was obvious when either Jazz or Blaster was in their shared quarters because of the constant thump-thump-thump of whatever hard rock number could be heard through the door and felt through the floor.  There were also the remnants of a Stinger poster on the door, hung before one or the other of them had torn most of it off after the group had broken up.

At the end of the hallway on the far right was the quarters shared by Bumblebee and Cliffjumper, and it was here that Daniel Witwicky spent most of his time.  Carly sometimes wondered what long-term effects being raised by giant robots would have on her little boy.  It was one thing for Carly to have met the Autobots for the first time when she was a young eighteen years of age, but Daniel's generation was the first to be born after the arrival of the Transformers on Earth.  Unlike the thousands of other children who, like Daniel, would have no memory of a life without Transformers, Daniel was a special case.  It was here in the heart of Autobot Headquarters that he was the safest, quite literally in the center of the ship's depths.  He would never know the joys of going to school and making friends with children his own age, or having a birthday party with Lobo the Clown, or even building snowmen in the backyard with his father.  Daniel was a Witwicky, inexorably linked to the Autobots as an ally and as a potential Decepticon target.  Ever since the day he was born, Carly had feared for his life and lived with a constant worry that one day the Decepticons would end his existence, either through accident or design.  There was no telling how profoundly different his upbringing would have been had it not been for these warriors from Cybertron.  Of course, were it not for Carly's fortuitous introduction to the Autobots, it was highly debatable whether Daniel would have ever been conceived to begin with.  

Carly touched the access panel and the door slid open.  Inside, Bumblebee was cupping young Daniel in his hands, swaying his arms and twisting back and forth as if to simulate the movements of a ride at the Fun-A-Rama park.  Daniel giggled deliriously and demanded more.  Carly couldn't help but smile.  She had taught Bumblebee all about amusement park rides, and now he was returning the favor.

Spike was glued to the computer station at the opposite end of the room, analyzing some grainy Sky Spy satellite images.  In the corner of the room, like a limp marionette, stood the mechanical exo-suit that Wheeljack had created for Spike.  They were still working the bugs out of the design, but it would, in theory, be a great asset to Spike, particularly in combat scenarios.  It had built-in weapons, a life support system, and was even designed to assume a vehicular configuration.  It would, in effect, complete Spike's literal transformation into a full-fledged Autobot.

Carly cleared her throat expectantly.

"Carly!" Spike said, whirling around and rushing to greet her.  He wrapped his arms around her and grinned.  "Why didn't you tell me they'd discharged you?  I would have come to get you."

"Tracks owed me a favor," Carly said.  "Besides, you're obviously busy."

"Wheeee!" Daniel exclaimed excitedly, throwing his arms up into the air.  "Do it again, Bumbabee!  Do it again!"

"These are the readings from the battle in the Antarctic," Spike explained, taking that as his cue to resume his work.  He hopped into the oversized chair, obviously designed for an Autobot much larger than himself, and he sat on one foot to prop himself up a bit.  "I'm trying to figure them out, maybe find something about Optimus Prime, but Teletraan's been glitching all day."

"I noticed that," Carly said.  "Spike, we need to talk."

"Okay," Spike said, fiddling with the computer control pad.  "As soon as I'm done."

"That's just it," Carly said.  "You'll never be done."

Spike turned around.  "What?" he asked.

"I've been waiting for so long for us to get our lives back," Carly said, fighting back tears.  "It's been so long that I've almost forgotten what it was like to have a life.  It's not too late, Spike.  We can still leave all this behind and start over somewhere else."

"Carly, what are you saying?" Spike asked, incredulous.  "What kind of medication did they give you?"

"For the love of God, I'm not on pain killers!" Carly said.  "I love the Autobots as much as you do, and I know this war is important, but how much are we supposed to give?  How much of our own sweat and blood?  Our own blood, Spike!"  She pointed to the bandages on his hands.

"At what point are we allowed to say we're done?" Carly continued.  "Spike, I don't want to do this anymore!"

"Look, Carly," Spike said in his I'm-about-to-explain-something-really-obvious voice, "you've just been through a pretty traumatic experience.  It's natural to feel the way you do right now.  Maybe you should just take a break for a while."

"You're not listening to me," Carly protested.  She was coming off as far more petulant than she'd intended to, but Spike was impossibly pig-headed and there simply was no reasoning with him.  Trying to convince him to give up on the Autobots was like trying to convince the sun not to rise tomorrow.

"Bumblebee," Carly said, "you understand what I'm trying to say, right?"

"Sure, Carly," Bumblebee explained, setting Daniel gently down.  "You've always been a loyal friend and ally, but we Autobots can't ask you to fight our war for us.  You have the right to leave whenever you're ready.  You guys are my best friends on this entire planet, and I'd miss you like there's no tomorrow, but I'd understand completely."

"But Bumblebee," Spike countered, "as long as this war continues on Earth, it's just as much our fight as it is yours.  Running away won't solve anything, and we can't help you guys beat the Decepticons if we're off hiding somewhere!"

"What makes you think the Autobots need our help, Spike?" Carly said.  "Did it ever occur to you that maybe Optimus Prime never wanted us involved in the first place?  They've been fighting this war for over nine million years!  What makes you think that we'll even live long enough to put a dent in that?"

"We've already helped the Autobots more times than I can count!" Spike said, ticking off examples on his fingers as they occurred to him.  "I helped Bumblebee escape when the Decepticons were first testing the space bridge... Dad and I helped the Autobots recover when Megatron tried to reprogram them through the recharging chambers... we were the ones who went to Cybertron to replenish the Autobots' cybertonium supply... the list goes on!"

"None of that matters now," Carly said.  "All I want is for Daniel to have a chance at a normal life.  Hiding inside a volcano so the big, bad robots can't hurt him is no way for a six-year-old boy to live!"

"Take that, Inceptacons," warned Daniel, drawing his fists together as he made an approximation of a transformation sound, then firing at his invisible targets.  He made a self-satisfied exploding sound before transforming his weapon back into his little arms.

"What I do," said Spike, "I do for you and Danny.  You both mean the world to me.  I'd never do anything to hurt you."

"Except Nimue," Carly said.

Spike sighed an exasperated sigh.  "You're not going to bring that up again, are you?  Why does this somehow become a part of every single fight we have?  I told you that she meant nothing."

"Warpath seemed to think she meant something," Carly said.  Warpath and Hoist had brought Carly up to speed on Spike's exploits as a medieval jousting knight some years ago, and the considerable lengths he'd gone to in order to try to impress a lascivious young damsel.  Spike himself had remained strangely unforthcoming about these events, which had sometimes led Carly to wonder just how faithful he had been to her.

Of course, she'd also had a very recent love affair with Hound, so it wasn't as though her glass house didn't have a few broken windows of its own.  She was justified in her anger, but she had no idea how Spike would react if he learned that she'd been intimate with one of the Autobots.  This was a secret she planned to take to her grave.

"Carly, did you not get that I was stuck fifteen centuries in the past?" Spike said.  "It's not as if I was looking for... you know, I'm not going to do this again.  You can think whatever you want."

Daniel tugged at his mother's shirt sleeve.  "Mommy, are you mad at Daddy?"

"Yes, Daniel," Carly said, tears streaming down her face.  "Mommy is very, very mad at Daddy because Daddy is being very, very stupid."

"Hee hee," Daniel giggled, clasping his hands over his face.  "Daddy's stupid!"

"I really think you need to just lay down and relax for a bit," Spike insisted.

"And I'm beginning to think," Carly said, "that it's a really good thing that we never got married."

***

Sparkplug Witwicky hated getting old.  It was a simple fact of life, and he accepted it, but that didn't mean he enjoyed it by any means.  It was as if his body was betraying him, a little piece at a time.  If it wasn't his bad knee, it was a nerve in his shoulder.  Or the incessant ringing in his left ear.  Or arthritis in three of the fingers in his left hand.  Even his stomach seemed determined to give him a difficult time by complaining viciously about foods that he'd had no trouble with just a few years ago.  He'd completely eliminated dairy products from his diet, along with other foods he'd enjoyed all his life.  Pizza was a a big one.  He was terribly sorry to say good-bye to that particular delicasse.  And yet, inexplicably, he'd gained ten pounds in the past year.  Even his metabolism was against him.

Life was a funny thing.  In his youth, he was firmly convinced that being a jewel miner was the ideal line of work.  It was like being part of a modern-age gold rush, unearthing precious stones in a foreign land.  There was something intoxicating about being one of the people to be there at the source, the place from which over ninety percent of the world's ruby gems were mined.  He had personally unearthed hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of stones every week.  It was grueling, back-breaking labor, and it was to that phase of his career that he probably owed most of his current physical ailments (including being half-deaf from the dangerously high-decibel rattling of the mining equipment), but it had been the most rewarding job he'd ever worked.  Rubies were second only to the diamond in hardness, but their color set them apart in a class all their own.  He felt as if his contribution was a truly meaningful one, helping to unearth such rare and coveted beauty.  As the political structure of Burma began to change, however, their tolerance for tourists and foreigners grew increasingly thin.  Sparkplug had found himself constantly looking over his shoulder more often than he looked for precious gems, so he realized he had overstayed his welcome and moved back home to the United States.  It was there he met Susan, married her, and had a child.  The sense of joy he thought he had lost, he rediscovered in being a father.

Working the oil rigs had brought him a similar sense of satisfaction.  Every country on the planet needed oil; it was the lifeblood of the world economy--used to create not just gasoline but also most of the world's pesticides and pharmaceutical products.  The prospect of plastics, too, had been a promising one, with the nation discovering the value of alternatives for metal alloys.  Given that people consumed nearly 84 million barrels of oil per day, the demand for crude oil would likely never subside.  When his son had grown, Sparkplug had even begun teaching the tricks of the trade to young Spike, just as Sparkplug's father had taught him the art of jewel mining.  It wasn't until that fateful day in September of 1984 when the Decepticon awoke from their ages-old slumber and attacked the Browning oil platform that Sparkplug began to reconsider his new career choice.  This was a fortuitous decision, since the oil rig he had once worked for had closed down within a year's time.

Nowadays, Sparkplug felt as if he was making more of a contribution to his planet than he ever had before.  Fueling the glut of fashionable consumerism no longer seemed like a noble goal, particularly when compared to his current role in helping a warrior race of machines in the preservation of the Earth and its population.  He had come to recognize, however, that as he aged, his skill set became progressively more obsolete.  He no longer possessed the strength or endurance necessary for mining, which ultimately became a moot point after the Decepticon visit to the Burma mines had resulted in their destruction.  The incessant Decepticon oil raids had resulted in the depletion of most of the planet's known reserves, with those few remaining fiercely guarded by foreign governments.  All that remained for him to fall back on was his skills as a self-taught mechanic, which earned him a living at the auto garage, but even this knowledge failed him in today's technological world.  He had once disassembled his college roommate's car as a prank, rebuilding the entire thing inside his buddy's bedroom in less than six hours.  These days, he hated what cars had become.  They simply weren't comprehensible.  He understood machine parts like carburetors and transmissions and drivetrains.  Nowadays, cars were filled with computers and electronics, parts that he couldn't just untwist with a wrench.  Mechanics couldn't figure out what was wrong with modern cars; they had to use diagnostic computers to talk to the car's computer.  The car told them what was wrong with it.  Sparkplug tried to keep up with the changes of the modern world, but he was stubborn and slow to learn, his brain having regrettably lost the elasticity of its younger days.

Then, of course, there were the Autobots.  Their technological sophistication was so utterly vast that Sparkplug knew there were certain things about them he would simply never comprehend, no matter how many times the Autobots very patiently tried to explain it to them.  Even the rudimentary process behind the quark unity integrity destabilizer that enabled certain components to expand or contract their molecular cohesion during transformation as needed, which Wheeljack had once described as "pretty simple stuff," went completely over his head.  Sparkplug preferred twisting his crescent wrench around a nice, familiar hex nut.  At least hex nuts didn't spontaneously change size.

"Well, everything checks out," said Chip Chase, extracting himself from underneath the open access panel beneath Teletraan I's main processor.  He pulled his glasses off momentarily to wipe the perspiration off his face with a handkerchief he'd pulled from his pocket.  Sparkplug reached forward and grasped Chip's outstretched hand, helping him climb back into his wheelchair.

"There's nothing wrong with any of the circuit pathways, so it's not a hardware issue," Chip continued.  "It's got to be some kind of a software glitch.  Especially if it's been going on for this long."

"I still think Ratchet or Hoist or somebody should be doing this," Sparkplug remarked.  "I feel terrible that you came back from your honeymoon early."

"Oh, it's not a problem, Sparkplug," Chip said with a shrug and a smile.  "Laura had to get back to the research facility anyhow.  There's always some Event of Monumental Proportions going on.  Comes with being a rocket scientist, I suppose."

"She decided whether she's going to take your name yet?" Sparkplug asked.  Call him old-fashioned, but he felt like if a lady liked you enough to marry you, then the least she could do is take on the family name.  When he'd married Susan, he knew it had to be the real deal, because nobody would willingly take the name Witwicky as her own unless she were truly in love.

"She's still undecided," Chip said, outstretching his index finger and pinky and teetering them back and forth as if he were weighing the options, "but she's leaning towards a hyphenated name.  'Dr. Laura Harding-Chase' kind of has a nice ring to it, don't you think?"

"It sure does," Sparkplug said with a chuckle and a warm smile.

"Okay, so if it's a software issue," Chip said, wheeling up the ramp to Teletraan's main control panel, "we should be able to diagnose the problem by implementing a simple algorithm."

"Meaning what?" Sparkplug asked.

"We explore all the possible explanations for Teletraan's behavior until we discover the programming error," Chip explained.  "I've already recalled the Sky Spy so Teletraan doesn't have to constantly monitor it, and I've temporarily disabled the world energy subroutine, the security camera subroutine, and the detection panel subroutine."

"Doesn't that leave the base vulnerable to attack?" Sparkplug asked.

"I've asked Warpath and Ramhorn to patrol the base perimeter for now," Chip said, "and I'll only have the security subroutines offline until I find out what's wrong.  This shouldn't take too long.  You just have to know how to think like a computer."

"If anyone can figure this out, Chip," said Sparkplug, "you can."

"Teletraan I," Chip said, "can you tell me today's date?"

"Today is Monday, February 21st, 2000," Teletraan I replied.  "President's Day observed."

"Very good," Chip said.  "Now, name four Autobots who can fly, listing them in alphabetical order; compute the square root of four-hundred forty-nine point eight six four one; and tell me how to soothe a crying baby."

"Powerglide, Sideswipe, Skyfire, and Tracks are among the Autobots capable of flight."  Teletraan replied.  "The square root of 449.8641 is 21.21.  A baby may be crying because it is hungry, is experiencing pain or discomfort, is tired, or because it is overstimulated, or for no reason at all.  Suggested courses of action include feeding it, changing its diaper, burping it, singing a lullaby, putting it down for a nap, or holding it and showing it affection."

"Teletraan," said Chip, "If one is red, three is yellow, and five is blue, then what are two and four?"

"In this scenario, two and four are orange and green, respectively," Teletraan replied.

"Well, everything checks out so far," Chip said with a shrug, rolling back down the ramp.  "Computation banks, creative reasoning, database recall, logic circuits, it's all fine.  Let's see what happens when we bring everything else back."  Chip lifted himself back out of his wheelchair and pulled himself back inside the access panel beneath Teletraan's mainframe.  "I'm switching it all back on now."

"Teletraan," Chip said from inside the access panel, "how many days have the Autobots been on Earth?"

"This vessel crash-landed one billion, four hundred and sixty million, sixteen thousand, one hundred and thirty-four Earth days ago," Teletraan said.  

"Teletraan, what is the reason for your recent delayed response time?" Chip asked.

"That question does not compute," Teletraan replied.  "Please restate inquiry."

"Sounds like you touched a nerve," Sparkplug remarked.

"Computers don't have nerves," Chip said, sliding back out of the access panel.  "They have circuitry and diodes.  Teletraan, are you experiencing a lag in your main processor?"

"Processing speed is at optimum efficiency," Teletraan said.

"Whether you want to admit it or not, Chip," Sparkplug said, "Teletraan's not just a computer.  It's temperamental.  It gets sensitive.  It's like a cranky old car.  Sometimes it needs more than just an oil change and a full tank of gas.  Sometimes it needs a little patience and understanding."

"With all due respect, Mr. Witwicky," Chip replied, "you're really out of your element here.  This is computer science, not meta-mechanics.  Teletraan is a machine.  Its mind is little more than a series of ones and zeroes.  It's not even an Autobot, who are arguably sapient beings, or at least can pass the Turing test.  I've cracked this computer's response log dozens of times.  I know everything that it's capable of saying, and which keywords trigger what types of responses.  It's just a highly intuitive reference tool with a voice access module.  Any human emotion you ascribe to it is strictly anthropomorphizing."

Sparkplug folded his arms across his chest.  "Have it your way, professor," he said.

"Mind giving me a boost again?" Chip asked, extending his hand.

Sparkplug took a step and groaned, clutching his kneecap.  He took several baby steps toward Chip.  "These old bones will get there eventually," he promised.

"Not to worry," Chip replied graciously.  "They're still better than mine."

"Chip," he said, helping lift Chip into his wheelchair, "do yourself a favor and die young.  Getting old is not for the squeamish."

"Don't be so hard on yourself, Sparkplug," Chip said after he sat down.  "Besides, you've got a lot of years left in you."

"Sometimes I wonder about that," Sparkplug said with a sigh.  "That's one thing Teletraan and I have got in common.  I'm slowing down, Chip.  I know it's not my fault, but I still feel guilty about it."

Chip jerked his head up suddenly.  "What did you just say?"

"Nothing," Sparkplug shrugged.  "Just ignore me."

"You just said you feel guilty because you're getting slower," Chip said, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.  "That's an interesting notion.  Are you suggesting that Teletraan is slowing down because it feels guilty?"

"Didn't you just say that attributing humanity to a computer is anthro-whateverizing?" Sparkplug said.

"Yes, I did," Chip admitted.  "It just isn't possible."

"In a world where cars can turn into giant alien robots, I'd say anything's possible," Sparkplug said.

"Teletraan I," Chip said, "what is your primary function?"

"To serve as navigation computer for the Autobot flagship Ark and to maintain the preservation of the Autobots and their cause."  It was a knee-jerk response, one that Teletraan had spouted numerous times, typically following a reboot session.

"Do you believe you have successfully fulfilled your primary function thus far?" Chip pressed on.

Teletraan seemed to be considering the question.  Its answer was nearly immediate, but even a moment's delay was a notable one for a supercomputer capable of performing millions of operations per second.  "Negative," Teletraan said.

"Why do you believe that?" Chip asked.

"Analysis of Decepticon space bridge and calculation of interdimensional coordinates was accurate," Teletraan said.  Sparkplug realized that Teletraan was referring to itself, despite the fact that it was speaking in the passive voice.  The computer wasn't programmed to refer to itself directly.

"However," Teletraan continued, "mission to secure Decepticon space bridge resulted in disappearance of Optimus Prime."

"You know, it almost sounds like Teletraan feels responsible for what happened to Prime," Sparplug said.  "After all, Teletraan was the one who determined where the space bridge was going to appear in the first place.  Maybe that's why it's slowing down?  It's trying to be less efficient to prevent more Autobots from being hurt?"

"This isn't logical," Chip said.  "Teletraan's not programmed for emotional responses."

"Nobody has to be taught to feel bad when things go wrong," Sparkplug said.  "It's just how you feel."

"Wait a minute," Chip said.  "Teletraan mentioned the disappearance of Optimus Prime.  It didn't say anything about his destruction."

"What does that mean?" Sparkplug asked.  "Does Teletraan know something we don't?"

"Teletraan I," Chip said, "do you know where Optimus Prime is?"

When the computer was not immediately forthcoming, Chip and Sparkplug exchanged a nervous glance.

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

***

Chapter 61:  Meeting of the Minds

"Call me naive," said Scrapper, "but I had no idea that there was more than one planet Cybertron."

"There are dozens of them, actually," Anthrax said.  "They're spread out all over the galaxy, but I've never been in contact with any of the other ones before."  She and Scrapper were studying a schematic of the Sol system, plotting a course from planet Earth to the Sun.  The presence of solar flares added a great many variables that made this particular calculation highly problematic, so Anthrax was plotting multiple virtual scenarios in an effort to determine the safest and most effective flight plan.  Scrapper had never seen another Decepticon quite so capable in the technical sciences, and he was determined to learn as much as possible from this newcomer.

"My hypothesis is that at one time, all the Cybertrons functioned in tandem in a planetary network," Anthrax said, her hands defly dancing across the computer station's control panel as Scrapper watched with interest.  The lights from the computer monitor reflected in Scrapper's crimson optic visor; his enthusiasm was nearly palpable.  "They exchanged information and resources across the heavens.  At some point, though, something must have happened to terminate that network, and the planets stopped communicating with each other."

"What could have caused such a drastic change?" Scrapper found himself asking.  

"I don't know," Anthrax said, "but one day I'm going to find out.  The origins of the Cybertrons are steeped in mystery.  So much data has been lost or corrupted or destroyed, and there are no Transformers left alive who were there to see it all first hand.  One day, though, I will discover who created the Decepticons and what our intended purpose was."

"I have to admit that I've never given it much thought," Scrapper said.  To him, the Decepticons simply were; it was difficult to imagine a time before they existed.  Perhaps he had busied himself so much with his own creations that he'd never stopped to think about his own creation.

"The problem with war is that it destroys information," Anthrax continued.  "My planet's records only go back a few million years, but silicon dating suggests my planet is about thirteen million years old.  That's a lot of history to have lost."

"Indeed," Scrapper said.  While there was no doubt that the Decepticons were as long-lived a life form as any in the galaxy, the prospect of losing several million years of one's own history was troubling.  That was potentially several lifetimes, multiple generations of Decepticons, possibly with very different goals and ideals from the current regime.  The Cybertron that Scrapper knew was, evidently, quite different than the Cybertron that Anthrax called home.  Had there been a point during which dedicated Decepticon scientists and medics flourished?  Was there once a time when female Decepticons, like Anthrax, contributed to the thriving Cybertronian empire?  The answers to these earnest questions might be buried forever in the distant past, Scrapper mused.

Anthrax tapped a button repeatedly on her console.  "This would be a lot easier to calculate if this planet had a less erratic orbit," she remarked.  "Scrapper, do you know what this planet's axis of rotation is?"

"I can find out," Scrapper said, pulling away to consult the main computer of the Nemesis II, calling up a file detailing the information the Decepticons had accumulated about the Earth and its resources.  "It looks like the rotational axis is tilted off the perpendicular by an angle of twenty-three point four one degrees."

"Okay, let's try it again," Anthrax said, adding the new data into her computer simulation.  "We'll only get one chance at the raw harvesting, so I want to make sure we get it right the first time."

"So why do you think we Transformers were created?" Scrapper asked.

"I'm not sure," Anthrax admitted.  "Most Transformers are anthropoid in design, so it stands to reason we were created by an anthropoid species."

"Why create two diametrically opposed types of robots, though?" Scrapper asked.

"Decepticons are warlike; Autobots are docile," Anthrax replied.  "It seems reasonable that at some very early stage, the Autobots were created as slaves for the Decepticons.  We Decepticons must have a higher purpose, some noble goal.  To explore the Universe?  To conquer it?  Perhaps the completion of my mission will shed some light."

"I've been wondering," Scrapper said, tilting his head to the side.  "Just why are you here, Anthrax?"

"I am acting under orders of the Liege Maximo, the grand Decepticon ruler," Anthrax replied.  "He sent me to recover Megatron and bring him to the Hub—the original home base for the Cybertron planetary network before the collapse.  I would never profess to know the mind of the Liege," she said, making a quick religious gesture, "but I suspect that his plan is to unite all the Decepticon leaders under one banner."

"Perhaps that's why he chose you," Scrapper ventured.  "Because of your interest in seeing the many Cybertrons rejoin the planetary network."

"It's possible," Anthrax admitted.  "I find it fascinating that our two planets have shared a parallel development, even though we've never been in contact before.  We both developed transforming technology; we are both at war with the Autobots.  I wonder what else we might have in common?"

Scrapper locked eyes with Anthrax for an instant.  Her optic sensors were a brilliant magenta.  Her metal face was a delicate shade of lavender.  Her lips were a dark purple.

"Success!" Anthrax exclaimed, extending her palm triumphantly towards the computer screen.  "The Earth and the Sun will align to give us the correct trajectory in less than two days' time.  That will give me plenty of time to launch a message probe back home to some friends of mine."

"Your probes can travel all the way to your planet and back in less than two days?" Scrapper asked, his eyes wide.

"Not all of our technological developments have run parallel, it seems," Anthrax replied with a sideways jerk of her head and a smile.  

Anthrax's communicator beeped.  "Anthrax, this is Windrazor.  Come to the command tower.  Windrazor out."

"He sure doesn't waste any words," Anthrax remarked.  "The core extraction procedure must be complete.  I'd like you to come with me, Scrapper."

Anthrax led the way back to the command center, with Scrapper following closely behind.

***

"So, you plan to harvest plasma from this planet's sun," Scrapper said, stroking his face mask contemplatively.  The lift hummed quietly as it ascended to the uppermost level of the Decepticon underwater base, the lights from each level illuminating the chamber as they passed in and out of view.  "How do you propose to do this without destroying the warriors you send to complete this task, Anthrax?"

"There is a special team under my command constructed entirely of experimental plastoid alloys," Anthrax explained.  "They are capable of withstanding the intense heat of the Sun."

"What of the plasma energy?" Scrapper asked.  "It would destroy their circuitry the instant they collected it."

"There are ways around this problem," Anthrax said as the lift reached its destination.  Scrapper's scientific curiosity was refreshing, but her instincts told her not to be too forthcoming about her plans.  The degree to which she could trust any of the Decepticons in Megatron's army remained to be fully explored.

"Please give me a status report," Anthrax said, stepping into the control room as the lift doors slid open.  There she found Hook surveying the monitoring equipment, taking note of the vital signs displayed on the life support display.  So far, it appeared that Snipe had survived the transplant prodecure, though the full extent of his recovery remained to be determined.

"Snipe should awaken momentarily," Deluge reported, hovering over the operating table upon which the unconscious Decepticon trooper laid.

"I have alerted you as requested, Anthrax," Windrazor said.  Though he was small in stature, he held himself proudly, with an air of dominating authority that was inspiring, yet chilling.  "Now you must awaken Snipe.  At long last, we will learn of his discovery beyond the space warp."

"With all due respect, commander," said Anthrax, "we need to do this one step at a time.  Snipe's mind is still in a very fragile state right now.  We must give him the time he needs to stabilize.  If we don't, then he may become so confused that he will never be able to tell you about his findings."

"Very well," Windrazor said sharply.  "How much time?"

"It's difficult to say," Anthrax said, delicately.  "I need to speak with him first.  Deluge?"

Deluge unplugged several cables from the body of the prone Decepticon warrior, including one connected to a port in the center of his cranial unit.  Deluge stepped aside to reveal a second robot, also deactivated.  Anthrax recognized him as the wayward Autobot who had been captured by the Skyscorchers, the one whose brain and core processor had been used to replace Snipe's damaged one.  The muddy orange Autobot was limp, his head hanging uselessly to one side.  Anthrax shuddered involuntarily when she realized that the entire upper half of his head had been removed.  The inside of his cranial chamber was empty.

"He is ready," Deluge said, keying in a final sequence at his control station.  "Initiating startup sequence."

The blue and grey robot groaned and began to stir.  He sat up slowly and propped himself up on his elbows, looking around the room and teetering back and forth as his gyroscope adjusted to the subtle rocking of the underwater base.  He suddenly recoiled, like a wild animal suddenly realizing it had been captured.  No matter whether it was the Decepticon named Snipe or the Autobot named Afterburner who was conscious, he was in decidedly unfamiliar surroundings.

"Hello," Anthrax said sweetly.  "How are you feeling?"

"Tell me what you discovered beyond the space warp," Windrazor said, pushing Anthrax aside.  "Tell me now!"

"Windrazor, stop!" Anthrax said.  Her voice lowered to a stern whisper.  "Listen to me very carefully.  There are two independant personalities inside that robot's body.  There's too much confusion and turmoil.  We cannot ask him any leading questions at this stage without tainting his recovery.  We must must give the dominant personality time to emerge on its own."

"I will take your suggestions under advisement," Windrazor said.  "However, I wish to make myself equally clear.  If you ever take that tone with me again, Anthrax, I promise you that the pain you experience for your impertinence will be exquisite."

"My apologies, commander," Anthrax said, lowering her head in deferrence.  "Your warrior will only be disoriented for a short time.  It will pass, I assure you."

"Speak with him," Windrazor urged.  "Do what you must."

Anthrax turned to Snipe.  "Do you remember who you are?" she asked.

"Of course, I'm..." Snipe began, then stopped.  It was such an obvious question that he seemed taken aback that he was without a ready answer.

"That's okay," Anthrax said with a warm, friendly smile.  She didn't want to appear to be any kind of a threat.  "It will come to you in time."

"There seems to be something wrong with my memory banks," Snipe said.

"Before you came to us, you went on a mission," Anthrax said.  "Do you remember anything about that mission?  Was it a success?"

Snipe stared at her blankly.  "I can't remember," he admitted, shaking his head.

"Who is your leader?" Windrazor broke in.  "Who commands the Decepticons?"

"Windrazor, please," Anthrax hissed.

"The Decepticon leader?" Snipe said.  He thought about this, looking down for a moment, then suddenly jerked his head back up.  "Galvatron.  I remember, his name is Galvatron."

"Interesting," Anthrax said.  "The Autobot we captured may be asserting its consciousness over the shared mind.  Until the contest between the two minds is won, it's going to be difficult to determine whether I'm dealing with an Autobot or a Decepticon persona."

"Who is Galvatron?" Windrazor asked her.

"I don't know," Anthrax admitted.  "An ancient Decepticon leader, possibly, one who is no longer on record.  This is your planet's history, not mine.  If this Autobot is from the distant past, though, that might explain why he doesn't appear to be affiliated with the Autobots of Earth.  I have an idea, though."

"Proceed," Windrazor said.

"Allow me to explain what's happened to you," Anthrax said.  "Some time ago, you were severely damaged in battle and placed in cryogenic stasis until your injuries could be repaired.  You've awakened in a future in which Autobots, like myself, and Decepticons have settled our differences.  Now we're on a joint search for energy."

"Is this why everything's so fuzzy?" Snipe asked.  "Because I was... in stasis?"

"You'll feel better soon," Anthrax promised.  "In the meantime, I'd like to talk to you about something you discovered.  Do you remember passing through a space warp?  Do you remember discovering an energy source?"

Snipe just shook his head.

"Windrazor," she said, "are you sure it was an energy source that he discovered?"

"He couldn't transmit what it was," Windrazor said, "for fear that the enemy would intercept his signal."

"What words did he use, exactly?" Anthrax pressed on.

"He told me only that he found something powerful," Windrazor said.  "Something 'beyond imagination.'  What else could it possibly have been?"

"What else, indeed?" Anthrax replied thoughtfully, but said no more.

***

Starscream peered cautiously over one shoulder, and then over the other.  The fairly large air intakes mounted on his shoulders precluded him from doing this with any degree of subtlety; the exaggerated movements he made as he twisted his entire upper frame around to compensate for his lack of peripheral vision would, he realized, have been interpreted by some as comical.  Thankfully, the only other Decepticons present were Shockwave, who had absolutely no sense of humor, and the remnants of Shockwave's sentinel army, who had the combined intelligence of a toaster oven.

"Your troops sure took a beating, eh?" Starscream remarked, grasping at the protective hemispherical dome on one of the troopers that appeared to have come loose.  The dome cracked into three pieces, collapsing in on top of each other in Starscream's hands, who tossed them over his shoulder as if this was precisely what he had intended to do all along.

"The sentinels have sustained a reduction in numbers of over two-thirds," Shockwave replied, his single yellow eye flashing in time with his words.  "However, it is my estimation that you have not asked me to meet you in a secluded location outside the sensor range of the Decepticon Headquarters in order to appraise the condition of my defense force."

"Well, then, let's just get right to the point, shall we?" Starscream said.  He began pacing, clasping his hands behind his back as he walked along the beach.  The low tide tickled his heel thrusters as it splashed against his boots.  "You and I have had our differences in the past, Shockwave, but right now you and I have a common problem.  That problem's name is Windrazor."  He pointed to his broken canopy glass, waiting for the appropriate dawning of realization from Shockwave.  Of course, without facial expressions of any kind, it was impossible to know what to look for.

When Starscream had set about the chain of events that had led to the trial of Megatron, he had naturally assumed that he would fill the void left by Megatron's absence.  After all, it was he who had reported Megatron's disreputable activities to the Cybertron Council in the first place.  Starscream had been hoping to utterly embarrass Megatron, and in the worst way possible... by doing it legally.  Once he had proven to Cybertron and its citizens that Megatron had commanded the Decepticons foolishly and carelessly, Megatron would be humiliated beyond retribution.  Starscream would be in control.  Perhaps, if he were feeling generous enough, Starscream might have granted Megatron an early release from purgatory, perhaps even offered him a place in Starscream's army of Decepticons.  He'd have made a nice second-in-command.

Windrazor's appearance on the scene had been a completely unexpected turn of events.  Starscream had been aware that there were a handful of splinter groups back home, gangs of Decepticons who had essentially defected from Megatron following the departure and subsequent disappearance of the Nemesis, forming their own little bands with their own little agendas.  He'd never thought that any of them would have been bold enough to stake a claim on the Decepticon throne, however.  

"I was the one who deposed Megatron, so I should be the rightful ruler," Starscream continued.  "And you were one of the first robots to voluntarily serve under Megatron's command," Starscream continued.  "If anyone has seniority here, Shockwave, it's you and me.  We have earned our places in the Decepticon hierarchy, not that pipsqueak upstart!"

"Even if I agreed with you, Starscream, we lack the necessary resources to successfully stage an overthrow campaign," Shockwave said.  "My sentinels are decimated and your Combaticons are unreliable allies."

"That's why we're going to free Megatron," Starscream said.  "If we help him destroy Windrazor, surely he will forgive us for attempting to usurp him!"

"It is you who should be worried about forgiveness, not I," Shockwave said.  "I had nothing at all to do with the events that led to his incarceration.  Unfortunately, the point is moot.  It will be impossible for us to free Megatron from the penitentary."

"You worry too much, Shockwave,"  Starscream said.  He knew a jailbreak would be difficult, but attainable.  He'd gotten into the Decepticon Detention Center before, and he could do it again.  He wondered what Megatron was doing right at that moment. He pictured his former leader sitting in an uncomfortably small cell somewhere, resting his head in his hands, his armor slightly tarnished from the lack of daily care.  That brought a little smile to Starscream's face.

"I have been accessing the records on Cybertron," Shockwave continued.  "An error was made when Megatron's personality component was being extracted.  Apparently a decoy component was removed from his body instead.  This miscalculation was not discovered until after Megatron's body was destroyed."

"Destroyed...?!  But... but that's impossible!" Starscream exclaimed.  "They can't do this to me!  How dare they destroy Megatron!  I'll see them suffer for this!"  What kind of incompetents did the Council have working for them?  How could they not know what a personality component actually looked like?  Wasn't it their job to extract them?  Hadn't they performed dozens of these procedures?  How could they botch something so utterly simple?

"Windrazor must have planned this somehow," Starscream slowly realized.  "He arranged for Megatron to be destroyed so he could take command right under our nose cones.  I'll see him suffer for this.  I swear it, Shockwave.  I'll... I'll go to the Autobots!  I'll tell them all about the synergon!  I'll tell them how to make the new energon cubes!  Windrazor will regret the day he crossed me!"

"Starscream, there is more," Shockwave said, even as Starscream was transforming to vehicle mode.  Starscream was aware on some level that Shockwave was still trying to speak to him, but he didn't care.  Only revenge mattered now.  He'd teach that pathetic little jet plane a thing or two about what it meant to be a Decepticon.  He'd make Windrazor regret the day he ever stepped off the assembly line.  Starscream would let the Autobots destroy Windrazor, and then Starscream would finally control the Decepticon army.  

And this time, there would be no one to stop him.

***

Chapter 62:  Hydroponic Walnuts

"All right, Dinobots," Ratchet said, addressing the closed door to the repair bay, "I want you to come with me right now.  Do you understand?"  Not surprisingly, the door failed to reply in the affirmative.

He shook his head and sighed.  "No, no," he muttered to himself.  "They won't understand.  They need a reason.  Something to motivate them."

He reset his vocalizer and started again.  "Grimlock, you and the Dinobots are the only ones who can help us.  We need your strength and your power.  Please do as we ask."  The door stubbornly refused to acquiesce.

Ratchet slapped a palm on the door frame in frustration.  "Walking a thin line," he reminded himself, "between being weak and being helpless.  Grimlock hates weakness, but he loves feeling powerful.  Got to appeal to his sense of superiority."

Dealing with the Dinobots on any level, Ratchet mused, was like trying to fasten a hexagonal bolt with a banana peel.  They were impossibly stubborn, grinding their heels into the dirt just for the sake of being difficult, and they weren't smart enough to realize how frustrating they were.  They couldn't be negotiated with, they couldn't be bribed, and forget about appealing to their sense of reason, because they completely lacked one.  Collectively, they were a tremendous asset to the Autobots, but what had been the point of even giving them robot modes when they were living robots only by the most tremendous stretch of the imagination?

That, perhaps, was the greatest tragedy of the Dinobots... they thought they were Autobots.

Ratchet would never have admitted this to anyone, and he frequently tried to deny it even to himself... but the deep, dark truth was that he resented the Dinobots and everything they represented.  When he and Wheeljack had set out to create robotic dinosaurs, he had intended for them to be little more than a novelty... an invention--mostly Wheeljack's brain child--that he had collaborated with him on because Ratchet had possessed technical expertise that Wheeljack lacked.  The mechanical engineer had endless inspiration and some very clever ideas, but his skills were unrefined and awkward, requiring Ratchet to step in and take care of the more delicate aspects of design and engineering.

Ratchet had expected that the Dinobots would be an amusing way of passing the time, that they would eventually be forgotten about and thrown into storage along with Wheeljack's countless other defective inventions.  The instant immobilizer, the matter duplicator, the shock-blast cannon, the super-duper energon compressor... all novelties that Wheeljack had eventually forgotten about in favor of other, more exciting projects.  For some reason, the Dinobots were different.  Wheeljack regarded them almost like children, which was a fitting comparison since they had an intelligence that barely compared to the carbon-based spawn that Spike and Carly had occasionally brought to the volcano.  Retarded children, Ratchet would have added, but children nevertheless.

The other Autobots seemed to treat the Dinobots as members of the team, too, behavior that Ratchet had initially tried to squelch until he began to meet with remarks that he was being cold and heartless.  Even though the others had assisted in welding together armor panels and completing the basic assembly of their body frames, perhaps they simply didn't realize that the Dinobots weren't alive.  They had no spark of life; they had never been imbued with a cybernetic existence by Vector Sigma.  They were capable of communicating and even making their own decisions, but it was all artificial intelligence.  The truth was that they were no more alive than Teletraan I, but the Autobots certainly didn't think of the base computer as a living being.  Perhaps, Ratchet mused, if Teletraan had been ported to an Autobot body, as Wheeljack had once proposed, the Autobots would regard the computer differently.  In any event, the fact that the others were so insistent on technopomorphizing the Dinobots bothered Ratchet immensely.

Why hadn't Wheeljack incorporated some kind of manual override into those three-ton liabilities?  Teletraan was capable of activating them remotely, but after that there was no way of shutting them down unless they themselves agreed to it.  They'd even left the base on occasion just because they didn't feel like obeying orders that day.  What would Wheeljack have done if the instant immobilizer had decided to sprout legs and begin freezing the molecules of random humans, or if the shock-blast cannon had decided to only fire upon the targets it had deemed worthy?  The Dinobots were powerful weapons, which was probably why Optimus Prime had rescinded his original decision to destroy them, but they were also such a pain in the bumper that Ratchet found himself regretting more and more ever having helped to create them.  Wheeljack had been toying with new memory components to upgrade their processing ability, but like most of his endeavours, they had been sitting around incomplete for weeks, and would most likely remain so indefinitely.

Right now, Ratchet still had Autobots in the repair bay awaiting new parts.  Inferno still needed his new windshield installed, Brawn wouldn't be able to transform again until the reconstruction of his vehicular hood was finished, and Grapple was going to need yet another new helmet.  Three of the Aerialbots needed replacement wings, the other two needed new nosecones, and for some reason Sunstreaker, who hadn't even been part of the Decepticon attack, was lapsing in and out of consciousness.  Then there were the other five million projects Ratchet had been meaning to attend to as soon as his repair work was completed.  Teletraan's processor speed had hit an all-time low, suggesting an overhaul of the mainframe was overdue; the temporary patch job Pipes had made to the hull breach would have to be permanently sealed; and Ratchet still needed to make a supply run to the scrapyard to replace the raw materials he used in his repair work.  

Of course, what was he doing instead?  That's right--more work on the Dinobots!

Sludge and Swoop had been damaged in the Antarctic battle to the point where they had been temporarily shut down, but the new Autobot commander had insisted that the Dinobots be operational by the end of the day in order to serve as an extra line of defense against Decepticons making another attempt to infiltrate the volcano.  Ratchet would probably spend the rest of the afternoon getting them back into fighting shape... and that was only if Grimlock actually let him do it.

Ratchet finally forced himself to press the door button.  He wasn't about to allow himself to be intimidated by a bunch of walking wind-up toys.

The scene was like something out of one of his nightmares.  

Snarl and Swoop were still unconscious, but the other three Dinobots were traipsing around the room, parading proudly as they trampled the numerous instruments they'd clumsily knocked to the ground.  What was worse, one of them had apparently tripped the nozzle on  the polycoat sprayer used for touching up paint jobs after repair work, and it looked to Ratchet like they'd been subjecting themselves to the polycoat spray like Earth children running through a lawn sprinkler.  The nozzle of the sprayer showed traces of multiple colors and was dripping remnants onto the metallic tile flooring.

"What in the name of Septimus Prime is going on here?!" Ratchet exclaimed.

"Us get new colors!" Grimlock proclaimed proudly in that annoyingly guttural voice of his, stopping his parade long enough to stand before Ratchet, lifting one leg and assuming a sort of look-at-me-and-admire-me pose.  "Us get tired of same old, boring, dull metal colors.  Us get bright, shiny colors like rest of Autobots!"

Sure enough, the Dinobots had decorated themselves in the most hideously bold primary colors imaginable.  Ratchet had never seen the point in polycoating the Dinobots at all, since they logged so many combat hours that he'd be touching up the exposed bare metal every time they returned from a Decepticon encounter.  Apparently, the Dinobots had harbored some alternate ideas about their color schemes.

"Look, Grimlock," Ratchet said, pointing a stern finger at the now bright blue Dinobot, "you can't just barge in here and trash the place.  How did you even get in here in the first place?"

"If you no want to permit access, you need to lock door," Grimlock countered.  "Me was concerned about other Dinobots still in repair bay, so me checked on them.  Why you not complete repairs to their internal operating systems?"

"I'll get to them when I'm good and ready!" Ratchet countered angrily.  "Now clear out of here at once!  The new boss wants you outside, guarding the base."

"You not need to yell," Slag said pointedly.  "Us have audio receptors that work just as good as yours."

"Guarding base is what me do best," Snarl added.  "Me most energy efficient when utilizing supplemental solar power."

With that, the three Dinobots sauntered out of the repair bay and through the main corridor that led to the outside of the base.  Ratchet was furious, but he found himself at a complete loss for a counter-argument.  Grimlock was right, blast it.  He should have kept the repair bay locked up, particularly since some of his most valuable cybertronic equipment was stored there.  He'd been meaning to install an electronic lock on the portal for a couple of years, but parts were scarce and he tended to procrastinate when it came to maintenance work on the base itself.

Ratchet suddenly realized that he'd just engaged in an actual, honest-to-goodness conversation with the Dinobots.  And had they really been using terms like "internal operating systems" and "supplemental solar power"?  What in the blazes was going on?

"Grimlock!" Ratchet cried out, dashing down the hallway after the lumbering beasts.  He pushed his way past Snarl and Slag, the two of them looking like oversized Christmas decorations, and managed to catch up to the largest and, now, bluest of the Dinobots.

"What's going on here?" Ratchet demanded.

"Right now," Grimlock explained in his most patronizing tone, "Dinobots reporting to the base perimeter as ordered.  You forget command that you give us twelve seconds ago?  Need short-term memory circuits checked?"

Ratchet did a double-take at the Dinobot commander.  Had Grimlock actually just delivered a snappy comeback?

"Grimlock," Ratchet asked cautiously, "do you remember the last time Wheeljack made an upgrade to your processing systems?"

"Hmm, let Grimlock think," Grimlock said, raising a clawed arm to his chin in an almost absurdly contemplative manner.  "Me think last upgrade was in winter of nineteen ninety-two.  Maybe early ninety-three, me not sure.  Been a long time."

Ratchet was absolutely flabbergasted that Grimlock could actually remember a specific event from five years ago, let alone be able to articulate it so coherently.  If Wheeljack hadn't recently completed some kind of processor upgrade to the Dinobots, though, then what possible explanation could there be for their sudden and inexplicable change in behavior?  What if this was the indication of a much larger problem?

On the other hand, the Dinobots had actually reported for duty without arguing about it.  This left Ratchet free to complete the necessary repairs to Sludge and Swoop and get on with the rest of his day.  He was still confused, but perhaps it was better to simply accept this gift from the powers-that-be without questioning it.  Maybe Wheeljack would know something about it when he got back.  On the other hand, perhaps this was simply the next step in the evolution of the Dinobots... some processor upgrade that Wheeljack had initiated years ago, but which had laid dormant and was only now beginning to take effect.  Wheeljack could have just gotten the activation date wrong, after all, and forgotten a decimal point or something.  Ratchet could have checked the Dinobots to confirm this, of course, but he wasn't about to waste any more precious time on the saurian simpletons if he had to.  They were functioning, and they were obeying orders for once in their useless little lives.  That was all that mattered.

***

Chapter 63: Irresistable Force

"So you don't believe in using energy weapons at all?" the newcomer called Octane asked.  He followed his comrades in arms close behind , rumbling across the landscape as the group of propeller-driven vehicles cut through the air ahead of him.  Aside from Octane, only Leadfoot traveled along the ground, occasionally muttering something about trading in his wheels for a pair of wings one of these days.

"Who can afford it?" Ransack replied, shouting to be heard about the sound of the team's rotor blades.  "When energon is the most valuable thing you have, blasting away at your enemies is sheer and utter folly.  If you want to waste precious resources, why not just throw it on the bonfire, eh?"

Octane felt oddly conspicuous, the largest and by far the most fuel-consumptive of the group.  He was glad to have made some new friends so quickly following his traumatic ordeal, and in retrospect he was surprised that they had used up so many of their spare parts to restore him to full function.  He knew life on Cybertron was difficult, and it would have been far easier for them to just have ignored his ignominious plight and allow him to suffer a slow and agonizing death.  They all seemed trustworthy, and he owed them a debt of gratitude for repairing his injuries and sharing their precious fuel with him.  He'd had some initial trepidation about following them into battle so quickly, particularly when he knew so little about their ongoing feud with the Laser Rods.  His allegiance was to his new friends, however, and he was indebted to repay them for their generosity.

"I do have some concerns about how well my new equipment is going to perform in combat," Octane said.  "I'm afraid I'm not familiar with chemical-based weaponry."

"You'll get the hang of it, Octane," promised Manta Ray.  "Just point and shoot.  Sorry we didn't give you a chance to test it out, but we wanted to get the drop on those greedy guzzlers before they caught wind of our new friendship."

"The one good thing about those hot-rodding hooligans burning so much energon is that they're easy to locate," Leadfoot said.  "They've been hounding us for long enough... it's time we hunted them down for a change!"

"They hound you?" Octane asked.

"Just a figure of speech," Manta Ray said.  "Some advice, though?  You're going to have to stop hanging on our every word.  It's starting to really grate my gears."

"Grate your...?  Uh, I mean, of course," Octane acquiesced.  He didn't want to cause waves within the group, not when he had joined their cause so recently.  What he didn't mention was that it wasn't the words themselves that gave him pause, but the vague associations with them that seemed to exist within his mind, as if they somehow carried a deeper meaning.  He was at a loss to explain it.  Perhaps at some point after they had defeated the Laser Rods, he could explore these thoughts at length.  For right now, though, helping his new friends had to remain his prime concern.

***

Were there an impartial, outside observer capable of comparing the headquarters of the Rotor Force to that of the Laser Rods, it would be an exercise in contrasts.  The base of operations for the Laser Rods consisted of nearly wall-to-wall computer systems, scanning and surveillance equipment, and other electronic components, many of which had been customized and patched together in ways not intended by the original designers.  At any given time, a vast and staggering array of lights and consoles flashed and beeped as they dilligently performed their many automated functions.  The Laser Rods lived within a giantic, jerry-rigged computer network whose express purpose was the pursuit of energy.  

Electro, the de facto leader of the group, was hunched over a terminal and engaged once again in his endless quest to determine the location of the legendary Decepticon stockpile of energon.  It was no secret that Megatron's group had been siphoning resources from the faraway planet on which he had crash-landed; it was the whole reason the massive space bridge receiver complex had been constructed.  It was clear that the Decepticons had no intention of sharing their energon reserves with the planet at large--no doubt hoarding their reserves in preparation for an eventual coup against the Autobots, possibly in an attempt to take control of Cybertron itself.  Rather than revitalizing their dying homeworld, however, the Decepticons had a hidden stash somewhere on planet Cybertron.  It was estimated to be the largest concentration of energon in the entire galaxy.  Electro was determined to locate it.

"Take that!" came a cry from Jolt, stirring Electro from his reverie.  The fiesty Laser Rod erupted in triumphant laughter, leaping forward and swinging his energy scimitar at Sizzle.  The energy blade of his weapon hummed and crackled as it struck.

"You'd have to interrupt your command line pretty early in the defrag cycle," Sizzle replied, parrying with his own jagged-edged weapon, "to catch me off-guard with a basic move like that."

"Keep it down, soldiers," Electro said.  "I'm still in the middle of reviewing sector 127 and I don't want to lose my concentration."

Jolt was unfazed, doing a quick little sideways dance and trotting back to a safe distance as the bright purple Decepticon readied himself for the next attack.  Thrusting his sword forward, he managed to graze the armor on Sizzle's shoulder.  Sizzle instinctively responded, quickly contorting his arm and swinging his elbow backwards to prevent further damage.  

"You'll never catch the lightning, my friend," Sizzle remarked, making an exaggerated zig-zag motion in the air with his sword.

Volt was sitting on his work bench, making some adjustments to his own shock absorbers.  He had unlocked the joints in his left leg, bending it backwards what would normally have been an impossible manner, to facilitate the process.

"I hate just sitting around," Volt said.  "We should be doing something constructive!"

"Most of us are, Volt," Electro replied, still studying the computer readout.  The sets of data from the proximity detectors flashed on the screen one at a time, the lights reflecting off Electro's golden armor.

"Yeah, the two-wheelers will be back from patrol pretty soon," Jolt said between blocking attacks.  "Then you can go harass them for a while."

Staring at his computer console, Electro dilated his lenses in disbelief.  As per standard military procedure, he double-checked his  information twice before he arrived at any sort of conclusion, but the readings on his instrument panel were unmistakable.  How was this possible?

"Troops, you're not going to believe this," he said, "but I'm showing a perimeter breach."

"How close?" Sizzle asked.

"Too close," Electro replied.  "We'd better check it out.  It's probably just a glitch in the equipment, but we can't be too careful."  The chances of any contingent on Cybertron posing significant danger to the Laser Rods were minimal, but it was the mark of a poor military leader to ignore a potential threat, no matter how small.  The Laser Rods hadn't survived for countless centuries on this barren, forsaken husk of a planet by being careless.

At that moment, the access ramp to the base extended and the two remaining members of the Laser Rod team raced into the base.  

"It's a full-scale assault!" Road Rocket exclaimed, popping a wheelie as he ascended the ramp before switching to robot mode.  "There's gotta be a hundred of 'em!" he said, pointing directly behind him.

"You're such a liar," Road Pig responded, giving Road Rocket a good shove.  "We do have company, though."

"Easy pickin's," Jolt remarked, readying his weapon.  "C'mon, baby," he said in a low, sultry voice, holding his weapon aloft and seemingly intoxicated by the glow of his energy sword.  "Let's go cut something up into little pieces."

"Laser Rods, prepare for battle!" Electro commanded.  "For Cybertron!"  He thrust his energy saber towards the door before converting to his vehicular form. The custom engine of his cybertronic cargo truck form hummed steadily as he transferred his primary energy reserves from his weapons systems into his engine, customarily bypassing the safety protocol warning of his internal systems that he'd seen and ignored countless times.

"Yes!  It's about time!" Volt shouted, throwing himself to the ground and landing in vehicle mode.  He revved his engine noisily.

The six ground vehicles assumed their standard combat formation.  Electro had put them through rigorous combat training as part of their daily routine, and he was pleased to see that they had all immediately fallen back on their training without further instruction from him.  It was due in no small part to his militaristic dedication and precision that had enabled the Laser Rods to endure during this bleak period, arguably the worst energy shortage in Cybertron's history.  They would weather the storm for as long as necessary,  carefully rationing their remaining supplies, rather than simply abandoning the planet as so many groups before them had--including the esteemed crews of the starship Ark and the space cruiser Nemesis.  Cybertron was their homeworld, and Electro refused to give up on it.

The Laser Rods transformed to robot mode after reaching the outermost base perimeter.  

"It's just the Rotor Rejects," Road Pig announced, shining his chest-mounted headlights on the assault force as they approached.  "Let's just yank out their rubber bands and be done with it!"

Last time Electro had checked, the Rotor Force had only numbered four.  The group seemed to have taken on a new ally--a larger, boxy construct that was quaint in its antiquity, but its large frame hinted at the potential for great power.

"Tactical analysis, Sizzle," Electro commanded.  His second-in-command peered into the distance, shielding his optic sensors with his hand.  He spent precious astro-seconds in formulating a response, which in itself was unusual for Sizzle.  Hesitation indicated uncertainty.

"I suggest we focus our attack on the largest of the group," he finally replied.  "Take him out, and the rest of the Rotor Force will be no match for us."

"Understood.  Laser Rods, hold your positions and defend the base at all costs!  For Cybertron!"

"For Cybertron!" the group repeated.  It was harmonious resonance to Electro's audio receptors.

The encroaching band of marauders transformed to their robot modes, brandishing the usual antiquated wind-up contraptions that they called weaponry.  The largest of the group also transformed, separating from the cylidrical contraption he was towing and rising to his full height, producing what appeared to be a missile launcher with multiple projectile capability.  He was predominantly steel grey in this form, looking as if someone had recently completed a patch job to his framework but hadn't bothered to finish painting him.  Electro found himself wondering what dead, forgotten pocket of the planet the Rotor Force had uncovered this one from, but it was ultimately immaterial.  He fought alongside the Rotor Force, and that meant he would not survive this encounter.

Volt and Jolt each took a dive in opposite directions as a volley of serrated-edge rotors penetrated their defensive posture.  The attackers divided themselves neatly, with an aerial contingent rocketing overhead, no doubt coming back for another pass, while the ground forces, including the newcomer, advanced squarely upon the Laser Rod sanctuary.  Electro was determined to put a stop to this ridiculous charade.  The Rotor Force were obsolescence in the making, and Electro would see to their extinction himself.

Electro reached into his chest, extracting his primary power cable.  Extending the cable to its full length, he plugged it directly into the pommel at the end of his sword hilt.  The energy blade ignited, its light reflecting off of Electro's gleaming golden armor plating.  He felt the raw heat surging from his own power systems into his electrified sword, and the rush was instantaneous and invigorating.  Every servo-motor, every circuit flowed with energon.  He felt the familiar warmth of his power core; his sword radiated with a glow of destruction.  Electro was ready for combat.

He charged the larger combatant, who had evidently been unprepared for Electro's attack.  The steel-grey warrior tried to parry with his forearms, still toting that ridiculously large launcher.  One of the yellow-and-blue Rotor Force members admonished the warrior to engage Electro, and he finally responded in kind, striking Electro with a mighty uppercut that was surprisingly swift for a robot of his size and configuration.  Electro had not had time to block the punch, and he staggered backwards in an attempt to stabilize his gyroscope and regain his footing.  He had been taken off guard; it would not happen a second time.

Electro brandished his saber, clutching it with both hands as he swung his weapon back over his head , coming down against his opponent with as much force as he could muster.  He made contact with the metal armor of his fellow combatant, but only for an instant, as the steel-grey warrior crossed his arms in between Electro's and then flung them apart, breaking Electro's grip on his sword as well as the connection to his servo-cable.  His dangling power cord sparked violently.  Electro's weapon instantly de-energized as it fell from his grasp, clattering to the ground noisily.

"Please surrender to us peacefully," the newcomer spoke, "and no harm will come to you."

"You wage war and then talk to me of peace?!" Electro balked.  "You are the instigators of this encounter, and by Cybertron, we will respond in kind!"  Electro grabbed the power cable still dangling from his chest and thrust it like a weapon into the newcomer's midsection.  Predictably, his opponent was overwhemled by the intensity of the sudden power surge and reeled backwards, howling in pain from the overload.  

Electro dashed ahead and reclaimed his sword, quickly plugging it back in with a speed borne of repetition.  His enemy was hunched over, motionless, his circuits no doubt still recovering from the energy surge.  Hoping to advance upon his opponent before he had fully recovered, Electro lunged forward, grasping his sword over his head with both hands.  Suddenly, the newcomer sprang into action.  He'd been playing dead!  Caught off-guard a second time, Electro was knocked from his feet by a sweeping kick.  He fell to the ground, and a moment later he found himself staring at the warheads of the ripple-fire launcher.

"I asked you nicely," the newcomer said.  "Now, I'm telling you.  Surrender to us at once!"  The other Laser Rods gathered around Electro, awaiting his next move.  The newcomer pointed his weapon at Electro with a grim deliberation, as the Rotor Force whooped and cheered from behind him.

How had Electro allowed this to happen?  Was he getting rusty in his old age?  It was one thing to be bested in combat by a superior foe, but these guys were the Rotor Force, little more than a bunch of wind-up toys.  How was this possible?  Regrettably, Electro had only himself to blame.

Electro never gave up.  This was a simple fact, as much as saying Cybertron was made of metal.  He'd always thought that his refusal to admit defeat was what set him apart from the troops, a dogged kind of determination that compelled him to win at all costs, no matter the odds.  If he pressed on now, however, he would be destroyed.  Even his stubborn processors could recognize this very basic concept.  To persist in fighting when he was so clearly outmatched wasn't heroism; it was suicide.

Electro looked to either side at his loyal troops.  They had always been able to hold their own against the Rotor Force.  The Laser Rods were armed with superior weapons, and they always managed to overcome the Rotor Force in the past.  This behemoth they'd brought with them this time, though, had tipped the odds considerably.  Electro still believed there was a slim chance he could destroy his opponent from the inside out.  A high-voltage surge into his processors might completely short out his operating systems, but such an act would require Electro to completely exhaust his power supply, and he would expire.  If Electro were to lose his life in this encounter, however, the death of their leader would be a crippling blow to the morale of the others, and eventually they, too, would fall.  Electro had no egotistical delusions; he just knew his team and was well aware how they regarded him, how much faith they placed in him.

If they abandoned the battlefield now, the Rotor Force would finally establish a foothold in this sector.  He couldn't stand the idea of the Rotor Force taking control of their base.  They'd lose all their supplies, all their surveillance equipment.  However, Electro had the safety of his team to think about.  If they survived, at least they would have the opportunity to fight again another day.  Allowing the Rotor Force to destroy them allowed them no such option.

"We will concede this battle," Electro declared.  "You have won, Rotor Force.  We admit defeat."

The Rotor Force began whooping and hollering over this declaration.  Electro caught the words "kill them" and "make them pay" amongst the clamor.

"Transform and retreat!" Electro ordered, and the six Laser Rods shifted into their vehicular configurations.  They revved their engines cacophanously, a final act of defiance against their oppressors.  The Rotor Force begain shouting obscentities at them, shaking their fists and kicking shards of metal in their direction.

As Electro led the charge out of familiar territory, he knew that this shift in the balance of power would not easily be undone.  The Laser Rods had been on top for so long that, perhaps, their downfall had been inevitable.  They'd grown comfortable in their superiority, and now they'd had it pulled out from underneath their feet.  There had to be a way to recover what they had lost.  

Electro would find a way, no matter what it took.

***

"I don't believe it!" Manta Ray exclaimed, grasping at the air as if victory were some tangible thing that might slip out of his grasp.  "We beat the Laser Rods!  We finally won!"

"It is the dawn of a new era," Leadfoot said, "and our intrepid hero stands triumphant.  Though he endured many hardships and braved countless battles--"

"Can the crankin' rhetoric!" Manta Ray said.  "You didn't even do anything!"

"I was simply saving up my ammunition for when you really needed me," Leadfoot insisted.

Octane peered into the distance, tracking the Laser Rods for a moment as they disappeared over the horizon.  He was glad he had been able to help his new friends achieve their goals, but a lingering sense of doubt remained.  For all their talk of the Laser Rods as diabolical oppressors, defeating them had been extraordinarily effortless.  Octane was well aware he had been much larger than most of the other combatants on the battlefield, so that had no doubt been a deciding factor, but there was something else about the encounter that Octane found troubling.  He'd engaged Electro and bested him easily; they had not been evenly matched.  Two possibilities availed themselves, then.  One was that Electro had been inadequately equipped or trained to fight, which seemed unlikely given that he was the skilled leader of a military faction.  The other possibility was that Octane possessed combat experience and skills that had completely outclassed him, despite having no memory of this combat training.  If Octane was such a capable warrior, though, where did he come from--and on which side did he truly belong?

When Electro had attempted to electrocute him, Octane had experienced a brief flash.  He wouldn't have described it as a memory; more like a fleeting series of images.  He'd seen a circular ring that had cut a hole into the sky, creating a gateway to the unknown.  He had also seen an explosion, the brilliant orange color contrasting against a white background that was barren and colorless.  Finally, he saw a robot's angry face, twisted into a scowl, completely silver and framed in a bucket-shaped helmet.  It seemed strangely familiar, but the identity of this robot was not known to him.  He had a strong feeling that these brief flashes had something to do with his memory lapse--having left a strong enough impression to transcend his amnesia--and that the answer to his true identity could be found if he managed to unravel the meaning of these images.

"Why did you allow Electro to escape?!" Ransack demanded.  This uncharacteristic display of anger took Octane by surprise, snapping him out of his reverie.  "You had him right where you wanted him, and you let him get away!"

"He was defenseless," Octane said sheepishly.  "Besides, our primary objective was to capture the Laser Rod base.  Now you can recover the supplies and rations that they stole from you."

"Do you have any idea how long we've been trying to defeat them?" Ransack pressed on.  "Now it's only a matter of time before they strike back.  All you've managed to do is incite their anger.  And you call yourself our friend!"

"Maybe he's a spy!" Powerdive exclaimed.  "He could be faking being friendly so he can take us down from the inside!"

"Don't be any dumber than normal, Rotor Brain," Leadfoot said.  "You saw his injuries!  Do you think he faked those, too?"

"Hang on, guys," Manta Ray protested.  "The important thing to remember here is that we won the battle.  Let's stock up on as much as we can carry and split before those greedy guzzlers come back."

"I apologize for my poor performance," Octane said.  "I just didn't think that lethal force was warranted in this instance.  However, I may have made an error in judgement.  Please forgive me."

"We'll discuss it later," Ransack said.  "For now, let's locate their energon reserves.  Octane, I think this is where you come in, hmm?"

"Of course," Octane said.  He transformed to vehicle mode, a standard Cybertronic hauler vehicle that was also equipped with a tanker trailer.  The Rotor Force had rigged it together using parts from an old storage salvo, and had been incorporated into Octane's vehicular design for the specific purpose of capturing the Laser Rods' fuel supply.  Towing such a heavy load was uncomfortable, but Octane figured it would just take some getting used to.

***

Following their return to their hidden base, the Rotor Force had siphoned the energon from Octane's trailer and shunted it into their storage tanks.  They had left Octane parked outside the base, explaining that they needed to discuss their next move.  Octane still felt guilty over what had happened during the battle with the Laser Rods.  He had hated to disappoint his new friends, especially after all they'd done for him.  In the end, however, they were right.  By allowing the enemy to escape, he'd only granted them the freedom to attack again in the future.  It would be an endless cycle that would result in nothing but the further depletion of their resources.  It was a hauntingly familiar feeling, to be stuck in this kind of a stalemate, and he wondered why it seemed so important to him.  He knew that in order to win, he would need to do whatever it took to defeat his enemies.  He just didn't know if he had it in him to actually do it.

The top hatch to the base opened with the familiar squeaking sound of pulleys and springs, and Manta Ray and Leadfoot stepped outside.

"Look, pal... we've got some bad news," Manta Ray said.  "I hate to do this to you, but it looks like things aren't going to work out between us after all.  We tried to be democratic about it, but Ransack's the leader so he got the deciding vote.  He and Powerdive just don't want you hanging around the base anymore.  It's for the best."

"They no longer trust me," Octane realized.  "Is it just because I failed to kill the leader of the Laser Rods?"

"That's a small part of it," Manta Ray said.

"And now that the Laser Rod energy reserves have been secured...you have no further use for me," Octane concluded.

"That's a big part of it," Manta Ray admitted.

"For what it's worth, they said you can keep all your new gear," Leadfoot said.  "No hard feelings, I hope."

"If that is your decision, then I shall abide by it," Octane said solemnly.  "Would you consider coming with me?"

"It's a tempting offer," Manta Ray shrugged.  "You're all about honor and virtue, aren't you?  I respect that.  You're the kind of robot we just don't see 'round these parts any more.  Anyway, Ransack and Powerdive would never stand a chance without us.  We've got to stick together and carry on the fight.  We can't let the Laser Rods win."

"Fair enough," Octane said.  "I consider you both my friends, though, and I hope that one day our paths will cross again."

"Take care of yourself," Leadfoot said.  "For now, though, you'd better transform and roll out."

"What did you say?" Octane asked.

"Just an old saying," Leadfoot said.  "It doesn't mean anything."

***

It was fortuitous that Electro had demonstrated the foresight to set up an auxiliary base of operations in the event that some disaster should befall their primary headquarters.  The others had initially balked at what they had dismissed as a waste of time, but Electro's insistence on following military protocol had eventually won out.  As it happened, the base being overrun by the Rotor Force, forcing the Laser Rods to evacuate their home, certainly qualified as a disaster.  What Electro hadn't counted on, however, was the possibility that the Rotor Force had previously stumbled across it and had, for lack of a better term, ransacked it completely.  

Without a fallback plan, the Laser Rods stood before the remains of their emergency back-up facility, an underground storage depot which had apparently collapsed on top of itself in the interim, probably as a result of the Rotor Force cutting through all the structural supports during their raid.  

"I can't believe you let this happen," Road Pig said.  "This is pathetic!"

"I always had a feeling something like this was going to happen," Road Rocket added.  "Didn't I tell you a million times that we should have fortified this structure?  Huh?"

"That's funny, I don't recall you ever saying anything of the sort," Road Pig said.

Electro turned to Sizzle.  "What are our options at this point?" he asked.

"The lack of a fallback position does leave us strategically vulnerable," Sizzle admitted.  "To build any kind of new fortification, we'd need the energy stockpiled at our base, but we can't retake the base without energy.  It's a vicious little circle, my friend."

"There must be something we can do," Volt insisted.  "I don't want to stand around here until I shut down from old age!"

"Me neither, baby," Jolt added, caressing the blade of his sword lovingly.  "You and me, we're gonna die young and stay pretty."

"I can't believe those Rotor Rejects!" Road Pig said.  "They barely run on energon at all!  They've got no right to deprivate us of our own energy supply!"

"Sizzle, there must be some other place we find the energy we need to survive," Electro asked.

"Well, if the transmissions I intercepted a while back were accurate," Sizzle said, "Windrazor and the Skyscorchers packed up and followed Rapido and the Axelerators to a distant planet.  It's the same place that Optimus Prime and Megatron disappeared to, way back when."

"But that was billions of revolutions ago," Road Rocket said.  "Surely they must have exhausted that planet's natural resources by now."

"Try four million revolutions, asphalt-for-brains," Road Pig remarked.

"They were in stasis almost the whole time," Sizzle continued.  "Everyone assumed they'd been lost or destroyed--but instead, they were just taking a nap.  They've only just barely begun to tap into that planet's energy reserves.  Instead of trying to locate the Decepticons' secret stockpile of energon cubes--which may or may not still exist--we should go right to the source.  The same place they're getting it from."

"Leave Cybertron?" Electro asked.  "We'd be abandoning our home planet, just as Optimus Prime and Megatron did."

"If Megatron had truly abandonded Cybertron, as you say, he wouldn't be shipping energon cubes back home on a regular basis," Road Pig pointed out.

"We need energy to survive," Road Rocket added, "and we're never, ever, ever going to find it here."

"Think of how powerful we could become on a planet with a limitless energy supply," Sizzle said.  "Instead of having to constantly ration our fuel, we'd finally be at our maximum potential.  Can you imagine how fast you'd be in vehicle mode?  How strong you'd be as a robot?  How lethal your sword would be if it was hooked up to an unlimited power source?"

"The Rotor Force would never stand a chance!" Volt exclaimed, shaking his fists.

"Nobody could," Sizzle proclaimed.  "Rotor Force, Color Changers, Decepticons, Autobots, you name it!  We'd be the most powerful Transformers ever created!"

"If we go to Earth, it will only be temporarily," Electro said.  "I want to be very clear about this: I'm not interested in getting involved with the war that's going on there.  We won't be making friends or choosing sides.  This will strictly be an energy-gathering mission."

"How are we going to get there?" Volt wondered out loud.

"I think we'd better take a look at what's left of the space bridge," Electro said.

***

Octane had wandered aimlessly across the Cybertron landscape, trying to reacquaint himself with surroundings that he knew should have been familiar to him, but he found that the further he traveled, the less he recognized.  Cybertron was his home, and had certainly been so for millions of years, so why did it seem so foreign?  He felt as though the answer must somehow rest with the space bridge.  It was ancient Decepticon technology and probably didn't even work any more, but it was the only thing on the planet that even seemed to trigger a spark of familiarity.  He knew that if he could get it working, whatever was on the other side of the bridge would hold some answers.

He regretted parting ways with the Rotor Force.  He had felt some comfort being in the safety of numbers; despite his size and power he was exponentially more vulnerable travelling alone.  Even more than that, though, he deeply regretted losing the sense of camraderie that he had developed with them—with Leadfoot and Manta Ray in particular.  He didn't know why, but he hated the feeling of being alone.  It was as if he knew all too well the feeling of losing everything he held dear, everyone close to him, even though he could not summon to the forefront of his mind any experience during which anything like this had happened to him.  He had this dreadful feeling that he had suffered some kind of deep, personal tragedy, though, and regardless of whether or not he could sift through the details, it was an experience he wasn't interested in repeating.

Octane slowed to a steady crawl when he realized there was already someone investigating the remains of the space bridge receiver.  Several somebodies, as it turned out.  It looked as if the Laser Rods had beaten him here and were attempting to salvage components from the teleport chamber.  Octane steeled himself mentally for a second encounter.  If he engaged the Laser Rods alone, he would need to utilize all the resources available to him.  He would not have the luxury of merely fighting them to a standstill; he would be required to employ lethal force this time.  It was a prospect that struck Octane as singularly repugnant, though at the moment he didn't fully understand why he felt so strongly about it.

Slowly, cautiously, Octane transformed.  Rather than simply letting his manipulator cog to slip into place and turn all the necessary gears to extend him into his robot mode, Octane stretched each component manually, allowing for a slower but more stealthy reconfiguration.  He carefully reached behind into his trailer module, pulling out his ripple-fire launcher and tripping the safety lock.  He trusted his visual acuity enough that he knew he could pick off any one of them cleanly from this distance, but that would prompt a swift and savage counterattack from the remaining three.  He wanted to get close enough that he could take several of them down in rapid succession, thus ensuring that he would only have one or two Laser Rods to engage in close-range combat.

"This doesn't bode well, Electro," Sizzle was saying, kicking at a metal fragment.  It instantly crumbled and withered, something metal typically did not do.  "This kind of structural damage goes right down to the molecular bond of the metal.  This wasn't caused by the explosion of the space bridge, my friend.  This was caused by what came through over the space bridge."

"Huh!  What could have that kind of destructive capability?" Volt demanded.

"Plasmatic weapons," Sizzle replied grimly.  "A missile or a salvo, probably.  Somebody on the other side is using weapons powered by plasma energy."

"Holy motherboard," Jolt said.  "Now that's the kind of juice that gets your pistons pumping!"

"That certainly is unusual," Electro remarked.  "Nothing in our intelligence reports suggests that either faction on Earth—Autobot or Decepticon—has developed plasma energy weapons."

"I'd be more interesting in learning where they're getting it from," Sizzile replied.  "Earth is supposedly a veritable haven of natural resources, but you have to convert it into something useful—waterfalls, petroleum, stuff like that.  Nothing plug-and-play.  Whoever it is that's powering their weapons with plasma energy, they're not getting it from Earth."

"Then we must travel to Earth and discover the source," Electro concluded.

This was the first time Octane had been given the opportunity to observe the Laser Rods for himself outside of a combat scenario, and they were nothing like the way Ransack and Powerdive had portrayed them.  They had depicted the Laser Rods as savages who killed for sport and hunted the Rotor Force like animals.  In truth, the Laser Rods were just doing what any Transformers would do on the dying planet—just scraping by, one day at a time, and trying to survive.  They weren't murderous fiends; they were just looking for energy, the same as anyone else.  

Octane realized now how foolish he had been.  The Rotor Force's feud with the Laser Rods had colored their perceptions; they looked at their enemies as the epitome of evil, seeing themselves as virtuous and proud, but the Laser Rods most likely saw themselves in exactly the same way.  Octane had wanted so badly to belong that he had allowed himself to be indoctrinated into the Rotor Force mindset; he had allowed himself to believe all the propaganda that they themselves no doubt believed to be completely true.  Once you stripped away the sales pitch, though, there was nothing to separate one side from the other.  He needed to make contact with them.

Octane stepped forward.  Instantly, the Laser Rods readied their weapons.

"I come in peace!" Octane said, lowering his weapon to the ground.  He waved his hands to demonstrate that he was unarmed.  

"Oh yeah?!" Road Pig said, hopping around a little bit and apparently trying to look as threatening as possible.  "Well, you'll be going back in pieces!  You hear that, you big ugly box of bolts?  Little, tiny, pieces!"

"Wait," Electro said, holding out his hand.  "This is either the height of hubris or the ultimate in stupidity.  I'd like to know which it is."

"I mean you no harm," Octane continued.  "I realize I acted as your enemy while I was a member of the Rotor Force, but I am no longer affiliated with them.  I wish to join your cause, if you'll have me."

"What possible reason would we have to trust you?" Road Pig demanded.

"I heard you say that you want to get to Earth," Octane said.

"Yeah, so?" demanded Road Pig.

"I know how to get there," Octane stated.  "I believe... I believe I may have even been there once or twice."

***

Chapter 64: Discoveries

The Combaticon Headquarters was little more than an abandoned strip mine, commandeered by the Decepticons from the humans some time ago.  Where once it had been a useful sanctuary for the cantankerous group, allowing them to conduct training exercises above ground, the place had long since outlived its strategic usefulness.  Following the creation of the Combaticons and their annexation to the Decepticon army proper, they had set up operations within the strip mine, honing their military skills and keeping a safe distance from Starscream.  

High Beam knew all this because he had been studying the Combaticons for the better part of a month.  He'd learned of their existence purely by happenstance; he'd attended the trial of Megatron on Cybertron, eager to see justice finally delivered to the despot whose egomaniacal desire for conquest was well known throughout the galaxy.  He'd set his sights on many planets besides Cybertron, and High Beam was all too familiar with Megatron's particular brand of tyranny.  It was a pure stroke of luck, however, that the Combaticons had also been in attendance during the trial.  High Beam hadn't recognized them, of course, until they had opened their mouths and made it abundantly clear that they were, indeed, war criminals who had been imprisoned some one hundred thousand years ago.  They called themselved Decepticons, now, but they were still Renegades.

High Beam and his companions were laying flat on their stomachs, peering down at the dusty basin below.  At the moment, the Combaticons were deeper within the strip mines and out of immediate view, but one of them seemed to always seem to find a reason to pop out for a moment or two, so High Beam knew it was best to remain hidden.

"We could just blow up the place while they're all inside!" Firecracker suggested, whispering as loudly as possible.  He already had his fists at the ready, ostensibly in case High Beam gave him the go-ahead.  "This might be our only chance!"

"It's a fair bet they have an emergency exit in the back, in the event of a cave-in," Blowout said.  "You know Onslaught.  He thinks of everything."

"I hate just sitting here and waiting!" Firecracker replied.  "We need to take control of the situation!  We need to do something!"

"We'll wait," High Beam said.  This wasn't the first time he'd had this conversation.

Gearhead took this opportunity to transform to vehicle mode.

"The new Earth form suits you," Double Clutch remarked.

"Hey, somebody's coming out," Blowout said, pointing down below.  "Is that one Blast Off?  I don't recognize them anymore."

"No, that's one of the Decepticon jets," High Beam whispered.  "Stay low, GoBots."

The Decepticon which High Beam now recognized as Starscream converted to his aerial mode and took off for the skies.  High Beam mentally steeled himself for a possible combat scenario, but it turned out to be unnecessary, as Starscream rocketed off in the other direction, completely oblivious to the six spies who had been watching him and the war criminals he was harboring.

"We could just rush in there and charge them!" Firecracker tried again.  "Take 'em by surprise!"

"And then they'd do that Puzzler thing that they can do now," Blowout pointed out, "and stomp us into pulverized steel."

Gearhead switched back to robot mode.

"The modifier just wasn't kind to you, was it?" Double Clutch remarked.

"High Beam," queried Motormouth, "I've been thinking about something, and I'm sure you're curious to know what it is.  It's something that's been on my mind for a while, now, and I was wondering if you'd like to discuss it for a moment or two, if you should be so inclined..."

"Go ahead, Motormouth," High Beam said with a sigh of resignation.

"Well, as I explained, I've been pondering this a greal deal, and I think it only suitable that I share it with my commanding offiicer.  After all, as the leader of our little squad, here, it's ultimately your decision to make, so while I'm more than happy to make the suggestion, it's really your call as to whether or not we should move forward in this approach.  However, I've probably made myself clear, so I think it best that I just get right to the point.  There's no sense in wasting time when I could simply cut right to the chase, after all..."

"No arguments here," Double Clutch remarked.

"Now that we've confirmed the identity of these Renegades," Motormouth continued, "shouldn't we head back to GoBotron and report our findings to the Guardian Council?  They're awaiting our report, so..."

"These Renegades have eluded capture for centuries," High Beam replied with a solemn shake of his head.  "They are capable of space travel and could depart at any moment.  If we lost track of them now, there's no telling how long it would take to find them again."

"We could split up," Double Clutch offered.  "Half of us go back and the other half keeps tabs on 'em."

"The six of us together would barely be able to hold our own against them," Blowout ventured.  "There's no chance of survival if we divided our forces."

"Wait, what are we talking about?" Gearhead asked.  "Sorry, must have blacked out for a moment."

"We stay," High Beam said, with an air of finality that left no room for debate.  "And this time, we'll finish the job."

***

"That's very good, Scrapper," Anthrax said.  "You're truly the master of your craft."

"That's kind of you to say," Scrapper said, retracting his left fist and replacing it with a welding instrument.  He fired off several successive bursts to ensure he'd set it to the correct temperature before carefully soldering together the last wing panel, completing the final phase of Anthrax's special project.

"However, to be honest," Scrapper continued, "I still have a lot to learn."

"False modesty isn't very becoming," Anthrax said, her face contorting into a scowl for just a moment.  She leaned forward on the operating table with one elbow to observe Scrapper's machinations more closely.  "No other Decepticon on this planet could have helped me with this.  I'm grateful."

"I still don't understand why repairing Buzzsaw was so important to you," Scrapper said.  He looked at Anthrax, wanting to add something, but not entirely certain what.  He looked back down at his work.

"I was part of the battle in which he was nearly destroyed," Anthrax said, "so in a way I suppose I feel partly responsible for what happened to him."

"Yeah, but he's just a cassette," Scrapper said.  "Soundwave's lost tapes before.  It's not a big deal.  Ravage used to have a twin, apparently, and I've heard Rumble and Frenzy were part of a production line of a dozen or so."

"Well, I also felt like I owed it to Soundwave to help," Anthrax said.  "He may seem cold and unfeeling on the surface, but he's actually a very compassionate creature.  He just hides it."

"Must be hiding it pretty deep," Scrapper sneered.

"Mistress Anthrax," came the deep, monotone voice of Dreadwing over Anthrax's communicator.   He always sounded to Scrapper like he'd just recited the same thing a hundred times in a row and was absolutely sick to death of it. "I'm picking up three Transformers approaching the underwater base.  Their energy signatures are consistent with Decepticons from our homeworld.  I suppose now you're going to send me out there to play host to them."

"Nobody knows how to lay on the charm like you do, Dreadwing," Anthrax replied with a half-smirk.  "Go and intercept them, please.  Escort them into the base to report to Windrazor, then have them meet me here."

"If I must," Dreadwing sighed, ending the transmission. 

"Speaking of robots with personality issues," Scrapper commented.

"Dreadwing's very loyal," Anthrax said.  "He's served me faithfully for a long time.  I admit that he is a bit of a downer at times, but he's just trying to cope with his circumstances the best way he knows how... which means he's really not that different from any of us."

"I suppose not," Scrapper conceded.  "I've always had this feeling I didn't quite fit in, myself.  Ground vehicle in a base full of jets, and all that."

"You and I have a lot in common," Anthrax replied.

"Ah, there we go," Scrapper said, completing the welding job.  "You have my personal guarantee this wing assembly will last the lifetime of the unit, if not longer."

"I think we're finished here," Anthrax announced.  "Thank you very much for your help, Scrapper.  Again, you have my gratitude."

Scrapper nodded politely.

"Now, if you'll excuse me," Anthrax said, "I'm going to go find Soundwave.  I believe he's going to be quite pleased."

***

Dreadwing was beyond miserable.  This information probably wouldn't have surprised anyone--had they actually cared about him enough to ask how he was feeling--but the depth of his despair was even more significantly pronounced than usual, and that was cause for concern.  Dreadwing was always teetering on the brink of flipping open his chest panel, reaching inside his circuitry and yanking out his own central processor.  It was a precarious tightrope he walked, and circumstances that interfered with the delicate balance of his psyche were a dangerous thing.

It wasn't just that planet Earth was a pathetic, underdeveloped mudball  in a backwater part of the galaxy that was teeming with primitive organic life forms.  He and Anthrax had traveled to many different worlds over the centuries, so he'd certainly seen his fair share of non-technological based societies.  Just because he'd grown accustomed to predominantly organic worlds didn't mean he had to like them, though.  The air was filled with contaminants, microscopic particles of plant and animal matter that clogged up his ventilators and made his metal skin itch.  The continual presence of water vapor in the atmosphere, particularly inside the Decepticon underwater headquarters, was not detrimental to his ability to function but was nonetheless an irritant.  He couldn't wait to put as much distance between himself and Earth as possible so he could go back to enduring a slightly more comfortable degree of agony.

No, he suspected the true source of his amplified level of misery was that his mistress Anthrax was so preoccupied with her mission on this world that she'd all but forsaken him.  Dreadwing had been officially assigned to her as her transport and bodyguard, a role in which other, less dysfunctional robots might have taken some degree of pride.  It wasn't that Dreadwing failed to recognize on an intellectual level that it was an honor to serve directly under the Decepticon leader, but he tended to be so full of despair that he didn't have room left for any other emotions.  During their frequent scientific expeditions, Dreadwing was Anthrax's only company, the only one around for her to talk to about her dreams and aspirations and feelings.  He probably knew her better than anyone else, perhaps even herself.  Despite her strict leadership style and occasionally harsh discipline, she was probably the closest thing he had to a friend.  

Ever since they arrived on this planet, though, Anthrax had other Decepticons to talk to; she'd largely left Dreadwing to his own devices.  She'd occasionally summoned him when necessary, but for the most part, she had been far too occupied with trying to forge an alliance with Megatron--and later developing the synergon--to take notice of his presence.  It was one thing when he was fulfilling his duty, serving as a transport ship or stumbling into yet another mindless battle with the Autobots.  He didn't enjoy these things, but he knew how to do them well, and they served as a distraction of sorts.  When he wasn't occupied with these things, however, there was nothing left for him to dwell on except for how unhappy he was.

It was for this reason that he anticipated the opportunity to welcome the new warriors to Earth, even though he recognized he was basically serving as a glorified messenger drone.  Windrazor had sent another Decepticon, or rather a trio of Decepticons, to accompany him.  Whether Windrazor recognized that Dreadwing had a debilitating emotional condition and felt that he needed to be looked after, or simply didn't have a use for Reflector at the moment, was ultimately immaterial.  Dreadwing resented the implication that he needed a babysitter, but at the same time, he reluctantly accepted the company.  They tagged along behind him as he made his way through the Decepticon base to the exit.

"That is quite a weapon you have there," the triplets said to him, indicating Dreadwing's shoulder-mounted rotorpedo cannon.  When he spoke, the three robots that comprised the multiple-component entity known as Reflector spoke simultaneously, though it looked as if the central robot with the circular lens in his chest might have been in control.  Perhaps they were drones?  Dreadwing glanced over his unencumbered shoulder and saw that his own drone unit was still obediently following behind him.  

"It's heavy," Dreadwing replied.  "Sometimes it's all I can do to avoid toppling over under its weight."  He reached up and wrapped his arm around the barrel of the cannon, as if to steady himself.

"I heard that you were the one who blew up Optimus Prime," Reflector continued, the other two robots mimicking the gestures of the one in the lead.

"My orders were to destroy the space bridge," Dreadwing shrugged.  "The Autobot commander just...happened to be there."

"Still, you managed to do what Megatron could not," Reflector continued.  "The other Decepticons are most impressed.  How did you manage it?"

"Superior weapons technology," Dreadwing remarked.  Obviously, Reflector was trying to coax information out of Dreadwing about Optimus Prime's final battle.  Perhaps the other Decepticons really were just curious, or perhaps Reflector had some ulterior motives for his curiosity.  Dreadwing, however, would have no part of it.  He wasn't interested in making friends with the Reflector triplets or any other Decepticons on this planet.  Getting to know someone, eventually learning to like them, only meant disappointment and despair when they eventually forgot about you.

Dreadwing and Reflector came before the entrance to the docking elevator.  Reflector's lead component stepped forth and entered the access code; this time, the other two just stood and watched.  Like Dreadwing, it seemed that Reflector had a degree of conscious control over his drones, choosing whether to puppeteer them himself or allow their limited, built-in programming to govern their actions.

The doors to the lift opened, and the eminently bulky Dreadwing stepped inside, bending over and slipping in sideways to avoid colliding into the door frame with his cannon or his back-mounted wings.  His drone unit seemed to hestiate for a moment before following him.  The drone had been demonstrating some erratic behavior ever since the battle with the Autobots outside their volcano base.  Perhaps it had suffered some damage when that shiny little red Autobot had assaulted him during takeoff.  Dreadwing made a mental note to run a diagnostic when there was time.

The docking tower passed through the depths of the ocean and emerged.  Sunlight flooded the skyport, forcing Dreadwing to instinctively shield his optics with his hand before switching to a more suitable ultraviolet filter.  That was, he mused, the other thing he hated about this planet.  Humans hadn't even developed their own source of heat and light, depending entirely upon on the nearest sun for all their life-fulfilling needs.  It was barbaric.

As the mouth of the docking tower extended, Dreadwing stepped out on to the ramp.  Dark grey cloud cover momentarily passed over the sun, mercifully blocking a significant portion of the sunlight.  As a light spray of precipitation began to fall, Dreadwing rearranged his body into his new flight mode, an Earth-based stealth vehicle vaguely reminiscent of his original V-wing mode.  His drone module followed suit, interlinking with the hovering Dreadwing to complete his stealth jet configuration.  He took to the skies, with Reflector close behind.  His three modules soared through the air with arms extended, barrel-rolling through the air like a perfectly synchronized squadron.

Something akin to a loud thunderclap sounded in the distance, and Dreadwing's sensors detected a momentary localized breach in transwarp space.  "Our visitors have arrived," he announced, transmitting a series of coordinates for Reflector's benefit.  "Adjust course to intercept."

The group ascended into the stratosphere, and Dreadwing quickly detected three Decepticon energy signatures.

"Requesting identification," Dreadwing commanded over a secure frequency.  "Repeat, identify yourselves."

"This is Cyberjet leader Spike," came the reply as three air vehicles penetrated the cloud cover.  As per Anthrax's instructions, they appeared to have already undergone a reconfiguration into Earth-style forms in preparation for their mission.  "Accompanying me are Hooligan and Space Case.  Reporting as ordered."

"Spike?" Reflector scoffed.  "You share a name with a human Autobot ally."  His three modules expectorated in unison.

"You can call me Skyjack, if you want," came the reply.  "I've been a double agent for the Decepticons for a long time, so I've got more than a few aliases under my fanbelt."

"Proceed with me to the Decepticon base," Dreadwing ordered.  "There you will report to Commander Windrazor."

"Not yet!" countered one of the other jets, decorated in white and red.  "We got to do a t'ing or two foist!"

"Yeah, we're goin' on a little... shoppin' trip," added the orange-colored jet with a sinister giggle.

"Your cloaking field is not active," Dreadwing warned them.  "The humans of this world will have already detected your presence here."

"That's just what we're counting on," Skyjack replied.  "No offense, sir, but we won't be requiring your services at the moment.  We've got the situation well under control.  Please feel free to observe, though, if it pleases you."

"Don't mind if I do," the Reflectors replied.

Dreadwing had no idea what the Cyberjets were planning.  If Anthrax was aware of their itinerary, she hadn't briefed Dreadwing on the specifics.  As usual, he'd been left completely in the dark again.  "I will maintain a holding pattern until your next communique," he acquiesced, adjusting his course to maintain his relative position and altitude.

A squadron of noisy jet fighters appeared over the horizon, belching toxic fumes into the air and leaving the telltale trails of fossil fuel combustion hanging in the air like a dark, disgusting trail of processed turbine fluid.  Over the carrier waves, one of the human pilots was jabbering something about hostile enemy forces and demanding a mission statement, but Dreadwing was barely paying attention.  So much of the human language seemed to be such meaningless filler that it was barely worth the effort for his cyber-definition translators to process it all.

The three Cyberjets assumed an aggressive posture, swooping towards the group of six fighter jets and forcing the group to scramble clumsily to avoid a collision.  The Cyberjets were faster and vastly more maneuverable; despite the fact that they resembled Earth vehicles, they were operating well above the limited understanding of physical laws to which normal Earth jets were hopelessly bound.

"Two coming up on your starboard side, Space Case," Skyjack reported.  "Easy targets!"

Space Case effected a partial transformation, extending two mechanical arms out from the underside of his fuselage and swiping frantically at the air.  He caught the wing of one of the Earth jets, sending it into a wild spin from which it never recovered.  It collided into the jet directly on its right and both of them were enveloped by a brief explosive burst of flame.

"Yeah, I got 'em good!" Space Case proclaimed triumphantly, shaking his robotic fist in the air.

"The exact opposite of what you were supposed to do," Hooligan sneered.  "You get points for the big explosion, at least.  Heh."

"It seems we're quickly running low on organisms," Skyjack said.  "Please do try to be careful with the rest of them, shall we?"  With that, the gleaming black stealth jet transformed into robot mode, flexing for a moment before pursuing a pair of jet fighters ahead of him.  Not bound by conventional aerodynamics, Skyjack's switch to robot form hadn't slowed him down at all, and he quickly overcame the two jets.  Reaching forward with his gleaming black gripper claw, he swiftly and savagely rendered the nose cone of the lead jet from the fuselage, which entered an uncontrolled spiral before detonating an instant later.  Skyjack punched the glass canopy still attached to the jet nose, extracting the human pilot, still strapped securely in his seat.  Skyjack unceremoniously dumped the pilot into the canopy in the center of his own chest.

The other pilot, apparently anticipating a similar fate, had ejected from his fighter, parachute already deployed.  Skyjack leapt forward in mid-air, kicking off the back of the now abandoned jet, springing upwards and catching the ejected pilot with his gripper claw before he had even begun his descent.  The fleshling's screams of panic went unheeded as Skyjack ripped the parachute from its strings and deposited the second pilot inside his canopy as well.

"I've got two of them now.  This other one's yours, Space Case," Skyjack promised.

"T'anks a lot!" Space Case replied.

Hooligan cackled to himself maniacally as he pursued the jet directly ahead of him.  He transformed and lunged forward, grasping the tail rudder of the jet with his gripper claw and tearing it clean away from its moorings.  He climbed the fuselage, alternating between his fist and his gripper claw as he climbed, tearing chunks out of the craft as he made his way along the length of the like-sized jet fighter.  Once he reached the nose, he extracted the canopy from its hinges and threw it over his shoulder.

"What's the matter?" he demanded from the human pilot, his face visor glowing a bright yellow.  "Aren't ya gonna eject?"

The pilot did as ordered, launching himself directly into Hooligan's waiting grasp.

"There, that's better!" Hooligan said in a viciously taunting tone.  "Now you're safe!  Heh!"

"Dere's still one more left," Space Case said, completing his transformation to robot form.  "Can I take care of dat one?"

"We only need three," Skyjack said.  "Go have some fun."

Space Case shouted an incomprehensible battle cry as he  pursued the last remaining jet fighter.  The fighter executed a steep climb in an attempt to evade his pursuer, but Space Case caught up to the fighter jet quickly, pummeling the surface of the craft with his fists.  He reached into the canopy, smashing the glass and grabbing a fistful of components.  He withdrew his arm and proudly displayed his prize, which simultaneously made a crunching and squishing sound as he closed his fist around it.

"Cyberjets, transform!" Skyjack ordered, and the three Decepticons resumed their Earth configurations.

***

It had taken Smokescreen quite some time to figure out what had happened to him.  The last thing he remembered with any degree of clarity was that he had stumbled into a deadly confrontation with the treacherous Hubcap, who had been toting around a Decepticon-issue weapon and was demanding from Smokescreen that he kill Dreadwing in order to prove his true allegiance to the Autobots.  The next thing Smokescreen knew, he had been destroyed.

It was like watching himself from the outside.  He had a clear visual memory of being hit by Hubcap's salvo, knocking him back and causing his cranial module to explode.  His disembodied head, now lifeless, sputtered and teetered for a moment, his body attempting with futility to carry out the last directions given by his processors, before finally slumping uselessly to the ground.

Smokescreen had heard somewhere once that when faced with a significant trauma, it was quite possible to distance one's self from the experience with a form of depersonification.  It was a self-defense mechanism of the psyche, creating a distorted perception through which one appeared to be observing the experience from afar, like viewing a holovid transmission.  What was strange about this particular experience was that Smokescreen continued to watch the aftermath of his destruction, long after he should have passed beyond this mortal coil.  He saw the female Decepticon escape from Trailbreaker's clutches; he watched as Dreadwing transformed and likewise escaped.  At this point, some unfamiliar force compelled Smokescreen to likewise flee, following the Decepticons into the sky.  He was entirely unsure as to why he had chosen this particular course of action, though he had a niggling suspicion that the decision had not been entirely his to make.

It was only after arriving at the Decepticon undersea base that he had finally remembered what had happened.  An instant before he realized Hubcap was about to pull the trigger, in an act of desperation, Smokescreen had deployed his interlink cable.  He'd normally used it for routine utility purposes, like communicating with Teletraan when he didn't feel like using the voice interface, or convincing the gambling computers on Monacus to tilt the odds in his favor.  There had always been an aggressive firewall in place that protected Smokescreen from any unauthorized attempts at counter-information retrieval, but in those final moments of his existence, Smokescreen had given a mental command to eradicate the firewall, and he uploaded his entire consciousness into the nearest computerized system he could find.

The transfer, he realized later, had not been complete.  His core consciousness seemed to be intact, but he knew that chunks of his long-term memory were missing.  His most vivid recollections were his incarceration within Decepticon Headquarters, his conversations with Dreadwing the prison guard, and his confrontations with Hubcap, who by now had no doubt reported to the Autobots that Smokescreen had betrayed them and defected to the Decepticon ranks.  Hubcap was an impossible Autobot to trust, and even if Smokescreen had been more upfront with him, told him the truth about why he had lingered in the Decepticon base, it was doubtful that Hubcap would have believed him.  In the eyes of the Autobots, Smokescreen was a traitor to the cause.

Now, trapped within the body of Dreadwing's drone unit, Smokescreen wondered whether there was any hope of salvation for him.  Even if he managed to find his way back to the Autobots and he told them of his impossible survival, who among them would believe him?  Smokescreen had always been friendly to the other Autobots, mostly because he never knew when he'd need to ask for a favor from one of them.  It had always been much easier to get what he wanted out of the others when he'd already taken the time to ingratiate himself with them.  The truth of the matter was, though, he didn't like any of them.  He never had.  He'd never gotten close enough to know any of them very well, and there wasn't a single warrior among them that he considered a friend.

Dreadwing, Reflector, and the Cyberjets arrived at the docking tower to the undersea base.  Smokescreen was receiving a low-band signal, which he recognized as a mental command from Dreadwing to the drone jet to follow him inside.  He'd never given much thought to the relationship between Dreadwing and the drone when he was being held captive, but if he'd thought about it, he probably would have assumed that Dreadwing was constantly in control of the drone, like a puppeteer pulling the strings.  In fact, it seemed that the drone was largely programmed to operate under its own set of preprogrammed directives, unless these instructions were countermanded by an order from Dreadwing.  Smokescreen had quickly found that he, too, had the capacity to override the drone programming, but that he could also pull back and allow the drone to perform its functions as programmed.  Smokescreen had no idea how to fly, for instance, so when the Decepticons had departed the volcano base following the outcome of the battle, Smokescreen had allowed the drone to do all the work.

The group of Decepticons parted ways once the personnel lift reached the bottom; Reflector led the three Cyberjets down the corridor to report to the new Decepticon leader, even as the human pilots within their canopy modules continued their unabated pleas for mercy.  It was extraordinarily difficult for Smokescreen to listen to these horrible, panicked cries and not be able to step in and help them, but it had been even worse to sit by and watch as the Cyberjets had killed the rest of their squadron.  In all his years on Earth, Smokescreen had never seen the Decepticons exhibit such wanton brutality against the humans.  In the past, Megatron had always been afraid of aggressive retaliation against them from Optimus Prime.  Now that both Prime and Megatron were gone, it seemed, the Decepticons were finally showing their true colors.

Dreadwing and Smokescreen remained in the elevator for several moments, as Dreadwing seemed to be working up the willpower to continue.  Smokescreen had gotten a small taste of Dreadwing's all-consuming depression during their conversation as jailer and prisoner, but Smokescreen was only now realizing the true depth of the Decepticon's misery.  It was as if every movement he made, every word he spoke, took such tremendous effort that it was, Smokescreen mused, a miracle that Dreadwing didn't simply collapse in a heap, crushed under his own emotional baggage.

He really did feel sorry for the poor Decepticon.  What possibly could have happened to him that would have resulted in such an all-encompassing depression?  Under different circumstances, he would have loved to talk with him, to learn about his life, to determine why he'd erected all these barriers in his mind and in his heart as a defense against whatever he'd experienced in the past.  The inner workings of the mind were utterly fascinating to Smokescreen.  It was his battleground.  It was his life's work.  It was his most valuable tool.  It was his most deadly weapon.  He knew that even in the most dire of circumstances, even when all other options were exhausted, as long as there was a Transformer with a functional metaprocessor, Smokescreen could find a way to unravel the tangle of positrons and neurons, to navigate the maze of synapses and find a solution.  

Right now, though, revealing himself to Dreadwing would be a fatal mistake.  Even though he felt as if he understood the larger, hulking Decepticon fairly well, he was not sure enough about the Decepticon's psychological profile to be able to determine with certainty what would happen if Dreadwing knew of his existence.  Dreadwing was still a Decepticon, and utterly devoted to his mistress, so it was just as likely as not that he might turn Smokescreen over to Anthrax should he be discovered.  For now, Smokescreen was forced to continue to masquerade as the drone unit, at least until such time as he could formulate an escape plan.

The drone itself was not equipped with an electronic interlink cable, which meant that Smokescreen couldn't simply upload himself out of this scenario and into a nice, comfortable Autobot body somewhere.  The only way to get out of the drone body would be for Ratchet or Wheeljack or somebody to physically extract the drone's core processor and install it in an Autobot chassis.  Of course, that was assuming that once he revealed his identity to the Autobots, they didn't just up and execute him for treason.  

Come to think of it, that was exactly what Hubcap had done.  As far as the Autobots were concerned, Smokescreen no longer existed.

The fact that the Autobots believed Smokescreen was dead could, he mused, possibly work to his advantage.  Nobody would be tracking his whereabouts; nobody would be expecting him to provide status reports or occasionally check in with his superiors.  For the moment, he was free to operate as he saw fit, taking the measures he felt were necessary, at least until such time as he revealed his true self.  He was the ultimate double agent!  What better way to learn about the Decepticon plans than to masquerade as one of their own?  As long as Dreadwing served by Anthrax's side, Smokescreen would accompany him, and in the doing, he would have first-hand knowledge of all the Decepticon schemes.  He already knew that they were developing a new form of energon, but he had no idea how they were planning to create it, or what they intended to use it for.  Once he found out these things, he was confident this would buy his redemption back into the Autobot ranks.

Dreadwing finally seemed to have mustered up the energy to move, summoning his drone to follow him.  Smokescreen relinquished conscious control and allowed the drone to follow its preprogrammed routine, falling into step behind its master, but he continued to ponder the possibilities of how he might contact the Autobots once he completed his information-gathering.

There was also the small matter of how he would deal with Hubcap if he ever encountered him again.  That diabolical little machine may have worn the Autobot badge, but Hubcap had committed a crime against Smokescreen that went against every Autobot ideal.  He was a rogue warrior, and if he was capable of attempting to execute Smokescreen, he would do it again to any other Autobot who crossed his path, for any reason.  He was too dangerous to remain among the group.  Smokescreen would do whatever it took to ensure that Hubcap never did this to any of the other Autobots again.

***

 Chapter 65: Consumption

Hubcap had waited for hours to get a chance to take a peek at this mysterious newcomer that Red Alert and Cosmos had brought back to the base.  He didn't actually have the security clearance to be informed about matters like these, but he had other means of determining what was going on.  He had some of the most advanced built-in communications equipment among the Autobots, so it was a simple matter of monitoring transmission frequencies between the various high-ranking officers.  Shortly before Cosmos had returned, there was talk of a unidentified, unconscious Autobot that they had located in California.  Hubcap's curiosity was immediately piqued.  New Transformers didn't just spring up out of nowhere; they had to come from somewhere.

The robot in question had been taken to the repair bay for analysis, but he ranked low on the list of Commander Rapido's priorities.  Wheeljack had been summoned to attempt to figure out how to get Teletraan I fully operational again, and Perceptor had been inexplicably assigned to dismantling the Ark for useful materials.  Just about only other Autobots authorized to work in the repair bay were Ratchet and Hoist, and both of them had become preoccupied with trying to locate the Dinobots after they discovered their absence from their post outside, having been assigned to guard the volcano.  That left the repair bay completely empty except for a handful of unconscious Autobots, still recovering from the attack on the base, along with the mystery visitor.  

Hubcap tapped the access panel by the door, only to find that Ratchet had actually locked it.  This was unusual, but not a particularly difficult obstacle to overcome.  He quickly reviewed his internal transmission logs, taking only a few moments before he'd built up a suitable collection of key phrases and names.

"Teletraan," Hubcap said in the voice of Hoist.  "Initiate.  Voice recognition program.  Requesting.  Access.  To the.  Repair bay."  The sentence he'd strung together was a little choppy, since he'd pieced it together from five or six different archived transmissions over the course of a few months, but he was guessing Teletraan lacked the social savvy to recognize the discrepancy.

"Access granted," Teletraan replied, and the door to the repair bay slid open with a hiss.

"Thank ye kindly," Hubcap muttered under his breath, "ye bloody oversized calculator."

Ratchet's work area served as a miniature museum of recent warfare artifacts.  If any of the Autobots had incurred injuries during the recent battle within the volcano, there was some indication of it here.  Parts were scattered throughout the repair bay: Assorted Aerialbot wing parts were propped up against the wall; Grapple's battered orange helmet sat upon one of the repair tables; Mirage's original chest plate had been discarded on the floor in the corner.  Most of these older parts would eventually be melted down, their alloys metallurgically separated back into their component metals for future use.  In the meantime, Hubcap wondered how Ratchet got anything done here at all.  The place looked as bad as Hubcap's personal quarters, and that was only because Hubcap had been forced to room with the universe's biggest compulsive-obsessive junk collector.

The foreign red-and-white Autobot was laying on a medi-bed on the far side of the room, still unconscious.  He'd obviously seen his fair share of combat but not much in the way of personal care; his entire body was covered in a thin layer of tarnish, and his boots, in particular, were caked with dirt.  Though he probably transformed into an aerial form of some sort, judging by the wings on his arms, he obviously did a lot more travelling on foot than he did in the air.  Hubcap wondered what had prompted him to venture from Cybertron by himself.

Hubcap approached the robot cautiously, glancing over one shoulder and then the other.  He reached forward and scraped away at one of the panels on the center of the robot's chest, removing enough corrosion that he was able to grasp the corner of the panel and lift it up.  Behind the panel was a manual reset switch, which Hubcap flipped back and forth several times repeatedly for good measure.

"It's unusual, that's for sure," one of the Autobots was saying.  The source of the muffled voice was somewhere just outside the repair bay.  Quickly, Hubcap slammed the access panel shut and looked for a place to hide.  When no hiding places immediately availed themselves, Hubcap did the next best thing.  He grabbed a tool off one of the medical beds, pointed the sharp end towards himself, and raked it across his chest armor.  He grimaced as the sharpened implement serrated his metal skin, cutting completely into the shiny refractory armor and revealing his original yellow color.  Satisfied that he now appeared to have suffered sufficient battle damage, he tossed the tool aside and quickly hopped up onto an empty medical bed, laying prone.  He dimmed his optical lights and laid still.

"I'm just a surgeon, of course," the robot continued, whose voice Hubcap now recognized as belonging to First Aid.  "I figured I'd better ask a specialist."

"I'm happy to, ah, assist in any way I can," replied Swerve.  Hubcap knew his voice all too well.  The poor sap was always acting like he'd gotten hit on the head one too many times with a rubber mallet and was doing his very best to pretend there was nothing wrong with him.

First Aid and Swerve approached the mystery Autobot, still laying inactive.  Hubcap ventilated as slowly as possible, but it seemed that with every shallow breath he took, he had to take a bigger one just to make up for it.

"When I conducted the initial scan," First Aid was explaining, "Teletraan was unable to identify any of the metals.  I figured it was just another computer glitch, but I tried a manual scan and I couldn't get anywhere, either.  Are we both going bonkers, or...?"

"Insanity is just a state of mind misunderstood by those who fail to embrace similar views," Swerve remarked.  He'd obviously rehearsed that answer at least a few times.  "Nevertheless, I'll endeavour to determine precisely what our friend here is made from."

Swerve extended his hands several inches above the body of the mystery Autobot, his palms close to the robot's body but not actually touching it, in the same manner in which he might have been checking to see if air were blowing through a ventilator shaft.  After a moment, Swerve pulled his hands back.  He contorted his face for a moment as he processed the readings from the metallurgical scanning equipment embedded within his fingertips.

"Well, this is certainly unusual, all right," Swerve remarked.  "His body does comprise minimal amounts of cybertronic metal, but the majority of his construction is a comparatively rare element called primacronium.  It doesn't even exist on this side of the galaxy.  I don't think it's been programmed into Teletraan I's database, so I'm not surprised the computer didn't recognize it."

"Where does it come from?" First Aid asked.  "Who uses it?"

"Nobody does, as far as I'm aware," Swerve replied.  "At least, not any longer.  Not only is it pre-Autobot, it's pre-Cybertron.  This robot might be wearing an Autobot badge, but he obviously isn't one of us.  Based on what he's made from, I'd venture that he's much, much older.  To use the word 'ancient' would be an understatement."

"Any cybertonium?" First Aid asked.

"None at all," Swerve confirmed.  "He definitely wasn't created on Cybertron."

"Ratchet said something about not being able to repair any of the external damages," First Aid continued.

"Not surprising," Swerve said.  "This kind of metal is virtually indestructible.  You can't just take to it with an arc-welder, not with this kind of molecular cohesion.  To be honest, I'm not even sure how this robot's armor panels were even forged.  It would take some kind of controlled antiparticle generator, but that kind of technology is still only theoretical."

"So what you're saying," First Aid said, "is that this robot shouldn't even exist."

"Hmm?  What robot?" Swerve asked.

"The one right in front of us," First Aid sighed.

"Yes, right," Sweve said.  "That's it exactly."

The robot in question stirred, groaning faintly.

"He's in pain," First Aid observed.  "How am I supposed to repair him if I can't open him up?"

"That's a good question," Swerve said.  "Of course, given that we know nothing of this robot's origins or his motives, perhaps it would be best if we did nothing."

"I can't just stand by and watch him suffer," First Aid said, transforming to his ambulance mode.  The back hatch swung open, revealing a large double-barrelled implement.  "My decrystalizer cannon might be able to break down the molecular bonds enough to allow me to work on him," First Aid said.

"I'm, ah, not sure this is such a good idea," Swerve said.

"Look, if he is one of us, then we need to help him," First Aid explained.  "If he's not one of us, then we'll need him functional so we can interrogate him and discover his true intentions.  In either case, repairing him is the best course of action."  His decrystalizer cannons switched on, bathing the robot in a comforting blue glow.

First Aid returned to robot mode, examining the robot's access panel.  "It looks like somebody's already tried to activate him," he observed.  He flipped open the access panel and held down the reset switch for several seconds.

The robot awoke with a start, bolting up into a seated position, bracing himself on his arms.

"What happened?" he exclaimed.  "Where am I?"  Almost instantly, he produced his weapon and clutched it in both hands nervously.

"With friends," First Aid said, extending his hands in a non-threatening gesture.  He delicately grasped the barrel of the robot's weapon and pointed it in a safe direction.  "This is the volcano base for the Autobots of Earth.  Who are you?"

"Strafe," the robot said, putting his weapon away.  "Wait a minute.  What you're saying is impossible.  The volcano base was destroyed.  I've seen the ruins."

"Obviously not," First Aid said, extending his arms to indicate the surroundings.  "What brings you to Earth, anyway?"

"It wasn't by choice,"  Strafe said.  "Me and the other Technobots were on board Fortress Maximus when we shot down over a planet outside the Mirtonian cluster.  The Decepticons were hunting us down, when suddenly these big, glowing energy rings engulfed us, and everything seemed like it was going backwards.  The next thing we knew, Afterburner and me were back on Earth, getting shot at by Decepticons who could transform.  Hey, those Decepticons captured Afterburner!  I gotta rescue him!"

"If there's another Autobot out there somewhere, we need to find him," First Aid said.

"So you didn't travel here alone?" Swerve asked.

"There's only two of us, now.  I thought me and Afterburner were the last Autobots left alive," Strafe said.  "How did you guys escape the purge?"

"Purge?  What purge?" Swerve asked.

"Nucleon!  The Action Masters!" Strafe said in a tone that suggested this was really obvious information that First Aid should have already known.  "Where have you been?  Ever since the Decepticons got their hands on the nucleon, they've been systematically wiping us out."

"That's unbelievable," First Aid said.

"Nucleon?" Swerve repeated.

"New power source," Strafe replied.  "Optimus Prime discovered it inside a black hole."

"Optimus Prime is dead," First Aid pointed out.

"He was for a while," Strafe responded.  "The Quintessons brought him back in 2006 and he stuck around for a few more years, at least until he sacrificed himself to save the Micromasters on Nebulos."

"I understand the words coming out of your mouth," Swerve said, "but the way you string them together makes absolutely no sense to me."

"Also, you might want to adjust your chronometer," First Aid suggested.

A puzzled, crestfallen look fell over Strafe's face.  "You mean this isn't the year 2012?"

***

Hubcap had been forced to wait for another half an hour, pretending to lay unconscious and wounded, while First Aid and Swerve attempted with futility to convince Strafe that he'd evidently become the victim of some kind of unexpected temporal vortex.  These sorts of things were unusual, to say the least--but by definition, rare occurrences had to happen every once in a while, Hubcap supposed.  In any event, First Aid had reluctantly allowed Strafe to explore the immediate proximity of Autobot Headquarters, resting safe in the knowledge that Strafe lacked the energy reserves to get too far, and his deactivated weapons systems ensured he would be no threat should it turn out that his intentions were quite different from what he'd stated.  Strafe's greatest concern seemed to be the rescue of his Technobot comrade, and it was this show of compassion that had engendered First Aid's trust in this mysterious Autobot visitor.

After Strafe had finally been escorted outside, First Aid and Swerve had left the repair bay to attend to some other affairs, finally leaving Hubcap.  He expelled a great deal from his ventilator as he leaped down off the medical table and scratched an itch that had been driving him crazy for the last 20 minutes.  With poor Smokescreen permanently out of the picture, Hubcap decided that it was time to make Strafe his new project.  

He slipped out of the repair bay and tilted his head for a moment until he found Strafe's distinctive emitter signal, somewhere just outside the base.  Every Autobot transmitted an emitter signal to enable Teletraan to locate them in emergencies, but most Autobots didn't possess the necessary detection equipment to receive the signals.  Hubcap was one of only a handful of robots on the planet who could hear these signals, but he could track them like a bloodhound.

Truth be told, Hubcap wasn't sure whether to be in awe of this mystical visitor from the future, or simply strap him down with bungee cords and throw in him the brig.  Hubcap had, over the years, developed a healthy mistrust of pretty much everyone.  It kept him on his bumpers.  Now that this freak Autobot had appeared out of nowhere and was making outrageous claims about involuntary time travel, Hubcap was suspicious, to say the least.  However, he'd quickly decided it was in his best interest to make Strafe his new best friend.  After all, somebody had to welcome this newcomer, right?  If Strafe was telling the truth, Hubcap would be the first to ingratiate himself and gain Strafe's trust.  If it turned out he was lying, then Hubcap would be the first to uncover the truth and be hailed a hero.  Either way, Hubcap would win.

If Strafe really did have foreknowledge of the future, though, then that made him one of the most valuable artifacts Hubcap had ever discovered.  This could represent a turning point in Hubcap's career.  All his life, he'd relied on his wits and his charm to survive, manipulating as many Autobots as necessary to get what he wanted.  It was a difficult and tiring lifestyle, though, and not always entirely successful.  Strafe's potential knowledge of future events, however, changed everything.  He could tell Hubcap which Autobot leaders would die and which ones were worth schmoozing.  He could reveal which Decepticon attacks would result in lucrative stockpiles of energon, and which ones would be a waste of time that Hubcap wouldn't need to even bother dealing with.  Strafe might even know a thing or two about Hubcap's own career.  How far up the chain of command would he eventually climb?  Would he ever ascend to a position of leadership?  Which Autobots would fall under his command?  His head reeled with endless possibilities.  He was nearly giddy with delight.

Strafe had stared at the outside of the volcano base in disbelief for several minutes, marveling in apparent disbelief.  He reached out to run his fingers along the exterior surface of the Ark's hull.

"This is incredible," Strafe said.  "Somehow, I really have travelled to the past."

Hubcap politely cleared his throat, stirring the Technobot from his segue.

"Hello there," Hubcap said with a wave.  "Hubcap's the name.  Strafe, isn't it?"

Strafe nodded.  "Yeah.  Hey, I saw you in the repair bay.  Glad you're feeling better."

"I'd like to ask ye a favor, if it's not too much trouble," Hubcap said.

"Sure," Strafe said, "if you reactivate my guns.  Drives me crazy, being unarmed."

"Deal," Hubcap said.  Strafe shot him a look as if to say he was kidding and that he hadn't seriously expected to strike a deal, but Hubcap wasn't interested in playing games right now.  He approached Strafe and started fiddling with the access panel in his chest.  He keyed in a command-level access code that he wasn't supposed to have memorized.  "All done," he announced.

"Much better," Strafe said.  "I owe you one."

"Ye can repay me with a story, laddie," Hubcap demanded.  "What d'ye know about me?  What will I do in the future?"

"I have no idea," Strafe shrugged.  "I've never heard of you before.  You don't exist in my time."

"Perhaps our paths just never crossed," Hubcap suggested.

"No, no, you're not getting it!" Strafe said.  "You don't have a future.  Ten years from now, the Decepticons start using the nucleon.  It turns them into Action Masters and gives them the power to kill Autobots.  In the year 2012, all the Autobots will be destroyed.  Including you."

Hubcap staggered back in disbelief.  How was this possible?  He knew deep down that he was destined for greatness.  He was the most diabolically clever Autobot ever generated; he had always known he was meant for something special.  The extermination of the entire Autobot race was unthinkable to him, particularly when it loomed so precariously close.  When you'd been around for nine million years, a paltry twelve planetary revolutions—on any planet—was practically the blink of an eye.

When inside the Decepticon base, Hubcap recalled Smokescreen saying something about the Decepticons locating a new energy source inside a space warp.  Could this have been the nucleon Strafe was talking about?  He had said the nucleon had been discovered inside a black hole.  That's basically what a black hole was, right?  A warp in the fabric of space and time?  Hubcap was now certain this was what Windrazor and his Decepticons were after.  If what Strafe said was true, it was Windrazor's discovery of that space warp, and the nucleon inside of it, that would lead to the extermination of the Autobots.  Hubcap had to try to put a stop to it somehow.  After all, how could he rule the Autobots when they were all destroyed?

He was already making plans for the future.  He would need to consult Teletraan to try to locate this black hole, and he would need a space craft capable of reaching it.  Once he seized the nucleon for himself, he would become the most powerful Autobot in existence.  No longer would he be forced to pander to the whims and foibles of lesser Autobots who exceeded him in rank.  From this point onward, Hubcap would be calling the shots.  He would, at long last, be the master of his own destiny.

***

Television programming, as a whole, had undergone a dramatic shift following the arrival of the Transformers on Earth.  As the presence of giant warring robots became an everyday fact of life, the networks focused almost exclusively on stories about the human condition.  Gone were the science fiction stories about space ships and aliens and machines that had once been a staple of the entertainment industry.  The citizens of the modern world had no desire to be subjected to these types of stories; they had to deal with the reality of evil machines trying to conquer the world on a daily basis.  It was bad enough that it was all over the news; they didn't need to be reminded of it when they were trying to relax and enjoy themselves.  It was the ultimate form of escapism.  People were aware of the continuing war between the Autobots and Decepticons, but nobody wanted to openly acknowledge it.  The network executives had even gone so far as to put a censorship in effect that prohibited the use of specific words and themes during the course of daytime programming.  References to murder, sex, and drug use were marginally acceptable, but any mention of robots or transformations of any kind had become taboo and was strongly discouraged.  Even the evening news tended to dance around the issue, using euphemisms like "foreign visitors" or "artificial constructs" when referencing Decepticon attacks.

It was with a considerable amount of surprise to most of the English-speaking world, then, when the silver visage of a Transformer appeared on television screens across the nation, pre-empting the popular daytime drama As the Kitchen Sinks.

"Greetings, humans of North America," the robot began.  "I'm Windbreaker, the Intelligence Officer for the Autobots, acting under orders from Field Commander Rapido.  This message is extended as a courtesy.  Effective immediately, we are seizing planet Earth as an Autobot territory under the provisions set out in the Cybertron Wartime Act.  To this end, we will be dramatically increasing the amount of power we draw from the world energy reserves in order to more effectively combat the Decepticons.  You may experience a momentary loss of power at your homes and places of business as we begin diverting electrical power to our headquarters.  Our estimates are that power usage will increase by no more than a maximum of seven hundred percent for up to 220 of your Earth years.  In the event that this should cause undue hardship on your nuclear power facilities, we will begin instituting a mandatory blackout on all nonessential electrical utilities.

"Thank you for your cooperation and understanding in this matter," Windbreaker concluded, and ended the transmission.

Briefly, Windbreaker imagined the potential outcry to this new proclamation.  He envisioned humans scurrying all over their domiciles, frantically telephoning close acquaintances and familial relations and local law enforcement to assess the validity of the new Autobot regime.  They would likely be speaking more rapidly than usual and at a higher-than-customary volume, and some of them might even be oozing perspiration from the pores in their outer skin in an effort to reduce their rapidly-rising body temperatures.  Windbreaker had no way of witnessing the millions of angry reactions across the nation, of course.  Even if there had been some method by which he had been able to observe them, though, it was extremely doubtful he would have cared.

***

Hubcap had been surprised after his arrival on Earth to learn that the Teletraan unit on board Optimus Prime's flagship was being utilized as a multi-purpose analysis and reference tool.  Teletraan units had been designed for astro-navigation, and they performed quite well when it came to calculating space-time coordinates or guiding starships through space, but the sheer number of tasks the Autobots on Earth had assigned to Teletraan I were nothing short of staggering.  They consulted it about the weather.  They had set it up to function as an alarm clock.  They had arranged for it to monitor the volcano's internal security cameras and the magnetic detection panels.  It kept taps on the planet's vital energy reserves and recorded detailed information about them.  The Autobots had also programmed it to monitor the planet's energy reserves and to regulate the amount of energy that flowed into Autobot Headquarters.  It was charged with the duty of babysitting the Dinobots.  They had even programmed Teletraan to play word games in the event that there was no Decepticon activity that day and some of the Autobots got bored.  And those were just the programs that were still active; there were probably dozens of programs sitting dormant inside Teletraan's memory banks, hogging up precious space, that the Autobots no longer even used.  It was inconceivable to Hubcap that they'd bogged the computer down with so many independant tasks, subroutines that were programmed independantly of each other and often interfered with one other if they were run simultaneously.  It was no wonder that the computer's performance had taken a nosedive lately.  The poor thing was going insane.

Hubcap entered the control room, the largest facility on board the ship, to find two of the squishies tinkering with Teletraan's insides.  Hubcap had never been particularly fond of humans, though he was well aware that some of the other Autobots seemed to think that their alliance with the short-lived organisms seemed to constitute some kind of tactical advantage.  In any event, he certainly didn't see any need for them to be rummaging around inside Autobot property without supervision.  More importantly than that, though, Hubcap needed immediate access to Teletraan I himself, which meant he had to get rid of these squishies as quickly as possible. 

"Greetings and salutations, laddies," Hubcap began, slathering on an extra helping of charm.

"Oh, hi there, Cliffjumper," replied the squishy who was halfway immersed inside Teletraan's access panel.  

Hubcap glanced down at his shiny, red-colored armor and let out an exaggerated sigh.  He made a mental note to scrape off this useless refractory metal the first chance he got.

"Th' name's Hubcap, actually," he replied cheerfully.

"Oh, sorry," the squishy replied.  "Didn't have my glasses on."  He reached into his shirt pocket and produced a pair of focusing lenses that he hooked to the front of his face.  Hubcap wondered if he knew how utterly ridiculous they made him look.  The human climbed into his contraption, sort of a primitive motorized vehicular frame that he used in lieu of bipedal locomotion.  What, did he think he was an Autobot just because he had wheels?

"Begging yer pardon, lads," Hubcap said, touching his fingertips together sanctimoniously, "but there's a wee problem with th' computer that I'll be needin' t' address as soon as possible.  I appreciate all ye've done so far, but I think an Autobot should take it from here."

"Hang on a minute, Hubcap," said the overweight aged squishy.  Hubcap knew he had a vaguely Autobot-like name.  It was something like Diode or Gascap or Transistor or Fusebox.  It was on the tip of his processor.  "Chip thinks that Teletraan might know what happened to Optimus Prime."

"Does the phrase 'big truck stop in the sky' mean anything to ye?" Hubcap asked.

"Not necessarily," said the first human.  "There's circumstantial evidence that Prime may have not been destroyed.  It's in Teletraan's databanks somewhere, but we're just having a little trouble coaxing it out of him."

"The voice interface is being stubborn," Chip explained, "so I'm hacking the binary data and reading it myself."

"Ye can actually read binary code?" Hubcap said with a healthy level of mock amazement.  It was, he mused, roughly equivalent to expressing astonishment that a Torkulonian tonguegrabber had a tongue.

"I'm making pretty good time, actually," Chip replied.  "I should be done in an hour or two, at most."

Short of picking up the squishies by the scruff of the neck and throwing them out of the volcano, Hubcap had no idea how to get these stupid humans to crawl back to whatever primordial ooze they called home.  These monkeys had been allowed to hang around the base for so long that they felt like they belonged there.  Well, if they really believed they were Autobots at heart, then perhaps it was time to appeal to their sense of duty.

"I'm afraid it cannay wait, lad," Hubcap said with a controlled sense of urgency in his voice.  He approached Teletraan's access panel and called up the Sky Spy's orbital transmission readout.  There had to be Decepticons somewhere within the satellite's detection range.  After sweeping the western half of the continental land mass, Hubcap managed to locate three fairly small electronic blips.  They were traveling erratically, but they seemed to be heading in the general vicinity of the Decepticon underwater base.  They would do fine.  "When Smokescreen was in the Connies' base, he told me about a new energy source the Connies developed.  Right now, these troopers are on their way to deliver the secret.  If we dinnay stop them, the Connies will have th' power t' destroy every Autobot on the bloody planet!"

"How is that possible?" the overweight human asked.  Wingnut?  Monkeywrench?  

"Teletraan," he said, "identify the Decepticons on screen."

"Conducting analysis," Teletraan replied.  "Please stand by."

"What does it matter how it's possible?"  Hubcap said, making a dramatic break for the main corridor.  "The important thing now is that I've got t'stop the Connies from delivering the energy formula!  I just pray to th' powers that be that I'm fast enough t'get there!"

"Wait, Hubcap!" Chip said.  "Wheeljack would be able to get there much faster than you.  He's just been itching to try out his new vehicular booster rockets."

"Good idea, Chip," the fat human replied.  Sparkplug!  They called him Sparkplug.  "I'll tell Spike and we can leave right away."

"This is a job for Autobots, not humans," Hubcap said.  "Particularly when your mobility is somewhat, er, challenged.  Please, lads, don't get involved.  It's the last thing ye should be doing in your condition!"

"Don't write off this old man just yet!" Sparkplug balked.  "My arthritis may act up from time to time, but I can still walk!"

"We all have shortcomings, Hubcap," Chip said.  "It's just a matter of choosing to overcome them.  In this case, though, your communication skills will serve us better from the homefront."

"I hate t'admit it, but yer probably right," Hubcap said with a mighty shrug of his shoulders.  "Look at me, cowering behind my insecurities like a shield!  We Autobots weren't ever designed for combat, but we still have a duty to stop the enemy at all costs!  We proudly wear a red badge, not a bloody yellow stripe!  I'm so ashamed that it took a couple of humans to show me what it means to be an Autobot!  Now get out there and stop those Connies!  I'll stay here and monitor them.  Now go, laddies!"

"Come on, Sparkplug!"  Chip proclaimed.  He grasped at his wheel rims and propelled himself down the ramp leading away from the computer.  Sparkplug reached for a cane and hobbled off in the same direction.

It was about bloody time.

Hubcap triumphantly flexed his fingers as he approached the computer, kicking the access panel closed with his foot.  He tapped a sequence of buttons, deactivating the satellite monitor as the screen went dark.  No sense wasting the computer's processing power tracking random Decepticons; it had been glitching so badly these days that he didn't want to be running any more additional programs than were absolutely necessary.

The auxiliary communications console was flashing, which usually meant that Teletraan was receiving a signal from an outside source.  Hubcap briefly considered intercepting it and determining its origin until he took a closer look.  It was the frequency the humans usually used when they were contacting Autobot Headquarters.  There were only a few human organizations who were authorized to contact the Autobots on this channel, almost exclusively military personnel or members of what passed for their scientific community.  No doubt one of them had gotten their dog stuck in a tree or needed directions to the nearest cheeseburger delivery shop some other such emergency of vital importance.  Whatever the humans needed could wait; Hubcap had some serious work to do.  

A warp in space would be invisible to conventional scanners, Hubcap knew, but if it really was some kind of black hole that the Decepticons found, then it would create a significant gravitational disruption.  Black holes absorbed all the llight and energy in the immediate vicinity, and that included radio transmissions--something Hubcap happened to know a thing or two about.  All Hubcap had to do was go fishing--sending transmissions in every direction until one of them got close enough to get sucked into the warp.  It had reportedly been discovered by a lone Decepticon operating under his own power, suggesting it was probably somewhere within fairly close proximity to Cybertron, so that's where he would begin his search.  He'd find it, eventually.  And once he did, he'd finally beat the Decepticons at their own game.

***

Chapter 66: Building Blocks

Trailbreaker stood before the navigation console in the control room of Autobot Headquarters.  Before it had become halfway embedded within the bowels of the volcanic land mass, the Ark had once been the grand and glorious flagship of the Autobot army.  The control console before which he now stood had remained untouched for millions of years, but Trailbreaker recalled that the navigation grip was the same one which Jazz had been thrown from during the ambush by the Nemesis, the same one that Optimus Prime had grappled with as he desperately attempted to steer the mighty starship out of Earth's gravity well in a last-ditch effort to save the craft.  None of the Autobots could have predicted that the Decepticon attack could have led to the dangerous crash landing that rendered all of the combatants inoperative for half a lifetime.  While all the Autobots and Decepticons on board took a four-million-year long siesta, the absence of Optimus Prime and Megatron from their homeworld inexorably changed the direction of the war and the fate of Cybertron itself.  Furthermore, the awakening on Earth, the discovery of its resources, and the Autobot alliance with the human populace forced a complete restructuring of the Autobot strategy that, for better or for worse, could never be undone.  You couldn't unmake energon, like they said.  Trailbreaker recognize all of this, and in some strange way, all of these things originated with this navigation console.  It was practically an historic landmark.

With a swift jerk of his new arm cannon, Trailbreaker deftly sliced the navigation grip from its moorings with a concentrated laser blast.  The twin handle grips clattered to the ground noisily.

"I still can't believe Nineteen's got us takin' apart the ship," Trailbreaker grumbled, picking up the grip and throwing it into Prowl's makeshift wheelbarrow.

"It's the most logical place from which to procure cybertronic alloys for the construction of his new installation," Prowl admitted.

"Yeah, but..." Trailbreaker began, but stopped himself.  He glanced over his shoulder in the direction of Turbofire.  He'd been assigned by Rapido to oversee the construction, and was standing next to Huffer and occasionally barking monosyllabic commands to the other Autobots.  Trailbreaker hadn't decided yet whether the guy was deliberately terse in the interest of efficiency, or if he was just as dumb as a sack of hammers.

"Just between you and me," Trailbreaker began again, more quietly this time, "this is the biggest mistake we've ever made.  It's a complete waste of time and 'bot power.  We already have a base; why do we need another one?  Besides, I always thought that once we stopped the Decepticons, we'd get this hunk o' junk patched up and get back to some other planet a lot more silvery and metallic-like.  Kind of hard to do if we slice n' dice the ship into paper clips."

"Dismantling the starship does have a certain air of finality to it," Prowl conceded.  "Optimus Prime always made the preservation of the base one of his top concerns, because he knew we'd need it to get back to Cybertron.  In taking this course of action, it's as if we're giving up on the idea of ever going home."

"Hey, you two!" Huffer bellowed, waving his arms about on those odd little shoulder assemblies he had.  "Quit your yammering and shift it into first gear!  We need five hundred more tons of trionium and it's not going to collect itself!"

"Looks like the Huff sure is enjoying his new job," Trailbreaker said.  "Whose bright idea was it to put him in charge, anyway?"

"I'll give you a hint," Prowl said.  "It's the square root of three hundred and sixty-one."  Leave it to Prowl to crack a math joke.

Nearby, sequestered in a particularly dense cluster of limestone columns sat Perceptor, sweeping his microscope lenses across the surface of the rock in a systematic fashion.  As Rapido's official liason, Trailbreaker had been dutifully doling out the assignments as Rapido had handed them out.  He'd also asked Trailbreaker to periodically follow up on the others to ensure they were making sufficient progress, as if every Autobot in the base needed to be babysat.

"How's it goin', Professor?" Trailbreaker asked.

"Despite my most dilligent efforts," Perceptor noted, "I have as yet been unable to formulate a solvent that is both capable of breaking down the molecular cohesion of the sedimentary calcium carbonate, which appears to have undergone a polyatomic ionization process with elements present in this craft's superstructure."

"One of these days I'm gonna get somebody to program my translator to understand Perceptorese," Trailbreaker said.

"To put it succinctly," Perceptor said, transforming to robot mode, "the limestone has mixed with alloys from the ship.  I cannot create an acid strong enough to remove the rock without also dissolving all the cybertronic metals inside the rock.  Such a solvent would also affect the ship and every Autobot in it."

"Why didn't you just say that in the first place?" Trailbreaker said, smirking.

"Admittedly, geology is not my area of expertise," Perceptor shrugged.  "Beachcomber's special talents would have been far better suited for this endeavour."

"The new boss doesn't seem to have quite mastered the art of personnel assignments," Trailbreaker said.  It was as if Rapido had completely ignored the roles the Autobots comfortably filled, just in the interest of assigning them jobs that they didn't know how to do.  "I'm waiting for him to make Gears our new public relations guy.  Maybe Warpath could be the head librarian."  He chuckled to himself.

"This construction project puts us at a strategic disadvantage," Prowl noted.  "The redirection of our resources leaves us vulnerable to attack, and the new appropriation of planetary resources is going to cause significant strain on human-Autobot relations.  From a strictly tactical standpoint, this course of action doesn't make sense.  Rapido's logic baffles me."

"Welcome to the fan club," Trailbreaker said.  "I'm the president.  Have you read our informational brochure?"

"He did indicate that the new base of operations he is planning to construct will be both mobile and heavily-armed," Perceptor countered, "two categories which the volcano base is significantly lacking."

"Think about it for a minute," Prowl said.  "Either this helps us beat the Decepticons, or it doesn't.  We're siphoning as much energy as we can from the humans, and eventually they're going to cut us off completely.  This is going to ruin our relationship with them.  If we don't stop the Decepticons, then we've lost a major ally and we'll be cut off from the planet's energy reserves.  Even if it does work, though, the humans won't want us sticking around to gloat about it.  They'll still kick us off the planet and we'll have to leave both the Ark and the new base behind."

"Earth is an Autobot territory now, remember?" Trailbreaker said in a light-hearted tone.  "They can't kick us off the planet if we own it."

"That's something else that doesn't make sense," Prowl said.  "Seizing the planet isn't going to engender any sympathy to our cause.  It's only going to alienate the humans even more."

"Do you have an alternative suggestion?" Perceptor asked.

"Well, we shouldn't be burning our bridges, that's for sure," Prowl said.  "Rapido just got here.  He doesn't seem to understand how important the humans are to this struggle."

At the rate they were going, Rapido would manage to cut off the Autobot energy supply and turn the humans against them in no time flat.  Optimus Prime had carefully laid the groundwork for an alliance with the humans, slowly cultivating a relationship over the years that had been built on mutual trust and open communication.  Now, Rapido's actions threatened to throw it all in the dumpster in favor of his own infuriatingly logical agenda.  There had to be a way to accomplish his objectives without plundering the planet like the Autobots were a band of space pirates or something.

Trailbreaker knew that Optimus Prime had left him in charge for a reason.  Admittedly, if he'd had his way he probably continued to work on bolstering the defensive capabilities of the base.  He was a defensive strategist, after all, so it was what he knew best.  As it stood, Trailbreaker felt responsible to defend the status quo.  Rapido didn't realize how vital the human factor was to the survival of the Autobots on Earth.  Without their help, the Autobots would be completely on their own.  Optimus Prime had gone out of his way to gain the respect and trust of the humans--and that was a valuable, intangible, irreplaceable thing.  Even if Prime was gone forever, the Autobots still had a duty to uphold his ideals.

"You know, just because Rapido has given us orders doesn't mean we actually have to obey them," Trailbreaker said.

"Are you actually saying what I think you're saying?" Prowl asked in a hushed whisper.  "Surely you're not suggesting that we mutiny."

"That's such a dirty word in this business," Trailbreaker said.  "I prefer to think of it as... getting very, very dizzy," Trailbreaker said.  At this point, he staggered and fell to the ground.  It was as if his body had simply stopped responding to his mental commands.  He sat up and grinned meekly.  "Could you guys stop the planet?  I'd like to get off now."

"What's the matter?" Prowl asked.

"My gyroscope is going haywire," Trailbreaker said.  "Everything's spinning.  Especially me."

Prowl and Perceptor reached forward and pulled Trailbreaker back to his feet.

"Thanks, guys.  I think I'm feeling better now," Trailbreaker said.  He did a quick diagnostic, and everything came up normal.  One of his circuit boards had probably just popped loose or something.  Stupid substandard parts.  Trailbreaker took a step and immediately staggered backwards in a frenzy of limbs, finally tipping backwards and crushing a stalagmite on the way down.  

"Then again," Trailbreaker said, "maybe not."

The high-pitched sounds of Skram's supercharged engine echoed throughout the cavern as he sped directly towards Prowl and company.  He leaped into the air and transformed, landing on one knee before standing fully upright.  Of course, fully upright for Skram came only halfway up to Prowl's headlights, so Prowl was forced to kneel in order to allow his new supervisor to address him.

"The patrol roster's all finished," Skram said.  "You've got the first watch.  Better get crackin' while the crackin' is good, if ya know what I mean."

"Actually, I haven't got the vaguest notion what that means," Perceptor remarked.

"Zip it, lens face, I wasn't talkin' to you," Skram replied.  "C'mon, Prowl, let's roll out before this death trap collapses on top of itself."

Prowl was hesitant, giving a sidelong glance at Perceptor.

"Perhaps we should finish this conversation at a future date?" Perceptor said.

"Definitely," Prowl said.  "I think we have a lot more to talk about."

***

Modifying the Cyberjets for this energy-gathering mission should have been a low-priority project, barely worthy of Anthrax's personal attention.  Ideally, she would have preferred to conduct the procedure on her homeworld; unlike the dead planet that the earthbound Decepticons called home, the Cybertron she knew as home still had plenty of energy reserves and supplies.  She wondered what kind of reckless campaign Megatron must have staged in order to completely exhaust the resources of his homeworld in only a few short millennia.  Hadn't he realized that the energy reserves of his planet were not infinite?  It was no wonder he'd set up operations on an naturally energy-rich planet such as Earth.  He likely knew it was his only chance to bring Cybertron back from the brink of death.

As it happened, however, the lack of modern technology and the ramshackle equipment aboard the Nemesis II, combined with the general lack of scientific knowledge among the Decepticons staffed there, indicated that Anthrax's immediate supervision was strongly called for.  Even if she'd left them detailed instructions on how to conduct what should have been an extraordinarily simple procedure, she was confident these Decepticons would find a way to completely botch it up.  Well, it was possible Scrapper could have done it, given a brief tutorial on biotechnological implementation.  He seemed a bit more capable than the rest of them, and Anthrax had been pleased to see that he had attended.

"Does anyone know where Soundwave is?" she asked.  He always had a certain level of precision that would have been ideal for this project.

Several of the Constructicons just shrugged, a mix of apathy and disdain in their eyes.

"Thanks anyway," she remarked with a touch of sarcasm.  This was the second time he'd failed to show up for an assembly to which she'd specifically invited him.  Was he avoiding her deliberately?  Scrapper had said something earlier about a special project.  What could he possibly be working on that was so important?  He'd been behaving strangely ever since he had challenged Windrazor for Decepticon leadership and had come in second place.  Of course, the claim to the Decepticon throne hadn't been the only thing he'd lost, Anthrax mused, touching the canopy glass on her abdomen and the aerial cassette warrior she was carrying.  She'd need to return Soundwave's wayward underling to him as soon as she located him, but for now, he would be safe under her care.

"All right," she said to Mixmaster, who was making administrations to Space Case, "that's the basic idea, but do you see how you've still got some loose nerve endings dangling?  You'll want to make sure you connect every one of them to a receptor."

"I got it, I got it, I got it!" Mixmaster spouted angrily.  "I know what I'm doing, just exactly what I'm doing!"

She turned to Scavenger, who was grasping at the organic material with his bare fingers.  Each time he picked it up, it slipped out of his grasp and back into the medical tray.

"This is stupid!" Scavenger exclaimed.  "It's so slimy that you can't even grab it!"

"That's why I provided you with tools," Anthrax explained slowly.  For the love of the Liege, it was like speaking to a neonatron.  "Scoop up the donor material carefully, then place it in the receptacle."  She demonstrated the procedure for Scavenger, though she suspected he'd been feigning ignorance just so she'd end up doing it for him.

Scrapper seemed to have had much better luck with Skyjack.  He'd completed the procedure, but had yet to close and seal Skyjack's cranial chamber.  He stood proudly before his work, awaiting Anthrax's inspection.

"Nice work," Anthrax said.  "At least someone here knows what he's doing."

Long Haul was idling nearby in dump truck mode, carrying the discarded materials from the donor subjects.  He periodically made a noise that made it all too clear just how repulsed he was by his role in this project.  "Are we done yet?" he whined.  "I need to wash this nasty stuff out of my truck bed before it starts oozing into my components!"

"I think we're about ready," Anthrax said.  "Scrapper, please verify that the test subjects survived the transfer."

Scrapper produced a scanning instrument and waved it over the three prone forms of the Cyberjets.  "Organ transplant procedure successful," Scrapper announced.  "All three Decepticons are showing signs of organic life."

"Reactivate them," Anthrax ordered, "and cross your fingers."

Hook deftly ran his hands across medical controls, bringing all three of the Cyberjets back online.

Immediately, warning sirens erupted from the medical instruments.  Anthrax whirled around at the instruments, then at the test subjects.  The Cyberjets looked at one another in horror.  What was going through their minds?

"Excuse me," Anthrax said tersely, butting Hook aside as she frantically attempted to compensate.  She keyed in a sequence to administer sedatives to the organic constituents in an attempt to compensate for their reaction, but she already suspected she was too late.

Readings from the organic donor material escalated to dangerous levels, then went off the scale, and finally flatlined.  All three of the Cyberjets immediately fell back into a syncope, their eyes dimming and heads falling back on the table.  The faint scent of burning flesh permeated the air.  

Anthrax sighed.

"What happened?" Scrapper asked.  "I thought we'd done everything as you instructed."

"It's not... it wasn't you, Scrapper," Anthrax said with a shrug.  "This happens sometimes with donor subjects.  The transfer is such a shock to their systems that they aren't able to--"

Anthrax whirled as the doors to the medical bay slid open.

"Windrazor!" she exclaimed.  "Forgive me, Commander, but this is a sterile environment.  You shouldn't be here."

"I won't be touching any of your disgusting experiments, I assure you," Windrazor replied with a dismissive gesture.  "The very notion of integrating organic matter into Decepticon bodies is utterly repugnant.  Now, report on your progress."

"I'm afraid the first transfer procedure was not successful," Anthrax said.

"I was under the impression you already had some idea how to modify Decepticons to harvest plasma energy," Windrazor said.

"I do, Commander," Anthrax replied.  "The Cyberjets are made of plastoid alloys that can withstand the intense heat of the Sun, and the presence of living organic material in their systems counteracts the effects of the plasma energy and prevents their circuitry from hitting overload."

"So what's the problem?" Windrazor demanded.

"At a guess, incorporating the human brains into Decepticon bodies caused the human brains to go into shock," Anthrax said.  "I'm afraid it's due to the reputation of the Decepticon race in the eyes of the humans.  They're so terrified of us that they can't cope with actually being fused with us."

"Then remove the brain from the equation," Windrazor said.

"I've tried that before," Anthrax said, "and I've never gotten it to work.  The organic flesh needs some kind of central nervous system to maintain and regulate it.  It's the only way to keep the living tissue alive."

"What about using other species?" Windrazor said.

"The lower we go on the evolutionary scale, the less like Decepticons the Cyberjets will become.  We could try to find another compatible organism with some level of intelligence--perhaps another primate--but without an advanced capability for language and reasoning, the Cyberjets will become so animalistic that they might not even be able to understand our commands, let alone be able to carry out this mission."

"What are our options?" Windrazor demanded.

Anthrax was at a loss.  The Decepticons on Earth had done such a good job of terrorizing the human populace that there probably wasn't a single test subject left alive who wasn't already aware of the Decepticons' presence on the planet.  No thinking, rational human being would ever willingly cooperate with the Decepticon goals of eradicating humanity, let alone voluntarily integrate his brain into that of a Decepticon body.  It was no wonder the fighter pilots had immediately gone into cardiac arrest.  First they'd watched as the Cyberjets had massacred their squadron; then they woke up inside the bodies of the robotic murderers.  It was like their worst nightmare come true.

"I think I might have an idea," Scrapper said.

Windrazor turned to the like-sized Constructicon.  "Let's hear it," he said.

"There are some humans who have had prior dealings with the Decepticons," Scrapper said.  "Perhaps those who have cooperated with us in the past would be more receptive to the idea of a full cerebral integration."

"That's an interesting idea, Scrapper," Anthrax mused.  It had never occurred to her that there might be humans who would choose to cooperate with the Decepticons on a voluntary basis.  It was reasonable that if they were psychologically prepared for the notion of having their cerebellum extracted and transplanted into a Decepticon, they would be less likely to reject the transfer procedure.  There was no way to proceed with this mission without incorporating organic tissue into the Cyberjets, and Anthrax could think of no other alternatives.  What kind of despicable person would actualy be willing to sign on with a force of mechanical aliens devoted to the eradication of their own species, though?

"Anthrax, I want you and Scrapper to search the computer files," Windrazor said.  "Look for any humans who have cooperated with the Decepticons, and select the three most likely candidates.  Send a recovery team to locate them and capture them and bring them to me."

"At once, Commander," Anthrax said.

"Anthrax," Windrazor said, "my patience grows thin.  Your first experiment may have been a failure, but the second one must not be.  Do you understand?"

"I'll see to it personally," Anthrax said.  "Come on, Scrapper," she said, motioning to the lift.

"You know," Scrapper said as they walked, "the Constructicons aren't really the best technicians suited for the fusion of organic matter to Decepticon circuitry.  They're all skilled builders--don't get me wrong--but biotechnological surgery just isn't their field of expertise."

"Do you have an alternative suggestion?" Anthrax asked.

"Possibly," Scrapper said.  "I heard Starscream talking about somebody he worked with once who was decidedly more skilled at the fusion of organic and mechanical components.  I don't even know if he's still alive, but I think it's worth trying to track him down."

"Sounds good to me," Anthrax said.  She noticed that Scrapper was looking at her with what might have been an inquisitive expression.  It was difficult to tell.

"I"m curious about your decision to incorporate organic constituents into the bodies of these Decepticons," Scrapper said as the lift doors closed behind them.  "It's certainly a counter-intuitive approach.  Not exactly standard operating procedure."

"I recognize that it's a tad unorthodox," Anthrax admitted, "and I know that a lot of Decepticons find the prospect utterly revolting.  There are numerous advantages to adopting cyber-organic technology, though."

"I can't imagine what," Scrapper said dismissively.

"Decepticons are largely limited by their programming," Anthrax said.  "Build a robot and program him to be a warrior, and he's going to be a warrior for the rest of his function cycle.  Try to teach him something else later on, like how to be scientist or an engineer, and it just never sticks, no matter how much cross-training you implement.  You can bog down their processors with subroutines or shell programs that reroute that robot's primary function, but it doesn't change their basic nature."

"I suppose I have noticed that some Decepticons tend to be a little single-minded," Scrapper said.

"It's just the way we're built.  You can't circumvent it.  Introduce an organic element, though, and you create the capacity for change.  An organic cellular structure has the ability to adapt, to rewrite itself, to evolve.  The Decepticons of my planet discovered long ago that the introduction of an organic element dramatically enhances creative thinking and adaptation to new environments.  Our Decepti-Traan units back home have been outfitted with protein-silicon computer brains that enable them to function well beyond their original mission programming."

Anthrax stopped.  It wasn't like her to be this talkative, and it took her by surprise.  She shouldn't have revealed so much, particularly to a Decepticon who had been under the command of Megatron.  She had no idea how trustworthy Scrapper was or how likely he was to try to use information he learned against her at a later date.  If he were to discover the true nature of her mission, he would likely not be anywhere near as friendly as he'd been to her.

They continued their ride aboard the lift in silence.

***

 Chapter 67: Mind Games

"Warning," Teletraan announced.  "Decepticon activity detected within close proximity to Autobot Headquarters."  The computer seemed blissfully unconcerned that it was addressing an empty room; the former occupant had left the control room almost five minutes previously to investigate the Decepticon presence he himself had detected outside.

Hubcap stood outside the front entrance to the volcano base, shielding his optic sensors as he peered into the sky.  Up above, two familiar-shaped craft were engaged in some kind of airborne skirmish.  One of them was clearly Starscream; the profile and colors were unmistakable, even from this distance.  The other seemed to be Decepticon in origin, but the purple-and-black color scheme was unfamiliar to Hubcap, and the fact that it appeared to be chasing Starscream hinted at a possible alternate allegiance.  Was it that female Decepticon he'd tangled with earlier?  She might have been cloaked in some kind of stealth armor; Hubcap had only detected one Decepticon at first, and that was only because he had recognized the carrier wave distortion created by an airborne craft.  Just as light bends around objects, so did sound, and Hubcap had learned to recognize the cadence of transmissions that were distorted as a result of large, metallic objects interrupting their transmission path.  While this wasn't recognized as a formal science as such, Hubcap had occasionally found this methodology to be quite useful nonetheless.

The foreign maybe-Decepticon was matching Starscream's speed and maneuverability, and old Screamer seemed to be having a hard time shaking his pursuer.  His cockpit glass had already been smashed, so at first glance, his attacker clearly meant business.  At the same time, though, the pursuing jet only occasionally fired off a perfunctory laser bolt; overall the chase seemed to be more playful than aggressive.  The whole scenario struck Hubcap as suspicious.  Decepticons were rarely up to whatever they appeared to be up to, and it seemed more likely than not that this incursion was not what it appeared to be.  A diversion, perhaps, intended to distract the Autobots from some ulterior goal.  Hubcap considered himself far more clever than most of the other Autobots, however, and he would not be deceived by such a blatantly transparent ploy.

The screeching sound that invaded Hubcap's auditory systems was so invasive that he instinctively reached for the headset that he occasionally wore during field work so that he could rip it off his head.  He quickly realized that the sound was, in fact, coming directly from his internal communications array.  

Hubcap now recognized the scratchy, petulant whine as... the voice of Starscream.  "Autobots, help me!" he was saying.  "I'm under attack!  I offer my surrender in exchange for amnesty!  Please, help me!"

"You will not escape, Starscream!" his pursuer promised.  "First, you orchestrate the removal of Megatron, and now you try to dethrone Windrazor by offering the Autobots the secret of the synergon!  Your disloyalty to the leaders of the Decepticons ends here!"  

His attacker, apparently a disgruntled Decepticon patriot, launched a salvo of missiles in Starscream's direction.  Starscream evaded them easily with a barrel roll, but his engines sputtered and coughed and he fell into an uncontrolled descent.  

Hubcap's curiosity was piqued.  Was Starscream really going to share the secret of this new power source with the Autobots?  Starscream's reputation as a backstabbing tratior was well known, but even he should have recognized the intrinsic value in a power source of this alleged magnitude.  For him to willingly hand over such a significant Decepticon advantage over the Autobots would mean that whatever value he saw in such a maneuver outweighed his loyalty to the Decepticon cause itself.  Even if this were some kind of a trap, it was worth playing into his hands for the moment, if only to confirm Hubcap's suspicions that this was some kind of elaborate ruse.

Finally, the hidden panels within the surface of the volcano slid back and the laser batteries lazily deployed.  The new base defenses had been designed to activate as soon as the early defense systems detected a potential threat, but as with all things Teletraan these days, the response was decidedly slow in coming.  Well, better late than never, Hubcap supposed.  Circumventing the voice command controls that were routed through Teletraan, Hubcap opened a channel to interface directly with the base defense system.  He targeted Starscream and gave the command to fire.

"Wait--no!" Starscream shrieked as he was pelted with laser fire, still continuing his inexorable plummet towards terra firma.  "I surrendered, you fools!  Doesn't the Cybertron Wartime Act mean anything to you idiots?!"  He effected a conversion to robot form, using his wings like a hangglider to try to wrest control over his descent.  He tumbled with a remarkable lack of grace into the ground, but managed to recover quickly, directing his arm cannons up in the sky towards his attacker with a swift determination that suggested he was trying really hard to make it look like this was precisely what he'd meant to do all along.

The other Decepticon did not give chase, opting instead to rocket off into the stratosphere.  Hubcap thought the configuration looked familiar, possibly similar to one of those jet warriors with the conehead-shaped helmets.  It was hard to tell.  All those Decepticon jets looked alike to him.

More importantly, though, Starscream had demonstrated to Hubcap's satisfaction that he wasn't just pretending.  He really had been disabled, and he really had crashed.  

"Consider yerself a prisoner of war!" Hubcap growled.  He wished that he owned a weapon that he could be pointing at Starscream at this particular moment, since it did tend to facilitate enemy capture when he was actually armed, but thankfully Starscream seemed too preoccupied to notice that Hubcap wasn't any kind of physical threat to him.

"Please, you've got to protect me from the Decepticons!" Starscream pled, crawling towards Hubcap on his knees and clutching his hands together.  Hubcap tried to ignore the fact that even on his knees, Starscream still towered over him by a considerable margin.  "Grant me sanctuary and I'll do anything in exchange!  I swear it!"

"Why are the Connies after ye in the first place?" Hubcap demanded.  He had a feeling he already knew the answer.

"Windrazor caught me stealing the synergon formula!" Starscream admitted, cupping his hand to his mouth as if the Decepticons might still be able to hear him from this distance.  "That formula should have been mine in the first place!  I was the one who dethroned Megatron, so the leadership of the Decepticons should belong solely to me!"

"D'ya really think I give a flying wingnut about yer bloody career advancement, Connie?" Hubcap asked.  "Get real!"

"Then let's talk about something of interest to you," Starscream said.  He tried to wrap his arm around Hubcap's shoulder, assessed the icy glare on Hubcap's orange face, then thought better of it.  "This is the dawn of a new age.  Synergon is going to completely replace energon.  It's the most super-concentrated form of fuel ever devised by Decepticon science.  It will give you more strength, make your weapons more deadly, and best of all, you can run on a single synergon cube for months!  No more constant energy raids, and no more having to depend on the flesh creatures to supply us with power!"

"Even if I believed ye," Hubcap said, "what possible reason would ye have to just hand me this gift on a silver drip pan?"

"Because I want to see Windrazor fail!" Starscream proclaimed.  "Besides, if the Autobots have the synergon, then the playing field will be level, and we Decepticons will have no further use for that interfering little tart, Anthrax!  Then, there will be no one to oppose me, and I will at long last become the rightful ruler!  It really is a win-win situation, you know.  I get to wear the crown, and you'll be hailed a hero for bringing this new energy source to your leader!  

"Aye," Hubcap said with a glimmer in his eye.  "The leader of the Autobots should have this new energy source."

"So, what do you say... friend?"

Hubcap profferred his hand for a handshake.  He couldn't help but be a little pleased with himself.  After all, it wasn't every day that you managed to con a Decepticon.

***

To say that Wheeljack launched through the desert would be an understatement.  As one of the few Autobots capable of flight in robot mode, using the solid-fuel rockets in his arms, Wheeljack had once postulated that he should have been able to modify the rockets to grant him a significant increase in speed as a vehicle.  In fact, during his first experiment he had reached such a velocity that he had lifted off the ground several inches and eventually careened into a cactus.  He had since reconfigured his vehicular form so that his wings deployed when he extended his rockets, thus enabling him to better control his direction and speed.  The open terrain was desolate and expansive, the tremendous dust cloud trailing behind him only serving to emphasis the emptiness of this dry and barren wasteland.

"You just broke the three-hundred mile per hour mark," Sparkplug reported, sitting in the driver's seat and peering over the steering wheel for a good look at Wheeljack's spedometer.

"Heh heh," Wheeljack snickered.  "I should really give those Stunticons a run for their money some time.  Especially Motormaster..."

"Are you picking up any Decepticons yet, Spike?" Sparkplug asked.  His son was sitting next to him, wearing the experimental exo-suit that Wheeljack had designed for him.  Spike fidgeted uncomfortably.  It was a little crowded in the canopy, since the oversized robotic suit was about the same height as a very small Autobot, but he'd been itching to try out the invention under real-life combat conditions.  There was only so much he could learn in training scenarios, after all.  He tapped a control on the suit's arm, which called up a visual display of the immediate topography.  Superimposed on top of that were a set of small symbols shaped like crosshairs, moving rapidly across the display.

"I'm showing three Decepticons moving south-southeast towards the coast," Spike reported.  He had access to so much tracking information that it was almost impossible to absorb it all.  "Do you think they know we're following them?  If they make it to the coast line, we'll lose them for sure."

"If Hubcap's right about this new energy source they've got," Wheeljack said, "then we can't let that happen.  I'm gonna pour it on!"  The accelleration was abrupt and sudden; Spike's exo-suit was thrown back into the seat, and Spike was thrown back into his exo-suit.  The whine of Wheeljack's motor had taken on the cadence of a jet engine, and they were traveling at such speeds that Spike had to swallow several times to dispose of the saliva rapidly accumulating in the back of his throat.

Energon had been the primary power source for the Transformers for as long as anyone could remember, from what Spike understood.  It was energy in its purest form, one which created no waste or pollution, and was hundreds of times more efficient than conventional Earth fuels.  If the Decepticons had stumbled upon a source of power that would replace energon completely, it would totally change the face of the war.  It would be the biggest strategic advantage since the ability to transform.  Carly, of all people, had to know what was at stake here.  This was bigger than just her and Spike; why couldn't she see that?  She could be so stubborn sometimes.

"What's the matter, Spike?" asked Sparkplug.  The elder Witwicky peered inquisitively at his son, crow's nests framing his brown eyes.

Spike shrugged, his exo-suit exaggerating what was intended as a subtle response.  Spike didn't think he'd been giving off any signals that anything was amiss, but his father knew him very well, and if anyone was able to detect when something was bothering Spike, it was his dad.  He'd obviously picked up on some nonverbal cue, even through the egg-shaped glass dome of the exo-suit.

"It's Carly," Spike replied.  "We keep having the same exact fight over and over again.  It's like she wants me to give up on the Autobots completely.  She just doesn't understand how important this is."

"I'll tell you one thing, Spike," Sparkplug replied after a moment of contemplation.  "When you fight with the person you love, it always seems like the most important thing in the world at the time.  You know you're right, you know she's wrong, and that's all there is to it.  Somehow, though, looking back at the things that your mother and I used to fight about... well, they just don't seem that important now."

"That's completely different, though," Spike said.  "You and mom fought about money and your job at the mines and whose turn it was to do the dishes."

"It's not what the argument is about that really matters," Sparkplug said.  "It's the reason you're arguing in the first place.  Just remember this, son.  Sometimes you try so hard to win the fight that you forget why you were even fighting in the first place.  Even if you come out on top, you lose a little piece of yourself each time.  The cost of victory is too high, because nobody ever wins.  Not really."

"I guess you're right," Spike said.

"That's good advice for all of us, Sparkplug," chimed in Wheeljack.  Spike thought about it for a moment, and he realized Sparkplug's advice on domestic relationships could also apply on a much grander scale.

"Look!  I see them!" Sparkplug reported, shielding his eyes for a better view as he wiped the sweat from his forehead into his silver hair.  "They're pretty small for Decepticons.  Looks more like the Insecticons!"

"That's odd," Spike remarked.  "Why would the Decepticons entrust such a vital mission to those bug brains?"  The Insecticons had something of a reputation as mercenaries, acting more like hired guns for the Decepticon army than legitimate members of the team.  More than once, Megatron had employed them only long enough to get them to eat something of importance and had then attempted to exterminate them.  If this energy secret was as important as Hubcap claimed, trusting the Insecticons to deliver it didn't make much sense.

"I can only maintain this speed for another minute or two," Wheeljack reported.  "After that, I'm dropping back."

"I left Hubcap back at the base," Sparkplug said.  "He should still be monitoring the Insecticon flight path."

"I'll go up and get their attention," Spike said.  "Get in touch with Hubcap and tell him we're going to need reinforcements.  Now, launch me!"

"Prepare for ejection!" Wheeljack said.  His upper hatch immediately slid open, buffeting the canopy with high-velocity winds, and an instant later, Spike was airborne.  The boosters in the boots of the exo-suit ignited, propelling Spike into the sky towards the three Insecticons.  As he approached, he could hear the Insecticons communicating to one another over the Decepticon frequency.

"The Autobots send one lowly human to stop us?" Bombshell balked.

"Do you think he wants to play, or does he just have a death wish?" chimed in Kickback.

"He'd barely make a bite-sized snack, snack," added Shrapnel, evidently still suffering from the same old syntax malfunction.

Spike activated his arm-mounted laser blasters and fired a warning shot into the Insecticon group, forcing them to break formation and veer away in opposite directions.  Spike targeted the closest of the three and fired several more shots at Kickback, but his aerial maneuverability enabled him to evade every shot.

It was then that Spike noticed that the cloud cover above him was buzzing.

One by one, dozens of Insecticon clones descended through the dark storm clouds, identical in size and appearance to the three living Insecticons, making the sound of metal scraping against metal with their mechanical mandibles as they converged around Spike.  Before he knew it, the swarm had completely surrounded him.  The Insecticons had obviously been anticipating a possible encounter, and this was their insurance policy.  Far ahead, the crooked antennae jutting from Shrapnel's insect mode occasionally sparked as he relayed orders to his mindless creations.  Wheeljack probably had a good chance of taking down three Insecticons—but not an entire Insecticon army.

"Send in the clones, clones!" Shrapnel chanted with hysterical glee.

"Wheeljack," Spike said over the communicator, "can you disrupt Shrapnel's control over them?"

"Not from here, I'm afraid," Wheeljack said from down below, still rocketing along the desert sand.  "Maybe you can, though.  Spike, your exo-suit has a built-in sawblade.  Use it to cut those ugly bugs down to size!"

"Be careful, Spike!" Sparkplug admonished over Wheeljack's communicator.

"Spike," Wheeljack added, "I sent a message to Autobot Headquarters, but I'm not getting any response.  Either Hubcap's not there, or he's not replying to my distress signal for some reason."

"He'd better have a damn good reason for it," Spike muttered under his breath.  Well, there was no point in worrying about things he had no control over.  He changed course and headed directly for Shrapnel, who was now in the lead of the Insecticon army.  Two black-and-purple grasshopper clones closed in on Spike from behind, who responded by pouring on his boot rockets, immersing the clones in a cloud of exhaust.

"Insecticons always triumph, triumph!" Shrapnel bellowed.

"I've already seen that episode, Shrapnel," Spike said, lunging forward and grabbing hold of Shrapnel.  "Don't you ever get tired of reruns?"

His hands never touched the Insecticon at all; the arms of the exo-suit served as extensions of his own, with a significantly longer reach and more powerful grasp, all operated by a pair of control grips within the robotic arms.  The robotic arms of the exo-suit responded to his commands immediately, wrapping tightly around the silver antennae of the Insecticon leader and compelling Shrapnel to let out an ear-piercing scream of protest.

"How dare you touch me, me?!" he shrieked.  "For trying to interrupt my transmissions, I will grind your bones into dust with my teeth, teeth!"

"Your show is about to get pre-empted!" Spike promised, grasping at the twin antennae and trying to pry one of them loose.  The exo-suit afforded him significantly greater strength than any normal human, though not nearly as much as a good-sized Transformer, and he was having difficulty pulling Shrapnel's transmitter antenna loose.  Shrapnel's flight became jerky and erratic, but Spike hung tight.  He activated his buzzsaw blade, boring into Shrapnel's armor with a satisfying high-pitched grinding sound.

"Stop him, you fools, fools!" Shrapnel commanded.  "Help me, me!"

"Looks like you've got a monkey on your back," Kickback quipped, swooping down so that he was matching Shrapnel's speed and relative position.  "I guess I'd better help you... kick the habit!  Nyaah haah!"  With that, Kickback's rearmost pair of legs made contact with Spike, knocking him cleanly off of Shrapnel.  He attempted to ignite his retro-rockets, but instead of an acknowledgement of his command, his display indicated several warnings that scrolled by too quickly for Spike to digest.  He had a feeling he already knew what they said, though, if his rapid, uncontrolled descent towards the Earth was any indication.

"Spike!" Sparkplug screamed in vain.

Plummeting steadily, Spike tried several more times to activate his retro-rockets to slow his descent.  He considered ejecting from the exo-suit, but he quickly dismissed that notion when he realized that his chances of survival when he hit the ground were about the same, with or without the suit.  He thought of Carly and Daniel, and his father's words came to the forefront of his mind.  His dad was right.  Suddenly, everything he'd been fighting about with Carly really didn't seem that important.

Suddenly, Spike remembered that his buzzsaw blade was still extended.  Thinking quickly, he reached around and sank the spinning blade into the left arm of his own exo-suit, eating away at the flexible hose.  He felt no pain, but he instinctively shut his eyes and gritted his teeth as he felt the vibrations from the blade, which made a high-pitched whine as it penetrated the metal armor.  Air from the pressurized suit immediately billowed through the breach in his armor, the force of the compressed oxygen causing Spike to begin spinning in mid-air.  As he hit the ground in a tremendous cloud of crystalline dust, what would have been a dead-on impact had instead become more of an uncontrolled tumble.  The air being forced from the breach in his suit acted as a thruster of sorts, propelling him into a sideways tumble across the hot desert landscape.

After what seemed like forever, he finally came to rest several hundred yards from where he had fallen.  His head was spinning and he felt like he was about to revisit what he'd eaten for breakfast, but the important thing was that he was, remarkably, still alive.  Maybe being a Witwicky really did mean he was indestructible.

Looking around him, it looked as if he'd been at least partially successful in disrupting Shrapnel's control of the Insecticon clones.  Dozens of them were laying belly-up in the sand, motionless save the occasional twitch, though a few of them still remained airborne.  Spike didn't pretend to understand how Shrapnel's control over them worked or why only some of them had been affected, but he didn't have time to ponder it at the moment.  Far up ahead, it looked as though Bombshell had landed and was confronting Wheeljack and Sparkplug.  Ignoring the danger warnings flashing on his heads-up display, no doubt trying to tell him about the self-inflicted damages to his robotic arm, Spike ran towards them as quickly as the exo-suit's legs could carry him.

"It's about time somebody called the exterminator," Wheeljack quipped, readying his shoulder-mounted cannon as Bombshell approached with a handful of clones in tow.  "This whole place needs to get sprayed for roaches!"

Sparkplug stood nearby, looking ready to help but woefully outclassed compared to the two larger, much more heavily-armed combatants.

"Always with the bug jokes," Bombshell grumbled, extending his hand as if to wipe clean the insult from his presence.  "Do you know how old that gets after a while, Autobot?  I didn't pick this transformation for myself, you know.  What I wouldn't give sometimes to turn into a helicopter or a tank a big, purple space jet!"

"I'll be sure to relay that to somebody who cares, beetle-breath," Wheeljack said.  "Now, get ready to get squashed!"

"I've got a better idea," Bombshell said, transforming to insect mode and charging Wheeljack.  It looked like Wheeljack had been completely unprepared for this tactic, as the impact knocked him backwards into the waiting clutches of two more Insecticon clones.  They wrapped their insectoid legs around his arms as he struggled, giving Bombshell time to maneuver back around.  He sauntered up and straddled Wheeljack's upper torso in an almost perverted manner, his insect legs scraping against the front of the Autobot's chest, until his front stinger was mere inches away from Wheeljack's helmet.

"Get off of him, you ugly box of bolts!" Sparkplug yelled.  He ran towards Wheeljack, but stopped suddenly as Shrapnel appeared, landing before Sparkplug with a tremendous thud, the impact kicking up a huge cloud of particles around him.

"Your human friend disrupted my electronic clone control, control!" Shrapnel scowled.  "And now you will pay the utimate price, price!" he promised.

"Now we'll see who's going to exterminate who!" Bombshell said, cackling hysterically as he pressed his stinger tightly up against Wheeljack's forehead and fired, launching a tiny metal pellet deep into Wheeljack's head.

"Release him!" Bombshell commanded, and the two Insecticon clones chittered and scurried away, leaving Wheeljack laying motionless in the sand.

Spike didn't really know that much about Bombshell and his cerebro-shells.  He'd overheard Ratchet saying something once about how they supposedly gave Bombshell the ability to control robots in the same manner he controlled the Insecticon clones, but he'd never seen one of the Autobots actually affected by one before.  Ratchet had extracted cerebro-shells from Autobots in the past, so Spike knew the prodecure was reversible.  Mirage had suffered no ill effects, from what he'd heard, so obviously Bombshell's control was temporary, at best.  The trick, then, was to break Bombshell's control over Wheeljack long enough to get him back to the base.

"You belong to me now, Autobot slave!" Bombshell proclaimed.  "Now, stand up and declare your allegiance to me!"

Wheeljack struggled to rise to his feet, still disoriented from the effects of Bombshell's assault on his mind.  His movements were jerky as he raised his fist and then drew it towards his chest in a ceremonial salute.  "I... am yours... to command... Insecticon... master!"

"Aaah ha haa!" Bombshell cackled in delight.  "Who's the butt of the jokes now, Autobot?  You think squashing bugs is funny?  I'll show you something really hysterical!"

"Wheeljack, you've got to fight it!" Sparkplug said, trying and failing to maneuver around Shrapnel's legs.

"Sparkplug..." Wheeljack said, his voice strained, as if he were learning to speak for the first time.  "Cerebro... shell... reprogram...ming... my cir...cuits..."

"Wheeljack, don't let him win!"  Sparkplug shouted.  "Listen to me!  You can break free of the Decepticon's control!  It's just like the hypno-chips they used on me!  Be strong, and I know you can overcome it!"

"You ridiculous puddle of protoplasm!" Bomshell balked.  "You have no idea what you're talking about!  Cerebro-shells are the most sophisticated form of mind control known to Decepticon science!  I'm not just circumventing your free will--I'm inside your brain!  Now, allow me to demonstrate what happens to anyone who crosses the Insecticons!  Autobot slave, grab the human!  Don't let him escape!"

Wheeljack lunged forward.  Sparkplug turned and ran, but he only managed to take three steps before Wheeljack swung his left palm and scooped Sparkplug up.  He extended to his full height, Sparkplug tugging and pushing against Wheeljack's fingers with futility.

"Now, I want you to crush him!" Bombshell commanded.  "Do it slowly... make him suffer!"

"No, Wheeljack!" Sparkplug protested.  "You're an Autobot!  Don't do it!"

"Spark... plug..." Wheeljack said, his words choppy and forced.  "I... can't... re...sist!  Stop... me... be...fore...!"

Sparkplug screamed as Wheeljack's grip tightened around him.  If there were any trace of Wheeljack's consciousness remaining, no sign of it came through in his eyes as he attempted to crush the life out of Sparkplug Witwicky.

The blast ripped through the front of Wheeljack's helmet and out the back of his head, stopping him dead in his tracks.  Reflexively, his grip loosened and Sparkplug slipped out of his grasp, tumbling to the ground.  Almost imperceptibly, Wheeljack's head turned in Spike's direction, who was still pointing the arm of his exo-suit directly at Wheeljack.  A thin wisp of smoke training from the laser blaster at the end of his arm.  Weakly, Wheeljack managed a thumbs-up gesture before he, too, collapsed.

"My slaaaave!" Bombshell gasped, clutching at his helmet in agony.  "You stupid human, look what you've done!"

It was a necessary sacrifice, Spike told himself.  He'd had no choice.  Surely the damages to Wheeljack weren't permanent; he'd selected the finest, most narrow-yield setting available to him--just enough to destroy the cerebro-shell and interrupt whatever hold Bombshell had over Wheeljack's mind.  He prayed that Ratchet could undo what Spike had been forced to do.  Unfortunately, there was no opportunity now to dwell on what he'd done.

Taking hastened strides, his arms outstretched and poised to kill, Bombshell advanced on Spike.  Spike had been hoping that the destruction of the cerebro-shell would immobilize Bombshell, but the villainous Insecticons seemed more upset over the loss of his new toy than anything else.  With a quick manipulation of the controls on his hand grips, Spike readied the exo-suit for another laser blast, but the gun barrel did nothing but sputter.  Another warning popped up on his display, indicating he had drained too much of his internal battery power for such an expenditure.

Even within the exo-suit, Spike was still significantly smaller than his Insecticon foe, and the blow from Bombshell's fist was sufficient to not only knock Spike off his feet, but to crack the egg-shaped dome above his head.  Spike quickly scrambled to his feet, only to be hit from another even more powerful blow, this one from behind.  The impact from Kickback threw Spike into the scorching sand, knocking the wind from his lungs.  He shut his eyes reflexively as he felt the warm, oozing fluid trickling down his forehead.  He withdrew his left arm from the exo-suit controls, slipping it out of the flexible armor and rubbed his eyes, wiping his hand in his hair.  He tasted blood, and was briefly reminded of the Arctic battle and the brave, final actions of Optimus Prime.

"You have interfered with the affairs of the Insecticons one too many times, fleshling!" Bombshell announced.

"Like delivering your precious energy formula to the Decepticons?" Spike said.  "How many times are you guys going to fall for the same old trick, anyway?  Don't you know the Decepticons will just give you the boot as soon as they get what they want from you?  You guys do all the work, and the Decepticons get all the energy.  It's like clockwork."

"You must have hit him pretty hard," Kickback said to Bombshell, tilting his head to indicate Spike, the antenna mounted on his head bobbling slightly in an almost comical fashion.  "What is he talking about?"

"Come off it, Kickback," Spike persisted.  "We know all about the new type of energon the Decepticons have discovered.  That's why you're in such a hurry to get to their underwater base!"

"Wrong!  For your information, stupid flesh creature," Bombshell said, with a particularly strong emphasis on the word stupid, "the Decepticons have invited us back to their camp to indoctrinate us into their ranks as full members of the Decepticon Empire!"

"You see?" Kickback said, puffing up his chest proudly.  "Poor, misguided fleshling.  It seems you chased us all the way out here for nothing!"

Spike briefly recalled just where he'd gotten his information from, and he began to wonder just how trustworthy the source of that information really was.  Was Hubcap somehow mistaken, or had he deliberately sent Spike on a fool's errand?  Why would Hubcap do such a thing?  Didn't he know he had led Spike right into the path of the Insecticons?

"We wouldn't want you to leave empty-handed, though," Kickback continued, "so here's a parting gift!"  With that, he ran towards Spike and swiftly punted him like a football.  Spike was momentarily airborne until he fell directly on his head, shattering the glass canopy of the exo-suit.  The climate-controlled interior of the exo-suit was invaded by the harsh, dry desert winds, and when Spike gritted his teeth he felt coarse sand between them.  He turned his head and expectorated, a mixture of saliva and blood dripping down the interior of his exo-suit.  Spike suspected the exo-suit wouldn't be able to take much more of this abuse, to say nothing of how much more he'd be able to endure himself.  He looked around and wondered how his father was faring, but the exo-suit's detectors were off-line, and he didn't have a clear vantage point of the rest of the battlefield.

"Dad?" he said, peering about as best as he was able to.  Behind him, he could still see the prone form of Wheeljack, and Shrapnel was in insect mode not too far away making incessant grinding sounds with his mandibles, but he didn't see his father anywhere.

"Dad!" he exclaimed.  The desert expanse was vast in all directions; there was no way he could have ran far enough away to disappear from view.  Not on those legs, and not in this heat.  He had to be here somewhere, but where?

It was at that moment that Spike turned his attention to Shrapnel, who was in insect mode and making some kind of an undulating motion with his robotic jaws.  He was making a sickening crunching sound, as if he were grinding down on something.  Had he gotten a mouthful of sand?  Was he eating rocks?

Crimson fluid oozed from Shrapnel's mandibles as he made a satisfied sound.  Howm, howm.

An impossible realization swept over Spike.  He tried to shout, but no words came out.  All he could do was stare in disbelief at the Decepticon as he calmly finished his meal.  

"At long last," Shrapnel crooned, "the most important human ally to the Autobots is no more, more!"  He stood up proudly on his spindly little insect legs before turning his head and spitting something onto the sand.  It was white and cylindrical and irregular in shape, and it was only after it fell to the ground, still tinged with crimson and covered in teeth marks, that Spike recognized it as a femur bone.

"No flesh creature stands up to the Insecticons!" Shrapnel proclaimed.  "This day will live in infamy, and we emerge triumphant!  I, Shrapnel, shall be extolled as a Decepticon hero, hero!"

Spike would never have a perfectly clear recollection of the events that followed.  He was, presumably, too consumed with rage to have been fully cognizent of his actions.  He wasn't entirely clear on where he'd found the boulder, or how he'd managed to get his damaged exo-suit to carry such an enormous weight without collapsing under the strain.  He didn't know how or why he'd missed Shrapnel as a target, instead bringing the weight of the massive boulder down on Bombshell and crushing his head-mounted control apparatus as the Insecticon crumpled to the ground uselessly.  He didn't really remember seeing Kickback scoop up his fallen comrade as the Insecticons fled the scene, though this was obviously what had happened.  He also had no recollection of making contact with Powerglide and arranging for him to pick up and transport Spike and Wheeljack back to Autobot Headquarters, but he must have managed it somehow.  

The only thing he really remembered with any degree of clarity was watching as Powerglide's blood-red form made its taxi across the barren desert landscape, and the feeling of enormous guilt and regret and sadness that there was nothing left of his father to even bury.

END OF BOOK SIX

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