The Fallen Star

by Robert A. Jung (rjung@netcom.com)

   Standard Copyright Information:
   THE FALLEN STAR
   Copyright 1994, Robert A. Jung
   
   All characters depicted or mentioned in this story are the trademarks
   and/or copyrights of their respective holders, except for those that
   aren't. Any resemblance to actual people, alive or deceased, is
   coincidental, etc., etc. Geez, it's just a story, guys. Don't get too
   uptight over it...


Somewhere on Cybertron, the astronomer slowly scans the sky, his telescope
moving in the same careful pattern that it followed countless times before.
With each advance of the lens, he notes everything that he can see: the steady
beat of a distant pulsar, the long, icy trails of comets, and the rare planets
and moons.  He never grows tired of this, as Cybertron's journey through space
gives him an ever-changing spectacle to study and enjoy.

This night, however, is different.  In the seventeenth quadrant, one object
takes precedence over the pulsars and the comets and the planets.  Its sight
surprises him; he looks away for a moment in disbelief, but it is still there.
Not a dream, not an illusion.

Moving with anxious speed, he walks to the nearby computer.  Spidery metal
fingers dance across the keyboard, and almost immediately, the hologram
confirms his suspicions.

With another keypress, the display disappears.  The telescope will go
untouched this day; preparations have to be made.

                                     * * *

Ultra Magnus watched the display disappear, shrinking to a white dot that
quickly faded away.  Another "week" had passed on Earth, and another all-too-
brief coordinating session with Optimus Prime was over.  Magnus reported that
the next contingent of Autobots would be ready for Earth duty in twenty
Cybertronian days, as scheduled, after briefings in human culture.  Prime's
status was quiet by comparison; Megatron has been inactive lately, which was
cause enough for worry.  The two ended with a few friendly words, then agreed
to a time for the next meeting.

Magnus stood slowly, then walked out of the comm center.  He still felt a
surge of heady relief whenever he saw Optimus Prime.  Everyone on Cybertron
thought all were lost when the Ark crashed several thousand vorns ago, so the
revival of Optimus and the others was a stunning surprise.  Prime's return had
special value for Magnus, who always saw him as both an inspiration and a role
model.

Even with his recent promotion as head of the Cybertronian Autobots, Magnus
still found himself second-guessing his decisions regularly.  When Optimus
"returned", Magnus had half-hoped that he would resume as military leader, but
the Council had agreed that he would be better off protecting Earth from
Megatron's schemes.  Outvoted, Ultra Magnus silently accepted his role, an act
that some undoubtedly mistook for modesty.

Deep in thought, Magnus almost crashed into the Autobot that darted out of the
repair bay.  "Oh!--  Tracks, is that you?"

"That's right, Magnus," he preened.  "What do you think?  It's my new Earth
mode!  Grapple and First Aid just finished it!"

Before Magnus could answer, Tracks twisted and transformed into a strange blue
vehicle.  Low to the ground on four rubber tires, a passenger compartment fit
for two small beings, and soft curving lines combined to give a subtle sense
of speed.  "And this is my auto mode!  Fabulous, isn't it?  I picked it out
myself.  Based on something the humans call a 'Corvette', I think."

"Um--"

Tracks transformed again, then admired one outstretched arm.  "Simply
gorgeous!  I can't wait to get to Earth and show it off!"

"You're going nowhere if you don't get back in bed!"  Both robots turned to
see an irate First Aid advancing.  "Tracks, I TOLD you to sit still and let
the polymers set!"

"I feel fine!  Fantastic!"

First Aid ignored Magnus' massive physique, focusing only on Tracks.  "I don't
care how you feel!  Now get back in there, or I'll revoke your clearance for
Earth duty!"

Magnus felt he should say something.  "Uh ... Better do it, Tracks."

Tracks mumbled to himself, then walked back into the bay, head held high;
First Aid followed a moment later.  A chuckle from behind caught Magnus'
attention.  He turned to see Kup, an amused grin on his grizzled face.

"Boy's eager," Kup drawled.  "He'll be great on Earth."

Magnus nodded, then paused.  "I did the right thing ... Didn't I?"

"What?  Sending him off?  Of course.  Like I told you before, stop fretting."
The veteran turned and walked off, leaving Magnus wondering.  Kup was one of
the few Autobots on Cybertron to whom he could ask for advice, and Magnus made
frequent use of that outlet.  He wondered when he would no longer need it.

<Not now.  Maybe not ever.>

                                     * * *

"... Final item: Re-engineering designs for Blitzwing and Astrotrain
continues.  Thrust, Dirge, and Ramjet have completed their refitting for
Earthen modes, with only minor injuries.  Their debriefing begins tomorrow."

"Excellent.  The Constructicons are recovering faster than I had thought, but
my plans could always benefit from more loyal Decepticons..."  Megatron
laughed softly, then began to gaze into space, his gray visage locked in a
faint smile.

"Is there anything more, mighty Megatron?"

"Hm?  No.  Keep up the good work, Shockwave.  Megatron out."

The screen winked out.  Shockwave sat in reflection, his large violet form
immobile.  Megatron had been gone for thousands of vorns.  In that time,
Shockwave had gradually built up the Decepticons from an unfocused rabble to a
synchronized, coordinated army that occupied much of the planet.  And now,
back from the dead, irrational Megatron wants Cybertronian reinforcements to
feed more of his flamboyant schemes.  Shockwave fought down the rage that
boiled inside, though a flare of his sole yellow eye betrayed him.  If
Megatron continued to draw Decepticons to Earth, then their hold of Cybertron
territory -- gained under Shockwave's hand -- was at risk.

By his logic, Shockwave believed he was the only one fit to lead the
Decepticons.  Yet he knew that his forces were not logical; Megatron's return
brought massive, immediate support for the long-missing leader.  Never mind
that Shockwave did the real work, organizing the troops, outguessing the
Autobots, and fighting them with his strategies.  Never mind that most of the
Decepticons were not even present when Megatron raided the Ark, that they have
never seen his "genius" in action.  No, give the Decepticon forces a mythical
icon, and they flock to him.

Fools.

But Shockwave accepted things with a surprising calm.  He had to become leader
without losing the Decepticons who followed Megatron, a tricky task that
required special circumstances to work.  Fortunately, he was patient.  The
role of sycophant, though old, was one he now resumed, and it was still
effective.  Even as he carried out orders, Shockwave continued to slowly build
his power base, keeping a receptor open to any opportunities he could twist to
his advantage.  Until then, he would wait.

                                     * * *

Once, Calitrun was one of the great cities.  Not the biggest, not the
brightest, but renown nonetheless for its numerous, diverse cultural centers.
Kinetic sculptures, energy paintings, vibrational harmonics -- Calitrun was
the center of Cybertron's aesthetic growth.

Today it's a slum.  The streets are dark and dirty, abandoned but for the
stray urchin that wanders lost in the streets of this ghost town.  Towers
which once caressed the sky lie shattered, abandoned toys of a giant. The
great museums are bare, looted when the city first fell, occupied only with
the homeless and the nameless.  They didn't ask for the Autobot-Decepticon
war, but they feel its effects all the same.  Each year, their number shrinks,
ever so slightly.  Hope here is a cold corpse, as long dead as the city.

The meteorite arrives with a roar and hits with a thunderclap.  The Grand
Theater shatters at the impact, and flaming debris flies as far as twenty
kilometers away.  If anyone was killed in the impact, their names aren't
known.  Nearby Cybertronians whimper in their shelters, bracing for the
shelling barrage, surprised when it doesn't come.

A lone figure rushes the crater.  Moving with a speed that belies his large
bulk, the robot skips over smoldering ruins, sliding across glass-fused
patches of terrain, soon arriving at the center.  He reaches for the
meteorite, juggling it between his hands in a playful romp.  After a few
moments, he turns and transforms, the prize resting in the cargo bin of his
vehicle form.

There is a second roar, much quieter than the first.  The truck starts to
move, climbing over rubble and gravel with little effort.  Tired eyes watch
him disappear.

                                     * * *

"Well?"

"Ooooh, it's unusual, all right.  Definitely an explosion.  Big one, too."

Ultra Magnus tensed.  "Is it a Decepticon attack?"

"Doubt it," Beachcomber replied.  "There's only been the one."

Magnus leaned forward, tapping a finger on the screen.  "Calitrun's not a
military target, or a key resource, or anything else.  There's nothing left
there worth anything."

Red Alert interjected, "Nothing we know about, at least."

"Could it be a natural phenomenon?"

The geologist shook his head again.  "Oh, no.  Nothing on Cybertron acts like
this."

"The Decepts are up to something, I can smell it!"

Magnus pondered.  An investigation was definitely in order, but what kind?
Deferring on the side of caution, he said, "Red Alert, assemble a small squad.
You, me, two Autobots.  I want answers, fast."

"Right!"  The Security Chief turned and dashed out of the lab.

Beachcomber turned to look up at Magnus, the eyes of his blue face hidden
behind polarizing lenses.  Cooly he asked, "You want a science team along?"

"Um..."  Another moment of decision and doubt.  "Better not.  You said it
doesn't seem natural.  If we find something, we'll bring it back.  Too many
Autobots might alert the Decepticons, if they are involved."

Red Alert returned at that moment with Sureshot and Hot Rod in tow.  "Strike
team ready, Magnus," he barked with a brisk salute.

Ultra Magnus paused, wondering about the wisdom of bringing Hot Rod, the new
recruit, on a sensitive mission such as this.  <No,> he reminded himself.

<Trust your officers.  Red knows what he's doing.>

"All right, Autobots.  Transform, and roll out!"

                                     * * *

The lanky, olive-green robot hunched down on the partially-collapsed roof of
the old Skyspanner Gallery.  Without taking his optics off the crowd below, he
tapped a button on his yellow buckle.  "Ruckus to Shockwave, Ruckus to
Shockwave.  C'mon, Shockwave!"  He fought against his enthusiasm, wanting to
shout but instead speaking in a hushed whisper.

Shockwave's calm voice was dampened by Ruckus' speakers.  "Report."

"That wasn't an attack or anything.  Nope, seems like it was something from
space, fell out of the sky, one of those, um, um--"

"Meteorite," Shockwave injected.

"--yeah, meteorite.  But, but," Ruckus continued without slowing, "someone
came and took it away!"

"An Autobot?"

"No, no, no no no!  Can't be, the 'bots are here now, quizzing the locals.
Want me to take them out?"

"Negative.  Maintain surveillance, but do not engage.  Report any additional
findings directly to me.  Shockwave out."

Ruckus giggled.  "Shockwave's out, all right," he joked, while continuing his
recording of the discussion below.

                                     * * *

It looked like the beginning of a fight: four robots, clean and rested, stood
in various stages of boredom and impatience around two smaller ones.  Unlike
the others, these were dirty and in states of disrepair; it was a minor
miracle they were still functioning.

"Please," Magnus said for the ninth time.  "What did it look like?"

The orange one twitched, looking sharply from Ultra Magnus to Sureshot and
back again.  "It-it-it was ... round.  That's all, just round.  Just, just
like a speedball."

His companion, whose sky-blue hull was speckled with dust, chimed in.  "Maybe
we'll tell more for one of your shiny weapons--"

"Lousy extortionists!" Red Alert shouted, his forward lunge stopped by Magnus'
outstretched arm.  The two panicked and bolted, only to bump into Hot Rod,
which elicited another scream.  As Hot Rod stood still, they slowly crawled
back to the center of the circle, faces filled with fear.

Sureshot turned to Magnus.  "You know, Magnus, I'm not an expert, but I don't
think a meteor would be round, especially after it crashes.  This is weird."

Ultra Magnus nodded.  "All the more reason we need to find this thing,
whatever it is."  He turned back to the nervous pair.  Then, reaching into a
hip compartment, he took out two small cubes of Energon.  "Please.  Can you
tell me who took the object, and where we can find him?"

Orange's fear disappeared immediately, and Blue's eyes grew wide with greed.
"Oh, yes!" he shouted, pointing in a southwestern direction.  "He went
thataway.  Some guy on treads, never seen him before."

Hot Rod asked, "Was he a Decepticon?"

"Don't think so.  Looked like a Neut.  Not armed, not clean, no emblems.  Not
like you guys.  Right?"  Blue turned to his comrade, who nodded quickly.

Magnus began to hand over the Energon when Red Alert interrupted.  "How do we
know you're telling the truth?  Magnus, these two would say anything!"

"By Primus, I swear!"

"It's the only lead we've got, Red."  Ultra Magnus turned back to the blue
one.  "Thank you for your time."  He held out the shimmering cubes, and the
two Neuts quickly grabbed one each.  As they guzzled down the refreshing
energy, Magnus addressed the Autobots.  "There's nothing more here.  Let's go
see who's got our mystery item."

Magnus stepped back, then transformed into his vehicle mode, a blocky white
engine towing a covered red and blue carrier.  Red Alert, Hot Rod, and
Sureshot transformed in turn, though Red's Earth-vehicle form was incongruous
against the others' native designs.  Sureshot and Hot Rod quickly rolled onto
the trailer, the ramp sliding shut behind them.

Without another word, Red Alert rolled off towards the southwest, with Ultra
Magnus directly behind him.  Orange and Blue looked up for a moment before
resuming their feeding.

                                     * * *

"Ruckus to Shockwave.  You there?"

Shockwave's reply was terse, as usual.  "Report."

"The thing that fell from the sky, the whatchamacallit, it's some weird round
object!  The locals say it didn't look like a rock or anything."

There was a pause, then Shockwave spoke.  "This warrants further
investigation.  Where is it now?"

"Dunno.  The Autobots are chasing a clue, trying to find who took it!  Should
I tag along?"

"Affirmative.  Make sure that you are not spotted.  Report any further
developments immediately.  Shockwave out."

Ruckus' giggle turned into total laughter.  "Not spotted, ha!  Ruckus is the
master of the ol' sneak-and-peek!"  Tapping another button on his buckle, his
orange-rimmed chest door slid open.  A gold cassette flew out, transforming a
moment later into a winged creature, a cross between a condor and a flying
saucer.

"Buzzsaw!" Ruckus shouted.  "Sic 'em!"  Without a word, Buzzsaw arced higher,
then flew off, rapidly disappearing against the dark sky.  Laughing once
again, Ruckus followed, merrily dashing across the roof of the Skyspanner.

                                     * * *

Red Alert led the way, his headlights never wavering from the tread tracks
before him.  Ultra Magnus followed close behind, but Red had to slow down
occasionally to avoid losing the Autobot leader.  Magnus' worries about an
ambush overrode the Security Chief's urgings for speed; though Red didn't
press the issue, Magnus wondered if he was angry.

The two pulled to a stop.  As Red Alert transformed, Magnus' carrier opened
up, releasing the red-and-yellow and yellow-and-orange forms of Hot Rod and
Sureshot, respectively.  After reverting to robot form, Ultra Magnus looked
around.  The trail ended in front of another relic of the Autobot-Decepticon
war, a gray husk of a large building, surrounded by ruins and shells of
others.  Though the uppermost floors were exposed and decayed, it was clear
that it once held thousands, easily.  No signs or markings remained to
identify it.

His rifle at the ready, Sureshot walked forward, peering through a large pair
of glass double doors into the gloomy interior.  "I guess we go in."

"Could be a trap," Red Alert warned.

"EVERYTHING's a trap to you," Hot Rod chided with a flippant grin.

"It's caution, boy.  The difference between life and death, survivors and
fools."

Magnus interceded.  "It doesn't look like a trap, but we should be careful
anyway.  Red Alert, you and I will take the lead.  Hot Rod on the left,
Sureshot on the right.  Any questions?"  With no signs of dissension, the four
entered the building and assumed their positions.

Twin lights on Magnus' chest and one on Red Alert's forehead sliced through
the darkness.  Dust swirled slightly, moved by their entrance, but otherwise
nothing stirred.  After a moment, Magnus took a few cautious steps forward;
his footsteps echoed into the distance, too loud for his liking.

"Which way do we go?" Hot Rod whispered.  He glanced around the room, where
assorted doors, hallways, and arches could be dimly seen.

"This way!"  Red Alert pointed to the ground.  His light focused on the dirty
ground, where a faint set of footprints were visible.

The Autobots followed the path, which meandered down a hall and up three
flights of stairs, to a smaller hallway that fed a set of offices.  They moved
carefully, without stealth, but their movements were slow and their weapons
ready.  Up ahead, the footprints turned a corner; from around it came a
flickering light and the sound of soft laughter.

Red Alert froze, arms spread to stop the others, and turned to Ultra Magnus.
"Your call," he whispered.

Magnus thought for a moment, then walked forward as if he had nothing to fear.
The others caught up with him and turned the corner as one.

They were greeted by the sight of a single robot, sitting on a shipping crate
before a pair of double doors, reading an old holo-book under a dim light
strip.  He looked up as the Autobots approached, and said, "Hi!  I'm Ramrod!
Who're you?"

"Um ... I'm Ultra Magnus.  We're looking for an object, that fell--"

"The meteorite?  I took it!"  Ramrod stood up with a proud smile.  Though his
broad, orange-yellow body was coated in grease and grime, he still looked
impressive, almost as tall as Ultra Magnus and towering over the other
Autobots.  A sliver of glass across his chest and treads on his calves hinted
at a vehicle mode, and the lack of any sigil identified him as a civilian.

"You took it?" Hot Rod repeated.  "Can we see it?"

"Oh, no," Ramrod said.  "Skyfall has it.  He's studying it.  We can't bother
him.  Shhhhhh!" he added as an afterthought.

Sureshot and Red Alert both looked at Ultra Magnus in confusion.  Magnus
glanced at them, then addressed Ramrod again.  "Who's Skyfall?"

"Oh, you'll like him," Ramrod exclaimed in glee.  "He's really smart, really
he is!  That's why he's looking at the meteorite.  And I'm making sure nobody
bothers him."  A worried thought crossed his face, and he stared at Ultra
Magnus with a sudden intensity.  "You're not going to take it away, are you?"

"Uh ... I don't know," Magnus confessed.  "Can we please talk to Skyfall?
It's VERY important."

"Important?"  Ramrod's eyes grew wide with excitement.  "That's different!
Let me ask him."  He tapped a panel on the side of his head, and spoke to the
air.  "Hi, Skyfall! ... I'm sorry.  But, there's someone here who want to see
you ... He says it's verrrrry important ... I don't know ... three, four of
them ... No, they've been very nice ... Okay, thanks!  Skyfall says you can
come in."  This last sentence was directed to Ultra Magnus.  "But you better
be good!"

Magnus turned to the other Autobots.  "Weapons down, everybody.  We want to
show that we're friendly."  Though Sureshot grumbled, the Autobots shunted
their guns away, and were rewarded by Ramrod's smile.

                                     * * *

Ruckus bounded over a low pile of debris, then sprinted to a stop before the
abandoned building.  Cupping his hands to his mouth, he cried out in an
exaggerated manner.  "Buzzsaw ... Buzzsaw!  Speak to me, Buzzsaw!  Let me hear
through your ears!  Oh, a rhyme, I'm so clever!"

Tapping a button on his buckle, he was immediately treated to the dull thuds
of footfalls.  As the Autobots headed for their meeting, Ruckus looked for a
secluded spot to begin his electronically-relayed eavesdropping session.

                                     * * *

The Autobots followed Ramrod into a filthy old laboratory.  A few antiquated
computers lined one wall, and next to them sat datapads in a disarrayed pile.
Much of the roof was missing; the black sky above was dotted with hundreds of
stars.  The center of the room contained a raised, circular dais, separated
from the rest of the room by a railing.  At the center sat a large telescope,
pointed upwards, surrounded by a cluster of benches and machines.  Frayed
cables, dulled cases, and assorted scratches bore testament to the age of the
equipment.  A lot of garbage and a few chairs were sprinkled liberally about.

His back to the door, the robot called Skyfall was next to the telescope, bent
over a workbench.  His small, silver body had lost its luster vorns ago,
obvious even from a distance.  Dents and patches covered his body, loose wires
hung from rusted joints, and the right leg was replaced with a rusted pike
below the knee.  He muttered silently to himself, lost to the world.

Ramrod spoke first.  "Skyfall!  We're here!"

"Eh?"  Slowly, Skyfall drew himself up, wobbly at the knees.  Turning with
careful steps, he addressed the crowd.  "Now who are you, to disturb an old
robot with 'important' news?"

Ultra Magnus stepped forward, arms spread in what he hoped was a friendly
gesture.  "I'm Ultra Magnus, leader of the Autobots--"

"AUTOBOTS?!?" Skyfall shouted.  He squinted sharply at the insignia on Magnus'
right breast, then threw an accusing glare at Ramrod.  "You didn't say they
were Autobots!"

"You didn't ask!..."

Skyfall ignored him, turning back to Magnus, and his voice crackled with each
word.  "OUT!  Out of my lab, now!  I won't ruin this day with the likes of
you!"

Magnus took a step back, feeling the situation deteriorate.  "But, sir ... we
mean you no harm.  We just want to ask--"

"I KNOW WHAT YOU WANT!  I don't care!  Ramrod, throw them out!"

"But, Skyfall, they're so nice ... And he says it's important..."

Skyfall stared in disbelief at Ramrod, then sighed in resignation.  "All
right.  I'm open-minded; I can bear you for a few minutes, at least."  He
waved one hand vaguely about the room.  "Get some chairs, and let's talk like
civilized beings."

While the Autobots looked for places to sit, Ramrod moved by Skyfall's side,
and led him from the dais to a spot opposite Ultra Magnus.  Ramrod's manner
contrasted with his impression as a bruiser -- his hold was gentle, his
movements slow and graceful, and Skyfall smiled at him as he settled into his
chair.  Ramrod then stood next to Skyfall, arms crossed, the very image of a
protective parent.

Skyfall clutched a small metal sphere against his breast.  "Now," he spoke to
Magnus, quieter than before.  "Introduce yourselves."

Magnus paused for a second, then spoke, selecting his words with care.  "I am
Ultra Magnus.  These are Hot Rod, Sureshot, and Red Alert," he finished,
gesturing to each Autobot in turn.  "We're investigating a meteor that crashed
in Calitrun earlier."  He pointed to the orb.  "Is that it?"

"Yes," Skyfall replied.  "And it's a 'meteorite', not 'meteor'."

"That's right!" Ramrod added.  "A meteor is a particle that falls into the
atmosphere.  A meteorite is a meteor that hits the planet without being
destroyed."  He looked down at Skyfall, who nodded in approval.

"Very good," he said.  Turning back to Ultra Magnus, Skyfall continued.  "You
know my name.  I am Skyfall ... the last astronomer on Cybertron."  He paused
for a moment, his face lost in thoughts of regret, then resumed.  "And this is
Ramrod.  My apprentice, bodyguard, caretaker, and friend."

"That's me!" Ramrod added, beaming.

Hot Rod spoke next.  "No, wait.  You can't be the only astronomer on
Cybertron.  There's lots of others who know about stars and gravity and things
like that."

"Please!" Skyfall spat.  "You're thinking of astronavagators.  Nothing but a
bunch of rote-learned idiots!  They know just enough to fly from one place to
another, and little more.  They don't care about how stars are formed, why
planets have rings, what a quantum black hole is, or how the universe was
created.

"I do.  That's why I'm an astronomer.  And, once I finish teaching Ramrod
everything I know, he'll be one too."

Sureshot was incredulous.  "Him?"

"Don't be fooled -- when it comes to astronomy, he's brighter than anyone else
you can find.  And he's got the enthusiasm and interest, which is more than
what I can say for most folks."

Ultra Magnus interjected.  "I think we're getting off the subject.  Skyfall,
do you know what that thing is?"

Skyfall held it away from his bosom, staring at it softly, turning it slowly
in his slender fingers.  The sphere was brightly polished, half a meter in
diameter, with nothing to interrupt the flawless surface.  "I ... don't know.
It's a construct of some sort, obviously artificial, but I haven't figured out
how to open it."

"Is there something inside?"

"The ultrasound says there is, but doesn't show any details.  Unfortunately, I
don't have anything else operational that might solve this puzzle."

Magnus spotted an opportunity.  "We have a very sophisticated laboratory back
at Autobase.  If you'll come with us, we can--"

"No!"  Skyfall clutched the orb tightly again.

"No?  What's wrong?"

"YOU are what's wrong!  ALL OF YOU!  You war-mongering Autobots have destroyed
Cybertron with your petty battles!  I don't know what's inside this, but I'll
be fried before I let you exploit it!"

"War-mongering...?" Magnus could sense the rising tensions behind him.
Fighting to keep his own emotions under control, he pressed on.  "Skyfall ...
I don't know why you think that way.  It's the Decepticons who--"

"SPARE ME!  I've heard all the rhetoric already!  'Heroic Autobots' saving us
from the Decepticon tyranny!  'Visionary Decepticons' who want to build
Cybertron into a mighty power!  You're all the same!  It's all an excuse to
force one ideology down everyone's throats, to fight and destroy!  None of you
care about the good of the planet, of all Transformers!

"Look around you!"  He swept the shattered room with one arm.  "This was the
Cyron Institute, THE best research center and college on all of Cybertron.  As
far as the eye could see, it was a living tribute to science and learning,
things much more important than politics and bickering feuds.  From all over
the planet, millions called on Cyron to study physics and engineering and a
hundred other fields, to push the boundaries of knowledge.

"AND NOW!  Nothing but another crater on the planet.  The library was gutted
for armament information, then burned without a thought!  Labs were raided for
material and supplies and shelled to eliminate 'military targets'!  People
were enslaved, drafted, killed, or simply left to rot and die!  Who needs
science?  We have a war to win!  FOOLS!"

Red Alert began to move, but Magnus stopped him with a gesture.  He took a
deep breath, counted to ten, then replied.  "That ... COULDN'T have been ...
the Autobots.  We don't--"

"HOW STUPID ARE YOU?" Skyfall ranted.  "It's never as simple as 'Autobots
good, Decepticons bad'!  Both sides have perpetuated this war for countless
vorns, using firepower instead of diplomacy!  No one wants negotiations and
compromise when they can have absolute power instead!  Where are we now?  A
dead planet, millions of cycles wasted, even more lives lost, all so you
idiots can play soldier!  YOU'RE NO BETTER THAN THEY ARE!"

Magnus leaped out of his chair and glared down at Skyfall.  "Now look--!"

Ramrod moved immediately, tackling Magnus and pinning him to the ground with a
tremendous crash.  "No hurt Skyfall!" Ramrod yelled as he drew back his fist.

Ultra Magnus caught a glimpse of Sureshot and Red Alert advancing with weapons
drawn.  He swept an arm towards them.  "NO!"

Ramrod swung.  Magnus tried to dodge, but the punch hit him in the side of the
head.  As the Autobots watched, frozen, Magnus fell and laid still.  The dent
where Ramrod struck was clearly visible, with slivers of paint flaking loose.

Ramrod sat up and slowly turned to Skyfall.  "Did I hurt him?"

Red Alert growled.  "If you did..."

Hot Rod broke the stalemate and ran over to Magnus, who was still pinned.
Shaking Magnus' blue shoulders, he urged, "C'mon, Magnus.  Wake up, wake up!
... Come on!"

"UNG! -- ouch! -- Hot Rod ... not so loud..." Magnus groaned.  "Ramrod ... I'm
not ... going to hurt Skyfall ... Can I please get up?"

Ramrod looked to Skyfall, who conceded.  Hot Rod and Ramrod helped Magnus to
his feet.  Back in his own chair, Sureshot asked, "He hit you that hard?"

Magnus wobbled slightly.  "Um ... I wouldn't want to go through that again."
Carefully, he turned.  "Look, Skyfall ... Despite what you think, the Autobots
are NOT out to perpetuate the war.  We're trying to end it -- with as LITTLE
fighting as possible."  He clutched his head with one hand and teetered once
more.

"Well ... You did stop your friends."

Magnus nodded, then regretted it as spasms made him wince.  Stifling a groan,
he continued, "And we do believe in the pursuit of knowledge.  Look, why don't
you and Ramrod come with us to Autobase?  You can use all of our lab equipment
there to study this ... thing.  See how we are really like, instead of a
stereotype.  Maybe talk to some of our scientists; you can ask them how they
feel about the war."  He added mentally, <If I had listened to Beachcomber,
this probably would have been easier.>

For a long minute Skyfall sat in deep thought, the only motion coming from his
hands gliding idly over the orb.  Finally, he spoke.  "All right.  Ramrod and
I will go with you, to see this rabble of yours.  BUT--" he injected before
anyone else could speak "--I will do the lab work myself.  Your people can
show me how the equipment works, and watch over me.  But nobody works with the
meteorite except Ramrod and me.  Is that a deal?"

"Agreed," Magnus answered, glad that if the other Autobots had any objections,
they kept them to themselves.

                                     * * *

The Priority Communications signal began to flash.  "Ruckus to Shockwave,
Ruckus to Shockwave!  Talk to me!"

Shockwave tapped the Answer button and spoke.  "Report."

"Well, there's good news and there's bad news.  The good news is, the thing's
in the hands of some old Neut.  He says there's something inside it, but he
can't tell what."

"And?"

"Well, um ... The bad news is, the Autobots are taking him back to their HQ
and they're going to try to open it there."

Shockwave quickly worked out the possibilities in his head.  <Given: A self-
propelled container capable of surviving atmospheric entry without damage.
Given: Contents are shielded and sealed.  Conclusions: 96.8% probability
contents are considered valuable.  44.8% probability that it is a weapon or
can be used as a weapon.  51.3% probability that it is some other scientific
construct.  83.6% probability that it is of a technological level above
Cybertron's own.>

"How many Autobots are there?  Where are they now?"

"They're still inside, but getting ready to leave!  Ultra Magnus and three
others.  You want me to tail them?"

Shockwave plugged the laser barrel of his right arm into a data access port.
A planetary map appeared on one terminal, a roster of active Decepticons on
another.  "Negative.  Record their departure heading but maintain your
position.  We shall rendezvous with you shortly."

                                     * * *

Three vehicles traveled down Route 460, the only ones on the wide four-lane
road.  Red Alert was last, carefully scanning the area for suspicious
activity.  Ahead of him was Ramrod, carrying Skyfall and the orb in his rear
cargo bay.  Ramrod bubbled over with excitement, while Skyfall spoke only
occasionally in answer to Ramrod's questions.

In the front was Ultra Magnus, with Hot Rod and Sureshot riding unseen in the
carrier.  Though on the alert for possible attacks, he also wondered about
Skyfall's attitude.  <He still doesn't believe me, I'm certain.  I can only
hope this visit to Autobase will change his mind.  He's probably been building
up his anger for vorns now, getting confused between Autobots and Decepticons.
...  Primus, what if most of Cybertron agrees with him?  That we're no better
than the Decepticons, using ideology as an excuse for more conflict?  No!
We're only fighting to stop the Decepticons from waging war on the rest of the
universe, on innocent planets like Earth. ... But maybe we've gotten so caught
up in the war that we forget about our own victims.  How often do we ignore
the Neuts in the streets?  When was the last time we gave out aid? ... I can't
remember.  Maybe that's the problem-->

"Fifty ticks to Xerces," Red Alert radioed.

Magnus sent back, "Things look safe so far."

"Yah.  Not a blip anywhere, though I'll still feel better once we're under
cover."

Magnus agreed in silence.  The Decepticons' air superiority was one of their
greatest strengths; as a result, most of the Autobot bases were accessible
only from underground passages.  Exits led to sheltered cities like Xerces,
where the twisting streets and multilayered urban design provided cover from
air patrols and plenty of opportunities to lose trackers.  Taking the open-
aired 460 was a risk, but it was the most direct course, and the Autobots
agreed that careful watching of the airspace should give them enough advance
warning if a Decepticon patrol came by.

At twenty-five ticks, the convoy passed the protective barriers that peppered
the outer perimeter of Xerces.  A blue-white shaft of light suddenly fell from
the heavens, striking behind Ultra Magnus and causing the ground to erupt.
While Ramrod and Skyfall tumbled away from the blast, Red Alert shouted
"Decepticons!" and drove towards the two.

Magnus bounced and fishtailed, dispersing Hot Rod and Sureshot in the process.
The three transformed and dove behind a bunker just as more energy bolts
rained from the sky.  When the hail ended, Magnus looked up: Shockwave, in
laser cannon mode, and the aerial forms of Triggerhappy and Snapdragon were in
a high-altitude crash dive.  Magnus understood then why the were surprised --
the 'cons were out of sensor range.

By the time Red Alert reached him, Ramrod had converted into robot form and
had Skyfall in his arms.  Red changed, then led the two under cover.

A moment before impact, the Decepticons transformed to robot modes, landing in
the newly created crater.  While Shockwave and Snapdragon began shooting at
the Autobots, Triggerhappy opened his cockpit and disgorged a small olive-
green rectangle.  It expanded and changed shape, then Ruckus landed with guns
chattering.  "Yeah!  Rock 'n roll with Ruckus!"

"Plug 'em until they drop!" an energetic Triggerhappy added.

Crouched with his back against the wall, Sureshot looked at Hot Rod and Ultra
Magnus.  He growled through clenched teeth, "We're sitting targets out here!"

"Spread out!" Magnus ordered.  Sensing an opening, he sprang up and quickly
sprayed the crater with laser fire.  The Decepticons ducked, while Hot Rod and
Sureshot separated, each diving for a bunker just before Triggerhappy and
Ruckus returned fire.

It was a four-pronged battle now, with the entrenched Decepticons and
scattered Autobots exchanging alternating volleys of suppression.  Without
stopping, Shockwave shouted, "I want the meteorite!"

Red Alert and Ramrod looked at Skyfall, who violently shook his head, still
clutching the orb and curled in panic.  "Never!" Red shouted, punctuating the
cry with a short burst.

Shockwave easily dodged the attack.  "The decision is not yours."

Hot Rod suddenly yelled, "Red Alert!  Behind you!"

Red turned, firing blindly, but missed as Buzzsaw flew by and snatched Skyfall
in his diamond-hard talons.  Ramrod shrieked, "SKYFALL!"  Before anyone could
react, the Decepticon had dropped Skyfall into the crater, then turned around
and began strafing the Autobots' positions.  "Get 'em!" Ruckus cheered.

While the Decepticons continued to hold back the Autobots, Shockwave turned
his attention to the fetal form at his feet.  "Let's see what you have here,"
he said.  Unceremoniously, he kicked Skyfall; the Neut and the meteorite
violently rolled apart.

"No hurt Skyfall!" Ramrod yelled, and leaped out from behind the bunker.
Surprise was on his side; Snapdragon's shot went wide, and Ramrod dodged it
easily.  He leaped high, landed on Shockwave's back, and began bludgeoning the
Decepticon Commander with his fists.

"Cease fire!" Magnus ordered.  "You might hit him!"  He ducked for cover just
before Buzzsaw leveled another blaze of mortar fire.

Shockwave fell on hands and knees, then sharply shook off the enraged Ramrod.
"Seize him!" Shockwave yelled, and the other Decepticons rushed to comply.
Triggerhappy grabbed one arm, Snapdragon the other, and Ruckus wrapped himself
around the legs.

"Stop twitching," Triggerhappy ordered.  Ramrod ignored him and kept
struggling, but couldn't break free.  "NO HURT SKYFALL!" he yelled again.

Skyfall watched in stunned silence while Shockwave stood up, the silver sphere
now in his left hand.  "We will begin with a basic X-Ray scan," he intoned, as
if lecturing to a class.  Shockwave's eye glowed, then bathed the artifact
with a shimmering white light.

Increasingly agitated, Sureshot decided to act.  He leaped away from the
bunker and fired, scoring a direct hit on Buzzsaw, who left a smoking trail as
he spiraled into the ground.  Without stopping, Sureshot rolled, transformed,
and drove towards the Decepticons.

Triggerhappy and Snapdragon only had time to turn before being broadsided.  As
Sureshot drove away towards cover and his captors fell, Ramrod shook free of
Ruckus and charged at Shockwave.  "YOU BAD!"

Shockwave had interrupted his scan when Sureshot attacked.  Now he simply
stated, "You are becoming tiresome."  In one smooth motion, Shockwave raised
his right arm, firing an orange-white bolt which vaporized Ramrod's head.

Ramrod's body crashed at Shockwave's feet.  Skyfall screamed.

Just then, the artifact began to open.  Already stunned, Autobots and
Decepticons now stopped to watch, except for Ruckus, who ran to where Buzzsaw
fell.  Quickly the orb peeled itself, dropping an unbroken silver ribbon that
disintegrated before reaching the ground.  A moment later it was completely
gone, leaving only a small object in Shockwave's palm.

"What is it?" Snapdragon asked.

Shockwave held up the prize and scanned it again.  It appeared to be a jade-
colored figurine, depicting a stylized star: eight acute spines protruding
from a circular center.  Stylized markings, in the form of gentle curves and
small dots, decorated the surface.  While the beams danced over it, the star
glowed with a faint shimmer.

The beam snapped off suddenly.  "It is nothing but ceramics and paint,"
Shockwave announced with disdain, "completely useless."  He finished the
sentence by clenching his fist, shattering the star into a thousand fragments.
Skyfall gaped silently as green shards rained on Ramrod's body.

The moment ended with an artillery shell that exploded to Shockwave's left.
From the Xerces gateway, a half-dozen Autobot vehicles charged forth.  Warpath
was in the lead, his tank barrel still smoking.  "Missed!  Yow!  Let me --
Zowie! -- try it again!  WHAM!"

Shockwave ducked, barely dodging another shell that exploded behind him.
"There is nothing to of value here," he announced.  "Decepticons, retreat!"
He leaped into the sky, transformed into his laser cannon form, and rocketed
away as scattered energy bolts nipped at his heels.  While Snapdragon and
Triggerhappy converted to their jet forms, Ruckus ran towards them, then
jumped into Snapdragon's cockpit.  The Decepticons flew off just before the
Autobots reached the rim of the crater.

Inferno rolled up to Red Alert and turned to robot mode.  "We came as soon as
we got the distress signal; looks like we're just in time!"  Red didn't reply;
instead, he climbed into the crater and approached Ultra Magnus.  Magnus, in
turn, walked over to Skyfall, who was hunched over Ramrod's prone form and
crying softly.

The others were at the rim now, watching.  Very quietly, Magnus spoke.
"Skyfall..."

"DON'T TALK TO ME!"  Skyfall's head snapped up, and he spun to face Magnus,
his optics burning with deep loathing.  "I should have known!  Where Autobots
go, death and destruction follows!  Primus take me for a fool for believing
otherwise!  I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN!  Ramrod!  Oh, Ramrod, I'm sorry..."

Skyfall sobbed again.  Slowly, he carried himself upright, and began to drag
Ramrod away, moving centimeters with each step.  Ultra Magnus turned away, Red
Alert right behind.  Springer and Grapple took a step forward, but Magnus
stopped them.  "No," he ordered, "Leave him alone."

Climbing out, Magnus slowly headed towards Xerces, the Autobots trailing in
silence.  Finally, Kup dared to ask.  "Magnus ... What happened back there?"

Ultra Magnus stopped and looked over his shoulder.  Skyfall had finally
dragged Ramrod's body out of the crater, and was now starting his long trip
home.

Magnus turned back to Kup.  "We lost."



                                    THE END
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