1. A Chance In A Million by Raksha
Cybertron; 9 million years B.P.
The cityscape lay in ruins, the result of centuries of poverty and neglect, and the quick, savage street-battles that erupted daily between the residents resourceful and vicious enough to survive here. What had once been gleaming buildings were now tarnished, burnt-out husks, some partially toppled; what had once been efficient transport ways lay shattered over the cracked streets, themselves an obstacle course of shrapnel and broken glass and the occasional incendiary device awaiting the trigger of a nearby footfall. Single individuals did not survive here-anyone foolish enough to venture into the streets alone, quickly fell prey to the packs of robots that banded together for protection and power. The Scraps, they were called, and they roamed the streets and battled each other to the death for what meager resources they could wring from the decay around them. While most of them wore the Decepticon brand (Perihellia was nominally a Decepticon city, after all), no Decepticon warrior would rightfully call them kin-for their animalistic survival here in the wreckage bore little resemblance to the military pride and discipline of the Decepticon armies to the north and south.
Perihellia was situated squarely on Cybertron's equator, and thus had been given its name-from "perihelion," meaning "the point closest to the sun." Even the unpolished metal of the present-day ruins flashed brilliantly in the relentless glare. The sun beat down like a physical force. The heat was implacable and relentless, day after day, sucking every trace of moisture out of the air and radiating back from the broken buildings to bake the city as if in a stifling oven. And indeed, the most precious commodity fought over by the Scraps was not life-giving fuel or addictive narcotics, but coolant and lubricant, even water. They would siphon the coolant out of a fallen rival or hapless victim without even bothering to kill him first-it took too much time, time in which they might be interrupted-and besides, the donor would die soon anyway as his circuitry overheated and delicate wires and chips began to melt. The members of the Scrap pack then fought among each other for possession of the prize; they fell upon their own weaker members if need be, and only the very strongest remained alive.
So the city's name had long ago gained another meaning. Peri-hell-ia: "in the vicinity of hell." And while Cybertron had been wracked by advancing and receding waves of civil war for the past countless millennia, even the great armies avoided it like a rust plague. There was no strategic advantage to be gained by possessing these scorched streets and broken buildings, this festering wound of heat and misery and cut-throat survival. While the city had once doubtless been habitable, even modern and civilized, it was so long ago that no one living could remember it. The old adage was that "nothing good ever came out of Perihellia"-and nothing good that went in, ever came out.
It was perhaps for this reason that the Total Warfare Munitions Plant had set up shop deep in the heart of the city. Funded with staggering sums from Decepticon high command, they were free to develop, test, and manufacture weapons without fear of intervention, and ship them to the Decepticon armies around the planet. Assembly lines churned out the latest in lethal weaponry day and night; scientists and technicians scampered round-the-clock to invent newer and ever-deadlier designs. In addition to the huge, blocky dark building that housed the assembly plant, laboratories, and offices for the overseers, Total Warfare had its own landing pad and fleet of transport shuttles-and even its own small creation factory for turning out the necessary perimeter guards, to keep the starving Scraps at bay. Autobot high command knew of their location, but did not dare enter the city to shut them down; besides, it was rumored that the factory overseers dealt arms to the Autobots as well.
* * *
Tron-Unit 646 stalked along the perimeter of the heavily electrified fence that enclosed the Total Warfare complex. In the city beyond, half a dozen coils of smoke rose almost vertically into the molten-brass of the sky. The distant clatter of a primitive rapid-fire projectile weapon was barely enough to intrude on the stillness. 646 himself was armed with the latest in plasma blasters-a pair of long silver cannons ran the lengths of his arms, hooked directly into his voluntary neurocircuitry, and would make short work of any Scrap who dared to approach the munitions plant. Not many had tried it in recent months, but sometimes desperation drove them to their deaths;Total Warfare had nothing if not ample supplies of fuel on hand for running its factory. Even here along the fence, 646 could feel the subaudial vibrations of the massive assembly-line machinery as it worked in the sublevels of the building behind him.
He passed another Tron-Unit patrolling in the opposite direction along the fence. The other was identical to him, to all of them-a large, well-proportioned pale-silver robot with very little needless ornamentation or color. They exchanged no words, not even a glance. The overseers did not approve of conversation among the Tron-Units. And in fact, there would have been little to talk about. The Tron-Units were manufactured here at the plant, and knew nothing except their duty-to guard the plant and its products, its overseers and their guests, at any cost. Their own lives were irrelevant; it was the factory that was important. No Tron-Unit would have hesitated to lay down his life in defense of the complex or at the order of an overseer. They were the newest in a line of guards that Total Warfare had been whittling to perfection for the last few years- built to look sleek and menacing in both robot and cannon modes, immensely powerful and well-armored, sentient, even intelligent. Theory had it that a sentient guard was a more effective fighter- though of course that sentience had to be kept tightly under control, lest it should ever develop into a willpower of its own. That was where thylazine came in.646 felt the familiar tingling in his fuel tanks as the time for his dose grew nearer-a tingling that would soon turn to pain if he was denied his twice-daily measure of thylazine too long. Sometimes the overseers let the Tron-Units wait a while for their dose, to increase their discomfort and remind them that they were utterly dependent upon the drug, and that the overseers had the power to give or to withhold. If the mind-numbing effect of the drug itself was not enough to keep the perimeter guards in line, then the thought of losing access to thylazine surely was. It had been infused into their circuits from the first hour of their consciousness, and they were forever after dependent on it.
Sometimes, though, the fog lifted just a bit. 646 felt deep inside himself that something was indefinably wrong. When he struggled to examine the feeling more closely, to put a name on it, the thylazine haze closed in again and he lost the thought. But sometimes, as now, he looked around at his fellow Tron-Units as they patrolled the fence under the hot sun-surely feeling the first traces of withdrawal as he was, and never letting on, never flinching in the heat and wondered if any of them ever questioned their existence.
"We're nothing but a bunch of addicts," he thought to himself, "the most powerful robots in the city, even the overseers couldn't stand against us, and yet we're just pathetic addicts -- and ..." And what? And what was bad about that? The thought trickled away. 646 continued his patrol of the fence, ignoring the tingling in his fuel tanks.
The soft hum of antigrav engines caught his attention as his route took him close to the main entrance. Looking up, he saw the wedge-shaped form of a small shuttle-not one of the bulky transport shuttles but one of the private ships used by the overseers.
Emblazoned along both sides were the red-on-black lightening bolts that made up the Total Warfare logo, while a triangular Decepticon symbol such as he himself wore, was painted down the ship's sloping front. Its shadow passed over him as it slowly hovered downward toward the landing pad some distance from the main building.646 snapped to attention as the sliding doors beside him opened to reveal Karrallis, a tall, slender Decepticon colored much like his company's logo in red-on-black. As the founder of Total Warfare and its most influential executive, he was seldom seen in public and did not bother with visitors unless they were exceptionally important. 646 himself had only caught a glimpse of him once before.
Now Karrallis looked at him directly. "Attend me, Tron-Unit," he snapped, turning toward the landing pad.
Some wisp of protest darted through 646's mind. It was getting to be time for his dose, dammit! He didn't have time to escort some company executive who was afraid to step outside the building without a bodyguard, and then perhaps some nameless visitor, back and forth from the shuttle....The tingling in his fuel tanks increased to a level approaching discomfort. 646 looked at Karrallis and knew he could break the overseer in half.
Karrallis started towards the shuttle pad. Meekly, 646 followed.
The small ship was still closed up tightly when they reached the landing pad. Upon Karrallis' arrival, with the obligatory Tron-Unit, the side hatch slid open and a smallish Decepticon stepped out- one of the many pilots employed by the plant. He glanced around nervously in the direction of the perimeter fence and the city beyond, but nothing moved there except the flickering heat waves. Satisfied, he stepped aside to let the shuttle's passenger disembark.646, as was his duty, kept the bulk of his attention focused on their surroundings, scanning for any sign of danger from beyond the fence. But from the corner of his optics he watched the passenger, an impossibly ancient female Transformer who bore no symbol of allegiance. With the pilot's help she hobbled down the short ramp and onto the landing pad to stand before Karrallis.
The overseer actually bowed a bit. "Sigma Drakona," he intoned formally. "We are most honored to have you among us at last."
Yes, she rasped in a scratchy voice, "I know how long you've been clamoring to get hold of my scientific talents. Especially considering that I have spent my whole life in the study of antimatter - which you would so dearly like to use as a weapon. Well, I think I can help you there. Seeing as you finally offered me the right price!
"She laughed, an unpleasant cackling sound-which was drowned out entirely in 646's perception by the sound of the whistle back at the main building, that called the currently active Tron-Units in for recharging and their dose of thylazine, and sent the next wave out to take their place. The sound ran through him like an electric shock. He just barely stopped himself from turning back toward the building.
His slight motion caught Sigma Drakona's attention, however, and she turned her eyes on him. Unlike the rest of her battered and faded frame, her eyes were sharp and bright, with a calculating, steely intelligence in their orange depths. She shot a look at Karrallis. "My, but you're building the Tron-Units to be handsome these days," she observed wryly.
Karrallis shifted his weight a bit uncomfortably. He certainly did not want his state-of-the-art killing machines to be described as handsome. But Sigma Drakona, by virtue of her age and importance, could get away with saying just about anything, and she knew it. She unleashed another brief cackle of laughter.
Then she suddenly became all business. "You have imported the necessary materials to build the fusion cannon?" she demanded.
Karrallis nodded and began to lead the way back towards the building, walking slowly so that the ancient scientist could keep up. 646 moved with them, keeping himself tightly under control to keep from barreling past them and into the recharge bay for his dose. An unpleasant buzzing had started up in his audial sensors, another side effect of withdrawal, and he barely listened to the conversation beside him.
The first prototype was just a preliminary, you understand, Sigma Drakona was saying. "The accident at DeceptiTech Laboratories was a learning experience. I know what went wrong now. There is indeed a way to allow a standard fusion weapon to use anti-matter-but we were using the wrong source!" Her optics brightened with a feverish excitement as she leaned close to Karrallis, whispering conspiratorially, "The source, dear Karrallis, must be an extra-dimensional object!" She grinned at him expectantly, as though waiting for him to praise her brilliance.
Instead he looked at her in utter confusion-and perhaps some doubt about whether he should have put out so much energon to bring her here.
Exasperated, she snapped, "A white hole, you simpleton! The outlet in our universe of a black hole in another, which sucks matter from that universe into ours!"
I'm no scientist, but I know what a white hole is, Karrallis replied, obviously trying to keep a rein on his patience.
"Well, do you also know that some of these white holes are documented sources of anti-matter? That they are, effectively, carrying substance from an anti-matter universe into ours?"
I have heard speculation of such a thing... Karrallis admitted cautiously.
It's not speculation, Sigma Drakona snapped. "They exist - and I-" she drew herself up self-importantly-"*I* have the coordinates of the nearest one, and know how to establish a subspace link to it. The anti-matter can then be drawn into the weapon for use at will. The formulas are all worked out, the simulations have all been run. All I need are the supplies and equipment to do it with. That's where you come in.
"Karrallis ground his teeth together. He had just been reduced from the head of one of the most powerful munitions plants on Cybertron, to a wholesale supplier of parts for the whim of a lunatic scientist.
Oh, scoff if you want to, Sigma Drakona hissed, "I expect nothing better from the uneducated-but wait till I talk to your scientists and prove that it can be done!
"They had reached the front entrance to the main building. 646 was expecting to be dismissed, so that he could go around the back and join his unit, but Karrallis made no move to let him go. Instead he continued on into the building with Sigma Drakona, and 646 dutifully followed.
He had been inside this part of the building once or twice before, so he knew what to expect, but it was still always a bit startling to come into the entrance hall. In the middle of the most squalid city on the planet, in the heart of a munitions plant whose products killed thousands daily, this cool, luxurious waiting room seemed at best out-of-place, at worst sacrilegious. Here guests could be seated in suitably impressive surroundings, or company executives could get together in the relaxed setting of the comfortable chairs and couches. The temperature was a cool and welcome relief from the relentless heat outside, and the floor was lined with an intricate mosaic pattern of colored tiles. A large recreational holo-viewer was nestled into one wall, though currently deactivated. A broad skylight admitted the sun's rays but filtered them from a harsh glare to a splendid gold. The light glittered off the small fountain of energon that bubbled softly to itself in the center of the room-surely the height of wasteful opulence during a planet-wide energy-shortage brought on by the long wars.
The floor vibrated ever-so-slightly beneath their feet from the assembly-line machinery in full swing below; the reality of it was never far away. Leading away from the waiting room, a maze-like string of corridors led to laboratories, offices, and the private quarters of the plant executives. 646, who took his rest periods in the barracks packed in with all the other Tron-Units, could only imagine what those private quarters must have looked like.
Sigma Drakona looked around, duly impressed. "If your laboratories are as adequately furnished as your entrance hall, I may be able to get something done here after all," she mused, almost to herself.
As if on cue, two young technicians emerged from one of the hallways. "Escort our new arrival to the main lab," Karrallis ordered, eager to be rid of the old scientist.
She whirled on him one more time, however. "You have acquired the specified materials for manufacture of the fusion cannon, according to my instructions?" she demanded of him again. "It must be strong enough to contain the antimatter blast, after all! While this will only be a small portable unit, the technology will be expanded for use in full-scale assault cannons-""Yes, yes, of course," Karrallis cut her off hurriedly.
Everything has been obtained according to your design. We are all looking forward to the construction and test run. Now, if you will accompany the technicians, they will show you to your work space.
Sigma Drakona nodded curtly and moved off slowly with the two technicians. When she was out of sight, Karrallis curled his hands into fists, letting his eyes flare bright red. "She had better be worth my trouble," he growled.
He turned to glare at 646, though he had not really been speaking to the Tron-Unit, and of course no answer was expected. A cold light came into his eyes; he was in no hurry to dismiss the perimeter guard. He knew 646 was overdue for a recharge, and was going to make him suffer to vent his frustrations over Sigma Drakona. "Do you have any idea," he fumed, "how much I paid that old rattletrap to come here? The famous Sigma Drakona. Cybertron's leading expert on antimatter. And then she comes here with insane talk of white holes and subspace connections! I just want a weapon I can develop and sell. A feasible weapon. Is that so very difficult?"
Again he was not looking for an answer, only an audience to hear him rant. 646 stood perfectly still, while a dull ache spread itself out from his midsection and the buzzing in his audial sensors threatened to affect his sense of balance. It would have been unthinkable, of course, to ask the overseer if he could be dismissed.
Karrallis looked him over with the trace of a cruel smile, then settled himself leisurely into one of the sofas near the fountain. Moving with a measured deliberation, he reached for one of the text pads scattered about on the low table in front of him, and leaned back to read.
The thought passed through 646's mind again that he was more than the equal of this robot physically, that he could kill him with a mental command to his arm-cannons or simply reach out and snap his neck. Or at the very least, he could just walk out-could get the dose of thylazine that his body was clamoring for and that was his due. Then why was he standing here like a complete idiot, waiting to be dismissed? A drugged haze did not close down on the thought this time, and for the first time, 646 held onto it, examined it more closely. Why was he so bound to the overseers, his masters? A surge of revulsion ran through him as he thought the word. Masters. By what right were they his masters? Surely not by the right of physical superiority. Because they had created him? ... And made him a hopeless thylazine addict to keep him under control. The seeds of a new emotion took hold in 646, someone who, like all Tron-Units, had never experienced much in the way of emotion. But he experienced this one, when he looked at Karrallis, sitting there paging casually through the text on his little flat screen, the trace of a smile about his mouth as though knowing of 646's suffering and enjoying it ... 646 knew without being told, what emotion he was experiencing. Hatred. Not full-blown all-consuming hatred-but the seeds of hatred none the less.
Still, he was paralyzed by his training, and the shock of temporarily being able to think with a halfway clear mind. He held perfectly still and waited, the vast eternity of another fifteen minutes, until Karrallis finally looked up from his reading. Feigning a look of mild surprise, as though he'd forgotten that 646 was still there, he said languidly, "Oh, by the way, you can go."646 broke from his position and bolted for the door.
Karrallis' mocking laughter followed him out the building and rang in his audial sensors, but he had lost concern for everything but his destination. He burst out into the harsh glare of the sunlight and ran alongside the building, past the on-duty Tron-Units who whirled to track the unexpected motion, some of them reflexively raising their arm cannons. He ignored them, and plunged through the door into the anteroom of their barracks. The thylazine dispenser took up a whole wall, a smooth, flat-black unit with interface hatches and a few ominously blinking lights.
A few other Tron-Units were seated along the floor near the dispenser. Their vigil was useless, since the machine would only give out two doses of thylazine per day to each guard, at measured intervals; those who had already gotten their dose in the last few hours, would not soon receive another. Still, much off-duty time was spent sitting near the dispenser, as though it was some kind of a bizarre comfort. 646 had often done so himself.
Right now he was only interested in his current dose. Ignoring the other Tron-Units, he plunged toward the machine. With shaking hands he pulled open the hatch in his torso, opening the access panel and nearly damaging the hinges. He positioned himself before the dispenser and inserted his right hand into the identification slot. A few lights flickered to life as the computer scanned his identity.
For an interminable moment, nothing happened. 646 wondered in a burst of panic if Karrallis had somehow learned of his subversive thoughts, and had cut him off from the thylazine. *I take it all back*, he thought wildly; *I will live my life this way and never question it again, if only you give me my dose...!*
The familiar injector slid out of the machine and plugged itself directly into his access panel. 646 gasped as the potent drug rushed into his fuel lines. He could actually trace the path it traveled through his body, like a cool liquid displacing a searing heat. He sighed with relief and slumped against the smooth surface of the dispenser. The buzzing in his audial sensors and the ache in his fuel tanks withdrew, and a pleasantly benumbing haze settled over his mind.
* * *
It took a few days for the shock of that experience to wear off for the memory of that painful withdrawal to die down a bit. And when the memory of the pain faded, another memory remained in its place-that of humiliation, of being taunted and laughed at by the very being who was responsible for his condition. 646 no longer knew what it felt like to think clearly-the thylazine haze prevented that- but somewhere in his mind was the memory of what it felt like, to think clearly, and that sensation kept pushing its way up into his consciousness. 646 thought of the threat of losing access to thylazine and repeatedly pushed away the nagging sensations-but they came back, would not let him alone. He had long had a vague sense of disquiet about the lifestyle of the Tron-Units, but nothing he could ever define clearly or had any real reason to pursue; now, something had been awakened under the thylazine haze that would not entirely go back to sleep.
A few nights later in the barracks, just before his shift went out for guard duty, 646 pulled one of the other Tron-Units aside and whispered to him, "Don't you ever wonder why we do this? Why do we go out and patrol the fence for endless hours, endless days-what do we get out of it?"
Tron-Unit 390 stared blankly at 646 as though he had not understood the spoken words. 646 tightened his grip on the other's arm. "*Think* about it!" he hissed. "Why do we do this? Do you know?
An expression of confusion crossed 390's features. He pulled away from 646 without a word and headed out to resume his guard post.646 felt a flicker of disappointment, but headed out with the others to take up his usual routine. The only variation consisted of a change from day to night duty, and currently his shift was on night duty. Banks of floodlights sent moving streamers of white light out toward the surrounding city from just beyond the fence, and overhead, the stars gleamed in brilliant patterns through the negligible atmosphere. 646 scanned the darkness, reaching for the memory of his brief period of clear-headedness, as though it were a comfort and a precious thing that he could not afford to lose ... though he knew that, day by day, night by night, that memory was growing ever more distant. Soon he would only know that he had once felt differently than now, but would no longer remember what the sensation was like. A jolt of panic startled him at the thought. He looked around at the other Tron-Units, moving with measured deliberation along the fence perimeter, and seized on another vaguely-defined emotion: revulsion. All the Tron-Units were built to be identical, and 646 wondered if he too walked around with that vapid expression in his eyes, that complete lack of personality in his face, that odd balance of hairtrigger killing reflexes and utterly meek subservience. For the first time, he pushed away not his unsettling thoughts, but the thylazine haze that dulled them, tried desperately to retain what little sensation he had experienced that made him in some manner unique. But it was a poor effort at best; he had taken his latest dose of thylazine along with the others just before starting his shift, and the drug was strong in his fuel lines, allowing him little grasp of his own reflections.
646 moved mechanically along the inside of the fence on his usual patrol route, his legs seeming to carry him forward of their own accord. He passed Tron-Unit 390 coming in the opposite direction, and looked directly at him, hoping to make some sort of connection- but the other Tron-Unit did not even acknowledge his presence.
Despondently, 646 continued on.
* * *
When the first searing tendrils of sunlight put the compound floodlights to shame and the whistle blew at the end of the shift, 646 turned and headed for the barracks with the others. The line for the thylazine dispenser formed automatically; the Tron-Units were eager for their dose, but orderly in the way they went about it-they had long since learned that trying to shove one another out of the way only caused traffic jams and ultimately delayed them. So they lined up before the dispenser in the same silent, mechanical way that they did everything else, and waited their turn.646 was carried forward by the robots around him, toward the looming black dispenser. But the concentration of the drug in his system was low enough by now, that his efforts to clear his mind were a bit stronger. He looked at the dispenser suddenly not as salvation, but as menace-as that which would rob him of what little mentality he could call his own. Slowing his steps, he slowed the line behind him so that it split and flowed around him, others unwilling to wait longer than they had to. 646 moved to the side of the room, letting the others by, and stared with a newly horrified fascination at the dispenser-at the spectacle of the Tron-Units plugging themselves in and receiving their dose, and turning away with dull pleasure to take up their rest cycle in the crowded barracks. If the others noticed 646's strange behavior at all, they did not let on-they were too intent on reaching the dispenser and obtaining their dose.646 recognized 390 as the robot next in line, stepping up to the dispenser and opening his access panel with movements just hasty enough to seem eager, without being panicky. He reached up his hand to slide it into the identification slot-Almost without consciously intending to, 646 bolted forward and slammed sideways into 390, knocking him away from the dispenser. "Get away from that!" he shouted. "All of you!"
He started pushing the nearby Tron-Units back from the dispenser, sending a few of them tumbling back into those behind them.
Instantly their battle drives came online, and four of them leapt for him at once. 646 swung his fists in a wide arc and connected with the two foremost robots, sending each sprawling into an opposite wall. The two others were upon him, though, and he kicked out at them, leaning back against the smooth surface of the dispenser for leverage. He sent them tumbling backwards into the crowd, but they regained their balance almost immediately and lunged at him again- followed by five or six new attackers. They dragged him away from the dispenser, trying to drag him to the ground, but he managed to free himself from their grip just long enough to send the nearest one crashing to the floor under a battery of blows. 646 flailed balled fists and kicking feet in all directions, desperately trying to maintain his balance-but every time he threw one robot off, two others tried to tackle him in his place. Above the tangle of swinging arms and clashing metal, 646 caught a glimpse of the thylazine dispenser. Bizarrely, a good number of the Tron-Units were completely ignoring the fistfight and continued their even, mechanical march toward the dispenser, concerned only with their dose."
Get away from that!" 646 shouted desperately, but the only response was a crashing blow to the side of his head from one of his attackers. 646 reeled, trying to keep his vision focused. He had not used the plasma cannons on his arms because he had no wish to severely injure his fellow Tron-Units-but he realized now that his best chance to free them all was to fire upon the dispenser, even if there was someone in the way. While one of the attackers lunged at him from the right and tried to throw him to the ground, 646 snapped up his left arm and aimed above the heads of the surrounding robots at the smooth black surface of the dispenser.
One of the others gave a shout, then, a horrified cry of realization. As 646 fired, the other robot grabbed his arm and pushed it upward and back, forcing the plasma blast up and through the ceiling, where it melted a sizable hole clear through to the overlying floor. 646 felt his shoulder gears grind against each other painfully as the robot who had grabbed his left arm, now twisted it downward and behind his back, while those that had attacked him from the right, kept hold of him too and slowly forced him towards the ground.
646 struggled, throwing his weight from one side to the other to break their grip. The three Tron-Units holding him did so with difficulty, and he had almost torn away from the one on the left, when a sharp demand sliced through the clashing metal of the battle: "What under the triple moons is going on in here?!"
At the sound of their master's voice, every Tron-Unit in the room froze, including 646. Karrallis stood in the doorway of the dispenser room, flanked by two freshly-charged Tron-Units he had brought along from outside, his optics blazing an incredulous fury. Those Tron-Units who were not holding 646, snapped into a hasty salute. Even the one at the dispenser turned away from it to stand at attention.
Karrallis stepped into the room, glaring around at the disorderly guards and the smoldering hole melted into the ceiling near one corner. 646 witnessed the absurd image of several much larger, bulkier Tron-Units drawing back as though in fear when Karrallis neared them, clearing a path for him. The overseer moved to the center of the room, took another silent, disapproving look around, and then said with an air of icy calm, "I repeat-what is going on in here?"
Tron-Unit 512, standing near the battle group, pointed at 646. "He tried to destroy the thylazine dispenser, my lord."
*What?* Karrallis exclaimed in disbelief. He looked incredulously from the dispenser to the hole in the ceiling to 646. "You tried to destroy-- But *why*--?"
646 gave a sudden lurch to the right, pulling his left arm out of the grip of the robot that held it.
Hold him! Karrallis commanded sharply, jumping back.
Immediately two more Tron-Units had grabbed hold of 646 and kept him firmly pinned in their grip.
646 struggled, to no avail. "Let go of me!" he shouted to the robots who held him. "That dispenser-don't you see? -- it's poison! It's what puts us at the overseer's mercy. We've got to destroy it, be free of them!"
At his words, three Tron-Units took up protective positions in front of the dispenser and leveled their plasma cannons at him.
Karrallis stared at him in shock, and looked around hastily at the other Tron-Units as though suddenly unsure of his safety. "You fool," he hissed, "you would condemn yourself and your fellow Tron-Units to a gruesome death without this life-giving nutrient. Something has obviously gone wrong in your programming."
No! 646 shouted emphatically. "Something has gone right, finally." He addressed the Tron-Units around him. "We are stronger than they are-that's why they have to keep us under control. We've got to break away from the thylazine, so they have no more power over us. Let go of me, and I'll destroy the dispenser right now. We will be free!"
The Tron-Units around him registered a blank lack of understanding, some even anger. Not a one of them seemed to comprehend what he was saying.
Karrallis noted this, and relaxed perceptibly. He motioned to the two Tron-Units who had accompanied him into the room, and said, "Remove the unstable one's weapons."
As one they stepped forward and took hold of the plasma blasters on each of 646's arms while the other robots held him. In one sudden, violent motion they ripped the blasters simultaneously from his arms. 646 screamed involuntarily as the direct links to his neurocircuits were torn out along with the panels of his forearm plating. Several sparking wires dangled from the open wounds, hissing as their hot, torn ends contacted the leaking fuel that started to seep down his arms."
Bring him along to the main laboratory," Karrallis ordered the four robots who were holding 646. "He is obviously deranged and needs repairs."
Roughly the other Tron-Units forced him forward as they followed the overseer out. 646 winced at the pain in his arms as the robots to either side of him jostled against him, but tried none the less to pull himself free. He cast a look back toward the dispenser, and saw that the line had already re-formed. "You idiots!" he shouted back at them. "Do you want to be slaves forever?"
The robots holding him gave him a savage shake, sending bolts of pain down the lengths of his arms. The glare of the morning sun momentarily blinded him as they left the barracks and he was dragged toward the main complex.
* * *
Karrallis led the way in rapid, angry strides through the lavish waiting room and into the maze of corridors that led from it. Behind him he heard the Tron-Units dragging the damaged one, who, incredibly was still struggling-as though it was not obvious by now that he had no chance of breaking free. But he seemed to want to make their progress as difficult as possible.
Karrallis seethed, but under his anger was a current of fear, feeding the fire like an upwelling energon spring. This latest line of Tron-Units was the ultimate, the latest in advanced design, and they had proven themselves to be flawless. They were intelligent enough to think on their own in a hostile situation, to distinguish friend from enemy, but so pliable to their owners' control that their tremendous power need never be a threat. Until now. Something had gone badly wrong with this one, and if it could happen to one, it might be a design flaw that was inherent in the whole line. Perhaps only a matter of time before it manifested itself in the others.
He resisted the urge to look nervously back over his shoulder at the heavy footsteps that followed him. As long as the rhythm remained uneven, the intact Tron-Units were still struggling with the damaged one, and his insurrection had not affected them. Karrallis' first impulse, purely survival-based, had been to have the defective Unit melted down on the spot outside the barracks-but logic won out, with the realization that he'd best find out what exactly the malfunction was, to perhaps keep it from affecting the others. If it truly was a design flaw, then the whole line might have to be scrapped a massive waste of resources which would rankle him for months afterward-but better than the alternative of having the Units turn their massive firepower against him and the other Overseers. Karrallis led the way toward the main research lab in the fervent hope that this single defective Tron-Unit would be proven a unique case. He would set the task to Sigma Drakona herself. Let the old bat earn her keep, for once.
True, she had built the prototype fusion cannon rapidly enough, and it functioned normally as a standard fusion cannon- admittedly far more powerful than any that were currently in use. But where its use of antimatter was concerned, the laboratory tests had been endless and inconclusive. Karrallis was losing patience, and that was another matter he intended to take up with her.
The door to the lab slid aside to let him enter without so much as a warning chime to alert those within. He was First Overseer, after all, and could go where and when he pleased. Behind him, the Tron-Units dragged in their half-heartedly struggling conspecific, who ceased his efforts at the sight of the lab. The huge room opened up before them, separated into uneven sections by huge banks of machinery and computer equipment. The walls of technology seemed to lead inwards toward one central section. Without breaking stride to return the hasty salutes of the nearby technicians, Karrallis strode into the heart of the lab.
Sigma Drakona turned away from a stand that held a long gleaming black cannon, a circular barrel that was as long as her entire body-though against the other machinery of the lab, it looked downright insignificant. It was for this that Karrallis had brought her here, for this that he had paid her outrageous sums of energon-and every time he saw the completed product, he had to suppress a sharp surge of disillusion. He'd expected it to be so much more ... impressive. Yet Sigma Drakona left one hand resting on the smooth black barrel as she turned toward him; it was a possessive, almost maternal gesture, while she regarded him with a cool, demanding impertinence-as though he had trespassed onto her realm.
Karrallis drew himself to his full height and glared down at the scientist, reminding her just who owned the facility, and the results of her efforts. He made a sharp little movement of his head toward the cannon and demanded, "Well? Do you have results for me yet?"
The ancient, fragile-looking female never flinched, never let her steady gaze waver. "It is as I told you, Karrallis," she said. "Laboratory tests can only take us so far. This is a power we have never dealt with before. We require a full-scale field test. To that end I have had the back lot of the factory cleared of debris, and assigned one of your Tron-Units to meet me there tomorrow to perform the test."
*You* have assigned--! Without seeking *permission*--?! Karrallis spluttered, outraged at her audacity, but she continued on as though he had not even spoken.
Here, you see, she said, running her fingers lightly through a mane of wires that trailed from the underside of the cannon, "I've designed the interfaces specifically to tie into Tron-Unit neurocircuitry, using the plasma blasters they already carry as models. The interface can be modified easily, of course. This is just for the field test. Should the tester not survive-and that is likely, as he will be channeling a tremendous amount of untamed energy through his own systems-we will make the necessary modifications and perform another test. Until we have it honed perfectly. The process may cost you the loss of a few Tron-Units, I fear, but the end result will be profitable enough to replace them a thousandfold. Once fine-tuning is complete, we can customize the interface for whomever you wish. For you, perhaps." She looked him up and down derisively and laughed her cackling laugh, mocking him. It was quite obvious from his physical build that he would have a hard time lifting the cannon with both arms, let alone one.
A surge of anger flashed through him and brightened his optics, but she went on as though not even noticing, not even giving him time for a comeback. She craned her neck to regard the group of Tron-Units behind him. "And these are test subjects? Have you anticipated me, perhaps?"
Karrallis bridled his fury with an effort. "No," he said with an icy calm. "The one in the center is malfunctioning, and I want you to find out why."
Sigma Drakona looked at him as though he had just said something completely absurd. "Do I look like a common repaireon to you? My job is antimatter physics, not fixing minor glitches in your horde of guards."
Karrallis shot out a hand and grasped her roughly by one wrist, pulling her with him out of earshot of the Tron-Units. "This is not a minor glitch," he hissed at the old scientist through clenched teeth. "That Tron-Unit refused his dose of thylazine this morning, even tried to destroy the dispenser-and tried to incite the others to revolt! That's not supposed to happen! This is serious, do you understand? If this is a flaw in the entire line, and they all have the potential for going crazy like this-then we're sitting on a time bomb! You know how powerful they are! And you propose to give one of them use of the antimatter cannon in the field tests tomorrow!"
Sigma Drakona extracted her wrist from his grasp with a pointed glare, but even she ventured a nervous glance over at the group of Tron-Units. "Yes, I suppose your point is well-taken," she admitted grudgingly. "But perhaps it is only this one...?"
Then you are to find that out, Karrallis snapped, in a tone that would allow no refusal.
Sigma Drakona gave a single nod, and hobbled over to the group of Tron-Units. The four normal guards still held the malfunctioning one securely, though he was no longer struggling-he seemed intent on looking around at the vast, complex room and taking in everything he possibly could. Karrallis had never seen so much obvious curiosity displayed by a Tron-Unit before, and it unnerved him. Another thing that wasn't supposed to happen.
Sigma Drakona motioned the Units to secure their prisoner to one of the nearby examination tables. The malfunctioning one began to struggle against this again, but it did him no good-within minutes he was securely bound by invisible strands of energy, and the access panels in his helmet, chest, and torso were open to begin testing. Sigma Drakona ordered another of the Tron-Units to lie down on the neighboring table for comparison, and he did so without protest, even opening his own access panels without being asked.
The malfunctioning Unit shot his neighbor a look that could only be described as incredulous contempt-another emotion Karrallis hadn't thought these creatures capable of. Sigma Drakona began her diagnostic, not bothering to infuse any destimulant as she moved into invasive procedures. The malfunctioning Unit gasped sharply as she plugged an electrified sensor-tip into the neural nexus in the side of his head. He dimmed his optics and drew his hands into fists, remaining silent thereafter, as though determined not to cry out. The other Tron-Unit reacted differently to the same procedure-he shuddered once as the sensor connected with his neurocircuits, but then remained perfectly still, his optics glowing their usual even, scarlet shade. Karrallis knew very well that an electrified sensor on a raw neurocircuit should send an explosion of pain racing down the whole net-but the normal Tron-Unit barely seemed to feel it. The malfunctioning one, though-he seemed to feel it. And kept silent only by a sheer act of will.
Karrallis paced, casting frequent critical looks at Sigma Drakona. She seemed to be moving with a maddeningly slow deliberation, as though she sensed his discomfort and was doing her best to draw it out. This abnormal Tron-Unit on the table before her threatened the stability of everything Karrallis had built. It had to be stamped out, eradicated. It could not be allowed to spread its decay to the rest of his empire.
Finally the old scientist put down her diagnostic tools and scanners, and turned to face him. There was a genuine puzzlement, even a trace of worry, in her face. She shook her head. "I found nothing. No discernible difference between the normal and the aberrant one. They are identical in every way, just as they were manufactured."
Karrallis knew that the horror he felt, showed in his eyes, but at this point he did not care. "Then how could this have happened?" he whispered.
Sigma Drakona moved away from the examination tables and motioned him aside. "Perhaps," she said, keeping her voice low and her eyes warily on the two massive silver forms of the Tron-Units, "you simply made them too well. In giving them sentience, intelligence, you also took the risk of giving them individuality, a will of their own. Some chance combination of creator input in the errant one, that made his will stronger than the others. You should have checked your personality donors more carefully."
But the thylazine was supposed to take care of that! Karrallis protested.
Shhh! ... Maybe all is not lost. Maybe your Tron-Units have to be kept in line by more conventional means as well.
Karrallis looked at her blankly. "Such as?"
Sigma Drakona pointed a spindly finger at the malfunctioning Unit, who was beginning to push against the energy field that held him. His head turned from side to side and his optics flickered unsteadily. "Make an example of that one," the scientist hissed. "You see-he's already going into thylazine withdrawal. Make it clear to the others what fate awaits them, if they think to refuse their dosage."
Karrallis looked at the two Tron-Units-one lying perfectly still and serene, the other pulling ineffectively at his bonds-then looked back at Sigma Drakona. An odd mixture of gratitude and loathing overcame him as he regarded the unsteady form of the ancient scientist. Then he cast brightly flaring optics on the struggling Unit, and grinned maliciously. No mere slave would threaten his empire and be granted a painless death!
* * *
646 fought, but much of his strength had left him. He could feel himself trembling from the thylazine withdrawal, could hear the buzzing in his audial sensors that seemed to be filling his whole perception. Four other Tron-Units were dragging him back from the lab, grasping his arms so tightly that bolts of pain shot from his torn armor and frayed connections where his plasma cannons had been ripped away. But this was a minor discomfort compared to the wrenching agony that was building in his fuel tanks and spreading outward.
He barely resisted when one of his captors jammed a modelock into the base of his neck, preventing him from transforming to cannon mode-not that he would have had the necessary coordination at the moment anyway. But Karrallis was taking no chances. He kept a wary distance from the Tron-Units as he accompanied them down the hall, but watched every step they made with a piercing scarlet glare.
They stopped in the waiting room, where one of the Units- 646 recognized him with a shock of dismay as 390 -- staked a pair of chains into the wall itself, and affixed the shackles at their ends onto 646's wrists. His arms were pulled upward above his head as the chains were drawn tight. 646 shook his head, trying to clear his vision, but everything had gone blurry. "Fools!" he snarled at the other Units, hoping desperately to make some contact with a living mind. "You could shatter Karrallis' helmet with a flick of your wrist! Why do you obey him? All he has could be ours if-" A sharp pain in his fuel tanks cut him off, radiating outward toward his limbs. 646 gasped and ground his teeth together, wanting to double over, but the shackles on his wrists held him upright. All he could do was bow his head and bring his legs up a little. The other Units finished their task mechanically, assuring themselves at Karrallis' command that the chains were firmly anchored into the wall, and then stepped back.
The wave of pain receded and 646 lifted his head, staring incredulously at the other Units, the very ones he had shared patrol duty with day after day, night after night. He saw no trace of recognition in their chiseled features, no spark of self-awareness in their eyes. "How can you accept this?" he asked them, almost pleading. "How can you deny yourselves the right to a life of your own? Refuse one dose of thylazine and see if it doesn't make a difference! See if you don't realize that you could be more than you are!"
"Silence, creature!" Karrallis stepped forward in one quick stride and slapped him across the face. He barely felt the blow over the other signals his body was sending, but the sharp metallic sound shot through his head and triggered another wave of radiating pain from his fuel tanks. He dimmed his eyes to darkness against the sensation so as not to cry out.
Karrallis was addressing the others. "Refuse one dose of thylazine and your fate is this one! Your errant brother has forgotten his place, overstepped his boundaries, and now he pays the price. Where do you think you get your strength from? And it is only the overseers who can provide you with it!"
No, 646 gasped weakly, "it's a lie...." But was it a lie? Was it really thylazine that provided the guards with their strength? If not for the chains holding him up, he would at this moment not even be able to stand. Karrallis' statement struck him as wrong, so totally wrong-but his current physical condition was telling him otherwise.
Karrallis smiled an icy smile, and addressed the others. "You see what your senses tell you. Remember this one's fate, and remember it well." He turned and led the guards away, out the ornate entrance hall and out of the building.646 tried to shift his weight back to his legs and pulled reflexively at his chains, but only managed to produce a faint rattling of the links. He made an effort to focus on his surroundings. Some bizarre sense of irony, some twisted love of contrast, had prompted Karrallis to chain him up here in the waiting room facing the sparkling energon fountain as the sunlight streamed through the skylight above. He'd even used real, physical, metal chains, to make the situation that much more uncomfortable. But the shackles that bit into his wrists had already receded into insignificance. New waves of pain wracked him as the concentration of the drug in his fuel lines dropped ever lower.
In the hours that followed, a steady stream of Tron-Units came in from outside and were marched past him as though he were a display item-sometimes with Karrallis there alongside them, sometimes with Sigma Drakona who had hobbled out of her lab- sometimes even with other scientists or overseers whom 646 did not know by name-but always telling the Tron-Units, "See, this will be your fate if you try to deny your purpose in life; we know what's best for you, and we will provide you with what you need." 646, for his part, tried to counter their words with the insistent repetition that the Tron-Units were being used as slaves, yet had the power to free themselves. In the beginning he entertained notions that perhaps one of the other guards would be startled to awareness, would listen to him and actually hear -- would reach out to snap the chains. When he became too weak to repeat his pleas, when his words were soundless whispers, he would entreat the others with his eyes. At one point he wished for nothing so much as a dose of thylazine, and that one of his fellow guards would somehow be able to bring it to him. But they did not understand his unspoken appeals, only marched past mechanically as though they were mindless drones instead of living machines. Nothing registered in their eyes. Nothing.646 dropped his head and let the chains support him, stopped struggling for awareness of his surroundings, consumed only by his own pain. Yet on some level he knew what was being done to him, and refused to give Karrallis and Sigma Drakona the satisfaction of hearing him cry out. He clamped his teeth shut over the screams that tore at his throat, and trembled in silence. The steady metallic tread of heavy footfalls marched past him; the golden sunlight that filled the room was a backdrop of painful brightness against his unseeing optics, and the cheerful gurgling of the energon fountain laughed at him, continuously.
It took a long time to become aware that the light had dimmed, that the marching footfalls had ceased. The fountain still splashed and sang happily to itself, and perhaps that was all he had been aware of. A brief respite from the advancing and receding waves of pain allowed him to draw in a breath, lift his head, and brighten his eyes ever so slightly. A hazy violet dusk had settled over the room, the skylight still showing a square of luminescence, but the color had changed from burnished gold to a pale blue as the fiery orb of the sun had ducked out of sight behind the cityscape. 646 became aware of two figures standing together beside the fountain, regarding him.
Karrallis and Sigma Drakona.
A surge of hatred filled him, true, seething, all-consuming hatred so powerful that it momentarily shoved aside all his physical agony. He embraced it as a nurturing emotion, as a giver of strength, and relished its taste. 646 lurched to his feet and threw his weight against the chains.
Karrallis' eyes brightened in alarm as he took an involuntary step back. Sigma Drakona did not react. And indeed there was no need to, because for all his effort, 646 only managed to pull the chains taut before his strength gave out and he collapsed in their grip.
"Complete thylazine withdrawal is invariably lethal, isn't it?" Karrallis queried nervously.
Sigma Drakona chuckled, a grating sound. "Oh yes. There have never been any survivors. You have nothing to fear, Karrallis- your errant guard has a chance in a million of even living till midnight. He'll be quite dead by morning." She beamed at 646 as though she had just bestowed wonderful news, then turned and started hobbling slowly toward the shadows of the corridor. "Tomorrow the field test," she was saying to Karrallis, who kept pace with her and actually offered her an arm for support. "Then you will see for yourself that I know what I'm talking about, when it comes to antimatter...."Their voices faded out as they drew away. The square of light from above deepened into a darker blue, and a great shadowy silence closed down over the room. Even the gurgling of the energon fountain seemed part of this silence, a steady cadence in the absence of any other interruption. 646 became aware of the rhythmic vibration of the floor under him, even heard the low hum of the monstrous machinery below in the factory, which never slept. But the waiting room had receded into its own bubble of reality, untouched by any outside activity. It seemed as though the entire complex had fallen silent, and somnolent, even though the machines beneath the floor attested otherwise. But almost certainly the overseers and their high-ranking attendants had withdrawn into their private quarters for their rest cycles-as had the top scientists and engineers. It was likely that lowly technicians still scurried about the labs, and of course the Tron-Units patrolled the fence outside-but to 646 this was not a reality so much as the whisper of knowledge that meant nothing to him personally. He was alone in the great silence, and momentarily at peace.
Suddenly an explosion of anguish tore through his body, igniting the neurocircuitry as it raced along the fibers. He jerked convulsively, no longer in control of his movements. His head snapped up, optics fully bright, but he saw nothing-nothing but the white-hot sunburst of pain that seared every atom of his consciousness. No longer knowing, no longer caring who would hear or whether they would be pleased, he screamed, writhing in torment.
The last traces of thylazine in his fuelstream and the intense physiological dependence that they evoked, warped his sensory input so he was no longer aware of where he ended and the rest of the world began-he felt the armor melting off his infrastructure as he was pulled under into a vast sea of pure white-hot agony. He saw his own screams as blindingly bright ribbons of color; he tasted the convulsions of his body as rivers of acid; he heard the starlight coming in from above like high-pitched wails....The starlight ... the *starlight*--! He surfaced, his head flung back, his mouth open in a soundless scream, his optics streaming lubricant but focusing on the skylight above him. A slice of Cybertron's night sky floated there, suspended, and the bright clear stars shimmered just a little from the distortion of the glass. He was dying, and part of him knew it-but part of him refused to accept it. He wanted his life-wanted it as badly as he had ever wanted thylazine-wanted it so desperately that he was willing to defy all the laws of medicine and physics. He latched onto the image of the stars and locked his focus onto that as though it could save him. His fuel pump hammered irregularly inside him, each beat sounding like the shriek of rending metal and sending pulses of fire through his body. He drew great gulps of air into his infilters against the constriction in his chest that tried to shut them down. He fought to keep his vision focused as discordant images tried to block out his view of the stars.
He could see Karrallis and Sigma Drakona as clearly as if they were standing there. The expressionless faces of the other Tron-Units as they filed past him. The looming black monstrosity of the thylazine dispenser. Great Cybertron, how he suddenly wanted a dose of thylazine! But he saw Karrallis again, and a bright-burning hatred filled him, a contempt for what thylazine had made him. He latched onto that too, held the feeling fast. If I survive, he swore silently to the stars, to the Universe, *I will never bow to anyone again! I will never call another being my master. I will exist on my own terms, and others will bow to ME!*
If I survive. If!
His body convulsed, the neurocircuits firing randomly, confused by too much input. He felt as though his internal circuitry had dissolved into liquid. He hung by the chains that bound his wrists, thrashed involuntarily, and spit up the last of the fuel in his tanks. With an almost impossible effort he flung his head back again to gaze up at the skylight, and screamed, one long drawn-out scream of agony and defiance. He would not lie down and die! He would live!
The words formed a drumbeat in his mind. *I will survive! I will survive!*
His legs braced themselves quite by chance against the wall as a wrenching convulsion pulled him forward. The chains snapped to their full lengths and held, the shackles gouging into the lighter armor of his wrists. And suddenly the pressure on the left wrist was gone. He snapped forward and spun to the right as the chain tore loose from the wall with a great clattering of metal. The seizure past, he hung limply by his right arm, his every internal component trembling.
He found himself forming the words with his lips, although no sound escaped him: I will survive ... survive....
He sucked in more gasping breaths, and forced himself to lift his head. Slowly, working his left hand up along the wall, trailing the shackle and loose chain, he pulled himself up, finally reaching the chain that held his right hand. His legs could not support his weight- he hung solely by the one chain. Groping, almost blindly, his hands sought out the stake that had driven the chain into the wall. For the barest of instants he was able to brace his legs against the floor, and used the moment to close his grip on the stake and fling his entire weight against the chain.
With a tremendous crash and clang and a shower of mortar, he fell backwards onto the floor of the waiting room, free.
How long he lay there, too exhausted to move, he did not know. The chant repeated itself in his mind of its own accord: *I will survive, I will survive*.... And when he next brightened his eyes to look up at the skylight above him, the stars had shifted position. It was well past midnight.
His mind felt sharp and clear-startlingly so. He had a sudden, frightening sense of unlimited possibilities opening up before him. As though his life was fully his own now, and he could never again lay credit or blame at someone else's feet. It was terrifying. It was exhilarating.
And with this sensation came a renewed strength to his body.
He found that he could move of his own volition again-his joints ached beyond words and every movement was anguish-but it was brought about by his own choosing this time, and he welcomed it.
Rolling over onto his stomach he pulled himself forward toward the energon fountain. The gurgling, pinkish liquid gleamed softly under the skylight. With an effort he hoisted himself up over the low rim and plunged his face into the catchbasin. This energon had never been meant for drinking-it was ornamental only, a pretty, gleaming fountain that was full of dust and particulate matter on close inspection. It was the best energon he had ever had.
Renewed power flowed into him. He pushed himself up from the fountain and sat crouched on the floor for a while, tracking the sensations that were coursing through his body. A steady increase in power, unmistakably. He reached back behind his neck and pulled the modelock off, wincing slightly as the sharp point of the interface came loose from where it was imbedded-but it was a welcome pain, again, because it made very clear that he was still alive. A warm trickle of fuel ran from the tiny wound and coursed down his back as he cast the modelock aside. He looked down at the shackles that still held his wrists, and worked his fingers under them, snapping them apart one by one. When the loose chains clattered to the floor he looked up, suddenly afraid that someone would hear, that someone would come- that someone would take his newfound life away from him again.
His optics flared bright scarlet with a newly-formed determination. That would never happen. He was in control of his own destiny now, and would be, from this time onward. And there was one way to insure it beyond a shadow of a doubt.
646 rose and headed silently into the labyrinth of corridors.
* * *
Total Warfare's laboratories never slept. Even in the darkness between midnight and the dawn, there was always some instrument of battle being perfected-always some new plan for mass destruction being laid out-always some buyer, sanctioned or otherwise, being lined up to keep the profits rolling in. But even in Total Warfare's laboratories, the pace slowed in the dead of night.
When 646 burst into the main lab, only a handful of technicians stood to oppose him. He knocked them aside easily and plunged for the heart of the chamber. He knew exactly what he wanted, and where it was.
He snatched the gleaming black barrel off its stand and clutched it tightly for a moment, his thoughts whirling. This weapon was a tangible representation of power, of survival, and he regarded it with something close to reverence.
A blaring alarm klaxon jolted him back into action.
Hurriedly he placed the cannon against his right forearm, which was less damaged than the left, though the loose interface wires to his plasma blaster still dangled. The back of the interface on the cannon clicked into place with an unbroken edge of the access panel on his arm, making the physical connection. The cannon's interface wires snaked downward of their own accord and tied into his neurocircuitry, making an almost seamless meld. A single loose wire from his plasma blaster dangled out between his arm and the cannon, interrupting the perfect fit. But it would do, for now. He would have those old interface wires removed-he no longer needed them.
A resounding crash from behind him made him spin around, bringing up his right arm in an old battle-reflex. This fusion cannon ran the length of his whole arm and was much heavier than his old plasma blasters; his shoulder joint ground in a painful protest. But he was not concerned with such trivialities at the moment. A whole squad of Tron-Units had burst into the lab, Karrallis in their wake. The guards circled him quickly, aiming their double sets of plasma blasters at him. 646 spun, trying to keep them all covered with his aim so they would not attempt to rush him, but it was impossible to keep all of them in sight at once.
Put down the cannon! Karrallis ordered from some distance behind the guards. Then changing his tone to one more persuasive, more gently cunning, he added, "Put it down right now, and we'll get you a nice dose of thylazine. That's all you really want, isn't it? There's no need for this."
A surge of panic shot through 646 like a laser bolt up his spine. He looked around into the blank faces of the other Tron-Units, their drugged indifference. He would never go back to being that.
His mind reached out, probing for the cannon on his arm.
The same mental commands that worked on his plasma blasters were applicable here-though the cannon itself was imparting stored data to him, an influx of knowledge about just how to use it. There was the normal mode, that corresponded to his plasma blasters. Then there was-something more. 646 reached for that, activated the function almost without consciously thinking about it.
Without warning the lab blanked out of existence. An indescribably cold blackness closed down around him. In the center of that was a churning maw of white energy spewing toward him, flowing into him. From somewhere far away he sensed the cannon's database imparting instructions. He knew suddenly, as though he had always known, what he had to do. Gathering the energy that was flooding him, he focused it down to a narrow beam lest it overwhelm him completely and destroy him. The unbelievable power surged through him, striving to be unleashed, but he restrained it-just long enough for it to reach a critical mass.
He couldn't restrain the power any longer. His vision flashed on again, the lab popped back into existence-the cannon on his arm was shimmering with unseen radiation while a white-hot light built up in the barrel. Karrallis had pressed himself back against a wall, shouting something that 646 could not make out; the Tron-Units simultaneously launched themselves at him, moving as though in slow motion---The blast screamed from the barrel of the cannon, a seething wild white torrent that knocked 646 backwards against the Tron-Unit behind him. His aim went wild, cutting through three Tron-Units directly ahead of him and vaporizing them instantly, then angling down into the floor and tearing through all the way to the factory levels. Total Warfare's vast stockpiles of weaponry, ammunition, and energon burst into a simultaneous explosion. The chain reaction spread below ground for all of seven seconds before the ground burst open and a massive, instantaneous firestorm engulfed the entire complex.646 knew only that his cannon was still spewing white light.
* * *
The incredible blast had flattened buildings in a three mile radius around the complex. The scorched, littered crater left by the Total Warfare Munitions Plant after it collapsed in on itself, had not even entirely cooled yet when the Scraps ventured out of hiding and began picking over the remains. A rare, precarious truce existed at the site between the rival packs-Total Warfare had been a common target for all, equally desired by all, equally hated by all for the resources that lay within the patrolled fence, that none could reach. Until now. So the rival packs scrounged together this one time, more intent on what they might find than in keeping up appearances with old enemies.
A group of twelve or fifteen had converged on one of the higher hillocks in the blast-scape, picking out bits and pieces of robot armor and scattered limbs, which would make better-than-average replacement parts. Suddenly there was a metallic scraping sound. The nearby Scraps froze, darting suspicious glances at one another.
A large piece of sheet-metal slid down the slope, grinding to a halt at the feet of one of the bulkier robots. He looked up along with the others to see more debris come loose and tumble downward. As one, the scavengers took a step back from the hill of mangled metal.
646 pushed away the last of the broken pipes that had him pinned, and rose unsteadily to his feet. The bright-hot midday sun beat down on a blackened landscape the likes of which he had never imagined. 646 gaped, equally shocked by the sight as by the fact that he was still alive to witness it. He looked down at the gleaming black barrel on his right arm, realizing that the force of the antimatter blast had somehow shielded him from its aftereffects. But from the littered parts around him, the others had not been so lucky.
His eyes fell on the battered robots that were loosely grouped around him at the base of a small hill of debris, staring up at him. Scraps. Reflexively his optics narrowed in contempt; the Tron-Units had always held the Scraps in contempt. But he knew also that the Scraps had always hated the Tron-Units, and the situation was very different now. He was alone, and they were many. Furthermore, he could barely remain on his feet. The tremendous energies of the antimatter blast had all but drained him-he would not even be able to muster a standard fusion burst from the cannon. And if he let on for one moment how defenseless he was, the Scraps would tear him apart.
By all rights he should fear for his life. But by all rights, he should have been dead twice over by now. He had faced down death itself the previous night, and death had blinked. He had broken his physical shackles, and the far stronger chains of an addiction so powerful that its victims died of pain and madness -- yet he had retained his life, his mind. Any future threat would seem secondary by comparison. And no obstacle was insurmountable.
646 mustered an expression of confident superiority, and regarded the Scraps coolly from his elevated position. Almost casually he drew the barrel of his cannon toward him and rubbed away a bit of soot. One of the Scraps, a shabby female with a missing optic lens and an almost-faded Decepticon symbol, made the connection. She looked to 646, the cannon on his arm, the surrounding blast site, and back to the cannon. "*You* did this?" she demanded, in the blustery, belligerent manner of the street packs, though her tone could not quite hide the trepidation in her eye.
Indeed I did, 646 confirmed, as though it were a relatively casual matter. Perhaps these rattletrap robots could be useful to him somehow, he mused. He was badly in need of fuel, for one thing, and some repairs would help-and after that, well, he would examine the possibilities when the time came. "And if you know what's good for you, you won't give me cause to do it again."
The female gulped and sidled backwards. The others looked up at him with a slowly dawning reverence. Here was someone who had single-handedly destroyed the entire Total Warfare complex, been right in the center of the blast himself-and had lived! Surely, an invincible warrior! And surely someone that it was better to side with, than against.646 saw to his amazement that a good number of them were ready to throw their allegiance at his feet right then and there. He picked his way down the hill and they stepped back from him respectfully. Finding a fallen beam, he sat down with a measured nonchalance (before he collapsed) and leaned back, regarding all of them with a disinterested sort of appraisal. "So," he began, "which of you would like to share some energon with a new arrival to the streets of Perihellia?"
Three of them immediately volunteered and dashed off to raid their cache, while from across the blast-scape others were gathering around in curiosity. The tale of his accomplishment was passed among them in hushed whispers even as he watched. One green-and-gray male who seemed in somewhat better repair than the others ventured forward and asked a bit timidly, "So, uh-sir? What do we call you?"
"I am Tron-Unit---" 646 stopped. The other Tron-Units were dead, perhaps deservedly prey to their own slave mentality. He was the last one now, and his number designation no longer meant anything. His old life, in fact, no longer meant anything.
What were the chances Sigma Drakona had given him for a few hours of survival? And what was that prefix that denoted "million"?
He surveyed the gathered Scraps with an imperious sweep of his optics. With only the trace of a smile to betray his eagerness for his new life, he fixed his gaze on the green-and-gray robot and replied, "You will address me as Megatron."