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Shelter From The Void by Raksha

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This story takes place around 1992, Earth time, about 2 months after "Sabotaged Identity." There are one or two references to this story, but I don't think you'd miss out on anything by not having read it.

For people who are wondering about length, "Shelter" is about twice as long as anything I've posted so far. If I were to print it at home, it would run 58 pages. (Sorry, but I'm an anachronism -- I think in "pages" and not "k".) It's split into 5 parts, of which the first one is the longest. Also want to point out, in advance, something that looks like it's an error but isn't. Before someone jumps up and says "humans didn't have space travel that long ago," I should point out that, in my fictional universe, humans don't originate on Earth. (See the Space 1999 episode "Testament of Arkadia" for the reference.) They're actually a much older species that was widespread throughout the galaxy, in varying stages of technological advancement. (This is also why so many human cultures were encountered in Classic Trek.....) The fact will be mentioned in a later story (not yet written), but couldn't conveniently be worked into this one, so I just wanted you guys to be aware of it.

Finally, I should say that I'm *not* looking for this story to be shredded by criticism and nitpicking. I'm never as happy with my "Raksha stories" as I am with my "non-Raksha stories" anyway. The only comment I'm really interested in is, whether or not people want to see more Raksha stories. I have a number of others that are set later in time; I just had never gotten around to writing the intro story until now. And I'm hesitant about posting stories that focus so much on a non-toy character, that people aren't familiar with, have no real reason to care about, and therefore might find really really boring. So all I really want to know is, do you people want to see others, or not? If so, I may post them eventually. If not, I won't.

Here's the first one, in any case.......

* * *

Moving the wastelands over my eyes,
Moving like the last phantom,
Where across all the expanse of Earth no living thing rises to greet me....
From "Dark Journey"

Part 1

From the vast and impossibly cold emptiness of interstellar space, she was drawn toward the fiery corona of the blazing yellow sun. It was the only nearby star-the others glittered in the distance like sparkling chips of ice, scattered upon the lightless expanse of the Universe. But the sun ahead of her, that grew closer and larger as she approached, promised the overwhelming relief of light and warmth. Her wings, grown painful and stiff with the cold, seemed to beat a little easier at the thought.

As she plunged toward the light she could feel the star's gravity field tugging at her, gently at first. From much previous experience, she knew just exactly how far she could go ... to the point where the light was all that filled her field of vision, painfully bright; to the point where waves of scalding heat seemed to ripple on the fabric of space itself, searing away all the layers of ice that formed along the edges of her scales and within the plumes of her wings; to the point where she had to actively maintain her altitude above the star, lest its gravity well suck her downward into fiery oblivion. She was still several million kilometers away from the star's surface, but that was entirely close enough. The heat that washed over her was pure and tangible pleasure.

She skimmed the "surface" of the sun for a while, but the warmth relaxed her and she soon tired of fighting against gravity. Once or twice in the past she had let her guard drop, and had been rapidly tugged downward nearly to the point of no return. She'd had to fight to escape, with every bit of strength and determination she possessed; one time, she'd burned so much energy in the process that she'd had to practically drift through space, helpless, until chance had brought her to a planet with a suitable fuel-source. She knew she would not be that lucky a second time. Tilting her wings at a precise angle, she shot diagonally upward in such a way as to use the star's own gravity field as a slingshot, to fling her away from the sun and out into the darkness of space. It was a technique that could propel her quite some distance into the next stage of her journey, and had taken much practice to perfect -- but then, she'd had a long time to practice it.

This time, as she streaked away from the sun, she noticed a belt of broken rock and planetary debris that circled the yellow star in a thin ring. It was not exactly a true solar system, and so lacked any large planets that would have caught her attention on the way in -- but now, after she had warmed up and could turn her attention to other things besides reaching the outer layers of the sun -- now she noticed these circling clumps of stone. The largest of them could have passed for a small moon. The other bits and pieces dwindled in size down to swirls of fine dust.

Making a rapid decision, she curved around and turned her slingshot momentum back on itself, heading at great speed toward the largest of the debris fragments. It had an atmosphere which shrouded the surface in a vague haze. She penetrated the upper layers and plunged downward. The ground came up under her quickly and she pulled up, skimming along just above the surface. The orange stone that seemed to comprise most of the surface, was sculpted into fissures that expanded, on closer inspection, into vast ravines, interspersed with free-standing plateaus, which in turn expanded into vast stretches of unbroken flatlands. The planetoid was sufficiently close to the sun that all the moisture had been baked out of the earth, and heat rose in visible ripples from the surface, as well as beating down from above.

She had traveled a long way since the last star, and even longer since the last planet, and she knew she needed to take advantage of the chance to rest, to enjoy the pleasure of being heated to optimal temperature once again. She slowed her incredibly rapid flight through the atmosphere, braking the slingshot effect with reversed wingbeats and an upward tilt of her body. She had seen no sign of life on the planetoid's surface under her, so one place to land was as good as any; she chose the broken edge of a cliffside that looked appealing from the air, and glided down towards it. Closing in, the imposing wall of stone seemed to rise to meet her, and she spiraled down along its edge, into the deep valley that stretched away from its base. She drifted out of the shadows at the cliff's base, and came to a gentle landing on the hard, flat stone some distance beyond. Broken bits of the cliffside littered the area around her, but she sought out a flat expanse, and stretched out her coils on the sun-heated stone.

It felt good to have support under her once again, to be still rather than in perpetual motion. Luxuriously she stretched her coils, arranging her long body in an almost straight line. She unfurled her wings and laid them flat against the ground to both sides of her, so that the sun struck their maximum surface area. Without much conscious effort, she relaxed in the intoxicating heat. This simple pleasure was such a contrast to the rigors of her journey that it did not take much, in unguarded moments, for exhaustion to overwhelm her. It happened more and more quickly these days. Her species had not been meant to travel the stars, and much as she tried to deny it, her endurance was wearing thin. But she knew that as soon as she had rested a little, she would be on her way again. There was, in fact, no other option that she could see, but to keep going. It was as though she was searching for something, but she didn't know what; there was no place for her anywhere, so she would just keep going.

As always before shutting down to sleep, a disconnected series of images drifted through her mind -- the thousand worlds she had seen, and left behind -- the multiple alien species she had come across, had puzzled over or been repulsed by -- snatches of scenes from her homeworld, others of her kind -- as if those long-dead voices could speak to her again. She didn't fight it, but drifted with it. The sun beat down on her, and her optics lost focus. She welcomed the oblivion of sleep as the voices from her past faded away to silence.

* * *

She woke with a start at a tremor of vibration that shuddered through the ground -- a soft tremor, from far away, but closing in rapidly. Instinctively wary, she pulled her wings in close to her body and raised her head, looking around. Her sharp vision caught a dust cloud rising in the distance, and below and within it the movement of multiple objects. As they drew closer, she could see the glint of sunlight off metal, and an interweaving series of light-beams that seemed to dance between the moving metallic figures.

Curiously she slithered forward among the broken pieces of cliffside. The dust cloud with its occupants approached as though to meet her halfway. She stopped just short of emerging into the open from the protection of the littered boulders, and focused in on the scene.

From the current distance and angle, she could now see that the moving metallic objects were robotic beings of some sort, each with different colors. The colorful beams of lights that danced between them made for an enchanting and slightly dazzling display. But she realized that this was no game, no display for beauty's sake; the colorful beams of light shot out from handheld objects that she had come to recognize, in her travels, as weapons. The light-beams, she had learned, could be surprisingly destructive for something of such mysterious beauty. Looking more closely, she could see that the robotic beings seemed definitely divided into two opposing groups -- one backing up and trying to cover its retreat, apparently protecting a bulky mobile machine between them -- and the other on the attack, pushing them backward.

Whatever their struggle might be, she did find it a fascinating and beautiful display. The actual conflicts of other beings did not concern her, but she would watch for a while, purely for the visual effect.

The retreating group was being forced toward the cliffside, toward the point where the valley narrowed. Having flown over it, she knew there was no way out, that the cliffs curved together and formed a dead end. The retreaters did not seem to know this, however. They were frantically trying to protect the wheeled, squarish device in their middle. To that end, two of the largest robots, a silver one and a blue one, and a number of quite small ones, were trying to keep their opponents at bay, while two sets of three identical robots in different colors guided the rolling machine, and took occasional shots at the others. As they were forced further and further towards the shadow of the cliffside, they seemed to realize that they were being backed into a trap, and redoubled their efforts.

For a few moments it seemed to work -- the retreating group managed to hold its ground, just at the point where the two sides of the cliff started to narrow and converge towards each other. Then the winning group began to change its tactics. While most of them kept firing on the retreaters, a number of them began to aim their weapons at the cliffside, high above their opponents.

Her sharp eyes picked out the fissures that began to crack along the upper edge of the cliff. If the winning group continued to fire, a whole section of the cliff face would come loose and crash down on the others, surely destroying them.

The retreaters were outnumbered, and at a disadvantage since they were trying not only to fight their opponents, but protect their piece of machinery as well. Still, they continued to fight relentlessly with what could only be described as valor. Noting this with a passing flicker of respect, she tensed involuntarily as she saw part of the cliffside begin to crumble. Several of the retreaters had wings, and she assumed they could fly out of the trap -- but they were so intent on their enemies that they did not notice the danger they were in.

For a moment, the insane impulse flashed through her mind, to warn them somehow. But just as quickly she dismissed the thought. What were other creature's squabbles to her? She would scour the Universe alone until the end of her days, remaining detached from all the beings she came across, and that was as it should be. There could be no other fate for her. Torn between the morbid desire to witness the battle's inevitable end and watch the cliff face crashing down, and simply turning away ... she drew back and began to turn away.

Suddenly something caught the corner of her eye, a movement among the winning group that she recognized immediately. That type of movement, that size and shape, had been seared irrevocably into her mind. Her head snapped around, teeth bared, as she focused in for a clearer look. But there had been no mistake. There, between the legs of the much larger robots and slightly in the background, scurried the beings she hated most in all the galaxies -- beings that she hated with a relentless and driven fury that blinded her to all else. Humans!

Almost automatically she launched herself into action. Bringing her wings up, she shot into the air from behind the rocks that had hidden her, emitting a piercing shriek of fury that sliced through the hot, still air and echoed off the canyon walls. Startled out of their battle, the two groups of robots spun to face her in utter amazement, but she totally ignored them. She plunged down toward the winning group, writhing in the air as she sought the best angle to reach her prey, who were partially blocked by their robotic allies. Her vision focused down to only those two small figures, who stared up at her in paralyzed fascination. Her jaws gaped wider, ready to scoop both of them up at once and snap them in half.

Her coils brushed the metal bodies of the robots as she streaked down between them, but they might as well have been part of the landscape; she was moving much too fast for them to react, and her senses were totally focused on the two humans. Another instant and she would have them--

They broke their paralysis and scattered, each one running in a different direction between the legs of the robots. A common prey - tactic, but her hunting instincts would not be thrown off so easily. She made a snap decision and twisted toward the smaller one -- only to suddenly find one of the robots directly in her way. Too late to stop or turn, she impacted and sunk all four of her poison fangs deep into the creature's crimson shoulder. In an instinctive follow-up reaction, her coils flung themselves around his body, drawing tight.

The robot fell back and screamed, a long-drawn, agonizing sound that exploded right next to her left audial sensor. In an instant the others were around her, grabbing at her coils, wings, and jaws, shouting and trying to pull her loose.

She snarled deep in her throat and drew her fangs out of the robot's shoulder, snapping her head from side to side to catch sight of the humans. But they were gone, and some of the robots had changed form as well; some now looked like vehicles with wheels, while others milled around with their hand-held weapons. With a series of snarls that rose in pitch until they were screams of fury, she flung her head in a semicircle to drive back the crowd of robots around her, and disentangled her wings from them. Releasing the robot who had blundered into her way, she shot upward into the air, leaving her victim twitching spasmodically on the ground. A number of bright light-beams lanced up at her, some of which struck her scales. While she felt the impact, they were otherwise harmless and bounced off; though she did feel the one that grazed her wing-plumes.

She circled rapidly and plunged down for another assault. Multiharmonic shrieks of hatred and fury burst from between her fangs as she frantically searched for her prey. The robots had drawn together over their injured comrade, and the largest, another red one with blue highlights, tried determinedly to fix an aim on her with a powerful-looking weapon. If the beam from *that* hit her wings, she knew it would cause considerable damage.

Still she dodged and weaved in the air. The humans could not have disappeared -- these robots were hiding them somehow.

Suddenly a barrage of light-beams from a new angle flashed through the air. The formerly retreating group emerged rapidly from the shadow of the cliffside, catching the others by surprise. Some of them whirled to face this new assault, but they were disorganized now, and had lost their cohesiveness as well as their advantage. The large red robot shouted something, and as one the group changed its form, becoming wheeled vehicles in a matter of instants. One of them, a white, boxy-looking vehicle, extended a grappling arm and snagged his injured comrade, drawing the smaller robot into a hollow compartment inside his vehicle form.

That was where the humans were, she realized! Hidden in a similar such place, inside one of these robots! Their engines revved and plumes of dust boiled into the air as they rapidly rolled away over the level plain. The largest of their opponents, the silver robot, stood firing after them with a long barrel-shaped weapon that was attached to his right arm.

None of this concerned her. She tore off after the retreating vehicles, plunging down at them from the sky and trying to sink her teeth into them, but they twisted and turned away from her in their flight and she was barely able to graze one or two of them with her fangs. Weapons emerged from hidden compartments in several of the medium-sized vehicles, and a tapestry of light beams converged on her. In her single-minded attack she paid them little heed, until several beams scored her wings. Breaking off and rising upward with screams of pain and frustration, she forced herself to circle back, winding her way through the light beams for another attack. But more weapons had appeared, and there was no dodging all of them.

One wing was damaged and it slowed her down. The vehicles thundered across the plain and drew away from her. She circled upward in a manic spiral, watching them go. Her jaws gaped and she cried out, frustration and fury in the sound, and it reverberated from the barren cliffsides all around her. She turned and turned in frantic circles in the brazen sky, lashing her tail.

Finally there was no trace of the retreating robots and she calmed a little, having dissipated a lot of her anger in her wild flight. Slowly, gradually, she glided downwards in the general direction of the cliffsides where she had left the other group of robots behind.

Why she went there, rather than simply moving back out into space, she was never certain. Perhaps because they had been fighting a group that was allied to humans, and so she felt some vague stirring of kinship. In any case she sailed over the narrowed spot in the cliff face, which would easily have become a tomb, and found that the remaining group of robots was now busy setting up camp. The wheeled piece of machinery, which they had so jealously guarded, had unfolded into a strange and complicated-looking structure with many controls and lights, and several of the robots were working over it, expanding it further until it became a bank of metal that nearly towered over the largest of them.

Three medium-sized robots, the ones with the wings, who were identical except for color, had taken up guard positions at the mouth of the canyon. It was here that she landed, and coiled herself around one of the jagged boulders from which she could keep watch on the group's activities. One of the winged ones, red-and-silver in color, shot her a suspicious glare and adjusted his weaponry into plainer view -- but as she made no threatening move, neither did he. She turned her attention away from the guards and watched the others, who worked at the machine. The sun still beat down on her with its pleasant heat, and though she remained alert and watchful, her body relaxed gradually until she was very comfortable on her heated boulder, watching these odd beings that she had come across.

* * *

The sun had turned flame-red and shadows lay in dark, irregular bands across the landscape, when the strange machine began to growl to itself. Three of the smallest robots, these identical in every way including color, tended to it busily, while the largest of the robots, the silver one, stood over them with folded arms and watched intently.

She felt the faint, mildly pleasant vibration in the ground from whatever the machine was doing. She watched, intrigued.

As best she could see, the machine seemed to push long probes or tubes out from its lower edges, and force them downward into the ground. Some dust spewed up from around the probes as the upper layers of stone cracked at the entry points. Lights began to flash rhythmically on some of the instrument panels along the sides.

That's far enough, said the silver robot, in a voice like gravel grinding against itself. "We're tapped in."

The group of robots, even the winged sentries, abandoned their positions and gathered round. The sound of the machine changed, and suddenly a small glowing-pink cube appeared in one of the openings in its side. Exclamations of relief and pleasure went up from the assembled group. One stepped forward and tried to reach for the cube, but the silver one gestured him away with a warning flicker of his scarlet eye-lenses. He reached for the cube himself, held it up in the fading light and examined it, until he was apparently satisfied. A new, identical cube appeared in its place in the slot at the side of the machine.

All afternoon she'd listened to snatches of the creatures' conversations, picking up words, meanings, grammar, very quickly as was the manner of her kind, and by now she had a reasonable grasp on the language. Despite that, the words meant little to her when the silver one handed the first cube to the blue robot beside him and said, "A pity the Autobots have damaged warriors to attend to, or they might be able to share in the wealth! This subterranean sea of fossil fuel so close to the surface, will provide us with just the energy we need to complete the trip to Cybertron."

The others around him laughed appreciatively, and passed the small glowing cubes to each other as they emerged. There seemed to be a sense of triumph and relief among the group. Whatever the substance was, it was important to them, and for a while, they had almost been prevented from obtaining it.

A moment later she had a better idea of what the glowing stuff was, for the robots lifted the cubes to their mouths and drank the purplish-pink liquid with obvious relish. Food, then.

She edged closer, aware suddenly that she badly needed to refuel. There had been a time when she would have refused any food other than living prey, but that was long ago, and the Universe was a different place now. She'd learned to do many things that were against her nature, and would perhaps learn many more.

The smaller robots were starting to stack the glowing cubes into piles, as they emerged at a steady pace from the rumbling machine. The silver one sent the three winged ones back to their posts as sentries, and drew back to a spot where he could sit against the cliffside and oversee the work.

The large blue robot moved to join him. "Megatron," he addressed the silver one, "what will we do about this fuel source? We don't have the resources to defend it, and we cannot let it fall into Autobot hands."

She edged a bit closer at the sound of the blue robot's voice, for this was the first time she had heard it clearly. It was a deep, resonant sound, almost a monotone, but its harmonics struck some chord deep inside her and she found it immensely appealing. There was something almost ... comforting ... about the sound, and she had not known comfort in a vast, cold eternity. If she could just lie coiled here a while longer and listen to that sound, that voice, she would be happy at least for a short while.

I know, the one called Megatron replied to his companion's question.

She decided, on re-examination, that she liked his voice too, the gravely texture of the sound. But she wished the blue one would keep talking.....

Instead Megatron continued, "We'll be able to gather just enough fuel to power up the ship. It's a waste, I know, but we've got to destroy the sea on the way out. By the time we could make it back to Cybertron and return with an attack force, the Autobots would have claimed it."

I do not believe we could spare an attack force at this point in time anyway, the blue one observed.

Megatron glanced at him sharply for a moment, then sighed. "Yes, I suppose you're right. The damn Autobots are too close to the borders of Polyhex for my liking these days. They know we're running low on resources, and they're trying to take advantage of it. But we won't let them, Soundwave." He gestured at the humming machine, spitting out its small pink cubes. "We won't curl up and die like they want us to!"

*Soundwave*, she thought. That was the blue one's name. The substance of the conversation was irrelevant to her, but she would remember that name. It was appropriate, somehow.

And the first thing we do, when we get home, Megatron muttered to Soundwave more quietly, "is fix the blasted space bridge. Look at us, reduced to bouncing around the galaxy in outdated spacecraft..." He gestured disgustedly in the general direction of the other robots.

All things will fall into place with time, Megatron, Soundwave replied calmly. "We've had difficult times in the war before."

Megatron said nothing, but after a moment he rose abruptly and went to his machine, somewhat impatiently displacing the smaller robots, to take over its operation himself.

She could see a pile of cubes growing not far from where Soundwave sat and watched. Slowly, very slowly, she uncoiled herself completely from her boulder and edged closer. Her metallic scales made no sound against the smooth hot stone under her, but suddenly Soundwave turned his head and looked right at her, as though he had heard something. She froze, staring at him with a sudden wary suspicion. She knew nothing about these creatures. How would this one react to her?

Soundwave held her gaze for a long moment. It looked as though the light in his single red eyeband intensified just for an instant. Then without a word he rose and picked up one of the pink cubes, tossing it lightly in her direction so that it landed directly in front of her muzzle.

It smelled of fuel, but artificial somehow -- processed. Cautious despite her hunger, she touched the edge of the cube with her teeth. The edge gave way to the sharp tips of her fangs, and a trickle of glowing pink liquid seeped out. She lapped at it, slowly at first -- then eagerly bit into the side of the cube to tear away a whole edge. Greedily she drank the glowing liquid, not letting any of it go to waste by dripping to the rocks below. To her amazement the transparent sides of the cube dissolved with a slight tingle in the air, once the contents had been emptied.

She drew back from this, coiling her neck into a defensive "s"-shape -- but since no damage had been done she edged her head forward again, peering hungrily at the disorderly pile of pink cubes.

Soundwave tossed her another, slightly larger. She fell upon it instantly.

Hey! came a high-pitched and indignant voice. The red- and-silver winged robot, who had glared at her so suspiciously earlier, stalked over to Soundwave and drew himself up self-importantly. "What do you think you're doing, feeding some wild animal with our hard-won energon? Are we humans at the zoo, tossing peanuts to the elephants, or something?"

She drew back into her defensive coil, leaving the half- emptied cube halfway between her and the two robots. Instinctively she bared her fangs at the hostile, sarcastic tone of the red-and-silver robot, though she had understood the word "humans" too, and that was part of her reaction.

Almost immediately Megatron joined them. "Starscream," he demanded of the winged robot, "what's the problem?"

The *problem*, the red-and-silver one said, glaring, "is that *Soundwave*--" he said the name with palpable contempt -- "is throwing away our energon to this -- this--"

Plumed Serpent, Soundwave filled in matter-of-factly, when Starscream seemed unable to come up with a fitting insult.

She drew her coils together reflexively in surprise. How could Soundwave possibly know what her species called itself?

Without her help, we might not have any energon at all, Soundwave stated. "If she had not attacked the Autobots when she did, we would not have had the chance to catch them off guard. Surely we can spare two energon cubes in return?" Here he looked expectantly at Megatron.

What a bunch of garbage! Starscream retorted. "You're assigning conscious motives to some native beast that was acting on instinct ... probably didn't like Sideswipe's red color, or something--"

In that case I'd be cautious if I were you, Megatron said with a smirk and a pointed look at Starscream's bright-red body and wing-stripes. "Maybe she doesn't like your red color!"

Megatron laughed at the look of startled realization that crossed Starscream's face. He swallowed whatever argumentative reply had been on his tongue, and took a hasty step back. "How do you know it's a 'she', anyway?" he demanded, but less stridently, in an attempt to regain some of his bravado.

Soundwave looked at him with utter composure. "Starscream," he said, very patiently, as though he'd explained it a thousand times, "I am a telepath."

Fine, fine, Starscream muttered, glaring daggers at all of them, "but you still shouldn't be throwing away our energon."

Megatron considered this thoughtfully for a moment, and then said languidly, "Oh ... I think we can spare two cubes."

Starscream's eyes flashed bright. "You're just saying that to side with *him*!" he fumed with an indignant gesture at Soundwave. "You would have been all over him for it, if *I* hadn't said anything first! You--"

*Starscream*! Megatron's voice snapped out in a command tone, all trace of amusement or relaxation gone, and Starscream jolted involuntarily to a stance of attention. "My decisions are final. Now, get back to your guard post!"

Starscream's eyes were huge and bright. "As you command," he managed, and scurried hastily back to his post.

Megatron took in the scene with a satisfied, imperious sweep of his eyes: the half-drained energon cube on the ground, Soundwave, their alien visitor. "Soundwave, you're with me," he ordered then, and strode back towards the churning machine, the blue robot following wordlessly at his side.

The remains of the energon cube gleamed softly in the twilight. With a last cautious glance in Starscream's direction, she pushed forward over the still-warm rocks, and drained the rest of the nourishing fuel.

* * *

The sun was not yet up, but the horizon had turned from black to gray, when the three winged robots began their relay-flights to transport the gathered fuel. They changed shape into sleek skycraft and their cockpits were filled with the glowing pink cubes, before they streaked away towards their spaceship somewhere in the distance. Only one, at most two, would be underway at any one time; Megatron wanted the others present to guard the remaining fuel against possible attack.

The first sliver of sunlight had pushed its way up over the orange horizon, when the anticipated attack did in fact begin. It was a movement in the distance that first caught her eye -- a swirl of dust in the face of the rising light, though the vehicles were still too far away for any sound to carry. But she snapped her head towards the movement, growling low in her throat.

One of the winged robots, a light blue one who had just come back from a transport mission, followed the direction of her gaze. For a long moment he saw nothing, his vision not as sharp as hers. But finally he saw the column of dust billowing upward, tiny in the distance. "Megatron! Autobots!" he shouted, running back towards the others and their strange mining machine.

By this time she heard the low rumble of engines from the approaching vehicles, though they were still too far away to cause her any real concern.

The camp behind her felt otherwise, however. Megatron snapped a series of orders, and Starscream transformed to his aircraft mode, his cockpit springing open. The three identical small robots, and two smaller-yet robots with the same design but different colors, hurried to load the remaining energon cubes into Starscream's open cockpit. Megatron and Soundwave, meanwhile, started to type commands into a control panel of their mining machine which they had previously ignored.

What are you doing? Starscream demanded from his vehicle mode, as more cubes were loaded into him.

Without looking up, Megatron replied, "We can't let the Autobots claim this energy source for themselves. It'll have to be destroyed. I'm setting the conversion machine to direct several concentrated depth charges to points throughout the underground lake of fuel. The whole thing's going to blow."

By the time you get that programmed, the Autobots will be using us for target practice! Starscream exclaimed, sounding incredulous and a bit panicky.

Just go, and get the energon to safety, Megatron told him. "The rest of us will stay as long as we can."

Starscream's cockpit snapped shut, and he roared away into the sky.

We should follow, Soundwave suggested, sparing a glance at the group of Autobots that rumbled toward them over the level plain of rock. They were close enough now that individual vehicles could be distinguished. "We will not be able to set the explosives in time."

Not yet, Megatron insisted. "All I need is another minute...."

We don't *have* a minute, the other winged robot, the black one, muttered under his breath, readying his weapons, and poised nervously to meet the onrushing Autobots. The light-blue robot of identical design moved up beside him, and the group of smaller ones took up positions to both sides.

From her place on a flattened boulder close by, she took in the scene: their badly-outnumbered group, with Megatron and Soundwave working frantically over the controls of their machine; the onrushing Autobots and the ominous rumble of their engines.... "I'll hold them off," she decided spontaneously, drawing her coils up under her and spreading her wings.

Megatron and Soundwave, despite the need for haste, looked up as one at her words. They had not expected her to speak, let alone to offer aid. She launched herself into the air with a piercing battle shriek and plunged toward the Autobots that streamed out of the harsh glare of the rising sun.

It took Megatron only a fraction of an instant to make use of the situation. "Skywarp, Thundercracker, go with her," he commanded, and turned quickly back to his work.

The two flyers transformed and tore upward into the sky, then angled downward toward their enemies, spewing laser fire.

She had meanwhile met the front-runners of the approaching group head-on, flinging herself at the large red vehicle in the lead and turning aside at the last possible moment to avoid collision. The red front-runner swerved aside as well, his huge trailer skidding forward and his tires squealing and throwing up great clouds of orange dust. She dove and dodged and twisted among the others, darting so low that her wingtips brushed the ground, forcing the Autobots to skid into turns and even complete stops. As if on cue the whole group of them transformed to biped modes, suddenly holding weaponry such as she had seen the day before.

She flew in twisting spirals just above their heads, drawing and yet avoiding their fire, snapping at them randomly right and left so that they jerked back in horror to avoid her long poison fangs. The two flyers Skywarp and Thundercracker had by now caught up with her, and were strafing the group with nearly continuous twin streams of bright laser fire.

The biggest red one and a few of the others, however, had gotten wise to the delay-tactic and transformed to vehicle modes again, starting toward their remaining enemies and leaving the others to deal with the three skyborne attackers.

Seeing this she broke off from the others and chased down the huge red vehicle with its trailer, darting dangerously close in front of him -- but he ignored her and kept on going so that she hastily had to get out of his way. She cried out in anger, a high-pitched rattling sound that deepened to a growl. She flung herself through the air after the front-runner again, though she had no real hope of stopping him.

Up ahead, she suddenly saw Megatron and Soundwave take to the air. They were followed almost immediately by the group of smaller robots who were firing ineffectually down on the Autobots as they flew.

Megatron ignored the Autobots completely and turned in the air, aiming the long black cannon on his arm toward what had been his mining machine. A torrent of light and a roaring sound erupted from the barrel and blew the machine to smoldering wreckage.

The big red Autobot skidded to a stop right in front of it and transformed to biped mode, leveling his own heavy artillery at Megatron and his group, who were hurriedly retreating.

She plunged down toward the red Autobot, knocking her tail heavily against his gun arm and beating her wings about his face. The shot skittered off to the side and struck a distant cliff-face, loosening an outcrop of stone that sagged down the cliffside with an ominous rumble.

The big Autobot grabbed at her, but she evaded him, spiraling upward into the sky. Looking around hurriedly, she saw Skywarp and Thundercracker taking off into the distance after their rapidly receding companions. With laser fire arcing toward her from the robots below, she bolted off after them.

The ground sped by below her and suddenly dropped away into a jagged canyon a great distance across, which seemed to stretch to both horizons in its lengthwise dimensions. Below, partially hidden in the shadow of an overhanging rock-face, was a somewhat battered-looking starcraft. Megatron led his group toward it. A hatch was opening in the side, and two other winged robots could be seen in the dim interior. They stepped aside as the others flew towards them and disappeared one-by-one into the dark hatch.

Skywarp and Thundercracker were the last to enter, transforming to biped modes just before landing. Close behind them, she veered off an instant before she would have shot through the hatch after them. Drawing away from the ship, she circled in the air just outside it.

The hatch was still open, though the low thunder of the engines began to rise from around the ship.

Thundercracker stuck his head back out from the dim interior of the ship, staring up at her. "Are you coming?" he shouted finally. "This whole continent's going to go up!"

She twirled agitated circles in the air. The metallic hatch in the side of the ship looked like a trap about to spring shut. The rising rumble of the engines unnerved her. Half a dozen times she turned away, and then back, as Thundercracker gestured to her urgently.

Something had been said earlier, something about a massive impending explosion ... it didn't make much sense to her. But some danger-signal hammered at her mind and screamed along her neurocircuits as she hovered in the sky, her tail twisting and coiling in a panic of indecision.

The ship looked alien and unsafe, something totally foreign to her previous experiences. Yet, if Soundwave and Megatron and the others could enter without problems, surely she could do the same? She bared her fangs and flung her head from side to side, hissing, trying to dispel her uncertainties.

The hatch was closing. She could see, but not hear over the increasing roar of the engines, Thundercracker arguing with Skywarp, one undoubtedly needing to close the hatch for liftoff, and the other wanting to keep it open just a bit longer. The gaping maw of darkness in the side of the vessel closed steadily into a crescent-shaped cleft, and finally a sliver--

With a desperate burst of speed she shot forward and slipped in between the edge of the hatch and the side of the ship, an instant before the entranceway clanged shut, catching one of her wing- feathers at the tip so that it came loose and hung bizarrely from the wall above her. The ship lurched and edged outward onto the open floor of the canyon, tilting skyward for liftoff.

* * *

She landed rather abruptly on the metal floor just inside the entrance hatch, and folded her wings in the limited space around her. Coiling up into a compact series of loops, she held absolutely still as the ship rattled and shook around her, pulling away from the minimal gravity of the planetoid toward the void of deep space. She had made that journey many times, of course -- but never within a starship. Her fuel pump hammered inside her. She resisted the impulse to plunge for one of the transparent starports that showed the light blue of the planetoid's sky as it faded quickly to star-flecked black.

Skywarp and Thundercracker had sat down against the wall nearby to ride out the launch, and they did not seem concerned. Perhaps all was as it should be. She relaxed a bit as the ship eased into a smooth ride, after leaving the atmosphere behind. Thundercracker and Skywarp stood, looked down at her.

You got here just in time, Skywarp remarked. "That lake of fuel's going to go up any minute!" He grinned at the thought, stepping over to the nearest starport. "Bet we can see it from here," he remarked to Thundercracker.

She pulled her wings in close and began to relax some of her molecular structure, rising upward towards her biped form, as she had not done in an unimaginably long time. She'd always been in serpent mode, flying, constantly flying--

Thundercracker, seeing her movement out of the corner of his optic, whirled toward her and gaped in amazement. Wordlessly he prodded at Skywarp to get his attention, as the black flyer was intently staring out the viewport.

What? Skywarp demanded irritably, turning -- and his expression changed to one of astonishment that mirrored Thundercracker's.

She tilted her head, puzzled at their reaction. These creatures had two modes just as she did -- a biped and a winged mode, just as she did -- so why were they so utterly amazed?

Do -- do that again, Thundercracker urged.

Do what? she asked. She was nearly as tall as he in her biped mode, and she looked him directly in the optics, confused.

Change. Change your form, Thundercracker said, watching her hopefully.

She shrugged and melted back into her serpent mode, her body lengthening and her wings unfurling as she sank back toward the deck; then gathered herself and rose again, her wings folding inward and her limbs re-emerging, her armored carapace expanding to cover her chest and torso. She looked at the two flyers matter-of-factly. What of it? she wondered silently.

Amazing! Skywarp breathed. "It's like you just -- *liquefy*, and change!"

I suppose so, she said, as that was true of at least the outer layers of her body, though the inner layers did not lose their molecular cohesion.

Outside the ship, a bright flare of light went up in the distance, very obvious against the blackness of surrounding space. Skywarp and Thundercracker spun toward the viewport.

The explosion! Skywarp exclaimed. "Look, you can still see the flames shooting up through the atmosphere...."

You don't suppose the Autobots were still around when it went up? Thundercracker mused.

You don't really think we'd get that lucky, do you? Skywarp replied.

She slipped away from them silently while their backs were turned, tired of being gawked at and unsure of what she was doing here in the first place.

* * *

She prowled the corridors of the ship, touching the smooth walls with puzzlement and some revulsion. They were like cave-tunnels, only straight and angular. She'd seen countless starships, of course, and as many cultures with their houses and buildings -- but always from the outside. She'd never had the slightest desire to go in. It made her a little bit nervous to be here now, in fact. But, if she could think of it as being like a cave, only smooth -- that would help.

She was moving in a search pattern, she realized, like hunting -- hunting for something familiar. Nothing was familiar anymore in the vastness of the Universe, she thought -- she *always* felt like this nowadays, always searching for something familiar that she would never again find, always wondering where she was and why she was there and what possible danger she would have to face next -- endlessly drifting through the void because there was nothing else for her to do except keep going--

Light footsteps in a cross-corridor up ahead alerted her, and she drew back into the shadows. The ship was dimly lit and it was easy to remain unseen. A form she had never seen before, passed in front of her through the patch of light up ahead, and was gone again. It was an animal form, a quadruped that reached perhaps a little higher than her knees, pitch-black with alert, glowing red eyes. He moved with almost complete silence, seemed very at home here.

Quietly, trying to still the tapping of her claws on the metal floor, she slipped out of the shadows and followed him. The predator - - for that was what he was; she recognized one of her own when she saw it -- turned inward toward what looked to be a solid wall, and a doorway slid open to let him pass. Hurriedly she darted in after him before the entrance could slide shut again.

The pounding of the ship's engines was louder and deeper in here -- a large, elongated room partially dimmed to shadow, with great pipes and conduits running the length of the ceiling and imbedded in the walls and floor. Up ahead, where the tangle of pipes and machinery seemed to become its most complex, a bright circle of yellow light dispelled the dimness. The glistening black predator made for this light and leapt easily up onto one of the largest pipes that rose just above the floor, looking around expectantly.

There was a robot partially hidden by an interwoven column of machinery. When he stepped out into the light, she could see that it was Soundwave. Inexplicably she smiled -- as though she'd found something familiar after all.

She edged closer, as Soundwave stepped forward and stroked the black animal's head, then opened a large hatch in his chest. The animal leapt up and folded his legs, head, and tail inward, taking on a squarish shape that slid without a sound into Soundwave's chest, which closed securely behind him.

For a moment she was taken aback. These creatures were duomorphs, yes, but they had a far different method of changing shape, and perhaps far different reasons. Their transformations looked as strange to her, she realized, as *her* transformation must have looked to Thundercracker and Skywarp.

Slowly, almost hesitantly, she walked out from between the shadowy tangle of pipeworks and into the circle of light.

Soundwave did not seem at all surprised to see her. "So, you have another form after all," he remarked, as though he'd been fully expecting an alien reptilian biped to stroll out of the shadows and join him.

She nodded, then looked around more closely. "What is this place?" she asked.

A very old ship, Soundwave said, with what sounded a bit like a sigh, though with his unique voice-synthesizer, she couldn't be sure. "This is the main engineering center -- or what passes for it. Since there are no engineers on board, it falls to me to keep us together until we reach Cybertron." He picked up one of the tools that had been lying around, opened a panel in front of him, and started to examine the interior.

She leapt up onto the large pipe, as she had seen the black predator do, then sat and drew her legs up against her, coiling her tail lightly around them. "What is 'Cybertron'?" she asked.

Cybertron is our homeworld, Soundwave replied, without looking up from his work. "We, the Decepticons, and our enemies, the Autobots, have been fighting for its possession since as long as any of us can remember. Sometimes the war goes well for us, and sometimes---" He gestured significantly at the clunky and presumably out-dated equipment that surrounded him. "But of course," he added, "that should be no concern of yours."

She tilted her head thoughtfully at this. "Autobots..." she said the word slowly, "have human allies."

Soundwave looked at her quizzically. "Yes," he replied. When she said nothing further on the subject, he returned his attention to his work.

She watched him for a while, for some reason feeling comfortable in his presence, as strange and alien as this place might be. "What will we do when we reach Cybertron?" she asked presently.

Soundwave looked up from his equipment again, meeting her eyes. "You should be gone long before then. You don't want to get caught up in our war. You are capable of space flight?"

Yes.... she replied, puzzled. Was she *ever* capable of space flight, if only he knew--!

Then we will find an airlock later, and I'll open it for you, and you can be on your way.

For some reason she felt a pang of rejection at this. The long plumes on her head and neck bristled in protest. "On my way," she repeated, a cold anger rising inside her. "On my way to *where*?"

Soundwave remained imperturbable. "Surely you have a home out there somewhere?"

She bared her fangs and leapt down from the pipe, crossing the circle of light quickly in her sudden agitation, whirling back to face him at the edge of the shadows. He watched her quietly.

No, she stated flatly, answering his question.

Someone who will be concerned if you don't come back? he attempted again.

No, she repeated. She watched him intently, weighing her options, considering her words. She realized she actually knew nothing of Soundwave, nothing at all, except that some primordial jungle instinct was telling her that she could trust him. Her species had lived and died by those instincts since the Universe itself was a new hatchling....

In a thousand years, she confided, "you are the first living being that has shown me one moment's kindness. Maybe for that reason I don't *want* to be on my way. I would just as soon throw in my fate with you and the others on Cybertron as I would anywhere else."

The shading in Soundwave's eyes seemed to change slightly, the red becoming just a bit darker, though she didn't know what it meant. "You have no idea," he said softly, "no idea what you're getting yourself into."

But that's true everywhere, isn't it? she said defiantly. "I could scour the galaxy until the end of time and never know what to expect."

That is true, Soundwave agreed. "But you can spare yourself a lot of pain by leaving now."

She bared her fangs in a grin that held absolutely no humor. "I don't see how."

Soundwave regarded her silently for a long moment. The shade of his eyes brightened again, and he nodded. "If you are to stay with us," he mused, "I should know what to call you. Do you have a name? I found nothing in my superficial scan of your mind, back on the planetoid."

*That's probably because I've had no reason to use or respond to my name since leaving the homeworld*, she thought ironically. "Yes," she replied aloud. "I am---" she paused, trying to think how best to translate the conglomeration of sounds that was her name, into this new and still unfamiliar language. "--Rrkkkssssa," she attempted. "Rrkssha ... *Raksha*."

Part 2

Megatron glowered into the vast, cavernous dimness of the audience chamber, and absently drummed his fingers over the armrest of his throne. He'd dismissed the sentries, as was his custom; by contrast, when Shockwave was placed in charge of the Black Fortress in Megatron's absence, he invariably lined both sides of the throne room with a row of polished, gleaming warriors. Ostentatious fool, Megatron thought disgustedly, much more satisfied with his current solitude.

They had returned to Cybertron only ten hours ago, but it seemed like much longer. It was a minor miracle that the old rattletrap starship had made the trip back from Earth in one piece, even with the stopover for re-fueling. Megatron had wanted his first order of business to be repairs to the space bridge, but circumstances dictated otherwise. Shockwave had greeted him with such relief on his return to the Black Fortress, that Megatron had known immediately something was wrong. It didn't take long for the story to come tumbling out, either -- interspersed with abject apologies and disclaimers and laying blame to the current downward trend in the war, Shockwave explained that the last functioning power plant in Polyhex Province, just beyond the northernmost outskirts of the city, had fallen to the Autobots. The Black Fortress was currently running on backup generator-power, which would last only two weeks, perhaps three with the strictest of rationing.

At the time of Megatron's arrival, Autobot forces were slowly but surely pushing the Decepticon army southward in an attempt to take more of the city and approach the Fortress itself. Megatron, deciding with a conscious effort to unleash his fury on the Autobots rather than on Shockwave, had gone immediately to the battle front. The return of their leader seemed to give the warriors new courage, and they began to push back at the advancing enemy, finally bringing them to a standstill and even forcing them back a short distance. But there was no re-taking the power plant that day, and both sides were currently entrenched along the north edge of the city, waiting for the other to make a move or show some weakness -- or waiting, perhaps, for their respective leaders to come up with new orders.

Megatron, for his part, hoped that Ultra Magnus, who was directing this assault, was as momentarily out of brilliant ideas as he was. It was always easier to defend secured territory than it was to retake what was lost. For a moment, Megatron indulged in the thought of crushing Shockwave's skull, but that was a passing fancy. Shockwave had been a good strategist once, in his days as Megatron's Subcommander on the equator, long ago -- but the long years as Guardian of Cybertron, little more than a glorified archivist, had dulled his edge. He had a brilliantly logical mind and an encyclopedic intelligence, which he had put to good use for the Decepticon cause -- but his knowledge was of arcane matters and abstract concepts that had little to do with the real world. He had lost the razor-sharp battle instincts that could meet the unexpected head-on, and triumph.

Though at the moment, Megatron's razor-sharp battle instincts weren't doing him much good either. His impulse was to go back to the front, to be close to any potential action -- but until there was news of a change, or he had a definite plan in mind, that would serve little purpose. The Decepticon and Autobot troops were positioned in such a way, at the moment, that they could stare at each other across the ruined cityscape for weeks without either side being able to budge -- with the power plant looming in the background and the Black Fortress' reserves slowly running dry.

Megatron closed one hand into a fist and brought it down angrily onto the armrest of his throne. How quickly things changed, he thought -- how drastically minor events could shift the balance of power. The Decepticons in the Northern Hemisphere had been doing well for themselves, expanding or at least easily holding the borders of Polyhex, and for once facing no critical shortage of fuel or supplies. The turning point had been the failed attack on Iacon two months ago. "This battle will determine the future of the Decepticon Empire," Megatron had said at the time. He hoped now that he hadn't been right.

Across the vast, dark audience chamber, the massive doors slid open with barely a sound, showing some light in the corridor beyond. Soundwave, a momentary silhouette against the opening, entered the chamber, and Megatron rose hurriedly to meet him halfway. "Any news?" he said. "Have you broken through the communications interference?"

The Autobots had managed to thoroughly jam all inter-- and intraplanetary communications, so Polyhex could not even send for reinforcements from other provinces. Megatron had immediately dispatched flying messengers, of course, but it would be a matter of time before they arrived anywhere, provided they got through at all.

Soundwave shook his head in response to his leader's question. "No change in our communications status, and no change on the battle front in the last three hours. I have left Reflector temporarily in charge of trying to break through the interference."

Alright, Megatron said, deciding Soundwave had earned a break, having been in the thick of battle and then later in the communications center almost from the moment they returned to Cybertron. "But if anything changes, I want *you* on top of it, not Reflector. And you are to contact me immediately."

Of course, Soundwave agreed. "Meanwhile ... there is the matter of the offworlder, Raksha."

What of her? Megatron asked with some irritation. He didn't want to be distracted with irrelevancies right now. "Let her go. I've got no quarrel with her species."

You don't understand, Soundwave said. "She wants to join us."

Megatron stared at him in bafflement at this. Alien species did not *join* the Decepticons. They were either conquered and enslaved, exterminated, or ignored. Certainly, the occasional organic being had taken up temporary alliance with the Decepticons in the past -- but only to pursue motives of their own, motives that Megatron never had any intention of fulfilling, once his "ally's" usefulness was ended. "What possible motive could she have for wanting to join us?" he demanded of Soundwave.

She has nowhere else to go, Soundwave stated matter-of- factly.

Megatron had to laugh at this. "Am I running an intergalactic homeless shelter? No, Soundwave, get rid of her."

She could be very useful to us, Soundwave persisted. "She would make an excellent warrior."

I didn't realize we were that hard-up for warriors, Megatron muttered. He'd meant for it to come out as a joke, but the words had an unpleasant taste of bitter irony. The momentary reprieve of distraction was over, and a brooding frustration closed down over him again. He wanted to shoulder past Soundwave and leave him behind, wanted to prowl the corridors of the Fortress, or even fly back to the front, anything, just to have some sensation of motion, of progress. But Soundwave regarded him quietly, in that unobtrusive way of his, which somehow compelled him to stop, to turn back.

You saw how she went after those Autobots in the Tykastion System, Soundwave reminded him pointedly. "You may be glad we kept her, some day."

Megatron considered this. Soundwave's casual predictions had an eerie habit of coming true. But still -- "Why would an offworlder want to help us against the Autobots, anyway?"

Soundwave tilted his head in thought. "I think it has something to do with humans," he mused.

*Humans*? Megatron echoed the nonsensical answer.

Soundwave shrugged. "I do not know all the details. But the point is this: Raksha has offered her assistance. And we are not exactly in a position to refuse."

Megatron glowered at his Communications Expert, hating the truth of his words. But finally he relented, "Alright ... I'll take another look at her. She's some sort of transformer too, you said?"

Of a sort, Soundwave agreed. "She is a metallic life-form, but her transformational process is more of a liquefaction than a shifting of constant shapes."

Megatron regarded him with a suddenly heightened interest. "Could we learn something from this?" he asked. "A technology that we could make use of?"

I do not know enough about her physiology to tell you, Soundwave replied. "I suspect her 'technology' was *evolved* rather than manufactured; Starscream's analogy about wild animals was not far from the truth. What we *can* make use of are her battle skills."

Yes, yes, alright, Megatron growled, leading the way out of the throne room and into the dimly-lit hallways.

* * *

Raksha looked around the large room where Soundwave had asked her to wait, regarding the dimmed light-banks in the ceiling. While they provided more than enough light for her to see by, she was surprised that this immense building was kept so dark. She'd found, in her travels, that most species preferred lighted interiors, since most of them could not see nearly as well as she. Only a few of the rooms were fully illuminated -- for instance the vast and complex communications center where Soundwave had worked for the past hours, where Raksha had coiled up in serpent mode in one of the corners and simply watched him. The three identical smaller robots who spoke with one vo ice, who assisted Soundwave in whatever it was he was doing, regarded her a bit suspiciously at first, but then seemed to accept and ignore her.

Finally Soundwave had stepped away from his machinery, and, passing some brief instructions to the three small robots, all of whom he addressed as "Reflector," he beckoned for Raksha to follow him. He'd brought her here, asking her to wait while he talked to Megatron.

There was a long, rectangular platform in the middle of the room that took up most of the floorspace. Raksha leapt lightly up onto it, preferring the elevated height it gave her, from which she could more easily watch the door. She paced the length of the platform restlessly, getting used to the light, sharp tap-tapping of her clawed feet against the hard glossy surface. Her head snapped reflexively toward the door at the sound of approaching footsteps from outside, muffled by the walls and the sealed entrance. A moment later the door slid back and Megatron preceded Soundwave into the room.

Megatron reached to brush a small panel in the wall, and the lights brightened very slightly. He seemed to catch full sight of her, then, and scowled at her in disapproval. "What is this?" he demanded of Soundwave; then, not bothering to wait for a reply, he turned back to Raksha and snapped, "I'll thank you not to walk around on my conference table!"

Raksha stared at him blankly. From behind Megatron, Soundwave made a surreptitious gesture: she was to get down from the platform and stand on the floor.

She leapt down to land before Megatron, who folded his arms and glared down at her wordlessly. "You," he said finally, "wish to join the Decepticons?"

Yes, she said.

He moved around her in a slow circle, looking her over. She tracked him with her eyes, waving her tail through a slow undulation. "What do you have to offer us?" he asked then.

In response she spun a quarter of a circle to face him directly and displayed her most formidable armory. She brought up her hands, extending the devastatingly sharp, metal-rending talons at her fingertips to their full imposing length. The dim overhead lights caught and gleamed for a moment off one razor-edged tip. She tilted her head slightly in such a way that the light would catch her eyes and reflect a startling green; she bared her fangs very slightly in a smile.

For a moment Megatron almost smiled himself, exchanging a quick look with Soundwave. Then his optics blazed with a fiery intensity, burning into hers. "Do you swear loyalty to the Decepticon cause?" he demanded. "Do you swear obedience to me as your leader, to follow no other until your life's end -- to live for victory to the Decepticons and destruction of our enemies?"

Raksha paused uncertainly, as she didn't know what some of the terms meant. What was a "leader"? She shot a look at Soundwave, who nodded to her encouragingly. Looking back at Megatron she re-sheathed her talons and replied confidently, "Yes."

He drew back from her, glowering at her skeptically as though he didn't quite believe her. Then he leveled a finger at her. "I'll give you a trial period," he said. "Prove yourself, and you can stay. Screw up, or betray me once--" here his optics flashed dangerously -- "and I'll send you on your way through space. *In pieces*." He turned to Soundwave. "It's up to you to teach her what she needs to know."

The dark-blue Decepticon nodded wordless acquiescence. Megatron left them alone.

I don't think he likes me, Raksha said to Soundwave after the door had slid shut again. Furthermore she wasn't sure that *she* liked *him*, now that she'd had a one-on-one confrontation with the imperious silver warrior. She didn't care to be snapped at.

Soundwave's eyeband brightened slightly in what Raksha was coming to recognize as a smile. "Not true," he said. "He's just in a bad mood about other things. It has nothing to do with you. That's one of the first things you need to learn ... Megatron may direct his anger at you sometimes, but you can't take it personally."

Raksha tilted her head thoughtfully, considering the interactions she had seen between Soundwave and Megatron. Considering the respect, and even affection, that Soundwave seemed to have for Megatron, there was surely *something* worthwhile about him. Raksha decided she would give him a chance.

* * *

When Soundwave went back to his work in the communications center, Raksha prowled the base, beginning to navigate the overwhelmingly immense maze of hallways and corridors. Somehow she felt that her place was more secure now -- that something had hinged on Megatron's "permission" -- though she didn't quite understand how one being could give another *permission* to be or not be somewhere. But some species were territorial, she knew, and perhaps the answer lay there. Decepticons were territorial. Apparently their conflict with the Autobots was based upon territory.

But she was not interested in the details at the moment. It was the building, the Black Fortress itself, that took up her attention now, for if this was to be her new home, her lair, then she would need to know how to get around here. And even more importantly, how to get in and out. In some rooms she came across large windows which she knew she could shatter if she flew against them at full-force in serpent mode -- but that was not the way most creatures entered and left buildings. So she searched, keeping watch for openings or entranceways.

Most of the Decepticons that she passed in the dimly lit hallways did not even notice her, they were so intent on their own destinations. Most moved in small orderly groups, with heavy laser weapons and other artillery prominently displayed. Some went about singly or in pairs, and some even took notice of the alien in their midst, staring at her in curiosity or suspicion. One even tried to stop her, demanded to know who she was and what she was doing here, but she evaded his grasp easily and bared her fangs with a threatening growl. He apparently thought the better of interrogating her further, remembering some place more important that he had to be.

Raksha moved on, still amazed at the smoothness of the walls and the angles of the ceilings. It was all so very alien to her. At one point she had to stop and gather herself in a dark, unused little room -- here she was in the heart of the maze, in the center of some massive artificial construct, surrounded by cold metal and beings of which she knew next to nothing -- what had she been thinking of, when she'd told Soundwave and Megatron she wanted to stay here? Her gaze turned longingly toward the small circular window behind her that showed a view of the stars. Should she plunge back out into space and continue her flight, her endless flight to nowhere?

Trembling slightly, she turned away from the window and reached out for the cold, smooth wall to steady herself. *Adapt*, she whispered to herself fiercely, *adapt and survive. That's why you lived when all the others died*.

Smoothing her bristling plumes back against her head, she stepped determinedly back out into the labyrinth. When she passed Decepticons and they took notice of her, she returned their stares with a certainty she did not yet feel: *I belong here. You cannot displace me*.

Presently she followed a group of armed warriors to a spot where a massive entranceway slid back into the wall to let them pass. They took to the air almost as soon as they were through the portal, rapidly receding from view. Raksha followed and darted through the door before it could fully close, then stood still outside the Black Fortress, looking around.

It was her first real view of Cybertron other than what little she had glimpsed from the ship as they landed. With the group of Decepticons little more than moving specks in the distance already, there was no other motion nearby. While the side of the Black Fortress rose like an impenetrable wall behind her, the view ahead was blocked by massive fallen towers and shattered buildings that spilled pieces of themselves all the way up against the Fortress itself. Distant starlight caught the occasional edge of metal here, the occasional shard of glass there, the odd reflection in a bit of steel that had not entirely lost its polish. Raksha moved forward slowly, on the alert in the unfamiliar and chilly air.

She caught sight of something off to the right, not a movement exactly, but an outline. A moment later she picked out the entire shape -- an insectoid form a bit larger than herself, with huge eyes, long antennae, and two powerful, curled forearms that looked like they could snap downward and impale a sizable prey-item on their inner, spiked surfaces. Something in its appearance seemed to denote it as a female, one of the few that Raksha had seen since her arrival. The creature's color matched that of her background almost precisely, even becoming darker halfway down the paired wings where a shadow fell across her back. A faint, almost indistinguishable triangular symbol adorned those wings -- the symbol that Raksha had come to recognize as distinguishing Decepticons from their enemies, the Autobots.

The insectoid being remained motionless in an alert posture, and made no move against her. Her attention seemed focused out toward the ruins of the city, but Raksha was certain she was looking at her out of the sides of those huge, faceted eyes. A guard, then, or an informant, but not an enemy.

Raksha's gaze swept the jagged remains of the buildings around her one more time, and then, inclining her head toward the sentry, she shifted to serpent mode and took to the air. The sentry made a tiny, startled movement -- whether from seeing Raksha's transformation, or from surprise that Raksha had seen *her*, Raksha did not know. But she left the insectoid Decepticon behind as she rose upward on slow wingbeats to view the city from above.

Polyhex City was darkness upon darkness, a gouged and broken jumble of metal that had once been buildings, all in black or gray, dark blue or deep purple, or covered with soot and scorched beyond a recognizable color. Some splashes of lighter color littered the shadowed ruins, colors that might once have been gold or silver. Black smoke curled in half a hundred places from broken transport- ways or toppled edifices, barely visible against the eternal night sky.

Cybertron was a wanderer through the icy depths of space, just as Raksha was. There was no sun here to warm its cold, broken metal, no stable place in the Universe where this anguished world could anchor itself. A vast sense of desolation came over her as she skimmed the tops of the gutted buildings, peered fruitlessly into the pitch-black shadows of the ravines that were sliced into the city's surface, that might have plunged to the very depths of the planet's core. Interspersed with the rising columns of black smoke, the remains of towers that thrust like huge metal shards or warped daggers into the starry sky, Raksha saw clearly a wall of black smoke rising from a long-vanished jungle, heard clearly the explosions as huge, ancient trees burst apart from the unbelievable heat, leaving broken metallo-organic remnants that reached upward like spears into the blackening sky---

Into the cold silence of Cybertron's eternal night, she cried out the ancient jungle song of her species. Once a joyful thing, a means of communication at sunrise and sunset, it was pure sadness now, for she would never receive an answer. It was an eerie and indescribably desolate sound, that carried through the thin atmosphere to reach those who scrounged for survival in the shattered streets below. Those who heard it drew closer together and wondered what new terror had been unleashed on their already ransacked planet.

Part 3

Soundwave had gotten communications back again. From the computer console in his quarters, Megatron contacted Shadowlord and Thunderwing, the two closest warlords with sizable territories and formidable numbers of troops, to send what reinforcements they could spare. Which, in Shadowlord's case, amounted to none.

Shadowlord's subcommander Siege-Gun explained that all their available warriors were needed to guard the mines -- and Megatron had to grudgingly admit that Hellpit Territory's quadrilithium mines were a more valuable resource to the Decepticons than even Polyhex and its single power plant.

To Thunderwing's similar protest, that he needed all available troops to guard the borders of his realm, Megatron turned an indifferent audio-sensor. "You will send 500 warriors immediately, or I'll have you replaced by one of your many ambitious underlings!" Megatron snarled.

Thunderwing's colorless eyes narrowed on the screen, but he made no further complaint. "As you command, my lord," he said smoothly, with the outdated formality that Megatron always found so grating. He stabbed at a button on the console in front of him, closing the channel.

For a moment he sat before the dark screen, lost in his plans. How best to deploy those 500 troops, once they got here? Best to send them in from the outskirts of the city, trapping the power plant and the Autobots between them. That risked considerable damage to the energy-conversion reactors, of course, but Megatron would destroy the power plant if he had to, before he let the Autobots keep it -- just as he had destroyed the subterranean lake of fossil fuel on the Tykastion planetoid. But that was an option of last resort. At the moment things remained quiet on the battle front, and he had only to wait for the reinforcements to arrive.

On impulse he reactivated the screen, thinking of the offworlder Raksha that Soundwave had for some reason taken under his care. What did he really know about this creature? What was it Soundwave had called her -- a Plumed Serpent? Megatron typed in a series of commands on his keyboard, linking his console to the vast interplanetary subspace network that spanned most of known, inhabited space. Plenty of on-line information on the inhabitants of the galaxy to be had here. He skimmed through a series of titles, encyclopedias stored electronically and automatically updated at each new discovery or added grain of knowledge. *Intelligent Species of the Milky Way*; *Known Lifeforms of the Andromeda Galaxy*; *Zoologica Galaktica*....

He paused, paged back. That last one was the one he wanted. He accessed the record, and entered the key phrase "Plumed Serpent."

The computer paused only an instant before a short paragraph in orange letters sprang up on the black background of the screen.

Plumed Serpent, _Ophiopteryx deinonychus_. Inhabitant of Gamma Reticuli II (see cross-reference, Gamma Reticuli), predatory rainforest-dweller. Metallic life-form with organic life-cycle. Two interchangeable forms, reptilian biped and winged snake. Believed to have been sentient. Extinct.

Megatron's optics brightened a bit in surprise at the last word. With a swift series of commands he cross-referenced "Gamma Reticuli." It was a hot red star at the farthest edge of the galaxy with a small solar system of three planets, the second of which had once been covered in dense rainforest. But the planet had been unable to support life for the past thousand years.

Megatron leaned back and regarded the screen thoughtfully. He had no more time to dwell on the matter, however, for at that moment his internal communicator beeped, with Soundwave urgently requesting his presence in the main communications center.

* * *

Raksha peered curiously at the electronic map that was superimposed over part of the dark metal wall in front of her. It was one of only two walls that remained standing, of what had once been a small structure, and was currently being used as a field command station. Aside from the map, a large swiveling laser cannon had been set up and loomed over the broken remains of the wall. Beneath and to the sides of it was more equipment which Raksha did not recognize. She understood from listening to Megatron and the other Decepticons that the glowing red dots on the map represented individuals or groups of enemy warriors where they were holed up in the power plant, as best their positions were known. The purple dots, amassed in other locations, represented their own forces. And yet, when Raksha looked around at the armed warriors who had taken up positions in the ruins, and looked across the littered plain that stretched toward the object of their attentions, the towering spires of the power plant -- she could not mentally superimpose the symbolic map onto her physical surroundings. She had said as much to Soundwave, who had replied that it was alright, that she was just to stay in the background and watch for the moment.

And indeed, not much seemed to be happening. During her exploration of the city she had seen a group of Decepticons fly past in the distance, and had picked out Megatron leading them, and Soundwave with him, and on impulse had flown to join them. They had come here, to the outer edge of the shattered city, to join the warriors already present. Upon landing, they had dodged a perfunctory volley of laser bolts from the power plant -- too distant to shoot them out of the sky, but effectively preventing a closer approach. The field commander had greeted Megatron with a status report: no Autobots had ventured into visual range, but the Constructicons, making their slow way forward as they tunneled underneath the steel plain toward the power plant, were reporting readings that might possibly indicate troop movement.

Raksha stared with the others toward the huge structure that rose out of the ruins up ahead, but it looked as though nothing had changed. The silent darkness was broken only by the dull gleam of the buildings themselves and the cold stars overhead. Even Megatron, when he spoke to the field commander, did so in a hushed tone, as though the enemy might overhear. Raksha sensed the tension all around her, as the Decepticon warriors crouched motionless in place or silently shifted their grips on their weapons. Soundwave stepped up beside her and motioned wordlessly for her to move back from her vantage point to a less exposed position. He carried a large, cannon- like hand laser with a silver tip, in addition to his mounted shoulder- cannon. The handgun looked awkward and heavy, and yet Soundwave carried it with casual ease, as though it were a natural part of him.

Raksha walked alongside him, staying close. Nine or ten smaller robots and animals clustered loosely around them and followed along. Raksha had learned that these were Soundwave's hatchlings -- or rather, *creations*, as his species called them, and they too were armed. It occurred to her that they, or even Soundwave, could be injured if battle broke out. Feeling suddenly a bit frightened for Soundwave and protective of the little ones, Raksha decided to keep close watch on all of them if hostilities broke out.

A small group of warriors walked around from the side of one of the toppled buildings and joined the troops already positioned at the command station. The others made room for them, barely taking their optics from the towers of the power plant in the distance. Raksha looked at the new arrivals sharply. Something was wrong with one of them, a red-and-green robot approximately Raksha's size, who carried an impressive cannon barrel slung over his shoulder.

He turned slightly as he settled into position beside the others, and Raksha saw what the problem was. Instantaneously she launched herself, plowing into the robot with such force that the cannon went flying out of his hands. Her fangs found his throat and sunk in, holding her in place as the impact flipped both of them end-over-end three times. The crash and clang of metal, startling in the silence, had not yet died away when Raksha pulled away from her dead victim, fuel running from his torn-open throat and dripping from her fangs.

Megatron was immediately beside her, and Soundwave right behind him. "What the hell are you doing?" the Decepticon leader demanded furiously. "Don't you know the difference between a Decepticon and an--" He stopped short as the purple triangular image of the Decepticon symbol flickered once and dissolved from the dead robot's chest, leaving the squarish red emblem underneath. "-- Autobot," Megatron finished in amazement. "Holographic overlays," he muttered to himself. "Not bad, Ultra Magnus -- I might have pulled something like that myself. And you," he said to Raksha, "saw through the holo-field?"

It was obvious, she said, smoothing back her plumes. "There was a gridwork of holes in the image."

Soundwave gave Megatron a significant look, which the Decepticon leader pointedly ignored.

Find the visual wavelength of the holo-field and broadcast it to the rest of us, he instructed Soundwave. "In case there's more of them."

Megatron had barely completed the sentence when gunfire erupted to both sides of the field station. Warriors swarmed towards them out of the ruins, all wearing what to Raksha were obviously fake Decepticon symbols overlaying the Autobot ones that showed through clearly underneath. But to the others, these images must have looked solid, and it created the intended confusion. When the new arrivals' actions were obviously hostile, it was easy for the Decepticons to pick their targets. When the disguised Autobots ceased firing, it was easy for one or two to meld in among the Decepticons unnoticed and attack them from behind. Raksha picked off another one that was making the attempt, even as Megatron fired repeated blasts from his fusion cannon and the other warriors tried their best to tell friend from enemy and fire at the right targets.

Hurry up and get that wavelength! Megatron shouted at Soundwave over the roar of his fusion cannon. Soundwave had crouched down over Raksha's first kill and extracted a tiny generator chip from the robot's torso. A moment later he transformed into a rectangular recording device and broadcast an audial signal -- one of such a frequency that it was just beyond Raksha's range of hearing. But somehow it disrupted the visual fields on the surrounding Autobots. With a flickering of light, their superimposed Decepticon symbols dissolved, leaving them obvious targets.

Good! Megatron called as two robots fell simultaneously to his fusion blasts. "Now broadcast those wavelengths to the rest of our warriors, so they can see the illusions for themselves!"

Soundwave remained in transformed mode a moment longer, apparently following Megatron's orders. Then he resumed robot form and plunged into the battle. Raksha found herself surrounded by fighting Decepticons who totally ignored her. Lacking any nearby Autobots to dispatch, all she could do was watch uselessly and try to stay out of the way. She looked around for Soundwave's creations, to see if they were safe, but saw only a few of them scattered randomly throughout the other warriors, too far apart to observe all at once. She watched as Soundwave vaulted over the remains of the field station wall along with a small group of other Decepticons who were pushing the Autobots out onto the metal plain and forcing them slowly back toward the power plant. Soundwave's shoulder cannon and laser gun spewed bright bursts of fire; once or twice he got close enough to an Autobot to fell them with his fists.

Raksha gaped in amazement. The cold brutality with which Soundwave dispatched his opponents seemed completely at odds with everything she had yet learned about him.

Quite the amazing transformation, isn't it? Megatron said, coming up beside her, and nodding towards Soundwave. "The first time I saw him go into 'double-destroyer-mode' like that, I didn't believe it either. If you didn't know better, you wouldn't think him capable of it. You wouldn't think he's one of my best warriors." He grinned appreciatively.

Heat radiated from the barrel of Megatron's fusion cannon, but at the moment he was just watching, obviously pleased with the way the battle was going. From all around the surrounding ruins, Decepticons were forcing the Autobots back a step at a time across the plain, toward the power plant. However, more Autobots were streaming toward them to join in, and already the Decepticons were decidedly outnumbered. Raksha winced as a Decepticon fighting alongside Soundwave was blasted at point-blank range and crumpled into smoking wreckage. Soundwave turned and caught the responsible Autobot full in the chest with a blast from his shoulder cannon, which melted a charred hole completely through the other robot's torso before he even fell to the ground.

Megatron's pleased expression remained, and Raksha looked at him uncomprehendingly. It seemed not to bother him at all, that Decepticons were falling and dying, as long as they were taking Autobots with them and kept forcing them backwards. It was deeply ingrained in Raksha's species, that one defended one's own kind in times of danger -- and especially the young, which was probably why she'd felt protective about Soundwave's creations. True, the Decepticons were not her species. This was not her war, and she had no great interest in killing Autobots, unless there were humans present -- which there weren't. Still, she had formed enough of an attachment to the Decepticons in the short time she'd been here, that it bothered her to see one of them fall. She would have thought that Megatron, as their leader, as the one who had sent them into this carnage, would have felt responsible for their lives -- but apparently he didn't.

An explosion echoed across the battlefield, and a bright burst of light went up from one side of the power plant building.

Excellent -- the Constructicons have made their way in! Megatron said, his eyes flashing bright with anticipation. "Come on, Raksha -- you want to be a Decepticon warrior? Let's finish off the rest of this Autobot rabble." With an eager grin he launched himself into the air and sped down toward the battlefield, his laser cannon spewing thunderous blasts of destructive light.

Raksha, too taken aback by the slaughter and Megatron's indifference to it, could only stare after him in horrified fascination. Another Decepticon below, a flyer of the same design as Starscream, Skywarp, and Thundercracker, disappeared in a burst of fire and smoke. It cleared a moment later, leaving the warrior writhing on the ground minus his right arm and wing, with a gaping hole torn into his side. The Autobot who had fired the blast advanced on him to finish him off.

With a cry of protest Raksha leapt into her serpent mode and arrowed downward, her wings beating hard and her jaws gaping. The last thing the Autobot saw coming toward him were two long sets of fangs gleaming in Cybertron's eternal night.

* * *

It had happened before and it would undoubtedly happen again -- Mixmaster's chemical combinations were rather more unstable than he had anticipated, and the bomb he set went off a fraction of a second too soon. The resulting explosion blasted a hole in the floor of the power plant's lower sublevel, allowing the Constructicons a way in from the tunnel they had dug underneath. It also hurled a chunk of sharp-edged debris at just the wrong trajectory, and caught Bonecrusher in the leg just before he had reached the safety of the blast shield.

Stifling a cry of pain he fell to the floor, clutching his left leg. When the smoke from the explosion cleared a little, Scavenger could see that the leg had been nearly severed at the knee.

Dammit, Mixmaster! Scrapper fumed at the other Constructicon. "You said we had five seconds! Now we won't be able to form Devastator!" He glared at Bonecrusher as well, as though he were equally at fault.

Bonecrusher reached up and grabbed Scavenger's arm, pulling himself to his feet. "We might not be able to form Devastator," he gasped, "but I can still fight!"

Don't be ridiculous, Scrapper snapped. "You're a hindrance to us now! You stay here and we'll get you on the way back. The rest of you, get up there before we lose our advantage!" He gestured his team through the gaping hole in the ceiling, and leapt upward through the thinning smoke.

Scavenger tried to pull away from Bonecrusher to follow, but the other Constructicon held onto him. "I can still fight," he growled. "Help me up there!"

Okay, Scavenger resigned himself, "but Scrapper's gonna be mad, and it won't be *my* fault...."

He put on a short burst from his flight engines that lifted both himself and Bonecrusher through the entrance and into the plant itself. The others had already run on ahead. Scavenger could hear the laser fire and shouts of surprised Autobots as the four Constructicons attacked them. As quickly as he could with Bonecrusher limping along beside him, Scavenger hurried through the archway up ahead, into the control room where the operation of the power plant was constantly being monitored. Monitored by *Autobots*, for the last few days. The thought was revolting. Scavenger drew his laser and fired at the larger robots who were shooting back at them from behind the makeshift cover of storage bins and furniture. The Constructicons had been ordered to use the lowest settings on their weaponry, to avoid damaging as much of the power plant as possible -- but the Autobots had no such orders. Scavenger flung himself backward as a wide beam of yellow light almost seared the side of his helmet. Bonecrusher, still hanging onto his arm for balance, fell with him, and they landed behind the bulky console of a monitoring station.

Bonecrusher curled up, clutching his leg in silent agony. "Sorry," Scavenger whispered, touching Bonecrusher's shoulder in a brief gesture of sympathy, even as he looked around for Autobots who might have them in their gunsights. "But you shoulda stayed back in the tunnel--"

Shut up, Bonecrusher gasped, still curled over.

Scavenger couldn't see the others, but could hear the laser fire and smell the seared wires as equipment was destroyed and started burning. A new sound started up from close by, something that sounded like coughing, but very faint. Scavenger looked around in confusion, and then saw movement.

One of the Autobots' pet humans was stumbling out from under a Transformer-sized computer console that was pouring smoke. It couldn't see because the smoke was obscuring its optics, and couldn't run because the smoke was getting into its oxygen infilters. It reached out its hands as though to grope its way forward, shaking its head and coughing.

Scavenger looked around for Autobots one more time, then reached out and grabbed the human. It was so small that he couldn't be totally sure, but it looked female, covered in tight-fitting blue-and- white cloth, with its long yellow head-fur held together with a blue ribbon. Regaining its breath, it started to struggle in his grip.

Scavenger smiled and decided to keep it. Scrapper would berate him for bringing back more useless junk, of course, but that was okay. He opened his chest compartment and placed the human inside, making sure to close the hatch securely.

Bonecrusher had recovered by now, and was looking at him contemptuously. "Don't you have enough garbage in your quarters already?" he asked.

Scavenger had no time to think of a snappy reply (not that he could ever think of one anyway, until long *after* such conversations were over), because the noise level from the battle suddenly doubled. As he looked up, a horizontal column of fire scalded the air close to ceiling level.

Hook and Long Haul scurried out of the smoke to join them. "Dinobots!" Long Haul gasped. "They brought in the lousy Dinobots! I'm getting pretty blasted tired of getting chased off by them!"

A moment later Scrapper and Mixmaster appeared alongside them. "It's useless," Scrapper shouted. "We can't take them on without Devastator. We've got to get back to the tunnel!"

He broke cover and fired into the smoke, backing up a few steps, then turned and ran back the way they had come. The others followed suit as quickly as possible, Scavenger dragging Bonecrusher with him. Behind him he heard the heavy tread of what he assumed were Sludge and Slag -- he didn't turn back to look -- and felt the reverberation as the floor shook with the impact of their feet. His fuel pump hammering, he managed to keep up with the others even though he was carrying twice his weight. The darkness of the tunnel was a welcome relief as they plunged downward.

* * *

In the huge command center of the Black Fortress, Megatron faced the Constructicons. Scrapper, as team leader, stood at respectful attention before him. The others, very much aware that Megatron was not pleased, hung back as far as possible.

Scrapper, Megatron said, deceptively calm, "I'm growing more and more displeased with your group. One of you sustains a minor injury and you can't form Devastator -- and the whole operation *falls apart*!" His voice rose in anger, the calm vanished. "What good is a combiner team that can't combine?! You're constantly having problems like this. I've got to wonder whether you and your outdated designs aren't ready for the junkyard!"

Scrapper, to his credit, stood his ground. "We *are* the original combiner team, Commander," he pointed out calmly. "The technology was state-of-the art when it was first introduced, but our knowledge of the process has advanced a great deal since then. Certainly, the more recent teams are a little more sophisticated, a little more durable -- and that technology could be applied to us as well, except that we'd have to be totally rebuilt and redesigned. We just don't have the time and the resources for that. We'd be out of the action for weeks -- and I think we're more effective as we are, staying in the fight, than taking that time out in hopes of upgrading ourselves.

By the way, he added, "we're not the only group that has these problems. The Stunticons, for instance."

Scavenger laughed softly with the others. Scrapper, in his rational and polite way, always managed to work in some kind of derogatory remark toward the Stunticons, in Megatron's presence. As the second combiner team, their technology was little more well- developed than the Constructicons', and recently with the newer teams so much more advanced, it was noticeable. There had always been an intense rivalry between the combiner teams, particularly between the original two -- and they always took pleasure in each others' failures. Scavenger could already imagine the taunts they were going to hear from Drag Strip and Wildrider....

Yes, yes, I've heard all your excuses before, Megatron growled. "The fact remains that you *failed* -- you were driven from the power plant, and the Autobots still have control. You've

accomplished *nothing*!"

Scavenger had seen the battlefield, after they'd escaped the tunnel. Drenched in fuel and littered with bodies and parts, it looked every bit the war zone; he was glad he had not been involved in that battle. The Decepticons had, in truth, accomplished nothing more than thwarting the Autobots' infiltration attempt. The Decepticon forces had regrouped in very much the same pre-battle positions, and the Autobots still held the power plant.

He should have brought back some parts and equipment from inside the power plant, Scavenger chastised himself. At least they would have had *something*, and maybe it could have been useful. Now and again, some of the stuff he picked up, actually served a purpose. Now and again, Megatron was actually pleased with something he brought back. Absently he reached for the latch on his chest compartment, remembering the little human creature he had picked up. Should he take it out? Might it be useful? Or would he just get laughed at?

One more failure like this, Megatron was saying to Scrapper, "and you can forget being an autonomous team. If you can't handle things alone, I'm going to throw you in with some other ground-support squadron, and I don't care if you ever form Devastator again. In fact, I'll put you together with the Stunticons, since both of your groups are so lacking these days. Maybe you'll be able to accomplish together what the newer combiner teams can do on their own!"

Scrapper stared at Megatron, truly horrified. "But we've always operated as an independent unit," he protested. "And we couldn't possibly work with the Stunticons--"

You could, and you will, if I so order! Megatron said. "It's up to you. Don't fail me again."

Time for a distraction, Scavenger thought, pulling the human from his chest compartment. "Uh ... Megatron?" he spoke up carefully. "We -- we did bring *something* back from the power plant...." He held up the human between thumb and forefinger, letting its legs dangle in the air.

Oh no, Bonecrusher groaned, from where he was leaning on Long Haul. "Scavenger, you idiot--"

Scavenger, you idiot, Megatron said at almost the exact same moment. "Can't you pick up anything but garbage? And can't you learn not to bother me with it?" The Decepticon leader's optics flashed in irritation.

Scavenger hung his head and started to put the human back into his chest compartment. Another mistake, another useless trinket that no one else wanted. Maybe he wouldn't keep it after all. Maybe he'd just throw it away.

Wait a minute! Megatron exclaimed, suddenly looking interested. "Give me that!"

Scavenger looked up in amazement as Megatron held out his hand. Hurriedly he placed the human in Megatron's palm. Megatron closed his hand over it, grinning in sudden delight. "Scavenger, you're brilliant," he said, in such an offhand way that Scavenger knew better than to take it literally. Still, he looked at his leader in hopeful expectation. Something he had brought back might actually be useful?

He noticed the other Constructicons, particularly Bonecrusher, looking at him in amazement, and smiled inwardly -- but for the moment he was much more interested in Megatron's words.

Is it possible, his leader was saying, more to himself than to the Constructicons, "is it possible that the Autobots, with their pathetic regard for these weak and useless creatures, would trade an entire power plant for the life of this single human?" He looked over the Constructicons, and laughed. "Only Autobots would be so stupid, to be sure -- but it just might work!"

The human struggled in his grip, and managed to get its head free between two of Megatron's fingers. "You'll never get away with this, you monster!" it shouted in a tiny voice. "The Autobots will rescue me before you can use me for ransom!"

Megatron regarded the creature and laughed disparagingly. "No Autobot can get in here, fleshling. You might as well forget it." He looked at the organic a bit more closely and said, "I remember you. You're the insolent creature that tried to bomb my undersea base on Earth a few years ago. As I recall, you spent some time in captivity with us then. This time, you won't be so lucky as to escape. It will give me great pleasure to crush the life out of your body -- *after* your Autobot friends have returned the power plant to us, of course." He grinned maliciously and handed the human back to Scavenger.

Here, he said, "see that you put our hostage in a secure place. I don't want anything to happen to her -- until later!"

Scavenger happily accepted the kicking, struggling human back, and, with a triumphant look around at his fellow Constructicons, headed out of the command center. Megatron, pleased with this new turn of events, had no further gripes against the others, and dismissed them as well.

And someone find that offworlder Raksha, he called after them as they filed out of the room. "I want to talk to her...."

Part 4

Megatron wants to see you, Skywarp had said to Raksha when she'd passed him and Thundercracker in the hallway. "In the command center."

It was Thundercracker who had thought to give her directions.

She approached the dull-gray plates of the double doors now, and they slid apart to let her enter as they sensed her presence. Megatron stood before a wall-sized computer unit that looked like a larger version of Soundwave's equipment in the communications center, watching a read-out on one of the screens. Upon hearing her he touched a button and deactivated the screen, then turned toward her and motioned her closer.

She walked toward him across the empty expanse of floorspace, unable to keep from staring around her at the confusing tangle of equipment that rose up along the walls, and reached almost to the ceiling high overhead. All the rooms that she'd seen in the Fortress seemed to be like this -- huge cavernous spaces with high soaring ceilings and technological equipment lining all the walls. The multicolored lights on the many computer consoles shone and blinked with a cold beauty against their background of dark metal. She had no idea of their significance, but was drawn to the display of color.

However she was not here to look at lights, and turned her attention back to Megatron, who had been watching her quietly. He pulled up one of the chairs that stood about before the computer banks, sat down, and gestured to another beside him. "Have a seat," he told her amiably.

Raksha eyed the swiveling, wheeled contraption and decided it looked none too stable. She hopped up onto a horizontal ledge of computer console next to the empty chair, and pulled her legs up under her. Megatron scowled at her for a moment, but made no comment. A tray of small pink energon cubes rested on one of the keypads beside him, and he shoved it towards her. "Some energon?" he offered.

I've refueled, she told him. "Soundwave showed me where to go."

Good, good, he said with a trace of a smile, leaning back comfortably in his chair. "How are you getting along, then? Finding your way around without problems? It must be a little overwhelming for you, these new surroundings and all."

No problems, she answered. Megatron's relaxed, friendly manner for some reason put her on guard, because it was such a contrast to the arrogant, demanding way he had spoken to her earlier. And, as she was beginning to notice, things were seldom what they seemed at surface level, among the Decepticons. She watched him warily as he regarded her with what seemed like speculative amusement.

So tell me about yourself, he continued casually. "Where are you from?"

She stared at him expressionlessly. "Long ago and far away," she said finally.

Oh, that's helpful, Megatron said, though he did not seem annoyed or irritated by her evasiveness. "Never mind, though, because I *know* where you're from."

She looked at him in surprise at this.

He grinned at her. "Do you think I take random aliens into my ranks without doing some research? You might have been an Autobot spy, for all I knew. Anyway, you are from--" he paused, affecting a moment's thought -- "Gamma Reticuli II--"

That's not what we called it, Raksha interrupted coldly.

Nevertheless, he said, with another lopsided grin, "that's what it's called on the standard star charts." He leaned toward her, his expression becoming more serious, searching. "That's almost eighty- thousand light years from here. You've come a long way."

Longer than you can ever imagine, Raksha thought, dropping her gaze toward the polished metal floor.

Megatron regarded her intently for a few moments. "You're the last survivor, aren't you?" he said then, slowly. "The only one to get out alive."

Abruptly she lifted her head and met his eyes, holding his gaze in a long moment of startled, anguished silence. The scarlet shade of his eyes had changed subtly. From watching Soundwave, who had no other means of facial expression, she already knew that a Decepticon's eyes changed shade very slightly according to their moods and emotions -- but she had not been here long enough to attach meanings to the changes. Megatron was considerably more expressive than Soundwave, however, and in his face she thought she saw -- what? Empathy? Respect?

I know what it's like, he said quietly, "to be the only survivor. To be the only one with the strength, the determination, the *adaptability* -- to drag yourself out of hell and continue from there." He regarded her a moment longer, seeming to waver between saying more and retreating into his own thoughts -- then swiveled his chair abruptly toward the computer console, activating one of the screens directly above it. "Now leave me," he said, and his voice had resumed most of its old commanding edge. "I'll inform you when I have need of your services."

After a moment's confused hesitation, Raksha slid down from her perch and wordlessly left the command center. Wrapped in thought, she navigated the corridors and moved around and among the Decepticons she came across, and barely saw them. It was true, things among the Decepticons were not often what they seemed. Her initial assessment of Megatron, and the alternate facet of his personality that she had just glimpsed, were certainly proof of that. She would have to be careful not to make hasty judgments, to stand back and watch and learn before blundering forward with drastic and ill-conceived actions---

A shape registered on her peripheral vision as she passed another Decepticon in the corridor, a medium-sized light-green robot. But the shape that had caught her attention had nothing to do with the robot himself -- it was a form that leapt out and grabbed her consciousness, wherever she happened to encounter it. And it happened that the green robot was holding this shape between thumb and forefinger while it squirmed in the air....

The talons on Raksha's right hand shot out to their full lengths as she spun and slashed out, a movement so fast that the green robot could not even follow it. All he saw was the human, torn from his fingers and lying neatly sliced in half at his feet, begin ning toleak its red blood in a spreading puddle over the polished floor.

He gaped at Raksha in utter amazement, then took a hasty step back from her. Calmly she retracted her talons; she had no intention of using them on him.

He looked down at the dead human and whispered, "What am I gonna do now?"

You might get someone to clean up this mess, Raksha suggested matter-of-factly, starting to turn away.

I mean, how am I gonna explain this to Megatron? the green Decepticon called after her in despair, though she could not imagine why Megatron should care.

* * *

For the third time that day, Raksha revised her opinion of Megatron. He *was* an overbearing bastard. And completely irrational. Why else would he be so angry over something so completely unimportant?

You useless waste of circuitry and scrapmetal! he shouted at the green Decepticon, who cowered in wordless terror in the middle of the command center. Others had come into the room as well, since Raksha had last been there, and were now watching with rapt attention, some with undisguised enjoyment.

I told you to put the hostage in a safe place, Megatron was ranting, "not parade around the Fortress with it! Is it so *very difficult* to carry out my orders? Do I have to do everything *myself*?!" The powerful silver Decepticon's optics flashed brilliant scarlet, and his hands had clenched into fists.

I'm sorry, the smaller Decepticon whimpered, "I'm sorry, Commander--"

That you are, Scavenger, Megatron snarled. "I've seldom seen a sorrier piece of work than you!"

Raksha lashed her tail in annoyance. The green robot, Scavenger, seemed to lack the killing edge of many of his comrades; certainly he was not up to Megatron's verbal assault. Inexplicably she felt sorry for him, and somehow responsible for his plight. With a swift movement she interspersed herself between Megatron and the trembling Scavenger. "Leave him alone!" she hissed at Megatron. "He's done nothing wrong!"

Megatron's wrath transferred smoothly over to her. "I suppose *you're* qualified to make that decision?" he snapped sarcastically. "You've been here a day and you've decided to take over? Oh, just the way I like it." He whirled away from her, his fiery gaze raking the surrounding Decepticons, who unanimously flinched back.

Megatron turned on Raksha again. "What were you thinking?" he demanded. "*Were* you thinking? That human was more good to us alive than dead--"

The only good human is a dead human, Raksha interjected, with an unwavering certainty in the face of Megatron's fury.

From the ranks of the spectators, Starscream burst out laughing. "Funny, but plenty of *humans* say that about *snakes*!"

As one, Raksha and Megatron spun towards him, Raksha with bared fangs and Megatron with one fist raised in a clear threat. "You stay out of this!" Megatron commanded. Starscream hurriely decided that the front row was not such a good place from which to watch the spectacle, after all.

Megatron returned his attention to Raksha, his eyes smoldering fury. "You say you want to be one of us," he said contemptuously. "You say you want to stay here. Yet you've just single-handedly blown our best chance to reclaim the power plant with a minimum of damage. I don't tolerate that kind of bungling! Furthermore I don't tolerate insubordination! True Decepticon warriors don't just go off on their own and do whatever they feel like! What makes you think you can show up here and join us, anyway, some obsolete creature from a dead world--"

Raksha gasped, as though the sharp pain caused by those words were a physical thing. Half an hour ago he had seemed to understand her situation. Now he was using it against her. Unable to hear more, she turned and ran from the room.

Come back here! Megatron bellowed in indignation. "I'm not finished with you yet--!"

* * *

In times of crisis Soundwave often found himself torn between his primary function -- communications -- and his secondary function -- repairs. Both were vital during battle, and Soundwave was an unquestioned expert in both fields. It was difficult to say which he enjoyed more -- or, *would have* enjoyed more, were the circumstances different. The two tasks reflected a duality in his nature that he had long come to accept -- that he was a being of destruction, and yet also a healer, depending on the recipient. He supposed his parentage had prepared him naturally for playing a dual role -- he, created of a Decepticon scientist father and a Neutral Repairs- Specialist mother, both now long dead and all but forgotten. But one thing they had both imparted to him, and that was a sense of duty, of doing one's best in the situation at hand. So, Soundwave stayed aware of where he was most needed, and moved back and forth between tasks as was necessary. Earlier, when the Autobots were jamming all transmissions, he had been most needed at communications, to break their code. Now, in the aftermath of the clash at the power plant, monitoring communications was a routine task which others could handle, and Soundwave was more useful in repairs.

He'd gone up to one of the assembly labs on the fifth superlevel of the Fortress, to see how the manufacture of needed replacement parts was coming along. Some two dozen technicians and repaireons scurried about the lab or crouched over delicate ma chinery. Soundwave informed the ranking repaireon of the items that he intended to take back down to repair bay with him. Most of those, he was told, were ready; the others would be a few minutes longer. Nothing was needed critically at the moment, so Soundwave contented himself to wait and oversee the activity. Slowly he moved around the perimeter of the lab, watching and occasionally checking a read-out on some of the more temperamental instruments in use.

Over the hiss of blowtorches, clanging of metal, and whining of microblades, another sound caught his finely-tuned audio sensors. A metallic tapping sound, over by the open door. He looked up and across the room as Raksha appeared in the doorframe, her clawed feet clicking softly against the floor. Her gaze darted around the room and caught sight of him. She started to step forward and then flinched back and away from the noise and activity. With a series of rapid, jerky movements her head snapped from side to side as she stared around the lab, her plumes bristling and fangs slightly bared -- but none of the technicians noticed her, they were all too intent on their work. It was the noise and bustle that was unnerving her, Soundwave saw, and was about to come towards her, when she seemed to make a decision and darted forward across the floor, between a number of lab benches, and came up beside him. She spun to turn her back to the wall, looking out at her surroundings warily.

You were looking for me? Soundwave inquired.

Yes, she said tersely, her optics still fixed on the activity before her, as though it would threaten her somehow.

They will not harm you, Soundwave assured her, with some amusement, though it was affectionate rather than malicious. "Do you need something?"

Yes -- *no*, she amended quickly, still not meeting his eyes. She was very tense, and clearly agitated, but seemed more interested in keeping the technicians at bay with her glares than in telling him about it.

Soundwave sighed inwardly. He played this guessing-game with his own creations all-too-often -- sometimes even, Cybertron help him, with Megatron. "Something has upset you," he stated the obvious, hoping to lead into a conversation.

No, she snapped, lashing her tail.

You have had problems with someone, Soundwave persisted, as though he had not heard.

No reply.

He guessed at the most likely choice. "Starscream."

Raksha looked at him blankly. Not Starscream, then. The second-most-likely choice: "Megatron."

She bared her long, sharp fangs in a reverberating growl.

Right. Soundwave took hold of her shoulders and steered her toward a nearby door. It slid back at their approach to let them enter an auxiliary lab that adjoined the main room, currently dark and deserted. Soundwave touched the light panel and slid the door shut behind them, blocking out much of the noise. He leaned back against one of the lab tables and folded his arms, watching Raksha quietly. Her gaze darted around the room as though scanning for enemies; finding none, and away from the bustle of the main lab, she relaxed very slightly and turned her attention back to Soundwave.

I don't understand Megatron! she exclaimed. "He's angry because I killed a human -- a *human*!" Her plumes bristled in indignation. "I thought the humans were your enemies!"

The humans are nothing to us, Soundwave corrected. "They are beneath notice. And yet, if you killed the hostage that Scavenger brought back, I can well understand why Megatron would be angry."

Raksha looked at him as though he had just offered to run her through with a laser lance.

It is the Autobots' concern for their human allies that is useful to us, he explained. "We could have used this particular human to negotiate for the power plant. If you've gone and killed it ... well, the deed is done. I should have seen that coming, considering the way you went after the humans in the Kytastion system. Why is it, that you hate them so?"

He kept his tone casually conversational, with just the right note of personal interest. At least, that was the approach that worked on his creations. He was a telepath, of course, and could pluck any thoughts directly from their minds -- but he found that it was much better for them to tell him themselves, and he preferred not to violate the privacy of their minds. In Raksha's case, if he delved too deeply into her thoughts and spewed them back to her, it would undoubtedly shatter the fragile trust she was beginning to have for him. So he waited, patiently, to see what she would tell him of her own accord.

Seconds ticked by as she stared at him, the overhead lights catching in her lightless optics and reflecting back in an eerie fluorescence, so that her gaze looked all the more intense, all the more alien. Soundwave thought that she trembled slightly as she stood. Her rigid immobility shattered into sudden movement as she spun away from him with a snarl and raked one hand down the metal wall behind her, leaving three long gashes that barely missed the light panel. She stalked away from him toward the window in the far wall of the room, and then back, stopping a few paces away. Alien or not, her expressions were not so different from those of Transformers that Soundwave could not see the anguish in her eyes.

Soundwave, she said, and her voice was low and controlled, each word precise and intense, "I come from a planet that you, on your star charts, would call Gamma Reticuli II. We called it --" here she made a short, melodic trilling sound that ended in a series of clicks. "The closest translation into your language would be ... 'Beautiful Rain'." Her tail lashed, and her optics narrowed with pure hatred when she continued, "By the time the humans were through with it, the only rain that fell there was *poison*."

She turned away from him and gripped the lab bench, digging her talons into the table top. "They cut down, burned, dug up, and carried away the whole planet. In its place they left black sky, scorched ground, toxic rivers. Air that burned you from the outside, water that corroded you from the inside. Diseased prey that passed its rot on to the predators, until finally there was no more prey. We Plumed Serpents, who had always been strong and self-sufficient, solitary hunters, the top predators in our environment -- we had no jungle left in which to hunt, no shelters left in which to raise our hatchlings. The last of us fed on each other at the end, feeding on the dead bodies -- like worms!" Her voice rose into an anguished cry as she turned towards him, her fists clenched and shaking, her eyes full of fury and pain and accusation. Her tail lashed as she calmed herself with a forcible effort and continued, softly and through clenched fangs, "They destroyed *everything*. Nothing lives on the homeworld anymore -- nothing can ever live there again. But some vengeance has been served, because I killed what humans remained, before I left." The bared fangs twisted into a grim smile; there was satisfaction in it, but no joy. "And in all my travels, I have always killed humans, wherever I came upon them."

Soundwave stood with her in silence for a while. He had no solace to give, no words of comfort or common sense that would make the slightest bit of difference to Raksha, who had lived with this pain for centuries. And yet, he knew that sometimes sharing the story could help, could put things in perspective and make things easier to deal with -- could, if nothing else, relieve some of the burden.

You have never spoken of this to anyone before, he said, and it was not a question.

Raksha offered him her sharp-fanged, humorless grin. "Who would I have spoken to?"

He nodded in understanding; it had not been a question either.

He brought a star map to mind with the location of Gamma Reticuli, and it confirmed what he'd already gathered: "You have been traveling for a long time."

She tilted her head slightly in what looked like the equivalent of a shrug. "A year -- a thousand years -- it's all the same to me. My species didn't measure time as you do, as most species do. In the jungle the days just melded into one another, and we went about our lives. We didn't keep track. Our years were centuries, our seasons were geologic eras. That's why the humans were able to destroy us. Because we didn't realize what was happening. Things don't change drastically in a matter of decades -- it just *doesn't happen*. Not on our world, not in the natural way of things. So we couldn't comprehend it. We were still trying to figure out where the forests had gone by the time the earth started burning.

When I came up against other species in my travels, I had to adjust my thinking to account for rapid changes, to adapt to the unfamiliar. It is ... still difficult. She gestured vaguely at the door they had come through, at the strange, noisy laboratory behind it.

Raksha's species had been immensely old, Soundwave began to realize -- with a lifespan that perhaps exceeded even that of Transformers. And yet the whole vast span of her life had drifted by her like mere years. She had been an elemental thing, a jungle animal, with no need to keep track of time's passage; she did not belong here, in this sudden, violent clash with technology and civilization. Had he been wrong, to encourage Megatron to let her stay?

No. On closer inspection, there was little about Decepticon society that was terribly civilized -- Decepticons were elemental beings themselves, inundated in high-tech as they were, but still driven by their passions, still urged outward toward the stars by their battle-lust and desire for conquest, still subject to the most basic of survival instincts. Perhaps Raksha was in the right place after all.

Soundwave heard the approaching footsteps from outside the auxiliary lab, only a moment before Raksha did. Together they turned towards the door as it slid back to reveal Megatron -- who looked distinctly displeased.

Raksha's plumes bristled. She gave a long high-pitched hiss from between bared fangs, like escaping steam. It was a sound that was not supposed to come from a metallic life-form, and it gave Megatron just an instant's pause -- just long enough for Raksha to plunge for the window, shifting to serpent mode in mid-leap and shattering the glass, to soar away into the darkness of the city.

That ... *female* -- Megatron spluttered, recovering from his surprise almost immediately, "-- is never going to make a Decepticon! It's not going to work. When she comes back, *if* she comes back--"

She will return, Soundwave assured him.

Then you can send her right on her way again. I don't want to see her again, do you understand?

She told me what happened with the hostage--

Yes, the hostage, Megatron fumed. "Your alien friend is insolent, disrespectful, disobedient, and --" he looked at the shattered window, then touched the long gashes in the wall by the light panel -- "destructive."

Surely that last attribute is worthy of our kind? Soundwave suggested.

Megatron glared at him. "Don't even start. Don't even try it."

She does not mean to be disrespectful, Soundwave persisted. "She does not understand what is expected of her. Everything is strange and new to her. Give her the time to adjust. Give *me* the time, to teach her -- that there is such a thing as an air- access portal, and that closed windows are not acceptable means of exit and entry."

Megatron scowled at him a moment longer, but he couldn't help it -- he smiled, then laughed. "Soundwave, you devious bastard," he chuckled, "you always know exactly what to say to get me out of my moods."

Soundwave shrugged innocently; it was merely part of survival, here at the Black Fortress.

Why is it so important to you that Raksha stay with us, anyway? Megatron asked. "It's like you've adopted her, or something."

Soundwave tilted his head and considered this. "It is not an entirely displeasing prospect," he admitted, "to have a daughter again."

Megatron met his gaze and held it. The unspoken name hung between them ... *Selenia*.... "I see," Megatron said, looking away toward the shattered window. He stepped over to it and looked out on the ruined city for a few moments, then turned back to Soundwave. "I will give Raksha one more chance to prove herself," he decided. "But *only* one. Use the opportunity well."

He left Soundwave alone in the empty laboratory.

Part 5

For the second time in as many days, Raksha found herself peering over the barricades at the looming towers of the power plant, across a plain littered with mangled Transformers and stained with fuel. Around her, the entrenched Decepticon warriors held their positions, focused and motionless, while Megatron consulted with the field commander.

What's the position of Thunderwing's troops? Megatron was asking the field commander, whom Raksha by now knew as Onslaught.

They encountered some resistance to the south, he replied, "but have made their way through it. They'll be within range in seven- point-five minutes."

And, have they divided into two units as I ordered?

They have, Commander. The first unit will circle around and attack from the west as you've directed. The second -- is at your disposal. Onslaught looked at Megatron questioningly, hoping for more information.

He was not going to get it, at that point in time. "Have the second unit hang back out of sensor range," Megatron said. "For the moment, their task is to remain undetected. When the first unit strikes, we will launch a full-scale frontal attack on the power plant, and try to trap the Autobots between us."

As you command, Megatron, Onslaught replied, bringing his right fist against his chest. He began to turn away, then paused. "However," he added, "I believe there is a good chance the Autobots will be prepared for this maneuver."

Oh yes, Megatron replied with a dangerous gleam in his eyes. "I have no doubt they'll be prepared for *this* maneuver. But not for what I *really* have in mind!"

Onslaught hesitated only an instant before nodding and moving away.

Soundwave, who had been listening unobtrusively, motioned Raksha away from the barricade and stepped up to Megatron. Raksha joined him, standing close to Soundwave. He had made it very clear to her that she was to stay near him and out of trouble -- whatever "trouble" meant, among these heavy-metal war machines.

What is your true plan, Megatron? Soundwave asked quietly. "A direct frontal assault on the plant is a suicide run."

It will look that way at first, Megatron agreed. "The Autobots will think I've simply lost patience, and intend to hurl warriors at them until we break through, and casualties be damned. But I'll have Thunderwing's second unit of troops in reserve. Once the battle begins, I will evaluate the situation and direct them to their most useful position. I've already sent Starscream to meet up with them. He'll lead them in a surprise air attack that should demolish the rest of the Autobot resistance. We'll have our property back before the end of this rotation."

He moved off down the line of waiting warriors, looking over their weaponry and judging their preparation for battle one last time. Soundwave and Raksha followed along, Soundwave carrying the bulky hand-laser that Raksha had seen during the last battle. Raksha became distinctly aware that she had no long-range weaponry -- that she would not know what to do with such a thing, even if she had it. She was about to comment on this to Soundwave, when a series of muffled explosions went up from across the battlefield.

Megatron! Onslaught shouted, running toward him. "Thunderwing's troops have arrived!"

I heard that for myself, Onslaught, Megatron replied. "Attack!"

He rose up into the air, and from all around, Decepticon warriors rose up after him or rushed forward on foot or in ground-vehicle modes. Bright laser-lances of light sizzled through the air and toward the dark expanse of the battlefield, and the tempo of explosions jumped to a tenfold increase.

You remain here, Soundwave said to Raksha and soared upward, immediately lost among the crowd of other flying Decepticons.

Remain *here*? Raksha echoed incredulously. How was she supposed to help the Decepticons in their cause, if Soundwave didn't want her to join in the battle?

She looked around, at the empty trenches and ambush- positions that had just a moment ago been filled with warriors. They were all on the plain below now, engaged in a melee that made yesterday's battle look like a play-squabble among hatchlings. Raksha could not even make out individual robots anymore, amidst all the smoke and flying debris.

Anxiously she lashed her tail, shooting the claws on her hands out to their full lengths and retracting them several times. Stay out of trouble, Soundwave had said, but as the battle raged beneath her, she grew increasingly agitated. Finally she could restrain herself no longer and threw herself forward, shifting to serpent mode, skimming low to the ground and plummeting toward the battle scene.

It was then that the screaming roar of jet engines sliced through the discordant noise of the conflict. Two hundred triangular shapes, moving in one giant arrow-configuration, split the darkness with a curtain of laser fire. Raksha was directly in their path, obscured by the shadows of buildings, and they couldn't see her. They were moving too fast to change course even if they had seen her, or had cared, for that matter. She turned sharply aside and downward, but several searing bolts struck her as the air troop tore past, sending her tumbling the rest of the way to the ground.

For a few moments she lay dazed, the sounds of battle fading out around her while only the pain remained, the liquid-fire pain that pulsed in her left wing-joint and seeped all the way down to the connecting socket in her body. It was this that she was able to focus on, pulling herself back toward full awareness. She drew her coils together and looked around at the scattered iridescent feathers that had been torn from near the wing-joint. Clamping her teeth together against a new wave of pain, she pulled in her wings and transformed to biped mode. With the wings tucked inside her carapace now, they were held immobile, and the pain receded to a throbbing ache. The laser bolts that struck her scales, she was beginning to learn, would simply glance off the plating, so perhaps she was safer in this mode.

The battle had meanwhile shifted to the very perimeter of the power plant. The Autobots who had streamed out to defend it were slowly but surely being pushed back inside. The air warriors who had plunged into the fray so unexpectedly, were transforming and landing and joining the other Decepticons as they crowded into the building after their enemies. Raksha ran forward, dodging around sharp-edged sheets and shafts of metal that had been torn up from the floor of the plain itself. She joined the last of the Decepticons that entered the plant, and ran with them into a tangle of high, narrow corridors that wound through more open rooms and around immense pieces of machinery. Scalding jets of steam spouted from the cracked walls, filling the air with hot mist. The sound of laser fire and clashing metal was everywhere, intermingled with the screams of stricken warriors.

Raksha looked around wildly, filled with a sudden, panicked confusion. Ahead of her, she caught a glimpse of a red Autobot symbol on the shoulder of a robot who turned away and ran. With something to focus on, she fought down her own panic and took off after him, extending the talons on her hands. A group of Decepticons ran with her, their footfalls pounding on the metal floor in a deafening crescendo. Explosions shook the very foundation of the building -- explosions that Raksha and the others were running toward. They turned a corner and plunged into acrid, billowing black smoke, and a moment later the floor fell out from under them. Raksha twisted in the air, realizing as the smoke cleared that she had plunged through a gaping hole in the shattered wall of the building, and was back outside. The ground came up fast under her and she landed feet-first, but this was no soft forest floor, and her impact on the hard metal jarred her whole infrastructure. A lance of pain shot out from her jolted left wing and she doubled over, pressing her hands to her side where the wing lay concealed beneath her carapace.

What happened to you? asked a gravely voice nearby. Megatron. She looked up to see him standing just a few paces away, regarding her matter-of-factly and without any real concern in his tone. "Did you get hit?"

Raksha bared her fangs and straightened defiantly. "Not on the outside," she said, as there were obviously no marks on her external plating. Megatron, for his part, bore numerous unsightly scorch-marks on his silver armor, though there didn't seem to be any extensive damage. The same could not be said for some of the Decepticons surrounding them. The Autobots, although having been driven from the building itself, were still trying to inflict as much damage as they could during their retreat, and a number of Decepticons lay dead or badly damaged nearby. Another fell with a circuit-chilling scream right at Raksha's feet and lay still. Reflexively she leapt back, staring at the burning fragments of cerebral circuitry that had exploded out the back side of his head. Horrified, she looked up at Megatron, but the Decepticon leader had barely noticed. He raised his right arm and fired a few blasts from his fusion cannon in response to a new barrage of laser light from the Autobots who were trying to hold their ground some distance behind the power plant.

They're trying one last-ditch effort to make our victory as costly as possible-- he began to say to Raksha, but his last words were drowned out by the whine of missiles. A whole barrage of airborne artillery arrowed down toward them and impacted around them. Raksha, Megatron, and several other warriors dove for the cover of a rusting old tank that had once guarded the back entrance to the power plant.

Filthy Autobots! Megatron shouted in fury, firing over the top of their barricade, though forced to duck down often because of relentless laser fire. Raksha came up next to him to take a quick glance over the corroded edge of the tank turret. She could see the shadowy forms of the Autobots against the bright foreground of laser light, where they had positioned themselves among some low buildings. Between their vantage point, and the Decepticons' temporary shelter, the ground surface had ruptured into a jagged trench -- a smaller version of the bottomless crevasses that Raksha had seen in her flight over the city. This trench served at the moment to separate the Decepticons from the Autobots on the other side.

At least, most of them. A number of Decepticons had braved the Autobot artillery and had engaged their enemies in hand-to-hand combat on the far side of the trench. The other Autobots seemed wary of firing on them for fear of hitting their companions, but Raksha could see, as soon as a Decepticon overcame an opponent, the other Autobots would fire on him and send him reeling backwards into the trench.

She grabbed urgently at Megatron's arm to get his attention. "What is it?" he snarled in annoyance, distracted from firing the shot he had lined up.

Can't we help them? Raksha asked, indicating the isolated Decepticons on the far side of the trench. "They can't get to shelter -- they're going to get slaughtered!"

If we leave our position here, we're easy targets, he replied brusquely. "There's nothing to be done about it."


Sometimes you have to loose a few warriors to win the battle! he practically shouted at her. "That's just the way it is!"

Distraught, she turned away from him -- only to see a familiar form outlined against the flashes of laser fire near the trench. Unwilling to believe it at first, she looked more closely -- and felt as though her fuel pump had leapt into her throat. Convulsively she reached out for Megatron again, her talons skittering off the

adamantine plating of his arm.

What the hell--?! he demanded angrily, but she cut him off.


He followed her gaze, and froze. "Soundwave!" he whispered. The powerful blue Decepticon stood at the edge of the trench, locked in combat with a gold-plated Autobot fully his size. The Autobot was trying to slice down on him with an electro-sword. Soundwave, with a concentrated burst of effort, deflected the downward stroke and tore the sword from his opponent's grip. Turning the tables, he brought it crashing down onto the Autobot's shoulder, at such an angle that it severed the other robot's head from his body. With a bright sparking of wires, the body collapsed at Soundwave's feet.

The triumph spelled doom for him, however, for now the entrenched Autobots had a clear shot at him. Raksha and Megatron exchanged an alarmed look. Whatever their differences, they cared equally for Soundwave, and for that instant at least they were united by a common concern. Raksha also knew, in that split moment, that Megatron was not the brutal and unfeeling creature that she had started to see him as -- that he merely disguised himself well.

They turned back to the battle scene to see a rapid-fire barrage of laser light catch Soundwave in the chest and send him plunging over the edge of the trench.

No! Raksha screamed and launched herself from behind the barrier. She barely took note of the pain in her wing as she shifted to serpent mode, lashing her body to wind her way between the painfully bright artillery beams. She slipped down over the edge of the trench and dropped downward. The bottom was not as far down as she would have thought, an uneven cleft that narrowed to a crack in the ground. Several dozen Decepticons were caught between the narrowing walls, most dead, but some still stirring. She could only worry about one of them at the moment.

She found the motionless Soundwave and wrapped her coils around him, feeling the heat against her scales where the laser fire had burned a gaping hole into his chest. Beating her wings, she pulled him loose from where he was lodged, and started to rise upward. He was heavy, and even with two undamaged wings it would have taken considerable effort to fly him out of the trench -- but with her one injured wing, it was all she could do to slowly, very slowly, make her way upwards. She saw the rim of the trench drawing near, above her. In a moment her head would be above the ground. She knew she was going to get shot at as soon as she rose into view, and beat her wings harder, hoping to gain some speed.

A sizzling blast of light shot past her as soon as her first coils appeared above ground, but not from the Autobot side. She recognized the roar of Megatron's fusion cannon, and saw that he had leapt over the rusting barricade, firing non-stop at the Autobots before her. They did fire on Raksha as she appeared, but less so than she might have expected, as a number of them were returning Megatron's attack.

Several bolts glanced off Raksha's body-plating before one hit her wing -- a narrow beam that tore straight through the feather- surface on the right side. Closely following, another beam singed her already damaged left wing joint. Raksha wanted to cry out, but couldn't -- she knew she had to put all her energy into flight, or she would never make it away from the trench. Frantically beating her wings, she rose higher, but agonizingly slowly.

The thunder of Megatron's fusion cannon became a non-stop roar that narrowly missed her each time, setting up a bit of a protective barrier around her.

Soundwave stirred and shifted in her coils, starting to regain consciousness. The movement disrupted her balance so that she sank a few feet downward again. *Stop moving -- stop moving*! she wanted to scream frantically, but she couldn't allocate the extra energy Another laser bolt lacerated her right wing as she inched back upwards in the air, and her wingbeats became an irregular and panicked flurry.

Soundwave! Transform! she heard Megatron shouting over the roar of his fusion cannon. "Transform, damn you!"

Soundwave folded up in her coils, and the movement was so unexpected that Raksha completely lost all flight control and dropped back down into the trench. Her coils tightened reflexively around the object in them as she fell to the floor of the crevasse. Soundwave had shifted to his secondary form, the rectangular recording device -- but this time he became much smaller than he had been when she'd first seen him transform, and much lighter than he was in robot mode. Raksha had no time to ponder the amazing shift, but was thankful for it as she launched herself back upward into the air, all but unhampered now by Soundwave's weight. She burst from the trench into a hail of laser bolts. Her mangled wings threatened to betray her, but she cleared the rim and rose up, fighting her way toward the rusting tank. A last Autobot laser bolt tore through her left wing, rendering it completely useless. She dropped to the ground like a broken toy, landing in a heap of tangled coils and scattered feathers, which were wet with leaking fuel. The pain in her wings rose up behind her eyes. But before her vision went black, she knew everything was alright: she still held Soundwave wrapped in her coils, and she had made it past the tank and almost to the wall of the power plant, back onto Decepticon territory.

* * *

And be careful when you weld the wing-joints, Soundwave was saying. "They're very intricate."

Soundwave, would you lie down! Talon said in exasperation. "It's true what they say -- repaireons make the worst patients!"

With a resigned sigh, Soundwave lay back on the repair table while the bronze Insecticon, Talon, continued working on Raksha's wing with the micro-welder. She was coiled up on a repair table next to the one on which Soundwave lay, her wings spread out to both sides and drooping over the edges. Talon had sprayed her damaged wings with nitrogen coolant, which numbed most of the sensation, and was now supporting the left wing with two of his forearms, while welding the joint with a third. "I *have* used this instrument once or twice before, you know," he said with a significant glance at Soundwave.

Soundwave laughed softly, as though it were some kind of joke between them. The transparent cover of his chest compartment had been melted almost completely away, and some of the circuitry behind it was exposed, with some torn and singed wires dangling out. Scorch-marks blackened the blue plating around Soundwave's chest, and all but obliterated the bright yellow rim that had been painted around the damaged trap-door. Still, Soundwave insisted he was in good enough shape to see to Raksha's repairs personally -- which Talon had flatly denied. The Insecticon Repairs Specialist was taking no chances, and had immediately assigned another repaireon to work on Soundwave, while he himself started on Raksha's wings. The other repaireon leaned over Soundwave to continue her work, which had been interrupted several times by Soundwave propping himself up to check on Talon's progress with Raksha. Finally, however, he seemed content to lie still and let the repaireon do her job.

Raksha could see little of the repair bay from where she was, but she knew that similar scenes were going on throughout the immense facility. While the Decepticons had routed the Autobots and regained control of the power plant, a great many warriors had been damaged in the process. Raksha couldn't help but wonder whether such losses could have been avoided, if she had not killed the human hostage. However she knew, without a doubt, that if she were in the same situation again, her instincts would take over and she would react exactly the same way. She could only hope that such a situation would not present itself again.

Movement at the edge of her vision caught her eye, and she turned her head, surprised to see Megatron coming towards her. He stopped before her repair table and looked down at her for a moment, then smiled. He reached out to cup his hand under her chin, tilting her head upward so her eyes met his. "You did well today," he said, and there was a warmth in the red shade of his eyes that made Raksha smile in return.

He stepped over to stand before Soundwave. "As for *you*," he said, taking on his old, arrogant command-tone, "the next time you decide to play the hero, you might take a few more Autobots with you!"

Raksha's plumes bristled indignantly. She didn't like the tone Megatron took with Soundwave, and was about to tell him so, when she noticed that Soundwave did not seem the least bit bothered by it, and that the Decepticon leader was grinning at him in undisguised delight. He reached out and swatted Soundwave lightly on the shoulder. "I thought you had more se se than that, you old rustbucket," he muttered. "Nice kill with the sword, though....."

* * *


The cavernous throne room of the Black Fortress was lit in a dazzling pattern of light and shadow. Along the walls, forming a blazing corridor to the throne, double rows of scarlet flame surged halfway to the ceiling in controlled pyres. The light was reflected a millionfold off the polished surfaces of the walls. To both sides of the throne that rose on a tower of stairs against the far wall, immense purple banners emblazoned with silver Decepticon emblems draped almost to the floor. The shimmering emblems caught the light of the fires and seemed to waver and glisten with a life of their own. The ceiling overhead in the distance, seemed lost in the dimness of smoke and shadow. Raksha had never seen anything quite so...overwhelming.

Even Megatron, staring down at her from the heights of his throne, seemed part of the spectacle. The lights played across his silver plating and the shadows collected in his eyes, making him seem somehow ethereal and unreal. He sat unmoving, like sculptured perfection, though the dance of light and shadow over his body gave him the illusion of constant movement and boundless energy.

Gathered loosely at the bottom of the stairs were those warriors that Raksha had first encountered on the Tykastion planetoid: Starscream, Skywarp, and Thundercracker, Reflector, Soundwave's creations Rumble and Frenzy, Ravage, Buzzsaw, and Laserbeak, plus a few others whom she hadn't seen on the planetoid and did not yet know by name. Also present was the large purple-gray Decepticon whom Raksha had come to know as Shockwave, as well as the battlefield commander, Onslaught.

Soundwave stood quietly behind her. Raksha resisted the impulse to turn and look back at him, to lash her tail, or to glance nervously around at the others. Her attention remained focused forward, up toward the throne, toward Megatron.

The Decepticon leader rose from his throne and descended with a kind of measured, deliberate dignity. He stopped at the base of the stairs, regarding Raksha intently. Starscream stepped up beside him and handed him a long metal handle with a small glowing shield at the tip.

Raksha, Megatron said to her, "if you are to become one of us this day, you must understand that you give yourself over, for the glory and honor of the Decepticons. You function to further the rightful expansion of Decepticon rule. This symbol --" He raised the poker to reveal the red-hot brand of the Decepticon insignia carved from the surface of the shield -- "stands for power, courage, and victory by any means. For obedience to your leader, and loyalty until termination. Are you prepared to join the ranks of Cybertron's elite warriors? Are you prepared to call yourself ... a Decepticon?"

Yes, Raksha responded without hesitation, and then repeated the words that Soundwave had taught her: "Power to the Decepticons forever. I function for you and you alone."

She felt Soundwave place his hands on her shoulders from behind to hold her steady, as Megatron pressed the scalding brand against her chest. Soundwave had told her it was important that she not flinch from the pain, and she stared at Megatron unwaveringly as the burning symbol ate into the outer layers of her carapace. Megatron held it there just a few moments longer than necessary, and then pulled it back. The relief was immediate, though Raksha still felt the burning on her chest and could see wisps of smoke rise from the newly-marked edges of the emblem. As soon as the indentations cooled, she knew, it would be painted the traditional purple color and sealed with a coat of clear protective enamel.

Megatron handed the branding iron back to Starscream and regarded Raksha with approval. "Soundwave may be right," he mused. "You might make a halfway decent Decepticon after all."

Raksha turned back to look at Soundwave, who was smiling at her in quiet satisfaction. "Look around you," he said. "You are one of us now."

Raksha did look around -- at the overwhelming throne room, at the exuberant dance of the lights, at the other Decepticons surrounding her. At Megatron, her leader, and Soundwave, her friend. For perhaps the first time in her life, she felt that she had become part of something larger and far more important than herself. An indefinable pride and happiness filled her, startling in its intensity after her millennium of solitary flight. A week ago she would never have believed it possible -- that she should find a home of some kind again, a shelter from the icy void that had been her existence -- that in all the unimaginably vast and cold emptiness of interstellar space, she had found a place to belong.

The End