Rob's Pile of Transformers: "The Neutral Alliance"

This story is based on several little ideas, including "What happened to Cybertronian culture as the war consumed the planet?" and "Why don't all those neutrals get together and do something about it?" It's set early on in the G1 comics, a few hundred or thousand years after the Ark is lost (in other words, almost four million years ago.) And it's the same continuity as "Corrosion of War", as you'll see if you remember certain tiny details from that story.

Peripheral, Fornyth, Aileron, Fusepopper, and various others are my own characters. For those who don't know, Thunderwing, Ruckus, Needlenose, Quake, Spinister, Crankcase, Pointblank, and Scrounge are all Marvel/Hasbro-created characters. Hasbro owns the rights to them and all other Transformer stuff; I'm just a fan having fun with their universe, no harm intended, blah blah, don't sue, it's not worth the bother, trust me, I'm a grad student.

Comments and criticisms are welcome and encouraged. And as always, enjoy!

The Neutral Alliance

Chapter 1: Peripheral

I guess... I guess it all started over those energon cubes. Heh. Three energon cubes. Crazy, really.

Yeah, three lousy cubes. You'd think the 'cons would've had something better to do than run down a neut for swipin' three stinkin' cubes, but no. They didn't, and so it led to this whole crazy mess. Maybe it's for the better in the end. Maybe not.

It's a long story... but I guess I don't mind telling. Then you can judge for yourself.

Where to start? Where to start, where to start... Philosophy, yes! Philosophy's always a great way to start off a story. So here's my philosophy:

Even in the middle of a war, you gotta have some fun somehow. You'll go crazy without it. I figured that one out a long time ago. I still stand by it today. Okay, it's not too deep, but it's serviceable.

On most of Cybertron, however, it's always been dangerous to just go out and play in the street. Even back then, the Decepticons that patrolled a lot of the planet had a "shoot-anything-that-moves" mentality that got more than one neutral killed, just for being in the wrong spot. In retrospect, those days weren't so bad, not compared to now, when the Decepticons actually -- no, no, hang on, I'm getting ahead of myself.

So, anyway. Even when you're trying to have fun, you've got to be careful, which sort of takes the fun out of it. A lot of neuts live like that. I didn't, though. A while back, back before the story I'm working up to -- yes, I am going somewhere with this, just bear with me -- I'd finally decided it wasn't worth the bother, and that sneaking around should be the fun part. I suppose I was subsuming, or some other psychology word like that, since the sneaking around used to be terrifying. Or, maybe I was just foolish. You'd have to be foolish not to be terrified by the prospect of sneaking into a Decepticon fuel base to steal energon cubes. Or maybe... I was just young. Stupid and young. What can I say.

But, back then, I saw it as kind of fun... in a twisted sort of way. I could have gotten toasted doing it, or, even worse, captured. All for swiping a little bit of fuel, just what I needed to get by -- just for stealing.

"Stealing". That's too harsh of a label, in my opinion. "Stealing" makes it sound like a crime or something -- and stealing fuel from the Decepticons isn't a crime, not in my book. Not then, not now.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those do-gooder maniac Autobots who thinks the 'cons are the epitome of all that's wrong with the universe. Never have been, never will be. I can understand the 'cons trying to grab a little glory for themselves. Heck, Cybertronian unification's not a bad goal, really. Maybe then guys like me, the guys who are still out there today, wouldn't have to resort to stealing.

The other thing is, I don't really see it as stealing, when it's from the 'cons. Because, by my figuring, the war they started cost me my city, my livelihood, most of my close friends, the civilization I lived in, and nearly my life on more than one occasion.

I figure they owe me a little something in return.

Not that the Autobots don't owe me pretty much the same stuff, for the same reasons. Sure, they didn't start it. They didn't fire the first shot. They're just defending themselves and innocent bystanders. Most of their propaganda is actually true, but it misses the point. The first shot was so long ago that it hardly matters any more. Both sides have done so much fighting that, far as I'm concerned, they're both equally guilty. The Autobots' noble posturing and good intentions can't change the fact that the whole planet's trashed. When someone's missed shots are blasting your home apart, it doesn't really matter why they're shooting. So, the Autobots owe me a fair bit, too. Thing is, they don't have nearly as much fuel as the 'cons, so they're pretty careful about keeping it hidden.

Not the 'cons. Their storage depots back then were huge, bulky, industrial-looking things. You could probably see them from orbit, they were so obvious. And there I was, staring at this tremendous ugly thing, all the walls with corner turrets, the big steel gates that looked like the mouth of the Inferno, and the tops of fuel tanks sticking up over the wall. And the guards. Big, ugly bruisers who could squash me flat with one fist if they had the chance. Going in there was my idea of fun.

Did I say I was "young"? Primus, I must have been completely nuts.

I snuck in close to the complex by ducking from shadow to shadow, junk heap to blast crater. My power levels were at bare minimum, meaning they couldn't spot me on their sensor nets. They probably didn't even bother scanning for such a small signature. They figured anyone attacking this place would be charging in at full strength, guns blazing. Makes sense, really... anyone dumb enough to do was I was trying to do by rights shouldn't have had a chance at making it back out.

I crept up to the perimeter wall, at a spot I'd picked a couple of days before. A quick leap and a slide over the top when the guards weren't looking, and I was in. The walls were formidable, but not all that high.

I tiptoed amid the storage tanks, ducking patrols and workers, till I found what I was looking for -- a loose, unguarded pile of energon cubes. I went around to the backside of them, and slipped two of them into a little basket-net I had for just such occasions. They were good cubes, uncompressed, glowing a healthy pink that promised a lot of nourishment for the systems.

They were so good, in fact, that I couldn't resist taking a third one.

Now came the "fun" part. Also the part where I was most likely to get vaped, but I never let myself think about that much till years later. See, getting into one of these places was a cinch -- just let your power levels run down and hop the wall. Their sensors just couldn't find you with all that background noise from the storage unit itself. But you couldn't get out that way, not with a couple of cubes on your back. They'd spot you before you were halfway over. So, you had to create some chaos first, and hope for an opening.

I looped the net closed and hung it down my back, in a spot so it would wind up on my top side when I transformed. At this point you might be wondering why I didn't shunt them into subspace, in which case you have no idea what it's like being a neutral. A neutral with working subspace circuitry is about as common as a flower garden in a slag pit. Even if my subspace circuits hadn't conked out ages ago from lack of maintenance, it'd take most of the energy I'd nabbed just to power them. No, subspace was and is a luxury reserved for the Autobot and Decepticon armies.

So, getting back to the story -- I darted away from the pile of cubes and slipped between the giant bulk storage tanks that hold most of the place's energon -- probably enough to last me fifty lifetimes in those tanks. A crime, I tell you. I weaved from tank to tank, so I could get as close to the gate as I could. Then I used my trusty vibro-knife to cut a hole in one of the tanks. Energon just comes gushing out, and I drank up from it. Just a few seconds of that and I was up to my peak operating level, a very rare treat. Damn, did it feel good!

Right on cue, the alarms started going off, autosensors shouting about "incorrect energy signature" and "illegal access". It was like sticking a blaster into a retrorat nest: the guards went nuts, running every which way, trying to figure out how an intruder had popped up in the middle of their base. I stayed low for as long as I could, till one of the guards in the towers got a bead on my signature. They opened fire -- those guards just love it when they get to shoot their guns, so of course they were going to try and blow me away. Shots were coming so close I could feel the heat from them. Time to clear out.

I transformed to my two-wheeler mode and made for the front gate, with about five guards chasing me on foot. I headed into a tangle of others, who were trying to organize to block the gate. I slipped right under some of the others, dodging between their legs or around their feet -- I ride so low they didn't even see me. The ones chasing me couldn't shove their way through the others fast enough, so they just shouted to the ones on the far side of the pack. I broke from the crowd just about the time they were figuring out that I was there. A few shots from my musket rifle punched enough of a hole in the gate for me to slip through. I had to dodge a few laser blasts as I charged away from the compound, but I was out of range in less than a minute -- and out of sight long before that. No problem, right? Wrong. About this time was when things started going badly awry.

Well, to be precise, only one thing went wrong, and that was that I ran smack into a patrolling squad of Decepticons. The guards at the storage unit must have called them, I guess. I fishtailed around a corner, and there they were. About five of them came at me from the air, while three more, a tank and two four-wheelers, rumbled along on the ground. Only the fact that I was too surprised to slow down kept the tank from vaping me. His shot hit the ground right behind me. I shouted something like "Yeeow!" and flipped end-over-end. Somehow I landed on my wheels again, and got between the two cars about half a second before they crunched into each other.

The cars were trashed, but one of them, a beat-up looking purple one, backed out of the collision, spun around and came after me. The tank also fired another shot, which blew up the ground right behind me. It was all I could do to keep from flipping over. I turned a corner and hoped I'd at least gotten away from the tank -- he looked tough as rivets. If the purple one didn't have any guns on him, I could probably stay clear of him. I was almost to the entrance to the tunnels, where I knew I could lose them. If I could just keep ahead of them for a few more seconds --

From my rear optics I saw three jets coming after me, along with the purple car on the ground. One of the jets, the biggest one, probably the leader -- the big ones are always the leaders -- shouted at the others. "Needlenose! Fusepopper! Cut him off!"

The jets went tearing past me. The two smaller ones curved back around to hit me again. I swerved and dodged their blasts -- barely. One of them caught the road right in front of me, and I went flying. I transformed out of habit -- when you're sent flying, you're going to have to be in robot mode to get back up. I banged into the ground and tumbled and rolled, till I collided with something. I looked up to see the third jet, the Decepticon squad leader, glaring down at me.

"Going somewhere, little one?" he says.

"Hey, not really," I gave him my biggest slag-eating grin. "How come?"

"On your feet, neut." He said "neut" the same way some people say "waste oil".

I stood up, putting my hands on my knees to push up from. While my left hand was there, I popped my vibro-knife out of its hiding place.

He must have seen it, because he started to take a step back and aim his weapon. I wasn't going to give him that chance. I jammed the knife as hard as I could into his knee joint. He howled and doubled over. I yanked the knife back out and scrambled between his legs, then transformed and ran for that tunnel entrance as fast as I could go. The 'cons were firing after me, but I had too much of a lead for them to get a target.

Then old Purple showed up in front of me. He scared me out of my wits, barreling straight at me, obviously set on a collision. I panicked for a second, slammed on the brakes. I almost stopped.

Then I remembered all those jets behind me and panicked some more, and hit the gas again. I probably would have spun out, except my tires get really good traction. So what happened instead is that my front wheel popped up in the air. I had enough time to get up to speed, but not enough to get my front wheel back down, when Purple hit me. In this fit of amazing luck, I vaulted right over him, went airborne for a very long second, and came down running.

From the way he just fishtailed around and stopped, I think Purple was more amazed than I was. That was the last thing I saw before I ducked underground, was him just sitting there like he couldn't believe it.

Once I was in the tunnels, I didn't slow down till I'd made so many turns that not even the deftest of trackers could find me. Only then did I feel safe enough to head out, and go home.

Before long, the surge of it all began to wear off. So I'd almost been caught! Big deal. I'd gotten out of messier scrapes than that. I had three energon cubes, enough to last me a couple of months if I was conservative and didn't give away too much to friends and neighbors and the needy. Heck, I had three cubes. I decided right then and there that I wouldn't even bother keeping the third one.

At that point in my life, that constituted a pretty good day.

Chapter Two: Ruckus

Yeah, that's when the whole mess started, that day with the neutral. Cripes, what an awful day that was. The neut getting away was bad enough, but then we hadda report back to base on top of that. I was real glad I wasn't Aileron, our squad leader. Thunderwing was ripping him a new tailpipe. And the day was a long way from over, it turned out.

The rest of us were standing at attention while T-wing laid into poor Aileron on the other side of the room. I tuned in to the conversation for a second.

" WAR, Aileron! A war for our very survival! For the very destiny of our race! We need EVERY resource, EVERY scrap of energy! There can be no concessions to those who are not prepared to aid us, nor can we show any sign of weakness to them. And this theft today was just that, a show of irresponsible, unforgivable weakness! Do you understand that, squadron leader?"

"Yes Commander Thunderwing!"

"Then explain to me why you did not..."

I tuned them back out. Pretty typical stuff. We know all that already.

Still, it could've been worse. Thunderwing's never been abusive, not the way some other leaders I've known were. Thunderwing doesn't bully us, or punch us around -- unless we've screwed up big time, and then maybe we kind of deserve it.

Anyway, this time Aileron caught a lot of it, but the rest of us were pretty much spared. Lucky for me, since I probably had more chances to grab the neut than anyone else in the squad. I mean, he drove right over top of me! Damn, how embarrassing. Of course, Quake had a shot at him, too, and so did Spinister and Fusepopper and Needlenose, so it's not like I was the only one at fault. No-one was teasing me the way they could've, since we all pretty much messed up that day.

"Incoming," Spinister muttered to us. "Brace for impact."

"Aw no," I said back.

Old T-wing stormed off, and Aileron came over to start yelling at us. At least, that's what I expected from the look on his face; he was steamed. I figured we'd get some ranting and raving and we could just stand there and nod, "uh huh, uh huh," then forget it all as soon as it was over with. Yelling never got a commander anywhere with the troops; I know I never followed Thunderwing just because he shouted and yelled at me. Or Aileron, either. I don't know why he bothered. I guess he had to do it to save face after getting such a working over from Thunderwing, or maybe because he really was ticked off about it himself. I dunno. I mean, Aileron's smart enough to know that it doesn't do any good, but then, so's Thunderwing. I was kind of surprised to see him storming over like he was going to give us seven degrees of hell.

Only, he didn't yell; he just stomped up and stopped in front of us.

"New orders. We are going to locate the neutral. And kill him."

I almost laughed. "Um, 'cuse me? We're really gonna go through the trouble of finding some stupid neut who swiped a couple of cubes just so's we can bump him off?"

"That is correct, Ruckus. Do you have a problem with it?"

"Yeah!" I told him. "I think it's a waste of time and fuel!"

"Then perhaps you should tell Thunderwing that. I'm sure he would enjoy having you tell him his orders are a wasted effort."

That was maybe a good reason to play along. "They're... Thunderwing's orders?"

"Directly. And I'm certain that he will not be pleased if we fail to terminate this thief."

"When do we start?" I asked him.


"Now?" Spinister asked. "Um, Aileron, no disrespect, but don't you think it'd be wise to wait a bit, till Commander Thunderwing calms down? Surely when he considers the situation rationally, he'll see that this mission is... well, sort of frivolous. At least we should wait till Crankcase is out of repair bay."

I winced -- Crankcase was in the shop because I ran into him instead of the neut -- but I stayed shut up. Spinister was the smartest in the squad. He had the best shot at talking us out of this mess.

Not this time, though. Aileron blew up at him. "This same neutral has done this at least fifteen times! We are leaving here in ten cycles and we are not coming back till we have that neutral's head! Go recharge and load up, dismissed!" He walked off before anyone could say anything else.

"Sorry, guys," Spinister said. "Looks like we have to play this one out to the end."

"Hey, look at the bright side," I said. "Neuts don't shoot back."

"Heh heh, yeah!" Needlenose laughed. "Let's go, the quicker this is over with, the better."

The way it worked out, Needlenose was a lot more right than we could have guessed. And I was wrong. Boy was I wrong...

Chapter Three: Peripheral

The Heaps was the place I called home back then. From the name alone you can guess that it wasn't a real great place to live, but it was still home. For a neut to have a home in those days, before Fornyth, was doing pretty well by itself. It didn't have to be a garden spot.

It was a town at one time; the piles of rubble that we all burrowed into had been buildings long ago. You could tell by the streets, which still existed in the form of paths between the debris piles, but otherwise there was no clue, really. The tunnels under the town were still there, though, and even bigger than they used to be. There were tunnels under most of Cybertron's surface, but here we neutrals gradually dug more and more of them, till it was a literal maze. More robots used them now, since they were relatively safe. The Decepticons didn't bother with them, so you could move around without worrying about getting shot in the back. And if you knew them as well as I did, you could shake off anyone following you in no time flat.

So, I wasn't too worried about being followed. Everyone likely to be down here was a friend. I crept up from the tunnels, into the scrap heap on the surface that contained my home. I mean that literally -- I lived in a pile of scrap. A twisting, narrow, steep, dark little pathway took me up into it. It was pretty stable, since the dozens of us who lived there were always shoring it up, but you still had to watch your step. Bits of loose junk constantly tumbled down and had to be cleared away to keep them from getting underfoot. Sometimes I wondered where it all came from; at the rate stuff broke loose, there should have been nothing left of the whole scrap pile.

There were lots of dark holes in the walls, little alcoves that led to the places were we all lived. "Peripheral!" a voice called to me out of one of them. "What the... where did you get --"

"Don't ask," I told him. "You don't wanna know. Here, have some."

"No, I can't. You're always giving me --"

"Don't argue; drink!"

I poured off a portion of one of the cubes into a storage unit secreted in his cubbyhole.

"Thanks, mate," he said.

"Pleasure," I said, continuing to climb.

I passed eight more neighbors on the way up, and poured out energon till one of my cubes was gone. I reached my own little niche, near the top of the pile, almost five hundred feet above the surface -- one of the biggest wrecks on the planet. What a building it must have once been!

I'd cleared out a little room for myself up there, shoring up the walls with stray beams and whatever else looked like it would keep the ceiling from falling on my head. It was nothing fancy, but big enough to stand up in and pace a couple of feet back and forth. More important to me, it offered a pretty good view. Not just for defensive purposes, either; I've always liked being able to see a long way around me, and from that height you could see a long way indeed. The view's not so great anymore, sadly.

The cubes I stashed under some junk in the floor.

I patched in to my little computer monitor, checked for messages. The planet's electronic infrastructure was, in those days, still hanging on by a thread. In a few more years, even simple mail messages would become impossible, as the war destroyed or severed what remained of Cybertron's networking hardware. For now, though, I still got occasional messages from a dwindling group of friends scattered across the planet.

There was only one message waiting for me, and my optics nearly popped out when I saw who it was from. There were about two dozen recipients besides myself, I noticed. I punched it up, an image forming in the air above the monitor.

"Greetings, my friends," the long-gone voice said. "I apologize for being so long out of touch with all of you, but the war has spread and consumed even the most remote areas of the planet. It is most difficult to find a working terminal.

"Friends, I have done what I could, but I fear my mission has largely been a failure, for simple waiting. If I had started a few vorns earlier, I could have saved vastly greater amounts of information. But what is left of Cybertron's culture is crumbling at an ever-accelerating rate, and I have caught only the barest remains. It is almost too difficult to think of, our entire civilization obliterated. What will become of us as a race if we have no civilized point of reference, no shared culture beyond war? No peacetime standards by which to judge our lives? I can barely stand to contemplate such questions, for the answers I inevitably reach are terrifying.

"The best statistics I have found indicate that there are now more Transformers who were created after the war than were alive before its start. More than half our race has no knowledge of peace.

"My mission is over. I am coming home within the next lunar cycle. What I have learned must be used, it must! If our culture dies, then we die as a race. The line must continue unbroken. Somehow it must be preserved.

"I have an idea, but it will be difficult. I will need much help. But many will benefit, if it can be done.

"Farewell. I shall speak with each of you soon. May Primus watch over you all.


I punched off the computer, and sat back in a sort of dazed amazement. Fornyth! An old friend of mine, an old friend of everybody's, really. Gone for years now, off on a crazy mission across the planet to "study Cybertronian culture". That, I really admired him for. Most every neutral on the planet had given up any semblance of doing anything beyond just surviving, just staying out of the way of all the bombs. Not Fornyth! He was going to go on a stroll across the planet, Autobots and Decepticons be damned!

And now he was coming "home". That meant he'd given up. No, not given up. Fornyth never gave up. He must have felt he was done. Reached a stopping point. A conclusion. Which of course meant he'd have something else in mind now. A plan, as he'd said. I wondered what it might be.

I stretched my gaze out across the dark wastes below, scanning out all the way to the edge of the Heaps. Darkness and shadow. And Fornyth, out there somewhere, on his way home now. I wondered how he'd take the condition this place had fallen into after he left... then I wondered what would make him call it quits. Primus, it must be bad out there to make him give it up. Really bad.

Even worse, actually.

From my perch, I suddenly saw an eruption of lasers and explosions out at the edge of the Heaps; several seconds later the sound of distant explosions echoed up to me. My first thought was that we were about to become a battleground. Then I realized that the patterns of light were wrong. The lasers were fanning out in a line, and no one was firing back. I stared, too frightened to really accept what I was seeing, even as I knew it was true.

It was a march of eradication. The Heaps were being swept out of existence.

Chapter 4: Ruckus

The whole thing was just a huge mess. First we had to blow up every building in sight. Problem was, they were already blown up. It's kinda hard to destroy something that's already been destroyed, but we did our best. Boy did we waste a lot of ammo shooting at all those wrecks!

Then we had to track down every last robot that came scurrying out of the rubble, and shoot them. Even worse, we had to get a positive ID on them first, which meant we had to catch them in robot mode, then turn 'em around, scan and record, and then finally we could blast them.

Aileron was about bursting at the seams. I mean, he was really getting into this, in an angry sort of way, like he'd be really happy when it was over. Shouting "Faster! Faster!" or something like that. Like we were taking our time on purpose. Sheesh.

"This is..." I had to think a sec to find the right word, "This is humiliating!"

"Tell me about it," Spinister muttered. He was next to me in the firing line.

"Seems all right to me!" Quake said. Spinister and I just looked at each other and shook our heads. Quake's not really the philosophical sort. Doesn't have the sense to realize the difference between doing warrior's work, and a brainless slaughter. He was just rolling right along in his tank mode, happily shooting left and right -- I don't think he was even bothering to aim. Not that he ever does. I'm no computer programmer myself, but at least I got brains enough to know when a fight's not really a fight.

But orders is orders, and you gotta follow 'em even when you don't like 'em. That's what being a soldier's about. Except maybe when they're really stupid orders, but these weren't quite that stupid. Close, though. Stupid enough to draw in some unwanted attention, that's for sure.

I was aiming for this one neut when it started. Took me completely by surprise. Something knocked my gun out of my hand, and when I turned to see what, all I saw was a couple of feet coming right at my face. And, well, over I went.

I was stunned, but lucky for me Spinister was there to cover me. He drove away the attacker while I found my gun and got up again.

"Autobots?" I asked.

"Yep," Spin said. He was letting them have it with both guns. There was a whole big squad of 'em, charging in out of nowhere. I don't know why we weren't expecting this -- they screw with everything else we do; no reason to think they wouldn't screw with this too.

"Man, this day just keeps gettin' worse and worse," I muttered.

"Actually, this is kind of an improvement," Spinister said. He transformed and took to the air to give us cover fire.

"And that's sayin' a lot," I muttered. Quake had finally stopped blasting the wreckage piles and started aiming for the Autobots. He's lucky he's got so much armor, else he'd have been scrap ages ago. Windsweeper, Needlenose, Fusepopper and Aileron all took off; I unloaded everything I had as they did. That's the most critical part of a fight, is getting our guys off the ground if we've been caught like this.

"Spinister - reconnaissance," Aileron ordered. That's his cue to figure out how many enemies we're up against. Spinister immediately headed off the battlefield, away from the front line. Nobody knows how he does it, but somehow he almost always manages to sneak around the 'bots and get a head count on 'em. Some guys think he's in league with the 'bots, so they cut him a break. They don't know him like I do, though. I'd sooner think Thunderwing was a turncoat.

We were taking a pounding, and had to fall back a few hundred meters by the time Spin got back. He had taken a couple of hits, and he sounded grim. "At least three dozen -- probably more," he said to Aileron. "Heavy hitters. And I ran into a column of reinforcements moving up to help."

Aileron growled -- but hey, what choice did he have. "Decepticons, retreat!" he ordered.

"Gladly," I said. Anything to get out of this stupid, pointless, no-win fight. The twenty or so of us transformed and split, and that was the end of that.

At least, that was what I was hoping at the time...

Chapter Five: Peripheral

Everyone that survived was dragging themselves into the tunnels, heading for who-knew-where. A mob of despairing, exhausted refugees, fleeing from gods only knew what. Dozens were dead; many more were wounded, and everyone was in some degree of shock. I'd managed to slide back into the underground just before they hit our building -- I was the last one out, and from the sounds I heard after I left, I guessed I wouldn't be going back.

The crowd slogged along, at a drudging pace, escaping without any destination. Nobody knew what the hell just happened, but it was something that had never happened before: an intentional, hostile, wanton slaughter of neutrals. It made absolutely no sense, which made it even worse. The Decepticons hadn't even tried to take hostages, and word had it that they finally just up and retreated as soon as the Autobots showed up.

Gradually, word started to get around that the survivors were regrouping in the market chamber outside the Heaps. Most everyone was headed that way anyway, as it was away from the Decepticon march's last vector. Eventually, news got passed around that something was going on.

A huge crowd was waiting when I got there. The market chamber was a series of huge, open, underground rooms; it was where a lot of the commerce in the Heaps and the surrounding area took place. It had probably been a generator station or something like that when it was built; now it was empty except for the vendor stalls that sat in lines all over the place.

Dozens of robots were milling around, trying to repair wounds or talking or sitting on the floor, staring at the ceiling. Some of them were torn up pretty bad -- I could tell they probably wouldn't last much longer. Poor poor wretches. I'd have helped if I knew how, but I don't know much about mechanics except plain old basic self-maintenance -- I'm not even very good at that. Some were alone; a few lucky ones had a friend or two standing by, someone to wait it out with.

Some kind of buzz swept through the crowd, and everyone looked to the center of the room. There, hanging from a series of ropes that dangled from the roof, was a lone robot. He climbed till he was about fifty feet above the crowd, and everybody there could see him. I stared in shock as I realized: it was Fornyth.

I'd forgotten all about him, yet somehow he'd made his way to the center of the crowd. He dangled up there, slowly spinning so the whole crowd could take him in.

"Citizens of Cybertron!" he shouted, before I could figure out what the hell he thought he was doing up there. The babble of voices died down a bit.

"Citizens! A dark day is this, my fellow Cybertronians. A day of sorrow, of mourning. A day when many friends have died pointless, hollow, meaningless deaths, at the hands of an unspeakably evil aggressor. A day when we have seemingly lost our home, and very nearly what precious little remains of our lives. I have traveled a great deal of this planet in recent times, and seen many horrors... but this, I dare say, is the worst I have witnessed -- and in the very place I have long called home. I am horrified, as you doubtless are. And I am outraged, as you all have every right to be."

"Citizens of Cybertron, hear my words now, that these tragedies to not occur in vain, that from this darkness may come some small rays of light -- that this day may also be remembered as a turning point."

"Citizens of Cybertron," he repeated again, solemnly. "That is what you are, what all of us are. By right of birth. By virtue of the very fact that you exist, you have a right to continue existing. Because you are Cybertronians, you have a right to call this planet your home! But as you've seen today, some people hold precious little respect for those rights, for the right of all Cybertronians to live in peace and prosperity, for any rights that are inconvenient for those people to respect."

"Look around -- look at yourselves, at this place, this dank maze where we are forced to live. I ask you, is this how we are to live our days out? Shall we scurry in fear, hide in darkened tunnels, think only of our own survival? Is this all we shall do till the war is over, till we are all slain by random chance or by the sort of malicious attack which has cost us so much today? Is this a life that we, as free-thinking beings, have any business living?!"

He paused a moment, then forged on. "I am here to offer you another option. Not one driven by anger, not one fueled by a desire for futile revenge, nor one tainted with lust for battle or even conflict. But an option reasoned and rational, one peaceful and pure, one fit for civilized beings -- one that will enable us to live our lives again. Not merely to exist, but to live. To live the way we did before the war, when we had greater and nobler pursuits than merely surviving.

"It will not be easy. It involves risk, and the very high probability of battle. But that is only a temporary sacrifice, for a permanent solution. The alternative is to flee with no direction, no goal... and, truth be told, no hope. This plan can give us not only a goal to work towards, and a point to unify ourselves around, but also a way to regain some of what we've lost.

"Would you like to hear it?"

He didn't exactly have them eating out of his hand, but the grumbles of assent that came from the crowd were enough. When he finished outlining his idea ten minutes later, every robot in that chamber was, grudgingly or otherwise, won over to his insane plans.

Chapter Six: Ruckus

Well, as expected, Thunderwing nearly turned red when Aileron told him we didn't have the neut. Lucky for us all, he calmed down a bit when we told him it was 'cause of the Autobots.

"Then we shall have to redouble our efforts to destroy them," he said. Standard rhetoric, but up my alley. Blowing up 'bots makes sense.

Aileron didn't look so good. After a second, he said what the rest of us were thinking: "Sir... the neutrals?"

"Have been sufficiently stifled for now," Thunderwing said. "We need not further concern ourselves with them, I think."

"Thank you, sir," Aileron replied, while the rest of us had a group sigh of relief.

"However, from now on I expect you all to deal with neutrals much as you would with Autobots," Thunderwing added. "Dismissed." He walked off.

"Aw, terrific," I said, loud enough for everyone to hear. "So now we get the neuts ticked off at us, too."

"You afraid of the neuts? Haw haw haw!" Quake said. The moron.

"They're scarier than you," I snapped at him. "And what's the point of goin' around making more enemies, huh? That's just stupid!"

"Awwww, poor little Ruckus is afraid of the neuts," Quake says. "Don't worry, we'll protect you from the big, bad, scary Empties!"

"You're gonna need some protection of your own, pal," I told him. Who the hell did he think he was?

"Better hope Thunderwing doesn't make you go into the Dead End at night! Think how scary that'd be!"

"That's it --" I took a step forward, ready to clock him one, when Aileron stepped in.

"ENOUGH! Do I have to confine you two to quarters, or will you stand down on your own?" he says.

"Long as he knocks it off. Or else I'll knock it off for him," I said.

"You'll do nothing of the sort. And Quake, shut up."

"Yessir," Quake muttered, obviously not meaning it.

"You're all dismissed. Ruckus, take the next patrol."

"Yessir," I said. That was good. I'd get to leave base for a while, blow off steam. By the time I got back, Quake wouldn't even remember anything having happened.

"And believe me, I share your concerns regarding the neutrals. When the time is appropriate, I'll relay them to Thunderwing. But trust me, now is not the appropriate time."

"Alright, fine," I said, but I was still ticked about it. That's why Aileron's a squad leader and I probably never will be. I went to re-arm and round up my patrol troops, grateful that this mess was over... and wrong about it yet again.

Chapter Seven: Peripheral

Two weeks after the attempt to wipe out the Heaps, I was back in another Decepticon fuel dump.

I must have been utterly, totally, completely barking mad!

They'd notched up their security, which meant I had to wait and watch a good half hour before I spotted an opening in the patrol patterns and the watchful eyes of the guards. But in I went, just like all the other times, and with time to spare.

After that, though, things were a bit different. Instead of going after energon cubes, I scrambled around the inside perimeter of the base till I was near those gigantic storage tanks. I carefully searched in the control pipes that fed them. There, in the middle of a tangle of tubes and feeder pipes leading to and around the tank, was one pipe that didn't lead to anything. Yet.

I pulled on the pipe; it compliantly extended, more of its length sliding in from somewhere outside the maze of the complex, till it was right up against the tank's side. Then I burrowed down into the mess of junk piled against the storage tank, and hauled out my trusty vibro-knife. I flicked it on, and quickly cut a hole in the storage tank. I clamped the open end of the pipe onto the tank, and sealed it. I cranked the handle on a valve that blocked pipe about a foot from its end; then I buried the pipe under all the other junk.

One hundred astroliters per minute, the 'bot who'd gotten us the valve had said. One hundred astroliters per minute. A ten-thousand astroliter tank, probably. Leak safety factors, maybe... one percent. One percent, yeah. I hoped. I crept off and slipped behind another tank, and pressed a button -- praying that the other guys had done their job.

The alarm on the tank went off right then, but I don't think anyone but me noticed. Because at the same moment, an entire wall of the complex blew up. A huge explosion, the kind that usually signaled an Autobot attack. Ka-boom!

But this time, it was neutrals who came storming over the remains of the depot walls. They came en masse, dozens of them, and with three big ground transports they'd scrounged up or stolen from somewhere. The transports barreled over the lead ranks of the guards and headed for the cube storage shacks. A mob of neutrals stormed along behind them, stripping the weapons from the downed 'cons and blasting away at everything in sight. The other guards in the towers tried firing into the horde of neutrals, but return fire blew them away. The aim wasn't very good, but there were so many of them shooting that they couldn't help but get some hits in. Law of averages. The towers were trashed in seconds.

They tore the storage shacks apart, and threw a ton of energon into the transports. I joined in with no trouble; pretty much all the guards had been waylaid by this time. Now the average 'con is about twice the size of the average neutral, and these 'cons were bigger than average... but we had the advantage of numbers. Those poor buggers, they went down with a dozen or more of us on each one of 'em.

The transports headed back out, and I jumped on one of them. The mob clambered aboard, and off we went. Everyone who had a gun fired back at the complex till we were out of sight. Five minutes to get in and out and trash the entire place while we were at it. I couldn't believe it. The Decepticons -- the few who were still standing -- just stood outside the remains of the gates as we drove off, just gaping. Guess they were waiting for their commanders to tell 'em what to do. Ha ha!

Everyone was cheering and yelling, totally pumped up. What a haul! What a victory!... and what a load of energon!

Somewhere else, another group was supposed to be disassembling the pipeline that I had fed in, so that the destination of the energon we'd swiped from the tank couldn't be located. That was the real goal, and the energon on the transports -- as great as it was -- was just a diversion. The rest of our little army was attacking five or six other fuel depots in other places at the same time. But for now, that wasn't my problem.

Thirty minutes later the transports lumbered into the Heaps, with all of us riding on top. Pretty much the entire surviving population of the place must have turned out to welcome us back -- though so many had finally signed on, that it was mostly the damaged and weak who were left in the Heaps. But there were still a ton of 'em! I never realized so many robots lived there, but a huge crowd had gathered, and they were all cheering and yelling for us. Primus, what a party! I'd never seen so many happy faces on this planet -- well, not for a long, long time, anyway.

Fornyth was in one of the transports returning from the other depot sites -- they'd all met with success, amazingly. He started tossing energon cubes off the sides -- there was so much of it, we could afford a celebration. At first the crowd was scrambling and fighting for it, but we all joined in, and threw it out so fast that soon everybody had a share.

Finally, Fornyth stood up, raising his arms for quiet. It took a while... boy was that crowd riled up! Finally he managed to get his voice over the assembly.

"Citizens! We have accomplished a daring first step, but now comes a far more difficult measure. The Decepticons, whose fuel we have just claimed for our own, are most certain to want it back. At any moment now we may expect an attack, and rest assured it will not be as... erm, placid as the last one."

The crowd started tittering nervously at that one. Several robots edged closer to the tunnel entrances.

"We are ready for this, however. Those of you I have given instructions to, remember them and follow them to the letter. The remainder of you, be ready to scatter and escape underground at the first sign of counter-attack. We shall meet again in the market chamber two days hence, and then see if we were successful in our goals.

"And if we have, then --"

A ruckus sounded just then. The cry came from the edge of the crowd, and soon everyone took it up. It was a big mess of voices, but all you really needed to hear was one word.


"Then it begins! Flee, scatter! To hiding, all, forthwith!" Fornyth shouted. "Let us see, now, if by strength of wit we may save our hides. At the ready, neuts!"

The crowd went every which way. One thing I'll say, there wasn't a scrap of energon left in the area, on the transports or anything. If the 'cons were planning on getting it back, they were more than a little too slow.

A group milled briefly around Fornyth, kind of waiting uncertainly. Fornyth hadn't said anything to me, but I was suddenly worried about him -- he wasn't running at all; in fact, he was staying resolutely put, futilely trying to control the crowd. And very much alone -- his group had disappeared when I looked back, as the Decepticon attackers swept over the Heaps, blasting from the air. Explosions went off all around us.

I was about to go haul him off by force, when a new terror swept over the scattering neutrals, the fleeing crowd changing direction like some kind of migratory flock scared by a shotgun blast.

"Thunderwing! It's Thunderwing!"

"Run! Run!"

"Get out of here!"

"No! Stand your ground!" Fornyth bellowed.

No one seemed to be listening; our little plan suddenly looked to be falling to pieces. The 'bots were moving like a torrent away from that awesome presence. I swear I could feel him before I saw him. And when I did see him, my fuel pump just about came to a dead stop.

He was a sight. Big huge grey and blue jet with gold and green trim, with a couple of monster cannons on his wings. His shots were just ripping into the crowd, maiming and tearing wherever they hit. I've never seen such a panic. And Fornyth just went on shouting orders, and everyone was swirling around him. He couldn't have made himself a more obvious target if he'd jumped up and down waving his arms. Thunderwing headed straight towards him. I'm no warrior, but I couldn't just let him stand there and get shredded. Some part of my self-preservation circuits must have shorted out, because before I knew it I was wading through the masses towards him, shoving 'bots out of my way left and right.

"Fornyth!" I yelled at him. "Get down!"

"Ne'er you worry o'er me! See to yourself!"

*Blasted quote-spouting fool!* I thought. I shoved my way to him, grabbed his arm to pull him into the crowd, when all of a sudden the ground shook all at once -- WHUMP! Something blocked the light. I looked up into the face of Thunderwing himself.

I almost died right there, and not because of his weapons.

He swatted Fornyth to the ground like he was nothing, just backhanded him. Probably didn't even tax a circuit -- Fornyth barely came up to his waist. Poor Fornyth landed on his back. Thunderwing hovered over him. I just stood there off to one side, too scared to help, too petrified to leave.

"Insolent neutral!" Thunderwing shouted. "You dare challenge the new Decepticon order?"

Primus bless him, Fornyth actually got to his feet. He stood up against Thunderwing! He was scared bad, I could tell, but there was something else there --

"Challenge it we do, most certainly. Tarry a moment, I'll tell you why." And then -- he grinned. For a split second I thought he'd lost his mind.

But at that moment, the ground under Thunderwing exploded and dropped out. He tumbled feet-first into some sort of pit. And then something remarkable happened.

About a dozen or so robots suddenly popped out of hiding places -- the same group that had been standing around Fornyth when the attack began. They started pulling a bunch of hidden levers, and molds and blocks slammed into place around Thunderwing, trapping him in his little pit -- a layer of metal slabs in front, a layer behind, two more from the side. In just a couple of seconds he couldn't move at all, nothing left but his head poking up above the surface. And, oh glory, was he pissed!

"How DARE you! For this effrontery you will --"

"Wilt thou SHUT UP FOR A MINUTE?!?" Fornyth screamed so loud that it even seemed to rattle Thunderwing. "Do you not know how to speak without screaming?" He stared up at Fornyth for a moment in startled silence. Just then, one of the 'bots ran up and started messing with the back of his head. The rest of the group had drawn big, nasty weapons -- Primus only knew where they'd gotten them -- and were defending Fornyth, waving away any Decepticon that came too near, barrels held close to Thunderwing's head.

"What are you doing, neutral? Tell me or feel my troops' wrath!"

Fornyth was already calm again. "Your bluster and rage is wasted upon us, dear Thunderwing. We have but one goal, one desire, one wish which drives us, and that is to live in blissful peace. You, good sir, have been given the honor of aiding us in this noble task."

"Have you lost your mind?! If you do not release me --"

"THEN where you are, you'll remain; till your voice is worn to naught for all your endless shouting and screaming. Hear my words, worthy Decepticon, and then your freedom shall be addressed forthwith."

Thunderwing stared at him, furious. Oh, if looks could kill, there'd have been nothing left of Fornyth.

"The good mate at your back has installed a most fearsome explosive in your head, which, at the first act of violence towards my kinsmen, shall render you quite... erm... senseless. Hear me now. To fight you, we desireth not. To enter into strife and destruction with you, we desireth not. To bring glory and conquest to this world we share, we most assuredly desireth not. What we desire is to live our lives, unharrassed by like of you or any other on this world, be they Decepticon, Autobot, or any other forsaken faction of gun-toting brigands. And we shall have it. Starting now! Today!"

The little crowd around him encouraged him, cheering and whooping.

"We've taken a small share of your fuel, as you know -- a minor restitution for what your conflict has cost us over the years. I trust you'll agree that though more is certainly in order, what we've reclaimed today will be enough for the moment."

"All who defy the Decepticon empire shall DIE! Decepticons --"

Fornyth's group bristled, leaning in close with their guns, and Thunderwing cut off whatever order he was about to give.

"Might we entreat you to recall thine warriors, lest the new age be broken by careless ways and misused weaponry?"

"You -- insolent -- insane neutral!"

"Inspired, perhaps -- insolent? No! Insane? Tis only for the gods to know. Heed now mine words, and recall yon soldiers. For 'tis but a short finger-fall to remove the faculties from thine shoulders." He flipped a detonator switch around in his hand.

The neuts laughed at that -- I swear even one or two of the Decepticons cracked a smile. Thunderwing growled and glowered at him. Fornyth casually turned on the detonator, and dangled it in front of Thunderwing's face.

"Don't make me blow up your head," Fornyth said. "Please?" He hit a button, which began a digital countdown on the detonator.

Thunderwing made some more angry growling-type noises... then finally spat out orders to his troops. "Decepticons... return to base! Immediately!"

"Oh, thank you, thank you," Fornyth said. "Thank you tremendously. I did so want to avoid cleaning up brain-case fragments." As the Decepticon forces transformed and pulled out, he stopped the countdown. "Farewell, Thunderwing. You'll find your restraints loosened momentarily. I do hope this is our final conflict. If you do not bother us, we shan't bother you." He turned to the rest of us. "And now, my dear neutrals, time has come for us to become scarce as well, I believe. To our beloved warren, friends!"

With an uproarious cheering, the remaining 'bots headed for the tunnels. Fornyth himself grabbed my arm and pulled me along. "Peripheral, dear soul, you look positively shocked," he said.

I think I mumbled something like "Uh huh" as he dragged me off. But I'm really not too sure... I was completely blown away by what I'd just seen.

After the rush of the whole thing had finally worn off, it occurred to me to at least say 'hello' to Fornyth as he pulled me along -- I mean, I'd hardly said five words to him after he'd come home. Heck, the guy didn't even get a chance to unpack his bags, and here he was just taking control of a bunch of straggling empties.

So I said it: "Uh, hello," I finally said, the first words I'd said to him, aside from a few bits of advice I threw in while we were planning the attacks.

"Ha ha! Peripheral, you are composed as ever," he answered.

"Uh, thanks, I think?" I shook my head. "You're nuts, you know that?"

"As I noted to our beloved Thunderwing, that's neither yours nor mine to judge," he answered. "How have you faired in these nefarious times?"

"Not bad. I'm quick and small. I don't have much trouble staying in energon."

"Poorly as the rest, then," he said, sounding sad. "Have you forgotten what our lives were once like? No standard of living under these circumstances should be counted as anything greater than unconscionably poor."

"I guess not," I said. What was I supposed to say? What other choice was there?

We didn't get much beyond that before people started coming up to him with this and that. A lot of them were just saying 'thanks for the energon', but some were the guys he'd planned the attacks with. These stuck with us, and began talking about stuff that was, at the time, over my head. Eventually I just kinda dropped out of the group and went my own way. Much later, though, I'd think back over what I'd heard... and realize how totally nutso it all was.

Chapter Eight: Ruckus

I've seen a lot of stuff in my time. I've seen brave stuff, coward stuff, stuff that'd stop your fuel pumps, more ways than one. Traitors, heroes, brave guys, guys who were nothing but slime. Wimps. Tough guys. And a lot in-between. But there was one thing I'd never seen till that day, and that was somebody actually beating Thunderwing.

I hated to even think it, let alone say it. I mean, he's my commander. You don't say stuff like that about your commander. It's not respectful. But I mean, that's what happened. A bunch of neutrals beat Thunderwing. A bunch of slaggin' neutrals! They tied him up and put a bomb in his head, and none of us could do a thing about it!

I just couldn't believe it, but there were the med bots, working to get the thing out of him. I had guard duty -- Thunderwing trusts me enough for that, even when he's on a med table with his head casing open. I'm proud of that. But man, seeing him up there like that -- with a bomb in his head that would blow him to smithereens if it went off. Primus.

Took like four hours -- those neuts knew what they were doing, or at least the one who put the bomb in did. Thunderwing finally came stomping out. I got the heck out of his way, pronto, then followed him.

"Dismissed," he muttered without facing me.

"Uh, yes sir," I said. I was going to salute him but he stomped off before I could, even, and he didn't even look back, either. Not like him. I looked after him for a second, just to make sure he didn't change his mind, then headed off to find Spinister. He'd know what to make of it... I sure didn't.

I found him polishing his guns in one of the base's common areas. He was by himself, looking all brooding-like the way he always does. Guess that just comes from bein' smart. I wouldn't know.

"Hey," I said, sitting down. Spinister kinda grunted by way of response.

"He's pissed," I said. "He ran right outta there and didn't even say 'boo' to me."

"Great. That means we're gonna be chasing after these neutrals for the rest of time now."

"Aw, man! You sure?"

"Bet on some kind of vendetta mission," Spin said.

"How ya figure?"

"It's that whole warrior's honor bit," Spin explained.

"His 'honor' has us wasting time shooting at guys who aren't hardly even bothering us!"

"Well, they weren't bothering us till this afternoon. But that doesn't matter. He's suffered effrontery. He's got to be 'avenged'."

"Yeah, well, I'm gonna do some avenging of my own if this nonsense keeps up..."

"Keep your head low, little buddy. It's gonna keep up for as long as Thunderwing's pissed off about it, and now that's going to be a long time."

"Ya think?"

"You know how he is. Once he gets something in his head, no shaking it."

"Ahhhh! This is pissing me off! I wanna go out and hit something!"

"Don't worry. I lay ten to one odds you'll have your chance to go hit a few neutrals soon."

Autobots were the better target, but I figured neuts might do just as well...

Chapter Nine: Peripheral

Two days later, everyone had gathered at the market chamber, in keeping with the plan. Fornyth took the center stage again, though this time he didn't bother with climbing up to the ceiling.

"Fellow citizens, welcome once again. And thank you. We have measured our results, and succeeded beyond the dreams of avarice. I cannot sufficiently thank each and every one of you who risked life and limb to accomplish this.

"The danger is behind us now; all that remains is to carry out the plan. It will take much time, and tremendous effort, but my confederates assure me that we have the resources and knowledge to make it happen.

"So I ask you now, to prepare yourselves --"

"Hang on a minute," someone from the crowd cut him off. "We got the energon; it's ours now. Why do we need to do anything more? Why leave here? Why waste so much of it like this?" A few voices shouted agreement.

Fornyth looked shocked. "Remain here? In this desolate place? This subterranean warren? This aimless nonexistence? My friends, this is not our destiny! We have higher aspirations to achieve --"

"Survival's my aspiration," someone else yelled.

"Yeah! I say we divvy up the energon and call it a day!"

"Don't you remember anything Fornyth said?" someone else called back.

"Yeah! We might as well be dead if we're gonna stay here!"

"We have to move," another 'bot said. "They'll find us here for sure, if they haven't already."

"Alright, so we find another hole to stay in --"

Fornyth cut him off, and really cut loose on him. "Hear you not what you say? A 'hole'! A hole for a home! A pit for an existence! My friend, we are civilized beings! We have a right to society! We have a right to LIVE, not just to exist! To LIVE! If we do anything less then we are not FIT to exist! We are no better than the warring factions whose ways we have rejected! No better than the pitiless Decepticons we've defied, no better than the war-like Autobots! And I say to you there is no REASON to go on living if we cannot accomplish this! None!"

Silence hung for a moment.

"If you wish to part ways with this company, then go. I have no claim over you; I am merely a leader, not a commander. But the energon belongs to the group, not to any one individual. It was taken for a singular purpose, and so long as my pumps beat, I shall see to it that we achieve it. Many of our number have already died to obtain that fuel. We cannot do otherwise if we honor their lives, if we value our own."

No one spoke for a moment. "There is one truth you've spoken, however, which is that we are compromised. We must depart the Heaps as soon as we are able, and never return. We shall depart at the moonrise, and regroup at a distant location, where we may plan and prepare at our leisure for the works ahead. So again... I ask you all, make ready to leave immediately."

He stepped down, and the crowd began rumbling and jostling as everyone started scattering. I just sat and watched; I owned nothing, and I was ready to roll right then, so there was no point in moving.

As the crowd broke up, I noticed a big red robot making his way through them all toward Fornyth -- too big for any of us. Too well-maintained, too. An Autobot, then. A little yellow guy was leading him there. Curious about what an Autobot was doing here, I wandered toward Fornyth myself.

"Fornyth?" the yellow guy said. "We've got a visitor."

"Scrounge, what madness has possessed you?! This is one of the laser-spouters we seek to rid ourselves of! What do you hope to gain from toting him into our midst?"

Scrounge looked kinda take aback. "Well, uh, I'm sorry... they sent this guy to find out about the energon raids, and y'know, I thought that maybe we could use the Autobots' help..."

"Absolutely, positively, and most emphatically not! To side with them is to become them! We are not warriors; we have no need to take up their arms beyond the most vital of self-defense."

"Please, sir," the Autobot said. "I ask only a few moments of your time."

"Hiding behind a facade of civility! Very fine. What is it you desire, Autobot?"

"The name's Pointblank," the red one said.

"Greetings, Pointblank, and welcome to the place you are not welcome to," Fornyth replied. "Pray tell what brings you into our midst?"

"Your energon raids did not go unnoticed," Pointblank said. "If it's at all possible, we'd like to help you do whatever it is you're planning."

"And what makes you think we've a plan? Perhaps we simply took what we need and that's the end of that?"

"I overheard some of your speech."

"A ha. In that case I shan't tell you more than what you've heard; I shall tell you instead that we do not wish to become pawns in your endless and all-consuming conflict."

"We don't want you to. All we ask is that you allow us to help you. If it will cause setbacks for the Decepticons, that's more than enough reason for us. Even if it doesn't, we'd like to aid you."

"You know not what you ask. For one thing, we're quite through with the Decepticons."

"Through with them? You can't be through with them. They won't let this go."

"They'll have no choice when we vanish into the ether. And we shan't get involved in your conflict. We're not fighters, and we will not become fighters. We're civilized beings, and so we shall remain, thank you quite much."

"You've already become fighters --"

"A temporary measure, a role which we have already cast off. The time when we required your help is quite past. Our destiny now is to live in peace, sheltered and away from your mad battles."

"Who, us? Look, we're not out to harm you! We're trying to help you, to protect you!"

"Seventy lunar cycles ago my home was destroyed by an Autobot proton missile. Such has been all your help."

"Look, I'm sorry about your home, but we're trying to stop the Decepticons from doing stuff like that to the whole planet! We're not perfect; we make mistakes."

"The most primary of which has been allowing yourself to be caught up in an insane and mindless war of absolute destruction. A war which we have no interest in continuing, or fighting, or furthering, or associating with in any fashion, except to remove ourselves from its reach. And we shall. We would thank you Autobots to stay out of our way, for you are full half of this war that we flee from."

"But... what about the Decepticons?" Pointblank asked. "You cannot hide from them forever."

"Whatever it takes to live in peace, so shall we do," Fornyth told him.

"What if that means fighting?"

"Then that shall be what we do, for the least amount of time possible."

"Then why not fight with us? We're not exclusionary; we don't hold grudges --"

Fornyth didn't give him a chance to finish his little schpiel. "My dear Pointblank, you're asking too much. I'm not interested in fighting for all of Cybertron, or against oppression, or for a 'more perfect order', or a unified race. All I want, all we want, is to live in peace. Can't you get that through your stubborn Autobot cranium case? If we wanted to join the Autobots we'd have signed up eons ago."

"It'll never happen. Not while there are still Decepticons on this planet."

"It can, if enough Transformers decide they want it badly enough. Why can't we have our peace? Why must that most reasonable of goals be viewed as so fundamentally unreasonable?"

I saw something change on Pointblank's visage -- suddenly, he was no longer selling Autobot ideals; instead he was a living exemplar of them. "I wish I knew, my friend," he said. He sounded tired.

"You should return to your base," Fornyth said to him, gently.

"I should stay with you," Pointblank replied wearily.

"We hold grudges no more than you," Fornyth said. "Stay if it please you."

Pointblank stared for a moment. "I... I cannot. My duties..."

"My understanding was that the Autobots don't force anyone to join, or remain," Fornyth said. "Remain with us."

"I... I cannot just shirk my duties, however. I have an obligation."

"Obligations? On this mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, mad world?" Fornyth asked. "You jest, friend. Come live life as it was meant to be lived. Or a vague facsimile thereof, at very least."

"I don't just mean an oath or a promise. I mean a moral obligation, to oppose tyranny and evil."

"What of your duties as a civilized being? As a citizen of this planet? As a member of its culture?"

"Maybe..." Pointblank thought for a moment. "I can stay with you long enough to help. I can allow myself that much, if you can. Longer than that... I cannot say."

Fornyth smiled. "Friend, welcome aboard," he said, shaking the massive Autobot's hand. "We're departing forthwith, so make ready to... what is it you lot say? Ah yes.... 'transform and roll out'."

Chapter Ten: Ruckus

Spin called it right. We were out there only a day later, hunting. Okay, not hunting. Hunting implies dignity. This had none. So call it searching.

We started off back in the neutral settlement we'd attacked two weeks before. The place was a total wreck, buildings trashed and lying in the street, body parts everywhere. Freakin' huge mess. Stuff like that pisses me off! To this day I want to go out and punch a few Autobots when I see stuff like that. It's their fault!

To this day I can't understand the Autobots. I mean, the change is here; it's been coming for 10,000 vorns. The Decepticons are on the way in; the 'bots are on the way out. Why stay with a sinking ship, when the future's so obvious?

And the whole planet's a mess because they won't accept change. Look at it, stuff blown up, burnt out wreckage everywhere... I know plenty of guys who like doing stuff this way, wrecking the landscape wherever they go -- heck, I admit, it's kind of fun sometimes -- but you gotta realize, this is no way to live.

These neutrals were making things even worse, stealing our fuel, which means the war'll last even longer, and more of 'em will get killed. It's not like they have any chance of beating us. I mean, they're either going to end up working for us, or they're going to get vaped in the war, so why drag it out. Wouldn't it be better to work for a grand empire than to get killed in a pointless war?

All 'cause the 'bots won't face up to reality.

Spinister told me he'd heard talk up at Darkmount, talk about taking care of the neutrals for good. Talk about harvesting them for raw material. Well, it's an idea. I mean, they're holding up progress, just like the Autobots. If they won't get out of the way, why should they get treated special? I guess stuff like what we're doing now wouldn't seem so bad, if it was actually going to aid the war effort.

But this mission still seemed like a waste to me -- we hunted for over day and turned up nothing. So I was really glad when Fusepopper called in and said he might have found a tunnel that, unlike dozens of others we'd found so far, didn't just dead end.

Thunderwing himself lead us in -- he was taking this real personal. We ran into a few neuts and fired at them, but Thunderwing made us miss so we could follow 'em and see where they went. Me an' Crankcase chased after them, following them through this whole incredible maze of tunnels. Lucky we had auto-tracing on our paths, or we'd have gotten real lost real fast.

After about ten minutes of chasing, I started getting a really big energy mass reading from up ahead -- like a lot of robots all together. I made a judgment call. "Crankcase, transform and blast 'em!"

We switched to robot modes and fired, cutting the neuts down before they could run ahead and sound a warning. Then we radioed Thunderwing to join us.

"There must be multiple exits," he said. "Spread out down the corridors. Attempt to find the ways out and block them off. Kill any robot you see."

We did as he said, splitting into pairs and fanning out. Finding other ways in took forever, but finally Thunderwing sent us a radio command: "Decepticons, attack without mercy!"

Chapter Eleven: Peripheral

It was nearly time to leave when it happened -- one minute we're all milling about, preparing to leave; the next, laser shots are tearing in from three sides of the market chamber, and neuts are getting shredded left and right. The result: instant panic.

"Escape! Escape!" Fornyth yelled out. "Scatter and retreat! See to your lives!" Not that anyone needed any encouragement. Everybody there broke and ran. But there was a problem: Decepticons kept popping up in the tunnel entrances, blocking the way out.

"They can't have all the tunnels blocked! That's impossible!" somebody cried out.

He was right, too. There were so many ways in and out of the marketplace that finding them all would be impossible for someone who hadn't lived there years. But what the 'cons had done was make it seem like they'd blocked all the tunnels. Certainly they were in enough of them that the general feeling was that we were totally surrounded.

And with this bunch, a general feeling was as good as solid fact.

"To your arms, my friends! We shall fight our way free if we must! To arms!" Fornyth hauled out the weapon he'd had stashed away on his person, and fired. It galvanized some of our guys, and soon the Decepticons had an actual battle on their hands.

Well, at any rate, it was less than a one-sided slaughter... but not much.

I didn't have any serious weapons on me, but in very short order someone next to us got himself killed. So I picked up his gun and -- Primus -- started shooting it. Now, mind you, I've got armaments, a built-in little rifle and the vibro-knife I keep telling you about -- but I mean, they're just self-defense stuff. This thing was a plasma-throwing monster, that bucked hard when I pulled the trigger. Nearly knocked me over the first time. Took me a few shots to even come close to hitting anything. But at least spewing out blasts at random helped to keep the 'cons away.

Pointblank was hardly firing a shot at all, but every time he did, a 'con went down. It was impressive, let me tell you. Our lot, we were wasting a lot of ammo.

Pointblank saw it, too. "You'll only hold them off for another hour at most. You must send someone for help!" he urged Fornyth.

"T'would be suicide!" Fornyth told him. "Warriors we're not; fighters we're not! We'll not become a cog in your mad conflict!"

"The Autobots don't want you to! We just want to help!" Pointblank snapped back at him. "They've got you pinned down; you're going to be slaughtered! Look, if you won't send someone, I'll go myself. I can't stand by and just let you be wiped out."

Fornyth lowered his head and stared at his feet for a minute. Then he looked up again, and I don't think I've ever heard him speak so flatly.

"Scrounge. Go with Pointblank and get help from the Autobots."

"Yes sir! Right away! You can count on me."

"C'mon," Pointblank grunted. He turned to our group. "Look, when I say now, give me as much covering fire as you can on that tunnel entrance there. Keep firing till I'm half-way there, then fire away from it so you don't hit us. Keep an eye out for anybody that's aiming for us, and blast 'em."

"Ready to go," said Scrounge, who'd rolled up into a little... disk? I dunno what it was supposed to be, but his alt mode was even smaller than mine.

"Right. You stay right behind me no matter what." Pointblank fired off two more shots -- two more Decepticons down -- then transformed and shouted "NOW!" as he spun out. Scrounge went tearing after him as we opened up. The barrage kept anyone from hitting them, and in a few more seconds they were gone.

"And may Primus save my soul," I heard Fornyth mutter, over the din.

Pointblank's warnings were prophetic, it turned out. After about fifteen minutes of cross-fire, our guys were beginning to fade visibly. And the Decepticons could see it.

Gods, it was terrifying. I saw the look in their eyes. They didn't care about us one whit; all they saw was victory, glory. Savages. They charged us en masse, and that was it. Our lot broke rank and ran. There wasn't much else we could do. We didn't go into this thing intending to go down fighting.

So we stormed for the exits, regardless of the Decepticons blocking the way. They mowed down one poor bastard after the next -- till finally we started overtaking them by weight of numbers, the same as at the fuel depots. But Primus... our casualties -- a bloodbath. They had us surrounded. And those coming up from behind had to climb over the bodies of those who'd been shot down in front, all the while trying not to get shot in the back.

After a few minutes, it became clear we weren't going to make it.

We scrambled from shelter to shelter, trying to reach a tunnel entrance, but there were just too many Decepticons who refused to stay down, who kept popping up in front of us. Panic, nothing but panic. Until finally, suddenly, like some kind of miracle, fire from behind started taking the Decepticons down. The Autobots had made it after all.

They stormed in, and the Decepticons had no choice but to stop mowing us down. The rest of us charged out as fast as we could. Fornyth and I were among the last ones out. We'd wound up at the forefront of the fighting, and he didn't want to go till everybody had a way out, as if he could somehow save us all from this horrible mess that... I don't want to say he got us into it. Maybe he did. Maybe we'd have all been killed eventually anyway.

So finally I transformed, and told him to get on. He started to say something -- then a couple of shots blew him a hundred feet away from me.

Lucky for me he'd landed in the direction we were going anyway, because I'd have probably followed him right into the Decepticons' arms if that's where he'd gone. I raced up to him and transformed again. I was hoping it had just been a concussion blast or something. No such luck. The damage was so bad that I couldn't do anything for a second but stare in horror.

"Fornyth -- " I finally sputtered out. And then he turned his head and smiled at me.

"Too slow, old friend. I'm not among the fleet of foot it seems..."

"Oh god -- we gotta..." I realized the others were screaming at us to come on, come on, they can't hold 'em off much longer... I picked him up and carried him into the first of the tunnels, where we'd have shelter for a moment or two. I set him down to see if there was anything I could do.

The wounds were even worse than I'd thought. It was all I could do not to turn away. I guess the pain had started to hit him, too, cause he started choking.

"War! Oh, war most savage! It consumes me!"

Oh Primus... I was so numb and horrified I don't remember if I thought it or said it. Fornyth's fuel was all over me, all over him, all over the ground.

"Hang on, pal," I said, my voice shaking. "You're coming out of here."

"A corpse, a corpse! Oh, Peripheral, I am slain! My life and ideals alike, gone in a fusion blast!"

"Stop talking like that, Fornyth! We're gonna make it!"

"You shall, not I. Go. Leave me to my fate. Carry on my vision." He opened what was left of his chest plates and pulled out a little glowing crystal sort of thing. You'd have thought it was the Creation Matrix, the way he did it. Here he was dying all over me, acting like Sentinel Prime or something. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry or scream as he handed me the crystal.

"What --"

"You will -- see... It will explain... itself. Now... go... carry... on --"

"Fornyth --"

Just like that. Gone.

I might have screamed, or just stood up and walked off -- I can't remember. I'm sorry, it's all I can do just to tell the whole thing over again... Anyway. Well, I know I didn't just walk off, because I dragged his body on into the tunnels. I didn't even feel my wounds. I didn't feel anything... except that the most noble individual I'd ever known was dead. The war had gotten poor Fornyth at last.

I was just numb as I carried him with me. I think some others urged me to drop him, but I couldn't -- he just didn't deserve to be left behind like that.

We fled until we were exhausted, hundreds of us, running as fast as we could into the underground. It was horrible, the most horrible thing I'd ever seen. The Decepticons blasted the tunnels shut behind us, then brought the roof down on a lot of us from above -- many neuts were buried alive, and we couldn't free them. Good Primus, I've never heard so much screaming and desperate pleas as on that day. The worst really started a couple of minutes after Fornyth got hit, when --

No. No, I just don't want to think about it, and you really don't need to hear it either. Just -- it was the worst hell I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot. It's a wonder any of us made it out at all.

But some of us did. Many died, but the plan -- the dream -- survived.

Epilogue 1: Ruckus

The neuts were panicked when we started moving in. Finally they broke and ran -- not military, y'know, no discipline. Thunderwing himself took out the leader, right before he almost got away -- a couple of shots and blam! He was shredded, just torn apart. No way he lived after a hit like that. What a relief. We never did get the body, but it's got to be underground somewhere. That'll teach 'em to mess with the Big T.

All the neutrals were running away, scurrying into the tunnels like turborats. This time instead of just letting them go, after we'd herded them into the tunnels, we blasted the tunnels closed to trap 'em, then had some of our guys shoot down the tunnels from the surface. It wasn't sure-fire, but it must have worked. It was years before we ever heard of any neutrals in the area again. As far as I know, they're still down there, rusting away. I honestly don't care. We didn't get much chance to find out, though, 'cause the damn Autobots had already come tearing onto the scene, firing away, and we were barely able to spare the firepower to finish off the neuts. Thunderwing called us off and led us out of the tunnels, and back to base -- our job was done.

I've seen so many neutrals offed since then that I don't think once about it. But that bunch, they still stick in my mind for some reason. I respect them, I guess. They fought back. They stood up for themselves. That takes guts.

Which isn't to say that they didn't get what they had coming to them. You mess with the Decepticons, you're asking for trouble.

But I respect them.

Haven't seen the likes of them in all the years since. Neutrals today are a scared lot. Meanwhile, the stinkin' Autobots, they've fought us to a standstill. The planet's a bigger mess than ever, because the stupid 'bots just won't give up.

But one day we'll finish 'em. Then the galaxy will see what real Transformers are all about! Till then, though, I guess we'll keep fighting for however long it takes. I'm a warrior, really, so I probably shouldn't complain.

Epilogue 2: Peripheral

Pointblank was the one who finally started rounding up the scattered survivors in the tunnels; he led a systematic search till we'd located everyone left alive. He was also the one who proposed the final site, though no-one remembers that now. Others took up the planning from there, and he sort of got lost in the shuffle. I don't think he minds, though. Like me, all that really matters for him is that the plan worked, and we have our city now.

We had enough energon from the raids to really get it started off right. We buried it too deep for sensors to find, in a spot where there were so few tunnels that a big void in the network wouldn't be noticed. We cloaked the city from above. It's partly large open chambers with buildings inside them, partly tunnel network, and a few cloaked surface points that keep lookout for both invaders and newcomers. It took us many years to complete, and a lot of work, struggle, and sacrifice, but it was worth it. I was actually the one who proposed the name, and no-one even thought of another.

It is open and free to any who wish to live in peace.

So, that's the story -- that's how I wound up in this place. Can't say I'm complaining; Fornyth's the grandest city on Cybertron today, which is to say all of its buildings are standing up. Energon's always scarce, but we share everything we have, so no-one goes without.

Fornyth himself is interred in a central plaza, with a little memorial tablet nearby. It's not much, but it suffices. I like to think he'd be proud of the place. It's everything he'd envisioned, and then some. There's culture here, arts, learning, science, performance. All thanks to him: Fornyth's crystal contained every bit of Cybertronian culture he'd managed to save on his travels around the planet. We share it all freely. We even expand on it now, building our own new culture.

This place is more than a place to exist. It's civilization, a society. There's mutual support. It's maybe the one place on Cybertron where the prevailing rule isn't 'every bot for himself'. It's a home. We're prepared to fight for it if we ever have to, though we live by the hope we won't.

Maybe Fornyth will survive; maybe it will be found and destroyed. I don't know. But what matters is that for now, we have our peace. At last.

To hope for the future... is asking too much.

*****************The End*********************

Author notes: Much of this story was, oddly, inspired purely by movie soundtrack music. Specifically:

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, "Main Title" -- Opening theme. As if a fanfic needs one, but this piece kinda sets the whole tone that I was shooting for with the story -- the whole "fight against oppression" bit.
Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade, "Indy's First Adventure" -- Chapter 1, "Thief!"
Last of the Mohicans, "Fort Battle" -- Chapter 4, "Slaughter of the Neutrals"
The Magnificent Seven, "After the Brawl" -- Chapter 7, "The Energon Raid"
Willow, "Escape from the Tavern" -- Chapter 7, "The Decepticon Counterstrike"

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