Rob's Pile of Transformers: "Peaceful Warfare"

This was supposed to be a Decepticon story, but the Autobots kind of wormed their way in and took over about half of it. Well, that's life, I guess. Anyway, it's still sort of an anomaly for me: it's set in the cartoon universe instead of my usual comic continuity, and it paints the Decepticons in what is for me a rather positive light. (It also features Megatron doing something that might seem rather out of character for him, but have faith...) The story was inspired by the latest round of 'bot/'con philosophy debates a few months back. The time frame: right after the end of "Heavy Metal War", the debut episode of the Constructions. Thanks to Zobovor for a nice technobabble explanation where it was needed.

As always, enjoy!

Peaceful Warfare

 "We... shall rise... again!!" Megatron soared out of the lava that held him and rose high above it, screaming defiance at his foes.  Then with blinding speed he aimed and fired, unleashing the fury of his fusion cannon at the insolent Autobots, shattering the rim of the crevice, sending the lot of them tumbling into the same magma they had knocked _him_ into moments before... That was what he had in mind, at any rate.  What happened instead was that his face barely cleared the top of the magma, and just managed to choke out the sentence, an ineffectual bit of defiance at those who had inflicted this on him.  As soon as he tried to lift his cannon arm, the lava overtook him again.  His face submerged into the glowing red ooze, the world turning to hazy shades of glowing agony.  His words mockingly turned back on him, nonsense in the face of the pain. Pain!  Searing pain!  Pain outside, as molten magma coursed around his metal skin, burning out sensitive receptors, heating his armor, softening, distorting.  Pain inside, as the melted rock worked its way into his internal systems, entering through vulnerable joint systems, their normal air-tight integrity compromised by temperatures hundreds of degrees above what his exterior was designed to withstand.  The stuff melted sensors and circuits inside him, destroying fuel lines and clogging conduits, and oozed its fiery, destructive way though his guts, despite the best efforts of his internal defenses to hold it at bay. *I have to get out of here!*  The thought was reflexive, choked, panicked.  He was dying, slowly and painfully.  Killed by the heat of the Earth's core itself.  Buried alive in molten rock.  *I _must_ escape!*  He thrashed wildly... or tried to.  But there was no escape.  Even Decepticon strength couldn't push through the viscous liquid that encased him, let alone generate enough force to lift him clear of it.  He was sinking, slowly falling into the red nothing -- who knew how deep, perhaps five feet, perhaps a thousand.  Around him, red.  Red, bright red, dark red, only red.  He shut his optics down -- there was nothing to see.  He tried to move his arm, his hand, a fingertip.  Maybe it moved.  Maybe not.  Megatron couldn't tell.  He could quickly lose his sanity from such thoughts -- he directed his mind elsewhere. The others, his band of Decepticon warriors, were also dying, somewhere nearby in this same nightmarish liquid.  This was their reward for their loyalty, for the trust they'd placed in their leader and his plans.  Slow, agonizing death.  Did they blame him for this?  He certainly did.  His troops flitted one after the next through his thoughts -- Starscream, his treacherous lieutenant.  Scrapper and his loyal Constructions, returned to Megatron's service only weeks before after millions of years' absence.  Soundwave, the unwavering silent presence, and the cassettes he guarded.  Thundercracker, also quiet, but for different reasons.  Skywarp... no, not Skywarp.  He could leave this mess, escape with the ability that gave him his name.  Hope!  Skywarp could teleport to freedom -- *Idiot!  Skywarp can't;  _you_ can!*  If he were able to move, Megatron would have kicked himself for such a blatant, panicky oversight.  He had Skywarp's power chip rectifier, the master processor that controlled the teleport sequence.  He could dematerialize his body, beam it to any location he wished, and re-form it with merely a thought. With the simplest of mental commands, he did so.  The world went from deathly red to white, then to cooling blue.  Just like that.  He was lying on his back on solid ground, in an Earthen forest.  Only a mile or two from Autobot Headquarters, but far enough.  Weak relief washed over him.  He was going to live.  Residual magma still clung to him, a thin film carried along in the teleport, but it was a nuisance, not a threat.  After several minutes, he was strong enough to sit upright.  He could feel the difference already, as his internals began to fight back against the invading substance, purging it from his body.  The damage was severe, but not critical.  Megatron's mind was already on other matters. His warriors were still trapped back there.  He had to free them, and he had perhaps only minutes to do it -- and nothing but his own strength and wits to do it with. Megatron teleported himself back to the lip of the crevice where he'd been entombed a moment before -- a useful thing, this teleporting!  He suddenly readied himself for an attack -- he'd almost forgotten that the Autobots had been there moments before.  Thankfully, they had not hung around long; they must have returned to headquarters.  Megatron waited a moment, till he was sure his systems were ready, then launched and flew down into the chasm, just above the magma's surface.  The heat of the slowly-moving lava river caused the air to flux in great shimmering waves, but he hardly felt it.  After what he had endured, it was nothing. He took aim with the enormous fusion cannon mounted on his arm, thankful that it still functioned, and fired at the canyon walls.  It took several shots, but he finally dislodged enough rock to temporarily halt the flow of lava.  The pool of it where the Decepticons had fallen subsided somewhat as the inflow ceased.  Almost immediately he spotted the form of one of his troops, an abstract lump just barely breaking the liquid surface. Megatron plunged his hand into the glowing red, almost recoiling from the painful heat.  But he forced his arms in, deeper, till he grasped hold of the buried Decepticon.  He tugged mightily, and after a few seconds the form of one of the jets emerged.  Megatron flew to the top of the crevice, quickly tossed the warrior onto the ground, and flew back down without bothering to figure out who it was.  This was no time for niceities. None of the others had surfaced, and the lava had dropped as much as it was going to.  It was already building up behind his improvised dam.  Megatron activated his full range of sensors, straining to see beyond the thick layer of melted rock as he hovered only yards above it.  Nothing!  Where were they?!  Over a dozen warriors, and he could find only one?  It had to be wrong.  Megatron focused his sensors into a tight, powerful, but extremely narrow beam, and scanned slowly across the undulating surface. There!  Buried under it all, a life form!  But too deep to reach from the surface.  Only one chance then. Megatron flew straight into the magma, directly towards the form he'd located.  He plunged back into the all-consuming glow, the searing heat tearing at him as he sank.  He dropped through the horrible stuff, lower, lower... the lava began to find its way back into him again; his systems were put on the defensive once more.  Finally he felt it: metal on metal.  He grasped it with both hands, making sure he had a firm contact.  Now the gamble.  He'd seen Skywarp do this before... he hoped it worked. The teleporter triggered again, and Megatron found himself standing beside the jet he'd dropped (Thundercracker, he noted) with Rumble in his hands, carried with him in the teleport.  The smallish Decepticon was badly shaken, stammering incoherently, lava oozing slowly from his joints.  Megatron ignored him and Thundercracker, and went back to resume the desperate search. For nearly an hour he searched, back and forth, back and forth, scanning every inch of the pool at maximum sensitivity.  Over a dozen times he plunged into the lava on the hope of a faint, almost invisible sensor twitch, and every time he returned with a Decepticon warrior, each more lava-damaged and stunned than the one before.  Skywarp.  Ravage.  Reflector's three components.  One by one, the Constructicons.  Starscream, too shocked to make any snide comments about the failure of Megatron's plans.  Twice he had to blast more rock down onto his dam to keep the pit from filling up again, as the magma built up behind the rock wall.  Each time took longer than before since, as the dam rose higher, there was less and less rock wall to knock loose, and more and more of it was needed to plug the crevice.  His fusion cannon finally burnt out from the damage and the repeated firing.  And still Megatron searched, again and again, steadily running down his already-depleted power supply.  One more remained. "Megatron," Scrapper called out weakly, half an hour after he'd last pulled a Decepticon out.  "The dam..." Megatron glanced at it.  Lava had already filled it to the top and was running around the sides, across the flat surface of the ground before spilling back into the crevice.  And at the bottom, small leaks were forming.  It had only minutes of life left, before it collapsed and a tidal wave of magma swept through the giant fissure, pushing away everything in its path... and obliterating all chances of finding the last missing man.  Megatron dove even closer to the magma, on the futile hope that being a few feet closer might help.  He scanned... he glanced again at the crumbling dam... he scanned -- and got a final, faint twitch on his sensors.  Without a second's hesitation he dove, plummeting into the horrible heat.  Momentum pulled him down, down, through confining, immovable space, through places no living being was meant to be.  The melted rock forced its way into him yet again, till it was back to where it had been when he first escaped, and still it continued to slowly filter into him.  He sank, slowly, ever deeper.  He sank till he thought he could go no further, till the pressures on him began to become even more unbearable than the heat. And finally, metal.  He clawed at it, trying to get a grip with his hands.  There -- no, it slipped loose... there!  Now!  He triggered the thought.  He and Soundwave re-materialized among his warriors on the cool, dry earth alongside the crevice.  Below, a rumble followed by a roaring hiss announced the collapse of the dam. Megatron collapsed, spent, as his autorepair systems demanded time to resume their work.  Around him, the others were in even worse shape.  The Decepticons lay prone, inert, and helpless, barely a mile from Autobot Headquarters.  Sealed off from the world, freed from the tasks of everyday thought analysis, Megatron's mind turned to purely emotional concerns, drifting, floating, wandering...  He saw once again the lava -- the red... the heat... the crushing smothering confinement... his troops, melting away into puddles of slag one after the next -- cursing his name with their dying breath.  He had done this to them, he was responsible, HE had killed them... The dream repeated itself in an endless cycle, over and over, running through countless permutations, but each ending with the deaths of those who looked to him for leadership.  Slow destructive painful horrible ignominious death.  Failure.  Failure of leadership, of strategy, of trust.  Dead... The black of night finally intruded upon the red of Megatron's dreams, and he realized that he was on-line again.  His chronometer indicated the passage of many hours since he had become unconscious, a reading confirmed by the darkened skies, and a nearly-full moon sinking below the western horizon behind a haze of low, thin clouds.  It would be dawn soon.  Megatron looked around, to see Thundercracker and several Constructicons beginning to stir.  At last, the Decepticon leader sat up himself to assess his condition.  His armor was blackened.  Internal wiring showed through at every joint; the rest of his armor was warped and bent.  His autorepair diagnostics painted a bleak picture for him: most of his physiological microfunctions were history, leaving only life support, gross movements and neurological functions.  His internal defenses had almost been beaten back to the point of protecting his vital functions alone.  He had come very close to dying. He had nearly taken the other Decepticons with him as well. He could only assume the others, smaller than he, were worse off as well.  It would be all they could do to get themselves back to a base.  Flying was out of the question.  Their best bet would be the temporary headquarters they had used before this mess... it was only a few hundred miles away, all flat and empty desert land once they cleared the scattered forests in the region of Autobot Headquarters. "Scrapper," he called.  "Can your Constructions still drive?" "Yes, mighty Megatron," the lime-green robot answered, reverent even in the wake of this catastrophe.  Megatron wondered at that.  "Although without tires, we --" "You have wheels.  That is enough.  Begin loading," Megatron ordered.  "We must return for repairs at once." The journey was long, slow, and painful.  But every mile between them and Autobot Headquarters reduced the possibility of an attack.  They were beyond the Autobots' territory by the time the dawn began to break the darkness.  By noon, some of the others showed signs of improvement; many of them began to adjust their positions atop the Constructions to something more like passengers instead of cargo.  Most prominently, Starscream regained both his voice and his usual attitude.  "I believe I mentioned the chance that the Autobots would find out about your deception," he said, as he rode awkwardly astride Hook's crane. "Be quiet, Starscream," Megatron snapped.  "I am not in the mood for your banter." "But our mighty leader was prepared for _every_ possibility!" "Soundwave," Megatron called.  "Place Starscream _last_ on the repair roster." "As you command," Soundwave replied.  Starscream gaped. "How dare you --" "Starscream, how many times must I tell you to SHUT UP?!  Soundwave, if he continues to annoy me, _remove_ him from the repair roster." Starscream made no answer, but sat in sullen silence for the remainder of the trip.-  -  - The repairs took nearly a month, during which time no Decepticon left the base.  With the aid of the base equipment, Soundwave, Hook, and Scrapper managed to get themselves back up to full function; Megatron was next, of course.  He was the strongest, and as such he offered the best chance of defense if an attack were to occur.  Megatron issued no orders, spoke minimally, and was mainly a silent, brooding presence in the base while the others were healed.  The power chip rectifiers that had been transferred to Megatron prior to the whole affair were restored to their rightful owners during the repair process. Finally, thirty days after their return home, Soundwave approached him.  "All Decepticons restored to optimal function, Megatron," he reported. Megatron nodded.  "Have them assemble in the main chamber," he said, without looking at Soundwave. Instead of turning to comply with the order, the dark blue robot gazed at him.  "You have a change of plans in mind," Soundwave said matter-of-factly. Megatron turned to stare at him.  Soundwave could probe the mind itself, tear thoughts from those unwilling to talk if he wanted... no, that was not it.  "Perceptive, old friend," he said.  "Go.  You'll find out with the others, soon enough." Soundwave nodded and walked off without further comment. The group was waiting for him in the base's central chamber, milling about, some fine-tuning joints and systems, still adjusting to being back on-line.  They fell silent as he approached. Megatron spoke with little preamble, in the same weary voice that had been his usual manner since their escape from the lava.  "What I have to say will come no doubt as a surprise to you all.  I will mince no words: I have decided to end our aggression towards the Autobots." Several shocked exclamations escaped the group, until the Decepticons remembered who it was they were interrupting. "I've had enough," Megatron said.  "The Autobots nearly destroyed us all back there.  All of us.  Myself included.  The risks on this tiny battlefield have become too great to allow me to continue to endanger my warriors and our cause.  We will find other means to accomplish our goals, means that will not attract the Autobots' ire by disturbing the fleshlings." "_This_ is your next great plan?!" Starscream shouted, more impetuous than usual.  "The _mighty_ Megatron, rolling over and playing dead at the Autobots' feet?" "This is not about the Autobots, Starscream," Megatron said calmly.  "This is about our lives, the lives of every one of you here, and the cause we support." "What does it matter?  The results are the same!" "Yes, you're quite right.  Our lives are secured, instead of being in constant peril.  We shall meet our goals quietly but certainly." "_I_ thought our goals included the destruction of the Autobots!" "Only because they oppose us," Megatron said.  "With this tactic, they have no more reason to bother us, nor we them." "Some way for a so-called army to handle its enemies!  What's next, will we be inviting them over for tea?  Will we offer to go mop their floors for them?" "You'll be busy mopping _our_ floors if you continue this tirade, Starscream." "But... what about us?" Skywarp asked, sounding uncertain.  "What am I supposed to do if we're not going to be fighting anymore?" "You are a warrior still," Megatron promised him.  "But you --" "Hah!" Starscream called out.  "Warrior?  A warrior with no war!  So much for the grand Decepticon army and its glorious leader!" "I grow weary of your outbursts," Megatron said.  "I suggest you contain them.  We are an army, Starscream, no matter which direction we choose.  For the moment, we are assuming a defensive stance.  But we still require guards to mount that defense.  That is the role each of you as warriors will fulfill.  We also need workers... and that, too, is part of your roles."  "How can you claim to be a leader if you're not actually _leading_ us anywhere?!" "Starscream, I'm warning you --"  Starscream continued his tirade without missing a beat.  "If Megatron will not lead, then I will!  Decepticons, prepare to --" "You'll do NOTHING!" Megatron roared, punctuating his point with a fusion blast that missed Starscream's head by inches.  The Seeker cried out in surprise, reflexively ducking a second too late as the shot passed over him and blew away a chunk of the base's interior walls. "_I_ am the leader of this group.  The battle is over!  And it is ending in a draw -- here, now, today!  On _our_ terms, not the Autobots', understand?!  We will construct passive energy collectors to take care of our needs.  Soundwave, Scrapper, Hook -- begin drawing up plans at once." "As you command, Megatron," Soundwave said.  Hook and Scrapper bowed slightly by way of acknowledgment.  The group began to disperse. "So, we're just giving up and letting the Autobots win, eh?" Starscream asked, looking at Megatron with an angry scowl on his face. "They haven't won anything.  We're _choosing_ not to engage them," Megatron said.  "And be warned that I haven't said anything about not using force against you, Starscream.  You are hereby advised... _again_...  to keep your mouth shut." "As you command, _mighty_ Megatron," Starscream said.  Megatron fixed him with a brief glare, before turning away to deal with other, more important matters.-  -  - Optimus Prime was chasing him, an Optimus with horns instead of antennae, an Optimus with demon teeth and slashing claws and arms that could reach him wherever he ran and hid.  He turned a corner that was a dead end even though it was the way out, not that he knew where he was, but he must be inside because he had to get out before Optimus could get him.  But he couldn't get away; Optimus was a flood of water that was magma and was following him, growing ever stronger and mightier and more deadly, especially now that he had him.  Optimus was going to vaporize him and melt him and eat him and tear his limbs off.  He was dead.  The demon magma Optimus rose up to consume him, and uttered words spoken in the voice of one dead. "It... is... ended..." A finger pressed a switch, and the images came to a sudden halt.  The computer screen winked to black, and Bumblebee's optic sensors lit up again with their usual bright blue.  He turned to look at Autobot Chief Medical Officer Ratchet, standing beside him in Autobot Headquarters' diagnostics center. "And that's it, Ratchet," Bumblebee said.  "I always have an involuntary restart at that point." "Every day this week," Ratchet repeated his patient's description with a knowing nod, and began disconnecting various wires that were plugged into Bumblebee's head.  "I lay 90 percent odds it's that last battle with the Decepticons," he said after a moment. "Yeah, it has been on my mind lately..." "It's been on everyone's mind, Bum.  And nothing else has been." "You mean I'm not the only one?" "Don't repeat it, Bumblebee, but I've seen a lot of patients with this sort of problem in the last few weeks.  You don't need to feel odd about it, because you're definitely not the only one." "How long's it gonna last?" "That's hard to say.  Truth be told?  It's up to you.  You've got to face down your demons yourself.  I can't do it for you." "Well, gee, that's helpful." "I'm a medic, Bumblebee, not a psychiatrist.  I fix bodies.  Minds, I'm not so good with." "Sorry, Ratchet, I didn't mean it like that." "Bumblebee,  all I can really tell you is that you have to confront what happened head-on and accept it.  That means facing up to the fact that... we killed the Decepticons." "I know that..." "But as you're finding out, living with it isn't not so easy.  We're trained not to kill if we don't have to.  It's second nature." "And we did it anyway," Bumblebee said. "Exactly.  Well, yes and no.  Remember -- it was almost an accident.  We didn't _mean_ to --" "But Ratchet, we did!  That's the real problem -- we meant to do it.  And you can't tell me that every Autobot here isn't glad they're gone, because it means no more war!" "_I_ wouldn't have fired if I'd known it was going to happen like that, Bumblebee, and I bet a lot of the others wouldn't have either.  I didn't want to _kill_ them, and I didn't think we were going to.  Despite all the battle cries and hype." Every Autobot in the group had been turning these same questions over for the last month: why had Megatron not called a retreat?  Why had he stood by and allowed his warriors to get blasted into the lava, to near-certain death?  The Autobots had fired, waiting for their enemies to take to the air and flee like they usually did when the battle was clearly lost.  And they hadn't.  They'd stood their ground, till Autobot firepower knocked them off of it.  And in doing so, they had turned the Autobots into killers. "It... is... ended..." Bumblebee still recalled the numbness in Optimus Prime's voice, the horror over what they'd just done.  None of them had expected it to end like that.  A few shots, and the Decepticons were driven back over the edge... into the magma pits below... and disappeared, sinking into horrible oblivion.  That voice, a horrifying combination of regret, sorrow... and joy.  Finally achieving what they wanted... and finding that doing so was the most horrible thing they'd ever done.  After some covering words to their human friends (who had no reason at all to regret the destruction of Megatron's forces), they'd just turned and stumbled back to Autobot headquarters, minds blank. The war was over.  And a month later, the Autobots were moving like zombies, like the spiritually dead. "I don't know what else to tell you, Bumblebee," Ratchet said.  "Like I said, I'm not much of a psychologist.  But remember that what happened isn't your fault." "But in a way it _is_, Ratchet--" A tone interrupted him.  Bumblebee pressed a console button, and Optimus Prime's face appeared on a wall monitor, not the demon monster of Bumblebee's dreams, but its normal incarnation. "Bumblebee.  I need you to conduct a surveillance mission.  We're picking up suspicious energy readings and Sky Spy can't get a clear picture." "On my way, Prime."  The wall monitor blipped out, and Bumblebee turned back to Ratchet.  "Say, you don't really think..." "Possible, but not likely.  Lava that temperature would kill just about anyone within three or four hours.  A few more hours after that, and there'd be nothing left but base metals." Bumblebee cringed at the thought.  "Well, we'll see..." "One way or another, you've got to put it behind you.  It's good to have regret -- it's part of what makes us Autobots.  But what's done is done.  We're in a war, Bumblebee, and some casualties on both sides are inevitable." "Maybe after this mission we'll know differently," Bumblebee said, heading for the exit. "Maybe," Ratchet conceded.  "But don't get your hopes up."-  -  - As a robot, Bumblebee was relatively inconspicuous, due to his small size and non-threatening stature.  In his car mode, disguised as an ordinary Volkswagen Bug, he was all but invisible... in certain environments. The desert flats of New Mexico were not one of them. Waves of heat shimmered off the baked tundra as he drove down a two-lane strip of cracked asphalt at 115 miles per hour.  It had been half an hour since Bumblebee had last seen another vehicle; with no humans anywhere within sight or sense, he figured that there was no point in delaying things by driving the speed limit.  Buttes rose here and there, dark and looming masses of rock erupting straight out of the flat land, grey as the indistinct line of the horizon.   He slowed and powered down as he left the road and approached the site of the energy disturbance.  It was over the lip of a cliff, several miles from the highway; he transformed and walked towards it, cautiously moving from cover to cover (what cover there was for a twelve-foot tall robot, at least.)  He peered over the edge, onto a broad, flat plain about eighty feet below... a plain that seemed strangely dark, as if coated with a different kind of soil than the rest of the area.  But that wasn't it... even the air seemed infected with the same darkness.  A glint caught his eye, and he noticed a dark panel standing on its side in the distance.  He magnified the image, then panned around the valley to see a massive, connected string of the things. "A polydirectional photon collector!" Bumblebee whispered to himself.  A solar panel of sorts, except that it was a ring that surrounded an area instead of covering it.  Most of the light energy that fell within the ring was absorbed, even if it didn't enter on a path toward the collector.  It was much lower-profile than solar panels, and required far less raw material to construct.  It also disrupted the patterns of light and energy within it, the reason Sky Spy hadn't been able to get images or readings. It was a Decepticon construct, of course; the technology was centuries ahead of human development.  And that meant... at least some of them survived.  Bumblebee wasn't sure how he felt about that; he almost expected a wave of relief to come over him.  When that didn't happen, he briefly pondered the notion that he really did want them dead, before turning his mind to more practical concerns.The 'cons were sure to be in the area, he realized.  They were prowling about somewhere, perhaps even aware of his presence already.  As he was the weakest of the Transformers stranded on the planet, the logic of survival dictated that he get the heck out of there, right away. Instead, he began snooping about for the collection center.  There had to be one, a point where the ring's output was converted into energon cubes, a portable form of concentrated energy.  That was where most of the Decepticons would be. He never did see it, but he found the location -- a deep crevice in the cliff face.  Masses of cabling ran from the ring into the dark opening.  It was probably what kept them from picking him up, being deep inside all that rock. Bumblebee turned and transformed, heading away at maximum velocity.  It was time to call in a report to headquarters.-  -  - "What do you think of my idea now, Starscream?" Megatron asked, as the two of them stood in the secluded darkness of the cave.  Reflector walked past them, each of his three identical robot components carrying a stack of energon cubes away from the harvester unit to a staging area, where they were packaged by several of the Constructicons for transport back to the main Decepticon base.  The other two jets, Skywarp and Thundercracker, were somewhere between the base and here, shuttling loads of cubes. "A waste of our time and talents," Starscream snarled.  "By raiding a human power station, we could have had ten times as much energy as this, at a fraction of the expenditure!" "Assuming the Autobots didn't interfere." "LET them interfere!  I do not fear them, Megatron, even if you do!" "As always, you miss the point, Starscream.  If the Autobots attacked us, we'd likely lose more energy fighting them off than we would gain from the raid itself.  And we'd put ourselves at risk for another catastrophe like the last one." "Yes, but perhaps if we had someone competent to lead us in battle, we wouldn't have--" "Megatron!" Soundwave's monochromatic voice interrupted Starscream.  "Ravage reports Autobot presence in the vicinity." "How many, Soundwave?" "One confirmed: Skyfire.  Approaching rapidly." "And who knows how many aboard the traitor," Megatron rumbled.  "Halt energon production!  Disassemble the collector ring and fall back to base.  Starscream -- take the packaged cubes and go." Reflector, Soundwave, and the Constructicons darted outside.  Starscream remained where he was. "The Autobots come right to us, and we're fleeing?  Are we not warriors, Megatron?" Megatron lashed out savagely, grabbing the Seeker by the neck and slamming him hard into the cave wall.  "I've had enough of your questioning my orders!  Do as you're told or you'll be fighting the Autobots alone.  After _I_ am through with you."  Megatron raised the massive cannon on his right arm slightly, by way of emphasis. "As... you -- command," Starscream gurgled. "Now move!" Megatron said, shoving his lieutenant towards the rear of the cave, where the cubes awaiting transport were stored.  He dashed out to assist in the disassembly of the collector ring. Particle beams churned up the desert turf as he stepped outside; a large white jet streaked overhead with guns blazing -- Skyfire.  Megatron squeezed off a single shot, then dashed for cover.  A barrage of flames and energy beams streaked towards him -- it was the Dinobots, along with a couple of other Autobots, not far away as he dove behind a rocky outcrop.  Those lumbering dolts!  According to Scrapper's report, they had foiled his last plan, preventing the Constructicons from carrying out their part of the mission.  This time he'd eliminate them before they had a chance to do permanent damage -- no.  That was instinct talking, not the workings of his carefully considered plan. "Constructicons!  Merge... and defend the ring till we can evacuate it!" he shouted.    "Constructicons!" Scrapper shouted.  "Regroup at my position." "Wheeljack, do it!" Megatron overheard one of the other Autobots say.  Prowl, the strategist.  So perhaps there was some planning to this attack.  Before he could react further, the one called Wheeljack fired from his shoulder cannon.  Megatron remembered the stuff, having been hit with it before.  Gyro-inhibitor.  It took out Long Haul in one shot, ensuring that the Constructicons could not unite into their more powerful gestalt form. "Blast!" Megatron swore, taking a pot shot at Skyfire as the Autobot jet made another strafing run.  The shot went wild, but Starscream tore out of the cave just then, very nearly catching Skyfire with a clip to the wing.  The Seeker dropped his load of cubes to pursue the Autobot jet higher into the air, forgetting his orders in the heat of battle. The Dinobots had transformed to their creature modes and were advancing on the Constructions, who had fallen back to try and defend the collector ring, while Hook, Soundwave, and Reflector frantically disassembled it.  The lumbering giants ignored the Decepticons' firepower, shrugging it off of their thick armor. "Forget the rest of the ring!  Decepticons, clear out!" Megatron ordered. "Are we going to leave with nothing at all?" Starscream replied. "Yes -- including no casualties.  Now retreat!" Reflector and the Constructions grabbed the few components they had and took off into the air; Soundwave gathered up Long Haul and carted him away, deftly evading the Autobots' pursuing fire.  Megatron launched after them.  Starscream, meanwhile, dove back down, swerving through the Dinobots' fire to where he'd left the energon cubes.  He grabbed them, then struggled to rise back into the air, burdened by the weight of the load. "Starscream!  Leave the cubes!" Megatron shouted, hovering at the top of the cliff. "But I'm just following your orders!" Starscream shouted back, punctuating the comment with a burst of his cackling laugh.  He transformed to robot mode and snapped off a couple of cubes from the bunch he carried.  He let them go just as Skyfire was climbing towards him, firing.  The Autobot's shots pierced the cubes, detonating them and releasing a burst of blinding light.  The explosion knocked Skyfire from the air; he spun out of control and skidded upside-down into the valley floor. Starscream and Megatron fled the area, streaking away through the air. "You violated my orders again, Starscream!" Megatron shouted, shaking a fist. "Oh, forgive me.  I must not have heard you!" the Seeker answered, as he transformed back to his more efficient jet mode.  His tone turned more serious.  "What are you complaining about?!  We got the cubes, and we beat the Autobots!" "And you've set back my plans," Megatron said darkly. "_What_ plans?" "I already told you." "You told me nothing!" "I told you everything.  If you'd be quiet long enough to listen, perhaps you'd learn something." Starscream settled for letting Megatron have the last word, as the two of them soared away into the western skies.-  -  - "They had about fifty energon cubes," Prowl said.  "Call it 4,000 astroliters." "Enough to sustain them for nearly two weeks," Optimus Prime replied, rubbing a finger across his mouth plate thoughtfully. "Less than that.  Remember they have to fuel these 'Constructicons' now, too," Prowl pointed out.  "There's six of them, so that should cut it down to less than ten days." "Plus whatever they got out of it before your team arrived," Optimus added. "Hey," Bumblebee said.  "I hate to cut in, but, uh, didn't anyone notice anything a little weird about that harvester system?" "What do you mean?" asked Prowl. "Like the fact that they _built_ it.  They didn't steal any of it from the humans.  And they put it in the middle of nowhere.  There aren't many places on the continent more isolated than that area." Prowl nodded.  "You're right.  That's a change of tactics on Megatron's part.  It might mean they're planning to lay low for a while, try and build up strength." "Wait, what if it means something else?" "What were you thinking of?" Optimus asked. "Like... well, what if they've decided to quit fighting?" "I have to admit, that'd be a welcome change," Prowl said, before turning back to Prime.  "He's right, it might not even be laying low.  It could just be a back-up for their usual attack plans.  After that last disaster, it'd make sense to have a secure, well-equipped fall-back point." "But, Prowl, don't you realize?  Megatron's _never_ done this before.  I mean, if they're going to live like this, in theory, we could just leave them alone," Bumblebee pressed. "Megatron is too dangerous to have an unchecked supply of energon," Optimus said.  "Most likely he simply needed a low-key way to get his troops back on their feet after their last defeat." Bumblebee's mouth opened, but nothing came out for a moment.  "You're probably right, Prime," he said at last.  "I'll be in my quarters; let me know if you need me for anything." "Very well," Optimus said, turning back to Prowl as Bumblebee left the room.  "Now, suppose they did get several loads worth back to base, they could then afford to lay low for several months, or they could ship it to Cybertron..."-  -  -  The second collector ring had shown up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles from any shipping lanes.  Skyfire wasn't able to reconnoiter it without revealing himself to the Decepticons, and they evacuated the site before he could return with reinforcements.  Bumblebee was away from Autobot Headquarters when it all happened, but he easily haggled the details out of Jazz in exchange for some music tapes he'd gotten off the radio while traveling to New Mexico and back. "Thank you much, little man!" Jazz said cheerily, tossing the data tape in the air and catching it as he left Bumblebee's quarters.  Six hours of tunes from the prog rock station in Taos, just for some routine scouting info!  Cool! "Oh, and, uh, Jazz?" "Yes sir!" "If you catch wind of anything else similar to this going on..." "I'll be bangin' down your door." "Thanks, Jazz."-  -  - Trailbreaker, Hound, Brawn, and Windcharger were dropped off by Skyfire in lower Siberia when a third ring was detected, ten days later.  Trailbreaker and Hound were gambling that they could avoid detection that way and catch their foes by surprise. The three hundred mile trip took them from two lane roads to gravel paths, and finally into the trackless, uninhabited pine forests, where they transformed to robot forms.  Hound took point and carefully led the way. "I hope this is worth it," Windcharger muttered, boredom clear in his voice. "If Hound can find us some Decepticon tail to kick, it'll be worth it in my book," Brawn answered. "And if not, we get a nice nature walk out of it," said Trailbreaker, bringing up the rear.  "All thanks to Megatron's little package tour of the biggest nowheres on Earth." "Keep it down back there," Hound whispered.  "We can't have more than a mile or two left.  Signals are strong." "Keep your optics peeled for Ravage," Trailbreaker said, in a quieter voice than before.  "I hear he's the official greeter for this party, and I doubt we're on the guest list." "I think we can muscle our way in anyway," Brawn said. "I'm more worried about getting out.  Party crashing's a serious offense," Trailbreaker said. "Leave that to me.  I'm good at finding exits," Brawn answered.  "You get us in, I'll get us out." "No more talking," Hound whispered.  "Too close."   "Not even for really good one-liners?" Trailbreaker wondered. Hound didn't answer, but held up a hand as they approached the crest of a rise in the forest.  Blue sky shone through the trees ahead, indicating a clearing on the other side of the hill.  The four Autobots crept cautiously toward the tree line. "Jack pot," Hound whispered.  They were looking down into a large, shallow valley that had been clear-cut in the recent past by humans.  Even more recently, though, the Decepticons had set up another collection system.  Hound could see several Decepticons perhaps half a mile distant, including Megatron.  Thundercracker flew overhead and landed beside the others while the Autobots watched. "Too many for us to take on," Trailbreaker assessed.  "Our best bet is to blow the ring and get out fast." "How do we do that?" Brawn wondered.  "Megatron's within firing range." "A few covertly placed explosives, and some fast sharp-shooting," Trailbreaker answered.  "Oh, and we put a call in to Skyfire before we start." "Could be kinda fun," Brawn said. "You and your fun," Windcharger muttered. "When you find a better way to live, let me know," Brawn replied. "It's risky," Hound said to Trailbreaker.  "But I don't have any better ideas." "Me neither.  It'd be nice to get a feel for what they're doing and thinking first.  Can you do that little sonar trick of yours, and listen in on what they're saying?" "I'll try," Hound said.  A tiny radar dish-like construct slid out of one of his wrists; he aimed it across the clearing.  "They're too far out of range," he said after a moment.  "If I amplify it enough to be audible, it's nothing but static." "There goes the clever approach.  We'll try the sneaky one instead."  Trailbreaker handed out a number of small explosives to each member of the party.  "We'll head back into the forest in pairs and circle all the way around the ring.  Toss these as close as you can to the ring panels as you go, like this." He carefully edged toward the tree line, then expertly tossed one of the little devices towards the part of the ring closest to them.  It skittered and bounced to a halt about ten feet from one of the panels. Trailbreaker grinned briefly in approval of the throw.  "Don't forget to arm them first, like, uh, I just did.  Try to keep them about a hundred feet apart or so, and no further than fifteen feet from the ring.  Soon as our pals out there pick up Skyfire coming in, I'll blow the bombs.  That should provide enough distraction for us to shoot any of the panels that survive, and get picked up by Skyfire.  I hope.  I'll be the last pick-up, since I've got the best chance of getting through their firepower." "Ah, hex nuts," Brawn said.  "That's just when things get interesting." "Any questions?"  The group shook their heads.  "Any snide comments?"  Windcharger and Brawn looked at each other but remained silent.  "Any last wills and testaments?" "Can we just get the show moving?" Windcharger asked. "Good question!" Trailbreaker said.  "Brawn, you and Windcharger circle that way, take the north and east sides.  Me and Hound'll take the side closest to Megs and his baddies.  Radio only if you're in trouble.  Let's go." "I hate sneaking around in the forest," Windcharger commented as the others disappeared between the trees.  "I sure wish Skyfire could've packed more passengers for this trip." "No argument from me," Brawn said.  "Then we could be down there busting Decepticranium right now." "Well, at least we'll be starting this battle off with a --" Brawn cuffed him lightly before he could finish.-  -  - "That's all my explosives," Trailbreaker said, as the last of his grenades bounced gently off the back of the collector ring.  "Your turn at bat." "Right," Hound said, forcibly pulling his attention away from the forest around them.  These ancient pine forests were beautifully majestic, deep, dark, solid... divine, somehow.  A magical outdoor shelter.  The pine needles gently rustled under their metal-shod feet; occasional bird chirps could be heard from deeper in the woods.  But mostly there was silence.  "How long to the next point?"  "About another fifty feet," Trailbreaker said.  "Say, you're not in sonar range of the 'cons, are you?" "Sure am," Hound replied.  "Want to listen in?" "Heck yeah.  Do it.  Maybe we can figure out what kind of security they're running." Hound cautiously edged forward to the clear-cut area, till he had a line-of-sight with a knot of Decepticons that included Megatron, Starscream, Soundwave, and Thundercracker.  He aimed the sonar scope at them again; the voices of their foes came through with remarkable clarity, from over a thousand feet away. "--nalysis of our expenditures," Starscream was saying.  "Eight hundred astroliters per round trip to headquarters, to transport a cargo of a measly six thousand.  Plus all the energy we spent getting here and setting up this ridiculous camp in the first place!" "And did you bother to calculate corresponding figures for an attack on a human installation?" Megatron replied.  "One that could only be attacked once before the Autobots arrive to defend it?  One that would require ALL of us to make the round trip every time, instead of flying once and staying put?  Where are _those_ figures, Starscream?" "Hey, they're fighting," Trailbreaker noted.  "Oh, and hey, look at that, the sky's blue!" "You see?" Megatron continued.  "We have no need to attack the humans.  No need to make war on the Autobots.  We pursue our goals peacefully, and we achieve them.  A simple equation." The two Autobots glanced at each other, a disbelieving look on their faces.  "Hold on," Trailbreaker said.  "Are you taping this?" "Yeah," Hound said.  "What do you think --" Hound's radio was suddenly overridden.  "This is Windcharger!  Code red -- we just ran into Ravage.  He got away before we could stop him." At the same moment, Soundwave's voice could be heard by the remote.  "Ravage reports two Autobots in vicinity.  Recommend prepare for attack."  The interception suddenly broke up in static.  "Soundwave's scrambling their local sonics," Hound muttered. Brawn's voice broke in.  "Trailbreaker, you better get the housewarming gifts ready, 'cause our hosts are about to be pretty ticked off." "Done.  Double back, get as far away from the 'cons as you can." Trailbreaker.  "Skyfire!  We need pick-up _now_!" "On my way," the distant voice came back. In the clearing, the Decepticons had all come to alert.  Megatron pointed, and Thundercracker and Starscream dashed across the clearing towards where Windcharger and Brawn were. "That's bad news," Trailbreaker said, pulling out the detonator.  "Say cheese, guys." Starscream and Thundercracker were passing by the collection ring when it suddenly exploded in their faces.  A third of the ring was disintegrated instantly; another third was peppered with shrapnel.  Only one end -- the section the Autobots hadn't made it to yet -- remained untouched.  But Soundwave shook his head as he studied control readings. "All panels destroyed.  Feedback overload." "Sabotage!" Megatron shouted, as his jet warriors were tossed back from the detonation. "Computing probable locations of Autobots," Soundwave said.  "Two groups suspected.  There!" He pointed. "Starscream, Thundercracker, follow that tree line!" Megatron shouted, and hustled in the other direction.  "Quickly, Soundwave!" "What happened to peace now, leader?" Starscream shouted back. Megatron almost fired off a quick retort, but instead he stopped running in mid-step, eyes narrowing.  "He is right," he radioed to his warriors, after a quick moment's thought.  "Soundwave, recall Ravage.  Starscream and Thundercracker, get the energon cubes, and fall back to base.  There is nothing more to be gained here.  Decepticons, away!" And in less than two minutes, to Hound and Trailbreaker's amazement, the Decepticons were gone.  They were over the horizon and away before Skyfire even reached the clearing.  The two Autobots walked out from the trees in a daze as Skyfire set down amid the clear-cut stumps that filled the valley. Brawn and Windcharger sauntered out of the woods from the other direction.  "Hey, I knew we were tough, but I never thought they'd just turn tail and run at the sight of us!" Brawn enthused. "That's just it, Brawn.  They wouldn't!" Hound said. "It is a strange pattern," Skyfire agreed.  "One that does not fit the Decepticons' m.o." "I can't wait to tell Optimus Prime about this one," Trailbreaker muttered, shaking his head as the four of them boarded Skyfire.  "Let's go home."  In a wash of thruster fire, they were borne off into the sky, having won the battle without firing a shot.-  -  - The central control center of Autobot Headquarters was a bizarre mix of elements.  Two sides were made of welded steel plates, smooth metal alloys that still gleamed a polished orange-brown four million years after their construction.  The other two walls were solid rock, piles of broken boulders that had broken through the hull of the Autobot ship when it crashed.  At some point during the Autobots' long deactivation, water had worked its way into the cavern; its slow course solidified the crushed rock by filling the gaps with dissolved minerals, and allowed stalactites to form within the ship.  The Autobots had considered clearing out the rock and giving the chamber a more finished look... but eventually decided against it.  Something about that ancient rock leant the place a feeling of comfort and repose, of immunity to the dangers and uncertainties of the world beyond their buried starship. It was a needed feeling, Bumblebee thought, when dealing with such a strange situation as their current one.  Hound, Trailbreaker, Jazz, Prowl, and himself were clustered around Optimus Prime, trying to decide on their next actions.  Hound's recording of Megatron's words had just been replayed a third time for the group. "It's possible he knew you were there," Prowl offered up in the silence that followed the Decepticon leader's voice. "Hmmm," Prime said.  "A deception.  For what purpose, though?" "If he's planning something... this could be a ruse to get us to lower our guard," Prowl suggested. "That's gotta be something pretty darn big, then," Jazz noted.  "He's thrown one and a half energy collection rings in the garbage already, and probably spent about a month's pay on airfare gettin' to all these far-out places he's been goin' to." "He's being awful secretive," Trailbreaker agreed. "He's being strange, really.  He disappears for a month, and when he finally resurfaces, he's still laying low -- he's collecting energy, quietly, in the most remote places on the planet," Bumblebee said. "He doesn't want anyone disturbing him," Prowl said. "If I know Megatron, that's bad news," Optimus said.  "He could --" The Autobot leader's words were interrupted by an insistent tone from Teletran One.  "Alert.  Alert," the synthesized voice said.  "Incoming transmission from Deception Headquarters." "Put it on screen," Optimus said immediately.  He glanced at the group around him.  "Stay here, I want you all to hear this... whatever it is." One of Teletran's large viewers lit up in wavy lines of static, which were replaced by an image of Megatron. "Greetings, Optimus Prime," the Decepticon leader said flatly. "Well, hiya, Megatron, funny you should drop by,  we were just talking about you!" Trailbreaker commented. "I am not calling to exchange idle banter.  Hear me out, for I have a proposal." "Something like your last proposal, Megatron?" Prowl said, raising a fist. "I am not interested in fighting you, Autobot," Megatron said.  "Or any of you."  The words prompted surprised reactions from those gathered around the screen. "I'm afraid your credibility is less than sterling at the moment, Megatron," Optimus said.  "Then I hope my actions have already spoken for me.  I offer you a chance for peace, Optimus Prime," Megatron said. "Peace?  From you?  Hey, that's a good one, Megatron!" Trailbreaker said.  "Say, did you hear the one about the Cybertronian serving bot who went around without --"  Optimus raised a hand in Trailbreaker's direction.  "Oh.  Hey, sorry," he said abashedly. Prime turned back to the screen.  "Peace for a Decepticon usually means there's no-one left alive to fight.  What price are you asking for this 'peace'?" "My price is simple.  You are not to attack my forces.  In exchange, we will inflict no harm on you, the humans, or their planet." "And?" "And nothing more," Megatron said.  "As I said, my terms are simple." "Well, it certainly sounds all warm and fuzzy, but I hope you'll pardon us if we don't buy it right off the bat," Jazz said.  "I don't supposed it'd be asking too much if we could find out what made you flip your head like this?" "That's not your business," Megatron said.  "I am making you a simple offer, an offer of actions, not words.  You may take it or leave it."  "What about all the energon you're collecting?" Optimus demanded.  "Are you simply going to sit there and not use it?  How do I know you won't simply take it back to Cybertron to continue your mad quests there?" "I never claimed I wouldn't.  You ask too much, Optimus.  I am giving you a chance to make peace here, on this world.  Isn't that what you Autobots want?  To protect your precious fleshlings?  Do not interfere with my operations on this planet, and I will do the same." "How do I know you'll uphold your word?" "Watch me.  When you see me commit a hostile action, come and stop me.  But I will make no aggressive acts before you do." "You're inviting us to survey your activities?" Prowl asked. "Spy all you want, but do not interfere." "Believe me, Megatron, we will," Optimus said. "Suit yourself, Autobots.  The next hostile action on this planet..." Megatron leaned into the screen, "...is yours."  The imaged winked out. Optimus sat back in Teletran's control seat, but remained motionless.  The others were equally lost in thought for a long moment. "It sounds... too good to be true," Bumblebee offered at last. "Indeed.  This action is without precedent.  I am doubtful of its sincerity," Optimus said. "But Prime..." Bumblebee protested.  "I don't mean to sound naive, but look at the facts here.  I mean, the actions he's taken lately, that message, Hound's recording -- it all fits!  It's like it's more than just a clever scheme -- it's as though he really means it!" "Same way he meant to uphold the Cybertronian code?" Trailbreaker muttered. "Bumblebee's definitely right about at least one thing -- the facts do fit with his words," Prowl commented. "But this is Megatron we're talking about," Optimus replied.  "He's gone to great lengths to pull off many deceptions in the past.  I'd bet my processors that something's in motion behind the scenes."  "Perhaps he _is_ planning something big.  A renewed offensive on Cybertron, I'd wager," Prowl said. "We can't let that happen," Optimus replied.  "If the Decepticons on Cybertron get unrestrained access to Earth's energy, they will conquer the whole planet -- no matter how much energon we send to our own forces there." "We have to stop them," Prowl agreed. "And yet..." Prime let a shade of doubt creep into his voice.  "If he is sincere, how could we pass up such an opportunity?  To have peace here on Earth at last.  To redress the many wrongs we've inflicted on the humans and their world." "Yeah, but, uh, we don't even know yet if he's for real," Hound pointed out. "Then somehow, we've got to find out," Prime said. "How're you planning to do that?" Jazz wondered.  "I wouldn't want to be the one who has to go ask Megatron again.  He did not seem like a happy camper." Optimus turned to face him.  "He said spy all we want.  Well, by Primus, that's what we're gonna do..."-  -  - There were many ways to approach the Decepticons' undersea base: from above, from the coast, from the seaward side.  Brawn's favorite method, though, was underground.  In his jeep mode, the powerful little Autobot sported a large rotator drill which dispersed infinitesimal antimatter packets into the earth, neatly eating away a tunnel big enough for a vehicle to drive into.  The drill also siphoned the resulting energy back into its antimatter bleeders, meaning the drill drained very little of Brawn's power, and gave off a minimal energy signature.  Overall, Bumblebee assessed as he drove behind him, it was a near-perfect means of infiltrating their foes' headquarters. Brawn transformed a few feet below the ocean surface, and punched a hole through the remaining layer of rock.  A torrent of water poured into the tunnel he had hewn, quickly eroding a hole large enough for them to fit through.  A second later, they were standing on the ocean floor directly beneath the structures of Decepticon Headquarters - Earth. "Okay, I got us here," Brawn said.  "You said you could get us in..." "Yeah.  We just need a waterlock."  It took them only a moment to find one of the base's underwater entrances. "I hate to use this thing," Bumblebee muttered, attaching a small box to the entrance seal.  "But I guess it's important enough a mission for it." "What is it?" "A Decepticon code box I swiped during a battle a while back.  It'll open the door for us.  Wheeljack attached a field dampener to it so the base systems won't register the door opening."  Sure enough, the doors slid apart, and sealed behind them as they entered the waterlock. "Convenient," Brawn commented. "Yeah.  Catch is, it'll only work once."  After the chamber drained itself, they stepped through a second pair of doors and into Decepticon Headquarters.  A long, empty corridor awaited them, with a few unmarked doors on either side. "Where do we look?" Brawn wondered.  "For that matter, what are we looking for?" "Anything we can find," Bumblebee said.  "Weapon caches, computer files -- something to give an indication of what they're planning." "Where do we look?" "Central storage would be a good place to start.  I think I can get us there safely." "And if you're wrong?" "That's why Prime made you come, too." Brawn shrugged.  "Can't complain about that!  Lead the way." The two Autobots stealthily made their way through the base's empty lower corridors, using a vent shaft to travel up two levels and into yet another faceless corridor. Bumblebee leaned cautiously around a corner, then waved Brawn on with one hand.  The two dashed down a corridor, and approached a sealed door.  Bumblebee paused before it, and glanced questioningly at Brawn.  Brawn shrugged: go for it! Bumblebee's hand wavered for a moment over the entrance switch, till he finally punched the button with a smooth, swift motion.  The doors slid apart.  The two Autobots gasped at what lay beyond. "Energon!" Bumblebee whispered.  "There's enough here to power a whole army!" "Looks like Megatron's been busier than we thought," Brawn said.  The stacked cubes filled the room almost to the ceiling -- and it was quite a large room. "We gotta let Prime know about this, ASAP!" "That'll take too long.  By then, they could use it for all sorts of nasty stuff."  Brawn hauled out a small laser pistol.  "I say we take care of the problem here and now." "But if we blow it all, they'll _have_ to resort to attacking humans again.  They won't have any choice!" "Not if we take out enough Decepticons with it," Brawn muttered. "Brawn, we can't do that without permission!  Our orders are to reconnoiter and report!" "We won't get another chance like this." "But we may not need another chance!  Megatron said he was through with aggression against the humans..." "Yeah, and if he said he was Lord Primus, would you believe him?  Cause I sure don't." "It's more than just talk; look at what he's been doing!" "He's been stockpiling enough energon to blow us all to kingdom come," Brawn said.  "Just because he hasn't used it yet, do you really think that means he never will?  What if this stuff goes back to Cybertron?" Bumblebee hesitated, agonized.  Brawn's words had the ring of truth to them.  But he wanted so much for the peace to be real! "I don't know what you're thinking right now, but I don't intend to let a perfect opportunity slip by just because Megatron's become a little more subtle," Brawn said. "Brawn, that's not your call to make.  Prime sent us here to find out how much they had -- not to start hostilities!" Bumblebee lowered Brawn's gun, trying to stay rational.  "What if he really _is_ stopping the aggression?  Do you want to be the one who starts the fighting again?" "What if he's not?" Brawn countered.  "Do _you_ want to be the one who missed the chance to stop him before he hits--" Just then, the door slid open with no warning.  Skywarp stepped through the entrance and stopped in shock as he saw the two Autobots standing by the cubes.  The equally surprised Autobots stared back. "You punks are _not_ getting out of here," Skywarp said at last. "Skywarp, if you shoot, you're gonna hit the energon cubes," Bumblebee said. "I'll just have to do this by hand, then!" Skywarp strode forward confidently. "I'll give ya something by hand," Brawn said, clenching his fists and assuming a fighting stance. "Bring it on, punk!" Skywarp said, swinging a fist.  But Brawn easily ducked the blow and charged into his larger foe, carrying him across the room and into a wall.  Bumblebee ducked out of the way and looked about frantically.  Even if Brawn beat Skywarp, the ruckus was sure to attract attention... and there was no way of knowing how many Decepticons were in the base.  Megatron himself could walk in the door any second. Skywarp brought both fists down on Brawn's head, then kicked him backwards.  Brawn went  stumbling woozily backwards for a moment, before shaking his head and standing upright. "Brawn, come on, we've got to get out of here!" "Leave?!  But I've got a perfectly good fight here!" Brawn said, dodging Skywarp's fists again.  Skywarp changed tactics and tried to kick him, but Brawn caught the foot and flipped Skywarp onto his back.  He ran around his upended foe, intending to finish him with a kick to the head, but Skywarp seized him instead, and tossed him across the room -- into the pile of energon cubes. The neat stacks tumbled and scattered as Brawn sailed into them.  The cubes flashed brightly as they tumbled into the floor and each other, their delicate equilibrium disrupted. "Uh oh," Brawn said, picking himself up.  Most of the cubes were returning to their settled state, but several glowed brighter and brighter. "Oops," Skywarp breathed. "Now you've done it!" Bumblebee shouted angrily at Skywarp. "Me?!  You two were the ones who came in here in the first place!" Skywarp pointed his guns at Bumblebee, but at that moment Brawn barreled through him, tossing him into the air. "Maybe _now_ is a good time to leave!" Brawn shouted, dragging Bumblebee after him, as several cubes began to snap and crackle with unstable power.  Bumblebee punched the door seal and blasted the control with a laser pistol once it closed behind them.  They transformed to their car modes and raced down the corridor, as alert sirens sounded around them.  "Which way back to the exit?"  Brawn asked. "There's no time, those cubes'll go any astrosec--" Bumblebee's words were cut off by a tremendous explosion that continued for several seconds, rocking the base to its foundations.  A current of wind suddenly howled through the passageway; seconds later, a wall of ocean water roared towards them down the hall. "Oh nooooooooo!!" Bumblebee shouted as it swept over them.  Both Autobots transformed to robot mode as the wave tossed them about, flipping them upside down, right side up, banging them into the walls and ceiling.  After perhaps half a minute, though, the current slowed, as the corridor filled completely with water. "Whew!" Bumblebee said, as they regained their bearings. "At least we got some surf time in!" Brawn commented, as they paddled their way down the length of the hall. "Brawn, get us out of here!" Bumblebee urged.  A swift punch tore a hole in one of the base's outer walls, after perhaps half a minute of peeling back metal layers, Brawn had created an opening big enough for both of them to fit through.  They both swiftly swam into the open sea and down to the sea floor.  Bumblebee noticed clouds of air bubbles rising from a massive, ragged-edged hole in the base's middle levels.  The two Autobots transformed and drove along the sea floor, then dropped into the hole from whence they had come. "Well, that wasn't so bad now," Brawn said, as they drove back down the water-filled tunnel. "Not so bad?!  Brawn, it was a complete disaster!  We engaged in combat on a recon mission, we destroyed the Decepticons' entire energy stockpile, we violated orders, we maybe blew a chance at peace -- about the only thing that could make it worse is if -- no, I'm not even going to say it!  It'd probably happen!" "Could be worse." "What could be worse about it?!" "Well... it could've been Starscream who walked in on us.  Then I would have _had_ to stay and belt him a few more times." "Oy," Bumblebee muttered.  "At least the explosion seems to have mucked up their sensors.  I didn't sense anything tracking us." "Let's hope.  I gotta admit, I think I've had about enough bang for one day." "Me too."  They drove on through the darkened, water-filled tunnel in silence.  *Brawn's probably not thinking twice about what just happened,* Bumblebee thought.  *But we just passed up a chance to change the status quo... for better or worse.  I hate the way things are now, with the war constantly endangering the humans, but what if Brawn was right?  We could have stopped something even worse.  Or passed up on something much better.* *We'll never know.* One thing Bumblebee did know, however: he was _not_ looking forward to reporting the incident to Optimus Prime...-  -  - A pair of double doors slid open, and Starscream walked into the central control chamber of Decepticon Headquarters.  Soundwave sat at a monitor, quietly working; Megatron was seated nearby, working at a monitor.  Half a dozen monitors showed exterior views of the base's damaged portions, and the Constructions laboring to rebuild them. "Base pumping complete, Megatron," Soundwave reported, as Starscream strolled up behind his leader. "Excellent, Soundwave," Megatron replied, before punching a button on his console.  His own image suddenly appeared on his monitor. "Congratulations, Optimus.  You've failed your test.  I will see you on the battlefield," the recorded image said. "Transmit this message on all standard frequencies to the Autobot base," the real-life Megatron directed to Soundwave.  The image on the screen winked out as Starscream *ahemmed* for attention. "Well!  Scrapper reports that repairs to the base will take three weeks to complete, Skywarp will require a thirty percent rebuild, and the energon is an eighty-five percent loss.  So much for your latest so-called plan," Starscream said, making a sweeping hand gesture towards the monitors. "We made seven successful shipments to Cybertron.  And it was not a plan, Starscream," Megatron said, just as calm as the day he'd made the announcement, back in the land base.  "Think of it as a test.  An experiment, if you like." "A test, eh?  And just what hypothesis were you testing?" "The Autobots are incapable of leaving us alone, even if we do nothing to them or their precious fleshlings.  We cannot possibly co-exist in peace with each other on the same planet." "You consider _that_ something worth bothering to test?" "Well, of course.  Aren't the Autobots always claiming to fight for peace and harmony?  Well, we gave it to them!  So much for their 'noble ideals'.  I offered them the chance to contain our war to Cybertron, and they turned it down." "At this price?!"  Starscream once again indicated the damage to their base.  "I think the lava must have damaged your cerebro-circuits more than we thought, Megatron!" "Would anything less have proved my point?"  "And what if they'd done nothing?  Would we have just stopped fighting forever, settle down and become energon farmers?!" Megatron's eyes fixed on something far away; his voice was equally distant as he ignored the taunting mockery in Starscream's voice, and a single word escaped his mouth. "Perhaps." Starscream whirled and stalked towards the exit. "But it is a moot point," Megatron said, abruptly snapping back to the present, and to the future that he eternally lived in.  Starscream paused, looked back over his shoulder at his commander.  "We can't live in peace -- I think the Autobots proved that rather well, don't you agree, Starscream?  No... the war goes on.  As it must.  Until one side or the other is destroyed..." "Until the _Autobots_ are destroyed, you mean." "Yes.  Of course... until victory is ours." Starscream left the room, leaving Megatron alone with the still-silent Soundwave, and his thoughts.  Those thoughts fixated very briefly on futures past, the futures that could have been, on a future that had been ruled out so long ago he could scarcely remember.   Peace with the Autobots. No.  Peace... it was a future that could be no more.  The future now held battle, conquest... triumph, and glory!  A war to be _won_! "Yes... indeed, we _shall_ rise again!"*********************THE END**************************END NOTES: Just what was Megatron's real motive?  I'm not 100% sure -- maybe it was what he said to Starscream at the end, maybe it was what he said to the 'cons at the beginning, maybe it was what the Autobots surmised -- the most likely thing seems a combination of all three, kind of a series of interrelated back-up plans.  What can I say; it was his idea, not mine. :]  At any rate, he got some energon out of it, so he's happy.

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