Disclaimer: Transformers belongs to Hasbro, body and soul. No copyright infringement is intended and no money is being made. Some lines are borrowed from Roy Batty of Blade Runner, which I also do not own.
The void of space stretched around her, hardly seeming to change as she drifted, powerless, shut down to all but the slightest trickle of energy deep in her core. She neither heard nor saw the pale ship approach her out of the Great Nebula; she did not rouse when the ship extended claws and seized her body, drawing it into the cargo hold, nor did she stir when the ship's inhabitants hooked her up to an energon feed and began to replenish the fluids that had frozen in what was left of her internal tubing. It wasn't until cycles later that the first sparks of returning consciousness began to flutter through her cerebral circuits, lighting her dull violet optics with a strange flickering glow.
Dimly she was aware of her body, of low pain that made her frightened to move, and of voices somewhere close to her; the optic circuits were damaged, she couldn't see, but she could detect light and shadow. Something bent over her, blocking out the light.
"I've got basic cerebral function back online," someone said. "Energon levels are optimal, fluids and lubricants are fine. We just have to wait."
Wait for what? she wanted to demand. Who are you? Where am I, and what am I doing here?
With the slow drip of energy back into her mind, she began to recall fractured images: fire, the strange brilliant brief fire that could burn in space until the oxygen of the escaping gases was used up; that fire burning around the form of her ship, the distant pain of linked beings dying hard, beyond her reach, beyond her help. Her ship on fire, off the shoulder of Orion, and the great arc of the Gate looming like a silver thread around the tiny craft. Confused memories of pain and a sudden hard thrust into the void, an explosion, shards of metal with familiar paint striking her as the Starjammer vanished in a soundless glittering burst—memories of bright swift death in the emptiness flickered and swam in her mind. A howling emptiness, like a holed chamber's atmosphere rushing to lose itself in space, filled her chest; the loss of what had once been held there felt like physical damage. She moaned, unable to lock out the recall functions; there was nothing for her to do but relive those moments over and over and over until she went insane...
Something touched her face gently, brushed over her useless optics, traced the curve of her skull back to the access data port, and suddenly there was silence and release. She floated again, back in the darkness.
"She's not one of us," Ratchet shrugged, standing behind his duty desk. "The design and construction aren't like anything I've seen."
"She's not a Decepticon either." Optimus Prime folded his massive arms. "Any idea when she'll be fit to tell us her story?"
"I don't know exactly. She...there was a feedback loop when she came back online before, and I had to lock out access to parts of her memory bank. I don't know how long it will be, or how much she will remember when she wakes up."
Optimus nodded with a sigh. "So we wait."
"We wait. Physically she's back to working order: the damage was pretty heavy, but she managed to put herself into stasis before the energon drain could kill her outright."
"I wonder who she is," said Optimus, musingly. "The colours of her armour are odd."
"They're Decepticon colours," said Ratchet flatly. "Purple and black? Come on. We're the good guys, so we're brightly coloured."
"So's Starscream," Prime pointed out. "And Prowl's black and white. I shouldn't lay too much importance on her colouration."
Ratchet nodded with a sigh. His leader got up and fixed him with a direct blue gaze. "Take good care of her," he said, "whoever she is."
"Of course. It's my job."
Neither of them needed to say: because whatever she may be, she's got a story to tell that we both want to hear.
Optimus Prime kept his gaze steady for a moment longer, then nodded, and strode out of the med bay. Ratchet found himself shuffling paperwork mechanically, distracted, and forced himself to be still. Their mystery guest was in reasonable shape: Ratchet had excellent hopes for her full recovery.
I am Alirion.
I am alone.
Megatron had a headache, which meant that everyone aboard the Dark Matter had to tread extra-lightly, including Starscream: this did not sit well with the Seeker, who was currently flinging the body of a crumpled-up drone droid against the bulkheads in the cargo bay, catching it as it bounced back, and complaining in an unceasing flood about his superior. Rumble had joined him some time before, intending to ask him if he knew anything more about the Decepticon leader's condition, and had decided it would be more prudent to shut the slag up and record some of Starscream's more inventive curses for future reference.
"...and another thing, why does the walking artillery-zone have a slagging headache in the first place? It's not like he's even got anything rattling around inside that Zarquon-interfaced helmet of his, I swear you can hear the wind whistling through his aural sensors when the lifeplant's drawing hard....lutharium-tubed, misconnected, magnesium-circuited lump of slag that he is..."
"He's had a headache for two days now," said Thundercracker thoughtfully from the doorway. Starscream caught his balled-up droid and turned to face his fellow jet.
"You have a valid point," he said.
"And I shouldn't be surprised if he starts feeling his age soon," Thundercracker mused. "After all, he is a great deal older than us."
Starscream, who knew this was complete wastefumes, nodded enthusiastically. "Perhaps our dear leader's health may give out one of these cycles," he said.
Rumble looked from one Seeker to the other, mildly confused. "Are you guys talking about Megatron?"
Both Starscream and Thundercracker fixed him with withering red glares. "No," said Starscream, "we're talking about the slagging Wingnut Fairy. Of course we're talking about Megatron."
Rumble might have blushed, if he could have. "Oh," he said, stupidly.
"And," continued Starscream, "if you are considering relaying any part of this conversation to him or to his darling Soundwave, you can also take into consideration the fact that I can step on you quite easily and reduce you to a very thin object the size of a mess hall table." He grinned a nasty, sharp little grin, waving the remains of his ex-cleaner droid. Rumble swallowed.
"There's a good pile-driver," said the Aerospace Commander. "Slag off now, and let the big robots talk."
Rumble scurried off. When he was gone, Thundercracker sat down heavily on a stack of crates and regarded his fellow jet. Starscream smiled.
"You think he's deteriorating?"
"I don't know," said Thundercracker, rubbing at his optics. "It's just kind of odd that he's had a headache bad enough to complain about for two whole days. He's never sick."
"Oh, come off it, he screeches if his paintjob gets singed by a blaster bolt."
"Yeah, but he then gets up and blows the rivets out of whoever shot him. Remember how creatively nasty he got when he caught up with the Insecticons? He's stayed in the command quarters, for two days, with the door locked, and given standing orders not to disturb him. It's weird, is all I'm saying." Thundercracker rubbed his optics again, sagging a little.
Starscream was pacing. "Maybe he somehow got himself painted pale pink with flowers and is trying desperately to scrub it off before we all see it." He grinned at the thought. Megatron in petal-pink metallic paint. He'd look just darling with a flower tucked into the barrel of his fusion cannon. Starscream filed away this mental image of his leader.
"Maybe," said Thundercracker dully. Starscream looked at him; the Seeker was slumped over on his crate, his head in his hands. Between his fingers, his red optics glowed dimly.
"Thundercracker," he said. "What's wrong with you?"
"Nothing," said Thundercracker. "I'm just fine." He raised his head with a little effort and stood up. Starscream couldn't help noticing that his paintjob looked duller and greyer than usual, as if he was dusty. He shrugged, pressed his palm into the lock leading out of the cargo bay, and led the way back into the ship proper. Maybe Thundercracker had caught a touch of Megatronitis. He found himself grinning again, even as he opened his other hand and found he'd crushed the body of the droid to crumpled shreds of metal.
I am nothing. I am interstellar dust.
They were waiting for us outside the Gate, and I was powerless to stop them. We died for my sake. For my failure.
Hot Rod and Tracks were engaging in a desultory game of Pistofrian bridge (the sort without the exploding cards, as Optimus Prime had officially banned all such dangerous playthings after a certain unfortunate incident in the engine room some time ago) and watching the stars wheel by. It was only a few more cycles before they would be back on their orbital home base, circling what had been the second of Cybertron's moons, and then they could all relax and take some well-earned leave. The mission that had sent them out to the edge of the galaxy had been completed with the retrieval of their mystery guest, who had yet to wake up and tell them her story. Hot Rod had laid six kuats, and Spike four, on her being a Decepticon spy; but Tracks, Sideswipe, and Bumblebee had staunchly insisted that she was an interstellar bounty hunter in search of some terribly dangerous prey. No one besides Optimus himself knew much about why they had been sent out there; all they knew was that their central computer had received a distress signal from that sector and they had been scrambled to help, as the signal had sounded fairly desperate and there wasn't much going on at home that they needed to worry about.
Hot Rod was wondering why they hadn't come across any Decepticreeps on their journey, but he wasn't wondering very hard. It was too nice just to be able to relax instead of wondering when Megatron and his annoying lackeys would show up and need to be blasted into retreat.
He laid down four Murglaks and sat back, folding his arms in triumph. "Beat that," he said.
Tracks groaned and tossed down his luckily non-explosive cards. "Four in a row. How do you do it?"
"Sheer skill, my friend," said Hot Rod. "Hey, what's that?"
Outside the Ark II they could make out a dim pale shape approaching, suddenly limned with light as it passed out of the shadow of a moon. Tracks's optics flickered brighter blue as he recalibrated for long-distance vision. "Looks like a 'Con," he said, suddenly all business. "Get the scanners going."
Spike and Prowl hurried to the consoles and lit up the long-range scanners. Sure enough, there was an object approaching them, fairly fast. Prowl toggled the comlink. "Prowl to Prime," he said. "Come in, Prime, we've got what looks like a situation here."
Moments later Prime came hurrying into the cockpit. "What's going on?" he demanded.
Hot Rod came up beside him. "I don't know what it is," he said, indicating the blip on the scanners, "but it looks kinda like a Decepticon. What do you want us to do?"
"Deep scan," said Optimus Prime. "I want ID on it, whatever it is. And fast."
I am Alirion, and I have failed to stop death coming into this plane.
I am death.
"What're you looking at?" demanded Megatron of Starscream, rubbing at his optics. He sat in the command chair of the Dark Matter, setting a course for their base. They had been too late to catch whatever had left the energy signature that had called them out here, and on top of that he'd lost a valuable Seeker, and he still felt awful. He'd even had Soundwave check him out, and Soundwave had shrugged and said that there was an energy drain and some fluctuation in the thermal circuitry, but nothing noticeably wrong. Which was clearly wastefumes, since Megatron's head still felt as if one of the minibots was sitting on top of it and hitting him between the optics with a hammer. He was beginning to have problems with his oxygen intake, too; it felt like there was something collecting on the filters and clogging the flow, and more than once he'd had to bend over and cough so hard his optics sparked with surge current, in order to clear the filters. Whatever was wrong with him was getting worse.
He hoped that dumping Thundercracker would slow the process. He really hoped that.
Starscream shrugged. "You look awful," he said cheerfully. He slung himself into the copilot's chair and checked the coordinates. "Really awful. Like, deactivation's not far off."
Megatron swung his fusion cannon to bear on his lieutenant. "Flattery will get you killed, Starscream," he snarled. "I am fully operational, and you would do well to remember it."
"Right," said Starscream, looking unconcerned. "Why're you grey, then?"
Megatron looked down at himself; his normal silver-white had faded to a dull, sickly grey. "Interstellar radiation affecting the paintjob," he snapped, suppressing a cough. "There is nothing wrong with me. Thundercracker was the one with the problem, and I have eliminated the problem."
"Yeah, by eliminating Thundercracker," said Starscream, levelly.
"Do you have a problem with that?"
Starscream turned and faced his leader, and—as always, to his disgust and shame—failed to completely meet his gaze. After a long burning moment he muttered, "No, Megatron."
"Just as well," said Megatron raspily, and punched the thrusters. "We're almost back to the base."
Silverbolt had been sent out to collect the Cybertronian. Whoever it was, if he was still alive, he needed help. They watched from the bridge as he approached the floating form. Hot Rod refocused his optics on them
"Primus! It's Thundercracker!"
"Are you sure?" demanded Prime.
"Positive. I can see the Decepticon symbol."
Optimus Prime turned on his heel and hurried to the airlock as Silverbolt arrived with his burden. The locks irised open, and the Autobot crew stared in horror and curiosity at the lifeless body of their enemy. Silverbolt threw a glance at Prime.
"Get him to the med bay," snapped the Autobot leader. "We'll ask questions later."
Silverbolt complied. Behind him Hot Rod and Spike shared a worried look. "What the hell is going on?" Spike wondered out loud, as they followed the crowd down the corridor to the med bay. "We didn't think the 'Cons were even out here!"
"I know," Hot Rod shrugged. "I have a bad feeling about this."
They arrived to find Thundercracker laid on a recharge bed with Ratchet bending over him. "I'm not reading life signs, but I can't find any wounds...hold on, getting sensors...." Ratchet punched buttons in the side of the recharge bed, and sensor cables snaked out and fastened themselves to the Decepticon's chest. Ratchet's inbuilt sensors were quite effective, but these new ones were designed to find even the last spark of energy inside a robot's body, and home in on it.
"He's still alive," said Ratchet, wonderingly. "He's...horribly depleted, his energy reserves are nil, his oxygen filters...oh, slag, someone, get me a set of oxygen filters right now." Ratchet had switched from interested scientist to urgent medic in less than a minute, and all the Autobots crowded around the limp form of their enemy backed up to give him room. Ratchet hooked up an auxiliary oxygen flow and energon feed, and opened Thundercracker's chest compartment to get access to his central core.
Perceptor handed the oxygen filters to Ratchet, and stood back. The Autobot medic worked fast and deftly, removing the clogged filters and inserting the fresh ones with practiced ease, connecting interfaces and blasting clots out of tubing with pressurized fluid.
Eventually he was finished, closing up the last tubes and setting Thundercracker's chestplate back in place. "He should come out of recharge when he's fully energized," said Ratchet exhaustedly, holding on to the edge of the bed to steady himself. Prime, who had watched the entire operation without making a sound, stepped forward and put a hand on Ratchet's shoulder.
"Rest," he said. "You have done enough."
I am the deathbringer. I am the psychopomp who escorts the spark into the worlds beyond.
I am death, and they have saved my life. Better they had not. Better that I should have floated in space for eternity.
She stared at the ceiling. It wasn't a very interesting ceiling: it was grey-painted metal, pimpled with rivets along beam lines, and festooned with brilliant arclights that hurt her adjusting optics. She sat up, wincing as her stiff unused joints and servomotors protested the movement, and looked around. It was a clearly well-organized medical bay: three recharge couches with dripstands and instrument trays stood along both walls, with a central aisle for the medics to patrol their charges. She herself lay on a recharge bed set apart from the others, half-concealed behind a screen.
There was an energon drip feeding into a port on her arm. She disconnected it and turned off the valve so as not to waste the glowing liquid, and stood up experimentally. Everything seemed to work. Her limbs just about responded to her commands. There wasn't enough space in here to transform into her starfighter body, but she felt along the trans circuits and decided she probably could if necessary. Apart from the lingering stiffness in her joints and muscle cables, she felt remarkably well.
Now, where the slag was she, and how many creatures had come in contact with her and the contamination she must still retain, despite the antiseptic void of space?
The Transformer who now called herself Alirion walked over to the exit door and was prepared to open it with her claws when it whooshed open automatically.
Excellent. Someone out there likes me.
She crossed the threshold and found herself in another ward, this one occupied. There was a steel-blue robot lying on a recharge bed with another working over him and perhaps six standing by and looking on. She tuned up her aural sensors.
"...don't know what's wrong with him, he should have come out of recharge normally—he seems to be getting worse; hopefully his self-repair systems will knock it out."
"No," she said, pleased that her long-dormant voice modulator responded. "They won't."
All of the robots...Autobots, she corrected herself, noticing the red symbol on their bodies, familiar from the Unilink histories she'd read...turned to stare at her. "It's not that simple," she said, and started towards them. "It's something we found on Delta Hadron. A virus."
The robot on the bed was stirring, moaning. "...Hurts..."
Something connected in her mind with an almost audible click. If she had had it, and survived...
Alirion crossed the gap with surprising speed. It could work. There was precedent for this sort of thing—desperate, yes, but not entirely unheard-of. "Let me through," she said, and after a moment they stood back to let her approach the bed.
She didn't notice the stares as she opened her chestplate, revealing snares of tubes and circuits. With the sharp points of her forefinger and thumb, Alirion pierced her own fluid artery and reached out to the limp form of the blue jet, who had subsided into unconsciousness once more. She made a hole in his own artery, then bent over him, leaning close to make contact between the two tubes, daring the Autobots with her optics to make a move. None of them dared.
At length she judged that enough of her antibodies had been passed to the other robot to save him, and she staggered backwards from the recharge bed and half-fell into a chair. Too much, too fast, she told herself angrily. Equilibrium's off, and your self-repair systems are already strained to the max. Very clever.
An Autobot approached her, white and red, emblazoned with the universal symbol of medics everywhere. He looked at her with an expression she might normally have found laughable: a combination of trepidation, interest, and confusion. "Are you all right?" he demanded. "What did you do?"
"...Transfused," she said, thickly, her voice modulator circuits fuzzing and returning. "Transfused my immunity. Should be enough to save him."
Beyond the medic, she could see the steel-blue jet's colours returning, slowly, as the monitors hooked to his vital circuitry registered a spike and then a slow scale-up to something approaching normal function.
"Least I could do," she rasped, and found that she could laugh.
Alirion sat in a chair much too large for her and regarded the hulking shape of Optimus Prime. Brilliant blue optics watched her with a mixture of sympathy and interest.
"Who are you really?" he inquired. She sighed, her purple optics dimming slightly.
"What do you mean? I told you, I'm Alirion, I'm a scientist...or I was..."
"You bear Matrix energy," said Prime, gently. "I can feel it." He touched his chest plate lightly, and she realized what it was about him that seemed so familiar: the indescribable aura of the Matrix's power, tasting like new steel and rain, sharpening and clarifying the edges of all she saw. For a moment Alirion ached inside with the emptiness that had once held a shard of that same power.
Of course she knew about the Matrix. They all did—even the most ignorant of the Guardians knew that much history. It was something of a legend now.
"You hold the Matrix," she said softly. He nodded. "Then you will understand, I think, Optimus Prime." She sat back in the chair, staring at the ceiling, and began her story.
"My name was Alirius Primatrix—an honorific which I might add was not my choice. I was the leader of the Guardian defense force stationed at the Pelleas Gate in Sector 34—commander of the Victrons who worked there with the Quaestron researchers. I held command because the thing we called the Shard—a fragment of the thing that later became known as your Matrix—had been built into me when I came off the production line. The mech who had held it before had been deactivated, and our creators on Amaranth chose a Victron at random to carry it." She rubbed at her optics, remembering. "I was too young. I didn't know what I was doing, I made foolish decisions without thinking ahead. I got us all killed, and unleashed the virus that nearly killed that robot in the sickbay..."
"Slow down," said Optimus Prime gently. "Tell it from the beginning. And less of the self-recrimination, please."
Alirius gave him a weary grin. She couldn't quite help liking him. "Very well. We were out on a routine patrol of the area close to the Gate when we received a distress signal."
The Starjammer slowed as Alirius cut the rear thrusters. "Nova, see if you can boost that signal. Ecliptic, try and get coordinates for its origin." She brought the white ship round in a long arc to the point where they had first picked up the distress call. Nova, a slender black-and-violet female, manipulated their comm station, cleaning up the static and replaying the call.
Ecliptic stood behind his leader's chair, listening. "Sounds desperate," he said.
"Sshh," Alirius told him, her head tipped to receive the soundwaves more efficiently. The call was simple, just five words, replayed over and over in a series of languages: For Primus's sake, help us.
"Delta Hadron," said Ecliptic suddenly, as the coordinates came up on his screen. "That nothing little planetoid we passed two days ago."
"It wasn't transmitting this signal then," said Nova slowly. "What can have happened between then and now?"
"I don't know," said Alirius, aware that she was sounding like a very predictable leader and vaguely aware that this was not a particularly responsible thing to do, "but we're going to find out. Strap in, boys and girls, this is going to be one fast ride."
There had been six of them on the ship that day, including Alirius's consort Singularity. She remembered with exquisite clarity how Sin had joined her on the bridge, his hand resting gently on her shoulder, as she wondered exactly how to deal with the situation. Delta Hadron had been a biocybernetic research station, and one of their experimental creations had broken loose and decimated the population of the planetoid. Those still alive did not have long to live.
"I don't know what to do," she whispered. Singularity's hand tightened on her shoulder.
"You'll make the right choice," he told her. "You always do."
Ecliptic swung his chair around. "Boss, I got several viable life signatures on the planetoid. Pretty strong readings."
Alirius set her jaw. "I will not leave them there to die," she said quietly. "We're going in."
"What about the virus?" Nova asked, her voice trembling slightly.
"I'm sure we can find some way to halt it. I'm not leaving...." she reached over and peered at Ecliptic's screen... "seven life forms to die on Delta Hadron."
And she had kept her word. She had left no one to die on Delta Hadron. They had died just outside the Pelleas Gate, in a ball of purifying flame.
"We made planetfall and found the scientists huddled in what was left of their research facility," she continued. "Two of them were very ill; the others were only beginning their infection. We got them all on board and lifted off Delta Hadron." She remembered how grey they had been, how terribly weak and in pain they had seemed.
Singularity, as team scientist the closest they had to a medic, shrugged. The body of one of their refugees lay on a recharge bed between him and Alirius. "I did all I could, love. He was just too far gone."
"What about us?" she asked, quietly, after a pause. "How much longer do we have?"
Singularity wouldn't meet her gaze, busying himself with retracting all the support tubes and connections from the lifeless hulk. "I'm not sure," he said at last. "I haven't worked out the transmission vector completely. The infectious particles are so tiny they can pass through oxygen filters, but I don't know if direct skin-to-skin contact hastens infection..."
Alirius nodded. "I see. Keep working on it. I have to contact the Gate."
But she didn't quite manage. Before she even got to the bridge, a sudden wave of dizziness washed over her, and her equilibrium controls seemed to short out completely; she stumbled against the corridor wall and waited for the universe to steady itself around her. Eventually the vertiginous feeling went away, but her head was beginning to pound as if her cerebral circuits were overloading. She had just time to think how thoroughly useless she had been as a leader before the floor of the corridor came up to embrace her.
"You had it, then?" Optimus Prime folded his massive arms. "How is it that..."
"That I survived? I can only think it was the Shard that saved me. That was the only thing that set me apart from the other mechs on the ship. By the time we reached the Pelleas Gate, they were all in deep comas. I had come out of it shortly after my collapse, feeling shaky and unpleasant, but certainly alive. I contacted the Gate officers and informed them of my situation, and told them that I needed to bring the Starjammer through the Gate to somewhere with an advanced medical support system if I was going to save the lives of my crew and my passengers. They gave me clearance."
She sighed, looking down, her optics bright with memory. Prime reached out with one great blue finger and touched her shoulder gently, and she jerked with the strength that was flowing through the contact: he was giving her some of the Matrix's energy, helping her to tell him what he needed to know. She looked up gratefully at him. "I trusted them to give me a chance at saving our lives. I had no reason to think otherwise, you see.
"I began the Gating sequence, bringing the Starjammer into alignment with the Gate, setting up the force lines that would keep us on course through the tesseract itself. It wasn't until we were preparing to emerge on the other side that they began firing on us." She shivered. "One minute it was fine, just the blackness of space and the rings of Kau Beta—where I was going to take us to try and cure the virus—and then there was nothing but fire. I think I was knocked out when the Starjammer exploded; the next thing I knew I was floating in space and watching the tiny bits of my ship, my crew, my lover and my passengers turn and sparkle slowly as they drifted apart from one another. I was losing fluids from a shrapnel hit, and most of my motive functions had been knocked out, but I was in one piece. I think I went into stasis, and I can't remember much else after that." She slumped a bit, seeing that bright silent flame again, feeling the vague sickness of off-center gyros spinning themselves down to nothing.
There was a long silence before Prime said quietly "Thank you, Alirius."
Alirion bowed her head. "I am Alirion now. It was the name on the manifest before they chose to give the Shard to me. It too was lost in the explosion."
"Alirion, then," he corrected himself. "Thank you for telling me."
By the time the Ark II docked with the Autobots' orbital base, Thundercracker was well enough to get up. He was remarkably subdued and well-mannered for a Decepticon, which most of the Ark's passengers attributed to the effects of the virus on his system, but Alirion had a feeling he felt about as lonely as she did, rejected by his own, set out to drift in space and die.
She encountered him one morning in the cargo bay of the Ark II, pacing moodily between the hulks of equipment and supplies, his red optics dim. Her conversations with Optimus Prime had given her a little understanding of what the Decepticons were like, and she found it hard to associate Thundercracker with them; however, she was very much aware that she had not had to come up against him in a battle, and she had never watched him interact with his own kind. A stranger among enemies would naturally watch his mouth.
He jumped a little, whirling to face her, and then subsided. She noticed absently that he didn't look good; the dark blue surfaces of his wings seemed ashy pale, and his red optics burned too bright in his dark face. "Alirion," he said at last.
"I'll go if I'm disturbing you," she said evenly, "but I have a feeling you might need someone to complain to. Let me at least check your vitals, you don't look well."
Thundercracker looked mutinous, but then seemed to sag, and sat down on the floor with his head in his hands. "You wouldn't understand," he muttered. "No one can."
Alirion approached him tentatively, aware that he outweighed her by at least two tons, and his weaponry was more advanced than her own. "Try me," she said.
He looked up at her, his optics burning. "You know what I am," he said.
"I know that you're a Decepticon. I've heard the backstory of that from the others."
"Then you know who I serve. Served," he corrected himself and leaned back against the wall. "Megatron, my lord and master. He's the one who chucked me out into space to die. He was...even I could see he was sick too...but he made the decision that I was the infection's vector, and that I would have to be eliminated. Nobody argued."
Alirion's hands curled themselves into fists.
"I was too weak to resist, really. Soundwave and his cassettes dragged me to the airlock and released me into space. I think I lost consciousness." He sighed, rubbing his optics. "I'd at least have hoped for some sympathy from the other jets—Starscream and Skywarp, Thrust, Ramjet, Dirge—but I think they were saving their own afts. I can't really blame them."
Alirion sat down beside him. "So your leader—Megatron—has this virus too?"
"I was pretty sure. He was having painful cranial-circuit overloads, he was weak and bitchier than usual and kind of grey all over, like he was dusty. And he was coughing."
She nodded. "How long ago was this?"
Thundercracker checked his internal clock. "Eight cycles."
"He's probably dead," said Alirion mildly. "If the infection was as far along as you say."
Thundercracker sat up, eyes blazing, with a motion so violent that some of his newly repaired circuits tore; he gasped in pain and doubled over as Alirion reached to help him. "No," he gasped. "No, Megatron can't be dead..."
Decepticons are even more illogical than Amaranth and its Edicts, she thought, and said aloud "Stop that. You really want another trip to the medical bay?"
She held him, not ungently, as the pain began to subside, and, with a sigh, opened his chestplate and had a look at the new damages. His hand came up and touched her shoulder. "Please," he gasped. "You helped me...you saved me. You have to help Megatron."
From what Prime and the Autobots had told her about the Decepticon leader, the universe wouldn't really miss him. "He cast you out," she said gently. "Why do you want to help him?"
Thundercracker turned his face away. "He's my leader. I swore an oath."
Alirion sighed. "Come on, let's get you back to med bay, Ratchet will want to check those circuits." She helped him up.
Chaos reigned aboard the Dark Matter. Since Thundercracker's undignified exit, things had gone from bad to worse to downright apocalyptic. Besides Soundwave's cassettes, the only Decepticon still untouched by the strange plague was Starscream himself. There had been some satisfaction in it for him, after Megatron's dramatic collapse, in walking the corridors of the ship he now commanded. However, since there was no one around to command, Starscream had quickly lost his enthusiasm for the situation.
It had all happened so suddenly. He had known there was something wrong with Megatron, of course, they all did; but none of them was prepared for it when the Decepticon leader paused in mid-tirade (a tirade which had been punctuated with fits of coughing which were starting to bring up spatters of liquid energon), swayed, clutched at the console for support and crashed to the floor. The noise he made as he went down seemed louder than it should have been, as if more than just a robot was falling.
They had all stared, frozen, for a moment, before Soundwave hurried to kneel by his master's side. Megatron's optics had been dim and flickering, and a spreading pool of energon fluid seeped from the corner of his mouth. Starscream remembered feeling a wholly alien stab of fear. He had never seen Megatron this bad before—it had been bad, but never like this, and Starscream had wondered if his leader was really going to die. He couldn't, of course. Megatron was, well, Megatron; he couldn't possibly die, he'd never go away. He was eternal.
Soundwave had lifted Megatron in his arms and carried him to the Dark Matter's excuse for a medical bay. It wasn't long afterwards that Soundwave himself began to show the signs of it, and after him it was as if a dam had broken: Decepticon after Decepticon came down with raging cases of the Mystery Fever from Space. He remembered the cosmic rust fiasco with a shudder. Megatron's own stupid fault, again. Like this.
Starscream flopped into the command chair and stared glumly out into the blackness. He wished he'd never gone on this stupid mission—apparently Soundwave or Shockwave, one of them, had picked up some weird distress call out in the edges of the galaxy, and Megatron had insisted they go check it out; whoever was in trouble might have some supplies they could plunder. Starscream had said at the time that it was a waste of time, but when had Megatron ever listened to him? Of course they'd found nothing but a fading ion signature letting them know that energy had been expended here. They had turned about and begun the voyage back home, but it hadn't been two cycles before Megatron had retreated to his quarters, complaining of a headache.
Absently, he queried the Dark Matter's computers, trying to find out whatever he could about the sector of space from which the signal had originated. Perhaps he could find out where this crazy disease came from.
I bet the Autoscum are behind this, he thought to himself. I'd bet a warehouse full of energon cubes that this is their fault. They must've set up the decoy signal and then contaminated the area with some kind of fast-acting pathogen…
He frowned. The computers were telling him something had rippled space-time fairly hard within the past nine cycles; there were expanding waves of temporal instability radiating out from a point in space not far from where they'd given up and turned around. He thought hard for a moment and then slammed a fist down on the console, denting it. How could we have missed it? It must have come through the Gate, whatever it was—and been vaporized…
Starscream got up and started pacing. The Pelleas Gate was part of a network of controlled wormhole stations around the universe. The Gates were controlled by a central administration based on the world of Amaranth, several million lightyears away, and clearance to pass through the Gates was required for any kind of shipment, from single craft to massive generation cargo ships. Which meant that there should be a record of what had come through the Pelleas Gate recently.
Why the slagging hell didn't I think of that before? he wondered sourly, rubbing at his temples to dislodge a sullen ache. It's getting cold in here…maybe the lifeplant's got the Mystery Disease as well. He paused by a viewport and stared out at the void. I wonder if we're going to make it home.
Or if we'll find any help when we get there.
Starscream shook off the thought and went back to the command console, putting through a comm transmission to the Pelleas Gate station. It took a long time, and when he finally did get a response, the transmission came through a wailing, moaning hiss as if the ghosts of all the beings that had died in that space were registering their discontent as one.
"Dark Matter to Pelleas Gate," he said, feeling as if he might need to have his oxygen filters looked at; there was a kind of heavy pain in his oxygen system, as if he had a blockage somewhere. "Come in, Pelleas Gate."
More wailing, then "Pelleas Gate. State your identification and allegiance."
Starscream sighed. "Decepticon shuttle XK104, Dark Matter, en route from sector 34 to Cybertron. I need records of all the shipments passed through the Gate in the last ten cycles."
Pelleas Gate snorted, audible over the background noise. "Negatory, Dark Matter, that information is classified."
"You don't understand," Starscream snarled. "I have reason to believe that something came through the Gate that has infected my entire crew and is possibly going to result in deactivation, so I need to know what it was."
Pelleas Gate was silent for a moment. "Your craft entered the area within sixty hekamarks of the coordinates 45.32.82?"
"Affirmative." Starscream tried to clear his filters, unsuccessfully.
"Hold the channel, Dark Matter." There was a click, but the channel stayed live. Starscream sat back in the chair, feeling worse. What on Cybertron are they doing?
After what felt like half a cycle Pelleas Gate came back. "Dark Matter, information release has been authorized on an emergency basis. A starcraft containing contaminated personnel and equipment from the planetoid of Delta Hadron was given permission to Gate through to this sector. Said starcraft was destroyed upon arrival due to a change in authorization. Unknown pathogen, repeat, unknown pathogen thought to be destroyed in the fireball along with the ship and its crew."
Starscream winced. It most certainly hadn't been destroyed.
Pelleas Gate paused, and then continued. "Under Amaranthine Accord 35,228 we are placing your ship and all aboard it under quarantine. Do not attempt to dock. Repeat, do not attempt to dock. Any contaminated individuals attempting to enter spaceports will be summarily deactivated."
"What about my crew?" And me.
"Await further instructions," said the Gate, and signed off with a click.
Starscream stared at the dark comm light and felt the first stab of real, cold, sickening fear.
Back at the base, with the Ark II docked and the considerable medical and technological capabilities of First Aid's and Ratchet's infirmary at their disposal, the Autobots had their first really good look at what Alirion carried in her recirc fluids. First Aid was astonished at what he and Perceptor found out.
"It's…quite unlike anything I've ever seen in the Cybertronian physiology," Perceptor explained, badly. They were standing in Prime's office. The Autobot leader was regarding them with his arms folded, expressionless. "It's much closer to the human immune system response to a bacterial pathogen than to any of our self-repair systems."
"What he means, Prime," interjected First Aid, "is that, in response to the infection, Alirion's body somehow produced these nanorobotic…cells, I suppose you'd call them…and these nanobots attached themselves to the circulating particles of the disease carrier and deactivated them. That's how she was able to help Thundercracker." He handed Prime a magnified shot of the nanobot objects and their attachments to the pathogen, which itself resembled nothing so much as a spiked ball containing a network of filaments. The nanobots, which looked more like minuscule chips of silicon, half-covered these spiked balls and prevented them from rupturing and discharging their filaments. "From what we can make out," First Aid continued, "these filaments are what produces the systemic shutdown. They clog the filters in the fuel, fluid, lube and oxygen circuits and eventually cause irreversible circuit damage as they prevent energy flow across synapses."
Prime nodded curtly. "Why was Alirion able to produce these nanorobots?"
"I think," said Alirion, detaching herself from the doorframe against which she had been leaning, "it's because of the Matrix."
Both Perceptor and First Aid jumped and turned to look at her. "How long have you been standing there?" Perceptor demanded.
"Not long. I heard my name as I went down the hall." She came forward into Prime's office and picked up the image of her nanobots. "I think," she continued, ignoring the stares of all three Autobots, "that my self-repair system was able to generate these things because of the influence of the Matrix's energy. I carried a chunk of the same material that became your Matrix," she added, for the benefit of Perceptor and First Aid. "My Shard was nowhere near as powerful as your Matrix, but it had the same effects on me. I have to assume that it was Matrix energy, or Matrix radiation, that altered my body to produce this stuff."
First Aid rubbed at his chin. "A mutation," he mused. "Perhaps."
Optimus Prime met Alirion's gaze and nodded, almost imperceptibly. Whatever could be done to halt the disease must be done quickly; they had quarantined the base once the Ark II had docked, and more cases were appearing every cycle. First Aid had put them on supportive therapy, but without a definitive cure, they would die.
"The nanobots are capable of deactivating this thing," said Alirion. "First Aid, I want you to take out as much of my circ fluid as you can. I think it may be our best shot at stopping the disease."
First Aid stared at her. "You…what?"
"She's right," said Prime, quietly. "You have to use her fluid—and mine—to protect the rest of us. If the Matrix is able to protect her against infection, it will protect me. You, on the other hand—" he glanced from the scientist to the medic—"are vulnerable."
Perceptor blinked, running the concept through several microsecond-long iterations. "It could work," he said. "Your self-repair systems should be able to keep producing the nanobots, but this will be an awful drain on you."
First Aid turned to Prime. "What are we calling this disease, anyway?"
Optimus Prime tilted his head. "I don't know," he said. "I suppose it ought to have a name other than the Delta Hadron disease. Any ideas?"
"The research facility where it was created was named Nadirak," said Alirion. "Nadirak 12 Biocybernetic Research Center."
"As good a name as any," said Prime. He rose, towering over them. "Come on. If we're going to do this, we need to start now."
The sickbay was half-full. Most of the Autobots were in the early stages of the disease, suffering from acute cerebral circuit overloads and equilibrium disturbances, but a few—Bumblebee and Hot Rod among them—had developed more severe symptoms. First Aid led them down the aisle toward two empty recharge couches. Optimus Prime paused by Hot Rod's bed, resting a gentle hand on the young Autobot's forehead. Hot Rod stirred and moaned weakly, blue optics flickering. "…Prime?" he wheezed.
"Yes, Hot Rod," said his leader. "Relax. We're going to fix you. Everything will be fine."
Prime sighed. "I know, kid. You'll feel better soon. I promise."
Hot Rod slipped back into unconsciousness, and Prime, vast blue hands curled into fists, strode down the aisle to join the others. "Let's do it," he said, in a voice which brooked no contradiction.
Alirion watched as First Aid opened his leader's chest, revealing the pulsing blue glow of the Matrix, and then had to look away; it reminded her too strongly of what she had lost in the starfire outside the Pelleas Gate. No one else can understand, she thought dully. No one else knows what it's like to have felt that power, that extraordinary power, and to have lost it again. It's like losing your vision, or your ability to transform.
She lay back on the recharge couch and waited. First Aid finished with Prime, setting up a collection system for the faintly luminous blue liquid that flowed down the tube from his chest, and came over to her couch. "It won't hurt," he said.
"I know," she told him with a bit of a smile.
"I'm not going to take much," he said. "I don't want to deplete you too far."
Alirion closed her hand around his wrist. "You have to," she said simply. "I don't know what the effective dose of my fluid is. We need as much as you can get. Just hook me up to a drip when you're done, and I'll recover. Probably."
First Aid didn't look happy, but he nodded once. She lay back again and regarded the ceiling, waiting for the low ache of the drain to become the grey fog of semiconsciousness.
Amaranth had spoken. The officials in charge of the Pelleas Gate station would not be held responsible for the release of the unknown pathogen, which had been given the temporary designation DHX-1. The fault was found to lie solely with the commander of the craft which had attempted to pass through the Gate—on record as one Alirius Primatrix, CIC of the group of Victron Guardians stationed at Pelleas to patrol the area and keep the Gate safe. It was noted in the official report that Primatrix had demonstrated severely poor judgment in making planetfall on Delta Hadron in the first place, and had committed a hostile act against her own allegiance in bringing the infected ship through the Gate. The administrator who had made the decision to blast the infected ship out of existence was given a commendation, despite the fact that his action had in fact not stopped the spread of DHX-1; he had acted, according to the report, with courage and swiftness deserving of a reward.
It took the Pelleas Gate station almost half a cycle to stop clapping one another on the back and remarking on how clever they were before someone raised the question of what was to be done about DHX-1, now that it was out.
"It is under control," said the chief administrator, green optics glaring at the subordinate who had dared to question him. "Exposed parties are under strict quarantine."
"You're just going to let that Decepticon shuttle rot out there?"
"Appropriate measures will be taken to decontaminate and investigate the shuttle," said the administrator. "A team of viral specialists from Amaranth is on its way to contain the pathogen."
"But," the dissenter prompted, "you don't know anything about it, how it spreads, if there's a cure, how far it's already moved from the point of origin…"
"A team of viral specialists," repeated his superior, "is on its way from Amaranth. I might remind you that your energon break has been over for ten minutes now, Sinewave."
Sinewave shut his mouth with a snap and left the command center. The other administrators and technicians watched him go, then turned back to their chief administrator, who was radiating self-importance in an almost visible wavelength. "Back to work, the rest of you," he said, but the command was tempered by a grin. He didn't have to worry about mysterious viruses: his Gate had been cleared by the investigation of any responsibility for the incident, and the Amaranthine virologists would clean up after the vaporized traitor Primatrix. All was for the best in this best of all possible universes.
He walked down to his office and poured himself a beaker of energon, rubbing absently at his temples; all of a sudden there seemed to be some overheating circuits somewhere, or maybe a wire had frayed. He could probably use a checkup.
Starscream had found that concentrated energon—the stuff they called heavy energon, served in all decent bars wherever Cybertronians met to get hammered—staved off the pain and dizziness a little. He was sitting in Megatron's command chair with a thermal covering around his shoulders, shaking as his thermal regulators fluctuated wildly; his core temp was currently much lower than it should be, and he was feeling the effects. Pelleas Gate had refused any further communication, cutting the channel as soon as they made the ID of the caller, and he had tried to contact the Decepticon base with no more success. He was dead in space.
Rumble had succumbed earlier, his normally irritating boisterous manner subdued, and announced to Starscream that he was going to go curl up in a heap of spare parts and hope to be deactivated. Starscream didn't have the energy to do much more than nod. He had his own problems.
It just seemed so stupid to have lived this long, won this many battles, seen so many times and places, friends and enemies, just to die alone in space of some slagging virus. He hadn't ever given much thought to his own deactivation; he was always more interested in the deactivations of others. He wished vaguely that he could have been killed in action, doing something worthwhile and glorious, instead of huddling in a pilot's chair, alternately freezing, burning, and coughing up his oxygen filters. Such a waste of a brilliant, handsome, accomplished Decepticon.
He shrugged off the thermal covering as his temperature suddenly jerked upwards again, letting his optic circuits phase out. Maybe it wouldn't hurt too much to die. He could only hope.
Alirion lay like a statue on the recharge couch, blue liquid slowly dripping down the tube attached to her central circ fluid system. First Aid and Ratchet had already tried using her fluids to help the worst cases of Nadirak, and it seemed to be working. Hot Rod, who had been in a coma for some time, was beginning to get some colour back, and Sunstreaker and Sideswipe were bitching loudly about being bored and wanting to get up and work.
Neither of the two medics were particularly interested in their pleas. Ratchet leaned over and checked the flow of liquid through the feed tube into Optimus Prime's chest; the Autobot leader had given all he could give, his larger body providing far more of the inoculant than Alirion could, and had lapsed into unconsciousness as they transfused the fluid he had lost to help his troops. Neither Ratchet nor First Aid had ever attempted anything remotely like this before, but it seemed to be working nonetheless. Alirion's theory of cross-filter-membrane infection appeared to be borne out by the experiments Ratchet and Perceptor had been conducting, however, and the medics agreed that once this was over, cybermedicine would have undergone considerable improvement.
First Aid picked up a tray of vials as Perceptor finished filling them, each containing a few ccs of the Nadirak antibody, and began to make his way down the ward, fitting the vials one by one into the drip feed for each patient. He wasn't feeling optimal himself—he was dead weary, and he felt the kind of low ache in his chest that meant his energy level was dropping too fast—but put it down to simple fatigue. Got to keep going. Got to help them all.
Sideswipe propped himself up on an elbow as First Aid went past. "When are you gonna let me out of here?" he demanded. "C'mon, I feel fine now." His brother Sunstreaker had been released from the medical bay a little earlier, and Sideswipe was now a great deal easier to deal with: when he'd still been worrying about Sunstreaker, both First Aid and Ratchet had been hard put to not sedate him into silence.
First Aid sighed, bending over Bumblebee, who lay next to him. "Your energy levels are still not within optimal range," he said. "Just rest, okay?" He passed on down the row of recharge beds, distributing the—for lack of a better word—drug.
Sideswipe folded his arms and scowled at the ceiling. "Is anyone keeping an eye on that Decepticreep?"
Beside him, Hot Rod coughed dryly. "I haven't seen him since we were on the shuttle," he said. "Granted, I got sick right after he arrived, and I don't remember much."
"He's still in the base, I guess," the Lamborghini mused. "I don't like the thought of a 'Con running loose in here with us."
"Assuming he's able to run at all."
"Eh, he seemed fine to me. Once Alirion gave him that stuff, he perked right up."
Hot Rod turned his head to look over at the two mechs lying still under the great lights, vital fluids slowly dripping back into their bodies. "What's going to happen to them?"
First Aid paused, on his way back. "They're going to be fine," he said a little too brightly. "We're all going to be fine."
"Are you okay?" Hot Rod said curiously, raising himself on an elbow. "You look kind of…dizzy."
"I'm fine," the Protectobot assured him, absently holding on to a dripstand for balance. "Relax, Hot Rod. Get some rest." He continued on his way. Behind his back Hot Rod and Sideswipe shared a knowing look.
"I give him a cycle," said Sideswipe. "Watch, he'll start coughing soon."
"Sideswipe, that's mean. He should take more care of himself."
"Course he should, kid. But you see what I mean?" Hot Rod sighed.
"You think the anti-Nadirak could stop the infection before it starts?
"Don't ask me, I'm no cyberbiologist. But hey, if it fixes it now, it might fix it before it becomes necessary." Sideswipe lay back and laced his fingers behind his head. "Primus, what I wouldn't give to see this happening to the Decepticons."
Hot Rod blinked. "Sideswipe."
"Maybe it is happening to the Decepticons."
Sinewave had found what he was looking for. In the secondary control room of the Pelleas Gate station, the backup computers held records of all craft passing through the area surrounding the gate, as well as officially sanctioned transports through it. If he could find out who else—besides the doomed Decepticon shuttle—had been in the area when the infected ship came through, he might conceivably be able to help the Amaranthine virologists contain the danger. If they ever got here.
He scrolled through hundreds of coordinates, dates, and ID profiles, until he found the correct time and cycle. Two craft. Not one. The Dark Matter—a ghost ship by now, surely, if what he'd been able to learn about DHX-1 had been accurate—and the Ark II. An Autobot shuttle. En route to Cybertron.
Sinewave sat back in the chair and rubbed his optics. The Cybertronians didn't stand a chance.
Alirion came online slowly, senses reactivating one by one. Her optics flickered to life; by the quality of the light coming through the vast glasteel windows of the bay, it was late afternoon. She sat up slowly. It hurt.
Beside her, Optimus Prime lay still as death on his recharge bed, optics dark. The only sign of life she could make out was the slow, steady sinewave on the monitor screen, representing the beat of his energon pump. Higher cerebral functions were offline. A cold splash of fear ran down her musclecables; had her idea hurt Prime permanently? Would she be responsible, not only for bringing Nadirak into the galaxy, but also for the removal of the Autobots' leader from command? Oh, brilliant, she thought. I'm going to go down in history as the most ineffective and incompetent leader ever.
"He's all right," said Ratchet, quietly. Alirion jumped a little and turned to see him standing with his arms folded, watching her. "He's been out for several hours, but the pump's stronger, and we've almost finished the transfusion of mechfluid. He gave more than you did."
"He's bigger than me," she said, absently, still staring at the silent hulk of Prime. Ratchet nodded.
"Where is everybody?" she asked, looking down the rows of empty beds. Here and there a few patients still remained, but this was a far cry from the packed med bay she'd last seen. "Where's First Aid?"
"He's got it," said Ratchet. "Not bad, and we gave him the cure immediately; he's just got a headache and some minor equilibrium dysfunction."
"You've got to give it to everybody," Alirion said urgently. "Anyone who could have come in contact with it. Otherwise it's just going to keep spreading…"
"Relax," said Ratchet. "You've been out for longer than you think. We finally twigged that your anti-Nadirak nanobots could in fact be used as a—what's the Terran word?—a vaccine—and that we could put together something kind of similar, a synthetic, in the labs. I've had Perceptor working on it as soon as he was well enough, and we think we can perfect it within a few cycles."
Something was kicking her cybernetic brain. "Ratchet."
"What about the Decepticons?"
"What about them?" Ratchet repeated. She slid off the recharge couch, stretching.
"Well—Thundercracker told me that he had been cast out because he had Nadirak—but his leader, Magnetron or whatever the slag his name is—had it too, and it was spreading."
"Megatron," Ratchet corrected absently, looking thoughtful.
"I like Magnetron better. Anyway, has anyone heard from them? Shouldn't we try to get the anti-Nadirak to them, if it's not too late?"
Ratchet sighed. "The Decepticons don't really shriek for help from us. They did it once before, when Megatron had managed to contract a nasty cybernetic plague, but they secured our help by kidnapping Perceptor." He stretched a bit, easing tight muscle cables in his shoulders. "I'm not particularly thrilled at the idea of going through that again."
Alirion nodded, slowly. "I can imagine. But...you can't just let them die."
"No," said a weak but familiar voice from behind them, "we can't."
Both of them turned to see Optimus Prime sitting up and rubbing his optics wearily. "We have to get in contact with the Decepticons and offer our help. If they refuse it, it's their own lookout."
Ratchet hurried over to his leader. "Prime, just lie still, rest, you're still depleted..."
Prime chuckled a little. "I'm fine," he said. "Your concern is appreciated, however. Where is Thundercracker?"
Almost reluctantly, Ratchet said, "In the temporary guest quarters. He's been very, ah, quiet. Seldom comes out into the base."
Alirion sighed. "Well," she said, "let's try and make contact with the enemy, shall we?"
When the comm light blinked on, it took Starscream almost a minute to realize what it meant. Empty heavy-energon cubes littered the floor and console around his chair; his equilibrium was well and truly shot, his optics seemed to be registering double images, and for the first time in cycles he was feeling no pain at all.
Eventually he reached out an unsteady hand and opened the comm channel. "What?" he slurred. "Can't a guy just die in peace?"
There was a pause, then a female voice he didn't recognize came on the line. "Decepticon shuttle Dark Matter, do you require assistance?"
"I require another drink," Starscream told the voice with ineffable dignity. "Who're you?"
Another pause. Then the voice of a ghost, which made Starscream sit bolt upright in the chair and drop his energon cube. "Is that you, Starscream?" it said.
"Yeah, it's me," said Thundercracker. "You sound pretty bad. What's the situation on board?"
Starscream was beginning to wish he hadn't had quite so much heavy energon. "Slagging horrible," he said. "They're all out. Mighty Megatron's out, and he looks like he's ready for the scrap heap. I'm the only one left...heh...'m in control...."
"Starscream," said his wingmate firmly, "give me your coordinates."
"You're dead," Starscream pointed out. "Why do you care?"
"I'm not dead. Trust me on that. We've....that is, the Autobots...have figured out a cure for this disease."
Starscream scowled and tossed the empty energon cube at the viewport; it bounced off harmlessly. "Autoscum," he said.
"I know, but they saved my life when they picked me up, and they can help us. Just tell me where you are."
"I dunno, somewhere in space," Starscream mumbled and began to cough, hard, feeling blocked filters shift and delicate connections rip with the force of his coughing. Energon spattered from his mouth, and he wiped it away with the back of his hand, fighting down the spasms, peering at the digital readout of the Dark Matter's position. "Says....sector 45-29-72." He was beginning to feel sick.
"All right," said Thundercracker, sounding worried. Oddly worried; there had never been much love lost between the blue Seeker and his wing commander. "Hang on. We'll be there soon."
Starscream cut the connection and all of a sudden had to lurch out of the chair and bend over as his body rejected the overload of heavy energon, bringing it up and out of him in a violent spasm. Not since he'd been a cocky young flyer in the Academy had he experienced energon regurgitation, and it was just as awful as he remembered it. He moaned, wiping the stuff from his mouth, and curled up in his leader's chair, more miserable than he had ever been in his life.
The Autobot shuttle took off from the base as soon as enough of the synthetic vaccine had been created to treat the entire Decepticon crew—always assuming that they were all still alive. Thundercracker and Silverbolt were in the cockpit; Prime, Alirion, Ratchet, First Aid and Perceptor rode in the passenger compartment, carefully talking only about technical specifications for the doses of anti-Nadirak, not about the fact that they were on their way to save the beings who had devoted the last several million years to destroying them. Alirion, the only disinterested observer, kept her mouth firmly shut.
"Prime," said Perceptor again, as he had done three times already, "do you think it's wise to go in there without more firepower? I mean, a whole shipful of Decepticons against seven of us? Six of us, I mean, and Thundercracker?"
Optimus Prime rested his chin on his hand. "Perceptor, you've had Nadirak. You know what it feels like, what it does to you. If they've all got it, they're going to pose about as much threat as a troop of marshmallows. Relax."
Alirion hid a smile. "Besides, you've all got weaponry, anyway," she said. "If they try anything we can always threaten to shoot Thundercracker."
"You forget that Megatron was the one who chucked Thundercracker out into the void in the first place," Ratchet remarked. "I doubt Thundercracker's worth as a hostage is very high."
"The more I learn about the Decepticons," she said dryly, "the less I believe we're doing this. Really...I mean wouldn't it just be simpler to let Nadirak take care of your civil war for you?"
"We don't work that way," said Prime, quietly. She subsided.
"I can't believe you never encountered the Cons before," said Ratchet, looking at her thoughtfully. "I mean, the war has been going on for what, billions of years now..."
"I'm fairly young," said Alirion. "The Guardians were created a couple thousand years ago by a scientist who had the brilliant idea of working with, not against, Amaranth. In those days Amaranth wasn't half as powerful as it is now; the bureaucracy hadn't spread out to these sectors of the galaxy. We built the Gates—the first one was Tannhauser, close to Amaranth itself—all the way out to Pelleas, and the Gate beyond it. Then we protected the Gates. That's all we did; that's what we were for."
"Amaranth," mused Prime. "The Universal Government seems to be getting more active every year. We've had six edicts already regulating aerospace clearances and weaponry from Amaranth—which has never been involved in the Cybertronian wars, never signed a treaty with Cybertron, and has no idea what is involved."
"The Amaranthine accords are a pain in the circuits," said Perceptor. "Everything's paperwork, everything has to be documented..."
"The administration of the Pelleas Gate," said Alirion levelly, "which is directly subordinate to the Undersecretary for Intercontinuum Transportation and Travel on Amaranth, made the choice to allow me and my crew through the Gate, then destroyed my ship with several refugees and my crew aboard. I was the only survivor."
The Autobots—with the exception of Prime, who had heard her story before—stared. Alirion gave them a little smile. "So I'm not a staunch supporter of central government." She shrugged. "Not that I can do anything about it."
The door whished open and Thundercracker poked his head in. "Sorry," he said. "Optimus Prime, there's a communication in the cockpit that you need to answer."
Prime got up and followed Thundercracker back to the command consoles of the shuttle, trailed by everybody else. Silverbolt, at the pilot's controls, looked up. "Prime," he said. "It's the Pelleas Gate station. They want to speak with you."
Alirion's optics widened a bit, then narrowed again. She stepped to one side, out of range of the comlink video.
Prime flicked open the channel. "Optimus Prime speaking," he said. Tension rose gently in the air as they waited for the Gate to reply.
"This is a warning message," said a metallic, toneless voice. "You are entering a prohibited zone. Turn back immediately."
Prime sighed. "Prohibited due to what?" he inquired.
"Classified. I repeat, turn back now. Failure to comply will result in military intervention."
"Listen," said Prime evenly, "my crew is not entering this area to break your rules. We are on our way to save the lives of a shuttle crew who we have reason to believe are in trouble."
"No craft may enter this zone," said the implacable voice.
"They're dying. Our mission is simply to get in, give them the cure they need, and tow the shuttle home."
"Negatory," said the voice. "No craft may exit the restricted zone under Amaranthine Accord Decree number 230029. Any attempts to leave this zone will result in deactivation."
Thundercracker was staring at the floor. Alirion reached out, almost let her hand touch the edge of his wing, but pulled back.
"I'm not going to leave them there to die," said Optimus Prime, and Alirion found herself hearing the same words coming from her own lips, on the doomed Starjammer. "I cannot stand idly by while beings are dying of a disease to which I have the cure."
This time Pelleas Gate paused before replying. "The pathogen is under control," it said. "The situation is in the capable hands of a team of Amaranthine virologists."
"Who aren't here," Prime countered. "And I am, with my antiviral. You may well find yourself needing my help, soon enough." He cut the connection.
Silence fell and bounced once or twice. Then, slowly, Thundercracker turned to Prime.
"You're doing this?" he asked, quietly, stunned. "You're setting yourself and your army up for military attack by the Amaranthine government—to save the Decepticons?"
Optimus Prime regarded the Decepticon jet for a long moment, arms folded. "Sometimes," he said, "rules are made to be broken."
On the distant planet of Amaranth, an artificial world built from the core outwards of complicated and technologically advanced metal and glass structures, a man stared at a computer screen with disbelief writ large on his face.
Axon read the summons again, out loud, tasting the words. "You are hereby commanded to appear in your official capacity as an expert virological epidemiologist at the Pelleas Gate transport station to assist in the containment and assessment of an unknown pathogen currently known to affect transforming robotic life forms." He fell into his chair, staring at the screen. "They want me to go to Pelleas Gate to work on a bug that affects robots?"
His daughter Ligeia, already—although only seventeen—working in the office of the Most Honourable Over-Secretary of Health, came up behind him. "Daddy, this is a great chance for you," she said. "This is your chance to prove yourself as a scientist. This could make your career."
Axon sighed and put his hand over hers on his shoulder. "As what?" he asked. "Under-Under-Vice-Secretarial Assistant of Sector-23 Robotic Virology?"
Ligeia's hand stiffened and withdrew. "Daddy, you mustn't say things like that. You know the Bureaucracy is the best thing that ever happened to the galactic federation."
"Yes," said Axon dully, "of course I do. Go on, sweetheart. You don't want to be late for work."
After she had gone, radiating teenaged disapproval, he read the summons a few more times, committing it to memory, and then packed the few things he would need in a kitbag. Equipment was going to be the biggest problem; from what he knew about the outlier Gates, they were about as advanced as a ten-year-obsolete refuse removal droid. No gas chromatograph, no PCR, no powerful microscopes. He'd have to do the best he could.
On the flight out, approaching the Tannhauser Gate, he ordered his datapad to tell him as much as possible about the transformer-robot Guardians' physiology; what kind of oxygen intake did they have—did they need oxygen?—what systems were affected by this putative virus would need his deep understanding if he was going to have any chance at all of being helpful. He knew next to nothing about the Guardians: they were merely another invention of Amaranth's science corps, built and designed to staff the Gate system and defend it, much more cheaply and reliably than humans could.
It never even occurred to him that Amaranth had sent him out to Pelleas to see if humanoids could contract this virus. If it was limited to the Cybertronians and their fellow robotics, then it wouldn't do Amaranth any harm at all, in more than one sense. If, however, it could attack organic humanoids, then Amaranth's Health Secretariat would need to spend a great deal of time and money on making sure it died out. They wouldn't lose much if Axon died out in the galactic hinterlands, so he had been sent.
Axon leant his head back against the seat, and went to sleep.
"Is Amaranth really going to attack us?" First Aid wanted to know.
"I don't know," said Prime. "I expect so. I shouldn't worry about that now, First Aid, I'm going to need you at your best when we get aboard the Dark Matter. Are all the bays prepared?"
Ratchet, behind First Aid, nodded. "We got it all set up. All we have to do is board their ship and carry them on out." The two medics, with Perceptor's help, had been busy for the past few hours getting the ship's medical bay ready for the Decepticons. The Dark Matter had come into view a little while ago, a motionless hulk hanging in space like so many tons of asteroid-junk, the only lights visible burning in the command module. It looked like a ghost ship, Alirion thought, staring out the viewport at the Decepticon shuttle. Would there still be anything on board capable of being saved?
"All right," said Prime. He touched his comlink. "Thundercracker, Silverbolt. Bring us in."
The shuttle turned smoothly and approached the Dark Matter. Alirion had time to think how remarkably good Silverbolt and Thundercracker were at flying unwieldy ships like this one before they reached the docking bay and made contact, engaging the docking hooks with a faint clang.
Prime looked at his troops. The two pilots locked down the ship and came to join the rest of the team: Alirion, First Aid, Ratchet, Perceptor, and Prime himself. The Autobot leader nodded once.
"Let's do it," he said.
The first thing any of them noticed was the smell: a kind of sharp unpleasant smell Alirion associated with spilled mechfluid, at once metallic and harsh. Perceptor exclaimed and raised a hand to his olfactory receptors. He was the only one; everyone else just looked a trifle grimmer. Thundercracker took the lead.
"They'll either be in sickbay or in their quarters," he said, voice modulator rasping a bit. No one spoke; they could all tell how painful this was for the Decepticon. They hurried after him down the darkened corridors, similar to those on their own ships, but subtly different; the design was simpler, with less attention paid to the aesthetic nature of the fittings. The Dark Matter's systems had been ramped way down, using less energy; the corridors were lit only by the dim glow of the ceiling panels and the red-green LEDs of individual lock mechanisms.
Thundercracker led them up to the cockpit. Empty energon cubes littered the floor, some crushed, some not, and there was a sour tang to the air. At first they thought the room was empty, but as Alirion and Thundercracker approached the consoles, Thundercracker's foot clicked against one of the empty cubes, and it clattered across the floor. There was a low moan, and the command chair slowly turned to face them.
All the Autobots stared, jaws dropping. Thundercracker, who had some idea of what he would be seeing, merely stiffened. The Decepticon Aerospace Commander half-lay in Megatron's chair, optics terribly dim, a thin line of energon trickling from the corner of his mouth. A puddle of slightly diluted spilled energon—Alirion recognized it as the hard stuff, heavy energon of the sort that generally gave you one fuck of a hangover the next day—had spread on the floor beside the chair, and she knew he must have been sick. All of her desire to damage Starscream seemed to have dribbled out of her, like oil.
Starscream moaned again, coughing, and managed to push himself upright from the chair. He clearly had little or no equilibrium control left, but he had just about enough strength left to hold his hands out in what looked like a gesture of supplication. Despite herself, Alirion moved forward. The others were still frozen in shock, seeing an enemy they'd fought for centuries in such dire straits.
The Decepticon began coughing again and pressed his hands to his chest, face twisted in agony. His optics flared ruby-red, bright enough to outline the sensor points, and faded again as he staggered, and Alirion was only just strong enough to catch him as he fell forward, limp and unconscious, against her. She staggered with the weight. His metal skin was burning hot.
The others' paralysis seemed to ease suddenly with Starscream's collapse, and Thundercracker helped her ease Starscream down to the floor. He lay like a crumpled heap of metal angles, optics dark. "Get a stretcher," Alirion snapped. "If the others are as bad as him, we've got to hurry."
Ratchet, Silverbolt and First Aid nodded and hurried off back to the ship. Thundercracker remained kneeling by his wingmate for a moment, and Prime rested a gentle hand on his shoulder. "He's going to be okay," the Autobot leader told him. "You were worse off than he is when we found you."
Thundercracker nodded absently, as if he hadn't been listening. He got up, accepting Prime's help, and jerked his head toward the corridor. "The medical bay," he said. "They must all be there."
Prime lifted the unconscious Starscream in his arms. "Come on, then," he said. "Let's do what we came to do."
The scene in the Decepticon medical bay made Alirion think of the aftermath of the few battles she'd fought for the Gate; limp bodies, mostly ashy grey like scrap hulks, lay sprawled and dark-eyed on the recharge couches and on the floor. Spilled mechfluid tainted the air.
She couldn't help feeling the shock and horror that Thundercracker was trying to hide. Despite all the accounts of the Decepticons' villainy, Alirion found herself moving forward into the room, motivated by an irrational and powerful need to help. The others reappeared with the stretchers, and began ferrying Decepticons to the ready-prepared mobile hospital on the Autobot shuttle. Thundercracker murmured their names to Alirion, one by one, as they were carried out: "
"Where is he?" said Alirion quietly. "Your leader."
Prime, in the corner of the chamber, straightened up. "Right here."
Both Alirion and Thundercracker joined him at the last recharge bed, where a powerfully-built silver-white Transformer lay half-on, half-off the bed, curled around an immense fusion cannon. His optics, below the pale helmet, were dead and black.
"Is he...?" Thundercracker began. Prime lifted Megatron from his bed, the body of his mortal enemy lying limp and helpless in his grip. The fusion cannon, mounted on his right arm, pointed uselessly at the floor. Alirion mused that Prime could easily tear Megatron limb from limb now, and end the war, if he so chose.
"I don't know," said Prime quietly, over Alirion's head. "We'll see."
Thundercracker followed him as he stalked down the hall, and Alirion took another look around before joining them. There was something terrible and awesome about the picture they made: the tall red, white and blue robot bearing the body of the pale and deadly one, a millennial war forgotten in the immediate need to give aid.
Sinewave groaned. He had known his superiors weren't particularly clever, but he had never realized quite how ignorant they could be. After the contact had been made with the ship identified as the Autobot shuttle they had seen before on its way to Cybertron, it had immediately registered with him that a)these were the same Cybertronians who had been in the hot zone, left, survived, and returned, meaning that the disease was not necessarily fatal; and b) the one called Optimus Prime claimed to have a cure for DHX-1. However—far from investigating the putative cure any further—the Gate officials had responded like true Amaranthine administrators and called out the military. He wondered half-hysterically how long it would take before any Central armed forces arrived. They had already blown up all their own garrison of Victron defenders in their attack on the Starjammer—a fact which Sinewave considered perfectly reflective of the whole Amaranthine mindset.
No one on the station would listen to him, of course. He was a Quaestron—the branch of the Guardians dedicated to research, archiving and seeking knowledge—and as such didn't have much to do with the running of the station. He merely observed.
Staring out into the circle of space defined by the Gate's arc, Sinewave rested his forehead against the glasteel and wondered what would happen to them all. If this Optimus Prime was correct, if a cure existed, they would have to mass-produce it and distribute it to all areas of the galaxy which were at risk. Moreover, if Prime did in fact manage to save the lives of those aboard the Dark Matter, which Sinewave didn't think likely, their action against him would come up in a tribunal, and there would be even MORE paperwork. Quite likely he would be reassigned to some even more distant post and made to service intergate engines for the rest of his existence.
He contemplated this future for a moment and knocked his forehead dully against the viewport. Maybe they'd all get DHX-1. They probably deserved it.
Axon's ship hung in the emptiness of intergate space, receiving clearance to exit at Pelleas. He wondered what he'd find on the other side—there had been some odd communications through from the Gate station mentioning something about military intervention and quarantine and Cybertron. Axon didn't know a lot about the Transformers' world, beyond that it had been built like Amaranth, an artificial planet powered by a central core. The little information he had been able to dredge off the Unilink network had been concerned with some kind of war between two groups, Autobots and Decepticons, and Axon was mildly stunned to see that this war appeared to have been going on for something like nine million years. Longevity was relative, he supposed; those humans born on Amaranth had lifespans of something like a hundred and fifty standard years, which was considered considerably longer than most, but the thought of remaining alive—let alone fighting a war—for nine million years made his head spin.
"Received clearance to Gate," said the voice in his headset, and Axon lay back in the seat and watched the blank darkness expand into ordinary space. Coming out of a Gate, like going into one, was always rather terrifying; there was a moment of visceral and mental uncertainty as timespace snapped back into control of the moving body, and Axon had never really got used to it. The pilot brought his ship around smoothly to dock with the Gate station, an ugly lump of metal hulls clamped to the bottom of the Gate's arc like a dull bead on a silver hoop. Axon looked out at the starscape and wondered what exactly was out there, invisible, floating and deadly.
His protective suit might save him, of course, but there was the question of all the Gate station personnel, not to mention those inside the quarantine zone who hadn't been notified of the danger—he knew very well that communications through the Amaranth net were slow at best. Axon sighed and waited for the door to open and let him into the hot zone.
Alirion stepped through the sterilizer field—one of Ratchet's more brilliant ideas—and entered the medical bay proper, carrying a tray of instruments and replacement parts. It had not been a pleasant ride back to Cybertron, dragging the hulk of the Dark Matter with a traction linkage; several of the Decepticons had flatlined on the way, including Megatron, and they had had to use emergency stasis couches to keep them functioning until they could get back. She hadn't recharged in a cycle and a half, and her whole body ached with fatigue. Ratchet, Perceptor, and First Aid had worked with her to first administer their antiviral serum and then begin the repair jobs on their patients; system after system needed cleaning out, replacing, rewiring, resealing, and refilling. Most of the Decepticons were beginning to recover, some of them beginning to regain consciousness. Megatron, however, had not.
She walked over to the far wall of the bay, where First Aid was bent over the Decepticon leader, wrist-deep in Megatron's chest compartment with a probe in one hand and a cautery in the other. "Hey," she said gently. "I'll take over for a while. Go and get some recharge." She set down the tray of components she'd brought him and rested her hand on his shoulder. He looked up wearily.
"It's fine," he said. "I can keep going."
"No doubt you can, but your hands are starting to shake, and…" she peered into the circuitry open to the air… "you're about to cauterize an undamaged tube."
First Aid stiffened, but sighed and withdrew the instruments, slumping a little. "Slag," he muttered.
"It's all right. Just go and rest, will you, before I knock you out myself?"
He gave her a grateful, exhausted smile and relinquished his position by Megatron's bed. She bent over the pale Transformer and blinked her optics into magnification, assessing the damage. The main fuel pump filters were beyond repair, clogged with what looked like black slime; she knew that if she upped the magnification several more times she would be able to make out the filaments of the viral structure adhering to the delicate filter surfaces. His oxygen filters were likewise a mat of black goo, and the interface between oxygen intake and energon circulation had failed, leaking energon into the oxygen circuit. Primus, she thought, how is he still alive?
He was, but just barely. They'd connected him to a subsidiary life-support unit, and repaired the worst of the damage to the fuel pump and the energon conduits; now she could concentrate on the more delicate repair of filter interfaces and circuitry. Knowledge long unaccessed flickered back to life in the back of her mind, procedures and skills learned in her ample spare time during her life at the Gate. She had studied cybermedicine simply because she was bored, and she had never considered that one day she might actually have cause to remember those studies.
She reached for a probe and began to work.
…wrapped in darkness, bound in darkness…can't breathe…can't see….
should have realized before…my pride… it wasn't Thundercracker after all…should have called for help, somewhere—back at the base there might have been a chance for us…killed us all.
What does it matter now? Oh, Primus, the pain…
She straightened up. Her internal time monitor let her know that almost half a cycle had passed since she began the repair, and she felt every minute of it in her aching circuits. New filters replaced the ruined ones; carefully-melded tube sections carried life-giving energon and circ fluid, now carrying the minuscule nanobots culled from her body and from Prime's, nanobots which would halt and reverse Nadirak's effects. Megatron's life signs were a little stronger, and he had started to breathe on his own again, which was an improvement, but she didn't like his deep unresponsive coma state. It would take time to fix all that Nadirak had done to him. She just hoped it was possible.
She set his chestplate back in place and checked the energon drip before getting up and checking on the other patients. The bay was dark; Cybertron was between them and the sunstar, and she flipped on lights as she made her rounds. There was something oddly theatrical about the whole setup, she reflected. The sole female pacing the giant roomful of unconscious males; the…what was it…some ancient Terran tale she'd heard from a Quaestron back at the Gate. The lady with the lamp.
Alirion chuckled as she came to the last bed. That's me, all right—trained as a Victrix Guardian to protect an Amaranthine Gate, nursing a roomful of Decepticons in an Autobot base, and remembering a story told by some humanoid a couple thousand years before I was even created, that I have no business knowing. It is one hell of a funny galaxy.
She sat down on the edge of the recharge couch and looked at the one called Starscream. Megatron's lieutenant. The last one standing.
Looking down at him, it was hard to imagine him having done all the things she'd heard about from Prime and his Autobots. He didn't look evil. Not, of course, that the Decepticons are "evil," which doesn't actually mean anything, she reminded herself. Just a little more self-serving and destructive.
Alirion checked his vital signs; he was doing well, better than the rest of the crew. His body had responded well to the anti-Nadirak treatment; when she opened his chestplate to see if there was any residual black slime in his filters, everything looked almost clear. Astonishing, really. When you consider that he collapsed in my arms, too ill to stand up, not more than two cycles ago...
She gently resealed the plate—the canopy of his jet mode, she saw—and got up to leave. Ratchet could take the next watch, he'd had a chance to rest.
Alirion jumped a little and turned back to the bed. Starscream's optics were glowing weakly, and he turned his head to look at her. His voice rasped badly. "Who're…you?" he asked again.
She came back to the bed. "Don't talk," she told him.
His optics narrowed, focused on the Victrix Guardian symbol on her wings. "Not…Autobot," he managed. "Who…?"
"My name is Alirion," she said. "I'm a Guardian. A neutral."
"I saw you," Starscream croaked. "On the ship…you…" He broke off, coughing, looking irritated. Alirion sat down on the edge of the bed and waited for him to finish. "Slag," he muttered. "Feels like…Cosmic Rust again…"
She handed him a beaker of energon, and he drank deep, his optics brightening a little. "What in Primus's name were you doing on my ship?"
"Saving your ungrateful afterburners," Alirion told him sweetly, possessed by a sudden urge to provoke him. "Your wingmate Thundercracker will be glad you're recovering. We saved him, too, after you lot threw him out in space to die. Much good that did you."
Starscream scowled fiercely at her, optics like dim rubies in his dark face, but didn't rise to it. "Where did you come from, anyway? And why're you here?"
"That," Alirion told him, "is a long story, and you needn't look at me like that. I was stationed at the Pelleas Gate."
Starscream's optics flickered a little. "The Pelleas Gate," he repeated.
"Yes." She didn't want to get into the rest of it, not yet; he needed rest. He turned his face away.
"Where are we?"
"The Autobot base near Cybertron's second moon," she said. He scowled again, more viciously this time. It was a good scowl. Alirion was impressed. Ignoring her, he looked around the med bay, optics widening slightly as he took in the ranks of Decepticons lying hooked up to energon feeds, their lifesigns crawling over monitor screens. "Slagging hell," he breathed. "Is…anyone dead?"
"No," Alirion told him, refraining from adding "not yet." He slumped back against the recharge bed, rubbing a hand over his optics.
"He's fine. He was the one who sent us out there to get you in the first place. Not that I can see why, since you apparently gave up on him as a bad job."
Starscream's optics flared again. "It wasn't my fault," he snarled. "I didn't make the decisions. That's Megatron's job."
Alirion said nothing at all. She got up, straightening the tube that was feeding him energon, and glanced down the bay. The windows were beginning to glow faintly as the base approached the curve of Cybertron itself, still blocking sunlight. She felt more than just physically tired, as if something inside her was almost completely used up, and would be empty soon.
She turned to go, and met Thundercracker at the door. He looked down at her with uncertain red optics.
"Starscream's awake," she said. "You can talk with him for a few minutes, but don't tire him too much."
"I won't." The Decepticon jet looked at her strangely, as if he was about to say something else, but merely nodded and slipped through the door into the darkened bay.
Axon had progressed from surprise, through shock, incredulity, horror and finally fear, to a kind of fatalism. On his arrival at the Pelleas Gate station, he had been appalled to note that no measures whatsoever had been taken to protect the Gate staff from infection; no barriers or quarantine measures had been set up, and no samples had been taken either from the hot zone outside or in the station itself. When he had voiced these concerns to the chief administrative officer of the station, he had been met with blank greenish optics and the predictable statement that he, Axon, was supposed to do all that sort of thing, it wasn't their job.
He had set up a sort of jury-rigged emergency lab in one of the storage rooms of the station, using whatever equipment he could build or commandeer, and had managed to get some samples from the space surrounding the Gate to run tests on. Despite the fact that he seemed to be among seriously cerebrally challenged individuals, Axon felt that he might be able to get a handle on what DHX-1 was, in the next few cycles.
His scopes were trained on the samples he had taken—personally—and while there was a great deal of spacejunk, reading on his chromatographs as casallium tritium alloy, the stuff used as the outer skin of long-haul starcraft, he had identified several unusual objects which he thought might hold the key to DHX-1. He ramped up the magnification several more levels, and was astonished at what he saw.
Ancient Terran virology flickered through his mind. Holy Starcore, Axon thought. It looks like a human retrovirus.
It did. He had no guarantee that this particle was in fact the etiologic agent of DHX-1, but he thought the balance of probability inclined in his favour. He upped the mag level a little more and noticed that the envelope of the particles was in fact studded with spherical protruberances—which might aid the virus in its adherence to vital systemic parts. Inside the envelopes of the viral particles themselves, Axon could make out a slowly-moving tangle of black filaments. That's what it uses, he thought to himself. That's how it kills.
He sat back with a shiver, eyes tired from long hours at the scopes. It looked like something you'd see in electron micrographs of end-stage TSV patients—he closed his eyes, remembering the epidemic that had killed off thirteen colonies and terminated the Terran expansion into the neighboring galaxies. As far as he could recall, TSV—Terminal Systemic Viremia—had been the product of some awful lab accident originating on the Terran moon base. It had figured largely in his virology training.
And now there was a cybernetic analogue to TSV?
He looked closer. The viral envelope itself seemed to be constructed from some jellylike substance—proteins weren't the answer, not in a silicon-based lifeform—and inside it, the black filaments swirled and twisted in ceaseless motion. It seemed as if it had been created with one purpose: to destroy, and to destroy quickly and irreversibly, and then reproduce itself.
Axon introduced a measured sample of cybernetic circ fluid, the stuff that ran through complex branched tubing in the bodies of all sentient robots, into the sample dish. At this magnification he could easily make out the circulating bodies of the self-repair systems, a kind of platelet/leukocyte analogue which automatically drew itself to damaged areas and sealed off leaks and damaged circuitry until repairs could be effected. He could just about tell that the circ bodies were spherical, with tiny hooks extending all around their equatorial bands, and that they seemed to pulse with a dim bluish light.
The reaction of the viral particles was immediate. As soon as circ bodies came into contact with the virus, they were drawn towards, and into, the viral envelope by means of the strange external protruberances he had noticed before. The envelope appeared to extend itself into the circ body and some of the black filaments slithered from virus to host; a few seconds afterwards, the circ bodies pulsed frantically and then went dark, drifting, dead.
Axon swallowed hard. Whatever DHX-1 was, it was nasty.
Behind him, someone cleared his throat. "Looks like a cybernetic analogue of human lymphotropic retroviruses, doesn't it?"
Axon spun his chair around and found himself face to face with one of the Gate Guardians, a rather smaller and less ostentatious model than the ones he'd met already. Weary blue optics regarded him with what he thought seemed more like sympathy than contempt.
"Yes," he heard himself say, "it does. If you took HTLV-1 and recreated it to affect you...that is...cybernetic beings...it would look a lot like this. Only without the reverse transcription, so it can't make more of itself."
The Guardian came forward into the room. He looked deadly tired, Axon reflected. "Look again," he said.
Axon looked. Sure enough, the dead circ bodies were changing; expanding slowly, developing the DHX-1 protruberances. Already he could see black wormlike filaments writhing within them. "Oh, fucking hell," he said, and pushed his chair away from the scope.
"What have you managed to learn about it?" The Guardian regarded him tiredly.
"Almost nothing," said Axon dryly. "Your people seem to be less than proactive in their attempts to control and identify this pathogen."
"You have no idea," said the robot. He sat down on the floor, rubbing at his optics. "They only called you out from Amaranth to satisfy propriety. They don't believe this can be dangerous."
"Who are you?" said Axon without meaning to.
"My name is Sinewave. I'm a Quaestron."
Axon's Old Basic was rusty. "A...seeker after knowledge?"
"Something like that. Look....there's more than just the personnel of this Gate at stake."
"No one will tell me anything." Axon rubbed his eyes, wishing he was also made of duralloy steel and couldn't get so bloody tired so easily. "What really happened?"
Sinewave coughed a little, which surprised the virologist; he was still a trifle hazy on cybernetic physiology. "Excuse me. It...well, it started when our Victrix leader—she commanded the defense garrison here at the station—returned from a routine patrol mission with several biohazard victims on board. She requested clearance through the Gate to bring her to Kau Beta, where she intended to get treatment for her passengers. She put it very simply: if she did not get these individuals some help, they were going to die."
Axon drew in a long breath. He hadn't really internalized the concept that these robots truly lived, and truly died. They...He pushed away the thought. "Go on."
"The chief administrative officer gave her clearance to Gate. She brought her ship, the Starjammer, through into this sector, and as soon as she was clear of the Gate energies, the station fired on her with all it had. Her ship was vaporized, with her and her crew aboard."
"Starcore," muttered Axon. "Just like that?"
"Just like that. She was a clever and skilled soldier, and she was obeying her prime directive: preserve life as long as possible. She's dead now, she must be; there was nothing left of the Starjammer but floating slag. I expect you can see it in your samples."
"And this pathogen was released," Axon said, not telling Sinewave that he had indeed identified particles of what had been a starship once. "And no one took into account that the ship was heavily contaminated when they blew it up?"
"I think they just assumed the explosion would put paid to the virus," said Sinewave. "They were wrong."
"What else?" asked Axon, dreading the answer.
"We've had two contacts from inside what I calculate to be the hot zone," Sinewave told him. "One was a Decepticon ship. Do you know anything about the Cybertronians?"
Axon sighed, turning back to the viewports. "Only what I could lift off the Unilink on the way here. Two groups fighting for supremacy of a planet, yeah?"
"Pretty much. The civil war's gone on for millennia now. There was a brief hiatus on Cybertron because the leaders of both factions found themselves on Earth, but they've returned now, and the war goes on."
"You'd be surprised," said Sinewave dully. "The Decepticons have the disease, DHX-1 or whatever you want to call it. The Autobots—well—turns out they were in range of the explosion as well, and..." He broke off, coughing. Axon found himself jumping down from his chair and hurrying over to the Guardian, aware there was nothing he could do. Sinewave regained control of himself. "I'm glad you're in that suit," he gasped. "I have no idea if this is transmissible to humanoids."
"Neither have I," Axon admitted. "Go on."
Sinewave nodded. "The Decepticon ship hailed us a while ago, asking to see what came through the gate, and claiming to have been infected with some unknown pathogen. We didn't receive another transmission. The assumption was that all aboard had perished."
"But some time later we detected another craft entering the hot zone, and identified it as an Autobot shuttle. We made contact with the ship and warned them to turn about immediately; they refused, claiming that they had a cure for the disease, and that they were going to save the Decepticons if possible—which in itself is odd, as they've been fighting this idiot civil war for millenia." Sinewave looked away. "My superiors refused to entertain conjecture of such a thing, and decided to call in military support against the Autobots."
"But..." Axon said. "Your garrison is destroyed."
"Exactly. I think we've ordered replacement Victrons, but Primus knows how we're going to fight the Autobots off, if it comes to that."
"Do you think it will?"
"I don't know," said Sinewave, sighing. "I don't know."
Alirion was playing with a fusion cannon. It was a lovely thing, black durasteel with a cleverly designed grip clearly meant to interconnect with some complicated latching mechanism. It was also capable of blowing large holes in walls. The recoil knocked her back almost off her feet, but she didn't mind that; the amount of destruction it caused was worth a few dents and dings. She found this useful, as lately she had been suffering from an intolerable desire to blow the smeg out of something. The cannon sufficed.
"You shouldn't be using that," said Thundercracker, as she vaporized another target in the base's practice range. "Megatron'll go spare."
"Megatron's still unconscious," Alirion reminded him.
"All I'm saying," said Thundercracker, sitting down on the bench behind her, "is that you'd better clean out the carbon scoring before giving it back to him."
"Way ahead of you." Alirion blew the heads off a series of targets, picked herself up, and grinned at the smoking barrel of the gun. "I needed this."
Thundercracker laced his fingers behind his head and regarded the black sky, as it appeared from the Autobot orbital base. If required, the base—a small spherical object roughly the size of a Terran moon—could revolve around its own axis, but generally it was kept at this angle; it gave the best view of Cybertron itself, as well as a delightful perspective on the Perseids as they came through each year. He and Alirion were enjoying the amenities of the top level of the Autobots' construction: an outdoor practice range and war room. She had beaten him twice out of four; her inferior size and strength were compensated for by her speed.
Thundercracker didn't want to think too hard about Alirion. As long as he thought of her as nothing more than a friendly, interesting Transformer who didn't give him grief about being a Decepticon, things were all right. When he thought of her as the thing that had brought this plague to his people, sworn no allegiance to his cause, nor shown his leader proper respect, he had to fight himself from saying or doing horrible things to her. It was difficult to reconcile the two.
It wasn't just that she had no allegiance, he argued with himself. She helped because she was needed, and to rectify a wrong.
And he had been amazed at the care—and concern—with which she had treated both Megatron and Starscream, despite the fact that she'd been told all about the Decepticons and their less delightful traits. Thundercracker didn't really want to think too hard about that, because it made him feel extremely odd inside.
"He's still not conscious," said Alirion quietly, climbing up to sit beside him, Megatron's fusion cannon dwarfing her violet-black form. Her wings still bore the dull symbol of the Victron Guardians, despite the beating she had taken in the blast. "Physically he's almost all right again; his systems need more rest and relaxation to repair themselves, but he's stable. I think he'll come back."
"You don't even know him," said Thundercracker, thinking of Megatron's ice-ruby optics as the leader watched the other Seekers toss him out into space. "I'm sure you've heard all the stories, though."
"Most of them." Alirion ran a hand absently over the shining barrel of the gun. "I was trained as a defender, not a warrior, and my allegiance—my whole purpose—was merely the protection of the Gate and its personnel. They didn't bother telling us about the Cybertronian civil war; it had nothing to do with us."
Thundercracker regarded her. "I still don't get how you managed to get a chunk of the Autobot Matrix."
"Ah," said Alirion, and hugged the cannon closer. "Neither am I, to tell the truth, although a friend of mine at the Gate told me a little about it. Your Matrix, or the Autobots' Matrix, is apparently a specialized crystalline structure, harder than diamond, capable of storing vast amounts of energy and information; the Shard I carried acted as something like a cross between a power core and a massive databank. I could access its memories and use the information to help me formulate strategies. Not that it did me much good in the end." She rested one slender purple finger on the cannon's firing stud, let it slip away.
"But how did your Shard come to be built into a Guardian, when it was originally created on Cybertron?" Thundercracker asked.
"I don't know that it actually was created on Cybertron. My friend, Sinewave, had a theory that the material which became the Matrix was originally part of the debris of a dead star—a sun that had gone nova—and that the earliest inhabitants of the galaxy discovered it, and discovered what it could do. At some point it had fractured into several chunks, including the large one that Prime has, and the piece we knew as the Shard." She paused. "It's a really stupid name, isn't it?"
Thundercracker laughed in spite of himself. "It's unimaginative," he said.
She nodded. "When Amaranth was first built, they had forgotten the Shard entirely. The other chunks of it had spread across the galaxies, and presumably your Matrix was found by the people who built Cybertron itself. I gather that my bit of it was discovered later by the scientist who created the Guardians, and he had the bright idea of somehow incorporating it into his creations, so that they could use the energy as a backup, like a battery. He apparently had a theory that he could split the thing up into many pieces and distribute them among the Guardians. I don't know what happened after that, but when I was built I was specialized a bit so that I could carry the whole Shard, as my predecessor had done. Maybe he'd decided he couldn't divide the crystal itself; it's unbelievably hard, much harder than adamantium or diamond."
Thundercracker looked thoughtful. "Or he realized that its power would be lessened if it were split up."
"Maybe," Alirion shrugged. "Anyway, there I was, Shard and all, but I wasn't treated any differently from the other Victrons. I ended up being the leader of our Victron garrison, mostly because no one else wanted the job, and over the centuries a kind of myth grew up around the Shard."
"Like the Matrix of Leadership," he said.
"Just like. The mech who carried it before me was a leader, I think. No one told me much about it." She got up, slinging Megatron's cannon over one shoulder like a rocket launcher. "I wonder if they bothered searching for it when they blew up my ship."
Thundercracker rose, stretching. "Well," he said, "they promised military action against Prime. Maybe we'll have a chance to find out."
She looked at him for a long moment. "What are you going to do, when all this is over?"
The Decepticon jet didn't answer immediately; his optics flickered a little. "I don't know," he said at last. "I don't know what will happen with…with Megatron. If he allows me to return."
Alirion didn't say if he survives. "And you lot will just…what, return to your base and keep going with your war?"
"It's not my war," he said evenly. "It's the war."
She held his gaze for a moment, then nodded. "Let's get back. I want to check on some of the patients."
This time when Starscream woke, the pain was almost gone. He ran a systems check, cautiously, expecting at any moment to be inundated with agony, but everything seemed to be all right. Even the annoying little ache in his left shoulder joint had gone away, and he'd had that since…oh, forever.
His short-term memory spun up, and he groaned. He was in an Autobot base. A slagging Autobot base, and that strange female had been thoroughly disrespectful to him and had shown no fear whatsoever, which simply wasn't right. She wasn't an Autobot, but that didn't give her the right to answer him back. He was, after all, Decepticon Aerospace Commander.
He sat up gingerly, still expecting the pain to return, and surveyed his empty surroundings. The last time he'd been online, still hazy and disoriented, almost every bed in the infirmary had been occupied. He remembered seeing familiar forms—Ramjet, Dirge, Soundwave, the cassettes—lying still as deactivation, pale energon dripping down tubes into their bodies, monitors tracing life-signs across the darkness, and shuddered.
The time aboard the Dark Matter seemed like a nasty dream. He could only vaguely recall anything beyond feeling terrible and wishing he would hurry up and die; at some point there had been others there, Autobots, that odd purple-and-black female, and then total blankness until he had found himself here. He wondered how long he'd been out, but his internal time recorder had shut itself down during his recovery.
Starscream slid off the bed and swayed a little, newly repaired equilibrium circuitry stuttering a bit before kicking in, and looked around. All the others had gone—presumably cured. He stretched and wandered over to the windows, noting that the Autobot base was a self-contained structure in stable orbit around Cybertron. From here he could almost make out the ruins of the old cities. He remembered, vividly, flying through those metal canyons for the sheer intoxicating joy of it.
That had been a long time ago.
He turned to go, and realized that he wasn't in fact alone in the medical bay. In the farthest corner, surrounded by equipment, he caught a glimpse of purple and black, and curiosity drew him closer. It looked like the strange mech he'd seen before…
Starscream stopped, feeling his fuel pump miss a beat. She was sitting slumped over, face buried in her folded arms, which were resting on the edge of a recharge bed. He hadn't been able to see the bed's occupant before because of the masses of life-support equipment surrounding him. It was Megatron.
He hurried over. The Decepticon leader lay quite still, his optics dark. The female robot wasn't moving either, but her hand lay on the silver-white metal of Megatron's forearm in a way that made Starscream feel remarkably uncomfortable. He took another step forward and touched her shoulder.
The result was astonishing. Her head snapped up, revealing brilliant purple optics in a silver-grey face, and before he could take a step back she had launched herself against him, knocking him off balance, and tackled him to the floor. Straddling his chest, claws gripping his throat, she snarled, "What do you want?"
Starscream, stunned and rather wishing the back of his head hadn't hit the floor quite so hard, just blinked. Some of the brilliant purple light faded from her optics, and she released her hold on his throat.
"I," he said. "I was just…"
She sighed and got off him, rubbing her temples. "Sorry. I'm sorry. You startled me."
Starscream sat up, fingering his throat. "What the hell are you?"
"I told you. I'm a Guardian." She offered him a hand up, which he took, after a moment. "I'm a Victrix, actually, a defender. I have these hardwired defense mechanisms, and you set me off—I must've drifted into recharge."
He glared at her. "Don't expect me to apologize."
"I wouldn't dream of it."
Starscream folded his arms and intensified the glare; it didn't seem to be having any effect. She ought to be down on her knees apologizing to him. And what the slag had she been doing with Megatron?
She ignored him, and his glare, and went back to the Decepticon leader's bed. Starscream was interested, and a little appalled, at the concern she apparently felt for Megatron. She was adjusting an energon flow, staring at the monitors that traced his fuel pump and energy levels, making notes on a datapad. In spite of himself, Starscream came closer and peered over her shoulder.
"Do you mind?" she said, distracted. "You ought to be in bed yourself, you're still weak."
"I'm perfectly fine," he snapped. "What about him?"
She put down the clipboard and turned to face him. "He's out of danger, I think. It'll just take some time for his systems to recover."
"What are you doing here, anyway?" Starscream demanded. "What's your name?"
She smiled a sharp, unpleasant little smile. "Ah, it's formal introduction time, is it? I'm Alirion, once known as Alirius Primatrix, ex-leader of the Pelleas Gate Victron Guardians. And I know who you are, Aerospace Commander."
Starscream blinked. "Wait. The Pelleas Gate? The…ship that was destroyed…"
"Was my ship. With my whole crew, and several refugees, aboard."
The Seeker's optics narrowed. "And you survived."
"It appears that way."
"Then you were the one responsible for this…plague," said Starscream, his voice taking on a dangerous note. "You put me…us…through this. It's your fault."
Alirion met his gaze without wavering. "In that my ship was contaminated and I entered this sector of space, yes. The explosion that destroyed my ship also released Nadirak and disseminated it quite widely, whereas if I had been able to get safely to Kau Beta as I had intended, the contamination would have been slight and easily containable. As it is, I have no idea how far and fast it's spread."
"How come you survived?" he demanded, returning to his original point.
"Because I'm immune to it," said the Victrix tightly. "I had Nadirak and survived because I had been carrying a chunk of the thing Optimus Prime calls the Matrix. It altered my body, mutated my circ self-repair systems so that Nadirak couldn't kill me."
He scowled more fiercely, wanting at least a spark of fear to show in her violet optics. "So? How'd you end up here?"
"When my ship exploded," she said, tiredly, already having told the story several times, "I was thrown out into space, badly injured but alive. I drifted for some time and happened to get picked up by the Autobot shuttle as it was on its way back to Cybertron. When I came back online, they'd also encountered Thundercracker."
Starscream worked through this in his head. "Wait. You picked up Thundercracker?"
"And saved his life, I think," she said. "My antibodies were able to kill the Nadirak in his body as efficiently as in mine. I had explained what I knew to Optimus Prime, and he and I used our antibodies to cure the Autobots who'd caught it from Thundercracker."
Starscream sat down on a convenient chair. "You gave your circ fluid to the whole damned Autobot team?"
"Not quite," Alirion told him, fiddling with his leader's energon drip. "You remember, Prime carries the Matrix. We both gave as much as we could, and we used it to help you lot as well as the Autobots."
He stared at her, appalled, and covered his face with his hands. "I don't believe this. You and that sanctimonious heap of scrap metal—"
"Watch it," she said without turning around.
"—you two saved the whole Decepticon team as well?"
"Don't worry," said Alirion sourly, "we'd come up with a synthetic, as well, so you didn't receive unadulterated Autobot or Guardian sera. You needn't feel unclean."
Starscream stared at her, and decided not to follow that train of thought any further. "What're you doing down here, anyway?" he asked, trying to sound officious.
The Victrix turned to look at him, arms folded. "Watching over your fearless leader," she said. "It's my watch. The Autobot medics are in recharge."
"So were you," he countered.
"Yes, but only through sheer incompetence," she snapped. "If I was perfect I'd not have drifted off, okay?"
Starscream's optics widened a little, and narrowed again. "Hey," he said. "I didn't…"
She sighed, subsiding. "I know. I'm just angry at myself. That's part of why I jumped you." Some of the ramrod straightness seemed to drain out of her, and Starscream saw how small she really was; dark-violet and black, the curving vault of a jet canopy forming part of her chest, angled sharp-edged wings rising above her shoulders. Her transformation mode would be something more like a single-man starfighter, not an F-15 jet. Despite her scrawniness, Starscream knew from personal experience that she was almost as fast as he was, and she knew how to use what strength she had.
She sat down again by Megatron's bed. "Look," she said. "You still need rest. Go back and get a few more hours' recharge."
"No," he said. She sighed.
"Would you rather I knocked you out myself?"
"I'd like to see you try it," said the Seeker. "You're worn out."
"I am not."
"You are," he countered. "Look at your hands."
Alirion held them out in front of her; they trembled perceptibly. She shrugged. "I'm fine. I've already finished all the delicate work."
Starscream looked past her to Megatron, whose chest compartment was open to admit the energon feed tubes. He could see the faint difference in colour where circuitry and filters had been replaced, and was mildly astonished at the precision of the repairs. It wasn't as precise as the Constructicons' work, but it was still pretty good. "I see," he said.
Thundercracker hadn't told him any of this last time he'd been awake; his fellow Seeker had merely reassured him that he was going to recover fine and that nothing was going to happen.
"I don't understand you," he said slowly.
"What's to understand?"
"Well…if you were trained as a Victrix, how the hell did you learn microsurgery?"
"You get inquisitive when you're bored," said Alirion. "Guarding the Pelleas Gate wasn't exactly a full-time job. We went out on patrol more to amuse ourselves than to protect the Gate."
Starscream shook his head. "You're bizarre."
"And you're still recovering. Go to bed." She turned to look at him with those weird violet optics. "I'll be happy to make you."
He gave up. "Fine," he snapped. "I don't need a nursemaid, you know."
"No," said Alirion, "you need a leader."
He turned on his heel and stalked away, not seeing Alirion's slender hand creep out and rest once more on Megatron's arm; and he wasn't there, almost an hour later, when Megatron's optics blinked to dim life.
Optimus Prime may have been immune to Nadirak, but he certainly wasn't immune to headaches. He steepled his fingers and looked over them at the Decepticons standing in front of his desk.
"No," he said, for the fifth time, "I have no changes to report in Megatron's condition. He is stable."
"I wish to examine him," said Soundwave tonelessly. Prime reflected that the Decepticon's singlemindedness might make him an asset under certain circumstances. Right now, it was making him feel as if he was talking to a wall.
"I've already explained this," he said patiently. "Until Megatron has recovered, he is to remain under observation in the medical bay, with no disturbances."
"I don't trust you," sneered Ramjet, folding his arms and staring at the Autobot leader. "How do we know you're not torturing him down there?"
Prime rubbed his temples: definitely a headache. "We don't work like that." Behind Ramjet, Soundwave and Skywarp, he noticed Thundercracker poke his head round the door, and kept his face perfectly expressionless. "We are doing everything we can to help you."
"You can help us by releasing Megatron and letting us off this slagging base, Autobot," said Ramjet, belligerently. He pronounced "Autobot" as if it was a particularly foul curse. Behind them, Prime saw Thundercracker sigh, and come forward into the office.
"The Autobots helped us by saving our lives," he said evenly.
All three Decepticons, startled, turned to stare at him. "You're on their side now? Megatron was right to throw you out," said Skywarp, sounding surprised and hurt.
"I'm not on their side," Thundercracker said. "I'm merely pointing out that, without their help, we would all be dead now. You remember what it was like. You remember the pain and the helplessness and the fear. They went through it too, and they helped us. They didn't have to. I doubt we would have, in their place."
Even Ramjet shut up for a second. Prime folded his arms. "That isn't the issue," he said, calmly. "I merely want to reassure you that Megatron is safe and is under expert care."
Thundercracker nodded. "Soundwave," he said, looking at the Decepticon communications specialist, "in Starscream's absence you're the commander, yeah?"
Soundwave inclined his head. "Then take command, will you, and get everyone together. I want to talk to them."
There was a tense moment as the two Decepticons faced one another down, and then Soundwave nodded again, once. Prime suppressed a sigh of relief.
Silently the Decepticons filed out of Prime's office. The Autobot leader slumped a little in his chair, feeling exhausted by the sheer strain of having to deal with suspicious and belligerent Decepticons when, for once, they weren't at active odds. He wondered if there was any possibility of an alliance ever existing between them, and calculated the odds as being very, very slim.
Axon had discovered at least one very important fact about DHX-1. The virus—he couldn't call it anything else now—did not seem to affect human physiology. This discovery, while certainly useful for Amaranth, had come about purely by accident; he had knocked his oxygen pack against a bulkhead at some point, and the hoses had come loose. He didn't even notice the breach of containment until he realized he couldn't hear the hiss of oxygen in his helmet anymore, and felt a horrible sickening wave of fear wash over him.
He had done everything he could to escape contamination, using the airlock as an emergency sterilizing chamber, gulping down all the antivirals he had at his disposal, but when he finally managed to draw a sample of his own blood to see if the virus had invaded his body, he saw the DHX-1 bodies circulating happily among his cells. For hours he watched, expecting at any point to start feeling the effects, expecting to see the DHX-1 engulf a leukocyte and turn it into a deadly viral factory, but nothing happened.
He had fallen asleep at the scopes, exhausted by work and fear, and had woken some hours later stiff and miserable with anticipation. He'd managed to draw another sample, despite the fact that his hands were shaking like a terminal caffeine addict's, to find that in fact his immune system had responded to the virus, and...deactivated it?
He had looked closer. The DHX-1 envelopes in his latest blood sample appeared dark and still, the black filaments inside no longer writhing and twisting in their ceaseless dance. He noted a higher concentration of white blood cells than normal, but no apparent damage, and no replication of the virus. He still felt fine. Stiff, and suffering the aftereffects of sour adrenaline in his blood, but apparently he was not susceptible to infection.
With a sigh of unspeakable relief, Axon had shed his cumbersome protective suit and stretched, popping stiff muscles across his back and shoulders. With the discovery that DHX-1 apparently only affected cybernetic physiologies, his job had become a great deal easier. Now all he had to do was find a cure.
He swiveled his chair around to tell Sinewave the good news, but the Guardian wasn't there. Axon assumed he must have gone off to recharge, or whatever it was these robots did in their spare time. The Guardian had been a great deal more helpful than his colleagues, and Axon had been grateful for his help and his reserves of information, but clearly it wasn't Sinewave's job to help the Amaranthine virologist.
Axon toggled the comm system on and sent out a transmission to his superiors on Amaranth, letting them know the status of his research. Most of the government officials on Amaranth were humanoid rather than cybernetic, so his discovery would please them no end. He might indeed get a position in the civil service, as his daughter clearly wished.
Maybe this wasn't such a hopeless assignment after all.
He woke in darkness, and had no idea where he was. His last clear memory was of the command console aboard the Dark Matter, and the astonishing, brilliant agony that twisted itself around his chest, crushing, suffocating, and the hot taste of energon in his mouth as he doubled over, choking. There had been dim flickers of consciousness, mostly characterized by duller, heavier pain, but nothing concrete. Nothing quantifiable. Except for the odd dream he'd had...something about a dark female and one of his Seekers...an angry conversation, a desperate story told in level and unemotional tones. He didn't want to think about what he'd heard in the dream.
Flicking out a thread of energy, he opened his optic circuits and found himself still in darkness, although it was a darkness which suggested a large room. As his optics adjusted themselves, he was able to make out the overhead shapes of what looked like surgical lights. He was lying on the familiar yielding support of a recharge bed, and there was a dim glow coming from some tubes connected to his chest. Energon feed, he thought, slowly.
More senses came online, tabulating results and explanations and conjectures in his mind. He could feel, deep in his circuits, the strange itch that came from his self-repair systems working to integrate external repairs into his body. From the feel of it, there had been extensive reconstructions done to most of his primary systems. He wiggled his fingers, and was pleased to note that all ten of them responded to his commands.
Another detector circuit flickered to life, and he registered the presence of another energy signature in the room besides his own. It wasn't familiar; none of his Decepticons, and none of the Autobots he had known long enough to recognize by the signature itself. A stranger, then, and it felt like a powerful one, although severely depleted.
He managed to get his optics to switch to infrared, and now he could make out the form of what seemed to be a female transformer—probably an aerial mode, by her design—slumped over, resting on the edge of his recharge bed. Feeling his face settle into its habitual frown, he tried to sit up, and found himself almost unable to move. The effort forced a gasp of pain from him, despite his attempts to keep it in.
The female stirred, and he felt her energy signature shift as she came out of recharge. Violet optics blinked to life, staring at him. He suddenly felt her take her hand off his arm, not having noticed it there before. The place where she had been touching him felt suddenly too cold. The dream he half-remembered nudged his mind again.
She drew back with a start and folded her arms tightly against her body, as if to deny that she had ever touched him. "Welcome back," she said, and he couldn't help thinking he'd heard that voice before; almost as low as his own, a little rough. Cybernetics didn't age the way organics did, but still her voice sounded too old for her body. "I'm surprised you're already back online."
Megatron managed to prop himself up on an elbow. "Who are you?" he rasped. "What is this place?"
"Safe," she said simply. "You won't like it."
"What," he spat, "am I in the hands of Optimus Prime?"
"Well, yes," she told him, and then had to sigh and support him while he coughed helplessly. "It's all right. Your Decepticons are safe."
He fixed her with the best glare he could produce under the circumstances, pulling away from her supporting arm. "Explain," he demanded.
"I'm not sure I can," she told him simply. "You, along with your force, and the crew of an Autobot shuttle, were infected with a virus. Which was partially my fault."
Megatron's optics narrowed, and he tried to bring his fusion cannon to bear on her, but was furious to find he hadn't got the strength. She held his gaze without flinching. "I never meant to spread the virus. My superiors destroyed my ship as soon as I came through the Gate, thinking that they were destroying the virus as well. They spread it. They think I'm dead."
"You will be," he rasped, ignoring what he recalled of his dream, trying to forget the inexorable amethyst voice going on and on, telling a synopsis of a nightmare. "Keep talking."
The female, far from quaking with fear, sighed and sat back in her chair. "Do try not to strain those repairs," she said. "They took me a couple cycles to complete. What happened, in the short version, is that the Autobots found me, got infected, and discovered that I was able to produce a sort of cure to the virus. So is Prime. We had encountered Thundercracker, whom you'd blamed it all on, and cured him, and he convinced us to try and get in touch with your ship and see if any of you were still functional, and we brought you the cure, and here you are. None of us were sure you'd make it. You flatlined on the way back here."
Megatron's glare had become a stare. "What are you?"
The female gave him a little mirthless smile. "I'm not quite sure. I'm Alirion. A Victrix Guardian by construction, but I'm not really one of them anymore."
"You didn't know us," he said. "The Decepticons." He could dimly remember having heard of the Guardians in the past few centuries, some kind of defense and maintenance force for the Amaranthine Gates. Nothing to concern himself with.
"Nope," she said, with a trace of amusement. "I'd vaguely heard of the Autobots from the Unilink histories, but not much about you. Why?"
"You helped us?"
"Yes," said Alirion. "I was needed."
He couldn't deny the voice now. He'd heard it before. He'd heard it arguing, as calmly as it could, with Starscream, while he lay half-conscious close by. He'd heard this story told before, although he hadn't really understood it at the time. The violet words had sunk into his memory somehow.
Megatron lay back on the bed, staring at the ceiling. "The Autobots helped us."
"Because of your scintillating personality, no doubt," said Alirion, drawing her knees up and resting her chin on them.
He glared at her again, but found out, as Starscream had before him, that nothing happened. "Do you know who I am?"
"Yes," she said with the hint of a smile. "I can even pronounce your name right, although Prime wouldn't believe it."
Megatron let this pass. "What about my forces?"
"They're all out of sickbay. Starscream was the last to leave. They're all functioning at top capacity."
He nodded, weakly. "The ship?"
"Has been decontaminated and repaired. As soon as you're fit to travel, you lot can go back to your own base and restart your little war." She regarded him with mild amethyst optics. "There, doesn't that cheer you up?"
"I don't need 'cheering up,'" snarled Megatron. "I need to get out of this slagging med bay and destroy something." He thrust away the dim recollection of her arguing with Starscream at the foot of his bed, and of her slender hand on his arm.
"Ah, yes," she said knowingly. "I do understand. That cannon of yours is quite a piece of engineering."
Megatron turned his head to look at her, and now his optics were deadly slivers of red ice. "What?" he asked quietly.
"Your fusion cannon. Lovely thing—bit of a recoil, but it doesn't pull left or right at all. I want one."
He stared at her. Bit of a recoil? "What are you?" he asked again.
"I'm a Victrix, like I said," she told him. "You need rest, mighty Megatron."
Megatron scowled. He found himself wanting her to say his name again, without the idiot honorific he'd once demanded from Soundwave and some of the others. It sounded different in that voice. Less a title, and more a name. "Don't call me that. You stole my gun."
"Borrowed, actually. You were very deeply unconscious at the time. And I did clean out the carbon scoring and reseal the chambers, as Thundercracker recommended."
"He told you that?"
"Well, only after he said you'd go spare when you found out I'd used it in the first place."
To his own amazement, Megatron felt a smile tug at one corner of his mouth. "He was right. I'll have words for him, too."
Alirion reached over and checked the energon feed. "How are you feeling?"
"Fine. I'm perfectly functional," he said, immediately. He forced himself to sound strong and healthy, despite the fact that his gyroequilibrium circuits were flickering in and out. Her optics narrowed, then took on an expression of exaggerated innocence.
"Really? No pain at all, no weakness?"
"I am fully recovered," he gritted, refusing to show vulnerability in front of her.
"I see," she said innocently, possessed with the same devil that had driven her to try and get a rise out of Starscream. Most of her mind told her to stop this at once, before something appalling happened, but she was flying high on lack of recharge and the adrenaline-analogue her systems had been using to function beyond their limits. "Then you'll be able to get up, I assume, and take command of your forces?"
"Of course I will," he snapped. She fixed him with a bland stare.
"Go on, then." The memory of her putting paid to Starscream, a fully trained Aerospace Commander, kicked at his mind.
Furious at her, and at himself, Megatron managed to swing his legs off the recharge bed and push himself upright. For a moment he thought he would make it, but his optic circuits suddenly flickered and buzzed, the equilibrium systems not quite yet able to deal with weight and gravity and the movements of bodies in space, and he felt himself swaying, his knees giving way. Something ripped with a sudden brilliant surge of pain.
And she was there, her body all wiry strength against his miserable weakness. Silently she helped him back on the bed, easing him down, adjusting the energon feed. She said nothing at all as he gritted his teeth against the pain, leaving finger-dents in the metal of the bed's edge, and she remained silent as he finally got his voice back and let loose a stream of creative and vitriolic profanity that should have frizzled both of their paintjobs. She sat down again in the chair by his bedside, jaw set and optics brilliant with an expression he might have identified as regret or sorrow had he been able to focus on her, and regarded him.
"Lesson learned?" she asked calmly.
Megatron had a number of things he would have liked to scream at her, and if he could have got up, or even aimed his cannon, he would most likely have blasted her for the embarrassment she had just inflicted on him. As it was, all he could do was glare.
Alirion met the glare evenly until he turned his face away, and only when he wasn't looking at her did she slump a little in the chair and close her hands into fists, not knowing what she was feeling, not knowing why she was feeling it, furious and desperate and frightened and adamant all at once.
Megatron clenched his hands again as a wave of pain washed through his circuits, letting out a strangled wordless noise. She cursed herself, slipping her hand into his, giving him something to hang on to. He didn't even notice, too intent on the pain, and she said nothing at all as his fingers bit into her own.
Eventually the spasm eased, and he lay back, gasping, paying no attention to her at all. She examined him quickly, found and reconnected the loose circuit that had been hurting, and backed away. Her hand was badly crushed, oozing circ fluid and energon at the joints, and she cradled it in the crook of her other arm, staring at the semiconscious Decepticon.
Even now, supine under the life-support machinery, he was an impressive figure, she thought dizzily. Part of her mind—the part that wasn't concerned with trying to keep everyone alive—remarked that so was Prime. But there was something about Megatron that separated him from the rest of the Cybertronians, and she didn't think it was just his, ah, oversized fusion cannon. It had been a lot easier when she could dismiss the thought of him with a careless mention of Magnetron or Marmitron. Actually having the thinking, talking Megatron around was quite a different proposition. For one thing, she no longer had a fusion cannon at her disposal for getting out her frustrations.
She leaned against a workbench, still nursing her injured hand. He'd be out of her circuits soon enough, of course. As soon as he could travel, he and the Decepticons would be out of here like an ion blast. They wanted nothing to do with the Autobots. Or with her.
Why should they, anyway? she asked herself.
She had no allegiance to the Autobots either. They had become allies out of necessity. That was all. No one in the galaxy—in the universe, come to think of it—was interested in her, except perhaps Sinewave; and he was on the Gate station, and bound by Gate laws. If he was even still alive. She didn't know if Nadirak had spread to the Gate yet, although probability calculations told her it must have, by now. She found herself considering ways to transport her anti-Nadirak serum to the Gate station, in case it was needed, and pushed away the thought. They'd shoot her on sight.
And she had Amaranth to worry about. If they found out that she wasn't quite dead yet, they'd have to fix that. The Amaranthine military was a joke, but it was an extremely large and well-armed joke, on the order of millions of conscripts, and she wouldn't be able to take out more than a couple of squadrons before they got lucky.
She stared at her hand, wiggling the fingers, exploring the pain. Pale, dilute energon fluid seeped from between the joints of the first and second fingers. It would need repairing if she wanted to do any delicate microsurgery anytime soon. Two of the fingers were mostly useless, the muscle cables and tubing crushed to slag. See what you get? Cause and effect. Never help those who don't want help. Leave them to their own deaths, as they would wish.
She turned on her heel and left the med bay, not looking back. Had she done so, she might have caught Megatron's ruby optics watching her go, glowing dully in the twilight with an odd expression.
She woke Ratchet on her way out with a terse "Your watch." He looked curiously at her wounded hand, but the look in her optics warned him not to ask questions. "He's awake, sort of. He won't want to see you, but I don't want him left alone."
Ratchet nodded slowly and disappeared into the medical bay. Alirion went straight, not passing go, not collecting two hundred kuats, to the wall dispensor in her quarters and requested as many cubes of heavy energon as the system could provide her.
She stared out at the dark side of Cybertron, raising her drink in a solitary toast, her useless hand dangling at her side. She wondered absently how it'd affect her transformation. "To getting the hell out of here," she saluted the reflection of herself. "Tomorrow."
Axon had been wondering why he hadn't received any confirmation from Amaranth that his message had been received and understood by the people in charge of galactic health. Slowly, and painfully, it had begun to dawn on him that Amaranth couldn't actually give two burnt-out transistors about him, or anything to do with this particular crisis; the infectious agent was a hundred thousand lightyears away, and wouldn't even affect the humanoids on Amaranth were it to get there by some horrid chance.
Nothing in his training had prepared him for this realization. He had always known that Amaranth knew best; that the galactic government had all possible information at its disposal, and made the decisions that would provide the greatest good to the greatest number of people. Now, not only his own world was crumbling, but his allegiances seemed thrown up in the air for the highest bidder.
With the terror came a kind of horrible exhilaration. For the first time in his life Axon was free to do whatever he thought best, and whatever would help the largest number of beings with the least cost. It was in his own hands, for the first time. He already knew what he was going to do. It was merely a question of getting the resources he needed.
Dressed only in his shipsuit, he slipped out of the research station and made his way to the command room of the Gate station. The two Guardians on duty were surprised to see him, and more surprised to see him in nothing but a lightweight black shipsuit, but deferred to his rank. Everything Axon owned was emblazoned by the two silver diamonds of his rank as Expert Virologist. The undersuit was no exception. He'd never been glad of it until now.
"Good evening," he said formally. "I must request the aid of the Gate Station's equipment and facilities to assist in my research."
The first Guardian, who bore the insignia of the administrative core, frowned, but his companion nodded. "Anything you need, Expert Virologist."
"I thank you," he said formally. "I need the use of a replication chamber, and this Station's power rerouted through the replication chamber circuits for a space of time not exceeding a standard hour."
The first Guardian stared harder at him. "You want us to shut down all power to all systems except for the rep chamber?"
"Yes," said Axon, standing his ground despite the almost-visible rays of disapproval. "I believe I have found a way to counteract this virus and protect all cybernetic beings."
Guardian # 2 stared at him. "You mean it?"
"Yes," Axon repeated. "I believe I have discovered something that may protect you all against DHX-1."
The first Guardian rose from his command chair and approached Axon, dwarfing him. On Amaranth, Axon had been thought a man of above-average stature, but he barely reached the Guardian's waist. "Help us," said the Guardian, "and you have my allegiance. I don't care what Amaranth says. My friends are sick."
Axon looked up into his optics. "I'll do what I can."
"Hey," said the other Guardian, a larger model with more complicated facial structures. "You can't just let him waltz around and use the rep chambers without approval from the CA."
"Have you seen the CA in the past few cycles?"countered Axon's ally. "I think he's got it, and he doesn't want anyone to know. Look, this human's our only chance."
"I don't like it."
"You don't have to. Look the other way."
The second Guardian sighed and bent over his console. Axon led the more sympathetic of the two out of the room. "What's your name?" he asked, tersely. "I can't just call you The Guardian."
"Deneb." The Guardian ran a hand over his face in a curiously human gesture of frustration and despair. "Look..."
"Shut up," said Axon kindly, "and let me work, okay?"
Deneb shut up, and led the way to the station's replication chamber array. "What are you going to do?"
"It's a bit complicated," said Axon. "I've got something in my blood that kills DHX-1. If I can make a cybernetic analogue to it, I might be able to give you lot immunity."
"Wait," said Deneb. "Sinewave said we'd contacted some Autobots who said they had a cure for this. What was his name...?"
"You know Sinewave?"
"Yeah, he was my wingmate in the training courses...is he all right?"
"I don't know," Axon confessed. "I haven't seen him in a while. He was jolly helpful, though."
"He's a Quaestron," said Deneb as if this explained everything. "Got one of those memories, you know, can recall anything he's ever seen. I never wanted to have that capacity."
"Me neither," said Axon with feeling. "All right. I need you to give me access to one of these rep chambers. I won't do anything untoward." He had his samples ready, and the logarithm he'd found on one ancient Unilink site that should be able to create a cybernetic version of his own immunological bodies. Some kind of circulating leukocyte analogue should take care of DHX-1 in the robots, he hoped. That was his last idea. Everything else was utterly impractical.
Deneb walked over to the command console in the rep room, punched a complicated series of numbers into the computer, and flicked a series of switches. "Chamber One's ready for you." He leaned against the console, folding his arms. "D'you really think you can help us?"
"I don't know," said Axon simply. "But I'm going to try."
"Alirion, can you hear me?"
She groaned and rolled over in the recharge bed, hoping they'd take the hint and slag off. She'd left Megatron's cannon in sickbay with its owner, but she still had two pulse rifles and one nullray weapon in reserve. At this point, she felt no compunction to behave herself with weaponry against individuals who tried to wake her up.
She curled up, with her wings forming some sort of shield between her and the door. There was a dull clunking sound, and the lock gave way. Her door whished open, and someone came in; she remained motionless, wings folded over her.
"Alirion," said someone softly. "You're needed."
"Slag off," she growled. "No one needs me. Let me sleep off this drunk, and I'll go."
There was a sigh, and she felt cool fingers touch her shoulder. "Please," said whoever it was. She rolled over with a groan and found herself looking into the sapphirine optics of Optimus Prime.
The Autobot leader sat down on the edge of her recharge bed. "Look," he said. "I know this is difficult for you." He took her hands in his and drew a sharp breath at the damage he saw to her fingers. "Who did this?"
She pulled her hands free with a stab of pain and sat up, hugging her knees. "Prime," she said. "Starscream's right, this is my fault. I've done what I can to fix it. Just...let me go, okay? Let me go."
"Where will you go?" asked Optimus Prime, very quietly.
"I don't slagging know. Just let me go."
Prime released her hands gently. "If you want to leave, you are free to go whenever you wish," he said. "I cannot thank you enough for what you have done for us."
"Ah, yes," said Alirion bitterly. "You're welcome. Did you like the Nadirak? Was it satisfactory? Was it nasty enough? Can I go and infect you with another plague just to make good?"
"Shut up." Prime reached out one long finger and tipped her chin up, so that she was forced to meet his gaze. "And listen to me, because I'm a lot older than you, which gives me the right to be heard."
She said nothing at all, meeting his clear blue gaze with her veiled amethyst one.
"I'm only going to say this once," said Optimus Prime, simply, exasperation and admiration melded in his low voice. "You, through no real fault of your own, exposed this galaxy to Nadirak. You did so out of a laudable effort to save those infected through an accident. However, you more than acquitted yourself for the infection through your efforts to save those you didn't even know. If we hadn't found you, we would have had little chance of discovering the Matrix's protective effects against Nadirak."
Alirion had been staring at her folded hands, one stiff and crusted with circ fluids, one healthy and shining violet. "I'm sorry," she said, absently. "I was just trying to help the Delta Hadron scientists. I made the wrong decision."
"Primus!" he spat. "Will you listen to me for a minute? I am trying to tell you that you made the right decision, all right? If you hadn't brought your ship to the Gate, Primus knows how many other ships would have been contaminated with Nadirak, without even knowing it. You tried to save a bunch of innocents. You were prevented from doing so."
"Which reminds me," said Alirion, looking up. "Have the Amaranthine officials actually declared war against you yet?"
Optimus Prime chuckled, dryly. "Not as far as we know. They destroyed all their defensive and offensive strike forces when they blew up the Starjammer, didn't they?"
Alirion covered her face with her hands. "Yes," she said at length. Oh, Singularity. I'm so sorry I didn't realize it earlier. I could have saved you too, and all the others. I could have. I didn't know.
Prime reached out a gentle, if enormous, hand. "Go and get your injury looked at," he said. "Wheeljack and First Aid are out of recharge, and some of the Decepticons—the Constructicons, actually—are volunteering in the med bay."
"What have you been giving them?" Alirion asked, with a weary grin.
"Oh, nothing," Prime assured her. "I think it's merely our good moral influence on them."
"Must be," said Alirion. She paused in the doorway. "Prime?"
"Yes?" He got up off her bed and joined her, dwarfing her slender frame in the doorway. She lost her nerve.
"Nothing," said Alirion, turning away. "Nothing. Just, uh, I'll be leaving soon."
"You may stay as long as you wish," he assured her. She gave him a tight smile, which he couldn't help identifying as the smile she might give a dying robot wanting to know that he had done the right thing.
"Thank you," she said, simply.
"Get your hand looked at," he ordered her, more brusquely than he'd intended to. She turned on her heel with a precision that was almost regimental, and paced back to the sickbay.
"Well?" said Deneb, leaning against the wall, arms folded. "What have you found out?" It had been most of a cycle and a half since Axon had taken his samples from the rep chambers and returned to his jury-rigged lab. He was beginning to see the black spots drifting across his vision that meant total exhaustion wasn't far off.
"Hang on," he told the Guardian, rubbing at the back of his neck. "I need to run more tests. But I think I've got something that'll help."
Deneb came up behind him and peered over his shoulder. "Can I see?"
The virologist moved aside and let him have a look at the screen. The by-now-familiar DHX-1 bodies were almost stationary, their filaments' ceaseless motion reduced to a sullen twitch. The reason for this appeared to be the hundreds of thousands of tiny crystalline flakes coating their entire envelope surface. "Those things," said Axon proudly, "act like immune components. They bond to the viral surface and stop it making contact with any vulnerable cells."
Deneb watched as, one by one, the DHX-1 bodies went dark and still. Shortly after the movement inside them stopped, they appeared to get smaller, as if the crystal flakes were taking up the material that had been used in their structure, making more crystal flakes. Axon introduced another sample of DHX-1 from a different source, and they saw the same thing happen again.
"Is it just me," said Deneb, "or are your things making more of themselves? Won't you eventually have enough of these to clot up the tubing?"
"Ah," said Axon, "that's what I'm really proud of. Watch." He pointed to the screen as the flakes devoured their viral prey. "Now...look. If I don't introduce any more of the virus, the flakes dissolve back into the circ fluid. The molecules that make them up are drawn to the surface of the DHX-1 envelope, and when there are enough of them attaching, they begin to form the crystal flakes." He injected another dose of the virus into the sample dish, and watched as the clear fluid suddenly hazed around the viral particles, and the flakes began once more to appear.
Deneb sat back and stared at the Amaranthine. "One question," he said.
Axon looked back at him. "Yes?"
"When do we start administering it?"
"As soon as I can make enough. Say a couple more hours."
Deneb nodded. "I'll see what I can do about gathering everyone together so you can do a mass treatment."
Axon turned back to his workbench. "Thanks."
He had no idea if he'd ever see Amaranth again, or if what he'd accomplished here would ever be known on his homeworld. He didn't even know if he'd be alive in the next weeks, if Amaranth did decide to send out troops to track down the quarantine-breakers, and what side he'd find himself on if war broke out. He knew he'd care about those things when he could; right now he was more worried about making enough of his envelope-blockers to treat a whole Gate Station full of Guardians. He didn't have any idea of the dosage of this stuff; based on what he'd seen in vitro, it was effective in very small amounts indeed, but how that would relate to actual circulating fluids had yet to be seen. If I only had sixteen lab assistants and another few weeks I'd know everything there is to know about this bloody pathogen, he thought. Hell, even another few days and two lab assistants would be useful. And maybe some textbooks on cybernetic physiology.
If I ever do get back to Amaranth I can teach a course in it.
Alirion, head still aching from last night's overdose of heavy energon, made her way into the medical bay through the sterilizer field which still sat in the doorway. There wasn't much going on; Hook and Long Haul, two of the Constructicons, were helping replenish supplies and tune up diagnostic equipment, and First Aid was tinkering with something on the duty officer's desk. She sighed. I don't want to do this.
Nevertheless, she walked up to his desk, ignoring the last recharge bed on the left, which featured a large and disgruntled Decepticon leader, currently lying back with his fingers laced behind his head and glaring at the ceiling, and held out her hand. "Can you fix me?" she asked First Aid.
He looked up, blue visor flashing brighter in surprise. "Hello," he said. "Haven't seen you for a while."
"Yes," she agreed, evenly. "Prime told me to come down here and have you repair my hand."
First Aid looked down and hissed. "What did you do?" He took her hand in his, tilting it gently side to side, examining the damage. Despite the care he was taking, she couldn't help letting out a strangled gasp of pain.
"I slammed it in a door," she told him, through clenched teeth. "Just fix it, okay?"
First Aid led her to an exam table and made her sit down. "One hell of a funny door," he said. "The pressure was applied laterally, in parallel lines."
"It was an accident," she said, wearily. "I think the second and third tendon cables are damaged. I can move the rest of the fingers."
First Aid nodded and opened the armor plating on her upper arm, disconnecting the nerve circuits and pain receptors for the forearm and hand. "This may take a while," he said. "You should have come to me before. The tubes are all clotted."
Alirion said nothing, merely watching as he delicately removed the mangled metal skin and began to repair the cables and circuitry beneath. He worked in silence for a while, and then, still bent over her hand, said "Who was it?"
"Come on," he said. "I can tell the difference between fingers and doorjambs, okay? Who did this to you?"
"No one," Alirion repeated. "It was an accident."
"Look, if someone's been hurting you, you need to let Prime know. This sort of thing is not acceptable."
Alirion glared at the floor. "It's nothing. My fault anyway."
First Aid looked up at her, looked down at her hand, and stood up, stalking back over to his desk. He flicked open the comm channel. "Sickbay to Prime," he said. "Prime, d'you read me?"
"There's no need for that," said another voice, cold and rasping. "I did it."
First Aid and Alirion both turned to stare at Megatron, who was still regarding the ceiling as if it had personally insulted him. "Last night, I think. I don't really remember."
"What?" First Aid demanded. "You assaulted a medic?" He shut the comlink again and went over to Megatron's bed.
"Don't," said Alirion. "It was my fault, like I said. He was in pain, and I gave him my hand to hold on to so that your recharge beds wouldn't get finger dents in them. He didn't even know he was doing it."
First Aid looked from the Decepticon to the Victrix, unconvinced. "What the slag is going on here?" he wanted to know.
"Nothing is going on," Alirion insisted. "Just please can you fix my hand, and then I'm out of here."
"What?" said First Aid again. He looked rather overwhelmed. "Where are you going? Is Prime having some kind of meeting?"
"No," she said, poking at the exposed muscle cables absently, testing the pain. "I'm leaving. I shouldn't be here."
The Protectobot medic hurried back over to her. "Alirion, are you feeling all right? Have you been drinking?"
"Not hardly enough," she said sourly. "I'm not one of you, First Aid. Besides, if Amaranth or the Gate station find out I'm here, I'm liable to bring down a minor war on your heads." She thought for a moment. "Make that a major war. Amaranth is very down on people who don't comply with quarantine regulations."
First Aid stared at her. "Where are you going to go?"
"I haven't a clue. Come on, fix me. It hurts."
"Don't be an idiot," said Megatron, harshly, startling them both. He hadn't bothered to move; Alirion was a trifle surprised to find there weren't smoking holes in the ceiling where he'd been glaring at it. "There's nowhere for you to go. Even if you managed to find a hospitable planet, you'd still have to pass through the Gate sector, and they'll pick up your energy signature."
"He's right," said First Aid wonderingly.
"Right now they haven't got any Victrons available," she reminded them. "If I go now, I might be able to get through." She didn't say anything about the Gate station's disintegrator beam that had made her ship into so much stellar dust.
"Run away, then," said Megatron. "Run away like a scared little Au…Sharkticon." He had been going to say something else, she thought. Sharkticon had been substituted at the last moment.
"Thank you," she said nastily. "I think I will."
First Aid looked from her to Megatron and back, like a spectator at a crucial cyberball game. Alirion rather thought he was placing mental bets.
"So it was just a fluke," Megatron said, musingly, sitting up and staring at her.
"What do you mean?"
"That you had the courage to steal my gun and use it without permission. I'd thought maybe you weren't a coward after all. You're just another frightened little female when it comes down to it, though."
"What?" she demanded. "I'm not a coward."
"Yes you are," he said coldly. "You got everyone into this wretched situation, and now you want to run off and forget your responsibility. Terribly brave of you, Victrix."
"Shut up," she said, icily. "You know nothing about it."
"I know enough." Megatron's optics glowed a darker red.
"Without me you'd all be dead," she spat. "I saved your lives."
"Yes," said the Decepticon, with deadly calm. "And you wore yourself out watching over me, and you didn't say a word when I crushed your hand to slag, nor seek any sort of attention for it, and generally acted in a worthwhile sort of way, and now you've suddenly had enough and you want out? On the pretext of protecting us from Amaranth?"
She stared. Megatron folded his arms and regarded her evenly. First Aid was speechless; the laser probe he held in one hand fell to the floor with a soft but audible clink.
"Fix her," said the Decepticon leader, and lay back down, resuming his visual inspection of the ceiling. Slowly First Aid bent and reclaimed his probe, flicked it through the sterilizer field, and bent over her hand again. She just stared at Megatron, who was patently not paying any attention to her. The silence drew itself out and became almost solid.
"What do you care?" she said, quietly, looking on as First Aid sealed the new cables into place and began reconnecting damaged circuitry.
Megatron didn't answer. She figured he was merely being Evil and Aloof, and sighed, turning her face away. First Aid finished the repairs on her hand and slowly reconnected the nerve circuits. "How does it feel?"
She wiggled her fingers experimentally, clenched her fist, turning the delicate connections in her wrist this way and that. "Fine," she said. "It's good as new. Thank you."
First Aid put away his tools and stared at her. "Alirion," he said. "Look. Don't do anything rash, okay? Get a couple more hours recharge, and go talk to Prime before you do anything else. This isn't all about you."
"Isn't it?" she said, with a bitter smile. "Ah."
The Protectobot snorted, exasperatedly. "You would try the patience of Alpha Trion himself," he told her, and shot Megatron a dark glance. "I'm going to give you two a moment, all right? Maybe you can knock some sense into her head, Megatron."
The Decepticon didn't acknowledge this sally. First Aid stomped out of the med bay, and the door whooshed closed behind him. She refused to look at Megatron, staring instead at the tiny scar lines on her fingers where First Aid had reconnected the plates of her durasteel alloy armour. She paid no attention as the two Constructicons exchanged a knowing glance and followed First Aid out, leaving her and Megatron alone together.
"Well?" she demanded, almost angrily. "Go on, you can tell me now, nobody's listening. What the slag do you care about me? You're a...you're the Decepticon."
He said nothing, lacing his fingers behind his head and letting his optics dim a little. She slid off the recharge bed and turned toward the exit, heels clicking on the grey tiles.
"I don't care," he said quietly. She halted.
"Then why did you say anything in the first place?" she demanded of the doorway.
"Because," said Megatron behind her, "you seem to be, by and large, a rational being. It strikes me as odd, and misguided, that you are acting so irrationally now."
She turned back and fixed him with a burning violet glare. "I'm not acting irrationally. I've done what I came to this base to do: I've done my best to fix what happened as a result of my actions. Now, it looks like more danger is coming this way as a result of me, and I don't wish to make life any harder for the Autobots than it already is shaping up to be."
"Ah," he said. "The Autobots."
"What about the Autobots?"
"You've sworn allegiance, then," he said. She tilted her head, optics narrowed. It had to be her imagination; there couldn't possibly have been any regret in those level, rasping tones.
"No. I'm still a Guardian, although a rogue Guardian, and possibly one who's got a price on her head."
Megatron sat up. "Come here."
That voice, she thought. How does he do it? Must be some kind of complicated harmonics in the lowest register. Activates some central core modules, or something. She was walking back across the med bay toward him before she really knew she was moving at all.
He was leaning against the raised head of the recharge bed, arms folded. "Sit."
"Do you know that two of my Decepticons have come to me in the past cycle, while you were presumably drinking yourself insensitive on heavy energon, and had quite complicated discussions with me about you?"
"No," she said stupidly. "Why?"
Megatron sighed exasperatedly. "Because, you little idiot, you're interesting. Let me see that hand."
She held it out, unaware that she was doing so until his fingers closed about her own. He tilted her hand this way and that, examining the repairs. "Why didn't you get it fixed, or fix it yourself, last night?"
She pulled away from him. "Why do you care?" she asked again.
There was a dangerous flare in his red optics. "Simple curiosity," he said, biting off the words.
"Because," she said, "I didn't care much. I just wanted to get out. Away."
He nodded, closing his optics and lying back against the bed. She had a sudden ludicrous urge to touch his hand. To explain. She was appalled to hear herself start to talk. "I don't know what I was thinking," she said dully. "I was tired—so tired I could hardly walk straight, let alone do any sort of repairs on myself, and I badly wanted to stop thinking about anything. About myself, about this place, about what's happening. I sort of liked the pain, actually. It was something else to distract myself."
Megatron nodded, slowly. She went on, wishing she could stop herself. "And I wanted never to have met any of you. It would have been so much simpler."
He gave a rasping chuckle, startling her. "Nothing's simple. Don't you know that yet?"
"I'm learning. Slowly and painfully."
"Why did you stay up with me so long? You must have missed two whole recharge cycles."
"I don't know," she said honestly. "Because you're..." she floundered, and then found the word he'd used... "interesting." She had a sudden vision of Starscream staring up at her with bewildered, half-admiring, half-furious optics, as she released him from an involuntary chokehold. "You're all interesting."
"Thundercracker's particularly curious about what you're going to do," Megatron told her. "Starscream came to me after he'd left, asking me if I knew anything more about your plans."
"What did you tell him?"
"I told him to slag off and let me recharge." She wasn't looking at him, but his voice held a little hint of a smile. "I think it was something of a shock to him to discover that he owed his life to a small female stranger."
"Oh, Primus," she said wearily, "not that again. Haven't they got over that yet?"
"Apparently not," said Megatron. He reached out a finger and tipped up her chin so she was forced to look at him, and she suddenly remembered Prime doing the same thing, and felt something inside her shift slightly but irrevocably. "Alirion," he said, as if tasting the name.
"Yes?" she asked, aware of how stupid she sounded.
"I—" he began, but his healing oxygen intakes caught a breath wrong, and he began to cough, hard. Suddenly all her self-possession snapped back into place, as it did in battle, or in games of strategy, and she moved to him without thinking about it at all, and put an arm around him and lent him what support she could. Slowly the feedback lock in his systems eased, and he slumped back against her arm, gasping. He let out a string of curses she hadn't thought anyone not born on the distant planet of Theriac knew, and wiped at his mouth with the back of one hand. "Primus," he rasped, "when is this going to go away?"
"Soon," she told him. "You're almost back to normal functioning status. Relax."
He lay back against the recharge bed, hands pressing his chest. "I don't have to tell you how much I don't want that to happen in front of my troops," he told her.
"No," she said, "you don't." There was a pause of what must only have been a fraction of a second, in which her cybernetic brain ran through all the possible outcomes of what she was about to do, and tossed them all into the recycle bin. She slipped her arms around him and held him close, terrified and exhilarated and appalled at once.
He stiffened for an awful moment, and then his arms slid around her and crushed her body against his, pulling her face down to his, seeking her mouth as an electrical current seeks ground.
"I thought I'd find you here," said Thundercracker, leaning against the doorway to the outdoor practice range. Starscream was industriously destroying innocent piles of rock with his clusterbombs, and didn't turn around.
"What do you want?"
"Nothing," said Thundercracker. He sat down and watched another airburst, reflecting that Starscream could easily be turning this firepower on the Autobots if he so desired. He didn't know what the Aerospace Commander desired, which is why he had come up here. He had no guarantee he'd find anything out, but it was worth a try.
"Then go away," rasped Starscream. "I'm busy."
"You're wasting bombs," said Thundercracker. "You always get cross when you run out of bombs and have to use extra energon to develop more."
"Shut up," said Starscream, but he dropped his arms to his sides and sighed. "I'm not cross."
Thundercracker refrained from disagreeing. "What's the matter?" he asked. Starscream sat down on a rock he'd somehow overlooked, and rubbed at his optics.
"This. All this." He waved an arm to indicate the orbital base, and by inference those within it. "Can you believe it? We're inside the slagging Autobot base and we haven't blown it up yet! The worst thing is, I don't know why I'm not blowing it up now!"
"I know," said Thundercracker, who had been suppressing an urge to break things himself. "But it's not the same."
"That's the point." Starscream looked at him with confused, irritated optics. "I don't know what's going to happen. Nothing's simple anymore."
"I talked to Megatron," Thundercracker admitted. "It didn't help."
"Yeah?" Starscream was curious. "What did he say?"
"Not much beyond "slag off," but the impression I got was that he seemed to be—well—giving this whole situation a lot of thought. He also sort of said that I was reinstated as a Decepticon, despite having been chucked off the Dark Matter. Said his pride was undergoing structural changes, or something."
"I don't know," said Thundercracker, shrugging. "But, you know, I've been thinking. When I was dying—in space, alone—I kind of wondered if I could have done something more interesting with my life than fighting Autobots. I mean, when you get right down to it, there are always more Autobots to fight, and it never ends. We won't give up, and neither will they."
Starscream looked at the ground. "It's what we do."
"If you tell anyone I said this, you're a heap of molten slag."
Thundercracker nodded. "Said what?"
"I'm tired of it. Of the war. I'm so slagging tired of it." Starscream sounded very far away. "It is what we do, though."
"Hey," said Thundercracker, quietly. "You're not the only one."
"I'm bored," said Hot Rod, with an air of expectancy. No one looked up. The Autobots were desultorily going about their duties, monitoring their sector of space, performing routine recon missions, repairing aging equipment. The whole base seemed to be holding its breath, waiting for something to happen.
"Me too," Bumblebee agreed, joining the taller Autobot at the viewport. Cybertron gleamed below them, a steel planet, glinting like the universe's biggest ball bearing. "When're the Decepticons going to get off our base?"
Silverbolt looked up from the copy of Interface he'd been reading. Hot Rod caught a glimpse of the centerfold, a dark-blue female, streamlined and high-powered. She was sucking on an energon stick in a provocative sort of way. "Good question," said the Aerialbot leader. "I hope Prime knows what he's doing, letting them stay." He didn't sound all that concerned. Hot Rod remembered the look on his face when he'd carried the dying Thundercracker into their shuttle.
"They're not so bad," said Skydive. He grinned a little. "Rumble and Frenzy suddenly made friends with Rewind and Eject once they discovered a common weakness for green energon and Pistofrian non-exploding bridge. It's rather cute."
"Just as long as they clean up after themselves," said another voice. All the Autobots in the command center turned to see Optimus Prime leaning against the doorway, arms folded. "Poor Blaster has had to step in as disciplinarian once already. There was green energon all over his quarters."
Silverbolt hurriedly shoved the copy of Interface under the console, but Prime's eagle optics had already caught it. He sauntered over to the Aerialbot and retrieved the magazine, flipping through it. "Hmm," he said, as everyone held their breath, wondering which lecture would follow. "Not bad. Not on a par with FemBot, but not half bad."
There was a stunned silence. "Uh, Prime, are you feeling okay?" Hot Rod asked, after a moment.
Prime handed Silverbolt his magazine, and Hot Rod, Bumblebee, Skydive and Tracks hurried over to have a look for themselves. "Never better," said Prime, a smile in his voice. "You'll be happy to know that Megatron is recovering well."
There was a collective groan. Bumblebee folded his arms and stared at his leader. "Does that mean they're leaving?"
"Not quite yet," said Optimus Prime. "I've had some rather interesting reports from drone scouts in the Pelleas Gate sector. Apparently a ship from Amaranth exited the Gate and docked with the station itself. We should be prepared for new developments."
"Were there any of those warrior guys aboard?" Tracks wanted to know. "The Victors, or whatever they're called?"
"Victrons. No, actually; a humanoid life form was aboard the ship. Amaranth has sent out one of their own."
"Oh, man," said Skydive. "They're serious about attacking us."
"Don't panic just yet," Optimus Prime told him. "We don't know if they're infected with Nadirak. If they are, then they don't pose much of a threat. However…" He paused, steepling his fingers. "If they do have Nadirak, we are obligated to offer our aid."
"We are?" Bumblebee said.
"Yes, we are. We have the only thing that might save them."
"But they threatened to attack us!"
Silverbolt put down Interface and sighed. "Yeah, so did the Decepticons, every day or so for the past nine million years. Prime's right, if they need help, we gotta help them."
"How come we always have to be all noble?" demanded Tracks, scowling. Prime sighed.
"Because we are Autobots," he said simply. "We are not cruel."
There was a slightly embarrassed silence. Silverbolt got up and joined Prime at the console. "What do we do?" he asked quietly.
"For now, we watch and wait. They may not have Nadirak at all, in which case they might decide to attack us and cut their losses, and we'll have to fight. But for now, we wait." Optimus Prime put a hand on his shoulder. "And try not to start any fights with the Decepticons, okay? We may well need their strength."
Alirion, who had left the medical bay in a hurry after her conversation with Megatron had come to its rather astonishing conclusion, was sitting alone in the topmost observation area of the base. Her mind felt as if she was suffering a massive overload; thoughts, emotions, memories, intentions swirled and intermixed themselves chaotically, making it difficult for her to do anything other than sit in a corner and wonder what the slagging hell she was going to do.
Her metal skin seemed to remember the feel of his arms around her, as if his touch had somehow changed its molecular structure. She wished, again, that she had never met any of them. Life had been a great deal simpler two weeks ago.
She covered her face with her hands. Two weeks ago Singularity had shared her quarters, and she had woken out of recharge safe and content in his arms. Sin had never been anything other than perfectly sweet with her, always reliable, always there when she needed him, always available to listen to her complain about the Gate staff and make traitorous remarks about the authority of Amaranth. She had loved Sin, and she had felt that a part of herself had died when he and the rest of the crew of the Starjammer perished in an instant of bright flame.
And scarcely fourteen cycles later, she was shivering at the remembered touch of a stranger, an ancient and dangerous villain who had been destroying cities before she was even created. Singularity's remembered face flickered through her vision, with the perfect clarity of digital recall. His violet optics, like her own, were dark and calm in his silver face; the arched onyx-amethyst cowling of his ion engines rose behind his shoulders like wings. He'd been sitting beside her in the cockpit of the ship, and she thought she remembered that his hand had been in hers as the Gate opened into death. He had been beautiful, and deadly when it had been necessary; but first and foremost, he had been a friend, and a teacher. He had taught her what she knew.
And she had used it to help Megatron.
Megatron wasn't beautiful, she thought. He was all hard angles and sharp planes, stark black and silver-white, a living weapon, built to kill things. There was an odd kind of nobility to his face, though, a chiseled and icy aristocracy that marked him apart from the rest of the Transformers. It was an implacable, pitiless, sphinxlike face, the red optics narrow and set tilted slightly beneath dark brows; cold, utterly forbidding, until he smiled. She had seen that smile only twice now. The feeling it evoked in her was like the empty aching in her chest where the Shard had rested: a kind of helpless hunger. Singularity was gone; the Shard was gone. All that remained was herself, and a pair of fierce ruby optics.
Alirion wished she could hate him. Everything would be all right, if she could hate him. Then she could go back to being what she had always been, and this little episode would be nothing more than a recharge dream.
"Do we have enough?" Deneb asked Axon, anxiously, for the third time. The virologist hefted a case of injector vials onto his shoulder and looked up at his large friend.
"Let's find out," he said. "Can you bring the other cases?"
Deneb nodded, and picked them up, following him out into the corridor. All the Guardians had congregated in the largest space on the station: the cargo storage bay, often used as a kind of intergalactic left-luggage service by ships passing through. Currently it was full of Guardians, some still reasonably healthy, some almost incapacitated. There had to be at least sixty of them on board. Axon sighed, and hoped his theory was going to work.
He climbed up on top of a sealed crate labeled Falothorn Wood—AmaranthPalace of Government and cleared his throat. "May I have your attention please? As you have heard, I have developed a serum which I believe will cure the DHX-1 infection. Supplies of this serum are limited, so I must ask that only the most serious cases come forward for treatment. More of the serum is in the making; all aboard will receive it, but I need to see the most advanced cases first."
He surveyed the vast room, echoing with coughs and moans. Pair after pair of optics—green and blue—looked back at him with a mixture of hope, desperation and distrust. Several of the Guardians were hardly able to stand, and Axon felt a chill as he recognized Sinewave, supported by two others, in the throng. Deneb stepped forward and began to direct them to form a line.
This is probably the strangest thing I've ever done, thought Axon exhaustedly, as he readied the first dose of his antiviral. If there were any sort of allergic reactions to the serum, there was little or nothing he could do to combat them; his knowledge of the cybernetic physiology remained severely limited. He just had to hope.
Pushing away the leaden weight of exhaustion, he approached the first Guardian and slipped the injector lock into the fluid valve exposed by his open chest plate, releasing the antiviral into his patient's circulation. The Guardian gasped and staggered backwards, against his compatriots, but Axon was pleased to see that nothing more untoward happened. "Next," he called out.
An hour later, the cases were all but empty, and Axon was dizzy with fatigue. There were still a few Guardians left to be treated, but none of them were showing severe system failure, and he knew he could make more of the serum in time to help them, too. He swayed a little, catching his balance on the edge of the crate; the black flowers drifting across his vision seemed to be opening wider.
"Is it working?" he heard himself ask, from a long way away. "Is there any change?"
"Look out!" someone called, even further away. "He's…" And then there was nothing outside the black flowers at all, and he pitched forward into that nothingness.
"What is all this nonsense about the Gate stations?"
Gervase Lyon, Undersecretary for Intercontinuum Transportation and Travel, forced himself to keep his hands calmly at his sides, rather than wringing them desperately, as he wanted to. The Minister for Economy and Growth Initiative was leaning back in her chair, feet on her desk, filing her nails; her perfectly-sculpted mintak-leather heels rested on the datapad he had brought her. "Minister, as reported some cycles ago, there has been an incident with a violation of quarantine protocols relating to the Pelleas Gate."
"So you say. Didn't we dispatch a virologist to go and take care of it?"
"Yes, Minister. However, the quarantine zone has been compromised. We have reason to believe that the pathogen has spread outside the zone itself."
"So sterilize it." The Minister finished with her right-hand nails and began working on her left. "We've done it before. I can't afford to have a Gate station shut down because of some silly germ."
Lyon remembered. They had indeed done it before: once, when a fast-replicating spore that turned out to have amusingly carnivorous potential had been discovered on one of the mine planets out past the Nebulae. There had been a short piece on it in the Amaranth Records for that cycle: all organic lifeforms on planet XK-1193 have been destroyed in accordance with regulation HR-7. He remembered seeing the sterilization ships return to dock, great ugly things built around vast plasma cannons capable of burning anything living or dead into harmless ashes. "Yes, Minister, but it's not as simple as flaming a planet. This infection may have entered the Gate station itself and attacked the Guardian personnel."
"Replace them, Undersecretary."
"Yes, Minister. There is the question of the other planets, inhabited planets, in that sector. If the infection has spread to them…"
"Then, we flame them. Really, Undersecretary, you shouldn't need me to tell you these things. How did this wretched infection start, anyway?"
Lyon sighed. "Reports are unclear. The virologist we sent out reports that it is not infective to humanoids, though."
The Minister frowned, a tiny line appearing between her perfect brows, despite the paralysis treatment she had had to prevent such creasing. "Well, in that case, I fail to understand the difficulty. The pathogen is clearly not dangerous. I would appreciate you not wasting my time on such trivialities in future, Undersecretary." She put the nail file down and fixed him with an extremely unpleasant augment-green gaze.
Lyon bowed, gritting his teeth, and reclaimed his datapad as the Minister removed her thousand-kuat shoes from it. "Of course, Minister. My deepest apologies."
"You come up for review in the next month, do you not, Undersecretary?"
"Good," she said. He had a stark vision of his future, back down in the bowels of Amaranth, processing memo forms: the look in the Minister's expensive eyes said demotion as clearly as if she'd typed it on his datapad. "You may go. Send in my next appointment on your way out."
"Yes, Minister," said Lyon again, and saluted her, turning on his heel with military efficiency, and marched out. In the waiting room, he jerked his thumb at the Minister's next supplicant. "Your turn," he said. "Gods help you."
On his way back down to his own office, he couldn't help turning the situation over and over in his mind. The only inhabited planets close enough to the Pelleas Gate to be in much danger were Kau Beta, Delta Hadron—scarcely a planet, more a large hunk of rock that was home to a bunch of research outposts—and Cybertron.
Cybertron was a created planet, he remembered. It was home to the sentient robots, the ancient races that had lived there since before Amaranth was built, before humanoids began to colonize the galaxies. He knew from the heavily censored report Axon had submitted that the pathogen, DHX-1, was extremely infective to cybernetic individuals, but he had no idea whether it had spread to Cybertron itself yet. The problems were legion. What should he recommend to the Ministry? What action should be taken about the breach of quarantine? Did anybody care?
He sat down behind his falothorn-wood desk and called up all the information he had about the problem. There wasn't a great deal beyond the official reports of the inquiry into the Starjammer's destruction, which had quickly and neatly been written off as the fault of the ship's commander—an easy decision to make, since she was dead, along with her crew. It was foolish to give females positions of command, he thought absently, scribbling notes on the datapad, which still had Minister heelmarks in it. They acted irrationally and got everyone else into trouble. If the Starjammer's commander had survived the destruction of her ship, Lyon would have relished signing the terminate order on her himself. It made no difference that she had been a cybernetic construction; she had acted like a silly little bitch, and she deserved what she had got.
Now. The quarantine zone had extended in a circle centered on Pelleas Gate, a hundred centisectors in radius. The reports of two craft within the zone had come one after the other, in a direct line from the Gate to the metal planet Cybertron. It was, therefore, clear that the craft had either been coming from or going to Cybertron, and therefore that Cybertron itself was infected.
Lyon called up his official messages. Nothing from the virologist at the Gate. He assumed the report had been held up in processing somewhere; surely he would have achieved some kind of results by now? His own decision to send out a virologist to assess the situation had been motivated by a need to know if DHX-1 was dangerous to humanoids. Axon had already told him it wasn't. There was, after all, something in the Minister's order to ignore the problem altogether; replacement Guardians for the Gate were easily built and shipped out, and there appeared to be no immediate danger for anyone important to Amaranth.
He scanned down the reports again. There was something about a declaration of military intervention…
Ah yes. The second craft in the quarantine zone. It had been identified as a shuttle belonging to some of the Cybertronians under the command of someone called Optimus Prime. Lyon had to stifle a snicker at the name: why not call himself Totally Number One, or I'm The Greatest? This individual had apparently been ordered by the Gate authority to retreat before he entered the Q-zone, but had ignored the order and the accompanying threat of armed retaliation. Lyon wondered absently if it was worth sending a gunship out there to flame Cybertron. There were the financial issues to take into consideration: fuel and other supplies for a sterilization-ship mission weren't cheap, and he'd have to clear it with the Undersecretary for Health Policy and the Undersecretary for Applied Finance before he went ahead and recommended it to the Minister.
He sat back in his chair, tapping his chin with the datapad stylus. On the other hand, a full-out sterilization might do his reputation some good; the Cybertronians hadn't shown themselves to be particularly cooperative with Amaranthine regulations, and there had been several instances of disrespectful behavior toward Amaranth itself. Getting rid of Cybertron might well help Lyon keep his job, if he played it right with the Minister.
Lyon called up the current balance of available finances for his department, and began to calculate cost-benefit returns.
"He's coming round," said a voice. It sounded like a large voice, as if the person speaking was roughly the size of a two-man interstellar runabout. Axon opened an eye cautiously, and his memory came back with a thud.
Sinewave was bending over him, blue optics narrowed in concern. "Axon?"
He sat up, rubbing his head. "How long have I been out?"
"Cycle and a half. You just keeled over in the cargo hold. Are you all right?"
Axon considered. He was starving, and his head was heavy with the tight pain of dehydration, but he felt reasonably functional apart from that. "I think so. What about everyone else? Did the serum work?"
"Quite quickly," Sinewave told him. "Even the worst cases are back to normal now. We don't know how to thank you."
"You could get me something to eat," he told the Quaestron, with a wry smile. "Unless you want me to start gnawing on the furniture."
Sinewave grinned. "I'll see what I can do." He turned and hurried out, leaving Axon alone in what he now realized was the room he'd been using as a lab. The remains of his desperate experiments littered every flat surface, and two cases of serum remained untouched on a table. Deneb must've made more. Just in case.
He got up, stretching, popping muscles that had seized into rock-hard knots with hours of work, and made his painful way over to the comm console. Time to report success to Amaranth. Despite his worries about the real reason he'd been sent out here, he thought they'd be pleased—and impressed—to learn of his achievements. Perhaps there would be a lecturing position at the University in the offing, or even a promotion. After all, Amaranth did know best, didn't it?
He accessed his messages from the Amaranth Unilink. Nothing new, which was odd. He would have thought they'd be demanding a progress report by now, even if they weren't going to read it. Carefully he typed out his findings, organizing the report by methods, resources, results and conclusions, and read it over for clarity before submitting it to the Health Policy and Intercontinuum Transportation and Travel departments. Hopefully he'd hear back from them with further instructions within the cycle.
For now, it was time to eat.
"Transportation and Travel recommends we sterilize the area," said the Minister for Economy and Growth Initiative. "It's the first intelligent thing he's submitted this year." She was leaning back in a different chair, this one made of pure sabathi wood upholstered in dyed mintak leather. It had cost something upwards of sixty thousand kuats, and was one of a set of twenty arranged around a boardroom table. Across from her, the Supreme Minister of Amaranth and the Federated Galactic Systems was smoking and helping himself to a nice long look at her augmented torso.
"Which area?" he said after a moment.
"Not that one," said the Minister with a calculated smile, and recrossed her legs. "That business with one of the Gates. Some sort of virus or something. It doesn't affect us, but it does kill the Cybertronians."
"Good," said the Supreme Minister, blowing smoke rings. "Let it get rid of them for us."
"Ah," the Minister replied, "but you forget the importance of cautionary tales, Supreme Minister. If, as Transportation and Travel recommends, we sterilize Cybertron and the surrounding area, with the largest and most ostentatious plasma cannons we have at our disposal, not only will the virus and the problem of Cybertron be solved at once, but we will also appear to be very intolerant of insubordination."
The Supreme Minister smiled. "What a wonderful idea."
"Isn't it?" Economy and Growth Initiative half-closed her eyes and regarded him with her head tilted to one side. "If you'd care to give the order, Supreme Minister, we can set this issue aside and move on to more important things."
He pushed a button on the table, and a datapad extruded itself from the polished surface. Removing a monogrammed stylus from his pocket, the Supreme Minister entered his personal code and identification, and typed in a terse message to the central Unilink core.
PLANET OF CYBERTRON AND SURROUNDING SECTORS ARE TO BE STERILIZED USING HIGHEST PLASMA INTENSITY. BY ORDER OF THE SUPREME MINISTER OF AMARANTH AND THE FEDERATED GALACTIC SYSTEMS.
"Perfect," said the Minister for Economy and Growth Initiative, smiling at him. "Your approval ratings will climb even higher."
"So will yours," said the Supreme Minister, getting up from his chair and offering her a hand. "If you'd care to continue this conversation elsewhere, my dear Minister…"
Alirion jerked out of a doze as her communicator shrilled. For a moment she couldn't place the frequency, then she realized it was someone on Pelleas Gate. I'm dead at their hands. Who's calling me from there?
She sighed and opened the channel. "Yeah?"
"…….Alirius?" The voice sounded hopeful and wary at the same time.
"Alirion, now," she said. "Who is this?"
"Sinewave. I took a chance, calling your comm—we were all sure you'd died in the blast. Where are you?"
She breathed a sigh of relief. Sinewave, a Quaestron, had been one of her few good friends at Pelleas; he'd been the one who told her that stupid Terran story, the field hospital at Sebastopol, the lamp burning in the night. "I'm on the Autobot base, orbiting Cybertron," she told him. "Look, what's going on? Do you lot have Nadirak?"
"Nadirak?" He paused. "Oh, you mean DHX-1? Not anymore. Listen, Alirion, everyone has to evacuate, get the slag out of the sector. Amaranth's about to send out sterilization ships."
Alirion was silent for so long that he asked worriedly if she was still there. "Yes," she said dully. "Why didn't you call Cybertron directly?"
Sinewave laughed a little, crackling over the carrier wave. "You think I haven't tried? The planet itself is out of my comm range, and I can't use the main station comm, because it records everything and transmits on demand to Amaranth. I'm not even sure they can't trace personal comm units."
"I expect they can," she said, without expression.
"You have to warn them. Try and get the call out to everyone on the planet and its moons. We just got the notification that the sterilization ships will be Gating through in two cycles, with full armament."
"Why do they want to flame Cybertron?" she said, staring at the wall. "Is Nadirak a threat to them?"
"No," said Sinewave, "actually it doesn't affect humanoids at all. So they're just doing it to show off, as far as we can tell. You don't have a lot of time, Alirion."
"No," she agreed.
He paused. "I'll call again if I find out anything more."
"Yes," she said.
"All right then. I'm sorry."
There was a click as Sinewave cut the link, and she remained staring at the wall for a long moment before going to the emergency call station and paging Optimus Prime.
The ready room was packed. All the Autobots on the base had gathered to listen to what Prime had to say, and rumors had circulated widely enough already so that none of them looked particularly cheerful.
Prime rested his hands flat on the table and looked over his troops. "We have received word that Amaranth is launching an attack against Cybertron in two cycles' time," he said clearly. "Their intention is to flame the planet into complete and permanent sterility with plasma cannons, reducing it into a molten lump of metal. They know that Nadirak is not dangerous to humanoids, because their own scientist determined this from his experiments at the Pelleas Gate station. He managed to come up with a cure for the Guardians at the station, and they have all survived the infection. We were informed of this by the Guardians themselves."
"Why are they telling us?" asked Ultra Magnus, quietly. "What's in it for them?"
"Nothing," Prime said. "They're also in the sector which has been slated for sterilization."
"Amaranth's gonna nuke their own people on their own Gate?" Hot Rod demanded. "Why?"
"They can always build more Guardians, and the Gate station itself will not be badly damaged. This is an extermination of inconvenient pests, not a tactical military attack," Prime told him. "The collateral damage is slight compared to the relief of getting us, and Cybertron, out of their way."
"We're just going to sit back and let them melt us into slag?"
"No," said Prime, and there was steel in his voice, "we are not."
"Prime," said Prowl, calmly, "we can't possibly resist a full onslaught from Amaranth. There aren't that many of us, and our firepower's pathetic compared to those plasma cannons."
"Yeah," said someone else, and more Autobots agreed. "We're really screwed this time."
"If we'd had more warning, we might have moved Cybertron," said someone at the back of the room. "There's no way we can get any sort of momentum in two cycles. We're going to have to leave."
"Leave our homeworld?"
"We have no choice! Evacuate or get melted!"
"I'm not running away from Amaranth!"
"Autobots!" Prime said, his voice cutting through the noise. "Panic is not going to help us here. We have to work together if we're going to survive."
"They're right," Alirion murmured, from her corner. "The plasma cannons have the power of something like half a sun. You have no chance at all."
There was a brief silence, and then someone said from the crowd, "What's it to you? You're the one who brought this on us in the first place!"
"Yes," said Alirion dully. "And I can't stop it. You have to leave, and leave now, if you want to live."
"That's exactly the kind of attitude that we don't need," said Prime. "Accepting defeat makes defeat inevitable. We're not going to go down that easily." There was another surge of voices. No one noticed when Alirion slipped behind someone and quietly left the room.
"What's the plan?" asked Bumblebee, looking up at Prime, hope in his optics. "What are we gonna do?"
The slight pause before Prime answered told them all they needed to know. Fear settled on the room like a thin mist of oil. "We're going to fight back," he said.
There was another, more telling, pause before another voice spoke up from the doorway. It was a voice that was clearly used to command.
"What are the structural specifications of these plasma cannons?" it said.
Prime looked over the heads of the massed Autobots and met Megatron's gaze. The Decepticon leader came forward, through the crowd, everyone shrinking back from him slightly as if he were coated in something unpleasant, and faced Prime across the ready room table. "What sort of power core do they use? How are they controlled?"
"We don't know that," Hot Rod blurted angrily. "Why would we know that?"
"Because," said Megatron slowly, favoring Hot Rod with a glance of burning condescension, "if you know how they work, you may be able to find out how to stop them working."
Prime put out his arm and held Hot Rod back from doing something stupid. "He's right," he told the younger Autobot. "We need to know as much as we can about how the Amaranthine force is armed."
"But we don't have any way to find that out! I say we just go blast the ships when they arrive!"
Prime sighed. "That's one idea," he said.
"An idiotic one," Megatron sneered. "Go up against a fully-armed Amaranthine plasma cannon with what?"
Prime's arm went out again, clanging against Hot Rod's chestplate. "If you have a suggestion, make it," he said, coldly. Silence fell; the muttering which had been providing background to the conversation died out.
"As a matter of fact," said Megatron, with what might have been a smile, "I do. Your great friends the Guardians work for Amaranth, yes?"
Prime nodded slowly.
"In which case they would have access to Amaranth's Unilink core."
"Yes, but not necessarily to the technical specs for the sterilization ships," Prime pointed out. His optics were still locked on Megatron's; the watchers almost thought they could see a faint glow in the space between their faces, as the air molecules flashed into oblivion on contact with those rays. At last Megatron shrugged, the fusion cannon clunking against his shoulder.
"Have you got a better plan, Optimus Prime?" he asked simply.
The Autobot leader held his gaze. "Not yet. But I won't stand by and let Cybertron be destroyed. We'll ask the Guardians for help."
Megatron nodded. "A wise choice, Autobot."
"And what about your forces?" The silence got a little more silent.
"Cybertron is our home planet too," said Megatron, coldly. "Or had you forgotten?" Without waiting for a reply, he turned and left the ready room. Every head turned to watch him go, and the minute the door clicked shut there was a furious babble of voices, all disagreeing with one another as loudly as they could.
She walked out onto the observation platform, looking out at the dull ball-bearing of Cybertron, sparkling here and there as wrecked city surfaces caught the light. Without turning back, she leapt into the air, transforming, feeling her body shift and lock, her ion engines blasting into life, and opened the throttle all the way as she shot out into space. She didn't know where she was going, and she didn't much care.
Of the sixty Guardians on the Pelleas Gate station, forty-five had joined with Sinewave and Deneb, having read their Unilink mail and come to understand exactly what was about to happen. The other fifteen remained loyal to Amaranth, accepting their fate calmly, and it was with a mixture of regret and desperation that Deneb closed the holding-cell doors on them.
"You're sure," he said again. "You don't want to reconsider? You don't want even to try and escape?"
"Don't be ridiculous," said one of the loyalists. "Amaranth knows best. If we are to die for Amaranth, we will die well."
Deneb stared at him. "You do know they're about to flame this station with the sterilizer ships?"
"Yes," said the loyalist serenely. "It will be a glorious sight."
Deneb turned away, sickened, and returned to the control room. He and Sinewave—despite Sinewave's lowly Quaestron status, he was surprisingly good at convincing people that he was right—had more or less commandeered the whole Station. "Well?" he asked, wearily, joining the Quaestron at the command console.
"We've received an odd message," said Sinewave. "I haven't had any contact with Alirion since I managed to get a call through to her hours ago. But..." He punched keys, and a coded transmission appeared on the monitors. "Look at this."
Deneb looked. "Who's this Optimus Prime?"
"Apparently the leader of one of the Cybertronian factions. I've got files referring to a civil war between them and the, ah, Decepticons. Optimus Prime is asking for our help."
"What sort of help?" asked someone behind them. Both Deneb and Sinewave turned to see Axon, no longer in his black Amaranth shipsuit, standing with his arms folded and looking determined. Someone had found him a plain grey shipsuit, presumably left by a passer-through. "What do they want?"
"Well," said Sinewave slowly, "they want specs for the Amaranthine sterilization ships."
Axon grinned a slightly unbalanced grin. "Do they."
"Yes, and apparently they want them soon." Deneb reached down and held out a hand, and Axon stepped onto it as Deneb lifted him carefully to the console level. "Seems they've decided not to go gently into that good night."
"Fine by me," said Axon. He glanced up at the screen with Optimus Prime's message. "What about your friend, the dead commander, what's-her-name?"
Sinewave winced. "Alirion. She's not dead just yet."
"What does she suggest? I mean, she's aware of the capabilities of these ships, right?"
"I haven't been able to get in touch with her," said Sinewave. "I think either she's out of range or she shut off her comm unit."
"Well, never mind," said Axon. "Listen, both of you. In fact," he added, turning back to address the whole command room, full of Guardians who were still wondering what the slag they had done to call down the might of Amaranth on their collective head, "all of you, listen. I was given the name Axon when I joined the Amaranthine Undersecretariat for Health Policy and Prevention. The name I was born with was Antares. If I'm going to die, I'd rather die under my own name, although I'm hoping it won't come to that."
There was silence for a moment. Then Sinewave did a curious thing. Raising his hand to the level of his optics, he snapped it down again to his side. "Antares," he said. "My allegiance rests with you."
More silence; then, almost as one, the Guardians saluted him. Axon, once more Antares, stared at them for a moment. He raked his gaze around the room, trying to see if they were making fun, and then slowly returned the salute. "It's an honour," he said slowly. "I hope it's not my last."
The moment stretched. Deneb broke it by reaching over and touching a flashing key. "Incoming transmission from the orbital Cybertronian base," he said. "On the screens."
Antares and the Guardians turned back to the screens. White letters appeared one by one on the green field, hanging in space.
Guardians of Pelleas Gate, the letters spelled. You face the same danger we do.
"No slag," said someone at the back of the room, and was immediately shushed. The glowing letters continued. On behalf of all Cybertronians, we offer an agreement. An alliance. Your knowledge and our firepower may together prove sufficient to combat the threat posed by Amaranth.
"Wait," said Deneb. "Didn't you say they were having some sort of civil war?"
"Yeah. Maybe this is just the one faction," said Sinewave. "I don't know."
The aid given us by your comrade is appreciated. Without it, we would not have survived the infection. We offer our thanks, and extend our offer of an agreement between our two factions to resist Amaranth.
The command room remained silent for a moment after the white letters stopped. Antares's mind flickered through images of Amaranth in the solar spring, glinting pristine white and silver and brilliant rainbow-shards cast by prismatic towers, through the agony he'd seen in the cargo bay of Pelleas Station, to the stark contrast of white on green, telling him first that his home was about to turn on him, and then that strangers they'd thought dead were offering their help. He felt dizzy. The only thing he could keep straight in his mind was the face of his daughter as he'd left Amaranth—scarcely a week ago, and yet perhaps for the last time. Ligeia had wanted him to come home covered in glory, perhaps get promoted, be there to watch her own promotion in her offices, watch her become something important on someone's hierarchical ladder, enable and justify her desperate scramble for something to be.
He didn't notice that his right hand had crept to the left breast of his shipsuit, searching for insignia that were no longer there, as he turned and faced the towering forms of Deneb and Sinewave.
"I'm with them," he said. "I've been cast off. I might as well find another leader to follow."
Sinewave's blue optics seemed suddenly full to brimming of weariness and sorrow. "I've been looking for one," he said quietly, "for a long time. I'm with them, too."
More silence. Then, one by one, the Guardians watching them raised their right hands in agreement. Deneb was the last.
"This is more difficult than I thought it would be," he said slowly. "Amaranth has been our lives."
"It's been mine," said Antares. "I thought that was a good thing."
Deneb bowed his head, and slowly raised his right hand. "I'm in."
"Then let's do this," said Antares, turning back to the command console and reaching out to press a button larger than his head. "Tell them we're with them."
Sinewave, the better typist, moved to the console. He flicked open the channel Optimus Prime had been using and began to respond. Once more, white letters glowed and hovered in green darkness, but this time they carried something of renewed hope. None of the Guardians of Pelleas Gate knew if it was possible to survive a sterilizer blast; no one had ever come back from one to tell the tale. At least, they thought, if they were to be melted down, they wouldn't go alone.
The black and purple starfighter drifted in high orbit around Kau Beta, circling the planetoid once every three hours. She had watched the distant specks of light that marked the spaceport and the major cities turn beneath her, not paying much attention to time passing by; it was only when her fuel levels dropped past the point where her autoalert systems started paying attention that she roused enough to break her orbit and come down to land.
Kau Beta, being reasonably close to both Cybertron and the Guardian-staffed Pelleas Gate, catered to robots as well as humanoids. She had hoped to bring the Starjammer down to Kau Beta for emergency decontamination and treatment of the sick crew; the planetoid's medical facilities were state-of-the-art. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
She made planetfall and transformed, her wings sliding back to rise over her shoulders, her body shifting and rearranging itself into her bipedal form. Nobody paid much attention; Guardians, even Victrons, weren't that uncommon in the Kau Beta ports. She stretched, loosening taut muscle cables, and headed straight for the closest spaceport bar.
The spitting neon sign over the door said "The Nexus," and underneath it, in smaller letters, "Cybertronians Welcome." As good a place as any, thought Alirion, and ducked under the lintel. Inside, it was dark and almost empty, featuring two bars—one Cybertronian-sized, one designed for typical humanoids—and row upon row of dusty optic-pearl liquor dispensers. Alirion slipped onto a stool at the far end of the room and flipped a couple of kuat chips onto the bar. After a while, someone emerged from a shadowy back room, climbed up a ladder to reach the bar level, and faced her over the taps.
"Ethylene glycol," she said, shoving the kuats towards him. "Lots of it."
He raised an eyebrow, but rolled his ladder along behind the bar to the next set of taps, and filled a glass for her. She downed it in one go, and slid the glass back to him.
Several highballs later, she was staring glumly at her reflection in the mirrored barback, chin resting on her hand, stirring her drink with a glass lab pipette. The barkeeper, whom she'd eventually identified as a Terran-style humanoid with some cyberaugmentation, watched this operation with interest.
"Man trouble?" he asked after a while.
"Huh?" Alirion was using the pipette as a straw. "Who?"
"You drowning your sorrows over a guy, or what?"
She narrowed her optics, which normally made humanoids turn colour slightly and back off, but he didn't seem fazed. He came over and leaned his elbows on the bar, looking at her. "You're drowning 'em over something."
Alirion pushed her empty glass over the bar to him and folded her arms. "So? It's a bar. This is what people do here, right?"
"Generally they come in and have a drink while they're waiting for their flight out," said the barkeeper, refilling the glass. "I haven't seen anyone come here with the express purpose of drinking themselves insensible in years."
"Pay your money," said Alirion, staring moodily into her drink, "now's your chance."
"I didn't even know you lot could get drunk," he continued amiably. "Gen'rally I get requests for the ethylene glycol as a mixer for energon, not straight up."
She toasted him. "It's not bad. Not a patch on the stuff we used to get back when the Gates were being built—the coolant fluid for the construction machines was delicious—but not bad."
"Glad you approve," he said, polishing a glass absently in the manner of bartenders everywhere. "So, to reiterate, what's the problem?"
"Not yours," said Alirion. He chuckled.
"You're not doing this right. See, it's supposed to go like this: female walks into bar, is miserable and alone, friendly bartender comes over and lights her dope-stick and draws her into conversation and eventually makes her see that the guy she's pining for isn't worth her time anyway, she goes away happy, bartender gets a big old tip." He tilted his head, looking up at her. "Only generally the female isn't fifteen feet tall, metal, and heavily armed."
"And I don't smoke," said Alirion. "Yet."
"I shouldn't think it would do you any good," he said, taking back her empty glass and refilling it again. "Well?"
Alirion, by now, was insulated from the real world by a pleasant cushion of intoxication. "Okay," she said, resting her chin on her folded arms. "You wanna know what's wrong?"
"Sure," said the barkeeper. "Lay it on me."
"I think I started a war."
He didn't pause in his glass-polishing. "That's a new one."
"No, I'm serious," she told him. "The Cybertronians. There was this virus, and I was supposed to be blown up, but I wasn't, and then they all got it, and then they got better, and then Amaranth says it's gonna sterilize Cybertron."
The barkeeper raised his eyebrow again. "Amaranth, huh?"
"Stupid slagging Amaranth," she said sourly. He let out a surprised chuckle.
"Aren't you one of theirs?" he asked, pointing at the Guardian symbol on her wings.
"Not anymore." She swallowed the rest of her drink. He looked at her expectantly, and she found herself launching into the story for the nth time in the past week. She had to give him credit for being an excellent listener.
"Okay," he said once she'd wound down, and lit a dope-stick. "What about the guy?"
"What makes you think there's a guy?"
"There always ends up being one, somehow," he told her. "You don't read enough stories, do you?"
"I'm a robot designed to fly and shoot things," she reminded him. "Literature is not one of my strong points."
The barkeeper grinned. "Fair enough."
"As a matter of fact, there is a guy...well...sort of. I'm a lot more concerned about the whole war thing right now."
He grinned again, knowingly. "Of course."
He blew smoke-rings, the heavy sweetness of the dope-stick rising in curls and spirals like the gas-clouds of nebulae. "Well, has he spurned your advances, or what?"
"What? Yes. No. No. I..." she trailed off and passed a hand over her optics. "It was a momentary aberration and he was just as embarrassed by it as I was, and it's not going to happen again, so the question is totally academic."
"You'd be surprised," said the barkeeper.
"Anyway," she said, not paying attention, "I don't want to go back there, and I certainly can't go back to the Gate, and I can't just sit here and run up the galaxy's biggest tab, much as I'd like to."
He put down the glass he had been polishing and looked thoughtful. "Who's in charge back at that base of yours?"
"It's not mine, I keep telling you," said Alirion, looking around for something else to drink. "Optimus Prime."
The barkeeper looked more thoughtful. "Any idea how much of this area they're going to flame? I mean, is this planetoid in the path?"
She shrugged, sliding off the chair unsteadily, and walked along the bar to the ethylene glycol tap, refilling her own glass. "Normally, from what I can remember from our training protocols, they'd zap the original target and an area surrounding it ranging in size depending on how nasty they were feeling or how, uh, dangerous the pathogen was." She swigged her drink. "They might well decide to nuke you too." At this point, nothing could have bothered her. She would happily have greeted the Supreme Minister of Amaranth with an off-balance hug and a grin. The barkeeper didn't have the same indifference toward the prospect of his own destruction, however.
"How long do we have?"
She shrugged, almost dropping the glass. "Two cycles, give or take a couple hours."
"Can you make contact with them?"
She tilted her head and stared at him. "With the Autobots?"
"Dunno." She forced herself to think through the swirling happy clouds and found her communicator. The buttons seemed to have multiplied, and Kau Beta's gravity was doing funny things to her, pushing her offbalance and then seeming to lurch back into stability. Eventually, by dint of shutting off one optic to kill the double vision, she managed to open a channel and call Prime.
There was a pause, the hiss of interstellar radio noise. "Prime here," said a familiar, faraway voice. "Alirion, where are you?"
"Kau Beta," she said after a moment's thought. "There's a guy here wants to talk to you." She held out her wrist comm for the barkeeper, and rested her other elbow on the bar, absently sucking on her pipette swizzle-stick. He was holding a rather lively conversation with Prime, of which she was able to catch perhaps one word out of twenty.
She found herself drifting a little, recalling odd images: things sparkling and turning in the silence of space, the dancing afterimages behind her optic sensors as the brilliant flash of the explosion faded; standing, thousands of years ago, in one of hundreds of ranks of Guardians standing to receive their graduating honours from the heads of the Amaranthine academy—the odd hot surge of pride around her fuel pump as she heard her name and designation called—the satisfaction of being one of many, rather than one of one.
She slumped a little on the bar stool, optics dimming. The bar itself turned into the edge of a recharge bed, and the Transformer lying on it was looking at her with red optics that glowed with witch-fire in the dark; then that dark turned back into space, and she was back by the silver hoop of the Gate, scattered and sparkling like frost, and the frost turned itself somehow back into the sharp planes of a silver-white face...
"Oi," said someone. "Wake up."
"Slag off," she muttered, trying to get back into the dream. Something touched her shoulder, something soft and organic, and she sighed and straightened up, rubbing her optics. The barkeeper was looking up at her.
"Yeah," she said warily.
"You sober enough to fly?"
"Blast. Then I'm gonna have to do it. What do you turn into?"
"Hey," she protested. "I'm busy. Where do you want to go?"
"To Cybertron," he told her with rather admirable patience. "Your leader wants you back there pronto. Says you might be able to help with a plan some Decepticon guy came up with. Something to do with design specs of the ships."
"Why're you coming along?" The concept of Decepticons and Autobots working together drifted over her head, not making sense.
He gave her a bit of a grin. "Goodwill ambassador from Kau Beta, that's me. Besides, you'd crash into something."
Alirion sighed. "What's your name, then?"
"Ross," he said, holding out a hand, his grin widening. "Henry Ross, at your service."
She looked down at his hand, and held out a finger, which he shook firmly. "I don't know whether or not I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Henry Ross," she said, "but I expect I'm going to find out fairly shortly."
"Yeah," he agreed. "What do you turn into, anyway?"
"You ever seen a T-95 Nova?"
Ross's eyes widened. Alirion couldn't help grinning a little. She got up and stretched, running self-diagnostics on her toxin levels; she certainly shouldn't be flying, although her systems would function adequately to get her back to the Cybertron orbital base if someone sober was at her controls. "You ever flown a Nova?"
"Not as such," he said. "Fastest thing I ever flew was an old Sunflare-class starfighter, years ago." He clambered down from the bar-ladder and picked up an ancient leather jacket, shrugging into it. Now that her head was beginning to clear, Alirion could tell he'd had substantial augments to both legs—possible reconstruction of the limbs from the bone up. That gibed with the Sunflare, which was a fast but unbelievably dangerous little bitch of a ship, used twenty or so years before in the Amaranthine outlier military posts.
"You..." she said, putting bits together. "You were in the..."
"Yeah," he agreed shortly. "Come on, let's get going."
She felt a minor surge of gratification at the way Ross's jaw fell as he saw her transform, but it faded into nothing more than a dull pulsing headache as they took off, her turbojets whining up through the atmosphere until Ross cut in the ion engines and broke out of Kau Beta's gravity well. He flew adequately, not brilliantly, but there was no nervousness in his command of her controls. It wasn't until Cybertron had appeared in the main viewport that Alirion murmured "How much do I owe you for the drinks?"
Ross blinked, then chuckled. "Call it even. I haven't flown anything this fun in years."
"Sure I'm sure. I can just tap someone's coolant fluid and refill my eth glyc tank that way. There's not much call for it on Kau Beta anyway."
Alirion laughed a bit. "Right. Who's watching The Nexus while you're gone?"
"Watching it? Nobody'd bother to break into that dump anyway. Most of the humanoids won't drink what I've got on tap, they can get the same stuff cheaper at the shopping-center bars, and my Transformer clientele has pretty much vanished in the last few years." He ramped down her ion engines as they came in slowly, rounding the dull-burnished curve of Cybertron itself to make visual contact with the orbital base. "Hell," he said softly. "What happened to this planet?"
"Civil war, as far as I can tell," Alirion said. "You have the Autobots and the Decepticons, and they've been feuding for generations."
"Yeah," Ross said slowly. "Yeah, I remember. Long story, but they were, what, created as two separate races and then somehow got into combat with one another?"
"Don't ask me," said Alirion. "I'm a Victrix, not a Quaestrix. Hang on, let the synch systems pull us in to land." Ross took his hands off the controls as the orbital base's computer-controlled docking beams found, caught and held her body, drawing her in gently, matching her velocity and angular momentum to that of the station, so that they touched down as if on solid unmoving ground.
She let Ross out and transformed, rubbing her head. He looked up at her, then over at the hulk of Cybertron. "But the war's over?"
"What do you mean the war's over?"
"The Decepticons and the Autobots are working together, yeah?"
Alirion shrugged. "I don't think they trust each other further than they can throw them. Go on, go be a Goodwill Ambassador." She adjusted her self-repair systems to cut in some painkillers, and sat down on a convenient rock.
"What about you?"
"I'll just be staying out here, I think," said Alirion. "I don't have any enthusiasm whatsoever for the mission."
Ross shook his head, shrugging, and walked into the base.
"This is the worst idea you've ever come up with," said Starscream, leaning against the table, arms folded. "And you've had some real winners in your time."
"Shut up, Starscream." Megatron wasn't paying attention to him, as was generally the case; rather, the Decepticon leader was flicking through what information on the Amaranthine systems he had managed to call up on the Unilink. "Interesting," he muttered. "Nothing particularly advanced, and yet they seem to have had no problem taking over seven galaxies."
Starscream came over and peered at the screen. "What are you talking about?" he demanded. "You're not seriously thinking of teaming up with the Autobots and launching an attack against Amaranth?"
"You underestimate me, Starscream," said Megatron pleasantly. "As usual. No, I am not seriously thinking of teaming up with the Autobots, as you so delicately put it. I am thinking of working together with them to destroy a threat to Cybertron which we might otherwise not be able to combat."
"That's the same thing!" Starscream yelled. "Team up with, work together with, same slagging thing! You've gone soft, Megatron, that's what it is!"
Megatron's arm snapped out, almost too fast to see, and Starscream was suddenly dangling a few inches off the floor, Megatron's fist clamped firmly around his throat. "I'd think very carefully about what you say before you say it, Starscream," said Megatron, still sounding pleasant. Starscream thrashed a bit before discovering that this only served to tighten the grip on his neck, and subsided, making strangled "urk" noises. "I have in mind a temporary cease of open hostility towards the Autobots, for the space of time it takes us to neutralize the Amaranthine threat to Cybertron. After that, I want nothing to do with them." He paused, and gave Starscream a little shake, the Seeker's wings clattering against his shoulders. "Decepticon pride won't save Cybertron, much as I'd prefer it to."
Starscream's hands were wrapped around Megatron's wrist, his optics flickering a bit. Megatron held his gaze for a moment longer, then opened his fist and let the Seeker drop to the floor in a clanking heap. He turned back to his screen, unconcernedly, and resumed typing.
Cautiously Skywarp and Thundercracker helped Starscream to his feet, supporting him as he coughed desperately, hands at his throat. Behind them, Ramjet and Soundwave looked on in silence. When Starscream had regained his voice, he croaked, "As you wish, Leader."
Megatron acknowledged this with a nod, and looked up at Soundwave. "How much longer until the attack?"
"One point seventy cycles," said Soundwave tonelessly. "No readings of any approaching craft."
"Good." The Decepticon leader rested his chin on his fist, calculating. There were a finite number of power sources available to Amaranth, even with its galactic network of Gates and transport routes. Given the basic design of the Amaranthine technology he'd managed to find on the Unilink, they would need a power source which was capable of producing vast amounts of energy with very little harmful radiation emission; there was no evidence of heavy shielding to protect the humanoids around the machines. Which knocked out most of the nuclear-fission fuel sources available; even the most sophisticated atomic reactor cores used by the last century's Terrans had required vast unwieldy shieldplates to stop the ionizing radiation from damaging the organics close by.
What was left, he wondered.
"Optimus Prime to Megatron," said a voice into the silence. Megatron stiffened, ignoring the glares from his lieutenants, and flicked open the comm channel.
"Megatron," he said.
"You'd better come up to the main conference room," said Prime's voice, tinny and laughable over the comm circuits. "Bring whoever you need. Something important has happened."
Starscream, still clutching his throat, came up beside Megatron. "What've you got us into?" he demanded, hoarsely.
"We'll see." Megatron smiled a little. Starscream found himself heartened by the sight of the smile; it was the one he generally associated with things blowing up. Specifically Autobots, but he'd take what he could get.
In the main conference room Optimus Prime and a handpicked group of Autobots—Ratchet, Prowl, Jazz, Ultra Magnus and Perceptor—waited for them. Megatron noticed a human he didn't recognize, wearing what looked like an old-style Terran leather jacket, standing beside Prime. He took up his position facing the Autobot leader and steepled his fingers. "Why have you summoned us?" he asked.
Prime nodded towards the human. "This is ex-Commander Henry Ross," he said. "He once served in the Amaranthine military, and has useful knowledge of their attack ships' specifications."
"What about these sterilizer rays?" Starscream demanded from behind Megatron's shoulder. "Does your pet squishy know anything about them?"
"Shut up, Starscream," said Megatron, automatically. "Well, Prime? Any news on the design specs of the Amaranthine ships?"
"Not yet," said Optimus Prime. He shot a glance over his shoulder, and after a moment Alirion stepped forward. She looked....weary, thought Megatron. As if she hadn't recharged in far too long. He shoved away the thought.
"My ex-colleagues at the Pelleas Gate may have more information for you," she said tonelessly, and flicked open a panel on her right arm. "This is my communication link to the Gate. Use it as you see fit, with my blessing." She closed her fingers over the link and gave it a vicious twist, tossing it onto the conference table where it spat a few blue sparks before subsiding. "This should give you access to all that the Guardians can tell you."
"You're not going to help?" demanded Starscream, elbowing Megatron's restraining arm aside. "You're just gonna let this happen?"
"What can I do?" Alirion spat, optics burning violet-red. "I am giving you all I can give you to help end this thing."
"Hah, yeah," said Starscream, leaning over the table, fingers splayed out on its surface. Megatron ignored the glares of the rest of his warriors, mildly interested in what Starscream was up to. "Just hand it over and bugger off, is that it? You're done with us, and now you're gonna go somewhere else and relax while we fight your idiot war?"
Alirion stared at him, and the Autobots around her backed off a little. "No," she said after a moment, optics so bright they looked white rather than purple. "No. I won't." She reached out and closed her hand over the lump of circuitry that had been her communicator, and shoved it back into its socket on her forearm. "Nobody around here is relaxing, Starscream. And my idiot war is not all mine."
"Hear, hear," said Henry Ross, staring at them with folded arms. "Who here likes Amaranth?"
"All right," said the human. "Who here wants to see Amaranth back the hell off and keep its collective nose to itself?"
This time there was a deafening roar, from both Autobots and Decepticons. Alirion was holding Starscream's gaze, face taut and set, fingers clenched; as she glared, Megatron stepped in front of his lieutenant and folded his arms in a decisive sort of way.
"The human is right," he said slowly. "Amaranth must fall." He paused, surveying the room; pair after pair of blue Autobot optics glowed with military fervour, for the moment ignoring the fact that he was their oldest enemy, and their most feared. "Who is with us?" he asked, glaring around the room.
Prime watched as their minds flicked through their various options. One by one he saw his warriors make their decisions, and step forward. A shout mingled between Autobot and Decepticon voices rang out, echoing in the vast conference room.
"We are with you!"
Hours later, hours after Cybertron's shadow had cast the orbital base into total darkness, Ross and Alirion were paging through what they'd found on Amaranth's Unilink. Alirion had made contact with someone at the Gate—apparently someone she'd known from her service there—and received the codes they'd needed to access the Unilink sites restricted to Gate personnel. There wasn't a great deal about the construction of the ships available to them, but they did manage to find out what powered the ships themselves.
It was rather interesting.
"Prime?" said Alirion, after double and triple-checking her findings. "Can you and Perceptor come down to the comp lab? I need to have a really close look at the Matrix."
Ross looked over at her from his jury-rigged computer station—several empty crates friction-taped to the seat of a comm chair to raise him to the level of the console. She shrugged.
"It's a weird energy signature. Not unlike the Matrix. Maybe if I can get some specific readings off the Matrix itself I can figure out what the hell these ships are running off."
"Fine, fine," said Ross. "You do realize I only understand about a sixth of what you're saying?"
"That's probably a sixth more than most," said Alirion with grudging respect. "One day, when this is all over and nobody is threatening us with utter destruction, remind me to ask you again how you came to have such a remarkable collection of arcane knowledge."
"Sure," said Ross, and lit a dope-stick. "Remind me to ask you what the deal is with you and that big white guy with the cannon."
Alirion ignored this. After a moment Prime and Perceptor strode into the comp lab and regarded her meaningfully.
"Thank you for coming down." Alirion got up and regarded the two Autobots. "I need...well, we need...a close scan of the Matrix's structure, down to the crystalline level. Can you do that?"
Perceptor looked down his nose at her. "Young lady," he said, "what do you take me for?" Without waiting for a response he shifted into his scope-mode, and Prime lifted him onto a handy lab bench.
"Cover your eyes," said Prime to Henry Ross, who obeyed without a hint of a smart remark. Alirion wondered how Prime did it. The Autobot leader raised his hands to his chest and opened the access panels, letting out a vivid blue glow not unlike Cerenkov radiation; Alirion had to hold on to the edge of the console firmly enough to leave marks, so as not to remember what it had been like to hold a shard of that blue glow inside her own body, to feel that touch, that power coursing through every circuit of her being, to be one with it. That's over, she reminded herself. That's gone.
Perceptor's scope focused in on the incandescent jewel pulsing in Prime's chest. It lay nestled inside the banks of chips and relays that made up his core processors, held within a circular shell flanked by two silvery handles made to fit an Autobot's grip. Alirion couldn't help remembering how the Shard had looked: a thing not unlike an old-style brilliant-cut diamond, pure blue-white light, held like a giant piezoelectric crystal in a claw-setting that interfaced via six connectors with her own central processors. It was gone, now. Remember that. It's gone.
Perceptor transformed again, slipping off the lab bench to stand beside Prime. "Data collection complete," he said, as Prime shut his chest again, cutting off the brilliant blue-white glow. "How do you wish to interface?"
Alirion ignored Ross's snort of amusement—and the desperate, empty disappointment that came with the closing off of the Matrix—and pointed to the data port on the side of the console. "Download it," she said, wearily. "Then you can go and try to convince your people that we're not trying to sell you out to the Cons, okay?"
Perceptor shot her a wounded glance, but reached out a finger to the data port and extruded a connector which whirred and clicked a few times before inserting itself. She sat back in the command chair, ignoring both Ross and Prime, and waited for him to finish.
"There," he said. "You have access to all my files on the Matrix."
"What the hell is wrong with you?" asked Henry Ross, some time later. He had given up typing by walking on the keyboards and was sitting crosslegged on the edge of the console and staring at her as she searched through schematics. "Are you normally this much of a bitch?"
"That's an inaccurate term," said Alirion, paging through blueprints of what appeared to be Amaranthine cleaning droids, "given that I have no real gender as you humans understand it."
Ross snorted. "You know what I mean. I think I liked you better when you were drunk."
Alirion ignored him. He lit another dope-stick and lay back, lacing his fingers behind his head. "This has something to do with a guy. I was right."
"Shut up," said Alirion. "Mmm. Looks like their circuitry is almost entirely made up of electrum. I wonder why."
"This is the guy you were getting hammered over, huh?"
"Shut up." She paged through a few more blueprints.
"Must be some kind of special bot, to warrant this kind of angst."
"Shut up. Ah. I think I've found something."
"Really," said Ross. "Fancy that."
She turned to glare at him. "Are all humans this insufferably sarcastic?"
"Only the intelligent ones," he told her. "What've you found out?"
"'Amaranthine interstellar sanitation craft,'" she read, "'are based on Akhir Systems XK-109 Phoenix-class light freighters—"
"Yeah? They burn up and another one arises from the ashes?"
"—'but the cargo decks and passenger compartments are stripped and replaced with housing, cooling, recoil suppressant, and fueling components for the magna-lasers used in planetary sterilization.'"
"Who flies 'em?" Ross wanted to know.
She paged through a few more documents. "'Sterilizer ship pilots are selected from the highest ranks in the Academy...blah blah blah....quarters for crew are located below the laser assemblies in the belly of the craft."
"Good," said Ross. "So you shoot out the belly and no one's left to fire the ships."
"I doubt it's that easy," Alirion sighed. "I bet you a trillion kuats they've got remote aiming capability."
"What," said a voice behind them, "about the fuel cores?"
Alirion turned around very slowly and met a pair of vivid red optics.
"Looks like they're in the rear of the ships," said Ross cheerfully, turning and facing Megatron. She fought down a wave of dizziness, and wondered briefly if she could be coming down with Nadirak after all.
"Yes," she said. "The power cores appear to be similar in nature to the material that makes up the Autobot Matrix."
"How is it shielded?"
"It isn't," said Ross, grinning. "Not hardly, anyway. A thin shell of..." he glanced back at the screens...."titanium, and nothing else. Blow a hole through it, and we're home free."
"What are you?" inquired the Decepticon leader.
"I'm Henry Ross," said Ross. "Ex-bartender on Kau Beta, looks like, and apparent rebel against the Amaranthine hegemony."
"Don't forget ex-pilot in the galactic fleet," said Alirion dully, staring at the floor.
"Yes," added Ross, "and ex-pilot, quite some time ago. I know better now."
Megatron gave him a fierce look, but said nothing. Instead he leaned over Alirion's shoulder and tapped in a few commands to the computer core. "Ah," he said. "Excellent."
"This wretched excuse for a base has enough fuel on it to power at least one major assault against the Amaranthine attackers," he said, folding his arms. "Although we should get moving. We have only one and a half cycles before the ships are due to arrive."
"Right," said Ross. "What can I do?"
Megatron regarded him for a long moment. "Do you speak for the organics of the planetoid Kau Beta?"
"Not in and of myself," said Ross amiably, "but I can put you in touch with the guy who does."
"Do so." Megatron narrowed his optics. "At this point I will gratefully accept alliances even from organic forms of life. Cybertron must be saved."
Alirion fought the desire to knock her forehead firmly against the console edge. "What do you recommend," she said dully.
"Get in contact with Kau Beta and offer an alliance through Mr. Ross here," said Megatron coldly. "And find out if there's a way to deactivate those power cores."
It was late in the solar cycle when the free Guardians from Pelleas Station arrived on the orbital base; they came in formation, approaching to within hailing range and identifying themselves warily, unsure of their reception. Prime, who had set up a temporary command centre in the huge hangar-it was the largest space available to them-gave them clearance to approach, and the combined army of the Cybertronians was increased by forty- five. And one human.
Antares, allowing Sinewave to carry him to save time, was astonished by what he saw. This was clearly a base designed for functionality rather than appearance, unlike most of Amaranth, and the multicoloured Transformers he saw hurrying up and down its corridors were fascinating to his untrained eye. Optimus Prime turned out to be an enormous primary- coloured individual who apparently turned into some sort of land vehicle, and his warriors-he'd only met a few by name so far-seemed to be a great deal more intelligent and capable than Amaranth had given them credit for. Antares began to feel a little better about his impending doom.
Sinewave set him down on Prime's desk, which was already covered in reports and data sheets. "How can I be of assistance?" he asked, looking up at the robot.
"You can tell us everything you know about the plasma sterilization ships," said Prime. "We already have Alirion and Henry Ross working on it, but your Amaranthine knowledge will be most helpful. Sinewave, go with him; your Quaestron records may contain some pertinent information."
Antares found himself grateful for being given orders. He had grown up with them; it had been more difficult than he'd realized having to act on his own initiative. Obedience was comfortable and automatic. He nodded and stepped back into Sinewave's hand, and the Quaestron bore him away to the labs.
The docks around Amaranth's equatorial industry zone were teeming with activity, as usual; there were interstellar transports to be unloaded, their cargos of rich spices, woods, rare metals and expensive silks to be inventoried and sent off to the vast factories deep inside the artificial world, smugglers to be argued with and patrols to be reported from. However, much of the activity this morning was centered around the six massive sterilization ships being prepared for their voyage, and the power cores being loaded into them.
The cores themselves were huge, sixty-foot-long objects sheathed in durasteel alloy, vast cylinders containing enough energy not only to power the ships themselves through space, but also to flame the ships' targets into sterile ionized oblivion. Nothing had so far been discovered that could survive the plasma holocaust of an Amaranthine sterilization ship.
One by one the cores were hoisted into place by the huge shipyard cranes, locked into their bays by the crew, and powered up.
From her high windows on the curve of the northern hemisphere, the Minister for Economy and Growth Initiative watched the ships being made ready. The cautionary tale they would tell, she mused, would serve not only to demonstrate Amaranth's power, ruthlessness and command, but also her own. Especially as the Supreme Minister's favour had lit on her in the past few months. She rather thought there might be a promotion in this for her.
She turned back to her desk, where a pile of briefings regarding the recent explorations of the Balardinian gas mines awaited her, and thus did not see the sterilizer fleet move out; it was, even by Amaranthine standards, an awe-inspiring sight. The ships drifted out from their moorings, pushed by drone-tugs, into the void; then, one by one, with a silent blaze of superheated plasma, their sublight drives lit and fired. Each ship, a clumsy silver ovoid, was enveloped in an aureole of pure blue- white light; then, moving delicately for such huge craft, they took up position and soared off toward the Tannhauser Gate. It would take them almost half a cycle for them to make their way, Gate to Gate, across the galaxy to their target; it would take them less than an hour to complete their task when they arrived.
The combined forces-no one was quite ready to call it an alliance, not just yet-of Cybertronians, Guardians and the motley crew of smugglers and mercenaries from Kau Beta had been organized into strike forces under the command of Prime and Megatron. The plan, such as it was, was simplicity itself; the fastest and most maneuverable of their forces would fly escort to their heavy artillery as they came in to attack the sterilizer ships, focusing on the lower rear curve of the fuselage, where the power cores rested. Those who could not contribute to the main attack would create distractions for the sterilizer pilots, harrying them with blaster and shrapnel fire in an attempt to break their formation and turn them away from the vulnerable surface of Cybertron. It was inevitable that some of them would fall; no one had questioned that. It was also unthinkable not to make the attempt.
"They'll come out of the Gate in a V-formation," said Antares, standing on the chart table, pointing at a diagram of the Gate's arc and the field around it where rematerialization would take place. "There's generally five or six of them, and they're flying in levels so they can concentrate the beams on a single point without endangering each other. How long does it take for rematerialization to complete once the Gate has been triggered?"
"About forty seconds," Deneb told him, and the other Guardians around the table nodded. "Forty seconds from initiation to total release into free space."
"Then we've got to be set up around the Gate and waiting. How much time is left?" Prime demanded. He and Prowl, along with Silverbolt and the other Aerialbots, stood looking down at the diagram of the Gate.
"Half a cycle. If we're lucky," said Sinewave, wearily, "they won't realize the Gate's operated by a drone program until too late. We had to program it to let one shipment from Amaranth through before we left, giving the computer the ion signatures from Amaranthine ships so it could recognize them. Hopefully they'll just request clearance as usual and receive it. If they twig that no one's manning the Gate, they might change tactics."
"We'll have to gamble," said Megatron coldly. "And hope the dice roll in our favour."
"I don't like it." Prime folded his arms. "What are they likely to do in case they figure out you've deserted the Gate station?"
Antares sighed. "I'm not sure. They're almost certainly going to hail the Gate, in that case, which might buy us a little more time to get into position before coming at them."
"We'll want the strike forces arranged just behind the arc of the Gate," Alirion said, reaching over and touching the diagram, "here, here and here. Fighter escorts with them."
Megatron nodded. "Starscream, you take fighter escort group one. Thundercracker, group two. Skywarp, I want you with the distraction force, we'll need your teleport abilities there."
"I agree," said Optimus Prime. "Silverbolt, head group three, and the rest of our jets-my Aerialbots and Ramjet, Thrust and Dirge-can split themselves up among the groups."
Surprisingly enough, this order was acknowledged with nothing more than a long-suffering glare amongst the Cybertronians at having to work together, and the fighter escort groups took up position to one side of the table. Prime and Megatron exchanged a glance.
"The main strike force," said Prime, "has to be able to attack all six ships at once."
"And it has to do it precisely," Antares added, looking up at the robots. "We're only going to have one shot at this."
Prime nodded, then stood up a little straighter, making a decision. "Your two best gunners and mine, Megatron."
"And the other two?" The Decepticon leader's voice was level, but the look in his optics told Prime that he already knew the answer; had, in fact, come to the same conclusion himself.
"You and I will be the other two," said Prime. There was a general murmur in the room, but nobody quite dared to protest; there was no longer any time left for it.
The Kau Betans, under the de facto control of Henry Ross-there had been little argument among the denizens of the spaceport colonies when the call had gone out for revolt against Amaranth-made up a third of the distraction force; the rest of the Autobot and Decepticon warriors, along with those Guardians who had any sort of offensive capabilities, provided the remainder. They were to harry the Amaranthine ships as much as possible, trying to get them to break formation and swing around to bear on one another, so that the plasma cannons could not be triggered without destroying other sterilization ships; they were also ordered to give as much cover fire to the strike forces as possible without getting in the way of the main attack. They had already been mobilized, and the area directly surrounding the Pelleas Gate was seeded with hundreds of ships and Cybertronians, all using what cloaking devices they had found in the rush to get ready. It was a pitiful attempt at concealment, but as Alirion and Antares had pointed out, it was also impossible to tell what awaited one on the other side of a Gate during the transfer, so they might just have a chance.
As the meeting broke, Alirion found herself unassigned to any particular force. "What should I do?" she asked, almost to herself, staring down at the diagram of the Gate she had helped build. There was silence for a moment.
"You?" said Megatron, slowly, into the silence. "You're going to be the bait."
She hung in the darkness, again, facing the silver hoop of the Pelleas Gate. Despite all that had passed, she couldn't help herself remembering what it had been like to build that vast, delicate arch- remembering the long hours of work, the aching in her joints as the metal stresses were decrystallized in the anneal-rejuve chamber, the solid satisfaction of having completed something so huge-and remembering the pride she'd once felt in defending it. She supposed she was still defending it, only now the threat was coming from a most unexpected quarter.
Sinewave, Deneb and Antares had been surprisingly helpful in discussing what they were about to do. She could tell it was difficult for the two Guardians; she'd known Sinewave before, of course, but Deneb was more or less a stranger, and she could see how hard it was for him to reject all his old programming, rewrite his subroutines, stop himself from breaking into the Amaranthine salute every time she, with her Victrix insignia still painted on her wings, appeared. Antares was dealing with it more effectively, she reflected. She still didn't quite understand the human or his motivations, but she could see that he'd been faced with the same problems that she, Sinewave, and Deneb had been dealing with, and unlike the Guardians he'd been able to renounce his prior allegiance and accept his new role without much difficulty. She supposed not having hardwired behaviour protocols was helpful in situations like these.
That was one of the reasons they'd staffed the Gates with robots, she mused, staring into the subtly different darkness of the Gate. Robots' loyalties were easier to rely on.
They were going to get one hell of a surprise.
Alirion didn't feel fear, exactly, despite her position directly in the target zone of the coming ships. Fear seemed to have leached out of her circuitry like colloidal particles under a heavy electric current; the only thing she felt was a dim sort of regret, and a desire to get it over with. Her internal clocks were counting down the time they had left until the Gate would shimmer and extrude the six sterilizer ships, until they would have to see if their combined strength was in any way equal to the power of distant Amaranth. She could just make out, if she cycled her optics all the way up to infinity, the glittering forms of the strike teams arrayed just behind the Gate arc, waiting as silently and as calmly as she waited, alone in the starry void. If they are too late, she thought to herself, I won't have time to realize it. I won't be around to watch them die.
The thought was strangely comforting.
I wish I'd seen Amaranth. The only memories of it I have are the inside of a laboratory. I wish I'd seen Amaranth alight in the bloody glow of her two red giants. Wish I'd seen the shipyards, the tiers of tiny windows, the curve of the planet blocking out the night. I wish I'd seen rain falling on the shores of Earth, like Sinewave told me about; wish I'd seen Earth.
I wish I'd realized sooner that there were other things to be done beside piloting pointless expeditions to already-charted planetoids and giving useless orders. Beside taking idiotic pride in my command of my fellow slaves. Beside flying fast and being clever in space. I wish I'd had more time to make mistakes. To look at things and really see them. To see myself reflected in a pair of optics the vermilion colour of the central cloud of the Kalaris Nebula.
I wish I'd had more time to live.
Alirion waited in the darkness for the space of an energon pump beat.
The Pelleas Gate opened.
The starless darkness inside the Gate's arc seemed to ripple somehow, to deform, and then, between one instant and the next, the ships were there. Six gleaming ovoids, arranged not in the V-shape they'd expected but in a ring, their noses pointed inwards, focusing the beams that would erupt from the massive plasma cannons and destroy everything they touched. Alirion watched, paralyzed, as the ring expanded slightly, each ship's sublight engines flaring to life as the Gate's field released them.
The Pelleas Gate closed.
And as she hung there, feeling the faint tingle as scanners found and held her in their fields, as the thrusters of the six ships flickered and nudged them this way and that to focus her in their sights, the void around her came alive. She saw briefly the flare of six forms catching starlight as the strike force moved out from behind the Gate's arc, and then the fighter escort shot out into the space before the Gate, blasters blazing. She knew vaguely who was out there, remembered them being given their orders in the sane, calm enclosure of the ready room on the Autobots' orbital base, but she no longer cared.
The huge sterilizer ships' ring formation wavered a little under the onslaught of blaster fire, and Alirion could see the Kau Betans in their motley collection of freighters and wired-together ex-navy ships come blasting in on all sides, trying to turn the ships on one another, to re- aim the massive cannons away from Cybertron and its inhabitants. One of the Amaranthine ships got off a plasma blast, instantly vaporizing a Thalassian cargo ship and its Kau Betan pilot; almost immediately, she could see the strike forces and their fighter escorts surround the ship that had fired, concentrating their blaster bolts on the curving underside of the Amaranthine craft; then there was the unmistakeable violet-white flare of a fusion cannon burst, and then the universe around Alirion went suddenly black for a moment. When her optic sensors and scanners came back online, she saw-dreamlike-the glittering cloud of debris that had been a sterilizer ship expanding in a brilliant, glorious ring from its center; focusing on her long-range scanners, Alirion could make out a slender weapon shifting on itself to become a familiar pale form, its sharp planes and angles identifiable even from this distance.
The battle joined.
Alirion, now no longer constrained by her orders to act as bait for the massive ships, lit her thrusters and flung herself into the fray. All around her the silent bursts of energy as blaster bolts and null-rays hit their marks buffeted her back and forth, flame flickering and vanishing as the oxygen that fed it was eaten up and gone; she could hear through her internal radio the screams of tortured circuitry as shots tore through armour and steel, feel in her own circuits the stress of the flying she was doing; she swooped in and out and around the hulks of debris and the fuselage of functioning ships and Transformers, weaving her way closer and closer to the second of the great Amaranthine ships. She could see the familiar form of Perceptor, hanging between Thundercracker and Silverbolt, trying to maneuver himself into position to take a shot at the curving armour of the fuel-cores, and punched her thrusters to avoid being hit by a flying chunk of someone else-by the sigil half burned off by blaster fire, it had been a Decepticon-on her way to help give him cover fire. To her right another plasma blast took out a pair of Autobots and a Kau Betan cutter; she paid no attention, she could do nothing to help them now.
"Coming in at vector 57.2," she yelled over the intercom radio. "Drawing fire. Prepare for shot at the main power core hull."
"Acknowledged," Perceptor replied, sounding both terrified and exhilarated. A moment later she had to turn on her long axis and shoot out the bow guns of a Kau Betan ship that was spiraling out of control, and by the time she'd disarmed it and turned back to Perceptor, the world went black and white again and a second sterilizer ship was dead.
"Beautiful!" she yelled over the radio, and swooped away to join Slingshot and Skydive, who were industriously wearing down the deflector arrays on a third sterilizer ship. The ring formation was now totally broken, the great egg-shaped craft turning themselves this way and that to try and destroy as many attackers as they could; there was no longer any order to be thought upon.
She did not know until afterward how long they fought before all six Amaranthine ships were destroyed: she had no time to consider things like the passage of time as she swooped and dove in and out of the Amaranthine formations, giving cover fire where she could, destroying where she had the opportunity. Her world simplified itself, slowly, from battlefield to simple dreaming conquest of one enemy; she found herself hanging in black space, her weapons smoking, waiting for someone else to try and attack. Then, slowly, everything faded to black.
Dark into dark, and light rising out of the darkness...
"I won't say, 'where am I,'" said Alirion, "but I'd like to know all the same."
The blackness around her flickered into white static, and then into light, as her optics came online. She was staring up at the nondescript grey ceiling of what appeared to be a vast cargo-bay area, fretted with pipework, hung with harsh arc-merc lamps. A familiar white face inserted itself into her field of vision.
"Back on the base," said Ratchet, reaching over and checking something to her left. She felt the tug of energon-feeds moving in the access panels on her arm, and sighed.
"What's the damage?"
"To you? Not all that bad," Ratchet reassured her, leaning back and regarding her with limpid blue optics. She struggled to sit up, and managed it on the second go.
"No, not to me. The battle. I take it we won, since otherwise I'd be a rapidly-dispersing cloud of ionized particles."
"Lie down," said Ratchet, and pushed her back to the recharge couch. "Yes, we won. The ships ended up shooting one another, mostly, although we have Megatron and Prime to thank for destroying four of them. We haven't heard from Amaranth since the dust settled; we think they're trying to pretend it didn't happen."
"Must be embarrassing for them," she said dully. "What were our losses?"
Ratchet sobered. "Thirty-eight Kau Betans, fifteen of your Guardians, five Autobots and seven Decepticons. We've still got missing persons, too....the jets are all out searching for any trace of 'em."
Alirion nodded with a sigh. "I'm surprised we got off so lightly."
"We did." Ratchet folded his arms. "Your Gate wasn't so lucky."
"They fried it." It wasn't a question.
"They did. The Gate itself is still barely functioning, but the station itself is nothing but molten slag."
"They died well, I suppose," Alirion muttered. "By their own reckoning."
"The fifteen Guardians who refused to leave." She sat up again, this time without his protest, and removed the energon feed from her arm. Her self-repair systems tabulated reports in her vision: fuel levels low, three major blaster wounds fixed by a combination of surgery and good luck, four out of seven sensor systems down to thirty percent capacity. She could certainly use another seventeen or eighteen hours of recharge, but there was no way, short of heavy tranks, that she'd be able to rest peaceably. Ratchet was staring at her, looking rather sick.
"Refused to leave?" he asked.
"Mmm. You didn't know? Fifteen of our sixty staff decided they'd rather stay on the Gate and face their doom with open arms. Blind loyalty has its risks." She slipped off the recharge couch, gyros reeling briefly before stabilizing her. "Call it collateral damage, Ratchet. There was nothing you could have done; even if we'd managed to drag them off the Gate by main force, they'd have fought their way free and flown straight into the sterilizer beams. They believed in Amaranth."
The Autobot medic stared a moment longer, then lowered his optics. "I didn't know."
"It wouldn't have made a difference." She rubbed at her left wing, where a slight imperfection in the finish marked a recent repair. "Where're the leaders?"
Ratchet seemed to drag himself back from a long way away before replying. "Up in Prime's ready room. The atmosphere's a bit fraught."
"No kidding?" She gave him a bit of a smile, dropping her hand from the repaired wing. "Thanks, Ratchet. I appreciate your work."
He nodded, and she left. Her body ached with the crystallized pain of stressed metal, and her mind still felt bruised and stirred with a blunt stick, but there wasn't time for that; she needed something to do, and she needed it fast, because the bright hot well of hysterical self-recrimination was beginning to rise in her again. Not for the dead Gate Guardians; they'd bought their deaths with their own coin, and they had faced them willingly; rather, for those who had died in the space fight, among the stars, against an enemy she'd brought to them. Better I had died, she felt herself think. Better that I had been disintegrated. I was the one they wanted, all along.
I wonder how many people can say they started a war all by themselves?
You know, said a little voice in her head, that sort of thinking is really, really unhelpful. Go find the bosses and ask what you can do to be of use. Survivor's guilt won't do any of us any good now.
Alirion straightened her shoulders, bringing her wings up to stand firmly at attention, and made her way up to the ready room.
The once-gleaming hoop of the Gate was now a carbon-scored ring of slagged metal, the olive-drab lump of the Station itself hanging like some utterly unattractive pendant on a ruined chain. All around it, clouds of glittering shards expanded and swirled, their constituent fragments constantly twirling in a kind of Brownian motion. Starscream banked and fired his retrothrusters, coming to a halt facing the remains of the Gate. Flying through clouds of what had until recently been Transformers was giving him the cybernetic equivalent of a migraine.
"There's nothing here," he snarled over the radio to Thundercracker and Skywarp, also circling the Gate. "Let's pack it in. My scanners aren't reading anything but slag."
"Me either," Skywarp reported, lighting his afterburners and rocketing up past the remains of the Gate station. "Everything in the vicinity's either melted or disintegrated. I'm not even reading any organic debris, and we know a bunch of squishies bought it."
"Yes," said Starscream, with distaste; it hadn't really occurred to him that he was not only flying through clouds of ex-Transformers but also clouds of vaped humanoids. The thought was singularly unpleasant.
"What are we gonna do now?" Thundercracker asked, his voice crackling with static from all the debris interference. He approached the others, moving slowly, having circled the periphery of the battle zone.
"Go back to the base," Starscream snapped, jigging left to avoid a tumbling chunk of what had apparently been an Autobot.
"No," said Thundercracker, "after that. I mean....this is a pretty obvious declaration of hostility toward Amaranth. They aren't gonna let this go easily."
Starscream was silent for so long that Thundercracker approached a little closer. "Screamer?"
"I don't know," said the Air Commander, after a moment, the petulant tone gone from his voice; he merely sounded as if his throat was sore. "I'm sure Megatron will think of something."
"Yeah," said Skywarp, a little self-consciously. "He always does."
Dirge and Ramjet—Thrust had taken heavy damage in the battle and was still undergoing repairs—joined them a few moments later, taking up flanking positions. "Any sign of the Aerialbots?" Ramjet wanted to know.
"No," Skywarp told him. "They peeled off soon's we left the base. I bet they're still looking for bits of their fallen comrades, or something."
"Let them," said Starscream shortly, and opened his throttle. The orbital base—surprisingly undamaged, despite its proximity to the battle zone—loomed ahead. "We've got more important things to think about."
"Well," said Optimus Prime, heavily, and rested his hands flat on the table. He sat opposite Megatron, who was looking a trifle worse for wear but had refused any medical attention; black carbon scoring traced ugly patterns over his left shoulder and side. Note to self, thought Optimus absently, while silver-white is an impressive colour, it shows every little scar. "We are faced with an unprecedented situation."
"Hardly," said the Decepticon leader, steepling his fingers. "I can think of at least two points in our combined history when we were forced to work together to achieve a common goal, much as it pains me to recall them."
Prime sighed. Megatron was right, of course; the Autobots and the Decepticons had joined forces before, although never on this sort of scale. "Nevertheless," he said, "the challenge we face now is a larger one. Amaranth is not going to take the destruction of six of their sterilization ships lightly."
"Nor should they." Megatron's optics narrowed slightly. "I know what you're getting at, Prime. Give me credit for some intelligence."
"Oh, I do," said Prime. "And what have you decided?"
Megatron didn't reply immediately. Prime noticed that the fingers of his right hand were curling and uncurling themselves almost unconsciously, as if gripping an invisible object. Or a memory.
"Do you remember how our war started, Optimus Prime?" he said, after a moment. The Autobot leader tore his gaze away from Megatron's hand.
"Of course I do," he said. "You and your insatiable hunger for power began it."
"Ah," said Megatron, almost lightly. "You see, Optimus Prime, here is where we differ. From our perspective, the war began because of you Autobots' stubborn inability to see the true future of Cybertron."
"What are you getting at, Megatron?"
"Merely the point that much of our shared history is based on events which can be interpreted very differently according to one's point of view." Megatron's fingers abruptly stilled, as if he had just realized he'd been fidgeting. "We now face an enemy who is not only armed and thoroughly dangerous, but who is clearly prepared to destroy Cybertron. Until Amaranth has been neutralized, there is no point in continuing our little disagreement."
"You're offering a truce?"
Megatron sighed, sounding irritated. "I am offering to continue the agreement we are currently working under," he said. "Your forces and mine were sufficient to defuse the immediate threat to Cybertron. However, as you point out, Amaranth is likely to retaliate. We are going to need all our strength to free Cybertron from Amaranthine influence."
Optimus Prime fingered his chin, regarding his arch-enemy. "Why should I trust you?" he asked, at last.
Megatron's right hand curled into a fist. "Because, Prime, you don't have a choice. You can't fight the whole military force of Amaranth without my help." The Decepticon leader's voice was tinged with a curious mixture of triumph and disgust.
"Very well," said Optimus Prime, slowly. "I agree. But certain conditions must be met."
"What conditions?" spat Megatron.
"Firstly," Prime began, leaning forward and resting his elbows on the table, "your forces will not cause any harm, in any way, to mine. You will not attempt to use our truce to gain access to our classified files or undermine our strength."
Megatron waved a dismissive hand. "I have no desire to know your uninteresting little secrets," he said. "And, Optimus Prime, you will not take advantage of the temporary breach in hostilities to attempt to sabotage the Decepticon hierarchy."
"We're Autobots," said Prime, with a trace of pride. "That's not our style."
Megatron sat back in his chair with a disgusted sigh. "Spare me your platitudes, Prime. I do this for one reason, and one reason only: to protect Cybertron. The fact that I must work with you to achieve this is a necessary evil."
Optimus nodded. He got up from the table, deliberately turning his back on Megatron, and stared out of the viewport at the gleaming sphere of Cybertron. The gesture was both a slightly offensive demonstration of his dislike for the Decepticon leader...and a tacit admission of his belief that Megatron wouldn't simply shoot him in the back. "We'll need a name," he mused.
"A name," Optimus Prime repeated. Behind him, he could hear Megatron getting up, and part of him flared with danger alerts, but he kept his back straight and his optics firmly fixed on the curve of their common home. After a moment, Megatron joined him at the viewport.
"I suppose you're right," said the Decepticon.
"'Alliance for an Independent Cybertron'?"
"You've been watching too many Earth holos, haven't you," said Megatron, but he sounded weary rather than disgusted. "AIC. Yes, it's a trifle heroic, but it will have to do."
Prime didn't reply. For a long moment he stared down at the turning jewel that was Cybertron, wordlessly, utterly still; then he turned to Megatron and held out his hand.
The Decepticon leader stared from Prime's hand to his face, for long enough to make Prime wonder if the fusion cannon wasn't going to have its say after all; but he took the proffered hand and shook it once. "I did that, once, before," he said evenly. "When you were Orion Pax."
"Yes," said Prime, simply. "Many things have changed since then."
Megatron said nothing, just held Prime's gaze for a long moment, then turned and left.
"So," said the Minister for Economy and Growth Initiative, white to the lips with fury, "they dare defy Amaranth."
Gervase Lyon nodded his bowed head. He'd fully expected to be fired upon receipt of his news, but all the Minister had done so far was pace and occasionally take a deep breath as if she was about to speak. He risked a glance at her: the krinn-silk suit was a dark burgundy-red today, and she'd had her hair and eyes remodulated purple to go with it.
"All the ships were destroyed?"
"By some pitiful little bunch of Kau Betans and the Cybertronian factions? I thought they were at war with one another."
"Yes, Minister," said Lyon again. "They were."
"Their intentions are unknown. We have managed to gather that all six ships were utterly destroyed, but only after the Pelleas Gate had been sterilized. The Gate station must be repaired if we are to have access to that sector of space."
"And there's little hope that our repair crews will be allowed to work unhindered by the Cybertronians," spat the Minister. "Leave me, Lyon. I would speak with the Grand Admiral of the Amaranthine Combined Fleets."
"Then it is to be war, Minister?" he asked, knowing the answer.
"No," said the Minister, "it will be annihilation."
Lyon looked out at the stars as he hurried down the corridor, glad to be out of the Presence; part of him was a trifle excited at the idea of being involved in anything as important as a war, but mostly he felt empty. People had died out there, beyond the rings of the Gates, and more would die soon. Amaranth's glory had never seemed so inglorious, he reflected, and shoved the thought away. It was not his place to think; it was his place to do, and there was much, very much, to be done.
(And there might be an epilogue, before Black Dawn.)