Thundercracker's optics came back on line, abruptly dispelling the pleasant darkness in which he'd been floating with a flood of hideously bright light

The High Road

By Nightwind

Thundercracker's optics came back on line, abruptly dispelling the pleasant darkness in which he'd been floating with a flood of hideously bright light. He groaned and instinctively took his optics back off-line again. Man, what a hangover, was his first thought, semi-coherent as it was.

"Turn that damned thing off," Thundercracker groaned aloud. His voice sounded terribly hoarse and weak to his own audios, and no one answered him. He immediately wondered why and so, in gradual increments, he brought his optic sensors back on line, adjusting them slowly to the ambient light level.

And eventually, he found himself staring uncomprehendingly up at a yellow ball of blindingly intense solar radiation. Only one planet that he knew of had such an annoyingly bright and yellow sun.

Yup, still on Earth, he thought absently. Joy!

And only he would be so "fortunate" as to be lying on his back, baking in that annoyingly bright sunlight...

Why? he suddenly found himself wondering, and was appalled that, for a very long moment, he couldn't remember... Everything hurts like hell...Must've been one hell of a party...No, wait, that's not right...Oooh! I remember! The Aerialbots...Ohhhhh, Primus, it was one hell of a skirmish!

At the thought, Thundercracker abruptly sat up, frantically looking around himself for possible enemies in the immediate area...and then he immediately regretted doing so when a wave of pain and dizziness plowed into him like forty tons of bricks. He stayed upright long enough to ascertain that no one was in his immediate vicinity, friend or foe, and then he flopped down onto his back again, waiting for the world to stop spinning around him.

"Ow," he moaned, and instantly, instinctively, accessed his internal diagnostic scanners in order to assess the damage--or tried to, at least, only to quickly discover that his diagnostics weren't working. They were apparently off-line if not destroyed. Marvelous, he thought sourly. Just have to do this the old-fashioned way, then, I guess.

Thundercracker wiggled his fingers, ascertained that all ten of them were present and working properly. He bent both elbows. Whoops! he thought with a wince. One arm's not a happy camper. He turned his head--his neck was working, apparently--to look down at his right arm, and hissed in dismay. There was a long tear running down the outside of his right arm. When he moved it, it hurt enough to make him wince, and he could feel something gritty, something that definitely wasn't supposed to be there, working its way into his circuitry and delicate internal moving parts. Dirt, he thought disgustedly. Gotta love Earth and its dirt. And then he noticed that the laser rifle that was usually attached at his shoulder was AWOL. It had apparently been rather violently torn off of its mounting.

"Damn!" he muttered aloud.

He turned his head the other way--too quickly, apparently, since the movement set off a dull, reverberating pain that ricocheted its way around the inside of his head--and looked down at his left arm. By contrast, it looked remarkably whole. Its laser rifle was still there, at least. Of course, whether or not the gun still worked was another question. He raised his arm to try a test shot of the rifle, only to pause when he happened to glance beyond his arm at his left wing. He stared at it in horror.

"Oh...crap!" he moaned.

Not only was his left wing crushed so badly that it looked like the bellows of an accordion, but it was also twisted so that half of it was facing the wrong way. Well, buddy boy, with that busted wing you're not gonna be flying outta here any time soon, that's for sure, he thought bitterly. Not only was it a hell of a skirmish, it musta been a hell of a crash... He was almost glad that he couldn't remember it.

With a long, deep sigh, Thundercracker realized that he was going to have to radio Decepticon Headquarters for a lift home. He hated the thought. It was bad enough that he'd apparently been shot down, but it was even worse that he wouldn't be able to make it home under his own power. He wasn't going to be living this one down for a long time to come, he was sure.

Oh well, he thought resignedly as he opened a communications frequency to Decepticon Headquarters. No help for it now. Just have to bite the bullet and give old Soundwave a buzz...

"Thundercracker to Decepticon Headquarters," he said, trying to make his voice sound as normal as possible, even though speaking at normal volume made his head hurt. But no one answered him. He tried again. "Thundercracker to Decepticon Headquarters."

Nothing. No static, no carrier signal, no white noise, and certainly no reply. The beginnings of panic began to creep into the edges of his thought processes. He tried again.

"Hello? Anyone there? Are you all dead? Helloooooo! This is Thundercracker to Decepticon Headquarters, requesting emergency assistance...Please respond. Hello?"

Damn! One more try. If he's just sittin' there listening, this'll get Soundwave's attention...

"Yo! Soundwave! Get off your ass and get on the horn!"

Still nothing. Thundercracker continued to try to raise Headquarters for several more minutes, until he realized that further attempts were just a waste of time. Either his comm wasn't working--which, given his wonderful condition otherwise, seemed to be the most likely possibility--or Headquarters' comm system wasn't working, or the other Decepticons were ignoring him for some perverse reason. Unfortunately, he had no way of knowing which it was, and in the end, it didn't really matter. Whatever the cause, he couldn't contact Decepticon Headquarters. Which meant that help was not going to be forthcoming any time soon.

I am in seriously deep shit here, Thundercracker realized, shivering despite the heat of the sun beating down upon him. I'm damaged. I can't tell how bad it is. I can't contact Headquarters. I can't fly out of here on my own. And, now that I think about it, I have no idea where "here" is... For a fleeting moment panic set in, full-force, before he determinedly put it aside.

"Think, stupid!" he chided himself aloud, to distract himself if nothing else. "Panic's not gonna get you anywhere. Figure out where the hell you are and then figure out what you're gonna do about it."

Thundercracker looked around himself. It was actually the first time that he'd really looked around since awakening. It hadn't seemed all that important before, when he'd been confident that salvation was but a comm call away. But now that he was incommunicado, his survival might depend upon where he was. He hoped that the geography would give him a clue, or at least something upon which to triangulate.

Wherever he was, it was hot. Really, really ungodly hot. Had he been human, he would have been very worried about the heat, coupled as it was with an apparent lack of a water source. He wasn't human, of course, but it was still a level of warmth that was definitely outside of his comfort zone, though certainly not life-threatening. His body could withstand huge extremes of temperature, after all, from the unforgivingly frigid vacuum of outer space to a quick dip in hot lava. It was just that some temperatures were far more comfortable than others were. And, if given a choice, he tended to prefer the cold end of the temperature spectrum, which this was definitely not. This was, in fact, a temperature that bordered upon extremely unpleasant. It was making the tactile sensors embedded in his metal skin prickle slightly, something that would only get worse as time went on, and it was heating his skin to uncomfortable levels.

It's hot enough to fry an egg on myself, Thundercracker thought whimsically.

Chortling to himself at the mental image wrought by that thought, Thundercracker sat himself up – Much more slowly this time! – to get a better look around. As he sat up, a searing pain worked its way across his back, making him yelp. That, too, he put aside for the moment. He'd check himself out after he figured out where the hell he was. Priorities, priorities, he thought, and chuckled to himself again.

Tentatively, he accessed his databank of navigational information, hoping against hope that it hadn't been damaged like so many of his other systems apparently had been. He was almost prepared to receive only an array of error messages in reply but, amazingly, this particular databank was still accessible. He did a quick scan around himself, fed the results into the databank, and waited the few microseconds it took to get his answer. And he laughed out loud for a moment when he got that answer.

Death Valley! he marveled to himself as he laughed. How...appropriate! And what an accurate description... he added dismally once he composed himself enough to look around himself. There was nothing alive – no animals, no plants – as far as his optics could see. He was sitting in the middle of a perfectly flat plain that spread out around him in all directions for hundreds of kilometers. The sky that arced overhead was cloudless and searingly blue, almost too bright to look at even with damped-down optics. The ground beneath him was parched, cracked, and sun-bleached to almost bone white, strewn with rocks ranging in size from small pebbles to impressively large boulders. It looked as if it hadn't rained in thousands of years.

Just as well, he thought with a shrug. With all of the open wounds on this old bod, the last thing I want is a drenching rain... The thought was a sobering one. Just how many open wounds do I have? he wondered. Looks like it's back to old-fashioned diagnostics again...But first things first. Let's see if I can get out of this damned sun.

Thundercracker realized that he needed to find a sheltered place where he could rest and recuperate, where he could let his self-repair systems do what they could with his damage. He also needed a place where he could hide, if it became necessary, until he was in any shape to defend himself. The Autobots had shot him down, after all. No doubt they would be looking for him soon, if they weren't already. It was another sobering thought.

With renewed urgency, he looked around himself again, squinting in the intense brightness of the sun, constantly adjusting his optic sensors to the brightness as he looked around himself. He spotted a large formation of boulders off in the distance, only a dozen kilometers away, one that would seem to afford some shade, at least, and perhaps shelter. It seemed to be the only such feature in the flat, seemingly endless expanse of baking desert that surrounded him, a desert that stretched to mountains that were hundreds of kilometers away.

Hundreds of kilometers, Thundercracker thought dismally. Just a short hop in jet mode. Now they might as well be on Mars for all the good they'll do me.

Forcefully putting such depressing thoughts out of his mind, Thundercracker heaved himself painfully to his feet. He staggered a bit when he temporarily lost his balance, but after a moment or two he regained his equilibrium and headed off a bit unsteadily toward the distant rock formation that he'd spotted.

With every step that he took, a knife of pain gouged a deep, diagonal path across his back, from right shoulder to left hip. Something is seriously wrong back there, he thought with a wince, hoping that his diagnostics would be back on-line soon. And his right arm was stiff, was protesting vehemently against movement of any kind. It had been agony to put weight on it in order to push himself to his feet and it was now throbbing at him in regular waves of pain that assailed him in time with the tempo of his march. Thundercracker found himself hunching his shoulders forward, which seemed to alleviate some of the pain across his back. He tucked his damaged upper arm protectively against his side, and clamped his forearm tight against his midsection with his other hand, immobilizing it as best he could until his repair systems could get to it or until he could get himself back to Decepticon Headquarters.

Resolutely, he plodded on. Every step that he took seemed to kick up a thick cloud of dust that subsequently worked its way into his open injuries, making them protest even more. Still, Thundercracker kept trudging along, grunting with pain and hissing curses at the Autobots and the planet Earth and its sun and its dirt and its dust with each laborious step. The curses, if nothing else, kept him going. They gave a rhythm to the seemingly endless hike to which he'd committed himself. The rocks were only a dozen kilometers away, so his scanners told him – and he had no doubts about their accuracy – but the hike seemed to be taking forever.

He realized that it was partly because he was being slowly sapped of strength and energy, of course. His arm was leaking energon, to be sure. He was, in fact, leaving a splotchy, irregular trail of the stuff behind him as he walked along, he suddenly noticed. The trail, however, was much more noticeable than it should have been, given the slow rate at which his arm was leaking. Something else was apparently leaking far more rapidly than his arm was, to leave such a noticeable trail. As if to remind him of what that could be, a particularly sharp stab of pain suddenly lanced its way through his back, as he twisted slightly to look over his shoulder at the energon trail he was leaving. It was powerful enough to stagger him to one knee and to wrench a whimper from his throat, entirely against his will.

Well, it's pretty much a given that there's another of my open wounds, Thundercracker thought to himself, trying to distract himself, trying to think about anything other than the pain, while his back and his arm and his head and everything else screamed in protest. Kinda glad that I can't see it...Just wish I couldn't feel it...

Thundercracker stayed hunched on one knee on the cracked surface of the desert for more than a few moments, gathering his resolve and trying to shore up his rapidly dwindling energy reserves. Most of all, he spent a long moment struggling to suppress the scream of agony that wanted to rip its way out of his throat – even though no one was around to hear it, anyway. It was just instinct of a sort, eons of training and conditioning rearing its ugly head. Pain was for the weak, that training preached. Good Decepticons, it lectured, didn't let themselves even acknowledge pain, much less express it. And they certainly didn't let it stop them from achieving their goals.

Right, Thundercracker thought bitterly to himself. Like you're a really "good Decepticon."

He was far beyond the point where he thought that having a mental argument with himself, especially about this particular issue, was strange because he'd been doing it for years, so he answered himself ruefully, Oh, so we're gonna dredge that up again, are we?

He groaned, tried to push that thought and others out of his mind. As a distraction, he pushed himself to his feet again and continued his hike, thinking that his exhaustion and the pain of his injuries would serve to push aside such ludicrous thoughts.

Of course, it didn't work.

They're not "ludicrous thoughts," you know... he found himself thinking as he trudged on. It was a notion that had been pushing its way to the forefront of his thoughts more and more often of late. It's not like you're exactly dedicated to your cause, you know. It's not even like you have a cause anymore...

Thundercracker sighed, argued back at himself out of long habit, Yes, I do. It's just that...I'm not sure what it is anymore.

Liar, the "doubting Thundercracker" voice in his head immediately retaliated. You know exactly what your cause is supposed to be.

Right. I know what it's supposed to be!

And you know that it doesn't seem to be Megatron's cause anymore...

"Shut up!" Thundercracker yelled aloud, his rough, deep voice carrying through the thin air and across the flat, seemingly endless expanse of the desert. "Just...think about something else, for Primus' sake!" he muttered.

That was a tactic that usually worked when he found his thoughts straying down this particularly torturous path. But "doubting Thundercracker" wasn't going to be quite so easily vanquished this time. He was particularly persistent on this of all days.

Think about what else? he insisted calmly. This is your chance, you know. Megatron might think you're dead. You're so determined to get back to Decepticon Headquarters. You don't have to go back, you know...

And just what is that supposed to mean?

Oh, you know precisely what that's supposed to mean, my friend...

It's crazy!

Is it? Why?

Well, where else would I go?

That was the thought that usually brought "doubting Thundercracker" up short and today was no different. It was all well and good, Thundercracker knew, to want to get away from Decepticon Headquarters or to disagree with some – or many, or maybe even all--of the things that went on there. It was one thing to wonder precisely what he was doing as a Decepticon, but it was quite another to suddenly decide to become a neutral or – Primus forbid! – to defect to the other side of the war. Megatron would never allow him to do either, and Optimus Prime and the other Autobots would probably never accept the latter. So if he were to leave the Decepticons, there was literally nowhere for him to go, and he knew it. No, his best option was to stay with the Decepticons, where he was at least welcome and where he at least had a purpose, even if he wasn't always particularly thrilled with that purpose. He at least had friends, of a sort, at Decepticon Headquarters. Or comrades, at least, if not friends.

And that was the heart of his trouble, he was now realizing, that everyone he knew, everyone with whom he was friendly, was a Decepticon. Most of them were fervent – in some cases, fanatical – Decepticons, with one or two exceptions. One or more of them always seemed to be around to convince him that thoughts of needing a high-horse "cause" in life were silly. They would tell him that the Autobots had to be defeated because they wanted to dictate to him and everyone else exactly how he should live while at the same time spouting off about individual freedom. Hypocrites, the Autobots were, the other Decepticons would tell him, hypocrites who supposedly championed the cause of freedom for everyone while allowing it only for themselves and those who shared their weak-willed "philosophy." And those who shared that philosophy, of course, were weaklings like the humans, who lived in fear of the Decepticons' ambitions as well as their superior military might – as well they should! They were, after all, an inferior species.

And after listening to the arguments of his comrades, Thundercracker would for a while fervently believe that he was on the "right" side of the Autobot/Decepticon conflict, and that he truly believed the same things that every other Decepticon, it seemed, believed. And he would be content with his lot in life for as long as he could believe that…which was, unfortunately, only until the next atrocity that the Decepticons committed in the name of...well, whatever it was that Megatron wanted at that particular moment. And that would only serve to reinforce what Thundercracker in his heart of hearts already knew: That the flaw in his comrades' argument about the "rightness" of the Decepticon cause was that the Decepticons, too, were guilty of the very same things of which they accused the Autobots. Megatron wanted to dictate to everyone in the universe exactly how to live, too, and he wanted them to live his way. If the elusive ideal of "freedom" was the reason that some of Thundercracker's comrades were sticking with the Decepticons, then they were seriously deluding themselves, as far as Thundercracker was concerned. Megatron wanted freedom for no one but himself. That was patently obvious.

But at least the Decepticons weren't quite so ambiguous about their goals as the Autobots were. At the very least, Megatron had essentially told everyone from Day One, plainly and concisely, that it was "my way or the highway." He accumulated his followers, of course, by adding an enticing bit of bait, one that implied "...but if you follow me, you might reap the benefits, too." That had won him a massive army of followers. Among them were those who truly believed that the Decepticons, as "superior" life forms, were always meant to rule the universe and that Megatron as the most superior of a superior life form was entitled to claim his place as the universe's tyrant. And there was also a significant portion of the Decepticon forces that was made up of those who just liked to blow things up and kill people for fun, a tendency that Megatron was much more likely to condone than Optimus Prime and the Autobots. There were those, also, who followed the Decepticons only because they believed that the Decepticons would eventually win the war and they wanted to be on the winning side, "philosophy" be damned.

And then there were those few who, like Thundercracker, were just...there, usually for some intangible reason. These were the Decepticons who had at first agreed with everything that Megatron preached, if only because they hadn't really thought about it too much. They had subsequently devoted themselves to his cause, only to find out down the line that they disagreed with Megatron's goals and methods. But, disillusioned though they were, they had also quickly discovered that they were trapped in the iron grasp of a tyrant. They were yoked to Megatron forever by a vow they never should have made in the first place, one from which Megatron would never willingly release them, one from which they couldn't escape.

No, no, no, Thundercracker thought dismally, shaking his head sadly as he walked on. That's not entirely true now, is it? You disagree, sure. You're disillusioned, sure. But you're not really trapped, are you? You could leave the Decepticons anytime you wanted to leave, and you know it. If you were willing to take the chances you'd have to take in order to leave, that is. If you were willing to risk defying Megatron and his murderous temper in order to escape to...wherever. If you were willing to live in fear of discovery forever afterwards. If, essentially, you were willing to risk getting yourself killed for your beliefs.

But let's face facts here, Thundercracker: You're not really willing to do any of that, are you? You're afraid to leave the Decepticons because you're more afraid of dying a "traitor" than you are of not doing what you think – What you know! – is right. That's what really burns you up, isn't it? You're a moral coward, and you know it, and you hate it. But you still won't do anything about it!

Thundercracker sighed heavily. It was the same argument, the same haunting and disturbing self-knowledge that had plagued him for many, many years now. It was galling that he knew what he should do, but he just couldn't bring himself to do it. He wasn't brave enough to do it, and that was a bitter realization. But, bitter though it was, it was still the truth. And he hadn't tried to change that truth. Yet. At the moment, it was just so much easier to let himself be convinced that what he was doing was really right and that one day he'd be rewarded for his "loyalty" to a cause in which he no longer wholly believed. So he stayed with the Decepticons, stayed with their "cause," such as it was...

And that was yet another of the real problems with the war, as Thundercracker saw it. Whatever the original conflict between the Autobots and the Decepticons had been and whatever the "causes" were that had started the war, they had all been subsequently overwhelmed and pushed aside by the hatred and the prejudice that ran so deeply between the two factions. The war was not really about causes or philosophies or ideologies anymore, as far as Thundercracker was concerned. It was only about winning, completely and unequivocally.

For Megatron, the war was, essentially, about Megatron, just as almost everything else in the universe was about Megatron as far as Megatron was concerned. It was about taking whatever he could get. It was about expanding his personal power and widening his sphere of political dominance as far as it could possibly go, no matter the cost to his followers. And for Optimus Prime, it was about making sure that Megatron didn't get what he wanted, plain and simple, no matter the cost to his followers. Or to himself. Noble "philosophies" and even nobler "causes," Thundercracker thought, had long been tossed by the wayside. The war had gotten far too personal much too long ago.

But Thundercracker needed a cause. He needed direction. More than that, he needed to belong somewhere. And right now, though Thundercracker was no longer convinced that Megatron's beliefs and his own intersected at any point, he was at least needed at Decepticon Headquarters. He told himself that he belonged there, that he had a purpose there. He tried not to think about the fact that he really had no choice in the matter, in any case, no matter what he thought.

Freedom, indeed... Thundercracker thought dismally. So ya wanna resign from the Decepticons? I'm afraid you have to die first...

Shaking himself suddenly, Thundercracker forced his thoughts away from the depressing path that they'd been following. Such thoughts served for naught out here. Out here, in the shape that he was in, there was a distinct possibility that he would end up incapacitated – perhaps permanently – if he didn't get help, in which case whether or not he belonged among the Decepticons would be a moot issue. His self-repair systems could only handle so much, after all. And judging by the trail of energon that he was leaving behind, he might not have much time...

Leave it to a trek through a desert at high noon, he thought ruefully, to burn away all the frivolities in life and make you realize what is truly important...

The one good thing about Thundercracker's depressing thoughts, however, was that they had made the time pass more quickly, had distracted him from his exhaustion and the pain of his injuries during his hike to the sheltering rock formation. Indeed, as he looked up, he saw that the rocks were very close now, and that the sun was beginning to sink toward the western half of the sky. A subtle breeze had kicked up, bringing a promise of evening coolness a few hours hence. Thundercracker would welcome it.

Only a half-hour later, Thundercracker had finally reached the shelter of the rock formation. It was merely a jumble of large, red-brown boulders, heated by the sun, but he found a hollow between two of them that formed something like a cave. It was cramped, but it was large enough for him to claim it as home for the night. It at least offered shelter and a welcome respite from the sun and its broiling heat. And the simple truth of the matter was that after walking in pain for twelve kilometers, Thundercracker was just extraordinarily glad to get off of his feet.

And the "cave" had the added benefit of being defensible. If the Autobots were looking for him, then Thundercracker hoped that his energon "trail" would evaporate so that it wouldn't lead them right to him... But that was a vague hope, however, and he realized that his next problem could well be fending off the Autobots, who would most assuredly see him as a prize catch. He knew that he should at least be checking to see if any of his weapons were working. He realized that he should, in fact, be doing much to prepare for the Autobots' eventual arrival.

But as he sat down and gingerly leaned his back against the smooth, warm wall of the boulder behind him, the only thing Thundercracker wanted to do was recharge. He decided that conserving his energy should come first. He'd worry about the Autobots...later. Much later. Thundercracker fought to keep his optics on for several long moments, but only fifteen minutes after he'd arrived at the rock formation, his chin was resting on his chest and his optics were off-line. A much-needed recharge cycle had claimed him, and he stayed that way for the rest of the afternoon, through the evening, and well into the night.

* * * * * * *

It was an audio-splitting, whining roar that startled Thundercracker, made him jerk his head up and glance frantically around himself like a startled bird. Not that looking around told him much, however. It was apparently the middle of a moonless night, pitch black and bitingly cold in stark contrast to the blindingly bright swelter of the day. Muttering incomprehensibly to himself, Thundercracker switched over to infrared and looked around himself. Nothing was in his immediate area. Not that he could see, at least, although he suspected that his range of vision was limited by his rapidly dwindling energy reserves.

The sound, however...That had been quite familiar. He settled himself back against the rock to think about where he'd heard it before, wincing as the injury across his back again came into contact with the hard, gritty rock. Recollection hit him like a tidal wave, and he almost laughed at his fuzzy thinking, another product, no doubt, of those dwindling energy reserves. It had been the sound of jet engines that he'd heard, flying very low and well below the speed of sound. He realized that they were probably searching for something.

Hell, Thundercracker thought ruefully, they're not searching for "something!" They're searching for me!

The question, of course, was whether or not those jet engines had belonged to searchers who were friends or foes. A great percentage of the Decepticons were jets, of course, but the Autobots also had their fair share of those who could fly, what with the recent addition of the Aerialbots to their ranks. And then there were the humans, of course. Under normal circumstances, the humans would have been a laughable threat to Thundercracker. Unfortunately, the circumstances were anything but normal. In his condition, without the ability to fly and with dangerously low energy reserves and torn-to-shreds outer armor, he could no longer be so certain that the humans' military jets would be quite so laughable an adversary anymore, which was...rather humiliating, actually.

Shaking his head to clear away such rambling and disturbing thoughts, Thundercracker took a moment to assess his situation. He shut off his optics since they were doing him precious little good in the intense blackness of the night anyway, and concentrated on figuring out what to do.

Almost as an afterthought, he accessed his internal diagnostics, and found to his amazement that they were now working. Judging by what they told him, however, he almost wished that they were still off-line. There was moderate to severe damage throughout his body. It ranged from structural damage like his crushed wing and the meter-deep laser gash and surrounding surface burns that scrawled across his back to circuit damage such as that which had taken out his comm, among other things. Transformation was out of the question at the moment, even if he could have flown--more than half of his transformation relays were shot. His weapons were all off-line, as well; their energy feeds had been disrupted by a systemic power surge set off by the same close-range laser strike that had gouged into his back and nearly sheared him in two. And, most disturbingly, Thundercracker's energy reserves were down to a mere thirty-five percent of their peak capacity. Low energy reserve warnings were already flashing in the bottom corner of his field of vision, something that he suddenly decided would become very annoying very quickly. And his reserves had been dwindling at an overall rate of roughly one percent per hour since he'd regained consciousness. That gave him roughly thirty-five hours to get himself back to Headquarters or he would be dead. It was as simple as that.

So he was not only damaged, grounded, incommunicado, and defenseless, but his time was also quickly running out. Much of his more minor external damage had been sealed off by his self-repairs, even the gash along the length of his upper right arm. The gash was still there of course, and it would remain there until he could get it repaired, but at least the damage had been sealed off so that it was no longer leaking energon. But the gaping gash across his back was still dripping energon freely and copiously. The damage was much too severe for his on-board self-repairs to handle even if it had been his only injury. It was simple, really: The gash across his back required medical attention, and if he didn't get it relatively soon, it was going to be the death of him. It was a chilling thought, one that sent a shiver coursing through his body that had nothing to do with the chill of a desert night.

It wasn't that the thought of death frightened him, really. Thundercracker was a warrior, after all, and death was a warrior's constant companion. It was a dark cloud that followed Decepticon warriors around, ready to claim them at the slightest opportunity. Thundercracker had always accepted that. It was just that he had never pictured a death quite like the one that he was facing. He'd always thought that his death would be a warrior's death, that he'd meet his end quickly, in battle, in a sudden and relatively painless blaze of glory. He'd never pictured slowly "bleeding" to death alone in an alien desert, isolated from everyone, friend or foe. It wasn't the way that he wanted it and, realizing that, he suddenly found a heretofore hidden reserve of steely determination.

If he was fated to die in the aptly-named Death Valley, then Thundercracker suddenly resolved that he wasn't going to do so meekly or quietly. He wasn't going to spend the last hours of his life huddled in a hollow between two rocks, hoping that an ally would miraculously find him in the nick of time. He decided that he was either going to face death head-on or he was actively going to defeat it. There was no in between. Someone was out there looking for him. Thundercracker resolved to find them first. If they were friends, then he would find his salvation. If they were enemies, then at least he'd get the quick, relatively painless death that he'd always envisioned. Either way, his current, intolerable situation would end.

It was curiously liberating, this sudden determination. Thundercracker brought his optics back on-line, adjusted them to infrared again, pushed himself to his feet, and momentarily leaned against one of the boulders for support while he regained his equilibrium. And then he took a few staggering steps out of his hiding place. As he stood outside of his "cave," straining his audio sensors for the sound of jet engines that were now perhaps tens of kilometers away, Thundercracker realized that he'd never been so determined or so sure about anything in his life. There was no more niggling indecision clouding his thoughts. There was no more waffling, no more doubting. The path before him was clear, for once in his life. He had nothing to lose anymore except his life and that, at the moment, didn't really seem like much.

Heaving a preparatory sigh, Thundercracker headed unsteadily out into the night, following the barely audible sound of distant jet engines.

* * * * * * *

Several things completely shocked Thundercracker when his optics flashed back on-line again, days later.

First among them, of course, was the fact that they'd come on-line again at all. He had, after all, resigned himself to an ignominious death at the hands of a squadron of twelve or fifteen United States Air Force F-18 jet fighters. They'd found him not long after Thundercracker had set out to find them, and the results hadn't been very pretty from Thundercracker's perspective. He'd thought his chances for survival nonexistent even after he saw Starscream and Skywarp suddenly dive out of nowhere, as if they were his avenging guardian angels. Since he'd been on the very brink of death at the time, he hadn't been sure that he wasn't hallucinating. Apparently, he hadn't been...

Secondly, he realized that wherever he was, it was delightfully cool and dim. There was no yellow sun relentlessly beating down upon him, no oppressive 130-degree desert heat, and no infernal optic-straining brightness. Above him was only a plain gunmetal-gray metal ceiling, one that was blessedly familiar.

Thirdly, there was the very distinctive voice that suddenly emanated from beside and above him.

"Well, well, well!" that voice said, loudly enough to send a bolt of pain lancing through Thundercracker's head. "Look who's alive!"

It was Starscream's distinctively grating voice. It was a voice that Thundercracker thought he'd never hear again. And while he couldn't say that he was overjoyed to hear it now, neither could he say that he would have preferred death instead. Thundercracker groaned and looked slightly to his left, turning his head ever so slowly. He squinted up at Starscream, although his optics weren't quite able to focus on him yet.

"I am?" Thundercracker dully asked of the silver-white and red blob next to him. "Really?"

"No, not really!" Starscream immediately and sarcastically replied. "Actually, you're dead, Thundercracker. And I'm God."

A disgusted snort emanating from his other side diverted Thundercracker's hazy attention before he could reply. He cranked his head over to his right and stared at the indistinct blob of black he found there.

"'God?' If you're God, Starscream," Skywarp's voice declared, "then I'd sure as hell hate to meet the Devil! Don't worry, TC," he added gently. "You're quite alive. Screamer here's just having delusions of godhood. Again."

"Hate it when that happens," Thundercracker rasped. His voice was hoarse and weak, and every last part of his body, down to the smallest of microcircuits, was fairly singing with pain. But he was alive, against all odds. He still couldn't believe it. His optics drifted drowsily off-line.

"We thought you were dead, you know," Skywarp said quietly, unwittingly echoing Thundercracker's thoughts. Thundercracker hastily brought his optics back on-line, surprised by the worried tone of Skywarp's voice, and looked up at his comrade then. His vision abruptly cleared and it was blessedly free of low energy warnings. Thundercracker was shocked to see genuine concern on Skywarp's face.

"We hoped you were dead," Starscream interjected before Thundercracker could say anything to Skywarp, but when Thundercracker turned his head to glare at him, he saw that there was a distinct glint of mischief in Starscream's optics and a teasing grin tugging at one corner of his mouth.

"Then why'd you come charging to my rescue, Starscream?" Thundercracker asked. The tone of his voice was jokingly irritated, but he was genuinely curious, despite himself.

Starscream just shrugged indifferently.

"There was just nothing better to do at the time," he answered. But then he sighed and reluctantly added, "Besides which, you might be the biggest pain in my afterburner, after Megatron and him," he said, pointing accusingly across Thundercracker's medical berth at Skywarp, "but whatever would we do without you?"

Thundercracker snorted.

"You two?" Thundercracker answered lightly. "That's easy. You'd kill each other."

"Exactly!" Starscream agreed. "And I wouldn't want to have to clean up all that mess."

"Hey!" Skywarp protested. "Who says you'd be the one cleaning up, Starscream?"

"Well, it certainly wouldn't be you, Skywarp!"

"I've got twenty credits that say otherwise."

"Don't tempt me."

"Who's tempting? I'm challenging!"

Thundercracker smiled slightly and sighed resignedly as his two comrades settled into sniping at one another, which was comfortingly normal. The more things change, he thought, the more they stay the same... Still, he felt compelled to intervene.

"Guys," he said weakly when they'd quieted for a fraction of a second, "I just woke up, you know, and I've got this really pounding headache."

"With Excedrin written all over it?" Skywarp interjected brightly.

Thundercracker sighed long-sufferingly.

"Something like that," he grumbled. "So please don't force me to play referee already. You might not like the results."

Unbeknownst to Thundercracker, Skywarp and Starscream exchanged a knowing grin across their comrade's medical berth. The fact that Thundercracker was already exasperated with them was to them definitive proof that he was going to be all right, eventually. For Skywarp, who considered Thundercracker a friend, that was nothing less that a genuine relief. For Starscream, who considered no one a friend, it was also a relief, but the relief that he felt was at the same time vaguely disquieting. Thundercracker was a fairly competent comrade, and he was admittedly good to have around in any sticky situation, but Starscream liked to believe that he didn't really need anyone, that he was completely self-sufficient. But he had to admit – if only to himself – that he'd become accustomed to Thundercracker's presence, and he knew that Thundercracker's calm, even temperament was the perfect counterbalance between his own driving ambition and Skywarp's lackadaisical indolence. Above all, he knew that Thundercracker was an essential and perhaps irreplaceable third leg of the triangle that was his team. He didn't particularly like the idea of thinking that Thundercracker – or anyone else – was indispensable...but there it was, all the same.

"Geez!" Skywarp was teasing, meanwhile. "This big wuss suffers the mortal embarrassment of getting shot down by a puny, worthless Aerialbot. He gets torn to shreds in the process. And then he gets only mildly harassed by a bunch of uppity fleshlings in flying tin cans. And he suddenly thinks that we should go easy on him?"

"Imagine!" Starscream lightly put in. "The nerve of him!"

Thundercracker was saved from having to formulate an answer by the arrival of a profoundly annoyed medic, who stormed into Thundercracker's room with loud, stomping strides, drawing the attention of all three warriors.

"I might have known I'd find the two of you in here," he grumpily complained, his optics narrowed at Starscream in particular. "Don't the words 'my patient needs to rest' mean anything to you?"

"Apparently not," Starscream answered dryly.

"Hah!" the medic retorted, making shooing gestures toward the room's exit with both hands. "Very funny. Now get out of here, both of you."

"But—" Skywarp began to protest.

"No buts! Out! Shoo!"

"Is that an order?" Starscream asked indignantly, scowling at the medic.

The medic sighed a martyred sigh.

"No, Starscream," he said patiently. "It's a mere suggestion. However, if you don't follow my suggestion, I might be tempted to look into whether or not you two are overdue for a check-up."

Starscream and Skywarp exchanged a horrified look. And then they both hastily scooted for the door.

"See ya later, TC!" Skywarp called over his shoulder as he and Starscream left.

Thundercracker lifted one arm, which felt very heavy, to wave after them, and then he looked up at the medic.

"Thanks, Doc," he said. "They were driving me nuts."

The medic snorted.

"Riiiiight," he answered long-sufferingly, with a supplicative heavenward glance. "Now rest," he ordered. And then he turned on one heel and marched out of the room.

Thundercracker watched the medic leave. And then he grinned a silly grin and chuckled to himself. He fidgeted around a bit to find a more comfortable position on the medical berth, and then, drowsiness finally getting the better of him, he let his optics go off-line once again.

It's good to be home, was his last, content thought before a long, healing recharge cycle claimed him.