"How long?" Skyfire asked, looking at the wild energies coruscating across midnight sky of Limbo.
"At least another six hours before the chronal fields collapse and we can fly out of here without getting shredded," I answered. "Another twelve before they attenuate enough that we aren't randomly flung up or down the time stream a few million years."
Skyfire nodded. "My calculations agree with yours, Starscream." The big white Autobot shuttle-mech looked up at the wild night sky with a pensive frown. "So we wait."
"We wait," I agreed.
Skyfire sighs. "Well, since we've got a while to wait... maybe you could tell me a few things I've always wondered about." There's a hesitant tone in his voice--whatever he's wondered about, it's something he thinks I don't want to talk about.
"Like what?" I ask, guardedly.
"What happened... after you lost me?" Those ice-blue optics gaze into mine; there's a haunted look on Skyfire's face, a desperate need to know.
He was right. It's something I don't want to talk about. Even now, old anger flares, old pain aches in my spark. But... Sky, of all people, deserves to know.
"You don't want to know," I warned him. "Things got a bit ugly. If you just have to know... you have to promise me one thing."
"What's that?" he replies. There's no argument--he has to know. My warning hasn't deterred him, I knew it wouldn't, but I felt obliged.
"Promise me you won't blame yourself for not being there. I know you do. I've seen it in your optics, when you look at the Decepticon marks on my wings. You think if you'd been there, it would have been different." I give him a chance to start nodding in agreement. "It wouldn't. The way things went, I would have joined the cause sooner or later."
Skyfire's mouth sets in a line; he's stubborn about his opinion. "I don't think I can promise that," he said.
"Then I can't tell you," I countered. "If you will not accept that what buried you in the ice was NO fault of yours, you will blame yourself for everything I went through, and I will not burden you with knowing what that was." I folded my arms and glared back at him with my most intimidating Air Commander frown.
"If I had been more careful of the weather..." Skyfire started to say.
"Sky, that was a completely unnatural storm that downed you. I'm a lot more familiar with Earth's weather than either one of us was back then. Polar weather just doesn't go from clear to hurricane-plus winds in a matter of minutes. That storm was a freak neither of us could have predicted or avoided... and as a Decepticon warrior, I don't believe in 'freak storms' that just happen to down the largest and apparently most dangerous ship in a survey team." I shook my head.
Hurricane-force winds tearing at my wings, tornado-like vortices threatening me each time I tried to reach where I'd last seen Skyfire. Lightning crackling through the ice and snow, the whole turning into a sick mish-mash of static in all my sensors, blocking all signs of my partner. Time and again I was nearly driven down to the ice myself; finally I struggled up above the clouds and circled until the storm dissipated.
By that time, Skyfire was gone without a trace.
"You were already down; you didn't see how that storm fought me. 'Coincidentally', my navigation sensors were disabled by the storm, so I couldn't tag your location. Lightning strike--which don't happen during polar storms, either."
I let that sink in for a moment. "I don't believe in that kind of 'coincidence'. I do believe in enemy action."
Skyfire sighed. "I would say something about Decepticon paranoia, and how there were no signs of intelligent life on that world nine million years ago, but--" He gestures expansively at the light show in the sky. Limbo's ancient defenses still protested my intrusion.
I smirked. "They thought you were paranoid, too. It took Blitzwing, of all mechs, to remember the Quintessons when they finally showed up, or so I hear."
Skyfire looked at me sharply. "What do you mean by that?" He caught my head shake and said, "You win! I promise."
"I searched the arctic until fuel ran low enough that I could barely make it home from Earth," I said.
Flying in endless circles, scanning the ice again and again, looking for some sign of metal, some trace emission from Skyfire's engines. Navigational routines screaming at me, red warnings flashing that I was approaching the point of no return in my fuel supply. I went past that, figuring I could coast, it'd just take a little longer, and if I could find Sky, I could top off from his tanks. Finally, I was down to the last dregs needed to achieve solar escape velocity, and had to face the truth: my sensors weren't good enough to penetrate the deep ice and the ocean and find Skyfire. The will to survive drove me out into space; if I stayed there searching, I would die, and no one would help either of us. If I got back to Cybertron, maybe they could return with more scouts and find Skyfire.
I spent most of the trip back coasting in stasis lock to conserve fuel. I had barely enough to escape the solar system and point myself in the direction of Cybertron. I emerged from stasis every thousand years or so to correct my course and perform basic maintenance. Even that was too much time awake, thinking. If I'd had the courage to stay, perhaps I might have chanced on Skyfire before I ran dry; if not, I could have secured myself in stasis; perhaps someone would rescue us eventually. I should have kept searching, my emotions screamed at me. It was a relief to sink back into stasis each time.
"I had to make an endurance run--coasting ballistic for thousands of years. We'd both been written off as 'lost in space' by the time I got home. Things had changed since we were sent out--they weren't sending scout teams out any more. The exploration missions had been canceled a long time before. They wouldn't send anyone to rescue you," I said, old bitterness welling up.
"What do you mean, there will be no more flights? For the love of Primus, Skyfire is still out there, he might have survived--get someone like Morninglord or Eveningstar to search, they've got the instruments to find him-- you bastards, you'd just write him off when you could save him?"
I could not believe their callousness; how could they abandon Skyfire? He was one of them, a senior scientist; unlike me, well-liked by most everyone. As it turned out, not everyone, anymore.
"THERE WILL BE NO SUCH FLIGHTS!" Fivescan, Councilor of Aerospace Science and President of the Science Council, shouted. "The day is past when we have the energy to waste on futile endeavors like that! Do you have any idea how much energy it took to fuel a scouting team for one such flight? Flights that returned us nothing but trouble." He gave me a dark look. "Don't think we didn't figure out that you military models wanted the excuse to expand your power into space!" He spat the word 'military' like it was a curse.
"I got angry, and had words with the fools in charge--made some threats I shouldn't have. Instead of a rescue for you, I found myself the target of an 'investigation'," I snarled.
"I had no clue what I'd returned to. In the thousands of years I'd been gone, there'd been a shift of power and policy--Fivescan had been someone's assistant in Aerospace when I left; now he was President. His party was in power now, and the by-word was conserve, make do, find ways to extract more power from Cybertron and use less. There was rationing, and the more fuel-hungry units were resented--and anyone who wasn't seen as immediately useful, like military units in a peaceful world, was resented."
It would be a while before they started out-and-out starving us with increasingly restrictive ration allowances. There were worse changes to come; things you don't ever need to know about, because no living Autobot will admit them. There were whispers I only learned about much later... whispers that you and I were entirely too close as partners, that Skyfire was a 'traitor to his own kind' for consorting with a 'military'. I was a bit too emotional for their sensibilities--perhaps it was my fault they wouldn't rescue you.
"Fivescan initiated a full Science Council inquiry. They didn't like that 'freak' storm--claimed I'd doctored the records and erased sections of my memory to cover up deliberate abandonment or worse. My records were damaged from nearly a hundred thousand years of coasting in space, exposed to cosmic radiation. I had holes in my memory, questions I couldn't answer for the same reason. They couldn't prove anything criminal, but they didn't need to--they were convinced of it by their own self-righteous arrogance. They couldn't order me dismantled or sentenced to the arena, since there were no provable criminal charges--they just smeared my reputation,stripped me of my position, credentials, and rank, and kept me from working in the only fields I had any training."
Fivescan glared down at me from his high podium. "Though this Council has no authority to administer criminal penalties in this case, let it be known you will not escape punishment for your misdeeds. The technicality that prevents us from having you dismantled and your personality component interned--"
"The small technicality that you have no evidence because I'minnocent, you mean!" I shouted angrily--and was promptly cuffed into silence by Straker, the marshal-at-arms.
"As I was saying," Fivescan snarled, "that technicality does not affect what is under the authority of the Science Council. Starscream, you are hereby dismissed from the Survey Service and all other branches of the Science Council--" he leaned forward with a brutal smile on his face, "retroactive to the reported date of Skyfire's 'loss'. You are also fined your total mission pay for negligence leading to the loss of a valued member of the Survey."
I felt like my cockpit had been ripped out. I had been negligent, I hadn't found Sky, I deserved some censure, but this--not only were they taking my job away, they were cheating me of what I'd already earned! I'd done a good job until that storm came up, I wanted to protest--but one look at Fivescan's face told me he wasn't listening, and that there was worse to come.
"As you are no longer attached to the Survey Service, nor are a member of the Science Council, you are no longer entitled to claim the rank or title of Scout-Engineer or Scout-Scientist, and, as of the conclusion of this hearing, you are banned from all Science Council property and data archives."
My wings felt numb, like they'd been amputated. How could I work as an engineer or technician without access to the Science Institute data archives? They were the standard reference databases for all technical and scientific information on all of Cybertron! I looked at Fivescan, my vocalizer energized to protest--then I saw the sadistic smirk on his face. He knew exactly what he'd done to me; from the look of feral anticipation on his face, he'd saved the worst for last.
"Finally, by the authority of the Science Council to certify and accredit all academic credentials, we find that Starscream was improperly awarded Primary Degrees in Aerospace Science, Physical Engineering, and Secondary Degrees in Computational Engineering and Materials Theory. These improperly credited degrees are hereby revoked and purged from the records, and you, Starscream, are forbidden to use the title 'Engineer', nor may you claim accreditation on those areas, as you have forfeited the right. These hearings are now concluded," Fivescan snarled at me. "Get out of my sight before I have you shot for trespassing!"
Skyfire looked at me in shock. "Your... credentials? They revoked your degrees? But you earned them! No matter what they thought you did, they had no right!"
I nodded. Even nine million years later, I still felt a gnawing bitterness over that. They'd taken away not just my job and rank as a scout-explorer, but my status as an engineer--everything that defined who I was to that date. All I had left was the name 'Starscream', and they'd have taken that, too, if they could have. That had been an act of sheer petty malice--yes, the Science Council technically had ultimate authority over all academic credentials, but even if I had murdered every last one of them in cold blood, that had no bearing on my qualifications as an engineer and scientist.
"They tried to erase me," I snarled coldly.
Skyfire winced. "I remember the Council being a bit conservative, but this--why were they so vicious?" He knew, I could see it on his face, but he didn't want to believe what he was hearing.
I looked back at Skyfire for a long moment. "They believed I either murdered you out there, or as good as murdered you by abandoning you to save my own skin. They couldn't prove enough to bring criminal charges, so they did what they could to punish me for my supposed crimes."
I stared at the ground. "I didn't help my case; I thought myself guilty of not trying hard enough, and that came through as just plain guilt to my inquisitors. That, coupled with the 'suspicious' holes in my memory and telemetry records and their own prejudices about 'military models' convinced the self-righteous, underclocked exhaust-heads that I was a killer."
"They tried to erase who I was, they cast me out to starve with the Empties. They paid for it, Sky, half a million years later when I took Helicon in Megatron's name," I said.
"You see, Fivescan did what everything else could not--he made me mad. When he stripped me of everything I'd earned just because he couldn't get at me any other way, I stopped just wallowing in grief and guilt--I got angry and refused to lie down and die for them. I promised myself I'd pay them back many times over for that bit of petty, vindictive malice. I would show them what vindictive really was."
"I didn't forget, ever, how they'd robbed me of what I'd earned and deserved, abandoned you on that alien world, and cast me out to die. Their world forbade me to be a scientist--so I became a warrior, and destroyed their little world of science. In my world, the Decepticon world, I am scientist and warrior both."
Fivescan, Councilor of Aerospace Science, cowered behind his Councilor's podium, begging for mercy from the Decepticon ruthlessly clearing out the upper levels of the Science Institute. Smoke drifted sullenly upward from the broken shell of his comrade Flexsteel, Councilor of Materials Sciences, as the red and blue tetrajet Transformer stepped around the rubble to face him, a cruel, feral grin on his face as he aimed his arm-guns.
Optics widened as Fivescan recognized me. "Starscream! How can you do this? You're a scientist!"
"Not according to you," I said--and shot him through the core with both guns. I looked around the Council Chamber; Fivescan had been the last of them.
"I guess you were right," I said to the blasted corpse, "I am a killer--and you're just another dead Autobot." I turned on one thruster-heel and left the burning chamber.
"After I transferred the entire set of Science Council databases to Darkmount--that was our strategic target in Helicon--I launched a batch of Soundwave's most destructive viruses to destroy the off-campus archives, then set off the nuclear devices I'd ordered planted around the Science Institute. The Science Council, the Science Institute, and several thousand Autobot and Neutral scientists, engineers and students ceased to exist that day; from then on, their knowledge would serve only the Decepticons."
"In the Darkmount records, Air Commander Starscream of the Decepticons is listed as the holder of Primary Degrees in Aerospace Science, Physical Engineering, and Secondary Degrees in Computational Engineering and Materials Theory. Fivescan and the rest of the Science Council are just a few more dead, forgotten Autobots--in the Darkmount records, everything they ever did is attributed to 'Anonymous'. They don't officially exist."
"I erased them a lot more thoroughly than they erased me."
-- FIN --