The sudden glint of metal caught his sensors, and he hesitated briefly in mid-air. Targeted? Who would dare to be so-

Optimus Prime? Starscream reared back, his body frantically swerving as he tried to transform into his Earthen-mode of the F-15 fighter jet and regain the safety of distance.

The blast ripped through Starscream's chest, his wing, then lanced into the sky trailing wires and bits of charred circuitry. The Decepticon Air Commander howled in pain as systems went off line. Something was burning in his chest - he spit out a mouthful of green-flecked coolant foam, realizing with a sinking fear just how badly he had been hit. Attempting to transform, he felt a connector inside him wrench and slam into something else, locking him into his primary mode. He whirled in mid-air and turned to flee, the thrusters on the bottoms of his feet flaring azure-white as he poured all available power into them. They sputtered almost immediately and went out, leaving him confused and hovering there awkwardly as he analyzed the options available to him right now. None of them were good ones, he realized just as another shot caught him in the mid-section. He grunted, thrown back in the air as his balance-gyros went down, sending him plummeting earthward. He saw sky, solid earth, sky again as he sought to regain his equilibrium. "Damage too much - " he gritted to himself, trying to slow his wild free fall, but his body would not respond to the instructions he gave it. "Got . . . to get some altitude." He strained to turn himself, clawing frantically at the air with his hands as if he could find some sort of purchase there to stop what he understood would likely mark his death.

Treetops rose to meet him eagerly, branches snatching at his form to remind him of the power of gravity. When he smashed into the ground, all his conscious thoughts instantly slammed into blackness.


Starscream shuddered back on line with a moan that seemed to come from every inch of his battered form. He tried to sit up and sunk back to his crumpled position on the ground as each inching movement sent circuits into near-overload. On his back, his wings heaved and trembled, the trailing triangular edges deep in the dirt. He struggled to get them free, and they weighed him down, not responding to his mental commands to move, to even flick enough to loose them from the clinging earth. A snarl of frustration escaped him, and he clawed at the ground beneath him, struggling to get his leg underneath him and force himself up. Not a single system within him seemed to approve of this idea, and all he was finally able to do was raise his head, trying to get his bearings. Lots of the organic structures humans called trees met his gaze, trees and rocks. Well, most of this blasted planet is either trees or rock, he thought to himself bitterly. This is an utterly dismal little world. His internal nav-systems were down, and he realized he had no idea where he was. Let's see . . . last known coordinates were - and I turned where? No idea. Blast! He managed to get an arm under himself and dragged himself partially upright.

Deep in his chest something shifted, sending him into a series of spasms that finished with him forcefully expelling out a black mouthful of partially processed fuel. It ran down a tangled mass of broken tree limbs, seeping into the pale, splintered ends until they appeared they'd been dipped in warm tar. Another spasm made him arch forward, and then back in a rictus of agony. Sparks shot out of his joints as he thrashed and kicked, then blessedly, the surges passed and left him dizzy and spent.

"Must have blacked out..." he groaned out loud, feeling gingerly under his arm at a tangled mass of wires and circuitry. They sparked when his fingertips made contact, and he winced. This wasn't just superficial damage. This could kill him - and although Starscream wanted many things, (leadership of the Decepticons, Megatron's head on a cybertronium-plated pike), he did not want to die.

The Decepticon struggled to heave himself up to his feet. His knee nearly collapsed under his weight, and the thruster in his heel flickered orange, crisped even the sodden green branches below it before it cut out with a sharp hiss. Vison began to blur as overtaxed systems fought for what little his body had left to give, and he took one sideways step, then another, his working arm clenched tight against his side, as if to keep his internals from slithering out of his plating and tangling around his feet. The next step he took sent his left wing panel smacking against a half shattered tree - it took only that for it to shear the rest of the way off his body and crash to the ground, sending up a explosion of dirt and stone. Starscream let out a chattering moan and slumped down again on his knees, as again, that terrible burning sensation worked up into his throat once more. He choked on another surge of internal fluids that spattered from his mouth onto the loam below him, and stared at it in disbelief and growing horror. "I've got to... uh - "

He pitched forward and thrashed as the involuntary spasms shook him from fingers to foot. Inside of his body, an automatic communications link began to steadily transmit his position and status, the only thing within him that was still able to perform a serious function.


"My Lord Megatron . . . Starscream's beacon has been found."

"Where?"

"One hundred Earth-miles from the human city, Portland, Oregon. Coordinates 326-814. Send reconnaissance to retrieve?"

Megatron shook his head slightly as Soundwave brought up the coordinates on the screen in front of him. "Leave him there."

Soundwave inclined his head as he glanced back at his leader, the dark blue Decepticon impassively responding to his leader, his voice flat and monotone as he pointed at the screen where a green series of coded symbols flickered and offered their silent findings. Perched on it, a black and red metallic bird shifted his weight from foot to foot, and twisted his head to look at the screen with cold yellow eyes, appearing to read the information as well. "Starscream badly damaged. Doubtful that he can return under his own power."

Megatron smiled in return and steepled his fingers, the shadows cast from the brim of his helmet making his optics gleam like a banked smelter. Then he dropped his hands back into a dismissive, disdainful wave, thrusting a finger out at the screen. The bird hopped slightly aside at the motion, wings outstretched to keep its balance, even as sharp metal talons drew shallow gashes in the edge of the monitor. "Leave him. Perhaps he will show some of that ambition that he endlessly chatters about."

Soundwave nodded, reached over to turn off the receiver with a short, swift flick of his fingers. The blinking red light and the soft, constant beep went dead at the same time, leaving the screen before Soundwave grey and cold. The overhead lights reflected blue glints across the mechanisms standing there, and the blue, boxy mech offered a half bow, then turned aside.

"As you wish, Megatron."


"Here, Wolf!"

Morning touched the forest in western Oregon with chill, pale light. The trees stood quietly, the deep green of the firs and pines almost a watery blue in the mist and the fog. The ridges of the Dalles stood out, the tips peeking over the mist in spots like the back of some sea monster emerging from a deep loch. The sun fought to break through, failed, and only hung overhead on the horizon as a pale, watery disk of silver light. The call of a crow echoed, harsh and discordant in the silence, and then another bird called back, perhaps a mountain jay that had found an easy breakfast and didn't wish to share it. A red squirrel scampered along a log and then sat up, tufted ears twitching nervously as its tail flicked back and forth in a flag of discontent. The small rodent's nose wrinkled at a smell it picked up, a smell that filled the wild country with the reek of civilization. Not the odors it understood - it dimly could recollect mechanical, oily whiffs from the human campsites below - but this sharp, acrid odor was completely alien to the animal. It put its paw down, lifted it up and put it down again, chittering softly to itself, obviously distressed. It inched nearer, shoulders hunched with tension as it flattened to the rough bark of a fallen oak. A shift and a groan from the heap before it caused it to turn and flee, not a brave creature, but one whose instincts had helped it avoid being lunch on a regular basis.

Obviously, this was one squirrel that would be swimming happily in the gene pool for generations to come.

Pine scent drifted from a clearing, and wafted along the air currents, reminiscent of walking into a Christmas tree lot, or getting into a car with an air freshener newly freed from its plastic prison. It wasn't the clean, light scent of the trees themselves; instead, it was the forceful odor of crushed and shattered plant life, mixed in with mud and churned dirt, a faint tinge of stale smoke lingering if someone had been burning green wood in a poorly vented stove.

Starscream heard the voice - the first one he'd heard in days, or was it weeks? He wasn't sure, time had passed in a blurred, constant buzz of light and dark and light again, followed by waves of pain and mechanical nausea, by systems flickering on line and off line with jarring abruptness. One moment, his hand wouldn't even move, the next, the small of his back went numb and his legs became nothing more than a weight that crushed him into the earth. The voice called again, urgent and worried now, drifting lightly through the sodden grey forest. Not a Transformer, the Decepticon realized. The modulation was all wrong, or maybe that was his audio receptors. He wasn't sure anymore, having lost too much power; his repair systems were struggling desperately to fix one problem before another occurred that he was surprised that any of his senses were functional.

"I said, 'here', Wolf. Come here, you crazy dog!"

There was the sound of dirt being disturbed in large arcs of spray, and something touched the mech's hand, clambered over it with the scrape of claws on metal. Starscream tried to move, to lunge, but nothing responded. He made a mental shudder of disgust as the thing breathed on him, the air from its mouth reeking of something long dead, then sniffed along his hand. The pointed muzzle nosed into the cracks between his joints, snuffling and snorting as it curiously explored the crannies of the Air-Commander's fingers, leaving wet, glistening splotches of drool on his blue plating.

"Wolf! Come!" the voice called out again.

With a solid, meaty thud, the organic leapt from Starscream's hand back onto the ground and let out a noise that was sharp and shrill. The mech's audio receptors shrieked with feedback. The pain in his head went from a dull throb to a flare. Inwardly grimacing, he made a mental note. Next time he saw one of those four-legged creatures the fleshlings called 'doggies' he was going to step on it. Really hard. He managed to turn his head so that he could see the beast. It had dropped to its haunches and was observing him curiously with a wet-looking pink grin, the pointed ears on its head quivering with excitement. Lifting a forepaw, it reached and touched him once again, claws scraping along his plating. His sensors grated again at the slight audio disruption.

The voice echoed as it came closer. There was a muffled whip noise, as if a thin branch had bent back and smacked into fabric. A muffled exclamation of pain followed, along with the sound of something struggling through the tangled huckleberries and salal of the forest floor. "All right, dog. I hope for your sake that Timmy really did fall down a well, because I'm going to swat you in the rump, otherwise, you stupid. . . ."

A human pushed out through the mass of fallen logs and broken branches, and stumbled into the clearing his crashing body had made in the canopy of evergreens. Starscream could see her - yes, it was a female, he decided, he'd noted enough of the humans to see the make out the differences - eyes widen as she looked at him, and then at the now-silent dog sitting a few feet from his face. The girl blinked once or twice, as if she was afraid perhaps that she wasn't seeing what lay there before her correctly; as if the mech and the shattered woods were not real, but some sort of movie set, where one expected the inevitable yell about standing on the floor mike. Carefully, she took a step back, her breath whistling out of her harshly in the silence.

"Wolf, I hope you realize that is not anyone named Timmy," the girl finally managed to say, her voice dropping down to a ragged murmur. "Here. Now." The dog realized that the human was serious, ran over to her and sat down at her feet with a swish of its brushy tail. A pass of her hand stroked its huge, triangle-shaped ears softly as she whistled low in her throat. She stood a moment, her hands moving to her pockets but not slipping within as she seemed to take a long appraising look at the situation. Then she seemed to straighten a bit, having made a decision, and her hands fell back down by her sides as she gestured to the dog. "Down. Stay."

The dog settled into the loam, his forelegs extended, paws crossed demurely across each other as his owner carefully maneuvered her way towards the twisted heap of metal. An unusual smell lingered thickly in the air, and the young woman sniffed, then knelt and touched the ground... then brought her fingertips slowly up to her nose. It was like the odor of gasoline, but sharper, more sweet, with a metallic tang that reminded her of tin. Fuel? Or blood? Perhaps something that was a mixture of both? The robot looked like it had long departed this world, crushed and mangled; the left wing - at least it appeared to be a wing- was gashed deeply down the middle, the edges of the tear as blackened and curled as paper thrown in a fire. Hesitantly, she moved a few steps toward it, the scattered branches under her feet cracking with each step. The dog whined low in his throat, the fur on his ruff coming up and raising across his shoulders, individual silvered guard hairs waving like grass stems in the wind with each twitch of nervous muscle.

Something bitter rose in the girl's throat and she swallowed it down. The robot had obviously impacted from above - looking beyond it, there was a crushed area of he woods; actually, a long, sliding arc of destruction that had torn the smaller trees from the ground, the shallow root balls twisting and twining as if they were frantically searching for a way to get back into the earth, to tip themselves back upright. Larger pines stood in stalwart contrast, the grey bark charred with deep, black stripes, as if a monstrous cat made of fire had sharpened his claws on them and moved on into the forest. The mechanism lay slumped on his chest and side, his dark face even more shadowed by the bend of his elbow; he had fallen with a defiant sneer on his lips and his left leg crumpled underneath him, knee at an awkward bend with two supporting rods that had punctured though the joint and shattered the protective plating.

Damage seemed to cover every inch of his metal body; seeping bands of criss-cross slashes where the trees had protested his arrival through their canopy. Culminating over all of it was over a smoking hole on the exposed side of his chest, near the yellow hued glass curve that ran down the middle of it. The edges of the wound punched jaggedly outwards as if someone had thrust a finger through a thin sheet of tinfoil.

The human had seen these things before, but only through the flat, colorful view of a television screen, and that had always made it seem as untrue as a Saturday morning cartoon. Giant robots just didn't seem altogether real, except in back Hollywood lots and bad overseas monster movies. However, this one lay here in the cool woods, steam rising slowly from the exposed bits of his internals; she could see it, smell it. Beside her, the dog shook his head, his brass tag jingling against his others.

It was then that she remembered that there were things like breathing she needed to do, and she drew in a sharp suck of air. It tickled the back of her dry throat and sent a small cough echoing over the clearing.

Starscream felt systems regain power suddenly, as if someone had thrown a light switch.

Without warning, he let out a ragged snarl. The young woman backed away, tipping her head back to watch as the behemoth before her moved, crimson optics dim at first, growing steadily brighter until the light washed over the shattered trees and made them cast long, spindly fingers of broken shadows. His dragging wings sent up gouts of earth, churning the mud and tree branches before him into a morass of destruction.

"Get out of... here-" Starscream hissed, as he wrenched his body up, supporting himself on his one good arm, his blue fingers clutching the earth. Each movement was drenched with agony, and yet the Air Commander refused to fall back. The human backed slowly up, one hand in front of her as if to shield herself from a blow. The dog leapt to his feet at the movements, barking and barking, his lips curled back to expose all of his teeth as he feinted forward and back, his tail hovering between wanting to tuck under the belly and raise over his back. Starscream's face twisted in pain as the noise echoed through his audio receptors, sharp and piercing, each sound making his systems overload as if they were composed of broken glass, jagged edges grinding in his mind.

"Wolf! Shut up!" the human suddenly ordered the dog as she read the expression on the machine's face for what it was, a grimace of audio agony. "Now!"

Wolf stopped in mid-bark, and Starscream gave an audible sigh as the flaring pain in his head subsided. Then his gaze turned back to the human.

She was staring at him with her eyes wide, and his optics narrowed into cold slits of disgust. He was Starscream, Lord of the Air - not some exhibit on display for some human's amusement. It infuriated him that this little sack of filthy organic goo was regarding his misery and his pain, and that she would even see him in this state of injury and humiliation. The dirt from the ground touched every inch of his plating, the smell of rotting leaves and dead things; he wanted nothing more than to tear himself way from it and into the open sky in revulsion and disgust. No Transformer would have dared to look on him like this. Decepticon or Autobot, he would have destroyed them for this insult, because he could almost hear the brazen, mocking laughter of mechanical derision. Chest heaving, he struggled a little farther up on his arms, green colored slime dripping from his mouth and down his chin in long strings. It left pools around him that the earth refused to soak up, the color catching the light as antifreeze would when stored in a steel drum. Diagnostic systems shot off a warning from nearly every circuit in his body, but he braced himself, refusing to admit defeat, refusing to fall foward and let the dirt embrace him, for pain to chase him into unconsciousness. "I said-get out of here-now!" he snarled, his torn wings rattling with each word.

"You're really hurt, aren't you?"

The human's voice was hushed, as if she was afraid that just talking would make this scenario real; that before her wasn't a giant, alien robot, but some figment of her imagination after spending a week in the woods with only a dog for company.

The massive heap of damaged being wrenched halfway off of the ground and shot her a murderous glare. Mud fell in thick clots from his canopy, and the sound of branches popping and tearing under his weight echoed through the clearing, causing the dog to startle and skitter behind the girl, long black nails leaving furrows in the chaff of pine needles. It growled nervously, deep in its throat, ears pinned back.

"Leave now, Earth-germ!" the Decepticon spat, fuel flecking the corners of his twisted sneer.

The girl raised her hands and stepped back a pace, but didn't give as much ground as she should have, considering the circumstances. The dog whined as she made a grab at the purple collar it wore and pulled it close to her knee, her grip so tight and twisted around the inch wide nylon band that it left white, bloodless tracks on her skin. "Er - no need to call me names. I mean, that seems sort of rude, under the circumstances."

Starscream hissed, his head lowering between his shoulders. "Are you threatening me?"

Her mouth fell open in shock, blue eyes going wide as she staggered back a step, pulling the straining dog with her. "Am I what? What do you think I am, crazy? No, never mind -" she held up her hand. "Don't answer that. I'm out here in the middle of the woods talking to a giant robot who looks like he wants to tear me apart. I am crazy." She frowned a little, lines wrinkling her forehead in a puzzled, pained expression. "Of course, my therapist... well, never mind. And, uh, no, I don't think that threatening you was really what I had in mind, trust me, honest." The girl inclined her head, looking at him, bringing her free hand up to rub her chin. Her fingers left a dirt smudge across her jawline; the dog made another noise in his deep chest and sat, then stood, then sat again, tongue licking his black nose in a nervous gesture, trying to relieve its stress. Quietly, the young woman spoke to it, telling it to settle, that everything was okay before she looked back up again. "I've seen you before, I think. Somewhere. Oh, the news... aren't you of those robots who blew up a power plant up north, in Washington State, led by Megazon or something?"

"Megatron," Starscream corrected her automatically. She rocked back on her heels, regarding him with fear and fascination mingled on her face. He curled his lips back and watched her, unsure of just what was going on. Humans were supposed to scream and run and scream more before they hid or died. This one was going against all human behavior patterns he'd ever analyzed. Well, that was easy enough to fix.

The Decepticon balled his fist, drew all his extra power into his arm, and lunged to smash her flat. The human looked up, but made no move to run as his hand descended to end her very existence. There was the oddest expression on her face. Instead of any sensible human reaction - begging for mercy, screaming - she just let go of the dog's collar and shoved the animal aside with the side of her knee. The dog, obviously having more sense than the human, ran as fast as it could away from her, tail tucked, eyes rolled back in his head, his ears flat to the sides like it had already been struck.

Starscream's blow stopped in mid-air, less than a meter from her body. It wasn't that he cared. It wasn't that he hadn't crushed other humans before, felt blood spatter through his fingers, fragile bones crumble into paste. It was that she was looking at him with a small, half smile on her lips, even if her face was now the deathly white of chalk. He could see her shoulders shaking, smell the reek of human fear, acidic and sharp in his sensors. Yet here she was, head tipped back, knees locked in place as she drew in a long, ragged breath, tendrils of her tangled, windblown ponytail drifting across her collar. She was standing, almost defiantly under his hand, and he supposed that he was not the best at understanding humans expressions - was that regret he saw there? No, that was not it, and when he looked at her again, her smile had gone oddly wry and color was slowly returning to her cheekbones.

"Why don't you flee?" he asked her slowly, genuine confusion on his face.

"Should I?" she asked. The only hint of her emotions was a slight rise and fall of her voice, the sound of breath drawn though her teeth once, then twice.

This time all he could do was stare at her, his mouth falling open. Slowly, his hand creaked open from the fist he had intended to crush her with, and he flexed his fingers with a heavy, mechanical creak. Servos ground against each other as a few pine needles fluttered down from the joints and landed in her pale hair with delicate precision. "Yes," he finally informed her firmly, his voice a deep rasp. "You should."

"You don't sound convincing," she offered, taking a deep breath and sticking her hands in her pockets, rocking back on her heels again. The fuel smell burned her nostrils, sweet and thick, almost like she was standing next to a pump at the gas station. If she watched the ground long enough, she could see the shimmer of the heavier air moving in thick, serpentine waves along the saturated clearing. The broken limbs of the Douglas Firs oozed sap that collected on the splintered ends of the wood like amber dewdrops; the sticky substance dribbled slowly down and turned pale red as it hardened in the touch of the chill morning air.

"I am second-in-command of the Decepticon cause. I don't need to sound convincing," he snorted, air rising from his intakes and turning to steam. "You should be fleeing in terror, human."

"I'll try to keep that in mind, honest," she said, nodding her head. The Air-Commander supposed that she was most likely being sarcastic, and somehow that irked him even more. "What happened to you?" she continued quietly, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his fingers were creaking with tension as he set his hand back down...To brace myself better, he told himself.

"What do you think happened? I got hit, you stupid organic."

Silently, the young woman shook her head and backed up a few steps, and then lifted her leg, propped herself up on a fallen tree, crossing her arms in front of her as she leaned forward slightly, resting her elbow on her thigh. Slowly, the dog appeared out of the brush, slinking back to her and wagging the tip of its tucked tail, appearing utterly abashed. The human called out to the animal, a soft tone of reassurance, and it sidled over to her, settling at her feet. She pulled gently on its ears, running the velvet fur through her fingertips. He saw her smile briefly, the dog at her feet looking up at her face and slowly dropping his jaw to grin back, panting, as if they shared some secret joke. He scowled, thinking the two beings were obviously discussing him and his situation and finding it humorous. "Where?" she asked finally, with a slight smile. "In the head? You're talking very tough for someone who's lying in the middle of nowhere waiting to die."

"I am not waiting to die," he coughed.

"Okay. You're not. I apologize," she replied, leaning a little farther forward, studying the damage done to his body, her nose wrinkling at the overpowering odor of burnt wiring and ozone.

Starscream curled his upper lip in warning, his fingers scraping through the loam, branches breaking again under his weight. "It's okay," she said in a surprisingly gentle tone, holding out her hands again. The dog stood up and scooted behind her again, watching him intently. "I'm not doing anything dangerous. Like I could really be a danger to you. One little human against you? Like you said, I should be fleeing in terror right now."

Now that was more like it, Starscream thought. His ego got the better of him, and he waited to see what exactly this human was going to do. He could always kill her in a few minutes if she posed any real threat. Humans were easily killed. He'd done it enough times himself, he supposed. They weren't exactly the most sturdy of creatures, and not the smartest. The girl studied him for a long moment, then ducked her head slightly, dug her toe into the forest floor. Old oak leaves crushed under her weight, the fragile leaf skeletons becoming a delicate lace latticework as the brittle brown returned to the earth.

"I have some tools in the Jeep back at camp. Want to see if I can help you out?"

Starscream's mouth fell open again, that being the last thing he expected to hear from this human. . "I-I thought humans only helped Autobots," he stammered, then his optics seemed to narrow a little, his face twisting with his second reaction. "What do you want from me?" he asked suspiciously, his raspy voice trailing off into a hiss.

Her head snapped up, and she took a slight step backwards, nervously. "Nothing," she assured him. "I just know what it's like to be stranded out in the middle of nowhere with nobody around, that's all. Been there, done that," she offered. Her gaze traveled skyward for a moment, and she squinted her eyes as she looked directly at the wavering disk of the half obscured sun. She blinked a few times, then brought her hand up to rub at the corner of her eye, feeling the water evaporate instantly on her skin as she drew it back.

"Sympathy never won a battle," he told her with a deep rasping wheeze that made his chest hurt. Something stuck inside of him for a moment, broke loose with a horrible mechanical popping noise. It was like the grinding of two huge gears with a piece of concrete caught between them

"Maybe not, but it might keep you from dying here," she replied after a moment.

"Perhaps." Starscream grudgingly admitted. He hated to show any sign of weakness, but he knew better than to disregard this opportunity. It was quite doubtful, even to him, that he might get another one before he went off line...and then his body would be left to rust on this backward little world, his sleek metal torn apart by the microbes and processes of this planet. It was a thought that sent a shudder of revulsion through his frame. His head turned just enough to see a patch of grey sky. Sky was where he belonged, and right now, he would do anything to be free of this earth, free of the constraint of gravity and the cloying stinks of the organic world beneath him. "Go back then and go to your vehicle, fix me, and I might let you live, human," he growled, lifting his fingers from the earth and flicking them like a cat forced to sit in a puddle of water. His optics flashed as a nagging thought in the back of his mind blossomed into understanding, and he swung his head ponderously back to glare at her, his lips curling into a snarl. "Betray my position to the Autobots and I will hunt you down and destroy you and everything you hold dear."

The girl seemed to stiffen, her narrow shoulders lifting with tension as she jammed her hands deep into her pockets , sliding her foot off the log. Standing quietly, she raised her head again and a strained laugh escaped her. "To be honest, the only thing I hold dear is this crazy dog of mine." She took her eyes off of the mech long enough to gaze fondly at the dog sitting nearby. It caught her look and wagged its tail again, sending pine needles and small pebbles flying. She rested her hand on the dog's head for a moment, fingers digging into the rusty fur as she scratched behind the triangular ear. The animal's eyes fluttered closed with pleasure, then opened again as she spoke. "Nobody else, really. Hey, I'll do what I can if you quit threatening me every two seconds. What's wrong with you, anyway? Don't you trust anyone?"

"No," he snapped flatly. "I don't."

The human shook her head, and her mouth tightened into a small line of understanding. "Yeah, I know how that is. Way of the world. Guess even other worlds." She turned and started to leave, trying to pick her way through the underbrush and branches without getting caught up again. The dog rose instantly to his feet to gambol after her. The pointed muzzle sniffed along the edge of a fallen log until he found the perfect spot to cock his leg and declare the tree for his own territory. A vole suddenly dived into the leaf litter, stirred up by the dog's movements, and the dog once again let out a series of shrill, delighted yelps and began to chase after the rodent, jaws snapping frantically, but missing over and over again. All the animal came up with was a mouthful of fir needles and oak leaves, and those stuck to the sides of his pink tongue. He pawed at his mouth and slobbered, then completely forgot about his problem before diving back after the rodent again, who'd taken the opportunity to escape and was now probably laughing from under the log at the stupidity of all things canine.

"Take that blasted dog-thing with you too," Starscream griped, his voice taking on a petulant tone, almost a whine. "Its barking is giving me a headache."

She laughed at that, a surprisingly light and cheerful sound as she pushed a huckleberrry bush back from her face and moved past. Looking over her shoulder, a long lock of hair fell over her left eye, and she shoved it back with the heel of her palm. It stuck to her damp forehead to lay plastered flat and limp against her skin. "Well, he does that to me sometimes, too. Wait until he sees a rabbit or something, it gets worse. Come on, heel, Wolf."

The dog snorted out a snout-full of dirt and obediently followed her into the woods. He could hear them breaking brush for long minutes until he half drifted back into that stupor of pain. Starscream braced himself, his optics shining steadily as he watched them go, and when he couldn't hear them any longer, he let the darkness drag him back into that place where there was no hurt.


"Um . . . hey . . . "

Starscream jerked back on line, reared up halfway in surprise at the tap on his arm. His hand shot out, and his null-ray took aim at -

"Whoa! Hold on, wait a second!"

Starscream looked down. The human and the wretched dog were back. She was carrying a red tool box, obviously heavy. She put it down and rubbed her shoulder ruefully, then wiped her hair out of her eyes, using the sleeve of her flannel shirt to pat the sweat off her forehead. The dog sat behind her, panting heavily, but since it had to use the effort to breathe, it couldn't bark. He wondered if that was the trick to make it stay silent. No, that trick was to throw it as hard as possible into a sheer rock wall. "I was able to get my car most of the way up here. They don't really upkeep these old logging roads, you know. Not that I mind that much - I like camping where it's remote. No one to yell at me if I let the dog off of the leash. Er, sorry. Talking to myself, I'm really good at that. So, where should I start?"

He let his scanners take precious power and traced the area. Nothing. He felt a slight shock at the fact that he hadn't been betrayed. He'd expected to see the whole blasted Autobot convoy rolling up. Not another transformer for miles, and he relaxed a little bit, letting the exhaustion he felt get the better of him. "You could start by not prattling on endlessly," he snapped, but even he knew it sounded halfhearted. "However, to answer your question, my internal systems took most of the hits."

"You really know how to make friends and influence people, don't you?"

"I don't have friends," he sniffed.

"Really? Huh. That's surprising."

"What?"

"Nothing," she said a toss of her head that sent her sodden ponytail flicking across her shoulders. "Well? I can fix some things on the Jeep, and I'm fairly handy around my apartment, but--I have no idea where to begin on you. If you give me directions, though, I can maybe manage."

Starscream eyed her skeptically.

"You think I-the glory of the Cybertron War Academy am some sort of human appliance that you can fix with a wrench?"

"Well, I fixed my Atari once. That's kind of like you."

The Deception shook his head. He had no idea what exactly an 'Atari' was but it sounded much more complicated than the standard human devices. Maybe this could work after all. If she could just get his main power systems reconnected, he'd be able to get out of this predicament, and back to headquarters. Then he'd have words with a few of his illustrious compatriots for ignoring his emergency beacon. It suddenly came to him then, the realization that something should have been done long before this. "Megatron . . . " he hissed as he comprehended what the most likely scenario was. He'd been left to rust on this forsaken little world. Around him, the trees speared the sky, the sodden scent of the earth with its soup of organic odors made his lips curl back in disgust. The faster this happened, the faster he could return to his vaunted sky and look down with derision on those things that crawled on the land below.

With a sudden flare in his vermilion optics Starscream forced himself to sit slowly upright. His one still remaining wing tipped back to support him as he struggled to bring his knee out in front of him. He blew a blast of air out of his intakes, and water droplets condensed on the brim of his helmet, then ran down his cheek and dripped down his chin. Around them, the sun tried harder to break though the clouds, failed, and turned the forest a dismal grey. Slowly, he extended his hand to the human, palm up. "Get on," he rasped slowly. "I'll need you to reconnect some of my peripheral systems to restore power to some of my nonessential systems. Most of it should be fairly easy, even for a human."

The girl glanced up at him. "You had better hope so," she muttered to herself as she stepped into his hand. He made a face of disgust as her weight settled into his palm, and she had to reach out a hand to brace herself on his curving fingertip. The metal was cold under her touch - in fact, it was slick and wet, and seemed to suck the very heat out of her skin. She shivered slightly, shifting her weight slightly from foot to foot, and made a low noise in her throat as the machine lifted her from the ground. She closed her eyes, feeling the pit of her stomach roil as the machine lifted her from the forest floor.

"Wolf," she told the dog suddenly, half opening one eye. The animal was a black and tan blur below, his head tilted back, ears cupped forward. "Stay, boy."

The dog settled down to the forest floor with a sigh, stretching his nose across his paws. He had the feeling it was going to be a boring day after all.


Starscream lay on his back as the girl worked silently at the mess inside his chest plate. He stared up at the darkening sky, the pinprick of lights that he could pick out between the cloud cover, here and there. Stars, a thousand different spatters of pale blue, gold, even dull, struggling white. Once, he had flown among them - now he felt like he could just reach up tonight and grab one, crush it to dust between his fingertips. The power that he had the possibility of holding made him shiver with anticipation. Nothing else mattered but that. He'd return, and plot, and wait for Megatron to make a fatal mistake. Hopefully, Starscream thought, I will be that mistake that kills him. I want to feel his throat shatter between my hands for what he did to me . . .

On his chest, the human let out a muffled curse and brought the back of her knuckles to her mouth and sucked off the blood that welled up between them. It flickered across her tastebuds, as sharp and bitter as licking a copper penny, and she rolled her tongue around her mouth, trying to make the taste dissipate into the rush of saliva that filled her mouth. She cast her gaze over the side of the mech, wanting to spit it out, but decided that it was the more polite thing to do to just swallow the mess. Her throat moved and as it slid into her stomach, everything tightened and let her know just how hungry she was. Unfortunately, she wasn't in a position to get down from where the mech had set her, and she licked the back of her hand again, using the warmth of her mouth to make the oozing cut stop burning in the cold evening air.

Long shadows had fallen now, the sun never able to break through the haze of the grey forest. A light rain slicked them both, plastering the girl's bangs to her forehead, and streaking grey soot and clean lines of fuel down the mech. Starscream found that he'd lost his train of thought as he lowered his gaze to look at her. Unable to fathom why he hadn't just killed the blasted little pest right off, he frowned slightly. True, she had come back and was poorly attempting to help him, but he had no use for humans. They did sort of make a funny noise when one hovered over them and started shooting, but other than that the only thing that he could see them being useful for was slave labor. He wasn't a soft, human-loving Autobot lackey, he was a ruthless and powerful warrior. Who, just happened to be rather sidetracked at the moment. Starscream equated the fact that he hadn't felt really like killing her to his confused state of thinking after the damage he'd taken. He decided that he might rectify that slight oversight when he was fully operational. Then again, maybe not. What could one pitiful human do to him? He could destroy her anytime.

"You know -this doesn't seem to be working right." She told him suddenly, tapping on his chest plate with her flashlight. The drizzle bounced off the end of the beam, shattered the light a thousand places. Even though it was lying down with its head on outstretched paws, the dog perked up both ears at the noise; then realized that she still wasn't coming down and let out a long, shuddering sigh of boredom, wedging itself deeper into the dry area under a falling log. The pine needles under the dog's nose flew a few inches away with each puff of breath.

"What?"

"This here -" she indicated a bank of fused circuitry with a nod, and knelt down again, shaking her head as she gingerly slid her hand past the jagged fingers of metal. This time, she managed not to skin her knuckles; so she tried jiggling a wire or two, and was only rewarded with a slight loss of sensation in her fingertips as it sparked. She let out a short yelp and then pulled back, shaking her hand to try and force feeling back into it. Sensation came slowly, prickling with a thousand jabs as if she was clutching a pincushion tightly in her hands. "I don't think I can do anything with this, so I hope it wasn't anything you really needed. Maybe you're lucky and it's just a turn signal or something."

"Leave it then!" he snapped indignantly, and she nearly dropped the flashlight down the open hole in his chest. "I don't know why I even bothered to let you help me. Any Transformer could have fixed me by now! You couldn't even fix a Cybertronic roto-rat!"

"I'm sure I couldn't," she said with a sigh, giving him a long-suffering look.

Starscream leaned up a little, elbow creaking under his weight. She had to grab hold of his chest panel to keep from slipping. Her fingers dug into the edge of a thin crack, turning white under the pressure she was using to hold herself there and to not tumble to the ground. The tool box she'd been using didn't have the pleasure of opposable thumbs, so it slid off the flat of his chest and crashed open on the ground. The dog yipped and scooted farther under the log as a socket set went flying past his muzzle, silver bits raining down like metal hailstones. Slowly, the Decepticon shook his head, an odd expression on his face.

"Who are you, human? You don't act like any of the other humans I've met."

"Really? How many have you met?"

"Many," he said with a tone of authority. Then he rubbed his chin and looked thoughtful. "Of course, they've all been pleading for their lives, but -"

"Maybe that's the difference," she offered with a lopsided grin.

"Perhaps," he mused as she started to slide off his chest, finally losing her grip on the slick metal. The broken trees below eagerly reached up to snatch more prey and she scrabbled for another handhold. Without thinking, Starscream slipped his hand under her and lowered her to the ground. She hopped off, knelt and started to pick up her tools, throwing them back into the box, trying to find most of them in the fading yellow beam of the flashlight she ended up holding in her teeth.

"You didn't answer my question," he reminded her after a moment, scowling and clenching his fingers.

"Mmm? Didn't - question?" she muttered through a mouthful of flashlight handle, still hunting for one last socket. He could barely understand her, and his head inclined, his dark mouth flattening into a frown. The girl sheepishly grinned around the plastic hilt of the illuminating device, and then coughed, choked, and spit out the flashlight into her palm. He made a face of distaste, and she chuckled, wiped the grip off with her sleeve and tried again. "I'm sorry. What was it? The question, I mean?"

"I asked what you were. What are you called?" he repeated slowly, speaking as if she was incredibly simple. Which, humans were, in his opinion. The roto rats of Cybertron were smarter, frankly. They fled the minute he approached, while the humans had a tendency - a fatal one, to gape and point.

"Called? Oh. My name. It's Rachel. But. . . if you want, I guess you could call me Dart. It's up to you. I even answer to 'Hey, you!'"

"Dart?"

She laughed, ducking her head in embarrassment. At her motion, the flashlight beam danced around the shattered clearing, throwing shadows behind the two of them that resembled an ocean of waving spears. "You know, I guess it's funny. See, I used to sprint in college before I had an accident." Her mouth drew into a tight line, and a wistful, far off look crossed her features. Her voice dropped into a softer tone - if he hadn't have had sharp audios, it might have been swallowed in the hush of the rain. "It went like this. Two kids - well, they weren't really kids , they were my own age, I think - in a car , and a road full of wet leaves. I mean, it wasn't even my fault. I was on a bike, you know, coming home from school back to the apartment. It was dark - I always wore the reflective stripes, but I guess when you're drunk, it doesn't matter."

She shifted her weight again, uneasily from foot to foot and flexed her knee with a slight grimace. "I got thrown about twenty feet, but got lucky, or thought I did until I tried getting up. Couldn't walk. Tore up the tendons in my right leg, pretty much snapped them in three places. They tried to fix it, but it didn't work well. I even went to the sports medicine department at my school. . . two operations later, I guess I finally got the hint. I don't run much anymore. I miss it."

A slow stretch of her leg, and Rachel automatically brought her hand down to rub her knee through her muddy jeans, thumb and forefinger pressing on either side of the joint. Under the denim, an ace bandage shifted slightly at her touch, a drop of sweat slid from beneath the supportive fabric to trickle down the back of her calf. She ran her fingers in slow circles for a long minute, and took a few deep breaths, the flashlight illuminating the ground. The dog thumped his tail from underneath the log, but didn't bother to get up. It was dry under there and he was warm, nestled in the pine needles and leaf litter.

Starscream listened to her voice, and tried to make sense of her words. "The knee?" he finally ventured, thinking he'd figured out what she was referring to.

"Huh? Oh, no no... there was nothing they could do for the knee. You can't even have a surgical replacement if you're my age, because they wear out. You can only do it twice before they amputate your leg- there's not enough bone left to screw the plates for a replacement into after the second time - so, I'll enjoy the fact I can jog every once in a while, but. . . I just miss running. I was a sprinter, fifty yard dash, and the hundred, sometimes, when they needed someone to fill in for an injury. I was on the track team at the U for a two years before the accident. I even tried for a while to distance run with the guys, you know, to get up my endurance. The coach recommended I do it, just to build up my wind. Well, that and one of them was terribly cute. I admit it. I had an ulterior motive."

That, he could understand. The rest of her words had just trotted past him like a herd of sheep - one giant wooly sea of individual phrases that were so much alike it wasn't even possible for him to discern individual thoughts. Well, except the last one.

"Everyone has an ulterior motive."

"Well, of course we do, but it catches up to us sometime. I was terrible at the distance runs, though. I'd last half a mile and end up standing there gasping like an idiot and having to walk out for half an hour. So, the guys started teasing me, giving me a bad time, you know. It was a silly little nickname, but it stuck."

"Stuck?"

"Stuck. They called me Dart, and then other people started calling me that, and I started responding to it, you know? My friends all call me Dart. So, I guess you can too."

"Personally, I find 'Ray-chel' much more silly than 'Dart'," the Decepticon mused as he absentmindedly pointed at a tool she'd missed with one huge fingertip. She fumbled on the ground, and it slipped through her wet fingers twice before she could pick it up and toss it back into the toolbox with a clatter. She rubbed her hands together, then stuffed each one under the opposite armpit as she finally found a dry spot underneath an unbroken pine and shivered.

"How about you?"

"Me?" he wondered. "I told you, I find Dart a more appropriate name than- "

"Not that. Your name is -?"

"Oh. Starscream."

"Pleasure to meet you, Starscream."

Odd. He couldn't really recall when someone had said it was a pleasure to meet him in a long time. That Autobot who had you pinned down that one time up on Cybertron, maybe?

Dart straightened up with a sigh, lifted a hand to push the soaking hair out of her eyes. The light form the flashlight brightened and dimmed as she swept it across his form; brilliant blues and red, long lines of soft, scuffed grey. Slowly, she reached down and closed the tool box, hefted it in one hand. "I don't think there's much more that I can do without some other supplies. I've used up all the electrical tape in this box. And, although duct tape can hold the world together, I don't think it will help you much. Not to mention it's getting too dark, and this flashlight is going to give up the ghost in a bit. I could go back into town and get what I need, but I don't think you ought to stay here if I do."

"Why?"

"Mostly because you left a trail of destruction about ten miles wide. And I bet someone besides Wolf can find you if they just looked around."

Starscream admitted to himself that she had a point. All it would take was a reconnaissance mission by some Autobot and he'd be a sitting target with no weapons systems functional. Not exactly what he wanted to happen. Not when he was so close to getting out of here.

"I think I can get up," he said.

"Take it slow," she offered. "Just be careful."

Rather surprised by the concern in her voice, he glanced down at her, frowned a little. Then, he snorted a plume of air out of his intakes; heaved his good leg under him and rolled to his hands and knees. Dart used her free hand to take a grab for dog's collar, towed him back out of the way as Starscream struggled painfully to his feet. The dog barked and yelped; short staccato bursts of excitement as he lunged against her hand, front paws lifting off the ground. Servos whined and popped, the Decepticon felt something wrench, then crunch deep inside of his shoulders, but he managed to haul himself upright, swaying slightly.

"Are you all right?" Dart asked.

No, stupid human, he thought to himself, do I look all right?

It came out of his mouth as, "For now."

"I'll follow you so I know where you'll be. See if you can find somewhere to rest that you feel comfortable. It's going to take me a day to drive down into town, then get back. I really need some sleep."

Starscream took a slow, grating step and felt tree limbs crack and pop under his weight. The rain ran in rivulets out of his shoulder guards, sluiced down his chest like a modern water sculpture. Around them, the tips of the undamaged firs drooped, so saturated with rain they hung like a tired horse's tail at the end of a long afternoon of work. "A day? How far is this 'town?'"

"About eighty miles from - watch your step - here."

"Eighty Earth-miles? Can't you just fly there? I could. It would only take -":

"In case you didn't notice before, I can't exactly fly."

"What if I threw you?" he suggested to her darkly.

She raised an eyebrow, and then she chuckled, shaking her head. The dog shook himself twice, right down to his tail tip - water drops flying sideways to collide with those falling from the dark sky. Dart let go of the dog's collar and tucked her hands back into her pockets, and the animal looked up at her and panted, his teeth gleaming like ivory in the dimming beam. "If I didn't think you might be serious, I might take you up on that. You were kidding, weren't you?"

Starscream inclined his head slightly and contemplated her. Then, as a wry grin slowly spread across his features, his optics lit the area up with a wash of light that helped the girl pick her way over a deadfall or two. The dog bounced beside her, sniffing at the ground once every few steps. A rabbit that had been tucked under a log flushed at the touch of the dog's breath; it shot out from under the log into the darkness, fur plastered against its flanks. The flashlight beam turned the animal's eyes a glittering ruby as it flattened its ears back against its back in terror. It flung itself into the salal, water spraying into the air as the dog tore after it in hot pursuit. The bushes rustled and snapped, and the dog's whines of frustration filled the air, deep and shuddering until she whistled and brought him circling back. The girl snatched at the dog's collar again, as she glanced up at the robot towering over her. She hefted the tool box up more, then angled her head, hesitated. A short laugh finally escaped her.

"You were kidding. Wow, the guy shows a sense of humor he had hidden in that metallic body after all."

"Pah," the Decepticon spat, looking away from her and directing his attention on the poor terrain as he dragged his leg behind him, plowing up furrows of muddy earth.


"Is that helping?"

Starscream rotated his arm once again, and nodded. "It seems to be."

"Good. I don't know if there's much more I can do."

"Doubtful," he agreed. "All I can do is a wait for my repair systems to finish what they can. However, there isn't much more I can do without raw materials. You seem to have done well, human. Your skill surpassed what I thought you capable of." Starscream flexed his fingers once again, metal whining and grating until lubricant was forced through the joints again. He'd had to tell her over and over again what to do in some spots, and he sighed, letting the last of the frustration seep from him since she was no longer fiddling with things inside him.

"Thanks, I think."

The Decepticon let out another long sigh and rested his chin on his hands as he stared out over the thick forest. What has it been? Days, I think. At least I can move now, and all it will take are a few repairs that the little organic can't help me with, and then I'm on my way back. A faint, cold smile touched the corner of his mouth. You thought you'd seen the last of me, Megatron. What, you thought you'd leave me to my fate and expect me to die? Heh. Well, you thought wrong. The rock outcropping he leaned against was starting to darken with the long shadows of the twilight. Dart looked up at him and offhandedly patted his leg in a gesture of reassurance, perhaps, or even comfort. Starscream twitched at her touch, looked down at her as he shifted his leg a little off to one side. She sighed, wiped her forehead with the edge of her coat sleeve, and then half closed her eyes. Deep scratches marred her hands, a testimony to the amount of times she'd shoved them into his body to twist wires and tape fuel lines. He frowned slightly, then felt her carefully lean up against him, the last of the roll of electrical tape trailing from her hand. Again, he started to move, and then he was intrigued by something; the odd warmth of her shoulder against his metal, like a low-powered torch. He hadn't known that humans were so warm to the touch. Oh wait - yes, that's right - last time he'd picked one up to throw it, he thought it had been that warm. Had it been on fire? He honestly couldn't remember.

"Something's wrong, isn't it?" she asked, making him stop his rather gruesome pondering.

He focused his gaze on her, head slightly tilted. He didn't know why he felt like talking to her, except that when he spoke, she didn't, and he was relieved not to listen to her prattle on. "I don't know if I'll be able to keep aloft," he admitted after a few minutes. "I refuse to go back to headquarters like some dirt-eating Autobot. Not after they left me like this. Not after he thinks he's won."

"He?"

"Megatron. Our illustrious leader."

"You really think they left you here to rust away or whatever it is you guys do when you die, don't you?"

There was a silence that stretched between them. The only sound was the dog's panting as it lay on the ground and stared off into a spot in the air, contemplating dust motes only it could see. Finally, she cleared her throat with a soft cough. "Honestly, I'd wait until I could fly back too."

"You would?" he couldn't keep the surprise from his voice.

"Actually, yeah. I think so."

She half-smiled at him, and he settled back against the rock outcropping, his hands behind his head. His tattered wing served to prop him up comfortably at least, even if it no longer functioned for its intended purpose. Silence again reigned between them; she bent and stroked the dog's head again, her fingers tangling in the rough fur that made up the animal's heavy ruff. The russet tipped hair was warm, and she closed her eyes and dug her hands deep into Wolf's undercoat.

In a way, she didn't know why she had stayed - there were all the logical reasons to go... the first of all being that he'd threatened to smash her flat. She turned reasons over in her mind, and found herself confused by them all, so she finally gave up and decided on a safe course of action, opening her eyes slowly to the sliver of red sunset on the horizon. "Weather's better. And, the sunset's nice tonight."

The mech glanced up, frowned slightly. He didn't know why he hadn't smashed her flat, and even he'd been turning over reasons. So, he too decided on the safe course of action. Apparently, commenting on the weather was a universal conversation starter. "Hmm. The cloud cover does rather catch the rays of your star very nicely."

"You managed to over analyze that, you know," she quipped back, her voice struggling to imitate the mechanical tones of his own.

A snort of surprise escaped him. Then, Starscream laughed, and the sound was harsh to his audio receptors as it bounced out over the forest. Abruptly, he stopped, looked sharply around as if he'd been caught with the barrel of his null-ray to Megatron's head. He was used to laughing, true, but not like that. Not a laugh that was without a faint hint of hate and sarcasm - it rang odd in his audio receptors.

"I did," he agreed finally.

"Don't worry about it," she offered with a grin as his laughter trailed off.

"I actually wasn't," he replied.

"Why am I not surprised?"

"Because," he responded, extending his hand down to the ground.

She glanced up at him, unsure, and he frowned and flicked his fingers in a come-hither gesture. Carefully, she stepped through the underbrush to clamber lightly into his palm, clutching his fingertip for balance. The dog started to follow, but he pulled his hand up sharply when it attempted to place its filthy paws on his plating. The dog whined and barked as he began to pick her up, running around in a circle below, crossing over the border of minor annoyance and racing towards the one where he accidently dropped a boulder on it.

Not that it truly mattered right now - the Decepticon was so utterly covered in grime and dried fuel that earlier he'd been starting fastidiously down at his chest and wondering if he'd just blasted well get a new chestplate built when he got back to the base; he doubted the stains and abuses of the attack would ever be fully removed from his plating. The trees had left their mark as sure as Prime's rifle, and that was an indignity the Autobot leader would pay for. Starscream had a sort of mental list he kept - mechs and things that he would have his revenge on at some point in his existence. Mostly, that list consisted of Megatron and the other Decepticons - but now Prime had shot up fifteen spaces to trot at Megatron's heels, right after the blasted energon dispenser that refused to give him his rations for three days in a row, citing "numerical differences" in his passcode.

Her light weight shifted in his grasp as she rocked from foot to foot, struggling to balance. He frowned and then quickly curved his fingers up around her, not touching her, giving the impression that she was some sort of glass paperweight cradled in his cupped palm. She cast a wary glance down at the ground as he brought her up, held her level with his shoulder. "Here."

The girl's mouth opened slightly, and she started to scoot forward towards the flat edge of his shoulder. A thought seemed to strike her then, and she glanced back at him, offered up a polite smile.

"Er, you don't mind?"

"Get off before I drop you," he muttered.

Dart scrambled off his hand, the edge of her sneakers squeaking as she scooted off his hand and clutched the edge of his shoulder guard, her fingers finding the small seams in his plating to steady herself. Once she had managed to make herself comfortable, she clung quietly to his shoulder, staring off over the color washed forest. The still damp branches were touched with gold at the tips; and the deep blue green of the firs gave way to the brighter yellowish-tinge of the oaks, the flicker of nearly translucent lime of a vine maple stretching out into the fading sunlight as if to trying to outdo the glow. In the distance, when she shaded her eyes with the flat of her hand, the shimmer of a far off lake danced like a pool of flame, curvetting through the valley. The snow capped rise of a mountain gleamed soft indigo, reflecting the sky above. She frowned, tried to place which peak it was, through the clouds, and finally decided it either had to be St. Hillary or Mt. Hood - and then a ray of red illuminated the crater, blown out of the top of the mountain so that it appeared that some deity had taken an ice cream scoop to it to make himself a volcano sundae.

Well, it had been a Sunday, now that she thought about it.

St. Hillary.

She'd hiked up there in the past, had always loved the cool trails of that mountain. When the ominous rumble started in late 1982, her nose had been glued to the television and the news like every other student in the state. A volcano in your back yard was fascinating; to watch that softly rounded peak vent spirals of steam; water from the melting snow and ice slicing hard channels into the pristine white glaciers; the news crews walking into forests silvered with ash and snow, whispering in hushed tones to each other as if they expected the peak to listen in and react accordingly.

It came early on the latter day of the weekend, a clear May morning, when the elk had stepped lightly through the meadows on the lower part of the volcano, the lake reflecting the peak, as silver and flat as any mirror. She'd been in bed, reading a book, when the glass rattled in the house. Reflexively, she'd yelled at Wolf to stop chasing the squirrels that liked to taunt him by dashing back and forth on the spindle rail. The poor dog's head had snapped up so fast she'd heard him thwack himself on the bottom of her bed. It was only after she'd taken a shower, made a potful of bad tea and poured herself a bowl of Frosted Flakes that she'd flicked on the televison and seen the explosion shattering the peak - still roiling out a twisting column of ash. Lighting danced around the turbulent swirl of black and grey, the massive explosion creating its own weather patterns with the blast of heat and the statically charged particles drifting into the atmosphere. Hours, the explosion continued for hours - and when it was over, with it had changed a lot of things.

Including the appearance of aliens.

No, they hadn't crashed to earth - it was common knowledge now that they'd appeared around the same time as the entire north face of St. Hilary had thrown itself into a tumbling, seething wall of mud and stone, a lahar traveling to smash into the rivers; carrying a morass of trees and houses. Rumors had flown with the appearance of the robots. Publicity stunts for a Hollywood movie topped the list, followed by the end of the world, or that the true gods had appeared to come and take back their planet.

Standing on this mech's shoulder, staring off at the mountain, she tightened her fingers between the cracks in the red metal and tried to think of what to say yet again. A thousand questions ran through her mind, many of them directed at herself for this entire situation. So, once again, she squinted her eyes against the glare and smiled a little, her voice wistful.

"This is beautiful, you know?"

"It is? I rather doubt that."

With a frown that turned his mouth knife-edged, Starscream looked up and out over the woods. The last light brought the sharp, staccato bark of a coyote, echoing over the rock columns of granite and feldspar. A bird heading to roost called out to the evening, "kill-deer, kill-deer" as it flew towards the gravel of its nesting grounds. A small, derisive rumble escaped from deep within the mech's chest.

"Actually, where I come from, the spires of metal touch the sky, gleaming with the light of a thousand stars. Flying there is a release unlike any I've had here. The canyons between the spires are so deep you can dive through them until you can feel the gravity pull at you, call you down into the darkness that is echoed by the depth of the blackness among all the galaxies . . ." He suddenly realized something and turned his head - the human was silhouetted in his vision, a blur in the corner of his optic. The mech's sensors adjusted, and the girl jumped into focus, her light brown ponytail rustling over the shiny grey fabric of her windbreaker. "Dart?"

"What?"

"You're quiet," he observed, a sour note cracking through.

"I was listening to you."

"You were?" he wondered, rearing back. She yelped and clung to his shoulder guard, dug her fingers deep into the crevasses of his seams as her sneakers slipped on the slick metal, wrenching her leg out from underneath. A hiss of pain escaped her as her body twisted back on itself. Starscream's hand came up and his fingertips pushed lightly at the girl's mid-section. It drove all the breath out of her, but gained her back her feet. She coughed, sputtered, and muttered a thank-you. It surprised him, enough to let the next words pass his vocalizer. "But no one ever -"

"What?"

"Never mind. I -"

"Megatron calling Starscream! Come in, you idiot!"

His internal com-link suddenly blared into life with a burst of static. Instinctively, he jerked to one side, bringing up his arm as if he was warding of a strike. Dart grabbed Starscream's shoulder again, digging her fingers deep into the crevasses in the metal, the edges of the rivets smooth and cool to her fingertips. The mech steadied himself quickly, and gave the girl a swift glance. She managed to chuckle, rocking back and forth, the sleeves of her windbreaker catching the breeze and puffing out. Inside of the Air Commander, the communicator hissed once again as started to reach for his chest relay to answer the summons. Then he happened to glance up at the sky. The pink light softened the edges of the hills, giving them a faintly metallic glow that traveled across the trees and danced up into the black crater of the mountain itself. Wind picked up, lifted the tree branches to send droplets flashing back into the earth; red gold and shining at first, then turning a deep violet as they shifted in the light and were swallowed by the thirsty fiddleheads of the bracken.

A shivering whine came from the communicator, and a twisting wisp of acrid smoke trailed up from the mech's red chest. Dart watched it dissipate with a worried expression; Starscream's hand came up and rubbed ruefully at his left side as his lips twisted out a wince of pain.

"I messed something up, didn't I?" she apologized.

"Probably. You're merely human."

"Thank goodness."

After she left for the night, Starscream pulled open his chest panel. The communicator's tiny rod was fused to his circuitry in spots, and he finally dug his fingers underneath the tiny device and with a snarl, ripped it out. He sat and stared at the mess in his palm. It hissed faintly -even shorting out the antenna with an internal surge hadn't rendered it fully dysfunctional.

With a sideways glance, he threw it out over the silent forest. He heard it hit something far away and shatter from the impact.

"No," he muttered to himself. "Not now. Not yet."


The red ball went rolling over the ground. Behind it, the dog frantically scrambled, snapping at it until somehow, it landed in his mouth. The German Shepherd carried it back to Dart's feet, and she tossed it again. Into the air the dog leapt, all four paws straining as if he could climb into the sky after the toy. Starscream watched them from where he sat, working on the null-ray he had slung across his lap. The dog snapped at the ball, caught it in his teeth with a loud grating squeak, and pranced back to her feet. She reached for the toy, the dog dodging her hand and barking through his teeth. She pretended to ignore him, and when he snuck back to tease her, she grabbed his collar and wrestled the ball of his mouth. Wolf grumbled and mock-growled, but she finally forced him to let go and he ran off a few feet and stood there, then play bowed, bouncing down on his elbows. "You want the ball?" she asked. The shepherd barked and she grinned at it, sticking out her tongue as she stuffed the ball in her pocket.

The dog whined, jumping up and down on his hind legs, thrusting his nose in every possible place he could think of in his search for his toy. Some of them were even polite. She laughed, shoved the dog back with her foot, and the animal mock-snapped at her pant leg. She pretended to roundhouse kick him in the head, and the dog ducked and started barking at her. Her hand snuck into her pocket, and she whipped out the slobber sopping tennis ball, holding it over her head. The dog's eyes went huge and he made yipping, chattering noises, his teeth clicking against each other in his excitement.

"You want this ball," she teased the animal, laughing. "This ball? Huh? Do you want it? Want the ball, oh boy do you want this ball, don't you? This ball?"

"What an inane game."

Dart looked up at Starscream. The dog took advantage of her lapse of concentration to throw himself at her, muddy paws leaving long trails of black striped down her chest. She made a face, wrinkling her nose, then laughed and threw the ball again. The dog tore off, snapping off barks like gunshots as she wiped her slime-covered fingers off on her pants. "He likes it. I figure if it makes him happy, it's the least I can do for him." She shrugged suddenly, her plaid shirt wrinkling over her shoulders. "Didn't you ever have a pet?"

"Pet?"

"A dog? A cat? A robo-hamster?"

"Robo-what?" was his puzzled response. His shoulders lifted and fell in a sharp shrug, his tattered wing rattling against his back. "No. I never found a use for a cyber-creature."

"Seriously? Aw, too bad. Animals have a lot more sense than most people, you know. I guess that's why I have Wolf as a friend and not many human ones. Then again, I went to a frat party once a few years ago where their dog mascot drank a lot of spilled drinks and ended up running into the wall of his doghouse, poor thing. A dog with a hangover, honestly, is one of the saddest sights I've ever seen. I guess the pet shops don't sell morning after binge cures for dogs."

The big black canine retrieved the ball and dropped it at Starscream's foot. The Decepticon stared at the sphere as the dog bowed down on his forelegs. The soggy ball rolled back and forth in the animal's mouth, day glow yellow against the pink of his tongue. Wolf spit out the ball and barked again, an insistent, commanding tone as he pawed at the ball, the chestnut marks over his eyebrows giving the impression that he was actually a silent movie star as he raised and lowered them, his jaws gaping open in a doggish smile.

Starscream's mouth lifted in a confused sneer back at the animal; the dog didn't seem to notice and barked happily again. After a good minute of the yelping, the mech leaned his hand against his audios, trying to muffle the sound.

"What does it want?" he snapped finally.

"He wants you to throw the ball."

Starscream stared at Dart as if she'd just asked him to dance a polka. She just grinned wryly, and stuffed her hands in her blue jean pockets, whistling to herself. He shot her a sharp look as the dog continued to make an infernal racket that grated on his sensors; finally, just to shut the darned beast up, the mech gingerly picked up the slobbery wet sphere in the very tips of his fingers. A look of disgust crossed the mechanical face as the tiny ball made a squelching noise. Wolf jumped up at him excitedly, yelping, bouncing back and forth, his look utterly intense. "Stop that racket," the Decepticon ordered as he flicked the ball out into the forest.

It sailed over the trees, and the dog shot off after it, crashed through the underbrush, leaves scattering under each drive of his paws. The animal was running so fast that his chest nearly touched the ground; his hind paws nearly impacted with the curve of his belly with each stride as his ears flattened, his tongue spattered flecks of saliva across his shoulders with each squealing bark of excitement.

The ball kept going, spinning away. The dog's barking grew thinner as the distance separated them, echoing back to the girl and the mech.

Dart canted her head, regarded him with an exasperated sigh.

"What? I threw it!" Starscream defended, throwing up his large hands and glaring down at her. What, first she wanted him to throw it for the slavering idiot of a beast, and then when he humored her and entertained the dull-witted creature, now she was crossing her arms and looking rather unamused.

"Yes you did. Into the next county, probably."

"But I threw it," he countered. "That's what it-he, wanted, right?"

"Yeah, but . . . " she began, then she just shrugged and crossed her arms, looking up at him. "Ever think of taking up major-league pitching?"

"Pitching? Pitching what? I'm a warrior, not a smelter worker."

"I can sense that there's going to be a major communication problem with this relationship."

"I'm making perfect sense," he muttered, staring off over the trees. The dog's faint bark came back to them. "Is he still after that thing?"

"Dogs are stubborn. Kind of like us humans. They don't know when to give up on anything." She smiled at him. "You should be glad about that."

"What?"

Dart grinned again, stuck her hands in her pockets and walked off through the knee high underbrush, whistling for the dog. Starscream growled after her, then sat sullenly, trying to puzzle out what she was talking about. He found himself drawn towards the inevitable conclusion that she found something about him amusing; which was a deduction the Air Commander found distinctly distasteful. At least the dog was no longer barking. Ahhhh. Peace and quiet.


That night, Starscream got carefully to his feet and shook himself once, stretched. Metal rattled against metal as he flexed his wings from side to side. Repair systems had picked their way through enough of the damage so that he knew he could lift off and get back to base as long as he conserved power and went slow. He tapped his finger against his chin, thinking, his intakes slowly venting ribbons of steam in the cool night air. If I go back now, Megatron will have the advantage. I'm still too weak, and without my transformation and weapon systems . . . damn. He ran another quick check. My scanners are down too. I'll just have to be careful. I don't like to rely on just visual contact to spot an Autobot patrol. I'll have to find somewhere to steal what I need to bring myself back up to full flight operational capacity. He ran a data check on the area, trying to find what would help him the most. Ah. A human military installation where they repaired their vehicles and weapons came up on his internal grid. Like most of the Decepticons, Starscream had this information downloaded as it became available to him. Never knew when you might need it to take advantage of. Perfect. That would do.

Servos flexed and twisted in Starscream's arms as yanked the last bit of metal from the stripped jet nearby. As the sirens wailed, he lifted into the air, carrying his stolen burden. This would have to do. He could fix the broken transformation sequences, and now he had enough energy to allow his weapon systems to return to full power. Those were the two most important things - he'd been dreading what might have happened if he'd been found by the Autobots before he had those problems under control.

Now, to go back to headquarters and teach them that Starscream is not to be left on the scrap heap. I'll destroy them all for this insult, fools. They hang on Megatron's every whim like that wet-mouthed dog on its ball. Well, I'll teach them to listen to me. I am Starscream! I am the second-in-command. The pride of our air forces, the -

Why am I thinking about that blasted dog?

It suddenly came to him then, that he was perhaps enjoying this forced break from the others. There was no one to take orders from, nothing to do, just time to sit and plot and plan his glorious reign. He had no doubt that someday, he was destined to rule the Decepticons, to grind Megatron's reign under his heel and stand proudly at the head of a triumphant return to Cybertron. Wings outspread, the damp, cold air rushing past him and filling his head with a sound like that of a thousand cheering troops, Starscream gave himself up his fantasies and forgot that he was clutching scrap in his arms like a common laborer. His foot thrusters gleamed an eerie blue white against the dark sky. Far below in the forest, the mule deer raised their heads and cupped huge ears forward, snorting softly at what they perceived to be a reflection of lightning on the clouds of an incoming storm. The lead doe stamped her foot as the breeze wafted down the ozone scent and drifted it across her flaring nostrils, her fawns huddling close under her pale belly before she turned and nudged them into the thick, sheltering fronds of the Douglas Firs.

But she's only human, he chided himself as the wind rushed under the leading edge of his wing, lifting him higher into the northwest sky. Humans were to be destroyed so that he could better use the resources they squandered for better things-notably the downfall of the Autobots and the conquest of Cybertron. He shook his head from side to side, curled his upper lip in disgust. She's worth less than nothing. A momentary amusement, true . . . but what it comes down to is that she will sell me out to the Autobots. All humans do. Useless things. This planet would be better without them. That thought echoed in his head again, but it was soon followed by another one that turned his head to the west, where he could see the lights of Portland, speckled across the valley, diamonds of amber and blue. Useless. But... what if one could take them and turn them into something. . .useful? Is it possible?

I need to finish fixing myself, though, and it was safe there. I don't really need to exert myself getting back just yet. I'm still fairly damaged. I can always go back when I am up to my normal perfection. No one's bothered to look for me, why should I bother rushing back?

The Air-Commander halted, hanging in the in the dark sky, his grey wings flicking behind him, the purple sigil lit by the moon, angular and as sharp as knives. Then he wrenched his shoulders, twisting himself away from the north with a jet of blue fire roaring from his heels, heading to the east.