"Colonel Richardson?" Skyfire crouched down to peer through one of the hanger windows. Inside, a team of Humans were repairing the wing of a NASA modified KC-135, and a half-built wiring harness was laid out carefully on the hanger floor. The Humans looked up at the sound of Skyfire's voice, and while two looked uneasy and one looked ill, most of them were smiling. Skyfire smiled back.
One of the Humans detached himself from the maintenance crew, and sent the others back to work. He was an older man with salt-and-pepper hair worn in a crew cut, and a polo shirt in a shade of pale yellow that could only have looked natural in Miami.
"The Colonel's gone home for the weekend. I'm Mr. Jeffries, put 'er there."
The Human held out his hand.
Skyfire eyed the fragile-looking appendage doubtfully.
"I'd love to, but I'm rather statically charged at the moment."
Mr. Jeffries pointed to a metal ring set in the concrete several yards away.
"Ah. How silly of me-" Skyfire touched the grounding point, and a visible arc of energy cracked between his fingers and the metal. It subsided after a moment, releasing the fine sifting of dust, leaves, and assorted bits of paper that had been stuck to Skyfire's frame.
The white shuttle looked visibly cleaner.
Mr. Jeffries sneezed explosively, and dug a crumpled red bandanna out of his back pocket.
"So you've been having a problem with static electricity..." the Human stated, in between blowing his nose.
"Yes. It should pass in a few weeks, but I didn't want to 'shock' you."
"No kiddin'," the Human grinned, and offered the shuttle his hand again.
Skyfire took it very gently between finger and thumb.
Megatron steepled his fingers thoughtfully.
"Soundwave, come here."
"What is your command, Megatron?" the blue-armored intelligence officer asked.
"Have you noticed anything odd about Starscream's behavior lately?"
Soundwave thought for a moment, his red visor blinking as he reviewed the past few hundred times he or one of his cassettes had seen the prickly air commander.
"-Data inconclusive. Decreased displays of respect, increased obedience. Theory: presence of outside factor."
"In-ter-esting," Megatron intoned, darkly.
Soundwave waited, as he always did, without straining the silence between them.
Ravage padded silently into the room and sat beside Megatron's throne, watching him through slitted, luminous eyes.
"Read his mind, Soundwave," Megatron ordered finally, "-I want to know what Starscream is planning, and who's -helping- him."
"Affirmative," Soundwave nodded, though he knew better than anyone how challenging it would be to read Starscream without the intelligent F-15's knowledge.
Soundwave strode out of the room, and Ravage followed him.
Skyfire frowned at the datapad in his hand, and clicked back through the past few screens of designs he'd drawn. Fighters, shuttles, even a few commercial jets. None of them looked right, somehow...
"Hey Skyfire!" Spike called up from the level of the floor.
Skyfire wrote, 'and this too shall pass...' in Latin at the bottom of the screen, then subspaced his datapad casually.
"What can I do for you, Spike?" he asked, offering the Human a hand up onto the counter.
"I got to thinking," Spike began, keeping one hand on the shuttle's thumb as he was lifted, "-you said you were interested in the different forms of life here on Earth, and there's one I bet you haven't seen yet."
"What would that be?"
"Whales. Me and my dad used to see 'em breaching in the ocean off the oil drilling platform, and some were as big as Autobots."
"I've read about these creatures- -what species of cetacean did you see?" Skyfire asked.
"I dunno what kind they were. -Chip might know if you took him with you."
"I'm going now! Would you like to come with me?
Skyfire deposited the Human inside his canopy, and transformed.
Starscream flew over a dry stretch of Eastern Oregon, and slashed through some telephone lines with the tip of his wing just because they were there.
1011001110 Megatron and SLAG his stinking informers!!
Starscream swept low over the scrub-lands, pushing his turbines just this side of pain.
He KNEW Soundwave had read his mind, and that he'd seen the satellite. He KNEW what Megatron would do. He couldn't let Skyfire fly into a trap, but he couldn't tell the shuttle what had happened without losing Skyfire's confidence, and probably his company. He also couldn't let Soundwave know that HE knew he'd been read, or Soundwave might try a technique he couldn't detect next time.
And there would be a next time. There always was.
The F-15 screamed his rage and frustration out over the empty country that surrounded him, and panicked a herd of deer feeding half a mile away.
Skyfire woke from recharge early. His room was a patchwork of shadows, and the only light came from an Earth-style chronometer on the far wall which read, '03:45' in glowing red digits. Skyfire sat up sleepily, and adjusted one of the dials on the side of his helmet in an effort to clear the fog from his mind.
A jolt of electricity crackled from his hand to his helmet, and Skyfire swore under his breath. He listened in the dark, but heard nothing that wasn't supposed to be there.
Nothing... except nothing.
The homing signal on his number seven secure channel had vanished, leaving only a soft dead hiss. The other thirteen active channels were still transmitting, but number seven was the one he'd shown Starscream...
Skyfire sighed, and buried his face in his hands.
"You just had to tell them..." he muttered, disgustedly.
The sudden movement hadn't improved his static situation, and Skyfire could feel the prickling, jittery feeling wrap itself around the copper-alloy fittings of his fuel manifold.
Skyfire grounded himself out by putting a foot on the floor hastily, and kept his optics offline until his systems felt more stable.
"Ugh. Okay that's it, I'll deal with this in the morning..." he decided, stretching out on his berth once more.
A warm flicker of electricity seemed to brush across one of Skyfire's power connectors just as he was shutting down, but that was probably just residual static...
"A self-destruct!!" Megatron bellowed, "-you failed to mention that it had a SELF-DESTRUCT?!"
"How could I have known, o mighty one? It didn't blow up when I stole the first load of energon cubes..." Starscream pointed out, edging away.
"That's BECAUSE the self-destruct was set to blow if THREE OR MORE MECHS APPROACHED IT AT ONCE!!" Megatron snarled, "-Which you failed to DISCOVER before you grabbed these worthless TRINKETS!!"
Megatron struck the neat tower of bite-sized energon cubes on the table with his fist, crumbling them in a tidal wave over the horrified Frenzy.
Starscream's piteous explanation faded down the hall as Megatron dragged his Lieutenant out by the wrist.
Frenzy's head emerged from the glowing pile of cubes.
"You all right, bro?" Rumble asked, from the edge of the heap.
"Yeah, I'm okay," Frenzy nodded, picking up one of the delightfully minibot-sized energon cubes.
"-Are you thinkin' what I'm thinkin'?" Rumble grinned, picking up a cube of his own.
"Boss-bot DID kinda say he didn't want these any more..." Frenzy agreed, grabbing a second cube.
They looked at each other across the luminous pile, and snickered.
"Cassetticon secret stash!" the brothers chorused gleefully, and each dashed away for vent ducts unknown with an armload of cubes.
There was a crescent moon overhead, and high scudding clouds.
The moon passed over Andromeda, hid part of Cygnus for a time, and finally sank in between the constellations Aquila and Lyra.
Starscream got up without a word, transformed, and flew off to the Southwest.
Bumblebee looked out over the wreckage of what had been a charming island in the South Pacific, and sighed. Skyfire put a hand on the little mech's shoulder.
"It should be all right after a typhoon or two. -Though hopefully not before we can get all these jet-napped flight crews home..."
Bumblebee nodded, surveying the immense pile of scrapped cargo jets on the island's leeward side. A huge crowd of uniformed but ragged Humans were clustered on the other side, talking to Optimus Prime and Mirage. Hoist, Prowl, Hound and Wheeljack were welding together a boat on the shore a little further down.
"You know what scorches me the most about this?" Bumblebee asked, crossing his arms.
"The Insecticons' Cargo Cult trap has been done before. By the HUMANS. I just can't imagine Humans being so... evil."
"It takes all kinds to make a universe," Skyfire told him.
"Yeah, but do Insecticon-types have to BE one of those kinds?" Bumblebee pointed out.
"Come on," said Skyfire, "-let's go help Wheeljack and the others."
There was a thin fingernail of moon just rising in the East when he heard it.
Engines, faint, then nearer.
Starscream stood in the open, fists at his sides, and waited.
Skyfire transformed in the air, and landed nearby with a momentary shockwave.
Neither of them said anything right off, which Skyfire took to be a good sign.
"I know. About the South Seas mission," Starscream bit off finally.
"That's good," Skyfire agreed. He was feeling better tonight, but another 'don't stand me up' speech would have worn thin -very- quickly.
Starscream said nothing else, though he seemed to be almost vibrating with the effort.
"I know about the solar collector," Skyfire offered, coolly.
"Yes, I thought you might..." Starscream nodded, not looking directly at him.
"I'm not mad, Starscream."
"What? Why not?" Starscream asked, optics brightening in surprise.
"Don't get me wrong, I AM disappointed," the shuttle explained, "-but I also know as well as you do that the solar collector I built didn't come with a self-destruct..."
"Can you build another one?" Starscream asked, speculatively.
"I could, but my point is this: I can't keep telling you things if you can't protect the information."
"That was a TEST?" Starscream screeched.
"Yes. You get a three out of five."
For a moment Starscream was speechless, his face contorted in rage. He raised his right arm-canon, then lowered it, slowly.
"What do I have to do to WIN?" the fighter jet asked, keenly.
"I just told you that."
"...Will you still meet me like this while I'm working on it?"
"Of course. I'm trying to motivate YOU, not me..." Skyfire smiled.