… Here we may
reign secure; and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:..
* * *
"It's quiet. Things have stabilised. Nothing bad has happened for days. Work is going reasonably smoothly." Starscream sighed. "There's going to be another crisis. I just know it."
Between the phase-shield and Vapourtrail's traps ( basically a lightning rod wire that drew the lightning to itself and channelled it into a little box, used during flight outside the shield ), the threat of the Whisperers was diminished to almost nil. And since within the shield the lightning was simply lightning, an improved energy collector had been set up. It was almost embarrassing how much power they had the potential to collect; there was even a risk of overload, something that Starscream was unused to and found a pleasant change from the careful rationing he had been stuck with on Earth.
They were going to start production of energon cubes as soon as they got the space-bridge working; if they started making them now, they would run out of places to store them. Unfortunately, since their communication system with Cybertron wasn't working, the space-bridge wouldn't be, either. However, no one was in a real hurry to get the equipment fixed. It was the first break the Stormworld crew had in weeks.
Starscream didn't trust inactivity, though. It usually meant that someone, somewhere, was coming up with a way to make him miserable.
Thus, Starscream wasn't entirely surprised when Vapourtrail eventually said, "You know, the one thing I don't understand is why the satellite cut out. I mean, we'd been assuming that the Whisperers got into it and destroyed it, but that's not possible if they have to ride lightning to get into machinery. The satellite can't be reached by lightning."
"Maybe Shatterwing broke it," said Dreadmoon. "Or the aliens rode the radio waves."
Starscream shook his head. "If they rode radio signals, they would have taken all of us before we even knew they existed." Transformer mouths moved, but it wasn't necessary; their vocalisers generated the sounds, not the movement of air through their throats and mouths. And even if that wasn't enough, they could have got in through their longer-range communication systems. Not possible. "And we would have noticed Shatterwing's absence if he was gone long enough to go to the satellite and back."
"And I actually went orbital and checked the satellite," added Vapourtrail. "There's nothing wrong with it in either hardware or software. And even if there was something wrong with it, it isn't just the satellite – my radio couldn't reach Cybertron or Earth, either."
Dreadmoon leaned back in his chair, stretching slightly to activate the computer, and called up Skyvortex's station logs. "This is unusual. Look at the dates."
"Their communications cut off at almost the same time ours did, at the same point of the year," said Vapourtrail, curious. "There's a two day difference, but it's too close to be a coincidence. And they didn't have a satellite like we did; they had to send someone orbital to make reports."
The Seeker leaned back, steepling his fingers under his nose. "It could be anything. This is such a strange planet. Stellar radiation, maybe."
"Maybe," said Dreadmoon, calling up a diagram of the solar system. "We don't know much about the star A-JX-522, except what Skyvortex collected and the readings we took on our way in."
Starscream sat up suddenly. "Dreadmoon, zoom out that image… no, farther. Farther. Get me a map of the entire M31 galaxy. There." Starscream stood, tracing a line between Cybertron's original position and the Stormworld with his finger. "Now, extrapolate the position of the Earth… Oh, my…"
"What is it?"
"I didn't think this was possible," murmured Starscream, collapsing back into his chair. "The orbit of Stormworld takes it inside the Corridor."
* * *
They had taken the subspace Corridor to reach Stormworld, but they hadn't realised just how close they were to the phenomenon.
Unfortunately, Transformer communications equipment also worked with subspace technology, which didn't take to being used in the Corridor. Ordinary radio worked well enough, but it would take thousands of years for an ordinary radio transmission to reach Cybertron.
At least there was a relatively simple way around this problem. Leaving Vapourtrail with the satellite, Starscream and Dreadmoon simply flew out of the Corridor to make their report.
In truth, Dreadmoon flew out of the Corridor. Starscream was just along for the ride. Looking over the spacecraft's screens, he said, "There. We're clear. Call Shockwave." After a few seconds, the instantly recognisable visage of Cybertron's Operations Commander appeared. "Miss me?" Starscream chuckled. "Have I got a report for your files…"
"Do go away, Starscream," Shockwave directed, the slightest tremor to his lightly-accented voice. "We're rather busy at the moment."
It was then that Starscream looked past Shockwave and at his control room. It was a mess. Several panels had blown, and a menial in the background was spraying fire-retardant foam on a small blaze. The walls were cracked, as if there had been an earthquake. Which was impossible. "What happened? Did the Autobots..?"
Shockwave shook his head. "No attack this time; it was our own stupidity. Number Five generator blew – it couldn't take the power influx after being in stasis-mode so long – which destroyed the Fifth Sector's energon storage facility, which destroyed most of Sinehex City. We haven't even bothered with casualty lists. And if that isn't bad enough for you, the blast knocked us into a decaying orbit. We have perhaps ninety-six hours before things start melting up here." He stopped, daring Starscream to have worse news.
"Don't the planetary jets work?" asked Starscream.
The purple monitor allowed himself a quick noise of disgust. "You think we haven't tried, Starscream? All the Sectors' power grids are connected; by the time we sealed off the Fifth Sector, we'd vented too much fuel to use the jets. In fact, we're still venting!" he shouted, as if that was the final straw. If Starscream wasn't worried before, he was now; Shockwave never shouted.
"How much energon is needed to get the jets online?" asked Starscream quickly. Shockwave listed off a rather large number. "Does your space-bridge still work?"
"Yes." And the Autobots were going to be very surprised at how many Decepticons suddenly showed up on Earth.
Starscream nodded. "We'll be there in six hours. Starscream out."
* * *
Skywarp was not enjoying himself.
He enjoyed being an air warrior. He enjoyed telling Starscream when Starscream did something stupid. That didn't mean he wanted to take Starscream's place.
He was, at the moment, second in command. Not to Megatron; Megatron had gone back to Cybertron to deal with the main crisis. Skywarp was currently second to Soundwave – whom he didn't like – trying to keep track of the refugees from Cybertron that had come through Shockwave's space-bridge to Earth – which was not a fun job. It wasn't going to be easy, either; after the Decepticons' minor reign of terror when they collected energy in earnest to stabilize Cybertron's orbit, the Autobots really clamped down.
They didn't even properly outnumber the Autobots, really. Of the one hundred and twenty-seven refugees who had come through the space-bridge, eighty-two were neutral. Of the Decepticons, only sixteen were even vaguely military-related. And then, they would need more energy than they could safely collect… Hopefully, the numbers alone would keep the Autobots at their distance, at least until a proper solution could be thought of.
Skywarp jumped slightly when Soundwave said, "Aircraft approaching," partly because he was already on edge, and partly because Soundwave had snuck up on him. Probably on purpose, the nasty over-promoted receptionist…
The black Seeker pushed such thoughts aside. Much as he hated his current position, he had a job to do. Skywarp shifted as he took to the air, summoning the others: "Thundercracker! Thrust! Ramjet! Stalker! Dirge! We've got company in the sky; probably those snoopy Aerialbots. Scramble!"
As was his wont, Skywarp teleported to the sky above his targets… but instead of firing, radioed his strike-force: "Guys, hold your fire! They're Decepticons!"
An all-too familiar silver jet looped around to shadow Skywarp. "I see Megatron gave you my job."
"No thanks to you, Screamer," retorted Skywarp. "Thanks for recommending me, you jerk."
"Oh, no, I made a recommendation, but it wasn't you."
"Who, then? Thundercracker?"
A slight pause. "You are vicious."
Starscream banked to follow his people to the ground. "I was in a bad mood at the time."
"What else is new?" The two Seekers landed. "What're you up to this time?"
"I," said Starscream, "am going to rub Megatron's nose in it." He called Soundwave over, and waved at the two shuttles he arrived with. "These are Dreadmoon and Vapourtrail. Skywarp, some people to work unloading their cargoes into the space-bridge. Soundwave, collect up anyone with a shuttle, spacecraft, or long-range jet mode…"
Skywarp noticed for the first time exactly what the cargo was. "Energon?"
"… Tell them to follow my people back to the Stormworld for more of the same," finished Starscream, as if he hadn't been interrupted. The Stormworld space-bridge was non-functional due to subspace interference, but the Earth one still worked, and because of the Corridor, the flight between Stormworld and Earth took less than six hours. It was roundabout, but it stood a chance of succeeding.
Soundwave paused for the briefest moment, quickly summing up Starscream's intentions. "You're insane."
"Indulge a lunatic," said Starscream. "Because the lunatic outranks you." Soundwave shrugged and set to work.
* * *
It was a bit less than six hours after Starscream said he'd arrive, but it was close enough that Shockwave was expecting him. He wasn't expecting him to show up sitting on a skid piled with energon. The Seeker hopped down. "Get some menials to unload that. In about twelve hours, there's going to be a lot more of it."
"And if there's anyone left here who can shift to a spacecraft, send him to Earth. Soundwave and Skywarp can fill him in."
"Starscream," said Shockwave evenly, patiently, "what the blazes is going on?"
The Seeker waved a hand at the space-bridge. "I'm delivering energon. A lot of it. Hopefully enough to power the planetary jets and get Cybertron back where it belongs." Shockwave set about directing his menials to the task.
He turned to the source of the shout with a smile. "Megatron. Things falling apart as usual?"
"If you call an entire Sector exploding 'usual'," Megatron growled. "What are you doing here?"
"Remember that planet that was supposed to kill me?.."
* * *
Megatron caught up to Starscream outside of Shockwave's tower, talking to Dreadmoon and one of his Insecticons. "Starscream."
"Megatron." He waved his people away and waited.
While it was all well and good that Stormworld's vast resources were now the property of the Decepticon Empire, Megatron was not looking forward to dealing with a very smug Starscream. "You did well," he finally admitted. Six hours ago, Cybertron's planetary jets activated, starting the world's journey back to its proper orbit, all thanks to a ridiculously large shipment of energon from Stormworld. Those that evacuated were on their way back, and no one really wanted to think about the amount of repairs that awaited them.
The tone was grudging, but Starscream knew what even a minor compliment cost his commander, and decided to accept it gracefully for a change. "Thank you."
Silence fell again as each tried to think of something else to say:
You were right. I had no idea how to handle a command position. But I'm learning. I think I finally understand you, Megatron. Sometimes there's no choice, and all you can do is try to survive to fight another day.
I'm impressed; you surpassed all my expectations of you, Starscream. I never intended to risk you as I did, but you caught me at a bad time, and I answered your challenge without thinking. But you did it. Congratulations.
I'm sorry. But neither could say it.
"All right, you've had your fun," said Megatron gruffly. "We'll be returning to Earth in two days. Skywarp at least will be happy to see you again; he's tired of filling in for you."
"Return?" Starscream huffed. "You said that if I conquered the planet, it was mine. Besides, I'm not finished; it isn't truly under control, and we haven't found a way to properly defeat the Whisperers. Also, since Stormworld's orbit takes it into the Corridor itself, it will be a perfect place to study it from."
"Starscream…" began Megatron warningly.
The Seeker drew himself up archly. "You can't back out of the challenge now that I've won. Anyway, I'm the only one qualified to rule the Stormworld; I know the dangers of the planet, can teach storm-flying, and have the scientific training required to tame the planet." He paused and smiled. "Is Skywarp really that bad an Air Commander?"
"Almost." Actually, Skywarp was pretty good; not as bright as Starscream, but he made up for it in cunning. All that, and he was loyal, too. He just didn't want the responsibility.
That seemed to be that, then. Soundwave would take the news that he was suddenly second-in-command of the Decepticon army with his usual calm, but Skywarp might protest his own sudden promotion to third. He would have to deal with it. "As you were, then." Megatron turned on his heel and left. Neither of them were good at good-byes.
Behind him, Starscream chuckled, but for once there was no malice to it.
* * *
The guard looked around, then down as something kicked him in the shin. "Look awake, soldier," snapped Kickback. "Official Coleop Ambassador-Type Person coming through." He didn't actually have to kick the guard, but he had to do something. He was anxious, his nerves told him the choice was either fight or flee, and Kickback was a warrior.
The Cybertron-Coleop space-bridge was located in the Second Sector, and all the excitement was probably happening in the First, so Kickback headed to Shockwave's tower. All he wanted was information, but it didn't occur to him to radio for it. He was too worked-up for that.
Near Shockwave's watchtower, he caught sight of ex-Monitor Dreadmoon doing inventory on a compad, and dropped down next to him. Shifting back to robot-mode, he snapped, "We of Coleop only received the preliminary reports. We know one of our people was killed. Who was it?" He didn't intend to be so harsh, but if he didn't ask it in a rush, he would never have managed it.
To the Decepticon's credit, Dreadmoon actually sounded sincerely regretful when he said, "The scientist. Lightseeker. She could detect the Corridor aliens, and they destroyed her for it." He waved a hand at the watchtower. "One of the others is compiling the report for you. I would have done it already, but she insisted."
"I've, hmm, finished, Dreadmoon. You promised me a lift over to the Second… oh." Sway stopped as she caught sight of Kickback. "Hmm, never mind."
There were several things he could say, but Kickback didn't intend to do so with Dreadmoon standing right there ( albeit ignoring them with his inventory work. ) Instead he started for a slightly sheltered area, motioning for the dragonfly to follow.
She did. Waving the report slightly she said, "I was going to use this as an excuse to visit. Hmm, looks like I don't have to now."
"I was going to, hmm, wave it under your nose and try to make you feel guilty about it – I was almost killed, you know…"
"… Then you have to show up here, shaking like a shiverweed, completely ruining my, hmm, plot for petty revenge…"
Unable to get a word in edgewise, Kickback, master of fast-talk, grabbed her by the shoulders and blurted, "Sway, I've been an idiot."
"Mm, no argument there."
"Don't you start. I've spent quite long enough kicking myself, thank you very much." He let her go and struck an ill-tempered pose. "And I think I had every right to be nervous about keeping female company. I was right there when Shrapnel almost got eaten."
"Hmm, you're going to have problems, Kickback," chuckled Sway. "Most Insecticons are female."
"You know what I mean." Insecticons were possessed of some insect-like instincts; the originals because their programming was damaged, and the coleop-born because they started as organic beings. Certainly Coronapis tried to devour Shrapnel, but that was while she was insect, not Insecticon. Still, it had taken the separation for Kickback to force his rebellious mind to realise that the phantom threat of getting his head bit off was much less than the fact that he missed his friend. He ran a hand over the side of his helmet, a nervous gesture. "If I'd known the project was going to be so dangerous, I would have…"
"Kept me at, hmm, home?" asked Sway archly.
Kickback returned the expression. "On Coleop, at least. I could have sent Barrage, or Scattershot, or Ransack. Don't think I lack qualified people."
"And any of those would have done as well as me, hmm?"
The grasshopper considered that. "Well, no," he admitted eventually, but set his jaw. "I'm still going to drag you back to the Hive by those pretty wings of yours if you don't come quietly."
Sway danced back. "Keep me cooped up so you, mm, don't have to worry about me? Hmm, only on the condition that you never leave, either."
"What? Sway, much as I don't like it, I've got responsibilities now. I can't just stay in the Hive so that you don't worry about me!"
"What about me?" snapped Sway. "Hrmm, you think I like you getting into situations where you can get your, hmm, abdomen shot off, Kickback? Which one of us lost a leg to a morphobot three months ago, hmm?"
"I can take care of myself, Sway…"
"So can I!"
Both Insecticons folded their arms and turned away belligerently. Several minutes had passed before one spoke. "Sway?.."
"Hmm?" She turned. Kickback was still facing away, but his hands hung loosely at his sides.
Still without looking he said, "There's only one way, then. We have to stick together. Split up, we spend too much time worrying, which I'm sure ruins our efficiency."
"I'll watch your back if you'll watch mine?" asked Sway. "Hmm, tempting."
He turned and scowled. "Only that?"
"Mm, you're cute when you're indignant."
* * *
Dreadmoon looked up from his compad as Starscream landed beside him. "How did it go?"
The Seeker might be more open than he had been, but there were some things he still wouldn't share. Still, Starscream seemed to be in a good mood, so things couldn't have gone too badly. Good. Dreadmoon tapped at the compad. "Memory will have to hold the fort for a few days longer. After the fiasco up here, the Stormworld project has suddenly become popular, and I need to organize things. With more people, the base will have to be expanded – I need to ask Shrillcry about how best to do that, as Crowbar's requested a transfer – but at least we'll be able to get more work done, especially once the orbit takes us out of the Corridor… why are you shaking your head?"
"Why do you keep saying 'I'?"
"It's over. You won your challenge."
Starscream shook his head again with a smile. "He asked me back. I turned him down."
The monitor's optics brightened for an instant; a blink of surprise. "You'll be returning to the Stormworld?"
"Of course." Starscream spread his arms to the night sky, as if to claim it. "It's my blasted planet."