That Old Black Magic

          Thundercracker leaned against the space-bridge receiver, arms folded across his chest.  He hadn't actually moved for the last fifteen minutes.  With a sigh, he looked up at the sky and asked, "When was this person supposed to show up?"

          "Another few minutes," said Skywarp.  "He isn't late yet."  Astrotrain, the bridge's guard for this duty shift, ignored the Seekers.

          "'Warp, we've been here for two hours."

          The black jet threw up his hands in exasperation.  "All right, look, I snuck up behind Soundwave while he was ejecting a couple of his lousy midgets and shouted, 'FLY, MY PRETTIES!  FLY!  FLY!'"

          Astrotrain jumped at the sudden shout, but pinpointed the source of the noise and settled back.  Thundercracker shook his head.  "I wondered what the rush was."  Skywarp had raised the game of 'Bait Soundwave' to an art form.  Usually Soundwave would just ignore him, but sometimes it was prudent to get out of the way afterwards.  "Who are we waiting for, anyway?"

          "A Seeker named Stormcloud," Skywarp replied with a glance at the receiver.  Pulling a compad out of some compartment in his armour, he called up a screen.  "He… hmm, no, she is going to be our third."

          Thundercracker chuckled slightly.  "Remember what happened last time we requested a replacement for our third?  We got Starscream."

          "Hey, say what you want; I liked the Screamer."

          "You liked arguing with him.  I liked Darkshard better.  He didn't yell so much."  Skywarp and Thundercracker had joined the ranks of the Decepticon elite while Starscream was an inmate of one of the Autobot mind-prisons.  The Seeker Darkshard had been the Air Commander at the time.  Six years later, he was destroyed.  By then, the Autobots had begun to forget about the Decepticons, so Megatron finally had a chance to strike back and rescue Starscream.  Initially impressed that they were going to be teamed up with a living legend, Skywarp and Thundercracker quickly revised their opinion of the silver Seeker when he turned out to be… well… a bit loopy.

          Recently the roster had changed again.  Starscream hadn't been destroyed, but he was no longer officially on Earth.  Six weeks ago, Skywarp had been officially promoted to the Air Commander of the Decepticon Battle Fleet.  It wasn't a really solid position; if Starscream ever decided to return or was called in for a specific mission, he'd get his old job back.  Skywarp rather wished he would come back; he enjoyed being a warrior, but didn't want the extra responsibilities of being the Air Commander.  Unfortunately, Megatron decided he was the one most qualified.

          As if reading his friend's thoughts, Thundercracker said, "I saw Starscream in the base this morning, actually.  Just visiting?"

          Being third in command of the Decepticon army also gave Skywarp access to information that the others weren't privy to.  "Something like that."

          A light flashed on the space-bridge's control panel, cutting off further conversation.  The three Decepticons stood back as the sky exploded in a burst of tangled lights and clouds.  It was over in seconds, leaving the receiver ring to open and allow a slightly unsteady Seeker in deep blues and purples to step through.

          Skywarp stepped forward.  "You're Stormcloud?"

          She nodded.  "I am.  Is the bridge always like… like that?"

          The black Seeker chuckled.  "You get used to it."  Then, "I'm Skywarp," he said with a bow, then waved to the others.  "This is Thundercracker; you'd better like him because he's my pal.  That is Astrotrain.  Feel free to dislike him."

          From his post, Astrotrain made a rude noise.  Stormcloud acknowledged him and the Seekers with a slight nod.  "I've been more-or-less briefed on the crew," she said, retrieving a compad from her cockpit.  She handed it to Skywarp.  "My recommendations and tech specs.  I've already been through the operation to make my Seeker-form into one like an Earth-style jet."

          Her stats were good, but that was to be expected; she was joining the Decepticon elite, after all, and Megatron did pick her out himself…  Skywarp would have preferred to review the choices himself, but, hey, who was he to argue with Megatron?  He handed back the compad.  "Me and TC will give you the grand tour when we get back to headquarters."  Shifting to jet-form, he said, "On the way, we'll see what you can do.  Byyyyye, Astrotraaaaain!"

* * *

          "Starscream, what are you doing?  Back off!"

          "Just looking at your head, Leader.  Your helmet does a good job of covering the weld-marks where they must have removed your brain."

          The silver jet dropped back before Megatron could pivot in the air and smack him, so the Decepticon Commander settled for a glare.  "If I wanted your opinion, Starscream…"

          "Soundwave thinks you've snapped, too," said Starscream.  "He just said it in polite-speak: Plan inadvisable.  Here, I'll get another opinion – Ramjet!  What do you think of this mission?"

          The white and black plane stayed stoically silent, but his discomfort was obvious.  From a bit farther back, Scrapper called: "I'd like to know what this mission is."


          "Shut up, Starscream," snapped Megatron.  "And all you and yours need to know, Scrapper, is that you'll be doing some digging."

          You won't tell them what's going on because they're noisy enough to tell you how stupid you're being, thought Starscream.  The strike-force was average-sized: Megatron, himself, Ramjet, Rumble, Ravage, Scrapper, Bonecrusher, and Scavenger.  Of course, the Constructicons wouldn't be part of the real mission…

          The Decepticons had been flying for hours now, having crossed the North American continent and the Atlantic Ocean, they were once again over land – Europe, somewhere.  Suddenly Megatron banked and dove, landing beside a small hill in a rough, wooded area.  The others followed.

          Scavenger took one look at the hill and said, "This isn't a natural feature.  Look, you can see where the dirt's been piled up."  The other Constructicons nodded, though the other Decepticons couldn't see what details he was pointing out.  The years of English weather had washed away most traces of the work.

          Not that it mattered; the strike-force already knew it.  Megatron waved an arm at the hill.  "It's hollow.  There had been a way in…"  He looked over to Starscream.

          "Thirty-five metres to the right," grumbled Starscream.

          "… But the Autobots filled it in," Megatron finished.  "Starscream, confirm."

          The Seeker sullenly stalked over to the area indicated, running his hand over the artificial rock-slide.  "Yes, Leader.  The power is still here.  I can sense it."

          "Excellent."  Megatron clapped his hands together once.  "Constructicons!  Dig the gate out, but be careful about it.  The rest of you keep watch."

          The Constructicons exchanged glances, but shrugged, shifted, and set to their task.  The other Decepticons split up to take positions around the clearing, except Starscream.  "It's too dangerous, Megatron.  Anything could go wrong."

          "Objection noted.  Take the southeast corner."

          Starscream grabbed his commander's arm and yanked him around before he could think better of it.  "Will you listen to me for once!?  This plan is insane!  If we change the past, we have no way of knowing how that will affect our pres… Aaagh!"

          If any of the others heard the shout and noticed Starscream on the ground with Megatron glaring down at him, they decided they didn't want to get involved.  "We've been over this, Starscream."

          "Not to my satisfaction," muttered the Seeker, carefully getting back to his feet.  "Or to Soundwave's, or to anyone else's who knows what you're up to."  Actually, Rumble and Ravage seemed enthusiastic enough, but Starscream didn't count them.  "I don't mind you trying to doom yourself, but leave me out of it.  Hnh, I was safer back on Stormworld…"

          "Nothing is going to go wrong," said Megatron, exasperated.  "You and the others ran roughshod over the Sixth Century, and nothing changed."

          "How do you know?" Starscream challenged.  "If something did change, you would have changed with it.  Besides, I know we won't succeed.  If we did, we wouldn't have to go through with this."

          The plan was simple enough: Some years ago, Starscream, Ramjet, Rumble, and Ravage had accidentally activated a portal that sent them fifteen-hundred years into the past.  They tore around the era until the Autobots hauled them back.  By then, Starscream's party were thoroughly sick of the Sixth Century.  Over the next few days the impossible story leaked out, and checking their chronometers showed that Starscream and the others had two extra days recorded.  Not that anyone believed it, and the incident was quickly forgotten.

          Now Megatron had the inspiration to use the time portal, return to North America, and destroy the Autobots while they hibernated.  Starscream and the others had been low on power when they went back the first time – fully charged, nothing in that time could stand in the Decepticons' way.

          It was easy.  It was foolproof.  It gave Starscream a headache just thinking about it.  Unfortunately, Megatron was in one of his moods and wouldn't listen to reason.  Apparently he had worked out all of the paradoxes in his own mind… not that he could explain them to anyone else.  There was a reason everything was being kept secret – Megatron knew full well that the rest of the Decepticons wouldn't go along with it.

          To that end, only the original four ( Starscream was pulled from his duties on Stormworld for the purposes of the mission ) who used the gate were informed, as well as Soundwave and Skywarp because of their rank.  Starscream had actually considered the plan himself, soon after his return, but gave up on it as being too risky.  There were things even he wouldn't do.

          Lost in his own pessimistic musings, he only caught the tail end of Megatron's question.  "What?"

          "I was just reminding you that any attempt to destroy my past-self will not be looked upon favourably."  Megatron wasn't going to let the Seeker out of his sight, of course, but he thought he'd mention it.  Just so Starscream didn't get any ideas.  Besides, he could terminate Starscream's past-self just as easily.

          Starscream smiled, but it wasn't friendly.  "You wound me, Megatron.  The thought hadn't even begun to cross my mind."  The thought had finished some time ago.  Starscream was still debating with himself as to whether to try to implement it or not.  He took in Megatron's stance and sighed inwardly.  Hmm.  Not.

          The front-end loader rolled over to them and unfolded into the green and purple form of Scrapper.  "We've cleared the landslide, Megatron.  Are there any further orders?"

          "Yes.  Stay out here."  Megatron summoned Ramjet and the spy-cassettes via radio, and the strike-force proper entered the cavern.  "Starscream, activate the portal."

          "I might not remember how to do it.  I did it by accident the first time."  Catching his commander's glare, Starscream quickly turned back to the task.  His mind was a computer – of course he remembered what he did to trigger the gate.  He crouched by the set of sigils carved into the rock and started tapping them in sequence.  Stupid Megatron and his stupid plans, and stupid me for obeying him.  I should have stayed on Stormworld… except then there would be no one to yell at Megatron when this all blows up in our faces.  Starscream hit the final symbol with a bit more force than necessary.

          Nothing happened.  "Well?"

          "Look outside, Leader."

          Rumble and Ravage were at the cave mouth before the rest.  "Yep, this looks right!" Rumble called back.  "More trees, standing stones, no Constructicons – We did it!"  The cassettes both ran out, followed by a more sombre Ramjet.

          Still standing by the gate controls, Starscream said, "This is our last chance to abandon this foolish quest and go back."

          "Starscream," said Megatron in his I Am To Be Obeyed voice, "I need you to do something very important, and I need you to do it immediately, with no questions or back-talk.  Clear?"

          Even Starscream couldn't withstand that tone.  He nodded.

          Megatron pointed his fusion cannon straight at him.  "Duck."

          The Seeker threw himself to the ground as fusion-fire lanced above his head.  Something howled behind him, then a wet thud and stillness.  Starscream cautiously looked behind himself, and collapsed again.  "You… you could have just told me, Megatron."

          Megatron took another look at the fallen dragon, then hauled Starscream roughly to his feet.  "If I said it was behind you, you would have screamed, panicked, and generally been in the way."  Besides, giving Starscream a good scare early on would hopefully make him more docile for the rest of the mission.  They left the cavern to rejoin the others.

          Rumble bounced down the side of the hill, Ravage close on his heels.  "No humans around, Megatron – like it matters."

          "Excellent," smiled Megatron.  "Decepticons, to the air!  Today we…"  Suddenly, the sky went black and the ground beside him exploded with a lightning strike.  "What the..?"

          "I thought your kind wouldst return."  An old man in tattered green robes stood on the hill, looking down at the Decepticons.  "I took precautionary measures."

          "Measure this, flesh-creature!" shouted Starscream, firing his lasers.  To his fury, every shot missed, bending around Bayorf as if through a prism.  Still, the man was dangerous; his magic having been what stopped Starscream's earlier attempt to conquer the Sixth Century.  And even if he could protect himself from the Seeker's weapons, there were cruder ways to terminate the human.

          As if sensing the Decepticon's thoughts, a bolt of lightning hit Starscream square in the chest; not a particularly damaging attack, but it shorted his gyros and caused him to fall backwards onto Ramjet.  "Get that idiot Starscream out of here!" ordered Megatron.

          "We all gotta get out of here," Rumble opined from behind Megatron's knee.  "This is the guy who stopped us the first time."

          Megatron loosed a fusion-blast at the wizard.  "I am not going to run from a flesh-creature!"

          Lightning crashed around them.  "I am," announced Rumble, following Ramjet and Starscream back into the cave.

          "Cowards!  He's only one human!" shouted Megatron, though likely the others didn't hear him in the rising wind.

          Suddenly the wind rose, impossibly knocking the Decepticon Commander off his feet and back into the cavern… incidentally landing on Rumble, who hollered his protest under the clash of metal.  Somewhere Starscream laughed – "It looks like we'll be going back after all!" – though the mists made it impossible to tell where he was.

          The mists cleared.  "Are we back where we should be?"

          Starscream shook his head and managed to stand up.  "I think so, Ramjet; I can see the tread-marks left by the Constructicons…  Hey!  You followed us!"

          The second half of the sentence was directed towards the human wizard, who stood, staff raised, by the activation sigils.  "Any Decepticon who would do harm on Earth shall be made flesh!" cried Bayorf, surrounding the raiding party in a nimbus of yellow light.  "See how you like it."  With that, the man vanished back to his own time.

          "Miserable flesh-creature!" howled Megatron as the spell took effect, twisting the Decepticon's form so it seemed almost to collapse in on itself.  "We shall return!  We'll hunt you down and…"


          At the sound of his name, Megatron automatically turned… and went sprawling when his chin met Starscream's fist coming the other way.  "You…" he started, and stopped when a hand he put against his injury came away damp and red.  One hit from Starscream caused him damage, and it hurt.

          "I told you so!" screeched Starscream.  "You wouldn't listen to me!  You wouldn't listen to Soundwave!  You clipped my wings, Megatron!"  He threw himself at his commander again, who tried to bring his fusion cannon in line before remembering he didn't have it any more.

          "Well, at least our personalities haven't changed," Rumble murmured to Ravage, who growled his assent.  Ravage was the easiest one to identify; while the others were human, he was still a panther.

          When he thought about it, the others were fairly easy to identify as well, if you knew what you were looking for.  Megatron was the tall, silver-haired man, and the smaller dark one shouting at him would be Starscream.  That left the dark-skinned man with the white hood as Ramjet.  As for Rumble himself… well, the ground looked a bit closer than usual, and he was wearing purple clothes rather than a paintjob, but things didn't look too bad.

He crouched down to talk to his fellow ex-cassette: "I'm gonna go find the Constructicons, Ravage.  Stop those two if it looks like they're gonna cause permanent damage."  That's what Soundwave would do.  Rumble ducked out of the cave, wondering how Soundwave was going to take his and Ravage's transformation.

          Outside, Rumble didn't immediately notice the Constructicons.  He did see the three men in coveralls arguing, but it took several seconds for the voices and colours to sink in.  Rumble waved and started to walk over to them.  He didn't get very far when one – Bonecrusher, by the voice – noticed him, shouted, "Intruder!", attempted to transform, and fell on his face.

          Rumble was still laughing when Scrapper grabbed him by the arm and hauled him to his feet.  "All right, trespasser…"

          "Put me down; I'm Rumble," Rumble managed.  "The others are inside, though I don't think any of them have tried to transform.  Whoo-hoo!"

* * *

          Soundwave had carefully made sure he was on record saying he disapproved of the whole time-travel idea.  Of course, if time did alter, then the record itself may never exist and… as much as he could, Soundwave scowled.  That train of thought would get nowhere.  Unfortunately, once Megatron got an idea into his head, there was no stopping him.  Now Soundwave was left in charge of Decepticon Headquarters, and the rumours were flying.

          He supposed he could order them to stop, but that would make things worse, so he let it go.  Besides, Hook was the one on duty-shift in the control room, and he wasn't the type to be distracted by the silliness of the others.  And in any case, if the plan did succeed, they wouldn't have a need to go through with the plan in the first place and…  Stop it, he chided himself.  You'll end up crazier than Starscream if you don't stop thinking like that.  He idly wondered if he would feel reality shift when time was changed because he knew about it.  Probably not.

          The lieutenant looked down at the small device he was constructing and noticed that he was still missing a few components.  No matter; he had extras.  Soundwave turned as he stood… tried to.  The floor was where he left it, but his feet no longer reached it, and the attempt to stand sent him tumbling to the ground.

          Soundwave looked up, annoyed.  Being suddenly shrunk down to the size of one of his cassettes was not how he intended to spend the day.  He tried to stand, but found his right foot wouldn't hold his weight, and thus he sat down against his table to check the damage.

          It wasn't his body.

          Now Soundwave took a careful look down at himself.  Judging by the size of his furniture, he was about a fifth of his proper size.  His body felt soft, even under the cloth that covered him.  Interestingly, the cloth seemed to be coloured more or less according to his paintjob.  Reaching his hands ( they were bare, a deep shade of brown ) to his face, he found it wasn't covered by cloth, though his visor was still in the right place.  Good.  Unfortunately, his ankle was sending signals; not the usual tingle that warned of damage, but something akin to it, and stronger.  Pain.

          The lieutenant considered his options.  First order of business was to find something to use as a crutch ( maybe Rumble or Frenzy had left something lying around, ) second was to find out if this… condition had happened to anyone else.  Several minutes later, first order of business got regulated to second order when his door chimed.

          Whoever it was would eventually come in if he didn't answer, anyway.  He called, "Enter," and scowled at the sound of his voice.

          The door opened and a man ran in; pale skin, jaw-length black hair, wearing a white vest, black cloak, pants, and boots, with light purple gloves.  In one hand, he carried a length of pipe which was bent ninety degrees at one end.  "Soundwave!  Nice to know that stupid things happen even to the best of us."

          "Skywarp," said Soundwave.  The other might not currently have been a Seeker jet, but the voice, attitude, and overall colour scheme were easy enough to identify.

          Skywarp goggled.  "Er, yeah.  Um, your voice sounds really wrong."  Soundwave's only reply was an annoyed silence, so Skywarp continued, "Mine's a bit off, too.  Come on, let's get down to the control room.  I left Thundercracker and Stormcloud with Hook; they can help us come up with a plan."

          "Can't walk," grumbled Soundwave.  "Damaged rotary cuff.  Can't put any weight on it."

          "Can't just ask for help, can you?" Skywarp teased.  "Which side?..  All right, come on, you big lug…"  Skywarp got an arm under the larger man's shoulders and pulled them both to a standing position.  Between the two of them, they managed to navigate the halls.

          The door to the control room was closed.  Skywarp gestured, "I'd lend you my stick here, but it's too long to be a crutch and I need it to open doors."  Then he swung the pipe so the hooked end hit the otherwise out-of-reach button.  Inaccessibility had never been a problem before; even the small Decepticons like Rumble could fly…

          Hook ( well, the tanned man in the green-and-purple coveralls who had been a Constructicon ) turned from his pacing when he heard the door open, and ran over when the two humans tumbled in.  Skywarp looked up at him.  "Hook!  This is Soundwave; I think he's…  I don't know!  He damaged one of his feet, but that didn't seem to be bothering him too much.  When we got to the door, he yelled and collapsed.  You're the surgeon!"

          "Surgical engineer," corrected Hook, crouching down.  "Help me get him out of the doorway, at least."  Skywarp did, and they dragged Soundwave to a clear spot on the floor with reasonably good lighting.  Hook sat back on his heels and looked down at his patient.  His skills were nothing here, he didn't know enough human anatomy to even guess what might be wrong, and anything he did could cause more harm than good…

          He sighed.  "All right, you said he damaged his foot.  Which one?"  Skywarp pointed it out, so Hook settled himself by it.  Humans had always looked the same to him; hopefully their similarities would be internal as well.  Hook removed his own boot and ran his hands over his ankle, trying to determine the construction of it, and marvelling at the enhancement of his tactile sense.  As a surgical engineer he always had a certain delicacy of touch, but it was nothing compared to the amount of information he was receiving through his fingertips at this minute.

          Removing Soundwave's boot, he tried the same procedure.  There was certainly something out of alignment in the lieutenant's ankle, and much as Hook hated to do anything without full information, he gave it a sharp twist.  "There.  It's reset, though I'd prefer having something to hold it in place until whatever internal repair systems humans have kicks in.  Come here, you," he ordered, then tore a strip off of Skywarp's cape and used it to tape Soundwave's ankle.

          "Thanks lots.  I hope I'm not missing a chunk of wing when we turn back," grumbled Skywarp, inspecting his cloak.  "Doesn't look like you did all that much good, though."

          "Look, if you have any better ideas, I'll be happy to hear them," snapped Hook, moving back to look at Soundwave again.  "Repairing humans is somewhat outside my experience."

          "You've still got a better chance than any of us," said Stormcloud nervously, peering over Hook's shoulder.  Thundercracker stood a few paces back.  "Can't you do something?"

          "What do you want me to do?  Open him up and look for the problem?  That's my usual procedure," growled Hook.  "Even if I had my tools, a human wouldn't survive that!  You know how easily they terminate."

          "Are your optics malfunctioning?" snapped Skywarp.  "Look, it's obvious the damage is centred in his chest the way he's curled up like that…"

          In his chest?..  Great Cybertron…  "Where are his cassettes?"

          Skywarp looked blank for a second.  "Erm, Rumble and Ravage are with Megatron.  I guess the others are…  Oh, slag…"

          Hook was already crouched down, ear to Soundwave's chest.  "I don't hear anything obviously abnormal, and I think he feels about right.  The others must have been… absorbed into his body when he… changed."

          "Slag," repeated Skywarp with feeling.  "I never liked his nasty little midgets, but…"

          The surgical engineer looked across at Skywarp.  "There's nothing wrong with him physically.  I think he just realised what must have happened…"  He caught Soundwave by the shoulders and shook him slightly.  "Soundwave, Soundwave, get up.  You're fine, but nothing can be done about your cassettes."

          "Go away," Soundwave directed, doing his best to curl into himself and ignore the world around him.

          "Oh, no you don't," said Skywarp.  "Come on, Sounder, here and now you still function; we're all in big trouble and we need you!"  Soundwave ignored him.  Skywarp pondered.  If logic wasn't going to get through, then there were other ways to get a reaction.  He reached down and snatched Soundwave's visor.

          The response was exactly what he wanted, though he didn't know Soundwave could move so fast.  In one motion, the lieutenant sat up, tore his visor from Skywarp's hand, and settled it back on his face.  Skywarp grinned.  "Relax.  It's just clothes now, like this stuff," he said, waving a handful of his cloak for emphasis.  "Now can we start looking for everyone else?"

          No time for mourning or wondering, not when there was work to do.  "I will reset the internal scanners to look for organic life and direct you from here," conceded Soundwave.  The others helped him up to the console, then left.

* * *

          Skywarp looked over the assembly.  "Is this everyone?"

          "Everyone who was in the base," said Soundwave, looking over to Hook for confirmation.

          Hook nodded.  "Megatron's raiding party is out, of course.  Thrust and Dirge were on assignment at a power station to the north-east.  Astrotrain is on space-bridge guard-duty."  He scrambled up to the console and tapped a few keys.  "No response from Megatron.  No response from Scrapper.  No response from Thrust.  No response from…"

          "Anybody," finished Skywarp.  "Scrap.  That probably means that whatever happened to us happened to them."

          "Then I hope they were on the ground when the change hit."

          "You're a real ray of sunshine, Soundwave.  Anyone ever tell you that?"

          A large man in white and purple and gold looked up.  "Does anyone actually have any idea what happened?" he asked.  Blitzwing.  "And does it have anything to do with Starscream being on Earth and/or Megatron's big, secret plan?"

          Skywarp ignored him.  "Try to raise the fringe-groups, Hook."

          The engineer set to it.  "No answer from the Stunticons, but they never answer, anyway…  hmm…  Ah, here we go – the Combaticons," said Hook as static filled the receivers.  "Audio only."

          A slightly-off – but still recognisable – voice filtered through the system: "Go away; we're experiencing technical difficulties."

          "Hiya, Onslaught," said Skywarp, settling himself by the microphone.  "Your difficulties are organic and you know it.  Switch on the video-feed; audio is so impersonal."

          There was some grumbling and a muffled consultation over the connection, but the screen activated, showing two former Combaticons.  Skywarp bowed slightly from where he was kneeling on the console.  "It got you too, whatever 'it' is.  Care to help us find out?"

          "We're a bit busy, what with basic survival and all," jeered the other Combaticon ( probably Swindle by his voice and colours. )  "We're only in a far-too-large military base, not stocked for human needs, in the middle of the desert.  The others are in here someplace, but we haven't found them yet."

          "But if you do find the being responsible for our condition, save a piece for us," finished Onslaught darkly.  The connection cut.

          "Rude," snorted Skywarp.  "Okay, Hook, try the…"  The console beeped.  "Or answer that."

          The engineer hit the button, allowing another audio message to come through: "This is Astrotrain.  If you want this blasted space-bridge guarded, you can send someone else!"

          "Relax, Astrotrain; we've all got the same problem."  Skywarp sighed.  There was going to be a lot of explaining to do, and, unfortunately, his guess was as good as anyone's as to what happened.

* * *

          "Well, a fat lot of help they were."  If Whiptail still had his namesake, he would have lashed it angrily.  As it was, the ex-scorpion settled for shaking his long, red hair.  "First they tell us they don't know what's going on, then they cut us off!"

          "I take it this sort of thing doesn't happen often, hmm?"

          Kickback peered down the twelve-foot drop of the console to where Sway was standing.  "The Decepticons cutting us off is pretty normal, actually.  Same with getting us into strange situations."  He looked down at himself critically.  "Nothing this strange before, though."

          Soundwave had found the override for the base's interior doors, and left them all open. At the moment, everyone was more worried about accessibility than privacy. Most of the Decepticons were still in the control room, but Kickback and Sway had snuck out after Skywarp had checked in with their main force in Bali. Now they were in the secondary communications office, Kickback sitting on the console, channel open to the Insecticon base, talking to Whiptail.

          Much to Kickback's relief, the Bali Insecticons ( Ripsaw, Tangeweb, and Whiptail ) seemed fine.  They had a few advantages over the other Decepticons: Their base's systems were more accessible due to their size, and the base was in a swamp rather than underwater.  Mentally, the adjustment was easier as well – Insecticons already had quasi-organic thoughts.

          Not that they were happy about it.  Kickback sighed.  I returned to Earth because I was getting bored in the Hive – I'm a warrior, and Coleop hasn't many uses for that.  I haven't the patience to teach, so I took on the travel job of Insecticon Emissary.  Of course, this isn't the type of excitement I wanted!  Fortunately, the Insecticons had been in or near the base and had easily regrouped.  Unfortunately, they were all looking to him for leadership.

Addressing the monitor, he said, "It's a pretty safe bet to blame the Decepticons for this, but they got hit by it too, so we won't take it out on them.  What you should probably do is find a human settlement and blend in.  However, Sway and I will stay with the Decepticons and try to help them find a way out of this.  Take care of yourselves.  Kickback out."

Kickback jumped to the chair, then to the floor, not trusting his new body to absorb the impact of the full distance.  "Nothing more we can do here, Sway," he sighed.  "Let's go see if the big guys have come up with anything."

* * *

          "They're going to kill us."

          "They will do nothing of the sort," said Megatron.  "I have a plan."

          "They are going to kill us."

          "Both of you shut up," snapped Megatron.  Starscream had been prophesying doom ever since they had started looking for civilisation and a computer or a phone or anything that could connect them to the Decepticon base.  Ten minutes ago, Ramjet began to add his deep voice to Starscream's scratchy one – pessimism in stereo.  Megatron found it incredibly annoying.

          The others were all behaving themselves; Rumble and Ravage were talking quietly to one another… Rumble was talking, anyway.  Soundwave and his cassettes used to talk amongst themselves via internal radio, but now the panther Ravage could only answer in growls.  The Constructicons were quiet, which was worrisome in itself.  The three were walking behind the others, not speaking, not even to each other, not even looking at one another.  Scavenger was holding very tightly to the sleeves of the other two though, which perhaps said more than any words could.

          Ramjet looked up.  "There is a telephone attached to that pole."

          Probably put there for stuck motorists.  Well, in a way the Decepticons had lost their vehicles.  Not that they ever bothered to justify themselves when it came to borrowing human equipment.  "Finally.  Rumble, use that to raise the others at headquarters," said Megatron.

          "They're going to kill us," said Starscream.  "They're going to kill us, so I think I'll say 'I told you so' now, just to avoid the rush…  Aaack!"  Megatron's backhand knocked the smaller man to the ground.

          "And I told you to shut up," said Megatron, rubbing the back of his hand, then stopped.  Human pain was a sign of human weakness.  The fact that Starscream would be feeling more of it didn't really click in; from Megatron's viewpoint, all he knew was that the hit didn't make its usual satisfying 'clang'.  "Rumble!  Have you made the connection?"

          "It's ringin'," said Rumble.  "I'm pretty sure I've got…  Soundwave, boss!  It's me, Rumble!  Boy, your voice is weird…  Yeah, me and Ravage are fine.  How's everything down..?  Oh.  Oh, slag.  I…  We'll be there as soon as we can, boss…  Hold up; Megatron's glaring at me.  Here, I'll put him on."

          Megatron took the proffered phone, ignoring the dark look from Rumble.  Starscream noticed it, though – Megatron seems to be losing allies quickly, if our small sample is any indication.  He sighed.  If ever the crew was ready for mutiny, it would be now… and I can't do a thing with it!  Starscream might have had his duties on Stormworld, but old habits were hard to break.  Besides, his jaw physically – impossibly – hurt, and he was in no mood to be loyal.  He sidled a bit closer to where Megatron was speaking to Soundwave; perhaps he could gauge the lieutenant's mood by his commander's responses…

          "… a way to use this to our advantage.  They'll never expect it…  It will work, Soundwave.  We should have done it as soon as we awakened on this lousy planet, except we didn't know human nature well enough to think of it…  We'll deal with that later, Soundwave; first I need you to tap into the Earth computer system…"

          To be continued…