After "Revelations". G1 continuity-wise, takes place during S3 sometime after the episode "Dark Awakening".


Prologue

Starscream returned to Denali, considering the words he'd exchanged with the fey wolf spirit the last time he was here. Broad metal feet crunched down into the snow. "You knew what I was, and you thought I knew!" Starscream smirked to himself. "Then you caught on to my ignorance, and got cute."

The wind blew thin and chill over Denali's summit, forced up and up by the moutain's slopes. No strange spirit with mismatched eyes came to greet him this time, and Starscream felt restless. He was a creature of the air, and it called to him.

From Denali, Starscream flew northward, up into the Brooks Range beyond the Arctic Circle, where brooded other, crueler powers than his fey canine friend.

The Rising Storm

As he flew, he remembered the first time he flew into Earth's arctic...

Hurricane-force winds tore at Starscream's wings; tornado-like vortices threatened him each time he tried to reach where he'd last seen Skyfire. Lightning crackled through the ice and snow, the whole turning into a sick mish-mash of static in all his sensors, blocking all signs of his partner. Time and again he was nearly driven down to the ice; finally he struggled up above the clouds and circled until the storm dissipated.

By that time, Skyfire was gone without a trace.

Metal wings dipped into the clouds as Starscream plunged through the cloud-shrouded pass through those mountains. He knew enough, now, to understand where that freak ice storm had come from and why it had buried Skyfire so quickly all those years ago.

That storm was meant for him. Skyfire had been the lure; but even then, he'd been too skilled to fall easily to "mere" weather. Instead of trapping him as it did Skyfire, it had baffled him and driven him back, raging in hatred and shame at his failure to overcome the forces of insensate nature.

That had been his mistake. That bit of "nature" was not insensate; some of Earth's oldest inhabitants were fiercely possessive of their territory-and far crueler than Decepticons. They brooded on ancient wrongs and jealousies and lashed out at anything that threatened them-or looked like it might threaten them.

He'd been terribly, tragically ignorant of that aspect of Earth's inhabitants-or even that they existed. Starscream could not explain the freak planetary weather that had downed Skyfire; they hadn't seen any weather systems from orbit that would have accounted for such sudden strong winds and chilling temperatures. On his ill-fated return, his inability to explain Skyfire's loss led to accusations and rumors about his role in Skyfire's disappearance; accusations led to actions; actions to tragedy for far more than one scientist.

Starscream couldn't change his past, but he could take vengeance for it.

# # #

Starscream found it lurking beyond the mountains in the Yukon. Clouds shrouded everything in a gray void that was torn by flurries of driven ice and snow. He flew above the cloaking gray until he was sure of his target, of the lurking malevolence behind every gust of wind and swirl of ice fog.

Starscream knew what would happen if he dove into that cloud bank. The ice fog would encrust his wings with rime until he staggered beneath the load, unable to maneuver with frozen controls. The winds would seize him and toss him like a demented giant's plaything; his engines would choke on ice, and he would fall, blinded by crusted ice, onto the tundra, to be buried for a million years beneath the snow and ice.

Or more likely, until some oil company geologist decides there's something funny about that new frost heave in their prospecting ground... Wendigo, men are getting ahead of you!

And his hidden face smirked. Everything was suddenly right, all his paths had converged to this point-Decepticon warrior, ruthless and cunning; Air Commander, greatest of fliers, storm chaser, canyon-runner, without fear while the wind blew over his wings; demonic ghost, incarnate in metal; lover, nursing his grief and shame and hate for nine million years against this, his oldest and cruelest enemy. The enemy he hadn't even known existed when it tore apart his life and soul.

'One of these days' is today!

He dove into the white heart of darkness, screaming only one word: "DIE!"

# # #

The storm started there, in the Yukon-it didn't stay there. 'A polar front cyclone' the Weather Channel called it; one of those immense storm systems that sweeps out of the Arctic and dumps snow across the mid-West and East Coast. As this one grew in size and intensity, sprawling like a monstrous arctic hurricane across Alaska and western Canada, the news weathermen added the adjective 'freak': 'A freak polar front cyclone'.

When the hurricane force blizzards started hitting Regina, Edmonton, Vancouver and Seattle, the news anchors took over from the weather reporters. When the outliers brought rain that ended a years-long drought in Southern California, and dropped snow on San Francisco, the first hysterical reporter used the phrase "global superstorm".

While the storm was still at the 'somewhat freakish' stage, and had not yet grown into 'induce mass panic' stage, Skyfire chanced to glance at the Google Weather globe Starscream had left on the display. He stared at the main viewscreen and studied the huge storm sprawling across Alaska and Canada. New feeder bands trained into it, suggesting that the storm would only continue to grow.

"I've seen a storm like that once before. When I crashed here," Skyfire said to whoever was around to hear. That happened to be Blitzwing.

"Yeah, so?" Blitzwing growled. "When did you crash-oh yeah. Slag." The cream and purple triple-changer got up and stared at the display. "Shouldn't bother us, we're undersea."

Skyfire regarded the exiled Decepticon coolly. "It's not us I'm worried about. There's humans out there, and they'll need help."

There was something in Skyfire's expression-or perhaps it was his clenched fists-that suggested he'd like to say more, much more. He did not; instead, he reached over to the communications console and brought it online.

"HEY! What are you doing?" Blitzwing jumped to his feet, suddenly angry-or frightened. "That's the main Decepticon command frequency-are you trying to bring Galvatron down on us?"

"No, I'm calling Rodimus. Don't worry, I'm bouncing it off a few satellites first-though I think my Autobot friends already know where this base is. Didn't Carly swim down here once and plant limpet mines on the outer hull?" Skyfire said, glancing at Blitzwing with a small smile quirking the corners of his mouth.

Blitzwing sat back down, still scowling and said grumpily, "So I heard. Just don't screw up. If you do..."

Skyfire regarded the triple-changer coolly. "Starscream is higher on Galvatron's hitlist than you are. If something goes awry, it will not be because I was careless."

"You mean he's #1 on the Hit Parade?" Blitzwing smiled coldly. "Yeah, fine, guess I won't chop your head off for calling the 'Bots, after all."

Skyfire just gave Blitzwing a long, silent Look, then turned to the console.

Blitzwing had been grateful, in his "I'm too proud and tough to admit I was in trouble" way for Starscream and Skyfire's help in the ambush and destruction of the relentless hunters Galvatron had set on his trail. He was still very much the Decepticon, though, and occasionally felt like making a point of it. Fortunately, Skyfire's sheer stature and coolness with a double-barreled proton cannon kept Blitzwing sufficiently impressed that he didn't push the Autobot shuttle-former too hard. It helped that Skyfire had no back-up in him, and just gave the Decepticon funny looks when Blitzwing tried bullying.

"Autobot City, come in. This is Skyfire, calling Rodimus Prime."

The video screen crackled to life, revealing the brown, cheerful face of the Protectobot Groove. "Hey, Skyfire!" There was more than a little surprise in his voice. "Long time no see; how's it hanging?"

"Well enough; we were about half-way through the survey of Deneb sector when events brought us back to Earth. Could you put Rodimus on? I advise checking out the weather in upper North America; you may be needed soon," Skyfire said, faintly surprised at Groove's surprise.

"He's up and coming, Skyfire." The Protectobot peered curiously at Skyfire and his surroundings. "Where y'at, big guy? You're back on Earth?"

"For the moment," Skyfire replied. "I need to go over that with Rodimus."

"And here he is!" Groove said; a moment later, Rodimus Prime stepped into view.

"Skyfire!" Rodimus sounded and looked surprised. "We thought-" He frowned momentarily. "I thought you were caught in the Quintesson trap when-Skyfire, I saw you blown up!"

Skyfire looked oddly at Rodimus. "I wasn't there. I heard about it months later. Though..."

Rodimus Prime continued frowning. "Yes?"

"I found out very recently that another of my build class survived and may still be out there. It might have been him. If the information I have is correct, he probably evaded destruction in the confusion and escaped," Skyfire noted.

"I didn't know you thought I was offline, or I would have reported sooner, but your credit to my expense account was still good, and we hadn't finished the Deneb survey yet, so..." The big white Autobot gave Rodimus Prime a sheepish look. "It's not actually what I called about, though I will forward you my partials."

"Where are you, Skyfire? What is the matter?" Rodimus leaned toward the screen, concern in his sky-blue optics.

"Check the North American weather," Skyfire said.

"Whoa!" came Groove's voice. "I see what you're talking about, that's one heck of a storm!"

Rodimus glanced aside, at a display not visible from Skyfire's end. "What the-?"

Skyfire leaned forward. "I'm with certain exiles you've protected in the past. Our location does not need to be mentioned over the air. More importantly, that storm is not natural, and will probably grow worse before it stops."

"I'm listening," Rodimus said, the set of his face grim.

"I'd like to help," Skyfire said. "I can transport the Protectobots, for example, to where they're needed. And-" he lowered his voice reflexively, "I have information on that storm."

Rodimus Prime nodded. "You're always welcome, Skyfire. Come to Autobot City as soon as you can." The big orange, red and yellow Autobot turned his head toward someone off screen and said, "Make sure Skyfire is on Metroplex's list, Streetwise."

"Thank you, Rodimus," Skyfire said, smiling at the young Prime with genuine affection. "I'll be on my way very soon." With a flick of a switch, the screen went dead.

Skyfire turned at a brief creak of joints and the soft hiss of pistons to find Blitzwing behind him. The powerful Decepticon folded his arms and scowled. "Better get me on Prime's permission list, too. You're not going off by yourself, Rocket-boy."

"I'm not?" Skyfire asked in a tone that suggested a certain Vulcan with one raised eyebrow.

"No. You're going to end up in that mess-" Blitzwing stabbed a finger at the weather display and the freakish polar storm, "just as sure as Screamer couldn't keep his finger off the trigger when he had a view of Megatron's back. Think I'm gonna be the one to tell Screamer that you decided to disappear into a megaton of ice and snow again?"

Skyfire gave Blitzwing a crooked smile. "There just may be something in what you say. Very well. Let's go!"

# # #

Rodimus Prime was surprised, but not entirely displeased at Blitzwing's presence. Whatever had happened since the triple-changer had been driven out by Galvatron, he had survived it. "Blitzwing! My offer still stands, you know."

The big tan and purple triple-changer rumbled, "My answer still stands, Prime. I got a sentimental attachment to the badge, you know." Blitzwing folded his arms and scowled, though he looked more uncomfortable than angry.

Rodimus Prime just managed to hide a smile as he turned his attention to Skyfire. "'Certain exiles', eh?" He nodded toward Blitzwing.

"And Octane. Galvatron's forces chased him out of Libya again and he's hiding out," Skyfire said. "Along with his entire crew."

Rodimus's optics widened slightly, and he didn't bother to hide the concern in his voice. "The humans, too?"

"Especially the humans," Skyfire said. "I think that's one of the reasons I get along well with Octane-I'm careful of his ladies."

Blitzwing's tank engine snorted gray smoke. "Oh, don't dismount your shoulder patting yourself on the back, Autobot! Octane likes you because Starscream and Sandstorm do, and because you don't try to push him around. Now Tali likes you because you're polite to her and her crew."

"Starscream." A single word, freighted with much baggage; Rodimus no longer smiled. "Skyfire... Where is he and what is he up to?"

Skyfire looked at Rodimus Prime calmly, unmoved by the Prime's stern gaze. He turned his head to look at the satellite weather display on the wall. "Probably right about there," he said, pointing at the eye of the storm. "Though I dearly hope I'm wrong. I said I had information about that storm; it's not just a storm, and it's not new. It's at least nine million years old."

Rewind, who was standing watch in the command center along with Groove, jerked his head up and said, "Hey, that's when you and-"

"Yes," interrupted Skyfire with a clipped finality that indicated the topic was not up for discussion.

Rodimus looked troubled, and nodded. There was more here than met the eye, and Starscream was deeply involved-which could only mean trouble. "Come to my office, Skyfire. Blitzwing, you-"

"-Are sticking to Skyfire like the white on his wings," Blitzwing growled. "If I let him out of my sight, he's going to end up in that storm. Somehow. I'm not explaining to Screamer how I lost Skyfire."

Rodimus Prime sighed and tossed up his hands in exasperation. It wasn't worth a fight with the touchy triple-changer. "Fine."

In Prime's office, Skyfire extracted a memory-stick from one of his compartments and handed it to the orange and yellow Prime. "Rodimus, this contains the results of some of Starscream's long-term research into... unusual polar weather. I've redacted the personal commentary. Review the abstract, and whatever evidence you need to convince yourself."

Rodimus nodded and took the memory-stick for review. After a few minutes of the contents flashing like filigree over the inside of his optics, he stopped it and stared at Skyfire, optics narrowing. Oh yes, this was trouble. Serious trouble.

"I'm sharing this with Kup. I hope you don't mind." The tone of Rodimus Prime's voice made it clear that he was sharing it whether or not Skyfire minded, but he hoped he wouldn't have to upset his fellow Autobot. Kup, with his vast experience of worlds and ages, might know more.

Skyfire simply nodded.

Blitzwing sighed and grumbled, "I'm going to just sit here in the dark, without a clue what's going on. Funny thing, I did that a lot under Megatron."

Skyfire looked at Blitzwing thoughtfully. "Do you remember when Starscream tried to get permission from Megatron to take Skywarp and Thundercracker and go hunting for an entity up in Earth's high arctic-an entity that he believed to be responsible for the loss of two new Seekers fresh from Cybertron?"

Rodimus looked startled and started to open his mouth to ask-

Blitzwing cut him off. "How'd you know about that? Yeah, I remember that. Got him beat down by Megatron again, and we were making jokes about his 'ice demon' for months."

"Starscream.. mentioned it." Skyfire glanced at Rodimus and smiled crookedly. "It was in the parts I redacted. His commentary was... colorful, and highly personal."

Blitzwing smirked. "I'll bet! Screamer didn't hear the last of it until we got back from that mess with the alien derelict and then it was us that got hear all the jokes about 'giant space squid'. Never mind that me and 'Train spent most of those months getting completely re-wired 'cause of the damage that squid did to us."

"Be happy you survived to tell about it, Blitzwing," Kup growled as he stepped in the door. "Not many people do when it's pyropods."

Blitzwing grinned. "Hey, you survived us, old-timer!"

"I've survived a lot worse than you, Blitzwing," Kup said sourly. "Three of you, yeah, that was a bad spot. Lucky for me, you've got a notion of honor."

"Shut up! You'll ruin my reputation if you keep talking like that," Blitzwing snapped.

"Kup, I need you to evaluate this," Rodimus Prime broke in, handing the memory stick to the old gray-green Transformer. "Tell me if you've ever heard of anything like that."

Kup gave Rodimus a curious look, but said nothing as he took the memory stick and began reading it. Once he finished reading the memory stick, Kup gave Skyfire a long, appraising look. "I've heard of things like this, lad. They're never easy to deal with. There's stories I've never told the Dinobots, and probably never will."

"Why not?" Rodimus asked, curious. Skyfire did not ask; he had already guessed.

"They want stories where the good guys win." Kup held the memory stick as if weighing it in one hand. "It does clear up a few old mysteries; I always did wonder why Bomb-burst went crazy that way."

Skyfire grew suddenly still. He pivoted to face Kup; nine million years of imprisonment stared out of his ice-blue eyes. "He listened to the whispers in his mind that he thought were only madness; he felt the cold that froze him to the core, congealed the energon in his tanks and whispered incessantly at him that his crew would abandon him, and all that mattered was survival. Do you know what those whispers said?" Skyfire said, lowering his voice. "I do."

"They whispered that I should seize my partner if he returned, seize him and break him open and drain him of his fuel for my own engines. I thought it madness born of my lonely prison, but it was those whispers, not I, who called him faithless in the depths of my mind, not I who hungered for his energon and warmth." Skyfire's wings began to shake. "It still hunts, Kup. It still hunts!"

"Easy, lad," Kup said softly. "You're safe enough here."

"He's not," Skyfire replied. He attempted to open a certain private channel: "Starscream, come in! Emergency, reply immediately!"

A long, long silence, and no answer. For the first time, fear lurked in Skyfire's eyes. "He's not responding to his comm."

"Who, lad?" Kup asked, concerned. "Who's missing? Everyone in Autobot City is accounted for."

Rodimus Prime finally spoke, curious concern in his sky-blue optics. "Starscream?"

Skyfire nodded, then said, "It's just too convenient. He's got to be out there, and if this is the storm that struck me down, no one here can fly into the eye of it, not even me. If I've guessed right about its nature... But why now? And how?"

"Skyfire, how long have you known about this?" Rodimus asked, picking up the memory stick from where Kup had set it on his desk.

Skyfire shook his head. "Just today. Starscream gave it to me, told me it was important for me to know." He gave Rodimus a rueful smile. "He was right."

Kup gave Skyfire a long hard look. "Son, just what have you and Starscream been doing lately?"

Rodimus looked like he was about to ask a few questions as well-

Before Skyfire could answer, the door slid open; Groove grasped the edge of the door and leaned in. "Rodimus! The Canadians are requesting emergency assistance up in British Columbia, and they need it fast! Collapsed bridge up north and the rapid freeze is damming up the river-they need heavy equipment to rescue all the stranded people and-"

Rodimus said briskly, "Tell the Aerialbots to take over watch, brief Hotspot and head up there with the rest of your team, Groove."

Groove nodded. "Calling Hotspot now; Protectobots are go!" He ducked out of the door-

Skyfire followed him. "Prime.. I'll transport them," Skyfire said over his shoulder, then told Groove as he caught up to him on long-legged strides, "Even the fringes of that storm will be brutal for non-spacecraft; closer in, the storm will encrust you with ice until you are blind and clogged and bogged down, if the sensory whiteout doesn't fool you into crashing first. The cold actively penetrates; if you aren't built for it, the fuel will freeze in your lines."

Blitzwing followed close behind, to the surprise and consternation of Blades, who was running up the hall to join them. "What the slag?" He reached for his rotor blade-swords-

"Chill out, Blades. Didn't you get the memo? Blitzwing's with Skyfire, he's peaceful," Groove raised an open hand, forstalling his team-mate.

Blitzwing snorted again. "Peaceful? You got a lot to learn, kid! I'm just not your enemy at the moment." Optics narrowed as he looked at Blades. "Yeah, draw those blades, punk. Show 'em you're crazier and stupider than the Decepticon who ain't doing a slaggin' thing. I ain't taught anyone manners in a while."

"Blitzwing. Blades." Skyfire looked down at both of them in disapproval. "We have people to rescue. Emergencies come first.'

Even Blitzwing found himself respecting Skyfire's sheer size and imperturbality. The big guy just wasn't scared of anyone, and there were stories about what he'd done to both Megatron and Starscream...

"Yeah," he growled. "the punk needs to go play 'Rescue the Humans', and I have a big stupid shuttle to keep from splashing himself against a mountain or something equally dumb."

The rest of the Protectobots were already assembling near Autobot City's main landing pad. Hotspot, a big white and red truck-former came up and shook hands with Skyfire. "Pleased to meet you, I'm Hotspot. Thanks for the transport; you can get us there a lot faster than we could on our own." He looked askance at Blitzwing.

"Blitzwing will be flying escort," Skyfire said, answering Hotspot's unspoken question, "once we're there." At Blitzwing's startled look, Skyfire said, "You ride. Save your fuel, you'll need it there."

He transformed into his shuttle mode, and said, "All aboard, then. We've got a request to help with a collapsed bridge in northern British Columbia. We'll find the wind a bit spritely up that way."

Just before he closed his stern cargo ramp, a certain brightly-painted (red, orange, yellow, flaming) oversized Winnebago came rolling aboard. "Skyfire, hope you have room for one more!"

"Ah, welcome aboard, Rodimus!," Skyfire said through his on-board speakers. He sounded slightly startled. He raised his ramp and closed his doors; the engine rumble crescendoed to a vast thunder, and he lifted off. The great shuttle banked slowly north and opened all his throttles, arcing high into the atmosphere, far above the weather, halfway to space and down again, down into the storm.

He bucked the storm winds, engines thundering as he came in fast and hot. Skyfire was too heavy and coming in too fast for the storm winds to fling aside like a mere airplane or flittering helicopter. The great rockets thundered again as he came down square on the Alaska Highway, just south of the collapsed bridge.

Trucks backed frantically away from this spectre that had just descended from the snow-blown sky to nudge them from their icy parking lot. Skyfire's rocket blast melted ice and snow for 20 meters down the road. As soon as his engines spun down, the aft ramp dropped with a clang!

The Autobots (and one Decepticon) had arrived.

# # #

Winter's Black Heart

Nothing mortal witnessed that battle and survived. Even Starscream's memories were scarred and broken.

Winds, savage and unpredictable, lashing out at the Air Commander-who rides them like hurricane winds, plays tag with the savage gusts like lightning bolts. Wind is air in motion over his wings, and that is flight. Ride the wind.

Choking snow, melting into gouts of water and steam in his engines, robbing them of power. Enrich the mixture, run hotter, defy the snow. Burn away the ice before it clings. Ride the wind.

Whiteout, sky and horizon and ground and swirling snow all the same, disorienting, tilting- shield the optics. Radar altimeter. Gather the birds, GPS and GLONASS, listen to their cries. Listen to the hunger that's never sated, find its icy heart. Ride the wind.

Break the wind wall, find the eye of the storm. Find the icy heart. No longer ride the wind; stand and fight.

Killed the cursed thing!

A white, shaggy gauntness, as big and brutal as Motormaster, claws as cruel as ice, fury like a blizzard, teeth as sharp as winter's hunger-

Lasers lash and score icy unflesh that ripples and becomes whole again. With every lash, the storm grows-

Ice fog clinging and riming jet intakes, crusting optics-too cold to burn away with internal heat now-

Snow ever deeper, piling up over tail surfaces, knees-working into joints, freezing and hampering-

Chisel claws shredding wings, energon fuel spraying across metal and snow-

Counterfire, cluster bombs launched, detonating in massive jaws, sending frozen blood and icy unflesh in shreds through the air-

The great beast shaking itself, pulling flesh and bone together, restoring itself- and the storm stretches down to Seattle now.

Hunger, fuel starvation shuddering through him, famine-memories of Decepticons scrapping over pitiful cubes of low-grade energon-ambushing Autobots and draining them for precious fuel-that long, long flight home, fuel supply drained to exhaustion-

Dropping to his knees in the snow, heavy with ice, wings torn, caked with his own fuel, hunger-weakened-

Oblivion in ice beckoned.

Last time, it was oblivion in fire... Starscream shuddered under the blow as claws nearly tore his nosecone out, shattering the amber canopy and shredding leather and aluminum. Thermite-type reaction, cybertronium alloy ignited by Galvatron's fusion cannon-Heh. At least 7700°F to do that-

He flung himself aside from the second blow, the one that would have split him open to the core. Joints thoroughly stiff and caked with ice wouldn't respond again-

Sudden elation. Energon burns much cooler than that! Slag, this is going to hurt. Laser cannon, energized-one brief shot across caked and frozen energon-

# # #

From orbit, SkySpy and several human spy satellites noted the sudden thermal flare in the center of the superstorm. Alarmed questions flew back and forth between agencies with too many acronyms.

"That looked like a tac nuke going off! Any targets of value to anyone up there?"

"No-that's an FAE flare. Or possibly a tank farm or oil pipeline going up. Check with oil companies, what do they have up there?"

"No... there's nothing at those grid coordinates. No pipelines, tanks, exploratory drilling rigs, nada, nothing, not even an Eskimo village."

"Weird-who'd drop Fuel-Air Explosives in the middle of the woods? In the middle of that suspicious freak storm?"

"Weather control gone awry?"

"Right. Forward this one to the Joes; sounds like something in their department. Send a query to the Autobots, too."

# # #

From somewhere beyond the storm's fury, a distant, yet familiar, gravelly voice ordered him: Fire all of your guns at once, Starscream!

"Megatr-No, no time to ask stupid questions!" Starscream leaped and flipped over the head full of jaws and teeth and insatiable hunger that was trying to bite him in half. Rivulets of flame still ran down his body and burned in the shreds of his wings, fed by leaking fuel lines.

All of my guns- Both arm cannon energized-then the other two-and Starscream fired all four cannon into the back of Wendigo's shaggy skull.

The lasers seared the misshapen head, superheating the icy unflesh to steam-and the other lasers seared it again. The beast collapsed to its knees, howling and clutching its head, no longer rippling and healing, no longer drawing power from the storm.

But still not dying. In frenzied rage it suddenly lunged from the snow, great chisel claws spread wide to catch and tear and shred-

Its charge knocked Starscream onto his back-boot-thrusters doubled up-Aerospike mode!-morphed, and kicked out, the central spike of each rocket catching the beast in the chest-

"IGNITE!" Starscream lit off all four rockets, two material, two spectral-

And burned Wendigo's heart out.

Emptying all four banks of cluster-bombs on what was left was overkill-but very satisfying.

# # #

Rescue Rangers

Rodimus Prime took the lead, rolling out of Skyfire's warm hold first. The wind hit like a wall, slowing him to a crawl. Snow whipped by horizontally and piled up rapidly on his windshield. He flicked on his wipers, hoping futilely to keep up with the drifts obscuring his vision. He could feel needles of ice rattling against his hull, and the cold gripped him and slithered into joints he didn't know he had.

Rodimus turned his lights on and could see only white. The howling fury of the wind nearly drowned out his voice as he called out a warning: "Turn on your lights, and don't get out of each other's sight, Autobots!"

Blades bent nearly double against the wind as he staggered after Prime. "No slagging way am I going to fly in this!"

"Me neither," shouted Blitzwing, who then transformed into a main battle tank. "I'd rather drive." His powerful treads gripped the ice and snow, and his heavy, low-slung chassis kept the wind from blowing him off course-or off his feet.

"Blades, stay on the lee of me or Blitzwing, out of the wind," Rodimus radioed. His voice was hoarse with static from the storm. "That goes for anyone in robot mode or smaller than a truck."

Streetwise tried to drive off the ramp, plunged into the deep snow, and promptly decided that robot mode would work better. Hotspot, Groove and First Aid followed Streetwise's lead, without the driving part.

Skyfire looked over the situation with his cameras and sensor arrays. He'd deliberately landed on the side of the river away from the town, where the stranded vehicles would be separated from safe shelter. The human's vehicles were irregular lumps buried under feet of snow already.

"Get the vehicles in my cargo bay-I can make multiple trips. See if anyone has to move urgently, and can't wait for the return trip. They can ride in my upper cockpit," he radioed the others.

The water level was rising; they weren't on a cliff looking far down into the water-this was a crossing at the flats, and if the water rose any faster than it was-

"Prime, get the vehicles nearest the water first."

Each vehicle and its shivering occupants had to be dug out and brought aboard; the wind was lethally cold. Blitzwing joined in, plowing packed paths through the snow with his massive treads. Not even this storm could stop the Decepticon tank from driving where he willed.

Once his cargo bay was full, Skyfire raised his ramp and closed the doors. Engines thundered, and snow melted into a fine spray as he lifted into the air.

Even fighting the storm, it was only a matter of minutes to drop down in front of the Taylor City Hall and drop the landing ramps. First Aid rolled out and transformed, joining the volunteers from Taylor in helping to unload the vehicles and escort the cold, shivering people to shelter.

Another half-hour, and they'd finished unloading Skyfire. To the accompaniment of waves and shouted "thank yous", the Autobots flew back across the river for more...

After many more trips, the last humans were unloaded safely; the storm seemed to abate. Skyfire crossed back over the river, touched down and started to lower his ramp-

Suddenly the wind howled, a savage daemonic crescendo of cold fury and driven ice that ripped asunder any pretense of quiet or shelter. There was malevolence and hatred in that banshee wail, cold that cut like a knife, a fell song of winter hunger and death.

Skyfire flipped over and transformed, landing heavily on his feet in the snow. He drew his twin particle-beam cannon and swung it towards Rodimus Prime, a feral snarl contorting his face. His eyes were blood red; all around him, the half-melted slush froze solid in seconds.

His fingers tightened on the trigger, then stopped-

A howl of rage, and Skyfire's whole body shuddered, and shuddered again. "GET OUT!"

Rodimus Prime nearly jackknifed when the wind roared with renewed fury. He transformed, and the Matrix thrummed within his chest; it seemed to surge with eagerness, as it had once before... when he'd held it deep within Unicron. The Prime's senses sharpened, and he was aware of things Hot Rod never could know.

Something ancient and hungry and foul was here, and it had its hooks in Skyfire. Rodimus knew this as surely as he once knew that Cyclonus was not Cyclonus, but Starscream.

All Blitzwing knew was that Skyfire's optics weren't supposed to be red. They were normally ice-cold blue, not pissed-off-Galvatron red. The sudden color change struck him as a bad sign. The storm going berserk again wasn't too comforting, either.

Skyfire's optics flickered blue again, and he flung his particle cannon away violently. It whirled out across the snow and disappeared into a drift.

"GET AWAY BEFORE IT-" His shout turned into a ragged scream as Skyfire's optics turned blood-red again. His whole body shuddered and the white jet lurched forward a step. His colors seemed dull in the uncertain light of the storm.

Blitzwing shouts, "Prime! Is this Starscream's ice demon? It sure the slag isn't Screamer!"

Rodimus Prime watched Skyfire warily. Some instinct told him to hold off, the Matrix's moment was not yet. His mind raced over the data Skyfire had given him, about Starscream's ancient enemy. "Skyfire is trying to fight it off-we need to help him resist it, somehow. It's a demon of winter cold and starvation-that's it! It hates fire! Hotspot, use your flamethrower ON SKYFIRE!"

"Are you sure? My fireballs are hot enough to melt-" Hotspot shouts back.

"I'm sure. Skyfire is a spaceship-he's built to handle atmospheric re-entry. Do it!"

Hotspot aimed his fireball cannon at Skyfire and started firing; spheres of blue-hot fire hit Skyfire and exploded with a 'whoosh' into a mass of blue flame.

The searingly hot flames washed over Skyfire's hull until the big shuttle-mech was shrouded in fire from helmet to toe, wingtip to wingtip. Snow melted away and the pavement under him started to burn-

A hideous roar sounded-then something screamed in pain through Skyfire's vocalizer. Skyfire convulsed as if in agony, and screamed again. He collapsed, clawing frantically at himself, writhing in pain-

Warmth like the sun in orbit, like a faint, pleasant reminder of the fierce heat of re-entry. Warmth like the sweet heat of passion; hot afterburner blast caressing his wings as he and his lover thrash and roll-

"I REJECT YOU! GO AND DIE!" The voice was Skyfire's, like thunder on the water; the great shuttle rose to his feet, still wreathed in flame-and the thunder grew and grew as one after another, Skyfire's main thrusters ignited and blasted fire until the earth burned and the pavement boiled away.

A flash of hissing white smoke-it materialized in the snow, spectral, all claws and teeth and fur, lean with starvation, blood red eyes glowing feverishly with hunger, pale and foul, thing far better left unseen.

Now. Rodimus Prime opened the Matrix.

Blitzwing swung his sword.

Matrix light, divine light blazed forth, dazzling them all-and catching that divine light, blazing with it, the ancient Decepticon war sword struck home.

The thing exploded in an optic-searing flash of white fire; as the dazzle faded, a streak of the same white fire rose into the sky, trailed by a howl of rage and despair, a shriek that faded into infinity as the flame winked out.

And then there was only the snow falling steadily, driven aslant by the gentle breeze.

# # #

Permafrost

Starscream managed to stagger nine steps forward before falling flat on his face. The snow hissed as it quenched the energon fires burning in his wings. Then, there was only pain.

He could distance himself from it, but his body was rent and torn and burned. Just barely did it still house his spark-it was a struggle to keep himself from breaking free. He embraced the pain, accepted it-it meant he still had this body. That's about all he had.

Some Air Commander I am! I can't even move.

"How the mighty have fallen, Starscream!" That terribly familiar, gravelly voice was back. "What happened to your dreams of Empire? Where are your legions of followers, mighty leader?"

Starscream struggled to raise his face out of the snow. At least the tricursed beast hadn't clawed him there!

"Megatron, you're dead. I'm dead. It's dead. Either I've gone mad, and am now an insane, tormented ghost, or you just now decided to show up!" One arm shifted forward, dug into the snow.

"Why are you here bothering me now? I'd have expected you to do your gloating after Galvatron killed me! I thought he was you, getting your revenge!" He worked the arm under his body, levering himself up a few inches at a time. It was enough to get his face out of the snow.

A rather familiar silver boot stood near his head. "Perhaps that's why, Starscream."

Starscream turned his head enough to bring the rest of Megatron into view. The late Decepticon leader was in his prime, unwounded, almost real... save for the snow blowing through him. "I don't understand," Starscream said.

Megatron shook his head. "You never did." There was a curious tone in his voice, almost regretful. It was hard for Starscream to tell; Megatron in life never regretted anything that Starscream knew of.

"You were right," Starscream said, the bitterness of broken pride almost choking him. "I can't lead like you did." The other arm moved now, drawn under his body.

"Not like me, no. You were a superb Air Commander," Megatron said, still with that oddly regretful tone. "If you had been content to be my lieutenant, we could have ruled the galaxy!"

"You were wrong! You lost sight of what we were doing this for!" The old anger flashed hotly through Starscream, holding the pain and weakness at bay. With both arms he raised his upper body from the ground and then pulled his knees forward, raising himself to his knees.

"Did I? I was winning at the end. Cybertron was ours; the energy was flowing back to our world, Starscream. Am I the one who lost sight of what he was fighting for?"

With one final effort, Starscream forced himself back to his feet. "Not.. fallen.. any more!" he snarled.

He was alone, with only the wind and the snow for company.

"MEGATRONNNNNN!"

Madness or... ? I should have been able to tell, but it's taking all my concentration just to keep this body running. I'm in bad shape. Fuel nearly gone, every alarm I have and some I don't blinking at me, unable to transform, unable to fly. Frag it! Guess I'll walk.

He put one foot in front of the other, heading downhill, because downhill is where the rivers are, and on the rivers are the towns of men. One foot in front of the other, and the other, and the other...

Strange. If he hadn't come to taunt me, I'd still be lying there in the snow, letting what's left of this pretense of life drain away.

# # #

Blitzwing stared off at the sky. "That was... something."

First Aid rushed to Skyfire's side, as soon as the pavement stopped bubbling. "Skyfire, are you okay?" Rodimus Prime was close behind him.

Skyfire stood up straight and flexed his major joints. "I am now. Thank you."

He stalked out into the snow drifts, poking and prodding until he found his particle cannon. "I'm going to find Starscream. He was at the center of that storm, and he's still alive."

Skyfire glanced at them. "I don't have time to go back to Autobot City, not when I'm already half-way there. I'm not asking anyone to come along, but I won't refuse your company."

Rodimus looked up at Skyfire. "You think he's still alive?"

Skyfire looked out at the snow-drowned river-valley. "Highly-educated guess. If he were dead, he'd be here."

Rodimus Prime smiled wryly. "I can't fault your reasoning."

"We're going to find who?" queried Streetwise. "Wait a minute, isn't he a ghost? Of a Decepticon? An enemy Decepticon?" he added with a quick glance at Blitzwing.

Rodimus Prime sighed. Did Optimus ever have this many complications? "Starscream, apparently not at the moment, yes, and probably not, in that order. We share a mutual dislike of Galvatron," he added with a slight smile. "Skyfire, you can fill me in on just where Starscream fits into all this while we're flying."

Hotspot spoke up. "I'm staying here with Blades and Groove to handle any more rescues. First Aid, you and Streetwise go with Skyfire."

Blitzwing sheathed his sword. "Now I'm flying escort," Blitzwing growled as he transformed into his attack jet form. "I can fly in this." He rose into the air and circled over Skyfire's position.

Skyfire transformed back to shuttle mode and settled down to pick them all up, as he was doing when so rudely interrupted by the spirit of Wendigo. "All aboard, then!

Once those who are going were aboard, Skyfire closed his ramps and lifted off the ground, thrusters rumbling. Then the main jets kicked in, and they soared up and north, over the mountains. He radioed back to Autobot City, "Kup, what are your coordinates for the center of the storm as of 15 minutes ago? Have there been any significant changes in the area?"

"Rewind here, Kup's off talking to some government guy." The Cassettebot reeled off the coordinates, and continued, "Yep, there was a huge thermal flare in the middle of that thing about thirty minutes ago. It looks like its stopped growing, too."

"Thank you, Rewind," replied Skyfire. "Tell Kup we may be a while. I expect there's a considerable error factor in exactly where the "center of the storm" is-though that flare may narrow things down a bit. Skyfire out."

Skyfire corrected his course slightly, and flew above the storm until he was clear of the Rocky Mountains, then he dove down into the storm, into the swirling snow and flew above the foothills, heading toward those coordinates.

"Does anyone have any special skills at search-and-rescue, or spotting downed F-15 fighter jets-or large Decepticons?"

"That's the sort of thing we do, Skyfire," Streetwise announced.

# # #

Ice rivulets trickling down from the mountains joined into frozen streams; streams flowed into an ice-bound river. Downhill, downstream, across ice so thick it could hold even a Transformer's weight, one foot in front of the other, and the other, and the other.

Antennae gone, radio ruined, not enough fuel to fly, and barely enough to keep walking... I stop now, and I'll be just another derelict. Starscream glanced at the burned-out remnants of a wooden steamer encrusted in ice, half-sunk in the river. Alice May read its nearly obscured nameplate. Find a town, use their radio, call Skyfire... Don't know if even he can fix this mess. Take another step, and another...

Walking was agony; Starscream shuddered with every step. What was left of his metal outer skin was scorched and hanging in tattered strips from his bent and battered frame. Any thing that could have been caught with claws that was not solidly part of his frame had been torn away, or dangled by cables and shreds of twisted metal. One set of tail fins was gone entirely; the others bent and twisted back in a way they were never meant to go. One arm cannon had come free of its lower mounting; only its own power cables kept it from swinging wildly as Starscream walked. His cockpit was smashed open, its contents gouged out amid great claw marks that raked across half his torso.

And his wings! His beautiful, sensitive, versatile wings! Shredded, his wing tanks torn open and slashed to ribbons, the frames bent and twisted, ribbons of metal rustling together in the wind. One arm-the one with the loose cannon-hung limp below the elbow, half-severed control lines having finally parted in the effort of raising Starscream to his knees.

The tall air intakes had protected his head, sacrificing their own integrity to keeping Starscream's face, vocalizer and cerebral processor intact. They were bent and crushed and gashed, but still capable of feeding air to Starscream's engines.

How much further? Are there even humans in this wasteland? Skyfire will need to get the Constructicons to help on this-no, they're working with the Galvatron, and I do not want to fall into Galvatron's grasp in this condition! Slag. I'm going to have to depend on the Autobots. Upon Rodimus Prime. The bile of humiliation ate through him; it was one thing to magnanimously deign to help his former enemy from a position of strength-but to crawl to that same former enemy, broken and weak-

I'd rather-no, I wouldn't. I've already done that. Doesn't help! Former enemy, former enemy! Anyway, I never actually fought him as Prime, so he wasn't really an enemy. One foot in front of another, feel the pain with each step.

# # #

This land is so empty-I haven't been this alone since that trip home, after I lost Skyfire. Why'd Megatron have to leave? Starscream realized with a pang that he missed him-missed trading barbs with the Decepticon leader, missed having him to hate and resent and... that wasn't all there'd been to it, was it? Once he'd admired and respected Megatron, until disillusionment, until realizing that Megatron was all about Megatron and only Megatron, not about the Cause of saving Cybertron and the Decepticons from the stupidity of the old order.

Even then, he tried to work with him; they still wanted the same end, Starscream had thought, only for different reasons. Then Megatron proved that the destruction of Cybertron was not too high a price to pay for his victory. That's when Starscream started warning him, telling him that he'd depose Megatron and take over if he continued his folly.

They never understood why Megatron didn't just remove me-permanently!-like any other 'traitor' and put another in my place. Megatron knew why I opposed him; they didn't. He wanted to win me back to his side, all those years and times. There was no one good enough or dedicated enough to truly replace me. Another step, and another...

All those times he humbled me- Again Starscream relived the bitterness of groveling in humiliation and fear. His contempt, his... disappointment! A shudder shook Starscream that was not from the physical pain wracking him. He wanted me by his side, he- No. No!

He stopped. For a moment, Starscream could go no further, not until he'd vented his wrath at the sky.

"MEGATRON! YOU BASTARD! WHY DID YOU LET ME KILL YOU?"

His shout echoed and was lost in the windswept, icy hell through which he staggered endlessly. One step after another...

I could just let go of this body, return to Skyfire, show him where to find what's left of me- no. If I let go now, I won't return. I'll follow after Megatron again. I owe Sky more than that.

One more step, and one more, and one more...

# # #

Skyfire dove steeply through the clouds, leveling out just below the cloud layer, several hundred feet off the ground. His radar picked up metallic signatures below; he circled, trying to see what he could through the driving snow.

"Streetwise, First Aid, Blitzwing-see what you can find. I'm picking up some metal, but not enough, and the snow is interfering with my optical pickups-and some of my radar frequencies. Tell if you think it advisable to melt some of the snow covering."

After brief silence, Streetwise said, "Er, Skyfire? You're going to have to land first. I don't fly."

Skyfire's vibrations suddenly changed he switched on his lifters preparatory to landing.

"Ah, right. Sorry, it's been a while since I carried Autobots regularly. I'm used to working with a flying partner."

"Er, yeah. I gotcha," Streetwise said. "'S'okay."

Skyfire's main thrusters throttled down as he settled into and through the melting snow, facing toward the suspect area. He dropped his bow ramp and opened the forward bay doors. Outside, beyond Skyfire's wingtips, snow covered everything, and more was falling. The wind was brisk, but it was not the polar storm that had raged here earlier.

Streetwise ran briskly down the cargo bay ramp, every sensor keenly tuned to his surroundings. First Aid followed a short way behind. His feet sunk deeply into the drifted snow until they hit the frozen perma-frost-and he got magnetic readings from all around.

"Lot of metal under the snow," he said. "Come on, 'Aid."

Streetwise circled like a searching hound, periodically stooping to snatch something out of the snow and hand it off to First Aid. He found shards of scorched, red and blue-painted metal, fragments of amber, curved glass, and scattered bits of electronics. He glanced over at First Aid, who had been carefully stashing the parts in his cargo compartment. The other Protectobot shook his head.

"Slag, I'm not seeing the whole picture here. I'm not finding a whole body, but that's an awful lot of parts to be knocked off in a fight. Skyfire, go ahead and melt some of this off," Streewise said.

"Acknowledged," Skyfire replied, his voice clipped and tight.

He rose on his jet thrusters and hovered, playing hot exhaust across the snow field. The snow burst into clouds of steam and withered away, leaving only mist and puddles of warm water behind; finally, Skyfire settled back down.

First Aid, now able to see the field, joined Streetwise in looking things over. He waved one arm at the fan of shattered amber glass and electronics laying across the muddy ground and said, "This doesn't look good. That's most of a jet-former's cockpit there, and the rest- there's far too much to be healthy. I'm not sensing the rest of... of the body, though." The Protectobot sounded a bit shaky; his imagination suggested too many gruesome possibilities. "Streetwise, any luck finding the rest?"

"Nothin' bigger than scrap, and someone set that on fire," Streetwise replied, shaking his head. "Somethin' funny about these depressions..." He ran back to Skyfire and climbed up on top of one of Skyfire's wings, and looked over the debris field again.

"HA! I was right!" Streetwise smirked and pointed north-east. "They're footprints!"

First Aid's expression was hard to discern through the mask, but the slight quaver in his voice was not. "With that much damage-he can't fly, and probably cannot transform."

"He'll be on foot, then, and leaving a trail for us to follow," concluded Streetwise. He glanced up at the big white Autobot shuttle. "Skyfire, let's get a move on! Roll 'em, 'Aid!"

Skyfire's lifters started to whine. "Now that I know where to look, I can pick them up. Come aboard, you two; I'm moving."

The two Protectobots boarded Skyfire, who lifted as soon as he could raise his ramps. Blitzwing circled on high, under the leaden clouds.

Skyfire flew low over the ground, his own radar scanning through the snow from a few hundred feet up. He ran infrared filters on his cockpit optical pickups; nothing with an engine would get by him.

How far did you get? What happened back there? It's been a little less than two hours since that vile thing tried to possess me... It knew me, and I knew it. Whisperer in the ice.

Skyfire marveled when he did not find Starscream within a few miles. Down out of the foothills and along a frozen tributary he tracked those staggering footsteps. For over fifty miles they tracked, until Skyfire wondered if they are just finding imaginary patterns in random frost heaves and depressions-

Then he saw the tall figure limping along the river, one step at a time, each step placed with deliberation and care. At first, there was nothing familiar about the large, snow-covered mech. He had no wings and lacked the familiar, squared-off twin horns of air intakes projecting over his head. This mech seemed to have a shorter, rougher cowl against his head-

Then the mech stopped and turned his head toward Skyfire, ruby optics burning under black cowl in a familiar silver face, and Skyfire suddenly realized what he was seeing.

"Oh sweet Primus! STARSCREAM!"

Skyfire plummeted out of the air like he'd taken a missile to his main generator, pulling his nose up into a deliberate stall, dumping airspeed, losing altitude, lifters screaming-and slammed down next to Starscream with a brutal, jarring thud.

"That was quick, Sky. I haven't even called you yet," the once red-and-silver Seeker said with a faint smile-

And collapsed.

Two Protectobots swarmed down Skyfire's ramp, intent on rescue.

- END -