Read an Excerpt
An endless wall of glittering stars; a single spaceship sweeping in toward it.
For weeks, the Nemesis had traversed the gulf between two of the Milky Way’s spiral arms. Now that journey was almost over. Ahead was the edge of the Orion Arm; that of Sagittarius lay far behind. As the Nemesis gracefully slipped out of faster-than-light mode, its cloaking systems kicked in automatically. Dozens of sensor dishes bloomed like flowers along the titanic warship’s spinal mount, scanning the approaching field of stars, processing everything they saw, and relaying their findings to the ship’s bridge.
On the bridge, Starscream and Soundwave studied the readouts. They were the only Decepticons on the flight deck. It didn’t take much of a crew to run the ship in standard transit mode, and that was just fine with Starscream. If they found anything, he intended to be the first to know. It wasn’t like the ship was going to tell them; the Nemesis had sustained considerable damage during its pursuit of the Autobots; not only had it lost the ability to shift out of spaceship mode, it was no longer sentient. The rest of the Decepticons seemed to regard that as a loss, but Starscream relished the fact that the thing had finally shut up. The last thing he needed was a spaceship with its own agenda, for power politics among the Decepticons was complex enough as it was. Let Megatron sulk in his quarters; Starscream would rather watch from the front than give orders from the rear, would rather bide his time, for he knew that after the inevitable victory over the renegade Autobots, the real struggle between him and his master would begin. Until that day arrived, he took what satisfaction he could in bullying those below him. He turned his ruby-red eyes on Soundwave and pointed a long finger at him.
“Proceed to secondary scans.”
“At once,” Soundwave replied in his usual monotone. Starscream knew there was no need to vocalize what was merely standard operating procedure, but he did it anyway to remind Soundwave that he was second in command on this bridge. He enjoyed reminding all of them every chance he got. Soundwave might be Megatron’s loyal pet, but as far as Starscream was concerned, he was nothing more than a jumped-up communications officer with visions of spymaster grandeur, though he was nothing if not obedient: Starscream watched the results from the secondary scans flicker past him. Dozens of screens lit up as the Nemesis searched system after system, star after star—a search that now expanded to include substellar material: brown dwarves, burned-out suns, nomad planets, wayward rocks . . .
“Isolate that signal!” Starscream barked. Soundwave was already on it; along one wall, a wraparound screen focused on the system in question, several layers back from the edge of the spiral arm. It was a young star surrounded by a huge cloud of debris. A typical circumstellar disk . . . but Starscream’s eyes narrowed, for such debris would be the perfect place for wounded prey to hide. And as the Nemesis’s mainframe broke down the signal’s composition, Starscream felt an emotion he rarely knew: joy.
For it was unmistakably an echo from the engines of the Autobots’ Ark.
Perhaps the Autobots were hoping the various debris and gravitational distortions could hide them. If so, they had underestimated the Nemesis’s powerful sensors. Back in orbit around Cybertron, it had been a state-of-the-art scientific station while in its Trypticon mode. And now its sensors were put to the test even further: They picked up a second signal, buried still deeper in the mix . . .
“Autobot distress call,” said Soundwave.
That wasn’t what Starscream was expecting him to say, but he instinctively hid his surprise. So the Autobots were in desperate straits. So much the better. Apparently they were hoping that someone besides the Decepticons was out there to rescue them from whatever they’d stumbled into. Pathetic, Starscream thought. They weren’t warriors by trade; they could boast of nothing approaching the instinctive grasp of tactics possessed by every Decepticon. There were times he almost felt sorry for them. It wasn’t their fault that they hadn’t been born for battle. Yet they’d made matters worse for themselves by entrusting their leadership to a glorified data clerk. That the no-name Orion Pax could become Optimus Prime was offensive to every self-respecting Decepticon. His leading the Autobots to their demise was only a matter of time.
Now that time had arrived.
“Shall I alert Lord Megatron?” Soundwave asked.
Starscream thought for a moment. “No. You stay here and monitor the signal. If it changes in any way, contact me immediately. I shall go and alert Lord Megatron myself.”
“As you wish, Air Commander.”
Megatron had little use for amenities.
He’d declined to use the captain’s quarters as his lair, instead opting to set up his command post in a massive observation bubble that sat high atop one of the Nemesis’s aft superstructures. In peacetime, that bubble had been the site of telescopes that charted faraway stars, but all such equipment had been jettisoned long ago, making it the perfect place for Megatron to brood and plan high above the troops he commanded deep in the bowels of the vessel. The Decepticon leader had felt the ship drop out of lightspeed and knew that very soon those subordinates would be clamoring for orders.
For they were nothing without orders. There was no way they’d ever have gotten this far without him. Although each Deception was an excellent fighter in his own right, working together just wasn’t something that came naturally to them. They needed a strong hand to guide them to victory. Nor was it simply a matter of each Decepticon recognizing where his collective interest lay. It was far more basic than that—it was might makes right, the purest expression of the Decepticon credo, and everything Megatron did reinforced the fact that he was the mightiest of all. There would always be pretenders to the throne, but what was leadership without the occasional opportunity to grind would-be usurpers down to their basic components? It was a part of the game that Megatron relished.
Though such satisfaction fell far short of the pleasure he would know on the day he crushed the Autobots and personally destroyed Optimus Prime. It vexed Megatron greatly that the librarian had escaped his clutches thus far. Only luck had allowed that rebellious bot to escape Cybertron in the first place. But luck could take one only so far. As of late a new factor had entered the equation—after their clash at Junkion, Megatron reluctantly had to admit to himself that the data clerk was fast learning the art of war. No doubt about it, Optimus’s possession of the ancient Matrix of Leadership was making a difference. The Autobot leader had grown into his rule; he had led Megatron on quite a chase, but he couldn’t run forever. Sooner or later he would have to stand up and fight. And probably sooner . . . The sound of the door chime pulled Megatron back from his thoughts.
“Enter,” he said. Starscream strode into Megatron’s chambers, dropped down to one knee, and bowed his head to his leader in a gesture that—though technically quite correct—bordered on the mocking.
“Oh mighty Lord Megatron, it is my humble duty to—”
“Dispense with the pleasantries,” said Megatron. “And get to the point before I decide your service is no longer required.”
“We’ve found the Autobots, Lord Megatron.” Starscream keyed up the data on a screen in the observation module. “The system is awash with debris, but we’re sure this is an Autobot transponder.”
Megatron studied the display. His traditional scowl shifted to a wry half smile, but he said nothing. As the silence lengthened, Starscream started to get a little anxious.
“What do you think, sire?” he asked.
The half smile became a full one. “I think the Autobots have set a cunning trap,” said Megatron.
“A trap? For us? Impossible.”
“You’ve always underestimated the Autobots, Starscream. One day that arrogance will be your undoing. They may not be born warriors, but they are more than capable of deceiving the likes of you.” The screen on the wall expanded out into a hologram. “Look more closely; do you see it this time?”
Starscream was definitely nervous now. He had no idea what Megatron was talking about. He shook his head, wishing Megatron would stop talking in riddles. The Decepticon leader let out a low sound that was half growl, half chuckle. He pointed at a series of coordinates around the site of the transponder.
“You forget, the Nemesis is purely automated intelligence. It cannot rival my judgment. These look like reflections from the primary source, but they are almost certainly heat signatures as well.”
“I don’t understand,” Starscream said.
“They could be ships, fool. Using the debris as cover for an ambush. They think if they can trap us between the star and the debris field, they’ll be able to maximize their weaker numbers against our stronger force. They know that the Ark is no match for the Nemesis and that the radiation in this debris field will play havoc with our targeting systems. So they’re trying to even up the odds. And had you been in charge instead of me, it might have worked.”
Starscream ignored the barb. “So what should we do, my lord?”
“Spring the trap, of course. Set the ship to condition red. We’ll finish this once and for all.”
“At once, my lord.” Starscream hesitated. “And how shall we spring this trap?”
“We? Try you. Take a detachment of your best Seekers.”
Starscream didn’t like the sound of that at all. He tried to think fast.
“My lord, I’m not sure I’m worthy of such an honor.”
Megatron laughed. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he said.
The Nemesis’s wardroom was a popular place for the Decepticon warriors to replenish their Energon, talk shop, argue tactics—and, of course, gossip about their leaders. But even away from the front lines, Decepticon hierarchy was very much in evidence. Thundercracker and several others in Starscream’s combat air patrol treated the place as their personal lounge. The less hearty of the Decepticons usually cleared out when they appeared in force to crowd around the rechargers and oil kegs. Thrust, Dirge, and Ramjet spent most of their time arguing over who was the better Seeker while Skywarp fine-tuned the circuitry on his teleportation unit. As of late, the scuttlebutt had centered on the increasingly boring system-by-system search for the Autobot enemies: How long would it go on? Would they ever find their quarry?
Not that anyone was so unwise as to express such sentiments to Megatron. The Decepticon leader kept his own counsel, and no one second-guessed it unless he wanted a good old-fashioned laser blast to the head. Though there had been plenty of talk behind his back about what he was up to. Because whatever Megatron had been doing these last few weeks was strange—it was almost as if he’d been told the direction in which to search but not how far out he had to go. Following a more or less straight line, the Nemesis had systematically made its way across the galaxy, all the way to the edge . . . and then it had just kept going, out into the void, crossing to the next spiral arm. Perhaps Megatron was chasing phantoms. Perhaps he had become too obsessed with his hunt. Perhaps he was losing it. No one said that out loud—not even to one another—but it was on all their minds. That was the problem with dictators—it was an efficient way to do business, but it all fell to pieces when they started making poor decisions. More than one bot aboard the Nemesis was beginning to wish he’d stayed behind on Cybertron. There were those among the naysayers who hinted at disaster . . .
Thundercracker had no such qualms. He was quite happy to follow Megatron wherever he might lead, particularly since remaining on Cybertron with Shockwave had few attractions. The scientist-regent was about as unpredictable as a Decepticon could get, but if past was prologue, it surely involved experiments on his own kind with little regard for the end result. Thundercracker privately hoped that Shockwave would meet with a reckoning when Megatron returned home in triumph. But those were concerns for another time indeed.
Because now an alarm was sounding throughout the ship.
Thundercracker glanced at the others in the room. Suddenly they were all on edge, like athletes waiting for the signal to go. The intercom buzzed to life.
“This is Air Commander Starscream. All Seekers, prepare for orbital assault.”
An excited buzz ran around the wardroom. Surely that meant the Autobots had been found. Thundercracker stood up and spoke to the room in tones that rang down the corridors and that (he hoped) were overheard by their glorious leader.
“It’s time to do what we do best! Thanks to Megatron for delivering us this chance at battle! All hail Megatron!”
The answering shout would have deafened anything that wasn’t metal. “ALL HAIL MEGATRON!”
Soundwave snapped to attention as Megatron strode onto the Nemesis’s command deck.
“Status report,” Megatron barked.
“We’ve isolated the transmission’s location, Lord Megatron.” Soundwave quickly set the ship’s viewscreens to display all the information he’d obtained regarding the mysterious system and the signal emanating from it. Megatron frowned.
“And your personal analysis, Soundwave?”
“The signal is of Autobot origin. That being said, I still cannot locate the exact position of the Autobot Ark. The debris serves as effective cover, complicating any effort at triangulation—”
“Yes, yes, yes. I understand.” Megatron smiled as he stared at the screen. “Well played, librarian, well played indeed.”
“What should we do, my lord?”
“Starscream has volunteered to attack immediately. We will bring the Nemesis to the system’s edge and prepare to support him.”
Soundwave hesitated. “Do you think it wise to send so small a detachment in first, sire?”
“This is what Starscream and his Seekers were built for,” Megatron said. “They’ll be on top of that signal faster than the Autobots will be able to react. Optimus will have to reveal his precise location, and then we’ll move in with the main force and strike.”
That made sense to Soundwave. Exposing Starscream to the brunt of the enemy made even more. If he’d had a sense of humor, he would have giggled.
Fortunately for those around him, he didn’t.
Down in one of the Nemesis’s forward loading bays the Seekers got ready. Starscream, Thundercracker, Skywarp, Thrust, Dirge, and Ramjet were finishing their final weapon checks.
“So let me get this straight,” said Ramjet, shrugging his blue steel shoulders. “We’re going to go in there and spring what may very well be a trap?”
Thrust laughed. “Feeling nervous, Ramjet?”
“No, I’m just wondering why we have to stick our head into the meat grinder,” Ramjet said. “Surely we should lead with a decoy. It hardly seems like the kind of assault work we Seekers merit.”
“A far cry from when we ruled the skies of Cybertron,” Dirge added. “This sounds almost like we’re being used as cannon fodder. I wish to protest—”
“Wish all you like!” Starscream bellowed. He’d resigned himself to the situation—there was no choice other than to get with the program and hope for the best. “We’re going in first because we’re the elite, okay? When you want something done right, you deploy your finest troops. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” said Thundercracker. “Anyway, who wants to sit around here when there’s the chance of a good fight? You lot do remember how to fight, don’t you?”
“You keep talking and I might have to show you,” Ramjet answered while powering up his laser blade. Starscream stepped between his two air raiders.
“Enough; save your energy for the real enemy.” The bay doors cycled open as the warriors seamlessly switched to jet-attack mode. They swarmed out of the Nemesis in tight formation, accelerating through dozens of Gs as they raced toward the signal. Ahead lay a vast cloud of rocks and a sun flickering deep within.
“Wait for my command to resume jet-trooper mode,” said Starscream. “Stay on my six, Thundercracker. The rest of you form attack pattern delta.” Thundercracker swung in directly behind Starscream, sunlight flitting off the red streaks on his wings. With incredible grace, the whole formation weaved in and out of the dense debris field on vectors that would allow them to respond to any attack from hidden ships. It was a task that would have been impossible for lesser pilots. If there were enemy ships in here, they were well hidden. The Seekers could detect nothing. As they closed on the asteroid that marked the signal’s exact coordinates, Starscream gave the final go-ahead; the Seekers fired their thrusters and descended down toward the rock like giant birds of prey.
“There,” said Thundercracker. He’d just spotted a single small ship tethered against a crater in the asteroid. Starscream and his Seekers switched to jet-trooper mode, firing their retrothrusters to slow their approach, landing in a tight circle around that ship, their guns aimed at what looked like a—
“Lifeboat,” Thrust said, sounding disappointed.
“It’s not even Autobot design,” Dirge added.
“Cover us,” Starscream said as he and Thundercracker advanced on the craft.
“Where are all the Autobots?” a puzzled Ramjet asked. “Where’s the Ark?”
“Maybe it’s been destroyed,” said Skywarp.
“Shut up and get this thing open,” Starscream snarled. Thundercracker ripped off the hatch to reveal a battered orange and yellow robot, obviously still functional but restrained and hardwired into the ship’s systems. The bot looked up at them plaintively.
“Hello, mate,” he said. “Be a good ’un and release me, eh?”
“Who the slag are you?” Starscream asked.
“Wreck-Gar is the name; wheeling and dealing junk is my game.” He grinned wanly through his goatee. “Or at least it was.”
“It’s one of those Junkion robots,” Dirge offered.
“One of?” Wreck-Gar looked offended. “Guv’nor of the lot, more like it. Show a little respect”—but that was when Starscream ripped him out of his restraints, grabbed him by the neck, and pressed an arm-mounted laser up to his eyes.
“Respect is an interesting word,” said the air commander. “But I feel you and I might differ on its meaning.”
“No need to get so hot under the collar,” Wreck-Gar said.
“So tell me where the Autobots are,” Starscream said, his voice dangerously soft.
“No Autobots here. Haven’t seen any of those blighters in a fair while.”
“Then there’s no reason why I shouldn’t blast you—”
“Hey, I’m picking up energy readings,” Debris said.
Starscream glanced at him. “Where?”
“Um, in every direction.”
Asteroids all around them suddenly split open like monstrous eggs, each one shattering to reveal a warship within. Too late, Starscream realized the nature of the trap—so many of those giant rocks were just cleverly constructed shells. And now each warship belched forth hundreds of smaller pirate marauders. Leading the armada was the monstrous catamaran flagship Tidal Wave, both of its hulls bristling with guns.
“Not these guys again,” Thrust muttered. He figured they’d seen the last of the Star Seekers back at Junkion. Hunting the Autobots was tough enough without a gang of marauders getting in the way, especially when they were led by a relentless psychopath who hated all Cybertronians regardless of faction. And just to make matters worse—
“Hey,” Ramjet said, “it’s still got the Requiem Blaster.”
He was right. The legendary weapon was plainly visible, attached to the underside of the hull like some gigantic growth.
Thanks a lot, Megatron, Starscream thought as he and his Seekers fired their thrusters.