"Get down!" Red Alert screamed, taking his own advice and diving for cover behind the wreckage of the Army outpost. The rest of the Autobot strike force attempted to comply, hitting the dirt hard enough to raise furrows in the red desert soil.
The single shell shrieking its way into the cloudless sky glinted like a spinning diamond, then burst in a flare bright enough to rival the sun for an instant. The shock-wave that followed arrived with a dull crack instead of an explosion, but the force of it pushed the prone Autobots further into the sand. Dust devils stirred in its wake, hourglass-shaped vortices scooping up debris and then spitting it back out.
Inferno dragged himself slowly to his feet. "Everyone okay? An EMP pulse like that could really scramble your circuits."
Optimus Prime raised himself up carefully on his hands and knees, sand pouring from his joints. "I'm all right, but when this is over I'm going to need a complete lubricant recharge."
"With all this dust, so will everybody," Ratchet grumbled as he rolled over and sat up. "I'm just glad we were all at ground level and this far away. For a human-designed weapon against robots, that thing's not exactly a drive down the parkway." He clambered to his feet, carefully making his way to where Sideswipe lay, groaning slightly.
"Yeah, I - " Inferno interrupted himself as a familiar noise broke the calm. "Uh-oh, sounds like one of the Decepticons didn't get the order to clear the area in time."
"There," Red Alert pointed. "I don't think he's seen us." A jet arced through the pale blue to their left, leaving a wobbling contrail behind it.
"Guessing from his flight path, I don't think he's conscious," Ratchet corrected him. "He'd have taken the EMP blast head-on, almost, and at his altitude - "
"He's going to crash!" interrupted Sideswipe. He was right; that was the nearly parabolic arc of a reasonably aerodynamic projectile, not the smoother path of a jet flying under its own power. A few seconds later, the collision shook the mesa under their feet.
The first responders shared a glance before looking to their leader. "Well, Optimus?" Inferno asked. "Do we leave him for the Decepticons to take care of their own, or do we investigate?"
"It could be a trap," Red Alert pointed out unnecessarily.
"It might be," Optimus agreed, "but we saw the rest of the Decepticons head out. We should at least check to see if he survived the crash."
"I was afraid you were going to say that," Inferno sighed as they took their vehicular forms and headed towards the thin trail of rising smoke.
The wall of broken sandstone that blocked their way also prevented them from seeing where the Seeker had landed, or even which one it was.
"Or," Ratchet pointed out as they took their robot forms again and began clambering over the tumbled ridge, "it might have been an actual fighter plane, couldn't it?"
"It shouldn't have been," Inferno grumbled back. "The Air Force fired the EMP shell in the first place; would they have deliberately sent a pilot into harm's way like that?"
"Well, maybe - " Their conversation was cut off as they hit the top of the ridge and looked down into the shallow crater below. The shape in the red sand, half-transformed, wings nicked and bent at odd angles, twitched at the sound of their footsteps. Ratchet instinctively took a step towards the injured Decepticon and stopped short as Optimus's hand fell on his shoulder.
"Starscream," Red Alert muttered disgustedly. "Should have figured he wouldn't have the sense to clear the area."
There was a long, awkward pause, as the wreck beneath them twitched again. A patch of dark lubricant sank into the sand beneath him. Finally, Red Alert looked up. "Optimus, shouldn't we go? We don't want to be here when the other Seekers come looking for him."
Optimus looked down at Ratchet. "Will he survive until they get here?"
"I can't tell. I'd have to get a closer look," Ratchet admitted.
Optimus nodded, and let go of Ratchet's shoulder. "We'll go with you. Just be ready to defend yourselves if he wakes up, Autobots."
They edged slowly across the hot sand. Ratchet knelt at Starscream's side, optics scanning over his injuries. After a few minutes, he sat back up. "He's extremely badly injured - that was a completely uncontrolled crash. I'd guess there's about a 50% chance he'd survive until they found him - and that assumes that they're already looking."
"Can you stabilize him?" Optimus looked troubled.
"I can stop the lubricant leaks, but most of the rest of the damage is structural." Ratchet brushed the sand off of his leg panels. "I'd need tools I don't have here."
"Hello? This is the Decepticon second in command!" Red Alert grated. "Why are we worried about whether he survives or not?"
"It's a fair question," Inferno agreed. "I mean, if he were awake, he'd be shooting at us."
Optimus glanced away. "Ratchet, patch up as much of the leaks as you can, and we'll go."
The medic sealed the exposed tubes as best he could. Optimus helped him to his feet. "There. That's about all I can do out here."
As they turned away, a hand shot out and grabbed Optimus's foot. Immediately, half a dozen weapons were turned on the fallen Decepticon, but all that came from the wrecked jet was a feeble plea. "Help . . . me."
"Help you?" Red Alert sneered. "Who do you think you're talking to?"
"Don't . . . know. Can't see," gasped the familiar rasping voice. "Please . . . whoever you are . . . help . . ."
"It's a trap," announced Red Alert. "He'll lead the Decepticons back to our base."
Optimus looked down at Starscream, groveling in his own spilled lubricant on the sand. Anguish flashed through his own optics. "We can't leave him to die, either," he decided. "Ratchet, help me carry him over the ridge. We'll put him in my trailer; he can't broadcast a signal from in there."
"Are you crazy? He'll just shoot us all full of holes as soon as he gets better!" Red Alert shouted, waving his arms wildly.
"I don't think he recognized us," Ratchet said quietly as he lifted the jet's feet.
"So he's delirious! He won't be for long!"
"I'll take full responsibility if he does," Optimus stated firmly. "But I don't think he will. Even Starscream doesn't bite the plug that recharges him until his batteries are full."
"Just for the record," Inferno added, "I think this is a terrible idea, but if we're seriously doing this, let's do it now. The Air Force jets could come back any minute now, too, and I don't think they've changed their minds."
"Let's go," Ratchet said. "If we're wrong, we're wrong, and you can laugh at our smoking wreckage later."
The cluster of Autobots outside Ratchet's medical bay rumbled and muttered with curiosity and confusion. Optimus's arrival quieted the traffic jam, but didn't silence it. He didn't meet any of their optics; he simply strode into the operating room, a hand on his chin.
"I don't understand it," Prowl said softly. "Why take the risk?"
"I don't know," Bumblebee answered, "but any sentient's death would be a waste, wouldn't it? Even Starscream's?"
On the other side of the door, Optimus looked down at the battered wreck on the table. Ratchet's ministrations weren't pretty; mismatched panels barely covered ragged tears in the outer shell. On the other hand, the wounds were all closed, and the leaks had been stopped.
"Is he - " Optimus started, but Ratchet interrupted, "He's still operational. The crash damage is all repairable; I've got his primary circuits back online. I'm not doing any final welds until I can make sure all the fuel lines are patched and reattached correctly - the Decepticon architecture uses different secondary fuel pumps. And I'll have to re-cast that wing from scrap metal." He wiped a smear of grease off his forehead with the back of his hand. "He's tried to talk a couple of times, even though I had him sedated. I've never seen anyone so stubborn in my life."
"What did he say?" Optimus asked, carefully.
"Nothing that made any sense. That's the other problem." Ratchet set a tiny arc welder down. "He took the EMP pulse almost face-first. Optimus, his memory chips are seared down to the silicon. I'm not -" He glanced towards the door, then back at his leader. "If he weren't struggling so hard to say something, I'd swear he was just a blank cortex. There's no way there can still be enough memories to have a personality there."
The robot with the broken wings shifted slightly on the repair table. "Not . . . true," he gasped.
Optimus shifted around Ratchet until he could look Starscream directly in the face. The red optics flickered back at him like insects' wings. "Name and rank, soldier," he commanded.
"Soldier?" Ruby eyes focused and went wide again. "No soldier, I. A seeker."
"A seeker of what?" Optimus watched the wounded one carefully.
"Knowledge. Power. Truth." A blue hand flexed and reached for him. "You are strong. You . . . carried me." His gaze raked across Ratchet. "And you riveted the spark back into me. You . . . thank . . . you . . . " His optics flickered again.
Ratchet looked uncomfortable. There were a few hundred things he could think of that were more pleasant than being thanked by a mortal enemy, and a treacherous one at that, for saving his life.
Their leader didn't seem to have such qualms. "Who are you?" Optimus was insistent.
"My designation . . . is Starscream." The faltering voice grew strong as he pronounced his name.
"And your commander?"
That drew out a weak laugh. "No one . . . commands me." He made a grating noise as something shorted in his vocal circuits. "Although . . . you are strong enough . . . you might do."
Ratchet stiffened. Optimus asked, more softly, "Do for what?"
Starscream's optics unfocused and flickered again. He didn't answer.
"The question is," Ratchet said, handing the scan over to Perceptor, "how pervasive the amnesia is."
"Even if it were total," the scientist said, tracing over the circuit scan minutely, "he might well be too dangerous to keep here. The Decepticons will recognize him immediately."
"We could repaint him," Ratchet replied, "but they'd still know he was a Seeker."
"Intriguing that he remembered that part of his identity, but not that he was a Decepticon." Perceptor swung his lens-barrel back. "I concur with your assessment. He should be a tabula rasa; at best, he should have a vague impression of his former personality."
"It's more than vague. He's still full of himself," Ratchet grumbled. "But he doesn't seem to recall any actual events." A light on the wall blinked to life. "He's waking up again."
Optimus was already at the door, waiting patiently. Ratchet looked up as he opened it. Their commander could easily have opened it himself; it wasn't locked, at least from this side. He was being as deferent to Ratchet's territory as he could be under the circumstances. The medic opened the door and gestured him in. "Shall I come in with you?"
"I think that might be wise." Optimus bowed his head slightly as they headed towards the recharging bay.
Starscream was sitting up, perched on the edge of the workbench. His optics were more confused then accusatory. "Am I your patient or your prisoner?" he asked quietly, searching both their faces.
"Definitely the first. Possibly the second, too." Ratchet checked his vital signs. Aside from a servo in his wing armature he hadn't found a decent replacement for and several ungainly patches in his fuselage, Starscream was nearly fully operational.
"Enemies, then." Starscream touched his own Decepticon logo, then the Autobot symbol on Optimus's shoulder. "These signs - what factions are they?"
"Two warring armies," Optimus answered calmly. "Do you remember anything about the war?"
"No," Starscream said, a finger still tracing the stylized faceplate slowly. "I remember the research, and falling."
"What research?" Ratchet asked without thinking.
The Decepticon smiled softly; it was a strange look on his face. "Gamma-ray bursts. They happen quite frequently, you know - flashes of gamma radiation that are brighter than a galaxy, for just a moment, and then they fade."
Ratchet was confused now. Optimus's voice was quiet. "What about them?"
"We didn't know what caused them. We complied centuries of research, pinpointed the source of one of them - close enough to, to, where are we from?"
Optimus's head tilted back just slightly, the only sign of surprise he showed. "Our home planet's name is Cybertron."
"Cybertron." Starscream looked upwards at the paneling of the ceiling, as if he thought his optics might be able to pierce through it and find their home in the sky somewhere. "Yes. Found one close enough to Cybertron to investigate ourselves, close enough that we must not have evolved yet when it burst; the radiation would have scoured the planet clean."
He paused. Optimus waited long enough to decide that the Seeker wanted to be asked. "And what did you find?"
"We almost didn't. The black hole nearly swallowed our transport before we realized it was there." Starscream's smile took on a hint of his usual smugness. "I saw the lensing effect before the tidal pull started to strain the transport's structural integrity. But finding it was the hint we needed. After that, it was a matter of math and careful observation." His optics widened. "The bursts are produced by sufficiently massive stars when their fusion processes halt against an iron core. Smaller stars become white dwarfs." He stopped, aware that he was lecturing, and glanced at Ratchet.
"And larger ones become neutron stars, and even larger ones collapse into black holes," Ratchet filled in.
Starscream nodded eagerly. "It's that last process. If the star is massive enough, the core has passed through the neutron phase and has already collapsed inside its own event horizon when the outer layers of the star are still normal plasma." His voice was high, excited; he reached out and clutched Optimus's hand in his, almost unconsciously. "And if the star is spinning, then the plasma doesn't get blown off into a nebula; it collapses into a disc and falls into the black hole, forming two intense radiation jets - the burst. A gamma-ray burst is a supernova's death-cry; it's the last thing that leaves a star, before it becomes a black hole, forever."
Optimus looked at the hand that held his. "And you discovered this?"
"Yes. Me and my research team. I was barely more than a student." Starscream looked up. "I rushed to publication before my mentor could claim the work as his own, even though it was based on his." His gaze fell back to their clasped hands. "That's all I remember."
Ratchet's optics flashed. "You named yourself after it."
"Yes." Starscream looked thoughtful. "It . . . seemed appropriate." He shook his head. "You know me better than I do, perhaps. I am drawn to power, I can feel that much. To strength."
He looked up at Optimus. "Will you use me?"
"You've been used enough." Optimus let go of him and set a hand on his shoulder. "If we let you go, the Decepticons - your faction - will kidnap you back. Is that what you want?"
"No." The response was immediate, and loud. "I want to stay here, with you. You are strong enough to command me. I - " His vocoder faltered. Slowly, he drew his arms around himself. "My wings hurt." He looked up at Optimus, confused. "It's cold in here." His voice was high, almost whining.
"The temperature hasn't changed," Ratchet said flatly, but he tapped at the climate control panel anyway.
Optimus nodded slowly. "Then you'll stay here. But I'm confining you to the medbay until I'm sure you're fully functional again."
"Very well." Starscream glanced around. "I can wait." He drew his knees up to his cockpit window and wrapped his arms around them, rocking slightly.
"He'll remember," Ratchet stated bluntly, stabbing at the table with one finger.
Perceptor shook his head. "He can't. He shouldn't remember what he does, much less anything else."
"That's why I'm sure he'll remember. Maybe not everything, probably not all at once." He glanced at their leader. "He'll betray you sooner or later, Optimus. It's inevitable. It's his nature."
"He's greedy, I agree," Optimus said, "but every sentient deserves a second chance. This Starscream doesn't remember any of his evil deeds. Why should he suffer for them?" There was a strange edge in his voice. "He was a scientist, once."
Perceptor cocked his head slightly. "Perhaps I should speak with him."
"That might be helpful." Optimus stood abruptly. "He'll stay, at least until he shows signs of regaining his memory. If he doesn't, then we'll have deprived Megatron of one of his most valuable assets. If he does, we'll be no worse off than we were before."
"What are you seeing that I'm not?" Ratchet's question was blunt, but not angry.
Optimus glanced back towards the repair bay. "I'm not sure. Perhaps something Megatron saw a long time ago, and couldn't bear." He squared his shoulders. "Or, perhaps, just a reflection of my own hope. But if this is a second chance, I won't take it from him."
Ratchet and Perceptor locked optics, each waiting for the other to speak. Finally, Ratchet broke the silence. "I understand. I think you'll be disappointed, but I understand why you feel you need to offer him that."
"We'll find out," Optimus said softly.