By Matt TALON Kirkby

    The ground trembled. Even if it was not shaking as violently as it done before, then these current tremors were still strong enough to send anyone who was standing up reeling and tumbling onto the ground.
    A jagged-edged mountain suddenly erupted violently in fire and ash-laden smoke, sending plumes of molten rock soaring up hundreds of meters into the air before splattering back to the steaming and shivering ground.
    "This is not good," Beachcomber muttered as he watched the distant eruption with narrowed optics. "No, not good at all."
    The other Autobots watched him silently. Arcee was once again checking on the condition of the wounded Sludge, while Seaspray and Jetfire quietly discussed their options.
    "How long?" Arcee finally forced herself to ask.
    Beachcomber looked at her, as if surprised by the question.
    "How long?" she prompted. "How long until...the end?"
    "A few hours maybe." The geologist shrugged nervously, but his voice was resigned. "The eruptions are occurring far more frequently and certainly becoming far more violent." That much was obvious to anyone. "In a few hours-possibly any second now, or maybe another day at most-they'll reach this mountain-" he gestured to the cavern in which the marooned Autobots had taken shelter, "-and then...boom."
    "No!" Sludge growled. "I won't die here!"
    "It's not like we have much choice," Beachcomber replied, repeating his earlier explanation tiredly. "We can't reason with Cindras Two like we tried to with the...Decepticons." He began shuddering violently. He had been elsewhere on Cindras when the two Decepticons marooned along with the Autobots had turned on them and killed several of his comrades before being killed in return. "It's over for us." He forced his shivering back under control, masking his fear.
    "I can fly us somewhere else-" Jetfire began.
    "Where?" Beachcomber asked with a grim laugh. "This whole planet is geologically over-active. At best any other spot will give us a few more hours, maybe a few days, before it also starts erupting. Then what? Will you fly us somewhere else for a few days more?"
    "If need be," Jetfire replied defiantly.
    "How long until you run out of fuel?" Beachcomber challenged, unwilling to accept platitudes and false hope. "Here and now, or a few more weeks from now...what does it matter when the final shutdown takes us?"
    "At least we'd have those weeks!" Arcee replied fiercely. Standing up, she advanced on Beachcomber. "Even a few more hours of life-even struggling desperately for our lives-is preferable to simply sitting here waiting to be melted down by a volcano." Sludge and Seaspray nodded agreement when she glanced at them.
    After a long silence, Beachcomber shrugged. "The northern regions have been somewhat less active," he said finally. "I'd suggest heading that way."
    "Sounds good to me." Jetfire moved to the cavern mouth and transformed to jet-mode. "Everybody in," he said as another- though relatively weak-tremor caused chunks of rock to flake off from the ceiling and rain down around them. "I don't think this site is going to offer us hospitality for very much longer."
            *            *            *
    "That's it then," Jetfire apologized as he settled heavily onto a reasonably solid patch of ground. "I'm empty." A volcano on the horizon smoldered but so far showed no other signs of any imminent eruption.
    "We tried," Arcee observed as Sludge nodded his agreement. "The attempt gained us another week of life." She glared tiredly at Beachcomber. "It bought us that extra time."
    Beachcomber nodded resignedly as he slumped back against a bulkhead. "Even though I knew pooling our fuel wouldn't last us for long, I was still as eager to try it as any of you."
    Seaspray didn't say anything aloud. He was sprawled on the deck, almost unconscious, having channeled most of his remaining power into his comlink and was broadcasting a distress signal... hoping that some passing ship might detect it, but knowing only too well that Cindras Two was too worthless and desolate to be visited very often by any starships.
    A shuttle cut through the upper reaches of the thick and unpleasant atmosphere of Cindras Two.
    "We got something!" Crosshairs exclaimed as he adjusted the sensor system yet again. "Metallic readings at bearing one mark three mark six." He frowned as new data scrolled across the tiny monitor. "There's an awful lot of tectonic activity in that region."
    "There's an awful lot of tectonic activity all over this planet," Sureshot grumbled as he adjusted the shuttle thrusters to compensate for a sudden swirl in the atmosphere. "I don't think this planet understands the term 'solid ground'."
    "Take us down." Pointblank smiled as he read the report scrolling across a monitor. "Looks like that anonymous message was for real. Those are Autobot transponder signals. A standard distress call."
    "Grid Iron will be glad this wasn't a waste of energon and resources." Crosshairs adjusted his sensors, trying to get the most accurate reading as he could. "I wonder who it is."
    "Maybe it's Prowl's group," Sureshot suggested. "I'm sure some Autobots must have survived Autobot City. With Optimus Prime to lead them-" he broke off, knowing full well that all reports indicated Optimus Prime had not survived for very long after reaching the besieged Autobot City.
    "More likely any such survivors would have been taken as Decepticon prisoners," Pointblank told him. "But if they staged a prison break, they might have forced their ship to crash land." He shrugged-certainly no one would want to willingly land on this awful planet. "In any event, we'll soon find out. Prepare for a landing." He glanced through a view port at the dark clouds streaming past the transparisteel. "This sure isn't a pretty place."

    "Primus!" Seaspray shouted, suddenly sitting up.
    Arcee jumped at the shout. She glared at him. "What?" she snapped, trying to cover her embarassment at being so startled by his shout.
    "I picked up something!" Seaspray replied. "It's a shuttle."
    "Might be more Decepticons," Jetfire warned. "We're pretty far off standard star routes for it to be other Autobots,"
    "Stay low," Arcee ordered, "and keep your weapons ready." She scanned the horizon with her optics. "But even if they are Decepticons, being taken prisoner is still a lot more attractive than being stuck on this planet."
    "True," Jetfire agreed."
    The shuttle was now in sight, descending from the clouds.
    "Looks like a modified Starhunter-class." Beachcomber took a step forward. "That's an Autobot emblem on the hull."
    "Emblems can be faked," Jetfire grumbled.
    Sludge merely grunted.
    The shuttle settled onto a nearby patch of barren rock with a final rumble from its thrusters. Its hatch hissed open.
    Arcee raised her pistol.
    "Hello?" Pointblank called as he stepped into sight. "Hello? Prowl?" His foot sank into the ash covering the ground.
    "Pointblank!" Arcee stepped forward and waved. "We're over here." She led her small band of weary Autobots towards the shuttle at a stumbling pace. "We're so glad to see you."
    "What happened to you?" Sureshot gasped as he stared at the group of thoroughly battered, scarred, and soot-stained Autobots. "You look like you've been through a war." Then he clapped his hands over his mouth and looked ashamed. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking."
    "I'll forgive if you've got any spare energon," Seaspray said weakly. "We're all…" he swayed.
    "Right here." Crosshairs handed a partial cube to Seaspray. "We've got lots."
    Jetfire waved away the cube he was offered. "Let the others refuel first," he told the puzzled Crosshairs as he was passing out cubes. "They gave me much of their own fuel so I could fly them away from eruptions."
    A faint tremor shook the shuttle.
    "I hate this world," Beachcomber said.
    Arcee set down her half-drained cube. "Pointblank, how's the war going?"
    The Targetmaster paused for a long time before answering her. "Badly," he replied after a long silence. "Cybertron has been lost to us. The Decepticons smashed through our defenses and then another group of beings-calling themselves the Disciples of Primus-showed up and drove off the Decepticons." He shook his head sadly. "Very few messages from any survivors have come in to us since."
    "And Earth?"
    "Mostly the same as when you left, I'd imagine. Decepticons have seized several regions and are continuing to strike into other areas pretty much at will. The Humans are trying to stop them, but they're not accomplishing very much. Autobot activity there is pretty much non-existent."
    "It's our darkest hour," Arcee whispered.
    "What about Prowl?" Crosshairs asked eagerly. "Any ideas where he might have gotten to?"
    "We were all part of the same group," Arcee said grimly-and Crosshairs winced. "Survivors of Autobot City taken prisoner were being shipped to Cybertron. We broke out of our cells just as arrived there, and just in time to see those Disciples arrive, and then we fled into hyperspace. A Decepticon ship pursued us and shot us down. Prowl was killed by a Decepticon shortly after we landed."
    "How many?" Pointblank asked.
    "Nine of us have died on Cindras so far. Several in the actual crash, but most were killed by a Decepticon. Some type of dragon-thing we've never seen before. Sunfire chased him off... but then she never came back,"
    Pointblank winced. "Things just keep getting worse."
    Sureshot stepped through the hatch leading to the bridge. "Hey, I just picked up another signal."
    Jetfire looked up, a startled-but hopeful-expression on his face. "Autobot?"
    "Looks like it."
    "Sunfire" Jetfire exclaimed. "It has to be!"
    "How far?" Pointblank asked.
    "Seven hundred kilometers due north,"
    Pointblank looked at Arcee. "Could it be Sunfire?"
    "I don't know who else it could be," she replied with a tired and bewildered shrug. "Unless that Decepticon creature survived and is trying to lure us into a trap."
    "I'm willing to take that risk. Set a course."
    "Right away." Sureshot hurried back on the bridge.
    "Crosshairs, take them to the hold and see what you can do for them."
    "Sure," Pointblank turned to the hatchway.
    "So how did you find us?" Arcee asked as she slowly followed Pointblank onto the bridge. She chose to ignore the offered aid for now.
    "Grid Iron sent several ships out to look for stragglers and survivors of the various massacres. We were assigned to scout the area a few light-years from here. Just after arriving, we got a transmission directing us to add this system to our patrol. We did and found you."
    "Good thing Grid Iron changed his mind."
    "I guess."
    "You sound less than certain."
    "We assume the orders came from Grid Iron, but we're not actually sure. The signal was not identified."
    "Strange...I can't see that being standard procedure."
    "Especially not during the current emergency, I'll admit that I half-expected this to be a trap...we had the hyperdrive primed for an emergency jump. I thought we should take the risk of a quick look just in case. Given recent events, not everyone who escaped has been able to transmit that news on the properly coded frequencies."
    The shuttle lurched slightly.
    "Sorry," Sureshot apologized. "This planet has a screwed up atmosphere to match the restless ground. Need more time to get the hang of it. However, we're in range of the other distress beacon."
    "Land us."
    "Look!" Arcee gestured out of the viewport.
    The ground below them was a mostly flat plain, below a large, smoking volcano, a dark crust of lava which still bubbled in a dozen places.
    One bubble swelled twice the height of the others. Then it burst and molten rock fountained into the air. Chunks of rock and globs of molten lava splattered to the ground, leaving behind a figure suspended in the air.
    "Who is that?" Crosshairs gasped.
    The figure-gleaming and metallic-flew towards the shuttle.
    Stunned, the Autobots watched as the figure approached the airlock and keyed it open. Arcee and Pointblank were the first to reach the airlock, arriving just as the figure stepped through it. The airlock sealed and cut the roar of the shuttle1 engines back to almost nothing.
    "Hello!" the figure said.
    Arcee stared in silence.
    "I was just about to fly off on my own, when I detected your shuttle coming through the atmosphere." The voice was throaty and feminine, and her optics sparkled. "You'll make getting back to civilization so much faster than using my own hyperdrive." Her backswept wings shifted slightly, as if trying to fold themselves back up.
    "But, how-" Arcee gasped.
    "Sunfire?" Pointblank asked even more puzzled.
    In response, she stood straighter. "I am now called 'Sonimus Prime'," she replied proudly.
    The Autobots stared at each other.