Trial By Fire, part one: The Hunt

By Tom Zavier


FILE NUMBER:         47771-A6-219
OBJECT TYPE:         planet, class-4
LOCATION:               Cindras star system (2114-AF)
                                Coordinates: 47-46-08
                                Orbital Cycle: 7/1/1/99 + 1
                                Satellites: none

DISCOVERED           T.I. 417922.61, expedition 7-B

            Planet CINDRAS 2
                                    type 41-G, parameters 2-7
                                    approximate age: 73.56 g.v.
                                    description: small uninhabited planetoid, still in early stages of geological development. No useful mineral
                                    or organic content known. Surface highly dangerous and unstable. Rated unsuitable for Cyberforming. For
                                    additional information, see CPA records 4567-4601, section 38.


    The Autobot shuttle shrieked through the dark, thick atmosphere, tearing long gaping holes through the clouds of yellow sulfurous gases and the blackened smoke and soot which clung to Cindras’ ever-shifting molten surface. Despite Prowl’s best efforts, it was hopeless. The shuttle crashed--
    Actually, “crash” was not an accurate term. “Splat” was far more applicable--as the weary spacecraft fell into a lake of viscous, purplish material--semi-solid and bubbling hot. It’s frame shuddered at the impact... and then shattered, collapsing upon itself.
    A small explosion--and a large part of the sunken roof was blasted away. Slightly charred, scratched and dented, Arcee scrambled onto a flat portion of the roof, followed by Sideswipe and Prowl, dragging a limp Inferno behind him. They stood on the upper hull and assessed their desperate situation.
    “We’re sinking,” gasped Arcee, her voice harsh in the thick atmosphere.
    Prowl did not respond--he was examining Inferno, who was not moving.
    Sideswipe frowned as he scanned the horizon... “Solid ground--over there.” He pointed. “But we’ll never make it on foot.”
    Another explosion--and another section of hull erupted from within. Climbing weakly out came Hoist, Seaspray, Snarl, Sludge and--tentatively--Windsweeper. As they did so, a third and final set of hull plates blew away--allowing exit for Sandstorm, Skids, Perceptor, Breakdown, Blitzwing and Beachcomber, carrying an inoperative Jazz.
    Prowl cursed under his breath. “He’s gone...” he turned away from Inferno’s now lifeless body. “Who’s missing?”
    “Sunstreaker,” muttured Sideswipe quietly.
    Seaspray shook his head. “Deck six--falling bulkhead.”
    Prowl was grave. “We have to get off of here. Quickly.”
    Windsweeper recoiled--shifting uneasily. He could fly--so could Blitzwing. They could get away...
    Arcee had the same thought. “We let you live--we could have executed you, dumped you in space--help us now!”
    Blitzwing scowled. “I can’t carry all of you.”
    “A couple at a time...” It was Windsweeper who spoke. “We could do it. We should do it.”
    “You’ve gotten soft,” Blitzwing growled.
    “There isn’t much time!” Beachcomber cried. “Help us or don’t--we don’t have time to fight over it!”
    Blitzwing and Windsweeper exchanged uncomfortable glances.
                                                            *                                             *                                         *
    Jetfire’s radio crackled to life: “I can’t get a reading through all that smog, Sunny. We’ve lost them!”
    High above Cindras’ surface, Sunfire and Jetfire floated in the silent chill of space--a harsh contrast to the fiery surface of the planet below and the immense burning sun that was rather uncomfortably near.
    “Then we’ll have to go down and look for them, literally!” Sunfire was adamant. “Smog or no smog--wait!”
    “What is it?”
    “I don’t know...hmm. I thought I got a metallic reading--way over there--edge of range. But it disappeared.”
    “A glitch? Error?”
    “Probably.” She didn’t believe it. “Let’s start our descent.”

    He’d passed the other ones by...they could be dealt with in due time. Now, it was important to find out what had become of the fallen shuttle...and it’s passengers.
    Invisible, silent, undetectable--now that he’d activated his cloaking device--Midnight shifted from hyperpod mode to his dragon mode, gracefully gliding toward the treacherous surface. It was a sight--rough spires of crumbling stone and crystal, encloaked by gas and smoke. Lakes and rivers of molten lava or other bubbling matter flowed and collected in every nook and cranny... a vile, hideous world, burning hot and near fatal to the touch.
    He smiled. His advanced sensory system had found the shuttle’s crash site.
    They wouldn’t even know what hit them.
                                                        *                                                  *                                        *
    “Look,” Sandstorm spoke up. “I’ll carry as many of you as I can. We’ll still make it if we start now. Let’s leave these ‘Cons to their own devices.”
    Prowl nodded. Sandstorm transformed slowly, having taken heavy damage; in his helicopter mode, he opened his cargo doors--but he never got to say the words ‘climb aboard’.
    Like a gust of deadly wind, Sandstorm screamed as his outer armor was torn from his body in thick, rending strips. He leapt up, half-transforming, but he didn’t finish, his whole body tearing itself apart in terrible spasms.
    “Heavens to Proxima!” Beachcomber dove to the deck, huddling in a trembling ball. The other Autobots--and the Decepticons--immediately groped for available weapons.
    “What was that?” cried Sideswipe, optics wide.
    “I didn’t see anything!” Skids replied, turning to Seaspray. “Did you see--”
    Skids fell forward, a spurt of oil and lubricant flying from the gash that now separated his lower body from his upper torso. He cried out in agony--until his shoulders were relieved of his head module.
    Seaspray however, kept his head. Concentrating, he scanned the area with sonar waves--and got a reading: a sleek, shifting shape, swift and moving rapidly back up above them, into the air, for another pass.
    He pointed. “There! Open fire! Quick!” He let loose with his shoulder cannons, followed by shots from hand pistols and other energy weapons wielded by his companions.
    There was a flash--energy splattering against an unseen object--and a cry, a sudden, shrill, painful sound. That was all--
    Both Autobots and Decepticons continued firing--hitting only open sky. Perceptor cried out--a short stifled cry, cut off as his already injured form was roughly and messily shredded.
    Everyone took new aim--Seaspray trying to readjust his sonar--but laser fire suddenly erupted from an unseen source and burned across Sideswipe’s shoulders, sending him tumbling in a poor attempt to avoid the beams. Another set of bolts struck Breakdown squarely in his chest, knocking him down...
    He yelped, under a sudden weight--the others stared in frozen horror as he struggled against an invisible assailant, screaming and thrashing wildly as his body was sliced and ripped apart, the pieces scattering violently through the air, one after another...
    And--virtually simultaneously--everyone opened fire.
    Lasers struck against an unseen object--a sudden shriek tore through the air as--something--recoiled and writhed under the barrage.
    They saw a flicker under the fire as a sleek, dark shape suddenly took form. A black-armored, reptilian creature, with huge flaring wings and covered in viciously-curved blades.
    It growled, coiling back. It’s two wing-mounted laser cannons opened fire as it leapt up, taking flight once again.
    It skillfully dodged the following laser blasts, twisting and swooping in the air, still firing back. It dived, strafing it’s opponents with unparalled virtuosity.
    Rising back into the air, Midnight laughed as the Autobots and Decepticons dove for cover. Turning in the air, he coiled back--and a stream of blue flame gushed from his jaws, sending his opponents scattering.
    Stiff and scorched, Arcee crawled over to Prowl--everyone kept low to avoid the flames--and spoke heavily between breaths. “He’s playing with us! We don’t have time for this!”
    “No, but what can we--look out!”
    Midnight had dived again, falling upon them in a burst of flame and fury. He tore past Arcee--she was tossed aside with a single scream--and sank his fangs into Prowl’s shoulder. The laser blasts that followed were too late--Prowl had been lifted into the air, Midnight tearing into him...
    Torn practically limb-from-limb, Midnight released Prowl’s body and spewed forth another cloud of blue-colored flame. Everyone hit the deck, cringing under his high-pitched cackling.
    “Well, friends, what shall it be? Sliced, diced, roasted--or should I leave you to boil in the bog? Be happy, I’m giving you the choice!” Midnight’s laughter was cut short by two small missiles hitting him from behind. The explosion sent him reeling...
    Jetfire and Sunfire had arrived.
    Midnight rose to the challenge, streaking up to meet them. Breathing fire upwards, he burned Jetfire badly--who swerved to avoid another burst. Midnight then turned to Sunfire.
    ‘Metallic reading’, she thought. If only they had arrived here sooner...
    Flames leapt forth from Midnight’s jaws, toward Sunfire--and rippled harmlessly off of her forcefield.
    Midnight’s shock wasn’t long lived. Sunfire, with her forcefield still at maximum power, was diving on a collision course--and Midnight was too surprised to avoid her.
    The resultant sound--solid energy crashing against carbonite steel at terminal velocity--was painful to everyone’s audio receptors.
    Dazed, Sunfire steadied herself, turning to find her target.
    Midnight, however, was less fortunate. The extreme pain that screamed through every atom of his body was more than enough to indicate that he had to land, had to recover. That pitiful little Autobot had nearly succeeded in knocking him unconscious... he could still finish them though... if he could get away, hide, regenerate...
    Sunfire ignored the cheers from below. Yes, he was fleeing...but he’d probably be back. She radioed Jetfire: “I’m going after it--whatever it is. Help the others!”
    “But, Sunny!”
    “Just help them and quick! Someone’s gotta finish that thing off!” And she rocketed off--only just realizing she’d lost sight of Midnight.
    He had disappeared.
    She flew on, in what she thought was the right direction...