Survey Ship Visit

by Dragoness Eclectic

"Did we ever overthrow a 'brutal warlord' that wasn't Megatron?" Skyfire asked rhetorically. "Actually, yes, though we hadn't intended at first. I hope you have time for a bit of a story...?"

At the other's nod, Skyfire smiled and said, "The Nyttheim system was another Deneb sector survey job, of course. The interesting stuff that wasn't connected with Cybertronian or Earth politics always seems to be. In this case, things were complicated a bit by the Nyttheimers being cyber-phobic to the point of what one of my human friends calls a 'Frankenstein Complex'. The little blue fellows didn't trust intelligent machines of any kind, and outlawed their possession. Needless to say, they didn't recognize sentient robots as sentient people; anything like a Cybertronian would be regarded as a horror from outer space that had to be destroyed before it destroyed them."

Skyfire waved over the bartender for another round of energon. "The system wasn't well developed; I could survey most of it undetected and unhindered, but not Nyttheim II itself. To get a good survey for Rodimus, I needed to get on the ground, and I--or a proxy--needed to actually interview the locals, get a feel for their current politics, and so on. You see the problem?"

Skyfire waved his energon cube around as he continued, "Fortunately, one of Starscream's old friends--yes, he has a few, shockingly enough--was able to help us out there. Octane has a shipping and trade company out that way, and he provided me with a crew and cargo so that I could observe in the role of a Free Trader starship. Not, mind you, that he was making charitable donations in the name of science--he hired me to carry it and sent his factor in to trade the goods, figuring on making some kind of profit."

"So there I was, parked on the tarmac with Fatima of Beyt'u al-Octane as my 'captain' and chief trader, when the local warlord staged a coup. Most of what happened I later learned from Fatima and Mirriam..."

# # #

Mirriam and Deeyana weren't terribly interested in local political spasms; that was Fatima's problem, insofar as it affected trading, and Skyfire's, as it gave him something to observe. They had their hands full with engineering and quartermaster duties.

"Deeyana! Skyfire got good fuel and everything looks good. What you got with At'tair al-Fada? He good?" Mirriam yelled across the hold from where she was inspecting a diagnostics readout.

"I don't know yet," Deeyana answered primly in precise English. "At'tair al-Fada, please open your cockpit and let me check your diagnostics," she asked hopefully.

"My diagnostics are fine," Starscream replied archly. "I do not need maintenance nor do I need to be clucked over like a factory-fresh newbie by a pack of squishies!" There was a bit of irritation in his tone; he had little patience for remaining stuck in jet form and buried in a cargo hold, with no prospects for action on the horizon.

"La, that good enough!" Mirriam replied. "Deeyana, what you do? At'tair not usually this cranky!"

"I am taking good care of him," Deeyana protested, taking out a cleaning and polishing kit and starting to clean his canopy. "Perhaps it is your bad English; you should practice more!"

"My English as good as his!" Mirriam walked over to Deeyana and Starscream. "I at least know right word for people, and it not 'squishy'!" She snatched one of Deeyana's polishing rags and smacked Starscream across the pitot tube with it. "We crew, At'tair al-Fada."

Deeyana glared at Mirriam and continued to polish the amber glass. Starscream almost voiced a rather nasty retort-cum-threat, but that would probably upset Skyfire and anger the crew to the point of ignoring him. That had happened exactly once, early on, after he'd casually threatened to rip the limbs off one of the women who irritated him with her chatter. Skyfire wouldn't talk to him except in one-syllable orders for a month, and Starscream had found himself on his own as far as refuelling, maintenance and cleaning went. Having no one pay attention to him had been utterly unbearable--it was too much like being dead, abandoned, and forgotten.

After a month of that treatment, suddenly Skyfire started talking to him again, and the crew started maintaining--no, pampering him like nothing had happened. Starscream, not being a fool, and not having an axe to grind with Megatron (there being no Megatron), got the hint.

Besides, Deeyana's polishing was so... nice. He wondered if she would clean his wing-mounted airflow sensors so assiduously.

"Yes," Starscream conceded lazily. "You're crew."

# # #

Out on Skyfire's boarding ramp, things were not going so smoothly. Fatima al-Octane glared down at the small blue creature, hands braced on hips clad in the sky-blue fatigues of the Beyt'u al-Octane shipping company. "La, this my ship! I already pay customs office! You not come tramping around inside and mess things up!"

The officer in charge of the squad of Nyttheim soldiers scowled back; the amount of gold braid hanging from his shoulder-boards hinted that he was not used to defiance. His angry expression confirmed that he had little tolerance for it. Bringing up the rear of the squad, two soldiers set down the heavy rocket launcher they were carrying and rapidly set it up--pointed at the big white starship.

"I am not one of those corrupt lackeys of the former government," Major Kiarr snapped. "For your information, bribery and corruption of public officials is a crime under Nyttheim law... " his voice sharpened as he continued, "punishable by forfeiture of all properties involved. This ship and its cargo are hereby impounded until a full investigation is carried out. If it turns out you were also supplying materiel to the traitors in the goverment, or carrying contraband..." He trailed off meaningfully, then snapped a command at his soldiers.

"Tell your crew to stand aside!" the Major ordered.

Fatima frowned at him. "We are neutral traders! I protest this seizure! I call my lawyer, file complaint," she temporized as an excuse to use her headset under the Nyttheimer Major's observation.

"<Skyfire, At'tair al-Fada, you got all this? We got trouble, you got to put up ramp and we go!>" she said quietly in rapid Arabic.

"Skyfire, hold your cover. They've got some kind of heavy missile battery over in the city locked on you--I'm picking up the fire control radar," Starscream cut in.

"I detect it--best to sit tight until they don't have us under quite so close observation," Skyfire replied. "They are to react badly if we--"

"NO communications!" the alien officer snarled, reaching up to grab the headset off the tall woman's head. Fatima reacted badly to the sudden move, snapping her arms up in the reflexive block and counter-strike of a trained martial artist. The unexpected knee-thrust caught the shorter humanoid right in the chin, smashing his teeth together and sending him sprawling.

Fatima rolled and came up with a machine-pistol just as the soldiers opened fire; their combined fire knocked her flat as the impact hit her armor vest like a sledgehammer.

Major Kiarr jumped to his feet and spat blood from a badly bitten tongue. "Seize her! Arrest the crew! No killing, you morons--they might have passwords on the ship's controls!"

In spite of having the breath knocked out of her, Fatima struggled to bring the machine-pistol to bear; a murderous gleam shone in her eye. The soldiers swarmed her, and a couple of buttstrokes to her unarmored, scarf-covered head stilled her.

After securing the remaining crew--with restraints, this time--Major Kiarr began his inspection of the captured white ship with the bridge. He was a fighter pilot, normally; the starship's bridge was overwhelmingly complicated, and suspiciously over-automated looking. Hopefully it didn't have a talking computer. He hated machines that talked to him. How anyone could want a machine that even sounded like it could think on its own was incomprehensible to the officer.

"Sir!" His sergeant climbed up to the bridge, panting with haste. "In the hold, sir, it's--you just have to see it!"

The major frowned. "Is it that hard to describe?" he asked as he climbed down the steep ladder.

The sergeant led the way, stepping around cargo containers to the dimly lit rear of the hold. He pointed, saying, "Sir, I think it's a space-fighter!"

Major Kiarr blinked at the red and blue-trimmed winged shape. "It must be! They were smuggling not just contraband, but war materiel!" He swallowed. "I must notify the Field Marshal himself!"

# # #

Fatima awakened, sputtering as the remnants of a bucket of cold water ran off of her. She found herself cuffed to a chair behind a table with two of the short blue guys standing beside her. She had the impression that they were trying to loom intimidatingly, but failed due to lack of height. Still, they had the guns and she was in handcuffs.

"What do you want?" she asked flatly. Fatima knew interrogators when she saw them.

They stared impassively back at her. "Smuggling war materiel to enemies of the state is punishable by death," the one on the left, who was holding a folder, said. "The only chance for you and your crew is complete cooperation. Cooperate, and you will be allowed to live."

"What 'war materiel'?" she asked, momentarily baffled. None of their trade goods were weapons, armor, or anything of the like.

The question got her a slap across the jaw from the silent fellow on the right; fortunately, the natives of Nyttheim weren't very strong by human standards. It still didn't help the throbbing in her head. She glared murderously at him.

"Do you deny that your ship, the 'peaceful free trader' Skyfire is carrying a space-fighter of alien construction in the after hold?" Talker opened his folder and slapped down a nice full-color photo of Starscream in jet form, parked in Skyfire's hold.

"Of course it is! That our carried defense craft--it is for protecting us from pirates! It short-range; we carry in hold when not needed. It not for sale, so not 'war materiel'!" she snapped.

"Do you think we believe your pathetic excuse?" interrupted the heretofore silent interrogator. "You and your entire crew are guilty of supplying enemies of the state, espionage, and probably cyber-contraband, from the looks of this. I look forward to witnessing your execution!"

Definitely bad cop. Fatima glanced at 'Talker'. Good cop, or another bad cop?

"Now, let's not be hasty. If you and your crew cooperate, we can be merciful," said the other, spreading his hands. "All we ask are the passwords to the command console, and any manuals you have for the space-fighter. It is regrettably non-standard."

Fatima looked at him impassively, though she smirked inwardly. Of course it is 'non-standard'. At'tair al-Fada takes the form of an American jet fighter.

"Live in your prisons you mean? I like not that choice; we are free traders." We are warriors. "To be locked up for a lifetime in a cage and ill-used is but a living death. You must give me and mine better than that. Let us leave your world and not return; I do not like it or care about your politics."

"You will take what we give you!" hissed Bad Cop, slamming the table with his palms.

Good Cop raised a forestalling hand. "Perhaps. It depends how cooperative you are."

"If you take our ship, how do we leave?" Fatima replied.

"We'll put you on some other trader, outbound," Good Cop lied smoothly. Fatima knew he lied; no trader would touch down on Nyttheim after word got out that the new government was impounding ships on trumped-up charges.

"It is our livelihood! What will we do, where will we go?" Fatima wailed in faked distress. These interrogators were amateurs, nothing like the Americans or the Israelis.

"You should have thought of that before you broke our laws," snarled Bad Cop.

Laws that we had no way of knowing, and did not violate. This is naked theft, and you will regret it.

Fatima bowed meekly. "I must have my crew; then we will give you the passcodes and information you require."

# # #

Mirriam, the ship's 'engineer', and the others did not wholly waste their time in prison; an adjacent cell held two Nyttheimer men, sunk in low spirits. They both showed ugly bruises and sores from ill-treatement. Gentle coaxing drew forth their stories; the elder was a senior legislator in the former parliament, now abolished by the Field Marshal, and the younger was his adult son.

"...Mother and my sisters were taken away separately, when they arrested father for treason and corruption," the younger Nyttheimer explained--

"Corruption!" The elder, red-haired Nyttheimer interrupted. "That was his excuse for destroying our democracy and taking away our rights. Which is the greater corruption, I ask you? A few officials taking bribes, or taking away our freedom and our voice in government at gunpoint?"

"Father, tell her the rest. It was the foreign trade, as well. Foreigners like you bringing new ideas, new things--the old officers felt threatened," said the younger Nyttheimer. "We younger folk didn't see the point of the old traditions, and there was a movement to repeal some out-of-date laws. The old laws are hurting us economically--we can't manufacture things cheaply enough to export them, and without exports, we can't afford to import useful things. We're a backwater."

"Is it so bad to be a backwater?" asked Mirriam, who had come from a once-backwater nation torn by conflict between tradition and foreign values and modernization.

The younger man looked at the older man; Mirriam fancied she could see the family resemblance.

"It is bad when your neighbors are modern and rapacious," said the older man heavily. "The Marshal and his cronies think we can shut the door on the galaxy and it will leave us alone; that if we have no foreign trade, foreigners will have no reason to bother with us." The elder stopped talking suddenly, as if he'd said too much.

"Tell her, father," urged the younger Nyttheimer.

The elder looked at Mirriam intently; she averted her gaze, old custom still telling her that it was improper to stare and be stared at so by a man. Robots were not men, and did not lust after human women; she felt no shame in going unveiled among Transformers. These Nyttheimers were too much like men--they were short and blue, but they had faces very much like Americans. Nervously, she adjusted her veil and looked back, eyes slightly averted.

The elder sighed. "I have been told by other foreign traders like yourself that raiders do not content themselves with ships if ships are scarce--that they will raid worlds that cannot defend themselves. There have been... unexplained disasters in remote areas with valuable resources. I, and others of like thought believe that the pirates and raiders are already here."

Mirriam considered for a moment. "This region of space full of pirates. Bad enough Skyfire must carry a space-fighter for protection. I think you right; raiders already testing you. Mandalorian or Skuxxoid, likely." Or Decepticon renegades, but he didn't mention energy siphoning or fuel theft.

The elder Nyttheimer bowed his head. "I am sorry about this. You shouldn't be here; this isn't your fight. If only..."

"If only what?" Mirriam asked, curious.

"If only the Marshal didn't have the unquestioning loyalty of the Army, and the Army wasn't controlling the key points of the city. If it were a matter for popular decision, I think we--" the elder glanced around at the other cells, which held other imprisoned politicians, "could persuade the people of our point of view. History still remembers the old days, when the military ran things and the original Restrictions were decreed. No one really wants to go back to that. We were only trying to change things so we could defend the people; the Marshal claims to protect the people, but does not, and cannot!"

Another Nyttheimer spoke up. "Volsung, you argued that in parliment enough--yet here we are, instead."

"Frode, that is why the coup! We were winning, people were voting more and more our way. The meaure I sponsored, lifting the more ridiculous Restrictrions, was going to pass--I had the votes! That is why the Marshal struck when he did," old Volsung fumed.

Mirriam considered him intently. "Would the people follow you if these thieves of ships lost their big guns?" she asked.

The young man spoke up again as silence filled the room. "Yes, they would! But what is the point--unless you have some escape plan?" He leaned forward eagerly.

Mirriam shook her head. "No, I do not. But you never know what can happen with time." It is Skyfire and At'tair al-Fada who have the plan.

Volsung's son slumped back, disappointed. "It was too much to hope for," he muttered.


# # #

Field Marshal Arich Barbour drew himself up to his full four and a half foot height and looked around the bridge of (the) Skyfire with interest. "It is a different make from the space-fighter, I see. Why is that?"

Fatima bowed subserviently and said glibly, "The space-fighter's design is from my native planet, Earth. The Skyfire is a design developed by old rivals of Shayk al-Octane, and is not of Earth."

She did not lie; lying was sinful. In any case, the best deceptions used the truth, carefully presented.

"I see," said the Marshal, who was not all that interested in the exact details. "Show my men how to move the space-fighter out of the hold into its own hangar." He rubbed his hands together. "With such a craft, we can defend against any interlopers--or violators of our quarantine. With this transport, I can move my armies wherever they might be needed!"

"Yes, sir--permit my crew members to assist your men with that immediately. Pardon, did you say 'quarantine'?" Fatima asked.

"I certainly did," growled the Marshal. "There will be no more foreigners like you coming here and spreading your corrupt ideas and wares. We want nothing to do with your kind. Yes, yes, have your crew get moving. Now, unlock this console for operation."

"At once, sir," Fatima said. It cost her no pride to submit to someone she was soon going to make a fool of, in order to set him up. The bridge console was not locked--it was controlled by Skyfire.

It appeared to be a galactic-standard console, because Cybertronian technology was both ancient and based off still more ancient Quintesson technology--and Quintesson technology was the foundation of interstellar trade. They had created the standards uncounted eons ago, and built their Cybertronian robots to match. Back in the early days of Nyttheim's history, Quintesson traders had brought their technological bounty to the wee blue men--and the resulting economic disaster had scarred them deeply. Nyttheim's revulsion against cybernetics and robotics ran deep.

Nyttheim still used the old Quintesson standards and interfaces, though its people had forgotten just when and why they'd developed them. Skyfire's console was naturally familiar to them.

Fatima spoke the passwords that were not passwords in Arabic. "<Skyfire, you and Starscream must destroy the missile batteries and tanks. There are local allies that can be rallied. Play along for now.>"

The console sprang to life, lights blinking and glowing. "Excellent," said the Marshal as he ran his hand covetuously over the panels.

He toggled the ship's intercom. "Major Kiarr, is the fighter secure yet?"

"Ah, no sir. The controls are completely non-standard; I've never seen anything like them!" radioed the major in reply. There was a slight tone of nervousness; he'd been given a high-profile task that should be easily done, and it wasn't cooperating.

Fatima spoke up. "Deeyana our pilot--according to her, backup voice-actuated system aboard the Silver Hawk," she said blandly. "Just give it orders."

"Silver Hawk, eh?" The Marshal nodded. "Not a bad name; it will be a shining raptor that stoops upon the enemies of The People and rends them to shreds. Major, try the voice actuation."

"Uh, yes sir." Radio silence fell for a short while, and then Major Kiarr excitedly replied, "That's it, sir! It's working; I got the engines to turn on and the craft to start taxiing!"

The Marshal continued to chuckle, too delighted at obtaining this new weapon to consider the implications of a machine that responded to voice commands. He turned to his adjutant. "Have the prisoners brought aboard, and confine this foreigner!"

They mean to kill us, not free us, and lie to get our cooperation. As I suspected. Fatima thought. Her decades of working for a Decepticon commander amid the terrorist camps of Libya had made her cynical indeed.

# # #

Volsung, his son, Frode, and his other colleagues were brought aboard under guard; the Marshal ordered his pilot to launch their newly-appropriated starship. "Lieutenant Heerman, get this transport flying; we have armor to move to the city. There are still treasonous elements in some districts and they are proving recalcitrant. We will deal with them."

Field Marshal Barbour descended to the hold with his guards as Skyfire flew slowly over the city. "Open the bow door; I wish to review my forces." He glanced at his adjutant. "This seems large enough that we could land aircraft through this hatch."

"Like an aerial carrier, sir?" spoke up the adjutant.

"Yes, exactly," the Marshal answered as the door opened. A stiff breeze blew through the hold as Skyfire hovered over the city. "Bring our former legislators forward--I want them to see the forces arrayed against their futile cause! Bring the aliens, as well." He emphasized the word 'aliens' with contempt; on Nyttheim, it was an insult. The polite term was 'foreigners'.

The guards pushed the various prisoners forward, to stand at one side of the now-open door-ramp. The Marshal gestured at the base they were now overflying and the rank upon rank of tanks and other armored vehicles lined up. "Do you see? You think to oppose such power with mere words? You are a fool as well as a traitor. Acknowledge the hopelessness of your position and redeem yourself."

"I am no traitor!" retorted Volsung angrily. "I had only the good of our people in mind. I did not drive tanks through Parliment's walls and declared myself dictator! I did not illegally seize control of--"

There was a dull thud as a guard clubbed the angry former legislator over the head.

"As I said, a fool. I gave him another chance; so be it." Field Marshal Barbour stared at the rest of the prisoners. "Do you think I did not know of your plans to overturn the Restrictions? For your own short-term gain, you would toss out the wisdom of our forefathers that has saved us from another Cyber-Ragnarok all these centuries!"

He gestured to the guards. "Treat these fools and foreigners to the deserved fate of traitors!"

A pair of guards each grabbed Volsung and Fatima and forced them toward the open bay door--

Which promptly ramped closed in their faces. Fatima slumped and fell suddenly, staggering the guards--

The Marshal shouted angrily, "Who did that? I did not order the door closed--"

"I DID," announced Skyfire through his internal speakers, icy anger rippling through his voice. At the same time, Fatima kicked one of her off-balance guards very hard to the side of his knee, and he went down. She caught the other one with a headbutt to the crotch, which took all the fight out of him.

"<Astrotrain it!>" Fatima shouted in Arabic and seized hold of the nearest handbar.

On the heels of that announcement, Lt. Heerman's voice came frantically over the intercom, "Sir! Something's wrong! The controls won't respond!"

Still ignorant of the true situation, the Marshal snarled, "The foreigner tricked us! Somehow she's locked the controls! Shoot them all, now!" He snatched a pistol from one of his bodyguards and pointed it at Fatima--

"NO KILLING," the angry voice on the speakers snapped, and the world turned upside down.

Fatima held on tight, as did her other crew members; everyone else, prisoners, guards and the Field Marshal went sliding as Skyfire's deck abruptly tilted up about 75 degrees... then rolled.

"Aiiyeee! Angles and dangles! We got ASTROTRAIN RIIIIDE!" Fatima yelled gleefully as she clung to the handles with all her strength, bracing her body and wincing occasionally as someone's body fell on or past her.

"Aiii! Astro-traaaaaaiiiiin!" came the gleeful shouts from the other three crew-women that Octane had so thoughtfully loaned Skyfire. Astrotrain had a notoriously rough sense of humor when it came to 'squishies'... so notorious it had become a by-word among those humans who served Decepticons.

# # #

Major Kiarr reveled in the feel of the sleek Silver Hawk under his hands; it was far faster and more maneuverable than anything flown by the Nyttheim Air Force. "By the gods! I wish I had a hundred aircraft like this! I could conquer not just Nyttheim, but every star in sight!"

"Skyfire, you were supposed to wait until I took care of the air defense base and missile control!" Starscream snapped over his radio, ignoring the babbling idiot in his cockpit. "Their mission control is having robo-kittens and going to full alert!"

"Not possible. They tried to throw Fatima out my bay doors," Skyfire replied, his voice as cold as Starscream had ever heard--as cold as the time when he'd shot down an unarmed, surrendering Starscream.

Starscream shuddered, the reaction manifesting as a sudden turbulence and twisting of his controls in the oblivious Major Kiarr's grip. "I'd better get on with the plan, then," Starscream radioed, his voice hard and cold as the depths of space where dead friends drifted.

"And so we nearly did, except for Megatron's incompetence, and the accursed Autobots," retorted the space-fighter 'Silver Hawk' to his passenger's rambling. "Sorry, your ride time has expired--time to get off!"

"Wha--" Major Kiarr barely had a chance to say before the cockpit popped open, his harness unfastened itself, and Starscream rolled upside down, sending the Nyttheimer plummeting out into clouds.

"Oh wait, I was supposed to eject you while I was still on the ground," Starscream remarked to the screaming figure far below. "That's the trouble with complex plans; it is so easy to get the steps mixed up. Skyfire would not approve of such mix-ups, at all--just as well I'm not going to bother him with all these little details, isn't it?"

"Now, let's see about those anti-spaceship missile batteries... Oh, what quaint fire-control radar they have!"

# # #

Skyfire was not as maliciously creative as Astrotrain (or Starscream); after knocking all his passengers to the deck with his maneuvers he simply pulled for orbit at multiple gravities, leaving them pinned to the aft bay door. Fatima and her crew strapped themselves into the acceleration chairs on the bridge with the ease of familiarity with such antics.

By the time Skyfire reached orbit, all the fight had been battered out of the guards, and sudden free fall proved even more disorienting. Mirriam and Fatima armed themselves and the other crew-women from Skyfire's lockers and easily took the Marshal and his guards prisoner.

Mirriam smiled kindly at the confused ex-legislator Volsung. "You think you can fix things when we get down?" she asked. "Marshal Barbour your prisoner now.. but no pitching out Skyfire's door. He not like people killing people for no good reason, and At'tair al-Fada, he get twitchy about pitching people out bay doors."

Volsung stared at the humans with suspicion and dread. "You... programmed this ship to do that, as a contingency, correct?"

Mirriam looked at Volsung with amused tolerance. "I ship engineer, I fix things, make sure got good fuel. I not program this ship. Not know how, and he not let me anyway. At'tair al-Fada get mad if I mess around with Skyfire like that!"

Volsung's dark blue face turned a very pale shade. "The Restrictions.. this vessel is one of them, a cyber-intelligence, isn't it? Oh gods, what have I done?"

Field Marshal Barbour looked up at his former captive turned captor. "You've destroyed us all, you fool! This ship can transport armies, and the other is a weapon beyond anything we have --and they have minds of their own! I would have ordered them destroyed if I had known!"

Fatima folded her arms and looked from one man to the other. "What for?" she asked.

Both Nyttheimers looked at her like she was simple.

"You are slaves to them--you of all people should understand," Volsung implored first.

Fatima and the other women looked at each other--and giggled.

At nearly the same time, the Marshal interrupted coldly, "Imagine a world like our own, and one day every complex machine decides it hates small, weak creatures like us and turns against us. A world where our tanks, our cars, our fighters, our central planning computers all unite and try to kill us. Even if they don't quite succeed, the loss of our modern industry and agriculture would doom the survivors to a stone-age existence."

"That seems a rather paranoid reaction to sentient machine life," Skyfire pointed via his speakers, more curious than angry now.

"It happened to us!" Volsung said. "We traded with aliens for intelligent machines that could do all our labor for us long, long ago--and it did, until the machines rebelled and wiped out that civilization. It took us thousands of years to recover; we learned not to make the mistake of trusting artificial intelligences."

The light of fanaticism gleamed in the Marshal's eyes as he jumped into the argument and said, "Social mathematicians have proved that any new intelligence must either respect or hold in contempt its creator. If facts show that the creator is inferior to the created, the created being, an artificial sentience, cannot help but learn contempt and eventually hate for the creator."

"What is hated, must be destroyed. Therefore, it must always be us or you," he concluded, glaring defiantly at the intercom speaker.

"I see flaws in the Marshal's reasoning," Skyfire replied. "One, you are not my creators. Two, a true sentience, if social, must develop some kind of moral code. Moral codes vary, but many require fair treatment of others--and destroying other beings for no good reason is not fair or right. I, for example, do not harm living, thinking beings except in self-defense, or the defense of innocents."

Volsung looked thoughtful; there were quiet murmurs among the legislators. The Marshal snarled in hatred at all of them. "You utter fools! Do you listen to the lies of our enemy and believe him? He's the enemy, he lies! Or can you truly believe that the Silver Hawk space-fighter lives by the code of 'harm none'? I have seen the weaponry with which it is armed! In any case, you are doomed as we are; as soon as you went off course, my missile batteries would have launched on both of you."

Another voice, as cold as ice cut in over the intercom. "Skyfire really doesn't believe in harming anyone; I have a different moral code. I am Starscream, the Silver Hawk, At'tair al-Fada--and your quaint little missile batteries would make bottle rockets for Micromasters to play with back on Cybertron! Did you really think your toys were any match for the Air Commander of the Decepticons? Look out the nearest porthole."

Flying just under Skyfire's wing, Starscream, resplendent and untouched in red, blue and silver, waggled his wings at them. Below and beyond him, columns of smoke rose into the still evening air from hundreds of burning tanks. Further away, a large smoldering crater yawned where once stood the main defense battery...

The Marshal gave out an inarticulate sob; Volsung reached over to touch his shoulder, perhaps in comfort. He looked up at the ceiling.

"Why have you done this?" he cried in anguish. "You can't say you have done no harm! Arich is right, you are monsters!"

"Why?" replied the cool voice of Skyfire. "I have fought in self-defense, and in defense of my innocent crew. Your army and your dictator chose to impound me, threaten my crew with summary execution, and threaten me with your missiles and rocket launchers. Do not call me a monster without looking long in the mirror first!"

The still-pale Marshal turned from the porthole again and said bitterly, "Self-defense? Your Silver Hawk has broken my army, killed my soldiers, and destroyed our defenses far beyond what you needed to escape!"

"Ah, but I am a monster," replied the cold voice of Starscream. "I am a Decepticon, little blue man! It would amuse me to turn every one of your cities into a blazing firestorm and wipe your civilization from this planet. I am all your nightmares personified!"

Volsung was silent, open-mouthed and horrified; his son's agile mind noticed the logical inconsistency and seized on it. "So what's stopping you?"

"Only Skyfire; it would upset him," replied Starscream, At'tair Al-Fada, the silver hawk who strikes without mercy from on high. "You see, he is not a monster."

Volsung stared at the defeated Field Marshal for several silent moments; as Skyfire touched down back at the spaceport tarmac, he finally said, "Arich, our civilization still survives... because of the regard one machine has for another."

# # #

"...We left shortly after that, without interference; they were happy enough to see us gone," Skyfire concluded. "I'm still not sure I did the right thing, there, and I'm sure Starscream did quite a few wrong things, but what else could we do? I could not let them harm Fatima and her crew, or the next unsuspecting ship to come along."

-- END --