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ONE SMALL STEP FOR MAN . . . All humankind was watching that fateful day in 1969. But only a handful knew the real mission behind America#x19;s triumph in space. Now the treacherous Decepticons have set their sights on unearthing government secrets. The only hope of averting a crisis rests on the Autobots-yet who knows what remains in the shadows, hidden from man and machine?
Cybertron— The War Years
We were once a peaceful race of intelligent mechanical beings. But then came the war between the Autobots, who fought for freedom . . . and the Decepticons, who dreamed of tyranny . . .
I am Optimus Prime, and I remember my world from ages long gone and mourn for what my planet had been. I wonder whether it could ever be restored to the glory that had once permeated every inch of its glorious surface, and I am saddened to realize that the answer is very likely a resounding “no.”
Once . . .
Once the sky above had been a shimmering, cloudless blue.
Once the surface had been a vast stretch of gleaming silver composed of an array of flat metal continents that were interlocked with each other in perfect geometric shapes. Between the continents were vast valleys that served both as the homes of the population of Cybertron and as a place to take refuge should anyone be foolish enough to try to attack our small but hardy world.
We have lost the gleaming. That is our greatest loss: the loss of the gleaming.
The once-silvery world is now burnished and dark and gray, carbon-scored with countless battles that have ranged above the surface, upon it, and below it. The sky is permanently blackened through the haze of smoke that resulted from the constant explosions and battles that had ranged from one pole of Cybertron to the other.
The incessant battles have been destructive to far more than just the exterior of the world. It has suffered on every level. Once Cybertron had been teeming with life, the paragon of scientific research and development in its particular corner of the galaxy. The technological advances were beyond anything that was known for any other race. Nor had its advancements been limited to science. The arts were treasured as well. The residents of Cybertron wrote poetry . . . mostly of the great achievements by their ancestors.
We scream defiant howls of challenge in combat. We scream through the air, inflicting brutal punishment and damage and death upon each other. We scream in pain, and we scream in death.
Once we were a proud civilization. Now our very world is a victim of war, wounded and dying, and the only thing we have left to be proud of is simply surviving from one day to the next. And how much pride can we take in that when we think of all that we have lost?
I tread across the battlefield. To my immediate right runs the edge of a valley that is steeped in the shadow of death. I step carefully around random pieces of deceased brethren. It seems that every day sees the fall of another brave warrior. Will there ever come an end to it? Well, yes, obviously. It will end when all of one side or the other is dead. What would happen then? Would it be possible to rebuild and perhaps restore Cybertron to its former glory? Those very words have been asked by my devoted followers. I nod in confidence, as a Prime is expected to do, and assure those who believed in me that Cybertron can and will survive—has to survive—and it is upon them to make certain that it does so.
What else am I supposed to say? That Cybertron is doomed? Surely they could see that with their own eyes. But they need to believe in something greater than simply endeavoring to survive another round of assaults from their enemies. There has to be more to living than simply not dying. There has to be—and it is my job to make sure that it is provided even though I suspect it may be hopeless. This is no longer a world. It is simply a battlefield with pretensions of something more. Pretensions that will never be realized.
A noise rips through the air above the field, jolting me from my melancholy reverie. I see an aircraft, a large one that is moving far faster than its considerable size would have made seem possible.
I know the craft. I know what it contains and its importance to our future.
There are six Decepticon fighters howling after it.
Out of reflex, I whip my Energon sword into a defensive position. “No,” I say, and then louder, “No!” I wave my sword in a vain attempt to try to draw attention to myself. But the Decepticons are paying me no heed. They have their sights locked on to a far more formidable target.
The aircraft being pursued is far larger than the Decepticons that are chasing it, but the attack vessels have the advantage of both number and speed. Apparently aware of that, the aircraft is determined to shake its hunters rather than try to fight it out. It dives into the canyon that is to my immediate right. Without hesitation, the six smaller vessels dive in after it.
I start running, desperate to keep the larger air- craft in sight and perhaps provide aid if it is remotely possible.
This particular valley is a maze of towers and outcroppings. The larger aircraft darts into their depths, threading the needle of obstructions as the smaller ships follow behind, fast and hard.
The common wisdom would have been for the aircraft to try to gain even more speed. Instead it slows abruptly, twisting sideways to avoid blasts from the pursuing vessels while permitting a couple of them to get closer than they had expected, faster than they were prepared for. The aircraft flips its wings quickly, first in one direction and then in the other, slapping the pursuing vessels broadside and sending them crashing into the canyon walls. They erupt in balls of flame. Flying shrapnel is hurtling in all directions, cutting through yet another vessel, riddling it with holes and destroying its ability to maneuver. It flips end over end and strikes a tower, bending around it with a screech of metal.
On flies the larger aircraft, picking up speed, diving even lower into the canyon. Two more ships go after it.
It should have been impossible for the large aircraft to accomplish what it does next. It fires its reverse thrusters, and the ship flips over 180 degrees. It is suddenly flying backward, staring directly down its barrels at the ships pursuing it. The airship fires off a few quick shots, blasting aside the two ships, sending them colliding into each other. Then it flips back, narrowly avoiding smashing headlong into an outcropping before zipping around it and going faster than ever.
It is everything I can do to keep up, to be able to see what is happening. Five of the six pursuers are gone, and I allow, just for a moment, hope to swell within me.
Then I recognize the remaining Decepticon fighter, and dread fills me once more.
It is Starscream, leader of the air command. I know all too well that once Starscream is locked upon his quarry, he will never give up. In fact, he probably could have destroyed the target at any time. To Starscream, this is more of a game than a challenge.
But it is a game that he is still going to win, and furthermore, it is a game that he is tiring of.
“Starscream! Stand and face me!” I shout.
It is impossible to determine whether Starscream hears me. If he does, he ignores me. He probably even chuckles to himself inwardly at the desperation of my plea, a desperation that I could scarcely keep out of my voice.
With the section of the canyon coming to an end, there is nowhere else for the airship to go. Now it is simply going to be a matter of speed. The airship angles straight up a split second before reaching the end of the trench, hurtling vertically toward the outer atmosphere. Starscream does not slow a whit as he goes after it.
I have never felt more helpless. My grip tightens in frustration on the Energon sword. I can only watch as the battle plays out toward what seems an inevitable conclusion.
Higher and higher speeds the airship, and suddenly it puts on a burst of speed that threatens to leave Starscream behind. There is what sounds like a howl of outrage from the Decepticon, or it might just have been the screech of the air being rent asunder. Either way, for one glorious moment, it seems that a miracle might well occur and the airship will manage to elude its pursuer.
I should have known better.
Starscream locks on and fires. A single pulse from his cannon catches the aft wing of the fleeing ship.
The result is instantaneous and catastrophic. The blast tears off a stabilizer. It sends a shudder through the airship, and seconds later the cargo door blows open. Debris spills down from it, tumbling to the dirty gray surface of Cybertron like metal rain. The airship tries to compensate but fails completely. Instead, with no control at all, the airship spirals off into the darkness of space, the distant stars gleaming at it silently.
With his job done, Starscream banks sharply away. Again it could well be my imagination, but I think I may have heard mocking laughter as Starscream departs.
The Decepticon wouldn’t even do me the simple courtesy of facing me in battle. Either he is worried that I would destroy him or, more likely, he is arrogantly convinced that he would destroy me.
Which means he wants me to live. He wants me to be saddled with the awareness of what had just happened and my helplessness at preventing it. He wants it to eat at me, to make me dwell as long as possible upon the catastrophe that had just befallen the Autobots.
Disappointment hangs heavily upon me. I am all too aware of the importance of that ship that had been blasted away into space. It represents a horrific loss not only to the Autobots but to Cybertron itself.
I am not one to give up, ever. Yet three words go through my mind, three words that I dare not utter lest one of the other Autobots hear me and fall into despair to hear their Prime speak so.
And those three words are: we are lost.
Doctor Aaron Brooks had come to a conclusion: He was wasting his life.
How in the world he had wound up in the Mojave Desert, staring at a bunch of screens that were in turn linked to row after row of radio telescopes, looking for . . .
Nothing. He was looking for nothing.
He glanced around the room at others who were just like him. Half a dozen scientists who had gone into various fields, such as astronomy or theoretical physics. All of them had once been young students, looking forward to careers of accomplishment and exploration.
And one by one, they had wound up here.
If they were anything like Brooks—and he knew they were—they had joined up with the same ambition to do something remarkable: to be the very first to find a signal from outer space that was a sign of intelligent life elsewhere. There was little doubt that it would be the greatest moment in humankind’s history since the invention of the wheel.
Yet as year rolled into year, Brooks had monitored magnetic beats from pulsars or the background radiation left over from the big bang itself, searching for one signal out of a billion. He had felt the enthusiasm he initially had for the project slowly, steadily being sucked out of him. The most depressing thing was watching the same realization creeping over the other scientists in the control room.
Ah, the control room: crammed with the latest technology, lined with screens and instrumentation that could chart everything and anything that came within the considerable range of the telescope array. Once it had seemed vibrant and alive to him. Now it just seemed sterile. It was where dreams of close encounters went to die.
He was going off shift soon. The setting sun was casting its red glow across the desert, and soon Aaron Brooks would witness yet another day of disappointing emptiness come to an end. Just one more, the latest dropped on the stack of—
That was when the center lit up.
A Klaxon sounded, so deafening that Brooks leaped straight up out of his chair, mashing his knee on the underside of the console. He grabbed his earphones and shoved them hard against the sides of his head. He needed to hear the signals for himself, even as a message scrolled across the lit screens with as much dispassion as if it were listing stock market prices:
ufo detected. collision course
Aaron Brooks was the team leader, his predecessor having dropped dead two months earlier (of boredom, some had morosely joked). Even though everyone knew what to do, even though they all had trained for a situation just like this one, still every eye turned to Brooks. They seemed to be seeking confirmation from him—or perhaps they were hoping that he would shake his head, laugh, punch a button that would shut down the alarms, and inform them that it was a false positive or a test or even just a sick joke to shatter the ennui. They would all yell at him if that last one were the case and then would mutter that they knew the whole time he was just messing around and they hadn’t been fooled, not for one second.
Every one of these men, wearing the unofficial uniform of black slacks, white short-sleeved shirt, and thin necktie, was a professional. None of them was going to outwardly panic. There would be no throwing of papers into the air, no screaming of, Oh, my God, we’re all going to die! No one was going to soil himself or vomit up the tacos he’d brought in for lunch. Nevertheless, Brooks said firmly, “Stay on task, people. We have a job to do.” Even though it may well be that no one is going to be alive to know whether or not we did it. “Station One, confirm contact.”
“Confirmed,” Ralph Simmons said from Station One, and rattled off what his sensor apparatus was telling him.
Methodically, Brooks went from one man to the next until all six weighed in with identical readings. Then Brooks turned to Kelly—tall, bookish, the seismolo- gist who knew this stuff cold and could come up with conclusions without having to run numbers through computers—and simply uttered two words: “How bad?”
“If it hits us? Very. Bad,” Kelly said with his typical understatement, adding the second word as if it were an afterthought.
Brooks turned to Newman, the expert when it came to tracking collision courses. “Is it going to?” Brooks had looked at the same numbers as everyone else, but there were still variables: too many plus or minuses within the margin for error to be certain. Newman was the only one who might have a lock on it.
Newman wasn’t looking at him. He was running the numbers. He wasn’t inputting anything or even writing anything down; he was just staring.
Then, slowly, he turned and leveled his gaze on Brooks.
“Too close to call,” he said.
“Nobody breathe,” Aaron Brooks said in what he realized might well be the last order he ever gave.
(The object—or, as half a dozen men would now describe it, the contact—hurtles through space, as it has for uncounted years. It is a dead thing, frozen and dark. All this time, all this way, it has managed to avoid falling into the grip of the gravity field of any astronomical body. Despite the vastness of space, this has not been as easy a feat as one might think. If it had endeavored to accomplish this by design, such a task would have been formidable. Since it has transpired by luck, it is nothing short of miraculous. It seems to be a compelling argument for the notion that there is some unknowable, unseen being who is guiding matters along—although whether it is because of some grand master plan for the betterment of the universe or just perverse personal amusement, it would be impossible to say.)
(Whatever the reason, though, luck has obviously run out for the object; a collision is imminent. And the target appears to be a blue/green sphere dead ahead, the third sphere in orbit around the Type G2V star hanging a mere 93 million miles away . . . a vast distance under most circumstances but a mere stone’s throw in astronomical terms. Moving at 33,000 miles per hour, when the object hits—depending upon where that should occur—the results will be catastrophic. If it hits the water, tidal waves or an underground seismic event will certainly result. If it strikes land, then the outcome will be a crater the size of several cities and perhaps another seismic event, possibly enough to split or sink a continent. Or it might not even reach ground. It could well superheat in the atmosphere to in excess of 40,000 degrees Fahrenheit and explode with a ferocity two hundred times greater than an atomic bomb. This had happened before, ripping apart eight hundred square miles of Russian forest, leaving 80 million trees flattened in a radial pattern.)
(Except this object might well detonate above a major city, leveling hundreds—even thousands—of skyscrapers and snuffing out the lives of millions of people. There are only so many times that a single planet can escape cosmic catastrophe.)
(Closer it comes to the blue/green sphere, and faster, and yes, it is going to be a city, a city that a group of scientists in the Mojave are powerless to warn because it’s going to take too long and an evacuation would require hours, perhaps a full day, and they have only minutes left. All they would have time for is to pray to the deity that has seemingly abandoned them to a random and capricious fate.)
(And then a small, silver-gray mass of rock—that doesn’t have anything on its plate except affecting the tides and serving as inspiration for both romantic poets and suckers for werewolf legends—puts itself between the blue/green sphere and the intruder. With no atmo- sphere in which the intruder can superheat, with no population to die, it has nothing to lose. It is an undead soldier throwing itself upon a grenade to save the troops.)
(A journey that began oh so long ago is brought to an abrupt and terminal halt.)
“Lunar impact!” Aaron Brooks shouted. He didn’t bother to poll the other men but instead simply called out, “Confirmations?”
“We have impact!” “Lunar impact, confirmed!” “Way to go, baby!” The shouts were coming quickly, overlapping one another, laced with cries of relieved laughter and all the tension that they had managed to keep bottled up in the face of an impending crisis. They were clapping one another on the back, congratulating one another as if they themselves had somehow managed to move the moon directly into the intruder’s path.
Brooks sagged into his chair, his chest heaving, putting his hand to his head and realizing that his hair was now drenched in sweat. As he waited for his pulse to return to something approximating normal, Newman walked straight over to him, all business. Brooks wasn’t surprised at Newman’s detachment. The man lived and breathed numbers and had ice water in his veins. To him, the object striking the moon was an interesting outcome to a mathematical exercise in trajectory and nothing more.
“It’s not a meteor,” he said with certainty.
Forcing himself to take a slow breath and then exhale just as slowly, Brooks said, “So when the computer’s saying UFO, it really means . . .”
“Yeah,” Newman said. “The telemetry leaves no question. Whatever that thing is that hit the moon, it’s not a meteor or a fragment from a comet or anything that’s understood by anyone, except maybe those lunatics out at Area 51. We have a genuine unidentified flying object.”
“So you’re saying there may be an alien corpse lying on the far side of the moon right now.”
“Or several alien corpses. Or maybe . . .” His voice trailed off.
“Or maybe what?”
“Or maybe alien weapons.”
“You,” Brooks said immediately, “read too much of that sci-fi crap.” But even as he said it aloud, the truth of Newman’s speculation burrowed into his imagination and promptly began to eat away at what little peace of mind he had left.
At that moment, Brooks’s aide, an attractive young British woman—Carla Spencer—came running up to him and pointed at a blinking red line. “Mr. Webb’s ready to take your call now,” she said breathlessly. “They kept trying to put me off, and I told them they would bloody well speak to you now if they cared about the future of their bleeding planet.”
Brooks couldn’t help himself; he laughed. Spencer, normally brimming with British reserve, chuckled in response as she realized how she’d come across. Brooks felt as if he were truly seeing her for the first time. He had always been a single-minded workaholic, and there was nothing that focused someone on matters other than work more than a narrowly averted catastrophe. He reached for his receiver, but just before he pushed the button to connect it, he said, “You wanna go out for a drink after work?”
“Desperately,” she said.
He nodded, then put the phone to his ear and, just before he started talking, decided that perhaps boredom was underrated after all.