A crimson-and-orange sky provided a fiery backdrop for the power plant, creating looming, foreboding silhouettes out of the cooling towers and containment buildings. Steam belching forth from the cooling towers was tinted a brilliant orange by the ruddy light of sunset, like the breath of a dragon. The surrounding cliff-and-sagebrush landscape seemed to glow with the final fire of dusk, the single ribbon of road a stripe of black against the desert. Even the chain-link fence surrounding the plant, topped with razor wire, gleamed as if set afire in the last light of the day. It seemed as if the elements had conspired to give a sense of doomsday to the landscape, as if to warn away any who dared approach.
None of this seemed to deter the Mystery Machine, whose occupants had approached more frightening locales than this and come away relatively unscathed.
The teal-and-lime van passed through the security gates and came to a stop before a uniformed man who stood before the facility's security office. The man frowned as the occupants of the vehicle got out.
"Sorry, no pets allowed on the premises," he ordered.
"It's all right, sir," Daphne assured him, patting the dog's head. "Scooby knows to behave himself. Besides, he's part of the team."
"Reah!" Scooby defended, giving the man a glare as if daring him to argue.
He sighed. "Fine then." He extended his hand. "Jim Patch, Head of Security. Glad you could come."
"Pleasure's all ours," Fred replied, shaking his hand. "What seems to be the problem?"
"What other problem are you guys typically called for?" he asked, motioning for them to come into his office.
Shaggy glanced about nervously as he stepped out of the Mystery Machine. "Like, this place gives me the creeps already, Scoobs!" he whimpered. "And not just because we could mutate at any moment!"
"You're perfectly safe," Mr. Patch assured him. "There's never been an accident at this plant that would result in anyone being exposed to radiation."
Once everyone was inside, he shut the door and turned to his guests with a relieved sigh. "Thanks again for coming, Mystery Inc. I don't want to risk my job by making outrageous claims to my superiors, but... I'm truly at my wit's end here."
"You're afraid they'll think you're crazy if you claim the power plant's haunted, aren't you?" asked Velma.
He nodded. "My superiors don't place much stock in the supernatural." He picked up a file folder from his desk and handed it to Fred. "Over the past few months we've had plant workers and security guards reporting several occurrences of mysterious phenomena -- you'll find documentation of each case here. We've always had multiple witnesses, so hallucination isn't an explanation."
"What sort of phenomena?" asked Fred, handing Velma the folder.
"At first it was just strange noises," he replied. "Voices, knocking, howling, clanking... never with any visible cause, either. Later there were reports from night security of glowing red eyes around the base, in addition to the noises. Johnson and Swain both swore they saw a giant cat of some kind at one point, but we never found tracks."
"Riant rat?" Scooby bared his teeth and snarled.
"Scooby!" chided Daphne. "Calm down."
"Is that all, Mr. Patch?" asked Fred.
"No, it's not all. If things had stopped there, we might have written it off as a prank." He gave a shudder and glanced about as if afraid of being overheard. "Two weeks ago... the ghost jets came."
"Ghost jets?" repeated Velma, looking up from browsing the reports.
"Ghost jets," he repeated. "Silvery-white, and when they come at night they seem to glow in the dark. They make several passes over the plant, then take off again."
"Have you seen these ghost jets for yourself?" asked Fred.
"Once," he replied with another shiver. "And once was enough, thank you very much." He sighed and looked down at his hands. "The plant manager's contacted the military, but they deny any involvement in this. He refuses to do anything else, seeing as the jets aren't exactly harming anything, so the employees have turned to me for help. And that... that's where you come into the story."
Fred put a hand to his chin and considered. "Is there ever anything missing after these occurrences? People abducted, or stolen belongings?"
"No." Then he seemed to remember something. "Wait... I know this will sound crazy, but... there's been a dip in energy output at the plant every time the ghost jets have made an appearance."
"Huh." Fred thought some more. "That's strange. Usually when we investigate hauntings, it turns out to be a criminal scheme."
"Let's hope that's not the case," Daphne said nervously. "What would criminals want from a nuclear power plant? Uranium for bombs? That's a scary thought."
"Like, I'd rather it be criminals than g-g-g-g-ghosts," Shaggy stuttered.
"Ah-ha!" exclaimed Velma, pulling a glossy square from the file. "Someone got a photo of the jets!"
"It's not the best quality," Mr. Patch explained. "But it's all we've got. Most of the time people are too panicked when they appear to do anything but run, let alone pause to take a picture."
Velma pulled a magnifying glass from her pocket and examined the photo. "The one in the foreground looks like an F-15 Eagle. The two in the back... that one looks like an Eagle too, but the other might be a Tomcat. It's too blurry to tell..." She held the picture closer to her face. "Something's not right here... Jinkies!"
"What is it, Velma?" asked Fred.
"Look at this," she replied, handing the picture and glass to Fred. "There's no one in the cockpit."
Fred studied the picture. "You're right! But... there's got to be some kind of rational explanation. Maybe it's on automatic pilot?"
"No automatic pilot's THAT good," Velma countered. "And even if the military was testing an AI piloting system, do you think they'd be painting the test jets glow-in-the-dark white? Or testing them over a nuclear power plant?"
"Well... maybe you just can't see the pilot from this angle," Fred countered, tilting the picture and squinting.
"Or like, maybe they really ARE ghosts!" Shaggy squeaked.
"Oh, calm down!" Fred told him with a laugh. "In all the cases we've solved, have we ever come across a real ghost or monster?"
"Ryes!" Scooby protested, shaking from nose to tail. "Rombie Risland?"
Mr. Patch stared at the Great Dane. "Did that dog just say 'Zombie Island?'"
"We promised we'd never talk about that, didn't we?" Daphne reminded Scooby with a scowl.
"We'll get to the bottom of this, Mr. Patch," promised Fred.
"Thank you," sighed Mr. Patch. "But do try to keep a low profile, all right? Security won't bother you, but if anyone else finds out you're here, I could lose my job."
"They won't even know we're here," Fred vowed.
Outside the office, Mystery Inc. gathered beside the Mystery Machine to review their options -- which, at this point, weren't many.
"From what Mr. Patch says, it sounds like the plant supervisors have something to hide," Fred theorized. "They don't seem to want to do anything about the hauntings. Maybe they're using them to cover something up."
"Or Mr. Patch himself could be hiding something," Daphne added. "He seems pretty insistent that we keep ourselves hidden..."
"Now why would he have hired us in the first place if he was the one causing the problem in the first place?" asked Fred.
"To throw us off the trail, maybe?" Velma pointed out, looking up from the file Mr. Patch had given them.
"Velma, did you notice anything else about those jets?" asked Fred.
"Just that they seem to be flying completely on their own without pilots," Velma replied. "The photo's not very good. If we could only see them for ourselves, it would answer a lot of questions."
Shaggy trembled. "Like, no way man! I don't want to see any ghost jets!"
"Shaggy, that's enough!" Fred ordered. "How do we expect to solve this case if you're going to act like a coward?"
Velma closed the file and tucked it into her bag. "Okay, we're going to need more information if we're going to solve this."
"Right," Fred agreed. "Let's split up, gang. Shaggy and Scooby, you go that way." He pointed to a collection of buildings closer to the gate. "Daphne and Velma, we'll go the other way. Meet back at the Mystery Machine in an hour."
"You guys go on without me," Velma told them. "I'm going to ask Mr. Patch if I can borrow his computer and see if anything about these 'ghost jets' has hit the Internet yet."
"All right then." Fred took Daphne's hand and led her away.
"Are you sure it's a good idea for Scooby and Shaggy to be off by themselves in a place like this?" asked Daphne as the gang parted ways.
"Relax, Daphne, they'll be fine," Fred assured her, taking his camera bag from the front seat of the Mystery Machine and slinging it over one shoulder. "They've always come out of these things without a scratch."
"But still, this is a nuclear power plant..." she continued.
"You worry too much, Daphne," he told her, taking her hand in his. "Let's just enjoy a moment by ourselves, all right?"
She smiled. Though she would never admit it in front of the others, she truly liked Fred a lot, even if he was slightly egotistical and clueless. A little time alone with him wouldn't hurt anything, would it? Granted, they were supposed to be searching for clues, but that didn't mean she couldn't enjoy the moment.
"It's a gorgeous sunset, isn't it?" Fred noted.
"It's beautiful," she replied in agreement. "Though it means we don't have too much longer to search before it gets dark..."
Fred held up a hand to silence her. "Hold on a minute... do you hear that?"
"Hear what?" she asked, only to realize what he was talking about a moment later. A faint buzz touched her ears, slowly building to a threatening growl, then a roar. All activity around the plant ceased as the terrible sound ripped through the air like claws, drowning out all other noise.
Fred fumbled for his camera bag. "They're here. Time to get some footage..."
Daphne shrieked and ducked despite herself as a fighter jet, its white paint gleaming pink and gold in the fiery sunlight, swooped low enough over the plant to break up and scatter the billowing steam clouds pouring from the cooling towers. Close behind it came two more jets identical to the first, hanging back just slightly in attack formation. The plant workers broke into panic, fleeing for their lives as the planes screamed over the plant and looped back for another pass.
Fred raised the video camera to his eye, grinning. "All right, this is going to be a terrific shot! If only I could get a side shot, though... see if they have any kind of emblem on them..."
Daphne wondered how Fred could be so thrilled about this. Then she frowned. Fred was completely immersed in filming the jets, ignoring the panic and pandemonium around him. But being a girl, she generally paid more attention to the people around her than Fred did... and something about the fleeing workers and guards bothered Daphne...
If they were all reacting in panic, they wouldn't all be running in the same direction, she thought. But everyone here's running the same way. Or rather, they're all running AWAY from the building housing the reactor when the jets haven't even gotten close to it yet.
"All right!" Fred whooped as one of the jets executed a barrel roll right overhead. "That was a nice shot! Got the whole thing!"
"Fred..." Daphne began, tugging his arm.
"Not now, Daphne, we need this footage to solve the case," Fred told her. "Oh look, that one's coming back around... I think it's going to try a roll too..."
She sighed and stalked off. If he wasn't going to listen to her, she might as well investigate things for herself. Perhaps, she thought with a rather defiant smile, she would be the one to solve the mystery, the hero of the day rather than the bait in the trap for whatever ghost or monster or criminal they had to face this time. For once Daphne the Danger-Prone would emerge the victor, and Fred the Leader and Velma the Brains would have to acknowledge her victory...
She was so absorbed in her fantasies that she didn't see the giant silver-and-black leg until she had run smack into it, sending her sprawling on her rear end... and making the owner of said leg pause and look down at her with a puzzled expression.
She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound emerged. The metallic, helmet-framed face staring down at her was an impressive, commanding, almost handsome one, with a strong jaw and an aquiline nose. His silver-and-black-armored body gleamed in the setting sun, and a heavy cannon fixed to his right arm glittered wickedly. On his chest was emblazoned a purple crest, a harsh angular symbol that almost seemed to grin evilly down at her.
The huge robot was the first to recover. "Well, well, well," he said with an amused grin. "What have we here?"
The scream finally broke free, and she scrabbled backward a couple of yards before finally regaining her feet. She turned to run, only to find a massive black hand blocking her path. Cold metal fingers wrapped around her, lifting her high into the air.
"Oh!" she cried, more out of dismay than fear now. "Why do I always have to be the damsel in distress?"
"Like, this is probably the best place to look for clues, isn't it, Scoob?" grinned Shaggy.
Scooby didn't reply, still busy working his jaws around a hero sandwich.
The scraggly beatnik and the gangly Great Dane had been terrified at the prospect of going off on their own in a haunted nuclear power plant at first... until Scooby's keen nose had led them straight to the workers' cafeteria. Shaggy, whose brain typically resided in his stomach, decided that before they could do any serious detective work, they would need a morale booster in the form of a quick snack. So after making sure the lunch room was deserted, they helped themselves to the fridge and cupboards. The employees would probably be less than thrilled to find the place cleaned out, but Shaggy could always hope that they'd be too relieved to be rid of the ghost jets to kick up a fuss about missing lunches.
"Man, it would almost be worth it to work at one of these places just for the food, huh, Scoob?" said Shaggy, assembling yet another skyscraper of a sandwich.
"Reah." Scooby swallowed what was in his mouth and looked around for something else to eat. Seeing nothing -- apparently their "quick snack" had been somewhat more than a snack -- he eyed Shaggy's sandwich with a pleading look.
Shaggy laughed, found a knife, and sliced the towering sandwich in half, offering one half to the Great Dane. "Like, all you have to do is ask, Scoobs old buddy, old pal."
"Ranks!" Scooby smiled delightedly and devoured the sandwich in one gulp.
Shaggy opened his mouth to bite into his half of the sandwich, then paused, remembering something. "Hey Scoobs, pass the ketchup, will ya?"
The bottle appeared at his side, and he accepted it. "Thanks."
Shaggy paused. He knew he wasn't exactly the smartest member of Mystery Inc., but he knew for a fact that that voice wasn't Scooby's. Not to mention Scooby was sitting on his left... but the ketchup bottle had come from his right.
Turning slowly in place, he brought himself face-to-face with two robots, who were seated just four feet away from Shaggy and Scooby. Each was slightly taller than the average human, with scarlet visors covering their eyes and foreheads. Their faces were of smooth silver metal, and their chests bore markings and indentations that made them closely resemble cassette tapes. The closest one, a violet-and-blue robot, met Shaggy's puzzled stare with a bemused look of his own as if just realizing who was beside him, a cup of something pinkish-purple frozen halfway on its way to his mouth. The other, red and black, appeared to be pouring himself a drink of the same stuff from a cube-shaped container, but seeing as he was also taken up with staring at Shaggy the liquid was overflowing his mug and spilling onto the table.
The stunned silence on everyone's part lasted a good two seconds. Then Scooby howled in terror, Shaggy gave a scream of his own, and the two tore off, abandoning the remains of the sandwich.
Frenzy punched his "brother" in the arm. "Smart move, Rumble, real smart! 'Take an energon break,' you said! 'The kitchen's probably deserted,' you said! 'No one'll be the wiser,' you said!" He punctuated each sentence with another blow.
"Slag off already!" Rumble shouted, grabbing the other cassette's arm to ward off another punch. "C'mon, we gotta catch those organics before they blow our cover!"
It was Daphne's screams of terror that finally broke Fred out of his ecstatic thrall, and he tore his eye away from the camcorder to look around. "Daphne?"
Another scream was his answer.
"Daphne!" he exclaimed, stowing the camera away before running in the direction of her cries. Why, why, why had she wandered off on her own? She was a magnet for trouble, and all it took was for her to be momentarily separated from the group, either by accident or due to her attempts to be brave, for her to end up in the clutches of whatever spook they happened to be chasing this time. One would think she would have learned her lesson after all their adventures, but it seemed each abduction only made her more determined to prove herself a hero... and more determined to get herself in hot water and turn Fred into a nervous wreck.
Plant workers and security guards fled past him, heading away from Daphne's screams, all intent on escaping with their own lives. He wanted to grab one of them by the arm and demand that they help him find and rescue her, but instead he kept running.
Rounding a corner, he found himself brought up short by the sight that met his eyes. Two enormous robots towered over him, their plating shining with tints of red and gold from the sun's fiery final rays. One, a blocky blue-and-silver robot with a red visor, silver mask, and chest oddly reminiscent of a huge tape deck, was hefting a load of glowing purplish-pink cubes in his arms. The other, silver and black with sinister crimson eyes and a massive cannon attached to his right arm, smirked down at Fred as if thinking him highly amusing. In his hand...
"Fred!" she screamed, wriggling frantically in a vain effort to free herself from the black fist that gripped her.
The silver robot laughed wickedly. "So you two fleshlings know each other," he said amusedly. He turned his head slightly to address the other robot. "Soundwave, take the energon back to our base. I will deal with the witnesses."
"As you command, Megatron."
Fred clenched his fists, feeling anger course through his body and burn away his shock and fear. "Let her go!"
Again that terrible laugh. "You dare think you can order the mighty Megatron around, fleshling?" And he raised a foot and brought it down hard on the spot where Fred had been standing seconds ago. His mocking laugh continued to dog Fred's heels as he bolted away from the monster.
Velma sighed as she returned to Google for another search attempt. "White jets" had been no help. Neither had "ghost machines." Apparently most ghost stories concerned themselves with the spirits of people and, on occasion, animals. She had found mention of spectral cars and boats, even a train, but nothing on planes.
"Pilot-less jets" had turned up one point of interest -- webpages dedicated to the Autobots. She knew about the benevolent robot aliens that had come to Earth to fight their mortal enemies, even though she had never seen them. And she knew they had the ability to take on vehicle form, a trait that often startled the unwary. She could appreciate that -- who wouldn't be spooked to see an empty vehicle going full speed down the highway? Digging further, she found information on the Aerialbots, who could take on the forms of planes... and she also uncovered news of recent attacks on power plants in various countries, attempts by the foes of the Autobots to steal energy to power their army.
But that didn't explain their current situation. The Autobots would be defending the plant, not terrorizing it. And though the Aerialbots were mostly white, only one of them was an F-15...
She closed down the window with another sigh... only to find an e-mail program still open. Glancing around to ensure she was truly alone, she leaned forward to skim through Mr. Patch's inbox. She hated to snoop, but when there was a case on the line...
Your payment has been deposited into your bank account courtesy of Combaticon Swindle, Mr. Patch. Your continued cooperation is most appreciated. Let me remind you, however, that we will continue to keep an optic on you, and any attempts at treachery will be met with swift retribution...
Well, THIS was interesting. She quickly copied the message into her notebook, making note of the time and date of the e-mail. She searched the inbox for similar messages but found none; either this was the only one or he had deleted the others.
She glanced up sharply from Mr. Patch's computer, frowning. It had all been so quiet just moments ago. Why suddenly all the screaming and crashing?
She closed out of the e-mail program and went to the door, poking her head out. Seeing as her search on mysterious white jets had come up fruitless anyhow, she might as well see what was going on outside. It would at least prove to be slightly more interesting than staring at a screen.
Shaggy and Scooby went charging past, uttering identical panicked wails as they churned their legs as fast as they could, nearly taking Velma's head off at the shoulders in their blind flight. She watched them round a corner and disappear, then turned in the direction they had come from to see what had been pursuing them.
"Jinkies!" she breathed, watching the two robots pound after Shaggy and Scooby. Like their would-be victims, their flight was incredibly noisy; unlike the beatnik and Great Dane, they seemed to prefer shouting insults and advice at each other over terrified howls.
"Megatron's gonna have your catylic data assembly on a pike, Rumble!"
"It's not my fraggin' fault, slagger! How was I supposed to know they'd be in the cafeteria?"
"Whatever, skid-face, next time just use your piledrivers on 'em!"
"Are you crazy? You know what an earthquake would do to a place like this?"
She watched the two robots vanish around the corner. Then she slipped out of the office and ran in the direction they had come from. From all appearances, there was far more to this "ghost jet" story than Mr. Patch had told them. Had he deliberately kept information from them? Or was he as ignorant of the presence of these robots as they had been? The latter didn't seem possible; as head of security, surely he would have had some clue...
"Well, lookie here, a squishy!"
She looked up... and choked back a scream. Looming over her were three enormous robots, each gleaming silver-white with glowing red eyes, wings sweeping out from their shoulders and guns bristling on their arms. The leader gave her a disgusted sneer and turned to his comrades.
"What say we have a little fun with her, Thundercracker and Skywarp?"
The one on his left chuckled gleefully and rubbed his metallic hands together.
"I'd love to stay and play," Velma replied, fighting hard to maintain her composure, "but I have more important things to do." And she bolted.
"After her!" the leader rasped. "Megatron said no witnesses!"
The ground under Velma's feet trembled as the mechanical giants pursued her, and she stumbled and nearly fell on her face. Flailing to regain her balance, she managed to avoid a tumble but did succeed in making her glasses slide loose. Before she could catch them they hit the ground, reducing her world to a fuzzy mass of colors and indistinct shapes.
"Oh, great," she muttered, getting on her hands and knees and feeling around for the glasses. "Just great."
"This way, Scoobs!" shouted Shaggy, leading the way around yet another corner.
Scooby yelped and leaped three feet in the air as a ray of scarlet light seared the fur on his rump. The robots were firing on them! The blasts of energy served as a spur to drive the two of them on, keeping them going in their desperate flight.
The pathway ahead of them terminated abruptly... and a dark form crouched at the dead-end, regarding them with slanted scarlet eyes that glowed in the fading daylight. Gleaming black and powerfully sleek, it bore metallic fangs and snarled low in its throat, the joints and gears of its robotic body tensing like organic muscles and tendons as it prepared to spring.
"BWWAAAAAYAAAAAAAHH!" was Scooby and Shaggy's reaction, and they turned to flee the way they had arrived, blowing past the startled robots and tearing away.
"You let 'em get away!" Rumble bellowed, punching Frenzy in the chest.
"Slag off!" Frenzy snapped. "Ravage, go get 'em!"
The cat gave another growl and sprang, hitting the ground in a graceful run that began to rapidly close the gap between himself and his prey.
"Riant rat! Riant rat!" Scooby howled.
"Like, I won't tell if you won't tell, Scoobs," Shaggy promised.
Megatron laughed disdainfully as the pathetic pretty-boy organic ran for his life, apparently forgetting his girlfriend completely in the process. Organics were all the same -- bluster a little and they turned tail in an instant. It would have been easier had the human stayed and attempted to challenge him, since they couldn't have witnesses to their scheme, but he would worry about hunting him down later. For now, he intended to have a little fun with the human already in his clutches.
"Put me down, you big bully!" the girl cried, writhing.
He offered her a smile. "You, my lady, have no idea what you are dealing with here," he told her. "You and your pathetic Mystery Inc. would have been much better off not getting involved in this matter."
"When it's hurting innocent people, of COURSE we get involved!" she retorted, still squirming.
He chuckled and tightened his grip as a warning for her to keep still. "No one is being injured, my lady. Just a little energy being siphoned off to power our army. Mr. Patch has been quite helpful in aiding us as well, encouraging his security guards to turn a blind eye on our work..."
"But he couldn't warn off the plant workers," the girl cut in, coming to a realization -- for a human femme, she was surprisingly quick. "So you had to invent the ghost jets to scare them off during your raids."
"Excellent deduction," he grinned. "I commend you. Unfortunately, you will not live to repeat it..."
An engine revved at his feet, and he turned his attention from the girl to the teal-and-lime van that roared toward him at that moment. Behind the wheel of the vehicle sat the male human, face fixed in a grim, determined look as he floored the gas pedal.
Megatron sidestepped and aimed a foot at the vehicle but only succeeded in stomping a foot-shaped pothole into the ground. The van bucked a little as the earth trembled from the blow, but the human regained control quickly and swerved to aim at him again. The Decepticon leader hadn't expected that maneuver, and he paid for his inattentiveness with searing pain in his calf and ankle as the vehicle sideswiped his leg, stripping away silver paint and tearing a cable in the ankle joint. Roaring in humiliated rage, he transferred the girl to his left hand and aimed his cannon. That wretched fleshling would pay... if he would only hold still long enough for him to aim!
Pain ripped down the circuits of his other leg as the van rammed into the shin, and he staggered. The battered van backed up, then lurched forward to dart between his legs. Growling, he fired, only for the shot to go wide and sear a blackened swath across the ground, melting a section of chain-link fence in the process.
Inside the vehicle, Fred gritted his teeth and clenched the steering wheel, continuing to weave between and around the robot's legs.
"C'mon, you," he muttered. "Let her go, let her go..."
Velma frantically scraped her hands across the ground in search of her glasses, wincing every time the telltale shivers in the ground signalled the further approach of the three white robots. She knew she would have to give up the search when they got too close, but for now she would keep trying. She was as good as blind without her glasses...
Something caught the light ahead of her -- glass lenses! The gleam was too high for them to be resting on the ground, so someone must have picked them up. She reached forward, caught the glasses by the earpiece, and slid them on.
"Thanks, Mr. Patch."
"No problem, lil' lady, but I ain't Patch."
She looked up... and groaned. "Oh no, not another one!"
The massive robot before her chuckled, and instantly she relaxed. This one didn't look like the others -- black and white, with a black "horned" helmet, blue visor over his eyes, and chest that looked suspiciously like the front bumper of a car. His silver face didn't hold a sneer or snarl like the white robots, but a smile that reminded her of a teasing older brother. And he didn't tower over her imperiously, but had crouched on one knee in an effort to bring himself closer to her level. All in all, he exuded a friendly aura that calmed her slightly.
"'Pologies, lil' lady, but Screamer and his buddies ain't exactly th' best examples of Transformer manners," he told her, gesturing behind her.
"Screamer!" cried the leader of the white robots, indignant. "Show some respect, miserable Autobot!"
"Aw, c'mon Starscream, can't a mech give a pal a nickname?" her newfound friend replied, his grin taking on a mischevious air. But despite his relaxed tone, he cupped a hand protectively over her as if to shield her from what was to come.
"I'd sooner throw myself to the Dinobots than call an Autobot a pal," snarled Starscream. "Especially you, Jazz."
Jazz whistled. "That was low, dude." Then he smirked. "Nice paint job. Get tired of red an' blue all of a sudden?"
"Sorry, but can I leave?" asked Velma.
Jazz raised his hand and gestured for her to go. "Take cover, lil' lady. It's gonna get ugly."
She bolted for safety as Jazz pulled a gun seemingly from nowhere and fired on Starscream. Explosions and the boom of metal striking metal met her ears as she headed for the main gate, hoping to find the Mystery Machine. Had the others had the sense to take cover there as well?
No such luck. The Mystery Machine was nowhere in sight... but several other vehicles were present, and as she watched in amazement they unfolded themselves into more of the giant robots, armed and apparently eager to go. Even as she watched, a scarlet tractor-trailer split apart to form a towering red, blue, and silver being with a mask covering his face and wise blue eyes that regarded her curiously.
"I knew this couldn't be ghosts," she said in awe. "But I wasn't expecting this."
He cocked his head to one side. "Ghosts?"
"I'll explain later." She extended a hand. "Velma Dinkley, Mystery Inc."
"Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots," he replied, bending down to gingerly take her hand in his for a gentle shake. "We're here to investigate Decepticon activity."
"If by 'Decepticon activity' you mean 'giant white killer robots,' they're that way." She pointed in the direction she had come from. "One of your guys is already there, too."
Prime nodded. "Thank you, Miss Dinkley." He turned to the gathered robots. "Prowl, take Sideswipe, Sunstreaker, and Brawn with you and go help Jazz out. Ironhide, Blaster, Bluestreak, Tracks, come with me and we'll make sure they aren't the only 'Cons around. And Miss Dinkley... you'd better come with us."
By now Ravage was only a few steps behind the fleeing man and dog, his steel-fanged jaws open as if to snap off Scooby's tail. Given a few more seconds, and he might have succeeded in that goal -- had Shaggy and Scooby not turned a corner too wide and nearly slammed into a tall stack of empty barrels.
The tower of metal cylindars wobbled dangerously, and the two of them scrambled desperately away as it collapsed. Ravage wasn't so lucky, and he gave a startled yowl as he found himself buried in a hail of falling barrels. Rumble stopped to dig the cat free, but Frenzy whapped him upside the head as he charged past.
"He can handle himself, let's get those organics!" he shouted, not slackening his pace.
"Fraggin' sonuva-glitch," snarled Rumble, chasing after his fellow cassette.
Optimus Prime had seen a great deal of the absurd in his lifetime... but the sight that met his optics as he and his troops rounded one last corner was definitley a novelty. Megatron, the Great Slagmaker, the feared leader of the Decepticons, tyrant and terror of a thousand worlds, was executing one of the most entertaining dances he'd ever seen as he dodged and sidestepped the colorful VW van that kept swerving and weaving as if to ram him. Ugly scratches, streaks of teal-and-lime paint, and several sparking wires on the Decepticon's legs indicated that he hadn't been successful in avoiding every attack. Time and again Megatron would give a high-stepping stomp in an attempt to crush the vehicle, but whoever was behind the wheel of the van was doing a good job of keeping himself in one piece.
Prime might have laughed at the sight had he not seen what Megatron clutched in his hand... and realized just what the van driver was trying to accomplish.
"Megatron, put her down," Prime ordered, leveling his gun. Ironhide, Blaster, Bluestreak, and Tracks also readied their weapons, forming a semi-circle around the Decepticon leader.
Megatron curled his lip in a snarl and tightened his grip just enough to make the girl gasp in terror. "Fire upon me, and she dies!" he thundered.
Prime cursed silently. The other Autobots slowly lowered their weapons, having no desire to put a human in danger.
The van driver apparently had other plans. Taking advantage of Megatron's distraction, he gunned the engine for all it was worth and slammed head-on into his shin. He staggered, arms flailing... and the girl fell screaming from his grasp.
Bluestreak darted forward with cupped hands to catch her, and Tracks and Ironhide opened fire. Megatron, having lost his bargaining chip, fired off two half-hearted shots before going airborne, hanging for a moment in the air as if to deliver an ultimatum.
"You've won this battle, Prime, but rest assured your victory is short-lived," he growled. "Your doom will come, and I will be the one to deal it."
The driver's side door to the van popped open, and a young blond man staggered out, looking dazed but triumphant.
"And YOU!" Megatron jabbed a finger at the human. "You will pay for this indignity! I swear it!"
"Hey, that's what you get for messing with my girlfriend!" Fred shot back, planting his hands on his hips.
Megatron gave him a final sneer before vanishing into the gathering dusk.
"Daphne!" shouted Velma from her perch on Prime's shoulder. "Are you all right?"
"What do you think?" came the retort as the girl stood shakily in Bluestreak's hands. "I was almost crushed to death by a giant robot, I was the damsel in distress again, AND I broke my best set of heels!"
"Aw gee, miss, I'm really sorry," Bluestreak told her as he gently set her down. "Too bad about your shoes, though I wouldn't know how that feels, Transformers don't wear shoes, but anyway, I'm sorry Megatron did that to you, we've been trying to keep him from hurting humans but he's really hard to..."
"Bluestreak," Prime said, gently cutting the Datsun off.
"Where's Shaggy and Scooby?" asked Velma.
"Shaggy and Scooby?" repeated Ironhide, an amused lilt to his voice.
Before anyone could explain, the question was answered for them in the form of a terrified man and a hysterical dog charging toward them like cyber-bats out of Hell, trailed closely by three of Soundwave's cassettes. Upon seeing the gathered Autobots, however, Rumble and Frenzy screeched to a halt in their tracks, causing Ravage to almost plow into them from behind. They stared up at their foes for a moment as if sizing up the competition, then turned on their heels and pelted away.
"Should we go after them?" asked Blaster.
Prime shook his head. "Let them go. I'd rather sort out just what went on here before engaging on a mech-hunt..."
Prowl and his team arrived at that moment, accompanied by a white seeker who was currently being dragged, none too gently, by the arms by a triumphant Sideswipe and Sunstreaker. Jazz looked a little battered, but he still seemed to be in good spirits, and he saluted Prime jauntily.
"One Seeker ready for questioning," he reported. "Sorry, th' other three got away."
"One will do," Prime told him, clapping his shoulder in a gesture of gratitude. He turned to the seeker, who glowered angrily back. "Now... let's see who you REALLY are, shall we?"
Ironhide raised his liquid-cannon -- his "water gun," as he liked to call it -- and fired. A stream of solvent washed over the Decepticon, eating away the coat of white paint to reveal a deep blue paint job.
"Thundercracker," Prime noted. "And I'm to assume your 'ghostly' associates were Starscream and Skywarp?"
The blue jet didn't respond... but Velma spoke up.
"You see, Mr. Prime, Megatron must have concocted the 'ghost plan' after you chased him off from the other power plants. He figured if he stole energy using steath instead of outright attacking the plant, he could get away with it. People would contact you if Decepticons were seen around the plant... but no one would believe someone reporting a 'ghost jet.' Well, no one but Mystery Inc., anyway."
Thundercracker glowered at Velma, then lowered his head in defeat. "Megatron ordered Skywarp, Starscream, and I to change our color schemes to solid white," he grumbled. "Then he sent the blasted cassettes off to do a little 'haunting' to set the stage for us. Making odd noises, letting people see their eyes in the dark, that kind of thing. Once they had the workers good and jumpy, we came in."
"While the jets distracted the workers and guards, Megatron and his men could sneak in and steal the energy they needed," Velma continued. "And since everyone wrote off the jets and mysterious noises as a 'haunting,' no one bothered to alert the Autobots."
"The Decepticons weren't the only ones involved, though," Daphne pointed out, arms folded and a scowl on her face. "I knew there was something fishy about Mr. Patch."
"The Head of Security was involved in this?" inquired Prime. "Just how?"
"Megatron knew it would be harder to frighten off security guards," Thundercracker went on, still glowering. "So he offered Mr. Patch a bribe. The fleshling's fallen on some hard luck lately, so he took it. Megatron would pay him off, and he'd have his guards look the other way and play along with the 'haunting' deal."
"I found an e-mail on his computer saying the same thing," Velma told Prime. "My guess is he hired us to investigate the ghosts rather than involve the Autobots because he felt guilty for what he was doing but didn't want to risk his life. He figured that either we wouldn't find anything or the Decepticons wouldn't connect us with him."
Prime nodded, then turned to Prowl. "Find this Mr. Patch and take him into temporary custody. As soon as we've informed the human authorities of this we'll turn him over to them, but for now I want to make sure he doesn't have a chance to escape... and the Decepticons don't have a chance to seek revenge against him."
Prowl nodded and strode off.
"It was supposed to be the perfect plan," Thundercracker went on, his expression indicating just what he thought of Megatron's "perfect" plan. "And we would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for those meddling fleshlings and their slagged dog!"
Scooby growled and snapped at the jet's leg, feeling much braver now that the mech was unable to attack.
"Well, he's right," Fred pointed out. "If we hadn't shown up and kicked up a fuss for the Decepticons, you guys wouldn't have been alerted."
"True," Prime replied. "Very true." He gave an unseen smile behind his mask. "Thank you, Mystery Inc., for your efforts today. You've helped us more than you can know."
"Just doing our job, sir," Daphne replied with a smile.
The Mystery Machine had taken a severe beating during Fred's oddball battle with Megatron, and it would be some time before it was in any condition to drive the gang home. While a mechanic from the nearest town towed the van to his shop for repairs, Prime donated the services of Ironhide to transport Mystery Inc. home, where they would hopefully have the chance to rest and recuperate to some degree before their next adventure.
While Shaggy and Scooby snored loudly in the back of the van and Velma read up on some material Prowl had offered her, Daphne had a talk with Fred.
"Fred... what you did back there... that was very brave," she said quietly.
He shrugged. "C'mon, Daphne, I was just looking out for the group. I would have done the same for any of the others." But his face beamed with pride.
"I'm sure you would have." She grinned at him. "But I still think it was very sweet."
He blushed. "Gee, thanks. Though most girls prefer a guy giving them flowers to a guy fighting a giant robot."
"Well, I'm not most girls, am I?" she shot back, draping an arm around his shoulders.
"No, you're not," he confessed, leaning in a little closer. "Why do you think I like you?"
"Ah, so the truth comes out?" she teased.
"All right, kids, y'all can flirt all y' want back there, but don' start makin' out in my seats, alright?" Ironhide barked.
Fred jumped in his seat. "Don't spy on us!"
"Yer ridin' in my interior, I kin spy all I want, youngblood," he retorted.
Daphne couldn't help it -- she burst out laughing.
"Great, shot down by the talking van and Danger-Prone Daphne gets the laugh," Fred grumbled.
Daphne only laughed harder, and soon both Fred and Ironhide were joining in the laughter as they continued on down the highway.