As soon as it was clear to the femmes that Double would not be returning for them, Chromia led Firestar and Moonracer out of the dedicated lounge area of The Gambler's Den and back out onto the city street. There was no sign of the doublecrossing Autobot or his team of henchmen anywhere.
"Grrrrr! Just wait until I get my hands on him! First, I'm going to wring his neck, and then I'm going to–" Moonracer began, every bit as angry as she sounded, now that her fear had dissipated.
"'Racer…" Chromia interjected.
"–make him wish he'd never laid an optic on Moonracer!"
Moonracer let out a sharp exhalation and frowned. "What?" She replied in exasperation.
"I know you're upset – we all are – but that's not going to help get Elita back, is it?" Chromia reminded her, taking command of the situation as second in charge of her team.
Moonracer's anger began to subside, and she asked the question that was on all their minds. "What are we going to do, Chromia? We have to get her back."
The blue femme nodded in understanding, and took another look around the crowded city street, trying to think of what they should do next. Then she sighed. "She could be anywhere by now."
Firestar offered her input. "Maybe we can ask Devcon for help? He would know this place quite well."
Chromia considered her suggestion, but she had another idea. "I think the best chance we have right now is to return to our base and try to detect Elita's signature using our long range scanner." She paused to catch Moonracer's attention. "'Racer, how quickly will you be able to get our transmitter up and running?"
The green femme considered the situation. She'd still need to source a new beam array, and then remembered the five hundred credits that she'd won when she first went to try her luck at The Den. She'd promised Elita that she would only risk fifty of her winnings for her second try. "I still have four hundred and fifty credits! That should be more than enough to buy us the array," she informed them, beaming with pride.
Chromia nodded in satisfaction. "Good." She surveyed the street around them again, and then pointed ahead. "There's a large complex on one of the main streets further up. You can stop by and see if you can pick one up from there before we return to base. Come on, let's go." And with that, she led the way north through the bustling city square.
Hitec's narrow streets left Sunstreaker with an unexplainable sense of foreboding – as if something could be watching them at any moment, invisible, lurking around every dark corner ready to jump out at them. He tried to shake off the feeling but couldn't; it stuck like glue, so instead he focused upon his companion and wondered why Comet seemed to be completely unafraid of anything, even now as they walked along a deserted alleyway under the cover of waning darkness – the only sources of light being the stars in the night sky and the faint glow of the main city district in the distance.
"Aren't you worried about getting caught?" He ventured. Comet kicked an empty canister out of the way with his foot, but said nothing. The clanging sound that it made as it tumbled away from the alley and out of sight irritated the Autobot slightly. "I mean, if I were you…"
Comet turned to face him, pointing a finger at him. "Well, it's a good thing that you're not me, then. Isn't it?"
Sunstreaker was taken slightly aback by Comet's abrupt show of resentment. "Hey, I didn't mean to upset you." He couldn't understand where the anger and antagonism was coming from, or why it had been directed at him, but the last thing he wanted to do was to get on the seeker's wrong side. He was tired of being alone and only longed to return to Cybertron to be reunited with his fellow Autobots; but, more than anything else, he longed to see his brother again.
Comet hesitated for a moment before backing down. He dropped his arm to his side and turned his head away slightly. "On Alternity City, worrying about anything will only get you killed. I can't afford to worry."
The Autobot looked out towards the eastern skyline, and took a few moments to contemplate their recent escape from the Hitec scrap metal recycling facility, and how lucky he was to still be alive, despite everything that had happened to him. He had Comet to thank for that. "Is that how you've managed to stay alive here for so long?"
Comet looked back at him. He studied the Autobot for a long moment before finally answering. "No," he said in a quiet voice, shaking his head slowly. "The truth is… I should be dead already."
"Why do you say that?" Sunstreaker was genuinely puzzled by his companion's unexpected remark; whether he knew it or not, Comet was a powerful Decepticon warrior and only a select few on Alternity City could truly rival him in both cunning and skill.
"Isn't it obvious?" The Decepticon shrugged. "I've got the Supremacists on my tail, not to mention probably half the bounty hunters in the quadrant… and that's not even counting the doublecrossing scum on Alternity City I've managed to tick off…"
"I don't get it." Sunstreaker gave him a look of puzzlement. "I mean, are you top of the black ops' most wanted list or something?" When he received no immediate reply, he stared at Comet disbelievingly. "No… Comet, what did you do?"
"I told you – nothing." Comet started walking again down the alley, leaving Sunstreaker wondering after him.
Whether the estranged seeker was telling the complete truth he really couldn't say for sure, though whatever misdeed this Decepticon may or may not have committed, it essentially didn't matter to him. He only wished that Comet would confide in him a little more – perhaps the seeker just needed a little more time. "Hey, wait up." Sunstreaker sprinted to catch up until he was walking beside him. "Wait, so… what now?"
Comet slowed to a stop once again, looked around them in contemplation. Finally he nodded, having made his decision. "Do you know how to get to that relay station from here?"
"Relay station…" Sunstreaker looked at him oddly, and shrugged. "Which relay station? I mean, there're plenty of them around here–"
"The one where you got yourself captured," Comet explained, cutting in. "The one where you saw deactivated Autobots?" Sunstreaker fell quiet; he was not too keen on revisiting that relay station again. "Well?"
"I, uh…" He hesitated. "Yeah, I know how to get there."
"Good," Comet said, waited for him expectantly. "Then, let's go."
The yellow Autobot remained where he was. "Would you at least tell me why you want to go there?"
Comet caught his gaze, and became aware of the Autobot's discomfort at his suggestion to revisit the relay station. He softened his tone a little as he explained his reasoning to the Autobot. "I figure you'll need solid evidence of what has been happening with the Alliance, once you return to Cybertron… who would believe you without some undeniable proof to back your claim?"
Sunstreaker contemplated his sobering words, before finally responding. "I gotta admit… I haven't thought that far ahead." Comet was right; he would have a difficult time convincing anyone of Sentinel Prime's acts of treason against the Autobots, especially Optimus Prime himself, if he were to make it back to Cybertron in one piece. "Why do you care, anyway?" He asked in a moment of spontaneous consideration, and hoped that Comet would not take him the wrong way again. "I mean, really – why?"
Comet did not seem surprised by his query; on the contrary, it seemed as if he had been expecting it. "I don't know… why. I can't remember…" His voice was low, almost a whisper, and Sunstreaker could tell that he was deeply troubled by his apparent loss of memory; it was something that had probably haunted Comet for longer than he would care to admit, though it was also something that seemed to be driving him, instinctively, ever onward.
Sunstreaker nodded in unspoken understanding, then took a deep intake of air and indicated down the alley with a nod of his head. "Alright. Follow me," he said, and the two of them began to walk down the alley together in silence.
When Prowl entered the conference room shortly after Sentinel's private talk with Optimus, he found the Autobot leader seated in one of the chairs. "Sir…" Optimus looked up at him, and then slowly stood, headed for the exit. Prowl watched him go, and then followed him out, closing the door behind him.
Optimus did not expect so many of his loyal officers standing just outside, in the adjacent Communications Center, waiting to see him; there was Prowl, Ratchet, Red Alert, Arcee, Ironhide, Trailbreaker, Hound, and Smokescreen, and they shared mixed looks of concern and uncertainty upon their faces. Something was clearly bothering them. He thought that he probably did not appear too happy to them, either. "It is good that I have you all here. There is something urgent that I need to discuss with you all – the sooner the better," he began.
Ratchet stepped forward. "Good, because there's something we need to discuss with you, too, Prime."
Optimus nodded in acknowledgement, and surveyed everyone in the Communications Center. Sentinel Prime was nowhere to be seen. "Yes, Ratchet." He turned to Prowl. "Contact the rest of the Autobots – as many as you can. Have them meet me here, in one mega cycle."
Prowl nodded, and then hesitated. "What about Sentinel?"
Optimus took a moment to reply, before cautiously shaking his head. "No."
Prowl nodded again, but did not question him on it. As he began to do as asked, Sideswipe suddenly appeared behind them, at the entrance to the Communications Center. He stopped short, surveying the group, his optics intense and alert.
"Ah, Sideswipe, I've been meaning to speak with you." Ratchet gave Optimus a courteous nod before moving away from the small group to head towards the Autobot warrior. "Welcome back, by the way."
Sideswipe seemed to ignore his greeting, as he grabbed the Chief Medical Officer's shoulders with both hands. "Is he alright? Tell me!"
"Sideswipe… calm down, would you?" Ratchet gave him an annoyed look, and tried to free himself from the Autobot's gasp, but it was unusually strong. "What is wrong with you? Let go of me."
Sideswipe abruptly did as he was told, but then immediately continued with his line of questioning in an almost obsessive-like manner. "Tell me, is he alright?" Ratchet looked back at him in puzzlement, and when Optimus and Arcee walked over to join them, Sideswipe only continued his plea. "Prime? Is he dead?"
"Sideswipe… you need to calm down. We want to help you." Optimus exchanged glances with Ratchet, though he was just as perplexed at the Autobot's odd behaviour as the medic was.
Ratchet tried again, this time grabbing a hold of Sideswipe's forearm in an attempt to bring him back to his senses. "Sideswipe – now, listen to me. I want you to inhale, slowly and deeply." Sideswipe hesitated, unsure, his pained expression clear for all to see. "Just do as I tell you… please." Ratchet's words started to sink in, albeit slowly, and Arcee's gentle touch on his arm seemed to suddenly calm him down even more. He drew in a long, deep breath, then slowly exhaled, and repeated the process a second time, and then a third. "Okay… good. Now… slowly, tell us what's wrong. Who is dead?"
Sideswipe's frame shook, ever so slightly, and Ratchet performed a quick visual check on him without the Autobot even being aware of what he was doing, as he discreetly looked him over with a calm, experienced optic, noting any changes in his physical structure, however subtle. "Groove!" He blurted out suddenly, obviously upset. "Is… is he okay?"
The Autobot's Chief Medical Officer did not react to his emotional outburst. "Groove? Don't worry about Groove, he's fine. He doesn't remember what happened to him… but otherwise, he's doing just fine. Now, I want you to keep cycling air. That's right, just focus on doing that. Good…" He glanced over at Arcee. "Arcee? Would you take over, please? Just… keep him calm. Then show him to my quarters. I'll be there in just a breem."
She nodded dutifully. "Sure, of course." Then she focused her attention upon Sideswipe, as Ratchet stepped back to relinquish control of the situation to the pink and white femme.
As Sideswipe began to finally calm down, he allowed Arcee to lead him back down the hallway towards the Maintenance and Repair Bay annexe. Once the two of them had disappeared out of sight and were sufficiently out of audio range, Ironhide broke the lingering silence. "What in the slag was that all about?"
"And… since when has Sideswipe been so concerned about Groove's wellbeing?" Smokescreen added.
Ratchet shook his head. "I don't know… but I sure as hell intend to find out."
* * *
Ratchet entered his quarters and waited until the door sealed quietly closed behind him, then he stepped forwards and took his seat behind his desk. Arcee, seated beside Sideswipe opposite, smiled empathically at him and he nodded, indicating for her to leave him alone with the Autobot warrior. "Thanks, Arcee."
"You're welcome," she said, and then smiled at Sideswipe, placing a hand on his forearm. He briefly smiled up at her, and watched as she left the room. Then he cast his gaze downwards, tried not to show his nervousness as he clenched his fists. He remained this way until Ratchet finally spoke.
He hesitated, gave the medical officer a small shrug. "Yeah… sure. Why wouldn't I be?"
"Sideswipe…" Ratchet sighed and leaned back in his chair, trying to think of the best way to approach this particular situation. There was much that needed to be said between them, much that still remained unspoken, yet all of that would have to wait. For now, he needed to earn Sideswipe's trust. "Look, whatever's going on with you… I want to help."
The red and black Autobot looked up suddenly, conviction evident in his expression. "You mean like the last time we spoke? What was it that you told me? Oh, yeah, that's right – and I quote, 'Come talk to me again when you've got your priorities back in order.'"
Ratchet frowned, held the Autobot's gaze. "You're right. I should have listened to you more. In fact, I was wrong about a lot of things back then. So… if it means anything to you, I'm sorry." Sideswipe's demeanour seemed to change somewhat, and his shoulders relaxed a little, but he said nothing. "I… heard you've been granted a pardon. Congratulations." Sideswipe remained motionless, and Ratchet cleared his vocal processor. He needed to get through to him, somehow, and decided that he'd just have to keep trying until he did. "You, uh… seemed very worried about Groove back there. Was there any reason for that?"
Sideswipe grimaced. "Is that a crime now, to be concerned about the safety of a fellow Autobot?"
"No… of course not. Look… I'm just going to be straight with you. The fact is… I'm just not so sure anymore that we can trust the damn Alliance. Sunstreaker, your brother – he may have been right all along. But, we…" He said, indicating the Autobots with a sweep of his hand, "…we were all just too damned proud to see it." There was undeniable conviction in his tone, yet he also sounded tired, as if worn out by many years of silent anguish. Nonetheless, his words seemed to draw Sideswipe's full attention, and the warrior sat up straight, his gaze fixed upon the medical officer. Ratchet moved to retrieve something from his desk top, held out a data pad towards Sideswipe. "Here… take a look at this."
Sideswipe hesitated, wary, but then slowly reached across to take the data pad from him. As he slowly sat down again, he began to read its contents, and then stopped, a look of confusion on his face. He continued reading and then, after a few kliks, looked up again. "Sunny… he – he tried to tell me… but, but I wouldn't listen to him." Slight hesitation, and then, "Nor would I have believed him."
Ratchet nodded solemnly. "No. But we can now."
Standing up abruptly, Sideswipe placed the data pad on Ratchet's desk, and then turned away from him. He began to pace slowly across the room, then stopped at the far wall and looked up at the metallic trophy that proudly hung there, read the inscription below it, all the while lost in the memory of a time that had long since passed, though its effects still lingered. Then he turned back to face Ratchet. "It doesn't matter now; it's too late, anyway. There's nothing we can do."
"What do you mean it's too late?" Ratchet challenged.
Sideswipe strode back towards him, moving quickly, placed both his hands flat on the desk top to lean across it. "Listen to me! Sentinel's too powerful. He's got the Council wrapped around his little finger; he's got a whole Neutral army behind him, plus half of all the Autobots in Antihex, and probably many of the other Autobot-controlled city-states as well!"
"What did you just say?" Ratchet replied, trying to make sense of what the Autobot had just told him, but Sideswipe's sudden declarations had come at him so fast that he didn't know whether he could keep up.
Sideswipe stepped back, straightened to his full height. "I said Sentinel's too powerful–"
"No… no. About the Autobots. What did you just say about the Autobots in Antihex?" The Autobot warrior gave him a look of consternation, and then averted his gaze. "Sideswipe… what do you mean Sentinel's got half the Antihex Autobots behind him?" Ratchet pressed.
"I… saw them with my own optics. I don't know how to explain it… but those Autobots… they'd been compromised, somehow. Almost as if they'd all been placed under some sort of hypnotic spell."
Ratchet rubbed the side of his face, still in a state of confusion. "If… what you're saying is true… why didn't you report it?"
Sideswipe became indignant. "You think I haven't tried? No one would believe me!"
Silence fell abruptly between them, and Ratchet contemplated the situation for a long moment. "I believe you. There're just too many things that I can't explain." He shook his head slowly. "Groove's memory loss, for one thing, and those lab notes. It just doesn't make any sense." Sideswipe said nothing; he dared not reveal anything about Groove's condition, lest Sentinel should punish him for it. Ratchet continued to observe him carefully. "Oh, I've been meaning to ask… did you get that recorded message from Smokescreen?"
The Autobot medic thought he saw Sideswipe's optics flicker. "Yeah… I did," the warrior replied simply.
"Good…" He continued. "I hope it was of some help to you."
"It was a message from Sunny, soon after he left," Sideswipe explained without being asked, watching the other's reaction carefully as he did so. "He said that Sentinel had something to do with that Plague… he had doubts about the Alliance from the very beginning."
"Ah…" Ratchet nodded.
"Why didn't you show it to me sooner?" Sideswipe demanded.
The medic sighed. "Sunstreaker managed to transmit that message to Iacon using a Neutral emergency transport shuttle… at the time you'd already been dismissed from active duty, but you didn't want to be found, so… I held onto it, hoping that I'd be able to get it to you eventually… but, I never heard from either of you again."
Sideswipe slowly sat back down again as he listened to what Ratchet had to say. "You haven't heard from him since?" His words were strained, as if it was difficult for him to even ask the question.
Ratchet slowly shook his head. "No. I'm sorry." He paused, and wanted very much to reassure him somehow, wanted to make it up to him after the way he'd treated him all those years ago. "I know what it's like to lose someone, you know."
Sideswipe did not respond. The two of them sat there together in silence, pondering their own thoughts, the air filled with a thick, unspoken expectation that neither of them could truly fathom. Finally, after what felt like vorns, Sideswipe broke the silence. "Well, I gotta get going." He stood up and headed towards the exit, waited for the door to slide open in front of him.
"Wait–" Ratchet stood up also. "Sideswipe?"
The black and red Autobot warrior hesitated. "Yeah?" He said.
"Listen, uh… if you need anything, you'll let me know. Okay?" Ratchet sounded unsure of himself, as if he sought the other's understanding and approval. At the very least, however, he sounded sincere.
Sideswipe turned halfway back towards him, nodded his head in acknowledgement. "Sure," he said, and then left.
The conference room was filled to capacity with most of the Iacon-stationed Autobots. Only Sentinel Prime and Sideswipe were absent. Many had taken a seat around the oval table, while the rest remained standing. The sound of chatter filled the air, along with an underlying trepidation and a sense that the start of something monumental was about to occur, with possibly serious and far-reaching consequences.
When Optimus cleared his vocal processor, every Autobot in the room quietened down, eager to hear what he had to say. "My fellow Autobots… we have fought side-by-side and have stood strong against the threat of our enemies over the many vorns… throughout the Great War, and the Great Devastation, and throughout all the times of peril that we have endured since we were first given life by our Creator. In that time, we have lost many good friends and allies, yet we still continue to stand strong today, together in the knowledge that we have always stood for what is right, for truth, and for freedom from all forms of oppression… that each and every one of us has the right to live without fear, and without prejudice…" He paused, moved his gaze around the room at each Autobot. "I consider each and every one of you my closest and dearest friend and comrade…"
"Optimus?" Ironhide started uncertainly, but Hot Rod nudged him hard.
"Shh… let him speak!" The orange and red warrior whispered in a harsh tone. The looks that many of the other Autobots gave Ironhide offered the same message, and he took the hint.
"…I would not allow any harm to come to any of you, if it is within my power, though I want you to know that I have the utmost faith in you all. It is important now, more than ever, that you all stand strong together, united against our common enemy. With… or without me."
It was as if a sudden whirlwind had been unleashed. The reactions amongst the Autobots were varied; some sat or stood there in disbelief, others demanded an explanation, while yet others raised their voices in concern and protestation.
"But, Prime…!" Ironhide stood up in alarm, but his voice was drowned out by the others.
"What do you mean, Optimus? Are you leaving us?" Bluestreak questioned.
"No way is any harm going to come to you – not if I have anything to say about it!" Brawn said, as he stood with the other minibots in one corner of the room.
"Prime, are you stepping down? What's this all about, anyway?" Hound's voice could be heard above the din.
Prowl stood up, tried to quieten the group down again. "Everybody, please… let him talk!"
The group eventually quietened down again, though Optimus did not appear distracted by their reactions. He sat and waited patiently, as if absorbed in his own thoughts as he prepared to deliver his final speech as Supreme Commander of the Autobot army. "I will only ask one thing of you… and that is that you all continue to uphold the Autobot code of honour at all times, to the best of your abilities, no matter what happens to me."
"Prime… what's going on?" Ironhide's expression plainly showed his utter concern for the Autobot Commander, and also his best friend. "Look, if there's something you're not telling us…"
"We'll stand by you, no matter what, Optimus. All the way," Silverbolt said in support, speaking for all the Aerialbots standing around him.
"I'm with Ironhide and Silverbolt," Trailbreaker continued. "Prime, if there's anything we can do to help – you can trust us, whatever it is…"
"I do trust you, Trailbreaker," Optimus replied. "I trust all of you with my life. However, there's nothing you can do for me this time." He took a long, deep inhalation before continuing, the Autobots hanging expectantly on his every word. "I will soon be required to surrender my post as Commander of the Autobot army… and when I do, I need you all to remain strong."
"But you can't, Optimus! We need you now more than ever!" Hot Rod spoke up, followed by unanimous support from all in the room.
"I'm sorry… but I must. I have no choice." Optimus did not elaborate further, though it was obvious that the matter weighed heavily upon his shoulders.
"Well, what are we going to do? Who will lead us?" Hot Spot asked.
Groove agreed with his team leader. "No one can take your place as our leader."
Ratchet also spoke his mind. "Surely there's got to be some other way, Optimus?"
"I'm afraid not, Ratchet old friend. I, too, am honour-bound and must do what is right."
"Do what is right, for whom?" Ratchet replied, his tone of voice clearly expressing his frustration. "Damn it, Optimus! Would you at least tell us why?"
"This ain't right…" Ironhide said, supporting his sentiments.
Optimus raised a hand so that they would quieten down again, enough for him to speak. "More than a vorn ago, at the end of the Last Great War, I took an oath to stand by the values and principles as set out under our new Agreement. I swore to defend and uphold those values no matter what, so that we might always stand strong against the Decepticons and defeat them once and for all, with the Neutrals as our new allies." He paused, gauging their reactions; as he had feared, the majority of his officers were finding it difficult accepting what he had to tell them. "Soon, however… I must face the decisions I have recently made in light of that Agreement, and must willingly accept the consequences of those decisions, no matter the outcome. My role as Autobot Commander demands nothing less of me." A brief pause and then, "Thank you all. It has truly been an honour to serve among you as your leader, fellow Autobot… and comrade."
A few seconds of uncomfortable silence followed his speech, and then the room broke out once more in a cacophony of voices. Many of the Autobots continued to press him with questions and demand more answers, several of them frustrated and upset, but he was tired and low on energy, and felt that the best thing for him to do right now was to get some recharge. Soon, he would need all his strength to face the inevitable. He stood and headed for the door, pressed the button on the panel to open it, and left without another word.
It had been decided that Megatron should lead a team of Decepticons to infiltrate Quadrant Epsilon and henceforth break into the Detention Banks, in an attempt to save their deactivated comrades. The team would consist of Scrapper, Hook, Bonecrusher, Long Haul, Rumble, and the jaguar-like mini-cassette, Ravage. Jazz would also be accompanying them, as had been agreed to earlier, whilst Soundwave, Laserbeak, and the two remaining Constructicons, Scavenger and Mixmaster, would remain at the Darkmount base to monitor communications from there. The team would need to move in and out of the Quadrant unnoticed, and would need to avoid any encounter with any mech – Autobot or Neutral – if at all possible. Whilst the Quadrant itself was heavily guarded, it was not known how well guarded the Detention Banks were, nor where its detainees were precisely located, however the Decepticons did have a couple of things going for them. One; due to that sector's isolation deep below ground, they would be able to circumvent Iacon entirely, which was situated far above it on the planet's surface, and two; thanks to their recently developed teleportation capabilities, they would be able to instantly transport themselves to a pre-selected point close to their destination.
Jazz watched as Scrapper searched through supplies from the munitions bay at the end of one of the long tunnels that spanned the area beneath the Darkmount site. There were many things he still wanted to know, in particular about the Decepticons' involvement in the events that had led up to the formation of the Alliance – many questions that still remained unanswered – though he knew that he would do best to bide his time, prove to them that he could be trusted with any such information.
The Constructicon leader tossed a case of timed explosives at Jazz, as well as a circuit immobilizer. "Here, take these," he said, as he took a few hand grenades for himself.
Jazz caught the munitions with ease, nodded in approval. "Think we'll need these?"
"You never know." Scrapper then took several weapons from the shelves and checked them over, adjusting the settings on each. "We haven't had to use these for quite a while," he said, speaking his thoughts. It was relatively quiet down here, and it was just the two of them; the other Decepticons had recently retired for recharge.
They would begin their mission as soon as the current recharge cycle was completed, still several hours away according to Jazz's internal chronometer, and he wondered whether it would be a good time to bring up the topic of the Great War. "Were you there… during the battle at Kaon?"
Scrapper looked up from his task. His face mask hid his expression, though his deliberate, slow movement had suggested a certain sense of uneasiness with the topic. "Oh, sure… I remember it like it happened only yesterday."
"Uh-huh." Jazz was about to ask Scrapper what he remembered, when the Constructicon spoke again.
"Yeah, great battle that turned out to be," Scrapper said, and Jazz thought he picked up sarcasm in his tone.
"What happened?" He asked, genuinely curious.
Scrapper looked at the arsenal of weapons he'd chosen for the team, and seemed satisfied with it. Then he turned his attention to the Autobot, considered his reply. "There was a Neutral-led assault on our base – not this one, but in Kolkular. They'd been planning to drive us out for deca cycles, and so they gathered their forces and laid siege against us." He picked up his collection of weapons and began to walk out of the munitions bay, stopping momentarily at the door for Jazz to follow him out. "So we fought back, and started to drive them away. We were winning, until…" He trailed off, looked away uncertainly.
Jazz walked out of the bay, and then watched as Scrapper pressed a button on a panel beside the door, and it closed behind him. "Until… what?" His gaze was fixed upon the Constructicon with single-minded focus.
"It… doesn't matter now," the Constructicon engineer said, hesitant, and started on his way down the tunnel. "Come on, we should get some recharge before we leave next cycle."
"Hey, hold up!" Jazz sprinted to catch up with him, placed a hand on the Decepticon's arm to get his attention. "You're wrong – it does matter," he justified, pulling his hand back as Scrapper turned around to face him. "Look… this probably comes as no surprise to you, but we have an official version of the story back in Iacon, and… well, let's just say that it's a completely different interpretation to what I've just heard."
Scrapper hesitated, averted his gaze. "I don't know what to tell you, Jazz…"
"Just tell me what you know," Jazz pressed.
The Autobot was persistent, and Scrapper sighed softly. "I'm… not sure about all the details." As he began walking again, Jazz kept pace with him. "What's your version?"
"Ah, long story short – the Decepticons engaged in battle against Autobot and Neutral forces in a last stand at Kaon… but suffered a major defeat… resulting in an undisputed victory for the Alliance. This enabled the Cybertronian Empire's new Governance Ruling Agreement of star date 143,501 to come into force, thereby effectively ending the Last Great War and ushering in the New Era," Jazz recounted, matter-of-fact.
"Undisputed victory, huh?" As he spoke, Scrapper led the way down two more levels and then along another long tunnel until he arrived at what appeared to be large private quarters. "Well… we did not suffer a major defeat at the hands of the Neutral army… and the Autobots? From what I recall there weren't very many of them around – I don't care what the official story says." He entered the darkened room, placed the weapons down on a nearby bench, and then walked over to an alcove that contained recharging berths. Five of them were occupied by the other Constructicons; three were empty. "Megatron ordered a retreat after a confrontation with Sentinel Prime. But, like I said, I don't know the details of that… he never really spoke about it afterwards. Maybe you should ask him yourself?"
Jazz nodded thoughtfully. "Thanks. I just might do that."
Scrapper pointed to an empty recharge berth. "You can use one of ours," he offered simply. Then he lay down on one of the other empty berths, and said nothing further.
Jazz stayed awake for several more minutes, sitting on his berth in quiet contemplation, before finally going into recharge.
"We're almost there; it's just up ahead." Sunstreaker paused to survey the landscape. In the growing light of early morning, the relay station where he had been captured by Sentinel Prime stood in the distance, stark and gloomy against Hitec's city skyline. The converted, drab warehouse served as one of the Neutral-Supremacist syndicate's many way stations, where cargo and personnel were covertly shipped to and from the Subterranean Base, and it also served as a temporary storage facility.
Comet walked up to stand beside him, and then continued onward, unperturbed. He stopped to turn back for a brief instant. "Well, are you coming?" He prompted.
The yellow Autobot followed after the seeker, quickly catching up with him, grabbing his arm as he did so. "Wait, Comet. There're surveillance cameras right around the perimeter, as well as a silent alarm system," he warned, releasing Comet's arm and pointing above the entrance doors to the relay station. "If we try to get inside through the front, a security team will be here in no time."
Comet paused, taking heed of his warning. "How did you get inside the last time?"
"I hid inside one of the transport vehicles," Sunstreaker replied.
"Hm. A transport vehicle, eh? That's not such a bad idea." Comet surveyed the area, until he caught sight of a narrow bridge crossing just ahead. He began to walk towards it, grabbing Sunstreaker by the arm as he did so and forcing the Autobot to follow him. "Come on."
Upon reaching the crossing, Comet dropped down one level to land inside a tunnel just underneath the bridge. Sunstreaker did the same, and then felt that it might be wise to ask the seeker what he was intending. "So... what now?"
"Now, we wait." Comet leaned against the tunnel wall, looking up at the domed ceiling above them. There were logographs sprawled in faded red ink across the metallic surface, though they appeared to be part of some foreign language that he wasn't familiar with. "Then, we'll simply take the first transport vehicle that comes along by surprise, and seize control of it." Sunstreaker gave him a look of uncertainty. "Unless you have a better idea?"
He shook his head in resignation. "No. I suppose it could work."
He thought it was a typical Decepticon plan; rough and ready, not to mention more than a little dangerous – there was no telling what kind of transport vehicle was scheduled to arrive at the relay station next, or who might already be inside the relay station, waiting for them – regardless, he had to admit that Comet's plan did have a chance of success, provided a little luck was on their side, of course. Besides, Sunstreaker really didn't have a better idea. He sat down on the rough ground, making himself more comfortable for the wait, and looked up at the ceiling. He stared at the writing for a long time with mild curiosity.
"Can you read that?" Comet asked him nonchalantly.
Sunstreaker rubbed at the back of his helm. "Not too well. It's an old script… from the looks of it I'd say it's probably Glithosian." When Comet gave him an amused expression, he clarified. "I had a passing interest in foreign written languages before the Great Wars." A pause, and then, "How about you – did you have any interests before the wars?" He doubted he'd get any meaningful information from Comet about his past but he thought he'd ask, nonetheless.
"I… have always been a skilled warrior…" Comet began, but then trailed off, saying nothing further.
"You don't like talking about yourself, do you?" Sunstreaker said with empathy in his voice. Again the seeker did not respond, so he looked up at the writing on the ceiling again, changing the focus of their conversation. "'The Apocalypse is upon us…' Huh. You think it's a reference to the Great Devastation?"
Comet looked up at the graphemes on the ceiling and shrugged. "Probably."
They sat there together for several more breems in silence until, eventually, they heard the sound of a vehicle in the distance trundling towards the crossing.
* * *
Before Sunstreaker could ask how, exactly, Comet planned on seizing control of the approaching vehicle, the seeker had already jumped up and back out onto the bridge. "Comet–" He called after him, as he climbed up a narrow ladder that led to the crossing. "Hey, wait up!" As the road became visible, he surveyed the oncoming vehicle – as expected, it was a transport car. To his bewilderment, it appeared that Comet had no particular strategy in mind; the seeker simply stood in the middle of the crossing, blocking traffic, his arms crossed in front of his chest. Sunstreaker watched as the vehicle came to a slow stop. After several long astro-seconds, its side doors opened and two Neutral agents stepped out, blasters at the ready.
"It's good of you to finally show up – you're late!" Comet called out, goading them.
The Neutrals exchanged glances, momentarily confused, and then raised their weapons at the Cybertronian jet, motioning for him to step aside. "You're in our way. Move, or we'll blast ya!"
But Comet seemed unperturbed by their show of aggression. "Oh… pardon me, what was I thinking?" He started to back away, moving off to the side of the road, hands held out in front of him.
The Neutrals hesitated, and then sneered at him, snorting derisively as they watched him back away. "Stupid junker!" One of them said, chuckling.
"Yeah. Hey, hold on a cycle – don't he look kinda familiar to you?" The other said, his curiosity now piqued.
"Say… now that you mention it. Maybe we ought to take him to the boss – you never know, he might be worth something," the first Neutral said to the other in a lowered voice, before turning his attention back to Comet. "Hey! Are you Cybertronian?" When Comet did not give him a reply, the Neutral stepped towards him, his expression impatient. "I asked you a question, slag face! Are you Cybertronian?"
Once the Neutral was close enough, Comet straightened his right arm out in front of him and fired a shot from his blaster. The intense beam of energy hit the Neutral directly in the chest before he had time to realize what had happened. Then Comet fired a second shot in quick succession, hitting the second Neutral, who had been standing behind the first, in the face. They both fell backwards with loud grunts, their weapons dropping to the ground as they did so.
"I'm Decepticon, slag breath!" Comet said to the offlined mechs, and walked quickly to pick up one of their weapons from the ground. He tossed it in the air across to Sunstreaker, who had been watching the entire exchange from the top of the ladder. "Here, this might come in handy," he said.
The blaster landed neatly in Sunstreaker's hand, and he moved quickly to join his unlikely partner. "Thanks…" He replied, glad to be in possession of a weapon once again – an essential requirement if a bot was to have any chance of survival on Alternity City.
Comet stepped closer towards the vehicle and examined it, peering inside. It was unmarked, and appeared to be a solid transport van, its storage compartment separated from the cab portion at the front, which was now vacant. "Care for a ride?" He said, and took the right passenger seat, while Sunstreaker took the driver's seat on the left, both doors slamming closed.
With a hint of a smile, Sunstreaker pressed down on the throttle and the car shot forward across the bridge and toward the relay station.
Moonracer had managed to acquire a beam array without any major problems. She had seen many useful items available for purchase inside the mega-complex that they'd come across when they'd first arrived in Binaltech, but the bot assistant had told her that he would have to check the storage room for a beam array as it was not a frequently requested item. By the time the bot had emerged from the back of the store after several breems, Moonracer had grown impatient with the long wait.
Seventy-five credits later, however, and she had gone back to her usual, cheery self, proudly holding up the array for her two best friends to see.
"Great! Now let's get going," Chromia had said, and the three of them had wasted no time returning to their base in Koltar.
Moonracer immediately went to work rebuilding their transmitter, while Firestar activated their long range scanner to try and locate Elita One, but there seemed to be no trace of her.
"We could try contacting Cybertron Command, once the transmitter is functional again–" Firestar suggested, but Chromia did not let her finish.
"Cybertron Command? Are you kidding? It's too risky. The Alliance can't be trusted – not now," she said, shaking her head.
"Okay. So… what did you have in mind?" Firestar queried, but the second-in-command remained where she stood, deep in thought. "Chrome?"
"Huh?" Startled for a moment, Chromia faced her team mate and then began pacing slowly across the room, one hand on hip, looking down towards the floor. She appeared to be thinking intensely, but then she sighed, turned back to face Firestar. "I just wish Elita were here."
The red and orange femme nodded. "I'm hoping she's still on Alternity City somewhere…"
The very idea that Double – if that was even his real name – had taken Elita One off-world was quite disconcerting, especially after the doublecrossing Cybertronian had mentioned that there was a bounty on her head. Was that the only reason he had forcibly taken her – to exchange her for a large sum of credits? And, if so, how had he known that she would be at The Gambler's Den?
"Okay – I'm done. Chromia?" Moonracer's voice drifted over to Chromia, and she strode over to the work bench where the green femme had been working.
She examined the transmitter on the bench top, which was now fully functional. "Good work, 'Racer," she said, and then returned to stand beside Firestar, though her thoughts were obviously elsewhere.
"Chrome?" Firestar watched her curiously.
Chromia exhaled slowly and then, finally, she turned to her two team mates. "Moonracer – can you establish a communications link over a specific frequency band?"
Moonracer shrugged. "Well, sure… what range would you like? Autobot Command… the emergency band… um, the Destron Precinct control station?"
After a long moment, Chromia shook her head, bit her bottom lip. She inhaled and then exhaled deeply. "No… Decepticon," she said.
There was an awkward silence in the room before Firestar finally responded. "Decepticon? Chromia, what are you doing?"
Moonracer's optics widened in temporary shock, unsure of what to think. "Uh… well… I probably could… at least in theory I should be able to, yeah… though I've never actually tried–"
"Moonracer – you're not actually thinking about it?" Firestar said in protest. "Chrome? The Decepticons – I mean, why? The last thing we need is to let them know we're here, and besides… we certainly don't need their help!"
"I can mask our transmission location, if you want… it's no problem," Moonracer interjected.
"If anyone can help us rescue Elita One, 'Star, it's them. They have the capabilities…" Chromia started to explain, but Firestar wasn't accepting it.
She looked incredulously at her team leader. "But – what about Devcon, or… or maybe we could try and get in touch with Crosscut – I'm sure he's still here on Alternity City, last I heard–"
Chromia shook her head, looking down at the floor. "No… we don't have time for that."
"Then… I don't get it." Firestar paused in exasperation, and now it was her turn to place her hands on her hips. She spoke her next sentence with deliberation. "What makes you think that they'd even want to help us, Chrome?"
Chromia looked up at her friend, and gave her a sympathetic look. "Do you trust me?"
"Trust you? Well, of course I trust you, Chrome, but this is–" Firestar tried to reason.
"Then – trust me… please?"
Firestar shook her head and sighed, but she didn't have a ready answer. Finally, after considering the situation she decided to give her friend the benefit of the doubt, and relented. She turned her palms upward in a show of surrender. "All right…" She said.
Chromia gave her an expression of gratitude. "I still don't know if this is going to work… but we've got to try." She walked back towards Moonracer and nodded towards the transmitter; the green femme had stood quietly by, waiting with interest to see what Chromia intended to do next. "Can you do it?"
"I think so…" Moonracer said, and selected the frequency band on the transmitter that she knew fell within the Decepticons' general communication broadcast range. The message would not be transmitted on a secure channel, but it was the best she could do. "Um… do you want to talk to Cybertron… or Alternity City?"
Chromia replied readily. "Alternity City."
"Okay…" Moonracer set the controls as required, and then turned back to Chromia. "Ready when you are." There was a tense moment of silence as the two femmes waited for Chromia's next instruction.
"Go ahead and open the channel," she told Moonracer.
Moonracer flicked a switch on the transmitter. Several seconds went by, and then she spoke up. "It's scanning… hold on. I think I got it." Firestar quietly walked up to stand behind the other two, watching with focused intent. "Go ahead… say something," Moonracer told the second-in-command, motioning with her hand.
Chromia stepped closer to the transmitter. "Astrotrain, if you're out there, please respond."
"Astrotrain?" Firestar whispered in exasperation, but Chromia raised a hand to stop her.
"Shh…" Chromia kept her attention focused on the transmitter, listening intently. Of course, there was no guarantee that she'd be able to connect with the Decepticon in question, and it wasn't without risk, but she thought it would be worth a try. "Astrotrain… please respond." She waited another minute, and then tried again. "Come on… Astrotrain, let me know you can hear this," she said, but was once again greeted with silence. "Ah, it's no use." She was about to give up hope, averting her optics in disappointment, when a voice came over the com link.
"Who is this?" The voice was unmistakable – it belonged to Astrotrain, the Decepticon triple changer.
Chromia snapped her attention back to the transmitter. "This is… Chromia." She paused, waited for the voice on the other end to say something further, but no response came. "Uh, we met at the energy accumulator?"
There was another long silence, and for a moment Chromia thought that the connection might have been lost, but then his voice came over the link once again. "Oh… yeah, that's right. I remember you. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
Chromia glanced at Firestar, who gave her a sardonic look. "Charming, isn't he?" The red femme said in a low voice.
Chromia ignored her comment. "Elita One's been captured… she needs help," she told him. She hadn't considered what they might do if the Decepticon was unwilling to help them, and began to suddenly have doubts about contacting him in the first place.
Astrotrain must have picked up on the desperation in her voice, because he did not question the validity of her claim, nor why she'd decided to contact him about it. There was another pause before he finally replied. "This channel's unsecured… if you want, we can meet somewhere?"
Chromia's countenance eased somewhat in quiet relief at his reply, and she rubbed at the back of her neck with her fingers, trying to think of the best rendezvous point – one that offered ease of access but was reasonably secure. "Okay… ah, how about…"
"Oh, how about the Koltar Air Base? It's connected to the subway system, and it's not too far from here," Moonracer interjected, wanting to help.
"Okay," Chromia said after brief consideration. "The Koltar Air Base?" She repeated for Astrotrain, in case he hadn't overheard.
"Sounds good to me," he replied.
"Say in… a couple of breems?" She was about to end the transmission, but then spoke her final thoughts. "Oh, and… Astrotrain?"
A pause. "Don't mention it," he said, and disconnected from the transmission.
The plan to hijack a Neutral transport car and then use it to get inside the relay station without being detected worked like a charm. The front door unlocked and slid open for them automatically as Sunstreaker guided the vehicle to the entrance. Once they were inside, the doors closed behind them again, and Sunstreaker brought the car to a stop, turned off the engine. They each opened their side door to step out of the vehicle, and then slowly looked around. Apart from the two of them, there was no one else inside.
Except for rows of bare shelves and a terminal in one corner, the converted warehouse appeared to be empty. "They've cleared everything out," Sunstreaker said, disappointed. As he spoke, Comet had forced open the transport car's rear doors, and was already searching inside the compartment. Sunstreaker refocused his attention on Comet and walked around to the rear of the car to join him. There was a pile of sealed containers sitting neatly in the back. Comet picked one up and inspected it before handing it to Sunstreaker. "No seal… and no designation stamp. Just like the other containers that were in here," he informed Comet as he turned the container over in his hands, wondering how he might be able to get it open without damaging its contents. "It doesn't seem to open. Any ideas?"
The seeker had no answer for him. He began to look around the large building once more, then casually walked over to the terminal in the corner. He studied it for a moment before powering it up, watched as the blank monitor came to life. It appeared to be part of an advanced communications system of some sort, and was asking for authorisation.
Sunstreaker made his way over to the terminal, still holding the sealed container. He placed it on the bench and sat down in front of the terminal, staring at the monitor. Then he extended a probe from one of his fingertips, inserted it into an input port and waited several seconds for feedback. "It's connected to a large central network… but I don't think I can get past all the security protocols. It's too heavily guarded."
"Try anyway," Comet told him.
Sunstreaker considered his chances of being able to get into the Neutral com system – as an Autobot, he had been able to gain access to it a few times before, though it had only been low level access. "Alright…" He entered his Autobot security code, but it wouldn't authorise; apparently, it had been deactivated. "Huh. They must think I'm dead…" Suddenly, there was a beeping sound coming from the terminal, and he looked up at Comet. "Great. I must have tripped the alarm."
After a few moments, Comet replied. "Let's get out of here. There's nothing in here, anyway," he said, and walked towards the nearest wall. Punching a hole right through it with his fist, he made the opening wider by tearing it with his hands until it was large enough for him to walk through. As he did so, he looked out at the road and noticed the two Neutrals that he had shot earlier begin to stir and sit up. Then he looked up at the sky; he hadn't engaged his alt mode in a very long time, and suddenly found himself yearning for the open skies once more.
"Wait–" The Autobot said behind him. Comet looked back at him expectantly. "I don't have aerial capabilities… I'm only going to slow you down."
Comet hesitated for a moment, but then transformed into his jet mode while adjusting his size to suit. It was a predominately sleek form; dark grey frame highlighted with yellow vertical stabilisers and air intakes, and red and yellow pinstripes along his wings, which matched the color scheme of his robot mode. Sunstreaker half expected the Decepticon to simply take off and leave him behind, forced to fend for himself against approaching Neutral security teams, but then he quickly realized that that was not the seeker's intention at all. "Well… unless you want to stay here, I suggest you jump in," Comet said, opening his cockpit canopy.
Sunstreaker grabbed the sealed container on the bench, sprinted towards him and jumped into the cockpit seat. As the canopy closed over him, he felt the jet's twin engines kick in. Then, within a matter of astro-seconds, they shot upwards into the open sky as Comet activated his afterburners, leaving the relay station far below.
"So, you're telling me you don't remember what happened to you at all?" Ratchet asked, attaching a probe to a port behind Groove's helm. The medic had headed to the Repair Bay shortly after Optimus' ill-favoured announcement, at Red Alert's request. Both Red Alert and Arcee stood beside Ratchet, ready to assist.
Groove slowly shook his head. "No. It's like my mind's a blank."
"Tell me the last thing you remember," the Chief Medical Officer encouraged his patient, who had come in for his scheduled check-up session – Red Alert had insisted that frequent sessions would be a necessary part of the Protectobot's after-care regimen, at least until they could figure out what had happened to his memory.
"Uh… I think…" Groove frowned, trying hard to remember. "I was in Iacon? But I don't know why…"
"Go further back if you're having trouble, to the first thing that you do remember. Just, take all the time you need. There's no hurry," Ratchet reassured him, as he quietly analysed the data readout from the probe on a nearby monitor.
"Okay. Well… I definitely remember hearing about the new directive."
"Uh-huh," the Autobot medic responded. He continued analysing data as he initialized a scan of Groove's memory core. "Tell me what you remember about that."
"Well, I think… the High Council called for the capture of all Decepticons… but I don't know what happened after that." Groove sat on his berth, deep in thought, and then finally looked up at the three of them. "Did we? Capture any Decepticons, I mean?"
Red glanced uneasily at Arcee before offering the Protectobot a brief answer. "Just the one."
"Oh, you mean Scavenger?" Groove must have heard about the Constructicon's capture and subsequent escape from his fellow Protectobots.
"That's not important. What is important is that you try to remember what happened to you," Ratchet answered.
Groove looked up at him with widened optics. "Streetwise told me that he attacked me, but, well – I just couldn't believe it. I mean, really – Scavenger?"
Ratchet removed the probe and turned off the display. Then he grimaced, turning to his two assistants. "From what I can tell, his memory core has been tampered with."
Red Alert looked at him in shock. "What? I mean – are you sure?" He said in disbelief. "But I performed a deep scan of his memory module – nothing like that ever came up."
"That's because you probably didn't check for field integrity," Ratchet explained.
Red Alert realized that he had, indeed, overlooked a critical point, and a look of astonishment crossed his face. Granted, the integrity of a module's information field was usually only relevant when dealing with deliberate data extraction, such as in the removal of a virus, but Groove's condition had never hinted at this – he had been attacked, not infected with a viral agent. Still, Red realized that, if someone had wanted to, and possessed the right clearance codes, they could have used the procedure to erase selected parts of a mech's memory. If anything, it would be an effective way to accomplish such a task, yet it was an unorthodox method; though, in Groove's case, it immediately hinted towards something very sinister at play.
Arcee, too, seemed jolted by the revelation, and she placed a reassuring hand on Groove's forearm. "Who would have done something like that? Hasn't he been through enough?"
Ratchet gave them a disparaging look. "Isn't it obvious?" But he received no response from either of them, and so he continued. "Someone doesn't want Groove to know what happened to him."
Arcee asked the obvious question. "But… who? The Decepticons?"
Ratchet looked doubtful. "Maybe… maybe not."
"Maybe Scavenger wiped his memory just before–" Red Alert began, but Ratchet interrupted him.
"No – this was done to him very recently. Within the last orn." Silence filled the room as they contemplated what Ratchet had just told them. "Whoever it was… probably carried out the procedure right here, while alone with Groove."
"But…" Arcee looked back at the Protectobot, who returned her gaze with a calm expression. She turned away from him and walked a few paces, one hand covering her mouth. "Other than Red and myself, there's been no one else in here unattended… except–" She slowly turned around to face the three of them, and inhaled sharply. "…Sideswipe," she said after a moment, whispering the Autobot's name.
"Sideswipe?" Ratchet repeated curiously.
"Oh, but it couldn't have been him!" Arcee insisted, quickly coming to the Autobot's defense. "He would never do anything like that!"
"Alright… calm down, Arcee," Ratchet reassured her. "Now, we're not going to jump to any conclusions."
"So… what are we going to do?" Red Alert asked, but Ratchet was already one step ahead.
"Just give me a few moments to think," he said. He sighed deeply, fixing his gaze upon Groove as he considered all available courses of action. "First things first – we need to find a way to get Groove's memory back."
"But is that even possible?" Red asked.
"It depends," Ratchet replied. "If the erased portion of his memory was processed via his autonomic pathways… then it's possible that the data can be retrieved. Though… it would take time, and can't be done without significant effort on Groove's part."
"Oh, of course…" Red said in realization. "The autonomic pathways process emotional responses, which are usually entwined with the memory data from our day-to-day experiences," he explained to Arcee, before looking back at Ratchet.
"Emotional responses? You mean… like Groove might have experienced the night of his attack?" Arcee added softly.
"That's right," the Chief Medical Officer confirmed. "If we can reactivate those same emotional responses, the associated data will then reconstruct within his memory field. He's lucky, though – the longer we wait, the less chance that the process will be successful." Then he turned to the Protectobot, moved closer and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Groove… we can probably get your memory back, but we're going to need your full co-operation."
Groove looked up at him; there was a far-away look in his optics as he contemplated what the Autobot medic was saying. "Sure… okay."
"Good. Now… it's my duty to warn you… there's a pretty good chance that when you do get your memory back… well, let's just say that it probably won't be pleasant. Do you understand me?" Groove hesitated, but then nodded. "You're going to remember exactly what happened to you. It'll probably be painful… and you're going to have to be prepared to face that."
"I understand." Groove nodded again, uncertainly at first, but then he seemed to make a solid decision. "Please… I want to know who attacked me."
Ratchet took a step back and stood up straight. "Alright, then let's get started."