The twilight descended upon Alternity City, and Binaltech's scene changed as the usual day time activities were replaced with an altogether different sort, the diversity of mechanoids and cybernetic life forms roaming the city streets seeking their next thrill. However, a fair number of them were destitute, their continual search for energy to survive the only reason that justified their miserable existence.
Comet was grateful for the impending cover of darkness, as he carefully avoided stepping onto a non-functional mechanoid. He recoiled in disgust, and ran past the poor wretch. Probably a beggar right up to his last days, until a marauder from one of the nearby ruling clans mercilessly ended his life.
To be truly independent and free from slavery, yet remain functional on Alternity City was an accomplishment that only seemed to be achieved by a rare few. Nonetheless, even those who had managed to evade a fate worse than death would eventually have to confront their deepest and darkest fears, and make the ultimate choice between succumbing to his demons, or fighting for his very spark. In this regard, Comet was no exception.
Ever since he had come to this planet, he had endured a never-ending battle, not only for his very survival, but for his sanity as well. As he slowed to a stop around a darkened corner of a narrow alleyway, these thoughts bore at him. He gripped the transceiver tightly in one hand, and imagined what it would be like to experience self-deactivation. Would the pain finally end? Would the relentless anguish and torment of a mech who had already been through the very depths of hell suddenly be forgotten, replaced by blissful forgetfulness? He had imagined this alternative existence many times, yet each time he had been unable to bring himself to that point of no return.
The transceiver he held seemed to be the only thing that kept him from teetering too close to the brink of insanity. It offered him comfort, and feeble hope, but also bitter disappointment and despair; the memories it evoked welcomed, yet also rejected by him.
He slowly opened his hand and stared down at the device. It lay there inert; a small, black token that beckoned him to acknowledge its purpose, its potential to be able to finally break him, or help save him. He wasn't sure which, had always been too afraid to find out.
But he couldn't continue the way he was going, this much he now knew. Perhaps the recent news from Cybertron had triggered something within him, a need to confront whatever had caused him to end up in such a miserable and lonely existence, whatever had torn him away from all those he had known and cared for to be forced into this harsh, alien world. Whoever had allowed – no, demanded his exile.
The sound of sharp metallic blades scraping against one another suddenly alerted Comet to the ever-present dangers of a life on the streets. From out of the shadows, a deadly presence emerged to make itself known. Comet remained where he was, the entity watching him as a beast observing its prey, waiting for the right moment to strike him down so that it could claim him as his prize.
Comet did not flinch, nor did he attempt to evade the bounty hunter. No, he would no longer run or hide. This time, he would confront his enemy, regardless of the outcome; he would finally surrender to what must be, and allow fate to decide, once and for all, his destiny. "So, Lockdown," he said, speaking the bounty hunter's name with a surprising calmness and strength that he had not been aware he possessed since he had been banished from Cybertron more than a vorn ago. "What am I worth? A hundred credits? Two hundred?"
The bounty hunter moved slowly closer, prepared to strike with lethal accuracy at a moment's notice. His silent, alert poise belied his deadly tendencies. "Ah, more than that. Much, much more than that… Comet. Or… should I say…" He uttered in a threateningly low voice, emphasizing each word, but then trailed off; the final, unspoken word playing on the tip of his tongue.
Comet slowly closed his hand around the transceiver, held on to it as if it gave him strength, deepened his conviction. He looked straight past Lockdown and into the darkened alleyway, prepared himself for what he knew would soon come. "I'm worth more to you alive," he stated.
"Hmm…" Lockdown tilted his head to one side, contemplating how best to handle his game. "Perhaps." With swift precision, he brandished his double swords in front of the seeker, and then slowly moved one of the blades to Comet's neck, whilst the other was pointed directly in front of his spark chamber.
"How long have you been following me?" Comet asked. He appeared to be unafraid, as if fear itself had voluntarily taken a back seat in his mind.
Lockdown hesitated, unsure of the seeker's intentions. "For long enough," he replied, and then, in a swift and violent move, he brought the handle of his sword down upon the side of Comet's face. The blow instantly weakened him, and he found himself with his back on the ground, wincing at the sharp sensation of electrical energy as it overloaded his circuitry. It gradually subsided, and Lockdown was standing over him, savouring the seeker's suffering.
"What's the matter; lost your touch?" Comet goaded him. His voice sounded more abrasive than usual. "Whoever sent you… would be disappointed."
But Lockdown saw through Comet's ploy, and laughed quietly. "It seems that your many years in exile have taught you nothing," he observed, with contempt. "Your sharp tongue will get you nowhere with me."
The seeker began to slowly move into a sitting position, but was stopped as Lockdown held out a sharp blade to his throat. The bounty hunter retrieved a device with his other hand, and Comet saw that it was a circuit dampener. If he allowed Lockdown to subdue him with it, his chances of escape would be over.
Yet Comet could not see a way to evade capture; Lockdown was the most infamous bounty hunter in the entire Gamma Sector, and for good reason. His reputation preceded him, and most mechs trembled at the mere thought of being on his blacklist. Indeed, he had captured a countless number of renegades and wanted criminals, paying no heed to their race or affiliation; all that mattered to him was that he was handsomely rewarded for his efforts.
Comet felt the transceiver that he still held firmly in his right hand. He considered activating it, and slowly lifted his hands in a gesture of surrender.
The transceiver had been in his possession ever since he had arrived on this planet, yet, in all those years, he had never once dared use it. What had he been so afraid of? To discover that those he had once known, had trusted with his life, had truly abandoned him? That if he were to contact the remaining Decepticons, they would turn him away, reject him? He supposed that he had been too afraid to find out the truth, had not found the courage to face his worst fears.
But, now, he had nothing more to lose. And he was tired of running, tired of fighting for his existence. He looked up at the bounty hunter, unafraid, his optics steadfast. And before Lockdown could stop him, he activated the small device.
The early morning hours in one of Binaltech's far northern districts were eerily quiet, the ambiance almost nothing like that of the inner city, with its constant noise and heavy traffic. Elita One had quickly learned the name of the suburb, shortly after her crew of femmes had arrived here: Koltar. She and Chromia had left their makeshift base only a few minutes ago, and were scanning the surrounding area for any indication as to where they might be able to source raw materials for conversion into energy.
"What are we going to do, Elita?" The blue femme asked her team leader.
Elita looked out towards a distant structure. It was a large dome that overshadowed all of the surrounding buildings. "Well, we're here now… so we may as well find out what we can, but only after we've taken care of our most immediate needs." She started walking along the road that would take them directly to the large dome, and then transformed into her vehicle mode. "Come on, that dome's an energy accumulator." Chromia transformed as well, and the two of them drove quietly towards the large structure.
After several minutes, the dome came clearly into view, looming directly ahead of them. It stood luminescent against the darkened sky. Elita stopped in front of it and initialized another scan, taking note of the structure's layout and access points, as well as its level of security.
She transformed into robot mode. "Let's get a little closer." Chromia transformed as well, and they both began walking toward the dome's perimeter wall. They arrived at a sealed entrance that could only be accessed with a secure code.
"Elita… how do you plan on getting past security, let alone getting us inside the dome?" The blue femme asked, looking doubtfully up at the metallic wall.
"They're good questions, Chrome… questions which I do not have answers to – yet." The pink leader class femme glanced around, taking in their surroundings and then, transforming her hand into a hook, she aimed it upwards, ejecting an attached line. It flew neatly over the wall, and the hook caught onto the top edge. She pulled it taught, testing it. "But I'm sure we'll figure something out," she said, before scaling the wall. Once she was at the top, she looked down at Chromia and indicated for her to follow her up.
They both jumped down the other side, looked around and then quickly made their way towards a stack of large canisters, using them as a cover before guards in the distance were alerted to their presence.
"What now?" Chromia whispered. "There's at least four sentry bots stationed at the front."
"Six," Elita corrected her. "There's two more behind that transport platform." She paused, strategizing, before speaking again. "We can take them."
Chromia looked at her nervously. "Elita… what if reinforcements arrive?"
Elita One hesitated, and then held up her hand in sudden caution.
"What is it?" Chromia asked in a low whisper.
"Did you hear something?" She replied, as she looked around behind the canisters. It was still dark, and she couldn't see anything past the obscurity within her normal range of vision. She activated her optic sensors' broad spectrum range and tried again. This time, she saw the source of the sound.
"No…" Chromia began, but before she could ask another question Elita had moved out from behind the canisters and had darted towards the side of a nearby loading bay.
She indicated for Chromia to do the same, and then pointed upward towards the sky. "There…" She said, as they both hid from view just inside the empty bay area.
They watched as a solitary shuttle descended, landing only a short distance away from the outer edge of the perimeter wall, out of sight.
"Is that who I think it is?" Chromia said in quiet disbelief.
Elita nodded. "What the hell is he doing here?" She wondered, slightly irate. The last thing they needed right now was any sort of interference – particularly from a Decepticon.
"Maybe he followed us here?" Chromia suggested.
"Maybe," she replied. "Maybe not…" Then, before she could say anything more, they both watched as a predominately grey mechanoid jumped down from the top of the wall. He had purple highlights on his wings, and was obviously the transformed shuttle they had seen only moments before. He appeared to be unaware of the two femmes; either he hadn't bothered scanning the area or, if he was aware of their presence, he didn't seem to care.
Elita wielded her electromagnetic pulse scrambler, held it out in front of her. "Ready?" She told Chromia, who barely had time to draw her own weapon, a modified grenade launcher, before Elita moved out from under the bay's cover.
The two femmes approached the lone Decepticon, who had his back to them. "Turn around, slowly," Elita ordered him.
The mech turned around to face them and, as he realized who he was dealing with, a look of mild astonishment crossed his face. "That wrecked cruiser belonged to you… didn't it? The one that crashed in the tower just north from here?" He took a step cautiously toward them.
"Stay right where you are," Elita One warned him, "unless you want me to blast you a new one." The Cybertronian triple changer stood where he was, watching them with curiosity. "What in the blazes are you doing here, Astrotrain?" Elita One demanded.
After a few seconds of contemplation, he answered. "I should ask you the same thing." The femmes exchanged glances, silently trying to determine whether he posed any threat to them. He must have noticed this, and spoke again. "I wasn't following you, if that's what you're thinking."
Elita One held her weapon steadily, still aiming it towards him. "Alright, but that's still no reassurance."
Astrotrain made a pacificatory gesture with his hands. "Look… I don't want to cause you any trouble." He paused, observing the femmes with interest. "Looks to me like the two of you are here on your own."
"That's no concern of yours, Decepticon," the femme leader replied warily. She looked about, made sure that the guards around the other side of the dome hadn't noticed them. It appeared to be safe for the moment. "I suggest you leave, before you alert the sentry," she concluded.
The triple changer shook his head. "No way; I'm not leaving until I have what I came for."
The femme leader moved a step closer towards him, her weapon pointed threateningly at his chest. "Perhaps you didn't quite hear me," she said, her anger roused.
Chromia stepped forward and placed a hand on her arm. "Wait, Elita…" She said to her, and then spoke to Astrotrain. "What are you here for?"
He looked from one to the other, considered what, if anything, he should tell them. Finally, he glanced towards the dome structure. "Energy. What else?"
Elita was incredulous. "There's no way you were going to get inside on your own." She looked around again, trailed her weapon. "There must be others here with you; darn it."
"I'm here on my own," he tried to reassure her, but she remained suspicious, distrustful.
"So, you're saying… you can get inside?" Chromia asked him.
Astrotrain shrugged. "Sure. I've done it once or twice before."
Chromia turned to her friend. "Maybe… he can help us, Elita," she said.
Elita shook her head, kept her gaze focused on the triple changer. "No way he can be trusted."
"Think about it… we've just lost our only means home… and, right now we need energy – probably just as much as he does." Chromia hesitated, and then added, "Besides, we're not on Cybertron… no one has to know that we ever saw him." The femme leader bit her lower lip as she considered her friend's words, but remained unconvinced.
"She has a point," Astrotrain interjected, speaking calmly.
Elita ignored him. "Chrome… he could be lying. Besides, we don't need him; we can do this on our own."
"Suit yourself," he interjected again, growing increasingly frustrated with the femme leader. "But one thing's for sure; you're going to need to know how to disable the internal alarm system, and that's if you even manage to get that far on your own."
"What if he's telling the truth?" Chromia pressed. "If we get caught, there's no telling what will happen to the others."
Elita remained quiet for several seconds as she decided what they should do. "Why would he even want to help us, anyway?" She asked the blue femme, though the question was directed more at him.
Chromia had no answer for her. She hadn't even considered that question; she had only thought of the mutual benefit, should they work together. After all, the three of them were all here for the same thing; energy, and on Alternity City, survival often mattered more than what side you were on.
Before she could say anything, Astrotrain saved her the trouble. "I'll tell you what; I help you… and you can repay the kindness later. How's that sound?"
The pink femme hesitated. "And how do you expect us to do that, exactly?" She said to him, sounding doubtful.
He shrugged. "I won't ask for much." He paused, watching them. "I'm only here for a short while… all I want to do is return to Cybertron without the Autobot-Neutrals up my tail pipe."
"Sorry to disappoint, but there's not much we can do about that," Elita One replied, lowering her weapon. She hesitated before continuing. "I can't promise you anything… but, if anyone comes looking for you... we don't know anything. It's the best I can offer."
Astrotrain nodded, smiling. "Sounds good to me," he said, and then glanced toward the dome. "Let's get it done."
"How do you propose we get to Cybertron? As far as I can see, we're stranded here… in the planet's most deplorable city, with no mode of transport, and no place to stay…" Rook and Astro had been navigating through the busy streets of Binaltech for almost an hour, keeping a safe distance from the night crowd, yet at the same time making sure that they did not become too isolated. The closer they approached the city center, the noisier and more encroaching the crowd became, to the point that Rook had to almost power down his audio receptors. "Tell me… you do have a plan?"
Astro kept walking, unperturbed by his companion's doubts. "Don't worry about transport. We can always find another shuttle." He smiled to himself, almost enjoying Rook's uneasiness. It had been a long time since Astro had been active on his own. A long time, indeed; and he wanted to enjoy every minute of it. He no longer needed to concern himself with playing the role of confidante to the High Commander of the Subterranean Base – a role which he had performed exceptionally well. Now, with the changing times and the unfolding state of affairs on Cybertron, he had been instructed to return home, which was something that he had quietly been looking forward to for many years. Rook, however, had not been a planned part of his mission; that decision had been his own initiative, and one that he was certain the Decepticon leader would approve of.
Rook was silent for a little while, as he contemplated Astro's unconcerned, almost nonchalant manner which was very far removed from the reserved, quiet mech he thought he had known throughout their time at the Base. "Why did you do it?" He asked, finally, just audible enough for the blue mech to be able to hear him.
"Do what?" Astro slowed to a stop at a busy intersection, and watched the mass of city dwellers move past them with an ebb and flow that reminded him of a pumped oil stream.
"Help me," Rook said simply. Astro turned to the smaller mech, his gaze steady. "How did you know… I–" He faltered, unable to find the right words.
Astro contemplated his reply. He knew what the other had meant without the need for him to have to explain it. "I've… lived through many Great Wars, probably more than most mechs. And I have known soldiers… many of whom forgot their purpose, their reason for being," he began. He spoke solemnly, yet with an assuredness that Rook found almost fascinating. "I've seen what drives us… what motivates us, compels us to do what we do. The fear that we all carry deep down within our sparks; the inner torment… Decepticon, Autobot, Destron… it doesn't matter – it is always the same. Some… find their strength, and learn to use it, though they often require… some encouragement. But those who succumb to their fears eventually self-destruct." He paused, and gave Rook a knowing look. "You, my friend, have always been a Decepticon at heart, though you have yet to understand your part." He scanned the area, indicated down a main thoroughfare. "Come on, this way," he said, and started walking along the wide street.
Rook followed after him, though his thoughts were still on recent events, and how his life had been irrevocably changed ever since Astro had convinced him to leave the Base.
As Astro honed in on his target, the two approached a large subway entrance, and they moved quickly down the flight of steps that led to one of Binaltech's major inter-city transport terminals. At the bottom of the steps he came to a sudden halt, grabbed Rook by the arm as he indicated across to a waiting area.
Rook shifted his gaze to the center of the space, where several commuters awaited the next subway carriage, most of them seated in one of the many chairs that were arranged in rows. But he could see nothing out of the ordinary. "He's here?" He asked, looked back towards Astro in confusion.
Astro shook his head, and then nodded towards one of the seats at the back. "There's a Cybertronian here who might be able to help us," he replied.
Rook looked again, but could not spot any commuters who even remotely resembled a Cybertronian mechanoid. He shook his head. "I don't see him."
"That's because it's not a he; it's a she," the blue mech informed him, with his characteristic assuredness. Then he moved forward into the waiting area, pulling his companion along with him. "Her name's Thunderblast. Just let me do the talking."
"Wait…" Rook didn't have time to assess the situation, as Astro proceeded to take a seat opposite her, while indicating for Rook to do the same.
Astro crossed his arms in front of him, and regarded the purple and yellow femme with quiet contemplation, before he spoke. "Hello, Thunderblast," he greeted her. "I hear Sentinel's quite pleased with you of late."
Thunderblast shifted her gaze in his direction, looking surprised. Her expression slowly turned to suspicion. "And who the slag are you?" She asked scornfully.
Astro ignored her question. "Where's Comet?" He asked.
"Why the hell should I tell you anything?" She replied, in total bewilderment.
His gaze remained steadily fixed upon the femme, as Rook observed their interaction in disbelief. "Because if you don't… I'll just have to let Sentinel in on your little secret."
Thunderblast opened her mouth in shock, and was about to say something but then changed her mind. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Astro leaned forward in his chair, lowered his voice. "Don't you? Let me remind you. Offering Trannis classified information in return for a privileged position within his little outfit…"
The femme became irritated, resentful. She stood up, indignant. "Now, you look here… whatever your name is! I really don't see why that's any concern of yours," she told him, and began to walk away in a hurry.
Astro followed her and, quickly catching up, he pushed her up against a wall, spoke into her audio receptor. "You can call me Astro," he whispered, "and everything you do is a concern of mine." She tried to push him away, but he held her firm.
"Get away from me!" She struggled against his grip and then, realizing that she would never be able to match him in strength, tried a different tactic. "Look, I don't know where Comet is, okay? Now let me go!"
The blue mech shook his head, feigned disappointment. "Don't lie to me, Thunderblast. I know you've been in contact with him."
She looked back at him, exasperated. "That doesn't mean I know where he is," she defended, and then added, "Besides, he's not the type who likes to be easily found. If you ask me, Comet has some serious issues… and he's not easy to get along with, either."
"Never mind that. Just tell me where you last saw him," Astro insisted, as he slowly released her.
She pushed against him, and then recomposed herself. "Oh, I don't know… at some entertainment venue… called Roundup, or something like that. Not too far from here," she said, indicating towards the east. "Are you happy now?" She glanced towards Rook. "What are you looking at?" She asked him, hands on hips, her tone contemptuous.
Rook, his optics covered by his visor, did not give her a reply. Instead, he watched as Astro continued to question the femme. "Did you speak to him?"
Thunderblast shook her head. "No!" Astro began to move towards her, but she backed him off with her hands. "Okay, okay… no need to get your coils in a wind." She crossed her arms, gave them both a sullen look. "I might have spoken to him… for a brief period." She shrugged. "But then… he got a little upset and left in a hurry." The two mechs watched her with curiosity. Behind them, the subway carriage had pulled into the station along its anti-gravity tracks, barely making a sound. She glanced nervously at the commuters as they alighted. "Listen, guys, it's been nice knowing you, really… but I don't want to miss my train," she said, and began to slowly back away from them. "See ya!" She waved, regarding them haughtily, and then burst into a run towards the carriage.
The two Cybertronian mechs watched her go as she mingled with the rest of the passengers who were waiting to get on board. "Should we follow her?" Rook asked.
Astro shook his head. "I don't think we're going to get much more out of that femme." He turned to Rook. "Come on, I think I know the place she was talking about."
The smaller mech remained deep in thought, and then inquired with incredulousness. "She knows Sentinel Prime?"
"She knows a lot of mechs," Astro replied, and then began to lead the way out of the subway terminal, as Rook kept pace behind him.
As Astrotrain shot straight up into the air and out of sight over the top of the dome structure, the two femmes made their way around to the front, walking straight up to the four guards.
"Hey, fellas," Elita One began. "Looks like you've been asleep on the job." The guards started towards her, but Elita stepped safely out of their reach.
"Hey! You two aren't supposed to be here. Leave, now, before we have to call security."
The leader femme was unperturbed by their response. She placed her hand on her hips. "You've got bigger problems." One of the guards gave her a stern look, and she pointed up towards the top of the dome. "There's someone up there."
The four of them looked upwards, and that was all Elita needed to take the nearest guard bot by surprise. She executed a powerful, precise spinning kick, her foot impacting his face and sending him reeling backwards. In the same instant, Chromia performed a jumping front kick, her heel making contact with a second guard's chin, snapping his head back and throwing him off his feet. Before the remaining two guards had an opportunity to defend themselves, the femmes drew their weapons, and blasted them. From somewhere on top of the dome, the sound of metal being torn apart could be heard.
When Elita was certain that all four guard bots were deactivated, she sprinted towards the nearby transport platform, in pursuit of the sentry bots stationed there. However, they had already witnessed the skirmish and were retreating from her advance. She slowed to a stop, watching them as they used the platform to descend below ground. Chromia ran up behind her, catching up. She shook her head, and then spoke to her second in command. "I can't believe we're doing this." She turned around, sprinted back to the main entrance. "If he doesn't show up in the next thirty seconds, I'm personally going to hunt him down and hand him his aft."
"He'll show up," Chromia replied, as she arrived at the entrance, while Elita unsuccessfully attempted to open the doors. The button on the side panel wouldn't grant her access, though she kept trying, more in irritation than anything else.
Elita finally gave up, leaned with her back against the door. "What makes you so sure?"
Chromia shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe you're right; maybe this was all just a bad idea. I mean, who'd ever thought we'd be stealing energy, of all things?"
The pink femme looked at her disparagingly. "Chrome… we're not stealing… we're–" She looked for the right word, but there was none. "Ok…" She sighed. "But what other choice do we have?"
The door she was leaning on began to open, and she leaped away and turned around, weapon drawn.
"Alright, all's clear." It was Astrotrain. He had kept his word. He waved them inside impatiently. "I'd say we've got about less than five minutes all up. Come on, don't just stand there!"
Chromia gave her best friend a discreet smile of relief, as the pink femme ran inside the dome. She followed quickly after them, as Astrotrain closed the door behind her, and then proceeded to show them the way through the multi-tiered structure. He headed towards some wide, spiral steps, and began to climb them as the femmes kept pace with him. Spread about the floor nearby were four deactivated guards.
After a minute or so, they arrived near the top of the dome, where the primary accumulator was housed in an enclosure. Astrotrain forced the panel open, detached the collector pipe and then began siphoning energy directly into his energy absorber, underneath a panel on his chest. When he was finished, he offered the pipe to Elita One, and she and Chromia began collecting the energy into compressed storage units with a small converter she had brought with her.
After a few minutes, they heard commotion coming from below, and were alerted to security guards rushing into the building and spreading out as they began searching the area. "Up there!" They heard one of the security bots say, as several of them ran up the steps after the three of them.
"Time's up," Astrotrain said, as he transformed into his shuttle mode, leaving his side door open for them. "We're out of here."
"Almost done…" Elita One called out behind her, as two guards approached the top level, pointing their weapons towards them. She knew that the three of them could easily take out these guard bots, but they would very soon be joined by several more, and would have them cornered.
She detached the pipe from the converter, and then Chromia helped her move their cargo into the shuttle, as several of the guards began blasting at them with their laser weapons. Chromia responded with a shot from her launcher, which temporarily disrupted the team of bots, sending them into disarray. The two femmes jumped aboard, as Astrotrain closed his hatch and lifted off into the air. He headed straight up towards the thin ceiling that held the large accumulator tube in place through the very center at the top of the dome. A hole had already been punched through the ceiling.
As Elita looked out through the main view screen, the laser blasts continued to shoot up at them through the hole. She shook her head in disbelief. "I can't believe we're doing this."
"Doing what?" The blue femme asked.
Elita looked at her. "Trusting a 'Con," she said, her voice barely audible.
Chromia shrugged. "Stranger things have happened, I guess…"
"I heard that, you know," Astrotrain said, as he moved effortlessly through the air. The break of day was just beginning to light up the horizon, as Alternity City's adopted giant star rose to greet them.
Elita ignored his comment, changed the topic. "You lied to us. You've never been inside that building before, have you?" she confronted him.
Astrotrain was quiet for a while before responding. "I never said I'd been inside that one before. Besides, I got you both in, didn't I?"
"Pfft… typical," Elita scoffed, off-hand.
Chromia gave her a doubtful look. "He did help us, Elita. That's got to count for something, right?" She said in a low voice.
Astrotrain cut in, changing the subject. "So… where to now?"
"Anywhere's fine by us," Elita replied, not wanting to give away the location of their temporary base.
"Suit yourself," the space shuttle said, as he began to drop down out of the sky, veering towards a side alley. He landed gently, and opened the door to let them out. Once they had both disembarked, he transformed back into his robot mode, and then looked around, checking for any sign of trouble. The area seemed to be safe enough. He watched as they transformed and sped down the alleyway without saying another word. Then, as soon as they had turned a corner and were out of sight, he headed in the opposite direction.
The sub-level tunnel system in Antihex was much like the one in Polyhex; a confusing web of unwelcoming, gloomy passageways. At least, that's what it felt like to Sideswipe, as he raced in vehicle mode along the transit-route that led from Iacon's south to an outer region of Antihex. For several breems, he had followed the freight vehicle that carried the two Neutrals down the sub-level tunnel, until he reached an access point that terminated just outside some kind of large storage compound. As the freight car came to a stop some distance away, he silently transformed back into his robot mode and took cover inside a small recess set inside the nearby wall. He watched in silence as the two Neutrals disembarked from the vehicle and began unloading sealed containers into the adjacent storage area. Once they had completed their task, the empty carriage continued along the transit route, quickly disappearing out of sight. He kept his gaze fixed upon the open door to the storage area, which looked like a vast storehouse filled with crates and more sealed containers, and contemplated his next move.
Having kept a safe distance from the Neutrals, simply observing them for so many years, Sideswipe felt as though he'd finally hit a stone wall. If he wanted to get a much deeper understanding of what was truly going on with the Alliance, he decided that he'd have to take a few risks, and this situation could prove to be just the opportunity he needed to get a little closer to them. He took a few moments to formulate some kind of strategy in his head, and then inhaled slowly, deeply, before pushing off the recess wall and walking directly up to the open doorway.
The inside of the storage area consisted of rows of shelving units and cargo bays. He made his way toward a shelf to his right, and saw that it was filled with reinforced containers. He picked one up and examined it, noticed that there was no designation mark attached to it, which was, in itself, unusual. Storage containers back in Iacon always carried an identity seal and a corresponding designation mark, but these appeared to have neither of those things; nor was he able to open the container.
He heard some distant voices that were coming from the far side of the room, and placed the container back on the shelf. The two Neutrals he had followed were speaking to a third, who sounded like he was giving them orders; probably their superior, Unit 4-0-2, Sideswipe thought with sarcasm. He began to slowly walk towards them and, as they looked up to see who was approaching, he put on his most charming smile. "Hi, there!" He greeted them, as they looked at him circumspectly. "Listen, uh… I must have gotten a little lost. I'm really sorry, and I hate to bother you and all, but… maybe you could help me out?"
One of the Neutrals spoke in a low voice to his comrade. "He must be one of the recruits." Then he addressed Sideswipe. "You're in the wrong sector, Autobot. All non-Neutral recruits are to assemble at the ancillary headquarters."
Sideswipe's optics lit up in feigned excitement. "Oh! Of course… I don't know how I ever got that one wrong. Um…" He scratched his neck in a show of puzzlement. "Ancillary headquarters…?"
"Yeah. Just keep following the tunnel; it'll be the next large building you see, to the left," the Neutral informed him, indicating towards the adjacent transit route with his finger.
The red and black Autobot nodded gratefully. "Oh… 'kay. Thank you, thank you so much," he said, as he started to step away from them. "You've been a great help! I owe you guys one," he finished, with a smile. He broke into a jog back towards the open doorway, before turning left out of sight.
The small team of Autobots had made their way steadily along the main road that led to Darkmount, for almost an hour. The landscape seemed deserted, as if it had been abandoned long ago, and for a good while Ratchet thought that they'd never encounter another living mech, let alone any Decepticons. But another part of him half expected that they would be ambushed at any moment, or perhaps find themselves in an unexpected battle against Devastator.
He and his team members came to a stop behind Optimus, as their leader approached the end of the road. Behind them, he could see four Neutral backup teams waiting to assist them should the Autobots have need of them.
A large, solitary tower stood against the clear sky in front of them. A tall, thin spire at its top pointed upwards, reaching into Cybertron's atmosphere like a giant needle piercing into the heavens. The former ruins of Darkmount fortress, ancient remnants which had occupied this very same spot for several millennia, had obviously been removed. The location looked nothing like what Ratchet remembered.
"Hm, the Constructicons have been busy…" Optimus said out loud, to no one in particular. He paused for a moment in silence, before issuing orders to his senior officers. "Let's remain cautious. Ratchet, you and Hot Rod go around to the left. Trailbreaker, you and Bluestreak go right. I'm going to see if there's any way inside that tower. We'll all meet back here." He paused again, and then ordered, "Remember… let's try to avoid any traps, and stay on guard."
Ratchet nodded. "We'll try, Optimus." Then, he and Hot Rod began to head towards the side of the structure, scanning for any sign of life or activity as he went. While Hot Rod kept pace beside him, the Neutral teams held their positions, standing on the alert and ready. "This is unusual. The readings I'm getting don't indicate that there's anything here at all. It's almost as if the whole structure just doesn't exist."
The orange and red Autobot beside him looked up at the large tower in puzzlement, and then slowly approached its featureless, metallic wall. "Huh; that's odd." He extended one hand, ran it along the smooth surface. "Feels real enough," he commented.
"I can't seem to pick up any power emanations of any kind," Ratchet continued. "I just don't get it."
"Do you think it's some kind of a decoy?" Hot Rod asked.
Ratchet shrugged. "Could be. Come on, let's–" He replied, but was startled by a strange sound. He looked around them warily, expecting an enemy attack, but saw nothing unusual. Then, a glimpse of something moving in the distance, a metallic gleam, caught his attention. "Over there! I thought I saw something," he said to Hot Rod, and motioned for them to investigate further ahead.
Hot Rod raced in front, disappearing around the back of the tower. Ratchet began to follow him as he rescanned the area, but his readings still showed nought. "Hot Rod, wait up–" But as he approached the rear of the structure, he stopped short. "Hot Rod?" He repeated, though this time his tone expressed sheer confoundment.
The scene that greeted him was nothing like what he had expected. In front of him, a flat, metallic landscape stretched out as far as he could see. There were no other structures to speak of, no roads or transit routes, no subterranean access points. All the ruins of what once used to be Darkmount fortress seemed to have completely vanished, replaced by the stark, metallic surface. But what worried him most of all, was that Hot Rod was nowhere to be seen.
Ratchet motioned for one of the backup teams to move closer, while he retraced his steps; perhaps his partner had followed the tower right around and had returned back to their starting position; however, even as Ratchet thought of this possible scenario, he had already dismissed it as unlikely.
Two of the other Neutral teams were hovering around the front, looking uncertain. Ratchet approached them, and demanded to know what was going on. "Where's Optimus?" He said, looking around.
One of the Neutral bots hesitated in his reply. "I… don't understand it. One minute he was just here, and then the next…" The look of confusion upon his face was genuine, and Ratchet shook his head. He continued on around to the other side of the tower. Perhaps Optimus had decided to team up with Trailbreaker; he could think of no other explanation for his apparent disappearance.
As the other side of the tower came into view, the repair specialist slowed to a stop and slowly looked around. It felt as if he were experiencing a bad dream; right in the heart of Decepticon territory, and now his Autobot team mates were suddenly nowhere to be seen. How was this possible?
Bewildered, and lost as to what to do next, a sudden sensation of what felt like suspended animation overtook him without warning.
The auxiliary headquarters in Antihex were easy enough to find. Stepping off the transit route, Sideswipe arrived at an empty courtyard that led to a modern looking building, which featured a large, golden metallic plaque fashioned into the Neutral emblem right above the entranceway doors. Sideswipe approached the steps in front of the building, and began to have second thoughts. Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea, after all. What if he were treated with hostility? He knew that officially, Autobots and Neutrals shared a common goal, and had entered into a formal agreement to take responsibility for the safeguarding of the planet. Yet, he couldn't help the feeling that, as an uninvited Autobot, he wouldn't be welcome here.
He stopped in front of the doors, and noticed immediately that he would require an input code to get inside. Hesitating, he recalled his former Autobot security code. He had not used it since he had been dismissed from active service in the Autobot army soon after the end of the Great War, and strongly doubted that it would work, but he had nothing to lose in trying. He was about to press the buttons on the keypad to input the code, when the doors slid open and a mech walked out of the building. He offered the Neutral a curt nod and a smile, and then quickly slipped past him and inside the structure before the doors sealed closed again.
The interior consisted of multi-levelled open spaces, unlike the Command Centre in Iacon. Upon a second level platform, a large Neutral stood looking down at a small assembly of non-Neutral mechanoids. They all looked like typical Autobots, though he could not get a clear view of their faction symbols or their faces, as they all had their backs turned to him. Sideswipe did not immediately recognize any of them, though that was probably due to the fact that they were all new recruits, as he himself had been referred to only a short while ago; however, there was something about the group that just didn't sit right with him. Why would the Neutrals be recruiting Autobots? He looked down at his own red faction emblem in the middle of his chest, an instant reminder of all he had been through since the Great War and the start of the New Era, as well as future battles which he knew he had yet to face. He instinctively crossed his arms and looked out across the small gathering. Sauntering closer to the crowd, he attempted to fit in as the Neutral prepared his speech. Then, once a few more bots had entered the building, the group quietened down as the announcement began.
"It is no accident that you are all here. Each and every one of you will have a very important role to play in the coming days." The Neutral paused dramatically, as he observed the mesmerised crowd. His voice was authoritative, its very nature commanding absolute respect from his followers. "And each of you will play your part to perfection. That is why you are here. Let there be no mistake. Yes, you are Autobot, yet you have all been summoned to a higher calling. Each and every one of you has been especially chosen to become a part… of the new revolution!" His voice increased in volume, and it seemed to resonate all around the large interior of the building. "A revolution that will change… the very foundations of what you are all used to. From this day forth, you will continue to go about your daily tasks, resuming your function amongst the Autobots… and await your orders. The coming of the new Supremacy draws inevitably closer, and you have all been entrusted to ensure that our secret remains safe, until that day… when Autobot… or Decepticon… is no more."
Sideswipe had to keep from the sudden shock and anger that threatened to overwhelm him. He shook his head, looking away from the speaker, as he tried to comprehend what he had just heard. The crowd remained fixated upon the Neutral, as he raised his fist in the air, glancing from one Autobot to the next in smug satisfaction. The speaker's attention finally focused upon Sideswipe and his smile slowly faded, replaced by an expression of caution and irritation. He waved at one of his assistants, who nodded and then rushed towards the platform that led down to the ground floor.
"Uh, slag…" Sideswipe said in a quiet whisper. His cover had been blown, and he needed to get out of there. He headed towards the entrance doors, but they were sealed closed. Glancing behind him, he saw that the assistant had been joined by three others, and were steadily heading his way. Realizing that he wouldn't be able to escape through the doors, he approached the Autobot crowd instead, addressing them. "Why are you allowing this to happen? They're using you! Don't you see that? What the slag is wrong with you all?" He shouted, trying to get their attention, and they turned to face him. For a moment, it looked as though Sideswipe might get through to them. "You're Autobots, for Primus' sake – don't listen to them!" He continued, pointing towards the Neutrals, who had now surrounded the crowd. They were closing in on him, and he backed away, taking cover in amongst the crowd.
Their superior pointed towards Sideswipe from his position on the second level, and gave orders to those below. "Don't let him get away!"
All of a sudden, Sideswipe found himself fending off a multitude of arms, as both Autobots and Neutrals sought to grab hold of him. He ducked out of their way; fortunately, he was quicker than the Autobots, but ultimately it was the anger that he felt which granted him the motivation and determination to escape their clutches.
Noticing the main doors beginning to open once again, he pushed his way through the crowd and bolted towards them. A startled Autobot moved away from the entrance as Sideswipe rushed past him. Without looking back, he transformed into his vehicular mode and sped away from the building, covering the empty square outside within a matter of seconds, before he swerved right onto the transit route and disappeared.
The sensation lasted only a few micro seconds, though Ratchet could have sworn that an eternity could have passed and he'd have never known it. He had not been ready for what confronted him when he awoke; though, in hindsight, he supposed that it hadn't been entirely unexpected, considering that his team of Autobots and accompanying Neutrals had encroached into the heart of familiar Decepticon territory uninvited, despite the recent reclaiming of the province following the new directive to outlaw their enemy.
He picked himself up from the floor following a sudden loss of balance, and looked around. Energy bars immediately surrounded him in a circular prison, though it was too dark for him to see anything clearly beyond them. The rough ceiling above him looked to be made of an alloy-enhanced rock. He cycled his visual range through from infra-red to x-ray, but it still didn't help; even his scans came up blank. It was as if there was nothing really here. He reached out to touch the energy bars in puzzlement, and then pulled his hand away as a sudden jolt of plasma energy scrambled the micro circuits in his hand.
"Like a turbo-rat caught in a steel trap," a voice suddenly echoed within the quiet chamber.
Ratchet turned about, looking for the owner of the voice. He did not see anybody there, though he thought the voice sounded vaguely familiar. "Who said that?" He said, growling. "Show yourself." There was no response, so the chief Autobot repair specialist prodded further. "What's the matter, you too afraid?"
"You Autobots aren't too smart," the voice said again. Then, its owner revealed himself, stepping forward and stopping just short of the bars. The soft glow that emanated from the columns of energy was enough to illuminate the immediate surroundings, including the smaller mechanoid.
The Autobot looked down upon him in obvious disapproval. "Rumble… What's going on here? Where are the others?" He demanded accusingly.
"What others?" The smaller robot replied.
"Don't play stupid with me. What have you done with them? Let me speak to Prime." Ratchet's voiced conveyed what he felt; impatience, irritability, and the feeling of having been cheated.
Rumble stood looking up at him, his red visor hiding his optics, and with them any expression that might have given away his thoughts and feelings. He shook his head. "Sorry, but that's not up to me."
"Now you listen here. Get me out of this cage right this cycle, or you're going to wish you'd never been sparked," the white and red Autobot threatened.
"Hey, you should never have come here," Rumble replied defensively.
Ratchet crossed his arms in front of his chest, and grimaced. He was obviously not going to get any meaningful answers from this obnoxious Decepticon mini spy, so he tried a different approach. "You know… I never thought I'd see the likes of you again. Thought you and your ilk didn't survive the War." A moment of silence fell between them, before he spoke again. "Soundwave did survive… didn't he?"
Rumble shrugged. "What do you care?"
Ratchet shook his head in disbelief, as if Rumble's answer exactly proved his long-held belief that all Decepticons were the same; conceited and self-serving. "I don't get it. You're all so darned determined to get your way; you'll go to any means to do it." Ratchet was finding it harder and harder to keep his anger and frustration under control.
Although he had never had any personal conflicts with Rumble, the blue Decepticon did, nevertheless, represent the despised enemy faction; the faction that had not only been at the very heart of the Great Wars, but had also, somehow, brought the dark plague upon them. To Ratchet, Rumble also represented the very reason why so many Autobots since that time had tragically lost their lives, often under terrifying, and sometimes highly circumspect, conditions. "You've no regard for Cybertronian life – you're all murderous thieves…" He trailed off, aware that if he continued he'd break into a fit of anger, and that's the last thing he wanted to do right now; show the enemy his weakness.
Rumble was about to open his mouth to say something in response, but then thought better of it. Perhaps it was best he wait until one of the other Decepticons had a talk with the Autobot. Of course, the accusations that had just spouted from Ratchet's mouth gave him more than enough reasons to want to deactivate the unwelcome visitor right here and now, but he had heard it all before and, in a way, had gotten used to it, had learned not to react so much.
He decided that the Autobot wasn't worth it and began to turn around and leave, when Ratchet spoke again. "Tell me something. Do you actually enjoy it?" His voice had lost its aggression, though the underlying derision and repulsion that he felt towards the Decepticons remained. "Do you enjoy… watching your victims suffer as you look into their optics, as you drain the last trace of energon from them, as you watch their life sparks slowly extinguish?" The chamber fell quiet once again as neither of them moved until, finally, Rumble slowly turned around to face him again. Behind him, a larger, blue and white Decepticon emerged from the darkened recesses of the chamber.
"Well, I'm glad to see you are both doing fine," Ratchet said with obvious sarcasm, addressing the larger Decepticon. His frustration was surfacing once more. "Now, get… me… the… frag… out of here!"
Soundwave's red visor and face mask made it impossible for the Autobot medic to determine his intentions, which frustrated him more than he cared to admit. He realized then just how many Decepticons actually wore a face mask, compared to Autobots he'd known, who rarely did; he had always believed that to do so was a sign of disrespect amongst his kind, and a privilege that was usually reserved only for the Prime.
"First, we have a message for you Autobots," Rumble spoke once more, but this time his tone had taken on a much more serious tone that hadn't been there before. "Go tell your Alliance that we won't back down, and we won't surrender. Don't try coming back here again, 'cause if you do, we will do whatever it takes to defend ourselves." Then he began to retreat back into the shadows.
"Hey, now wait just a minute, come back here–" The Autobot called out after him, but it was too late. The two Decepticons had vanished back into the darkness just as quickly as they had appeared, and he found himself alone again in the chamber.
A few more seconds went by, before that sensation of non-physicality and timelessness, as if he were travelling beyond the reaches of time and space itself, unexpectedly enveloped him once more.
Optimus Prime recovered quickly from a sudden sensation of being in an altered state of consciousness. The experience had come upon him without warning; all he knew was that one moment he was approaching the tower, and then the next, he was inside a small, well-lit, empty room, polished metallic surfaces on every side. Part of the room was enclosed behind energy bars, where he now stood, and directly across from him a sealed door appeared to be the only exit. He had no idea where he was, or how he'd gotten to be here, although if he had to hazard a guess he would say that the Decepticons had used some kind of teleportation technology that he had previously not been aware they possessed. He was probably still in Polyhex, though to assume any more than that would just be relying upon mere speculation.
His first reaction was to activate a com channel in an attempt to contact the rest of his team. "Trailbreaker… Ratchet. Do you read me?" He was greeted with nothing but silence, not even the familiar static that sometimes filtered through a normal broadcast. "Trailbreaker?" He tried one more time, before realizing that he was essentially alone, cut off from any means of communication, and he wondered, regretfully, whether the rest of his team had not fallen into the same trap.
Absorbed in his thoughts, he berated himself for not having anticipated the possibility of such a covert ambush. Had he underestimated the enemy's capabilities, their strategies, their resources? Perhaps he had become overly complacent, had relied too much upon the Autobot-Neutral Alliance to keep the Decepticon threat under control. He replayed these thoughts over in his head, while looking for a possible way out of his current predicament, when the door on the other side of the room silently slid open. He watched as several Decepticons entered, and immediately recognized each one. It did not surprise him in the least to see them here now; the Decepticon leader himself, followed by all six of the Constructicons.
He walked up to the bars, as close as he could get without touching them. "What have you done with the rest of my team?" He demanded, not wasting a moment.
"I've done nothing with them," Megatron replied, speaking calmly yet deliberately. He stepped closer towards the Autobot leader, stopped short in front of him. The Constructicons remained where they were, quietly observing the exchange. "Why did you come here?" The Decepticon leader demanded to know.
Optimus looked at him defiantly. "Let me speak to them," he said, ignoring the other's question.
"The same way you allowed Scavenger the same privilege?" Megatron replied. The mentioned Constructicon watched with quiet interest beside Scrapper and Mixmaster, who both stood beside him in protective stances.
"That's not the same thing, Megatron," Optimus returned, glancing towards the former prisoner. "Scavenger has been condemned for the serious assault of an Autobot. Or did he fail to leave out that minor detail?"
"Oh, yes… condemned." The Decepticon leader slowly paced the small room, parallel to the bars. He took his time before responding, facing away from the Prime. "For being a Decepticon."
"There were no other mechs in the vicinity when Groove was attacked. What would you have me believe – that he did it to himself?" Optimus spoke in anger, and at that same moment he heard Jazz's words in his mind, as clearly as though his First Lieutenant had spoken them only yesterday.
'Prime, what if I were to tell you that Scavenger wasn't the one who attacked Groove?'
"Your arrogance blinds you." Megatron turned back towards him, slowly pacing until he stood in front of him again. "If you really want to know what happened to Groove… perhaps you should ask Sentinel Prime." He paused, observing the Autobot leader's reaction. Optimus gave nothing away; it helped that his battle mask covered most of his facial features. Megatron continued speaking. "I'll keep this brief. The Neutrals have no business within Cybertron Command, just as the High Council had no business issuing their directive against us. By doing so, they have broken an agreement. So, if a war is what they are after, then that is exactly what they will get."
"What… agreement?" Optimus asked. He appeared confused, unprepared for the words that Megatron had just spoken.
The Decepticon leader disregarded the question. "That no longer matters. What matters is that if you know what's good for you and your Autobots, you'll stay out of Polyhex… and put an end to your Alliance with the Neutrals."
Optimus' blue optics remained fixed upon Megatron, conveying stubborn defiance. "You know I can't do that. Don't turn this into another war, Megatron. You won't survive." It sounded almost as if he were pleading with him, hoping against hope that it would never have to come to that.
"You really don't get it, do you?" Megatron's tone was stern, determined. "The Autobots are nothing more than collateral in your Alliance… and you are too proud, too foolish, to see it." He finished speaking, and then started to walk back towards the door.
"Wait, Megatron…" The Autobot leader called after him. "If you allow Scavenger to return with us to Iacon… I will try to convince the High Council to give him a full trial, if you and the rest of the Decepticons will leave Cybertron. At least that way… there's still a chance. It's the best I can do."
The Decepticon leader stood with his back turned to him, and for a while it looked as though he was contemplating Optimus' offer. But after several long seconds, he gave Optimus his answer. "I've negotiated with them once before… to overturn a conviction. It won't work a second time." Then, he opened the door and exited the small room without looking back. The Constructicons quietly followed him out and, as the door closed behind them, Optimus stared at the empty space in front of him, alone again with his thoughts.