Sideswipe kept to the least used roads on his way back to Iacon. He needed time to process what he had just experienced in Antihex, and to decide his next move. He had long suspected that the Neutrals were keeping up a front; he had known that they were not as impartial or altruistic as they wanted everyone else to believe, but he never would have suspected such a dangerous, clandestine agenda underlying their true motive.
It was only now, as Iacon's iconic Command Center came into view before him, that he realized just how much the Autobots were in danger. However, the danger did not come from any Decepticon this time – no, the reality was much more sinister than that, and not just because it all seemed to be unfolding right under their very noses – the worrisome part was that very few, if any, Autobots had any clue about what was actually going on. There were so many questions that he now needed to have answered but, also, so many questions that he could now answer. The Neutrals were the one piece of the whole puzzle that had never seemed to fit together correctly. Until now.
Speeding ahead, he engaged his brakes a little too late as he approached the grand entrance and overshot his mark.
"Hey, watch it!" A gruff voice called out, and he realized with annoyance that it was a mini-bot. He had almost run him over in his vehicle mode – a sleek, red hover car. Transforming into his robot mode, he approached the mech with the intention of offering him an apology. "Why don't you watch where you're going?" The mini-bot reprimanded him.
"Look, I'm sorry, but I didn't see you and–" Sideswipe stopped in front of him, looked down upon his much shorter frame. He could have intimidated him easily enough, if he'd had the inclination.
"Yeah? Save it for someone who cares." The small, yet tough-talking mech was already in a foul mood, and their minor altercation had only made it worse.
He was beginning to test Sideswipe's patience. "You know what? That's just fine with me, Brawn," he replied and then started to turn away, heading towards the large, double doors that led into the Command Center within Iacon Central.
"Hey! I remember you…" The mini-bot called out after him, and Sideswipe hesitated, turned back. "You're Side-slagger…" He mocked, laughing at him. The sound made Sideswipe want to cringe.
"It's Side-swipe, and if I'd known it was you, I would have just run you over!" He shot back.
"Oh yeah… well, I dare ya!" Brawn replied, placing his hands on his hips, and then paused in thought, appraising him. "Didn't think you'd have the mettle to show your face around here again."
Sideswipe couldn't believe Brawn's blatant insensitivity; if that was how he truly felt, the least he could have done was keep his unwanted remarks to himself. Sideswipe opened his mouth to say something in reply, but then changed his mind. Instead, he shook his head in disbelief, and started to walk away again. He didn't need this; he had bigger problems to worry about right now.
"What's the matter, Side-swipe, forgotten how to act like a true warrior?" Brawn continued to mock him as he watched the taller Autobot walk away.
Sideswipe couldn't listen to him any more; the nerve of that mini-bot was proving to be too much for him to take, and he spun around, shouted back at him. "Why don't you go and stick your head in the waste processor, Brawn? I don't have time for your ignorance." Brawn stared back at him critically, but made no further comment.
Sideswipe turned his back toward him one more time and continued on his way. He didn't stop until he reached the double doors to Iacon Central, making his way determinedly up the wide steps. He input his security code at the door panel, half-expecting to be denied entry and, sure enough, was confronted with an error message from Teletraan II. He looked about, pausing for an instant before attempting the same code a second time. He received the same error message, and slammed an open hand against the door, leaned against it in frustration. "Come on… open up," he tried to coax it, but he knew that it was a pointless exercise.
'Please enter your security code,' the central computer requested, ever patient.
"Apparently, I no longer have one," he said aloud, and then shook his head. Turning around, he began to head back down the steps, looking for an alternative means of getting inside the Command Center, but was stopped by a friendly voice from behind him.
"The codes were all changed." He turned to see the welcome sight of Arcee. "Here, maybe I can help." She walked up to the doors, and input her code. The doors slid open without issue.
"Thanks!" He said, and smiled at her warmly. "It's sure good to see you again."
She smiled back at him, led the way inside. "And why is that?" She teased.
"Oh, no reason…" He trailed off, glancing back towards Brawn, but the mini-bot was nowhere in sight.
Thankfully, she changed the subject. "So, have you decided to rejoin the ranks, then?"
"What?" Sideswipe started, confused, but then quickly caught on. "Oh… well, no. Not exactly." She waited expectantly for him to continue, and an awkward silence followed before he explained further. "Actually, I need to speak to Prime about something…"
"Optimus isn't here at the moment, but you can speak to Prowl, instead?" Another minute went by as Arcee led the way in silence, and then they slowed to a stop in the hallway that led through to the Control Room. "Well, here we are. You'll need proper authorisation to enter beyond this point," she informed him in a friendly manner.
He nodded, and thought that her optics conveyed a subtle, unexplained sadness, despite her cheerful manner. "Thanks. Really. For everything." He looked about the brightly lit hall, and memories of times now passed came flooding back into his main processor. "I can’t believe how much things have changed since I was here last."
"That's exactly what I thought, too." Arcee looked at him empathically. Her expression showed slight concern, though she didn't make any further comment.
Sideswipe paused, and returned her gaze. "Arcee… I'm sorry, where are my manners?" He sighed, shook his head. "I completely forgot to ask about you. How have you been?"
She shrugged, smiled again. "Great. Everyone's been so wonderful. I've been assigned to help out in the med bay. It's… kind of a dream come true for me, actually."
"That's great. I'm happy for you, Arcee. I really am."
She thought that he seemed distant, his thoughts a million miles away. "Is there anything I can do to help?" She asked him, her voice soothing.
"I'm not sure." He refocused his gaze upon her once more, deciding whether he should confide in her before he spoke to the Autobot higher-ups about the Alliance. Right now, she was the only Autobot he knew that he could really trust. "I–" He shook his head, looked away. "I don't know how to tell you this, Arcee…" He still wasn't certain himself about the implications of sharing what he'd just learned about the Neutrals. Letting the other Autobots know would most likely create a division amongst them; some would undoubtedly fight to stay with the Alliance, whilst others would bravely face the truth of the situation, whether they liked it or not. He was almost certain that there would be consequences to blowing the cover on the Neutrals' agenda that he hadn't even thought of yet.
She nodded in understanding, ever patient. "If I have something difficult to say, I find that, sometimes… the best way to deal with the situation is to just come straight out and say it."
Sideswipe contemplated her words, took his time doing so. He respected her, not just as an Autobot, but also as a good friend. He inhaled deeply, and then exhaled slowly. "Okay. I think… the Autobots have made a huge mistake." Arcee nodded, listening carefully as he spoke, genuinely interested in what he had to say. She did not want him to feel uncomfortable; it was obvious that something weighed heavily on his mind and, whatever it was, she sensed the seriousness of it. He would not have come back to Iacon Central otherwise. "Forming an alliance with the Neutrals. They're bad news, Arcee – real bad news. And I think… we might all be in danger."
A look of consternation crossed her face, and she tried to make sense of what he had just told her. He did not need to convince her of the truth of his words, nor did she need to know all the details about what he may have seen or heard recently that had caused him to come to such a drastic conclusion. She lowered her voice, placed a hand on his arm. "I'll go and find Prowl. Will you be alright to wait here? I shouldn't be too long."
"Sure," he said, taking another deep breath. "Go ahead; I'll wait here."
"Okay," she replied, and then started down the hall towards the Control Room, her pace quick and light.
Sideswipe waited in the hall, watching her go until she was out of sight.
Optimus had spent almost an hour in the holding cell, alone. Being isolated from the rest of the Autobots was difficult enough; however, not knowing where they were, or even if they were still alive, was something that he could barely tolerate much longer. His thoughts kept returning to recent events; Elita and her crew's sudden departure from Cybertron; Jazz's consequential actions against the High Council's directive; Groove's critical condition back at Iacon and; now, the immediate danger to his small team of Autobots, who had more than likely also been captured by the Decepticons.
So when Megatron eventually re-entered the small room, this time unaccompanied, he felt a certain sense of relief, despite the circumstances. As the leader of the rival faction stood before the cell's energy bars, he couldn't help but feel unsettled by the strong, red glow that emanated from his optic sensors.
"I have listened to your proposition, Optimus Prime… and now you will listen to mine," Megatron said, his tone steady, uncompromising. Optimus faced him, but said nothing, allowed him to speak. "I have tried to reason with you, on several occasions, and all for nothing. So, instead, I'm going to give you an ultimatum, which is simply this: you must give me your word… that no Decepticon shall come to any harm at the hands of the Alliance... and, in return, I shall allow your Autobot companions to go free… along with the Neutrals who accompanied you here."
The Autobot leader looked back at his long-time adversary with restrained anger, though he was not surprised at the other's proposition – in fact, he should have expected something like this. "You know I can't ensure the safety of any Decepticon – especially if they continue to violate the rulings of Cybertron's governance agreement. Why don't you just let my team go… you have me… isn't that enough?"
Megatron shook his head in mock disappointment. "What use are you to me alone, Optimus Prime? I simply wish to ensure the safety and well-being of those under my command. Surely you, yourself, can understand that. But, if you decide to turn down my offer… well, then… I cannot guarantee the safety and well-being of your own team."
Optimus groaned in frustration, turned away from him. Considering his options, he realized that the lives of his friends and fellow officers depended upon the decision that he was about to make. After a long moment in thought, he turned slowly around to face Megatron once more. "What's to stop me from simply going back on my word, the minute you've released us?"
The question was not one that the Autobot Prime Commander would have usually asked. Megatron held out his hands in a conversational gesture, palms open. "You are free to take that course of action, if you wish. Although, I hardly expect a Prime's promise to be without integrity or honour, and worth nothing. Only you, and your conscience, must bear the consequence of such a decision."
As much as Optimus hated to admit it, Megatron was right. He could make a false promise, give his word without any intention of honouring it afterwards; but, was he prepared to live with such a dishonourable act? As the Autobot's Prime Commander, speaking truth had always been synonymous with fighting for freedom and justice; values that he was not prepared to put aside for anyone, not even now. He had an obligation, a certain code of honour to uphold, and the current situation did not justify going against it. Megatron knew this, of course, and was using it against him to get what he wanted, but it would leave him with little choice. "Very well… I will instruct… the Autobots under my command to cease enforcing the Council's directive. However… I have no power to tell the High Council or the Neutrals what to do in that regard."
Megatron listened to his response, gave it serious consideration. "I accept your promise." He gave a half-smile, satisfied that he had finally gained some ground with the Autobot leader. "I knew you'd make the right decision, Optimus Prime."
The Decepticon leader left the room and, after a minute, Optimus felt himself unable to stop the process as he was instantly transferred back outside the tower, unconscious.
Sideswipe instinctively straightened as the Autobot Chief of Security appeared in the hallway from the main Control Center, accompanied by Arcee. The mech slowed to a stop in front of him, looking him up and down as if he were appraising a new recruit. It made Sideswipe feel uncomfortable, but he refrained from commenting.
"Sideswipe," Prowl greeted him, his tone detached, formal. He gave a slight nod of his head. "It's good to have you back."
He couldn't determine the sincerity of Prowl's words, nor was he able to determine what his reaction was going to be after he'd said what he had come here to say. "Ah… yeah, look, I'm not here to…" Sideswipe hesitated, briefly glanced at Arcee for reassurance. She was smiling calmly back at him, her optics offering unwavering encouragement. He inhaled slowly, and then began again. "I've got to speak to Prime about the Alliance. It's important."
Prowl waited for him to continue, but when he didn't, he prompted for more information. "I see. Prime is currently away on assignment… and has left me in charge." He paused, contemplating the situation. "Whatever it is that you wish to tell him, you can tell me."
Sideswipe nodded affirmatively. "Alright…" He replied. "Look, I just came here to warn you all…" He faltered, tried to find the courage to speak what was on his mind.
"Just tell him what you told me, Sideswipe," Arcee guided him gently, noticing his difficulty. "You'll do fine."
He nodded, and then stared back at Prowl's reserved, expressionless face. Perhaps it was just a façade he put on – his own way of masking deeply buried sentiments from a mental torment that he was not allowing himself to acknowledge. Not a single Autobot that he had ever known had been left untouched by the Great War, in one way or another. 'You should never judge a bot by his color', his twin and brother, Sunstreaker, had always told him; or, in this case, by his lack of expression. He fought to push those memories out of his mind, not wanting to focus upon his own inner turmoil. "To tell you that the Alliance with the Neutrals has to end. They've been lying to you from the beginning. If you don't do something now, it'll be too late. They're already planning a take over, even as we speak."
"I see," Prowl replied uncertainly. "Sideswipe… you are making an extremely serious accusation. You do realize that?" He did not doubt Sideswipe's sincerity, or the fact that he truly believed what he was telling them; his main concern was whether the former Autobot warrior wasn't deluding himself. Sideswipe looked confused by his question but did not respond immediately, so he sighed, nodded his head. "Very well. Let us talk somewhere in private. Please… Follow me," he said, and then turned and started to walk back up the hall, towards the Command Center.
Sideswipe hesitated, glanced at Arcee, before catching up to walk behind the Second-in-Command.
* * *
Prowl sealed the door to the Conference Room closed before taking a seat at the table. He indicated for Sideswipe to do the same, taking his time before speaking. "There's no easy way to tell you this, Sideswipe, so I'll be honest with you." He sighed, exhaled slowly, carefully. "As I said earlier, the accusations you made are serious. Of course… we cannot disregard any important matter that comes to our attention… however, what you're saying – you must understand that for the Alliance to even consider investigating the validity of such accusations… will require at least some plausible reason."
The room fell quiet, as Sideswipe absorbed Prowl's words. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Wait – so… what you're telling me is, you're not going to do anything about it?"
Prowl sat back in his seat, folded his arms in front of him. "Not at all. In fact, if there's any truth to it… rest assured that appropriate action will be taken."
Sideswipe placed a hand under his chin in contemplation, looked down at the floor. "'If there's any truth to it,'" he repeated. "You know, if I didn't know you better, Prowl, I'd say that you think I'm making this all up." He looked up at Prowl; as usual, his expression was unreadable. "I… do know you better than that… right, Prowl?"
A long moment of silence followed, and Sideswipe was beginning to feel that perhaps he might have a harder time getting his message across to Autobot Command than he had first thought. When Prowl broke the silence, his tone was harsher. "You should be thankful that I'm even taking the time to listen to your… as yet, unsubstantiated stories. As non-military personnel, the Alliance is under no obligation to take what you say under advisement, let alone respond to your accusations."
"Accusations?" Sideswipe rose slightly from his seat, his palms planted firmly down on the table top. "I can't believe what you're telling me, Prowl. What the hell's gotten into you?" The blue light of his optics dimmed slightly as anger and frustration began to well up inside him. "Did you even comprehend one word I said?"
Prowl did not appear intimidated at all by the former warrior; if anything, his volatile behaviour only helped justify his own position. "Every word." He stood up and walked towards a wall terminal, proceeded to monitor a data stream on a small display screen in front of him. His back was turned towards his ex-comrade as he spoke. "You are convinced… that the Neutrals, and the Alliance, pose a threat to the Autobots. You base this on the claim that they have been deceitful in their dealings with us, and that they are planning to undermine our joint leadership… which would, by the way, effectively cancel the governance agreement; the very agreement that has guaranteed – and continues to guarantee – both us, and them, not only the safety and security of all Cybertronians against the Decepticons and their allies, but also the sharing of all resources for our mutual benefit." He paused, considering his next question carefully. "Can you give me one good reason why they would want to work against us?"
Sideswipe gave an exasperated sigh, slowly sat back down again. "Look, I have no idea why – all I know is that it's the truth. I witnessed them talking about it with my own sensors – I was right there among them!"
Silence filled the room; and the uneasiness between the two was palpable. Prowl took his time answering, ignoring the agitated state of the other mech. Finally, he exhaled, slowly and deliberately. "There's also another consideration… that needs to be dealt with. It concerns you, Sideswipe."
This caused Sideswipe to sit up suddenly, cautiously alert. He did not like where this conversation was heading. "Yeah… how so?"
Prowl stiffened, and then turned to face him again. "The circumstances of your dismissal from active duty–"
"I don't see what that's got anything to do with any of this," he rebutted quickly, cutting the other off mid-sentence.
"Please… let me finish." Prowl's blue optical sensors gazed back at him; he emanated self-assuredness, and the authority that naturally came with his rank.
Sideswipe sighed, sat back again. He waved one hand dismissively, looked away. "Go ahead." There was nothing Prowl could tell him that he hadn't already heard before, anyway.
Prowl spoke slowly, cautiously. "As I was saying, your… dismissal from active duty occurred as a direct result of your unwillingness to cooperate with your superiors. You were spared the embarrassment of an officer's review on compassionate grounds. However, in order for Cybertron Command to take your perspective into consideration, your past breach of our code of conduct will need to be reassessed." He paused, sighed empathically. "Are you aware of what that would entail, Sideswipe?"
The former Autobot officer got up from his seat. "Yeah, I'm aware." His tone was filled with disbelief, and only added to his growing anger. "You know, I never thought I'd see the day when the Autobots would place more importance on protocol than they do on the very real possibility of the destruction of our race!"
"Now, don't you think you're being just a little unreasonable–" Prowl interjected, beginning to lose his patience. He was spared from having to continue the conversation by an incoming alert on his communications link. "Excuse me one moment," he said to Sideswipe, and activated the channel. "This is Prowl." Silence followed as the message on the other end was conveyed to him in private. "I see. I'll be there shortly." He closed the link, looked up at the red and black Autobot with a look that spoke of a sudden, untold tragedy, and for the moment, at least, their disagreement was forgotten. He sighed in resignation. "I'm needed in the Repair Bay." He paused in thought as he decided what he should do with Sideswipe. He couldn't just turn him away; doing so now would only ensure that he never returned to Iacon Central. Neither could he leave him alone in the Command Center without a valid security code. His only other option was to keep him under his supervision – at least for the time being. "You are welcome to accompany me," he offered finally, and then moved towards the entrance of the Conference Room, pressed a button on the door panel. As the door slid open, he indicated patiently for Sideswipe to exit the room ahead of him, and they both started towards the Maintenance and Repair Bay in silence.
Ratchet awoke from what had felt like a long, yet restless, slumber. Disoriented, the first thing he became aware of was that he was lying with his back to the ground. Directly above him, he saw the familiar sight of Cybertron's orange-tinged sky as the day began to give way to night. He sat up warily, unsure of where he was or how he'd gotten here, and then the recent memory of his encounter with Rumble and Soundwave flooded back into his processor.
Looking about, he noticed that same tall tower that sat atop the former site of Darkmount fortress to his left – the one that his team had been investigating before they had all unexpectedly disappeared. He stood up, checking his internal systems, and was relieved to find that he was functioning normally, except for a slight energy drain from his power core.
Then he remembered Optimus and the others who had arrived here with him, and he slowly began to realize that they were nowhere in sight. However, something else caught his immediate attention, and he started away from the tower, towards the Neutrals.
Each one of them was sprawled on the ground, unmoving. "What in the…" He whispered, astounded.
Vorns of specialist repair experience then took over, and he rushed towards the nearest fallen bot, checking for vital signs. After a few moments, he moved on to the next one, and then the next. After checking several of the Neutrals, he stopped, stepped back a little.
The eeriness from the scene before him reminded him of the haunting atmosphere that always followed a devastating massacre. The difference here, however, was that every Neutral on this battle field had not been massacred; he had simply been off-lined, and drained of his primary energon reserves. Each would need to be transported back to a maintenance facility for refuelling, but there was nothing that a full recharge couldn't fix, other than battered pride. He sent out a general assistance broadcast, waited for acknowledgment.
How four teams of Neutrals had been overpowered in this manner, he could not have guessed, though he could say, with almost certainty, who was responsible.
"The Decepticons…" A deep, familiar voice spoke from behind him, and he turned around with a start. Relief flooded his circuits when he saw the large, blue and red mech standing there.
"Optimus. Thank the Heavens you're all right," Ratchet replied, and then saw the concern in the Autobot Commander's optics as he witnessed the scene before them. He looked slightly defeated, but was otherwise fine. "Eh… they'll be okay. I've called for assistance; maintenance teams should be here soon." He waved a hand towards the unconscious Neutrals. "Though next time, I doubt they'll be as fortunate."
Optimus relaxed his shoulders, visibly relieved. "Hopefully, there won't be a next time." He sighed. "What about the other Autobots; have we heard from them yet?" He sounded tired, withdrawn.
Ratchet shook his head. "Not yet. I only just…" He searched for the right words. "Woke up a few moments ago."
The Autobot leader activated his communications link so they could both hear it. "Trailbreaker… do you read me?" The two of them waited for a response, but after a long moment there was only the crackling sound of static.
Ratchet shook his head in thought. "Maybe they're still–" He began, but then was cut short by the sound of a voice that suddenly came over the link.
"Prime? This is Trailbreaker…" The channel sounded weak, the voice distant.
Optimus glanced towards the tower. "Trailbreaker, do you know where you are?"
Trailbreaker seemed to take his time in responding. "Uh… hold on…" There was a slight pause as the defensive strategist got a lock on his position. "I'm about… one hundred megamiles from Central Iacon… bearing south-east… several sub-levels down." The two Autobots looked at one another in perplexity.
"Is Bluestreak with you?"
"No… I'm alone." He sounded uncertain, confused. "Prime… I don't remember how I got here. One moment I was with the rest of the team, and then the next…"
"Don't worry… I think I know what happened. Can you make your way back to Headquarters?" Optimus asked him.
"Yeah, shouldn't be a problem. Uh… Optimus? There's something else…" Trailbreaker said, and then faltered.
Optimus waited for him to continue, but the voice on the other end of the link remained quiet. "What is it, Trailbreaker?"
More silence followed, and then Trailbreaker's voice came through abruptly. "I'm not quite sure how to explain this, Optimus… but, I think – there's something… down here with me."
Optimus stood motionless as he listened carefully to the transmission. "Some… thing?" He asked, seeking clarification.
"Yeah. Like I said, I don't know how to describe it. I mean… I don't see anything, exactly, but… I can sense something... if you know what I mean. It's pretty dark down here, though."
As Trailbreaker was speaking, Ratchet was suddenly alerted to his own com link being activated. He nodded towards Optimus, and then answered the transmission. "Ratchet here, go ahead."
"Ratchet? Oh, hey, we sure are glad to hear your voice!"
"Hot Rod…" Ratchet identified the voice on the other end, more for Optimus' sake than for any other reason.
"That's me. Bluestreak's here, too." Unlike Trailbreaker's voice, Hot Rod's came across loud and clear. "We're on our way back to your location."
"Good to hear you're both alright."
"You'll never guess what happened! We were transported to an underground tunnel of some kind – I think it was still in Polyhex, but–"
"Save it for later, Hot Rod. Just meet us back in Iacon, soon as you can, would you?" Ratchet replied, unamused by the Autobot warrior's excitement, though relieved that he, and Bluestreak, were both unharmed.
"Oh… okay, sure thing."
"Good. Ratchet out." The Autobot medic closed his com link, and looked over at his Commander, who had also ended his communication with Trailbreaker. "Looks like we're all present and accounted for… in a manner of speaking," he said, and thought better of asking about Trailbreaker's odd message.
"Let's head back to Headquarters," Optimus said, thankful that Megatron had kept his promise, at least.
The two of them transformed into their vehicle modes and started on the main road back through Darkmount, just as two maintenance teams arrived to transport the unconscious Neutrals to their nearest command post, most likely in Antihex.
Neither spoke a word for the rest of the journey back to Iacon.
Astro looked up at the illuminated sign that adorned the side of a grey, metallic building. 'Roundup's Exotic Entertainment', it read in large, hard-to-miss Cybertronian letters. "This is it." He sounded unimpressed, scanned the area for any recognizable signatures.
"Well?" His companion, Rook, waited expectantly.
Astro shook his head. "Nothing." He began to walk away, heading back down the main street.
His partner watched him go, and then called after him. "Wait, so… what now?"
Astro stopped, turned back towards Rook. "We'll keep searching until we find him," he answered, as if there was nothing else to say.
"Can you at least tell me who it is that we're supposed to be looking for?" Rook asked him, frustrated with the thought that, apparently, Astro still did not trust him. "I simply want to help."
The blue Cybertronian hesitated, looked up towards the early morning sky. "All I can tell you is that he's Cybertronian…"
"I already knew that," Rook answered him tersely. He looked at Astro critically, walked up to him until they were face-to-face. "Is he Decepticon?" Astro returned his gaze, but said nothing, so Rook tried asking him again, more forcefully this time, demanding an answer. "Is he Decepticon? Answer me!"
"I can't tell you that–" Astro repeated, but Rook would not take no for an answer.
"Damn it, Astro. If you want me to help you… if you want to truly give me that second chance you talked about… then you've got to start trusting me!" Rook's yellow optics glowered in frustration under his visor and, for the first time, Astro saw his conviction, and an inner strength that had been buried within the mech for far too long.
Finally, Astro began to let down his guard. "You're right," he said quietly, and slowly exhaled before continuing. He nodded purposefully. "He is Decepticon."
Rook took a small step back, solemnly taking in the information. "Would it be safe to say that you've already tried locking onto his signature? Signalled his private com link?" In normal circumstances, these methods should have worked, but it was obvious that this particular situation was far from normal.
Astro nodded affirmatively. "His unique signature is… untraceable. And, as far as his private com link goes, it's been deactivated."
"I… see," Rook replied, intrigued. "So, other than looking for Cybertronian signatures, I don't suppose you have any other way of tracking him down?"
Astro slowly shook his head. "No. I've… been able to monitor his activity, until recently, but his patterns of behaviour have become unpredictable as of late." Astro started back down the street, resumed his scan for any possible signs of the Decepticon, until Rook interrupted him once more.
"Forgive me if this sounds untenable, but… have you tried scanning through all encrypted Decepticon transmission frequencies?"
"Of course, that's one of the first–" Astro began, but then stopped in his tracks as a sudden thought entered his processor. "Wait just one astro-second…" He adjusted his internal scanner to pick up additional signals from coded Decepticon emergency transmissions. "It's unlikely, but a possibility, nonetheless."
Rook had to hurry after him to catch up, and they walked together in silence, until they had travelled a few blocks. "I'm… picking up a very erratic signal," Astro said in surprise, and began to move quickly along the main street before turning right into a smaller access way. "It's coming from a Decepticon transceiver. Rook, you're a genius."
"I beg your pardon?" Rook replied, perplexed.
"It appears… the signal's integrity is severely degraded." He walked along at a fast pace, almost as if he were afraid that if he stopped or slowed down now he may lose the life line. "It's unstable." After several more minutes, Astro stopped, looked about. They were in a narrow alleyway, a good distance from the main thoroughfare. "This is where the signal ends." He looked about, searching for anything that might resemble a transceiver, but he could not find anything.
As Rook stepped forwards, the sound of metal clinking against the smooth, stone surface of the alley way was picked up by their audio sensors, and he stopped, bent low to look for the small object that he must have flung aside with his foot. He reached down to pick it up and, after examining it, carefully handed it to Astro. The object was, indeed, a Decepticon transceiver. However, it looked as though it had been crushed underfoot by a large Dinobot. "Is this what we're looking for?"
Astro's expression was one of deep concern, something that Rook had never seen from him before. "He's in trouble."
From the moment he arrived at the Maintenance and Repair Bay, Sideswipe felt like he were on the outer looking in, part of some sort of semi-dream state and unable to take command of his motor circuits.
"Dammit, we're losing him…" Red Alert, the temporary Chief Medical Officer and Ratchet's new prodigy, stood over a berth, fully focused upon his unconscious patient. His voice was laced with anxiety. His ability to handle the situation was not a concern, however; whether his patient would survive another day, was. "Arcee, try to boost the power signal… take it to maximum tolerance levels."
His assistant stood right beside him, only too willing to help in any way she could. She was so focused on the medical emergency that she hadn't noticed Prowl or Sideswipe enter the med bay. "Won't that risk permanent damage to his neural circuitry?" She asked nervously.
"Yeah… but right now, he doesn't have any other options. He's as good as gone if we don't do something," he explained, carefully observing the monitor readouts.
Arcee nodded in understanding, and glanced over at the patient's gestalt team mates, Hot Spot and Streetwise, who stood watching the events unfold at the foot of the berth.
A third Protectobot, Blades, stood in front of Sideswipe, removed from the activity. He had his arms crossed in front of him, and an expression of pure bitterness and resentment was etched upon his face. Sideswipe imagined what he might be thinking at this very moment, and guessed that it probably involved a particular Decepticon, and how he was going to be terminated at his hands.
The room was eerily quiet as Red Alert and Arcee concentrated on their task; no one else dared speak or move. The pink and white femme turned a knob near the external power source by a fraction, and then waited intently as Red relayed immediate feedback.
"A little more…" He said, and she complied, though she couldn't hide the stress and worry that she felt. Beside Groove, the indicator panel that displayed his vital signs showed his critical state. "Okay… okay… that's good." Red Alert let out a tentative sigh of relief, stepped back from the berth, and then watched the indicator panel until it showed a stable signal. He glanced up towards the onlookers, and then noticed Prowl's presence. "Sir… I'll need your authorisation for what I'm about to do," he said, briefly looking towards Sideswipe.
Prowl walked towards him, stood over the berth as he looked down upon their patient. "How is he?" He asked.
Red hesitated in his reply, reluctant to speak too candidly in front of Groove's closest friends. Hot Spot caught his expression. "Whatever it is… you can tell us, Red," he said, prepared for the worst. He spoke for all of his team mates. "It's… not your fault what happened. We know you're only doing your best."
Red nodded. "Alright. The truth is… we almost lost him. He's practically surviving on backup reserve. If we keep him on life support much longer, it'll be completely depleted. His only hope now is to place him in semi-permanent stasis. That'll buy us a little more time. But we need to do it now."
Hot Spot looked doubtful. "What's the risk?"
Red glanced at Arcee and Prowl, before returning his attention to Hot Spot; he saw the familiar faces of friends that he trusted with his life. "There's… always a risk that we might not be able to bring him back. And that's even if we're ever able to restore his missing component."
The Protectobot leader nodded in understanding, and then looked over at his fellow team member, an unspoken communication between them, before turning back to Red Alert. "Do it."
Prowl watched them. He nodded towards the repair specialist, silently authorising the procedure. Then he stepped away, returned to stand beside Sideswipe. The former warrior had his full attention fixed upon the scene before him, as if mesmerized by it.
Several minutes passed by in silence as they all watched the procedure being carried out, reluctant to speak or utter a single word. They watched as Red Alert carefully accessed Groove's spark chamber, rewired its connections. It only took him less than a breem, and after he was done he checked the monitor readout and indicator panel until they both showed minimal electrical activity, and then nodded solemnly towards Hot Spot.
Streetwise, who had not said a word to anyone since the emergency had begun, now spoke up. "Come on, let's get out of here. There's nothing more we can do for him, anyway." His voice was like acid.
"Where are you going?" Hot Spot asked him before he could leave the med bay.
"Does it matter?" The white interceptor retorted. The tension between them arose suddenly, and was felt by all in the room.
Arcee, in an effort to alleviate Hot Spot's anxiety, reassured him, placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Let him go, Hot Spot. He'll be alright." The Protectobot leader hesitated, and then nodded in acquiescence. She was right; he probably just needed some time alone.
Streetwise took the cue, and headed towards the med bay doors, but then Sideswipe grabbed his forearm on his way past, stopping him in his tracks. "Hey, what do you think you're doing? It's not safe for any Autobot to be out there – not any more," Sideswipe warned him.
The Protectobot looked at him as if he had fried a few logic circuits. "Let go of me," he replied contemptuously, pulling his arm away, but Sideswipe's grip was strong. "…Sideswipe." Streetwise acknowledged the other's name as if it tasted of bitter energon. He tried to pull his arm away once more, and was successful; his arm came free with a hard swing, almost striking Blades.
As Sideswipe watched Streetwise exit the med bay, he called out after him. "I'm warning you – just stay away from any Neutrals!" When he got no response, he finally turned towards Prowl. "Prowl– Sir… Let me speak to Prime," he requested one more time, this time with added determination.
"I'm sorry, Sideswipe, but as I have already explained–" The Chief of Security began, but was cut off by the Autobot.
"Please! I wouldn't have come here at all if it wasn't important. Unless you want to see another Autobot end up like that?" His voice rose in volume, as he indicated towards Groove. "It could be any one of us next time – perhaps Blades here, or even myself!" He looked around the med bay, determined to make his point. "What about Arcee over there? Don't you even care about what might happen to us?"
The Autobots present all stopped to listen as he began to draw their attention, his indignation obvious for all to see. Prowl hesitated uncertainly, before deciding on a change of tactic. "Of course I do – that's not the issue here. However–"
"Then what is the issue, Prowl? Because I'm starting to think that I may have made a mistake returning to Iacon Central," Sideswipe confessed, angry.
Prowl remained unperturbed by the other's outburst, and ignored his last remark. "However… I'll be willing to deliver your message to Prime myself… provided that you do not disseminate your… information… to anyone else – at least for the time being. Needless to say, we wouldn't want to create unnecessary panic." He paused, cautious. "Would that be acceptable?"
Sideswipe contemplated Prowl's proposal. It was probably the best he could expect to get from Autobot Command, especially considering his past record, and his current official status as a former officer of the Autobot army: dismissed without penalty. "Fine," he replied, and walked out of the Maintenance and Repair Bay without looking back.
"Do you suppose it was left here on purpose?" Rook watched as Astro deactivated the transceiver, and patiently waited for his companion to reply.
"It's hard to say." Astro visually scanned the alley way on all general frequencies, looking for any clue that might indicate whether the Decepticon was anywhere nearby, but there was no sign of him. "Come on, we'd better head back, just in case we're not the only ones who've picked up the signal," Astro said, and started to make his way back up the alley. He stopped suddenly, sensing danger, and slowly retraced his steps towards Rook, grabbing his arm. "Get ready to move…"
Rook became wary, but before he could ask why, a large, ominous figure appeared from around the corner. It was an enhanced, orange and grey jet-former; a sight that was all too familiar to Rook. It scowled at them, and Rook exclaimed in shock. "Jhiaxus…!"
Astro did not wait one astro-second longer, and together they bolted down the alley as fast as they could go.
Jhiaxus roared after them, engaging his jet thrusters in robot mode and shooting forwards through the air down the narrow alley way. "Traitors!" He bellowed, enraged. There was the crackling sound of sparks as Jhiaxus' oversized frame scraped against the walls of structures on either side of the alley.
The sudden whine of a missile launcher was followed by an explosive impact. A projectile had narrowly missed Astro as its target, but the force of the blast had flung him sideways into a wall with an audible crash, and had demolished part of a multiple storey building. Rook, realizing that Jhiaxus was almost upon them, a second energy-blast missile already launched, threw himself down to avoid its impact, and then scrambled towards Astro, who was still recovering from the first detonation. There was no time for words now, only action; he grabbed the blue mech by his arm and forcibly guided him towards an opening in the alley to their left. They stumbled out of Jhiaxus' way just in time as the Second-in-Command of the largest Subterranean Base on Alternity City shot past them at high speed.
"Are you damaged?" Rook asked, helping Astro to his feet. The taller mech shook his head, looking back towards the alley, and then the both of them broke into a run down the path before them. Behind them, they could hear their assailant as he landed on the ground, turning back the way he had come. He emerged at the entrance to the narrower pathway, and began to pursue them on foot.
"We need to lose him, fast!" Astro called out to Rook, and risked a few precious seconds as he turned around to deliver a volley of laser blasts towards Jhiaxus. This seemed to slow the mech down, but it was not enough to stop him as he continued to approach them.
Rook fired his own laser weapon, but they were no match for him. Jhiaxus sneered at them, reloading his missile launcher, and then fired it at them once more.
"Hey, Sideswipe… mind if I ask you something?"
Sideswipe looked up from his seat at a table in the main recreational area on the ground floor of the Command Center. It was Blades.
"Shoot," he replied unconcernedly, took a gulp of the energon that was sitting in the cylindrical container in front of him.
"Listen, uh… I overheard you talking to Prowl earlier. And I was wondering…" The red and white helicopter took a seat opposite him, not waiting for an invitation. "Because if it's got anything to do with what happened to Groove…"
Sideswipe stared at the Protectobot, his optics intense. "I've no idea what happened to Groove." His tone was curt, almost defensive.
Blades did not appreciate the Autobot's apparent indifference. Perhaps Sideswipe had his own personal demons to deal with, as they all had – in fact, he was certain of it – however, that was no reason to treat him with any hostility. "Then… what was all that stuff you were saying about the Neutrals?" He prodded.
The red and black Autobot shrugged impatiently. "Maybe you should go ask Prowl?"
Blades shook his head incredulously, his frustration increasing. "Hey, what the frag is your problem?"
"I don't have a problem." Sideswipe sipped at his energon.
"Oh, yeah?" Blades stood up to leave; he obviously wasn't going to get anywhere with the mech. Looking down at him, he suddenly saw a very different Sideswipe to the one he remembered. "You know… I almost wish Sunstreaker had never interfered with affairs that never concerned him. We'd all have been better off if he'd just kept his mouth shut."
This seemed to snap Sideswipe out of whatever state he had been in. He rose abruptly from his seat, pushed his canister of energon aside. It slid halfway across the table top. "What did you just say?"
Blades took a step back, already regretting his bluntness. "Look, I'm only after some answers. I didn't really mean anything by it–"
"The slag you didn't," Sideswipe replied, threateningly. "Why don't you just get out of my sight before I do something we'll both regret?"
During their heated exchange, Smokescreen and Bumblebee had entered the recreational area, and were unable to completely avoid staring at the two Autobots as they walked past them.
"What are you looking at?" Blades called out, before facing Sideswipe again. "Here's some advice for you; keep up that attitude of yours, and believe me you're not going to win any favours – not around here." Then, having said his piece, he walked out of the rec room, leaving Sideswipe to contemplate his final words. Sideswipe sat back down slowly, reached across for his container.
He hardly noticed as Smokescreen approached his table, taking the same seat that Blades had occupied only moments ago. "Hey, welcome back," he said in greeting, attempting to diffuse the tension. He did not wish to upset the estranged Autobot any more than he already was. "Don't take what he says to heart. He's just worried about Groove," he added. "We all are."
Sideswipe avoided his gaze, though he listened; he was already starting to calm down. "Thanks…" He said, and then finished the last of his energon, placed the empty container down on the table. "Well, I'd better be going. Wouldn't want to overstay my welcome, you know?"
As he stood up to leave, Smokescreen stopped him. "Oh! Hold on a second… before I forget." He retrieved a small object from one of his forearm compartments, held it out in the palm of his hand. "Ratchet asked me to give this to you."
Sideswipe looked down at the data chip in puzzlement. "What's on it?"
"I don't know, exactly. All he would tell me was that it's some kind of recorded message." Smokescreen relayed Ratchet's request as best he could, but was somewhat disappointed that he couldn't elaborate on it further. "I'm glad you're here, actually. I was about to go out and find you." He watched as Sideswipe took the data chip from his hand. "I hope it's of some use to you. Oh… he also wanted you to go and see him."
"Thanks." Sideswipe paused in thought, and wondered what Ratchet would possibly want to talk to him about. "Last time we spoke, he'd made it clear he wasn't too interested in what I had to say."
The blue and red Autobot gave him an apologetic shrug. "That's funny… he said something similar about you. Though, you never know… things might have changed since then."
Sideswipe looked at him contemplatively, almost pensive. "I sure hope so," he said, and walked out of the rec room.
This time, Astro was prepared for the oncoming missile, and he threw himself down, flat on the ground, to avoid it. However, as he started to pick himself up again, he felt a sharp pressure against his back, and realized that Jhiaxus was standing over him, pushing him down with the tip of one of his rifles. The other one was pointed towards Rook.
"Him, I had suspected…" Jhiaxus said, indicating towards Astro. "But you, Rook. I am extremely disappointed in you," he taunted his former subordinate. A cold gleam emanated from his optics.
Rook stood motionless, paralysed by fear. He could not hide the sheer terror that he felt as he stared back at his former superior. Jhiaxus recognized this, and did not hesitate to play upon it. "How could you turn against me… after all I've done for you, Rook? Imagine my surprise… when I discovered what you'd done… turning your back on your friends… only to side with this… traitor." Jhiaxus emphasized the last word, looking down at Astro with such contempt that it seemed as though his gaze would burn a hole right through the mech. He looked back at Rook, abruptly, his voice now menacing. "Why did you do it, Rook? Why did you betray me? Answer!"
The smaller mech reacted with a jolt, his mouth slightly open in shock as he struggled to think of what to say. "I…" He started, but was unable to complete his sentence.
"Very well, then…" Jhiaxus interjected, impatient. "If you can't talk, then maybe he will." The large jet hooked a foot underneath Astro, and roughly turned him over, so that he was facing upwards, his back now to the ground. The rifle that had been pinning him down was now threateningly pressed against his face. Jhiaxus gave Astro a malevolent glare before driving a fist down hard, across his cheek. The impact was so violent that Astro sustained a deep cut to his upper lip. Energon from the gash began to trickle down his face and chin.
"No! Please, leave him alone… I– I'll tell you whatever you want to know," Rook pleaded suddenly, without thinking.
Jhiaxus turned his attention back to his former assistant, a grin slowly spreading across his face. "So, it appears that you have a soft spot for this… worthless scrap-pile. I do find that rather intriguing, despite my revulsion." He said this last word with obvious spite, and then laughed; it was a cold and callous sound that frightened Rook beyond what words could describe. The last time he had heard Jhiaxus laugh in such a manner, he had stood by and watched him pull apart a Decepticon prisoner piece by piece before finally having him – or, more accurately, his disassembled parts – smelted down at a nearby ore refinery. "Oh, don't worry – I'll make absolutely sure that he receives his just reward," he said, mocking the mech beneath him. Astro lay on the ground motionless; he did not speak a word, nor did he give away any of his thoughts or emotions. "But as for you, Rook… you have made a terrible mistake. However, since I am in a rather generous mood, I am willing to… forgive your transgression. Return with me to the Base… and I will spare your life."
This sudden confrontation with Jhiaxus was more than Rook could handle, as he felt his resolve beginning to weaken. He looked down at Astro, and was reminded of all that had happened between them since he'd taken him away from the Base against his will. He had vehemently protested Astro's actions, had even despised the mech for what he'd done with an almost uncontrollable need for revenge. But then, over a period of time, slowly but surely, that had somehow all changed. He felt that he had formed a closer bond with Astro in the short amount of time that they'd spent together than he'd ever experienced with anyone at the Base over the many vorns he'd served there.
"Well, Rook, what have you decided?" Jhiaxus reminded him, growing ever more impatient. "I haven't got all day."
"I…" He looked down at Astro once more, and was reminded of the inner strength and determination that radiated from those blue optic sensors, how much he had wished he could emulate the same qualities. "I… wish to–"
But before Rook could give his answer, a sudden barrage of energy blasts impacted Jhiaxus from above them. Rook looked up in confusion, and saw a purple and grey space shuttle hovering low in the sky.
Jhiaxus, oblivious to the source of the sudden assault upon him, cried out in surprise, looked about. Distracted, he could not stop Astro as the blue Cybertronian took the opportunity to roll away from under him.
Astro aimed his laser blaster towards the enemy jet and opened fire. He was soon joined by Rook and, along with the help of the airborne Decepticon, the three of them quickly managed to turn the tide in their favour. Jhiaxus faltered, tried to aim his missile launcher up towards the recent arrival, but he was finding it difficult to get a lock on the target as weapons fire assaulted him from all angles, incapacitating him.
Looking up, Astro noticed a hatch opening up underneath the shuttle and he waved, indicating for it to take them up. It complied; within a matter of astro-seconds a powerful force field was projected towards the two of them, and they found themselves quickly being pulled up towards the craft.
Below them, Jhiaxus attempted to stop them, but he was too slow. They were already inside the shuttle as it flew away, high into the air, leaving Jhiaxus far behind.
Astro, relieved beyond words that he and Rook had escaped with their lives, leaned his head against the shuttle's interior. "Nice timing, Astrotrain. How in the Pits did you ever know we were here?"
Astrotrain laughed. "Actually… I wasn't looking for you, Astro. I was tracking a Decepticon transmission. Though, it seems to have stopped now."
"That's because we got to it first," Astro explained, holding up the damaged transceiver in his hand. "Jhiaxus must have picked up the same signal." He looked towards Rook. "Astrotrain, you remember Rook, don't you?"
"Sure…" Astrotrain replied, but then was silent for a long time.
Rook couldn't help but feel uncomfortable; he'd forgotten all about the Decepticons he used to know, so very long ago, before he had turned against them. He realized that Astrotrain – in fact, all of them – had every reason to mistrust him, and for a brief moment he feared that they would all now take their revenge upon him.
However, when Astrotrain spoke again, he seemed to hold no such grudge towards him. "Welcome back, Rook. We Decepticons have to stick together, now more than ever." Rook had not expected him to be so forgiving, and it took him by surprise. He felt unworthy, undeserving of it.
Then Astro spoke again, addressing him. "Thank you, Rook," he said, with clear sincerity.
The green-colored mech became increasingly uncomfortable, though he was not displeased. "For what? I wasn't much help to you back there."
"That's not what I saw," Astro replied simply. He touched the gash on his lip, wiping away the energon.
Rook contemplated his words, but did not give a reply. Instead, he asked Astro another question. "Aren't you curious about what I was going to say to Jhiaxus?"
The blue mech looked at him steadily, and then shook his head. "No." He paused for a brief moment, and then added, "I already know what you were going to say. I trust you."
Rook slowly sat down beside Astro on the floor of the shuttle, and then, for the first time in a very, very long time, smiled to himself.
It wasn't until several hours after Sideswipe had left the Command Complex, when he'd arrived back at his private quarters, situated in a small, nondescript apartment block in South Iacon, that he finally found the courage to play back the message on the data chip. He had no definite idea of what he might find on it, though he half expected it to contain a recorded message of Ratchet, or even Prime himself, giving him some pertinent advice about reconsidering his position, reminding him of his duty as an Autobot, perhaps even requesting that he apply to return to active duty. But he dismissed these thoughts; receiving such a message was highly unlikely, to say the least. Autobot Command had strict rules and procedures in place, designed to prevent Autobots just like himself from compromising the structure and integrity of Cybertron Command. If he wanted to return to active duty, he would have to go out on a limb, request a pardon and, if he was fortunate enough to be granted a reassessment, he would have to work his way up to the top all over again. It almost didn't seem worth it, not after the events that had surrounded his dismissal.
So when he connected the data chip's play back mechanism to an auxiliary data port in his fingertip, unlocking it with his unique signature, he did not expect at all the message that he was about to be confronted with.
A holographic image of a tall, yellow Autobot appeared in front of him. His arms were crossed, and a look of cynicism pervaded his expression.
Sideswipe almost stumbled onto his recharge berth as he stepped backwards in shock, and then slowly sat down upon it. "Sunny…" He whispered, his optics locked upon the image of his twin brother as the recorded message began to play.
"Sides… I've tracked Bludgeon to Alternity City… and you're probably as mad as the Pits at me right now. Please don't try to follow me here. We don't need the both of us getting our afts thrown into detention, or worse.
"I know… you were only trying to look out for me, and I get that, I really do… and I probably shouldn't have said those things to you. Although you should know that I didn't mean any of it, and… and I'm sorry. You'll always be my brother, no matter what. I trust you with my life. If you don't know that already, well… then I guess, I should have done a better job at being a brother to you." There was a long pause as Sunstreaker's holo image concentrated upon what he wanted to say.
"Anyway… uh, oh yeah, I guess I should mention that it's… Cybertronian stellar date 143491-4-092-19–"
Sideswipe stopped the play back, sat motionless in his quarters as he fought to overcome the flood of emotions that threatened to engulf him. That stellar date was more than a vorn ago; in fact, it was almost the same day that Sunstreaker had left Cybertron – reason and destination unknown. It was also the last day that Sideswipe had heard from his brother, after a huge disagreement had created a rift between them only one day earlier.
He had no idea why he had not been aware of Sunstreaker's message until now, more than one hundred stellar cycles after it had been recorded, or why Ratchet had had it in his possession.
He inhaled deeply three times, and then resumed the play back.
"Look, I know you don't agree with me about the whole thing with the proposed Alliance… but, I know what I saw and I just won't ignore it. I know that Sentinel's involved with this virus in some way… but I don't have all the details just yet." The hologram of Sunstreaker rubbed at his helm, hesitated. "It's like I told Optimus… If Sentinel has anything to do with this new Alliance, I'm not hanging around." Another long pause, and then, "I wish things had turned out differently, Sides. The last thing I want is to alienate you as well."
Sunstreaker's moving image glanced briefly to his right, looking out for something unseen. After a moment, he turned back towards Sideswipe. "I'm going to try and get another message through to you soon, let you know what I find out. I figure it's not going to be easy, but I'll try. If all goes well, I'll see you again soon. Sunstreaker out."
The holographic image flickered off, and Sideswipe dared not move, as if he might somehow lose the last existing memory of his brother that he had.
All these years, and he had thought that Sunstreaker had abandoned him completely, that he had left Cybertron without even bothering to let him know where he'd gone, or why he'd left. All this time, and he had falsely believed that Sunstreaker had never forgiven him for the stupid things he'd said and done.
But, now, this message changed everything.