The first thought that entered Comet's mind as he gradually regained consciousness was the question of whether he was alive and still functioning, until he realized that the answer to that question was self-evident. As his various internal systems slowly returned online, he initiated a diagnostic self-test, and the results confirmed it; he was still intact, even though he had been certain that Lockdown would have terminated him. Unless, of course… the bounty hunter intended some other purpose for him, one that Comet had not yet considered. He recalled how Lockdown had knocked his transceiver out of his hand the night before, and then had overpowered him, locked a circuit dampener onto his neck before carrying him away.
The circuit dampener… he tried to move but, as expected, could not; he had lost all motor control. He realized that his optic sensors must also be affected by the dampener, because his vision was blurred and all he could see were shadows. Oddly enough, however, his audio receptors seemed to be unaffected. He could hear every sound with crystal clear clarity.
Comet wondered where he was. The sounds that he was picking up were mostly unfamiliar to him, though he could tell that he was in a large area of some sort, possibly inside a cargo hold or control room. His first supposition was that he was somewhere on Lockdown's ship, which was probably tucked away out of sight in some subterranean space port. It was even possible that he had already left Alternity City, and that he was being taken to some unmarked prison colony, though he knew that he was far too valuable to simply be disposed of in such a manner and the more that he thought about such a possibility, the more he believed it to be unlikely; rather, it was far more likely that he was still on Alternity City, though his precise location was completely unknown to him.
The question that was now foremost on his mind was what, exactly, had Lockdown been directed to do with him. His mind came up with a few notions, but none of them were particularly pleasant and so, after a few cycles, he forcibly removed those thoughts from his mind. In the stillness of the space in which he now found himself, Comet's focus shifted suddenly to his last conversation with Thunderblast, and how she had casually mentioned Cybertron and the other seekers. Who they might have been, or why they had come to Alternity City, he could not guess. Thunderblast had never been very forthcoming with her information, and had always been a tease; however, he was no fool and was well aware of the games she liked to play.
The sound of something metallic moving in the background caught his attention, and his recent memory of Thunderblast was soon forgotten. He listened carefully in an effort to determine the source of the sound and, sure enough, it occurred again. He decided, with caution, that it wasn't the sound of another mech in the space with him; rather, it was more like the sound that a mixed bag of parts would make if it were turned upside down and its contents emptied onto the floor all at once.
This was soon followed by another sound, though it was louder and seemed to be coming from somewhere closer to him; it was the sound of metal being crushed inside a compactor, Comet realized grimly, and he was overcome by a sudden urge to get as far away from this place as possible.
It slowly began to dawn on him that he was inside some sort of processing facility, probably the type that recycles scrap metal or the like. Knowing full well what this might mean for him, he began to wish that he hadn't surrendered to Lockdown so willingly. It was true that he had not wanted to continue living his current existence; yet, by the same token, he had never anticipated that he would have to endure such a horrific and, he had to admit, unceremonious end.
Remarkably, his vision gradually began to improve, but he knew that this could not be possible because of the circuit dampener that was fastened to his neck. He briefly considered the possibility that he might be hallucinating, but this, also, was unlikely; other than his disrupted motor control mechanisms, his internal diagnostics continued to indicate that his neural circuitry was functioning normally.
As his optics came fully online, the shadow forms in his field of vision gave way to clear outlines and colors. Observing his surroundings, he realized that he was staring up towards an expansive, domed metallic ceiling. There was just enough light to make out details in the distance, though he wasn't able to turn his head to get a better idea of exactly where he was.
The sounds of churning machinery returned abruptly, and Comet was certain that it was coming from a conveyor belt system. He felt his sense of panic heighten, and desperate thoughts of escape began to rush into his main processor. He tried to move again, but his efforts were futile. If he could only think of some way to remove the circuit dampener from his neck, he'd have a chance at escape.
But then a voice suddenly spoke to him in his head, as clearly as if it had spoken into his audio receptors, and for a moment his world seemed to stand still. You have the power within you… focus your will on the device.
It sounded familiar, the voice of someone he had known over many vorns, since the beginning of his creation. Who is that? He asked in confusion, his mind still in shock, but he received no answer. He tried to move again, but all that he could manage was a low groan.
Focus your will.
There it was again. He tried to make sense of the words, but in his current state he was finding it difficult to focus on anything. Still, he had to try. He had nothing to lose in doing so.
Comet concentrated his efforts on quietening down his mind so that he could center his thoughts upon the circuit dampener with a singular, purposeful intention. As his focus intensified, he saw within his mind the device loosening its grip on him, the integrity of its force field gradually weakening, deteriorating, until, finally, its hooks retracted and he saw it fall to the ground, inert. As he held onto this mental picture, he felt an electrical disturbance building up around the dampener, and he realized, in astonishment, that this was not part of his imagination. Distracted for only an instant, his imagining dissolved into nothingness, and in the same moment the electrical sensation ceased.
It's impossible… I can't do this! His internal voice called out in frustration. It was no use; he'd never be able to disconnect that dampener by using sheer force of will alone, no matter how hard he tried, and he began to resign himself to his fate once more.
You have the ability… just focus your will.
This was followed by a vision that passed through his mind, in a sudden flash that lasted no more than a few astro-seconds. A distant memory, long forgotten; he was lying down upon a berth, in a semi-conscious state. A mech was bending over him, working on his main systems.
That voice… it belonged to the mech in his vision. Who was he? Someone familiar, yet Comet had never seen him before. It didn't make any sense.
You must try to focus. The mech's voice again, encouraging him, almost reassuring him.
I can't. Please… Comet pleaded. His resolve was beginning to weaken as a range of emotions coursed through his processor. He had never asked for any of this… had only wanted to correct what had gone wrong, to set the record straight. How did he end up here, now, more unsure and uncertain of his place in the universe than he had ever been before? Please… leave me alone.
But the mech's voice only became adamant, more forceful. Try to focus!
Please… stop! His own anger surfacing, a strained cry surged forth from his vocal processor.
In the midst of his turmoil, he realized with a newfound clarity that his vocal processor should not have been able to make any sound; the circuit dampener should have made sure of that.
Try to focus.
Finally, Comet relented. His air intakes were working harder than normal, more than likely to compensate for the effects of the intrusive dampener upon his systems. Alright… I'll try, he conceded, ignoring the sounds of scrap metal in the background as it was reduced down to nothing inside the compactor. Again, he concentrated on focusing upon his goal and then, after a cycle, the image of the circuit dampener reappeared in his mind. This time it was clearer, and he felt as though he had some control over it. He wasn't sure how that was possible, but he continued to exert his will upon it, nonetheless.
The subtle electrical buzzing around the device gradually returned, and with renewed determination he willed the dampener to detach itself from his neck. I can do this… He told himself, in an effort to hold onto the thought. Focus…
His mental exertion was immense. He held onto the image in his mind as if his very life depended upon it until, just as he was beginning to lose concentration with the intense strain of his effort, a sudden surge of electrical energy engulfed the dampener, and Comet's head jerked back in shock.
He lay there quietly, listening to his air intakes, too afraid to move for fear that he would discover that his attempt had failed. But then, gradually, he began to turn his head to one side, and he looked around in bewilderment.
"I did it…" He said softly, and became aware that he could speak normally again. "I did it!" In a sudden burst of energy, he sat up, felt for the dampener on the side of his neck. Sure enough, it was still there, and he pulled it free. It detached easily, and he held it out in front of him, examining it. It looked as though its circuitry had been fried.
Elated, and with an immense sense of relief, he stood up and looked around. He was, indeed, in a scrap metal processing facility. Looking down at his feet, he saw that he was standing on a large pile of broken and discarded components, many of them belonging to once-functional mechanoids. The contents of the pile spilled over onto a conveyor belt system, which transported the refuse to another part of the facility where a compactor was in operation. He could see now how close he had actually come to being reduced to raw materials.
Comet looked down at the non-functional dampener that he still held in his hand and, with a renewed will to live, let it fall from his palm and into the pile of scrap metal under his feet.
A soft, yet distinct, beeping sound emanated from Astrotrain's console, and Astro jumped up, ran over to it.
"Jhiaxus is right behind us," the shuttle informed him.
"You won't be able to outmanoeuvre him." Astro checked their current location on one of the displays. "Not in the air."
The shuttle jerked violently to one side, as an energy missile narrowly missed them. "Alright, hold on tight," Astrotrain said, and he began his descent, swooping down towards Binaltech at his top-most speed. Astro looked out through the front view screen, and watched as the heart of Binaltech city rapidly came up to greet them. He watched as a succession of energy blasts shot forward through the air in front of them before exploding in clouds of smoke and debris, impacting into the street below. Astrotrain skilfully avoided most of the missiles, but one of them detonated against his vertical stabilizer, and he began to spiral out of control. For several moments, he fought to regain navigational control but it looked as though he would not be able to avoid a crash landing. However, just before he was about to slam into one of Binaltech's crowded main streets he straightened himself out with a ninety degree turn.
He continued to glide through the air just above the ground, not slowing down, as startled pedestrians realized all too late that they stood directly in the path of the oncoming shuttle. A few missiles continued to impact the street in front of them, and Astrotrain wasted no time; he continued down the main thoroughfare until a large entrance off to the right quickly came into view. Turning sharply, he aimed downwards and then through the open entranceway, giving pedestrians barely enough time to duck out of the way. Slowing his speed, he hovered down the main flight of steps until the subway tunnel appeared before them, and then headed straight towards it. He made a sharp right turn into the tunnel, avoiding a carriage that was approaching the platform from the opposite direction.
Rook, who now stood behind Astro, felt the floor underneath him move out from under his feet; it was a sensation that reminded him of being inside an anti-gravity field. In the same instant, the walls of the shuttle rearranged seamlessly into a different configuration and, after a moment, he realized what was happening. He reached out instinctively with one hand to steady himself against a nearby structural rail. Astrotrain's console, which had reduced in size and taken on a different arrangement, now displayed a layout of Binaltech's extensive subway system.
Astrotrain navigated his way through the vast labyrinth of tunnels, and after a few cycles it became apparent to the three of them that Jhiaxus was no longer pursuing them.
A few moments earlier, Jhiaxus had sped through the subway entranceway and then landed at the bottom of the stairs with a show of might, transforming from jet to robot mode while brandishing his missile launcher. He had ignored the fearful shouts of alarm from amongst the crowd of commuters, and had pushed his way past them as if they were his worthless underlings.
His sole intention had been to track down that purple and grey shuttle and destroy it, along with the two traitors it harboured, but it had mysteriously disappeared; all that he could see around him were unsuspecting commuters, and two subway carriages moving along the tunnel. One of them had slowed to a stop to pick up passengers, while the other one – a much smaller carriage – had left the platform in the opposite direction, and had already moved out of sight.
He grunted in anger, and then ran back up the flight of stairs before transforming back into his jet mode and taking off, soaring into the sky.
Comet's repeated attempts at busting his way through the ceiling of the processing facility had failed. The entire perimeter appeared to be reinforced all round with an energy barrier, and he could not get beyond it. The only doors leading into the enclosure were sealed closed with secure codes, and he saw no other exits or openings. For the time being, at least, he wasn't going anywhere. He leaned against one of the large, automated machines, and considered his options.
With all the scrap metal and spare components surrounding him, perhaps he might be able to rig up some kind of snare, in case Lockdown returned. With this in mind, he carefully began to search through the piles of junk, looking for anything that might be useful; tools, discarded arrays, a set of probes, wiring looms – anything that was still mostly intact and hadn't been destroyed beyond recognition. As he went about his task, he tried his best to avoid staring into the faces of the dead – their broken, darkened optic sockets staring back like wraiths – but it was almost impossible to do. There were many more bodies of terminated mechs here than he'd first thought, and he recognized many familiar species from in and around the local Sector.
It didn't take Comet too long before he'd put together a small collection of salvaged items, and he quickly cleared a space on the floor before laying out each object upon its surface. As he carefully examined each piece, he couldn't help but notice the sound of something quietly stirring in the junk pile closest to him. He hesitated, before deciding that it was probably just a turbo-rat, but after a few seconds he saw something move within the periphery of his vision, and this time his curiosity got the better of him.
He stood up and stepped closer to the pile, bent down to inspect it. The glow from his optics intensified momentarily as he became aware of the source of the movement. He immediately recognized the damaged and torn, yet still largely intact, yellow frame of the mech, half-buried underneath discarded power cores and empty canisters. It was an Autobot, his red faction symbol still clearly displayed upon his chest.
Comet hesitated, watching with apprehension, as if the mech might suddenly rise up out of the scrap heap and lunge towards him in a zombie-like state. But the longer he observed the mech, the more he became aware that the Autobot had been left here to die, in a semi-functional state and helpless.
The Autobot must have sensed his presence, because he slowly turned his head towards him. Comet moved closer, until he was face-to-face with the Autobot, and then studied him carefully for vital signs. The mech's blue optics still emanated a gentle glow, though it was weak and barely detectable. Comet reached out a hand and carefully grasped the Autobot's chin to tilt his head more towards him, checking for a reaction. He got one, as the Autobot looked back at him with an expression of eerie calmness, as if he had already resigned himself to the fact that he would soon face termination. The Autobot moved his mouth in an effort to speak, and after a few moments his vocal processor stuttered to life. "Help… me," he said.
Comet drew his hand away, and stared at the Autobot in shock. He had not expected to find any mech here alive, let alone with his senses still intact. "Please…" The mech said again. Comet stumbled backwards, and then quickly regained his footing as he spun about, looking for something. In a sudden burst, he kicked away odd pieces of junk that lay strewn across the floor near his feet, and then returned to stand over the Autobot's head. Bending low, he grasped the fallen mech underneath his upper arms and then dragged his frame backwards, pulling him out of the junk pile and towards the cleared space that he had just created on the floor.
Without warning, Comet reached across and opened up the Autobot's chest panel, examining his internal circuitry. Then, after a few cycles, he closed the panel again. "You've sustained heavy damage, but you'll live… provided we can get you out of here," Comet informed him. The Autobot stared back at him, and Comet felt as though the intensity of his gaze penetrated his very spark. It made him feel uncomfortable, and he shifted position.
"Thanks…" The Autobot said to him. His voice sounded strained, as if he had to concentrate upon every word to get it to vocalize properly. "And… who… the slag… are you?" He added, after a pause.
Comet responded, amused. "That's just what I need; an Autobot with an attitude."
The Autobot attempted a smile, but control of his facial expressions was obviously impeded by the damage he had sustained. "I… don't… think… we've met… before. What's… your name?"
Comet shrugged. "You can call me Comet, but I don't see how knowing my name is going to help you."
"Comet… huh?" The Autobot paused, and a long moment passed before he spoke again."You're… Decepti… con… aren't you?"
This time Comet hesitated, turned away from him. "No," he answered finally.
"I… don't… believe you…" The mech replied.
"Oh? And why not?"
The Autobot slowly shook his head. "Red… optics… for starters… also… you're… a seeker… and… a liar."
"Well, the color of my optical sensors has nothing to do with it," Comet replied indignantly, "nor does my transformation mode."
"There's… no… such thing… as… an Auto… bot… seeker," the Autobot responded, and then he lay still for a long time, saying nothing further.
Comet let him be. It would give the Autobot a chance for his internal repair system to do its work, but it wouldn't restore his linkage, which had been too heavily damaged by whatever punishment he had endured. It was obvious that he'd ended up on some war lord's bad side, and on Alternity City that wasn't a hard thing to do; having been in similar situations more times than he could count, Comet was all too aware of this fact.
* * *
A whole hour went by before the Autobot spoke again. Comet, kneeling on the floor beside him as he concentrated on his assortment of broken and incomplete mechanical components, looked up, startled, when he heard the irregular, drawn-out voice. "Huh?"
"I… was… just wonder… ing… what you… were… doing," the Autobot said.
"Oh." Comet shrugged, picked up a relay. "It's no use, anyway." He turned to look at the helpless Autobot. "If I don't find a way out of here soon, Lockdown will be back for me. And if he finds you here as well… you're going to wish you weren't alive."
"Lock… down? Wow… who… have you… ticked… off?" The Autobot replied, intrigued.
Comet shook his head. "Nobody."
The Autobot let out a weak chortle. "See? You… are… a liar." Comet ignored his comment. Instead, he stood up in frustration, kicked an empty canister out of his path. It ricocheted off a large robotic arm with a clang. Then he looked up at the domed ceiling in contemplation. "Hey… I'm sorry…" The Autobot said from behind him. His apology sounded sincere.
"Hm?" Comet turned back around to look down upon his battered frame. "What for?"
But the mech didn't respond; instead, he appeared to be studying Comet intently, and the seeker once again felt the uncomfortableness of his penetrating stare. "Why… are you… helping… me?" He asked.
"Helping you?" Comet replied, amused. "What gives you that idea?"
The Autobot thought about his response. "You… could… have… just… ignored me… left… me on… that… junk… pile… to… die." A pause, and then he added, "Isn't… that… what… Decepti… cons… do?"
Comet grimaced. "I told you before, I'm not–" But he stopped mid-sentence, unable to complete it.
"You're… not… what?" The Autobot pressed. "Decepti… con?" He turned his head slowly away from the seeker.
"It doesn't matter," Comet said finally, before changing the subject. "Anyway, that's enough about me. How did you end up here?"
After a moment, the Autobot answered. "It's… a long… story. You… probably… don't… want to… hear it."
"Well… that's up to you. It doesn't look like we're going anywhere any time soon." Comet walked over to a nearby scrap pile, sifted through it until he found a power pack. It was depleted, but undamaged.
"Is… there… any way… out of… here?" The Autobot said, turning his head towards the seeker again.
"No." Comet knelt back down on the floor beside him, power pack in one hand. He began to remove its outer covering. "I don't even know where here is," he confessed.
The Autobot gave him an amused look. "Don't… you?"
Comet briefly looked across at him. "Why, do you know where we are?"
The Autobot gave him a strained half-smile, happy to be able to help in some way. "We're… in Hitec," he said.
"Hitec?" Comet repeated, as he pulled the outer covering off the power pack. He examined its terminals, and then proceeded to connect an energy transfer cable from his wrist to the unit. "Well… that makes sense. At least I'm still on Alternity City." A few minutes passed by in silence, and then he disconnected the power pack from his wrist, placed the small unit down on the floor. He turned his attention back to the Autobot. "You're going to be of more use to me fully functional again," he informed him, referring to the mech's immobilized state.
The Autobot looked up at him. "Glad… to be… of… service," he said, with an obvious hint of sarcasm.
Comet ignored his remark. "I can fix you. But I'll have to take you temporarily offline." He reached across, positioned one hand underneath the Autobot's head.
"It's… not… like… I have… any… choice… right?" The Autobot replied, attempting to make light of his situation, but he did not try to resist.
"Don't worry; you won't feel a thing, Autobot," Comet responded. He found the access port behind the mech's helm and opened it up. "Ready?"
"Wait–" The Autobot started. Comet paused, waited for him to say whatever it was that he needed to say. "Call… me… Sun… ny," he said, finally.
Comet's expression did not change. "I know who you are," he replied simply, before deactivating him.
Optimus, hands clasped together supporting his chin, faced his senior officers in silence. They were all seated around the Conference Room table, waiting for him to speak. Immediately upon his return to Iacon, Optimus had called for an emergency meeting. He hadn't spoken a word to anyone other than to his second-in-command, who had requested to speak to him alone, but Optimus had waved him aside with a gesture of his hand. "Not now, Prowl," was all he'd said, and Prowl had instinctively known not to press the issue.
Whatever the reason for the meeting, most of the Autobots gathered knew that it was a serious matter, and none of them dared to be the first to speak. The tension in the room was quite palpable.
It was several breems before Optimus finally spoke. "Autobots… there's no easy way for me to say this." He paused, sighed deeply.
"Ah… Prime?" Ironhide looked concernedly at his leader. "Whatever it is… we can handle it. You can count on us." Murmurs of acknowledgment and support rose up from around the table.
"Thank you, Ironhide…" Optimus replied, uncertainly. "But you won't like it." The room fell silent again, as the Autobot officers waited uneasily for him to continue.
"As of this moment, I order you all to abandon the search for Decepticons. Do not pursue them, and do not attempt to apprehend them. Unless your life is in immediate danger, do not engage them in combat or confront them." Optimus' tone of voice was determined, his message clear and unmistakeable. His steadfast gaze moved from one Autobot to the next, and he clearly saw expressions of surprise and shock upon each of their faces.
"But… Prime?" Ironhide spoke again. "I don't understand…"
A few of those gathered looked towards Ratchet and Trailbreaker, as if they may be able to offer some clarification, but the two Autobots seemed just as confused and uncertain as the others.
After a long moment in contemplation, Hound spoke up. "Has… the High Council given you a reason… for rescinding their directive?"
Optimus considered his reply carefully. "This… has nothing to do with the Cybertronian High Council." Hound shook his head in puzzlement, as the Autobot leader continued. "I gave Megatron my word, in return for my team's release." He turned his head towards Trailbreaker and Hot Rod as he said this, and realization slowly dawned on the both of them. Bluestreak, also, put two and two together as he slowly began to understand what must have happened during their recent mission to Polyhex. Only Ratchet remained expressionless, even though Optimus had mentioned nothing about this to him either.
"But… we can't just let 'em get away with everything they've done – just like that!" Ironhide protested in anger, his hands clenching into fists on the table in front of him.
Optimus remained calm, his tone steady. "I'm sorry, Ironhide… but I've made my decision, and it's final." He stood up, looked towards his second-in-command. "Prowl, I want an update. I'll be in my quarters," he said, and then exited the Conference Room without another word, leaving the gathered Autobots in a state of disappointment and confusion.
* * *
Prowl pressed the button on the door panel, and watched as it changed from an amber light to a green, welcoming glow, before the door retracted into the wall. Optimus had been expecting him, and immediately beckoned him to enter. Prowl stepped past the Autobot leader into his quarters, and the door slid closed behind him.
"Optimus…" Prowl began. If he had any concerns at all about the brief meeting that morning, he did not show it. "I have the report you requested." He held out a small data pad, and Optimus looked at it, nodded in acknowledgment.
"Thank you, Prowl," he said, but did not take the data pad. Instead, he made a sweeping motion with one hand and then turned away, walked over to the large view screen which overlooked east Iacon.
Prowl took the cue, and cleared his vocal processor. "There have been no reported Decepticon sightings or attacks whatsoever… our maintenance schedule is up to date… all energy reserves are at normal capacity–" He paused, sifting through the detailed information displayed on the small, hand-held screen in front of him. "Ah… there's been an influx of sightings… primarily from Antihex…"
Optimus turned away from the view screen and back towards Prowl, his interest piqued. "What kind of… sightings?"
Prowl considered his reply, his words deliberately chosen. "Of… Autobots… who were previously reported missing."
The blue light from Optimus' optical sensors intensified for an instant, as the news entered into his main processor. He tried to make sense of the information, but the longer he thought about its implications, the less he was able to get a grasp on it. Prowl, too, looked as though he could offer no explanations. "I see…" He said, after a long moment. "I want you to bring them in for review. Find out what happened to them."
"Yes, Optimus," his Chief of Security replied, and sighed deeply before continuing. "Groove has taken a turn for the worse. He is currently in semi-stasis. He is still alive… but we have little hope for him."
Optimus noticed Prowl's difficulty as he spoke about Groove, so he simply nodded, changed to a different topic. "Is there anything else?"
Prowl hesitated, inhaled slowly. "There is one other matter."
Optimus turned away and looked out of the view screen to the busy streets below. "Go ahead."
"It concerns… Sideswipe," Prowl said.
Optimus did not reply for a long time, and Prowl remained as he was, not speaking another word until the Autobot Commander was ready to hear more. "Sideswipe," he repeated, recalling the name of a mech who had long ago become lost to him.
"Yes. He requested to speak to you. He… claims that he witnessed the Neutrals – that they're preparing some sort of takeover…" Prowl faltered, suddenly feeling as though the very utterance of those words had placed him into a strange, alternate reality; one that he was not at all used to. To Prowl, the very idea of a Neutral-led rebellion against the Autobots was simply too incredulous to even consider, and he knew that Optimus would feel the same way.
"A planetary takeover?" Optimus looked back at Prowl, and then steadily paced towards him until his large frame loomed above that of his Security Officer's. "Are you absolutely certain?"
Prowl nodded his head affirmatively. "That is what he told me. He was… quite persistent."
Optimus stepped away from Prowl, walked over to a chair and slowly sat down. "How is it possible? Perhaps…" He spoke quietly, disbelieving yet struggling to understand the possibility of such a claim. Finally, he looked back towards Prowl. "Perhaps, he is mistaken..." He said, but his tone was filled with uncertainty. After a long moment of silence, Optimus spoke again. "Contact Sentinel, tell him I wish to speak with him, at once."
Prowl nodded again. "Understood."
"Thank you, Prowl. That will be all." Optimus watched Prowl silently exit his quarters and, for some time afterwards, he remained where he was, unmoving.
Since Jazz had left Iacon, he had had plenty of time to think. He had gone over recent events in his mind, many times over, and each time he had tried to convince himself that he'd made the right move. Eventually, he'd stopped concerning himself with the way he'd left things with Prime and, to a good extent, Prowl, too. He had never meant them any harm, but the way he saw it he had had no other choice and, besides, if he could somehow find out not only what had happened to Groove, but also what had happened to countless other Autobots over the last several stellar cycles, he might be able to help shed some light on the entire situation and, then, maybe those at Iacon Central might come to understand why he'd taken such drastic actions, and perhaps even forgive him.
From one corner of a small, out-of-the-way oil house in the outer region of West Polyhex, Jazz had sat at his table, alone, for over an hour. He'd seen only two mechs walk by; one of them had been a Neutral, and the other he wasn't sure; could have been an Autobot, though in these parts that was highly unlikely. However, it was equally unlikely that it had been a Decepticon, for several obvious reasons.
"Hey, Jazz… what's up?" A mech appeared in the shadows behind him, and Jazz turned around in surprise.
"Do you always make it a point to sneak up on bots like that?" He asked, facing the mech.
The Autobot was larger than Jazz, and probably looked a lot more intimidating as well, though this was probably due to the fact that he had received some upgrades from the time he'd spent with the Decepticons. He walked around to the empty seat opposite Jazz, gazed down at him. "Sorry, I guess I can't help myself," he said.
Jazz shook his head, gave him an easy laugh. "No need to apologize, Drift-bot. Thanks for meeting me here." He gestured towards the chair in front of him. "Take a seat. Can I get you anything?" Jazz watched as Drift sat down, shaking his head. "Alright. So, I figured you still owe me one," he continued, getting straight to the point.
"Yeah, I remember, Jazz. So… what can I do for you?" Drift replied.
Jazz leaned back in his seat, tapped his fingers on the table in front of him. "I just want to ask you a few questions, that's all."
Slight concern appeared on Drift's face. "I do something wrong?"
Jazz chuckled. "Nah, nothing like that. This has nothing to do with you, as a matter of fact."
The Autobot stared at the Special Operative, rubbed his chin in thought. Jazz was the type of mech who was very difficult to work out, mostly because he played his part so well that no one could ever tell whether he was hiding something or not. "Then what's it got to do with, Jazz?"
"The Decepticons," Jazz replied, not pulling any punches. Now it was his turn to take the other by surprise.
"Oh…" Drift suddenly became uneasy. "Look… you know I don't have anything to do with them, not anymore."
"Well… I was hoping you could help me out with some information." Jazz watched him intently, looking for any vulnerability in the mech that he could use to his advantage.
Drift inhaled deeply, shook his head in disbelief. "I really don't think there's anything helpful that I can tell you about them."
"Heh… why don't you just let me figure that part out?" Jazz hesitated, sensing the other's reluctance. "I'll tell you what; tell me exactly what I want to know, and I'll call it even. How's that sound?"
Drift shifted in his seat, and gestured with a nod. "I can't promise you anything, Jazz… but you can go ahead and ask."
"Were you at the final battle when the Autobot-Neutral Alliance proclaimed victory over the Decepticon forces?"
Drift thought about Jazz's question for a moment, and then shrugged. "No. Why?"
"Huh. No reason. Except that I wasn't there either, nor was anyone else I've asked," Jazz replied. "Seems kind of strange, don't it?"
"I'm not sure. As I said, I wasn't there," Drift asked, puzzled.
"Do you know anyone who was?" Jazz asked, unrelenting.
"Well, I mean… it was an infamous battle. There were probably several who took part. From what I recall, it's how the Decepticons lost most of their army." Drift paused, and the look on his face told Jazz that he wasn't as confident as he sounded. "It should be all there in the official records. Why don't you just go and check the Archives?"
Jazz shrugged, gestured with open palms. "See, that's the thing, Drift; I already checked the Archives. You wanna know what I found?"
Drift was cautious. "What?"
"Nothing. Not a single name mentioned. Not even a casualty list… nothing."
A moment of awkward silence followed. "Look… the Archives are huge. It's possible that you weren't looking in the right place." Drift hesitated, shook his head. "What are you trying to say, Jazz?"
"I'm not trying to say anything. I'm only asking questions, that's all. And you still haven't answered mine, so let me ask you again. Do you know of anyone who fought in the final battle at Kaon – Decepticon or Autobot?"
The Autobot infiltration specialist turned his head away from Jazz's unwavering gaze. "I'm sorry, Jazz, but I can't really help you with that. I was deep undercover when it all happened. By the time I returned to base with my scouting party… it was already over. Victory for the Alliance had been officially declared… and those of us – Decepticons, I mean – who still remained, fled."
"And you didn't witness any casualties?" Jazz asked, curious.
Drift shook his head. "No… we were told that our fighters had all been destroyed in battle… there weren't any left alive."
"That's too bad…" Jazz said, his voice lowered, as he carefully watched Drift's reaction.
Drift's demeanour suddenly changed. "Eh, they had it coming to them."
"You think the Decepticons deserved what they got?" He probed, ignoring the other's uneasiness.
"I thought this wasn't about me." Drift turned back to Jazz, returned his gaze.
"It isn't. I was just wondering," he replied, and then changed the subject. "Look, I need some way to get in contact with them. I figured you might be able to help me with that."
Drift became wary, and he looked at Jazz as though the black and white mech had a few transistors missing in his cranial circuits. "You can't be serious."
Jazz's resolve remained steadfast. "I've never been more serious, you can count on that."
"No way. There's no way I'm going to try and contact them for you, Jazz. You can forget it." Drift leaned back in his seat, his arms folded in front of him.
Jazz looked at him amusedly. "I'm not asking you to contact them for me."
Drift's frame relaxed slightly, but he continued to remain on guard. "But you just said–"
"I just said you might be able to help me out," Jazz interjected. "You were practically one of them… I was hoping you might know of some way I'd be able to draw their attention without alerting the Autobots – or the Neutrals."
Drift shook his head doubtfully. "It's been more than a vorn since I had anything to do with them. And even if I knew of a way, there's no guarantee it'd still work." He hesitated. "Jazz… whatever it is you're planning on doing, I've got to warn you; stay away from them. They're extremely wary of any Autobot, and don't like it when outsiders intrude upon their territory. Believe me… there's no telling what they might do, especially if they know you're on your own."
Jazz listened quietly and when Drift had finished speaking, he nodded. "That what I need to do – intrude upon their territory?" Drift sighed, hesitated, and Jazz persisted. "I'm just asking for a sure-fire way of getting their attention, without Alliance interference."
"Alright, Jazz. You want to know how to get their attention, I'll tell you." Drift had become frustrated, almost impatient, with Jazz's stubbornness. As the Special Operative watched him expectantly, in absolute calmness, Drift opened a private com link. "I'm going to transfer you an encoded distress signal." Jazz accessed the link, and allowed the data to be transferred into his processor. When the operation was complete, Drift severed the link. "If you transmit that signal I just gave you on a secured channel, one of them should come to your location. If it's still active. But just remember that it's meant for Decepticons – If they find you instead, there's no telling how they might react."
After a long moment in contemplation, Jazz slowly nodded. "Thanks…"
Drift shrugged. "Don't mention it. I guess now that makes us even?" He stood up from his seat, looked down at Jazz. "Just – be careful, Jazz," he said and, without waiting for a response, turned around and walked out of the oil house.
After the meeting with Prime that morning, Ratchet had headed straight to his quarters. He had thought, briefly, that he should stop by the med bay and check up on Red Alert, but then reconsidered; instead, a quick call over the com link confirmed that everything was under control, save for Groove's critical situation, though he couldn't do anything about that, anyway.
He had felt that something within his own systems wasn't quite right, and had decided that he should get an early recharge cycle. He had put it down to the recent events in Polyhex, and the unfamiliar Decepticon technology that he and his team had unexpectedly been exposed to when they had all dematerialized, and then rematerialized, back into solid reality; it must have caused an electrical disturbance in his circuits, somehow, but despite what he felt his internal diagnostics did not indicate that anything was particularly wrong with him.
He lay down on his berth and powered down. As his mind slowly began to drift into semi-consciousness, he fully expected to get a full, undisturbed, seven-hour rest, but after only a few cycles it became apparent that that was not to be.
It had started like any other dream – random symbols and images that made no logical sense, conjured up from ethereal, non-corporeal realms – but that's where the resemblance to any other dream ended.
Ratchet found himself back at the Masoleum, standing in front of the familiar statue of his best friend. He looked around in alarm and then down at his own frame, touched his arm in an effort to determine whether he was physically present. As far as he could tell, he was not in any dream.
A familiar voice suddenly called out to him, and he spun around, almost drawing his weapon. There was only one mech who had ever dared call him by his nickname.
"Wheeljack?" He called back apprehensively. This could be another Decepticon trick, he thought with a sense of loathing.
"Ratch… over here." Ratchet spun back around to face the statue, and froze in sudden shock. There, in front of him, stood Wheeljack, more solid and life-like than he'd ever remembered him to be.
For a moment, Ratchet completely forgot where he was, or how he'd come to be here. As the initial shock began to subside, however, he wondered whether the mech that stood before him wasn't some sort of cruel illusion – the Decepticons, somehow, playing with his memories and emotions in an attempt to break him down.
"You're not Wheeljack." His voice sounded odd to his audio receptors; rough, distant. "You… you can't be."
"Ratch, you're the only one who can help me." It was unmistakeably Wheeljack, right down to his mannerisms and posture, the way he'd always stand with his knees bent, feet slightly apart. "Please, time's running out."
Ratchet hesitated, sceptical. "Help you? I can't help you. You're… you're not even real."
Wheeljack seemed to ignore his words, but took a step closer towards the medic. "Voice override command: 'nine, zero, four, three, three, one, zero, Cyber Jack.'"
Ratchet stared back at him in confusion. It had sounded like some sort of access code, but any more than that he had no idea what it might be for or what, if anything, he was meant to do with it.
He felt his world slowly fading, being pulled back to some distant, other reality, and he tried to hang on, fearful that another opportunity like this might not come again. "Wait–" He called out, and hesitated as he tried to make sense of what was happening. "How… how do I know it's really you?"
Wheeljack began to dematerialize in front of him, and Ratchet rushed forwards, reaching out a hand, but it passed right through his best friend. Before the apparition faded completely from his vision, however, it spoke to him again, his familiar voice still clear. "You made me a promise, Ratch. Find my research notes, and you will find the answers."
"No, wait…" Ratchet replied suddenly, desperately trying to hold on to what must have been an activated memory fragment. But it was too late; his friend was gone. All that remained in his place was his lifeless statue, a poor tribute to the once lively and high-spirited Autobot engineer.
Before he knew what had happened, Ratchet found himself back in his quarters, his systems fully online. He checked his internal chronometer in confusion, and realized that the recharge cycle had only just begun.
Several Autobots were gathered inside Communications Central. Most of them were between shifts, and after the official meeting, had felt the need to share their concerns and, for many, their frustrations.
"Something's up with Prime. He's not acting like himself anymore," Ironhide complained, trying to keep his voice below normal audio range but failing. Hot Spot and Silverbolt stood on either side of him, while Bluestreak, Hot Rod and Trailbreaker stood in front of him. All together, they formed a small circle.
"He's had a lot on his mind lately. Maybe you should cut him a little slack, Ironhide," Trailbreaker responded.
Ironhide looked doubtful. "Well, I hope you're right, 'Breaker. 'Cause I don't know how long I can just stand by and watch while the Decepti-creeps are allowed to run around free, and there's not a darn thing that any of us can do about it," he said, his words filled with frustration.
"You're not the only one who feels that way," Hot Spot informed him. "Streetwise? Didn't take it too well at all. I'm worried he's going to go and do something stupid… and Blades now, too."
"Well, I don't blame 'em," the munitions expert replied. "In fact, I have half a mind to tell Prime exactly what I think about his latest order."
"You're… you're not thinking of defying it, are you? The order, I mean?" Bluestreak asked nervously, looking worried that Ironhide would even consider taking such an action.
Ironhide shook his head. "Nah… I'd never go against Prime's wishes, Blue, no matter how much I might disagree with them. But I must admit the thought did cross my mind a few times since the meeting this morning."
"So now, we're supposed to just let the Decepticons go free?" Silverbolt spoke what was on his mind, his tone incredulous. He had not been present at the meeting, and did not quite believe Prowl when the Security Officer had passed on the new orders to him over his private com link.
"Straight from the boss's mouth," Ironhide replied.
"I don't get it. They wouldn't think twice about turning us all into scrap metal, so why should we treat them any better?" The leader of the Aerialbots continued.
"Well, if you ask me… Prime did the only thing he could have done. It's the only way we're going to defeat our true enemies once and for all." This time it was Hot Rod who had spoken. They all gave him puzzled looks, as if he had just blown a logic circuit.
"What in the name of Primus are you talking about, Rodimus?" Ironhide asked him, but Hot Rod did not get an opportunity to respond because in that same moment, a voice from nearby addressed the small circle of Autobots.
"Don't you all have something else you ought to be doing?"
It was Optimus Prime, standing at the entrance to the communications complex. His arms were crossed in front of him.
Ironhide turned to face him, slightly self-conscious. He had no idea how long Prime had actually been standing there, listening in on their conversation. "Ah… sorry, Prime. Now that you mention it, I do have a few errands to run…" he explained, before heading off.
Bluestreak and Trailbreaker stepped past Optimus, giving their leader a respectful nod, as Hot Spot and Silverbolt watched them go before they, too, went their separate ways. Hot Rod was the last to leave the communications area, and as he went to follow the others out, he felt a strong hand upon his shoulder.
"Wait, Hot Rod. Not you," Optimus said.
"Sir?" The red and orange warrior looked towards his leader expectantly.
"What did you mean when you said it's the only way to defeat our true enemies, and that it was the only thing I could have done?"
"Our enemies…" Hot Rod trailed off, a distant look in his optics as if he were trying to understand something that was impossible for him to figure out.
"Hot Rod," Optimus prompted, gave the Autobot warrior a stern look. "What were you talking about?"
"I… I've never experienced anything like it before. That weird teleportation thing that happened to us yesterday? It must have activated some dormant circuitry or something within me because… I had another vision, only this time it was much more real than any of the others I've ever had before," he explained. "It felt so life-like."
Optimus slowly withdrew his hand from Hot Rod's shoulder, inhaled deeply. "Go on."
Hot Rod shrugged. "I don't really understand what it all meant, to be honest, but… it's like I could see two different realities. I think it was showing me our possible futures."
"Yeah… our," Hot Rod repeated, indicating with a sweeping motion of his arms. "I mean, Cybertron's. The Autobots', you know?" As Hot Rod spoke, his gaze drifted about the room as if he were searching for something that he couldn't quite see. "In one future… there was devastation everywhere. All the Autobots… we were gone. It looked like… the Great Devastation had hit Cybertron." He paused as he recalled the horrific scene from his vision, and his expression took on a sombreness that Optimus rarely saw in him.
"I… see," the Autobot leader said in a lowered voice.
"The other future…" Hot Rod shook his head slowly, as if momentarily confused. "The other future was the complete opposite. All the Autobots… we were all okay. And everything was okay, you know? Like there was finally peace, and… and we'd… won." His gaze fixed upon Optimus as he spoke the last word.
This was not the first time that Hot Rod had confided in him about a vision he'd experienced. They had all turned out to be accurate in one way or another, and Optimus knew better than to simply ignore them, especially when they contained such powerful messages.
Optimus slowly nodded, considered Hot Rod's words carefully. "Then… we must do all we can to ensure that a Second Great Devastation does not occur." With deep regret, he realized that the decision he had made recently must have been in error, and he bowed his head. "It seems then… that I've made a grave mistake by going against the High Council's directive."
Hot Rod, startled, gripped the Autobot leader by his forearm. "What? No… no, no, no… you don't understand, Optimus," he said, alarmed. Optimus looked up at him uncertainly. "Look, I know how this is going to sound… but, it's what I saw. I don't know how to explain it." Hot Rod paused, struggling to find the right words. He shook his head in confusion. "The Decepticons… they were there… in that future."
"We must stop them before they bring about a Second Devastation," Optimus stated, the conclusion obvious.
But, to Optimus' surprise, Hot Rod shook his head. "No… no, no… not that future! They weren't in that future at all." Hot Rod's gaze fixed upon Optimus Prime once more. He seemed to be reliving his vision as he stood there, mesmerized by it. "The Decepticons – they were all here as well… but in the other future."
Firestar performed a final test of the rebuilt long range scanner that her crew had salvaged from their ship, and then stepped towards Chromia, pleased with their team effort. "Alright. We're all done here." She looked over at Elita One, who had just disconnected her secure com link. "Elita?"
"Hm?" The femme commander looked across at Firestar, and then walked over to the work space.
"I've also hooked up a basic alarm system."
Elita nodded, hands on hips. "Good work, Firestar." She hesitated, thinking. "Let me know if you pick up any Cybertronian life signs."
Firestar nodded, and thought that she could sense what was on Elita's mind. "Are you worried about Astrotrain?" Elita had informed her about their recent encounter with the Decepticon, and it was the first thing she thought of as she noticed her commander's slightly concerned expression. "He knows we're here, on Alternity City."
Elita sighed, looked up towards the building's run-down ceiling. Then she shook her head. "This isn't Cybertron, 'Star. We could encounter far worse than a bunch of Decepticons."
"Still." But Firestar left it at that. She had to admit that Elita had a point; Alternity City was home to the most contemptible mechanistic life forms in the Sector, far worse than had ever existed on their home planet. "Speaking of Cybertron… we might be able to rig up a long distance transmitter with some spare parts we have lying around." She turned towards Moonracer, who was busy studying a map of Binaltech. "'Racer?"
"Binaltech's got everything..." The green femme said in fascination, fixated on her map.
"'Racer! Do we have enough to build a transmitter?" Firestar asked her, ignoring her friend's fascination with the mega-city.
Moonracer finally looked up, distracted. "Huh? Oh… umm, not sure… hold on one astro-sec." She stood up from her seat and sprinted over to a makeshift bench nearby, sifted through various items. After about a cycle, she looked back towards them with an uncertain look. "Well, our beam array was damaged so we'll need a new one of those… but, other than that, shouldn't be a problem," she explained, shrugging in a casual manner.
Firestar nodded. "Thanks." She turned back to Elita. "You'd be able to send a message to Optimus… let him know what's happened. Just a thought."
Elita was about to say something in response, but then she stopped herself. She paced across the room to one of the building's viewing apertures, and looked out into the alley beyond. She was quiet for a long moment. "I–" Then she shook her head. "We need a few replacement parts, anyway." She tuned to look back at the three of them. "There's someone here who may be able to help us," she said, and then picked up some equipment and backup weapons, handed them out to her crew. "I'll worry about Optimus later. Come on," she added and walked towards the building's entrance, waiting for the others to follow her.
Once they'd all stepped outside, Chromia sealed the door behind her with an encryption code. "Where are we going?" she asked, but Elita One had already transformed into her car mode and had raced ahead down the alley, leading the way southward.
"Binaltech," Moonracer replied, smiling happily, as the three of them caught up with their team leader.
* * *
Chromia looked out across one of the main city streets and scanned the tall, multi-level structures that filled every square inch of the inner city spaces. She nodded towards the largest metallic facade directly in front of them. "Well… that one looks like some kind of mega-complex for spare parts. Anyone got any credits?"
Elita One shook her head. "No." Her team mates, all in robot mode, stood close beside her. She continued to walk down the main street, as multitudes of passers-by moved past them like relentless ocean waves. "Come on."
"This place sure is busy!" Moonracer commented, mesmerized, as Chromia grabbed her by the arm and prompted her onwards.
Elita One and her crew made their way through an access tunnel that led down one level, until they arrived at a bustling, underground communications hub. Multitudes of mechanistic and cybernetic beings crowded around the many terminals, or waited their turn in long queues, eager to use the general communications exchange service.
But the Autobot femme commander kept moving, leading them along a large, well-lit transport route, until they had left the hubbub of the exchange far behind. The enclosed space in front of them gave way to a more secluded, quieter section of the city, where the route terminated into a large, rounded structure. A sealed entranceway was its only discernible feature. "Well, this is the place…" Elita One announced, standing before the entranceway. Her expression was one of uncertainty.
"Are you sure?" Chromia asked her.
Elita strode towards the structure, and pushed a button on the side panel. "We'll find out." After a few moments, the door disappeared into the wall and, sure enough, a tall, blue and white, well-built Cybertronian mech stepped out to greet her.
"Devcon," she acknowledged with a nod, and the mech quickly scanned the area, looked at each of the femmes before beckoning them inside.
"Elita One, welcome to my little corner of the galaxy," he said, as the door slid quietly closed again behind them. The interior of the structure was deceptively larger than what it appeared from the outside. It was a well-lit, richly adorned space containing several gaming tables, while a small bar occupied a far corner.
Elita One looked around at the private gambling room and the handful of patrons who were absorbed in their games, and shook her head. "You run this place?"
Devcon showed the femmes to an empty table, and they each took a seat. "Nah, I'm just visiting. I'm good friends with the owner." He clasped his hands together, smiled at them. "Can I get you lovely femmes anything?" Moonracer returned his smile, but said nothing.
"No," Elita replied. "We won't stay long." She paused, watched him with interest. "It's been a while, Devcon. Didn't think I'd find you here."
Devcon shrugged. "There's plenty of work for me in Binaltech; the place is crawling with low lives." He leaned forward, placed his elbows on the table top. "So… I hear Cybertron Command isn't too happy with you."
The femme commander hesitated, slowly nodded her head. "You could say that."
Devcon shook his head in disbelief. "Wow…" He looked back at the femmes in contemplation. "Time sure changes things, doesn't it?"
Elita did not respond directly to his comment, but inhaled deeply. "You're still hunting fugitives, then?"
"Fugitives… criminals, scum bags – you name it." Devcon smiled at her, his manner easy going and relaxed. "It's good to see you again, Elita. I'm glad you thought of me," he added.
"Well, this wasn't exactly a planned visit," she replied, shrugging. "Our cruiser was attacked just before we arrived here. We lost all our energy reserves, and most of our equipment. Not to mention we have no way of getting off this planet. I was hoping that you might be able to help us out."
Devcon looked at her, intrigued, and then gazed at the other three femmes. "Are you… all looking to return to Cybertron, then?"
Chromia glanced across at Elita. "Since we're already here, we figured we may as well hang around a while – see what we can find out about the strange stuff that's been happening within the Sector. Many Autobots are being targeted, and we want to know why."
The Autobot crusader listened intently, and then nodded. "Funny you should mention that. I've been following a few clues myself." His expression changed to quizzical. "I don't suppose you know anything about the Subterranean Base in Hitec?"
Elita shook her head, while the other three femmes drew blank expressions. "Sorry; I don't know anything about it."
"Huh," Devcon replied. "No matter." Then he looked across to the bar, indicated to the bartender with an open hand. When he looked back towards the femmes, he changed the subject. "So, do you have any idea who attacked your cruiser?"
The femme commander shook her head again, sighed. "No idea. Whoever it was, they were cloaked."
"Cloaked, huh?" Devcon watched as the bartender brought over a tray holding five containers of energon, and then set each container down on the table in front of them. "Please, it's on me," he said, indicated for each of the femmes to take one. Once the bartender had left, Devcon lowered his voice instinctively, leaned across the table top. "I happen to know of only two outfits on Alternity City that might have access to that kind of technology."
"Hmm… let me guess – Decepticons?" Firestar interjected, as she took a sip from one of the energon containers.
Devcon looked directly into her optics, and shook his head. "Nope."
Chromia shrugged, perplexed. "The Predacons?"
He gave her a brief tilt of his head. "It's certainly possible, but unlikely. Most of them went into hiding after the Great War; they haven't been seen on Alternity City for many stellar cycles." Devcon lifted his container of energon to his lips, took a gulp.
"Then… who?" Chromia asked determinedly.
"The Supremacists from the Base in Hitec, as I mentioned earlier. Or…" He paused for emphasis, watching the femmes' reaction, but they said nothing further, only looked back at him in expectation. "Or…" Devcon repeated, his expression now uncertain. "The Neutrals."