Alternity City, the greatest cybernetic planet within the Destron Space Precinct located in the Gamma Sector, thrived. Its many provinces spanned across most of the planet's surface, and were always alive and bustling with activity. The City's subterranean world, which consisted of several interconnecting layers, was even more incredible, both in population and in size.
The City, in large part, remained divided, unclaimed by any single governing faction or party, and as a result it had become a cesspool for crime, corruption and all manner of clandestine operations. Gangs and crime lords from all over the City fought for domination of the biggest suburban territories, and violence was a common, every day occurrence. Out upon the surface, along the busy streets and in between the alleyways that separated the sleek, metallic skyscrapers, passersby ignored as best they could the brawls and skirmishes that were commonplace, as they hurried through on their way home from a long work day, doing nothing to render assistance.
Despite this insane state of affairs within the City, there would be some sort of order. A powerful faction would be reborn and lay claim to this torn, yet vastly resourceful, city. Each passing day saw the opportunity for new leadership to grow stronger, emerging from within the planet's murky depths until it had established itself supreme above all others. Inevitable competition between rival groups ensured that only the strongest and the most ruthless among them would prevail, sorting the leaders from the followers, the strong from the weak.
A steadily increasing number of mechanoids were now, more than ever before, willing to pledge their allegiance and undying loyalty to the undefeated, self-appointed ruler of the City - the High Commander of the Hitec Subterranean Base, as he was known to his subordinates. For the first time since the Great Devastation during the Third Era, when entire suburbs had been destroyed and very few mechs survived, his loyal followers could once again grow in strength and numbers. Opportunity for great change was now upon them as the time had finally come for the worthy elite to build their empire, an unstoppable force unsurpassed by any other in the known universe. Then they would take all that was rightfully theirs.
The Hitec Base was a stark, gloomy and unwelcoming network of rooms and tunnels. Well hidden from the rest of the City, it spanned a massive area below the planet's surface, and its advanced defence network made it virtually impervious to enemy surveillance. It was perfectly suited to their purpose. Added to that, they had accumulated enough energy and resources for the next stage of their plan.
The mech watched silently from a darkened corner of the control tower, deep within the bowels of the Subterranean Base. Nothing escaped his notice, not even during the peak of the recharge cycle. He was often the last one online, and the first to awaken. He had become a silent, unobtrusive presence; so much so that the other mechanoids had eventually come to ignore him after many long years, had all but ceased to question his motives, or his purpose for being. He seldom spoke, and refused to become involved in squabbles that frequently arose within the base. All they knew of him was that he served as their supreme leader's personal informant and confidante, and usually answered to no one else.
As two mech-rats scurried across the floor, he hardly turned his head to acknowledge them. Instead, he moved over to one of the security terminals, ignoring the flickering light panel emanating from the adjacent control station as he walked past. The systems were on stand by. He input the codes to access the network with slow and deliberate movements, as if carefully contemplating his every move. The monitor beside the control panel whirred abruptly to life, and a rudimentary map of the security network was displayed before him. He studied it intently.
The High Commander of the regime would expect the usual security report and, just like a reliable chronometer, the mech would provide it. The High Commander would be kept informed of anything and everything that occurred within the underground base... and the High Commander, also, as the mech had learned quite some time ago, liked to keep his identity concealed. However, the mech knew more about their supreme leader than he dared to reveal.
An unauthorized group of signatures appeared on the screen, alerting the mech to a possible security breach. A tracking beacon soon revealed the source of the signatures. Mechanoids with transformable configurations. Cybertronian mechanoids with enhanced flight capability.
As he watched the movement of the intruders - five of them in all - he took no action to intercept them, or to stop them. Instead, the mech continued watching them as the jets approached a wide runway within the perimeter to the North. They began to pick up speed at a relatively fast rate, and further analysis confirmed that they were heading towards the primary power grid.
He stepped away from the console and silently waited in the semi-darkness, watching them with interest.
Elita One looked out through her cruiser's view screen towards the Red Nebula in the Delta Sector, her hand resting lightly against the bulkhead. She took a moment to recognize the silent emptiness that was deep space, and how lonely it often got out here, indeed – how lonely it was out here but, luckily for her, she was in the company of a very capable and close-knit crew, who commandeered a very capable warship.
She generally liked the feeling of being in command, as she was in this moment. However, their current mission had proven futile thus far, and she realized now that there was no better option but to return home. She shook her head, and turned back towards her crew. "Turn the ship around! We're going home," she ordered, heading back towards the captain's chair and sitting down.
One of her all-femme crew looked up from her navigational console with slight hesitation. "Wait, Elita – we're still detecting a vapor trail–"
Elita One gave a small sigh. "We could be detecting Unicron's exhaust port as far as we know – we're not going to waste any more time or energy on this ridiculous wild goose chase," she explained in frustration, and then softened her tone a little. "Don't worry about Cybertron Command, Chromia. I'll handle them."
The blue femme relented, and returned to her console. There would be no arguing with Elita One - although she did agree with her sentiments - regardless of what Command would think of them when they returned home with nothing. They had been searching this part of space for several weeks now, following one useless sensor reading after another, only to come up empty-handed. They may as well have been chasing their own tail-pipes for all the good that their little recon mission had accomplished. Perhaps intel had got it wrong this time. Chromia turned the ship around on a course back to Cybertron, and stepped back from the console, nodding to the Autobot femme commander.
"Do you know how long it's been since we were part of something meaningful, Chrome?" Elita asked, calling her second-in-command by her nick.
"No, I don't. I haven't really thought about it, to be honest," Chromia replied, walking casually over to her. She and Elita had been the best of friends for the longest time, and outside of duty they completely disregarded their ranks – to Chromia, Elita was just another one of the femmes, and vice versa.
"Four deca cycles, Chrome. An entire warship at our disposal, and we've been on nothing but useless scout missions. Can you believe it?" Elita responded, shaking her head at the thought.
"Well, they haven't been pointless, exactly," Chromia began, although her conviction was weak. "Besides, somebody had to do it, and we happened to be available, that's all."
"Maybe, but it's a job for first year cadets - not for us. I'm going to speak to Prime about getting transferred to the Gamma Sector. That's where we should be right now."
Chromia looked at her friend, and noticed the inner fire in her optics, the intense desire to be a part of something greater. It was what Elita had been created for, what she lived for, and being away from the front lines for too long caused all her frustrations and resentments to inevitably surface. Part of her understood her friend's need; a deep and rarely expressed part of her psyche that, once she was engaged in a fierce battle against an enemy, could no longer be kept under control. Just like the rest of the femmes here aboard the Avenger, they were both warriors at spark. "You think that the rumors are true?" Chromia asked her, after a long pause.
Elita turned to face her, and considered her question carefully. "Yes, I think they are. And I also think there's a lot more going on than even those in Command will ever care to admit."
"Elita, we can't deviate from our assigned mission without going through the proper channels. You know that, right?" the blue femme reminded her gently, reading her thoughts.
"The proper channels?" the pink and white femme replied, laughing sardonically at the thought. "The High Council doesn't play by the rules – so why should we?" She leaned her head back against the chair's head rest in contemplation. Ah yes… the great Cybertronian High Council - the planet's peak governing body - and its direct authority over all of the Command hierarchy's major decisions. Many at Iacon Central had turned a blind optic to their blatant rise to power at the end of the Last Great War, which had forced an uneasy cease-fire between the Autobots - who had always recognized the Council's authority and abided by their wishes; and the Decepticons, a group of rebels who had been dissatisfied with the way the Council had run things from the beginning. Effectively, the Cybertronian High Council had quickly put an end to the eons-old war between the two factions, but at what price? Elita couldn't help but wonder whether things had actually improved since then, or whether one problem had simply been replaced for another - one that was possibly far worse, and far more insidious than the first. And now that rumors of a new and deadly group originating in the Gamma Sector were beginning to surface, she couldn't help but feel that the Council knew more about it than they claimed - perhaps a lot more. Too many incidents from that region of space had been thus far unaccounted for, and an increasing number of reports of Autobots who had gone missing without any reasonable explanation only served to strengthen her conviction. "Don't worry, I won't do anything you wouldn't approve of – I promise. Okay?" she said finally, and smiled reassuringly.
Chromia nodded resignedly. "Okay."
Megatron slipped through the visitors' checkpoint on the ground floor of the Command Center in Iacon Central - the Autobots' main base of operations - and made his way along its hallways and then up several levels, intent on reaching his destination. He did so silently, without any fanfare or warning, moving past the occasional Autobot, who, startled, instinctively stepped aside to make way for him. The Decepticon leader hardly glanced at them, barely even acknowledged them. Even when two security bots realized who he actually was and called for a backup security team, he simply continued past them. He wasn't interested in the usual formalities that all visiting mechs were required to go through in order to be granted permission to enter the Center. "Get out of my way," he muttered dismissively, as he turned a corner into a brightly lit hallway.
The Autobot guards followed him, trying to keep the larger mech within their sights. One of the guards, a blue colored mini-bot by the name of Tailgate, gave his usual, oft-practiced speech he usually gave to any mech who attempted entrance into their base without the proper clearance. "Excuse me, sir? You'll need a security pass to enter. This area is off limits to unauthorized personnel. Please leave immediately, or we will have to escort you out-"
Megatron stopped short, turning to face him. "Is that a threat, Autobot?" He looked down upon the smaller mech, optics a fiery red. His fusion cannon was prominently mounted upon his right arm. Satisfied that he had made his point, he turned back and continued at a steady pace down the hall. Tailgate continued after him, much less confidently now, and saw his security backup approaching from the far end of the passageway behind them.
The two guards caught up to the Decepticon Military Commander whilst trying to avoid running into other bots as they entered the busy Control Room, and after a few moments they arrived at a large operations room known as Communications Central. Megatron came to a stop directly outside, as several guards and soldiers surrounded him. Seemingly oblivious of the various standard-issue weapons pointed directly at him, he quickly scanned the area for the Autobot Commander.
"Sir, this is your final warning…" Tailgate began again, but then trailed off as they all turned to acknowledge two approaching mechs, who had been alerted to the sudden commotion.
Optimus Prime, accompanied by Prowl, a high ranking officer and Chief of Security, came to a stop before the Military Commander.
"Prime," the silver and black mech acknowledged, red optics filled with the will and determination that was typical of the Decepticon leader.
Optimus nodded and glanced towards Prowl who, upon understanding Prime's unspoken command, vocalized his objection. "Prime, I must insist on having him removed immediately. He is in direct violation of security protocols," Prowl said, looking the Decepticon leader over, then added with a scowl, "Besides, Decepticon scum isn't welcome here."
"Prowl, not now," Prime interjected, and motioned for the Security Chief to back down.
"I'll handle it from here."
Prowl reluctantly lowered his weapon, then motioned the others to do the same but kept his gaze locked upon the Decepticon leader, ready to take defensive action at a moment's notice if need be.
As the Autobot Commander beckoned for his long-time rival to follow him away from the communications center and towards the main conference room nearby, he spoke in his usual calm and even tone. "You really shouldn't have come here, Megatron. For your own sake, as well as ours."
"Never mind that," Megatron replied with irritation, as they entered the room. The door closed, and the two of them were alone. He wasted no time in getting to his point. "Listen carefully, Optimus Prime, because Cybertron's future depends on what actions you are about to take. The Council has been coordinating a silent takeover that has been in the making for many stellar cycles now. When are you going to realize they are simply using you and the rest of the Autobots to further their own agenda?"
Optimus watched him silently, giving away nothing of his own thoughts and feelings. It seemed ironic to him that he should be standing here now, in the heart of Autobot territory with the Decepticon leader himself, after not having seen or heard from him for many years.
Megatron, however, seemed to behave as though only a month had gone by since they had last spoken. He continued, "We have reason to believe that an old enemy is regaining a foothold in key locations throughout the Gamma Region… it's just a matter of time before-"
Optimus interrupted him with a raised hand. "And you want me to believe that the Decepticons have no involvement with any of them?"
Megatron would have given him a look of incredulousness, but he quickly realized that such accusations were only typical of the Autobot Commander and so, instead, he turned away in disgust.
Optimus continued unperturbed. "Weren't you the one who claimed that the Decepticons should have total supremacy over Cybertron, and the rest of the galaxy, all those vorns ago? Why would things be any different now?"
The Decepticon Commander looked at him directly. "Yes - if it had come down to a choice between them or us," he rebuked, referring to the various groups who had vied for power and supremacy over the vorns, including the High Council itself. "And with the Autobots at their every beck and call, who would remain to ensure the future of our race?"
Optimus visibly stiffened, and backed away, his tone now terse. "That's not true and you know it. The Council had no authority or influence over us. Yes, we've sought their advice and they've often accepted our help – but that's only because their goals are no different to ours! I would never approve that which I am not also prepared to accept full responsibility for."
"Ah, yes, but all that has since changed, hasn't it?" Megatron reminded him somberly. After pausing for a brief moment, he continued. "If you refuse to accept what is truth and fail to take the necessary actions, we will all pay the ultimate price for your shortcomings." His voice was calm and direct, yet his contempt for the Autobot Commander's stubborn belief in what, to him, was nothing more than a corrupt political regime remained evident. "And you, alone, must live with the consequences of your decisions for the rest of your existence."
"What would you have me do? Force the Council, and perhaps the rest of Cybertron, to submit to your demands?" Optimus rebutted, still unconvinced of the Decepticon Commander's motives.
Megatron knew that his words of warning would ultimately be ignored, and that the time for such talks would soon run out. Yet he continued in his attempt to make the other see reason. "To begin with, you could grant the Autobots true sovereignty from those who would take away their independence."
"The Council does not dictate our every move, and they are reluctant to do anything without my approval," Optimus defended.
"Is that so? Well then, I suggest you directly refute their next directive, and see what happens," Megatron challenged, almost with a smirk. "You are a fool, Optimus Prime. As long as you remain unwilling to stand up against them, then you will be personally held accountable for Cybertron's ruin."
Optimus had heard enough, and was starting to feel restless. He thought that a slight change in direction might help steer the conversation more in his favor. "I've already spoken with the Council, and they are prepared to do whatever is necessary to protect Cybertron from harm. I see no reason to stop them," Optimus explained, his tone steadfast.
"How many more Autobots must die before you start to see reason?" Megatron's tone was harsh, accusatory.
"Since when did you care about the Autobots?" Optimus fired back, anger at the other's bluntness, then at himself for having taken the bait. He fought to regain control. "It is you, Megatron, who has no proof of what he is saying," he added. Then, as he began pacing slowly across the room, he changed tactic. "Don't you think I would tell you if I believed for one cycle that the High Council had something to hide?" Optimus replied. "But as it currently stands, that would be unfair." He stopped pacing, and looked back towards his long-time rival. "No… in fact, if there's anyone here with anything to hide, it would be you."
"You would like nothing better than for me to confess my involvement in all of this, so that you can lay blame on the Decepticons. Is that not so?" Megatron countered, but did not wait for a reply. "Of course you would. Not only would you gain the support of the masses, but your rightful place as the esteemed leader of the Autobot Alliance would never be disputed. You will have won the hearts and minds of every good cybernetic citizen in the galaxy, while the rest of us 'war criminals' are punished."
The Autobot leader stood quietly, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with what had been said, showing no emotion, until finally he spoke again. "I am sorry you feel that way, Megatron. Truly. If there is any mech alive capable of ending this futile struggle and restoring peace on our planet, it would be you. But alas, it seems that it is not to be." When Megatron gave no reply, he continued after a pause. "You should know that the Council has given official recognition to the Neutrals as their representatives." He wasn't sure what kind of a reaction this news would elicit from the Decepticon Commander, but he guessed that it wouldn't be favorable.
He was right; this news only served to reinforce Megatron's sentiments towards Cybertron's main governing body. Sentiments that were far from positive. "This will only make things more difficult," he said finally. "I will not allow them to jeopardize all that we have stood for, Prime - even if it means going directly against their ruling. You know as well as I do that the Autobot-Neutral Alliance is just a cover. They will infiltrate your command structure and take control, and then they will be left without opposition." His optics were intense once more, his strength of conviction evident. "It's what they've always wanted."
"Perhaps, but we have no evidence as such, and until we do I must remain wary of those who are in disagreement," he replied, and then paused for a few moments. "Megatron... if you stand in the way of Council's decisions, I cannot condone your actions. I will take it as a renewed declaration of war against not only the Council itself, but against the Autobots."
Megatron looked directly towards the Prime Commander, a hint of regret in his expression. "Then nothing has changed." He exited the room, as Prime silently watched him leave.
There was nothing like a refill of refined energon, straight from the tap. It invigorated the systems, recharged an otherwise tired and overworked main processor, and brought an extra spark to the optics. On his days off, Sideswipe liked to do just that – indulge in some non-essential fuel intake.
He was a solidly built, red and black Autobot, taller than the average assembly line worker. Yep, that's what he was – an assembly line automated coil injector worker bot. Fascinating work, he thought with sarcasm, as he placed his order for another energon batch at the front of the Bar Magna – an often crowded and noisy energon bar where common worker bots gathered to unwind from a day's monotonous labor. After a few minutes, his order was placed in front of him. He picked it up and made his way to an empty two-seater table at the back of the bar - his usual hangout.
Settling back and taking in a refreshing mouthful of the pink substance, he allowed his thoughts to wander. Scanning the room, he checked to see if there were any new faces around today. He noted the usual workers, a couple of Autobot security personnel, who came in occasionally to keep an optic on things, and a table of Neutrals. He couldn't help but notice the way the Neutrals, in particular, stayed close to one another, as if they were protecting themselves from some external threat by relying on safety in numbers. He shook his head and casually looked away to avoid their suspicions. He had been observing them constantly for what felt like several years now, and the more he watched them, the more he had begun to question their political motives. Something about them just didn't seem right. The Neutrals had proclaimed themselves a peaceful, non-warring faction, dedicated to bringing Cybertron back to its Golden Era, its former glory. In the past, the Neutrals had always vehemently denied their involvement with the current establishment, yet things were changing and they now seemed to be doing the very opposite. Granted, the High Council had also denied exercising any political favoritism, insisting that its small group of members operated independently and existed only for the good of Cybertron as a whole, yet that had not stopped them from appointing the Neutrals as their official intermediary faction all the same.
The two Autobot security mechs came and went, and the bar finally quieted down. A pink and white femme passed by him then, holding a small data pad in her hand, and he glanced up at her. She caught his gaze, and stopped.
"Sideswipe, is that you?" she started, slight surprise in her voice.
A smile appeared on the mech's face, and he nodded casually. "Hey, Arcee. What are you doing here?" he answered.
"I've just completed my application and was passing through on my way to Iacon Central," she explained, then smiled. "It's so good to see you again, Sides. How long has it been?"
"Too long," Sideswipe replied. "So, what's the application for? Or is it top secret?" he asked, nodding towards the data pad.
"Oh, no. They're asking for trackers, so I thought I'd give it a go. I know it's not my area of expertise, but I figured what have I got to lose? Good posts are really hard to come by. Going back to Iacon might help me get a foot in the door, maybe even help get me back into the ranks." She handed him the data pad, and took a seat beside him. "Here, tell me what you think."
Sideswipe slowly sat up straight and watched her intently as she spoke, before looking down at the data pad and reaching out his hand to take it. He studied the data for a few kliks, and then handed the pad back to her. "Looks like you've got a good set of skills. They'd be crazy not to take you back." He smiled.
The femme nodded and fell into quiet contemplation as she read through her application again. She seemed satisfied with it. She gave him a small sigh and a shrug. "Thanks." Then her expression suddenly changed and her optics glowed brighter as she looked back at him. "Oh! Why don't you put in an application as well? It'd be great, and we'd be doing something meaningful, helping the Autobot cause. Just like old times!"
Sideswipe didn't give her a reply; instead he indicated towards his energon container and then looked towards the bar. "Listen, can I get you something?"
"Oh, no thank you. I've really got to get going soon. I'm just looking forward to going home, to be honest," she replied with a small sigh of relief.
"Look, Arcee – I'll be honest with you," he said, motioning towards the data pad in her hand. "I can't go back there again, and if there's any truth at all to the rumors I've been hearing of late, I don't think I want to be involved, anyway. Besides, they won't want me back, not after my colorful service record."
"Oh, you don't know that for sure," she replied, trying to reassure him. "They wouldn't hesitate to take you back; you're far too valuable." She further reflected upon what he had just told her. "What rumors?"
Sideswipe looked down at the table, averting his optics. "Oh, you know... they're just stupid rumors." He shrugged. "They probably don't mean anything." He seemed to change his mind and wished that he hadn't mentioned any rumors to her in the first place. "I don't trust the new Alliance, anyway."
She thought for a moment before replying. "You mean, the Alliance with the Neutrals?" she asked, and he nodded. She instinctively lowered her voice slightly as they glanced over towards the table of Neutrals across the room. The group of mechs was getting louder by the klik with every additional refill of energon consumed. She nodded in understanding. "They believe themselves to be superior, don't they?"
Sideswipe sensed that to be true. In fact, he would probably guess that most Autobots sensed it, too. "Well, that's not surprising. I've been watching them, and let's just say that there's more to their new accord than meets the optic."
"Do you mean their sudden partnership with the Council?" she asked, curious.
Sideswipe shifted in his seat a bit, hesitating with his reply. "Yeah. But don't ask me to explain it any further, Arcee. I'm still just trying to figure out exactly what in the Pits is going on," he said.
Arcee sensed that whatever it was that he thought might be going on, weighed heavily on his mind. "I understand," she reassured him. "Just be careful and stay out of trouble, okay?"
He looked at her with amusement, happy to be changing topic. "Hey, me, careful? Nah. Unless my name's not Sideswipe," he replied in jest. Back when he was a part of the Autobot army, he had a reputation for pulling off all sorts of crazy and dangerous stunts, both on and off duty - and sometimes at risk to his own safety.
She shrugged. "Well, can't a femme show some concern for a mech? Especially a mech who happens to be one of her best friends."
He laughed warmly and sat back, holding her gaze. "You needn't worry about me, Arcee. I can take care of myself."
"I'm sure you can." She looked at him thoughtfully. "So, how are you finding life as a civilian?"
He shrugged. "It's okay, I guess. I do miss the action, though… and being away from all my friends for so long hasn't helped, either."
"Yeah, I know what you mean," she said, quietly reminiscing over her own experiences during the past few years. "Things are not like they used to be, that's for sure."
He nodded in agreement. "Yeah." Since Cybertron Command's restructuring after the end of the Last Great War against the Decepticons, many of the remaining Autobots had transferred to non-military stations. Some helped upgrade or rebuild the city, whilst others involved themselves in diplomatic missions on other worlds, or became involved in scientific or medical endeavors. They had built themselves a new life, hoping that the notion of war would eventually become just a fading memory, and the heavy burdens of loss and sadness that each still carried deep inside his spark would disappear into the shadows of a long forgotten past, even if for only a little while.
Essentially, the Autobot army had been reduced to nothing more than a shadow of its former glory. Even the Decepticons, once a mighty force to be reckoned with, were now seldom heard from. He wondered what had become of them… what would eventually become of them all.
"Sideswipe?" he heard the femme next to him saying, and realized that he must have become lost in his own thoughts.
"Oh," he said promptly, turning to look back at her. "Sorry. I was just thinking."
Arcee smiled reassuringly, and they both sat quietly together for a few moments. "I better get going," she finally said, and stood to leave. "If you change your mind, come find me, okay?" she added as an afterthought.
"I will," he replied, and smiled back at her. He waved goodbye as he watched her exit the bar, then sat back in his seat and slowly finished off the last of his energon.
During the later part of the day, the Maintenance and Repair Bay of Central Iacon was usually deserted, save for one or two medical officers and a few maintenance drones scattered about the place, and today was no exception. The busiest time usually occurred in the early hours, when duty shifts were just beginning and the residents and personnel from the Command Center would visit for their scheduled maintenance routines.
Now, within the main operating theater inside the med bay the overhead lights were dimmed, and in the middle of the large room stood two mechs bent over a repair berth. A single, bright green spotlight illuminated their work area from above. They were both silently engrossed in their work, their concentration focused and intense. Atop the berth lay an offlined mechanoid. His chest compartment was open as the two mechs worked on him, carefully sorting through various fuel lines and wiring assemblies with the utmost care and attention.
One of the mechs, a tall, red and white Autobot, stopped working for a few moments, stepped back slightly and straightened. He let out a heavy sigh and placed the precision instrument that he had been using down on the table next to him. Then he quickly glanced at the monitor screen that displayed the mech's life signs, satisfied. "I'll let you finish," he said, his voice gravelly and rough. "It sure ain't like it used to be around here," he then muttered in a low voice, shaking his head. The other mech nodded silently, but did not look away from his work.
Silence followed for a long while afterwards, as the mech who was now bent over the berth finished his work, and carefully put away his tools. Then, finally, he looked back. "What do you mean?"
"Eh?" Ratchet asked, lost in his own thoughts, and then realized what the other was referring to. "Ah. Nothing," he replied, but privately reminisced of times now past. "Just talking to myself, is all." His student looked at him quizzically, but did not question him further. "Not bad for a security officer. You're almost ready to perform that procedure on your own. You won't need me watching over you anymore."
"Well, I... I don't know about that. I mean, there's still so much I don't know," the other red and white, security-officer-turned-medic-in-training replied.
"Ah, you're doing just fine. You're too self-critical, you know that? You've gotta learn to trust yourself a bit more," Ratchet reassured him, then walked over to the patient. He looked down at the silent figure for a few kliks, and carefully set the berth controls to auto recharge cycle. "But I think you've done enough here for tonight. Go on, get some recharge yourself."
"Hmm?" Ratchet looked up at him, slightly puzzled. "What is it, Red? What's the matter?"
If Red Alert didn't know his mentor any better, he would have thought that the Chief Medical Officer sounded almost annoyed with him, impatient even. "Oh, nothing, sir, nothing's the matter," he quickly responded, not wanting to create unnecessary concern. When he didn't continue, Ratchet turned his attention fully upon him, and folded his arms across his chest, silently waiting for him to speak. Red Alert realized that he wouldseem rude if he did not explain himself now, so he cleared his vocalizer and gestured with his hand, in emphasis of his noncommittal attitude. "Well, it's just that, me and the other mechs... over at S and D... we – well, we got to talking... about some things that happened before the New Era..." He trailed off, uncertain. He was beginning to have second thoughts.
Ratchet did not reply straight away, but instead listened intently to the new apprentice, observing his every mannerism in his own quiet, intimidating way. He nodded slowly. "Yeah?"
It seemed safe enough to continue. "We thought that maybe – you could tell us a bit about it?" Red Alert seemed tense.
Was he really that difficult to approach? Ratchet wondered about himself. He laughed – a deep, resounding chuckle that few mechs rarely got to hear. It was common knowledge amongst the medical and science officers who worked around here that he did not laugh much, nor did he take jokes very well, especially during the working shifts. But those same officers weren't privy to his off duty activities, which he generally kept to himself and away from his role as the Chief of Staff. "Well, what exactly do you want to know?"
This response took Red Alert slightly by surprise, but he did a good job of covering it up, and quickly recomposed himself. "Ah, well," he pondered, deep in thought. "The Dark Plague, for example. A lot of mechs I've spoken to believe that it almost wiped out the entire Autobot army, shortly after the war ended. That you, along with another officer... I don't recall his name... managed to discover a cure just in time – yet, when I searched the archives I couldn't find any information on it. According to the public records, it's almost as if it never happened."
Ratchet nodded his head. The memory of those critical events suddenly came flooding back to him. "Wheeljack," he said simply, almost to himself.
Things sure weren't the same around here anymore, he thought dryly. Not since the New Era began, anyway. It was quieter now, more peaceful, since the last known Decepticon threat had been quenched and the Dark Plague had been brought under control. Gone were the days of endless emergency medical calls during the middle of the recharge cycle, of soldiers being dragged into his med bay with crashed processors and burned out power units, desperate and leaking energon, waiting to be saved from permanent deactivation as they fought valiantly against the chronometer for their very lives. And he had done everything he could to save them, no holds barred. It was his job, after all. Granted, he had saved many more lives during his long service than he had lost, and for that he was grateful. However, these days, well... it just seemed to him that he wasn't needed anymore, not as much as he used to be. There were no more injured from the war, because there was no more war. These days, med bay activity consisted mainly of scheduled maintenance and upgrades – all very safe and predictable. Which was a very good thing, he thought. But it meant that things just weren't the same for him. Perhaps, he should retire from service for a little while, hand med bay operations over to mechs like Red Alert and the others. They were certainly more than capable of taking care of things. He had taught them all they needed to know.
Red Alert looked puzzled. "Excuse me, sir?"
"Wheeljack," Ratchet repeated matter-of-factly. "The name of the other officer was Wheeljack. And yes, it happened, all right. It ain't something I'm going to forget too easily." Ratchet began to slowly move around the large room, making sure that all tools and data files had been neatly put away, and that all security systems were active. The two maintenance drones, which had been silently standing by, obediently returned to their wall recesses to power down for the night.
Red Alert followed him, ever curious and eager to know more. He couldn't believe that he had managed to get the Chief Medical Officer to even talk about this part of Cybertron's history – a part that was very much shrouded in mystery. He rarely ever spoke to Red Alert about anything other than repair work. "Then, why... what happened to the records?"
Ratchet continued to finish up his final tasks for the night, not bothering to look back at the new apprentice as he spoke. "How should I know? I'm a medical officer. I don't deal with the Archives." Ratchet sensed the other's uneasiness at his remark, and decided to give him a more appropriate answer. "Look, I don't know why it's not in the recorded archives. Maybe it's restricted to high level personnel only. But I was there at the time, and I know what happened first hand." Ratchet stopped what he had been doing for a moment, now curious. "Why the sudden interest, anyway?"
But Red Alert had been expecting that question, sooner or later. "Well, I was researching enhanced virus programs as part of security and prevention, when I came across some undesignated medical files, marked only with the codename and no authorization signature. So I asked around a bit but... well, nobody seems to know much about it, other than what I've already mentioned. I thought that maybe you might know something."
"Uh huh." Ratchet seemed satisfied with that answer, and Red Alert eased considerably. He walked to the exit, ready to set the outside door lock, and waited silently for Red to follow him out. "All I can tell you is that if it ain't in the public records, then it's probably something you don't want to be asking too much about – at least, not around any of the higher ranks." A pause, and then, "Then again, maybe you should."
Great, Red Alert thought sardonically, that was helpful. He watched the red and white mech seal the door closed and input the security code on the control panel. "Sir, you are a high ranking officer," he said, stating the obvious.
Ratchet gave a slight nod, but did not give an immediate reply. He paused, taking his time observing his student. "Yeah, I guess I am. The Dark Plague was the codename for a virus. Highly effective, engineered to perfection... almost. Myself, and a few others, literally worked against the chronometer to find a cure for that damn thing. We were finally able to reverse its effects by using a high level Decepticon code, but not before a lot of damage had been caused, and many Autobots lost their lives."
Red Alert's optics glowed brighter as he took in this new, first-hand information. "So, did you find the Decepticons responsible?"
Ratchet's expression suddenly turned sour, and he grimaced. "Yeah, we found him, alright. He should have been terminated for what he did, but he pleaded not guilty during his trial and so, with some persuasion from Decepticon Command, the High Council decided to exile him instead." Then, after a pause, he added, "If he ever shows up here again, I'll terminate him myself,"
Red Alert could hardly believe what the Chief Medical Officer was telling him. "But, why isn't any of this in the Archives?"
"I don't know. All I know is that I'll never trust another Decepticon - not after something like that. I almost wish that damn war had never ended," Ratchet confessed, recalling the unpleasant events of the past and how, after a long and devastating war that had been fought between the Autobots and the Decepticons, it had all just suddenly, and inexplicably, come to an end - as if all that he and his friends had ever fought for, and all the Autobots who had so valiantly given their lives for the cause, now meant absolutely nothing. At least for him, it was a bitter pill to swallow. "A thousand more lives could have easily been extinguished in one recharge cycle because of that virus," he concluded.
His apprentice medic looked up at him in awe and bewilderment. "So... who was the mech responsible?" He could not help but ask the inevitable question. If nothing else, he could make a note in his security files for future reference.
The senior officer looked back at him, his gaze steady. His optics seemed to be burning with some obscure, yet undeniable truth, and a past that was better left buried. "Afraid I can't tell you that. Direct orders." He shook his head exaggeratedly. A pause and then, "But he was a high ranking Decepticon, that's all I can tell you." Red Alert was fascinated, yet visibly disappointed that he wouldn't be able to learn the identity of the war criminal. After a long silence, Ratchet continued. "But that's nothing for you to be concerned about. Right now I'm depleted and I gotta get some recharge. I suggest you do the same."
Red Alert nodded. "Of course," he replied, as the Chief Medical Officer turned and began to head down the empty hallway. "Oh, and, thank you, sir," he called out after him. Ratchet did not give him a verbal response, but instead raised his hand in acknowledgement, waving goodbye for the night. Red Alert smiled to himself as he watched the red and white form slowly disappear around the corner. Then he finally turned around and headed off in the opposite direction.
Other than the typical background hum emanating from the central computer console, the quiet buzz from the personal energon processor over in the far corner, and the regular beeping from the security monitors, Optimus Prime's personal quarters were silent. Lights had been activated to maximum intensity, and the large view screen that normally looked out over Iacon's eastern suburbs had been set to display a live visual of Cybertronian space. Stars gently filtered through, while an occasional meteoroid or other space debris quietly drifted past, but other than that the view did not alter much at all. Such a view would generally be considered uneventful or uninteresting, boring even, to some, but to the Prime Commander, it was peaceful. It allowed him time to think, to ponder. It reminded him of the sheer magnitude of creation, of the universe, of everything that existed and co-existed within it. A stark reminder that Cybertron, and all the lives that depended upon it for survival, was but a mere speck of creation, a tiny, microscopic piece of the larger picture – the much, much larger picture. It was a humbling thought.
Indeed, he was the philosopher at heart as much as he was the scientist or the strategist, though he would seldom admit to it.
Optimus, seated at his desk, looked down at a list of data files. He had done this for Primus only knew how long; had served as the Autobot Commander for what seemed like eons. Yet, it seemed to him that every solar cycle – no matter how many times he had made critical command decisions or how many Great Wars he had lived through – would bring with it a new experience, a new challenge for him to conquer. And every day, he continued to learn from such experiences, to conquer such challenges, and to rise above them.
Despite all his accomplishments, and even as the most highly respected and experienced Prime ever to have commanded the Autobot army, there were some things that even he could not learn to live with, or come to fully accept.
The data files stared back at him relentlessly, demanding his attention, the Cybertronian symbols on the screen in front of him bright green against a dark backdrop. He activated the touch screen and scrolled down, slowly reading the messages, deliberately taking his time. Security reports, maintenance schedules, recruit lists... right now, all of that could wait. Then, the file he was interested in: an encrypted message from special ops, a field report.
Every time he had played back that file, he was not able to shake off the feeling that had come over him. Even now, as he contemplated listening to it one more time, the apprehension and unease threatened to return ever more strongly, and he feared that he may never be rid of it. He had listened to the recording several times today already, and each time it had only left him with more questions than he had answers.
He looked away from the screen, his optics drifting towards the communications panel. Green lights flickered silently, an indication that the com system was operating normally. He noted that the main channels were online, and that his own private line was currently on standby. Next to that was a direct line to Council Chambers, isolated and secure.
He leaned back in his chair and looked at the view of space; silent yet unforgiving, despite its magnificence. Many wars had been fought amongst those stars, as many battles won as had been lost. A battle ground that had been his greatest ally just as much as it had been his worst enemy. It took no sides, gave nothing of itself, and yet would take everything in return. Many lives had been claimed during those battles, soldiers sacrificed for the greater good, for the honor and freedom of their race...
Optimus looked back down at the file names, returning his thoughts once again to the present day. Then he reached towards the touch screen, almost without thinking, and activated the file. An authorization prompt was displayed, insurance against unwanted access from the optics and audios of mechs who should not be privy to its contents.
"Teletraan II: Access file, clearance code: zero, one, four, nine, zero, zero, four, command code: priority one alpha, voice authorization: Optimus Prime."
'Authorization: granted.' A few moments passed, and the prompt disappeared. Silence.
"Play transmission," Optimus stated. His tired voice indicated his low charge state due to a lack of proper rest. He would have to do something about that soon or he would be getting an audio-ful from his Chief Medical Officer during his next scheduled maintenance, something he would gladly avoid if he could.
'Playing transmission.' A pause, and then a beep.
'Special ops team leader, First Lieutenant Jazz here, Cybertronian stellar date 143,602-4-168-5. Reporting from XR-5's Mining Station, right in the heart of the Gamma Sector's Main Asteroid Belt. The team and I have just secured the perimeter... we've encountered no life signs so far, kinda expected something by now, though. Looks pretty empty, but... my spark chamber's telling me something's definitely not right around here...'
Optimus listened to the recording in silence, not moving a micrometer. He thought that he could hear the uncertainty and agitation in Jazz's voice, and the more he listened to the transmission the more he felt certain that his first lieutenant was definitely sensing something ominous. Unfortunately, and as per usual, Jazz's feelings proved to be accurate. A long silence followed – the part of the transmission that was probably the most difficult for anyone to have to hear.
'What in the... oh dear Primus... what in the... Pit happened... here? I... I think I'm gonna purge...'
More silence, followed by the faint clatter of footsteps upon rocky ground. The sound of weapons being charged was then followed by the echo of distant voices, barely audible. Jazz giving orders, and acknowledgments from team members. Optimus recognized the familiar routine of a highly skilled special operations team.
'...Fifty, sixty... maybe more... cybernetic life forms... or the remains of what were once filled with spark... appear to have been attacked... in the most malicious... Sixteen, uh... no, seventeen... seventeen of 'em are barely recognizable, torn apart... energon covering the walls... some of these poor slaggers hung from their main fuel lines, left to die here... two Autobots, slag –'
Jazz's voice faltered audibly, as he relayed as best he could the sight before him without breaking. He continued, with difficulty.
'Transmitting a visual... what in the slag pits happened here... who... or what... would have done this? I ain't seen anything like this before... not even during the Great Wars... not even a 'Con could do something like this...'
Optimus quietly watched the visual as it came up on screen, still unmoving. He watched, and saw what Jazz and his team had seen first hand earlier that day. Devastation and slaughter, the chilling presence of death in every direction; but it was much more than that. It was much worse.
'Tracker... round up the team, we're leaving. We'll call in the clean up crew... nothing more we can do here now…'
Another slight pause and then, 'Jazz out.'
Optimus ended the transmission, and turned off the visual. He took a moment to gather his thoughts. Who could have done something like that, indeed? Or, what? To attack a military outpost was one thing, but a mining station? What could anyone possibly hope to gain by murdering a group of helpless, unarmed miners? If it was precious deposits they had been after, why hadn't they just taken what they wanted and left? Why the carnage, the needless death and destruction? Why? Two of those murdered had been Autobots, as Jazz had mentioned during the transmission. Mechs that Optimus recognized by name, had seen around the base, had even conversed with a few times.
If this was not a sure sign that a terrible menace was existent and operational at this very moment, then what was? How many more lives would have to be sacrificed before somebody put a stop to it? This was no coincidence, and it was definitely no 'accident,' as some had been quick to claim – it could not be. This was deliberate, malicious, and evil. Any fool could see that. And any good Commander would not wait for another incident like this one to occur, not if they could do something to prevent it. In fact, anything would be better than to just stand by and do nothing.
"Locate Jazz," Optimus ordered the Command Center's central computer network. A few moments passed, moments that felt like an eternity, until the computer finally responded.
'Jazz has been located in Private Quarters 02-401, Third Level.'
Good. That meant he was currently off duty. Optimus reached across to the communications panel, and activated his private line for a direct link to his first lieutenant. He waited a few kliks and then spoke. "Jazz."
A few more seconds went by, and then the familiar voice of the special ops agent came over the speaker. "Prime? What can I do for you?" His usual, friendly tone was a welcome sound, and Optimus felt instantly at ease.
"I was hoping we could talk."
"Uh, sure. Right now?" Jazz replied.
"Yes. If you can. I'm in my quarters," Optimus continued, but did not elaborate further.
"Sure, no problem." A pause and then, "I'm on my way."
"Thank you, Jazz," he said, and closed the link.
Optimus reminded himself that most mechs would be off duty by now, and probably resting. He knew that he should be doing the same, and started to have second thoughts about his request for the late night visit. This could wait till tomorrow... couldn't it?
After a few moments, Optimus stood up and made his way over to the view screen, which still showed a live visual of Cybertronian space. He pressed a button on the nearby control panel, and the view suddenly changed in the Iaconian skyline once again, stark and bright against the backdrop of a glittering, starry sky.
The streetscape below appeared mostly empty, save for the usual, quiet activity during this time, late into the recharge cycle. It looked like a safe and peaceful city. Yet Optimus, if he were to be truly honest, knew that it was far from it. For eons, he had fought for peace and order on Cybertron against the threat of the Decepticon regime. Unsatisfied with the status quo, the rebel Decepticon group had risen against the laws and order of the Council and, as a consequence, against the Autobots themselves, as their unofficial representatives. Then, the Council had finally put a stop to the war by offering the rebel group an ultimatum: either they accept a cease-fire and relinquish any control, or be destroyed. Megatron, the Decepticon leader, surprised everyone by accepting their terms, though to this day Optimus was troubled by the unexpected turn of events. Sure, the war ended, and that's what he had wanted all along - indeed, what the Autobots had wanted all along - but he knew that it was very unlike Megatron to back down from any fight, especially if it meant that his power or position on Cybertron would be weakened. Something else must have convinced him to acquiesce to the Council's demands, but as to exactly what that something else was, Optimus was at a complete loss to explain it. Every Decepticon he had queried since had remained tight-lipped, and Megatron himself never spoke of it afterwards. Furthermore, the Council had also wanted the Decepticons disbanded, but Megatron had managed to gather his remaining followers and hide out in an unknown part of Cybertron. After a short while, the search for them was abandoned. It was not until recently, when Autobots were found murdered or had started to disappear without a trace, and news of off-world trouble began to surface, that the Decepticons, bit by bit, reappeared once more. Many Autobots, including himself, had accused the small band of Decepticons of playing a part in the current misfortunes that had befallen them, perhaps even of being the masterminds behind the evil deeds, but their accusations could not be proven.
He must have lost track of time then, because he soon found himself jolted out of his thoughts by the sound of the door chime being activated. Ah, that must be Jazz. "Please, enter," he commanded, and the door slid automatically open. He turned around to face his visitor. "Thank you for coming at such short notice."
Jazz stood in the doorway for a few moments, observing his Commander intently beneath his trademark blue visor. Then he smiled warmly, and took a few steps inside. The door closed behind him. "You're welcome, Prime. Any time."
Optimus ushered him in and offered him a seat, which Jazz gladly took. "Would you like a drink?" he offered, indicating the energon dispenser in the corner. He went over to it without waiting for a response, and poured a container full.
"Ah, no thanks," Jazz said, politely declining the offer, then leaned back in the chair and watched Optimus take a few sips. "So, what did you want to talk to me about? I hope I'm not in any trouble," he joked.
Optimus smiled at him, the battle mask that he usually wore currently retracted, and shook his head. "No, not this time."
"Ah, well, that's good, 'cause I was starting to get a little worried, you know? You calling me in here in the middle of the recharge cycle. Ain't always a good sign," he replied. He paused, observing Optimus' demeanor more closely, and changed his tone. "Something up?"
Optimus did not respond straight away. Instead, he placed his energon container down next to the dispenser and paced slowly across the room in contemplation. His tall, blue and red frame projected a strong sense of leadership and authority. Jazz waited patiently for him to speak, not in any hurry. "Jazz, do you remember your first mission into Destron Space?"
"Hmm?" Jazz did not expect such a question, and he took a little time to think on it. "Uh... yeah, as a matter of fact, I do. It was many vorns ago, during the Great Devastation, as they call it. Can't say it turned out to be a great success or anything – quite the opposite. Why do you ask?"
Optimus turned back to face him. "I remember it clearly. I was the one who gave the intercept order."
Jazz stared back at him silently. Then he nodded slowly. "Yeah... yeah, I recall."
Optimus continued speaking, as if Jazz was hardly present. "Many soldiers were killed during that mission – good soldiers. They were killed because I hesitated to take that first move... because I gave the order too late. I could have prevented it, had I followed my own spark's guidance."
Jazz shook his head, unsure of where this conversation would lead to. "Optimus, that was a long time ago. And besides, you couldn't have known–"
"Ah, but I did know, Jazz." Optimus nodded slowly, recalling that time long ago, a time when he was barely experienced as a Prime Commander. "I did know. Even then, I knew."
Silence filled the quarters, and the two mechs were still, each quietly contemplating the other. Jazz was a highly skilled officer, and as reliable and trustworthy as any mech that Optimus had ever known. But Jazz was also as mysterious and unreadable as the optics he kept hidden underneath his visor.
"That's why I'm not going to allow it to happen all over again," Optimus finally spoke.
Jazz nodded, but said nothing. He thought it would be best to simply allow the Prime to say what he needed to say, in his own time. He had come here to listen, and that's exactly what he would do.
"You saw something on that Mining Station, didn't you, Jazz? Something you did not mention in your official report," Optimus continued. He was calm, composed, more curious than anything.
Jazz was about to reply, but then Optimus gestured for him to stop, indicating to his friend that he need not give him a reply – at least, not just yet. "Something's happening. You and I... feel it, sense it. I have felt it within my spark, within the Matrix that I carry, just as real as you sit before me now. Yet, I cannot say for sure what it is or where it comes from. I cannot fully fathom its presence anymore than I can fully fathom the very essence of the Chaos Bringer himself. Nevertheless, it is here among us."
Optimus paused for a few moments, and Jazz took the opportunity to respond. "You're right – there was something on that Station, something I can't explain. It wasn't anything that I could see, but it was there... I felt it," he admitted, his voice low, tense.
Optimus nodded in understanding and acknowledgment. "We must do all that we can to stop the Decepticons and those who sympathize with them before it's too late... before Cybertron itself becomes the next casualty. Our planet cannot survive another war."
The black and white mech listened intently to the Commander's words. He tilted his head slightly. "You so sure the Decepticons are behind all this?" he said slowly, deliberately.
"I've engaged them in battle more often than you have, Jazz. Believe me; I wouldn't be telling you this if I thought that they weren't involved somehow. But there's just been too many incidents, too many promises made only to be broken, so that they might return in full force, ready to claim Cybertron as their own once again," Optimus replied, anger surfacing as he spoke. "This time it is no different."
"Uh huh," Jazz acknowledged, considering his words carefully. "Well, if there's anything I can do to help..."
A pause, and then, "What I'm about to ask of you will place you in immediate danger, if you accept," the Commander said sombrely. "But there's no one else I can trust. However, I will fully understand if you refuse. No Autobot should be commanded to do this, and should you accept, you must do so willingly and without regret."
"Hey, that's my job; to do all the crazy things that no other Autobot in their right mind would dare to do," Jazz said in his usual, light-hearted way, and waited for his Commander to continue.
"Very well. I want you to 'defect' to the Decepticons," Prime said, his voice harsh in the stillness of his private quarters. "Gain their trust. Find out exactly what they're up to, and why." The first lieutenant nodded slowly, assimilating his new mission, but said nothing. "Oh, and… if possible, see if you can find out why the war ended. It may have some bearing to what's happening now."
"Alright," Jazz replied. "If that's what you want me to do. I'll be happy to."
Optimus gave him a nod of gratitude in return. "Thank you, Jazz. You have my full authorization to use whatever means necessary to succeed in your mission. Tell the other Autobots whatever story you wish, but your true mission is to remain classified, and off the record."
"I understand," Jazz replied, then with curiosity, "Is this a Council directive?"
"No," he replied simply. "This is strictly between the two of us." Jazz slowly leaned back in his seat, contemplating in silence for a few moments, and Optimus continued. "I know I don't need to tell you this, Jazz, but please be careful. I don't want to lose you." Jazz nodded silently in understanding, and Optimus turned towards the large view screen. "The first time I viewed your transmission from the XR-5 Mining Station, I thought I felt something, something that I had not felt since the New Era began... and the more times I listened to it, the more I became certain of what I now know to be true. What I've felt – and also what you have felt, sensed first hand, on that Mining Station – is a memory of which I have kept locked deep inside me for the longest time... a darkness that has plagued every atom of my being for the hidden knowledge of its existence. At first, I would convince myself that it wasn't real, that it was just part of a mental fragment borne from the darkest of our experiences... until, eventually, it became nothing more than a distant memory. But not anymore. Decepticons are no longer our only threat, Jazz. There is something much more sinister that sustains them; it gives them their strength, their drive... but the enemy that we once knew, is no longer the same enemy. We can no longer trust anyone but ourselves. And now we must learn the truth. Only then, can we know what we are truly facing. The Last Great War never ended last vorn, Jazz... it began."