The three Autobot femmes struggled to catch up with Astrotrain as he led them down the undercover subway tunnel for almost a klik, until he eventually slowed to a stop beside the track. Two other figures emerged from the darkness, and Firestar held out a cautionary arm towards Chromia before the three femmes all came to a stop a safe distance away from the triple changer and his two friends.
Astrotrain spared no time for any introductions; instead he spoke in a low, rushed voice to his companions. "What's happening?" He had received Astro's radio warning a few moments ago, but wasn't aware of the reason for the danger.
"It's Jhiaxus," Astro replied, glancing back down along the tunnel before momentarily resting his gaze upon the femmes. "And he's brought a team of enforcers with him."
"How?" Astrotrain asked, and Astro nodded towards the femmes, who stood watching them intently and on the alert. "What do you want to do?" he asked again, quickly glancing back at the femmes.
"Were any of you spotted?" Astro answered him with a question.
Astrotrain shook his head as he noticed Rook beside Astro, whose focus was concentrated intently on the femmes, as if they were some sort of curious fascination. "No, I don't think so."
"Alright. Let's take the subway north," Astro decided, and no sooner had he spoken than Astrotrain transformed into his train mode and positioned himself neatly on the subway's anti-grav track, doing his best to blend in with the other carriages. Astro leaped from the platform and through the opened door, stopping momentarily to wave the femmes inside. "Come on," he said to them.
Chromia hesitated, looking back at the unfamiliar Decepticon who waited for her to join them, and she couldn't help but wonder whether she had made all the right choices thus far; but there was no time for her to second guess her decisions now. The smaller, green and white Decepticon waited impatiently for her and her two companions to embark, and she began to make her way towards Astrotrain; the moment Firestar and then Moonracer were inside, he leaped in after them and the door sealed closed. Then they all began to move, picking up speed quickly as Astrotrain followed the track that led out of the Koltar Air Base, heading north.
It wasn't until the dwelling complex came into view that Thunderblast finally slowed to a stop and looked around. There was no sign of Astro, or Dirge, or any other Decepticon anywhere, and she hesitated for a brief moment, thought about sending out a distress signal, but then decided against it. She looked out across the horizon, towards the north-east, and checked her internal map. The twin cities of Semplex and Megaplex were about a hundred mega-miles up ahead. If she began her journey on foot, she would arrive within the smaller of the two cities – Semplex – before twilight. Once there, maybe she would be able to find some place to stay for a little while, take a little time to think about what she was going to do with her life, now that Jhiaxus had made his intentions for her very clear. It didn't really matter where she went next; all that mattered was that she got as far away from Jhiaxus and the Subterranean Base as possible. Either way, returning to Binaltech was no longer an option for her, not if she wanted a fresh start.
But even spending half a day on foot was half a day too long; she did not want to give Jhiaxus any opportunity to follow her or find her again. She needed a faster way to travel, but unlike the other Decepticons she did not have the luxury of a jet alt mode. She didn't even have a ground vehicle alt mode, like many Autobots. Instead, she had been blessed with a rather rare transformation mode – that of a speedboat – and whilst the function of a speedboat made her near invincible on water, it was rather useless anywhere else.
Water. She rechecked her map, and found that she was in luck and, eager not to waste another moment, she broke into a sprint and began to follow the adjoining street, heading north-west toward a main waterway that connected Binaltech to the twin cities.
Several moments after the train began to speed away from Koltar's Air Base via the subway, Jhiaxus burst through into the waiting area through the large windows, shattering them into small shards and sending the pieces flying in all directions. A small group of bots, seated in the same spot where the Autobot femmes had been only a few minutes before, ducked and covered their heads in fear. Other mechs attempted to run for cover nearby, calling out for security as six other menacing jets followed Jhiaxus into the waiting area, transforming into robot modes and landing beside him, their weapons drawn.
Their leader, and Second-in-Command of the Subterranean Base, looked around for any sign of the Autobots, whose signatures he had picked up unintentionally whilst trying to track down Dirge and his companions in the hopes that they may lead him to Megatron – if what Thunderblast had told him recently was true and Megatron was willing to hand over Astro for the exiled Decepticon Comet, it meant that the Decepticon leader must have recently arrived on Alternity City. Regardless, Jhiaxus was not interested in making a trade with him – instead, he intended to secure both Astro, and Comet, before finally destroying Megatron and, henceforth, putting an end to the Decepticon regime once and for all.
As far as the Autobots were concerned, whoever they were, he would hand them over to Sentinel Prime; perhaps the Neutral leader would be able to use them as leverage in case their leader, Optimus Prime, came looking for his beloved partner, Elita One.
"Which way did they go?" he demanded menacingly, snarling at the panicked mechs and security personnel as they scrambled to get away from the sudden threat of their presence, but he received no coherent answers. He let out an angry growl, and then strode through the waiting room towards the foyer, looked around impatiently. He reached out for one of the guards, slammed him up against the wall. The look of shock and terror on his face was undeniable. "You… where are the Autobots?" he demanded. The mech shook his head vehemently, mumbling something about not having seen any Autobots recently, and Jhiaxus released his grip on him. He became visibly relieved, but his reprieve was short-lived; without warning, the large, yellow and white jet struck him violently with the back of his fist, and the mech collapsed to the floor in a shower of sparks, his head almost ripped from his body. Jhiaxus turned to his team of enforcers, who waited expectantly for their orders. "Search the area north." All six did as they were told, transforming into their jet modes and flying back out through the shattered window of the waiting room. Then he looked around, contemplated his next move before finally turning his attention upon the subway system as a carriage came to a stop at the platform, carrying passengers from Binaltech. Ignoring the surprised looks and frightened screams as the commuters alighted, he pushed past them and began to run along the track. Then after several moments, he transformed into his jet mode and followed the subway route out of the Koltar Air Base, keeping his altitude low.
The sensation of soaring high above the ground across the clear, open sky was nothing short of exhilarating. This was the height of freedom, a precious gift from Primus that only flyers like Comet could ever hope to experience.
It was this very sensation that Sunstreaker, as a passenger of the Decepticon's jet mode, began to have an understanding, and an appreciation, of the same.
At cruising altitude, he felt as though they were weightless, caught adrift in space with nothing around them but the twinkling stars above, and the expansive, crowning splendour of the surface of Alternity City below.
Sooner or later, however, they would have to return to solid ground, and with that sobering thought Comet began to slowly descend. In the tranquil moments that followed, Sunstreaker cast his thoughts back to the time they'd spent inside the secure recycling facility, where he had encountered the seeker. Something that Comet had said had stuck with him, and he began to struggle with it now, as his memory of the event replayed in his mind. It was just before Comet had taken him offline so that he could repair his linkage. "Can I ask you something?" he said finally, breaking the peaceful silence. Comet did not respond, so he took it as permission to continue. "Back at the scrap metal plant, just before you repaired me… you told me you knew who I was." Sunstreaker paused, looking for a reaction, but he received none. "What did you mean by that?"
After a few moments, Comet spoke, but it wasn't to answer his question. "Where are we going next?" he said simply.
Sunstreaker peered out of the canopy. He really had no idea where they ought to go next, other than as far away from Hitec – and probably Binaltech – as possible. "I dunno. How about that city down there?" he said, indicating the closest built-up area below them, as the ground got closer with every mechano-meter of their descent.
"That's Megaplex," Comet confirmed.
"Megaplex… is that okay?"
"It'll do." Comet banked slightly as they approached the larger of the twin cities, and seemed to glide upon the air as if he weighed not more than a feather. "Not as interesting as Binaltech, but it has its plusses."
"Such as, it's free of any Neutral outposts."
"That's definitely a plus." The Autobot fell quiet again, enjoying the view, but then remembered that Comet never answered his earlier question. "You don't want to tell me, do you?" he said abruptly.
"Tell you what?"
"What you meant when you said that you knew who I was," Sunstreaker repeated.
"Oh," Comet's voice came through the cockpit instrument panel, sounding doubtful.
Sunstreaker waited for him to say something further, but he didn't. The jet's non-responsiveness was beginning to irk him, so he decided to get straight to the point. "Your name's not really Comet, is it?"
In the awkward silence that followed, Sunstreaker began to regret his bluntness, but then Comet gave him a response. "Why do you say that?" He sounded genuinely confused.
With a small shrug, Sunstreaker kept his gaze on the scenery below. "Ah, I don't know. It just seems kind of odd that you'd know who I am but I don't know who you are." As he thought about the best way to put forth his latest theory about Comet, he caught sight of a group of figures flying below them. They appeared to be circling wide above the city, as if searching for something. "So I had this crazy idea. You wanna hear it?"
Comet suddenly gained speed, turning sharply to the north. "Save it for later. We've got six small problems we have to deal with." Even before he'd finished speaking, the six enforcers had spotted him, and they began to incline sharply upwards to intercept them. Comet had pre-empted their move several moments earlier, and rolled into a sideways position as he continued to descend into Megaplex, avoiding a sudden barrage of laser fire targeted at him.
The assault continued relentlessly, the enemy jets aggressively pursuing Comet as he weaved through high rise buildings and spires, and there was nothing Sunstreaker could do to help but hold onto his seat and prepare for whatever was going to happen next. It quickly became evident to him that Comet was a highly skilled flyer, and could probably outmanoeuvre some of the best among Hitec's legion. Still, six of them against only one of him was pushing the limits of his luck.
As Comet dived beneath a bridge, tearing through the air at top speed, his pursuers broke away only to reconverge further up ahead, above a narrow laneway, and with nowhere else for him to escape, Comet crashed through the window of a multi-storey building.
A few moments later, several torpedoes were released into the structure after him, and then there was a magnificent explosion, followed by a shockwave that rattled the building's foundations and even the streets nearby. After it was over, there was nothing left of the floor but a burned out husk, its interior now reduced to molten metal and debris.
Once the last of the shrapnel had fallen down like rain all around the building, and the dust had settled enough to regain some visibility, one of the enforcers kicked his way through the shattered window, pushing aside pieces of twisted wall and broken conduit in his path. There was no indication of struggle or movement at all amidst the rubble inside; smoke and sparks from damaged circuitry were the only signs of life, and he seemed satisfied. "There's no way he could have survived, but we'll return to pick up what's left of him. Let's go," he said, and led the way back out as he transformed into his jet mode and took off for the open sky once more, having been summoned to rejoin his Commander.
The flat launching pads and smooth runways of the Koltar Air Base soon gave way to a sprawling, urban landscape, visible through sections of transparent wall of the subway tunnel. Chromia watched from Astrotrain's front view screen in silence as the train sped along the track at high speed, and couldn't help but wonder whether Elita was alright. She didn't know what she would do if she wasn't able to save her, nor could she bring herself to face that possibility. So, instead, she forced herself to focus on the situation at hand.
Her two best friends, Firestar and Moonracer, were seated opposite the two other Decepticons inside the carriage's passenger compartment, though none of them had spoken a word since they'd left the Air Base. Chromia had never seen the two Decepticons before, and had no idea who they were; she also thought it safe to presume that neither did Racer or Firestar. The taller, blue mech certainly looked Cybertronian in design, but other than his powerfully built frame there was no visible indication of his allegiance. The smaller, green and white mech beside him sported a red visor, which concealed much of his expression, though his mouth was set into a grimace.
She walked back to join the others, took an empty seat between her two best friends; Firestar had her arms crossed in front of her, and sat watching the two Decepticons with critical optics. Moonracer, on the other hand, was more than a little curious about the two mechs, and she couldn't seem to hide the sheepish look on her face.
Chromia took in a deep breath, cycling in air and then slowly exhaling. "I'm Chromia, and this is Firestar… and Moonracer," she said to the blue mech while indicating to the two femmes on either side of her as she introduced their names. Firestar gave them no response, but Monracer offered a polite smile. Astro focused his gaze upon the three femmes in a calm, self assured manner that told them he was in control, but said nothing. "And, uh, Astrotrain, he… he said maybe you might be able to help us," Chromia added, but then stopped. She knew that she was taking a big risk seeking the help of these unfamiliar Decepticons, and began to feel a little self-conscious. Still, she had nothing to lose by telling these two mechs what she'd already told Astrotrain.
Astro said nothing for a long time. The vista outside the train turned to pitch black for a moment, before artificial lighting dispelled the darkness of the subway tunnel. Then his gaze settled upon the blue femme, his yellow optics staring into her vivid blue ones. "What happened to you?" he asked simply.
Chromia felt herself begin to relax a little. "Well, we were at The Gambler's Den in–"
Her voice was drowned out as Moonracer jumped in, interrupting her. "Oh, it was my fault," she said. "I was – I mean, I wanted to try my luck at the tables… and I was so caught up with the excitement of it all that I never thought…" She faltered, baring her heart for all to see.
Chromia reached across and held her hand. "It wasn't your fault, 'Racer," she assured her. "It wasn't even your idea in the first place, remember?"
Moonracer held her other hand to her mouth, as she fought to hold back her anguish. She shook her head in protest. "No, but I let Double fool me – oh, how could I have been so stupid?!"
Chromia patted her hand in comfort, but said nothing further. Instead, she looked back at Astro. "There were six Neutrals. They just took her. We have no idea where she is, or – or even if…" She paused in hesitation, but couldn't bring herself to complete the sentence.
The scenery outside the window of the carriage changed again, from the interior of an enclosed subway tunnel to an open, flat landscape and a distant city looming on the horizon. Astro seemed to carefully consider what the femmes had just told him, before he looked to Moonracer curiously. "Did you say Double?"
The green femme looked up at him intently. "Uh huh," she replied, nodding in confirmation.
"Do you know who he is?" Chromia queried him.
Astro exchanged a glance with Rook, before looking out towards the scenery outside and slowly nodding his head. "His name's Doubledealer… he's one of Sentinel Prime's informants."
Firestar turned her head to look at the mysterious blue mech, her optics wide with surprise, while the look on Chromia's face showed astonishment and dismay at the same time.
Moonracer was momentarily in shock at the revelation, but she recovered quickly. "Oooh, I knew it! Why, that – that piece of… good for nothing – oooh!" she exclaimed, expressing her anger and frustration at both Double, and Sentinel Prime.
For the first time since she'd boarded the train, Firestar spoke. "What would Sentinel want with Elita?" she asked in an unsympathetic voice. She still did not trust these Decepticons as far as she could throw them, but thus far they had not given her any reason to raise her suspicions.
Astro turned to face her and was about to give her a response when Astrotrain's voice interrupted him. "I hate to cut your conversation short, but we have a problem," he warned them.
The three femmes, as well as Rook, looked at one another in silent alarm, as Astro stood up suddenly and moved swiftly to the front of the carriage. "What is it?" he asked quickly.
"We've got Jhiaxus on our tail," Astrotrain replied, as he pushed his alt mode to an even faster speed.
Astro quickly glanced down at the map on Astrotrain's instrument panel, and noted a small blip moving steadily up behind them. The closest city en route was only a few mechano-miles away. "Can you make it to Semplex?" he asked.
"I can try," Astrotrain replied. "Hold on." The sudden acceleration jolted everyone aboard. Travelling at top speed along the subway track was no mean feat; however, provided that he did not collide with another carriage at the next station, he should be able to reach their destination in less than a minute.
Astro moved fast, returned back to the others, his laser blaster in hand and pointed towards the ceiling. "Get ready to move," he told them, and Rook immediately sprung into action, retrieving his own blaster. The femmes were momentarily startled, but quickly realized that they weren't the ones their weapons were intended for.
Chromia rose from her seat and activated her grenade launcher, gave the blue mech a tentative nod. "We're ready," she said, as Moonracer and Firestar followed her lead.
Astro stepped towards the rear view port and watched as the shape of a large jet came into view. Then he turned back to Rook and the femmes. "It's Jhiaxus. We've got to lose him," he explained, and then paused to evaluate their chances of escape. With the femmes' additional firepower, they should easily be able to take him down, provided he was unaccompanied.
The train began to approach the station platform as it entered into another undercover tunnel, and as it did so Jhiaxus turned sharply upwards to avoid hitting the tunnel entrance. In the same moment, he released two energy missiles towards Astrotrain, and they hit their target. In a hail of sparks and smoke, Astrotrain was forced off the track, but just as he was about to hit the tunnel wall, he reverted back into his robot mode, safely ejecting his passengers as he did so. His momentum caused him to slam hard against the wall, and for a few moments he lay motionless on his back, smoke rising up from his side and energon beginning to trickle from his shoulder.
Astro called out to the others as he ran to assist the triple changer. "Cover us!" Then he looked Astrotrain over, assessing his injuries as he helped prop him up to a sitting position. "You're going to be fine. Come on, we've got to keep moving."
Astrotrain met Astro's gaze, and then slowly attempted to lift himself up to a standing position, though he struggled with the effort. He placed a hand over his shoulder injury. "Ugh. That bastard hit me," he said. He had been lucky; his alt mode had offered him a fair amount of protection against the impact of the missiles.
Behind them, Rook and the Autobot femmes trained their weapons at the tunnel opening, ready to launch a fusillade of firepower the very moment Jhiaxus showed himself, or attempted to enter into the tunnel after them, but so far he was nowhere to be seen.
The lights of the station platform illumined the tunnel further up ahead, and Astro began to walk quickly towards it, picking up pace as Astrotrain recovered from his impact and followed after him. After a moment, the femmes withdrew their weapons and sprinted to catch up, with Rook bringing up the rear.
Semplex was a neat, urban city located directly alongside the wide watercourse, which curved its way around until it terminated into a series of rivulets that merged into the much larger city of Megaplex. On Alternity City, water was relatively scarce and a protected resource. There were no oceans or large bodies of water on the planet's surface, only a handful of major waterways that connected the largest cities to one another.
After having flown northward for almost an hour in their robot modes, Dirge and his team landed at the edge of the watercourse that formed the western-most boundary of Semplex. Looking out across the water, he could see only untamed wilderness beyond, while to the east, the sprawling super city of Megaplex loomed in the distance – though not as large as Binaltech, it was still impressive. They had tracked the Cybertronian jet as far as Megaplex, but had recently lost sight of it when it had been pursued by a group of six unknown jets.
"What now?" Ramjet finally said, standing on a jetty beside Thrust, Bitstream and Acid Storm.
Dirge pondered their options for a brief nano-klik. "He's probably in the mega city. We'll find him, and then report back for further instructions."
As he was about to head into Megaplex on foot, Thrust pointed to a small, fast moving figure out across the waterway. "Hey, what's that?" The four of them stopped and turned to follow his indication. It was rare for any mechanoid to travel along the watercourse without a ferry, unless… "Is that who I think it is?" Thrust said, his curiosity piqued.
Dirge walked closer to the edge of the water, and then frowned. The figure was heading straight for them at a very fast speed. "It can't be." Then he grumbled, looked about to make sure no one else had noticed. "She's going to draw unwanted attention to herself, and us," he said disapprovingly.
"Should we get out of here?" Ramjet asked, dubious.
Dirge folded his arms across his chest and kept his gaze fixed on the Cybertronian femme. "No." Then he stood and watched as she approached the water's edge. The sound of her speedboat engine grew louder as she got closer, and she moved so fast across the water that it almost looked as though she were skimming the surface. Then, just before she reached the jetty, she stopped suddenly and jumped into the air, transforming into her robot mode. The Decepticon jets moved back to give her some room as she landed amongst them with her feet on the ground, except for Dirge, who didn't budge from his spot. She glanced around at the five jets, sizing them up quickly before stepping forwards until she stood face to face with Dirge. She folded her arms across her chest, mimicking his body language. "Haven't you learned your lesson yet, Thunderblast?" he said sullenly.
She put on a pout in annoyance. "I need to speak to Astro," she said defiantly, getting straight to the point – most unlike her usual self.
"Yeah?" Dirge raised his brow in surprise. "What about?" he demanded.
"Look," she emphasized, placed one hand on her hip. "I don't have time to explain everything to you, Dirgey," she said to him, with as much sarcasm as she could muster, and he looked out across the horizon, turning aside his embarrassment. "But if you don't want any of your friends to be captured and taken back to Hitec, you'll let me speak to Astro, now."
He could tell that she was absolutely serious, for the first time since they'd met, and he slowly dropped his arms to his sides, glanced back at his team mates for a brief instant. "Astro isn't here," he said finally. "Look, maybe I can help–"
She stared back at him in surprise. "If you think I'm ever going to believe anything you say–" She sighed abruptly in frustration. "Just forget it. This was a big mistake – talking to you," she said, and then turned to leave, but a strong hand on her arm held her back.
"Hey, not so fast," he said, spinning her around to face him. She tried to push him away but he gripped her firmly. "Look… it wasn't a mistake, okay?" Then he paused, hesitating for longer than he wanted to. "I'm… I'm sorry about what happened yesterday," he finally said in a low, frustrated voice. It had been a spontaneous, yet sincere, sentiment; one that had come up suddenly from some unknown place deep within him.
Thunderblast's optics widened in surprise, but only for an instant, and she shook her head in annoyance. "Let go of me!"
He released his grip on her in a sudden show of frustration. "Fine!"
"Fine!" she echoed, and turned abruptly to leave. "See ya."
"No, wait!" He cycled air deeply, long and drawn out. "Just – just wait a second, would you?" She hesitated, her back turned to him, and he continued. "If you want to stick around, you can come with us back to Cybertron." She slowly turned back around to face them, and they all looked at her expectantly, waiting to see her response. "I'm only offering once. Take it or leave it," Dirge added.
"Wh… what?" Thunderblast was momentarily speechless. She wasn't sure she'd heard him correctly. "You're… asking me?"
Dirge nodded. "Yeah."
"You're leaving right now?" she asked, unsure.
He hesitated. "No. We've got to find Comet first."
"Oh." She paused in thought as she considered his offer. It certainly was very tempting; it would give her the perfect opportunity to leave Alternity City behind and start over. If she turned him down, she may not get another chance like this again. Still, she didn't completely trust him, or Astro. Then, finally, she gave him a cautionary look. "Okay, but don't think for one astro-second that this means I've forgiven you, Dirge."
One corner of his mouth turned up in a satisfied smile, but then the sound of a distant explosion coming from somewhere within the mega city made him look back over his shoulder, alerted. "Come on," he said cautiously, and then began to walk towards Megaplex. His team mates followed behind, until she was the last one left standing on the jetty as she watched them leave.
"Hey – wait up!" she called out, before breaking into a sprint to catch up to them.
As the Decepticons gathered in the large meeting room further down the passageway to discuss their recent successful mission into Quadrant Epsilon, and the recovery of their combatant team, the sounds of animated chatter drifted into the Constructicons' work area. The additional presence and voices of the five rescued prisoners made the entire base feel far more spirited than it had been before, and the celebratory air was unmistakeable.
The work area doubled up as a repair bay, and its interior was shrouded in semi-darkness; it was quiet, and mostly empty – save for two mechanoids.
Jazz had opted to remain with the unconscious Autobot, who lay on one of the Constructions' work benches hooked up to some monitoring equipment. Scrapper had informed him that the patient had suffered some form of injury to his head just before he had been placed into stasis, which was the reason why he hadn't immediately regained consciousness after Jazz had freed him from his stasis pod inside Penal Vault 3.
In the stillness of the room, the Autobot stirred and released a low groan, and Jazz moved closer, watching intently as he waited for the injured mech to regain consciousness. His mind raced with many thoughts, and so many questions, but he had to force himself to slow down and take it one step at a time, give the mech sufficient time to recover from his time in suspension. Then he might eventually be able to learn what had happened to him, and in doing so, perhaps many important questions would finally be answered. Patience was key. "Hey, 'Jack. It's me, Jazz. Can you hear me?" he said softly, reaching out a hand to touch the Autobot's shoulder.
The blue optics began to flicker to life, and Wheeljack turned his head to focus on the head of Special Operations. "J… Jazz?"
Jazz gave him a warm smile. "That's me. Welcome back to the land of the living," he said. "You're going to be okay," he added, wanting to reassure him. He took a seat beside him, keeping his gaze focused on the Autobot.
Wheeljack attempted to sit up, but became alerted to an unpleasant sensation on the side of his head. "What… what happened?" he asked, alarmed, before looking around the room for clues to his whereabouts as he held a hand up to touch his helm. Jazz did not give him a reply, but sat patiently by, allowing him time to work things out for himself. "Where am I?" he asked again.
This time Jazz responded, though his tone contained no hint of alarm or cause for concern. "We're in Polyhex, with the Decepticons."
"Uh, with the… with the Decepticons…" Wheeljack echoed, though his expression gave away no indication of surprise or apprehension; rather, he seemed introspective, as if trying to figure something out. "Ah… I've got to tell Ratchet–"
He began to get up off the bench with renewed purpose, but Jazz held him back gently. "Hey, now – take it easy. Looks like you got beat up pretty bad. You need to rest."
Wheeljack looked at him hesitantly, but then relaxed back down again. He was quiet for a whole minute, deep in thought, until finally he looked again at Jazz. "How long have I been out?"
"Probably longer than you think," Jazz said after a beat, as he searched for the best way to break the news to him. "We, uh… we found you inside one of the stasis pods. In the Detention Banks, at the Quadrant Epsilon Penal Vault." He watched as Wheeljack processed the information, and was careful to make certain that the Autobot engineer wouldn't be overwhelmed all at once. Then he slowly shook his head. "You're lucky I found you. Thing is – your name wasn't entered into the record as a detainee. So, whoever put you in there, they did it without going through official channels."
"You mean…" Wheeljack began, shaking his head in confusion, his ears lighting up gently as he spoke. He looked squarely back at Jazz, as if in sudden realization. "Wait – what's the current star date?"
"It's the 227th day of stellar cycle 143,602," Jazz replied.
"No… no, no, it can't be, it can't–" Wheeljack was understandably upset, though Jazz had been prepared for such a reaction, and he kept a gentle yet firm grip on his arm. Jazz could only imagine how he must be feeling right now, knowing that he'd been kept in stasis for over a vorn, during a most critical time when his fellow Autobots had really needed him. The Plague, which had thrown all their lives into chaos over one hundred years ago, would still be fresh in his memory. "How many?" he asked, obviously distraught. "How many… survived? Ratchet? Optimus?"
Jazz gave him a small shrug; he wasn't sure about the exact number of plague survivors, but at least he could share with him the good news. "They're fine. The Plague was completely wiped out, thanks to your research." He paused, reflecting on the memory of past events. "It's just that, since you went missing… well, everyone thinks you're dead."
Wheeljack pondered the news with mixed feelings. "What about the proposed Autobot-Neutral Alliance?"
"Ah." Jazz nodded in earnest. "Officially came into effect in 143,501."
This seemed to shock the Autobot engineer more than anything else. "Sentinel Prime – is he… is he still leader of the Neutrals?"
Jazz nodded affirmatively, and then Wheeljack changed the subject in sudden realization of something. "I – I need to speak with Optimus." He struggled to sit up, detached the cable that connected him to the monitoring equipment, and this time Jazz did not try to stop him.
"We can try to get a message to him, but it's probably not a good idea for you to return to Iacon while Sentinel's around," Jazz said, paused in contemplation. "At least, not until we know who wanted you put away, and why."
Wheeljack hesitated, rubbed his helm with a hand, shaking his head. "Ah. You're right – though I think I can answer both those questions." He looked up at Jazz with renewed determination. "Is Megatron here?"
Jazz helped the Autobot engineer off the bench with a steady hand, and nodded in the affirmative. "You sure you're okay?" Jazz asked. "Wouldn't want you to overload your system before you've given yourself a chance to recover."
Wheeljack nodded, and then slowly straightened to test his stability, stretched his neck as he made small circular motions with his head. "Ah, I'll be alright. Thanks, Jazz – for everything," he said, and began to slowly head towards the exit of the Constructicons' work space. Then he peered out, following the trail of lively voices coming from the meeting room down the passageway. "I'd like to speak with him now, if that's possible?"
The black and white Autobot acknowledged him calmly. Then he extended a hand, motioning for Wheeljack to follow him. "Right this way."
Ratchet had taken a seat beside Groove's berth, and had listened patiently to the Protectobot as he'd told his story. His expression remained impassive; his arms folded across his chest as he processed Groove's testimony and its far-reaching consequences. Red Alert and Arcee, who sat opposite him listening in quiet shock as they struggled to come to terms with the revelation in their own way, dared not utter a word or move from their chairs. It was obvious to the Chief Medical Officer that they were shaken to their core, frightened and confused, and he knew that, as their senior officer, it was vital that he remain strong for them. Time, now, was of the essence. The decisions that he would make from this moment on would be crucial; every action that he now took could mean the difference between the complete subjugation of the Autobots, beginning in Iacon, or their victory over a corrupt Autobot-Neutral Alliance.
Several minutes passed by in silence after Groove had finished speaking, until he grimaced, arose from his seat to guide Groove off the berth. Then he moved around and hurried to the back of the med bay, disappearing through a door that led to a small annexe. A few moments later he came out again, walking quickly back towards the waiting mechs, and placed both hands firmly on Groove's shoulders, who had no choice but to meet his gaze. "It's not safe for you to be in Iacon anymore. I want you to listen to me very carefully, and do exactly as I tell you." Ratchet's voice was firm, yet laced with urgency. Groove slowly nodded, and he continued. "I want you to go to Wheeljack's old workshop, and wait for me there." He pushed an access chip into the Protectobot's hand, forcing his fingers closed around it. "This'll give you security clearance. Don't tell anybody, and make absolutely sure that no one sees you." Then he glanced over at Arcee and Red. "You two: go with him. And hurry, there's no time to waste." He released his grip on Groove, and began to make his way towards a storage unit in the back, but momentarily stopped in his tracks when he noticed that the three Autobots continued to simply stare back at him, unmoving. "Go, go!" He waved at them.
Arcee took a step toward him. "Ratchet, wait – what about you?" she asked concernedly.
The Chief Medical Officer hesitated. "Don't worry about me. I've got a few things to take care of first. I'll meet you there as soon as I can. Now, go!" And with that, Ratchet turned away from them and proceeded to frantically rummage through the storage shelves with a fervour and urgency that they had not witnessed from him before.
There was nothing left but for the three of them to do as Ratchet had instructed. "Come on," Red Alert said, and led the way out of the Repair Bay.
Making his way towards the Control Room carrying a small emergency repair kit in one hand, Ratchet quickened his pace as he approached, keeping his gaze focused straight ahead. He stopped for no one, did not even acknowledge the casual nods or curious glances that were cast his way as he brushed past a handful of Autobot officers and Neutrals.
When he reached the end of the hall that led into the Control Room, he saw just the mech he wanted to see, and rushed up to grab hold of his forearm, startling him. "Prowl," he said, his manner urgent and his tone persuasive, "we need to talk – now."
The Chief of Security stared at him quizzically, though his annoyance at the rude interruption was evident. "Can't this wait? I have a meeting in two breems–"
"No!" Ratchet could be persuasive when he wanted to be. "Trust me, this is important."
Prowl sighed, and Ratchet let go of his arm. "Very well," he said, and then indicated for him to follow with a sideways nod of his head. He led them to a private briefing room and closed the door behind him, then waited for Ratchet to speak.
"There's no easy way for me to say this… so I'm just going to come right out and say it." Ratchet placed both hands on the table in front of him as he gauged Prowl's reaction. "This Command Center, and every Autobot in it, is in immediate danger. I don't have time to explain it all, but Sideswipe – even Sunstreaker, Jazz… they were right, Prowl. We managed to restore Groove's memory of his attack, and he's confirmed what they've been saying. Everything they've been trying to warn us about – it's all true, dammit!" He paused, looked towards the door to make sure that it was sealed closed, and then lowered his voice slightly. "Listen to me – Sentinel Prime's been co-ordinating a silent takeover right under our noses. And we just let it all happen. Now, I can't prove it yet, but I think the Decepticons are innocent – and that's not all. I have strong reason to believe that Sentinel was the one who helped engineer the Plague–"
"Stop." Prowl said in a quiet voice, holding up a hand and interrupting him mid-sentence. He was visibly overwhelmed by what Ratchet had just declared, and he had to slowly sit down in one of the chairs to process the information.
Ratchet allowed him the time he needed, stepping back from the table and slowly pacing away from him. Prowl was not the only one who'd found himself struggling with the sheer incredulity of the situation, the enormity of its implications; truth be told, he was finding it difficult holding onto any modicum of self-assuredness.
And just like Ratchet, Prowl had so many burning questions, questions that needed to be answered, but most of all he needed to know that there was still hope for the future.
When finally he was ready to speak again, Prowl stood up, his tone level and calculated. "Sentinel has authorized a meeting. It's due to begin in a few minutes…" he stated, but then faltered as they both came to the same realization.
Ratchet turned back to face him, alarmed. "What authorization?"
The medical officer grimaced. "Dammit. I have a strong feeling he's about to make his move. We need to warn Optimus."
Upon hearing Ratchet's words of warning, Prowl took a few moments as he sought to calculate the best possible course of action. Then, finally, he walked towards a terminal set into the wall nearby, entered a series of commands as he accessed the Command Center's security protocols. When he was finished, the lighting on the terminal's display blinked on and off in silent caution. "It's too late for that. I'm going to initiate a level two security clearance lockout." He turned back to Ratchet, cycled air deeply. "But it will require a second authorization." He seemed uncertain, as if he was afraid that he might be making a big mistake, but Ratchet rushed towards the terminal, showing no sign of hesitation.
The Chief Medical Officer glanced down at the display, and quickly input his high level security code. Then he stepped back to allow Prowl to execute the lockout.
Before Prowl pressed the button on the terminal, he gave Ratchet his final instructions. "As you've stated, you don't have much time. Take as many Autobots with you as you can, and get the hell out of here. Find help."
"Come with us," Ratchet urged him, but Prowl's stoic expression told him that he had other plans.
"No, I must remain to help ensure your escape. Besides, Optimus will need me here." He gave Ratchet a final reassuring nod, before reaching out and hitting the button, activating the lockout.
Ratchet did not wish to leave anyone behind, but he knew that he had no other choice. There was precious little time left. "Good luck," he managed to say, before activating the door and exiting the briefing room without looking back.
Continuing back down the hallway that led away from the Command Center, Ratchet caught sight of Sideswipe heading towards him and he stopped short in front of him, blocking his path. "Sideswipe, listen. You were right about Sentinel Prime, and the Alliance. You were right about everything," he began, his tone urgent. He quickly glanced behind him to make sure they were alone, and did not wait for the black and red Autobot to acknowledge him. "You need to get out of here. Prowl's already initiated a security clearance lockout. This whole place'll be shut down – you won't be able to get in or out without a security override." Sideswipe looked back at him with stone cold optics, and did not respond or react. It made Ratchet feel uneasy to be around him, despite the fact that the medic was accustomed to dealing with all sorts of physical and mental handicaps. "Sideswipe? Sideswipe! Do you hear me?" He grabbed the Autobot by the shoulders and shook him, trying to get him to focus on his words.
"Yeah, I heard you." Sideswipe did not try to pull away from the other's grip, though his expression was unreadable.
"I think Sentinel's going to try to take control, and Primus help anyone who won't submit to his demands," Ratchet explained. "Listen to me; I need you to gather as many Autobots as you can, and get them out of here, do you understand?"
Sideswipe appeared to be completely lost in another world, and the news of Sentinel's imminent takeover did not seem to surprise him in the least. Then his optics seemed to refocus on Ratchet. "I can't."
"You can't? What do you mean? You can't stay here–" Ratchet demanded. He noticed Sideswipe's air intake rate increase as he began to pull away.
"I'm – I'm sorry, Ratchet. For everything," Sideswipe said, his voice unsteady and burdened by an unspoken emotional turmoil. Then he released himself from Ratchet's grip and began to sprint towards the Command Center, not looking back.
"Wait – Sideswipe! Sideswipe! Frag it!" Ratchet exclaimed in frustration as he watched him go, but it was no use. Reluctantly, he took a few steps backwards, before finally turning and running in the opposite direction.
One moment, blackness was all there was, and then the next, the feeling of being overwhelmed by the burden of despair, of lost hope, and of past regrets…
"I've always stood by you, Sunstreaker, but this is just too much!" Sideswipe only ever used his full name when he was angry. "The Autobots – we need this Alliance – don't you get it? It's a good thing! After all that we've been through – the Plague, the wars… you should be happy, instead of looking for somebody to blame for your miserable life! I mean – don't you ever ask yourself why no one likes being around you? What the frag's got into you lately?"
Sunstreaker had heard enough, had let loose with his own words of anger. "Frag it, Sides, this isn't about me. I'm telling you, I have a bad feeling about this whole Alliance thing, but it's not just that. I saw Sentinel Prime talking to that creep–"
"That's no proof that he's done anything wrong! He's already done a lot for us, Sunny, and whether you like it or not you've got a responsibility as an Autobot officer to treat him with the respect that he deserves!" Sideswipe had reprimanded him.
He'd shaken his head, had given up trying to convince his brother of his point of view. "So, that's it, then? You're not going to stand by me at my hearing?
His brother had turned his back to him; he'd looked up at the ceiling of their quarters, had finally answered him in a trembling voice. "I'm sorry – I can't. You're on your own this time."
Then the last words he'd spoken to Sideswipe had been the most painful, for the both of them. "Fine. Then I guess I don't have a brother anymore," he'd said, before walking out.
…Debris and chunks of metallic wall panel pressed down on him, and he came online with a start. He yelled out in a sudden panic, his vision obscured, and began to push against the heavy weight with all his strength, until he felt it budge and fall away, bit by bit. With a determined heave, he flung the last chunk of scrap metal off his frame, and scrambled out from underneath a fallen support pylon.
Freeing himself from the rubble, he checked for any major injuries and was relieved to find that he had survived the assault relatively unscathed. "Comet?" he called out, but the Decepticon was nowhere to be seen, and nor were their pursuers.
Sunstreaker checked his chronometer, in case those six jets had returned for the Decepticon whilst he was still offline, and discovered that only a few kliks had gone by since Comet had smashed his way through the window of the building in his jet mode. Sunstreaker had been safely ejected from Comet's alt mode before the Decepticon had transformed into his robot mode, and then the two of them had leaped out of the way of the incoming torpedoes, four of them in all. He'd landed face down on the floor, and had been partly protected by a large partitioning wall as the warheads had exploded, but as far as he could recall Comet had sought cover in the opposite direction.
He began to call out for the jet, frantically searching through the rubble as he removed large pieces of broken pipes and beams, throwing them to the side without giving any consideration to the commotion that he must have been creating.
After several minutes of searching to no avail, he was about to give up when the glint of a wing tip caught his optic, and he rushed over to the far corner of the ruined floor, cleared a bunch of frayed cables from a damaged control bank, as well as shards of broken glass and metal, that had fallen on top of the seeker. "Comet? Comet!" he said, turning the seeker over and gently placing him on the floor. But Comet was not responding. His optics were a dull, darkened red, and his face and outer armour were covered in scorch marks. He was also losing energon from several wound sites. "Comet…" Sunstreaker looked around the wreckage of the building, looking for some place that he might be able to hide Comet in case those jets returned for him, but there was nowhere safe. He realized with frustration that he'd have to scout further out, possibly search the adjacent buildings for a suitable location. Then Comet stirred, groaning, and he snapped his attention back to his unlikely ally. "Comet? Comet?" Comet's optics flickered as he slowly turned his head to face the Autobot; he tried to speak, but he was having trouble focusing. "Listen, you're going to be okay. I'm going to go and find some help," Sunstreaker reassured him, and he found his forearm being gripped tightly by Comet. The strength in the Decepticon's hand, even as he lay here in a critical state, surprised him.
"N-no," Comet managed. "Go… leave… now."
Sunstreaker's optics narrowed in anger. "If you think I'm just going to leave you here to die, Decepticon–"
Comet's grip tightened and he managed to lift his head slightly. "No, I need you to… tell them," he said, locking optics with Sunstreaker's. His voice was filled with conviction. "Tell… Megatron… I'm sorry."
Sunstreaker had no idea what Comet thought he'd done to feel compelled to apologize, but right now it didn't matter. All that mattered was that he made sure that they'd survive this ordeal, so that Comet could return home to be with his own kind again. It was the least he could do for him, after all that had happened between them. No matter what Comet may have done in his past, Sunstreaker knew that this Decepticon had a good heart, and he deserved another chance. "Look, you can tell him yourself, because I'm going to get you out of here. You're going to be fine, Comet."
But Comet was too weak to dispute him. He released his grip on the Autobot's forearm, and his hand fell limply to the floor, as his optics became dim once more. Then his head fell back down to the floor, and he lay there, unmoving.
The sight of several large, dark colored jets leaving the site of the explosion made Dirge feel glad that he had been advised to remain in robot mode, or he and his team would surely have been spotted by them; the look in Thunderblast's optics as she recognized Jhiaxus' hench-mechs confirmed it.
By the time they reached the destroyed building, a few curious onlookers had begun to gather in a circle in the street, though they kept their distance.
"What happened here?" Dirge said as he pushed through the bystanders from behind, startling them, but they just shook their heads in confusion. He frowned at them, and glanced back at Thunderblast, who hadn't spoken a word to him since the jetty, but was suddenly alerted to the sounds of a mech frantically picking his way through the wreckage; noticing the Decepticon jets, he ran towards them in what could only be described as desperation, and a look of curious surprise crossed Thunderblast's face when she realized who it was.
"Sunstreaker?" She stared at him in disbelief as the tall, yellow colored Autobot ran up to her, before looking around briefly at the group of jets standing beside her. "What are you doing here?"
"Thank Primus. Comet needs help!" he blurted out. He did not appear to be worried in the slightest that he was the only Autobot amongst a team of Decepticons.
Dirge became immediately suspect. Why would a lone Autobot be concerned for a Decepticon, on Alternity City? It was probably some sort of trick, or a possible ambush. He powered up his concussion missile launcher and pointed it at Sunstreaker threateningly. "You must have a death wish, Autobot," he said.
Sunstreaker hesitated, as the other jets also began to draw their weapons, but then Thunderblast stepped in between them, unafraid of Dirge or his team mates. If she could have rolled her optics, she would have. "Would you put those away?" she admonished him, her hands on her hips. "Surely, Dirgey isn't afraid of a single Autobot?" Dirge scowled at her, but did not take any further actions. He allowed the femme to speak to the Autobot, and she didn't waste any time. "What happened?" she asked Sunstreaker.
He pointed up at the shattered window of the building some four levels above them. "We were being chased by six black jets. Then we crashed straight into that building. Comet got hit. We've got to get him somewhere safe in case those… goons come back for him." When Sunstreaker finished speaking, Thunderblast looked up at the charred remains of the building's fourth floor.
"Those goons are probably Jhiaxus' enforcers," she told him, and then looked back at Dirge and his team. "Well, are you coming?" she demanded, waving them forwards as Sunstreaker began to lead the way into the building, and then sprinted after the Autobot to catch up to him.
Reluctantly, Dirge began to follow the two of them inside, though he kept his launcher aimed in front of him.
If Sentinel Prime had not specifically requested for the meeting to be held on the ground floor of the Command Center – or had not ordered two guards to be posted at every entranceway, including at the Center's grand entrance, their weapons at the ready – the Autobots present would not have been alerted to the fact that something was amiss. However, by the time the meeting had officially begun, it was too late.
Those who had taken heed of Ratchet's warning had fled the Command Center only minutes beforehand. Among them were Trailbreaker, Hot Rod, Hound, Smokescreen and Bluestreak. The remaining regulars, including Ironhide, the Aerialbots, the four remaining Protectobots, and the mini bots, had either missed out on the warning or had outright refused to leave, for various reasons.
In addition, the Autobots who had chosen to remain and attend the meeting despite being aware of Sentinel's intentions were Prowl, Sideswipe, and Optimus Prime.
The Autobot leader had kept a low profile ever since he'd spoken about stepping down at the last meeting, and had preferred to remain in his quarters rather than join the senior officers in discussing latest events. He had become withdrawn, for the most part, and unresponsive to the petitions of the Autobots in Iacon regarding the situation with Sideswipe – who had been behaving erratically as of late – or the fact that Sentinel had recently reassigned several Autobots from Antihex to Iacon's Command Center. The regulars had begun to complain that Sentinel had long overstayed his visit, and that he had asserted his authority on several occasions when he had no prerogative to do so. But Optimus had refused to do anything about it, much to the chagrin of the officers under his command.
"Ah, it is good to see that you are all here," Sentinel began, once everyone had quietened down enough to hear him speak. He was flanked by several Neutral guards, but also Sideswipe, who stood watching with that same cold, impassive expression that he'd shown Ratchet earlier. "Now, we have a very busy schedule ahead of us, and there is much to be done, so I'll keep this brief and get straight to the point."
Sentinel cast his gaze across the large entrance hall to settle upon Optimus Prime, who stood beside Ironhide, and smiled to himself in sheer satisfaction. "From this moment forth, I am taking command of this outpost, and each of you shall report directly to me." The sounds of confusion and outrage followed, voiced mostly by the regulars, and filled the large floor area. However, the Neutrals and Antihex Autobots present said nothing, but watched with approval as Sentinel's words caused the place to erupt into chaos.
"Optimus!" Ironhide pleaded in desperation. "You can't let him get away with this! He's not our boss – you are!"
"What in the frag?" Brawn's voice cut through the sudden commotion. "Optimus?"
"What the hell's going on?" Silverbolt, the Aerialbot leader, demanded. "He can't do that!"
But Optimus simply bowed his head in acquiescence. He had no more words of comfort or advice for them.
"Oh, I can, and I will," Sentinel spoke up above the clamor, answering Silverbolt. "In fact, our laws demand that I do so."
"Is it true, Optimus?" Ironhide asked.
Optimus finally lifted his head to face his senior Artillery Specialist, replied in a low voice. "I am afraid that it is true, Ironhide."
Then another Autobot from the gathered crowd spoke up to challenge Sentinel. "What laws? We have no such laws!"
But the former Prime leader had been prepared for such challenges and, whilst he was more than willing to take over the command post by force if he had to, he would much rather that the Autobots submitted themselves to his leadership willingly, just as he knew Optimus would. "You will find it under section four; sub-section twelve of the Governance Ruling Agreement – which allows me, as the head of the Neutral faction, and co-signatory of the Agreement, to enforce whatever measures I have deemed necessary, and with full approval of the Cybertronian High Council, should an Alliance outpost, or the leadership thereof, become irreconcilably compromised."
The Iaconian Autobots listened to his explanation in quiet shock. Not many of them had even been aware that such a term existed within the Agreement, which had officially brought an end to the Last Great War. They began to feel defeated, unable to fight back against the very laws that had brought them peace just over a century ago.
"Compromised? What – what's been compromised, exactly?" Blades demanded as he, along with his fellow Autobots, attempted to make sense out of what was happening.
Again, Sentinel had a ready response. "Your former leader, Optimus Prime, has violated one of the most basic tenets of the mantle of Autobot leadership, and has dishonored our joint agreement, when he not only failed to carry out a critical directive from the Cybertronian High Council, but then deliberately ignored their wisdom by issuing a counter-order to cease the search and apprehension of all Decepticons. In addition to this, he has since refused to rescind that order."
Again, silence fell across the entire floor as the Autobots who had been under Optimus' leadership struggled with the seemingly irrefutable facts that Sentinel had just presented to them in order to take his place as their leader.
Then Brawn's voice cut through the thick tension in the air, and he cried out, his blaster drawn and ready to fight. "Well, I don't give a frag about your damned laws – right or wrong, I'll never follow you! Who's with me?" As soon as his fellow mini bots realized what he was attempting to do, they tried to rein him in, but it was too late. The very moment after he'd spoken out against Sentinel, he was hit by a tirade of weapons fire from several of the Autobots and Neutrals standing behind the newly self-appointed leader, and he crashed to the floor, burning and sparking from the inside.
Optimus rushed forwards in alarm, but he was held back by three guards. "Nooo!" he said, looking at Sentinel in confusion. "What have you done?"
Sentinel stepped forwards to stand over the mini bot, who now appeared to be offline, and shook his head in mock sadness. "Tsk, tsk, tsk. Such a shame." Then he looked up at all the confused and distraught faces staring back at him. "I really didn't want to go down this path, but I must do what needs to be done." He motioned for two guards to pick up the fallen mech and take him away, out of his sight. "Is there anybody else here who is stupid enough to challenge my leadership?"
He received no responses – not even Streetwise or Blades felt confident enough to gamble their life in a confrontation against the much larger, and very powerful, mech and his numerous army of followers. "No? Very good. Now, then, perhaps we can get on to more pressing matters." He turned and walked towards Prowl, who had stood silently by Optimus' side throughout the whole show. "You – you are Chief of Security, correct?"
Prowl nodded affirmatively. "Correct."
"Do I have your loyalty?" Sentinel asked him.
Prowl remained motionless, offering him no further response, and Sentinel took it as a no. Then he looked around at the other Autobot regulars, first settling his gaze upon Ironhide. "What about you?"
Ironhide scowled at him, tightening his fists into balls. "Never!" he answered.
Sentinel remained calm, turned to ask the Protectobots the same question. "Will any of you give me your loyalty?" He was met with stubborn expressions, and it quickly became apparent to him that there was not a single Iaconian Autobot among them who would yield to his authority. He sighed resignedly. "Very well… you have all made your decision." Then he turned to face his guards and soldiers. "Arrest them all, and thrown them into the cell blocks," he ordered, waving dismissively as he walked away from Optimus and his defiant Autobots.
Sideswipe was the only Autobot from Iacon who had not protested Sentinel Prime's takeover. As he watched his former friends being forcibly removed from the entrance hall of the Command Center, he could not bring himself to look into Optimus' optics, and he turned to walk away, even as the shouts for help from his fellow Autobots fell upon deaf audio sensors.