Under direct orders from Sentinel Prime, the Iaconian Autobots had been herded into an empty holding bay at gunpoint by a team of smug Neutrals, shortly after Sentinel's official takeover of Iacon's Command Center. The bay itself was one of four, and was located on the topmost level of the domed command post. A large hatch built into the ceiling was accessible from the inside, normally intended for use as an exit point of launch by any shuttle stationed inside the bay. Of course, it would have made the ideal escape route, but unfortunately for the imprisoned Autobots one of the Neutral guards had quickly noticed its potential and had destroyed the control panel with his blaster.
For a long while after, Streetwise did nothing but continually pace back and forth as he kept a close optic on the three Neutrals guarding the door, who stood facing them all with arms crossed, weapons visible by their sides. His pacing irritated his fellow team mates, though none were eager to rebuke him in front of the guards, should it give them any satisfaction or reason to stun them like they had done to Brawn. Prowl and Ironhide kept close by Optimus' side, as if they were his personal shield, though neither of them had spoken a word since they'd all been locked up in the room, other than Ironhide issuing a reminder every now and again for the Aerialbots to keep quiet. The latter, in particular Silverbolt, Air Raid and Slingshot, had not been afraid to complain about the unforeseen turn of events between the three of them, whilst the mini bots Cliffjumper, Windcharger, Gears and Bumblebee all stood with their backs against a wall, demonstrating a surprising level of self-control as they whispered quietly among themselves so as not to attract the Neutrals' attention.
When the door eventually opened, several more Neutral guards filed into the room until the space seemed to permeate with an invisible, cold presence that penetrated their very sparks. Supported between two of the guards by his upper arms was a semi-conscious mini bot with obvious signs of external damage. When Cliffjumper realized it was Brawn, he unthinkingly stepped forward with the foolish intention of perhaps rescuing his friend from his captors and protecting him from further harm, but he was quickly stopped by Bumblebee and Gears, who wisely held him back by grabbing hold of him.
One of the guards holding Brawn smirked, before they released their grip on the prisoner and jostled him roughly forward, causing the orange and olive green mini bot to stumble and collapse to the floor with a thud. Brawn remained where he had fallen, the sound of soft groaning the only indication that he was still aware.
The Autobots watched intently, bracing themselves with grim expectation for whatever would happen next. The smirking guard walked casually towards the group, his weapon drawn, taking his time to study each prisoner with an air of arrogant superiority, until his gaze finally settled upon the Autobot leader. Optimus returned his stare with an equal measure of self-assuredness, though his came from a place of stubborn steadfastness and inner resolve rather than from vain self-importance that was dependent upon bestowal by another. Despite his position of dominance, the guard couldn't help but feel intimidated by the Matrix bearer, though if anything this only made him more angry.
"Sentinel Prime wanted me to return to you this useless piece of scrap. Don't know why anyone'd bother," the guard said, looking down with a snarl at Brawn, who remained sprawled on the floor, face down. "If it was up to me he'd have been recycled into spare parts long ago." When he lifted his head back up to look at Optimus, his mouth was set into a cruel smile, though this did not last long.
Something about the way this Neutral had spoken must have hit a nerve with the Autobot leader, because before the guard even had time to realize what was happening he found himself being slammed against the wall, one strong hand tightening around his neck in a vice grip. The act was so unexpected and so forceful that none in the room had been prepared for it – not even the other guards, who almost outnumbered the Autobots. All they could do was look on in shock and disbelief as the Neutral, his weapon clutched uselessly in one hand, was completely at the mercy of Optimus Prime.
"Tell Sentinel Prime that if even so much as one of my officers is needlessly killed because of your gross incompetence, I will personally see to it that he, along with all Neutrals, are held accountable under the Autobot-Neutral Alliance Code of Honour, and prosecuted to the fullest extent of our highest laws," the Autobot leader threatened, his face mask obscuring the grim seriousness of his intent.
It took several moments for the Neutral to come to his senses, but then he scowled, his piercing yellow optics cold and lacking empathy, though he did not attempt to rebut Optimus's warning. Instead he signalled to his team mates with a growl, a silent threat that promised to report them all to Sentinel if they didn't wake from their stupor and help him deal with the Prime quickly. The familiar sound of blasters being raised towards Optimus gave him courage and he grabbed hold of the Autobot's hand around his neck with both hands, attempting to pull it away. "Get… off… me!" he managed to choke out, struggling against the leader mech as he pushed back against the heavy weight. "Or I'll give… the order… to execute… you… right where… you stand!"
Optimus ignored the Neutral guards as they began to step closer towards him, surrounding him with their weapons, and abruptly released his grip around the guard's neck, taking a small step back as he did so. The guard clutched at his throat in relief for several moments, his air intake system working to recover from the attack. Before he had a chance to speak, he was beaten to it.
"Somehow, I don't think you have permission to give that order," Optimus said, with a cold and calculated calmness that surprised even his closest friends.
The guard grunted in hatred and anger, though Optimus was right and he knew it. He steadied himself, standing back up to his full height to stare back at the Autobot leader. A vengeful, ruthless glee returned to his optics. "It doesn't matter. You and your Autobots have already lost," he said, slowly and with malice, and then brusquely brushed past the Prime before moving swiftly towards the door, giving his team the signal to follow him out. Reluctantly, with sneers and barely audible insults, the group of Neutral guards pulled back their weapons and began to file out of the room after him, leaving behind only the original three assigned to keep watch.
Once the door was sealed closed again, Ironhide turned to his leader in bewilderment. "Have you snapped a few relays? What in Tarn's gotten into you, Prime? They could have fashioned you a new chassis, just like they did Brawn!" he exclaimed, indicating toward the fallen mini bot on the floor nearby. Meanwhile, Bumblebee and Cliffjumper had rushed to their friend's aid as soon as the door had closed again, and were helping him sit up; immediately, the Protectobot medical officer, First Aid, also rushed forward to help, and they were relieved in the knowledge that at least Brawn was now in good hands.
Optimus chose to ignore Ironhide's rebuke, however justified the artillery specialist may have been in voicing his disapproval, to focus instead on Brawn. He, too, was overcome with a wave of relief when he saw that the mini bot was still conscious and being cared for by First Aid, who continued to examine the extent of the damage that had been inflicted upon him by Neutral weapons fire. Turning to Ironhide, his optics were filled with determined clarity. "It isn't over yet," he said simply.
The small group of Autobots gathered inside Wheeljack's old workshop in east Iacon anxiously awaited Ratchet's arrival. The sound of vehicles zooming past along the main road outside only added to their uneasiness. When the door finally opened and the Chief Medical Officer slipped inside, an emergency repair kit in one hand as the door sealed automatically closed again behind him, Red Alert ceased his agitated pacing and rushed forward to greet him, Arcee by his side. Behind them and huddled together near the main work bench stood Trailbreaker, Hound, Smokescreen, Bluestreak, Hot Rod, and Groove; they appeared dazed, unsure of what was happening or of the reason for the sudden emergency evacuation of their command post.
"Ratchet, are you okay?" Red asked. "What happened?"
"I'm fine," Ratchet replied, but he did not stop to chat. Instead he walked across to the desk located in one corner of the workshop and began to rummage frantically through the drawers. "I'm not sure what's happened; I got out of there as quickly as I could."
"What's going on? Ratch?" Smokescreen asked cautiously.
"Is Optimus okay?" Bluestreak added, almost interrupting.
"What's he doing?" Hot Rod asked of their repair specialist, exchanging glances with Hound, who simply shrugged.
The chief medic ignored all their questions and comments; he simply shook his head as he continued his desk search. He gave up and moved to a shelving unit situated along the back wall. As he began to examine the contents of one of the shelves, pushing data pads and scientific instruments roughly aside before going on to the next shelf, Arcee walked up to stand beside him.
"Ratchet?" she prodded.
Ratchet stopped abruptly when he found what he'd been looking for – a small, black case – and turned to face her, giving an exasperated groan. He drew in a deep cycle of air. "We can't stay here in Iacon. We need to find help. I'd say Altihex is our safest bet, though I can't be sure that any place is safe – not anymore." Noticing all their distraught faces, he took a few moments to collect his thoughts so he could properly explain to them what was going on; some already had half an inkling of the situation, but others – in particular Bluestreak, Trailbreaker and Hound – did not. For them, what he was about to tell them would come as a complete shock. "Listen to me. We, the Autobots, are under attack – but not by Decepticons." He paused, forcing himself to speak more slowly so that they could all keep up. "We're under attack by the Autobot-Neutral Alliance. A co-ordinated takeover of Iacon is probably happening as we speak – has probably already happened – led by Sentinel Prime and damned if I know who else is involved. The Council itself may have been infiltrated. Several Autobots have probably been turned, compromised – we don't know how, but one thing's for sure: Sentinel couldn't have done this all on his own." He allowed that to sink in for a moment before preparing himself to share with them the next piece of startling news. "It was Neutrals that attacked Groove… not Decepticons."
"Wait – what did you say?" Trailbreaker said, breaking the awkwardness of the moment. He spoke in a low, uneven voice. Bluestreak let out a sharp gasp behind him.
"What?" Smokescreen whispered, glancing towards the Protectobot, half-consciously seeking confirmation that what Ratchet had just revealed to them was true, and not the result of faulty audial sensors. Groove gave him a simple, small nod.
"But, I – I thought Sideswipe was…" Trailbreaker murmured, incredulous. He could not believe what he'd just heard, but he couldn't dismiss it, either, especially since it had come directly from Ratchet, of all mechs – a very good friend to all of them, and highly trusted.
"You thought Sideswipe was crazy," Ratchet finished for him, nodding affirmatively. "Well, you might not be too far from the truth, though one thing I can say about him is that he was right," he added, and then shook his head in regret. "I won't lie to you. He's in a real bad way, but I can't help him right now. We have a much larger problem, and if we don't do something, we'll all soon be history."
"How?" Hound asked. "How can this be happening?"
Ratchet turned to face him, and realized that the tracker wasn't talking about Sideswipe. "I'll be honest. At this stage I only have more questions than I have answers. I've no idea who might be working with Sentinel, or how many are involved, or even how deep this all goes. But it goes deep." He paused, turning away slowly. "Dammit, I should have seen it coming. We all should have seen it coming!" His sudden outburst of anger as he slammed a fist down upon the work bench carried with it a strong wave of guilt and regret that echoed around the work shop and drowned out all other thoughts and emotions.
The room fell silent, and no one dared speak. Not one of them had ever witnessed Ratchet lose control in such a way, as the full seriousness and enormity of the situation began to dawn in his awareness, and he could not hold back the tears that began to well around his optics, threatening to break him. "Wheeljack… Blurr, Warpath, Inferno, Hoist… so many more… all of them dead, and for what?" he continued, speaking now in a hoarse whisper as he struggled to regain control. He did not expect any of them to offer him condolences, and they did not. Bringing up the names of their beloved deceased was just as painful for him as it was for each and every bot present; yet, in a way, somehow, it made him feel better. Perhaps because, for the first time since the end of the Great War, he was allowed to release all of his buried grief – for those lives that had been lost – but especially now that Sentinel's planned takeover was beginning to turn into a crude reality.
Yet he still had to think about those who were alive today – if he didn't do something to help them, they might all end up in a far worse situation than what he could even imagine. It wasn't too late for them, at least, and if he didn't take charge of things in the here and now, that crude reality could quickly escalate into an unimaginable nightmare. Time was very, very short.
A gentle hand upon his shoulder both appalled and comforted him all at the same time, and it took him a great effort of will not to push Arcee away. She wasn't to blame. None of them were, not really.
He turned back to face them, opened the black case and retrieved a handful of small, rectangular objects, began to hand them out. "There'll probably be security teams searching for us. We can't afford to get caught. I want each of you to wear one of these. They're neuro-control chips. They should help protect you from most forms of psychological attack. They're not fool proof – they weren't designed for that purpose – but it's better than nothing." Then he took one for himself and attached it to the back of his neck, showing them how to install it.
Once they'd attached their own chips in the same manner, Arcee looked at him, distraught. "Oh Ratchet, what are we going to do?"
He levelled his blue optics at her before surveying the rest of the Autobots in the room, just as an army general might survey his troops. The lachrymose fluid that had formed a faint gleam around his optics was now all but gone. "What are we going to do? I'll tell you what we're going to do. Trailbreaker, you take Smokescreen, Bluestreak and Red Alert and head to Altihex. See if there's anyone there who can help us – or who might need our help. Hound, Hot Rod, Bluestreak – the rest of you, we're going to try and secure the Decagon – hopefully it's not too late."
Optics stared back at him in bewilderment. "The Decagon?" Hound repeated. "But what if it's already been taken? There's no way in hell we'd be able to get inside–"
"I know that," Ratchet interjected forcefully. "But we've got to do something. At least try to warn our mechs stationed there and hope to Primus that they haven't fallen under the same spell. Look, if the Autobots lose that control center, then there's not much hope for us."
They all knew that Ratchet had a good point. The Decagon, or the Autobase as it was casually referred to, was the Autobot's main control center for the entire planet's security and defense network, and it would be one of the very first targets that Sentinel and the Neutrals would attempt to take control of, after the Iacon Command Center. Strategically, if they could get to the Decagon before Sentinel's army did, then they might still have a fighting chance.
"We'll have a much better chance of reaching it without being captured if we go through the catacombs," Ratchet added, planning ahead for any foreseeable problems his team might have to face. No one had any better suggestions or ideas, and in that quiet moment that followed the decision was final. They each understood what needed to be done.
"Alright," Trailbreaker said, looking at his team and drawing in a deep cycle of air before audibly releasing it again. "Let's not waste any time."
Watching First Aid perform his duty as the Autobots' medical officer among them, Optimus was reminded of all those who had not showed up for Sentinel's fateful meeting an hour earlier – when the former Autobot Prime had acted upon his lawful right to take control of Iacon – and he wondered whether they were all safe. Ratchet, in particular, must have known the purpose for the meeting, because he had been unusually absent, as had Arcee, Red Alert, and Groove. He quietly thanked his Chief Medical Officer for acting prudently, and hoped that they would not be found by Alliance officers and brought in. As long as there were free Autobots out there who were still compos mentis – unlike those from Antihex – and could go and find help, there was still hope.
The softly spoken voice jolted him from his thoughts and he looked across at the Protectobot, who had just finished examining Brawn.
"Optimus?" First Aid said again, and the Autobot leader walked over, ignoring the contemptuous looks from the three Neutrals as they stood guard by the door.
"How is he doing?" he asked in a low voice, coming to a stop beside the medical expert and glancing down at Brawn, who remained in a sitting position while looking down at the floor, somewhat dazed.
"He took quite a hit. Looks like they roughed him up a bit, too," First Aid paused, looking back at him with concern. "But, he'll be alright."
The Autobot leader gave him a brief glance in acknowledgment before crouching down to Brawn's level, placing a comforting hand on the tough mini bot's shoulder. "How are you feeling, big guy?"
Brawn slowly raised his head until his blue optics met Prime's and he groaned, then tightened his right fist into a ball. His face plating was scraped and lacerated, and a trail of spilled energon had left a mark running down from one corner of his mouth. "I'd like ta… kick 'em to the moon base… until they're–" he began, but was unable to complete his sentence as he coughed and sputtered, doubling over and holding his left hand against a puncture wound in his midsection. If he wasn't careful he could rupture a fuel line.
First Aid bent down to steady him. "Hey now, take it easy. I won't be able to fix you here if you spill your fuel," he said in an empathic yet stern voice. Brawn tried to brush him away, but he was too weak to be of any effect.
Optimus gave Brawn a pat on the shoulder. "Take it easy. That's an order," he said gently, and then stood up again, allowing First Aid to reposition the mini bot so that he would be more comfortable. Then, before he could think what to do next, Streetwise demanded his attention.
The Protectobot had been agitated the entire time, but had finally found the courage to confront their leader, though he was still wary of the three Neutral guards close by and managed to keep his voice down to a harsh whisper. "Prime, sir! How could you have let Sentinel do this?! You almost let him get away with murder, and all you can do is just stand there and tell us that he has some right to do what he's doing, because of some damned Agreement?" Exasperated, he shook his head in disgust, finding it difficult to suppress his anger.
"Streetwise, back down–" Hot Spot warned him irately, but he was quickly dismissed by his belligerent team mate. Streetwise signalled with a raised, open hand, without turning to look at him.
"No – I won't!" Streetwise continued, keeping his gaze fixed on the Prime. "Not after everything that's happened." He faltered, wondering whether it was the right time to confront Optimus with what had been weighing heavily on his conscience ever since he had returned from Darkmount with Groove's primary systems link. It was as good a time as any, he decided after a tense moment or two. "Not after he allowed Jazz to join the Decepticons," he said with venom, though the volume from his vocalizer had dropped to a threateningly low level, too low for the guards to hear his words but not low enough for Optimus to miss a single one. The room became impossibly still, so much so that it felt as though time had slowed right down.
The confusion and bitterness that clouded Streetwise's countenance caused Optimus to wonder at how quickly his world had fallen apart, beginning with Elita and then Jazz, Groove, Sideswipe, and now Sentinel, and how it had all culminated to this point. Streetwise, once a friend, now felt like a stranger, and he wondered how many other Autobots felt the same way that the Protectobot did, though were too courteous or perhaps too afraid to speak up. How had it all gone so wrong? How could he have let them all down? And in that moment, confronted by the consequences of his decisions, Megatron's words echoed in his mind, when the Decepticon leader had defiantly paid one last visit to the Iacon Command Center only a few weeks back, but which now felt like forever ago:
'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 Neutral-Autobot Alliance is just a cover.'
He had not believed it back then – not for one moment. But now…
'They will infiltrate your command structure and take control, and then they will be left without opposition. It's what they've always wanted.'
Looking back now, he realized that Megatron had risked his freedom, even his own life, to try to bring to him the truth of this message in person, walking into the midst of Alliance territory unaccompanied and seeking only to speak with him. Why would he have done such a thing? There would have been no advantage for him to do so, yet… Optimus had refused to accept the possibility that perhaps the Decepticons were anything other than liars and war criminals, had been completely blind to the sordid truth that had yet to play out until it would be almost too late, had utterly failed to take heed of his warning… and then, then he had turned away from those who had needed him most.
"That's enough," he finally replied, his voice wavering, the words barely audible though laced with a raw emotion that had suddenly sprung up from somewhere deep within him. It was partly regret, but mostly it was long-denied outrage.
Unfortunately, Streetwise was completely unaware of Optimus' own inner turmoil, or of the very real anguish that accompanied it. All that he was aware of in that moment were the dismal circumstances that they all found themselves in, of the incredible transgressions that had recently been done against Groove – and previously against Autobots before him – and that there were those who could have prevented it, but that for only Primus knew what reason, had not.
"How could you have let him get away with it, Prime? The way I see it, Jazz is a slaggin' traitor. He deserves to die just like the rest of those slag–"
So when he felt the sharp, stinging sensation of an opened palm striking his left cheek with such force that he stumbled backwards, his head jerking sideways with the impact, he was taken completely by surprise. His rudeness and anger were replaced with shock, and a certain amount of fear – not of Optimus Prime himself, but of the Autobot leader's unrestrained fury that was being focused directly at him.
"I said that's enough!"
This time, Optimus' voice was loud and clear. The three guards by the door became alerted to the sudden altercation and had reached for their weapons, ready to break up the skirmish and knock some disciplinary sense into the prisoners, but they did not need to – it seemed that the disagreement was over as quickly as it had begun. Optimus turned to slowly pace away from Streetwise, ignoring the looks of astonishment and concern upon the faces of the rest of the Autobots.
Not even Ironhide had expected his leader and good friend to lose control of his temper in the way he just had, even if only for a mere few astro-seconds, regardless of how spiteful or misguided Streetwise's words had been. Still, after all that had happened, he could only imagine what Optimus must be going through at this moment, and he understood. "Prime, we'll find a way out of this mess. I know we will," he said as softly as his vocal processor would allow. Beside him, Prowl watched intently though he refrained from speaking.
Prime ignored them both and turned back slowly to face Streetwise, mindful of Brawn by his feet and the other mini bots still gathered about him. The Protectobot interceptor had sunk down to sit on the floor, head down and looking defeated. He spoke again, this time in a tone that was much calmer and more controlled than it had been only moments before, and Streetwise slowly lifted his head to meet his gaze. "Jazz did what he had to do. I don't expect you to understand." He faltered, searching for the right words that adequately matched his sentiments. "Please, forgive me," he said finally, before turning away again without waiting for a response.
Even if Streetwise had wanted to give Optimus a response, he did not get the opportunity because at that moment the door to the holding bay opened, and waiting outside was the same group of Neutrals that had brought Brawn in earlier. One of the guards stepped inside, his weapon drawn, and after a brief glance around at the Autobot hostages he directed Optimus to follow him outside with a rough shove. When Ironhide attempted to step in between them, he was pushed back inside the bay.
"Not you! Only him," the guard said, nodding towards the Autobot leader. "Come on, let's go."
Optimus resisted and pulled away from the Neutral. "No, I'm not going anywhere without them," he declared stubbornly, indicating the other Autobots in the room.
The guard signaled to his team to prepare to remove the Prime from the room, by force if necessary. "Sentinel wants a word with you," he informed the Autobot leader impatiently. "So you can either come with us willingly, or we can haul your sorry chassis out of here in restraints. It's your choice."
The look Optimus gave him was one of stoic defiance, but before he could solidify his decision and tell the guard so be it and to go to hell, Prowl encouraged him to take the easier option. "Go with him, Prime. We'll be okay." And so, after a few astro-seconds of hesitation, he relented and began to make his way out of the room, ahead of two Neutral guards.
Soon after the meeting with the Decepticons, Wheeljack had returned to the Constructicons' work area to catch up on some more rest and to collect his thoughts. The Decepticon gestalt team had also disappeared to help set up some temporary quarters for the recently rescued Combaticons, and so eventually Jazz was left alone in the meeting room with Rumble. The Cassetticon sat across from him at the central table with his arms crossed in front of him, one foot resting on the opposite knee. He seemed withdrawn, lost in thought, and there was an impartial expression on his face that could have almost fooled Jazz.
"Mind if I ask you something?" The Autobot's voice sounded harsh in the quiet aftermath of the celebratory din that had surrounded his audial sensors only a short time ago. To him it felt as if the rest of the world had fallen away, leaving only the two of them to contemplate the phenomenon that was their solid reality. His seemingly casual enquiry was met with a delayed shrug, and he understood it for what it was – barely noticeable permission for him to continue. "I couldn't help but notice back at the Detention Banks… you were hoping to find someone there. That true?" He paused, watching the Cassetticon for an initial response – he could tell that something weighed heavily on his mind. He received another shrug, followed by a shift of focus and a tilting of his head slightly towards him. Rumble's optics were covered by a red visor, but Jazz was pretty certain that he had caught his attention.
Jazz imitated his shrug. He didn't want to irk the smaller mech, or come across as intimidating, particularly when trust between an Autobot and a Decepticon was still a very novel and alien notion. He had no expectation of being fully trusted, that much was true, though he liked to think that perhaps he had gained some ground toward that end ever since he'd helped rescue Scavenger, and he didn't want to lose the trust he'd earned thus far. Still, if he was going to prove himself to them, then he had to show them who he truly was – he had to be authentic, without any fear or regrets. "Mind if I ask what happened to your brother?"
The impact of his question was compounded by Rumble's intense visage – or perhaps it was subdued shock at being confronted with something so personal, Jazz couldn't say for sure – but he hoped that he wasn't being too forthcoming, or that he hadn't pushed the wrong button, asked the wrong question. So when Rumble gave him a reply, it was not what he had imagined it to be.
"Mind if I ask you something first?"
"Nope – go ahead."
"How are you Autobots going to live with yourselves when you finally find out that everything you ever thought was true, was all really a lie?"
Rumble looked away again, not expecting Jazz to give him an answer. In the stillness that followed, Jazz really had no answer, though he felt that he genuinely owed him at least some kind of response. "Believe it or not, I've been wondering the same thing myself," he said. "I never wished for any of this. We all should have been living our final Golden Age by now. And you're right – I have no clue how most of the Autobots are going to handle things when the scrap hits the fan. I can't speak for any of them, but I can tell you this: it isn't going to be easy." He continued to observe the Cassetticon, who didn't react, until several long moments had passed by in silence. "It's your turn now, you know," he prompted, "to answer my question."
Once again, contrary to Jazz's expectations, Rumble relaxed his shoulders and arms a little, shifting his gaze back towards the Autobot. "Me and him, we were on a mission together, but we… we got separated."
Jazz knew there was more to the story – much more – but Rumble gave him no indication that he wanted to offer him any further information. "Was he captured?" he ventured, empathy underlying his tone.
"I can't tell you anything more than that," Rumble responded flatly.
"Because you don't know? Or because you won't tell me?"
"Because I don't know!" It was clear that Rumble was upset, though Jazz got the sense that it didn't have anything to do with him bringing up the topic. Rumble lacked information about his brother's status and whereabouts, and it was killing him.
"Hey, I'm sorry to hear about that. I really am," Jazz said after a pause.
The Decepticon who sat before him was far removed from the image of the tough, uncouth punk that had so often been pictured by the Autobots back in Iacon. Beyond that ostensible façade was a mech who had experienced his fair share of loss and hardships, and whose capacity for empathy and perspicacity was visible just beneath the surface, if one cared to take notice.
After a few more seconds of silence, Rumble stood from his chair. When he spoke again, it was as if he had shrugged off the whole, painful memory, left with no other recourse but to put it all aside for the greater good. "Let's go see if Megatron needs us," he said, and with that made his way out of the room. Jazz watched him leave, then rose and followed him out.
Far from a picture of dysfunction or dystopian ruin, the current state of affairs at Iacon's Command Center looked nothing like what Optimus might have expected. So, this is what a takeover looks like, he thought with a crude sense of fatedness. It wasn't like some kind of internment camp in the middle of a torn battleground, littered with the chassis of once rebellious mechs but who now lay still. Instead, he saw a vastly different version of reality as he was led down the transport platform and along the hallway that led to the control room. The command post appeared to be operating very smoothly, more smoothly than he had ever seen it – like a perfectly well-oiled machine; a large number of both Neutral and Autobot officers going about their duties in a most orderly and competent manner, as if there was nothing else in the world that they ought to have been doing and that, if he were to confront any one of them about a takeover, their immediate response would have been that the very ludicrous notion existed only in his vivid though deluded imagination.
In a similar, convoluted manner, Sentinel Prime seemed to portray the epitome of a well-respected and revered leader whose sole purpose for being was the exemplification of commitment, integrity and honour. Within the space of barely an hour, his entire persona had transformed from that of a single-minded and callous dictator, to that of a mech who was confidently in charge and cautiously optimistic. Abruptly stopping whatever important business had occupied his attention, he turned to greet Optimus with a smile upon his face, when the Autobot leader was brought into the control room. The Neutral guards were dismissed with a quick wave, as were the two Autobots at their stations, and as the door closed after them Optimus was left alone with his former mentor.
"Ah – please, take a seat," Sentinel proffered, extending out a hand as he rose from where he'd been seated at one of the main control terminals. Not even Optimus' unyielding, stubborn audacity could deter his high spirits; ignoring the cold stare of the Autobot leader's blue optics he instead proceeded to discuss the current situation. "I really must extend my apologies, Optimus. I never wanted things to come to this, you must understand. If there had been a better way–"
The Neutral leader was cut off abruptly, his shallow attempt at any reconciliation, or explanation for his recent course of action seen for what it was. "Why are you doing this?"
It was an honest and straightforward question; nonetheless, it made Sentinel visibly uncomfortable to hear it being asked of him. The expression on his face became serious as his smile faded. "As I was saying, if there had been a better way..." He gave Optimus a regretful sigh and slowly sat down again, avoiding the other's gaze as he pondered his next words. "There is no use resisting what is happening, Optimus. In fact, your energy and resources would be far better spent helping the Alliance ensure Cybertron's security and prosperity." His optics leveled upon the Autobot leader with renewed confidence in his ability to persuade the younger Prime, and his tone became emphatic – almost imploring – energized with the unlimited potential that Optimus' approval and support could offer them in conquering their mutual enemies. "Don't you see? It is inevitable! If we would only stand united – you and I, just like the old days – we would be invincible. Our enemies would not stand a chance!"
"Our enemies?" Optimus considered carefully his response. "And who would they be, exactly?"
Sentinel could only look back at him in sorrowful disappointment, as if the very fact that he should be asking such a question was utterly absurd. "The Decepticons, of course. Who else?" Optimus gave a small nod in acknowledgment, though kept his thoughts and feelings to himself, and Sentinel continued, switching to a more formal tone. "I thought you should know that I have reinstated the High Council's directive. The Decepticons have become too much of a danger to us all, and must be stopped. In addition, I have sent out several search teams for the remainder of your crew. Once found, they shall be brought straight back here – for their own safety." He paused, watching Optimus intently. The Autobot leader wore his battle mask, and so his optics were the only part of his features that might give away his unspoken sentiments. "Oh, but you needn't be alarmed – my teams have been given strict instructions not to harm them."
As if it was supposed to be some kind of reassurance, or perhaps a token of friendship that was being extended. Optimus wanted to confront the red and black mech, interrogate him about his true motives, but for now all he could manage was a simple, "I see."
While it was apparent that the level two lockdown sequence Prowl must have initiated just before the takeover had since been overridden by Sentinel or his subjects, it would nonetheless have given Ratchet and the other Autobots who were with him enough time to escape.
Sentinel continued unperturbed, though his tone softened. "I also thought you'd want to know: I have news of Elita."
The mention of his partner's name made him suddenly take notice, and he took an unconscious step closer toward Sentinel. "Elita? Where is she? Is she alright?" he demanded all at once. He couldn't help it; truth be told he'd been beyond worry over her during the past weeks – ever since she'd left for Alternity City without his consent or approval – and it had been one of the core reasons for his general moodiness and dispiritedness of late. In the hope that his restless mind might be put at ease he was eager to hear the news, though he also dreaded it at the same time.
The leader of the Neutrals once again indicated for him to take a seat. "Please," he said, and waited with what seemed like all the patience in the world, until finally Optimus relented and slowly sat down in a chair opposite him. Then Sentinel took a deep cycle of air, fixed his gaze directly at the Autobot Commander, and gave him the news he had so anxiously waited to hear. "She is still on Alternity City. However, I have just received word that she has been captured. The good news is my sources have confirmed that she is alive, and relatively unharmed – at least for now – although any more than that I cannot say for sure."
She is still alive. Elita is still alive.
"Captured?" He bowed his head in sorrow and disbelief, glancing down towards the floor. Captured, yet still alive. In the midst of his confusion and grief he did not know what to think, had no clue of what he could possibly do to save her. "Captured…" he repeated after several long moments, then lifted his head to meet Sentinel's gaze. "How? Who has done this?"
Sentinel clasped his hands together. "We believe that she is being held hostage by a Decepticon ally, in an underground stronghold somewhere in Hitec. Rest assured, Optimus, that I will do everything in my power to have her returned safely, I promise you."
"No." Optimus shook his head, struggling to accept the truth that his long-time companion, and co-commander of the Autobots, had been captured and was being held prisoner. From what he knew of Alternity City – a world rife with unspoken dangers and dominated by malevolent regimes – there was a very slim chance that she would ever be rescued, let alone be able to get out of there alive. "No."
"I'm sorry, Optimus–"
"No!" Abruptly he rose and turned away from Sentinel to stand, motionless, for many long seconds. Then, when he'd managed to regain some sense of control again he spoke, but did not bother to try to conceal the grief that threatened to tear his spark from his chest. "I wish to be returned to the holding bay."
Rather than beseeching Sentinel's help or opening up to him, Optimus seemed to be doing the exact opposite, closing himself off emotionally and rejecting any possibility of renewing their partnership. It was not what Sentinel had hoped for. "I have decided against transferring your Autobots to the cell blocks, for now. I thought that perhaps if they might come to see reason–" the Neutral leader began as he slowly stood up.
"I wish to be returned now," Optimus repeated, showing no regard for Sentinel's display of leniency.
"Now!" he demanded, more forcefully this time, his back still turned to the former Prime.
Knowing Optimus quite well, Sentinel knew that the Autobot leader would be inconsolable and so, instead of attempting to persuade him, he granted him his request. There was always next time, and sooner or later he would be faced with no other choice but to reach out for Sentinel's help.
After Elita's encounter with the hideous monster that held her captive, and in her panic and desperation, she thought about powering down so that she would be oblivious to the harsh reality that she found herself in, some part of her hoping that she'd later wake up to realize that her abduction and subsequent solitary confinement had been nothing more than a terrifying nightmare. But some other part of her knew that she had to keep fighting and praying that this would not be the end, that she was destined for greater things than to become nothing more than the play object of some depraved tyrant.
Just when she thought that she couldn't bear the loneliness and despair any longer, with the turbo-rats borne from the darkness of the chamber her only companions, she heard footfalls approaching in the passageway outside, and then the chamber door creaked open. Instantly her frame tensed with fear, and once again she trembled, dreading another encounter with the beast lord or one of his equally merciless subordinates.
Two mechanoids stepped inside the room and silently moved towards her. When she saw what they looked like, the tension within her subsided, though she remained wary. They were neither Neutrals, nor were they Cybertronians – but possibly natives of Alternity City; local lowlifes who had either been recruited voluntarily to serve the slagger that ruled this place, or who had been given no other choice but to obey him or die.
One of them reached towards her and plunged a small, round object into her neck. She instantly recognized it as an anti-transformation device, which she was sure would also be used to control her behaviour and keep her in line. It was the same sort of device they used on inmates of Garrus 13 to prevent them from attempting to break out. She groaned softly as she felt its needle-like probe sink in and connect to her neural circuitry. The mech released her from her restraints and she stumbled forward, away from the wall and into their grasp. "If you try to take that thing off or try to run, you won't make it two steps. Now move it," he said. Then the two of them dragged her out of the chamber and led her down the passageway, holding her firmly between them by both her arms.
The network of tunnels and chambers that made up the underground base was large – much larger than Elita had imagined any base could be. She had never stepped foot inside this place before, and as she was led through the never-ending labyrinth, descending down through several levels – each more isolated and more eerie and surreal than the one above it – her feelings of desperation and panic markedly increased. A terrified scream, followed by the moans and whimpers of some hapless soul drifted toward her from somewhere in the gloomy distance – a prisoner doomed to eventually die in his unmarked cell within this hell-hole – made her wish that she had never left Cybertron. Even if I do manage to break free, how will I ever find my way out of here? This was her thought as the two guards brought her to an abrupt stop in front of a sleek, metallic door. As soon as they approached, the door slid open automatically and they stepped through into a large room. She could not make out any details straight away due to the sudden glare of stark, white light that flooded her optics, momentarily blinding her – she tried to shield them with her hand, but the guards held her arms firm.
Futilely, she struggled against them, trying to break free even when she knew full well that she had no chance. The two of them together overpowered her easily, and they dragged her forward into the middle of the room. Raising her arms roughly above her head, they secured both her wrists together with energy restraints that were then attached to a heavy ring that hung down from the ceiling. Before they left her alone again, the other guard, this time, gave her some parting words. "Don't go anywhere, now – and don't be too lonely: someone will be with you real soon," he said with mock sympathy. This was followed by the sounds of amused chuckling that gradually faded as the two of them made their way out of the room and back down along the tunnel, the door swishing closed behind them.
It took Elita a few seconds for her optics to adjust to the bright overhead lights. After having been kept in semi-darkness for several long hours with nothing to keep her company but her own rotating thoughts – and the turbo-rats – the gleam of the polished metallic walls and ceiling of this new space was in harsh contrast to the gloom of the dingy chamber, and she found it unwelcoming, almost unbearable. Taking in her surroundings, she noticed that the room was well equipped with shackles and various torture devices, the entire back wall adorned with a shelf full of energy whips and prods. Looking down, she couldn't ignore the energon stains that decorated much of the smooth floor. But the thing that bothered her most was the set of luxurious lounge chairs that were arranged in a semi-circular fashion, facing towards her. What kind of room was this? Did they torture prisoners here as a form of personal entertainment? Was that the reason she had been brought here? The very idea both frightened and disgusted her. She pushed away the thought and tried to free her wrists from her restraints using sheer force, but all she managed to achieve was to cause her frame to swing helplessly to and fro as she continued to hang by her arms from the ceiling ring, her feet barely able to make contact with the floor. She grunted, strove to regain equilibrium, and then resigned herself to her predicament, at least for the time being.
When Astro awoke from a momentary lapse in consciousness, still struggling to cycle air as he lay sprawled on the ground near Jhiaxus' inert and smoking frame, the first thing he heard was Thunderblast calling his name.
"Astro? Astro, wake up!"
He let out a groan, fought to clear his head and refocus his vision, and then turned his head toward the sound of her voice as he attempted to pick himself up. Still weakened by his fight with the powerful jet-former, he faltered and dropped back down again. As his vision cleared, Astro looked up to see the Cybertronian femme standing there in front of him, a hand over her mouth and yellow optics wide with astonishment. She appeared to be in a state of shock, unsure of what to do. A moment later she realized that she still held Jhiaxus' missile launcher in her hands, and she quickly threw it down on the ground away from her, as if it harboured some deadly contagion.
With renewed effort, Astro pushed himself up to his hands and knees, and felt Rook's steadying hands grabbing his arm as the smaller mech rushed to his aid, but he gently pushed him away, focusing instead on Jhiaxus' burned out form that lay face down in front of him. He crawled forward and shifted his position until he was directly above the still frame. Then, ignoring the sparks and crackling of severed connections along the edge of the gaping hole in the chassis, he roughly turned the body of the jet over with both hands. One of Jhiaxus' arms flopped on the floor beside him with a heavy thump. Astro examined the off-lined mech closely for several seconds, and then pushed the motionless, damaged body away from him.
Glancing around, he saw several pairs of optics staring back at him in anticipation and apprehension. Rook knelt beside him, while Thunderblast continued to stand by and watch in candid disbelief, unable to tear her gaze away from the ruin that was Jhiaxus. Beside her, the yellow Autobot began to slowly pick himself up off the floor where he'd been knocked down by the enemy jet, and a few feet away, near the ruined dividing wall, appeared the Autobot femmes, their weapons still in hand, confusion and uncertainty clouding their expressions. A few seconds later, Dirge and Thrust burst onto the scene, pushing past the femmes but then stopping short as they took in the aftermath of the battle that had just played out in their absence. Not one of them made another move, as they all watched and waited intently for Astro to say or do something.
Still cycling air to cool his systems as he recovered from the exertion of his battle against Jhiaxus, the blue Cybertronian took the time to acknowledge them all, until finally he spoke. "His spark chamber's still intact, though he won't make it without some basic repairs," he informed them, indicating Jhiaxus.
Without waiting for their response, Astro then turned his attention to the off-lined seeker a few feet away, and scrambled towards him as quickly as he could to immediately appraise his physical condition; unlike with Jhiaxus, however, this time he did so with great care and attention, reaching out with one hand to gently touch the side of Comet's face. He shifted his weight until he was crouching low, close to Comet's still form. Then, reaching down, he positioned his arms underneath the seeker's frame, holding him firmly, and slowly stood up, lifting Comet carefully as he did so. Taking a few steps toward Thunderblast, he told her simply, "We need to get him away from here."
The femme looked at him incredulously, before motioning toward the unconscious Comet. "But is he going to be okay?" she asked in an exaggerated, distraught tone.
Astro regarded her impassively, noticed the penetrating stare of the tall, yellow Autobot standing beside her. He answered her with unwavering resoluteness. "He'll be fine. But I'll need to get him to a safe place, preferably one with a recharging station, and some medical equipment."
"How about our little pad in the Northern Heights?" Dirge suggested after a pause, and did his best to ignore a dirty glance from Thunderblast for mentioning the place where he'd taken her in order to deceive her.
His idea was quickly rejected, as Astro shook his head. "No; it's probably no longer safe there." He paused and glanced behind him to look back down at Jhiaxus' unmoving frame. "We'll also be taking him with us," he added.
Rook's strained face immediately showed his obvious displeasure with the notion. "Ugh, must we?" he replied.
Astro turned his head to catch the smaller mech's gaze, though his yellow optics were steadfast. "Yes, Rook. We're going to need him alive," he explained, before shifting his attention toward the Autobot femmes, then added with a calm assuredness that could only have come from a mech who had fought and survived countless battles, "if there's any chance of rescuing Elita One."
Moonracer drew back in shock at the mention of her team commander's name, placing a hand to her mouth in an attempt to stifle a cry. She was joyous with expectation but fearful all at once, and Chromia reached out to hold her free hand, squeezing it in reassurance and in hope for their friend and team leader. Beside them Firestar said nothing, but challenged Astro with a questioning, critical look.
Gently letting go of Moonracer's hand, Chromia stepped toward Astro, then looked down to gaze upon the face of the unconscious mech in his arms. She could see that the unfamiliar seeker had lived through a rough journey, though a formidable spirit was clearly evident upon his features, a wilful determination ever present behind the dimmed optics. She did not recognize him, though from the way Astro was protecting him and from his unspoken sentiment, she could tell that he was important to them, almost in a regal sort of way, though she couldn't quite define it nor could she comprehend it.
"If you like, we've got a place back in Koltar you could use. It's only a temporary set up, but we have a recharging unit, plus a few medical supplies and other equipment that we managed to salvage from our cruiser when we crashed here," Chromia said, meeting Astro's gaze.
"We've also got the transmitter, plus our long range scanner–" Moonracer added, quickly stepping toward the blue femme in eagerness, but stopped short when Chromia indicated for her to curb her enthusiasm with a raised hand.
Astro regarded the two of them for a moment, considering their offer. He might be able to send word back to Cybertron, if their transmitter was powerful enough. Making his decision, he gave Chromia a small nod in appreciation. "Then, let's get moving," he said, and stepped past her on his way out of the ruined building. Before he disappeared around the partitioning with Comet, he paused only long enough to convey further instructions to Dirge and Thrust with a brief tilt of his head towards Jhiaxus.
The conehead grimaced but then resigned himself to the task, moving quickly to lift Jhiaxus' frame by both arms with Thrust's help, and together they followed Astro out of the building, dragging the body of the Hitec's off-lined second in charge between them.
Thunderblast and Rook followed them out, until only the three femmes and Sunstreaker were left. Up until that point, things had happened so fast that the femmes had had hardly any time to acknowledge Sunstreaker, or express their joy and gratitude at seeing the estranged Autobot. But now, in the aftermath of the intense chase and battle against Jhiaxus and his enforcers, that all changed.
As far as the femmes were concerned, seeing Sunstreaker now – in such a sorry state yet still very much alive and well – was like being reunited with a long-dead loved one. There really were no words that could have described their wonderment and elation upon recognizing him, nor were they truly necessary.
"Oh, Sunstreaker!" Moonracer fell into an embrace, and his welcoming arms wrapped around her with sweet comfort. She found herself needing his strength and reassurance just as much as he needed hers, and then, thoughts of Elita once again reminding her that their journey was still far from over, she began to sob.
Chromia placed a comforting arm around her friend's shoulders, and when Moonracer gently pulled away from Sunstreaker it was her turn to show him just how much he had been missed – not only by her and her crew, but also by all those back home who had come to believe that he was no longer alive.
Firestar watched Chromia as she offered him a heartfelt embrace, and when her friend finally stepped back she shared with him a quick hug and an elated smile. "It's damn good to see you, Sunstreaker," she said emphatically, then shook her head. "But what in Primus' name are you doing here?"
Sunstreaker offered her a simple smile in return. "I was going to ask you three the same thing." With a gentle hand upon Firestar's forearm and the other placed around Chromia's shoulders, he slowly guided them out of the burnt-out floor. "I'm sure we've got a lot of catching up to do, but what do you say we get out of here first?"
When the door slid open behind her, Elita One had no inkling as to who might have come to pay her a visit this time, though the first image that invaded her mind was the vulgar face of whom she'd assumed to be the cruel commander of this base, his beastly features and long, clawed fingers still fresh in her memory. Hanging by her wrists in the center of the room and with her back to the door, it was an effort for her to turn her head in order to see who had entered, so she didn't bother to try; instead, her frame tensed visibly as she prepared to face the worst, her gaze fixed straight ahead.
Though not as heavyset as the supreme commander of the base, her visitor's frame was still quite large. The first thing she noticed about him as he strode into view before her with weighty, confident strides was his broad, cyan-colored chest. The rest of his color scheme consisted of a mix of white and purple, and along with his heavy armor he sported a set of long, thin wings on his back that were pointed upwards. Needless to say, she recognized him instantly.
"Well, well. Hello, darling," he said, ogling her feminine, pink form and nodding in approval. He was much taller than she was, and much bigger. "How does a rare beauty like yourself get all lost in this slagging pit-hole of a place, huh?" She didn't respond, as he reached out to touch her cheek with one hand. "Oh, come now, don't be frightened. I'll tell you what; to help take your mind off things, you and I are going to have a little fun! How's that sound?" He grabbed her face and roughly turned her head, first to one side and then the other, appraising her as if she were a shiny new ornament for his trophy room. "Do you know where we are?" he asked her then.
She was about to defy him and refuse to answer any of his questions, but then decided against it. After all, what could she do to stop him? She shook her head no.
He smiled at her, though it was a cruel, selfish smile. She didn't like it one bit. "We're in Hitec," he said, watching her reaction with interest, "and you, my dear Elita, are about to find out exactly what happens to any poor mech who's stupid enough to refuse to submit to the High Commander." His smile melted into gleeful expectation, and he took a step back before turning and striding towards the back wall. After a few moments of careful consideration he selected a whip with a thick thong, retrieved it from its place on the shelf, and then returned to stand before her.
A new wave of panic came over her, but there was nothing she could do to save herself. Her mind raced, searching for a possible way out of the inevitable torture that she would soon endure at his hands as he held out the energy whip for her to see before he activated it. It hummed and crackled with a sharp, raw energy. "Why are you doing this?" she blurted out, pleading.
"Why am I doing this?" he repeated, as though the answer should have been obvious. "Well, the Slag Maker owed me one for a small favour I did for him a couple of months ago, so I figured that he should at least let me have a little fun with you first, before it's his turn. He said 'yes' and so, well – here we are." He raised the whip, preparing to strike her with it, and shrugged. "What can I say? I'm a sucker for punishing beautiful femmes," he added in a cheerful manner.
"Please, Sixshot… please, don't do this," she begged, once again struggling against her restraints to try and break free of them, but even before the words came out she knew that her pleas would fall upon deaf audial sensors.
When the first crack came down on her, making contact with the armor plating of her upper torso, the stinging, electric pain was the most excruciating she had felt in a long while, as the debilitating energy from the whip coursed through her neural circuitry. She cried out as loudly as her vocal unit would allow against the sudden shock of the punishment, and combined with a feeling of utter helplessness, but also regret, it was all too much for her to bear.