The Iaconian Autobots had been herded into an empty holding bay at gunpoint by a team of smug Neutrals, under direct orders from Sentinel Prime, shortly after his official takeover of Iacon's Command Center. The bay itself was one of four, and was located on the top level. A large hatch built into the ceiling could be accessed 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.
Streetwise's general behaviour involved pacing back and forth for what felt to him like hours – though less than half hour had passed – all whilst keeping a close optic on the three Neutrals who stood facing them all with their arms crossed and their weapons visible by their sides, guarding the door; his pacing continued to irritate his fellow team mates, though none were eager to rebuke him in front of the guards, should it give them any satisfaction. Prowl and Ironhide kept close by Optimus' side, as if protecting him, though neither of them had spoken a word since they'd 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, standing with their backs against one wall, demonstrated 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 was permeated with an invisible, cold presence that seemed to penetrate their very sparks. Supported between two of the guards by his upper arms was a badly damaged mini bot, barely functional yet still alive. When Cliffjumper realized it was Brawn, he unthinkingly stepped forwards with the foolish intention of perhaps rescuing his friend from his captors and protecting him from further harm, but he was stopped by Bumblebee and Gears, who wisely held him back by grabbing hold of him.
One of the guards holding Brawn smirked, before he and the second guard both released their grip on the prisoner and jostled him roughly forwards, 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 conscious.
The Autobots watched intently, bracing themselves with grim expectation for whatever was going to happen next. The guard who had smirked slowly walked closer towards the group, his weapon drawn, as he took his time to study each prisoner with 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 this only made him all the more angry.
"Sentinel Prime wanted me to return to you this useless piece of scrap. Don't know why anyone'd bother," the Neutral guard said, looking down with a snarl at Brawn, who continued to lay 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 he even had time to realize what was happening the guard 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 violent that no one in the room had been prepared for it – not even the other Neutrals, who almost outnumbered the Autobots. All they could do was look on in shock and disbelief as the guard, 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 the Autobot'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 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 his solid weight. "Or I'll give… the order… to execute… you… right where… you stand!"
Optimus ignored the Neutral guards who 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, as his air intake system worked to recover from the attack. Before he had a chance to speak again, 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 returning to his optics. "It doesn't matter. You and your Autobots have already lost," he said, slowly and with malice, and then brushed past the Prime brusquely before moving swiftly towards the door, giving his team the signal to follow him out. Reluctantly, with several 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 who had been assigned to keep watch.
Once the door was sealed closed again, Ironhide turned to his leader in bewilderment, exclaimed in a low voice and as respectfully as he possibly could, "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 said, indicating the fallen mini bot on the floor nearby. 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 forwards 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 the smaller Autobot. He, too, was overcome with a wave of relief when he saw that Brawn was still conscious and being cared for by First Aid, who continued to examine the extent of the damage that had been inflicted upon the mini bot by Neutral weapons fire. Then he turned to Ironhide, his optics filled with determined clarity. "It isn't over yet," he replied simply.
The sound of vehicles zooming by along the main route just outside Wheeljack's old workshop in Iacon's east caused the small group of Autobots to feel nervous as they waited uneasily for Ratchet to join them. When the door finally opened and the Chief Medical Officer slipped inside, an emergency repair kit in one hand as he hit the control panel to seal the door closed again with the other, Red Alert ceased his agitated pacing and rushed 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 and 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 in one corner of the workshop, began to rummage frantically through the drawers. "I'm not sure what's happened; I got out of there before I could find out."
"What's going on? Ratch?" Smokescreen asked, quietly curious.
"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, for now 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, and as he began to examine the contents of the shelves, pushing data pads and scientific instruments roughly aside before searching the next shelf, Arcee walked up to stand beside him.
"Ratchet?" she prodded him.
Ratchet stopped abruptly when he found what he'd been looking for – a small, black case – and turned to face her, gave an exasperated groan and then 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." Then, becoming aware of the mechs' distraught faces, he took a few moments to collect his thoughts so he could explain to them the situation. Some of them may have already had half an inkling of what was going on, 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, forced 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 surprising 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 as if seeking confirmation that what Ratchet had just said hadn't been a result of his possibly faulty audio sensors. Groove gave him a simple, small nod.
"But, I – I thought Sideswipe was…" Trailbreaker placed a hand over his mouth, incredulous. He could not believe what he'd just heard, but he couldn't dismiss it, either, especially since the news had come directly from Ratchet, of all mechs – a very good friend to all of them and an extremely trustworthy senior Autobot officer.
"You thought Sideswipe was crazy," Ratchet finished for him, nodding affirmatively. "Well, you might not be too far from the truth, but 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 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, turned away slowly. "Dammit, I should have seen it coming. We all should have seen it coming!" His sudden outburst of anger took the others by surprise, as he slammed a fist down upon the work bench.
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 of utter frustration and regret 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 Autobot present to be reminded of them; yet, in a way, somehow, it made him feel better. Perhaps because, for the first time in a long while he had allowed himself the release he'd needed that came with verbalising the 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 protect those who were alive today, though they wouldn't be for long if he didn't do something to help them. It wasn't too late for them, at least, and he knew that if he didn't take charge of the situation in the here and now, that crude reality would 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 do it.
Once they'd attached their own chips in the same manner that Ratchet had done, 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. "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 looked 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. The lachrymose fluid that had formed a faint gleam around his optics was now all but gone. "But we've got to do something. Or 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 we may as well give up right now."
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 systems, 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 may encounter. No one seemed to have any better suggestions or ideas, and in that quiet moment that followed the decision had been made final. They each knew what needed to be done.
"Alright," Trailbreaker said, nodding in agreement and drawing in a deep cycle of air before audibly releasing it again. "Then, let's not waste any time."
Watching First Aid perform his duty as the Autobots' medical officer amongst them, Optimus was reminded of all those who had been absent from 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 outcome of the meeting beforehand, 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.
"Uh, Optimus?" The softly spoken voice jolted the Autobot Commander from his thoughts, and he looked across at the Protectobot, who had just finished examining Brawn. "Optimus?" First Aid said again, and he walked over to him, ignoring the contemptuous looks from the three Neutrals as they stood guard by the door.
"How is he doing?" Optimus 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.
"Well, he's lucky. He took quite a hit. Lost a bit of energon, but he'll be alright." First Aid paused, looked back at him with concern. "They did one hell of a rough job patching him up, from what I can see, but it was enough to stop his deactivation."
The Autobot leader gave him a brief glance in acknowledgement, 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 blue optics to meet Prime's and groaned, then tightened his right fist into a ball. His face plating was scorched 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 was unable to complete his sentence as he began to cough and sputter, doubling over and holding his left hand against a deep tear in his midsection. If he wasn't careful he would 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 drain your fuel onto the floor," 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, and then stood up again, allowing First Aid to reposition the mini bot so that he would be more comfortable.
Before Optimus had time to consider his next move, Streetwise demanded his attention.
The Protectobot had been agitated the entire time, and 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?" He spoke in an exasperated tone, shaking his head in disgust and finding it difficult to suppress his anger. He had moved closer towards Optimus until he was almost face to face with the Autobot leader.
"Streetwise, back down–" Hot Spot warned him irately, but he was quickly dismissed by his belligerent team mate, who 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 spoke this last sentence with venom, though the volume from his vocal unit 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 ceased to move forward.
The confusion and turmoil 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 as 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 was certainly 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 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 the turmoil that plagued Optimus, nor of the very real anguish that accompanied it – the only things 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 much of 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 by shock, and a certain amount of fear – not of Optimus Prime himself, but of the Autobot leader's unrestrained fury that was now 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 other 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, facing down and looking defeated. When Prime spoke again, this time in a tone that was much calmer and more controlled than it had been only moments before, 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 matched his sentiments. "Please, forgive me," he said finally, before turning away again, not waiting for a response.
Even if Streetwise had wanted to give Optimus a response, he did not get that opportunity because at that moment the door of the holding bay opened, and waiting for them outside was the same group of Neutrals who had brought Brawn in earlier, only this time they did not bother to enter. Only the head of the group stepped inside, his weapon drawn, and after a brief glance around at the Autobot prisoners he directed Optimus to follow him outside with a rough shove. When Ironhide started after 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 guard, who then signalled for a few of his team to help him remove the Prime from the room, by force if necessary. "No, I'm not going anywhere without them," he declared stubbornly, referring to his fellow Autobots.
"Sentinel wants a word with you," the guard informed him 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 consider the alternative, easier option. "Go with him, Prime. We'll be okay." And so, after a few more astro-seconds of hesitation, and more for his Chief of Security than for any other reason, he began to make his way out of the room, ahead of two Neutral guards.
Soon after their gathering with the Decepticons in the meeting room, Wheeljack returned to the Constructicons' work area to rest some more and collect his thoughts. The Decepticon gestalt team had disappeared to help make a place for the recently rescued Combaticons, converting some unused chambers for their private quarters. Eventually, Jazz was left alone in the room with Rumble, who sat across from him at the central table with his arms crossed in front of him and one foot resting on one knee. He seemed withdrawn, lost in his own thoughts, and there was an impartial expression on his face that could have almost fooled Jazz.
"Mind if I ask you something?" Jazz's voice sounded harsh in the quiet aftermath of the celebratory din that had surrounded his audio sensors earlier. It felt as though the rest of the world had fallen away, leaving only the two of them to contemplate the phenomenon that was their solid reality. His casual yet intense inquiry 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 got 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 appear intimidating, particularly when trust between an Autobot and a Decepticon was still a very novel and strange concept. He had no expectation of being fully trusted, that much was true, though he liked to think that perhaps he had gained some ground towards that end ever since he'd helped rescue Scavenger, and he didn't want it to end now. Still, if he was going to prove himself to be trustworthy, he had to show them who he was – he had to be his authentic self, without fear or regret. "Mind if I ask what happened to your brother?"
The impact of his inquiry was compounded by Rumble's intense visage – or perhaps it was subdued shock at being confronted with that question, he couldn't say for sure – but he hoped that he hadn't come across too strongly, pushed the wrong button, or asked the wrong question. So when Rumble gave him his reply, it was not what he had imagined it would 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 to his question. In the stillness that followed, Jazz really had no answer, though he felt as though he at least owed him 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 the truth when the scrap metal hits the fan blades. 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 did not react, until several long moments 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 loosened his arms a little, shifted his gaze back towards him. "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 did not seem to want to divulge anything further. "Was he captured?" he ventured, treading carefully.
"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!" This time, it was obvious that Rumble was upset – though Jazz thought that it probably had more to do with the fact that he lacked vital information about his brother than with the fact that he had brought up the topic.
"Hey, I'm sorry to hear about that. I really am," Jazz said after a pause. "I just want to know what happened."
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 hardship, 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 behind him. "Come on, let's go see if Megatron needs us," he said, and with that he made his way to the exit. Jazz watched him leave, then rose and began to follow him out.
Far from a picture of dysfunction and 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 crude irony. Rather than a detention camp in the middle of a battleground littered with chassis of rebellious yet non-functional mechs, he saw a vastly different version of reality as he was led down the transport platform and along the hallway that led back to the Control Room. The center appeared to be operating very smoothly, more smoothly than he had ever seen it – like a perfectly well-oiled machine; a large number of Neutral and Autobot officers went about their duties with precision and care, 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 to him 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, his sole purpose for being the exemplification of commitment, integrity and honour. Within the space of barely an hour, his entire persona had transformed from that of a stubborn and callous dictator, to one 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 in. The Neutral guards who had accompanied him were dismissed with a quick wave, as were the two Autobots in the control room, leaving Optimus alone with his former mentor, the door sliding closed behind him.
"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, as he ignored the cold stare of his blue optics and 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 by Optimus, who saw through his shallow attempt at any reconciliation, or explanation for his recent course of action. "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 levelled 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 both 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 looked back at him in puzzlement, as if the very fact that he should ask such a question was utterly absurd. "The Decepticons, of course. Who else?" Optimus gave a small nod in acknowledgement, belying his true thoughts and feelings, and Sentinel continued, switching to a more formal tone. "I thought you should know that I have reinstated the High Council's directive. They 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 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 face that could give away his unspoken sentiments. "Oh, but don't worry – 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."
It was apparent to him that the level two lockdown sequence Prowl must have initiated just before the takeover had since been overridden by Sentinel or his subjects, but it would have at least given Ratchet and the other Autobots some precious time to escape.
Sentinel continued unperturbed, though his tone softened. "I also thought you'd want to know: I have news of Elita."
Those words felt like he'd just received a sudden blow to his spark, and he stepped closer towards 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. Now, hearing her name being mentioned, and 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, 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 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 slowly bowed his head in sorrow, glancing down towards the floor. Captured, yet still alive. In the midst of this mixed revelation, and in his confusion, he did not know what to think, or what he could possibly do to save her. "Captured," he repeated after several long moments, then lifted his head back up. "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 femme commander of the Autobots, had been captured, and was now 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 get out of there alive. "No."
"I'm sorry, Optimus–"
"No!" He stood up abruptly, turned away from Sentinel to stand, motionless, for many long seconds. Finally, when he'd managed to regain some sense of control he spoke again, but did not bother 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 opposite, closing himself off emotionally and rejecting any possibility of renewing their relationship. 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 interrupted, showing no regard for Sentinel's display of leniency.
"Now!" he demanded, more forcefully this time, without bothering to look back at 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 have to reach out for his help.
After Elita's encounter with the hideous monster that held her captive and in her panic and desperation, she considered powering down so that she would become oblivious to the harsh reality that she found herself in, some part of her hoping that she would 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 war lord.
Just when she thought that she couldn't hold on to her sanity any longer, 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 worse.
Two mechanoids stepped inside the room and silently moved towards her. When she saw what they looked like, the tension within her eased somewhat, though she remained wary. They were neither Neutrals, nor were they Cybertronians – possibly natives of Alternity City; local mechanoids who had either been recruited voluntarily to serve the slagger that ruled this place, or they'd been given no other option 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. Then the mech released her from her restraints and she stumbled forwards, 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, and the two of them dragged her out of the chamber and started to lead 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. The sounds of terrified screams and wails that drifted towards her from somewhere in the distance – prisoners doomed to eventually die in their unmarked cells 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 again? she thought, just as the two guards brought her to an abrupt stop in front of a sleek, metallic grey 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 glare of the stark, white light that flooded her optics, blinding her momentarily – 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 forwards into the middle of the room. They roughly raised her arms above her head and secured both her wrists together with energy restraints, then to a heavy ring that hung down from the ceiling. Before they left her alone again, one of them – 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 began to make 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 why 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 making contact with the floor. She grunted, strove to regain her posture, 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 out his name.
"Astro? Astro, wake up!"
He let out a groan, fought to clear his head and refocus his vision, and turned his head towards the sound of her voice as he attempted to pick himself up. Still weakened by his fight with the powerful jet, 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, one hand over her mouth and her 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 hand on 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 it. Then, ignoring the sparks and crackling of the 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.
He finally looked around to acknowledge all present, and saw several pairs of optics staring back at him in anticipation and apprehension. Rook knelt beside him, whilst 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 from 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 moved or spoke a word, as they watched and waited intently for Astro's next move. 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 glance at them all. Referring to Jhiaxus, he informed them, "His spark chamber's still intact, though he won't make it without some basic repairs."
Without waiting for a response, Astro now 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; this time, however, he did so with great care and attention, reaching out with one hand to gently touch the side of Comet's face. Then he shifted his position so that he was crouched low, close to Comet's still form and, reaching down, he placed his arms underneath the seeker's frame, until he held him firmly. Then he 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, waved a hand towards Comet, and asked the pertinent question in an exaggerated, impatient tone. "Astro, is he going to be okay?"
Astro regarded her impassively, and noticed the penetrating stare of the tall, yellow Autobot standing beside her. Then he answered patiently. "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 the pad just outside Binaltech, in the Northern Heights?" Dirge suggested after a pause, and ignored a dirty glance from Thunderblast at the mention of 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, glanced behind him to look back down at Jhiaxus' unmoving frame. "We'll also be taking him with us," he added.
"Ugh, must we?" Rook replied, his face strained as he showed his obvious displeasure with the idea.
Astro turned his head back around to catch his gaze, his yellow optics steadfast. "Yes, Rook. We're going to need him alive," he explained, then shifted his attention towards the Autobot femmes and added with a calm assuredness that only came with the experience of a mech who had fought countless dangers and won, "if there's any chance of rescuing Elita One."
Moonracer jumped in fearful excitement at the mention of her team leader's name, and she placed a hand to her mouth in an attempt to stifle a cry. It conveyed both joyous expectation and trepidation, and Chromia reached out to grasp her free hand, squeezing it in reassurance and hope for their friend and commander. Beside them, Firestar said nothing, but challenged Astro with a questioning, critical look.
Gently letting go of Moonracer's hand, Chromia step forwards toward Astro, then looked down to gaze upon the face of the unconscious seeker in his arms. She could see that he 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 held 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 did she understand 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 towards the blue femme and eager to offer her assistance. She stopped short when Chromia indicated for her to curb her enthusiasm with a raised hand.
Astro regarded the two femmes 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 his instructions to Dirge and Thrust, with a brief tilt of his head towards Jhiaxus.
The conehead grimaced, but then resigned himself to the task, moved quickly to pick up Jhiaxus' frame with Thrust's help, and together they followed Astro out of the building as they dragged the body of Hitec's off-lined second-in-charge between them.
Then Thunderblast and Rook followed them out, until only the three femmes and Sunstreaker remained behind. Up until that point, things had happened so fast that the femmes had had hardly any time to acknowledge Sunstreaker or convey the joy and gratitude they all felt upon 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 – 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, his welcoming arms wrapping 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 fraught with many dangers and 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 femmes, but by all those back home who had come to believe that he was no longer alive.
Firestar watched Chromia offer him her own heartfelt embrace, and when her friend finally stepped back she shared with him a quick hug and an elated smile. "It's sure good to see you, Sunstreaker," she said emphatically, then shook her head. "What in Primus' name are you doing here?"
Sunstreaker offered her a simple smile in return. "I wanted to ask you three the same thing, actually." Then, with one gentle hand upon her forearm and the other placed around Chromia's shoulders, he slowly guided them out of the burnt-out floor. "I'm sure we've a lot of things to talk about, but it can wait – what do you say we just get out of here first?"
When the door slid open behind her, Elita One had no inkling of who might have come to pay her a visit this time, though the first thought that entered her mind was the bulky mass of who she'd assumed to be the cruel war lord that commanded 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 glance behind her, so she didn't bother to try; instead, her frame tensed visibly as she prepared to face the worst, her gaze fixed straight ahead.
Not quite as bulky as the mech of her initial encounter, her latest visitor's frame was still quite large. The first thing she noticed about him as he strode into view before her with heavy, 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 larger. "How does a rare beauty like you get herself all lost in such a slagging pit-hole of a place, huh?" She didn't respond, as he reached 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 replacement part for his worn armor. "Do you know where we are?" he asked her then.
She was about to defy him, refusing to answer any of his questions, but then decided against it. After all, what could she do? 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 strode back towards her.
A new wave of panic came over her once more, 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 have to 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 jovial 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 plea would fall upon deaf audio sensors.
When the first crack came down on her, making sudden contact with the armor plating of her upper torso, the resulting pain was the most excruciating that she had felt in a very 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; combined with feelings of utter helplessness, but also regret, it was all too much for her to bear.