Transformers: Heroes

Chapter 18

The still, heavy air inside the catacombs added to the feeling of oppression that seemed to settle upon the shoulders of the Autobot team of five as they made their way through the little used tunnels. There was no overhead lighting system in this part of sub-central Iacon, only old-fashioned halogen strips set into the bottom section of the wall and activated by motion sensors. Ratchet led the way forward with a wary optic, stepping past the full-length recesses set periodically into the concave wall. They'd managed to avoid any security teams since they'd left Wheeljack's old workshop easily enough, but that didn't mean that no one was searching for them.

"Do you think there are real crypts along here?" Hound asked, his voice cutting through the thick ambience as he looked about with an involuntary shudder, his helm light illuminating the way forward. Hot Rod walked closely beside him, keeping his audial receptors alert to any sound, while Arcee and Groove followed behind.

"Nah. They stopped using this place long ago, when the Mausoleum was built. If you wanna visit the ancient vaults, you gotta go several more levels down," Ratchet explained, before coming to a stop beside another wall recess. Graphemes were engraved directly into the rock of the wall in an older Autobot script. "Markers like these are empty," he indicated with a casual wave of his hand, then gave the smoothed surface a once over before moving off again, picking up his pace a little. "Come on, we're almost there." They soon reached a crossroads, where the tunnel split into two, and Ratchet stopped. The sound of sharp clanging in the distance made Hot Rod jump, and the Chief Medical Officer held up a hand. "What was that?" he asked in a hushed, rough voice, but no one had a sure answer.

"I've heard that these catacombs are haunted," Hound offered, peering into the dimly lit right-hand passageway before them. It curved its way around and out of sight, resembling the insides of a giant, hollowed-out mechano-eel. When Ratchet met his gaze with a frown, he thought it best to change the subject. "Ahem, so which way now?"

A small nod towards the right-hand tunnel answered Hound's question, but as Ratchet began to lead the rest of the way through the catacombs, Hot Rod grabbed him by his left wrist. "Wait – did you hear that?"

Ratchet hesitated before turning back to face the impetuous warrior. "No–" he said firmly, and was about to yank his arm out of the mech's grasp when he, too, heard what sounded like a muffled cry and stopped abruptly to listen.

"I thought no one was supposed to use these tunnels–" Hot Rod began, but Ratchet was quick to silence him.

"Shhhh!" He listened intently for a bit longer, and just when he was ready to dismiss the disturbance as nothing more than the screeching of micro-bats, the sound of distant voices floated down from the level above them. There was a muffled shout, and then scraping sounds along the floor. "That may be true," was Ratchet's delayed response, as he waved them quickly forwards, almost breaking into a run, "but that doesn't mean they're not being used. Try to keep quiet – let's go."

The tunnel curved around and then straightened out again for a short length, before terminating inside a large ante-chamber. A hatch in the ceiling directly above the far wall was open, through which a bright shaft of light spilled down onto the floor. Ratchet ran a quick appraisal of the area, then pushed forward and leapt up the series of vertical rungs that were set into the wall just below the hatch. He didn't stop to look back down at his companions. "Wait for me here – that's an order," he said to them sternly, before pulling himself up through the hatch and disappearing from view. Hot Rod ran to the bottom of the steps to peer up after him.

The group of four waited almost two minutes with mounting nervousness, and just when Hot Rod couldn't stand it any longer the silhouette of the Autobot medic's helm reappeared in the space above them. Gathering closer, they waited expectantly for Ratchet to speak, but he simply waved them up frantically.

Hot Rod was the first to propel himself up the steps and out through the hatch after Ratchet, followed by Arcee, Hound and then Groove. Ratchet closed the hatch and activated its sealing mechanism, then continued to lead the way forward along the brightly lit, spacious corridor without pausing. "The Decagon's just around this corner. Stay close," he informed them, keeping to one wall. The hallway veered off to the right and he stopped short, back flat against the wall, and then cautiously peered around the corner, holding up a hand to indicate for the others to halt.

Catching a glimpse of a number of mechs just outside the Decagon's thick reinforced doors, Ratchet ducked his head back behind the wall to avoid being seen, a pained expression on his face. "Looks like Tailgate's in trouble," he said to his team mates, then braced himself briefly before stepping out into the middle of the hallway and in plain sight. The group of mechs near the doors turned to look at him, startled. "We heard some shouting. Is everything alright?" Ratchet greeted them, pretending to ignore the fact that Tailgate, the mini-bot scout, was being propped up between two Neutrals. The small Iaconian appeared to be offline. Accompanying the Neutrals were two unfamiliar Autobots. "I'm a medic - maybe I can help?"

The Neutral officers exchanged glances before their optics settled upon the senior medic, looking him up and down as if trying to decide what they should do, then shifted their gazes to the four Autobots who appeared from around the corner to quietly join the red and white medic.

One of the Neutrals slowly straightened and turned fully around to face Ratchet, but instead of answering him he activated a com line on his forearm. He spoke below normal audio range for a few seconds before pausing to wait for a response. When he was finished, he nodded to his companion and then stepped toward Ratchet, a barely visible smile touching his lips. "It's probably not a good idea for you five to be outside of the designated safety areas, you know," he informed them casually, trying to sound as friendly as he could. His gaze lingered on Arcee for a moment too long. "You never know if there're Decepticons around, just waiting to take advantage of a helpless femme. Why, I'm sure they'd love to get their hands on a real beauty like you–"

Hot Rod pushed past Ratchet to confront the mostly white Neutral, his expression indignant. "Hey, don't talk about Arcee like that! She's not helpless–"

Ratchet placed a hand on his arm to refrain him from stirring up any unnecessary trouble. "Cool it, Hot Rod."

But the Neutral only found the impulsive warrior's antics amusing; if anything, the Autobot's apparent need to speak up for Arcee only served to prove his point. "A security team's on its way to escort you all back to the Command Center," he said, and then began to turn back to his own group, a smirk on his face.

However, Ratchet was not finished with him – not by a long shot. "You didn't answer my question. Let me take a look at Tailgate, or we're not going anywhere."

The Neutral paused for a moment, before spinning on his heel to face the Autobot medic again – and this time his expression was one of irate impatience. "I don't think you quite understand the situation here, Autobot. Do the right thing, and we can all be friends. Don't do the right thing – and unfortunately I'll have to report your bad behaviour to Sentinel Prime. Believe me, you don't want me to do that."

Ratchet stepped forward until he was face to face with the Neutral, completely unafraid of him or his patronizing attitude; he did not seem intimidated by his threat in any way. "What's your name and rank, officer?"

"Excuse me?" the Neutral reacted, incredulous.

"I asked you a simple question – what's your name and rank?" Ratchet repeated for him, his gravelly voice strong and persuasive.

A shaking of his head. "You can't ask me that–"

"Oh, can't I? Do you know who I am, officer?" A look of astonished confusion overtook the Neutral, but Ratchet pressed on. "No? Then let me tell you. I'm the Autobot's Chief Medical Officer and, hence, your superior. Unless, of course, we don't have an Alliance anymore?"

The Neutral opened his mouth to respond, but no sound came out, and suddenly he was locked in some sort of internal struggle that had hijacked his central processor. After a few moments he took a step back, and it looked as though he'd temporarily won the fight against his alter persona, though his yellow optics continued to glow brightly with the inner conflict.

"Now, I'll ask you again – what's your name and rank, officer?" Ratchet demanded relentlessly.

"I don't–" the Neutral started, but then cycled a deep intake of air as if willing himself to remain in control. Before Ratchet's very optics his persona seemed to shift, ever so slightly, back to his former self, and a smug smile reappeared slowly upon his face. "You know, it's funny you should ask, but we don't have names," he replied slowly, his tone mocking yet also perfectly serious.

Behind Ratchet, Groove caught the mech's gaze in shocked silence, and Arcee immediately sensed his tension, his slightly shuddering frame, though she could only guess as to what was going through his mind. A raw, unrepressed memory of his attack, triggered by the two Neutrals standing before them.

'We don't have names.'

Instinctively she reached out to grab his arm, but Groove had already stepped forward, moving closer toward the Neutral. "Groove–" she pleaded, trying to reassure the Protectobot, though his mind had already shut out all other external stimuli.

"Why?" Groove managed, his voice a mere whisper, and the Neutral snapped his head in his direction, assessing him as if he were a threat. "Why did you do it? How many others… how many other Autobots have suffered because of you?" Ratchet reached out to pull him back, but Groove shrugged the hand away. "No! I want to know. Why?"

The Neutral scowled. "What are you talking about, you crazy glitch?"

A moment of tense silence followed, and to Arcee's immediate relief the Neutral's response seemed to snap Groove out of his paranoia. The Protectobot retreated a few steps as he withdrew back into himself again, backing right down, and as he did so Ratchet took the opportunity to force his way past the Neutral to get a good look at Tailgate, who was now being held upright between the second Neutral and one of his Autobot companions. As the medic knelt down to examine the mini-bot, no one dared stop him.

Several long moments passed, and when he'd completed his cursory medical evaluation of Tailgate, he hung his head in quiet mourning.

"Sir?" Hot Rod called out in alarm, but when the senior medic made no attempts to respond, he repeated his anxious plea more forcefully. "Ratchet? Unless you want us all to be escorted back to Sentinel Prime, maybe we should think about getting out of here before–"

Ignoring Hot Rod, Ratchet abruptly stood up and spun around to face the first Neutral, who had been watching him intently. "You killed him," he accused in a deceptively soft voice, before he burst out in unrestrained anger, "Why'd you kill him, you sick son-of-a-glitch?! What'd he ever do to you?" A look of disgust crossed his face, and he shook his head, looking away as if he didn't care an iota for the consequences of his actions. Even when he turned back to meet the Neutral's gaze once more, the blaster that the other now wielded didn't seem to register at all. "You planning on killing us, too? Is that your new plan – to kill us all, one by one, until the Autobots are no more?" he asked in unbridled regret, making no effort whatsoever to protect himself from the weapon being pointed at him.

The Neutral seemed to take the medic's reaction in his stride, though his mask of calm was only a thin veneer that concealed a convoluted and twisted mind. He inched his weapon a little higher, his finger resting comfortably on the trigger. "I didn't kill this Autobot. We found him this way out near the Western boundary. Like I told you, it's not safe to be out alone anymore–"

Ratchet had never been a great warrior, or strategic fighter – he was a medic, first and foremost. His job had always been to save lives; he was not used to making decisions that might condemn the lives of others, whether friend or foe. And whilst he was the highest ranking officer among those present, it could be argued that Ratchet was not the best mech to shoot first and ask questions later, even when his own life was at risk.

Hot Rod, on the other hand, although impulsive and sometimes reckless, knew to react appropriately when the situation called for immediate action. To a warrior such as Hot Rod, there was no mistake: disarm the threat before it could put his friend's life at risk; and right now the Neutral was the threat, Ratchet his friend.

He did not wait to find out for sure what the Neutral's intentions were, as several short bursts from his dual photon blasters hit the hostile mech from behind, successfully putting him out of action before he could even think to pull the trigger on Ratchet. But even before Sentinel's minion fell in a heap at Ratchet's feet, Hot Rod aimed both his laser guns at the three remaining members of the other party – the second Neutral and the two Autobots – arms straight out in front of him in a battle-ready pose. Beside him, Hound responded quickly, shooting the remaining Neutral down first before he could attack, while Groove's photon pistol was aimed at the unfamiliar Autobots, though he was reluctant to use it.

Ratchet forced himself to take stock of their situation. Quickly glancing behind him at the Decagon's reinforced doors before looking down at the blue mini-bot's sparkless chassis, he realized that it was too late to save him – much too late – and he had to force his attention away from the unfortunate Autobot in order to ensure that his companions would not succumb to a similar fate. In the same instant, he knew that attempting to enter the Decagon would prove to be a pointless move, and in fact would only put them in further peril. Judging by the team of Autobot-Neutral Alliance officers they'd just encountered outside of the fortified Autobase – a team which he was almost certain answered to Sentinel Prime – command of the Decagon had already changed hands. And of course, allowing his team to be escorted back to the Iacon Command Center would do nothing but ensure they'd be punished as rebels of the Alliance.

He retreated a few steps away from the Decagon, before breaking into a jog as he turned the corner and headed back down along the same hallway from whence they'd come. "Come on," he prompted his small team, "we need to go."

As Hound, Groove and Arcee began to retrace their footsteps back around the corner after Ratchet, one after the other, Hot Rod remained where he was, pointing his blasters at the two Alliance Autobots to ensure they wouldn't try to stop them or fight back, until he was the last one of his team mates left standing in the hallway.

"Hot Rod, come on!" he heard Arcee's beckoning voice calling him, and he withdrew, taking several steps backward until he, too, had disappeared from view around the corner. Then he turned and ran, catching up with the rest of his companions as they hastily made their way back toward the catacombs.

Since Optimus Prime had been escorted back to join his fellow Autobots inside the holding bay of the Iacon Command Center, he had refused to speak much and had withdrawn into himself, even after several breems. Ironhide had tried to question him about the private meeting he'd had with the Neutral leader more than once, yet Prime's reluctance to offer his friend any pertinent information only infuriated the ammunitions specialist until he'd shaken his head in exasperation.

"I don't get it, Prime – is he planning on keeping us all in here until we off-line from lack of energon?" Ironhide's gruff voice cut through the noticeable tension inside the holding bay.

"I doubt it, Ironhide."

That was all Prime was willing to offer, even as he ignored the pained expression directed at him. "Well – what's he planning on doing with us, then?" No response. "He must have said something to you–"

"He did not tell me his plans."

Ironhide clenched a fist and grimaced. It was true that he loved and respected the Autobot leader more than he could express in words, yet when he acted this way he hated it. He briefly considered speaking his mind, not holding back what was in his heart to say, but then he was reminded of the recent episode with Streetwise and thought better of it; while it appeared that Optimus had since managed to keep his emotions in check, there was no guarantee that he wouldn't react again in anger, and he did not wish for a repeat of that episode – not for fear of being the one at the receiving end, but for the sake of Prime's mental and emotional well-being. He lowered his arms back down to his sides and unclenched his fist, then turned away. The three Neutral guards by the door caught his gaze and smirked in satisfaction, though he did his best to ignore them. There was something bothering Prime, something that he was not willing to share – this much he knew. An entire Cybertronian lifetime of knowing the Autobot Commander had taught him to read the subtle hints in his mannerisms and pick up the tell-tale signs – signs such as the almost conspicuous emotions of guilt and regret that now emanated from his energy field. When he turned slowly back around to speak once more, his vocalizer had softened with empathy. "Prime?"

Optimus did not respond for a long moment, still did not meet his gaze, yet it was all he could do to stop himself from blaming his friends for the way he felt. Perhaps… perhaps it had been for the best that Sentinel had forced him to step aside, if only for the fact that he was no longer fit to be the Prime Commander of the Autobot forces - not whilst his capacity to think and act appropriately had been compromised. Not since…

"It's Elita," he murmured.

"What?" Ironhide looked at him in consternation, not exactly sure what was going on inside the former Commander's cranial circuits. "Elita?" he repeated in delayed response.

For the first time since he'd been returned to the holding bay, Optimus lifted his head to gaze into his friend's blue optics. "She's been captured," he confessed in a low voice. The entire room fell quiet all around him, the impatient whispers and disgruntled protestations that had been allowed to escape every now and again from the mouths of several of the Autobot hostages suddenly ceasing. Prowl took several steps closer toward the two of them, his protective programming reacting as if it were instinctive.

"What?!" This time Ironhide couldn't conceal his utter shock and disbelief at the bombshell that had just been dropped from Prime's own lips. "Captured? How – by whom? Slag it, Prime!" He wasn't being helpful, he knew, but the words seemed to pour forth of their own accord.

Prime only shook his head, surprising even himself with the degree of outward calmness that he displayed. "I don't know, Ironhide. All I know is that she's on Alternity City, and she's in grave danger… and it's all my fault."

The red Autobot brought a hand up to his forehead as he turned away in frustration, while First Aid crossed the room to stand beside Optimus, regarding him with empathetic optics, and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. Yet neither he, nor any of the other Autobots present dared speak for several long moments – for, truly, what could any of them have offered that might have assured him even an iota of comfort? When the moment inevitably passed, Ironhide was left with a bitter taste in his mouth, as if his energon converter had regurgitated a mouthful of low-grade fuel. Elita's capture, not to mention the unknown circumstances of her current predicament, brought up more questions in his main processor than he dared ask, yet he was compelled as he turned back towards the Prime. "What about Chromia? Is she safe?"

Optimus had been so caught up in his troubles concerning Elita that he had momentarily forgotten the fact that Elita had not left for Alternity City on her own, and now, with a growing sense of foreboding that swept into his waking awareness, coupled with guilt, the least he could do was return Ironhide's gaze with unfaltering optics. If something had happened to Chromia, or any of the other femmes of Elita's crew, the responsibility would rest squarely on his shoulders. "I don't know where Chromia and the rest of her crew are, or whether they're safe. I'm sorry, old friend."

"But they were with Elita when she left, weren't they?" Ironhide questioned, ignoring Optimus' apology. If Chromia was in trouble, he did not have time to worry about apologies or even who was to blame – he only sought reassurance that the femmes, and in particular Chromia, whom he cared for more than he had ever let on, would be returned safe and in one piece. Why he'd waited so long to let her know how he felt he couldn't say, but now that she could be in real danger he was so overcome with worry and agitation that he had to turn away from the scrutiny of all the curious optics in the room.

"Yes, I believe they were," Prime replied, but then said nothing further.

"Ah, dammit, Optimus!" Ironhide released his frustrations in a burst of anger, though it was fleeting, and the room soon fell quiet once more. He took a few moments to think, before facing Optimus again. "We've got to get out of here. We've got to find a way to get to Alternity City and rescue them–"

However, despite Ironhide's concerns and burning need to take some sort of action, Optimus did not seem to hear his friend. Even as he began to ponder his own plan of rescue, the door to the holding bay opened and they were greeted by the familiar team of Neutrals. After a moment of quietly surveying the prisoners, the head guard pointed with a finger to the group of Aerialbots, while the rest of the Neutral team stood waiting outside in the hallway. "You five, come with us," he ordered with an authoritative nod as he gestured with his thumb to indicate to them to follow him out.

The leader of the Autobot combiner team grunted, half contemplating breaking past the Neutrals and making a run for it, perhaps forming Superion or smashing through the hatch in the ceiling with his team mates in their jet modes, but then he quickly dismissed the idea – if nothing else, even if they weren't later caught and consequently turned into slag, Sentinel might very well take their rebelliousness out on the rest of the Autobots still detained inside the Command Center.

Optimus intently watched Silverbolt and the other Aerialbots as they left the holding bay with the Neutrals, offering no words of advice or reassurance but with only the thought of rescuing Elita on his mind.

Despite their constant squabbling and disagreements, Silverbolt often wondered how, even after having stared danger in the face a countless number of times, he and his aerial warriors were still standing here today, alive and functional, after all these vorns. They had survived through the Last Great War, which had been brought about by the Great Devastation and had ended with the Dark Plague, and he liked to think that it had something to do with their uniqueness, both as a team and also individually; no flyer worth his turbines had ever denied or even challenged their reputation as the number one Autobot aerial team, and for good reason. Because despite their less than admirable traits away from the midst of battle, they were good at what they did – no, not just good – they were the best, and everyone knew it.

Still, the Aerialbot leader couldn't say for sure whether the pride and trust he placed in his team – they'd proven their worth time and time again, could even hold their own against the Decepticons' seekers – was enough to guarantee that Sentinel Prime would spare them from a perpetual state of internment, locked away in stasis inside the Detention Banks. Personally, he believed that they were far too valuable to end up in such a place. Nevertheless, it was this deep seated confidence in the value of his own team that kept his fear in check when he eventually came face to face with the Neutral Prime. If anything, he thought, his team's enviable status might even prove to be advantageous during this precarious time; the Aerialbots were one of only a few gestalt teams able to combine into a larger form, and he decided that Sentinel was, if nothing else, smart enough to recognize their worth, even if the mech's intentions were dubious. Sure enough, any lingering fears and doubts he may still have been holding onto would soon be cast away.

"Ah, Silverbolt, welcome." The red and black Neutral leader looked up at him with a data pad in hand, as he and his team mates were guided through the open door and into the control room by the Neutrals. "Leave us," he said to the head guard, who nodded curtly in response before disappearing from view along with his subordinates, not bothering to close the door. Sentinel resumed speaking to the Aerialbot leader, barely acknowledging his wing mates with a glance. "You may find it difficult to comprehend everything that is happening at the moment, but I do believe that you will soon come to realize the truth of the situation."

"The Autobots haven't done anything wrong – why are you treating us like slag? We're not your enemy!" Slingshot fired off, stepping in front of Silverbolt before the latter had a chance to even think through his response.

Silverbolt extended an arm out, stopping the smaller flier in his tracks. "Keep quiet; I'll do the talking here, alright?" he warned, glancing briefly around at the rest of his team mates. Like his impetuous companion there were a lot of things he wanted to say to Sentinel right now, though he managed to keep a cooler head. "As far as I understand the situation, Sentinel Prime, you betrayed us all, but especially Optimus. I thought you at least cared about him – he trusted you."

Sentinel released a soft sigh, carefully putting down his data pad and shaking his head regretfully. "If that is your understanding, then you are sadly mistaken." He began to pace slowly across the room to the far wall, keeping his back to Silverbolt as he spoke. "I have known Optimus for much, much longer than any of you, and believe me… the last thing I want is to see him get hurt. Unfortunately, the endless war – but especially the Great Devastation – has taken its toll on him. He is no longer the fearless and capable leader he once was. His judgment has become clouded, filled with doubt. He can no longer clearly discern what needs to be done." Sentinel paused, studying one of the monitor displays as he allowed ample time for his words to sink in. "The truth is that the recent news of Elita One's capture has compromised his ability to think and act in a rational manner and while it is understandable, we cannot allow ourselves to become distracted. We are simply running out of time," he added, before turning to face Silverbolt.

The Aerialbot's gaze fixed upon the Prime's intense blue optics as though they had him trapped, consuming his very spark while he was powerless to resist. His mind raced, thoughts coalescing in a cloud of uncertainty and confusion before dispersing into thin, feeble threads. Was there any truth at all to what Sentinel was telling him? Whilst he was a loyal Autobot and had served under Optimus since before the wars, even he could see that his leader had changed – slowly but surely, but especially so since Elita had departed Cybertron on her own initiative – if he was truly honest with himself; at least on that front, he had to agree with Sentinel. And while he was loath to entertain the possibility that the Neutral leader may have had the lawful right to assert his authority and usurp Optimus' leadership, could he really afford not to? "Why did you bring us here?" he finally replied, unwilling to consider the harsh implications of Sentinel's words, at least for now.

"As you might have heard, we have resumed our efforts to hunt down and capture every last remaining Decepticon. I'd like to begin with their interrogations as soon as possible – the sooner we are able to learn the reasons for their recent attacks, the better – and hopefully put a stop to them once and for all. But this would be much easier to accomplish with your team's help, of course. Put simply, we could do with your aerial capabilities, not to mention your ability to merge," Sentinel explained, his voice confident and reassuring.

"Don't listen to him, Silverbolt – he's trying to trick us like he did the others," Air Raid advised. The red and white jet with dark grey wings stood behind his team leader as he watched Sentinel warily.

Silverbolt hesitated, but then decided that whether or not the former Autobot Prime could be trusted, he would not allow him to take advantage of his team. Regardless, he was curious to hear what the mech had to say. "And why should we help you?" he asked, though he already knew what the answer to his question would be even before he had uttered it.

Sentinel smiled. "I wouldn't dream of asking any of you to do anything that might go against your core principles – however, do not forget that the Decepticons are our mutual enemy; it will be for all our benefit if they are stopped. Do not be fooled by anyone telling you otherwise."

Silverbolt tore his gaze away from the Neutral Prime to look down at the floor, cycling air in strained silence. He had heard the rumors about the Neutrals' plans for a takeover, yet after Sentinel had asserted control several hours ago, in his mind there had been no concrete evidence that he had done so for any reason other than for the good of the Alliance. Besides, if he accepted Sentinel's offer it would grant him and his team the chance to even the score against Devastator – it was an opportunity that he found difficult to pass up. After several moments in contemplation, he looked up again and nodded. "Alright, we'll help you capture some Decepticons. But you must promise me that you'll do nothing to harm Optimus and the other Autobots," he said, ignoring the subdued gasps of astonishment coming from his team mates behind him.

The smile on Sentinel's face faded somewhat, but did not disappear entirely. He seemed to regard Silverbolt's reply with as much seriousness as he was able to convey, until his smile broadened once more. "Very well. No harm shall come to any of them. You have my word," he promised.

A rush of cool wind swirled all around Elita One, and she was suddenly conscious again, though her awareness was heightened. Innately, she knew that she was no longer trapped inside the Hitec base but had been transported to a place very, very far from there, a place beyond the stars. A warm, soothing light continued to grow stronger until she was surrounded by it, immersed in it. She had never experienced anything like it before, and instinctively she knew that she was safe here. Was she dead? And what of her crew – were they here, too? These thoughts formed in her mind, though they were without hint of fear or regret – only curiosity, and acceptance.

And then, as if in answer to her thoughts, a presence came into existence behind her, and she spun around to greet it. Even before she could make out the entity's physical form, which was completely surrounded by a bright light, she knew - no, sensed - who it was without needing to be told, and the sound of jovial laughter filled the space all around her. "Alpha Trion? Is that really you?" she spoke into the dazzling energy, and no sooner had she uttered the name than the radiant shape of an ancient-looking Cybertronian emerged from the light to stand before her. There was no doubt in her mind that she was in the presence of her guardian elder, who had died long ago.

"Ah, my dear Elita, it is so good to see you after all this time," he replied, smiling. He looked and sounded just like she remembered him - mauve, white and burgundy color scheme, sporting a cape and pointy helm - right down to the long, white strips of facial attachments that resembled hair and the Autobot insignia on his chest. "Do not fear – you are not dead, but you will be in grave danger if you do not heed my advice," he added, though his tone was reassuring rather than threatening, and she felt instantly at ease.

"Where am I?" she asked, still mesmerized by his welcome presence, and took a few moments as her mind's understanding caught up with her higher awareness. When she looked down upon her body, she recognized the familiar form of her own slender, mechanical frame, in shades of pink and white. "If I'm not dead, then… then I must be…" She trailed off as the answer instantly entered into her conscious awareness, though it was Alpha Trion who finished her sentence for her.

"Yes, you are inside the Matrix," he answered. "But do not worry – your friends are all safe and well." She stared back at him in bewilderment before releasing a long sigh of relief, and he continued. "However, I am afraid that the same cannot be said for your bonded."

"My… my bonded?" she started, and once again the meaning of his intention seemed to be instantly conveyed to her without the need for words. "You mean Optimus?" she asked, her voice now filled with concern. "Has something happened to him? Is he in danger?"

Her elder guardian's face glowed with an ethereal confidence that she found comforting, no matter his message. "He is concerned for you. He will make the journey to Alternity City on his own, and will attempt to rescue you."

"Wh–what?" She placed a hand over her mouth, looking away in shock. Optimus was going to leave his duties as Autobot leader behind just to come and save her? Her life alone was not worth it if it meant that thousands of other lives would be put at risk. "But… who's going to lead the Autobots on Cybertron? No, please… you must stop him," she pleaded.

Alpha Trion offered her a sympathetic nod, and then slowly shook his head in regret. "I do not have that kind of power, I'm afraid." He paused, looking back up at her with compassion in his optics. "What I can do, however, is offer you guidance so that you may be prepared for what is to come."

She found herself almost unable to ask the imperative question, fearing for the safety of her loved ones and for the future of her home planet, but her compassion and willpower seemed to give her the strength she needed to conquer her fear. "What is to come, Alpha Trion?"

The elder did not attempt to spare her feelings, nor did he hesitate in his response. "The war that will end all wars, Elita. If it cannot be stopped, the consequences shall far outlive the total destruction of your home planet. It will ultimately result in the end of our species, as you know it at present."

Though she was a seasoned and capable femme commander, Elita could not stop the well of despair and sadness that began to flood her spark with the thought of the total destruction of Cybertron, and of all Cybertronians. "As I know it at present? What do you mean?" She forced her vocalizer to whisper the words, even though she knew that Alpha Trion could read her thoughts.

This time, he turned his face away slightly as he considered his reply. "There is a fate worse than death, Elita. Even for an entire species. I cannot share with you what such a future might look like, because I refuse to do so. It is something that you would be better off not knowing, for I have seen it." He faced her again, deep love and empathy now evident upon his features. "But it is the reason that I have summoned you here."

She covered her face with her hands, feeling the sudden urge to cry out as the overwhelming sense of urgency that she was picking up from Alpha Trion threatened to take her beyond the edge of sanity. He waited for her to recover with an infinite patience that was supernatural, until she managed to find her voice once again. "But what can I do? I've been captured. My crew doesn't know where I am, and I have no idea what's going to happen to me. Please, tell me what I can do?" she begged, pleading with him now.

A small smile appeared on Alpha Trion's face. "Ah, do not fear, Elita One. You will soon cross paths with one who will be able to help you escape – but only if you are willing to reach out to him."

She looked back at him in surprise. "Please, tell me who this mech is so that I may ask for his help?"

"I am sorry, but I'm afraid that I cannot reveal to you his identity. However, what I can tell you is that he will also need your help, yet he will not be forthcoming – at least, not at first." Alpha Trion's smile lingered as he continued to watch her with immeasurable reassurance and compassion.

She exhaled in exasperation, his words of advice only causing her more confusion, but then resigned herself to acceptance. It was more than what she would have learned otherwise. And at least now she knew that there was a chance that she might escape Hitec. "What about Optimus? Is the Alliance behind this coming war? What can we do?" she asked, so many questions that needed answers fighting for supremacy all at once.

"Ah. Do not overly concern yourself with Optimus – he needed to learn many things, though because of his stubborn nature it has not always been easy for him to accept the truth, yet he will come around in the end. The Alliance was simply a means to an end. Trust yourself, Elita – and you will find that you already have all the answers that you seek." He paused, gazing upon her with much understanding, his countenance imparting infinite knowledge and wisdom. "As for the war… it has already begun. Many do not realize it yet, but they will soon enough. But you… you have yet to play your part in putting a stop to what has already been set in motion. You have great power, Elita, but you must be ready when the time comes."

Then the light surrounding Alpha Trion began to recede, and for a moment Elita panicked. She did not want this to end – she did not want to return to Hitec only to find herself having to deal with more of the harsh punishments that she had already been made to endure. "Wait – please, don't go," she implored, even though she knew it was pointless.

Ignoring her plea, Alpha Trion offered her one final piece of advice before he disappeared altogether and she found herself regaining consciousness back in the real world, her head aching and her body battered and drained of energy. "Just remember, Elita, that the only way toward lasting peace is to make amends with those whom you once considered your enemy. Your future, and the future of our race, depends on it."

The short journey back to the Autobot femmes' readapted building in Koltar was largely uneventful. Chromia, Firestar and Moonracer led the way in their alt modes, followed closely by Sunstreaker, while Dirge and his team of seekers trailed them in the air. Astrotrain had assured Astro that he was perfectly capable of giving him and the three who accompanied him – Rook, Thunderblast and, of course, Comet – a ride back to the femme's base in his shuttle mode, despite the obvious damage he'd sustained during the high-speed chase to get away from Jhiaxus' enforcers.

"Don't you dare worry about me, Astro. A little recharge and I'll be as good as new. Now get in," the purple and grey triple changer insisted as he'd transformed into shuttle mode and opened his side hatch. There were obvious blast marks across his chassis, and one of his thrusters was off-line, but otherwise he was more than capable of getting them at least as far as Koltar.

Upon arrival, Firestar input the security code for the basic alarm system she had set up and then let herself in. Everything was exactly as they'd left it, and she sighed inwardly in relief. After Chromia and Moonracer followed her inside, she motioned for Sunstreaker to enter. "Please, make yourself at home. There's a dispenser over by that corner if you need a fill–" she started, but Moonracer had already grabbed him excitedly by the arm and was dragging him inside.

"Come on, I'll show you!" the green femme cheerfully encouraged, and he simply smiled at her, allowing her to take the lead.

"'Racer – 'Racer, please be gentle with him…" Firestar began, but then crossed her arms and shook her head as she watched the two of them get reacquainted. It had been a long time since any of them had seen Sunstreaker or even received any news of him – a very long time indeed, and she supposed that there was no harm in Moonracer's over-zealous welcome. What really worried her were the Decepticons, who would be arriving here any astro-second now. How much could she trust them, particularly when she knew very little about their motives, but especially the one called Astro? She knew absolutely nothing about him. Dirge and his buddies she never liked, and as for Thunderblast – well, her reputation pretty much spoke for itself.

"I'll go and prepare the recharging station if you'll get the medical equipment ready – they'll probably want to make use of it immediately," Chromia said, pausing briefly to speak to her on her way past.

Firestar grabbed her gently by the wrist and pulled her close. "Are you sure we're doing the right thing, Chrome?"

Chromia looked into her friend's concerned optics and hesitated, before offering her a reassuring smile. She patted Firestar's forearm with her free hand, and then continued on without giving her a verbal answer.

When the Decepticon seekers descended into the small alley a few seconds later, transforming back into their robot modes, they stood waiting outside the building for Astrotrain and his passengers to arrive. Dirge had transported Jhiaxus' unconscious frame in his jet mode and then ejected him when he'd transformed, leaving Hitec's non-functioning second in command slumped across the alley. He looked up at the sky, watching as Astrotrain came into view, and moments later the triple changer landed gently beside him, opening his side hatch and allowing his passengers to disembark before he, too, transformed back into robot mode.

Astro was the first of them to step through the open entranceway into the building, carrying Comet in his arms, pausing briefly to look around. Chromia ushered him over to their makeshift recharge berth near the rear wall of the building, waving for him to come inside.

"You can put him down over here," she said, then took a medical case from Firestar and opened it up for him.

Striding purposefully across the room, Astro carefully laid the unconscious seeker onto the berth and then glanced at the assortment of medical tools that Chromia had laid out on a table beside the berth. He quickly rummaged through the tools, selected a standard plasma welder, opened up the seeker's cockpit canopy, and inserted a probe from the tip of one finger directly into a diagnostics port to begin a data transfer.

"Isn't that a little dangerous?" a femme's voice asked from behind him, and he glanced back, startled, to see the red and orange femme watching him intently. After a moment, he resumed his task, working fast. "Initiating a direct link-up like that, I mean," she clarified.

"Decepticons are designed a little differently," Astro answered, though he did not bother to elaborate. Instead, he retracted the probe and proceeded to work on mending the seeker's fuel line ruptures with the plasma welder.

"If there's anything else you need, I can ask Moonracer?" Chromia said after several moments.

After a slight delay, Astro responded without looking away from his work. "I have everything I need."

"Astro?" Rook said, walking up to stand beside the larger mech. When he got no reply, he tried again but with more determination. "Astro?"

Finally, Astro paused, putting down the plasma welder and straightening. "What is it, Rook?"

The green and white mech ignored the femmes' curious glances as he shifted his gaze from Comet and then back to Astro again. "What do you want us to do with that – that mech?" he said with a nod back toward the entranceway where Dirge and Acid Storm had dragged Jhiaxus' frame inside. "I still don't see why we can't just extract whatever information we need from his memory module and dump his frame into the canal?"

Astro turned to face him fully, then glanced over at the blue and grey jet, who was leaning against a wall just inside the entrance, watching as Thunderblast paced back and forth nervously – she stopped briefly to glance back at Astro and Comet before resuming her pacing, trying to avoid the figure of the mech with whom she'd recently experienced a frightening encounter. Meanwhile, Moonracer was busy showing Sunstreaker the collection of spare parts and equipment they'd managed to salvage from the wreckage of their ship. "Just find somewhere to put him. I'll get to him next," Astro replied, then turned back to resume repairs on the seeker, and Rook let out a soft sigh before resignedly moving away.

The glare from the overhead lights was the first thing to jolt Elita back to her physical senses, and she realized with relief that she was no longer suspended by her wrists in the middle of the torture chamber. The second thing that she became aware of was the voice of a mech close by, speaking to her. With regret, she remembered her tormentor, Sixshot, and let out a small groan.

"Welcome back to the land of the living, my dear. Here, take this – I know you need it, you're almost completely drained," he said.

She felt a cool, cylindrical object being tapped against her arm, and carefully lifted her head to look around her. She was slumped across one of the lounge chairs, and in the chair beside her sat Sixshot with a can of energon in one hand as he held out a second, unopened one for her to take. She strained to sit upright and carefully reached out to take the proffered fuel, but before she could grasp it he drew it back.

"Allow me," he said, watching her with lewd interest as he quickly broke open the can's seal before offering it back to her.

She took the container of pink fluid and brought it up to her lips, then drank the entirety of its contents hungrily. She tried to ignore his stare as best she could, even as the memory of her recent journey into the Matrix suddenly flooded back into her processor. When she was finished, he took the empty can from her, then sat back and smiled at her, admiring her frame. She followed his gaze down, and noticed the tell-tale signs of the punishment she'd received at his hand; burned imprints of several long, thin lashes that ran across her entire frame. It was no wonder that she had off-lined; the pain from the energy whip had been unbearable. Thankfully, the dreaded tool was no longer in his possession, and a quick glance towards the back wall told her that it had been returned to its place on the shelf.

"Thank you," she said softly, doing her best to keep the disdain out of her voice. She held a hand to her forehead and felt her strength slowly returning as the energon was quickly assimilated by her fuel converter.

"No need to thank me, sweetheart. The Slag Maker wants you functioning and looking pretty, for what he has in mind for you," he replied, giving her a sly grin in admiration of her physical form. "He's one lucky glitch."

She lifted her head up to meet his gaze, and saw a cruel and callous spark peering back at her from behind red optics. She knew that he had once aligned himself with the Decepticons, but she could not see the faction's purple insignia displayed anywhere on his frame. She dreaded to think that he was the mech who was supposed to help her escape, but then quickly dismissed the thought as ludicrous – she was pretty certain that helping her escape was the last thing on Sixshot's mind. "The Slag Maker?" she enquired, hoping to shift his attention off her.

He gave her a surprised look, as though it were unusual that she had not heard of him. "I'm pretty sure he's already paid you a personal visit," he responded, then sat thoughtfully for a moment. "Tell me something, darling. What's it feel like to know that you'll never see your pathetic Autobot leader again, or those pretty femmes who followed you all the way out here?"

She drew back in spite of herself, swallowing hard. The slagger; he had no right, she thought, but refrained from speaking lest he took satisfaction from it, yet he seemed to enjoy the look of revulsion on her face all the same.

He laughed, then shook his head at some private thought that had just crossed his mind. "Well, it's sure been fun but sadly I can't stay and chat," he said, sighing and getting up from his chair. "But you just sit tight, and he'll be with you real soon." She quietly tracked his movements as he strode across the room to the door, watching as it slid open before him. He stopped to turn back, giving her some parting words. "Oh, and… if you want some advice, I'd do exactly as he says. There's a reason why he's called Slag Maker, you know, and I can promise you it's not just to do with smelting." He grinned arrogantly, and then disappeared into the darkened hallway beyond, the door automatically sealing closed after him.

She waited several seconds to make sure he was gone, before her survival instincts kicked in and her processor began to race through several possible escape routes. They had left her alone inside a locked room – it wasn't much, granted, but it was a small blessing nevertheless – and one which she intended to make the most of.

Sunstreaker had had no idea how much Moonracer could talk – she had proceeded to tell him all about the femmes' adventures ever since they'd crashed on Alternity City – though ironically he found it somewhat soothing; having spent more than a vorn on this crazy planet with no one else to look out for him but himself, he actually welcomed her friendly company, even when he struggled to get a word in edgewise.

"So, um – I was hoping we might be able to send word to Optimus with this transmitter, you know? Warn him about the Neutrals and – oh, let them know you're alive, of course!" The green femme paused, glancing up at him, and he nodded, smiling.

"'Racer? Moonracer! Help us clear this stuff off this bench, would you please?" Chromia called to her, distracting her from her conversation.

Moonracer was startled for a brief moment, but then turned her attention back to the yellow Autobot. "Oh, if you'll excuse me for just a moment, I've been called away on important business," she said jokingly, pointing a thumb back at the blue femme as she feigned tediousness, before moving away to join Chromia and Firestar.

Sunstreaker watched as the three femmes began to clear a work bench of various tools and equipment, and then glanced behind him across the room at Comet, who lay quietly on the makeshift berth, Astro bent over him. He turned and began to walk toward them until he came to a stop beside Astro, observing the mech as he made a few final adjustments to Comet's internal systems. There was still so much he wanted to learn about the seeker, yet he found himself reluctant to ask – perhaps because he felt that he had no business asking probing questions about a Decepticon, of all mechs, who really had nothing to do with him. Nevertheless, he couldn't help but care about the seeker's well-being, especially after the time they'd spent getting to know one another. "You know, Comet saved my life," he confessed, breaking Astro's concentration for a brief moment. "And I guess I owe you all a big thanks, as well," he added. "I would have been slagged by Jhiaxus for sure." He paused, watching as Astro gently closed Comet's cockpit canopy. The glow from the seeker's optics was already brighter, though he was still unconscious. "So, are you - uh, bringing him back online now?"

Astro turned his attention away from Comet to acknowledge Sunstreaker. "He's in recharge. He should be awake after a full cycle," he said, then glanced across the room at the Autobot femmes. They had finished clearing a space on top of a bench and were now assisting Rook and Dirge as the two of them lifted Jhiaxus' burned out frame up onto the table. Neither Rook nor Dirge seemed happy about the prospect of reviving him. Astro bowed his head and let out a small sigh. "When Comet wakes up, he might not understand everything that's happening," he confessed, before raising his head to look at Sunstreaker once more. "But if he trusts you… then, I might need your help."

Sunstreaker glanced down at Comet, hesitating. He really didn't know anything about the seeker, certainly could not claim to have gotten to know him well enough to say that Comet trusted him at all, yet despite his fears and self doubts he wanted to help in any way he was able. He thought he owed Comet at least that much. "Sure. Whatever he needs," he finally responded.

An almost imperceptible weight seemed to lift from Astro's shoulders, and the blue mech gave him a small nod and an inconspicuous smile in gratitude, before moving away to deal with Jhiaxus.

Jazz paused just outside the entrance to the Decepticons' main control room and watched as Rumble approached Soundwave, who was seated at one of the consoles. The smaller mech tapped his guardian on the shoulder and waited for him to vacate his post so that he could take over, without needing to say a word. Then, as though he'd been able to detect Jazz's presence by sensing his very thoughts, Soundwave turned to acknowledge him. The only other mech present in the room was Megatron, who was standing nearby looking up at the main monitor.

"Jazz: Megatron would like to speak with you," Soundwave informed him.

"Ah, sure thing," Jazz replied, stepping into the middle of the room. "He's just the mech I wanted to see, as a matter of fact."

Satisfied, Soundwave walked past him and exited the room, leaving him alone with the Decepticon leader. Rumble seemed to be fully absorbed in his task and did not acknowledge either of them.

"I assume you are aware that Autobot Command has reissued their directive against us?" Megatron began, turned away from Jazz.

"Uh, yeah… I picked up the broadcast a short time ago." Silence fell momentarily between them, and Jazz wondered whether he ought to offer the other mech an explanation. "I'd say Sentinel Prime probably had something to do with it."

"Hm." Megatron appeared to be in deep contemplation, taking his time to respond. After a long moment he turned slowly around, though he did not catch the Autobot's gaze. "Perhaps it would be best for you to return to Iacon," he finally said, though it was not done so in a threatening manner – if anything, he sounded concerned. When Jazz gave no reply, he elaborated, "For your own safety." Another pause, and then, "We cannot stay here."

Jazz looked away for a moment, feelings of doubt and even dread flooding into his processor. He cleared his vocalizer to speak, though words were reluctant to form. "Aren't you tired of it all?" he finally managed, tilting his head slightly as if in contemplation. "Of all the running and hiding, I mean?" He'd asked this from a place of empathy, could sense the other's burden as though he carried the entire weight of the planet upon his shoulders.

Rather than taking offense at Jazz's enquiry, Megatron understood that the Autobot had meant no harm by it, was only doing his best to try and understand the situation from the Deceptions' perspective. It seemed that he had gotten closer to his goal, more so than any other Autobot thus far, yet there were still many things that Jazz did not know. "The time for running and hiding must come to an end. As Sentinel's army grows stronger by the day we, too, must prepare to do what is necessary…" He trailed off, inhaled deeply before returning to the original topic. "If you remain with us we will not be able to guarantee your safety, particularly now that the Alliance is actively hunting us down," he explained.

"And if I return to Iacon, there's no guarantee that I won't be arrested on the spot and tried for high treason," Jazz immediately countered, his voice low yet utterly solemn. "I can't say I know how you Decepticons usually deal with traitors amidst your ranks, but do you know what the penalty is for an Alliance officer, if he's found guilty of treason?" Megatron finally fixed his gaze upon Jazz's visor but said nothing, instead allowed him to speak what was in his heart to say. "It's permanent deactivation," Jazz answered. Just like what they were going to do to Scavenger.

Megatron nodded. The Autobot had made his point, and he had no intention of attempting to change his mind. "Very well. It is your choice." Then he turned away and moved toward one of the control stations, studying a readout. "If there is ever a traitor among us, he is no Decepticon; he is simply a traitor, regardless of the badge he wears," he added.

Jazz considered his words for a long moment, then glanced across at Rumble. He couldn't help a small smile, though it was borne from melancholy; hadn't the Cassetticon already suffered enough? Hadn't they all suffered enough – both Autobot and Decepticon alike? There had to be some way of putting a stop to the Alliance once and for all, before they all paid the ultimate price. "So, uh, where you planning on going next?" he asked, forcing his thoughts away from the terrible fate that awaited them all, if nothing was done to prevent it.

"I have yet to make a decision. We have a few options," Megatron replied, turning to regard him with an unassuming curiosity. "In the meantime, if you are both going to be staying with us I would suggest that you mask your signatures and deactivate your internal com links as a precaution," he advised.

"Ah, right. Yeah, that's probably a good idea," Jazz affirmed, realizing that the Decepticon leader was referring to both him and Wheeljack. He moved closer until he was standing less than a mechano-meter away from the silver and black mech, and cleared his vocalizer. "The battle at Kaon – you could have driven away the Neutral-led forces, yet you allowed Sentinel Prime to claim undisputed victory for the Alliance," he stated in a forthright manner, though he did not sound accusatory. "Of course, our official report says that the Decepticons suffered a major defeat, yet not a single Autobot I know has ever questioned that claim. Every bot I've ever spoken to believes the official story." He paused, watching Megatron's reaction and hoping that he wasn't overstepping the line.

The Decepticon leader straightened as he listened intently to what Jazz had to say, yet his expression gave nothing away of his thoughts or feelings. "And you don't?"

"No, I don't," Jazz answered slowly, deliberately. "What I do believe… is that given the circumstances, you did the best thing you could have done. I would have made the exact same choice," he replied, and thought he sensed Megatron's seemingly impenetrable energy field shifting slightly in response. Jazz felt sure that the larger mech was interested in what he had to say, so he continued, and hoped that he was right about what had really happened at Kaon on that fateful day. "If I'd had to choose between conceding defeat, or letting them terminate Starscream for something he'd never done – I'd have conceded defeat, too." As he finished speaking, he noticed Rumble glance in his direction for a brief moment, before the Cassetticon returned to his task. Megatron continued to observe the Autobot in what the latter could only describe as stoic determination, making it hard to tell for sure what impact, if any, his words had had on the Decepticon leader, until he was finally offered a reply.

"It was the only way I could protect him, as well as safeguard the future of our race." Megatron turned back to his console, and for a brief moment it looked as though he would not divulge any further information. But then, when Megatron spoke again, his words took Jazz completely by surprise. "Starscream is the only one who knows where to find the last remaining supply of primordial Substance X."