Author's Note: Forgive me for the delay - RP-related business has utterly sucked me up. I promise to try and be more punctual.

Cities of the Future
Chapter III

"Hope arouses, as nothing else can arouse, a passion for the possible."
-William Sloan Coffin

Bonecrusher can appreciate the sound of twisting metal far more than most Decepticons. Unlike the others, he has a passion for turning smooth plating to scrap, for drawing optics from their sockets and crushing them – nothing excites him more.

Tonight, however, the quiet shrieks from Optimus Prime do nothing for him, bringing him no pleasure – not even righteous anger. It's simply an irritating task, ripping the last bits of plate from the Prime's body, revealing his protoform.

He wants to get something out of this! He hates that the only thing he's gained from sinking his claws into the Prime is more frustration and annoyance, instead of the pleasure he normally receives. The other has even stopped screaming now, body twitching under his hands but doing nothing else.

It's not until he hears the doors open with a soft beep that he realizes how far he's gone, drawing back and shaking his hand free of energon. The Prime's exhausts wheeze as the one remaining optic flickers up in relief – even the briefest reprieve from Bonecrusher is heaven to this pathetic mess.


The Decepticon turns to stare Starscream down as the second-in-command storms forward, shrieking Cybertronian curses and looking for the other's head on a stick.

"I know what you are planning."

That is enough to stop the other in his tracks, optics widening briefly before narrowing into slits, body tensing.

"You know nothing."

"I know what you are planning, Starscream," Bonecrusher repeats, kicking the Prime when he makes a soft, pleading noise. "I heard a fair deal of it over the video feed. Luckily for you, Soundwave is not here yet to take your job as communications officer."

The sound of weapons systems coming online is the only warning the brawler has before he has a plasma rifle pointed at him, Starscream's optics glowing with malice the other hadn't quite expected.

"I'm not going to inform Megatron, you imbecile," he drawls, crossing his arms and shifting into a more relaxed, non-threatening posture. "If anything, I'd offer to help you, if I didn't think you had it all planned out."

Starscream doesn't relax in the slightest, and the Prime makes another noise.

"I want to ask you for a favor."

"A favor?" Starscream repeats shrilly, quivering under the word, "A favor?"

"Yes." A beat. "I want to take the organic away before it goes into action."

The Prime makes a quiet noise and Starscream's optics dart between them, lingering too long on the fallen Autobot for Bonecrusher's liking, but he doesn't care at this point.

"She's not my concern," Starscream says finally. "If you aren't intending to stop me, I will make no effort to stop you."

Bonecrusher nods, kicking the Prime once more – he feels nothing. "I will need a warning."

The second-in-command lowers his weapon, sneering at the other. "You will get your warning. I hardly expected you, of all Decepticons, to form an attachment to an organic."

Bonecrusher growls lowly, fisting one hand for a moment before relaxing. "A pet is something I could do with." He casts just a brief glance at the Prime, adding, "You seem to know what it's like." He then pushes past the silent commander, smirking only when he hears the other mutter a thousand curses in Cybertronian.

He still feels nothing, and decides that perhaps he should go investigate Soundwave's newest duties, to see if they might interfere –

"Since you adore your pet so very much, Bonecrusher," Starscream snaps, freezing the other in his movements, "Perhaps you should take it for some treats. She's running out of food."

"...Very well."

Bonecrusher leaves the pit, snarling to himself and feeling no better than when he first arrived.

Maggie lies out on the berth, stretched out like a cat and feeling strangely calm. For the first time in almost two years, she feels content with her position in life. She's alone, allowed to think, to dream – and if she thought much about her dreams, she would find them so strange. Instead of wishing for the old days, imagining hazy memories, she wonders about the future. Nothing finite – just vague thoughts of what might happen. Perhaps they'll let her go. Maybe the Autobots will triumph. She might even die.

She doesn't realize, really, that none of those ideas particularly appeal to her.

The door slides open and she looks over her shoulder to see who her visitor is – Bonecrusher. That's far less surprising now than two weeks ago.

"Does the organic feel up for an excursion?"

Maggie finds herself acting coy, rolling over languidly and saying in a lofty tone, "The organic isn't doing anything of importance."

Bonecrusher makes a strange noise, then nods once, briefly. "Very well."

She lets him pick her up, holding lightly onto a claw. "Where are we going, exactly?"

"A nearby organic shopping facility. Starscream requested that you be fed and I know nothing of what you eat." A glance. "You will be informing me."

Maggie nods and relaxes in his grip completely. She finds herself wondering when she came to trust the Decepticons with her life – then shoves the thought away, viciously. It's better, in the long run, not to question fate.

The shopping center is a ruined relic of the past, built of crumbling walls and overgrown sidewalks. There's hardly anything left, aside from the outermost walls of the buildings, but the shops are still stocked from the last time humans inhabited the place, still available to anyone willing to risk the chance of being seen so close to the Decepticon base.

Bonecrusher is surprisingly lenient towards Maggie; he places her at the front of a crumbling Target before stepping over a wall to crouch inside – but otherwise, it's as though he doesn't exist. He lets her wander the aisles at her own pace, infinitely patient with her.

Maggie takes a rusting shopping cart with her, filling it with anything she feels like having, and Bonecrusher does nothing to stop her. She picks up molding, two year old best sellers, blankets still vacuum sealed, pillows – she briefly contemplates games to put on Laptop but decides against them in the end, imagining the idea to be a bit demeaning. She shops for clothing that is dusty and slightly rank with the smell of mildew, picking out items that are still wearable and to her tastes. She even takes care not to take any electronics, knowing that Lord Megatron would no doubt find them offensive.

She pushes the rusty cart down the wall decorations aisle, looking at moldy and crumbling paper when she's caught off guard by a terrible image, a shriek pulling itself from her throat as she leaps away from a –


The mirror is in one piece, dusty and spotted but whole, and her reflection stares her in the face, as terrified of her as she is of it.

Her hair is ratty and matted, dreading together in many spots. Her lips are shredded beyond what she had thought, white scar tissue on pink. Her teeth are yellowed and blackened, gums blood red –

"Oh God-!"

The bags under her eyes are pitch, and her eyes themselves bloodshot from sleepless nights. There's something... wrong in her eyes – she doesn't yet see it, not clearly, but the mirror has reflected into her something she could never have wanted.

She steps away and into another mirror, knocking it loose and sending it crashing to the floor, splintering into dozens of pieces that reflect her new state a million times over, each more horrible than the last –


Maggie looks to Bonecrusher with wide eyes – he stares back without emotion.

"We will leave soon."

He doesn't ask why she looks terrified or why she screamed and she finds herself staring her reflection down, willing it to go away.

When it doesn't, she throws herself at the mirror with a shout, hurling the glass to the floor and stomping on the pieces barefoot.

Maggie spends the next ten minutes staring at the broken pieces – and then she becomes fully animated, leaping to her feet. She goes and piles unspoiled foods into the basket, as well as toothpaste, hair supplies, and a pair of scissors.

Her reflection haunts her every time she blinks and she finds her own bloodshot eyes staring her down at every turn, filling her with a strange sort of agony. She tries to remember how she looked before this, but her reflection faces her memories, destroying them and corrupting the files.

That was soft, sweet, innocent Maggie, the reflection hisses, and this is the new Maggie. The Decepticon Maggie.

Bonecrusher doesn't question her as she pushes the cart before him, and she doesn't wince when he picks her and her goods up, gazing at the shopping center blankly as they move out of Target.

Her eyes light on a decimated Petsmart, and she has a sudden epiphany –

She has become nothing more than a loyal pet of the Decepticon army.

The realization draws a smile to her face, and she curls into Bonecrusher's grip as they start for the base.

Ironhide finds himself going to the medbay, even as his processors list all the reasons why he shouldn't - why they wouldn't let him in, why they would keep him away, why the twins would sooner blow his head off than let him near the very mech he had commanded they kill-

And yet, when he reaches the medbay, Ratchet greets him with a wan, tired smile - not even a smile so much as a twitch in his facial plates. He looks tired - more tired than Ironhide has seen him in vorns, and it presses upon him the seriousness of their entire situation more than the recent Decepticon activity has.

"How is...?"

Ratchet regards him steadily for a moment and then responds, "He is no better than when I brought him in. He's stabilized, but..." He trails off and waves his hand for Ironhide to enter.

The medic has set up a curtain of sorts around the berth farthest from the entrance - no doubt a small benefit for both visitors and the patient behind it. Ironhide feels a tinge of something he can't describe, the word deleted from his vocabulary a millennia ago. He begins to approach the berth when Ratchet speaks up again.

"...He will not recover, Ironhide. Not fully."

"Never fully."

Ratchet sighs. "His audios will be difficult to replace. And I simply do not have the resources for his faceplate-"

"May I?"

Ironhide's hand is already on the curtain's edge, ready to pull it back but waiting only on the medic's reply. He's done a lot of damage to his reputation and he doubts that he'll be given visitation rights, but -

"...You may."

With one backward glance at Ratchet to gauge his expression - one of quiet remorse and lingering doubt - Ironhide pulls the curtain aside and steps behind it.

Tracks is lying on his back upon the berth, chassis still open, internals bared to the open air. He is a wreck. Energon is dripping from still healing wounds and it's been a while - too long for this to be normal, too long for this to be safe. And yet, even with the amount of pain he's no doubt in, there's the slow hum of basic processors and functions online.


The Autobot's optics, one lying bare in its socket, roll to look around, catching on Ironhide after a long moment of delirious searching.


His voice drags, catching even on the communication line, and the elder has to look away for a moment, forgetting briefly Tracks' vain sense of self and how offensive - or how disastrously depressing - that movement must be.

::...Not...the most, th-the best you've s-seen me.::

::Could be worse.::

::...Could be dead.::

Ironhide looks sharply at Tracks, whose vocalizer lets out a skipping, broken laugh. ::I know. S-Sunst-streaker told me.::

::I didn't-::

::It's all right, I-Ironhide,:: Tracks says, smiling wrongly and exhausted beyond caring or even fear. Death isn't an obstacle for this mech any longer.

::You have to understand, Tracks - we don't-::

::-Have th-the resources. I unders-stand.::

::You won't-::

::-Be th-the same.::

::I didn't-::

::Ironh-hide, s-stop.:: Tracks' optics roll away from Ironhide and stare at the far wall. ::I know... I u-understand what is c-coming for me.::

Ironhide takes a step forward and puts his hand on the edge of the berth, drawing Tracks' optics back to him. ::...I wish I could - if I had only been faster - if only I had-::

::-If only,:: Tracks rasps. ::T-There is nothing you c-could have done. I didn't p-pay enough attention. S-Soundwave had th-the advantage.::

Ironhide doesn't know why Tracks' words don't help his conscience. They do nothing but enflame his feelings ofhelplessness, his thoughts of how he could have prevented this increasing exponentially as his processors try to work out different scenarios that will never happen, where he could help Tracks, and not just stand idly by.

::...F-forgive me, Ironhide, but I c-cannot help you.::

There's more to that statement than could ever be fully appreciated and Ironhide lowers his optics to Tracks' hand. He hadn't noticed it before, but the other's fingers have been bent backwards, making it impossible for the other to hold or fire a weapon. That coward.

::Why now?:: Ironhide finally asks::Why did Soundwave choosenow to-::

::He-:: Tracks pauses, looking distant and just as lost as Ironhide, but for an entirely different reason. ::-A... s-security breach. He... w-was called by Meg...:: His intakes flair as he gasps for oxygen, looking beyond exhausted. ::...Megat-tron. T-to invest... investig-gate... it...::

::Tracks,:: Ironhide cuts in, putting a hand gently to the other's shoulder::You need to rest.::

::...Th-that's all the i-i-information... that I... I c-could get...::

::That's enough for us, Tracks. You need to rest now. You're with us; you're safe.:: He does not attempt to hide the gratitude in his tone, squeezing Tracks' shoulder gently. ::We're here.::


Tracks vocalizer seizes slightly and he makes a low noise, before tilting his head very slightly in acknowledgement. ::Thank you...::

Ironhide nods once and then turns, keeping his pace steady as he leaves the medbay - even as his internals rage against his better judgment and beg that they cut their losses while they can. He has his information - now he must inform Jazz, who is once again their acting commander now that...

"No one's told me a slaggin' thing!"

Ironhide tenses as he approaches the war room, Jazz's voice echoing like a condemnation into the hall.

"We haven't had time-" Sunstreaker begins, only to be cut off with a loud shout from their acting commander.

"-To what, follow protocol? File a report? Think of a way to tell me?"


"Sunstreaker, stop," Ironhide growls as he enters, scowling at the sports car even as he approaches Jazz. "We didn't have the time to file a report for someone we believed would never recover. It was my decision as acting commander at the time."

"You didn't even think how y'could tell me?" Jazz replies, looking almost weakened by the statement. "Even when y'knew I was gonna get better?"

"Never knew, Jazz. Just hoped. I was there, if you'd like a report now."

Ironhide regards Jazz with wary respect, waiting for a response. After a moment, the car nods, looking almost as worn as Ratchet. It's only now that Ironhide realizes they are not completely alone - Sideswipe is standing beside his brother, while Wheeljack stays near the back, no doubt recording this for Ratchet. None of them had been there, and he had given them all only the barest recollection of the night.

"...Optimus and I were returning from a recon mission near the Decepticon base when we were apprehended by Megatron. He pursued and we did our best to fight him off, but we weren't a match. Optimus ordered me back when I was wounded, but even when I defied the orders it did nothing. Megatron crippled me and offlined Optimus before taking him back to the Decepticon base."


Ironhide filters air through his intakes, offlines his optics briefly, and then says with the utmost finality:

"Optimus Prime is dead."

Starscream can't remember the reason behind any of this at the moment. All he knows is that he feels strangely warm, as though he's nearing entrance to Earth's atmosphere - a feeling that he hasn't experienced in his spark for vorns.

And yet, here he is - the cold pit's darkness enveloping him and the one in his company, artificially darkened to the point where the video would not capture them on tape, talons curled into broken plating as one blue optic stares down into his own red ones.

"...Are you certain?"

The Prime's voice is hoarse, but it holds the strong reserve that the Autobot leader has been known for - that promise that it's all up to you, and he'll understand if you don't want to...

"...I am."

The Prime lies back against scattered remains of his brethren, beyond the point of caring for the sparks that have been extinguished in this pit, perhaps even by the one his broken arms are hooked around. They've rejoined the Allspark, the Prime has told Starscream time and time again, and their physical bodies are only faint memories in old processors. The warmth that the Seeker is feeling now had been in that voice then - is still in that voice, even now - and his talons curl at the memory, accidentally pulling up the armor's mooring. The Prime hisses but doesn't reprimand him and Starscream feels some shadow of an emotion he's not felt for the longest time.

"Will they come?"

The Prime nods once, optic dimming slightly at the motion, processors hardly able to stand it. "They will, if I call for them."

It's now or never, he thinks, shifting a hand to stroke the spark casing laid bare by Bonecrusher's earlier time with the Autobot. The Prime's exhausts exhale and his optic blackens for a long moment, before flickering back on with an intensity Starscream hadn't expected.

"Then do so," the Seeker finally rasps, reaching up to his neck and extracting a manual input cable. It's rare for any Decepticon to open himself in this way and no one will expect it, at all - it'll look as though it came from him and the Autobots will...

"...If you are sure."

Starscream responds by plugging the input cable into an open port in the Prime's neck, hissing as an unmonitored stream of raw data washes over him. The pain is overwhelming at first, but the Prime slowly filters the connection and everything fades away, leaving Starscream to stare at the calm Autobot commander in...

"This is Optimus Prime."

The Prime's voice echoes through the Decepticon's processors and along with it, just for him, comes a gamut of emotions, filling him with desperation, sincerity, and the feeling of truth, something so utterly foreign that he cringes away from it for a moment, before hesitatingly embracing it.

"This is Optimus Prime."

The line repeats, and the Prime locks his gaze with Starscream's, speaking to him as much as the far away Autobots who think he is dead-

"This is Optimus Prime, and I am alive."

Starscream waits a beat - then another - and then there's the faint echo of a response, dimmed to near inaudibility by the rush of reliefand gratitude sweeping over him from the Prime.

"Optim---ut you---- ple---kkhzzzt---"

The Prime laughs quietly, sounding so fully restored that it doesn't even matter that his armor is coming off, that he's in the thick of Decepticon territory, that he's beneath the Second in Command of the Decepticon army, that they're both traitors to their causes in more ways than one -

"I hear you, and I am alive."