If Megatron felt any sense of disquiet at the sight of another incarnation of himself being utterly obliterated before him, he did not let it show. Shielding his optics from the blinding light, he watched Gigatron's body grind inwards into nothingness before evaporating in a ray of emerald energy.
And yet, a figure remained. The image of the Autobot cyber-ninja had been no fatigue-induced hallucination, as Megatron had originally suspected. The incorporeal shade of pure green energy bowed its head in a silent respectful salute as Gigatron was undone, then turned to the others.
Their strength returned to them, the Autobots got to their feet and hurried over to greet this vision, along with Professor Sumdac and his daughter. Only Optimus remained where he was, holding Blackarachnia's body in silent grief.
Megatron rose, "This is not a conversation for Decepticon audio receptors. Come, Starscream, you and I have much to catch up on".
He looked around. Starscream was gone.
With a low growl, Megatron stalked off into a side-chamber, both to give the Autobots their privacy and to locate his treacherous lieutenant.
"Out of sight", Jazz shook his head, "It's really you, isn't it?"
The image smiled wryly. Then it spoke, and the voice was not one that reverberated from cosmic heights or from within the Well of AllSparks. It was his voice.
"Yes, it is", Prowl said, "It's good to see you all. Although, I wish it were under different circumstances".
He looked at Optimus, still holding Blackarachnia in his arms. Optimus nodded once.
"But…how are you here, Prowl?" Bumblebee asked.
"The AllSpark has chosen me as its avatar for the time being. I don't have long. I must return to the Well of AllSparks soon. But I think we will be given a moment".
Unable to contain himself, Bulkhead thundered forward, arms spread wide to engulf Prowl in a warm embrace.
"We've missed you, old buddy! The base hasn't been the same since…huh?"
He passed through the image of Prowl as if it was made of fog. Prowl shook his head affectionately.
"I'm afraid there are limits. But I've missed you too. The passage of time is a…distant concept in the Well of AllSparks, but I know I've missed our time together".
Sari sniffed and wiped a tear from her cheek. Bumblebee, Bulkhead, Ratchet, Optimus and Jazz lowered their heads, each reminiscing about how things had once been. Arcee scratched her shoulder awkwardly. Sentinel remained silent.
"Who would have thought things would end up like this, huh?" Bulkhead sighed, "That day we were just mindin' our own business, fixing up that space bridge in that remote sector of Autobot space. And it all led to this".
"There's some things I would do differently", Optimus said bitterly.
"There's no need for regrets", Prowl said, "It was no mere chance we happened upon the AllSpark that day. You suspected as much even then, Ratchet. The AllSpark has been guiding much of what transpired. The AllSpark of Gigatron's original timeline was not prepared for his misguided ambition. His crimes rippled throughout the multiverse. Defensive measures needed to be taken. The AllSpark of our reality came to us for a reason. It gifted the Key to Sari for a reason, and she became the Key for a reason".
"So…everything that's happened was pre-determined, and nothing we've done actually mattered?" Ratchet asked, shaking his head.
"Far from it", Prowl replied, "The AllSpark's influence is...limited. If that were not the case, Gigatron would not have been able to devour it in his own reality. The AllSpark could only show us the path. It is up to us to follow it. And even then, there are no guarantees. Our choices cause the path to take unexpected turns".
He looked at Blackarachnia's body, and then to Sari.
"It as you've said before, Sari: Cybertronian life must evolve. Robotic life is resilient and enduring, but the cycle of endless war has proven that it is also unyielding and rigid. It has much to learn from organic life and its adaptability, the fluidity that so fascinated me during my all-too short time on Earth".
"So…what's going to happen, Prowl?" Bumblebee asked, "Are a bunch of trees just gonna start sprouting up in the middle of Iacon?"
Prowl gave a slow smile and cocked his head at the younger bot, "I don't know. Probably not. I'm afraid you'll have to return to Earth if you want to go camping again, Bumblebee".
Bumblebee grinned, "You still owe me a new media player, y'know".
Prowl chuckled quietly.
"So, do you have the low-down on what is gonna happen now that the AllSpark is grooving with technorganic energy?" Jazz asked.
"I'm afraid I don't", replied Prowl, "But a new era for Cybertron may be on the horizon. For not only has the AllSpark been restored to Cybertron with a new form of energy to create the next generation, but you have united Autobot and Decepticon for the first time in history. How that will play out I don't know, but it's quite the impressive achievement.
"You've all done great things here today. You should be proud, all of you. If Gigatron had escaped, he might have fled this timeline to terrorize another. He needed to be stopped. I know you were prepared to give your life to ensure that wouldn't happen, Sari. But even the AllSpark did not foresee Blackarachnia's intervention".
Optimus rose, carrying Blackarachnia in his arms, "I won't let her sacrifice be in vain. Or yours, Prowl. We'll fight for the future".
"I was hoping the fighting would be over", Arcee sighed.
"As was I", Professor Sumdac wiped his forehead with one hand, "I am not cut out for these sort of excursions".
Prowl bowed his head, "You have much ahead of you, and I should not delay you. The Well is calling to me. And I fear you are not safe here".
He cast a glance upward at the ceiling of the chamber: the crashed cruiser was beginning to list to one side, and the girders supporting what was left of the roof groaned in protest at its immense weight.
"And let's not forget there's a battle out there", Bulkhead said, "We gotta get back to smashin' Monocons".
Sentinel Prime shook his head, "We don't need not worry about that, at least. With Gigatron gone, his army is out of commission".
"That's right!" Sari snapped her fingers, "Gigatron based the Monocons on the Headmaster's technology, and integrated the controls into his processor. With him gone, they're not receiving any more orders".
"So, we did it then?" Arcee asked, "We've saved Cybertron, and Earth too?"
"In this timeline, at least", Jazz shook his head, "In another reality, the galaxy is a stone-cold graveyard".
"Not quite", Prowl said, "Even there, hope is not lost. The survivors will begin to rebuild what is left, now that Gigatron is gone. Perhaps in time, Autobots and Decepticons of that realm will come to the realization that it's fruitless to continue their fight. After all, the Autobots of that timeline have a fine leader in Bumblebee Prime".
Bumblebee blinked, "Sorry…wanna run that by me again?"
"I would not linger here", Prowl said, ignoring Bumblebee, "There's a new dawn for Cybertron and all the galaxy for you to see. Thanks to Blackarachnia's sacrifice".
"I…I just don't understand why", Optimus said, "Why did she do it?"
"Ask her for yourself", Prowl answered.
"Wuh-what do you mean?"
Prowl only smiled and vanished. The green haze that had been emanating from the AllSpark withdrew into its container. Brilliant emerald crystals glittered within as Jazz carefully walked over it and lifted it with sacred reverence.
As Optimus watched the vision of his old teammate and friend disappear, he felt the weight in his arms move slightly. He reflexively shifted his posture to adjust for the redistributed weight, then nearly dropped it as he realized what the movement meant and he became numb with shock.
He looked at her. Her arachnid claws were twitching, and her right hand was clenching and unclenching.
"Blackarachnia!" Optimus cried, startling the others, "Blackarachnia, can you hear me?!"
Her drained body was beginning to pulse, and with each pulse a flash of her old colour returned to her ashen body.
"For spark's sake, put her down, Prime!" Ratchet leapt forward, "Let me take a look at her!"
Optimus did as he was told and laid her down as gently as he could, stooping by her side as she began to twitch more vigorously. Ratchet went to work with his magnification lens that slipped into place over his optic, giving her a quick examination before producing his hand-held vital-signs scanner. He passed it up and down her body, shaking his head.
"This…doesn't make sense", he said, "There's no trace of a spark within her. Not an atom. But as you can see, her vital systems are starting back up".
Blackarachnia suddenly lashed out with her clawed hand, causing Ratchet to pull away. Optimus however only leaned in closer.
"Blackarachnia, it's me! It's Optimus!"
Blackarachnia suddenly opened her mouth wide and hissed. Her thrashing intensified as the monochrome covering her body was replaced with vibrant purple, gold and deep black. Crimson light blazed from her optics and she doubled over, coughing violently.
"Elita…" Sentinel whispered.
"How is that possible?" Arcee asked, "We all saw it. She sacrificed her spark".
Optimus said nothing, but simply edged a little closer to Blackarachnia. She flinched as he approached, and he stopped just outside of her zone of comfort. She glared at him, inhaling and exhaling deeply, optics filled with poisonous resentment. Optimus waited. Eventually Blackarachnia spoke.
"You couldn't even let me go offline in peace, could you?" she hissed, "Couldn't even give me the agency to die on my own terms. No, Optimus Prime has to march in with his heroics and meddle in everyone's affairs. Why didn't you just let me die?"
"Hey!" Sari objected, "You want to talk about interfering? I was the one who was going to merge with the AllSpark. You were there when it gave me the vision!"
Blackarachnia scoffed, "And I figured that one technorganic spark was as good as another. No reason for you to go get yourself killed, kid".
"Hmph. So…why'd you do it?" Sari asked.
Blackarachnia groaned and sat upright, her strength seeming to return to her gradually, "I didn't want the galaxy to die to Gigatron. And I thought if I could do my part to end him, then maybe everything would be worth it and I'd be more than a blotch on someone else's records. But of course, you wouldn't even let me have that".
"We didn't bring you back", Optimus said quietly.
She blinked her four optics in confusion, "Then what…?"
"Beats me", Ratchet said gruffly, "I was in the process of trying to figure out what was bringing you back online when yer started getting twitchy. No bot has ever survived without a spark, and I'm sure as steel there isn't a spark in your body".
"That doesn't make any sense", Blackarachnia argued, "How can I be functioning without a spark? What's powering my systems?"
"I…I think I have an idea", Sari said, her hand placed on her own chest.
Optimus nodded, "I think we're thinking the same thing".
There was an embarrassed silence. Blackarachnia looked back and forth at them, waiting for an explanation.
"Well?! Out with it!" she snapped.
Sari sighed, "Okay, but you're not gonna like it. I used to wonder what was powering my own technorganic body, a spark or…the organic equivalent. And I think maybe the answer is both, but now that you've sacrificed your spark…"
"…Oh, no. Don't say it, don't you dare say it!"
Optimus grinned sheepishly, "I know you've done your best to convince everyone you don't care about anyone or anything anymore, but I think the events of today really do prove that you have a heart-"
"No, no, no!" Blackarachnia snarled, leaping to her feet as Bumblebee, Sari and Bulkhead began to chuckle at her embarrassment, "Silence, all of you! Urgh, someone just take me offline right now!"
The wreckage of the chamber ceiling creaked dangerously, commanding their immediate attention. A girder that had been supporting the weight of the crashed cruiser buckled and fell close to Arcee. The ship began to slip from its resting place.
"Careful what you wish for", Bumblebee quipped.
"Autobots, transform and roll out!" Optimus cried.
Rodimus Prime wiped the grime from his forehead as he stumbled to the central plaza of Iacon City Centre, situated outside the Metroplex. His servos ached with each step and he felt as if his chassis were leaking in a hundred places, but he was online.
And he wasn't the only one. He passed many Autobots and Decepticons, some wounded, some simply too exhausted to move. Medics were tending to those who needed aid. But many more were still mobile, and the majority seemed to be heading for the central plaza, which was becoming more and more crowded with each passing cycle.
Rodimus' foot became tangled in the sparking ruins of a Monocon. He kicked it loose and stumbled on. The fighting had been fierce, intense and drawn-out. Shortly after recapturing the starport so Omega Supreme could become airborne, Team Athenia had been separated by a surge of Monocon infantry. Rodimus had drawn as many away from his team as he could, shouting at the foot soldiers to draw their attention and lure them into buildings, where he had dispatched as many as he could with stealthy shots from his energon bow. From there he had been in a running battle, fleeing a veritable flood of Monocon troops while picking off as many as he could to keep them focused on him.
This strategy had taken its toll on him. The Monocons had gotten more than a few shots on him, and he had been on the verge of being surrounded and overwhelmed when the drones just…stopped. They had locked into stasis, some frozen in place and others keeling over, and they simply ceased to function.
Upon staggering out into the war-torn streets, Rodimus had found this situation reflected at large in Iacon. Everywhere he looked Monocons were piled up like so much trash, and Autobots and Decepticons celebrated their sudden victory. The thunderous cheer was only growing louder as more and more bots pressed into the plaza. The route Rodimus was taken was fast becoming a crush of bots, and he had to pick his way through carefully.
"There ya are, boss!"
Rodimus spun about at the sound of Ironhide's voice. And there he was: with Waspinator and Brawn by his side too. One of Waspinator's wings had been blasted off and Ironhide was carrying his right arm for him, and all three of the bots were blackened by smoke and plasma discharges. But they were alive.
Rodimus stepped forward and clasped all three of them in a hearty embrace.
"What leader-bot doing?" Waspinator chittered uncertainly.
"Aw shucks, it's good to see you too, boss", Ironhide chuckled.
"Alright, let's put a lid on the mushy stuff", Brawn grunted, pushing Rodimus back and giving him an affectionate thump on the arm, "Glad to see you're not scrap".
"Any idea what happened to Red Alert and Hot Shot?" Rodimus asked, suddenly worried.
Brawn frowned, "No. Sorry, we got separated from the kid and the doc when one of those cruisers came crashin' down. Haven't seem 'em for mega cycles. And there's too much chatter to reach 'em on the commlinks".
Rodimus cursed. He tried his own commlink and received nothing but static – the consequence of thousands of bots all blaring communications at one another at once, to check on each other's conditions.
He looked across the plaza. It was packed with thousands of celebrating Autobots and Decepticons. Battered, scarred and disorientated, but a ripple of excitement running through them as their apparent victory looked more and more concrete with each passing cycle. It was difficult enough to even walk through the crowd, much less locate individual bots.
"I need to get some vantage. Waspinator, can you get me airborne?" Rodimus asked.
Waspinator flapped his remaining wing. It buzzed furiously until it was a blur, but it did not generate enough lift to get the technorganic off the ground.
"Wazzzpinator got slagged pretty bad leader-bot, but Wazzzpinator haszz had worse".
"Here", a deep voice grunted.
Blackout loomed over them all like a living statue, but he extended a clawed hand. Rodimus smiled.
Blackout's palm was large enough for Rodimus to leap onto. Blackout lifted him up until he was overlooking the entire plaza. Bots were swarming in from all directions, adding to the growing throng. At the far end of the plaza, smoke was rising from the Metroplex, and a crashed Monocon cruiser jutted out from the central complex at an unsustainable angle.
Rodimus whistled, "I'm gonna guess whatever happened in there's something to do with why the Monocons stalled. Maybe- ah, there we are!"
"I have literally one hundred other things I could be working on right now", Red Alert grumbled as she activated her hard-light projector and set it to its welding function.
"Nothing urgent though", Hot Shot said, grinning, "You said you did a scan for high-priority cases in the area already".
"I did. But there are still a lot of other bots who need medical attention, and I doubt any of them nearly blew their own arm off igniting an energon depot!"
She shook her head as she got to work welding his anterior plate back to the cracked socket of his upper arm. The two of them were close to the centre of the plaza, with Autobots and Decepticons all around them. Hot Shot was lying on his back, propped up by a shattered column behind him. Red Alert was knelt by his side, tending to his injury.
Hot Shot grinned, "Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time. We were surrounded and outnumbered, remember?"
"I do", she sighed, "And I also remember you saved my life. If you hadn't set off that depot, those drones would have blasted me into pieces".
"Hey, don't worry about it, doc. You've saved my spark plenty of times. More than I can count. And not just because maths isn't my strong point".
Hot Shot heard a strange sound. He peered through the sparks spitting from Red Alert's arm-mounted welder. She was giggling.
"Hey, how about that, I made you laugh! I knew it had to happen eventually".
"I suppose it did. It's been a day for firsts", Red Alert looked up from her work and retracted her hard light tool. She glanced about hurriedly.
"Speaking of which, you are not allowed to tell the others about this", she said sternly.
"About wha-aahh?!" Hot Shot yelped in surprise as Red Alert cupped his face and kissed him on the lips.
After a moment they parted. Hot Shot gaped in astonishment. Red Alert offered a flustered half-smile and produced her welder to return to her work, but then she noticed Hot Shot was looking at something behind her.
"Well hey there, hope we weren't interruptin' nothin'", Ironhide chuckled.
Red Alert groaned, "Oh no".
"Nice to see you bots made it out", Rodimus said, stepping out of the crowd with Brawn, Ironhide and Waspinator at his side, "And um, worked things out".
Red Alert said nothing and returned to her welding work with a laser-like focus.
"Ehh, thanks", Hot Shot said, finding himself actually embarrassed for the first time in as long as he could remember, "Glad to see you bots are uh…okay too".
"Wazzzpinator not get kiss", Waspinator shook his head, "Wazzzpinator nearly get slagged instead. Wazzzpinator happy team not get slagged though. Izz battle over? Did we win?"
"Indeed, there is much to celebrate", thundered Strika's voice.
Several prominent Decepticons emerged from the crowd to join the Autobots. In addition to Strika there was Oil Slick, Spittor, Blackout, Soundwave and Swindle.
"Much to celebrate indeed!" Swindle laughed enthusiastically.
He rooted around in his torso-mounted storage compartment, fishing out several cans of oil. He proceeded to toss them around to Autobot and Decepticon indiscriminately.
"Here, this is the finest blend of vintage mineral oils this side of Tuchanka! I've been saving it for a special occasion, and I think this is about as special as it gets, wouldn't you agree? Now, if price is an obstacle for a premium refreshment like this, I am willing to discuss tabs and I.O.U's - ".
Strika glared at him from under her heavy brow, scarlet optics flashing dangerously.
"…By which I mean all drinks are on the house, of course", Swindle said, giving a begrudging smile, "My treat. Oh, and incidentally, I can recommend a fine vacation package on Cabraxas IV to you young love-bots", he gestured to Red Alert and Hot.
"Oh for spark's sake, did anyone not see that kiss?!" Red Alert snapped.
"Romantic liaison: witnessed".
Omega Supreme's stentorian voice was like a thunderclap, loud even above the chatter of the assembled bots. He passed over them in his starship mode, trailing smoke and leaking oil. He transformed to robot mode with great effort and, as the bots below cleared to make room for him, descended to the centre of the plaza.
The bots were pressed together even tighter now that Omega Supreme was occupying a substantial portion of the plaza, but judging by the raucous cheers that heralded his arrivals, Rodimus didn't think anyone particularly minded. Autobot medics and engineers were already making their way towards him. Flight-capable Decepticons airlifted them to portions of Omega's hull that needed the most immediate attention. Other Decepticons surrounded Omega, whooping and cheering. The leviathan seemed confused and perhaps a little bashful at the attention.
"If I didn't know better", Rodimus said aloud, "I'd say the Decepticons are just as pleased to see Omega Supreme made it through as the Autobots".
Strika was also watching the scene unfold, "If you were monitoring the battle, Autobot, you would know that Omega Supreme's actions shielded many Decepticons from enemy fire. The irony of the Autobot's greatest weapon against Decepticonkind serving as a shield to so many of us is not lost on me".
Red Alert nodded, "I've followed Ratchet's career record a little more closely than I tend to admit. I think Omega Supreme will be a lot happier being remembered as a protector than as a destroyer".
"Where are Optimus and his team anyway?" Rodimus wondered, "Do you think they…made it?"
"If they have, you Autobots will have been more fortunate than the Decepticons", Strika said, "Megatron perished on Earth. And his team have not been heard from for some time. Including my consort, Lugnut".
"Oh. I…I'm sorry", Rodimus said helplessly.
Strika didn't answer as she studied the skyline. A new squadron of airborne Decepticons was approaching. The seekers, Rodimus realized. Their hulls were utterly perforated by enemy fire, but they were still functioning.
They landed close by, led by Slipstream. Slipstream immediately rushed to meet Soundwave, who was in turn running towards her, flanked by Laserbeak and Ratbat. As they drew near Slipstream bent down and lifted Soundwave into the air, span him around and held him to her chestplate.
"If I really am the last of the old guard, then we Decepticons will have to place our faith in the new generation", Strika said quietly as she watched the young consorts, a hint of melancholy in her severe optics.
"I think we're safe here", Bulkhead said as he neared the exit to the Metroplex.
The Autobots transformed to robot mode, Sari and Professor Sumdac disembarking from Bumblebee and Bulkhead respectively. Blackarachnia was present too, having clung to Optimus' chassis in her spider form.
Ratchet shone a light back down the corridor they had fled down, "Yeah, I think this part of the Metroplex is structurally stable. We'll be alright here. Don't know what happened to Megatron and Starscream though. Hopefully they made it out".
Arcee shook her head, smiling, "Never thought we'd say that back in the Great War, huh?"
Jazz was closest to the exit ramp, and he was peering out of the chamber overlooking the plaza.
"Woah. That is…that is one packed scene out there. I've never seen so many bots in one pad".
"Really? Lemme see!" Bumblebee leaped forward, and most of the others followed him to look out over the crowd.
"Well, it's good to see so many of 'em made it", Bulkhead said, "And look, Omega Supreme's still in one piece!"
Ratchet sighed in relief. Arcee took his hand and squeezed it.
"My goodness, I never imagined I would see so many Cybertronians in all my life!" Professor Sumdac exclaimed, "And I expect you'll all be treated like heroes when they see you!"
A short distance away, further back in the hallway, Blackarachnia scowled, "Urgh. All the more reason for me to slip away".
Optimus and Sentinel stood nearby, the only ones who had heard her. They looked at one another, and held each other's gaze.
After a moment Sentinel cleared his throat, "I'll…I'll leave you two alone", he said, and went to join the others at the exit.
Optimus leaned against the hallway wall, utterly spent both physically and emotionally. His armour was rent and singed in a hundred places, and as he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the polished hallway wall, he noticed how drained his normally youthful face was.
It was some time before he could summon the willpower to talk. For some time he just stood there, listening to his team talk both nervously and excitedly about the crowd gathered outside.
Eventually he said, "Why did you do it, Blackarachnia?"
"You know what".
"I already told you. I don't want the galaxy to die".
"There's more to it".
The Decepticon groaned, "Oh, I don't know. Do you know what it's like to live in the margins? An outcast among Autobots and Decepticons, neither cybernetic nor organic. Lost student of Ultra Magnus. Pawn of Megatron. An ugly stain on the career records of Optimus and Sentinel Prime both", she bared her fangs, "A tool to be used, a distasteful footnote, a mistake…"
Optimus bowed his head and said nothing.
"So I guess it was ego, Optimus", Blackarachnia said, "Sorry to disappoint you. I wanted to go offline doing something worthwhile instead of dying a despised freak".
"I never despised you", Optimus replied.
"Maybe you didn't. Lover-bot over there certainly did", she stared after Sentinel, "So did most other bots who laid optics on me. And slag it, maybe they were right to. I've done some twisted things, Optimus. I've walked a dark path".
"You wouldn't have set stabilizing servo on that path if we'd been there for you when you needed us", Optimus said, standing up straight and facing her directly, "But you gave up your spark willingly for the greater good, despite everything the world's thrown at you. You can hate me for it, but I'm proud of you. It was heroic".
She glared at him, arachnid features twitching in the low light of the corridor, "And so what if I do hate you? Will you let me go? You tried to stop me from giving up my spark to save the galaxy. You love me. You always have. I don't suppose you'll just let me walk away now, will you?"
"If it's what you want, Blackarachnia, you can leave and never see any of us again. I'll respect your wishes. I couldn't-" he faltered, a blockage forming in his vocal chamber before he was able to recover, "- I couldn't bear to see you die. Yes, I do love you. But I won't stop you from leaving Cybertron, the Autobots, the Decepticons and…and me, if that's what you choose".
She hesitated, running her technorganic tongue over her teeth as she thought it over, "Really?"
"Really. You deserve you forge your own destiny. If I've learned one thing over the last few stellar cycles, it's to not let others decide who you are for you. You determine who you are, by your own actions. I think you've proven who you are today, but I'm not the one who needs convincing".
Blackarachnia ran her clawed hand across her forehead, "Considering just how socially clueless you were back in our Academy days, it's just mind-blowing how you seem to know the right things to say now. It's actually just a little insufferable".
Optimus laughed quietly, "I'm still not much at speeches. I'm not looking forward to going out there. What do you want me to say to them all? They're going to want to know who finished off Gigatron, and if you're gone, they're going to want to know why".
Blackarachnia tapped her chin thoughtfully, "You can say it was a team effort, an effort I was a part of. And you don't have to say I've gone anywhere, because I'm not leaving".
Optimus looked up, surprised.
"I'm staying right here", she said, "With you".
She took his hand in her own, and Optimus stared at their intertwined fingers for a moment in wordless disbelief.
"Hey, are you guys coming?" Sari called from the exit, "I think we're gonna head out there and say hi to everyone!"
Optimus was still too stunned to answer. Blackarachnia gave him a wry smile.
"We're coming, kid", she said.
The plaza crowd had only grown in number and cheer. Cans of oil has been broken out from many sources and were being eagerly shared by Autobot and Decepticon alike. There was a steady drum of upbeat techno music issuing from building-mounted speakers, courtesy of Soundwave having plugged himself into Iacon's central broadcast system. But somehow one strangely-accented voice cut through the noise of the crowd and the pulse of music.
"Ey yo, Mix, check it out!" Scrapper called, "Bulky and the others made it out!"
First hundreds, then thousands, of heads turned to look at the entrance to the Metroplex. There stood Optimus Prime, Sari and Professor Sumdac, Bumblebee, Bulkhead, Ratchet, Arcee, Jazz, Sentinel Prime and Blackarachnia. The AllSpark, safe and whole and glowing green within its container, was Jazz's hands.
Optimus Prime cleared his throat, "Autobots, Decepticons. I'm pleased to report that Gigatron is no more, and the threat of-"
Optimus' fears about having to give a speech were immediately quelled as a deafening cheer rose from the assembled Autobots and Decepticons. Optimus breathed a sigh of relief and followed the others, and they made their way down the access ramp to the plaza.
The crowd surged to meet them, and suddenly the bots found themselves the recipients of countless hand-shakes and enthusiastic back-slaps. It was all they could do to stop themselves from being lifted by the crowd and carried aloft. Bumblebee scooped up Sari and Professor Sumdac for their own safety, then eagerly returned to shaking the hands of Autobot and Decepticon alike.
"Hey, this is like the early days when we were first heroes back in Detroit!" he exclaimed.
"No kiddin'. Except this time, it kinda feels like maybe we earned it", Bulkhead turned to see the Constructicons at the front of the jostling crowd, "Hey, glad you guys made it through!"
"You too, ya ol' grease pot!" Mixmaster grinned, brandishing a half-empty barrel of oil, "Got pretty hairy out there. Guessin' you bots had somethin' to do with those drones going to pieces, huh?"
Scrapper guffawed, "Hehe, they fell apart like a shelf built by a Dinobot!"
The two of them were already more than a little inebriated. Dirt Boss was more sedately sipping at a barrel and eyeing the devastation inflicted on the city, mentally calculating what was going to be required to fix all the damage and just what sort of rates he was going to charge to whoever was picking up the bill.
Jetfire and Jetstorm descended from above to Sentinel Prime's location. The Elite Guard commander was standing a little apart from the others, studying the dirt, and no-one was flocking to his side. He was, however, attracting dirty looks.
"Sentinel Prime sir, it is good to be seeing back on the team of winning!" Jetstorm said in blissfully ignorant exuberance.
"How is it you came to be back to our side?" Jetfire asked.
Sentinel looked up.
"I haven't been a very good boss to you bots, have I?" he said slowly, as if with great effort.
"Sir?" Jetfire blinked, nonplussed.
"You've been good officers and loyal bots, and I've never given you much respect for it. But I still have a favour to ask of you".
Jetfire and Jetstorm looked at one another. Jetstorm scratched his head and Jetfire shrugged in response. They nodded at their former commander in unison.
"Good. You still have stasis cuffs on you? Place me under arrest".
"Sir?!" they exclaimed.
"Optimus' team hasn't done it yet, but it needs to be done. I've committed high treason and I'll need to be placed on trial. Just do this for me, will you?"
After a moment's hesitation, Jetfire stepped forward reluctantly. Jetstorm handed him a pair of stasis cuffs and Jetfire clicked them into place over Sentinel Prime's wrists.
Sentinel nodded, "Good. Good…Now, you bots are going to have to keep me in your custody until this all gets sorted out. And keep your optics open. I'm not sure that everything's going to be as straightforward at it seems".
Although the Council chamber of the Metroplex had been utterly destroyed by both the battle within and the impact of the Monocon cruiser, it was still mostly intact and its structural integrity was holding. However, when the roof of the Council chamber had given way, a portion of the Metroplex's eastern side had collapsed into ruin as well. A series of sprawling antechambers and connecting corridors had caved in and slid into a pile of smoking rubble.
As the celebration in the plaza grew louder and louder, one pile of rubble twitched. A large slab of steel roofing material was heaved to one side, and Megatron pulled himself out from beneath it, brushing the dust off his chassis with a contemptuous growl.
He had still been searching for Starscream – unsuccessfully – when the Council Chamber collapsed, and as he dusted himself off, he was relieved to see there was no-one in his immediate vicinity to witness his undignified exit from the Metroplex. No, all the attention seemed to be directed towards events unfolding in the plaza, judging by the racket he was hearing. He composed himself and headed in the direction of the crowd.
As he rounded the corner, Megatron stopped dead in his tracks, amazed by what he saw.
The plaza was filled to capacity with cheering Autobots and Decepticons. There was no separation between the two – they freely mingled, sipping oil, sharing war stories, laughing together, thanking one another for acts of battlefield heroism. Autobot medics were tending to wounded Decepticons. Some Autobots and Decepticons were even embracing.
At the centre of the maelstrom of activity was Optimus Prime and his team, with the Sumdacs and Blackarachnia at their side. Autobots and Decepticons alike were flocking to them. Congratulating them, thanking them...from the lowliest Autobot grunt to the highest Decepticon General.
It was not how Megatron had envisioned the triumphant return of his followers to Cybertron. That day he had longed for, obsessed over, pictured in his processor in meticulous detail, was very different.
The day he had rehearsed so many times in his head had been a day of conquest and vanquished foes. It was a day when the weak Autobot ruling class was crushed beneath the iron fist of the mighty Decepticon Empire. An Empire he had forged, peopled by a ruthless warrior race that rose up and smote their enemies at his command.
He looked upon the heart of Iacon, jewel of Cybertron, and saw Autobots and Decepticons rejoicing, cavorting, even fraternizing freely.
This was not what he had intended. Not what he had intended at all.
"Ha-ha! I knew you bots would make it!" Ratchet laughed.
Lugnut lumbered through the crowd, with Blitzwing at his side. The duo were very heavily damaged – Lugnut was missing his right arm, and Blitzwing's left leg had been stripped of all plating, exposing his wiring. They supported one another as they limped forward.
"Never seen a pair of bots harder to put down", Bulkhead said, shaking his head.
Blitzwing gave a small smile, "You speak from experience, Autobot. You needn't have worried. Ve are quite capable fighters".
"Then the day is won?" Lugnut asked, swivelling his small head around to scan the plaza, "You have destroyed that wretched imposter Gigatron?"
Bumblebee nodded, "Yeah, that's the short version. It's been one crazy solar cycle".
Blitzwing's calmer visage vanished and was replaced with his manic, grinning face, "Crazy? Vas zat a joke at my expense, Autobot? Ahahahahaha!"
Lugnut exhaled slowly, shoulders slumped, "Then it is over. Now I must continue my search for – aah, my beloved!"
He roared suddenly and thundered towards Strika, who rushed to meet him as well. They were one of a hundred couples rejoicing, but their celebration was by far the loudest and least private. Their enthusiastic declarations of undying love were added to the din of music, laughter and celebration that was overwhelming the central plaza of Iacon.
And then, with a word, it was cut short.
The voice was unmistakable to all, whether Autobot or Decepticon. Commanding, fierce, demanding. It cut through the roar of the crowd and silenced it in a nanoklik.
Megatron stepped out of a darkened corner of the plaza. He stood tall and proud, his fists clenched and his optics burning with drive.
"Oh no", Sari whispered.
"Decepticons, at attention!" Megatron bellowed.
It was truly startling to witness how suddenly the Decepticons snapped to attention. They dropped their oil cans, disentangled themselves from one another and their Autobot comrades, and stood in silent, unmoving salute like statues. But it was not difficult for Optimus Prime to see the uncertainty and fear in their optics.
Dread descended on Optimus' spark, and he felt it descend on the plaza in its entirety. Optimus did not turn to face Megatron yet, but he could feel Megatron's optics locked onto him. And slowly, the situation they were in begin to dawn on Optimus.
Megatron was on Cybertron, with an army of thousands of Decepticons at his beck and call. They were battered and winded, yes, but so too were the Autobots. By simply getting his troops onto Cybertron, Megatron had done the hard part. The rest was relatively straightforward. If he wanted Cybertron, there was no finer opportunity to take it.
Would he do it? Megatron had surprised him by coming to his aid in battle against Gigatron, but he had deceived them all before. He had even begged Optimus to kill him because he feared he could not be trusted to check his own ambition. Ultra Magnus had warned him that Megatron was not to be trusted and had been so certain of this that he had taken matters into his own servos.
Maybe I should have listened to both of them. Maybe they were right and I was wrong all along, from the very beginning…
Blackarachnia was still holding his hand. He released it, looked at her wearily, and turned to face Megatron. As he expected, Megatron was staring at him from across the crowd.
"Optimus Prime!" Megatron said, and he took a step forward.
Immediately, Autobots and Decepticons shrank back to make way for him. A path was cleared directly from Megatron to Optimus Prime, as clean and quick as if it had been done with a laser scalpel. Megatron advanced down this narrow strip between ranks and ranks of silent Bots and Cons, his clanging footfalls echoing throughout the now-silent plaza.
There was no other choice. Optimus would have to go to meet him, and see what the tyrant's intentions were. Optimus took the first few steps forward. He was only slightly surprised when he heard footsteps behind him, and realized he was being followed. They were with him. Bumblebee, Bulkhead, Sari, Isaac Sumdac, Ratchet, Arcee, Jazz…and yes, Blackarachnia. They were at his side without a word.
That gave him the courage he needed to project an air of confident defiance as he walked forward to meet Megatron. He glanced at the faces of the onlookers as he passed them by. Most Autobots were not hiding their horror at the sudden realization that hostilities might resume. Some were obviously terrified; others were quietly but glumly activating their weapons.
And the Decepticons? Optimus was less sure about them. They were harder to read. Were they really as ruthless and barbaric as Autobot wisdom held them to be? They venerated Megatron, and his sudden return after his supposed demise on Earth would probably only further elevate him in their optics. Would they obey him without question if he suddenly commanded them to attack their recent brothers-and-sisters-in-arms? Was there a hint of despondency to them as they stood to flawless military attention, awaiting their Master's command? Or was that wishful thinking?
Megatron was close now, striding to meet him with supreme poise. Optimus was suddenly struck by how large and intimidating Megatron was. Somehow, over the past few deca cycles of close co-operation, he had grown accustomed to Megatron's presence and stopped registering him as a threat.
Now Megatron was only a few paces away, and every one of Optimus' sensors were screaming threat at him.
Then Megatron spoke, "It appears our alliance has outlived its usefulness, Optimus Prime".
He came to a stop an arm's length away from Optimus. There was an utter silence, a silence Optimus Prime had never known before. It stretched on and on, and no-one seemed willing to break it.
Megatron moved. He raised his right arm, complete with mounted fusion cannon, and levelled it at Optimus. Optimus could hear Sari's sharp intake of breath behind him.
"After all, an alliance is a pact between factions during wartime", Megatron said, "And, unless I am mistaken, our war is over, is it not?"
Megatron turned his forearm, rotating it so that his palm extended outwards. Offering him his open hand, waiting for Optimus to return the gesture. Optimus did so, and Megatron immediately took his hand and shook it.
"The war is over, Megatron", Optimus said.
Megatron smiled. It was something Optimus had never seen before. It was not a false smile of mock civility. It was not a smug smile of self-assured superiority. It was not a cruel smile of anticipated victory over a foe. It was an earnest smile.
The assembled masses watched as the Autobot Commander and the Decepticon Supreme Leader shook hands before them. The silence that pervaded was solemn, it was reverent, it was profound.
It was interrupted.
"What are we all still staring at?" Bumblebee yelled, "Get 'em!"
The crowd roared their unanimous approval and surged towards the two leaders. Optimus found himself being seized by a dozen different Autobots and Decepticons and lifted bodily into the air. He found himself crowd-surfing above a press of grateful, jubilant, united Cybertronians.
Far more amusingly, Megatron was in the same predicament.
"Unhand me at once, you simpletons!" Megatron bellowed in helpless and deeply embarrassed fury as he was passed about by the crowd, "Conduct yourself with some dignity!"
For the first time, the Autobots did not fear his wrath. For the first time, the Decepticons ignored his orders.