Smoking's A Bad Habit
Whether his name was Hot Rod, Rodimus, or "The Chosen One," Kup had a score to settle with him.
Before Kup was the unnecessarily dramatic courtyard that was the crown jewel of the Autobot Academy. It was filled by the excitement of the impending graduation celebrations being held for the next few days in the ominous shadow of Cybertron's mechanical skyscrapers. Kup had seen it all. Some would make it. The rest would crash and burn in a wreck powered by their own fuel. For some, this school represented the end of the good times. But one thing every Autobot here had in common was a future. That's what this was supposed to be about, and little did that realize that the skyscrapers represented their success as well as the reality that would tear their dreams apart.
Rodimus was cheerfully unaware of this.
He stopped in the middle of the courtyard and took a good look around, a cy-gar hanging out of the corner of his mouth. The frown on his face only grew as he turned in a circle for a full range of vision. The only thing of interest he saw were the distant towers of the Metroplex and Fortress Maximus, located deep within Iacon City. Kup glanced at these buildings and shuddered.
But he moved on. He went in the opposite direction, towards the southern wing of the Academy. Shortly thereafter, he arrived at the top of a ramp that led down into the vast, open expanse that served as the Academy's training grounds. Normally it was a place of simultaneous gossip and hard work, where the students congregated for friendly competitions. His optics traveled until he spotted a deserted shooting range. It was one of the kid's usual hangouts from day one. Still, he wasn't there. The frustration mounting from Rodimus's sudden disappearance nearly boiled over and he grinded the end of his cy-gar between his dental plates.
'Hot Rod!' he called. Kup headed down the ramp. He went a few paces in one direction and then the other. 'Hot Rod! Slaggit. Has anyone seen Hot Rod?'
All he got was a resounding "no" from the nearest Autobots.
'You!' Kup barked at a cadet. The 'bot jumped, ran up, and saluted him. 'Where's Hot Rod?'
'He told me not to tell you where he was, sir!' the cadet admitted.
'Oh? I see, then. How'd ya like to do a few laps? Think that'll change your mind? !'
'Well, uh, sir, there's, uh – he told me not to tell you, sir, but, uh,' the 'bot jerked his head towards a nearby building. 'He's…busy.'
Kup huffed. 'Carry on.'
'Yes, sir! Thank you for not killing me, sir!'
Kup rolled his optics. He wandered off to the warehouse the 'bot had indicated. When he cracked open the door, all he saw were the darkened remains of training equipment that would go unused for the remainder of the break. Yielding no results, he circled the building in the hopes of coming across some clue as to where the show-off was. His clue came when he rounded it entirely and came to his outer rear wall.
He did a double take.
There was a giant, white target painted on the metal siding. Kup scratched his head, evaluating the sloppy work. He searched for a vantage point. The only appropriate location from which one could shoot from was a watchtower located at the far end of the Academy that they occasionally used for training exercises.
A glint of sharp, gold light.
Kup's servo snapped up in time to catch an arrow mere inches from his faceplate.
He gave the watchtower a pointed look, knowing very well who had fired.
Kup waited patiently in front of the makeshift mural, spinning the gold arrow. He was trying to determine what sort of excuse Rodimus would use on him, if any. Rodimus thought that since he was clearly at the top of his class, that meant he could do whatever he wanted and get away with it. So he didn't always bother to excuse himself, let alone apologize for any wrongdoings. And no one ever complained or tried to stop him. Kup was the sole exception, though he, too, occasionally fell prey to Rodimus's subversive side. But not this time. This time he was going for energon.
He turned just in time to see a group of diverse students hurtle around the next corner. Rodimus was at the front. A burgundy Autobot clutching a signature bow, he was the type of 'bot you remembered simply because of his appearance, which was about as unnecessarily dramatic as the Academy's courtyard. Sometimes Kup wondered if he'd designed himself to look impressive. Nevertheless, today, Rodimus's confidence levels visibly drained when he spotted Kup, replaced by a look of sheer terror.
'Uh…' Rodimus started.
Another Autobot nudged Rodimus playfully. 'You're gonna get it.'
'Quiet,' Rodimus snapped. When he turned back to Kup, there was a sort of renewed self-assurance in his step. 'What's up, Kup?'
'Don't you "what's up, Kup" me!' Kup snapped. 'I've been lookin' for you all over the place!' He looked to Rodimus's entourage. 'You kids clean that target up! If I see one speck of paint when I come by here next, you're all gonna regret the day you came online! GO!'
The group immediately scattered.
'And you are coming with me,' Kup pointed to Rodimus.
He marched back towards campus, with Rodimus in tow. Despite the enormous trouble he was in, he was oddly calm and sauntered alongside Kup.
'What is this?' Kup waved the arrow at the prodigy.
'Looks like one of my arrows,' said Rodimus.
'Slaggit, why do you think we have a shooting range for trigger happy nutcases like you? !'
'Well, you're the one who walked right in front of the target!'
'Why'd you paint it on the building? ! You realize 'bots walk there? !'
'You think I'd shoot if someone was in my line of sight?'
'You shot at me!'
'I didn't shoot on purpose. My servo slipped.'
'I thought you had a steady servo.'
'I do have a steady servo. Skram bumped into me.'
'I don't care what Skram did, I care what you did!' continued Kup. 'That is vandalism, Hot Rod – '
'Okay, my name is not Hot Rod,' Rodimus corrected. 'My name is "Rodimus." Rodimus! It's like Hot Rod, but without the "Hot" and an "imus" at the end! R-O-D-I - Hello!'
Rodimus turned as a pair of femmes passed by.
'Either of you going to the graduation ceremony tomorrow?' he asked. 'I'm available!'
'No, he's not,' Kup grabbed Rodimus by the arm and wrenched, causing him to stumble. 'What is the matter with you? ! Keep your optics in your head, kid! We're going to the headmaster's office to get your assignment.'
'...I'm not getting it tomorrow?'
'Tomorrow's a public affair. It's tradition for the valedictorian to get their assignment from their headmaster in private the day before. You would've known sooner if you hadn't gone gallivanting around with your chums shootin' at everything that moves. Primus, I'll be glad when you're out of here so you stop givin' me grief! These last few stellar cycles were more stressful for me than the war was!'
Kup checked his cy-gar. All of the delicious snap it'd had when he'd first started had been sucked out. He exchanged it for a new one and was instantly greeted with a familiar kick.
'That's a bad habit,' said Rodimus, no doubt referring to the cy-gar.
'It's not a habit,' claimed Kup. 'It's just to give me somethin' to do with my servos.'
'It's disgusting and crude.'
'Want to try one?'
Kup brandished a fresh cy-gar and passed it over. No sooner had it made contact with Rodimus's mouth when he doubled over, hacking and wheezing in desperation for air.
'Slag,' Kup picked put up the discarded cy-gar. 'You wasted a perfectly good one.'
Rodimus choked and wasn't able to respond for a matter of cycles. He waited patiently on the sidelines for him to recover, silently remarking to himself that this was the first time since they'd met that Rodimus was on the ground.
'Deep breaths,' advised Kup. 'Don't fight it.'
Nanokliks later, Rodimus pulled himself back up and they resumed their trek.
'How…' he coughed. 'How do you stand those things? They taste like a bad batch of oil mixed with cleaning fluid!'
'It's an acquired taste. Are we going to the headmasters office or not?'
'Yeah, okay. Tell me. Are my sensors going to work after this?'
'Eh,' Kup shrugged. 'You'll have to wait an' see, Hot Rod.'
'Rodimus,' Rodimus rectified.
Kup grunted. 'I still don't see why you changed your name.'
'Because Hot Rod would imply that I'm immature and reckless – '
'And of course you're not.'
' – and those qualities don't exactly become a ranking officer. Not to mention "Rodimus Prime" has a certain twang that I find rather agreeable, don't you?'
'Stick it in your actuator. You haven't gotten any promotion yet. Whatever happens, you'll always be "Hot Rod" to me.'
'I resent that. So, where do you think they'll assign me?'
'I'm not telling you.'
'C'mon – '
'We've been through this. I'm not saying anything. You'll just have to wait.'
'Iacon City?' Rodimus said hopefully.
'Everyone wants to go to Iacon City,' said Kup. 'Get assigned there and you're on the fast track for qualifying for the Elite Guard.'
'Hot Rod, the Elite Guard are the defenders of the Commonwealth. They're very picky about who they chose. You're good, but you got some things to work on, so don't expect them to automatically accept you. It's really rare for a graduate of the Academy – even the valedictorian – to go straight to the Guard. You're being overconfident.'
'I looked at the Elite Guard statistics during the war. A lot of 'bots were recruited young back then.'
'Because the vets were dying off so fast that they were desperate to replace them,' Kup reminded him. 'Back then, no matter what you did, you were a soldier. You had to fight. The selection process is far more difficult now than it was two million years ago due to the lack of urgency. It takes years of extensive training in the field before you become a fully fledged member, not to mention there are a number of psychological tests.'
'You mean they make the recruits take psychological tests and Sentinel Minor passed? !'
'Oh, knock it off. I'm sick of you cadets makin' jabs at Sentinel.'
'Well, even if I don't get into the Guard right away, I'm sure I'll get Iacon City,' Rodimus affirmed. 'Either that or one of the Moonbases, which is good! But not as good as Iacon City. Do you think I'll get Iacon City?'
'Say it five hundred more times and we'll see.'
'Don't get any ideas!' added Kup. 'Just wait and see what happens. Just wait.'
Holographic busts of infamous Autobots lined the corridor outside of the headmaster's office. Rodimus marched in between the rows, Kup having left him to his own devices. He had been up here many times before. This was the first time he'd been allowed to go independently, but also the last time he'd have the privilege of making the journey to the higher levels of the Academy. In a matter of solar cycles he'd finally be free of the influence of the busts staring after him when he finally stopped in front of the headmaster's office and knocked on the door. He was immediately beckoned inside.
The office was a circular room complete with a bay window overlooking the courtyard. From here Rodimus could see the skyscrapers of the city where he was hoping to be stationed, while the planet's two delicate moons loomed far overhead. The area, itself, was plain. The shelves and cupboard were virtually bare except for a few datapads containing codes on conduct. The desk was cleared. And standing just in front of this desk was the headmaster of the Autobot Academy, an upfront, very tall, very intimidating mech with narrow, beady optics that fixated on Rodimus the moment he entered. He was an old war vet who had seen plenty of combat during the war, much like most of the teachers at the Academy. He made Kup seem personable.
Rodimus approached and saluted him.
'Loosen up or that pose'll stick,' the headmaster waved vaguely at him. 'At ease, already!'
Rodimus did as he was told.
'Let's keep this brief,' said the headmaster. 'I got an important meeting to attend to in a few cycles. Before I hand this assignment over, I want you to know that if I had a say in it, you wouldn't be here right now. You're lucky that you're popular among your fellow Autobots. They all voted for you. Sure, you had the grades, but they were the ones who secured your status. But keep in mind. If I wasn't obligated to heed to the demands of the student body, you would be grovelling in the wastelands of Dread.'
'Yes, sir,' nodded Rodimus. This was how the headmaster usually greeted him or anyone else, for that matter.
'That said, let's cut to the chase. Here's your assignment.'
The headmaster handed Rodimus a datapad. Rodimus reached out with shaking servos and had to carefully control his movements to avoid snatching or dropping it. He skimmed down the assignment details, his rapid spark beat preventing all of the information from getting to his processor. What he read was "command" and "promotion."
'You're being assigned to – ' started the headmaster.
'Iacon City?' Rodimus breathed. This wasn't happening. This was his dream come true. Inside, his inner self cheered for joy and was lifted up on the shoulders of imaginary Autobots!
'Iacon City?' the headmaster laughed. 'Don't jump the gun. No. Athenia.'
Record scratch. The imaginary Autobots stopped cheering and opened their audio receptors with hesitant anticipation. '…I…don't remember reading about an "Athenia" in geography class. Is that in or near Iacon City?'
'It's in the Magnokor Asteroid Belt. Borders the Galactic Rim.'
The imaginary Autobots dropped his inner self. Rodimus gawked at the headmaster in sheer disbelief.
'The Galactic Rim? !' he shouted. 'Why am I getting sent to the Galactic Rim? ! Only the scum of the galaxy go there!'
'Then I suppose you're one of them,' the headmaster replied, undeterred. 'Now you've received your assignment, and I have to go receive mine. Excuse me.'
The headmaster marched out of the office. Rodimus looked out the window. Towards Fortress Maximus and Iacon City, so close to where Ultra Magnus operated the commonwealth. He should be there, celebrating his success. Galactic Rim. There was no comparison. Somehow, staring at the place where he should be going brought him back to reality. He sprinted after the headmaster.
'Sir, with all due respect,' Rodimus caught up to him in the hall, 'have you blown a diode? ! I'm the valedictorian!'
'Yes, you're also the youngest Autobot to ever receive a command. The board's more interested in seeing what you can do in a beginner's setting.'
'Athenia's a frontier place,' continued the headmaster. 'It's not complicated. You'll be heading a security detail. You'll be responsible for security in and around the government complex based around the Space Bridge that was just built there. The locals aren't very accommodating of government, so it's a part of your duty is to get them on the same page as the council. It's a big responsibility and since you're so good, I'm sure it'll be a synch.'
'I would much rather be assigned to Iacon City.'
'What about my promotion? ! Primes don't normally handle places like Athenia; that's something usually reserved for – '
'You're a Minor, not a Prime.'
'Look, the board's not comfortable making you a Prime yet,' said the headmaster. He stopped walking and faced Rodimus head on. 'You're not ready yet, so they made you a Minor. You should be glad you got anything at all.'
'I can handle the responsibility; even you know that! You have to talk to the board and tell them – '
'I wouldn't be able to persuade them. Certain 'bots testified to your character and that influenced their decision. They stand by it.'
'…How did you know that?'
'Sentinel Minor is a loudmouth who needs to shove his chin up his fan belt!'
'That's precisely the attitude the board doesn't like.'
'Wait – are you saying that because Sentinel Minor doesn't like me – '
'It wasn't just Sentinel.'
'Then who else was there?'
'I'm not obligated to tell you and you're in no position to demand. But Sentinel's character isn't the one we're discussing here. It's yours. And whether you like it or not, Sentinel is a valued, intelligent Autobot with some good points. You're a Minor.'
'But Minors are only drill sergeants and – '
'Cadets not ready to handle the full responsibilities of being a Prime.'
'I can take it!'
'Great. You just have to prove that to your superiors.' The headmaster headed off towards the elevators. This time Rodimus was frozen in place, gripped by the unsettling authenticity of his situation. 'The details of your assignment are in the datapad. That's final.'
'But sir – ' Rodimus pleaded.
With that, the headmaster disappeared. Rodimus glared in his general direction. He'd worked hard because he wanted Iacon City. No Iacon City meant no Elite Guard. The only way he'd get in now is if he worked on Athenia for a few centuries before transferring. It was a tricky, long-winded process that was difficult to bypass even with a letter of recommendation from a superior officer. He was being rerouted because of one glaring fact. He was young and not ready to handle the burden of being a Prime. Everything he laboured for didn't mean anything. His dedication didn't mean anything.
Rodimus kicked over the nearest bust and stormed off.
Everything seemed numb. He couldn't feel anything for the 'bots around him. Rodimus blindly raged through the dormitory, ignoring greetings from his fellow classmates and graduates, following only the sound of muffled rock music playing in the distance.
He burst into his quarters with such force that a few trophies wobbled precariously. His roommate was on his berth, hiding behind a datapad that was clearly the latest issue of his favourite magazine. (This month the cover displayed the newest fad, some femme called Rosanna.) The music was emanating from equipment surrounding his roommate's bunk, while Rodimus's space was decorated by the prototypes to his bow and awards he'd achieved during his term in the Academy. Somehow this only made him feel more miserable and he collapsed onto his berth face-down.
'So should I call you "sir" now or what?' asked Blaster.
Rodimus growled in response.
'Whoops, sorry. Did I forget to salute?'
'Stuff it, Blaster. And turn down that stupid music!'
'Hey, you can say my music is loud an' unintelligible, but you don't call it stupid!' Blaster momentarily put down his datapad.
'Look, either you turn it down or I destroy the stereo. Your decision?'
'Alright, alright.' The decibels went down to a more tolerable level. 'Sheesh, you're touchy for a guy who just got assigned to Iacon City.'
'What makes you think,' Rodimus glared, 'I got assigned to Iacon City?'
'Because you seemed so sure you'd get Iacon City, that it simply must be true!' Blaster exclaimed. ' "When I get to Iacon City! I'm going to be head of security one day! I'm going to be slagging Magnus! Iacon! Iacon! Iacon!" It's been drivin' me off the deep end! So. Are you one of "them" or not?'
'No, I'm not one of "them," I'm one of "those." Take a look.'
Rodimus threw him the datapad.
He lay back while Blaster read. Sulking seemed like an excellent way to end his horrible day. He'd read over the whole datapad as he returned from the headmaster's office. Sure, he got a command, but what good did that do? He wasn't going to be commanding at Iacon City or serve in the Elite Guard; he was banished to the Galactic Rim. To add insult to injury, he was a Minor. Minors weren't exactly the most highly respected 'bots in the galaxy; as a matter of fact, they had a reputation as numb-noids who couldn't quite get to Prime. Rodimus Minor. It didn't suit him. It implied that he'd botched. Had the devotion he'd shown to the Academy meant nothing? Had someone sabotaged his record? Had he made a statistical error along the way? No, that couldn't be it. Rodimus had done everything he was supposed to do. More than that.
His trust in the system had betrayed him; turned right around and shoved a wrench into his hard drive. This was it. His life was over. He was never going to get to Iacon City, let alone into the Elite Guard, let alone come close to being on the High Council. A position of power was unreachable. It was like spinning endlessly in circles, trying to reach for something that had managed to slip out of his fingers. The frustration resulting from this was sickening. It made him want to tear everything and everyone apart, because the world had deceived him.
'This is what's got your crankcase in a knot?' said Blaster, at last. 'It's not so bad!'
'It's not so bad? !' Rodimus sat bolt upright. 'It's not so bad? ! Blaster, a century ago, I literally had nothing and now I'm the valedictorian at the Autobot Academy! You think I'd at least be rewarded for all my efforts!'
'Dude. Chill. The meltdown thing isn't doing a lot for you.'
'That Sentinel! He testified "against my character" in front of the board, so they decided I wasn't ready for Iacon City! I'm gonna get back at him for this someday…'
'Dude, before you get an idea, we're not going to go get on his bad side right before our graduation ceremony,' said Blaster. 'Now, if we wait until right after that, then we can pull a fast one. That way we can get away clean. See my logic?'
'My life is over.'
'Can I turn up my angst music? It's more cheerful than you're being right now. Thanks.'
Blaster turned up the dial on his stereo just in time for a solo that was enough to render any regular 'bot deaf. Fortunately Rodimus's depressed state was enough to block out any pain that would normally result from his roommate's music. It just seemed like background noise.
Annoying background noise.
'Blaster, take it somewhere else,' snapped Rodimus.
'Is that your first order as Rodimus Minor?'
'You see this?' Rodimus held up an arrow. 'How would you like this jammed up your exhaust port? !'
'…Now that I think about it, I bet my music would be more appreciated at Maccadam's. See ya.'
Blaster grabbed his stereo and ambled towards the door. As he opened it, he nearly ran right into Kup.
'Whoops, sorry, old timer,' Blaster sidled past him.
'Turn that down!' Kup demanded.
'No prob,' Blaster obliged. 'Now why don't you go chat with Mr. Chosen One over there? He's dying to talk to you.'
Kup entered. He and Rodimus simply stared at each other until Blaster's music faded away.
'…Judging by your enthusiasm, I'm guessing you got your assignment,' Kup said. He sat down on Blaster's bunk. 'What's Blaster hoping for?'
Ah. Small talk. 'He doesn't really care. Considering his talent I'm expecting him to get into Moonbase Two or something similar.'
'And you won't be heading to your dream destination?'
'I shouldn't have to tell you.'
Kup sighed. 'Disappointed?'
'I'm not in the mood for another "how do you feel" conversation, Kup,' Rodimus rebuked. 'How could they assign me to the Galactic Rim? Why would they send me all the way out there? ! It doesn't make sense. Everyone kept saying: "Rodimus will get Iacon City for sure! It's where they all go!" I was just telling Blaster, I had nothing, then I had everything, and now I have nothing again.'
'Kid, you're delusional!' Kup snapped. 'What right do you have to think you don't have anything just because you got some low-grade assignment? ! Some 'bots would kill to have anything as good as what you're getting! The way I see it, you should be thankful you did so well. Instead, you're whining because you're gonna have to work some more to get where you want to go!...If you keep that attitude up, I hope you don't succeed. You're being selfish. If you ever want to be Magnus, that's gonna have to go out the window.'
Rodimus didn't dare look Kup in the optic. He was right, of course. He didn't want him to be right, but he was in every way.
'You still think I can make it?' inquired Rodimus.
'Only if you change the attitude. You followin' me?'
'Yeah, I follow.'
'Good,' Kup nodded. 'Besides. I think the Galactic Rim is a great place to build character. It'll surprise you, Hot Rod.'
'You're still Hot Rod to me. So suck it up. It's your first command. That's a lot of responsibility on your shoulders. You can't expect all the gadgets without suffering for a little while. Ultra Magnus didn't get where he is overnight, you know.'
'It's just frustrating that all that hard work was for nothing.'
'It wasn't. You'll see that soon enough.'
Kup looked at him calmly, leaning back, chewing on his cy-gar. Rodimus was tempted to tear it from his mouth. As if reading his mind, and in a rare moment of subtle sincerity, Kup removed the cy-gar and held it between his fingers.
He held out a second one.
Despite his conscience telling him that it wouldn't do anything, Rodimus placed the cy-gar between his dental plates and bit. He was hit with the same unpleasant sensations as before; a rough, but warm, tingling sensation that ran throughout his whole body. But this time it had a sort of addicting quality to it with the appeal of a fond memory. It was a better companion than any other Autobot, more comforting than spending his evening elbow-to-elbow with a beautiful femme. One couldn't hurt. It didn't matter. In a few solar cycles he was going to board a ship bound for Athenia in the opposite direction of where he wanted to go and there wasn't anything he could do to change that.