The passing joors had sent Optimus good, bad and unexpected news. An example of good news was that Red Alert had finally been discharged from Iacon's intensive care facilities; an example of the bad was that his ordeal had caused him such psychological damage that he was no longer fit for the duty of security chief. Stuck for an alternative, as there was really no other agent who was of quite the same ability as Red, Optimus had no choice but to temporarily assign security responsibilities to Ultra Magnus, either until Red recovered enough to resume his duty or until a better alternative presented itself. Though Magnus was a stolid, reliable mech, and the most suited available mech for the job, it was clear that he was not purposed to sit and endlessly filter through camera feeds.
So far, rebel action had been rather subdued outside the expected skirmishes in the borderlands surrounding Kaon. Praxus, the southernmost stronghold to announce its allegiance to the central Autobot government in Iacon had experienced some minor attacks, mostly small explosive charges or scant groups of few gunmechs firing randomly at the well-protected buildings. There had been negligible damage.
More seriously affected were Tesarus and the Crystal City, both of which were southern neutral states. Tesarus, while large enough to host its own standing army, had aggressively enforced a policy of neutrality, driving out any mechs who expressed sympathies to either side in the conflict. Naturally, this resulted in an influx of rebel-sympathisers seeking refuge in Kaon and revenge against the city that cast them away. Barely an orn went by without a report of some hostile activity in Tesarus by some malcontent, yet the state still remained firmly neutral.
On the other side of the scale was the Crystal City, a little further north than Tesarus and a city comprised mostly of civil scientists and manufacturers of goods and materials for use in the facilities at Altihex and Nova Cronum. While there had certainly been more activity there than at Praxus, it was nowhere near the extent of violence at Tesarus, and the main casualties were several crates of raw parts which had gone missing.
Prime would not have unduly concerned himself with the affairs of the Crystal City, particularly when measured against Praxus and Tesarus, if it had not been for the state's importance to Altihex. Altihex itself, like the Crystal City, was neutral territory, but it was also one of the two largest science hubs on the planet and was considered the primary base of operations for many of the Autobots' top-ranking scientists and medics. It was not surprising to Prime, therefore, when Ultra Magnus reported that he had received a transmission from Altihex requesting a meeting. What was surprising was that this meeting had apparently been requested by Altihex' highest-ranking mechs and that they had stipulated, on no uncertain terms, that they wished for Prime to come alone.
It went without saying that Prowl had protested this course of action as vehemently as his position as Prime's subordinate would allow, and Prime had at first been inclined to agree. It seemed foolish to venture alone to neutral territory that shared so close a connection with a potential seat of unrest as Crystal, but the Altihexians' calm reasoning had changed his mind. The scientists had astutely pointed out that a Prime entering Altihex with a military entourage could at the very best be seen by the rebels as Altihex announcing Autobot allegiance and at the very worst by the Altihexians as an invasion. Prime saw the wisdom in quietly entering the city, going about whatever business was needed of him and leaving without drawing undue attention to himself.
Prowl, as sub-commander, was given the highest authority for the time Prime was away from Iacon. Though he did not necessarily agree with Prowl on moral issues, Prime could appreciate the skill that his subordinate possessed and the experience which had tempered his decisions, making him the most capable mech for the position. While, on a personal level, Prime may well have preferred to leave a mech more like Ironhide covering his role, there was much to be said for the ability to disassociate emotions and logic, even if Prowl did take that to an extreme.
And then on top of the scurrying to organise the Altihex venture, as if Prime didn't have enough to worry about, there was the nagging preoccupation with Starscream. The dark-faced flyer, who seemed to alternate moods so often that Prime questioned whether he was glitched, periodically disappeared for breems at a time, showing up again in the most unlikely places with the most bizarre excuses. Some orns prior, he had gone missing for half an orn, eventually showing up in the senators' private events room with the rather poor excuse that he had lost his way.
Starscream and his eccentricities, though, were the lowest of his priorities, despite how fascinating the young leader continued to find the surly warrior with the piercing crimson optics.
The Altihexian landing strip lay outside the boundary of the city in a monitored, restricted area. Owing to the high concentration of volatile substances in the scientific buildings dotted around the main complex, the airspace directly above the city was a permanent no-fly zone.
Whereas it meant Optimus had to land his cruiser expecting to see the squad of armed bodyguards that was normally there to greet him on diplomatic assignments, he was surprised to instead see only one mech – the unlikeliest of mechs – standing there.
"Perceptor!" he gasped, staring at the self-made noble, "why are you -"
"I wanted to congratulate you personally," explained the microscope in his quiet, matter-of-fact voice, holding his hand out. Optimus shook it firmly, wondering at how relaxed Perceptor sounded compared to the last time they had spoken. Perceptor released Prime's hand as he continued his explanation, "and to inform you, of course, mostly as a formality, that any gagging order I placed on you concerning facts on the death of Zeta Prime is now at your discretion."
"You could have told me that when I met you in the hub," Prime answered quickly. Perceptor chuckled, far more at ease than Prime could ever remember.
"Yes, yes. Just as perceptive as I remember you. Very well, I wished to reacquaint myself with you now that you are the new Prime, and I thought that the best way to manage this was to walk with you to the complex. We will, of course, be working in rather closer proximity, and, I confess, the ties between the military and the scientists has been somewhat strained because of our lack of ability to quite see optic-to-optic with your predecessors."
Prime, taken aback at this honest admission, found himself at a loss for words.
"I admit," continued Perceptor, now looking a little more uncomfortable, "that I tend to find myself often with little spare time, and more often than not surrounded by others who require my attention. It is a rare opportunity that I will be able to have a private conversation with you, and certain, ah, legacies from your predecessors, I fear, require such privacy. I have no wish to speak ill of the dead, but there are certain realities I must bring to your attention that I doubt very much you wish to hear."
Optimus' optics flickered briefly as he stared at the scientist; he had never expected to hear such uncertainty in the normally quiet but assertive voice he had associated with the coroner who had examined Zeta Prime, and it was with a worryingly familiar sinking feeling that he processed what had been said.
"... If I don't want to hear it, can you just not tell me?" he attempted weakly. Perceptor did not laugh.
Instead, flashing Prime a slightly disapproving look, he nodded towards a stretch of open, empty track that led away from the landing strip and the main Altihex complex. "We should not talk here. Please, join me for a walk."
The tapering spires reached up, the tallest nudging far higher than any building Iacon could offer. In the centre of this weird, twisting skyline there was a momentary break, which marked the placement of the administrative buildings of Altihex' science hub, arguably the most famous research facility on Cybertron – even compared to Nova Cronum. Behind the expanse of city, there lay the Rust Wastes, said to cover almost a third of the planet in a vast barren landscape of nothingness. A single straight bridge stretched out over the wasteland, disappearing into the distance.
"That is the Crystal Parkway," explained Perceptor as he caught Prime's quizzical glance at the bridge, for it looked so out of place. The scientist had become noticeably more at ease as they left the main hub behind them. "It is a direct connection between Altihex and the Crystal City. There was considerable resistance, unless my memory is defective, but upon its completion most of the Altihexian uppercaste realised the economic necessity of a supply artery to a such a successful state as Crystal."
"It is primarily for the uppercastes?"
"Primarily scientific," corrected the microscope.
"And the nobles do not mind sharing space with you?"
"Most of the time are able to see past our differences, but there are occasions when we have our altercations with our wealthy neighbours. Normally they only complain when one of our mechanimal experiments escapes and starts tearing mechs limb from limb."
There was an awkward silence.
"That was a joke," said Perceptor, not without reproach.
"Er – oh, it was? Er – ahahaha," the Prime laughed weakly, unconvincing and far too late.
Again, the two mechs were choked by the awkward silence which was broken only by Perceptor's embarrassed cough.
As they quietly passed what seemed to be one of the sliproads to the Crystal Parkway, Prime spotted what looked like a small meeting of aristocrats gathered together. Glad of the opportunity to divert his attention from the uneasy silence, he examined them as closely as he dared without being openly rude. Each mech was polishing a tapered, antique-looking rifle, though the guns appeared far too weak to be able to puncture through Cybertronian exoplating.
"Foxing guns," explained Perceptor in response to Prime's quizzical look. "They are powerful enough to kill most wildlife locally but should not harm a mech past a superficial burn."
One of the nobles, catching sight of Perceptor, inclined his head sharply in acknowledgement. The others glanced up but gave no sign they had noticed the microscope and his companion; nevertheless, to have been greeted by even one of the haughty uppercaste was a sign of Perceptor's local celebrity and prestige.
"The hunts don't bother you?" asked Prime mildly. He had heard thin rumours of mechanimal hunts when he was an archivist, normally when jealous, over-worked labourers were bemoaning the easy lives of the high-bornes, but he had never before had reason to give the activity much thought. As his gaze lingered on the nobles who were about to embark on this pastime of privilege, he was struck by the pointlessness of it. What did they do with the corpses once the hunt had finished? Games dreamed from the boredom of rich mechs were a world that he was unsure he wanted to explore too deeply.
Perceptor waved a hand airily, oblivious to Prime's inner monologue. "The runs are the other side of the parkway from the complex, so we don't normally clash."
"What about security? Does it stretch out that far? I didn't think Altihex had a standing army."
The microscope's expression became serious. "It doesn't. For either question. That is one of the reasons I have called you here."
He turned to look back at the towering highway, and Optimus, curiosity piqued, followed his gaze, waiting expectantly for the scientist to keep speaking.
Perceptor's expression was extremely uncomfortable. "It is... best not to say too much out here, other than that – needless to say -" he sighed, clearly attempting to reach diplomatic words that danced beyond his grasp, "It is wrong of me to speak ill of the dead. Zeta Prime saw the potential of Altihex and he put it to use as he saw fit – as befits a Prime."
An audio-splitting drone cut through the air, drowning Optimus' hesitant reply and causing both mechs to instinctively look to the dark sky. Nothing out of the ordinary moved.
"What was that...?" asked the young leader, not at all sure he wanted to know the answer.
"It might have come from the hub," said Perceptor uncertainly. "We should... I ought to verify status..."
"Why not use your communicator?"
Perceptor coughed awkwardly again, still distracted by the unsettling noise they had just heard. "Were it not for the fact that the information I need to verify is strictly classified at the highest level –"
The ground beneath Prime's feet trembled as, with a heavy and ominous THUD, something landed behind him and the red-bodied scientist.
Optimus was hardly aware of what happened next; there was a streak of pink-purple light and something turquoise flashed past his vision, splashing his face with fluid. Confused, he turned toward Perceptor, only to see the scientist standing dead still, an expression of shock frozen on his face, a stump beneath his shoulder all that remained of his right arm and a deep gash in his torso showing where the arc of the assault had eventually terminated. The microscope raised his other hand to touch the wound and turned his head toward it as though in a dream, letting out a soft 'oh' of realisation before fainting clean away.
Behind Perceptor's crumpling body loomed a sneering figure brandishing an energy sword, the crackling blade now stained with freshly-spilt energon. Even as Prime tensed, expecting to feel the weapon penetrate his exoplating, two more powerful, battle-scarred figures descended from the sky. They landed next to their comrade, who was now licking Perceptor's energon from his fingers with a look of sick delight.
Megatron's rebels. Altihex was neutral territory, and further away from Kaon than the southern Autobot strongholds of Praxus and Helix, yet Megatron had decided to have his warriors mount a sneak attack here...
Another thunderous roar sounded from overhead and this time Optimus clearly saw the outline of a jet framed against the stars. It was heading towards the science complex.
Cursing himself for not bringing his gun, Optimus tugged Perceptor up by his good arm, effortlessly slinging the unconscious mech over one shoulder as the rebel warriors jeered and readied their weapons. Fighting free from the aggressors with his spare hand, he set off at a sprint for the hub, pausing only to snatch Perceptor's dismembered arm from the floor. Laserfire burning his legs from misses so narrow they nicked his exoplating and the dead weight of the scientist slung over his shoulder bleeding energon, hot and sticky, down his arm, Prime tore toward the cluster of buildings, the howls of the bloodthirsty Kaonites ringing in his audios.
In the airspace above central Altihex, Prime could make out several more dark shapes, circling the hub in ever-tighter formation as though slowly but surely moving in for the kill. Barely thinking, he flicked open the communicator in the panel of his spare arm, half his concentration spent on listening to the crackle of static that emanated from the device and the other half devoted to sprinting.
"Prowl receiving," came the emotionless voice of Prime's subcommander, distorted slightly by the feedback. Prime's spark flipped in his chest – he had hoped Ironhide would be the one to respond. Every conversation with Prowl seemed to turn into a verbal battle, whereas Ironhide knew not to test Prime's patience.
"Scramble a platoon immediately," gasped the young leader, his voice raised above the drowning noise of jet engines. "I need back-up in Altihex."
"Negative, Prime. Protocol dictates that the Iacon Defence Force is for the defence of Ia-"
Prime lost it. "I couldn't give fewer frags about your protocol, Prowl!" he snapped impatiently, his ire building. "Get me a squadron of your elite warriors in Altihex NOW. That's an order!"
Taking the stunned silence as a sign of accession, Prime closed his communicator, his attention fully returned to the unfolding attack.
The Crystal Parkway passed by in a blur. In his new, powerful body, Optimus moved far faster than he ever could have hoped to as Optronix, and it was no surprise that the baying mechs chasing him quickly fell behind. As the footfalls grew fainter, a tiny swell of victory began in his chest – but it was short-lived. As the sound of running feet disappeared altogether, Optimus' spirits sank as rapidly as they had risen and he cursed himself for forgetting that the rebels who had attacked them could fly...
With a drowning roar, three black shapes tore overhead aimed straight for Altihex, and, though Optimus knew he was no longer being chased, he urged his body to move faster yet, as though everything depending on his reaching the hub before his enemies.
A low moan near his audio drew his attention to the mech across his back, and a slight movement, little more than a subtle tense of the limbs, verified that Perceptor had regained consciousness. Optimus could tell from the way the smaller scientist moved that he was gripping his injured shoulder tightly with his good arm, and from his shuddering pistons and heavy, rasping intakes that the wound was causing him great pain.
"I – I must evacuate -" Perceptor's voice was taut and almost harsh; he sounded nothing like himself as he mumbled into Prime's shoulder. "It is impera – nngh – imperative...!"
"Don't worry," the larger mech said reassuringly as he pushed his pistons to their limit, but the calming words did nothing for the microscope, who shook his head in weak frustration.
"No ... you must- "
Prime's response was drowned out by the terrible high-pitched squeal of missiles being released – and the Altihexian hub was too big a target to be missed. The young leader stopped running, his body freezing up in horror as he helplessly watched the first flame-streaked projectile crash through the roof of the largest building and explode, igniting the structure and sending shockwaves through the ground he stood on. Through the crackling of the inferno, barely audible over the roaring of engines, came the faint sound of yelling, panicking voices.
Perceptor had tensed against his shoulder almost impossibly, his voice reduced to a low but urgent hiss: "you must not let it flash over!"
"Zeta Prime has been using Altihex... as munitions storage..."
As Prime turned his head towards Perceptor in stunned disbelief, everything was enveloped in a blinding flash of light, so bright it caused Prime's optical circuitry to glitch. Disoriented, he slowed his sprint to a jog, hesitant to continue running blindly.
At first there was no noise, just a deafening silence.
Then the heat blast, accompanied by a thunderous roar, came strong enough to hurl Prime through the air; the force was enough to toss him around as though he were little more than a leaf trembling before a storm. . Perceptor was ripped from his arms.
Landing painfully and tumbling across the ground for quite a distance, propelled by secondary shock waves, Prime was aware of himself crying out but could not hear it – the deafening noise of the explosion had apparently caused his audio receptors to reset. Swimming vision slowly returning to normal as it recovered from the shock of the bright flash of white, Prime was briefly able to see a pillar of fire towering over the science hub before a rain of shrapnel and debris forced him to protectively cover his head with his arms. He could feel the heat of it burning his body.
Prime never knew how long he lay there, dazed and half-covered by a pile of dust and rubble. He slowly came around to the feeling of something or someone pushing insistently on his shoulder. As one arm twitched in an attempt to raise and bat whatever-it-was away, muffled noises jumbled in his processor against the backdrop of a continuous ringing that he could not get away from.
"Whzzat," asked Optimus stupidly, his question more static than voice. Rubble fell from his body as he moved his head towards the source of the noise, which was becoming ever clearer, and he became dimly aware of sharp pains shooting through his entire body from various points in his limbs. Something heavy was lying across his lower back, pressing him into the ground.
"Prime – Prime! Get ahold of yourself!" Something shook him again and, as if that was the switch, Prime snapped into alertness. His hands found Prowl's forearms and he gripped tightly as he found himself staring into his sub-commander's concerned face.
Prowl sighed with what Prime might, if it had been any other mech, have called relief. Though the noise was still thick and slightly distorted, as though Prime was listening to it through a tunnel of tar, the ringing in his audios had quietened to a volume slightly less than all-consuming, and he could at least make out words.
"Prowl...?" Optimus asked, still a little disoriented. As his vision returned, he could vaguely make out the shapes of other mechs moving around him, framed against a horizon of red and silhouetted by a veil of smoke. Irregular lights of red and deep orange flickered around the landscape that was otherwise black and choking.
"Altihex is burning," said Prowl bluntly. "There's nothing left here. We're taking you back to Iacon."
"Survivors – are there -?"
"Few," answered Prowl grimly. "I have a field medic treating them for shock and superficial burns. It seems that all who were closer than you to the epicentre were obliterated. You were lucky."
Prime groaned as he felt the mass which had been pressing down on his back suddenly lift away. Turning his head slightly, he could see two warriors struggling under the weight of what looked like a large piece of the science hub's roof. It had apparently been blown on top of him, though it wasn't until it had gone that he began to notice the ache of a crushed backstrut.
"What about – Perceptor?"
Again, Prowl's expression was grim. "He's alive. Barely. He needs more attention than we can give him here. We must return to Iacon."
Optimus looked towards the tower of flames, only just visible through the blanket of smoke. He thought he could hear the screams of mechs trapped inside, but knew that Prowl would not have lied to him about survivors. There were no survivors.
Other than -
"What about us?" came a voice that, while shaken and quivering, still managed to retain tones of haughty detachment. Prime stared at the source of it, though it was hard to make anything out clearly through the foggy blanket of blackness that lingered over the gutted city.
Through the haze of smoke, a small group of mechs became visible. Optimus recognised them instantly as the hunting group that had hailed Perceptor earlier that same orn, though their plating was no longer smart and well-cared for. Instead, their faces were blackened with soot, their paint chipped and peeling away, the metal underneath scorched by heat. They had clearly, like Prime and Perceptor, been caught in a rain of debris, as each mech had several open wounds, some of which still had shards of shrapnel protruding from them. However, despite these superficial injuries and though clearly shaken, it seemed that the group had been far enough away from the Altihexian hub to escape the worst of the explosion; not one had a serious injury.
Nevertheless... "Of course, you may come with us to Iacon and seek refuge there," answered Prime quietly. The ringing in his audios had almost completely disappeared. "You will be afforded the full protection of the Iaconian military, and will be supplied with energon and shelter."
Even without looking at Prowl, Prime knew what was coming.
"Prime," said the sub-commander in a predictably taut voice, "I must protest. Iacon protocol states we cannot allow outsiders -"
"I will not be argued with on this, Prowl," interrupted Prime, his voice tired but clearly thin on patience. "If you can honestly tell me that these mechs would not have lost their home today if not for Iacon dragging Altihex into this conflict, then you may protest. If not, then for once in your life, silence your vocaliser!"
The tactician's back straightened as though he had been physically struck by Prime's words, but he offered no answer.
Something moved in Prime's peripheral vision as he was helped unsteadily to his feet by one of Prowl's subordinates and he glanced over in time to see another two members of the rescue party haul the limp form of Perceptor from the wreckage. A large piece of debris had pierced the scientist's chest and lodged itself firmly in, standing straight up at an angle from the unmoving body like some gruesome flagpole. His spark was visible through the wound, flickering very dimly. Prime tried not to look.
"... we need to go," he said quietly.
When Prowl nodded his silent acquiescence and started directing the survivors towards the transport vehicle his squadron had used, Prime attempted to stand but he fell back with a groan as his legs screamed in protest. Everything below the part of his back that had been crushed had been numb until he had tried to move, but now every receptor was alive in a sea of fire, the waves of which licked agony through his body.
Unable to bite back a gasp of pain as the unbearable burning lanced through his legs and up his back, tensed against the ground, his optics barely flickering as he felt hands snake around his shoulder and back.
"Steady," said a quiet voice near his audio. It was Prowl. Prime felt him make a gesture, and then another pair of hands joined the first, strong and reassuring against his aching back.
Supported by Prowl on one side and one of the medics on the other, Prime was hauled upright, though his legs were unable to take his weight and he was forced to rely entirely on the two mechs helping him. Together, Prowl and his medic half-hauled, half-dragged their stricken leader away from the smoking ruins of Altihex and the burning mounds of rubble that remained of the once-great science hub.
A/N: dur hur wow so I totally expected this to have been up last year some time? Sorry for the ridiculous delay, chaps and chappesses. Life got in the way. I'd just like to reassure you all that Flashover is not being abandoned, and even if there are long delays (demonstrated so aptly by this one), I have every intention of finishing this. I'm far too invested in it now to leave it.
For those of you who have stuck around to see this update, thanks. I'll try and be more prompt for your sake.