A/N: After I posted the Writing Game story, Change in Perspective, last December, a handful of reviewers suggested I post a sequel. Not wanting to step on any toes as the story was a team effort, I requested permission from my co-authors. They had no problems with it. For several months, though, I could come up with nothing and turned my focus to other projects. Recently, I did get an idea and here it is. This story is from Optimus Prime's POV and shows his reaction to the incident. I know how I have characterized him in Pariah and Intorqueo de Fortuna, but those are G1-based and this is a movieverse story, where his personality is somewhat different. Please bear that in mind as you read. I also know what happened in DotM and am choosing to ignore it for the purposes of this story.
There will be no further follow-ups to Change in Perspective. I now introduce Change in Perspective: Shades of Gray.
I remember when the answers seemed so clear
We had never lived with doubt or tasted fear.
It was easy then to tell truth from lies
Selling out from compromise
Who to love and who to hate,
The foolish from the wise.
The Monkees – Shades of Gray
Change in Perspective: Shades of Gray
Optimus Prime knew Robert Epps was lying.
Oh, he gave nothing away physically, the scans he made of the sergeant as he gave his report back at the rendezvous at Hong Kong after that battle showed none of the typical signs of untruth. He was calm and collected, and seemed very sure of himself. But two small details stood out to the Autobot Commander.
"The Seekers, they've left." That was what Will Lennox had reported Epps as saying when he got in touch with them. When he met up with them later and Lennox had asked him if he was sure they were gone and told him he should have followed to be sure, Epps had responded with the statement, "You're right, Cap', but they flew. I assumed they left for good. Anyway, they're not there anymore."
Ironhide had said he'd seen a Seeker go down, and when Lennox had first communicated with Epps after informing him of this and giving the order to check it out, he'd confirmed what Ironhide had seen.
This meant the Seeker had likely suffered heavy damage, and more than likely would have been unable to fly anywhere.
There was also another oddity in Epps' story, for not only had he confirmed the crash, he had identified the Seeker who had crashed and named another who had appeared.
"One did fall, I think his name is Thundercracker, and Starscream and another named Skywarp are also here."
In the confusion of the battle, Ironhide had been unable to identify the Seeker when he went down. But Epps had not only known the designation of the fallen Seeker, he identified Starscream's other trinemate as well. Prime was fully aware that Epps knew of the other Seekers from the stories they were told, but Optimus was sure they'd never described them and they had never appeared in a battle before that day. Epps could not have placed the designations to the individual Seekers other than Starscream that easily.
So how had Epps identified the others so quickly? And why, a few minutes after he asked them to hurry up, had he called to say the Seekers had left and there was no need for Lennox and Ironhide to hurry over there any longer?
After Epps had finished giving Optimus his report, the Autobot leader had waited a moment before asking him one question.
"Sergeant Epps, are you completely sure that this is what happened?"
Epps stood straight and looked straight at Prime's optics.
"I'm sure, Optimus."
He never backed down from his statement. Prime could give him credit for that. But it didn't change the fact that Robert Epps was either lying or hiding something from his own comrades. Over the next several days, he watched the man, but Epps behaved little differently than before. Eventually, Prime decided that in spite of his suspicions, he had no proof to openly accuse the soldier with, so let the matter drop.
And there the whole incident might have rested, until two weeks after that battle, when a Decepticon signal was picked up in the central part of the United States, in a place called Iowa. N.E.S.T had mobilized and gone out there to find the source of the signal and deal with whatever Decepticons had appeared. Somehow Epps had ended up going off on his own, a serious look on his face. But no Decepticons were found and Prime had decided that maybe it had just been either a mistake or for some reason the Decepticons had left before they could get there. Even Epps reported he hadn't found any sign of their enemies. When Epps met up with them, though, there was a big grin on his face and an air about him as if he'd had a weight of some kind lifted from his shoulders.
Once more, Prime felt something was off, but knew that this time he had even less to be suspicious about when it came to the actions of Sgt. Robert Epps.
But again he wondered: What had really happened in Hong Kong? And what had Epps seen that had made him so cheerful about a failed mission? No matter how hard he thought about it, Prime was unable to come up with any answers.
Two years went by. More battles with the Decepticons came and went, and Prime noticed grimly that they usually got away more often than N.E.S.T. was able to catch them. Some of the soldiers in that group were starting to get discouraged, even the normally cheerful Robert Epps. Finally, one day in the Rec Room, he announced that he had been in touch with his father-in-law and had decided to take an old job offer at the man's accounting firm. He was good with numbers, and just needed a change of pace, he said. Basically put, he had requested an honorable discharge. As far as he was concerned, others could take up the battle. He was tired of the seemingly endless fighting. Lennox and Graham had both tried to reason with him, but Robert was adamant. He did wish N.E.S.T. and the Autobots well, but he just couldn't do this anymore.
Optimus Prime knew this would be his last chance to get at the truth. The truth that Epps had never told concerning Hong Kong.
So on Epps' last day there, he approached the man, intent on getting his answers once and for all.
"Ops! What brings you here?" was his cheerful greeting to the hologram Optimus had taken on to speak to him. Prime had chosen a brown-haired, blue-eyed form, with a red and orange shirt and blue jeans. He smiled, trying to put Epps at ease.
"I came to speak with you regarding a certain matter, Sergeant," he replied as he went and sat on the man's bed, looking around the room as he did so. There were two gray suitcases and a small box sitting on the floor, just waiting for one of the privates to come and get them.
"Ain't a sergeant anymore, Prime. I'm a civilian now," Epps returned, the smile fading a bit from his face.
"I do wish you would reconsider," Prime answered. As Epps opened his mouth to say something, Prime cut him off with a raised hand. "But I will not force you into anything you do not want to do."
"'Freedom is the right of all', huh?" said Epps with a tired look on his face.
"Indeed," was the quiet reply. Silence fell for a moment.
"So what did you want to talk to me about?" asked Epps curiously.
At that, a puzzled expression appeared on Epps' face. "That was two years ago. I gave you my report that day, telling you everything that happened."
Prime just looked at him with a calm, blank expression. "And I suspect you didn't say everything you knew." A thought occurred to him. "Were you threatened in any way? Forced to stay silent about what really happened there or forced by the Seekers to help them?" It was the only thing that Optimus Prime could think of, the only thing that made sense to him about why Epps would hold back the truth.
A look of shock on his face appeared the moment Prime asked him that question, slowly draining away and changing into anger as the full realization of what Optimus had asked sank in.
"Excuse me? Are you accusing me of lying?" Robert's voice was calm, but Prime heard an edge of anger in it.
"I am merely saying it is not the first time that Starscream and his trine have forced someone into doing something that they didn't want to do," Prime said calmly. "If so, there is nothing to be ashamed of by telling the truth, Robert."
That apparently was the wrong thing to say. "Optimus Prime," began Epps very coolly. "First, I'm not one of your soldiers. I served under Will Lennox's command. Second, even if you were my commanding officer at one point, I've resigned and am no longer in the military. I don't have to answer your questions."
Prime was confused by Epps' reaction. He just couldn't understand why Robert was being so recalcitrant about answering his question.
Unless...A dark suspicion suddenly occurred to Prime.
"Robert, you have betrayed us, haven't you?"
"What?" Robert Epps was outraged now.
"You either were forced by them, or you are in alignment with them. Which is it, Robert?" Prime's voice was ice cold now.
The visible anger drained away as Epps' face became unreadable, though his eyes were now very hard. Then he slowly shook his head and started to laugh, a slow, bitter one. "I said nothing, so in your eyes, I was either forced or I'm a traitor. That's your logic, huh, Prime? I won't tell you that I was coerced, so you assume I made a deal." His voice became hard and angry. He stared at him coldly.
"There is no other explanation." Prime said just as coldly. "What did they offer you?"
A heavy silence filled the room. Then...
"Nothing. They didn't offer anything to me, and I didn't offer them anything. You take me for a traitor, Optimus Prime?" Before Prime could respond, Epps continued.
"I have fought alongside you, your Autobots and my own comrades for over four years now. I have been injured, lost comrades, and killed with you. I never betrayed any of my oaths or beliefs, not once!"
"You let them get away," Prime accused. "I believe your country would call that treason."
Silence fell. For a moment Epps said nothing, just stared at the Autobot Commander. Then he shook his head. "It really is all black and white for you, isn't it?" The tone in his voice was a mixture of disbelief and anger.
Then Epps stood straight and looked straight at Optimus. "I am not, nor have I ever been, under any illusions about what the Seekers are capable of doing, and what they could've done to me that day. But they didn't. If you'd seen why, you might have understood." Another bitter laugh. "Then again, you likely would've killed them without a second thought, without even bothering to pay attention to what was going on."
Something in Epps' tone bothered Optimus. "Robert..."
Robert Epps just looked away from Optimus towards the wall, his face a mixture of emotions, none of which the Autobot leader could quite identify.
When he spoke finally, Epps' voice was deadly calm. "I heard the stories you and your mechs told us about the Decepticons' cruelty, not only to other races, but each other. Given what happened at Qatar with Scorponok and Blackout and everything after that, I more than agreed with it without a second thought."
He looked at Optimus Prime now, squarely in the face with a hard expression. "But then I saw something that day in Hong Kong, Ops. I stumbled onto a scene that made me realize that I didn't know everything about them." He said nothing for a moment, then said very quietly, "And neither do you."
Optimus opened his mouth to speak, but Epps wasn't finished. "I won't tell you what happened between us after that battle, Prime. I'll take that to my grave as the Seekers will likely take it to theirs. But I'll tell you this much, I was reminded about something called 'honor' that day."
Prime wasn't quite sure how to respond to that.
"And I was reminded that there is always more to a story than just one side. Not everything is as clear-cut or simple as one might like to believe."
Epps now looked at his watch. "I've got a couple things to do before I go, so I'm going to hafta cut this short. I wish you and the others luck, Prime." The tone made it clear that Epps was finished with the conversation.
Prime rose and left the room silently. There wasn't anything more he could say. Robert Epps left a few hours later, and somehow Prime knew he wouldn't be seeing the man again.
Sadly, he proved to be correct. About three years later, the Autobots learned that Epps had died of a human disease called cancer. Prime and a few others attended the funeral in their holograms. During the funeral, three F-22 jets flew overhead in formation, as if leading the procession. At the time, Optimus paid little attention to it, as Epps was being honoured with a military funeral out of respect for his time served, and he assumed that this was part of the ceremony.
It would only be later that he and the other Autobots would learn that no F-22s had been scheduled to be there.
It seemed the Seekers, for whatever reason, had come to pay their respects. They seemed to vanish from the scene shortly afterwards, never appearing in other battles after that day. Optimus never did learn what had become of them.
The Autobot leader spent a long time pondering over Robert's words.
Epps had lied to them, Optimus knew it. But somehow, he never could bring himself to tell anyone else.
He could never be sure why he didn't say anything (not even after Epps' death) anymore than he could completely understand why Epps never told them what happened that day in Hong Kong. Perhaps because no one would believe him if he did, perhaps because there was nothing to be gained by accusing a dead man of treason.
Or perhaps...Epps had been correct.
Maybe some things weren't so clear-cut after all.
But today there is no day or night
Today there is no dark or light.
Today there is no black or white,
Only shades of gray.