Transformers Prime: The Ties That Bind III
"Well?" Arcee asked Jack, hand still held out towards him. "You coming with me or would you rather take a Holo-Image?"
Giving his head a shake, his senses still somewhat dazed by the Disruptor grenade Arcee had used to rescue him, Jack managed to recover quickly, taking the Cybertronian woman's hand as she helped the teen to his feet.
"Arcee?" Jack exclaimed, practically beaming with equal parts joy and relief. "You remember everything?"
"Nothing I didn't already know when I came out of my rest cycle yesterday morning." Arcee replied, much to his disappointment. "Look, I get there's a lot we need to talk about, but that will have to wait. Priority one, getting out of here in one piece. Agreed?"
"Right." Jack answered with a nod, burying everything else he wanted to say. "So…I'm going to assume you have a plan?"
"I do," Arcee told him, leaning out of the hole she had blasted in the transparent lift tube. "And it requires us to not be in here. We need to move. The entire complex will be lousy with the Council Guard and Sector Security in minutes." She gave Jack a quick once over. "Good thing you humans are so light."
"What do you…?" Jack ventured, his sentence cut short as Arcee grabbed him, holding him close to her as she leapt through the breach. The pair instantly dropped towards the surface level, a wide pedestrian walkway coming up quickly to meet them. Bracing himself, Jack held tight as Arcee's feet hit the metal surface. The path was mostly deserted save for a few 'bots who had taken cover in the wake of falling glass from Arcee's makeshift exit.
"Okay, next step," Arcee murmured to herself, setting Jack down before bringing up a holographic overlay of the Decagon over her forearm. "We need to get here. It's a service and maintenance access way leading to the Lower City levels."
"What if the Guards figure that's where we're going? I mean, we wouldn't exactly go out the front door." Jack commented. "Unless you've got another distraction up your sleeve."
"No, that was the only Transport I could crash. I don't exactly have a surplus going."
"Wait. What happened to Bumblebee?" Jack asked.
"Once he knew what I was going to do he came up with the idea for using the ship to pull attention off of you. He preprogrammed the flight path, hence the reason it went down so easily. Said he would get us some help afterward, though I'm not quite sure what he meant." Arcee started moving. "Come on. We can worry about meeting up with him once we're out."
"Right behind you." Jack answered, keeping up as best he could with her fast strides. The pair made their way past the startled administration caste workers, moving back into the complex proper, doing the best they could to stay on the move and avoid sentry cameras. Arcee, with help from her maps, kept a brisk pace.
"How'd you manage to get the blueprints to this place?" Jack whispered close on her heels.
"This?" Arcee queried, holding out the display. "One of the perks of being a Peacekeeper is having access to City Development and Grid Archives. Although something tells me that after today I should probably consider those benefits null and void."
"I'm…I'm sorry about that." Jack told her, his remorse genuine. "I never wanted to wreck all of this for you. I know how much you loved this City and your job."
Arcee stopped short, turning to look at him squarely, her expression, at first stern, softening slightly. "You really believe you know me, don't you. That you're here to save me."
"Because it's the truth." Jack replied. "And deep down you know it to. Why else would you risk everything to save my neck? Because that's what we do for each other. That's what we've done since we met."
Arcee seemed to struggle with that, her face a mix of confusion and frustration, as though she was trying to grasp at something just out of reach. Shaking her head slowly she continued on without another word. Jack chose not to press her.
With perhaps dozens of Guards and Security forces on their heels they would need to focus. If they pulled off the escape completely, then he could try once more to make her remember. With their two biggest obstacles out of the way, they would be able to focus on the matter of Coatzin, how to stop her and, in turn, set things right.
Arcee checked her map once more, noting designations on the walls as they past. "Up ahead." She exclaimed, pointing towards a three way junction in the corridor. "We take the right most passage, follow that down two levels and we're there."
"Unless we have unexpected company." Jack observed.
"I thought I was the pessimist."
"You usually are." Jack admitted. For a moment, he could not help but relish their banter. It felt almost like things were normal again.
They moved down the right passage as the map directed, the corridor taking them down onto what appeared to be a file keeping department, the hall they entered filled with 'bots carrying small stacks of Data-Crystals as they moved from one room to the next.
While most had been intently focused on the tedium of their work, the appearance of a Peacekeeper, and a small organic being with her, brought the workers up short. While the Admin workers and archivists stopped to gawk and whisper none moved to impede their progress.
"Guess they didn't get the Memo." Jack said, giving the bewildered workers a casual wave as they ran past. "No shouts or anything."
"Typical data-pushers. If it's not in their records, it doesn't exist." Arcee explained. "Lucky for us, no one's hit the…" Arcee stopped as a piercing klaxon began blaring through the halls. "Ugh. I had to say it."
"Lesson learned." Jack chided. "Think we should go."
"Agreed." Arcee replied, resuming her previous pace down the remainder of the corridor and through another portal, the new passage curving down yet another level. "One more level and we're almost…"
"Watch out!" Jack warned, jumping up to grab Arcee by her chassis. The air in front of her was split by an energy blast that blackened the doorway they fell back through. Arcee cursed, leaning out long enough to fire several warning shots back down the new passage towards the Council Guards hunkered there.
"Nice catch." She told Jack. "Thanks."
"Yeah, well, we've kind of been in this situation before." Jack answered, flinching as weapons fire pelted the doorway. "Guess it's reflex."
"Sounds like fun." Arcee quipped.
"Well, it's not all bad." Jack explained. "It just gets…interesting once and a while."
"I'm sure." Arcee leaned out, firing another shot. "Okay…two guards, and this cover isn't going to last if they flank us with another squad."
"Any ideas?" Jack inquired.
"Some. Not liking them much, however." She admitted.
"Got another one of those grenades?"
"No, there was just the one on the Transport." Arcee sighed, making a silent decision. "Stay put!" She told Jack, rolling out into the passage, firing as she went.
"Arcee!" Jack called after her.
The Cybertronian woman shot down the passage, sliding and jumping around the energy blasts aimed for her, using the passage walls to rebound from one side to another. Taking one last leap Arcee came down between the two Council Guards, smashing fists and knees against cranial armor.
As one of the guards went down, Arcee slipped beneath the other's melee assault, using the momentum of the guard's swing to put his weapon into the wall. Jumping up Arcee's elbow came down on her opponent's head, knocking his systems senseless. Taking in her work with some small measure of awe, she looked back down the passage to where Jack remained behind cover.
"It's clear!" She called to him. Stepping out from the doorway, Jack moved quickly to join her.
"Are you alright?" He asked her, noticing her confused expression.
"I…I've had to disarm protestors in the lower city before, but…I never imagined I could do…what I just did."
"You've done stuff like this before." Jack told her with a satisfied grin. "Honestly, it always makes me wonder why the 'cons just don't go running when they see you and the others coming. Think they'd learn."
Arcee's face became a somewhat stony mask as she mulled that over. "I'm starting to think you know more about who I am then I do." She looked at him. "Can't say I like the idea of not being who I think I am."
"You'll remember, Arcee." Jack said, reaching up to take her fingers, still twitching from the fight. "I know you will."
For a moment she was silent, then she pulled her hand away, taking stock of the present. "Not if we get arrested, or scrapped. And one's more likely then the other." She warned. "Come on." Leaving the Guards where they had fallen, the pair made for the next level and they're escape.
. . .
Coatzin was not pleased. Or, to be more precise, the entity that had assumed Coatzin's self-memory was unhappy. First, it had failed in it's appointed task to locate and destroy the Prime, after having been so successful at eroding the will of the true Coatzin, corrupting her thoughts as it had been created to do. With it's Cybertronian shell rendered helpless by the intervention of the young human it had thought it's mission a complete failure.
However, the attachment the Prime had for it's shell had proven a boon, with the Autobot leader seeking to expel it from Coatzin's mind. Much to it's joy the Prime had done so by sending another of his ilk, the one called Arcee, into the depths of the shell's broken mind. While strong, the one called Arcee had been taken in by the maze of memories she had encountered. It had not taken much to create a familiar world, one to confuse until all sense of self was muddled, lost in fog. She had given into the illusion, a part of her longing for the certainties of a former life.
While it had been unable to immediately overwhelm the mind of Arcee, taking control of her as it had Coatzin, it had been making progress. That is until something strange, and unexpected, had happened. The human had appeared, something which had not been factored into it's design. Try as it might, it could not connect to the human, the soft creature's mind strange and organic.
Even more perplexing, the lost Arcee had been almost drawn to the human, finding him quickly even amongst the massive artificial cityscape. Though Arcee had not remembered the one called Jack, something buried deep within had softened her past stoic and hard nature. Despite the obstacles it had tried to throw in Arcee's way she had sought to do her duty, yet protect the human.
When Jack had been brought before the Council, Coatzin had seen her struggle when both she and the Council had cast him in doubt, exposing the series of lies he had used to buy himself time in a likely attempt to bring out the true Arcee's memories. He had been foiled, and Coatzin had rejoiced when he had been sentenced to death. However, watching the struggling Arcee, it had been concerned. Something in the Peacekeeper's face gave it pause.
Despite the victory, it suddenly thought it wise to use Coatzin's skills to it's benefit. It had faded into shadow, watching Arcee from a distance. It's suspicions had proven correct. The Peacekeeper and the one called Bumblebee had set into motion a plan to rescue the human, first crashing they're transport into the High Observation dome, escaping the Council Guards.
Now, Arcee and the human were making their way to the Lower City. While it had been in control of Coatzin's and, to a lesser extent, Arcee's memories, with the arrival of the one called Jack it found it could manipulate the memories less and less. Now it's control was almost completely gone.
It could not change what was perceived by Arcee, and it could sense her true self slowly reemerging. And it also sensed something new, something in the construct's Lower City that was a threat, as great a danger to it's plans as the human. So, it had decided to no longer play the part of the puppet master. It would take matters into it's own hands. While it could no longer manipulate the memories, it was still a part of the world. Stepping out onto the platform across the Undercity transit-way from the Decagon's sealed access door, it waited.
. . .
"There!" Arcee exclaimed, pointing out the massive steel doors at the far end of the passage. "That's the maintenance access."
"And with no time to spare," Jack observed, looking back the way they had come. "We've got company."
Turning about Arcee could see the full squad of Council Guards backed by a unit of Peacekeepers moving quickly towards them. "Right. Move." She commanded.
The pair sprinted for the door, Arcee hitting the activation panel at a dead run. An angry bleat was the only response. "Scrap!" Arcee cursed, slapping the wall beside the panel.
"Let me guess…" Jack ventured.
"They locked out the system." Arcee growled her frustration as she looked back at the approaching security force. "I can override the lock, but it'll take time. I can't do that and keep them pinned down." The Cybertronian woman locked eyes with Jack. "I'm sorry. I wanted us to get out of here. Together."
"I know." Jack told her, placing his hand atop the armor plate of her leg. "At least we found each other. We always do."
"Halt!" Came a deep familiar voice. Weapon's raised and leading the Guard was Downshift, seemingly recovered from the Transport crash and Disruptor attack, the only sign of the escape being small burn marks across his otherwise well polished chest plates. "The two of you will stand-down and submit to the authority of the Council. Refuse and you will be terminated."
"You're not taking him!" Arcee warned, cannons out and armed.
"Arcee, don't." Jack pleaded. "There might still be another way."
"No, Jack. You're too important. None of this…none of this is right. I wanted to believe it was, but from the moment I found you I knew something was wrong. I thought it was you, but it's me. It's this place. It's not the way it should be. But I know you can set it right." Arcee's face grew hard, a new determination falling in place.
"I'll hold them off, keep them focused on me. You run. Try to get out of here. You might still be able to get out of the complex. If you can get to the lower city I know Bumblebee will find you. You'll be safe."
"No!" Jack shot back. "I lost you once. I'm not going to watch it happen again."
"I'm not going anywhere. Doesn't matter if it's in a dream or some other world, my place is right here, next to you."
"Surrender now!" Downshift shouted, shattering the moment between them. "I won't ask again."
"Right then." Arcee told Jack, the smile on her face like one he had seen so many times before. "Together."
"Guards, prepare to open fi…" The Captain's words were cut short by the keening alarm from the access door behind the two fugitives. With a dull groan the portal broke apart, sliding in two pieces away and into the doorway, exposing the hazy air of the lower city beyond. And the armed gunship on the other side.
"Get down!" Yelled a voice. Instinctively Arcee grabbed the human teen, rolling away. At once the maintenance room was awash in laser fire, the lances of energy blanketing the ground and walls around the security force, pushing them back as they scattered for cover of their own. On the side of the gunship a hatch was slid open, revealing a franticly gesturing Bumblebee. "What are you waiting for, an invitation?"
Jack in her arms, Arcee shot for the door and they're freedom. The gunship hovered several feet from the door, though the gap did not serve as a deterrent. Dodging return fire from the Council Guards, Arcee leapt, coming down hard into the cab of the ship. Bumblebee slammed the hatched closed behind them.
"Let's move! They'll have Sector Security up our tailpipes any second!" BB called to the pilot. It's new passengers secured, the gunship roared away, diving like a stone into the depths of the lower city. After a moment, a smaller and far more stealthy vehicle followed.
. . .
"Wow, Jack. You've certainly helped stir things up." Bumblebee told the human, the pair of them looking up at the holographic display with it's security alert above the lower city market. The pair stood sequestered in a small alley between two of the market district's larger stores. "Word is the Council is working overtime to keep news of you and Arcee escaping on the down low. Guess their afraid it might get the people to thinking they're not as all powerful and wise as they want us to believe."
"Yeah…can't say this is how I imagined things going when I came to keep Arcee safe." Jack lamented. "I never wanted to turn this into a nightmare."
"Change is rarely a thing which passes with ease." Bumblebee replied, his voice taking on a familiar tone. "Orion told me that once. I'm sure that's as true on your world, right?"
"It is, though that wasn't exactly what I meant." Jack told him. While he was keenly aware that the world in which they inhabited was simply a construct of manipulated memories, Jack refrained from speaking of it. While it wasn't real he could not help but wonder if the years leading up to the War which had eventually divided Cybertron's people and left the world lifeless had seen the same kind of change.
"Has Arcee called in?" He asked, hoping to change the subject. Once they had been dropped off by the gunship, the vessel the property of a smuggling cartel Bumblebee had some form of ties to, Arcee had went in search of a Com-Terminal, hoping to get in touch with one or more of her former Peacekeeper allies, those she felt would not be so quick to deem her a traitor and fugitive despite what the Council of Ancients had declared in light of her and Jack's escape. If at least one Peacekeeper remained on her side, they would have some measure of information as to where Iacon's security forces were being dispatched and, more importantly, how to avoid them.
"Don't know if she had any luck, but she should be back soon. Then we can get a move on. Hate staying in one place." BB told him.
"Where are we going, exactly?" Jack inquired.
"Only place I trust to help." Bumblebee explained. "We could go to Megatronus and his followers, but something about that 'bot bothers me down to my gears. He talks about reform and change but I don't think for a second that's what he's really after, you know?"
"Yeah," Jack answered carefully. "I'm sure you're right."
Bumblebee nodded in appreciation, then gestured over Jack's shoulder. "Here she comes."
Turning about, Jack could see Arcee working her way through the market. This low in the Undercity, if anyone recognized her from the security alert none would be quick to point her out; to those who perceived themselves as the downtrodden, she was now one of them. Arcee favored Jack with a warm smile, then nodded to Bumblebee.
"Thanks for keeping him safe." She told him.
"No problem. Besides, we've all stepped in it together, right?" He asked with a laugh.
"Couldn't have said it better myself." Arcee told him with a slap on the shoulder.
"Did you have any luck with your Peacekeeper friends?" Jack asked her.
"Only one I could track down was Wheeljack. Thankfully, he was the right one."
"What's the news?" Bumblebee inquired.
"Couldn't tell me much. Looks like they figured I might turn to old friends on the force for information. The higher ups are keeping their plans close to their chest." Arcee's frustration was evident. "All he could say for sure was that the Council has demanded Sector Security be mobilized for a big push. Looks like they're worried that our escape might insight Megatronus and his movement to up their game, even if we don't have anything to do with him."
"Well, no worries." Bumblebee assured them. "If we can get in to see him I know he'll have a plan."
"Who?" Jack asked.
"Wait, that's who you planned to go to for help?" Arcee asked incredulously. "How's an Archivist going to help us?"
"He's more then that, Arcee. It's like I told you before, he's inspiring the people to change things. He's not just looking for a fight like Megatronus. The working castes already see him as a leader. If we can tell him what's happened, he'll know what to do next without us having to fight every Peacekeeper and Council Guard in the City, let alone on the planet."
"I don't know…" Arcee groaned.
"He's right." Jack told her suddenly. "Bumblebee's right. If anyone can help us, it's Orion."
"How can you be sure?" She asked him.
"I just…am." Jack said with a shrug, knowing a full explanation would be too complicated. "We can trust him."
After a moment Arcee merely sighed. "Well, it's not like we have a better option."
"Stellar!" Bumblebee exclaimed, his enthusiasm renewed. "Come on. That speech he was supposed to give should be finishing up soon. We should be able to catch him before he heads back topside."
"Lead on." Arcee agreed. "But, let's be careful. We might not get handed over to security down here, but that doesn't mean these 'bots are friendly."
Taking Arcee's warning to heart, the trio began the walk across the lower city market sector and towards the industrial district.
. . .
"Ratchet!" Bumblebee called, waving to the singled out Cybertronian across the small square. The crowd that had milled about in the wake of Orion's speech took notice, though if any among them recognized the yellow hued former Peacekeeper none made an effort to point him out. Jack, for his part, could not help but stare somewhat slack-jawed at the sight of the familiar, if somewhat different, medic.
"Bumblebee?" Ratchet asked, his eyes suddenly looking as if some danger were about to descend. After a moment, he appeared content that they were not at any immediate risk.
"We saw you on the security alert. By the All-Spark, we could scarcely believe what they were saying." Taking notice of Arcee the medic, likewise, took note of the human beside her. "Ah. And so we have the source of all this commotion."
"Nice to see you to, Ratchet." Jack answered sardonically.
"You know me, human?" He inquired.
"That's, uh, kind of complicated."
"I'm sure it is." The medic turned back to Bumblebee. "I take it you wish to see Orion?"
"Yes. If we're going to figure out what to do next, we need to talk with him."
"Hmm. Yes. Well, it just so happens he has been quite anxious to speak to our…visitor since learning about what transpired at the Decacon." Ratchet waved them along. "Come. He's speaking with a caste delegation. Hopefully they're about finished."
The trio followed the medic to a small structure just off the central square, the building appearing to be a kind of hall for Cybertronians of the worker caste to congregate and socialize. The auditorium was mostly empty now, save for a small clustered group at the far end. Even from their distance Jack could discern a tall red and blue figure in their midst, and for the first time since finding himself in the strange dreamscape about him, Jack could feel his fears subside.
"Orion?" Ratchet called gently. "I'm sorry, my friend, but, there is someone here to see you."
Looking out over the assembled representatives, the face of Optimus Prime greeted them warmly, his curiosity plain to see. Recognizing the three 'bots who had intruded on the discussion the various delegates whispered to one another.
"Please, forgive me. This is a matter I must see to." Nodding their collective understanding the caste representatives filed away, giving Orion their thanks and casting obvious glances at the human fugitive. After a moment, the hall was empty save for the five of them.
"Greetings Bumblebee. It has been too long my young friend." Orion said, taking the other Cybertronian by the forearm. "You and Peacekeeper Arcee have been making interesting news of late. Upper Iacon has been quite worked up by the rumors sweeping through the city."
"Sorry about that." Bumblebee said sheepishly. "Maybe if the Council hadn't been fooled into killing an innocent being none of this would have happened."
"Indeed. It is a sad turn of affairs. Sadder still when I learned from my mentor Zeta Prime of whom it was that pointed the finger of accusation. This is…so unlike her."
"Jack might have an explanation for that." Arcee chimed in.
"Indeed." Orion observed, studying Jack as intently as Zeta Prime had in the Council chamber. Striding forward, Orion bowed his head in greeting. "I have been looking forward to meeting you, Jackson Darby. Sentinel Prime's description of you and your quality would appear more then accurate. Though his concerns may likely prove justified. Both he and I would be quite eager to know the truth of why you are here on Cybertron. He claimed you kept this information for fear it would not be taken as truth."
"Even you might have trouble believing it Opti…I mean, Orion." Jack answered, catching himself at the end.
"Perhaps. However, I would hear it all the same. While the truth may be difficult to accept, that does not mean it should be left unsaid." Orion beckoned Jack to follow him as he moved away. "Please, come. I would hear what you have to say, then we will share it with the others."
Exchanging a quick look with Arcee, who nodded to him reassuringly, Jack moved to join Orion.
. . .
"How long ago?" Coatzin asked the caste worker, her long blade resting against his neck.
"Not…long. Less then a few minutes. We left them to speak." The representative eyed the bodies of his fellow delegates piled about them on the now empty street. The attack had been sudden, swift, and deadly. The Agent giving no cause as to why until all but one of them had been slain.
"And there are no others with them, save for the Medic?" Coatzin inquired.
"None. The hall is empty."
"Good. Thank you for being truthful with me."
"Then…I may live?"
"No." One quick movement, and the representative was joined with his fellows. Bothering to take no stock of her work, Coatzin moved for the Hall.
. . .
"…then I found myself here, though I'm still not quite sure what all this is. Mixed up memories, or Arcee's dream." Jack finished, feeling as if, at last, a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. "You pretty much know all the rest that leads up to us coming here to see you."
Silent, Orion's gaze looked up, as if searching the high ceiling above, or, perhaps, even past that, for answers or some form of guidance. Jack had held nothing back as to who he truly was and where he had come from. He had told Orion of his, in a fashion, future as Prime, the War, the fall of Cybertron, and all else that would follow. Not once had Orion interrupted to ask questions, his only reaction a gentle nod or a subtle motion to continue speaking. Now that all had been laid out on the table, Jack wondered at what would follow.
The Cybertronian before him, while having the face, mind, and body of Optimus Prime was not yet the leader he would become. The Matrix of Leadership would not be entrusted to him for some time and, as such, the Wisdom of the Primes was not yet his. However, Orion's compassion and wisdom was very much present, and it was in this that Jack placed his faith, and hope.
At last, the future Prime sighed, eyeing Jack almost somberly. "Alas, this is a matter greater then I. Greater, in truth, then us all." Orion began to pace slowly, his features contemplative. "I do not doubt the sincerity of your words. Even now, as we speak, I have tried to recall that which has come before and I find my own memories…strange. As if seen through stained glass. There is something wrong with this world and I believe it is for the reasons you have said. We are not real, nor is this our beloved Cybertron."
"I'm…so sorry, Orion. I don't know what else to say." Jack answered mournfully.
"There are no apologies required. I am not Orion Pax, only an echo of who he was in memory. For the love I feel for my world and my people, for the freedom and joy I wish them, I take great honor in being even that."
"Then…you know what I have to do?" Jack asked.
"This dream must come to an end, least it become a nightmare that never ends. I do not have the wisdom or the power to do this. However, I know where it can be found."
"With Primus, who's Spark rests in the very heart of Cybertron."
"That's right…You, I mean Optimus, went into Cybertron and got the Matrix from Primus." Jack wondered at something. "But, wait, if this is a dream, Primus won't be real. How will he be able to put things right?"
"While small, there resides in every Spark a small piece of our creator, and it his wisdom which guides us to better ourselves. Those who choose a darker path have simply chosen to no longer listen or they have chosen to be swayed by the evil whispers of Unicron."
"So, you mean, even if this is a dream…"
"We are still within the mind of Arcee, or perhaps Coatzin. Perhaps both at once. Buried within them is the wisdom of Primus. We have but to seek it out."
"Right. Okay. Let's do it!" Jack proclaimed loudly, his excitement drawing curious looks from Arcee and the others. "Sorry. Anyway, how do we even get there?"
"We must travel down, following a path deep into Cybertron. We will listen, and I believe the whispers of Primus will guide us."
"Guess I'll leave that to you and Arcee. I don't think my brain is very Primus compatible." Jack mused.
"Do not be so sure, Jack Darby." Orion observed sagely. "One has to wonder if you have been driven this far merely by the love you bare for Arcee, or by something more."
"Jack!" Arcee called out, her alarm bringing him quickly about. Both he and Orion stared in shock at what they found. Moving across the hall towards them, her stride purposeful, her features and demeanor cold, was Coatzin.
"Take another step and I'll drop you, whatever you are!" Arcee growled.
"Arcee, no!" Orion warned, moving quickly to stand before her. "Yours and Jack's future resides along a different path. It will not end here. Go, Jack knows what you must find to bring all of this to an end, to give you back your lives."
"What?" Jack asked, a sick feeling coming to him. "What about you?"
"You have a greater destiny, and must escape this place. Of that, I have no doubt." Orion turned to face the approaching Assassin. "Go, my friends."
"No, you can't…" Jack tried.
"Fear not, Human." Ratchet exclaimed, moving to stand by Orion's side. "He will not face this alone. If he says you must go, then go!"
Arcee moved to stand beside Jack, her weapons still tracking Coatzin's approach. "Jack, we can't waste anymore time. If we can fix all of this, then we have to go."
"She's right Jack. You guys better get a move on." Bumblebee added.
"BB? No, you have to come with us." Arcee ordered.
"Sorry, partner. But we're not Peacekeepers anymore. No orders for me." Bumblebee brought out his own weapons. "You two have a better chance of getting a head start the longer we can keep her occupied."
"He's right, Jack." Arcee agreed, her voice heavy. "We…we have to go."
Jack looked to all of them, feeling as though he had once more destroyed a memory that did not belong to him. "I'm so sorry for this."
"Don't worry about it, Jack." Bumblebee said with a grin. "If Orion thinks you and Arcee are supposed to do something important, then that's enough for me. Now, I hate goodbyes. So get going!" With that, the former Peacekeeper was gone, running to join the proverbial line which has been drawn in the sand.
"Jack?" Arcee told him softly, but firmly. "We have to go."
Sparing them yet one more look, Jack nodded. "Orion said we have to go down. Into the heart of Cybertron."
"I think I know a place to start. Come on." Then Arcee was moving quickly, Jack close on her heels.
Behind them the Assassin watched them go, then shifted her gaze to the three Cybertronians in her path.
Orion Pax looked calmly into her eyes. "Whatever you are, you will not win."
The face that stared back with empty hatred was Coatzin's. The un-natural scream that tore from her mouth before she leapt was not.
. . .
"That's it, down there." Arcee told Jack, pointing down at what appeared to be a massive sewer drain. "It's one of several hundred around the planet. Waste that can not be repurposed is dropped through there to the furnaces deep below the surface."
Jack, his mood still somewhat somber and grim in light of their second escape, gave the artificial chasm a closer look. "You want us to drop down into a pit of fire?"
"The furnaces are thousands of miles down, and it's not like it's going to be a straight drop. We just need to find the service conduits that run down alongside. Most likely haven't been used in millenia, but they should still be intact. We can use those to go deep into Cybertron's interior. What we do after that, I don't know."
"Orion said we'd have to listen. And that Primus would show us the way." Jack told her.
Arcee, for her part, seemed to stare blankly, seemingly trying to process what she had just heard. "Well…let's hope he knew what he was talking about. At this point, things are so upside down and inside out I'm not going to discount anything being possible. Come on." With that, Arcee took the lead.
The pair traveled in reletive silence for some time, moving quickly through dilapidated Undercity structures and tunnels working they're way towards the gaping maw in the lower city's surface. After a time, Jack at last broke the quiet.
"Do you think they're…?" Jack asked.
"Best not to think about it. We've got enough to worry about. If we have to…we can mourn them later."
The descent continued on for almost an hour before the two of them, at last, walked out onto the pitted surface surrounding the top of the chute. Jack could see, just as Arcee had explained, blackened and eroded steps leading from the surface and into the shaft. To say the steps looked unsafe was being generous.
"Uh, Arcee?" Jack inquired.
"I know. We don't have a choice though. It's the only way down that I know and we don't have time to look for another." Arcee responded. "We'll just have to take it slow."
Jack only nodded. With nothing more to say, Arcee took the first step, testing her weight against it gingerly. If it held her, it would certainly pose no risk to Jack. The first step proved stable enough, as did the second, then the one after that and so on. Arcee had managed several steps before she felt it was safe. She turned back to look up at Jack.
"Alright. Just take it slow. These weren't exactly built with humans in mind." As Jack leapt down from one step to another that fact was clearly evident.
Sparing a glance over the side of the service stairwell, Arcee regarded the deep chasm of darkness. Even though her sensors could not gauge an accurate depth, she knew it was going to be a long way going. Chosing to focus instead on protecting Jack, Arcee committed herself to the descent.
. . .
After nearly a day's worth of travel, the pair finally reached the tunnels running near the furnace. Though in poor repair the passages were not impassable and once the stairwell was far behind them they made good time. Much as Orion had believed, both Jack and Arcee had begun to feel…compelled. Ushered forward as they moved from one tunnel to the next, their path taking them ever downward. Some might have feared it was a descent into hell itself; however, Jack could only feel a growing sense of something old. Something powerful and, especially, ancient.
Arcee mirrored what he felt, marveling at it. Moving together in the near darkness, the light beam on Arcee's forearm guiding the way, it wasn't long before they had traversed deeper then perhaps any Cybertronian for millennia. Jack was aware that, in the true course of events, it had been Orion Pax who had made this journey. But the dreams, or memories, had taken a very different turn, and now he could only see it through.
"Jack." Arcee said suddenly, brought up short, her voice almost a whisper.
"I know." He told her. "I can feel it too." The end of the tunnel before them seemed to grow brighter as they took one slow step forward after the next, the light almost blinding at it's apex. With one last step they moved from the tunnel and into the presence of something which Jack felt he would never be able to describe. In a massive, cavernous chamber, shining like a sun and encased in plates of gold that flowed across the surface in gorgeous patterns, was what they both new to be what Orion had found long, long ago in the deep heart of Cybertron. Before them swirled the Spark of Primus.
"It's so beautiful." Arcee whispered. "I never even imagined…"
"This would defiantly stir up a religious debate or two back home." Jack agreed. The pair stood there in awed silence. It was several moments before Jack realized that Arcee had wrapped a hand about him, holding him tightly. Looking up at her face he knew that, were it possible for her to do so, tears would be welling beneath the optics that were her azure eyes.
Suddenly, Jack felt a change, like the world was shifting before him. The armored sun seemed to grow brighter, a new light washing over them. To Jack it felt like warm water upon cold skin, deeply soothing. When they at last heard the voice, they were both shaken.
"You have come. A long way." The voice called to them. "And I welcome you."
Jack swallowed audibly. While not fearful, his heart still hammered in his chest. "Are…are you Primus?"
"I am Creator. Both Father and Mother to my Children."
"I, we, were told to come here. By Orion Pax. We need your help to end this…whatever this is. Give Arcee back her true memories. And, hopefully, save another's life as well. Another of your children."
The living star was silent. That silence seemed to stretch for an eternity.
"Great Primus." Arcee said solemnly. "I have come to see that this is not my life. That I am needed," she looked to Jack. "And loved, in a place other then this. I was lost, but Jack Darby found me to bring me home. To bring us both home. If you can, I beg you, show us the way."
"There's something coming. Something twisted and evil that is trying to consume Arcee so that she can be used as a weapon against one of your Primes. The Last Prime. If we can find our way out of here, and find a way to save the one who's been corrupted, then Optimus Prime will be safe."
"There must be something which can be done." Arcee exclaimed.
"There isn't." Came a voice like ice at their backs. Both spun, Arcee drawing her guns as she did so. Coatzin stood there, her body, her true form, appearing to be wreathed in coiling shadows like a mist, eyeing the star with eyes full of malice. "You ask questions for which there are no answers." She looked to Jack, a smile on her face. "There is no Primus."
"I don't believe that. I don't think you do either." Jack told her squarely. "If you did why follow us all the way down here if there wasn't something that could stop you?"
"The shell that bares this face will soon be of little use to me. However, the shell of Arcee still functions. I need only remove that which gives her purpose and what is left of her mind's defenses will crumble. I will claim her existence and I will fulfill the will of my Masters."
"Don't count on it, slag." Arcee growled, taking aim.
"Wait." Jack said. "What masters? Are you talking about the Decepticons?"
The thing which wore Coatzin's body laughed, a sound out of nightmares, like a child torn by insanity.
"The Decepticons are abominations, as those who follow the Last Prime are abominations. They will fall, all will fall before the coming of those who will lay claim to all the stars to build an Infinite Empire."
"If you're not Decepticons, then what are you?"
"We are your doom, and your destiny."
"What you are is scrap!" Arcee yelled, letting loose a salvo of energy blasts. Then the thing which was Coatzin was moving, a blur of motion, like shadow, the air around her seeming to warp and bend as she avoided each shot. Then she was upon Arcee, lifting her as though she weighed but a feather, slamming her down with enough force to crack armor and polymer. Coatzin's hand closed around Arcee's neck, squeezing.
"I can not kill you. Doing so would leave your body useless. Something of you must survive, at least for a time. But I will silence you, then silence this flesh creature. Then I will complete my mission."
"No…Jack…" Arcee gasped, trying to struggle against the unbreakable grasp.
Jack looked about, trying to find something to fight, though knowing it would useless. In the real world it had taken a complex EMP device to bring the Assassin down. Here, there was nothing but memories. Unless…
"Please!" Jack pleaded, turning to the Spark of Primus. "You must do something. Even if he was only a memory, an echo, Orion Pax believed. I've never doubted Optimus Prime, and I won't start now. I know there's something of you here, something real. You have to help her. Please! I don't care if I make it out of here, but you can't let her die. Please! Please!"
"Your words fall on emptiness, human. There is no Primus. This shell believed she served the will of Primus. An Illusion as that is an illusion. We silenced him long ago."
"Shut up!" Jack screamed. The thing which wore Coatzin laughed.
"I said shut up!" Jack yelled again. Wait, he thought.
…Fall…It said again. The voice without malice.
"No. I can't fall. If I do she dies. I won't loose her again!"
"What?" Jack asked. Behind him, the Assassin looked between him and the golden star.
"Wake." Jack thought aloud. "It's a dream. It a dream."
"No…" Coatzin hissed, the shadows about her beginning to writhe.
Jack turned to the creature. "This is all a dream. But I had it wrong. It's not in your head, or Arcee's. Is it?"
Coatzin released Arcee, rising up and stalking towards him.
"Your in my head, you bitch!" Jack yelled. "Your in my dream! And how do you wake up from a bad dream?"
Coatzin screeched, reaching for him…and Jack ran, sprinting for the edge of the platform. Then he jumped, the deep abyss rushing up to meet him. Then all was darkness and silence.
. . .
…before you wake…see…
Hard stone was beneath his cheek. The air that filled his lungs was hot, burning his chest. Jack's eyes opened and he stumbled to his feet coughing though smoke and ash. Looking about him Jack was only greeted by a hellish wasteland.
"Don't tell me…" He moaned.
"Jack?" She called from nearby.
"Arcee? He asked with a jump, searching the wasteland for her. She was there, nestled in the ash covered soil. He ran to her. "Arcee? Are you alright?"
She opened her eyes to look at him, and he saw something there, something familiar.
"Jack? Where are we?" She murmured, confused.
"You know me?" Jack asked her. "I mean, you really know me?"
"Yes…" She told him. "What happened? Last thing I remember…the Cognitive Patch…Coatzin…"
"It's a long story." Jack told her, eyes full of tears.
"But, where are we?" She asked.
"I don't know. I woke up, then…" Jack paused. "Unless…"
"It told me to see." Jack thought aloud.
"See? See what?"
Then the ground underfoot began to shake, a violent wind whipping past them, pushing away the smoke and the ash, exposing what lay all around them. Bodies. Cybertronian bodies, both Autobot and Decepticon, piled high in the burning earth.
"All Spark…" Arcee whispered. "Jack…I recognize this place."
"What are we seeing?"
"The past." Arcee breathed. "Coatzin's."
As if to confirm that a light filled the sky, illuminating the battlefield. In the center of a mound of shattered Decepticon drones was Coatzin, her body broken, the last thread of life in her spark slipping away.
"This…this is the Battle of the Line, isn't it?" Jack said. "After you all escaped."
The two of them watched as the sky over head, lit like a sensor board, filled with a roar like thunder as something large descended.
"Is that the Nemesis?" Jack asked.
"No. Megatron followed us. Was the only ship he had left." Arcee answered.
The vessel which descended from the heavens was unlike anything Jack had ever seen, it's construct appearing both mechanical and organic, long and bulbous. The light which flashed down from it suddenly swept the battlefield, searching. When the light touched Coatzin's body, it stopped. Then there was flash, a small tunnel of light opening up beside her.
"Ground Bridge…" Jack whispered.
From within…something emerged. Almost as large as Jack, dark and writing, encased in robes the color of midnight. The thing loomed over Coatzin, and Jack could almost hear it's words as it spoke.
"…this one. It can be mended. It can serve."
Coatzin's damaged eyes gazed up at the light from the ship, her voice weak, but hopeful. "Primus…? Have you come for me…?
The robed being leaned close, and in the light Jack could see a terrible visage, long tentacles hanging from it's face.
"No…" Arcee whispered. Before Jack could asked her what it was he heard the being speak once more.
"Yes, child. We are Primus. Your Creator. You will live again. And Serve…"
Then the world began to shift, as though everything was being stretched and pulled apart. Hazy. Instinctively Jack reached for Arcee, who held him close in kind. And it was as if both of them were falling. Before it all became darkness, Jack heard the gentle voice which had saved him. Heard what it said, and the words filled him with dread.
. . .
Jack woke fighting against arms that tried to hold him in place. The fear of what he had seen, what he had been told, still fresh in his mind.
"Jack!" The girl's voice yelled. "Jack, jeez, knock it off before I have to knock you out!"
Eyes wide, Jack looked through entangled arms into a familiar pig tailed face.
"Miko?" He asked.
"Who else?" She shot back.
"You tell us, knuckle head." She asked angrily, letting him go before punching him in the shoulder. "What you were thinking? You could have died you ass."
"Hey, easy Miko." Bulkhead's voice said from outside the isolation room. "Let's just be glad he's not."
"Whatever." She said in a huff, rising up from where she had been kneeling. Jack discovered he was lying on the floor of the medical room, beside the box he had used to reach…
"Arcee!" He yelled, fighting through a flood of dizziness and nausea to reach her. Standing there beside the bed, monitoring her closely, was Ratchet, the medic sparing a moment to stare daggers at the teen.
"She's fine. No thanks to you. When she wakes, if she doesn't knock some sense into you I just might. You could have killed her and yourself with that little stunt."
"She's waking up?" Jack asked the medic.
"Yes. So it would seem. Her cognitive functions appear normal. And I've found no trace of the virus. In either patient."
"Then it worked…" Jack muttered.
"What? What worked?" Ratchet demanded.
"It's…a long story." Jack offered.
"One we would all be quite interested to hear, Jack." Optimus replied from behind him. Turning he found the Prime standing over Coatzin, the Sigma Agent still unresponsive. "Raphael explained to us your intent once you had slipped into the Cognitive link and we were unable to rouse you. However, we could not begin to surmise what was transpiring."
"Short version?" Jack answered. "That thing in Coatzin's head is gone. But, I think, it's just the start of something worse."
"What do you…? Optimus began before Jack's attention was brought around by Arcee's gasp. Arcee's body shook, her illuminated eyes opening quickly as one would from a startled sleep. She looked about the room, almost in a panic before her gaze came to rest on Jack.
"Jack?" She whispered. "I'm here, aren't I?"
"We both are. You remember?"
"All of it…all of it. It was like…fighting through fog. And then…I couldn't remember. I thought I was somewhere else." She reached out to wrap her fingers about him, pulling him close. "Then I found you. And it started coming back." Jack reached out in kind, placing his hands on each side of her face, he put his brow against hers.
"I knew it would. And I knew I'd find you. I'll always find you."
She laughed, and it was a beautiful sound. "Jack…." Then she kissed him.
Several sets of eyes, both Human and Cybertronian, looked on in stunned silence. After a moment, Ratchet cleared his throat.
"Well." The Medic replied with as much professional poise as he could. "That is certainly…unexpected."
Miko stared in equal surprise. Then pulled out her cell phone, snapping a picture.
"Miko!" Bulkhead protested.
"Oh come on! Otherwise I might never believe it."
. . .
"I believe she's waking up." Ratchet told the group as they stood waiting outside. Jack and Arcee had long since recovered, savoring one another's company while avoiding the curious glances from Miko and Bulkhead. Jack had been surprised to learn, much as Arcee had been, from Ratchet that neither had been unconscious for more then an hour. Jack had stood in disturbed silence.
The dream his mind had created had been so complex, the events occurring seemingly over the course of three days, yet had, in the real world, transpired in only a short time. He knew dreams could often work that way, seemingly forever in a day, but the truth of it had left him cold inside. Worse, he had yet been able to speak to Optimus about what he had learned.
But, that would wait in light of what was happening now.
Within the isolation room Optimus stood beside Coatzin, waiting patiently. After a few moments the former assassin's eyes slowly opened. Her gaze searched the room, then fell on the Prime. She smiled.
"I…know your face." She said weakly.
"And I yours." Optimus told her gently.
"Why can't I…move?" While Ratchet had offered to speak, Optimus had insisted that he be the one to say what was required.
"You were stricken with an illness. One against which you fought with great strength. You are rid of it now. However…"
"I am…dying." She said matter of factly, with only the smallest hint of remorse in her voice.
"Your Spark has grown too weak. We have done all that can be done, but we can not reignite it's flame once more."
"Because I was…not meant…to come back." She told him gently.
"I do not believe that to be so." Optimus answered.
"You…always believed…in the impossible, my love."
"Because you gave me the strength to do so."
"No. It was there…long before out paths crossed." She smiled. "I would touch your face…if I could."
Without hesitating Optimus gathered Coatzin's hand in his, raising in to be held against his polymer cheek.
"Better?" He asked.
"Yes." She managed to nod. She was quiet for a moment, the light in her eyes seeming to dim slightly, before she looked to him again. "I was…trapped. Nightmares that I could not bring to their end. It was a terrible thing…to be a prisoner in one's own dreams."
"If I could have taken it upon myself to deliver you from it…"
"I would have…been angry with you. Just as…before, you are too important to risk for…the sake of one…"
"On this, I think, we will never agree."
"And that…is why…I love you." Beside the bed, the monitors began to beep far more slowly.
"I do not wish you to go." Optimus told her.
"I was…gone…long ago. This…was never real. It's was a dream…and a prison…of guilt. Do not weep for me…love…for I die…free."
The monitor beeped once more, then was silent. Optimus would stand beside the bed for some time. No one would disturb him.
. . .
In the wake of Coatzin's funeral, Optimus having taken her remains to an unknown place somewhere on the planet where none would ever find her, the Prime at last sat with Arcee and Jack, the pair relating the events which had transpired within Jack's mind.
"I'm still not really clear on how, exactly, two sets of Cybertronian memories and consciousnesses ended up in my head, but it wasn't until Primus, or whatever it was, spoke to me that I realized what was happening. After that, it was just a matter of waking up." Jack mulled something over in silence for a moment.
"When I was little, after my dad…well, when he was gone I had a lot of falling dreams. They always woke me up, made me jump out of my skin. The voice must have looked into my mind and seen that. When it told me to fall, well, the pieces fell into place."
"I am curious as to how the virus could be transferred to Jack's mind, yet not effect him and, subsequently, be destroyed."
"I believe the virus was, itself, some form of higher consciousness. As such, it would consist of electrical patterns much like a human mind or a Cybertronian Positronic net. All merely electrical impulses. Through the cognitive relay those electrical impulses were transferred into Jack's mind where his subconscious created a dreamscape to facilitate them." Ratchet looked over the medical data he had collected.
"It's quite fascinating actually, and could lend credit to the theory that, at one time, Cybertronian minds where more organic then cybernetic.
"Perhaps." Optimus mused. "However, there is far more to this then meets the eye. If this virus was not a creation of the Ancients, then from where did it stem."
Arcee and Jack exchanged haunted glances. After a moment, Arcee spoke. "The virus was created by Ancients, in a way. Just not Cybertronian ones."
"What then?" Ratchet asked.
"Optimus." Jack replied. "You already know. I think you knew from the beginning. That's why my dream version of you pointed me to the Primus Spark. On some level I knew that's what would lead me to the answer. The wisdom of the Primes."
"Indeed." Optimus said, pacing to the center of the operations room. "I had my fears, and hoped they would be proven false."
"They weren't." Arcee said. "And now we've got a danger out there far greater then anything the Decepticons could hope to be."
"Would someone please tell me what is being discussed here?" Ratchet requested sternly.
Optimus turned to regard them all. "The Quintessons. Cybertron's ancient enemy."
"What?" Ratchet exclaimed with a laugh. "That's not possible. They were destroyed long ago."
"No, my friend. I have the wisdom of the Primes within my spark, and I know beyond doubt that they were beaten, but not destroyed."
"By the All-Spark." Ratchet whispered.
"It's worse." Jack said quietly.
"What's worse, Jack?" Arcee asked him.
"Before we woke up, after seeing that memory of Coatzin's, I heard the voice, Primus's voice, one more time. He told me something, and it's been burned in my brain ever since."
"What did Primus impart to you Jack?"
"Just three words." Jack said, his face somewhat pale. "They are coming."