My thanks to everyone for your kind wishes, condolences and prayers. For those who are concerned, I and the rest of my family are coming to terms with what happened and though there will always be a hole there, we are dealing with it together.
As a gift of gratitude I did not end this chapter where I initially wanted to, but took it to a less cliff-hanger stopping point. :)
Optimus transformed first, followed quickly by Ironhide and First Aid. The three of them looked around, taking in the sight of Jazz and Prowl standing with seeming nonchalance in the midst of five recently off-lined Decepticons.
"We didn't detect any weapons fire." Ironhide murmured, looking expectantly at the saboteur and tactician.
Jazz gave him a humorless grin. "They didn't get a chance and we didn't need ta."
Ironhide grunted, shifting his armor plating as he looked at the Deceptcion nearest him. "What a shame."
Prowl looked away from the black mech to consider the Prime, outwardly nonplussed. "We should keep moving, Prime. It is highly unlikely that they did not report our presence. However, I do not believe they identified you as being in our number."
Optimus considered him for a moment and then nodded.
"We can't go back ta tha main highway." Jazz spoke up. "They got sensors set up ta detect a party our size."
"They are waiting for something like this." Optimus murmured.
Prowl nodded. "It appears so. I have already planned a course to avoid known sensor and scout locations."
A jerk of his helm at the nearest off-line frame indicated how the information had been obtained. If that knowledge made the Prime uncomfortable, he gave no indication of that discomfort. All he did was incline his helm and gesture Prowl to proceed.
Prowl quickly transmitted new position assignments for how they would be traveling before he collapsed into his alt form. The others followed suit without question and they moved out together. This time Prowl was leading a much narrower chevron-shaped formation.
Once they were underway Prowl carefully considered his options and then hailed the Prime on a private comm. line. /Prime, permission to speak frankly, sir?/
Optimus's reply was only delayed by a second and hinted at well-concealed concern. /Proceed./
Prowl hesitated, considering the tenor of that response, then he pushed ahead. /Prime it would be helpful to know what our intended goal is in Simfur if I am to devise a way for us to get safely back to Iacon./
Optimus did not answer for a long breem and Prowl let the silence hang between them, letting the Prime consider every angle of doing as Prowl had requested.
When the Prime finally replied, there was a distinct note of caution in his transmission. /We are going to best decide how to secure the AllSpark. The Temple Priests and Guardians have reported several attempts by the Decepticons to take the AllSpark./
Prowl felt a stab of pain dig into his processor as he struggled to completely process not just the words, but the implications of what the Prime had just told him.
/Megatron does not like sparklings. They are too weak, a liability in his optics./ The tactician objected, processor still spinning.
/Yes./ There was a gravity and pain in that single word that threatened to make Prowl shudder. /Intelligence has uncovered rumors about Shcokwave developing a type of pre-programmed adult frame. Drones with higher processing abilities that would be come easily controlled and completely loyal to Megatron once sparked./
Prowl's engine stalled and his intakes choked. He just barely managed to keep his place in the formation, but it was several seconds before he could gather himself enough to respond. /That… that is abhorrent!/
The Prime's engine revved deeply. /Yes. We must keep the AllSpark out of Megatron's hands. That is not an option./
/Agreed./ Prowl transmitted his commitment to that goal then he paused. /If I may be so bold Prime, if you send me all relevant information, I may be able to assist./
Optimus' response was thoughtful. /What information do you need?/
Prowl took a deep vent and proceeded carefully. /All the data on the Decepticon attempts on the AllSpark, current Guardian personnel at the temple, current and proposed security measures and all political information in Simfur./
The Prime did not answer for a long time and Prowl waited patiently, knowing exactly what he was asking for. If he were a traitor such information would be exactly what he needed to give the AllSpark to Megatron. He knew that possibility had to be running through the Prime's processor; he would not be a good leader if he did not consider all possibilities.
/Prowl…/ The tactician could hear the internal conflict in the Prime's transmission and realized the diligent leader was warring with the Circuit Su student.
Had he been in his base form, Prowl would have frowned. As it was he transmitted the equivalent of respectful submission. /You are my Prime. I know what I am asking. If I have not earned enough trust to be given that information separate from our Circuit Su relationship, I respectfully submit that Jazz is fully capable of removing that data once I have completed the analysis./
Optimus' instinctive revulsion of that idea hit Prowl firmly, but he could still sense the indecision. /Why?/
/When I was first assigned to this mission it was clear that it was my processor that was needed./ Prowl ruthlessly kept all emotion except rueful understanding out of his transmission. /That is what I am freely offering./
It was an excruciatingly demeaning offer to make, and the Prime knew that.
Once more the silence stretched. This time, even if he did not press the topic, Prowl had no way of knowing that the Prime was consulting the Matrix.
Nearly two breems passed before the Prime responded, /Your assistance will be appreciated, Prowl. Transmitting data./ His tone was subdued enough Prowl suspected his offer had been accepted.
Prowl received the streaming data with a sober acknowledgement and quickly started running it through his advanced processors. He quickly realized how complex the problem was. On the heels of that understanding, he realized he would need every astrosecond remaining in their journey to process it since he was starting from a near total lack of information.
But they were depending on his doorwings to avoid Decepticon patrols and other bystanders. Doorwings that would not be as effective if he diverted processing power to analyze the data.
His engine revved in frustration then an idea struck him. It required a certain level of trust, but he was going to let the mech in question strip applicable data from his memory banks if necessary. By comparison, this was nothing.
Prowl pinged jazz. /Prowl to Jazz./
/What's up Prowler?/ Jazz asked jauntily as he swerved to avoid a pot-hole large enough to swallow the minibot.
Prowl released a vent. /The Prime has just sent me the relevant data pertaining to our mission objective./
There was a stunned moment of silence then a blip of enthusiastic excitement flitted across Prowl's perception. It was so strong, Prowl could not bring himself to relate the conditions in which it had been given.
Jazz was nearly giddy. /Right-o. What does this have ta do with me?/
/There is more data and the situation is more complex than I anticipated./ Prowl explained shortly, the consummate professional. /I will be unable to process it without rerouting processing power from my sensors./
Worry replaced enthusiasm. /Right now we need your sensors./
/That's a problem./ Frustration replaced worry in Jazz's tone.
Prowl allowed a tiny smile into his own transmission. /Yes, but I have a possible solution./
Just like that, concern was replaced by unsurprised smugness and was accompanied by the equivalent of a friendly nudge to the shoulder. /Lemme guess. That's why you're talkin' ta me./
/Perceptive./ Prowl replied dryly. /If I give you the uplink to my sensory feeds, you can maintain surveillance while I reroute necessary power to process the data./
This time it was Jazz's engine that stuttered. /Ya would trust me that much?/
Prowl cast him the equivalent of a sidelong look. /I've trusted you to do far more invasive things./ Prowl reminded him. /And I will be trusting you to do so again. This is necessary./
Jazz was instantly more subdued. /There were strings attached ta getting you this data./ Anger flashed between them. /I wish this didn't keep happening./
/It was my idea this time, Jazz./
That shut the saboteur up for a long moment. /That doesn't change tha fact I've never processed sensory data as complex or as fine as what your doorwings provide ya./
Prowl transmitted a rueful chuckle. /You will not need to take the full load, only that which exceeds what I can spare for the analysis./
Jazz was silent for a few astroseconds and then Prowl received the equivalent of a shrug. /Yeah, sure, why not? If it doesn't work we can try somethin' else, right?/
Prowl merely sent the saboteur the uplink codes and transferred the necessary data stream.
There was a moment of stunned silence before Jazz sent acknowledgement that he had received the uplink. When he finally did, the saboteur's choice of words were not exactly professional.
/Wow. You 'see' like this all the time?/
Had they been in base mode Prowl would have been sorely tempted to roll his optics. As it was, he merely answered with an even, /Yes./
/This almost makes my sensory horns seem like primitive slag./ Jazz continued to enthuse. /I could get used to this./
/Hm./ Prowl began sifting through the data the Prime had given him, categorizing it. /It is unfortunate your function makes doorwings inadvisable./
He was treated to the sound of Jazz's deep laughter. /Or I'd be tempted ta find a way ta take yours. I know./
Prowl's engine stuttered, nearly stalling.
"And just what's so funny Jazz?" Ironhide demanded.
"Prowl." Jazz supplied, laughter still ringing in his voice.
Unsure if Ironhide was actually addressing him, or simply making an incredulous statement, Prowl cleared his vents. "I have no comment on the matter."
Jazz just laughed again.
… … …
Using the information he had downloaded from the off-lined Decepticons combined with the extremely detailed sensory information courtesy of Prowl's doorwings, Jazz was able to lead them the rest of the way to Simfur without incident. Though Prowl processed the data quickly, it was not until they were within visual range of Simfur's impressive outer spires that he completed his analysis.
At an urgent signal from the tactician, Jazz took them to a secluded, well concealed hideaway just outside Simfur's massive walls. Doubtless this was a waypoint he and his spec ops mechs used, but Prowl knew Jazz would never confirm that and so he knew better than to ask.
Once there, the tactician transformed, prompting his four traveling companions to do the same.
Prowl wasted no time, he looked at the Prime and spoke firmly but also with respect. "We should refuel now. It could be some time before we have another opportunity."
Optimus nodded, not questioning the recommendation. "What have you found, Prowl?"
Prowl took in a deep vent of air. "I believe the Temple Guard to be wholey devoted to the safety of the AllSpark. However, I suspect at least two of the city council favor Megatron's position. Whether they are actually loyal to Megatron or have been intimidated into cooperating, I do not know."
Before Optimus could respond Ironhde growled "Wait. That is quite a jump to make, especially for someone who doesn't even know what the mission objective is."
The Praxian's doorwings flicked back, but Optimus put a hand on his bodyguard's arm. "I gave Prowl all relevant data." He looked back at Prowl. "What do you recommend?"
Prowl frowned. "We must be cautious with the Councilors, otherwise we could easily find ourselves overwhelmed."
"I do not like the idea of working behind the backs of the city council." Optimus rumbled unhappily. "Simfur is a loyal territory."
"But not all of its leaders are." Prowl remained firm but respectful. "Prime, if they become aware of your presence, the Decepticons will learn of our presence here. I might not be able to find a way out of the assault that logic dictates they will then level against you."
Optimus looked at the former Decepticon without giving any hint as to his internal contemplations. Then he released a vent of air. "What do you suggest?"
"Meet with the Senior Priest and the Lead Guardians." Prowl answered immediately, not bothering to hide his relief at realizing he had won the argument, at least for now. "Find the lay of the land. See if we can discover the identity of the traitorous city council members."
The Prime's armor shifted over his frame. "Do you have a plan for facilitating such a meeting?"
Prowl's doorwings relaxed as what might have been a smirk briefly touched his lip plates. "I do."
… … …
Less than a joor later, Prowl and First Aid were driving along the main thoroughfare leading through the heart of Simfur. They stayed close together but did their best to blend into the ebb and flow of traffic. For the most part they were successful, except that Prowl's Enforcer alt mode served to part traffic.
Thankfully, so long as he remained in alt-mode, nothing drew attention to Prowl as being a Praxian.
They traveled in silence for several breems, passing under sky-bridges and through canyons that were actually streets running between, through and sometimes under or even over buildings.
"Why am I going again?" First Aid asked suddenly, though soft enough only Prowl could hear.
Prowl cast a scan over the medic, aware that the orange and white mech was slowly inching closer to him. "You are a medic. The Priests and Temple Guardians are not as likely to see you as a threat."
"Oh. Right." First Aid murmured, but he did not allow the space between their bumpers to widen.
They soon reached the towering mass of the temple itself. Even without the signature architecture of the ancient building, they would have known they were nearing their destination by the subtle shift in the air around them. As they neared the temple the typically busy atmosphere of the streets gradually gave way to reverence and contemplation. The gentle, soothing hum in the energy that radiated from the beautifully elegant, if simply designed, building both comforted and warned those who would approach.
Prowl stopped and transformed at the base of the wide steps that led into the temple proper. First Aid did the same, gazing upward in awe.
For a brief moment Prowl was hit with a stab of guilt as he remembered claiming to be an acolyte from this same temple in order to gain entry into Praxus during his ilfated last mission as a Decepticon. That subterfuge, which had sat heavy on his spark at the time, now seared through his conscious. Had such an important mission not hinged on what he was here to do, Prowl might have turned away in shame.
Instead he pushed it aside with a lurch of his tanks and took the steps to the main entrance with outward confidence. First Aid followed closely as they walked through the gilded, intricately sculpted doors.
Lifting his chin with the authority of his purpose, Prowl set his doorwings into a carefully respectful and formal posture as he stopped directly in front of the first Temple Guardian he found.
"I come as an envoy for the Prime. I need to speak to your Senior Commander and the Senior Priest." Prowl spoke with calm forcefulness that was still appropriately respectful.
The Guardian blinked at Prowl, glanced at First Aid and then straightened officially. "Authorization?"
Prowl transmitted the four part code signal the Prime had given him before he and First Aid had set off.
The Guardian, a rich green and blue painted mech with silver highlights, stepped back, his optics widening. Then his armor flared. "Oh, thank Primus! Come this way, sir."
Prowl followed, First Aid close to his side, deeper into the temple. They passed through a labyrinth of hallways, each one built on a scale that rivaled that of the training arena Bluestreak had found in the lower levels of Iacon. The temple was ancient.
They were taken to a small room, one that was almost just a nook in the wall, though there was room enough for Prowl and First Aid to join the two mechs already inside. As he passed the threshold, Prowl felt the tell-tale tingle against his armor that indicated a cloaking field would hide the activities that went on inside that room.
Standing inside, waiting for them, was a Temple Guard his emerald paint edged in an iridescent gold that marked both his rank and his function. The Senior Priest was also there, the etchings carved into his plating stamped with an opalescent sheen that stood out against his bright silver armor and twinkled in the light to make him almost glow.
Pushing aside his personal feelings at standing before these two mechs, Prowl focused on his mission. He and First Aid bowed low as tradition and law dictated.
"You bring a medic as escort, Envoy?" The Lead Guardian asked with neutral caution.
Prowl inclined his helm, not letting himself squirm under the Guardian's intense scrutiny. "My purpose is peaceful, Commander."
The Senior Priest shot his Lead Guardian and personal guard a look and then held his hand toward Prowl in friendly greeting. "Welcome, Prime's Envoy." Prowl straightened out of his humble bow and touched the Priest's hand lightly as he was instructed to state his business.
"The Prime wishes to meet with you, in person, here in Simfur. He wishes to arrange a place and time." Prowl spoke formally.
A location, in the basement levels of the temple itself was quickly decided upon. If the Priest and the Guardian were surprised at the time-frame Prowl promised the Prime could meet them, they did not show it.
"For all that Simfur is loyal to the Autobots, the Prime is not safe in the open." The gold-trimmed mech spoke guardedly. "I recommend using these tunnels to reach the rendezvous."
Prowl received the coordinates the warrior sent to him. "And why is he not safe?"
The Guardian exchanged a look with the Priest. "There is dissention. Some are saying that if the Prime truly cared about the AllSpark the Autobots would have done more to help protect it."
"I see." Prowl frowned. "However, if the Prime had known the peril the AllSpark was in earlier, he would have acted sooner."
"We have sent multiple requests for aid to the city council." The Guardian frowned back at him and the tension in the small room spiked enough to make First Aid inch closer to Prowl again.
Prowl's optics sharpened as that statement triggered an instant response in his processors as he brought back the analysis he had just recently completed. "How many?"
Once more the Guardian and the Priest exchanged another look.
"At least seven." The guardian said almost challengingly.
"All presented to the same council members?" Prowl inquired, intent on adding information to his understanding of the situation.
"No." The Priest shook his helm. "The last three were made to Governor Alpha Trion directly. All the others were made to the Committee of Internal Affairs, led by Senator Ratbat."
The frown that licked Prowl's faceplates was more contemplative than anything else. "I see. Thank you. That is very good to know. The Autobots only received three such requests, all from the Office of the Governor."
Both Simfurites just stared at him as Prowl's optics refocused on those around him. "It appears Senator Ratbat did not think you actually needed the assistance."
To both Prowl's and First Aid's surprise, the Guardian's engine gave a low growl. "Or he didn't want us to have any." He glanced at the Priest again before continuing. "Before the war started, he was trying to cut the number of Temple Guardians and on more than one occasion. He succeeded once. But when the war broke out… his proposals could not gain any traction. Thankfully."
Prowl looked at the emerald and gold mech. "Does Senator Ratbat have any close colleagues? Do you know of any mechs of similar mindset?"
"He and Senator Diecast always saw optic to optic. Until the war started, that is." The Priest spoke slowly, thoughtfully. "However, Diecast almost did a complete one-eighty after Megatron fired the opening salvos in Kaon. They had a big, public falling out on the council floor."
"Indeed?" Prowl cocked an optic ridge. "Thank you, Senior Priest, for the information. I will notify the Prime of the arrangements we have made. If all goes well, we shall return no later than one orn from now."
The Priest and the Guardian nodded in farewell. Prowl and First Aid bowed their respects once more and then took their leave.
The same Guardian who had escorted them earlier was waiting just outside and gestured them to follow once again. Prowl and First Aid made their way back to the streets. Neither Autobot spoke until they were left alone at the top of the broad stairs.
Prowl looked at the young medic and then walked back to the road.
"Do you trust them?" First Aid asked softly, glancing back at the imposing heights of the temple.
"I trust they will defend the AllSpark." Prowl answered.
First Aid thought about that long enough for both of them to transform and then he stayed by Prowl's bumper as the Enforcer started his engine and pulled into traffic. Prowl's statement said a lot, it also left a lot unsaid.
/And the tunnel's they told us to use?/ First Aid asked after a moment.
Prowl sent a brief signal of agreement to the suspicion in First Aid's transmission. /A possible trap, yes. We are going to scout the suggested route now./
First Aid transmitted his understanding. Interestingly, relief was his primary reaction to the news he was about to do something so potentially dangerous with only one mech to watch out for his safety. But then, of course, that one mech was Prowl.
… … …
"We are going to travel through tunnels?" Ironhide demanded with a low growl after Prowl detailed the plan to them.
"First Aid and I scouted these tunnels before we came back to you." Prowl said calmly, well aware of how much this looked like a setup. "With dampeners, any enemies will have to be within optic range to get a lock on us."
Ironhide growled again. "Of course, if they have dampeners…"
"The same would be true for us." Prowl admitted with a grimace. "I am not saying that I like this plan. But I do believe it is the best one for now."
Ironhide's engine revved and Prowl let his armor flatten against his frame but did not back down.
Optimus, who had until that moment been watching silently, spoke softly. "You learned something. What is it you have not told us yet?"
Both Ironhide and Prowl looked at their leader.
Prowl cleared his vents, grateful the Prime had given him the benefit of the doubt that he was not intentionally holding back vital information, and quickly detailed what he had learned about senator Ratbat. He also reported how many of the Temple's appeals for assistance did not get conveyed to Autobot Command and then detailed his own suspicions about Senator Diecast.
"That doesn't mean the tunnels are a good idea." Jazz spoke up, though there was no hint of accusation in his tone.
Prowl quickly laid out his calculations and the probabilities he had determined for their safety in each of the ten available routes including the ones above ground. "I do not propose taking the exact same path they laid out for us. But… there are no guarantees."
"What is your plan?" Optimus asked after a moment, by that indicating he was willing to trust Prowl's judgment in this matter.
Prowl gave him a tiny smile. "Are you familiar with the concept of outriders, Prime?"
Ironhide was the one who answered. "Seekers use them all the time. A lone mech will fly at a pre-determined distance in front of the main attack force so that way any enemy positions or ambushes will be revealed when they fired at the outrider."
Prowl nodded even as Jazz began to chuckle.
Optimus, however, frowned. "Who will be this outrider?"
"Me." Jazz said instantly.
"I will." Prowl said at the exact same time.
Saboteur and tactician looked at each other. Then they were quietly bickering back and forth about who it should be. Prowl was quick to point out the extended range and sensitivity of his doorwings and superior tactical ability. Jazz pressed that his own sensors would be more than sufficient in the confined space of the tunels. Prowl was not convinced until Jazz pointedly reminded him that infiltration was his specialty.
As the conversation went back and forth, the other three mechs could do nothing but exchange startled glances. None of them had ever seen either mech quite like this.
Finally Prowl gave a sharp nod and they both looked back at Optimus in eerie synchronization.
Jazz had a victorious grin on his faceplate as Prowl stated firmly, "Jazz."
… … …
As fate would have it, they made it to the rendezvous without incident or even delay. While Jazz might have been disappointed by that fact Prowl was infinitely relieved.
Once they were within visual range of the meeting place, Jazz fell back to join them and Optimus took point. Because of the small confines of the tunnel, Optimus was in the lead with Ironhide to his right and just slightly behind him. Prowl and Jazz flanked them and First Aid was safely nestled between Prowl and Jazz.
Optimus halted and then transformed to close the remaining distance in his base mode. Prowl and the others did likewise as they stepped into a wide cavern.
The Prime did not bow to the Priest and Guardian as Prowl and First Aid had done, though he did incline his helm in greeting. The Senior Priest did likewise, while the Lead Guardian inclined his frame at the waist. Ironhide, Prowl, Jazz and First Aid actually bowed.
Once the official greetings were completed, the emerald Guardian stepped forward in an action that was clearly calculated to place himself between the Priest he was guarding and a perceived threat.
"Prime," The Guardian began with grave formality, "I am extremely pleased to see you have made it safely."
Ironhide growled softly at the implied accusation and stepped forward to stand directly beside his Prime. "Wasn't it your suggestion we use the tunnels?"
"Of course." The emerald and gold mech admitted. He nodded toward Prowl though he never took his optics off the Prime. "But I thought your envoy seemed familiar and, once he left, I researched his faceplate. He is Megatron's Tactical Advisor and high on our watch list of mechs too dangerous to allow direct access to the AllSpark."
Prowl stiffened, his energon lines seemed to freeze as the Guardian finally shifted his bright amber optics to focus on him. "We knew that if Megatron was ever going to try and make a grab for the AllSpark Prowl would be an integral part of it."
The Guardian looked back at the Prime, right hand resting casually on the hilt of the ceremonial blade of office sheathed on his right thigh. It was an action that was a warning every Cybertronian understood from base coding. And Prowl felt himself reacting with the alarm it was intended to provoke.
The green mech continued. "Prowl fell off our scanners just over a vorn ago. Apparently he was ingratiating himself into your inner circle."
Prowl's vents were flared and if he stiffened any further his tension wires would start snapping. But there was nothing he could do. The flare of the Guardian's field and his choice of words and demeanor made it clear anything he said would make his suspicions worse.
"He might have been Megatron's Lead Tactician, but he is one of us now." Optimus replied with calm reasonableness.
"He ain't working for Megs any more." Jazz piped up, his own engine growling an unhappy undertone to his words.
"And you are so sure of that?" The Senior Priest asked coolly.
"He's proven himself to us more than once." Irohide would have stalked forward if the Prime had not descritely put a hand on his arm to stay him.
The Priest dipped his helm in acknowledgement of the weapon specialist's words, but did not back down. "Unfortunately, he has not proven himself to us. And we are the stewards of the AllSpark."
Doubtlessly summoned, four other Temple Guardians marched into the chamber, their steps synchronized and ominous. Two took positions on either side of Prowl while the other two closed in behind him.
Prowl was careful not to even allow his doorwings to flick, aware any movement on his part would be taken as provocation and that the results would be less than pleasant.
"This is unnecessary." Optimus allowed the impressive weight of the authority of his office echo through his words. "The Matrix approves of him."
Unfortunately, the Senior Priest was one of the few mechs whose programming and function allowed him to resist the Prime's authority if he felt the need. Prowl saw that resistance in the mech's optics and field and his tactical processors flared to combat speeds as he hastily tried to calculate the best course of action, as he attempted to find a way to be allowed to continue contributing to the success of the mission. Because this mission was more important than anything else. The AllSpark was more important.
The bright silver and opalescent mech shook his helm firmly. "It is a risk I am not willing to take."
All of the Autobot's reacted to that. Ironhide and Jazz with shock that the Priest would defy the Prime, First Aid with open worry and anxiety and Prowl with a cold sort of numb dread.
However, the Prime's armor flared in an unusual display of genuine anger. "Senior Priest…"
Instantly alarms started firing in Prowl's tactical computers and he stepped forward before he could think better of it. "No! Prime…"
The Guardians on either side of him reacted instantly, each grabbing his arms in vice-like grips. Obediently Prowl halted, not resisting their hold.
Armor flattening against his frame and doorwings tucking submissively, Prowl looked at his leader. "Our mission is too important. There must not be dissention between the Autobots and the Temple Guardians or all is lost."
Hands closing into fists, Optimus turned to glare at him. "It is not right that you should be treated based on a false accusation."
Despite everything, a tiny, sad smile touched Prowl's lip plates. "It will not be the first time, Prime. But the safety of the AllSpark is more important." Then he added on a private comm. line. /I can still assist you, even from within a prison cell./
The Prime's engine revved angrily and his optics flashed. /There will be no prison./ He spun back to face the Priest. "You say he has not proven himself to you."
The Priest was wary now, having watched that byplay keenly. "Correct. He has endorsed the senseless slaughter of sparklings, femmes and neutrals. It cannot be but that a stain of evil is on his spark."
Four Autobot engines growled, echoing off the metal surrounding them at the accusations, but Prowl's was not one of them. Instead he lowered his gaze to the ground as he was held in place by the two Guardians on either side of him.
Jazz stepped forward, his whole frame buzzing with mounting fury. "No, he didn't. Even as a 'Con he didn't support those policies. I know." Jazz tapped his own chassis with a dagger-like claw. "I was tha one who interrogated him as a POW. More than once."
"So?" The Priest raised an optic ridge, staring the other silver mech down. "That was vorns before he left Megatron's service. He chose to forsake the highest tenants of Primus' teachings."
Prowl's vents flared in new alarm. He had never truly considered that interpretation of his choices and their consequences. He had not really wanted to think about such a potential fallout from his failure to listen to his conscious. Had he stained his spark not just his hands and processors with innocent energon by not standing up to Megatron?
Ironhide snorted air through his vents, huffing dismissively. "That is absolutely slag. Priest…"
"What must I do?" Prowl asked suddenly, interrupting Ironhide as the sound of his voice made everyone fall silent. He repeated his question, looking at the Senior Priest. "What must I do?"
For the first time since they had arrived at the rondevus the Senior Priest actually looked at Prowl. "Excuse me?"
"If there is darkness in my spark from my time under Megatron, what must I do to be rid of it?" Prowl kept his focus on the Priest, though a hint of his genuine and growing desperation seeped through the edges of his impartial mask. "How do I prove to you I am not a threat?"
The Senior Priest looked visibly startled and then his optics narrowed thoughtfully as he took a couple of steps closer to the Autobot tactician. "You claim you will not deliver the AllSpark to Megatron?"
Prowl's engine revved. "He cannot be allowed to get hold of it… what he plans to do is diabolical."
"What he did while you were still serving him was also evil." The Priest said lowly, forcefully.
Prowl rocked back at the intensity radiating off the silver mech who had appeared so collected and distinguished at their first meeting. His processor wheeled as he tried to determine what response was expected from him. Then he looked down, opting for open honesty. This was the Senior Priest of Primus, after all.
"I know that, Priest." Prowl said quietly, armor flattening against his frame even further. "I know it was wrong to join him and it was wrong to have remained in his service for as long as I had."
The priest blinked his optic shutters and then his own frame relaxed a fraction. "You know your former master better than any of us. You know the trickery he is capable of. You also know also the insidious things his minion Soundwave does to those who come under his sway."
The Priest stepped even closer, coming to the edge of Prowl's personal space and those holding the tactician tensed just in case. "You say you are here for the benefit of the AllSpark, but can you honestly – with one hundred percent conviction – tell me there isn't at least the tiniest possibility that there is something buried in your coding that will turn you, that will make you give him exactly what he wants now?"
Prowl's vent's flared. He knew the answer without really having to think about it. All of Prowl's internal fears of being a sleeper agent crashed over him with stunning force. Jazz had not found anything and neither had Ratchet. Prowl's own systems had demolished anything Soundwave had tried to implant…
…And yet there remained that terrible, tantalizing 'what if'.
Still in the solid grip of two Temple Guardians, Prowl bowed his helm. "As you say; Soundwave's mode of operation is insidious. And while I believe the likelihood to be very low, I cannot honestly give you the level of assurance you have demanded."
"Slag." Jazz spit, air hissing through his vents.
The Senior Priest, however did not move, just staring at Prowl's bowed helm as if he had not expected such an openly truthful answer. "You are troubled by that possibility."
"More than I can put into words, Senior Priest." Prowl forced the words out.
An uncomfortable silence settled over them again. Then the Priest stepped closer, pressing into Prowl's personal space. "And just what are you willing to do to be certain?"
There was an offer and a promise in those words and Prowl jumped on them both. "Anything."
"Even if the answer you find is not to your liking?"
Prowl lifted his gaze to meet the Priest's "It is better to know for sure, so that steps can be taken to safeguard those around me. To safeguard the Allspark."
The silver mech blinked and then his gaze softened a touch with compassion. "I see. Are you sure?"
Prowl endured the Priest's searching gaze for a long astrosecond and then the mech lifted his left hand, the plates of his palm rearranging to show a glowing mechanism. Automatically, Prowl's optics darted down to the integrated device. It was beautiful in a way that chilled him to his core, though the tactician could not immediately identify why.
Perhaps reacting to Prowl's unconscious reaction or to what they knew was coming, the hands holding Prowl's arms tightened as the Priest stepped even closer, reaching toward Prowl's chassis with his glowing hand.
Prowl sucked in a draft of air, but did not resist, even as the Priest pressed his palm flat against his chassis, directly over his spark.
For a moment Prowl felt nothing but warmth from the contact. However, that warmth quickly grew into a nearly searing heat and yet that heat was not entirely tangible. It stabbed into his chassis, piercing his armor and internal systems to wrap tightly into an ethereal vice around his spark chamber.
The Praxian could not stop the gasp that escaped him or the sweeping flare of his doorwings. Even so, he was peripherally aware that Jazz and First Aid started to move toward him but that Optimus gestured them to wait.
The heat seamed to sink into the layers of metal protecting Prowl's spark. His first instinct was to resist the prying ethereal fingers, especially as a non-corporeal spasm made his vents hitch when the probing tendrils of energy dug further still.
That was when Prowl finally realized what was happening, though it was not something he had personally experienced before.
It was the same type of exam given a potential Temple Guardian or Priest to test the true intent of their sparks. It was also the final evaluation given to a Prime Candidate. A spark scan.
Doubtless Optimus recognized what was being done. That the Prime had not attempted to intervene spoke volumes, though Prowl was not really in a position at the moment to determine the implications. Perhaps the Prime wanted the answers this exam would provide. Not that he cared, Prowl realized in an instant of blazing revelation. Self doubt, internal demons and unanswered questions about his own ethical standing had plagued Prowl with increasing urgency as more and more trust had been placed in him.
Making a decision, Prowl shuttered his optics and surrendered to the probe.
As soon as Prowl stopped resisting, the growing heat in his chassis exploded, radiating down each electrical wire in his frame. It simultaneously hurt in a way that was beyond physical and yet soothed. As it faded, Prowl became aware that his spark was pulsing roughly three times its normal speed as the Priest examined whatever it was he was examining.
However, as the Priest stayed in contact with him, the tightness in Prowl's chassis returned, growing stronger the longer that alien 'other' was mingled with his spark.
Prowl grunted softly, but did nothing else as the penetrating pressure became incrementally more intense.
Then, as suddenly as it had started, the pressure released, the presence withdrawing. The sudden emptiness Prowl felt in his frame made him slump against the hands holding him, leaving him feeling weak and a touch shaky. But there was no pain. And Prowl felt strangely… clean. Not so much that all evil had been purged from his spark, but rather it was the knowledge that any darkness that existed in his spark was no longer his secret alone.
Slowly, Prowl became aware that the Priest's hand was still on his plating, directly over his spark though the silver palm no longer glowed.
"You are braver than I gave you credit for, young Enforcer." The Priest intoned, his words reverberating softly through Prowl in a way that amplified the moment rather than breaking it. "Your spark is true and you have the strength and conviction to overcome any threat that may still linger in your coding."
The hand was removed from Prowl's chassis and several Autobot vents hitched as the Priest then gave a respectful bow to the black and white tactician. "Please forgive my hasty accusation. Even at my age I continue to make mistakes."
On another private signal, or perhaps they just took those words as their cue, the Guardians holding Prowl released him and stepped back. Even so, Prowl did not move from his submissive stance, afraid to even shift at all for fear that doing so would make him loose the tenuous control he had over his tension wires and frame.
"It was a legitimate concern." Prowl managed somehow to speak. "There is nothing to forgive."
"An accusation that could have landed you in prison?" The Lead Guardian spoke up, effectively shattering the moment.
Still Prowl was afraid to move, not trusting his own frame. "Had the accusation been true, then prison is where I should have been taken."
"There will be no prison." The Prime's voice rumbled through all of them and even the Priest and his Guardian winced that time at the tenor of command.
"No. There won't." The Priest shook his helm and then stepped back to look at each of the Autobots anew. "Come, let us move to a more appropriate location."
He beckoned again and then turned to enter the temple proper.
Once he was left alone and was no longer the focus of every mech in the gathering, Prowl sagged.
Jazz was instantly at his elbow, helping to steady him and Prowl could feel First Aid run a scan over him as the young medic also stepped close.
"Are you alright?" First Aid asked worriedly. "What was that?"
Prowl released a vent, letting the saboteur take some of his weight. "A spark scan."
Jazz let out a couple of choice epithets under his breath and then levered himself under Prowl's arm so as to better help him walk. "Most mechs who get one a' those get prep-time to ready themselves. Primus."
"They're that bad?" First Aid asked with equal parts concern and curiosity as he quickly ran yet another scan, just to be sure.
Prowl offered him a weak smile, forcing himself to shake his helm. "They are not the easiest thing. But not the worst."
"Glitch!" Jazz hit Prowl lightly over the helm with his free hand. "One of those gone wrong can make a mech's spark… well, it's like it goes back to when they were first sparked and…"
"Jazz…" Prowl tried, but Jazz corrected himself.
"Okay, okay. So that doesn't happen on accident. But it can be done on purpose. Not all the time, but it's physically possible for a spark scanner to be used in such a way and…"
First Aid shivered and Prowl cut the saboteur off more forcefully. "I think he gets the idea, Jazz."
"Right." Jazz glanced at First Aid and then looked at Prowl. "Prowl?"
"I am functional and recovering well." Prowl supplied, doing his best not to smile at the silver minibot's gruff concern.
Regaining enough control over his motor functions, Prowl straightened and led Jazz and First Aid in following after the Prime. Ironhide shot the tactician a look of concern as they caught up to the main party and Prowl was struck with the realization that if Ironhide had not been duty bound to remain with the Prime as his bodyguard, he probably would have stayed with Prowl as well.
/Prowl./ The Prime's private signal pinged through Prowl's awareness, even though Optimus continued to listen to the Priest as they traveled the labyrinthine corridors of the Temple.
/Prime?/ Prowl was careful to remain respectful.
There was a momentary pause which Prowl had come to recognize as the Prime gathering his thoughts. /I did not try to stop that scan./
It was not quite a confession. Prowl signaled his understanding adding, /You must have had a reason./
Prowl's statement was not quite a question as that would have been impertinent. But Prowl did not hide his desire to understand.
The Prime answered swiftly, his tone kind. /More than one reason, actually. Though buried well, your own doubts remained. The Priests and Guardians needed to be able to trustyou not just the rest of us and… I knew you would pass./
Prowl shot the Prime's back a startled look. /You did?/
Optimus sent him the equivalent of a smile. /Priests aren't the only ones granted with the ability to see beyond the strictly physical, even if not in such a dramatic and clear-cut manner./
Prowl remembered all the times he felt exposed in Optimus' presence, when he felt like the Prime was stripping him of his armor just by looking at him; like the Prime was seeing right into his spark.
Prowl would never have thought the Prime could actually see him that clearly. /Then why?/
Optimus released a vent of air, his primary focus still on the Priest. /The Matrix does not give the same clarity of insight. It whispers its wisdom and seldom does it do so very loudly. A Prime must couple those insights with their own experience./ There was a pause but Prowl could tell the Prime was not through. /It is a… delicate balance/
Prowl blinked, stunned, to be told so much. But his processors brushed aside any speculation as to why he was being told in favor of considering the possible ramifications of the information itself. As far as Primes went, Optimus was young, having only held his office for roughly a decavorn as Sentinal had been killed before Prowl ever joined Megatron. It made it even more impressive how he wielded that power and authority.
Prowl could not hide his consternation as he addressed, not his student but his Prime. /Why… why do you tell me this?/
/You once told me you needed all the variables to be able to properly do your job./ Optimus said with a warm, but almost mysterious, air. /Take confidence in what the Priest told you. You are one of us now./
There was promise and protectiveness in that statement as well as in the subtext that was transmitted along with it and that served to confuse and tantalize Prowl.
He had accepted that he was a valuable asset to the Autobots, that his skills were a tangible benefit to them; skills that they would not hesitate to utilize and take advantage of. He had even accepted that a few had befriended him. But never had he allowed himself to be presumptuous enough to entertain the possibility that he would ever really be seen as more than that.
But then he remembered how First Aid and Jazz had moved to try and protect him. How they had come along side to help him in the weakened state the spark scan. How Ironhide looked like he would have preferred to do the same. And he realized the Prime had not joined their number – that he had proceeded with the Priest and the Guardian – only because he had had a strut deep respect for Prowl and confidence, tempered by understanding that to have the Prime hovering over him would only serve to embarrass the proud tactician.
As all of this tumbled through Prowl's processor, he found his back struts straightening and his doorwings flicking as he strode with more confidence into the underbelly of the temple.