Author's note: Sorry about the delay. My muse decided to hibernate for a week or so, but chapters should go up much more quickly now that she's cooperating again. :) This chapter makes reference to our fics Destroyer of Worlds, Precursors: Foxhole Friends and The Price. You should understand the chapter just fine without having read those stories, but if you want to read more, you know where to look now. :)
Inside, five other mechs stood in a semicircle as though they were waiting for me. They began spreading out, surrounding me, and I turned to anxiously look at the Prime again.
"I am Alpha Prime" he declared, "the eldest of our race and protector of the All Spark and of Cybertron." Resting a servo on my shoulder, he bowed his helm to touch mine as a kinsmech would.
Abruptly I was sprawled out on the forest floor, the pain in my chassis a foreshadow of what was to come. Sam cowered behind a fallen tree only a few yards away while Megatron closed in. "Isn't the survival of our race worth a single human life?"
It was a taunt, a "what if" intended to fester in my spark if I did prevail against them. I'd long since hardened myself against such wounds and the words did not strike home. I'd destroyed the Cube to stop Megatron – he and I both knew where I stood. We both knew where he stood, as well. "You'll never stop at one."
A ferocity filled me like I'd never experienced before. My spark somehow knew my hour had come; I was fighting to the death. It was freeing to finally be nothing but a warrior with no obligation to survive and inspire. My only obligation was to Sam, to kill those who would harm him. Kill I did, and I maimed Starscream. Megatron prevailed though, and I was falling, falling again, slipping away from my home in exile.
Abruptly we were on Cybertron again, Alpha stepping away from me.
"Was he extinguished?" I suddenly wondered. My death and afterlife had been so disorienting that I hadn't even thought about Sam until now, but anxiety gripped me. "Did Megatron kill him?"
"No. Your sacrifice was sufficient to protect him, and your Autobots have brought him to safety."
My shoulders slumped in relief, but it was short-lived. "What will happen to them?" I'd all but abandoned them, though I knew in my spark that I couldn't have done differently.
"Your fate and the fate of both our race and his are now in Samuel's hands. He carries within him the All Spark."
Guilt burned through me, and I hung my helm, unable to face the mech who, I now realized, could never be my clan leader. He would condemn me as he should, and he was likely the mech who would finally punish me for my unforgivable sin in Mission City. He, the first Prime and Lord Protector of Cybertron, would be more than in his rights to do so. "I destroyed the All Spark."
"No," Alpha answered, his gentle tone a contrast to the firm servo on my shoulder. He paused until I looked up to meet his gaze. "Samuel destroyed the Cube, as was both its fate and his. The All Spark, as all energy, cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed. The boy proved himself worthy to be its living vessel when he was willing to die to defend it, and you laid down your life for him and the All Spark he carries. Like me, you fought to protect the All Spark and for the survival of our race. Well done, brother."
As he spoke the words, a kin-bond warmed to life in my spark. It arose from the scar left by the severing of Megatron's bond, as stunning as Alpha's words: Well done.
Alpha stepped aside and another mech took his place. "I am Stromancer Prime." My surprise must have shown – he shared the same name as my father's father – and he gave a small, grave nod. "Knowledge was the dominion given me by the All Spark. I am the one who developed the written language of the Primes and incorporated our clan-glyph into the build of all our descendants." Rather than rest his servo on my shoulder, he placed it on my helm, touching the same glyph my father and his father wore. The glyph of the Prime clan. The sudden realization was shocking: I was a Prime.
Abruptly we were on Cybertron in my memories of the earliest days of the War. We hadn't even constructed a base yet and were hiding in caverns in a remote region outside Thetacon. Corona, a ruby-red and gold femme, was laid out on the floor of the cave almost as if she were deep in recharge.
She was at peace in death as she never had been in life. Elita and Beta Five had created her less than an orbital cycle ago, but she'd felt compelled to seek out Megatron even though we'd none of us told her of him. Once she knew the truth about me and my former brother, she'd been in constant, spark-wrenching turmoil. Her love for her sisters was powerful, but her processors kept telling her they were enemies and traitors. Three solar cycles ago, she'd run away deeper into the caves and when Elita and Beta tried to find her over their bonds, Corona severed them. When we finally found the youngling, she was extinguished. As near as we could tell, she'd disabled the containment field on her spark chamber and let her energies simply bleed out.
Elita's grief was raw in my spark though her frame was in a protective, medically-induced stasis, but it was Ratchet's autopsy report that shook me. "It was not a flaw in her design that corrupted Corona's processing. It was the code she was created with."
"That code is from the All Spark itself," I interrupted.
"I know." He looked down at her empty shell. "I don't understand it either, but based on my review of her memory files, it was with her from the moment she was sparked."
"It was irreversible."
"Yes." He shook his helm in defeat. "I wish it had been a design flaw - that at least would have made some kind of sense."
His words cut through the grief and pain, and the answers to many questions fell into place in my processors. A sister created by my own mate and a femme of the Beta dynasty was programmed by the All Spark to be loyal to Megatron. It could not be mere chance, even if we could not make sense of it now. There was purpose and design in Corona's glitch, just as there was in that unique code we each received from the All Spark. For the first time in recorded history, the Cube had chosen sides in the conflicts of its creations, and it had apparently chosen Megatron. However, the glitch was not what compelled Corona to suicide; that came of the conflict between her spark's loyalty to her sisters and her programming's commands. Both spark and code came from the All Spark. It had not granted life; it had created madness.
Her fate had been to serve Megatron or die, and it went against everything I knew, understood, or believed about Primus to accept that he would coerce his creations, even if I were in the wrong. Some had called the Cube the avatar of Primus, while others had called it an instrument of his will. Regardless, something had gone seriously wrong if the Cube was deviating from the teachings of our Creator. Either it was meddling in our squabbles...or someone had meddled with it. The knowledge settled grim and cold in my spark, and though I had no evidence, I knew my latter conclusion was the correct one.
"Optimus?" Ratchet demanded, no doubt reading my expression. "What's wrong?"
"Many things, none of which I expect you to right." I turned to leave.
"Where are you going?" he demanded behind me.
"To speak with the leader of the temple guardians."
Stromancer's servo lifted off my helm, and I was again in the echoing Temple with the Dynasty of the Primes. "You knew with the instincts of my own lineage that the Cube had been corrupted. Well done, my heir and brother Prime."
Another kin-bond awoke within me and the warmth I felt from him over our bond saturated my overwhelmed spark.
Another mech took his place. "I am Paraclete Prime, and I was the one called upon as an intercessor between us and the All Spark when a youngling or sparkling was wanted."
Like Alpha, he placed a servo on my shoulder and rested his helm against mine. He took me back to a memory very near my last one. We were still in the caves, and I'd called every last one of my followers into the largest cavern. Alpha Tetron, Alpha Trion's heir, was among us then as well. He'd come to comfort Beta Five, his sister's daughter and one of Corona's creators. Like Elita, Beta was in stasis and her uncle stood in her stead here. Ratchet explained to everyone what he'd already told me about Corona, adding, "I will not create another protoform frame until I know what went wrong. I'm afraid our clan must remain severed from Alpha Trion's."
Tetron solemnly nodded his helm in agreement.
I stood as Ratchet sat down. "He is correct. We will remain severed from Alpha Trion. We will not ask Ratchet to make another protoform until we know how Corona's processing was corrupted. We will not permit any other mech or femme to bring a protoform before the Cube, either. Not until this wrong has been righted."
A murmur rippled through the assembled mechs and femmes. Only Prowl and Jazz remained silent; Prowl because I'd already spoken with him regarding this and Jazz because he was Jazz.
"But...Optimus," Starsheen stuttered, "you can't keep them out of the Sanctuary!"
"No," I agreed. "We must remove the Cube from the Temple itself."
The murmur became an uproar. I glanced at the temple guardians, who were sitting together, and tried to gauge their response. There were two ways to view my proposed course of action: we were stealing the Cube, or we were restoring it to the custody of its rightful guardians. Would they side with me and Prowl, or would they see us as thieves and blasphemers? Prowl didn't feel he could order them to go against their own conscience, and so we hadn't taken this to them first. Let them decide with everyone else.
Alpha Tetron's voice rose above the others'. "Megatron won't stand for that!"
"I will not stand for what was done to Corona," I answered, my voice booming through the suddenly-silent hall. "I will take a stand for her sake and for all those who would be sparked to a life of madness and death."
Trailbreaker spoke up. "It will confirm to everyone out there," he nodded toward the exit tunnels and the civilization beyond, "everything Megatron's been saying about you."
I squared my shoulders. "So be it."
He nodded in acceptance if not agreement.
"What about you, Prowl?" Cliffjumper demanded.
He rose to his pedes beside me. "I think that the temple guardians who served under me must let their own sparks guide them."
"Served?" Smokescreen echoed, taking note of the past-tense.
"I release you all from your duty to me. Like Optimus, I am convinced that the Cube is not safe in its current location, but I cannot ask you to take this course if you believe it would violate your most solemnly-sworn oaths."
"What are you going to do with it, Optimus?" Arcee interrupted, her annoyance bleeding across our kin-bond. "Even if you pull off the impossible and haul the Cube all the way out here, then what? Do you think you'll actually be able to fix it? And that's assuming something is even wrong with it. You can't know that."
"I can't," I admitted.
"But it is the most logical explanation available with the limited knowledge we have," Prowl said. "Part of the purpose of removing the All Spark from the Temple is to study it. It is entirely possible that the problem is something that can be repaired or that the Cube might even repair itself."
"Besides," Cliffjumper added with a smirk to Arcee, "we're temple guardians. We know things. It'll be easier to sneak the Cube out of there than you might think."
"And the energon?" Ratchet angrily demanded. "Are we holding that for ransom too?"
"Not for ransom," Prowl corrected. "For safekeeping. The Lord Protector has the responsibility to protect the Cube, and he delegated that responsibility to me. He has not formally rescinded that authority. It's not the most solid legal ground to stand on," he admitted, "but the evidence that the Cube has somehow been damaged is compelling. It is not safe in its present location. However, we will not hoard the energon, if it can be determined that it is not also contaminated. We will continue to function as temple guardians, and that means giving freely to all who ask. We will only prevent the use of the Cube to create until we are certain it is safe to do so."
"Do you realize what you're saying?" Moonracer asked. "Think about it. If whatever caused Corona's glitch can't be repaired, you'll never let anyone create another sibling or sparkling ever again."
"So be it," I repeated, more grimly this time. The silence stretched long in the shadow of those words, and the full scope of my intentions slowly sank into their processors and sparks. I was potentially condemning our entire race.
"It won't come ta that," Jazz suddenly said, stirring from where he'd been sitting motionless all this time. "Ain't nothing stopped the All Spark yet. But if ya want my two credits, it's more important for the Cube ta be with its guardians than for it ta be sittin' around in the Temple with no one ta really protect it. The consequences won't be pretty, but if Optimus is right, there are rough times ahead no matter what we choose here today."
"It is not a choice that must be made immediately," I added, in case anyone felt pressured by Jazz's words. "I simply wanted everyone to know my intentions."
"I stand with Optimus," Bumblebee announced, surprising me. He hadn't declared his allegiance to me yet, only to Prowl. "The Cube belongs with a Prime."
"I am just a mech like you," I reminded him.
"If you truly believe that, sister's mate," Chromia said, "then you are an idiot."
Paraclete brought us back out of my memories and his servo fell from my shoulder, though the irony of Chromia's words lingered in my spark. Paraclete said, "You obeyed the will of the master all Primes serve, though you did not know it at the time. As you feared, the Cube was corrupted and you were right to prevent its use to create new sparks. Well done, brother."
His words stirred in my spark as another brother-bond warmed to life. In the face of his approbation, I felt compelled to admit, "Stealing it was what sparked the war."
"Yes and no," he answered. "Your conflict is but the latest in a war that began before our creation. Prove yourself worthy, and more knowledge will be given you."
I nodded, accepting his counsel, and focused on passing the test before me.
Another Prime took his place, one who was almost identical to Stromancer. "I am Augur Prime," he declared, "the first of the seers. I read the stars and the patterns the All Spark weaves into our lives." Like Alpha, Augur rested his servo on my shoulder as a kinsmech and touched his helm to mine.
Abruptly we were in a ruined factory – a huge one that, at the height of the War, had created warships for the Decepticons. Jazz's brother Jackpot had sabotaged the production equipment and the factory had been abandoned for vorns. The temple guardians had cleared it not long ago and it now housed the All Spark, if only for a few solar cycles. We had to move it frequently - the Decepticons were pressing us too closely.
I stood before the Cube and reached out, daring to rest a servo on it. My spark was heavy with the knowledge Prowl had shared at the latest briefing.
"I have a bad feelin' about it," a familiar voice said behind me. I turned to see Jazz, arms crossed and leaning against the scorched wall.
Wearily, I answered, "You shouldn't be here. Only the temple guardians are supposed to know the Cube's location."
He snorted mirthlessly and shrugged away from the wall. "I'm your head of intelligence. I wouldn't be much of one if I didn't know where the All Spark was. And ya dodged the question, boss-bot."
I turned away from him to look up at the Cube again. "You never asked one."
"Whatever you're plannin', I've got a bad feelin' about it," he repeated.
"You see another path then, one that you do feel good about."
"I never said that," he answered. "But whatever ya got in mind, it ain't gonna end well."
Hanging my helm, I quietly said, "I can see no course that will anymore, Jazz."
"What is it you're plannin'?"
"To launch the All Spark off world."
"Slag it," he grumbled. "When ya decide ta frag things up, ya don't do it by halves, do ya?"
"You heard Prowl last night," I answered. "Our losses at the Battle of Copper Forest were devastating. Unless something drastic is done, we will fall before the Decepticons within a dozen vorns. Most likely within two."
"Prowler's smart, I'll grant ya that, but he can't see the future."
"Then I repeat: do yousee another path? One that you feel good about?" His sullen silence was all the answer I needed. "The Cube must not fall into Decepticon servos. It is not a risk we can afford to take."
"Energon production has fallen off as it is with the Cube being moved so much - we can't harvest energon unless it's sittin' still. And now you're gonna cut off the supply completely? Besides, Megatron's probably gonna intercept it. Have ya thought about that? We lost half our Seekers at Copper Forest. Ain't no way we can fly it past the 'cons."
I turned to face him and the madness I was contemplating, and my servo fell away from the All Spark. "We will not send an escort. We will send it directly into the Vortex Anomaly."
He rolled his helm back in disbelief. "The wormhole. You're gonna send the All Spark through the slaggin' wormhole. Ya know the other end ain't stable!"
"I am relying on that fact," I answered. "The All Spark will go to where it's fated to be - hopefully beyond the reach of Megatron forever."
Glaring at me, he said, "Ya know, I'm not against placing the odd wager or two, but these are high stakes and I don't like the odds. You're gambling with the whole future of Cybertron."
I turned again toward the Cube. "It is the future of Cybertron I am trying to save, Jazz. Despite our hopes, the mutation in the Cube's energy signature has not corrected itself, and even the temple guardians don't know enough about the Cube to repair it. Whatever caused the glitch that destroyed Corona, whatever has changed within the All Spark, is permanent. When I look to the future, I see hundreds of thousands – millions – of younglings sparked to a life of slavery to Megatron. If he wins control of the All Spark, he will raise up entire generations who are fated to serve him or die."
"And you're not giving them even that much of a choice. Ya really think it'd be better for them ta never have been born?"
Glancing down at him, I answered, "Corona thought so."
He defiantly crossed his arms at that.
I again looked at the Cube that created me. "Freedom is the right of all sentient beings. That is what we fight for, and it would be to our lasting condemnation if we did not fight even more fiercely for our own creations to have that right. I can't see the end from the beginning, but I feel this is my only course now."
I rested a servo on his shoulder. "I am sorry, old friend."
He frowned, but it was a grim, thoughtful expression. "If it's our only choice, then do it. But I won't ever see the Cube on Cybertron again." Turning on his heel, he left me in the heavy darkness.
Augur brought me out of the memory. "You correctly foresaw both what would befall Cybertron if the Cube had remained there and the course that would lead to its fate."
"It was destroyed," I pointed out yet again, a small part of me hoping that they would realize the full guilt I bore.
"That was its fate," Augur assured me. "Primes are born, not made. Though your processors resisted, your spark knew your course to be true, and you followed your own fate with the intuition of a Prime. Well done, brother."
Yet again, a Prime exonerated me, and I felt his sincerity as another bond warmed to life in my spark.
Another mech stepped forward, taking Augur's place. "I am Seneschal Prime, steward of the All Spark and of the household of its creations. With my own servos, I built the Temple at Simfur." Like his brothers, he placed his servo on my shoulder and touched his helm to mine.
Abruptly we were in a hangar on Earth - the first place the US government concealed us after Mission City. The humans had observed me retrieving the All Spark shard from Megatron's smelted spark chamber and had asked me about it in front of my Autobots. I expected the mechs to mourn with me, to want to reverence this last reminder of all that had once been, but Ratchet was all but glowing with excitement. "It's still part of the All Spark, Optimus. Maybe we can't rebuild the whole of Cybertron, but we can still use it to rebuild all it can."
My spark cooled at his words. Did he not see? "Our long-held hopes are no more. We will not rebuild our home, my friends. We cannot return to Cybertron, and we will not cyberform this or any other planet."
"I'm not talking about planets," Ratchet answered, "I'm talking about frames. We can restore Jazz!"
I shuttered my optics in surprise, but it was quickly followed by confusion. "The Cube grants new life and sustains it. It has never revived an extinguished spark."
He huffed impatiently. "Has anyone ever tried? It heals, too."
"And maybe it will fix what we can't."
What you couldn't, I mentally corrected.
"It couldn't hurt to try," Bumblebee pointed out from the makeshift medbay berth where Ratchet was still repairing his legs.
"Yes, it could," I answered in growing alarm at their words. "There is a reason we have not used the Cube for millennia."
"We know Jazz!" Ratchet pressed. "We knowhis spark wasn't corrupted like Corona's! The code that accompanied his spark is most likely intact. The All Spark fragment would just be restoring, not creating. If there was ever a time it would be safe to use the Cube for this, it would be now!"
"He's got a point," Ironhide put in.
Misgiving filled me. It would be wrong to even attempt this – I knew it in my spark. Jazz had made his choice. His was a quick, honorable death. As much as I mourned his loss, it was beyond my rights to ask this of the All Spark.
"Just think about it," Ratchet urged, his optics too bright with eagerness.
I was acutely aware of the humans' eyes on us, and nodded in agreement.
Seneschal skipped forward in my memory to the moment Will Lennox gave us the news that the President wanted the Fragment in exchange for his permission to remain on Earth.
My Autobots' reaction cemented my decision. The humans had a saying that power tended to corrupt and that absolute power corrupted absolutely. I could think of no greater power than the ability to turn back death itself, and my severed brothers would rush heedlessly into grasping that power. As much as it grieved me, I saw that it was safer for the humans to have custody of the All Spark. Perhaps someday, after we had more time to thoroughly examine Jazz's memory files, after we had time to study the All Spark fragment for additional changes to the energy signature, perhaps then we could move forward. I refused to make this decision on an impulse, however.
Seneschal brought us out of my memories. "You recognized the danger inherent in such great power and surrendered the fragment in accordance with the will of the All Spark."
Again guilt and shame filled me. "It was stolen and put to evil purpose. We could have restored Jazz but instead the Decepticons used it to restore Megatron to life."
"The Cube was corrupted," Seneschal reminded me. "Had you used it on Jazz, he would have suffered the same fate as Corona. He would have been restored as a Decepticon."
A chill ran through me at the thought.
"The All Spark's frame was corrupted," Seneschal continued. "It was fate that every last physical remnant of that frame be destroyed. The All Spark itself continues, though. Samuel carries it within his organic frame, but it will not always be so. As we speak, the wheels of destiny still turn and he is finding the path that will give the All Spark a form that is incorruptible by design."
Incorruptible by design. I had heard that phrase before, always in reference to a single legendary artifact. "The Matrix of Leadership."
Seneschal gravely nodded. "If the boy is strong enough to pursue his fate, the All Spark will soon be housed in the Matrix of Leadership."
"But it was lost with the disappearance of the Primes."
"And it will be found in the revelation of the Primes," he answered, "for it will only respond to the touch of a Prime. Prove yourself worthy, and more knowledge will be given you."
I nodded, and Seneschal declared, "Well done, brother." Again a bond warmed to life within my spark.
The last remaining mech stepped forward. "I am Amicus Prime," he said, "the mouthpiece for the All Spark to foreign species and ambassador for our race. I oversaw the exploration and colonization of space, sharing command of the Seekers with the one who became The Fallen." Like his – our – brothers he rested one servo on my shoulder and touched his helm to mine.
He brought me to my memory of arriving on Earth, of the dark thought that took hold of my spark, of the temptation to destroy the Cube. With him I relived that struggle of processor and spark, of feeling my fate and knowing I could not follow it, until I finally realized that if I did not destroy the Cube the humans would be destroyed instead. For the humans, I would take this blasphemy on myself, for I would not let them pay for our mistakes.
Amicus brought us out of my memory, and the guilt and dismay of that choice lingered in my spark. But the Prime's optics were kind as he said, "It was the fate of the Cube that it be destroyed, but you did not take that responsibility upon yourself until it was to protect another. I, too, laid down my life to protect the humans, and you have shown yourself a Prime in this. Well done, brother."
His words regarding the humans surprised me, but before I could ask about them, I felt a brother bond warm to life in my spark, and Amicus' assurance and approval poured into me to join the confidence of the others. They had come full circle now and Alpha bowed his helm to me. "All have saluted you as brother, Optimus. You have passed the test. As promised, it is time for you to gain greater knowledge."