Author's note: I have to apologize once again for taking so long with this. Everyday life pretty much went completely to shit during the past few months, and one of my bouts of depression kept me from getting off my ass and getting back to work on my books and whatnot.
About the following chapter, specifically: This is the final chapter of Harbinger, because the focus of the story will be shifting again. The next story in the series will pick up where this one ends. And regarding certain characters who show up here ... yes, one of them was never in TFP, but I liked her enough to include her here and see what develops (and, to be brutally honest, she was the only thing I liked about Robots in Disguise, which I had to stop watching four episodes in because it was so terrible that watching it actually made me angry). The other new characters aren't any specific version (as in, lifted from other iterations of the franchise), but I had a few ideas I thought I'd try out. And with certain villains the characters spend some time talking about, it came out of some ideas I got after a friend gave me some detailed information on them. I decided to see if I could put my own spin on them and, hopefully, make a good story out of it. We'll see how it goes ...
"Just a few more minutes." Arcee pointed into the sky and Jack kept his eyes aimed in that general direction. After a few seconds, he noticed a formation of distant lights approaching against the darkening sky. He glanced to the left as Optimus took a step forward.
The entire team, plus the Decepticons who'd defected and most of the Pretenders who'd gone native over the centuries, as well as Colonel McKenna's human team, had gathered with them at one of the Groom Lake Air Base's landing strips.
"They're keeping their approach slow to avoid spooking the humans," Arcee continued. "Wheeljack probably doesn't have the patience for it, but Optimus convinced him to keep it low-key."
"Good," Jack said with a nervous chuckle. "I still haven't had time to check the news and see how the world's reacting now that they know you're here, but I assume plenty of people are ready to panic at the slightest wrong move. If Wheeljack came in with the engines at full burn, someone might think it's an attack and go off half-cocked."
"Exactly." Arcee smiled, but kept her optics locked on to the confiscated enemy ship as its lights grew larger.
An incoming message popped up in Jack's HUD. He glanced at it and smirked. "Raf just copied a few clips of Sierra's antics in the GTA Online party we had a few nights ago, spliced them together, and sent them over."
"I got the same message." Arcee grinned. "I'm guessing they're from around the time Sierra ended up in a public lobby and ran into Vince."
"A few of 'em, yeah." Jack decided to take a quick look at the video while waiting for the ship to land. Vince had bullied him so mercilessly throughout junior high and high school, back in Jasper, it was impossible to resist a peek at the bastard getting some of his own medicine. He opened the file and the video appeared in a small window in his helmet's visor.
"Crap," Sierra grumbled. "Lost the connection and ended up in a public lobby. Can somebody invite me back in?"
"That sounds like Sierra," Vince muttered as Sierra spun her "camera" around to get her bearings.
"Vince," she snarled, and a list of players in the session appeared. Sierra selected Vince's gamertag and highlighted his blip on her mini-map. She then pulled up another menu, went into passive mode to avoid being taken out by some nearby rando, and finally directed her mechanic to deliver one of her cars. Jack whistled softly at the speed with which she zipped through the menus and selected options.
"Like I said when we were on our little camping trip, I didn't even know she played that game, but she must've been at it for a while. It still takes me a few seconds to remember where the menu options are."
"She's got a sweet ride, too," Arcee said as Sierra ran toward the car that had just appeared.
"Ah, yeah, that's the Grotti X80 Proto. It's one of the cars that were added to the game not too long ago. I've been thinking about buying a Megalodon Card just so I can have enough GTA Dollars to get one and upgrade it."
In his HUD, Sierra got into the car, zoomed off toward Vince, and took herself out of passive mode. Jack laughed softly and glanced at the approaching ship. It was still moving slowly, but a set of spotlights had been aimed at it and it was now close enough to guess its size. If the Nemesis was the Decepticon equivalent of a dreadnaught, then the ship Wheeljack had stolen might be considered a frigate. Small in comparison to other Cybertronian ships, but since its smallest occupant was at least twelve to fifteen feet tall, it still dwarfed anything ever built by humans
He returned his attention to the video just in time to catch Sierra driving into Vince's character as he sprayed another player with a machine gun. The high-speed impact sent him spinning into the air and Vince let out a startled yelp. Sierra whipped her car around as he picked himself up, and ran over him again, this time killing him.
"Hey! What the hell?"
"Eat shit, Vince," Sierra growled. "Eat fuckin' shit!"
Jack snickered as the video cut to another segment of Sierra's gameplay footage, showing her tossing a Molotov cocktail from her car as she roared past Vince, nailing him in the back of the head and firing off a gleeful laugh as he burst into flames. He spewed a stream of profanity and tried to run away from her. She spun around and accelerated toward him. He made the mistake of running past a propane tank, and Sierra selected a machine pistol from her weapons menu. She cooked off the tank before Vince got out of range and the explosion launched his flaming corpse into a group of NPCs.
"Wow." Arcee chuckled.
The next clip showed Sierra driving a Trashmaster to the top of a parking garage. On her mini-map, Vince's blip was directly ahead, but down on the street.
"Where are you, Sierra? I can see you on my map! What the hell are you up to, now?"
Sierra remained silent as she parked, got out, and planted five sticky bombs on the side of thegarbage truck. She got back in, drove up a ramp and off the parking garage's top floor. She jumped out and popped her chute as the Trashmaster plunged straight down. She turned to get a clear view of the huge truck as it landed grill-first on his head.
"Goddamn it!" He shrieked in frustration as his character remained pinned under the truck.
Then she triggered the sticky bombs and finished him off. He screamed a long stream of profanity.
Sierra giggled, drifted around to another building, and cut the chute as she passed over its roof. She landed, rolled, and whipped out a combat MG. She crouched at the edge of the roof and waited for Vince to respawn. His blip reappeared on her map and approached slowly.
"Sierra, you bitch!" He appeared in the distance, sprinting toward the garbage truck's remains. Sierra switched to a single-shot Marksman Pistol and continued waiting. Vince took cover behind the Trashmaster and peeked out, glancing all around and trying to find Sierra - and never thinking to look up.
She popped out of cover for a split second, drilled him through the head, and ducked back out of sight. The sharp boom of the pistol sounded more like a cannon and was so loud that Jack swore he'd felt it rattle his bones. Meanwhile, Vince's only response was a long, incoherent scream of rage.
The next clip lasted just long enough to show Sierra playing chicken with Vince on a bridge. Her X80 slid under his car tires and Vince ramped off, launched into the air, and tumbled off to the left. She turned around just in time to glimpse his car spinning off the bridge into a ravine.
"NOOOOOOOO!" He landed upside-down and exploded. "My caaaaaaaarrrrrr!"
"What the fuck, Sierra? Why're you doing this?"
"Now you know how it feels, you sonofabitch!"
"Bam!" Jack grinned.
In the next clip, Sierra brought up her phone, called Lester Crest, and paid him to remove her blip from other players' maps. She peeked around a corner, spotted Vince and several of his online buddies exchanging fire with a street gang, and crept toward him.
"Damn it," he muttered, "I'm almost out of armor."
Sierra whipped out a battle axe and burst into a sprint. "Viiiiiiiiiiiiince!"
He spun around, saw her charging him, and bellowed, "OH GOD, NO!" He turned and bolted. She switched to a proximity mine and threw it directly into his path. He ran across it before he could change course, and the blast rocketed his lifeless body into the air. He let out another enraged scream. "Fuck meeeeeeeeeeee!"
Giggling and snorting, Sierra switched back to the axe and hacked one of his friends to death before the rest gunned her down. She burst into laughter. "Worth it!"
"Goddamn it, Sierra, stop it! Just leave me alone!"
"Oh, no. It's payback for you bullying my friends at school!" Sierra took a breath and snarled, "I've tattooed your name on my knuckles, you sonofabitch! I've just getting started!"
The video ended, and probably just as well. Jack had to clamp his mouth shut and hold his breath to avoid bursting out laughing. This wasn't the time or place for it. He took a few slow breaths to be sure he could control himself, and grinned up at Arcee.
"I'll have to thank Raf for this. I'll treasure it always."
"So will I." Arcee smirked and turned back to the approaching ship as it finally arrived and set down. "Okay. Time to meet a few more survivors."
"Here we go," Arcee muttered as she followed Optimus toward the ramp lowering from under the ship's command section. Jack and the rest of the team kept up with them. She didn't like all of them clumping together like this, just in case it turned out to be a trap. Everyone else had agreed it was important for the new arrivals to see everyone together so they'd understand that all were on the same side. Elita-1 and the others had been out of the loop for a long time, and the sight of Decepticons among the Autobots would probably spook them.
The first to appear at the top of the ramp was Elita-1 herself. She still had the same old pink color scheme, but had dents and scratches all over her body. No time to stop anywhere for repairs, Arcee guessed, or maybe there was just nowhere to go that was still intact. The huge cannon hung on her back was new, probably something she'd picked up on the battlefield.
Elita swept her glowing optics over the 'Bots and their allies, raised a brow-plate when her gaze passed over Starscream and the other former 'Cons, and smiled when it landed on Optimus. She walked toward him, her footsteps shaking the ground, and put her arms around him. He embraced her and they held each other for a long moment.
"Okay," Jack muttered, "I didn't expect that."
"They were 'together' a long time ago. Like you and me." Arcee chuckled. "Well, not exactly, since they never had the 'extra parts' I've recently had installed. They couldn't …" She made the "docking" gesture with her hands and Jack snickered. "Aside from that, though, yeah, they were a couple. Then they got separated in the confusion of a battle and never saw each other again until now. Each thought the other had been killed."
"Interesting group you've got here," Elita said after they parted. She nodded at the 'Cons. "Prisoners or allies?"
"They've defected from the Decepticons and have assisted us in recent battles."
"Good to hear. We can use all the help we can get, the way things have been going."
Behind Arcee, someone made a sound like a sharp gasp. She glanced over her shoulder and found Starscream staring at Elita.
"What are you looking at?" Elita said suddenly, without even glancing in his direction. He twitched, his optics opened wider, and he finally pointed at the cannon on her back.
"Is that … is that Dreadwing's weapon?"
"It was." She turned to meet his gaze. "Now it's mine."
"Oh." He took a few steps back and muttered something that sounded like, "Eheh …"
Elita smirked and then touched the side of her head, indicating that she'd activated her comlink. "It's safe out here. Come on out."
"About time," Wheeljack grumbled. He strode down the ramp and glanced around. Arcee noticed he had a few more dents and scars than he had the last time they'd met. "Hey, where's Bulkhead?"
"Down here." Bulkhead's human-size body waved up at him.
"Uh. Okay. What the hell happened to you?"
"Got shot in the back while boarding the Nemesis. Severed my spine and severely damaged some of my primary systems, so I'm remote-piloting this Pretender body until I'm back on my feet." Bulkhead clapped Miko on the shoulder and added, "The Insecticon who shot me paid for it, though. Miko took him and four of his buddies out, and crippled the Nemesis with the explosion at the same time."
"Huh. We heard bits and pieces about that in enemy radio chatter we've picked up here and there. Wish I could've seen it."
"Oh, me too, Jackie."
"Nice job, kid." Wheeljack grinned down at Miko. She shrugged.
"Well, they hurt my best friend. No way was I gonna let that slide."
"Glad you were with him, then, since I couldn't be."
"We'll have to catch up later." Bulk turned to the ship. "Who else have you got onboard?"
"Elita's surviving squad members, plus two others we picked up a while back." Wheeljack turned back to the ship as more clanking, earthshaking footsteps pounded across the ground. Each of them had an athletic and obviously feminine design like Arcee, except the two at the rear, who were far thicker and sturdier, yet were still clearly female at first glance.
Elita motioned at the one with the blue-and-chrome color scheme. "This is my second in command, Chromia." While Chromia nodded a greeting to everyone, Elita held a hand toward the 'Bot whose color scheme was a mix of bronze, gold, and gunmetal, and introduced her as Firestar. Another, green and silver, was Greenlight, followed by Lancer, the purple and gold one.
The smallest of the team, with a cyan-and-chrome paint job, took a few steps forward, tripped over her own feet, let out a quick squeak, and then regained her balance. She turned her head this way and that, grinning and clasping her hands together. "So many colors and textures! So much life! I never thought I'd see a planet so alive!"
"Throttle back a bit, Moonracer." Greenlight laughed softly and put a hand on her shoulder. "Let's find out what the situation is before we get too excited."
"Okay!" Moonracer rejoined the others, but continued beaming at everything around her.
Optimus glanced over at the ramp. "No one else is onboard?"
Elita shook her head. "This is it."
He turned to Chromia. "Ironhide …?"
She shook her head. Optimus closed his optics and bowed his head.
Chromia nodded, but said nothing. Probably didn't want to reopen the wound, Arcee assumed.
Damn. I always expect to hear about more casualties, but that never makes it any easier.
The remaining two moved to the front of the group and Arcee looked them over. The smaller one had a blue, white, and black color scheme, and Arcee had never seen her before. The other, taller even than Optimus, was tan all over with black detailing and … her face was quite familiar.
That's Strika. Arcee suddenly couldn't decide whether to take a step away from her or lunge at her. Strika was one of the Decepticons' most notorious generals, a tactical genius who was every bit as formidable in one-on-one combat as she was directing an entire army from a command center.
What the hell was she doing here? Prisoner of war? Defector seemed unlikely. Could Elita's team be working with her?
Acree noticed something as she continued staring at Strika. Something about her expression. Arcee had always expected her to be cold and aloof, and there was plenty of that in the general's face. But there was a hint of something else. Regret? Or maybe just weariness.
Maybe anyone can grow tired of war, even someone who's always loved it and lived for it.
Arcee glanced at Elita and arched a brow plate. "Interesting crew you have. Prisoner or ally?"
"Ally," Elita said. She motioned at the other new arrival and added, "She surrendered herself into Cadet Strongarm's custody before the rest of us met either of them, and since then she's proven herself a valuable asset."
"Huh. Why would she surrender to anyone, let alone a cadet?"
"I was the only one there," Strongarm said, and then stood at attention. "The rest of my team was taken out, and all I could do was escape and try to meet up with reinforcements or survivors. I tried to hide on a barren moon, and detected a 'Con life sign. I investigated, figuring it was better than waiting for the enemy to come find me, and the life sign turned out to be Strika. I decided to capture her, and expected to end up dead, but she just surrendered. I found her in a cave, just sitting there. When I asked her why she wouldn't fight back, she said, 'What would be the point? Our home is gone.'" Strongarm winced and looked away, as if the memory of her homeworld's death had slapped her in the face. She pulled herself together and added, "We hid there until we were sure the 'Cons who'd taken out my team had left the system, then we lifted off. Later, we encountered Elita's team and she let us join them."
"Sorry about your team. I know what it's like to lose friends in battle." Arcee clapped the cadet's shoulder gently. "What happened to them?"
"That's one of the things we need to speak with you about," Elita said. "It was the Decepticon Justice Division."
Arcee gasped. "What?"
Jack glanced up at her. "Who?"
"No." Knockout glanced around frantically, his optics wide, and stumbled backward. "Oh, n-"
Breakdown lunged forward and grabbed his arm. At the same time, two of the Vehicons braced their hands on his back to prevent him from toppling over. Breakdown pointed at several scattering humans behind him.
"Dumbass! You could've squashed them!"
"But … but … the … DJD." Knockout leaned forward and braced his trembling hands on his shaking knees like someone getting ready to vomit. Breakdown kept a hand on his friend's shoulder and glanced over at Elita.
"How long have you been running from them? Did they follow you here?"
"It's possible. We'd already been running from them for years, and another four months after we encountered Wheeljack."
"They're the ones who blew up my ship," Wheeljack added. He pointed a thumb over his shoulder. "We hijacked one of theirs and its IFF let us slip away before they locked it out."
"We're dead," Knockout moaned. "We're all dead!"
"No," Khalilah whispered, and Arcee glanced over at her. The Vehicon defector took a quick look at the ground to be sure none of the humans or Pretenders were in her path, and then she stumbled into the distance, whispering, "No," over and over.
"Khalilah?" Jensen stared at her, gaping and shaking his head slowly. "Wait!" He turned back to the others. "Who the hell are the Decepticon Justice Division?" He glanced back at Khalilah and shook his head. "Never mind, fill me in later." He grabbed his crutches and followed her, hobbling as quickly as his broken leg allowed.
Jack stared at them, shook his head, and glanced up at Arcee. "What the hell just happened?"
Optimus waved a hand toward the nearest hangar, the only building nearby that they could fit into. "It seems we have much to discuss."
Come on, Khalilah, slow down, already! Jensen gasped and wheezed as he swung the crutches forward, came down on his good leg, and repeated the process again and again. His heart pounded, and not just from the exertion. Like the other Vehicons, Khalilah was a good thirty or forty feet tall, and if he hadn't known her as well as he did by now, her blank face with that single, red optic would've been intimidating enough to chill his blood. Seeing her so completely terrified by something he'd never heard of was one of the most unsettling things he'd ever experienced.
And that included one of the even larger Insecticons falling on him and breaking his leg in four places.
He stopped to catch his breath and glanced over his shoulder. Shit. Looks like I've hobbled at least a mile, already. He faced forward again and stared into the distance. She was far enough away to appear about the size of his thumb held at arm's length. She hadn't been running, just sort of stumbling forward, but her far longer stride had left him in the dust.
His leg ached.
Doesn't matter. She's scared out of her mind. He took a few more ragged breaths and launched after her again, swinging the crutches and taking a step and repeating. Swing, step, swing, step, swing, step ….
After another half-mile, he realized she'd stopped. She glanced around as if confused, then she braced a hand against a nearby cliff and slumped over. She raised her other hand to her face, whimpered, and turned to lean back against the cliff. She slid slowly to the ground, pulled her knees up to her chest, and put her arms around them.
Sweat dripped into Jensen's eyes. He gritted his teeth, tried to ignore it, and pushed onward. Shit. Just a broken leg and a few days in the hospital, and I'm all out of shape. Granted, he was used to sprinting on two good legs, and crutches weren't built for full-speed-ahead.
When he finally reached her, she was rocking slightly and moaning.
"Hey," he rasped, and paused to take a few more gulping breaths. She glanced suddenly at him, startled, and then stared back at the base.
"I … oh, no, Chad, you limped all the way out here? I'm so sorry."
"You're worth it. What's wrong? Who are the Decepticon Justice Division?"
"They're a fucking nightmare." She shook her head and let out a quiet sob.
"Take it easy." He hobbled up beside her and reached up to rest his palm on her leg. "Whoever they are, we'll deal with them if they show up here."
"They can't be stopped."
"Khalilah, we're planning to take on Unicron, and he's the size of a Dyson sphere, if not bigger. How could these goons be any worse?"
"I thought they were a myth," she mumbled. "An urban legend, I think humans call it. We heard rumors about them for thousands of years, but most of us had started to think it was all propaganda whipped up by Megatron and his ilk to keep the low-level troops like us in line. They were set up to punish deserters and traitors, and according to the stories, they started going after 'Cons for more and more insignificant transgressions, to the point where the slightest misstep could land one of us on the List. I wouldn't have been surprised if, sooner or later, they came up with an excuse to go after Megatron himself, if he hadn't already been possessed by Unicron."
Jensen shivered. It sounded like something right out of an Orwellian future or alternate reality in any number of books, movies, TV shows, and video games he had even a passing familiarity with.
Khalilah turned to stare down at him, but remained huddled up. "Even after we started losing faith in our cause, we didn't break away because we were afraid. Eventually, there was nowhere else we could go, anyway, until you and your friends gave us the opening we needed. Some of us were desperate enough by then to risk deserting. We'd started to doubt the rumors enough to think we could get away with it. And now it turns out they're real, and we may have led them to your planet. We may have endangered your entire species."
"No, you didn't. If we're in danger, it's all on them, not you. Either Megatron would've called them here for one reason or another, or they would've shown up to investigate why they lost contact with him." He held his hand out to her. Moving carefully, she lowered her arm to her side and he leaned over to rest his palm in hers. "Are they really that dangerous?"
"They don't just execute their targets. They torture them to death. According to the stories I've heard, back when Cybertron was still habitable, they'd often torture one of their victims within an inch of death, and then lower them into one of our Smelting Pits. Slowly."
Smelting Pits. Jesus Christ. Jensen didn't ask. What those were, and what they were used for, was already perfectly clear.
Khalilah raised her free hand to her forehead and sobbed again. "And they would laugh as their victims screamed in agony while being melted down."
"Fucking hell," Jensen whispered. "No wonder you were all so afraid of them."
She nodded. "Some of them had torture devices built into their bodies. Others had alternate modes that turned them into torture devices when they transformed. Once they target someone, there's no escape. They've never failed to run down someone on their List. It'd be better to commit suicide than let them execute us."
A chill surged through his chest. She's … she can't be thinking about killing herself just to …
"The problem is," Khalilah continued, "by the time you find out you're on the List, it's already too late. The DJD tracking you down is how you discover they're coming for you. If you're lucky, you have a few minutes left, by that point."
"Khalilah, listen to me. We won't let them hurt you. I won't let them."
"They can't be stopped."
"How many of them are there?"
"If all the core members are still intact, six or seven. But they might have recruited a few others."
"Well, here, they're outnumbered and outgunned. Trust me, if they show up on our planet, we'll tear 'em apart." He leaned over to kiss the back of her hand. "You know we've got the firepower to take 'em out. You've seen it for yourself."
"Maybe." She stared off at the distant base. "Yeah. Maybe you're right. I didn't think about that. I just panicked." She leaned back against the cliff and shook her head. "I feel like an idiot for reacting the way I did."
"Happens to the best of us." He fired a sheepish grin up at her. "Don't tell anyone, but when I saw that dead Insecticon toppling over straight toward me, and realized it was gonna flatten me, I shat my goddamn pants."
She managed a brief chuckle. "Thank you."
"Any time. Now, the others are probably coming up with a plan to deal with those assholes. We're missing all the fun."
"We should head back, then." She pushed herself slowly to her feet.
"Mind giving me a lift?" He grinned.
"Sure thing." She leaned over, cupped her hands together, and waited for him to climb into her palm. Then she lifted him carefully to her chest and walked back to the base.
"Sounds like a nasty bunch," General Sanchez said, his voice echoing around the empty hangar everyone had gathered in.
Ashanti nodded. "Sounds like a bunch of sadists. They get off on torturing their victims."
"Even for Decepticons," Arcee said, "they're insane."
"Well, if they find their way here, they'll be a half-dozen plus some cannon fodder against all of us and Earth's combined militaries. At worst, this might be just what the world needs to finally unite."
"Let's not get overconfident," Sanchez said. "They're dangerous enough to terrify people who are just as big and durable as they are, and we're like ants compared to them."
"A swarm of wasps can bring down the largest and deadliest of animals," Optimus said.
"Well, since this could be a more immediate threat than Unicron, it should get things rolling a lot faster." Sanchez raised an eyebrow and glanced up at Elita. "If they manage to track you to Earth."
"We used every trick we knew to evade their ships," Elita said. "We're pretty sure we lost them a few dozen light-years from here, but we can't be completely certain. And that's really not far enough away, anyhow."
"The good news," Strika added, speaking for some reason in an accent that sounded Russian, "is that most of their operations are still centered on and around the planet Messatine, so if we do run into them in Earth's vicinity, it'll probably be a few small patrol ships trying to zero in on us. If we detect any near this planet, we'll need to take them out before they can report back to their leaders."
Ashanti winced and flicked a worried glanced around at her team. Strika seemed to notice.
"There is a problem, Colonel McKenna?"
"Just a small one. We don't have any ships that can intercept them. We built a set of fabricators from plans Bumblebee stole when we raided the Nemesis, and we're using them to crank out parts for a ship, but we've barely gotten started."
"I see." Strika's expression didn't change, though her optics flicked away for a split-second. "You will need at least a small fleet to challenge the DJD's minions."
Elita nodded and turned back to Sanchez and Optimus. "We'll assist you in any way we can. The ship Wheeljack stole doesn't have the firepower to take on more than a few of their ships, so we should pitch in wherever possible to speed up construction."
"Oh!" Moonracer grinned. "We get to build a ship! It'll be fun!"
Behind her, Tomoko's deeply unsettled expression broke into a smile.
Elita nodded, chuckled softly, and patted Moonracer's shoulder. She turned back to Optimus and arched a brow plate. "So, has life here been as boring as it's been for us?"
"We have another reason to finish construction on our new ship as quickly as possible." He nodded at Ashanti, and she walked over to the projector a pair of airmen had set up while everyone waited for the new arrivals to land.
"We recently discovered the wreckage of a Decepticon ship, the Harbinger." Arcee turned to face the wall as Ashanti switched the projector on and loaded the first file. She motioned at Tomoko and added, "That's where one of our new friends was 'born,' by the way. Airachnid found a batch of protoforms inside and used them to make multiple clones of herself." Arcee sneered. "For spare parts. Tomoko booted up before Airachnid could start taking her apart, and she ran like hell."
Tomoko nodded, then she shuddered and her Pretender body hugged her Catbug plushie a little tighter. Raf stepped closer and reached out to hold her hand.
"Interesting." Strika glanced at the projector and turned back to Optimus. "What else did you find onboard?"
"An Autobot boarding party had been fighting the crew before the Harbinger crashed." He motioned at two of the newer additions to the team. "Only Ultra Magnus and Smokescreen survived. We also found backup copies of the ship's log. Many of the entries were lost due to physical damage, but some could be salvaged."
"That's how we learned about some of Unicron's recent activities." Ashanti scowled up at the images showing Unicron's size compared to a solar system, his gravity well disrupting the orbits of all the planets in another system, and the Harbinger's near-fatal encounter with him.
"Unicron," Wheeljack muttered. "Well, shit."
"A few days ago, something troubling came to our attention." Optimus held a hand out toward the newest image, which showed a a view of the night sky. A small white circle appeared around one of the stars. "This is an archival image recorded by an orbital telescope. The star within the circle is known to humans as Lambda Scorpii, at a distance of five hundred seventy light-years from Earth."
"Five hundred seventy," Elita muttered as her optics opened wider. "That's the same distance as … oh, no."
"This is the star Cybertron orbits."
The photo vanished and was replaced by a nearly identical one. In this one, however, Lambda Scorpii and the stars and galaxies beyond it had been distorted, twisted into curving shapes that formed a circular pattern.
Everyone in the room gaped at the image.
"That must've been the other thing Mom was so worried about," Jack muttered with another glance up at Arcee.
"Huh," Raf said softly. "That looks like gravitational lensing."
"This image was recorded three months ago. An enormous mass between this planet and Lambda Scorpii distorted the light from those stars and galaxies. It was at first thought to be a black hole, but none of the typical characteristics of such an object were detected."
"The radiation emissions were all wrong," Sanchez added. "Also, there were no jets erupting from the north and south poles, and no accretion disk. No signs of a supernova, either."
A third photo appeared. The lensing effect had vanished and the stars were back to normal … with one exception.
"It's gone," Arcee whispered, staring wide-eyed at the image.
"So." General Sanchez let out a slow breath. "This is either a natural phenomenon we've never seen before, or …"
"Unicron." Breakdown shook his head and snarled. "This just keeps getting better."
"It sure does." Sanchez glanced at the photo again. "Given its distance from Earth, what we see here happened a little under six hundred years ago. So whatever happened …"
"It's too late to do anything about it." Arcee glanced around frantically, as if searching for something to grab onto. Finally, she lowered herself into a crouch and then leaned forward, bracing a hand on the floor. Jack walked over to her and reached up to put his hand on her cheek.
"Well, we picked the perfect time to come back," Jensen said, and Ashanti glanced over her shoulder to find Khalilah lowering him to the floor and then staring at the image.
Optimus turned toward them and said, "Khalilah, are you alright?"
"I was." She motioned at the photo. "Not so much, now."
"There's something I'm not clear on," another voice said, and Ashanti glanced around until she spotted the reporter, Tenesha Hargrove, stepping forward with one of her camera guys beside her.
Forgot she was even here. Ashanti shrugged it off and said, "What is it?"
"While interviewing several of our new friends, they all said their homeworld was already dead."
"It's uninhabitable," Elita said, her voice quavering. "Completely shut down. All power sources depleted. But we were still hoping to find a way to revive it someday. Can't do that if it and its star have been destroyed, though."
Strika pondered the photo for a few seconds more. "Once we've dealt with the DJD, we should investigate Lambda Scorpii and determine what has happened. If nothing else, it could lead us to Unicron."
Optimus stared at the image for a long moment. His stoic expression once again slipped ever so slightly, almost turning into a grimace. He closed his optics, regained his composure, and turned back to the others.
"That will be our first destination, once our new ship is completed. There may be something left, some clue that will indicate where Unicron went after leaving the system, if he was responsible for the star's disappearance."
"Those of you who need sleep," Sanchez said, "should get to it soon. We'll be off to an early start tomorrow. We'll have crews working on construction around the clock. Even if it's too late for Cybertron, we may still need to deal with the DJD. With any luck, we'll be able to work out a strategy before they come knocking on our door." He glanced around, making eye contact with everyone. "Dismissed."
Ashanti sighed and walked over to her team, wondering if any of them would be able to sleep after what they'd just been told.
"Pretty intense stuff, huh?" Jensen reached up to rest his hand on Khalilah's face.
"Yeah. Better try to get some rest." Ashanti's heart began to pound at the enormity of what they'd be getting into very soon. "We've got a lot of work to do."