Scoop grunted as he pulled himself up, strong fingers somehow finding a handhold on the sheer cliffside. He moved with such self-assurance that he might as well have been six meters off the ground, not six hundred. With one last exertion he dragged himself up and over the ledge so that his torso was lying on the relatively flat ground. After that it was easy enough to throw his knees up and assume a sitting position.
"You two alright back there?"
"Oh yeah, just great." Holepunch dropped down from his perch inside Scoop's shovel. The pristine blue-armoured Nebulan's expression was clearly sarcastic. "I don't think you tossed us around enough this time, though."
"Oh, grow up." Tracer gave his teammate a scornful look. His own yellow armour was scuffed and dented, but artistically so. Scoop knew he thought the damage made him look like a hard case. "Unless you want the big guy to make you climb up on your own next time."
"No," Holepunch shot back. "I'd like him to drive like Quickmix and Landfill do. There's a perfectly good road up the other side."
"Now, where's the fun in that?" Scoop led his two fellow Targetmasters towards a makeshift lookout tower. Their ragtag band of Autobot and Decepticon refugees had set up several of them on the highest points of ground near their camp. Since they were situated in the Rad Zone, conventional sensors were almost useless. That meant that the best early warning system available was a set of eyes with a good line of sight.
Or three sets of eyes, if you're a Double Targetmaster.
"Oh, you know our Scoop," Quickmix said, picking up the thread of the conversation as the trio of newcomers approached their post. "Always looking for a new challenge to keep him going. Wouldn't want that sharp edge of his to dull."
"Can't have that," the infantrymech agreed. "Who's going to pull your soft scientist chassis out of the fire if I'm not at my best?"
Holepunch made a show of sniffing the air, then said, "So...no Landfill today?"
"No. He's out on perimeter duty today, the scamp." Quickmix frowned. "Why else do you think I'm here and not working in my lab?"
"Well, for one, the fact that your lab is on the other side of the world." This came from Boomer, one of Quickmix's own partners, who was leaning on the doorframe looking bored. The trio's second Targetmaster, Ricochet, was sitting in the farthest possible corner, doodling something on a data pad and occasionally looking up to glare at Tracer as if he thought the other Nebulan would filch his artwork the moment he looked away.
"Filled with green-painted thugs too, I'd bet. The nerve!" Quickmix punched one fist into the palm of his hand. "We'll show them soon enough. But I've got a half-way decent setup in camp, actually. Did you know the place we're set up actually used to be the campus for Sonihex University? Oh, it's all wrecked now – this building we're using as a lookout? It actually used to be the dean of engineering's office. But some of the underground stuff survived, including a few labs. That 'Con Scavenger – nice guy, by the way – he's been spending his free time exploring them all. That's why we've got power now, he found their old backup generators. Turns out he stumbled on a chemistry lab. In kinda rough shape, but it's better than nothing. Before that old stiff Kup sent me out on guard duty, I was working on a new formula to make you Nebulans reek a little less."
"We've been crammed in body-fitting suits of armour for over a month," Tracer reminded him. "If we came out to bathe, we'd die of radiation poisoning within the hour. I think you can forgive us a bit of odor."
"It's more than a bit," Quickmix assured him. "It smells like Landfill in here."
"Your comm is live, brainiac." Landfill's voice cut in. Even over the relatively short distance they were speaking, and even though he had a clear line of sight to the lookout post, his transmission was shot with static. "Oh, and for the record, little guys, do not wash up with any concoction that Quickmix invents. The last time he promised me an easy clean-up solution, Fixit wound up building me a new pair of legs."
"A minor miscalculation," Quickmix mumbled. "Besides, at least the new legs were clean for a day or two. It sorta worked!"
"Well, it worked better than the one that turned into concrete and froze up all my joints. That one was a real laugh." Landfill sighed. "But as much as I hate to break up a good 'bash Quickmix' session, we've got work to do. Guzzle and Getaway over in Tower #4 spotted something incoming. It's probably just another dust devil, but Laserbeak did a flyby and couldn't see anything either way. I'm headed out to see it in person. You two want to cover me?"
"Quickmix can," Scoop decided. "I think I'll drive out to meet you, just in case."
"You sure? I mean, I can always use the company but it's probably nothing."
"Why not?" Scoop asked. "After all, Holepunch was just saying how much he wanted to go for a drive..."
"Oh, sure," Holepunch muttered. "Blame me."
Five minutes later Scoop and Landfill (who actually smelled much better than usual in spite of Quickmix's cruel jokes – Scoop suspected the Rad Zone's emissions were breaking down all the smelly oils and wastes that usually clung to him) were rolling toward the disturbance that the other spotting tower had sighted. Their Targetmaster weapons, connected to hardpoints on their vehicle modes, scanned in all directions for trouble.
"You got anything?" Landfill asked.
"There's definitely someone there," Scoop told him. "It's not a dust devil. You can see three separate plumes, all traveling on a single path one after the other. It's a convoy."
The bright orange steam shovel slowed to a stop, transforming to robot mode and hefting his partners' combined weapon mode in his right hand. Finding cover in the crumbled ruins of yet another ancient building, he switched on his comm and said, "Getaway, we're in position. Do you two have a clear line of sight?"
"That's an affirmative," Getaway responded. The Powermaster, Scoop knew, had only just finished recovering from injuries he'd sustained in the Tagan Heights. Having missed the bulk of the fighting and the evacuation, he had to be both ready and extremely eager to do something. But to his credit, his voice didn't show it.
"Can you make anything out from your angle?"
"Nothing but dust," Getaway told him. "Laserbeak, you see anything?"
"Same as you," the Decepticon responded.
"Awesome," Scoop said dryly. "Because surprises are so great..."
"Don't worry. The lead vehicle is starting to come into range on my scope," Landfill called from the hunk of debris a few dozen metres away where he'd taken cover. "Huh."
"Yep," Getaway said. "Sounds like a surprise to me."
"Yeah, but a good one. It looks like Optimus."
"Do not trust your eyes," Getaway warned him, his voice starting to raise. "I made that mistake in the Heights."
"Did your Optimus have a Megatron and a Blurr with him?"
"No," Getaway said carefully.
"Then I think we're good." Without waiting for the others' opinion, Landfill stepped out of cover and waved at the oncoming vehicles. The lead truck – Scoop really hoped it actually was Optimus – answered with a resounding honk.
It took a couple minutes for the trio of vehicles to reach their position, and it wasn't until he could almost reach out and touch them that Scoop allowed his tension to fade. As the three of them transformed, Blurr made a happy squeak and threw himself at Landfill, giving the other Autobot a big bear hug. Such was the blue speedster's happiness to see another Autobot that he didn't even seem to mind the stench.
"Landfill buddy old pal it's so good to see you who else is here and how are you doing and what's happened since I've been gone I'm so curious!"
Optimus was more reserved, transforming and surveying the area with a jaded, suspicious eye.
"We should be safe enough here, sir," Scoop said as he stepped out from behind cover. He gently dropped his Targetmasters, letting them return to robot mode. "But all the same, we shouldn't stay out in the open too long. The Imperials' sensors are as useless as ours, but they have been running recon flights and sending foot patrols into the Zone pretty frequently."
Then Scoop glanced at Megatron. The Decepticon leader had surprised him by showing enough decency to keep his distance as the Autobots has their reunion. Now Scoop could see that he was having a reunion of his own, of a sort – Laserbeak had descended from the sky and settled on the barrel of his leader's massive railgun.
"Sir, about him...what we heard from Soundwave, about his mission..."
"I know," Optimus acknowledged Scoop's words, placing a friendly hand on the other Autobot's shoulder as he did so. Those two words, delivered in Prime's signature calm baritone, seemed to lift a weight off of Scoop's shoulders that he hadn't even realized he was carrying. Even the bizarre new body that the Swarm had built for Prime, complete with a Megatronesque arm-mounted cannon, didn't seem strange at all when Prime was there in the flesh. "Don't worry. His 'assassination' mission was a ruse. He didn't want his fellow Decepticons to know that he was planning to help me."
Optimus looked around the bleak wasteland in which they stood, then said, "You've done a fantastic job hiding your base, Scoop, because it's taken us two weeks to find you. Would you mind leading the way back?"
"It would be my pleasure, sir." Scoop tilted his head to the side slightly as he spoke into his comlink. "You get all that, Getaway?"
"I did indeed," the Powermaster replied. "I'm already on my way back to HQ to rouse the officers."
In spite of Getaway's earlier suspicion, his voice now carried a hint of optimism, maybe even hope. And Scoop couldn't blame him. The Targetmaster had served under a great many different commanders, and with no disrespect meant to Magnus or Kup, Prowl or Grimlock or Fortress Maximus...Optimus Prime was the Autobot leader. Now that he was back, Scoop could finally allow himself to believe that this disaster could have a happy ending.
A baby blue flash was the only warning before a familiar voice assaulted Kup's audio sensors.
"It's so good to see you I'm so happy you're still alive I was worried sick I had no idea what was going to happen when I left Iacon but it didn't look good and I haven't heard anything!"
Kup clapped Blurr on the shoulder, but pushed past the younger Autobot with a stern expression on his face. "Good to see you too, lad. Getaway is around here somewhere. He'll get you caught up. Where's Optimus?"
"Scoop took him to the meeting room or at least the old bunker that sort of looks like a meeting room other than the hole in the roof and all the fire damage and—"
Ignoring the younger Autobot's continued nattering, Kup strode out of his makeshift office (itself not much more than a half-collapsed storage unit) and crossed the courtyard of the refugee-camp-cum-military-base that he was nominally in charge of. Although they had made some progress cleaning up the nearby facilities and making them suitable for habitation, this was still the Rad Zone. The bleak, blasted landscape they'd settled in looked like a post-apocalyptic horror from one of the human movies that Blaster was always trying to get him to watch.
Of course, on this planet you need to ask which apocalypse it's from. There's been so many...
Kup nodded to Scoop, Quickmix and Landfill, who were standing guard at the entrance to one of the few buildings big enough to serve as a meeting area. It had been a warehouse at one point, by the looks of it, but its contents had long-since been stripped by those intrepid or foolish enough to take refuge in the Rad Zone during the war. Now it was an assembly area, of a sort.
And an assembly was definitely going on inside the building.
Near the entrance, Megatron and Scrapper were having a quiet conversation, while Laserbeak perched on the base of his leader's cannon. Farther inside, Jetfire had taken a seat near the makeshift dais and was speaking to a blocky-looking robot with a huge cannon on his forearm and several spare rockets racked on his back. It took a few moments before Kup remembered that this was what Optimus Prime looked like now.
It's the white legs that throw me, I think. How many bodies does he need to go through? Some of us have been fine with just the one for the last four million years...
But instead of giving voice to his curmudgeonly thoughts, Kup cut to the chase. Raising his voice so that he could be heard over the conversation, he bluntly demanded, "Where the hell have you been, Prime?"
Every other voice went quiet immediately, and you could have heard a pin drop as Optimus slowly turned to face his head of security. "I understand your frustration, Kup, but—"
"You abandoned your post and your responsibilities!" Kup closed the distance between them, slamming a fist down on a conveniently located table as he passed it. "You had a duty to each and every Autobot on this planet and you walked away from that to go on some half-baked vision quest! As far as I'm concerned, all the Autobots who've died in the invasion are on your head. They trusted you to be there for them, to protect them, and you weren't!"
"Did I say something amusing?" Kup snarled, clearly not intimidated in the slightest by the Decepticons' leader.
"No," Megatron replied in an unconcerned tone of voice. "It's just novel to be able to stand by and watch as someone else deals with insubordinate underlings for a change. Please, don't let me interrupt your tirade of righteous indignation. You hadn't even gotten to the part where you threatened to use your ridiculous 'Crisis Act' to relieve him of command and clap him in irons."
"Don't tempt me. If we didn't need the morale boost, I'd toss both of you in the caves that we used to keep Starscream in." Megatron's interjection had taken some of the wind out of Kup's sails, though. Instead of continuing his rant, he just glowered at Optimus and said, "Do you have something to say for yourself, or does your new best friend do all the talking?"
"Kup," Prime said seriously, "I can't tell you how much the lives lost grieve me. If Megatron and I had known what was to happen, we would never have left. But what's done is done. We did what we thought was best at the time. But what we learned was invaluable."
Kup asked sourly. "Is it worth more than Trailbreaker's life,
or Warpath's? What about Prowl's? Because that's the price, Prime.
Not just numbers in a ledger somewhere. Real people died while you
were off playing at being a historian."
Optimus was momentarily left speechless as Kup relayed the news of three close associates' deaths in such a blunt manner. The Autobot leader all but fell into a chair, rubbing his forehead pensively.
Megatron, however, was unaffected. "You spoke of Starscream in the past tense. I suppose it's too much to hope for that his life was part of the price we paid?"
"In a manner of speaking." Bugly's voice caught all of them by surprise, as the Decepticon martial artist had appeared among them seemingly out of nowhere. "But also no."
"Still speaking in riddles, I see," Megatron didn't even try to hide his impatience.
"Indeed." The Pretender inclined his bug-like visage in an insectoid imitation of a nod. "The Starscream situation is...complicated. But if I might make a suggestion? Stewing in here will only allow your negative energies to fester. Why don't we go somewhere more likely to provoke positive thoughts instead?"
He glanced at Kup. "I just heard from Buzzsaw. He says it's ready."
The old Autobot couldn't help but be perked up by that. "Well, then we should go try it out," he said, immediately heading for the exit. With a glance over his shoulder at Optimus, he said, "At least we have some allegedly good news to share now."
The old Sonihex University mecha-soccer stadium was in even worse shape than most of the buildings surrounding it, but that was okay. The half-collapsed roof had allowed acid rain to eat away at the building's insides, turning the playing field into a ragged crater that exposed most of the structure's insides. It was unsafe for habitation since the floors were liable to collapse as soon as anyone stepped on them, but it was also by far the biggest, hollowest semi-covered space in the compound that the refugees had taken over. And those criteria what made it the only viable location for Omega Supreme to hide in.
The gigantic Autobot was able to comfortably fit there in rocket base mode, concealed from aerial flybys. But he hadn't moved in several months now, and he was starting to get more than a little ornery. The fact that a pack of Decepticons had been busily plugging things into his communications systems for the last three weeks didn't help matters much either.
It made him feel slightly better, though, that he wasn't the only one stuck in this situation.
"Alright," Overkill grumbled. His voice was muffled by the cassette-interface equipment that he was half buried under. "Your tests went well. The connections are good. Hooray! Can we get out of here now?"
"Yeah! It's no fun," Slugfest agreed.
"The rest of us like it, though." Buzzsaw muttered his response too softly for the other two Decepticons to hear, though Omega Supreme did since they were standing around inside of him.
"Huh?" Even the layers of equipment couldn't conceal Overkill's annoyance. "I didn't catch that!"
"I didn't either, but I bet he was talking about us!" Slugfest agreed. "Let's get him!"
"Of course I was talking about you," Buzzsaw said in a tone of voice he usually reserved for especially obtuse art critics. "I was also talking to you. I was saying that I can't let you out yet. If I did, we'd need to reboot the system and spend another two hours recalibrating before we can actually use it. And it sounds like we'll be using it soon."
"I still don't understand why we're in here and you're out there," Overkill asked.
"Because as Soundwave's cassettes, our internal anatomy includes proprietary communications equipment and software that can be repurposed, alongside Omega Supreme's communications mainframe, to access Cybertron's ancient underground communications infrastructure," Buzzsaw explained impatiently.
"Right, I get that—"
"I doubt it," Buzzsaw muttered under his breath again.
"—you need tapes for your doohickey," Overkill continued. "But why us?"
"Because I'm the only one familiar enough with the technology to design and oversee construction of the system," Buzzsaw told him. "Raindance's Autobot software isn't entirely compatible with ours, and Laserbeak's flight capabilities make him too useful as a scout to tie down on this project. Also, I like him so it wouldn't be nearly as fun to seal him in a box for hours on end."
"You're a jerkface!" Slugfest yelled. "I'm going to come out there and—"
Another sigh. "You're not going to come out here and do anything," Buzzsaw told him. "The cases you're in are magnetically sealed and can't be opened from the inside. Now if you would kindly shut up and let me do my work, I might let you out when I'm done!"
They didn't, of course, but Buzzsaw did his best to tune them out. Unfortunately, before long a new voice cawed out to break his concentration yet again.
"It sure is loud in here," Laserbeak cawed. "I don't know how you get any work done!"
"It does beggar understanding," Buzzsaw growled back at him, not looking up from the circuit he was connecting. "What do you want?"
"Not so much what I want," Laserbeak squawked back, sounding offended. "It's what the boss wants."
"If Bugly wants something he can come talk to me himself," Buzzsaw replied, clearly short-tempered. "I'm putting the finishing touches on my masterpiece here."
Under his breath he added, "Maybe I should have boxed you up too, after all..."
"No, I mean the actual boss," Laserbeak responded. The condor hopped down onto the workbench that Buzzsaw was using and shoved his face right in the other Decepticon's line of sight. "You know...big guy, railgun, green and purple camouflage..."
Buzzsaw looked for a moment like he was going to take a swipe at Laserbeak with his diamond-sharp beak, but then he realized what his fellow cassette was saying. He finally looked up and saw that his makeshift work space was now occupied by the camp's four highest-ranking officers...and two others that he hadn't seen in a long time. His surprise was enough to moderately amuse Omega Supreme as he watched.
"Ah, Megatron," he said, nodding respectfully to his leader. "And Optimus Prime, too. How wonderfully surprising to see you both alive and functioning! What can I do for you?"
"An explanation for...whatever this is that you've built would be nice," Megatron responded. "Bugly was characteristically vague."
"He was probably worried that you would pout if he spoiled the surprise," Laserbeak teased as he hopped back up to Megatron's shoulder.
Buzzsaw shot his friend a glare, then cleared his throat and said, "Well, some background first. For the first few weeks after we set up camp here, we were out of contact with everyone. But Scavenger, as he is wont to do, dug around the ruins until he ran into something useful – some old, pre-war communications lines. They'd been disused for ages, but the network was still mostly intact and functional. The Autobot rebels had used them a fair bit during Straxus's reign of terror, as I understand it, and had done their best to keep them functional."
Standing at the back of the room, Kup crossed his arms in annoyance. "Rebels, huh?"
"Yes, well, anyway. Rapido was able to provide me with a recognition code that you'd used during the war. We pinged as many nodes as we could with it and made contact with a few groups of stragglers who've since joined us. We also made contact with a sizeable group of survivors who've taken refuge in the catacombs under Iacon."
Optimus Prime spoke up. "These survivors...who's leading them?"
"Oh, as if I can tell you Autobots apart," Buzzsaw said, clearly irritated that his stream of thought had been interrupted. "One of those weird animal guys who used to work for Fortress Maximus. Goat Husk? Something like that."
"Grotusque," Jetfire interjected.
"Hun-grrr is also with him," Bugly clarified. "As is Blaster. Which is what led to..." he gestured at the small room they occupied, "...all of this."
"And what of Ultra Magnus?" Prime raised his hand apologetically. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but..."
"You're worried about your friends," Kup finished for him. "Yeah. That's you, alright."
Although Omega Supreme had been inactive at the time, he suspected the bitter tone in Kup's voice indicated that the other Autobot hadn't gotten over the incident when the unholy fusion of Ratchet and Megatron had wreaked havoc aboard the Ark. The massive Autobot supposed he wasn't surprised. If someone had willfully risked his friends' lives to save their own, he'd have been just as bitter about it. But on the other hand, if he'd been in command and it was Jetfire or Grapple who'd been merged with the enemy...
"Well, I've got good news and bad news," Kup continued. "The good news is, Magnus is on Earth and last we heard, he's fine. Bad news is that Prowl was in Iacon when it fell. He didn't make it."
Optimus shook his head sadly. "What a waste, all of this."
"Yeah," Kup agreed. "It's just a shame that the two people who might have stopped it were out pretending to be scholars when the invasion started."
The elder Autobot's words seemed to hit home with Optimus, but Megatron had clearly heard enough. "And even more of a shame that the people we trusted to take care of things in our stead obviously weren't up to the task," he said pointedly. "But we're not here to rehash the many failures that clearly happened while we were away. We're here to listen to Buzzsaw describe his new project, so I suggest you all shut up and let him talk."
Although Megatron spoke softly, there was a clear note of menace in his voice.
"Ahem, thank you, sir. Now, where was I?" Buzzsaw said as he tried to recover his train of thought. "Ah, yes! Blaster! As Bugly so helpfully pointed out, your communications officer is among the group in Iacon. He responded to our recognition code, and we've been in contact with that group ever since. But since we don't know if the infrastructure we're using is secret, we've restricted our communications to short text-based messages using the one-time pad encryption sequences that he and Soundwave developed for battlefield use last year. Very tedious, as you can imagine, and not something that lends itself to very verbose interactions."
"You would know," Laserbeak muttered.
"Hmm?" Buzzsaw shot him a look, then shook his head and continued. "Anyway. That was the problem. The solution came from a suggestion by Quickmix of all people. He mentioned offhand that he was scrounging equipment to build a chemistry lab and suggested that I do the same, making use of what resources I have to improve the communications grid. Well, at first I thought he was mad, but after some thought I realized it was possible. I created some software that allowed encrypted real-time communication—"
"Ahem," Jetfire grumbled.
"Ah, with the timely mathematical assistance of the Autobot science officer when it came to the cryptographically secure pseudo-random number generator, that is. We transferred the source code to Blaster using the one-time encryptions, but the problem is that we don't have the right hardware here to execute it. Soundwave could do it easily, of course, and Blaster's communications suite is nearly as sophisticated so he'll be able to muddle through. But we simply lacked the facilities – even Stakeout's communications array, while advanced, simply lacked the required computing power."
"Yes, yes. All very troubling," a completely disinterested Megatron tried to move things along. "But obviously you overcame all that."
"But of course," Buzzsaw affirmed. "It was a difficult challenge, to be sure, but far from insurmountable. Us cassettes have the necessary hardware and software to execute the code, but nowhere near the spare processing power. But then I figured, why not just borrow that computing power from somewhere else? But where?"
He flapped his wings dramatically. "Omega Supreme, of course! Why, he has a full-fledged interstellar navigational computer installed, after all, with ten times the computing power that we need. And it's not as if we'll be flying out of here any time soon. So he was more than willing to offer his assistance."
"The tiny Decepticon exaggerates." Omega spoke for himself for the first time since the group had arrived. "I flatly refused."
"Well, yes, there was a bit of convincing to be done first," Buzzsaw admitted.
"I drove you off with my antipersonnel defenses."
"A mere misunderstanding," Buzzsaw dismissed the altercation, looking up at Optimus and Megatron. "Once I explained myself more fully – and assured him that I would only be using his secondary computer systems rather than his brain module – he was much more supportive."
"On the contrary, I remain unconvinced of the viability of your plan," Omega told him bluntly. "However, the chances of myself sustaining significant damage seems low."
Buzzsaw scowled. "Must you contradict me in front of the commanders? I am trying to be reassuring."
"You are not succeeding," Omega Supreme informed him.
"Oh, hush," Buzzsaw insisted. "Or do I need to start streaming video records of our encounter in the Arctic on an infinite loop?"
"That will not be necessary," the immobile giant grumbled. "You may proceed with my reluctant support."
"That's as close as he ever gets to an endorsement," Jetfire assured the crowd.
"Anyway," Buzzsaw desperately tried to regain control of the conversation, "the hardware modifications are undergoing their final tests right now. Everything seems to be going well. Assuming no last-minute problems, we should be able to contact the other group within the hour."
"Good," Optimus said. "Because I very much want to talk to them."
"Yes," Megatron agreed. "We should talk to them as soon as possible."
Optimus and Megatron moved on, but Kup made excuses to remain behind. Considering the security officer was obviously fuming and struggling to contain it, Omega suspected that was for the best.
Jetfire had also remained behind, but in his case for good reason. He'd set up a small electronics workshop inside the stadium, choosing the location mainly because they only had one really good set of tools and he'd quickly gotten sick of Buzzsaw showing up at his previous address to borrow stuff. His workbench was covered in experimental technology, most of which was designed for the Air Guardian himself to wear. A set of liquid-hydrogen booster rockets, a helmet equipped with eye-sighted particle beam blasters, various different types of heat-seaking missile, secondary fuel tanks, bits of armour...and that was only the stuff that Omega recognized. There were just as many bits and pieces that he simply had no reference point to even begin guessing about. The bits and pieces of equipment represented weeks' worth of laser-focused work on Jetfire's part. But even as absorbed as he was in his task, it didn't take the scientist long to notice Kup standing nearby like the smoldering mountain of outrage that he was.
"Seriously?" Jetfire sighed. "Calm down."
"Calm down? Calm down?" Kup threw his hands up in the air. "They disappear on us for ages, throw is to the wolves, and I'm supposed to calm down? They let the Imperials stomp all over us for two months, then just walk in one day all lah-di-dah and I'm supposed to calm down?"
"That would be preferable, yes." Jetfire sighed again, then switched off his soldering gun and set down the components he was working on. "But that's obviously not going to happen. So why don't you go ahead and tell me what's really got you so worked up?"
"I just said—" Kup's ire seemed to have grown.
"I heard you," Jetfire cut Kup off. The scientist's tone was clinical, as if he was looking at the elder Autobot as some sort of specimen to examine. Most people did not appreciate that, Omega knew, though it had never especially bothered him. He supposed it was because he tended to treat people the same way, carefully dissecting their actions to determine if they posed a threat.
"I also know that you're an intelligent person," Jetfire continued. "You know just as well as I that Optimus Prime and Megatron would have made, at best, a very marginal difference to our chances. All of this," the scientist gestured around them to take in their whole encampment, "would be substantially the same. In fact," he added, "I suspect it would be exactly the same, because they would have been the first ones aboard the ships headed to Cameron. So they wouldn't have been here for the invasion regardless."
"You don't know that!" Kup barked. "They may have seen the attacks for what they were, a transparent feint!"
"Do you honestly think," Jetfire asked in a tone like a disbelieving human schoolteacher, "that Optimus Prime would have been able to make that decision? To let the enemy extinguish countless innocent lives to preserve our tactical advantage?"
"No," Kup admitted grudgingly. "But he should have!"
"If you actually believed that," Jetfire told him, "we would have had this conversation two months ago, before our troops went off to war. With Prowl in command, you may have even convinced him. But you're arguing from hindsight. We couldn't have known what was to come."
"We should have, dammit!" Kup's anger had turned itself on its true target, Omega mused: himself. Omega Supreme understood that feeling all too well. His own job – his sole reason for being – was to protect the Autobots' home. Not only had he failed, he hadn't even really had the chance to try. By the time the fight had gotten anywhere close to him, the battle was already lost and the Autobots had been in full retreat. And like Kup, he couldn't help but be eaten up inside by the constant question...why hadn't he done more? Why hadn't he done better? It was a question Omega didn't think he'd ever have an answer to.
"We all feel that way," Jetfire said, echoing Omega's thoughts. "But it's not rational. That kind of thinking will destroy you if you let it fester. We need to be concentrating on doing what we can, now, to make things better. Not on the hypothetical things we might have done in the past that may or may not have improved our standing today."
"You don't think I know that?" Kup demanded.
"I know you know it," Jetfire responded. "I don't think you believe it."
"How do you figure that?" Kup sounded annoyed. Omega surmised that was because he knew the answer to the question before he even finished asking it.
"Because if you did," Jetfire spoke the words that all three of them knew he would, "you would have been happy to see those two walk into camp." The scientist turned back to his work bench. "The last two months have been horrible. No one is disputing that. But right now, the only thing we should be worrying about is making sure the next two go better. Not looking for excuses to be mad at someone that you've never gotten over blaming for something that was out of their control."
Omega suspected that Jetfire regretted the words as soon as they came out of his mouth. He would have regretted it too. Not so much because of any hurt that they might have caused Kup, but because they would only serve to extend what was becoming a tedious conversation.
Kup, however, didn't seem to notice the regret. He planted his hands on his hips in annoyance. "And just what is that supposed to mean?"
"It means that Optimus Prime and Megatron started a war, their war. And then they disappeared and left people like you to fight it for four million years. And when they come back, in what must seem like practically a blink of an eye to you, they settle it like the whole thing was no big deal. And suddenly they seem like fast friends. And you're surrounded by neophytes like me who don't realize what life was like before, or how much all of this cost you."
Omega Supreme was surprised to see Kup mellow after hearing that.
"It was bad enough on the Steelhaven," Kup admitted. "Most of the crew were whelps, to be sure. But at least there were a few of us who'd been around from the beginning. A few of us who'd seen what Cybertron used to be like. Me, Pointblank, Sureshot, Quickmix...a few others. And Maxie himself, of course. We knew what we were fighting for, what we'd lost. And even though we understood why it was necessary, we sure weren't happy to see Optimus Prime back from the dead to lead us. He was a hero, sure. A legend, even. But he wasn't a veteran, like us. He didn't understand the horror that the war had turned into, or the awful things that had been done to us along the way." His face seemed to darken. "Or the awful things that we'd had to do to survive. He and his, they treated the war like...like some sort of transient thing. Something that had taken up a small fraction of their lives, something that might eventually blow over.
"And now, to see that it actually has...that just makes it more galling. And it makes an old fossil like me wonder why we never could find peace." Kup sighed and slumped against what remained of one of the stadium's support columns. "I tried to retire myself once, you know. Took a ship, blasted off into space and everything. It almost worked, too, until I ran into a couple young whippersnappers in trouble."
Even Omega Supreme knew the answer to that one.
Kup scoffed. "Who do you think? Blurr had got himself captured and Hot Rod was keen to save him. I crossed paths with his, and before I know it I was pulling both of their hides out of the fire. That's how I wound up with the Steelhaven, working for Fort Max. The best damned crew I was ever a part of, no offense intended." Kup sighed. "And how many of them are dead, now?"
"How many of them are dead while Prime and Megatron are still alive, you mean?" Jetfire shook his head. "I don't know what to tell you, Kup. If you want someone to give you the ol' "Primus works in mysterious ways" speech you'll need to find someone who thinks Primus was more than some old, dead alien first. I'm sorry, Kup, but I don't have any platitudes to sell you. Life is unfair and cruel. You've had a lot longer to come to terms with that than I have."
"And all this time I thought there were supposed to be no atheists in a foxhole." Kup was clearly trying to steer the conversation in a more comfortable direction, Omega thought. But if he was, he forced himself back on topic quickly. "But I suppose if that was true, I wouldn't be so damned annoyed when I see you youngsters treating Optimus like some kind of messiah."
Jetfire finally bothered to look up from his work. "He's no messiah, Kup. He's not invincible, or perfect. I've seen him make mistakes. In fact, I wouldn't even be alive if he didn't. But that's what it boils down to for me. I'm alive, Kup, because he used the Matrix to bring me to life. And this might not be the most logical thing I've ever said, but in my world, on a personal level, that entitles him to the benefit of the doubt. That probably means I'm not too eager to look too closely at his failings, Kup, but I think your history has had the exact opposite effect."
The old Autobot opened his mouth to object, but it took a few seconds for any sound to come out. And when it did, surprisingly, it wasn't an objection. "Maybe," Kup admitted. "Maybe there's some truth to that. But I'm too old to try and change now." He shrugged, then started to head towards the exit. "You're right about one thing, though. I need to stop worrying so much about the past and start thinking more about the future. I've lived a hell of a long time, and even if this fiasco is the death of me, then I've got no grounds to complain. But I'll be damned if I leave the world a worse place than it was when I came into it."
Kup paused at the "doorway" (which was really just a giant, yawning hole in the stadium wall) and said, "You know, I think that actually helped me clear things up. Thanks for listening, Jetfire." A small smile quirked the corner of his mouth up. "Oh, and you too, Omega."
For a moment, the Autobots' guardian was speechless, so rare was it that someone remembered that he was something more than a mere location when he was in base mode. But he managed to get out, "You are welcome, Kup. You'll find that I'm...very good at listening."
"Please tell me," Megatron said incredulously, "that I did not just hear what I thought I heard."
The Decepticons' leader sat on a bench in the cobbled-together, dark room that passed for the Rad Zone base's command centre. Bugly stood nearby, his expression a carefully-controlled impassive mask. As Optimus watched them, he couldn't help but wonder just how badly the Pretender was wishing he'd put on his shell before coming to meet them. After all, it was orders of magnitude easier to wear a poker face when your face was made up of compound eyes and a set of mandibles. And Bugly's obsession with keeping up appearances was almost as all-consuming, Prime knew, as his obsession with being in control.
Which only makes it all the more galling, Prime thought, that I'm going to have to ask for his help... But, mercifully, that was something he could put off until later.
The room they were in was sparsely decorated. Since electronic sensors were less than useless and wireless communications only functioned within short distances, there was no reason to equip the command centre with the bevy of computers consoles, radios and display screens that Prime had come to expect from a place like this. Aside from a handful of monitors hardwired to external camera feeds and a pair of library-computer lookup terminals in one corner, the room looked like something that could have come out of one of the humans' world wars. Manually-drawn notes and maps covered every available surface, most of them showing signs of having been erased and redrawn constantly. The entire east wall included a listing of every Transformer known to be on base, along with their assignment. One of the Decepticon clones – Wingspan, judging by the spidery handwriting – had just finished adding Blurr's name to the list. And on the west side, a pair of Autobots who Prime didn't recognize were working diligently at updating a map of the Imperials' patrol routes in the nearby area.
Laserbeak had taken up a position perched on one of the room's few monitor screens after Megatron had shooed him off of his cannon barrel. The cassette must have noticed Prime's lack of recognition, because he leaned in with a cruel smile on his beak and whispered helpfully, "Rapido and Windbreaker."
The Decepticon was obviously taking great pleasure from rubbing Prime's ignorance in his face, but he refused to rise to the bait. "Thank you," he told the Decepticon condor in the most neutral tone imaginable.
He was less worried by Laserbeak's baiting than he was in his own inability to put names to the faces of his own troops. The Autobot army under his command had grown exponentially after they'd retaken the reborn Cybertron, and most of the new arrivals had been brought online by a Matrix Flame during his long exile on Earth, but that was no excuse. Optimus Prime wasn't the sort of leader – wasn't the sort of person – to look at his troops as anything but individual people with their own lives, hopes and dreams, and he wasn't about to start now.
But that's a problem for another day, Prime told himself as he returned his attention to Megatron and his subordinate.
"Tell me," Megatron repeated, his voice starting to rise, "that you didn't place the fate of our entire race in Starscream's hands!"
"You're being overly dramatic," Bugly said, obviously trying his hardest not to sound dismissive.
"Am I?" Megatron crossed his arms in front of his chest and leaned down over the Pretender, body language that was obviously meant to be intimidating. But Bugly was not cowed. "Starscream is the least trustworthy Decepticon in history, and you placed him in the enemy camp, unsupervised."
"I did," Bugly admitted. "And I'm not worried. Do you want to know why?" Without waiting for an answer, the Pretender smiled smugly. "I have something that you never did: leverage. Starscream needs something from me. Something that only I can provide."
"What are you prattling on about?" Megatron demanded.
Optimus was less than thrilled to be pulled into the Decepticons' squabble, because he was less than keen on admitting that he did know. Or he strongly suspected he did, anyway.
"Well?" Megatron asked, turning his glare onto Prime. "Do tell. This will be good."
"If Bugly is referring to what I think he is..." Optimus sighed. "Starscream is dying, Megatron. His attempt to bond with the Matrix left him permanently damaged."
"And why am I only hearing about this now?" A stone-faced Megatron responded. "It's impossible to get Starscream to stop complaining about imagined problems, let alone real ones. If he was dying, he would have spoken of literally nothing else. Unless..." A small, cold smile cracked across Megatron's face. "He didn't know. You never told him. How noble of you, Prime."
"None of us should have to stare our own impending deaths in the face, Megatron." Optimus sounded defensive, even to his own audio receptors. "We are not the humans. Even after all these years of war, death is still a remote concept to us. To be dying, slowly, and to know there was nothing to be done about it...I wouldn't wish that knowledge on anyone. Not even Starscream. Keeping it a secret seemed the merciful thing to do."
"Perhaps," Megatron allowed, hands on his hips in an annoyed posture. "Or perhaps you simply decided that life would go along much easier if you let him die."
There was more truth to
that than Optimus would have liked to admit, but it was Megatron's
sheer hypocrisy that galled him the most. He felt his temper begin
to rise along with the volume of his retort. "And if I did?
Are you, you of all people, seriously going to lecture me
about choosing not to save Starscream's life? You, the person who
vowed more times than I can count to kill him personally? You, the
person who was openly cheering for the possibility that he may have
died during the invasion?"
"It's true, isn't it?" Megatron actually seemed to be genuinely shocked. "You did. You actually decided to let him die when you could have helped. Why else would you of all people try to shame me for showing forgiveness to one of my troops?"
"Forgiveness?" Optimus felt the anger continue to rise from a place deep in his chest, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't seem to push it back down. "What Starscream did to the Matrix, to the Underbase, was unforgivable. He singlehandedly defiled the two most important repositories for our history and culture."
"Ah, such fire! Such passion!" Megatron's response was openly mocking. "At long last I finally know what one needs to do to earn the personal enmity of the great Optimus Prime! I think we've both learned something about the...depths of your convictions here today, Prime." He turned his attention back to Bugly. "But none of this explains why you think you can somehow use it as a leash on Starscream."
"Because somewhere, in some dank corner of the Iacon Archives, sits the ancient tomes of the original Circuit-Su masters," Bugly smirked again. "Tomes that only I have the skills to interpret. And tomes that Starscream believes hold the key to his salvation."
"I see," Megatron said. "And do they?"
"How the hell would I know?" Bugly answered coyly. "Thanks to Optimus and his predecessors, no living being has been allowed to set sight on them in over five million years. But it is possible. They knew more about manipulating the Matrix energy that animates us than any other group in history." He shrugged. "The important thing is, Starscream believes it. Or he chooses to believe it, because it's the one and only lifeline he has to grab onto. And a lifeline can just as easily become a leash."
"You play a dangerous game, Pretender," Megatron warned him. "Starscream is far more cunning than you realize, and far less cowardly than he would have you believe. I think you'll find that he is not so easily yoked."
Before Bugly could respond, the hardwired intercom link to Omega Supreme's location squawked.
"I hope you've had enough time to finish the tour," Buzzsaw's voice cut into their conversation. "Because we're ready down here whenever you are."
"We'll be there soon," Optimus answered before anyone else could. "Thank you."
"This isn't the end of this conversation," Megatron warned both Prime and Bugly. "I'm not at all happy with either of you."
Laserbeak hopped off his perch and lit once more on Megatron's railgun. "Believe me when I say, boss...it's when you are happy that people start to worry."
"We are not doomed," Scavenger said with a sigh. He reached up with the torque wrench in his left hand and the bundle of cabling in the other, trying to hook the former over a loop so he could secure it with the latter, but it was still out of his reach. "Uh, boost me up higher," he told his partner, whose shoulders he was currently perched on. "I still can't quite reach."
"Is this my lot in life? To be a Constructicon's stepladder?" Dead End groused dramatically. "What a dreary way to pass the scant few remaining hours to my name while I wait for the Imperials to deliver me unto death."
In the past, Scavenger would have either ignored the Stunticon's banter or tried to bring the conversation around to anything at all that didn't require him to deal with the unpleasant thoughts that were being put into his head. But that was then. Over the last couple months, with the bulk of the other Constructicons missing, something had changed inside him. He'd always been the target of abuse from most of the team – physical, from Bonecrusher and Long Haul, and verbal, from Hook and Mixmaster. Scrapper was the only one who had ever treated him decently. And with the others gone, Scrapper had come to rely on Scavenger for...well, pretty much any mechanical work that he didn't have time for himself. Combined with the civility and respect that he'd gotten from the Autobot side of the camp, the Constructicon was feeling quite a bit more sure of himself...and doing a better job of recognizing others who needed to do the same.
With another sigh, Scavenger dropped the bundle of cables, letting it dangle from the side of the building that they'd been working on. He climbed down off of Dead End's shoulders and said, "Stop that."
"Stop accepting reality?" If anything, the break in their work had only served to make Dead End all the more morose. Like Scavenger, he'd lost a lot of teammates. Unlike Scavenger, he knew what had happened to some of them. Wildrider had been killed on suspicion of treachery long ago. Motormaster, the Stunticons' team leader, had been killed during the invasion – he'd been one of many dumped into a mass grave on the outskirts of Polyhex that Scavenger himself had had the misfortune to come across on his way out of the city. Breakdown and Drag Strip were missing as well, and Dead End obviously assumed the worst.
"There's a difference between 'reality' and the worst thing that could possibly happen," Scavenger told him. The Constructicon wasn't sure why he was having this conversation. He'd only just stopped thinking of himself as trash. He surely wasn't in any position to help someone else. But now that he'd started he figured he'd better finish. "The world is bad enough on its own," he said. "You, uh...you don't need to look for ways to make it worse."
"Yeah," Dead End agreed. "Give it time and it'll do that all on its own."
Scavenger shook his head. "That's, you know, not what I meant." Then something passing by on the street caught his eye and he perked up. Cheerfully, he said. "Sometimes it'll surprise you with something good."
"Only so it can make the next dirty trick sting more," Dead End said, pointedly not looking behind himself. "Like you're trying to do."
"B...but it's not a trick!" Scavenger told him enthusiastically. "Megatron and Optimus Prime are here! I, uh, see them right over there!"
"Right. And I'm sure they've brought Galvatron, Scorponok and Fortress Maximus with them."
"Buuut those guys are dead?" Scavenger's face fell as he realized that Dead End thought he was lying. "I'm serious! Do I sound like the, uh, sort of guy to play tricks?"
"It would be a bit beneath your usual level of repartee," Dead End admitted. "Very well. But I want to make it clear that I don't actually have my hopes up."
The Stunticon turned and looked, just quickly enough to catch a glimpse of a red and blue, boxy figure walking beside a green one with purple camouflage, with Laserbeak perched on the latter and both of them trailing behind Bugly.
"Well...I'll be damned."
"Was that hope I heard?" Scavenger teased gently. "From Mister Doom and Gloom?"
Dead End's voice had noticeably perked up when he said, "Perish the thought."
Optimus tried to ignore it. He really, really did. But somewhere half-way between the command bunker and Omega Supreme's stadium, it became impossible to pretend that the Autobots and Decepticons they walked past weren't speaking to each other in hushed voices as they stole quick, hope-filled glances at himself and Megatron. Being surrounded by people who venerated you as some sort of legend was difficult at the best of times. Being surrounded by those who lionize your oldest enemy in the same way, somewhat moreso.
Being in that situation, with people looking to you as a beacon of hope in dark times, only grew more uncomfortable when you knew that they were only in that position to begin with because you'd failed them. So deep was his discomfort that it was a relief when they arrived at the stadium, out of sight of the adoring throngs. Optimus realized that he was hiding from his problems just as surely as he was hiding from his own men, and felt a renewed pang of shame.
Deal with your guilt later, Prime told himself. You don't have time for it. They're relying on you, now perhaps more than ever.
As he walked into the makeshift meeting area that had been set up near Buzzsaw's device, Optimus noted that Kup wouldn't meet his gaze. It was a far cry from the confrontational attitude that the other Autobot had adopted earlier. But like seemingly everything else, Optimus didn't have time to worry about that right now.
"We're ready," he told Buzzsaw, as he, Megatron and Bugly all joined Kup, Scrapper and Jetfire at the small, worn table.
"So are we," Buzzsaw replied airily. "Just one moment...aha! We have a signal."
The 'transmitting' button on their camera lit up at the same time as the smallish screen that Buzzsaw had scavenged began to show a fuzzy picture. As a few seconds passed the picture grew more distinct, showing a table much like their own, full of Autobots and Decepticons. Much to his chagrin, Optimus realized that he was struggling to recognize most of them. There was his old friend Wheeljack, of course. And Blaster, who'd served under him twice, briefly, on Earth but had mostly stayed out of the most recent conflict. He was perched on the table in his alternate mode, providing the same decryption services that Buzzsaw's machine was.
For a moment, Optimus completely blanked on the others' names. It was understandable, expected even. None of them had been friends or even particularly close associates of his. But Optimus had once prided himself on being the kind of leader who knew the names of every soldier under his command, and he wondered when exactly that had stopped being the case. But for the second time that day, he felt like cold water had been tossed on his denials to Kup. As much as he hated to admit it, at some point he'd started to categorize his troops into two piles – his Autobots, and all the other ones. When he'd had Ultra Magnus, Prowl, Grimlock, Jazz, Silverbolt and Hot Spot to lean on, he'd been able to avoid dealing too much with the implications of that. But none of them were here now, and Prime found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to rely on a group of Autobots that he'd never bothered to try and get to know.
No! I am better than this. Optimus forced himself to think back. The pink one with the wings, I think that's Grotusque. Jetfire mentioned him, and I remember meeting him, years ago, when I returned to Earth with my new Powermaster body. The orange one is one of the Pretenders. Not Groundbreaker. Gunrunner? That sounds right. And the small blue one...?
He didn't have any more time to ponder, because the video link on the other side had obviously come into focus as well. The group of Autobots and Decepticons on the screen all erupted in an impromptu cheer, underscoring for Optimus that he might not know them but that the opposite definitely wasn't true.
Kup was quick to stifle the celebratory mood with an injection of sourness. "Why do I get the feeling it's not me you're all so happy to see?"
"Sorry, Kup," Grotusque (and it was definitely Grotusque, Prime was sure of that now) broke into a wide grin, "but if we wanted to look at a mug as ugly as yours, I could just transform to beast mode for a while."
"Why, I oughta..." Kup's scowl deepened. "These lines come from experience, lad. Not that you ever had much respect for that."
"To be fair," the blue robot (Magnus had introduced him to Prime, less than a year ago. Why was it so hard to remember?) chirped up, "there's a fine line between experience and fossilization and you crossed it about a million years ago."
"That's a lotta lip for someone who was screening Prowl's calls two months ago, Fizzle," Kup grumbled.
In spite of the nasty words, Optimus was happy that Kup had at least reminded him of the small blue Autobot's name.
"Well, it's good to know that Kup's not been replaced with a doppelganger," Grotusque said, wisely trying to put a stop to the barbs before they became any more personal, "but we'd better get down to business. I don't know what your situation is like, but we're running short on time over here."
"What do you mean?" Megatron demanded before Optimus could ask the same question more politely.
"Grrr..." The subvocal growl came from one of the Decepticons. Optimus remembered the leader of the Terrorcons, of course, and it annoyed him that Hun-grrr's name came to mind faster than many of his own men's did.
"We have a defector in camp," Hun-grrr was saying. "He still has friends in Iacon, nnnn. One of them brought us data, and a warning. Drrr...they know where we are and they're coming. Soon."
"Then what are you doing on the horn with us? Get out of there, man!" In spite of the earlier needling, Kup was clearly concerned for the other Transformers' well-being.
"The evac is already well underway, don't worry. We'll be out of here soon enough." Wheeljack's familiar, deep voice brought a comforting normalcy that helped to soothe Prime's frayed nerves. But the Autobot leader didn't miss the sidelong glance that the engineer threw at his Terrorcon counterpart. "Well, some of us will be, anyway."
"Grrr...my Terrorcons are not the only ones who are sick of being run out of our homes," Hun-grrr replied. "Not the only ones who want to stay and make sure the enemy pays for taking this from us. If anyone tries, drrr, we'll make them bleed."
Bugly's blunt question took a moment for Optimus to process. Obviously he wasn't alone, because the two Decepticon Micromaster patrol leaders in Grotusque's group both looked at him in complete bafflement. One of them – the car one, not Blackjack but the other car one – spoke up. "Whatdda you mean?"
"Hun-grrr mentioned data. I'm assuming that goes beyond simply warning you of an attack." Bugly crossed his arms over his chest. "So what else did you learn?"
The second Decepticon Micromaster – Optimus wasn't even trying to remember the Decepticons anymore – looked like he was going to say something, but Gunrunner held up a hand.
"It's probably best that we don't transmit any of that, not even on what we think is a secure channel. But there's lots of it and we're still trying to muddle through it all." The Pretender cocked his head to one side. "Did Blurr find you?"
"He did," Optimus confirmed.
"Can we spare a messenger?" Gunrunner asked, looking at Grotusque for confirmation. "Speedstream, perhaps?"
"I think so," the Monsterbot nodded. Optimus was happy to see that he was able to get serious when the situation called for it. "He's our fastest."
"He and Blurr can rendezvous somewhere between Iacon and the Rad Zone," Kup answered immediately, before belatedly looking in Prime's direction and saying, "That is, if that's alright by you."
Optimus supposed he should have been annoyed, if not at Kup's presumption then definitely at his feigned show of deference afterwards. But the world was falling apart around them and he found that he didn't have the energy to look for trouble closer to home. Not right now. "That sounds like a good idea," he said. "We also have important intelligence that we should share, and not through a broadcast like this."
"We do?" Scrapper scratched his head in confusion. "I'm not sure I know what you're referring to."
"Well, there is the whole situation with Starscream, for whatever that's worth," Jetfire pointed out.
"Don't be ridiculous," Bugly cut in. "Optimus means that they have news. Not us. Something that they discovered in the underlevels. Something so dire that they aren't sure yet how to tell us about it."
Megatron made a sound like grinding rocks. "Bugly, as usual, is right," he said. "And he's right about us not wanting to discuss it openly. It's good to see that you are all still alive, but we should probably take our leave so that you can make ready for the coming battle. But first..." the Decepticon leader's face took on an expression that Optimus knew all too well, one of barely-contained anger that was being used to mask something deeper and more personal. "What has become of Soundwave?"
Optimus was surprised by the question, but also perversely happy to find that he wasn't the only leader who worried about the condition of his closest confidantes. Though he really shouldn't have been surprised – as much as Megatron would deny it, Prime knew that his opposite number was still mourning the loss of close confidante Ravage. And he knew that in spite of all that had gone between them, the reason for Megatron's enraged outburst earlier was because he found himself equally mournful at the prospect of losing Starscream.
On the video screen, Grotusque and Hun-grrr shared sidelong glances with one another.
"Drrr...we were hoping you weren't going to ask that," Hun-grrr admitted.
"It's...complicated," Grotusque added.
"Then uncomplicate it," Megatron growled.
Before either of them could formulate a response, Gunrunner cut in. "They're too nice to say what we're all thinking, but I don't care. The Imperials have Soundwave and it's your fault. You told him that you were going to assassinate Optimus, not help him. When we inevitably found out, Prowl had him incarcerated as an enemy agent. He was in a cell when the city fell."
"And you allowed this?" Megatron said, scowling at Hun-grrr.
Hun-grrr was entirely unapologetic. "Nnnn...I had five Terrorcons. They had a city full of Autobots. And there was an army of actual enemies at the gate. Grrr...I would say that this is what happens when you don't trust your allies, but they only discovered it because they had a deep-cover spy in our ranks. Dnnn..."
Megatron speared Optimus with a glower. "Do you, now?"
Optimus sighed. As good as he was getting at handling the Decepticon leader, there were times when the performative outrage was simply too much. "You have at least four spies in our ranks," he said bluntly. "Possibly as many as six. None of whom are particularly good at their jobs."
"At any rate," said a Grotusque who now looked like he'd rather be literally anywhere else, "Punch's cover is well and truly blown now. And there were...other problems with him too. That's one of the things that we'll pass along to Blurr. And Megatron is right about one thing. We'd better get down to business before I'm up to my tusks in ornery green guys. But I think I speak for all of us when I say...it's really, really good to know that both of you are still out there."
After both sides had signed off, Megatron immediately got up from his chair. He started to pace, his growing frustration manifesting itself as a nervous energy.
"This alliance," he snapped, "is a basket case!"
"Yes," Optimus agreed. "It is." Then he added frostily, "That's what happens when a cause is left without a leader."
Kup seemed to be more than a little baffled to see Optimus taking that tone. "What, you're agreeing with me now?"
"Reluctantly," Optimus said. "I left because I believed that the venerable ones had information that would prove useful in our struggles. I thought that I had left behind two leaders who I could trust to carry on the fight in my stead." Optimus fixed Megatron with a glare. "But you felt like you had to follow me underground, and Ultra Magnus felt like he had to leave for Earth. The two of you left a fragile situation in the hands of two very talented people who absolutely did not have the temperament for what you asked them to do."
Megatron knew he should be outraged by that, for show if nothing else, but he had to admit that Optimus was right. Soundwave was a good soldier, and even a good leader in his own way, but he was far too paranoid to lead a fragile alliance like this through a major crisis. And from what he knew of the Autobot Prowl, the same could be said for him. Of course, if Megatron had thought even for one minute that a major crisis would have been in the offing while he was gone, he never would have left.
Scrapper had the decency to steer the conversation in a more productive direction. "Not to interrupt, but now that the channel is closed...what did you discover down below?"
"A great deal," Megatron said. "The ancients knew all about the departure of the rogue Decepticons who founded the Empire. They left after Trannis's death, after this world descended into a viper's nest of violence and chaos as squabbles broke out between the likes of Straxus, the Triumvirate, Scorponok...not to mention countless other self-styled High Commands, High Councils and Imperial Headquarters. Given the state of the world, I cannot blame them for leaving."
"I'm all for history lessons," Kup spoke up, "but there's a time and a place. Did you learn anything useful? Anything we can use to fight back?"
Megatron looked Kup square in the optic sensors and lied. "Nothing."
"Perhaps a bit more than that," Optimus corrected him. "But it's only a lead."
"So you mean to do it, then?" Megatron really shouldn't have been surprised. Optimus loved his mystical quests, the more obscure and unlikely the better. He suspected that if the war ever ended, the Autobot leader would devote the remainder of his life to them. "We've discussed this—"
"We have," Optimus cut him off. "And I valued your input, but the decision is mine." His optics narrowed. "I suggest you respect that, as I have respected your decision on other matters."
Megatron crossed his arms. He still felt that the Autobot leader was being a fool, but it wasn't worth taking the debate in that direction. It would create nothing but acrimony, and in spite of what he'd said, Prime was too stubborn to ever truly listen anyway. "Very well. On your head be it." He turned his glare over to Bugly. "Prime will require your assistance. Provide it. And try to make sure he doesn't get himself killed."
The meeting broke up shortly afterwards, with everyone going their separate ways. Bugly had followed Optimus out, and the Autobot leader seemed to be doing everything he could to keep his innate distaste for the Decepticon Pretender from showing. It wasn't working, of course. Bugly could read it in his aura.
"As strange as it may seem, Bugly," he said as they walked, "we came here because I was hoping to find you."
"I'm not sure why it would be strange. This area was one of our pre-agreed fallback points." Bugly knew exactly what Prime was saying, of course. But there was no way he would let an opportunity like this go by. How often did an attainted heretic like himself have a chance to get one over on the self-styled vicar of Primus?
"I meant I needed to find you in particular, Bugly." Optimus Prime must have known the Pretender's game, but he refused to rise to it. "I need your help."
"I'll do whatever I can, of course," Bugly assured him. "But I don't know what help one mere Pretender could possibly be to the bearer of the Matrix."
"I'm not asking a Pretender," Optimus pressed on. "I'm asking the last adept of Circuit-Su."
"The last master," Bugly bristled at Prime's characterization before he could stop himself, though he was well aware that Optimus was merely replying in kind to his own taunts. "And the reason why I am the last is because your predecessors and those who followed along after you disappeared all went out of their way to hunt my teachers and my peers like they were rabid animals. So by all means, Prime, tell me what a vile, dangerous heretic like myself could possibly do for you?"
Optimus obviously had to bite back an angry response of his own. "I won't apologize for what happened to your sect, Bugly. They were a cult obsessed with power and control who couldn't control their own powers...or themselves." The Autobots' leader shrugged. "But you are clearly cut from a different cloth, or you wouldn't even be able to have a civil conversation with me. The disciplines that you have mastered are far too dangerous to be allowed to spread to those who cannot be trusted with them, and you know I'm right." He crossed his arms. "Otherwise, you'd have trained Barrage, Powerdive and Scavenger how to shoot spark-blasts while you were holed up here."
Bugly was loathe to admit that the Matrix-bearer had a good point, so he pressed the conversation back to the topic at hand. "That wasn't what I asked. What do you want from me, Prime?"
"I want...advice. An opinion. Your knowledge of our people's mythology is second to none, they say." Prime stopped walking, and Bugly realized the Autobot had been leading him to one of the unclaimed rooms in the base's makeshift office wing. "One of our biggest disadvantages right now is that our enemy, their motivations...they're all a blank slate. We don't know what the Imperials want. Not the common soldier, not their Overlord, and especially not their Liege Maximo. While Megatron and I were underground, we delved deeply into the ancient monks' writings. They were able to tell us much about the Decepticon exodus that happened in the middle years, after the death of Trannis. But the Liege Maximo predates even them. But they said..." Prime sighed. "They said that the Matrix knows him. Intimately."
"Ah, now we come to it," Bugly smiled. "You think he was a Prime."
"That would seem to be the implication," Optimus admitted. "But you know the lore of the Matrix as well as I do. You know that each bearer imprints itself in the Matrix, changes it indelibly. As long as I carry it within me, I'm not alone in my own soul. We are Primus. We are Prima. We are Prime Nova. We are Sentinel Prime. We are Optimus Prime." He sighed. "And as much as I hate to admit it, we are also Thunderwing and Starscream. But we are not the Liege Maximo."
"Perhaps one of your predecessors went on to become the Maximo after he was Prime?" Bugly followed the Autobot leader into his office, which right now was nothing but an empty room with a few chairs and a piece of sheet metal laying atop two file cabinets.
"Perhaps," Optimus admitted. But it was clear he didn't believe that. "But from what I can tell from the memories inside the Matrix, they all died while bearing it."
Bugly couldn't refrain from scoffing at that, as he settled into one of the available chairs. "This from someone who's died three times that I know of. Spoken during a conversation where you've walked past at least five people who had their life force extinguished by the sum knowledge of our ancestors made into pure energy. Death does not come easily to us, Prime."
"Your point is taken," Optimus conceded as he settled in behind his 'desk'. "But no. That doesn't...it doesn't feel right. And before you say anything, I know that's not a valid argument."
"On the contrary," Bugly told him. "When talking about the spirit world, it may be the only valid argument. But that leads us back to your initial thought."
"Another Matrix bearer? One that has somehow been expunged not only from our race's history, but from the collective memory of the Matrix itself? It seems impossible, but..." Prime shook his head.
"But it feels right," Bugly finished for him.
"Maybe." Optimus sighed again. "Maybe it's nothing. But there was something that the monks said while I was down there. Something that they called me. At the time I thought nothing of it, figured it for some kind of excessively flowery poetic flourish. 'Fourth Heir', they called me."
Bugly couldn't quite hide his smirk. Or, if he was honest with himself, he simply didn't want to. "Used those exact words, did they?"
"It sounded...off, but I couldn't quite figure out why. Until now."
"Because an heir is someone who inherits something," Bugly nodded. "So if you're the fourth heir to the Matrix...that means there were four Primes before you. Not three."
"Perhaps," Optimus said cautiously. "Perhaps. But if that's true, the Matrix is doing all it can to keep the secret from me."
"Then maybe," Bugly told him, "it's time you stopped waiting for the Matrix to talk to you, and started asking it questions in a way that it cannot ignore."
"If only," Optimus said. "It doesn't work like that."
"It could," Bugly was smirking again, a smug expression that all but screamed 'I know more than you do'. "It would be dangerous. Maybe deadly. But I could make it happen."
"How?" Optimus asked him.
"How do you think?" Bugly responded. He held up his left hand, balled into a fist. Then he opened it, slowly, so that Optimus would see the purplish-blue glow of Matrix energy that he'd drawn from the world around them and placed at his beck and call. As his fingers grew farther apart, the energy started to arc between them like bolts of lightning. "Magic. Heretical, forbidden magic. The kind of thing that you by all rights should excommunicate yourself for even considering."
The smirk morphed into a full-on grin as a feeling of triumph swept over the Pretender. Regardless of the dangers to his life or his soul, Optimus would do whatever he had to and they both knew it. "Oh Prime, this is going to be so much fun!"
Kup found himself following Megatron out, the scowl on his face matching the Decepticon leader's for both depth and intensity.
"Now you just wait a minute," Kup demanded, taking hold of Megatron's elbow to forestall the Decepticon leader's departure. "The two of you disappeared for months! You don't just get to show up again, mutter some cryptic nonsense and—"
The elder Autobot stopped talking when he realized that Megatron had suddenly turned and taken hold of his elbow...and was using it to lift him up off the ground.
"Do not presume to touch me, Autobot." Megatron was smiling, but it wasn't a pleasant expression at all. His grasp on Kup's arm tightened enough to cause significant pain, but not quite tightly enough to crush it. "And do not presume to dictate to me. Optimus may tolerate a creaking pensioner like you following him around and questioning his every move. I will not. Understood?"
"Oh, I understand just fine," Kup spat. "I understand that you think that your name and that thing on your shoulder mean you're not answerable to anyone."
Megatron's smile grew tighter. "'That thing on my shoulder'? Laserbeak has a name."
The Decepticon condor squawked indignantly.
"I'm talking about that fancy human gun you've got there. A great toy, as long as you've got Constructicons following you around to fix it any time you've got a mechanical failure, and a supply train carrying crates of steel slugs for you. Not so great when you've been fighting for two months and either run out of ammo or burn out one of the magnetic accelerators. You'll be pining for your fusion cannon then." Kup's eyes narrowed. "Sometimes, old and simple is the smart play."
"And you think this is one of those times?"
Megatron released Kup, dropping the old Autobot to the ground. He could have landed on his feet – or so he told himself – but he let himself land hard on his backside instead. It would let the Decepticon leader feel like he'd accomplished something...and also allowed Kup a moment to uncouple his musket laser from its mounting point on the small of his back without being seen.
You don't need to be old and wise to see where this is going. Especially after the next thing that's going to come out of my fool mouth.
"I don't know what to think," Kup responded. "But what I know is that I just saw the supposed leaders of our cause stand up in front of their top troops – and Grotusque for some reason – and lie to our faces. Lying by saying they don't have a way to win the war."
Megatron's deflection was masterful. "Grotusque and his men have spent the last two months fighting and killing Imperials," he said, that evil smile coming back again. "You've spent the last two months relaxing in the suburbs. Your contempt for him is nothing but a mask for your shame, and I don't answer accusations from cowards." Turning his back, he said, "Laserbeak, teach him some humility."
"With pleasure." The metal condor flexed his wings before jumping off of Megatron's shoulder and gliding towards Kup. His eyes started to glow with malice as his laser cannons charged.
Then Kup pulled his own weapon. He could have fired, could have blasted Megatron's tinfoil turkey out of the air and put him in the medical bay with one squeeze of the trigger. But that would have only played into Megatron's hands. It would have proved once and for all that Kup was an out of touch loose cannon whose opinions belonged in the trash heap, and made everyone else deaf to his criticisms of Megatron and Prime.
So, instead, he threw his weapon...which transformed in mid-air into his Targetmaster partner Recoil. The gruff Nebulan had spent his best years as a professional athlete on his home world, playing a sport not that different from rugby. And he put that training to good use as he tackled Laserbeak in mid-air and dragged him down out of the sky.
"Hey! Let go!" Laserbeak struggled to get free as Recoil pinned him. "I was only going to scare him."
Megatron ignored the indignities being inflicted on his loyal flyer, but seemed to look at Kup in a new light. "You want the truth? Fine. Yes, we discovered things down there. Yes, they could win the war. No, we won't use any of them."
"And why the hell not?" Kup demanded.
"Because even I, after all the things I've done," Megatron told him, "am not willing to be the one responsible for the ruination of our homeworld. Or for the extinction of our species." With that said, he immediately switched back to ignoring Kup and started to walk away. "Laserbeak, stop embarrassing yourself and come with me. We have work to do."
And so do I, Kup thought silently. I need to find out just what it is that has you so spooked...and then I need to figure out how to use it.
For the second time in a year, Optimus Prime found himself laying flat on a bare slab, waiting for someone to use an ancient, mystic ritual to open a doorway into the Matrix's past. But in spite of the similar objectives, the two scenarios couldn't have been more different. Then, he'd been in an ancient monastery surrounded by ancient, learned clerics who had devoted their entire lives to cataloging the ancient histories of their race. Today he was lying on a desk in a makeshift office, looking up at the sneering face of a Decepticon whose entire belief system was anathema to him.
Is this truly what it's come to? Prime asked himself, trying not to give in to despair. Is this how far we've – I've – fallen?
Alas, it was and he had. The monks had never the most forthcoming lot and they had either been unable or unwilling to help Optimus unlock this door. They'd merely assured him that the Matrix would provide, in its own time. But it hadn't, and Optimus had come to doubt it ever would. The ancient creation force had never been anything but cryptic when it chose to communicate, but after its recent exposure to both Thunderwing and Starscream it had started to become...willful, perhaps? Uncooperative? The problem was only exacerbated by the connection that still existed between it and the ever more distant Swarm, and the fact that in spite of residing inside of Optimus, it gave him the distinct impression that he wasn't the one it was paying attention to anymore.
What Bugly had said before was, in essence, entirely correct. What he was about to do was blasphemous, and consorting with the likes of the Decepticon to do it would have made Optimus himself unworthy in the eyes of the ancients. But Primus was dead and their whole religion had never been anything more than window dressing for a singular grim purpose that Optimus himself had seen through. And now the Prime found that he no longer had much interest in preserving the old ways. Their time was past, and it was now time for him and his fellows to create new ones.
But that doesn't mean doing something like this!
"Optimus," a clearly irritated Bugly spoke up, "I know that wallowing in doubt and self-pity are your two favourite pastimes, but please control yourself. Your aura is highly agitated. I cannot control it if you cannot control yourself."
Prime wanted nothing more than to snap at the arrogant Decepticon. But once again, Bugly was right. Somehow that only made him even more insufferable.
Using the mental disciplines that he'd learned over thousands of years of war, Optimus Prime forced his doubts to grow silent. They were still there, he knew, waiting for the smallest gap in the emotional armour that he built around himself so that they could slip back in. But that was the future, and for now, he was calm. And well he should be. After all, he'd gone to a great deal of work to let Bugly talk himself into thinking this whole thing was his own idea. If he'd known that this was what Prime had in mind from the beginning, he never would have helped.
"Oh, I really don't think you are," Bugly said, still smugly satisfied with himself. "But we can proceed now. I should warn you, this will hurt – a lot!"
Optimus didn't like how happy that made Bugly sound. But before he could object, he felt a sensation like his very essence being torn out of his body and shoved somewhere else. And all at once, the stoic Autobot leader felt his well-worn discipline dissolve into existential panic.
Jetfire was already half way down the hall towards the office when he heard Prime's screams. He'd been walking fast, but slowly enough that his long legs wouldn't leave behind the soldiers he'd commandeered. But as soon as he realized what he was hearing, he broke into a dead run.
Seeing Optimus and Megatron acting so...familiar had set Jetfire on edge. The earlier conversation with Kup hadn't helped either, leaving the Autobots' Air Guardian feeling like he couldn't trust his own perceptions of his leader's actions. So when he saw Prime go off with the untrustworthy Bugly in tow, after a long moment's indecision Jetfire had followed along behind. But before he had, he'd popped into his lab and grabbed the experimental weapons and armour he'd been working on. Because if Bugly was up to something nefarious, if he was manipulating Prime somehow, the bookish Jetfire wasn't going to be able to best him in a fight unaided. Heck, considering this was the armour's first field test, he wasn't even sure he'd be able to best the Pretender with it.
Which was why he hadn't come alone. Scoop was gamely keeping up with the brisk pace that Jetfire had set even though he was barely half the scientist's height. Quickmix and Landfill had also been with them a few moments ago, but the two other Targetmasters had fallen rather far behind by now.
Luckily, they didn't have far to go. Not so luckily, they weren't the first ones there. The Decepticon clones were standing guard, and they obviously weren't planning on letting anyone by. One of them – the confident bearing would have marked him as Pounce even without the bayoneted machine pistols – stepped forward, guns up, and said, "Move right along, boys. Nothing to see here."
Before the Decepticon had even spoken, Scoop already had his twin Targetmaster weapons up and pointed at both of them.
"No," Scoop told them. "You move."
If the infantryman was at all worried about the standoff, he certainly didn't show it. Jetfire, meanwhile, was glad he had a battle mask on to cover his nervous half-smile.
"Y-you really don't want to do this," the other Decepticon clone – Wingspan, Jetfire thought – spoke up. "Really."
"No," Scoop said again. "You don't want to stand between us and Optimus Prime."
"And you don't want to see what's on the other side of this door," the first Clone countered.
"And why not?" Jetfire interjected. "Just what is your boss doing to him?"
"Absolutely none of your business." Pounce (?) took another step forward. "And Bugly wasn't the one who asked us to keep out prying eyes." He tapped one of his bayonets against the side of his head. "Optimus was."
The other clone chuckled. "Y-you think their boss might be ashamed of what he's up to, brother?"
"Oh, I don't think there's any doubt," the first one said. "Why else ask Decepticons to keep his own men out?" He smiled. "Of course, he probably didn't think his men would be quite so suspicious. Rolling up this heavily-armed, to confront allies...for shame, Jetfire. You're not actually planning to shoot us, are you?"
Jetfire stopped short. Of course he wasn't going to shoot them...was he? The truce was fragile enough without him sending a pair of Decepticons to the infirmary with holes in them. But at the same time, he couldn't let them stand between them and Prime. Not with Bugly doing who knows what to him on the other side of the door.
"You," he pointed out bluntly, "pointed your guns first."
"I suppose I did, didn't I?" The clone shrugged nonchalantly. "Oops. Well, I'll drop mine if you drop yours."
"Oh, that's how it's going to be?"
"Yeah, that's how it's going to be." Pounce – Jetfire was pretty sure it was Pounce, now – lowered his machine pistols to his side. "Up to you."
"I've got them both in my sights," Scoop spoke up, his fingers visibly tensing on the trigger. "You don't need to play their little game."
"Oh, but he does," the lead Clone said. "And he knows it."
"Do I?" Jetfire smiled tensely behind his mask. "You're not going to shoot me, Pounce, anymore than I'm going to shoot you. Neither one of us wants to be the one who doomed our planet by shattering the alliance."
"You're right about that," the clone said. "But you're also wrong." He grinned. "See, I'm not Pounce."
Wingspan was in the air before Jetfire had even processed the words. He covered the handful of meters between them in a fraction of a second, his talons striking at Jetfire's face and tearing off the control mask. With his fancy new weapons now reduced to nothing but dead weight – not that he'd have dared to use them anyway – Jetfire was left horribly off-balance as the Clone grabbed him by the wingtip and dragged him off of his feet.
As he fell, he saw Pounce – who'd playacted the role of the timid brother to perfection – transform into puma mode in mid-air and land on Scoop's chest. The Targetmaster dropped his Nebulan partners in his attempts to dislodge the beast before his snapping jaws clamped down on anything vital.
Most Autobots, Jetfire knew, wouldn't have worried about taking on the likes of Wingspan in a fight. After all, the Decepticon was an analyst, not a front-line soldier. But Jetfire himself was no warrior, and he was off-balance and weighted down. So when Wingspan swooped back down at him, Jetfire was in no condition to do anything but swing his rifle ineffectually at him like a club. Which, of course, allowed the Decepticon to pluck it from his hands.
With a disgusted noise, Jetfire pulled the manual release levers that uncoupled the photon missile launchers from his forearms, then reached back to do the same with the booster pack on his back. He couldn't avoid Wingspan's next attack, which consisted of clubbing him with his own stolen rifle, but at least he managed to take the blow in the shoulder instead of the face.
As he fell back down, he caught sight of Scoop again. The Targetmaster's Nebulan partners, now in robot mode, had succeeded in pulling Pounce off of him, seemingly by dragging the very angry Decepticon by the tail. He turned and snapped at them, only to jump aside at the last minute as the freshly-transformed Scoop nearly pinned him to the ground with his eponymous shovel.
This time, when Wingspan cut back towards him Jetfire was ready. He ducked under the Decepticon's talons, then grabbed a handful of tail feathers as he flew by. Wingspan was able to pull free, but his flight was disrupted enough to send him flying head-first into a nearby bulkhead.
Before Jetfire could decide the best way to press his advantage, though, he heard footsteps behind him. Hoping to find that the other Targetmasters had finally caught up so that they could put an end to this stupid display of machismo, Jetfire turned...and found himself face to face with a very, very angry Megatron.
"I assume," Megatron boomed disapprovingly, "that you idiots have a very good explanation for this?"
Scoop still bristled just being in the presence of the Decepticons' legendary founder, who had – in the absence of any real religious fervor in the Autobot army during his formative years – been the closest thing to the Devil in the world view he'd come to know. From the few encounters that they'd had since the war had ended, Scoop had found that Megatron wasn't actually any worse than some of the awful Autobot commanding officers he'd worked with, but that only made his presence more disquieting, not less.
Wingspan (who, absent the need for play-acting, was no longer working to repress his nervousness) was in the midst of explaining things, seemingly while trying to pretend he didn't have a headache. That was something that Scoop could sympathize with – he certainly wasn't keep to dwell on how Pounce had taken him down so easily, or evaded his attacks with casual grace.
"...since Optimus told us not to let anyone by," Wingspan was finishing. "We tried to tell them that, but—"
"Tried to tell us that at gunpoint while Optimus was screaming bloody murder," Jetfire interjected.
Megatron made a sound like a heavy rock being dragged across a bed of gravel. "Yes, I'm sure Optimus Prime appreciates your unthinking loyalty," he told the Clones. He didn't need to say anything more to make it perfectly clear that he knew they'd just been spoiling for a fight, and that they hadn't particularly cared who it was against. "Now open the door."
"Uh...not sure that's a good idea, chief," Wingspan told him. He held up his hands to forestall Megatron's wrath. "Prime really didn't want to be disturbed. He actually said that trying to wake him up before he's finished could kill them both."
"Understood," Megatron said. "Now open the door."
While the Clones worked on the lock, Megatron looked over at the two Autobots. "You heard screams?"
"We did," Scoop acknowledged.
"But you were on your way here, armed to the teeth, even before that."
"We were." Scoop had no interest in denying responsibility for what he'd done, not even to someone who was still more enemy than friend.
Jetfire answered this time. "Prime has been acting strangely. Ever since his encounter with the Swarm, he's been different. More distant, maybe? Then he disappeared for two months and no one knew where he'd gone. And now he's back, with you in tow – no offense intended – he's acting all secretive and he won't tell any of his Autobots what he's up to. But he trusts you, and –unfathomably – he seems to trust Bugly. None of that adds up."
"No, indeed it doesn't," Megatron admitted. "But what were you planning to do? Stop your own leader at gunpoint?"
"I...I hadn't thought that far ahead," Jetfire admitted. To Scoop's eyes, that admission made him visibly deflate even more than removing all his armour had. "But Matrix or no, he's got no right to make world-altering decisions without even consulting us. Especially not when they seem to involve putting his trust in a power-mad cultist."
"Ah." A pained groan escaped from Megatron's lips in spite of what seemed like a concerted effort to stop it. "I doubt this helps, but I argued against this madness myself when Prime brought it up. But he's become convinced that the Matrix is hiding something from him, and that Bugly's alleged 'magic' is the key to unlocking it." He looked in through the now-open door. "And evidently, we're too late to stop him."
"So, uh...what now, boss?" Pounce – Scoop could tell it was Pounce because his shoulder had a dent from a not-quite-dodged shovel blow – asked. "Do we try to break up...whatever this is?"
Scoop leaned into the room himself. He didn't like what he saw. Optimus was splayed out flat with his chest compartment wide open, exposing the Creation Matrix and its carrier for all the world to see. Bugly sat in a chair beside him, his optic sensors locked in precisely on the Matrix with an intensity that was frightening to behold. Neither of them so much as flinched in acknowledgment of their new guests.
"No. We can't take the risk that Prime was right, that it could kill him." One side of Megatron's mouth curled up in what could generously be called a smile. "And yes, that sounds as strange to me saying it as it must to all of you hearing it."
He gestured towards Jetfire and Scoop. "Since these Autobots have such an intent interest in their leader's activities, they can take over guarding him until he comes to." Megatron shot them a glance. "It may be a good idea to get your medic to watch over them, as well."
The Decepticon leader walked off without waiting for a response, a slightly confused pair of clones trailing in his wake.
Scoop looked over at Jetfire, then to Prime, then back at Jetfire. "Any idea how long they're going to be like that?"
"What do I look like, a theologian?" Jetfire shrugged. "My advice? Pull up a chair and get comfortable."
Of course, Quickmix and Landfill chose that exact moment to finally show up. They looked at the unconscious Prime in blank faced-confusion for a moment before Landfill managed to ask, "Uh...what did we miss?"
Scoop just shook his head.
Optimus was standing in a stark, featureless white room. He didn't remember arriving there, and he didn't know where 'there' was. For most Transformers, most people of any species, the experience would be a disquieting one. But Optimus wasn't most people, and he'd experienced much stranger things before.
"Hello?" he asked. "Is anyone here?"
"Of course," a quiet voice answered. "You are."
"Self-evidently," Optimus replied. "But is anyone else here?"
"We are all here." A different voice, now. This one was soft, calming, almost...parental, for as much meaning as that held for a machine.
"He doesn't understand." A third voice. Aggressive-sounding, with just a hint of contempt and self-importance.
"How could he?"
Optimus was confused. He hadn't spoken, but those words came in his own voice. But the next speakers made things very clear indeed.
"He never will." The disdain dripping from Thunderwing's posh words were almost palpable.
"Oh, I don't know," Starscream said, his voice light with mockery. "Optimus is always exceeding his limitations. Even if the person before us isn't quite Optimus anymore."
"Ah." Prime set his jaw. "I remember. Bugly. The Matrix. We are Primus."
"We are Prima," the first voice said, as if in agreement.
"We are Prime Nova."
"We are Sentinel Prime."
"We are Optimus Prime."
"We are Thunderwing."
"We are Starscream."
"We are Creation Matrix," Optimus Prime finished. "But that's not all we are, is it?"
"You know not of what you speak," Prima told him.
"Is that so?" Optimus crossed his arms in front of his chest, a gesture that felt faintly ridiculous as he floated in an infinite void and spoke to a collection of disembodied personalities. "We are Swarm, now. Are we not?"
"If anyone would know..." Starscream told him. "You gave us to them, after all."
"Only because you made it possible." Optimus retorted. "And we are also Liege Maximo, aren't we?"
"No." Sentinel Prime's answer was as blunt as it was patently false.
"Enough!" Optimus felt something snap inside him. The stress of the last year weighing on him, perhaps? The strain of coping with the feeling of constantly being...stretched out, between the real world and the perpetually more distant Swarm? Or something yet more sinister than that?
"If you are going to lie to me," he told the voices, "at least have the courage to do it to my face."
"We do not lie," Prima said. As he spoke, Optimus saw him. The gold and blue robot didn't appear, per se. It was more like he'd always been there, but Optimus had only just realized. "Not by choice."
"We don't have the answers you seek," Sentinel added. His orange magnificence was as eye-searing as it was regal.
"Those doors are locked," Thunderwing's sneer of contempt was a very familiar sight to Optimus's eyes. "Even to us. Only the Prime can open them."
"The living Prime," Prime Nova glowed with a golden aura that pulses as he spoke. "The true Prime."
"Ah, but there's a catch," Starscream said, his expression smugger than would have seemed possible in the physical world. "See...that's not you."
"Then who? I am Optimus Prime. The fourth heir to the Matrix."
"No," Prime's own voice spoke back to him. "I was."
Suddenly, Optimus found himself staring back at himself. Or his old self, at least – his original body, as it had been at the time of his first death.
"I am you," Optimus insisted.
"No," the phantom said. "You are not. You are...a part of me. A copy of a copy of a copy. Intermixed with alien technology, a Nebulan soul, the Last Autobot's magic and the Swarm's energies. Greater than the sum of the parts, but not the original."
"I may not be 'pure' anymore." Optimus tried not to let the rage growing in him taint his words. He knew he wasn't succeeding, though. "That doesn't mean I've stopped being me. I am Optimus Prime!"
"Oh?" The other Optimus seemed genuinely curious. "And why do you believe that?"
"Because we are a sum of our experiences," Optimus insisted. "And I have all of yours!"
"Yes," the ghost said. "You do. And so does he."
Optimus didn't ask who his past self was talking about. He didn't need to. He knew. In fact, he'd always known...he just hadn't realized.
"Nemesis," the other Optimus confirmed. "You are me, in a sense. So is he, in a sense. But neither of you are complete. How could you be? You are one life, split down the middle. Neither of you will ever be complete, not until you are one. Surely you've felt it? The strange distance, the feeling of incompleteness tugging at you since he came online?"
"I didn't recognize it for what it was," Optimus told him. "But yes."
"Find him," the ghostly Optimus said. "Find yourself. Find me. Only then will you be able to face the Liege Maximo. Only then will you be strong enough to handle the truth."
"And people say that my beliefs are self-indulgent tripe."
Bugly was there, suddenly. Bugly had always been there.
The ghosts of the other Primes turned away from Optimus, then.
"Ah, you recognize me. I'm touched." Bugly turned his attention away from the phantasms and looked the living Optimus squarely in the optics. "We don't have time for their games. You are the Matrix's master, not these tattered spectres. Ignore them. They only seek to delay the inevitable, but they can't stop you. Can't stop us."
"No!" If Thunderwing felt any allegiance to his fellow Decepticon, the ghost didn't show it. "He is not ready!"
"The revelation is too much." Sentinel Prime suddenly had a glowing sword in his hand, the tip aimed squarely at Bugly's throat.
"He must be whole," the wraith of Optimus added.
"No!" Bugly gestured wildly with his hands. "I won't be dictated to by the ghosts of my people's oppressors! If Optimus is too cowardly to seize this knowledge for himself, then I will!"
Suddenly there was a door in the room, a door that had always been there. Bugly reached out, took the knob in his hand.
"No!" the Primes cried in unison. "You shall not defile this knowledge!"
"Stop me," Bugly challenged them. And then he opened the door.
There was a flash of light, of hints of forbidden knowledge escaping from the seal that had long bound it.
"We are Primon."
"We are Liege Maximo."
"We are Prima."
"We are Prime Nova."
"We are Sentinel Prime."
"We are Optimus Prime."
"We are Thunderwing."
"We are Starscream."
And then the door snapped shut, taking the opener with it.
"We are Bugly."
Scoop was alone in Prime's room now, reading the latest action reports from the Iacon cell as he waited out his vigil. Prime and Bugly had been unconscious for two days now, so long that all the other Autobots in camp along with several willing Decepticons had all taken a turn on guard duty before the rotation had landed back on him again. Seawatch and Red Hot were parked outside the door to discourage any unfriendly visitors, while Scoop himself sat in the room and kept an eye on the life sign monitors that Fixit had set up. In spite of the two Transformers' perfectly normal life signs, they still weren't moving. Scoop was starting to doubt if they ever would.
After quickly checking that the numbers were where they needed to be, he looked back down at the tablet he'd been reading...then suddenly found himself flat on his back as a flash of yellow-white light filled the room.
Once he could see again, the infantry trooper realized that Optimus Prime was coming around.
"Sir? Are you alright?" Scoop dusted himself off and climbed back to his feet, ready to offer his leader whatever assistance he required. But when he got a better look at Prime – or rather, the contents of Prime's chest cavity – he stopped short in shock.
Optimus himself was also staring at the Matrix – or rather the clear, empty crystal in which the Matrix had once lived. The glow of their sacred life force was gone, now. What had once lived there had been extinguished beyond perception. The sight was so horrifying that Scoop only faintly registered the high-pitched alarms coming from Bugly's life sign monitor. The Pretender himself had collapsed to the floor, unmoving.
Optimus allowed his gaze to shift from the empty rock in his chest to the empty-eyed Bugly before forcing himself to look Scoop squarely in the eyes.
"I've made the Matrix very angry."