Portland, Oregon: October 16, 1995
It was late afternoon in mid-October, but the sun was shining and the crowds were clearly enjoying the day. Even as the shadows started to grow long, it was still warm enough that most of the visitors to the park were walking around in shorts. Sprawled across a stone park bench in a loose-fitting pair of jeans topped with a leather jacket over a T-shirt, Maria felt self-conscious. Although the unseasonably warm weather didn't effect her the way it would have a few months ago, she was clearly overdressed and she stuck out like a sore thumb among all the lightly-clad frolickers.
Of course, she would have stuck out even more if she'd chosen an outfit that showed off her newly-acquired scars and metallic grafts. But if having to throw out all her shorts was the price she had to pay for being able to walk again, Maria supposed she would take it. That was a hell of a lot better than the hand she'd thought she'd been dealt when she woke up in that hospital bed. Even so, she couldn't quite wash away all the resentment that welled up at the thought of it all. That cobalt-coloured mechanical piece of garbage's attack had cost her so much already that Maria was loathe to concede even one more, minor thing to her. Even now, with her body stronger and more durable than ever, it made her feel like a victim. And "victim" was one thing that Maria Santos refused to be.
And so she sipped on the coffee that she'd bought from the shop across the street, looked up at the blue sky and tried very, very hard to stop thinking. This was the first time in three weeks that she'd been outside, the first time that she'd been truly alone. And she refused to waste the few minutes of freedom she had before she needed to get back to work.
After the Apex Pharmaceuticals fiasco, things had been eerily quiet. Fourteen hundred people had died in Portland by the time all was said and done, cut down by the Decepticons' horrid chemical weapon. But there hadn't been any new outbreaks since. They knew that the Decepticons had created far more of it than they had released in the office tower, but so far they were sitting on it. Meanwhile, although Ratchet had tagged the escaping Decepticon prisoners with trackers, the Autobots' sensor nets had shown no sign of them. Either they were hiding somewhere that was sensor-shielded, or they'd caught on to his ruse and disabled their transponders. Galvatron was still at large somewhere. The Autobots' ground-based laboratory facilities were completely inadequate when it came to analyzing the disease, and they didn't have anyone with an advanced knowledge of Earth biology anyway. On top of that, the Autobots' starship with it's advanced analytic suites was rusting at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Bumblebee had been just about to depart on a mission to try and recover whatever useful data they could from the ship's wreckage when Maria had left the base.
As soon as allowed herself to think about the situation again, Maria felt herself standing at the top of another spiral of depression. What good could one ex-cop do about threats like that? Cyborg or no, she felt totally helpless.
Just about the only bright side of the whole mess was that they had finally managed to figure out that Maria and the two women she'd been locked up with weren't contagious. They had no idea why, but for now she was just happy to be out of that oversized glass crate, sitting in the sunshine and enjoying a bit of alone time.
But "enjoying" probably wasn't the right word, because she hadn't truly let herself enjoy anything lately. Every time she'd had a moment to herself for the last month,, her mind wandered back to her fight in the stairwell at the Apex building. She remembered the feeling as she'd snapped the Decepticon-aligned man's bones, the bloodlust that she'd felt when he got up after every blow, the rush of satisfaction that had coursed through her when she'd tossed him over the railing...and the pang of disappointment she'd tasted when he somehow managed to survive and make good his escape. Looking back on it now she felt nothing but shame welling up, shame that was redoubled as her father's parting words – a plea not to make the same mistakes that he did – played over and over again in her memory.
She was so lost in the memories that when some asshole decided to wander by and interrupt her, she almost felt grateful. Almost. But her mood skipped right over "grateful" and went straight to "hostile" the moment she recognized the well-dressed, intent-looking woman headed her way.
And I thought that the press would stop hassling me now that I don't have a badge...
"Ms. Santos, can I have a moment of your time? Ms. Santos?"
Maria didn't do the other woman the courtesy of making eye contact. "Fuck off."
The reporter brushed that off as if she heard it every day – and in her line of work, she probably did. "Ms. Santos, I'm with Channel 6 News. My name is—"
"I know exactly who you are." Maria turned her head just enough to spear the annoyance with a contemptuous glare. "Why in the world would I talk to you after you ruined my partner's career, Charlene?"
In the 80s, Charlene Welles had been a notorious talking head. She'd been known as the sort of "TV journalist" who got the job because they looked good on screen, read off of the teleprompter without stuttering...and didn't know a single thing about the stories they reported on. Welles hadn't been content with a career as a script-reading prop, though, and in the last half-decade she'd worked very hard to earn a reputation as a serious investigative reporter. But her renewed work ethic had caused her to butt heads with the Portland Police Bureau more than once.
"Thomas Wilkes was a racist thug who beat a harmless vagrant half to death." Welles returned the glare. "But this has nothing to do with him. This is about you, Maria, and what you were doing on Thursday, September 21st."
"I was doing a whole lot of nothing," Maria told her.
"A whole lot of something at the Apex Pharmaceuticals building, you mean."
"Never been there."
"We have you on camera."
"Well gee," Maria gave an exaggerated shrug. "I guess I must have a doppelganger."
Welles adopted an incredulous pose, leaning over the bench. She was trying to be intimidating, Maria assumed. It didn't work. "The same doppelganger who retired from the police force after a severe spinal injury left her paralyzed for life?"
"Must have been." Maria threw her now-empty coffee cup past Charlene's head, sending it sailing with perfect accuracy into a trash bin twenty feet away. Sadly, the reporter didn't give Maria the satisfaction of seeing her flinch. "I'm not a cop anymore, so I don't have to pretend to be civil with you. Keep your nose out of my business or I'll break it."
"You can cover it up all you want," Welles retorted. "Threaten me all you want. But sooner or later the truth will come out."
"Maybe," Maria shrugged. "Probably. But if I'm sure about one thing, it's that you're not going to be the one that breaks it." She smiled cruelly. "If you get anywhere close, I'll call up Joy Meadows and give her an exclusive."
Charlene visibly bristled at the mention of her cross-network rival. "This isn't a game, Santos. People are dead—"
"Yes, people are dead," Maria cut her off. "And the best way to make sure that more people die is for a twit like you to broadcast fantastical conspiracy theories on the evening news. I can't stop you, but trust me, you don't want that kind of blood on your hands."
"The people have a right to know what's going on," Welles told her with firm conviction.
"Maybe." Maria got up from the bench and pointedly turned her back on the reporter, walking away. "But I think they'd rather be alive and ignorant than enlightened and dead. Now why don't you wander off and think about that so that I can enjoy what's left of this lovely afternoon?"
Maria was still fuming fifteen minutes later, not really paying attention to where she was going as she walked deeper into the park. In fact, she'd been so lost in her anger that she'd needed to stop for a few moments, finding another bench to rest on as she got her bearings.
At least that way I know they didn't install a navigation system in me, she thought grimly. But with all these super-powered robot parts, I guess I'd better start figuring out what they did install.
Once she figured out where she'd wandered to, the cyborg crossed a well-manicured field and headed towards the riverside parking space where she'd left her ride. She'd decided to get out some distance away and walk into the rustic, forested area. The hope had been that the walk would clear her head, that she'd be somewhere free from distractions and interruptions.
Naturally, it didn't quite work out that way.
"Miss Santos? Do you mind if I join you?"
She didn't bother to look up and address the man. "If I say yes, does that mean you'll piss off and ruin someone else's day off instead?"
"I'm afraid not, no."
Sighing dramatically, she turned a wicked glare on the man. Taking him in with the trained eye of the veteran police officer she used to be, she quickly noted his physical characteristics. Fiftyish. Dark skin. Dark hair and mustache, both neatly trimmed. A dark business suit that showed just the slightest hint of dust and was pressed just a tiny bit too much. A military man, she decided, who was wearing civilian clothes to try and avoid attracting attention to himself. And considering who the Autobots had dealings with recently...
"And what do you want from me on a day like this, Barnett?" Maria asked with a resigned sigh.
Walter Barnett was a man who'd had a long, storied military career. He'd been drafted in the early sixties and shipped off to Vietnam, but served a relatively short, uneventful tour. He didn't see any combat, but the military had captivated him so much that he decided to make a life out of it. Twelve weeks of Officer Candidates' School later and he emerged as a second lieutenant, embarking on a long career that included several far more lively tours in that jungle shithole. He'd retired as a full colonel in 1985, at the relatively young age of forty-four, and taken on a civilian position with the government's new Intelligence and Information Institute in order to spend more time at home with his wife and son. When Forrest Forsythe had come calling a few months later asking him to take the lead in Triple I's new Rapid Anti-robot Assault Team, Barnett had been convinced to serve his country once more.
But that particular adventure hadn't turned out very well. Barnett's military background had helped him build a rapport with the troops, but Forsythe was a career bureaucrat who'd only listened to his advice when it aligned with his own preconceptions. The situation only got worse when upper management started to put public relations ahead of operational efficiency. The Robot Master fiasco had been embarrassing, but just barely acceptable. Hiring that lunatic Josie Beller as a field commander had been a disaster from day one, trying to execute captive Autobots had bordered on a war crime, and co-opting an entire carrier group for a suicidal assault on the Decepticons' island base had been the last straw. Barnett had left Triple-I after that, entering what he'd thought would be permanent retirement.
But a short five years later duty had come calling again. After America's military had been all but obliterated by Bludgeon and Megatron's month-long Decepticon assault, Barnett had found himself roped back into active duty. He'd been promoted to brigadier general and placed in charge of the first of many disaster-relief assignments. With the world's other great powers in similar disarray, the globe had suddenly become a very dangerous place and veteran leadership had been at a premium. A few months later San Francisco had been reduced to a radioactive ashtray by yet another gang of Decepticons, and Barnett had found himself in command of a massive combined-arms group in charge of keeping people out of the city's graveyard.
His association with the Autobots had always been a tentative one. He and Circuit Breaker had released Perceptor and company from custody to help deal with the Battlechargers, but not without reservations. Later he decided to save the Throttlebots from execution. He'd tried to work with them after that, but he'd never been particularly comfortable working with them. That discomfort had only grown more pronounced when the Autobots had secretly returned earlier this year, allegedly to help the humans with their recovery after the previous year's brutal attacks.
Although he appreciated having their help, especially in the highly-radioactive Bay Area where any of his men would be risking their lives simply by driving through, he hadn't been even a little surprised when it turned out that their arrival was followed in short order by a series of major Decepticon attacks. His acquaintance, the industrialist G.B. Blackrock, trusted the Autobots to a certain degree, or at least he trusted some of them. But as a flag officer with tens of thousands of lives under his care, Walter Barnett didn't have that luxury.
Barnett sat down on far side of the bench from Maria, not wanting to annoy the young woman any more than he already had by violating her personal space. "I won't waste your time with small talk, Ms. Santos. We know you've cultivated some sort of rapport with the Autobots. We also know that up until a couple months ago, you were a police officer."
"Is this going somewhere? Because I'm not going to sit here for an hour while you tell me things I already know about myself."
The middle-aged man fought the urge to sigh. Instead, he took a moment to stroke his mustache and gather his thoughts.
"I'll cut to the chase. Every step of the way, the Autobots have claimed to be our friends. They've claimed to be here to help us. And every step of the way they've kept secrets. They didn't tell us that Shockwave and Galvatron were here until they were on the loose blowing things up. They didn't tell us that they were at war with another, bigger army of Decepticons, or that those Decepticons were here, until they decided to turn a stretch of Nevada desert into a radioactive wasteland. And now there's starships falling out the the sky, a mysterious genetically engineered plague showing up in downtown Portland and armies of Cobra rejects getting into firefights with Blackrock's private security. What's going to happen next? What else do you suppose they're not telling us?"
"Who knows?" Maria said with a shrug. Her tone suggested that she couldn't possibly be the slightest bit less interested.
"I certainly don't," Barnett admitted. "But I'd like to. And it occurs to me that someone like you – someone close to them – would be ideally positioned to—"
"At least hear me out," The general gave her a look that was meant to be calming.
"You don't want me to," Maria told him. "Trust me. Because it sounds like you're about to ask me to report on the people who went out of their way to give me my life back. And if you did that...well, you wouldn't like what happened next."
"Ms. Santos..." Barnett sighed, then made firm eye contact with the young woman. "Maria. Your country needs you—"
"Really? Because my country seemed to be getting along just fine without me while I was in a hospital bed, shitting in a diaper, with legs that didn't work. I think what you're actually trying to say is that my country needs to use me. But the thing is, I don't need to take orders from hypocritical scumbags like you anymore."
The dark-haired woman was clearly trying to reign in her anger. It didn't appear to be working.
"I'm sorry," Walter said, his tone conciliatory. "Obviously we got off on the wrong foot. It was rude—"
"Yes," Maria told him bluntly. "It was. You saved Bumblebee's life once. He likes you. And he seems like a nice guy, so I'm giving you a chance to back off. But don't mistake that for weakness, Barnett."
The young woman got up and pushed gently on the back of the bench...and all of a sudden Barnett found himself falling backwards. He lay awkwardly on the fallen bench for a few seconds, trying to gather his thoughts, before he realized that Maria had pushed the 800-pound chunk of bolted-down stone over like it was made of balsa wood.
"So that's how it is." Gathering up what dignity he still had, the general dusted off his suit and climbed to his feet. "I understand that you feel like you owe them, Maria. I understand that you probably call some of them friends. But just because you like them doesn't mean you can trust them."
"Maybe not," she shot back, "but I'll trust them a whole lot farther than I'd ever think of trusting you."
Barnett didn't like hearing those words. But he liked the words that she'd forced him to say even less. "I was hoping it wouldn't have to be like this, Ms. Santos, but you leave me no choice. By the power vested in me by the Provisional Authorities Act of 1995, I'm placing you under arrest as a threat to national security. And before you flex those those cyber-muscles of yours and ask 'you and what army', I'll direct your attention to the three gentlemen in suits who've joined us. They're each carrying a military-grade ion disruptor. It's an experimental weapon designed to deal with Transformers who decide to run amok. I wouldn't like to see what it would do to someone like you."
Maria met Barnett's eyes for the first time, her expression a cold scowl. "They can put their toys away, Barnett. I'll go with you...but only because I don't want to hurt them, or you. Don't think for a moment that I couldn't if I wanted to."
"Perish the thought." Barnett wanted to look away as his men escorted her to the nondescript armoured car they'd arrived in, but he forced himself to watch until the doors shut and the car sped away. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was a disaster in the making. Santos and her Autobot friends should be his allies. They shouldn't be working at cross-purposes or hiding things from each other. But he was a soldier in the United States Army, not the Autobot one. And until they admitted that, he would do what he had to do to keep his country safe...on his own, if need be.
Bangkok, Thailand: October 17, 1995
An impatient Franco-German man was sitting in a dive of a bar in Thailand, a figurative storm cloud brewing above his head that rivaled the real ones that were loomng outside. He watched the leaky roof drip into a bucket, sipped shitty local beer and waited for his ever-tardy contact to show.
Gunther Dreschler was a war baby, born to a French woman who'd had an affair with a soldier in the occupying German army. He'd grown to hate his mother's people for how they'd treated her, a hatred that had only deepened when he'd been sent to West Germany to live with his uncle after she died. The bitter old man had been an unreconstructed Nazi and he'd tried to raise Gunther the same way, though it didn't take. The younger Dreschler didn't care about racial politics or purity – he simply hated everybody equally. And there was nothing he enjoyed more than taking that hatred out on any convenient target that presented itself. As an international mercenary with the sobriquet of "Ga'mede', he'd gotten plenty of chances to do just that. He'd also managed to get quite rich at the same time, thanks to his unmatched talent for murder and the largesse of the dozen or more guerrilla bands and terrorist groups who'd been very appreciative of that talent. But he'd become more than that, now – not merely an international mercenary but an interstellar one.
The Decepticons who'd hired him had gone about it an odd way, effectively kidnapping him just to offer him a job. And almost immediately after he'd signed on, they'd themselves been co-opted by another, bigger Decepticon. But Ga'mede didn't care about their internal politics. Whether it was Garboil, Howlback or Galvatron calling the shots, they still wanted him to kill people and he was very happy to oblige.
Taking another sip of the skunky beer, Gunther's eyes scanned the bar for familiar faces for what had to be the tenth time. This time he found one, but he gave no sign of recognizing the other man until he'd separated himself from the small army of bodyguards that he'd brought with him.
Thanaphon Kara was a grizzled old criminal, a one-time mercenary who'd briefly fought alongside Ga'mede in Angola in the 1970s. Neither one had stayed in that hellhole of a country long, though. That had turned out to be a very good thing, since the group that had hired them had wound up arrested, tried and executed for treason. The two men had had the occasional contact after that, recommending one another for contracts or passing along tips on potential work. But the Thai man had gotten out of the game about a decade ago, returning home to take on a job as head of security for one his nation's drug cartels. Of course, hiring a professional killer as your chief bodyguard was never a great idea – Ga'mede's old colleague ascended to the top of the organization in short order.
As the man sat down in the seat across from him, Gunther finally allowed himself to acknowledge his presence. "You're late, Phon."
"And you're an asshole, Kristof."
Gunther had to force himself not to laugh as the older man referred to him by a throwaway alias he'd adopted for a few months in the 1970s. "You wouldn't have it any other way."
A waitress approached, bringing a drink for Phon. It was, Ga'mede noticed, a much nicer-smelling concoction than the one she'd brought him. The staff clearly kept a supply of good stuff for any VIPs who came by. He used to be able to guzzle this rotgut by the gallon with only mild displeasure, Ga'mede reflected. But his senses had been far sharper and his tastes had grown more refined since the Decepticons had altered him.
"That's true. If you pretended to be nice, I'd assume you were here for my head and shoot you, just in case." The Thai man leaned back in his chair and sipped his drink, seemingly enjoying the fact that his position let him enjoy something that was out of reach for his former peer.
If only you knew, old man...
"So, old friend," Phon said with notably insincere emphasis on the last word, "What can I do for you? Are you here to sample some of my product?"
Ga'mede sighed. "Do you really think I flew all this way to be comped some shitty coke cut with flour, or an anorexic ladyboy, or whatever the hell else you're selling? If you do, you're even older and more senile than I thought." The middle-aged German leaned forward, planting his elbows on the table. "I want to hire you for a job."
The mercenary turned drug lord was skeptical. "I don't think you appreciate just how much my services cost these days, Kristof."
"And I don't think you appreciate just who I am," Gunther shot back. "I'm not 'Kristof'. That was never anything more than a flimsy cover."
"Of course it was, but—"
"When I'm not slumming it with the likes of you for paycheque, I go by Ga'mede. Does that ring a bell?"
"Nope," Phon was clearly lying. "Never heard of him."
"Well, far be it from me to pop the ignorant bubble you live in. But I'll bet you've heard about the thousand people I killed in Portland last month."
The older man couldn't quite hide his surprise. "That was you?"
"Me and my friends." Gunther reached into his pocket, pretending not to see the six hoodlums in his line of sight reaching for their poorly-hidden guns. They'd all be dead before their guns cleared their holsters, anyway. He pulled out a heavy-duty metal vial and a ridiculously fat envelope of cash. "My very, very well-financed friends."
Truth be told, Ga'mede had no idea where his Decepticon comrades got their money. He supposed that counterfeiting would probably be the easiest explanation. But money only mattered to him as a means to an end, and for that fake dollars were almost as good as real ones.
He handed Phon the cash, then held up the vial. "There is two hundred thousand dollars here. For that, we want one of your people to deliver the contents of this vial to the central air system of the CentralPlaza Ladprao mall."
"That's a lot of cash for a very easy job," Phon told him. "But not the sort of job that I want to take. I sell drugs, you idiot! Poisoning my customers is bad for business!"
"You know what else is bad for business? Me killing you and all your henchmen."
"You threaten me!" Phon half-rose from his seat, enraged. "Do you think I came here alone? No! Guards!"
"Guards!" the gang boss shouted again, most insistently.
"Do you think I came here alone?" Gunther retorted. "Look around, Phon."
Almost reluctantly, the Thai man glanced around. What he saw was both impressive and terrifying: all of his men had been noiselessly disabled or killed by a squad of men in gaudy orange and purple armour.
"Do you like my Annihilators? With Destro missing in action after the Decepticon invasion last year, MARS will rent them out to anyone." He shrugged. "Well, anyone with the right connections and enough cash, that is. They just took out eleven of your best men without you even noticing. How long do you think your dealers and whores would last?"
Still half-standing, Phon sputtered with rage.
"Sit down, old man. You'll seize up your back." Ga'mede placed the vial on the table. "Your people will deliver this vial to the mall and the exact date and time specified on it, or you will die. If you try to use the contents on one of your fellow low-rent scumbags, you will die. If you try to cut a deal with the authorities, you will die. If you try to open it yourself, you will die so quickly you won't even know what happened. And, hell, if you do everything I tell you I might just kill you anyway, because you're an ornery geriatric who's really starting to get on my nerves! Now will you do it, or do I need to reach across the table and snap your fucking neck?"
Phon settled back down into his chair, sweat running down his face. "Fine, you son of a bitch. I'll do it. But don't think I'll let you get away with this. The next time we meet will be the last."
Gunther got up from the table and turned his back on the old man as if he didn't pose a threat at all.
"That's the smartest thing you've said all day, Phon."
Military Annex, Portland: October 17, 1995
The bright lights and slightly-too-cool temperature were meant to make her uncomfortable. The smell of fresh coffee and treats that wafted in from the next room were meant to make her hungry and thirsty. The plain steel table and chair were meant to make her feel small, to remind her that she was only one of thousands who'd been held in this stark, impersonal room. And the two hours that they'd left her alone in the interrogation cell was meant to make her feel irritable and impatient. Maria knew all of these things because, of course, she'd used exactly the same techniques to sweat suspects more times than she cared to count.
Unfortunately, understanding it didn't mean that it wasn't getting on her nerves.
By the time Barnett finally deigned to come see her, Maria was practically boiling with rage. At him for detaining her, yes, but possibly even more so at herself for letting him. Fancy weapons or not, she knew that there was no way his men would have been able to bring her in if she'd chosen to fight them. Just like there was no way that they could stop her now if she decided to walk out.
"You wanted me here? I'm here," she told the general before he'd had a chance to speak up. "And we both know you can't make me stay here a single moment longer than I want to."
"You're under arrest, Ms. Santos," Barnett told her officiously. "You don't leave until I say you do."
"I don't think you quite understand," Maria told him. "So let me explain. Again."
She grabbed one end of the bolted-down steel table with one hand, then proceeded to tear it away from its moorings without much more than a shrug.
"You can't arrest someone that you can't physically stop from leaving," she told him. "You know it, and the boys you brought along to bring me in knew it too. The only reason I'm here, Barnett, is because I don't want to hurt you or your men. But this has gone on for long enough. Ask your questions, make your sales pitch, whatever. But if you don't give me a reason to stay, then I'm walking out of here – and through anyone that tries to stop me. Understood?"
Barnett opened his mouth to say something, but he seemingly thought better of it. It was a few moments before he tried again.
"Super-humans aren't above the law, Ms. Santos."
"Maybe not," Maria retorted. "But any law that lets you hold people without charges or cause isn't worth the paper it's printed on. Now, do you have anything worthwhile to say? Or should I tear that door off the hinges?"
"Eight million, four hundred and eighteen thousand, nine hundred and three."
"I don't follow."
"That's the number of American citizens who died during the Decepticon rampages last year," Barnett told her. "Many of them courtesy of the nuke they dropped in San Francisco. Would you like me to quote the global casualty numbers? Or maybe the number of elected officials they killed in targeted raids?"
Maria sighed. "No. I get your point."
"Do you?" Barnett crossed his arms and stared down at her. "The Autobots were here. They did the best they could to protect us. They failed, Maria. And now the Decepticons are back and the Autobots aren't saying word one."
Maria was momentarily taken aback by the way Barnett laid it out. He wasn't wrong about any of it, but she'd never put it together quite that way in her head before. That sort of high-level, big-picture thinking hadn't been a strong suit of hers, and her work had never cultivated it. She'd been a beat cop, mostly. And while she certainly wasn't a dumb woman, her job had necessarily trained her to be a bit reactive – trying to stave off disaster one call at a time. She wasn't used to putting all the threads of a problem together. That had been above her pay grade.
"I trust the Autobots," she said. It sounded a bit lame even to her own ears. "I trust Bumblebee."
"That's the shitty part," Barnett told her. "I trust him too. Hell, I even like him. I want to work with the Autobots, Maria, but they're not exactly holding up their end of the bargain right now. And I think it's because they just don't know what's going on, and they're afraid to tell us that."
"You don't think they're going to be able to stop the Decepticons," Maria surmised.
"Don't get me wrong," Barnett told her. "I hope they can. I really, really do. But their commander is dead, their spaceship is at the bottom of the ocean and they've failed to protect us once before. If they're not up to the job, I need to know it. I know that Bumblebee works with Blackrock, and Blackrock is...not a bad man by any means. He means well and I like him, too. But he's not the one the country is paying to deal with the Decepticon menace. I am. And I need to see for myself that we're putting our faith in the right people. Because if we're not...if we're not, the government is prepared to take drastic actions that even I'm not entirely comfortable with. And the only person who's in a position to convince me, one way or another, is you."
Another soldier knocked at the door as Barnett finished speaking. The general quickly got up and went to go speak with him for a few moments before returning his attention to Maria.
"What do you think?" he asked her.
"I don't know," she said at last. "The Autobots...I owe them my life."
"There's also the distinct possibility that you wouldn't have gotten hurt to begin with if they'd never come back," Barnett told her bluntly. "But that's not what this is about. It's about protecting innocent lives." He sighed. "Look, something's come up. I need to return to the base in San Jose ASAP. Why don't you come with me? Give me a day to show you the work we're doing. If you're not convinced, we'll go our separate ways. No recriminations one way or another."
Maria thought long and hard before delivering a sigh of her own.
"When do we leave?"
"My plane will be ready by the time we get to the airport," Barnett told her. "One of the perks of being a general." Then he handed her a dossier. "Something to read on the way."
"What is it?"
"Everything we've been able to put together about the man who calls himself Ga'mede," Barnett told her. "It's yours to keep. Whether to decide to work with me or not, something tells me that your path and his haven't crossed for the last time."
While Maria read all the information that the international intelligence community had managed to gather on "the man who calls himself Ga'mede", the man himself was walking through a torrential downpour in the shittiest part of Thailand's capital city. Luckily, Ga'mede and his soldiers-for-hire didn't have far to go after they'd walked out of the bar. The cloaked Cybertronian shuttle was hovering just above the city, and it swooped down into a local soccer field just long enough to pick up its small group of human cargo. While the Annihilators headed to the makeshift habitat they'd put together in the back, Ga'mede headed for the ship's cockpit.
"That's the last of them," he announced to the seemingly-empty room.
"Good," a husky, feminine growl answered him. A hatch on one of the forward consoles popped open to eject a blue cassette, which transformed into a large, lean feline form that stood nearly as tall as Ga'mede did.
Howlback arched her spine and stretched her paws, an affectation that she'd have denied if you called her on it. But she found that she enjoyed being a cat far more than she ever had the humanoid forms that she'd occupied in the past. Like all the members of the Imperial crew who'd come to Earth, she'd adopted a body based on one of the throwback Autobots and Decepticons who'd spent time here in the past. Their late commander Overcharge had thought that tactic would confuse the local intelligence agencies. Whether that had actually worked or not was debatable, but Howlback liked her new form so much that she suspected she would keep it long after she'd left a ruined, dead Earth behind her. But that was the future, and in the here and now there were other things to worry about.
"Magnificus and his team are out of contact on their mission," she told her human...whatever he was. Not quite a partner, but not quite an underling either. Definitely not a friend, because she knew better than to befriend lower life forms. But no matter what she called him, he'd proven to be a valuable asset to the cause. The fact that the Cobalt Sentries' end goal would entail the death of him and everyone he knew didn't seem to be an issue for the man. In fact, he seemed to consider it a positive. Such willingness for self-destruction was something she expected from one of the Maximo's brainwashed soldiers, not a free-thinking member of an alien race. She didn't understand Ga'mede, and she supposed that settled the "what to call him" debate for her. Because in her world, anything she didn't understand was a threat.
But he was still a very useful threat, and that meant that they needed to deal with something.
"Before they left, he mentioned that his intelligence-gathering program had picked up something that you might be interested in." Howlback pawed the console, and one of the screens lit up with human-readable text. She could have streamed the information straight to the human's brain, but Ga'mede didn't like the idea of installing the required Cybertronian technology directly into his nervous system. Not that she could blame him, really. Human brains were a fragile thing.
"Oh, you've got to be kidding." Ga'mede scowled as he read the readout. "My head is worth way more than a million dollars. I knew you were a cheap son of a bitch, rag-face, but really..."
"I take it you know the person who put the contract out on you?" Howlback asked dryly.
"Cobra Commander and I are acquainted, yes." Ga'mede shrugged. "Actually, I was working for him before you showed up with a better offer."
"And he's trying to have you killed for abandoning your job?"
"Hardly. If he killed everyone who walked out on Cobra he'd never have time for anything else." The human gestured towards the back of the shuttle. "If I had to guess, I'd say that those guys are the reason he's after me. Well, them, the ones who died in Portland, the team we have on standby in Ukraine, the ones who did those break-ins for Magnificus over the last week..."
"Ah." Howlback nodded in understanding. "I see. He thinks you're trying to build up an organization of your own to rival Cobra."
"Well...when you get right down to it, that's exactly what you've had me doing. He's just making a wrong assumption about what I plan to use it for."
"Perhaps, but that's the last mistake he's ever going to make." Howlback stretched out again, raking her claws on the deckplates. "We can't exactly have him making assassination attempts on you while we're in the middle of destroying the world, can we?"
"I suppose not." Ga'mede sighed, looking somewhat reluctant. "Unlike some of my other previous employers, I don't actually want to kill him. But if he's going to get in the way, he's got to go."
"Good, good." Howlback nodded. "We're already underway for Cobra Island. Our agents indicate that his organization moved back in after Megatron and his Decepticons obliterated all of his mainland hideaways."
"Yes, angering Decepticons does seem to be bad for his business." Ga'mede looked around. "I'm assuming it's not just the two of us and twelve Annihilators? Because even after the ass-kicking Megatron gave him, he's going to be protected by an army."
"I brought Loudpedal and Yellowjacket along too," Howlback shrugged. "And another squad of your hirelings."
"Don't you have an entire transport full of soldiers in orbit?"
"No," Howlback told him. "They are close by, but we won't be using them."
"So...the four of
us and two dozen mercenaries against all of Cobra? Sounds fun. But
probably not a very good idea."
"Neither is it a good idea to let Galvatron know about our transport," the Decepticon reminded him. "Or let him anywhere near our soldiers. They are...easily led. If he had a starship full of obedient troops at his disposal, it would go badly for us all. He would likely kill the three of us, then kill the remaining Autobots. After that he could conquer Iraq or some other energy-rich backwater, fill our ship with Energon cubes and blast off to try and take over the Empire. Which you probably don't care about, but in that scenario the world order that you hate so much is still standing and there's nobody left to challenge it but this Cobra Commander idiot."
"Fair enough." Ga'mede shrugged. "Well, never let it be said that I don't like a challenge."
San Jose, California
"I'm seeing an empty hangar, Tyler."
General Walter Barnett crossed his arms and stared accusingly into the massive empty space. It was supposed to contain the remains of the Decepticon jet that the Autobots had shot down in Louisiana a few months ago, as well as the one they'd carved to pieces in Portland during the Apex disaster. But there was nothing there, as the officers' vantage point at the hangar's main doors showed quite clearly.
Maria, who had accompanied the general back to base as promised, stood at the general's side. She had a civilian access pass pinned to her breast pocket and a frown on her face. The young woman smartly kept her mouth shut, but her eyes open.
"Yes, clearly." Colonel Tyler Martin ran his fingers through his greying fringe of hair, then rubbed an ache out of the back of his neck. The man was a few years older than Barnett, a career officer with a solid but unremarkable resume in the area of military security – a resume that was in the process of being ruined by the incident staring them in the face. "I have the base MPs checking the access logs and cameras."
"Yes, yes, that's all well and good," Barnett directed a scowl at his Provost Marshal. "But how the hell could this have happened in the first place? Transformers are hardly small, Colonel. The hangar has only one entrance, and you have guards posted outside 24/7. And even if they somehow missed it the units at the gate couldn't have failed to notice a couple flatbed trucks rolling out with Decepticons on them."
Martin sputtered for a few seconds, then hung his head and said, "I have no explanation, sir."
"Do you even have a timeline of when they disappeared?"
"No, sir. As per your orders, nobody was allowed inside the hangar without you or I present. The last time I was here was September 22nd, when we brought the one from Portland in. It could have been any time after—"
"It was October 4th." The steely female voice belonged to a strongly-built middle-aged woman with grey streaks clearly visible in her dark hair and the bearing of a long-serving non-commissioned officer. As she got closer, she came to attention and saluted.
"Master Sergeant Angela Cole, reporting as ordered."
Barnett and Martin returned her salute, after which the provost marshal said, "Sergeant Cole is my best investigator. I asked her to look into the situation. And by the sounds of it, she's done her usual good job."
"Thank you, sir." Cole seemed a bit uncomfortable, something that Barnett put down to being in the presence of the brass. But then she said, "Should we be talking about this in front of the civilian, sirs?"
Martin seemed to be about to say something, but Barnett cut him off. "Miss Santos is with me. I'm trying to convince her to work with us as a...security consultant, of a sort. I want her to hear what you have to say."
"As you wish, sir." If Cole was at all perturbed, she didn't show it. "Determining the date of the theft was simple. I went down to the security archives, flipped through the tapes and quickly determined that all of the ones from that day were missing. So then I pulled the duty logs for that day and interviewed the soldiers who were supposed to be guarding this hangar and the main gate. They all had the same thing to say: they were given written orders to stand down and hand off their posts to another unit. Said unit is actually posted at Fort Meade."
"Written orders or not," Maria piped up for the first time, "I'm assuming your men didn't hand off their stations to non-existent soldiers."
"No, sir. All of the men I spoke to indicate that they were relieved in person by soldiers they weren't familiar with."
"We're talking, what, twenty or thirty guards?" Barnett shook his head. "I know it's a big base, but you can't tell me at least one of them wouldn't have recognized a face if they were some of ours. Someone managed to infiltrate this base with a mercenary squad. And while a lot of groups have shown interest in us over the last year, only one of them has the resources and the gall to pull off something like this."
"Cobra," Martin said the word as if it came to him by some miraculous intuition.
Barnett had to resist the urge to pat the other officer on the head and give him a cookie. Instead, he turned to Cole and said, "Someone from the base still had to let them in and sign the orders. Do you have any insight in that, Master Sergeant?"
"I do, sir. One of the troopers I talked to had thought something was off about it, so he'd kept the written orders he was given." She shot an apologetic look at Colonel Martin, then pulled a neatly-folded paper out of her breast pocket and handed it to Barnett.
The general read the orders, which were printed on base letterhead in the usual format. Then he read the signature at the bottom of the sheet and turned another icy glare towards his provost marshal. "Care to explain this?"
Martin read the paper himself, then sunk to the ground with weak knees. "This can't be..."
"Your name's right there in black and white, Tyler. Tell me what I'm supposed to think."
"Sir, with all due respect..." Sergeant Cole stepped between her two superiors. "That's the Colonel's name, but not his handwriting. But I know who it belongs to."
"Impossible..." Martin muttered.
Barnett ignored him. "Who?" he asked.
"Captain Riley Martin," Sergeant Cole said. With a sympathetic glance towards her boss, she added, "His son."
The Decepticon shuttle had set down in the middle of a runway. Howlback had chosen a spot where it would cause the maximum disruption to Cobra's flight operations, purely out of spite. None of the tiny island's defenders had said a word to them about it, though. Most likely, they recognized the Decepticon insignia on either side of the craft and remembered very well what had happened the last time they had crossed blades with someone who wore it.
Ga'mede strode down the ramp with Howlback at his side. They were flanked on either side by squads of Annihilators armed with human-sized, Decepticon-engineered weapons. As they walked, the platinum blond terrorist noticed rows upon rows of newly-built Rattlers and Stingers lining the tarmac.
It looks like Cobra Commander has been busy since the Decepticon invasion...
They made it half-way down the airstrip before a detachment of Cobra troops marched out to meet them. Three squads, one each of H.E.A.T., Laser and Frag-Vipers, escorted a Cobra officer who was flanked by a quartet of S.A.W.-Viper body guards.
As the Cobra troops came to a stop in front of them, the officer stepped forward. He was young, Ga'mede saw. Far too young for the role he was in. But then, Cobra had suffered just as many losses as legitimate militaries had in the last year's worth of fighting.
If he was at all uncomfortable with his responsibilities, the young man didn't show it as he spoke. "You're expected, Ga'mede. Come with us. Cobra Commander is looking forward to speaking with you."
San Jose, California
The view from atop the base's fuel silos had always been Riley Martin's favourite. He'd go there often when he needed a chance to think, and he definitely needed to think now.
If he was being honest with himself, Riley would admit that he hadn't done much of that up until the last year or so. Why would he, when his entire life had been planned ahead of time while he was still in the womb? His childhood had been spent hopping from one army base to the next with no time to make friends or put down roots. His father's work and the obvious pride that he took in it had been the only constant in Riley's life, and it had always been clear to the son that he was expected to follow in his father's footsteps. And so he did. And Riley had proven to be very good at it, making captain before he turned 27. But he hated it. The strict hierarchy, the rigid formality, the drab tedium of day-to-day life...his stodgy father thrived on those things, Riley knew, but to him they'd never be anything but a dull, life-sapping anchor around his neck.
But still, he'd soldiered on. Because as much as he disliked the army life, he honestly didn't have any idea what else to do with his own. He'd turned thirty last year. Most people had told him he was on the fast track to making major, and would probably be up for promotion to lieutenant colonel as soon as he was eligible. Riley didn't really care about rank for its' own sake, though. He just wanted to serve out the rest of his twenty years and retire with the highest pension he could get his grubby hands on. And if he managed to match in two decades the rank that his army-loving old man had scratched and clawed his way to in three and a half, well, all the better.
But all that had changed a year and a half ago.
Riley's father had been slated for retirement at the start of 1994 after being passed over for promotion to colonel for the second time. But he'd gotten friends with stars on their shoulders to pull some strings, extending his service by a few more months. Allegedly his dad had wanted to push up his pension by accruing his final full year of service. But Riley knew that the old man just couldn't deal with the thought of not coming in to work in a uniform every morning. At any point in the previous decade, it would have been no big deal. Tyler would have pushed pens for a few more months, but his discharge would have caught up with him eventually. But 1994 was no normal year. Which meant that instead of enjoying an early (by civilian standards) retirement at their old farmhouse in Kentucky, Riley's parents were still living in Washington D.C. in April when the Decepticons razed the city. His dad had been safely ensconced in a secure bunker deep underground in Fort Meade for most of the battle. His mother, on the other hand, hadn't been so lucky. Martha Martin had died in the first wave of the attack. A Decepticon ground squad had stormed through the quiet suburb that they'd lived in en route to the White House, blowing up Riley's parents' house with a stray plasma blast.
And as if losing his mother wasn't bad enough, Riley had been forced to watch as his father's retirement was canceled in light of the invasion and all the military casualties that it had caused. In the end, the old man had gotten exactly what he wanted, and all it had cost him was the life of his wife of thirty-two years. If the trade-off bothered him one bit, he certainly didn't show it.
After that, Riley knew that he couldn't wear the uniform anymore. Not even long enough to nail down his pension like he'd originally planned. Not after his father's obsession with the uniform had cost his mother her life. He'd tried to resign, but after all the losses the army suffered he hadn't been surprised when he'd been turned down. In fact, his commanding officer had tried to promote him, citing his sterling record and reputation as a rising star.
His words hadn't been quite as glowing after Riley broke his nose.
Unfortunately, not even that had been enough to get him out. He'd hoped for a dishonourable discharge after spending some time in Leavenworth, but the universe wouldn't even grant him that. No, instead his father had "rescued" him, showing up with ill-gotten gold birds on his shoulders, a lecture about duty and fresh orders assigning him to the newly-built San Jose base's security detachment under the old man's command.
It was in that moment that Riley realized that his father was simply incapable of understanding normal human feelings. That was also the moment that he finally admitted to himself that he hated the man.
But what else could he do? Riley took the assignment because he was simply at a loss for what else to do with himself. But he kept looking for a way out, and when one presented itself to him he'd jumped on it. He'd been in San Jose for seven weeks when a well-dressed man in a conservative gray suit approached him in a grocery store approached him with an offer that was too good to be true.
Even though he knew there was a good chance that he would wind up back in jail – and for a much longer stretch this time – Riley had jumped at the chance to leak classified security information to the man's many outlaw clients. In fact, he'd looked forward to the day that he got caught. Because he knew that before the ink was dry on his indictment, the papers cashiering his father out of the army would have been drawn up. Call it guilt by association or call it poor judgment for using his authority to get his son pardoned, but either way the man's career would be torpedoed with finality. Considering the man's expectations had cost Riley his youth, and his obsession with the uniform had cost him his mother, it was the closest thing to justice that his son could imagine.
But over the last two weeks, his handler had asked for more than just information. First, he'd asked for Riley to forge orders letting a band of outside soldiers take over base security for a shift, clearing out the guards from the hangar where his father had secured alien remains. Riley had expected to be caught then and there for such a bold action, and if he'd been spying for the money he would have balked. But he wasn't, so he didn't. And somehow the little caper had gone off without a hitch. Nobody had even reported the flatbed full of robot parts pulling out of the base.
And then, yesterday, he'd been asked for something more.
Riley lifted up the small vial of red liquid, frowning slightly as the sunlight shone through it. What was it? His handler hadn't said what it was or what it was going to do, only that he needed Riley to add it into the base's fuel supply. The young officer assumed it would damage the motor pool vehicles, taking them out of commission in time for another theft. The only thing he couldn't figure was how such a tiny vial mixed into such a huge volume of fuel would be strong enough to do anything at all.
It'll be less than one part per million, he thought to himself. Whatever it is, it must be super strong.
The truth – that the vehicles were less a target than a delivery system – never occurred to him. It may have, given time. But time was something that he didn't have any more of. He'd been so lost in thought that he hadn't noticed the blue lights of the incoming military police caravan until they'd already circled around the silos and started disgorging soldiers.
"Captain Riley Martin," a strong female voice boomed from a megaphone, "you are under arrest! Come down from there at once!"
Riley swore under his breath. Now that the game was over, he realized he was going to miss it. I guess I got sloppy. But at least the old man is going to pay the price.
But as his eyes surveyed the crowd of security personnel that had been disgorged from the cars, he started to wonder if, maybe, he wasn't. Because his father was standing right up front between Master Sergeant Cole and General Barnett, a judgmental scowl on his face.
With the paper trail I left, he should be in cuffs right now! Don't tell me that the old bastard managed to talk his way out of trouble again?
As he climbed down the catwalk, the younger Martin seethed. The very idea that a man like his father would continue to get away with all that he'd done...
Not now. Not again.
As his feet touched the ground, Riley unfastened the top button of his shirt. Reaching inside, he pulled out the cheap, shitty revolver that he'd grabbed at a pawn shop on his last liberty. Carrying on-base was highly illegal, and for obvious reasons. But considering everything else he'd gotten himself into, the young man hadn't particularly cared about such legal niceties.
"Gun!" one of the MPs shouted. The other soldiers immediately scrambled for their sidearms, but Riley already has his out. He drew a bead on his father, trying to ignore his shaking hands has he roughly tugged the trigger.
The snub-nosed .44 Magnum jumped in his hands. The bullet tore a hole in the side of the patrol car that his father was standing beside. Riley cursed and fired again, twice in quick succession.
The second shot whizzed right past General Barnett's ear, narrowly missing him as a Latino woman in civilian garb tackled senior officer to the ground and used her own body to protect him. The third shot tagged Sergeant Cole in the ribcage, and Riley felt a sharp pang of guilt.
By now the soldiers were firing back, and Riley felt sharp pains blossom in his left shoulder and right thigh. He wavered on his feet, but kept pulling the trigger.
One of the shots skipped off the tarmac before ricocheting into a parked car. The other two wound up in the chest of the nearest MP, who still somehow managed to bowl Riley off of his feet with his dying breath.
As Riley hit the ground, the vial of strange liquid fell from his grasp. Almost as soon as it was exposed to the surrounding air, the liquid boiled into a red mist. Whatever it was, Riley figured he'd never find out. But he wouldn't need to.
Three dead in a shootout, including his own son. On a base where he's in charge of security. That'll put an end to the old bastard's career for sure.
And as long as that happened, Riley didn't really care about the mission he'd just failed at.
His own vision went red for a moment, but he managed to crawl his way back to consciousness just in time to see his benighted father push past the MPs and rush to his side.
"Riley...my son...I don't...I..." The old man dropped to his knees. "Why?"
Somehow, the younger man mustered the energy to whisper, "Because fuck you, that's why."
Then he raised his gun, pressed the muzzle up to his father's chest and pulled the trigger.
Riley didn't stop pulling the trigger of the empty revolver until his muscles gave out and the gun finally dropped from his grasp. His father had started to cry, but the old man's tears didn't move him. Not after all that he'd done.
But as his own consciousness faded for the last time, Riley realized that his father's tears had turned to blood. A second later it occurred to him that somehow the two nearest guards had started to weep it as well. Then he realized what his contact had paid him to deliver, and he passed from this life with a smile on his face.
If there's a hell, was his last thought, this moment was worth it.
The procession came to a stop outside of a closed hangar. Ga'mede crossed his arms impatiently and waited.
"If Rag-Face tries to make us play the waiting game," he told the officer, "I'm going to kill every last one of you and go find him myself. Just so you're aware."
"He'll be here momentarily," the Cobra lieutenant responded. If he understood the gravity of such a threat coming from a man like Ga'mede, he didn't show it. "His lift is coming up the shaft right now. We'll meet him inside."
As if on cue, the hangars door started to roll open. A hundred or more standard Vipers stood inside, machine guns at the ready. Cobra Commander stood at their vanguard, a smug expression on what could be seen of his face.
"Ah, Ga'mede, you profligate cutthroat," he said with extreme theatricality. "What brings you to my island? You haven't been answering my calls. We've missed you!"
"Hence taking a hit out on me," Ga'mede growled.
"How better to get your attention?" Cobra Commander asked, "And those of your friends? Alas, I had hoped you would bring along more than one ultramarine grimalkin."
"Does he always talk like this?" Howlback snarled.
"Usually," Ga'mede shrugged. "I think the popinjay – see, I can do it too – reads the thesaurus every night before bed."
"I will not be mocked in my own home," Cobra Commander snapped. "Now, as I was saying: I had surmised you would have brought more fodder. But alas! Only one. I suppose she'll have to do." He glanced over his shoulder. "Kill them all."
San Jose, California
"Jesus fucking Christ!"
As soon as Maria saw the colonel start to bleed, she knew what was going on. Three weeks might as well have been three minutes, so thoroughly were the horrors in Portland etched into her brain.
Not again...goddammit, not again!
Without thinking, she scooped up Barnett and tossed him into the nearest still-running car, hoping that it would be airtight enough to keep the virus or spores or whatever the hell it was out of his lungs. Thankfully, luck was on their side and the wind was blowing it away from them. Not so thankfully, it was blowing in the direction of the base's main barracks. Most of the remaining MPs, who'd gotten between them and Martin the younger during the shootout, had fallen to the ground weeping blood.
As Maria climbed into the driver's seat and put the car into reverse, Barnett finally recovered his senses enough to ask, "What the hell is going on?"
"People keep asking me about the time I've spent with the Autobots," Maria said offhandedly. "About what happened in Portland." She stabbed the gas pedal and the car roared backwards down the tarmac, away from the fuel depot. "This is what happened in Portland. How many HAZMAT suits do you have on base?"
"Thousands," Barnett told her. Then he amended, "Not enough."
"Not nearly enough. This thing was released inside a nearly-sealed building in Portland and still managed to kill nearly 800 people on the outside." Maria quickly swung the car around, then threw it into forward and floored it. "This time an entire canister was released the open air. God only knows how far downwind it'll go. And that wind? It's blowing inland."
Barnett blanched. "We could have people dying as far inland as Modesto or Merced. Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands."
They approached an intersection and he told Maria, "Go left."
"Where are we headed?"
"The fallout shelter," Barnett told her. "I need to make a call to the President."
"And your people?"
Barnett sighed. "For as much good as it'll do? I can give them fifteen minutes." As he spoke, he reached for the car's radio and called in a biohazard alert to the base's dispatcher.
Howlback's feedbacker shield was a fantastic asset in a fight, but it was designed to reflect energy weapons, not bullets. It did manage to stop them, for now, but it didn't return the incoming fire back to those who'd dared to strike her. Infuriated by their audacity, she unleashed a growl, freezing several of the armed men in their tracks.
Good to know that works as well on organics as it does on real people, she thought to herself as she gutted six of them with one swipe of her paw.
What wasn't going to work so well, unfortunately, were her multirack missiles. Oh, they would kill the humans well enough. But they were fighting at too close of a range for them to be safe to use. She'd be just as likely to blow herself up as anything else, and that left Howlback reluctantly pulling her punches.
Luckily Ga'mede wasn't having that problem. He'd already unloaded three magazines' worth of 9mm into the nearby Vipers with his Steyr machine pistol, and was now busily unloading on another group with a pair of AK-47s that he'd taken off of his victims. Several of the Annihilators had fallen, but a dozen and a half of them had taken cover behind Cobra vehicles and were returning fire. Their orange and purple armour showing more than a bit of wear, but for now they were getting the better of their foes.
We're doing good, but once they bring in backup they'll slaughter us, Howlback thought. Unless, of course, we get ours first.
"Loudpedal, Yellowjacket, get over here right now!"
A few seconds later, the sound of jet engines roared overhead as a pair of colourful flying cars buzzed the hangar. The humans who saw them looked on in utter confusion as their wings folded in and they returned to the ground. Then the two Imperials accelerated into the hangar, running over Cobra troops at full speed and collecting more than their share of dents in the process. After clearing a wide circle around Howlback and their companions, Howlback's bodyguards transformed to robot mode and started unloading their full firepower into the crowd of scrambling Cobra troopers.
After giving their presence a second to sink in, Howlback let out another loud nonverbal roar. Once she was sure she had the humans' attention, she shouted, "This is over! Stand down, Cobra Commander, and we might let you live."
The masked buffoon, who had hidden behind his troops as soon as the battle had started like the coward he was, addressed her from a scaffold at the very far end of the hangar. "Oh, I think not. That would be quite injudicious, given that I've just achieved a major victory." In spite of the mask, it was obvious that he was grinning like an idiot. "Felicitations on the arrival of your backup, though. Have you met mine? No? Then perhaps have a look outside."
Howlback humored the puny human by peering over her shoulder. But she saw nothing but the rows of parked vehicles that they'd passed by on their way in. "I don't see anything."
"No? Ah, how uncouth of me. Allow me to make introductions. Ga'mede and friends, meet my Vipers. Vipers...transform!"
And so they did. At his command, twenty-plus airplanes and easily three dozen jeeps converted from vehicle to robot. Their bodies were easy to recognize as copies of Bad Boy and Detritus, albeit with Cobra-looking liveries and accouterments slapped on.
"You see, Megatron might not have left us with any working Cybertronian technology. But not even he could erase the enlightenment that my Tech Vipers earned, the hard-won perspicacity gathered as they worked on his systems. So when one of our surrogates – a gentleman that you, Ga'mede, introduced us to – was assigned to guard two dead Transformers...well, you can imagine my veritable intoxication at the thought of getting my hands on them. As you can see, we did, and our factories have been very busy. And with these three as additional templates, well...who shall be able to stand against Cobra now?"
Cobra Commander crossed his arms.
"Now, may I humbly suggest that you shall be the ones to surrender?"
San Jose, California
"You do realize that your career will be over, Barnett?"
"Yes sir, Mr. President."
"Mine too," said the gruff voice on the other side of the phone line. "Luckily I never wanted this job in the first place. But I didn't plan on going down in the history books as the president who ordered a nuclear strike on American soil either."
Barnett winced. He'd actually known the president before he'd become president – he'd been a soldier alongside Barnett before they'd both retired. While Barnett had gone on to work for Triple-I, Michael Norris had a long career in the Department of Defense. That career had culminated in a posting as Acting Secretary after a nasty scandal when his predecessor was caught on camera accepting brown envelopes of cash from employees of more than one aircraft manufacturer. The man had been a few days from his 65th birthday and only accepted the role on the understanding that he'd only be keeping the seat warm for the month or so it would take to find a permanent replacement.
Of course, that replacement – along with the sitting President and the five men ahead of him in the order of presidential succession – had all been on Capital Hill for confirmation hearings when Starscream and his jets had bombed the place flat. So Acting Secretary Norris became President Norris, inheriting a job he never would have wanted and a country that was burning down around him. Somehow, the man hadn't buckled under the pressure. Yet.
"I understand. And I wish there was some other way."
"But there isn't," President Norris told him, his voice solid and reassuring. "You're doing what needs to be done, Walter. Whatever happens after this, I'm glad you're the one on the scene. I don't know how many men would have the guts for it."
Barnett should have been happy to be praised by the President of the United States. But considering what he was about to do, Norris's words left him feeling hollow. "Thank you, sir. I'll call you back when it's done."
He hung up the phone, then looked out through the glass walls that separated his office from the rest of the fallout shelter. In the outer office and reception area he saw Maria and a few of his adjutants trying desperately to pretend they hadn't been listening in. Past them in the main shelter area he saw a few dozen soldiers of various ranks, all standing with an expression of shock on their faces. A few dozen, where there should have been at least two hundred.
It's been long enough, he thought to himself. Anyone who isn't here already probably isn't coming. The bioweapon doing it's ugly best.
Barnett got up from his chair and walked to the back of the small office. Flush with the wall stood a small black cabinet. Barnett pulled his key ring from his pocket and opened the cabinet. Inside was a matte black panel with six glowing yellow bulbs set in a dark red ring. In the middle of the ring was another keyhole.
Each of the lights, Barnett knew, represented one of the six tactical nuclear warheads that had been planted around the perimeter of the base after the decision had been made to store all of their captured Cybertronian technology on the site. It was a sensible decision, he reflected – no one in their right mind would come anywhere near San Jose, what with the unhealthily-high background radiation levels that still lingered after the San Francisco incident not even 50 miles away. The soldiers posted here needed very careful medical care to ensure they didn't contract radiation poisoning, and that was after practically all of the bases' buildings had been retrofitted with lead shielding or dug in underground. Practically the entire civilian population had been evacuated, and the whole area was now a military exclusion zone. Where better to dump dangerous alien technology that no one should have access to?
But as the constant raids on the glowing cinders of the neighboring city have shown, you can't underestimate either the boldness or the stupidity of organizations like Cobra, or the fanaticism of al-Qaeda or the various right-wing militias that had been emboldened into action across the US since the attacks had destabilized the social order. So they'd installed the nukes as a last-ditch failsafe. If anyone who shouldn't got their hands on dangerous alien tech, the entire base could be cauterized off the face of the Earth before they made it out.
Not, Barnett thought wearily, that it had done much good in the end. The alien tech was still missing and he was about to vaporize any remaining evidence that might have shown where it had gone.
As he brooded, the red ring around the control panel switched to green to signify that a key had been inserted into an identical panel in the Oval Office. Barnett found another key on his ring and slid it into the socket.
May God forgive me, because I never will.
He turned the key.
San Jose, California
The explosions were contained, by the standards of nuclear ordinance. But that still meant that two thirds of the San Jose metro area had been blanketed in deadly heat and radiation. The death toll from the bombs would only reach into the high hundreds, but that was only because most of the ten thousand people in the blast radius had already died with blood pouring out of their eyes, noses and pores. It was a horror show, but still nowhere near as terrible as it could have been. The bioweapon was contained, for now.
But that wouldn't be the end of it. The United States had been dangerously destabilized by the attacks of the last year. Millions had died. The senior levels of government had been annihilated and the established political parties were in disarray. FEMA was working overtime trying to get a handle on the parts of the country that had been hit the worst, which only served to stoke the paranoia of fringe conspiracy groups. Special elections at the start of the year had filled the House and Senate with warm bodies, allowing the government to be approximately functional again. But the chaos had allowed all sorts of bizarre splinter groups to get a foothold, and Congress now played host to everything from right-wing militia leaders to outright Communists. Hardcore anarchists, secessionists from California and Texas, a couple legitimate neo-Nazis and even a small caucus of Cobra representatives had found their way to Washington as well. Neither of the established parties had anywhere close to a majority, or even a functional plurality of seats. And the president was an unelected bureaucrat who had just ordered a nuclear strike on American soil.
If the country had been on the brink of chaos before, this would be the push needed to throw it over the edge.
Maria watched it play out on the base's video monitors, the icy horror in her guts vying for supremacy with a light-headed sort of disbelief. It felt like she was simultaneously going through all the stages of grief at once, or the first four anyway. There was precious little "acceptance" to be found in her heart right now, because what she was watching was totally unacceptable. And she wasn't even sure what was worse, right now: the fact that the US government would do something like this, or the fact that thanks to a monster like Ga'mede, they'd had no choice.
Something had to be done.
Maria felt a single tear run down her cheek, and felt a small spark of surprise that her transformed body was still able to cry. Then she turned away from the monitors. It wasn't her fault and she knew it wasn't her fault, but that didn't stop her from feeling like it was. She'd had the chance to kill the man behind this, and she hadn't. And afterwards, she'd worried not about the damage he could go on to cause, but the damage it would have caused to her soul if she had succeeded. She'd signed up to be a cop to try and make up for some of the harm that her own father had caused in his own life. But how could she do that if she wasn't willing to make the hard choices?
Oh yes, something definitely needed to be done. And Maria, like it or not, was the only person in a position to do it.
Howlback's response to Cobra Commander's snarky "request" was a snarl.
"I don't quite speak fluent cat just yet," Ga'mede translated, "but I'm pretty sure she said 'no'."
"Ah. Well, in that case it's a benevolence that only their dead bodies are a necessity." Cobra Commander shrugged. "And yours, of course, is just the cost of doing business. Unless you'd like to rethink your allegiances?"
"Work for a small-minded idiot like you?" Ga'mede laughed. "I've killed more people in the last month than you have since you founded this idiotic little cosplay club of yours. I've outgrown you, and frankly so has the rest of the world. The Decepticons have shown them just how much of a joke Cobra always was."
"If that's how it must be, then alas I suppose that's how it must be," Cobra Commander sighed melodramatically. "I shall endeavour to make it quick, in honour of your past allegiances. Viper-formers, prepare to—-"
Cobra Commander – or what was left of him, anyway – fell to the ground, little more than a blackened char. Latent static electricity arced off of his remains into the floor.
The remaining human troopers – those that hadn't been caught in the splash damage from Galvatron's blast – quickly scattered. They clearly had no appetite to continue the fight with their leader-slash-meal ticket having been turned into a smear on the flooring. Ga'mede wasn't particularly convinced that Cobra Commander was actually dead – this was probably the third or fourth time he'd "died" in the last decade – but for their purposes it would serve just as well. Even if they'd only watched the death of one of his decoys, he certainly wouldn't be crawling out of his bolt-hole any time soon.
Galvatron strode into the hangar to join them, stepping through dozens of stock-still Cobra-made Transformers as he did so. "I was planning to kill the bunch of you idiots for needing to call for help in a fight against humans. But now that I see the wonderful gift you've found for me, consider yourselves spared! This," he gestured melodramatically, "shall be the army with which I conquer first the Earth, then Cybertron, and finally the universe!"
"Wonderful," Howlback said, hidden agony in her voice. "That's exactly what we wanted."
Epilogue I: Howlback
What had started out as a good day had turned into an outright disaster.
Ga'mede's contact in San Jose had been caught before he could finish his assignment, thanks to his dabbling with Cobra. Thousands of humans had died and their most powerful nation had been forced to humiliate itself in front of the world, but that was nothing compared to the disaster they'd been trying to orchestrate. If the aircraft fuel had been successfully tainted, the entire state of California would have died.
Meanwhile, back in Montana Galvatron's oh-so-brilliant "trap" had ended with the Autobots still at large and one of their own – Treads – either a captive or possibly even a willing defector to the enemy.
To make matters worse, contact with her partner Garboil and his squad had been lost. Their submarine had washed up on the Oregon shore a few hours ago, its vital components all blasted with demolition charges. Clearly their mission to the Steelhaven had been compromised, and currently Howlback had no idea whether Garboil and his men were all dead or merely marooned – and she had no way of finding out!
But the true disaster had to be their successful invasion of Cobra Island. With several dozen newborn, impressionable Transformers no under his command, whatever leash Howlback had dreamed of holding on Galvatron had disappeared. He was busily imprinting them with basic personalities (all firmly loyal to him, no doubt) while he tried to figure out whether Cobra's factories could be made to work again now that their crews of Techno-Vipers had all fled.
For the first time in her life, the female Cobalt Sentry had been forced to admit that she'd made a horrible mistake. And that was why she'd slinked off to use the secret, encrypted comm router aboard her shuttle to contact the remaining Imperial troopers she'd left waiting in deep space.
Unable to risk a voice or video conversation that could have been intercepted and decrypted, she used the ship's one-time pad software to send a short, simple text message instead.
Sunstorm, the situation on Earth has become critical. If you do not hear otherwise within one week's time, you are to open and execute the terminal orders I gave you when you were left in command.
If you hear otherwise, but I don't use the appropriate code-phrases to countermand, execute them immediately.
—Howlback, daily code-phrase Viper Octopus Sabretooth
She hated to do this. Earth, for all its warts, could have been a useful outpost for the Empire, and for her master's campaign to increase his standing within it. But the threat posed by Galvatron was orders of magnitude more important than that. If he couldn't be reigned in, then she had to stop him from threatening the Empire itself...even if that meant destroying the Earth and everyone on it.
Epilogue II: Channel Six News
The look on Charlene Welles' face when she barged in was almost worth all the soul-searching that Maria had gone through to get to this point.
After what happened in San Jose, she'd given Barnett a blunt response. She wasn't going to spy for him. There was enough distrust going both ways between humans and Autobots. What they needed was to bridge that gap, not wedge it even wider. And since Maria was standing with one foot planted firmly in either camp, that responsibility was naturally going to fall to her. She'd told him as much, and told him to give her a call once he realized that what he really needed was a liaison.
Once she'd left his base (and after being subjected to intensive anti-radiation treatments on the way out), the former cop had thought about driving straight back to Autobase and delivering the same ultimatum to Bumblebee as well. And she still planned to. But before she did, she'd had to make a stopover in Portland. Not because the business she was attending to was particularly urgent, but because she knew she'd talk herself out of it if she hadn't come right away.
"I'm sorry, ma'am," Charlene's assistant trailed into the office with an apologetic look on his face. "She refused to book an appointment."
After taking a moment or two to regain her composure, the reporter waved away his concerns. "That's okay, Miles. I've always got time for Officer Santos."
Maria ignored the petty jab at her former rank. After the assistant had left, she leaned against the doorframe and said, "I'm here to talk."
"That goes without saying."
"No," Maria said with a solid amount of frustration. "I'm here to talk. About what happened downtown last month, and about what happened in San Jose yesterday."
Charlene's eyebrows jumped up in surprise, but she managed to reign in her reaction quickly. "I'm glad."
"Off the record, of course," Maria clarified. "Strictly background. It's not like I'd be a reliable source anyway. 'Former cop and current cyborg Maria Santos' doesn't have the most trustworthy ring to it. But trust me. With what I can give you, a reporter of your caliber will be able to blow this whole fiasco open. I've only got one condition."
Charlene – who, admirably, didn't immediately question the 'cyborg' comment – nodded. "What's that?"
"When you report on the Transformers, I want you to do you due diligence. Don't just report on them as one big, menacing collective. Talk about the different factions, who they are, whose side they're on."
"And just whose side are they on, Miss Santos?" Charlene probed.
"Once you're done digging, I'm hoping you'll be able to tell me." Maria smiled wanly.
"That's fair." Charlene leaned forward in her chair. "Please, start from the beginning. How did you get wrapped up in the Transformers' business?"
Maria sighed. "It all started with a pager call at an obscenely early hour..."
They talked for so long that it was already tomorrow by the time they were done. With the information she'd gotten, Charlene would have her Pulitzer. The people of America – nay, of the whole Earth – would know the magnitude of the threat they were facing, and have a face and a name to put on it. And Maria? She had a conscience that, for the first time in a very, very long time, wasn't dragging her down like a weight slung across her shoulders.
And now it was time to get to work.