Jetfire watched. Not in fear or wonder or humility, or even in embarrassment. The gods he never had believed in were locked in a death-struggle before his wide-open optics. But if anyone had asked him to define what he was feeling as he gaped out at the sight, he would have answered, "Nothing."
He watched, face blank, as a gossamer trail of his own spark-light streamed from his open torso; watched it weave itself among the many thousand other strands running into the heart of the Matrix. He gasped and stumbled back a little as he felt his soul tie into the great Soul of his Creator. He was confused and uninformed and overwhelmed. But he followed his Commander. Along with every transformer of Cybertron, he sent what strength he had into the heart-stone of his god.
Several small ships of the raggle-taggle fleet stood between Jetfire's own shuttle and the Leaders' cruiser. But he imagined he could just make out Optimus Prime, Megatron, and Elita-One standing out there on its hull, their arms upraised to lift an object grown so brilliant that it left an after-image burned into his optics. He blinked, and turned away; and thus Jetfire was one of the few who was not blinded when the Matrix of Leadership disintegrated in a white-hot flash in Optimus's hands. The once-agnostic scientist remained to bear witness to the death of the gods.
Stage 1: Creatures of Mud
What but the wolf's tooth whittled so fine
The fleet limbs of the antelope?
What but fear winged the birds, and hunger
Jeweled with such eyes the great goshawk's head?
Elita watched; but not out through too-small, fog-rimmed windows to the lifeless lump which she had once called home. Her gaze was turned inward. She was watching Orion.
Not many bots remained who'd known the Autobot Commander before he'd been refitted as the Prime. Not many could recall the quick, shy smile; the awkward, easy optimism of Orion Pax. But Elita had been there.
Sure, she'd been a different femme then. (Hadn't they all been different, in those far distant, simpler times?) But her bond with Optimus was still the same. Alone, they were still Ariel and Orion, two unassuming bots who were content to laugh and cry together, transform together, rust together, go offline together.
Once chosen as the Prime, Orion had become the soldier, leader, hero they'd all needed him to be. He'd borne the Matrix of Leadership worthily; and what more could any mech hope to achieve? But the Matrix had imploded in his hands, in that dark hour of supreme sacrifice. It had left him alone, bereft, with a hollow in his body and his mind which nothing and no one could fill. His god was dead; his oracle destroyed, and he was left a lone and lowly mech, to lead a race of refugees into an unforetold future.
He held himself as tall and strong as always; but sometimes Elita caught the signs. A brief hunch of the shoulders there; the quick scratch of a thumb-knuckle against an empty chest; a too-tight hold upon a bannister... Elita saw.
And so when he would steal off to recharge for a few hours, she'd follow him into the dark. There, away from the optics of the thousands of mechs who looked to them to lead, young Ariel would hold her mate Orion against the loss of what he'd been.
From a dimly-lit corner of the cramped commissary, Dead End watched as 'Bots and 'Cons scrabbled for scraps saved from the Cataclysm. Supplies were short. Tempers were shorter. The dark-red and black Decepticon stunt-car hunched protectively around his energon cube, hoping to hide its warm pink glow and escape notice. No one had been told just how long the fuel supply would last; but Dead End was surprised it had held out even this long.
And when the last tank ran dry, what then? Really, he could not bring himself to care. After all, his kind had always been destined for doom. The most important thing to Dead End at this moment was that Motormaster had not found and bullied him today. Most likely he would turn up soon; but not yet. Not yet.
He sipped his drink in sullen silence. Through a small, dark window he could just make out the Command ship, where Megatron and Prime and all the others were still pretending that everything was hunky-dory. He zoomed in his focus till he could re-read the name so carefully stenciled in tall red letters on its side. "The Guardian?" he gave a little mordant laugh. "More like the 'Ark 13.' We asked for our bad luck."
It was bad luck indeed that Sideswipe, the eternal troublemaker, overheard the Stunticon's gloomy pronouncement. In less than a quartex, the lead ship's given name was all but forgotten, and its new moniker was being whispered by the mechs and femmes throughout the fleet. Dark humor was a last defense against insanity.
"Most species do their own evolving, making it up as they go along, which is the way Nature intended.
And this is all very natural and organic and in tune with mysterious cycles of the cosmos,
which believes that there's nothing like millions of years of really frustrating trial and error
to give a species moral fiber and, in some cases, backbone."
The ad-hoc war room was located deep in the lead ship's belly, down along the keel – an ovoid chamber tapering to pointed alcoves at both ends, paneled in roughened metal slats to muffle any sound within. From its head, their shadowed bodies blending with the plating upon the walls, Optimus Prime and Megatron watched their Lieutenants and Sub-Commanders. The two tall warriors had spoken no word for the whole briefing, but had left Shockwave (Megatron's Second-in-Command after the deaths of Soundwave and Starscream) to preside instead. Their red and blue optics flickered from bot to bot, noting the little signs and tells that signaled thoughts held back, unvoiced.
"More than enough time has elapsed for the planet to cool," Shockwave repeated, his voice cold and deliberate as always. "All scans indicate that its surface is compatible with Cybertronian life." He rested his one functional hand on the edge of the long, black table which projected a 3-D holo-map of the planet, leaned in, and jabbed his gun-arm down through the image into the blinking red question-marks clustered beneath the known surface. "The underlying structure is what should concern us now. What is it made of? Is it stable?"
"Will it blend?" hissed Blitzwing from behind his hand to Astrotrain. The tank-jet-mech had never been adept at social niceties. Astrotrain snickered.
Shockwave shot a glare at the two Decepticon triple-changers. He had never fully supported their promotion; and they were demonstrating now his reasons for not doing so. "I suggest sending a team down," he said firmly, obviously hoping to quell the comments from the peanut gallery. "Six or eight bots, no more. Let them find out what we are dealing with. Then we'll know enough to make the final decision: Stay here, or find a new planet to colonize."
"We should've ditched this mess as soon as Primus started to transform," Astrotrain grumbled in a whispered aside to Blitzwing. "There's nothing left. Waste of our few resources sticking around here, and for no good reason I can see." He grimaced when a few bots turned to hear him better. Astrotrain was uncomfortable in his new authority – it gave him power, yes, but it also meant his slip-ups never went unnoticed. Worse, he was expected to behave. "Primus is dead," he said, raising his voice defiantly. "And so is the Matrix. Hoping for some miraculous 'resurrection'-" (he crooked his fingers into air quotes) "-Is pointless."
There was a murmur of assent. But then Jetfire spoke up firmly. "We owe it to Cybertron – to Primus – not to give up on our home just yet." The tall white scientist shot a glance toward Megatron and Prime, both of whom he'd called 'Commander' during his long history. But they made no sign of either favor or disapproval.
"I'll head up an expedition," he told Shockwave, but unenthusiastically. "I've seen more than my share of dead worlds."
The one-eyed purple bot nodded agreement. "Good. I'll oversee your mission; see if there's any correlation between what you find on the planet, and the data in what's left of the Archives."
A collective wince ran through the gathered bots. The reminder of how close they still were to extinction touched a nerve.
"You and your team will be the sensors," the Decepticon's head-scientist told Jetfire, "I will be the brain."
The taller, better-armored Autobot gave Shockwave a cold look. But then he shook himself, and shrugged. "Right then. Anyone else?"
"I'll offer to accompany you, of course," Perceptor said. He was the Autobots' lead scientist, so his participation was practically a given. "And I suggest we include Beachcomber as well. No other bot has made so thorough a study of geology as he has. It's true that Cybertron – or what was Cybertron – is made of metal, not of rock. But I believe Beachcomber would have valuable insights into its mineral composition, and how we might adapt to it."
The red-and-turquoise mech paused, before adding with some care, "I also assume we will enlist Wheeljack's assistance. But may I suggest that he do his part in his own lab here, not on the planet itself. His understanding of chemistry and its material application is well-known, but..."
"-So is his penchant for blowing stuff up. Yeah, we get ya, Perce," Jazz put in with a smile. The quick black-and-white mech's almost irreverent disregard for all things heavy and depressing was why Prime had kept him as a Lieutenant for so many thousand vorns.
"That's three – myself plus two," Jetfire said. "Any other proposals?"
"Reflector has the best imaging hardware," Prowl offered, to the surprise of many. The strange little camera-bot (or was it bots?) was often overlooked. "I think you'll need him. And Cosmos could make a detailed survey of the planet's surface from low orbit." Prowl, Optimus's Second-in-Command, could always be relied on to see through the clutter on the surface of a given situation, and point out the most effective solution.
"Yeah, the little green guy might like to be part of a real team, for once," Jazz agreed. "But speakin' of green, it seems t' me you're bein' awfully quiet over there, Scrapper." He jerked his chin at the reticent leader of the Constructicon combiners. "Ain't this right up your alley?"
The black and lime-green builder replied with a pained expression. "If you want green, take Hound. I'll work with my own team, not yours." He turned, and spoke to the still-closemouthed Megatron. "We'll drill down to the planet's core, and send reports back to you of what we find there." He waited for some confirmation. Receiving none from his leader, he huffed to the mech of the moment, "Will that suit you, Shockwave?"
"Two teams now?" Jetfire pursed his lips. But then again, it would probably still be some time yet before there could be any easy integration between Autobots and Decepticons. He was forgetting for the moment that Reflector would be the only Decepticon included in his proposed team; but the little bot had always been so easy to forget. "If that is all," Jetfire said, glancing again at the two silent Commanders, "I'll take my leave to begin preparations."
"One moment." Sixshot was soft-spoken as ever – his words, his demeanor, even his gentle white, lilac, and sea-green coloring always at odds with his power and purpose. The whole room fell silent at the first sound of his voice.
The Decepticons' living weapon nodded solemnly to the white Autobot scientist. Then he stepped forward, causing some much-shorter mechs from his faction to flinch away and look sullen. "I'd like to come along, if you'll have me," he said.
"Why?" Jetfire couldn't help but ask.
The lethal, all-intimidating soldier shrugged. "I'd be a good defense, if nothing else."
Jetfire looked him up and down (the huge 'Con was one of the few who could stand shoulder-to shoulder with him). Unspoken between the two tall mechs were memories of the many times Jetfire had come to some poor, blasted planet in a vain search for surviving life after Sixshot had finished with it. The Decepticon Phase-Sixer did his job too well.
"All right," the Autobot replied at last. He turned on his heel and stalked out through the exit.
"All evolution in thought and conduct must at first appear as heresy and misconduct."
– George Bernard Shaw
Megatron watched his bond-brother thoughtfully. The red mech was sitting hunched in one of the mismatched chairs left in the now-cleared War Room. He was staring down at his empty hands. "Still so silent, Optimus?" Megatron quirked his mouth to one side. "For a mech renowned for mighty words, you've been over-quiet of late."
"And for a gladiator-warlord, you're sounding remarkably silver-tongued. I compliment your flowery phrasing." Optimus quirked a crooked smile.
"One of us has to talk." Megatron snorted. "Lately I'm left to speak for both of us."
Optimus met his gaze, the light of humor fading from his blue optics. "I know it, Brother." He rose and stretched. "Be patient with me just a little longer. I'll find my way soon enough."
"You mean you'll figure out how to lead without your precious Divine Dispensation?" Megatron demanded.
Optimus flinched. He rubbed a fist against his empty chest, but said nothing.
"You'd better," Megatron continued ruthlessly. "We need you, Optimus. You are, much as it pains me to say it, the one indispensable mech in all of this."
Prime stood silent, and watched his bond-brother walk stiffly out the door. "I hope not," he muttered to himself.
And if everybody says that you are wrong, then you are one step ahead.
But there is one situation which is better still, when everyone begins to laugh about you,
then you know you are two steps ahead.
Elita made her way up the rickety, ill-lit ladder that let to the ship's small top hatch. She braced against the rounded sides of the vertical well, and turned the heavy wheel that unlocked the trapdoor. She heaved against it till it fell open with an airless, muffled clang. Not for the first time she wondered who had designed so poor an exitway. The larger bots would find it a tight squeeze.
But Megatron had made it out through here. He sat upon the ship's great hull, his arms wrapped tightly round his knees, staring out from his precarious perch at the dead world hanging in the star-specked black before them. In public view, he hid all his unease. But out here in the emptiness of space, he showed his fear.
He sensed the femme's arrival, but did not turn.
He sent you? he commed across the silence.
No. Not this time.
Elita magnetized her feet for safety, and made her way across the ship's smooth hull to sit down beside the big Decepticon. She waved a hand out at the dead gray planet. Having some second thoughts about all this?
Some? Megatron stared morosely out at the corpse of Cybertron. I had plans for this place, Elita. 'Peace through tyranny,' and all that. His gaze grew wistful. I was going to slagging rule the universe from that planet...
He turned to Elita. Can you imagine what it could have been like... firing up those old core-engines and traveling from galaxy to galaxy...?
I can. The Femme Commander interrupted the big mech with a restraining hand upon his arm. I have imagined many things. I spent more of my lifetime there than either you or Optimus did, after all. Like Megatron, she hugged her knees, and propped her chin upon them. Cybertron was my home, she finished simply.
For a while the two exiled bots stared out into immeasurable blackness, each playing on its black canvas the vid-files of lost places and lost dreams.
Megatron snorted suddenly, breaking up the companionable silence. I followed him, you know. I almost always do. He's just so damn persuasive. And like every-slagging-one else, I couldn't bring myself to disappoint him... He shook his head. But now he sure as slag is disappointing me. He turned to Elita. What are we going to do if our Prime keeps glitching up like he is?