Sentiments of antipathy and repugnance arose in Rook as he stood looking down at Jhiaxus’ battered form, watching Astro perform basic repairs. And the repairs were indeed basic – minimal, crude, just enough to keep the mech alive. He certainly wasn’t happy about it, though he was glad at least that the jet-former, now neutralized and under their control, would no longer be able to harm them. However, it wasn’t Jhiaxus that concerned him – what worried him now was the High Commander; he knew enough about the tyrannical war lord to know that he would be sending out additional search parties to hunt them all down without mercy, as soon as he caught wind of his second’s defeat at their hands.
Behind him the Autobots looked on with curious yet guarded interest, keeping their distance. Dirge and the other Decepticons watched the life-preserving procedure, facing Astro as they stood near the entrance to the building, while Thunderblast continued to pace impatiently back and forth across the room, every now and again meeting Dirge’s gaze. He had his arms crossed, tracking her movements with his optics until finally she let out a small sigh of exasperation, found an empty crate at the back of the room and sat, crossing one leg over the other, frowning and averting her gaze.
Twenty minutes passed and Astro finally straightened, took a step back to survey his handiwork. Affording a brief glance at Rook, he placed the laser welder down on the bench beside Jhiaxus’ still frame with a clatter. He could see the burning questions in Rook’s optics without the mech needing to speak, and inhaled an intake of air. “He’ll live,” Astro informed him. In the background, every other mech and femme present had their audial sensors pricked, wondering what was supposed to happen next.
Pure frustration crossed Rook’s features. “Haven’t we wasted enough time on this – this slag-heap already? He doesn’t deserve to live!”
Astro couldn’t help the amused smile that touched the corners of his mouth, and placed a reassuring hand on the smaller mech’s shoulder. “Trust me, okay?” was all he said, before turning to move away. “Stay here and keep an optic on him. Let me know the moment he shows any sign of waking,” he added over his shoulder, as he crossed to the rear of the building to check on the recharging Comet.
Rook simply threw his hands up in defeat before shaking his head and releasing a sigh of exasperation. He looked down upon Jhiaxus’ damaged frame, and his expression darkened. The inky blackness of the gaping hole that had been burned into the front of the yellow and white jet’s armor, when Thunderblast had shot him with his own energy missiles, reminded Rook of a spark-consuming abyss. Jhiaxus’ facial features looked as if they were set into a permanent snarl, though his dim, yellow optics were mercifully devoid of any semblance of awareness or thought. Rook found himself wishing that the jet would never wake up again.
“Real piece of work, isn’t he?”
Rook snapped his head up, startled. Captivated by the sight of the battered jet, he hadn’t noticed Astrotrain standing by the bench opposite, calmly observing him.
The triple changer continued speaking without waiting for his reply. “I commend you – takes a strong fuel converter to stand up to this fragger. You’d never guess how many mechs have suffered… met their end because of him. Decepticons, too. I’ve seen him do things… wouldn’t wish on any mech.”
Rook watched Astrotrain shake his head in remorse at Hitec’s second in command and his jaw clenched tight. A wave of regret and an irrepressible anger swept through him then, as memories of the last two vorns he’d spent in service to Jhiaxus threatened to grip his restless spark. Even though Astro and the rest of the Decepticons had forgiven him for his treachery, were even prepared to put their faith in him again, he wondered whether he’d ever be able to forgive himself again. Regardless, the sight of the large frame of the jet-former laid out on the bench before him, now completely at their mercy, did nothing to alleviate his guilt. He tried to respond, but words were not forthcoming, and he was grateful at least that Astrotrain seemed to understand. The triple changer made no further comment but instead moved away, leaving him alone to watch over the off-lined mech.
A few mechano-feet away, Dirge was also feeling regretful, though for entirely different reasons. He stole a glance toward the yellow and purple femme sitting near the energon dispenser by the back wall, and cursed silently. It did not go unnoticed by Thrust, who was watching him with a sidelong glance.
Before the red and grey conehead could make any sort of lewd comment, Chromia and Moonracer approached the five seekers, who continued to look entirely out of place among Autobots. “Thank you for what you guys did back there,” Chromia said, breaking the ice. When she received only a hesitant look from Dirge and an awkward glance from Thrust, she motioned towards the dispenser towards the back. “If you like, you’re welcome to some energon,” she said and then moved away, smiling as she ignored their awkwardness.
Moonracer lingered, a broad, nervous smile plastered across her face. She glanced from one seeker to the other in quiet fascination until her gaze settled upon the mostly blue flyer, Bitstream, who already had his optics fixated on her. Chromia called for her, distracting her, while in the same instant Hotlink, the mauve and black seeker, elbowed his team mate hard. Moonracer and Bitstream both gave a start, and she gave them all an embarrassed, quick wave goodbye before spinning on her heel and dashing off after Chromia.
Dirge watched the two femmes greet Astro, as the three of them engaged in a private conversation that he couldn’t quite overhear. His gaze once more drifted across to Thunderblast sitting by the dispenser, and he debated going over to her. He could use Chromia’s offer of energon as a cover, perhaps avoid looking at the femme in the optics, and then maybe–
No, wait – what was he doing? He shook his head and frowned. He was Dirge, a fearless Decepticon warrior. No femme could ever make him feel like… like what?
To the Pits with it. He took a deep intake and strode purposefully across the room to the dispenser, poured himself a canister’s worth, threw his head back and guzzled the liquid down in one go. An unintentional burp followed as he placed the empty can firmly down on a small nearby table.
Whether he’d wanted it or not, he finally got Thunderblast’s attention as she turned her head to meet his gaze, a mixed look of involuntary fascination and disgust upon her face. She was about to say something but must have decided it wasn’t worth it. Instead she turned away again in disapproval.
Dirge’s reaction was to clear his vocalizer, determined not to be discouraged by her apparent lack of admiration for him. He supposed that he couldn’t really blame her, not after the way he’d treated her. He probably should’ve been a little more tactful – maybe a tad more honest with her from the beginning. “Listen, uh…” he began, but she continued to ignore him, which only made him want to try harder. “I’m sorry about–”
She leaped up out of her seat, and he winced, expecting her to give him an audial full; however, all he got was an impatient huff as she brushed past him without saying a word. Clearly, she wasn’t too interested in what he had to say, and he sighed deeply, shaking his head in disappointment as he watched her walk briskly across the room and disappear out the front door. He deliberately avoided the amused gazes from his team mates as he nonchalantly ambled back to join them.
In the middle of the room, Astro had his mind on much more serious issues. “You mentioned you had a transmitter?” he asked Chromia expectantly.
His gaze shifted across from her to Moonracer when the green femme’s face lit up with excitement. “Oh, sure, it’s right over there. If you want to, I’d be happy to show you how to use it–” she offered, pointing to a neatly stacked pile of equipment on the floor. Along with everything else, the transmitter had been moved off the bench top to make room for Jhiaxus’ frame.
Astro moved quickly toward the stack. Carefully picking up the small box, he examined it briefly before carrying it back to the bench, roughly shoving Jhiaxus’ frame to make some extra room for it. Moonracer watched him intently as he powered up the unit and began to tinker with the controls, flicking switches and turning the frequency dial until, after only a few seconds, he had it set to the required communication band. He did not seem to notice Firestar as she watched him from a distance with a defensive posture, leaning with her back against the wall and arms crossed.
He initialized a comms link and waited for the other end to respond. Rook and Astrotrain moved closer to stand one on either side, while Dirge, Ramjet and Bitstream also moved closer to listen in, followed by Thrust and Hotlink. Sunstreaker was the last to join them; Firestar remained where she was.
It took an entire minute before the channel was established and Cybertron finally responded. “Who’s this?” came a voice over the transmitter. It sounded defensive, cautious. To Chromia’s astonishment, she recognized it as belonging to Rumble.
“It’s Astro,” he declared calmly.
Rumble relayed to an unseen party on the other end, “It’s Astro?” His tone had changed – uncertainty, perhaps? Curiosity. Then, “Uh, hold on just an astro-sec.”
The mech that spoke over the transmitter a few seconds later finally made Firestar move away from the wall and head toward the group. She moved silently, audials on full alert.
“Astro, what’s your status?”
Astro leaned closer to the transmitter, ignoring all the optics in the room trained upon him. “Megatron: this comms is unsecured, so I only have about a minute. I have Comet with me – he’s safe. Jhiaxus has been neutralized, and…” He glanced at Astrotrain briefly, an unspoken tension shared between the two. “Requesting permission to extend our mission objective.”
Momentary silence. “Go ahead.”
Astro looked tentatively towards Chromia and Moonracer, his gaze steadily holding theirs. “Elita One’s been captured. The rest of her crew is safe; they’re with us…” he began to explain, but then did not elaborate further.
A longer pause was followed by a short reply. “Do what is necessary. Help will be on its way to you soon. In the meantime, we’ll try to establish better comms.”
“Understood. Astro out.”
And that was it; the entire conversation had lasted less than a minute. Disconnecting the communications channel and powering down the unit, Astro gave Moonracer a grateful nod of acknowledgment before handing it back to her. He did not stop to wait, but immediately turned his attention back to Jhiaxus as the green femme was left staring at him, utterly fascinated by the tall Cybertronian mech, before she moved to return the transmitter to its place with the rest of the equipment.
“Rook? I’ll need your help,” he said, as he leaned over to get a closer look at Jhiaxus’ head. He picked up a long, thin tool and reached around beneath the red helm before carefully inserting it into the base of the jet’s cranial unit.
Rook stared at the larger mech with arms crossed, reluctant to move from where he stood. He was still at a complete loss to comprehend Astro’s intentions and was altogether frustrated at the lack of intel he had been given thus far. It wasn’t until Astro paused momentarily from his task to look up at him, silently beckoning, that Rook gave a defeated sigh.
“Now, Rook. I’d rather he didn’t regain consciousness until after we’re done with him.” Before returning his focus on the enemy jet, Astro added, with more patience, “Please?”
With a soft groan Rook relented and moved towards the bench. “Fine. What do you need me to do?”
* * *
Back inside the catacombs, Ratchet kept moving, not slowing until the group of five reached the fork in the long tunnel, when finally he came to an abrupt stop. Holding up a halting hand to the others, he listened quietly. When he was sure they were alone he paused, sparing a few moments to think.
“So, where to now?” Hound enquired, glancing down the tunnel to their left.
“That’ll take us back to Iacon,” Ratchet informed him, though offered no further reassurances as he kept his gaze focused on the smooth, rocky ground. One of the halogen strips set into the wall opposite was blinking intermittently, causing their long shadows to blip in and out of existence. He switched on his helm light.
“I can’t believe they had Tailgate. Maybe they didn’t kill him, maybe he was just offline–” Hot Rod said, his words echoing eerily around the empty tunnel while he met Arcee’s gaze with wide optics. He was still unsettled by what had happened earlier outside the Decagon.
“No, they killed him,” Ratchet corrected him, shaking his head.
“But why would–”
“I said they killed him, alright?!” Ratchet snapped, then immediately took a deep, long intake, attempting to curb his frustration before he found himself unjustly taking it out on his friends. Hot Rod was a good mech and he meant well, but he didn’t have the optic, or the understanding, of a well trained medic. Ratchet continued in a softer tone, “What, you think they’re not capable? Just look at what they did to Groove. He’s lucky to even be alive.”
Hot Rod glanced at Groove standing behind him and couldn’t help his embarrassment. He had failed to make the obvious connection. “Hey, I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking,” he confessed, but Groove just gave him a sad smile. After a moment, Ratchet broke the awkward silence that fell amongst them.
“He had a crushed vocalizer… his main processor was hit with such a high-powered energy beam that it turned back into primordial goo. But you wouldn’t even know he was deactivated, unless you have the proper training to see it.”
Arcee turned away from the group, a hand covering her mouth, aghast and looking as though she might purge at any moment. Certainly, none of them could blame her if she did.
Seeing her distress, Hot Rod moved closer, reaching out to place a comforting hand on her arm. “It’s going to be okay, you’ll see,” he reassured her in a soothing voice. She nodded weakly, grateful at least simply to have someone to lean on, even if she didn’t quite believe his words. For such a presumptuous, keen warrior as Hot Rod, he had a surprisingly gentle touch.
“Alright, let’s keep moving,” Ratchet said, arriving at a decision and starting to lead the way down the right-hand passage.
“Wait – where are we going?” Hound asked after him as the others began to follow the medic.
“The Western boundary – I want to check something out first. If we go in this direction, I should be able to lead us through past the Central Hall and then out near the Border Regions without too much trouble,” the medic rambled on with renewed determination.
“Sounds like a plan, but then what?” Hound insisted.
He halted to emphasize his point. “Then, we’ll hopefully know more, once we get there. We’ll just take it one step at a time, okay?” His expression told Hound that it would be wiser just to keep his mouth shut.
Ratchet resumed walking, his helm light casting eerie, long shadows across the tunnel, and they all fell into step behind him in silence.
* * *
As Ratchet’s party retraced their steps through the catacombs heading west, Trailbreaker, Smokescreen, Bluestreak and Red Alert instead headed along the main expressway that led through the busy South Central district, hoping to reach the Altihex border without being noticed by security teams while hiding in plain sight. Almost an hour had passed since the four Autobots had parted ways with Ratchet and his team from east Iacon, who had left Wheeljack’s old workshop approximately two breems before them. So far, they had not encountered any incidents.
Speeding down the smooth stretch of road in car mode, they stayed close and spoke little. As Trailbreaker led them south-west past the high rise towers and beneath looming bridges, he found himself wondering what might greet them once they arrived in Altihex. Under normal circumstances, he would be reassured that the Autobots stationed there had been informed of their intended arrival and would be expecting them, as was standard protocol between different Autobot controlled outposts; however, these were not normal circumstances, and he couldn’t help feeling unnerved about the entire situation. He wasn’t even sure that any of it made sense – perhaps he was still deep in recharge back at the command post, or maybe he was hallucinating? Perhaps he’d been alive for far too long, and was beginning to lose touch with reality, which was all well and good had it not been for what had happened to Groove – confirmed by the Protectobot’s own testimony. The mech had been attacked, and not by Decepticons, but by Neutrals. Then there was Sideswipe’s very odd behaviour ever since he’d returned to Iacon, and how suddenly his story had flipped, from harbouring strong anti-Alliance sentiments to becoming Sentinel’s confidante and right-hand bot. Watching the change in him had been bizarre, though Trailbreaker, like many of his fellow Autobots in Iacon, could see that Sideswipe was being manipulated somehow by Sentinel Prime. Everybody worth their transformation cog knew it, even if they dared not say it.
And what of Ratchet – one of his closest and dearest friends whom he’d known for eras? Up until only a few hours ago he’d never seen the medic in such a state – taking what could only be considered as desperate measures, so convinced was he of the subterfuge that was going on at this very moment, veritably, right on their watch. Trailbreaker didn’t want to believe what their chief medical officer had told them. He didn’t want to face the possibility that perhaps the Autobot command hierarchy, which had been a part of his life ever since his creation and in which he had placed his absolute faith, was somehow vulnerable to corruption and able to be infiltrated. Indeed, had already been infiltrated. He didn’t want to believe it, but at least he was wise enough, and old enough, to know that he could not ignore it.
He began to get the unnerving feeling that they were being monitored, though there was nothing showing up on his scanners. With a signal to the others he began to slow and pulled across the expressway until he came to a stop at an intersection. They followed his lead, then transformed and stood looking out across the built up suburbs. From a small rise, the four of them could see across a multi-layered valley while the expressway, visible for mechano-miles behind them, wound its way past and extended far into the distance until it crossed the Altihex border and continued on.
Smokescreen turned to him, and the mech’s expression told Trailbreaker of his uneasiness. Beside them, Bluestreak’s beam rifle appeared in one hand as his finger played with the trigger, causing visible lines of static to be ejected from the tip of the barrel. He was nervous, and probably afraid, though was too proud to admit it. “Maybe – maybe its Neutrals. Like Ratchet said. If – if Sentinel Prime’s managed to take control somehow, he’s probably got security teams out looking for us right now. Maybe we should–”
“Shh!” Smokescreen said, cutting through the gunner’s blathering. “Do you think we’ve been spotted?” he queried Trailbreaker.
The dark grey strategist shook his head slowly. “I’m not picking up anything.” Yet, something wasn’t right – he couldn’t explain it.
“Should we go sub-level?” Red Alert suggested, as he kept a keen optic on the continual traffic zooming past them along the raceway.
Moving into the tunnels beneath the surface had crossed his mind, several times already, but eventually Trailbreaker had decided against it. It was the much slower route, and if they’d already been spotted it wouldn’t make much difference, anyway. “I think it’s best we keep to the main stretch. It’s the fastest way to Altihex from here. The longer we take the more chances they have of catching up with us.” Sure, he had some doubts about his assertions, but he was determined not to let them show, to present only strength as team leader. Primus knew they needed it. He needed it.
At that moment, as Trailbreaker was about to transform back into his vehicle mode ready to re-enter the expressway, a group of oncoming Alliance security vehicles slowed suddenly before slipping off the expressway and coming to a stop before them. It wasn’t until the members of the patrol had transformed out of their vehicle modes with weapons pointing, scowls filled with smug superiority etched upon their faces, that Trailbreaker understood the extent of the danger they faced.
* * *
Megatron’s surprise revelation had given Jazz more than enough to think about. He stood in the control room now, silently watching as the Decepticon leader turned away to scroll through data that was being output on the monitor in front of him.
The mention of Starscream by first Wheeljack and then Megatron, in connection with the so-called Substance X and the Dark Plague, caused Jazz to wonder where the much maligned and, dare he say, misunderstood seeker could be found today. Was he even still alive and functional? He couldn’t prove it, of course, however after his recent exchange with Megatron, Jazz would bet the bulk of his credits that the high-profile seeker was very much alive today, and had possibly gone into hiding.
Terminated or not, Starscream was a name that, since the end of the Last Great War, was both instantly recognized and despised within the Autobot upper crust, but even throughout the lowest ranks the name was synonymous with death and destruction, with despotism and with genocide. It was the main reason that mechs had ceased uttering it within Iacon’s command post, lest it may bring up raw emotions in bots who were still, almost a vorn later, unable to cope with the losses they had suffered throughout the Dark Plague – the deadly virus that the seeker had allegedly created. Jazz had witnessed it many times before – the reviled name alone reawakening within many of his fellow Autobots a deep-seated desire for justice and revenge, while triggering a hysteria and even psychosis that could only be abated with the administration of strong, sedating subroutines.
But the question of whether or not Starscream was still alive today was of no real consequence to the remaining Autobots in Iacon. As far as they were concerned, all Decepticons were guilty, and all Decepticons deserved to die for their part in unleashing the Dark Plague. To them, Starscream was as good as dead, and if he wasn’t – if he ever showed up anywhere on Cybertron again – he would be. They would make sure of it. Streetwise’s recent behaviour alone was clear testament of that.
However, in light of what Megatron had hinted to Jazz only a few minutes ago, the Autobots in Iacon had seen nothing yet. According to what Wheeljack knew about this Substance X, their fight was far from over for the Last Great War, as Optimus had so aptly put it, never ended last vorn. It had begun. Yet not even Optimus had understood the full implication of his own words – the full meaning of which had only now begun to reveal itself to Jazz, bit by bit, beginning with the abominable news of the growing Neutral army’s true origins.
So engrossed was Jazz in these thoughts that when the communications console awoke with a steady beep, he barely noticed it, or the way Rumble rushed to answer it. “Who’s this?” the Cassetticon demanded into the transducer, highly suspicious of any unexpected transmission.
The reply that Rumble must have received was inaudible to Jazz’s audial receptors, though from the mech’s abrupt change in manner and the look of hopeful anticipation that suddenly crossed his features, Jazz guessed that the communication was probably significant, possibly even urgent.
“It’s Astro?” Rumble informed Megatron with the news. To Jazz’s curious astonishment, the mention of the name immediately got the Decepticon leader’s full attention, who nodded for Rumble to accept the transmission, and so the Cassetticon spoke into the transducer once more. “Uh, hold on just an astro-sec.” By now, Jazz couldn’t help the feeling that perhaps he probably shouldn’t be here listening in, but neither Megatron nor Rumble bothered to give him any hint that it was time for him to leave the control room, so he remained where he was, watching quietly.
Megatron had stopped what he’d been doing, and now walked away from his console to stand behind Rumble, whose stunned expression Jazz found quite curious. Megatron gave him another silent go-ahead with a nod, and the Cassetticon promptly turned his attention back to his console, where he began to initiate a countermeasure against any hostile scanning sweeps for as long as the unsecured channel remained open.
“Astro, what’s your status?” Megatron asked, giving Rumble a nod indicating that he should switch the speaker to audio.
The voice on the other end of the transmitter came through loud and clear, though Jazz could match neither the name nor the voice’s modulation to any known Decepticon within his memory banks, which he found rather odd. “Megatron: the comms is unsecured, so I only have about a minute. I have Comet with me – he’s safe. Jhiaxus has been neutralized, and…” The mech’s voice trailed off, but only for a brief pause. “Requesting permission to extend our mission objective,” he said.
“Elita One’s been captured. The rest of her crew is safe; they’re with us…”
Jazz started. He stole a glance in the direction of the two Decepticons as he listened in, and felt his frame involuntarily shudder. Tensing, he fought hard not to be discouraged by the unfavorable news. First Sentinel Prime and the Neutral army, then Wheeljack, and now Elita One, too? His spark ached, but especially for Optimus, who would not cope well at all when he, too, discovered what he’d just learned – if he hadn’t already.
“Do what is necessary. Help will be on its way to you soon. In the meantime, we’ll try to establish better comms,” Megatron replied.
“Understood. Astro out,” the mech said on the other end of the transmitter, before Rumble turned promptly around to face Megatron, letting him know the channel had been disconnected.
“Was it traced?” Megatron asked. Rumble shook his head confidently, no. “Good. Update the others and…” He trailed off as he turned to acknowledge the Autobot again, for the first time since the transmission. He was about to say something when the Combaticon leader appeared at the entrance then, glancing from Jazz to Megatron. Scrapper had filled him in earlier on everything that had happened since Scavenger’s rescue, including how Jazz and Wheeljack had come to be among them, as well as his own team’s eventual rescue from the Detention Banks.
“Uh, Megatron?” Onslaught queried. “You wanted to see me.” He seemed hesitant, as if he was unsure of how much he could say out loud, in front of an Autobot.
Megatron gave him a welcoming nod and encouraged him inside. “Onslaught – how are the new accommodations?”
The large Combaticon nodded assuredly. “Fine, Megatron. It’s nothing like what we had in Kaon, of course, but it’s far better than being confined inside those dreadful stasis pods, to be sure.”
His comment elicited a smile from the Decepticon leader, who placed a reassuring hand upon the navy blue and green warrior’s shoulder. “Indeed, but we will not be here for much longer. We must move our base of operations. I’d like to deploy your team for a small errand first, and the sooner the better, but not until you’ve all been cleared and have sufficiently restored.”
“Oh, we’re ready to go. Scrapper’s already checked us over. He said we’re doing better than what he’d expected, given the circumstances, and to tell you the truth I can’t wait to get back into active duty. Personally, I’d love to pay the Slag Maker and his cronies a little visit, for starters.”
Megatron nodded in satisfaction. “Then, we must make ready,” he said, and just when Jazz thought he’d been forgotten about, Megatron turned to him. “You’ve stated that you want to learn the reason why those miners were killed on the XR-5 mining station, correct?” he asked, carefully selecting his words, studying Jazz intently as if he were trying to decide whether or not he should let him in on some heavily guarded secrets. It wasn’t too far from the truth.
Jazz nodded affirmatively, surprised at the unexpected line of questioning. “That’s right.”
“Well, then… now’s your chance. The Combaticons will be leaving for XR-5 very soon. You might like to join them. We could do with your special expertise, and the additional help,” Megatron explained as Onslaught stood by, listening patiently to the conversation. He hesitated a moment before continuing, his tone oddly subdued, burdened somehow. “However, I must warn you. Once you have seen and understood for yourself… there will be no turning back.”
The room fell silent as all optics were focused expectantly on him. Even Rumble was looking at him in quiet anticipation. Jazz glanced from one to the other until his gaze settled upon the Decepticon leader. Was he prepared to trust the Decepticons, and perhaps risk his life, on a mission to revisit the site where a horrific massacre had recently taken place, with the promise of not only learning the truth, but also in the hopes of helping to eventually defeat the Neutral army and restore peace on Cybertron? What other choice did he have now? And, what exactly did Megatron mean when he said there would be no turning back? He didn’t know, but he would take his chances. There was still much information that Megatron and the other Decepticons had not divulged, though he hoped that, in time, they would be able to establish a level of trust. For now, all he knew was that he had been guided here, by the hand of Primus, for a reason. Providence.
* * *
Ratchet’s extensive knowledge of the area in and around the catacombs but also of sub-central Iacon, along with his high level security clearance, enabled his small team to utilize the restricted access tunnels beneath the surface to arrive at the Border Regions undetected, bypassing the Central Hall’s and the High Council Pavilion’s security check points.
The oddly jutting, multi-layered disks that formed the leaning, stacked platforms of the Promontory rose up before them in full view as the team emerged from the western-most tunnel exit into the territory of the Border Regions, in Iacon’s west.
Hot Rod dashed out onto a wide, sweeping thoroughfare that circled around and disappeared behind the Promontory close to Iacon’s border, before stopping to glance back at Ratchet in silent questioning. Apart from casual commuters, nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary here.
Ignoring him, Ratchet stepped out into the open and looked slowly around, saying nothing as his internal scanners were activated.
“What are you looking for?” Hot Rod asked, unable to curb his curiosity, but was met with a raised palm.
“Wait–” Ratchet said, as Arcee and Groove exchanged cautious glances. He turned to Hound expectantly. “Well?” The green tracker raised an optic ridge. “You’re a tracker, aren’t you? So track!”
“Okay… but, who am I supposed to be track–”
“Tailgate – who else?” Ratchet replied impatiently.
“Isn’t he – I mean – didn’t they just, you know?” Hesitant, Hound wasn’t following.
“Kill him?” Hot Rod finished solemnly, walking back to join the others.
Ratchet shot them both disapproving looks. “Well, yes, but his energon was most likely spilled, and there’s bound to be a residual signature left behind. You should still be able to pick it up, especially if they murdered him within the last hour or so.” Internally, he felt like purging as he spoke the words, but outwardly he forced himself to use a dispassionate tone to say what needed to be said. He had to.
Hound’s optics lit up in understanding. “Right. I’ll see what I can do,” he stated, and immediately activated his inbuilt thermal imaging scanner, setting it to a wide, sweeping range. Silence fell across the small group as they waited for the scan’s results with bated ventilators. Hound hesitated. “Hm.” Looking at Ratchet again, he gestured uncertainly towards the Promontory. “I’m not sure what I’m picking up, exactly, but there’s some sort of residual a few mechano-meters that way. Could be a nothing, though. Just a stain on the pavement. I’d have to get closer to find out.”
Ratchet was satisfied with that, and indicated in the direction of the sub-orbital station. “Great. Lead the way.”
* * *
We’ve done nothing wrong. Try to stay calm. Make no sudden moves. Three Autobots and two Neutrals stood facing Trailbreaker and his team, weapons in hand. There was a particular cockiness about them that he did not like – certainly they were over-confident, as if they had a Primus-given right to do what they were doing.
“We’re looking for a bunch of Autobots who fled Iacon without the proper authorization. Sentinel really wants ‘em to come back – for their own safety, you know?” one of the Neutrals informed them in a gruff voice. He was leering at them, glancing from one to the other as if daring them to challenge his authority. One step out of line was all it would take.
“Uh, no, sorry; we haven’t seen any bot from Iacon out this way,” Trailbreaker replied as he glanced across at Smokescreen and Bluestreak. The gunner looked nervous – too nervous for his liking – beam rifle still in hand. It would take a miracle for them to get away without a fight at this point, but he was prepared to do whatever was necessary; he couldn’t risk any of them being captured and taken back to Iacon.
“What are your designations?” the Neutral asked. He didn’t make the obvious connection between Trailbreaker’s group and the escaped Autobots, but one of his Autobot security guards did.
The armoured bot had his optic on the unspoken communication between Trailbreaker and Bluestreak, as well as the latter’s gun, and a malicious grin appeared across his face. “He’s lying – it’s them! They’re the Autobots from Iacon!” he declared, raising his weapon.
“What?” The Neutral looked back at his team mate for a few moments before his cranial circuits kicked into gear and he snarled, turning to Trailbreaker once more. “You four are coming with us–”
Red Alert instinctively stepped back as Trailbreaker activated his twin blasters, and in less than an astro-second Smokescreen had transformed into his vehicle mode and was swerving around the security team in an attempt to create a sudden distraction with an outpouring of dense, smoky exhaust. It only had to last long enough for Trailbreaker and his companions to high tail it out of there via the expressway.
“Stop ‘em! Don’t let ‘em escape!”
The Neutral’s harsh cry was drowned out by an eruption of weapons fire, the first few shots quickly turning into a frenzy of explosions. Hot energy, searing through armour plating, was made almost impossible to see through the heavy smoke. Trailbreaker shouted out a few orders to his team but the confusion and chaos that had erupted around him was too much. He activated his force field, but with limited visibility he wasn’t sure whether he would be able to protect each of his team mates.
Smokescreen, circling and dodging blasts around him, transformed back into his robot mode to take aim through the haze he’d created. He began to fire his electro disruptor, sending debilitating arcs that targeted and then connected with members of the opposing team, while several return bursts from the enemy were absorbed by Trailbreaker’s force field. Without it, they would have already lost the battle. Beside him, Bluestreak did not hold back as the gunner continued to discharge his high-energy particle beam rifle into the fray with a shrill war cry. He would not flee; he would stay to defend his team, no matter what.
It turned out to be a swift yet grievous encounter. As the smoke cleared, Trailbreaker saw three of the fallen security guards on the pavement, inert, and for a moment a pang of guilt washed over him. Two of them were Autobots. As he was hit by the realization of what they’d done, he felt Smokescreen grasp his shoulder, followed by a forceful shake. “We should go, before other teams are alerted,” he was advised by the tactician with a calm yet urgent tone.
But Trailbreaker needed a few moments to gather his thoughts. The last Autobot guard made to flee from the scene while cradling a wound to his midsection, spilled energon staining the pavement. Bluestreak moved to pursue, but he was held back with a heavy grip upon his shoulder. “Let him go.”
“But if we let him get away he’ll alert Sentinel Prime!” the gunner protested. “Let me go after him. I can stop him!”
“No,” Trailbreaker told him sternly, deactivating his force field. “They’ve likely already been notified. Our best bet is to continue to Altihex.” He shifted his attention suddenly towards the Neutral who had first spoken to them – the leader of the security team – badly wounded though still conscious, the mech was leaning over a figure on the ground only a few mechano-meters away. Alarmed, Trailbreaker rushed over to the scene before pushing the Neutral roughly to the ground, then knelt down to examine Red Alert. The medic protégé had been hit, and was offline.
“What happened to Red? Is he – is he okay?” Bluestreak called out to him, but was ignored.
Trailbreaker needed to get Red Alert some help, and quickly, before another security team returned to take them all into custody. He opened his private com link. “Ratchet? You need to get here, now.”
* * *
Crouched on the pavement directly below the Promontory’s overhang, Ratchet examined the microscopic residue that had been detected by Hound. For a full minute he said nothing, brushing away any attempts at inquiry. When he finally stood up, glancing back in the direction from whence they had come, his companions looked towards him in silent expectation, and he slowly nodded. “Well…”
“Well, what?” Hot Rod gazed at him.
“It’s Tailgate’s, all right. He was still alive. The bastards made him suffer. He was dragged from this spot, still conscious… helpless to save himself.” His vocalizer caught, and his gaze drifted up towards the Promontory. “Why, dammit?” But no one dared utter a word for a long moment.
“Maybe he saw something?” Hound suggested.
“Or what if he was trying to get help?” Hot Rod added. “What if he was trying to warn Altihex about the Neutrals?” he said. “The Promontory would be the first place I’d try if I knew the whole of Central Iacon was compromised.”
Ratchet looked at him squarely in the optics. “You know, I think you might be right. Come on, let’s go take a look around.” Without motioning for the others to follow, he strode towards the entrance of the ground level platform.
“Wait, Ratchet – it could be a trap! If they already know Tailgate was here, they’ll probably be ready for any bot who tries to get inside,” Arcee called out after him as she caught up to the others.
The chief medic did not stop to turn back or heed her warning, but attempted to gain entry into the Promontory using his access code. It did not take long for him to realize that it wasn’t working. “It’s locking me out,” he informed them, turning back to his group.
“You can’t get in? Here, let me try–” Hound offered, stepping forward, but was stopped by the red and white Autobot.
“No, never mind that now. We’ve got – ah, hold on an astro-second.” Abruptly he shifted his attention to his private com line, and listened to the speaker on the other end. “Alright, we’re on our way right now,” he said, before turning back to his team. “That was Trailbreaker. They were attacked – let’s go,” he said, and started past the Promontory, transforming into his vehicle mode and turning onto the stretch of expressway along the Iacon border that led into Altihex.
* * *
The glaring lights coupled with the metallic coldness of the torture room did little to assuage Elita’s apprehension or exhaustion. Surprisingly, though, it wasn’t the punishment she’d received at the hands of Sixshot that was leaving her feeling weary, nor even the lack of proper recharge she hadn’t been afforded since she was abducted. Elita was emotionally drained; home sick, and anxious to see her crew again, and although her visit with Alpha Trion had comforted her greatly, still his parting message had left her with a sadness and a loneliness that she had never known before. Deep down, more than anything, the one thing she truly wished was that Optimus – the most revered and idolized Autobot leader and warrior to have ever lived, and the mech she loved beyond all measure – would be okay.
Though her strength had returned quickly enough, she knew she needed to conserve her energy if she was going to find a way to escape. Anxiously she stood and, trying to curb her desperation, made her way towards the shelves along the back wall, looking for something – anything – that might help her. She picked up a prod and examined it, then powered it up and pressed the button on its handle. It sent out a strong jolt of electric charge and she flinched, then shook her head and shoved it back onto the shelf. She ran her hand lightly over the other torture implements. There was nothing here but a large collection of whips and prods of different sizes – nothing she could really put to good use. Crossing the length of the back wall with deliberate strides, she stopped at the end of the shelf.
As long as that anti-transformation device was plugged into her neural circuitry, her options were limited. She knew that any attempt to pull it out, or if she were to run at the first opportunity, she would find herself lying on the floor unconscious before she could realize what had happened. With her thoughts racing to come up with a plan of escape, she looked around the room for a few moments hoping to find a way out. However, apart from the shelves and chairs, the space was unadorned and mostly empty. The door would be impossible to override; even if she possessed the strength to force it open manually, security would be alerted immediately and she’d be easily hunted down and recaptured. Of course, it didn’t help that she had no idea where she was within the Base, or the quickest way out.
With a sigh she retraced her steps, and then carefully picked up the prod on the shelf once more. Holding it thoughtfully in her hands, she hesitated for a moment. It would hurt like heck, but it was the only way she could think of that might actually work. She needed to free herself of the device. If she could achieve that much, at least, she would have a fighting chance.
Elita prepared herself mentally for what she was about to do. Activating the prod again, she held it with one hand while reaching up with the other to carefully feel for the round object lodged into her neck. Though she would not be able to pull it out manually, a quick, sharp zap of current aimed right at the device ought to do the trick. However, it needed to be a precise shot; the device needed to be neutralized faster than it could activate. Very carefully, she touched the prod’s tip to the object, lining up the tool with both hands and then, after counting to three, hit the button.
She cried out in excruciating pain. The sound of her torment bounced off the metallic walls of the room, making her agonized scream ring like a bell. Her strength and balance suddenly gone, she collapsed to the floor. The prod hit the ground first with a clang and rolled away, free of her grasp, but she did not notice it. Her vision was malfunctioning – all she could see was an explosion of white light and flashes of color – and she instinctively held a hand against her neck as she lay writhing on the floor, fighting with all her strength against the pain, stubbornly determined to remain online. She could not afford to slip into unconsciousness, no matter what.
The astro-seconds ticked by and a whole minute passed, and then the pain began to subside. It occurred to her then that she was still conscious. Cautiously yet with the promise of hope, she strained to adjust her vision and found that it was gradually returning to normal. Relieved and inhaling heavily, she pushed herself up to a sitting position and looked around to make sure that she was still alone in the room. She was. It had worked!
Quickly reaching for her neck, she found that the device was hot to the touch. Without thinking, she gave it a tug, and it came off easily. Examining it for a moment, the object she held in her hand was the charred remains of what was once an anti-transformation device. Relieved, she paused in rest and thanked Primus for her small victory, then flung the burned out device over her shoulder. She was free, but certainly not clear of danger just yet. She needed to find her way out of the base, and as quickly as possible before the Slag Maker came for her. Shuddering at the thought, she slowly stood up and began to stumble towards the door. Even though she had successfully removed the device, it would still take her a few minutes more to regain her full strength and balance. Hesitating, she noticed the prod on the floor by her feet, and bent to retrieve it. It was still powered up.
The next moment, the door slid open.
* * *
Inside the holding bay that continued to serve as a jail cell for Optimus and his loyal officers, not a single word had been spoken amongst them since the Neutrals had departed with the Aerialbots, for almost half an hour, until Ironhide could not take their silent defeat any longer.
“Dammit, the Aerialbots should have been back by now,” he blurted to no one in particular as he paced back and forth in frustration. Streetwise glanced up at him briefly from his spot on the floor before looking away again, uninterested.
“Maybe they’re all being tortured as we speak,” Gears retorted dryly, unconcerned about who heard him.
“Ah, shut yer mouth,” Ironhide snapped at him. “And just what on Cybertron does Sentinel think he’s doing, keeping us cooped up in here like caged Predacons?!” Throwing the three Neutral guards a disgruntled glare, he was about to say something more when a groan came from behind him. Turning to look, he noticed the injured Brawn staggering to his feet, his close companions grabbing a hold of his arms in an effort to steady him.
“Get off me,” Brawn rebuked them, brushing them aside brusquely. “I don’t need your help. I’m fine. See?” All optics in the room drifted towards the olive green and orange bot.
First Aid stepped towards him again with the intention of offering him a helping hand. “Brawn, you really shouldn’t be–”
Brawn lashed out at him. “Didn’t you hear me? I said leave me alone!”
Hot Spot placed a hand of silent support on First Aid’s back, guiding him away from the scene. If Brawn didn’t want their help, then so be it. Being locked up in here was certainly taking its toll – on all of them.
Brawn glanced wildly around the room, as if appraising them all to see who dared challenge him. When no one made a move or spoke, he relaxed a bit. “Anybody else got something to say? No? Good. Like I said – I feel fine.” His gaze turned towards Optimus, and they locked optics. “Prime, permission to leave and return to active duty.”
Optimus regarded him carefully but did not offer a response, so Ironhide spoke in his place. “What’s gotten into you? Don’t you remember what happened? You want to get out of here so bad then go kiss Sentinel’s tailpipe.”
The frown on Brawn’s face soon turned into a grimace, and without waiting to confer with his mini bot companions he stepped towards the exit, fists clenched. “Let me outta here!” he demanded, facing the Neutral guards square on.
“Brawn, I strongly advise that you stand down–” Prowl warned, but the mini bot wouldn’t listen, and when he thought that things couldn’t get any worse Cliffjumper rushed forward to join his friend. “–both of you!” Prowl added in alarm. He glanced at Optimus pleadingly, but the Autobot Commander’s attention was fully upon Brawn and Cliffjumper, watching them intently.
The Neutrals chuckled disdainfully at the two mini bots, whose pitiful attempts at demanding to be released proved to be nothing more than a fleeting source of amusement for the guards. As Brawn mouthed off at them, they simply remained where they stood, weapons in hand and ready to put the hostages in line if the situation got too out of hand.
“I’m going to count to five, and if you haven’t opened that door by the time I’ve finished counting I’m going to tear you all new aft ports!” Brawn threatened, snarling at them and showing them no fear. As he took another step forward the Neutrals trained their weapons at his head, and then grinned cruelly.
Prowl was about to step in, hoping that he could at least talk Brawn out of his foolishness, when Optimus reached out a hand to hold him back. “No. I’ll handle this,” he said quietly, then nodded in reassurance before stepping forward to stand behind Brawn, holding open palms up in a gesture of pacifism. The blasters were quickly diverted away from Brawn and toward him. “Please, we mean you no harm. He must be malfunctioning.”
“Like hell I am!” Brawn rebutted.
“Don’t come any closer or we’ll have to shoot the lot of you,” one of the guards warned, waving his blaster again at Brawn as the mini bot inched another step closer. Standing behind Optimus and beside Bumblebee and Windcharger, Blades watched the confrontation intensely.
“There is no need for that. Brawn, Cliffjumper, stand down. Don’t make things any more difficult than what they already are, or I will have no choice but to note your transgressions on your records. Is that understood?” Optimus insisted. Disgruntled, nevertheless Brawn complied, taking a step back. The guards paused and then relaxed their weapons, satisfied that the situation was under control.
Then the smallest, ever so slight, barely discernible nod from Optimus gave Brawn the cue that he’d been hoping for. Without warning, Brawn leaped forward and ploughed straight into two of the guards even before they realized what was happening, tackling them and slamming them both into the sealed door with a loud grunt. In the same instant, the Autobot leader activated his blaster and shot the still standing guard cleanly in the chest with three blasts, knocking him out cold.
Channelling all his rage onto one of the guards, Brawn pummelled into his face with both fists whilst straddling him, pinning him down on the floor against the door. The Neutral’s weapon fell from his hand as he struggled to get the mini bot off him, but Brawn was dogged, determined to get his revenge.
Nearby, Cliffjumper attempted to subdue the third guard, rushing him and aiming for his weapon, but the Neutral was stronger and faster, and he found himself being grabbed and slammed down onto the floor. However, the struggle lasted only a few more astro-seconds as the guard all of a sudden jerked back with the shock of a weapons blast from behind. Cliffjumper scrambled to get himself back up, only to see Blades pointing his photon pistol directly at the guard’s back, who collapsed to the ground in a heap.
With two of the three guards now offline, Brawn kept driving into his foe, oblivious to all else around him, until finally the Neutral managed to roll out from under him with a forceful shove. Both their intakes were working overtime to recover from their exertions. The guard managed to stagger to his feet, reaching across for the blaster he’d dropped with the intention of finishing off the unruly mini bot as punishment for his rebellion. But as his hand went to grab the weapon it was pinned to the floor by a crushing weight. He only had enough time to look up for a fleeting moment to see Optimus Prime’s determined blue optics staring down at him. Already weakened by the beating he’d received at the mini bot’s hands, fresh energon leaking from lacerations across his cheeks and brow, the heavy, powerful blue fist that connected with his nose was the final blow.
* * *
Watching Astro and Rook work on Jhiaxus, Sunstreaker couldn’t help but notice Firestar’s guarded posture as she stood near Comet’s unresponsive form on the recharge berth. Acknowledging him, she finally shook her head and confided softly, not taking her optics away from the mysterious mech who had filled Chromia with hope of Elita One’s rescue. “I just wish I knew what the hell was going on!” she said in exasperation. “You know, I remember a time when we Autobots stood united against the Decepticons. We knew who our enemies were and we knew who we could trust. And yet, look at us now. It’s like the entire world’s gone crazy, or I’m caught in some ridiculous nightmare that I don’t know how to wake up from.”
He listened to her frustrations quietly, nodding once to let her know she had his attention. Glancing briefly down at Comet, memories of his recent adventures flooded into his processor. “You know, I used to feel the same way. When I first realized what Sentinel Prime had done… I just couldn’t understand how my closest friends could question what I’d witnessed – they thought I was the one who was crazy.”
She turned to him, scrutinizing optics giving way to genuine empathy. “I’m really sorry you had to go through all that. We’re glad that you’re okay. Truly.” He nodded in gratitude and she gave him a brief smile, before her expression once again turned somber. “Tell me honestly. Do you trust them?” Her head flicked in the direction of the Decepticons who were clustered in groups at the opposite end of the room.
Sunstreaker gazed across at the other faction. The answer to her question was one that he knew she would need to discover for herself. If the Decepticons were trustworthy, she would know it in time. Until then, nothing he said would really matter. Finally he shrugged. “Chromia seems to.” Pause. “To be honest, spending time on Alternity City… it kind of helped put things into a different perspective for me. All I know is that we’ve been fighting each other too long. We’re supposed to be on the same side – we’re all Cybertronians, after all.”
Firestar dwelled on his response for a moment. “Well, I sure hope you’re right. Because if not, we’re all going to find ourselves in a deep load of trouble,” she said, then fixed her attention on Astro, tracking his every move. “I, for one, don’t trust that mech as far as I can throw him.”
Rook was impressed by the level of skill and technique that Astro displayed as he performed the modifications on Jhiaxus. For a long time he did not speak or ask questions but simply watched, assisting when asked by holding steady the surgical implements as directed, or adjusting the flow of the polarizing particle beam, or monitoring the readouts that filled the screen of the portable scanner. Then, when Astro paused to evaluate their progress, Rook voiced the one question that was bothering him. “What I don’t understand is how did you get the codes to access his primary cortex?”
Astro’s gaze lingered for several astro-seconds on his smaller companion before refocusing his attention on Jhiaxus. Just when Rook thought he wouldn’t receive a reply, as he’d come to expect of Astro, he got one, albeit it raised more questions than it answered. “Let’s just say that I’ve known Jhiaxus for a lot longer than he’s known me, since before the First Great War. But he has no idea who I am.”
Intrigue crossed Rook’s face, but there was also annoyance. The First Great War was lifetimes ago, when their race was still relatively young. “What do you mean, he has no idea who you are?” he inquired, mindful to keep his voice low so as to avoid the Autobots’ inquisitive glances. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t you Scorponok’s most trusted confidante for vorns? And from what I recall, even Jhiaxus had the utmost faith in you, right up until–” He stopped abruptly when Astro turned to him again, yellow optics intense and unyielding.
“That just proves my point,” Astro said in a low voice, making sure no one was in audial range. “He has no idea who I really am, and neither does Scorponok. Think about it – how do you suppose I was able to gain his trust in the first place? Do you think that either of them would have allowed just any mech into their ranks?” He paused, took a deep intake. Glancing briefly around, he noted Firestar’s intense optics upon him and he grimaced slightly, turning his attention back to Rook. “Jhiaxus doesn’t know who I am because he blindly believes everything Scorponok tells him.” Astro stepped away to walk around the bench where Jhiaxus lay, and for the first time Rook noticed the other mech’s own inner struggle – it was a struggle that Astro usually kept well hidden. This was a rare opportunity.
“Astro, I want you to know that I was wrong back then…” the green mech replied, then left the rest unspoken. His words were spontaneous. No longer frustrated, he simply wanted to reach out to Astro, to let him know that he was there.
The blue mech continued speaking, though he kept his gaze averted. “I was never meant to remain on Alternity City for as long as I did. My original mission had been to infiltrate the Base and find out exactly how Scorponok was able to bring about the Great Devastation. So, two vorns ago I altered my identity and offered him my services. In proving my undying loyalty to him, he demanded that I betray the Decepticons, which is what I did – or, at least, it’s what he believed. However, my loyalty was always to Megatron, and always will be.”
“I… see.” Rook couldn’t believe that Astro was recounting at least some of his shrouded history, and he did not want him to stop. He wanted Astro to continue talking. However, something told him that there was much more to this particular story – much more – but right now would be neither the time nor the place to tell it. They still had Jhiaxus to deal with. Nevertheless, what he’d gathered thus far was that whoever Astro had been before his identity change, he had probably been of a high rank. Perhaps, even part of the Decepticon High Command structure. In addition, some things he’d noticed about the mech were beginning to make more sense now, including the way that Astro was able to take command of the other Dcepticons and their mission on Alternity City without too much resistance. ”What… did you have to do? To prove your loyalty, I mean?” he ventured, in spite of himself.
Astro kept his optics on Jhiaxus’ unconscious features, speaking softly so that only Rook could hear. “At first, he wanted me to provide him with information about the Decepticons, carry out raids, steal tech and weapons, things like that. Then, just after he’d staged the revolt that lost us the accord with the Autobots, Scorponok found himself in a losing battle against both the Decepticons led by Megatron, and the Autobots, so I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. I helped him disappear without a trace during the battle at Darkmount, made it look like he’d been destroyed. Then, with my help, he was reformatted and – of course, I was sworn to secrecy.”
Rook was perplexed. “But – why?”
“Why, what?” Astro replied, catching Rook’s gaze, though he remained collected, calm. “Why didn’t we just put an end to him at Darkmount?”
“Yes – was he really worth it?”
“If Scorponok had been killed we would never have been able to discover his greatest secret. It wasn’t worth the risk. If he was able to destroy entire worlds, we had to make sure that no mech would ever have access to that same sort of power again.” He glanced back down at the recumbent jet, reminiscent. “I had to earn his trust. Which I did, and eventually, after a long time I was able to learn his secrets. Why do you think he wants me dead now? I know his plans, and I know what needs to be done to stop both him and Sentinel Prime from turning this entire Sector into a conglomerate of slave worlds, ruled by the Supremacist-Neutral Alliance.” Astro walked back around the bench to stand beside Rook. “There’s just one more thing I need to do here, then we’re done with him,” he said, changing the subject as he picked up the particle beam gun.
The blue mech focused on his work as he began to make the final modifications to Jhiaxus’ primary processor, and Rook watched him in silence. After a few minutes, Astro placed his beam gun and scanner down onto the bench and stepped back, folding his arms in contemplation.
“It was because of me… wasn’t it?” Rook said, and Astro turned to meet his optics, scrutinizing the smaller mech. “You said you were never meant to remain on Alternity City for as long as you did. It was because of me. Because of the choice I made. I screwed up,” he confessed, his tone melancholic.
Astro released a long exhale. “Yes, you screwed up. You had the chance to help us gain access to all of Jhiaxus’ information and put a stop to what he was doing – that one chance – but you were too afraid… and so, after that many of our attempts failed. As a result, Sentinel Prime developed the Plague virus, with some help from Jhiaxus. And, as you already know, the Autobot-Neutral Alliance was formed soon after, Decepticons were hunted down and persecuted for crimes committed by Jhiaxus and the Neutrals, Megatron was forced into hiding… and I remained here, on Alternity City.” Unlike their first confrontation aboard Jhiaxus’ cruiser, this time Astro did not come across accusatory, nor did he demand anything of Rook – he seemed to simply be recalling events that had been buried in a past they all would rather forget. If anything he was empathetic, supportive even, had since forgiven Rook for his mistakes, though the consequences of the mech’s choices still remained to this day.
There was a long pause before Rook spoke again. “Why didn’t you just return to Cybertron?”
“Why?” Astro shrugged, though it was a thoughtful and deliberate gesture. “Because… the other part of my mission had been to keep track of a certain ex-Decepticon under Jhiaxus’ command, until he could be returned to us.”
Rook nodded, certain that he knew the identity of the Decepticon Astro was referring to. “Ah, you mean Comet?”
“Comet?” Astro repeated curiously, and then shook his head and smiled in amusement. “No – he was brought here after the Alliance was enacted. It was you, Rook. Megatron never gave up on you.”
As Astro placed a reassuring hand on his arm before walking away, deep regret yet also extreme gratitude washed over him.