Optimus lagged behind Akhal, burdened with concern for Rodimus. Roddi was right; they were both exhausted. Optimus had not rested in three days; Rodimus in a week.
Akhal paused and found her charge several yards away. She caught back with him and attempted a visual assessment. "I am sorry, Optimus Prime," she said kindly. "Do I make you uncomfortable?"
Optimus shook his head. "I'm merely distracted. I am impressed and amazed by what you've accomplished. No one realizes or knows how far the Decepticons have come over the decades." Optimus paused as he read the femme's soft red optics. Her entire attention fixated on him. Some Autobot femmes could not stand still long enough to distinguish someone's paint job. But this lady Decepticon carried herself with calculated ease.
She smiled, pleased rather than flattered. "We have a good and sensible leader. And we are aided by a gracious Autobot leader who is genuinely concerned for us. It would be dishonorable to repay evil when we have received so much good."
"I am pleased that Rodimus is the emissary I could not be."
"If the situation were different, I have no doubt you would do the very same, Optimus." He nodded and tried to suppress guilt from his expression. Akhal caught and understood his reaction and scrutinized him. "You say one thing, Optimus Prime, but you mean to say something else, or something more." Caught like a child doing something wrong, the city director sent his gaze elsewhere.
"I'm sorry," Akhal quickly amended. "I meant no embarrassment. I was merely making an observation."
"You are correct in your assessment, Akhal,' he confessed. "It's just that when I recall of my life prior to my death, it doesn't seem I accomplished very much"
"Then today is your lucky day. I am a historian and I should very much be pleased to tell you a few things about your administration. I was not there personally, but I've taken liberty to do a good deal of research on my own time." she led him down the hall and grinned at Soundwave as he passed them. "Tell me, Optimus, what would you like me to tell you about first?"
Optimus took the offer under intense consideration as the lady Decepticon guided him three levels down and into a corridor. Glass panels lined the walls, giving view to the outside world. A space-dusted plateau rose from a canyon and glittered with chunks of pyrite.
Akhal opened the first door on the right. A large comfortable room spread before them, resembled more a motel room than standard soldier's quarters.
"I hope this will be all right." she said, "It's set up for Rodimus when he visits."
Emptiness dragged Optimus into despair. Memories strangled any hope of personal tranquility. He turned to Akhal. "I think I'd like to know something about Elita-One.
I watched Op leave, hoping he'd find peaceful sleep. I wished I could shut down without haunting dreams. It worries Op that I don't' rest well. I reminded myself to tell him to stop fussing like an old hen; it's not healthy for him.
Cyclonus lined the rim of his goblet of energon. "You need not worry, Rodimus. Akhal is our secondary communications officer; very good with public relations among us. She's also rather fond of Optimus and will treat him kindly."
I dragged my optics from the door to my ally and forced a tired smile. "That obvious, huh?" He did not respond. "Mars," I said, switching subjects without preamble.
I drew a blank; I had little to nothing to say about Mars because I brooded over the false signatures. I remembered the one pad I brought with me and decided to switch seats, sitting closer to my ally. "Cyc, forget Mars. Look, I'm sure you've already figured out I'm not here with Op so he can go sight seeing."
Cyclonus' lip components curved just a fraction above the no-emo line. "That's what I like about you, Rodimus; you don't insult my intellect." I could not tell if he was being facetious or not. "Please," he added, "continue."
"Okay. A couple days ago, we've found digipads forged with my signature-well, Op found several digipads with forged signatures."
Cyclonus looked genuinely disconcerted. "Forged signatures? How?"
"I don't know. And I've taken the pads to Perceptor and he says the pads have not been tampered with. Magnus took other pads to another expert and found the same thing." I handed Cyclonus the digipad. "I don't know what to do. I panicked. I shouldn't have, but I did. I-" my head froze just recalling the dread and I re-rechecked the dreaded premonition.
It was the same.
Cyclonus' quiet baritone droned through the room. "This does appear suspicious."
"Cyclonus, I forgot to mention something: That shape shifter-I caught it; turned out to be a Quintesson."
"How do Quintessons fit into this equation?"
My guess is on that pad. They own Iridic Enterprises and they're using Human labor on Mars."
"What's this about water acquisition from Earth to Cybertron?"
"What?" I leaned over to see what puzzled Cyc over and found Op's clean handwriting all over the report. "I don't know. I hadn't looked at it."
Here Optimus Prime mentions a series of canisters containing radioactive materials in which the water was shipped."
"May I see that?" I took the pad back and read Op's comments at each point in the report.
Trion proclaims a water shortage on Cybertron.
Assign Streetwise to privately investigate the truth.
Trion claims he's tried for months to get Rodimus to negotiate water rights from the Antarctic-no process work to prove Trion's claims in Roddi's files.
Trion skirts the issue before lying about 'specialized' batteries. Fact check: batteries based on metallic plutonium.
I grinned. One thing I loved most about my friend: he was thorough. As I read further, I found a highlighted notation stating the canisters-as reported by Streetwise-never made it to Cybertron. They were redirected to Mars.
And the order came under my signature. I handed the damn pad back to Cyclonus and paced. My head flip-flopped between indecision and anger. Finally facing my friend. I watched him examine the tablet. "I want to know what the heck is going on at Mars. I want to know exactly what they're doing."
Cyclonus sat straighter-if that were possible, and scrutinized my optics. "I don't recommend you go alone, if you go at all. I understand you are a hands-on type, Rodimus. But going to Mars may not be wise."
I sat on the table in front of him. "I'm already nailed, Cyclonus. I know that. I know that if I return either to Cybertron or Earth, the CDA will arrest me and have me tried for treason." I drew one breath to steady myself. "And I can't shake the feeling that something horrible is about to happen."
I sent my gaze toward the back end of the room. Trapezius dipped into its three-hour 'night time;' a point where it faced neither Jupiter, IO or the sun. "I have to get rid of Trion." I finally decided. "They will declare me a murderer. But I know what he's done to get where he is. And Cyclonus, he's manuvered the CDA central point location to Metroplex." I stood and confronted the windows as the sky turned to a rich sullen red.
"Then all the more reason for you to suspect the forgeries, Rodimus." Cyclonus settled back, equally as deep in thought.
"But yet," I continued, "what will happen if Trion gets to me before I get to him? What will happen to the Autobots? To Metroplex? To Optimus?"
I did not see the Decepticon leader smile at the corners. "We will take care of Optimus Prime." Cyclonus stood but I could not face him, emotional distress cut the words from me. "Rodimus," his voice fell to a tone I found soothing. "You have been our greatest ally and advocate at the risk of treason. You have taken the responsibility not only for Autobot welfare, but ours. How could we do anything less for you? If something were to happen-and Primus forbid that it might-but if it did, I will certainly step in."
I could not suppress my smile and now I faced him. "You're willing to be our calvary, Cyclonus? Coming to our rescue in the nick of time?"
It took him a moment to reference the word 'calvary' from American history but he caught it and nodded. Then he shook his head. "We're not riding horses, Rodimus."
"Hahaha! No, I'd not expect that. Not your style. How about stampeding Dinobots instead?"
"Mmmm ... Only if they've been through obedience school."
Cyclonus submitted the tablet to Soundwave for closer examination. I did not think the Decepticon communications officer could come up with any better an explanation than Perceptor.
When Soundwave indicated it'd be a while before he found anything, I decided to hit my 'motel room' and crash a while.
I found Optimus sleeping soundly on the flat. Akhal met me at the door and dragged me outside the room. "He's finally asleep."
"I noticed. I was about to take a nap myself."
"What happened to the little girl?"
'Uh ... oh, Rusti?"
Akhal nodded. "Was she related to him?"
I thought it was funny but then realized Akhal might be thinking Rusti was an Autobot. "She was Daniel Witwicky's daughter. Op ... " I frowned. "Well, it's kinda hard to explain, really. He deeply cared about her-"
Akhal nodded. "He loved her and she died."
Akhal nodded again. "He asked about Elita."
"He did? What did you tell him?"
"I gave him the history, who she was, what she did."
"What about their relationship?"
Akhal shook her head. "He understands. Bu the doesn't feel anything. To him, that was someone else's life. And then he told me about Rusti."
She brought him to life, Akhal. I mean, he was happy and doing unbelievably well in therapy and when she died, someone turned the lights out inside him. Know what I mean? It's frustrating because I can't fix it. Were it not for Sameko, I think Op would just be a shell."
She fell somber, her gaze dropped to the floor then back to me. "Get some rest, Rodimus. I will see you tomorrow."
I gave a weak smile. I liked Akhal. She was brilliant and considerate. But she was not a little girl with bouncy hair and a sweet giggle.
I crashed pretty hard and woke six hours later all alone with a headache. I immediately contacted Cyclonus. "I have a missing city director."
"I'll be right there, Rodimus."
Cyclonus helped me find Op as Akhal escorted my friend from one level of the complex to another. The professional tour, to her was more about showing off rather than sticking to the facts. It pleased me that the Decepticons were honestly happy in their hostile environment. Here, they were conquerors of a complex and untamed environment. Akhal always asked about Optimus and though I felt skeptical with a Decepticon interested in an Autobot, it made me happy the Decepticons accepted Optimus without judgement. But Op wasn't the same person now. I hoped Akhald was not disappointed.
We found Op and Akhal in Level Four of the complex. Here the Decepticons mined precious lithium gases from the asteroid to grow crab glass, a crystalized mineral considered a delicacy by natives in a star system I can never annunciate. But the Decepticons make a good (and honest) profit growing the plant-like minerals. It's a hazardous process-the type of challenge the 'cons love because part of it involves a Bryalision morath-a nasty scaley creature that spits acid. The acid is used to age the minerals. From what Cyc tells me, the morath are hideously ill-tempered and tricky to deal with.
At the moment, Akhal and Op hung examined one of thousands of caches as operators used specially-treated automatic arms to lift the crab glass from a steamy mineral bath into a vat of calcium-silico polymer.
"Hey!" I teased, "hey aren't the two of you supposed to be working? No one said it was lunch time yet!"
Akhal beamed. "Optimus woke restless. So I'm taking him on a tour. You are welcomed to join us, Rodimus Prime."
I folded my arms. "Oh yeah? Do souvenirs come with the field trip?" Op looked to me and wow, he even smiled. I leaned against the railing. "And you, young Autobot, did you get your parent's permission to go?"
Akhal leaned close to Optimus and took his arm. I thought I witnessed a miracle. Op smiled again. "I played hooky from civics and stowed away on the bus. How much detention am I looking at, Roddi?"
"Mm... probably until you 're old enough to date, Op. And how come you always get the girl? I want a girl."
I caught that subtle mischievous look in his optics. "Arcee has offered, Roddi."
I feigned horror. "You are so mean to me!" I turned to Cyclonus. "Will you be my girlfriend?" I managed not to laugh when the regal and always-so-proper Cyclonus lost all expression.
I insisted Akhal finish the tour. I wanted Optimus to see everything not because I had a hand in it, but because the Decepticons came such a long way in such a short time. Under Cyclonus, they were a well-organized young society that found their place among the civilized peoples.
It did not mean the Decepticons turned into kittens. They were still the 'rough-and tumble' sort not to be messed with. But all that energy and temperament was harnessed into more productive means. They quickly became the quadrant's most impressive weapons manufacturers. Even Quintesson know-how could not match Decepticon craftsmanship, technology-or the metal work.
We retired after eight more levels of tour. There were yet four more but both Op and I were exhausted and I wanted to rest again before figuring out what to do next. And being more at ease, both Op and I slept better.
Some Autobots believe that if you wake to remember a dream that leaves you unsettled, it means someone has spoken to you across time and reality. Don't ask me. I don't come up with stuff like that. But when Cyclonus woke me to tell me about an event on Cybertron, I recalled living in a short but beautiful dream.
It's somewhat ironic that it was about a girl, but not an Autobot femme. And she was three different ages at the same time. I loved to hear her laugh but I did not get her name. She spoke, but I couldn't make out what she said. I remember sunshine and handpicked flowers and pictures drawn by little hands.
She knew me. The dream was nice, but I felt weird.
Then I saw Cyclonus' mug in my face that's enough to wake anyone.
"What's up?" I sat up with a shudder, unable to get the girl out of my noggin.
"You need to see this." I followed Tall Dark and Grim two levels down into the communication center. All Cyclonus' heads of staff occupied the room-including Galvatron who is now chief of security and front-lines detail.
Mounted at the back wall hung a large televisor, larger than the one we broke in Op's office. IPN (Interplanetary Network) interviewed an Autobot analyst on some current event. I strained to hear above the quiet chatter between Rumble and a Sweep.
Soundwave's creepy monotone voice ordered the midget to silence as the news switched scenes to Cybertron where a great mushroom of smoke and debris floated in the atmosphere and spread like a gauze of death.
That scene cut to a newsroom where Autobot Verbumous switched one digipad for another, his countenance grim. "That was Council Elder Orcus from Canis Providence just south east of Iaacon. Once again, the reactor core in the city Aipys has blown and obliterated some number estimated in the two hundred thousand on Cybertron. That number, by the way, is not only of Autobots but includes Humans and other extra-solar visitors. We would caution anyone at this point not to go near Aipys while emergency workers and authorities race to find and rescue survivors. We turn now to our Metroplex correspondent, Priscilla Levonson."
"Verbumous, Metroplex is on high alert and I have it on very good word that Rodimus Prime is nowhere to be found."
Verbumous came on split screen and I watched the area behind Priscilla Levonson as Autobots and EDC officers checked in and out. The reporter herself stood to the side of the first exit gate-the same place where I met up with Arcee a couple weeks before.
Verbumous leaned closer to his desk. "Have you heard anything from City Commander Ultra Magnus?"
Priscilla pushed her earpiece a little closer to her head. "Verbumous, no I have not. But I have been told the city will shut all its gates and entrances in ten minutes and they have grounded all aircraft-" she bowed her head a moment and closed her eyes, listening to her earpiece. I waited as my laser core stopped vibrating. People walked behind her, rushed and concerned. I asked myself if this disaster on Cybertron was the event the premonition warned me about.
The death of thousands of Autobots wasn't the catastrophe? As I waited for the news reporter, I realized that the future event I dreaded was going to be much, much worse.
Priscilla lifted her head. "Verbumous, I-I can't believe what I'm hearing, but they said there are sightings of Quintesson ships landing on Mars-there are Quintessons-and Cybertron has now gone to full alert."
I looked away and tried to decide what to do. I brought Op here because I knew it'd be safe but I didn't know from what. Now I felt like a coward, a child running to his neighbor's house because he thought a boogeyman lurked in his bedroom.
Cyclonus approached. He waited for a break in the news then gazed at me, the Autobot head-honcho with all the answers. He said nothing as his optics contacted Galvatron. Cyclonus nodded toward a small ready room. I followed, anticipating the worst. Galvatron tagged behind and once inside, he locked the door.
With crossed arms, Cyclonus bore optics at me like a drill. "It's a trap."
I didn't think I heard right. "What?"
"He's correct, Rodimus Prime," Galvatron agreed. He sat at the corner of the only table behind Cyclonus.
"The timing is coincidental. Optimus noted how they were storing water in tubes normally used for explosives."
Galvatron added again: "All they needed to do on Cybertron was add hydrochloric acid to the mix and drop it on the reactor."
"But why? Why kill thousands of people?"
They answered at the same time: "To get your attention."
"Well, they sure have it."
"It would be unwise to go now, Rodimus," Cyclonus insisted.
"And irresponsible if I don't." I countered.
Galvatron stood (and geeze,) took on Cyclonus' posture. "Let me take a few Sweeps and investigated exactly what's going on at Mars first."
"Hah! Mars?" I said incredulously. "What has Mars got to do with it?"
Cyclonus produced the one digipad. "Obviously more than we've had time to decipher."
I could not think. I could not decide to believe them or the idea that the accident was just an accident. "Alright," I challenged, "let's play devil's advocate. What if I don't show up?"
The two Decepticons exchanged doubtful expressions and frowns. I glanced at the ceiling, though I did not look at it. "You know, as well as I, if it's no accident then another one will happen unless I show up. More people will die."
"Rodimus, if you go, you will most certainly be arrested and charged with treason."
"And do you know how that can be prevented?" I waited four beats. Cyclonus was way smart. Probably smarter than anyone else I know. But even he did not have an immediate answer. "Okay. Here's what we'll do. I'll go back. You guys take a look at Mars, get your proof and then if I need it, come save my butt." I paused. "And one more thing?"
They glued their optics on me and I got the image of a pair of vultures staring, expecting me to play with them. I suppressed a wince. "Would you... would you keep an optic on Op? I'd feel better if I could leave him here."
Cyclonus gave me that subtle but honest smile. "Of course."
I did not leave without telling Op. But the long dreadful walk weighed me down with each step. A jillion things ran through my head. I felt as though everything in my life from inception to the point of the future catastrophe led me to this particular moment. I did not know why. Pausing before the door, I reflected upon the decision, this one of two evils.
I knew Cyclonus was right. But then, me too. If I did not go, I'd be safe and sound in Decepticon territory. If I did not go, thousands more people would die. It's not something I could live with. And if I went-Primus, I felt smothered with dread. I took a deep cold breath and stuck to the plan. I am the Autobot leader. Like it or not, my job demanded I faced my appointed destiny.
I opened the door and entered. The room welcomed me with a dim warm light and hints of musical chimes quietly playing. Op lay face-down, sleeping soundly. I felt badly having to wake him, but I'd feel worse if I left without saying good-bye.
To my relief, Op woke on his own. He spotted me and slowly sat up. I joined him at the side of the berth and smiled. He said nothing, forcing me to turn to consternation. "What?"
"I take it you're here to tell me you've decided we need to head back."
"Mmm. Not exactly." I paused, weighing his non-committed expression. "Uh. I'm heading to Cybertron, Op. There's um, there's been an accident. It's pretty bad. Cybertron and Metroplex are on high alert."
"And they're looking for you," he finished.
"You could say that, yeah."
"Roddi, don't go."
"You know, Op, that's exactly what Cyclonus and Galvatron said."
"Well, then listen to them, Roddi. You said you sensed something terrible was going to happen."
"And something has." I insisted. "Look, Op, I want you to stay here. Stay with Cyclonus. I'd feel better knowing you're with someone I trust."
"Let me come. I can help-"
"No!" I said a bit hastily. "No. No, Op. I don't want anything to happen to you. I don't trust anything that's going on. Between the forged signatures and stuff you've found on Mars-"
"It adds to a set-up, Rodimus."
"-all the greater reason for staying here."
"Op. An entire city just blew on Cybertron I have to go." He had no rebuttal. He knew. Leadership responsibilities first and foremost no matter what the price tag said. "Promise me you'll stay with the Decepticons." He did not look at me. I laid a hand on his shoulder. "Op. Promise me you'll stay with the Decepticons."
He shot his optics at me. "Promise me you'll stay alive."
"Oh for Primus'-"
"Rodimus! Do not leave me to fend for myself against Trion's and Arcee's irritating visits!"
But Op tilted his head in that manner; he was dead serious. I held up my hands. "Okay, okay. I promise if you do. Deal?" he did not answer because he did not trust me that far. "Okay," I surrendered. "I promise to do my best to stay alive as long as you promise to stay with the Decepticons. How's that?"
He frowned, unimpressed. "Not perfect. But it will do."
I stood to go. "Remind me to never get involved in an auction war with you, Optimus. You don't fight fair." He stood and we embraced. I never realized before how good it was to hug him. I tightened my grip. His fears and doubts reflected mine.
As much as I hurt, I refused to say good-bye.