The familiarity of ruins in Aipys greeted us by a sinister, creepy silence. The city staggered with desolation. Not that I've ever been to this particular place on Cybertron but the sight sharply reminded me of other times and far away places following disastrous battles. The dead city smoldered with residual violence. The living lay butchered where they worked and lived. Gaping holes yawned where great buildings once stood.
Returning home to Metroplex after defeating Unicron left me with profound sadness. Not because Autobot City sustained such terrible damage, but that so many Autobots died during the Decepticon attack; Autobots I grew up with.
I specifically remembered Bluestreak's death. It burned my core every time I thought about it. Bluestreak died heroically. But the agony he suffered... I'm not sure anyone knew the extent of Insecticon morbidity. I made certain they ended up the same number of pieces they left Bluestreak.
An optic for an optic.
I was neither sorry nor really surprised to learn Cyclonus had them executed immediately following his rise to leadership.
As I stood at the ragged remains of a broken highway, I heard the sound of rumbling engines, spitting and snarling toward me. Three different individuals transformed from animalistic vehicles, sleek and menacing. I faced them with a sober expression. One member of the 'welcoming committee' was Dynamix, the self-proclaimed representative for this section of Cybertron; a member of the CDA.
"Where the PITT have you been?" he demanded. "We're having a crisis and you just show up whenever, wherever."
"I was attending other business."
"Like filthy slag you were!"
I decided he wasn't worth getting mad over. "Who's in charge? I want to know where-"
"Well, obviously it's not you, Rodimus Prime," he snarled. "Kaktus, if you please?" Dynamix stood back while his two goons advanced toward me. They hesitated, apprehensive. Dynamix produced a hand-held digipad and rattled off like an accountant: "Rodimus Prime, you are under arrest for suspicion of treason and destruction of Autobot City Aipys."
"Okay," I replied. "You keep telling yourself that."
"As an esteemed and honorary member of the Cybertronian Defense Administration, I charge you with desertion of duty and post. You are charged with hostility toward your benefactors and superiors. You are under arrest for absence without leave or permission by any officer. You are charged with suspicion of conspiracy against the Administration, conspiracy against the peoples of Earth, Cybertron and Metroplex."
Dynamix's playmates attacked. I kicked one away and punched the second. Goon Number One rolled with the kick, shifted into a high-powered, non-terrestrial racer and came back. Number Two (Kaktus) transformed under my next strike and caught me off balance.
I recovered the lost step and used his body as leverage. I leapt over Kaktus and his buddy collided into him. Landing in front of Dynamix, I kicked the digipad from his hands, kneed his chin followed by a cuff to the helm. I touched ground before his guard dogs caught up. Jarring an elbow into Dynamix's neck I used his body as a shield. "HEY!" I barked. "Back off, cracker jack or I'll deep fry your Master into Quintesson fish-bits!"
Kaktus and his companion gave each other a doubtful look. I was a Prime, right? I'd never do stuff like that. But to prove my point, I drew enough life fluids from Mr. Self-Important to show I meant business.
Dynamix squirmed and wibbled like a whipped dog. "Stand up," I growled. "He obeyed and I moved behind him.
"Wh-what are you going to do to me?" Having lost his courage in the face of captivity, the Mighty Council Elder whimpered. I doubted he fought a single day in his life.
"You?" I said, "You're going to leave your doggies here. No pet in the park." I lowered the charge on my arm weapons and shot Kaktus first. Dynamix flinched and sobbed. I held him more tightly. "Say good night, Gracie." I gunned down Goon Number One.
"Aaaagghhh!" Dynamix squirmed until I wrapped the crook of my arm round his neck. He fought but did not have my strength. He melted, bawling like a little kid who lost his toy. "Don't kill me, Rodimus Prime, I beg you!"
"Awe, knock it off. I didn't kill your bodyguards."
"Trion was right! You've gone Dark! You've turned into that nightmare!"
I started walking, half-dragging Mr. Pathetic with
me. "What a surprise. He tried the same B.S. with Op.
Problem is, Op's a hell of a lot smarter than you. So
who's in charge and which way do we go?"
Dynamix pointed nine miles due west of Aipys' smoldering remains. He begged me to take clearer paths around the city. But since he was a bureaucrat, I thought he deserved nothing less than the best. So we toured through the thickest, worst part of the ruins.
No power, no light and no life. A thick coating of ash blanketed the fresh ruins like soft grey snow. Not one building stood unmarred by the explosion. I made double sure we walked on every body shell, chassis and carcass I encountered. Dynamix was never going to forget this tour.
"I can't believe you'd be this heartless and cruel!" he whined. "How could you be so mean as to make me walk on all these dead people? Have you no sense of propriety? Why are you making me walk through the city? My feet hurt and I'm tired. You're so heartless and cruel! I'm hungry. I'm dirty! Oh please, let's not walk on another body!"
I think if Aipys had been one more mile longer, Dynamix would have liquefied into a puddle of self-pity. My only answer was "Yeah, well, this is how I grew up. Now you've had a first-hand account. Welcome to war."
At the next bend, the command camp came into view.
"Oh!" Dynamix all but wept with joy. "Oh thank Primus! Oh, but no, surely you're not planning on killing everyone there!'
"You are really pathetic." I hissed.
I let him go. Dynamix raced off, hoping, no doubt, to warn the camp of my approach. Several would-be heroes decided to demonstrate their loyalty with powered weapons. As I came up the slope, I found Dynamix lying face down, crying and cringing and whining about what horrors he just been through. Half those guns that pointed at the elder swung about face in my direction.
A sturdy figure joined the party and called the troopers off. "Knock it off you morons. Everyone stand down." The voice belonged to a tough, heavy-built mech with the transform of an armored carrier. He stomped and pushed his way past rigid, nervous Autobot soldiers.
Captain Aces Six eyed them with large glaring optics until several soldiers slunk off. Those four who remained took Dynamix into camp custody, leaving me alone with my friend. Aces Six turned with as big a crushing hug as he could deal. "Roddi!"
I grinned lopsided. "I'm beat. Mind if I park it someplace for a few minutes?"
"Step this way, soldier," he said cheerfully, "We have our own Motel 6 just down the hillside." Aces led me across their camp. Loosely constructed of flimsy, small shelters, officers, soldiers and survivors worked and huddled outside the rubble of what was a nice town. Suspicion and hopelessness pinned me as I followed Aces to his tactical room.
We ducked into a temporary shelter lined by corrugated tin walls, a narrow recharge berth on one side and a rickety conference/plotting table on the other.
Aces Six cleared the less messier side and proffered a old stool for me and one for himself. Then he poured two small cups of energon. "What the Pitt sharks brought you here looking less than prepared?" "Situation recon."
"They say you've defected." I grunted in my cup. "They say you're responsible for the contracts on Mars."
"Yeah, I heard that one."
"And now they're blaming you for this accident."
"I've been on Trapezius." I wondered if Aces bought the lies himself. Was he holding me here to buy time?
"You know, Roddi, Trion is just short of putting a price on your head."
"A-a-a-and what if he's the one responsible? What if I told you this was a set up to draw me out? What then?"
Six hesitated then drained his cup. "You're talking about a coup."
"Yes I am."
"Yes it is."
"Can he-would he really do it?"
I shrugged. "The Administration has their own militia. Trion pretty much heads the Administration. Op found a military installation in Metroplex's blueprints. You tell me."
Aces stood and removed both our cups. "I will tell you, Rodimus. Go back to Trapezius. It isn't safe for you anymore."
I scoffed. "I dealt with a planet eater, Aces. What's a coup compared to that?"
"It's much easier when your enemy is on the outside, Rodimus."
I stared hard at Aces Six and kept thinking. "How many people died here?"
"Total? Forty-six hundred."
"When did the explosion take place?"
"Officially? Ohh... three AM Earth Pacific Standard." He stared until an idea hit him. Aces' face reflected realization. "Metroplex is mostly asleep at three AM."
"For a total of forty-five minutes," I added.
"-to move an army in without tripping any alarms."
"Holy Primus! This was a distraction!" Aces cried.
"Damn straight." I stood to go when Aces Six blocked my way.
"Wait. You shouldn't go alone."
"Anyone who comes with me will automatically be counted guilty by association-that includes you, Six. Besides, I need someone I can count on to handle things here." I kept my optics stern.
Aces extended a hand and relented. "I don't have to like it, Rodimus. But I get your point."
I affectionately hit him when our hands clasped. "Take care of them," I said, meaning the Autobots. He nodded in compliance.
"And keep Dynamix off my spoiler."
"Hah! We'll give him dishes duty!"
I left Cybertron, heavy with sorrow.
The command camp space bridge parcel-posted me from Aipys to Earth more quickly than I wanted. It would have been fabulous to have three entire minutes to concoct some plan of action.
But nope. I was so ill-prepared that the second I stepped off the dais, Trion saluted me with his "Rodimus Special" right-cross.
Neither my body nor my mouth got the chance to retaliate. Swiss and Notch stapled me down. Their knees firmly pinched my extremities while they grinded my face into the flooring. Trion allowed Notch to sucker punch me when I resisted.
"Primus damn you, Rodimus." Trion snarled. "Just who do you think you are? Where the Pitt have you been? And where is your zombie servant? Hmm?" He paced like a tiger selecting its next strike. Swiss clamped me with energo cuffs as Trion squatted in front of me. We made optical contact. He leered. I blew him a kiss before his pit bulls hauled me off the ground.
Trion remained scrunched a moment longer, head bowed, shoulders slumped forward. He stood with a revised attitude. "Rodimus, I love you. But you are intolerantly stubborn. And like a wayward child, I am forced to deal with you in tough love. It's for your own good."
I remembered what Op said a few weeks ago and my mouth got the best of me: "Trion, Op is right. You suffer from Matrix envy."
He brightened, his expression lit with sarcasm. "My, my, Rodimus! Your pet has more insight than I give him credit for! I'd really like to know which kennel you're keeping him in." Now his face darkened. "It's time to put him down."
"Um, I sorta let him stay the night at a friend's house. I thought Uncle Trion was turning into a dirty old mech and figured Op would be safer elsewhere."
"Mm. Notch, remove the cuffs."
Trion curtly nodded and Notch obeyed, disappointed. Just that moment later Magnus stampeded toward us in truck mode. A congregation of reporters tagged about the city commander like a cluster of baby ducks.
Kup, Sixshot and Twin Twist hemmed the outer edges of our new-found fan club. All of them stared at me with icicles in their optics. All the Human reporters and two Autobot journalists mobbed us with mics, cameras and a trillion questions. Trion pivoted and stood beside me, one hand on my shoulder. He turned stiffly regal and I plastered on my favorite public grin. Distractions were beautiful things.
Magnus called my name while camera flashes blotted me and Trion. Reporters clucked questions, jotted notes and ticked off events into their mics. Once again the press saved me from a bad moment. So, ignoring Magnus until the right moment, I gave the reporters a more generous grin and isolated Loni Carlson. I held up a hand for the throng to be silent then pointed to her.
"Hi! Gotta question?"
"Rodimus Prime, it's assumed you've been to Cybertron. How is the situation there?"
"Fairly grim," I replied immediately. "Services are getting to survivors but it's difficult. The command camp is working as fast as they can."
"Any idea how the catastrophe happened?"
"It's still under investigation currently headed by Autobot Chief Aces Six and his troop."
"And what plans does Metroplex have in dealing with the situation?"
Trion cut in, stepping in front of me. "Our humble city here is currently rushing supplies, equipment and hands to assist Aces Six and his brave band. They've all worked countless hours straight, determined to rescue as many of our dear Human friends and Autobots as possible. This is certainly a dark hour for both our peoples and I hope fervently that this tragedy will serve only to bind our two worlds together. After all, where would we be without our Human friends?"
I side-stepped an inch at a time so that all cameras were given to Trion. Microstepping backward, I traded places with Swiss who, fortunately, was not as bright as Notch. He gladly replaced me at Trion's left shoulder and posed for the camera. Trion heedlessly blabbed on. Sixshot stole his moment of glory and stepped to Alphalfa's right. Three cameras blinded him with glaring lights. He grinned.
I eased several yards away before quietly transforming. Escaping for Central Command, I took as crazy a route as I could. Eleven blocks down, Magnus and Kup tailed at a safe distance until I landed at Central. They joined me in my office and several minutes later, stared hard with grim, disapproving faces.
I ordered all windows dim and the door locked. "Come on," I invited, "Go ahead and say it."
"You're a jerk," Magnus obliged.
Kup, a bit less blunt, crossed his arms. "You took off without a single word."
"To anyone," Magnus supplemented.
"I know." I settled in my chair which now felt awkward. Why was I sitting behind my desk?
"Well?" they sang at the same time.
I faced them, faced my fear and frustration. "I panicked." I answered simply.
They said nothing at first then Kup focused with confusion. "You panicked? Over what?"
"Where is Optimus?" Magnus said immediately after.
I leaned forward. "He's at the neighbor's playing with their dog. Look, I know it looks bad. I'm sorry. I panicked and had to get out."
"Over what?" Kup insisted.
"What neighbor?" Magnus added.
"I can't explain it to you. I -I just panicked."
"Rodimus!" Magnus' voice turned stern.
"Where the hell is Optimus?"
"Will you get off it, Magnus? He's safe!"
That set Kup off: "So you can't trust us enough to come clean with your whereabouts? You were found on Cybertron and now it looks like you're the one who might have ignited the reactor in Aipys."
Kup nattered. I slipped my optics off him and noticed a neglected stack of digipads stacked against my monitor. One of them blinked in quick, repetitive phrases. I picked it up as it flashed a timed assignment long overdue by two and a half days. I searched the assignee: Mirage. The assignment: Mars. I gave Magnus a puzzled expression and realized he and Kup still wanted an answer. I set the pad down. "Look, here's the low-down, okay? Mags, Op and I got into a fight. A bad one."
"Right." Kup acknowledged. "That's when Optimus' desk took flying lessons." He glared at Magnus.
I continued: "I felt guilty about it and went to apologize to Op."
Magnus looked put out. "You didn't apologize to me."
I ignored Magnus, "So I went hunting for Op and that's when it hit me. Some sort of-I dunno. Some kind of premonition. You know, the kind, Mags. The sort that's been known to flatten Op-er-used to long time ago? Well, anyway, I panicked. All I could think about was that I had to leave, had to escape Metroplex. So I packed Op up and we went on a vacation, we..." my voice trailed off as I read the report sketched onto the pad and three photographs taken; one of which was Cliffjumper.
Magnus lost his patience. "What, Rodimus?"
"Op sent Mirage on an assignment to Mars because he caught Mirage lying to him. And he gave Mirage a timed assignment, told to report back in twelve hours. And then Op and I went to Trapezius..." I stared at the City Commander. "Magnus, can you find out what Cliffjumper's assignments have been over the last three weeks?"
Magnus shrugged. "He's on leave at Iaacon visiting friends. He's not due back for three more weeks-sss."
I turned the pad around for my senior officers. Thereon pasted the picture of a dead and partially dismantled Cliffjumper, lying on a soil rich with iron-ore; Mars.
"Look, guys, I'm sorry. I screwed up. I know I did. So I came back to put a stop to whatever's going on."
Kup narrowed his optics. "You left Optimus on Trapezius? With Decepticons?"
I hesitated. "Something like that, yeah." Kup drilled me with a mean glare. "Look," I defended, "they're not gonna bite, okay?"
Magnus took his turn: "Rodimus, the Decepticons have been our enemies for millions of years-"
"Yes," I agreed, "under Megatron-who's not only no longer in control, but dead. Okay? We helped the Decepticons rebuild-Cyclonus is in charge and if there's an enemy to be had, mechs and femmes, it's Alpha Trion." They turned from me in disbelief. Their reaction left me to face the solitude of my convictions. "Okay," I started over. "Let's take another approach: Mags, Op sent Mirage to Mars. Mirage has not reported back. I wanna know what happened-and keep this under lock and key." I handed the City Commander the one slice of evidence proving something was going on. I turned to the chief of security. "Kup, when was the last time you had your office cleaned top to bottom?"
"Why are you asking that?"
"Just humor me."
"Uh, last month."
"Good! Get Streetwise in there. Tell him he's looking for two things: Quintesson DNA and anything indicating such a Quintesson has been on Mars."
"Quintessons?" Kup echoed.
"On Mars?" Magnus finished.
"Here?" the security chief had a hard time wrapping his processor around the idea. "How would a Quintesson get past security?"
I stood and sifted through digipads until I found the right one. "By disguise, Kup. Grandma is a Quint of many talents. Or was." I found the pad and looked from Mags to Kup. "That's your job to find out."
Ultra-Mr.-Detail-Magnus studied me. "And what will you be doing, Rodimus?"
"Me?" I picked an electric pointer. "I'm going to snoop around and look for Op's invisible barracks buried under the unauthorized council chamber. Good 'nuff?"
I headed outside, leaving them to puzzle over the moment on their own. I did not have time to hold their hands. As it was, I believed it too late to save anything.