Security was of paramount importance.

The Lords' Council determined that assessing periodical "fitness of citizenship" tests to the general population of Vos was not only a supreme execution of the principles of enlightened government, but absolutely necessary. The tests were designed to provide what was thought to be an absolutely vital supply of information about the daily activities of the population lest the city begin to suffer the effects of what Vos itself executed within the borders of its hated neighbor and rival, Tarn: that was to say, the heavy infiltration of Vossian espionage agents reporting to the Lords' Council about Tarnish infrastructure, local politics, groups most likely to offer significant military and economic resistance, and the like. Vossian agents carefully placed in critical positions within Tarn's news services and government were already effectuating the Council's plan to stir up hostility towards Iacon by propagandic subterfuge, though with rather limited success. However, as one of the only ways the Council had in gathering information about what Tarn was up to, the plan was acclaimed as a total victory even if the Tarnish citizens themselves tended only to harbor equal dislike for Vos and Iacon as a result.

Of paramount importance, however, was ensuring that no Tarnish agents were given the chance to operate within Vos.

And so, once every solar cycle, all citizens of Vos were required to visit an official Data Acquisition Center and submit to an examination which tested the citizen's knowledge of Vossian law and proper social etiquette, a component of which assessed the individual "CGI", that was, "Citizen Gullibility Index". This number, on a scale of one to ten, measured how vulnerable the individual was to propaganda from other polities, and thus how likely it was that the citizen would betray the leadership of Vos or otherwise hamper the efficacy of the Lords' Council and their supreme rule of the city.

Prowl never knew his own score, the results of which were a carefully-guarded state secret, but had he been able, he would have discovered that each time he took the test his score was tabulated as a 1. This score placed him within the very select group of ultra-loyalist citizens that, the Council Board of Analysts predicted, would be the key echelon of warriors capable of rallying fellow Vossians up to about the 5th score rank into defending the city at any cost.

Prowl, of course, knew nothing at all of this. As far as he or anyone else could tell, he was merely Prowl, an Autobot resident of Vos, competitive, proud of his city, hostile towards Tarn and indifferent to everyone else, who filled out his Fitness of Citizenship examination each and every year and thought nothing at all about it until the next one came along.

"What do you know of the political history of the city of Vos?" the examiner asked him.

Prowl lifted his chin slightly as he answered the question. "Our city was one of the original constructions of the Quintessons in the years prior to the Great Rebellion that gave freedom to all Cybertronians. Vossian citizens were some of the very first to throw off the shackles of oppression then, just as we are the most capable of recognizing and eliminating the evils of tyranny now," he said.

"What do you mean by that?" the examiner asked.

"It's a well known fact," Prowl said, "that the Overlord system is in deep decline. This is not an intolerable development, however, for it has become abundantly clear that the Overlords were, in fact, nothing more than tyrants-- and ineffectual ones at that. The energy crisis is deepening and the Overlords have absolutely no solution to offer. The wisdom of the Lords' Council in choosing to separate and incorporate Vos into its own polity was clearly evident when even the lesser cities of Polyhex and Tarn elected to follow our example. But then, that is not surprising, either."

"How so?"

"Because our Council recognizes that cities like, say, Tarn, for example, lack any capacity to place the welfare of individual citizens above the welfare of powerful interest groups. The corporate collectives in Tarn have successfully beaten down the common Autobots and Decepticons of that city and force them to live in a state of ignorant squalor. In contrast, the city of Vos encourages the development of every individual to his or her fullest potential. Our network of Data Acquisition Centers and our labor laws requiring high competency in pre-qualification education are proof of that. Vos is Cybertron's only true meritocracy, a system despised and envied by cities controlled by despots who are and can only maintain the level of the lowest common denominator. Like Tarn, for example. It should surprise no one that the entire Tarnish population is addicted to gladiatorial entertainment."

"But aren't you a participant in the gladiatorial entertainment industry?" the examiner pressed him.

"Unlike the gladiators of Tarn, who fight out of boredom or desperation, I was selected by the Lords' Council to serve as a representative on the Vos athletic team in preparation for the upcoming State Games," Prowl replied. "Anyway, my function is as an analyst and battle strategy advisor for the team, not as a combatant."

"Do you regret not serving as a combatant for the glory of your city?"

Prowl frowned. "You trivialize my position. I am a vital member of the team, and just as completely devoted to the task as my fellows," he said. "I serve at the behest of the Council and in the capacity to which I was assigned. It is an honor and a privilege. I regret nothing."

"Understandable," the examiner said, "but what would happen if the Lords' Council asked you to take up arms yourself one day for the good of the city?"

"I would serve, gladly," Prowl said. "I am a citizen of Vos."

"How do you feel about your city?"

Prowl stopped again and thought for a moment. It was hard to put into words the complex set of emotions that he felt when he thought about what it meant to be a citizen of Vos. Pride, certainly; that was the one emotion that came out strongest. But how could he explain the delight he felt just driving through the city, feeling as connected to the citizens of his community as his tires felt connected to the surface of Vos' many wide avenues? And the reverse-- how was he to express the deep feelings of contempt that he had for their contentious neighbor, Tarn, such as when each time the news would report about the latest ignoble thing they were doing he found himself reacting with visceral disgust?

"This is my home," he said, simply, when he could think of no other way to express himself.

The examiner smiled and keyed his recorder to switch off. "It has been a pleasure meeting you, Prowl," he said, and nodded politely. "Thank you for coming in."

Prowl returned the thanks and left the Data Acquisition Center, his yearly duty completed.




* * * * * * * * * * * *

"Who's next?"

"Sunstreaker," Prowl said.

"Sunstreaker. Which team is he on?"

Prowl looked at his teammate with mild annoyance. "Really, Tornado, if you're not going to upload my memoranda I'm going to stop composing them," he said. He stopped what he was doing to look at the scarlet Autobot for a moment; clearly, he wasn't paying attention to the information Prowl was trying to present.

He was about to lecture Tornado further on the virtues of paying attention but discovered that he didn't have to do it himself. "He's on Iacon's team, Twisty," Tornado's immediate neighbor and fellow member of the Vos Athletic Team, Stormcloud, said. "You know, the team we've been analyzing for the past ten megacycles?"

"You just g'wan and call me that again..." Tornado warned.

"You'll what? Pull your lame overhead axe swipe and put a microscratch on my armor plating? Ooooooh, scary," Stormcloud mocked him.

"Maybe you're bored, but *some* of us would prefer to know what we're up against before we get our tailpipes handed to us," said Radon, team leader for the four champions who had assembled in one of the League's meeting rooms. He folded his silver arms over his similarly-colored frame and shot Tornado a dark look for interrupting. Prowl was giving a presentation on his most recent analysis of the competition at Radon's request, which included a detailed analysis of each contestant of the State Games and their favorite attacks, plus any weaknesses.

"Yeah," Interceptor agreed. Prowl glanced at Interceptor; of the four Autobot fighter-contestants, he was the least sociable. The Vos press called him "Silent 'Ceptor" and begrudged the lack of sound bites during his interviews. They accused the team of hiding him away, not understanding that he was merely quiet by nature. He was also the heavy favorite for overall champion in the Unarmed category.

"So shut up and pay attention," Radon said. He turned back to Prowl and gave him a gesture with one of his silver arms to indicate that he should continue.

"Double yeah," Interceptor agreed. Prowl smiled at him in appreciation. Two words in a row was quite a powerful expression where Interceptor was concerned.

"Sunstreaker," Prowl said, picking up where he left off, "is likely to be a formidable foe. In his last match for the Iaconian championship, he selected unequal sabers for his weapons and very nearly defeated Optimus Prime. We had no idea up until that point that he was even *qualified* to use the unequals, so take note. We don't think he's got any more tricks to show us, but it's worth being cautious all the same."

Stormcloud raised a hand; Prowl stopped his presentation and acknowledged the gray Autobot's question. "What was Optimus Prime using?" he asked.

"Battle axe," Prowl said, "no shield."

"Whoa," Tornado said, apparently interested in the conversation again.

"So Optimus Prime is a definite contender. Who else do we need to watch out for?" Radon asked.

"Just one really stands out," Prowl said. "Megatron, from the Tarn team." He turned to Stormcloud. "You're our best mace contestant, so if we get seeded against Tarn, you'll probably be up on mace against Megatron."

"I shall be *delighted* to see him fall," Stormcloud said. "What are his weak points?"

Prowl sighed, realizing that his next statement was going to be very unpopular. "I have absolutely no idea," he said.

"What?" Radon said, incredulous. "We don't have time for this, Prowl. How can you not have researched this? The State Games are less than two days away!"

Prowl held up a hand for quiet. "I know," he said. "Don't think that I don't appreciate the stakes, or how *vital* it is that we defeat Tarn in these Games. I've been studying Megatron's arena battles for *weeks*, but there's nothing to tell. He's won every single match he's ever played, and he's used a *different* strategy on every single opponent. Not to mention, he has legions of truly insane fans at home. I'd be surprised if we don't see breakouts of violence during the Games when they start flooding into the Interpolity Coliseum." Just the thought of so many filthy Tarnish citizens collected in one place made Prowl's processors want to revolt.

"We really need to know what we're up against," Radon said, putting his head in one hand in a gesture of frustration.

"Believe me," Prowl said, "nothing is more important to me than making sure that Vos earns top honors. I've been working non- stop on this analysis, and apart from the lack of information on Megatron, I'd like to think that we've got a solid advantage against the Polyhex and Iacon teams at least."

There was a pause while Radon considered this information. "Well, it's late," he said. "Let's take a break and come back tomorrow for our final practice. Unless there's more you need to go over, Prowl?"

"I think we've gone through everything I've got to say," Prowl said. "I have a few things for Stormcloud to work on tomorrow with the mace, and a new deflection move I've been working on for you, Interceptor. Otherwise, I think we're in good shape."

"Great," Radon said. He stood up and got ready to leave. "Final stretch, guys," he said. "We'll have final practice tomorrow morning, early."

"And..." Interceptor said, apparently prompting Radon about something.

"Oh yeah," Radon said, "I almost forgot. There's a thing we have to go to tomorrow evening."

"What kind of a 'thing'?" Stormcloud asked.

"An official meeting with the full Lords' Council," Radon said.

Prowl, Stormcloud and Tornado erupted in shouts at this news; Interceptor, it seemed, was already aware of it. "When were y' plannin' t'spill *that* little tidbit?" Tornado demanded.

"Oh, thank you *so* much," Stormcloud said, "the biggest evening of my whole life... I'm going to have to scramble to make sure all my friends can attend on such short notice!"

"You don't get to bring your friends," Radon said, causing a look of disappointment to cross over Stormcloud's face. "This meeting is just for the five of us, in recognition of our outstanding achievement and for the purposes of providing us with a few words of inspiration from our leaders. That's what it said on the invitation, anyway." He smiled.

"This is amazing!" Prowl said. He couldn't imagine any greater honor. His spark felt like it would burst from the combination of pride and sheer joy. His sentiments were clearly shared by his fellows, who looked as happy as Prowl had ever seen them.

They said goodbye and left the League building for the day. There was a lot to plan and a lot to remember for the upcoming State Games, but as Prowl transformed made the short journey back to his personal residence, all he could think about was what a thrill it was going to be to meet Lord Starscream in *person*.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


The final training session of the Vos Athletic League champions would take place in the city's main Arena complex at the edge of the city, a long distance away from the headquarters of the League where Prowl had given his companions their final briefing on the competition. Prowl emerged from the exit of the residential complex in which he made his home earlier than would be necessary for the trip to reach the Arena. He enjoyed driving through the city early in the morning, particularly on the raised highway that stretched across the entire length of Vos' semicircular curve.

The city had been designed on the circular hub model, a pattern which was generally agreed by Vossian architects and designers to be the pinnacle of aesthetic execution; Prowl readily agreed with this sentiment. It had begun as a single triangular slice and had grown in sections completing the circular master plan. There were now three triangular Sectors in Vos, the original Quintesson-built Old City flanked on both sides by new constructions. In the very center of the semicircle stood the pinnacle points of the Lords' Council complex and its associated Division facilities, towering over every other structure in the city. Vos had plenty of room to grow; the area north of the city that was in the ambit of the original circular plan was largely vacant but for a few defensive structures of a decidedly temporary nature. The Lords' Council predicted, and every citizen of Vos enthusiastically expected, that as soon as Vos achieved its goal of primacy in the interpolity community, as soon as it had the economic and political power to govern the rest of Cybertron, the circle would be completed and the majesty of Vos' destiny finally set into place.

Prowl turned onto the ramp to the Edge highway from his West Section home and started on the long drive toward the Arena in the East Section, thinking about the upcoming meeting with the Lords' Council. He had never met any of the members of the Council, nor did he know anyone who had met one of the Lords in person. Of course, the one member of the Council that each and every Vossian felt as though he or she really knew was Starscream, the head of the Council and most visible member of the city's leadership. The week before he had announced the near-completion of Vos' new Ministry of Defense headquarters, which was assured to bring the ultimate in military readiness for any city on Cybertron.

As Prowl crossed over the boundary between the West Section and the Old City, he passed under a long thin arch stretching over the top of the highway. A flashing green light activated overhead and transmitted a message to his directional receivers informing him that the turnoff to a public-access observation point was coming up. Prowl hardly needed the reminder; the observation point was his favorite place to visit when he just wanted to operate his processors for a while. Prowl turned his wheels to the right and took the exit.

It was just a short trip down the access road to the observation point. At this time of day, there were no other citizens around, though in a few hours the plaza would be crowded with Vossians taking a bit of relaxation in one of the most aesthetically pleasing locales in town. Another directional beacon informed his sensors that city regulations required bipedal access on the promenade only and demanded that all citizens transform into walking mode unless their vehicle modes were equipped with thrusters or antigrav hovering capabilities. Prowl transformed and walked toward the edge of the promenade and to the best vantage point of his beloved home.

Like so many other public works projects in Vos, Prowl noted with pride, the observational promenade was a masterpiece of architectural execution. The top platform was just higher than the raised highway, gently sloping upward before flattening out and blooming with public benches and shades. Prowl approached the far railing at the edge of the platform, marveling at the vista stretched out before his optics. Directly ahead of him was the main section of the Old City: in the far distance the top spires of the Lords' Council buildings and beyond them, the wide expanse of a Vos yet to be constructed. Prowl gazed downward, tracing the lines of the enormous support structure for the promenade which was shaped like Vos' supreme commander, Lord Starscream, his hands stretched upward to raise the platform just as the benevolent leader supported each and every citizen of Vos, lifting them into a new era of prosperity and dominance that would last forever. Although the giant statue was a uniform silvery-gray of highest quality metal, brightly- colored banners streamed downward from the edges of Starscream's bottom wing edges, proclaiming "SUPERIORITY", "DEDICATION", and "DOMINANCE" in repeating patterns: the three great watchwords of Vossian civic culture.

Sunlight was starting to flood this side of Cybertron as the new day was dawning. Prowl was nearly overcome with emotion as he watched the top spires of the Lords' Council buildings receive first light, then the tops of the tallest buildings, and downward, until nearly half the city was glittering with the kind of glorious magnificence that Prowl could not believe existed anywhere else in all Cybertron, in all the galaxy, in all the universe here or anywhere in dimensions even yet to be discovered.

For the glory of his home, for the immense pride and joy and delight and *rapture* that he felt just thinking about his city: for this, and all this, Prowl at that moment dedicated his life and all his power to the end of every millennia hence that he would live.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


"Prowl, I don't know *where* you found this," Tornado said, "but it's slaggin' amazing." He looked over the new arm articulator that Prowl had just finished installing. The new joint allowed for an additional fifteen percent flexibility and mobility, as well as an increased overall response time.

"And to think," Prowl said, "you accused me of putting together an attack strategy that no Autobot on Cybertron would be able to execute." He grinned. "Turns out you just needed an upgrade."

Tornado laughed. "Yeah, yeah, just say 'I-told-you-so' and get it over with already," he said.

"Where *did* you get this junk?" Stormcloud asked as he checked out the operating parameters of his new fully-integrated battle mace.

"I have a supplier in Polyhex," Prowl said. "An extremely gifted Autobot engineer named Wheeljack. Although if he heard you refer to his inventions as 'junk', he'd never make anything for me again."

"Polyhex?!" Stormcloud said. "How did you get someone from *Polyhex* to help *you* out?"

"Bolts to that-- how'd you get the equipment through the trade blockade?" Tornado asked.

"Oh, it wasn't easy," Prowl grinned. "I entered Polyhex from the Dead End district and passed myself off as an aid worker under the Overlord," Prowl said. "I convinced Wheeljack that the components were for indigent citizens who desperately needed them."

"Yeah?" Tornado said, "and he believed that the Dead Enders desperately needed two axes, a set of unequal swords and a mace?"

"Sure," Prowl said, with pride. "I convinced him that the energy shortages made traditional weapons useless in Dead End and that decent citizens needed something to defend themselves with. He bought it."

Stormcloud and Tornado both laughed at this. "I love it!" Stormcloud said. "Polyhex supplied the means of its own defeat in the State Games!"

"Slaggin' serves 'em right for allying with Tarn," Tornado said, nodding.

Interceptor started to pass by and Prowl caught him by the arm. "Here," Prowl said, pulling out a data disk and handing it to his teammate. "I worked on these tactical routines all week. You should have no trouble defeating Bludgeon after you upload them."

Interceptor nodded appreciatively but said nothing further; he walked over to an upload computer with the disk in hand.

"Sorry about the junk comment," Stormcloud said. "This mace is absolutely fantastic."

"Glad you like it. Did everyone get to go over their strategy protocols one more time like we discussed?"

"Relax, Prowl," Radon said, exiting the holovid practice chamber and coming back into the prep room. He flipped his two swords around in perfect circles. "We're ready. And more than that, we're gonna make the State Games an unforgettable experience."

"How'd you do?" Stormcloud asked, meaning the results of the simulation.

"Perfect score," Radon said. "That Sunstreaker slagger doesn't stand a chance." Prowl and Stormcloud both chuckled; Tornado let out a congratulatory whoop.

"Time," Interceptor said.

"Oh yeah," Radon said. "We've got three decacycles left before we're expected at the Lords' Council, so we'd better be presentable. You're probably going to have to work *extra* hard getting that way," he teased Tornado, who reached out an arm and shoved Radon in reply.

"Heh, I'll show *you* a perfect score," Tornado said, but he was grinning.

Prowl could hardly contain his excitement.

The Lords' Council!




* * * * * * * * * * * *


The five elite members of the Vos Athletic League left the arena facility together for the trip to the Old City sector and the headquarters of the Lords' Council. This time, rather than take the long route via the main highway at the edge of the city, Prowl and his companions crisscrossed the East Sector on arterial roads within the city's varied neighborhoods and industrial districts. The main gate into the Old City, once part of an enormous wall that served as the primary line of defense for the ancient city of Vos, arched overhead. A moment later Prowl passed the sprawling headquarters of the Vos Central Mining Cooperative, Cybertron's *premier* ore extraction company-- despite specious claims to the contrary from the competition in Tarn. The streets in the Old City were quite a bit wider than the streets in either of the flanking districts, proof of Vos' ancient development as Cybertronians adopted sleeker and more efficient forms over the millennia.

"Almost there, guys," Prowl said over his comm unit. He transmitted the next set of driving instructions and the five members of the team turned on to a new street. A few clicks later, he had led his team to the front entrance of the Lords' Council tower. He pulled to a stop in front of the heavily- fortified front gate and transformed, hearing his companions do the same.

Radon stepped up to the guard station and presented the security chief with the proper access protocol chip. The Autobot chief verified the chip and smiled, motioning to the gate operator to let them through.

"Hey," the chief said as they were about to enter, "good luck at the State Games! I gotta lot riding on you, Interceptor, so don't disappoint me!" He gave a cheerful wave.

"How about a couple words for your biggest fan, 'Ceptor?" the gate operator, another Autobot, called out. The massive gates swung open and Radon stepped through, Stormcloud and Tornado close behind.

Interceptor shrugged as he passed by the gate operator. "Sorry," he said, grinning.

The gate operator got the joke well enough and laughed in reply. "Nice meeting you all. Congratulations again!" he called out, just before Prowl moved into the inner courtyard and the gates slammed shut again.

"Wow," Stormcloud said, gazing up at the nearly infinite height of the Council tower. "I can't believe we're actually here!"

"Me neither," Tornado said. "Where's the slaggin' door in this joint?"

"I think for the good of everyone that Tornado should keep his big trap welded shut," Stormcloud said. "All in favor?"

"Aye," Prowl, Radon and Stormcloud said.

"Nay," Tornado said.

Everyone looked at Interceptor.

"Don't care," he said, flatly, and started walking toward the tower.

"The ayes have it," Stormcloud said, brimming with cheeriness.

"Go socket yourself," Tornado said.

"That looks like the entrance," Radon said, changing the subject, pointing in the same direction that Interceptor was heading. The four of them increased speed to catch up to their reticent companion and approached the door.

Another guard station and exchange of clearance protocols met them inside. Unlike the exterior Autobot guards that had met them at the gates, the inner station was populated by six heavily-armed Decepticons, all of whom appeared to be in a foul mood. Prowl noticed that they verified the protocol chip three separate times and even subjected it to a tampering test before they would allow the group to go forward.

"What's the holdup?" Tornado said while they waited. "Don't you recognize the slaggin' city *champions* when you see 'em?"

"All complaints about security procedures will be forwarded to the muzzle-end of my proton cannon," the supervisor guard said, tapping his fingers on his weapon. "Any other stupid comments you'd like to make, *champion*?" The derision in his voice cut like acid.

Radon didn't move, but he sent a tight-beam internal comm signal to the other four members of the team.


Tornado shrank a little, though it was clear from the expression on his face that he wasn't happy about being told what to do. Stormcloud and Prowl shot him dirty looks, which he appeared to ignore.

"The lift will take you to the conference chambers," the supervisor said. "Don't touch the buttons, and don't roll your little Autobot tires into places you're not authorized to go. Understand?"

"Yes," Radon said. "Thank you." He walked toward the lift, and the others followed in silence.

It was only after the lift doors closed and the car began to move that anyone felt comfortable enough to speak.

"Nice reception," Stormcloud said, casting a dark look toward Tornado.

"Shut up, all of you," Radon said, staving off the impending argument. "This is the opportunity of a lifetime. Try to keep that in mind before you say something *more* stupid in front of the Council." He waited for all of them to nod in assent and then turned back to face the lift doors.

There was silence for a while; Tornado looked as though he were ready to blow a gasket.

"Do you think Starscream will be there?" Stormcloud asked Prowl, quietly.

"I hope so," Prowl said, just as softly. "It would be... just... unbelievably *amazing*... to get to meet him."

"Yeah," Stormcloud said, smiling. "You know I caught a glimpse of him once, when he was dedicating the new Defense Ministry headquarters?"

"You were there?" Prowl asked, surprised. The news reports had indicated that it was a VIP-only event.

"Not at the actual ceremony," Stormcloud said. "But I was there in the Old City district picking up a new plasma regulator for my residence and I caught sight of him transforming and taking off when the ceremony was done."

"Wow," Prowl said. He'd seen Starscream featured on the news many times, but there was something about registering the image with one's own optics that had an appeal the news vids just couldn't match.

The lift slowed and then stopped, and the doors opened, revealing an enormous chamber that surely constituted the entire top floor-- the usable portion, anyway-- of the Council tower. Radon stepped through first, followed by Interceptor and then Prowl, Stormcloud and Tornado. Prowl's optics were immediately drawn to the enormous support structures spanning overhead, the architectural necessity for a tower with such beautiful decorative spires on top.

Radon moved forward, deeper into the room, and the others followed him. As his companions moved out of the way, Prowl could see a raised dais in the center of the room, upon which stood four thrones.

Three of them were occupied.

Prowl felt his spark seize with nervousness; what if he said something foolish and brought shame to them all? He chided himself immediately; after all, he was the elected strategist of the team, and if he couldn't figure out what to say here, he might as well give up all together. And that, he reaffirmed to himself again, was *never* going to happen.

The occupant of the leftmost throne stood and moved toward the edge of the dais, where Vos' champions had assembled in semicircular formation, as the rules of politeness dictated. At his approach, the five Autobots crossed their left arms over the main section of their chest armor and bowed together.

Prowl was grateful that he had researched the proper etiquette for greeting the Lords' Council when the Lord that had stepped forward spoke. "Autobotss, sherishhed citizenss, beloved shampions of our beloved city," he said, "you honor uss with your excellent social gracess." There was a lisp to his vocalizer patterns which Prowl found odd until he arose from his deferential posture and got a better look at the speaker. He was a Decepticon of a very early form-- an insectiform-- no, that wasn't the right term. An... *Insecticon*. Prowl's mind supplied the correct sub-class to the Lord's ethnicity. A pleasant smile came over the Lord's round, orange face as he addressed them. "I am Lord Venom, Commander of the Ministry of Domesstic Defensse," he told them. His back wing panels flickered once as he spoke.

"It pleases us greatly that you have come," said a new voice; this time, the occupant of the left-center throne, and one for whom Prowl needed no introduction as to his identity. This was Razorclaw, a Decepticon of truly ancient design, Cybertronian robot and a feline form of a biological animal mixed together as he was. It was said that he remained in the same body as the Quintessons had forged for him, that he had been intended to serve as a sapient decoration for a king's palace on a distant world populated entirely by biological organisms. If the rumors were true, and Prowl had no reason at all to doubt the veracity, Razorclaw had escaped on the very eve of the Cybertronian revolution by feigning stupidity and harmlessness until the odds against his slavemasters were entirely in his favor. By the time his masters discovered what he was up to it was too late for them, and it was well-known that he had fought in the Quintesson wars with such ferocity and single-mindedness that every Cybertronian who fought by his side counted it a singular honor to have known him. But it was his cunning that Prowl admired most. Razorclaw studied his opponents, gave them just enough leeway to enable him to explore their weaknesses, and then crashed down with unstoppable fury as soon as he had the opportunity to do so. Prowl had studied his methods for vorns, understanding that there was no more effective way to win, so long as one had the patience and the foresight to pull it off. "I am Razorclaw, Chief of the Lords' Council and overseer of Domestic Affairs," that most ancient and venerable Vossian said. He stretched out a black hand to indicate the last member of the Council, seated directly to the right. "This is Vortex, Director of Interpolity Affairs and the Intelligence Service." The throne to the far right was empty.

Vortex was the only member of the Council, Prowl noticed, who had a modernized Decepticon form, exactly similar to Starscream apart from color. Vortex nodded carefully to the assembled guests; it seemed very much to Prowl that Vortex's optics lingered upon Prowl in particular for some reason.

"We offer you our congratulations," Razorclaw continued. "As you know, tensions between the cities of Vos, Tarn, and Iacon have been running high lately. The Overlord believes that the State Games will placate the masses into forgetting the great injustices that have been worked upon them."

"Yes," Radon said; Prowl couldn't decide if he was incredibly brave or incredibly stupid to address the Lords directly. "I'm certain the rabble that makes up Tarn's population will give the Overlord exactly the effect he predicts."

Razorclaw smiled. "I see that we all understand the... shall we say, social *shortcomings* of our neighbor," he said, "although in this case, it is only Vos that has suffered *injustice*. Whatever unpleasantness Tarn has had to endure is solely a product of its own doing."

Prowl found himself nodding enthusiastically in response to this comment. He caught a slight smile forming on the lips of Vortex.

"Unforshenately," Venom interjected, "here in Vosss we are not without our own... limitationss."

"Yes," Razorclaw said. "And now it is time for us, who serve tirelessly for the benefit of you, the citizenry, to be completely honest about the scope of those limitations. You see, we pride ourselves on having built a truly open, egalitarian society here, dedicated to freedom and the ultimate in individualism, in limitless potential and achievement for all citizens! You five-- you are the sterling examples of all our efforts. But the opportunities that we have labored so hard to provide for you do not come without a cost."

Razorclaw arose from his throne and stepped closer to his Autobot audience. "I hesitate to say anything to you, really. I think to myself-- it is well enough to ask the full measure of obligation from myself, certainly, but to ask it of others? To ask it of ordinary citizens? But I think to myself, these five Autobots who stand here, where few indeed ever merit a place-- surely they are no *ordinary* citizens. I hold out hope-- faint hope, perhaps!-- that a request made to *champions*, upon whom so *many* of our hopes already rest, would fall on receptive sensors. But do not mislead me-- I beg you, for kindness' sake, if I am deluded into believing that the Council can trust you with a mission of ultimate importance, of *utmost* honor and secrecy, of absolute *vital* necessity to the welfare and well- being of our entire civilization-- I *beg* you to disabuse me of the notion immediately."

There was silence for a moment; Radon looked at the others, as Prowl did, and as every other member of the team similarly did. There was no mistaking their expressions; all were in perfect agreement with the possible exception of Tornado, who looked slightly confused.

"Your Lordships," Radon said, turning back to Lord Razorclaw again, "we would be *honored* to serve."

Lord Razorclaw seemed to sigh with relief. "I cannot tell you how grateful I am to hear that," he said. "In these darkening times, we are in dwindling supply of true patriots." He turned to Vortex, who had begun to rise from his throne and step forward. "Lord Vortex has all the details of the mission for you, if you will accompany him to the briefing room. You will be working in conjunction with his top officers in the intelligence community."

"Of course," Vortex said, looking mainly at Prowl, "if you were to express an interest in joining us at the intelligence division, a successful completion of this mission would furnish you with all the necessary qualifications."

"And a glowing sset of recommendationss," Venom said, smiling.

"Yes. Well, it has been a pleasure meeting you all-- it does my spark so much joy to meet such dedicated citizens! However, I have much to attend to and must depart. As, I think, must Lord Venom," Lord Razorclaw said.

"Wait!" Stormcloud said; the look on Radon's and Prowl's faces surely reflected the same level of horror at his interruption. Stormcloud seemed to sense that he had just crossed a serious social line and seemed to freeze up. "Is... I mean, was... Lord Starscream unable to attend today?" he asked, weakly.

Lord Razorclaw seemed to pause a moment in surprise; or perhaps it was just leftover shock from Stormcloud's rudeness, Prowl thought. He quickly changed expression to a magnanimous smile. "Please forgive us for any disappointment we have caused you. Lord Starscream is indeed occupied with essential city business at the moment. Even we members of the Council do not get to interact with him at the frequency *we* would consider optimal," he explained. All three of the Lords faced the Autobots with identical smiles.

"Oh, I see," Stormcloud said, emboldened by Lord Razorclaw's generosity. "well, thank you so much for everything."

"The thanks will belong to you in the end," Lord Razorclaw said, "as Vortex will explain. I bid you farewell." With that, he turned and departed toward the lifts, Venom in tow.

Vortex stepped off the dais and indicated with an open hand that they should follow him.

Prowl could hardly wait to hear what Lord Vortex had to say. Perhaps he'd been wrong about how he felt, when he told the Examiner that he felt no regret serving on the sidelines of the championship team. Perhaps-- perhaps that was about to change.


* * * * * * * * * * * *




Behind the throne room, Prowl and his companions discovered, was a warren of corridors and rooms locked shut behind guarded doors. As Lord Vortex led the five Autobot gladiator champions deeper into the tower complex, Prowl's audio sensors caught the muffled sounds of conversation and communication systems in operation within various rooms. He estimated at least a hundred unique individual voices in the immediate area and marveled at how much effort it required to provide all the government services that Vos so freely bestowed upon its citizens. Another wave of pride washed over him, and he thought how lucky, really, he was that he was a *part* of all this grand civic activity. Lord Vortex and the other members of the Council had something special for Prowl and his friends to do that no one else in the city could do. That much had been clear from Lord Razorclaw's request.

"Here we are at last," Lord Vortex said, stopping at what was a completely nondescript door identical to about a hundred others in that part of the tower. He nodded to the door guard, who bowed politely in response and disengaged the lock. Lord Vortex stepped inside.

The door guard gave Prowl and his Autobot companions a hard look as they passed by. But that was to be expected, Prowl thought; they were strangers in the very heart of Vos' most vital political center. Vos had too many enemies not to take extra caution about who was running around inside. The guard cast one more look at all of them before keying the door to close and lock.

Prowl looked around; it was clearly a kind of situation room. The majority of the floorspace in the center was occupied by a large circular table of some sort. The walls were impossible to see behind the multitudes of communications and processor modules filling up every micrometer of vertical space. Information feeds were furiously filling the databases and being recorded on disks; charts and graphs appeared on the visual monitors to display the results. Prowl felt uncomfortable, somehow; he wasn't certain at all whether it was right to be here with so much sensitive information so easily accessible. It was not a question of loyalty-- there was no doubt about *that*.

Perhaps that was the point. They were here because they *could* be here, because Lord Vortex knew that every one of them would happily give up his life to serve his city, and the reward for that dedication was the opportunity to make good on the promise.

Lord Vortex directed them to gather around the center table and moved to the opposite side. He pressed a button; a moment later a small control panel unfolded outward. The top surface of the table then split down the middle and parted to reveal a black surface underneath. The surface was not smooth-- it looked rather like someone had poured black sand all over it. Prowl's sensors analyzed the substance and determined that it was composed entirely of chromagnecite particles. This was, in fact, the largest scale replica modeling device he had ever seen.

"My good Autobots," Lord Vortex began, "let me show you something." He activated the device with the touch of a button, and the black particles began to rise up from the bottom of the surface and assemble themselves into a three-dimensional form. Prowl watched as the lines formed into the shape of buildings, into the skyline, the highways, the raised platforms-- he recognized the shape of Lord Starscream lifting his hands into the air and realized that it was creating a replica of Vos, down to the fine details of the banners fluttering down from the edges of Starscream's statue. When the particles had completed the formation of the structures, Lord Vortex touched another button which sent out specific frequency waves to the individual particles that made up the assembly, according to a complex algorithm encoded in the device's operating system. Those electromagnetic signals triggered a reaction in the particles, sending waves of color rising from the bottom of the surface to the top of the assembled model, creating a perfect visual reconstruction of their home.

"Wow!" Stormcloud said. "This is way better than those little particle models they sell in gift shops!" he exclaimed.

Lord Vortex laughed amiably. "Doubtlessly because this unit is about a thousand times larger than those commonly available to the public," he said, smiling.

"I can see my residence unit from here," Tornado said.

Stormcloud sidled over to have a look. "Yep," he verified, "rust all over the floor and scrap parts laying around. It's your place, all right." Tornado shoved him in response, but Stormcloud just grinned.

"Stormcloud! Tornado!" Radon hissed at them. He looked at Lord Vortex again. "Please forgive them, your Lordship," he said. "They don't know when to keep it welded sometimes."

Lord Vortex only smiled. "Not at all," he said. "We do serious work here, and what I am about to ask of you is certainly serious-- but we are not made of stone. All our effort has been to create a society where honor and friendship and yes, even laughter can exist." He indicated the model with an expansive sweep of the hand. "I trust you all recognize this, our home. Doesn't it look wonderful from this angle? Doesn't it look perfect? Here, see it from all angles," he said, and pressed another button that caused the model to start rotating slowly. "There is our home. There is our masterpiece of civic engineering, the nearly-completed Defense Ministry building. There are the homes of our citizens, the markets, the places of employment, the industries that keep our citizens healthy and happy. And there, in that space-- there is the Vos yet to be built, when we achieve dominion over all others!"

"Wow," Prowl said, barely a whisper. He noticed identical looks of wonderment and honor on the faces of his friends.

"I wanted to show you this," Lord Vortex said, "to remind you of what it is that we are all fighting for. More than just as gladiators, you five-- and we all, every citizen-- what we are *all* fighting for. There is a war going on that few people even in this city really understand. We are fighting, yes, my dear Autobots, we are fighting. We are fighting an enemy that many do not even know exist, and many of those who do severely underestimate how serious the threat really is. There are those who would like nothing more than to see *this*." Lord Vortex pressed another key and the electromagnetic bonds holding the particles into place broke apart, sending the model cascading to the bottom of the surface like mere metal shavings. Vos' towers disappeared into piles of inky dust.

"We have enemies," Lord Vortex said, all traces of mirth erased from his countenance. "Enemies who would like to see Vos disappear into nothingness, as you have just seen. Enemies who hate our way of life, the quality of our citizens' lives, who choose jealousy and hatred instead of trying to improve themselves. We have two great enemy cities in this world, each of which embody the principle that we despise so much: *injustice*. Consider *this* place, for example," he said. He pressed a sequence of buttons on the display controls and the skyline of a new city began to form. Prowl recognized the curved contours of Iacon taking shape; a moment later the structure was complete and color once again brought the model to an exact duplication in miniature.

"Here is one enemy," Lord Vortex continued. "Iacon. Supposed refuge for Autobots-- and watch that claim carefully. For Iaconians *only* tolerate Autobots. Think of what it would mean for you, living here, if all Decepticons were cast out of the city. How many friends would you lose? How many loved ones? And for *what*? A silly distinction that means nothing more than the color of your exterior plating might mean!"

Prowl had known that Iacon was entirely Autobot in population, but he had never stopped to wonder *why*, and it had never occurred to him that indeed, the Iaconians must have made Decepticons feel unwelcome to have achieved such a disparity. It really was ridiculous. How could they live with themselves, discriminating against nearly half of Cybertron's population?

"Iaconians see the equality that we have in this city and they fume with hatred. They see the harmony of Autobots and Decepticons living and working together here and it burns them to the very core. They want us destroyed-- so that their unjust vision of Cybertron might prevail." Lord Vortex cleared the display again and Iacon disappeared. Then he entered another sequence, and a new city--

Prowl knew what it was before even the first tower had appeared. There was no mistaking that sprawling cesspool, its haphazard webwork of disjointed roads connecting patches of planned cityscape-- though rarely planned in harmony with the others-- to smoking, belching factories and the broken remains of emptied ore mines. This was Tarn, a city of darkness, the most hated rival, the barbarian metropolis seething with malice and malcontents in equal measures.

"And this is Tarn," Lord Vortex said. He paused a moment. "I see it on your faces that the crimes of *this* city need no recitation. What was it that caused Tarn to hate us so? What was it about our success, about the hard work and enterprise we put into improving the lives of our citizens that they found so offensive? Was it because they expect someone else to do it for them? Was it a recognition of their own inadequacies? If I live a billion years, I may never know," he said. "I know only one thing," he said, "and it is that these two enemies of ours will never rest until they have brought us down. And we must find some way to stop it."

There was silence a moment.

Prowl thought about this, considering the situation. For every problem, there was a solution. His tactical processors analyzed the data and came up with an unmistakable result.

"They fight each other," Prowl said, quietly. All optics turned to him and he realized for the first time that he had spoken his conclusion out loud.

Lord Vortex gave him a wide smile. "Yes," he said. "They fight each *other*."

Radon looked at Tornado, and then at Interceptor and Stormcloud. The four of them were utterly baffled, Tornado apparently most of all.

"Huh?" Tornado said, with characteristic inarticulacy.

Lord Vortex laughed. "My estimations of your teammate have been wholly correct. You have an excellent strategist in Prowl," he said. "He understands clearly what must happen for our city to survive. With Tarn and Iacon fighting against us, one or the other will certainly win. Fortunately, Tarn and Iacon do not like each *other* very much. Iacon wields the economic power that drives Tarn to a rage of jealousy, and Tarn harbors Decepticons at a three-to-one ratio over Autobots, which drives Iacon to madness. Together, they could defeat us-- by sheer *numbers* if nothing else. But if they were to fight each other, we could pick off the winner at our leisure."

"And that's why you want us?" Radon asked. "What part could we possibly play in something as major as that?"

"Sometimes," Lord Vortex explained, "things that are *major* begin from only a few *minor* actions." He pressed another series of buttons, and much of the Tarnish landscape faded away, isolating in place a complex of buildings and the major road networks that connected them. "This is Tarn's new power generating facility," he said. "Scan this image well. Commit it to memory, for it is the fall of just this one location that will spell the end of Tarn and the beginning of war with Iacon."

Now Prowl understood why Lord Vortex had brought them here to this modeling chamber. Unlike traditional holovid displays, chromagnecite reconstructions were scannable to a high level of accuracy, greatly improving the ability of one's internal mapmaking systems to create accurate directions and estimations of distance and location. The display contained enough information about the structures that Prowl could have calculated the exact number of rivets visible on the surface of any of the structures shown. Satellite reconnaissance wasn't up to the task of obtaining this much detail, either; whoever had gathered the data for this three-dimensional map had gotten it by going into Tarn and scanning it directly, probably one building at a time.

"The denizens of Tarn now believe that Iacon is on an Autobot agenda to wipe out Decepticons--" Lord Vortex began.

"But," Tornado interrupted, "they *are*, aren't they? Isn't that what you... uh, what you said?" He looked incredibly nervous.

"Yes," Lord Vortex said, "I did say that. And it's true. And now even *Tarn* knows it, which may be a first for beings of their limited intellectual capacity," he added, and the room filled with laughter from the assembled gladiators. "As I was saying," he continued, "they have become highly suspicious of Autobot activity. The State Games are tomorrow evening. Almost the entire population of Tarn is expected to be there, save for a few who will be keeping the power on. And that is where you come in. You will-- that is, what we are *asking* you to do is enter the city while it is lightly guarded and destroy this power facility. As the five of you are Autobots, Tarn will naturally conclude that Iacon has made good their threat to declare war on Decepticons."

"How will they decide that?" Radon asked. "What if they think we're who we really are, Autobots from Vos?"

"They won't," Lord Vortex said, "because you will strike at the exact moment that Iacon's gladiator goes up against Tarn's gladiator in the State Games. The timing will be an unmistakable symbol to Tarn."

"And some pro-Iacon graffiti here and there wouldn't hurt," Prowl said.

Lord Vortex gave him an appreciative smile. "Yes," he said, "that would make an excellent addition to the plan. What a valuable citizen you are," he said. "What valuable citizens you all are," he said, looking at the other four Autobots in turn.

"Prowl's not the only one with a mind for logistics," Radon said, and Prowl wondered if the team leader was feeling a little jealousy. But that was silly-- Prowl was just doing what he had been designed to do, what he had been *asked* to do by the Lords' Council for the good of the team! "Like one question comes to mind," Radon continued, "how are we going to get into Tarn without getting caught?"

"I'm glad you asked," Lord Vortex said. "As the director of our intelligence services, I have assembled a team of highly skilled operatives who have been working inside Tarn for quite some time now. They all have Tarnish citizenships and will be able to transport you where you need to go with ease. They also have the materials you will need to destroy the buildings. I'm sure you can appreciate the difficulty it would be to try to smuggle in you *and* a large set of explosives," he smiled. He looked primarily at Prowl when he said it, and Prowl nodded in reply.

"I have a question," Stormcloud said. "How are we going to compete in the Games and be in Tarn at the same time?"

"Only four of you will have to make the journey to Tarn," Lord Vortex explained. "We happen to know that Vos will be participating in the first match against Polyhex, although the weapon categories will be chosen at random. The second match will be Iacon against Tarn. Thus, whichever one of you must participate in the first match will do so while the others make a quick-- but highly effective-- strike into Tarn. Then you'll all be reunited again for the rest of the Games, though I daresay there won't be many in the mood for competition."

It began to sink in to Prowl-- and the others, he assumed-- that they weren't going to compete in the Games at all, really. The preparation work that they had done, the time they had spent... it was all to be replaced in an instant.

Lord Vortex seemed to perceive the unease that this revelation caused. "I understand that we are asking you to make a huge sacrifice," he said. "I know how hard you have worked in preparation for bringing glory to the name of Vos. And of course, it is entirely your choice whether to serve or not. But consider this: consider the far *greater* honor you shall feel, and--yes, I can promise you--the far *greater* honor you will receive from this Council if you help to bring the *ultimate* glory to our home!"

That settled it. It was clear from the expressions on all their faces, clear from the way they stood, the way they held themselves; they would do it. They would be champions of more than just the State Games. They would become champions indeed of the *state*.

"Tell us everything we need to do," Radon said, for all of them.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


The Interpolity Arena spectator stands were filled halfway to capacity before the first actual combatant in any category from any city even arrived at the gates. Cybertronians from every part of the planet had made the journey, some by air on the strength of their own thrusters (mainly Polyhesians), some by the long roads that crisscrossed the surface (largely Iaconians), some by free transport shuttles provided by polity governments (everyone in attendance from Vos), and some by the most inconvenient but cheapest means possible, the long-distance shuttle tubes originally constructed by the Quintessons to haul raw materials into industrial centers for finishing-- but which now largely hauled around the citizens of Tarn in wherever it was they were apt to go. Not that it mattered much. The distinction between dumb ore and the average Tarnish citizen was, in Prowl's estimation, something of a fine line anyway.

Each city participating in the State Games had been given a preparation room, complete with a holovid practice chamber, for use prior to the start of the actual competition. The prep rooms were located as far apart from each other as possible and with separate entrances for each so as to channel any hostility between combatants into the arena instead of outside where no money was being collected. Neutralist guards channeled the flow of spectators, too, so that all the citizens of any one city were directed into the same entrance and seated in the same section. Neutralist city sections were placed in between fractious ones like Iacon and Polyhex. Tarn and Vos were placed on directly opposite sides with the maximum possible buffers of other citizens between them.

Prowl, Radon, Stormcloud, Interceptor and Tornado waited in the space deep beneath the spectator stands where Vossian citizens were filing in to cheer them on, waiting to find out which combat category was going to be selected for the first round. On the one hand, the choice would give one of them the opportunity to do what he had been preparing to do for weeks on end, to compete in the Games for the glory of the city. But it would also deny him the chance for a far greater glory, and although Lord Vortex had taken great pains to persuade them that there would be no shortage of honor bestowed upon the one who stayed behind, every one of the Vossian Autobots secretly hoped that one of the others would be called to battle in the Arena instead of himself.

All, that was, except for Prowl, who as the team's only non- combatant member was absolutely assured of making the trip to Tarn to destroy that city's power generator. Prowl suspected, from the way that Lord Vortex had treated him in particular, that the Lords' Council had made certain that he was included on the team just for this purpose. Strategic advisors were not unheard of on gladiatorial teams, but they *were* rather uncommon. Most citizens never even knew they were there; the names of advisors were never listed with the rest of the team, and as they had no *direct* effect on the combat itself, advisors were not required to register as participants in the competitions. The reception that Prowl had gotten at the Council was flattering, given how little attention he had thought he had gained by anyone, *anywhere*. It really seemed that Lord Vortex in particular knew him personally, and was personally interested in his success. This observation had not escaped Radon, it seemed, for the ostensible leader of the team hadn't said much to Prowl since then and seemed to be suffering from some kind of jealousy. For the sake of harmony in the operation that was about to follow, Prowl found himself hoping that Radon would be the one selected for the first round.

Not everyone had such a positive experience at the Council as Prowl had, either. Stormcloud-- well, he'd had a fabulous time, of course, and it was only the oath of silence that Lord Vortex had elicited out of all of them that kept him from shouting on the streets how he was an important citizen now, directly in contact with the Lords of the Lords' Council. And Interceptor, who hadn't said a single word the entire time they'd been inside the tower was apparently just as unaffected, just as silent, content to wait and see with the rest of them.

But Tornado... something wasn't right with him, Prowl realized. He looked even unhappier than usual and seemed to regard his surroundings with a kind of impatient paranoia, pacing the room and saying as little as Interceptor.

"What an *amazing* couple of days," Stormcloud said, taking a seat on one of the many rest platforms in the main prep chamber and adopting a relaxed posture. "I'm going to be happy no matter *what* happens to me," he announced to Prowl and Tornado. Radon preferred to spend his prep time in the holovid chamber working on his moves in case he was called to fight, and Interceptor had left to use the comm unit in a separate room. That would have to be a short conversation, Prowl smiled to himself.

"If I have to go fight upstairs, I'll just wipe the floor with the Polyhesian gladiator," Stormcloud continued, "and if I'm not up, I'll help give Tarn what's coming to it. Either way, things just couldn't be better."

"Goody for you," Tornado muttered, darkly.

"What's *your* glitch, anyway?" Stormcloud said.

"You're an idiot, *that's* my 'glitch'," Tornado replied just as petulantly.

"That doesn't make any s--" Stormcloud started, but Prowl cut them both off.

"Instead of fighting, the two of you should be concentrating on the tasks ahead. Go over your combatant routines one more time just in case you're called up. And then go over your mission parameters another *ten* times, because that one's ten times as important and we've had only a fraction of the time to prepare for it," Prowl said.

"Fine," Stormcloud said. "I think I'll go somewhere quieter to do it." He left the main chamber and went into an adjoining room, the door sliding shut and locking behind him.

Prowl looked at Tornado and frowned. He wasn't a certified emotional protocols medic, but he could tell that the other 'Bot was upset about something. And though sorting out problems like this wasn't in his usual job description, he nevertheless felt it part of his duties as the team's strategic advisor to sort out any difficulties that might hamper their performances.

"Are you all right?" he said, gently. "You've seemed kind of... off today."

"I'm not damaged," Tornado replied, "if that's what you're worried about."

"That's not what I meant. Is something... bothering you?"

Tornado sat down and looked at Prowl directly. "You have to admit, it's a lot to take in, isn't it?"

"What is?" Prowl said, perceiving that Tornado needed to get something off his springs.

"All this... stuff. Changing plans. Not being a gladiator today, maybe. If they don't pick my category, you know. All the time we spent, everything we have to remember to do now. What if we don't find these guys in time, uh, Blast Off and, uh, Brawn?"

"Brawl," Prowl corrected him.

"Yeah, right, Brawl. Slag, I can't even remember his *name*."

"Let me worry about the logistics," Prowl said, kindly. "I can't do *your* job, after all." He smiled.

"Thanks," Tornado said, "but it's still... I mean, doesn't it seem..." he trailed off.

"Seem what?"

"Just... the whole thing is giving me the surges," Tornado said. "I thought we'd *never* get outta that place yesterday. I mean, Lord Vortex, he was all right, but the other two...?"

"What about the other two?"

"Nevermind. You prob'ly 'd have no idea what I'm talkin' about," he said. "You looked like you were *made* for that place."

"You mean that something made you uneasy?" Prowl said.

"Yeah," Tornado said. "I wasn't scared, you know. There was nothing to be afraid of, anyway, 'cause the place was crawling with Decepticons with plenty of weapons to make sure nothing happened. Lots of Decepticons," he said.

"Tornado, what are you saying?" Prowl asked. Tornado's behavior was very strange indeed.

"Nothing, it's just-- don't you find it kinda weird that there weren't any Autobots around?"

"We met Autobots at the gates," Prowl pointed out.

"Yeah, at the *gates*."

"We didn't see much of the inside at all," Prowl said. "How do you know there weren't a thousand Autobots in some of those closed rooms we passed along the halls?"

"You really think there were even a *hundred* Autobots in that place?" Tornado said, flatly.

Prowl frowned. "Well, why wouldn't there be?" he asked.

Tornado's face changed, hardening into a neutral expression. "You're right. Why wouldn't there be," he said.

Prowl was about to press him further, but the conversation was interrupted by the Arena communication alert alarm. A large video screen flickered to life on the wall behind Prowl, and a recorded voice told them that the announcements for battle categories would be broadcast in thirty astroseconds.

Prowl got up and knocked on Stormcloud's door, who opened it and stepped back into the main room.

Radon showed up next, running in from the hall and nearly colliding with Interceptor in the process. "Did we miss it?" Radon asked, taking a seat in front of the screen. Interceptor took a seat beside him.

"Not yet," Stormcloud said. "Here it comes," he added, superfluously, when the face of the Autobot Director of the State Games appeared on the screen.

He was broadcasting the message from in front of the Overlord's private viewing box. The Overlord himself was not yet in attendance, and probably would not be until shortly before the matches began.

"Attention combatants and gathered Cybertronians," the Director said, raising a golden hand to the level of his equally golden shoulders. "The competition shall proceed as follows. In the first matchup, the city of Polyhex--"

The Director was drowned out by raucous cheering from the Polyhesian section, but it was the vibrations caused by thousands of Vossian voices booing in unison directly above their heads that caught the attention of Prowl and his companions. The Director seemed to have anticipated this reaction, and patiently waited for quiet.

"--will battle combatants from Vos--" the Director said, and this time the cheers and jeers were reversed. A higher-pitched but no less loud boom of voices overhead again distracted the Vos gladiators, causing Stormcloud and Radon to laugh a little at the surrealness of the situation.

The Director seemed to sigh as he waited for the noise levels to drop again. "The matchup will be in the category of Unarmed combat--" he said at last, and this time the entire Arena erupted in shouts. Overhead, a booming refrain of "CEP-TOR CEP- TOR CEP-TOR" grew in intensity until it was clear that every single spectator from Vos was chanting for Interceptor's victory. A slightly harder to discern strain of "BLUD-GEON" seemed to be emanating from the Polyhesian section, with everyone else just booing altogether.

"No," Interceptor said, aghast. "They're making me *fight*?" His voice was barely at audible levels.

Stormcloud crowed with delight. "Take it like a 'Bot, huh? I mean come on, listen to *that*!" he said, pointing to the ceiling and the still-booming voices of the spectators. "That's got to make up for a lot of disappointment, doesn't it?"

There was a knock at the prep room's exterior door. Radon stood up to answer it and was met by four armed guards under the Overlord's division. They asked for Interceptor. "All combatants receive armed escort to the Arena entrance," the lieutenant explained. "Orders of the Overlord."

"No, I--" Interceptor began.

"Kick tailpipe and take names for us, huh?" Radon said loudly, grabbing Interceptor by the shoulders and shoving him toward the door. "We'll be down here cheering for you." He flashed Interceptor a dark look when the guards couldn't see his expression and then finished pushing him through the door. When Interceptor was clear of the room, he gave a cheerful wave and keyed the door to shut again.

"He'll get over it," Radon said, dismissively. "We'll give them two cycles to get lost and then get going. We have to meet up with Blast Off and Brawl in fifteen cycles and it's gonna take eight to get into the Kalis section undetected." The other Autobots nodded in reply, except for Prowl.

We already *know* that, Prowl thought. *I'm* the one who calculated the time in the first place.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


Somewhere on the north side of the Interpolity Arena, seated as one of the many buffers between the Tarnish and Vossian sectors of the spectator stands and to a lesser extent between the Tarnish fans and the Polyhesian ones was the section reserved for citizens of Kalis, a largely Decepticon borough that got along well enough with everyone not to attract much attention to itself. This was somewhat unusual, really, given the relatively central location of the city, about equally distant from Tarn, Polyhex and Iacon. Its citizens were largely indifferent to feuds between the larger cities that surrounded them, and for good reason. As other cities closed off their borders to their immediate neighbors, traffic and commerce increased to other, more distant cities-- with Kalis directly in between. The toll roads were showing higher profits than ever before, and a series of wise tactical decisions by Kalis' leadership had ensured that all visitors would be treated with equal care and respect no matter where their respective cities of origin, just so long as each and every one of them went *back* to wherever it was that he or she had come from. It was perhaps the last truly neutral locale in all of Cybertron apart, perhaps, from Polyhex's Dead End slums, where the shared experience of poverty and dilapidation made equals of every resident in a way that even Vos' government-mandated egalitarianism could never quite achieve.

Lord Vortex had chosen the Kalis side of the Arena for the meeting between Autobots and Vossian spies for precisely this reason. Kalisians were quite used to travelers and quite accomodating-- to a point, of course-- to foreigners. They were also one of the last major trading partners of both Vos and Tarn, and so everyone involved was quite confident that had anyone noticed a group of Vossian Autobots in the same general vicinity as a transport ship with Tarnish registration, nobody at all would have thought anything of it.

All the same, Prowl and Radon felt it best to take extra caution in making their way towards the designated meeting spot. Prowl volunteered to be the scout, as his face never appeared in the news services and it was extremely unlikely that anyone would know he was a member of Vos' athletic team. This suited Prowl just fine, because he was able to control the movements of the other three Autobots with a minimum of resistance from Radon, who had shown an increasing level of hostility towards him. There was really no need for such behavior, Prowl thought to himself. In the end, there would be enough fame for all of them, and as titular leader of the group, Radon would doubtlessly outshine them all.

And it didn't matter anyway, Prowl reasoned to himself. He sent a tight-beam encrypted signal to his companions to tell them that the area all the way to the transport ship was clear of any other Cybertronian signals. The other three Autobots caught up to his position, and were finally within sight of the ship.

A rather dour looking Decepticon was leaning on the ship next to the access door, arms crossed over his chest plate. In one hand he was holding a very large weapon. Prowl determined that his alternate form was of a hover tank and that this configuration matched the description of Brawl that Lord Vortex had given them.

"We're clear," Radon said pointlessly, long after Prowl had made the same determination. "That'll be Brawl. Let's get a move on, team," he said, and started to move toward the ship.

Brawl saw them approach and opened the door into the ship, stepping inside a moment later. Prowl entered first, followed a few astroseconds later by Stormcloud and Tornado, who pretended to look at the underside of the ship as though they were inspectors or engineers. Finally, Radon approached the ship carrying a decoy box of spare parts that had been left at the platform precisely for him to carry inside. A few seconds after that, the door to the ship slid shut, its Autobot cargo safely secured and no one on Cybertron any wiser for who they were or what they were about to do.

"So you're the champions," Brawl said, apparently his version of a greeting.

"Brawl, right?" Radon said, and Brawl nodded. "Where's Blast Off?" Radon asked.

An overhead intercom system buzzed to life. "You're *standing* on him," a new voice said, apparently the ship itself. "Get secured in the passenger compartment," Blast Off said, rather curtly. "We haven't got time to waste."

"Right," Radon said, and looked to Brawl to lead the way. They moved toward the front of the ship and passed through Blast Off's main bulkhead to what was, in fact, his passenger compartment.

"I'll call you on the comm when we get close to Tarn," Brawl said. "You know where you're meeting Swindle?"

"Yes," Prowl and Radon both said at the same time.

"Good-good," Brawl responded, with a wry smile. "Later." He turned and left through the exit leading toward the very front of the ship and, ostensibly, the pilot controls.

Not that a pilot would be necessary, Prowl realized, with Blast Off providing the transportation himself. Prowl wondered why Lord Vortex had sent what was basically an armed guard along on the trip. Perhaps he was there to protect them, if anything happened. Prowl determined that this was the most likely explanation and thought nothing more of it.

Stormcloud sighed. "All that excitement and now... the letdown," he complained. "Spinning our wheels until we get there. I think watching rust form might be more exciting. Hey, Tornado, you've got some rust I could watch, don't you?" Stormcloud grinned, trying to get a rise out of Tornado.

Tornado took a seat several rows behind where Stormcloud had settled in and ignored him.

Prowl sat next to Stormcloud. Radon, too, seemed to prefer sitting alone for the trip. Prowl hoped that whatever was going on with the both of them wouldn't have a negative effect on the mission. In Tornado's case, Prowl guessed that he would be happiest just as soon as the whole thing was finished.

There was something to be said for that. This was a very dangerous mission. There were no guarantees that what they were about to do would work, although-- although in Prowl's estimation at least, their plan was too flawless, too well executed, too simple, and yes, even too *just*, in all senses of the word, to fail. Failure was not an option to Prowl. It was not even a *consideration*. They would destroy the power plant. They would succeed brilliantly. And then they would go home as heroes.

Stormcloud seemed to want to talk for the duration of the flight, but as soon as Blast Off had cleared the platform and began to enter the suborbital transit channel, Prowl told him that he really needed to go over the mission parameters in his head and plan for any unexpected contingencies. This happened to be true, but it also ensured that *Stormcloud*, too, would use his time productively since he no longer had a partner to waste time chatting with.

Prowl put aside all other thoughts from his laser core and concentrated on the timeframe for the plan. So far, they were slightly ahead of schedule and making excellent time on the trip to Tarn. Getting back to the Arena before the Iacon-Tarn match was finished was the primary goal-- after a successful destruction of the power plant, that was. Lord Vortex had assured them that resistance would be minimal and would not, in fact, require them to injure anyone. They would simply plant the charges at the preselected locations and escape. Brawl and Blast Off would be the ones to send the signal for the charges to explode, once Prowl and the Autobots were clear of the complex.

It was simple. They were the perfect agents, because the only citizens left in Tarn during the Games would be the handful of Autobot engineers operating the plant, and the Vossian Autobots would blend in perfectly. Not even the most sophisticated surveillance system on the planet could tell the origin of an Autobot who was in vehicle form. There just weren't that many polity-specific variations out there.

Each member of the team had been outfitted with a special device that, after he loaded the explosive charges into a feeder, would dispense them from the undercarriage of his vehicle form. He had only to drive close to the walls of the building and stop at specific points along the way to deposit them. There was just one section of the plant that would require bipedal access-- the very core of the power generator, and the most important part of the complex that *absolutely* had to be left in ruins for the plan to succeed. It was also the area of least expected resistance, for the Tarnish fools spent all their security measures on keeping the *perimeter* secure, expecting that the interior would remain secure as a result. But there were serious holes in the perimeter security, which Brawl and his team had apparently been creating for several months now in order to ensure success today. They would slip inside undetected, and once there, not a single Tarnish waster could stop them.

Prowl was going over the models in his head again when an unpleasant buzzing showed up on his sensors. He tried to ignore it, but the signal was too regular to ignore for long. Annoyed, he determined to figure out what was causing the problem and started isolating signal channels to figure out which one it was affecting. Once that was done, he started applying different filter programs to see if he could locate the origin and type of reading he was receiving.

Faintly at first, and then more clearly as he cut away the top and bottom elements of the frequency, he began to detect the sound of individual voices. There was a communication device in operation somewhere nearby-- perhaps even Blast Off's internal comm unit sending feedback to his systems.

"Do you hear anything?" Prowl asked Stormcloud.

"Like what?" Stormcloud said, quizzically.

"Nevermind," Prowl said. Obviously, he was the only one able to pick up the signal. His curiosity got the better of him, and he spent the next few astroseconds refining his filters until the voices got clear enough to distinguish individual words.

".... sector... guard... eliminated then," a voice said, one that Prowl didn't recognize at all. He adjusted his filters further, and the signal greatly improved.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," said another voice, this time the one he recognized as Brawl. It probably *was* Blast Off's comm system that he was hearing. Prowl began to wonder if he shouldn't shut off his sensors. But then, they'd still be buzzing in his head even if he wasn't listening. And they were all on the same side, weren't they?

"Don't give me that, Brawl," the stranger said. "I'm going to give you two sludge-heads the same warning I gave to Vortex, and don't you think for even a *microcycle* that I won't take it out on your afterburners if you slag this up. This time there better be NO mistakes," the stranger said.

"Relax," Brawl's reply said, harshly. "We got the Autobots, didn't we?"

Prowl began to feel a strange sense of alarm. Who *was* this stranger? Why was he referring to Lord Vortex sans title *and* as if he were an inferior? Prowl's processors ran the voice signature through his entire database of recorded voices-- even including the ones that he'd just heard on the news or otherwise didn't know personally-- and came up blank every time. The voice wasn't any member of the Lords' Council, not even Starscream. But it might have been altered. Prowl set his sensors to look for a very particular feedback signal which indicated a scrambled or otherwise altered transmission, to see if he could isolate the randomizer algorithm and re-create the underlying voice.

It was unnecessary. There were no extraneous signals of any kind. Whomever was speaking was doing so in his natural voice, and it was no voice that Prowl had ever heard before.

"Just make certain that isn't your *only* success today," the stranger said.

Brawl scoffed. "Or what?" he said.

"Or it'll be your *last*," the stranger said, and the buzzing stopped. The signal had been cut.

Prowl stood up and paced to the other side of the passenger compartment, thinking about what he had just heard. It didn't make any sense! Furthermore, it didn't add any to his comfort to know that Brawl was testing the patience of his supervisors-- not when it was *Prowl's* life on the line. He looked at Tornado, who had his optics shut off and was spending the trip in a rest cycle, it seemed.

He caught Radon's glance, but the leader looked away again as soon as he realized Prowl had noticed him. The last thing that Prowl wanted, he decided, was to have Radon pressing him about what he'd just heard. But he might get suspicious-- Prowl realized that it probably seemed rather strange for him to have gotten up out of his seat. He smiled in Radon's direction and said, "Just felt like flexing my leg joints for a while."

Radon gave him a bland smile in return and nodded his head. Then he ignored Prowl again.

Prowl took his seat, as casually as he could manage.

"It's getting to you, too, huh?" Stormcloud leaned over and whispered to him, grinning inanely. "I told you. Waiting is the hard part."

"Yeah," Prowl managed to say, "you're right."

The overhead comm system buzzed to life again, and Brawl's voice filled the compartment. "Welcome to Tarn, Autobot passengers," he said. "Here's to having a *smashing* good time," he said. He and Blast Off started laughing, as did Stormcloud.

Stormcloud elbowed Prowl. "Now for the fun part, eh?" he said.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


Prowl had memorized every line, every contour, every street and alleyway in Tarn that he would be expected to know and use while he was there, and although he felt as though he knew the place as well as he had known any other-- including his beloved home, Vos-- he realized at the moment he disembarked that he was experiencing Tarn for the very first time and it was, in fact, quite different from what he had expected. The sky was not thick with smoke. A thousand belching smelters did not pollute the air with noise or any other communicable particulant. The streets were not teeming with malcontents-- although, Prowl reminded himself, that was doubtlessly because they were doing all their teeming in Section 6A of the Interpolity Arena. The streets were clean, quiet, and empty of citizens.

Tarn was serene.

Prowl had expected-- well, he didn't really know *what* he had expected, but it wasn't this. Radon and the others transformed into their vehicle modes and, according to their plans, took different routes to the same destination so as to avoid drawing the attention of any security systems that might have been in operation.

Prowl's sensors were set to passive readings only, but even then he didn't receive any indication that there was much of anything in the way of security here. How odd it was, he thought, in comparison to home. Vos had walls and bulwarks and guards and Section Security Stations and a veritable webwork of constant monitoring devices ensuring that crime remained at the preferred level-- zero-- and citizens could remain safe from the threats of Tarn and every other polity that wished harm upon them. Here there were empty streets and simple houses, wide open spaces, and only a few border fortresses scattered on the frontiers.

Their first stop was to a warehouse on the edge of the city, practically at the border of the older version of the place, North Tarn, the abandoned elder city built by Quintessons but essentially unpopulated save for the few that had never bothered to move into the "new" city to the south. New was a relative term, though, for it hadn't been more than a millennia after Cybertron had shaken loose from the tentacle grasp that the larger, infamous city had taken shape.

All four Autobots managed to reach Swindle's warehouse on time and without the slightest difficulty. The Decepticon met them with a friendly enough smile, but didn't seem to want to talk much. He pointed to the stack of explosives on one side of the warehouse and asked them if Vortex had explained how to use the deployment devices.

He called Lord Vortex just "Vortex", too, Prowl noticed. It was more than just indecorum. It was a kind of... personal familiarity. Yes, that was it. Swindle spoke of Lord Vortex as if there were no barriers of rank or class between them--

--surely because no such barriers were *necessary*.

Yes, that explained it. Did Prowl call Radon by any name other than Radon? Of course not. They were members of the same team who depended on each other. That must have been the relationship of these Decepticons, too. And the stranger-- what if he had gotten his meaning all wrong? A "warning", not a threat-- a warning, the way a close friend would warn of a danger to the group effort. One snippet of conversation and he had thought a conspiracy was afoot! Prowl chided himself for his foolishness and resolved to keep his mind to the task at hand.

But it sure didn't *sound* like a friendly warning, some unpleasant part of his mind chimed in. He squelched the thought and set to loading up with the explosives. There was a job to do, after all. Swindle disappeared into another part of the building, explaining that he had some other business to take care of and to page Brawl if they had any questions.

Stormcloud gave Prowl and Radon a worried look, but Prowl just shrugged and Radon shrugged it off. "We've all got stuff to do," Radon said, "including Swindle. So let's get going."

"We *are* going," Tornado muttered, but Radon didn't hear him.

"Good luck, guys!" Stormcloud said, cheerily. He smiled at Tornado. "See you back at the ship, 'Bolt," he said, for once not crafting a pejorative out of Tornado's name.

Tornado seemed to brighten a little bit at the gesture. "You too," he said, but nothing else. He transformed back into his light truck mode and left, as he was scheduled to be the first to make his way to the power generator.

"This is gonna be exciting, isn't it?" Stormcloud chirped to Prowl, as soon as Radon had departed. Another five cycles and it would be Stormcloud's turn to go, and another three after that Prowl would leave.

"You remember your route?" Prowl asked.

"For the trillionth time, *yes*," Stormcloud said. "You worry too much."

"I have to," Prowl said, smiling. "Who else is going to do it?"

Stormcloud just laughed. "I'm off," he said, when his timer beeped for him to go.

Another three cycles passed, and then it was Prowl's turn.

He changed into his sleek vehicle form and left the warehouse, following with precision the route that he himself had designed. His comm unit was set to track the movements of the other three members of the team, who periodically sent him coordinates about their position and speed, all on heavily encrypted channels, of course. He split his time between watching where he was going and watching where everyone else was going, making certain that nobody fell behind or worse, got lost completely. Tornado missed one turn and Stormcloud tended to drive a little too fast, but other than that, the four Autobots made perfect time to the power generator and attracted to attention to themselves.

Just a few cycles later, the Autobots had gathered together at the opening of a secret entrance that Vossian agents had been constructing into the power plant for several months. It appeared on no map, in case any one of them were caught, and the Autobots had only received the coordinates on direct secure transmission from Brawl when they were within half a kilometer of it. All four of them slipped inside the complex, where they knew there would be practically no security measures to stop them.

All that was left to do now was plant the charges.

Prowl was responsible for the northern quadrant, and set to his work immediately. There was a strict rule of radio silence in effect; Prowl stopped receiving even the location signals from the other Autobots.

The power plant was bereft of even the hint of life. Other than the hum of the engines keeping energon flowing into the city, the place was silent. Prowl finished his work and turned to make his way toward the core of the plant, in what would be the trickiest part of the operation.

It was the part they would have to do together, back in robot mode, up close to the generators themselves. If they succeeded, the resulting explosion would render the entire plant useless and completely unsalvageable.

Four of the five members of Vos' athletic team met in a small chamber directly adjoining the lower entrance to the core unit of the plant. The security system had been disabled, just as Lord Vortex had promised it would be, and as Radon keyed the door to open they discovered that the locks had been circumvented-- as also promised-- as well.

"So we'll mine the lower level first," Prowl said, reminding them of the plan--

"Hey," Radon hissed, interrupting him. "I'd like you to remember something." He pulled out a commander's insignia from a storage compartment. It was one of the last things Lord Vortex had given them before they had departed. A small token, he'd said, of some of the honors yet to come. Every member of the team had one that designated his position and specialty. Prowl had left his at home. Radon put his insignia on and pointed to it.

"Thanks for making the plan," he said, "but we're following *my* lead now." He waited for a combative response from Prowl, but Prowl had already decided not to give him the satisfaction.

"Well, yeah..." Prowl said, as though he knew this all along. Inside, his spark was positively raging with anger. What a time to pull rank! He decided that he was going to be glad when it was all over, because he'd never have to speak to Radon again.

"So *follow*," Radon said, hotly, not taken in by the ruse, it seemed. He turned to the door and strode inside.

Stormcloud shrugged and followed. Tornado just followed. And then Prowl entered the core, last again of all.

Prowl took the north portion of the lower level and Stormcloud the south while Radon and Tornado headed up the main catwalk access to the upper level of the core unit. Prowl had just six explosives left to position when he heard Stormcloud calling to him from across the room.

"Prowl! PROWL!!" Stormcloud said, in a loud whisper.

Prowl stopped what he was doing and moved to meet the other Autobot. "What? What are you standing around for?"

Stormcloud's expression was aghast. He raised his arm and pointed straight ahead. "Look... at... *that*," he said.

Prowl turned to see what Stormcloud was pointing at, and the same feeling of shock began to settle into his sensors as well. Lying on the floor next to the power regulator controls was the prostrate body of an Autobot engineer, shot at close range with an electron gun. The crisscross energy pattern left by weapons of that type was unmistakable.

"I didn't... I wasn't the one..." Stormcloud said.

"I know, none of us did this," Prowl said. "I... we..." he found himself at a loss for words. Something was very, very wrong here. Lord Vortex had promised that there would be no resistance to stop them, but this... this was something else.

"The sooner we finish the sooner we get out of here," Prowl said. It was the only option left. "Don't think about it," Prowl said. "How many have you got left?"

"Five," Stormcloud said.

"Just take care of those five and we'll figure out what's going on later."

Stormcloud nodded, looking slightly more reassured than he had been the moment before. "Okay," he said, and turned back to work.

Radon and Tornado had finished upstairs and were coming back down to the lower levels. "Because we have been *ordered* to do so," Radon was saying, in some bit of conversation to Tornado that Prowl hadn't heard, "and that is all you need to know." He saw Prowl doing nothing and demanded to know why he was just standing around.

"I'm almost finished," Prowl said, "Stormcloud had a question."

"Well lucky you're around to hold his hand, then. Give me and Tornado some of whatever you have left," he said, and Prowl gave them two explosives each. The three Autobots turned to finish their work--

--and were interrupted by the entrance of one of the plant's engineers.

"--Blue to check the perimeter again," the Tarnish engineer was saying over his comm unit, "and--" he looked up and saw Radon, Prowl and Tornado and reacted with complete surprise.

Stormcloud reappeared in the center of the room, his task apparently finished. "Hey guys--" he started, before he realized that they weren't alone.

"By the Primal program... I recognize you-- you're members of the athletic team from Vos!"

"Tornado!" Radon said, and Tornado sprung into action. He activated his tunneling wind powers and aimed them at the interloper, lifting him into the air and tossing him across the room. The Autobot crashed and fell to the ground, unmoving. His comm unit beeped for attention and a voice on the other line spoke, "Second engineer... we need confirmation of your last statement. Has station security been breached by agents from Vos?"

Prowl and Stormcloud looked at each other in horror.

"Second engineer," the Tarnish Bot's comm said again, "please respond..."

Tornado and Stormcloud looked at Radon, but the commander's expression only hardened. "They'll all be blown to slag anyway," Radon said. "Let's get out of here while we still can." He tossed the last of Prowl's explosives in the general direction that they were supposed to be placed; Tornado followed his lead and did the same thing.

The final two explosives that Prowl was carrying just dropped from his hand where he was standing. He was amazed to the point of total incapacitation that things had gone so spectacularly wrong.

"Let's *go*," Radon said harshly to Prowl, grabbing him by the arm and pushing him toward the door.

"Radon, we--" Prowl began.

"Weld it," Radon said. "Just weld it." The three other Autobots transformed once they were clear of the building and took off toward the power plant's main exit. There was no use for secrecy now. The plant would be blown to bits in a matter of cycles. Prowl transformed and followed them, gunning his engines to catch up.

"Radon to Brawl," Radon called out over their shared comm frequency, "the bombs--"

Radon's words were drowned out by the sound of explosions. Brawl had triggered the bombs before the Autobots were even clear of the complex. Prowl had to swerve like a mad bot to avoid the debris from falling buildings. Even the roads cracked and buckled from the shockwaves of pure explosive energy that began to expand in every direction from the center of the power plant. As they were about to cross the perimeter into safety, a wall of one of the warehouses crumbled and fell, burying Stormcloud under a pile of rubble.

"Stormcloud!" Prowl shouted, transforming and running over to see what he could do to help. Another explosion, this time from the other side of the falling warehouse, sent waves of debris heading directly toward Prowl. It was only by sheer luck that he had been crouching down behind the pile of rubble that he hadn't been caught in the crossfire.

A dust-covered arm broke through the surface of the rubble, and reached out for a helping hand, which Prowl provided. He pulled up Stormcloud--

No. It was not Stormcloud.

It was himself.

Though covered in a fine powder of pulverized metal shavings from the ruined walls of the warehouse, Prowl could see immediately that he was staring face to face with a seriously wounded Tarnish Autobot who shared the exact same body configuration as he himself possessed. They might as well have been brothers, cast from the same molds.

Prowl had seen many pictures of citizens of Tarn over the years. He had reacted with the same kind of visceral disgust that every other good Vossian citizen felt about its hated neighbor. But he had never, in fact, set optics upon one in *person*, and he found the experience just as alien to his expectations as the vista of quiet, clean streets and orderliness of Tarn itself had been. This Tarnish 'Bot-- he looked nothing like the snarling, devious harbinger of evil that had always colored Prowl's perception of the Tarnish population. He was a broken thing, frame twisted, plating scarred, internal components shooting sparks of crackling protest, this Autobot, he was no adversary steeped in the pathos of hatred, he was just--


"Help... me..." the Tarnish Autobot said.

"Oh, Primus," Prowl said, the first time in more vorns than he could recall that he invoked the name of their mythical god.

Another hand emerged from the rubble, pulling itself up; this was Stormcloud, who-- though dented-- looked in decent enough shape. He saw what Prowl was doing and his optics widened in horror.

"He's injured!" Prowl said. "Help me get him out of here before the place goes completely to slag!"

Stormcloud's face went cold. "Are you kidding?" he said. "Who do you think *put* him here?" He cleared the rubble away from his legs with a few furious kicks and left Prowl behind.

It was all over, now.

Stormcloud would doubtlessly tell Radon and Tornado what Prowl had done. That Prowl was a traitor. And Radon would readily believe this, too, because he was aching for the opportunity to be rid of Prowl and would take nothing but delight in seeing the Lords' Council guards execute him for his crimes. And they *were* crimes. Treason was a capital offense. Even the mere act of rendering aid to the enemy was a capital offense. Would it matter that Prowl had only rendered the aid by accident? That he thought he was saving his teammate when he pulled the Tarnish engineer free? No, it wouldn't, Prowl realized. The law of Vos made no such distinction, so as to maximize the incentive for loyalty among its citizens.

And yet, looking at this wounded Autobot more alike to Prowl than ever he could have imagined, there could be no justice in all the universe except to break the law here, now.

He cleared away a large chunk of metal that was entrapping the Autobot's legs. "Can you walk?"

"No," the Autobot said. "Can't transform... can't walk..."

"Okay, just take it easy," Prowl said. He put an arm under the Autobot's knees and behind his back and lifted him clear, then carried him past the edge of the perimeter and toward a nearby building that was so far unaffected by the explosions still raging at the plant. He set the Autobot down by the door and then used all his strength to break inside. Then he picked up the wounded 'Bot again and set him down on the first open surface he could find, a work table. He had found a factory of some kind, and muttered a small thanks to Primus for the access to basic tools at least.

"What's your name?" Prowl asked.

"Bluestreak," the Autobot answered. "Am I... going to oblivion?"

"Not if I can help it," Prowl said. "Stay still and stay awake, okay? I'm going to find a welder unit." He rummaged through the shelves until he found what he was looking for and rushed back to Bluestreak's side.

"What does your 53-A-J sensor say?" he asked, hoping that Bluestreak's similarity to his own systems was more than just exterior plating-deep.

"Red-Red," Bluestreak replied.

"How about your flux system?"


"Bluestreak," Prowl said, "you're going to live." He pried open the other Autobot's chest panel and started to make a series of small welds that, though they wouldn't solve Bluestreak's problems altogether, would at least save his life until he could get proper medical attention. But that would have to be somewhere outside of Tarn, Prowl realized, if not so much for Bluestreak's safety as for his own.

"Thank you..." Bluestreak managed to say. "Who... are you?"

"My name is Prowl," he answered, truthfully. "I'm going to get you out of the city," he said. "I know a good engineer in Polyhex who can fix you up."

"Not... Tarn?"

"Look, the power plant just exploded because saboteurs put bombs in it," Prowl said. There was no point hiding the truth, but... for now, Prowl decided that his own complicity in the matter didn't need to be exposed. "There's going to be *war*," he finished. "It's not safe to stay here anymore."

"War," Bluestreak said, his vocalizers full of fear.

"We'll get to safety," Prowl said. "I promise you." Bluestreak nodded, but stayed silent.

Prowl finished the welds and asked Bluestreak what his sensors read; after receiving a satisfactory answer, he checked a few other vital systems in Bluestreak's body before turning to the task of figuring out how to get him out of there. He searched the warehouse for a transport vehicle of some kind, but all he could turn up was an antigrav sled piled high with crates. It would have to do. He cleared the crates off the sled and dug up a few securing chains. Then he took it back to where Bluestreak was, and transposed the Autobot on to the surface of the sled. He wrapped the securing chains around Bluestreak so that he had no chance of falling off, and then secured another chain to the front of the sled and to his rear towing unit. He activated the sled and connected its power supply cable to himself so that if the sled ran out of fuel he could supply it from his own reserves. Then he towed Bluestreak to a large loading bay door and activated it.

A few cycles later Prowl and his precious cargo-- that which he had traded, he realized, for everything he had ever known and loved, for his friends, for his city, for his home, for even his own life if he ever attempted to return to any of those familiar comforts-- were on their way to Polyhex.

The power generators at the core of the plant went critical and exploded into a pillar of yellow fire straight up into the sky, burning with a terrible light visible to every other city in the hemisphere and sending a horrible shudder even to the very core of Cybertron.

For this, there would most *assuredly* be war.












In the long view of history, the fate of a single city is unimportant.

If all of Vector Sigma's creations were placed side by side-- were that even possible to do without causing massive fights to break out amongst the assembled-- one would surely stand out as the largest, one the smallest, one the hardiest, and so on, in whatever category imaginable by intelligent minds. And one would stand out as the most logical, whose total devotion to the study and use of rational calculation would be considered a kind of mania were it not for the fact that this same devotion to logic rendered such emotive qualities completely impossible. This one would introduce himself (if it were logical to do so in the situation) as Shockwave, Decepticon and Supreme Commander of Tarn's increasingly militaristic government. There was one principle that Shockwave understood most of all as a result of his devotion to logic, and it was directly related to his secondary-- though no less dearly held-- devotion, the eventual conquest of Cybertron under his command.

This principle, of course, was that in the long view of history, the fate of a single city is unimportant.

Governing the city of Tarn was a means to an end. For more vorns than most of his inferiors could count, Shockwave had been implementing a plan to encourage all Cybertronians with significant martial capabilities to relocate in Tarn and join his Grand Marshals, the fighting force believed by Tarnish citizens to be their best line of defense against exterior threats in general and Vos in particular. The purpose of the Marshals was not, however, the protection of Tarn, although that was a corollary duty necessary to inspire the Tarnish population to devote much of its energy resources to the maintenance of the group. These were Shockwave's personal guards, his fleet of Decepticons-- and to a much lesser extent, a few Autobots who had undergone significant hardware upgrades-- whom he planned to use as the core of a much larger, future army capable of conquering the entire planet.

The long view of history, Shockwave believed, would see himself as the supreme commander of not just Tarn, but Iacon and Polyhex and Vos and Kalis and Stanix and every other province of Cybertron that had or ever would exist. These were his calculations, checked again and again so many times as to be innumerable, and every action that Shockwave took was in furtherance of these plans.

Only two things stood in his way, one a much greater threat than the other. The first and greatest threat was the population of Tarn itself, which had proven to be far more chimerical in nature than Shockwave would have liked. Unlike the core-washed denizens of Vos, whose long exposure to the force of governmental propaganda and the swift removal of all dissidents had resulted in a perfectly controllable society, Tarnish citizens displayed an incredible resistance to even the slightest *hint* of coercion. Even after they were won over, they were not easy followers; they thought themselves the proper leaders of both their own and every other polity on Cybertron, and they *only* respected those who achieved positions of power by the force of extraordinary effort and skill. Furthermore, the price of loyalty was excruciatingly high. Shockwave maintained his position over the people by virtue of two things only: first, his ability to use the Grand Marshals to stave off the threat of Vos; and second, the fact that there was nobody *else* with sufficient public backing to take his place. In truth, as Shockwave well knew, the first reason was the lynchpin of his entire place in the hierarchy, for as soon as he failed his first duty to Tarn, they would reward him with replacement.

He had seen it before. He was a replacement himself.

The second threat to Shockwave's greater plan was the city of Vos. But this was indeed a secondary consideration for Shockwave, for although the result would be catastrophic if Vos were to prevail in any way against Tarn, Shockwave had little fear that they would ever do so. Vos was, after all, a city ruled by three dictators and a public relations pawn so idiotic that he actually believed himself the driving force behind the entire government. Vos was, in Shockwave's estimation, the equivalent of an only occasionally dangerous *joke*. They could be thwarted with ease just as soon as whatever plan they were compiling was discovered, because their plans tended to be overly complex and reliant upon highly unreliable agents, the natural consequence of their concerted effort to make drones out of citizens.

The trickiest part about keeping Vos under control was obtaining the information in the first place, a task which seemed to have gotten significantly more difficult for Shockwave since he had promoted one of his junior officers to the Executive Strategy Committee-- a Decepticon named Onslaught. Shockwave had investigated a number of possibilities but found that the most logical conclusion was indeed that Onslaught was a traitor. His most recent activities had been dedicated to making the case against him and, if it was possible, using Onslaught in the ironic position of furthering his own goals.

Shockwave had finally succeeded in the one area that was always the most troubling: he at last had a reliable source of information about Vos' plans, someone who, as luck would have it, was providing vital intelligence from the *highest* source-- the Vos Lords' Council itself. He now knew that Vos was planning to attack the city, and had directed his operative to discover in particular *whom* was behind it. The last time the agent had been in contact, he had estimated that the attack would take place shortly after the State Games and promised to be in contact again as soon as he had solid information about the target and everyone who was involved. Unfortunately, given the nature of the operation and the extra level of paranoia that Vossian communications monitors were applying, it would most likely be impossible to make contact until almost the very *moment* that the attack would take place.

Prowl, the Autobot that in former days made Vos his home but who now had, in essence, no home at all, could never have known how complex the machinations nor how numerous the actors working behind the political scenes. Like Starscream, he too was a pawn, and for so long had been intentionally deprived of anything even *resembling* the truth that in many ways he lacked the capacity to discern it at all.

Prowl and Shockwave had only one thing in common, one shared experience of which the significance was not lost on either; for as the enormous pillar of light exploded into the sky and grew brighter and hotter until every last astroliter of Tarn's energon supply was vaporized, Shockwave realized-- as did Prowl- - that *everything* had just been shot to hell.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


For all the vorns hence that Prowl would live, he would have only the faintest memory of the trip that he made from Tarn to Polyhex. Admittedly, this was because his mind was not functioning in anything close to a rational state at the time, and in fact he spent the thirty megacycles that it took to get to Wheeljack's laboratory in a kind of hurried daze, still traumatized by what he had seen and to a greater extent what he had *done*.

Wheeljack was surprised to see him show up again so soon after their last transaction, but even more surprised when Prowl told him that the power reactor in Tarn had exploded and that he was carrying one of the wounded. When Wheeljack asked, as Bluestreak had done, why he hadn't sought medical attention for the Autobot engineer in Tarn itself, Prowl had three ready answers. First, practically the entire population of Tarn was attending the State Games, making the possibility of finding a medic unlikely. Wheeljack, on the other hand would certainly be available, for as Prowl well knew, Wheeljack was indifferent to the gladiator sport and probably didn't even know the Games were going on. This lack of familiarity with the gladiator circuit was precisely why Prowl had used him as a weapons supplier in the first place, because it was unlikely that Wheeljack would know who Prowl really was or guess what the weapons would be used for.

Second, Prowl admitted (while lying, ironically) that although he had been in the service of the Overlord for quite some time in Polyhex and other minor cities, that was his first trip to Tarn on official business and he didn't know the city well enough to know where to go for help. Finally, Prowl explained, and this required no fabrication whatsoever, he believed that the result of destruction of this magnitude would be war. *Imminent* war.

Wheeljack didn't question a single part of Prowl's reasoning, but rather admitted that in those circumstances he would have done the same thing.

"I dunno what *I* can do for him, though," Wheeljack said as the two of them unloaded Bluestreak from the antigrav sled and moved him onto a long workbench. "I can fabricate tools and weapons and even components all right, but... Primus, a whole *Autobot*?"

"I know his systems," Prowl said. "Look at us, we have the exact same design. I can tell you everything that you need to do to repair him. I would have done it myself but I haven't got the necessary tools to complete the procedures."

"Poor slagger," Wheeljack said, looking at Bluestreak's badly mangled form. "Well, I guess anything's better than the way he is now. Bring over the mobile diagnostic array while I fire up the autolaser," he said, and Prowl felt a wash of relief pass through his systems. Here would be *one* thing, at least, that he would have done *right*.

They worked together for fifteen megacycles making repairs to Bluestreak's vital systems, Wheeljack carefully following Prowl's instructions on what to do in order to achieve the correct result. When they were finished, Prowl accessed Bluestreak's own self-diagnostic programs by connecting them into his own processors, one by one, so that he could see firsthand what the status of his systems were. They used most of Wheeljack's fuel reserves to bring Bluestreak back to consciousness. Prowl was low on fuel himself but refused to take even a drop until Bluestreak was at capacity, and only agreed to take it after Wheeljack pointed out that he wouldn't be able to fix Bluestreak without Prowl's help.

"Here goes nothin'," Wheeljack said, and switched Bluestreak's systems back to full operational capacity.

Bluestreak's optics lit up, blinked once and then stayed on. He looked at Prowl and then at Wheeljack.

"How ya feelin'?" Wheeljack asked.

"Where am I?" Bluestreak asked.

"In Polyhex," Prowl answered. "Do you remember me telling you that I would take you to Polyhex?"

Bluestreak's optics narrowed slightly, and then returned to normal. "Yes, I think I remember that," he said. "But... what happened to me? I was working at the plant, and everything was fine. I went to check the perimeter and then there was a loud boom and the ground started shaking, and then all of a sudden there was an even louder boom and then everything went dark. I... did you see it happen?"

"Yes," Prowl said, "the power plant exploded. A wall collapsed on you."

"Oh, that's it," Bluestreak said. "I remember now... you pulled me up out of the rubble," Bluestreak said. "And... you fixed me?"

Prowl shook his head. "Wheeljack did that," he said, pointing to the Polyhesian engineer.

"Oh no, no," Wheeljack said, holding up his hands. "I just operated the tools. Prowl here was the one that put ya back together."

"You did all this for me? But... you don't even *know* me!" Bluestreak said.

"You were injured," Prowl said. "When I saw you there... I couldn't let you die," he said, finding that the answer was far more honest than he had expected it to be.

"Prowl here is an aid worker for the Autobot Overlord," Wheeljack said. "Saving other 'bots is what he does best."

"Wheeljack..." Prowl said, trying to get him to stop.

"Oh yeah, and he's way too modest about it, too. How are your systems holding up? We checked you out as well as we could, but... anything we missed?"

"I don't think so," Bluestreak said. "I feel pretty good." He tried to sit up and Prowl and Wheeljack each took an arm to help him do so. "Thanks," he said. He looked down at his exterior plating and shook his head. "I feel a whole lot better than I *look*, I guess," he said, venturing a smile. "My name's Bluestreak," he said to Wheeljack. "From Tarn. Is this really Polyhex? I've never been to Polyhex before. I've never been to most places, actually, except once I went to Kalis on vacation. Well, not really vacation, I went to pick up some machine parts for the power plant and the transit tubes went out of service for like three days so I was stuck there until they were repaired, but I had a good time and met some interesting people from Tarn that I didn't already know, and this really cute femmebot from Stanix gave me her comm signal frequency. That was pretty great."

Prowl and Wheeljack stopped and stared at him.

"Does he always yak this much?" Wheeljack asked.

Prowl shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "Not when I found him."

Bluestreak laughed. "Oh, you guys are great. I'm here for like what, less than a day and you're already teasing me. I love it! Anyway, I can't thank you two enough for saving my life. I sure wasn't looking forward to going to oblivion today."

"Nobody ever is, little buddy," Wheeljack said. "Why don't you try transformin' a coupla times to make sure everything's working?"

Bluestreak hopped down from the workbench; Prowl and Wheeljack backed off to give him some room to change to his vehicle mode, which he did several times with no adverse effects.

"I'm all set, doc!" Bluestreak said, cheerfully.

"No, no, no, no," Wheeljack said. "Don't start callin' me 'Doc'," he warned. "I'm not turnin' my lab into a charity ward."

"I owe you all the same," Bluestreak said. "How I can make it up to you?"

"Well," Wheeljack said, "you can start by helping me clean up the place. It's about time for the news transmissions to start, too--"

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Prowl warned.

"Oh," Wheeljack said, picking up on Prowl's concern, "Maybe it would be better not--"

Bluestreak looked at the two of them for a moment and then realized what was going on. "No," he said, "it's all right. I'd... I think I'd like to see it. I had a lot of friends in there, and... even if they're gone now... I'd like to know one way or the other." He was putting on a brave face, Prowl realized, but there was no mistaking the hesitation in his voice.

"Yeah, but..." Wheeljack started.

"No, I mean it," Bluestreak said, sounding more confident. "I want to know."

Wheeljack activated the main viewing screen and selected the frequency for the Polyhex Public News transmission. The broadcast had already begun; just as Prowl had predicted, the first images to appear on the screen were of the horrific damage at Tarn's power plant.

Bluestreak looked as though all his fuel had drained into his feet.

"--site of the destruction," the announcer was saying. "Tarn's power generation capacity has been drastically reduced, some are even saying eliminated. Initial reports that the damage was caused by a team of saboteurs have now been confirmed by the public information office of Tarn's government. Supreme Commander Shockwave made a public announcement just two megacycles ago."

The screen changed to show Tarn's dictator standing alone in front of the wreckage of the power plant, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of Tarnish soldiers. "This attack was perpetrated by agents of Vos," Shockwave reported. "It is difficult to say with any certainty what quality Vos has more in abundance-- cowardice or foolishness. The results of this attack will be absolutely unavoidable. We will respond with all our power against Vos. With this act, war has begun."

"Primus," Bluestreak whispered.

"Oh, this... is *not*... good," Wheeljack said.

"The saboteurs have now been identified as three of the four members of Vos' athletic team, all of whom had been scheduled to fight later in the day at the Interpolity Arena," the reporter continued. The screen changed to footage of the tournament. "Only one member of the team was at the Arena prior to the attack, Interceptor, who was soundly beaten by Polyhex's champion, Bludgeon, in the unarmed category. The Games were interrupted by news of the attack, with citizens from all cities rushing home to fortify their own borders."

"Interestingly enough," another voice of a different announcer began, and the images shifted to footage of the gladiatorial bout between Megatron and Sunstreaker, "the Games themselves were well on the way to notoriety in any case, after Tarn announced that it would be represented by only *one* champion in all four categories of combat. There was some opposition voiced by other polities to this development, but the Overlord's analysts could find no prohibition in the rules against sending only one gladiator to compete. The possibility of having to forfeit in case of defeat in the early rounds didn't seem to bother Tarn's sole gladiator, Megatron. It didn't seem to affect Megatron's performance, either, as the Decepticon easily bested Iacon's Sunstreaker in the last round before the Games were halted..."

"All right Megatron!" Bluestreak said, sounding entirely too happy about it for the sentiment to have been genuine. A moment later, his face had resumed the pained expression as he waited to hear the final damage estimate from the power plant.

He didn't have to wait long. Casualties were total. Bluestreak, it seemed, was the only survivor of the attack, and as long as nobody in Tarn knew that he had made it out alive, they accounted him as one of the handful of obliterated dead for whom there was no physical trace of evidence remaining.

Wheeljack shut off the news, which had changed to another topic.

Nobody said anything for a long time.

Finally: "I'm sorry, Bluestreak," Wheeljack said. "It's... it's just awful."

"I don't understand why it happened," Bluestreak said, quietly. "What did... what did my friends ever do to anyone in Vos? We weren't even soldiers!"

Wheeljack just shook his head and said nothing.

/Because *I* determined that was the best way to destroy the entire city of Tarn, that's why,/ Prowl thought, but all he actually said was: "There is no adequate explanation for hatred."

That might have been true, Prowl thought. There was certainly no explanation-- at least, no *adequate* explanation-- for his own behavior. "Vos hates Tarn," he continued, stating only what everyone already knew. "They hate Tarn and nobody there even knows *why* they hate Tarn," he said. "They just seem to *feel* it, deep in the unreachable parts of their sparks, they *feel* so much hatred. There's... no room for sensibility. No room for *anything*... else."

"I take it your travels brought you to Vos a few times," Wheeljack said. "That about sums up *my* experience with Vossians, too. Talk about a creepy metropolis," he added. "Place is like a giant mind control experiment."

Bluestreak didn't say anything for a long while. The pause made Prowl rather uncomfortable. The Tarnish Autobot merely looked down at the floor, hardly moving at all.

"I think I'd like to rest for a while," Bluestreak said. "Is there someplace quiet here?" he said, casting a brief glance at the darkened viewing screen. Prowl sunk a little-- he was right about the effect of the news broadcasts. He should have insisted on keeping them off. He should have overruled Bluestreak.

He had wounded the Tarnish 'Bot yet again.

"Sure," Wheeljack said, "I've got a spare residence unit down that hall, you can rest there as long as you like. But... are you sure you want to be alone?"

Bluestreak nodded slowly. "Yeah," he said. He paused again, and then looked up at Prowl and Wheeljack. "Thanks-- for what you've done for me."

"Okay," Wheeljack said, as Bluestreak turned and made his way into the corridor. It wasn't until they'd heard the door unit to the residence open and then close again that either Prowl or Wheeljack moved.

"Poor guy," Wheeljack said. "I sure hope they catch the slaggers that did this."

Prowl stared into the empty space of the corridor. "They will," he said.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


Bluestreak did not emerge from the residence at all the next day; neither Prowl nor Wheeljack had the spark to disturb him. Instead, the two of them spent the day cleaning up the laboratory from the mess they had made while fabricating emergency parts for Bluestreak and installing them. When that was finished, Prowl offered to help Wheeljack with the work he'd left undone in the meantime, and Wheeljack readily accepted. They spent the rest of the day and most of the next working and listening to the news reports as they came in. Prowl assumed, naturally, that Vos and Tarn were gearing up for a protracted war with one another, but the news reports that day said practically nothing at all about it. This was because something even more remarkable had happened.

The last Autobot Overlord was found dead on the highway between the Interpolity Arena and Tarn.

Tarn's Megatron and Iacon's Optimus Prime had been escorting the Overlord to safety when they were caught in the crossfire of rebel forces. The Overlord had just... expired. He ran out of energon in what was agreed to be the most barren, inhospitable part of Cybertron.

Wheeljack offered his condolences, and Prowl thought, with a kind of morbid relief, that his lies about being part of the Overlord's company were probably never going to be discovered now that he was dead.

By the following morning, Cybertron was in complete chaos. Although it was true that most of the larger cities had their own councils and governing structures in place, a substantial portion of the smaller communities still claimed the Overlord as their commander. These cities now had no leadership at all, for the Overlord had neither named a successor nor had he implemented any plans for this contingency. The price of a barrel of energon skyrocketed past a thousand Iaconian credits each in most of the southern hemisphere, including Tarn. Kalis had declared martial law and was expelling all foreigners out of the city, no exceptions. The news reports showed half-wounded Cybertronians who had fled to Kalis for medical treatment being dropped outside the borders of the city and given half a day's ration of energon as the only compensation. Most of them, the news services reported, probably would not survive. Iacon announced that it would take any refugees who wished to come to the city, and was almost immediately flooded by Cybertronians eager to take up the invitation.

"Can you believe this?" Wheeljack said. "The whole *planet's* gone bolts." He shook his head in bewilderment.

"No," Prowl admitted. "I never thought it would come to *this*," he said.

"It's gonna be *bad*," Wheeljack said. "I can feel it. Who woulda figured on the Overlords just... disappearin'?. Lookit that-- nobody knows what to do or who's in charge. Thank Primus that Polyhex is okay, at least."

"They aren't saying anything about Vos and Tarn," Prowl said.

"Well, have ya seen the craziness everywhere *else*?" Wheeljack said. "It's a wonder they're reporting anything at all!"

"I know that," Prowl said. "But..."

"Ohhhh," Wheeljack said, "Bluestreak. Right. In his condition, maybe we should be glad that we *haven't* heard anything. At least we know that way the city's still standin'."

"Yes, I just wonder--" Prowl began, but his words were interrupted by an incoming transmission on his comm system. "Excuse me," he said, and turned away from Wheeljack to process the signal.

It was from Interceptor. There were only two parts to the communication. The first was a set of location coordinates.

The second was a single word: MEET.

Prowl looked at the coordinates; it was within visual range of Vos, but well outside Vos' sovereign holdings, in a strip of neutral territory. Two days earlier it had been part of the Overlord's domain, but in the absence of the Overlord it probably belonged to nobody at all.

"I have to go," Prowl said to Wheeljack.

"Go? You mean out *there*? Are you insane?" Wheeljack asked.

"I don't have a choice," Prowl said. He ran out of the room and out of the laboratory before Wheeljack could say anything else. When he was clear of the building, he sent a communication to Wheeljack with his comm unit locator frequency and asked him to take care of Bluestreak until he returned.

He was absolutely certain, however, that he wouldn't be returning at all.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


It was going to be a trap.

That much Prowl knew, and yet he went anyway, partly out of a desire to explain himself to his friends, for although he could not ask for their forgiveness he *would* ask, at least, for their understanding. Or perhaps he went because he had finished what he set out to do when he left Tarn-- save Bluestreak's life-- and owed nothing else to him. But that wasn't true, was it? Like so many of the lies he told Wheeljack, and Bluestreak, he was lying now even to himself, wasn't he? His mind struggled with the question, the painful reality that was starting to dawn upon him. Oh, what a noble Autobot are you, the cruelest part of his mind chorused, who saved the life of the Autobot you only ever tried to *kill*. Oh yes, you owe him *nothing* more at all, you noble being.

Maybe, he decided, the reason he was going to meet Interceptor and the others in what was certain to be a trap was because deep down in the tiny part of him that could still tell right from wrong, he *wanted* to be caught. He *wanted* his crimes exposed, he *wanted* to pay for his mistakes, he *wanted* to prove himself to Bluestreak by willingly demonstrating just how unworthy of Bluestreak's friendship he really was.

And that was what he would do, he decided. If they were going to take him back to Vos as a traitor, he would go willingly.

As Prowl approached the coordinates he noticed what looked like a cargo container on a ridge overlooking the valley in which stood the city of Vos. Prowl could see, very faintly in the distance, what appeared to be a large army advancing from the south. He guessed that the war between Vos and Tarn had indeed begun, and that Shockwave had sent the first of his shock troops in to battle.

Prowl approached the cargo container, but did not see anyone else in the immediate area. He transformed, and approached the box.

It was silent. He did not try to open the container, but searched the ridge with his scanners for any sign of life.

A few cycles later, he heard a sound from the air above and turned around to see a jet-form Decepticon transform and land on two feet directly next to the crate.

Prowl grabbed his pistol on instinct and leveled it at the Decepticon, but the other did not move.

The Decepticon smiled. "I knew you'd come," he said.

"Who are you?" Prowl demanded.

"Don't you recognize your old friend?" the Decepticon said. "Come on, Prowl, use that *incredible* strategist power you've got, huh? You know, the one Radon hated you for."

"Radon?" Prowl guessed.

"Whoa-ho!" the Decepticon said. "Totally wrong, I'm afraid. Yikes, your powers of perception are pretty rusty, Prowl. Maybe that's why you got along so well in Vos. Oh, the Lords' Council, they just *loved* you, Prowl. If they could only see you *now*. Look at you. You're completely baffled. Maybe if I talk like this--" he said, and his vocalizers changed in pitch and tone-- "maybe you'll recognize me then. Oh, wait, I'm talking too much. Maybe you won't." The Decepticon grinned.

"Interceptor," Prowl said. There was no mistaking the voice signature, although he had just spoken more words than Prowl had heard Interceptor speak in the entire six months they'd known each other.

"So close, so close," the Decepticon said, in his first voice. "Interceptor. Yes, that was what the Autobot whose body I took used to call himself. Of course, he doesn't call himself anything now, in oblivion. But oh, I suffered to let everyone *believe* that he was still alive. Even changed my voice to match his, although I couldn't talk much lest someone figure out that I was altering it. Why, I ask you, can't someone design a body so the voice system is *separate* from the laser core? It would make my life *so* much easier."

Prowl was horrified. Could he really be saying what Prowl thought? "You... murdered Interceptor?"

"Oh *please*. 'Murder' is such a loaded word. I like to think of it as doing my part to reduce energon consumption. Anyway, the old Interceptor was little more than a drone-bot as it was. After I took over, he got glory and fame and accolades and just *this* close to the Lords' Council itself." The false Interceptor made a space between two fingers to demonstrate the point. "But now, thanks to a serendipitous loss to Bludgeon in the Arena, I'm back to being, well, *me* again. So let's dispense with the falsehoods, shall we? You can call me Steamhammer, espionage agent extraordinaire and all around superslagger. And how about you? Here, all this time I thought you were Prowl, deadly dull strategy drone for glorious, glorious Vos. Oh, but you had a secret self, too. You weren't deadly dull, you were just plain *deadly*. I think I could even *like* you for it."

"What are you talking about? I haven't killed anyone!" Prowl said, angrily. The thought of this thing, this *monster* accusing him of doing what he himself was guilty of was more than he could stand.

"Oh, Prowl, of *course* you did. Haven't you heard? The Lords' Council put a price on the heads of every member of the athletic team-- all *four* of them. Yes, you heard me right," Steamhammer said, before Prowl could say anything. "That's really *delicious* part. You're not on the list. Do you know why? Because you weren't on the shuttle that went back to the Arena. Nobody except me, the rest of the Vos team and the Lords' Council knows that you were even there. And the Lords' Council can't put a price on your head, because that would mean they know something nobody else does about who was responsible. Which means *everyone* would know that they planned the whole thing and they'd lose the only allies against Tarn that they still have. That is, the ones they *duped* into believing that Tarn blew its *own* reactor up. Oh, it was close, though. So close. Do you know they *killed* the Overlord's guards, the ones that came to get me before the first round of the competition? They were the only other Cybertronians to see all *five* of us together. You've got to hand it to them, really. They don't do much right, but they cleaned that mess up nicely."

"I don't believe this!" Prowl shouted. "You can't be who you say you are!"

"Good, good! There's that passion you have so much of. All the Vossians do. It's practically the only thing you've got left. Just blind hatred, blind anger, blind rage. It's a wonder you can see at all. Can you see it now, Prowl? Do you remember those ridiculous loyalty tests they made us all take every year? My favorite question was the one about what we planned to do to help Vos complete the full circle of its destiny. What an *amazing* question. They meant, what would we do to help build the other half of Vos... remember that ridiculous promise? Oh, but it was a lie too, did you know that? There's only one reason Vos is only half-finished. *Weight*. The city is built on a hollow network of caves. They can't build any more, because if they do, the cavern roof will collapse and the whole city down with it. Isn't that funny? A hollow city built on hollow ground. Oh, but you believed the lies, didn't you? You believed it was only everyone *else* keeping Vos from its destiny. How pathetic. Maybe I don't like you so much after all."

Prowl didn't know what to say. It was possible that Steamhammer was lying, but what would be his purpose in doing so?

"Haven't you figured it out yet?" Steamhammer asked. "I'm from Tarn. I work for Shockwave, and I'm very, very good at what I do. Can you see why I called you here? Congratulations, Prowl! You're a 'Bot without a city. There's only *one* thing you've ever done right: you betrayed Vos. Come with *me*. Come back with me to Tarn. You're obedient, loyal to a fault, willing to do whatever your superiors tell you to do. You'll fit right in. So what do you say?" He smiled.

In the deepest part of Prowl's spark, he felt an almost overpowering desire to go with Steamhammer to Tarn. He was right, wasn't he? Prowl *had* no city anymore. That was a strange, frightening feeling, not to have a home. For the first time in all his life, he was truly alone, and the idea of being able to integrate into a society again was so appealing that it was almost irresistible--


No. Something wasn't right here. Steamhammer was working for *Shockwave*. Shockwave wasn't going to send an agent into Vos just to recruit soldiers. Prowl couldn't escape the feeling that something didn't add up about Steamhammer's offer. He forced himself to close off the panic that his spark was feeling and look at the situation differently, the same way he analyzed strategic problems for the gladiator teams, the way he'd looked at the political relationship between Tarn and Iacon and realized that Vos would have to persuade them to fight each other if it was to survive itself.

"No," Prowl said, "you're lying. You didn't call me here to take me back to Tarn. Tarn doesn't need me. Tarn wouldn't even *want* me. You called me here for something *else*. Wait--" Suddenly, it was all clear exactly what Steamhammer was doing. "You're trying to infiltrate the Lords' Council again, only this time as *yourself*. You're trying to turn me in for the reward. You've probably already done it to the others," Prowl said.

There was silence a moment.

Steamhammer smiled widely. "Who says all Vossians are brainless automatons?" he said. "I'm impressed. Yes, that *was* the plan, until about twenty cycles ago, when... shall we say, new information came my way. Look, I was all prepared and everything," he said. He took a step toward the crate and pressed a button on its control panel. The front side of the crate unlocked and fell downward with a crash, revealing the contents--

Oh, Primus.

There were three disembodied heads hanging up in the crate, each one attached to a post. Dangling down from each head was the systems cortex bundle, and attached to it the laser core and spark containers of three dead Autobots.

Radon. And Tornado. And Stormcloud.

They were dead. Their laser cores had been sliced in half, and with no power or body to sustain it, the sparks had disappeared, too.

"I suppose I neglected to mention that the Lords' Council put a price on your heads, dead or alive," Steamhammer grinned. "There was even space for you, the coup de grace, the one they *really* wanted but couldn't advertise. But that's not what I'm going to do now. *Now* I'm going to do something even better."

"Like what?" Prowl said, flatly. He became conscious again of the pistol in his hand.

"Two things," Steamhammer said. "I'm going to let you watch the destruction of your beloved city," he said. The malicious grin was still chiseled on his face. "And then I'm going to kill you for the sheer *joy* of it."

"Vos," Prowl said, "is going to be destroyed." He said it with as much flat disbelief as he could muster.

Steamhammer laughed. "Yes, it is. Didn't you hear what I told you about the worthless foundation Vos is built upon? Too bad so few Vossians know about it. I'll let you in on a little secret, because hey-- who are *you* going to tell? Ha! There's a photon missile under the city, Prowl, right under the Old City district, and when it blows in about, oh, three cycles from now, Vos is going to be a great big pool of slag. Delightful, isn't it?"

"No!" Prowl shouted, and opened fire. Steamhammer anticipated the action and moved to avoid his shots. The Decepticon activated his thrusters and came at him from the air, dodging the laser fire until he was close enough to knock Prowl to the ground and the pistol out of his grasp.

Steamhammer grabbed Prowl by the throat and tried to crush it. "You don't think I lost to Bludgeon by *accident*, do you?" he asked. "Do you know how different things would have been if I had just been able to go to Tarn with the rest of you? If they hadn't pulled me into the Arena for the first round? Well, I wouldn't get to kill you like *this*. Because you'd already be *dead*, with all the rest of your slagging Vossian friends!"

Something deep in the recesses of Prowl's laser core informed him that Steamhammer was executing an off-balance choke maneuver and the counteraction for this movement was a shift left and then hard right followed by an over-top roll.

At first Prowl wondered why his processors were providing him with random bits of information, but he soon realized that they were, in fact, supplying him with the answer to getting out of his predicament. He thus followed the advice, shifting first to the left and then making a hard push right and upward. The motion took Steamhammer by surprise, and a moment later Prowl found himself on top, albeit still in the Decepticon's grasp.

Prowl's comm unit beeped for attention. Wheeljack was trying to contact him. Unfortunately, he didn't have time to talk, so he switched the unit into silent mode and ignored the call.

He executed the next part of the escape move, casting himself feet first over the top and, in the process, bending Steamhammer's arms past their rotation capacity. Steamhammer had no choice but to let Prowl go.

Demonstrates a weakness in the back right quadrant, Prowl's processors also remembered. Steamhammer had stood up, but before he could turn around to face Prowl, the Autobot had kicked his right leg out from under him and had pulled his arms behind his back. A moment later, Steamhammer's face was flat to the ground and he was unable to shake free of Prowl's hold--

There was a horrible shudder from the ground. Prowl lost his grip and tumbled off Steamhammer's back, falling to the ground behind him.

Steamhammer rose again, laughing. Prowl's sensors were shaken; he felt disoriented. "It's begun," Steamhammer said. "The end of Vos."

Prowl's optics re-initialized, and the dizzying vertigo was gone. He fixed his view on the horizon and then raised a hand, pointing at what he saw. His vocalizers emitted a joyless laugh. "Look again," he said to the Decepticon.

Steamhammer whirled around. There in the heart of Vos, the brand-new Ministry of Defense building was falling to the ground. Or, more accurately, *dropping* to the ground. As the sides of the building lowered, more and more of the interior space was revealed: a conical top, long sleek sides, the graphic icon for photonic energy--

Prowl had realized the moment that he cast his optics on the tower that it was not a building at all, but rather one *enormous* missile silo.

The words "ULTIMATE VICTORY" were printed down the side of the missile. A plume of smoke rose from the base, obscuring the shorter buildings clustered around it, and then grew in size and darkness until it was clear that the missile's engines had been fully engaged. The missile blasted off from the city, leaving a coating of fine soot over the north side of the Lords' Council tower and, no doubt, half the Old City district. The thick metal support beams framing the west side of the Lords' Council building and the metal rooftops of no less than fifteen nearby structures glowed red from the intense heat of the engines as they passed by, made momentarily visible through the obscuring black smoke before cooling off and fading away. Then the missile cleared the skyline and tilted south, toward Tarn.

It was too large to shoot down by conventional means, Prowl realized. There was no way Tarn would be able to stop it before it exploded.

"No!" Steamhammer screamed, watching the missile head toward his home city.

"Congratulations, Steamhammer," Prowl said bitterly, "you're a 'Con without a city."

Steamhammer said not a single word more, but took off running down the edge of the ridge. Then he jumped off and transformed in midair, heading in the same direction as the missile.

Prowl's interior chronometer warned him that the three cycles were just about up, and if Steamhammer had been telling the truth.... but of *course* he had. Why would he lie? Prowl had the prescience of mind to shut off his optics lest they get overloaded by the searing flash of white light that emanated not even a quarter of a cycle later from Vos. The Tarnish photon bomb had gone off, just as Steamhammer had predicted.

Prowl felt the ground move in waves as the shock force spread out in every direction from the epicenter of the blast. When Prowl's sensors detected that it was once again safe to engage his optics, he looked up to see a purple light filling up the sky. Tiny pieces of supercharged particles had been ejected into the atmosphere and were falling back to the surface like golden drops of fire. In another place, in another context, the sight of golden rain on a deep purple sky might have been beautiful, but here--

Prowl looked at where Vos had once stood. There was nothing there now but a wide expanse of molten metal, blindingly bright, white-hot from the huge discharge of kinetic energy. The air was still rippling with heat waves from the pool of metal, a large part of which was cascading like a waterfall into the deep caverns below the city. Caverns-- just as Steamhammer had said. Vos was a city that had built up tall without foundations, and now there was absolutely nothing left. The advance of the Tarnish army had halted when Vos' missile had passed overhead, and now it looked very much like the entire force was retreating to Tarn as a completely disorganized mass.

"Oh holy Primus," Prowl whispered.

There was nothing of Vos. Nothing at all.

He sat and stared at the nothingness for a long time, watching the molten metal solidify as it cooled. He watched the golden rain fall down to the surface until there was nothing left to drop from the sky, and the purple light start to fade away as the photonic radiation dissipated from the atmosphere. He watched as Vos was officially relegated to history, at long last given its ultimate honor-- total *irrelevance*.

He watched the fall of Vos for a long time before he remembered that Wheeljack had tried to contact him. Prowl turned his comm unit back on. "Wheeljack, this is Prowl," he paged to the engineer. "I couldn't answer--"

"Prowl!" Wheeljack exclaimed, cutting him off. "Thank Primus I got a hold of you. Bluestreak's gone missing! I went in to check on how he was doing, and he was gone! I don't know when he snuck out, but I'm worried about him. Do you have any idea where he might have gone?"

Fury, Prowl remembered, was the very first reaction he'd always felt whenever he thought about Tarn, back when Tarn and Vos were real places and that which was so clearly nonsense now seemed back then to matter more than anything else in all the universe.

"Yes," Prowl answered Wheeljack. "He'll have gone back to Tarn."

"I... whoa," Wheeljack said, "there's something big coming up on the news."

"I know," Prowl said. "I'm going now."

"Wait! What about Bluestreak?"

"I'm going to find him," Prowl said, and cut the comm link.

I *hope*, he thought.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


It was a very long drive to Tarn, Prowl knew, having made the trip very recently once before. He had to circle around the valley where Vos had once stood in order to avoid any pockets of harmful photonic radiation, which added about three megacycles to the already lengthy trip. He went as fast as his engine could take him, but it was still going to be the better part of twenty-five megacycles until he reached even the outskirts of North Tarn.

He had a very long time to think about everything that had happened to him in the last week.

He thought it very fortunate, at least, that Bluestreak's comm system had been damaged when Tarn's power plant exploded, because his memory had recorded the exact frequency configuration that was necessary in order to contact him by long-range comm. He tried several times to get a hold of the Autobot this way, but each time he tried there was no answer. It meant either that he was dead or just wasn't answering, but it wouldn't be until he got within the range of Tarn's orbital satellite footprint that he would be able to find out for sure either way.

With nobody to talk to, he found himself thinking quite a lot about what he had done. Most of all, he struggled with *why* it was that he'd gotten into this mess in the first place.

Maybe he'd had no choice. Wheeljack called Vos a giant mind- control experiment, and when he said so, the idea struck Prowl as incredibly strange. Mind control? What mind control? Was it an action of the *mind* that caused Prowl to react with visceral hatred toward even the *image* of the city of Tarn?

Prowl's wheels turned over another kilometer of road as he realized that, in fact, his *mind* hadn't gotten much use at all lately. His spark-- yes. And that was precisely the problem. He *felt* it all too much, all too easily. What he'd said to Bluestreak about the Vossian hatred for Tarn-- that was no abstract generalization of philosophy or social science. It was observation. It was fact. More than that, it was data gleaned from vorn upon vorn of actual experience, the spark laid bare.

Steamhammer had said as much, hadn't he? Vossians, he'd said-- passion was all they had left. Blind hatred, blind anger, blind rage, he'd said-- it's a wonder you can see at all.

He was right.

For so long Prowl had let his spark blind his laser core to the truth. It was so much easier not to have to think about it, so much easier just to let emotion wash over everything. There was no doubt in emotion. You either felt it or you didn't. It didn't need careful consideration, it didn't need testing, it didn't even need a rational basis to stand on. It was unassailable by any other being, because there was no exterior force in all the universe that could control it. It was liberating--

And it exacted a terrible toll in return.

That was the ultimate truth that Prowl's mind arrived at, just as the rest of him was arriving at the outskirts of Tarn. He transformed and tried to contact Bluestreak again, but there was still no answer. He would have to track him down the hard way.

Prowl activated his long-range comm link and established a connection with Tarn's communication satellite in orbit overhead. Every city had its own comm system link, which was necessary to relay signals over long distances. While the Overlords had been in power, they had ensured that every city satellite received total reciprocity of service with all the other systems so that any one Cybertronian on one part of the planet could contact any other Cybertronian on any other part of the planet so long as he or she knew the comm code locator frequency unique to that individual.

Prowl accessed the comm system databases and requested triangulation service for Bluestreak's comm signature. The system complied with the request and sent out a radio signal equivalent to a radar ping. If Bluestreak's comm unit was still functional, it would bounce the signal back to the satellite and the satellite would then give Prowl an exact geographical location for Bluestreak.

It took the satellite quite a long time to respond to the request. Prowl could see scores of wounded citizens in Tarn sifting through the debris for survivors and guessed that quite a few of them were searching for friends and loved ones the same way, slowing down the system.

Prowl was relieved when the satellite reported that Bluestreak's comm system was still operational and that the signal had bounced back from the far north-west side of the city. It gave him an exact coordinate, and he transformed again and took off to go there. He had to stop several times and transform to pass over mounds of debris from shattered buildings, and sometimes the road debris was so heavy that his progress was slowed to a crawl. Eventually, he found a relatively clear highway that brought him directly to the section of Tarn the satellite had directed him to find.

He transformed back into robot mode and began to search the area.

"Bluestreak? Bluestreak!" he shouted out, but there was no answer. He checked the coordinates again and turned a corner--

Bluestreak was sitting on a pile of rubble, staring out at the completely obliterated center of Tarn.

"Bluestreak!" Prowl said, running up to where the other Autobot was sitting. "Thank Primus I found you!" he said. "Wheeljack said you'd disappeared--"

"Can you see it?" Bluestreak asked.

Prowl paused, caught off guard by the question. "See what?" he asked.

"The city center. Can you see it?"

Prowl looked to where the city center had once been. "Yes," he said.

"Is it destroyed?" Bluestreak asked.

"Is it--?" Prowl said. He moved in front of Bluestreak and looked into his face. He was horrified to find that Bluestreak's optics were completely darkened. "Bluestreak," he said, "you looked directly at the photonic blast, didn't you?"

"I couldn't avoid it," Bluestreak said, "it happened right in front of me. I saw the missile coming out of the sky, and then half a microcycle later there was the explosion-- and then I couldn't see anything anymore."

"The flash shorts out optic systems--"

"Can you *see* it, though? Is there anything left?"

Prowl shook his head before he remembered that Bluestreak needed a verbal answer. "No," he said. "There's nothing left there."

"Oh," Bluestreak said. There was silence for a moment. "Everyone I knew in Tarn lived there," he said.

It was quiet.

Then: "I... want Vos... to *pay*."

"It did," Prowl said, softly.


"Vos is gone," Prowl told him. "Tarn had a photonic missile too. There's nothing left of Vos now." There was certainly nothing left in the way that there were things left in Tarn. Tarn had built out horizontally rather than vertically; the towers of its city center were gone, and the shockwaves from the explosion had demolished most of the buildings in the surrounding neighborhoods, but there were quite a few survivors and even a few intact buildings scattered around the landscape.

Bluestreak seemed to consider this a moment. A troubled look appeared on his face.

"Why doesn't that make me happier?" he asked.

"Because," Prowl began, gently, "millions of Cybertronians just lost their lives for absolutely no good reason at all, and there's no joy to be had in that."

Bluestreak nodded.

"You're the only friend I've got," Bluestreak said.

Prowl thought his spark would collapse.

Bluestreak held out a wobbly hand and tried to get up, half stumbling where he could not see. Prowl caught his arm and steadied him so that he could stand, and then helped him down from the mound of rubble.

"Now what?" Bluestreak asked.

"Polyhex?" Prowl asked.

"Okay," Bluestreak said. "I guess it doesn't really matter anymore. I thought Wheeljack was nice."

"Yes," Prowl said, "he is."

"Can he fix my optics?"

Prowl considered this for a moment. "I don't think so," he said. "Optical systems require very special tools and components. Yours are probably damaged to the point that they need replacement--" Prowl had an idea. "Here, wait," he said. He took out a general repair tool from a storage compartment and disengaged the face plate from Bluestreak's head.

"What are you doing?" Bluestreak asked.

"Just hold still," Prowl said, and removed Bluestreak's left optic component. He examined the connection port inside and was relieved to discover that only the optical unit itself had been damaged. He removed his own face plate and then his own left optic, replacing it with Bluestreak's broken component instead. Then he took his working optic and inserted it into Bluestreak. He activated the system and put the other Autobot's faceplate back into place before fixing his own the same way.

"I... you gave me one of your optics?" Bluestreak said. He looked rather odd with one optic lit and the other darkened, but Prowl realized that he must have looked just as strange himself.

"You can see now, right?"

"Having to supplement with sensors for depth perception," he said, reporting the same thing that Prowl's own self-diagnostic system had told him, "but... yeah." He looked troubled again. "Thank you," he said, "*again*, I mean."

"Come on," Prowl said, afraid that he'd say something awful again-- like that Prowl was his only friend--

Oh, *Primus*.

Bluestreak nodded. "Okay," he said, "Polyhex."




* * * * * * * * * * * *


The trip back to Polyhex was long but uneventful; Prowl kept one part of his comm unit set on the news broadcasts at all times so that he could avoid any trouble along the way. Sporadic fighting had broken out in the border regions between Vos and Tarn, but the frontier between Polyhex and Tarn was clear and quiet-- at least, on the ground. Overhead, Prowl detected a steady stream of jet engines and other airborne units traveling northwest in the direction of Polyhex, but there was no sign of hostile action and certainly none of them seemed to pay any attention to the two Autobots traveling below.

They made it to Wheeljack's lab and found that the main door was unlocked. The whole place was quiet. Prowl and Bluestreak moved down the corridor, hoping to find the engineer there. "Wheeljack?" Prowl called out, but he was nowhere in sight. "Wheeljack?"

"Over here," Wheeljack's voice called out, from one of the side storage rooms. Prowl and Bluestreak entered, but didn't see him there, either. A moment later, Wheeljack's familiar face emerged from a hole in the floor.

"Thank Primus you guys made it back," Wheeljack said. His face disappeared again; then his hands lifted out a small container full of components and pushed it up on to the surface of the floor. Prowl crossed the room and picked up the container, moving it further away from the hole. "Thanks," Wheeljack said, lifting up another similar container. Prowl took hold of it and set it next to its sibling.

Wheeljack lifted himself out of what was apparently a secret storage chamber and slid a flat piece of flooring back into place to cover the hole. "We gotta get outta here," he said. "Well, that is, I guess you two could stay here if you really wanted to, but *I'm* gettin' outta here at least."

"What's going on?" Bluestreak said.

A shiver of dread ran down the length of Prowl's back struts. What he'd just witnessed in Vos... if it was happening here, he wasn't sure if he'd be able to take it.

"About a zillion Decepticons," Wheeljack said. "Going on, going over, going under, going through, going *everywhere*, but especially going to Polyhex, that's what's going *on*. Honestly, it's the going *off* part that worries *me*." He looked closer at Bluestreak. "What happened to your optic?"

"Optics. Both of them got burned out," Bluestreak said. He pointed to the one that was working. "Prowl lent me one of his until I can get them replaced."

Wheeljack looked at Prowl for confirmation and then back to Bluestreak. "Oooh, sorry to hear that. Unfortunately, I doubt we'll be able to find many spare parts in Polyhex, things bein' the way they are." He lifted up one of the containers and started to push the other one towards the door with his foot. Prowl reached down and picked up the other container for Wheeljack. "Thanks again," the engineer said, leading him toward the main chamber of the lab. "Decepticons are flooding into the city," Wheeljack explained, "and every one of 'em is packin' more guns than I've fabricated in this lab all year."

"They're invading?" Prowl asked.

"Yeah, but not in the way *you* mean," Wheeljack said. He set the container down next to a workbench that was stacked with larger boxes suitable for packing on a transport. He began transferring the components into the larger boxes, occasionally examining the individual pieces and tossing aside ones in poor repair. "They were invited here by Straxus. Rumor has it Shockwave is here, too."

"He wasn't in Tarn when it happened?"

Wheeljack stopped what he was doing and looked at Prowl. "You weren't kidding when you said you already knew, were you?" he asked, and Prowl shook his head no. "Shockwave was out with the troops marching toward Vos, or at least that's half the population of Polyhex is sayin'. Did anybody know about those photon missiles? Not that I'm accusin' the Overlord of anything, you understand, but I mean, if the Overlord had known about that, he'd have put a stop to it, wouldn't he?"

Prowl nodded. "If he'd known," he agreed. That was true enough.

"Refugees are streaming in from everywhere," Wheeljack said. He stopped again. "I guess you already know that, too. Anyway, a lot of 'em are comin' this way, the Decepticons at least. And wherever Decepticons go, I go. Heh. *Away*, that is." He closed the lids on the large crate containers and locked them. "I'm goin' to Iacon," Wheeljack said. "It's up to you, of course, but we'd all be safer if the three of us went together. Unless you found someplace better in your travels with the Overlord. I'm open to suggestions."

Prowl shook his head. "Iacon, I guess," he said. He looked at Bluestreak, who nodded in agreement.

"All right. Bluestreak, would you go out to the vehicle storage room and clear out a couple of trailer units?" He tossed Bluestreak a key, which Bluestreak missed and had to pick up from the floor.

"Heh heh," Bluestreak said, grinning and pointing to his darkened optic, "bad depth perception."

Wheeljack laughed. "Not to mention funny-lookin'," he teased. Bluestreak chuckled and then left to prepare the vehicles as Wheeljack had asked.

"Well, I'm just going to pack up my tools, then, and we'll be off," Wheeljack said.

His tools--

Repair tools.

Yes, of course. That was it.

The alteration was necessary, Prowl told himself, but even his own sensors didn't believe it. No-- it *was* necessary. It *was*. Consider-- consider what had happened to him, what had happened to Bluestreak--


He was an innocent Autobot! He hadn't asked to have his home destroyed, he hadn't asked to occupy the space just inches from oblivion. He didn't deserve--

He didn't deserve what *Prowl* had done to him.

What *Prowl* had done, because he had been caught up in Vos' volatile emotional snare, the propaganda machine that caught hold of all Cybertronian feeling and warped it, bent it, broke it until it was not true feeling at all, but a kind of sharp hatred, a knife blade, jagged edged and blind. He had been manipulated, and it had been so... easy. It had been so easy, because more than most other Autobots, Prowl felt things deep within the depths of his spark, and the ones who knew how to find that place and seize it could seize *him* just as effortlessly.

That was his failure.

He knew exactly what he had to do.

"Everything okay?" Wheeljack said, when he noticed that Prowl was just standing there.

"No," Prowl said. "I'm having a problem with one of my systems." Yes. He *was* having a problem with one of his systems. One of his very important systems, the one that had failed so spectacularly that first hundreds and now millions of innocent lives had been either shattered or scattered as a result.

Yes, there was a *problem*.

"You need me to fix it?"

Prowl tried to say: Yes, I need you to sever the connection between cable A773-BD1 and connection panel Alpha Red.

Prowl's internal self-preservation systems detected that this statement would likely lead Wheeljack to execute the desired action, and froze his vocalizer components so that they could not articulate the request. Cutting that connection would be an act of mutilation that the preservation protocols were specifically directed not to allow.

"There's no time for that," was the next thing that Prowl's mind realized, and he found himself realizing it out loud when his preservation programming determined that it was not related to the earlier, intolerable request.

Then Prowl set upon the means to have it both ways.

He thought: If you just disable the faulty system for me, I'll have it fixed later.

Yes. Have it fixed later. They were going to Iacon, weren't they? Prowl didn't know a lot about the city, but he knew that Iacon had the reputation of having the best medical services on the entire planet. He could have it fixed there. He could have his emotional systems looked at. There *must* have been a problem with it-- that was the only explanation for why his feelings had left him so vulnerable to Vos' lies. Asking Wheeljack to disable it now would prevent any more terrible actions from happening. Who *knew* what Prowl might be capable of in this state? It was the only way to safeguard Wheeljack's life, and Bluestreak's-- hadn't Prowl caused *enough* pain in Bluestreak's life already? Yes, that was the answer. He could fix it later.

Fix it later.

"If you'll just disable the faulty system for me," Prowl said, "I'll have someone in Iacon fix it for me later."

Prowl's self preservation protocols shut down, perceiving that the danger was over. There was a mechanical problem with Prowl's emotional regulators. And they would be fixed later.

"Sure, just tell me what you want done," Wheeljack said. "But you'll have to help me, 'cause I don't know your configuration type very well-- as you remember," he warned.

"I can tell you exactly what to do," Prowl said. "Sever cable A773-BD1 and connection panel Alpha Red. That will be enough until I get it fixed later."

Fix it later. Yes. There was no other choice.

Prowl opened up his chest compartment and showed Wheeljack where the cable and connector were located. Wheeljack produced a pair of cable cutters, reached over, and made a clean cut that would, in fact, be relatively easy to fix later.

"Better?" Wheeljack asked.

Prowl didn't feel any different. Then, he realized, he wasn't feeling much at all. At almost the same instant his conscious mind came to this realization, his health stabilization protocols hit alarm status and informed him that a major source of data required for all decisionmaking processes was no longer transmitting information. It immediately switched into auto- repair mode and began searching for a substitute.

"Prowl? Are you okay?"

Okay. Okay. What was 'okay'?

Okay: two definitions.

Prowl's logic processor, upon which he had long relied for the formulation of battle strategies, for help in determining what was true and what was false, for aid in measuring, calculating, judging distances, choosing a best course of action-- it was speaking to him in a way that he had never quite experienced before. He felt its operations directly for the first time; he recognized the distilled power of a processing function that had, while his spark had been in control of the majority of his mind, until that moment remained a kind of background noise, a source of alternatives when presented with a question, a utility needed when a problem arose that needed a calculative solution. Prowl's logic processors began to forge new connections with his database of memories, pulling up answers to questions and cross- checking them with other entries.

Okay: Answer calls for a response in reflection of one's emotional state of mind, when perceived by another based upon facial expression or other indication that trauma has been endured. Probability that Wheeljack's inquiry relates to emotional health: Unascertainable. No emotions in evidence.

Okay: Answer calls for a response in reflection of one's level of physical integrity, when perceived by another based upon knowledge of a systems failure or other damage to exterior / interior components. Probability that Wheeljack's inquiry relates to physical well-being: High.

"Yes, I'm okay," Prowl said. The entire calculative function in determining what was the proper response to an ambiguous question had taken less than a quarter of a half of a microsecond, but the manner in which Prowl's mind had formed the proper response was such an unusual, unfamiliar experience that it seemed to Prowl, illogically enough, to fill much more time than that.

"Cuttin' that connection didn't hurt ya?" Wheeljack asked.

Prowl calculated the likelihood that he would again be vulnerable to propaganda ploys or manipulations of an emotional nature at such a high level of improbability as to be functionally *impossible*.

"It's exactly what I needed. Thank you," he said, when his mind informed him that social protocol dictated the use of an exchange of pleasantries.

"Happy to help," Wheeljack said, smiling. He put the cutting tool into the packing box and closed the container. "We'd better get a move on soon," he said. "I've got cargo crates already stacked in the vehicle chamber. If you and Bluestreak could start loading them, I can finish packing up in here. How much mass can you pull?"

Prowl told him and Wheeljack nodded. "More than enough. Can Bluestreak haul anything?"

"Probably," Prowl said, "but since we had to make major repairs to his axles I wouldn't recommend it."

"Good point. We'll have to make sure he gets fixed up properly in Iacon, although I'd like to think that you and I did some *exceptionally* fine work on him," Wheeljack said with cheery pride.

The situation seemed to call for a smile in response, according to Prowl's socialization protocols. "I agree," Prowl said, and turned to go help Bluestreak. Wheeljack's statement had reminded him that his plan was to have a medic in Iacon repair the connection to his spark and its component emotional systems. He calculated the level of urgency for this action and determined that he was just as functional without his emotional protocols as he had been with them, and that reconnecting them-- even with alterations made to tone down the effects-- would likely result in a sub-optimal level of vulnerability to psychological manipulation.

Prowl deleted the plan of action to see a medic in Iacon.

It was no longer necessary.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


Prowl, Bluestreak and Wheeljack were three of an estimated one and a half million Cybertronian refugees who flooded into Iacon in the first ten days after the fall of Vos and Tarn. There were so many newcomers and so little room for them in the sprawling metropolis that the Council of Elders was compelled to hasty construction of numerous refugee shelters on the edges of the city borders. Life in the shelters was chaotic but peaceful; the refugees seemed to recognize that old city affiliations mattered very little here where they were all depending on the charity of Iacon for their continued existences.

Prowl and his two companions had found three open berths together in one of the largest shelters on the far west side of the city and settled in for the short term. Some of the other refugees planned to return to Tarn or Polyhex or wherever they had come from just as soon as the fighting between residual bands of Vossian and Tarnish troops stopped. A great many more, like Prowl and his friends, however, had no intention of going anywhere else. For everyone in this group, the decision to stay in Iacon was based upon either the fact that their former homes no longer existed or the more prescient recognition that the fighting raging on in the southern half of Cybertron was not, in fact, *ever* going to stop.

Iacon's government was dealing with the refugees with a kind of triage mentality. All its efforts were tied up in the task of making sure that everyone had a safe place to stay and that nobody starved to death in the mean time. Iacon's economy was the most robust on the planet, but even its supercharged industrial machine could not accommodate such an enormous influx of Autobots and Decepticons all at once.

That was another falsehood, Prowl discovered as he explored the city, that the Vossian government had told him. There *were* Decepticons in Iacon-- not a majority of the population, certainly, but not the isolated pockets of slave labor of which all Vos believed there to be, either. In fact, many of the Iaconian Decepticons were employed where their martial aptitudes were likely to do the most good-- as members of Iacon's police and civil defense forces, ready to protect Iacon in case of hostile action either domestically or externally. Prowl saw scores of Decepticons patrolling the streets, helping refugees find space in the shelters, or just resolving disputes between citizens, their identities as peace officers clearly marked by the red face symbol of Iacon's government that they wore on their exteriors.

Of course, even if Prowl had been able to feel anger at having been deceived by the Vossian propaganda machine, he still would not have found it particularly surprising. The differences between what he had been taught to believe and what was, in fact, the true state of a great many things were becoming more and more apparent as time went on.

Prowl also discovered that although Iacon had welcomed all refugees into the city, some refugees were more welcome than others. Refugees in possession of transferable currency units, for example, were the most welcome of all. Iacon's news reports, to which Prowl and his two friends had become something of addicts, constantly reported about the drastic upswing in attempts to use falsified personal specie chips in commercial transactions. This was certainly the mark of desperate times, for although every Cybertronian carried around a specific chipset "bank" that recorded the total amount of money he or she possessed, these chips were not, strictly speaking, in the *control* of the possessor. They had been engineered by the Overlords to ensure total stability in the money supply. The chips were designed with a failsafe to record the exact amount of currency available whenever tampering or damage of any kind was detected, a hard-wired signature which every transactional computer on the planet checked against the *purported* balance before it would allow the sale to proceed.

Wheeljack had some money with him, but it was all in Polyhesian points and thus drastically depleted when he converted them to Iaconian credits. Bluestreak had no money at all, but given his circumstances, he was quite lucky just to be alive. Prowl's first priority after arriving in Iacon was locating a new set of optics for Bluestreak, as well as a number of other parts for the Tarnish 'Bot that had been merely patched up in Wheeljack's lab. Wheeljack might have been able to create new optics for Bluestreak given the right tools, but Prowl estimated that it would be cheaper in the long run just to purchase replacements.

For that, Prowl needed money. Before he left Vos not knowing that he would never return, he had acquired a great deal of currency for himself. His constant business with planning his team's strategy in the State Games combined with his generally simple lifestyle had allowed him to keep most of his Council- provided salary intact. He counted himself doubly fortunate, for unlike so many of his fellow Vossians who had been paid by the council in typically-- and now *particularly*-- worthless Vossian marks, the sensitivity of Prowl's job combined with his need to acquire resources outside the city ensured that he was always paid in hard currency instead.

In Iaconian credits, to be exact.

It was another one of the blatant hypocrisies of the Vos administration (which, of course, Prowl had never questioned) that the Lords' Council kept most of its own finances in the form of Iaconian credits, despite the fact that all its time and energy were supposedly being spent in the attempt to destroy Iacon militarily. And although Prowl had been asked to do what he now understood were terrible, unjustifiable things in return, the Lords' Council had at least paid him handsomely for his services.

Prowl was in possession of a little less than two million Iaconian credits, a small fortune even after taking into account the rampant inflation that was affecting the economy.

Prowl found Bluestreak the optics that he needed as well as all the other parts necessary to restore him into perfect working condition. Wheeljack quickly fixed up Bluestreak's damaged systems, and politely refrained from asking how Prowl had managed to pay for what he knew Wheeljack would recognize as top of the line components. He worked on Bluestreak right in the middle of the shelter, and by doing so attracted a large group of other refugees who heard about his skills as an engineer and offered to pay him for repairs.

Within a week of arrival, Wheeljack had found steady employment this way, as streams of refugee customers flowed into Iacon and sought his services. He charged below-market prices out of a sense of 'solidarity with his fellow slaggers', as he liked to put it, which meant that he usually made just enough money to cover the cost of parts that his customers needed. What extra he managed to scrape up he turned over to Bluestreak in exchange for Bluestreak's services as a runner, buying components from anywhere he could find them in Iacon. A week after that, Wheeljack's success attracted the attention of the Iaconian government officials who were operating the shelter. They offered to pay him a much smaller salary if he would agree to help the refugees for free and allow the government to provide him with any parts he needed. Wheeljack accepted, although it put Bluestreak out of a job.

Bluestreak didn't seem to mind in the slightest, though. He was devouring his surroundings with voracious intensity, roaming around the streets just to map them out, soaking up the local culture, customs, and some of the more unusual elements of Iaconian communication protocols. Understanding their new neighbors was not an issue-- all Cybertronians, after all, were fluent in the non-polity-specific Standard, but every city had its own distinct flavor of the language, holdovers from the days before Standardization when Ancient Tarnish, Stanixian, or a dozen other languages had been the norm. Bluestreak found it all fascinating, and would come back from his roamings full of insights about the way Iaconians talked in different parts of the city, and what new things he'd discovered.

"No wonder you like this language stuff," Wheeljack said, "I never heard anybody *yap* so much in all my life! Would ya weld it, already? This is a delicate procedure!" Wheeljack was bent over the open chest compartment of one of his Autobot patients, who needed a new flux regulator installed.

"Yeah, and I for one would really rather he didn't *botch* it!" said the patient in question.

Bluestreak just grinned. "Awww, fine. I'll just talk to Prowl," he said; Prowl looked up from what he was watching on the news when he heard his name. "So," Bluestreak said, taking a seat next to Prowl, "did I tell you about that archives place I found the other day? Talk about some *crazy* 'Bots running around in there. Hard to get a word in edgewise with some of the guys behind the counters, even though I tried. I was looking for some more stuff on Iacon society. Did you know there's a *class* system? There used to be an aristocracy kind of thing here, with 'bots going out on turbofox hunts and stuff like that, which I don't know, seems kinda weird to me. We had plenty of cyberpests in Tarn but no 'foxes, and doesn't it seem a little strange to hunt down stuff that doesn't even raid your energon supplies or drill holes in your foundations? I thought it was a little weird, but I guess there aren't too many of the old aristocrats left or something. Or the big mansions. I'm going to look up the big mansions at the archives tomorrow and see what *that* is all about. The archives are *amazing*, Prowl. Did I tell you about how I found 'em?"

"I was with you that day," Prowl reminded him. "We found the archives together."

"Oh yeah!" Bluestreak said. "I almost forgot! Hey, how come you remember everything so well, anyway?"

"My memory capacity was upgraded to 16.446 M-M-S," Prowl said.

Bluestreak just looked at him, and then started laughing. "Oh, that was classic," he said. "You're a funny 'Bot, Prowl. Mister Literal. Oh, that's funny. 'My memory capacity was upgraded'... hee hee!"

"Prowl!" Wheeljack exclaimed, "Would you PLEASE take him outta here so I can *concentrate*?" Wheeljack's patient lifted his head slightly to give Bluestreak a nasty look before Wheeljack pushed his head down flat against the table again. "No movin' around," Wheeljack warned, "unless you'd like to need a new laser core, too."

Prowl stood up and motioned Bluestreak to follow. "We'd better leave him alone," Prowl said, "his vocalizers are starting to static up." It was true. When Wheeljack found himself particularly agitated by something-- usually when he was replacing a delicate part of some kind-- Prowl had observed that his vocalizers became affected with slight static interference in the sound output.

"He sure is grouchy today," Bluestreak said as the two of them stepped out of the shelter and walked across the street to a public recreation area.

"Grouchy?" Prowl asked. He was unfamiliar with the word.

"Yeah, grouchy. Nice word, huh? I went to this energon bar the other day, there were all these Decepticons in there from Hybris, they used that word. I asked 'em what it meant and they said it was what they were feeling when uh, I think the exact words were, 'when slaggin' idiot Autobots ask slaggin' idiot questions', and they didn't look too happy so I figure it probably means the same thing as irritated or something. Those Decepticons sure needed a drink, that's what I think. I think Wheeljack does too, so I think grouchy is a good word for him."

"Well, he's got a lot of work to do now," Prowl observed. "A lot of wounded are coming in to the city and they need his help."

"Yeah, I guess you're right."

"That reminds me of something," Prowl said, "while you were out at the Archives today there was a city-wide communication issued for all refugees staying in Iacon. We have to report to the center of the city for immigration processing if we want to stay here. Wheeljack would like to stay, but we weren't certain what you would want to do."

"Where were *you* planning to go?" Bluestreak asked.

"Staying here is as good as anywhere else," Prowl said, restating what his strategy analysis programming had told him about the political situation on the rest of Cybertron, "and *better* than a few other places, too."

"Okay," Bluestreak said, "I'll stay with you."

Prowl found this to be a highly satisfactory answer, because it furthered his primary personal objective, the only thing remaining from the self he'd been before he'd cut off his spark altogether. There was just one thing that Prowl had overridden his logic processors to accept as a *given*, as an absolute basis upon which all other actions would be predicated: Bluestreak must be guarded and protected at all times, and at all costs. He had calculated that a necessary component for fulfilling this objective was constant contact with Bluestreak, and this required staying wherever Bluestreak wanted to stay. His processors also told him, after analyzing Bluestreak's word choice in response to his query, that Bluestreak, too, was interested in remaining in the same vicinity as Prowl.

Prowl calculated a high level of probability that his primary objective would be fulfilled.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


"What a day yesterday," Wheeljack said to Prowl over the comm. The three Autobots sped through the streets of Iacon toward the center of the city, and not far from where Bluestreak liked to spend his days researching random bits of trivia about their new home. "Thirty six repair jobs! And at least *ten* of 'em were *serious*, too. I thought I'd *never* get a break!"

"Word has gotten out about you," Prowl replied. "You do excellent work. I know there's nobody I would prefer to perform repairs on *me*."

"Heh, well don't do somethin' stupid and get yourself hurt, because now there's a waiting list, if you can believe *that*. You shoulda seen the nasty looks I got this morning when I announced that I had to come down *here* for half the day. They ain't *patients* so much as *im*-patients!"

Prowl's processors identified Wheeljack's last statement as a play on words and reported that verbal constructions of this nature were generally meant to be humorous. His socialization protocols kicked in and caused him to send a transmission back to Wheeljack that was nothing more than laughter, adjusted for the proper length and intensity given the context of the initial joke.

"Okay guys," Bluestreak interjected from half a kilometer ahead, "we're almost there. Two more left turns and we'll be at the Council Center. Do you think we'll have time afterwards to go exploring again? I was thinking of--"

"Going to the Archives," Prowl and Wheeljack chorused over the comm.

Bluestreak radioed back laughter. "Yeah, okay, so I'm predictable."

A short time later, the three of them had transformed back into robot mode and headed across the plaza of Iacon's core governmental complex to the Immigration Department headquarters. A large number of Cybertronians, Autobot and Decepticon alike, were milling about the front in a more or less orderly fashion.

"Looks like we're in the right place," Prowl observed. "There's the end of the queue."

"Line," Bluestreak said.

Prowl and Wheeljack gave him identical quizzical looks.

"In Iacon it's a 'line'," Bluestreak said.

Prowl examined the ground where the queue formed. "I don't see any markings," he said, frowning.

Bluestreak laughed. "No, no, it's the *word* for queue," he said.

"Line?" Prowl said. It was positively bizarre.

"Yeah," Bluestreak said.

Wheeljack sighed, loudly. "Who CARES what it's called! Can we just go *stand* in it already?"

Prowl's processors once again concluded that laughter was an appropriate response, a judgment that was verified when Prowl noticed that Bluestreak did the same.

"Okay, sorry," Bluestreak said with a grin, and the three of them headed to the queue.

They waited three megacycles in the queue before Wheeljack's turn came, and he stepped up to the leftmost of the three processors' tables. Prowl didn't have time to observe what kinds of questions the processors were asking him before the center table opened up and he was called forward himself. A solitary blue Autobot female pressed a series of keys on the computer terminal and then looked up, smiling at Prowl. Prowl returned the facial expression.

"Name?" she asked.


"Okay. And I see you are an Autobot?"


"City of origin?"

"Praxis," Prowl said. He had downloaded a travel guide about Praxis once. He determined that if anyone were to ask him about his place of origin that he could recall enough vague details about major landmarks of that city to pass without attracting suspicion.

"I didn't know you were from Praxis," Wheeljack said, from the next table over. The Iaconian immigration official processing his application was busy with his computer terminal and had momentarily stopped asking the engineer questions.

Prowl shrugged. "It never really mattered to *me*," he lied.

Wheeljack nodded amiably.

"Okay, Praxis," the femmebot said, as soon as she had typed it in. "Do you have specialized programming of any kind?"

"Yes," Prowl said. "Advanced strategic development, individual combat technique, macro resource management systems, advanced tactical analysis, complex reconnaissance theory--" he began.

"Wait, wait," the officer said. "I can't enter it in that fast."

"Holy Primus!" Wheeljack exclaimed, again in Prowl's direction. "Advanced tactical analysis? Combat technique? This from the 'Bot who spent all his cycles savin' Empties in Dead End?"

Prowl found himself shrugging yet again. "I never said I didn't have *other* skills," he said. That much, at least, was true.

"Will you please pay attention?" Wheeljack's immigration officer said. Wheeljack apologized and left Prowl alone.

Prowl turned his own attention back to the processing table, just in time to see the female Iaconian motion to her superior. A very tall Autobot, mainly blue and white in color, approached.

"This Autobot is named Prowl," the female said. "He reports with advanced skills in tactics and strategic planning, and reconnaissance."

The tall Autobot nodded. "Nice to meet you," he said. "My name is Ultra Magnus. I'm responsible for screening immigration applicants who have martial skills. Are you familiar with the Practo method of skill-year equivalencies?"

"Yes," Prowl said, "although it would be easier to measure my skills using the Vinder scale and vorns," he said.

Both Ultra Magnus and the immigration officer's optics widened at this revelation. Ultra Magnus smiled. "I've only ever met *one* Autobot who could make the same claim," he said, "and he's *my* commander."

"Well, sir?" the female Autobot said, prompting Ultra Magnus.

"Yes, right. We would like to assign you for further training at the IMA," Ultra Magnus began--

"Hey, me too!" Wheeljack interrupted, waving at Prowl. "Guess we're goin' to the same place!"

"Sir!" Wheeljack's immigration officer hissed, "will you PLEASE move out of the way? You're holding up the line!"

Prowl looked back at the queue, and saw Bluestreak still standing there, who caught his glance and waved a hand hello. Prowl looked at the third immigration table, to his right, where the officer and an applicant were apparently bogged down in an argument.

"--and don't spell my name wrong, or--bam, boom! Whammo!" the Decepticon applicant said, punching the air with his fists for emphasis.

"I think I can manage to spell the name 'Warpath', sir," the immigration officer said, nastily. "If you'd answer the questions WITHOUT the dramatics this would go a lot faster--"

Prowl turned his attention back to Ultra Magnus. "I am happy to serve in whatever capacity Iacon needs," he said, "but what is the IMA, exactly?"

"Iacon Military Academy," Ultra Magnus said, "recently formed by the Council of Elders for the training of an elite civil defense force. We're looking for everyone with significant combat skills or combat support skills to participate. Are you two together?" Ultra Magnus asked, indicating Wheeljack. "We assign cadets to the IMA in groups of four, so we can put you together in the same unit module if you would like."

"We are, yes," Prowl said.

"And here's number three," Wheeljack said, pointing at Bluestreak, who had advanced to Wheeljack's table and was giving the immigration officer his information.

"Do you have combat skills as well?" the officer taking down Bluestreak's information asked.

"Well, I know how to shoot a gun if that's what you mean," Bluestreak said.

"Have you had formal combat training or combat support programming?" he asked.

"No," Bluestreak admitted.

The officer turned to Ultra Magnus and shrugged.

Ultra Magnus hesitated. Prowl's processors told him that it was more likely than not that Ultra Magnus would deny Bluestreak admission into the IMA, and that this would result in their separation, possibly forever. This was an intolerable development to Prowl, as it violated the most fundamental objective he possessed. He would not be able to protect Bluestreak unless Bluestreak were nearby. Prowl would, in fact, be abandoning him to the mercy of strangers by going to the IMA without him.

He would not allow that to happen.

"Bluestreak comes with us," Prowl said. "You said you put together assignees in groups of four. He's the third."

Ultra Magnus frowned. "I don't think that placement at the IMA is appropriate--" he started.

The situation called for a change in the means of persuasion, Prowl realized. Ultra Magnus would not grant the request unless, Prowl knew, it was logical for him to do so. But Prowl had not yet offered a logical basis for allowing Bluestreak to accompany them-- a fact that Prowl immediately remedied.

"Do you want *me* at the IMA?" Prowl asked levelly.

Ultra Magnus stopped, surprised. "Well... yes," he said.

"The price of my admission," Prowl said, "is *his* admission." He pointed to Bluestreak.

Ultra Magnus gave Prowl a hard look, but Prowl, unable to feel fear or apprehension at making such a bold request, simply stood silent and waited for the Autobot's reply.

Finally, Ultra Magnus nodded, a slight smile drawn on his face. "You're loyal to your friends," he said. "That's a good quality to have-- when it's *appropriate* in the situation." He turned to Bluestreak. "Fine, I've changed my mind. *You* can go to the IMA but not Prowl or..."

"Wheeljack," Wheeljack filled in.

"Wheeljack. Bluestreak, please report to the IMA facilities tomorrow morning."

"Wait a cycle! You're not going to let Prowl and Wheeljack in?" Bluestreak asked, wide-opticked.

Ultra Magnus nodded. "Yeah. What about it?"

Bluestreak frowned. "Well forget it, then," he said. "I'm staying with *them*."

Ultra Magnus laughed. "Reciprocal loyalty," he said, "is the one thing that is *always* appropriate, in *every* situation." He nodded at the immigration officer processing Bluestreak's application. "Demonstrates skills befitting an IMA candidate," he dictated, indicating that the officer should mark it down. "Orders of Ultra Magnus," he added, when the officer widened an optic at him. Ultra Magnus looked at Prowl and his companions. "I'm sure the three of you will make fine cadets," he said. "Have we got a fourth for this group?" he asked the immigrations officers.

"Over here," said the third officer, at the far table. Prowl turned to see that a red Autobot had replaced the vociferous Warpath at the station.

"Wait-- so now you're letting us *all* go to the Academy?" Bluestreak asked, looking somewhat bewildered.

"Yes," Ultra Magnus smiled. "Sorry about the ruse. I just wanted to hear your honest answer. Where's the fourth?"

The red Autobot walked up and stood next to Prowl, and then raised his hand. "Sideswipe," he said, identifying himself.

Ultra Magnus nodded and then pressed a series of keys on one of the immigration officers' terminals. The computer spit out four chipsets in rapid succession. Ultra Magnus collected them into his hands and then passed them out to the new group.

"Install these into your comm systems," he said, "they're necessary for access to the Academy facilities. Your citizenship authorization will be finalized within the next week. You'll get an official notice about it when it goes through." He smiled broadly. "Welcome to Iacon. Do you need directions to the Academy?" he asked.

"Nope," Bluestreak said, cheerily. He looked at Prowl. "And to think, you *teased* me about going to the Archives all the time," he said, grinning.

Ultra Magnus smiled. "Good luck, Autobots," he said.

Prowl, Wheeljack, Bluestreak, and their new companion Sideswipe left the processing area and walked back to the main plaza grounds together, escaping from the even larger mass of Cybertronians waiting in the now even longer queue.

"So I guess we're a unit now," Sideswipe said, apparently making conversation. "I'm Sideswipe, from Vos," he said.

"Nice to meet you!" Bluestreak said, smiling. "I'm Bluestreak, from Tarn," he said, and held out his hand in the common greeting style of native Iaconians.

Sideswipe's optics widened in shock. He looked at Bluestreak's outstretched hand, and then back to his smiling face. Then Sideswipe smiled, first a little, and then more, as a pleasantly surprised expression grew on his features.

"Hey," he said, taking Bluestreak's hand and shaking it, completing the Iaconian greeting protocol. "Nice to meet you." He dropped his hand when Bluestreak let go. "I, uh... I wasn't sure what you were going to do when you said you were from Tarn," he said. "Because... uh... you know."

Bluestreak nodded, a kindly look of understanding on his face. "Well, I dunno," he said, "but I figure since I just had to wait around here for three megacycles this morning, I'll be slagged if I'm gonna call myself anything but *Iaconian* now." He grinned.

Sideswipe laughed. "Good point," he said.

"I'm Prowl," Prowl said.

"He's from Praxis," Wheeljack said, pointing a thumb in Prowl's direction, "but he's *notoriously* bad at tellin' anybody about himself. He never even told his *friends*, for example, that he's secretly this *hotshot* tactician."

Prowl shrugged. "It never came up," he said.

"It never came up. Listen to this guy, willya?" Wheeljack shook his head. Prowl's sensors analyzed the tone of Wheeljack's voice and his processor cross-referenced it to an indication of bemusement akin to teasing. Prowl's socialization protocols, which he had set to direct his facial expressions automatically, reacted according to the parameters of what his memory banks had recorded as a sheepish smile. "I'm Wheeljack," the engineer reported, "originally from Polyhex, but I'm sidin' with Bluestreak after that queue experience. Iacon or nothin'."

Sideswipe nodded. "I think they call it a 'line' here, though," he said.

Bluestreak started laughing.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


Only Wheeljack had any commitments for the remainder of the day, and soon after the four Autobots finished up at the Immigration Center, the engineer left to return to the shelter and his patients. Sideswipe had been living at the shelter on the south side of the city, but neither he nor Prowl nor Bluestreak was particularly interested in going back to their respective temporary lodgings. Sideswipe offered to take them to an energon bar that he'd found the week before, which had the added attraction of being quite close to the Academy complex to which they would be required to report at 0700 joors the following day. Bluestreak readily accepted for the chance to explore if nothing else, and Prowl accepted because the convenience of getting a spare energon ration immediately would obviate the need for a refill at the shelter.

True to his description, the bar was indeed close to the Academy-- right across the thoroughfare, in fact. It was a decent place, clean and comfortable, with sections for every configuration from Standard to Micromaster and even some tables for Cybertronians taller than two or three times the height of Prowl or any of his companions. There were quite a few patrons inside, enjoying a drink and talking in mostly upbeat tones.

"This is Liquid Courage," Sideswipe said. "So whaddya think?"

"Looks great!" Bluestreak said.

"I'll get the energon," Prowl said, knowing that Bluestreak didn't have enough money to pay for his own. "Any preferences?" Both Sideswipe and Bluestreak shook their heads no. Prowl approached the bar, passed his left arm over the payment terminal and selected three quarts of the house specialty. The terminal confirmed his comm unit frequency and informed him that a server would find him at whichever table he selected.

Prowl left the bar and rejoined the other two, who had not yet found a place to sit, apparently.

"That one looks nice," Bluestreak said, pointing to an empty booth.

"Nah," Sideswipe said. "*This* one," he said, and started walking toward one of the center tables--

--that was already occupied.

Prowl didn't know enough about Iaconian culture to be absolutely certain, but he sensed that the social protocol in Iaconian pubs was not substantially different from Vossian ones. The center tables were generally regarded to be the most desirable places to sit on account of the efficiency of service and the ability to scan the whole room with ease. Sideswipe headed straight for what Prowl calculated to be the *best* table in the entire facility, according to this criteria.

A blue and white Autobot that Prowl had never seen before was sitting next to a yellow Autobot whose body style matched Sideswipe perfectly. They watched Sideswipe approach with measured stares.

Prowl sensed that the entire population of the bar had taken notice, too, and noted many pairs of optics observing Sideswipe's advance toward the center of the room. Conversations started dropping off and the whole room got significantly quieter.

"Nice configuration, bro," Sideswipe said to the yellow 'Bot, giving him a nod of the chin. He folded his arms across his chest plate. "Shame about the paintjob, though."

The yellow 'Bot narrowed his optics in response. "Funny, I wasn't aware that the city started handing out new models to *rusters*," he said.

"Well, there wasn't a lot left of the *old* me," Sideswipe said. "Oh wait, but you'd understand that, wouldn't you? Seeing as how you got your tailpipe handed to you by *Megatron*. After that fight, it probably *was* easier just to start over." He shrugged. "If you could call that a *fight*, anyway. Heh. Megatron sure didn't seem to think so."

The entire bar erupted into shouts and cheers, most of which consisted of the word "WIN-NER" shouted over and over.

As soon as Sideswipe finished speaking, Prowl realized that the yellow Autobot was Sunstreaker, one of Iacon's champions in the State Games. He was right about something else, too; the new form that Sunstreaker inhabited was nothing at all like his old configuration. It was no wonder that Prowl hadn't recognized him.

Sunstreaker stood up, a look of fury on his face. The bar patrons started hissing and suggesting that he "get lost", an expression that Prowl wasn't familiar with. "Fine. I see no reason to hang around with the *rabble* anyway," he said, apparently to his companion. "Time to vanish." He turned on one heel and strode toward the exit.

The blue and white Autobot set his mug of energon down on the table. "Good idea," he said. A moment later, a three- dimensional box frame of yellow light surrounded the space around his body. Not half a microcycle later, the blue and white Autobot had disappeared completely, without even standing up.

"Where'd he go?" Bluestreak said, quietly. The bar patrons settled down again and resumed their previous conversations as though nothing had happened.

Sideswipe sighed loudly and then walked around to the other side of the table, close to where the vanished Autobot had been sitting. He faced the chair, and then with one swift motion kicked it so that it toppled over sideways on to the floor.

"Ow!" came a voice from somewhere below. The blue and white Autobot re-appeared sprawled out on the floor. "Now *that* was just *mean*, Sideswipe!" he protested.

"Ahhh, it serves you right, you slaggin' show off," Sideswipe said, grinning, and he reached out an arm to help the other Autobot up. "Go tell Sunny to come back here, and tell him to quit turning off his comm unit all the time. I'd like you two to meet some new friends of mine."

The blue and white Autobot seemed to put it together that Prowl and Bluestreak were the two friends to which Sideswipe was referring. He smiled and waved a hand at them. "My name is Mirage," he said, "which Sideswipe would have already told you if he didn't have the manners of a house drone."



"A pleasure to meet you both... *eventually*," he added, casting a wry look at Sideswipe. "I'll go retrieve Sunstreaker." He shook his head, grinning about something. "We didn't think you could come up with a better one than I pulled yesterday," he said, "but that Megatron line? *Ouch*." He gave an appreciative chuckle and then headed out the door.

"What was that all about?" Bluestreak demanded.

Sideswipe picked up Mirage's chair and set it right, then sat in it. "Just a little fun," he said. He motioned to the other seats at the table, and Prowl and Bluestreak sat down next to each other. "I met Mirage and Sunstreaker my first day in Iacon," Sideswipe said. "They helped me get a new body, because I really *was* seriously damaged when I got here. The two of 'em donated their own finances to pay for it, too, outta nothin' but the kindness of their sparks. So I told 'em I was so broke that I could only pay 'em back in insults, which I meant as a joke but they thought was hilarious enough to take me up on. So every day I'm required to come in here and insult one of them while they try to defend themselves. Whoever gets the loudest applause wins, and the loser has to leave the pub. Which, by the way," he said, raising his voice and addressing the whole room, "I would like to thank once *again* for the victory!" There was some applause from the other tables and some hooting, and one or two boos, as well.

"What's the score?" somebody yelled out.

"Five to two, favor of *me*," he shouted back, proudly. He addressed Prowl and Bluestreak again. "If I get twenty-five wins before they do, my debt is paid off."

Prowl narrowed a single optic, his pre-programmed visual signal to indicate confusion. "That doesn't make any sense at all," he said.

"Yeah," Sideswipe said, "isn't it great?"

Bluestreak laughed. "What if you lose?" he asked.

"Then I have to pay them back with twenty-five canisters of Valvolux Gold," Sideswipe said.

"Wow, expensive tastes," Bluestreak said. "I don't think I've ever even *seen* a whole canister of Valvolux Gold."

"Me neither," Sideswipe said, "thus the motivation to win at insults instead." He grinned. A server 'Bot approached with Prowl's drink order and set three tankards of energon on the table, thanking them for their order.

"Tell you one thing for sure," Bluestreak said as he grabbed a tankard for himself, "now that I've gotten to know you, I'm sure glad you made it to Iacon."

Sideswipe nodded. "Yeah, I guess you and I understand each other pretty well on that point," he said. "How'd you escape Tarn?"

"Prowl pulled me out of the wreckage at the power plant," Bluestreak said, "and took me to Wheeljack's place in Polyhex. I was away from the city core when the... when it happened, a couple days later. How about you?"

Prowl found that he was very interested in hearing Sideswipe's answer. Sideswipe said he was from Vos, but he didn't behave at all like the Vossians Prowl had known. He fit in just fine in Iacon, it seemed, and there was no indication whatsoever that he had been forced to disable his own emotional protocols after breaking free of Vos' propaganda machine. Prowl didn't know how he had managed to escape the effects so easily.

"I was assigned to the perimeter defenses south of the city, and just far enough away that I only ended up *half* slagged instead of totally slagged," Sideswipe said. "We were supposedly the first line of defense against Tarn. Hah. What a *joke* that was."

"How do you mean?" Prowl asked.

"The 'defenses' were shoddy beyond belief. There was this huge line of fortified barriers across the southern front that was supposed to stop ground troops from getting into the city, you know? Problem was, the walls were totally hollow on account of the Decepticon they put in charge of buildin' 'em embezzled the construction money. What was his name... Swizzle, or Swindle, or something like that."

Prowl's optics blinked off and then on again, his socialization protocols' automatic reaction to information deemed to fit the parameters of 'surprising'. He realized that actions like that might draw attention to himself and raise questions about his background; he added a new subroutine to his programming to override the facial expression and vocal tone reactions with neutral ones in any case that would imply knowledge about Vos.

"Anyway," Sideswipe continued, "the actual weapons systems were just as bad. That was part of the reason us perimeter Autobots weren't allowed to go into the city without supervision. Slaggin' commanders were terrified that we'd let it slip to the townies how defenseless Vos really was."

"Wow," Bluestreak said. "I had no idea."

"Nobody did."

"So you weren't exposed to the propaganda regime?" Prowl asked.

Sideswipe shook his head. "We were all too busy on the front just trying to keep the walls from falling down," he said. "They'd drag us into town once a year for a stupid loyalty test, but other than that they left us alone."

"Loyalty test?!" Bluestreak said, appalled.

"Yeah, the biggest waste of time ever," Sideswipe said. "I told 'em what they wanted to hear and then went back to work. Which was easy, given how much we had to do all the time and how paranoid the commanders were about gettin' it done."

Prowl looked up to see that Sunstreaker and Mirage had appeared at the table again. Sideswipe noticed them and made room for Mirage, who pulled up a chair borrowed from an empty table and sat down. Sunstreaker did the same, seating himself between Sideswipe and Bluestreak.

"Hey," Sideswipe said by way of greeting. "I was just tellin' 'em about the wonderful world of Vos. Heh."

"I quite like this story," Mirage said. "Did you tell them about the commanders?"

"I was just gettin' there," Sideswipe said, smiling. "But since you so *unfairly* accused me of having the manners of a house drone... Sunstreaker, this is Bluestreak and Prowl." He pointed to each of them in turn. "We got assigned to the same IMA unit today, plus another 'bot who isn't here."

"Wheeljack," Prowl said. "A friend of ours."

"Ah," Sunstreaker said, nodding appreciatively. "Always happy to meet a fellow Academy recruit."

"I'm curious," Prowl said, when he realized the significance of what Sunstreaker had just told him, "why weren't the three of you put together in the same IMA unit?"

"We were already assigned by the time Sideswipe got here," Sunstreaker explained. "Me, Mirage, and two others named Inferno and Red Alert. I'm sure you'll meet them tomorrow."

"Yeah," Sideswipe said, "Sunny specifically requested to be paired up with three ugly Iaconians so he'd stand out. Unfortunately, they ended up with *four*." He flashed an evil grin.

"I'd say that's *six* to two, now," Mirage said. "He insulted us *both* in one sentence, *plus* two other 'Bots who aren't even here to defend themselves."

"Well, he's still a long way from the crown," Sunstreaker said, dismissively.

"Yeah, but I'm *gettin'* there," Sideswipe said. "Anyway, where was I before I was interrupted by the fashion police? Oh yeah, the commanders," he said. "The only ones who ever bought into the paranoia, that was them. In addition to having to run around fixing walls that were falling down and leaky plasma cannons and slag, we had to deal with the wingnuts the Council sent down to *supervise* us. Most of 'em couldn't find their afterburners with two hands and a holographic map. Every half a vorn or so we'd get some new Decepticon who was just there tryin' to prove how great a commander he was so he could get promoted and assigned back to the city. Most of 'em never made it, of course, because the whole reason they'd been stuck on perimeter rotation was a long track record of incompetence. We only ever had *one* who was any good, and he was *too* good."

"What do you mean?" Prowl asked.

"I mean, this 'Con knew his battle skills, that's what," he said. "Unfortunately, he also liked to practice on *us*. If he wasn't takin' shots at us from his tank turret he'd switch into sharpshooting mode and get us when we weren't lookin'. He had this nasty electron gun... if we didn't work fast enough, he'd start firing. Not one of us didn't end that rotation without crisscrosses all over our exterior plating."

"That's awful!" Bluestreak said. "Didn't they remove him?"

"Sure," Sideswipe said, "he got *promoted* to the intelligence service. Ain't *that* ironic."

Prowl determined that overriding his socialization protocols had been a very wise move. His memory flashed back to the operation at the power plant, and Stormcloud reacting in horror at the sight of a dead Autobot lying near the controls, his body marked with the telltale sign of an electron gun. While Prowl had been disabled by his emotional burdens, he had never stopped to figure out who had been responsible, but with his logic processors now free of restraints and given what he'd just heard, he estimated a high likelihood that Sideswipe's commander had been *Brawl*. He accessed the memory of seeing Brawl standing by Blast Off in shuttle mode, the gun he was carrying-- the *electron* gun, his weapon of choice, killing Tarnish engineers while they weren't looking. It was even worse than Prowl had known. Brawl and Blast Off had not, in fact, been mere transporters for the team, but were assassins directed to make certain the success of the Autobot saboteurs. He thought about the timing of the explosions, and how the team wasn't even clear of the complex when the bombs went off--

Prowl realized that *none* of them were meant to return from that operation.

"I don't know how you managed to stand it in that place," Mirage said, shaking his head.

"You do what you *have* to," Sideswipe said, taking a drink from his tankard.

"Speaking of stuff we have to do," Bluestreak said, "what's this IMA place like, anyway? I've never been to a military academy before. I've been to military installations, sure, we had plenty of those strung out on the borders in Tarn, and sometimes I had to deliver energon shipments to the officers, you know? Which I didn't like much, because it was a really time consuming job because the roads were awful, since they were so afraid of invasion that they purposefully made the trip impassable except on this really tiny supply road that was full of bumps and tight corners, and if you've ever tried to haul a cargo sled on that kind of terrain, well, I just hoped every time I had to make a run that there was an antigrav sled left at the vehicle pool, because trying to make that trip on my *own* wheels was bad enough let alone a wheeled sled, and if you jostled the energon along the way and one of the tanks fell off, they were so fragile they'd usually crack and start leaking, assuming you got one that wasn't cracked already. And then the officers would get mad because they were short on their energon, but instead of doing something useful like plowing a slaggin' *road* they'd just yell at me instead. So I hope the IMA guys are nicer than the border guys, because they could really yell when they wanted to and I don't like being on the bad side of 'bots carrying more firepower than me. Is that what they're like?"

Sunstreaker and Mirage stared at Bluestreak, mouths agape.

Mirage's optics blinked off, and then on. He looked at Prowl, and then at Sunstreaker, and then at Sideswipe. "I do believe he's been saving up," he said.

Sideswipe started laughing raucously, which prompted the same from Sunstreaker and finally Mirage. Prowl's socialization protocols recommended a wry smile, which he immediately enacted upon his features.

"Hey, what's so funny?" Bluestreak said, a slight look of annoyance on his face.

"They weren't aware of your conversation style," Prowl said, in a tone of voice designated as 'amiable' by his databanks.

"Oh," Bluestreak said, folding his arms over his chest plate, "real hilarious."

"Awww relax," Sideswipe said, "we're just teasin' you."

Sunstreaker shook his head and grinned. "Ironhide is going to *love* you," he said.

"Who's Ironhide?" Bluestreak asked.

"The chief instructor at the academy," Mirage said. "Quite the reputation he's got."

"Like what kind of reputation?"

"The kind where 'bots start calling you 'Diamond Aft' behind your back," Sideswipe said.

"Yes," Mirage said. "A real tough guy."

"Uh oh," Bluestreak said.

"It's not that bad. He doesn't mean to be difficult, it's just the way he was raised. *Everyone* from South Iacon is intense," Mirage said.

"South Iacon?" Prowl asked. "We came up from that direction, but I don't recall seeing a suburb of any kind."

Mirage and Sunstreaker laughed. "No, no," Mirage said, "it's not South like... *south*. It's... *underground*. About six levels directly under the city."

"There are Cybertronians living *underground*?" Bluestreak said, horrified. "Don't they miss the sunlight?"

"Apparently not," Mirage shrugged. "They're... separatists, I guess you could say."

"Religious fundamentalists, you mean," Sunstreaker added. "The most insanely devoted Primusites on Cybertron. I mean, I attend on high holidays like every other proper 'bot," he said, "but for Southerns, it's a whole *life*."

"Never heard of them," Prowl admitted. "How long have they been there?"

"Since shortly after Iacon was built in the first place," Mirage said. "A lot of the 'bots who constructed the foundations of the city ended up staying, hollowing out homes underneath. The city Council wasn't too happy about it at first, but you couldn't argue with their engineering skills. The topside actually ended up *more* structurally stable after they went to work than it was before."

"But that must have been millions of years ago," Prowl pointed out. "How do you know this?"

"His mother," Sunstreaker said.

"Mother?!" Sideswipe exclaimed. This was apparently new information for him as well. "What are you, a biological?"

"It's just a *nickname*," Mirage said, casting a dark look at Sunstreaker, "for the femmebot who made me. Well, the *physical* me, you know, everything but the spark."

"You know your own creator?" Bluestreak said. "She must be really old!"

"You have no idea," Mirage said. "She remembers the war with the Quintessons. And I mean from the *beginning*."

"Impressive," Prowl said.

"Well, if you want to talk about strange quasi-organic lifestyles," Mirage said, "the Southerns have got *that*, too. Mother may just be a nickname to me, but the Southerns actually co-exist in these groups called 'familial units'. One engineer- creator female Autobot 'mother' paired with an income earning male Autobot 'father' head of the household. They consider any additional creations 'children' and the males are expected to go into the same line of work as the 'father'."

"Which explains a lot in Ironhide's case," Sunstreaker said.

"How so?" Prowl asked.

"Ironhide disobeyed his 'father' and left South Iacon to be a soldier up above," Sunstreaker said.

"What was he *supposed* to do?" Bluestreak asked.

"Become a high priest," Mirage said, "like his 'father' and 'grandfather', which is the 'father' from one generation back. Rumor has it Ironhide was disbanded from his familial unit after he told them that they were hypocrites for sitting around waiting for the Great War instead of preparing for it."

"I don't understand," Prowl said. Bluestreak looked equally confused.

"It's a reference to another aspect of their religious doctrine," Mirage said. "The Southerns believe that Primus is alive, but sleeping, and that he will be awakened by the sound of a shattering scream. This scream is supposedly going to be the result of a cataclysmic war on Cybertron where half the population will combat the other half. The legend goes that during the war, someone called the 'Destroyer' will rise to attack Cybertron."

"Ah yes," Sunstreaker said, "The 'Darkest Hour' prophesy, isn't that what they call it?"

"Exactly," Mirage said. "Supposedly drawn from one of the chapters of the Book Of Primus."

"So that's it? They just read their book and wait for oblivion?" Sideswipe asked.

"And live underground, isolated from everyone else," Mirage said. "Yes."

"Ugh," Bluestreak said, "I can't imagine life without sunlight."

"Not *my* cup of oil, either," Sunstreaker nodded. "Artificial light makes my paintjob look dull."

"The rest of the time it's just his personality that does," Sideswipe said.

"That's seven," Mirage said.

"It's too bad I'm such a refined individual," Sunstreaker said, lifting his chin, "because if ever there was a time to use the phrase 'torque off', it would be now."

"Yup," Sideswipe said with a winning smile. "Too bad." He laced his fingers together behind his head and reclined in his seat.

"Insult deflected. I think he deserves number eight for that."

"Well I don't," Sunstreaker said.

"Seven and a half, then. Anyway, what were we talking about?" Mirage said. "Oh yes, Ironhide."

"Does he yell a lot?" Bluestreak asked, warily. "I don't like getting yelled at."

Sunstreaker and Mirage looked at each other, and then grinned.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


"Ah've been livin' on this planet for nigh to four million years, but Ah've *never* seen such a *sorry* bunch of wingnuts in all o' my life!" the red Autobot shouted as he looked over the assembled IMA cadets.

Prowl stood in between Bluestreak and Wheeljack, trying to reconfigure his audio sensors to translate the speaker's accent into something even marginally understandable. The entire incoming class of cadets was assembled together in a straight line on the main grounds of the Academy, 0700 joors sharp, as instructed.

A white Autobot approached the red one and stopped to stand next to him.

"Now, Ironhide, they don't look so bad to *me*," he said.

Ironhide turned to the other Autobot. "Has Magnus got some kinduva *glitch*, Jazz? This bunch musta fell right off th' assembly line!" he said.

The Autobot now identified as Jazz turned to the group. "Cadets," he said, "my name is Jazz, director of the Academy, and this is Ironhide. Don't let his gruff make you muff, that's *my* advice. Ironhide here can teach you everything there is to know about combat, and even some things that'll help you *avoid* it. Today you're going to be introduced to the fine art of sharpshootin'. Good luck, cadets." He smiled and gave Ironhide a salute; the red Autobot returned the gesture. Then Jazz gave a kindly nod to the recruits and walked away, his part in the exercise apparently finished.

"Hey, Mirage... what's a 'muff'?" Bluestreak whispered.

The sound of Bluestreak's voice caught the attention of Ironhide, who whirled around to face him. "Did Ah give you permission to be the unit gabbygear, cadet?" he shouted.

Bluestreak stood silent, looking terrified.

"Ah *axed* you a question," Ironhide said, stepping up to stare Bluestreak in the optics, "you got an *answer*?"

"I.... I would," Bluestreak stammered, "if I had any idea what a 'gabbygear' was."

"If you had any idea what a 'gabbygear' was, *what*?" Ironhide demanded.

"Uh, and if I could think of the answer that you wanted to hear to make you stop yelling at me?" Bluestreak offered, weakly.

"Cadet, when Ah axe you a question, Ah expect you to address me as 'sir'. Do you understand me?"

"Yes," Bluestreak said.

"Ah didn't hear a 'yes, SIR', cadet. Do you THINK you can manage to add 'sir' to the end o' that?"

"Yes sir, sir," Bluestreak said.

Prowl heard snickering from the area where Mirage was standing.

"You find this *funny*, cadet?" He moved towards Mirage and stared him right in the face. "Y'think Ah give a Decepticon's left afterburner that you're Beta's baby boy? You soft-servoed buncha high-class boltheads really *fry* my circuits." He raised an arm and pointed toward the main group of Academy buildings. "Git yer aft into the weapons depot and report fer cleanin' duty, cadet, and Ah want those phase rifles so shiny they reflect th' invisible face of PRIMUS! D'ya HEAR me?"

"Yes, sir!" Mirage replied, and broke rank, running toward the building Ironhide had indicated.

"Anybody *else* wanna join him?"

It was silent.

"Ah didn't think so. Now *you*," Ironhide said, coming back to face Bluestreak, "you think you're too good for this squad?"

"No sir!" Bluestreak said.

"Well that's funny, 'cause you sure seem to think you do, otherwise you'da been payin' attention instead of yappin yer trap," Ironhide said. He moved over to the weapons rack and grabbed one of several precision disruptor rifles that were hanging there. Then he stormed back to Bluestreak and shoved the rifle into his hands. "So why don't you show everyone how useful yappin' is. Aim that rifle at your target unit and take your best shot," he said, folding his arms across his chest. "G'wan, *impress* me."

Bluestreak scanned the target area and frowned. "There's three different target points," he observed. "Am I supposed to shoot all of them?"

"Sure!" Ironhide said, sarcastically. "Knock yourself out."

Prowl's tactical systems analyzed the target range and calculated that there were three different targets for a specific purpose: to measure three different degrees of skill level. The top target was closest and easiest to shoot; even a novice could hit it. The one below it was further away, and partially obscured by shadow. The lowest target was close to the ground *and* turned approximately thirty degrees from the right angle. In order to hit that one, Prowl knew, it would be necessary to execute a precision movement with the muzzle of the rifle, a sharp arc rightward at the exact moment that the disruptor charge left the barrel.

"All three, okay," Bluestreak said. "Uh, *sir*," he added hastily. He raised the rifle to his optics; Prowl noted that there was no sighting module attached to any of them. They would apparently have to rely upon their own distance scanners and tactical programming.

Bluestreak took a moment to aim, and then made the first shot. Then he shifted angles slightly and shot again. Then he paused for a moment, and pulled the trigger a third time.

Ironhide turned to look at the results.

Bluestreak had hit every single target point; not one of them was even a micrometer off center. Prowl had observed him make the exact movement with the rifle necessary to hit the final target, just as his tactical programming had told him would be necessary. It was a most unusual development; he had not expected this level of skill from Bluestreak at all.

Neither, it seemed, had Ironhide. "Ah'll be damned and cast to 'blivion," he said, stunned. He shot a dark look at Bluestreak. "What're you, a ringer? Did Jazz put you up t' this?"

Bluestreak looked mortified. "Sir?"

"Well, did he?"

"Sir," Prowl interjected, conscious that he was risking being subjected to the same kind of punishing waste of time that Mirage had recently suffered, "if I may-- his name is Bluestreak. He was a refugee, as I was. We came to Iacon together, and even *I* didn't know he was a sharpshooter, sir."

Ironhide's face softened slightly as he realized nobody was trying to embarrass him. "Ah see," he said.

"I'm a sharpshooter?" Bluestreak said to Prowl, genuinely surprised. He looked at the rifle in his hands.

Ironhide sighed, loudly. "You may be good at shootin', son, but you sure don't know when to keep yer yapper shut," he said, causing Bluestreak to shrink a little. "All right," he said to the whole group, "get yourselves a weapon and then git back in line. Cadet Bluestreak, go start at the other end and help your fellow cadets with their aim, and *maybe* Ah won't bust yer tailpipe fer mouthin' off."

"Yes sir!" Bluestreak said, and saluted.

Ironhide grimaced as Bluestreak passed by. "And *tomorrow* we're gonna learn *salutes*."




* * * * * * * * * * * *


"Prowl's a tactical genius and Bluestreak's a sharpshooter. Primus, you think you *know* someone," Wheeljack complained.

The Autobot cadets-- Sunstreaker's group (designated the Tau Module) and Prowl's group (designated the Delta Module) had agreed to meet at Liquid Courage at the end of the day so that Prowl and his group could meet Inferno and Red Alert and Sunstreaker's group could meet Wheeljack.

"This is Wheeljack," Bluestreak said, "our fourth."

"Nice to meet ya," Wheeljack said, holding out his hand in the Iaconian fashion. He greeted both of them.

"And this is Inferno," Mirage said, "and-- hey, where did Red Alert go?"

"He said he had a pain in his upper lumbar gears and went to the infirmary," Inferno reported.

"Was it serious?" Mirage asked.

"I doubt it," Inferno said. "I told him he was going to miss all the action, but he insisted on getting it looked at. Got a bad sense of priorities if you ask me." He smiled and drained his tankard of energon.

"Action? *What* action?" Wheeljack said. "This is a *pub* for Primus' sake."

The three Iaconians stopped and stared at him.

"He means 'bar'," Bluestreak said.

"Ohhh," Mirage said. Sunstreaker and Inferno also nodded their heads in understanding.

"Red's just got nervous servos," Sunstreaker said. "Obviously, he was constructed of shoddy materials. Unlike *some* Autobots."

"Really? Like who?" Sideswipe asked.

"Nice try, but you're not getting an eighth for that," Mirage said.

"Here we go," Inferno said, smiling.

"Oh, right, that insult-a-thon thingie," Wheeljack said, "Bluestreak said somethin' about that."

"Anyway, it's possible that he really *does* have suboptimal components," Inferno said. "I heard from someone in one of the other unit modules that the Council of Elders is going to upgrade all of us, a few at a time, so that we're all at peak operating efficiency."

"Well *I* won't need it," Sunstreaker said. "You can't improve on perfection."

"Oh Primus," Sideswipe muttered, and folded his arms over his chest.

"What are *you* complaining about?" Sunstreaker said. "You look just *like* me."

"And who in my position wouldn't spend the next million vorns regretting it?" Sideswipe replied.

"*There's* the eighth."

"Oh, slag off," Sunstreaker said, nastily.

Suddenly, Sideswipe stood up from his chair; with another quick motion, he jumped up on to the table, nearly spilling Sunstreaker's drink in the process. "Attention patrons of this fine establishment, it is with great joy that I announce a *winner* of the contest," he shouted to the entire room.

"You haven't won yet!" Sunstreaker shouted back, holding his drink to his chestplate to protect it from any errant kicks.

"Oh, my dear foolish Sunstreaker," Sideswipe said with mock formality, "not *our* contest. *My* contest. The solution to the First Annual Sunstreaker Trivia Challenge is--"

"*Sunstreaker* Trivia Challenge?!?!"

"Ahem. As I was saying-- the solution is: eight days, four megacycles, twenty cycles and fifteen astroseconds! And now, Inferno is going to announce the name of the 'Bot who guessed closest to that number. Inferno?"

Inferno stood up and grinned. "Thank you all, it is my great pleasure to announce that the winner is...." he paused for dramatic effect. "Hound!" he shouted out. He turned around and pointed at one of the other patrons in the bar, a green Autobot that Prowl recalled seeing at the academy that day.

"I won! I won!" Hound shouted, and got up from where he was sitting; Prowl's sensors detected what it determined to be false enthusiasm in Hound's behavior. He could not predict it to a complete degree of reliability, but there was a distinct likelihood that Hound's performance was, indeed, a kind of *performance*. He recalled Inferno's statement about wanting to see the 'action' and wondered if the word might have had a secondary meaning.

"Show him what he's won, Inferno!" Sideswipe said as Hound approached the table.

Inferno opened up his main storage compartment and pulled out a small, flat cylindrical device. He held it in the palm of his right hand and then with his left, pushed a button on the side. As soon as Inferno activated it, Prowl realized what it was. It was a handheld version of a chromagnicite particle model machine, and it was reconstructing a perfect representation of a Cybertronian figure. As soon as the device was fully activated and coloring flowed up from the bottom of the unit, Prowl saw-- as did everyone else-- that the device had created a model of Sunstreaker just as he had looked during the State Games.

Upon further scrutiny, there also appeared to be an axe sticking out of his back.

"Why, it's a limited edition State Games commemorative Sunstreaker particle model!" Hound said as he received the prize. The manner in which he said it, Prowl calculated, certainly pushed above ninety percent the probability that the entire event (including Hound's victory) was a set-up from the start.

"Wha-- where did you get that?!" Sunstreaker demanded, his vocalizers practically shorting out with the sound of frenzied static.

"No way he could afford that on his own. Someone must have donated it," Mirage said, flatly.

"That's right, Hound," Sideswipe said, ignoring them, "a teeny- weenie Sunny just for you. Now *you* can relive the triumph of Tarn in your very own living quarters! But for those audience members just joining us tonight, why don't you tell everyone *which* trivia question you correctly predicted the answer to?"

"Of course!" Hound said, smiling. "The question was: How long after meeting someone for the first time will Sunstreaker drop the goody-two-shocks routine and start cursing like all the rest of us?"

"Eight days, four megacycles, twenty cycles and fifteen astroseconds!" Sideswipe said. "How 'bout a great big cheer of congratulations for our winner, Hound!"

Hound raised his hand in a victory sign and the whole bar exploded in raucous cheering. Quite a few of them were chanting "WIN-NER" again, too, Prowl noted.

Hound went back to his own table and Inferno returned to his seat at theirs. "Now *that* was fun," Inferno said.

"Yeah," Sideswipe said, hopping down from the table and back into his own seat, "yeah it *was*.

Everyone looked at Sunstreaker.

"I'm going to crack open your chest compartment and break your laser core with my own two hands," Sunstreaker said, a look of absolute fury on his face.

Mirage smiled, took a drink from his tankard, and then leaned far back in his chair. He folded his arms over his chest plate and nodded once, in Sideswipe's direction. "Debt *paid*," he said.

Sunstreaker held the furious expression for a moment more and then put his elbow joints on the table. He buried his face in his hands, sighed, and shook his head. "Debt paid," he said, defeated.

Sideswipe smiled and nodded happily. "Now *that's* what I've been waitin' to hear."

"That was the greatest thing I've seen in all o' my life," Wheeljack said, awed. "That was a thing of *beauty*."

"Thank you, thank you, though I couldn't have done it without the help of Inferno here and Hound over from Quattro Module," Sideswipe said. "Oh, and a little donation from someone who will remain anonymous."

Mirage looked to see that Sunstreaker still had his face covered up and flashed an enormous grin at everyone else. Sunstreaker lifted his head again and Mirage's smile vanished as if he'd pulled his disappearing trick on the lower half of his face. Sunstreaker looked at Mirage with one optic narrowed. Mirage looked back at him, a picture of innocence.

Sunstreaker narrowed *both* his optics at Mirage. "Uh huh," he said. "I'm not going to forgive *this*," he said.

"Don't be silly," Mirage said, evenly. "You already *have*." He smiled.

Sunstreaker sighed, defeated again.

Prowl nodded at Sideswipe. "I *wondered* if Hound wasn't in on it," Prowl said, "the way he accepted his 'award'."

"*Lots* of cadets in this place, huh?" Bluestreak said, looking around.

"Yeah, and more than last week, even," Sideswipe said. "Can't beat the convenience."

"Does anyone know how many cadets there are, total?" Inferno asked.

"A little over four hundred," Mirage said, "three to one refugees to Iaconians."

"Whadja do, hack into the administration office computer?" Wheeljack asked.

Mirage smiled, but didn't say anything.

"Must have been quite a lot of refugees coming into Iacon, then," Inferno said.

Prowl nodded. "That's what it looked like to us. The shelters were *well* over capacity." Prowl and the rest of his module had been moved into living quarters on the grounds of the IMA in return for their total devotion to Academy life. The accommodations were far more modest than Prowl and Wheeljack were used to, but just the opposite was true from the perspectives of Bluestreak and Sideswipe. Prowl was completely indifferent to his quarters, or at least he was after he had determined that they met the minimum requirements for habitability and structural soundness. Wheeljack was glad for the change, as joining the Academy released him from his rather harried schedule as a makeshift medic.

"Today was good, I thought," Inferno said. "Sharpshooting practice. Exciting stuff. I'm certainly hoping for more of the same tomorrow."

"I know what you mean," Sunstreaker said, apparently recovered from his humiliation enough to participate in the conversation, "but unfortunately we're spending all day tomorrow learning defense systems management."

"Ugh," Inferno said. "Well, Red Alert will be happy, at least. I mean, if that's *possible*."

Prowl hadn't heard about what the training regimen would be; his strategy protocols, which were programmed to seek out data of all kinds that could be useful for formulating prediction models, prompted him to inquire further. "What is the schedule going to be after that?" he asked.

"Every day this week is a different skill training session," Mirage said, "so that the instructors know which of us belongs in which training group later. Really proficient cadets go into advanced training in their specialties, and rotate through the others until everyone achieves a base competency in the entire curriculum."

"That's what I heard, too," Sunstreaker confirmed.

"Well, there's no question about who's movin' to the head of the sharpshootin' class," Wheeljack said, clapping Bluestreak on the back. "How come you lied yesterday?" He pointed at Bluestreak and said to the others, "this guy told Ultra Magnus that he didn't have any combat skills. Hah!"

"Well how was I supposed to know that was a combat skill?" Bluestreak protested. "At the power plant where I was working, there were all these native mechanimal pests that used to invade the plant all the time, looking for energy, you know? Obnoxious little bolters, mostly cyberscorpions, the ones that have little drill bits on their tails? Yeah, so we'd have nests of these things, and they can scurry like crazy, let me tell you. They'd try boring holes in the power conduits to get at the energon, only sometimes they'd bore too big of a hole and they'd drown themselves in it and overload their own systems, which I guess is a good way to die, actually, at least *I'd* take that option instead of a disruptor blast to the head, you know, if I got a choice. Anyway, I was the best one with a rifle so I used to scan the complex like once a week at least to make sure there weren't any cyberscorps around, but of course there always were and I ended up spending a couple of megacycles a week and sometimes more getting rid of them. So I guess that *was* a lot of target practice, really, although today's practice was a *lot* easier since the targets *we* were shooting at didn't scurry off and hide in the control room where you couldn't shoot without damaging the computer systems, because if you did then the supervisor would get mad and start yelling and next thing you know you're making trips to the debris repository for three weeks straight."

Inferno stared at Bluestreak. Everyone else at the table kept quiet, smiling and observing the shocked look on Inferno's face as he was introduced to Bluestreak's most memorable personality trait.

Inferno's optics blinked off, and then on. "Wow," he said, finally.

Everyone laughed.

"Oh, c'mon, guys," Bluestreak pouted. "It's not... *funny*."

"Sorry, Bluestreak," Mirage said, kindly. "You know we all like you." He smiled, and Bluestreak smiled, too.

"Bluestreak *did* say he knew how to shoot a gun," Prowl reminded Wheeljack.

"Yeah, I did," Bluestreak said.

"Heh," Wheeljack said. "That ain't the same thing."

"Seems like a large program," Sideswipe said, apparently meaning the Academy in general. "I wonder where they're planning to send us after commencement?"

Sunstreaker, Mirage and Inferno looked at Bluestreak.

"Graduation," Bluestreak said. The three Iaconians nodded.

Sideswipe muttered something inaudible.

"We're going into the ranks of the Civil Defense Force," Mirage said. "They're reconstructing the CDF into a formalized army capable of executing complex battle strategies, and we're going to be part of it."

As soon as Mirage disclosed this information, the entire architecture of Iacon's governmental strategy revealed itself to Prowl's highly-attuned tactical analysis systems. He now understood why Iacon had required registration for new immigrants and even why the cadets had been separated into groups of four. Not random groups of four, as he had previously assumed-- but groups with a very specific *structure*. Bluestreak and Sideswipe, two warriors, paired with Prowl, a tactician, and Wheeljack, an engineer. Inferno and Sunstreaker, two special strike fighters, paired with Red Alert, a defense systems specialist, and Mirage, a covert reconnaissance agent if ever Prowl had seen one. They were not associations of convenience, Prowl realized, but rather of purpose. He could discern the handiwork of someone else, someone higher in the Iaconian organization, who must have had just as great an understanding of tactics and strategy as Prowl and who *must* have been directing the action, unseen, from above. They were not merely training the cadets in the skills of sharpshooting, or defense systems, or whatever other elements of the curriculum yet remained. They were teaching interoperability, division of labor, the ability to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each individual and then utilize them *together* with maximum efficacy in pursuit of a specific goal.

They were training every cadet in the Academy to be a *leader*.

"How do you know so much about what's goin' on in this joint?" Wheeljack asked.

"I get around," Mirage shrugged.

Inferno and Sunstreaker looked at each other. "Mother," they both said, at the same time.

"No, no," Mirage said. "Mother has nothing to do with it. She *hates* the IMA. She's *still* angry at me for signing up."

"One thing I don't get," Sideswipe said, changing the subject. "If there's already a civil defense force, then... why are we here?"

"Because," Prowl said softly, as a great many bits of information he had collected over the past two weeks locked together like gears in his mind, "there is going to be *war* on all of Cybertron."

The whole table was silent. The sounds of other conversations-- lighter and lightly spoken-- surrounded them like a current.

Sunstreaker scoffed. "Don't tell me. You started reading the Book of Primus."

"No," Prowl said, evenly. "It's the *only* logical conclusion. It's *inevitable*."

"Explain that," Sideswipe said. "How is it inevitable?"

"All right," Prowl said. He moved his chair closer to the table and dropped his vocalizer levels, aware that what he was about to say might cause alarm to the casual eavesdropper. "Two and a half weeks ago, what was the biggest story on the news feeds?"

"Vos and Tarn to oblivion," Sunstreaker said.

"No, that was just two weeks ago," Prowl said. "Think earlier."

"Death of the last Overlord," Inferno said.

"Exactly. No more planet-wide government. And then what happened?"

"Vos and Tarn?" Sunstreaker asked.

"Yes," Prowl said, and Sunstreaker looked vindicated. "Vos and Tarn. Wheeljack--" Prowl said, turning to the engineer, "what happened in Polyhex the day after Vos and Tarn fell?"

"Decepticons," Wheeljack said. "Loads of 'em, movin' into the city."

"What *kind* of Decepticons?" Prowl asked.

Wheeljack widened a single optic. "The kind with more guns than servos if ya ask me," he said, "including Shockwave."

"Exactly," Prowl said. "And shortly after the first waves of refugees entered Iacon, what was going on in the south part of the planet?"

"Fighting between the leftover armies of Vos and Tarn," Sideswipe said, "yeah, we know all this--"

"Well here's something you might not know," Prowl said. "For a week after Vos and Tarn fell, it was common public expectation here in Iacon that the fighting between Vos' shock troops and Tarn's shock troops in the borders would start to taper off and then stop altogether," he said, "because there's nothing left in either place for either side to fight about. Three days after the photon bombs went off, everybody expected the battles to stop. And four days, and five days, and six days, and so on, everyone expected the battles to stop. How are things as of right now? Did the fighting taper off as predicted?"

The other members of the group stopped and thought about this.

"No," Sideswipe said. "It didn't."

Prowl paused. There was just one piece of information which his logic processors told him *had* to be the truth but of which he had no *direct* knowledge or evidence. But that did not mean, Prowl realized, that this information was not sitting right there at the table, locked into the laser core of an Autobot who moved through shadows and could even *disappear*.

"And what *else*?" he said, with particular emphasis, looking straight into the optics of Mirage.

It was quiet a moment.

Inferno looked at Mirage and then at Prowl, and frowned.

Mirage did not take his optics off of Prowl.

"And right now," Mirage said, confirming exactly what Prowl knew to be true exactly as Prowl knew that he *could*, "not even the news outlets can tell which soldiers originated in Vos and which ones originated in Tarn." He slumped back in his seat; his hands fell off the surface of the table and hung at his sides. "Oh holy Primus," he said. He shook his head in a way that suggested to Prowl that he now understood the whole picture.

"Wait-- what does that *mean*?" Bluestreak asked, a slight edge of panic in his voice.

"It means that at this very moment," Prowl said, "somewhere between Polyhex and Tarn, there is a struggle taking place between two very dangerous factions."

"Yeah, but what do *we* care if a bunch of slaggers try to kill each other off ten thousand kilometers from here?" Sideswipe asked.

"Because it's not a struggle for *destruction* of the other group," Prowl corrected him. "It's a struggle for *control*."

"Whoever wins gets command of *both* groups," Mirage said, completing the thought.

"Right," Prowl said. "But what is the *one* thing that we *absolutely* know about who these soldiers are?"

"They come from both Vos *and* Tarn," Inferno said. The look on his face told Prowl that he was catching on.

"But if Mirage is right that nobody knows who's who, then... that means that at least *some* of the Vos 'bots are fightin' side-by-side with the Tarn 'bots, and vice versa," Wheeljack said, "doesn't it?"

Prowl nodded. "Bluestreak? Sideswipe?" he said, calling their attention to himself. "You know the answer to this question better than anyone," he said. "What could possibly make a group of Vossian soldiers and a group of Tarnish ones fight on the same side less than a week after they destroyed each other's city?"

Sideswipe and Bluestreak glanced at each other and then back at Prowl as identical looks of realization crossed their faces.

"They found a common enemy," Sideswipe said.

"They're coming to *Iacon*," said Bluestreak.




* * * * * * * * * * * *

The days that followed the sobering realization that a world war was imminent found the members of the Tau and Delta unit modules expending extraordinary effort toward learning the skills that Ironhide and the other Academy instructors were there to teach. It was an easy thing, Inferno said at one point, to pay attention in class when you knew exactly what the stakes were. Prowl and the rest of Delta module finally got to meet Red Alert the day after the 'summit', as Sideswipe had dubbed their monumental conversation at Liquid Courage, and it was clear on the first meeting that the other members of Tau had filled him in on the entire situation. Prowl quickly surmised that Red Alert was particularly sensitive to problems of strategy and could predict with astonishing accuracy the weaknesses of any tactical decision. Prowl found Red Alert's skills complimentary to his own and noted with approval the increased effectiveness of both modules when they worked together.

No two unit modules at the Academy were closer, in fact, than Tau and Delta. This propensity to consult each other and even go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the instruction staff assigned them to work together on projects did not escape the notice of the other cadets, who began referring to the eight of them just by the Tau designation, as 'Tau-ers'. Neither did it escape the notice of the other modules-- nor the instructors for that matter-- that these eight Autobots were *so* self-motivated that they almost always surpassed the skills of every other module during the training sessions. The 'Tau-er' nickname soon took on a new connotation to reflect their lofty abilities: *Towers*. The masterful skills that the Towers displayed engendered a fair share of competitive resentment, too, and soon other cadets reminded the users of the 'Tower' slang that Delta module wasn't getting its fair share of recognition. 'Tau-D's' was more appropriate, they suggested-- harmonized, of course, into *Toadies* and paired with allegations of favoritism by the instructors. Thus Prowl and his new friends were alternately referred to by the other cadets as 'Towers' when their skills were being appreciated ("Go ask one of the Towers, they'll probably know for sure") and 'Toadies' ("What, you think you're some hotshot Toady or somethin'?") when they were not.

By the third week of Academy instruction, however, jealousy had outstripped admiration by a wide margin within the ranks of the other modules. The suspicions of favoritism, which Prowl knew to be clearly unfounded if the situation were examined logically, were bolstered when Ironhide announced that the Academy was adding another level to the advanced curriculum but that only Tau and Delta modules were close to qualification for entry.

Prowl and Red Alert found that they were advancing at the same speed through the tactical and defense systems specializations, largely on account of the fact that they worked together almost exclusively in both. Prowl found his progress merely satisfactory, but Red Alert had never been *happier*, at least according to Inferno and Sunstreaker. Prowl found that he was unable to detect a difference; Red Alert was so studious and attentive to his work that Prowl wondered whether he, too, was operating without emotional protocols.

"All right cadets," Ironhide said, calling the advanced tactics class to attention. "We're workin' in fours today," Ironhide said, "so get yer groups together at a map table."

Prowl and Red Alert had been standing next to each other and walked toward one of the center tables together. Sideswipe and Inferno were standing by the door where they had just come in. They were attending class for the first time, having just qualified out of the Intermediate level the day before. Sideswipe gave Prowl a nod of acknowledgment and then he and Inferno started to make their way across the room to join up with him and Red Alert.

It was an Autobot cadet named Huffer, however, who got to Prowl's table first. "Need a third?" he asked.

"No," Prowl said, "we've already got four."

"Where, stuffed into your storage locker?" Huffer scoffed. "I don't see--"

"Right here," Sideswipe said as he and Inferno approached.

Huffer glared at them with suspicion. "You guys got somethin' against workin' with anybody 'cept each *other*?" he demanded.

"No," Prowl said evenly. "We work together more efficiently in this arrangement."

"How do you know you wouldn't work 'efficiently' with somebody from a different module?" Huffer demanded. He looked at Sideswipe and Inferno. "These two ain't even been in class before today!"

"Yeah," Sideswipe said darkly, "but we're *motivated*."

"Whazzat supposed to mean?" Huffer said, angrily. "I'm not *motivated* enough for you?"

"In a word? *No*," Sideswipe said, flatly.

"I got news for you boltheads," Huffer said, "there's no *prize* to win at the end."

"We know that," Inferno said, "better than you can *imagine*."

Huffer narrowed his optics at them all. "Oh, to the *pit* with you anyway," he said, and stormed off. Sideswipe and Inferno took their places at the table. The four of them exchanged glances but said nothing. There was no need for words.

Prowl's sensors detected that they were being observed. He turned to look to the front of the room and noticed Ironhide looking directly at their table. He could not be certain how much of the exchange Ironhide had seen, but he calculated that the probability was high that he had observed most of it, especially given the loudness of Huffer's vocalizer unit.

"Have any of you told anyone else?" Prowl asked, quietly, being careful not to mention specifics.

"No," Sideswipe said, "though there've been times I've wanted to." The other three nodded in agreement with Sideswipe.

Prowl nodded.

"Do you think we should?" Inferno asked.

Red Alert and Prowl looked at each other, and both shook their heads in unison. "It's not our place to do so," Red Alert pointed out. "We have no idea what the *effect* might be. It might start a riot in Iacon for all we know."

Sideswipe gave a quick nod of the head. "We'd better pay attention," he said, "Ironhide's lookin' our way." The four of them turned to their assignment and said nothing more about the subject.

A moment later, Prowl's internal comm system informed him that a direct-link message had been delivered, code classified as both urgent *and* private. Without informing the others about it, Prowl accessed the message file and analyzed the data silently.

It was a message from Ironhide, curt and to the point.


Prowl set a reminder on his internal chronometer and then turned his attention to the assignment in front of him.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


When class was over for the day, Prowl told his friends that he would join them later in the evening at Liquid Courage (as was their usual arrangement) but did not explain why he would be delayed. Then he made his way to the center of the Academy complex and the Administrative sector, as Ironhide's directions specified. He had no idea what Ironhide wished to discuss, but guessed that it was related to the dispute with Huffer.

He located the door to building A-2 and was directed by the entry staff to take the elevator to the top floor. When he asked about the purpose of the meeting, they informed him that they were not privy to that information. He thanked them and followed their instructions.

When he came out of the elevator he noticed that the entire top floor was one large room, sparsely furnished, but containing several large display panels along the far wall. The other three walls were composed of clear crystal windows, which provided an ample view of the main courtyard of the Academy and the roofs of the classroom buildings.

In the center of the room stood Optimus Prime, who looked up when he heard Prowl walk out of the elevator.

Prowl saw Ultra Magnus standing beside him, and Jazz on the other side, though Jazz had his back turned to Prowl and was examining some map data on one of the large display screens. He recognized the geography of the southern half of Polyhex in the image. Ironhide was nowhere in sight.

Prowl crossed the room to where Optimus Prime was standing. He had not expected to see Iacon's most celebrated gladiator here, and his tactical computers set to work on providing an explanation for his presence. Soon Jazz, too, had turned to look at Prowl, giving him a friendly nod of the head and a smile as he stepped forward.

"I was told to come here," Prowl said to the three of them, "by Ironhide."

Optimus Prime nodded. "I know," he said. "We need to talk."

"I was under the impression that my meeting was with him," Prowl said, trying to determine why his expectations been incorrect.

Prime's optics seemed to glow brighter with laughter. "So you'd rather not talk to me or Jazz or Magnus?" he asked. The tone of his voice suggested that he was teasing Prowl.

Prowl's face executed a smile in response. "That's not what I meant," he said.

"I know," Prime said, and chuckled. Prowl's socialization protocols had correctly identified the subtext of Prime's reaction, it seemed. "You're in Delta module, isn't that correct?"


"I hear that you're something of tactician," he said.

"Yes," Prowl confirmed. As luck would have it, it was at that very moment that his tactical systems worked out the answer to the question of Prime's presence. He noted the deferential posture of Jazz and Ultra Magnus. This fact, combined with the latter's earlier statement that he served a superior officer *and* the superior was particularly apt at tactical planning caused Prowl to surmise that Optimus Prime was sine qua non of the entire Academy. "And you are the invisible hand," Prowl stated.

Prime widened a single optic and then shook his head. "I'm afraid I don't know what you mean," he said.

"You're the one directing the action at the Academy," Prowl said. "You're the one who designed the curriculum and the structure. You developed the method to put us into groups of four to teach us how to operate as a unit instead of just as individuals. You made certain that every module had four slightly different specialties represented so that we would learn how to utilize each other's skills effectively."

Prime listened to this and then nodded. "Technically, the credit belongs to Ironhide for the structure of the program," he said, "but that's essentially correct. Do you know why we've trained you this way?"

"Because we will need the training," Prowl said, "for what's yet to come."

There was silence after he spoke. Jazz and Ultra Magnus looked at each other.

"Ironhide was right," Jazz said.

"How many of the modules know about Megatron?" Prime asked Prowl.

Prowl frowned. "The Tarnish gladiator?" he said. "What has he got to do with it?"

"Everything," Prime said, evenly. "He's bringing an army to raze Iacon to the ground."

Prowl considered this for a moment, updating his pool of information about Cybertron's political situation and then running the analytical tests with this new variable. "Megatron won the contest south of Polyhex," he concluded out loud.

"Yes," Prime said. "So you *do* know about it."

"No," Prowl said, "we knew there was a struggle going on for control of the Vos and Tarn survivors. We didn't know there was a winner yet, or even who exactly was fighting."

"Yes, there's a winner now," Prime said. "Megatron just acquired all the soldiers loyal to Shockwave and he's marshalling them into a true fighting force. The news services aren't reporting it yet, because none of the news services can get down there to find out what's going on."

"Megatron will have made certain of that," Prowl reasoned.

"We think so, too," Prime said. "How many of the modules know a war is going to start?"

"Just Tau and Delta," Prowl said. "We didn't think it was our place to disclose it unless you did first."

"Good men," Ultra Magnus said.

Prime nodded in agreement. "We appreciate that, Prowl. You put the welfare of the city first instead of letting fear cloud your judgment. But from where we are, we can't tell how the other cadets are going to react, and..." he trailed off. There was something else, but Prime apparently didn't want to say it.

"And you need *all* of us," Prowl said, figuring it out, "because it's going to be even worse than you thought."

Jazz smiled and shook his head in what Prowl identified as a gesture of amazement.

"Too true, I'm afraid," Prime said. "I wanted to speak with you in order to ask you something. The eight of you discovered something terrible and decided to face it head-on," Prime said. "I wanted to ask you, as a strategist-- based on what you've observed-- will your fellow cadets do the same?"

Prowl considered this for a moment. "Well, we figured it out ourselves," Prowl said, thinking out loud so that Prime could understand his chain of logic as it formulated in his mind, "so we had a *choice*, really. Nobody told us we couldn't leave, and nobody was there to persuade us to stay. We just had two courses of action-- stay or quit, and a good sense of what the future would be-- no matter *what* we chose."

Prime nodded, apparently indicating that he was following Prowl's reasoning thus far.

"But we've got even *more* in front of us now," Prowl continued, as the ultimate answer formed in his mind. "The cadets are refugees from other places, on a three-to-one ratio," he said, remembering the statistic Mirage had told them. He met Optimus Prime's gaze directly again. "A lot of the cadets came up from Vos and Tarn and the surrounding areas that got wiped out by the shock troops, or from Polyhex because they didn't want to sign up with Straxus. We have no home left but this, and if this goes then we will have no home at all. There's no other alternative. No one else has the resources to sustain us. For *all* the cadets-- Iacon is the last stand."

The three commanders looked troubled, but stayed quiet.

"If they figure it out the same way we did," Prowl said, "I think they'll *all* elect to stay the same way we did."

Prime nodded, slowly. "Then there is something I would like you to do," he said. "Help your fellow cadets figure it out, and do it without alerting the rest of Iacon and starting a city-wide panic. Are you up to the task?"

A plan of action was already forming in Prowl's mind. "Yes," he said. "I am."




* * * * * * * * * * * *


Ironhide did not teach class for three days after that; Jazz announced that there would be independent study projects for each module to complete instead and that every cadet would have to work with every *other* cadet to one extent or another in order to complete them. Ironhide, he explained, was on official business elsewhere but would return to supervise the completion stages.

The projects themselves had been designed by Prowl, Prime, Ultra Magnus and Jazz, working together the night before. Prowl never made it to Liquid Courage that evening. Instead, he asked Prime to call the other members of Tau and Delta to the Academy situation room and get their help with implementing the plan of action. By morning, the eleven Autobots had come up with the perfect mechanism for revealing the impending threat of Megatron and his army. They had also found, to Jazz's delight, something for everyone to do while Ironhide was away. It would be a kind of final exam, Jazz pointed out.

The next day, every cadet received his assignment and started working. They were separated into specialization categories-- tacticians, sharpshooters, defense systems, engineers, strike fighters, reconnaissance-- and directed to work on a problem which could not be completely solved without information and assistance from all of the others. The project was exceedingly simple in nature, but exceedingly broad in scope.

Every specialty group was handed a map of Iacon and told to figure out the best way to defend it.

They were also told to find and use all available *real* information and current events in formulating the solution.

The first thing that everyone realized was that they needed a communications system of some kind to facilitate the flow of work between groups. Every group elected five liaison officers, one for each of the other groups, to ferry requests and take incoming queries as required. The second thing that everyone realized was that the groups themselves needed a command structure to make decisions about who would do what and when. Not surprisingly, the members of Tau and Delta ended up at the topmost levels of each group. Despite the feeling of jealousy that often appeared in most other contexts, however, *this* time they were only placed there by virtue of the *choice* of their fellows.

The strike fighters and sharpshooters pointed out that they needed someone to tell them where they would be most effective and asked the tacticians to come up with a plan. The tacticians needed information, however, and so they asked the engineers about resources and the defense group about defenses. There was an even *bigger* information gap, the tacticians realized (through no prompting of Prowl, who found himself impressed by their natural aptitudes), because it wasn't even clear *who* the enemy would be. The tacticians asked the reconnaissance group to come up with a list of the biggest threats to Iacon and rank them in order.

And *that* was how the recon and tactical groups learned the name Megatron.

Once the tactical group had identified the problem, it informed the engineering group that it needed estimates on constructing large numbers of anti-aircraft weapons and other types of heavy artillery. Then it told the defense group to estimate how long Iacon could hold out against an army mainly wielding fusion cannons and disruptor rifles, and how vulnerable to air attack the city was. Then it told the strike fighters and sharpshooters to come up with a plan for identifying and eliminating enemy field commanders on land and in the air.

It wasn't long at all before *everyone* learned the name Megatron.

Without needing prompting by the tacticians, the recon group provided information to the special strike fighters about Megatron's capabilities as a gladiator, and the capabilities of some of the more obvious members of his retinue, including Straxus, Shockwave, Starscream, Soundwave, and even some others that Prowl had no idea existed but that the recon forces, using their particular skills, had been able to ferret out of places where even Cybertron's *journalists* could not reach.

At the end of the fourth day, the day that Ironhide returned, the cadets of the Iacon Military Academy had a working strategy for how to defend the city against Megatron.

Ironhide called them all together in the courtyard when they informed him that they were ready to present the solution. It would be the first time that a great many of them had seen Optimus Prime in person, though almost everyone had heard of him from his gladiator days.

"My name is Optimus Prime," the commander said. "I am the leader of the Civil Defense Forces of Iacon. It pleases me greatly to see so many dedicated cadets assembled here. For the last four days, you have been working on a very large group assignment. I have but one question to ask you all," he said.

He paused a moment.

"By a sign of hands," he continued, "how many of you know *why* we asked you to work on this project?"

Prowl so signified. He scanned the area. Every single cadet had his or her hand raised in the air.

Prime nodded, gravely. "Iacon stands for freedom," he said. "That is a quality we will *never* give up, no matter *how* many enemies press at our gates. We're asking for volunteers, and that's all. If you're willing, please step up so we can mark down your name."

Every single cadet in every rank and file took exactly one step forward.

The front line turned left, and then marched straight and then forward again; the second line of cadets fell into place behind them, and so on, until every student of the Iacon Military Academy was assembled in a long line in front of Optimus Prime, ready to receive the red face symbol-- the mark of Iacon's civil defense forces-- to show upon the exterior what was *already* stamped upon every one of their sparks.








Truth is the first casualty of every war.

Far below even South Iacon, deep under the surface-- even to the very *core* of the planet-- rested a device of Quintesson design which possessed, ironically enough, the powers most often attributed by its creations to a benevolent god. But perhaps that was misstating the matter. Perhaps the fact that the Cybertronians owed their lives to a construction of atheistic slave masters now long overthrown was the *best* possible evidence that Primus indeed worked in mysterious ways.

At the very heart of Cybertron stood just two things, one tangible and one not: Vector Sigma, which endowed all Cybertronians with life; and the fundamental *principle* by which those lives operated. Yet of all the millions of sparks created by the former, only a scant handful would ever understand-- or even discover-- the latter. That intangible, central principle was that in every life there is a divergent path presented, a choice: Choose to act, or choose to be acted *upon*.

Of that scant handful of Cybertronians who would learn this principle, two stood at the same moment in time upon opposite sides of a span of thousands of kilometers, a span which was about to grow into an even greater divide that would split Cybertron more deeply than any sapient being could have imagined. Perhaps it was no surprise, then, that with so much distance-- real and figurative-- between them, these two Cybertronians would choose opposite sides of both the war and the principle: for the first concluded that it was sin like unto no other to act and thus impose his will upon the world, while the *second* concluded it just as grievous to *refrain*.

The second, the one who gazed out at the wide expanse of Cybertron and saw a world to be subject to *his* will understood that his ultimate act and indeed his ultimate glory would be the war about to be unleashed. He also understood-- as his conquered rivals had all failed to understand-- that *truth* is the first casualty of every war, and he immediately ensured its demise in every place he went.

Victory, after all, *depended* upon it.

The truth that Megatron's troops would come to know would be only the truth to which Megatron himself ascribed, the chief tenet of which was that much of the blame for Cybertron's current problems could be placed at the foundations of the city of Iacon. His troops needed little convincing where this was concerned. They had *all* seen it happen; they had all watched from their homes in Vos or Tarn or Polyhex or the smaller towns in between as Iacon propped up the dying Overlord regime-- even after separating itself politically-- by sending out "relief" shipments of energon to communities still under the Overlord's jurisdiction. The fact was-- and there was not a Cybertronian still functioning who did not know this-- that Iacon had enough energon in its reserves to sustain the entire world. It was a bitter truth, however, that Iacon had only achieved this feat by abusing its economic power over its neighbors, and then compounded its sin by holding lesser cities hostage to Iaconian charity.

Of course, the Overlords did nothing to ameliorate the situation. They refused even to acknowledge that Cybertron was a dying world, and in so refusing began the slide into gradual irrelevance until Megatron himself was in the position to end them for good. He had watched the last Overlord die with his own optics. It was delicious irony indeed, he thought, to allow a being responsible for the shortages of life-giving fuel to die of energon starvation himself. But it was not murder by depraved indifference. It was, in fact, *justice*.

Justice, as Megatron defined it, was exactly what he promised to those that followed him. Megatron was a student of history. He knew, for example, that in the ancient language of his home city, the word for "justice" and the word for "revenge" were exactly the same but for the syllable upon which one placed the emphasis.

Both he *and* his followers were very much in the mind for *revenge*.

When the cities of Vos and Tarn fell, Megatron realized that he was in the perfect position to act. His first moves would be those of *personal* revenge, against all those who were responsible for creating and maintaining a society which had for so long denied him the power he deserved. First the Overlords would go, and with their fall, a whole new field of opportunity would open to him.

Most important was the task of consolidating power. The survivors of Vos and Tarn were, of course, the natural resources from which to draw, for they had nothing left except rage and craved only a direction toward which channel it. Megatron's attempt to acquire the loyalty of the Vossian survivors was, he noted with no small irony, a relatively straightforward task. Vossian citizens had been so well-programmed to seek out and obey the command of higher-ranking individuals that they fell into line without exception and largely without regard to the legitimacy of those leaders' claims to power. Better *any* leader, it seemed, than no leader at all.

It was surprising-- or not at all surprising, depending on one's level of cynicism-- that each and every member of Vos' ruling Lord's Council survived the devastation that effectively obliterated the rest of the city. The remnant citizens of Vos naturally flocked to the sides of those four Decepticons, and were shocked to discover that the Lords themselves were only too eager to split apart and wage war upon each *other*. What began as a massive mess of a free-for-all in the Southern half of Cybertron quickly coalesced into three groups of combatants as first the Vossians divided in loyalty and then the Tarnish citizens followed suit.

The largest group belonged to Shockwave and Razorclaw, who had elected to pool their mutual resources. The two of them found a great deal in common in terms of leadership style and reasoned-- Razorclaw particularly-- that the majority of the homeless citizens would choose to follow the Decepticons with the best claim of legitimate authority. Razorclaw had been head of the Council and Shockwave was the dictator of Tarn; surely that was a compelling argument in favor of following them. Such was true enough with many Vossians, but as Shockwave knew, Tarnish Decepticons were largely unimpressed and unhappy with Shockwave's performance thus far. Nevertheless, Shockwave very badly needed the support, and quickly allied himself with Razorclaw. Their numbers were formidable, even if mostly composed of Vossians. Shockwave had hoped very much that numerical superiority would inspire more Tarnish citizens to join and put down the threat of his upstart rival, Megatron, but it seemed that his eagerness to ally himself with the ruler of Vos made Tarnish citizens *more* wary of his motivations.

The group next largest in size was not Megatron's, but rather a fairly even mix of Vossians and Tarnish citizens who shared a common disgust at the way their former city leaders had betrayed them from almost from the start. They were the first to abandon old polity allegiances in favor of following those perceived to be the most capable. Thus Starscream, who had reinvented himself as a victim of the other Vossian Lords capriciousness delivered most of the Vossians in their group to the partnership by virtue of his fabled celebrity, and Vortex brought over nearly every former Tarnish citizen who had (surreptitiously or otherwise) been serving him as a traitor to Tarnish interests.

Victories were hard to come by from this group, who regularly lost in skirmishes with Megatron's and Venom's somewhat smaller forces, on account of Starscream's general incompetence and Vortex's seeming inability to be able to make a decision on his own without consulting his odd miniature council of combative friends.

Nevertheless, it was not Starscream's incompetence nor Shockwave's reliance on a main core of utterly useless Vossian troops nor Megatron's superior ability to defend himself against *both*-- as his foes all knew that Megatron was the biggest threat and attacked him immediately-- that ended up winning him the day. That feat, in fact, was accomplished through a much smaller, almost invisible, and certainly unlikely source.

A Vossian spymaster named Soundwave.

Soundwave had served as second in command of the intelligence division under Vortex, and had observed his commander very carefully and very patiently for a long time. Long enough, it turned out, to realize that Vortex was a puppet of someone else, someone operating within Tarn but against Tarnish interests. Soundwave learned that the true mastermind of the power plant operation, in fact, had been a Decepticon named Onslaught. Thus, thanks both to his unique level of access in the Vos hierarchy and his keen powers of observation, when Soundwave delivered his oath of loyalty to Megatron he *also* delivered the names of the five Decepticons who precipitated the total destruction of Tarn.

It was only a matter of time, then, given Starscream's complete incompetence that Vortex would fall into the hands of Megatron, and with him the other four Decepticons that Prowl had met that terrible day when all Cybertron had been irrevocably altered: Brawl and Blast-Off and Swindle and Vortex, and yes, even Onslaught, the mastermind whose unfamiliar voice Prowl had unwittingly picked up but whose identity would remain a mystery to him for many millions of years.

And Megatron, in turn, delivered their severed laser cores and sparks to the citizens of Tarn, proving that he was the rightful ruler of all Cybertron because he could deliver *justice* as no other. There was no more powerful a symbol of Megatron's supremacy than his public announcement that he had discovered and eliminated the criminals responsible for the murder of millions of innocent Cybertronians, criminals whom *Shockwave* had foolishly harbored and negligently allowed to succeed. Megatron's revelation turned every Tarnish citizen against Shockwave and degraded his support to the point that even Razorclaw admitted he had erred in choosing sides. Starscream, with no co-commander left to support him and barely in control of his own demoralized and disgruntled troops, joined with Megatron too but made the highly dubious claim that such had been his plan all along.

In the end, Megatron had won them *all*.

The next order of business was consolidating his newly acquired recruits into an organized fighting force. He brought his company into the city of Polyhex when Shockwave admitted defeat and agreed to serve Megatron. His base of operations would be the lightly fortified center Darkmount, the defenses of which Megatron planned to strengthen greatly before he went any further.

Megatron stood at Darkmount, the city of Polyhex all around him- - Vos and Tarn ruined and to his back, Kalis to the east, Stanix to the west, Iacon north and directly in front of him-- the whole of Cybertron laid out before his optics and waiting, just *waiting* for him, for the conqueror, for the Decepticon who by being brave enough to stand would see every enemy fall. He relished the moment, relished knowing that the answer to the most important question that had ever been asked in the history of Cybertron--

--the answer that Optimus Prime and Prowl would conclude (ten thousand kilometers away from him but at almost exactly the same time) was the most important piece of information they still lacked--

--was locked up in Megatron's own mind:

Where would Megatron strike... *first*?




* * * * * * * * * * * *


Three weeks had passed after the first graduating class of the Iacon Military Academy received their commissions in the ranks of the Civil Defense Force before the first journalists were able to transmit reports about what was going on in Polyhex.

Prowl and the other former cadets had become full-fledged officers in Iacon's military. Just as Prowl had predicted, they had become the leading officers of the entire army for their respective group divisions. Bluestreak had become the top commander of the entire sharpshooting division, with sub- commanders under him who comprised the rest of the sharpshooting group at the Academy, and below them the sharpshooter regulars of the CDF. It was the same way for Wheeljack, who had become chief of the Engineer Corps, and Sunstreaker, Sideswipe and Inferno, who had each become the commander of a separate Strike Fighter division (numbering a thousand soldiers apiece) serving under Ironhide. Mirage had taken over Recon Central while Red Alert had been placed in charge of the city defense grid. Prowl discovered that the Tactical group of which he himself was a part was also the fast track to the very *top* level of the Iaconian command structure. He found himself the fifth member of the de facto ruling committee; the others were no less than Ironhide, Jazz, Ultra Magnus, and Optimus Prime himself.

The magnitude of what was about to happen became clearer for everyone in Iacon as well. As everyone in the CDF already knew, Megatron was in command of the combined forces of the Vos and Tarn survivors, as well as every Polyhesian who had not already fled the city. Megatron's forces were turning into a true faction of their own, too, the news services reported. There was a new symbol affixed to Megatron's chest plate in all the images transmitted of the Decepticon leader, a purple face icon akin to the one which set apart Iacon's soldiers from the civilian population.

Megatron was already waging war, Prowl realized as he watched the first reports-- which were surely only broadcasting what Megatron *wanted* to show the world, given his previously demonstrated ability to close off access when he wanted to do so. He was waging a war of public opinion first, as Optimus Prime predicted that he would. Prime's initial fears that citizens within Iacon would be swayed to join Megatron's cause turned out to be unfounded, however, because the very first thing that Megatron made clear in his public proclamations was that Iacon was the true enemy of all Cybertronians and that he intended to destroy it. Megatron, the beloved hero of Tarn, was fighting a very *Tarnish* kind of war. He refused to hide. He refused to prevaricate. He was putting everything out in the open-- quite *unlike* the former leaders of Vos, Prowl noted, who had always preferred subterfuge and propaganda to achieve their ends, or the Overlords, who said nothing and did nothing at all.

And many Cybertronians, a *great* many, if the news reports could be believed, were finding Megatron's openness a refreshing-- and *appealing*-- change.

Megatron did something else, too, to go along with the new symbol he had fashioned to mark his army. He etched a line, figuratively speaking, upon Cybertron and informed everyone standing upon it that they would have to choose a side.

There is no *neutral*, Megatron declared. There are Decepticons, and then there is everyone *else*.

That was another change. Megatron called upon all Decepticons and Autobots who understood him to join with him in Polyhex and *become* Decepticons, the *new* Decepticons. We are *all* military hardware, he said; we are *all* soldiers, he said, fighting a just cause against those who have done us wrong.

Many heard him and followed, but others chose to flee Cybertron altogether instead. Many of the rest flooded into Iacon in a *second* great wave of refugees, and Iacon once again made room for them all. Red Alert was given the difficult task of accommodating these would-be Iaconians, which added further stress to his job and prompted even more neurotic behavior from the already nervous 'bot. Inferno and Sunstreaker, of course, found this hilarious and teased him about it incessantly even while assigning members of their own divisions to help construct additional shelters for him.

The more time Prowl spent analyzing the political situation on Cybertron, the more convinced he became that a preemptive strike would be necessary to save the city. Megatron couldn't attack Iacon, he realized, without securing other territory and resources first. He had a huge army but there was no energon left in Vos or Tarn and the supplies in Polyhex would eventually run out. He would have to take over an energon *producing* region, which meant either Stanix to his west or Kalis to his east.

The problem was, as Prowl and Optimus Prime and everyone else on the top council knew, nobody had any idea which region Megatron would go for, and there was no way the Iaconians could defend *both* at the same time.

They needed to know, Prowl decided, and they needed to know *soon*. Megatron wouldn't wait around forever, and if Iacon didn't move in before he did, Megatron would certainly succeed. There was a classic solution to the problem; split your forces into a large group and a small one. The small one secures the border to the zone Megatron was *not* going to pursue while the large one took places in the intended target. The small group would make it just inconvenient *enough* for Megatron that he would not be able to change plans in the middle, so that the large group could face Megatron's army head-on. The trouble was that if Iacon couldn't figure out which city Megatron was going to attack ahead of time, they'd risk stranding their small group against his entire army. That would mean losing the city *and* a substantial portion of the Iaconian forces.

They had to find out where Megatron was going.

Mirage and the rest of Recon Central was working day and night trying to obtain just that information, but Megatron was getting very good at finding spies and closing doors. Mirage had a new curse word in his personal lexicon: *Soundwave*. The former Vossian spymaster was wrecking so many of Mirage's carefully laid plans, Mirage admitted, that he was half tempted to go to Polyhex so he could hunt him down and kill him by himself.

"Of course, he'd probably know I was coming before *I* even would," Mirage complained, bitterly.

"I had no idea anyone from *Vos* could be so crafty," Sunstreaker said to Mirage as he drained another mug of energon. The usual group had assembled at their usual place, which-- though it was now a longer drive to get there given that they had all graduated from the Academy and moved into different quarters-- was still their favorite meeting place after shift. He flashed a wicked smile at Sideswipe.

"Neither did I," Mirage said, picking up on the game and smiling at Sideswipe, too, "particularly if you take *Starscream* into account."

"You seem to have a serious dislike for old Starscream," Sideswipe observed.

"You would too," Mirage said, darkly, "if you'd ever met him."

"You've met Starscream?" Prowl asked.

"Just once," Mirage said.

Everyone at the table looked at him, expectantly.

"What?" Mirage said. "He showed up at the manor last week, told me Megatron was going to conquer the planet and I'd be a fool not to join him."

"What did you tell him?" Bluestreak asked.

Mirage shot Bluestreak a look that would vaporize lead. "I said 'Hey, where do I sign up?' and then I asked him to make sure Megatron kills *you* first thing he does when he get to Iacon," Mirage said. "What the sludge do you THINK I told him?"

Bluestreak frowned, not taking his optics off Mirage, but said nothing.

"None of that matters," Sideswipe interjected, deftly steering Mirage's attention away from Bluestreak. "The important thing is that once again your *pathetic* attempt to insult me because of my Vossian heritage has failed." He grinned. "I am immune to your taunts. I'm an *Iaconian* now."

"You and half the rest of Cybertron!" Red Alert complained as he walked up to the table and took his usual seat between Wheeljack and Bluestreak. "I thought I'd *never* get out of there today," he said, apparently meaning his work at Defense.

Prowl found it hard to sympathize with Red Alert, and not just because any remnant of emotion had been eliminated the day he severed his own spark connection. Prowl was the only Autobot at the table without a quart of energon in his hands. Instead, the entire surface of the table directly in front of his seat was covered with a portable holovid map projector and composition tablets containing reconnaissance data of all kinds. His work shift had only *technically* ended the hour before, in that he had stopped working on what he had been *assigned* to do by Prime and Ultra Magnus. He was *now* working on a tactical scenario of his own.

He was developing a strategy to break into Darkmount in order to retrieve the information on where Megatron was planning to strike.

"Don't you guys watch the news?" Inferno asked. He changed his vocalizer patterns to caricature Megatron's voice. "There *are* no Iaconians," he said. "There are Decepticons, and then there is everyone else."

"Heh," Bluestreak said, "then I say we just call ourselves Autobots, if *that's* the way he wants to play it."

"Or the Else-o-bots," Wheeljack suggested. "It don't have the same ring, though."

"Hey," Sideswipe said in a quiet voice, changing the subject, "anybody know mister lonesome over there?" He nodded his head in the direction of a black Autobot who was sitting by himself at the bar.

Prowl looked to see who Sideswipe was referring to but concluded that his memory banks did not contain his designation. "I don't know," Prowl replied. The others at the table looked equally mystified, except--

"Trailbreaker," Red Alert answered. "I met him in the infirmary this morning. He was having an arm and most of his exterior plating replaced."

"Infirmary?" Wheeljack said, "what were you doin' *there*?"

"My internal cooling mechanism needed checking," Red Alert said.

"Oh for Primus' sake!" Wheeljack said, exasperated. "I already *told* ya there was nothin' wrong with it!"

"Well it didn't feel right to *me*," Red Alert said. "I wanted a medic to look at it."

Wheeljack sighed loudly and shook his head.

"Wait a cycle," Prowl said, "was there a battle I didn't know about?" The injuries that Red Alert had described for Trailbreaker sounded extremely serious.

"Of sorts," Mirage said, but didn't elaborate.

Everyone looked at Mirage.

"Well?" Sideswipe said.

Mirage was silent.

Inferno and Sideswipe exchanged annoyed looks.

"It might help," Prowl pointed out, "if you could provide a few more details."

Mirage sent out a tight-beam transmission, encoded, to the others at the table in order to ensure that his words could not be overheard. "This is top secret stuff," he explained. "Technically, I'm not even supposed to be telling you this, although you'll probably hear about it in the tactical group meeting tomorrow, Prowl. Anyway, Trailbreaker recently arrived from off-world. He was serving as a security officer for a research outfit from Polyhex, doing some experiments out at the edge of the galaxy."

"What *kind* of experiments?" Red Alert asked, via the same transmission channel.

"I was getting to that," Mirage replied over comm. He narrowed a single optic at Red Alert.

Inferno laughed out loud, and everyone looked at him.

"Sorry," Inferno said over the comm channel, "it was just funny the way Mirage said that without moving his lips, you know, because his face totally looked like--"

"ANYway," Mirage interrupted, and Inferno stopped transmitting, but kept snickering quietly. "A couple researchers were working on energy extraction from black holes. Trailbreaker was sent along to make sure they were safe, but something went wrong. Someone infiltrated the research center and stole the prototype, and Trailbreaker was injured."

"Do we know who?" Prowl transmitted.

Mirage nodded to Prowl. "Name is Quake. His bio and all the information we could extract about him will be in the updated watch lists tomorrow morning."

"So this Quake guy might have a device to produce a lot of energon?" Sideswipe transmitted.

"Worse," Mirage replied. "The device is a modified *fusion cannon*. We'll be *lucky* if he only uses it for fuel. Red Alert, you saw Trailbreaker in the infirmary. You've seen what *else* it can do."

Red Alert's optics widened in horror. "Isn't anyone going to try to track him down?" he transmitted.

"We're doing it right now," Mirage transmitted. "Fortunately, from what we can tell he's not exactly the sharpest drill bit in the tool box, so assuming we can track him down quick enough, it shouldn't be too hard to retrieve the cannon."

"And if we can't?" Sideswipe transmitted.

Mirage looked at him. "Pray," he replied over comm, "that nobody *smarter* gets to it first."

It was quiet for a moment.

"I think I could use another drink," Sideswipe said, speaking normally. He got up, and then looked around at the faces of everyone else at their table. "You guys too," he said, and moved toward the bar to place the order.

"So what are *you* working on?" Bluestreak asked Prowl.

"Working out Darkmount's defenses," Prowl said. "I'm trying to see if there's a way inside."

"Want some help?" Mirage asked. "It just so happens we've had a satellite monitoring the area for the last three days."

"I know," Prowl said, "I requested the satellite coverage."

"Oh," Mirage said, "I didn't know it was you. Well, we were going to send you guys a formal report tomorrow, but I can give it to you now if you'd like."

"Thank you, that would help greatly," Prowl said. His socialization protocols directed him to smile, which he did.

Mirage pulled the holovid map into the center of the table and keyed the controls to bring up the image of Darkmount. The device projected a three-dimensional holographic image into the air which, though not as *accurate* as a particle model would have been, was close enough for Prowl's purposes.

"Here's the main gate," Mirage said, grabbing a stylus and circling one of the buildings on the wall perimeter that was indeed the main gate. The computer system in the map projector detected Mirage's movement and highlighted the building yellow in response. "The main road up to the castle starts here, and there are six guard stations on the way up, *always* staffed. There's sharpshooter guards on this roof and this roof--" Mirage touched them with the stylus and they glowed yellow too, "except every four megacycles when they trade and move on to *these* two roofs." Mirage marked those too, in orange.

"I saw castle entrances here, here, here, and here," Prowl said, picking up another stylus pen and marking the doors in blue. "Is that right?"

"Not this one," Mirage said, and turned one of the blue doors red. "That's a false door. See these three buildings clustered around it? The only thing inside is a whole bunch of guns aimed right at it."

"Whoa," Inferno said. "A trap."

"Exactly. That's the problem. I can't tell for certain from just the satellite recon data, but there's a lot of corners and odd spaces here and there that don't make sense unless you take into account traps of some kind."

"Maybe we should try to ascertain for sure," Prowl said.

"Ohhh no," Mirage said. "That would be *suicide*. No *way* Optimus would authorize *that*."

"True," Prowl said. Mirage was right.

"Mark that, there," Red Alert said to Mirage, and pointed to a long, thin tower that looked like a pipe or an antennae sticking up into the air. "That's a comm signal sink," he said. "It can pick up comm transmissions of *all* kinds. Even if you're running encryption to mask the content, the sink can still triangulate the signal to its source. This one's large enough to have an effective range covering the whole map here."

Mirage narrowed his optics. "Soundwave," he muttered.

"Probably so," Red Alert said, and Mirage narrowed his optics even further. "Oh," Red Alert added, taking Mirage's stylus away for a moment, "and if I were running the place, I would post guards here, here, here, here..." he made six more marks to those, "aaaand here," he said, adding a seventh. He held out the stylus to Mirage.

Mirage took back the device and gave him an odd look. "Have you got a Decepticon clone of yourself working for Megatron?" he asked. "Because that's *exactly* where the satellite says the guards are."

Red Alert looked mortified. "Don't be preposterous!" he huffed.

Sunstreaker and Sideswipe looked at each other with mock surprise. "Red Alert's long lost twin is alive and working for the Decepticons!" Sideswipe shouted.

"Oh NO!" Sunstreaker said, just as loudly, putting both hands to the top of his head to add to the theatrics. "Someone call a rescue team! Or an assassination team! Or a rescue team to go and rescue him, and *then* assassinate him!"

"Stop SAYING that!" Red Alert shouted, when he noticed other people in the bar staring at him.

Sunstreaker and Sideswipe burst out into laughter, causing everyone else at the table except Red Alert to do the same. Prowl's sensors watched for the level of laughter that Bluestreak and Wheeljack exhibited, averaged it, and then produced the same level of laughter for him.

"Ohhh," Red Alert said, folding his arms in front of his chest plate, "why don't you just go back to taunting each *other*?"

Prowl was busy examining another part of the Darkmount complex. "What about this section here?" he asked Mirage, indicating a dense area of low-slung buildings and narrow alleyways.

"Warehouses," Mirage said. "There's a very small gate here next to the warehouse district, two guards." He marked it on the map. "By small I mean *small*. Like you can only pass through one at a time. You *could* enter from there and get up to this entrance of the castle, but it'd be going the *long* way. Which is probably why that gate has got light guard coverage."

"I see," Prowl said. Given the security systems that he already knew were in the area, the maximum number of soldiers who would be able to make it through the gates even if the two guards were eliminated was only two or *maybe* three. It was more like a choke point than a true gate. Any attempt to put more than a couple soldiers through it would take too long; the Decepticons would be able to call in guard units from the surrounding areas and could start picking off invaders with ease. But that would probably happen anyway, because any attempt to eliminate the gate guards would bring reinforcements down immediately.

Unless, Prowl realized, they were *distracted* with something else.

A moment later, he had the entire plan formulated in his mind about how to infiltrate the complex and his tactical processors had begun testing it.

"Thank you," Prowl said. "You guys have been a lot of help." He shut off the map unit.

"Sorry we didn't have better things to tell you," Mirage said.

"Yes," Red Alert said. "You'd need a whole army to get in there."

But that was wrong, Prowl knew, as soon as his tactical programs informed him of the test results. All that was needed was four soldiers and a commander.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


There was a rationale for the four soldiers that Prowl chose to accompany him on the mission to Darkmount, a mission that Optimus Prime would never know about until it was completed, because-- just as Mirage had pointed out-- he never would have approved it if he had known. Prowl selected two sharpshooters and two strike fighters for the team, none of them Academy graduates. He had an additional criteria as well; they had to be soldiers whose skill performance evaluations showed a leveling off. In other words, he chose soldiers who were unlikely to develop significant battle skills in the future.

He sent out the transfer orders without Prime knowing and instructed the four Autobots that the change in orders was of utmost secrecy and that they would leave immediately. They were told to bring their regular weapons and equipment-- which Prowl had also made part of his selection criteria-- and directed to meet him at the edge of Iacon.

He then erased all record of the transfer order from the CDF systems, which he was fully authorized to do on account of his status as a member of the five topmost command council.

That was an act of dishonesty, but it was necessary. If Prime or any of the others discovered the plan, it would fail.

He told the four Autobots whom he had selected that Recon Central had discovered the location of the missing fusion cannon and their team was going on a special mission to retrieve it. The cannon, he told them, was being held in one of the warehouse buildings at Darkmount. He needed the four of them to provide him with cover fire while he retrieved it, and then all five of them would be safely out of the Decepticon stronghold and back to Iacon by morning.

That, too, was an act of dishonesty, because Prowl knew that not *one* of the four would make it back to Iacon alive. But it was necessary. Prowl was the only one who could sneak in and out and succeed, while the others distracted the guards.

Prowl noted when his team arrived to meet him and began the mission shortly afterward, his group instructed to remain in total radio silence all the way to and within Polyhex. They received his instructions, downloaded his careful-- though wholly false-- tactical plans, and affirmed that they understood their duties.

It would occur to Prowl many, many vorns later that he never once addressed any of them by name.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


Prowl's calculations had been perfect.

It had been relatively easy to get into Polyhex itself, on account of the lack of fortifications around the city. Prowl could see where Megatron had started to construct walls and turrets, but the projects were a very long way from completion and the construction sites weren't even guarded in the meantime. Getting to the entrance of Darkmount, though trickier, had been done to his satisfaction and without detection, exactly as Prowl's tactical plans had predicted they could.

He was also satisfied by the work of his selected team, who followed his instructions to the byte. They took out the two gate guards at the small side gate, transformed into vehicle mode, and then took off down the narrow alleys in four slightly different directions, all of which were *away* from the direction that Prowl, entering through the gate a little later, wished to go. They took up positions where Prowl had told them to go, and waited for the guards to start appearing.

Their jobs, Prowl had told them, was to hold those positions until Prowl gave them a signal to abandon and head back for the gate. No matter what happened, he told them, they would *have* to wait for the signal before leaving position.

He did not tell them, of course, that the signal would never come.

Prowl found no obstacles on his way up to the castle entrance while the guards were distracted in the alleys. The door itself was unguarded and easily opened with the same kind of security override chip commonly used by Mirage and his Recon Central agents. When Prowl had gotten inside, he hacked into the castle systems via a junction box and downloaded the floorplans, locating the situation room and main data depository. As luck would have it, those rooms were not far away, and shortly after Prowl uploaded a security-systems elimination virus into the mainframe, he headed toward one of the smaller situation rooms that the computer said was unoccupied.

The computer was correct. There was nobody in the room and the illumination systems were off. Prowl left them off and continued his work. He located an access terminal and hacked into *that* system, which, as he had correctly predicted, was entirely separate from the overall complex mainframe and thus unreachable via remote access. He located Megatron's tactical database and started downloading the contents on to data disks.

Five cycles later, Prowl had learned that Megatron was going to attack Stanix in three days time.

He downloaded as much as he could in the eight cycles that he had allotted for safe data recovery and escape. He had drained the memory banks in just seven, and so spent the final cycle downloading personnel files on Megatron's chief lieutenants. Then he sent another virus into the system and left the situation room.

Not a cycle later he was out of the castle and making his way back to the gate. This would be the hard part, he knew, because Darkmount's security forces would be scrutinizing the area more carefully now and would pick out the visual of a speeding vehicle with ease. Thus he had to make the longish trip down the hill solely on foot and careful to avoid security sensors, roving guards, or the target sights of the sharpshooters.

And his team needed to give him eleven more cycles in which to do it.

Prowl caught sight of a roving guard up ahead and slid himself into the shadow next to a building wall until the guard passed. His sensors could detect sounds of laser fire from four distinct locations in the warehouse district, which meant that his entire team was still alive and holding their positions as instructed. He located his own position on his map and found that he had traveled just a little less than half the distance to the gate, and his team was still holding up. They were performing at a level even better than Prowl's expectations.

His sensors had just finished recalculating the overall probability of mission success from eighty percent to ninety- five percent when he felt something strike him upon the left arm and shoulder. It made a terrible crunching noise, and his pain receptors immediately sounded an injury alarm. He might have vocalized those alarms had he not taken the precaution to disallow his vocalizers from responding to pain.

Prowl looked down at his left arm, which was immovably jammed into the gears of an enormous spring-loaded trap of some kind. He couldn't get free of it without disassembling himself, but if he stayed there any longer he would certainly be discovered by the guards. He heard heavy fire from one direction and then silence; one of his team members had fallen.

But the mission wasn't over yet. He was in possession of the data disks, and all he needed was to get himself free and back to Iacon again. The war would be over in a matter of *days*. Just *days*. Just so long as he made it out of there.

He factored in the difficulty in getting free and found that because his team had performed above expectations, his time- frame for escape was not going to be adversely affected. He activated his repair function on his right arm, pulling up a disjunction capacitor in place of his hand. He activated the device, which peeled apart the layers of the top armor plating to reveal the gear mechanisms underneath. Then he activated another function that began to loosen the fastenings keeping his arm unit attached to the shoulder articulator.

The closes were almost completely silent now. He estimated the total decibel level of his current operations and judged it a close call for non detection. The Decepticons still might find him, but they would have to be looking for him specifically in order to do it. He calculated the probability that any of the Decepticons would realize that there was an additional member of the team still in operation; based on the average intelligence level of Decepticon guards assigned to guard duties in this sector and the predilection toward carelessness that was often exhibited by low-ranking 'Cons in low-incentive environments such as this, he determined that the likelihood of detection was negligible at best.

His calculations had been perfect.

He found it-- *satisfying*, at least, despite his inability to feel *pleased*-- that his strategy was working so favorably. He recognized at that moment that he had truly discovered what he had most been missing; that logic really *was* the ultimate weapon, and would in fact allow him to prevail here to the ultimate benefit of all his Autobot comrades in Iacon and all across Cybertron. He no longer felt concerned about the admittedly dangerous situation in which he now found himself; he had plenty of time and was too far superior in skill and intelligence to be bested by any likely foe. He continued to detach his arm unit, but without a sense of real urgency.

He was about three quarters finished with his task when his audio sensors detected that there were no more sounds coming from the directions into which he had cast his troops to perish. He did not send out a life-sign signal for fear of detection, but based on his previous calculations had no doubt that he was the only member of his team remaining in operational capacity.

He turned back to his task with renewed vigor, remembering that he had the chance to put a stop to Megatron once and for all. His logic processors reminded him that far fewer such sacrifices as had been made today would be necessary once Optimus Prime was in possession of the information, and he calculated a high probability that the Iacon Council would place a high level of value on that fact in particular. It occurred to him that before he had arranged to squelch his emotional liabilities, he probably would have expressed a similar sentiment. Thankfully, however, that particular kind of weakness was well behind him now.

The capacitor started to slow down and then chugger; something was blocking one of the joint connections that the tool couldn't remove. He set his optics to scan the area of his shoulder and discovered that the joint was caught between serrated sides of a clamp, the teeth of which had penetrated through the joint and directly into the shoulder unit. His systems analysis function told him that it was now useless to try and disassemble his arm, because getting free of the clamp would require removing the entire shoulder component instead. His scanners looked more deeply into the situation and then reported something even worse; the clamp had attached itself to the superstructure of his torso, and absent cutting out his own main internal support beam, there was no way to be free of it.

He was currently trapped in a way that made it impossible to free himself without assistance from another Autobot. Unfortunately, there was no way to contact Iacon without being instantly discovered, and he had none of his own remaining.

He felt nothing at all, of course, except the recognition that there was a new problem which required the immediate formation of a calculative solution. His logic processors activated the full measure of his tactical databases in search of a way out while his optics continued to scan for weaknesses in the clamp composition and design. The metal was composed of a kind of Cybertonium alloy that his sensors couldn't specifically identify other than as a very rare prototype with potential uses in astrophysical experiments involving large-scale transfers of energy, such as quantum singularity research. It was harder and more durable than anything that *his* components were made of; his processors told him that his current outfitting of tools lacked the one capable of cutting such material. The tactical systems recommended that he locate the activation controls for the clamp and override them.

He looked around. There was nothing ahead of him in the piles of stacked-up crates that suggested a control panel. Somewhere else in the area, most likely, was a master control unit that could release all such clamps. But he was nowhere near the castle anymore, and he hadn't downloaded the outside specs when he'd acquired the interior ones. His right hand re-appeared in the place of the tool and he stopped moving completely as his logic processors tried to figure out what to do next. He was at a total loss.

He sat there, immobilized in mind and body, unable to determine how to get free.

His optics blinked off, and then on again.

"Total escape," said a voice.

It was a voice he did not recognize; a feminine voice. Close to him. His audio systems triangulated the origin to somewhere within the darkness directly ahead.

"Total escape," the voice said again, and then the owner of the voice came into view. "At the moment of total captivity... total escape." It was indeed a femmebot, black and gray, with a starkly white face plate. Prowl's databanks recognized the thruster design as Polyhesian.

The purple symbol on her chest told Prowl everything he needed to know about her intentions. His logical calibration units recalculated the probability of overall mission success to less than one percent.

"There you are," she said, "in total escape." Her strange, violet optics considered him, coolly. Prowl understood why some Cybertronians had been known to acquire violet optics; ethnic Decepticons typically began life with yellow optics and Autobots with blue, but in certain conditions that qualified as something called a "rage event", red optics could result in Decepticons. Iacon was credited with the discovery of the condition, or more specifically, Iacon's thriving medical research community. In essence, a Cybertronian whose emotional regulator systems overloaded during a particularly stressful trigger event could end up with temporary red optics; ones exposed for a very long time to many such overloading situations could end up permanently altered. For Autobots, the process was similar, but the results slightly different. The violet optics in this Decepticon spoke volumes about her past; she'd definitely begun life as an Autobot. There was no question that her optic shift was permanent, which meant that she had most certainly experienced a number of rage events in her life. Iacon researchers theorized, and there was some evidence to back them up on this point, that it was significantly more difficult for Autobots to undergo permanent optic shift than Decepticons because of numerous personality stabilization backup protocols common in consumer-goods origin Autobots but rare in military- hardware derived Decepticons.

We are all military hardware, Megatron had told his followers, and this one was certainly a powerful proof of the veracity of that statement.

"I am unaware of your designation," Prowl said to her, after determining that keeping silent for the purposes of non- detection was a useless endeavor.

"That was not my question," she said to him.

"Your last statement is illogical. You did not ask me a question," Prowl replied.

"Logical!" She seized on the word. "Ahh, of course." She smiled at him, cryptically. Then she laughed. "Yes, now I see. Total escape-- because *logic* is to blame! Well, well. Not a result entirely unfamiliar to *me*, anyway."

"I do not understand," Prowl said. Based on her statements and the current context of the conversation, his tactical computer calculated a high probability of insanity in this Decepticon; it began working on creating effective options for using it to his advantage. Preliminarily, his systems reported that focusing the Decepticon's attention on talking rather than combat increased his chances of escape significantly.

"Logic!" she said, matter-of-factly. "You rely upon it to the point that action itself *escapes* you. And there you are. There you *are*. Unable to move because you know not what next to do. Isn't that right?"

Prowl narrowed his optics and looked at her. "I'm sorry," he said, "that still doesn't make sense."

"Yes," she said, apparently not listening to him. "Total escape at the moment of total captivity. Don't you appreciate the supreme *irony* of it all?" She looked at him and the blank expression on his face and smiled. "Ahh, no. No you don't."

Then she laughed again, a quiet, derisive laugh that almost certainly boded ill for Prowl's chances of escape.

He tried a more direct tack. "Who are you?" he demanded.

"Good question," she said, humorlessly. "But what does it matter? What could you possibly need to know about me that you cannot tell instantaneously from my very presence? I, for example, do not need to know *your* designation to understand who *you* are." She took a step closer and turned to the side, looking down one of the alleyways momentarily.

She turned her attention back to Prowl. "How fascinating you are," she said to him. "A kind of case study, really, demonstrating just how idiotic certain Decepticons in Megatron's company really are." She smiled at him again; his logic processors were starting to feel overloaded trying to make sense of what she meant. He'd already shut off his prediction systems, reasoning that he'd just waste energy trying to assign rational meaning to any of her actions. The trouble was, doing so left him even more unsure than ever how to get out of his situation. His tactical systems came out with another possibility worth exploring: sometimes, certain Decepticons had been known to have personal motivations at cross-purposes with the motivations of the larger collective and, if given the opportunity, would elect to follow personal ambitions rather than obey commands. Assuming that this Decepticon had been ordered to eliminate Prowl and his troops, it might nevertheless be possible to dissuade her from that action if he could figure out what higher motivation for a different action she might have.

"I assume you mean inferior to *you*," Prowl said.

"Comparative inferiority is irrelevant," she replied, apparently not taken in by the ruse. This would increase the level of difficulty he could expect, Prowl realized. "Inferiority of *any* kind is nothing but liability," she said, "which I am sure *you*, being so... logical... can agree with. How utterly distasteful that I happen to agree as well."

"Because I am an Autobot and you dislike agreeing with your enemies?"

She laughed. "How amusingly simple of you. Tell me," she said, "why is it that you failed today?"

"Because I met superior opposition," Prowl said. There was no denying that.

"And your *logic* didn't account for this possibility?"

"It was highly improbable that I would encounter a high-level Decepticon," Prowl said.

"And that's your assumption now? That you encountered a high- level Decepticon?"

Prowl frowned. "Well, yes... obviously."

She widened a single optic at him. "But... you *didn't*," she said. "I am a single guard devoted to securing a rather unimportant piece of Darkmount property. Unfortunately for you, perhaps, I dislike the boring tactic of wandering around the alleys waiting for trouble. I prefer to set traps. Of course, my superiors couldn't care *less* how I do my job so long as I do it. And your highly developed sense of logic never considered that possibility?"

"It was not a likely possibility," Prowl said. "Results showed that there would be low motivation among the guards of this sector for efficiency."

"Really? How did you come to that conclusion?"

"The motivation for efficiency among sector guards is fear," Prowl said. "Not self-motivation."

"You *assumed* a lack of motivation other than fear," she said. "Well, that's understandable I suppose, if you've seen the modified fusion cannon that Megatron is carting around these days." She gave him a wry smile. "But tell me, then, what your logic says is the answer to this question: How does one achieve a state of total *fearlessness*?"

Prowl considered it, but determined that his knowledge of spark mechanics was insufficient to form an answer of any degree of reliability. "I do not know," he said.

"What do your logic processors say?"

"I have no answer."

"But there *is* an answer," she said. "Perhaps we should test your logic processors." She looked at him again, a closer look this time, and stepping closer as well. "Haven't you got a weapon of *some* kind with you?" she asked.

"Yes," Prowl said.

"Then why haven't you attempted to use it?" she asked. She was standing very close now.

"Probability that it would lead to ultimate success is low," Prowl said.

"Ah, I see. Don't you ever make attempts at actions *less* than fifty percent likely to succeed?"

"Rarely," Prowl said.

"But what have you to lose, now? What is your percentage of success *without* the weapon?" she asked.

"Slightly less than one percent," Prowl said.

"And with it?"


"So, in a manner of speaking, your chances of success increase more than ninety percent if you pull your weapon out right now and start firing at me, correct?"

Prowl paused. He hadn't considered this, and yet it was exactly right. His logical processors recalculated and now recommended pulling out his weapon. The overall desperation of the situation made the risk of further detection by Decepticon forces acceptable in this circumstance, although it would probably require a great deal more effort in the immediate future to deal with new arrivals. However, the chance of escape was greater post-weapon than pre-weapon, and therefore the most logical course of action.

He sent a signal through his systems to open up the leg compartment immediately in reach of his right hand; the automated storage compartment ejected the handle of his main blaster pistol and a fraction of an astrosecond later it was in his hands and firing directly into the torso of the Decepticon. She made not a single movement, though it was clear that she had watched his every action with total devotion. The weapon discharged three times, then a fourth and fifth time, the plasma energy searing the air around each blast and producing a detectable level of ozone in the immediate vicinity. Each shot connected with the Decepticon's body in a perfect firing pattern brought to pass by Prowl's studious attention to Ironhide's lessons on marksmanship.

And each shot, Prowl realized by the seventh or eighth taken, seemed to melt right into her. The Decepticon was apparently capable of absorbing that particular kind of energy.

She waited for him to finish; when he realized that his efforts were useless and stopped firing at her, she raised her arm blasters and blew a hole into his right shoulder so deep and so vicious that his arm detached from the joint and the metal of his chest armor melted into the cavity left behind. The pain was so excruciating that his vocalizer systems cut out momentarily in a kind of choke; his health stabilization circuits screamed warning to his central processors and his optics started to dim from the sudden loss of power. His internal repair system was attempting to stave off the loss of energy but it was clear that these attempts would be temporary at best. He was, in fact, dying. Slowly.

His optics cleared again and he noticed her smiling at him. "So much for *assumptions*," she said. "Do you know how to achieve a state of total fearlessness?" Prowl's systems were too engaged in the process of trying to save his life to allow him any strength to answer. "No," she said, not even bothering to wait for a reply, "of course you don't. You said yourself that you had no answer. But there *is* an answer. It's simple. Fearlessness is nothing more than the recognition that *anything* is, in fact, better than *everything* you've already got."

Prowl had no idea what she was trying to communicate or why. His processors reminded him that it was impossible to reason with a mind infected by madness.

"Fascinating," she said, continuing to address him. "So incredibly fascinating. I never would have guessed that the Autobots would take *this* course of action. Allowing *you* to come here. It's incredible."

"How... do you know me?" Prowl asked.

"She doesn't," a new voice said. Prowl refocused his optics on to a space in the darkness behind the female Decepticon. "She's never suffered the misfortune of your company."

"Commander," the female Decepticon said, and stood aside as the other approached--

"Steamhammer," Prowl said, identifying the voice and the face as both became clear.

Escape was now, statistically speaking, *impossible*.

"Well, well. Look at you now. Swept up yet again on a fool's errand, are you? Volunteered to go on a quest guaranteed to lead to your own death? Idiocy, idiocy, idiocy. I shouldn't be surprised, really. You haven't got the *capacity* to--"

"Steamhammer--" Prowl began.

"I'm afraid you are incorrect," the female interjected, as though Prowl weren't even there. "I've been tracking this Autobot specially. He's not one of the sacrificial dupes. He's the *architect*."

Steamhammer gave her a skeptical look. "Prowl's very *nature* is as a sacrificial dupe. I'm afraid you're simply mistaken."

"I am surely *not*," she said firmly.

"This Autobot is *Prowl*--"

"His designation is entirely irrelevant," she interrupted. "I have been monitoring the entire Autobot incursion-- and this one in particular. As soon as I realized what was happening, I knew I simply *had* to observe him further," she said. "I saw everything he did. I watched him command the other Autobots, I watched him execute every part of his plan, and I realized that he knew *exactly* what he was doing the entire time." She turned her attention back to Prowl, at last acknowledging him. "*Didn't* you?"

There was no benefit to lying or remain silent, but a truthful answer-- one that she anticipated but Steamhammer did not-- perhaps that would help preserve his life longer--

"Yes," he admitted.

"I told you," she said to Steamhammer, who had widened his optics in an apparent expression of surprise. "It's unmistakable," she continued. "There's never been an Autobot who could willingly sacrifice others of his kind in order to accomplish a military objective. Autobots were designed for compatibility above all else. Conventional wisdom says that they have a natural predisposition towards irrational emotional attachment to other Autobots."

"Ah. Irrational emotion. Yes. You *do* know something about that, don't you, Prowl?" Steamhammer said, smiling darkly.

"Once," Prowl admitted, barely managing to operate his vocalizers. His logic processors told him again that survival was impossible and his self-preservation programming activated to squelch them from making any further recommendations about choices of actions. These were base instincts indeed, Prowl realized; he noted, with a strange kind of detached wonder, the curious sensation of feeling desperate to have just one more moment of continued existence that was currently overwhelming his systems.

"What, and that's *changed* now?" Steamhammer asked, incredulously.

"Emotional systems... disabled," Prowl said. "They were becoming... a liability."

The two Decepticons stood in stunned silence for a moment.

Steamhammer started laughing, raucously.

"Incredible. Shockwave says it isn't possible," the female said, "and yet here it is."

"Oh, it's more than that-- far more than you even *realize*," Steamhammer said, as his laughter subsided. He shook his head. "How many times, Prowl-- how many opportunities will you squander before you *finally* recognize your own worthlessness? Perhaps it will *never* happen. Perhaps you will simply find oblivion-- having never found anything *else*."

"I would never have guessed that you knew this Autobot personally."

"Of course not," Steamhammer said. "Just the same as how nobody bothers to record for posterity the miscellaneous occasions he washed grime off his plating." He gave Prowl a dark smile. "It's of no *consequence*."

"Regardless-- allow me to show you something *else* I have observed," the female Decepticon said, smiling. She stepped close to Prowl, and then turned to look at Steamhammer. "May I?" she asked, and he shrugged his permission.

She put a foot on the hole of his right shoulder to hold him down and with her hands tore the armor plating off of his chest, exposing his spark casing and laser core. The pain was excruciating again until the self-preservation systems turned off the pain receptors. "I understand that you spent some time among the Autobots, commander. Perhaps you noticed *this*," she said, standing up to survey his internal workings from above. She pointed to something that Prowl, in his highly damaged state, could not identify. "Isn't it remarkable?" she said. "All Autobots of this model have an empty space in between the laser core and the spark casing. Like a great rift between logic... and emotion."

"Oh, but that rift runs deeper than you know," Steamhammer said. "There is the *supreme* rift-- the literal manifestation of the defining Autobot characteristic, metaphor writ literal, cast from ethereal theory into metal and circuit!"

"Indeed?" the female said, with a tone of bemused curiosity.

"Of course!" Steamhammer said. "It's not just an inconvenient waste of component space. It's *the* space, the *ultimate* space-- the uncrossable gulf that the Autobots will supposedly never span--"

"According to *fools*," the female interjected.

"True," Steamhammer said, "but what is *really* amazing-- of all the Autobots on Cybertron, *Prowl* is the one to do the impossible: make the ultimate unjustifiable sacrifice-- the sacrifice of others for his *own* gain in the guise of benefit to the collective. Positively *begging* the question-- what *does* it take to bridge the gap between mind... and... soul?"

Prowl's logic processors were completely confused. He had no idea what was happening to him or why. None of Steamhammer's words made the slightest bit of sense, and his systems were starting to overload and fail, one by one--

"Pain," the female said, apparently answering him.

Steamhammer smiled at her. "Very good," he said. "Is this one of yours?" he asked, indicating something that Prowl could not see behind him.

"Yes," the female said.

"I assume you were planning to use it."

"Yes. When there was nothing further to be ascertained."

Steamhammer nodded with approval. "Of course, there's really only *one* more thing left to 'ascertain', as you say," he said. "Give me one of those small acid containers," he added, and the female obediently complied, rifling through a partially opened cargo container next to where she was standing. Steamhammer moved forward to approach while the female moved back out of the way; he leaned down and wedged the container into the space between Prowl's laser core and his spark. Then he bent the twisted remains of his exterior back, more or less, into place.

Steamhammer grabbed Prowl's severed arm unit and blaster and threw them somewhere behind Prowl's head; he could not tell where exactly, or why, but he heard them clunk and echo within an enclosed space of some kind.

Steamhammer stepped back; then he stretched out a hand. "If you please," he said.

"Certainly," the female replied.

"What... are you doing?" Prowl asked; his self-preservation systems had gone into critical alarm status. He was... it couldn't be *panic*, that was an emotion, and he didn't have any of those left, it couldn't be--

The female Decepticon had re-integrated her blasters into her arm and a control console had appeared there instead; with a couple of keystrokes, some unseen piece of machinery attached to the clamp holding Prowl captive shuddered and then hummed to life. He felt the clamp start to lift him off the ground until his body was dangling over the heads of the two Decepticons.

"Pain, Prowl. Yes, let us... *ascertain*... what result *pain* will bring for you," Steamhammer said. "There's not enough room in your compartment to keep that acid container intact. You'll lose either your laser core or your spark. Yes-- your mind or your soul-- only this time *fate* gets to make the choice. After all, if there is one thing that you have demonstrated without even a hint of doubt, it is that you can't be left to make your *own* decisions."

"Steam...hammer..." --he was almost out of power--

"You chose poorly the first time, back in Vos, if you can still remember it, if the lingering grease of that place still sullies your circuits-- and even more poorly the second time, in whatever worthless city you found willing to harbor your soon- to-be worthless wreck. Let us see if the universe can teach you what you've so far failed to learn. Of course, you'll only experience your moment of total enlightenment for a fraction of a cycle before it kills you."

"Hmm. *Pity* he won't be able to communicate the results of his epiphany," the female said, offhandedly.

"But not *too* much a pity," Steamhammer said, smiling.

Prowl could see them below; he could see them watching as the machine slowly lowered his wrecked frame into the hollow chamber that he'd detected when Steamhammer threw his dismembered arm into it. The clamp holding Prowl released and he was free, surrounded on all sides by metal walls, his view of the Decepticons now wholly blocked by the enclosure. When the clamp moved away from the top opening of the chamber, Prowl could see the outline of a pressplate overhead and realized that he was sitting inside a compression chamber. He had no energy to move, and no working arms to prop himself up to escape.

--Iacon-- Autobots in danger-- *general systems failure imminent*-- Megatron's invasion-- danger--

Then the walls closed in, and all was nothing.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


The first sensations were just that: sensations. There was nothing to judge them for a long while, however, and so any actual sensations being experienced could not be identified until quite a bit of time later. Finally, there were enough systems in place and operational that at least a rudimentary kind of consciousness could exist, complete with sensation and recognition produced by the cross-referencing of those sensation parameters with matching historical markers recorded in the memory banks, now newly hooked up. There was light, that was a peculiar realization, and sound, and then there was self again, a sense of perceiving those things rather than just having them around without taking notice. And then recognizable lights and sounds, as visual forms appeared in the view of the optics and were identified by further cross-references to the memory banks, and so on, until Prowl became reasonably certain that he was, in fact, Prowl. And similarly certain that his audio receptors were hearing Bluestreak's voice, though the visual image that accompanied it was wholly unfamiliar and left him uncertain of what else might be incorrect, including whether he himself was, in fact, Prowl.

"Hey! Hey! Are you awake? Hey, doc! I think he's waking up, I think it's working! I think Prowl is coming around, doc, can you come take a look? Doc? Doc??" Bluestreak said in his characteristic way.

"Bluestreak..." Prowl said, his auditory sensors sick of the babble already. He looked at the figure with Bluestreak's voice modulation in confusion; whomever was addressing him, it most certainly was *not* the Bluestreak he knew. "Bluestreak?" he said, puzzled.

"He's awake! He's AWAKE! Doc, come QUICK!" Bluestreak shouted to someone, somewhere, in some direction that Prowl couldn't quite make out. He turned back to Prowl. "Yeah, it's me, buddy. Check us out-- we got upgraded!" He grinned and pointed to his apparently new form.

Prowl looked down at his own body and realized that his configuration had been completely altered, too, into a mirror version of Bluestreak. Even his system connections felt strange; his processors realized that there were now several new articulation and weapons systems which he did not previously possess and automatically began to gather data on operating parameters.

"They had to give you a new body after yours got wrecked, and I asked to be upgraded at the same time with the same configuration," Bluestreak explained. "Well, it was a little more complicated than that because I had to make a special request and get clearance through Optimus Prime, but he didn't want to grant the request so I went to find out who was slated for upgrade next. And it turned out to be Tracks, you know Tracks from Omega Module? Right. He was supposed to get the next upgrade so I went to ask him if he'd switch upgrade schedules with me so that you and I could keep similar forms to each other, but he said no. So I was really upset and told him that it was just as well since he looked like he needed an upgrade just to scrape the UGLY off his laser core, and then he got really mad and challenged me to a game of Shockset. Can you believe it?! Against *ME*! And I was like the all-time Tarn champion Shockseteer, you know. Well, not really, but I beat all *my* friends at least. So anyway, it was no contest, because he tried to best my Overlord-high triple straight ascending with two Drone-end non-consecutive repeater matches! Ha! I actually laughed at him during the Reveal round, I laughed right out LOUD! So anyway, he'd lost and looked like a real *bolthead* in front of his Omega friends but they were there to make sure he stuck to his end of the bargain at least, I think so that they could tease him about losing *and* looking like last year's model. I guess he thinks he's a real supershiner or something, and it annoys the rest of them. So anyway, here I am, and here *we* are!"

"I... oooh," Prowl said, his still-addled mind feeling a little overwhelmed by Bluestreak's instant flood of descriptive details.

"Hey, it looks like the Doc's finally coming over to check you out," Bluestreak reported. He made room by stepping aside and another face filled Prowl's view, one that he didn't recognize but looked a lot like Ironhide.

Wait, did he know Ironhide? How did he know this wasn't Ironhide?

"Ironhide?" Prowl said.

"I think he's coming around, 'cause I said he was waking up and then he looked at me and said 'Bluestreak', which I think is a really good sign because the medics over there told me that if he recognizes friends quickly that means he'll have a quicker recovery process so we can all get back to normal around here, right Doc?"

"Bluestreak, please," the stranger said, irritably. His voice was altogether different from the one that Prowl's memory banks identified as Ironhide's, and so could not be the same. "Hello, Prowl. My name is Ratchet. Ironhide and I share a similar configuration, but we are different Autobots. I am your doctor."

"Where am I?" Prowl said, feeling a sudden sense of panic. Then, the feeling intensified as he realized that his emotion protocols were enabled again and functioning. "Oh Primus," he said. Memories were starting to come back in snatches, and worse--


"You're safe in Iacon now, so please don't worry yourself," Ratchet said. "You're in good hands here with my staff."

"And I'll be here, too, Prowl. I've been worried about you for a long time!" Bluestreak started to say.

"Wait," Prowl said, his optics going wide. He felt panic, for the first time in a very long time-- "Megatron," he said, "Stanix--"

"Easy, easy," Ratchet said. "We know. Calm down."

"Prime stopped him?" Prowl asked.

Bluestreak and Ratchet exchanged glances. "Don't worry about that right now," Ratchet said to Prowl. "A lot of things have happened since we got you back, but the important thing is that you're safe now and need to rest."

"How long was I...?" Prowl said, realizing he had no sense of context. Did I really go to Polyhex and...?-- he started to think to himself, but the thought was so terrible that his mind squelched it immediately.

"We've been reconstructing your systems for the last two months," Ratchet said. "Remarkable progress, considering how badly you were damaged."

Two months? Prowl couldn't believe it. "How did I get here?" Prowl asked.

"The Decepticons sent you back to us. Or, rather, what was *left* of you," Ratchet said. "Do you remember being crushed in a metals compressor? Because that's what looks like happened," he added. Ratchet bent down to adjust the medical pullout platform so that Prowl could sit up and talk to them.

"Yes," Prowl said, once he'd gotten himself adjusted. "A metals compressor. Decepticons," he added.

"Well there was no mystery about *who* did it, Prowl," Bluestreak teased.

"You're lucky to be alive at all," Ratchet cut in. "I have to warn you that there may be residual system failures from time to time until we work out all the coordination problems between your old laser core and your new systems. Considering what happened, you should take comfort in what *is* working."

Comfort was not at all what Prowl was feeling, but he nodded anyway.

"You're sure a tough guy, Prowl! Cubed by the Decepticons and still come out fighting...! I don't know how you did it, but--" Bluestreak began.

"I don't understand, either," Prowl said. He turned to Ratchet. "I thought my spark or my laser core would be extinguished or... or both."

"Oh, they did a number on you, that's for sure," Ratchet said. "When my medical staff detected a spark signature in... well, in what was *left* of you, they had to take extra precaution in cutting your vital systems out of the crushed structure. Did you know you had a container of super-corrosive acid wedged into your casing?"

Prowl nodded. "The Decepticon said it would explode and destroy my systems," he said. Steamhammer. The memory of his face, the twisting snarl of delight at watching him suffer-- it struck Prowl's spark like a meteor impact--

"It very nearly *did* kill you," Ratchet said. He wheeled over an instrument cart and drew something out from within a built-in cabinet structure, placing it on the surface for Prowl to see. It was the acid canister Steamhammer had wedged into his frame, slightly deformed in shape and very nearly punctured through on the top and bottom. "But it had one other effect, too. Your spark has an internal emergency back-up power source designed to keep it alive in truly desperate circumstances, but your laser core relies on a backup source that was irreparably damaged when they compacted you. If it hadn't been for this canister of acid acting like an energy conduit between your spark and laser core, well, let's just say that the Prowl you and your friends know would have ceased to exist. And then," Ratchet said, apparently thinking out loud at this point, "the loss of vital brain function would have made it impossible for your spark- maintenance systems to operate, which would mean a total life- system failure, and..." his attention drew back to Prowl and Bluestreak again. "Well," he said, "we're just lucky that didn't happen."

"Lucky," Prowl echoed.

"Now, don't worry. You'll be feeling yourself again in no time. Just let me and my staff complete our work and try to relax a little bit." He gave a dark look to Bluestreak. "And that goes for you, too," he said. "Don't wear out my patients!"

Bluestreak grinned. "How can you say that?" he said. "I wouldn't wear out anybody, lots of people like me! Prowl likes me, and I don't wear out Prowl. Look at him, huh? He's just sitting there, not a worry in the world, because his buddy Bluestreak is here and he's safe and all is well, so there's definitely no chance of wearing out, now is there? Boy, Doc, you sure worry a lot. Do all doctors worry this much? I grew up in Tarn so I'm not really familiar with Iacon medical practices, but *our* doctors at least were a lot more laid-back if I remember right. Not that I ever suffered too many injuries, of course, at least not before these days. Although, working at the power plant sometimes had its hazards, believe you me. Like this one day, I told Rotorfire to--"

"Bluestreak!" Ratchet interrupted, irritably, when he couldn't take it anymore.

"I think I'd like to switch into sleep mode for a while," Prowl said. He felt on the verge of having all his memories come back and he decided that he would rather not be conscious when they did.

"That's just fine," Ratchet said, "you get some rest and Bluestreak here will leave you alone. *Won't* you, Bluestreak?"

"Awww, all right," Bluestreak said. "I'm just so happy that you're alive again. I'll come back and see you again when Doc here's not around," he grinned. Ratchet gave him a dark look. Bluestreak waved cheerfully and then turned to leave.

"There's something I needed to discuss with you," Ratchet said. "I'm hesitant to tell you in your condition--"

"There's no point in avoiding it, whatever it is," Prowl said, leaving unsaid the fact that there was nothing Ratchet could possibly say that would make things *worse*.

Ratchet nodded slowly. "All right," he said, "I can respect that. We were able to save all your vital systems and restore your skill programs and memory banks. But there's one system that we have not been able to reconstruct completely, and we've exhausted all possibilities trying."

"I understand," Prowl said. "There is an irrepairable system. Which one?"

"Not quite," Ratchet said, and Prowl found himself wishing that the medic would just say it already. "The system is working, but not to the same level--"

"Which *one*, doctor?" Prowl interrupted.

"Your spark integration system. In essence, your ability to *feel*. We can't figure out why, but a lot of your emotional protocols were simply... eliminated somehow, either when you were crushed or else while we were trying to restore the rest of your vital systems."

"What does it mean?" Prowl asked, simply.

"Well," Ratchet began, "mainly it means that you will still have some *basic* abilities to feel emotions, but... unfortunately you will never really be able to experience joy or pain or everything else in between the same way again. You'll probably notice feeling... muted, more than anything else. A little bit happy or a little bit unhappy, but never a lot of anything."

Prowl said nothing for a moment. He looked away and thought about what he'd discovered.

Ratchet did not speak.

"We lost in Stanix, didn't we?" Prowl said, finally. It was not a question.

Ratchet was quiet for a moment more. "Yes," he said, finally, "we lost."

Prowl nodded. His memory banks still remembered what sorrow felt like, and now that his emotional regulators were connected he could tell that what Ratchet had said about feeling muted was correct. He wasn't feeling the same kind of sorrow that-- as his wholly *unemotional* socialization protocols told him-- would have been natural for someone in his position to feel. It was... odd... feeling them again. Even *feeling* at all--

Oh, Primus.

He had *failed*.

"That is one loss," Prowl said, "that I am grateful not to feel the way it *should*."

Ratchet gave him a sympathetic nod. "You should rest and let your auto-recovery systems work for a while," he said. "If you want to take a sleep cycle, feel free, and if you want to change the level of the incline, just key the controls here."

"Thank you," Prowl said.

Ratchet nodded again and then went away.

Prowl looked at the canister of acid at the side of his platform. He picked it up and turned it over in his hands once, looking at the deep depressions on both sides. His analyzers told him that he had a new storage compartment in his chest, so he placed the canister inside. He really *should* take a sleep cycle, he thought, if only to prevent his gradually resurfacing memories from eating into his conscious thoughts.

His optics blinked off, and then on again as he thought about what to do.

He found it very hard to care.

Prowl looked up and around the large medical center. There were hundreds of repair platforms in all directions around him. He had to be in the main medical center in Iacon, and if the numerous wounded soldiers occupying most of the platforms were any indication, things had indeed not gone well at Stanix.

He noticed a blue and white Autobot standing next to the main set of doors, across the room. The figure was leaning up against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest plate, staring directly at Prowl. His optics zoomed in on the image and he realized it was Mirage.

He gave Prowl a cold, hard stare for a very long time.

Prowl watched Mirage drop his arms down, turn, and walk out the doors, saying nothing.

Saying *everything*.

Mirage knew.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


"Hey, Prowl? Prowl?? Are you awake? Prowl?"

Prowl's sensors detected an increase in the ambient decibel level and recognized the sound of Bluestreak vocalizing his name from somewhere nearby. His systems switched out of sleep mode automatically and re-engaged his optic systems.

"Bluestreak?" Prowl said. He saw the still strange-looking outline of Bluestreak's new body directly in front of his face. It was dark in the medical center; night had apparently fallen and the center's lighting was operating at half-power. Bluestreak was leaning over him; he rose and Prowl's field of vision increased substantially. Prowl saw the darkened figures of three others standing next to him, but couldn't tell who was there.

Bluestreak was smiling widely. "I told ya I'd come back," he said. "Check it out, I brought some friends with me. They wanted to say hello."

Prowl reconfigured his optics for low light surroundings and recognized the faces of Wheeljack, Sideswipe, and--

"Sunstreaker?" Prowl asked to the strange yellow Autobot standing next to Sideswipe. His configuration was completely foreign if it *was* Sunstreaker.

"Hah," Sideswipe said, "you owe me a tankard, Sunny. I *told* ya he wouldn't be fooled."

The apparent Sunstreaker folded his arms across his chest haughtily. "There was just as good a chance he wouldn't," he replied.

"Not with *that* paint, bro," Sideswipe teased.

Prowl looked at Sunstreaker more closely. "You changed configuration again?"

"Well, yes," Sunstreaker said. "I mean, imagine having to go through life looking like *that*," he said, aiming a thumb at Sideswipe.

"What are those... helmet... things?" Prowl asked. He'd never seen such strange attachments before.

Sideswipe and Bluestreak started laughing, loudly. Then even Wheeljack started to chuckle. "Slag if *we* know, even," Wheeljack said.

Sunstreaker looked incredibly annoyed. "They're *styling*," he huffed, "and if any one of you boltheads had even a *microquart* of fashion sense, you'd be asking for them, too."

"My theory is he put 'em on there to make it easier for Megatron to hit him," Sideswipe said.

"That's ridiculous!" Sunstreaker protested.

"Y'know, you're right. Given that he's slagged your tailpipe *twice* now without breaking stride, I guess he doesn't really *need* something obvious to aim for. I mean, apart from the *screaming* yellow paintjob, that is."

"That was *not* funny," Sunstreaker said.

"Primus!" Prowl said, wide-opticked. "Sunstreaker?"

"Sideswipe!" Wheeljack said, apparently scolding him.

"It's all right, it's all right," Sunstreaker said to Prowl in a reassuring tone. "It was just exterior damage, no big deal."

"Oh, somebody *please* tell me there's a holovid recording unit in this place!" Sideswipe said, apparently unable to resist. "We're *so* gonna need that disk for *evidence* next time Sunny starts whining about getting a dent in his fender--"

"Well I'm happy to tell you that there *is* a holovid recorder here, and right now it's showing four Autobots making a mockery of the patient visitation protocols!" came an angry voice from behind Prowl's medical platform. Ratchet appeared next to Wheeljack and cast an angry look at them. "I'll give you a break *this* time on account of Prowl's just waking up today, but from now on-- and I mean *right* now-- visits are limited to three per patient, and ONLY during regular hours!"

"But we *are* just three Autobots!" Bluestreak said. He pointed at Sunstreaker and Sideswipe. "These two don't count-- they're *twins*! You can't separate *twins*!"

Ratchet looked back and forth at Sunstreaker and Sideswipe, a baffled look on his face. "Number one," he said, replying to Bluestreak, "they're about as twinned as me and Megatron, and number two, just *watch* me! Out, out, out! All of you!"

"Awww..." Bluestreak started.

"Heh. May *I* stay?" Wheeljack said. "I believe patients are allowed *one* visitor per day after hours according to protocol six-oh-oh-point seven, correct?"

"Yes," Ratchet said, "fine. Since you know the protocols, and since I know I won't have to engage the *sound* dampeners while you're here--" he cast a dark look at Bluestreak-- "you may stay."

"Thanks, doc," Wheeljack beamed.

"Lousy barristerbot..." Sideswipe muttered.

"Lawyer," Bluestreak said.

"Oh," Sunstreaker said.

"I don't see *nearly* enough leg articulators moving...." Ratchet warned, folding his arms over his chest plate.

"Okay, okay," Sideswipe said. "See ya around, Prowl. We'll be back in a proper group of no more than three visitors according the compliance of protocol subsection blah, blah, blah." Sunstreaker gave him a smile and Bluestreak waved goodbye again, promising to come back the next morning.

"Even if I have to skip out on my shift," Bluestreak said, just before he departed.

"Good to see ya up and around, Prowl," Wheeljack said. "Bluestreak ran out to tell us as soon as you woke up. I thought I was gonna have to bolt his feet to the floor, he was hoppin' around so much."

"He's not up and around quite *yet*," Ratchet corrected him. "He's got quite a few self-repair functions left to complete, and he'll need time for his laser core to finish writing code for his new configuration systems."

"Yeah, I bet," Wheeljack said. "Ya look good, though, Prowl. A lot better than when they carted ya in here, that's for sure."

"So I hear," Prowl said. Ratchet looked his systems over once and then left the two of them alone. "Bluestreak told me he swindled himself into an upgrade at the same time, and now Sunstreaker looks different... I don't know how you keep it all straight," Prowl said, managing a slight smile.

"Yeah," Wheeljack said in a much more serious tone. "But it wasn't *all* finagling for Bluestreak. He and Sunstreaker needed some repairs a little while back..."

"We lost at Stanix," Prowl said. "I already know. I made Ratchet tell me."

"Oh. I figured Sideswipe had let it out when he opened his big trap there."

Prowl shook his head. "No. I knew."

Wheeljack nodded. "Bluestreak got serious internal damage at Stanix. Took a null-ray from Starscream point blank to the chest He lost some of his laser core and memory banks. Still easier to fix than *you* were, y'know, but sad to say his sharpshootin' skills got mostly wiped out in the process."

Prowl felt his spark seize.

--failed him again, failed him *again*--

"Oh, no," Prowl said, quietly.

"Heh. I thought the same as you, but if Bluestreak's unhappy you'd never even know it. He found out what body style you were gettin' and insisted on gettin' it for himself, too. Turns out your platform is better for shock troop weapons, so now he's been reassigned into that division. Says he didn't think sharpshootin' was a combat skill in the first place, so what's it matter now, you know." Wheeljack shook his head. "He just springs right back atcha, don't he?"

"Yes," Prowl said. "He does."

"He's a good 'Bot."

It was almost more than Prowl could bear. He remembered the image of Mirage, standing by the doors, and suddenly the unpleasant truth that Mirage probably knew his secret was like a relief. "What about everyone else?" he asked.

"Fine as usual," Wheeljack said. "Busy, all of us. Ironhide, especially, it seems. He's away on special projects for Optimus Prime most of the time, doing who knows what, so Sideswipe and Sunstreaker have been picking up the slack in the shock troop division command. We were lucky... we didn't lose any ex- Academy cadets at Stanix, at least not in a *permanent* way. Tell ya the truth, we were afraid *you* would be the first casualty, you know, when you, uh..." Wheeljack trailed off and was quiet for a moment. "You, uh... wouldn't... wanna *tell* me..."

Prowl said nothing. Mirage hadn't said anything, that much was clear at least. But Mirage *had* to know. That look--

"Yeah, not really my place to ask, I understand. Sorry 'bout that. We were fightin' for ya, though. On the front lines, I mean. Bluestreak especially. He don't know when to quit. I, uh... I better let you get some more hours on your repair functions," Wheeljack said, and started to move away.

"Wheeljack," Prowl said. The engineer turned back again. "You deserved better," Prowl said.

Wheeljack gave him a troubled look. "Hey, I've been botherin' ya too long--"

"No," Prowl said. "All I want... I need to tell you that I know it, Wheeljack. I *know* that you deserved better, and I'll *never* forgive-- I... won't forget... as long as I live."

Wheeljack was quiet. He looked troubled, but didn't press Prowl about it. "Get some rest," he said. "You'll feel better soon." He left Prowl alone again in the dark.

There was no use hiding from it now; no use trying to squelch the memory out of his mind, he realized. He had sent four innocent Autobots to their deaths, and he had done it *willingly*, without once considering the cost of his actions apart from a base numerical quantification showing that the loss of four was better than the projected loss of four hundred that a direct assault would require, or four thousand if Megatron made it to Stanix, or four million if Megatron ultimately succeeded in razing Iacon to the ground. He'd done more than just murder four Autobots. He had betrayed the very essence of what it *meant* to be one of Iacon's Autobots, one of Optimus Prime's company. Add that to the way he'd failed Bluestreak--

Primus. *Bluestreak*.

He'd failed Bluestreak not once but *twice*, now. His expedition to Darkmount had not only failed to bring back the information Iacon needed, but resulted in serious losses to the Iaconian army as well. Sunstreaker damaged to the point that he needed a whole new body... and Bluestreak... Bluestreak, who had lost what had truly made him *special* at the academy, what had earned him his own deserved place in their ranks--

"I thought," came a voice from somewhere Prowl couldn't see, "that I would extend to *you* more courtesy than you did to *them*."

Prowl looked around, but could see nothing. But the voice--

"Mirage," Prowl said.

"Yes," the voice said. Prowl triangulated the source of the sound but it was clear that Mirage had his invisibility function engaged. "Yes, Mirage. It's a wonder you even remember me, all things considered. The lives you threw away, as if they were blocks of ore to be smelted."

"I know," Prowl said, quietly, and said nothing more.

"Do you? Do you really? Well that makes just *two* of us, then. Because nobody *else* can figure out how four Autobots just up and *disappeared*. No transfer orders, no messages, no clue, just the collective memories of their friends and commanders who woke up one day and discovered they were gone. Were they traitors? Were they spies? Nobody knows, except you and *me*. Because I have ways of finding out when someone's tried to cover their tracks in the computer system, and ways of turning up broken parts left strewn over the alleyways of Darkmount," Mirage said, "and you... well, you know better than anyone how and why it happened, don't you?"

Prowl said nothing, knowing that there was no clearer admission possible than remaining silent.

"Of course you do," Mirage said, after the silence had extended into a sufficiently uncomfortable pause. "Well, I'm going to do for you what you wouldn't do for them," he said. "That's *my* weakness, *my* betrayal. Because even knowing what I know, I couldn't bring myself to tell anyone until now, until you were *awake* and able to defend yourself. Not until I could warn you, in the very last obligation that I will ever have as someone who once called you friend, just exactly the way you *never* told those four Autobots or any of those *you* called friends, about what is coming next."

"I see," Prowl said.

"No," Mirage said, "but you *will*."

Prowl heard footsteps from where the sound of Mirage's voice had originated, walking away from him, toward the same set of doors he'd seen Mirage standing at earlier.

"I hope you're right," Prowl said, when all was silence again.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


By the following morning, Prowl's self-repair functions had finished working during his sleep cycle and his laser core got started on writing new code protocols to maximize the operation of his new hardware and to synchronize it with his mind and spark. Prowl let his systems work and tried not to think about his situation much, a task which was made considerably more difficult when Bluestreak appeared at the very first cycle that regular visiting hours began.

"Prowl! I told you I'd be back," Bluestreak smiled. "How's the repair stuff going? Are they taking good care of you here? 'Cause I can get you some better components if there's anything that's not working. I figure it's the least I could do since you went and got me new optics. Real nice ones, too. I made them transfer 'em into the new body when I got upgraded, on account of the fact that you got them for me and they were still working and all, and you know the medics said they're *really* good quality components. I still dunno how you managed to afford them, Prowl, really!"

"I was paid well for the work I did before we met," Prowl said.

Oh, Primus.

Prowl didn't know if he could tell him--

"Working for the Overlord, I guess you were! That must have been some job. I bet you got to see lots of different cities all over Cybertron, huh? I wish I'd gotten to do that, but I was always stuck at work and didn't get to leave Tarn very often. I told you about that trip to Kalis I took, didn't I? That femmebot I met was sure cute. We talked afterward once or twice, but then I started working all the time and she was busy, too, and then I accidentally erased her comm frequency location. Well anyway, that's not really important or anything, I just wanted to tell you that I was glad you're feeling better and wanted to see how you're doing today, and I was wondering if they said anything about when you'll be coming back to the CDF, did they mention anything?"

"I don't know if I'll be coming back."

"What?" Bluestreak said, looking horrified. "What do you mean?"

"I want you to listen to me," Prowl said. "There's... a lot of things that I have to tell you, because I owe it to you most of all. And if I don't... I can't, Bluestreak. I'm not going to hide anymore, I'm not going to lie anymore, not to *you*. I have to tell you what happened--"

"We were hoping you could tell us, too," said a new voice. Optimus Prime and Ironhide were walking up to the platform, led by Ratchet. "We got your message, Bluestreak," Prime said. "Glad to see you coming around at last, Prowl. Excellent work, Ratchet."

"It's my staff that deserves the credit," Ratchet said.

"How are you feeling?" Optimus Prime asked.

Primus, not now! Prowl hesitated, flustered by the interruption. "I'm almost repaired," he said. Go away, go away, not now, not before I tell Bluestreak first--

"How much c'n you remember about what happened?" Ironhide asked.

Prowl paused.


Oh, Primus.

He felt, at that moment, that he deserved nothing more than smelting-- and Primus willing, that would be exactly what Optimus and the others would devise for him.

It was a strange sensation-- an unbearable lightness-- that he felt at that moment; that the burden hardest to bear was not the weight of his crime but rather the absence of retribution for it.

"I remember it all," he said.

"What the slag did ya think you were doin', takin' on Decepticons single handed?" Ironhide demanded.

"Ironhide," Prime said, raising a hand of restraint. "Prowl, four Autobots disappeared the same day you did--"

"I know," Prowl said.

His optics dimmed. He was ready, now.

"I killed them," Prowl said.

Bluestreak looked horrified, and Ironhide looked as though he were about to burst every rivet in his frame. Ratchet took a step back, obviously an unconscious instinct. Only Prime remained immovable, and again raised a hand to stop what was certain to be an outbreak of total chaos.

All of which, Prowl knew, he deserved. And more.

"You couldn't have killed them," Prime said. "They were found in Darkmount."

"Where do you think the Decepticons found *me*? I took the four of them with me there, to Darkmount. And I killed them. I selected a plan of action that led to the deaths of every single member of my team."

Ironhide and Bluestreak seemed to calm down at that, mistakenly thinking that Prowl was speaking in a kind of complicated metaphor for failure.

The truth was far, far simpler.

"Why did you go there in secret? How do you explain disobeying protocol and acting without permission?" Prime asked.

"Because," Prowl said, realizing that it was about to come out now, all of it, all his crime and all the evil that he had personally perpetrated on those who trusted him to lead them to victory, and safety, and honor, because he had broken his most important vow and toyed with the sparks of others as though they were pieces on a fullstasis board. "Because my logic processors told me that there was a one-hundred percent likelihood that you would reject the mission parameters," he said.

"*What* mission parameters? Charge over like a mad 'bot and get everybody slagged?" Ironhide blurted out.

Prowl stared at the empty space between Prime's left leg and Ironhide's right leg.

"Yes," he said.

They were stunned into silence.

"Megatron's plans were unknown to us, and as a result," Prowl started to explain, "he had the opportunity to build his support base to unstoppable proportions. It was either Stanix or Kalis, and only Megatron knew for sure. But we *had* to know first. Even with all we've done, Iacon wouldn't be able to withstand Megatron with that kind of power. A desperate situation. And, in a desperate situation, drastic action is the only *logical* course of action." He looked at Prime directly. "My logic circuits determined that a small force making a direct attack on the warehouse sector of Darkmount, assuming they could be trained to remain in place long enough to distract primary security but short enough to prevent secondary security from arriving, could allow a secondary agent to pass undetected long enough to retrieve all relevant information on Megatron's plans."

"I see," Prime said, so softly that it pained Prowl to the very spark.

"See what?" Bluestreak said, confused.

Ironhide looked so disgusted that Prowl wondered if the commander would explode in a fit of rage.

"I killed them, Bluestreak," Prowl said, and he had not realized just how hard it would be to look Bluestreak in the optics when he said it, "because I told them we had a chance for victory and I knew all along that not one of them would come back alive."

"And THAT gave ya a warm, glowin' feelin' inside?" Ironhide shouted. Prowl had never seen him so angry before; neither, it seemed, had Bluestreak, who seemed to shrink away both from the horror of Prowl's revelation and the trauma of Ironhide's fury.

Prowl shook his head no. "I felt nothing," he said.

"You say that pretty slaggin' easy, fer someone we all called 'friend', soldier," Ironhide said.

"I refuse to accept that you were incapable of consideration for your comrades," Optimus Prime said.

"Except that it is true. I disengaged my emotion protocols shortly before I came to Iacon," Prowl said.

"Primus!" Ratchet said, horrified. "You... mutilated yourself?"

"*Himself*? There's four Autobot shells layin' slagged in the streets o' Darkmount and you got yer wires twisted up about--" Ironhide began.

"Just wait," Prime said; it was the only command powerful enough to stave off Ironhide's anger. "It's impossible to disengage your own emotions-- your self-preservation protocols won't allow you to do it," Prime said. "And it's illegal for anyone to do it to another Autobot, so how did you disengage yours?"

"Wheeljack," Prowl said.

"But he wouldn't..." Bluestreak began.

"Of course not. He had no idea ," Prowl said. "I *lied* to him. I told him that I was having problems with a secondary system and it was starting to affect my functions. I showed him which part to cut and told him that I'd have it fixed in Iacon later. He *never* knew what I was actually asking him to do."

"You're not meant to cut that connection for a *reason*!" Ratchet said. "Prime, without his emotion protocols--"

"His ethical programming ceases to operate," Prime said, completing Ratchet's thought.

"He's *not* responsible," Ratchet said.

"The *slag* he ain't," Ironhide spat back.

Prime looked like he was trying to decide for himself.

"I *am* responsible," Prowl said, when he saw Prime hesitating. "Give me oblivion, Optimus, or disengage my self preservation protocols so I can give it to myself. I assure you that I deserve nothing better. I assure you that *you* deserve far better, however, than this whole world can give you so long as *my* two feet are standing upon it."

Four sets of optics set into four faces looked at him and spoke not a single word.

Finally: "Prowl, you can't mean that." Bluestreak.

It was unbearable.

"Yes I can," Prowl said, "I *can*. What I did in Darkmount was pure logic, and pure *evil*. And as terrible the things I did there, what I did before was *worse*, Bluestreak, and you'd already know that if you hadn't had the misfortune of meeting me back then, when had nothing but *emotions*, nothing but the ethics of a poisoned city and a poisoned spark. I should die, if not for Iacon then for *you*--"

"Prowl, you're being too hard--"

"Don't tell me that! Don't YOU of all Autobots-- tell me THAT! For your sake most of *all*, Bluestreak, because Vossian Autobots destroyed your home, and you know this, and I know this, because the day we met you saw it, you saw *them*--"

Prowl almost could not bear to speak a word more, but it was too late. It had to be said. It had to be done--

"And you saw more than you even *knew*," Prowl said, his vocalizers dropping in volume, pressed down by the weight of too many dark days and darker secrets. "What you saw-- the fall of Tarn-- ...No. What *you* saw was something else. What you saw was *my* tactical plan, Bluestreak, my clean, surgical strike to eliminate Tarn, executed by *my* friends, from *my* city, and *my* leaders, Vortex and Venom and Starscream and Razorclaw and all the other Vossian Decepticons who now serve up dozens of deaths in the name of Megatron-- *we* did this to Cybertron, *we* did this to Tarn, *we* did this to YOU, Bluestreak, and--"

He stopped. Bluestreak looked so despondent that Prowl thought that even with his muted emotional systems that he'd never experienced any pain more acute, not even the pain he'd endured on Darkmount before Ratchet had so undeservingly resurrected him. "And if I'd grabbed Stormcloud's hand that day instead of yours, I would have left you there to die."

He couldn't bring himself to look at anything anymore. He shut off his optics.

A moment later, nothing more had been said, and he heard Bluestreak back away, very fast, very far away, Prowl was certain, from himself and his unforgivable sins.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


Ratchet did not sever his self-preservation programming; Ironhide didn't raise a single hand in anger against him that day or any other; Prime didn't revoke his commission; Iacon Command didn't court-martial him; the Autobot jurists, used to dispensing law but quite unused to dispensing *justice* only told him, when he asked for it, that Prime had already been in contact with the Chief Justice and everyone was in agreement that there was no law to fit his crime, and even if there *had* been there was enough doubt as to his state of mind that he would, as a matter of course, have to be exonerated; Bluestreak didn't speak to him but also never appeared to exact the full measure of retribution that he deserved, that Prowl desperately believed *he* deserved to exact most of all; instead, Prowl lived in a kind of dazed half-life that left him feeling constantly certain about nothing, uncertain about everything, and unable to trust anything originating from himself or his mind sufficient to tell the difference, if there was one; and he thought that, in a strange way, perhaps death was a fate too good for him and life was, in fact, all the punishment that any force or being in all the universe could bestow upon his shoulders-- and thus all that he *deserved*.

That was enough to motivate Prowl to endure it.

When they came for him, they came because they understood, as Prowl knew they would, as Prowl knew that they alone in all the universe *could*, that what Prowl had done was indeed a crime and that the measure of justice and the measure of revenge were in this instance precisely the same thing. When they came, they came not as his social betters, nor as his military superiors, nor as his enemies, but rather as his peers and friends, the only ones truly able to judge him for his errors and see that he got what he deserved, because they were the only ones to truly understand the nature of the crime and the criminal.

When they came for him-- Sunstreaker, and Mirage, and Sideswipe, and Inferno-- they came armed but each knowing, no doubt, that at the moment they decided to open fire they would be successful; though they could not have imagined beforehand that the reason this was true was because Prowl craved their punishment, they nevertheless believed themselves capable of accomplishing the task that, had they known Prowl's true state of mind, they might have realized was inappropriate to undertake just as Ratchet and Ironhide and Prime and all Iacon's judges well understood.

And that, of course, was precisely what Prowl was counting on.

When they came for him, Prowl was standing in a desolate stretch of wasteland between Iacon and the main road to Kalis, having been forced to abandon *himself* as nobody else was willing to abandon *him*. He stayed in an empty outbuilding, a small supply of energon nearby, which Ratchet had insisted be delivered to him on a regular basis. Ratchet hoped, Prowl supposed, that whatever Prowl was suffering through he would be able to conquer. Although Prowl knew that all he was waiting for now was final oblivion, he nevertheless endured the delivery of Ratchet's kindnesses until justice could be delivered instead.

When they came for him, his Autobot friends, they found him unarmed and waiting by the side of his little shelter, staring out over the Iaconian plateau. It was a space that Prowl could barely comprehend but found mesmerizing, for on the other side of this huge sea of emptiness was Kalis and Polyhex and Darkmount and all things Decepticon in opposition to him and his comrades, and within it was a great unknown gulf much more than geographical that he knew he'd crossed but didn't know how nor exactly when.

"You got a lot to answer for, Prowl," Sideswipe said, the first thing that any of them said once they'd found him and trained their weapons on his frame.

"You betrayed your own troops," Inferno said. "If I live to see another Golden Age on Cybertron I'll never understand how you could do such a thing."

"I know," Prowl said.

"You *know*?!" Sunstreaker said. "That's all you can say? That you *know*? Is that supposed to make it better?!"

"No," Prowl said, and spoke nothing further.

It was not the answer they had been expecting. Inferno and Sideswipe exchanged looks, but Mirage and Sunstreaker did not alter their hostile gazes. "Do you know what is simply *amazing* to me?" Mirage said. "I think, more than anything, it's the way *Wheeljack* has had to suffer for what *you've* done."

"He was innocent," Prowl said.

"We *know* that," Sideswipe said. "That's the whole slaggin' *problem*. You know what they did to Wheeljack? It's a crime to disable somebody's spark connections. A *crime*. The Council hauled his tailpipe into court for a hearing on how he coulda done such a thing. He tried to cover for you, ya know that? He said he was sorry and he shouldn't have done it. Said *he* was sorry. He owes his life to Optimus Prime and Ratchet, who showed up to defend him and managed to persuade 'em that he should get to keep his commission. But did you show up? Did *you*, who *got* him into the whole mess even bother to tell anyone that it wasn't his fault?"

Wheeljack had told him not to come, Prowl remembered. He had tried desperately to change Wheeljack's mind, but the engineer insisted. You were my friend, Prowl had said; I *owe* you this much at least*. But you still *are* my friend, Wheeljack had said, and if you show up you'll get mobbed, probably even slagged. I don't care, Prowl had replied, I deserve it. How can you possibly worry about *my* welfare, with what I've done to you?

Prowl, Wheeljack had said, don't you think I know the difference between choosing bad and choosing badly?

Prowl was silent.

"No, of course he didn't," Sunstreaker said.

"Was there *anything* you said that was real?" Inferno asked. "Was there *anything* about our 'friendship' that was real?"

Prowl stayed silent.

"Answer me!" Inferno said. "I want to know!"

"And the *truth*," Sideswipe added.

Prowl looked at them. "Could I *feel* friendship with you? No. I had nothing left of my spark. Just my laser core. And I had just *one* assumption, one goal that was the only thing left after I'd severed the connection. Protect Bluestreak. That was *all*. And you, and Sunstreaker, and Sideswipe, and Wheeljack, and Red Alert-- you were instruments, I decided, in fulfilling that goal. The more friends Bluestreak associated with, the more likely he was to survive. I felt nothing except that you were necessary components for the mission objective."

"And look," Mirage said darkly, "how well you *succeeded*."

Prowl made no reply.

"You murdered four Autobots for *nothing*," Sunstreaker said, stepping right up to Prowl. He put the muzzle of his blast rifle right against the side of Prowl's head. "And if Optimus Prime won't take action, then I'll be happy to do it *for* him. And for Iacon. And for all of *us*--"

"No!" Another voice, from behind where Mirage and Inferno and Sideswipe were standing. "Not for *me*, Sunstreaker," the voice continued. It was Bluestreak. He drove up in vehicle mode and transformed; then he jumped in between Prowl and Sunstreaker. He grabbed Sunstreaker's rifle and pushed his arm away.

"Bluestreak," Prowl said, "Don't--"

"How can *you*, of all Autobots, defend this piece of scrap?" Sunstreaker said, struggling with Bluestreak for the rifle.

"'Cause I'm the ONLY one with the right," Bluestreak said, "the *only* one here with the RIGHT!" He lifted Sunstreaker's arm with both hands and then, in a move straight out of a gladiatorial combat strategy guide, swung his right leg around and connected his foot with the center of Sunstreaker's chest plate. Sunstreaker, surprised by the move, was flung backwards away from Prowl; his blast rifle ended up in Bluestreak's hands.

Bluestreak aimed the weapon straight at Sunstreaker. "What the slag do *you* care, huh? It doesn't matter to YOU what Prowl did wrong, just so long as he did something bad enough to kill him for. You think I don't watch how you fight? How vicious you are, when the battle's raging? You musta been a real tough gladiator, 'cause you walk around like the whole *world* is your own personal war zone. How many more times is it gonna take, Sunstreaker? How many more times is Megatron gonna have to slag your aft 'cause you're out of control and fighting to *fight* instead of fighting to *win*? When you're out there you don't care about your city, you don't care about your comrades, you don't care about anything but yourself and you've *sure* never cared one bit about those four soldiers. You never *did*. You've got no *right* to take revenge for Autobots who've never even crossed your mind." He pressed the safety button on the rifle, enabling it to fire. The blaster batteries started to whine as the weapon charged with energy.

"Get up," Bluestreak said. Sunstreaker stood and moved himself next to Mirage, as Bluestreak directed him to do with the muzzle of the weapon.

"Have you lost your processors?" Inferno said. "Don't you care about what he *did*?"

"You're gonna tell *me* about what Prowl's done?" Bluestreak said. "How much time have *you* spent in his company? What do *you* know about anything, anyway?" Inferno looked angry, but stayed silent.

"How about me?" Sideswipe said. "How about *me*, then, Bluestreak? We started out together. On the *first* day. We were *all* there together, the same day, the same module, the same team, you and me and Wheeljack and *him*. And he took our friendship, and threw it--"

"Oh yeah, Sideswipe? You know all about Prowl's friendship, huh? And all the time we spent together? Yeah, remember when Prowl pulled me out of the rubble in Tarn? When he fixed my systems long enough to keep me alive 'til he could get help? When he towed me all the way to Polyhex, with barely enough fuel in his tank to keep himself alive? When he showed Wheeljack everything he needed to do to save my life? When he drove fifteen megacycles into Tarn after the bomb went off just to make sure I was okay? How about when he took his *own* optic right out of his head and gave it to me when mine were gone? Remember how he bought me *new* top of the line optics out of his own credits? Remember-- oh, *wait*. I almost forgot. You weren't around for any of that. You weren't a friend of *mine* back then, or a friend of Wheeljack's, or a friend of Prowl's. No, by the time you met him, he wasn't even *capable* of feeling friendship, and yet he somehow managed it, didn't he? He could show friendship even when he couldn't *feel* it. But you? You're something of a true friend, huh? Yeah-- why don't you tell me all about how good a friend you are right *now*, Sideswipe. Hey, don't worry-- I'm willing to take it on your *word*... since you've got nothing *else*."

Sideswipe stood in horrified silence.

Mirage narrowed his optics, a look of cold fury on his face. "He doesn't *deserve* our friendship," he shot back.

"And you're the judge, huh?" Bluestreak said, hotly. "You're the expert on *loyalty* now? You think nobody can tell when you say things like a Decepticon victory is probably inevitable, and you only *hope* that you'll pick the right place to stand in Iacon, that when it comes to loyalty you can't even give us your *own*? You think I couldn't tell that it wasn't just idle talk about your worries in front of your friends? Here's what I know about *you*, Mirage. You spent your days before this living the high life and not caring a scrap about anyone but yourself. You started hanging around with Sunstreaker 'cause you knew your maker didn't approve of him, you joined the Academy because it would make her mad, and you stayed in it JUST 'cause you like knowing things nobody else knows. So what the slag do YOU deserve, Mirage?"

They looked at Bluestreak, total expressions of shock on all their faces. Prowl couldn't believe what he was hearing. He'd certainly never observed the kinds of things that Bluestreak was accusing them of, but from the looks on their faces, it seemed that Bluestreak had been watching very, very closely indeed. Prowl thought about the Bluestreak he'd first gotten to know, who used to spend day after day digging through Iacon's archives-- not for anything in particular, but rather for *everything* he could load into his processors-- maps, histories, images, sometimes even just *words* themselves--

"Huh," Bluestreak said. "And that's the bottom line about what you really think of *me*, isn't it? You think just 'cause I like to talk that I don't know how to *listen*."

Nobody said anything for a long time.

Bluestreak stood immovable, with Sunstreaker's rifle still trained on them.

Inferno lowered his gun.

Mirage looked at his feet. His gun fell out of his hands.

Sunstreaker looked away, ashamed.

Prowl's optics took it all in. "No," he said, at length. "*No*. I shouldn't get a second chance from you," he said, to Bluestreak's back. Even breaking the silence felt like a transgression.

"I think," Bluestreak replied, turning to face him, "that *I'll* be the judge of that. Yeah, I think *I'll* decide what happens to the Autobot who gave *me* another chance at life, when he didn't have to, and when it cost him his home, and his friends, and his own spark, and... *Primus* Prowl, I don't know how you could have done that to yourself..." A pained realization seemed to come over his face. "Wait... you already *knew*! Wheeljack said-- you already knew about Vos? You saw it happen, didn't you?"

"Yes," Prowl said, finding it even harder to say than he'd imagined.

Bluestreak nodded. He looked at the ground, and then back at Prowl. "I still remember what Tarn looked like, you know, *afterward*. And what it meant... I think... if you hadn't come to get me when you did..." he said. He couldn't finish. "Because when you cut your spark off, you can't feel pain anymore, can you?"

"No," Prowl said, "you can't."

Bluestreak was quiet again. Just as he was about to speak, however, his face registered surprise and he turned around, suddenly, and started scanning the horizon. "What was that?" he said, quietly.

Prowl looked around, as did the others.

"What was *what*?" Inferno said.

Prowl felt a vibration from the ground; he turned up his audio receptors and a moment later they registered the sound of jet engines, gradually getting louder.

"Something's happening," Prowl said. He looked south toward the horizon, and detected the first tiny visual images of incoming Decepticon fighter jets. A *lot* of them.

Megatron was invading Iacon.

Sideswipe's comm unit crackled; Red Alert's voice came out of it, sounding even more agitated than usual. "...-swipe, return to headquarters imme-- ...deployment! City def-- ... under attack--!" There was something interfering with the signal.

"Something's wrong," Mirage said. "The comm system--"

"Jamming it," Prowl said, "they'll be putting out interference from the lead air units, which means they've got to be shot down *first* or we're going to strand our troops on the ground."

"How much comm time have we got?" Sideswipe asked Prowl.

"Probably three cycles, maximum," Prowl estimated, after putting it through his processors. "If Red Alert is just calling now, that means Megatron interfered with our long-range telemetry somehow."

"Red Alert, we're on our way," Mirage reported back, "and we're bringing Prowl with us."

"...--nd Prowl?" Red Alert replied, "That--... fantastic!"

"No," Prowl said, "I'm not coming with you."

Sunstreaker and Sideswipe looked at each other. "Look," Sideswipe said, "I'm not thrilled about what you did, but the fact is Iacon needs all the help it can get. Bluestreak?"

Bluestreak nodded.

"Fine. I'll help," Prowl said, looking at Bluestreak, "but I'm still not going with you. You need me out *here*. And you all need to be out here, too. Think about it. Telemetry's down and our comm systems are being jammed. What we *don't* need is all of us sitting inside the city where we're blind *and* deaf. We need tactical strike forces at cardinal north, east, and west, and we need them armed with long-range anti-air missiles. Those jamming jets are going to circle the city for as long as Megatron is going to attack it, and we'll be helpless as long as they do. We're going to arrange for the cardinal strike forces to get telemetry data from Praxis' satellite, Mirage, can you dig up the exact frequencies?"

"Yes," Mirage said.

"Good, and we're also going to need a signal repeater on the north hills to retransmit the Praxis signal to our troops. That's the border for our satellites-- the furthest south the Praxis satellite can reach. I'm going to need another telemetry scanner, too-- get Wheeljack to meet me up there with both devices and an engineer team while you guys assemble the tactical strike forces, and get the general corps ready to form on the south side against Megatron's ground troops."

"Got it," Sideswipe said, nodding to Sunstreaker and Inferno. "We're going."

Bluestreak tossed Sunstreaker his rifle; Sunstreaker caught it with one hand, loaded it back into its storage compartment and transformed to vehicle mode. The three soldiers drove off toward Iacon.

"I'll send a runner to the hill once you're in position with the frequencies," Mirage said, as he transformed and disappeared.

"I'm with you," Bluestreak said to Prowl.


"Later," Bluestreak said. "There's a *job* to do."




* * * * * * * * * * * *


"I sure hope this thing works, Prowl," Wheeljack said as he and his small engineering team unloaded the telemetry unit from the antigrav sled.

Prowl didn't look up from his work configuring the comm signal repeater dish with the frequencies Mirage's runner had just delivered. "Do you think it's technologically impossible?" Prowl asked.

"No, it's possible-- in *theory*," Wheeljack said, "it's just that *theory* ain't the same as sittin' on a hill with zillions of Decepticons flyin' overhead. Sunstreaker's the one with the image problem... I happen to like the body I've *got*."

"If this works," Prowl said, "we'll be sitting around Liquid Courage in the same shapes for the next million years. Bluestreak, what's the modulation set to?"

"Under ten," Bluestreak replied, "holding steady."

"Good," Prowl said. "How's that telemetry coming, Wheeljack?"

"Aha! Fired up and ready to go, Prowl. Readings comin' in right now."

"Good. Start transmitting the telemetry signal to the Praxis satellite," Prowl said.

"Wait a cycle," Wheeljack said. Prowl looked up to see Wheeljack examining the exterior of the telemetry device. "Uh, this is bad," he said. "There's no transmitter on this piece o' junk."

There was only one solution. "Open up the data transfer port," Prowl said. Wheeljack did so. "Give me that connection cable," Prowl said to one of the engineers. When he had the cable in hand, he plugged one side into the telemetry scanner's cable port and the other into a universal port attached to his left arm.

"What are you doing?" Wheeljack said.

"Creating a transmitter," Prowl said. "Protocols are initializing... All right. It's working." His processors analyzed the telemetry signal, wrote several million lines of code to convert the signal into transmittable data, and relayed the data to his comm system. It was a complicated process, and an awful lot of it was happening directly within his systems. Prowl's internal comm was sending the converted telemetry data to Praxis' satellite, which was then re-sending the same data-- on a different frequency than the Iaconian city frequencies-- back to the repeater station. Megatron had been able to jam Iacon's frequencies somehow; Praxis, however, was a city far to the north, and far from where the battle lines were shaping up. Megatron wouldn't be paying any attention to Praxis or its communications infrastructure. And while Iacon's multicast military comm system would be useless while Megatron was jamming it, the universal signal service implemented by the Overlords all those vorns before ensured that every *individual* soldier could receive the telemetry data Prowl was sending right on his or her own comm unit.

"Mirage, Sunstreaker, Inferno, Sideswipe, Red Alert, telemetry is up and running and coming your way on Praxis traffic. Air units are approaching *now*." He started broadcasting the data.

"Can you see them?" Prowl asked Bluestreak, who was watching the cardinal points. "I have to concentrate on the signal transfer, I can't reconfigure my optics to look--"

"Yeah, I can see them," Bluestreak said. "They're in position."

"Good. The point line is coming up... any cycle now..." Prowl reported.

"Wow! Got one!" Bluestreak said. Prowl could hear the sound of antiaircraft fire out in the distance, and his telemetry showed one less target in the sky.

"How's the comm system, Wheeljack?" Prowl asked.

"Still jammed," Wheeljack said. "There's gotta be more of 'em up there."

"Probably half the lead jets," Prowl said. Another wave was approaching; Prowl watched as two and then three and then six and eight and twelve jets dropped off the telemetry screen. The tactical strike teams were hitting all their targets.

"Signal's coming back!" Wheeljack said. "Holy Primus, Prowl, it worked!" Bluestreak and the engineering team started cheering.

"Engineering field team, this is Iacon Central Command, do you copy?" Wheeljack's comm system came to life with the sound of Optimus Prime's voice.

"Yes!" Wheeljack replied, "we hear ya loud and clear, Prime! Prowl's got the telemetry runnin' and we've slammed the jammin' jets!"

"Excellent work, Wheeljack, Prowl. Can you hold that location?" Optimus Prime asked.

"We can," Wheeljack replied, when Prowl nodded.

"Best news I've heard all day. Prowl, we could use you and Bluestreak down here," Optimus Prime said. "There's a defense unit on its way to help secure your location, Wheeljack. Prowl and Bluestreak... report to Iacon."

"Uh..." Wheeljack said, looking at the wire hooked into Prowl.

"You don't need me now," Prowl said. "I can give you the code protocols... all you need is a cable port."

"Ohhh *great*..." Wheeljack said. He sighed. "Okay, hand it over. But for the record I ain't too fond of bein' a walkin' comm station," he muttered.

"Worked okay for Prowl," Bluestreak pointed out.

"Yes, apart from the massive motor failures I'm experiencing, it's no trouble at all." Prowl grinned.

Wheeljack stared at Prowl. Bluestreak stopped a moment, and then burst out laughing.

"He told a *joke*!" Bluestreak said.

"Yeah, reeeeeeeal funny," Wheeljack said, connecting the cables into his own ports. Prowl handed him a data disk with the linking program his processors had written and Wheeljack loaded that, too.

"Let's go," Prowl said, transforming into vehicle mode. Bluestreak followed suit, and the two of them took off toward Iacon.

The *real* battle, Prowl knew, was still coming. Megatron had not yet *begun* to fight.




* * * * * * * * * * * *


Prowl and Bluestreak drove as fast as their wheels could take them through the streets of Iacon, toward the South Gate field position where Prime had temporarily relocated all Command operations. Prowl had to shut off his comm reception of the Iacon civilian channels; they were broadcasting over and over a warning to all citizens and civilians that air strikes were imminent and to take cover off the streets. Everyone, it seemed, had obeyed. Apart from Bluestreak and Prowl racing down the main thoroughfares, there wasn't a single other Cybertronian in sight.

"We're two cycles from South Gate," Prowl reported to Prime over comm. "What's Megatron's ETA?"

"We estimate less than six," Ultra Magnus responded instead. "You're all right, but don't dawdle."

Bluestreak laughed over his own comm. "Awwww... but we're so close to Liquid Courage!" he teased.

"Heh," Ultra Magnus replied, "you're not the *only* one who'd like a quart right about now. Just get your tailpipes over here already and quit clogging up the comm."

"Touchy, touchy," Bluestreak radioed to Prowl. The two of them laughed.

How strange it was, Prowl thought, to laugh not because his sensors recommended it... but because he *felt* it again. It seemed so long since he'd felt the experience, and yet his internal chronometer could tell him to the astrosecond exactly how much time had elapsed, and on the scale of his lifespan it was no time at all.

As predicted, the two of them rolled up to South Gate just two cycles later. They drove directly up to Prime's location, where the commander was standing in conference with Ironhide, Jazz, Ultra Magnus, and the unit leaders of the individual divisions. It was a Tau-Delta reunion more than anything, Prowl observed, except that Hound was there and using what looked like an internal hologram projector to create a map of Iacon in the center of the circle of leaders.

"Prowl, Bluestreak, good to see you," Optimus Prime said. "Any thoughts on deployment strategy, Prowl?"

"Yes," Prowl said, transforming and walking up to the map. Bluestreak did the same and moved to stand beside him. "Telemetry indicates that Megatron has airborne superiority, no surprise. We need to keep our troops stationed here and let Megatron come to *us*."

"What?!" Jazz said.

"That's just what *I* finished telling them," Optimus Prime said, in a bemused tone of voice, "but you see the reception I got."

Prowl smiled. "We have to keep our ground troops under the umbrella where the stationary antiaircraft guns set on Iacon's perimeter can protect them," he said. "Hound, can you draw a line in red right here?" he made an arc across the portion of Hound's map showing the area just south of the city, close to where the troops had already begun to amass. "That's the safety zone," Prowl said. "Any further and Megatron can start picking us off."

"Well *Ah'm* sold," Ironhide said, folding his arms across his chest, "though it really fries my circuits t' hafta wait around fer Megatron to show his ugly mug first."

Jazz shrugged. "All right," he said, "you're the man with the plan, Prowl. Eh, and Prime too, I s'pose..." he grinned.

"I appreciate that," Optimus nodded to Jazz, wryly. "All right, then. Take up defensive positions in formation as we discussed, sharpshooters form a thin front line for the first round, and then fall back behind the shock troop lines once you've taken out your targets," he said to Bluestreak's replacement on the sharpshooter command, a pink femmebot who Prowl knew was called Arcee but whom he had never formally met.

"Understood," she said. She gave a smile to Bluestreak, who flashed her a wide smile in return. When Bluestreak caught Prowl's gaze again, a sheepish look crossed his face for a moment.

Now *that* was something he was going to *have* to ask Bluestreak about, Prowl thought to himself.

"Sunstreaker, Sideswipe, Bluestreak, Inferno, Ironhide," Optimus said, pointing to the map marks where troop positions were indicated, and designating one location for each of them in turn. Ironhide's division was at the center, flanked by Bluestreak's and Sunstreaker's on either side. "Red Alert, head in to the South Annex and direct the antiaircraft systems."

"Will do," Red Alert said, and he transformed to go immediately.

"Magnus, join Sideswipe's division. Jazz, go with Inferno. I'm going with Ironhide. And Prowl--"

"He's with *me*," Bluestreak said, flatly.

Prime stopped and looked at Bluestreak a moment. "Prowl's with you," he agreed, nodding his head. "Everyone clear on orders?"

"Yes, sir!" came the unanimous reply.

"Primus be with us," Prime said, looking at Ironhide.

"Ah hope so too," Ironhide said. "Let's git on with it, then." The circle broke and everyone moved to take their positions.

The Decepticon point soldiers were less than one cycle away.




* * * * * * * * * * * *

Megatron liked tanks.

That was the conclusion that everyone who fought in the first battle of Iacon would reach when it was over. Megatron had figured out that the Iaconians weren't going to come out to meet him in the open and called back his lead aerial units to hover over the advancing ground troops instead. Most of the ground troops, of course, were Decepticon tanks or other vehicles formerly of Autobot design that had been retrofitted with turrets and, in a few cases, treads. Bipedal troops were coming on thrusters right behind the line of tanks, armed mainly with phase rifles and disruptor pistols. Megatron, too, was in robot form, but he was making his way to Iacon standing on top of the lead tank in the procession as if it were his own personal chariot of war.

The huge, black singularity device that had gone missing from Trailbreaker's off-world research station was bolted to his right arm. Megatron was in sole possession of the greatest weapon ever devised for non-military purposes, just as Mirage had feared he would be, just as Prowl had confirmed was the case when he went to Darkmount. Somehow, however, knowing about it beforehand didn't erode the power of seeing it there, in person- -

--or seeing Megatron raise it, aim directly at one of the sharpshooters in Iacon's front line and send him straight to oblivion with its blast, concentrated perfectly into a lethal narrow beam.

Prowl saw Arcee give the command to commence firing, and the sharpshooter line started aiming for rank leaders in the Decepticon army. At least four of them targeted Megatron himself, without noticeable success. The image of Megatron-- red optics blazing brighter even than the blasts that emerged from his cannon-- was unnerving the troops. The sharpshooters were aiming quite a few shots into the skies, taking out as many of the fliers as possible in order to disable them or at least force them down to the ground where they were more vulnerable to attack.

"Hold the line," Bluestreak commanded his company, "one more round for the sharpshooters--"

It felt like an eternity to Prowl, watching the sharpshooters line up their targets precisely, watching them exercise what would have been an impossible task without all the training they had been through, and not solely in the realm of the sharpshooting skill itself. Optimus Prime had made a risky gamble, putting his best-trained weapons troops on the front lines where they were especially vulnerable. Prime-- and Bluestreak, too, for hadn't Bluestreak given them the training they'd needed in the beginning, before... before Stanix?-- their teachers had shown them how to keep focused even if every other sharpshooter was struck down by enemy fire. Patience, patience, patience was what they had, the flash of disruptor beams and the glint of metal heated to plasma and falling away around them and not one flinch, not a single circuit out of sync--

--it was beautiful in its way. Even *Prowl* had to acknowledge that, for all it made and yet did not enough make his still- muted spark ache to watch such noble acts of willpower, such willingness to lay down one's own life for his friends--

"Sharpshooters BACK!" Optimus Prime shouted, and Arcee's troops made their last few shots before retreating as fast as they could through the ranks of the shock troops.

"Autobots!" he shouted, "Attack!"

The first five ranks of Iaconians rushed into the remaining space between Megatron's tanks and the front line, led by Optimus Prime and Ironhide, while the remaining ranks worked on supplementing the antiaircraft divisions by targeting Megatron's air units. Prowl and Bluestreak ran side-by-side into the fray, ganging up on the tank straight ahead, blowing out its turret and firing missiles at the treads while trying to avoid the blasts from its neighbors. The front line of tanks was either stasis-locked or immobilized such that they were forced to transform to move free. Autobots were falling, wounded, and the ones who didn't had to take on the newly bipedal tank divisions who had substituted turrets for hand blasters.

It was time for the second part of the Academy Plan, the special final project that Prowl and his companions had devised for the Academy cadets to complete. That was, to say, the best defense of Iacon. "Blue Division, DOWN!" Bluestreak ordered over comm; Prowl caught the sound of Ironhide ordering the same of the Iron Division, and on the other side Sideswipe giving the command to the Swipe division.

Bluestreak, Prowl, Optimus Prime, Ironhide, and all the other commanders and remaining soldiers in the first five ranks dove to the ground while the next two ranks behind them transformed into their vehicle modes--

As it turned out, Optimus Prime liked tanks, too.

The Autobot tank division, disguised as regular robot soldiers in the ranks of the shock troops, moved forward and began to cut down Megatron's now-bipedal-- and significantly more vulnerable- - tank soldiers. Megatron let out a shout of fury as he discovered what was happening, and ordered his troops to concentrate fire on the tank divisions. But it was too late. In a battle that everyone involved knew would depend upon very quick action and solid tactics, a ruse like this was enough to force Megatron to eliminate his assumptions and revise his tactics. And that was precisely the point, because in the meantime there would be mass confusion in the Decepticon ranks while Megatron and the brighter members of his staff decided what to do. Prowl and Bluestreak, along with their ranks of soldiers, aimed weapons from the ground and picked off what few targets the tank division *didn't* hit. Megatron's front lines were being decimated.

Prowl's internal tactical computer paged his consciousness for attention. He paused long enough to beat back the Decepticon in his immediate vicinity before accessing the information.

*STASIS POINT*, it said.

Already? Prowl thought. He marveled at how quickly it had seemed to come.

As every battle tactician knew, in every combat situation there came a point when the outcome of the battle was very close to being determined, and the slightest progression of one side over the other had a far greater level of impact upon the resolution than would nominally be the case. Eventually those small factors would add up until one side had not only a clear advantage over the other, but victory was practically assured.

In the short term, however, it meant that the stakes were now very, very high.

Prowl set his communicator to direct-channel broadcast to Optimus Prime, Ironhide and Jazz; then he repeated the message that his tactical computer had provided him.

*CONFIRMED*, was Optimus Prime's silent reply, delivered by the same method.

Oddly enough, Prime didn't seem to be capitalizing on the information. He issued no new orders to the commanders, and as far as Prowl could tell, neither did Ironhide or Jazz. The Autobots kept on fighting as before, with no change in strategy.

But Prowl had little time to reflect on the matter; his own hands were full with keeping out of the line of fire of Decepticon attackers and taking down as many as he could in the meantime. Megatron himself was getting closer and closer to Iacon. The front lines of the Autobots had been forced to pull back briefly and regroup, even though it put some Autobots at risk of being stranded in the middle of the advancing Decepticon army. There was no helping that, Prowl thought. In the enormous mess of a battle that was taking place there on the Iaconian plain, it was practically a given that some Autobots would get stranded alone.

But they *weren't*.

Prowl realized at length that he was looking at something truly remarkable on the battlefield. The Autobot soldiers-- with the exception of the division leaders-- were fighting in groups rather than alone. Consumer goods origins, Prowl realized. The Autobots were designed to work together to solve problems, and that included working to preserve the lives of everyone in the group. Whereas the Decepticons were moving either individually or as part of a larger designated maneuver-- flank here, fly there-- the Autobots were watching each *other* to see where they could do the most good.

Military hardware programming... consumer goods programming... there was something important here, he almost had it--

"There he IS!" Prowl heard Bluestreak shout, in a strange tone half of humor and half of pain, and it jolted him out of his thought processes. A red and white pyramid jet buzzed by overhead, seeming to take notice of Bluestreak's attempts to shoot it out of the sky. The Decepticon circled around and headed back for Bluestreak's position--


Prowl's reaction was as visceral as it was desperate. Not now, not now, not again-- He wouldn't do it again. He wouldn't let Bluestreak be harmed again, he had no idea what was coming, he'd be killed by that jet, it was coming straight for him now--

Prowl turned away from what he had been doing and ran as fast as he could, dodging weapons fire and jumping over debris in his haste to reach Bluestreak's position. Close, close, almost there--

"Third time's the charm, Decepticon!" Bluestreak was shouting. He fired off one of his shoulder rockets at the red and white jet, who moved to avoid it--

--and flew straight into the line of fire of Bluestreak's guns, which had been trained on the position to which Bluestreak had correctly predicted the jet would fly.

Prowl finally made it to Bluestreak's side, but all he could do was stare, wide-opticked, at the red and white pyramid as it fell out of the sky, heading for the ground directly in front of Megatron's tank.

Bluestreak let out a sound of inarticulate triumph. His hands shot straight up into the air as the jet spiraled down out of the sky, smoking and sparking all the way. At last he noticed Prowl standing nearby, and gave him a quizzical look.

For his part, Prowl was distracted watching the pyramid jet fall, which jet Prowl instantly recognized when it transformed and crawled on its damaged red legs--

"Starscream!" Prowl said--

--just as the prostrated Starscream had his legs run over by Megatron's tank. Megatron moved his right foot backward to compensate for the bump so as not to fall off, but otherwise made no attempt to stop or even slow down as the tank treads sheared and crumpled the metal underneath. Starscream shouted something at him; Megatron made no reply. He raised his cannon and was firing into the Iaconian line, hitting everything he aimed for.

"Come on!" Bluestreak said to Prowl, breaking him out of his spell.

"That was Starscream!" Prowl said.

"No, no, Prowl. Well, oh, yeah, I mean, *yeah*, that was Starscream, I mean you'd have to be blind not to see that was Starscream, since he seems to spend more time making sure everybody knows who he is than he spends fighting, which--" Bluestreak was interrupted momentarily by a Decepticon soldier who came within range of his guns and paused to eliminate him-- "which makes me wonder why Megatron puts up with him, except I doubt I'd understand anyway since he's trying real hard to murder a few million people back in the city there--" Bluestreak and Prowl were both forced to duck as a Decepticon jet flying overhead swooped low before crashing behind the Autobot line behind them, "-- and it's kinda hard to appreciate that kind of philosophy anyway but there's not a lot I can do, really, I mean, not a whole lot of processors in common, me and Megatron, you know? But maybe that's the deal with being a lunatic that you have to take all the *other* lunatics willing to follow a lunatic, which explains Starscream I guess, but in any case *that* was not just Starscream there, *that* was sweet, *sweet* revenge," Bluestreak grinned. He looked at Prowl as if seeing him for the first time. "What are you doing here, anyway?"

Absolutely nothing, Prowl realized. He found it impossible to explain. Then the two of them were under heavy fire again, rendering the conversation moot.

The Decepticons had formed part of their line into a delta in front of Megatron's tank to cut through the Autobot forces. It didn't make sense to Prowl, because the attack delta was moving at a much faster speed than the rest of the Decepticon forces. It was as though he was racing to get to Iacon, but why--

"Oh no, no, no," Prowl uttered, mere whispers of words, as it dawned on him what Megatron was trying to do.

"Bluestreak!" Prowl shouted, "stop Megatron! You've got to break the delta and stop him!"

"What?" Bluestreak said. "Shockwave's division is moving to outflank us on the side, we've got to hold him off--"

"No!" Prowl said, adamant. "That's a ploy! Megatron's the key, we have to stop him before-- Look, send half a column to the center if that's all you can spare but *please* do it *now*!"

Bluestreak's optics widened at Prowl's words. He nodded once. "Okay," he said, and made the call to his troops.

Prowl wasn't done yet. Optimus Prime's forces were in the direct path of Megatron. Bluestreak's troops would help, but if Prime didn't realize what was happening-- He couldn't let that happen. He condensed the situation down to a half a dozen words and radioed directly to Prime, who seemed to have his hands full as it was.

*CONFIRMED*, Prime sent back, and started to reposition his troops. It wasn't going to be enough.

*DISTRACT HIM!* Prowl sent to Prime, praying that the Autobot leader would find a way.

Megatron was screaming for more air support into his comm. "Megatron!" Optimus Prime shouted out, drawing the Decepticon's red optics directly to himself. "I came to fight *you*," Prime called, "not those petrobuzzards you call jet fighters!"

"And I shall be delighted to oblige you, Prime!" Megatron shouted back. But he aimed his cannon at an Autobot who had backed up against Megatron's chariot-tank and blew him away instead. "At MY leisure," he snarled.

Then he raised his arm again.

Too late.

It was too late. The Autobots were helpless to stop him now that he had come within the firing range of his terrible weapon. Prowl was helpless to do anything except watch as Megatron braced a foot against the still-lumbering tank upon which he stood while his cannon slowly charged to full capacity. He was seeing it now from his optics, what he had correctly predicted but cycles before in his mind. Random bits of information that had come together to give Prowl an unexpected insight into the true nature of things-- it was something he had always relied upon, his skill in synthesizing the broader truth out of a whole field of data. It was now his realization brought reality, disconcerting and difficult to believe as it was, that Megatron had not even come close to utilizing the total terrifying potential of his weapon.

The outer rim of the cannon's muzzle began to flicker as unstable energy from the fusion reaction began to coalesce in the device's internal stasis chamber and build up enough charge to project the antimatter stream forward towards the target. Megatron had always stopped short of this stage when he had used the cannon before, its incredible power output literally shooting through with pure energy every Autobot in range. This was something altogether different. This was, Prowl realized with horror, was the full measure of the cannon's power. By drawing antimatter out, encapsulating it in the peculiarly stable energy matrix created by the cannon and then letting the energy stream dissipate upon contact with matter, the weapon was not so much blasting a target to pieces as deconstructing everything about the target that made it *real*. What matter was left unconsumed by the antimatter would be ruined in the ensuing explosion that was the natural result of the two coming into contact. This weapon did not merely kill; it utterly *obliterated*.

And now Iacon was in the crosshairs.

There was nothing Prowl could do but pray that any Autobots caught in the direct path of fire stretching between Megatron and the city would not feel their now-inevitable deaths. The flicker of light within the darkened tube of metal in the cannon brightened to rival even the photonic bombs that had destroyed Vos and Tarn before the beam it produced arced over the Iaconian plain to fall squarely upon the southern wall of the city. Megatron visibly strained to keep the weapon level as it discharged its horrific blast, but kept his stance. When the beam at last vanished within the cannon, his cannon arm dropped to his side and the rest of him to one knee.

In the distance, Iacon's southern wall flashed brilliantly once, bright red, and then exploded in a perfect sphere of shrapnel and debris so fine as to appear like dust from the distance where Prowl stood watching. The whole city seemed to shudder from the explosion. Weakened support beams from neighboring buildings crashed down through the settling debris like the teeth of a spring-loaded clamp let loosed. Millions were going to die if Megatron were not stopped right there, at that moment. Millions of innocent Cybertronians were going to die.


"Prowl!" Bluestreak shouted, "it's not working! We're losing-- !" Bluestreak's confidence was eroding, and if Bluestreak was feeling hopeless, then the *other* Autobots were probably--

The other Autobots. Confidence. Autobots and Decepticons and confidence. Military hardware programming and consumer goods programming.

How could you even *function* without your emotions? was what Wheeljack had asked him, in what felt at that moment like an eternity before. It was hard to explain: There was just one underlying assumption upon which all the others had been built-- protect Bluestreak. That was all he'd had.

And where had *that* come from? Prowl had never stopped to think about it before, but here and now with all his systems working together again and his strategy-building programming running in overdrive, it seemed... vitally important somehow.

Where *did* it come from?

From somewhere *below* cognitive thought, that was where. Somewhere deeper-- in some part of the cerebral circuits that was beyond conscious ability to touch-- the part that told Autobots to look out for each other--

--the part that told Decepticons to follow the strongest, most capable leader in every situation.

They were at stasis point in this battle, and the outcome was going to depend entirely upon confidence.

Bluestreak was losing his because he'd just seen Megatron blow away in a single shot a huge portion of Iacon and its defenses. But that was a very *Decepticon* way of thinking, wasn't it? Show everyone just how powerful you are, because-- for Decepticons, anyway-- only the powerful are worthy of following. Everyone looking for a leader looks for the strongest, the fastest, the one most likely to bring benefits to the followers. It was only *natural* that Megatron would operate that way. It was in his very *nature* as a Decepticon.

And *might* just be his ultimate *mistake*, if Prowl could find a way to turn it to their advantage.

The terror of Megatron's cannon wasn't going to last forever, at least not for his Autobot opponents. Autobots weren't pre- programmed to fold in the face of superior opposition. They were programmed from the very beginning, even before the sapience of the Cybertronian species, to work together to find solutions to very difficult problems. They were also programmed to watch out for each other to the point of self-sacrifice if necessary. They would do almost anything and go to almost any length to achieve the larger goal, and when it came right down to it, the higher the stakes got the more they'd fight to win.

"We haven't lost *yet*, Bluestreak!" Prowl called back at him. It was another strange moment he'd experienced-- feeling like a billion years had passed in the space of a fraction of a cycle while his processors were working on solving the problem of breaking the stasis point.

Stasis point. That was the key. The only way the stasis point could be broken was if two things happened in succession: first, one side had to lose all confidence in its chances of winning; and second, the side with the least confidence had to break. If Bluestreak's state of mind was any indication, the Autobots were very nearly at the breaking point. All it would take would be a few more key losses before the Autobots would be inspired to retreat-- unless something could be done to inspire them to fight harder first.

It can't be our side that loses all hope first, Prowl thought to himself. Even the most die-hard Autobot couldn't counteract the power of self-preservation programming.

Prowl turned on his wide-range comm system to broadcast to every single Autobot on the battlefield. He couldn't risk causing a serious distraction of the troops, so he had to make his message short and to the point. No voice-- just a plain message of words transmitted to every Autobot.


His message had been received all right; he could see it in the optics of every Autobot soldier around him, the way their faces hardened from the reminder of what their ultimate goal was really all about. It was fear he could see. Fear was a great motivator, but was it enough? What had he done? Had he made a mistake, reminding them of the danger to Iacon? What if it ended up having the opposite effect, what if--

He never completed the thought, because at that moment there was another message now incoming to *his* direct message receptors too, but this one bore the unmistakable hallmarks of Optimus Prime. It was only three words, but it was packed with so much determination, so much strength of will that it was *impossible* to ignore, *impossible* not to pick up and hold and make it his own--


They pressed the Decepticons harder now, a huge burst of weapons-fire at the moment Prime's transmission ended as the Autobots found renewed purpose and fortitude. Prime's words-- they were the missing elements of the purest means of persuasion. Prowl's logical observation coupled with emotional appeal that he had traded all away as though it were nothing.

What a fool he truly was. What a Primus-be-damned *fool*.

*Cheer up*, that bitter, traitorous part of his own mind said-- all it cost you, this glorious revelation of yours, was the lives of a few million Cybertronians.

He realized that he'd been lost in loathing when he heard Bluestreak shouting to him. "Prowl, there!" Bluestreak said, and pointed to Prime's position. Megatron was closing in on Optimus Prime, but the Autobot commander was about to be overrun by no less than five Decepticons in the meantime.

Stupid, stupid! Standing around like a house drone--! "Got it!" Prowl called back, cursing himself as he ran--

Megatron's tank was getting bogged down by Autobots; he'd shifted his attention back to picking them off one by one now that he'd made his point about what he could do to Iacon. He'd cut down at least three when an Autobot's shout came from somewhere behind Prime: "My turn now!" Optimus took out one of the five Decepticons advancing on his position; as the 'Con fell, Prowl could see a yellow figure-- Sunstreaker, it *had* to be-- standing on top of a red Autobot in vehicle mode. Sunstreaker and Sideswipe. Sunstreaker was holding his gladiator axe in one hand and gripping a traction cable hooked to Sideswipe's front bumper with the other.

Prowl watched in silent horror as the two of them raced straight toward the space between Megatron and his intended target. There was no way he'd make it in time. But if Megatron fired his cannon while they were there--

The Decepticon commander looked down just in time to see Sunstreaker's axe come flying straight for his head. He managed to jerk away just in time to avoid the fatal blow, but the axe connected with his right shoulder and buried itself deep in the joint between his arm and torso. Cascades of sparks erupted from the wound and the horrific vortex that had been swirling almost constantly within the darkness of the modified fusion cannon evaporated. He grabbed the axe handle and flung it back toward Sunstreaker, but the yellow Autobot was off Sideswipe and transformed, speeding back to his own line with Sideswipe and the rescued Autobot close behind--

--and the three of them were *laughing* all the way.

"Sunstreaker did it!" Bluestreak observed, cheering. "He took out Megatron!" Bluestreak couldn't help himself, it seemed; he broadcast on the Tau-Delta frequency the eight of them had used in their Academy days: "Wheeljack! Red Alert! Inferno! Mirage! Sunstreaker and Sideswipe TOOK OUT MEGATRON!!"

"No, just his cannon," Sideswipe replied by the same method.

There was laughter on the comm from the others. "There's no 'just' about it!" Wheeljack radioed, cheerily.

The news that Sunstreaker had disabled Megatron's cannon spread at a truly astonishing pace through the Autobot ranks, who seemed to draw from it a surge of strength and resolve that Prowl could scarcely believe.

"Well... Somebody told me it might be a good idea to fight to *win*," Sunstreaker said over the channel, his only words of comment about what he had just done.

Prowl saw Bluestreak smile.

"Doesn't mean it can't be done with *panache*, mind you," Sideswipe added, raising more appreciative laughs over the comm.

"One down..." Inferno chimed in.

But Megatron *wasn't* down-- not by a long shot. His right arm was nearly severed and the modified fusion cannon was no longer operable, but that did not mean that he was out of firepower nor the Autobots out of the zone of danger. "Not yet he isn't," Prowl said over the Tau-Delta comm channel. Another burst of Decepticon fire rained over his head as if to punctuate the point, forcing Prowl and Bluestreak to turn their attention back to the battle at hand.

Megatron had re-armed himself, so to speak, with a long silver blast weapon. Any other Decepticon would have needed both hands to operate it; Megatron handled it with his only functioning hand as if it were *made* for the task. It was no wonder the Decepticons followed him. Every action he took positively *radiated* power.

And Megatron's new weapon radiated something else.

"Megatron's got a *rail gun*!" Prowl sent out to the Autobot commanders. As if the modified fusion cannon wasn't bad enough- - Megatron still had a weapon capable of sending supercharged matter and energy with enough force to terminate any Autobot in his way. He just had to have a little better aim than before. Not that his skills were lacking *there*, either.

It wasn't going to be enough, Prowl thought-- not Prowl's reminders nor Prime's words of encouragement nor Sunstreaker and Sideswipe's flashy but effective act of bravado was going to be enough to break the stasis point in favor of the Autobots so long as Megatron's Decepticons kept their confidence up. Prowl had thought-- as had Sunstreaker, apparently-- that a highly visible loss of the infamous fusion cannon would have shaken the Decepticon lines much more than it actually did. Small wonder; Megatron's weapon was new, but the effect of his weapon was no less potent. Front line Autobots were being decimated at a rate that made Prowl sick to his servos.

But there were other, more immediate problems to deal with. A serious strike at Megatron wasn't enough to shake the Decepticons, but a similar strike at Prime would be devastating for Autobot morale. Prime and Prowl had managed to clear the area immediately around Prime of Decepticon attackers, but in the mean time Megatron had closed in close enough to fire on Prime directly.

Megatron aimed the gun straight for Prime's turned aft--

"Prime!" Prowl called out. Optimus Prime turned in time to see Megatron and flung himself backward, but not before the projectile blast from Megatron's silver rail gun lanced across his chest plate and left a deep, ragged scar. Prime's blast rifle fell out of his hand as he moved to avoid the lethal point of the shot. He was going to be helpless, Prowl realized. Prowl fired on another Decepticon soldier and then jumped for Prime's weapon.

He didn't make it. At the very moment he was about to leap, the ground started to shake so violently that Prowl immediately lost his balance and fell. He didn't know what was happening, but he *did* know that without a weapon, Prime would never survive. He managed to crawl toward the gun, with other soldiers losing balance and falling down all around him. His hands at last grasped Prime's fallen weapon, and he pulled it close to his chest panel. "Prime!" he called out.

Optimus was down on one knee, one hand flat to the ground, trying to remain upright despite the tremors. He turned to look at Prowl, saw the gun, and reached out his free hand to catch it when Prowl tossed it back to him. He was armed again. Megatron had overcome the unstable ground by engaging his thrusters to enable him to float, a feat which Optimus Prime immediately remedied by connecting three laser blasts directly into his torso, just shy of the gash left by Sunstreaker's axe. The Decepticon commander fell backward and hit the ground directly behind his chariot-tank.

"What's going on?!" Bluestreak radioed to Prowl.

"I don't know--" Prowl started to reply, but a moment later he found his optics widening as something truly incredible unfolded before his vision. "Look there, east!" he said over comm to Bluestreak--

It looked like an enormous vent was opening up in the ground in front of Iacon. Part of the surface cracked in the shape of a square; then three sides of the square started to sink into the ground at an angle, creating what looked like a great, wide ramp downward where flat plain had once stood. The soldiers standing on it started running up the ramp to get away; the ones that couldn't started to slide down instead.

"There's another one, due west!" Bluestreak reported. Prowl scanned the battlefield again; Wheeljack's still-operational telemetry was registering at least *four* ramp-like depressions in the immediate area.

The tremors were very strong now; there wasn't a single soldier on either side who wasn't flat on the ground, unless he or she had thrusters. Combat had, for all intents and purposes, come to a complete halt.

Prowl saw another hole appear in the ground, right in between the two ramps closest to his position. Unlike the ramp holes, however, this one was completely circular, and simply dropped below the surface. The Decepticon who had been standing on that spot fell down with it, his vocalizers registering shock as he fell. A moment later, Prowl thought he detected the flash of blast weapons where the Decepticon had fallen, but had no idea how that was possible.

He got his answer half a cycle later when the tremors started to subside and a figure emerged from the circular hole, and then another, and a third, and a fourth. Each one was carrying a blast rifle, and each moved out from the opening, targeting the nearest Decepticons in the area and filling them full of holes.

The tremors stopped altogether, and then a fifth figure, almost entirely red in color, emerged from the circle. This was surely the leader, Prowl thought, gazing at the tall crest of fine burnished silver metal that rose from the crown of his forehead and arched across the back of his head. The top of the crest was adorned with a kind of filigree pattern in the same shade of red as most of the rest of his body, and his optics, set into a polished mirror of a silver face, blazed in sapphire fury. Unlike the strangers who preceded him, however, he was armed with only a sword. In his left hand was a rectangular object adorned with the red face symbol that Prowl had first identified with Iacon's Civil Defense Force but that was adopted as the symbol of Iacon-- and indeed *all* who called themselves Autobots now. The red stranger raised the square object into the air just as the tremors stopped completely. The soldiers on the battlefield were still too stunned to act; many of them had noticed the newcomer and were staring at him.

"Defenders of the faith, *ahrise*!" the red figure shouted, in a rich baritone voice that seemed to carry across the whole plain. "Go forth, and let th' Awakenin' COMMENCE!" On this last word, he raised the sword straight forward like a shot toward Megatron's horde--

Then Prowl heard the *eeriest* noise his audio circuits had ever registered.

As soon as Prowl caught sight of the first rank of Autobot soldiers spilling out of the ground and straight up the ramps, he understood both what was happening *and* what Ironhide's 'special projects' must have been all about.

South Iacon was rising.

They were the 'Southerns'-- the subset of Iacon's culture to which Ironhide himself had once belonged, the subterranean denizens most Cybertronians never knew, faithfully worshipping a god most Cybertronians had forgotten. Every one of them was armed to the gears and had begun to emit the most unsettling sound that Prowl had ever or *would* ever-- in all the millions of years his life was yet to span-- hear. It was, technically speaking, a kind of war song; but it was *far* more than that. It was the combined voice of first hundreds and then *thousands* of Autobots emitting a high-pitched wail with absolutely no semblance of order to its tenor. Every key and octave formed together in a kind of disharmonious--


"Primal Scream," Prowl said, though nobody could possibly have heard him over the South Iaconian battle cry. There had to have been three thousand of them, practically the entire population of the community, if what Prowl had heard about them was correct. They were pouring out of the ground, equal numbers of male and female Autobots, and every one of them was falling upon the Decepticons with a savage fury that truly had to be seen to be believed.

"Rally Autobots, and ATTACK!" Optimus Prime ordered over comm; it was quite impossible to hear anything apart from the deafening Primal Scream. Iacon's Autobots added their own shouts to the sound of South Iacon's war song and soon joined their brothers in arms, cutting down the Decepticons if not with ease then by force of sheer will--

The Decepticon line faltered, reformed, and then-- at last-- *broke*.

Starscream had re-appeared at Megatron's side, standing on wobbly legs. "Lord Megatron!" Prowl heard him say, "we MUST retreat!"

"Never!" Megatron shouted, and pushed him down. He started toward Optimus Prime again--

--and was blocked by the figures of Bludgeon and Shockwave, who dropped down from the air above him and each grabbed one of Megatron's arms. "Retreat is mandated by situation parameters," Shockwave said. "Total defeat is imminent!"

Megatron yelled for them to let him go, but it was too late. He tried to writhe out of their grasp, but the injury Sunstreaker had given him and the insistent struggle of his own soldiers against him defeated his efforts. His own lieutenants were carting him off the field. "I'll be back for YOU, Prime!" he called out, before he was too far away to be heard any more.

"I'll be *waiting*," Prime called back.

Prowl checked his power levels; the battle had started winding down just in time. He had maybe ten more shots of power left in his plasma gun, and--

"PROWL!" Bluestreak's voice. Prowl whirled around--

*Primus*-- it was Razorclaw, making one last attempt attack on an Autobot foe, and he had chosen Bluestreak.

"Razorclaw!" Prowl shouted, breaking into a run towards the Decepticon. He raised his gun and fired--

With no effect. The plasma blasts hit his exterior plating and left not so much as a black streak upon it.

Razorclaw appeared to pay no attention. Of course he wouldn't, Prowl realized. The unstoppable force that was that ancient Decepticon, veteran of the Cybertronian revolution, who never took action without complete assurance of the consequences-- of course he would choose to ignore Prowl. He'd given Razorclaw no *reason* to change his focus, not with Bluestreak so close to destruction, not now, with Bluestreak on the ground about to be run through with Razorclaw's sonic sword--

"Razorclaw!" Prowl shouted at the very limits of his vocalizers. He felt a surge of anger overtake him, the likes of which he had not thought even possible now, almost as great as any emotion he had ever felt in the time... the time *before*. "Betrayer!" he shouted at the Decepticon, and this time Razorclaw risked a glance in his direction, stopping just long enough to grant Bluestreak another moment of continued life. It was working.

More than that. It felt... *right*.

He'd all but forgotten the incredible *purity* of emotions this raw. The whole utterly complicated universe of Prowl's life and his history and his place in the world melted down into nothing more sophisticated than the existence of absolute fury and a target toward which to direct it. Was this what it had been like, back in the days in Vos, back during the time his memory could only stand to describe as the "before"? Prowl had little time or inclination to ponder now what he could scarcely bring himself to remember, but the intoxication of this-- this fading away of everything into black and white-- how could he have even pretended to be able to ignore it? Was it any wonder how willingly he'd fallen into the numbing easiness that was relinquishing one's very *mind* to the Vossian master manipulators?

And then another realization, following right on the treads of the first: merely to appreciate how utterly understandable and even reasonable it was to have made the mistakes he'd practically littered his life with was *not* the same thing as earning redemption. He was no more forgiven than Razorclaw was, Razorclaw-- who sent him to die with all the other "expendable" Autobots for nothing more than the greed for power and control, who had cast aside the lives of *millions* of Autobots and Decepticons in Vos for that greed, and whose very presence on this battlefield hovering over an Autobot worth a hundred thousand Razorclaws put together was the most starkly obscene thing that Prowl had ever beheld.

Prowl began to laugh.

"Don't you recognize my voice, great *Lord* Razorclaw? Or did you erase that out of your memory when you abandoned the *rest* of Vos? When you condemned us all to die? Do your Decepticon comrades know *that*, Razorclaw?" Prowl was gratified to see that at least one or two of the straggling Decepticon soldiers had stopped to listen to the words that were pouring out of Prowl like white-hot molten metal. "Do they know how you coordinated the attack on Tarn's power plant? How you launched the missile that destroyed all of Tarn? Did you lie to them like you lied to us? How many more missiles will it take to cover up *your* sins, Razorclaw? Will you melt down *all* of Cybertron next?"

Razorclaw's optics flashed, and then narrowed at him. "Prowl," he sneered. "Oh, I shall *enjoy* this," he said, and leapt off Bluestreak and toward Prowl--

--and in that instant, the strange fury that had overtaken Prowl's sensors fled his circuits, replaced with the even more instinctual desire for self-preservation.

It occurred to Prowl's logic processors that, in retrospect, and as Razorclaw connected with Prowl's torso and knocked him flat to the ground, that choosing to distract Razorclaw this way-- no matter how emotionally satisfying it had been-- had probably *not* been the wisest decision on Prowl's part. Prowl had managed to keep hold of his weapon somehow, but given that Razorclaw was apparently unaffected by plasma fire, Prowl didn't know what good it would be anyway. He managed to roll with Razorclaw's leap, tossing the former Vossian Lord off of himself just in time to avoid the sword strike the Decepticon attempted to connect upon him. Prowl hit the ground hard, and felt a clunk in his chest compartment--

The acid container.

Prowl opened the compartment with one hand and put his plasma gun down in his lap with the other. Then he popped out one of the empty plasma batteries and replaced it with the acid canister. Razorclaw was up, he was coming around again-- Prowl engaged the ammunition loading mechanism until it broke through the container seal and flooded the plasma compartment with acid, then he aimed the weapon-Razorclaw's sword was about to fall upon him--

Five shots of supercharged corrosive plasma hit Razorclaw's exterior and ate through his armor plating in a fraction of an astrosecond. The next four shots hit his internal components, melting them away even faster than the plating had gone. Razorclaw's face registered shock as he realized he'd been hit. His optics blinked off, stayed off-- and he fell short, at Prowl's feet, in stasis lock.

Prowl's weapon was spent of energy. He tossed it aside and moved to where Bluestreak was laying.

"Bluestreak!" he said, engaging his mobile scanner to see how badly Bluestreak was injured. He knelt down at Bluestreak's side.

"I'm okay," Bluestreak said, "just low on energy." Prowl nodded and dug up a power transfer cable. Then he proceeded to shunt part of his own energy reserves to Bluestreak.

"Thanks," Bluestreak said, when his levels were out of the danger zone. He glanced at the power cable between them and gave Prowl an odd look. "Are you... all right?" he asked, at length.

"Yes," Prowl said, simply. He disconnected the cable between them. Bluestreak stretched out a hand and Prowl offered him one of his own to help him sit up straight.

The Decepticons were fast becoming a memory, disappearing en masse over the south horizon. Optimus Prime and the other commanders were now directing the recovery of the wounded and dead. Prowl looked around field, noting with relief that the former members of Tau and Delta modules had escaped everything but minor damage to their systems.

Optimus Prime was making the rounds; he approached the spot where Prowl and Bluestreak were sitting. "Everything all right?" he asked.

Bluestreak looked at Prowl. "I'm fine," Prowl said.

"Me too," Bluestreak said. "Low on energon, but Prowl spared me some of his."

"I'll tell Ratchet you need a fueler. Stay put and he'll get around to you." Optimus keyed something on the comm unit control panel attached to his left arm. "Good work today," he added.

"Prime." It was Ironhide; he was walking up to meet Optimus Prime, and he had the crimson South Iaconian leader in tow. "Ah'd like ya to meet someone."

"Very good," said Optimus Prime. "I was looking forward to meeting you," he said to the Southern.

"Ah'm called Armorhide," the Southern leader said. "It was a fine battle tho' what heralds many more t'come."

Optimus Prime nodded. He looked over at Prowl and Bluestreak again, who were watching the exchange in silence. "These are two of my top lieutenants," he said, "Bluestreak and Prowl."

"Save yer energy, son," Armorhide said when he saw Prowl start to stand. "It has been fearsome wearyin', this battle, and protocol mends quicker than circuit, as th' sayin' goes. Well met, and may Prahmus guard you in these dark days."

Prowl nodded.

"Thanks," Bluestreak said, and Armorhide gave him a kindly smile.

"We're glad you decided to join us," Optimus Prime said to him.

"Ah *had* to," Armorhide said, "on account of a certain *son* o' mine pointin' out that it's one thing to watch for Prahmus but quite another to be *watchful* for His comin'. A kinda lesson, Ah think, that some of us sorely needed learnin'. Mahself included."

"A son to be proud of," Optimus Prime observed.

"Indeed so, good Rev'rend," Armorhide said. "And to mah shame, it has been *sinful* long since I reckonized that fact."

He gave Ironhide a long look.

Ironhide's face betrayed deep emotion, but he stayed silent. He gave Armorhide a single nod.

"Prahmus is indeed merciful t' me," Armorhide said. "He has seen fit to place mah child in the care of a Rev'rend such as y'self."

Optimus Prime shook his head. "I'm afraid I'm no Reverend," he said.

Armorhide seemed to size him up. "Ah see many words have changed their meanin's these long years past. But Vector Sigma is *never* mistaken, Rev'rend Prahme."

Optimus Prime seemed a bit confused, but was polite enough not to contest the matter further.

Ironhide spoke, changing the subject. "It's good t'see ya," he said.

"Ah must confess th' same," Armorhide said to him, and smiled.

Ironhide smiled back. "How's Momma doin'?"

"Fine... holdin' down the home front for us while we're up here today, as usu'l. Bah the way, it wouldn't hurt ya none to call her once an' a while," Armorhide said. His voice dropped a few levels. "She made me *promise* Ah'd tell ya that." Armorhide shot him a wry smile. "And yer sister wants t' know when yer gonna axe Chromia to make it official."

Ironhide sighed, irritably. "Still can't be mindin' her own bizniss Ah see," Ironhide said, "and Ah hope she ain't still gettin' Momma's hopes up about it."

Armorhide chuckled. "Ah do believe they lead each *other* on," he said. Ironhide grinned.

"Armorhide," Optimus Prime said, "you're welcome to join us in Iacon, and bring your wounded to our medical centers. Our medical personnel would be happy to help."

"Kindly gracious of you t' offer," Armorhide said, shaking his head, "but Ah believe mah folk c'n attend to their own just as well."

Prowl looked at the South Iaconians who were still in the field. More of them had emerged from the vent ramps and were passing through the lines of soldiers--

--looking for their *family* members, Prowl realized.

Groups of four were starting to form: Mother, daughter, father, son, the uninjured conducting repairs on the damaged, the similarities in body styling from one 'generation' to the next unmistakable signs of their affiliation. And there were larger group markings-- extended 'families' with the same silver stripe on the left arm, for example, or the same crest flourish on the front of the head or hands. Groups of four. Every member a slightly different specialty, so that the whole group was capable of accomplishing any task that needed to be done.

Prowl looked at Ironhide and shook his head. Groups of four. He looked at the former members of Tau and Delta, and the four members of Iacon's Civil Defense Force command, an extended 'family' if he had ever seen one. He smiled. Oh Ironhide, he thought to himself, old habits die hard, don't they?

"Well, we're grateful for your help," Optimus Prime said. "And please don't hesitate to contact us if there is anything we can do in return."

"Ah believe," Armorhide said, "that it is come time for mah people to rise to the light once more. Our home is still our home, but we *will* rise ag'in, and *soon*, Ah fear. The time of the Darkest Hours doth come." He nodded solemnly.

"It has been a privilege to fight at your side today," Optimus Prime said, holding out his hand in the Iaconian fashion. Armorhide took his hand and returned the gesture.

"Ah must attend t' mah charges," Armorhide said, "so Ah bid you all farewell." He gave them each a kindly smile in turn. Then he moved to stand directly in front of Ironhide.

"Mah son," he said.

They looked at each other a moment more, and then each one moved to embrace the other. The moment passed soon enough; they parted with smiles, and then Armorhide walked away.

Ironhide looked at Optimus Prime. "Aww, what're *you* lookin' at?" he said.

Optimus Prime chuckled. "Nothing, nothing. He's a fine Autobot," Optimus Prime said.

There was quiet again. Ironhide looked back at Bluestreak and Prowl. "Y'all okay there?" he asked.

Prowl nodded.

"Yes," Bluestreak said.

"They're waiting on an energon refuel," Optimus Prime said. "If you'd make rounds east--"

"Gotcha," Ironhide said. The two of them parted ways, leaving Prowl and Bluestreak alone again.

Prowl looked at Bluestreak. "How's your energon?"

"I'll survive long enough for Ratchet to come around."

"That's good."

It was quiet. Prowl and Bluestreak sat still while the battlefield was cleared of wrecks and wounded.

Prowl wasn't certain what else to say. He supposed that his duty was finished now. The battle was over. He'd never been relieved of his commission, that was true... but he wasn't really *one* of them anymore. Where would he go? He didn't know anyone who wasn't here. Maybe Praxis. Maybe he'd go to Praxis, to make truth out of the lie he'd told in the very beginning, *where are you from?*, the one truth he could make out of all his lies, the one wrong he could remedy-- because citizenship was little more than a technicality now that Megatron was out there, redrawing the entire map.

"There's going to be a lot more days like this," Bluestreak said, "aren't there?"

Decepticons: evolved from military hardware, they lived for battle, it seemed. They were hard-wired to fight and win, and most of them would live their whole lives unconscious of their own predisposition to follow the strong and retreat, *always* retreat in the face of clearly superior odds. It was always better, from a long-term strategy perspective, to escape and fight another day, particularly if the war itself was expected to last a very long time.

And this one would. Megatron was relentless. He would be back again, and again, a million times if necessary, to get what he was after, and all his allies and all his foes would go on fighting and dying until it was just Megatron all alone, and he would *still* come to Iacon, *still* beat down the gates of the city even if all he could do was claw at the door with his own two hands. There was no stopping him as long as he had life in his circuits.

"Yes," Prowl said.

Bluestreak looked at the ground. "It's not over," he sighed, a kind of personal resolution.

One glance at how long it was taking to rescue the dead and dying was more testament to the truth of *that* than any words could possibly have said. It was *not*, indeed, *over*. Megatron and his first battle for Iacon was just... an interruption. A distraction. Prowl was waiting, too-- but not for a refueler, not for a mender, not for someone to mourn over what could never be put together again. For something else. For a resolution of some kind. One that was... reachable, was perhaps the word.

Or better: *real*.

That was what was lacking most of all. There was a surreal quality to the battle that had just taken place. It had been a surprise attack and yet every Autobot in Iacon knew how completely *expected* this battle was. Their salvation at the hands of the Southerns had been unimaginable, and yet Prowl knew that Ironhide had spent countless days quietly building a relationship between upper Iacon and lower Iacon so that both would stand together and fight for themselves and each other. And Megatron, too-- he was at once more terrifying than Prowl had ever imagined and yet slightly disappointing at the same time. No, he was *not*, as it turned out, a god. He was no demiurge loosing oblivion on the world. He was just a Decepticon, as Prowl was just an Autobot. Megatron had failed today, but he'd succeeded before and would again, and then lose, and then win, over and over until the day that either he or everyone else would fall into eternal oblivion. It was the *mundanity* of Megatron that was so oddly disappointing, perhaps because there was no comfort at all in knowing that one's mortal enemy was mortal himself, and that despite that severe handicap he was still the most dangerous thing to arise on Cybertron in all its inscrutable history.

There was quiet for a moment.

"It's never going to be the same, is it?" Prowl said. It was not a question.

"No," Bluestreak answered, gently. "But there seems to be a lot of *that* going around."

Prowl nodded. Truer words had indeed never been spoken.

"I'm glad," Prowl said after a time, and Bluestreak shot him a puzzled look. Prowl stood up; the refuelers had noticed them at last and were coming over to help. "Because it will be real," Prowl said, looking out at the plain, unable to take his optics off the sight of it all. "Whatever happens next... it will be *real*."

They sat there for a long time, watching the wounded get field repairs and the dead too far gone get hauled away by their friends and companions. They'd been lucky, Prowl supposed, in a way that didn't seem it. It could have ended the way Vos and Tarn ended, explosions and showers of supercharged particles and millions of Cybertronians wiped out in a single moment.

When the refueler finally came for Bluestreak, she had only enough energon to fill his tanks to one-quarter capacity. "Be glad you got what I have left," she told them, "there's a lot of 'bots out here running low." She seemed genuinely surprised when Prowl refused her offer to split her meager stock between the two of them, but didn't argue with his choice. As soon as her supply was gone, she gave them a comforting smile and turned back to Iacon.

"I guess we might as well head that direction, too," Bluestreak said. "Nothing left here to do."

"That's true," Prowl said, but it wasn't the state of the battlefield he was thinking about. He gazed out at the plain, what once had been a long smooth expanse was now littered with wreckage from fallen flyers and broken-down Autobots beyond repair, pock-marked with impact craters from missile ordnance, and interrupted by the still-opened sharp, jarring edges of the vent ramps that led to South Iacon. The whole landscape was changed now, and would be forever.

"Oh, no," Bluestreak said. Prowl looked up in worry, but Bluestreak spoke before he could inquire what was the matter. "Did Red Alert send you the damage estimates, too? Looks like Liquid Courage bit the dust. Assuming Red Alert's survey is right and he hasn't totally overestimated things, but with a blast like that I guess I can understand how he would, and-- Prowl? Are you... okay?"

He wasn't. Somehow, the realization that Liquid Courage was gone completed the pain for him. He hadn't just lost his home when he lost Vos-- odd, but Iacon *felt* more like a home than Vos ever did, and that was even knowing what he knew--! He hadn't just lost all his friends, for it was clear to him the moment that his sensors were reconnected that he'd lost them long before and hadn't even known it, if he'd had them to start with, if Bluestreak was wrong and that unfeeling he hadn't truly possessed any friends while he'd been exercising the mere simulacrum of friendship. Now the Autobots he'd known best were lost to him and everything connected with them was gone, gone forever--

"Well, I guess they'll be remodeling sooner than they expected!" Bluestreak said, flashing Prowl a lopsided grin.

Prowl's optics blinked off, and then on again.

The casual joke that Bluestreak had made of the horror--

"Well, come on," Bluestreak said, catching the look of shock on Prowl's face, it seemed, "I mean, life has to go *on*, hasn't it?"

Prowl hadn't even considered such a thing.

He hadn't even considered such a thing *possible*.

"I heard the bartender kept the *good* stuff locked up in a bunker below the building," Bluestreak said, "and seeing as you're low on fuel and there's an energon shortage and Iacon could sure use all the spare it can get, whaddya say we go down and see if we can't commandeer a few kegs of Valvolux Gold for the reconstruction effort, huh? I bet Sunstreaker and Sideswipe would be up for it. And I think Inferno's got a secret case of ethanolism, if you pay real close attention, or maybe he just drained all those drinks of Mirage's to torque him off or something, but I bet if you told Inferno there were a couple of kegs down there you could swindle him into doing the heavy lifting, heh! And wouldn't *that* be sweet, a fine tankard of energon and let someone else do the work!"

It was too much to bear. "I can't--" Prowl began, a begging tone.

"Prowl," Bluestreak replied, his voice mild and quiet in reproof. "In all the universe, *today*, what else have the two of us got but you and me?" Prowl heard him move to stand up but found his optics locked on the ground before his feet.

"But the others--"

"What about them?"


"*Time*, Prowl. Things come around we never thought they would, can you look out there at what Megatron just did to Iacon and tell me that's not Primus' own truth?"

Prowl couldn't speak.

"They're not so different from you and me, Prowl. And *we* changed." Bluestreak stopped speaking.

Prowl looked up at him to protest, to say again how he didn't deserve it, that all the days he might spend in his company would never erase the pain he felt in just seeing what he'd done, in just seeing Bluestreak--

--just seeing Bluestreak, standing there, holding out a hand--

--*there*, in the ruined wreckage of Tarn's last hope, the crime unforgivable, the damning sin, the beginning of his end, the beginning of all *Cybertron's* end, the war-cry, the stasis point, there, where to lose faith was to lose the battle; and then a hand, reaching out from the rubble, a hand reaching *back*, a vote for faith, a change, a new life, a new home, a new world, things would *never* be the same--

There was a *lot* of that going around.

Prowl took Bluestreak's hand, and stood.




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