It was sound that returned first.
Nightwatch’s optics refused to cooperate, transmitting only static despite repeated attempts to reboot them. But his audials came online perfectly functional, dutifully recording the snarl of flames and the strut-rattling thump of another explosion. The reek of smoke and ozone and overheated metal came next… then the pain, radiating through his chassis from his shredded wings and the mangled stumps of his right arm and leg.
It took a few seconds for his CPU to catch up with the rest of his systems and compute what had just happened. And when it finally clicked into place, he wished he’d just stayed offline in the first place. What had started out as an ordinary patrol at the edge of Decepticon territory had rapidly escalated to disaster… a disaster he’d rather not face at the moment.
Skystrike, Firestorm, come in! Repeat, Skystrike, Firestorm, come in!
No answer. His trine-mates were either far out of range or in no shape to respond. Whatever was going on here, he was on his own.
It should have been simple routine. The border was always a dicey area for any Decepticon to patrol, but this sector had a reputation for being peaceful, even boring. The three of them had been relaxed and chatty as they had made their rounds, Firestorm cracking jokes and Skystrike offering to buy everyone a round of drinks at their favorite oilbar as soon as they finished up. Nightwatch had been about to accept Skystrike’s offer or groan at Firestorm’s latest pun – he wasn’t sure which now – when the shots had been fired… and from there, everything was fire and chaos, and sudden blackness…
Footsteps clunked closer to the fallen Seeker, and he struggled to raise his head… only for the muzzle of a gun to ram into the back of his helm, shoving it back down.
“Found a live one, boss!”
“Fraggit, can’t you losers even shoot a tin turkey down right?” That voice tugged at Nightwatch’s CPU – he’d heard it somewhere before – but his memory banks failed to match a name or faceplate to the speaker.
“Two out of three ain’t bad, right boss?” The first speaker shoved the gun harder into the back of Nightwatch’s neck joint. “Besides, I kinda wanted to keep one online to mess around with. Just shooting ‘em out of the sky doesn’t feel like proper payback.”
Ah… one of THOSE, then. Nightwatch had heard the rumors… but he’d chosen to believe they were rookie tales blown all out of proportion. Surely such groups couldn’t exist… not now…
“Get rid of him,” grunted the “boss.” “The longer he stays online, the more of a chance he’s got to call for backup.”
Oh… right. His pain-addled processor finally ground into gear. It was far too late to call for backup, but if nothing else the Air Commander had to know about this. The Decepticons had far too few fliers as it was – they could ill afford to lose another squad or trine here. And while he knew his own life was forfeit now – he was in no shape to defend himself at the moment – the least he could do was warn the others.
“You’re no fun, boss,” his captor grunted, and the gun shoved harder into his neck joint. “Say g’night, birdie.”
He had time to fire off one transmission – an information packet directed straight to Decepticon headquarters – before the world went black in a blast of shattering pain.
It seemed that no matter how many mechs were in the crypts, these chambers remained curiously silent. It wasn’t that no one dared make a sound here – conversations carried on, albeit in respectively hushed tones. But there was something about the construction of the vaulted corridors and the niches where mechs paid their respects to the fallen that seemed to absorb all sound, as if to ensure the dead remained undisturbed in their rest.
Silence had never sat well with Glory – she had always thrived on noise and music and some measure of chaos, and that hadn’t changed even with her upgrade. But here, now, she savored the quiet.
The statue that graced Thundercracker’s tomb gazed stoically ahead, arms folded over his chest, wings at a relaxed angle. She couldn’t suppress a smile at the sight. Whoever had sculpted this statue hadn’t captured a perfect likeness of her uncle – the optics were too rounded, the jawline too strong – but somehow that pose looked much like one Thundercracker would assume when standing at rest. Perhaps the artisan had met him, and striven to capture that stance, if nothing else.
I miss you, she thought, running her hand along the base of the statue. I know you’re somewhere better now… but I wish you could be here. I wish you could see me, and help me.
She was currently alone in this section of the crypts. The plan had been to bring Swift down and show her the tombs of Glory and Blitzwing’s families, and perhaps find her own creators’ tombs if they could. But Swift had been too terrified to enter, and in the end Blitzwing had decided to take her on a walk through one of the shopping districts while Glory paid her respects. They would try again another day, she supposed.
Her gaze drifted toward another set of statues – a Seeker and a tank-former, placed so close together they nearly shared a plinth. Through some twist of fate, her uncle’s tomb had ended up directly across the corridor from the shared tomb of her parents. Her spark clenched tightly in its chamber as she crossed the hall to stand before the two figures. Surely it hadn’t been that long since Piston and Windblade had fallen during the bombing of the labs… yet so much has happened since then that it seemed an eternity ago. She wasn’t even sure she could remember what their voices sounded like.
And just a short distance away stood the statue commemorating the tomb of yet another loved one – Skywarp, just two niches down from Thundercracker. She didn’t share programming with the black Seeker, and yet she had always regarded him as family, as another uncle. And somewhere down this corridor was yet another tomb, one she had never found the courage to visit – that of Whirlwind and Drillbit, Thundercracker and Windblade’s creators, mechs she shared core programming with yet had never met.
How did it end up like this? she thought darkly, hugging herself against a sudden chill. How did so many people I care about end up dead? It shouldn’t have been like this… they should have been here to see the end of the war with me, to see peace come to Cybertron.
She shook her head and turned her attention back to her creators’ tomb, resting her forehead against the cool metallic pedestal of their statue. It was no use dwelling on it, she told herself. Her family had joined the Well, and no amount of mourning on her part would bring them back. And they wouldn’t have wanted her to wallow in the first place – they would want her to remember them, yes, but to also pick herself up and move on, to keep living.
They had all fought for a better Cybertron… the least she could do for them was keep fighting to make it better.
Blitzwing’s voice on the radio interrupted her thoughts. You done in there, kid?
I’m on my way out. Is Swift all right?
She’s just fine – standing here watching a couple of street performers at the marketplace. You know how she is.
Glory chuckled softly. Swift was a normal sparkling in most respects, playful and full of energy, but when something caught her optic she could remain engrossed in it for a very long time, whether it was a holovid or a Seeker flight show or just a glitchmouse hunting for scraps on a sidewalk. She wasn’t sure if it was just a curious nature, or if spending much of her early life in Shockwave’s academy had deprived her of stimulation and she was trying to make up for it now.
I’ll meet you at the market, she told him. Just let me finish up here.
Blitzwing’s frown was evident even over the comm. Don’t be in there too long, sweetspark. It’s not healthy lurking there for so long.
She knew that… but she couldn’t resist a final moment beside her parents’ tombs, touching the feet of her mother and father’s statues before walking out. Perhaps it wasn’t healthy to dwell too long on the past… but she felt it was only right to pay her family the proper respects. They had all sacrificed so much for her, and she refused to forget that.
Finally she turned away from the tomb and walked on. No time to dawdle – she wanted to get back to Blitzwing and Swift and steal a few precious moments with them before returning to Polyhex for the meeting with Shockwave and the Autobot leaders. She could ill afford to linger too long in the past. She had duties now, and a very-much-alive family who needed her attention. Ghosts of the past would simply have to wait.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Why a human adage would be passing through his CPU right now, Shockwave could only speculate. Especially this one in particular – it was a contradiction of terms, an oxymoron of the sort that normally irritated his logic processor to no end. The universe was in a continual state of flux, governments and cultures and entire species forever altering themselves or collapsing to give rise to new ones. It only stood to reason that the only thing that ever remained constant was change itself.
Then again, the seemingly contradictory human saying had some merit. This he concluded as he patiently waited for his Air Commander to switch off the holo of a cartoony-looking star dragon that cavorted across the conference table.
“Sorry, sir!” the violet Seeker said for the fifth time as she finally managed to shut the holo down. “I must have gotten some of Swift’s personal holodisks mixed up with mine.”
“Apology accepted, Commander Glory,” he replied, nodding. “We will forget this… distraction and continue with the briefing as planned.”
A snicker rose from the Autobot end of the conference table. Shockwave felt his headfins start to quiver in annoyance, but stilled them with a silent command. It wouldn’t do to let the Prime’s officers ruffle him. Not now of all times.
“Sounds like you got a cute kid there,” Jazz noted, grinning widely despite the cautionary glare Optimus Prime leveled at him.
Glory’s faceplates flushed with heat, but she gave a polite nod toward the carbot as she slid a second holodisk into the projector. “Thank you. But we have something more serious to report than sparkling antics today.”
Shockwave nodded, both in agreement with his Air Commander and silent approval. The young Seeker hadn’t let the distraction derail her report, and had deftly steered the conversation back to the topic at hand. Very good.
It had been over five stellar cycles (he highly disapproved of the younger generation’s adaptation of the human term “year”) since the signing of the Great Treaty that had ended the war for good. Cybertron was finally on the long road to recovery, Autobots and Decepticons joining forces to repair and defend their planet, securing it for future generations. Cities were being rebuilt, and for the first time in vorns new sparks were being drawn from Vector Sigma as mechs, femmes, and bonded pairs finally found the courage and resources to create new life once more. It was a time of new hope, a new beginning for their kind and their world.
The past five cycles had not been without their upsets, however. Millions of cycles’ worth of war didn’t just end overnight, and even that short time of peace had been marred by protests, anger, and even outbreaks of violence. There were still Decepticons who believed that their empire had been cheated out of its rightful rule, and resented ceding most of the control of Cybertron’s government to the Autobots. And there were Autobots who had no faith in the Decepticons’ promise to keep their warlike programming in check, and distrusted the decision to put their kind in control of Cybertron’s military.
It was a difficult period of transition for their kind, and one that would remain rocky for some time to come. But after so many vorns of their world and their kind being torn apart by war, even this turbulent time was a welcome change for many. It wasn’t perfect, but at least it was far closer to peace than they could ever have dreamed.
Holos flared to life once again, this time depicting a star system – not Cybertron’s, though Shockwave recognized it as belonging in the same stellar cluster. Glory nodded, relief evident in her features, and gestured toward the system’s fourth planet as it glowed red.
“We received reports of a mining expedition in the Kalliope system being harassed by Quintesson drones,” she explained. “I sent a division to investigate. Commander Stormrunner reports that they cleared out a sizable nest of Sharkticon drones and captured the Quintessons leading them. They’re bringing them back for questioning as we speak.”
“Good luck getting anything out of them,” huffed Kup, leaning back in his chair with his feet propped up on the table. “Five mouths on the things and none of them ever say anything useful.”
Shockwave knew by now that the best way to deal with the old Autobot’s disrespect was to simply ignore him completely. “Any casualties sustained?”
“Two fliers, five ground units.” Glory spoke evenly, though her voice caught slightly at the end. To everyone else gathered at this table, the number was a mere statistic… but to the Air Commander they were names, mechs and femmes she had known and spoken to, perhaps even befriended. Shockwave considered such closeness to one’s own troops a weakness, one Glory would have to learn to overcome if she wanted to be a truly effective leader, but for now he let it slide.
“Good work, Glory,” Optimus told her. “We can ill afford to lose those mines right now, with Cybertron needing resources for rebuilding. Have there been any other Quintesson attacks reported in the past quartex?”
“No major skirmishes,” she replied. “At least six or seven small incidents aside from the Kalliope attack, none fatal. Their drones are stubborn but not very bright, and the Quints themselves are quick to flee when they don’t have their Sharkticons to hide behind.”
“It sounds like the situation is largely under control,” Ultra Magnus pointed out. “So why did this meeting require the entire Autobot command? We have a great deal to do, and can’t waste our time being debriefed on every single incident.”
Shockwave felt his headfins jerk in response, and he forced them to be still. Trust an Autobot to be so short-sighted. “These incidents have been growing more frequent as time passes, Ultra Magnus, and striking closer to Cybertron proper. I calculate that we can expect a full-fledged attack on Cybertron within the next few cycles, unless we act now to stop it.”
“The Quintessons have always made it clear that they believe they have ownership over our kind,” Prime replied. “But I hardly think they will go after Cybertron itself. They are not a warlike species, and the Hate Plague decimated their kind enough that it would make more sense for them to focus on rebuilding their own world than going after ours.”
“Since when did Quintessons act logically?” Jazz piped up.
“Jazz,” Ultra Magnus snapped.
“He has a point,” Glory added. “We’re talking about a race that chose to blow up their own homeworld just to make a statement. They may be highly intelligent, but they have the common sense of a Dinobot.”
“That will be enough, Glory,” Shockwave ordered, leveling a cool look at the Seeker. She grinned back, entirely unrepentant, but at least held her vocalizer.
“What exactly were you proposing to do about this?” Kup demanded. “You spoke of ‘doing something to stop it.’ Do we really wanna know what you have in mind?”
Shockwave’s gaze turned to Glory again, this time exchanging a questioning look with her. They had discussed this many times with Soundwave and other officers, and agreed that it was the best course of action. Whether they could convince the Autobots to see things their way remained to be seen… but there was nothing to be gained by keeping silent.
Glory nodded slightly, and Shockwave nodded back and turned to address the Prime and his lackeys again.
“We propose a direct attack on the Quintessons’ current base of operations,” Shockwave replied. “That we find and eradicate them before they can strike.”
Prime’s optics flashed slightly. “That course of action is unacceptable. We’re still recovering from a war – to start another war with another race, unprovoked, would be ludicrous.”
“Unprovoked?” Glory retorted. “The Quintessons have been harassing us for years. They’ve caused dozens of fatalities in the past five years. If that’s not provoking, I don’t know what is!”
“Then we better our defenses,” Ultra Magnus countered. “We put the Decepticons in charge of our military for Cybertron’s protection, not to pick fights across the galaxy.”
“This is about Cybertron’s protection,” Shockwave replied, headfins flattening back in anger. “This is about eliminating a threat before it becomes untenable, not instigating a needless war. Allow us to interrogate our Quintesson captives and learn the location of their base… and allow us to destroy it before they can attack Cybertron.”
“This is absurd,” Ultra Magnus declared, narrowing his optic shutters until mere slits of blue showed through. “Are the Decepticons really so desperate for a fight that they’ll stir up hostilities with another race just to satisfy their violent urges?”
Shockwave’s headfins pinned back even further, but he managed to rein in his anger before responding in a way he might regret. Glory, however, didn’t even bother trying to hold back.
“You think this is about urges?” she demanded, slamming her hands against the conference table. “This is about saving lives! Do you really think the Quintessons are going to be satisfied just making quick hit-and-run attacks on our outposts and colonies? They’ve made it clear that they want Cybertron for themselves, and they’ll do anything to get it! And you’ll just have us sit back and let them when we can do something to stop it?”
“Glory,” Shockwave cut in, but his Air Commander forged on. He focused on cycling deeply through his vents and waited for her to finish.
“Maybe you don’t care because it’s only Decepticons who are losing their lives in these attacks. Well, we care! And quite frankly, I’m tired of just standing by and watching my troops suffer and deactivate when we can solve this problem once and for all!”
Prime regarded the young Air Commander with an air of amusement… and perhaps some pride as well. Shockwave wondered at that – why should the Autobot leader concern himself with a Decepticon leader, especially one so intent on embarrassing herself in front of his officers?
“Rest assured, Air Commander, that I do care very much about the lives of Decepticons,” Prime told her. “And I’m glad to see that you care about the lives of your troops as well, rather than seeing them as weapons or tools. But we must look at the lives of all involved… and I would rather not see the lives of any sentient beings lost if I can help it.”
Glory clenched her jaw. “Is that why Galvatron still rots in prison while you continually delay his execution?”
“Glory!” Shockwave snapped, his patience finally reaching its end. “That will be quite enough out of you. Be seated.”
Glory shot him a glare that clearly said you know it’s true, but dropped heavily into her seat.
“Man, I ain’t had this much fun listenin’ to a ‘Con Commander run their vocalizer since Starscream,” Jazz noted, earning glowers from both Prime and Glory.
“We will take your request into consideration,” Prime said at last. “I would rather not drag Cybertron into another war so soon… but I also understand that all too often the correct course of action is the most unpleasant. Let us meet again in a deca-cycle’s time to discuss this further. Bring as much information as you can on all Quintesson attacks and incidents, including whatever you gain from questioning our current prisoners.”
“You’re seriously not-” began Ultra Magnus.
Prime cut him off with a wave of his hand. “I want more information before we make a final decision, Magnus. I’m not going to say no just because it’s a Decepticon request. This is about what’s best for Cybertron’s survival, not merely keeping the peace at all costs.”
Shockwave nodded, some of his disappointment ebbing. The outcome of this meeting had been worse than he had hoped, but somewhat better than he had expected. If nothing else, they at least had time to gather the evidence they needed to fully convince the Autobots of the best course of action.
Glory still looked fit to spit fire, though. There was little he could do about that, of course. She was certainly a passionate femme, and unafraid to speak her mind… though both those traits were as apt to get her into trouble as they were to help their cause.
The doors to the conference room slid open, and a green mech burst in, fans whirring at top speed as he struggled to cool overheated systems.
“Beatbox?” Glory’s anger snuffed in an instant. “Beatbox, what’s wrong?”
“Fraggin’ punks,” Kup grumbled. “This is supposed to be a classified meeting!”
“Lord Shockwave… Commander Glory…” The cassette-carrier struggled to collect himself enough to deliver his message. “We just got word of an attack.”
“Another one?” Glory’s hands clenched into fists. “What outpost? How many Quints were involved?”
“No Quints… and no outpost.” Beatbox’s face – what was visible of it under his visor – was a study in horror. “A patrol flight was shot down at the border near Praxus. Nightwatch’s trine were wiped out.”
Glory’s jaw dropped, and the color faded from her optics until they were nearly white with shock. Prime jerked up straight, hands clenching, and Jazz swore long and creatively. Even Ultra Magnus and Kup had the good grace to look stunned at the news.
Shockwave, for his part, didn’t even bother trying to keep his headfins from twitching madly in response. Things could never just be simple for once, could they?