EDIT: Added a section to the end that needed to be in this chapter rather than the beginning of the next. Oops/sorry/please read if you missed it!
Stage 4: Creatures of Steel
Descended from the apes? My dear, we will hope it is not true.
But if it is, let us pray that it may not become generally known.
Prime shuffled through the stack of datapads on Megatron's cramped corner desk. "Been studying historical alliances, I see."
"Put those back exactly how you found them," Megatron ordered. He tapped a stylus absently against the scratched screen of his data-slate. "Alliances are necessary, since my exalted Brother will of course refuse to simply conquer a new planet."
Optimus ignored the sally. He flopped onto the only other flat surface in the Decepticon Commander's temporary quarters. "Your berth's a half-inch wider than mine," he remarked.
"Oh goody." Megatron did not look up from his work. "Unfortunately, we are destitute. Nothing to trade except ourselves. And let me tell you how much I look forward to indentured servitude." Megatron rotated his desk-chair till he faced Prime, and slapped his knees with forced good humor. "But enough of my worries. How soon do you plan to leave us?"
Optimus was lying on his stomach with his head propped in his hands. (It was a small failing of his that he enjoyed tweaking Megatron's sense of decorum.) But he looked up, surprised. "How did you know?" he asked.
"I see, you know," said Megatron. He tapped his temple. "I observe. You were plotting with Elita in your quarters not ten breems ago. Stop slagging with me and give me a timetable, so I can figure out--" his vocalizer cramped, "how to do without you."
"You won't have to do without me."
"I have been doing everything without you. While you mooned around lamenting the loss of your precious Matrix, I carried your sorry aft. I fielded a million questions -- lied and told them all everything was fine. I did your work as well as mine. Ever since you got our gods killed, I held myself together while you fell apart."
"I seem to recall your being present at the Heart of Primus, when the idea of reunification was first broached. In fact, I've got a sound-file stored of you giving consent..."
With sudden ferocity, Megatron swept the neat contents of his desk off onto the floor. Datascreens, old rollfilms, and memory sticks caromed off the walls and floor. It took a long time for them all to clatter into silence.
"I never meant it to end up like this!" the Decepticon shouted. "You made me think it would somehow be hearts and rainbows all the way! But instead of a happy reunion, they killed each other. They left us alone and homeless. Thoughtful of 'em. Now to top things off, my bond-brother's trying to run out on--!"
Outside in the shuttle's narrow passageway, the flow of footsteps faltered. Megatron realized that he was shouting. With an effort, he lowered his voice to a level which would not carry through his wafer-thin office door. "You think that you're the only one with a hole on your chest?" he hissed. "You are a traitor and a coward and I am ashamed of you."
Optimus sat up, and swung his legs over the side of the charge slab. "I'm not leaving," he said.
"Don't lie to a Decepticon, Optimus-not-a-Prime."
"You're partly right. We were discussing whether I should abdicate." Optimus adopted a businesslike posture, spine straight, hands on knees. "But you don't really believe I could go through with it, do you? I mean, you know me, Megatron. You think I could turn tailpipe and leave my arch-nemesis in sole charge of our people?"
"I thought I knew you." Megatron snorted. "Now I'm not sure I know anything."
Optimus turned to stare out through the porthole window at what was left of Cybertron. It was a while before he spoke. "I asked the Medics once why they could not save Dion," he mused quietly.
"What?" Megatron exploded. He hated Prime's habit of conversational detours. But the red mech always made his point.
"They told me that Elita and I weren't supposed to live either." Prime met his bond-brother's red gaze and held it. "They told me we were an anomaly, perhaps even a miracle; said that I should be grateful. They said that by the time they found us, there was little they could save except our sparks. They told me how they built us new frames out of scraps from the emergency supplies, covering up the welds with shiny paint." He made a little half-shrug. "Sometimes my processor still glitches, and I get neural twinges from my old life as Orion Pax: the stump of my shorn-off leg grinding against the road; the numbness seeping up my arm as I fought not to lose hold of Elita; the drip of inmost energon from my rattling engine..."
"But what the Pit does that have to do with--?"
Optimus rose, invading the perimeter which Megatron liked to keep clear around himself. He knelt down in front of the slumped gray mech, so that he could meet his Brother's fiery gaze optic-to-optic. "I have been shot full of holes," he said, "Dismembered, reprogrammed, and sent through a faulty space-bridge into a dimension that does not even exist. But Megatron, I am still here. Without the Matrix, I may or may not not still be a full-forged Prime. But I am definitely still Orion Pax." Roughly, he grabbed Megatron's bowed head in two hands. "And I do not leave anyone behind."
Megatron sat as if he had been frozen. Optimus waited. When the gray mech's hard veneer finally cracked, it was with the shattering violence of an ice block under too much pressure. Megatron threw his arms around his Autobot bond-brother and clung there, his vocalizer clicking feebly.
"I've got you, Megs," said Orion. "I've got you."
Evolution is chaos with feedback
Last in the line of bots making their way in single-file down the far-too-narrow, far-too-squishy tunnel, was Bonecrusher. The Constructicon had not taken the rearguard out of vanity or altruism. He hoped that something (not too scary) would come out of the darkness behind them, so he could pound it. All this sneaking around in cramped spaces was shredding the last remnants of his nerves. He was within a micrometer of punching Scavenger in his slack-jawed face, simply out of irritation.
Jetfire had asked Sixshot to take point position. Captain at the head leading by example was all well and good; but there were times when having bigger (biggest?) guns up front was worth a hit to his own reputation. So Jetfire followed behind the weapon-bristled Phase-Sixer, lights on full and his two laser-pistols ready in his hands.
Thin lambent pipes still ran along every surface (some even draped across the passage for short distances, tripping unwary feet and snagging the taller mechs' heads and shoulders). But in this tunnel the ducts were mostly so thin that, though still filled with the glowing liquid, they were more a hindrance to night-vision than useful illumination.
However, when the troop rounded a corner and came into view of the far end of the passage -- lit up brilliantly with flickering white light-- things changed. They crowded to a halt, first off. Hound hissed a soft request that he be allowed to take point. He's scouted into (and back out of) many an enemy camp without being detected. At a word, Sixshot turned sideways, and the much shorter green Jeep-former clambered over his feet.
The file of transformers shuffled as quietly as a troop of metallic beings could, watching the scout advance toward the bright mouth of the tunnel. Jetfire gave him credit: he was blending in quite well. But as they'd made gone deeper, the tunnels had grown ever more strange and organic; so it was now no familiar sheet-metal against which the green mech now hid. Hound had simply pressed himself into the flexible walls.
Is it safe? commed Jetfire
I think so, came the whispered comm. But honestly, Jetfire, how can we tell?
What do you see?
It's a big room, roundish, covered with a lot more of those pipe-things. And they're all converging on something up... Jetfire could see Hound craning his neck. I can't quite see...
Without waiting for orders, Sixshot tromped forward till he stood beside Hound. He led with the huge rifle in his right hand, optics trained to spot the slightest movement. He glanced back once at Jetfire. Then he fired a shot into the center of the room.
Clattering like a falling line of dominoes, all the mechs in the tunnel leapt backwards. They waited, trapped and helpless, for catastrophe.
But nothing happened.
"What in the Pit was that?" Jetfire shouted, since the silent comm seemed moot. "Were you trying to get us killed?"
On the far side of the chamber, there was a blackened area about a foot wide, where the lowest setting of Sixshot's weapon had made its impression. Dying flames guttered fitfully around its edges. Masked and inscrutable, the powerful Decepticon shrugged his tall shoulders. "We know it's safe to enter," he explained. "No reaction."
Jetfire sucked air into his systems. Technically, Sixshot was under his command. But even Megatron was rumored to bring several trusted officers along for backup, when he gave orders to Sixshot. Jetfire glared. "We'll discuss this when we're topside." Jaw tight, he turned back to the packed-in bots behind him. "Everyone forward march!" he called. "But carefully."
A new species develops if a population which has become geographically isolated
from its parental species acquires during this period of isolation
characters which promote or guarantee reproductive isolation
when the external barriers break down.
— Ernst Mayr
"Boys," called Elita from the doorway.
There was no response.
Elita smiled sadly. There were times when, despite being among the tallest of their kind, Prime and Megatron both could seem so small.
"Mechlings," she called again, more gently. "We're needed."
Blue light slowly returned to her bondmate's optics, as he turned his head to her. He held out his arm, inviting.
"We're needed," she repeated. But she took his hand, and let herself to be drawn into the two mechs' huddle. "Wheeljack and Shockwave say there's something odd with some of the samples the exploration team sent up."
"I heard the comm," said Prime. He pressed his cheek to hers. "But before we rush off anywhere, I want to make sure we're all OK." He looked her over. "Are you?"
Elita shrugged. "If I weren't, you two would be last to know."
Megatron roused himself. "Hey!" he protested.
"It's not malice; it's self-reliance," Elita said.
"You used to rely on your best friend Orion," her bondmate reminded her gently.
Elita turned away so that neither mech could see her face. Every line in her slim frame was taut. "I missed you," she admitted. Her fists clenched. "I sometimes wished you'd never gotten the Matrix. But I never meant it to be taken from you. And I never meant for Primus to--." She choked. "You have to believe me!"
Optimus put a light hand on her shoulder. "I do, dear one." He drew the femme Commander into a warm embrace. "I've got you, Ariel," he whispered as she shivered against him.
Megatron harrumphed awkwardly. "Shouldn't we go find out what the lab-mechs are up to? Wheeljack said something about a rock that waved at him..." He broke off before giving his opinion of the engineer's dubious sanity.
"Yes," Prime replied. He shrugged, and flashed a sideways grin. "Besides, who knows -- perhaps they have discovered something wonderful." Ever the optimist, Orion Pax keyed the door open, and led the way down to their cruiser's miniscule flight deck.
Then said Paul unto him, God shall smite thee, thou whited wall: for sittest thou to judge me after the law,
and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law? And they that stood by said,
Revilest thou God's high priest? Then said Paul, I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest:
for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people.
Acts 23:3-5 (KJV)
Astrotrain cursed his dumb luck. When the klaxons had first gone off back on old Cybertron (had it really been only a few short quartex ago?), he had jumped with Blitzwing into the first evac-shuttle they had come upon. And for a while, he had been lucky. He'd ended up sharing a ship with Swindle and the rest of the Combaticons. And Swindle was always good for a "deal," whether you wanted black market engex, a hit of The Juice, or some racy photographs of the new femmes down at Spangle's place. It had been a good party for a while, if you could get past the view of Cybertron out the window. (Engex and those racy photos helped out a lot with that.)
But then he had been summoned to a meeting on the Command ship. He had obeyed the call -- nobody flouted Megatron's orders and got away with all their limbs attached -- but Astrotrain hadn't seen much point in his being present. The other Lieutenants' discussion had been way over his head. Sending an exploration team down was a waste of everybody's time. No amount of scientific jargon could change what every mech saw out his porthole (if he had one): Cybertron was a corpse. But of course, no one had wanted Astrotrain's opinion.
After the meeting, the last of the triple-changer's good luck had run out. For Megatron had noticed him, and recalled his more useful alt-mode. He'd been ordered to stay aboard the Command cruiser, as a ship-to-ship transporter in service of his Glorious Leader.
For the first time in his life, Astrotrain felt sorry for Jetfire. He and Blitzwing had shared many a private joke at the white mech's expense, calling him the Autobots' taxi. Karma was a real glitch, sometimes.
"All aboard," Astrotrain grumbled, as Megatron, Optimus Prime, and Elita-One clambered into the one-size-fits-anyone cargo hold of his space-shuttle mode. He threw in an ironic train whistle. But his leaders were engrossed in their hushed, urgent conversation, and took no notice of him.
"Shockwave's frigate," Megatron ordered, in the same tone he'd have used to get a cube of Premium Unleaded out of one of the old wall-mounted energon dispensers.
Astrotrain swore. But he obeyed.
There was no surer way to court eavesdropping than to whisper, so Astrotrain listened closely as he threaded his way between the close-clustered rabble of refugee ships. The three leaders sounded nervous and excited. "Perhaps this is the breakthrough we've been waiting for," he heard Prime say. "I admit it's not what I was expecting, but we might as well hope..."
Astrotrain's luck again betrayed him, for in space there was no way to come to a brakes-screeching, passenger-pummelling halt. He desperately wanted to shake them.
"Look!" he demanded, slewing around to face the ruins of his home planet. "Look, will you!" he shouted. "It's dead. It's fragging dead. No matter how much you want to wake up and find out this was all just a bad dream; or that the old stories of Maker and Unmaker might mean something, it's still dead! There's no grand moral meaning. And there's nothing we can do to fix it. It's dead! And we're all going to die too, if we stay here staring at that poor pathetic hunk of slag. So wake up! Stop fooling yourselves before it's too late for the rest of us!"
Astrotrain waited, panting, to face Megatron's outrage at his insubordination. But not one of the Command trine chided him.
"Go on," said Megatron finally.
The triple-changer choked. His engines shuddered. "You know," he said, "When I saw Cybertron unfolding, when Pit-slagging Primus the Creator, God Himself turned and looked right into my fragged-up soul... well, I almost believed that our lives meant something. That maybe it had all been worth it."
He ground his gears, and the walls of his cargo hold wavered for an unnerving instant. "But then I had to watch him die. You, Prime -- you told us we could save him. But that was a Smelter-loving lie." He snorted. "Primus died. Unicron died. And now we're not just homeless, but godless as well -- right after we've had belief crammed into our gullets. Where do you get off, telling us that we'll somehow-- That there's hope?"
Prime shifted -- the triple-changer felt it through his skin -- but mercifully the Autobot refrained from making any speeches.
"Shockwave's shuttle, Lieutenant," Megatron repeated.
Unnerved, Astrotrain resumed his original flight-path, and maneuvered into the little landing bay of Shockwave's assigned ship. He opened his hatch and let down the ramp.
"Come with us," Elita invited. "If this really is just some sick joke, you should be there when we're proved wrong. If only so that you can gloat."
Astrotrain hesitated, wondering if this was just some trick. But then every alarm in the fleet sounded, and he decided he would accompany the three Commanders after all. He transformed and ran with them, not once looking back over his shoulder.
"The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances,
the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life,
and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge."
The two teams of mechs ranged along the cavern's curving wall, their backs to its undulating surface. (Though this was small comfort, as the tangled pipes were pliable, and gave softly behind them.) Nothing here was solid. Nothing was still. The walls, so-called, were covered (or perhaps made up of) thousands of tangled, half-transparent ducts in varying thicknesses from half-again as wide as Sixshot's shoulders, to thinner than Reflector's little finger. These pulsed with the same luminescent liquid that they all had followed here; and running through the gel were still those tiny, flitting light-globules that moved as if alive.
The vast, round room dwarfed even the largest of their number. Hanging from the ceiling was an orb of near-unbearable brightness, but covered with so many pulsing energon ducts that the brightness only came in glimpses through the tangle.
"By the Source..." Hound whispered.
"Shut up, will you!" hissed Reflector. "That might just be the Source!"
"I think I leaked a little fluid..." Scavenger whimpered.
This was not the Core of Cybertron. Jetfire had been there; he had seen the Seal of Primus fast-shut in the floor of a locked room at the heart of their planet. Then, the vault of the great Seal had been a sleeping place: silent and dusty as a forgotten museum. There, the Creator had been hidden (and much easier to deny). But this now was certainly no empty chamber. This was no sleeping, senseless heart. This was the most vital and active thing Jetfire had ever seen.
"This is all your show, Mr. Scientific," said Mixmaster. "We've heard stories. You been to a place like this before. We ain't." He jerked his chin. "So up you get. Do some--" he snorted, "research."
Jetfire grimaced. The last time he'd found himself someplace like this, he hadn't liked it much. Then, he had waked to find that The Fallen (The Fallen! A walking myth!) had hooked him into a kind of four-pronged harness with three other mechs, then tapped their very sparks to waken... well, to waken Primus. Might as well call a spade a spade, even if that spade claimed divinity.
Recalling that first strange encounter, Jetfire shunted his vocalizer. "Primus?" he tried. He blinked, remembering the much more recent confrontation which he and all transformers had witnessed. He called again, even more hesitantly, "Unicron?"
He words fell flat, half-smothered by the heavy air. The bright heart hung just as it had before. Not one thing changed in the enormous chamber. The only sound was the same susurrating whoosh of white-hot something pumping through a thousand interwoven ducts along the walls.
"Got any other brilliant ideas?" Hook sneered.
Jetfire transformed into his jet-mode; and waited, tense, on landing gear until the eerie echoes of his changing died. When this seemed to be tolerated (or more accurately, go unnoticed), the white scientist fired his engines, and flew up into the brilliant, heavy air.
He circled the huge, thick-swathed white orb once. Then twice. Then three times. It did nothing. At last, he transformed again, and made a grab for some of the thick piping leading outward from the center. The watching mechs waiting below him gasped. But Jetfire was not instantly electrocuted, and the ropes of half-translucent ducting held. I'm going to see what this is, he commed down, too afraid to call aloud. (Besides, who could have heard him so high up beside that living orb of light?) He began to make his way, hand over hand along the flexible conduits, toward the fiery whatever-it-was at the heart of all this.
Energy beat against his frame with a power that made even his thick carbon steel plating moot. It wasn't noisy, not exactly, but the tall white mech's audios felt clotted with heavy sponges. Jetfire was glad that he'd flipped down the facemask of his battle helm. But the orb was so bright and so hot at this close range that even with added protection his optic receptors were glitching. He would have raised a hand to shade them, but he was hanging some seventy feet above the floor, and didn't like to risk it. He swung an ankle up to hook over the sturdiest pipeline within his reach, un-subspaced a hand-held spectrometer, and stretched it out toward the light.
There was a flash and, blinded, Jetfire fell.
There was a great collective gasp. But even as Sixshot ran to catch the scientist, even as Hound shouted the first (and only) warning, a thousand snaking lines lashed out from every wall to snatch the company of mechs. The last thing Hound saw before he was drawn deep into the pulsing tangle was a white-hot noose catching the falling Jetfire by the neck.