So, funny story. We finished this story something like three years ago, and then... uh... forgot to release it. Repeatedly! The development thread for it has at least two "oh hey, why did we never release this? we ought to do that, huh" subthreads in it.
Note the date stamp: this happens the day after the currently-latest episode of Cybertron Reloaded, issue 6 ("Adapt and Survive").
Friday, June 15, 2412
Terminus sector, Galactic Alliance
"Still no response, Optimus."
The mood on the bridge of the Maximal scoutship Axalon was understandably tense. They had been dispatched here to investigate a recurring communications problem with the far-flung Autobot colony, a rather trivial exercise under most circumstances. The fact that they had been greeted with the slowly spreading debris fields of destroyed communications satellites when they entered orbit around the planet quickly indicated that this mission would be anything but "trivial".
While Cheetor kept trying on the public comm channels, Silverbolt plied the Axalon's sensor controls, trying to find any signs of life on the eerily silent world below. A week ago there had been a small but thriving Cybertronian colony down there: 500 Autobots, a few thousand nonaligned Minicons, and a scattered assortment of organic sapients, operating an energon mine and a rapidly growing port facility. When Freedom's Progress had gone silent, Commcen had at first assumed it was still more trouble with the colony's balky hyperwave array, which the IPO had sent a consultant out to help repair back in May.
Not until after the aborted Decepticon invasion of Cybertron had anyone had time or mental bandwidth to consider that maybe the silence - and the lack of any physical traffic originating from the system since it began - might mean something more ominous. The Axalon was duly dispatched, and now that they were here, the ship's crew were starting to suspect that could well be the case.
"Prelminary scans complete," Silverbolt reported. Turning in his seat, he raised troubled optics to his captain's and went on, "No spark signatures detected."
Rattrap pivoted. "None? There hadda be 4500 bots down there."
"I know," Silverbolt replied. "There are none now."
"Are you sure you're usin' that thing correctly?" Rattrap asked.
"Shut up, Rattrap," Optimus Primal ordered. "Any energy signatures at all?" he asked Silverbolt.
Silverbolt turned back to his scanners. "A few. Many buildings' reactors are online... and I'm seeing signs that some of the mechs are still operational."
By "mechs" - short for "mechanisms" - the Maximal tracker meant robots without sparks, simple machines used as labor-saving or risk- saving conveniences by the colony's Minicon and organic population. Freedom's Progress's main industry was energon mining, so there was considerable risk to save if you were a Minicon mining engineer.
Optimus Primal frowned at the slowly turning view of the planet on the viewscreen for a few moments. Then he said,
"Cheetor, notify Autobase that we're not picking up any life readings from orbit and will investigate further. Jordan, take us down."
Ten minutes later, the Maximals gathered at the edge of the cargo lift and surveyed the ruins of the spaceport with an air of dismay. In the distance, the smoldering ruins of the hyperwave array they'd overflown on the way to the port still sent their column of black smoke into the afternoon sky.
"I guess it wasn't a false alarm," Rattrap mused.
"Shut up, Rattrap," said all of his crewmates at once, none of them bothering to look at him.
"Sheesh, tough crowd," Rattrap muttered.
That ritual taken care of, the Maximals stepped off the lift, which retracted automatically into the ship, and fanned out automatically into a mutually supportive formation.
"Silverbolt. Terrorsaur. Let's have some air cover," said Optimus Primal tersely.
The two Maximals named - the only ones who could fly for any great distance - transformed and took to the air, Silverbolt heading off to the east, Terrorsaur making for the center of the city.
"The rest of you, standard sweep," Optimus ordered. "Stay in comm contact and report in immediately if you find anything. Move out!"
Those non-flying Maximals who were formatted for vehicle modes - Optimus himself, Rhinox, Cheetor, and Blackarachnia - transformed and allowed their beast-type companions to board, one apiece. Following the standard protocol, Rhinox and Rattrap headed out to the north, Blackarachnia going solo to the south and Cheetor to the east, and Optimus and Dinobot heading west.
In all directions, what they found was not encouraging. Freedom's Progress looked like a war zone, one from which the armies have moved on. All the Maximals were intimately familiar with what that looked like. Buildings were smashed, the streets littered with rubble. Fragments of armor plating and wrecked weapons were scattered all around, as well as ominous stains from large quantities of various important fluids. And yet...
"Has anyone else noticed yet," Dinobot's voice inquired over the comm, "that there are no bodies?"
"None here either," Cheetor confirmed. "Obvious there's been a hell of a fight here... "
"And I'm seein' signs of -plenty- of casualties," Rattrap threw in. "But it doesn't look like there's anybody left... "
"... dead or alive," Blackarachnia finished, a note of uneasiness in her voice.
The Maximals patrolled in an increasingly dread-filled silence for another ten minutes or so, finding nothing but more desolation and the forlorn signs of more furious, futile struggle in the colony's defense... but no clues as to who or what the defenders might have been fighting.
"Wait a cycle," Rhinox said suddenly.
"What? Did you find something?" asked Cheetor.
"Maybe." Rhinox edged forward along the side street he'd been exploring, then transformed abruptly back to robot mode, dumping Rattrap unceremoniously on the ground.
"Hey!" Rattrap protested.
"Shh," Rhinox replied, peering intently at an object mounted on the corner of a building.
"It's a traffic camera," Rattrap said. "They're all over the place out here. So what?"
"So, they've been watching us," Rhinox said. To illustrate his point, he sidestepped a couple of paces to the left. The camera panned to keep its "eye" on him.
"They're probably motion-activated," Cheetor radioed.
Rhinox shook his head slowly. "No... I don't think so. I think someone's controlling them. I've noticed them checking us out since we got here... I only just realized what I'd been noticing. There's an intelligence controlling these cameras." He eyed the camera more closely. "And unless this planet's got an AI system that's not on the most recent manifest... "
"... Somebody's still alive," Optimus Primal finished for him. "Jordan, pull the plan of the colony from the central computer and give us the coordinates for the central security office."
"I'm on it," helmswoman Jordan Cochrane, the crew's only non-Transformer member, replied from back on the Axalon. "There you go. Looks like it's in the northeast corner by what's left of the HW array."
"I see it," Terrorsaur called. The ex-Predacon air warrior swooped low, his high-performance optics taking in the details. "It's a high-security bunker, looks like it might still be intact. I'd say the mother of all firefights happened just outside, though. Same as everywhere else, no bodies, but... " He converted to robot mode and landed at the periphery of the battle zone, weapons ready, all sensors at maximum gain. "Lots of spent caps... hydraulic fluid... energon residue... wrecked mechs." He looked more closely at the corner of a barricade. "... And I think I know what happened to the humans," he added, sounding faintly unnerved.
"Hold your position, Terrorsaur," Optimus Primal ordered. "Maximals, rally at Terrorsaur's location."
Within ten minutes they were all outside the bunker, surveying the scene with in subdued silence. When he was sure they had gathered as much information as there was to gather, Primal said, "Rhinox - see if you can get it open."
Rhinox looked at the bunker blast doors' regular controls, saw that they'd been blasted - either by the attackers in an ill-advised attempt to get the doors open, or by the defenders to make extra-sure they stayed closed, he wasn't sure anyone would ever know. Regardless, that way was blocked. He pried the wrecked panel away and rooted around behind it, but found nothing of use there either.
"Please," said Blackarachnia, "allow me." Nudging him aside, she sized up the tangle of half-melted wires within the panel for a moment, then drove the talons of one hand into the midst of it, injecting a jolt of cybervenom into the system. A fitful blue-green glow shone from within the panel as she withdrew her hand; then the doors glowed briefly, parted a couple of inches with a CLUNK, and went dark.
"There. Lock disabled." Smiling faux-sweetly at Rhinox, she added, "I'll leave the heavy lifting to those more suited for it."
Rhinox chuckled. "You're all heart," he said, then wedged his hands into the gap, put his back into it, and, with a shriek of protesting metal, forced them open against the dead motors.
Beyond the doors lay a wide, low-ceilinged (by Transformer standards) tunnel/corridor that slanted slightly down to another, almost identical door. The controls of this one were still intact. Rhinox overrode them, then stepped back as the blast doors hissed smoothly open to reveal the colony's central security office.
This was a small room, clearly geared more toward humanoids and Minicons, though it was big enough (just) for an Autobot or two if the situation demanded it. Right now, though, there seemed to be only one person, seated at the master control console in the center of the far wall and facing away from the doors, present.
"One moment," said that person in a lightly accented, faintly filtered, feminine voice. The woman's two-fingered hands moved deftly over the holographic controls as, on all the huge bank of security displays before her, images of desperation and carnage from a hundred different angles flickered and changed.
"What the... " Rattrap began, but before he could finish, all the video streams ended and every screen switched instead to the legend, DOWNLOAD COMPLETE.
"Right," said the woman. Rising, she reached to the upper console and removed a thin, flat, ring-shaped object edged in white light from the receptacle that had held it. She turned toward the Maximals then, holding the ring-disc device contemplatively, and they saw that she was a quarian, her face invisible behind the reflections the disc's white glow threw on the faceplate of her encounter suit's helmet. The decorative textile wrappings on the outside of the suit were scorched and torn in places, as though their owner had been part of whatever had happened outside; one edge of the hood drawn up over her helmet was blown completely away, apparently by a plasma blast that had barely missed vaporizing her head.
She regarded the disc for a moment longer, then looked up from it to the Maximals.
"What kept you?" she asked, the flippancy of her remark belied by the carefully controlled tone of her voice. Then, showing them the Lens affixed to her left wrist, she went on, "Tali'Zorah vas Invincible, SA11. I need you to take me to Cybertron as fast as you can." She did something to the disc in her hand, making its lights dim. "The information on this disc must reach Autobot command," she said, then affixed it to a magmount on her back.
That job done, she stepped down from the control dais and started for the door. Before she could reach it, Dinobot intercepted her, looming over her in robot mode and growling, "Just one moment! What happened here?"
Tali'Zorah tilted her head back slightly to meet his glowing red optics with the silver ghosts of her eyes behind her visor. "I only have it in me to tell that story once," she said. "That will be to Optimus Prime."
Dinobot stared down at her for a couple of seconds, demanding elaboration with his silence. Tali looked back at him, unmoving.
Then she said, flatly but without aggression, "This is not negotiable, Dinobot."
Dinobot gazed at her mostly-hidden face for a second longer, then nodded, a look of respect coming onto his face.
"Very well," he said, stepping out of her way.
"Jordan," said Optimus Primal, "raise ship and lock on me for pickup. We're heading home."
"Freedom's Progress" - a Cybertron Reloaded/New Frontier Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins and Philip J. Moyer
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