[Crown the Empire] Salvage 01

Cybertronians didn’t dream, not in the human sense of the word. But like a human, the processor did not shut down in recharge. It ran on a subconscious level, keeping basic systems functioning, defragging harddrives, and compiling and collating data. Memories were archived. Experiences measured.

Sometimes, they were even re-lived. Playing at the back of a mech’s cortex like an old vidfile, the clarity of the memory variable by experience. Happier memories, sure. On occasion. But the really vibrant ones tended to be steeped in moments of sharp, harsh emotions. Fear and agony. Confusion. Terror.

The heavy data files of emotion bogged down the system. Made it harder for the subconscious to tag and store. Then the spark got involved. Because the spark carried memory, too. Nothing that could be downloaded or weighed or measured. But the spark remembered. And when the spark remembered, so did the frame.

His thighs trembled, aching from the effort. His knees were sore where they pushed at the berth, again and again. His valve whispered warnings and pain, but Optimus kept moving, kept pumping his hips, working the spike within him.

Megatron watched him with bright optics and a fanged smirk. He rested one hand on Optimus’ hip, thumb swept inward, placed right over Optimus’ anterior node. He applied a steady pressure, just enough to send jagged shards of pleasure-pain through Optimus’ array.

He couldn’t decide if he was aroused or not and that was part of the humiliation.

Optimus panted, dragging air in through his mouth. He’d been told to keep his face up. He’d been told to keep his optics on his master, his owner. He’d been told not to look away. To do otherwise meant pain.

He thought he could handle pain.

He bounced on Megatron’s lap again, rolling his hips, clenching his valve, squeezing down. Doing his best to milk the spike raking over his sensors and stabbing at his calipers. Sometimes, Megatron would yank him down and grind on his ceiling node and Optimus would bite his lip to contain his cries.

“Overload for me, Optimus,” Megatron purred, his thumb rubbing steady circles on Optimus’ nub now, making his hips jerk in an unstable rhythm. “I want you squeezing my spike before I fill you with my transfluid.”

Optimus swallowed down a moan and an indignant retort. His vents stuttered. His fuel levels were low. He was hot. His cables ached. He’d been riding Megatron for the better part of an hour. His shoulders ached from keeping his hands behind his back, clasping his elbows.

He couldn’t remember what it felt like to be alone.

“Overload,” Megatron growled, more warning this time, his optics flashing with displeasure. “Don’t make me say it again.”

Optimus snapped online, his vents whirring and his spark racing. His vision was blurry, gray around the edges, but worst of all was the telltale stickiness between his thighs. His valve panel was open, lubricant freely seeping out and staining the berth.

Primus.

Optimus sat up, staring down at the evidence of his overload. Again.

His tank churned. Optimus pulled a cloth from his subspace and hurriedly wiped his array clean, manually sliding his cover shut. It clicked as it locked into place. The soft sound seemed abnormally loud in the dim, narrow confines of the private berth.

The inhibitors were not helping.

Optimus rubbed his faceplate and slid off the berth. A quick search of a nearby drawer located a small bottle of solvent that he used to clean off the berth as well. He wasn’t the only one using it, after all. There was nothing he could do for the scent of overload so thick in the air.

Clean to his best abilities, Optimus sat on the edge of the berth and cycled a ventilation. His chronometer informed him he still had two hours for his scheduled recharge, but Optimus had no interest in using them. Besides, he didn’t want to online when they landed on Earth. He preferred to watch their approach.

He should probably refuel but the clench of his tanks made that unappealing.

Optimus rubbed his forehelm, sighed, and forced himself back upright. While he could theoretically hide in this room until his scheduled recharge was over, there was plenty of work to do to keep him distracted. Besides, company would better help him dump the short term memory of that purge from his cache.

Optimus eased out of the tiny berthroom, one of only two available within Blast Off’s hold, and headed right for the cargo bay. A quick glance to his left found Onslaught on the bridge, the low drone of his vocals indicating a conversation, probably with Blast Off. Optimus didn’t care to disturb them.

The rest of the small team, handpicked by Optimus, was Soundwave, Hound, Wheeljack, and Trailbreaker. Of them, only Hound, Trailbreaker, and Ravage would stay behind. More would arrive once the space bridge was fully functional.

Ultra Magnus had left a small team of Autobots behind when he first landed on Earth, long before he returned to Cybertron to help take down Megatron. It was there he’d assisted the Dinobots in defeating both Menasor and Barricade’s team. Those who had survived, Magnus had brought back with him to Cybertron.

He’d left Kup behind, in charge of a handful of Autobot soldiers. Optimus hoped that Kup would not mind remaining a little while longer. Optimus needed someone he could trust to keep an optic on Earth and its resources. Kup was a figure who commanded respect from Autobots and Decepticons.

Optimus ducked down the hallway, the low ceiling more than a little discomfiting. He didn’t like the tight confines, but there was little other choice. It was still impressive. How did Blast Off subspace so much mass? Shuttles never ceased to amaze Optimus.

The rest of his team was in the cargo bay. Only Trailbreaker was missing. Optimus remembered, at the last minute, that Trailbreaker was on his scheduled recharge, too.

Soundwave had not brought all his cassettes with him. Rumble had opted to stay on Cybertron with Bumblebee, and Frenzy remained to keep an optic on both of them.

Hound and Ravage were off to the side. They sat with a table between them, some kind of strategy game set up on it. They were very close, and Hound was talking to Ravage, relating some kind of anecdotal story that had a smile on his face. It was a curious thing, but it was not Optimus’ place to question it.

If Ravage’s presence brought Hound comfort then all the better. Hound had been very quiet since they were all freed from the Decepticons. It was not unexpected, but it was disheartening. Like the rest of his soldiers, Optimus was at a loss for how to comfort Hound. He could barely comfort himself. Hound had spent as much time in Ratchet’s care as Optimus had, and Optimus had only suffered the full attention of Megatron. Hound had been divided among the Coneheads.

Soundwave and Wheeljack, however, were at another table, which was covered in datapads. Each of them were deeply involved in their own work with Wheeljack furiously scribbling and Soundwave playing perch to Laserbeak as he read from his datapad. Buzzsaw was nowhere in sight so Optimus presumed he was asleep within Soundwave’s dock.

Laserbeak was the first to notice Optimus’ arrival. She chirped a greeting and lit from Soundwave’s shoulder, only to make a beeline for Optimus.

He froze, unsure what to expect. Surely she didn’t mean to attack him? But no, she merely circled him once and then came in for a landing on his shoulder. She was surprisingly light, but her field nudged at his with friendly greeting. Her claws tapped arrhythmically as she shuffled back and forth on his shoulder.

Optimus blinked. “Good morning?” he hazarded.

Laserbeak dipped her helm and chirped at him. He imagined that she was smiling, though the beak did not give her so much expression.

Soundwave stared at the both of them, half-rising from his seat. “Laserbeak,” he said, his tone sharp and commanding. “Desist.”

Optimus held up a hand and shook his helm. “No, it’s all right.” He pulled out one of the empty chairs at the table and sat. His spark was still palpitating, but he would get over it.

If Laserbeak intended to be friendly, Optimus wanted to encourage her.

“Laserbeak knows better,” Soundwave insisted, visor still focused on his errant cassette, who had inched closer to Optimus’ helm, wings folded against her back. “Permission to be obtained first.”

She ducked her helm. Her optics dimmed. She gave Optimus what had to be the most apologetic look he had ever seen.

Optimus smiled behind his mask. “I understand,” he said as he turned his whole attention to the winged cassette. “Laserbeak, you have my permission. But please, a little warning in advance next time?”

Laserbeak chirped. Her helm lifted, field tickling against his. It was too adorable for Optimus to be angry. When it came down to it, he would much rather her presence than anyone else’s.

Optimus held up a hand toward her, and she butted her helm against his fingers, like an Earth feline might when seeking attention. He took it as a request to be petted and stroked two fingers over the crown of her helm and down the smooth armor of her back. Her wings were made of multiple tiny platelets like a bird’s feathers, but much smoother.

Fascinating.

“There,” Optimus said, turning back toward Soundwave. “I believe we have made friends.”

Wheeljack set down his datapad and braced his elbow on the table. “Must be charisma or something, boss. I can’t get the little pretty one to so much as talk to me.”

Laserbeak chirred something toward the engineer.

Soundwave shifted in his chair, giving off the air of one disgruntled, but choosing not to voice his displeasure. “Cassettes sensitive to odor.”

Wheeljack’s vocal indicators flashed. “Are you telling me that I stink?”

Optimus chuckled despite himself.

“You do have a distinct scent, Wheeljack,” Hound piped up from nearby. He smiled as he laughed. “Part explosive material and part unstable material.”

“So you smell like a walking time bomb,” Optimus said and laughed again as Laserbeak chittered on his shoulder, obviously agreeing. “I do not know if I would call it a distasteful odor so much as they are wary of you.”

Thankfully, Wheeljack didn’t take offense to this. He leaned back in his chair and shook his helm. “Well, that explains why I didn’t have to chase Decepticon spies out of my lab all that often.”

“Cassettes have strong self-preservation instincts,” Soundwave said with a dip of his helm. “Only Ravage volunteer. Considered it a challenge.”

Ravage ignored all of them as she lifted a paw and moved one of her pieces, prompting Hound’s optics to widen. He muttered a curse.

“I was hoping you wouldn’t see that,” he said.

Ravage sat back on her chair, looking smug.

“Don’t give me that look,” Hound said, shaking a finger at her. “That move’s worked before.”

Red optics glittered with humor at him. “Precisely why it worked,” she said quietly, her vocals slightly hoarse as though she were unused to speaking.

This was probably the case, Optimus suspected. Because he had never heard Ravage speak before. He hadn’t assumed she couldn’t because he’d learned to never underestimate Soundwave’s cassettes, but it still came as a surprise.

He looked at Laserbeak, wondering if she, too, would speak. But it was Soundwave who answered his unvoiced question.

“Laserbeak opted out of upgrade,” Soundwave explained as he gestured toward her. “Prefers current method of communication.”

Optimus’ comm net pinged with an unfamiliar sender. When he accepted the hail, it turned out to be a text-only entry, punctuated by cheerful emoticons.

It is an asset, the message read. When others think I am nothing more than what I appear. It is my secret weapon.

Optimus blinked and turned his helm toward Laserbeak. “This is you?”

She dipped her helm in a nod and chirped at him. His comm net pinged again, another text-only message.

Only give this address to mechs I trust.

Her helm nudged against his, beak a light nip on his audial that he read as playful before he received another message.

Never gave to Megatron. Even when Master trust, I never trust.

“I see,” Optimus said aloud. “Then I shall treat this gift with the respect it deserves. Thank you, Laserbeak. I will endeavor to be worthy of it.”

She ruffled her feather plating and preened at him. Happiness was easy to read in her field.

“Though I do hope your master knows I am not trying to steal you,” Optimus added with a pointed look at Soundwave.

The former Decepticon touched his dock. “Cassette bond not so easily abandoned,” he said. “Soundwave unconcerned, but honored.”

“So you can break the bond?” Wheeljack asked. He’d completely set aside his datapads now, perking up with scientific curiosity.

Soundwave inclined his helm. “Yes.”

“It’s not a permanent bond,” Hound offered as he continued to concentrate on his game with Ravage. Optimus was not sure who was actually winning. “The choice is always mutual and beneficial for all involved.”

I will never leave Master, Laserbeak sent with a heart-shaped emoticon attached to it. I am fond of Optimus Prime. This came with a smiling face.

“I did not know that,” Optimus said. He had asked Blaster a few times, but still felt as though he walked away understanding very little of carrier culture. Especially since Blaster’s cassettes were so much younger than Soundwave’s.

“Neither did I,” Wheeljack said. He leaned against the edge of the table, tilting his helm. “How do you know so much, Hound?”

The tracker glanced briefly at Ravage before his faceplate colored a little. “I used to be friends with a carrier,” he said, hunching his shoulders as though trying to hide behind them. “Before, you know, the war.”

Ah. Which meant, in all likelihood, that mech was dead now. As so many of their family, friends, and colleagues were. The war had been hard on everyone. New ties had been forged, but it would never be enough to soothe the ache of what and who had been lost.

“Designation?” Soundwave asked.

Hound’s optics flicked from Soundwave to Ravage and then back to his game board. There was something here, undercurrents, that Optimus figured he would have to question later.

“Twincast,” Hound answered even as Ravage made a sort of growling noise. Hound sighed and move done of his pieces on the board.

Soundwave inclined his helm, but didn’t comment further. His visor briefly lit, as though he recognized the name, but he didn’t say why. Optimus ran the designation through his own databanks, but it was unfamiliar to him.

“What about Rumble then?” Wheeljack asked, as though determined to change the subject. There was a sense of tragedy in the air that clung like a sticky tarp. “If cassettes can break the bond, is that what he’s going to do?”

Ah, so Wheeljack had noticed Rumble and Bumblebee, too. They weren’t being very discreet. Not that Optimus minded. The more bridges built between Autobots and Decepticons, the better.

“Rumble undecided,” Soundwave said. “The decision one not made quickly.”

Rumble and Frenzy had not always been attached to Soundwave, if Optimus recalled correctly. In fact, while they had always been mini-cons, they had reformatted into cassettes to dock with Soundwave. It was safer for mini-mechs to attach themselves to a carrier mech like Soundwave, but some still opted not to. No doubt there was precedent for abuse in some cases.

“Makes sense.” Wheeljack made a noncommittal noise, before he redirected his attention again. “Say Blast Off, how long until we get to Earth?”

“Another hour,” came the shuttle’s reply which Optimus traced to one of the speakers up in the corner of the cargo bay. Blast Off sounded irritated.

Optimus tossed his interim Head Engineer a look. “Have you been bombarding our gracious host with questions, Wheeljack?”

Vocal indicators fluttered a pale blue. “I don’t know what you mean, Prime,” Wheeljack replied with a half-shutter of his optics, completely innocent.

Hound laughed. “Don’t believe him, Optimus. If he asks anything else, we’re probably gonna find ourselves floating back to Earth.”

“Wheeljack curious,” Soundwave added with a pointed look the scientist’s direction.

Wheeljack snagged one of his datapads and leaned back in his chair, propping his pedes up on the counter. “You don’t understand. Do you even realize how much mass Blast Off must subspace in root-mode? The physics of it are astounding!”

“And that would be why our host sounds more than a little aggravated,” Hound said in a teasing tone. But he smiled at least, and that warmed Optimus’ spark.

Wheeljack huffed a ventilation and buried his faceplate behind his datapad. “None of you have a quart of curiosity among you,” he muttered. There was a lack of offense, in his field however. Especially as he pulled out a stylus and started doodling, no doubt some new invention or schematic.

Optimus smiled behind his mask and left Wheeljack to his datapads. A slow scraping noise turned his attention to Soundwave, who pushed a small cube of energon toward him. The color hinted of medical grade which technically Optimus didn’t need anymore, but found the flavor surprisingly preferable as of late.

Optimus accepted the cube with a tilt of his helm. “Thank you,” he said. “But you don’t have to keep taking care of me. There are numerous other tasks that suit you better than playing nursemaid to me.”

“Task not objectionable,” Soundwave replied as he returned his attention to his own datapad.

Master cares, Laserbeak sent as she butted Optimus’ helm with her own. His coding demands it.

Amused, Optimus reached up and stroked a finger down her backstrut, pleased when she arched into it. “Have I been adopted?” he asked softly.

Laserbeak chirred something like an affirmative at him. Maybe, she sent, as coy as her master. Master cared for Megatron, too. But different. Not as enjoyable.

Optimus considered what, precisely, Laserbeak meant. It was no secret that Soundwave had been among Megatron’s most loyal soldiers. Prowl had long suspected that Soundwave was the glue which kept the Decepticons from imploding. He was often able to calm Megatron’s rages when no one else could by simple manner of being there.

It wasn’t romance, Prowl theorized. Soundwave seemed to have a calming influence. Perhaps because he didn’t purposefully goad like Starscream and wasn’t naturally inclined to provoke.

Or maybe Soundwave was giving his leader a mental nudge. Prowl seemed to think so. Jazz was less sure.

Having experienced Soundwave in his processor, Optimus was inclined to side with Jazz. There was no mistaking the feel of Soundwave poking around inside his thoughts, memories, and coding. If Soundwave had been subtly manipulating Megatron, he must have been doing it for so long that Megatron no longer noticed. Which meant he was the true shadow master behind the Decepticon throne, probably the cause of Megatron’s madness, and Optimus should be on his guard.

Or Megatron was mad all along and Soundwave was only slapping a patch on an ever-worsening wound.

Something to think about.

Optimus wanted to trust Soundwave. He truly did. But he also knew well enough to be careful.

Trust, but verify.

Red Alert had once told him that.
0o0o0

Optimus watched their approach to Earth from the bridge, occupying the only other available chair next to Onslaught. He opted for silence rather than casual conversation, an anxiety gripping his spark. He had expected he would feel something, but not a reaction as severe as this.

The last time he had seen Earth, he was packed into every available space-worthy Autobot like the rest of his soldiers, beginning a long, tedious journey back toward Cybertron with limited supplies and even more limited tempers. That journey had been tense, fraught with disappointment and worry. Optimus had been forced to leave some Autobots behind for lack of space. And they’d all had to abandon the Ark, a makeshift base turned home for several Earth years.

He remembered the human dignitary who told them to go, and the diplomatic team that had accompanied said dignitary, backing up his request. Representatives from multiple nations – not just the United States – had banded together to present the Autobots with an eviction notice. There had been no mercy in the human’s eyes. No mercy and no regret. He’d only seen anger, disgust, and Optimus had thought both justified.

Cybertronians had brought their war to Earth and the humans paid the price. It was only fair Optimus do as asked.

How could he have known it was Decepticon treachery all along? Or that the humans were the reason Prowl collapsed mid-transit, suffering from an ailment Ratchet and Hoist were incapable of repairing?

A virus, Ratchet had said. A rather insidious one. Decepticon in origin, he was sure, only because all of them knew Jazz and Sideswipe hadn’t put it together. But there was hope. They could still help Prowl. They just needed supplies. Once they landed on Cybertron, they could get to Wheeljack’s old lab, and everything would be fine.

Except they never landed on Cybertron. The most they managed was a view of their precious homeworld from a distance before the Decepticons attacked en masse.

Now, here they approached Earth, another home Optimus left behind, and he had to concentrate to keep his ventilations even and his field from rattling Blast Off. He gripped the arm of his chair, hoping that he didn’t harm Blast Off, and stared out the viewscreen as the blue and white gem that was Earth came closer and closer.

“Do you still wish for me to land on the west coast near the Ark?” Blast Off asked.

Optimus offlined his optics and leaned his helm back. They hit the first layer of Earth’s atmosphere and things started getting a little rocky. “Yes,” he answered. “Kup and his team set up base there.”

“Very well.” Blast Off, at least, sounded neutral.

“You do know that the Ark was ransacked as soon as we claimed Earth,” Onslaught said.

Optimus onlined his optics and glanced at the Combaticon commander. He was at ease in his chair, one elbow braced on the arm of it as he stared in Optimus’ general direction.

“I suspected as much,” Optimus said. “We did our best to strip it of useful items, but there was only so much room to spare.”

“What do you hope to find?”

Optimus cycled a ventilation. “Nothing,” he answered honestly. “But there were some hidden panels. If there is any luck left in the universe, they were untouched.”

Onslaught huffed a noise of derision. “Foolish sentiment.”

“Perhaps,” Optimus allowed. He returned his gaze to the viewscreen, where streaks of molten fire have given way to the cloudy gray of Earth’s atmosphere, no longer the clean and bright blue he remembered.

Megatron had been merciless, he’d been told. Megatron had razed Earth from end to end, choosing to exterminate rather than work with the humans. He didn’t want opposition. He wanted energy, copious amounts of it and as quickly as possible. The humans had always underutilized their resources, but Megatron had no such compunctions.

Megatron had been in possession of Earth for nearly a year. And he’d managed to destroy every scrap of beauty within it.

Optimus’ spark ached as they sank below the cloud cover, and he got his first glimpse of the western half of the United States. Bleak and brown were his first impressions, not a trace of familiar greenery to be found. Megatron had taken everything.

He’d razed cities to the ground with tactical nuclear weapons – because they were only as harmful to Cybertronians as the average blaster or lasergun – and striped the land in between with laserfire. It had been a calculated attack, one Optimus suspected Starscream was in part responsible for.

Starscream might have been the one to orchestrate Megatron’s defeat, but he was no hero. Then, Optimus could not expect Starscream to have any attachment to the humans. The Decepticons had always considered them insects to be crushed. Starscream probably saw their absence as a disappointment that he couldn’t use the humans as a resource or cheap labor. He was practical where Optimus was not.

Washington and Oregon had been lush, temperate climates. Optimus remembered the landscape around the Ark to be green and full. He remembered tall mountains and sparkling blue water and fields of flowers. Megatron had destroyed all of it.

Here and there, pockmarks of vegetation remained, pushing gamely through the desolated ground. Weeds, mostly, the hardiest of Earth vegetation. Earth vehicles were scattered along the roadside as though they’d taken part in the world’s largest destruction derby. Of their former occupants, Optimus could see no sign. They’d either fled and hid, or been vaporized.

He wondered if there was any hope of finding living humans. He wondered how Spike and Sparkplug and Carly and Chip had fared. Had any of their human friends survived? Megatron had not bragged of killing them. Either he had not thought to do so, or he hadn’t cared enough to take note of all the human lives he had taken.

Optimus’ tank churned.

Blast Off landed on a clear patch, touching down with a soft lurch. Out the view screen, all Optimus could see was rusty dirt and the roofs of the temporary shelters Kup’s team had set up. He was surprised they hadn’t used the Ark.

“Please disembark quickly,” Blast Off said, a tightness in his tone. “I wish to transform as soon as possible.”

Optimus pushed to his pedes. “Understood.” Onslaught stood as well, but Optimus preceded him out of the bridge.

Blast Off must have told the others as well because the cargo bay was empty, of both their fellow soldiers and the gear they had brought along. The loading ramp was lowered, and Optimus’ vents dragged in his first taste of Earth’s air. Humid, he recognized, with a bitter tang, like that of old ordinance.

It wasn’t unlike Cybertron right after the war began, when the sky was clouded over with debris and explosive particulate. So much ordinance had only worsened Cybertron’s acid rain. He wondered if Earth now suffered the same.

Optimus stepped off the ramp and into a dull afternoon, overhanging clouds suggesting a storm but his sensors telling him there was no precipitation in the air. It was a shame.

The moment he and Onslaught cleared Blast Off’s shadow, the shuttle transformed back to root-mode, shrinking down to a mech a little larger than Optimus himself. It was something that never ceased to amaze Optimus. Small wonder that Wheeljack had been so fascinated and eager to ask questions.

Speaking of… Optimus turned to locate his Autobots. Hound was crouched down nearby, examining something on the ground, with Trailbreaker standing next to him as though watching his back. Wheeljack was scribbling into a datapad, his vocal indicators flashing through an array of colors. Soundwave’s back was to all of them as he looked into the sky, watching Buzzsaw and Laserbeak fly around each other.

Kup emerged from the nearest temporary shelter, cygar releasing a ring of smoke above his helm. He was accompanied by a mech with flashy red and orange armor.

“About time ya got here, Prime,” Kup drawled as he strode toward Optimus. He stuck out a hand. “Good ta see you’re still alive.”

Optimus grinned behind his mask. “You’re one to talk, Kup.” They clasped hands, and Optimus was reassured by Kup’s strong grip. This old mech had many more millennia left in him. “Are you still teaching the younglings the right path?”

“Sure am.” Kup grinned around his cygar and clapped his hand on the shoulder of the young mech next to him. “This here’s Hot Rod. He’s a little brash and impulsive, but he’s a good kid. Shows some real promise.”

Optimus inclined his helm. “Nice to meet you.” Just from a glance he suspected that Hot Rod was one of the youngest Autobots he’d ever met. He was probably sparked after the war began.

“Thank you, sir.” Hot Rod managed a faint smile, but he visibly shook. Not from fear, Optimus suspected however. “It’s an honor to meet you.”

“I figure Hot Rod here can show your mechs to the space bridge,” Kup said as he squeezed Hot Rod’s shoulder. “He’s my second in command while we’re here.”

Hot Rod’s face registered heat, but he nodded eagerly. “I’ll do whatever I can to help, Optimus Prime, sir.”

“Thank you, Hot Rod. I will appreciate the assistance.” Brash, Kup had said. Maybe so. But all Optimus could see right now was a youngling eager to please.

Optimus turned to seek out his crew. All loitered nearby, waiting for orders, though Onslaught and Blast Off were deep in conversation.

“Unless you need a day to adjust. This place is more ‘n a little disappointing,” Kup added with a disgruntled huff.

“We had more than enough rest on the trip,” Optimus assured him. “Wheeljack, Blast Off, are you ready to work on the space bridge?”

Wheeljack, without looking up from his datapad, gave a thumbs up. Blast Off said something to Onslaught and then looked back to Optimus, inclining his helm.

“One of my mechs is already there. Name’s Roadbuster,” Kup said. “He’s doing what he can, but many hands make for light work.”

Optimus chuckled. That was a familiar phrase. Kup had always been full of them, old adages and encouragements. “Indeed.”

More introductions were handed around. Kup didn’t blink twice when introduced to Onslaught and Blast Off, both of whom would be working on the space bridge with Wheeljack. But Hot Rod seemed a little flummoxed and alarmed.

Luckily, Wheeljack was as friendly as he was charming, and he calmed the youngling long enough to send the foursome on their way. Onslaught might not be the friendliest former Decepticon, but Optimus trusted he didn’t mean to harm them. After all, he had numerous opportunities to do so already.

“Here’s hoping the lads get that fixed soon,” Kup commented as he watched them go. Another puff of grey smoke rose from his cygar. “I’m itchin’ to get Cybertron re-energized.”

“We all are.” Optimus cycled a ventilation. “Any sign of the natives?”

“The humans? Not a one.” Kup rolled his shoulders and gestured for Optimus to follow him toward the largest of the temporary shelters they’d been using. “They are small, however, and resourceful. I don’t think Megatron could’ve exterminated them completely. Why?”

Optimus turned and motions for the others to follow him: Soundwave, Hound and Trailbreaker. He wanted them to see what Kup’s team had found before he sent the scouting party out on their mission.

“I hope to find them.” Optimus ducked into the makeshift tent, sturdier than what the humans would have used, and waterproof to protect from precipitation.

A generator hummed in the back, providing power to the bank of computers nearby, all manned by a single soldier in blue armor. A divider separated another third from what looked to be a medcenter stocked to the brim with mobile equipment.

“Find them? Whatever for?”

“This is their planet,” Optimus said. There was no one else present. Kup’s team was supposed to be small but he hadn’t expected it to only consist of four mechs, including Kup. He didn’t recognize the soldier at the monitors either, but he looked to be as young as Hot Rod. “I want to return it to them.”

“Energy needed,” Soundwave said from behind him. To Optimus, he almost sounded confused.

Optimus cycled a ventilation. “Yes, I’m aware of that. But whether or not we continue to have a presence on Earth after our needs are met is the question I seek to answer. We owe the humans that much.”

“It wasn’t their fault they turned on us,” Hound added as he slipped in behind Soundwave, Trailbreaker next to him. The two scouts kept to the back, near the exit. “We have to be better than Megatron.”

“I am not so altruistic, however, to abandon Earth if the humans are no longer present,” Optimus clarified. He tipped his helm toward Hound and Trailbreaker. “That’s why they are here. If anyone can find the humans, it is those two.”

“And Ravage,” Hound chimed in.

“Hmm.” Kup thumbed his chin as he looked Hound and Trailbreaker from helm to pede. “You three gonna need some back up?”

Hound shook his helm. “No, thank you, sir. It’s a long mission, and we’re accustomed to working on our own.”

“If ya say so.” Kup shrugged and returned his attention to Optimus. “We’ve got the room if you want to bunk your team while we wait on the engineers.”

“Thank you for the offer.” Optimus moved to the monitor station, skimming the screens. They flickered through a series of feeds from various locations around the world.

Optimus suspected they were using a modified form of Sky Spy to get the feeds. What he saw made his spark ache. Demolished cities. Empty streets. Everything looked so still, so silent. It was nothing like the bustling life he remembered of Earth.

Death was too good an end for Megatron, Optimus thought. His hand curled into a fist at his side, anger cropping up again.

“Kup, Drift’s back,” the blue mech said. He hit a few keys, and one of the screens fuzzed out, switching to the view of a white ground-frame mech speeding down the road, a cloud of dust rising in his wake.

“Tell him to come here before he hits the ‘racks, Blurr,” Kup ordered with only a brief glance to the screen. “I want to introduce him to the crew before someone around here gets trigger happy.”

“Yes sir,” Blurr replied.

Make that five mechs apparently. Though Optimus was not familiar with Blurr or Drift either. Considering that Ultra Magnus and his team had been wandering the galaxy, he wasn’t surprised at the strays they had accumulated.

“Drift’s been hitting every place the Decepticons used to gather energy,” Kup explained as he pulled up a chair and lowered himself into it. One hand started working at his right knee, fingers digging into the cables beneath his aged plating. “Most of what they were working on is being run by drones. They had a system. They’d come in, rewire and reprogram, leave drones behind and move on to the next energy jackpot.”

Optimus turned around, folding his arms over his chest. “How many?”

“A dozen? They only had about ten months to work with.” Kup rolled his shoulders and rubbed a hand down his face. “This planet is a gold mine, Optimus. If we don’t stay here, someone else will. Even if it’s not the humans. There’re minerals here that are worth trillions on the Galactic market. The humans are fragging lucky they haven’t been found by the Exelons. Or worse.”

Optimus really had been out of touch with the universe at large if he hadn’t recognized that.

Well, that certainly complicated matters. It meant no matter what happened, they could not leave Earth. Not unless the humans were fully capable of defending themselves, which they weren’t. Even if Megatron hadn’t come and razed their entire planet to the ground, they were never technologically advanced enough to protect themselves.

The sound of a high-performance engine and tires over rocky ground interrupted their conversation. Optimus turned toward the door as he heard someone transform and then near-silent pedesteps. The aforementioned Drift, he assumed as a mostly white mech came into the shelter, armed with two swords at the hip and one across his back. He was covered in dust as though he’d been on a long-range patrol.

Drift came to a startled halt, gaze whipping around the room and registering the newcomers. He raised his hands. “Am I interrupting?”

“No. Get in here, kid.” Kup pushed to his pedes and gestured Drift in closer. “What did you find?”

Drift cast a glance toward Soundwave and gave him a wide berth. “The nuclear plant in Richland is not yet functioning. I think they were in the process of reprogramming it.”

“Good, good. We can finish what they started.” Kup grinned around his cygar and clapped a hand on Drift’s shoulder. “This here’s Drift, Optimus. He’s a stray I picked up and made useful. A bit of a loner but a good kid.”

Soundwave’s visor flashed. “Designation inaccurate.”

Drift stiffened, his gaze dropping to the floor. Kup growled in his chassis, optics narrowing toward Soundwave.

“I know what the frag his name is,” Kup said in a cold tone. “I don’t need a Decepticon telling me what I already know.”

Optimus cycled his optics. “What am I missing?”

“Designation: Deadlock,” Soundwave said, never taking his gaze off Drift. “Former Decepticon sub-commander under Turmoil.”

“The key word, fragger, is former,” Kup snapped. His hand dropped from Drift’s shoulder, every inch of his old frame bristling with menace. “And considering that dock of yours is suspiciously empty of a badge, you don’t have room to talk.”

Optimus crossed the floor, putting himself between Kup and Soundwave in the cycle of an optic. He didn’t think either would attack, but he also didn’t have any idea how long they’d be here on Earth waiting for the space bridge. He didn’t need anyone harboring animosity to make their time uncomfortable.

“Soundwave, Drift’s former associations are not relevant anymore,” Optimus stated.

Though if you have a legitimate reason to be concerned about Drift’s presence, you may come to me in private, he added on a narrow-band channel.

He turned his helm toward Kup. “We are still in a state of transition. The war may have technically ended when Megatron tricked us into leaving Earth and attacked our arrival on Cybertron, but that does not mean the hostility itself is gone. Some of us still cling to old feelings. Patience is what is needed right now. From all sides.”

He hoped Soundwave heard that last message, too.

“Now Drift,” Optimus continued, and was dismayed to see the former-Decepticon flinch when Optimus addressed him. “You’ve been running searching patterns on Earth, yes? Would you be opposed to discussing your findings with my scout team?”

Drift worked his intake before inclining his helm in a nod. “No, sir. I haven’t found any humans but maybe someone more familiar with them could make better sense of what evidence I have found.”

“Good.” Optimus turned toward Hound and Trailbreaker, both of whom had shifted into subtly defensive positions by the door and gestured for Drift to follow him. “This is Hound and Trailbreaker. Any clues you could give them would be helpful.”

Drift offered a hesitant smile. “Yes, sir. I’ll do what I can.”

“If there are any humans left, we’ll find them,” Hound said.

“I trust you will,” Optimus said.

Hound tilted his helm to the door. “Want to get out of here and talk? You look like you could use a break and a cube or two.”

“Yes, thank you.”

Wariness had yet to leave Drift’s field, but he followed Hound and Trailbreaker out of the shelter anyway. Ravage slunked out after them, which came as a surprise to Optimus because he hadn’t seen her lurking about in the shadows. No wonder the cassettes slipped into the Ark so easily.

Well, that was one crisis averted. Optimus rubbed his forehelm and returned to the other conversation at hand.

Kup had moved to stand by Blurr, the both of them talking quietly as they looked at the monitors. Soundwave hadn’t moved, but he watched Optimus with an intensity that he didn’t often bear.

“If there’s nothing to discuss at the moment, I intend to head to the Ark,” Optimus said, feeling a sudden need for fresh air, distance, and perhaps some solitude. “You can reach me on my comms.”

Kup waved a hand of dismissal. “Can’t think of anything dire, but I’ll let you know. Hope you find what you’re looking for, Optimus.”

“Accompaniment offered,” Soundwave said.

Optimus hesitated, but he didn’t feel comfortable leaving Soundwave here either. Besides, Laserbeak and Buzzsaw were small enough to get into places neither Optimus nor Soundwave could. They might be needed.

“You’re welcome to come with me,” Optimus said.

It wouldn’t be awkward at all.
****

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