Chapter 21: Captured
Tension hummed through the air as the four vehicles rolled silently through the crumbling city of Kaon. The air around them was tight with anxiety and the deeper they rolled into the city, the more Aria wanted to give into screaming fits.
It was like walking through a tomb. The buildings, or what remained of them, were ashen and smoke covered, their supports and walls crumbling down into general oblivion from battles and barrages too numerous to count. The windows had been destroyed so long ago that not even glass shards remained, just a fine layer of dust that coated the debris scattered throughout the road that would have made Aria feel slightly choked if she hadn't been in the relative safety of Wheeljack's interior.
A shiver went through her as the small group made its way deeper into the city, smoke blackened boulders gradually giving way to signs of an even older abuse from the days when Kaon had been considered the worst possible place to step foot in on Cybertron. Now though, it was all about the same no matter where you went.
"You alright back there Aria?" Wheeljack whispered through his internal communications system.
The silence was too tense for Aria to chance talking, so she nodded instead, knowing Wheeljack was aware of her motion.
"We're almost there." The inventor assured her as they rolled through another deserted street crossing. "Just a few more cycles."
Aria swallowed grimly and nodded again. Not for the first time she wondered what awaited them at the end of this road. Of course she had heard of Shockwave before - everyone had after a routine patrol had stumble upon the mass graveyard filled with the mad scientist's obscene, failed experiments - but the question that really bothered her was what in the name of the Matrix did a mech like that want with her little sister?
The thoughts of what he could do to her, what he might have already done, made Aria feel sick to her stomach.
"There it is." Wheeljack whispered even softer than before. Aria clung to his voice in her ears like an anchor, and used it to pull herself out of the dark places her mind had been wandering. She leaned forward to peer out of Wheeljack's green tinted window to see a two story, oblong building, like some kind of manufacturing plant back on Earth, squatting on the ground before them just past the next intersection.
A shaky breath of relief escaped her, its light wind the only sound she had made in what felt like hours. A matching relief echoed in her ride.
Ahead of them, Treads suddenly stopped, perfectly still in the street and Aria knew gut deep that something had gone wrong. She froze in Wheeljack's cab, the inventor's alt mode following suite. For a long moment, nobody moved, not even Optimus and Sunstreaker, who had already reached the other side of the street and were sitting in the slight protection of a crumpled building's dark shadow, which did little to hide Sunstreaker's bright coat.
Aria had just realized she had stopped breathing when a Decepticon rolled into view, making her give a strangled gasp.
It looked like a nightmare come to life. The mech's alt mode was some sort of tank, although nothing like Aria could have ever pictured on her own. The thing was even bigger then Optimus and its treads were almost as thick as the width of her hand. The deadly barrel of a gun, longer then she was tall, extended from the front of the Decepticon. All around it were wicked spikes, like the brambles from Sleeping Beauty's castle, only deadlier, and the thing was coated in war paint. Markings that seemed to shiver with their own perverse life covered him from stem to stern.
Like everyone else there, Aria knew that if the Decepticon saw them, there would be no clean escape from the heavy damage it could inflict. They would have to run if they were seen, and who knew when they might get another chance at infiltrating Kaon, much less Shockwave's laboratory.
"No, go away," Aria thought silently in her head, her mind a bare whisper as she watched the slowly rolling Decepticon with wide, horrified eyes. "Go away, go away, go away." She chanted softly in her head.
As if it had heard her whispering mind, the spiked tank suddenly stopped.
Aria's breath went still again and she felt Wheeljack tense beneath her. Ahead of them Treads remained frighteningly still, trying to blend in with a pile of scrap metal next to him. Not five feet away the Decepticon slowly swiveled its gun turret, spikes drifting dangerously close to Treads back flank. From where she sat in Wheeljack's alt mode, perfectly still, Aria could distinctly hear the click-click-click of the turret as it moved, searching the area with its optical vision.
But if it chose to scan the area instead, Aria knew they were all doomed.
But luck must have been with them, at least for the moment, because the tank never did a scan, and it stopped moving just before its spikes would have pierced Treads' side, blowing the Autobot's cover.
And then after what felt like an eternity, the Decepticon just rolled on.
Aria felt blue by the time the nightmare on steroids had disappeared beyond the next street. She let out the stale air in her lungs with a breathless gasp before sucking in the semi clean air bordered by Wheeljack's windows, her chest burning uncomfortably.
"That was too close." Wheeljack crackled over the comm., sounding just as weakly relieved as Aria felt.
"No kidding." She whispered back as she peered out the side window to see if the Decepticon was still in view. He wasn't.
Even so, Wheeljack and Treads waited a few more minutes before they carefully joined Optimus and Sunstreaker on the other side of the street.
Fortunately, nothing else happened in the small space of time it took them to reach the waste plant and Aria and the mechs were back on their collective feet once they were inside the run down structure, hidden from view.
Despite its outward appearance, the inside of the building Aria now found herself in was incredibly dank and wet and somewhere in the recesses of the pipe-filled building, Aria could hear the steady sounds of liquid dripping onto the floor.
"It smells like water." She observed out loud as she stood and looked around at the black painted pipes that ran crazy paths across the building above her head, ranging in size from the thickness of her wrist to something that could easily hold a raging, flood fed, river.
"That's because what you call water is a very common waste product from the large scale coolant systems that are around here." Wheeljack told her, careful to keep his voice low. "This plant used to collect the water created by the systems and transport it to a disposal sight somewhere where it collects, and after treatment is later put back in the system as new coolant."
Aria gave a snort of laughter as she walked up to get a closer look at one of the lower running pipes. She could hear the gurgling of water rushing inside it. "It's kinda funny," she muttered, "Earth is covered almost three quarters with water and the only thing we use it for is drinking and swimming." She told him.
Wheeljack tilted his head at her, his eyes momentarily glowing brighter in thought. "You swim in it? Isn't that hazardous to your health?" He asked, sounding somewhat concerned.
Aria shrugged. "Well, yeah, I guess there's always the risk of drowning, and sometimes sharks or alligators depending on where you live but otherwise…" she trailed off as she reached up to wipe away the condensation growing on the outside of the course, black pipe.
"Ah!" Wheeljack's gasp of air stopped her and she turned around. "I wouldn't touch that if I were you." Wheeljack told her, sounding alarmed. "You might start glowing, or possibly disintegrating."
Aria quickly stepped away from the gurgling pipe. Then, feeling alarmed, she looked between it and the mech standing a few yards away.
"I don't think the word 'water' is translating between us very well Wheeljack." She told him.
Before Wheeljack could ask her why, Sunstreaker hissed at them, "Would you two pay attention already? We're almost inside. If you don't lower the volume they might hear us."
Wheeljack and Aria were instantly quiet.
Sunstreaker gave them one last glare anyway before looking over at Optimus. Then when the big mech nodded for the younger one to continue, Sunstreaker turned and stalked off down the far wall until they came to a large hole that had been blasted out by some explosion or another.
"Well this looks awfully familiar," Treads muttered with a smirk and a glance back at Wheeljack.
The other mech glared at him. "Don't compare me to that sadist." He said firmly, but otherwise didn't speak as the group walked single file through the hole into the building that sat beyond it. Spotless gray walls met them, kept rigorously clean at Shockwave's command.
"Creepy." Aria whispered as she followed the wary mechs down the hall.
Wheeljack standing next to her nodded and tightened his grip on his gun.
They followed Sunstreaker down the hallway, past the first corner onto a new corridor, onto the second turn, and then the third and the fourth and the fifth, the walls regaining their earlier coating of grime the farther they went.
After the sixth turn and still no sign out of this maze Sunstreaker stopped. "Slag!" He swore, his muffled volume doing nothing to reduce his vehemence. "It wasn't this difficult to get out. It's like the whole building's changed." He growled in a low voice.
"Or we're in some kind of maze." Wheeljack pointed out. "It wouldn't be that hard for someone to add or subtract various wall sections to close off hallways and open up new ones."
"If that's true then someone's leading us around by the nose." Treads added.
Optimus thought about that as he looked first down one way and then back the way they had come from. "No," he finally said, "if they knew we were here there'd be a lot more chaos. And so far we've only seen a couple of sentries wandering around down here. This is probably just a precaution to prevent intruders, but they haven't actually sensed us yet."
"We should find the others and get out of here before that changes." Wheeljack said. This place unnerved him, especially knowing who ran it.
"Yeah, well that might be harder then it sounds." Sunstreaker snapped as he continued to look at the undistinguished walls around them. Inwardly he swore. This was supposed to have been the semi-easy part. He had known where he was going!
"Well we already know what's behind us," Optimus muttered, "we should keep going forward for now. Maybe they haven't changed everything."
It was somewhat wishful thinking, but it was all they had at the moment, so the five silently pressed forward, constantly on the look out for anyone else that might be walking in this labyrinth.
They were right to worry.
Barely a cycle later Optimus' hand flew up, silently calling a halt. The bots, and Aria, froze behind him, quickly bringing arms silently to bear. They could all hear it now; the soft footsteps of someone trying to remain unnoticed coming from around the next bend in the complex hallway system.
Aria backed up where she wouldn't be in the way and watched as weapons came silently up, only the soft click of metal hitting against itself appearing to even hint that they were there at all, and that was easily covered by the stranger's footsteps.
There was a tense stretch of silence as the four mechs waited for the stranger to come into their line of sight. But oddly enough, no one ever did. The hallway remained perfectly empty. The footsteps stopped, dead ahead of them, but there was no one there.
Before the brief flash of confusion led to some tragic mistake, a voice cut through the electrified silence.
Optimus Prime's confusion took a new turn. He recognized that voice.
So did Sunstreaker. "Mirage?" He asked in muffled disbelief.
There was an electronic 'zzz' kind of noise that surprised Aria, but that was nothing compared to a few seconds later when a large mech just suddenly appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the hallway in front of them.
Aria clapped a hand over her mouth to hold back her shout of surprise as she ducked behind Wheeljack's leg. "A firefight wouldn't have been as heart jumping as that!" She shouted in her head. "Where the heck did he come from?"
Sunstreaker was wondering the same thing as he stepped forward and clasped the mech's hand in a, fairly, amiable way. "Mirage, what are you doing here? I thought everyone had been captured and when I didn't see you, well, I thought the worse. How'd you get away from Shockwave?" He asked quickly.
Even Aria could see the way the new mech stiffened at the Decepticon's name. "I didn't." He said, keeping his voice low. "When I saw that there was no escape, I turned on my cloak so the Decepticons wouldn't know I was there."
"You ran?" Sunstreaker all but accused.
Mirage went stiff and fixed the other mech with a glare. "I followed them in here. I've been searching around this place for orbits now." He cringed looking down the hall he had just come from. "And there are things in here that would give Megatron himself nightmares, although I'm sure he already knows about them-"
"Do you know where the others are?" Optimus interrupted him in a low tone.
Mirage hesitated briefly before nodding. "Yeah, Megatron has Hound down in one of the interrogation rooms, but Starscream called him away for…something, I didn't catch what, so Hound's alone for the moment." Mirage reported stoically, but then he cringed. "Shockwave has the rest just down there." He said, pointing towards the right arm of the hall with distaste and horror. "And while I can't say I envy them, there certainly are worse places to be in this place."
Sunstreaker shot Mirage a furious glare. "Yeah? Like where?" He demanded, not expecting an answer.
He got one anyway. "Right now Sideswipe and the rest are being held in Shockwave's lab, but back there," he said pointing the way he had come, "is where he keeps his experiments. And if given the choice, I would rather be locked in a cage with Shockwave standing over me then in an open room with one of those," he had trouble finding the right word, "monstrosities he's created." He whispered fiercely.
Down below, Aria watched as Sunstreaker leaned in close to the disappearing-reappearing mech and growled something she probably didn't want to understand. Instead of watching the antagonistic mech pick another fight at the worst time possible, Aria turned in a slow 360, warily watching the bleak walls that surrounded them at this t-intersection.
"I don't like this place," she muttered to anyone that bothered to listen to her, "It's giving me the creeps."
"Well it does belong to a psycho." Treads pointed out, but Aria saw that he was giving the shadows another look as well.
"I don't know if this'll translate well," Aria spoke up again, her eyes never leaving their inspection of the so far empty hallway that stretched off behind them, "but you know that eerie feeling when it feels like someone's staring at you and the hairs on the back of your neck just stand up?"
"No," Treads said, "but if it's anything like when your gyros freeze up then I think I know what you mean."
"I'll just have to take your word for it." Aria said as she finally completed her spin.
At the far end of the corridor, a shadow suddenly moved.
"What was that?" Aria slowly asked, fervently hoping that the horror movie atmosphere was just messing with her eyes.
But then everything happened at once.
Aria had just barely registered a muttered, "Oh slag," from Treads seconds before Mirage and Optimus just disappeared – Zzzz! – into thin air and a frightening cry, like that of a feral cat but sicker, screamed down the hallway, stunning Aria with its force.
Before her brain could process what was going on, what felt like a hoard of sleek bodied predators - hairless felines mixed in with large, slobbering canines - leapt from around the corner, claw filled paws striking up sparks against the gleaming metal floor.
Aria didn't have time to scream before they were on them and the metallic sounds of hand to hand combat started. Silvered fangs filled her vision and she darted beneath one of the misshapen creatures before it had a chance to use them on her throat. Dimly she registered someone shouting above the uproar in Cybertronian but she didn't have time to even realize who was speaking as another…thing leapt for her.
This time she didn't have time to duck before it handed heavily on her chest, knocking her backwards to the floor.
There was a crack and a blinding pain in the rear of her skull and then she was out cold, oblivious to the rest of the fight.