Act One: Sparks
"We'll cover your retreat," the Wreckers' Captain bellowed above the shriek of laser fire.
"No foolhardy last stands, Springer," Prime rumbled to his impetuous lieutenant. "We've already lost the city. Don't add your carcass to the pile!"
"Just get everyone you can away from this hell-hole," the green Autobot replied, "And we'll rejoin you back at headquarters." He threw a quick salute over his shoulder, and disappeared into a boiling cloud of smoke.
"It's time to wreck 'n' rule, boys," he called out over his comm. The crackling slump of a stricken tower behind him almost drowned out the grim battle-cry. "Prime needs two or three more breems to get the wounded out of the warzone. Word is that Decepticon Command have gathered in the Central Square; and it's our job to keep them there, even if we have to start lobbing our own limbs at them. Meet southwest corner of the plaza in two kliks. Springer out."
There wasn't time for stealth; but then again, stealth wasn't exactly in the Wreckers' handbook. With the ululating yell that had frozen the spark of many a brave foe, the Autobots' last-chance squadron charged with all guns blazing into the smoking ruin that, a few joors ago, had been the court of Talus.
Megatron glanced up, frowning, but seemed unimpressed. Then he raised his weapon, and began methodically picking off unlucky bots.
Talus had been set up as a seat of learning and the arts, and as such it was long on delicate architecture, but short on fortifications. Roadbuster, never a mech who could hide behind a pillar, braced a shoulder against a glittering portico, and bore the entire thing clattering down before him. In the same movement, he fell behind its dubious cover to blast a hole in Ramjet before the white Decepticon could complete his transformation and take flight.
"Just goes to show how pointless it is to try and declare neutrality in this damned war," bellowed Broadside, who was covering his comrade's back against the Seekers' fire from the sky. "Shame, really. I always liked coming to this place."
"Why isn't Soundwave joining in the- oooff!- fun?" wondered Topspin from high above them. Colliding with Thrust, the helicopter sent himself and the dark red jet careening into the polished face of a bronze skyscraper.
"Oh, you know Soundwave," grumbled Twin Twist. "Thinks he's too good to scuffle with the likes of us." He gave a wild crow of laughter, and surged toward the stolid blue bot. "I'll see if I can wake the old sneak up!"
"Soundwave! What's wrong with you!" Megatron's distinctive audio-grinding snarl sounded across the plaza. He'd turned from dispatching Topspin, to find his second lieutenant standing motionless in the path of Twin Twist's speeding drills. He shoved his Communications Officer out of the way, and blasted the oncoming Autobot into a smoking pile of scrap. "Wake up!" he shouted at the downed Decepticon. "You're not one I can afford to lose!"
Soundwave did not seem to hear. He rose unhurriedly to his feet without a word of explanation. His masked and visored face was as expressionless as ever as he took in the scenes of death and devastation which surrounded him. There was Starscream, diving through a flurry of laser-fire to pounce on two big Autobots dug in behind the fallen pillars of an ancient temple. He'd taken on more than he could handle, as usual; so there was Thundercracker, wheeling to follow him. Skywarp and two other flying Autobots were tangled in a three-way dogfight up above. And Megatron, as usual, was coolly presiding over all this chaos, standing solidly in the center of the Square, and choosing his shots with the kind of unflappable detachment which he only showed in the heat of battle.
The dark telepath bowed his head, and saluted gravely to his Commander. "I'm finished," he said, so quietly that no one else but Megatron could hear.
Then he walked steadily out into the fiercest of the fighting, and shut down.
"What's going on down there?" called Springer. "Every bot, report your status!" His attention was on Skywarp, on keeping the black jet from summoning the energy to teleport. But Megatron had stopped firing. And Springer wanted to know what the slag had silenced the big Decepticon.
"There's something wrong with Soundwave," Roadbuster comm'ed uncertainly. "He's just standing there in the middle of all this. And his optic band's not lit."
"Then shoot him, blast you!" Springer was exasperated, not least because Skywarp had just charred his whole left side with a swift burst from his thrusters. "What the frag are you waiting for? Hit him now, before he can eject Ravage or Laserbeak!"
As one, all Wreckers who remained online turned their firepower on the silent mech. His shell exploded in a burst of bright green fire.
Megatron stared, aghast. In fact, he had not moved since Soundwave's last, disturbing words. His face turned ashen as he watched the fire extinguish his best officer.
Behind him, with a sickening lurch, the tall golden tower which had lately borne the force of Thrust and Topspin's fall and a subsequent shot from Megatron's famous fusion cannon, surrendered to the force of gravity.
Ironically, it was Starscream who rushed in at the last instant, and pushed his hated Commander out of the tower's path before it crashed with terrible finality across the Square, and over the smoking remains of the dead Decepticon.
Optimus Prime fought down a burst of annoyance, as two heavy footfalls crunched in the cinders behind him. His scuffed fingers tightened on the grip of the gun which so seldom left his hand. Then he turned to face the intruder, glad he had not subspaced the weapon.
"Megatron. I hadn't expected to see you here this evening." Prime didn't bother to hide the anger, grief, and bitter exhaustion in his voice. "After all, you won today."
"If you can call it that," the Decepticon grunted. He clumped over to a low rise some distance away, crossed his arms over his chest, and stared out morosely over the burning battlefield.
Coolly, the Autobot Commander assessed his enemy's demeanor. Long experience had taught him to know the other mech well, and although he could see that this time, for once, Megatron did not intend to fight him, he was no happier for that knowledge. When not actually trying to kill him, the Decepticon usually made some kind of play for his allegiance. And Prime always preferred a straight fight.
Willing his opponent to go away and leave him in peace, the red mech turned his back, hunched his shoulders, and stared out over the ravaged remains of a once-beautiful city.
This sector had been one of the few areas on Cybertron which had escaped the devastation of war. He'd tried to preserve it, but really there was so little point in saving small settlements like this. Not any more; not when it cost so many lives. Prime valued lives over buildings, no matter how ancient or beloved the edifices. I ought to have made them evacuate, he thought. It could have saved so many...
He snapped to renewed attention, as Megatron began kicking aside the dross of battle, and threw himself heavily onto the cleared space. Prime huffed resignedly into his mask, and steeled himself for argument. But to his surprise, the Decepticon remained mute. Optimus shrugged, and turned away. His enemy's unusual reticence was a small mercy at the end of a long and brutal day.
The two opposing captains watched in silence as the sun sank in a red, fiery sky.
Night settled over the battleground, leaving only the glow of the fires burning below to flicker across the armor of the two Commanders. Long shadows stretched behind them, striping the ruined ground.
At last Optimus heard Megatron mutter something, and shift his bulky frame to a more comfortable position. "I never thought I'd lose Soundwave." The gray warrior's voice was harsh in the stillness of night. "Damned soulless mutant! What was he trying to pull?" There was a skittering shuffle followed by a sharp crack, as Megatron tossed a piece of scrap out over the edge of the hill.
Optimus had also found Soundwave's death unnerving. The unflappable mech had always seemed invincible in his cold, controlled self-containment. But the Decepticon lieutenant's death had been only one of many today. Prime kicked in frustration at an ornately formed pillar that lay broken on the ground beneath him. Another day of death, he thought. One more day to add to the long, grinding chain of millions like it that have gone before...
"It's not that I trusted the prying slagheap, you understand," he heard Megatron mutter defensively. "It's that he had always been so... solid. I always felt I could rely on Soundwave."
Prime was surprised that the death of one of his officers would trouble the vicious mech so deeply. But he was even more shocked that the scarred old fighter would admit as much to anyone.
For a long moment, Optimus considered walking away and leaving the Decepticon Commander to his grumblings in the dust. But some part of him felt duty-bound to take up his proper role in this unexpected parley. In the end, the red mech squared his shoulders and replied simply, "I was sorry to hear about him. He was unique. But so are we all. I came here to mourn them all."
The Decepticon Commander sat taut and agitated, staring out over the burning wreckage below. Suddenly he slammed his fist into the ground beside him. Wrenching it out of the tangled wreckage in which it had become ensnared, he ground his jaws in a violent curse.
"He could have bested your soldiers easily!" he growled, jerking angrily at the bits of debris that had gotten caught up in his wrist linkage. "I don't understand why he just... shut down." He turned to look at Prime, hatred palpable in his fiery gaze. "Your Honorable Warriors all shot at him so bravely as he stood there, frozen." Megatron shook his head repeatedly, as if attempting to reboot after a central processor glitch. "Soundwave didn't run. Didn't hide. Didn't even try to defend himself."
Of all the Autobots under his command, Prime had to admit that Springer and his crew were some of the least likely to show restraint in a battle. Death and killing was an accepted part of the job for them; the more Decepticons they eliminated, the better for their fellow Autobots. Nevertheless, even Springer had seemed shaken by the event. "It was creepy," he'd said to his CO at the debriefing. "It felt like he was giving up on all of us; not just on living."
The Wreckers' captain had winced at the memory of it, as he reported the death of the Decepticons' Third Officer. Now Prime felt an answering shudder within himself. It seemed an ominous portent that Soundwave should allow his own termination. He'd always assumed that the self-serving blue mech would still be standing after all of Cybertron had burned. But if even Soundwave had reached such a level of despair, was there any hope left for the rest of their self-destructing civilization?
He looked back at Megatron, and the Decepticon looked away, kicking viciously at the rubble. Prime could hear his jaws grinding together, could feel the strength of his malice, his frustration, his rage.
"You want to know something, Optimus Out-Of-Whose-Tailpipes-The-Light-Shineth Prime?" the big mech snarled, "Today I find myself wondering if it's worth it after all; if everything I've done..." Megatron gestured vaguely toward the burning battleground, "All this..." He broke off with an inarticulate, strangled sound. "Why am I even telling you this? I should be scrapping your sorry carcass, instead of-" He hurled another twisted piece of pockmarked metal out over the ruins of the city, and gave the cinders before him another halfhearted kick, unable to continue.
Optimus had never heard his adversary talk this way, had never heard these tones in his harsh voice. From any other mech, he would have assumed that he was hearing sadness, or possibly even regret. But from Megatron?
The Autobot stood very still, arms crossed, and tried to ascertain what this new ploy was. He felt completely at a loss. Silent and alert now, he braced himself against this unknown danger.
"Dammit, Prime, say something!" There was desperation now in Megatron's voice; an unexpected pleading that was terrifying in its strangeness. "You, who always have just the right words of Wisdom ready at a moment's notice... You, who carry the Ultimate Repository of Truth and Light to guide you in every situation..." The well-known grating voice was thick with sarcasm; but underneath the veneer of irony Prime could hear blind terror, and even a little envy. "Don't stand there gaping at me, you idiot! Can't you understand what I'm trying to tell you? I want to put an end to all this! I want it... to just... stop..." His words faltered, as if the big mech had only now realized what he was saying.
Megatron collected himself, drew inward. Compact and cold and clearheaded once more, full of power, his harsh voice cut with bitter clarity. "I want this to be over, Prime. I want to end it." He looked up piercingly at the Autobot leader. "Now what do you have to say to that?"
Optimus felt as if he'd been jerked out of deep recharge by the emergency alarm. He'd dreamed of hearing words like these from Megatron. His enemy was giving him the first offering of peace that he had ever seen. But could he trust that offer? For the first time that night, Prime looked - really looked - at Megatron. The Decepticon commander had always been skilled at disguising his motives. Prime sought the lie, watching for any trace of dishonesty. But he could find none.
What he saw instead was something that, in all his days as Prime, he had never thought to find on Megatron's scarred face: Doubt. For the first time, his adversary seemed unsure of himself, uncertain of his course. Experience told Prime that this was probably just another ruse to trick him into lowering his defenses. But concern for the other mech rose in his spark, despite all his attempts to remain distant and unaffected.
Cautiously, he walked over to his lifelong enemy, and sat down beside him. "Well then," he began. He paused, looked carefully again at the Decepticon Commander, and made his decision. He had to try. He opened the Autobot transmission channel, and spoke. "Autobots, this is Optimus Prime. As of this moment, I am initiating a general ceasefire. Stand down immediately! That is all for now. Prime out."
Megatron's grim mouth opened in surprise. Despite the heat of his previous declarations, the immediacy of Prime's call for a ceasefire had jarred him. He still seemed undecided, rebellious. But with Prime's blue optics blazing out at him in open challenge, he spoke at length into his own communicator. "Decepticons! This is Megatron. I have declared a ceasefire, beginning three nano-kliks ago. If any one of you so much as fires one shot, I will see to you personally. That is all. Megatron out."
At Autobot headquarters, Prowl began an exhaustive analysis of the data that had come in over the past few joors. He was searching for some hint as to whether Prime had been captured, or otherwise forced to send that message. He put the recording through several vocal confirmation protocols, to ascertain if the message had been faked. Prowl tried to hide his concern from the others around him, but inside, he felt close to panic. What could possibly have convinced Prime to surrender?
Upon receipt of Megatron's transmission, Decepticon headquarters broke into pandemonium. It was always dangerous to openly question their leader's decisions; however, without Soundwave to tattle on them, many soon began to mutter seditious words. Starscream was almost raving, his shrill voice now truly a scream. This complete suspension of hostilities was Megatron's most indisputable failure in eons, and the Air Commander was taking full advantage of this weakness; even going so far as to question their Great Leader's sanity.
Yet even he stopped short of actual disobedience to the order. Megatron always made good on his threats.
Leading the retreat on the battlefront, Ironhide swore as he received the ceasefire transmission. He'd had a perfect shot at Thundercracker. For an instant he was tempted to blast the blue Seeker and say later that it had been a regrettable reflex action. But he lowered his weapon, reluctance evident even in the creak of his arm joints. He would let the slagger live, even though the blue jet would surely just destroy something – or someone – else tomorrow.
Thundercracker turned his back on the conflict zone and rested against a sheltering wall, as relaxed as if he'd been in recharge. The others around him were all jabbering loudly together in shared consternation. But all the blue Seeker hoped for, in the midst of this sudden chaos, was to have a few moments of quiet solitude, free from the usual Decepticon mayhem...
On the hill, the two opposing leaders listened to the babble of confused voices coming in through their communicators.
They exchanged sardonic glances...
And switched off the noisy comms.
As the new ceasefire took hold, an uncanny stillness spread around the two tall mechs. The thud of artillery and the shriek of laser-fire was usually so ubiquitous that it had become a kind of security field which each Commander unconsciously drew about himself. Without the noise, they felt exposed. The enemies avoided each other's gaze, and found it difficult to break the silence.
"So," Optimus began at last, "What now? Are you really..." he hesitated to ask, worried he might ruin the miracle. "Are you serious about all this? You know that I-" He stopped, and considered his next words carefully. The future course of their race might well be decided by himself and Megatron this night.
"You know that I have spent my life trying to bring about a real and lasting peace. But without you, there can be no peace. Without you to lead them, you know that the Decepticons will fracture again into splinter rebellion groups, and continue to wreak havoc in whatever ways they can find."
Prime watched Megatron intently, trying to gauge his reaction to all of this. "Your soldiers will not willingly follow me. But they will follow you. You have," he grimaced, "A kind of... forcefulness that I have never, um, cultivated..." Primus forgive him; he'd been given the kind of moment he had only dreamed of, and yet here he was, making jokes! He quickly forced his voice back to a more serious tone, and poured his whole soul into the effort of reaching Megatron. "If you truly want an end to this war, it is at this moment in your hands to bring it about."
Optimus spread open his own hands. They were empty. "I have done everything I can, but it is not enough. Nothing that I alone am capable of can ever be enough. If we are to have peace, then you will have to work for it just as hard as I do." Prime knew that he was taking a great risk, putting things so bluntly to the devious gray mech. But he did not want to chance any misunderstanding. "How much do you want peace, Megatron?"
The Decepticon Commander did not reply. He sat utterly still, looking out at the smoking valley; but his optics glowed with an intensity that the watching Prime had never seen.
"He turned off his locator beacon eight breems ago," reported Jazz. "But you know as well as I do how he sometimes wants some time alone after a fight's gone bad. Up till we got that message, I figured we'd just leave 'im to it..."
Prowl listened in stony silence, and shook his head heavily. "Prime may want his privacy," he said, "But I believe this situation demands that we intrude upon it. We'll have to organize a search."
Ironhide had returned to headquarters as soon as the ceasefire was called, wanting to find out what was going on. Listening now, he chuffed in frustration. The gruff old soldier knew his CO well, and he disagreed with Prowl's decision to go after him. At least, he thought,I'll make sure it's not one of the over-revved young punks who intrudes on his solitude. He stumped across the command center, and accosted the Second-in-Command. "Think I might know where to look for 'im, Prowl," he offered quietly.
Thundercracker had no interest in participating in the bitter infighting taking place in Decepticon Headquarters. He took his rank for granted, and saw no reason to claw his way any higher in the echelon. So he left his fellow soldiers to their pointless arguments, transformed, and took lazily to the skies.
He started out with the vague idea of looking for Megatron and asking what the slag was going on. But for the moment, he simply enjoyed the rare pleasure of flight in a quiet sky.
The Decepticon Commander wasn't certain what had brought him to this hilltop, where he found himself to his amazement talking ceasefire with Prime. But he was willing to be propelled by that unknown impetus for now. The unsettling vision of Soundwave's death, the terrible emptiness he'd seen appear behind the blue mech's visor, would not leave his mind.
Megatron had always shied away from too much examination of his own motives. From the solitary privacy of his own fortress-like quarters, as he listened to his soldiers carousing after a successful campaign, he had sometimes wondered if there were flaws in his core programming. But he'd never allowed himself to question very long. The Mighty Megatron dared not admit to any weakness in his own character, lest the cause which he'd built up so resolutely might come tumbling down around him.
But now he had to ask why he had done what he had done. Because the price of chasing after all his ravening ambitions seemed suddenly too high; and any possible reward not worth the bitter fight to reach it. Yet any other course was likely closed to him. All Megatron had ever sought was conquest, and he had long ago deleted any programming that did not aid in its achievement.
Peace, indeed! If he chose to stop allowing his appetite for power to direct his every action, he knew that he would one day find himself stumbling blindly in a world he could no longer comprehend. Megatron was used to making his own certainty. The thought of facing a future for which he had no map unnerved him.
He turned to his sworn enemy, since no better source of sanity offered. Picking up a blackened length of steel, the battle-hardened mech twisted it heedlessly into loops and knots as, hesitantly, he spoke.
"Optimus Prime. You claim that I must be the one to lead the Decepticons to peace. That only shows how little you know me, you poor deluded fool."
When the metal had grown hopelessly tangled, Megatron threw it from his hand. "I tortured them, you know," he said. "I told them it would toughen them." The Decepticon Commander snorted in contempt. "After I'd proven my absolute power over them, made them fear me above all others, I sent them out against your pathetic little Autobots to reap what vengeance they could for such humiliation. You wondered in dismay what drove them to such merciless cruelty. I bored rage into their bodies. I'm fairly certain I've driven most of them insane."
He grabbed a hunk of blackened slag, and crumbled it to powder in his fist. "What good would they be in a peaceful world?" he asked. "What good would I be? Something breaks in the soul of a mech after a million thoughtless murders, Prime!" His optics blazed with the light of the fire that consumed him. "How can you possibly suppose me – Me! The Cold and Ruthless Megatron – capable of 'leading them to peace'?"
He threw the charred grit violently from his hand; but coughed, enraged, when some of the dust blew back and was caught in his air intakes. "All we know, oh Most Noble and Upright Prime, all we're good for, is war, conquest, and destruction. For us, there can be no hope for peace. We have rooted it out and killed it – even within our very sparks."
He tried for his usual icy pride, but all that emerged in his voice was anger and disgust. And as he hurled another piece of wreckage, his actions spoke also of loss and regret. He despised everyone; that much was clear. The fact that he also despised himself was only now becoming apparent to both mechs.
Megatron chuffed angrily. This whole evening was ludicrous! All he needed to do was go down, throw back a few cubes of high-grade, recharge, and start again tomorrow. He could scrap a few 'Bots, and hope that satisfying that hate would feed the fire that drove him for a little longer.
The tormented gray mech turned violently to leave, and met the clear blue optics of his Autobot adversary. There sat Prime, hoping for the best while preparing for the worst: predictable as ever. Prime, who carried peace within himself, and wanted so desperately for everyone to share in it. Optimus Prime, with his foolhardy moral code and his ridiculous belief in the innate goodness of all beings. Optimus, who was everything which he, the mighty Megatron, lacked within himself.
With a curse, the Decepticon slumped back down onto his spot beside the Autobot Commander. He needed Optimus Prime, if he were ever to have any hope of bringing an end to the violent madness within him. He shot a twisted, rueful smirk across at the red mech; and shrugged helplessly. There were no words to convey his hatred. Yet he would stay.
Optimus watched his enemy wrestle with his thoughts. As he so often had before, he wished things could have been different. Despite – and perhaps in part because of – their long antagonism, he'd come to recognize many admirable qualities in his opponent. He thought back on the few instances when he and Megatron had been forced to fight alongside one another, when they'd faced universal threats neither would have been able to defeat alone. The Decepticon Commander's clarity of vision, strength, and resolve had always buoyed up and brought out the best in Prime.
Optimus occasionally envied Megatron his unencumbered confidence, since he often found himself questioning the wisdom of his own actions. He'd always been careful to hide his uncertainties from his fellow Autobots, believing that they deserved to have a leader in whom they could place unclouded faith. But that policy had brought with it a large measure of loneliness.
And Prime knew, to his consternation, that Megatron saw through his efforts to hide his thoughts; knew that his enemy understood the Orion behind the Prime. The Decepticon commander had often used that knowledge to get in under Optimus's defenses, both those he'd built up for his army, and those he'd erected to protect his own soul.
"You know," Optimus remarked, "I have fought you nearly as long as I can remember." The tall Autobot shifted a bit, looking for a more comfortable place in the wreckage to rest his weight. "Thousands upon thousands of vorns, and yet here we are, still going around the same track, forever coming right back to where we started." He huffed. "It's times like this when I find myself wondering what could possibly have prompted Primus to choose me to be the Prime."
Megatron snorted derisively and flicked another stone. "You too, eh?" he mocked.
Optimus laughed shortly. "I do my best to lead, but it never seems to be enough. I mean, slag, if it were enough, I'd have had your spark in containment a hundred galactic cycles ago, and this war would have ended before it even began..." He shut down his vocalizer with an audible click, and found himself, like Megatron, picking up a piece of something to keep his hands busy.
After a while, the red mech raised his head, and peered across at the gray Decepticon. "Don't you ever wonder what it would have been like if we'd spent the last few million years working toward a shared goal, instead of at cross-purposes?" he asked. "Yes, we'd argue constantly, but we might just have been able to make something great out of this poor, torn-up society of ours. We could have mended the flaws, and brought the various factions together, instead of just exacerbating the differences. You want to expand the power and influence of our race... Together, we could have made that influence good for something... Something other than spreading our war throughout the universe, at any rate!"
He looked down thoughtfully at the little scrap-sculpture he'd unconsciously put together while speaking. It was intricate, beautiful in a way, but lopsided. With a rueful quirk of his brow, Prime shook his head, and tossed it aside.
"I am more than willing to come to some new arrangement through which we could govern together," he said, "One that would benefit all Cybertronians alike. I have no desire to punish any individual or faction for their conduct in this war..." He looked out over the smoking city, and said with regret, "We are all guilty in our self-destruction."
Optimus pulled a knee up to his chest, and propped his folded arms on it. When he spoke again, he was looking not at his silent opponent, but out over the burning world. "I am tired, Megatron. Tired of watching our race slowly obliterate itself in this endless, pointless, agonizing attrition." With each word, he gave voice to the despair he felt at the way their civil war had gone on so far beyond the point of reason.
"I want to stop dealing in death," he declared, "Before I forget how to live. I would be willing to do anything..." Optimus paused, considered, then pounded his fist into the ground beside him, "Anything to make this work, right here and now! But I don't know how..." He chuffed. "After all these years of warfare, I don't see any way that we could ever fully trust – let alone forgive – each other." He glanced at Megatron. "I suppose that's the real tragedy."
A sudden thought pierced his mind, and he reeled as if from a physical blow. He felt the Matrix come to life in affirmation within his chest.
But Optimus, the most selfless Prime his race had ever known, rebelled.
Surely not! There had to be another way... There had to be a myriad of other ways! It seemed an unfair request to make of him, after he had already done so much...
And Megatron-! Surely he of all mechs would never be willing to go through with something that would lay him so bare, would so irrevocably bar any chance of retreat. Prime hunched away from the Decepticon, repulsed. No. It was impossible. Please, Primus, let it be impossible. It had to be impossible, didn't it?
Megatron wondered at the sudden fear he saw in the depths of Prime's blue optics; a fear deeper than any which he himself had ever been able to call forth. To his surprise and disappointment, the hardened warrior found that he enjoyed the sight far less than he'd always assumed he would. He cursed.
"Did Primus just grant you a vision of your own death, or something?" he sneered, poking his opponent's shoulder just to watch the good Prime flinch. "It's not as if dying is anything new to you. You seem to try it every other vorn!"
Optimus shuddered, but did not rise.
The very air seemed tense; the Matrix hummed and glowed; and even though the artifact was locked away inside of Prime, Megatron could sense its awakening power around them. His old jealousies all came thronging to the forefront of his processor. He envied Optimus. Not that he necessarily wanted Primus to have a direct conduit to his soul – he'd rather go to the Pit in pieces, in fact. But he envied the red mech just the same.
As Megatron understood it, the Matrix gave its Carrier access to the knowledge shared by all the leaders who had come before, granting unto him a wisdom and a sense of history which Megatron could only guess at. It was the Sign, the mark of having been chosen to lead by Primus the Creator, the one Being to whom Megatron still, despite himself, unconsciously gave deference. That divine appointment meant that Optimus – that overgrown librarian – had never been faced the destabilizing uncertainty which a usurper of power – a rebel like Megatron – fought against every moment.
"Megatron!" Prime's voice cut through his thoughts, pleading in a way the Decepticon had never heard. "I want you to tell me I'm delusional. Say that the very idea of a spark-bond between the two of us is ludicrous; that you'd never agree to it under any terms; that I might just as well say I tried, and go home now!"
Megatron rocked back on his haunches, threw back his head, and laughed until his vocalizer clicked. "Oh-ho-ho! So the Pure and Righteous Prime has at last found something which he doesn't want to sacrifice! You're willing to do anything as long as it doesn't impinge on your own precious dignity, eh? Oh, I'm laughing, Prime; but only because you're so pathetic!"
Here was a wrench in the machinery, that was certain. The gray mech refused to say that Optimus was indeed a few circuits short on his cerebral board; but only because it was Prime who had asked him to say it. It was certainly the craziest thing that he had ever heard. And that was saying something, since under threat of death and torture mechs who'd come under his control had often told him the wildest of stories in order to try and save their shells. He grinned malevolently back at Optimus, and enjoyed watching his opponent writhe.
The legendary spark-bond. He knew of it, of course – a pseudo-mystical merging of two souls that gave each complete and intimate knowledge of the other. No matter how much the Autobot seemed to begrudge that fact, Prime had a point. Such a bond would be an excellent means to understanding and unity.
But Megatron would see himself to the Smelter first. The Glorious Megatron would never open his soul to anyone, much less a stubborn, lily-white Autobot! He'd spent his life making himself unknowable, in fact; cultivating a practiced unpredictability that prevented others from ever divining his deepest thoughts. It kept the mechs around him nervous, and it kept him on his toes. Surrounded by enemies and traitors, the Decepticon Commander had never once let his guard slip.
Long ago, when his spirit first had broken in the gladiatorial pits of Kaon, he had quietly, stubbornly bolted it together on his own, confiding his distress to no one. He'd dared show no sign of weakness either then or afterward. After that first breach, he'd sworn that never again would he be forced to compromise himself. Never again would he be compelled to do something that was against his own dark principles, or be a pawn in someone else's game.
Megatron had destroyed worlds in his quest to weld the cracks across his hardened, fractured spark. And he had done it all alone.
As the eons passed, his obsessions had become a kind of mad black beast within him. Every waking moment, he had to fight to keep it caged. He thought coldly about the fear he'd seen in Prime's optics, and smirked. The red mech must be terrified of allowing all that raging evil into his own unsullied spark. No other bot alive could take in so much darkness without succumbing to insanity. Or so the gray mech told himself. He alone, the Mighty Megatron, was capable of taming the beast!
And yet the beast was far from tamed. He could feel the festering hole growing inside him as it slowly clawed away at his defenses. Each hour brought him closer to destruction.
Megatron allowed himself to wonder, just for a moment, what it would be like to let Prime into his dark sanctum. After all, it wasn't as if he had anything to fear from the red mech. Optimus was insufferably good and kind. But it might be amusing to watch the Autobot's bright, clean spark be overpowered by the blackness in the Mighty Megatron's fiery soul. It would certainly be satisfying.
Or would it? He dismissed that question, afraid to examine it too closely. Prime was his enemy. He wanted him destroyed. End of story.
He glanced across at his opponent, and felt certainty drain away. He'd always told himself that Optimus was simple, deluded, weak. But occasionally, he wondered if he might be wrong in that glib assessment. Would he survive if he set out to overpower the Prime with darkness, but was instead subsumed by light?
He wasn't sure he wanted to behold all his own true soul without all the careful layers of self-deception he had built up around it. And he had no idea how he'd ever face Prime again, if he let the Autobot see the flawed mech hidden beneath the powerful persona of Megatron the Destroyer. But what if he could download all his madness, the raging black beast, even the emptiness it had left within him, onto Prime? What if he could be free again? It was a powerful temptation.
Megatron surged to his feet, and began pacing, shouldering aside some fallen scaffolding that barred his way. What good was his rage to him? Why had he chosen to let it remain and devour him for so long? Its fire drove him, he knew, but did he really believe that he was incapable of achieving his desires without it? No! He was Megatron! He was mighty! What need had he of a beast that clawed away at him and stole his peace?
He'd come here wanting to bring an end to things as they were. What if he could? Could he truly make his soul whole again? Was the slim chance that he might at last rid himself of that horrible countdown to insanity worth braving the fierceness of uncompromising light? Turning, he caught Prime's piercing, bright-blue gaze, and thought it might well be.
Optimus was indeed afraid of opening his soul to Megatron. Horribly afraid. And he hated himself for his cowardice. A spark-bond would put a permanent, inviolable end to any possible combat between the two of them. Neither would ever again be able to work toward the other's harm in any way, having become, even if for only a small moment in time, literally one. In theory it would, he admitted, be the best possible way to ensure mutual trust and forgiveness. (He remembered and cursed his own earlier words.) The bond could become an indissoluble foundation upon which to build a joint ruling partnership for the healing of all the inhabitants of Cybertron.
But Prime didn't know if he could go through with it. Traditionally, the spark-bond was a sacred union based on mutual respect, and a desire for a deep and permanent connection. It was very rarely entered into, and then only after long consideration, since its effects could never be undone. After a lifelong friendship, Prime had finally bonded with Elita-One... and then left her alone soon afterward. Alone, she had fought the ruling Decepticons on Cybertron for four million years, unsure if her bond-mate were alive or dead. He would never forgive himself for what he had put her through, though she had accomplished so much, and been more than brave. And then, when she had come so close to dying-! He shook his head, banishing the memory. Optimus knew the risks inherent in a spark-bond from painful experience, and had sworn never to enter into another.
Yet here he was, on a hilltop with Megatron, contemplating the unthinkable. The very idea of establishing a soul-deep connection with the mech whom he had dedicated his life to fighting, the mech responsible for the deaths of so many of his friends, the one being who represented everything he abhorred... It was unconscionable.
He did not know if it was even possible. The bond could not be forced, no matter how great the benefit might be. Sparks united of their own accord, drawn together by mutual desire. Optimus had never heard of a spark refusing to join with another, since no sane mech would offer his soul to someone he did not trust. Everything that Megatron was, was anathema to Prime. Wouldn't his spark recoil from such evil? In his heart, he hoped so.
The Matrix thrummed insistently within him, and he cursed himself for the covenant he'd made to always do the right thing for Cybertron and for his fellow mechs. 'No matter the cost,' he'd sworn. And so far, he had kept that promise. It had not been easy. Butthis...! Was this new sacrifice, not of his life, but of his very soul, truly what was required to achieve the peace he so deeply desired?
Optimus watched the Decepticon Commander's red optics blaze fire as he paced, noted the violence with which he cleared his own path. He wished suddenly that he had stayed safely back at base and taken an early recharge cycle tonight, instead of coming out here where anyone, anyone might find him. But he was here, alone, where his conscience might ask impossible things of him, and no one would ever know about the choice he made but him.
The gray Decepticon turned to face him, and their optics met. And in that instant, the flare of hope that fueled the brightness in his enemy's gaze of was inescapable. In that uncompromising brilliance, Prime faced the hard fact that his single soul was a cheap price to pay, if it purchased the redemption of his entire race.
His pride broke then; and the soft sound of it in the still air was enough to move even Megatron. The gray mech came quietly to his side and sat down, calmer than he had been all evening. He also had made his decision.
He put a hand on Optimus's shoulder, and extended to him the first genuine friendship he'd ever offered in his lifetime.
Ironhide knew that Prime often needed time alone to process things after a particularly costly campaign. He knew how the Autobot Commander liked to find a place where he could view the battlefield from afar; where he could ponder his decisions, file away the day's successful tactics, and analyze the failures. So he transformed, and drove back toward Talus. That morning, it had been a bastion of ancient strength. By nightfall, it had been reduced to a nearly impenetrable mess of collapsed buildings and twisted metal. Old soldier though he was, Ironhide was glad that the deactivated corpses had by now been cleared away. He clawed through the wreckage toward the long, low rise where he hoped to find Prime.
As he circled aimlessly, Thundercracker found himself continually returning to the area of the day's conflict, even though the sight did not encourage him as he'd so often been told it should. He'd never quite managed to relish devastation for its own sake, though he knew most of the others did. He was glad of the excuse that the unexpected ceasefire offered him to simply fly, without being expected to shoot at anything. He was thoroughly enjoying the first quiet night in vorns; and he'd almost forgotten that he'd set out to look for Megatron.
"One more sweep," he thought, "And then I'm outta here."
Prime usually found Megatron's touch repugnant. The sly mech had used it more than once as a damnably effective weapon. When the red mech lay battered and broken beneath the Decepticon's crushing feet, Megatron knew – curse him! – that a gentle hand on his opponent's shoulder would likely break through any flimsy walls of self-protection the Autobot had maintained. That persistent shudder in his tactile sensors undermined Prime's mental resistance, forced him to listen as Megatron sought with cold logic to turn him from his cause. He hated it. He hated it because it had almost broken him.
But now, to his surprise, the black hand on his arm felt more like a lifeline than a trap. Wide-eyed, Optimus found himself clasping it in gratitude. He'd recognized the surprising gift of friendship in its outreach.
The two mechs sat silently together for a long, long time. One by one, with tiny clicks and whirs, taut servos powered down from battle readiness: the first tenuous overtures of peace.
Optimus spoke up at last, his strong voice unusually tentative. "Megatron?" he said, "Do you really think-?"
Megatron frowned, but never turned his gaze from the burning wreckage spread below them. If he backed away now, he'd forever prove himself a coward. If he took this offered chance, he could either win his own freedom or destroy the mech who opposed his conquering rule. Either way, he stood to gain. It had been many vorns since he had faced a truly intimidating personal trial; perhaps it was time to once again test his mettle. Besides, he thought, it wasn't as if he had anything he really valued to lose.
"I think..." he huffed, "it's worth a try."
He turned to Prime, and rubbed his hands together theatrically. "You'll probably go insane; I'll probably become some struttless little worm of a bot, but by the Pit, let's give it a shot and see what happens! I needed some excitement today!"
Optimus was a little shocked at the other mech's flippant response. But as he thought about it, it made a kind of sense. "Megatron," he asked, "Have you ever- Do you know what you're getting into here?"
Megatron shrugged dismissively, trying to cover his unease. "Of course not!" he retorted. "Do you?" He met the Autobot's optics, and snorted. "Of course you do. That interfering little pink femme, what's-her-name. You two are so devoted it makes me sick!"
Optimus wondered in sudden panic about Elita. He hoped she would understand. He wanted to reach out through their bond and give her a quick heads-up about what was going on up here, but to his everlasting chagrin, he had never been skilled at spark-to-spark communication...
"Why should I have ever tried it?" Megatron's rough voice jerked him back to the present. The Decepticon was trying to project his usual fierce sarcasm, but the facade was less convincing than he would have liked. "I've never given a scrapabout anyone I've ever known," he snarled. "Besides; think about it Optimus, who would ever-" he broke off, waving a mute but eloquent hand. "Who could ever... love... me?"
"I could." The response was automatic, unbidden. Yet as the words left him, Optimus knew that they were the absolute truth. "I truly think I could, Megatron," he said, surprised.
The gray Decepticon was silent. Then, very quietly, "I know," he replied.
There was a long, weighty pause, as the very air seemed to hold its breath. The only sound was the crackle of faraway flames, and the tiny shifts and plinks of settling charcoal beneath the heavy mechs.
"Well..." said one.
"All right," replied the other
The two ancient warriors, leaders of their opposing factions, knelt to face each other.
"This is... awkward." began Optimus. The Autobot Commander was deeply embarrassed. He knew how ridiculous the two of them must look: preparing to enter a sacred spark-bond even as they slipped and skidded in the debris left from their latest battle. As he met the fiery gaze of his opponent, his fear returned full-force; and Optimus began to tremble.
Yet as he reached out to steady himself against the dark form of his lifelong enemy, he felt to his astonishment (and, admittedly, relief) that Megatron was also shaking. The gray Decepticon grinned wryly at him. "My goodness, aren't webrave!" he jeered.
Suddenly Prime began to laugh. He threw back his head and guffawed, feeling the release of tension spreading through him from helm to toe. "Megatron, my old nemesis," he chortled, "We must be the two greatest idiots to whom Primus ever gave life!"
Megatron drew back in shock. Had the Autobot already lost his mind? But in the face of Prime's infectious laughter, the battle-hardened gladiator also began to chuckle. This whole situation was ridiculously funny. The chuckle grew into a deep, healing laugh that started small, then coursed a cleansing path throughout his spark and servo. "Slagging Primus," he retorted. "He'll probably turn away to hide his face in horror. And I suppose that if he does," he added in a renewed paroxysm of glee, "We'll be thrown from the planet in the cataclysm."
"...At which point, all of my panicking will have been for nothing!" Optimus rejoiced.
The two mechs threw their arms around each other in a laughing, untroubled embrace. With fears subsided, they opened their chestplates, unlocked their spark chambers, and offered their souls – past, present, and future – freely to one another.
A soft, falling hum thrummed faintly in the air as optics dimmed and unneeded systems shut down. Between the silent, inert bodies, two life-sparks glowed and pulsed: one blue, the other red. The two bright orbs danced skittishly away from one another; but again and again, they were drawn together by a kind of magnetic force. They touched; and there was a blaze of incandescent light. Like two joining drops of quicksilver, like lovers after a long separation, the two sparks melted gladly into one another, until their colors were subsumed in brilliant white. When the energy flare subsided, there was only one brightly pulsing ball of clear light dancing in the darkness between the empty shells of Optimus Prime and Megatron.
A flash caught Thundercracker's attention as he circled high above the city. He flew lower, curious. Some kind of light seemed to be pulsing down there amid the wreckage.
He flew in still closer...
Stalled half-transformed in midair, as he finally comprehended what his optics told him...
And crashed headlong into the side of a building.
He did not return to consciousness for a long, long time; and when he did, he was alone. His duty brought him trudging reluctantly back to base, where he would relay only the bare facts of what he'd seen. Afterward, he refused to discuss the particulars with anyone. Blaspheme it though they would, Thundercracker knew the thing he'd seen was holy.
Climbing the rise over Talus, Ironhide was startled by a burst of white fire, and immediately sought cover from what he could only assume was an attack. After a while, when nothing further occurred, he began moving cautiously toward the source of the still-burning light. What could be causing such a phenomenon? Working his way through the metal wreckage so that his silhouette would not be too visible, he approached the glow with care. When at last he was close enough to see, he peered around a large, leaning pillar...
Ironhide watched dispassionately as Thundercracker tumbled inelegantly to the ground nearby. The battle-worn old veteran could feel nothing but sympathy for his enemy.
After a long moment, he turned to go quietly back down the way he'd come. With a last astonished glance over his shoulder, he activated his transmitter. "Uh, Prowl?" he hissed. "This is Ironhide. There's, uh... there's been a development..."
He shook his head in wonder. Once again, Optimus had managed to surprise him.