Hollow Vessel: A G1 "Spotlight"-style story

Discussion in 'Transformers Fan Fiction' started by SuzyPrime, Jun 17, 2012.

  1. SuzyPrime

    SuzyPrime The friendly lurker

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    Hollow Vessel: A G1 Mirage "Spotlight"-style story

    Hollow Vessel: A G1 Mirage “Spotlight”-style story

    Writer's note: After reading the Mirage Spotlight story from IDW and scratching my head, I decided to write my own "Spotlight"-style story about Mirage. I wanted to expand the G1 character's background, and it's been fun. Here are the first two chapters, with chapter one referencing events at the end of More Than Meets the Eye, Part 3.

    Comments appreciated. You can read my other fiction here: Before the Dawn (still in progress) and The Best Conviction



    ****** Chapter One ******


    Mirage’s feet hit the ground of the alien world and it felt strange, foreign. On Cybertron, he’d trekked to the center of the wilderness in the Neutral Territories many times and felt the primal surface of the world he loved, the world he called home. It had felt ancient and purposeful.

    This planet, this dirt and dust now under his feet, felt young, unstructured, chaotic. It wasn’t home. It could never be home.

    Just behind him, the sea was boiling around the enormous aft thrust structures of the Decepticon space cruiser. Mirage watched the last piece of purple plating as it slipped beneath the waves. He had caused the ship’s demise, and as it disappeared under the corrosive liquid that covered so much of this planet, he felt a pang of regret.

    Another pathway home is gone forever, he thought to himself. He didn’t dare say such a thing aloud as his Autobot comrades crowded around him, cheering and chanting his name. He nodded at them and accepted their thanks as he pulled free of his parachute tethers.

    The crowd around him parted for Prime. Mirage was relieved to see he had survived the blast from the cruiser’s cannon, and the subsequent fall back to the planet. The Autobot leader’s almost supernatural resilience was part of his awe-inspiring persona. You couldn’t buy that kind of clout. Mirage had tried.

    “We knew you were anxious to get back to Cybertron,” Prime said, “but at least you could have waited for us.”

    Mirage smiled. At the end of this struggle, and after both of them beat such ludicrous odds, joking seemed appropriate.

    “Sorry, Prime. The ship was…full.”

    A chorus of laughter rose among his comrades as Optimus placed a heavy hand on his shoulder. “Well done, Mirage.”

    Looking at the faces of those cheering around him, Mirage felt a vibration down his spine shaft. Here it was: that public, long-overdue show of vindication that he’d desired for so long. Each metal face was grinning or cheering, expressions he never dreamed he’d receive from some of them.

    “Let’s get back to base. We have a ship of our own to repair,” Jazz said above the noise.

    An ache in his shoulder pulled Mirage’s attention from the conversation. The source of the pain was a brown scorch on his plating courtesy of Starscream.

    Ironhide stepped close and gave the back of Mirage’s neck a good-natured wallop. “Great job feeding the fish, pal. Hope they like the taste of Decepticreeps. Got a little memento on your shoulder there? Looks like something Ratchet can hammer out before you can say ‘wax 'n' buff.’”

    Mirage nodded and caught sight of the one Autobot he was hoping to talk to for reasons other than medical care. But before he could catch up to Ratchet, Prime ordered everyone to roll out. Mirage transformed and took his place in the convoy. After a mile or two, his personal pulsewave receiver chirped with a private signal.

    “Ironhide said you’re injured. Meet me at the repair bay first thing when we get to base,” said the chief Autobot medical officer.

    “It’s just a scratch. Nothing as involved as replacing a knee joint. Which still works beautifully after all these millennia, by the way. I have no complaints.”

    “Since you brought up old history, I have to ask the question. Is it done now? It looks like the ‘Cons laser cores are finally extinguished. Isn’t it time for this act to be over?” Ratchet asked.

    Mirage saw Prime’s exhaust trailing behind him at the front of the convoy.

    Optimus trusts me. Maybe he always has. But the others? Trailbreaker? Hound? Cliffjumper? Will crashing a Decepticon cruiser be enough to prove to everyone where my loyalties truly lie?

    Or, had he gone too deep to ever come back?

    “Mirage? Is it over?” Ratchet asked over the pulsewave, sounding uncharacteristically impatient.

    “I’ll let you know.”


    ****** Chapter Two ******


    Cybertron, during the Third Cybertronian War

    “Now I know times are tough. Never thought I’d see a metal polisher like you in a place like this.”

    Mirage brushed filings and crumbs from a chair and sat down at the table across from a purple, fan-tailed female Autobot and the less sober scrutiny of Brazen, a blue-plated Cybertronian with too much currency and too little good taste. He was one of the few Autobots, along with Mirage, who was wealthy enough to afford the annual commutation fee and avoid military service. He was also much too wealthy to be drinking in a sour-smelling, dimly-lit palace of vice like this one.

    From the slurring of his vocal processor, Mirage guessed Brazen had already imbibed enough distilled energon to light the three of them up like rocket ships.

    Mirage tapped his finger on the full glass sitting in front of him. “I’ve never missed out on an opportunity because of geography.”

    “I know that. I know that because your shipping conglomerate is taking up all contracts along the Kaon border. I lost three bids just last week to those lousy, line-jumping pirates you call employees.”

    The female Autobot sitting across the table from Mirage watched him with a gaze that could have pierced through solid Cybertonium. Pulsing lights from the gambling games that lined the walls of the casino reflected in her face. He hadn’t seen her before, but Mirage knew her role in this venture. The Autobot tycoon did all the talking while she saw every weakness, every tell that Mirage might let slip.

    “It almost sounds like you are accusing me of a crime.”

    “Almost?! No ‘almost’ about it. Crossing into Kaon is illegal.”

    “So is knowingly selling defective goods. My sources tell me that you sold two thousand units of spent armament casings from my factories to Autobot Command last week, claiming they were brand new. And at cost, no less.”

    Brazen put his glass down and sat back. He obviously wasn’t expecting Mirage to know that bit of information. “So what? So what if I jettison my surplus to the ’Bots? You’ve got no love for Command. What do you care?”

    “Is that the point of this meeting in this shoddy excuse of a drinking establishment? Did you invite me to Kalis to make a deal, or to blackmail me?”

    “No, I’m…” Brazen trailed off and looked for moral support from his companion. Her expression softened a bit as she watched him try to recover some high ground in the conversation. His over-energized processor was in a complete fog. “I’m saying that the two of us ain’t enemies, but you make it hard to know some times. If you want a piece of the deal with Command, no problem. I’ll sign a percentage over to you right now.”

    The female lifted her fingers off the table, an obvious signal for Brazen to shut his mouth.

    Mirage gulped his drink and grimaced at the burn as it went down. “I'm a non-aligned pacifist. I don’t do business with the military.”

    “Right. Which military are we talking about?” Brazen muttered, putting his arm around the shoulders of the female.

    "And if I wasn’t a pacifist I would take violent offense at the comment.”

    “Calm down. He didn’t mean the ’Cons," the female spoke for the first time since the meeting began.

    “Then what did he mean?”

    “He means the council’s gone. The civilian authorities have either been assassinated or gone into hiding. No police force. No legal or political system. There is no such thing as dealing with the Autobots and not dealing with the military.”

    “There’s no money in peace, friend. No one is buying,” Brazen said after a long drink, slurring even more now.

    Mirage started to get up. “Are you both done? I don’t see how this meeting is worth any more of my time, and the smell in here isn’t encouraging me to linger.”

    The female tipped the bottle and filled both glasses. “We’re not going to hound you about your politics. Brazen’s complaint is the tight margins we've got trying to ship cargo through the border states. Fuel costs are through the roof. Plus, we’ve had to hire security details to cover our shipping fleets. Unescorted vehicles come under fire from gangs of ‘Cons, or they disappear altogether. You always underbid us for every job in the region. Your fleet vehicles never have security escorts and they have yet to get raided.”

    Mirage sat. “Obviously, you're the one watching Brazen's books. All that makes you conclude I’m working with the Decepticons?”

    “You have to admit, it looks more than suspicious.”

    “Maybe Decepticons aren’t interested in the goods I ship. No interest. No theft.”

    “How much does this ‘disinterest’ cost?” The female said with a crooked smile.

    The chime of his personal pulsewave rang in his audio receptors. Mirage excused himself from the table and walked to an empty corner past the rows of the empty gambling machines. It appeared no one had the energon or interest to risk on games any more. The real gambles of war were risk enough.

    “I’m in the middle of a meeting, Graft. Why the interruption?”

    “Stop everything,” croaked the nervous voice of his accountant over the pulsewave. “Cancel whatever deals you’re cooking up. You need to see me right now.”

    “What could possibly be that urgent?”

    “Altihex and Praxus just disappeared from the markets.”

    “Disappeared?”

    “The official statement from their regulator offices says that they’ve been 'liberated from the oppressive tyranny of free trade’ by Megatron. All commerce agreements with other city-states are now void.”

    Mirage forced any calculations from his mind on what this news meant to his personal net worth. "Any word from the firm?”

    “All accounts are frozen. I mean, I’ve never seen anything like it. Commodities markets, energon trading…all of it just dropped into the basement. I can't get any brokers to speak to me. All the pulsewaves into Altihex bounce back like I'm broadcasting into a mirror!”

    “Don't panic. My office in one hour.” Mirage walked back to the table and interrupted Brazen tickling his female under her chin. Caught in a moment of vulnerability, her smile disappeared.

    Mirage didn’t sit down. He emptied his glass and placed it down on the table forcefully. “I’ll share with you my little secret for getting through the border states unmolested if you agree to cut me 15 percent of your contracts in the region. And, you stop selling junk parts to Autobot Command.”

    Brazen and the female conferred softly as Mirage waited. “Four percent,” Brazen finally counteroffered, tipping his glass over.

    “Nine. That’s my last figure. Take it or I walk out of here right now.”

    Brazen’s smile nearly cracked his faceplate. “Deal!”

    Mirage put an energon slip on the table but the female pushed it back at him. “We’ll pay.”

    “We all will,” Mirage said and walked briskly to the exit.

    “What did he mean by that?” She asked, watching him leave.
     
    Last edited: Aug 15, 2012
  2. Acer

    Acer VisualAdlib Ex-Pat

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    Holy tits this is awesome. Five hundred thumbs up, forever. :D 
     
  3. Slipstreamer 8

    Slipstreamer 8 Well-Known Member

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    wow, I 'am impressed this is awesome be sure to check out my fan fic too.
     
  4. ARCTrooperAlpha

    ARCTrooperAlpha Well-Known Member

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    Very impressive. Brings on a new light for Mirage while sticking to the source material
     
  5. SuzyPrime

    SuzyPrime The friendly lurker

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    **** Chapter 3 ****

    Before he reached the Kalis border, Mirage received another pulsewave from his accountant. Between his agitated gibbering, Mirage deciphered phrases like “break my thumb joints” and “never seen so many zeros.”

    Graft shouted, finally becoming coherent, “The financial district is the belly of the beast!”

    “Then get out of there. I’ll meet you at my apartment. You know the entry code,” Mirage said, driving in vehicle mode on one of the mammoth highways between the city-states.

    When he entered, Graft was standing in Mirage’s living room, holding his accounting tablet. It was either vibrating under its own power, or the two-wheeler’s anxiety had devolved into a nasty twitch.

    “It’s gone. All of it…gone,” said Graft as Mirage locked the door behind him. “I mean, you were already on the steep end of a long slide, but this market crash has just snuffed out your financial core. It’s gone.”

    A long string of zeros reflected in Graft’s optics from the accounting tablet in his hands.

    “So the Altihex brokerage firm is gone completely. Nothing in the residual accounts?” Mirage asked. He looked out the window out toward the gilded skyline of Praxus and traced the outlines of the buildings with his finger.

    “Exhausted in the portable particle accelerator project. And I tried to apply for credit from Central Monetary, but customer service wouldn’t let me finish the application after I typed in your ID code. Instant rejection.”

    “What about the fund set aside for research and development?”

    “Sunk into that debacle with the photonic energy converters, and we know how that turned out. Boom.” Graft shut the tablet off.

    “Sell something. Dump some long-term assets.”

    “You don’t have long-term assets. None of your investments made returns in the last 500 years. You told me to dip into the reserve to make your regular payments. Well, I have, but nothing’s come in to replenish the reserve. You have no liquid assets, or assets that can be turned liquid. Every well is dry. Every sponge squeezed.”

    “That’s your professional assessment of the situation?” Mirage stopped tracing buildings and let his hand fall to his side.

    “I’d say the only assets you have are here in this apartment, unless you have some emergency funds that I don’t know about. At least, I’m hoping you do because I still need to get paid.” Graft muttered the last part.

    Mirage turned to face his accountant. They’d been together for several thousand years, but they’d never been friends. Mirage had hired Graft out of his black market obscurity mainly because he had connections on the wrong side of the faction line. Usually prickly and always conniving, Graft didn’t wear the Decepticon insignia on his exterior, but Mirage had little doubt of where his loyalties lay.

    “Graft, do you love Cybertron?”

    “Huh?”

    “Do you love this planet? Cybertron?”

    “I love the other half of Cybertron and that’s where I want to be right now. I want a payout before I leave this room. I need some kind of cash to get as far away from here as possible. Maybe even get a refit so I don’t look like myself.”

    Mirage continued, “I love this planet. I love doing business and finding opportunity in this city. I take risks to serve the things that I love. It means more to me than some temporary comfort.”

    Graft started to pace the room. “I did some checking in on your investors list. Do you know who these bots are?! Your accounts payable listings look like Autobot Command’s most wanted list. I knew we were stepping over the purple line now and then, but…slag!”

    Mirage sat down on a chair. “Sounds like you need to resign.”

    “I made all those currency transactions using my real name. I didn’t even think to hide my identity. They know I’m your accountant. They’re going to come gunning for me.” Graft stopped pacing and jabbed a finger at him. “You knew this day would come. You could have at least warned me.”

    “You think I orchestrated my own financial collapse?”

    “Why not? It sounds like something you would do: take a big fall just to find out what it feels like. I know you. You’re too smart to be caught with your gear box open like this.”

    “I love this planet,” Mirage repeated, looking over his shoulder to the window. “I take risks to serve the things that I love. It means more to me than some temporary comfort.”

    The smaller bot paused and his expression changed from anxious fear to anger. At that moment, Graft realized he was the only other being on this world who knew just how far Mirage had fallen. Weakness like that was ripe for exploitation.

    “You’re going to give me everything you’ve got left in this place. Every hidden energon slip, every bar of heavy metal. Give me what I want and I might not run right to every ‘Con safehouse on this side of Iacon to let them know where you are.”

    “No, you won’t. I have 43466251,” Mirage said, standing up.

    “What’s that bunch of numbers? That doesn’t mean anything to me,” Graft lied and put his shaking hands behind his back. How could he know about 43466251? It was buried under three pseudonyms and two shell corporations. Graft created the account two days after Mirage had hired him, and started depositing the extra currency he skimmed off his boss’s business dealings. Over 200,000 years, a few cubes here, some slips there had turned into a tidy fortune.

    “This is what’s going to happen. You are going to offer me your resignation, and I am going to accept. I am going to request that we never speak to each other again, and you will agree. I am going to show you to the door and you are going to go downstairs, transform into that rickety alt mode of yours and go to an oil house at the location programmed into your tablet. The bouncer there will give you another tablet containing the code that will unlock 43466251.”

    Graft hastily pulled out the tablet. He gaped at the coordinates displayed on the screen. “But that’s…that’s a place in Uraya! That’s at least two days drive!”

    “The code expires tomorrow at moonrise.”

    Graft gaped. “You knew. You knew everything all along.”

    “It’s a shame that you’re resigning. Sorry to see you go.” Mirage pointed to the door.

    Graft shuffled to the exit, but couldn’t leave without a parting shot. “Yeah, they might come after me, but I’m just a number cruncher. Once your 'partners' catch on and they find out you're tapped, they're going to pull out all your wires just to make you twitch. My only regret is I won’t be there to enjoy it.”
     
  6. Acer

    Acer VisualAdlib Ex-Pat

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    :thumb 
    The bit about the gearbox was pretty clever, but not as awesome as Mirage vs accountant. XD
     
  7. SuzyPrime

    SuzyPrime The friendly lurker

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    Chapter 3 - Continued


    The door closed behind Graft and echoed against bare walls. Mirage leaned against it and held his hand over his optics. The stressful end to his partnership with Graft was disappointing, but Mirage had given up on finding anything redeeming in that bot long ago.

    Mirage straightened up and looked around the room. His spacious apartment was lavish by Cybertronian standards. However, all the furnishings and trinkets had been sold piece by piece to finance his business ventures.

    He made a mental list. In the next few hours he had three priorities.

    He needed to buy a gun.

    He needed to get away from Praxus. Maybe get all the way to Iacon.

    He needed to get the Autobots’ attention.

    And he had to accomplish all of this while still following the first rule of espionage: never drop your cover, even under extreme duress, even to trusted friends, or even when you think the mission is over.

    He was Mirage, the once-wealthy entrepreneur, investment manager, shipping magnate, professed pacifist, war profiteer and traitor. He was all those things, and yet he wasn’t. The life of a double agent was a mix of paradoxes, but he had centuries of experience keeping the frayed cords of this manufactured persona together.

    Reciting the mantra helped.

    “I love Cybertron. I am loyal to my work. I take risks to serve the things that I love. It means more to me than some temporary comfort.”

    Mirage walked to the only wall hanging left in his home and pulled it down. He touched a sequence of pressure-sensitive panels hidden in the wall and a secret vault slid open.

    From the vault he pulled out three things: a thick bundle of energon slips, an unmarked canister containing six circular devices called blankers, and a red Autobot badge. As offensive weapons, the blankers didn’t have much value, but they were all he had until he bought a weapon. The blankers were highly illegal electromagnetic pulse devices, powerful enough to wipe clean any electronic device within a radius of 20 meters. Any Cybertronian within the blast zone of the device would get stuck with a decade-long headache and some holes in their long-term datatracks. Mirage shoved them and the slips in his back compartment. He ran his thumb over the badge, then placed it back in the vault and shut it.

    Extraction might be a possibility if Autobot Command still had the resources for it. It had been centuries since he made contact with another Autobot agent, and there was only one place in this city where he knew to make such a connection, the Praxus Gymnasium.
     
  8. ARCTrooperAlpha

    ARCTrooperAlpha Well-Known Member

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    And here's to getting out of the sinking ship, Go Mirage !!!!
     
  9. Acer

    Acer VisualAdlib Ex-Pat

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    Totally digging the spy-movie-esque business and internal monologue happening here. Also, the blankers = pretty hot. <3
     
  10. SuzyPrime

    SuzyPrime The friendly lurker

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    ****** Chapter 4 ******

    To many, the Praxus Gym was an anachronism, a luxurious relic from a different era frequented by the disconnected elite. Whether it belonged or not, the building certainly hadn’t been spared from war-time austerity. The columned façade was cracked and marred; the front steps Mirage walked up were bent and uneven. Due to either a lack of building materials or concern, the decay was left unchecked.

    At one time, Mirage would have gone straight to the front desk to complain about such defects. Today, it was the furthest thing from his thoughts. From here on in, he had to speak carefully, remember codes, try to discern intentions, and get a clear message across to other agents without breaking cover.

    As he passed under a “Vehicle Modes Allowed in Designated Areas Only” sign, Mirage reached back in his memory for all the signs and countersigns that had been established for this contact site. There were questions he could ask, and the staff members who were Autobot plants would know the countersigns.

    As the front desk attendant appeared, Mirage groaned inwardly, but kept his face impassive. He did not recognize this young ’bot at all.

    “Welcome to Praxus Gymnasium, sir. I’m Juvo. I don’t believe we’ve met before.”

    “Not surprising. I haven’t visited the Gym since they found retrorats in the basement.”

    “Retrorats? When was that?”

    The correct countersign mentioned exterminators. Mirage frowned. “When is Velox on duty next? I want to speak to her.”

    "She joined up with the Autobots over five years ago, sir. Haven't heard from her since then. I’m here to serve you however I can."

    Of course she’s gone. Waning Autobot reserves would require commanders to bring in lower ranking soldiers in from the field to join the main forces. Unfortunately, that left operatives like him high and dry. Was this Juvo an Autobot replacement, or just another gym employee?

    “What about Tuneup? When does he work next?”

    "Same deal, sir, left to become a soldier. I heard he was off-lined when Nova Cronum was invaded."

    “That’s a waste, a sad waste. Fine then, you’ll have to help me. Is locker 51 available? I like the location and I want to rent for the short term."

    Juvo looked confused and checked the terminal in front of him. "Locker use is first-come, first-served, sir. There are no long-term or short-term options."

    That was definitely not the countersign he needed to hear.

    "Is there anyone else here who I can ask?"

    "My shift ends in two days and then Hustle takes my place. Used to be there were five bots on staff at all times, but there aren't enough members anymore to need that level of service. It’s just Hustle and me now."

    Hustle. Mirage didn't recognize that name, and he didn't have two days to wait. He tapped his finger on the counter.

    Juvo fidgeted. "Can I offer you a beverage sir? Rationing has limited our bar, but we still have an excellent selection of-"

    "No, thank you. I want to use aerosol chamber four, and I want to be left alone." He placed an energon slip on the table.

    Juvo bowed and palmed the currency. "Of course, sir."

    Mirage glanced at the track area and obstacle courses as he walked by. Two females he didn’t recognize were doing sprints. The noise of their engines echoed off the cavernous chamber.

    In the locker room, Mirage discretely hid the blankers and energon away and entered a foggy, dimly-lit aerosol chamber. After surveying the rows of empty benches, he took a seat near the back wall but facing the door. As he reclined and waited, aerosolized lubricants collected on his plating.

    On most days this warm treatment soothed him, but the situation was too precarious for Mirage to relax. His exchange at the front desk confirmed that Autobot Command had abandoned the Praxus Gym as a connection point. His main channel to request extraction was gone.
     
  11. Acer

    Acer VisualAdlib Ex-Pat

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    Poor Mirage! Time to book it outta town all covert WW2-style. XD
     
  12. SuzyPrime

    SuzyPrime The friendly lurker

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    **** Chapter 4, continued ******

    Mirage stretched and beads of oil that had collected on his plating dripped to the floor.

    Why wait to be extracted? Why not go to Iacon now? If the tool that made his work possible, his wealth, was gone, how could he be abandoning his post? He was anticipating an order to retreat, wasn’t he?

    As Mirage turned over that plan in his mind, a tale from the First Great War, probably apocryphal, muscled into his thoughts.

    During the last battle of that era, Alpha Trion had convinced renegade slaves that he could defeat the Quintessons’ mammoth defenders, the Dark Guardians. On the eve of the decisive battle, Trion disappeared. Some speculated that he had been kidnapped or killed, or perhaps ran away to escape the impossible odds. As the story goes, the battle was presumed lost, but Alpha Trion reappeared at a critical hour and the slaves’ last stand was victorious. The battle was pivotal in uniting the slaves and later unifying them under the Autobot name.

    “Pah. I’m no Alpha Trion. No war will be lost if I disappear,” Mirage said to himself and sighed at his doubts. Under the distorted lens of all his troubles, everything was blurred. Was he a soldier? Was Praxus his battlefield?

    The chamber door opened slightly, letting in a shaft of light from the hallway. Mirage looked up and strained to view the bot who was entering, but he saw no one. The door closed, returning the room to a hazy gray.

    Strange. He leaned back again and checked his chronometer. Just a couple of minutes more and then he'd have to leave. It was no longer safe to stay in one location for long.

    “Enjoying yourself?”

    Mirage jumped up from the bench and leaned into a defensive stance, fists up. A small maintenance drone, a vacuum from the look of it, passed in front of him and stopped.

    “Impressive. You have the best reflexes of any pacifist I’ve ever seen.”

    “I doubt a vacuum would know that many pacifists.” Mirage replied, fists still balled.

    “If this vacuum was just a vacuum. Ravage?”

    The clunky, rounded drone transformed into the sleek, angular form of a growling turbofox with a glowing viewscreen on its chest. The image of a purple-plated, one-eyed bot appeared on the screen.

    “And Ravage is a vehicle for me. I have business to conduct with you.”

    Mirage had never been directly solicited by a Decepticon before. Was this desperation or overconfidence?

    “I don’t know you. I’m not interested.”

    “Circumstances necessitate this meeting.”

    “Too public. I don’t do things this way.”

    “Where is Graft?”

    “I don’t know what my employees do off the clock. Contact him yourself.”

    “He is not returning my pulsewaves. Is he alive?”

    “Why wouldn’t he be?”

    “I am Shockwave. I have urgent business with him. Since he isn’t available, I have urgent business with you.”

    “This is too public of a place to–”

    “When I say ‘urgent’ I don’t use the word lightly.”

    Mirage sat back down. “Fine, but answer this: Why were Altihex and Praxus dropped off the market grid? You have made doing business with those city-states nearly impossible.”

    “Commerce is not our concern. Victory is. It’s done. Adapt. I have two needs. Half of the bribe to the trade guilds in Tagan Heights was received and they’ve begun building the spaceship.”

    Things were starting to make sense. This “Shockwave” was Graft’s contact in an off-the-books deal that Mirage had financed. He had encrypted details of the ship in spent energon canisters in his trash months ago. Like most of his covert work, he had no idea if anyone at Autobot command was collecting and closing the loop on his leads, or if the secret messages were all rusting away in a recycling pit.

    “We need the other half -- one million energon slips -- immediately.”

    Mirage remembered Graft’s accounting screen from this morning, the one swimming with zeros. “I can wire the sum to you by the end of the day. Origination fee is 14%. Full repayment at 23% interest is expected within a vorn.”

    “Agreed.”

    Whoever this Shockwave was, he was proving that control and knowledge were two different things. While they had the power to shut down parts of the financial system, the ‘Cons hadn’t assimilated the data inside yet. Mirage’s new-found poverty was still a secret.

    “Second, we need to transport a shipment from the Kalis gate into Praxus tomorrow. Single vehicle. No records.”

    “You can contract with one of my cargo companies. I’m not involved in sche-”

    “I am talking to you. You make the arrangements. From Kalis to Praxus. Single vehicle. No records.”

    “What little I know of border security, it’s too tight to move a single shipment off the books. I can add your shipment into a scheduled convoy.”

    “Kalis gate to Praxus. Single vehicle. No records. Make it happen, and I will guarantee that you can continue to do business when Praxus falls.”

    A troubling feeling passed through Mirage’s body, as if his spark had melted and puddled at his feet. He tried to hide his hesitation. “If…If Decepticons take over Praxus, you’ll have to keep shipping lanes open for supplies, artillery. You’ll need my resources.”

    “Don’t overestimate your importance. What we need, we take. I am offering you an incentive. Perform, and your chances to survive increase.”

    “What is the cargo?”

    Shockwave ignored the question. “Your supplier at the gate is Ruser. He will provide the shipment and the coordinates for the drop point at 0400 tomorrow.”

    Mirage knew the name; Ruser was a low-rent arms dealer. He wore the Autobot brand, but that was the only thing that connected him to the faction.

    “I’ll arrange both deals for you, but I need to be signaled before the start of an all-out attack on Praxus. I want protection.”

    “You will get no warning or protection. You might be compensated with favors after we take the cities. That's all.”

    “Cities? More than one?”

    “Enough. Ravage, give him the comm.”

    Ravage pushed a pulsewave communicator under the bench. It was a disposable model, nearly untraceable by authorities. “You will use this device to confirm delivery of the shipment.”

    “I will not. I don’t do devices.” Mirage shook his head.

    “You will. This mission requires it.”

    “Have your pet here deliver the message,” Mirage said, kicking the communicator toward Ravage.

    “Events are accelerating. Deal with change, or be crushed under our wheels. This is a term of our business arrangement.”

    Mirage picked up the device. He opened its outer casing and, before Shockwave could object, pulled out the tracking device inside.

    “It doesn’t need this to function, does it?” Mirage crushed the component between his fingers.

    “Tread lightly, pacifist. Drop Ravage in the bin in the locker room before you leave the building.” Shockwave’s image disappeared.

    Mirage took his time wiping away the oil on his plating with a towel. Ravage watched, spouting annoyed snarls as he waited. When Mirage finished, the spybot transformed back into vacuum mode. Mirage picked him up off the ground, and trudged back into the locker room. He felt a twinge of satisfaction as he threw Ravage into the garbage.

    After retrieving the contents of his locker he left the building and stepped onto the street.

    “I love Cybertron. I am loyal to my work. I take risks to serve the things that I love. It means more to me than some temporary comfort,” he said quietly.

    In the heart of Praxus amongst the moneyed elite, using your alt mode for transportation was considered gauche. Cybertronians of means walked or were driven by chartered vehicles. Mirage had time for neither. Manners and social convention no longer mattered. He transformed and sped down the street toward Altihex while bystanders sucked their teeth at him.

    He had two stops to make: first to his shipping yards, and then to the warehouse of Ruser, the arms dealer and crook.

    The ‘Cons wanted something moved before they started an all-out attack on Praxus, and Mirage would not wait until tomorrow to find out what it was.
     
  13. Acer

    Acer VisualAdlib Ex-Pat

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    Ravage... as a vacuum cleaner? XDDD hilarity! I also like Shockwave's attitude, too. I'm enjoying the spy action so far. :D  I also like the idea of travelling via altmode is considered gauche, ha! How perfectly, conservatively high society. ;) 
     
  14. SuzyPrime

    SuzyPrime The friendly lurker

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    ****** Chapter 5 *******

    His personal pulsewave frequency blinked, the frequency he reserved for friends and acquaintances and other non-business interactions.

    “Talk quickly, please.”

    A female voice flowed through his audio sensors like familiar music. “Do you remember the comment you made to me the last time we were together? About sincerity?”

    “Gracia. What is it?”

    “We’d gotten to the last drop of that korlonium distillate, ’76 vintage I think. And you said that little phrase that judged all relationships as a measure of sincerity. It went something like this: ‘To your rivals and employees you give none. To your partners and clients you give just some. To your friends, you leave the sum.’ I thought that was clever.”

    “You think I’m clever only when you’re overenergized. Can you get to the point? I’m on my way somewhere,” he said, and regretted his rude tone.

    “Yes, I can hear the freeway noise. Anyway, maybe I mistook you for sincere when you said you’d be at my clinic benefit, and yet you aren’t here.”

    Gracia and her charitable causes. Now would be a good time for Mirage to tell his oldest friend that the niceties and obligations of high society weren’t as important as investigating the inner workings of a Decepticon conspiracy. And, of course, he could do no such thing.

    “I don’t believe in excuses and I won’t give you any. I can’t make it. Not now.”

    “You’re still in the city?”

    “Not for long.”

    “But you can’t swing by? Not even for a nip?”

    “Please don’t beg. I hate being disingenuous with you.”

    “Well, I’m sincerely disappointed. It’s going to cost you, you know. You’ll need to invite me over for another bottle of distillate to make amends. And I was hoping to introduce you to the keynote speaker. You should have been here when he entered the room. I heard at least two glasses hit the floor. Very scandalous.”

    “Who is it?”

    “All my friends will think I’ve turned partisan, but I don’t care. I brought in the Autobot chief medical officer, Ratchet.”

    Mirage was nearly rear-ended by three passing vehicles as he clenched his brakes and came to a stop. “Ratchet is there, right now? At your residence?”

    “He’s a fitting speaker for the occasion. He’s in charge of clinic oversight now. ”

    “How long is he going to be there?” A cloud of dust billowed from his wheels as he turned sharply back toward the Praxus skyline.

    “He’s scheduled to speak in a few minutes, and then I plan to introduce him to some of the larger donors, including you if you were here. After that he’ll probably have a drink and go. He doesn’t seem like the socializing type.”

    “Enjoy yourself,” Mirage said and shut off the channel. He narrowly missed some pedestrians as he sped back to the city. This was his chance to link up to someone from Autobot Command, even if it was the last Autobot on Cybertron who wanted to see him again.

    Mirage wasn’t sure how to interpret the sly grin on her face when Gracia answered her door ten minutes later. Drink in hand, she looked and played the hostess role well. Her silver and green plating sparkled from a coating of wax infused with diamond dust.

    “You apologize for not coming, and then you show up? You’re here for a reason other than saving that last bottle of korlonium,” she said, tapping the glass in her hand. “Ugh, you smell like exhaust.”

    “I have reasons for everything I do.”

    “That’s why we’re such good friends. You lie and I forgive you and then we go have fun. Your life would be so boring without my forgiveness,” She ushered him into the residence filled with cliques of guests hobnobbing, drinking and gesturing to their surroundings.

    “Your guest speaker, Ratchet. Where is he?”

    She arched an eyebrow and took a sip from her glass. “Now I know the person you’re here to see, but not the reason. He just started speaking. First, you have to come see my new acquisition,” she said, leading him into a spacious ballroom decorated with sculpture, busts of long-offline heads of state, and swathes of fabric hanging form the ceiling.

    She stopped in front of an installation hanging on the north wall of the room. It was a gray cylinder, about 20 meters long, encrusted with jewel-like sensors. As the pair approached, the jewels started to glow and flicker in a seemingly random pattern, and the cylinder itself vibrated. The vibrations increased to such a point Mirage flinched, expecting the entire thing to fall from its mount. Gracia’s grip on his upper arm tightened.

    “Patience,” she whispered.

    The cylinder cracked and burst outward in a violent but unhurried progression toward them, like a god’s-eye view of an entire galaxy exploding. Sparkling debris slowly floated past in the air, and then the entire airborne mass was sucked up back into the cylinder shape, completely healed and returned to the status quo. The jewels dimmed.

    “What did I just see?”

    Gracia sighed contentedly. “Your entire life just flashed before your eyes. The sensors in this piece are calibrated to pick up the internal life signs and vital frequencies of each being as they walk past: hydraulic pressure, spark harmonics, quantum signatures. Those sensors are connected to a microprocessor inside the piece that extrapolates and maps from the data all future resonances of that being’s body, translates the data into photons and sends it around a looping microcollider over a billion times, letting entropy take its course, until the data becomes so chaotic that the resulting event resembles an explosion across the visual spectrum. And, since it’s based on the unique bio-frequencies of each individual it detects, no two detonations are the same shape or color or velocity.”

    “And what if the same person comes within the range of its sensors more than once, like its owner?”

    “It is a singular exposition. Once you’ve been scanned, the core keeps a file of your data and only seeks out new signatures. Art that remembers its audience. I love the concept. I couldn’t leave the gallery without it ”

    “An elaborate illusion. A very convincing one,” Mirage said, reaching out. His hand passed through the cylinder, revealing that instead of being made from metal it was just projected light.

    “And I can’t believe you aren’t making an offer for it.”

    “I don’t collect any more. You know that. My priorities have changed.”

    The piece was beautiful, a thoughtful integration of audience, artist, and medium. Centuries ago it would have intrigued him, delighted him and he would have spent hours discussing the philosophical implications of it with her. And now? He took the drink from her hands and downed the rest of it in a gulp. He’d given away too much to this war. Too much.

    She guessed at his conflicted thoughts. “Why don’t I get you something in your own glass? And maybe a towel to wipe off that grime,” She traced a line in the dust on his chestplate as she walked away.

    Mirage turned to face the dais at the end of the room, and pushed his way through the crowd, avoiding familiar faces and the meaningless small talk that was sure to follow, until he could see the podium and the bot standing behind it, already in the middle of his speech.

    “-today that I come to you from the front line, I don’t mean to be dramatic, simply truthful. This morning, Autobot mechanics in Iacon repaired more than 600 casualties from the most recent battles. I know many residents of Praxus have strong feelings about taking sides, and I’m not here intending to change your minds. I’m here to thank you for your continued support of the Praxus Mechanical Institute and Clinic, which will continue to function thanks to the recent annexation by Autobot Command.”

    Someone near the back of the room booed, but Ratchet did not flinch. He continued, “Now, of those 600 casualties, I want you to know that more than 200 of them were Decepticons combatants. They were treated with the same tools, the same lubricants and fueled with the same energon that we use on Autobot patients. Many of those injuries were critical, and lives were saved. Enemy lives. If you found yourselves on Decepticon ground, you would not find medical assistance, or relief, or even simple compassion. Decepticon battlefield repair bays don’t exist, and their war wounded are left to fester and rust on the battlefield. I know this because I have personally witnessed it time and again for nearly two million years.”

    Ratchet paused and looked over the crowd, and then gripped the podium. “There are many in the Autobot ranks, many at Command, who question our practice of giving medical aid to the enemy. Many want it to stop. Many say we are just repairing Decepticons so they can escape or be released right back to the battlefield. I don’t doubt that happens. But in this regard I believe in two things. First, I believe that repairing a wounded Decepticon acknowledges the belief that every Cybertronian life has inherent value. And second, living out that belief has the power to change violent minds and laser cores. I have witnessed Decepticon atrocities, but I have also witnessed Decepticons turn their backs on the war, and escape Megatron’s destructive and deadly tyranny.”

    “That’s just character assassination,” whispered someone behind Mirage. A service drone stopped in front of him and handed him a towel and a drink.

    “I think many of you in this room share my fundamental beliefs, and that’s why you’ve donated to the Institute and Clinic, to keep Praxus a city that values healing and peace. Autobot Command doesn’t want your values to change. As a physician, I know that healing goes hand-in-hand with another value: endurance. And we ask you to endure in your support. Thank you.”

    Polite applause sprinkled around the room as Ratchet stepped down from dais and into the moving crowd. Mirage pushed his way to the front, dodging dirty looks until he was just meters from his target. Gracia was already there, thanking her star guest personally to, as she said earlier, create the scandalous thoughts in the minds of her pacifist friends. Mirage forced himself into the stoic mode he reserved for the negotiating table, stepped forward and bowed.

    “Excellent speech. You excel behind a podium as much as you do in the operating room.”

    “If you’ll excuse me,” Ratchet nodded to his hostess, but she grabbed his forearm and pulled him closer.

    “Oh, don’t run off just yet. Have you been introduced to Mirage? He’s the shipping mogul of Praxus.”

    “Yes, I know of him.” Ratchet turned to face Mirage and locked eyes with him. His glare was cold. “You’re drinking alone. You can’t pay a couple of bots to stand here and pretend to be your friends?”

    Gracia squeezed her napkin in surprise. “Doctor, he’s one of the clinic’s biggest patrons.”

    “Of course he is. He needs some benevolent track record to point to when he’s on trial for treason.”

    Gracia gasped and looked back and forth between their stoic faces, unsure of what to say next.

    “Don’t be embarrassed, Gracia. Ratchet can say whatever he wants to about me. When you save tens of thousands of lives, you become above reproach.” Mirage held up his glass in salute.

    “Don’t compliment me. In fact, let’s both pretend we never had this conversation.”

    “How big is your imagination? Can you pretend we didn’t have another? A short one in private?”

    “I have nothing to say to a war profiteer in private or anywhere.”

    “Is that the latest rumor? It doesn’t surprise me, but it surprises me that you believe it. You and I shared a lot of opinions before the fall of Kalis.”

    “Don’t bring up the past. Your pacifism is based on economics, not ideals,” Ratchet said, angered but calm. He turned back to Gracia. “There are others you want me to meet?”

    “Yes. There, next to the fountain, is the chair of the fundraising board.” She pointed and Ratchet walked off without another word.

    Gracia watched him leave. “That was painful. You sound like you’d have ground your transformation cog into dust if he asked. But he wasn’t having any of it, was he?”

    “Unfortunately.”

    “What more did you want to say?”

    “I need his help to save the city.”

    Gracia laughed, thinking him sarcastic. “You aren’t friends.”

    “No.”

    “And yet you generously support his cause. Big of you.”

    “For selfish reasons. Like he said.”

    “How about some more of the generous support right now?” Gracia asked, pointing a transfer pad toward him. He stepped back from it.

    “What’s the problem?”

    “This has all been a waste of time,” he said and placed his index finger on the pad. It flashed red in Gracia’s face.

    “Sorry, I must have a bad connection. Try again?”

    “It rejected me because I no longer have accounts at Central Monetary.”

    “Very funny.”

    “I no longer have accounts at Central Monetary,” he repeated and took her hand. “I didn’t come here to offend your keynote speaker, and it wasn’t to donate because I have nothing left to give. I guess I’m here to say goodbye.”

    “You're not joking, are you? If this is market trouble, then let me know how much? A loan, a gift, whatever you need to get up and running again. I know you. You’ve climbed up from bad deals several times. The investment into molecular transference nearly cost both of us our-”

    “You can help me. Give me Ratchet’s pulsewave address. I should send him an apology.” The screen in her palm flashed the code. Mirage entered it into his personal pulsewave files.

    “You aren’t making sense. Please tell me. What’s happened to you?”

    He couldn’t say more without telling her everything. “After this party is over, pack some things and get away from Praxus. Do you have friends in Iacon?”

    She closed her hands around his. “Everyone has friends in Iacon. Everyone decent anyway.”

    “As soon as your last guest leaves, pack light and get to Iacon. You don’t have to join the Autobots to be protected by them.”

    Mirage left her and walked straight to where Rachet was speaking with a well-polished female. She was doing her best to hold a fidgeting petro-rabbit in her arms without spilling her drink.

    “Beautiful animal. Unfortunately, the doctor doesn’t do veterinary cases,” Mirage said, pushing between her and Ratchet. “I’m not asking for forgiveness for the last 500,000 years. I’m only asking for five private minutes with you.”

    Ratchet followed the petulant socialite as she stomped off. “Not unless Optimus Prime himself orders me to.”

    Mirage called out to him, “A patient needs your help, doctor. Life or death.”

    Ratchet paused, turned and glared. “Five minutes.”

    ----

    TBC
     
  15. SuzyPrime

    SuzyPrime The friendly lurker

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    **** Chapter 5 -- Continued ****

    They both walked into a window-lined parlor on the building exterior. Gracia closed the door behind them.

    “There’s no patient. No life or death situation,” Ratchet muttered, folding his arms across his chest.

    Mirage walked to the doors that opened to an expansive balcony and a beautiful skyline view. There was no time to make a legitimate sweep for surveillance devices.

    “The patient is Praxus and it certainly is life or death.”

    “Say what you need to and let me leave.”

    “A haven for neutrals and non-combatants means easing pickings for the Decepticons. Praxus has no chance of warding off a direct assault. You need to tell Autobot Command. The city has to have protection now.”

    “You expect Command to move troops into a non-aligned city-state based on what? On the word of a pacifist do-nothing with too much money and a pricked conscience?”

    “I expect the Autobots will act to save civilians.”

    “Oh please. That isn’t moral high ground under your feet, Mirage. You sold it centuries ago. And I won’t be guilted into action by a manipulating deserter.”

    “Praxus, Ratchet. Praxus is at issue here, not me. I can’t reveal my sources. I will pay whatever price you ask if you’ll go to Command and tell them a major enemy action is going to tear through this city.

    Ratchet scoffed. “Bribe me? Really?”

    Mirage continued, shrugging off Ratchet’s incredulous scowl. “I wasn’t given exact locations and timetables, but I know it’s soon.”

    “I need proof. Someone other than you has to support your claim, because I’m not the only Autobot who doesn’t trust you.”

    “Commerce is blind to factions, as am I. Everyone who does business with me knows that.”

    “That’s a nice way to excuse yourself for making deals with murderers. You’re worse than a drone or a blank. Know when I learned that? When you paid the commutation fee instead of enlisting with me -- that was the moment I decided that being friends with you didn’t make sense. It was like being disloyal to all the bots serving with me. After everything we’d seen the Decepticons do, and after all your talk about making a personal vow to fighting for peace, you paid the fee and walked away. You’re a hollow vessel, Mirage. There’s nothing to you.”

    Ratchet glared at him, blue optics shining through the murk of the unlit parlor, as Mirage tried to find words. The conversation had spiraled into territory he did not expect. If he revealed his purposes, the truth of his work to Ratchet now, would the doctor even believe his story? Doubtful.

    The mantra ran through his thoughts. Never drop your cover, even under extreme duress, even to trusted friends, or even when you think the mission is over. Never.

    “You didn’t know me then. You don’t know me now.”

    “Does anyone? Does anyone want to?”

    “I regret nothing,” Mirage muttered, wincing at a warm feeling in his back.

    “Are we done?”

    “Praxus. Autobot Command.”

    “I’m not going to pass on your lies and theories to bots with better things to do.”

    Mirage tensed up. Again, he felt a warm, pricking sensation in his back compartment. He reached inside and pulled out the communicator that Ravage had given him earlier. It was vibrating and the screen was blinking purple.

    Ratchet took one look at the Decepticon device and spit out through his clenched jaw, “You aren’t even trying to hide it!”

    There could be no coincidences now, no reason not to believe that someone had heard every word of their conversation using this device. How could he have been so sloppy? Leaping across the room, Mirage kicked open the balcony doors and flung the communicator into the sky. He grabbed Ratchet across the chest and pulled him from the doorway. The rush of air and debris after the device exploded in midair flung both of them back against the opposite wall.

    Mirage sat up and waited for his sensors to realign. The cracked balcony doors were still rattling from the concussion. Behind him, Ratchet groaned. Both of them were dazed and scratched, but neither had been wounded severely.

    Raised voices outside the room. Mirage stood, shook off the dizziness and headed for the door at the end of the room that led to the foyer and then the hallway and then the lift. He had to assume that Decepticons had been listening to him through that device since his meeting at the gym. And sharing Shockwave’s plan with a ranking Autobot was more than enough to mark him for assassination.

    Mirage pushed his way through the door, just as curious guests entered the room behind him. The foyer was empty as he made his way out her front door and onto the lift. Whoever triggered the destruct mechanism on the comm. device probably thought he was dead. He might still have time to intercept Shockwave’s mysterious shipment from Kalis. Perhaps that would avert an attack and, possibly, be proof enough for the Autobots.

    And Ratchet? Ratchet was a waste of precious time. Some burned bridges can't be rebuilt.

    Transforming to vehicle mode felt like grinding every gear in his frame, hinting that the blast had injured him more than he realized. He managed it with a grunt and pushed himself to make his best speed. His “death” might have bought him a few seconds.

    Above, Gracia ran through the shattered doors onto the balcony in time to see Mirage wheel away from the building and down the street.

    “Lancer,” Gracia called out and the maid at her side clicked her heels. “Find Lowroad and bring him up here.”

    “He’ll have to meet you on level 12, ma’am. He can fit in the freight elevator, and that only goes to level 12.”

    “Fine. Fine. Tell him to meet me here as soon as he can. Also, pack me a travel bag.”

    The valet clicked again and ran back into the building. Gracia watched as, several stories below, Mirage wheeled around the corner of the block at top speed and disappeared from view.

    “He can’t escape like this."

    *****

    TBC...
     
  16. SuzyPrime

    SuzyPrime The friendly lurker

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    Chapter 6

    It took Mirage the better part of the hour before he arrived at the factory and production district on the Kalis border. Law was loose here. Weapons -- most of them of questionable legality -- crowded the shop windows. Foul plumes of smoke drifted from the ramshackle shops that lined the streets. Evading puddles of industrial runoff, Mirage came to a stop and idled in front of a building with a familiar sign.

    Ruser’s shop was a rusting blue building with a faded sign and soot-covered stairs. Behind it was the real moneymaker, the warehouse through which the arms dealer distributed whatever devices of destruction he could peddle. Ruser occasionally traded in new tech, mostly expensive prototypes and off-world sciences: star harvesting, artificial crystalline energon substitutes, personality program transplants. Some of his more outlandish schemes proved the perfect vehicles in which Mirage sunk millions of his Decepticon business partners’ money. But when Ruser’s trading turned from weird science to full-time weapons running, Mirage ended their partnership.

    It appeared the weapons business was more lucrative than ever. Around back, Mirage watched the loading docks for a couple of minutes in vehicle mode. Armed security bots were monitoring loads at the dock entrances. Too tight. He’d have better luck getting in by bribing the poorly-paid shop clerks in front.

    He drove around, transformed and went through the shop door noting two things: the caliber of the weapons on display in the shop window and the fact that he was still unarmed. The shop was grungy, poorly-lit, and staffed with five clerks behind the counters. Three of them he recognized as Ruser’s veterans; they were long-term employees, loyal, less susceptible to enticement. He walked over to a short, twitchy model who wasn’t familiar. The bot was spinning a burning blowtorch around on the top of the glass counter in a silly game of self-torture.

    Mirage placed his hand on the counter, partially concealing a small stack on energon slips under it. “You’ll get a hundred more if you take me to the warehouse right now and don’t alert your co-workers.”

    The bot took the energon slips greedily. “Tours are my specialty,” he said and stole a glance at the other clerks. “Anything particular you’ve been itching to see?”

    “The shipment that’s going out to Praxis tomorrow. It’s not on the books.”

    “Right this way.” Mirage followed the clerk through the tunnel connecting the two structures and into the main warehouse area. The dirty shop was a false front for the well-organized environment of conveyor belts and automatons moving containers either to the docks or to the ordered rows of shelving. If the containers were filled with Ruser’s usual inventory, there was enough here to keep an army fighting for a millennium.

    The twitchy bot looked through an inventory terminal and then led Mirage down a row of cartons to a lonely, unmarked crate on the back wall.

    “There it isn’t,” he said, motioning to it. “It’s in inventory, but not on any schedules.”

    “What’s inside?

    “Nothing nuke, if that’s what you’re worried about. That stuff’s kept on the south end. Ruser don’t care, but the foreman’s a stickler for safety.”

    Over his guide’s objection, Mirage pulled the seal to open the crate. The top came off and stacked neatly inside were thousands of green circuit cards, each about the size of his thumb.

    “Huh. Just a bunch of parts. Big secret,” Twitchy scoffed. Mirage picked one up and turned it over: a non-descript, average circuit card, the kind found in every single Cybertronian on the planet.

    “This can’t be it.”

    “That’s all I know. You tell me.”

    “Where’s the boss’ office?”

    Uncomfortable with the deepening scope of his deal, the clerk rolled his fender-covered shoulders. “Aww, you saw the box. Ain’t that enough? He don’t let nobody in there.”

    “Then I won’t be disturbed while I wait for him.” Mirage discreetly palmed the card and dropped two blankers into the crate before replacing the lid. He handed the clerk the slips he promised him. The bot stuffed them away, led Mirage to a brown, unmarked door and quickly scooted away. The door was easy enough for him to jig open and lock again behind him. Inside was a cramped mess: piles of tablets, ammo boxes and spare parts. Mirage looked over everything, but no clues to the purpose of the circuit cards were in obvious sight.

    He pulled out the last four energon slips he had and tapped them with his fingertips. All the money he had left in the world. Four slips. Ruser would consider four slips a joke, not a bribe. Mirage pushed aside a stack of ammo boxes from a chair and sat at the only terminal in the room. He wasn’t a hackbot, but he knew a few tricks to bypass cheap security firewalls.

    He didn’t get far before a squat, gray-plated bot – Ruser himself – pushed through the door. Seeing an intruder, well-worn instinct took over and he pulled a small weapon from his hip.

    “Not even safe in my own office,” Ruser growled, but then his expression eased. “Well, rev my engine. It’s been a golden age since your pipes have been in my place, Mirage.” He lowered the gun.

    “You know me. I can’t stay away when there’s profit to be made. Your hush-hush shipment tomorrow? The timetable’s been moved forward. I’m here to get it, now.”

    “Yeah, Shockwave said someone might show interest in that box. He told me to shoot whoever did,” Ruser said and fired. Mirage leapt behind the desk, but caught the blast in his knee. Mirage winced at the wound and sat up to peer out from behind the desk.

    “Ruser, I’m in on this! Didn’t Shockwave tell you?”

    “I never pegged you for an Autobot, though. Not even a spy. You’re a little too self-interested,” Ruser said, waving a small weapons scanner at the desk. “And if you are a spy, you’re not a good one. You don’t even have a gun.”

    “Then…then maybe you made a mistake. Shockwave hired me yesterday to take care of this shipment. I’m part of the deal!”

    “Well, I just spoke to him about 200 astroseconds ago, which means I have the more recent version of the plan. And he says no one touches it until he gets here.”

    Ruser shoved the desk over, removing Mirage’s concealment. Mirage held up his hands in surrender. “Shockwave said I’m an Autobot agent? Funny, about two hours ago I had to convince a member of Autobot Command that I wasn’t a Decepticon spy. Interesting thing about not taking a side...those who already have can’t imagine not having one.”

    “Why were you trying to break into my terminal?”

    “You weren’t around. Your clerks are worthless. I needed to help myself. What about your side, Ruser? You under the purple banner now?”

    “Not until I see the glow of their money,” Ruser said, tapping commands into the terminal to shut it down.

    “They haven’t paid yet? Way too trusting,” Mirage took out the circuit card and held it up. “Is Shockwave going to be as unimpressed as I was when he sees he’s buying a carton full of spare parts?”

    Ruser leaned back against the desk and smiled. “That little circuit card is going to put Iacon at Megatron’s feet.”

    “I thought their next target is Praxis.”

    “Doesn’t matter. They’ll all be under the ‘purple banner’ within a vorn.”

    Mirage turned the card over in his fingers and tucked it back into this hip compartment. “What could provide such an advantage?”

    “Hard to believe, eh? Offworld tech. Found it myself in the middle of a weapons run. After I hinted through my channels at what it does, Shockwave nearly beat down my door to get his hands on it.”

    “He beats your door, and then you. You can’t trust him to hold up his end, not with a deal that pivotal. Decepticons take what they want.”

    “I wasn’t built yesterday. They haven’t paid, but they will. I’ve got insurance. The circuit cards are just that -- spare parts -- unless they’re installed correctly. And I’m the only one who knows how the process works. No install, no–” Ruser caught himself. “Huh, you almost got me to say it. You always knew how to get the best of bots, didn’t you? Cut the best deals. Maybe you can talk yourself out of whatever Shockwave will do to you once he gets here. Shame if he decides to stomp out your laser core. You were a good business partner, once.”

    Ruser reached for the communicube on the desk, but froze when Mirage held out a blanker.

    “I’ve triggered the countdown for forty astroseconds,” Mirage said. “That’s enough time for you to get out of the blast radius if you leave now.”

    “You wouldn’t. You love yourself way too much for a suicide play,” the trader scoffed.

    “Look closer. Thirty astroseconds.”

    Ruser stepped back when he recognized the device. “That's a desperate move.”

    “I forget the exact range of the electromagnetic field generated by this thing. If you want to keep your happy disposition and your client list in your ugly head, get to the street, transform and burn your treads. Twenty left.”

    “But…but you’ll blank yourself!”

    “You have forgotten me, haven’t you? I used to be the fifth wealthiest Cybertronian on the planet. I owned half of the shipping lanes from here to Uraya. You think I’d wave a custom-designed blanker around and not have protection? Ten astroseconds.”

    Ruser grimaced. “You lie!”

    He lunged toward Mirage and grabbed at his wrist. Mirage grappled with him, keeping it just out of reach. The device whirred and let off a brilliant light as a powerful electromagnetic pulse ballooned outward, enveloped the office and dissipated into darkness.

    Ruser’s form went limp and Mirage pushed him off. “No lie,” he muttered. His adversary lay on the floor, unmoving. The light in his optics flickered. The blanker had knocked his processor offline and wiped out most of his short-term memory.

    Mirage fumbled in the darkness, pulled himself onto a chair and clenched his trembling hands. He’d had the blankers custom-engineered not to penetrate his plating, but he knew now it wasn’t foolproof.

    The terminal on the desk was useless, as were all the machines and automatons in the building – non-functional and wiped clean of data.

    No options were left to him. Whatever tech Ruser had discovered and was selling to the ‘Cons, the clues to what it actually did were gone. Mirage pulled out a small remote and pressed the button to activate the blankers he stashed back in the crate. If that didn’t knock out Ruser’s mystery tech, nothing would.

    Escape from this place seemed more likely with every bot in the building, like their boss on the floor, dazed and waiting for a reboot. Mirage’s injured knee joint was still sparking and leaking fluid, but functional enough to bear weight.

    A loud tapping from Ruser’s prone body shocked him from his escape plans. He looked around for the weapon that the bot had held on him, but couldn’t find it. After the EMP from the blanker, would it even work? He didn’t have time to guess before Ruser’s metal chest compartment popped open and something astounding happened.
     
  17. SuzyPrime

    SuzyPrime The friendly lurker

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    *** Chapter 7 ***

    A creature, barely half the height of a mini-bot, fell out of Ruser’s chest and landed clumsily on the floor. He raised his fist at the bot and let out a stream of excited language that Mirage’s translation circuits tried to make sense of.

    Like the majority of Cybertronians, Mirage had never left his home planet before and knew nothing about organic forms of life. First contact with this alien life form was difficult for him to process.

    To Mirage, the creature’s skin appeared to be flexible purple plating, swaddled in colored pieces of fabric. Hair was a mass of what looked like thin brown wires sprouted from his head. Beneath the wires was a pinched green face with dull black optics floating in, of all things, clear liquid.

    Beyond just his physical appearance, the creature’s size was awkwardly out of scale with the rest of the room. He would have to climb to reach any of the chairs or tables. Using any of the terminals or fixtures would be nearly impossible for him. In a Cybertronian’s world, this creature was completely helpless.

    His existence forced Mirage to the logical conclusion that this was the representative of an entire race who had a civilization somewhere out in the cosmos. His daydream of a diminutive world full of these creatures would have continued, but the cold thought that Shockwave could burst in at any moment brought him back to the unpleasant here and now.

    The creature stood up, fixed Mirage with a confused and frightened look, and then glanced back at Ruser’s prone form. He spoke, and Mirage caught a couple of words through his translation circuits, but not everything.

    “Repeat. Again,” Mirage said, making a circular motion with his hand.

    The creature spoke clearly and slowly. “If he isn’t dead, then don’t tell me. I like the idea that he’s dead. And I’ll do the same thing to you, robot, if you aren’t careful. I’m dangerous.”

    “You didn’t do that to him. I did. How you’re still functioning after a close-range EMP pulse?” Mirage tried and failed to stand. His knee joint sparked and fizzled.

    “Organics are immune to EMPs. All right, fine. I grant you I didn’t do that to Ruser. I wish I had. I would have done it weeks ago. What day is it? The cycles on this cursed planet on impossible to detect. Hey, give me that! The yellow canister, right there!” He pointed frantically. Mirage picked up the small yellow cylinder down from the shelf above the desk and handed it to him. The creature fiddled with it and then shoved the narrow end into his mouth.

    In curious fascination, Mirage watched him ingest whatever was inside. He seemed to respirate on frightfully regular intervals, only seconds apart. All the mechanisms of his body were so soft-looking, so flexible and delicate.

    “What are you?”

    “Never seen something like me? There are billions of organic species like me across the galaxy and not many of you robots. You think you’re fighting a war now? Just wait until the rest of us arrive. We’ll reduce this planet to its component elements.”

    “I’m not going to hurt you. Stop the threats.”

    After an extended period of drinking, he sat back and rubbed his head. “I’ve never seen any of you machines eat or drink. Not me. I cannot be treated like this and expected to work. I need sustenance.”

    Mirage pulled out an energon goodie and offered it to the thing. “We ingest this. Here, try one.”

    “No, no. Food. Water. Minerals. And sunlight! Don’t you have sunlight on this planet? Why is it so dark?”

    “The EMP knocked out the lights and most of the other machinery in the building,” Mirage explained, trying to push the wires hanging from his knee back inside his plating.

    “EMP? That explains him…” the creature pointed to his former captor. “…but not you. What are you called?”

    “Mirage. I’m a merchant.”

    “Bekla is my name. Merchant? Did Ruser owe you money? Or did you owe him? Bad business deal? Is this your revenge?”

    “This has nothing to do with business. He was part of a plot to destroy my city. Now he’s not. Why were you in his chest?”

    “Didn’t you hear what he said? I’m his insurance.”

    Mirage sat up straight. “Insurance?” He pulled out the circuit card. “Do you know what the purpose of this is?”

    Bekla looked at the card fearfully, then around like a petro-rabbit looking for the nearest hole. “You said you’re a merchant, right? Let’s make a deal. How about I pay you to help me escape from here? I will do nothing for you until I’m promised safe passage back to my planet.”

    “Calm down. I’m going to help you escape, but just tell me what this is. Why are you afraid of it?”

    “It’s the reason for my slavery.” Resigned, Bekla reached out for the card and Mirage handed it to him. The small alien had to hold it with both hands. His voice and mannerisms calmed.

    “I’m a slave to curiosity first, Mirage. All my people are. We’re scientists and observers, but we’re weak. We’re small. We don’t have weapons, not your kind anyway. So we hide. We’ve studied entire civilizations from orbit, safely hidden. I know a lot about Cybertronians, actually. My ship was in orbit around this planet for over seven months running scans and studies. I became very familiar with your physiology. But that all ended after the incident with our veil.”
     
  18. Anodythe

    Anodythe Well-Known Member

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    Uh-oh...mixing cyber-forms and organics is not always a good idea. Where is this Bekla from and what does he have to do with the circuit cards?
     
  19. SuzyPrime

    SuzyPrime The friendly lurker

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    ** Continued **

    “Veil?”

    “The veil is a field that bends light around objects. When combined with a dampening shield to hide energy readings, my people can travel the universe without being detected.”

    “Your ‘veil’ is cloaking technology.”

    “If that’s what you call it.”

    “You were orbiting Cybertron on a ship hidden from detection. What happened?”

    “Malfunction. Poor timing. The universe is cruel that way. Ruser’s ship approached and captured my crew. He pulled apart our ship looking for something useful to steal. I offered to trade him the technology for our freedom.”

    “A Cybertronian-compatible cloaking mechanism,” Mirage mulled over the concept: ground-breaking technology, worth millions, and potentially the most dangerous weapon imaginable.

    “Why don’t you and I make a deal? You help me escape? I show my good faith. I can fix your leg. I have some tools in my pockets. Here...see?” He climbed up Mirage’s leg and tied off one of the oozing tubes poking from the wound.

    “We make a deal later. How was Ruser planning to use this ‘veil’?”

    “Ruser wanted it disguised, to appear like circuits already found in your bodies. So it was done this way. He promised veil technology to a general, I think. I don’t remember any names. I gave him the specs and he manufactured the circuit cards, but the programming for the veil is still here. I had to hold something back to keep myself alive.” Bekla tapped his temple. “The word ‘Decepticon’ was used several times. And ‘Autobons.’ Factions, right? Which are you?”

    “The word is ‘Autobot’. And I’m not on either side.”

    “Should I assume you’re on the side of good?” Bekla asked, tinkering inside his leg.

    “I’m on the side that wants all hostilities to stop.”

    Bekla stood up on Mirage’s lap. “I need to check the thoracic junction in your back.”

    “What for?”

    “To make sure the sagittal circuit connections to your legs weren’t damaged when you were shot.”

    Mirage leaned forward. “It’s open. Don’t poke me in the wrong place.”

    Bekla climbed onto the back of the chair. “And you don’t lean back or you will crush me. Ruser planned for me to install veil units into Decepticons. Invisible soldiers. Thousands.”

    “If you install cloaking devices in thousands of Decepticons the escalation to this war will be devastating.”

    “I thought you didn’t have a side.”

    “I’m telling you the only possible outcome.” Mirage paused at the sound of bending metal and explosions from close by.

    “Friends or foes?” Bekla motioned fearfully at the door.

    “Ruser said Shockwave was coming. When he finds me, he won’t be kind. But he absolutely cannot find you.”

    “Then…you want the other side to have the veil? The autos?”

    “I don’t want anyone to have it. I want it and you off this planet. How do we contact your ship?”

    “My ship? There is no contacting my ship.”

    “You said you traded the veil technology for freedom. Ruser didn’t hold up his part of the deal?”

    “Oh no. He let them go. He released my ship back into space, but before that he stripped out the fusion core that powered everything: the engines, the atmosphere controls. I know that you Cybertronians can survive in the vacuum of space. I would like to think that Ruser was ignorant. Maybe he didn’t know the affects of a vacuum on creatures like myself.”

    “Ten people?”

    “Eleven.”

    “Is there any chance they survived?”

    “I can’t imagine how. I pray that their deaths were quick.”

    Mirage bent over. “I’m sorry, Bekla. I am. I’m ashamed that this happened to your people.”

    “I’ve been watching you kill each other for seven months. Why did I expect better than how you treat each other?” Bekla closed the compartment and jumped down to the floor. “I can’t fix your knee. I need parts, and I have none.”

    Shouts in the hall outside sounded closer than ever.

    “No deal necessary. I’ll help you escape.”

    “How? Your knee is scrapped. You won’t be able to get far.”

    “If we can get to the warehouse, I can change to vehicle mode. You could probably fit inside my chest.”

    “Or you could use the veil.”

    “There’s no time for experiments. It sounds like they’re right outside.”
     
  20. SuzyPrime

    SuzyPrime The friendly lurker

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    ** Continued **

    “No more time needed. I installed the circuit card into your sensory-circuit node at the base of your spine, just now.”

    “You what?”

    “I knew I couldn’t repair you, so installed the veil instead. If you activate your optics for higher spectrum light detection that is the trigger to activate the veil around you.”

    “You put the device in me?”

    “Yes.”

    “Take it out. Take it out!”

    “Why are you angry?! This is our chance to escape.”

    “You put alien technology in my body without asking me!”

    “You’re a machine. What’s another bit of programming inside–”

    A heavy pounding on the door interrupted them. “Ruser, let us in! Who’s in there with you?” Shouted a muffled voice.

    “That’s Shockwave.” Mirage failed his attempt to stand and fell back into the chair.

    “Your enemies are at the door, robot. Use the veil to save us!” Bekla hissed.

    “No. You hide and I’ll try to think of some explanation, some tactic, to get us out of this.”

    “Higher spectrum detection! Just try it, you malfunction!” Bekla pounded his fist on Mirage’s shin.

    “This guy’s a gun dealer. He’s probably locked up with an arsenal,” complained another voice from outside.

    “Do what you think is necessary,” Shockwave replied.

    With one last anxious look at his mangled knee, Mirage accessed his optic controls and turned on his high spectrum light detection function, as Bekla had begged him. He felt a momentary sensation of warmth on his plating, and a bright, transparent box projected around his body. Then the world around him turned gray. Was it working? Was he cloaked?

    The door tumbled open with a thud and in stomped a tall Decepticon with both gun barrels firing. Energy bolts tore up the desk, equipment and walls, splattering everything in shrapnel. Three shots bit into Mirage’s chest. It took every fiberoptic of his being to keep from yelling in pain.

    After taking apart most of the office, the Decepticon paused. “I knew I heard voices in here..”

    Shockwave strode in behind him, glaring through the dark room, now hazy from smoke and the bitter stench of melted polymers. “What did your excessive force accomplish, Blitzwing?”

    “Bagged Ruser. Right there on the floor,” the armed Decepticon said, pointing with one of his guns.

    “Negative. He was lying there before you entered.”

    “How’d you know that?”

    “He has no visible wounds, just like the others. Look at the light fixtures…the terminal on the desk. It looks like the damage caused by EMP devices.” Shockwave pointed directly at Mirage. He gripped the armrests tight. It took him a moment to realize that the Decepticon wasn’t pointing at him, but at the terminal on the desk behind him.

    Mirage was veiled. Cloaked. Invisible.

    “Then how come I heard voices just before I broke in? Huh? Two voices. I know I did.”

    “Indeed.” Shockwave said, disinterested.

    A Decepticon poked his head into the doorway. “Found the crate, Shockwave.”

    “Intact?”

    “Yeah. But -- get this -- it was just a bunch of blanked out c-cards. What was supposed to be in it?”

    “None of your concern. What else is in the warehouse?”

    “Plenty of weapons that still work. Tech gear, spare parts. Not sure about that stuff. And ammo. Lots of ammo.”

    “Tell your squad to take everything they can carry.”

    The con left with a greedy grin on his face. Shockwave stepped to Ruser’s prone form and tapped him with his foot. “There are two opposing realities here. Either Ruser lied and the shipment was never real, or the circuit cards truly contained his secret technology, and were made worthless thanks to Autobot sabotage.”

    “Megatron ain’t gonna be happy.”

    “I don’t care about Megatron’s moods. I care about Decepticon victory. Bring him,” said Shockwave, casting a monocular yellow glance over the room one last time. Blitzwing flung Ruser over his shoulder and followed behind. After their footsteps disappeared Mirage shut off the veil and stood up as best he could, clutching his smoldering chest.

    “Bekla? Bekla, where are you? Come out.” Mirage pushed aside the clumps of parts and boxes in the floor. He lifted a broken tablet and found the alien lying on his stomach. His back was a burnt mess of flesh and fabric. With his fingertip, Mirage gently turned him on his side. His watery eyes were half-closed and his mouth twisted in an anguished grimace.

    “You used it,” Bekla said with great heaves of breath between words.

    “Let’s hope it works long enough for me to crawl out of here.” Mirage picked him up, turned on the veil again and limped toward the door, grasping his chest with his other hand. Invisible, he staggered toward the dock doors, staying close to the warehouse walls. Walking past the Decepticons without them noticing was surreal. A cadre of enemy were ransacking the shelves, greedily piling up weapons, ammo, supplies and bickering over their choices. An occasional shoving match broke out here and there. The noisy chaos hid the sound of Mirage’s uneven footsteps.

    At the dock doors he dodged between the looters and tumbled down the steps into the paved lot beyond. He managed to limp behind the building before he dropped to the pavement, leaking and exhausted. His power supply was too low and, before he could stop it, the veil retracted. Mirage dragged himself behind the last row of shipping containers and, he hoped, out of view of the docks.

    He looked down at the organic being tucked into his forearm. Whatever life force or energy had powered Bekla’s organic form, it was waning.

    “Are we free?” he asked between painful gasps.

    “For a moment,” Mirage said, looking down at his chest. The wounds were deep, perhaps even to his laser core. He felt that sluggish lull of encroaching stasis behind his eyes.

    “Is that what you call blood? You are bleeding?”

    “I’m leaking. Badly. I can’t go on. My internal organs are starting emergency shutdown to keep me alive. We call it stasis lock.”

    “Death.”

    “No…not offline, but not far from it.”

    “Before I go ‘offline’ I want to say…I wish it had been you, robot,” Bekla said and wheezed.

    “Been me? Me what?”

    “I wish it had been you in a ship…out among the stars… found us when our veil malfunctioned. Have you ever been to space?”

    “No. I never felt the need.”

    “If it had been you who found my ship and crew, things would have been different. Yes?”

    “I don’t know. Probably not.”

    “It would have been different. It would have been better. For a machine, you are very hard on yourself.”

    “I’m sorry for all of this, Bekla. It’s so unfair for you, your people.”

    “You said want an end to your war. I pray you find it. Seek your peace, robot.” The small creature closed his eyes.

    The sound of voices nearby startled Mirage. He had no weapon, no blanker, no cloak, no bribe and just four energon slips.

    He turned on his personal pulsewave transmitter, pulled up the number he had asked Gracia for hours earlier and made the call. It was the longest of long shots.

    “Ratchet, you know who this is. Trace my location. I have a non-combatant with me who needs medical attention immediately. Try not to think of this as helping me, but helping an innocent. An innocent, Ratchet. If you decide to respond, come quickly.”

    Mirage pulled himself up and limped onto the street. If he coaxed a transfer of energy to his transformation cog, he could manage to get into vehicle mode and put a bit of distance between them and Shockwave.

    And then his personal pulsewave rang.

    “Ratchet?” Mirage answered.

    “No,” said a deep, tentative voice on the other end. “You are Mirage? The lady asked me to follow you.”

    Mirage looked around. “Who’s asking?”

    “My name is Lowroad. My employer, the lady Gracia, was concerned about you after your dramatic exit from her quarters. She told me to follow you. I just picked up your signal now.”

    “You were listening for my channel.”

    “Forgive me for eavesdropping. I’ve been idling out front for a while now. The lady ordered me to help you in whatever way I could.”

    "What kind of help are you offering? Do you have any weapons?"

    "No. The lady doesn't allow guns. I am a class two transport hauler. Not unlike many of your employees, yes?"

    “How inconspicuous can you pull around to the back and pick us up?”

    “Us?”

    “Just me and my passenger. There are about 50 Decepticons about to leave the building at any moment and I’d prefer that they don’t see me. And you might want to hurry. I’m about two seconds from fade out.”

    Lowroad pulled around the corner as quietly as a large transport truck was able to. He dropped the gate on his trailer. “No movement from the building as yet. Climb in.” Mirage pulled himself inside and Lowroad shut his gate.

    “The lady will be glad you’re still alive.”

    “No. We’re not going back to Gracia’s place. Take me to Autobot headquarters. I need to get to Iacon.”

    To Be Continued
     
    Last edited: Apr 3, 2015

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