The Omega Point: Part Three
As above his pursuers swooped over the planet surface, searching, so the Hunter cowered below, using the scant shelter offered by a rocky outcrop. His weapons disabled, his power reserves dangerously depleted, his options were remain here, whipped and beaten, clinging to the feeble hope that he would somehow escape the Skyblades' aerial sensor sweep, or fight on and be destroyed. To his eternal, cringing shame, the Hunter chose the former.
Pressing further back against the cliff face, the Hunter felt the rock behind him shift, centuries' worth of accumulated debris loosening to reveal a further recess, one that extended deep underground. The darkness within was total, impenetrable, but the Hunter's few still functioning sensors detected heavy deposits of Ethmium in the tunnel walls. Enough, he hoped, to mask his own telltale magnopulse.
As the gloom fell around him like a shroud, he wondered again how it had all gone so badly wrong, how the Hunter had become the hunted? During the many years since Megatron gained dominion of Cybertron he had grown accustomed to being the giver rather than receiver, routinely running lone Maximals to ground and summarily executing them. But, perhaps inevitably, complacency had set in, and recently there had been a noticeable shift in the balance of power, a more concerted, organized fightback. The Hunter had found himself targeted, isolated, cut off from support, and forced to ditch here, on this backwater world. Now he could only hope to live to fight another day. Whatever happened, his future looked bleak.
As he went deeper, so the Hunter became aware of a presence, something that tugged at the borders of his perception, guiding him surefootedly through the inky blackness. Not once did he falter or hesitate, the subliminal voice that urged him onwards seductive and full of malign promise. It spoke to his dark, twisted desires, highlighting every vicious streak, applauding every cruel intention.
The Hunter found himself in a vast, vaulted rock cavern, approaching a pit, situated at its center. Within, something whispered, caressing his psyche with tendrils of molten shadow. He hesitated, and the voice spoke clearly this time, penetrating his mind like a hot knife.
"Step forward," the voice enticed, "step forward and claim the key to all possible futures. This... " and, unaware that he had even moved, the Hunter found himself at the very edge of the abyss, staring in, " ...this is your destiny!"
Vast funeral pyres, thousands of miles high, defied the night, the false dawn lit by raging infernos, fueled by the remains of a once proud and learned race of synthetics known as the Kolar. And with their twisted remains burned a culture dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge through transdimensional music and art, a society steeped in rich mental diversity and lyrical beliefs.
All of which meant absolutely nothing to the Herald.
She watched, unmoved and impassive, as her Reaver divisions leveled structures of ether and crystal, massive J-Class Warwings reducing quasi-reality sky cities to their quantum filament components. The screams of the injured and dying rose like a Banshee wail, punctuated by thermonucleonic detonations. Those Kolar judged sturdy enough to survive the coming rigors were genetically tagged and reengineered for slave labor. Once the purge was complete, the rebuilding would begin. Cybertronian spires and domes would rise, branding the world as an adjunct to the Empire. The will of Shokaract be done.
Something had to be done. The question was, what exactly? Despite predictions and extrapolations to the contrary, Shokaract's power base continued to grow. Countless monitors, showing countless scenes of conquest and mass devastation, painted a grimly uniform picture of widening universal chaos. Things were falling apart, and Leonicus was close to despair.
His facial mantle, sculpted over countless millennia within the barren confines of the Covenant's subterranean sanctuary on Protos, was cracking, fault lines of anxiety and doubt dividing formerly stoic continents. He was, he realized, losing his faith. How could they sit here, watching and waiting for a signal that may never come, while around them countless billions of lives were snuffed out? Unable to bear the relentless onslaught of apocalyptic imagery, Leonicus abandoned the Observatory, retreating to the relative calm of the Reflectorium. He needed to gather his thoughts, marshal emotions that were threatening to overwhelm him.
The Covenant had been created by Primus, last of the Light Gods, at the very dawn of time, many years before the coming of Cybertron and the first to bear the name Prime. The Twelve, the Covenant, were both dry run and fail-safe, a means to test the viability of Primus's Grand Plan and ultimately to safeguard it.
Primus knew that the Dark God, Unicron, could only be defeated through the ultimate sacrifice, and so fashioned an intricate trap that left both their energy forms imprisoned within lifeless metal asteroids, adrift in the vastness of space. But, as the Protos experiment had proved, Primus's prison was manipulable, and through sheer force of mental will the Transformers' homeworld, was born. Over the centuries that followed, Primus populated the world he named Cybertron with further Transformers, each powered by a fragment of his life essence; their Spark.
The Covenant, meanwhile, stayed hidden, ever vigilant, waiting and preparing for Point Omega, a critical moment when they would go forth into battle to defend Primus's dream of enduring universal stability. But the moment never materialized, and while crises came and went, whatever pre-set gene alarm Primus had left encoded in their physiology remained stubbornly silent. Leonicus feared now that Point Omega would end up a judgment call. One, as the Covenant's nominal leader, he would have to make.
It was clear, however, that events on and around Cybertron were building to crisis point, for Point Omega was also known in their scriptures as Shokaract. No coincidence for sure. And then there was the Chronarchitect.
Existing beyond normal space and time, the Chronarchitect appeared at pivotal moments, bringing warning of possible divergences along the route wound by the intersecting courses of the timestream and the Grand Plan. But his last appearance had been a fractured, disjointed affair, one that had culminated in his apparent destruction. The Chronarchitect warned of a devastating disruption to the timestream, an anomaly that threatened the final dissolution of the Plan, and left them with a cryptic entreaty, 'return to the beginning'.
What that meant, Leonicus still did not know, and their efforts to locate the temporal event had left them with more unanswered questions and one missing acolyte. Altogether, it seemed that events were spiraling rapidly out of control, and they, the Covenant, now had no choice but to step in and, if possible, stop Shokaract themselves.
Leonicus's musings were interrupted by Ariex, who burst into the Reflectorium without so much as a polite cough to preannounce his entry. Ariex's expression, a mixture of urgency and anticipation, froze Leonicus's half-formed censure. "There's something you need to see," said Ariex, eyes alight with remembered fervor.
Back in the Observatory, Leonicus watched an edited sequence of events beamed to Protus via cloaked satellites orbiting around Cybertron, events that he himself had viewed earlier in their entirety. The Maximal/Predacon resistance, the remnants of a force that continued to challenge and vex Shokaract. Two Transformers, a Maximal and Predacon, fused into one dual spark being called Windrazor. An anxious flight to Shokaract's palace at Corumkan, where the Predacon half's fission-brother, Cataclysm, was preparing to enter a Transwarp portal. A brief battle, and both Windrazor and Cataclysm disappeared into the portal.
"Yes?" said Leonicus finally. He had been expecting something with a little more substance, more import. Ariex simply replayed and enhanced the sequence. The plan, fashioned by the Predacon resistance leader, Sandstorm, was designed to control the Predacon half of the fused being, accessing his knowledge of Shokaract's plans. It appeared to have worked, because Windrazor proceeded to explain that Cataclysm was preparing to go back in time in order to correct some temporal imbalance, one that was clearly a matter of considerable concern to Shokaract. His mission was to locate and secure something called the Dark Essence. Sandstorm's reaction to the information was immediate and unequivocal. In short order, Windrazor was despatched to Corumkan, his orders plain. Stop Cataclysm at all costs!
Leonicus considered, letting the full import of the scene sink in. An unforeseen temporal event, Shokaract evidently troubled, a quest for something called the Dark Essence. It had to be the moment, or at least its foreshadowing. Leonicus regarded the expectant faces in front of him. Ariex, Aquator, Capricun and the others, all evidently having reached the same conclusion as he. They could see anywhere except back in time, but they possessed their own Transwarp technology, and could thereby physically traverse the timestream. "Do we know where they went?" asked Leonicus finally.
"Earth," answered Ariex immediately, and with considerable emphasis added: "Earth, at the time of the Beast Wars!"
The Beast Wars. There could be no mistake. Even timelagged and disoriented, Windrazor recognized Megatron, at this juncture in his mighty Dragon changeform, as he reared up vengefully from the mouth of the active volcano, roaring his fury. The Beast Wars, a temporal anomaly in their own right... a Maximal science vessel, commanded by Optimus Primal had been ambushed and attacked by Megatron's rogue band of Predacons during a Transwarp jump, and both groups had found themselves stranded in the past, on prehistoric Earth.
Once there, Megatron sought to rewrite history by destroying the Ark, the vast Autobot spacecraft that had brought the original Transformers to Earth. The Maximals in turn vowed to stop him at all costs, establishing a makeshift base within the Ark and attempting to defend the deactivated Autobots and Decepticons within and thereby the integrity of the timestream. They were destined to both succeed and fail.
But that was all ahead of them, Windrazor realized, and he must do nothing to affect the flow of events. His own presence here was an anomaly within an anomaly, and may corrupt the timestream in any number of unforeseen ways. One misstep, and his own future could be canceled out. Time travel! The part of Windrazor that had been the Veteran hated it with a passion.
Careful not to be observed by the departing Megatron, Windrazor examined his immediate surroundings, snout twitching. He was almost certain that Cataclysm had been destroyed, torn apart in the explosive maelstrom of overspace when the quantum tunnel ruptured, but it never hurt to be sure. Intuitively, Windrazor acknowledged that the Cub, the wild, youthful Predacon in him, would never have even thought to double check, but the older, wiser Veteran had seen too many foes cheat certain death.
In this case, however, the caution seemed unwarranted. Windrazor's senses, heightened to incredible levels of acuity in his winged wolf mode, confirmed that of Cataclysm there was no trace. The only thing that remained to mark his passing was a tracking device, planted upright in the sand. Presumably Cataclysm had dropped it during their battle, and - like Windrazor himself - it had been deposited here.
Windrazor examined the device. While his initial assessment had been correct - its systems busily attempting, he assumed, to locate the mysterious Dark Essence - it was also a Transwarp beacon, designed to send a pulse back through overspace. Currently, that portion of the device was dormant, and Windrazor suspected it would remain so until he had completed the mission. Shokaract left nothing to chance. Should his Herald fail, this was a one-way ticket.
All of which left Windrazor in something of a no-win situation. If he completed the assigned task, he would presumably be whisked back to his own time, but, according to Sandstorm, he would also grant Shokaract his final victory and in the process condemn them all to death.
The tracking device issued a single blip, indicating it had completed its scan. Directional coordinates suggested that the object of its search lay two hundred or so Earth miles due south of his current position. Windrazor scanned the horizon, seeing nothing but heat blasted rock and endless planes of blown sand and scrub. Certainly the view held no immediate solutions to his dilemma, and after a long pause Windrazor spread his wings and took to the air, turning south.
First things first. Locate and identify the Dark Essence. Then decide exactly what to do with it.
Many miles due north, the Maximal Rhinox reviewed the latest data and findings from the now routine sensor sweeps he made of the planet. Sat high on a gantry, erected on and around the Ark's gigantic control and tactical stations, Rhinox sifted and extrapolated a mass of often contradictory information. Belying his ponderous movements and vast bulk, Rhinox's mind was as fast, if not faster, than the very computer systems he utilized. Even before TeleTran One had finished its initial computations, he had isolated a rogue energy pattern that indicated a Transwarp disruption and established a directional trace via the displaced chronal particles that trailed behind the new arrival like scattered breadcrumbs.
Rhinox punched a comm button, connecting him immediately to Optimus Primal. "We have a visitor," said Rhinox simply, a deceptively innocuous phrase that encompassed all their desperate hopes of ever seeing Cybertron again.
It was Cybertron, but not Cybertron. They were at once on their homeworld and somewhere else, somewhere impossibly alien. Nothing could have prepared Sandstorm and his small troop for the fevered nightmare that was J'nwan.
Their journey across enemy territories to J'nwan, part of a quasi-reality juncture with the local traumasphere, had been an ordeal in its own right. Progress across the planet surface became a neuron-fraying battle of wits with Shokaract's legions, the threat of discovery and sudden death a dogged and foreboding traveling companion. Conflict was to be avoided at all costs. If Shokaract so much as suspected Sandstorm's agenda, his response would have been immediate, savage and final. Nevertheless, on two occasions they had been forced to exchange stealth for offense, both times careful to leave no witnesses, no survivors. Three of their number had perished in these skirmishes, and while Sandstorm silently lamented their passing, he was under no illusions. They would not be the last to die in the cycles to come.
J'nwan. Its very existence was an enigma. Many believed it to be no more than the stuff of legend, an ephemeral fantasy fashioned by poets and dreamers. But radically abstract science underpinned the ornate prose. The 'translucent sun, setting on plains of eternity', was in fact a region of quantum flux, a fissure in subspace that rotated through numerous pocket dimensions.
The landscape changed constantly, defying all attempts to navigate. Their minds struggled to cope with impossible vistas of inverted geography and folded perspective, assaulted continuously by twisted logic and chaotic contradictions. Voices from Cybertron's scarred past and uncertain future haunted their steps, echoing from timelost eras to chill the heart of even the stoutest warrior. It was said that Legends lived here, immortal heroes and monsters who had passed beyond the veil, and were now ensconced forever in the pantheon of myth. Even Shokaract had left well alone, choosing to bypass J'nwan during his all-conquering advance across the planet.
Sandstorm was not immune. He was far, far better prepared, both mentally and physically, for the rigors or J'nwan, and yet he too was rapidly succumbing to his deepest fears and insecurities, all of which seemed laid bare, heightened exponentially in the mass of sensory overload. Not for the first time since they had embarked on this quest, Sandstorm wondered if they were chasing phantoms. He had dared so much of late, gambled on increasingly audacious and apparently foolhardy tactics. But events were spiraling out of control, the center was unable to hold, and increasingly the only sane option was lunacy.
Take Windrazor. The idea of fusing two sparks in one being was radical, unthinkable, and yet it appeared to have worked. He'd wanted more time to consider the hybrid, judge his mental stability and resolve, but such relative luxuries had been swept aside in favor of stopping Cataclysm. But even if Windrazor was all he believed him to be, and was able to survive the trials of body and mind that awaited him in Earth's past, even then it may not be enough. No, the Legends were their final hope. He had to both find them and convince them to once more take up the fight.
Without them, they were all as good as dead.
The darkness was absolute, the atmosphere rank and icy as the grave. Windrazor had the distinct impression he was descending into the bowels of some unspeakable creature, too terrible to comprehend.
And yet, his sensors reassured him, he was a mere one hundred meters below the planet's crust, following a fissure that cut a deep scar through the mountain above him. The composition of the rock itself was unremarkable; deposits of strontium, ethmium and silicon making up the majority, the area itself geologically stable. No life signs, indigenous or otherwise, registered, and he could fine no trace of any technology. But still the feeling of unformed dread persisted, mounting steadily as he went deeper. Irrational, Windrazor decided, but potent. There was something down here, something that lurked beyond the realms of comfortable explanation or classification.
Certainly Cataclysm's tracking device had locked onto an energy source of some description, its gentle blips having escalated to ghoulish shriek. It was close, whatever it was.
Ahead, inexplicably, the darkness seemed to ripple, shot through with a terrible, compelling emptiness, itself cast from pure ebon. The disturbance emanated - pulsed - from a larger adjoining chamber, and therein from a pit at its center. But while this unearthly phenomenon was compelling, practically pulling him onwards towards it, the spectacle above was beyond belief, commanding his attention. Though deep underground, Windrazor could see an eternity of stars overhead, swirling in a chaotic tornado of chrono-energy. After-images from across the centuries swooped from the raw wound, assaulting his mind like predatory birds.
Something, Windrazor realized, beating away the relentless barrage with measured analysis, had torn through the spacetime wall, and some further event had reopened the gaping wound. The whole area was on the verge of temporal collapse, reality breaking down in accelerating lurches and spasms. The thing in the pit knew this, and stirred, a baleful, all-too-familiar presence.
Unable to resist, Windrazor looked down, staring back at the very heart of darkness.
"Most base villain," declared Silverbolt, as around him as he and his fellow Maximals came under heavy fire from concealed positions in the rocks above them, "show yourself!"
Megatron duly obliged, he and the remaining Predacons - those both still loyal to him and still functional - breaking cover and closing a pincer maneuver that left the Maximals at a clear disadvantage. "Nice going, dog-breath," deadpanned Rattrap, "you sure rattled their cage."
With Rhinox at the fore, Optimus Primal and the Maximals had followed the telltale trail of chrono particles south from the point of temporal incursion, a trail which led them ultimately into a deep canyon, which itself followed the course of raging river. Anticipation, the all-consuming thought that someone had come back from their future to find them, made them incautious, and the evident potential for ambush escaped them for precious moments. The Predacons took full advantage, and now Optimus Primal struggled to marshal his scattered and besieged forces, returning fire on the advancing Inferno, Rampage, Quickstrike, Waspinator and Dinobot.
Above, in Dragon mode, Megatron circled lazily through the air, enjoying the spectacle. Then, with little or no thought for his fellow Predacons, he turned and headed away, bound - it seemed - for a nearby peak. "Where's Megatron bugging out to?" shouted Cheetor across the din of raging blaster fire. "It's not like him to miss out on such a golden opportunity to whip our tails." Dinobot too paused, following Megatron's abrupt, dismissive exit, his expression dark and brooding. Unreconciled instincts flared hot in the fires of his fragmented Spark, raising questions of divided loyalties and honor, and then they were gone. Or at least reduced once more to mere nagging embers.
Rhinox, his chain-gun pumping multiple rounds towards the enemy positions, knew instinctively where Megatron was headed. "The time traveler," he declared urgently. "This can't be a coincidence, the Preds being here like this. Megatron must have registered the temporal breach just as we did. He's after the visitor!"
"And through him the future," responded Optimus.
Rhinox nodded. "Go!", he urged, without the slightest hesitation. "We'll hold the Preds here as long as we can. Whatever happens, Megatron can't be allowed to return to our era, not while he possesses the Spark of the original Megatron. He's done too much damage to the timestream already."
Unwilling to abandon his troops, but aware also that Rhinox was one hundred per cent correct, Optimus searched for other options. There were none - he had to act. As he transformed to aerial combat mode, Optimus observed with swelling pride as the Maximals returned stoically to the task at hand, their trust in him implicit. Though, as he engaged thrusters and powered away, weaving through Predacon pulse beams, he did hear Rattrap utter, "Ah! Sure, don't mind us. We just work here!"
Sandstorm forged on, alone, lost, his mind derailed. J'nwan had taken its toll. The others hadn't lasted more than a few hours in the topsy-turvey unreality of the region, each of them destroyed or driven insane by whatever personal demons they carried within them. Like a virus, the very existence of J'nwan pervaded their systems, making them question their strongest-held beliefs. It was as though their faith was being tested, and that those judged unworthy were being cast out, purged by the righteous fires of an angry god. His own mental fortitude was weakening progressively, and Sandstorm knew that he couldn't last much longer. He almost cried out at the injustice of it all. All the years, all the long, lonely years, all the pain and sacrifice... and for what? Just as suddenly black despair turned on its head, and the situation struck him as hilarious, his life the butt of some great cosmic joke. He laughed hysterically, reeling as though punch-drunk, and collided solidly with a sheer cliff face that, it seemed, had appeared from nowhere. Pain lanced through Windrazor's skull, and with it came sudden, shocking clarity, a lifeline of sanity dangled before his grasping hand.
Sandstorm clung to the sensation, reinforcing it by slamming himself again and again into the solid rock face. So much depended on his being strong, so many lives. He had to stay focused. He had to hang on.
Sobered, Sandstorm looked up... and up. The cliff that barred his way was impossibly high, stretching towards distant stars, lost in its own towering perspective. There was no way around, the wall of jagged rock disappearing into the distance left and right, the vast but gradual curve suggesting, uncomfortably, that it completely encircled his position. Impossible, but then J'nwan specialized in confounding any formal logic. It was simpler, Sandstorm decided, to simply accept. Fighting the renewed frustration he could feel nipping once more at his already savaged resolve, Sandstorm braced himself...
... and began to climb.
Vertiginous horror rushed up to meet Windrazor, and he staggered, poised on the brink of the abyss, arms pinwheeling wildly. He could feel it in his mind, in every crevice of his body, pervading, defiling, enticing. It was wounded, diminished, but even thus vitiated it was still a colossal, primal force; pure evil wrapped in corruption and dread. Monstrous and all-consuming, Windrazor momentarily lost all sense of himself in the pure void that was its substance.
And then, suddenly, shockingly, he was free, as though the creature had turned its attention elsewhere. Windrazor backtracked, away from the pit, as if a few paces, some empty air, could really muster a defense against its supremely malign influence.
This, this was Shokaract's Dark Essence, and that realization made clear the full, tragic reality of their situation. Whatever desperate hopes they had harbored of stopping Shokaract were instantly rendered futile and naive, childlike in their optimism. How? How could they fight this?
And yet... Windrazor slowly raised his eyes once more, the canopy of unfettered time displayed in all its roiling majesty. This had been unforeseen, unanticipated. Yes, something had happened here, in this era, something not in the original script, an addendum to whatever infernal tome charted the rise and rise of Shokaract. And now the Dark Essence was in danger, on the verge of being pulled back into the timestream. If Shokaract was destined to find it here, on Earth, at some point in the future, then his entire timeline, perhaps even his very existence, was under threat. That was why first Antagony and then Cataclysm had been despatched through time. Shokaract must have felt the first ripples of the impending collapse, sensed the fabric of his reality begin to unravel.
A voice, one that seemed at once a part of him and yet also slightly distanced, preempted the conclusion Windrazor was rapidly catching up to as a whole. 'Do nothing,' it urged. 'Simply turn around, let nature take its course. Shokaract will fall, or at the very least be critically weakened, and all you have to do is walk away.' But just as Windrazor was deciding he liked that idea, liked it very much, another voice offered a contrary suggestion, one that had its own appeal. 'Safeguard it,' the second voice offered, the words measured and tantalizing, ' return with it to Cybertron in triumph and take your rightful place as Herald Maximo, second only to Shokaract himself.' Trapped in the duality of his own splintered personality, Windrazor hesitated...
The colossal blast took Windrazor completely unawares, a boiling stream of plasma fire that struck him full on with jarring concussive force. Windrazor fell, his equilibrium shot, his mind reeling, and Megatron was on him, raining down blow after crushing blow on his exo-structure, finally hurling him bodily into the rock face, the impact almost sending him into complete system shock. Dimly aware, barely conscious, Windrazor saw Megatron approach the pit. The Dark Essence had spoken to him too, having sensed his approach, and in Megatron it had found a more unilaterally receptive mind.
Megatron, enervated by the pure, twisted presence emanating from the pit, reached out his arms, as though welcoming an old friend. "Unicron," he said at last, and then laughed and laughed and laughed!
Time lost all meaning, the climb beyond measure, beyond comprehension. Spasms racked every joint, every coiled loop of servomusculature, the metal on his fingers had been abraded, reduced to little more than a gossamer sheen, barely still protecting the delicate tactile circuitry within. Sandstorm's mind had gone somewhere beyond the pain, seeking refuge in the memory of another place, one that while unwelcoming and severe in its own right, now seemed a haven by comparison, its rigors uplifting. There he had learned, and trained, and prepared himself. For now, for this moment. This - J'nwan, the climb - it was a test, and he would prove himself ready and worthy, or he would die trying.
Sandstorm reached upwards yet again - the motion mechanical, automatic - searching for the next handhold, but found only empty space. Uncomprehending, his hand explored blindly, desperately, eventually finding an edge, and beyond that... ? Frantic, Sandstorm scrabbled for purchase with his feet, finally boosting himself up and over, onto level ground. Gravity, so long his relentless opponent, was a comforting weight, caressing his prone form. For long moments Sandstorm luxuriated in its embrace, until finally, confident that his legs would support him, he stood, taking in his surroundings.
The broad plateau he had reached was wide, swathed in drifting mist, its fused surface punctuated by vast, vertical stones, evidently not of Cybertronian origin. The megalithic obelisks stared down at him with the weight of the ages, standing in silent judgment. Sandstorm felt small and insignificant in their presence, and found himself compelled to turn away. No sooner had he done so, though, than from behind him a voice boomed, its sonorous weight tinged with weariness. "Aren't you the persistent one," was all it said.
Drawing on reserves of energy and resolve he didn't know he possessed, Windrazor launched himself across the subterranean cavern at Megatron, slamming into him full tilt and driving him away from the pit, away from the malign force that had once been the Dark God, Unicron. The two performed a brief, macabre dance, before Megatron recovered his equilibrium sufficiently to twist the still dazed Windrazor around and drive his head down towards the unyielding stone floor. The impact was sickening, awful, and Megatron - duly impressed - immediately yanked Windrazor back up, ready to repeat the motion.
Before he could do so, however, a commanding voice rang out, and with a wry smile Megatron turned. Optimus Primal stood at the entrance to the cavern, a dual-barreled phasic cannon leveled. "Let him go, Megatron," repeated Optimus, motioning slightly with the barrels, "I won't ask twice."
Megatron considered. There'd been little or no chance since he had claimed the previous Megatron's Spark to fully test the limits and durability of his newly recreated form. He was powerful, yes, more so than ever before, but at this range, and with the weapon on full power, there was still a better than good chance he'd be seriously damaged or even destroyed. But the threat was clearly an empty one, Megatron realized. Optimus would not fire upon him, not while he held the very being that had evidently brought the Maximals here in the first place. Megatron shifted his position slightly, positioning the slumped Windrazor directly in Prime's line of fire.
"I think," said Megatron, after a drawn out moment of silent smugness, "that if you have questions for our visitor here, and wish him to remain in any sort of condition to answer them, you will lower your weapon and leave, Optimal Optimus. Yees."
Optimus held Megatron's stare, and while doing so swiftly ran various projected scenarios through his internal combat simulator, all of them bad. Whatever he did next, it seemed, the visitor ended up dead. What then to do? He couldn't just abandon the visitor, but there seemed no other, viable option. Then, for just an instant, Optimus caught the visitor's eye, saw the gleam of intent blossom there, and immediately made his decision. He lowered his weapon.
"Excellent," purred Megatron with a predatorial lilt, and immediately leveled his own weapon. Simultaneously, Windrazor popped retractable claws from the fingertips of one hand and slashed backwards, tearing open Megatron's chestplate, deep enough to expose his twin Sparks.
Megatron gaped, more outraged than hurt, and though still held in a vice-like grip, Windrazor was able to twist himself to one side. Optimus was ready, raising and firing the phasic cannon in one smooth motion. The bolt of energy scorched the air a fraction to the left of Windrazor's head and impacted squarely on Megatron's right shoulder, spinning him around.
Freed, Windrazor angrily flowed forwards, transforming to Beast Mode, and turned on Megatron with a savage fury. His great wings beating in the enclosed cavern, Windrazor abandoned himself to the raw, animal passions that had once fueled his Predacon persona, and in that moment was lost. Lured by the rush of wild abandon, the thing that had been Unicron overwhelmed any remaining resistance in Windrazor's mind and the two became one, bonded in unholy symbiosis. Windrazor's eyes lost focus, and then glowed bright, boiling furiously in the glorious agonies of rebirth. In an instant, he had become a god. Megatron could only look on in horror, pinned in Windrazor's talons, helpless. "Why?", he demanded, but in truth Megatron already knew. The visitor's mind was more pliable, easier to influence.
Unaware of what had transpired, Optimus Primal moved to intervene, and was instantly lifted off his feet by an explosion of pure, destructive force. He crashed to the ground, rolled, and was still. Laughing, the thing that had been Windrazor hurled Megatron brokenly into the pit that had been its prison and soared majestically out of the cavern, bound for the surface.
It was free, free! And the universe shuddered.
"The circle must be closed," insisted Sandstorm, his tone carefully modulated to mask the chagrin he currently felt, "Alpha must reach Omega. Only you have the wisdom and power to ensure that the integrity of the Plan survives the coming conflagration."
The Authority considered, and Sandstorm again found himself awed into solemn, respectful silence by the being he now faced. At first he had been unable to even form cohesive thoughts, the towering figure coalescing before his wide, initially uncomprehending eyes, replacing, it seemed, one of the obelisks he had previously perceived. They were all there he realized, all the legends, they had simply - effortlessly - chosen to mask their presence from his comparatively rudimentary mind with an illusion. The Authority - Sandstorm found it easier to relate to him in these terms, to use his true name seemed incongruously invasive - was so bigger than he had expected, but it was not just physical size, no, it was his sheer presence, the aura of complete and utter majesty he exuded. Sandstorm's initial attempts at eliciting a response from the figure, certainly one that even acknowledged the sheer desperation of their situation, had met with failure.
Slowly, it dawned on Sandstorm that the Authority was communicating with the others telepathically, and while he too had this ability, Sandstorm found himself unable to make sense of the crush of mathematical imagery they used, and ultimately gave up trying, exhausted by the effort. Despite all his many years of training and preparation, he felt uncomfortably like a human baby in the presence of philosophers.
At last, and - Sandstorm suspected - solely for his benefit, the Authority vocalized his decision, addressing him directly. "This war is not our war," he intoned with solemn gravity, "a new generation must carry the torch. Our day is past."
Sandstorm knew that further protest was futile, the debate - such as it was - was clearly closed. "Then Primus's dream," Sandstorm said finally, as the mists gathered, shutting him out, "his Grand Plan, dies tonight."
"Miserable spot for a last stand," griped Rattrap, as the advancing Predacons forced them back still further, the steep canyon wall cutting off further retreat. The river thundered past to their right, effectively sealing them in. Though they had managed to lower the odds against them by one, setting up a web of crossfire that had snared an overconfident Waspinator, blowing him into his component segments, no one was really getting carried away with thoughts of some glorious, against-the-odds victory. They always got Waspinator! To the others' annoyance, Rattrap seemed intent on going out talking. "I always imagined, I dunno, somewhere a little more glamorous," he continued, "somewhere, well, with an audience, replete with swooning fem-bots."
Blackarachnia snorted, rapid-firing another barrage of venom bolts at the darting figure of Inferno, aware that her energon reserves were at a dangerously low ebb. "This is perfect for you," she snarled, "the ideal setting for vermin extermination." Rattrap feigned indignation, but he could tell Blackarachnia shared his sense of outrage. They were going to die here, far from their homeworld, lost in space and time, and no one would ever know. They would forever be missing in action, a minor statistic on a mission log somewhere. It just wasn't fair.
There was a whiplash of explosive plasma, a stifled grunt, and Rhinox went down hard. Cheetor, what little cover he had found - a shallow tributary of main river had cut a narrow gully through the rock - being steadily reduced to powder by the Predacon barrage, looked round in horror. Rhinox was face down in the dust, not moving. It was over, he realized. Over.
Then, suddenly, it was. The Predacon barrage just ceased, no preamble, no shouted order, no gradual ceasefire, no last few shots from the owner of the inevitable itchy trigger-finger. It all just stopped. The beleaguered Maximals exchanged uncertain glances from their various positions, unwilling to believe it could ever be that easy. It was a trap, it had to be. They'd stick their heads up and the Preds would open up again. But something about the terrible, ominous silence that had descended on the canyon so abruptly made thoughts of something as banal and ordinary as a Predacon deception strangely alluring, almost preferable. No, this was something else.
Cheetor was the first, his concern for Rhinox overriding any caution he would otherwise have exercised. He raised himself up on his haunches and peered over the lip of the gully. He paled visibly, his mind struggling to comprehend what he was seeing, and then ducked back down. "What is it?" hissed Blackarachnia. "What's going on?"
For long moments Cheetor didn't respond, he just shook his head, eyes fixed and wide. "You know how bad our situation looked a moment ago?" he asked finally. Blackarachnia nodded. "It's worse," said Cheetor.
The shadow came first, an umbral span eclipsing the harsh sun, and then the figure rose up into view, its vast wings moving in apocalyptic arcs. Part eagle, part wolf, the creature was imposing in its own right, but the true horror lay in the negative after-image that lay superimposed over its form like dark armor. Its secondary features spilled forward ahead of its advance, cast in the many angles of the chaos bringer, the Dark God, the epitomy of all their nightmares.
Optimus Primal stirred, and for protracted moments lay coccooned in semi-consciousness, a comfortable neutrality protected from strife and conflict. But the reality of pain intruded, crossing borders and trampling defenses, bringing with it harsh reality. With gargantuan effort, the Maximals' leader lifted himself to his feet. Of Megatron there was no sign, but the vestiges of released darkness clung to him, its taint unmistakable.
The threat of the chaos bringer, it was long assumed, had been ended by Rodimus Prime in 2005, his evil purged by the Creation Matrix itself. But can evil truly die? Evidently not, and if the thing in the pit was Unicron, then how had it ended up here, in the past? It was possible, even probable, Optimus concluded, that the destruction of Unicron's corporeal form had ruptured the fabric of overspace, displacing Unicron's lifeforce in time and space. It was as if this whole era was some kind of nexus, one with which the their entire race was inextricably linked. Optimus was no great believer in fate, preferring to believe that as individuals they forged their own destiny through direct action or inaction, but he could not easily shake the feeling that millions of years of Transformer history had been leading to this specific time and place, and that as a race, their final destiny would be decided here. Today.
Activating his comm channel, Optimus attempted to raise his fellow Maximals. Whatever the grand scheme of things, their priority was clear. The vessel Unicron now inhabited, that of the visitor from the future, was loose. One way or another, he had to be stopped. Static greeted Optimus's signal, and with it came a mounting dread. Was he already too late?
Sandstorm struggled to take in what he was being told. It couldn't be, not after all they'd been through. It couldn't end like this.
His route out of J'nwan had been direct and to the point, as if the region itself were a conscious entity wanting rid of him. Moreover, he had found himself close to a rebel outpost, only a short march to relative safety. Sandstorm suspected the influence of the Authority in all this, but as helping hands went it was a poor show. Especially given the report he'd just received.
It was the one possibility he hadn't considered, the one scenario he hadn't played to its logical conclusion. It was Point Omega. It was Shokaract.
The creature that had been Windrazor, had once been the Cub, had once been the Veteran, the thing that was now Unicron, surveyed the Maximals below, letting their fear empower him still further. He had caught the Predacons entirely unawares, immobilizing them with blasts of pure psionic force. He would consume them later, at his leisure. By comparison, though, the life energies of the Maximals would provide a far more satisfying feast. Somehow nobility and virtue always tasted better.
The Maximals opened fire on him. He let them, effortlessly bending the plasma beams. He wanted them to see the utter hopelessness of their situation, their despair his appetizer. Then, when he could stand the anticipation no longer, he swooped...
"Well then," asked the Veteran, "what happened to all that 'tiger by the tail' stuff?" The Cub remained sullenly silent.
The two of them were back in the Badlands, the region of Cybertron wherein they had first met and fought, before they had been fused into one recreated whole. It was, of course, not the actual Badlands, it was merely a comfortably familiar backdrop they had established as neutral territory, for what could quite literally be termed a meeting of minds.
"It sounded so impressive," the Veteran continued, "all that talk of preferring death to letting go of your individuality. Hey, I bought it. For the first time I figured you had potential, that it could actually work, you and me. So what happens? One planet-eater wants in and you roll over!"
"He's too strong," the Cub snapped, "I didn't mean to let him in, but he did and now I can't get him out."
"No," responded the Veteran. "No, you can't. But you're not just a you any more, you're a we. This is a partnership, remember? This," he indicated their surroundings, "you and me, it shouldn't exist. We shouldn't be having this conversation. But it does, because neither of us are quite willing to relinquish what we were. We're still fighting each other, when we should be working together."
The Veteran paced. "In that moment in the cavern you took over, I was just a spectator. That was all you in there - wild, undisciplined, full of anger and hate - and Unicron saw it as an invitation. I can help you get him out, he's not as strong as he seems, the destruction of his physical body and the unprotected journey through overspace really took it out of him. But I can't do it as me, just as you can't do it as you. What do you say?"
The Cub met his eyes at last, and then looked away again. "I'm afraid," he admitted finally. The Veteran laughed. "And you think I'm not? But this isn't the end, kid, no. This is the beginning! We can do so much, be so much. Don't let it end here, not like this!"
Cheetor convulsed as the creature's talons closed on his torso and lifted him screaming into the air. He had never experienced pain like this, it was as if he were being torn inside out, all that he was peeled from him in tiny strips. He cried out, begging for swift oblivion, and was denied. The creature seemed intent on taking its time over him.
His fellow Maximals could only look on abject horror, helpless. Optimus Primal appeared, only to discover that his best efforts were likewise insufficient to affect the creature. All of them knew that this was the fate that awaited them.
Then suddenly it was the creature screaming, not Cheetor, or rather the secondary creature, the being of shadow swathed around the winged wolf. "NO!" bellowed the creature, the desperate howl echoing through their minds, "you cannot resist me! I am Unicron, the Dark God, the Chaos-bringer, I..."
The shadows lifted and were gone, flowing away into fissures in the rock, retreating once more into the darkness below, and the winged wolf carefully lowered Cheetor to the ground.
"Who are you?" asked Optimus at last. "And what are you doing here?"
Before Windrazor could explain, his internal sensors screamed a warning at him, registering a massive build-up of chronal energies. "Something's coming through!" he gasped, as time shuddered again, the fabric of overspace stretching and bursting, a vast figure emerging from the rapidly diminishing halo of the portal.
"Shokaract!" breathed Windrazor, and Optimus saw fear in his eyes. Windrazor, who had apparently challenged and defeated Unicron!
Shokaract smiled a terrible smile and gestured. Optimus felt a lurch, just a tiny spasm, and then the pain hit. He fell to his knees, clutching at his chest as his Spark was wrenched from his body.
And then his world went black.
To be concluded.
This story is concluded in the BotCon® 2000 exclusive comic.
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