Smoke hung low and heavy over Praxus, obscuring optics and clogging vents. Here, the once proud city-state stood cracked and charred, covered in ash. The glorious crystals of the Helix Gardens, the pinnacle of Cybertronian art and beauty, lay shattered. Many of the civilians were gone, long since departed or dead. Those who remained had abandoned their civilian ways, forced into more militaristic roles.
Towering above the surrounding ruins, the smoking husk of the Assembly sat. Not so long ago, this building thrived, the center of all Praxian culture and business. Grand halls held concerts, games, presentations, assemblies, and exhibits, and all manner of art and technologies were gathered and displayed here. It was the heart of Praxus.
It had been the first Decepticon target in Praxus.
The Assembly still stood… mostly. One wing had entirely collapsed. Windows had long since shattered under the onslaught. From several of the gaping holes, smoke trickled out. But it still stood, defiant.
From one collapsed wall, several mechs surveyed the city, with both their optics and sensors.
"Anyone have visual yet?" a gruff vocal asked.
"Negative. Signal reads as Autobot, though."
"I don't care. I ain't getting caught in another trap. ‘Til we see who it is with our own optics, guns ready," the first vocal commanded.
The blips on their sensors moved closer. Weapons raised, the group crouched behind their cover, scanning for the incoming signals. In the distance, an explosion ravaged a building, which collapsed with a thundering crash. A couple of the group flinched, turning their weapons toward the sound.
"No distractions," the gruff one said.
A couple muttered, "Yes, sirs," answered him as they returned to their task.
A form moved in the smoke, then two. Guns hummed to life, focusing on the indistinct shapes. Fingers rested on triggers, waiting. Waiting. The two shapes resolved into bipedal forms. Each swept a firearm from side to side and above them. One carried a large arm-mounted cannon. The group tightened their weapon grips, each remembering the infamous fusion cannon.
The two forms paused. The cannon-armed one called out, "This is Treads and Gaterunner. Autobot Division C-17. I know you're here. Please respond. We need assistance."
The gruff one threw a glance to one of his group. He whispered, "Perceptor?"
"The information provided does match with their available profiles and identifying features. Treads: tankformer, member of Division C-17, assigned to Praxus. Gaterunner: scout, member of-"
Their leader waved him to silence and nodded once in thanks. He called out, "That's far enough. Weapons up while we visually confirm your ID."
"Not a chance, until I know who I'm dealing with. No disrespect." Treads turned his arm cannon in the group's general direction. His companion followed suit.
The group's leader grunted. "Stalemate. Alright. But know this, any wrong moves and you're so much scrap." He stepped forward, clearing the haze. "Ironhide."
The three mechs, finally able to clearly see each other, ran visual scans and compared the results to internal records of the others. The two newcomers visually relaxed.
"My apologies, sir," Treads said. "We had to be careful."
"Stow the 'sir', slag, and keep those weapons up. You think we're in some sort of banquet hall here?" Ironhide barked. "Any klik Decepticons could come back. Weapons and optics alert!" The large red mech motioned back to their hideout, continually scanning the terrain and the skies. Especially the skies. They hurried back.
Inside, the two newcomers briefly scanned and ran recognition programs on each of the others, a benefit of a computer "brain," rendering introductions superfluous. One of the mechs inside - a blue and white one the databanks identified as Jazz - smiled sardonically and said, "Welcome to the party."
Treads looked around the small room and its occupants. "We're looking for the forward command."
"You're looking at it," Ironhide said, still gazing over the city.
"What? This? Five mechs?" Treads gestured around them.
"Seven," Jazz piped up. "You're here now."
"We are what we are," Ironhide said. "We'll get the job done."
Treads rubbed his hand over his optics. "How are we going to fight back with fiv- seven mechs? This is the forward command. We should be the center of the offensive!" When none of the others reacted to his words, he sighed. "What's the plan?"
"We wait," Ironhide replied.
Treads turned to face the red mech. "Wait? You're not serious! There may only be seven of
us, but we can still fight back. Ambush patrols. Snipe them. Anything. We need to fight."
Ironhide turned around. "Fighting will come when it's time. Now we wait."
"The Decepticons are scattered, like us. We should, we must, take advantage of that. We can go out, attack small groups, make a difference."
"How'd you find us?" Ironhide asked.
"We fell back to forward command."
"And we were here." The red mech gestured outside. "We leave, anyone else comes here and they won't find us. We need to regroup."
"Then, we send out small groups. Guerrilla squads."
"And leave the others alone? To be ambushed? No. We wait."
"They were right," Treads muttered, barely audible.
"You say somethin'?" Ironhide crossed his arms.
Treads glared off to the side. "No."
"I'm not stupid. Explain yourself, now."
Treads sighed again, looking back at the other. "I heard about you. People talk. They say you've fought in hundreds of battles, killed all kinds of Decepticons. More than almost anyone. A hero."
Ironhide shrugged the label off.
"They also call you an old soldier," Treads continued. "I didn't get that. I admit it. I looked up your record. You're certainly no sparkling, but you're not Alpha Trion either. We're not organic things that wither with age. But I understand now. You've been fighting too long, killing too long. You are old."
Ironhide strode forward, until he stood chestplate to chestplate with Treads. "It's not the fighting or the killing that makes us old. You ain't been here, on the field, long enough to know that. You-"
"Incoming energon signatures!" Perceptor interrupted. "Velocity and trajectory suggest ground-based units. Unable to calculate a specific number."
"Places!" Ironhide barked, returning to the partial cover of the collapsed wall. He brought his weapons to bear. Lowering his vocals, he said, "Autobot?"
"Unknown. Wait. Confirmed: possible four or five Autobot signals on approach."
"Wait till we see them," Ironhide said, mainly for the two newcomers benefit. Decepticons had hacked their sensor nets before, using forged signals to trick the Autobots into believing their comrades were approaching, only to find enemies instead.
The seven Autobots waited, weapons panning from side to side. Each strained their sensors. Their optics scanned the smoke, hoping to find a friendly face. The signals moved closer.
"Anyone there?" a voice called out through the smoke.
Ironhide held his hand up, stilling the others. "Identify yourselves!"
"Sweeper and crew. We're from the Praxus Sanitation Department. Who's there?"
Ironhide ran a data search of the Praxus files he had. Shaking his head, he grimaced. He had records on Autobot military personnel, but not full civilian records. He glanced at the others, but they were equally perplexed. Ironhide stepped forward, one hand still brandishing his weapon, the other gesturing to his companions to hold their positions.
"Ironhide," the red mech called out as he moved clear of the Assembly building. "Come out slowly, weapons up."
"Alright. Don't shoot! We're coming out."
Picking their way through the rubble single-file, four bulky shapes approached. Residue and scorch marks all but obliterated their original colors and designs. The leader - his weapon raised, as promised - dwarfed the others, blocking them from view with his hulking figure. He moved forward to stand before Ironhide. "I'm Sweeper. Is it just you here?"
"Later. Comm's down. I need some confirmation of who you are." Ironhide stood, calmly aiming his weapon at Sweeper's chest. "Who's Deputy Director of Sanitations in Praxus?"
"Of course," Sweeper said. He nodded, glancing over his shoulder at his companions.
Turning back to Ironhide, he jabbed a quick strike at the red mech's gun. His companions scattered behind him, diving for cover. Shots followed them.
Ironhide twisted, using his weapon to deflect the blow. The massive Decepticon grabbed the firearm, struggling to yank it from Ironhide's grasp. Sweeper slammed it against the other's chest. Metal crunched under the blow. A voice cried out from the building.
Releasing his grip, Ironhide dropped to the ground. A heavy fusion blast tore into
Sweeper's shoulder. The Decepticon stumbled back. Another blast took him in the chest. He opened fire on the Assembly, dropping Ironhide's firearm. A third blast struck his head. Perforated with gaping holes, Sweeper fell to his knees. Ironhide swept up his weapon and sprayed several rounds into the Decepticon's chest. The massive mech toppled over and lay on the ground, unmoving.
Ironhide rose to a crouch, optics and weapon sweeping the immediate area. Arm cannon raised, Treads joined him. Machinegun fire ricocheted off of them. Tracking the fire, they unleashed their weapons, and they were rewarded by a pained scream. Ironhide jerked his head towards the Assembly. "Fall back to cover!"
"Negative!" Treads shouted over the weapon's fire. "Incoming signals! Fast! Seekers!"
"Slag!" Ironhide continued shooting relentlessly, targeting another hidden foe.
"They know we're here. The others are moving. We gotta go!"
The Decepticon leaned out, launching shoulder-mounted missiles at them. The Autobots dove to the side, and not a moment too soon; debris blasted out from where they had stood moments before. Cannon raised, Treads fired a return blast. His target ducked back, out of the way. Pausing for an instant, Ironhide aimed and opened fire. His shots flew over the Decepticon. With a ponderous groan, a heavy metal beam above the hidden mech yielded under the barrage. The wall and rubble that the Decepticon hid behind collapsed, burying him.
Jazz ran up to them. "We got the others, but those Seekers are almost on us!"
Distant turbines rang through the ruins, the pitch sounding their rapid approach.
Ironhide shoved Treads towards a collapsed structure. He jerked his head for Jazz to the same building. The red mech raised his weapon skyward. "Take cover!"
"I can help!" Treads argued. He raised his cannon.
They turned their weapons to the crumbling building summits. The distant whine had grown into an approaching earth-shaking roar. Emerging over the tops of the buildings, three
Seekers sped forth in a standard wing formation. They let loose a salvo of missiles. Ironhide and Treads returned fire, fusion blasts and bullets flying in a frenzied torrent.
Farther away, Jazz left the safety of his cover and joined the attack. Ironhide tracked the incoming missiles. Another volley followed.
"They're strafing!" he shouted, diving aside.
The volley made impact. The shockwave rolled over him, knocking him back. His sensors scrambled, completely overloaded; debris pelted him; ash and smoke blinded him. Ironhide regained his footing. Frantically rerouting his systems to bring them back online, he visually scanned the skies. Two Seekers swerved away, one trailing smoke. Another smoke trail arched down to street level, plummeting to a blazing demise. He grunted in satisfaction. Gazing through the smoky haze, the red mech spotted Jazz coming his way. His audios still at 12% functionality, he used hand signals, telling Jazz to check the others.
Ironhide moved forward, scanning visually and, as they restarted, with his sensors. He found his objective moments later. Grimacing, he knelt down. Treads lay on the ground, covered in debris, vital fluids leaking from many—too many—wounds. His darkened optics did not react to Ironhide's presence. Slowly, his chassis faded in color, becoming the same gray as the ash that blanketed the city.
Ironhide laid a hand on the tankformer's shoulder and finished their conversation from before, as if the devastating engagement hadn't yet occurred, as if Treads weren't… gone.
"It ain't the fighting or the killing that makes us old. It's the surviving."