"When I die I shall surely go to heaven, for I have already been to hell."
-Eastman and Laird's
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Three people stormed after Prime as he stomped down the hall in medbay's third floor. Ambassador Duko snapped, whined and pleaded for a few moment's worth of Optimus' time. But Prime already turned Duko to someone else's care.
"This is simply uncalled for!" His cane whacked the metal floor with each long step. "I demand-"
Prime swung around and the EDC officer, Ambassador Duko and Skitter, the rep from Fort Sagittarius, all froze instantly. "Demand?" He echoed. "Did you just use that 'D' word in front of me, Ambassador?"
Duko's mouth dropped. "W-well, yes. That is, my mate and I are here-"
"I am fully aware of that." Optimus answered. "But I do not recall your entitlement to every whim and fancy you please while I am not."
Again, all three followers wordlessly stared.
"After all," Prime continued, "I am the slave of every soldier, flier and scraper in this city. I listen to all their sob stories and forgive their sins. I feed them and give them something to occupy their precious time. Then I get people like you who follow me around like a pack of lost dogbots demanding more than what I can give at one time!"
Those three could not look him in the optic and Optimus pointed down the hallway. "I am going to visit Rusti. You may stand outside and wait. Or you can get back to me TOMORROW."
Never did he envision dying and returning to life. What, he often wondered, what would that do to a person's psyche?
No one seemed to act differently toward him. No one seemed to think it peculiar or freaky that their Prime, their zhat'at'raht, walked among them like a god reincarnated, alive and well.
Well, perhaps not 'well'. Perhaps not even entirely whole. Optimus recalled his depressed behavior prior to Cybertron's 'rebirth.' Was it caused by the Matrix, or was it merely a symptom of his resuscitation? Resurrection? Prime thought of that for a moment longer. No, he was not resurrected. It would imply immortality and Optimus knew he was still mortal.
Most Autobots are either naive or negligent when it comes to their leaders. An Autobot Prime is not entirely 'himself'. A Prime is one person with a soul and a will. But the Matrix chooses its own bearers. And Autobot leaders are, in part, the physical embodiment of the Matrix. Optimus often wondered who was doing the speaking and the fighting; he, or the Matrix. Sometimes he'd catch himself saying or doing things or making decisions that he otherwise would not say or do. And the crazy thing of it is, Optimus did not even have to have the Matrix with him to be influenced by its power.
The Matrix itself is a living entity. It thinks and chooses. It acts and reacts according to its own understanding-which explains the Dinobots and their child-like mentality. The Matrix infused them with life according to what it understood about Dinosaurs. The Matrix tried to imitate life as it was represented on Earth. Otherwise, the Dinobots would have been given Cybrtronian personalities, like Blaster and Perceptor, not like those of Earth, or what it understood of Earth, which meant sometimes the Matrix misinterpreted information.
The Matrix was not a god, but an entity with a soul constructed differently than that of sentient creatures. Its bearers were always carefully chosen to compensate for imbalances of the times.
Then why, Optimus often asked, did the Matrix allow him die in 2005, then allow the Quintessons to bring him back to life in 2007 and again in 2011? Why? He wanted to stay home!
WHY? WHY? WHY?
Even Vector Sigma gave him no answers. But then, Vector Sigma had a problem with arrogance. And perhaps that sounded arrogant of a humble Autobot to think of a super computer as arrogant, but Optimus held little reverence for something that created evil things.
Yes, evil things. Vector Sigma had no qualms about giving Decepticons life. He was responsible for perpetuating the war-just as responsible as Optimus himself and Alpha Trion before him. Guilty! They were all guilty of atrocities! If there was truly a god, why did He allow evil to continue? Optimus repented that last line of thought. He knew Primus was real. He knew because he had seen Primus face to face. Not just in dreams or visions, but when he lay scattered across a desert floor.
The years following his return to life were filled with a great deal of personal and political struggles. The Nebulons became an issue of irritation after the creation of the 'Masters.
Then the religious wars began and . . . Optimus decided he did not want to follow that line of thought. Too many lives wasted because of prejudice. Too great a cost-the least of which was a valuable ally. The Junkions might have been a bit quirky a race, but they were good friends and Prime remembered Hot Rod mourned their deaths until his own death in 2013.
How events can twist and change! And now Optimus found himself in yet another dark place. How could he explain his feelings to anyone? How could he express them, even to himself? Sometimes he felt exhausted, as if something were feeding on him.
Now wasn't that ridiculous? It made him feel so strange. His mind would space out and thoughts melted together so that nothing made sense. And when things don't make sense, he would have to sit for a while and analyze why they didn't make sense.
And of late, Optimus had been doing more analyzing than working. Uncompleted work piled high atop his desk. He once dreamed of swimming in a lake made of digipads and canceled appointments. Other times he'd feel pretty good-a little too good, perhaps, and he'd catch himself softly humming some tune he had not heard in meganiums. And he'd catch himself chuckling at the dumbest things.
Well, everyone could use a good laugh, no doubt.
And then . . . then there was Rusti.
For some peculiar reason, the Matrix found Rusti fascinating, much like it was with Spike. It constantly nagged Prime about her; what she's doing, how she does it, what she thinks. Why? What was the attraction? She was a girl, not unlike other girls.
Well . . . and here Optimus had to laugh. That was not entirely true. Rusti was gifted, not inherited from her grandfather. However, Spike seemed to understand Autobot protocols in ways that no other Human understood them. Spike was even able to read Autobot in just a few months! He was the bravest soul Optimus ever encountered and to this day, Optimus grieved for Spike Witwicky.
Now he had his granddaughter. She touched him in ways no one had in meganiums. She woke something that long since slept; cold embers of a soul that once remembered happiness.
Precious sunshine. Baby bird.
He sat there watching her sleep. She lay so still, so peaceful. It made him feel good just to be with her.
His soul wanted to laugh.
But it was not the laughter of happiness.
Darkness swirled inside him like a cyclone in slow motion. Ah, the colors! Swirl! Swirl! Like ice cream, like the aura borealis. Like the cloud pillars in the Orion Nebula. Swirl, swirl!
And he chuckled ever so softly because he did not want to wake her. He fingered the rim of his flagon of energon, smiling because the swirl inside tickled.
Dark and grey and red and blue and green and it all twisted; a bitter wind in his warm soul. Swirl, swirl.
"Ten little monkeys jumping on the bed.
One fell off and broke his head.
Mama called the doctor and the doctor said
no more monkeys jumping on the bed."
Optimus chuckled softly.
"Ten little monkeys jumping on the bed.
One fell off and broke his head.
Mama called the doctor and the doctor said
no more monkeys jumping on the bed."
Rusti stirred with a deep breath and moved aching joints and a head full of pain. "Op-t'mus . . . why are you singing a jump rope song? You're supposed to go down in number each time you sing it again."
"Is that so?" Optimus softly dared. "Perhaps I need to change the verse:
"Ten little Autobots walking on the line
One fell off and lost his mind.
God called the doctor and the doctor chimed:
Just move on and leave it behind."
It got Rusti's attention and she forced herself to sit up in spite of her headache. "Why are you singing? I've never heard you sing before."
"I used to sing. Long, long time ago."
It was like talking to someone she'd never met. Rusti blinked and tried to wrinkle her brow, but it hurt. "I . . . I don't think you answered my other question, Optimus."
"And what's that, Sweetheart?"
Again she blinked. How often had she heard THAT? Now she became a little frightened. "Um, why are you singing a jump rope song?"
"It's a catchy little tune. Do you like my variation?"
"It's very accurate, you know."
"God talked to a doctor?"
Optimus' demeanor slumped as sadness fell over him in the matter of microseconds. "I wanted to be a doctor." He answered with a voice filled with regret. He could not look at her.
At first Rusti could not grasp what the conversation meant, but somehow the foggy head cleared enough to realize what was going on: Optimus was talking with his heart. She decided to tread very carefully, very lightly so as not to destroy the moment of personal revelation. "I'm sorry, Optimus," she answered softly. "It must be very hard for you at times."
The sadness seemed to lift and Prime shifted his position so that he was not hiding behind his legs. He sat cross-legged and leaned over a little. "There are shadows of the past chasing me. I don't know what to tell them." He paused for a moment: "Rusti, didn't you say that I'm supposed to go down in number every time I sing the song?"
He changed the freakin' subject! No wonder Roddi would get so mad with him! Just bits and pieces of information tossed to the wind like some fool tossing bread bits to a flock of birds. Rusti clenched her teeth over it and set her lips tightly. She forced herself to remain patient, "Yes, Optimus."
He nodded and fell quiet. She waited, but he said nothing more. Rusti groaned inwardly, frustrated enough to choke it out of him. She lay back and thought sleep would be best right now.
"Rusti?" His voice ringed with curiosity.
But Rusti was not in the mood for another weird question. "What?" she grounded.
"What happened last night?"
Rusti looked at him again and noticed a sense of normalcy entered his optics. She wondered what to do. She really wasn't in the mood to do any talking. "Can I sleep a little more and then tell you, Optimus? I'm tired and my head's pounding with a jackhammer."
"Very well, Rusti. Let me know when you're ready."
Rusti would have rolled her eyes were she not in so much pain. She merely closed them and felt Optimus' Presence in her mind. He Touched her just as she fell back to sleep.
She was better the following day. Saturday! She did have homework, but really, she didn't think she could concentrate. Dinobot football was out of the question. The Dino-dingbats would most likely be upset, but it wasn't her fault Cody ran -
"Ohmigod." She slipped into her light blue jeans, snapped on a pair of flats and raced out her room. Lug, Hosehead's companion, caught her in the dash and compensated for her speed by swinging her once. He surprised her so that when he set her back on her feet, she landed on her butt.
Dignity lost, Rusti glared at him.
"Where in the galaxy are you running to so fast?"
"Cody. Last night. The car. Is he okay?"
"No! Cody! We fainted-"
"Oh, yeah. Come with me." He smiled broadly and helped her to her feet. Rusti followed him but needed to find a phone and call his mom. She's probably worried. Lug led her downstairs, right and down two hallways. They stopped at a guest room and Rusti peered through the open door.
"Cody?" She timidly called and stepped over the threshold.
"Over here, Rusti." He greeted.
She turned left and there he sat in bed, his mother in a chair next to him. Ms. Greydon welcomed Rusti with a warm sweet smile as Lug waved good-bye.
"Hi." Rusti returned the smile. "I just remembered bits of last night and Cody's car and-"
"It's okay. I'm alright." Cody sat up straight and brought his legs up to make sitting room for her.
Rusti took the cue and sat at the edge of the bed. Flashes of the Freak's image snapped in her mind one after another and Rusti ordered her mind to calm down. But her expression said everything. Ms. Greydon grasped her hand and squeezed it.
"Don't worry about it, Hon. The insurance will handle the car. All that's important is that you and Cody are alright."
"I don't-I can't believe that something-" Rusti choked up with cold realization. She could not breathe and her eyes went wide. "It was there." Her voice did not rise above a whisper. "I can't believe . . . ohmigod, Cody." She turned to him and tears choked her. "It was trying to kill us."
Cody remained silent for a moment. His beautiful eyes concentrated on her and he laid a comforting hand on her arm for only a moment. "The behavior is not consistent with warranted murder, Rusti. I don't think it was trying to hurt so much as it was trying to communicate." Both women stared at him as if he were crazy. But Cody did not change his theory. Rusti struggled to think of some way to refute his idea. "What about the scream?"
"I dunno." Cody shook his head.
"Wait," Rusti snapped her fingers. "Optimus said he'd look through the archives-"
"He saw it too?"
"Yes. Just after the . . . volleyball . . . incident." Rusti's voice trailed off as she wondered if the Freak was the Voice in her head that caused the ball to explode." She thought a little further and realized Cody and his mom were staring at her. Rusti shook her head and decided not to chase that subject. "Anyway, Optimus said he'd look into it-"
"What's he doing right now?" Cody glanced at his mom. She remained quiet, but pensive.
Rusti just mentally Touched Prime and found him willing to Talk. She smiled just a little. "Will you come with me?"
Cody nodded and she and Ms. Greydon left the room for him to dress. Rusti leaned against the wall and thought about the accident. The moment's silence haunted her.
Rusti thought about saying something to quell the discomfort, "I'm sorry about the car, Ms. Greydon."
Her pretty eyes fell on Rusti with love and sadness but that brought Rusti no comfort. Ms. Greydon put her arm across Rusti's shoulders and hugged her. "Now don't worry, Rusti, honey. Things will be just fine. I'm sure that thing that's been bugging you is an alien of some sort." Then Ms. Greydon stood away from the girl, her arm attached to Rusti as though they were an extension of each other. "Does your mother know?"
"No. Not yet. Unless Optimus said something." Rusti could not look her in the eye. She thought about her family and wished they could be the supportive, loving family that Cody had with his mom. Rusti knew nothing of Cody's dad, except that his mom raised him all alone. Ms. Greydon wiped hair from the edge of Rusti's face and the girl responded with eye contact. Ms. Greydon kissed her on the forehead and Rusti felt warm and comforted.
No wonder Cody was so kind!
Light flickered from the wall behind Ms. Greydon and the ladies turned as the wall flickered like an old-style TV set turned on. Both ladies wore astonishment but only Rusti approached it.
Ms. Greydon was about to tell her to be careful, that maybe it was a malfunction in the city. The wall's color faded into a scene like an old black and white movie with rough edges. Rusti watched as a silent film played, displaying a scene of two huge robots fighting. She did not recognize either robot, except that one was clearly Decepticon. The landscape had to be Cybertronian. Not one tree or blade of grass marred that cold sunless landscape. A building exploded behind the fighting robots and a terrible dark thing emerged.
No, not one thing, millions of things all moving and churning together. They tumbled over one another and the entire mass rose like a tidal wave from the obliterated building only to crash on the ground nearby and the metal flooring disappeared under their appetite in seconds. Rusti watched as the two robots struggled. The Autobot fell first. The Decepticon fell thereafter, blowing from the inside.
"What the hell?!"
Rusti turned as Cody emerged from his room, dressed in a long sleeved shirt and black jeans. His eyes were wide with horror. His mom backed against the other wall, shaking her head.
"I don't know." Rusti answered quietly.
Cody took Rusti's hand and turned to his mom, "Mom, I'll be home later. I'll give you a call."
Ms. Greydon managed to peel her eyes off the scene and gazed at her son. "Okay." Her voice softly wavered in fear. She slid a few inches over before reaching in Cody's room for her coat and purse. She headed down the hall on the way out when she turned and pointed at him. "Be home for dinner, young man." She warned.
"I will." He promised. And Rusti led him up the next level to Prime's office.
Optimus appreciated the music Ambience played. It wasn't the hard-hitting go-go-go stuff that set his nerves on edge. He made it a point to ask about the collection she played so he could play it in private. One song finished and another started without interruption by the announcer. It was a wonderfully familiar song, something out of the mid 1980's. For a moment, he thought how nice it would be to dance to it, and how nice it would be to dance with Rusti.
That was comforting, wasn't it? The slow, sad melody encouraged him to daydream for a moment longer so that in his mind, Optimus could wrap his arms around her. She laid her head on his shoulder and the contact felt so good. Her arms rested about him and it was so nice; just he, she and the music.
But the music faded and Optimus returned to the real world where things like that could never happen. He fingered a digipad of unfinished work. It was a nice dream. But things like that could never, in a million meganiums, really happen.
No, that wasn't right. Optimus was alone in the office.
The goddamned voices were coming back, weren't they?
Five whispering voices followed. Twenty. A hundred. Their words came rushed, unintelligent. They rambled, trying to break though an unknown barrier, maybe even the barrier of death. A million voices topped one another, a crowd, a throng a planet filled with the voices of the dead.
"Leave me alone." Prime bowed over and covered his head with his hands.
And then a scream silenced them all, ending the moment in a climax of terror. Prime flinched as though in pain and jumped from his chair.
COMMANDER? Max's voice interrupted the disquieting sounds and Optimus welcomed it like medication.
He took composure and gripped the back of his chair, not prepared to sit down yet. "Yes, Max."
MISS WITWICKY REQUESTS AUDIENCE.
That was odd. Why didn't Rusti just flat out ask him? "Let them in, Max."
The doors swished open and the teenagers entered. Prime all but ignored Cody. He stared at Rusti's pretty red hair and remembered the nice (this was hard to admit) . . . fantasy of he and she dancing and he tried to imagine what it would be like to touch her hair.
Wait a minute! This was wrong! He was a . . . Primus, he was a robot, an Autobot leader, and he had no business thinking about such matters!
Optimus shoved the idea aside, but doing so left him despondent. The one thing he truly wanted in life, other than death, was to . . . to . . . l-l-looove . . . (SAY IT, DAMNIT! SAY IT!) LOVE! Love Rusti!
Prime found himself trembling and turned his attention to Cody and he shoved all personal matters aside. This was business, no matter how tired he felt, or how uncooperative his mind wanted to be, it was business. Maybe their reason for being here was simple and could be easily remedied and he could return to his silent darkness.
At least the whispering noises were gone.
"Hi, Optimus." Rusti greeted him with an uneasy smile.
At least she wasn't holding Cody's hand, Prime thought.
"I'm sorry to bother you."
Her sweet gentle voice put him at ease and Optimus felt well enough to sit in his chair and attend the moment. "I'm glad you came." Well, that just spilled out and it probably sounded absurd.
"Optimus, I remembered about Cody when I got up, and I went to see him and while me and his mom waited outside his room, we saw something weird on the wall, like it was a television set and then it just faded out."
Prime's innards ran cold. "As if it were something from the past, perhaps?" He asked carefully.
"Yes!" Rusti's face brightened. "Yes, we saw two robots fighting and then this black wave destroyed a building and attacked the two robots like a-like a nest of ants."
Prime tilted his head just slightly. He struggled to recall such an event. Maybe it was something that did not happen in his lifetime.
Oh! Oh, Primus! It meant that he was not the only one suffering from delusions! Someone else- Prime knew he had to handle this carefully. "Rusti, did Ms. Greydon see this, too?"
Cody answered for her instead, "yes. Both of them saw the same thing. My mother went home and Rusti said that you were going to do a little research on that . . . thing we ran into last night."
Prime bowed his head in his hand.
"You forgot," Rusti assumed.
"I did," he mourned. And he never forgot things! He used to know how to manage his time but now his laziness kept him from performing his duties. He was failing and this could mean everything he worked so hard for would collapse.
No, he was being paranoid!
Okay, Prime told himself, one thing at a time. "We can look it up right now," he suggested.
She smiled. Rusti smiled! That was so precious! Optimus helped them to the top of his desk and he swiftly plucked up digipads and stacked them. Rusti sat on one pile but Cody remained standing. Prime refused to give into the temptation of touching her hair. If Cody weren't around . . . Optimus settled to the task at hand, actually glad someone else was there with him. "First," he snapped on the flatscreen monitor. "we'll need a description. Computer, Dimensions program, please."
The monitor flickered on, fell blank then zapped back with a light blue background and a flickering cursor. Prime turned to Rusti and pointed his hand toward the monitor. It was her turn.
"Um, it's about six feet tall-"
"Eight." Cody corrected.
"It's about eight feet."
Rusti wrinkled her brows, but now that she considered it, Cody was right. She nodded. "It's about eight feet tall with legs like a pair of tweezers."
A set of tweezers appeared on the screen.
"It has a triangular head."
The screen displayed a triangle at the top of the 'tweezers'.
"No," Rusti objected. "The top of the triangle is down." She watched the computer flip the triangle and the girl shook her head. "This is too slow, Optimus." She complained.
Intrigued, Prime rested his elbow on the desktop and his chin rested on his hand. "Do what you need to do, Rusti." He answered. Rusti ignored his uncharacteristic posture and glued her eyes to the monitor. Prime glanced at Cody with a private smile. He couldn't wait to see Cody's response.
The screen wavered and Cody's mouth dropped as the computer changed the configurations of the drawing on its own. The triangle head squared off and horns shot from the top of the head. A visor etched its way across the face. The mouth, drawn as though in a scream, appeared without the computer being told what to do. The torso-less legs were rounded down and the figure shaded out in dark brown and black at first, then faded into purple and molted with tan.
Rusti drew a deep breath and Prime's attention drifted from Cody to the screen, closely examining the figure that he too, had seen.
"How did you do that?" Cody asked her, breathless.
Rusti turned to her companion and silently shrugged. "When I was nine, I was injected with alien DNA. The results have been . . . surprising." She smiled wryly when Cody's eyes scrutinized her like a bug in a petri dish.
Prime broke the moment with his authoritative voice: "Computer, reference image on screen." The computer started accessing files and linking to several other libraries.
Cody's face twisted in perplexity. "You never told me you could do things like that!"
Rusti's eyes glued themselves to the monitor as the computer leafed through hundreds of databases around the world and linked to other databases in other Autobot Fortress-cities. "You never asked me." She answered quietly.
"Hmph." Optimus' optics sparked and Rusti copied his smile.
Cody couldn't keep his eyes off her. "So . . . what else can you do? Can you make stop lights go out, that kind of thing?"
"I don't-" Rusti cut herself off and turned. Icy fingers made lines down her back but when she turned, nothing stood behind her.
First a masculine voice whispered inaudibly. It was joined with another and another. All three whispered from the walls. Optimus, Cody and Rusti bounced their eyes from one wall to another as one voice started speaking,
I looked to the sun
I looked to the sun
As they laughed
I looked to the sun
And they played dead
I looked to the sun
Cry, cry, their souls are dead
I looked to the sun
The voices started to fade back into the recesses of the cold metal walls:
I looked to the sun
I looked to the sun
The lights flashed out. Rusti screamed. The very next minute the lights came back and the computer monitor flashed: NO REFERENCE. NO REFERENCE.
After a long moment, Cody slipped his arm across Rusti's shoulders. Her face fell pale with fear. "What does that mean, Optimus Prime?" He asked quietly.
"One of two things:" Optimus did not take his optics off the monitor, "Either the creature or thing that you saw is a new alien species. Or it doesn't exist."
"That's not true!" Rusti snapped. "We saw it! It damaged Cody's car!"
Prime looked at her in sad silence. Then he turned back to the monitor, tracing the image with his finger. He really didn't know what to think.
The intercom bleeped and Optimus pressed an area on his monitor. "This is Prime." He answered deadpan.
"Commander," Strike Back's voice filtered through a static background. "I think you need to come see this."
"See what, Strike Back? Where are you?"
"Communications, sir. At the fountain."
"I'm on my way."
Rusti and Cody followed the Autobot leader to the Communications area/Eastgate entrance to Fort Max. Along the forty-foot wall of 'Communication Station' (coined by Blaster) flickered a huge scene like a movie or, rather, something more like a photograph that stood still then moved then stood still again. Prime watched, wordless. A long scene depicting the destruction of Crystal City paused and moved every few seconds.
"What IS that?" someone asked.
Optimus could not answer. His own mind raced back, long before there was an Earth, or a group of renegade Autobot warriors. He remembered that city: the pride of Cybertron. Crystal City was called the City of Peace by the Autobot Council of Elders.
Millions of people died horribly when the city collapsed. Ambassadors from other worlds were killed and treaties, necessary to keep Cybertron in supply of power and raw materials, were broken. While the destruction of Crystal City was not the start of THE War, it was a dark moment that perhaps sparked enough anger in many Autobots to pick a fight.
Ironhide once mentioned how he grieved for that city. He lived there once. "Nothin' was there no more." he said, "Not one soul surv'ahved. Not one article weren't broken. The Constr'cticons leveled it all."
And maybe that was why Ironhide was among the first of the Autobot underground rebellion.
Optimus pulled himself back to the moment and turned to Strike Back. "Analysis?"
Strike Back turned to Quasar who kept scanning the apparition. She shrugged and rather than passing her information through Strike Back, maneuvered around him. "Scanners indicate it's not there, Commander," she reported.
"What?" Optimus was hoping he hear wrong.
"It's not real." She confirmed. "We see it, but it's not producing any energy, it's not projecting any light waves, there's no radiation, there's no microwave frequencies; zippo. Even Max says he's not aware of what's going on."
Prime watched as Silverbolt stepped to the wall and touched it. His hand lay over the image as though it were a TV screen, or a painting. "Then . . . what is it?" He was asking himself, not her.
Prime's optics diverted to Rusti and there behind her stood the evil Freak. It did nothing, said nothing; a statue frozen in a hideous screaming expression. Optimus' optics darkened dangerously. Don't you touch her, he thought. Don't you dare touch her!
It folded up and wasn't there any more.
Optimus suddenly felt very tired and wondered where Rodimus was in all this.
PERIMETER CHECK: WEST CASCADE. 4:28 A.M. SPARKABOT FIZZLE, REPORTING.
Rodimus softly laughed and scrolled down, down the long boring report. He caught words like 'forest' and 'road' and 'tree'. He shook his head. "Boring, boring, boring." He muttered. "We need to spice this story up a bit."
So Roddi decided to input the following:
SPARKABUTT FRAZZLED WENT TO THE FOREST IN THE LATE AT NIGHT.
HE DANCED AND PRANCED AND FRANCED AROUND.
THEN A DRAGON CAME FROM THE TREES AND INVITED HIM TO TEA.
FRAZZLED WAS AN IDIOT, NOT REALIZING YOU DON'T TRUST DRAGONS THAT COME FROM TREES. SO HE WENT ALONG, MERRILY SKIPPING AFTER THE DRAGON.
THE BEAUTIFUL DRAGON.
THE DRAGON THAT WOULD DO HIM HARM.
OH, SWEET, SWEET, DEATH IS SWEET.
PUT HIM IN THE POT LIKE A BLOB OF MEAT.
SWEET, SWEET, HIS BODY WAS SWEET.
I HEARD HIM SCREAM IN PAIN; IT WAS A TREAT.
Rodimus reread his work and smiled, very pleased with himself. "That's better," he said quietly. He tossed the pad aside in the "done" pile and picked up another. All this work had become so much ritual anymore. People go about doing their little jobs, living their useless little lives and then they try to write it down in their reports. Well, the idiots really wouldn't amount to much anyway. Not really. There were very few people in Fort Max that were worth their energon in weight. Magnus . . . Magnus was a pretty cool guy. Oh, he'd get on Roddi's nerves from time to time. After all, the Major-general didn't know how to smile.
"Could always teach him." Rodimus thought aloud. He scanned the next digipad and sighed. Yet another boring scouting report from north-by-north-west. He tossed that one without another thought.
Optimus-ooh, Optimus was a nice thought. Now he was worth the competition. Roddi paused, his optics darkened. What to do with the Big Guy-oops.
Roddi laughed. The Big Guy was Magnus. No, no. Mustn't confuse the two. Maggy . . . Ulti? Ulti was a bit somber, but at least he could lighten up. Opti, well, there was a problem there. Opti had a serious problem.
Yes, he did.
Rodimus tapped the edge of the next digipad on his chin and stared at his office door. What was to be done with Optimus Prime?
He was always so glum.
And Roddi remembered Magnus telling of an incident several years ago. Optimus was doing something (Rodimus couldn't remember off hand) and he fainted in public. He was, apparently very sick. Mental illness was not uncommon among Transformers. But for an Autobot leader to become mentally ill . . . why that's a breach of trust. Things like that aren't allowed.
The Matrix would not allow such things, surely!
. . . that's right. The Matrix. Maybe it WAS the Matrix's fault. Maybe? Maybe?
That's right. Optimus was supposed to die. The Matrix ALLOWED him to die and the barbaric Quints thought they could play god and brought him back-oh, oh that was filthy! Filthy! A walking corpse, and he, Rodimus Prime, was too stupid and selfish to realize something was wrong! He should have killed that body then! He should have put Optimus back in the grave! But he was too stupid and selfish to think of such a thing. The resurrection was unholy! But all he could think of was "Op's back and I can go play again!"
Rodimus reached around and plucked up the circuit board he played with a little at a time. It was designed to create a neutrino field to trap Optimus and hold him. But he knew it really wasn't going to work. First of all, neutrinos were hard to come by, let alone harness. And secondly, how could he outsmart Prime enough to trap him?
Well, it was just a toy-thing anyhow. Roddi bounced the side of the board in his hand and thought for another moment. Perhaps it was time to turn the toy into a weapon. A really good weapon. He'd want to make Optimus' death as painless as possible, if he were to do it.
On the other hand-and here he put the board back down and swept up another pad-he loved Optimus. Optimus Prime was the center of the Autobot's existence and maybe his coming back to life was no accident.
"Couldn't be an accident." Rodimus said out loud. He sighed and started to read the pad now that his mind had cleared. He signed the document, indicating he read it and reached for another pad when the wall near the door flickered. Rodimus glanced, stunned, as the wall, acting like a movie screen, played a scene out of his own past, a scene he could not forget-the time when he lost his mind to the Hate Plaque.
How many lives did he take?
He ran right over their soft bodies as though they were insects. That was evil. Evil took over the galaxy that year. That was just as filthy as Optimus' body coming back to life on the mausoleum.
Rodimus saw his life as a requiem. It was HIS fault Optimus died to begin with. It was HIS fault the plaque got out of hand. It was HIS fault those seventeen people lost their lives during the plaque-YES, GODDAMN IT! SEVENTEEN! ALL OF THEM SQUASHED UNDER HIS TIRES LIKE SOFT LITTLE BUGS!
And Rodimus dropped the pad in his hands and bowed over and softly mourned. Roddi wept. All those dead people, Optimus' tortured soul. All because he could not do anything right.
What could he do to rectify it all? What could he do to cleanse his soul of this shame and evil? What could he do to make it all right again?
His mind drifted back to the ugly nightmare-the priests and their flowing robes and the alien wall and the sacrifice-that poor soul fed to the monster so that others could prosper.
Was that what he needed? A little ritual?
Humans performed religious rituals. There were enough religions on Earth to speak of the need for ritual.
Rodimus decided he would try a ritual cleansing. But it would take time to plan and prepare.
And then it dawned on him: why was the wall acting like a TV set?
And why did he just sit there for two and a half hours, doing nothing but rationalizing? And why was he thinking of killing Optimus?
What was wrong with him?
The incident at Communication Station set the whole city on stand-by alert. In spite of the pensive mood, however, Rusti still returned to school Monday. She was not looking forward to meeting Freak in the halls or in the classrooms. It was the last thing she needed, especially now.
Just before catching the bus, Rusti overheard EDC officers talking about the battle beyond Pluto-or on Pluto, or something to that degree. Three Autobots apparently died and Magnus had broken contact in the middle of a report. That would be enough to set Optimus and Roddi on pins and needles. One or the other of them will no doubt be taking off today to assist Magnus. Springer was still investigating a series of abductions and ritual killings.
Nothing seemed safe to her and Rusti held her books tightly as she entered first period civics classroom.
Jennifer wove in and around other students until she sat at the desk next to Rusti and rested her head on her back pack. "How was your weekend?" She asked quietly.
"Lousy." Rusti answered without looking.
"Mine too." Jenn quietly returned. "My folks got into another fight and my mom took off and hasn't come back yet."
The bit of sad news touched Rusti and she gazed at the slim girl with long dark hair and dark eyes. "I'm sorry, Jenn."
She shrugged. "It's not my fault. I just wish they could be happy with each other, you know? I thought when people married, they did it because they loved each other. I didn't know sex and good looks was such a big issue. I guess I'll never get married if that's the case. If I get pregnant, I'll gain weight and the guy will get turned off and find some other girl like my dad did." Jenn turned away, embarrassed by her tears.
Rusti sympathetically laid her hand on the girl's arm. Jenn forced a smile and wiped the tear from her cheek, careful as not to smudge the mascara from her eye.
"Good morning, Class." Ms. Chanonbrow thunked a pile of thick books on her desk at the front of the room and closed the door as a last student slipped in.
Jenn leaned over a little to whisper: "Rusti, word has it that Tina bitch has something planned for you in PE."
"Miss Livier." Channonbrow's voice rang like a gong. "I hope the message you have for your friend there is for everyone."
"I'm sorry, Ms. Channonbrow. I was just asking about homework."
"Well, you're in luck, even if you did not pay attention last Friday, Miss Livier. We had none."
Rusti contacted Jenn with her eyes and merely mouthed the words THANK YOU.
Jenn nodded with a smile and rummaged her pack for book and paper.
Channonbrow stood in front of her desk and leaned against it. "Today, ladies and gentlemen, we will begin discussing the Constitution of the United States and how a simple piece of paper calls not for the rights of its citizens, but freedom based on their own integrity. We will study the necessity of integrity and how freedom demands more responsibility and self-control of its citizens than that of a tyrannical society."
Rusti was fascinated with the class because she often compared Human societies to the Autobot society. But she was still glad when second period bell rang and she made her way to the gym.
The girls gave Rusti a wide berth as she entered the locker room. Some of them gave her weird, fearful looks. Others acted a little smug, a bit threatened. Rusti paid them no mind and dressed down.
Tina and four of her friends approached Rusti as she slipped on her shoes. All the girls stared at her with hard, angry eyes. Tina folded her arms defensively. "We don't want you to play today, Witwicky."
Rusti remained cool as she folded her jeans and tucked them into her locker. She wasn't sure whether or not to say something.
"I said, stay away from class." Tina growled.
Rusti did not want to look her in the eye. She did not want to get into another fight and be sent back to the principal's office and possibly suspended. She folded her blouse and set it in the locker. Tina grabbed her by the shirt, her fingers gripping round Rusti's bra straps and their eyes locked.
A sense of cat-like calm touched Rusti. There was no need to be afraid of someone who really could not best her in a fight. She knew that. "Better be sure you can finish what you start, Tina." She answered quietly.
"Are you threatening me, Witwicky?" Tina spat through her teeth, her upper cheeks flushed slightly.
"You make a guess at it, Rezendes." Rusti glanced at the girl's whitened fists as she gripped more tightly.
"We don't need no freaks in class. We don't need no machine-loving freaks in the school."
"Is that what this is really about, Rezendes?" Rusti spired. "You hate Transformers?"
Tina let her go just like that and backed away. Rusti frowned, saddened to discover her guess was right. It wasn't because she was endowed with unnatural abilities, but because of her alliance.
"I guess it's common enough." She said in forgiving tones. "A lot of people hate the Transformers because they've lost loved ones during all the battles between the Autobots and Decepticons. Many people were enslaved by the Decepticons more than once."
"SHUT UP!" Tina swung for a strike and faster than anyone's eye could follow, Rusti caught her flying fist and the two girls locked eyes.
Coach Rhydt's head poked around the door and opened her huge mouth. "Girls! You're already late. Don't make me give you detention, too!"
Their fight broke. Rusti closed her locker and made her way toward volleyball, leaving Tina alone with her friends.
Sammy was serving on Rusti's side today. Rusti hoped things would go smoothly as they did last week, but something bothered her at the back of her head. She wasn't sure what was wrong, but she hoped with all her might it would not interfere with school. She was having enough trouble without something else disrupting her scholastic life.
The ball sailed over the net and Angie sent it right back. Nell beside Rusti jumped under the flying (new) ball and bounced it off her fists just so and Rusti slipped under it, sending it back to the other side.
Cali tried to whap it, but her strike turned it downward and Brandi leapt to the rescue, landing on her knees and punched it up with her clasped hands. Jo managed to send it back over the net.
Rusti whacked it back to the other side just as Tina emerged between the doors.
Rhydt blew the whistle and the ball fell with an echo. "Well, class, looks like we have been graced with Miss Rezendes' presence. Thank you, Tina, for joining us."
Rhydt didn't see it coming. Tina gave her a left cross, sending the coach to the floor. Tina calmly walked away, resuming her position at the net.
Rhydt called security.
P.E. was over the second security burst through the doors and escorted Tina off the floor. The ladies showered and took their time dressing while Rhydt explained between tears what had happened. She acted as though she were beaten to death and Rusti thought it cowardly of the teacher for not striking back. It's what Tina wanted. It's probably what she needed. Maybe the girl's home life was wretched and she was trying to reach out the only way she knew. At any rate, Tina now sat in the principal's office instead of Rusti and the young lady could not be more relived. In fact, Rusti was sure she could handle psych after this.
Third period bell rang and she swept up her books and meandered around other students toward class. She stopped abruptly when Cody stepped right in front of her. Rusti blinked.
Cody handed a single rose to her with a smile. Then he was gone again, lost in the stream of student bodies. Rusti stared at the flower as the five-minute bell rang.
Ohmigod, she thought. That is so sweet! She smiled and tried to make a dash to class as the hallway emptied.
* * *
The city's streets rolled in cold October weather. Fog spirited in and around the old wooden buildings so that the colors faded even in the light of street lamps. Folks who knew the night was bad, scurried to and fro, as though fearful of the boogie man.
Optimus and Rodimus made their way down the same cobbled street in the cold, damp weather. The heavy mist trailed a layer of moisture atop everything and in the light, it looked as though the cold dim city were blanketed by dew fairies.
Optimus had been here before, long, long time ago. The old city resembled an eighteenth-century England-except there really was no daytime here. There was light and there was night and so the city always stood in near-oppressive dark. But the folks who lived on this world were a cheerful sort who did everything they could to welcome strangers and those in need.
This place wasn't a dream, so much as it was a Matrix memory. It remembered the details right down to the series of broken cobble stones in front of the sheriff's office.
Neither Autobot leader had any idea what time it was. The street clippity-clopped with the pattern of portor's hoofs as a young alien couple made their across town. Optimus and Rodimus entered the nearby coffee shop and glanced about. The light fell in warm circles round the café bar and just above each table. The welcoming scent of cinnamon tea and rich dark coffee drafted in their faces. Optimus liked the smell, but Roddi found it a little too new.
A young Humanoid waitress lightly footed toward them, holding a menu close to her bosom. Her dark blue hair twisted up about her head and glistened with strands of pure gold. Her eyes glinted solid blue and sparked white like a crystal under light. Her heart-shaped face apt to smile easily and her glossy lavender lips parted with warmth and genuine consideration.
"Um . . .yes." A confused Optimus answered.
"Of course it is!" The girl chirped. "I never forget my Chosen! Optimus, you never could play games right! Come this way!"
The two leaders exchanged a glance and followed the girl to a window seating. She set menus before them and scribbled something over her pad.
Optimus stared at the menu and frowned when he watched the letters and pictures rearrange themselves into a face that looked like Torq III. Torq smiled, then faded from view and the menu resumed with its usual interplanetary selection.
Rodimus laughed. "Unicron Surprise!" He slid the menu to the left so Optimus could see it. But Prime only shook his head.
The waitress' solid eyes bounced from one Prime to the other, blinking each time she gazed at either Optimus or Rodimus.
"Tell me what you need and how to do it." She asked quietly.
Both Autobot leaders gave her their attention.
Optimus was just reading about the side dish of Multiformers with Corsidian stew next to it. "I'm afraid I don't follow."
The waitress frowned and a chair appeared behind her. She sat in it like a lady of royalty and again her large pupilless blue eyes blinked from one leader to the other. "You are my Chosen. You are sworn to serve me and my people. You must solve this riddle."
Rodimus shrugged. "Two and two is four."
"No." The waitress' voice came firm, "it is not. The walls are bleeding. I weep when I rest. I fight to hide the children but it seeks them out. Time is a lost commodity. And I fear for the girl."
Optimus tried to guess but could not. "What are you talking about?"
"The same thing that lures you to sing. The thing that speaks with many voices. Shalatta calls it Faceless Darkness. What does she mean?"
Roddi now understood: this was one of many, many personifications the Matrix presented itself. Sometimes it was a war god. Sometimes it was a teacher. Sometimes it even came to him as a lover. But why THIS personification? Why this very setting? Who were its children?
"I do not know." Optimus answered quietly.
Before their optics, the café disappeared, replaced by a black backdrop and the Matrix's root persona appeared in its graph-form. WE STRUGGLE TO REMAIN IN TACT. TIME BLEEDS HERE. THE CHILDREN ARE IN DANGER.
Rodimus stared at it-
-It- It? The Matrix was not a thing. 'It' was neither male nor female. All such devices of power were entities, not persons, not female, not male. They existed on planes of reality unlike that of sentient or super creatures. The Matrix was alive, but neither person, animal nor god.
PYRT, Roddi thought. That's what the Matrix was: Pyrt. (Peert) Not any classification of life forms as they knew, understood or could register.
He was about to ask a question regarding the walls in Fort Max when the table under his arms started to melt away. Actually, 'melt' was the wrong term. It simply 'blacked' into nothingness.
The waitress came back the next minute; the café scene returned with her. "Run." she whispered. "It must never find you! Run, my loves!"
Optimus abandoned the table first, paused and glanced back to the waitress. She came and kissed the fold of his face. "Run!" she whispered. "Don't let it catch you!"
"What is going on?" Prime demanded. "What's wrong?"
But she shook her head. "The walls keep bleeding and the children are in danger. Run, run! Run, run!"
Prime took the warning to heart and he bolted through the door and found no footing there. He fell through the ground-and he fell
Just one scream. It lasted an eternity. And that scream echoed clear back millions of years and that scream was echoed by hundreds of innocent Autobots, tortured to death. And that scream echoed the same terrible sound Optimus screamed on the mausoleum.
Roddi bolted straight up, finding himself in his office, surrounded by digipads and odds-and-ends parts. He glanced all around and realized that he fell asleep while working.
And then he remembered one word: Pyrt.
The Matrix was Pyrt.
SHATRA'ZHAN. AL'ART ALNON. KES PRES PLAFLAN, BLOON NOYAN RAN.
Power surges ran up and down Roddi's infrastructure. What the hell was that?
AND HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN, PRIME, THAT I MADE YOU?
"Who's there?" Rodimus stood and circled his office, sloshing among digipads and assorted machine bits and pieces. "I SAID, who's there?"
And the whisperers came in droves, all talking at once, all saying something to each other or someone not there. They all talked aloud, all aiming their discussions at Rodimus Prime. He bowed over and covered his audios.
"I'M NOT LISTENING!" He shut off his optics. "DID YOU HEAR ME?! YOU DON'T EXIST! YOU DON'T EXIST!" Another idea entered his mind and Rodimus searched the empty ceiling. "Max?! Max, record these sounds! Hurry!"
TO WHAT SOUNDS ARE YOU REFERRING, RODIMUS?
"WHAT DO YOU MEAN 'what sounds'?!" Rodimus nearly blew his temper. "Those obnoxious noises, the voices, Max, dammit! Record them!"
I'M SORRY, COMMANDER. I AM RECEIVING NO SUCH TRANSMISSIONS.
"WHAT?! They're coming in through the damned walls, Max! How could you not hear them?"
The city fell quiet for a moment then came back with: THERE IS NOTHING CREATING VOICES EXCEPT YOU, RODIMUS PRIME.
"Oh!" Rodimus shouted above the annoying voices, "so now I'm crazy! Is THAT it, Max?"
"Yeah! I wish I had a PAYCHECK every time someone said that to me!" Rodimus pitched his voice higher: "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" he mocked. "If people were really as fucking sorry as they say they are, the galaxy would be a better place!"
-I thought you said it was important.-
-transform, but be silent.-
-the death of millions is inconsequential compared to galactic peace.-
-choose your weapons carefully.-
-they said they would. They promised.-
-I hate this place. I miss my home.-
-oh primus, primus, when does the pain end?-
Rodimus swept up one of the larger digipads and smashed it against the wall. The sounds still came and he proceeded to throw several other pads against the wall, smashing them to fragments. "SHUT UP!" he shouted at the top of his voice, "shut up! Shut up! SHUT UP!!!"
And suddenly they did. Roddi threw a last pad against the wall and it wasn't until the pieces clattered to the floor that he realized what he had done. He moaned in regret and turned away.
Another whispering voice entered the sudden silence of his office:
-FORGIVE ME, forgive me. FORGIVE ME, forgive me. FORGIVE ME, forgive me-
Rodimus scowled and turned back around. He faced a 'moving photograph' of an older Alpha Trion stuck somewhere among a pile of debris. Unlike other image 'play backs' displayed on Max's walls, this one had sound. But it was the same moment, played a like an ancient nylon record with a scratch in it: Alpha Trion lay trapped and severely wounded, his face a mask of suffering and regret.
Puzzled, Rodimus searched his data banks for the record of this particular moment and could find nothing-unless . . . unless it happened just prior to the creation of the Aerialbots. Prime did mention how they found Trion injured as they tried to stop the Decepticons from reaching Vector Sigma.
The pathetic image played several times more before finally fading. It left Rodimus cold so that he had to leave the office. Perhaps it was time to discuss this business with Optimus Prime.
Rusti stood waiting for the bus. Students filed around her, shouting at one another, sometimes bumping into her without enough manners to excuse themselves. She stood, a world away, almost dreading the return to Fort Max.
Something still nagged her at the back of her mind. Was it something to do with Optimus and Roddi? Maybe she was just imagining it all. That could be it.
The city bus arrived and Rusti boarded, flashing her pass at the driver. She sat beside an EDC officer and instantly put her nose in a book.
"Hey, Marge," the officer beside the girl called across the seat, "how about lunch tomorrow?"
"Can't," the woman objected sadly.
"Been assigned to Pluto."
Rusti did not move her head, but her eyes lifted toward the woman across them. She was wearing a less formal EDC dress uniform. "You didn't hear? About three o'clock this morning, they brought in Blaster and Chromdome with bad injuries. Word has it the battle out there is getting pretty bad."
"So they're sending a woman there to straighten things out?"
"Very funny, Viguard. If that were the case, Fairborn would have already done it."
"Yeah. When do you leave?"
"As soon as I get there."
Rusti stared at the woman's booted feet and wondered when Magnus was going to get back, and if he'd be back in time to put a stop to whatever's going on.
She arrived at the cafeteria about a quarter to five and set her back pack down. She missed Cody and wished he could have come along and studied with her.
Rusti raided a refrigerator and served herself a small bowl of strawberries and vanilla ice cream. It was going to be a long silent evening. She'd study up through dinner then retire to her room.
Yuck and double yuck. By the time she reached English, the clock warned her it was close to ten P.M.; bed time. Homework seemed endless and tough at times. But Rusti was determined to get through it, even if she had to stay up past midnight.
She reached for her Dr. Pepper and sipped it as she reread the same paragraph three times more, trying to carefully digest the data.
A multitude of cold voices leaked through the walls and at first Rusti thought someone was talking outside her door.
-don't go down that way-
and the sounds of a crashing car sent chills down her back. That was not coming from outside!
Rusti glanced about the walls in her room. "Somebody?" Her voice just peeped above a whisper.
-You're supposed to know everything. What are those things?-
-you can't erase your brain-
and another multitude of voices whispered in and out of perception. Rusti stood. Her heart started to pound and she reached for her stereo and slipped in a blank audio disk and hit record.
-the chase, the hunt, the moment of ultimate living!-
-as you can see, your friends can't wait for your arrival-
Rusti shuddered, but kept her mouth shut as she counted the seconds while the stereo recorded the noises in her room. Little by little, those voices she could not make out faded and soon it was quiet in her room again. Her mouth was so dry her tongue would not move. She held her breath and hesitated a second before pressing playback.
There they were: voices clamoring over one another, struggling to be heard. Rusti shivered with excitement and fear. Even if Max was not aware of the freakish phenomena, at least there was now a recording!
She popped the tape out of its cradle and was going to rush to Optimus' office when she nearly ran straight into Freak.
She screamed, startled.
Freak uttered a tiny soft moan.
"No!" Rusti couldn't help but to start crying. She did not want to see this thing again! She did not want to face it! "Please, please, just leave me alone!"
The tiny moan grew louder and the pitch heightened.
"Please go away!!" Rusti shouted more loudly.
The scream grew louder.
Rusti backed away, crying. "Go away!"
As if someone had cranked up the volume on a set of monster speakers, the sound shot upward and passed through Rusti's body. It pierced her bones and vibrated against her backbone and it was all she could do to cover her ears. She fell to her knees as the scream slammed into her brain and shot down her spine. A fit of dizziness assailed her and Rusti found herself falling
That scream lasted an eternity and echoed back millions of years was ricocheted by hundreds of innocent Autobots, tortured to death. That scream - the same sound Optimus uttered on the mausoleum-caused her to fall unconscious.
A Quintesson ship plunged through the Earth's atmosphere like a bomb dropped by God. The slick Autobot battle cruiser, Celestial Dancer, matched the Quint vessel turn for turn until the Quint ship took a nose-dive in a suicide maneuver. The sirens pitched from a baleful warning, to a phase-three full-blown alert, ordering a city-wide evacuation.
Autobots, Humans and aliens alike dashed from their offices, personal quarters and training grounds in a hysterical attempt to escape. Planes and spacecraft took off without authorization.
Magnus dipped the Celestial Dancer gently from altitude to altitude until he steadied his ship right under the Quint's.
"Here goes nothing," Magnus muttered. He switched thrusters to lift-off and shoved the Celestial Dancer, up under the belly of the Quintesson ship. His shields held tightly, but only eighty percent remained. The Quint veered a hard left so it no longer dived straight down. Veering left now gave it a run-in course with the Upper Level space port.
It was what Magnus wanted. He prepared his thrusters to change in a split second and contacted Max.
The Quint aimed for the space between the great pillars upholding Upper Level. If accurate enough, one shot could undo the whole deck and send it crashing upon Central Command and then north upon the EDC district.
That did not take place.
The Quintesson ship abruptly stopped as a force field snapped between the pillars, holding the craft suspended like a bug caught in a spider's web. The ship rocked and thrusters went full-blast, but all in vain.
Magnus was sure he had it. He closed in, grim and satisfied someone was going to pay for the Autobots who died three days ago. Before his hand skipped across the weapons panel, Magnus watched as the Quint vessel shifted, folded out and displayed a discomforting number of weapons.
"Shit." Magnus abandoned the helm and grabbed his weapon and a jet pack.
It didn't matter. He jumped just as the ship blew to pieces. The blast deafened his senses and Magnus was more than certain he just died. Funny thing, he was still conscious, but dead.
Nope! The jet pack kicked in on time and he found himself riding through the smoke and debris. With his senses knocked off-line, he did not notice the Quint ship exploded, taking the Celestial Dancer with it.
That didn't help Magnus' landing. He tried to fly straight, but the shockwave disrupted his thrusters and dropped the Major-General into a nearby groundskeeper's building. Metal, insulation and wiring snapped and flew and shattered against and around him. Magnus' momentum was such that even when he crashed, his great form kept moving. He slammed from one wall, through one room, and out the other. He moaned softly and wanted to lie right where he landed.
But the Quint landed not far from him and like a cat, Magnus bolted to action. He slipped his weapon into subspace and dashed for the Quintesson. It saw him coming from its Face of Deceit and screamed. It fled, its beam of light vibrating at full force as it crossed grounds, skittering like a hunted mouse.
Magnus ran very close to it, but the Quint, being of lighter form, managed to stay just out of reach until the Major-General leapt and nabbed two and three of its tentacles. The Quint, mad with terror, dragged him over metal plating and green of lawn, rushing toward one of the principal power plants on the eastern side of town.
Optimus and Roddi jumped to Magnus' assistance. Prime opened fire on the intruder. At first, he thought it was a successful hit, not something easily missed. But the Quint's body bulged and swelled and sank until a Chapronite, or rather, several of them emerged from the dying Quint.
The black stick-figure aliens attacked Optimus and Rodimus with incredible speed just as six other Autobots came to their aid. Dogfight rammed the backside of one alien as a second alien wounded Silverbolt with a single stroke. Silverbolt dropped back as Blades jumped in and slashed at the attacker. It retreated a moment then disappeared into Rodimus' shadow.
Dogfight's lip components dropped apart. "What the flying-"
That distraction cost him. The alien attacking Optimus disappeared beneath Magnus' shadow and came up in front of Dogfight and dealt him a terrible blow across the chest.
Magnus fought two Chapronites at the same time. He swung at one and it disappeared between the fine plate lines running along the city's metal flooring. The other pressed him with one swing of its deadly long arm after another. Magnus heard Dogfight's cry, but could not afford to be distracted at the moment. The second one shot up just in the Major-General's peripheral vision and he ducked as it tried to tag him. It tagged its partner instead, but the other Chapronite was unaffected.
Roddi heard the Triggerbot's scream and spun around with a shot straight from his arm-guns. It knocked the Chapronite aside and its body started to smoulder and sizzled to ashes.
Another Chapronite jumped in front of Rodimus and swung at him. Roddi jumped backwards in a hand spring and came back with a round-house kick. It didn't do much to the alien, except to buy Roddi enough time to hand it a jab and a right cross before blasting it at the topside (since the Chapronites have no real heads). It too toppled and sizzled away.
Delta joined Blades and the two took turns warding off one alien between them until Blades' right arm was slashed. Delta connected her weapon to her arm and used Roddi's trick: making a weapon out of her own energon supply.
Prime maneuvered from Roddi's side to Magnus' and kicked away one of the two aliens. "Wanna explain this?"
"Communications were cut." Magnus answered after delivering a frontal kick to his attacker. "I lost three bots there and discovered the Quints were running shipments through the Chapronites. Two ships headed this way. I followed one of them."
Optimus looked to Magnus. "Unknown?" He echoed.
Magnus drew a saddened breath. "Rockslide is gone. He came after me-there was an ambush-" Magnus cut himself off as he stared in complete shock at Optimus' optic sensors. Prime's usual blue optics shaded down until they were Decepticon-red. Then they bled Human blood.
Magnus' whole being froze. What the living hell was going on?
The distraction caught the Major-General off guard and the first Chapronite slashed him down the right side of his thorax, across his right hip. He groaned as negative energy sunk into his metalic skin, eating anything in its path. Prime leaped and fired between the creature's arms. It forced the Chapronite back and Delta shot it.
Magnus fell, wounded and exhausted.
Magnus drew a stuttered breath. "Rockslide is . . . is gone. He followed me-there was an ambush-" Magnus stopped short when his optics contacted Prime's optic sensors. Optimus' usual blue optics dimmed until they glowed an eerie Decepticon-red. Human blood seeped from them and trailed down his face plates.
Magnus froze as if time did not exist for him What the living hell was going on?
But in the middle of battle, the Major-General was caught off guard and the Chapronite lacerated the right side of his thorax and over his right hip. He groaned as negative energy bit into his metallic skin, leaving a dark trail where the alien's hand touched him. Prime fired between the creature's arms, forcing the Chapronite back until Delta shot it.
Wounded and exhausted, Magnus fell.
- - - - - -
What was the term for that phenomenon?
What was it called?
A time loop?
A causality loop!
Oh Primus! They just LIVED a time ripple-a causality loop!
No! There was no room for distraction at this moment! Optimus diverted his mind to the situation and placed himself between his friend and the alien attacker. He dared a glance back at the City commander to make sure Magnus was at least okay.
The Chapronites gathered about him and Magnus like scavengers. However, they seemed to hesitate after seeing what Rodimus did to their other two companions.
"Come ON!" Roddi shouted. "You started this! Come get some bad sugar!"
Delta readjusted her weapon and fired at one Chapronite's 'head'. It sprawled over the ground and sizzled as the Autobot femme recharged her weapon for another strike. The remaining alien slipped away and Optimus ordered Max to raise shields around them. The creature hopefully will not be able to escape.
Delta found it in her gun scope and followed the alien as it ran for the nearest shadow. But Rodimus forced her gun down, giving her a cautionary shake of his head.
"Enough." He ordered. "That one we want for questioning."
Delta jerked away from him, her blue eyes ablaze with sudden anger. "I can't believe you made me let it go!"
But her protests went unheard as other Autobots maneuvered around the remaining Chapronite, closing on it, forcing it to remain in the night light until Max could erect a temporary force field.
Optimus and Roddi stared at it for a long moment while the other Autobots recalibrated their weapons to match energon-level frequencies.
Neither Autobot leader spoke for a disturbingly long time. The others started to notice and a couple of them fidgeted.
Delta gave them a cold stare. "So what do we do from here?"
Her hostilities went unnoticed by either Prime. Either that, or they simply did not acknowledge anyone else' presence. Even when First Aid arrived to take Magnus, Silverbolt and Dogfight back to Medical, Optimus and Roddi remained quiet, staring at their new captive.
Then Rodimus spoke first: "I say we shoot first, ask questions later."
"Dead people don't talk." Optimus countered.
Roddi turned to Optimus, a coldness froze his expression in a worse arrangement than Delta's because this was Rodimus Prime, not some former Paratron who was pretending to be a warrior. "Oh, I suppose you want me to offer it some kind of mercy."
"I didn't say that." Optimus' gaze remained frozen on their guest. "I said dead people don't talk." Then his gaze met his Second-in-Command's and Rodimus, suddenly realizing what Optimus meant, smiled.
But it was not a pleasant smile.
Jax arrived to participate in the questioning. Magnus attended as long as he could. But the damage he sustained proved far worse than he thought. It took him three hours' worth of reconstruction and two more hours of rest before he could proceed with his investigation. Optimus visited him while he rested and assured him Tolomsky was handling the questioning just fine.
Magnus meekly, quietly nodded.
"What's wrong, Old Friend?" Optimus asked, now concerned over Magnus' behavior.
Ultra Magnus hesitated to answer. Finally, he squared off at Prime's optics as one who decided to take a great risk. "Do you remember several years ago before the Great Rebirth how you collapsed in Metroplex's control room just before the Decepticons attacked?"
That was a long time ago, Optimus thought. It had been a long road back from sudden resuscitation and reinstatement as the Leader of the Autobots. So much had happened in so short a time. But that was the way his whole life had been. Time for Optimus, it would seem, was measured more by events rather than mere passage of time. And in the last fifty years, so much has happened that it seemed to have made his past a blur in comparison.
But then, five million years worth of life was a great deal to recall, even for a Transformer.
"Vaguely," Prime finally answered.
Magnus' gaze diverted to the window as the late morning sun passed the tops of Max's skyscrapers.
His silence made Prime uncomfortable. "Why? What's wrong?"
"You could never confide in me." Magnus answered softly, almost like a child knowing punishment would result in saying the wrong thing.
But Optimus said nothing. He did not move.
Magnus plucked up his courage and faced the one person he respected more than anyone else. "You used to confide in me. You used to rely on me for help, for clarity of thought in times of distress. But all that died away after your reawakening here on Earth. If I did not know any better, if I thought you were anyone else, I would swear you took that mission four million years ago more as a suicide run rather than simply saving Cybertron. Tell me, Optimus, is that what it really was all about? Was that why you did not take Elita?"
It was a cruel accusation. Optimus did not know how to answer it. Nor did he know whether or not to be angry about it. He thought it over but could not remember the circumstances of their departure from Cybertron except searching for new sources of fuel. He finally shook his head. "I'm sorry, Ultra Magnus. I don't remember."
Magnus didn't know whether to call that answer a bluff, or accept it. A four-million year deactivation period could cause some erasure in the data banks. He wordlessly nodded.
Prime read that and knew he needed to say something to salvage the moment. "However, I think you're right to suspect me of motives."
Now he had Magnus' attention. "Something more than searching for fuel?"
"No, not that. I'm referring to the incidents regarding the Rebirth." Prime flinched when pain tweaked his chest. It grabbed him inside and caused him to outwardly wince. He struggled to regain composure, but worried that he failed.
As far as Magnus was concerned, he did fail. Magnus saw the moment of pain and wondered-no, knew something was wrong.
Prime came back to him, sullen and guilty. "I fear a darkness has touched us, Ultra Magnus. But not a new enemy. Not something from the outside." He hesitated, staring at his crossed leg and traced the contours of his foot. "I fear the source might even be Vector Sigma itself."
Magnus remained quiet another moment before adjusting his sitting position on his flat. "You mean you've had . . . 'overwhelming feelings' about Vector Sigma . . . and that's what's been bothering you lately?"
To Magnus, that word sounded more like a grunt designed to pacify rather than a straight answer. "What about Vector Sigma? Do you think it-he-whatever is responsible for more than just a new Cybertron?"
Now, for the first time in ages, Optimus decided to reveal a private piece of information. He moved from the chair to the flat, sitting close to Magnus' side. "Magnus, you are aware that whenever the Matrix instills life to a body shell, it automatically calls it 'child."
"Yes." Magnus hoped and prayed Optimus would not suddenly change the subject to avert disclosing secrets.
Optimus could not look him in the optic. "There . . . will be . . . no more children."
Reality hit Magnus cold. He wanted Prime to confide in him, now he got what he wanted. But Magnus was not anticipating this information to be so . . . so . . . Despair broke his heart. For meganiums, scientific 'circles' have theorized that the Matrix was a part of Vector Sigma (the truth would most likely never be known). Both objects had the ability to create life. Both had certain powers necessary to the survival of the Cybertronian species.
Magnus did not know what to say.
And Optimus left the room without giving him the opportunity to do so.
* * *
Netty's voice rang firmly in Rusti's head how she was going to be late- "get up NOW." The girl forced herself to stand though her balance proved unsteady.
Rusti managed into the shower, trying to hurry, still hearing her mother voicing how slow she was, that she needed to get moving.
It was hard. Rusti's arms moved like cold lead. She toweled herself off and dressed just as slowly. At one point, she sat on the bedside and started to cry. She did not know why, but she felt a little better afterward.
Rusti gathered her books, still dazed.
The bus waited as she met it, slow as an old woman. She clambered on and collapsed into her seat.
[[Rusti?]] Roddi's voice filtered through the clamor in her head and her mother's voice faded. [[What's wrong? You don't seem to be well.]]
[[I'm just going to school like a good girl. I'll be good. And I'll be home on time.]] If Rodimus said something more, Rusti did not hear him. She fell asleep against the window, her world now filled with darkness and scattered thoughts.
The bus stopped before the school grounds and Rusti waited until everyone else filtered off before staggering after them. She zombied in Civics, shaking her head every few minutes to keep her eyes open. She tried shifting in her chair. She tried drawing on a returned test paper. She tried glancing out the window.
Finally, the bell danged and she gathered her stuff, moving slowly. She hoped no one would chastise her odd behavior.
P.E. was another struggle. Rusti tried to keep up, but she failed even in warm-ups.
Coach Rhydt approached and peered into the girl's eyes. "Resonna," she said softly, "you don't look well. I suggest you go see the nurse."
Rusti slowly made her way back to her locker to change. She managed to pull her clothes on and gathered her books as Coach Rhydt entered the locker room, concern written over her face. She offered Rusti a grim smile, but received no response. She took Rusti's back pack from her and wordlessly guided her out.
The five-minute bell called as the two reached the main hall. Other students passed paying them no heed. Rhydt kept glancing at the girl and shifted the back pack to her other hand so that she could take Rusti's temperature. The girl was warm on the cheeks, icy cold on the forehead.
"Resonna, if you were ill, why did you not stay home? Being sick is not a crime here."
A strong but gentle arm caught her across her back and Rusti almost fell against Cody. "Hey, are you okay?"
All she could do was stare at him.
"No, young man," Rhydt answered, "we are going to the nurses' office."
Cody's face wrinkled in concern. "Rus, what are you doing in school if you're feeling so badly?"
Rusti thought he said 'Why did you come to school if your mind is bleeding so badly?'
One fell off and lost his mind.
God called the doctor and the doctor chimed:
Just move on and leave it behind."
Her head started throbbing.
Then her mind came back to the present and amid a few straggling students walked a familiar alien. It stood, oh gee, at least a good eight to ten feet. It almost touched the ceiling. Its long thin black arm touched one student's head and a spring-like device bounced into existence.
Rusti glanced at the faces of strangers. She searched for some sign of recognition, to see if anyone else saw the alien. But everyone else remained as heedless of the alien as Rusti herself was heedless of Cody's questions.
Another student was marked, followed by another and another. They were going to die. They were all going to die and no one knew.
She choked and Rusti forced air into her lungs. The air only brought on sobbing and she let it go. She reached 'that point.' She lost her mind and any moment they would come and lock her away.
Maybe that's what she really wanted.
"Help." She whispered. "Someone help me!"
Rhydt ushered Rusti into the nurses' office and made the girl sit. Cody sat beside her and took her hand.
Windy gave him a cold glare and scribbled across the digipad. "She's come back again, Doctor."
"Yes, I have eyes. I see that, thank you." And he produced a tiny scanning device. He waved it in front of Rusti three times and finally looked at Rhydt. "What happened?"
"She looked like she's about to faint so I brought her in."
Doctor Gaub nodded and turned to the nearby cupboard. He returned the next minute and administered a shot. Rusti felt the needle's pinch, but did not react. She sat there, staring. Little by little she recognized her surroundings and that Cody sat next to her while Windy, Rhydt and Gaub quietly talked among themselves.
For a moment she thought Freak stood in the doorway. No! She did not want to see that thing again! Why wouldn't it just leave her alone? She bowed over, covering her face. Chills ran along her skin. "No, no, no, no."
Doctor Gaub turned to her. "Miss Witwicky?" But he received no response. He turned to Cody, knowing the young man needed to be sent off to class.
"She likes to be called Rusti." Cody answered the doctor's unspoken question. Windy tossed him another dirty look.
Gaub leaned against the table Rusti sat on and crossed his arms. "Rusti, I want to help. Can you tell me what's going on?"
"You won't believe me. No one can believe me. I don't believe me."
"I see. Well, I want to believe you. But I can't read your mind."
Rusti lowered her hands from her face. She could not look at anyone. "I'm losing my mind."
Gaub nodded. "Hmm. I recall you said something like that a few days ago, or sometime last week, wasn't it?"
"I was doing my homework in my quarters when Freak came into my room and screamed and-and it can't be real! It hit Cody's car and they said there's no traces of prints or skin or anything and the stupid voices won't be silent! And the alien in the hallway keeps touching people!"
Gaub brought up a stool and sat in front of her. He lifted her head and examined her eyes.
"You don't believe me." Rusti's voice nearly cracked with despair.
He paused as Rhydt left the office to return to her class. "What alien, Rusti?"
"I dunno. It looks like a stick-figure. You know, tall and headless."
Gaub reached for a digipad and scribbled over it. He scanned Rusti again and jotted on the digipad and sighed. "Rusti, I'm going to send you home. My diagnosis is monoucleosis. I'll write up a report and submit it to Fort Max with a medication subscription. But you must promise me you will get lots of rest. Alright?"
She stared into nothing and mutely nodded. Then she understood what was happening. Her tired eyes met his and she weakly smiled. "I know you can't believe me. But thank you."
Gaub did not return the smile. He jotted something more on
the pad and glanced at Cody. Cody thought he saw a sense of
understanding in the doctor's dark eyes.
Rusti could not recall the trip back to Fort Max. Nor did she recall who brought her home. She remembered someone guiding her to Medbay and three people talking as if she weren't there. She heard someone mention something about Optimus. She could not make out the situation or the circumstances of their fears. Rusti could not tell them she was looking at them as though their forms were streaks in a painting. They gave her another shot and if Rusti had eaten anything at all, she would have lost it. The girl lay down and vaguely heard someone shouting at her. Apparently, they did not want her to lie there.
Too bad. If they felt like she did, they'd do the same thing. Jerks.
She closed her eyes and darkness surrounded her. The face of the Matrix's bios appeared in her mind. "WE REMEMBER THE FIRE. WE REMEMBER THAT VIRUS. WHOLE CITIES, WHOLE LEVELS DECIMATED. AND WE GRIEVED."
"Who are 'we?" Rusti asked. "And why am I being dragged into this? You keep talking to me as though I were Optimus or Roddi."
"I SEE YOU AS YOU WILL BE. WE KNOW . . . TOO MUCH."
And Rusti lost consciousness.
First Aid scanned Optimus as the Autobot leader lay over his desk, lifeless and unresponsive. The Autobot medic shook his head. "I don't know, Ultra Magnus," he reported. "It's not stasis lock as I've ever seen it."
Magnus turned to Sunstreaker. "You found him just like this?"
Magnus bent closely to his friend. Optimus was warm to the touch. Fluids bled from his chest and shoulders. Magnus ignored First Aid as the doctor ordered a stretcher to command central.
Optimus slowly sat up, his whole expression told Magnus he was not aware of his surroundings.
"Prime?" The city commander called. "Prime?" Optimus' 'blood' stained the desktop and seeped from above Prime's optics.
"All dead around me, Magnus. All lie dead." He gazed at his hands. "I was so stupid . . . so arrogant. There won't be anymore children." He covered his face in grief and shame. "No more children."
Gemini and Apogee brought in an antigrav stretcher and Magnus slid his arm behind Optimus' back to help him to his feet. But Prime weakly leaned against Magnus, unable to do so much as stand. The Major-General gave Sideswipe a glance before simply lifting Optimus out of the chair and carrying him to the stretcher. Prime's arms fell, his optics dimmed off. The antigrav stretcher adjusted to the Autobot's weight and Magnus sadly watched the two femmes guide it back to medical. He turned to First Aid as the doctor set his scanner back.
"Did anyone tell you if Rodimus said anything prior to passing out?"
"No. No one said anything to me, Ultra Magnus. Springer called me up, said Rodimus collapsed."
"Then I'll have to have a talk with Springer."
First Aid and Sunstreaker turned to leave, when the gold and chrome Autobot warrior gave the city commander a final glance. "What did he mean by the children being all dead, Ultra Magnus?"
Magnus couldn't look him in the optic. "Prime wasn't the one talking, Sunstreaker." He said matter-of-factly.
Sunstreaker stared a moment longer. "Okay. But what did he mean by it?"
The Major-General looked at him but tersely, wordlessly turned away and started picking digipads from Prime's desk.
Nothing more was asked.
*TRAPPED IN A DREAM, WE DANCE FROM REALITY TO REALITY. IF THERE BE ANY REST, IT IS THE DARKNESS BETWEEN THE DREAM AND THE DREAM. IF THERE BE ANY SALVATION, IT WILL BE THE LOSS OF MEMORY WHEN THE WAKING COMES. UNTIL THEN, WE SUFFER FROM ONE UNREALITY TO THE NEXT, EACH UNREALITY BEING ITS OWN WORLD AND NEVER REMEMBERED AS WE LIVE SECOND TO SECOND TO SECOND. IN DREAMS, WE PRAY FOR REALITY.*
Rusti crossed the lawn of the topmost floor of Command Central and found Optimus sitting in a lawn chair, reading a digipad. Well, he looked *mostly* like Optimus, but not quite like Optimus. The face did not change. Well, yes it did. But not to a great extent. She approached him with a smile.
I love him, she thought. That's right! I love him! And she laughed inside. Then she stopped laughing. It really wasn't so funny. She had loved him all her life. She loved him beyond her life.
He greeted her by tearing his optics from the pad. "Hello, Rusti." He said softly. "How are you today?"
His face looked delicious. Wordlessly she bent over and placed her lips over the fold of his face plate. He raised his head and she trailed her lips over his chin and down his neck. His physical warmth tasted metal-sweet. She left his neck to kiss him again when she found him crying.
Horrified, Rusti withdrew. She had unwittingly violated him! She covered her face and started to flee when he called her name. She froze. Guilt rode over and crushed her. Forgive me! Forgive me! But the words would not come out!
"No," she burst into tears. "I never meant to hurt you!"
"No . . . this is how much I love you." His soft resonate voice soothed her heart. She turned back and he invited her to sit on his lap and he just held her. He just held her.
Prime and Rusti stood side by side on the grassy knoll and watched a huge throng of Autobots, great and lowly, give allegiance to an unknown Autobot leader.
"I hate this memory." Optimus said more to himself than her.
"Why?" But he could not answer her. He turned toward Rusti to avert his optics from the event. The unknown Autobot leader stood in a balcony 'dressed' in a transform Rusti did not recognize. He stared upon his people below as though he were their god. He spoke but his voice did not carry far enough for Optimus and Rusti to hear. The crowd cheered. He said something else then he held his hand over them and instantly they were all dead and grey.
Just like that. Rusti caught her breath and choked. Dead. Just shells of creatures that once were. "Ohmigod! Optimus, what-what was that?" and before she asked her next question, Rusti realized she had dreamed of this incident, though she could not recall when. But she remembered the bloodlust. She recalled the feeling of godhood. But the girl could not remember when she dreamed of such evil. "Did-did he have a power of-"
"It was Matrix-power, Rusti." Prime's voice fell dark. "It's a chapter in our history that is not in the records. The Matrix remembers. It can't forgive Itself."
"But . . . how did that happen? How did the Matrix chose an Autobot that was so evil?"
"Because, Rusti, there are things and creatures that exist in the universe about which we know very little. Something entered that Autobot and managed to get past the Matrix. By the time the Matrix was aware of its existence . . . it was too late. And this-" Optimus waved his hand over the scene of death, "-the first of five . . . The Matrix could not recover before two million Autobots died." Emotional distress dimmed his optics so that he could not look at her. Rusti turned from the scene and laced her arm about Optimus' back and guided him away.
"Why doesn't It remember anything good? Doesn't the Matrix remember the good things about life?"
"It used to." Optimus recalled. "Well, at least that's what I was told."
"What do you mean?"
"Alpha Trion possessed the Matrix longer than I."
They slowly descended a grassy slope, far away from the metal terrain representing the nightmare. She helped him to sit then sat in front of him and studied his sad, weary face.
"I have tried to ask it to remember good events. I've tried to use my own memory to reprogram it. But the Matrix has a guilt complex that clouds Its judgement. And, Rusti, I have seen glimpses of a shadow-memory!"
"What do you mean?"
"There is something else in the Matrix. Another memory is trying to resurface. It's a shadow in the darkness. The Matrix is hiding it from me. I suspect the shock of it would be too great to bear and the Matrix is struggling to keep it from me. But I fear it will not be long before it does resurface. I don't know what will happen. I may go insane."
"There . . . isn't a way to reprogram the Matrix at all?"
Prime shook his head. It isn't a machine as we understand it, Rusti. The Matrix is its own life. It is, and it possesses life."
The world quite suddenly turned cold and dark blood drenched the grass. Rusti jumped to her feet and retreated from the approaching puddle. Optimus made no move. She reached for him but a sudden gust of wind blew him away as though he were made of ashes. She swallowed a scream and ran for the nearest tree.
Now something pursued her. She couldn't see what it was but the sound-oh, gawd! The sound! Huge pricking feet, stamping the ground like . . . like something she could not place! And right in front of her a set of massive jaws opened in mid air and then she did scream, sliding along the ground.
Rodimus appeared from nowhere. He grabbed a tree and used it like a javelin, swinging with all his weight, he kicked into the air and smashed it, causing the teeth, jaws and the sky to shatter into huge slices of glass. Rusti cried and covered her head with her arms.
CRICK, CRICK, TINKLE SMASH! TINKLE, TINKLE, SNAP
Eleven main universes rippled with this effect and to set things straight, a hundred and nine more realities were created.
Or did they actually already exist?
The Ambassador bore into her with large dark eyes. Rusti thought she could be swallowed by his stare and chills snaked down her back. "The time lines are destroyed." His voice came quiet, gentle.
"I don't know what you mean."
"You aren't supposed to exist." And he started to walk away. He turned back, seemingly expecting her to follow. "Do you know where it all went wrong?"
She shook her head.
"When they brought Optimus Prime back to life. He was supposed to have stayed dead."
"No!" She objected.
"One decision, Rusti, will determine your entire life." His powerful dark eyes diverted behind her and spotted a growing Darkness. "You had better run, girl, if you want to keep your sanity."
She followed his eyes and saw the gaping jaws racing for
her. Rusti ran.
Did you know you're still asleep?
Just keep dreaming. Stay. We'll have tea and dance.
Sleep . . .
I'm still asleep.
What do you do when you're asleep and you need to wake up?
It's the first thing you do when you wake in the morning. Take a deep breath.
Is Optimus here?
It sounded like. . . she had no name for it! She could not describe the sounds of its heavy feet as it raced down the corridor of her mind. It made a queer sound and froze her feet.
It was like being trapped in water; like suffocating in a plastic bag; like escaping the hand of the devil.
I don't know how.
-We will Dance-
And it licked her.
That was it. Rusti shot up and screamed. She rolled off the bed and stood on her feet, pulling at her hair. She dashed to the closest wall and would have embraced it were it not simply a two-dimensional object.
It was Max's voice.
MISS WITWICKY, YOU WERE TALKING IN YOUR SLEEP. I TRIED TO WAKE YOU SEVERAL TIMES. ARE YOU ALRIGHT? FORGIVE ME FOR FRIGHTENING YOU.
Rusti's eyes remained wide-open. Her heart would not stop pounding. Her skin turned clammy and now she breathed. "No!" She gasped. "Max, you did fine! You did good!"
A slight dizziness assailed her momentarily and Rusti remained where she stood. She watched, a bit nervously as her old battered fluffy duffy fell off the bed and bounced lightly on the floor.
"What was that?" She whispered. Rusti didn't think Max would be able to register the movement-all other past events seemed inconspicuous to him.
I'M REGISTERING A WAVE OF CHRONOENERGY HEADING STRAIGHT FOR US, MISS WITWICKY. I SUGGEST YOU EITHER REMAIN IN YOUR QUARTERS OR RETREAT TOWARD THE MESS HALL.
Chronoenergy? Rusti mouthed the word, but did not speak it. She vaguely recalled it had something to do with time, but that was all she remembered from physics.
At first, Rusti thought about heading straight for the cafeteria. Then she realized she was standing in her jammies. She slipped out of her gown, changed her underclothes then reached for a case under her bed and quickly, but carefully, put on her EDC exosuit. If there was going to be another emergency, like the time Roddi's shuttle crashed and exploded, she knew the suite would protect her. She nabbed her largest blouse from the closet and fitted a pair of jeans over the rest. She really didn't need shoes, but the helmet would be necessary.
With that, Rusti ventured out of her room into the hall where all the lights suddenly died out. She kissed the nearest wall and waited three beats until the emergency lights came on.
Why was it suddenly so quiet? Why didn't the inter-city alarm system strike on? Why didn't Communications kick in? They'd practiced this drill often enough; all essential personnel reported to the outer and inner edges of the city, all citizens reported to shelter areas-the cafeteria and EDC quarters houses being two of them.
Before she could speculate, Rusti spotted a shadow flitting in the darkness. The spindely shadow skittered across the floor like a nasty roach, racing from hiding to hiding. It left her cold and squeamish.
Wait a minute.
Wait a minute.
She was not in the EDC district.
She was in Central Command.
How did she get here at all?
Wasn't she in school?
No, something was out of place. Something was wrong.
And that damned thing, that flat two-dimensional shadow headed for the elevator and the elevator lit to level four.
That was where Optimus' office presided.
Rusti pursued it, dashing with light steps down the corridor. The spooky shadow seemed to pay her no mind. She leapt just as the elevator doors started to close.
Then it dawned on her; if the electricity was out, how come the elevators were working? As the doors closed, Rusti had her answer: there was no light in the elevator. There was no light on the button panels. She stood there alone in the darkness, she and the shadow. Whatever it was, seemed oblivious to her.
To her surprise, Rusti's eyes adjusted enough so that she could distinguish the shadow-figure from the darkness in the elevator. She did not know how that was possible.
The shadow reared up, touching the ceiling of the elevator so that it now stood a good forty feet above her head. Rusti stopped breathing as she felt the dark, paper-thin thing staring at her like a predator.
*TRESPASS. NOT. AGAINST. ME. BUSINESS. AT. HAND. WAIT. WAIT. WAIT.*
Its whispery voice caused her blood to run cold. But rather than answering it, Rusti snapped her helmet on and switched her visor to night vision.
She tried UV.
She tried-oh heck. She switched it off and used her own vision. She wanted to find a target, some place weak, easily injured. But since this creature had no real dimension to it, attacking it most likely would do no good.
Still: "You will not touch Optimus."
It shifted shapes and the gapping jaws from her dreams appeared. Rusti closed her eyes, determined. Nothing was going to frighten her!
-At least until it shrieked.
In two separate rooms, lying on two separate flats, Optimus and Rodimus' optics shot on simultaneously. Prime's first thought resumed where it left off: adding up the cost for repairs and maintenance on the Phoenix space platform near Gate 09-A.
But he was nowhere around his desk or his office. He sat up and glanced about, finding himself in a room in Medbay. How long had he been here? And how did he get here at all?
Memory flooded his soul and he quickly recalled the strangest of dreams; he talked with Rusti and they witnessed a Matrix memory and then she was gone. And the scene went with her and he found himself trapped in a dim, dank room, stifled with a terrible stench.
Optimus remembered a shadow pressing against him and pried his body op . . . en. Prime automatically wrapped his arms about himself.
As he stared into nothing, the wall before him twisted and distorted, as though touched by a whirlwind or a vortex. It rippled and flattened out. Flashes of electricity zipped along its outer conduits.
"Oh, GK!" Prime paid no attention to the pain in his chest as he jumped from the flat. Monitor attachments snapped off his extremities when he fled the room. "Max!" He called.
"I want you to shut the city down. All of it. Right now."
COMMANDER, SIR, I AM PROGRAMMED TO INFORM YOU OF VITAL FUNCTIONS OCCURRING THROUGHOUT THE CITY WHEN YOU REQUEST SUCH A THING. PERCEPTOR IS CONDUCTING THREE TEDIOUS EXPERIMENTS. THE UPPER LEVEL IS CURRENTLY RECEIVING SIX EXTRA-PLANETARY VESSELS AND ULTRA MAGNUS IS INSPECTING A LEAK IN THE PHOTON GENERATOR ON THE EASTERN WALL.
"Max, give them two warnings then shut the city down. That's an order."
Without needing to exchange words, Optimus and Rodimus left Medbay for other parts of the city. Roddi raced to Upper Level while Optimus aimed straight for Central. He hoped to reach it before the city's power was cut. Of course, he could have had Max delay until he got there, but it was essential the city froze before . . . whatever.
Optimus was more than half way to Central when the city blacked out. He hated to think of the number of accidents that no doubt took place and how many complaints he would get later.
Prime Touched on Rodimus, but found Roddi was far from a talkative mood. He had been so edgy lately; they both were. But Roddi's temper seemed to have grown worse.
Maybe he was doing too much and Optimus just needed to deal out a few of his duties to someone else. Not that Roddi was incapable, by no means. But Optimus did not want him to feel crushed by his responsibilities.
Prime reached Command Central and transformed, finding himself the center of scrutiny by several other Autobots. Imputex, a visiting Paratron from Fort Horizon, stomped toward Optimus with a glare marring his silver and black faceplates.
"What is this all about, Prime?" he demanded. "Me and my group were just enjoying the beautiful fountain-"
"I don't have time to explain." Optimus pressed himself away from the 'tourist' and raced through the building. He reached level three via the staircase and almost made it to his office when the elevator doors at the other end of the corridor slid open.
To Optimus, time suddenly decelerated. Seconds passed as though manually stretched into minutes, but that did not stop the following events from occurring.
The elevator doors slid open and out slipped a flat black shapeless form. It raced for him like black lightening. Behind it, ran Rusti, trying to warn Optimus of the creature's pending attack. But it was too late. Optimus knew he could not run anywhere, be any place that the creature could not find him. There was no weapon of fire or strength of mind and body powerful enough to thwart the creature's intentions.
It has to attack me on all five levels of sentient existence, Prime thought.
And this was the second one. This was the second attack.
Rusti screamed as the creature hit Prime square in the chest, slashing through his body like a supernatural knife.
Then all things for Rusti fell to such slow motion that her life felt surreal.
A roaring thunderous noise hit her ears so that she lost her footing. She slid against the wall, impacted by the noise.
The city alarms shot on once and started again but froze in the middle of the second sounding, as though someone hit a pause button on time itself.
Rusti breathed once.
And she watched as everything suspended around her.