Author's Note: This chapter is abstract in nature and may prove difficult to read. For greater clarity of events occurring during this chapter, read *One Breath, Two* in the Sentinel Arc section of Fanfic Fricassee.

Devil's Dance
chapter C


"Lady . . . I require the solace of the shadows. Sunlight is my destroyer. There will never be another dawn!"


Directed by Ridley Scott


Rusti woke to a lifeless place. The air hung cold, bearing neither sound nor light. Was this another dream; a hint of things that could not be, but in her world, were very real?

"Hullo?" her voice only whispered in the deep dark. Rusti was afraid to speak out loud. What if noise disturbed things she did not wish to see? On the other hand, if this was a dream, then nothing could harm her. Oh, nightmares might upset her, certainly, but she'd still wake in a real world, finding herself in bed, perhaps soaked in sweat.

On the other hand, the dreamer is often unaware of the dream until the waking. And if Rusti assumed she was dreaming and expected to awaken at any time, then why did she not open her eyes and find her bed and hear her music softly playing?

She moved and realized she was wearing her exosuit. Memory slapped her and the girl flinched, realizing this was not a dream after all. And that was when she recalled a Faceless Darkness and how it shot right for Optimus.

Rusti gasped and felt the floor all around her. Where was he? She couldn't remember where she was in relation to his position before she passed out. The girl crawled about, listening to the muffled clink-clink of her exosuit under her clothes. She paused to think logically. The hallway was huge and she could be crawling in a circle or in the wrong direction. Rusti turned to the direction she thought for sure she came and crawled in a straight line. A few moments drifted aimlessly before frustration got the best of her. She longed for light and never realized how she had taken her sight so much for granted. She didn't have a flashlight and Rusti didn't think anyone was going to come up here right away; even her comlink was dead. Optimus was here, unconscious, most likely badly hurt; that much she was sure. The girl bit her lip and refused to just give up and start crying. But dammit, where was he?

Maybe she crawled down the wrong end of the hall. Maybe she was far, far away from him . . . stupid girl, use your head! Rusti paused, sat on her knees and stretched her senses for her beloved.

Straight ahead.

Straight ahead.

Rusti trusted her senses and crawled cautiously forward. Oh, if she only had just one simple glimpse of the corridor so she knew where she was! Rusti wished she could have counted how many steps she took from the elevator. But, she mused, things like that aren't important when chasing monsters.

"Ow!" her voice nearly shook the silent world and her ears hurt from the sound. But she found him! Her hands groped, measuring crevices and corners and sure enough, it was Optimus. His body was warm to her touch-a good thing.

Blue light flashed and dimmed as his optics activated. Rusti found herself face to face with him. Her touch roused him either from sleep or unconsciousness. "Russti . . ." His voice came so quiet.

"I'm here!" She laid both hands on the rim of his helm. Her heart pattered and she tried to control her anxiety. "Optimus, are you bleeding? How can I get help?"

"Don't . . . leave me."

The depth of sadness in his voice touch her and Rusti could not control her tears. She leaned wearily against him. An ache jabbed at her breast bone as though invisible hands split her chest. She hissed inward and touched the metal breastplate under her blouse, finding it still secure. No blood.

No, she wasn't wounded. She was okay. The girl wiped her face with her sleeve before touching Prime's warm smooth metal just under his right optic sensor. She kissed the helm next to his optic and wiped her cheek again. "I have to get help," she decided out loud. Her voice sounded so small.

He remained silent, his optics did not flare or dim. Rusti assumed he was in shock. Her nose burned and more tears fell. She sniffed and searched her pockets for a tissue.

She found a used one and wiped her nose. "We need help, Optimus." her voice whispered. At least she did not have to raise it for him to hear. The girl turned to the great abyss of a hallway. She dreaded having to travel in a world cloaked in the dark. She'd have to grope about like a blind mouse in a labyrinth.

Rusti took a couple of deep breaths and decided to venture forward. She was bound to run into someone.

[[Emergency . . . emergency lights . . . Rusti.]] Prime's voice came so soft, she nearly did not Hear him.

Rusti's heart broke. It seemed Optimus was not aware Fort Max had lost power entirely. Otherwise, Max would have already seen to it emergency power was on. "It's all gone, Optimus. All out. I don't know why."

Optimus remained quiet for a long moment. He was awfully tired. If only Rodimus were here! [[To the right, Russss-ti,]] he weakly suggested.

"Right of what, Optimus?"

[[Right. Panel . . . triangle.]]

She wrinkled her brows, perplexed. Rusti silently repeated his words then realized what he was saying. She kissed him again and crawled right. Oh Primus! Five steps, seven, nine-there. She hit the steadfast wall and fumbled for a triangular panel.

No, not here.

No, not this way.

Come on! Where was it?! A headache touched her head and shortened her patience and temper.

Nope, not here, either.

Damn thing! Where?

She stood and probed, finding herself traveling further and further down. She stopped and retraced her steps, fearful of drifting too far from Optimus. Her fingers crossed a diagonal line, stretching almost too high for her to reach. Transformer-sized panels in a Transformer-sized world . . . she traced it until it ended abruptly and slanted down -this had to be it. She pressed it with all her weight and emergency red lighting shot on. The girl about yelped in excitement. She ran back to Prime and hugged him.

"We're going to be okay!" She sought his expression for signs of relief, but Prime's optics only dimmed. He was hurting. Rusti tried to comfort him with another measly hug but her action was little more than an ant trying to embrace a mountain.

"Optimus, there has to be somebody here who can help you. I have to find them-I think all communications are out; I'm not hearing anything at all."

He did not respond. Her heart ached. Leaving him was the last thing she wanted to do. But the girl forced herself anyway, returning once to give him a final hug. Rusti crept along the long foreboding hallway, hugging the wall. Her hands were as stiff and cold as the metal around her. She glanced once again toward Prime's huddled shape. The lighting cast a sorrowful red glow about his body, as though his metal skin were bathed in blood. She shuddered and pressed onward.

Minutes lagged into a time unaccounted. The girl paused, exhausted. Her head throbbed and she finally slumped against a wall. She did not want to leave Optimus! The girl forced herself back to her feet and moved on, resolute. He could die if she did not get help.

The hall came to an abrupt halt, as though someone had used a vibroblade and sliced the metal clean through, revealing the 'guts' that made Fortress Maximus. In fact, the 'slicing' affected a whole wall to Rusti's right, disclosing an entire section of Transformer inner workings. Most of it looked nothing like machines made on earth. She marveled at it for a moment before taking a second to see what stood to her left.

That surprised her more than the wall. A moving sidewalk trailed some twenty feet from her. She faintly heard gears and rollers rumbling under it. Wasn't it strange that this thing should work when not even regular light was operational-and what the hell was it doing here on Level Four of Central Command?

Rusti cautiously approached the roving sidewalk and recognized it as a mechanism used on Upper Level for space travelers docking on the ports either toward the tower or from the ambassador suites. But this sidewalk looked different from that of Upper Level. Even in the awkward glow of the emergency lighting, Rusti could tell this side walk was not really from Upper Level at all. When she lifted her eyes, she discovered something else that did not belong: a huge turbo shaft like that in some of her Grandfather Witwicky's picture book from Cybertron. Rusti herself had never been to Cybertron, but she knew enough to recognize certain things.

The turbo shaft, too, was sliced clean along the side revealing the interior. Closer to the moving sidewalk, Rusti struggled to make out a plaque: MEDBAY LEVEL 3: MECHANICS. Her brows squished in puzzlement, making her headache worse. There was no 'Medbay' with a 'Level 3: Mechanics', not in Fort Sonix, Fort Sagittarius and not on Cybertron, that she knew of. The mystery ate her up with curiosity, but she had neither time nor strength to investigate. Optimus' situation was not going to wait.

She kept moving some fifty feet before the red light cast shadows upon unusual shapes like that of a mechanical insect, or several of them. "What in the name of Primus . . .?" She approached the 'insects' and her feet crunched on sand. She jumped back like a frightened cat and tried to see clearly through the harsh red glare. It gave her no further information and she resigned to removing her gloves and touched the ground.


Sand?! From what?

And the idea hit her.

No way! No friggin way! She came closer and found half a swing set; two seats still swinging, though there were no occupants in them. Nearby stood a jungle gym standing ominously apart, waiting like an empty dungeon for new prisoners.

"Is somebody here?" she called. "Is there anybody here besides me?" Her voice seemed so loud it hurt her ears. Only the dreadful quiet met her call. It was as though the red light swallowed her words. It gave her the 'willies'.

Where could she go from here? The girl gazed right and spotted other shapes distorted by the poor lighting. To her left stood another wall. Behind her trailed the moving sidewalk. What caused Max to lose power and where did all this stuff come from? Was someone responsible for it all? Did the Quintessons do this? And if so, where were they?

Whether or not they were responsible, she needed to move on. But if that were the case, then which way should she take? Rusti rolled her eyes as the idea of using 'inny, minni, mighty-moe.' But it seemed, for the moment, the only logical way to make a decision. She sighed, setting her left hand on a hip and swore she'd never, ever confess this to Rodimus: she pointed right first and swung back and forth as she said the verse.

'It' landed on her left. That was the way to go. Rusti wearily trudged across the sandy ground as she replaced her glove and rounded the wall. She stumbled once and caught herself, again realizing how tired she really was. No, no! Move on! Don't stop! She got up and marched toward the wall.

To her surprise, there was nothing behind the wall except more metal flooring; it stood completely by itself. Nothing made sense! Rusti leaned heavily against it. She was too tired for this. Her chest and arms hurt, her head ached. She rested a moment and closed her eyes.

The girl sank to her knees and it felt good to sit down.

She let her legs straighten out from under her.

It was nice to sit more comfortably. She needed to rest. Sleep called her from far, far away.

Dark. Dark. Her heart fluttered then stopped all together.

Scratch. Ssssssk. Scratch. Tip-tak, tip-tak, tip-tak, tip-tak.

Rusti's eyes shot open and she caught her breath.

What was that?

She feebly jostled her head. A stupid dream. What an idiot! She dozed off! Rusti forced herself to her feet. She staggered and caught herself when her feet tried to fail. Her body just didn't want to cooperate. She waited a moment, catching her breath and taking several more deep breaths. Silly girl! Whatever was wrong, she needed to get over it! Slowly she felt strength returning to her legs, though the pain in her head regenerated with greater vigor. How annoying! But now her chest hurt too, as though someone were trying to crack her sternum. Chills coursed up and down her back and she resolutely ordered herself not to listen to her complaining body.

Walking forward, Rusti came to another hall on her right and a glass barrier to the left and nothing beyond that. Her face scrunched in both puzzlement and pain. She was in no mood for this. If it were a dream, it was stupid. If it were real . . . well, really, she hoped it was not real.

And what if this were someone's idea of a mind game?

Could the Quintessons really cook up something this complex? And if so, why would they make her sick?

Scratch. Tip-tak, tip-tak, tip-tak, tip-tak.

She spun around with a gasp but saw nothing. "Hello?" She called, "is somebody there?" She waited about three beats, "Hellooo? Anybody?" But again silence swallowed her words and Rusti did not feel comfortable enough to say anything else. If she were alone, then why did she feel as though she were being watched? If there was someone else there, why did they not answer her calls? Without thinking about it, the girl automatically turned left and trailed down a long doorless corridor. She did not consider questioning why there were no doors down the hall, nor was she well enough to question as to why there was no ceiling above her. She kept forward, her mind slowly folding into the growing darkness about her. Red light shed from no definite source as though the light were omnipresent. Her thoughts returned to Optimus, her memory grew with thoughts at her feeble attempt to prevent a nightmare. Something attacked Optimus before the world changed. Was it the cause of this living nightmare?

And what of Freak?

Freak! She had nearly forgotten all about the imaginative figment haunting her. The memory of it caused her chest to spaz in sharp pain and she gasped and slipped again. Her breath left her and no matter what she did, Rusti could not get her breath back. She wanted to scream and it too failed her. She squeezed her eyes shut and would have grasped the metal under her fingers, if she had that kind of strength.

Then her breath came back and she gasped, but it hurt like hell to breathe. Her eyes watered and her nose ran.

Did she just have a heart attack? Was that how one felt? She sat on her knees and her breath came in another gasp as she heaved and began to sob. What was going on? Why was she having so much pain? Why was she so sick lately? It seemed she was always sick and everyone insisted it was all in her head, that she was a hypochondriac. Well, no. That wasn't entirely true. People acknowledged she was sick, they just didn't know with what. One doctor gave a wild guess, but even he wasn't so sure.

Rusti threw her head back and took several deep breaths, insisting her body do exactly as she told it. This was not the time to whine like a baby. She forced herself up and allowed her hand to trail along the wall for added support.

Then the hall 'broke' off. Except for a door to her left, there was no more hallway. No, there was no wall to end the hall, there just wasn't anything there at all.

"What the . . .?" Rusti dared a peek off the edge and found nothing but abysmal darkness. She stretched her hand and found nothing more than air. She shuddered with terror and then she realized she now had a fever. Well, she could deal with a fever; it was better than a heart attack.

The nearby door caught her attention but the girl was indecisive at this point. If the hall came to such a sudden end, then what could the ONLY door in the hall provide? Was there a room there? Or would the door open to nothing? Would it open to a brick wall? Maybe the dream would show that the door was her means of waking and it would be Sunday and she and Optimus might be able to spend time in his garden. It was hard, however. He seemed so tired lately, as though he were neither resting nor recharging well. She decided to open the door.

A long case of stairs trailed down, down from where she stood. It seemed endless in the bleak red lighting and Rusti's hope failed. If she were the only person here and this was the only way to get help, it might be too late to help Optimus before he falls into stasis. She covered her face with her hand, grieving. But no tears came this time. She swallowed them, deciding that it was okay if Optimus fell into stasis. They could revive him easily enough. But she wondered if he would have the strength of will to come out of stasis.

No! She pressed her lips tightly and abandoned that line of thought. Optimus was a fighter, weak or not! He wasn't going to leave her, he loved her, whether he ever said it or not. She took another deep breath, still finding breathing painful, and started the long journey down.

She trailed many steps until she slipped, fell and caught herself on the rail guard (thank Primus there WAS one!). The fall could have been very bad. She lay there, arms stretched above her, clutching the rail as her head raced in circles. Her sides ached and her breath came in gasps. After several moments, Rusti feebly pulled herself up a step and sat there, gathering her wits. It was hard to see and difficult to keep going without making a great deal of noise. She wasn't sure if it was safe to call out or not. She did not feel safe. Just keep moving, she told herself. Just a little further. Someone is bound to be downstairs. Someone is always downstairs.

Scratch. Ssssssk. Scratch. Tip-tak, tip-tak, tip-tak, tip-tak.

"Hello?" she called, "Is someone there? Hello?"

No answer.

Scratch. Scratch. Tip-tak, tip-tak.

She did not see anything. "If someone is there, this is not funny!"

No answer. Rusti prayed it was only her imagination. Her headache might be responsible for the hallucination. She started to continue when a transparent shape wafted in the air in front of her, bending and stretching the fall of red light about her. The tall shape wreathed back and forth like a dancer. It reached at least seven or eight feet. She could not see it clearly because . . . because it was invisible?


It struck at her and Rusti caught her breath and ducked, slipping between what she thought were a set of powerful legs. The girl tumbled down seven steps, just missing its whipping tail by inches.

Tip-tak, tip-tak, tip-tak.

Where did it go? Where?

The girl's heart raced and she decided she didn't want to know. Rusti bounded down the steps as fast as she could. Her heart pounded so that she thought it would blow right out of her.

A snake-hiss touched her left ear. Rusti softly squealed and instinctively ducked. A WHAP-SNAP! Shot just behind her and she fell down three remaining steps before landing on a platform sitting in the middle of nowhere. She slammed her back to a wall and pointed a finger in the approximate location of the creature. Three bursts of light shot from the suit.

The thing screeched and thwacked its tail wildly, smacking the wall then the rail before it lay still altogether. Its body appeared as blood dribbled. The steps sizzled and crumbled as the blood touched them.

Rusti's eyes widened. Acidic blood? What kind of freakish thing was that and where did it come from? She side-stepped her way to the last case of stairs. Her heart sank when she realized she'd have to go down one more miserable staircase. Rusti's throbbing head caused her legs to shake and she did not know how steady she'd be going down. The girl thought of sitting on the floor and scooting down one step at a time.

Before she touched the rail, a soft chank-chank hit the floor at the bottom of the stairs.

"No!" She wailed.

Scratch-tak, tak came from behind and something breathed on her hair. She screamed and purposefully landed on her back then rolled as a thunk-chink hit the floor where she lay a second ago. Chank, chank, chank, chank.

The invisible creature hissed and growled at the on-coming sound. A flash of light momentarily lit the stairs and Rusti covered her eyes as a whack-thwack-thump kissed the wall then the floor.

"It's okay," a soft masculine voice came a moment later, "it's dead."

Rusti lowered trembling hands from her face and scanned for the owner of the voice. Sure enough, a Humanoid figure stood before her. Red lighting illuminated headpiece and shoulders, highlighting a metal suit of armor.

Perhaps it was childish, but Rusti could not help but to cry. "Help, help!" Her voice squeaked in her ears. Feebly, she tried to hide her eyes, praying someone would rescue her Love, "Opt'mus. Opt'mus . . . help!"

The masculine person gently lifted her upper body, cradling her head against his shoulder. He paused a moment and Rusti thought she felt him scan her life signs. He gathered the rest of her in his arms and carried her away.

* * *

First was darkness. Then a rush of noise shot through her ears and pounded against her bones. Then Rusti plunged into lukewarm water. She sank slowly toward her death. Seconds stretched like years.

She tried to breathe; mistake Number One. Water filled her lungs.

She tried to open her eyes. Mistake Number Two. It wasn't water, but Transformer blood.

She tried to cry out for help. Mistake Number Three.

Rusti fought to clear her mind as images drilled themselves into her. She tried to lift her hands to ward them off, to keep her mind to herself. But someone else's memories forced themselves upon her.

Another . . . phased behind Rodimus and grabbed him round the neck. The other alien yanked Rodimus off his feet and jammed a vibro-spear straight into his chest.

Rusti came up for air . . . she lost wind with the impact of Rodimus' submersion. She slammed her head against a bulkhead, her back against a fallen railing.

Scream! Scream, dammit! It'll be the last thing you do in life! Scream! And the girl gasped for breath, for some measure of air to fill her lungs. Her hands grasped nothing. She arched her back, pushing her way through the watery blood to taste the air cold on her face and she finally screamed.

Sweat soaked her skin and drenched her hair. She screamed as though tormented. But it was out and someone's kind hands wrapped themselves about her stiffened body.

"Shhhhh! Shhhhhh! Sh, sh, sh!" [[Here, Little One. You're not alone. Here I am.]] the sound was feminine and Rusti's eyes shot wide open. She gulped air, coughed, and wept hard, terrified that what she experienced was not so much a dream as it was prelude to a deja vu; the girl was certain she was going to live that again later in life. Someone embraced her tightly and rocked, trying to sooth her distress with soft words. Little by little Rusti managed to calm. Who held her? It wasn't her mother; not with a voice like that; for the lady almost sang in her mind. It was strange, but calming.

"It'll be a miracle if we survive without incident, the way that girl carries on." The voice was afar off, but Rusti heard the crisp, snapping voice of someone older than she and certainly masculine. But it was not the voice of the same person who rescued her; her rescuer's voice was much softer than that.

"She's ill and needs better care than what can be provided here." There! That was her hero! Well, he didn't have Optimus' wonderful baritone voice, but it was kind enough and Rusti was glad to hear something familiar.

"Well, there's a small inconvenience for your genius, Doctor Scott! Maybe one of your oversized tin-canned friends could graciously build you a nice little office complete with scanning equipment, exam table and a microwave for popcorn. Or! Or maybe they decided to ditch us entirely for something else to do . . . like calculate the meaning of life, love and the pursuit of happiness."

Rusti assumed 'Doctor Scott' was her rescuer. Maybe he could help her find help for Optimus, too. But . . . now that she thought of it, there was no 'Doctor Scott' in EDC that she knew of. "That's enough," came the gentle voice again.

"It is, now, Miss Kayla?" and that was the 'crisp voice' again. Rusti assumed 'Kayla' was the one who took care of her. Were there two doctors then? "Alright. Well, what do you plan to do about the rest of us, Doctor Scott? What can you do for that lady, Mrs. Strills that's missing an arm? Or that alien, Beldoun Tor, that's missing three fingers and some of her hair? Or what about all of Miss Shanygn's little invisible pets? Do you think they've figured out by now that we've changed addresses?"

Just vaguely, Rusti caught onto most of that conversation. She didn't catch all the names, but she recognized none of them, either. And what was that remark about the 'invisible pets?' Wasn't there something invisible that tried to kill her? No, no! There was too much going on! Rusti wanted to get her body back under control but it did not respond to anything she desired. Her senses told her, however, that there were more than three people around her. Scuffling noises came and left her range of hearing and some other lady's voice shot off in the dark: "Why can't you shut up? You've done nothing but whine like a starved puppy the minute we landed here. Is it really too much to ask you to just zip it?"

The 'crisp' voice answered, but only with a mutter. Then it paused before raising his voice again: "We have a food and water situation and here the three of you huddle about this . . . child while there are others who require attendance." There was more spoken, but weariness called the girl down into darkness and Rusti found she could not fight off sleep. At least she was not all alone in the dark.

She awoke a little later-or at least her mind told her it was later. That's how it was with naps. It's easy to lose track of time, only to find very little time had actually passed. Rusti shivered with fever and tried to ignore her body's misbehavior by guessing where she was: in another part of the EDC complex; a part she'd not been to before . . . maybe? Or was she in a different area of Fort Max altogether? That would not be so odd; Fort Max was huge.

But these people were unfamiliar. Those who seemed to be in charge wore armor unlike any she'd seen before. Kayla, the lady who attended her, had a pair of magnificent dark eyes that glittered gold with or without light. A set of thick ram's horns curled round the lady's head like a crown, the tips accenting her high cheeks. Thick brown hair tumbled from behind and above those horns. The features would have been menacing were they not tempered with a kind and gentle face. Rusti felt comfortable with Kayla.

Dark blue metal armored Doctor Scott's frame shoulder to toe. It was most definitely he that rescued Rusti earlier. With the exception of one other lady, and the other doctor that argued with Scott, the rest of the people wore hospital attire. But this was not Medical or anywhere near the Research and Development district. Why were they here? And who were they?

An inkling of sound touched her mind and Rusti thought she heard it from behind her. She struggled against the couch and tried to sit up until she realized she was caught in a dream. She relaxed and decided to just let her mind wander. Sound trickled through the air, soft, almost unheard. It grew then added another string of sound to it.


Music? Where was it coming from? She opened her eyes and found Kayla gone. A small sphere no larger than an adult male's fist floated in the air shedding light upon their limited world. Under its direct influence, the light brought out surrealistic colors as though from a crazy computer program. In other areas, where the brightness faded, the red lighting took precedence and washed that part of the world in blood. Rusti rolled to her right, away from the back of the couch. She and many other people resided in the rest area in what was the reception lobby of Fort Max's Central Command. Rusti recognized the plants, the four couches and six cushioned chairs. There were three tables burdened with magazines and a small cabinet offering coffee or water. several people occupied the other resting places nearby. In the background Rusti picked out various sounds of coughing, someone complaining of pain and a fussing baby.

Through it all, she heard the Music and wondered if someone were either making it, or her head was playing games with her.

Rusti did not hear Doctor Scott approach her. She wondered how the suit managed to move so quietly, even over metal flooring. "How are you doing?" He asked softly.

She thought about her physical condition. "Okay, I guess." she answered quietly. "Where are we? What is this place?"

"We don't know." Scott replied, using a similar tone. "We hoped you might tell us. You're the only person we've found from your dimension who isn't frozen." Rusti wasn't sure she heard him right but in seeing his kind smile, decided not to worry about it for the moment. He seemed fairly young for a doctor, maybe somewhere in his forties. "What's your name, hon?"

She liked it when he called her that. "Rusti." she whispered.

"Rusti, can you tell me what was the last thing you remembered before everything changed around you?"

Whispers of another presence touched her mind. The Music reacted and she envisioned disturbed vibrations tracing the walls. It filtered through her mind and she pictured a shape emerging from the darkest of the Dark. It was not Freak, for it beheld the world without eyes. "I was doing homework." she finally answered.


"Yeah. High school, you know."

"And what happened after that?"

Rusti struggled to recollect but images of the eyeless thing nagged and tugged at her mind's eye. She imagined the creature or thing slithering along the walls. Its body stretched to unrealistic lengths.

Kyle watched as her confused expression shifted to uneasiness. "What is it?" he asked.

"Shadows slithering in the dark." Her voice barely reached above a whisper. "I don't know what it is; it's here."

Despite his doubt, Kyle scanned the room with his eyes, tracing walls and dotting along the floor then tried to search the ceiling through the antigrav light. Nothing. "I don't see anything, Rusti."

Rusti merely covered her face with her hands. Something tugged at the back of her mind but she could not figure out what was wrong. Her head throbbed again and beckoned her to sleep. Her chest ached with a dull pain and Rusti remembered the heart attack she had (or thought she had). Sadness tugged her soul as an off-topic thought came to her: "There are no little girls on Cybertron, Doctor Scott. Did you know that? No sunshine, no trees. Just metal, cold air and darkness. No wonder Optimus stayed on Earth. So many people ask him why but the answer belongs to him and he won't tell them because they think Cybertron is a wonderful place; only because it's so different."

A scraping sound touched Kyle's ears and his scanners jumped to life. Doctor Scott sprang to motion and scanned the room. Rusti watched him and wanted to crawl away and hide. Something was wrong, something he had not told her. Pain in her chest expanded to her shoulders and forced her to remain still. She watched as the doctor, Kayla and another lady in armor paced about the lobby. Helmets snapped about their heads and if they communicated, it must have been on a private frequency. Her eyes caught another figure to her left. It looked like an Autobot from the distance, but Rusti could not tell who it might have been. Perhaps he was a Paratron, but in the poor lighting, she could not be sure. He too scanned the room, a lit pair of optics flashed then died as the robot turned from her.

Rusti sighed and settled back down. Doctor Scott was gone for a while. The girl eased herself into closing her eyes and just listening to conversations around her, trying to piece together exactly what had happened, what crazed manifestation had affected the world.

She woke later, sensing Doctor Scott's presence. There was something odd about the armor he wore; it was definitely not EDC-issue. Kayla rejoined them after helping the baby. Her smile greeted Rusti, but the girl didn't feel like returning it. She wanted to close her eyes again, but curiosity kept her awake.

Doctor Scott gazed at Kayla and Rusti glanced from one adult to the other. His fingers tapped over the scanner in his hands before his eyes rested on Rusti. "You know, when I found you, Rusti, I took the liberty to scan your life readings. I'm not sure if my equipment is 'off' or if your life signs are somehow affected by the bubble reality. But it seems you are missing the gamma-wave life force. Are you aware of that?"

Rusti noticed Kayla's shocked expression and felt like a bug scrutinized by a child. "She should not even be alive!"

The doctor did not answer. Rusti meekly nodded but could not look at either of them. "Doctor Hanson said that once a long time ago. I don't know what it means." Her hand unintentionally laid over her chest as a javelin of pain sliced between her breasts. She almost could not breathe.

Kyle gazed at her a long moment before turning his scanner off. "A life force frequency, Rusti, is how we absorb things into our souls. Like the body, the soul takes in nourishment and breathes. The Alpha frequency uses the perception of light. It's more than seeing with our eyes. It's how we need the sun.'

'Beta is the ability to use all the physical senses such as taste and touch to tell the difference between reality and how we perceive reality from either dreaming or imagination.'

'Delta is the absorbency of sound either in communication, since most all sentient creatures need to communicate to other intelligent life forms, or in music. We often don't just listen to music, we use it to feed our souls.'

Gamma is the utilization of light frequencies given off by living things like other people or natural objects like animals, water or trees. Life force itself gives off a type of light necessary to our existence. That's why many people are compelled to take vacations to wilderness areas like the mountains or the ocean or why some people crave being around other people.'

'You, however, do not seem to have the ability to produce or properly absorb Gamma wave life force."

That was upsetting. No one said anything of the kind to her before and Rusti wondered . . . "Does that mean I'm going to die?" She swallowed hard and tried to bite back tears.

Scott shook his head. "You've lived this long without it and I didn't pick up any real damage. But you are very ill and still in shock. I want to give you something to let you rest, alright?"

It was a kind offer but Rusti doubted it would help. Of course, if the people around them would not be so noisy, she would sleep. The word 'shock' flashed through her mind and wracked her brains. She struggled to recall what was so important about 'shock.' Her mind raced. Dammit, what was it? There stood a long case of stairs alone in a great shaft of darkness. Now that her mind seemed to clear on one aspect of thought, Rusti realized the stairs she descended had a railing on just one side and no wall on the other and the steps floated in the air with no support. Then she remembered coming down from a floor that also floated and the light, what light there could have been, betrayed her senses so that she thought she saw things that could never be.

Scott moved to touch her neck with the hypo the girl parried, "Wait a minute . . ." Adrenalin raced through her now as her mind shot from the world surrounding her to something Optimus said.

"I SUSPECT THE SHOCK OF IT WOULD BE TOO GREAT TO BEAR AND THE MATRIX IS STRUGGLING TO KEEP IT FROM ME." The Matrix and the Music. Muzik. Muxik. She shuddered as words brought to her disturbing images. Something about insanity . . . fragments of images of a faceless thing living in the dark. And as her mind raced, she sensed the walls crawled with a living thing.

"What's wrong?"

"The walls are moving again." she whispered.

He turned around, "Well, there is a shadow or darkness to the north. I'm not sure what it really is . . ."

His words trailed off to silence as Rusti's mind drifted from him:

"IT'S A SHADOW IN THE DARKNESS. THE MATRIX IS HIDING IT FROM ME." There was fear in Optimus' voice, but it was discernable only to those who knew him better than the average Autobot. The memory of a paper-thin alien in an elevator seeped back into her mind and Rusti's blood ran cold. Her breath would not come. She'd forgotten all about Optimus! How selfish could she be to forget that her friend was in pain and in danger and waiting for her to return!

The girl sprang off the couch as the adrenalin swept through her body like a fever. She dashed across the room, rounding three and four people in hospital attire and the other lady in armor. She heard Doctor Scott calling after her as she clambered up the floating stairs. The other lady in armor and two nurses gave chase. As the girl leapt up three and four steps. They didn't have the advantage as she did; playing Dinobot football, she learned to move fast and dodge quickly.

Rusti heard Doctor Scott's voice trailing behind, ordering people not to hurt her. Well, rather than giving chase, they should be following her to help Optimus Prime. Someone caught Rusti round the ankle and her body slammed hard on the stairs. The other nurse caught up and the two ladies dragged her back to the floor. Rusti struggled back to her feet and turned to dash right back up when one nurse grabbed her and kicked her feet out from under her. Rusti slammed hard on her back, the wind knocked out from her. The attacking nurse pinned her to the floor and Rusti screamed in frustration.

"CONTROL YOURSELF!" the nurse shouted back and the girl braced, expecting to get her face slapped.

"LET GO OF ME!" she screamed with all her might, "OPTIMUS IS SICK AND I WON'T LET HIM DIE! I WON'T LET HIM DIE!" Rusti squirmed under the nurse's slightly overweight body and managed to get free. The nurse reached to trip her again and then Rusti took control by kicking her in the face. She shoved the nurse with such strength, it surprised everyone around her and the other nurse backed off. Doctor Scott and the other armored woman raced after as Rusti scrambled up the stairwell again. Now all the strength and determination she had a moment ago died away, wasted on that stupid nurse.

Rusti did not reach more than eight steps before she lost her footing. She slipped, fell and pushed herself up again. But she fell once more and made a third attempt before Scott caught up with her and shot her with the hypo.

She weakly slapped his chest and wept. "Optimus is in trouble, you bastard! Let me get to him! Let me get to him!" Her adrenaline dissipated and Rusti wilted into his arms. She wept softly as the hypo numbed her body into ineffectiveness. Her mind darkened again and she drifted, taking her surroundings into bleak consideration. This was the lobby of Central Command. There was the receptionist's desk right over there. And of course, there were the three main rest areas. But what was that part of the playground doing over there? And why were those plants floating in the air? The walls hissed around them and Rusti envisioned their molecules scrambling about like static on the television.

Rusti felt her body waver a moment as Doctor Scott laid her elsewhere. No, not on a bed or even the couch, but in someone else's arms. They probably did not trust her enough to lay her anywhere. But sooner or later they would grow tired of holding her

"I think we should get everyone upstairs."

Rusti vaguely heard Doctor Scott's voice. Her mind phased in and out of consciousness. Something was wrong, but nobody told her anything. Yet she sensed things that traveled about the walls and the walls themselves moved. Her heart bled for Optimus. Why wouldn't they listen to her? Maybe it was that she lost her mind and traveled in dreams.

That had to be it! She had lost her mind. Rusti mourned, but the drug kept the tears at bay while she drifting through fogs of thought. Was this how her life was going to be, now? Was it true that Optimus and Roddi had taken her to a hospital and left her there with strangers? Maybe they had no choice. And if that was the case, it was all Freak's fault. Freak caused her to lose her mind. Freak made her hallucinate and remember things she never learned about nor lived through.

Her mind receded again, drifting along a current of dreams and figments. Rusti thought she heard things tapping or scraping within the walls. She imagined people dancing in a fit of degenerating madness.

Rusti was not aware that she lived not in shadow of disease nor did she walk in dreams unspoken by men or gods. At the moment of the virus' physical attack against Optimus Prime, a ripple of chronoenergy smashed against the reality known to Earth and Fort Max. The wave froze every Human, alien, child and Autobot in their tracks, their bodies locked in blue ice, preventing their bodies from certain destruction.

But there came more than the time ripple. In another place, in another dimension, an energy ribbon passed through Cybertron at the exact moment, touching a Holy Power. A rebounding shock tore into the dimensional fabric. A string of proto-reality stretched from one dimension to the other conjoining the two realities. Some might call it a worm hole, but it was very small, fragile. Those who were touched by its energies prevented the tunnel from collapsing. The power of their life forces created a bubble universe, protecting those around them. The bubble universe was a small thing, maybe not more than three hundred feet around. But it stabilized in the currents of time and solidified into its own reality.

The music spoke to Rusti again. It told her of darkness and of things living in deep places in the universe; for the universe was not simply the physical reality, but that of the mind; those things of abstract substances that did not take physical form, but existed just the same. Rusti did not understand much of it for her life did not expand to that level; she was Human and yet a child even by Human standards.

The Music tipped into a soft beat. Its tempo pulsated into a rhythm like the time-lapse of a field of blossoming flowers exploding to life. The tempo strengthened so that it seemed more of a great heartbeat; that of a living creature inhaling, exhaling and inhaling again. From there the sounds of a soft gong echoed within Rusti's mind and a picture faded into focus.

It was Roddi that dimmed into the focus of her consciousness. Grey shadows darkened the world about the Autobot leader as he sat on his knees and stared into an empty floating wall. Its blackness reflected nothing; not even light touched its unholy surface. The wall seemed to be a monolith of total non existence.

The Music haunted the reality between Rodimus and Rusti and she knew he could also hear Its echo as it bled Matrix energy. It trickled into his soul. Rusti knew this because she envisioned it on his face. The Matrix spoke to him in a soft pleading voice. But Roddi did not answer. The Music echoed into deeper tones as though it were reaching into another level down. Down. Down.

Rusti watched as the anguish of the voice roused Roddi's own grief. But he did not cry. She did. Rusti cried for him, fearful of the consequences. For the girl knew Faceless Darkness moved here. It was in the walls. It was on the floor. It spirited through the air guised as oxygen molecules so that every person here, every robot that walked among the armored people, breathed it in. It touched them and twisted them, their bodies bathed in its malignancy.

The sorrowful voice of the Matrix filtered through the air again, breaking Rusti's heart. Its sadness filtered poison into Rodimus' soul. Rusti noticed how the poison twisted his own sorrow. Then to her surprise, his sorrow shifted and solidified into a more intense emotion: rage.

The poison churned in a slow boil like oil over white-hot fire. Boil, boil, trouble and toil, cold white heat. So hot that it turned cold and turned him inside out and oh, the sin of it all. Rusti sensed Rodimus drank that poison and it mutated into a lust for death. Rodimus Prime's hunched form turned grey as though his spark failed. His form suddenly shot to life, as he gasped once for breath. His color snapped back except his optics remained dead dark.

She didn't want to see anymore and tried to turn away. What happened just then? Maybe it was all a terrible thought, an evil dream, maybe just a fleeting vision of things that could not possibly be.

But the girl, as much as she wished she could deny the truth, did not think it possible to ignore the fact that she just saw Rodimus plunge into whatever darkness infected the Matrix.


The sea of unconscious darkness assailed her senses again and for a while Rusti drifted in a fog of dreamlessness. Voices entered her ears then faded out like abstract dreams in a foreign film. For a while the girl listened carefully for the Music. But the Music was not playing at the moment. It waited, obviously, for something to whisk it to life, carry it off into a new tempo of activity.

There! A tinkle, like jewelry box music. Twinkle, twinkle little star . . . tell me of the monster you are. Your dark little soul touches my mind. I can see you, though I'm blind.

Rusti opened her eyes meeting the brash lighting from the center of the rest area wherein lay most of the survivors within the bubble universe. Something assured the girl several people had already died. The same Something told her most of the survivors here would never see their home again. Their souls were not strong enough to cross back through the wormhole from where they came. They were dragged here like so much light weight material traveling along the crest of ocean wave and dropped along the coarse grainy beaches. It was not their fault they came, but they would not be going back.

No more home for them; their little lives would be trapped in this reality for all eternity, reliving events now taking place.

That made Rusti wonder how often Optimus felt he were reliving events.

Rusti's thought of him caused the Music to stir around her. It touched the air and swirled through the blackness. It raced along hidden boundaries and nudged against the survivors, hoping one of them would take notice. But these people knew nothing of the Music or its power. In fact, one survivor lay dying because the Music's own life force was poison to him.

Rusti thought it very sad. For the Music was beautiful. It sang to her; told her of things, even now, as it existed in sadness and the dark. It feared for Optimus and Rodimus. But It also did not care.

The girl tried to reach out to it with her hand. The drugs in her system tried to override her longing to touch the Music and keep her in silence. But Rusti's own stubborn power refused to adhere to such notions. Why should something as infinitely insignificant as a chemical keep her from the Music's responsive touch?

For that matter, why was she allowing the chemical to keep her from getting help to Optimus Prime? Wasn't that a wrong thing to do? She did, after all, set out to get help for him. But here she lay, a limp form in the midst of chaos, of adults and Transformers struggling to survive a reality trapped in its own time frame. She was useless to them; an irrational thing whose hysterics annoyed all but the most patient.

The Music rose dramatically for a moment. Something was going to happen and soon and Rusti needed to get someone motivated to help Optimus.

True. True. She'd have to tell her body to obey her every command. It'd do no good to struggle unless she had the power to move faster than those adults in the armor suites. She'd have to outrun them, out think them. The girl always prided herself in being able to make a nuisance of herself either at home with her parents, or at school. Perhaps now was the best time.

Rusti concentrated on her muscles, telling them all they needed to do exactly what she said. Of course, the chemicals in her body would sneer at her feeble attempts to escape Kayla, but it was a challenge Rusti was willing to try.

Deep breath. Deep breath. Run for the stairs. They had to be here. Ready? One. Two. Th-

And the girl shot to her feet like a cat scared out of its wits. She heard Kayla calling after:

"No! No, Rusti, come back! Rusti!" Rusti heard Kayla's exosuit tap the flooring with small klank-klanks. Then a second set of feet joined in the chase. Keep going, she told herself. Find the stairs! She heard the other armored woman mention something about a namphry, but Rusti did not catch all of it. Then the lady called out to her directly: "Rusti! This is not a smart thing to do."

That did not daunt the girl from her goal. She found the stairs but just before she touched the first one, some poisoned sharp blade pierced her from her spine through her sternum. Rusti thought she was having another heart attack. Her breath left her and she stumbled forward, back arched, chin in the air. The jabbing pain shot through her twice again until she stopped moving altogether. She grasped the stairway and tried to ignore the fact that her fingertips glowed more intensely. What was going on? Was she dying? Was the Music that she loved so much slowly killing her?

It hurt to breathe and she gasped and fought tears and wheezed, trying to get air into her lungs. The muscles in her upper arms constricted tightly then melted under her skin. She was going nowhere. Her body betrayed her determination. How pathetic! Here she was going to save the universe and all its creatures, claim right, might and glory by saving Optimus Prime (yeah, right!) And now look at her! Some hero! Lie down right, here, Rusti. Keel over and DIE like the simpering little child that you are! Who the HELL do you think you are, God's gift to the universe? Do you really think you're that great or invincible? Simple little girl caught in a world where she doesn't belong and she can't even gather her own wits enough to get someone to help a dying Autobot leader.

What a joke!

Rusti wanted to cry, but could not. She wanted to scream but could not do that either-nor would she dare for fear of whatever Faceless Darkness lay waiting here. She pounded the floating stairs with her fist until she managed to pull her body into movement and crawled up three steps then one more then one more after that

"There you are!" The Kshi bee-lined for Rusti, finding her sitting on the fifth step of another stair rail. She knelt before the girl and brushed curly red hair from the girl's eyes. "Sweety, this is not a good thing to do. Let's get back to the camp-"

"Optimus is up there and he needs help!"

Kayla smiled sadly and her eyes drifted down, her eyes attracted to the girl's softly glowing fingernails. "Rusti, we can't do anything for him here-"

"But I need to get to him!" Rusti's voice rang in determination she took two steps.

Kayla grasped her right hand, keeping her from going further. "You can't do anything for him, not really. Let's get back to the camp and tell Rodimus Prime-"

"No! I'm NOT leaving him by himself!" She scampered but not fast enough. The other woman caught her round the middle. Rusti kicked and struggled until Kayla gripped her arm and shot her in the neck with a hypo. Rusti gasped in shock. She forgot about the hypo! But she passed out before another thought crossed her mind.


. . . N-n-n-no-o-o-oppp. The . . . boyyyyssssss found . . . kitchen . . ." Rusti sluggishly came back to her senses. She lay with her head to a wall, a blanket tossed over her. The Music filtered through the air all about her. Voices rode along its tempo, creating an eerie sound worse than that of some movies she had seen. The Music told her of a world cast in grey shadows and nowhere to run and hide. It told her of monsters seeking a way to devour the survivors in the little bubble universe. The Music's tempo also strengthened in the girl's mind, reminding her of Optimus' present condition. She needed to get him help.

"Ssssoooo far, no . . . hangnail . . . xenomorph. Magnus."

The voice filtered in and out of her mind and Rusti tried with all her might to clear her head so as to find out what was going on. The voice kept echoing, its tremor now inaudible to her as her senses betrayed her to the drug. She tried to unconsciously push the drug effects out of her mind. The more she tried, the clearer things around her became but it was agonizingly slow at best. What was that word the voice used? Xeno-something? What was that? All the survivors around her were clearly nervous about something. Maybe that was why they fought; they knew about the monster riding along the walls. But now that the girl thought of it, the walls surrounding them now were not the same as before. They were in a different area but she was so drugged up now that Rusti had no clear idea where she was except for the stairs. She knew exactly where they were because she knew how to listen to the Music. It told her. She was surprised no one else heard It.

Maybe they did, but either did not recognize It or ignored Its resonance as just another noise in their head.

Think, girl, think! Push it all out of your system! Get up! Get up, dammit and move! MOVE! Yes! That was it! Rusti managed to twitch a finger then two. She breathed more deeply and fought off the drug's effects. MOVE! She thought of Ultra Magnus and how he'd drive the Autobot troops through the city-MOVE! MOVE! MOVE!

She took several more deep breaths and managed to clear the webs out of her brain. Yes! She was doing it! And the Music grew clearer, too. She could feel it everywhere around her; in the walls, the light above, the very air everyone breathed.

"I'm a doctor, Colonel Frasier, not a chronologist."

A real voice! It was the doctor that spoke. Rusti recognized it clearly and she smiled. The girl opened her eyes to a labyrinth world of walls and a rest area from the second floor of Central Command. This was the human area of the building that came complete with medical rooms, Doctor Hanson's office, a kitchen and dining area and three meeting rooms for EDC officers or others who had business that required them to remain overnight. Rusti's room was on the second floor overlooking the western side of the city.

"The only person who can explain anything is sound asleep."

Rusti had no idea what they were talking about. She guessed there to be several people around her who believed her to be asleep. Something burned into her right side and Rusti groaned, moving just slightly.

"I thought you gave her a tranq." Doctor Scott's voice carried from Rusti to someone else. She presumed it was Kayla to whom he spoke, since it was she who gave Rusti the drug.

"I did." The lady's voice filtered the air in a much softer tone. Rusti met Doctor Scott's gaze as he checked her temperature then her pulse. Now! Now was the time to tell him about Optimus! She struggled to sit up so as to explain the urgency.

"You'll be alright, Rusti." he promised softly. He tried to get her to lay back down.

In spite of the fact that the girl managed to escape the drug's sleeping effect, it still left her groggy and unable to vocally articulate well. She could not sit up or move about as freely as she once thought. "Optimus . . ." Her words came in slurred whispers, "please . . . somebody help him." It was so frustrating! She knew what she needed to say but her body refused to do anything she wanted.

But she could still cry! What a wimp! She melted into tears but did not have the strength to cover her face. The girl looked elsewhere, embarrassed.

"We will help him, I promise." Doctor Scott seemed earnest in his promise. Part of Rusti wanted to trust him. Another part screamed at her to tell him everything, to let him know about Optimus, not lie here waiting for whatever else might come. "We just can't get to him yet." The doctor kindly brushed her tears, settled in a more comfortable seating position before her and produced his medical scanner.

Rusti listened to its faint trill as the scanner traced her body one side to the other. Her body suddenly desired sleep, but she fought it fiercely.

"Rusti?" she forgot that the doctor knew her name. He called her from the edge of dreamland. "What was the last thing you remember?"

Just the darkness, she thought. But the girl concentrated. "I dunno." Her words came weak to her ears, "I was in my room and I woke up; it was dark and I saw something . . ." Rusti narrowed her eyes, now that images flashed across her brain. "It was going straight for Optimus." It was that thing that looked like black paper in the shadows. Now she remembered. Faceless Darkness. "I couldn't stop it. It hissed at me . . . I think." Then she recalled the other bit of illogic the creature committed: "Don't know why it bothered taking the elevator, though. I mean, if it was in the hallway, why didn't it just go through the floors, right?"

"What, Rusti?" Doctor Scott pressed, "What just went through the floors?"

"That thing." Oh Primus, she had no name for it. Some kind of devil, it might have been. Nothing like any other creature she was aware of, not even the stick-figures she'd seen around school. For they were seemingly real creatures. This thing, the Faceless one, had no life signs she recognized. She wasn't even sure if it were honestly alive. "It's not really real, is it? It's just that I'm sick and they said I have mono but it doesn't feel like mononucleosis."

"You don't have mono, sweetheart." The doctor's voice was kindly soft, like Optimus' when he took care of her when she was sick. "I can assure you that much." He ran his finger over her blue nails. "Mono doesn't turn your nails blue."

For some reason, his touch made her react so that she had enough strength to cover her face and cry. "What's wrong with me?" her voice betrayed her feelings of distress, "I feel like something is trying to crawl into my skin, Doctor Scott! I don't know what's wrong! I'm seeing things and hearing things and I'm freaking out!"

He patiently sighed, "Rusti, would you do me a favor?"

She regained emotional control and shrugged.

"I need you to count. But listen carefully. I want you to count one to ten and in between each number, I want you to count to four. For example: One. One two three four. Two. One to three four. Three. One two three four and so on. Can you do that for me?"

He wanted her to do what? Didn't he realize she was having enough trouble just keeping herself on track? But she obliged him anyway, deciding he was the expert, not she. "One . . . One, two, three, four, five, six-" Oops. Start over, "One. One, two, three, four . . . four . . . two, um, one, two . . ." Oh Primus! CONCENTRATE! Two follows one, naturally, but the task was to recount and resume what she started and recount again. But she already lost her place and would have to start over, "One . . ." Oh, come ON, GIRL! Naturally two comes after one! THINK!

She flushed with frustration, unable to do so easy a task.

Doctor Scott held up a hand: "Okay, Rusti, hon. It's okay." Doctor Scott gently squeezed her hands.

The other doctor harumphed from behind Scott. "Here we go, nosing about this bizarre little girl when there are others who need attention. Doctor Scott, it seems one of our patients is phasing out of sync with the rest of us. Would you kindly come and examine him?"

"Bring the patient here, Doctor. I really can't be moving around."

Once again there was something more going on than Rusti could guess. The other doctor departed without another word. Scott glanced from Rusti to Kayla. "I'd like to talk to their Rodimus Prime, Kayla. I think he should know about Rusti's concern for Optimus."

"He's gone off with Voodoo again on another short run. But they'll be back soon, Kyle." Just as Kayla finished her explanation, Doctor Scott-Kyle-clutched his chest. His face contorted in pain then he slumped over unconscious. "Oh gods!" Kayla gracefully gathered Kyle and instantly checked his vitals.

"What's wrong with him?" Rusti noticed the doctor's gloveless right hand glowed bright from the backside. Some kind of white scar pulsated then faded back. Kayla carefully laid Kyle next to another stranger Rusti did not take notice before. The event charged the adrenaline in her own system and the drug's effects wore further down.

Kayla shook her head and Rusti watched with suspicion as the horned lady gently kissed the doctor's brow. She thought it sweet.

After warmly covering the unconscious doctor, Kayla approached Rusti and handed her a bottle of water. Rusti greedily took it, not realizing how thirsty she was until that moment. She drank half of it but did not want to return it. "What is going on?" she finally and firmly asked. "I've been in and out of sleep so much that I don't know what's going on around me. Where are we and who are you people?"

The girl was clearly rational and Kayla wondered how long that rationality would last. If the girl was as sick as Kyle suggested, the rational side of her would not last long. "My friends and the people around us are from Cybertron from a different planet and time from yours. We guess that something has connected our two universes together in what we hope to be a temporary bubble reality. But that's the very best we've been able to come up with."

Rusti stared at her in shock. It sounded horribly far fetched, something out of someone else's nightmare. "Is there a way out of it?"

Kayla solemnly shook her head. "We don't know."

The man who laid beside her groaned and rose to life. He slowly sat up, holding his head as though it were going to roll off his shoulders. "I'm going to sue whatever maniac hit me."

Kayla immediately scanned his life signs. "You'll have to either ask Kyle or Midnight." Her voice came firm and direct. Rusti watched them interact, wondering who these people were. They were nothing like those who languished in hospital attire. Nor were they anything like the other doctor.

A figure shadowed Rusti from the small sphere of light and her gaze shot in its direction. An unfamiliar robot approached. He bore a symbol that was neither Autobot nor Decepticon. He knelt beside Kayla and she paused in her activities as though listening to him. The robot said nothing but she nodded just the same. Rusti assumed they shared some form of telepathy. The robot rose but not before meeting her scrutinizing gaze. The Music was not familiar with the Transformer, either, but recognized it as a Transformer of some kind.

Not a child of the Matrix

There were others like him here. Rusti knew not their names or their faces, but the Music recognized their life force and it sang of their alien natures through the walls.

Shadows flitted from one corner of their little world to the next and Rusti believed she could feel little spikes of pain jumping up her arms and over her back. She felt hot and cold and was ready to settle down again. She turned her attention to Kayla and the other man in armor who now attended Doctor Scott.

"Hey." The man covered the doctor's cold body and greeted him with a smile. "It's about time you came back to us, Kyle."

Kyle weakly gripped Parker's hands and he gasped for breath. "Steve! What's happened to me? I was talking to Rusti and then-"

"Shhhh." Rusti caught 'Steve's' blue eyes glinting in the bright light. The two men silently stared at one another, saying nothing. Again, Rusti assumed a form of telepathy existed between them. Were all these people telepathic? They all seemed to be more than Humanoid, that much even she could pick out. Sleep called her to lay down and Rusti obeyed. The two men talked more but Rusti did not hear them as she unwillingly drifted into darkness.

She came back from sleep when a large warm hand gripped hers and a finger passed over her fingernails.

Kyle's voice came to her ears, but as though from a distance, "Steve?"


"Do you think it's possible people can exist without certain elements in their life force?"

Pause: "What kind of a question is that?"

"This girl is missing Gamma wave life force and I think it keeps her out of sync with the polarities of the reality from which she came."

Rusti had no idea what he was talking about. Everything was so unreal. Maybe it was all just a dream. But it lasted too long to be a dream of any kind. Optimus' name rolled about in her head. Maybe the drug had come back to haunt her.

"WE'RE BA-AACK!" that was Roddi's voice! Roddi was here, too? "DIDN'T SEE ANY NASTIES, LARGE OR OTHERWISE. . . ." What was he talking about? What else was going on? Rusti wished her body would straighten out! She needed to tell him about Optimus! For that matter, why didn't he know himself? Rusti tried to keep up with Rodimus' chatter as he hurriedly explained something to the people around her. She wished with all her might he'd pick her up and hold her.

"YOU THINK YOU DON'T KNOW?" Roddi's inflections roused the girl enough so that her mind could focus on what was being said.

"Kyle means she's sick." That must be Steve's voice, "and he thinks it's something he's not seen before."

Rusti was not surprised. But it saddened her. She was sick with something they could not cure. Was she going to die after all? Her mind drifted out for a moment. Pain played along her body like a demonic pianist. When the pain faded, she managed to consciously resurface but realized once again how time passed without her acknowledgment. Rusti did not know how much time she lost, but the conversation was still going on:

"YOUNG MAN," again that was Kyle's voice: "I've been alive LONG ENOUGH, and know my profession WELL ENOUGH to know it IS possible!"

"Perhaps it might be possible," the other doctor admitted, "for people who are possessed by alien machines."

Rusti wondered if the other doctor was talking about those in armor, like Kayla. Possessed? Maybe he was just being mean and that they really weren't.

"But!" the same doctor continued, "she's a HUMAN child-alternate reality or not. And I question your judgment and your diagnosis." Rusti heard someone walk away and assumed it was the 'talking doctor.'

"Kyle?" that was someone else's voice-maybe the other lady in armor who caught Rusti a while ago, "What were you two talking about?"

"Zatra Tatlic is a Transformers virus, Shan."

Rusti's eyes shot open. A virus?

"This girl has the organic version of it."

Rusti about choked. A virus? She had a virus? No, wait, he just said it was a Transformers virus-not possible! The other doctor was right! It wasn't possible! And now that her eyes were open, Rusti realized she was awake enough to tell them about Optimus. "Optimus." her mousy little voice scarcely carried over the air. "Please go help him." She choked, thinking how much pain he must be in. "Please help him! He needs somebody to help!"

"Okay." Kyle tried to sooth her with soft tones. "We're going right now. But I want you to promise me you'll get lots of rest until I return."

Tears came to her eyes no matter how much control Rusti tried to hold over herself. She covered her face in shame and embarrassment and was so grateful when the other lady in armor laid a blanket over her shoulders and gently rubbed her back. Even through the exosuit, Rusti could feel the kind touch. Rusti watched Kyle leave and hoped he'd not be gone too long. She rested against the wall, now able to sit up. Kayla kindly gave her a bowl of soup. She didn't know how they warmed it; didn't want to know, but she was glad it was warm.

A few minutes later Doctor Scott returned, this time with another of the alien robots. This one had no optic sensors she could see, but he had the transforms of a dark blue jet. Kyle greeted her with a grim smile. He started adjusting his exosuit when the other lady-Shan, Rusti finally learned-approached their little area with an alien. Kyle directed her and the alien some feet from her so that she could not hear their conversation. It was just as well; Rusti did not want to know what they were saying and when she noticed the alien revealed his chest, she realized the matter was private.

"Okay!" It was her Roddi! Rusti held her arms up like a young child hoping for love and attention. He softly knelt by her. "Hello, Lady-Friend. I'm sorry I haven't been here for you of late. Everyone else here needed some extra muscle and me and Mags are the only two available."

"What's happening to us, Roddi? Are we going to die? Is this all for real? What about Optimus? He's been hurt, Roddi! I've been trying to tell everybody he needs help, but they won't listen to me!"

"Shhh. We're going to go right now, Lady-Friend. It's just that we have a lot of other people here who needed help, too. We're going. Right now. And don't worry, we'll be back soon." Rodimus accepted a hot cup of chocolate from Kayla with a quiet thank-you and gave it to his baby bird. Rusti choked up again and could not drink it right away. Roddi hovered over her, lingering like a parent waiting for their young to settle to sleep. She finally calmed enough to take a sip and felt the blessed heat trail all the way down.

Roddi softly wished her good-bye and he, Doctor Scott, the other blue robot and another companion en-arms left the group.

Rusti felt no more at ease. But her body dragged her down, the strength left her as her muscles melted. She slept fitfully. Voices kept troubling her dreams as snatches of conversation rose and fell like a bad tune. She sensed people come and go around her and she resisted the temptation to wake up. She longed for the quiet patter of Oregon rain and the warmth of her own soft bed. Quiet! Quiet! There was a lot of noise and Rusti kept wishing her thoughts and outside sounds to be still.

The Music came to her again, but it strummed in disharmonic tones, reverberating in a terrible inordinate fashion. Finally she drew a deep breath. It was useless to sleep if there was no peace.

She sat up and found the world frozen in time. Every human and alien in the nearby rest area, even those who wore armor were frozen in mid-motion. Somehow the world looked flat, either dark or light. Rusti tried to figure what was wrong with the way things looked; then it dawned on her: there were no shadows cast. The light above their little world shone, and there was plenty of light, but no shadows fell where everyone stood.

Rusti thought about getting up to examine the world but decided against it; she didn't want to know what she could discover. She looked at her own body and found the same illusionary phenomena touching her. No shadows, not even under the blanket.

Her eyes scanned the world again and instead of people, figures of smeared colors stood in their place. Rusti did not know what to make of it. Even Kayla nearby was nothing but a smear of color like paint on a canvas. Rusti dared to touch. It was cold, like metal and strangely solid. She settled back to the little make-shift bed and found all the 'smeared' people had once again shifted, some of them in different directions, others were more contorted shapes than smears. She sat there for a while and concentrated on one shape/person to see if she could witness the change.

Sure enough, the shape shifted, bending over then losing shadow. Time-logged? Maybe? If the 'smears' indicated individual time/space lapse, that would explain why the 'Kayla smear' was solid. Rusti knew little of physics and less about temporal theory but she knew the Music knew and she accepted this idea until someone could prove her wrong.

Little by little the smears reformed and people emerged from the colors. It was as though time forgot all about her.

"So! Having fun?" Everything suddenly snapped back into place. Rusti did not bother to watch Steve down spoonfuls of soup. The thought of food made her queezy. "How long has she been like this, Kayla?"

"For a while. About half an hour." The pretty horned lady's voice came kind and soft to Rusti's ears and the girl wished she could hear the woman sing someday.

"More like ten minutes." Rusti corrected softly.

"Hmm?" Steve leaned over to hear her more clearly.

"It's been ten minutes. Time skipped."

She finally met his eyes when Steve brushed aside her hair and guided her to face him. "Did I hear you right? You just said time skipped?"

"You were frozen, just like everybody else. But I think the time passed differently for everybody. I counted ten minutes."

Steve's attention turned to Kayla. Rusti just stared off into nothing when he spoke: "Didn't you just feel anything skipping, Kayla?"

"Maybe a moment, everything seemed to slow down a little."

"When did it happen?"

"About half an hour ago. Everything seemed to freeze and that was just after you broke up a fight between Gatchel and Shan."

Rusti sat there as the two talked on and the next minute, they were gone elsewhere. Rusti watched the group of people nestled under the direct light. A bit of an argument broke between a couple of ladies which 'Gatchel' quickly dispelled. The baby cried again and one person asked another to hold 'her' while a diaper was being made. Another quick shouting match took place before it too was quelled. The people were edgy and weary. Rusti sensed their fears and wondered why it was taking Roddi and Kyle so long to return.

The darned headache was coming back. Rusti groaned, irritated and annoyed. She surrendered to the conclusion this was not a dream. For each time she felt pain, she did not wake to her bed in her room either at the EDC district, Central Command or even at her folk's house in Central City.

The image to her right confirmed her conclusion: Freak stood there, solid, silent, waiting.

Rusti leapt so fast to her feet, she did not even remember how she managed enough strength to do it. Her eyes lit on fire, "what are you doing here?" she demanded. "Why are you following me here? This isn't real! YOU'RE NOT REAL!"

She inadvertently gained the attention of other survivors, but paid them no attention. "Leave me alone. Leave me alone! LEAVE ME ALONE!!" And she proceeded to pound her fists onto it. All her anger, fear and frustration slammed against the illusion with every effort she made.

She did not hear Steve dashing up but he grabbed her from behind and she wrestled and screamed in his arms. "LET ME GO!! IT WON'T GO AWAY! MAKE IT GO AWAY! GO AWAY! LEAVE ME ALONE!!"

Something bit her neck as Steve dragged her back to the little bed. Rusti irrationally fought against him, not realizing how amazing it was that his armor was able to withstand her fits. "LET ME GO!" She shrieked, "I'M GONNA KILL IT!" Steve forced her to look him in the face.



"Okay! Okay! We'll deal with it!"

She stopped abruptly. Someone actually believed her! Shock took over and Rusti could not help herself. She wept, frustrated and angry. She did not know Steve stared at the so-called illusion that tormented her. Kayla came around the other side and Steve released Rusti into the healer's arms.

Gatchel, the other doctor, rubbed a hand Rusti unintentionally kicked when he 'bit' her with a needle. "That little bitch is a case study in resistance to tranquilizers." he growled. "Captain Parker, I suggest we tie her up."

Rusti heard all that in spite of her crying fit. How cruel! She needed help, not restraint!

Jerk! Jerk! She wanted to give him a piece of her mind, but all she could do was stare daggers at Gatchel. Little by little she felt Kayla's calmness surround her and her nerves started to settle. The drug took longer to affect her, if it did anything for Rusti at all. Sooner or later they would run out of either needles or serum and then they probably *would* have to resort to binding her hand and foot.

She didn't mean to be so feisty! All she wanted was someone to understand how she felt-that THING haunted her all the time and even now, in this unreality, it was here to torment her further, to push her over the edge. And Rusti feared she might have already fallen off.

Rusti only heard snatches of the conversation between the two doctors. She heard Doctor Gatchel call Steve "Captain Parker" but his voice did not sound friendly. Steve's own words, though distorted by distance, came soft and frightening. Rusti could not hear exactly what he was saying, but she was sure it was a threat.

After another moment or so, Steve returned to Rusti and Kayla and sighed heavily. "Rusti, you gave that image a name. You've seen it before, haven't you?"

"It haunts me." She almost whispered. She feared if she did or said something, Freak would scream and that was the last thing the girl wanted to hear. "It won't leave me alone. It follows me around in school and it screamed and knocked me out. It won't leave me alone." Kayla kindly wiped the tears as they fell from Rusti's eyes. She was too tired and weak to do anything for herself at the moment. "But I don't know how you're seeing it. Most people can't."

"Um, you could say I have an interesting gift because I'm Interfaced with someone special." Steve took her hand in his and noticed her blue-tipped fingers. "I've been to places, Rusti, where that image is a natural phenomena. You're not going crazy. You're not just seeing things. The people on the planet Nek'zhabry call it an al-d'shoonee. It's the solidified manifestation of a psychic projection; usually from a damaged psyche. But usually only extremely powerful minds can create these things."

Rusti could not breathe. Her eyes remained glued to his figure as though her whole being had turned to stone. She managed to draw enough breath to speak, though to her, it came out small; "A psychic projection? Someone is projecting that thing? It belongs to somebody?"

"That's right." Steve's own voice sounded of encouragement.

She started to breath heavily again. Suddenly a million questions crowded her mind but she could only speak a few: "Then why is it screaming at me? Why am I the only one that can really see it? Why did it hit Cody's car? Who's it from?" The answer shot through her head. It had been there all along. Optimus. She could only lip the name. "Optimus." Her voice came as a whisper then she was able to talk a bit more loudly: "It's from Optimus. But why does it scream at me?" distress returned to her voice: "Why? What did I do?"

Steve covered her hand between his own, "maybe he's trying to get help."

Realization came to her bright as a newly-lit match.

Through hundreds and thousands of years of accumulated events Optimus suffered war and famine and persecution from every side and it all came to this. It resulted in the formation of a psychic projection for which he was neither conscious of, nor could control. A part of him was violently crying out. But his own people did not hear. They went about their daily lives, living heedless under the shadow of their weary leader. Sometimes they'd crucify his character on the alter of personal conceit. They'd slander him behind closed doors because most of the Autobots knew little about their own leader; how much he worked for them, what he did to keep their society together. Rusti had seen it throughout her life. Had Roddi not been there to soften the blows . . . She remembered the dare she took one Christmas and wondered what else the general Autobot population had to say about their leaders.

What the hell did they want, anyway? Optimus already gave them his life. He bled for them, surrendered his privacy, his time; all those little things the other Autobots took for granted. He had nothing left for himself. There were moments Rusti believed the Autobot leader just ran on automatic; devoid of emotion, detaching himself even from her.

Doctor Gatchel erupted in argument with Shan, breaking the moment of revelation. Rusti sometimes wondered how in moments like this the rest of the universe could not share her discovery and just remain respectfully quiet.

Steve excused himself from her to settle the problem. The girl watched in silence. The adults, she realized, were just as confused and frightened about their surroundings as she. Gatchel shouted even more loudly, his voice as demanding as the exaggerated movements his body made. Why did he seem so mad all the time? Why did he mock Steve and Kyle and their robot friends? Who were these people?

As Rusti watched, Steve lost his temper and punched Gatchel so hard, it sent the loud-mouthed doctor several yards into the rest area over the carpet. Gatchel laid quiet for the moment. Maybe that's what he needed. Or maybe Gatchel had given up and just wanted to be knocked unconscious so as not to bother with the distress anymore. Rusti knew how that felt.

Someone from the rest area screamed and the whole room watched in silent shock as Doctor Gatchel's body reversed like a movie going backwards. He lifted from the floor to the air, flying in exactly the same motion as Steve sent him. Gatchel landed back to his original place in front of Captain Parker and resumed speaking. But Rusti was too far away to hear what the doctor had to say; she did not know that Gatchel even spoke the same words as before, but all came out backwards.

Rusti about swallowed her tongue as she continued to watch the strange and frightening event. The doctor froze and without Steve even touching him, Gatchel 'oofed' and flew through the air again, landing in the same place and way that he did a few minutes ago. All eyes turned to him, watching to see if the phenomena would repeat itself. But it did not. Gatchel sat up and acted as though nothing occurred. "What?!" his voice carried across the room. Gatchel had no idea what happened to him.

No one wanted to talk about the event. Rusti strained her ears to eavesdrop, but heard nothing. Most people now lay down to sleep off the shock. The girl noticed no more water or food was being passed around and she assumed there was no more, which might have caused the fight between Steve and the doctor. Rusti herself had half a bottle of water left, but decided to preserve it for a later time. There was no telling how much longer they were going to be here.

Rusti finally slept for an unaccounted amount of time. She stirred from slumber when heavy footfalls passed by their little place just outside the circle of people. She opened her eyes and watched as Rodimus passed her, bearing something large and heavy in his arms.

"You-ah-you guys were gone for quite some time, Kyle." Steve whispered, not knowing Rusti was already awake.

"I know." Doctor Scott's voice came in hushed tones: "We couldn't decide whether it would be safe to bring Prime down here or not. The stairs are disintegrating. This is it. We can't go anywhere else, now."

Rusti heard Steve move and he said something else, but she paid it no mind. It had to be Optimus Roddi carried. The figure was wrapped end to end in a large blanket or covering of sorts. She stared, hoping she was right.

"Is she really asleep, or is she faking it?" Doctor Scott's voice carried over a little loudly.

"I'm faking it." she replied a bit annoyed.

Steve sighed. "Gatchel gave her a tranq, but it didn't work very well."

Rusti frowned. That's what 'bit' her earlier. The other doctor shot her, but did little good than to encourage her to rest a while.

"Why did he give her that?" Kyle's voice carried a little more strongly, "Kayla's already given her-"

"She saw something that terrified her. I've not seen something like that in a very long time."


"An al-d'shoonee."

"No way."

Steve paused before confirming another of Rusti's suspicions: "Oh, and we're out of water."

No way up, no way down. Rusti realized they were all stuck here in this little world, though she suspected they were here because of something else . . . the Music spoke of monsters on the walls and monsters in the great belly of the world, but that was all she envisioned. Steve spoke with a little lighter a voice: So! What did you guys bring down?"

"Optimus Prime."

That was all Rusti needed. She gathered her strength, determined to be with the two people she loved most. She took to her feet and would have run had she the energy to do so.

Rodimus laid Optimus in a corner near the group and the light. He searched Optimus' optics for a sign of consciousness. But to his dismay, found nothing. Rodimus turned to greet his lady-friend finding Rusti looking as badly as he felt.

[[It's okay, Roddi.]] she sent, [[You don't have to say anything.]] Rusti's little voice in his head comforted him, but it also made him grieve that she would be there to suffer right alongside them. Rodimus wanted to hold her close, to wrap his arms around her. But even that bit of comfort was forbidden him.

[[I'm sorry, Lady Friend.]] he mournfully answered, [[I just don't have anything to offer right at the moment.]]

she sent him a forced smile but said nothing else. Doctor Scott approached, scanner in hand and waved his instrument briefly at Optimus Prime.

"That's . . . what I thought." his voice came soft. "But that's odd."

"What's odd?" Rodimus snapped.

"Prime's the one with the Zatra Tatlic virus."

Rodimus demanded an explanation while Rusti came closer to Optimus and laid her hand on his helm. He felt colder than he should. She wondered if there was anything anybody could do for him. Certainly not here. And if they were trapped in this bubble universe, what would happen to them all? Would the humans start to turn to cannibalism? That disturbing thought made her shudder and she turned her thoughts back to Doctor Scott.

". . . an unknown factor as to how he got it. Thirdly, Rusti's the one that has all the symptoms." Kyle clicked his scanner off and stared at Rodimus. "What is going on here?"


"I think you know what I mean. The girl. Optimus Prime. Is there a connection you haven't told me about? Are they Interfaced?"

Again the girl thought she was bleeding from the chest and Rusti turned from everyone as Optimus softly moaned. She covered her face as her eyes watered with tears. Rusti retreated to the wall behind the Autobot leader as Kayla approached her with a blanket.

Kyle came to her, but did not touch the girl. "It'll be alright, Sweetheart. We'll figure something out." It was as close to a promise as he could come. But his words did not hold weight. They were trapped in a hopeless situation.

"It's not that." Rusti managed to answer amid her sobs. "It's something else." She slid to the floor and rested her head against Kayla's shoulder.

Kyle knelt and offered Rusti a tissue. "What's that?"

She kept her eyes from his and felt the Music touch her skin. It tingled and warmed her. The Music comforted her because it was everywhere and sometimes she could feel it more than others. Rusti's back straightened on its own. Her chin lifted, but she still could not look directly at Doctor Scott. "Have you ever heard a scream, engulfed in fire and cold?" That really was not her voice. What was she saying? "You can't really hear it. Not really. But I have. It frightens me. I hear it now and again. It comes from the past and maybe can be heard in some distant tomorrow. Sometimes I think it would make me burst from the inside. Other times all I feel is terrible sadness." Rusti heard herself talk but as though from a distance. She hoped she did not say something stupid.

She finally stared at Doctor Scott and wondered why he gave her a strange uneasy look. He glanced from her to Kayla then took to his feet when Ultra Magnus and another alien robot approached. Steve joined them some yards away and a moment later, Rusti realized for the first time that there were two Rodimus Primes. Her eyes shot wide. These people were from another dimension entirely-wait, didn't someone explain that to her before? Where were the rest of the people? Why weren't there more? Something about the bubble universe and how her 'home reality' and theirs collided and reformed . . . was this their new home, now?

Kyle left the ladies for the small group. Rusti watched them interact for several long moments, wishing she could hear what they were saying. It must have been very important because more than once, one or all of them were surprised about something.

Little by little Rusti drifted to sleep. Images and voices carried through the darkness in that bit of time she was able to rest. But how she wished her mind would be silent! Once again she longed for her own bed and her music. She wished it were Sunday and either raining outside or bright and sunny. Someone's raised voice roused her from the shallow sleep and the girl lifted her head.

A flash of light shot across the room, disrupting conversations and the wall along the other side of the room flickered. All survivors turned in silent astonishment as a 'movie' sparked to life. The colors and events flooded the room with light brighter than the small sphere.

Rusti watched in horror as the wall displayed a creature standing like a towering abomination. Haphazardly sewn robotic body shells connected four arms and two heads. And while most of the 'wall movies' remained silent, this one came with sound and the creature laughed. Rusti cringed and wanted to hide. The laughter came doubled with screams of agony.

It walked on four legs, a centaur-like monster, with a conglomeration of metal and rock and so that it looked like moving, rotting junk. It treaded muddied ground amid a hailstorm, tromping through a village of small humanoids. It buried them alive or burned them with spitting flame from its two heads.

And from the midst of clouds and rain, a valiant, strong robot jumped, vibrosword in hand and it hacked at the abomination.

But the thing, with all its four arms, wrapped about the robot devoured it like a praying mantis would a fly-head first.

Rusti covered her eyes and softly whimpered.

"What is going on here?" It was Roddi's voice, but not her Roddi.

"I don't know." That was Roddi. Rusti wished with all her might someone would turn the horrible images off!

Gatchel's voice shot through the room for all to hear: "That wall just played a movie for us and you don't know what's going on?"

Roddi answered with a solemn voice. "There have been a lot of things happening we can't explain."

"Tyr-ani-cussss," Optimus replied with great effort. He drew a tiresome breath. "It was . . . supposed to be the first . . . De . . .cep-ti-con multi . . . changer. 'Bout thir-ty-eight . . . mil-lion years 'go," Prime weakly added. ". . . B'fore the 'ssassin-ation of . . . Maximus Prime. It's . . . another Matrix memory . . . Roddi. Plays over and over in my mind . . . it won't . . . s-stop."

Rusti lowered her hands from her eyes and relief calmed her when she saw the 'movie' had stopped. Kyle turned to Roddi, puzzled. "The Matrix?" he repeated. "Why? How so? How long has this been going on?"

Rodimus shrugged, "in the last few weeks."

"Really? And how long has Optimus Prime been this ill?"


"Years." Rusti suddenly corrected. She flushed as everyone's eyes shot at her. Her voice turned mousy, "Optimus has been sick for years. He's just never told anybody."

Kyle glanced at Steve then he scrutinized Roddi. "You say that . . . movie we just saw is a manifestation of the Matrix? And that this has been going on for a long time? Do you think it has something to do with our present situation?"

"No." Rodimus answer quietly. "I'm sure the Matrix is not responsible for this."

"Kyle, what about Midnight?" Steve asked. Rusti had no idea what or who he was talking about, "Do you think whatever the Matrix is doing is affecting Mid?"

Kyle did not take his eyes off Rodimus. Rusti read suspicion in the doctor's expression. "I think it's very possible. I think the Matrix is affecting everyone in some way.

Rodimus, you were quoting poetry earlier. Can you tell me about that?"

Roddi laughed uneasily. "Poetry, Doctor Scott? You must be joking. I'm not a poet."

Doctor Scott did not seem convinced. Ultra Magnus finally spoke and for the first time, Rusti noticed how he too seemed to suspect something. "You were talking earlier about Bo Peep and you were staring at him for a long moment, Rodimus. Are you sure nothing is wrong?"

Rusti did not see Roddi's expression hardened. "Why would I behave like that? Things have been tough. You all know that. AND WHY IS EVERYONE STARING AT ME!? Rusti did not need to see that Rodimus' optics turned dark. She could tell there was something wrong just by the pitch in his voice.

Kyle glanced at the dark blue robot whom Rusti assumed was his partner. The music drummed in her veins a tempo of which she was unfamiliar. It droned in the walls and shadows of their little world. It whispered of things not seen, but things that existed. Rusti started to realize that just because something was unseen, did not mean it did not exist; like life force or Breath. There were living molecules and 'living DNA' called viruses. There was Faceless Darkness.

Kyle spoke again, bringing Rusti back to the present moment. "My diagnosis," Kyle declared, "is insanity, Rodimus Prime. You and Optimus both are infected with a virus that quite possibly has infected the Matrix. That's why Midnight is so sick; not because of the intensity of gamma wave life force, but because the Matrix is tainted."

Rusti turned cold. If the Matrix itself was infected, how could It, the Autobot's very life-source, be purified? And if the infection tainted the Matrix, how badly would Optimus and Rodimus become? Wait a minute: did Doctor Scott say 'insanity?'

"Devouring it is the antithesessssss . . . sis . . . of being a god." Rodimus laid on his thorax, facing away from Rusti, staring hard into Doctor Scott's eyes.

"And I find it kind of funny,

I find it kind of sad,

The Dreams in Which I'm dying

are the Best I've ever had."

Rusti closed her eyes and silently wept again. What was going to happen to Optimus and Roddi? What would happen to the Autobots entirely?

She did not see Rodimus lunge for Kyle like a shark snapping its mouth for food. Nor did she see Kyle suddenly disappear then reappear closer to she and Kayla. "I don't know how much time you have," he said gravely.

Ultra Magnus waited for more information but when nothing more was offered, he tried to prompt the doctor to saying something else: "Until what?"

Scott shrugged. "Until . . . until. Until, um, both the Primes are so steeped in insanity that . . . you may have to assassinate them. Until . . . maybe the Matrix self-destructs. I really haven't seen anything like this before-"

"Self destructs?!!" All eyes turned to Roddi who now seemed more like himself. "The Matrix?! Are you kidding? Are you reading that thing right?! You can't be serious!"

"I'm very serious." Kyle's solemn voice registered more clearly than any shout Rusti could have heard. "And I'm assuming sooner or later you'll end up like Optimus Prime is right now."

Rusti started to panic and from panic, she started hyperventilating. "No, no, no!" She could not control her trembling as the Music, which now too realized what that meant, vibrated strongly in the walls and the air.

Kyle and Kayla laid Rusti on the floor. She wept and struggled out from under their hands and they tried to give her a breathing apparatus, but she would not hear their words, their commands, their demands.


And all the darkness swallowed her and all the girl could do was lay lifelessly on the cold floor. She couldn't even cry anymore; her tears came in shudders. Something tore into her and ripped out a piece. It devoured her living tissue like a spider nibbling on a fly. Then vaguely she felt the warmth of another body, arms that supported her back, a shoulder on which her head rested; a heart that beat comfortingly against her chest. She shuddered, weak and trembling. The night terror lingered in her mind, but at least someone held her.

Somebody called her 'Baby bird' and that felt good. She shuddered again, allowing someone to touch her. The touch was kind, brushing her hair, smoothing her back. Her heart gradually slowed, her nerves slowly settled. She was thirsty and longed for the soothing patter of soft rain.

Baby bird sleep tight

let your hopes take flight

your name the stars softly call

Baby bird, you'll never fall

That was part of a lullaby, wasn't it? Didn't Roddi sing that more than a few times?

Kyle gazed up and found Rodimus gently attending the girl, softly singing. It was the first time Kyle recalled ever hearing Rodimus Prime sing to anybody. Kyle checked Rusti and found her fast asleep. He gave the Autobot leader a grim smile. "You'd make a good mother, Rodimus." he said quietly.

Roddi gave him a wry smile but did not answer.

The air tingled and pricked her skin with icy fingernails. Rusti moaned in distressful sleep, once again wishing she were home in bed, sleeping with her worn-out fluffy duffy. Slight jabs of pain thrombed against her chest and the girl rolled on her back. She expected the headache to return. Then something pinched her wrist and she weakly whined, unable to fight it. Then it was over. Slowly Rusti opened her eyes, finding Kyle sitting beside her, wrapping a cloth about her wrist.

"I-i-i-iTTT sssshhhhhhoullld helllllllpp, Rrrrusssstiiiiii."

Now she was awake and wrinkled her brows in puzzlement. Something warm coursed through her arm and leaked across her chest. It traveled over her body like a soft warm fire. She could even feel her fingers radiate with warmth. Rusti sat up as she watched Doctor Scott replace a hypo and talk in very slow motion. She scanned the room and found everyone, everything slowed to a near-frozen state. Then she realized every shadow cast from the antigrav light above kept moving at a regular pace. Then the shadows stopped moving altogether. Then they moved at an amazing rate. The shadows suddenly froze again then started moving backward.

Rusti stood and searched for an explanation.

"Did I hurt you? I'm sorry."

She turned and found Doctor Scott resumed in regular time/space motion. He placed the hypo back in a pocket in his suit and smiled at her. She returned the smile, less certain than he, and sat back down. Her eyes fell on her left wrist, now wrapped with a clean cloth. She wordlessly searched his eyes for explanation.

"Serum for the Tatlic virus. I'm sure it'll help."

"You had a cure all along? How do you know so much about it? And why am I affected?"

"No, I've not had it all along. I had to filter impurities and it took a while. I figured now was a good time to give it to you, while things are still quiet."

She looked puzzled and scrutinized him. "How do you know so much about it when no one from my reality does?"

Doctor Scott hesitated a long moment, gazing at her as though weighing a decision. "I . . . 've had Tatlic, Rusti."

She flushed, realizing that was a personal question.

"As for how you contacted it and its behavior . . ." here Scott glanced at Prime then back at her. "Well, it seems you have a connection somehow. Could be a form of Interface I've not seen before, could be something else. I can't really say because I don't have the time to perform the necessary tests. Nor can I produce the electro-chemicals needed to help Optimus Prime. I just don't have the equipment."

Rusti's heart sank for Optimus. It seemed nobody could help him. As for her, she was okay with Scott's explanation. As long as the serum stopped the pain and the hallucinations, that was good enough for her. "Thank you."

Someone screamed and all eyes shot in the general direction. Rusti swallowed air and backed toward Optimus. At the front of the room, near the blocked entrance/exit, floated a Quintesson. At first its form was naught but a transparent figure, something like a ghost. Its tentacles snaked back and forth, its Face of Greed scanned the room back and forth. It looked real. "ALL FORCES ARE MOMENTARILY STATIONARY. WE CAN BEGIN THE FIRST PHASE OF OUR PROJECT."

The room faded from a world of dark cold metal to a small dirty asteroid, lit by a nearby planetary mass about the size of Saturn. Its rings sat in a diagonal direction, but the planet itself did not rotate. It came complimented by three moons all in late eclipse, all of irregular shape and smooth composition. More than one Quintesson appeared around the survivors. Those most fearful tried to hide behind boulders that weren't really there. Other survivors huddled together in terror.

A brain-shattering maelstrom shot through the atmosphere, causing everyone to cower from the terrible explosion. Light flooded the room as if Heaven opened all its gates and shed every square inch of its glory upon one speck of the universe. And a heartbeat throbbed, counting the seconds . .. Two. Three. Four. Five . . . Ten . . . Twenty.

At first nothing. Then another flash of light, distant, but no less brilliant, flared and died. Dead silence followed and oh, how loud that silence was!

No, thought Rusti, this was not real. None of this was real at all. They were still in the room. It was still deathly dark outside the antigrav light. What they were seeing and experiencing was a Matrix memory. "It's not real!" she cried out, but her voice was swallowed by the ensuing thunderclap as though God Himself had spoken. The sound rattled bones and three people bled from their ears. Four fainted and even Rusti fell, weakened by the echoes of Quintesson-wrought destruction.

Then the blast. Was it like an atomic bomb? Or maybe a hydrogen bomb? Was it like fire from Heaven? Was it more like the murder of a super creature? Yes, it had to have been like the death of a super creature, for even Unicron's death left marks throughout the galaxy. Rusti thought her skin was being ripped from her body. Her breath was stolen from her and she could see and feel nothing for what felt like hours. It came and came and kept coming and would not let up, like an eternal storm of fire.

Then, a voice. No, several voices. Optimus's voice came first: "IF YOU DO THIS, IF YOU ENSLAVE THE CREATURE, WE WILL ALL PAY FOR IT."

But somehow Rusti knew the Quints could not enslave the planet-sized creature. And she knew it was about to give birth. But the Quints discovered they could not tame it or enslave it. So they chose to destroy it. Optimus tried to stop them but could not; the Autobot Council of Elders felt it bad policy to intervene with Quintesson affairs when the Quints were not attempting to retake Cybertron. The Quints were cowards. They had to be to do things like prey on the weak and helpless.

And just as Optimus warned, rest of the cosmos paid for their arrogance. The death of the planet-creature caused Cybertron to lose its orbit. The shockwave obliterated other planets in the same solar system and the result extended to such galactic proportions that it wiped out all life on the planets of Mars and Venus. Earth was not in the same alignment, thereby, it remained unaffected.

The devastation destroyed Alpha Centauri. Proxima Centauri turned inward, shrank and collapsed into a Brown Dwarf star.

But a twinkling of hope sparked when the Quints opened the Time window in 2007. One moment of their arrogance canceled another moment of arrogance and some of the effects reversed permanently. Alpha Centauri was restored.

The Matrix remembered it all and it grieved for the loss of life, for the loss of balance.

The light died leaving the room once again bathed by the antigrav light. All occupants; Human, Alien and Transformer alike had no words to convey the terrible shock they suffered. They felt the death of billions of lives. They took into their bodies the brunt of the impact. They heard the sounds and felt the sorrow. Their bodies and minds fell languid with emotional and mental exhaustion and all they could do was sit or lie in deathly-still silence.

Rusti sat with her back against the coverlet protecting Optimus. Her ears rang from the terrible sounds. Her skin and muscles ached as though she had been battered and bruised with a baton. What was that? It had to be more than a mere memory. They all lived it for real; a horrific personal experience. They felt the destruction and learned the history first hand. But how was all that possible? No answer. No answer came to her at all. Spellbinder and Ultra Magnus rose first and began checking all those who lay still, stricken into shock. A few people murmured in pain. Then the baby started crying and her father tried to comfort her, but he too wept.

Rusti watched Kayla sadly cover the face of a survivor who died of shock. It was not real, though! Rusti kept telling herself over and over, the experience wasn't real. There were no Quints here! But something caused the Matrix memory to solidify to the point of reality.

The old lady near Doctor Gatchel wept loudly. They were all trapped in hell and the words tumbled from her lips between sobs.

Roddi's form shadowed Rusti from the antigrav light and inwardly she shuddered. He smiled, but it failed to lift her spirits. "Are you alright, Lady Friend?"

She nestled close to Optimus, taking a little comfort from the blanket covering his form. "I guess." she whispered. She did not want to say anything about her own despair. There were enough people in the room who voiced her feelings.

Minutes stretched into long hours. The baby settled, but Rusti could still hear her whimper and imagined her father wept in fear of losing his daughter.

No one knew what to do. Wait. Waste away and wait.

Rusti realized she had drifted to sleep. She did not know how long but it was good to actually sleep a little. She felt guilty hugging so closely to Optimus, nestling among the blankets when others had nothing to cling to. But no one paid her any mind.

A few minutes later, Rusti swore she saw the face of a robot pressing through the metal wall from the other side of the room. She was still in shock and most likely it was her imagination.

Black spots pricked the air as though time/space were becoming so insubstantial, the air itself was tearing.

Then a commotion started from the same place the Quint appeared a while ago. Magnus shouted at Dagger and Voodoo-the other robots-and they searched for scrap metal to seal a hole they had not seen before. Rusti was too tired to ask what was going on. The next minute, she did not have to.

The walls around them began to twist and the faces of demons-or xenomorphs, as the others called them, pressed outward. At first it looked more like a play of light and shadow. But that was when Rusti realized once again no one was casting shadows. The floor rose right next to her and she took to her feet, amazed that she could move so fast in spite of her weariness. It wasn't a trick after all. It seemed the floor had become so flimsy that the creatures from downstairs were trying to tear their way in. But that wasn't the case either. The shapes kept rising and sinking into the floor until one shape remained and detached itself from the floor. It remained still for several minutes before it changed color. The shape redefined itself and a xenomorph appeared. Its rib cage expanded and reduced as though the thing were breathing.

"They're coming right out of the goddamned floor!" One of the alien robots declared. He shot one but another took its place and another and another, rising like bubbles in a boiling sauce pan. One fully-formed morph dashed amid the group and slashed down two people, devouring one on the spot. Another morph, a far larger one, charged Magnus, smashing two other survivors in its wake. Shan fired at a two-headed morph as it wriggled its way from the wall. A terrible roar sounded through the room and suddenly-