"It's a nightmare. It has to be a nightmare!"
"But whose, yours or mine?"

-The Twighlight Zone:

"Five Characters in Search of an Exit"

-Her body jerked when light from every direction shocked her senses so that Rusti almost screamed in terror. She hid her eyes as she gasped and backed away, hoping to find a steadfast wall.

Conversations erupted about her as she realized there was no wall. But Optimus yet lay next to her wrapped in sheets. Rusti lowered her hands and batted her eyes against the glaring light. She was outside in the autumn air. Dawn yawned over the Cascade Mountains chasing the night dew into steam and drying the world of its cold. The girl felt nothing, not even the low-forties temperature. Around her people jerked to life. Cries of surprise and sudden realization that something unnatural happened caused the masses to talk all at once, everyone asking their neighbor for information.

Voices around her commanded and shouted over one another once people-Autobots and EDC official alike-realized the building that was once Central Command now stood in ruins as though gutted by a silent bomb. The flashing lights of an ambulance splashed Rusti's form with red then blue. Someone fitted a blanket about her shoulders, expecting an answer to all his questions. But the girl only stared, dazed. The rescue worker kept trying to attain her attention. He snapped fingers in her face. He shouted at her and dared to shake her once.

Impatience drove him away and he said something to a female coworker. She glanced at Rusti, nodded and produced a needle.

Rusti watched the first rescue worker depart before slowly sinking to her knees. Her eyes focused on nothing. What darkness did she just survive? Where were the monsters? Where were the alien robots? Maintenance droids mopped blood and removed debris from the lobby. Or rather, what was left of it.

She finally examined the world around her. The lobby stood with one and a half walls missing. Well, not the ground floor, but from what Rusti could tell, the whole eastern and southern walls of the entire Central Command Center complex were missing. Humans and Autobots milled about asking how it was they missed ten minutes out of their lives.

Emergency medical crews arrived and while one of First Aid's assistants tended to Magnus' wound, another checked on Rodimus while a crew of four gently lifted Optimus Prime onto an antigrav stretcher and bore him away.

Two EDC officers came to the girl and started asking questions. One punched buttons and scribbled on a digipad while the other kept yammering on about the damage done to Central Command and what had taken place and demanded to know . . . Primus, he wanted to know so much at once and NATURALLY Rusti knew. But shock fought against her will and won. She did not care to volunteer any information right now.

Sometime later she found herself snugly in bed in Medical. The door opened quietly and Kup peeked in, blue eyes bright in the dim light. Rusti's eyes zoomed from him to Arcee who sat on the floor nearby.

Kup glanced at the girl then the femme. "I'm just checkin' everyone for Magnus. Both Optimus and Rodimus are down for a while and he wanted to know how Rusti's doin'."

"Fine." Daniel/Arcee answered coldly.

Rusti loudly grunted, attaining both their attention.

Kup lightened and faced the girl, hand units on hip plates. "Someone's awake."

"Optimus." Rusti whispered. "How is he?"

"Never you mind, young lady." Daniel/Arcee answered sternly.

"I wasn't TALKING to you, DANIEL!" Rusti uncharacteristically snapped and sat straight up. Her eyes pierced the Headmaster.

Arcee's expression downed in sudden surprise. Kup backed toward the doorway. "That's alright," he nearly whispered. "I was just checkin'." And he quickly left. The air grew thick with tension until Rusti flopped back down. She threw up the covers, turned her back on Daniel/Arcee and let the blankets cover her from him.

Arcee's form dared to crawl three paces toward the bed. The femme's body reflected what the female side felt, but the voice, when spoken, came edged with Witwicky's sharp tones: "your mother is worried about you."

Rusti heard Arcee's voice. But she knew it was not the femme. Too many years trained her to tell the difference in verbal inflections. Arcee would on occasion use Roddi's pet-name or sugar-coat her address with 'darling', something Rusti treasured. All Rusti had to offer her estranged father was a silent treatment. After several empty moments, Daniel/Arcee departed and the girl wondered if she would live to regret treating her father in such a manner. He was, after all, her father. But, she digressed, blood does not necessarily constitute lovey-dovey kindness between family members.

Magnus sifted through digipads and mounds of unread information at Optimus' desk. His office was one of six rooms left untouched by the time fracture. Paratron workers, EDC and several construction companies from Central City worked ceaselessly to repair Central Command as quickly as possible. Ambient kept communications moving smoothly while Blaster recovered from the battles on Pluto. Fort Max, for the most part, was unmarked by the strange event. But reports of voices and moving images on walls poured in at a steady rate.

For the moment, the Major-General sat at the desk and did nothing. What all did they just live through? That is, yes, he knew what it was; a time fracture; a bubble reality, as Captain Parker from the Alternate Universe said. But . . . but it still befuddled him. And what really frightened Magnus more so was the diagnosis performed by Doctor Kyle Scott; that the Matrix was infected with a virus. Magnus passed the information to First Aid just an hour ago. The Protectobot doctor did not know what to say; Magnus never saw anything frighten or shock the level-headed Autobot. But that bit of news shook First Aid into silence so that he had to sit down and stare into nothing.

And that was when Aid had to declare something Magnus did not want to hear: "There's nothing I can do about that."

Magnus stared at a digipad without reading it. He wondered if Rusti was right; that Optimus had been sick for years. Why didn't he say anything to anybody? Magnus thought it over carefully and recalled Optimus tried to warn him on several occasions. One such occasion happened when both he and Prime were attacked by the Dopplegangers. He had that dream and to this day, Magnus swore it was no dream.

The Major-General's attention drifted to the digipad and words like "Zenith" and "shipment" caught his optic sensors. Magnus glanced through it and realized it was a delayed shipment of supplies and equipment heading for Mars. They were waiting for authorization. It should have gone through three weeks ago. Magnus went ahead and gave approval and picked up another pad. It was a request for services of an air traffic controller in Saudi Arabia while they transported dangerous criminals to and from a prison block. It too was three weeks late. Magnus authorized the request and assigned Blades to the location. There were several more such pads lying around the desk. While he was the only other head officer available to authorize assignments in Fort Max, Magnus could easily send the accounting stuff to Jazz. That would lighten his load. At least Magnus' own data entry was up-to-date enough for him to catch up on Optimus'. It would take him at least a week to clear through the mess piled high on the Autobot leader's desk. That did not include Roddi's stuff. Strike Back was not going to like the workload Magnus was about to give him.

There was one more thing for the City Commander to think about: the battle on Pluto. They barely won-barely. Neither Optimus nor Rodimus read reports and so neither had any idea how many injured lay in the make-shift medbay on Pluto. Neither were aware of the deaths of six Autobots.

The desk moved under Magnus' arms. He instinctively jumped out of the chair and back toward the window. It was unlike Magnus to react so, but considering what he had gone through, he expected anything from a visit by a demonic Santa Clause to an attack from a resurrected Megatron.

The surface of the desk definitely moved. A face pressed itself against the metal top. Magnus attacked the desk, smashing into the fine surface. The face sank in then pressed its way back up through the floor and raced to the door. Magnus leapt effortlessly over and slammed a fist alongside the face.

"WHO ARE YOU?!" he demanded.

The face pressed out, far too close to the Commander's face. But Magnus did not flinch. It said something, but no sound came from its moving lip components. Magnus' optics dimmed, determined to keep his nerve. Then the face sank away. Magnus stared at the wall for a long moment. Then he decided that virus or not, he was going to keep order in Fort Max. He opened his comline, "Strike Back, I want you to meet me in conference room 23-C in half an hour."

It was not a request.

The Gingerbread Man waved him to follow. Chase me away. Come on! Run, run as fast as you can, Big Boy!

Optimus was not falling for it. He crossed his arms and frowned. The landscape below was what the region looked like before Fort Max settled there. See? That was where Mt. Saint Hillary once stood before Trypticon destroyed it and the Ark.(1) See? There's the ancient road they had to pave to get in and out of the mountains. That was long before the river was redirected. When Megatron brought Cybertron to Earth back in late 1985,(2) the gravitronic forces ripped a lot of land formations. Mountains rose in some places, leveled in others. Deserts like Death Valley were flooded with water and became searing hot swamplands. The Mississippi shifted its course and hundreds of people lost their homes and lives. Whole townscapes vanished. But here, the lakeshore next to Central City opened and a new river gushed forth, bleeding from the city down the Cascade Mountains. It was a new-found blessing in many ways. It was over that river Optimus planned Metroplex, the first Autobot city on Earth. Evil always leaves scars and things are never the same once touched by its darkness. But sometimes, just sometimes, things turn for the better. It's those little details that often kept the Autobot leader moving. Something good can sometimes be found in the evils of war and death.

The Gingerbread Man appeared again, laughing and running down the valley slopes. Optimus felt better. It would do no harm to chase after all. And the Autobot leapt from his perch atop Suicide Cliff and landed with a great thud. He pushed hard into the ground, dashing over the grasses with little effort. What would he do when he catches the Gingerbread Man? Maybe it wasn't the end that mattered, but the chase. The thrill of the moment, as it were. Yes! That was it! And he transformed, feeling stronger than he had in years, and rammed after the laughing lunatic.

Run, run! Run, run!

And he laughed in Optimus' audios.



Rusti was never happier to be back in her own room in the EDC complex. Dr. Hanson was amazed, but satisfied over the girl's quick recovery. She mused silently over Rusti's story regarding Doctor Scott's diagnosis of her illness and the shot he gave her before the time fracture faded, or rather, disappeared. Whatever the end result, Rusti felt better than she had in weeks. In fact, she was eager to get back to school and tell Cody everything that happened.

Cody listened patiently while they each sipped a vanilla shake-his treat. He doodled on her binder, drawing ridiculous cartoons but unlike most boys his age, Cody was not apt to draw obscene things to impress her. In too many ways, Rusti thought him as perfect a gentleman as Optimus Prime. She eyed the heart he drew and colored and her eyes slowly lifted toward his. He was such a sweetie.

"You know, Rus, I'm really worried about you. What if the virus is affecting you, too? I mean, look at the things you've been seeing or hearing when no one else is around."

Her face turned to puzzlement and she paused before taking another sip of her shake. "I don't think it would affect me, Cody. I mean, I'm not a Prime, for one. I was sick, but not with the virus."

"True. But you just said you had all the symptoms of a disease Optimus Prime has." Cody suddenly slapped his hand over his mouth and glanced about them. The information did not need to leak beyond the two of them. But the cafeteria was dotted only by a few 'geeks' who poured over their notes or books, preparing for tests. Study hall was the best time and place for private conversation. "Look, Rusti, I know you keep saying you are just Human, a Witwicky. But there's so much more to you-there has to be a connection somewhere-"

"Why?" Rusti narrowed her eyes at him. The thought kinda frightened her. "Yes, my family has been heavily involved with the Autobots since my grandfather-"

"But your grandfather didn't manipulate computers with his mind, Rus. Your grandfather didn't share telepathy-"

"Maybe I'm a freak of nature." Rusti abruptly interrupted.

Cody smirked at her one minute, then his face fell the next. Then his expression lighted and he smiled. "I wouldn't say 'freak', Rus. The Quintessons are freaks." He stared at her eyes, "you're just beautiful."

Rusti nearly laughed, but realized he meant what he said and a warm feeling surrounded her. She stared at him, wondering if he'd ever dare to kiss her. She needed to break the moment because the girl thought for sure she was blushing. Rusti stirred her milkshake, pretending it was hard work. "Well, maybe not 'freak', but irregular for sure."

"Psychics are not an anomaly anymore, Rusti. That all changed a long time ago. Still, psionics runs in families. So that still makes you a question mark. And maybe, just maybe, you are also affected by the virus, if only as a reflection of what Optimus and Roddi are going through."

Rusti could not look at him. She shrugged, more uncertain than ever. The prospect of being connected to the Matrix was not a pretty thought. Cody knew something about the incident she lived through in grade school, during the Doppelganger War. It was never a subject she liked to explore. That whole experience still left her with occasional nightmares; the Joys overdose Brian shot her with, the nights she spent alone and terrified in the city, the Cyberwraith . . . she shoved all that aside. It was in the past, a distant and cold past.

"Rus," he chirped, "do you think your guardians will let me take you to a movie this weekend?"

Rusti smiled brightly and her eyes grew wide.


. . . Rodimus sat at the long table listening to Magnus eat like some overstuff pig. The room they were in had rounded walls and a large oval window. It was night, naturally. The white tablecloth had been embroidered by Carly years and years ago.

Magnus still ate. At one point he belched, long and nasty. "Don'cha want none, Roddi? It's extra good! Baked it m'self!"

Rodimus stared at the food; the upper half of Optimus Prime lay on a huge silver platter. His pained optics stared at Rodimus, pleading. But he said nothing. Sadness filled the Autobot Second. "Magnus, I asked you not to do this. You promised me you wouldn't."

"I don't know what your problem is, Roddi." Magnus answered mater-of-factly, "he wasn't doing his job, anyway.

Rodimus' shoulders fell. He was so sorry for Optimus! It wasn't his fault! "He does it better than me." he murmured.

"So?" And Magnus bit off Prime's right hand.


Rodimus sat straight up with a "no!" He glanced about and found himself on a flat in Medical. A fuel line connected him to a drip feeder. The window to his right shed daylight in the room, comforting him just enough to make him realize that he was not trapped in the horrible bubble universe anymore. There was a bit of weak sunshine and an Aerialbot zipping across the sky. It was wonderful to see something familiar!

They released Rodimus from medical late that Tuesday afternoon, just three days after the time fracture event. He did not acknowledge anyone's greetings as he exited the medical center of Fort Max. Not that he was intentionally being rude, but something itched deep down and he could not shake surges left by the dream.

First, he needed to take a trip to his own quarters.

They stood so still and dim. Even the sunset light filtering through the window failed to illuminate all the space. Rodimus took a step into his quarters, allowing the door to hiss shut behind him. Oh, home. How good it was. His own space.

But somehow it was all wrong. Somehow the room didn't feel complete; en total, as it were.

"It needs retouching." Roddi said to himself. Of course, he could have Max handle some of it. But he decided if someone else did the redecorating, it would contaminate the atmosphere.


That was the first and foremost problem. No spies were permitted, even if it were a living city.

Rodimus scoured through his private resting room, hauling out crates filled with . . . and here he smiled . . . 'groceries'. He'd been shopping before the 'Incident'.

Oh, that reminded the Autobot Second: he was supposed to go back to Central Command and check on the rebuilding progress. Yes, that was important. Magnus, the Big Guy, even said so. Rodimus lifted a large imported candle from one of three boxes. He decided more of these would be necessary for the purposes of his redecoration. Yup. Maybe 'bout, say, thirteen more. He already had eleven, but you know, the more, the merrier.

Roddi set the one four-wick candle near the door. Well, that was good for a start. However, the biggest problem was that darned city consciousness infiltrating his personal quarters day and night. Yeah. That would be a problem.

What to do, what to do? Rodimus stood stone-silent, optics narrow with thought, fingers habitually on the chin. Should he eliminate Max's nosiness first, then redecorate, or redecorate and then handle the city?

No, City has to go first. Yeah. That would be a lot of work, but Roddi was confident he could do it in a reasonable amount of time. After all, it was only eight P.M.

Rodimus tore his place up, shoved all the chairs and cabinets, the shelves and desk, the cushions and storage bins and data work to the center of the main room. He stripped his walls of paintings and posters, of plaques and photos.

That now done, he searched the ceiling. He hated the lighting above. Every room in Fort Max came equipped with that kind of lighting. It was noisy, obnoxious, rude. It had to go.

But that would mean he'd have to wrest control of his place from the city. He'd have to undermine Max's authority of his own quarters. Yes, that had to come first, that's why Rodimus tore his place up.

Roddi thought hard. He sank to his knees and thought hard. He'd have to steal his way into several subroutines, into the lines and paths of the city. It would not be as difficult a task as it seemed, not really. It was only 10 PM, after all.

First things first. "Max." he whispered and oh, so soft a whisper, because if anybody else was there, anyone other than Max, his plans would be found. That can't happen. His quarters were his place and Roddi was about to do something grotesque, something no one should see.

"Yes, Rodimus Prime." How cute! The city was unaware. It was so innocent!

Roddi grinned. "Lock my quarters. Hold my calls. I want to be alone." He waited exactly three point oh seventeen seconds. Rodimus took to his feet and rummaged through a crate for a box of tools. Necessary items, they were. Precious, very precious because even Kup did not know he had them. Not that tools were a no-no. But the old fart (heh) liked to be nosy and Roddi liked his privacy. Op . . . Op could care less. He had other problems at hand.

And that thought made the Autobot Second pause as he drew a sonic crowbar. He needed to visit Optimus, see how the ol' bean was doing. Funny, Roddi didn't think about visiting him before. But there was always time for pleasantries later. Rodimus slipped the crowbar into the lined floor and pressed down. It was no easy task to undo the paneling; it wasn't designed to be easy, but two shots from optic lasers (rather power-draining, but effective) and the panel unlocked and opened like a can.

Very nice.

The wiring, both semi-conducted and fiber-optic, zig-zagged under the paneling. Lines carrying lubricant and energon glowed in the darkness. Beautiful. Electro impulses of energy and thought of information and scans shot through other wiring like fireflies zooming for a final destination. Six cryo-theta plates sat perpendicular to the floor. These plates contained information regarding Roddi's personal quarters. They controlled light and temperature, door locks and how much space Rodimus was permitted. Roddi could not remove the plates without alerting the city to his tampering. But not a problem. Roddi was, after all, a Prime and Primes knew what to do.

He grinned, savoring this moment. "You're mine, Max." he whispered and Rodimus began to strip off his exostructure, plate by plate. Sometimes it hurt, but nothing was going to get between he and his goal. His room was his, his alone. No stinking city giant had the right to control his lighting, his door, his . . . anything. So Rodimus stripped his body armor, exposing muscle cables, connective fibers and fluid lines. He was a bloodied mess, but not seriously so. He lay down among the wiring like a baby in a cradle. In a moment, the subroutines would notice there was something inside the city and start to adjoin it.

There! Roddi twinged with a pinch of pain in his shoulder. He winced when something punctured his waist. He grinned maliciously when the city's systems connected to his hands. Good for Roddi. Bad for Max.



See? It didn't take long. Roddi woke and slowly tore himself from the city. (Ow) Oh, don't worry, Max was completely unaware of it now. Roddi rerouted Max's consciousness so that the city was not even aware of Roddi's quarters. Max did not remember Rodimus had quarters in that area. All Roddi had to do was change the memory routes to his office and rewrite the routines so that to the city, Rodimus' office looked like his quarters and vice versa. Max would be unable to tell the difference because . . . well, it was technical and Roddi did not have time to explain it all to himself. He replaced all his armor, so glad to have it all on again. He returned the floor plating and found his effort left him tired and hungry. But again, it was worth it. Max no longer had either access or control of his quarters.

Now it was time for a break. Get cleaned up, get some 'grub' and 'nosy' to Central Com, see how the little people were doing on its reconstruction.

Life was good.


It wasn't until late afternoon the following day that Rodimus emerged into public view. He meandered round this building and that in automobile mode, in no particular hurry. Most of Fort Max looked pretty good. Magnus, already back to work, had several of his 'girlies' scrubbing buildings and tending parks and gardens around the city.

Rodimus approached the yet-unfinished Central Command complex. Not only were the Paratrons rebuilding it, they were redesigning it so that it looked a bit fancier than before. Optimus would have a say about that later, no doubt. Optimus' warrior side would expect function before form. But it was all being done in his absence and most likely by the time he came back to work, the building would be finished. Why Magnus allowed the Paratrons to 'fun themselves' with such a project was not something Rodimus considered at this time.

He transformed and examined the grounds. Autobots and Paratrons came and left like ants rebuilding their nest after a bad rainstorm. Blurr zig-zagged in too many directions every few seconds. Shouts from topside to the north aimed at the Autobot, giving him not one second's worth of breath to argue. Rodimus swore he'd never seen Blurr so happy.

He found Groundbreaker and Doubletake pouring over the new plans as the sun kissed the horizon, taking late afternoon warmth from the Oregon sky. "Hiya, boys," Roddi greeted. "How goes it all?"

Groundbreaker glanced up then back to the plans. It was Doubletake that smiled in greeting. "We'll have the foundation finished in a few more hours and the basement level inner walls will be in place by tomorrow afternoon."

Roddi gave them a thumbs-up. "Good job!" He scanned the construction site. "How many boys you got working here?"

Groundbreaker tore his optics off the screen. "Oh, maybe two, two hundred fifty." We thought things would be done more quickly if we worked two shifts. It would be best to have it restored before Optimus comes back. How is he doing, by that way?"

Roddi stared at him a moment as though unsure how to answer the question. "Beats me. I'm sure he's coming along fine. No one has told me otherwise. Has Mags been by?"

Doubletake grinned again. "He likes this idea. We're opening the center for better access and he wants to know if we can do something about Communications District."

Roddi smiled, but not pleasantly. "Of course he does. Maybe if I like the finished product, I'll have you redesign my personal quarters. They're a bit crowded."

Doubletake returned to the plans. Groundbreaker offered Rodimus a thumbs-up until the Autobot leader walked away. Doubletake waited until Rodimus Prime was well out of audio range before whispering: "I didn't like the way he was staring at us. I felt like he was sizing me up like quality energon."

Groundbreaker shook his head, his smile never leaving his optics. "You're just tired. Take a recharge and I'll handle the braces along the western wall."

Doubletake thought it over then took his companion's offer.


Rusti was glad to be back in school by Monday. Rumors raced around Fort Max like a skin-contact rash and she was tired of overhearing all the idiotic things people were saying; like Roddi locked himself in his quarters, eating insects or that Optimus was dying in Medical . . . just a load of crap.

She was in a foul mood, anyway. Well, that was until Cody came into view. The girl became a walking smile and brightened even more when he handed her a hand-picked dandelion.

"I wanted to get you a rose, Rus, but I'm broke."

She sniffed it. "Mmm. Smells like a rose to me." His nose met hers and chills ran down Rusti's back. Would those lips ever touch hers? First Period bell rang through the halls, calling all students to their assigned classes. The corners of Rusti's mouth turned down. Damn. One minute her eyebrow tingled and the next, she watched Cody dash down the hall to his world history class. She touched her eyebrow. The lips are BELOW the eye balls, you Dweeb, She thought.

Jenn found her seat next to Rusti in science and sat with a downed expression. Rusti watched as the teen produced book and papers from her back pack. "Family problems again, Jenn?"

"Hmm?" Jenn stared at her though a pair of sunglasses. "Yes, of course. My dad totally flew off the handle this weekend. Thinks he's Mister Studly now and brought this bimbo in from some sleeze joint and shoved her in my mom's face. My mom went ballistic." Jenn glanced down a moment and peeled off the glasses. She turned to Rusti, revealing the swollen and blackened edges of a patched-over eye. "Well there was a fight and my dad threw a bat, shattered a couple of lamps, a window, the glass door and hit my mom. I got in the way and . . ." She shrugged. "My dad's in jail, the bimbo took off and my mom and I are staying with my aunt. End of story. So far." She offered a frank smile and shrugged. "Bad weekend."

"I'm sorry, Jenn!" Rusti laid a hand on her friend's arm.

Jenn shrugged again. "Could be worse. Mr. Goosey-Loosey could give us a pop quiz, right?"

Rusti smiled in turn and gave her attention to the science teacher as he entered the door five minutes late.


Cody caught up with her after school. She took her time approaching the bus stop along the sidewalk, pretending not to notice him until the boy touched her shoulder. She turned. "Oh, hi, Cody! How was school?"

He shrugged one shoulder. "You know . . . school. Nothing to write home about. You going straight back to Fort Max?"

"Yes. I have to ask permission to go elsewhere, you know that."

"Yeah. Can I tag along?"

"Yeah." And she waited for him to say something else, something that might clue her in on some ulterior motive. "Homework?" she asked.

"Yeah. Of course."

And he fell quiet again. She hated fishing for conversation. "What's on your mind, Cody?"

"Didja see him today?"


"Him . . . It."

She batted her eyes once. "It . . . " then it dawned on her and Rusti was taken back by shock. "Ohmigod! You're right! I haven't seen it for a week! Ohmigod! I wonder why?"

"How's Optimus Prime?"

She didn't think about that at first, either. "I don't know." then she realized the connection there too. "I don't know," she repeated in a different tone. A moving shadow caught the edge of her sight and Rusti turned left. Her eyes shot wide as she watched the same black stick-figure alien walking dead silent among a group of students. They weren't aware of its presence. She stepped back toward Cody. "Do you see that?"


"That alien?"


She turned to explain when another alien approached Cody and lifted its handless arm. Rusti pushed Cody aside and pointed at the creature invisible to all but her. "Sha'tda 'at Dana!" Anger threatened to burst right out of her. The alien spoke, but its language sounded like nothing more than a few gurgles and clicks. Rusti glared at it as it rounded the two of them, joining its companion as it departed from the group of students, now marked with black spring-like devices above their heads.

"Rusti, you frighten me." Cody's soft voice brought her back to the moment and she finally tore her eyes off the creatures. "What was that all about?"

"It's a very old problem, Cody." she answered quietly. "I need to let Ultra Magnus know."


"I'm sorry. Ultra Magnus is out on field practice." The Paratron receptionist didn't seem a bit interested. Tempra tapped her keyboard, entering who knows what into the computer.

"This is really important." Rusti insisted. This particular receptionist didn't seem to like anyone interrupting her work. Rusti talked with Aunt Missy about the femme and found that Marissa herself received the same kind of treatment.

"I can't do anything about it now." The femme turned away and filed a digipad in a wall cabinet. Defeated, Rusti and Cody turned to leave. Maybe they could catch up with the Major-General on the field, even if it was forbidden to civilians to be out there during practice runs.

The high school students traveled along the bridge crossing Autobot river from Magnus' office building to the inner city training grounds. From there, Rusti glanced two stories down and watched as a whole squad of Autobot warriors exercised several fighting maneuvers. Cody joined her and grinned. Perfect unity, perfect timing, all working according to Magnus' strict commands. Then both teens realized Magnus spotted them. Rusti startled, forgetting how sharp an observer Ultra Magnus was. It was rare that anything escaped his optics. He gave several commands in Autobot and Strike Back took his place as he departed.

"Think we're in trouble?" Cody asked quietly.

"Mmmmm . . . depends on his mood." Rusti answered.

Cody looked uneasy. "That is one Autobot I would not want to have mad at me."

They waited as the Major-General climbed the bridge in truck mode and transformed. At first he stared down at them in robot form, looking rather menacing then his frown lightened and he knelt before them. "Rusti?"

"I'm sorry, Ultra Magnus. Your receptionist said you were in the field."

Magnus looked stern then stood. He realized that Rusti would never have been out there were it not very important. "Come to my office."


Magnus ushered Rusti and Cody in and asked Max for the lights. It had been a long while since Rusti last visited the City Commander's personal office. He owned more artifacts decorating his walls and more shelves displaying photographs and little figurines of wrestlers and football athletes and near the window stood a large fish tank with a fish the size of three humans. Magnus took his seat behind the large desk and crossed one leg over the other and folded his arms defensively.

"What's on your mind, Rusti?"

"Aliens." she answered directly, "The same ones I saw in the fourth grade during the Doppelganger war. I thought that while I was sick, I was just seeing things. But I'm not sick anymore and I still see them."


"I don't know what they're called. But they're tall, about six feet. And they looked like drawn stick figures with no heads, hands or feet."

Magnus thought for a moment and decided to come from around his desk. He set his hand on the floor, inviting Rusti and Cody aboard and set them on his desktop. He returned to his seat and activated the computer on his desk. "Let me know if they look like anything here." He punched in a few commands and up popped the very thing Rusti described.

"YES!" she declared excitedly. "That's them! One of them was going to touch Cody, but I snapped at it and it rounded us. But they touched several other students and left this black spring-like device on their heads."

Magnus laced his fingers on the desk staring at her. "How is it that you can see them and no one else can?"

"I don't know."

Magnus stared at his hand units a moment then glanced back at her. "I can't do anything about it at the moment. But I want you to let me know each day you see them from here forward."

"Okay. Is that important?"

"Very important, Rusti. You might have found a missing element for us."


First Aid wanted to run the whole damned test for the fourth time. His computers and scanners found absolutely nothing wrong with Optimus. There were no signs of internal leaks, no ruptures, no burn-outs or damage of any other kind. It was as though nothing had happened. Prime was unconscious for three days after the strange incident that froze everyone for an indeterminate amount of time. He bled and suffered power loss and terrible pain. Now it was all gone, all the symptoms just left in the flicker of an optic.

First Aide begged Prime to let him run the tests again. But Optimus already lost his patience, shouted "NO!!" and stomped out. Aid stared as the door closed after Prime. He had never known Optimus to be quite so rude. He shrugged it off; he had been rather persistent. And Optimus did have a lot of catching up to do. He supposed it was okay.


Three Paratrons greeted Prime as he approached Central Command. The building loomed before him now in a more curved fashion. Rather than tearing the whole construct down, the Paratrons merely repaired those places not severely damaged and built around them, shaping them into a semi-circular construct. They were delighted to see Prime approach just as they were finishing the clean-up.

Optimus didn't really know what to think of the building. It was hard for him not to shrink away from the five-then-six Paratrons that raced for him, seeking approval. He did not want to be near anyone at this point. But he forced himself to give them cordial greetings and the general small talk that seemed to make their day (hello, so-and-so, how are you doing? That's good. How's work? That's good. Keep it up).

Optimus could not get to his office soon enough. He sat at his desk and stared at the five stacks of digipads, all neatly organized and straight.

Magnus was here. Optimus picked up one, then another and a third then a fourth, sifting through . . . well, he didn't know what he was looking for, exactly, but it made him feel like he was doing something other than sitting. After thirty minutes, the area stood in disarray after the Autobot leader reorganized all of Magnus' precious, neatly-stacked piles of digipads. For Magnus everything had to be in perfect order and it annoyed the Autobot leader. Not so much that it was a 'thing' with Magnus, but that it was in HIS personal office, in HIS space. But his rummaging cured that.

Now he sat there in the still and silent. His desk was a landscape of mountains of unfinished things. They stared, waiting with the impatience of hungry children. Me first! No! Me! Nah-uh! I'm more important! And the dijipads all clamored in his mind, shouting for attention. But all Optimus could do was sit and stare. Where was the daily drive that compelled him to pick up this and that and finish it? Whatever happened to the great leader who seemed so incredibly capable of doing everything at once and then some?

Optimus felt no sorrow at the moment. No anger or impatience ran through his fuel lines. No sense of loss or overwhelming exhaustion. No, he just sat and stared in the quiet office, his back to the great picture window. Outside the sun beamed through a partly cloudy sky. It was a perfect Tuesday afternoon. No appointments (Magnus canceled all appointments or took care of them himself). No one shouted or demanded or begged anything of him-no one but the blasted pads. It was so easy to just turn away.

That's right, turn away. The chair, his chair, after all, swivels. That's right! Prime smiled-Yup! And he lifted his feet and set the chair back a few inches and WEEEEEEE! Around and around the chair went, wherever he ended up was where he was sent . . .

THAT was a bit of emotional fun, wasn't it? Rusti would have liked that.

Oh. Rusti. Optimus stopped playing with his chair and stared out the large picture window. Where was that spot of perfect sunshine, anyway?

Oh. School. Yes. A good place for all well-behaved boys and girls, Optimus supposed. Though he never went to school. What a funny institution. Why not just genetically implant information into a Human embryo? Why not just encode all needed information straight to the genetic DNA? If evolution was the true case in life, then why can't Humans just program their own cells to do as they wish? Why not program genetics to be perfectly beautiful or perfectly fit or perfectly this, that or the other thing? Why can't the cells do as they were told?

Oops. Off track, there. Optimus was supposed to be concentrating on the digipads. Those damned things that had to be worked on. He reached around the chair and fingered his way about until his hand touched a pad. He slid it off, causing other pads to collide and clatter, spilling all out of whatever order Magnus originally put them in. Might be order of importance. That didn't matter to Optimus. Nothing was important right now. But he drew up the one he selected by touch and stared at it.

It was an update from the Lunar Colony regarding their findings on the south poles of the moon. Probably gum wrappers or something, the Autobot leader mused sourly. Nope. Fragments of meteor rock. Yipee.

Weren't there other, more pressing things to be done other than just look at someone else's misadventures? Prime privately sneered at the pad. This was stupid! Why did he bother to stay informed about such trivial things? What was so useful about this information, or that person or why the damned planet kept spinning on its damnedable axis day after useless stupid day?

Where was Rusti? And why was he so obsessed over her? And why was she around that . . . boy?

Cody. That was his name. Optimus mused over his own bitter thoughts regarding Rusti's 'little friend'. Cody was a nice kid. Optimus actually felt he could trust the boy around her. That didn't mean he would consent to marriage-

WHOA, THERE! The Autobot leader found himself on his feet, staring out the window, actually looking for Rusti and Cody, half expecting them to be walking along Max's pathways and roads hand-in-hand. He caught himself . . . was that a bout of jealousy?

From him?


Let the matter lie. Leave it alone. He had no business. None.


And he settled down. His optics drifted back to his desk and the waiting digipads. Damnedable things! Why can't they have already been finished? Why did he allow himself to be holed up in this little room day after day? He needed some fresh air and sunshine while it lasted. To the Pitt with responsibility! He was bored out of his cranial chamber!

Ring around the rosies . . .

He'll kick 'em all with his tosies . . .

Ashes . . . ashes . . .

"Ashes . . ." he sang softly, "Ashes . . ." And with sorrow in his heart Optimus leaned against the window ledge, so sorry he failed his people. So very, very sorry.

Ashes . . . ashes . . .

"Ten little Autobots walking on the line

One fell off and lost his mind . . ."

Optimus sighed. They're all gone. All of them will sooner or later be dead.

"God called the doctor and the doctor chimed,

"Just move on and leave it behind."

"What's the matter with me?" he demanded of nobody but himself. "What am I doing? Goofing off will get nothing done!" And he turned from the window to face the multitude of pads and picked one up, glanced over it and gave his approval. That was easy enough! Another one, please. And he glanced over it and rejected the request. That was easy, too.

And he picked up another one and glanced over the report and gave the order to cease investigation, it was leading nowhere. He signed it and set it in another pile. THAT was done. And he picked up another and another and in ten minutes, Optimus had gone through fifteen pads. Suddenly he felt all better. That's all he needed! A good swift kick in the aft and ta-da! Work was being done!

This was good!

Optimus swept up yet another pad and discovered a disturbing complaint regarding Strike Back. He searched for the date and found it was registered only two days ago. He hated this kind of task. Strike Back was a good officer, but had a temper and tended to ignore rules and orders. Optimus hoped by the time Fort Zenith was done, Strike Back would be ready to take on as its city commander. If not, then Optimus would chose someone else; maybe someone from Fort Sonix. Though, Optimus mused, he might have to fight Jazz to get the officer he wanted. Jazz regarded his people jealously. Well, not everyone . . . he seemed more than happy to send Trixy their way.

This, however, was not going to be a better day. He punched in an order to Ambience to contact Strike Back and send him here.

Ten minutes later, Ultra Magnus' Second entered Optimus' office and greeted him with a short salute. Optimus read the nervousness in the Autobot's posture however and wondered if he should make this as painless as possible. However, if he did that, Strike Back might not learn his lesson.

Prime slipped into authoritarian mode. "Strike back it has been brought to my attention that you have been accused of picking fights in the bar. Is this true?"

Strike Back stiffened. "Sir?"

Prime stood and found it painful to do so. He hid the grimace by glancing out the window before facing the Autobot soldier. Prime gestured to the chair at the other side of his desk and Strike Back sat at the edge. "What is your story, Strike Back?"

"W-well, sir, I was off-duty and wanted to have some fun. Hotspot and I were doing darts, Sir and Sunstreaker wanted to join us. But I didn't want to allow someone else to join in a game that already started." Strike paused to see if Prime had any comments to make. Optimus remained impassive, listening carefully. "So . . ."

Strike Back's voice faded from Prime's mind for a moment. His thoughts drifted back several years and the Autobot leader could not figure what might have triggered the drift; some part of him recalled another darkness, an unholy darkness that brought him out of the Light. Who did that? He thought he flinched with phantom pains. They shot things into him. They shocked his body into animation but it wasn't him! It wasn't him!

Yes it was.

No, it wasn't!



It wasn't at first. He was a monster, a shell brought back from the dead-a tool the sl'kikik used in an attempt to destroy the Autobots.

Oh, how precious close that was, too! Had Optimus not 'awakened' to stop what was going on (in spite of horrific pains) there would have been no more Autobots. There would have . . .

Stop it!


" . . . when he insisted, I got mad and told him to take a hike." Here again Strike Back hesitated, trying to read Prime's expression, but saw nothing. "When he argued that he could go and do anything he wanted, any time and that no-um-'pup of Magnus' was going to push him around. . ." Now Strike Back's face fell, optics glued to the floor. "I . . . I punched him. He got mad and punched back and before I knew it, we were throwing things-" he stopped talking when Prime held up his hand.

"You lost control." Optimus surprised himself. How much of Strike's explanation did he miss? It could not have been that much, apparently. He could piece together whatever else happened without more input from the Autobot. Prime watched as Strike Back nodded hesitantly, without meeting his optics.

"I lost control." Magnus' Second repeated.

"Strike Back, no one, under any circumstances, can afford to lose control on or off the battlefield. Not only have you lost control in front of your fellow warriors, but you have lowered your self respect." Prime paused. "Unfortunately, that incident is not the only thing that has been reported." Prime watched as Strike Back continued to stare at the floor. "You have been drilling the troops near the Communications district. Why is that?"

Strike Back innocently shrugged his shoulder struts. "I . . . felt it was good they practiced in a different area of the city, sir. Different location-"

"Strike Back, you know that area is off limits. I am aware that Ultra Magnus has warned you repeatedly about drilling the troops in and around Communications. Because you disregarded rules, three civilians were injured during a hunt-and-raid practice." Again Optimus fell silent, watching Strike Back's body language, sensing his remorse, but unfortunately, Optimus also sensed terrible anger toward him personally. Not that it really mattered to the Autobot leader, but he hoped to steer Strike Back in a clearer direction, make him see how important his role was. Unintentional mistakes were one thing; but Strike's mistakes were clearly deliberate.

Optimus quietly sighed. Whatever that flash back did to him, it left him weary. "Unfortunately, Strike Back, there is one more thing I need to discuss with you." He waited a beat. "Your paperwork. I have found your reports are incomplete and often misspelled. You've left out important details regarding Autobot injuries during practice. How can I take care of problems that arise if they are not properly addressed? Your reports are important so that I can address problems as they happen. But Strike Back, if I can't depend on you to do your job properly, I will be forced to replace you. Magnus speaks highly of you, but of late, you seem to be . . . distracted."

Tense silence followed until Strike Back finally found his vocalizer. "I'm sorry sir . . . Yes sir."

Optimus wondered if there were problems in Strike Back's personal life but clearly, Strike Back had no defense. And that was something Optimus feared. This was one of the ugliest parts of leadership. "Strike Back, I am denying you privileges to Cybersphere and 'joy runs' to Central City for the next two months. I want you to go four months back in your data work and rewrite each and every one of your reports. For the next two months you will also take on some of Ultra Magnus' work, whatever he feels appropriate for you to handle-"

Strike Back's lip components dropped in shock. He stood and backed two steps from the desk. "Optimus!"

"You leave me no choice!" Prime kept his firm without shouting. "You've let us down, Strike Back. I can't let you off with just a warning. In your position, people's lives are at stake and I cannot permit anyone in authority to get sloppy or arrogant." Prime was sure had Strike Back been human, he would have been blushing terribly.

Optimus felt drained, now. Perhaps a few minutes in shut down would help. But he refused to let his own posture slump in front of his officer. "Dismissed." he ended quietly.

Strike Back looked like a whipped puppy. He didn't even make optical contact with Prime nor did he salute. He exited the room without another word and Optimus collapsed in his chair, pushed several digipads out of the way, laid his head over crossed arms and practically passed out.


. . . no sooner had Roddi laid down for a descent rest than he found himself traversing Max's myriad hallways. The lighting was dim, but of course, all power was being directed to the operating room. He could hear Rusti screaming in agony as the doctors did their best to quell her pain. But obviously their efforts were in vain. It was bound to happen. This is her punishment for touching something not meant for her.

Rodimus entered the operating room. The floor gleamed with blood; red blood mingled with black blood. Doctor Cynar shook his head at Rodimus. "I told you to keep her locked up. This is the price she pays for your stupidity. Now you're going to have to pay the hospital bill and get me lunch."

Rusti screamed again and a tentacle snaked out her mouth. She arched her back and a nurse moved in front of her. "Here it comes!" she declared.

And Rusti gave birth to a Quintesson. She screamed with every shred of her life.

Rodimus sprang from his flat and cried out himself. The darkness of his own quarters met his wild, frightened optics. It took him a moment or two . . . no screams from Rusti, no power shortages. He was here, in the solitude of his own place. Rusti was okay, probably in school or something. Oh, thank Primus for that! Nobody should touch her! "Rusti!" He moaned and half wept, sat up, bowed over and rocked back and forth.

* * *

Rusti found Roddi strolling about the courtyard outside the EDC cafeteria. It did not occur to her that it was an odd place for him to be when he should be tending diplomats or checking on inventory. She caught up with him and he turned at her touch.

"Heya, Rust-i-mus! Heh!" He grinned at his own bad joke, "What's goin' down yer way?"

Rusti suddenly felt uneasy. "Um, Roddi, Cody wants to take me to see a movie Saturday afternoon. Can I go?"

Rodimus knelt, the ridiculous grin never left his lip components. "Boy, this guy's sweet on you, isn't he?"

"Roddi!" Rusti flushed and hoped nobody nearby heard that.

Rodimus stared at the clouds, fingers holding chin as though he were making the most serious of all decisions. "Mmm . . . okay, Rus. But don't come home pregnant, okay?"

Horrified and indignant, Rusti drew a deep breath, "RODIMUS!" But the argument never got off the ground. An EDC captain approached, breaking Roddi's attention from her.

"Sir, we've received a report in regards to the Orion Lieutenant Napril and her teenage daughter, Ginger. They've been missing for two days. Her family filed a missing person's report as of this morning."

Rusti slowly, quietly backed from the scene. Roddi no longer seemed to realize she was even there. A cold shiver raced down her back. She didn't want to know. Whatever it was, Rusti didn't want to know.

She returned to her room there at the EDC complex and flopped on the bed, heaving a great sigh. She wanted to talk to someone. Jenn, maybe, but Jenn had her own problems at the moment. She thought about talking to Cody, but felt funny calling him up and just spilling her gut. On the other hand, it would be worse for Jenn; the girl knew nothing about what was going on at Fort Max and really wasn't supposed to. Not that Rusti didn't trust her, but it just didn't seem right, somehow.

Well, she'd call Cody. He needed to know about Saturday, anyhow. She plucked the phone off the wall with a glance at her *fairies and 'bots* calendar and punched Cody's number.

One ring, two, three. The wall in front bulged or so she thought. Rusti almost didn't answer Mrs. Greydon. "Uh, hi, Mrs. Greydon, is Cody there? It's Rusti."

"Oh, hi, dear! Yes, hold on."

And Rusti continued to stare at the wall in front of her, hoping it would bulge or move again so she would not have to count herself insane.

But nothing else happened.

"Hey, Resonna!" Cody teased.


He laughed. "I'm just yanking your chain, girl. What's up?"

"Roddi says it's okay as long as I don't get pregnant." Rusti thought she could feel Cody blush through the phone line. She smiled. It really was kinda funny after all. "Cody? Are you still there?"

"Yeah . . . I'm here. Okay, that's great. What time? D'you want me to pick you up, or do you want to meet me there?"

She didn't care. Rusti laid on her bed and sighed. "Cody, how does a person handle someone who's losing their minds?"

"You're not losing your mind, Rusti. You're-"

"No, but Roddi . . . he's not himself."

"He's always been a bit nutty, though. I mean, yeah, okay, that doctor from the other dimension said something in regards to it, that the Matrix has a virus and all, Rus, but . . ."

She sensed him shrug, unable to figure out what to say to comfort and assure her. Rusti turned on her side and picked at the colors on her comforter. "I'm scared, Cody. Things are still so weird around Autobot City, though not to the degree they were before the fragment occurred. But it's like . . . I dunno."

"A proverbial calm before the storm?" the boy offered.

"Yeah. But maybe I'm being paranoid. Maybe things are just settling down and somehow Optimus and Roddi will be able to work their way through it all. You know, Optimus has been through a lot, and I'm sure this is just one of a billion things he's been through and probably it's nowhere nearly as terrible as some of the other things he's suffered."

"I don't think your fears are unfounded, Rusti, really." Cody didn't sound as patronizing as she feared. It dawned on the girl why she didn't want to talk to just anyone about her fears; they might not understand the problem and her position.

The wall next to her dresser bulged. Rusti about jumped out of her skin. "Ohmigod,"

"What? What is it?"

"Cody, the walls are bulging around my room." She approached and touched the area, hoping her hand would not get caught in the wall itself. But nothing happened. It was just the same steadfast metal paneling.

"Do you think it's another manifestation?"

"Maybe. Ohmigod, I'm scared! And I hope neither of them do anything rash!"

"Optimus and Rodimus, you mean?"

"Yeah. But what's it going to lead to? I mean, do you think the virus will just run its course and that will be it?"

"What do you think, Rusti?"

It wasn't the kind of answer she was looking for. Rusti knew the answer. The Matrix was not an organic creature. It was not some alien computer that could be fixed with a new mother board and some WD-40. She closed her eyes and sighed. "I think . . . I will be more than happy to see that movie with you on Saturday."

"I'll pick you up, then, okay?"

"Kay. What are we seeing?"

"The Ditz."

A grin swept across Rusti's expression. A comedy was exactly what she needed.


All through the film a painful tightness tried to choke the girl. Rusti enjoyed the film, but the tightness tried to keep her from breathing and Rusti often had to consciously think about breathing. When the movie ended, the tightness lifted a little. She didn't want to say anything to Cody and ruin the afternoon. So she silently suffered. They returned to Fort Max just as the sun was setting. The keepers greeted the two young people from the North-eastern gate and directed them to stay clear of Central Command for the next three hours due to powerline realignment.

Cody veered right toward the EDC complex as the city lights shot on, burning bright yellow and orange and lighting the nearby fountain in a multi-colored display. Rusti loved to walk the streets at night, but often it was too cold for her so she merely observed the city from her room or an observation deck.

Cody pulled the car just in front of the personal quarters and sighed. "I'm sorry I can't come in for a visit tonight, Rus. Mom's waiting with dinner at home."

"It's okay." she answered softly, "I still have homework to do." She sought his eyes as she wrapped her purse strap round her hand. In a second, Cody darted and kissed the corner of her mouth. She smiled and just stared . . . kinda, sorta hoping. . . and then he moved more slowly and kissed her top lip. She touched his bottom lip with hers. Firm, dry, but pleasant she found she liked the sensation.

They parted and she laid her hand on her chest. She wasn't sure if she wanted to go further or not. It was hard, especially since they were out in front of everyone. But Cody rescued the awkwardness of the moment by squeezing her hand.

"Thanks for seeing the flick with me, Rus. Give me a call, okay?"

And now she was all smiles. What a sweetie! "Okay." and she dared a last kiss on his cheek before abandoning the car. He set the car in gear and they waved good-bye before parting. Rusti waited until he was out of sight before laying her hand on her chest and slowly making her way into the quarters building.

Did that really happen? Did they really kiss?

He did! He kissed her! She touched her lips, not realizing Arcanna was standing nearby watching.

"How are you tonight, Miss Witwicky?" he called from the check-in counter on the girl's left hand side.

"Hu?" She turned, dazed from her own little world. "I'm fine, thank you."

"That's good. For a moment I thought you had wings on your feet." He winked at her and she flushed three shades of red. A chill shot across her back and Rusti started walking backwards from him.

"Uh, we just . . . saw a movie. I have to . . . homework uh, finish, you know." She shrugged and realized what she said came out all wrong. She flushed even worse and quickly left.

Once again sleep evaded her. Rusti tossed one side and then the other across her bed. She kicked the covers off then brought them close. She got up once and changed her night clothes. She played soft music and even asked Max to open her window. One thought led to a million more and no rest came. Rusti finally decided it would be one of those nights and at one in the morning, she surrendered.

The girl slipped on warm clothes and shoes and made her way out the building toward one of the small parks located on the other side of the quarters complex.

While Fort Max was well-lit at night, the shadows still cast uneasy shapes along the ground and against building walls. The park was not far from the buildings, but far enough to leave the girl a little nervous. She knew better than to be out like this; not that being out in the streets at night was so bad; crime in Fort Max was next to nothing, considering most people are aware the city itself was a sentient being and almost omnipresent.

She tip-toed across one street, silent like a cat sneaking about unknown territory. Then her shoes contacted soft grass and for some reason, Rusti felt much better, almost instantly. She found the swings located in the near-center and sat down, hands in coat pockets. The chilled October air churned her breath into bits of fog that drifted with the stiff breeze. Her cheeks stiffened under the frost but she was not about to go back to bed just yet. Something kept her awake. Maybe she was just a little excited about Cody. He was such a great guy! He was always so kind and thoughtful toward her. He was very considerate of her feelings. Cody listened to what she had to say. He honestly cared and it felt good to be around him.

Maybe they'd end up married someday.


What about Optimus?

Rusti laced her fingers about the swing chains and rocked herself heel to toe. What would she do about Optimus? Then again, why would he be so concerned about her life? After all, he's a million times older than she and he certainly would not want her to spend her whole life just for him.

Listen to her! Rusti shook her head, confused. Was this what her sleeplessness was all about? She frowned and stared at the dark ground. Why would she be so concerned?

Did . . . did she love him too? Haha! Stupid girl! Optimus was a completely different species from her! As if he'd even been HALF way interested in her feelings . . . and feelings they were, too, now that she thought of it. She did love him.

Her heart sank. That might not be such a good thing after all. What if she married somebody but still loved him? Would he always be on her mind while she made love to someone else? Would she always pretend to hope herself loved by Optimus? That wouldn't be fair to the man she married. What if she decided not to marry at all, but find that her love was not, or could not be returned?

"Ohh . . ." she whispered softly. Was it a serious case of unrequited love? That's cruel! No! (This is what they call denial) she didn't really love him! She was faking it all! Fooling herself! How could she love an Autobot?! It was absurd . . . and yet, (here comes the truth) yet, she loved him, worried about him, fought to be with him.

That wasn't fair! Tears welled from deep inside her. It CAN'T be true! If she loved him and fell in love with Cody or maybe someone else down the line then what was she going to do? And if she loved Optimus and he couldn't love her back, what would she do then?

Rusti gave in to tears and bowed over, weeping. Why was nothing simple?

Footsteps slished through the grasses nearby and Rusti instantly stopped crying. This was a private moment; she didn't want anyone to see her personal misery. Well, she should get back to bed, anyway. Glancing this way and that, she saw nothing. Abandoning the swing, Rusti glanced between trees and over shrub, ignoring the cold as it slipped under her jacket.

There was a faint light on the other side of the monkey gym made of old tires. She silently picked her way about, making her way across the sandy ground, hiding under one set of tires then peering round the corner of a small maze.

Not close enough. She perceived shadows and humanoid figures but could neither hear voices nor make out faces. Rusti crawled along the biting sand, grimacing as the crunchy grit froze her naked palms.

There! She encountered a small tunnel made of giant-sized tires and peered round the side. The dim lighting was actually several auras glowing about several tall lanky Chapronites, the very same aliens she spotted off and on at the high school. Before them stood a pair of humans in street clothes. At first, they looked exactly alike but upon closer inspection, Rusti realized one of them was a puppet, or rather a humanoid with a dummy-like face that only resembled its human companion.

Could that be . . .? No, no, it could not! All the Dopplegangers were slain years ago! They had to have been! Rusti averted her eyes elsewhere, trying to consider how it could be she was seeing one. Maybe they didn't all perish. Maybe not all of them were there at the battle on the Ribbon. It would mean, it could mean . . . and here this frightened her into remembering one afternoon when she was eating chocolate covered strawberries with Dezi and . . . Rusti's eyes narrowed.

The human spoke, but the girl was too far to hear what was said. She needed to get to Ultra Magnus. Rusti started to back slowly away, cautious of every move and sound she made.

The Chapronites spoke, creeping her out with their language, a series of clicking sounds punctuated with whispers and short shrieks.

Something stirred within her. Rusti thought she sensed every particle of everything around her. The tires; she felt their living vibrations, the very things that made their substance. She sensed the trees around her, heard the them breathe. She felt the tiny steadfastness of every grain of sand under her form. Her own body, soft, frail, touched the city, or rather, the metal of the city. And she could feel the city itself, thinking, breathing; everything was alive in one degree or another around her. But the aliens she could not sense and she felt as though her personal space were compromised.

One alien seemed to look in her direction, though the creature had no head. There were no eyes to spy her out. There seemed no life force the sorts of which she could identify.

What the hell was she doing out here, anyway? Forgetting discretion, Rusti scampered to her feet and made her way back to the EDC quarters where she should have stayed to begin with. But because she did not heed the protocols of sneaking, the aliens found her out and their bodies shot through the air so fast Rusti did not realize they were there before she nearly ran into one. She caught her breath in a start and tried to step away, only to bounce off the body of another one.

"What's this?!" the human and his dummy counterpart crushed and kicked sand in their wake. Rusti was suddenly very afraid. She turned to leave but the third Chapronite blocked her path. The man gripped her arm very tightly.

"No! Let go of me!" she demanded. The Chapronites clicked and chattered.

"I don't care who she is," the man snarled, "We don't need complications. I already told you that. The deal was: in, out and no complications. And THIS-" here he grabbed her by the chin and pressed her head back. Rusti struggled to breathe. "-is a complication!"

He meant to snap her neck. Rusti felt his thick tough-skinned finger over her lip and invited his finger in. She bit down as hard and fast as she could. He screamed and pushed her down. Rusti coughed and gasped for air just before he kicked her in the side. She rolled and brought her legs up. That was a rib that cracked. He jumped to kick her again but this time something deep inside her stirred, the selfsame Presence that raised her consciousness, the same Force that lived in and around the city.

The Music played.

The Human did not see her blink with eyes glowing bright blue. She caught his foot when it nearly impacted her body. She tripped him up and stood. One of the Chapronites reached to touch her, but Rusti was too aware of her surroundings and swung about, pointing at them "Sha'tda 'at Dana!" she snarled. And she heard the man's fist come flying through the air. She spun and caught the fist, shocking her opponent. She kicked him under the sternum twice before whacking him in the jaw, and sent him sprawling.

The dummy glanced from its owner to her and Rusti met its lifeless eyes. She pointed at it. "NOT IN MY CITY." Her voice projected with terrible power, but only those around her heard it. Rusti thought she still spoke with her small voice. The dummy blew apart in a rain of ash. The man screamed and held his head between his hands before he jumped to his feet.

"What are you waiting for?! Kill her!!"

Rusti stared at him then stared into him. The man's eyes shot wide. He wailed then screamed. Blood flowed from his ears and eyes.

His scream was joined by another great shriek.

It was a familiar sound, with a very familiar presence that touched Rusti's mind and she peered round the right of the Chapronite to her right and there stood Freak.

The girl recalled the incident in her room and watched as the psychological manifestation neared them. The Chapronites were in for an unpleasant surprise.

Freak screamed and the scream, starting out at a low frequency, grew louder and louder. The Chapronites held their handless arms out as though to ward off the devilish image. The sound threatened to make Rusti deaf but she crawled toward it as tears drenched her face. With terrible effort, she stood. Her body weakened with every second the sound emanated from Freak. She wrapped her arms around Freak and lost all consciousness.


The morning sun found Rusti sitting in cold sand, her arms wrapped about her knees, staring into nothing. The three Chapronite bodies lay as grey and cold as the air about them. Kup and Magnus taped the park off while EDC officials and Autobot officers scoured the grounds. Captain Fairborn and an alien nurse approached Rusti with a comforter and a cup of hot cocoa.

Magnus stomped about, leaving footprints in grass and sand alike. "I want detailed reports!" he shouted at Kup and Streetwise. "I want forensic scans, energy readings, footmarks measured, I want every grain of sand uncovered and analyzed under an electron microscope. What are those people doing here? Can't they see we're working? What? Did I say reporters were allowed here? Come on, people, go find a cat-in-a-tree story! What do you mean Max is busy? Don't give me that kind of p'ka! Springer, where do you think you're going, microt? Get your aft over here and take notes!"

The alien nurse locked eyes with Fairborn and Marissa frowned. "Maybe we should take her to a quieter setting."


The ladies took Rusti to Dr. Cynar but as he was already occupied with another patient, the nurse brought Rusti into another room. Marissa would have stayed, but Magnus called her back and she moaned.

"I'm sorry, Sweetie," she kissed Rusti's cold cheek. "I have to go. Nurse . . ." she glanced at the near-bald alien who smiled and lipped her name silently, ". . . Val will take care of you, okay? I'll talk to you later."

And she left them alone.

Rusti did nothing. Her mind remained dark with the memory of last night and she trembled from Freak's terrible screams. That was Optimus, wasn't it? That was what it was all about; suffering in silence and solitude; nobody heard, nobody could do anything about it.

And she was missing school. Again. Rusti blinked. No, today was Sunday.

"What you have in your hands is supposed to help you, my dear."

Val's voice brought the girl back to the moment and Rusti gingerly sipped. The warmth trailed down the back of her throat and eked through her ears. Her breasts, thighs and cheeks were all pinched with cold. She stared at the alien nurse, the female of a species Rusti could not place. A crest graced her head like a crown of opal. She had large square eyes and natural boney armor structures rising from her elbows to points off her shoulders. The rest of her body was concealed by a medical uniform. She was very pretty, even by Human standards.

Rusti drew a long, shuddering breath and let it out slowly. "They're going to think I killed that man and those aliens." Her eyes fell back to the cup of hot cocoa, now half empty. "I didn't kill them. And if I did, I didn't mean to."

"You had no weapons. How could you have killed them?"

Rusti shrugged and batted her eyes. Her body did not want to warm up. "I . . . I'm sure it was something else. Like the school long time ago. Like . . . like the volleyball, like . . .

Music." Rusti's voice trailed off. The Music was there. It came from the walls. It emanated from the lighting above her. A laser core vibrated softly. Maybe it was her own heart. She closed her eyes and felt it all about her.

"You're losing yourself to it, Rusti. Come back to me."

The girl could not figure if it was Nurse Val that actually said that, or someone else. The voice was strange, soft but frighteningly powerful. "I feel It all through me. I feel It in me and around me . . . I can't tell you what It is, but I feel It. I felt it in the park. If felt it at other times . . . but I can't tell you what it is."

Although Rusti's eyes were closed, she thought she could feel Val close to her, bending over to whisper in her ear: "Life force. You are sensitive to it."

The girl's eyes shot open and she caught her breath. But Val was leaning against the wall. One hand was tucked under her arm, her fingers about her chin as though studying Rusti. "Who are you?"

Val relaxed her pose and sat in the nearby chair. "We do not have to wait much longer for Doctor Cynyr. He'll be here shortly."

"It was Freak." Rusti wasn't sure why she said that. But she was a little surprised that the nurse did not seem surprised.

"I didn't run away. I ran toward It . . . him.

Val stood, folded her arms and leaned against the exam table. "I hear Optimus Prime is not well."

Rusti's shoulders suddenly fell and her eyes stared at the floor. "I'm afraid for both him and Rodimus. They don't act like themselves anymore."

"It frightens you." Val assumed without asking.

"Yes." Rusti's words came soft and sad. Her memories fell to the darkness of the bubble reality and the monsters therein. "I don't think anybody can do anything."

"Then . . . you will have to protect them, Rusti."

It took a moment for Val's words to register in the girl's head and when she realized what the nurse suggested, she gave the female alien a second glance. "What?" now she felt inclined to laugh. "Me? Pffft! Right. I don't have that kind of power."

"But the Music does." Val's eyes pierced right through the girl, sending chills down Rusti's back. But when she was about to ask another question, the door opened, dispelling the moment. Doctor Cynar entered with a clipboard in hand and a frown on his face. "Complications?" he asked tersely.

"None at this time, Doctor." Val instantly answered. "We've warmed her up, healed the cracked rib, checked her vitals. Other than lowered body temperature, she seems fine."

"Good. Then she can leave. Now."

Rusti had forgotten all about her rib and wondered why she didn't remember anybody repairing it. Cynar made her feel like an unwanted puppy. She left the office and no sooner did she step outside than Marissa Fairborn caught her.


Rusti was to taken Magnus' office and he, Kup and Marissa stared at her as though expecting the girl to tell everything from her math homework to her period. She sat on the Major-General's desk, glancing from the Jacki Chan babble head to the fish. She felt the Music filter from the walls around them to her body. It breathed for her, watched the world through her eyes. She closed her eyes and shuddered. Why didn't she just run from the scene? That wasn't very smart! But then, she digressed, she hadn't done a lot of smart things lately. Might as well add it to the tab.

Kup's crabby voice broke the silence. His whole demeanor seemed bent like an old woman who just survived a holocaust. His body shell was marred and bandaged with temporary patches. Apparently, Kup just came out of Medical. "Are we going to stand here all day or are you going to say somethin'?"

"I didn't do it." Rusti's little voice barely reached her own ears. "I expected them to kill me but they fell over and died." Then her voice strengthened but she spoke neither her own words, nor her thoughts: "I believe the Matrix was what attacked and killed them."

Magnus's optics flickered with suspicion. "How could you say that?" He snapped, "How could the Matrix kill like that when It's the source of life itself. More than that, how is it that you were there to begin with?"

Absently, Rusti met his optics, but it was the Music that sought him out, the Music that studied him like a schoolboy suspected of cheating on a test. "I have another question for you, Magnus: Why did the Matrix allow Optimus Prime to die fighting Megatron in 2005?"

It wasn't what the three officers were asking. Magnus crossed his arms. "This is our interrogation, young lady. You will answer *our* questions."

She did not blink:

I'm your dream, Make you real.

I'm your eyes when you must steal.

I'm your pain when you can't feel.

Sad but true.

Sad but true.

It was from a song she heard a long time ago-a piece from Roddi's personal music collection.

And she thought of Optimus and tears blurred her vision. "Ohmigod. They were going to assassinate him but rather than kill him outright, they scattered him all across the desert. There was nobody to help him as they tore his arms apart and ripped his fingers off one at a time. It was a set-up!" her mere words could not really convey the whole picture. Optimus struggled for thousands of years to stop the war but betrayal by others, their greed and power lust ensured Cybertron would never see the end of war. He never professed to be a savior. He never said he was perfect. They mentally ripped him apart and murdered everyone he cared for. Rusti melted into emotional distress.

Kup's optics narrowed and his frown deepened. "You can't be seriously buying this, Magnus!"

Magnus, who had been around Rusti a great deal more than the security officer, knew otherwise. He grunted. "She's probably suffering from shock. Take her to her quarters. We'll try again later." The two mechs watched as Marissa guided Rusti off the desktop and out the office. Magnus remained stoically silent while Kup shifted his weight one foot to the other.

Finally the security officer sighed. "What's going on, Magnus? Why all the strange events? What's with the moving walls?"

Magnus expected Kup to ask about the flickering images or maybe strange sounds with no detectable sources. He turned to Kup with a tilt of his head. "Moving walls, Kup?"


Roddi arrived at the park half an hour after Magnus returned to oversee the work. Roddi glanced over people's shoulders, nodded, though not really interested then took his time approaching the City Commander. "What uh, what's going on? You guys find dinosaur bones in our back yard or something, Mags?"

If it was a joke, Magnus did not see the humor. "So far Preceptor has concluded three Humans and two Orions were in the area at the time the Chapronites were here. It would seem they were all victims of some kind of energy depletion before their bodies were vaporized." Magnus knew Optimus and Rodimus would ream him later-that security measures were weak, alien and Human visitors and families were unsafe and, oh Primus, what a mess.

Rodimus nodded. "How'd they get past security, Mags?"

"We're looking into that." Magnus answered stiffly.

"Ah. I see. Yes. Don't worry, Magnus. I shall pray for your sinful nature and your imperfect function." And here, Rodimus snuggled a little too closely for Magnus' comfort, "I'll even ask if you can get laid sometime."

The look on Magnus' face would have been comical were they at another place and time. He wasn't sure if he heard Rodimus correctly, or if the statement were serious . . . but then, the City Commander reminded himself, Roddi wasn't acting like himself. "Thank you." he answered uneasily.

Roddi smiled wickedly when he spotted Springer retreating from the site, bearing several digipads in his hands. "Got to go." he whispered to Magnus with a wink. And he was off. The Autobot Second caught up with the wrecker as Springer tucked the digipads into a subspace pocket, preparing to transform to vehicle mode. Roddi slapped an arm across the triple changer's shoulder struts and Springer looked very nervous.

"Springs! Good t' see ya ol' buddy! Howzit hanging?"

It took a moment for Springer to find his voice: "Hi, Roddi. Things 'r great."

"Great! Glad to hear that! You know, I'm planning a private party later next week and I was wondering if you'd like to come and join me and a few personal friends of mine."

Cold surges snaked down the wrecker's backside. Rodimus had invited him to parties on more than one occasion, but usually Rodimus made sure to drop names. So clarification was necessary. "Blaster's . . . in Medbay, Roddi. Maybe you'd better wait."

"Dang. That's right!" But it wasn't a sincere statement; Roddi only pretended to be forgetful. "Well, you and I can pretend, can't we, Springs ol' bean?" Rodimus brought their gait to a halt so he could stare at the triple changer directly in the optics. "See, this is an important thing. I can see straight into your soul, Springer. You could have been great were you not so cocky . . . so arrogant. I could save you from yourself, Springer. I can cleanse that all from you. It's all in the dancing steps, Springer, my friend."

And here Rodimus leaned close to whisper in Springer's audios and Springer thought this must be what it's like to be snake's prey. He thought he could not move. It was like Roddi's very words removed all strength and power from his body.

"Come dance with me, Springer." His whisper was so soft, so pleading. "Dance to death. In death, all things are greater."

If he could have, Springer would have swallowed air. He shuddered. "R-Rodimus . . . uh, that's a nice offer. Maybe, maybe we can-can I take a raincheck on that?" he chuckled nervously. "I have all these reports-" and here he brought the digipads from subspace. "You know how Magnus hates it when I'm late with reports. I'm so bad about deadlines, you know."

Roddi smiled, but it was not a pleasant, easy-going smile. "Oh, the Mags-man! Yes! We mustn't upset him, now must we, Springer? No. He can be worse than Optimus at times."

Springer nodded, silently hoping he could get away.

"Well, what are you waiting for? Better hurry! Run, run, as fast as you can! Pretend you're the gingerbread man!"

Springer almost transformed and sped away but his optics shot wide with fear and startled with memory. Optimus used that same term in a digipad Springer received just that morning. "I-I'll see you later, Roddi." and he almost ran away. He transformed some paces from Rodimus and 'burned rubber'.

Roddi grinned. The Autobots could be so cute and fun at times. Now who was next on his list?


Magnus, of course, did not see the transaction between the two. His mind puzzled back and forth between Rusti's odd behavior and the three dead Chapronites. And Rodimus was right; how the 'whatever' did they get through Max's security?

I DO NOT KNOW TO WHAT YOU ARE REFERRING. Max's voice filtered into Magnus' private office as the City Commander paced before his desk.

"Think HARD, Max. This is crucial. If something like this could happen, what else do you think you've been missing? You keep saying you neither see nor hear images and sounds everyone else has." Max fell quiet and Magnus could almost feel the great city thinking. It might be the virus' fault. But that did not make things okay. That did not solve the situation. And Magnus wished every waking moment that Perceptor and First Aid would pipe in and declare they found a cure. But like Optimus Prime answering page calls, they too, remained silent. Magnus leaned against the pane of his southern window overlooking the training grounds. Six Autobot teams were hard at work practicing hand-to-hand combat skills. Cold October rain pounded, testing their cores and wills. The City Commander wondered if the virus was only the beginning of the end for them.


Magnus turned from his daydream, nearly startled, but his great composure kept him from showing visible signs of such and he stiffened at attention, as automatic a reaction as drawing his weapon. "Max? Continue."


Max's voice drifted from Magnus' audios when he realized someone else was in his office. He did not recall holding a meeting. He approached the figure and almost said something when the figure turned, smiled and vanished.

It took Magnus a moment to realize who the figure was.

That was impossible. Elita One had been dead for twenty-five years.


That did cause Magnus to startle and he glanced away, relieved to remember it was Tempra's voice. "Yes."

Sir, you're wanted at Central Command."

"Something wrong?"

"It sounds like it, sir," Tempra answered.

Magnus nodded. "Max, what's going on?"


That was it? Magnus grunted and though it was probably no big deal, decided to go anyway. Elita, if she comes back, would have to wait.

Optimus signed off another digipad and set it aside. More and more requests were coming in for Autobot labor of late. Lunarphyte in the Beta Centaurus System was requesting a new space station. Cost was unimportant. Optimus thought about it for a moment, then wrote his agreement code, setting the wheels in motion for a new job for a few Autobots and a great deal of resources. Building space stations was a lot of work, but generally their customers were satisfied.

"Ah, there you are!" The Shadow slipped out of a crack in the wall. Optimus ignored it. It didn't exist.

"Oh, really, now, Optimus! I'm almost ashamed of you! Brushing me off like you would one of your ridiculous Autobots!" It came to him on two legs, though Optimus knew that wasn't its real shape. It had a set of tiny eyelets and its head tapered back to a dull point. It had triple-jointed legs like a satyr and terribly long arms with long fingers extending beyond them. It had a barrel-chest torso and spikes running down its back.

Optimus hated it.

"So what are we doing today? Oh, resetting mission logs. That's good. Boring, but good."

The door chime sounded and Prime was relieved to hear a sound other than the voice in his head. "Enter." He called.

Springer stepped in and handed him a digipad. "You wanted me for something, sir?"

"Oooh!" The figment-creature mocked, "Sir! You know he wants something when he says that!"

"Yes, Springer." Prime found it hard to keep his concentration. "We've received a number of complaints regarding a gang of alien hoodlums terrorizing the neighborhood and killing off local pets. I need you to check it out and report back." Prime handed him another pad and signed Springer's.

The wrecker glanced over the report then pointed at the screen. "This says the aliens are N'lortho. That's one of the guest tribes from the Orizin System."


The Figment glanced from Springer to Optimus and back. "Oh, I say, he's not such a brilliant chap, is he? Have you thought about melting him down and making-"

" . . . to come with me?" Springer and the Figment talked at the same time.

Optimus began to feel annoyed. "I'm sorry, Springer, what was that?"

"Is there someone who's supposed to come with me?"

"Awe! He needs a potty-pal!"

Now Optimus glared at the figment, not at all amused.

Springer watched as Optimus glared to his right, seeing nobody there at all. He knew Optimus was distracted, had been for the last couple of days, but . . . ?

Optimus resumed his conversation. "Do you need me to assign someone to you?"

"No." Springer replied quickly. "No, sir. I-I can handle this." And he turned around, giving Optimus a final glance, then gave the whole room a glance before leaving.

The Figment nodded approving. He sat at the corner of Optimus' desk and examined the claws on his fingers. "Nice chap." He surmised. "Sharp as a bowling ball, but a nice chap. I'm sure he'd be fun to torture."

Prime paid it no mind, trying desperately to concentrate.

The Figment shrugged. "What about Rodimus? He seems to be a nice guy. I'd say kid, but he's not a kid anymore, is he? Something more to him, I'd say, though I really can't put a finger to it, yet. I wonder what it would be like if the two of you were lovers."

Prime slammed his fist on the desktop. "That does it!" He swept up two pads he currently worked on and aimed for the door.

"Where are you going?" the Figment asked innocently.

"To get my head examined!"

The Figment seemed insulted. "I can't let you go."

Optimus kept walking toward the door.

"Did you hear me? I said I can't let you go!" And the Figment's arm stretched out of its body and struck Prime hard enough to send him sliding along the floor. The Figment approached him and Prime forced himself to swallow his fear.

"You are an illusion. You don't exist! You can't exist! No one else sees you!"

"Still trying to rationalize the situation." The Figment spat. "Still trying to keep yourself and all circumstances under logical control. I hate sentient life and its ability to use logic! I hate rationality! I hate all people who live and breathe the stuff! And I hate you most of all because not only are you sentient and rational, you believe in a god!"

It pounced on him like a cat would an injured mouse and steel teeth sank into Prime's shoulder and ripped a piece off. The Figment spat it out and licked a tongue across Optimus' face plates. "I forgot, you have a high pain threshold. Too many years spent in Decepticon torture chambers, no doubt. Right?"

Optimus punched it but could not throw it off. The creature sunk three claws into his chest and snapped apart a hydraulics connector. Prime refused to give it any pleasure. He remained silent. He redirected power from his central systems and shot a bolt of power through his optics. Costly, but effective enough to blind the thing.

The Figment grasped its eyelets and moaned. Prime squirmed away, again heading for the door. But the door turned into a set of huge steel jaws that clamped down. And though Optimus jumped away, his left leg was still caught. He cried out as steel jaws sliced his foot clean off.

Pain shot through him like a poisoned lance and Optimus aimed for his desk. He had a weapon there-one of Kup's security precautions.

The jaws pulled themselves away from the door and reformed into the Figment. It stomped across the office floor and swept up the damaged piece. Then right in front of Prime it devoured his foot. Optimus was horrified. A piece of what was his own body had been eaten! His lasercore vibrated hard against his chest walls and he set the gun on high. The Figment set its hands on the desktop and with one sweep, sent a dozen digipads flying and the computer monitor met its end on the floor. "Don't bother playing hard to get, Optimus Prime. I have you whether you like it or not. You're mine, mind, body and spark."

Prime opened fire on the thing, succeeding only in watching the laser blasts shoot right through the beast. Max set off the intercity alarm, the sound piercing the room. The Figment shrieked and tackled Prime. Optimus fell backwards and slammed his head against the window.

"Let me in!" It shouted. "Let me in! Let me in or I'll make it hurt so badly, you'll wish you were DEAD!"

Optimus rolled on his thorax and tried to crawl away. With one foot gone, he could not possibly run. He managed to gain distance fast enough to pull out his own laser rifle from subspace. "Come no closer!!" He shouted.

The creature lifted his terrible long arm and the claws at the end of his fingers stretched and grew and he swung and before Optimus could scamper, the claws fell and sliced his exostructure as though it were tinfoil.

The sudden pain drove deep into his body and Prime could not hold onto his weapon. He looked at his arms and hands as blood leaked all over the carpet; betelling of a life that was nearly over.

Someone pounded on the door, demanding Optimus unlock it. He stared at the Figment, shocked. "I didn't lock the door!"

"I don't want to be interrupted." The Figment cooed. And he leapt again.

Optimus tried to escape, crawling for the little corner Rusti usually would sit in hour after hour. But he found no salvation there. The Figment leapt on him again, scraping his back and legs with its ghastly long claws. Then it bit down on Prime's shoulder again and ripped out another piece. Optimus could not cry out, could not warn Magnus of the danger. The city commander kept shouting his name over and over again.

The Figment bit into his neck, drank some of his life fluids then laid the side of its head against Optimus' audio sensor. "Now, dear Optimus Prime, the game begins. Submit to me, or I will make your life a living hell."

Optimus struggled under its weight a long moment before summoning enough strength to throw it completely off. He found his weapon and fired at it several times, all the while Magnus and a couple of his boys did their damnedest to break the door.

"Is that your answer?" The Figment asked.

Prime only fired again.


"Get that goddamned door open!" Magnus shouted.

"We're trying!" Pipes bit back. "Sir!" He amended. That was when they all heard Optimus fire his own rifle. Magnus nearly panicked and slammed on the door with his fists. "Max!" He called out, "Open this slaggin' door!"

"It's not locked, Ultra Magnus." The city insisted.

Magnus growled and finally pulled out his own weapon and sent several bursts of concentrated ion disruptor waves until the door sizzled and fell apart without explosion. Magnus went in first and stopped so suddenly that Pipes ran into him.

Optimus was bolted upside down across his office window. Magnus simply stood there and stared. There was no one else in the room. No traces of another presence, save for a bloodied carpet, digipads scattered across the room and a damaged monitor. Magnus recovered and pointed to Traffik. "Get First Aid up here. And ask Springer if he can get up here, too. If not, I want Brainstorm on the double. Archer, help me with Optimus."

They had to use an old-styled tool to undo the brackets holding Prime fast to the wall. There was a terrible rent in his shoulder strut and a pool of blood gathered under him.

Magnus was sick.

Rodimus dashed in before Springer and helped hold Optimus while Magnus and Archer undid the rest of the bolts. "What happened?" Rodimus asked sternly.

"We don't know." The City Commander answered. "Maximus broke out into emergency alarms. Traffik, Archer and I dashed up here to ask Prime if everything was alright. We found the room locked. I asked Max to unlock the door, but he insisted it wasn't locked. We kept trying to get Prime to undo it himself. That was when we heard the first laser shot from his own gun. Okay, I'm on the last bolt, here, Rodimus."

"I got him. Did, did he say anything to you about someone trying to attack him?"

Magnus merely grunted a 'no'. They undid the last bolt and the City Commander caught Prime before he collapsed, easing his friend into Rodimus' arms. Roddi managed to lower himself fast enough to break the fall and Optimus laid in his arms until Traffik arrived with First Aid and Apogee.

"I can't believe this is happening." First Aid moaned. He scanned Optimus while Apogee brought in the antigrav stretcher. He read his scanner and shook his head.

Rodimus did not answer. He held Optimus' hands as he closely examined Prime without moving him. There was a strange brown line around his left foot. "Magnus, look at his leg down there, would you?"

Magnus gave him a puzzled look, but did so just the same.

"What is that?"

"I don't know." The Major-general's face twisted with concern and puzzlement. "Off hand I'd say they were teeth marks."

Rodimus sadly bowed his head, carefully squeezing Optimus' bloodied hands. "Mags, put the city on alert. First Aid?"

The doctor shook his head and tried to reconfigure his scanner. "None of this is registering on my equipment, Rodimus -s-s-s . . . " all five Autobots were suddenly very much aware of a dark presence in the room. Simultaneously they raised their optics to the ceiling where the shadow, shaped like an alien spider, hung upside down. It had four long tapered legs and a triangular head.

Rodimus bowed over, trying to protect Optimus with his body as the nameless, faceless horror stared darkly into his own soul.

1. See Five Faces of Darkness

2. See The Ultimate Doom