AUTHOR'S NOTE PLEASE READ: This fic is rated-R for emotional, physical and psychological violence, and some disturbing scenes Read with caution and do not read this story all at once. This fic is NOT for children.



"The suspense is killing me. Hope it lasts."

-Gene Wilder

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory


. . . Optimus stood like a bug before his god. Primus paced the before his great warrior's throne and mused silently. "I have decided you have completed your work, Optimus. Now that my Chosen has arrived it is time for you to pass along."

"Forgive me, Lord . . ." to Prime's audios, his own voice sounded tiny, almost unheard. "My people are yet unsafe and you say that your Chosen is here?" It meant that all along, Optimus himself was not a 'Chosen' but a temporary leader. All his own suffering was not because he himself was really a Prime, but that he was merely a tool . . . a substitute.

"Yes. You will die as many of my servants have; battling to the last moment of life. Then, like them, you will add your essence to the Matrix."

It sounded so cheap and Rusti was horrified at how off-handed Primus sounded; as though Optimus were nothing more than a bit of worn clothing that was torn and needed to be tossed. She ached for him. And she realized, too, that Primus did not promise happiness elsewhere for Optimus; his job was done and that was it.

THAT WAS IT?! What about . . . Heaven or Paradise or the Garden of the Kings or some similar place where people go when they die and be happy forever?

'Added to the Matrix?' What the heck was that supposed to mean? Was Optimus just an ingredient like baking powder for making biscuits or something?

In spite of Primus' attitude, Optimus remained brave. "Lord, if I may, I have one question-"


Just like that. Primus squashed Optimus under his foot like a bug. Rusti cried out and shot straight up in her seat.


She was in science. They were watching a film and she had fallen asleep. "With your permission, we will continue the conversation, hopefully with something of your input." Mr. Goosle eyeballed her with a scrupulous look. The girl couldn't meet his gaze and she sank in her seat, muttering an apology. The dream left her cold and empty.

Rusti traversed the crowded school hall between second and third period classes, her mind a million miles away. She paused almost abruptly and two students narrowly avoided running into her. The Music found her here. She glanced about, expecting to find Freak lurking in a dark corner or projecting itself from a wall. But other than the incident at the park the other night, there had been neither sight nor hint of the manifestation in two weeks.

Or was it a week and a half? The girl could not tell. She just barely survived midterms.

"Excuse me." a boy muttered as he rounded her. Rusti resumed her path toward English and wondered how the rest of the week was going to go. Things at Fort Max were not exactly smooth and the tension affected Central City.

The English essay on buying old cars dragged the clock to an agonizingly slow pace. Rusti hated most of the topics other students came up with for writing exercises. Why not ask something more exciting, like describe a favorite music group?

The fourth period bell rang before the girl finished her work. She submitted it anyway and departed for math. It felt like a perfectly normal school day. While it was a bit dull, Rusti found herself grateful things were smooth.

A crowd of people gathered outside the hall Rusti traveled and gawked at the wall before them. Rusti slowed and so did things around her. She glanced at the hall across the way and noticed how the windows seemed to melt. She cursed under her breath, quickened her pace and exited the building. The five-minute bell called students back to their studies, but no one paid attention. The wet grass splattered about Rusti's pants and shoes as she pressed through others toward the windows. If it were an illusion, is was the best she'd seen; they dripped and slid down the wall as though made of wax.

"Stay back!" ordered a teacher. "All of you, return to class. Right now! Go back to class."

A few students moaned their disappointment, obviously hoping school would be canceled because of the phenomena. Rusti snuck past them and waited for the teacher to turn her attention elsewhere. Three security staffers rushed to the scene to help the teacher herd everyone back inside. It was now or never. Rusti darted toward the wall and touched a melting window.

Her breath caught in her throat as the window oozed over her hand like oil, but it was cold. She withdrew and wiped her hand on the door post as she returned inside. What that hell was going on? She didn't remember the walls doing *that* during the fracture! Rusti thought hard. It started just a little after the fracture, didn't it? The walls at Fort Max were doing creepy things, too.

The late bell disrupted her concentration and Rusti clenched her teeth. She was going to get a demerit for this.

* * *

Rodimus sat in the middle of his room. He just finished the best sculpture he made to date-well, his fifth one, anyway. Through the dim, contrasting candlelight, Roddi gazed at the other sculptures: "Tree" seemed a bit amateurish. The bottom part swung out and around while the top was a mere wave of a half-circle shape and a tail curved up from the right hand side. It was a bit odd, but Rodimus felt fine art needed to be . . . different. "Pose" was far too obvious. The statue looked far too much like the Chapronite aliens, except it had feet and a long headless neck. "Driftwood" was kinda cool but Rodimus worried that it might be a bit fragile if it ever had to be transported. Well, he had no intention sending his sculptures into public eye; they'd not understand their beautiful shapeliness. Well, the public at large didn't deserve to see fine art, anyway. The Autobot shrugged. He supposed it was alright, not perfect, not the best, but it was alright. "Thumb" was far better, more fun to look at.

"Wave" was almost absolutely perfect. The one flaw was that it kept trying to crack at the two most curvature points. But patience and a little more medium had fixed it. However, Roddi was afraid he'd have to sand down the rough spots after it dried. Still, its half-circle shape was fun to stare at. It swept up and over just like a wave of water. Very nice, indeed. He grinned. But play time was over.

He gathered his tools and medium and tossed them in the basin to be washed later when he can take his time. Right now, he just wanted to clean the place up and rest a bit before deciding what else to do.

What *did* he want to do today? Rodimus rolled up the huge sheet of plastic he used to protect the floor during his work. Hmm . . . decisions, decisions . . . he could pester Magnus. He could pester Op-well, no. Not after that last incident . . . Roddi wasn't about to be surprised like that again.

A joke? Maybe a practical joke was in order. Sure! He hadn't done anything like that in a while! Good idea! Optimus could probably use a good laugh. They all could!

Optimus paced along the grounds in front of Central Command while the Paratrons worked under the supervision of an artist. Sculpted rocks and plant-o-bots from Cybertron were carefully placed in strategic places around the new water fountain. Prime didn't like the idea of another fountain in the city. He picked his way around workers and equipment and made it to Groundbreaker's side.

"Who authorized this?" Prime asked over their comline.

Groundbreaker seemed startled that Optimus would come right to the point rather than asking him how he was, how the work was coming along. An instant, pointed question was something he expected from Ultra Magnus. Nevertheless, the Paratron artist grinned in satisfaction. "I didn't want to wait for authorization, Sir. I needed to get this underway ASAP so it'd be done by the time-"

Optimus' mood darkened. "Have you any idea how many fountains we have in this city?"

"Um, twenty-seven, including this one. Oh, and I have plans to resculpt the house of the main power generator, Optimus. You know, the generator I'm sure deserves far more than a mere squared, double-housing. It should be elaborate and beautiful. After all, it *is* the heart of Fort Max. Of course, we're a bit over-scheduled and a little behind right now, but I'll manage to fit it into my timetable by the end of the year. By the way, Sir, have you seen Doubletake? He's been missing since yesterday. I tried to contact him, but he's not answering."

Prime glowered at him, annoyed that he did not even have the consideration to ask before tampering with the city itself. Fountains might be pretty, but they were costly and time consuming and a general nuisance to traffic. He made a note to decline any more authorizations for such trivial things. And as for redecorating the main generator's housing; well, he could tell where Groundbreaker could stuff his plans. But this really wasn't the time. Optimus also considered sending the Paratron a note about how authority works in Fort Max and *then* he'd send the arrogant little so-and-so to Ultra Magnus for about three weeks so that Magnus could drill discipline into him.

As Groundbreaker shouted more orders, bossing his workers around (probably to show off, Prime mused), Optimus decided to leave the matter for now. This was *his* city and no two-bit droid was going to do things without his permission. He departed without another word, once again picking his way out of the construction zone toward Central Command's new curvy stairway.

Prime strolled out of the elevator toward his office. He had pleasant enough a night, lots of rest and few dreams. But while the dreams were not terrible, they were very odd and it left the Autobot leader in a creepy mood. Well, creepy, maybe wasn't the right word, but Optimus could not think of a better way to describe his mood at the moment. He stopped abruptly when a tiny red light caught the corner of his optic. Prime took two steps back and glanced from one wall to the other. He was not more than maybe seven yards shy of his office. He backed off a little further and peered closely at a crack line where two metal plates joined to make the left hand wall. The two plates did not perfectly meet; they weren't supposed to as they were part of Max's real form; Optimus believed this part of Central Command made up Max's left hip plate.

Between the two panels, Optimus found a triggering device. It was not the work of an assassin; they're usually cleaner than this. It was Rodimus' work. He was at it again; bored so that he decided to start playing practical jokes. Prime optically traced the laser light as it cris-crossed along the corridor. He searched the ceiling and floor for surprises but could find nothing obvious. Behind him the elevator doors whooshed open and glancing back, Optimus spotted Kup, nose buried in a pair of digipads. He suddenly thought how funny it would be to let Rodimus think that his trap was tripped, only to find that it was not Optimus that got 'goosed'. He himself produced a pair of digipads and quickly pretended he had to pause in walking to read and compare them carefully.

"Optimus!" Kup greeted him a little too cheerfully. "Glad to see you up and looking better."

"Very kind of you, Kup. Thank you."

"Have you heard? Doubletake has been missing since yesterday. Central City has also reported two delivery guys missing from Berger Industries for five days. They were supposed to drop a few new materials off for Medical. They haven't been seen since."

"Hmmm. I guess we'll have to look into it, Kup."

"Yeah, I'm pretty worried about it. Since that incident with Rusti at the EDC park, I've had my boys working more shifts, covering all the exits and a few weak spots in the city itself."

"Good work, Kup." Prime praised. "Come into my office and discuss Doubletake's disappearance with me." Kup smiled, so obviously pleased Optimus was so concerned about a fellow Autobot. At first Optimus thought the chief of security might realize how irregular it was for Optimus to let him proceed first. But to Optimus' relief, Kup thought nothing of it and walked right across the laser beams. A hatch from the ceiling disengaged and a large hammering device swung straight down and slammed the smaller Autobot right in the 'gut'. Optimus failed to keep from cringing as Kup 'oofed', flew through the air and slammed all the way against the elevator doors.


The large battering ram slowly swung back and forth, its purpose now fulfilled. Prime rushed to the security chief. "Kup!" he made sure his voice was filled with worry, "are you alright?"

Kup was out for a moment or so then his optics flickered on. "What . . . was that?"

Prime glanced at the device then back at Kup. "It was a trap, Kup. A diabolical scheme obviously put there by Rodimus Prime. Don't worry, Kup." Prime's voice fell darker: "*I'll* handle Rodimus."

* * *

Pink Floyd wasn't necessarily one of Rodimus' favorite pieces of music but at the moment, it fit his mood. He reflected on the movie he recalled watching some years ago-years and another life time ago. The mood of the music matched the icky feeling his dreams left him.

Yeah, 'icky' was the perfect word because he felt both gross and horrified; like that one really whopper of a dream he had before the Fracture hit. What was it all about? Why did the dreams plaque him consistently?

Rodimus smeared his thumb in the mix of paint and mud. He discovered how much more enjoyable it was to mix his paints with other mediums. He tried Earth automotive paint with his chartreuse and that came out strange. He mixed metallic blue with paste and it had an interesting effect. Now he tried black with mud and it had this nice thick texture. But it took him all night to sift all the ******* rocks out so it would not be lumpy. Paint, like pudding, should be smooth and easy, sensuous to the touch. He abandoned the use of brushes for the time being. Painting with fingers proved far more fascinating; although the paint did not smear as well as it did with brushes, it was still enjoyable smearing something along the walls; like the time Rusti had gotten a hold of something in her diaper-

Rodimus broke out laughing aloud. And he had to stop painting so he could really laugh hard. Then he settled down and checked his audience. They were watching him paint; enjoying themselves most happily. They remained respectfully quiet and Rodimus appreciated that. They didn't even whine about his sudden outbursts. That was the best thing of all. They just didn't ask.

The music ended and Rodimus sighed. What should he listen to now? Or did he want to listen to anything at all? No! No silence! NO SILENCE. "Um, player," he called to his machine (since Max has no control over his quarters now) "let's hear something different; um . . ." What should it be? Thompson Twins was good; Mike and the Mechanics . . . Roddi flipped through his memory, recalling all the music and each style. What would fit his mood? More Metallica or something softer? Maybe he'd like a dish of Abba-and here he broke out laughing again. Oh, that was PITIFUL!

How about Klaus Schulze? Enya? Ewwe. Hahaha! Cher! No, no, no. Rodimus thought harder and then remembered an eclectic old piece, hardly known, that he borrowed from Op's private collection. Mike Rowland had this strange, compelling, sad piece called the 'Fairy Ring'. Rodimus remembered first hearing it, good grief, years and years ago and he asked to borrow it, heh, and hasn't returned it yet. Of course, Op's never asked, either and maybe it was that Optimus, being the kind of person he was, didn't bother asking for it back; he just bought himself another copy. But the Fairy Ring, a piano piece, was a bit depressing. Not so bad a thing, at the moment. Maybe it would help ease Roddi's own disturbed mind. He ordered the music and stepped away from his painting project. The shapes, this time a bit smaller than the first few paintings, were broken in line since finger-painting did not carry paint very well. But the art was no less gruesome than the other paintings.

The way he depicted several Autobots in half-transform mode reminded him of that off-beat movie "Naked Lunch". Not that he particularly liked the film, but Rodimus was a culture hound and he liked to try different things. The song shifted into another and Rodimus picked out one of the Autobots on his wall and felt it would be interesting to draw a mouth rising from the ground and swallowing the half-transformed creature. He outlined the outside of the mouth with his finger and thumb and added texture to the mix. He moved up and placed a shocked expression on the Autobot's face. Oh, this one Autobot needed to be . . . Hosehead. That's right. Roddi added a pleading, fearful look in the Headmaster's optics. Then the Mouth of Death needed something more. Rodimus thought hard. There was that bowl of blood he hadn't cleaned out yet. That would work right nicely.

He mixed the blood with the paint and found it had a nice smooth texture to it, but finger painting at this point was insufficient. He snapped up a brush and lined the Mouth of Death carefully before shading and adding a little mud for texture. It should look as though the half-transformed Hosehead were already partly inside the mouth; his color reflected on the terrible long sharp teeth. After ten minutes of work, Rodimus stepped back to admire the piece from a short distance, but he had to be cautious as not to knock down one of his sculptures.

Yeah. Yeah, it looked really good, now. It looked about as frightening and disturbing as he felt. That cold darkness was swallowing Hosehead, just as it was swallowing him little by little everyday. At least when Rodimus ended up in the belly of the beast, he would not be the only one to slide down its tight, airless, sunless throat.

Well, that was enough for today. Speaking of sunshine, he needed to go out and get some air. He cleaned his brush, replaced the Fairy Ring with Thomson Twins, cleaned himself up a bit and exited his quarters.

Roddi walked about eight paces from his quarters when the one panel he stepped on dislodged and shot straight up. He slammed his head and upper back against the ceiling and fell flat on his face. Dazed, he remained down as the panel slowly returned to its place on the floor.

What was THAT? Rodimus managed himself into a sitting position and rubbed his sore noggin. Was there something wrong with Max? That was weird. He didn't even see a triggering device, if it were a trap.

Maybe it was just a fluke thing he'd have to look into on his way back. Shrugging it off and mentally brushing aside the pain, Rodimus picked himself up and traveled on a good fifteen paces down the wall.

Once again the panel he stepped on shot up, but he had tripped and landed face down. He became a Rodimus sandwich when the panel slammed hard. He lost wind and spots flared and died before his optics as the panel lowered. He lay there for several moments, stunned and confused. What was going on? He didn't remember setting any traps earlier. Nobody dared venture to his quarters any more.

Rodimus sat up again and rubbed his head, then a slightly dented right side. His optics narrowed and dimmed in thought. This was a prank. And a good one. Not the best, of course, but a good one. The only other Autobot capable (and daring) enough to pull such a stunt would be, naturally, Optimus. Roddi remembered all too well that one year he and ol' Op exchanged pranks. He had to finally admit that Optimus was pretty darn good at this and probably had dealt with such pranksters as himself before. Practice and experience makes perfect.

Roddi took to his feet again and wondered if he should apologize somehow, or just let the matter drop. After all, he learned that if he left Op alone, Op would pretty much return the favor.

And the floor once again, shot up and he became another Rodimus sandwich between floor and ceiling.

Ouch. He lay there, arms and legs dangling over the panel like a wounded spider. The panel returned to its usual place and where he lay, Rodimus spotted light writing on the wall to his left: THIRD TIME'S A CHARM.

How very like Optimus Prime. Dry humor intermingled with a practical joke. It was funny but cruel at the same time.

DANCE 7(reversed steps)

Rusti sat in the middle of her room organizing memory cards for her psych class. Vocabulary . . . terminology . . . nomenclature . . . names, dates, ideas, discoveries . . . she thought she'd drown in them. Cody wanted to go out with her again this weekend, but frankly she just couldn't afford the time. She had three papers due in English by Friday, two papers for civics and a test in psych. With all the things going on at Fort Max, with Optimus' and Roddi's behavior, it was tough trying to concentrate.

And amid the low music playing in the background in her room, something tapped at the girl's subconscious and she tried to keep it out. No more visions, no more weird feelings or outbursts. She absolutely had to concentrate on things.


She struggled to recall and say them out loud: "Permissive, Authoritarian, authoritative, democratic-indulgent, rejecting-neglecting and . . traditional." She tried to recall their definitions as she said them and with all her might, tried not to look at the tiny light flickering down the wall to her right. Aunt Missy already lectured her about smashing her lamp and jewelry box.


Rusti wracked her brains. "Uh, pretend play which children act out various roles and themes in stories of their own creation."

The music on her stereo shifted to something soft, silky. Rusti sat there, studying forgotten as the music touched her inner self. She batted her eyes and thoughts of the Communications District came to mind. The Assignments and Registration building walls flickered brightly and played scenes from Cybertron's distant past. Her mind too occupied, Rusti did not consider the oddity of the vision. The building's inside lights died and the walls began to churn like a slow-cooking pea soup. Then the whole building compacted and shrank in size.

The girl swallowed air and ignoring the fact that she was in her robe and slippers, snapped to her feet and dashed out of Central Command. The Communications district was only six blocks away; she could make it. She dashed madly around the new fountain and across the One-Way Street, narrowly dodging Wheelie on his way north. The cold November air bit at her skin as she touched the sidewalk on the other side and swung right, lightly tapping the sidewalk, hardly feeling the metal under her feet at all. Those few EDC officers and soldiers along the walkway gave her wide berth and she ran right between Springer's legs.

"Hey!' he called after her. But she kept dashing. He turned and trailed after her, surprised that he had to run to catch up. "Where 'r you going in such a hurry, kid?"

Two blocks later, Springer got his answer. Just as Rusti imagined, the Comm Center was shrinking, the walls liquefying. Two EDC officers struggled to get through a window, but failed and although emergency crews tried to pry them out, the melting walls collapsed too quickly.

"I-I can't believe this is really happening." Rusti huffed. "Ohmigod. Where's Optimus?"

Magnus was there and he and Hotspot struggled to pull Dogfight out. They just managed, but not without the price of losing one of Dogfight's feet. He screamed when the building's collapsing structure snapped it clean off. Blades in chopper mode dropped First Aid from the air and the Protectobot landed with a light thud. He immediately tended to Dogfight's injury then rushed to help Ambience who also suffered dents, scrapes and a badly damaged arm. Rusti dared press her way further through the sea of Humanoids and Autobots. Magnus yelped commands as Strike Back zipped up in automobile mode with Sludge and Slag behind him.

He transformed and saluted Magnus. "Grimlock refused to come, sir."

Magnus turned from him to the Comm Center as it continued to melt. What in Nine Hells caused that? What is going on? He looked to his Second. "Strike Back, I want every building in this city checked. I want every inch of every wall scanned. I want to know what did this. I want SOMEONE to talk to Optimus or Rodimus about this!"

Nobody seemed to know what caused the building to melt like that. Rusti eavesdropped on as many conversations as she could until someone tapped her on the shoulder. She turned and faced Marissa Fairborn.

"Young lady, I *do* believe it's eleven o'clock at night and you have school tomorrow, right?"

Rusti meekly nodded. "I saw this happening, Aunt Missy-"

"No homework?" Marissa growled.

"Yes. But I imagined it happening while I was doing homework. I had to come see."

Marissa stared at the girl a moment longer and seemed a little less stern. "Well, alright. But you get yourself into bed, understand?"

Rusti again meekly nodded and gave the melted Comm Center a final glance. She shuddered. Was it the fault of the Music? Was it the fault of the same 'Presence' that caused the volleyball to blow out as it did in school a few weeks before? Rusti wasn't so sure she really wanted to know.

She slowly retreated back, watching over her shoulder, sometimes turning around and walking backwards to watch the scene. Where were Optimus and Roddi? Why weren't they here already? Rusti crossed the street back to Central and approached the strange newly-finished fountain in front of the building.

She paused there, staring at it. Two huge hands were molded perfectly as though they came out of the flooring itself. Their rounded fingers tore into the city panels, peeling back the metal, or so it looked, revealing a deep pool of brightly lit water. Three huge springs of water shot up from the center of the fountain as high as thirty feet. The pool itself was very deep, about forty feet, or so Rusti heard. The pool, or basin, gave her chills; it resembled an open wound.

It was a fascinating fountain, certainly, but odd. What was going through the Paratron's minds when they built it? It looked so out of place. Why would Optimus authorize something like that in front of Central? It was not like him. However, Optimus wasn't exactly in a proper mindset. He could have okayed anything; even for a garden in the middle of a highway.

Rusti tapped up the short, broad steps, now finding the slight November breeze colder than it was a few minutes before. Her skin tightened with gooseflesh as she quickly retreated indoors, grateful for the rush of warm air. The lobby stood silent and dim, now that only the evening shift was at work. Illumini, the evening receptionist, didn't even glance up to greet the girl eye-to-optic. Rusti swiftly passed the check-in, knowing the receptionist would not bother with security measures or the like; everyone knew her here. She trudged up the incline to the first hall and made a left for the elevator.

There came a mournful cry and Rusti paused in mid-motion. She thought she heard whispers: "No more children." She waited to hear more, but nothing else came. Her eyes narrowed, daring her imagination to 'try that one again.' But when she heard nothing more, she proceeded to the elevator.

But the girl did not get that far. The floor before her rolled like a wave of water and before her appeared thousands and thousands of robots and the more that appeared, the longer the hallway stretched back and out to accommodate the mass. Rusti found herself standing on a platform, staring down at the multitude, seeing them as sentient creatures, not so much as their physical make, but as individuals complete with name and date of creation -all those who have existed over the meganiums.

It's inconceivable to think that so many 'Children' have lived over the ages and the Matrix remember every one of them. Rusti wondered if the Matrix itself had a name. But that thought was fleeting and her mind drifted back to the Children. How many perished during the reign of Dark Prime? How many perished during the many wars with the Quintessons? And did 'Children' include Decepticons, or was the Matrix really that selective?

That was a question for which even Optimus had no answer.

"This one."

Rusti did not remember standing alone in the corridor. Her mind kept drifting further and further from reality.

"This one."

"And what did you call him?" She asked the Music.

"They call themselves. It is their right as sentient beings. He called himself Ironhide."

Rusti thought she was talking to another girl a little less than her own age. There was no visual contact, but the girl didn't find it necessary to see. Rusti used her other Senses.

"This one because I have not heard his voice in a long time. I miss them all."

"And what's so special about him?" Rusti asked. She did not stop to think she was experiencing a Matrix memory; the same thing as experienced by several people, including herself during the Time Fracture. "What have you chosen him for?"

The answer came as a whisper too soft to hear and the girl batted her eyes when a brilliant soft blue light encompassed her whole visual scope. She stumbled back for a clearer look when something to her right shook the floor and the wall was blown in by a deafening roar. She fell flat. The ship (she was on a ship, now?) under her rocked and Brawn jumped from his station.

"Megatron!" he shouted and raced for the middle of their vessel. "Decepticons!" he alerted as more 'servants of evil' poured into the ship.

"Die, Autobots!" Megatron led the attack. He leapt backward toward Starscream, transforming into his powerful gun mode. He had been prepared to use everything he had to exterminate those members of the opposing side.

Starscream wasted no words, shooting Brawn first. Brawn fell, wounded from the shoulder. His systems shut down for stasis, but it was too late; his laser core was already extinguished.

Prowl jumped from his chair, having set the shuttle on auto pilot. Starscream dodged his shot and Constructicon Scavenger drained his weapon into the Autobot's mid section. Fire raced through Prowl and he too fell flat, never to move again.

Ironhide and Ratchet joined the fray, firing weapons haphazardly. A few Decepticons retreated from the barrage, but the odds were two against too many and dauntless, the Decepticons returned fire. Ironhide took two blows then Ratchet took more before Starscream used Megatron against them and they fell; easy targets to their hunters. Starscream fired until Megatron pulled from him and transformed, victorious in the moment. Autobot blood smeared the flooring but Megatron sloshed through it with ease-and glee.

"This was almost too easy, Starscream!" he gloated.

"Much easier, Almighty Megatron," Starscream agreed, "than attacking the REAL threat: the Autobot's moonbase!"

That was a dare, a sneer, an underhanded attack to decry Megatron's authority before the other Decepticons. Once again, like so many millions of times before, Starscream tried to undermine Megatron's power by making him look weak or cowardly before the other Decepticons. But Megatron was not so beguiled as to fall into Starscream's mind games. He knew that to eliminate his Second meant losing the respect of his followers. "You're the idiot, Starscream." Megatron retorted after two seekers and Soundwave flew in and took control of the shuttle, "when we slip by their early warning systems in their own shuttle, and destroy Autobot City, the Autobots will be vanquished forever!" Of course, it was an obvious statement. But it was necessary to remind his followers of their objective. It was necessary to explain to them time and time again why it was so important they eliminate the hated Autobots. If the Decepticons were to be the supreme race in the galaxy (and eventually the universe) they had to eradicate the one thing that stood in their way.

But Ironhide still lived. He struggled with every fiber of his life. He moved to trip Megatron. It was not a maneuver to destroy the Decepticon leader. Heck, Ironhide was, of all things, a realist. But if he were to live just long enough to make Megatron trip, to make him look foolish in front of his own cronies, it was worth ending his life. "No!"

Megatron sneered. One Autobot still lived to challenge his destiny. "Such heroic nonsense," he growled and he shot the Autobot's head clear off.

Then time froze at that moment. Rusti stared at the scene, at the victorious Megatron and his cutthroat crew. Her eyes fell on Starscream, his own optics greedily taking in the sight of destruction. It seemed his soul drank in the loss of life. It was the beginning of a terrible time for the Autobots and little did the Decepticons realize their future would follow suit.

Rusti thought she could hear her heart beat. The Matrix felt each of their deaths. The Matrix remembered the history of this moment. What was widely known, wasn't the whole story. The little 'spat' between Optimus and Ironhide was actually a full-fledged argument, but no one recorded it. Prowl earlier suggested using a different route to Earth, but the vessel was detoured to the main travel lanes because the one gate he suggested using was down for repairs. Brawn wanted to go to Earth earlier that week, but was delayed by other problems at hand. It seemed for every little detail that occurred, they all purposefully led to the same dark moment: Optimus' death.

It was planned very carefully.

But the plan was not of Decepticon designs and that was something Rusti now realized. Optimus' death was not a mistake or a failure on his part. It was meticulously devised by someone who knew exactly what the Decepticons should learn, the shuttle flight plans, how Laserbeak learned of Autobot schemes.

"Why?!" Rusti demanded. "They ALL almost died!"

The Music mourned in her ears. THEIR PURPOSE IS TO PROTECT, TO DEFEND AGAINST THE GREAT EVIL. THEY ARE A WARRIOR SPECIES. THEY MUST BE STRONG. That actually was not what the Music said. Those very words belonged to someone else, someone who desired a change, as though bored with the way things were.

It did not answer her question. The illusion of the shuttle and all its occupants faded to grey then dissipated like ashes in a gentle rain. Rusti sank to her knees, staring into nothing. Slowly the walls and coloring of the corridor returned to her vision. Reality came back to her in sullen quiescence.

What was all that about? Did anyone else go through this kind of display? Somehow, Rusti did not think so. A shadowed figure slipped soundlessly across the way.

At first the girl thought nothing of it. Then she realized there should have been sound; metal tapping against metal, even if Autobots could move quietly along metal flooring. Who was that? She stood and waited to see if the figure would retreat her way. When it did not, Rusti found she could not resist the urge to give chase. Maybe he had more news regarding the buildings from Communications.

Rusti quietly made her way down the hall and half hoped Aunt Missy was too busy to check on her. She turned another corner and the figure just slipped round another hall; toward the stairway and Perceptor's and Dr. Hansen's office. She raced after, now more determined to catch him.

But upon arriving, there was no one.

Rusti turned all around, her eyes scanned every possible escape route and doorway. Nothing. She set her hands on her hips. This was crazy! He could not have just disappeared! Or maybe she was seeing things.

Great! First a Matrix memory, now her own head was playing games-oh don't use that word!

"Watchit, there, little microbyte, you mahght hurt yerself."

Rusti's eyes shot wide. She turned and there standing behind her . . . she batted her eyes in disbelief and took two steps away from the tall red-and-grey figure. "Y-you're . . . supposed to be . . . dead." She could not breathe.

He grinned, causing Rusti to go light-headed. Her skin frosted. Ironhide was supposed to be dead! He was supposed to be dead! The strange light in his optics even said so.

"C'mon! Pryhm 'll wanna talk atcha."

Before she could object, the not-so-dead Autobot swept her off her feet and aimed for the elevator. But the doors did not open for them. They were going to crash into the wall and Rusti feared the wall would swallow her alive.

"No!" she objected. "No! I can walk! Let me down!!" She struggled in vain then threw up her arms to protect her head as Ironhide walked right through the wall.

It wasn't until her lungs filled with air that she realized she was still alive. They were in the corridor of the fourth level. But . . . but she was still on the second level . . . she was . . . she was . . .

Her thoughts jumbled and the edges of her vision started to turn white.

They passed through Optimus' office doorway. Rusti's heart stopped beating. She couldn't take much more of this. Ironhide practically dropped her on Prime's desk. From the corner of her eye she barely made out Optimus' chair. It swung around and there Optimus sat, fingers steepled in thought.

"Ah found you a little somethin' scamperin' about the hallways, Pryhm." Ironhide's drawl was well pronounced, old-fashioned, but its friendliness was not enough to bring Rusti out of near-unconsciousness.

Optimus rose calmly. "Thank you, Ironhide. Young lady," he sternly addressed. "You are supposed to be in bed."

Rusti's muscles melted; she could hardly support herself. She dared a gaze at the Autobot leader. His optics were white. They didn't just flash white, as though he were angry or 'meant business', they were actual white. The girl managed a breath. "Opt'mus . .." her little voice barely penetrated the air. "He's-Ironhide's-s-s . . . dead."

Optimus' movements came slow, as though reality moved to a snail's crawl. His optics bent cold on her and when he talked, his face plate split, revealing several rows of frightfully sharp teeth. "Young Lady. To bed."

The sight was too much and Rusti finally convinced herself it was all just a bad dream. Her mind simply shut down.

The alarm clock blared and Rusti shot strait up with a cry. Her heart pounded in her chest until she realized she was in bed, in her own room in Central Command. Her wide eyes snapped at every corner in her room, finding her clothes lying where she dropped them last night. Her homework lay in a neat pile on her 'chest of things' and her slippers rested before the bed. She didn't remember going to bed. How did she get here? Were the visions from last night so powerful that she just didn't realize that maybe some other part of her mind ran on automatic?

Or! Or maybe all things from the melting building in Communications to . . . to Optimus was just a series of nightmares.

Well, whatever the case, Rusti felt more rested and after turning on her stereo, dressed for school.

Rusti boarded the bus with a large group of people heading to Central City. Most of them carried bags and suitcases as though going on a retreat. By the time everyone was aboard, the bus was so packed that it made Rusti slightly claustrophobic. Two ladies across the girl glanced at one another and smiled between suitcases, purses and boxes.

"You too?" the brunette started.

"After th' bathroom mirror melted into a puddle of silver, Luke 'nd I decided th' kids 'nd I oughta stay in Central."

The brunette nodded. "I would have left three weeks ago when the walls started flashing those home-movies, but Geoff felt it wasn't so dangerous. Then last night the wall . . . I don't know, it was too weird."

The blonde beside her nodded. "I heard it's some kind of nuclear testing going on over in the Pacific and it's causing all kinds of strange things to go crazy."

The brunette shook her head. "Not when th' wall actually slides through a glass cage 'nd devours my husband's rats. It's gotta be som'n more than discombobulated molecules. Luke thinks th' city might be possessed by aliens, but th' 'higher-ups' can't say anything so's to keep everyone calm."

"Hmm." The blonde nodded. "Makes sense, since they say Optimus Prime is seriously ill."

"Is THAT what's been going on in Central Command?" the brunette shook her head. "Poor guy! I know things have been tough, what with losing so many battles on Pluto 'nd those three shipments to Mars getting lost 'nd people 'nd Autobots disappearing left 'nd right . . . It's getting really tough out there. Really tough." her voice trailed off as the bus made its first stop and three people disembarked.

Half an hour later the bus dropped Rusti at school and she joined a packed assemblage of bodies. She hoped nothing strange would happen today, especially with that psych test she studied so hard for. Still, she felt too far from Fort Max; as if she should be there when she was here. That same thought nagged her one class at a time. She managed through the psych test without too much difficulty. PE was okay, too, but that hour stretched into what seemed days.

Cody greeted her at the bus stop at the end of the day. "I'll take you home, Rusti, if you'd like." he offered.

She smiled gratefully. "Okay."

They didn't talk much. Rusti didn't know if he had a lot on his mind, or if it was her. As they started up Gateside Road toward Fort Max, Cody turned down the radio and broke the silence between them. "What's on your mind, Rus? Usually you're talking at light speed." He glanced to her then back at the road.

She shrugged then shook her head. She stared at the world with worried eyes. "Cody, I know this sounds really bizarre. But sometimes I feel like I'm two different people, you know?"

"You *are* two different people, Rus. You're a human teenager going through school, struggling to grow up. But you're also a human raised by Autobots. Sometimes I think of you as Mogli from Jungle Book. You're one thing, but you're influenced by another. That's gotta be confusing somewhere along the line. I mean, were you *always* with the Autobots?" And here, Cody started laughing then he laughed harder. "I'm sure Optimus Prime didn't change your diapers, but you've been with the Autobots for many years and-"

"Cody," she softly interrupted, "Optimus *did* change my diapers."

His smile died and the boy glanced at her several times while a Jupiter 8 passed them in the next lane. "Oh." silence drifted between them again and finally Rusti decided to open up. "Cody, sometimes I feel like I'm doing or saying or feeling things that I . . . I would not. I feel as though someone else in my head were experiencing things. Remember the park incident in the EDC complex?

Cody hesitated, "no, not really, Rus. I don't think you mentioned it."

She looked a bit startled but decided she might have forgotten. "I couldn't sleep one night a couple weeks ago and decided to go to the park and sit on the swings. I spotted those Chapronites and some guy who was a Doppleganger and they found me and gave chase and . . . I don't know, Cody, I don't clearly remember how it happened, but the guy- he died and before I knew it, it was the next morning and I was sitting in the grass and the Chapronites were dead." A chilling sensation shrouded her as she recalled one more unusual detail: "Oh, Freak was there . . . I think It saved me."

Cody veered the car off the roadway. He turned it off and stared at her, shocked. "It did what? It saved your life? You mean It attacked the aliens, Rusti? And you . . . you killed the Doppleganger?"

"I don't *know*, I don't know what happened, Cody, or what's happening to me. I'm scared!"

Cody started the car again and waited for two then three passing vehicles before returning to the highway. He remained quiet as they climbed Border Bend. "You know, Rus, maybe you should pack your things and stay the weekend with your folks. I know how you hate staying with them, but maybe just for the weekend, just to get away from the crazi . . . ness . . ."

Their eyes widened in shock as Cody passed Caravan Hill to the EDC Eastern side entrance to the city. Fort Max had walls, where there weren't walls before. It was as though the city itself simply constructed them out of its own body shell. To make matters even eerier, the wall was lined with Autobot faces staring away from the city itself. It looked medieval, as though the faces were gargoyles waiting to come to life. Chills ran up and down Rusti's body as Cody approached the check point. A Paratron femme greeted them and asked Cody his business.

"Just bringing Rusti home from school." he answered in a small voice. "Did-did you see those faces?"


"The walls? I mean, you *did* notice the walls, right?"

The femme glanced behind them. "Yes. They were there this morning. We were informed that Maximus is increasing security. You're free to go, have a nice day."

Cody lingered a moment, staring at her. Obviously she was completely unaware of the faces in the walls. He pressed onward toward the EDC district, easing his mother's car into the stream of vehicles moving down Bradbury Avenue. "Rus, if you'd like, I can wait here while you get your things and let Prime and Roddi know you're going to stay with your folks."

Rusti sighed heavily and her mind drifted toward Optimus. He was in a meeting. She switched and tried to seek Roddi's presence. But a sense of disgust and darkness met her and the girl, not really thinking at the moment, withdrew and shook her head. "I don't think I can talk with either of them tonight, Cody. Really. I'll talk to them tomorrow. Optimus' just in a meeting. Roddi . . . I don't think . . ." she thought it over a little more carefully, "I don't feel safe talking to him."

That got Cody's attention and he flinched, grateful for the red light. "Rusti, what did you say?"

She blinked, staring straight ahead at the incredible buildings looming before them. Fort Max was so huge. Central City was big enough, but Fort Max . . . and her mind slipped into the city's consciousness and felt every pulsation, every breath it took. Max powered every building, every appliance, provided protection and sustenance to it's two million population. A great cloud hovered over the city, unseen. Its soft presence settled upon the streets and touched the girl. Rusti thought she could drink it in, embrace it with her whole self.

It . . . it loved her.


Was that a lie? And if it was not, then what was the connection? What was it all about? Was it the fault of the Matrix that she was the way she was?


She drew a deep breath and gazed at Cody with a smile.

"You fell asleep. I didn't know if you wanted to be at your place in EDC or Central."

She peeked outside and found they were there, at Central Command. The fountain spurted high while a group of visitors took pictures of their little kids playing on the hands. Rusti tore her eyes from the sight to face Cody with a forced smile.

"I'll be alright. This is just fine, Cody, thank you so much."

His face turned blank. "I worry about you, Rus. Call me if you need to talk again, okay?" She smiled more broadly and quickly gave him a peck on the cheek. "Maybe we can go see another flick this Saturday?"

"Maybe." she replied carefully. "I can't make any promises."

"Okay. Well, have a good night, Rus."

"You too."

And they departed.

" . . . And some lingering remnants of his memory *and* personality."

They dragged him back. How they did it was far beyond his comprehension. Why? Why couldn't those . . . there was no word foul enough to describe how Prime felt about the Quintessons. They had no right! Evil, aberrant, decadent freaks with no conscious or compassion!

Optimus sat up from sleeping on his desktop. His forearms were wet. If he was so miserable a person, if he was so evil and so wrong, why the hell did he exist?

A dark, searing hot liquid milked down the center of his body and Optimus gasped, laying his hand over his chest. What was that? He envisioned a shapeless dark thing churning and twisting inside his body. It hurt. HE hurt.

Why, in all that was unholy, did he come back? Why did they bring him back (screaming, no less) to THIS? Wasn't the goddamned war over YET? HE started the war. HE tried to finish. HE did what he could to preserve his people. HE prayed to Primus faithfully, believing, trusting and continued to do his job time after useless, fruitless time. And here he was again: the INVINCIBLE, INDESTRUCTIBLE, INFALLIBLE Optimus Prime! YES, LADIES AND IDIOTS ACROSS THE GALAXY, HERE'S YOUR HERO! RIGHT FOR THE ASKING! KICK HIM WHEN HE'S DOWN, SPIT IN HIS FACE AND STAB HIM IN THE BACK!


And centuries from now, when peace reigns and Humans and Autobots live happily together, when Decepticons are worshiped for their prowess, their strength and their cunning, they will recall the name of Optimus Prime and scoff-He was NOTHING! A mere cog in the great wheel of life. Not even that! Not even! No, Optimus Prime was a spot of LUBRICANT that greased the great war machine and it was the Decepticons that put a stop to it all! Evil, foul Autobot! And they'd vomit to his memory.

Optimus rose from his desk. He felt diseased, filthy and grotesque. Why *would* Primus listen to him, anyway? Optimus had been violated by evil. They touched him to control him. They desecrated his soul with their own putrid designs.

The moment was kindly interrupted when someone called him over the comline. "Prime." he said deadpan. He was in no mood to talk.

"Hey." It was Rodimus and he didn't sound too happy. But what else was new? That is to say, Optimus knew behind that over-cheery facade lay a very somber person. Rodimus just liked to hide, that's all. "I was wondering what was up with the walls around the city."


"Yeah, Prime, the WALLS around Fort Max. I was taking my daily excursion round the city and whoa, there! Suddenly I'm seeing walls all around the edges of the city."

Optimus became annoyed. "Ask Max. I'm busy." and he almost cut communications when Roddi shouted in time:

"I already did! Max says HE doesn't know about any walls-'specially walls with FACES on them . . .Op, what's going on?"

Optimus' optics dimmed in displeasure. "Take a good GUESS, Rodimus. I'm sure you can figure it out for yourself."

"Is this because of that prank I pulled this morning? The panels all pulled off the floor in front of your quarters?" Silence. "It is, isn't it? Come on, Op. No big deal. I've been there before, REMEMBER?"

"I am in no mood for your vendettas, Rodimus." the Senior Prime hissed.

"Oooh . . . we ARE sore today, aren't we? I guess that's what happens when you get old and out of kilter. Look, why don't you take a vacation for a couple of meganiums. Go to the moon or visit Jazz-"

Optimus cut communications. That was enough. If the 'boy' wanted to act juvenile, he could do it in front of someone who cared.

The comline buzzed again and Optimus knew without a doubt it was Rodimus. They played this game before; Roddi would annoy him, he'd hang up, Roddi would call again. At the third ring (as usual) Optimus activated the comline and used his most authoritative voice: "THIS IS GOD. I AM BUSY HANDLING THE UNIVERSE RIGHT NOW AND CANNOT COME TO THE PHONE. IF YOU HAVE A QUESTION, LEAVE IT AFTER THE BEEP. IF YOU HAVE A REQUEST, SUBMIT IT IN WRITING. IF YOU HAVE A PROBLEM, PLEASE SEE OPTIMUS PRIME."

That sent Rodimus cracking with laughter.

Prime left the channel open while he plucked up a digipad and glanced at it; a 'recommendation' from Magnus to check those digipads concerning shipment authorizations at Upper Level. Prime's optics dimmed in annoyance.

"Optimus," Rodimus' voice came in clear, but Prime scarcely paid attention. "I got a good chewing out by Strike Back a few days ago. Something about not keeping up to date on city visitors or incoming ambassadors who expect to see either you or I. Have you talked to him recently? I wish you would."

"Why yes! You're quite right, Rodimus." Optimus nearly sang in answer, "I keep forgetting that I AM God, around here, that I exist only to serve the whims and desires of every Human, Autobot and jerk in this city. I am expected to fill their expectations, go on for weeks without rest, see to it everyone is comfortable and cozy, has a full tank and a teddy bear to sleep with at night. Oh, and when I have NOTHING ELSE TO DO, they expect me to be at their parties and dance the night away-but I'd better be fresh and alive the next day to attend the meetings and kiss everyone's aft! Oh, my I MUST be forgetting something! Shame on Optimus! Less than perfect, less than omnipresent and omniscient! Why, he must be a Decepticon-No! The Decepticons were merely misunderstood people, they didn't REALLY mean to conquer other worlds, steal resources that weren't theirs and commit genocide! Why, Optimus is just a g'thaking self-righteous bully! You're right, Rodimus! Here I sit doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING when I should be balancing the universe on my shoulders! Yes, of COURSE I'll get right on the problem, after all, that's why I'm here, isn't it, Rodimus? AND WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT, MAGNUS? CAN'T YOU SEE I'M UP TO MY SHOULDER STRUTS IN EXCREMENT?!!"

Both Rodimus on the other end of the comline and Magnus now standing at the threshold of Optimus' office stared in dumbfounded shock.


The sudden silence made Magnus very nervous. He could hear the wheels of a maintenance droid softly squeak as it and its cart slowly rolled past Prime's office.

"Um, I just . . . I just came to find out if you've gotten my message. Ambassador Duko-"

"Duko?" Prime's voice fell dangerously ominous.

"Yes . . . Duko . . . said he and his concubine would like to expect to meet you for dinner . . .uh, he wants to open a new trade agreement . . . I thought you'd like to know."

Optimus rounded his desk and approached Magnus. The Major-General backed from him until they were both in the hall. "Hm." his voice sounded more reasonable and Magnus felt a little calmer. "I suppose we could negotiate a thing or two with Duko. It might make the day more interesting."

Prime kicked Magnus in the thorax and when Magnus bent over in pain, the Autobot leader clasped his arm firmly about the City Commander's neck. Magnus struggled like a trapped animal as Prime dragged him down the hall. He had no idea Optimus was really this strong! He managed to pound his fists into Prime's hip plates to no avail. Finally Optimus shoved him down on his backside then thrust something past his lip components. A horrible burning sensation seared Magnus' interior. He struggled and finally kicked the Autobot leader off. Magnus' insides melted and he fell to his knees vomiting lubricants and mech fluids. Nearby rolled a bottle of acetone; liquid floor scrub.

Prime stepped before him, his voice deathly quiet. "Had enough?" Magnus reached to him as blood seeped through crevices and drained out his body. "No?" Prime sounded both amused and annoyed. He yanked Magnus up and heartlessly dragged him down four flights of stairs to the lobby. Magnus felt every step scrap and slam against his body. He tried in vain to break free of Prime's grip.

"MAGNUS HASN'T HAD ENOUGH OF ME!' He declared to everyone there, EDC officers, Autobots and aliens alike. He ignored their horrified stares. "I GUESS I'LL HAVE TO MAKE MY MESSAGE CLEARER!!" And with all his strength, Prime swept Magnus off the floor and impaled him on the spear of a warrior statue.

"THERE!" Optimus shouted even louder, "THIS IS THE MESSAGE YOU CAN SEND TO DUKO! PISS . . . OFF!!"

Autobots and EDC officers poured into the lobby as Prime transformed to truck mode. They gazed at Ultra Magnus who hung precariously from the statue. The shaft of the spear rose from the back of his mid section, slick with fluids and blood. Optimus' engines roared monstrously loud and the Humans covered their ears. He shot out the lobby, flying over the steps and sailed across the fountain as though he had wings. Glass sprayed in every direction, littering the floor like diamonds.

He landed in the middle of the road with a horrific crunch. Sparks flared and blazed under him as Prime's body screeched along the metal plating without so much as scratching his own exostructure. He yanked right as two cars and an Autobot skidded several yards to avoid hitting him. Optimus raced, zipping around one car then another in expertly smooth maneuvers. But slammed into the back of Autobot Pointblank, shoving him into a human vehicle. Not bothering to see the wreckage he left behind, Prime turned right, heading west on Horizon Avenue. He gained speed, tailgating anyone stupid enough to block his way. But a delivery truck did just that and rather than slam into the Human vehicle, Prime transformed to robot mode. Using the momentum of his speed, he sprung over the truck and propelled himself forward far enough to transform back to his truck mode. He raced forward even faster, speeding through a red light, causing another near-accident.

Sirens screamed as city security (CS) raced to the scene.

"COMMANDER OPTIMUS PRIME, WILL YOU PLEASE COME TO A FULL STOP." It was not a question. CS officer Headmaster Nightbeat connected to Fort Max to redirect traffic safely along Polaris Avenue. In a matter of a few minutes, all traffic lights from adjoining streets turned red and traffic veered right while five CS officers accelerated after the Autobot leader.

Optimus paid them no mind. He did not know where he was going, nor did he care. He felt the cool Oregon air flow about his chassis and he drank in life force as it existed in every thing around him. There was dark Music in some places. It festered through crevices and secret places where Max was unaware. The dark Music called to Optimus and although listening to it caused him to bleed, he strained his whole being to hear every pinpoint of sound, every note that promised euphoria. His lasercore vibrated with perfect rhythm. He breathed to its high notes and increased speed according to its tempo.

Nightbeat and Siren were soon joined by Bullseye and Cryox. Optimus was fully aware of them all and wondered what the excitement was all about. After all, he was just exercising his authority and his right to do as he pleased now and again. "What's the matter Nightbeat?" he asked in challenging tones, "can't handle me by yourself? Think you can do it if you had proper backup?"

"Optimus!" Cryox called, "we respectfully ask that you cease and desist all illegal and dangerous activity and submit to-"

Optimus' voice turned frightfully deep, "Tell it to the Gingerbread Man." And the Autobot leader moved even faster so that Cryox could not keep up. Prime turned right on Ascension Grade leading straight to Upper level. Bullseye and Nightbeat tagged him, their lighter forms compensated for their lack of speed as they climbed the ramp that rose from ground level and swung up in a steady slope. It was dangerous for anyone to climb Ascension Grade at the speeds Optimus traveled (150+), although the Grade was fortified with extra guard posts and rails. Although it was wide and strong enough to handle even the weight of the rambunctious Dinobots, the danger lie in oncoming traffic.

But like a trained acrobat, Optimus treated the Grade just as though it were any other road. He sped a little faster as Upper level came into view. "Do you like surprises, Nightbeat?" he asked, maintaining the cold voice.

Nightbeat was wearing down and questioned his intent to stop the Autobot leader. He hadn't thought about what he was going to do should he succeed in his attempt (feeble, though it might prove). And who, other than Ultra Magnus, would make Prime pay? The Headmaster suddenly realized this scenario was like catching God with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar-there was no one He had to answer to.

"Would you like to see a surprise?" Prime bated him again. But this time, the Autobot leader did not wait for an answer. He laughed and at the speed of 177 miles per hour, he transformed just as his tires touched the flat surface of Upper Level and to Nightbeat's, Bullseye's and Siren's sensors, Optimus Prime disappeared.

Muzzle, Nightbeat's Interface, pulled the Autobot to a halt, dragging the Transformer around. It was a good thing there was no traffic at the moment. Nightbeat transformed to robot mode and he and Muzzle scanned the roadside, the other highway leading toward the spaceport and the on-ramp leading to the Upper level neighborhoods. Siren and Bullseye joined him in their own robot forms and all three security officers glanced around, scanned with their own specialized equipment then glanced at one another. Optimus was absolutely nowhere in the area.

Rusti lay on her bed, headphones hiding her from the rest of the world. She concentrated on math, finding she liked it less and less all the time. Finally the last problem (it WOULD be the last problem) stumped her. She eyed her civics book with dread, decided she didn't want to read the assigned chapter yet and closed it. Rusti sat on her bed, staring at all the books and papers and felt it was time for a break. She had been a good girl, studying for two hours straight. She needed to visit the kitchen in hopes of finding a bit of chocolate ice cream.

She slipped her shoes and jacket on and exited her room. The next level down, the main lobby, yammered with multitudes of voices. Usually the lobby was quiet as a library. Rusti slipped down the hall and found the place crowded with security and medical personnel. All the front glass doors and windows were smashed to pieces and now carefully guarded. Humans and Autobots came and left the scene in a flurry of activity and now and again, someone said Optimus' name as though it were an omen. First Aid and his two assistants guided a antigrav stretcher bearing Ultra Magnus out the main doors.

Rusti did not want to know what happened. She dreaded the truth and decided not to get involved. She slunk down the hall to the western side of Central Command and into the small kitchen. Only a couple of off-duty EDC officers and one of their wives were at the table. The one officer's wife wept and talked as the girl scooped herself a dish of chocolate ice cream, and snapped off two paper towels from above the sink. Rusti folded the ice cream box up as another woman walked in; someone from Medical.

"Monica," she called kindly. "Monica, hon, I'm Evette. You can call me Evy, okay?" Monica sniffed and nodded. "Alright, hon, why don't you tell me exactly what has happened, okay?"

Monica had a difficult time getting the words out between sobs: "I-I work . . . I usually work at the library in . . .(sob) in the business district. We . . . we were just filing-"

"Okay, Monica, who's 'we'?"

"My co-worker, Neylan. But she didn't make it."


"We . . . we were filing business reports from . . . from Simultech Industries when the wall-oh, gawd, the wall behind us just opened up like a mouth! And these horrible . . . forked tongues came out at us and before I knew it, I was inside the wall! And I couldn't breathe and I tried to scream and kick my way out and I pounded and pounded and -oh gawd!" And she broke down and wept harder.

Evy prepared a hypo and shot the poor woman and patted her on the shoulder. "Okay, hon. You're okay now. You're with Raine, now and he'll take care of you."

"I thought it was like . . . the wall melted and I managed to . . . to ooze my way through and when I was out, I tried to get Neylan, but . . . but the wall went hard again!" And she could say no more.

Rusti felt awful and quickly left the kitchen, feeling guilty for eavesdropping on something so private. As she swiftly retreated to her room, spooning ice cream, she wondered if she should have taken Cody's advice and left Max.

What if it was too late and nobody could leave?

She turned the corner toward the elevator and nearly ran straight into Optimus Prime.

She stumbled back, but managed to keep her footing; ice cream forgotten. Optimus neared her face to face and she shuddered at his all too-friendly smile.

"There you are, Rusti. Rodimus has been looking for you."

"To be sure." She didn't know why she said that, but she was quite sure the words gave away her fear. Then she blinked and glanced toward the lobby. "Optimus, how did you get past security? It seems they're looking for you."

His optics grew dark and brilliant. "Are they, now?"

She smiled uneasily. "I . . . I guess so." She wondered if she shouldn't call Max to warn security that Optimus was there. "Well . . . um, I have to go to my room, now, Optimus and um, get my homework done."

Prime hesitated: "You can't do it tonight, Rusti. It's far too dangerous for you."

She flinched. "What? No, Optimus, I have essays to finish and I have a math problem to get back to and-"


Why Rusti did what he told her, she'd never figure. But she was compelled to obey and listened all around her. She listened to the walls and how the molecules churned. They were all angry, those molecules. They were not allowed to go and do whatever they pleased. There they had to stay in one place all their lives, for however long the city existed. They grew angrier and angrier until they managed to melt the solidity of the walls and compromised its steadfast integrity and they broke free like a dam of gushing water, laughing.

They laughed with bouts of insanity.

"I think it will be only for tonight, Rusti. Most likely." And before the girl could run or cry out, Prime swept her up and she watched in shock as the wall to the outside opened up for him and he jumped out, landed gracefully, transformed and sped away.

"Optimus!" She banged on the door then the dashboard. "What the HELL do you think you're doing!"

"I have to put you in a pumpkin shell to keep you there very well." The poem


"Now, Rusti, don't be upset. If I did not take you now, Rodimus would find you and take you and then a fight would break out between us and THEN I'd have to go to his quarters and pick up what would be left of you. It's not a good thing. Roddi has his intentions."

She glared, clenching her teeth. "I have no idea what you're talking about. But you'd BETTER take me back!!" The seat under her fell back and the door slid back. The dash board folded under and the next second, she was in Prime's hands. She just glimpsed about herself and found they were in one of the more remote corners of Max's business district. How did he get here so fast? They weren't traveling that quickly through the streets. Or maybe she just never noticed how he never seemed to hit a red light.

"I'm sorry, Rusti. But at least you'll be plenty safe in here. And Roller will take care of you."

"WHAT?!!" Before she could cling to his hand like a bug that 'won't go', Rusti was dropped gently and then walls shut tight all about her. Without thinking, she scampered to her feet and pounded the door, screaming, shouting and kicking as loudly as she could. She made enough noise inside, but even Prime heard nothing outside. He walked away, ordering his trailer back into subspace.

Rusti pounded and kicked the metal doors then threw her body against them. She should know better than to try to break free. But considering the sate of mind she was in, it made no difference whether it was an Earth vehicle or a Transformer.

She wore herself out and finally the girl sank to the floor and wept. She was going to get into so much trouble at school! After a few minutes, she struggled to gain control of her emotions. She needed something to wipe her eyes and nose, but all she had with her was her jacket. Maybe she had a used tissue in here or something. Rusti searched her pockets and to her surprise, she found the paper towels she had absent-mindedly stashed from the kitchen. That's a life savor!

She blew her nose and blotted her eyes. Her make up was all ruined and she had nothing to fix it. Well, fortunately she had a little thing of lip gloss in her pocket for emergency uses, but other than that, she was screwed. Maybe she could try to reason with Optimus; make him see that this was a mistake and that he was overreacting. She stood, feeling odd being trapped inside a place she'd never seen from the inside before.

"Optimus?" she called. Well, of course, she didn't have to raise her voice; he was all around her. It made her feel eerie realizing she was inside a completely different part of Optimus Prime. Just like his other two components, he knew and felt and heard every little move or sound she made. Rusti felt a bit silly because, naturally, she's been around Transformers all her life, but the trailer was more alien than either Optimus, Roddi or Roller. "Optimus, look, this is not a . . ." oh, good grief! Her distress jumbled all the words in her brain. She frowned. "Look, this is wrong. I mean, you're not rational about this whole thing. What has Rodimus got to do with it? I'm not in any danger; I'm right here at Fort Max, what could happen to me?"

No answer.

"Optimus, come on! How about just dropping me off at my folk's house, if you're that worried?"

No response.

Rusti paced in the dark, keeping the pacing circle small since there was no light. She wrapped her arms tightly about herself. How long was he going to keep her here? He was not rational at all and it very well could be he intended to keep her here for a long time.

She could die here.

Frightened and frustrated Rusti fell to her knees and cried again. "Optimus, I don't want to stay here! It's dark and you're scaring me!"

Kram! Light flooded the whole trailer, taking the girl by surprise so that she squeaked and fell on her back. It was definitely light here now, though the light was pretty much unidirectional. At least there wasn't the piercing darkness.

BEEEP-DA-DEELEEP-DA-DA-DEEP! Roller came to life before her, maneuvering his tires side to side. Rusti felt a bit better seeing the little car there. She sniffed and glanced about her micro universe. The trailer, as she recalled, was also a battle deck complete with a remote link-up communications system, interchangeable ammunition loader capable of using any number or type of weapons with interlinking capabilities (it can use weapons from other sources and connect them to the computer). The battle deck also had a dexterous grappling arm able to load ammunition into the system on its own.

Rusti eyed it warily but it remained still. She wanted to approach Roller, but dared not move. Roller turned his tires again, promising safety, but the girl only backed away. Thoughts of Prime's poem ran through her mind. What was going to happen? Magnus was warned he may have to assassinate Optimus. She choked up again. That simply can't happen! But how could the Autobots possibly control a power they knew nothing about?

And that was something Rusti hadn't thought of before. The Autobots were in for a terrible reality check. They only think Optimus is powerful. But Rusti was quite sure he was capable of a great deal more than designing vast cities and fighting Decepticons. She still marveled how he managed to sneak into her room through the window just by pushing the metal panels ever so slightly. Maybe that was also how he snuck past security.

Max . . . Max wasn't even aware of it!

"B'Doop? Woooop eeeeda?" Roller maneuvered his tires side to side again before slowly pressing forward inch by micro inch. He was inviting her to sit. Nervously, Rusti mentally reached toward the little car and felt no malice, no intent other than her best interest. Her eyes filled with tears which silently streamed down her cheeks. The girl finally decided to approach the small spy-car, running her hand over its cool grey surface. Roller bleeped and whistled excitedly at first, then its non-vocal communication fell to a mournful noise. Rusti had no idea what it was saying and did not answer.

She had to come to terms that escape was impossible. Not only was the trailer itself soundproof, but that Optimus most likely slipped it into subspace where it was out of everyone's reach. She moped around Roller, keeping one eye on the weapons deck high above her. If it so much as twitched, she wanted to make sure she could slip under Roller for protection. It would seem that Roller was not affected by the virus, or at least, as far as the girl could tell.

Roller bleeped cheerfully in the silent gloom. Rusti still was not in a talkative mood, at least until the spy car shifted its own seats, tucking one set under and flattening the front. Even the seats themselves changed so that there was enough a cushion for her comfort.

Rusti did not smile. The grappling arms hung above her like a vulture. The missile deck remained dead still but Rusti knew *it* knew. *It* knew, the arm knew, the walls knew . . . the floor knew. She stood inside something that was more than alive and aware. It made her feel very small and vulnerable. Even her oxygen could be cut off and she'd suffocate far too easily.

Roller softly invited her again, beeping a high note, then a lower one. Maybe he'd make sure nothing would happen to her. Rusti was wearing down and knew she needed rest in spite of her circumstances. She pulled herself up on one of six tires and crawled along the bedding. At least the cushioning was not entirely uncomfortable. She gathered herself close to the back of the spy car and allowed her eyes to wander. Panels and doors and scanners lined the walls. Even the floor had several hatches leading to other compartments. Above her loomed a long complex of neural networks and complicated uplinks. Sometimes certain scanners flickered on for a while then shut off like a recording device. Other times there was no activity at all, or at least what Rusti could see. Not only was the trailer alive and aware, it was doing something. It must have another connection to Optimus Prime, maybe something no one else knew about.

The girl sat there for an unknown amount of time, watching scanners or discovering soft humming noises, faint beeps or clickings of a life form working.

Rusti finally gathered enough courage to cross the padding under her toward the front of the car and stared at its unusual dash board. "Roller," she said softly. "What's the deck doing? It's making funny noises all the time."

Roller bleeped several short sounds, the tones rising and falling like a voice but Rusti only frowned. So much for conversation. She didn't know why she even bothered to ask. She laid her head on the coverlet and just stared at the wheelless dashboard. She almost closed her eyes when a screen flickered on and words scrolled across it. She sat up, realizing the little car was communicating to her.


Her brows knitted. "What . . . what's it watching and listening for?"


Rusti's expression remained tight with puzzlement. She took a longer glance about her surroundings and started to guess that chances were, pretty much what Max knows, Optimus Prime knew it too. Except that unlike Max, Optimus was also aware of Central City. The deck was far more than a mere war weapon or a storage compartment; it was an extension of Prime's own senses, his empathy and knowledge of where he was and with whom at any given time. THIS was how Optimus was able to keep an eye on the two cities. If only the Decepticons knew . . .

Now another thought occurred to her: if the deck gave Optimus the necessary information needed to run a city and therefore an entire society, what would a power like that do if corrupted by the Matrix virus?

"Ohmigod," she whispered. She barely imagined the magnitude of the problem the Autobots and Central City faced.

They, however, had no idea whatsoever.





Tempra sat close to Magnus as he lay face down on straps. A machine slowly extracted the poisons from his systems while another tube fed him 'soft' energon. First Aid had to repair the City Commander in stages and in the last two days, it proved a nightmare. Magnus presently recuperated from a short but intense session in therapy. The damage done to his systems, while not wholly life-threatening, was substantial. Tempra did not pretend everything was well. She knew Ultra Magnus did not want to hear good news-even if there was some. She set four of five digipads on the floor and activated the one in her hands and rubbed her mended shoulder.

"You requested I keep you up to date today, Commander." she informed in a sharp, expressionless voice.

Magnus only grunted. His optics flickered on but the tube stemming from his mouth would not permit verbal communication. "Kup has refused all incoming traffic to Upper Level and diverted it to Central City. He says they're still fighting that 'ghost fire' that keeps reoccurring there along the runway and has sent the Aerialbots to Metroplex. Kup also reports the walls have risen another twenty-six nactons* (see Glossary)'

'Blaster has returned to duty and says he can't get any communication outside of Fort Max. He gets communication coming in, but nothing leaves. He's examining the problem even as we speak. And, Commander, Captain Fairborn says she has not seen Rusti since night before last. She said Rusti was last seen in Central Command, in the kitchen getting ice cream. That was it."

Magnus weakly waved his left hand, indicating that was enough for now, that he needed to shut down. Tempra read the signal and gathered the rest of the pads. "I'll be back later, sir. About two or three hours." Magnus used the Human's thumbs-up sign and Tempra departed, leaving the Major-General feeling a little hopeless.

Rodimus carefully picked his way around Optimus' garden. He wasn't sure if the elusive Senior Prime would be here or not, but he had hopes. The floor was littered with shattered pottery, dead plants, fertilizer, soil and pieces of metal. Roddi picked up such a piece and examined it. To the uneducated, it looked like a piece of thick wiring. For a Transformer, it was a piece of hydronic cabling; the system by which joints and internals receive lubricant or rebuilding materials as transferred by nactocells coursing through the body of each living machine. If that was the case, then the other metal fragments tossed along the floor like so much confetti must be of similar material.

Rodimus' optics darkened in suspicion. "O-o-o-o-o-pti-mu-u-u-u-ussss." he softly sang. Roddi treaded along a bit more cautiously. "O-o-o-op-pti-mus-s-s." The metal bits and pottery crunched under his feet, clearly giving him away. But Rodimus continued to sneak about, straining his neck side to side, up and down in search of his 'co-conspirator'. Most of the long-leafed plants housed in the garden were ripped to pieces. A couple of large trees; gifts from Ambassador Duko when 'he' was a 'she' lay sliced in shards on the ground. A few windows to the west were dismantled and lay flat on the benches, slowly smothering new ferns. Other windows were marred with the blue blood of a possible Autobot victim. And to his right, Roddi's guess proved true. There sat the head of Headmaster Hosehead, a puddle of blue and dark green blood seeped from under it; indicating that not only was Hosehead dead, but his Nebulon Interface, Lug, was also gone.

The sharp cold end of a vibroblade touched the back of Roddi's neck and he automatically froze.

"Tag. You're it."

Hearing Optimus whisper so quietly frightened the Second. But rather than letting on how he felt, Roddi easily slipped into his 'jolly' side. "Optimus! Doing some spring cleaning, I see. What's up with Hosehead? Did you run into him or something?"

"What's it to you?" Prime's voice remained quiet but disturbingly dangerous.

Rodimus almost could not believe his audio sensors. "Ha! Uh, well, you can't just go around killing people. It's potentially barbaric."

Prime eyed him sternly. "As you would know, Rodimus. What does it matter, anyway?"

Roddi crossed his arms. "Well, it matters, Prime. It just does. You can't get away with doing something like that because . . . because!"

But it did not impress the Senior Prime and Optimus, now facing Rodimus, leaned against the table containing several dead and neglected plants and crossed his arms. "It was NOT my fault he would not give me pass to the ionic generator. I asked him nicely. Then I ordered him. Then I sternly ordered him." Prime's optics fell dark, almost red. "I am in command here."

Rodimus did not like that tone. He matched Prime's pose, crossing his own arms and a mask of obstinacy turned his lip components downward. "Your actions have endangered the city and its people, Optimus Prime. You cannot continue this irrational rampage just because you're dissatisfied with results. Look at what you did to Ultra Magnus! He'll be recuperating for weeks. The outside world is afraid because now we have walls standing around Fort Max. No one can contact us; no one can leave the city. It that what you want? Prime, they've sent the National Guard and even as we speak, they're surrounding the city. They *will* attack unless you surrender."

Optimus laughed softly and it was not a pleasant laugh. "The little humans are arrogant enough to think they have the technology and the power-even "YOU" can best them. I don't know what the concern is all about. They're upset over nothing."

Roddi realized Optimus was playing a game of guess-and-dare. "Where is she, Optimus?"

"Who, Rodimus?"


"Don't take the tone of voice with ME, Rodimus. I will not tolerate it."

Roddi's optics narrowed. "Are you going to tell me where Rusti is, or shall I tear the whole city plate by plate until I find her?"

"You won't find her." Prime answered cooly. "She's not for you." Optimus easily dodged as Rodimus hefted a large planter and its tree and tossed them.


Rodimus made a slight miscalculation: he didn't think about where he was standing and he did not think about how his counterpart might feel about him destroying one of his plants, even though Optimus had already destroyed a good number of them himself. Because he allowed himself to be distracted by his own temper, Rodimus did not see Optimus move and the Senior Prime swept him off his feet and threw him out the window. Rodimus fell three stories before managing to grab hold of the ledge of an opened window. He looked up as Prime stared down at him.

"I'm no longer in your way, now, Rodimus Prime. You may go and do as you please." Optimus noticed on-lookers observing their personal conflict from the ground. Paratron 'citizens' a couple of EDC officers and Technobot Strafe all stared and Optimus thought he read fear and judgement in their optics. It was time to teach them all to leave him alone. His optics reached for the sun and a shadow flitted across his face, darkening his optics. "It's too bright." he muttered. Then he withdrew.

Rodimus dared to glance down and found he did not have that much further to fall. He softly swore revenge then let go, his form falling to the metal flooring below. He recovered and as he stood, he noticed how three female Paratrons and Strafe searched the skies with puzzled faces. Rodimus also looked up and watched as clouds, dark and white, skittered as though time itself pressed faster than what was natural. Dark spots smudged the sun from the center. It was not an eclipse; the sun was being purposefully blotted out.

The world watched either physically or over television as the sun lost its power to darkness. Solar equipment failed and many a business had to close their doors. Governments in every country held emergency meetings while the media scampered for experts to answer all their questions. Little by little, day turned to night. In ten minutes, it looked as though sun had died, casting the whole world into a pit of fear.




Rusti awoke dazed and weak. She lay on a soft cloud of maroon velvet and silk covers. Her eyes stared at a the ceiling of a prison with bars of polished gold. Gazing right, she found a card table and chair just her size. A shelf stood near that loaded with books and drawing tools.

Wait a minute . . . none of this was right. She sat up and found even her clothes were changed. The gown she wore was pretty, but . . . . She shook her head, puzzled. What happened?

"I took you away," came a soft, familiar voice.

She found Prime staring at her. From his seating position, she could tell he watched her for some time. The girl took to her feet, a little unsteady at first and touched the bars. She snapped her hand back, fearful they might be electric.

They were not.

"I won't hurt you, Rusti." He promised.

"Why are you doing this?" She asked calmly.

"I don't know. It's a game, I think."

"A game?" She carefully repeated. "You think?" She dropped the anger in her voice. She was in no position to snap at him. They were in his garden; she could tell by the multitude of plants, but the garden had been rearranged, the building structure about them reshaped into compartments and windows were changed so there were fewer of them. The plants weren't exactly the same, either. Many of them were dead from decapitation. Others were smashed to pieces. Three planters had the limbs of an Autobot rising from the soil. She didn't want to guess; she didn't want to know. But she needed to ask. "Optimus, what's happened to the garden? Where are the dragon trees and the copper lilies? Where are the crystal roses and the Daphne trees? Where are the morphabots?

He gave her a deeply sad expression, "they're not coming back, Rusti. All their children are dead." She choked back a sob. He was so careful around the garden. He loved it here. He stared at her, into her, through her and beyond with a set of darkened optics. It made her uncomfortable. "Do you think I've lost my mind, Rusti?"

She batted her eyes in disbelief. "Optimus, did you know I have school tomorrow? Will this last much longer?"

"Just answer the question." His voice turned icy.

Fear welled up in her heart and she found in her weakened condition she had to sit down. "Yes." She said ever so softly.

He came close to her little prison. "And what do you think they will do about it?"

She swallowed hard. "Possibly nothing." She gazed at him, now fearful of his optics. "Perhaps assassinate you."

"You and they both believe I'm insane. But what about Rodimus? Isn't he also mad?"

She wrapped her arms about herself and could not look at him anymore. "Optimus, this really isn't funny. You can't do this."

"But I don't *feel* insane, Rusti."

Now she looked at him again. "You kidnaped me! You attacked Ultra Magnus and . . . oh, Primus knows what you did to him! She stood, arms wide open, "and, and THIS! THIS! What is THIS all about? Is that a dead Autobot over there? Why did you drag me into it? GAWD, of all things, Optimus, WHY are you dragging me into it?"

"I knew if I didn't get you first, Rodimus would. And I can't have him prove himself better than me."

"OH! You're both the Autobot leader! Since when has it mattered whose better? This whole thing is ridiculous! You can't keep me here like this! I have school tomorrow."

"No, Rusti. Tomorrow is Saturday. There is no school on Saturday."

Her blood froze. "But . . . but it was Wednesday night and I had papers due . . . Ohmigod, I've lost track of time!"

"Yes. Subspace will do that. The body does not recognize time passing." Prime stood and paced about the enclosure and poured himself a little energon. "I remember a time when the Autobots tried several experiments in subspace. They stored energon, to see if it would keep. They stored the injured with hopes they would last whatever war was occurring at the time. Yes, the body does not recognize time in subspace, but it breaks down after a while. All the molecules decide they don't want to be together anymore and so they drift apart. It's sad. I've seen Decepticons do that to their political prisoners. Send them into subspace for a couple of years then drag them out and the poor souls think it's still the same day as they left, but their bodies disintegrate the minute they leave subspace and just . . . fly all apart. It's so sad, Rusti. It's all so sad."

Rusti lay down and sighed heavily. How could she possibly talk her way out of this one? "Ultra Magnus and Springer will be looking for me, Optimus. And I'm sure my folks will be worried."

"Yes. Strike Back is looking for you as we speak. But he's young and for all he's worth, Kup will try to help out, too. But I've decided to make Kup a decoration. I find him a bit annoying sometimes and I'm sure he'll be very demanding. So I decided to put him away for a while."

Rusti choked. "You're not going to kill him, are you?"

He tilted his head, a bit perplexed. "Why?"

"Well, what will the Autobots do? What will they think?"

"It doesn't matter what they think."

Rusti felt sick. "Optimus . . . if you kill Kup, you'll regret it later." It was the only bit of rational argument she could think of.

Optimus seemed to take this into consideration. "Oh, yes. Regret. Regret and I. It appears to be a part of my name." He turned away and the girl realized the dark sky above them. Prime hopped on the window ledge overlooking the city to the east. He glanced several stories down toward the stupid fountain, gushing more water than normal.

Rusti moped about her little prison. She felt like a doll in some fairytale giant's house. The carpet was soft under her bare feet and the girl wondered how long this was going to last. Optimus said Rodimus was trying to get to her too. Why? What was she to them now? The girl sat on the floor next to the bed and wondered if her grandfather Spike ever went through this. No, she decided. There was no Virus at the time.

Short of being rescued by someone other than Rodimus, how was she going to escape? She knew nothing about picking locks and she was no athlete without her exosuit. What a sorry time to be without it!

At least Optimus saw to it her every comfort was afforded. And that was when another thought occurred to her. How was he able to slip in and out of Central Command without anyone hearing or seeing him? The building must have been surrounded by people!

"Optimus?" She barely spoke it, but knew the Autobot leader was able to pick it up. Optimus was fully aware of everything around him, now.

"Yes, Rusti." His voice came soft, but not in the same tones she loved to hear.

She cleared her throat. "Central Command . . . there were a lot of people there. But you seemed to show up from nowhere and took me away and before I knew it, we were in the Business District. I've never, ever seen you do that before, nor have I ever heard anyone ever mentioning you being able to do that. And can Roddi do it, too?"

He paused a moment: " . . . My personal disappearing acts?"


"Very simple. Every Transformer comes with personal subspace pockets. Each mode has certain equipment that is unusable or extraneous in another form and therefore, the subspace pockets are a way of 'tucking' those parts away. Anyone who knows where they are can enter and exit them like space warp gates. But I'm the only one who knows where they all lie." Here Rusti could tell Prime smiled, "even Rodimus doesn't know where they all are."

Rusti thought about his answer for a moment then came to another conclusion: "So, you use your own subspace fields to enter and exit his subspace pockets like opening and closing a door."

"That's correct."

She was impressed. He applied a simple rule in Transformer biological physics and made it look like magic. "And that's how you were able to sneak around the city, even with Kup looking for you?"

Optimus moved from the window and fingered a nearby plant. He didn't bother to fuss over its dying state. "Well, Kup is still a nuisance. I can't let him run around the city like an infectious glitch mouse."

There did not seem to be any way of deterring Prime from eliminating the chief of security. Rusti feared death was inevitable for the old Autobot. What could she say to make Prime change his mind? "Well, Optimus, you did say something about making him a decoration . . . I suppose it'd be safe to make him a 'living' decoration. You don't have to kill him to keep him out of your path, do you?"

Optimus took a deep draught of energon. "You know, there's that . . . temple in the business district that is a bit of an optical sore spot. Of course, I don't say anything because the Norgers have the right to worship as they see fit, even if it is a certain tree from another planet. I could do something there."

Naturally Rusti thought the whole idea of using Kup to decorate (desecrate?) Someone's church was a bit obscene. But considering the alternative, at least his life would be spared.

She finally decided to get a bit of rest somewhere toward the middle of night-and she knew it was night only because the half-phased moon rose behind a scattering of cold November clouds. The constellation of Taurus the Bull and Orion peeked over the edge of the garden windows. But Rusti fell sound asleep before calculating whether they were from the south or east.

The city fell to distress. Fewer cars and far less foot traffic dared the streets and sidewalks. Most citizens, including Autobots, Humans and interstellar aliens took refuge in Max's lower levels. It seemed the wisest thing to do was wait.

Rodimus counted all the cars as he zipped up one street and down another. The city tonight was truly his. He ran red lights and purposefully smashed into stop signs. He took pot-shots at those brave (or stupid) enough to walk the streets. He didn't bother to see if he had killed or wounded anyone-a waste of time, anyway. Rodimus found a good 'stopping point' and transformed. All quiet on the home front, he thought to himself. He stared at the intersection between Issex Street and Pathway Avenue and determined it would be good enough a place. He strolled along the lines of a large panel then glanced from one street light to the other.

First, he thought, the lights had to go. This was his city tonight and no 'fill-in-the-blanks' road rules were going to slow him down. If people got in the way, well, that was *their* fault for being there to begin with. And speaking of which, Rodimus spotted a couple of yong men crossing the street.

"Morons!" He shouted at them. "GO HOME!" He whipped out his laser rifle and made three clumsy shots. The two about jumped out of their skins and they dashed round the nearest corner. Rodimus ignored them after that and started to pry the large plating from its roots. He was well aware that the piece was larger than he and did not care. After 'fussing' with it for twenty minutes, Rodimus successfully managed to get his fingers under it and lifted it, literally ripping it off Maximus's infrastructure. He faintly heard a moan in the wind. The city itself was in pain but Rodimus ignored it. He was on a mission and if it meant spilling a little energon, well, that's too bad.

He laid six devices along a few pathways and activated them. Then he let the plating fall back into place. It didn't seem to fit right when it fell, but the Autobot Second didn't mind. After all, someone else will come along and drive over it and it'll flatten out then.

With that job done, Rodimus resumed his auto mode and zoomed about the mostly-emptied streets of Fortress Maximus. He passed by several other buildings between the EDC district and Communications. A few of them were melting. Rodimus wondered if there was a way to reverse the process. It was so eerie watching as the metal structures melted like candles. He also wondered how many people died in them, if any at all. He was more hopeful than certain that no one of any consequence died. After all, it's hard to run a city when all the important people, the professionals, have died.

Something vibrated under his tires. Roddi stopped to listen. There was no sound, but the vibrations were strong and kept coming.

Unknown to Rodimus at the time, the National Guard arrived with close to 1500 soldiers, all armed and prepared for the worst. Twenty-three laser cannon tanks and 'battle chargers' surrounded Fortress Maximus. Colonel Atworth Patcherson waited impatiently while his communications officer tried for twenty minutes to contact Autobot City. But she received either static or dead silence. Patcherson and his squad arrived in Douglas County early that morning and watched in dread as the sun, by two o'clock that afternoon, mysteriously disappeared. His own wife called two hours later to inform him one of their cars, his 1972 Pinto, bled through the chassis then melted altogether. Patcherson tried to put it behind him. The car, now worthless, was a gift from his grandfather.

Patcherson waited another forty-five minutes before ordering a stop to all attempted communications. He radioed HQ that he was going to bomb the walls. Authorization was swiftly forwarded and although Patcherson had bad feelings about the faces protruding from the walls themselves, there was a job to be done.

He shouted the command for all troops to prepare to fire wide-field plasma bombs. At least when they fire on the city, it would only result in a big fire, rather than rocking and shaking the place to kingdom come. They wanted the Autobots to surrender their leaders, not killed for them.

The command was passed from troop to troop until troop leaders radioed their readiness. Patcherson calculated all the areas of impact based on strategically non-populated areas: mainly city streets, parks and, of course, the erected walls surrounding the city. He assigned a location to each troop leader and they returned with the coordinates aimed.


Not one human officer saw it coming. None knew the extent of the alien power they faced. It might be said that every one of them fell to deaf and blindness mere nanoseconds before their death. But the only two who survived to tell, found themselves paralyzed into shock. Not only did the fire power of the plasma bombs bounce back, but a powerful gamma-wave life force shot out from the walls and incinerated the entire squad in one fell assault. After that, the iridescent fire-light image of a dragon reared its head from the center of the city and opened its mouth in a silent roar before returning to the streets below.

Upon feeling the power of the Matrix lash out, Rodimus realized he had to work fast if he was going to save the world. He dropped his present task and shifted to auto mode. He raced through the EDC complex, taking the back roads of the Communications District and transformed before Central Command.

"OPTIMUS!!" he called with both his voice and the comline. One way or another, Prime was bound to hear him. "OPTIMUS! COME OUT HERE NOW!!"

Presently, Optimus made his appearance from the topmost level of the six-storey building. He leaned out and down like a spoiled child of nobility stares down at the rabble. "It's close to sunrise, Rodimus. You'll need your sleep soon."

"I'm here to take Rusti, cure the Matrix and-heh-save the universe, if it deserves to be saved." Rodimus started to pace impatiently. "NOW HAND HER OVER!!!"

Optimus backed out a little, staring up at the sky as the sun tried to climb out of its blanket of darkness. But Optimus deemed the sky was not worthy of such light. Earth was not worthy of such holiness.

"Ohhh . . . the poor little people," he softly sang. "No sunlight to insure their troubled mind; only fear and grief will they find. No comforting thoughts, only death and loss. Hmmmm . . . hmmmhmmm . . . poor little people."

Around the world, he sensed how people scampered for answers. Panic caused businesses to close. People shut themselves up in their homes with stored food and supplies. Frightened children huddled about their mothers for comfort. Yes, he'd been there once himself. He remembered feeling frightened, wondering if there would be another tomorrow. He knew that feeling all too well. He recalled lying in pieces along a desert floor, in horrible agony and destitute. Day after nightmarish day, burned by the sun and frozen by the moon.

And then, too, he recalled the evils of a demon possessed machine known only as the robo-smasher and darker still, Optimus remembered the burning and agony as the Quintessons fed on his soul. He remembered all that.

No. There need be no light. Not today. Not tomorrow.

He glanced down at his Second-well, more like 'the other Prime' rather than a 'Second' and shook his head. "There will be no sunrise today, Rodimus. And you'll be feeding no baby birds."

And with that, Prime again withdrew to his garden. Rodimus stood there, a bit confused for the moment. Then his sensors said 'here comes the sun!' but no sun came. No light to the world, no heat to warm Fort Max of the cold Oregon night.

His plans were foiled. Rodimus' optics narrowed and flared. Chances were, Optimus knew about all the stupid little traps he'd planted around town, too. He wasted his time! It was all a g'thaking waste of time!!

Infuriated beyond reason, Rodimus ripped out the nearest street light and with all his might, shattered the remaining front windows. It made a very agreeable noise, but for Rodimus, it wasn't enough. He yanked out the nearest sign post and smashed the walls then busted a few second-storey windows with the remains. It still wasn't enough. Rodimus decided to cure his temper with speed. He transformed and shot away, speeding down one road, recklessly veering on right or left turns. He slammed into whatever stood in his way be it light posts, street lights, mail boxes or other cars. It made no difference. If Rodimus felt any pain at all, it was the pain of being eaten from the inside. Something dark and bitter gnawed at him and the pain churned and clogged his ability to reason and caused anger to sizzle his logic circuits. Once again Rodimus zipped straight into the EDC district. He slammed into the cafeteria, transformed and blasted one tree, another then three more. He demolished those things he could not physically reach and obliterated a statue raised in honor of those who died at the space dock by Warp Gate 09-A in 2006.

It wasn't enough. But he grinned when a familiar sound entered his sonar range. Rodimus turned in the middle of the debris field and greeted Optimus as the older Autobot transformed. "Are you here to spank me and put me to bed without dinner?" Roddi leered.

"Buildings don't fight back, Rodimus."

Roddi mocked shock. "Why, you're right! Max might be a little sore by tomorrow!" Prime drew his laser rifle. Rodimus gasped again, however, it was only show. "Why, Optimus! Reduced to violence!? What a surprise!"

"Rodimus, I know what you've done. I may have to remove your quarters and place you elsewhere."

Rodimus feigned innocence. "Me? Me? Hahaha! Prime, you can't put anything over on me. Who allowed all those buildings to melt? What about the reports from Central City? Did you do that, too? How about the walls around the damned city, Prime? You think I'm a monster because I put a few people to work of a different kind-some of them 'pose' for me and others give me therapy. I don't know what's wrong with that." Then Roddi's expression went stern. "Now, where's Rusti?"

Optimus slowly, silently shook his head.

He wasn't going to give in. Rodimus cursed himself for underestimating Optimus Prime-again! It was time to get back. He jerked to motion and kicked the gun from Optimus' grip. Prime fell and Rodimus leapt. He would have landed right on his opponent, except Optimus caught him in mid air with one foot and Prime tossed him effortlessly overhead. Optimus flipped to his feet, light and wary.

Rodimus landed harmlessly on the littered ground. He grinned. Yeah. This was what he was after. He sprung forward from all fours and aimed a leap kick in Prime's face. But Optimus caught the foot.

"One, two feel my shoe!" Rodimus twisted from the other side and kicked Prime in the audio. Optimus lost his grip and flew but rebounded effortlessly. He said nothing as he grabbed a shard of metal and dug his feet into the metal plating for extra leverage as he lunged for Rodimus.

Rodimus ripped up a part of the metal paneling, using it as a shield between them. Optimus didn't see that tactic and fell for it. "Haha! Three, four eat the floor!" He sang. From there, he pounced Optimus and the two rolled about the flooring for control over the other. Finally Optimus grunted hard and flipped Rodimus right off him. Roddi bounced with the impact, using the momentum to grab a nearby light pole and swung around it, kicking Prime in the backside.

"Five, six, have some kicks!" he added to the song.

Optimus skidded along the ground, feeling every little glass and metal shard laying over the flooring. He rolled and instantly returned to his feet. But Rodimus' foot met his mandible and the momentum tossed him upside down and backward. Optimus was accustomed to this kind of tactic however and used his position to transform to truck mode and aimed to mow his opponent down.

Rodimus startled and ran; a bad thing to do. Optimus caught him in the back side and Roddi again went flying, this time right into a wall. This was not as bad a situation as it might seem to the inexperienced fighter, however. Rodimus simply turned and scaled the wall, using one window ledge, then another, like a monkey up a tree. When Optimus neared close enough and transformed to robot mode, Rodimus plunged straight down. The two hit the ground and rolled until Roddi was on Prime's back then lifted Optimus' chin so that his own arm guns were aimed right at the neck.

"Seven, eight," he whispered, "I've sealed your fate!"

"Not quite." Prime somehow threw the lower half of his body upward and once again slammed Rodimus into the wall. He completed the move by gracefully landing on his feet. Prime recalled his weapon from subspace then pointed at the opposition. "Nine, ten, Rodimus Prime. Let's do this again!"

Rodimus aimed a kick, but it was anticipated and Prime pressed forward, meaning to make him one with the wall. But Rodimus knew he was going to try that so he ducked between Prime's legs and rolled head under heels along the ground. He sprang like a frog and fired using his arm guns. But Optimus guessed that tactic and dodged right. Rodimus shouted incoherently and transformed, trashing plants, signs or decorations in his path. He recklessly slammed over sidewalks and through fences between three then four buildings.

But Optimus was nowhere to be seen. Rodimus consulted his radar then sonar and nothing showed up. He transformed and scanned with different wavelengths. "Optimus . . ." he called softly. "This isn't very sporting of you. Come on back. I'll play more fairly, I promise. You'll die quick and painless."

[[Not today, Rodimus.]] Prime's voice filled with mockery and Rodimus tried not to be angry over it.

New tactic: "Optimus, maybe we can settle this another way. You go on a long and extended vacation and Magnus and I will put all the pieces back together."

[[Not likely, Rodimus.]]


[[Heh, *Goldbug* could have knocked the filth out of Galvatron, Rodimus. Your credentials are not that impressive.]]

Rodimus was infuriated enough to pull his own optics out and he stumbled about like a drunk, unable to decide whether he wanted to scream or hit something.

[[Tell you what:]] Optimus came back over the comline, [[if you catch her as she falls, you can have Rusti. But only if you catch. Deal?]]

The girl! He was finally giving up the girl! No! Trap! Yes, it was a dirty little trap! But at the cost of finally getting the girl and setting things right . . . it *would* be worth the risk, that's for sure. "And what's in it for you, Prime? A little chit-chat with the girl? Hmm?"

[[I just like to see you run, Rodimus, that's all.]] Optimus teased. [[You run like a Human. I find it . . . amusing.]]

That certainly was not funny and Rodimus transformed and raced for Rusti's life.

Rusti awoke when she heard Prime's footfalls along the flooring. She sat up and noticed the scratches and dents all over his chassis. "Optimus, what are you doing?"

He gazed at her over his shoulder strut, but with purple optics, flashing over with black shadows. "PROVING BETTER BETWEEN US."

Rusti caught her breath in her throat and flinched. That was not Optimus' voice. It was drowned, cold. It vibrated with the drones of an alien tone. She shuddered. "I-I'd like to talk to Optimus, please. I . . . I don't think you're him."


The voice made her feel as though a long black-bladed knife sliced her soul. Rusti didn't want to hear it anymore. The Virus lifted the top of her cage and Optimus' large strong hand gripped her so that he knocked the wind from her. Rusti vainly struggled and feared the worst. "Please . . ." she whispered, "whatever you're going to do . . . don't!"

He dangled her in the cool air, six stories from the ground and the wind caught in her throat. Rusti lost her voice amid heart-racing panic. Her eyes watered with tears. "Optimus!" she finally cried, "Don't do this! Don't let that thing make you do this!" Then she found her strength as her feet swung in the breeze. The gown was no protection from the cold. "OPTIMUS! YOU'VE GOT TO FIGHT IT! OHMIGOD, DON'T DROP ME!"

Air stifled her cry. The building grew larger and larger before her, not because it was growing, but because she was falling.

Optimus spotted Rodimus just down the block and he jumped out and easily landed then charged as Rodimus transformed to attain the prize.

But Rodimus never got his hands on Rusti.