Galvatron moaned to life. His repair systems complained. Sand painfully crunched between his joints. His exostructure pricked with dents, scratches and leaking tears. The rent across his chest eked minute mech fluids. The tear looked worse than it really was. His repair systems swiftly mended damaged routers, closing wounds internally and coagulated much of the bleeding. Soon his frame would be back the way it was before-
-before what? His optics stared at a patchy sky with clouds of green, blue, peach and a scattering of floating meteors. The more rational part of Galvatron's processors informed him Earthen skies never, ever looked like that-especially with the sizable floating meteors.
Galvatron rolled his head to the right and scanned dark jagged rock formations squatting or towering around him.
There lay a body part a few yards away. What was that, a leg? An arm? A . . . an Inoux?
The Decepticon shot up with a start. His power core vibrated hard inside his chest. He swiftly glanced this way, that, reorienting himself.
The fight! The ship! Prime!
Galvatron wanted to jump up and walk, but his body objected, forcing him on hands and legs. He crawled along a dusty ground scattered with dark rocks and Inouxian body fragments. Prime's fallen form lay a few yards off.
Where was Cyclonus? And how was it that the air, though cold, was oxygenated?
Attend, he ordered himself. Prime lay face down, unmoved. Deep cuts and a few dents marred the surface of his companion's body. He touched the Autobot's shoulder strut then his hip plate. "Prime?"
Galvatron examined the Autobot's face for signs of consciousness. A light grey color diminished the Autobot's lively red and blue hues. A bit of frost dusted Prime's audio receptors and finger tips. Galvatron slowly turned the Autobot on his back and scanned vital signs. Responding to the Decepticon's warm touch, Prime's optics dimmed on but Galvatron questioned whether it was an automatic reaction or if his companion was honestly conscious.
Out the corner of his optic, Galvatron spotted a dark shape slipped off or around a nearby boulder. The Decepticon jumped to his feet, fully alert and ready for a fight.
Where was Cyclonus? He could call out. But Galvatron thought it foolhardy to make any noise.
A pool of dark Inouxian blood splashed around the boulder and what was left of a Destroyer Class's head. The head lolled to the left, lost balance and rocked along its rounded topside. The movement caused Galvatron to snap his sensors left, right, up and out like a nervous bird. Memories of their struggle shot through his cranial chamber. Legs, arms, torsos and heads littered the ground like so much trash after a music concert. There. That was one he slaughtered. It lay in three or four pieces.
Over there lay the Inoux Optimus tore into. Galvatron cringed. He could not recall seeing Prime so enraged. And that voice he used; demonic. He didn't just kill the Inoux, he ripped it asunder with his bare hands. Galvatron knew Optimus had a temper, in spite of the Autobot leader's iron-clad self control. This savagery was not of the Autobot he knew. But his rage saved Cyclonus' life
Prime's fingers twitched. He drew a deep cold breath and coughed. The Decepticon's shoulder struts slumped in relief; a sign of hope. But Galvatron realized tactically their position was too much in the open. An eighth of a mile away lay a better clump of rocks and spires; a place around which they could duck should they get shot at, or worse, ambushed.
Galvatron squatted and lapped Prime's arm across his shoulder line. With one supportive arm across Prime's back, Galvatron stood, hoping that moving around might bring Optimus out of his daze.
"Come on, Soldier," he softly grunted, "up and forward." It took a moment and a few dragged paces before Optimus started to come around. His steps were small and a bit clumsy. Galvatron paused often. His own repair systems gave him warnings and complaints. But he was a Decepticon and stubbornly endured the difficulty.
Gradually Optimus straightened and his posture and color improved.
They made it across the dusty expanse, dodging Inouxian body parts, rocks and other unusual debris. Galvatron carefully lowered his companion amid a small circle of iron-ore stones. Prime did not protest, nor said a word. Was he even aware of where he was?
Galvatron doubted it.
The sound of a familiar engine faded into his audios and Galvatron greeted Cyclonus as the former Decepticon lieutenant transformed and gracefully landed. Galvatron set fists on hips, not realizing he took on his habitual "I'm-in-charge" posture.
"I have spotted no other life forms, Galvatron." Cyclonus reported. "However, there is an asteroid approximately seventeen clicks from here upon which is an unusual EMW disturbance."
"That's it?" Galvatron wondered if the three of them were condemned to remain in exile.
"There are skeletal remains on four other asteroids. I do not know their species."
The former Decepticon leader frowned. The situation looked bleak. But at least the three of them were alive and not terminally damaged. He tried to triangulate their position, but there were no stars in the sky. They resided on one of several pieces of floating rock in the middle of nowhere. Colorful gaseous clouds passed overhead, promising nothing. Galvatron could not even tell what kind of gasses they were. The asteroid's composition seemed typical enough: iron-ore, magnesium, a layer of dust and deteriorated matter.
"How is he?" Cyclonus' voice brought Galvatron out of his dour musings.
"I do not know. He seems conscious, but offline." Galvatron did not acknowledge his companion's puzzled expression. He had no answers at the moment.
"What can we do, Galvatron?
"We will wait, Cyclonus. Time will present its own opportunity."
. . . there was a third Inoux waiting for them when they landed from Earth.
Delphra. Dead and cold. Her form and mind mangled by Quintesson science
. . . a tiny box pointed at the wall . . . a deporter. It was a deporter, but Optimus never learned how to operate one.
Rusti was going to kill him.
"There you go again. Always fussing over the baby."
"LAND THE FREAKIN' SHIP!"
A Destroyer Inoux lashed at Cyclonus. Two Assassins kept Galvatron on his toes.
They tried to pin Prime, but his rage ran raw. Darkness fed on Inouxian death. White heat seared Prime's chest and Darkness churned inside him; a painful pleasure. More misery. More pain. Make them squirm like a bloody worm.
Prime ripped off legs and broke two necks. He took on one of Galvatron's opponents. He pried his fingers into that Destroyer's jaws and ripped them apart. He kicked the carcass away and caught an Assassin Class as it dropped its weapon and ran for its life. Prime mowed it down in auto mode. Even Galvatron and Cyclonus cringed when the Inoux squealed in terror.
The Darkness remained unsatisfied. It breathed the suffering in like a super-drug and it reeled drunkenly with the emotions of shock, agony and death.
Prime fell to his knees and stared. At first he felt nothing. No sorrow, no remorse. No elation over the death of an enemy.
Then it hit him; a windstorm of guilt. All the death he caused throughout his life. Certainly his occupation as warrior was not enough to excuse his actions. How many lives? How many families? Cities? Planets? They were all contaminated.
HE was to blame. HE brought the war everywhere he went. It spread like the Hate Plague.
Prime laid on the ground, smothered in remorse. He wished he could simply self-destruct. Shut down.
No more flowers and rainstorms. No more laughter and Saturday morning cartoons.
Optimus shuddered from systems overload.
"Rest for a while. Come on." The familiar voice whispered softly in his audios as his companion guided him to lie in the cool dust. More of Prime's systems shut down as his mind drifted from reality. He sensed jagged rocks about him. He felt cool temperatures. A stiff breeze kissed his aching body. The light faded and Prime fell asleep.
Galvatron sat amid dead silence. His optics skittered right to left and occasionally to the backside. But there was not one living thing other than he, Cyclonus and Prime.
"Perhaps the one asteroid with the EM field might be a clue as to our escape, Galvatron."
Cyclonus' deep voice was a welcomed sound but the former Decepticon leader did not respond right away. He frowned, undecided. "I would ask you to make another run, Cyclonus, except that it would be costly."
"What of the device the one creature used to bring us here?"
Cyclonus left Prime and Galvatron for a few moments, flying off and returned with a small black box in hand. He gave it to Galvatron who stared at it long enough to remember something else. He reached into a subspace pocket and compared it to another little black object he found on Mars. Five buttons, digital readout; a hematite facing. Galvatron stared at his companion.
"I believe that is responsible for us being here." Cyclonus explained.
Galvatron silently nodded. The problem was, he had no idea how it worked. He stared at his replica but could not decide whether or not to press the buttons. His optics drifted to Prime and he thought it over a moment longer. "We will wait for Prime, Cyclonus. We go together."
The Decepticon slumped against steadfast rocks, optics dimmed in rest. Cyclonus stood not far off, keeping guard.
Prime could not recall walking or crawling to this clump of rock. His sight rested on the debris field some twenty yards, ten o'clock of his position.
Prime greeted the dour Cyclonus with a simple look then a silent nod. Galvatron stirred from his rest and offered a small smile. He stood and bent back to loosen stiff joints. Optimus, however, had no incentive to move. He could sit there eternally and rust, for all he cared.
"We seemed to have been stranded in the middle of nowhere." Galvatron announced.
"Should have taken a left turn at Albuquerque." Prime had no idea why he said that. It might have been automatic, something regarding Loony Tunes and Saturday mornings. Whatever it was, he cracked a joke so private that both Decepticons stared at him as if he had lost his mind. The statement was completely out of context and made the moment awkward. Prime hunched over. His mind deteriorated moment to moment and he knew it would eventuate to some slobbering vegetative state. (Yes, another human reference, but when on Earth . . .)
He hoped someone would be kind enough to end his life at that point.
Galvatron recovered from his puzzlement over the Autobot's behavior. Optimus clearly had been on Earth far too long and probably suffered from watching too much of the fleshling's entertainment cube.
Television, the Decepticon corrected himself. He shook his head. "Cyclonus and I cannot triangulate our current position, Prime. There are no constellations, no planetary bodies or other living things within a -" he glanced to his former lieutenant for the correct estimation.
"Forty click radius," Galvatron repeated.
Prime stared at the Decepticon struggling to piece together events and places. Dezi. The Inouxian ship and the fight that explained the debris. Prime wondered how long it would be before they were discovered. He turned away. "I should not have murdered the Inoux."
The Decepticon studied his companion. Autobots were such sentimental people. He sometimes wondered how they managed to survive at all, let alone throughout their ages-long history. Galvatron frowned. He thought it valiant that Prime was so willing to help his companions, former enemies or not. "Your guilt complex serves no purpose." Galvatron worded his phrase flat and final. As far as he was concerned, what Prime did merely gave them another opportunity to survive. He killed an enemy. That was that.
But Optimus brooded. He prayed Primus forgave him for such hatred.
Galvatron had to get the Autobot's fleeting attention back on track. "Cyclonus discovered skeletal remains on another asteroid and strange EMW pulses on yet another."
Prime concentrated on the brief field report and now wondered where they were. He met Galvatron's unswerving gaze and decided to gather his will and his strength and stand. Galvatron was right: it was time to move forward. His body complained of battle fatigue but Optimus ignored it, shutting off all pain receptors. He took a much closer inspection of their surroundings: the clump of rocks and boulders, the near-flat region, the debris-riddled ground and slight breezes sweeping up the dust. He examined the sky and colorful gaseous clouds flitting at uneven paces. In the distance his optics spotted a few other floating objects.
"Hyperspace." he assessed. "We seem to be trapped in hyperspace." Galvatron crossed his arms and scowled. Optimus took that gesture to mean that he already knew that. He turned to Cyclonus. "The asteroid where you found the EM emissions: can you take me there?"
"Yes." Cyclonus voiced quietly. "But how is that relevant to our current situation?"
"It might be a gateway."
"Oh." the two Decepticons chorused.
Prime felt a bit awkward flying on Galvatron's back as the three of them made their way through the asteroid field. There was more debris than the Decepticon lieutenant first reported. Scattered bits of metal and bone fragments littered the atmosphere indicating either the destruction of a ship, or a battle once took place long ago.
They landed on the small asteroid in question. Cyclonus lighted first then Galvatron who hovered above ground, expecting Prime to fall 'accidentally'. But Optimus landed like a cat and ignored the close-call prank.
Galvatron touched ground and flashed the Autobot a grin. "You really should learn how to fly."
"I already have."
The tease fell flat on Optimus and Galvatron practically growled inside. He hoped they could get along a little more easily. Patience, he reminded himself.
Cyclonus led them to a set of great metal pinnacles standing two hundred Earth-stories high and the width of a football field. The pinnacles themselves were smooth and ancient. Burn marks scarred the inner sides and dust settled along the more slanted areas. Prime glided his hand across the blue-silver surface. Sparks of electro-magnetic waves lit under his touch.
"Impressive." he said softly. "This hyperspace bubble obviously belongs to the Inoux. They must have created it for the sole purpose of moving entire armies."
"A hyperspace bubble?" Galvatron echoed. "I did not think there was such a thing."
"No. Not naturally." Prime answered evenly. "This was manufactured for several purposes. Transporting between worlds is only one of them. It appears-" and here Prime faced his two companions, "-they also use it to dispose of unwanted prisoners."
"You mean like us." Cyclonus added.
Optimus shook his head. "I don't think so. There were other Inoux waiting here, remember?" Neither Decepticon had an answer and Prime turned away, struggling to come up with a plan.
"Every gate has a key." Galvatron's voice came soft, talking to himself. Optimus silently watched as the former Decepticon leader produced one of the black boxes. His red optics climbed the breadth of the wall in serious consideration.
Before Prime realized what happened, an eruption drowned his audios like one of Blaster's loudest pieces of music. A great burst of energy tossed the three of them like twigs. Their bodies dug deep trenches into the soft dirty ground. They lay in uncomfortable positions until Prime half-sat and turned right as Galvatron's legs untangled themselves and he lay spread-eagle, staring into the sky.
"What was that?" the Autobot asked suspiciously.
"Erm. Wrong button." And Galvatron lifted his right hand clutching the little black box.
"Don't EVER press that button again."
Galvatron turned a bit stiffly, peering over the mound of dirt surrounding his helm and gave Prime a Cheshire grin. He sat up and tried another button. No result. "Crappy room service here." And he pressed another one.
"Running out of options." Prime mused quietly.
"Do YOU want to press one?" Galvatron asked sharply.
"Then be quiet. I'm concentrating." The Decepticon's thumb lightly touched from Remaining Button Number One to Number Two and then Number Three in a dance of indecision. Optimus thought of one of Rusti's games of Inny-minny-mighty-moe. Back and forth. Yellow, blue or white?
"Galvatron, will you please just pick one?"
"Neygh!!" The Decepticon pointed the device at the wall. Prime and Cyclonus cringed. A laser line shot the wall, ricocheted and slammed into a chunky asteroid. The space rock blew and showered everything with fine grains of sand. The three of them flattened their bodies face down until the bubble universe was quiet again.
Optimus gave Galvatron the 'evil optic'.
"Remember that, Cyclonus." Galvatron tried to ignore Prime's dirty look, "Do NOT press the white button." He ignored Cyclonus' snarl and tried the blue button. Blue was always a good color.
The expanse between the pinnacles turned dark and glowed softly round the edges. Prime stood first and with a glance at either of his companions, took the first steps. Cyclonus followed, glancing back at Galvatron who twitched as sand grinded in the crevices in his joints "Blue." he softly reminded himself. "Press the BLUE button. Blue is good. Blue is god."
Prime passed through the darkness into a poorly-lit alleyway. Trash lined the ground and stacked against neighboring buildings. The street ahead lay quiet, moistened by late-night fog. Peering round the corner, Prime spotted an organic life form clothed in a shabby coat and an old hat. The person in question stumbled while lifting a bottle of liquid to his lips.
The place promised safety and Prime's first thought was to search for a space port.
Then he spotted a sign: DECEPTICON TRANSFORMER FOR SALE. SOME DAMAGE. He waited until Galvatron stepped through the portal then dragged his two companions against the wall and signaled them to remain quiet. A night light from a nearby restaurant illuminated his companions in eerie colors, casting demonic shadows over their faces.
Galvatron gave him a disgusted expression. "You look terrible, Prime."
"Sh! I don't think this is a good place to be-"
"You wish to go back to the bubble?"
"That's NOT what I said!"
Galvatron shook his head, his optics a bit cross. "Will you relax? We're going to be just fine. All we need is information from an intergalactic postal service-"
Galvatron's words were cut off when the three of them heard the electric snap of an energy whip and the cry from a robot's vocalizer. The three Transformers slipped from the light above. At the mouth of the ally, a robot in chains crossed their vision. He was a large lumbering sort who probably could match Grimlock's strength. His arms and feet were bound in energo-chains and a marred Decepticon symbol decorated a damaged and smoldering shoulder strut. Behind him followed a small group of organics in warm clothing and hats. One flicked the whip. The poor robotic captive cried out and two organics ballyhooed at the cheap entertainment.
Prime's internal language translator swiftly adjusted and rearranged their speech patterns:
"Good! Did I not say a Transformer would be an enjoyable investment?"
Galvatron yanked him out of the alleyway's light and against the solid rock wall. His red optics were wide with fearful realization.
"We're in trouble." Prime whispered.
"Plan?" Galvatron asked.
"Well THINK FAST! I don't want to be ANYBODY'S plaything!!"
Prime glanced about until his optics found the flat rooftops above them. He pointed upward. "There. And DON'T fly. They might detect your trails."
Without argument, the two Decepticons crawled up the walls followed by Prime. He glanced down now and again, searching the alleyway for tracks they might have left. But the place was so littered with refuse that only someone who really knew what they were looking for could find their tracks. He joined his companions on the rooftop where they crouched close to an air conditioning unit.
"This is not dignifying for a Decepticon." Galvatron complained. "Where the Pitt are we?"
"I don't know yet. There are many planets that enslave Transformers, Galvatron."
Cyclonus stared at Prime in mild surprise. "We must be clear out of the Sagittarius Arm in the Milky Way to encounter those."
"Very true, Cyclonus." Optimus agreed. "Until we can find our way back to the Outside Territories of the Milky Way, I suggest we pick no fights."
Galvatron crawled to the building's edge and peered down. Activity slowly increased with the oncoming morning light. Transformers bussed the organics to and fro. When one finally parked before a shop, its owner stepped out and zapped it with some sort or disabling device. An Autobot femme carried a baby on her back, one in her right arm and held the hand of another organics offspring with her left. A control collar softly glowed about her neck while the female owner laughed in conversation with a companion.
The universe suddenly felt huge. Here the Decepticon Empire held no control, no footing whatsoever. Here they had no power. And Prime said this was one of many such worlds? Galvatron longed to see Cybertron and Earth again. Home.
Their way of life, their stupid war, their home world was all gone; all in the hands of their hated former Quintesson masters.
Galvatron crawled back to Optimus; crawled back to the one piece of security he had and bowed his head and thanked God he had a friend.
* * *LOCATION: Space Gate 09-A
A thunderous clapping reverberated throughout the ship. The Autobot vessel heaved and rocked sharp left then deep right. The rocking motion tossed Rusti off her bed. She landed shoulders first before the rest of her slid across the room. Several crates tumbled edge-over-end and scattered their contents, most of which just missed her.
Rusti gathered herself and found her balance. Emergency lighting switched on and Springer announced another 'bump coming up'.
The ship bucked and tilted with such force that the girl not only slapped the wall again, but slid up as the vessel lost its coordinates. She screamed when the unconscious form of an injured Autobot escaped his restraints and thudded two inches from her.
Slowly the ship righted itself again. The wounded Autobot fell away and Rusti slipped to the floor. The girl wondered if the bridge would be any safer. She approached the door on unsteady legs and a rapid heart rate. The ship shuddered again with less impact. But the hit was enough to short the lights above. They flickered about her, white then red. Creepy shadows sneaked in and out of corners. Rusti slapped her hands against the medbay doors and they opened on her third attempt. She fell onto the corridor floor dominated by red emergency lighting. To her left and down a ways, Hotspot ripped open a panel and snapped out three long wires. He produced a circuit board from subspace and replaced the wires between it and other components deeper within the ship's wall. "That's it, Runka. Give it a go!"
Rusti got off her hands and feet and backed against the wall when Lightspeed raced by in auto mode.
"HOLD ON TO YOUR GYROS, GUYS, WE'RE TAKING ON ANOTHER-"
Springer did not need to finish his sentence. Lasers roared into the Runka's starboard and the ship dove, tossing passengers and crew. The artificial gravity cut off and Rusti struggled to find something, anything to cling to. She heard commotions from both ends of the corridor while Hotspot raced to put out potential plasma fires. But he too could not control his floating form.
Groove swam through the air, using the walls to 'air-hop'. "Boss!" he shouted. Another explosion from nearby conference quarters momentarily drowned Groove's words. "They can't restore gravity controls 'til you repatch the timbre lines!"
Hotspot grasped the smaller Protectobot, "Groove! Do I look like I have a choice of duties here?"
Groove only appeared he had an answer. But he glanced over his shoulder strut and spotted Rusti flaying her arms in a vain attempt to get back to the floor. "No, sir," he answered. The demolitions expert twisted from Hotspot and caught Rusti with his left hand. Again, he would have greeted her but another explosion boombed through the corridor, forcing the two Autobots to hide their faces; Groove protected Rusti with his body. The ship, tattered by damage, flared with emergency lights and plasma fire. Heat filled the corridor.
Groove set the girl on his shoulder and she held on tight while he undid the panel next to the main deck's double doors.
Rusti became very sleepy and struggled to stay awake while Groove's deft fingers rerouted wiring and replace several proto-cesium chips and ionic redirectors.
Drills and bolt drivers whirred madly while Hotspot, Perceptor and Lightspeed rushed to patch the gaping hole. Groove gave his friends a single glance.
"GRAV CONTROLS SWITCHING!" He warned. But his words did not come soon enough. Lightspeed and Perceptor fell head-first when gravity took hold once again. The lights still flickered and smoke from burnt metal filled the hall, stinging Rusti's eyes. Groove let her down with a bit of a smile.
Rusti stepped away as other Autobots from Fort Sonix joined Lightspeed and Perceptor. They worried about its resistance to another attack. Disconcerted with the dour news, the girl decided not to hear the rest.
Rusti made her way round the corridor, past the hatchway and just as she reached the bridge doors, Brainstorm bolted out with a repair kit in hand, allowing her in unnoticed by the bridge crew.
She hugged into a corner and watched as personnel rushed to control burning panels and reroute power. Springer lay under one control station, frantically bypassing circuit panels while Kup tried to jury-rig things topside. Sideswipe raced to control navigation.
"GET ME COMMUNICATIONS!!" Magnus bellowed.
"Tryin'!" Springer shouted. "The Quints have jammed our frequencies! I can't even get ship-to-ship with Jazz!"
"Holy Primus on silicon wafers!" Kup breathed. All optics and eyes turned to the view screen where a sleek wide-winged vessel zipped right for them and missed them by millimeters. Rusti cringed, expecting impact. The ship gently rocked and the bridge crew gave a collective sigh of relief.
Rodimus pushed himself to his feet. "Springer, it would be really wonderful if you could get communications up right now-RIGHT NOW, Springer."
The wrecker punched the console's facing and shot Roddi a dirty look. "The thing's busted. Want me to stop at an intergalactic Radio Shack and pick up a few things?" His comments were ignored and following Roddi's optics, the Autobot warrior gaped at the view screen.
Images of two Quintesson cork-screw ships blinked in between static transmissions. A small white dot sparked from one of them and Rodimus gasped.
"SHIELDS!" Rodimus ordered.
"Negative!" Kup shouted back. "This pocked-marked, shaft-blown rust bucket is headed for full head-on collision."
Rodimus leapt like a cat to the control panels and re-worked everything at lightening speed, struggling to redirect power flow from whatever source the ship could possibly give. At the last minute, Rodimus used life-support to give the forward shields half a chance.
He got them up just half a second before the Runka took on the full blast of a Quintesson Eclipse Fragmentor bomb.
The roar of hurricane-force winds could not have matched the ear-shattering sound that shook the Runka. Wave after wave of electro-magnetic energy rattled the ship's exterior while the crew and passengers within suffered sensual, motor and some brain damage. The ship crackled as its armored alloys disintegrated. Navigation, weapons control and sensor consoles blew apart, showering the deck with sparks and fogging the air with burning equipment. Emergency lighting flashed on, off, on, off then died. The impact tossed Kup across the deck. Landfill from Fort Sonix smashed face-first into the wall beside the view screen.
Two EDC officers flew through the air. One person landed with his back to the navigation panel, now engulfed with plasma fire. He was already dead. The other landed on top of Springer and slumped off, unconscious.
Static crossed the audio panels and Rodimus managed to lift his head enough to glance through damaged optics and a bleeding forehead. "Springer . . . Springer . . ." his voice was dying with his consciousness. " . . . open frequencies, Springer."
Springer lay unconscious. Magnus nearly punched a rent in the starboard bulkhead. He weakly pried himself free but his gyros were badly damaged by the Fragmentor. The Major-General had to climb over debris and two other crew members to reach the console, feeling his way around. His left arm hung useless at his side, snapping and smoldering from damage. He could see nothing and switched between visual frequencies in order to make sense of the make-shift comm panel.
Springer's work was almost done when the Quints attacked them. Magus just needed to refuse the conjoining influx relays between the language banks and phonetic-rhythm diodes. "Patching, now." His pained voice softly filled the air.
"ALIEN SPACECRAFT, THIS IS COMMANDER TROG, INTRASYSTEMARY SECURITY. IDENTIFY YOURSELVES OR BE SHOT! THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING!"
Rodimus lay back, his optics fell to darkness. Magnus collapsed afterward.
Tears choked the air from Rusti and she forced her lungs to take in metal-smoldering air. She was so weak at this point she almost could not cough.
"ALIEN SPACECRAFT, WE DEMAND AN ANSWER!!"
Rusti's vision doubled as blood rushed to her ears and from there to her brain. She weakly crawled along the floor, hoping to find Rodimus amid the sputtering light of plasma fire.
She heard the same voice repeat the command to respond and this time it registered in her head that she was the only one capable of answering. She drew another breath and sputtered. "We're under attack!" Her pathetic voice squeaked. She imagined they could not hear her mousy noises. "The Quints hit us. The Autobots . . . they're all unconscious . . . the ship's not working anymore."
Drops of blood splattered her hands and she touched her upper lip. A nice slice lay over the left side of her upper lip and another one just above her right brow.
"STAND BY, AUTOBOTS. WE ARE ACTIVATING A TRACTOR BEAM."
Dizzy and aching, Rusti crawled to Rodimus. She found him cold and lifeless. The ship trembled under her and she curled close to him in a vain search for comfort.
Minutes or hours later, the ship resembled a tomb, filled with darkness, silence and unconscious crew members. Rusti's head ached and spun. Sleep was nice, but not in the cold and not on the unforgiving floor. And yet the very last thing she wanted to do was move.
Where were they? What roused her from sleep? She lifted heavy, aching eyes toward the view screen. Oddly enough, it was functioning and gave her a bit of light. But it mocked her with static.
Get up. Off the floor. Look around, you silly girl! Up! Get up!!
But Rusti argued with herself. She was too cold. Her head ached too badly. If nobody else got up and moved, why should she?
It was a question worth taking lightly and the girl tried to settle close to Roddi's cold form and closed her eyes. He should be warmer than this. Transformers were warm-blooded machines.
Don't worry about it. Sleep.
She felt no warmer. The cold went through her armor, through her skin and into her bones. And lying on the floor wasn't all that great. Motel beds were better than this!
Rusti willed herself to her feet. It took a moment or so to steady her wobbly legs. Nobody else was even close to consciousness. Springer's form rested next to Magnus. Lightspeed lay slumped against the far wall. She thought about calling out, saying something to rouse the giant robots to life. But the world freaked her with unfamiliar shapes and more so, unfamiliar circumstances.
Rusti thought it better to find a conscious adult who knew what to do. Unfortunately, Rusti's movements were anything but steady or graceful. She fell several times, tripping over debris, slipping on spilt fluids and cracked her face into Landfill's fallen hand before finding the bridge doorway.
The doors were closed last time she checked. Perhaps the crash crossed something and forced them open. There stood naught between a dark expanse she and the hatchway.
The girl batted dry eyes against the smoky, stiff air. At this point, there was almost no light at all and Rusti debated whether or not to press blindly forward.
A faint hissing drifted from the right and sparks speckled the air. The metal burned red then slowly into white-hot as a blow torch ate through the metal paneling. Rusti staggered in that direction, wondering why they didn't just try to open the hatch from the outside. She didn't stop to think that enemies might be on the other side.
Half way there, the girl paused and wondered if she should leave Roddi by himself.
Before she could make her mind, the torch finished its work and the hatch lowered. Several tall armor-clad figures stomped in wielding powerful rifles. One pointed at her and the girl instinctively raised her hands as she batted her eyes against the glaring light of the outside world.
"The Autobots aren't here to hurt anyone." She didn't stop to think the invaders probably did not speak English.
The tall soldier approached and within twelve feet, withdrew his weapon and slung it over his shoulder. "Do not be afraid. We are not here to hurt. Do you understand?"
"Yes!" Rusti gasped. "I don't know what happened- we were hit by Quintessons. They attacked us on Earth and these huge black spider-things were everywhere and Fort Max collapsed and nobody could talk to anybody and nobody knew what was going on and Roddi had to come get me in Central City and we drove all this way-"
"Got a live one here," he said to his companions while the girl kept explaining herself. He interrupted her monolog with a calm voice. "Is everyone alright?"
"I don't know," Rusti answered wearily. "Rodimus is down, on the bridge-" she had not finished her sentence before a ten-foot tall creature in grey skin and thick plated armor stomped aboard.
"Sir, border patrols report they are still under fire. A 'Commander Convoy' repeats requests for landing clearance."
The first officer turned back to Rusti. "Who is this Convoy?"
"She's the city commander of Fortress Horizon."
"From Earth. We were attacked by Quintessons and some other aliens who almost killed Roddi but-"
"Alright. You can explain it to the Ambassador. Norgrov, take the girl to Zethlon-19."
"I can't leave Roddi!" Rusti objected. "He won't know I'm safe-" the two towering figures set their fists on their hips. Rusti was not in a negotiating position. "Yes, I can," she amended quickly.
The great grey creature called Norgrov took one stride for every three of Rusti's. She found herself half running after him in spite of her exhaustion.
She took several swift glances, marveling at tall grasses clothing gentle sloping hills. Huge trees crowned in graceful long leaves bordered the same sloping hills. A cloudy sky kept the air cool and moist not unlike the autumn days in Oregon. To the right and south stood the Autobot ship, Event Horizon. And near the Horizon a much larger, sleeker vessel hovered. With a powerful tractor beam, the alien ship held the Autobot cruiser, Hannibal's Mark six inches off the ground. Above them circled several smaller jets that zipped like a band of angry bees searching for a target.
Rusti's heart pounded and she felt faint.
They came to a clearing stabled by several collapsible structures of metal. People, male and female, both Human and alien came and left in hurried paces.
Norgrov paused long enough for her to catch up. He gazed down and she beheld the face of a creature more barbaric than alien. His huge dark eyes enveloped her and when he spoke, he revealed two rows of shark-like teeth. "Come. The Ambassador is most likely waiting to hear your words."
She allowed him to move first and Rusti wondered how she would plea for leeway should these people prove hostile. Butterflies turned to hornets in her stomach. Rusti forced her legs forward. The girl caught other people glancing at her, whispering as they stared. She was suddenly very conscious of her appearance, realizing she must look awful.
Norgrov led her through the curtained doorway into one such metallic tent. A woman in jeans, a sweater and a dark red robe stood to greet them. Her hands clutched a clipboard and she quickly retrieved a pen caught in her bright red hair. She seemed very much out of place compared to the alien warrior. "I received your communiqué, Norgrov. Please introduce me."
He bowed slightly and stepped aside so that Rusti now faced her. "Forgive me, Lady Mage. I know not her name. I was ordered to bring her to the Ambassador. She is non-mechanical, bearing only this exosuit. We thought it more prudent than the other refugee who wore the armor as Tal Zh'goth described."
Then both their eyes fell on the girl and Rusti suddenly found herself on the spot. She couldn't breathe. The so-called Lady Mage smiled warmly. "What is your name?" she asked politely.
"Wh-um, Rusti." Pathetic, the girl thought. She cleared her throat and tried again: "Rusti Witwicky, Ma'am. We-" her words caught in her throat. She did not know what else to say and clearly it seemed they were not really after much more than her name.
"My name is Nikita Summers. I will take you to see the Ambassador in a moment. Will you wait here?"
Rusti mutely nodded, not knowing what options she might have had otherwise. The Lady Mage and the warrior stepped outside and Rusti just barely heard their whispers. She Reached toward Rodimus in hopes of finding him conscious. But Roddi was far, far away. Despair touched Rusti. She was very much on her own.
The Lady Mage returned and offered Rusti another warm smile. "Will you accompany me, please?" She opened the curtain for Rusti to pass through and then led the girl across the encampment to another metal tent. It was a bit warmer in this one with a soft light brown rug, a low-level table, several comfortable chairs and a bed covered with fur.
"Ah, THERE you are!" A cheerful voice greeted the ladies from behind and the Lady Mage turned with soft laughter. "I was told you'd be here!"
Rusti's eyes settled on a creature no taller than she. He resembled a cat with large black eyes, a squared mouth and short ears. He was covered head to toe in short fuzzy fur but wore clothes-oddly enough jeans, a low-cut sweater and a long teal blue coat.
"I was out for the moment, listening to Trog's report interrupted by several four-letter words. And who might this be, Ki?"
"Ambassador Koontah, I'd like you to meet Rusti Witwicky. She and three other people were the only ones they found conscious on board the ship."
The ambassador shot the Lady Mage a sharp look, "this girl is cold. She needs soup and warmer clothes." He stripped off his own coat and placed it over Rusti's shoulders then guided her to sit at the bedside. He sat next to her and stared deeply into her eyes, brushing aside tangles of red hair. Rusti was not aware she was in such a condition. She watched the Lady Mage depart from the tent then turned back to the ambassador who returned her gaze with a grim expression. "I'd offer you a bit of kreefe, my dear but I've run out of it."
"It's okay," she squeaked, "I don't know what kreefe is."
He did not reply right away. His large eyes squinted slightly as though struggling to recall something: "Witwicky. Rings a bell or two."
"My grandfather was an ambassador." Rusti couldn't keep her eyes off the creature. Not that she were unaccustomed to seeing aliens, but that he looked . . . cute. The light fluctuated in the tent as a different lady stepped in bearing clothes draped over one arm and a tray of food between her hands.
"Ah, excellent timing!" Koontah praised. He swiftly dragged the table closer to the bed and aided their hostess. He grinned at Rusti as the lady lifted the cover from the tray revealing two bowls of soup and a third bowl covered with a soft white towel. The ambassador sat on the floor and beckoned Rusti to do the same. She complied, so grateful for finally getting something to eat.
"Ambassador," the lady softly sounded, "care for tea, kreefe or other?"
He looked to Rusti first. "Hot tea for me, thank you. And perhaps a cup of hot cocoa for our guest here?" Rusti weakly smiled and the ambassador nodded. "Yes, tea and cocoa. Thank you, Adana." He did not wait for her to leave before plucking up a spoon and sipped the soup. "Mm! Loyb steak soup! One of my favorites!"
Wordlessly, Rusti braved a spoonful and found it soothing. It tasted a bit like beef, but a little more like . . . well, she could not place it but it had a mild-wild flavor enhanced with garlic, carrots and another vegetable she did not recognize.
"Well, now, Miss Witwicky, you and your people popped up a bit out of nowhere. We've had no news from earth for two weeks and-"
"The Autobots did not mean to trespass, Ambassador. We were attacked and there's only a few ships left and Rodimus was terribly hurt-" Rusti regretted the outburst and bit her lip hard when Koontah held his left hand up for her silence. She batted oncoming tears and stared at the floor.
"It's alright, Miss Witwicky. You are among friends here."
She dropped her spoon and hid her face. The next minute she found herself tightly embraced and the tears came unbidden. Koontah held her close and gently stroked her hair. "Oh my dear. You have been through it, haven't you? Hmm?" His gentle voice soothed her and the girl was grateful he held her. She missed Optimus.
Koontah said nothing for a long time. Rusti ran out of tears and rested against him, fearful. She batted her wet eyes, feeling better. Reluctantly she sat up, wiped her face and blew her nose with the napkin next to her bowl.
"There was no warning, Ambassador." Her voice sounded small. "I was in school when it hit-I mean when they came." She stared far away as memories flashed through her like leaves in a hurricane. "I don't even know how I survived."
Koontah returned to his side of the table. He lifted the towel from the remaining bowl, revealing a cluster of fresh warm pretzels. He chose one and tore it, dipping one end into his soup. "Well, the worst of it is that no one knew the Quintessons had phasing technology. As to their accomplices, Miss Witwicky, that's something I'm still looking into."
Her eyes shot at him. "You mean the black spider-things?"
He smirked. "Yes, Miss Witwicky. The black spider-things." he gestured toward the bowl. "Please try one! They're very good-and they'd be good for you."
Rusti smiled sadly and plucked one up. Her mind was on anything but food. "I thought we were going to lose Roddi. They should have killed him but it seemed something else interfered. I don't know what it was except that . . . I felt like I was going through deja vu more than once." Her face tightened over the enigma. "It was weird."
"The time lines," Koontah answered after a bit of soup. "They've been shifting. Events, people, even places have been affected by dimensional fragmenting. We've been experiencing the same disruption here. It could be this fragmentation has backfired on the Quintesson's attempt to destroy your people. It's a bit ironic, but that is how the universe works sometimes."
Her brows furred, "what do you mean?"
He took another pretzel, "I mean the Quintessons have been interfering with the time lines and it's come back to bite them on the back side. For the moment their mistake is in your favor."
"Can you stop them? I mean, can you help us retake Earth?"
He played with his soup, stirring it then sipped his tea. "I don't have that kind of power, Miss Witwicky. I can provide you with assistance: supplies, directions and provisions. But we do not have the firepower necessary for that kind of task."
"But . . . but you drove the Quintessons off our ships, didn't you?"
He stared at her with those dark eyes again and Rusti wished she could control her outbursts. "The Quints were within our territory, Miss Witwicky. Naturally we were able to deal with them. But from what little news we managed to acquire from the Sol System, it seems the Quintessons have more than a few battleships and star cruisers. My guess-and forgive me that it's only a guess-but I suspect the Quintessons are going to try to open a dimensional portal in your home system. I've warned them against it before." Koontah viciously stirred his soup, "but they will ignore me just as they have in the past and if they keep doing it, they will force me to drastic measures."
She couldn't help but stare. Rusti waited for the ambassador to say something more but he did not. Tearfully she picked at the pretzel now gone cold in her hands. She gathered her courage again, "wh-what measures, Ambassador?"
He raised his eyes from the soup, "I will have to advance the time lines, Miss Witwicky." She gave him a puzzled look and finally ate more of her meal. But Koontah went on, "It always annoys me when some arrogant sl'kikik comes along-forgive my language-and intentionally upsets the time lines. Really glopches things up."
It hurt to think but Rusti thought she followed the ambassador's natterings. She leaned over, daring a guess. "So, what you're saying is . . . you have the power to change time?"
Koontah smiled pleasantly, "No. I do not have that kind of power, Miss Witwicky. I can advance time so things will stop shifting, so reality will remain constant rather than events crashing."
Rusti stared hard at the table for a moment, struggling to think things through. Then she finally started piecing events in a more cohesive whole: "Like Roddi getting killed several times before Ultra Magnus came to help us?"
Koontah stared at her in surprise then nodded, "that's right."
Adana quietly reappeared through the drapes, "Ambassador, our visitors request an audience."
A chill raced down Rusti's back. "Roddi?" she swung about, her eyes large, "Is Roddi with them?"
But Adana solemnly shook her head. "I think not, M'Lady. At least none of them introduced themselves as such."
Rusti slumped. Worry hurt her heart. Koontah quickly finished his tea and knelt before her. "I know how much you want to come but I'd much rather you rest first. You may remain here if you wish. But you will need your strength for later. Please try to get some rest."
Rusti wanted to object. Sleep was the least of her priorities. However, the ambassador was right. They were not out of danger and the next opportunity for rest might not come for quite some time. She sadly nodded and hoped Roddi was okay.
Rusti watched Koontah tie a long silky scarf over his eyes and allowed Adana to guide him.
Adana led the ambassador over grassy knolls from the clearing. A burnt metallic scent filled the cold air. Koontah smelled the bitter-wild scent of Transformer blood. Adana came to a stop and Koontah followed her example, lifting his head as though he were looking at a sky scraper. But through the blindfold, he beheld nothing.
"Ambassador Koontah, may I present to you City Commander Ultra Magnus, City Commander Jazz, City Commander Titanium and her Ladyship Arcee. Visitors and Friends, I present Ambassador Koontah of Lunarphyte, Respected of the Centaurus System."
Ultra Magnus was the first to bow slightly, having few previous encounters with the Centaurian Ambassador. Jazz and Titanium followed suit. "Ambassador, we cannot tell you how much we appreciate your hospitality and we apologize for not warning you ahead of time."
"Your apologies are far from necessary, Commander Ultra Magnus. Your representative, Miss Rusti Witwicky, has more than adequately explained your situation to us. We were not aware the Quintessons were lurking in subspace, waiting for you. I am not allowed to interfere with their business, but this is my yard and they know better than to cross the fence line . . . " Koontah paused, now a bit awkward in his approach, " . . . excuse the expression, Commander."
Charmed, Jazz knelt respectively. "Hey, ain't no a problem, Ambassador. We're all mighty grateful you were willing to put us up for the night."
Koontah bowed to him. "Now, where do we start? There are several other ships still outside of Physcian orbit. I am also aware three of your ships have taken heavy damage and you have wounded and next to no supplies-or so my reconnaissance has informed me."
The group's attention turned when the footfalls of two other robots stepped within hearing/sensor range. Ultra Magnus' great shoulders slumped a bit when his optics rested on Roddi's weary, greyed form. Rodimus approached half supported by Fort Horizons' second-in-command, Cloudstreaker. She whispered a few things to him, but kept it too low for anyone else to hear. Rodimus nodded and came within a polite five yards of Ambassador Koontah. There he knelt among the cool grasses, fatigued and solemn.
"Ambassador Koontah, I am Rodimus Prime. I am very sorry for not greeting you first. Our landing was a miracle, thanks to your people."
Koontah observed him silently through the blindfold A polite smile lifted his furry cheeks, though the ambassador did not show his teeth. "You apologies are unnecessary, Commander Rodimus Prime. We are always willing to help a friend. I am glad to see you are still among the living. As to your people-"
Koontah was cut off when a huge armor-clad messenger approached him and whispered in his ear. The Wancheeah's cat like ears perked and he nodded in silent response. "Forgive me, Commander. As I was going to say, the rest of the ships are currently being escorted to this area. I've been told they should enter orbit any time now."
Roddi smiled weakly. "What would you like us to do from here, Ambassador?"
"When the rest of your group has arrived we can determine what will be necessary, Commander. I will, however, require a list of supplies your people need over the next few days. It is difficult to travel with damaged ships and hungry crew."
"It is, indeed." Roddi's expression lightened a bit. He sighed as though at a loss for breath. "Ambassador, circumstances have forced us into a precarious position. We have many casualties and have lost all contact with Mars where Optimus Prime was stationed when the invasion hit. We need more than repairs. We need better firepower. We need greater forces in order to confront the Quintessons and kick their tails across the quadrant."
Koontah's ears perked forward again and even with the blindfold, Rodimus could tell the ambassador did not agree. "Better forces? More firepower? You bring a hammer. They grab a battering ram. You draw a gun. They haul out a bazooka. You send in troops. They create an invasion force. Bigger and better will not necessarily solve your problem.'
'You need wit, not just might. You need wisdom, not simply firepower. You deal not with mere psychological subtlety or political manipulation, but with high-tech and psionic powers, with ancient abilities and skills existing even beyond the age of your species. The Inoux are not easily defeated as you have discovered, Rodimus Prime. You need an ally who shares a common interest."
Rodimus glanced at Magnus who returned his blank expression. "Aaaaaand where do we find one of those?"
Koontah shook his head. "I do not know, Rodimus Prime. I know my people have not the strength to help you fight the war. We can aid you in supply and direction. But the allies you seek must be something of your equals."
That was disheartening news. As kind and generous as the ambassador was, he was also right. "Well," Roddi sighed at length, "I don't suppose I could put a want-ad in the galactic newspaper for experienced warriors to aid a hopeless band of Autobot refugees, do you?"
Koontah offered a small smile: "the universe is vast, Rodimus Prime. I'm sure in time the right ally will come to you." He waited a beat, listening to everything around him, reading lines of life force energy that allowed him to see through the blindfold. He concentrated on Rodimus, reading low life levels, feeling the radiation of illness and despair. He felt this before with the other Autobot leader.
Koontah pulled himself from private musings and drew a deep breath. "Forgive me, Rodimus Prime, I have other matters to attend at the moment. I will see to it you and your people get everything you need for tonight. Your other vessels should arrive soon and if you need anything more, just send word."
Roddi was relieved. He needed rest and knew Magnus would insist he get it. "Thank you, Ambassador. Oh, Rusti! Is she-"
Koontah glanced over his shoulder as he turned. "She is just fine. Hopefully sound asleep."
That was not precise. Rusti slept for twenty minutes but voices and noises shook her so that even with the comfort of fur covers and a soft bed, sleep eluded her. She sat up, peeled the blankets and rubbed her face. A shower would be a magnificent luxury at this point. The girl remembered Adana brought clothes earlier and found them through the dim light. She slipped on a pair of jeans and plucked up a cozy sweater. Just before Rusti pulled the sweater on, her hand groped for the necklace to keep her hair from tangling in it.
But the necklace was not there. She dropped the sweater and searched her neck, shoulders and edges of her exosuit for the missing treasure given her by Optimus many years ago.
"Where . . ." her voice choked with tears. "Where's my necklace? Oh no!"
She sank to her knees. "Not the necklace!" she bowed over and wept, "Optimus, I lost my necklace!" The girl hugged herself in despair. It was bad enough that she lost everything else. She did not need to lose the one connection between herself and Optimus Prime. Through her tears, Rusti checked her hands. The ring was still there, however. A bit of dirt marred its surface, but there it yet remained on her finger.
Rusti made a fist, determined to let nothing happen to her ring. How was she ever going to be able to replace her necklace?
It took a few minutes to gather herself together, but Rusti managed to summon courage to keep going. She tugged the sweater over her head. It fell about her hips. A remarkable fit. A fashionable windbreaker jacket lay nearby. She grabbed it and abandoned the tent.
Humans and aliens came and left bearing supplies, equipment and data tablets. Rusti could not understand how these people, living on a distant planet from Earth, spoke her language. She thought that was just a reality of science fiction. Grim expressions wore heavy on their faces. Once or twice they looked in her direction, offering a sympathetic smile.
They knew, or at least the girl thought they did. They knew of the Autobot's plight and worked hard to help. Rusti tried to return a thank-you smile but her cheeks hurt and her lips trembled. Embarrassment and shame forced her eyes downward.
Rusti picked her way from the clearing to avoid getting in the way. She followed a caravan of equipment toward the Autobot camp and kept an extra eye out for Rodimus. Autobots greeted the procession of tools, replacement parts and fuel. The planetary natives were extremely polite, often apologizing for misunderstandings and offering assistance whenever and however it was needed. Autobots and EDC personnel routed from ship to ship exchanging notes, filing reports and communicating as efficiently as a bee colony. The Runka lost three plates along the starboard side and Quintesson laser cannons had sliced off a good portion of the back thrusters. The ship did not look as badly outside as it did inside.
Chromedome, Kup and Sideswipe labored hard, fusing damaged plating and replacing entire sections along the starboard where the ship was blown into. But Rusti doubted the Runka could really be saved.
Several yards off, Magnus, Jazz and Rodimus formed a small circle. A light grey pallor detracted color from Roddi's exostructure. Rusti also noticed his optics dimmed in fatigue. The three leaders debated about posting camp in the safest area far enough from the workers, but close enough for everyone to keep an eye on the children
Cloudstreaker crossed Rusti's view and the girl stared. Cloudstreaker's graceful form contrasted the three mechs with whom she stood. Her stature was a bit shorter than Roddi's with jet wings folded downward like a cape and a smooth helm headed by a visor stretching from audio to audio. She walked with solid strong legs; altogether her transform was that of a Concord with a few Cybertronian alterations.
Rusti thought she was pretty.
Rodimus leaned against Magnus while another city commander, Titanic from Sagittarius, approached with a grim report on the Racing Beast.
Jazz noticed Roddi's unstable behavior and reached for him when the Major-General caught Rodimus as the Autobot leader passed out.
The hair on the back of Rusti's neck stood straight and chills raced up her back. She bee-lined for Roddi, intending to be near him wherever the medics decided to place him.
No sooner had she descended the grassy knoll when the sky above lit bright yellow and deep red as though on fire. The first roll of distant thunder drummed across the sky. A second crack startled her, unnerving the girl to her bones.
The clouds billowed to voluminous proportions and raced at unbelievable speeds. They shifted colors from white to peach, gold and blood red. Everyone dropped whatever they were doing and scattered for cover. Rusti merely stood there, transfixed by the sight. She never saw such behavior. And she wondered why the world fell dead silent. No planes above. No birds. No conversation. Wind roared like the angry ocean, snapping her hair about her face.
Someone raced in her direction and Rusti tore her eyes off the hyperactive sky as the Wanakian ambassador ran at her. Koontah gripped her round the waist, threw her to the ground and covered her with his body. She drew breath to protest when screaming engines of an incoming ship whistled through the air. The pitch of their sound vibrated along her backbone and sternum.
The ground under her trembled and boomed Tons of dirt, rocks and twisted metal blew in hurricane-force winds, biting skin and slicing softer metals. Leaves stripped from tree branches and the long grasses danced and snapped madly. From the heavens a large fiery object dropped like a rock. It plunged to the ground, spewing shockwaves of flames and debris. Lightening flickered along the ground, sparking several trees and shot the Sonic Panther several times.
As abrupt as the storm hit, it ended, leaving everyone's nerves on edge and their ears and audio receptors buzzing.
Koontah let off Rusti just enough for her to see what happened. One of two Autobot ships crashed, spewing wreckage across the encampment. The ambassador cursed in his own language and held Rusti closer as the second ship crashed against the beach not more than half a mile away. Boiling water hissed, bubbled and smoldered under the overheated engines. Survivors poured from the vessels like panicked ants.
Magnus covered Rodimus with his own body, "Hit the dirt!" he boomed. Everyone flattened their bodies against the ground once more as the first shuttle blew, blanketing the island in a wave of plasma fire.
* * *
LOCATION: Aquarius Tri-Stellar IV
Earth Date: November 20, 2038
The day dragged under the bright, merciless sun.
Prime, Galvatron and Cyclonus remained silent and motionless, ticking the time away through private thoughts. Cyclonus sat still as an old weathered statue. His knees supported his arms, head slightly bent. His gaze remained fixed on a distant tower, counting the hours by the toll of a lonely bell.
Galvatron was a great deal more restless. He shifted position and posture every three hours. His optics dimmed to preserve power then he'd snap to, optics darting about, catching sight of a bird, a plane or an alien insect.
Prime sat in the shadows as though he tried to meld with them. Galvatron checked twice to make sure their Autobot companion was even conscious. His color was off again and Galvatron swore he heard Prime oxidate once, maybe twice. Something was wrong. But Galvatron kept that to himself.
The day stretched, forcing the three to hold positions for a solid twenty hours. The sun settled and traffic lessened. Once street lights flickered to life, Galvatron stood and stretched like a slumbering giant waking for the first time in centuries. He and Cyclonus produced their cloaks as Prime slowly emerged.
Galvatron glanced left and right. "Prime, I did not realize you have no cloak. Even here, your transform mode will not protect you."
Optimus did not answer. His physic suffered from cold and his mood was no lighter. He forced his mind to control the sluggishness and stared at Galvatron. His wayward thoughts mocked him.
Galvatron turned to Cyclonus who did not need to be told what to do. He tugged the hood and cowl over his head, concealing his optics and silently slipped away.
Prime wearily leaned against the stairwell
entryway. He glanced at the set of moons gracing the
planetary sky. They shone with one-quarter their usual
brightness: ideal conditions for concealment. But they
gave Optimus nothing to hope for.
"KEEP GOING, BUCKET-HEAD!" a powerful voice bellowed below. Galvatron and Prime shot up, fearful for Cyclonus. Silently they crept to the ledge and stared down, watching a pitiful progression pass their way. A huge burly organic snapped an energo-whip this way, that, as though it were his tail. Three powerful Transformers, all of Grimlock's stature, trudged on weary, damaged legs. One robot limped with a dangling, leaking arm. Low on fluids and fuel, the poor thing staggered until it fell to its knees.
The brutal organic lost his mind and stomped the ground, cursing and swearing by three different religions. He ruthlessly kicked the injured robot and screamed more profanity at the top of his lungs. He ripped what was left of a Decepticon insignia from the robot's chest and kicked his victim in the face.
Galvatron barely controlled his indignation and dug his fingers into the cement. He hung his head when the brute blew the victim's face with a phaser.
"GET ALONG THERE, YON WALKING TRASH BINS! I OUGHTA COMPACT ALL A' YON INTA PEN HOLDERS AN' DRINKIN' CUPS! YON WORTHLESS! MOVE!" The brute kicked one robot, seriously denting his back right leg.
Prime and Galvatron watched as other people came and left. Not one person bothered to see if the robot was dead. They passed him by as though he were refuse on the ground. Another twenty minutes faded and Galvatron lost his patience. He scampered down the building, half climbing, half flying and touched the ground with next to no noise.
Prime watched, too weary to worry about his companion's safety. He was confident Galvatron would not do anything *too* stupid He watched as the former
Decepticon leader lifted his cowl, risking exposure, to
check the dead robot.
Prime wondered if Galvatron felt the same about the Decepticons as he himself with the death of each Autobot. He did not see how. Optimus doubted Decepticons shared empathy of any kind. But then, again, the Autobots were changing. Why not the Decepticons?
"What the leaking Pit is he doing?" Cyclonus' voice rang clear but quiet in the cold night. Prime might have been startled were he more alert.
He sat up as the former lieutenant squatted beside him. "The Decepticon down there was just murdered. I'm not sure what Galvatron is doing." A cold hand
laid against Prime's right audio sensor and he
startled. Cyclonus touched him and Prime guessed he
failed to conceal his frailty. The Autobot turned
away, embarrassed by his reaction.
Cyclonus closed his hand and from subspace produced a long flowing cloak. He gave it without words and peered over the ledge.
Galvatron was nowhere in sight.
Cyclonus stood and scanned up one way, down the other and as far ahead as his scanners allotted.
Prime enveloped his frame with the cloak, grateful for its dark underside.
Galvatron's voice sounded from behind and the Autobot leader forced himself to regain poise. Under no condition did he want to appear weak.
"He was a powerful Decepticon and they treated him like a savage!" the former Decepticon leader snorted, indignant over the affair.
Prime lifted the cowl and out the side of his optics he watched Galvatron sit and simmer with anger. Optimus was tempted to point out how Decepticons were often guilty of the very same crime. But that would only incite arguments and bad feelings. They needed each other right now. He directed his thoughts to the immediate problem. "Cyclonus, are the streets very busy?"
"Only by the usual night scruff, Prime. It would seem we should easily get around unnoticed as long as we remain inconspicuous."
Prime stood and lost his balance for a moment. Galvatron jumped to help, but the Autobot leader waved him off. "Just a little sand, Galvatron. I'm fine. Prime turned away and privately cringed while the theta retraction instuds reworked the hydraulics in his right foot. He gathered the cloak and made his way back to the alley.
The three traveled westward, keeping footfalls silent, their communication reduced to touch-and-point. Galvatron's idea of using tightly-woven cloaks proved brilliant after the three of them successfully passed a band of self-proclaimed robo-hunters. Prime internally checked his weapon's setting. But his precaution was unnecessary. The long, heavy cloak concealed him from audio array to foretoe balancer. The robo-hunters did not suspect a thing.
Cyclonus had good taste in style, choosing not just length and durability, but material. Prime, however, thought it best not to ask where it came from.
The sidewalk ended at a railway station under which stretched a large drainage tunnel, trickling with cold water.
They waited while a long sleek train passed, tugging several dozen cars behind it. Galvatron lead the way and they silently descended from view of the road. Sickeningly filthy water splashed about their cloaks and feet. The underground tunnel reeked of metallic decay and ages-old lubricants and oils. More than once they encountered an orange-red six-legged lizard that hissed at Cyclonus. One even followed the Decepticon lieutenant several yards before disappearing into the tunnel rock.
A quarter of a mile further, Galvatron staggered into a mass of metal plates, wires and familiar shapes. He paused to scan the water and the tunnel half a mile further in.
"What is it?" Prime stepped to Galvatron's right. His foot contacted metal objects, silicon plates and crunched deteriorated matter. Galvatron met his optics with a measure of dread. The Decepticon dipped his hand into the wet darkness and brought up a rusted robotic body part. Cyclonus and Prime flinched.
"A burial site?" Prime wasn't that dumb, but hoped it was not-
"A dumping ground." Galvatron corrected.
The three of them fell silent, unsure whether to press forward or head back. But behind them the day pushed aside the sanctuary of night and eliminated the option of retracing their steps.
Pressing forward was a grim decision, but they had little or no choice. Prime undid his cloak, tucked it into subspace and transformed, switching his headlights and scanners to different frequencies. He rolled past Galvatron, keeping the speed slow while his weight compressed hundreds of years of robot carcasses rotting away in their watery mausoleum. The Decepticons walked beside him, sometimes behind when body parts were piled too high.
Prime wondered what they should do once they find other end-if there was another exit. He hoped the tunnel did not lead to a sewer or other unsavory place.
Optimus stopped and scanned his companion's movements. Galvatron faced the left wall. His head dipped up and down as Prime shifted to robot mode. The Decepticon cast a light along the wall's surface, illuminating ancient writing scrawled in an ink recipe of blood, mud and lithium alloy.
"Looks like ancient Coregan," Prime said.
"Yes. See?" Galvatron pointed to a two-sided letter crossed and dotted twice. "This indicates a business transaction."
Cyclonus shook his head. "I do not know Coregan."
Galvatron scrutinized each faded and smeared letter. "It was an ancient planet conquered by the Decepticon Empire during the reign of Corruptus. The names list is long."
Prime touched another portion of graffiti. "In the Year of Betrayal, 180436, P.N.(1)*, the Five-Faced Freaks beguiled and betrayed the Empire. May they eat rust and die a slow, painful, honorless death." Prime turned to his companions. "These Decepticons were sold as slaves to this planet by the Quintessons."
Galvatron scanned the dirty fluid they stood in. Millions of cycles had come and gone and who knew how deep the well of body parts ran. The Decepticon's optics spotted a sorely decayed hand there, part of a wing there; the fracture of a face underneath. They suffered a horrible death; not in war, not defending their homeland, not in fighting for a cause they believed in. These robots, powerful, perfectly adaptable in any environment, were brutally abused. Their existence was mocked by others of greater power. Then they were just thrown away.
Galvatron laid a hand on his chest. Where was Primus in all this? Sleeping? Dreaming? Or merely siding with the Autobots?
Old memories rose and with them ugly feelings. Prime stumbled back to the middle of the tunnel. He looked old right then, as worn and war-weary as Galvatron felt. The Decepticon pressed past the old feelings. They were no longer an issue. Nothing was an issue now, except the death of Vector Sigma, the rise of Quintessons empowerment and the apparent demise of his people and species. Galvatron saw all that in the Autobot before him.
Was the pile of bodies here a poster-picture their future?
Prime's quiet voice barely echoed in the tunnel. At first Galvatron paid no attention to the words then registered "black box' and 'transport window' Galvatron waited before asking Prime to repeat himself.
"I remember two Quintessons used a similar device when they took me aboard the Ellipsis several months ago. But I was too close to unconsciousness to notice how they used it."
Prime spoke of the 'little black box'. Galvatron's composure lit into a devilish smile. "Well! Were I not concerned over Cyclonus' safety, I'd be delighted to press the white or black button."
Prime smiled at Cyclonus. "I'm glad you feel that way, Galvatron. After all, I've grown fond of Cyclonus."
Galvatron's face turned downward. "He's NOT available for adoption, Prime. I saw him first." The mighty former Decepticon leader sloshed through the debris, leading onward. Cyclonus shook his head and silently followed but paused long enough to give Prime a rare smile.
The tunnel stretched for another two miles before it hung right and bright afternoon sun shocked their sensors into shifting.
They waited until the very coldest and oldest part of night before venturing along the street. A small trio of natives swung out of a local restaurant, laughing hard, stumbling and squealing incoherently. A cool fog rolled along the ground, sneaking from building to building or post lamp to road sign.
They kept off the main routes, avoiding optical contact and possible run-in with the locals. They passed many old squat buildings with dirty windows and small parking lots. Sun-bleached dusty roads met their feet and a chilling wind played with their garments. Galvatron kept a sharp optic for road signs or opportunities to get them off the planet. Cyclonus kept his scanners on alert for possible dangers and scrutinized any sounds beyond those their feet made.
Weariness burdened Optimus, but he said nothing to his companions. He wished they would find a place to rest for at least ten minutes. He forced himself to think of Rusti and how she would be worried for him. That helped a little and he kept moving, quickening his pace to keep up with Galvatron's powerful strides.
"There!" Cyclonus pointed right just as a jet circled and landed. He watched as Galvatron studied the sky about them.
"How far do you think that is?"
"Looks like ten miles, maybe less," Optimus answered in turn. "But dawn is coming. We may have to lay low and wait before searching for a ship." He hung his head, feeling he could shut down standing right there. He heard Galvatron's footfalls crunch the ground as the Decepticon paced back and forth.
"Did we not pass a large abandoned facility not too long ago, Prime?"
"I believe so," Optimus answered slowly. But he was not entirely sure. They passed several large buildings, but whether they were abandoned or not, he did not bother to notice.
"Then that is where we will stay. I'll take first watch."
No argument there. Prime turned and followed his Decepticon companions about two and a quarter miles back. Dawn touched the land, lifting darkness from the corners of the world and with it came increasing traffic flow. They found the large emptied building complete with link fencing and signs declaring it was for sale. Optimus paid attention to nothing other than where Galvatron led him. They crawled through a previously broken window and searched for the darkest, innermost room.
They found a large room with no windows and a dry-rotted carpet along the flooring. "This will serve." Galvatron appraised. "I will take first watch."
"Wake me in two hours, then," Prime volunteered. "I'll take the next." He did not see the looks his companions exchanged between them. He laid on ancient decomposing carpet and shut down almost immediately.
Solitude in a vast windy desert.
The sky burns of nuclear flames.
Radiation scorches and blisters.
The desert expands.
Walk for an eternity.
never find the other side.
He sired the war.
He wrought death with bloodied hands.
He deserved this hell.
Wait! Hoped-for voice?
His optics flashed on and the harsh sun, the oppressive heat and bitter-dry desert snuffed out. A quiet, cool room sheltered him from the hostile nightmare. The Autobots had not abandoned him. And Rusti was still somewhere safe. Prime sat up, confused. Daylight greeted him, filtered from a distant hallway. Scanners picked up Galvatron's resting presence not far from him. Prime took to his feet and staggered around the dusty parched carpet, wondering why they did not call him to take the next watch.
Cyclonus was nowhere nearby.
Maybe a bit of sunlight would chase the embers of his dreams away. But he did not get further than the threshold when pain like an invisible knife sliced his chest. Prime choked and collapsed.
Quiet! Quiet! Don't rouse Galvatron! Pain shuddered throughout his body and Prime thought it would burst out of him. He bent over in a tight ball, struggling with all his might to suppress his voice, gasping now and then again.
WARNING. SYSTEMS SHUTDOWN TO COMMENCE. STASIS LOCK ACTIVATING.
WARNING: STASIS LOCK FAILURE.
As sudden as the attack hit, it left him. Optimus let out a breath like a choking victim suddenly allowed air. He slowly let up, remaining on his knees because he did not have the strength to stand. Okay. Everything was okay. He would be alright. It was just a Virus attack, that's all. It's passed.
But the shaking would not stop. Feebly he crawled toward Galvatron and lay down, cautious as to keep some measure of distance from the Decepticon.
Prime woke later, finding much of the day gone. Cyclonus was still nowhere nearby and the Autobot leader wondered if something unfortunate hadn't happened. He rose and checked on Galvatron while tatters of the dream still haunted his consciousness. Prime peered into his companion's face, hoping everything was alright.
The Decepticon's optics snapped on and before Optimus could react, Galvatron shot up and pinned him fiercely to the floor. Prime offered no resistance.
Recognition came to the Decepticon's optics and Galvatron lessened his grip a bit. "Prime."
Optimus figured he too was startled from a bad dream.
The crunch of glass caused both of them to freeze. Their audios doubled in automatic intensity, straining for the quietest sounds. Optimus knew Cyclonus would never be so careless as to sneak up on either of them.
Galvatron quickly let up and the two of them silently darted for the doorway, each taking a side and readied to attack. Prime dimmed his optics. His body trembled with aftershock. Stay perfectly still. Don't . . . . move.
Galvatron's incredible reflexes saved the moment. He flashed out then back in the room, dragging a figure into the shadows. The captive in question screamed through Galvatron's hands, squirming. He slammed the invader through the floorboards and drew his gun from subspace.
Optimus barely made out the figure's shape and the very next moment, determined who it was: "Swindle." he grunted.
"Heya, guys! Heh, long time no see!"
"I caught him sneaking around the building, Galvatron." Cyclonus' cold haunting voice eked in from the hallway. He entered the room with no more noise than the floating dust motes. His figure eerily silhouetted against the outside light.
Galvatron stood straighter, fists on hip plates. His flaring red optics bore down on the spying Combatacon. With the cloak draped across his shoulder line, Galvatron resembled an angry god. "You've been spying on us! How long have you been out there?!"
"Hey, it's not my fault!" Swindle protested. "I was out there mindin' my own business, you see-"
"Where did you come from?" Optimus suddenly asked.
"What?" Swindle gave Prime a second glance and sounded as if it were a stupid question.
"How is it that you're here when there are no other Decepticons nearby?"
Galvatron narrowed his fiery optics: "More to the point, Swindle, what planet is this and where is the spaceport?"
"Are there other Decepticons in this quadrant?" Optimus pressed after.
Swindle laughed nervously, "Hey fellas, cold."
Both leaders stared as if Swindle said something less than appropriate. Then it dawned on Optimus what he was trying to say: "Chill," the Autobot leader firmly corrected. "The term is 'chill', now answer the questions."
Swindle sat up and crossed his arms defensively, "Well, what do I get for all this, hmm? After all, you two brutes have the firepower, the size AND the numbers against just little ol' me. I don't have a chance in the Pitt and I think it's really unfair. So you two really ought to consider your recourse and try a few-eek!!"
Galvatron swept the creep up and slammed him against the nearest wall removing his gyro-gun with a single graceful move. "Maybe we'll let you live." A dangerous smile swept over Galvatron's face.
"There *is* a problem with that, Galvatron." Prime pointed quietly.
Optimus freed Swindle's gyro-gun from Galvatron's crowded grip. "If we let him live, he will most likely squeal. If there were ever a snitch . . ."
"Ah, true. A serious complication."
Swindle trembled, "No! Not a complication at all! I have the solution to your dilemma! I can swear my most solemn oath not to blab! Thief's and con artist's word."
"That doesn't go very far," Cyclonus grunted.
"What about other Decepticons?" Prime pressed again.
"What about them?" Swindle shook his head in Galvatron's choking grip. He squeaked and grunted when the former Decepticon leader dropped him to the floor. Prime and Galvatron hovered like a pair of cops over a sleazy suspect. Optimus scratched his back with Swindle's useless cannon while Galvatron looked cool, but ready to pounce at first opportunity.
"Where are they?" Optimus asked patiently. "Where are the other Decepticons?"
"Oh, they're around, I'm sure."
Optimus lost his patience. "WHERE?!" he rumbled.
"Oh, heh, uh, somewhere like . . . I'd guess in the Baydrin Sector. I kinda went my separate way. Know what I mean? Of course, after I sold bits of Onslaught's components, and Ratbat's CPU to that broad on Aladas Two, they weren't too happy with me. So I either left with my skin intact or didn't make anymore deals. It's like breathin', you know? I happen to enjoy my work."
Galvatron grunted, unimpressed.
"Galvatron," Prime shifted his gaze from the punk to his companion, "perhaps it's not wise to believe anything he says. He is, after all, a con artist, a larcenist and a back stabber. I suggest we do away with him and continue on our own journey."
"Agreed." Galvatron growled. "However, Prime, maybe *he* has a ship we could . . . accommodate." And with that, the Decepticon offered Prime a nefarious Cheshire grin.
Prime nodded in silent agreement.
"Wh-whaddya guys gonna do to me?"
"We'll think of something." Prime replied casually.
Swindle held his hands up as if to ward off evil spirits, "Hey, guys, look, I'm practically useless to ya. I'm not the guy with the ship."
"THE ship, Swindle?" Galvatron picked that up faster than a shoplifter in a candy store.
"There *is* a ship, then?" Prime asked, hoping for a leeway in their misadventures.
"Oh, did I say *the*?" Swindle was not covering his tracks very well. "*A*, I meant 'a' ship. Yeah, that's right."
Optimus narrowed his optics, annoyed as if Rodimus has just hidden all the pointers off his desktop again. "You have a loose tongue, Swindle," he growled.
"Heh, well . . . I don't have a tongue at all," Swindle corrected.
At that moment, Cyclonus groaned and crumpled to the ground, a vibro sword protruded straight through his right shoulder. The shadow of another robot emerged, jumping from the ceiling in the corridor. He was as tall as Optimus and Galvatron, but a bit stockier with rounded shoulders and -good grief, Prime thought, teeth.
It flashed a smile at them, mouth of teeth and yellow eyes gleaming in the unlit room.
" . . . but my buddy does." Swindle added a bit smugly. The other robot pointed a nuclear decelerating atomizer at the two and Optimus wondered why he was not surprised.
1. *Post Nova-or those many 'cycles' after Prime Nova