Author's Note: Much thanks goes to Karen Castello for permission to give life to her character, Cloudsreaker ^.^
ROCKS AND HARD PLACESLOCATION: Lunarphyte
The ship erupted into a firestorm that raged across the island. Its terrible heat scorched body shells and damaged delicate equipment. It ate leaves and licked up grasses. Near and far, Rusti heard screams of victims also claimed by the storm. Koontah lay protectively over her, whispering in his own language. A moment later, a freezing rain drenched the island, killing the grass fires. But water had no affect on plasma fire and the ships continued to melt.
Ultra Magnus half raised his form above Rodimus and searched the damaged encampment.
Smouldering ships hissed under the cold, heavy rain. Fog and smoke concealed ships, people and landscape. Magnus spotted Springer, Cloudstreaker and Monsterbot Doublecross (Crossy) just ten yards off. Further than that lay Titanium's form, obscured by clouded light.
Checking Prime first, Magnus concerned himself over the Autobot's pale-grey appearance, shallow breath and twitching fingers. Roddi murmured softly like a child lost in deep dreaming. He was alright, but needed attention.
Magnus stood. Dark patches blotched every inch of his form. The fire storm crisped a good deal of subdermal circuitry. The freezing rain kindly cooled his smoldering body and partially blinded his sensors. He could barely see colorful plasma fire dancing on the Sagittarian Mozart, the Gabriel Genesis, the Armored Crest and the Saber's Claw. "Cloudstreaker," he called through the noise of rain, "take Rodimus out of here."
Cloudstreaker extracted herself from a mud puddle. Streaking rain cooled the fire injuries along her backside and legs. She spotted the damaged ships; Mozart was critically burned. The Runka was ready to blow again. Cloudstreaker stood and assessed the moment. With a good measure of concentration, Fort Horizon's second-in-command projected her unique subspace connectors and carefully manipulated the conduits through the Runka's crippled fuel lines. Through her subspace pockets and utilizing the electromagnetic energies between each ship's anti-plasma drives, Cloudstreaker transferred power and fuel from the critically damaged ships to the Cold Refractor-the least disabled ship.
The fires on the Runka died and HotSpot, Blades, Titanium and Convoy rushed to extinguish the other fires. Thunder muttered across the sky, pushing a breeze across the camp. The air cleared of smoke and the rain slowed to a softer mist.
Cloudstreaker disengaged her subspace lines from the ships and dropped to the ground. Wearily she turned her attention to Magnus and crawled to him, apology written over her visor and slightly pouting lip components. She said nothing, bracing for a good admonishing for not following orders.
But Magnus merely smiled and laid a dirty hand on her shoulder, "good job, Cloudstreaker," he praised. "Take care of Rodimus, get him undercover."
"Aye, Sir." she thankfully replied.
The Autobots came to life, emerging from the crevices and dens of whatever surface protected them from the explosion. Autobots and Human refugees stared in shock. The whole island smouldered with the death of greenery. Bit by bit the wounded searched for wounded as the mist kept the ground moist and the air clear of collecting smoke.
Magnus stumbled about, counting injured and taking mental notes. Conversation came in whispers, if at all, as survivors picked up the pieces.
Magnus approached City Commander Gryph, as she, Convoy and Jazz crawled out from under the Vertical Horizon.
Up from the wreckage of the Runka, Grimlock rose and crabbed, "Me, Grimlock sick and tired of getting blown to Pitt!"
Sludge crawled out from the same messy pile and shook his head of debris then flicked his tail, splattering the Runka's port with mud and ash. Grimlock set his Dino-mode arms in a fold and shook his head. "Uhhn. You, Sludge, look bad."
"Me, Sludge need bubble bath and rubber ducky."
Magnus saw opportunity here. He turned to the Dinobots with just the hint of a smile. "Grimlock, round up the others. See if anyone needs help."
"Me, Grimlock not forklift."
"No," Magnus agreed, "But you're strong-and a hero."
That motivated the Dinobot commander. He signaled for Sludge to follow and the two toured the camp.
Gryph wiped her forehead with her arm, not noticing the gash along the underside. "Nice diplomacy skills, Magnus. What's your secret?"
"Football," the City Commander answered matter of fact. "I need reports within the hour, people. Get communications up and going as soon as possible. Jazz . . . salvage what we can from the other ships to repair these."
"If salvagin's even possible," Jazz countered.
The two Autobots turned as Ambassador Koontah and an aid, a Human female not much taller than he, zigzagged their way over debris, wreckage and a fallen tree. They approached the group of city commanders and Koontah turned directly to Magnus. "'Back to the front page', as they say, Commander Magnus. What can I offer to help?"
Magnus sighed, exhausted and low on energy. "We need to make assessments first, Ambassador. Offhand I would say medical attention is in order. The Autobots can't repair the ships in their present condition."
Koontah nodded wordlessly and quietly excused himself. His aid followed with a final glance over her shoulder.
The remainder of the day moved in grey moods. None of the Autobots were terminally damaged, but five lay on the critical list. EDC, however, counted thirteen dead among Humans and aliens, two of which were children.
Because of the strict Physcian laws regarding burial of the dead, the Autobots had to cremate the deceased. Rusti watched from a distance with an aching heart. It hurt to see more people lose their lives.
Another girl about her own age climbed the burnt slope and joined Rusti on the fallen tree. For a long time neither girl said a thing, staring at the pyre and those who mourned.
"I'm so tired of this," the girl said softly
"Me, too." Rusti agreed.
"I-I've seen how close you are to the Autobots . . . can you tell me what's going to happen now?"
The question caught Rusti off guard and she had to give the girl a double glance. "What?"
The girl's cheeks flushed and herlips turned red. "I'm sorry," she choked up. "I was hoping someone knew-you know-when we can go home. That's all."
Rusti sadly shook her head and they fell silent again. Her eyes wandered far past the Vertical Horizon, past the Saber's Claw toward Fort Draco's ships, the Covenant and the Sonic Panther. The Dinobots slowly dismantled the Panther and dragged its components and spare parts to other ships while two other Autobots distributed supplies and rations.
The girl beside Rusti shuddered and sniffed. "I was going to go on a date . . . you know. I don't even think he's alive now." She again looked to Rusti. "Do you have a boyfriend?"
Rusti swallowed hard but found she could not cry. "The Quintessons murdered him several months ago. I don't even know where Optimus is now."
"Oh my God! I'm so sorry!" But Rusti still could not cry. "My name is Lucille, by the way. What be yours?"
"A pleasure to meet you, Rusti."
Rusti forced a smile. Her heart hurt too much to be cheerful over meeting a girl her age. She wondered if her new-found acquaintance would live to see her twenty-first birthday.
"Coming, Ma!" Lucille looked to Rusti with apology. "I have to go. I'll see you later."
Rusti waved good-bye and watched Lucille rejoin her mother with a tight hug and a big smile.
Rusti now felt very much alone. They all left in such a hurry. Everything happened so fast. All she had now was Roddi and he was not well.
At least she could be with him.
Rusti rejoined the camp where women set up places for children to sleep. EDC officers and every man or older boy available helped to begin repairs. Rusti slipped among them unnoticed until she found Roddi, asleep in the Vertical Horizon.
The day turned into a longer night.
The Autobots worked far into the night cleaning refuse and repairing the worst damage with what supplies they had on hand. But toward sunrise, Magnus started ordering many workers to shut down for a while. He knew they were pressed for time, but weary soldiers made for poor warriors.
A great bonfire was built to clean tools, reforge metal and burn refuse and trash. Magnus sat before it, carefully cleaning silicon casings for the Frostbite, Vertical Horizon and Interrogator's star drive plasma rings. It was delicate work but since Perceptor's expertise was directed elsewhere, Magnus took the job himself.
Wavelength, Fort Horizon's communications officer, drove up from the southern end of the island. "Sir!" he saluted, "Sir, we just had un audio-full from the Umbassador, sir!"
Magnus lowered his hands so as to keep the cloth and the component separate. He switched visual lenses and gave Wavelength his full attention.
"Sir, they says 'nother three vessels screamed in fr'm our solar system. The communder in charge claims t' be Strike Back fr'm Zenith."
It was better news than Magnus could have hoped for and although his body ached, his core did a leap-frog.
"Whazzat?!!" Jazz proclaimed from behind Magnus, "Mars? What'd they say? Is ever'body alright?"
"Negatory, didn't get that long in th' the converse. But they sez they's comin' in. Needs ta land."
Magnus sighed. The news was good and might make his week. But they still had several problems: none of the ships here could fly, he had no clear idea as to what Rodimus wanted to do and too many of their warriors were in less-than-satisfactory condition. "Keep us posted, Wavelength. And find out if you can help Blaster. He's been working overtime on the comm centers on each of the ships."
Wavelength gave a thumbs-up, shifted back to hover cycle mode and zipped away.
Jazz squatted beside Magnus' right. A flagon of energon glowed between the smaller Autobot's hands. "Here ya go, Mags. Looks like you could use a bit of pick-me-up."
Magnus eyed it warily as if Jazz were handing him a cup of poison. "How are our reserves, Jazz?"
"Heh, gotta fuss, don'tcha?" his face lifted in a warm smile. "The ambassador yakked at me not more 'n a couple hours ago. I gave him a 4-1-1 on what we needed in energon reserves . . . he's gonna fix it. Now take yer share. No arguin' wi' me or I'll tell Prime when he either gets back t' us, or he wakes up."
Magnus' gaze tore from the cup of energon to Jazz and finally had to smile. "Either Prime or Prime, eh, Jazz?" He dropped the cloth and carefully set the component in a metal box. Magnus took the cup with gratitude and hoped things would start to look up.
"Well, do'an you stay up too long yerself, Magnus. We need you sharp as a whistle. I'm gonna check on the Rod-man and see you in the mornin'." And with that, he departed with somewhat less of a swing in his steps. Magnus watched him and realized Jazz was honestly less perky than he let on.
Good ol' Jazz.
. . .
Little pink, yellow and violet flowers fell like rain from a dark sky. Roddi did not know where they came from but they made him sad. "Let's stop the war," he moaned softly. "Forget the ideals of freedom and let's just make peace with the universe. You never see flowers fighting one another over a bit of energy or space to live. They just live."
He sat atop Trinity's monitor, watching as she put away a basket of clean laundry.
"You can have either peace or freedom," Trinity answered matter of fact. "But in this universe, you cannot have both. People want peace. Then they want to be safe from those who would take things from them. But they have to give up their freedom to be safe. Do you want to have peace, or do you want freedom?"
"It is an unfair thing to ask." Roddi stared at Snuggles, Trinity's fat flat-faced cat. "Freedom takes lives, destroys property so that in war, nothing is left for anyone. If there is peace, things can be spared for all."
"Nobody gets everything, Roddi. Even in peacetime, people starve or die of disease or accidents or other things far worse than a laser pistol."
Flowers fell from the sky again and Rodimus stared at them as they wilted upon the ground, melting into water. "It is the fate of the universe to fall to the hands of violence. And if war is such a terrible thing, why are many of the best stories about war?"
Trinity opened her school book as she sat upon her bed. "Because, Rodimus, heros are born in war, not in bed. And we love those stories because they're about survivors and those who valiantly give their lives so that someone else can continue to live. It's survival that makes us strong, not planting gardens or throwing parties. And people need heros."
But her words only made Rodimus feel worse. I would like to be a hero, he thought. But all I've done is screw things up. Look at the blood on my hands. I have committed evil. I am not worthy of being a hero, let alone a leader. Not worthy.
- - -
The year must have been around 2010 or 2011 because Roddi vaguely recalled the roadside along which he sped. It was not the Inter-mountain Pass. Fewer pine trees occupied the hills while live oak rooted the landscape with their ugly avacado-color and scraggly branches. This bend turned to that one and ahead rose a thirty-degree hill. There might have been a bridge ahead, except that again Rodimus could not clearly remember and he had no idea where he was going. He knew, of course, all he had to do was call Metroplex. Kup would be MORE than happy to remind him.
Just ahead zoomed a motorcycle, something of red and white with a black brand-name signature above the Utah license plate. Roddi caught up, driving on the wrong side of the highway. He zipped up then slowed down, taunting the driver.
The driver glanced between Rodimus and the road, confused-
. . . then Rodimus held the motorcycle in his hands. It was cute, like a toy. No driver, just the cycle.
A great truck crowned the top of the hill; lights glaring, front grill bespeckled with splattered insects. It descended the slope, gaining speed and power. Roddi knew the truck could not stop on a dime; this one, just by the sound of the gears, was illegally overloaded.
That inspired him. Rodimus set the motorcycle on the road and it drove straight, moving heedlessly into the path of the truck. Just for kicks, Rodimus chased it, forcing the cycle ever closer to the truck. The motorcycle had no choice but to keep forward.
Keep going, little cycle! Keep moving! No where to go, no place to hide!
Eighty miles an hour. Straight ahead. Bending right. Leaning left. All the trees watched, knowing what Rodimus was doing was wrong.
Keep going little cycle!
Keep going for Roddi! That's right!
And here comes the truck, burdened with hidden treasures and an ignorant driver.
The little cycle zoomed along, trying to stay away from Roddi. The truck grounded the road with huge tires, with great weight. There was Roddi, now honking his horn, laughing in anticipation.
Rodimus zipped right as the truck conquered the motorcycle.
And there goes the cycle; flying through the air! Rodimus transformed and leaped over the moving truck. He laughed like a fool-hearty high school boy and chased the crushed cycle.
There it lay, far downhill among saddened trees and weeping grasses. Poor little cycle. It's wheel was crushed and torn off.
As Rodimus picked up the cycle it changed into a baby, screaming, because its wheel and-
wait a minute! Babies don't have tires, do they? It kept screaming and Roddi tried to find the missing and damaged tire so the child would be silent.
But the Autobot was helpless and stupid. He was stupid because it was HIS fault the motorcycle was damaged.
Rodimus stumbled about, searching for the tire and he found himself calling for help because now the cycle was bleeding. HELP!! HELP!!
But none came.
A cramp crushed his thorax and Rodimus dropped the doll(?!). He bowed over in pain. A second sharp pain yanked at his innards and he fell to his knees. He killed that cycle. The doll was dead. The cycle ceased to function. He threw it at the truck.
No, the truck ran over it.
No, the truck came after it.
No, the cycle was on the road.
No, the baby was on the road.
No, the car was crashed into, the people in the vehicle were dead, covered in little red lacerations glowing brightly. A baby was there, screaming.
Roddi's innards hurt more. Oh, Primus! What was that about? He was drowning, now, bleeding from the inside. What was that about?
FILTHY, ARROGANT, GROSSLY MALFUNCTIONING PIECE OF SCAP!! WHO GAVE YOU THE RIGHT TO CONTINUE TO LIVE?!!
On the outside, Rodimus' electropulse fluctuated.
And the faceless head of the Virus came to him as judge and executioner. Stand still, accept your fate. Become one with the Nothingness from which you came. After all, you are a joke, Rodimus-whomever-you-think-you-are.
A second-rate Prime!
Roddi bowed his head and waited for the Virus to end his life. It snapped its teeth in anticipation.
What was that?
Some other voice, distant but clear called his attention. He probably should not listen to it, after all, he was supposed to die now. He should have died several times, but this time is certain.
A powerful hand smashed through the ugly dream and snatched him from the jaws of the Virus and the vile thing screamed in frustration.
Exhausted but safe, he lay listless in someone's arms. He gasped for breath, bleeding from evil memories. So dark, so sad.
Warm hands kindly took his own . . . the same hands so capable of such destruction. Optimus Prime dragged Rodimus close to his softly vibrating laser core. There Roddi rested, comforted by the one he trusted most. But Rodimus' comfort could not stop him from self castigation.
Rodimus grieved. "I was evil," he confessed. "I committed horrors. I am no Chosen. I am flawed. A failure and a fraud."
Optimus Prime whispered something but Rodimus could not understand. The dark world closed around him and Rodimus wished it would swallow him whole. But a bit of grey light lifted some of that blackness, easing the emptiness in Roddi's heart.
"Child of the Matrix. Why do you mourn over the past?" It was Ambassador Koontah's voice that came soft and soothing to his imbrittled soul. Roddi's consciousness slowly returned to the real world. But the Autobot leader drowned in regret.
"They should have assassinated me. Optimus Prime should have allowed me to die at Fort Max. Those people trusted me . . . and Primus, I murdered."
"Rodimus . . . " Koontah's soft words drifted from the outside into Roddi's soul. "Long before you were created, it was known what you would do, what would happen. All you need to do it accept forgiveness and move on. You are alive and here for a reason. Your people need you, your strength. You must press forward. Leave the past. You are Prime and nothing can change that. Do not be afraid to retake your place."
Was that a second (third?) chance?
How or why would anyone forgive him?
Because there was still a purpose for his life.
The Autobots still needed him.
Optimus still needed him.
And it dawned on Rodimus that he was freely forgiven. No works or strings attached.
The darkness in his soul lifted. He still ached for the victims, but understood someone else already paid the price for his transgressions. He was free to keep living and to care for his people. Rodimus reached for salvation and took the strength necessary to keep forward.
Leave the motorcycle.
Bury the baby.
Don't worry about the doll.
Go back to the Autobots.
Listen. It's Rusti, talking to Jazz.
Yes. Come back to the moment.
Don't fuss. Just come back.
- - -
Roddi moaned when someone touched him and gently lifted him from the ground. He hurt, probably more than the Major-General; Rodimus could not move. They carried him out of the cold light into the warm darkness of Vertical Horizon's bridge where they laid him on a flat. It hurt to lie there but he could say nothing in his own defense.
Rusti stirred in her sleep, fully aware of her surroundings. Autobots removed all the chairs and extra equipment from the Vertical Horizon's bridge some hours ago. Injured and weary survivors lay on flats and bed rolls. Rusti could have slept in more comfortable surroundings such as the camp set-up in the Razor Lady where most of the children were kept. But she felt safer next to Rodimus. He lay very still, soundly sleeping. The damage he took at Fort Max drained Rodimus of strength and slowed his healing.
Rusti sighed, a little more awake. Her heavy heart and confused state of mind reeled. Fortunately no one expected anything of her except to stay warm and out of trouble. Rusti wished for the hundredth time she could help with repair work, but the girl couldn't tell the difference between a case of sprockets and a box of legos.
Her thoughts drifted to the outside world. Must be morning by the sound of voices from Humans, aliens and Autobots. She imagined it mostly sunny, probably warm. Everyone worked long hours repairing and replacing. But time stood against them. Sooner or later the Quintessons would attack again, chasing them from one end of the galaxy to the other.
What about Cybertron? Why didn't Rodimus aim for Cybertron? The ramp door opened and bright outside light flooded the bridge.
Jazz's silhouette caught her attention and the girl eyed him with a bit of warning. He had better not wake Roddi.
"How's the Boss Man doin'?" Jazz whispered to her.
Roddi muttered his answer: "dead asleep."
Rusti shot Jazz a bitter look.
"Very sorry, Roddi," Jazz raised his voice just a little bit. "Jus' hata see how you was doin'."
"In a word: crappy." Rodimus sighed and his optics faded on. "How is it, Jazz? What's going on?"
Jazz knelt beside the flat. Burdens of not-so-great news shadowed his face. "Well . . ." Jazz hesitated before spilling the bad news: "We lost twenty-nine people in the plasma-fire crash."
"But we got several good ships, still. Ol' Springer chirped dis one might be reparable, too if we can git the right stuff for it."
"Magnus and that ambassador fella was talkin' 'bout lookin' around fer another ship we might be able t' buy. We got more Autobots than we got room for them. But there is some good news, Roddi. Wavelength jus' told me an' Mags tha' three ships from Mars found our little trail and jes' arrived from 09-A."
Rusti's face brightened with hope. Her heart pattered fast.
But Jazz sighed before ending his report: "But Optimus ain't with 'em."
Her shoulders sank with her expectations. If Optimus really was on one of those ships, he would have been with them already. She laid her hand on her chest, her eyes dropped. Where was he? What happened to him? She was dying to ask, but found her voice locked in oncoming tears.
Rodimus was also quiet for a long moment and when he spoke, Rusti heard the disappointment. "Sounds like you and Magnus have everything handled, Jazz." Rodimus sighed and his optics dimmed again. " . . . something else, Jazz, . . . keeps slipping my mind; something I wanted you to ask the ambassador. But I can't remember." his voice grew weaker with weariness and Rusti's face saddened. " . . . oh, Primus what was it?"
Rodimus fell silent for several moments and Jazz was about to leave quietly when the Autobot leader stirred again. "Oh, I remember. Jazz, ask . . . Ambassador Koontah if he has the coordinates for a planet called Cratis, . . . would you?"
"That's right. Cratis."
"Sure thing, Rod. Don'cha worry, now. Mags an' me are on the job." Jazz held a thumbs-up, but Roddi did not see it. The city commander's grin died and he turned just as Rodimus got in the last word:
"Now I AM worried."
Jazz's smile picked up and he quietly departed.
Rusti stared at the door for a long time. It looked like a really nice day out but she did not want to leave Roddi alone here. "Optimus," she whispered.
"Hmm?" Roddi's weak voice broke the quiet.
"I'm worried about Optimus. Do you think he's okay? Do you think he might still be on Mars, Roddi?"
"Can't tell . . . Lady Friend. But if I know Prime, he'll be resourceful enough to take care of himself. If anything, Rusti, he'll do everything in his power . . . to get back to you." Roddi's voice failed as he returned to shut down.
Rusti said nothing more. There were no words to convey her worry for Optimus Prime-or the fact that she was homesick.
And there was no telling how long they were going to be away from Earth. Rusti snuggled back under the blankets and with a final sigh, returned to sleep.
Blaster struggled through unfocused optics to reconnect the Sagittarian Mozart's communications board. Most all the ships had lost entire circuit boards due to Quintesson Ecliptic Fragmenter bombs. A wire snapped and zapped his fingers. Blaster yipped with shock and pain as his fingers smoldered. He shook his hand. "Uh, I dunno, Mags. Most of these boards are extra-crispy and the wiring has gone to Radio Shack Heaven."
Weary and frustrated, Magnus sighed. "How long will it take to replace the boards?"
Blaster slid out from under the central comm control panel. Like most of them now, his battered chassis was marked with scrapes and patches like bad graffiti. The communications officer shook his head. "It means we get to build new boards, Mags. And bets are on that the Physcians here don't got the stash we need. Gotta remember the ships were ripped with specific interfaces b'tween liquid crystalline and nanite routers. Without liquid crystalline, we can't use the concentric logic chips that lets us t' tango in other lingos."
Blaster shrugged, showing his fatigue with a clear sense of helplessness. "I dunno." And he looked away.
Magnus sympathized and patted his shoulder. "Get some rest, Blaster. Maybe something will come to you."
"I got three other ships-"
"That's not a request," the Major-General's voice turned stern. Blaster meekly nodded and departed from the Mozart's bridge.
Magnus traversed the deck like an old caged tiger still longing for freedom. He leaned against the back of the navigation seat, staring blankly out the viewer. He knew they could not linger; the people in this system could hide them from the Quints forever. And knowing the Quintessons as he did, Ultra Magnus could almost count the hours before the Autobots were tracked down and attacked.
After surveying the last three ships' communication systems, Wavelength's diagnosis was not much happier. Magnus was ready to give some of his own communications circuitry to get things to turn for the better. Gryph joined him a while later with the completed damages list.
"It's not happy," she reported, handing him the digipads.
"The Confiscator is the only ship from Fort Max that made it. But its landing gear is damaged and two engines are down. I will say, however, we have found a good deal of emergency supplies on board-in places we didn't expect to find them."
"You can thank Roddi for that one," Magnus muttered. He read the death list-a job Optimus would normally have taken.
She nodded. "We did find, however, Sir, that the Vertical Horizon is salvageable. We're taking parts from the Plunging Blade to make as many repairs as possible. The Blade's entire navigation system was fried by the bombs; she won't fly again."
Magnus concealed whatever emotion he might have had. The Dead List said they lost thirty-one people in the two crashes. His next job would be to equally divide supplies and crew among the remaining ships and get the rest of the ships down from orbit. Then something occurred to him: "Gryph, you said the navigation was fried on the Blade."
"What about communications?"
"Find out if the communications panels were damaged and if there are other boards to spare."
"Yes, sir." She took back her pads and ran off. Magnus watched her with a bit of hope. Maybe the day will turn out right after all.
Magnus wanted to leap for joy, but he waited for Perceptor's comments and his optics switched from the communications officer to the scientist.
"Affirmative," Perceptor finally agreed. "These boards are in adequate condition. There is link damage on this one, however. But it is easily repaired."
Magnus' fists flexed and relaxed, "can you duplicate the boards?"
Perceptor transformed from his microscopic form and looked a bit thoughtful. "It might necessitate some re-engineering, Ultra Magnus. The products we require do not originate from this present solar system. However, there is a favorable potentiality the Ambassador is acquainted with someone who employs similar equipment."
Magnus had to chew on the words for a moment but finally figured out what the scientist was saying. "Alright, Perceptor. Keep me informed. I'll talk to our host and see what I can do." So close, Magnus thought, they were close to getting somewhere- at least in the communications department!
Magnus found Ambassador Koontah sitting at the edge of the Iron Pike's wing. The ambassador cradled a cup of warm tea between his hands. He sipped it thoughtfully as a gentle breeze played with his fuzzy reddish-brown fur and danced with the ties of his blindfold.
Magnus took three quiet steps toward Koontah and the Wancheeah's ears perked straight. Magnus grinned. "I am usually quieter than that, Ambassador."
"It would make little or no difference, Commander Magnus," Koontah answered evenly. "I hear with my ears, I listen with my soul. It is your life force that I listen for, Ultra Magnus. Strange, however, that all the Autobots exist on one life force frequency . . . and you on another."
Magnus inwardly squirmed. The ambassador stared through him and the Major-General worried. "Er-"
Koontah swiftly changed the subject: "I took liberty to note you have more people than ships. Bit of a dilemma, Commander."
Magnus frowned, "Unfortunately, we don't have either time or resources to build another ship."
"Yes," the Wanakian ambassador agreed. "As I say: bit of a dilemma." He listened to the world around him as the sea vessel, Pyrite, docked near the Gabriel Genesis and crews unloaded supplies. The day was perfectly beautiful. The sea lay like a sheet of glass, the sun shone brightly and now and again Koontah heard a few of the Autobots exchange jokes with the Pyrite's crew
"Well," Koontah said after a moment, "Lunarphyte has a couple of full-service cities. We do offer a sizable space port and there might be a good chance you, or someone you send, could find another vessel or two for sale." He noticed Magnus' sudden silent manner and quickly added: "of course, I would be willing to foot the expense. But as I am unfamiliar with your people, perhaps it is best you send someone with me who knows what you need."
"You have been far too kind to us already, Ambassador. We cannot possibly ask more than what you have already done."
"Oh no!" Koontah's voice lightened, inclined to laugh, "don't think this is for free! I plan to put it on your boss's tab. Optimus Prime promised me a space station. I anticipate the favor to be repaid in full."
"Heh." Magnus grinned and felt better. "Well, then, um, who would you like me to send?"
Jazz ushered Rusti off the Horizon so they could talk without rousing Rodimus. Then he dropped the bomb.
She stared at him, stunned. "What?! Why me? I don't know diddle!"
"Don'tcha worry none there, Little Lady, you'll be given a list a' stuff ta buy."
She shook her head, resolute, "Jazz, I know nothing about ships or engines, navigational controls-I don't even know what power source you guy use! I can't even make a paper airplane."
Jazz's whole manner turned serious, "Rusti." Now he had her attention. "This is serious. Mags wants ta send you wi' the ambassador cuz you don't wear one of them Headmaster exosuits."
Her brows wrinkled and she turned her head so as to look him out the corner of her eye. " . . . okay. Why does that make a difference? I mean, none of the EDC staff wear exosuits, either-"
"Yeah, but they's all technicians here, Hon. We need them t' keep working."
That pieced her answers together. Rusti was more or less free from other duties. She nodded. "Okay. What do I need to do?"
Jazz grinned, pleased.
Rusti was flown off the island curtsey of Air Raid. He promised not to go to fast (yeah, right) and no stunts-which he stuck to. Rusti figured they would approach another land lush with long grasses and trees the likes of which were on the island. But she nearly lost her jaw when the destination came over the horizon.
A colossal double-deck city spanned across land and water. The topside-the tableland-held the largest space port this side of Cybertron The tableland hovered above a huge bay area, supported by several great metal pillars. Majestic buildings tall, and strong, spread under the tableland like a collection of legos. Stretching the length of Northern California, San Francisco to the Oregon border, the city was the largest Rusti had ever seen.
"Is-is that the place? Is that LaPrane?"
"That's the coordinates, Kiddo." Air Raid tipped right and made a perfect landing. "Hey, you'll have to brave it out from this point, Rusti. I'm not permitted to transform here."
"Okay." Rusti felt lost and uncertain. What if there was no one here to greet her? She had a bracelet radio Perceptor gave her until her exosuit could be repaired. But that was not much consolation. She left the Aerialbot and tugged her jacket closer about as Air Raid wheeled away and shot back into the sky.
Rusti shuddered to think she was alone on an alien planet.
"Ah, on time! Perfect!" The girl turned and faced Ambassador Koontah and an aid. The ambassador undid his long-tie blindfold and batted his triangular black eyes against the clouding glare of daylight. He offered her the crook of his arm and with a grateful smile, Rusti followed him to a comfortable transport.
"So what's on our grocery list, Miss Witwicky?" Koontah folded the blindfold once they entered a private car. Rusti produced the digipad handed to her by EDC Captain Molleson. She frowned, having no idea what most of the items were: "forty parcs of liquid crystalline. Six gold-burnished semi-conductor boards with anti-protonic . . .uh interfaces. Silver refurbishing solder with T-ionic acid, NO aluminum filling-what the heck IS some of this stuff?"
Koontah grinned broadly. "Supplies for a needy people, Miss-"
"Please, call me Rusti."
"Alright. You may call me Koontah, Miss-I mean, Rusti."
Their first stop was a local alien-owned 'ship-shop' where they were able to acquire other things on Rusti's list such as two tons of neutron-free selenium sheeting and 250 yards of titanium/copper wiring; blue shielding only.
They tried three specialty shops before finding one place that sold the liquid crystalline Blaster needed for the communication boards. It was terribly expensive, but Koontah paid the merchant without flinching and like other purchases, requested the materials be delivered.
They managed to find three other places that sold interstellar maps and anti-electron pulsating laser cannons. Koontah made extra certain their list was nearly done and laughed.
It caught the girl's attention. "What?" she asked, a bit surprised.
"The best part of our shopping spree! We get to look for ships!"
Rusti did not find that quite so amusing.
They visited several docks before finding ships that were somewhat compatible with Transformer sizes. Rusti read over the list and found instructions on what to expect in buying star cruisers. She thought it was funny at first, then realized whomever put the list together, knew she had no idea what it meant buying a space-worthy ship.
Rusti looked up from her list and found Koontah several yards away. She raced to catch up with him. "You've already read this, haven't you?"
Koontah smiled without meeting her eyes. "Ah, out that way. I think we have found a ship or two. Come !"
Rusti followed him half a mile down the roadway. The ships Koontah pointed out did not seem in all that great a shape. Battle scars nicked much of the finish and the chassis were neither clean nor smooth. She and Koontah approached a tall female wearing a ridiculously tight dress. The alien female held a clipboard to her nose and hurriedly scribbled over it.
"Yes, yes. Tell me what you need," she said snapped.
"This young lady is traveling with a group of Transformers and is interested in your vessels. May we have a look?"
The female, bald and bearing too much eye makeup, finally gave them visual attention. "Transformers, eh? Hadn't seen or heard of them in a while. Keeping to themselves finally are they? Or have the Decepticons won their war again?"
Rusti looked cross, "I think we're a little more interested in your vessel, Ma'am."
The alien female finally gave her eye contact and turned around. "This way." Her rear end swung from side to side as her feet ate up flooring before them. Rusti rolled her eyes, reminding herself how often Rodimus would tell her that people were the same everywhere in the universe.
"Here we have the Four Crowns. Emergency landing gear, 3,000 x 4,000 cargo hold, two com-channel communication, 78-weight fuel system with manual navigation and rear thruster force of 1700 tons. Might be small, but mighty and no doubt what you need. The price is ninety-four on a two-K monthly plan."
"Too small." Koontah objected.
"The only one here."
"Maybe, but it's too small for ninety."
"Yes. And there may be a crew of fifty or better. Thank you."
Rusti and Koontah moved on. Beyond two machine shops, a dumpy, condemned building and a chrome shop, an access stairwell invited them to the lower city. But the ambassador bypassed the access stairs and crossed the street to an ancient shipping yard. Koontah shook his head. "This was not a great place to find anything other than cheap merchandise."
They found yet another place just down the road. At the front lot stood three sleek, darkly-colored ships proudly washed and polished.
A four-armed alien approached them wiping his hands. His lower left hand removed a pipe from his mouth. He eyed Rusti, making her uncomfortable then he smiled, displaying a mouth filled with double rows of blunt teeth. "Looking for a pair of wings, friends? You found the right place!"
"Do you have your specs on hand?" Koontah asked as Rusti tried to peer into the open hatch of one ship named Pegasaur.
"Oh yeah! Stay right there. I'll fetch it for you." And the alien took off. Rusti felt drawn to the ship. She touched the cool dark metal surface and found it painted. Cheap. The Pegasaur seemed to want to be sold and her touch called its name. But it was not the right vessel for them, either. In the back of her mind she heard Koontah and the alien discussing all the points of the ship; good and bad. But she already knew the ship was wrong. It had no autopilot and no computerized interface or compatible upgrade systems. And Autobots had a thing about being able to upgrade their machines at a moment's notice.
She returned to Koontah. "It has no autopilot, Koontah nor does it have the upgrade systems we need."
The alien, who had been gabbing up to the moment shut his mouth and stared at her dumbfounded. "How did you know that?"
Koontah graciously smiled and handed her the digipad. "She's very intuitive. Thank you so much for your time." and he left hoping she would follow likewise.
Rusti tagged him but at a slower pace. Her eyes drifted from one ship to another, measuring their physic and sensing the combination of attributes. She lingered a few moments at another place where two ships, the Andromeda Continental and Astronomy 9 waited her inspection. Without a word to Koontah or the merchant, she approached the Astronomy first. It was a good sturdy ship with strong frame, designed with combat in mind.
Koontah noticed her footsteps were not behind and he spotted her slowly entering one ship. He waited for the merchant to approach.
"Onlookers, or serious buyers?" the merchant was a bit rude, but Koontah let it slide.
"Serious buyers. Maybe. Depends on what she finds."
"A bit small in stature for that kind of ship, isn't she?"
"Depends on what she can handle."
Rusti boarded the vessel and smelled its metallic air. The compartments here were a bit small to stash weapons and supplies. The bridge was ideal, autopilot recently installed. But the ship had a 90-weight fuel system and used tri-copper charging boosters, which wore out easily. She left the ship and looked to the Continental and realized it had similar systems.
"No. The ships have tri-copper chargers, Koontah. And they only have the 90-weight fuel."
The merchant removed the candy from his mouth. "Yeah. That bad?"
Koontah lifted his eyes from the girl, "we need something with greater capabilities: battle-worthy, not just space-faring."
"Oh." Well, I have a couple others in the back if you're not in too much a rush."
Rusti caught his eyes expectantly.
They traveled past the first vessels and down stairs to another large hanger with an open door. Three handsome ships stood at dock, one covered in plastic.
"This is the Cold Refractor, the Thermosphere and the Celestial Dancer. But they'll cost you if you're looking for some serious works."
Rusti walked past him, listening more to what the ships said about themselves. She laid her hand on the Cold Refractor and it boasted of good fuel reserves, powerful boosters and enough cargo hold for a shuttle and supplies. The autopilot was up to date and the navigation controls were accurate within fifty feet. Even the take-off speed was over 2600 mph. The girl turned to Koontah and the businessperson.
"Are all these ships the same? I mean, of the same specs?"
"Well, that depends on what you are after, Ma'am." the merchant answered carefully."
"Do they have rear thruster capacity of two hundred thousand?"
"Um . . ."
"Phase four emergency landing gear?"
"Um, yeah . . ."
"Full computerized interface with compatible upgrade systems?"
"You know your ships. Yes, to all of them. And they have 150-weight fuel systems."
Rusti touched the Thermosphere, "They also have the zeta-silver charging boosters, Koontah."
The merchant clasped his hands together in anticipation. "So! Which one would you like to take to your home world today?"
Koontah grinned, "we'll take all three."
"What now?" Rusti's stomach told her it was empty but she doubted they would eat again for a while. Business before nature, she supposed.
"Now we need to talk to one Captain Morrcross about transportation."
"You mean someone who can deliver the ships?"
They approached a fancy restaurant and Koontah paused with a bit of reflection in his face. "Hmmm." He turned to her with fuzzy ears raised, "hungry?"
They were served meat and veggies the likes of which Rusti had never seen, but could not resist. It seemed the food, everywhere on this world was very good. It occurred to her exactly why she was chosen for this assignment; not just because she'd be out of everyone's way, but because the ambassador would take care of her.
Rusti unfolded a cloth napkin and placed it over her lap. A waitress set a basket of hot pretzels between the girl and Koontah.
"Please let me know if you need something more," the waitress offered. Koontah thanked her kindly as she smiled and withdrew.
. . . she smiled and withdrew.
. . . she smiled and withdrew.
Rusti's eyes bounced from her plate to the basket. The world around her wobbled like ripples on the still water of a pond. The girl flinched, batted her eyes and reached for her water. That could not have happened. As her hand passed over her plate, the world slowed to a crawl. Some customers froze altogether. A tall woman dressed in fine clothes walked in slow motion. She looked at Rusti as if nothing were wrong. A sharply dressed waiter bowed to a customer and very slowly took his hat and coat. Another waiter poured water for a different customer. The water dribbled; each drop reluctant to leave the pitcher. And there came no sound. Then all movement returned to normal as if God had pressed the universe's remote control from slow to normal play.
Rusti searched for a clock, but upon finding none, looked back to Koontah who stared at her. "You felt that, didn't you?"
"What?" she asked innocently.
"A fluctuation in the time streams."
Her brows knitted. "Is that what it was? You mean the Matrix Virus had nothing to do with it?"
Koontah did not seem surprised or confused by her question. He took a sip of drink and dabbed his mouth. "A time storm approaches. You are apparently sensitive to such things. What did you see?"
She hesitated, her eyes stared into nothing and drifted across the room as though to make sure normality was a constant. "Everything goes slow like they're caught up in a warp. It's as if there's reality and unreality, if you know what I mean. As if the world were some tv set I was watching. Over the last few years I've seen things. I don't know if they're real or not, but I remember them. In fact, I had a creepy dream last night. Something about a space outpost . . . a lot of women were sick-there were all kinds, too. Human and alien women . . ." Rusti shook her head. She did not want to mention the Quintessons in her dream. "Well . . . It's hard to describe it all. But it didn't feel like a dream. Sometimes it's as if the world were all normal and I'm the anomaly."
The Ambassador bore into her with large dark eyes. Rusti thought she could be swallowed by his solemn stare and chills snaked down her back. He nodded, "The time lines are corrupted."
"I don't know what you mean."
"That which we call reality is slowly unraveling, allowing other events to take place, either out of sequence, or alternate to what things should be. People are affected more so. They are either changed in some way, or replaced by someone else entirely. What you experienced as a dream might have actually happened."
"But why is it happening to me? "
Koontah thought it over a moment, his gaze never leaving her. "I don't know . . . yet. It is possible that your consciousness is an extension of the time lines struggling to correct themselves." Koontah lowered his gaze another moment, reflecting. He caught her eyes again, "Do you know where it all went wrong?"
She shook her head.
"When the Quintessons brought Optimus Prime back to life. He was supposed to have stayed dead."
That caught her breath, "No! Don't say things like that!"
"Why? What are you afraid of?"
"That an entire species will perish and with them, all those with whom they are associated." Rusti blinked, wondering how she came up with that answer.
Koontah's gaze lingered, though he displayed no emotion. After some silence, he finally drew a breath, "I suspect that eventually one decision, Rusti, will determine your entire life: both your future and your past."
Had she really listened to what he said, Rusti would not have brushed his comment aside so lightly. She laid her napkin on the table and her eyes tore from the ambassador's. "I'm afraid for Optimus Prime"
"You mean regarding the Virus? So am I."
. . .
Britania, head engineer from Fort Sagittarius, held the front balancer of the parameter scanner to the Interrogator. "Just one more quarter turn." Magnus held the underplate protection grid as Cloudstreaker fine-tuned the frequency readout antennae.
"Try it now!" Cloudstreaker called from the underside. She waited while the engineer flipped the manual switch and watched for the antennae to swivel left to right on its own. Magnus hoped the damned thing worked this time.
"There!!" Britania squealed like a young girl who just got a puppy for a present. "It's working!
"Yo, guys!" Blaster called through their interpersonal com channels. "The TV and radio are working-and lookit, our fave show is on the air! Strike Back is callin' in!"
Cloudstreaker raced into the Interrogator ahead of Magnus and exchanged excited smiles with Arcee who currently worked on repairs to the weapons control relays. Magnus stomped in while Britania finished bolting the last security straps.
". . . is . . . from Mars."
Magnus gripped the top of Blaster's seat. His fingers dug into the chair's metal, anxious for better reception. "Blaster?"
"Yeah, I know there, Big Guy. Gimme a sec here. Lota damage and I gotta cut through channel static." It took Blaster another few minutes while the other three stood about in dire anticipation. "There!" he cried with joy, "Yo! Mars! This is Fort Draco's Interrogator, Blaster shoutin' atcha from Lunarphyte. Ya got me?"
There was one maybe two seconds before Strike Back's relieved voice filtered through the comlines. Arcee and Cloudstreaker yipped with joy and hugged each other.
"Oh, thank Primus! We-we've been through the Pitt up here."
"Sh, sh!" Blaster hushed the excited femmes. He about giggled himself. "Uh, sorry 'bout that, up there. What's yer status, guys?"
Sounds of electricity snapped over the com channel and Magnus imagined things up there were not much better than planet-side. "Uhh . . . condition not so good, Blaster. I'm afraid only three ships escaped,. No supplies." Strike Back paused a moment, "they took us completely by surprise."
Magnus leaned forward, "Strike Back, have you talked with the other ships? We've lost all communications until just now."
"Yeah . . .yeah, Ultra Magnus?"
"Yes, that's right."
"Is-oh Primus, is Optimus there with you guys? I mean, by any stretch of the imagination?"
Magnus glanced at the ladies seeing how their expressions matched his. "No."
"I-I didn't want to leave him-"
"Strike Back, how are the other ships? Is everyone else up there alright?"Magnus redirected.
"Um, mostly. I managed to patch in limited-range frequencies with the Gabriel Genesis and the Hannbal's Mark. They have several wounded and others in stasis. Planetary and long distance communications have been completely cut off. The other ships have sent people to me . . . for the most part, we're okay, but uh, the Black Horizon and the Crested Moon can't land anytime soon. Supplies are all but gone."
"Alright. Hang in there, Strike Back, we'll try to get supplies up to you as soon as possible. Shut down all unnecessary equipment and personnel if you can."
"Roger, Magnus. I'm . . . I'm sorry about Optimus Prime."
Magnus allowed Blaster to sign off and left the ship to think. What were they to do from here?
Magnus was never more grateful the Dinobots were with them. The Dinos, no matter how heavy the loads they were asked to lift, did not grumble or complain. Magnus lavished all kinds of praise on them and promised a game after everyone was done and rested. Sludge and Swoop took this to heart and chattered about the idea through several more hours of work.
The sun was nearly spent by the time Magnus finished adjusting the Interrogator's underwings. He recalibrated the shielding fields as someone crouched to peer under the wing for his attention.
"Lookit this! Mags, I don't think I've seen you work so hard before."
It was Roddi's cheerful voice-an honestly cheerful voice that rang in the city commander's audios like one of Rusti's jump rope songs. Rodimus' color was more or less back. His optics were brighter with energy. Magnus snorted with a half-smile and closed the control panel.
He pulled himself out and noticed splotches of grease added to his battered and scratched exterior. The city commander nabbed a nearby towel and tried to make himself a bit more presentable. "Doing your job is not my idea of fun, Rodimus."
"Well, I missed you too, Big Guy. Where's Rusti?"
"With Ambassador Koontah. Jazz thought it a good idea to send her with him to find us a couple of good ships."
'Oh! Right. The ships. How's everything?"
"How are *you*?'
"I asked first."
"I'm more interested in your condition."
"Well, alright, since you're going to be stubborn about it. I'm doing better. Uh, I think it's Gryph's physician, I'm not sure, but she came in and gave me something to nibble on. How about supplies, Magnus? Have we-"
"Deliveries have been arriving all day. I've put everyone on three-hour shifts with an hour break in between so no one gets too worn out. But we're all really exhausted, Rodimus."
"Yeah. You've done a great job, Mags. I've been told one of the ships is all ready to go."
Magnus patted the wing of the Interrogator. "Two of them now," he answered proudly. He had to look away a bit embarrassed because Rodimus practically glowed with pride and gratitude.
Roddi flinched when Wavelength shouted over the interpersonal comlines, calling their attention to incoming sea vessels from the south-east.
Magnus set his tools down, "Might be the ambassador."
Rodimus followed Magnus toward the southeastern shoreline. They were joined by Jazz and Convoy who just finished her resting period.
Through the darkness, Rodimus spotted a small fleet of jets escorting a huge craft carrier to the island. The carrier anchored a quarter of a mile off shore, sending gentle rolling waves as far as thirty feet inland. A smaller boat zipped from the carrier to the island, bearing two Human assistants in armored uniform, Ambassador Koontah and Rusti.
The group disembarked from the small boat and Koontah and Rusti approached ahead of the two guardsmen.
Rusti wanted to rush to Roddi and give him the biggest hug she could offer, but Koontah asked her help guide him as he could not see. She did not understand the blindfold, but courteously assisted him.
Koontah patted Rusti's hand on his elbow and he gazed upward as ties to his blindfold fluttered lazily in the breeze. Rusti whispered the order in which the Autobots stood. The ambassador smiled. "Ah! Ultra Magnus, Rodimus Prime. I hope things have been smooth for you."
"Well . . ." Magnus glanced back, taking full scope of the crews of Autobots, Humans, aliens and equipment, "we've been productive."
Roddi grinned at the Major-general's modest answer.
Koontah nodded, "I talked Captain Morrcross out of his Lady Crescent back there. The captain's a bugger to bargain with. He loves his ships."
All three commanders' optics drifted to the carrier Koontah called "Lady Crescent" and wondered if that was the carrier's name, or the cargo stowed on it. The Major-General smiled warily. "You'll extend our gratitude to Captain Morrcross for his help-"
"Of course!" Koontah replied cheerfully. "He's not a stingy man, just a bit over-protective of his babies. Now all you need is a small crew to fly the ship. She'll take you to your ships in space and back quickly and safely. I like the Lady Crescent , she's a brave thing, strong and fast."
Rodimus found no words to convey his personal gratitude. He knew Optimus would eventually go out of his way to return all the favors the Physcians selflessly bestowed upon the Autobots. "I hear we have three new ships," he knelt before the Wanakian ambassador and grinned at Rusti.
"Yes!" Koontah replied lightly, "all of them of your lady's choosing. I was not entirely aware she had telemechanics. A rare gift. Especially among humans."
Roddi's optics narrowed in a proud smile. "She's rare. And I don't even know where to begin to thank you for all your help, Ambassador."
Koontah slipped his hands into his pockets. "So what are your plans from here, Rodimus Prime?"
"Well . . . Optimus Prime told me that he believes we might be able to heal the Matrix. But since he's not here, we'll have to rendezvous with him on a planet called Cratis-"
"CRATIS?!" It was the first time either Rodimus or Magnus heard the ambassador raise his voice. "What under God's heaven would Prime . . . that is no place for refugees, children or wounded! It's a lousy vacation spot."
Magnus gazed to Roddi who wordlessly shrugged. He watched the ambassador fall silent, head bowed in thought. "Well," Koontah conceded, "I suppose that means we must repair the rest of these ships as quickly as possible. There is very little time. A temporal storm approaches and these vessels do not have shield capacity immune to shifting."
"Shifting?" Roddi stood and Rusti read anxiety in his optics.
"Yes. Rusti here tells me you have been experiencing temporal instability."
"Yes," Roddi's countenance turned to a dead frown. "More often than I can count."
"The storm will be rough. Without shields, your equipment and people will be vulnerable to time shifts. Shifts can upset environmental balances, change circumstances, replace personalities, and people. I'm trying to hold it back but it must pass. The Quintessons have tampered with time so much it's difficult to keep the streams from rippling. I fear eventually I will be forced to advance the time lines by several years to stabilize reality.'
'The other thing, Rodimus: during the storm, I can send you to your original home. The dimensional walls will be thin enough to calculate distances and alternate realities."
Rodimus stared. "Home?" he almost could not say it.
Rusti's face contorted with puzzlement. "What's that mean, 'original home'? What are you talking about?"
Rodimus' lip components lined with guilt. "Oh boy."
Koontah's attention turned from the Autobots to the girl beside him. "I . . . suspect that topic was supposed to be a secret. Allow me to apologize: I'm very, very sorry, Rodimus Prime."
Rodimus offered a tight, forced smile. "It's not your fault, Ambassador. It's um, we never told Rusti."
The girl's cheeks warmed with dread, "told me what?"
Rodimus cast his optics to the sky before lowering them to her: "Rusti . . . I'm not the Rodimus from this reality. There was an accident many years before you were born and the Hot Rod from this reality . . . well, he died when the Quintessons brought me here. The accident gave me all his memories and parts of his personality. But, um, . . . I'm not the original Hot Rod."
Rusti could not breathe and she stumbled back. Koontah caught her. "whoa, there. Easy. Let's find a place for you to sit a moment, shall we?"
She paid no attention as Koontah managed around debris and puddles without her assistance. Rusti kept glancing back to the Rodimus she thought she knew.
Koontah eased her on a closed crate and sat beside her in silence. Rodimus eyed her from the distance as Gryph approached with the latest report. The other three commanders broke from the group to continue repairs.
Rusti sat for a long time, struggling to sort everything out. No one really lied to her, she was simply not told. The girl softly laughed to herself. "I guess it really doesn't matter, does it, Ambassador?"
"That he's not from here, from this dimension. But he's still . . . he's still Roddi. And maybe there's a reason it happened, you know?"
"That's very brave of you, Rusti. His love for you has never changed."
"No. Mine won't either. And Optimus . . . he knows, doesn't he?"
Koontah grinned, "what doesn't he know?"
"Yes." Rusti shared the grin, feeling a little better. "Do you think he's okay? I mean, I know he has to be-"
"If I know anything about Optimus Prime, my Dear, it's that he's a survivor. And from what I understand, he loves you tremendously. He will do whatever it takes to get back to you."
Rusti choked with those words and Koontah embraced her.
The Autobots completely dismantled the Runka and repaired other ships with her materials. They held short a ceremony to decommission the Runka while EDC officers Shawndria Molleson and Britt Hanson confirmed to Jazz the Crested Moon was fully operational.
By four AM (Earth-time) Rodimus sensed a disturbance in the air; a tingle that registered as minute icicles. He wanted to ask Magnus, but decided against it, counting the sensation as internal adjustments to the alien planet's atmosphere.
Inside the Sagittarian Mozart, Brittania and Titanium repaired the polar inversion radar system. Sideswipe, Targetmaster Sureshot and Monsterbot Repugnus labored over the landing gear under the Mozart while Slag, Snarl and Sludge carefully held the vessel aloft.
Dangling upside down, Sideswipe wielded some of the new neutron-free selenium sheeting around the tri-piston restarts. He lifted the torch shield from his optics and reached for Sureshot as the Targetmaster cleverly used Spoilsport's weapon mode to nail and seal the underside planking.
"Hey, Sure, hand me another sheeting, would ya?"
Sureshot paused in his work and swept down to haul up fresh selenium. Spoilsport vibrated in his other hand.
"Hey, what is this, Christmas? I wanna finish the job and get a cold shower."
"This isn't the time to whine," the Targetmaster answered his reluctant partner. But Spoilsport wrested himself free from the weary Autobot's grip. He transformed in mid-air from gun-mode to robot and pointed at his partner.
"My internal temperature is reaching intolleration point and you're telling me not to whine??"
Sureshot only frowned, too tired to argue with someone he'd just be as happy to drown. "There's no such word as 'intolleration'," he answered quietly. He picked up a second sheet while Spoilsport kicked up a dirt clod.
Spoilsport's little voice annoyed the nearby Monsterbot. Repugnus switched off his torch and hissed. "Quiet. Work."
Sureshot's weariness only made him crankier. "See? Now you got us both in trouble."
"Don't care! Don't care! I'm off for a shower." And the Targetmaster moved three paces before Sureshot slammed the sheeting down.
"Hey, come on!" Sideswipe complained. "Let's get this done!"
"Get back here!" the Targetmaster ordered.
"Not in THIS life time, Pal!"
Everyone stared at the Monsterbot, annoyed. But he ignored their scowls as he approached the dropped sheeting. His huge, freakish head turned so one audio sensor then another picked up the tiniest sounds. "Wait." he ordered. And his huge head, his whole body shrank to the size of an Earth insect.
This surprised Sludge who dropped his side of the ship. Sureshot kissed the ground and Sideswipe squeaked as the ground came just bare millimeters from smashing his nose. "G'eek?"
"Hey!" Titanium called over the comm, "whoa, down there. Take it easy. What's going on?"
"Nothing." Sideswipe grunted. "Just a Dinobutt."
Titanium and Brittania heard a clank and Sureshot spat a foul word or two then came Spoilsport's protest: "Hey! I'm a warrior's weapon, not an over glorified water pistol!"
Titanium rubbed his face. A good steam-cleaning would be a magnificent luxury. But he'd settle for a bit of silence for half an hour.
The in-lateral quartz chip cracked in Brittania's hand and she thunked her head against the bulkhead. "Damnit! Slag-sucking left-overs!"
Titanium stretched his fatigued back as Spoilsport started up another bout of complaining. "How about taking a short break?"
The radar blinked and softly bleeped once.
The Autobots jumped to the board and waited with dread for the radar to blink again.
Brittania startled when the radar repeated the signal. The computer identified three oblong ships entering the solar system. The Autobot femme glided her long fingers across the newly-repaired board and ordered the Mozart to communicate with Fort Zenith's Dancing Siren in space. Communication eked in and Brittania turned to an impatient Titanium. "Quintessons, Sir. Almost from nowhere."
Titanium relayed the message but could not get through to Rodimus.
Convoy's auto mode raced at whiplash speed and slammed on her breaks, spewing dust and debris. Rodimus spat three unholy words in two different languages and crawled from under the Frostbite. "WHAT THE PITT ARE YOU DOING?!!"
"Sir! We got Quintessons on sight!"
"Not possible. This sector of space is protected from invaders. They have border patrols-"
"I'm sorry, Rodimus. They came from NOWHERE and they're heading like the fury of Primus!"
The storm hit. Rodimus' form rippled, faded, stretched like a dried rubber band. His body ached and he held his head as though it were going to blow. He did not hear Convoy scream. He did not see other Autobots fall to the ground in a slow, blurred motion. The ocean surrounding the island drew back, pushed by some great invisible hand. The wreckage of the Northern Axe sunk further into the ground then phased out of existence altogether.
Koontah managed to drag Rusti aboard the Vertical Horizon and staggered against the hatch wall. He fumbled blindly before finding the emergency switch and withdrew the plank. The ship closed to the outside world and its shields automatically kicked on, protecting those five Autobots still working inside.
"Koontah!" Rusti crawled to him and thought she was going to lose everything she ate the day before. "Everyone else is out there!"
"I know," Koontah answered breathlessly. "Look directly at me. Keep my attention focused on your eyes. I'm going to remove my blindfold."
He lowered his blindfold and opened his dark triangular eyes. They sparked brilliant white and Rusti cringed from the sight. "Don't move! I can't do this without you. I have to concentrate. Hold still."
The girl summoned her resolve and kept her eyes focused on his. Thunder crackled about the ship and a terrible windstorm ensued. The Autobots and three EDC officers shouted at one another, demanding to know what was going on. Twin Twist turned to the girl. But when Rusti did not answer, he grabbed her arm and pulled her away.
She screamed, kicking uselessly against his metal body. The ambassador's form slumped to the floor.
"LES TEK'NAUK!" the girl screamed a foul curse in Autobot at Twin Twist.
'You watch your mouth, girly-"
"SHUT UP YOU SCREW-HEAD!! GET AWAY FROM ME! NOW!!"
Even with her human voice, she managed to sound out with such authority that the Autobot did as he was told. Rusti crawled to Koontah's fallen form and touched the soft fuzzy fur along his face. "Please," she begged, "please get up. We need help."
EDC officer Jessamine Goodwin joined the girl on the floor and scanned the ambassador's life signs. "His heart rate is critical. What was he doing?"
"I-I don't know. He didn't say. He took off his blindfold . . . " Rusti searched the floor for the blue blindfold and tugged at it from under his body. Perhaps there was something magical about it. She folded it and gently tied it back about his eyes.
The ship softly rocked and Selenium ran the scanners. "We've got serious disturbance coming our way, People. Suggestions?"
Rusti glanced from Goodwin to the Autobot femme, "Selenium, contact Blaster if you can. See if he's on the Razor Lady. If so, ask him to create a ship-to-ship tractor beam and ride on that frequency to create a connective shield."
All those in the room stared at the girl who was lucky if she could tell the difference between a hand-held calculator and a wrist watch. Rusti ignored them, not actually realizing what she just said. She waited, hoping Koontah would snap to life in time.
He gulped in breath and whimpered before forcing himself from the floor, supporting all his will and weight by his arms.
Rusti laid her hands on his solid shoulders. "Koontah, Ambassador, what can I do to help?"
Goodwin laid a hand on his shoulder. "Can I get you anything to drink, Ambassador?"
"No, no. Just . . . just give me a moment to recover. Thank you for replacing the blind . . ." He covered his face and took several deep breaths. "Alright, alright. I have to try this again, but it needs to be in a place where I will not have eye contact with any Autobots or anyone wearing robotic suits."
Rusti gave Goodwin a puzzled look but the officer did not know anything more than the girl. Rusti took to her feet and she and Goodwin helped Koontah to his, guiding him off the bridge into the launching bay. There Koontah sank to his knees again and bowed over. Rusti knelt before him, trying not to panic. "What can we do to help?"
Koontah undid the blindfold while the ship rocked and this time, it slid along the ground. He stared into her eyes, realizing they were fading from blue back to grey. "Rusti, I have to open a conduit to keep the Quintessons from ripping this planet apart. They're using the electromagnetic fields to phase from one place to another. The Autobots must be ready to leave."
She gripped him fearfully, "come with us!"
He shook his head. "I can't. Not in this condition. Find someplace safe and secure; it's going to be rough."
"But . . . I can't leave-"
"Go! I'll be fine, now! Go! And thank you for your help!"
Goodwin gripped Rusti's arm and they backed out of the landing bay. Rusti ached in fear for him as she and the Autobots strapped themselves down, preparing for the worst.
Outside the sky grew ugly, aflame with white and red as the planet's electromagnetic fields ripped from its poles. The tiny island began to glow with another power, charged with dark matter and gamma-wave life force. It built until the aura around the island could no longer contain the force and then it blew, spewing energy around the circumference of the planet and its breathable atmospheres. The twisted Quintesson ships shot back, spinning end over end out of control through deeper space. One ship smashed into another, ending both vessels and many lives. A second Quintesson star cruiser exploded in a fireball when Strike Back ordered all weapons on a free-fire.
The weapons array created yet another power field, surrounding those Autobot vessels prepared to land on or the island below. The field blew wide then imploded, dragging everything in a hundred and fifteen thousand mile stretch from that part of Lunarphyte.
Rusti sat pinned against a wall, Goodwin beside her. Neither spoke for the longest time. The shock of events kept everything still and silent. Then from the bridge, Roddi's voice sounded over the comline.
"Is . . . is anyone hurt? Are we all still here?"
Rusti blinked, doubting that either Autobot or Human were capable of actually moving. It was as if they were pressed through a keyhole in hell. She couldn't stop trembling. Whatever took place was exactly what Koontah forewarned.
Then Gryph's voice filtered over the ship-to-ship comline. "Here, Rodimus. All twenty of us on the Confiscator are still here."
Tektonix called in with his strong gruff voice. Kup's voice meekly followed and then Strike Back called in-but he was no longer in space. "I think we should step outside and take a look."
The Autobots managed to get themselves together while Humans and the Head/Target masters had greater difficulty recovering. Rusti remained seated until an Autobot femme came to check on the crew. Vaguely Rusti heard Twin Twist call the femme Trinket, the assigned medic to Mars.
"THERE you are!" Another femme gazed down at the girl with a great smile. "Arcee was asking about you. Are you alright?"
That was Trixy. Rusti blinked, just barely remembering Trixy. She could not answer the Autobot. Her mind drifted to Koontah and wondered if he was alright. The girl forced herself to her feet, her balance questionable. But stagger as she did, she managed to the landing bay and opened the doors. Trixy watched her curious behavior and counted the girl was simply disoriented.
Koontah was not there.
"Ambassador?" Rusti's little voice barely piped above a whisper. "Koontah?"
No sight nor hint of him was to be found. Rusti turned back to Trixy, feeling abandoned and weary. "He's gone."
Not knowing what the girl was talking about, the femme only offered a shake of her head and a puzzled expression. "Well, maybe Rodimus knows where he might have gone. Meanwhile, your father is looking for you."
Rusti rolled her eyes, but could summon no words of argument. She followed Trixy off the ship and greeted a colder, more barren world. Winds whipped at her hair and tore at her clothes. A light but freezing rain pinched her skin with ice as she traveled over hard rocky ground. Everyone, Autobots, Humans, aliens, searched for answers and checked on everyone else. The refugees came to life and for the first time, Rusti realized, all the ships from earth were now in one place.
"Incoming!! Scanners at one 'o clock!!" Cloudstreaker raced from the Armored Crest to the Interrogator. Rodimus, Magnus and Jazz jumped out from three different places while Trixy and Rusti ran for cover. But what came down was not what they expected.
"Hold your fire!" Rodimus cried out, "It's got an Autobot signature!!"
Two seconds, three. And the object plunged to the hard unforgiving ground, leaving a short hot trail of burned dirt. Headmaster Siren rushed out and foamed the object to reduce temperature. The smoke cleared and a soft weary moan drifted from the object.
Magnus took one step forward, "I don't believe it! It can't be!"
"Ain't no way!" Jazz agreed.
Rodimus bravely approached the little yellow robotic figure
laying in the freshly burned trench. He peered closer.
Continued in 7B